They’re words, Nicholas. Just words. You know words. You like them. You’re great with them.
Yes, but those words can have a heavy impact.
What’s the difference between these words and any other word he’s said before?
He’s spent years carrying a torch for the person he’s saying them to.
So it’s a girl. Nothing he’s never done before.
This isn’t like the girl he asked out after a booze-inspired baseball bar argument or the receptionist he bailed on an assignment to go out with. This is someone he knows, values as a friend and a person, and wants her to continue thinking highly of him…
The idea of a crush is such a simplistic thing, isn’t it? It’s when you have some sort of attraction to a person. But there are different kinds of crushes. There are those crushes from afar, where you see the other person and become infatuated with them, but aside from occasional pleasantries, you don’t speak to them very much and are therefore free to superimpose characteristics onto them based on both your own preferences and the little you do know about them. I know those crushes and like them because it doesn’t take a lot to ask the other person out. You ask, and ideally, they say yes; if they don’t, it’s easy to return to your regularly scheduled lives.
Unfortunately, the kind of crush I usually specialized in developing was the other kind: The ones that gradually develop on people you meet and who become parts of your regularly scheduled lives. Those are vicious, because with these people, you know you’re not superimposing – you know them pretty well and you’ve fallen for the entire package: Personality, beliefs, ideals, and yes, looks too. These crushes eat you alive because these people are close to you, and you’re glad they’re close to you because your friendship means something to you both. But this friend doesn’t feel the same way about you, so you get left with a front row seat to them not knowing how you really feel.
For years, I’ve had a surefire way of dealing with that second kind of crush: I’d let it fester and grow, dreaming wistfully of the girl in question while chickening out every time I had some sort of opportunity to ‘fess up. Then the girl would fall out of my life in some way or another and I would pummel my heartbreak into a nice, concentrated little rage ball, shoving it down into the part that I reserve for my deepest and darkest secrets. It did its job, and eventually, I would forget about my crush without ever having to say anything. Sure, I would always end up regretting it and hating myself that much more in the end, but it was all worth it in order to avoid the prospect of being gently turned down by someone who still liked me, respected me, and wanted to be my friend no matter what.
My last one began the same way many of the other ones did – innocuously. I wasn’t expecting it or looking for it. It wasn’t some love-at-first-sight thing. I’m trying not to give too many details about her away because I’m pretty sure she’s going to be reading this, so that makes it a bit tricky, but… When I glanced at her for the first time, she was another newcomer that I would be saying hello to. Nothing unusual, although her Amy Pond-like profile warranted a second glance. Other than that, I wasn’t thinking about her in any other way. Welcoming the newcomers was something I just did, and besides, I was trying to mentally flay my previous crush out of myself. (I know, I know, but that one was one of the very rare cases where my excuse was actually valid.) In any case, I did talk to her and welcome her to the club. And I talked to her regularly when she decided she liked us enough to keep returning.
Somewhere along the line, it became one of my hobbies to help people I barely knew move. That was something that happened in this case. She was looking for a few good people to help her put her things onto the truck, and I was more than happy to lend a hand. It allowed us to have what was probably our first extended chat, a moment where I was able to have my first glimpse of her intelligence, quirkiness, and depth of character. I knew afterward that she was someone I could get to like, and slowly but surely, that’s what happened. Before I knew what hit me, I had another new crush to suppress. And when my previous one sort of dropped out from the area, the new one supplanted her and started wringing out my heart. So what did I have to do to face this one? Well, again, I didn’t do anything. My return home was imminent and I would never have to face it. In Buffalo, she drifted from my mind – though never quite managing to escape it, she was out of sight far enough for me to believe my crush on her had floated itself into submission.
Matters of the heart frighten me because it’s so difficult to understand them. Part of that is the feeling of sheer worthlessness I’ve struggled with for years; I’ve often wondered what, if anything, I would ever be able to offer as a boyfriend. Indeed, sometimes even as a person. Another part of that is because I tend to be analytical – I don’t believe in problems that can’t be solved with the right information at hand. When dealing with attraction and love, though, I don’t have any control whatsoever over the outcome. A girl will feel for me what she feels for me, and there’s no magic combination of actions and words which will ever change that. So it feels to me like gambling against the house – there’s an outside shot, but I can’t do very much about it. So I was less than enthused when I got out west and started reaching out to contacts, saw her picture, and felt my heart flutter. This crush wasn’t gone. It had merely been dormant.
