loveless summer part 2: initiative and inactivity

(This is the continuation of a not-so-exciting saga! Click hereto get caught up on all of the not-quite scandalous action from part one!)

I thought before I went into the actual story I’d take a minute to dwell on what it’s like to write something of personal significance and how the significance of the narrative shifts while putting it into words. While writing, revising, and rewriting this thing, I realized that the story, which I already thought had almost no meaning, was more meaningless than I initially thought. I came to realize that an ambiguous moment alone with one’s crush that felt so close to being something when it happened can only feel so real in writing. I did my best to fully create a case for why the Loveless Summer was important, and when I read back through it, it seemed less relevant Anyway, onto the story.

Summer 2013. School let out a week ago. It’s my first summer with a driver’s license. It’s my last summer before I have to transition to pseudo-adulthood. Oh, and my crush is now single. Let’s have some fun, shall we?

Karen and I didn’t talk much in the first few days immediately after she and Craig broke up. I was still going for that foolproof plan of waiting for something to develop naturally between us without taking any initiative. Plus, I had logic to justify my choices because, like Max told me, I needed to give it some time post-breakup. Moving in too soon would make me seem like a douche. Luckily, giving things time was one thing I was really good at.

So that’s what I did. And it didn’t take too long before my waiting seemed to pay off. “You are cordially invited to Sofia’s graduation/sendoff shindig this Friday,” Karen messaged me not too long after the breakup. She used that over-the-top, jokey formal tone I liked. Sofia was her Italian foreign exchange student. The optimist in my head got excited because this, by extension, meant that I had the opportunity to naturally see Karen. And she was the one to invite me! I mean, it’s just a graduation party, and I was sort of a friend of Sofia’s, but still! Hey, even if I was drawing crazy conclusions, at least now Karen was single, so everything seemed a little more realistic, didn’t it?

Sofia’s party was fun enough and, spoiler alert, it led to the closest Karen I would get to actually doing anything explicitly romantic (I think). The air of the whole event was bittersweet. We were celebrating Sofia graduating while simultaneously sending her off. But still, all of her host family and friends were laughing and having a good time, turning a blind eye to the idea that they probably would never see her again. The adults were sipping adult beverages, the minors were sneaking said beverages and getting their last moments with Sofia. And there I was looking to get any moment I could with Karen, alone if possible.

“He was just really, really clingy,” Karen said to a circle of girlfriends and me. Obviously someone was going to address the elephant in the room, that being her less-than-a-week-old breakup. “He would get mad if I took like a minute to reply to his texts. Oh, and he has left at least ten crying voicemails since we broke up.”

My innocently devilish side internally chuckled at that considering on multiple occasions she wouldn’t have responded to his texts because she was with me. I also liked how everyone unanimously seemed to chew Craig out. No one was talking about how cute of a couple he and Karen were anymore. No risk of them getting back together. From this point on, whenever Craig’s name came up, it was Karen expressing how unhappy she was with him. Nice.

Max and I met Sofia thanks to the club he and I started at our school, so we gave her a framed picture of everyone at the club. She liked it, and my selfish ass hoped that Karen saw us giving her the gift. That would give me some nice brownie points.

I apparently was one of Karen’s most reliable friends at the party because she asked me if I wanted to help her carry food in the house. It certainly wasn’t that I was one of the strongest people there; I was a twig. I was really good at grasping for reasons to assume she wanted to get close with me, if that wasn’t already obvious.

“Wanna take a walk?” Karen asked after we had finished our chore. I think she wanted a break from the hustle of being a party planner, but I liked the chance to get one-on-one time with her.

So we went side-by-side down the block through Karen’s aggressively middle of the middle class neighborhood. “I’m just going to say it,” I started. “I don’t think Craig deserved the Best Supporting Actor Award.” I had planned that risky joke for a while. Wasn’t sure if she would find it funny yet. She did, or at least she laughed. I mentioned this before, but that was one thing I liked about her. Even if I wasn’t funny, she still humored me.

