loveless summer part 1: brightsides and question marks

This is not a love story. The two characters don’t spend a whirlwind summer in love. It’s not even a sex story. Or a kiss story. It might not even have been a hug story. It is the story of a dumb 17-year-old boy with a crush on a girl. The boy was too anxious to actually do anything about the crush. The boy and the girl spent a summer together going on what might have been dates until whatever heat existed between them fizzled out. Then they did the same thing off-and-on for the next two years. The boy never told the girl how he felt. The girl might not’ve felt anything.

This anti-love story began in spring 2013, when the boy, yours truly, found himself in a sociology class with a girl he had known for a decade. Her name is Karen for the sake of the story, but her actual name was a lot prettier. Karen went to my elementary school for a few years before transferring. We went to middle school together but never interacted, and the same was true for the first two-and-a-half years of high school. Our friend groups vaguely interacted, so when I walked into sociology on the first day of the semester, I took the desk sort of near her. To paint myself as a douchebag for a second, Karen only vaguely resembled the person I knew as a kid. She had slimmed down to a frame that appealed to my dumb boy tastes, and the strangeness she exhibited as a child evolved into artsiness that seemed deep and intriguing to me. I was always weird and unnecessarily romantic, even with no experience to justify me being so, and when I developed a crush, I crushed hard. Very quickly I realized I was crushing on Karen.

My version of “doing something” about my crushes was getting close to my crush without ever remotely mentioning that I was interested in them. I hoped that if they liked me back, they would make the first move. I was too nervous about rejection to risk making any moves by myself. It was a terrible strategy with a success rate of none percent. But naive little me went with this and sought to get as close to Karen as I could. She did seem vaguely interested. By that, I mean we spent most of sociology chatting with each other about this or that, and she seemed to like me. I worked up the courage to move from a  seat near her to the seat next to her, and sociology became the spot where Ethan and Karen spent an hour and a half every other day together. It was barely a class, so we had a lot of time to socialize.

I then considered doing something brash, something that skyrocketed my heartbeat. Junior prom was just around the corner, and what more natural of a time would there be to ask someone out? Everyone was doing extravagant “promposals,” but I was hoping I could even get myself to pull the trigger. It wasn’t romantic (or whatever people considered promposals), but I planned to pop the question one day after sociology. It wouldn’t be hard. “Will you go to prom with me?” Seven words. A single sentence. If she liked me like I liked her, it would be an easy yes. But I kept delaying it. There was always a reason to not do it. She seemed tired one day. I needed to walk the other direction the next. There was always a reason why not.

“Did you hear Craig asked Karen to prom?”

My friend Max gave me this rough news that he didn’t realize was rough news one morning. Craig was sort of part of the mutual friend groups between Karen and me. He was appropriately as artsy as she was and was far more outspoken than me.

My not-quite-adult heart sank in that moment. Max didn’t know how I felt about Karen. Telling others how I felt was not part of my convoluted plan. I knew it was my fault for never remotely making a move, but wow that didn’t feel great.

“Oh they will make such a cute couple,” I said eventually, using whatever acting skills I had to balance out my deep disappointment. I had to hear that exact line often from others too, “such a cute couple.” The overwhelming consensus was that Karen and Craig were cute together. I obviously disagreed, but that was a secret known only to me.

I considered skipping prom for a while. I never liked dances anyway, and what was the point without a date? Well, Max didn’t have a date either, and the two of us talked about it and decided that we’d go ahead and go with a group of single friends. It was probably for the best. Prom’s one of those things John Hughes movies remind us are important, and I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t miss out.

Prom night came, and I was dressed in a hideous color combo of black and dark blue. Our small group was supposed to meet up with a larger group for dinner, but Max messed up the dinner reservation, so instead we had to drive across town to an Italian place that’s closed now. I guess I’m grateful for Max’s mess-up because the group that we were going to meet up with included Craig and Karen. Oh well. But I did like the idea of keeping tabs on them, which I now realize sounds hella creepy. Anyway, I got to enjoy overpriced chicken parm with a few dudes who knew we weren’t getting laid that night.

Prom was vaguely themed that year. It was called “Moonlight Mirage,” or as its known colloquially “Vaguely Arabian Nights.” Due to the dinner mishap, we got there later than most people, which meant parking was a bitch. Inside, prom was a boring event for someone who didn’t like talking to people. There was a circle close to the DJ comprised of people dancing and grinding, and the further out you got from the circle, the angstier the people became. The group we were going to get dinner with was stationed at a table that we joined. Each of the singles in the group asked each other to dance at various points. I never did due to the whole “frustrated and angsty” thing. Subtly I kept an eye on Karen and Craig throughout the night. Part of me hoped that this would be my own John Hughes movie and that at some point, when Craig was off at the punchbowl, I could slip in and make my move. I knew that wasn’t actually going to happen, but fantasies help when real life isn’t what I want it to be. Instead my night consisted of going through the stages of grief and accepting that Karen being with Craig was the reality.