The original plan, of course, was to ignore it and let it run its course. When I first started reaching out to her, I didn’t intend to say anything. Here’s something about me, though: I’m mental. I have a variety of weird junk running around in my head that manifests itself in ways that aren’t especially good for me. Here’s another thing: My Mother knows that. And when New Year’s Day came along, she made me promise to do something for her: Learn to love myself. That was going to be some trick; I had no idea how to do that. When I contacted her again believing my time here might have run out, it occurred to me that a sizable chunk of my problems happened because I was too much of a coward to say anything to girls I liked. Sure, I had been on blind dates, asked out girls after bar arguments, and once ditched an assignment to go out with a receptionist, but those were entirely different – even the receptionist, a person I interacted with regularly, was another superimposition. So once I suggested we meet, my brain started making wild suggestions: Hey, you know, you should tell her you like her!
Often as I threatened to stab my brain with a pencil for saying such outlandish things, there was something about the idea that I couldn’t get around: Suppressing my feelings wasn’t exactly making me dance through flower fields. It was a ritualistic pattern that was hurting more and more as it went on, and even though the prospect of looking my friend in the face and telling her that I liked her was one of the most daunting things I ever faced, I knew I would have to do it… Well, sometime. Within the next two crushes. Three, maybe. No more than five. After I was finished being overtaken by panic at the thought of doing that, I figured out exactly how I was going to drop this little bombshell: Just say it, no fuss, like ripping off a Band-Aid: RRRRIIIIIIIPPPPPPP!!!!! Surely she wouldn’t even notice! With that now settled, I immediately started coming up with about two dozen romantic comedy speeches for the occasion, at least between all the times I wasn’t deciding to chicken out or asking myself, Do I have to?
It felt like I was coming to a new decision about this every hour. Yes – you don’t know if you’ll ever have a chance to do it again. No – what sort of goddamned sense does it make to be a romantic, anyway? Yes – this ridiculous pattern of mine has to go. No – you might get stabbed in the throat… And so on. At the same time, I was also trying to manage my expectations. I figured around even odds for her either stabbing me in the throat or swooning into my arms, begging me to run away to Vegas with her on the spot to elope. Both of those reactions would have freaked me out anyway; although I admit that in the latter case, my attempt to talk her out of it never would have made it past the third sentence. I figured the two most likely reactions would be a soft rejection in which she told me she didn’t want to be anything more than friends, or some sort of sign that told me it would be okay to follow up by formally asking her out. Really, though, the thing I was hoping for most was that she wouldn’t be angry or upset with me, because no matter what happened, I valued her as a friend and liked her company.
Finally our coffee meeting came, and I sat in a Barnes and Noble reading in a corner and debating with myself about whether or not to actually go through with it. No. Yes. No. No. Yes. Yes. Next thing I knew, I peeked up and…
“Oh, it IS you!” There she was, and there was no way in hell I was saying anything. I choked on a yelp and somehow averted the sudden urge to dive behind my chair and deny my linguistic abilities. I managed to calm down, though, and both speak with her and internally fight with myself. No. No. Neil Gaiman. Yes. Maybe? Nomadic Matt. Huh? I must be stupid. Portland is awesome. Yes. Sure yes. Changed my mind again. If she stabs you in the throat… She’s not going to stab me in the throat… Yes. Double yes… There’s no way in hell I’m gonna be able to keep this in.
Finally, on the way off, I screamed it. It didn’t have the regular tone, pitch, or feel of a proper scream, but that didn’t make it any less of a scream.
Much of what was said next is still a bit of a blur to me. A lot of it was an odd combination of rambling, trying to say more but not quite getting it out, saying things the wrong way, and trying to justify my existence. All those romantic comedy soliloquies flew out the door. She took it gracefully, saying she only ever thought of me as a friend – albeit being very flattered – while also saying how much courage it must have taken me to come clean. (It did.) My world didn’t suddenly careen off its axis and fly into the sun. I hadn’t lost anything from my mind that was there before, and the pattern that I had been locked into was finally broken. Although I’m not sure I said anything good in the ensuing conversation, I knew that this wasn’t going to scar me for life. Being turned down wasn’t wonderful, granted, but I finally declared out loud that I believed I had something to offer a significant other.
It’s not the first time I’ve had to live with friendship. It was the first time I essentially chose it by acknowledging what I felt instead of letting my feelings keep hurting me. She wasn’t mad or repulsed or, really, she didn’t react in any of the ways I feared. Hell, I’ll take her friendship over being cut from her life; after all, she did seem to grasp the fact that, in my context, this was monumental. She was the one I decided to break up a self-hating pattern that was hampering my personal life.
As I drifted to sleep that night, I conjured her images – replaying the events of the day, and events from our past. It was a little haunting, but somehow also comforting to watch her float by as a formless version of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” wafted in from a place that only I knew.