“Yeah, he basically begged us to be in the movie,” Karen said, rolling her eyes. That was reassuring. She asked me to be in her movie; Craig asked her.

She went on to open up about Craig. He wanted to move their relationship forward way too quickly, which was evident from them going Facebook official a day after prom. He’d ask to come over every other day, and then he’d accuse Karen of making up excuses for why he couldn’t. That’s not to say she wasn’t making up excuses, but she was justified in doing so. When she was hanging out with friends, he’d ask why she wasn’t with him. Yeah, that was a little funny when I consider that sometimes that meant she was with me instead of him. Basically, there was nothing pleasant about dating Karen. She never gave any indication that she actually liked him, and my hopeful sentiment was that that was because she never liked him to begin with.

In case anyone’s curious about what became of Craig, he went clinically crazy in the next few years, got awful forearm tattoos that I think consist of an entire monologue from some Star Wars Extended Universe novel, and then knocked some poor girl up. For the purpose of this story though, his relevance pretty much ends here. There was never a risk of Karen getting back together with him.

Our walk came to a close when we had successfully completed a circle that led us back to Karen’s house. Karen led me to the side of her house, a shortcut to her backyard where the party continued on as though we had never left. In the slightly overgrown, narrow, and isolated space between her house and the fence, Karen stopped midway and turned back to me. She didn’t say anything, and her lips curled to a slight smile. We were really close to each other, close enough where she probably could feel the reverberations of my anxious heartbeat.

“Shit. Is this happening?” I thought. It’s not that I didn’t want to make out with her by the side of her house, less than twenty feet away from where about thirty people were gathered. On the contrary, I wanted to make out with her everywhere. But the thought of actually doing it terrified me.

And that fear took over and changed the narrative. Nothing Karen was doing was explicitly saying that she wanted me to do anything. It was very possible that she just wanted to give a good friend a pleasant smile. A smile that she had to give in private. And required both parties to be closer than they allow you to get at a Catholic school dance. Just a smile.

I don’t know how long we stood there, Karen smiling at me, me noticeably panicked. In my head it was minutes, like in a video game where the player is given the option to pick a line of dialogue, and everyone else in the game has to just stay still until the choice is made. Realistically it was only a few seconds. Karen didn’t make any further movements, and I didn’t initiate anything.

We were both broken from the stupor by the sound of sudden applause from the party. We looked back at each other and started walking to join the partygoers. The excitement was caused because Sofia had started a fire in a trash can and was ceremoniously throwing all of her schoolwork from her time in the US into the flames. There’s probably something symbolic about my potentially-almost first kiss getting interrupted by an actual trash fire.

There would be a lot of moments kind of like this between Karen and I as the summer went on, but it was never this close. It also continued the wonderfully fun trend of ambiguity between us. I beat myself up over this pretty badly for some time. If I made some sort of move I would have at least had answers. But I didn’t, so I got to spend nights lying awake wondering what a smile meant, which actions were normal of friendships and which ones were not.

Anyway, the rest of the party went by without much spectacle. We said our goodbyes to Sofia, and that was it. I was pleasantly surprised when Karen texted me soon after the party. I think opening up about Craig took away any awkwardness from the air, and we were able to resume texting at the same frequency as when she and Craig were in full swing. From a friendship standpoint, I was glad to have someone to consistently talk to. I was fairly lonely, and it was nice to have someone who was into the same pseudo-deep conversations I was. And from the standpoint of me having a crush, it was nice to know that I wasn’t just being kept around while she was putting up with Craig.

If I were a man with a backbone I would have given myself an ultimatum here. It sure felt like Karen and I liked each other. I didn’t feel like that was a crazy thing to think. If I was going to do something, it had to happen soon. There was no point in playing this game if it wasn’t going to turn into anything. I had no excuse. She was single. Sure, I wanted to be respectful and wait for her to get over her last relationship, but she obviously didn’t want to be in a relationship with Craig, so that wasn’t an excuse. The next time I saw her, I was going to make a move. I didn’t know what it meant to “make a move”, but I was going to do it.