By the end of the night I had forced myself to accept that Karen and Craig indeed were cute together. As long as I didn’t think about what they were going to do after prom, all was well. I mean, I was still jealous, but whatever. Some things aren’t meant to be. That’s just how it goes. Did I want to rewrite “Mr. Brightside” with lyrics relevant to my situation? Of course! Did I do it? Of course not! So I drove home, watched SNL while arranging my tuxedo back in its bag to be returned the next day, and went to bed.

Karen and Craig turned out to be the rare instance of prom being the start of a relationship, and all I heard about on the following Monday was that they were a couple. But it was fine. I was fine. There were plenty of girls out there.

Oddly enough though, Karen never really talked about him. When she did, she referred to him by his full name as though he were unfamiliar. I had to shake myself from thinking too hard on that detail.

But then other things happened. Okay, I’m going to sound crazy going over these, but there were just enough oddities that occurred just frequently enough that I had to ask questions. Sometimes it wasn’t even an oddity, but enough things occurred to make me think, “What if she does like me?”

First off, she started texting me. I get it. It’s not the 1500s. A girl is allowed to talk to guys other than her boyfriend. Whatever. But we never texted back when she was single. No, her first message to me was something to the effect of, “This is Karen. Did anything interesting happen in sociology?” after she missed class one day. It was a totally innocent message, and nothing about it said, “Hey I know I’m dating Craig, but I also have feelings for you.” But to me this meant she wanted our relationship to extend beyond the classroom. It was a crazy train of thought, but I was a crazy guy. And the worst thing that can happen to a crazy guy is for his conspiracy to be even slightly validated. Because I told her about sociology, and then we just started talking. Our texts were longer than texts I had with anyone else, which meant a lot to a bored boy like me. She went from sociology to asking how I was doing, and I asked her the same thing. We talked about our parents and hobbies, sorts of normal things young folks talk about. We started having running jokes. I appreciated the friendship because I was generally a lonely boy, but also the part of my head that hoped this was a sign of her interest in me was nicely nourished. I liked how I could go to class, and one of us would be able to reference something the other had said over text. Oh, and Craig was still nowhere to be mentioned. Sometimes I wondered if she was with him and messaging me. My active, excessive imagination sometimes drew up scenes of them making out or whatever and then her turning over and answering my texts. I was boring and innocent, and the idea of being even remotely scandalous was kind of fun if I’m being honest.

And then she sent me a message that opened a new rabbit hole. “Dear sir, I am producing a film for class and wondered if you would be interested in taking part.” I remember her text almost verbatim, the old-timey tone was a running gag between us. Again, it was innocent, but it felt weird. I of course said yes because apart from like-liking Karen, I also liked her. It wasn’t just Karen’s film either. She was working on it with a group of people from the school’s gifted class. I knew her friends. Another one of them could have suggested me. But it was Karen who reached out. Again, this didn’t mean anything. It just felt a little like it could mean something.

Karen picked me up to film with her group. She knew that I could drive but didn’t like to. There was another girl in the car, so it wasn’t just us. Karen gave me a purple Veronica flower for helping out. My first thought was, “Oh, great. I’m the girl in this relationship.” I then spent all car ride wondering what kind of flower it was. Was it a thank you flower? A romantic flower? A flower she found on the ground and gave to me instead of a compost pile? Is it normal to give flowers to friends? I genuinely didn’t know.

The movie left a lot to be desired from the standpoint of a wannabe writer. It was about a karaoke contest or something. My part was not super important. I played a background person at a party, and most of my job was to pretend to have conversations and to cheer when someone’s karaoke routine was done. It’s a good thing I wasn’t written as Karen’s love interest or else this would’ve been even more complicated. Craig wasn’t there, by the way. He was in the movie in another scene, but he was absent from this filming session. I still have no idea how relevant any of this was, but it just felt weird. Especially since Karen and I talked between most shots. I wondered if it looked weird to anyone else, but I of course didn’t ask anyone. “Hey do you think Karen wants to cheat on her boyfriend with me?” is a question that would spark a number of issues. When it was all said and done, Karen drove me back home, and that was the end of that. I know talking about the “friend zone” is not really cool anymore, but I really wondered if I was friend zoned hard  or if Karen was keeping me around as a backup plan or something. I really couldn’t tell.

I held on to that flower. It was pretty and smelled good, and it made my dumb romantic mind think of Karen. It became a custom to spin the flower between my fingers and question what she felt about me. Nothing productive would ever come from this of course. I also wondered if I would get another chance to hang out with Karen. I might’ve been picked for the movie because she knew I’d say yes, but would she ask me to do anything else?

