The dance was on a Friday. Over the weekend, my relationship with Lewis ballooned in my mind into an epic and sprawling love story. I recounted over and over to my friends, twisting the phone cord in my fingers, the moment he gave me the roses. “And that’s when I realized,” I said breathlessly, as if accepting an award, “that it was me all along.” I interpreted the sighs from the other end of the call as swooning, but maybe they were just exasperated. I sat in my room and imagined what it would be like when we finally kissed, something I hadn’t done yet with anyone. I wrote our names together over and over again: inside hearts, in cursive, my first name with his last name—the works. I took sex scenes from the Stephen King stories I loved, like The Mist and It, and tried to shoehorn me and Lewis into them, stripping away all the killer clowns and inter-dimensional monsters. I stared at the roses he gave me, dutifully arranged in a vase by my mother, who seemed bemused by the whole situation.
I was so excited to finally have a real romance of my own. I couldn’t wait to have someone wait for me after class and walk me to the bus. I couldn’t wait to be important. I poured every ounce of energy I could muster into being in love with this guy whom just 24 hours earlier I rarely even thought about.
I should also point out that I didn’t speak to him at all during this weekend. We had each other’s phone numbers, but to me, speaking was unnecessary. Our love was too deep for that.
I woke up Monday morning ready to start my new life as an Official Girlfriend. I chose my outfit carefully—I wanted to look dreamy and fun and easygoing, which obviously meant twisting a neon zebra-striped bandana into a belt for my denim skirt. My heart was pounding as I walked into homeroom. Lewis was already there, sitting at his desk, leaning forward to talk to the kid in front of him, like the super-cool guy he was. He glanced up at me, and instead of throwing myself into his arms, I decided to play it cool by simply grinning at him and waggling my fingers casually. Lewis’s mouth twisted into a half-smile as he turned away from me and started a conversation with they guy behind him. He’s just shy, I told myself. My smile still frozen on my face, I made my way to my own desk, a few rows away from Lewis’s. I hadn’t even sat down when his best friend sidled up to me and said, dispassionately, “Lewis doesn’t like you anymore.”
It felt like my entire soul had just thrown up. I looked to Lewis, hoping for an answer or at least a little eye contact—some kind of acknowledgement of what was happening—but he kept his back to me. Apparently he’d decided not to like me just as abruptly as he’d decided to like me, and I had no idea what had tipped him either way.
The crushing wave of heartbreak that overtook me at that moment might have seem justified if Lewis and I had been married for six years, with a house and a dog. I sank into my chair and started sobbed uncontrollably. What had changed since Friday? What had I done? What was wrong with me? Wasn’t I a good girlfriend? I hoped that Lewis would catch sight of my tears and take me back, or at least say something, but he continued to ignore me. I was heartbroken for weeks—over what was essentially a three-hour relationship.
The end of my romance with Lewis was also the end of our friendship, and as much as I missed thinking of myself as somebody’s girlfriend, I missed our after-school walks to Hardee’s more. After that, I watched from afar as he pulled the same hot-and-cold routine on a couple of other girls at our school. I still don’t know why he pulled the plug on our burgeoning love affair after the dance. Maybe he didn’t like dancing with me. Maybe he went home and realized that he was a kid and didn’t want to be in a committed relationship. But I think the likeliest explanation is that he got everything he needed out of being secretly in love, and once it became a reality, it wasn’t as fun. And if that’s true, we had it in common: looking back, I realize that I preferred the fantasy of a relationship too. After the dance, I spent the whole weekend talking about him with my friends, and imagining torrid scenarios between the two of us, but I never once thought to call him.
After Lewis, I had actual relationships that lasted more than a few hours, but the reality of each one still didn’t match the romance in my head. Schooled by rom-coms and inclined to follow my thoughts on flights of the most elaborate fancy, I imagined every after-school peck on the lips to be the tip of an iceberg of unspoken passion, when these shy gestures were probably just expressions of hesitancy, or ambivalence, or fear. I was afraid, too. My fear of real, messy, awkward intimacy is part of what launched me full-tilt, again and again, into my crushes for years. Many years. After my third or fourth “grown-up” relationship crumbled because it was built on a foundation of Perfect Me + The Guy in My Head, rather than Actual Me + The Guy in Front of Me, I got myself a good therapist and started digging into why it was easier to be in a fantasy relationship. It turns out there’s a lot less risk involved, a lot less of you at stake when most of your love life takes place in your head.
I have no idea what Lewis is up to now. I’ve looked for him on Facebook, but he’s not there, and anyway, what would I say to him? My “relationship” with him was less about him and more about what he represented to me at the time: the idea that dating someone was a perfect, movie-ready series of romantic scenes, rather than two people getting to know each other and enjoying each other’s company.
When I think back on middle-school me, and how intensely she felt every one of my feelings, how I threw myself heart and soul into everything, including my dreamworld, I admire her. That girl had drive, a productive imagination, and the ability to commit herself fully to any idea that entered her brain. She just didn’t know how to use those things yet. But that’s what school is for, right? To learn. ♦
* That wasn’t really his name.