Karen’s family had a foreign exchange student that year, and she was throwing a surprise party for Karen’s birthday. I was invited at the last minute. I know it wasn’t Karen’s plan, but it still felt like part of the weird chain of occurrences. Karen just kept coming back into the picture. I wasn’t of the mindset of, “THIS IS DESTINY!” or anything, but it all felt weird. Oh, it also felt weird when I had a mild fender bender while getting her birthday present on the day of the party. I was stressed about coming across too strongly in my card to her and worried that my gift wouldn’t be good enough. What if she wanted something special from me? What if it seemed like I was hitting on her? What if I had to interact with both her and Craig at the party? Crunch. I saw the car in front of me, but the stop came quicker than I expected, and I bumped their bumper. No damage whatsoever, but the other driver locked her keys in the car. Yep, so I had to sit on an incredibly busy road during rush hour while this lady figured out her key situation. First I was worried about missing the party, then I was worried that my parents wouldn’t let me go to the party, and then I wondered if I wanted to go to the party at all. Since it was a harmless incident, my parents encouraged me to go, and Max drove me.

The party itself mostly wasn’t that exciting. Her parents were there, so it didn’t resemble a fun party scene from a movie. I was kind of hoping Karen and I would have some scandalous moment together, but that didn’t happen. On the other hand I was glad it didn’t. Maybe I was just a friend. Friends get invited to birthday parties. Max was invited. He was just a guy friend to her.

I couldn’t actually enjoy the party due to the internal disappointment and embarrassment I felt about the fender bender earlier that day. I could, however, fight a proxy war with Craig over a game of ping pong. He asked if I wanted to play, probably assuming that I wasn’t low-key crushing on his girlfriend, and I said yes, as though owning him at ping pong would win Karen’s affection. She and Max were standing behind us respectively, like trainers in boxers’ corners. Being the creep I was, I tried to get a read on how Karen and Craig interacted. It really wasn’t romantic. I know most couples aren’t going to just bang in front of you, but I typically expect a slight change in characteristics when two people are in a relationship. Anyway, I got crushed at ping pong, so I never got to see if winning ping pong would break the two of them up. But the game had the additional effect of getting me to realize that I kind of hated Craig. Like, he was just obnoxious. I don’t think I ever heard him say anything that wasn’t a joke or in a joking tone. And Karen didn’t seem that amused by his act either. The party then came to a close without anything interesting happening, and Max drove me home.

That night, still hating myself over the fender bender ordeal, I came to a pact with myself. I was going to give up on Karen. This wasn’t healthy for me. I was never going to act on my feelings, and I could never be a good friend to her because I would feel attracted to her regardless. It was a waste of my time. I was done. I’d respond to her texts to be polite, and I’d still sit with her in sociology. Other than that, I was done. It wasn’t worth getting in a car accident over.

“You’re coming to the TAGademy Awards, right?” she messaged me. TAG was short for Talented and Gifted, and the semi-clever pun was the name of their annual, end-of-year movie screening and awards ceremony.

“Oh, of course!” I answered immediately. Pact, broken. But, I mean, I was in the movie. I did have reason to be there. And again, asking me to come did nothing to imply that she had feelings for me.

At the TAGademy Awards, I sat with the crew of the movie I was part of. I don’t remember the name of the movie, which is a pretty accurate way to sum up how good it was. Craig was there, and he sat justifiably next to Karen. Craig’s role in the film was as a wise fisherman whom the protagonist gets advice from before the climax. His moment got reasonable laughter from he audience. In fact, Karen’s movie won one (1) TAGademy Award: Best Supporting Actor for Craig. Being the jealous type that I was, this didn’t sit well. He was in the movie for like twenty seconds! And not to brag, but I was a pretty damn fine partygoer in my scene if I do say so myself. Where was my award? Oh well. If this was another battle in the fictitious proxy war, the score was 2-0 Craig.

After the awards were done and the audience dismissed, I said my goodbyes and made my way to my mom’s rusted Jeep that had only a week before been victim to my inattention. I tried to be one of the first to leave because busy parking lots scared me.

And then I got my rom-com scene.

Karen followed me out of theater and caught me before I got to my car. “What’d you think of the movie?” she asked.

I responded in a way that mocked one of the “critics” that was brought in to judge the films. I could never tell if Karen liked when my humor revolved around making fun of people, but she went along with it anyway, which I always appreciated.

“Hey, we’re going to IHOP to celebrate,” she spoke up after we exchanged a few more lines of smalltalk. “Care to join us?”

At that moment, Craig popped up like a Kramer-esque sitcom figure next to Karen. I looked over at him and then made eye contact with Karen with a disappointed look that said something to the effect of, “I wish.”

“Oh,” she said. Her face mirrored mine. “Thanks for coming out tonight.”

“Of course!” I said. And then we went through our goodbyes, and I drove off. For the rest of the night though, I thought about that last exchange we had. I knew I was crazy. That wasn’t a secret to me. But that look she gave me was the exact one I gave her. It wasn’t just, “Darn, wish I could go out tonight.” It was a deeper sadness, like a longing for a universe where it all could work out. I knew I liked Karen. I’m of the opinion that one simply can’t stop liking someone. There’s no way to just turn off feelings for no reason. I had tried to make a deal with myself to get out of Karen’s life, but I know I didn’t really want that. And did she want it either? I genuinely couldn’t tell. And, again, I didn’t want to be a homewrecker, but also the idea of it was kind of fun.

TAGademy was held the Friday before the last week of school. Part of me was looking forward to the summer and not having to think about Karen constantly. Another part of me was not wanting to give up our sociology chats together. What if she forgot about me? What if I wasn’t able to get her out of my head? At this point she wasn’t texting me as often as before. My anxious, self-loathing side thought that meant she was over me or pushing me away to be with Craig. A logical side told me that she was busy, which made sense considering she was in and out of class due to various end-of-year art things. But I hated that that was the logical side because it catered to my belief that maybe Karen and me could be a thing.

And then came the last day of class. We had already signed each other’s yearbooks, and I played it safe to ensure nothing ambiguous could be made out. Her note to me was fun but equally tame. I wondered what our last goodbye of the school year would be like. I knew I was being dramatic. We would probably see each other over the summer in some form or another, but it was still a big moment for me. I sat in my usual spot… and she never showed up. Me and my unhealthy crush were disappointed in the symbolism of this. As it turns out she was at a student art show, which, again, made sense. But I wasn’t going to get my chance to say goodbye, which meant I wasn’t going to have closure in this crush, get the chance to put it to bed before going into the freedom of the summer. Oh well.

Max was always bummed by my lack of progress in my love life. I still hadn’t told him about my crush on Karen or the weird ways we kept being in each other’s lives. I loved the guy to death, but that was just the sort of thing I felt needed to be kept to myself. He and a few mutual friends decided to kickstart the summer by setting up a blind date for me. It wasn’t really a “blind” date necessarily because I met the girl, Lindsey, while filming Karen’s movie. We hit it off pretty well there, but, as the last 3,700 words have stated, I was focused on someone else at the time. But I was excited to really meet Lindsey. Dating in general seemed like a fun idea. If I learned anything from my whole ordeal with Karen, it was that I needed to not be afraid to speak up. If I just asked Karen out when I originally wanted to, I wouldn’t have spent three months in a state of unhealthy limbo. It would be good for me to start going on dates and seeing what happens.

The day came for my date with Lindsey. What did people wear on dates? What was protocol for anything on a first date? How do people keep conversation up without  awkward periods of silence? These were the questions I was stressing myself out with. I really did give excessive weight to everything. Unfortunately for my self growth, but fortunately for the short-term stress I was feeling, a few hours before the date, I got a call from Max.

“Hey bud,” he started. I knew this was not a good thing. His voice had this tone whenever bad news was coming. “Bad news: Lindsey asked to cancel. She said she’s not really looking to date anyone right now.”

I was a little disappointed, but also I was happy to know that I wasn’t going to have to go through the stress and potential embarrassment of a first date. “Don’t worry about it!” I said, sounding enthusiastic from my relief. Max initially sounded puzzled by my positive tone there, but then we kept talking for a while.

“Oh, and here’s my second big piece of news,” Max said with no clue of just how important that news was going to be for me. “Karen and Craig broke up.”

Any sadness from the abrupt cancellation of the date immediately flushed away and renewed, irrational hope filled its absence. The timing of this was just odd. Lindsey was friends with Karen. What if Lindsey was stepping aside for Karen? I mean, I know it’s a little farfetched, but I was working with a lot of coincidences.

“Want to get lunch?” I asked Max. I had to tell him everything. I needed someone to hear my story and tell me that I wasn’t looking too far into what was going on. And that’s what I did. I spilled every bit of the last semester to Max. He found my theory of Karen keeping me around for when she and Craig broke up to be a realistic possibility, and he told me that it would be completely realistic for me to make a move on her. After giving her some time to recover from the breakup, of course.

“So, are you going to ask her out?” Max asked.

“I want to,” I said. “We’ll see. I don’t know if she even wants to keep talking to me.”

It’s adorable how naive I was. I now know how the story ends, and it would take another two years for Karen’s chapter of my life to conclude, but at the time, I wasn’t sure if she’d still want to talk to me or if we were just school friends. I was in for a summer of unresolved questions.

But that’s a story for another day. Stay tuned for the frustrating part 2 of Loveless Summer!

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