Yeah, right.

Our next rendezvous came for another grad party for another foreign exchange kid. This party was a lot more fun. The student, Fabricio, had a host family admittedly more exciting than Karen’s. They lived outside of city limits and had a fun amount of land. Fabricio was another member of the Hantis Club. For some reason we were really popular among foreign exchange students. Karen was invited since we all rolled with the same crowds. I tried to sound more excited than usual over text about her being there. I said something to the effect of, “Can’t wait to see you at the party!” This was an awkward thing for me of all people to say because I tried to put forward an image of myself as someone who was never excited. But this was me getting my toes in the water, testing myself before fully jumping in.

The clock-like reliable feeling of uneasiness I got while driving came at me hard while I fumbled my way to Fabricio’s house. He lived past a series of roads I had never seen before. And the parking was confusing. From movies I knew that it was polite to get to parties late, but by the time I got there it seemed like 90% of the crowd was already in full party swing, including Karen. I wasn’t that late, but it was enough to shake my already shaky confidence. I immediately found Max because if I was going to have any sort of confidence, I was going to need my wingman. Again, that was what movies taught me. I had no idea what I actually needed.

Karen looked happier that night than she had in a long time. That was the first thing I thought when I saw her. She had curled her shoulder-length light blonde hair, a trend that would continue for the rest of the summer. When I look back on this summer I feel a little guilty for how selfishly I view it all. I don’t think I ever really acknowledged Karen’s feelings in all of this, even if theoretically I spent the entire summer wondering how she was feeling. She changed her look and let herself be happy. Was this all because she let go of the person who was holding her back? I don’t know. That’s what I told myself. It helped fit the narrative that Craig was just a dark spot in the timeline of her life and that she put herself through it to get with the person she was really meant to be with.

At the time though I thought, “Oh, she looks happy. Great! It’s a good time to ask her out.”

“You missed the ceremonial lighting of the bonfire,” Karen said jokingly. The nice thing about crushing on a friend is that one never feels awkward in talking to their crush. It’s nicely designed into daily life.

“The bonfire was actually lit to summon me,” I said in a vaguely offensive pseudo-Native American accent, another thing that Karen didn’t actually like but still laughed along with anyway.

I took a seat next to her on a log while Max went off and socialized with other friends and acquaintances. Karen and I talked about how much of a bummer it was taking Sofia to the airport and watching her take off for another continent. Her parents were acting weirdly too, the weight of suddenly having the number of kids in the house drop by fifty percent got to them. I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation, but I am, if nothing else in this world, a good listener. It’s how I got through a lot of school.

Fabricio’s host brother, Adam, added some more fuel to the fire, which caused the expected chemical reaction of an intimidating fireball. Karen and I both flinched inwards so that we were essentially hugging. We were laughing the sort of laughter teens have when they could have died but didn’t. I would’ve greatly appreciated being in that hug for an extended period of time, but we pulled apart simultaneously once the fire died down to comfortable levels.

“Ethan!” Fabricio came up to me excitedly. Oh yeah, I was there for someone’s going away party. I feel guilty about that too, using people’s parties and important life events to get closer to a girl. Fabricio was a good guy, another Hantis Club member. We’re still Facebook friends. He mostly posts memes that look funny but are in Spanish, so I can’t verify.

Anyway, I used this as the excuse to stop any progress I was making with Karen. After talking to Fabricio, Adam set up fun activities for the partygoers. Since they lived in the country, I got to do things not readily available in my comfortably “city” life (if you can call a town of 75,000 a city). I don’t think knife throwing is the sort of thing that Karen really cared about, and yet I still used the knife throwing as a warped opportunity to show off in front of Karen. Oddly enough, out of every one of the teens at the party who tried it, I was the best. I don’t have many talents, but apparently knife throwing is one of them.

I should have just asked Karen out. Obviously. I didn’t though, if that’s a surprise to anyone. My fear of girls combined with my fear of driving, and I came to the decision that I absolutely needed to drive home before it got too late. Once again though, Karen didn’t stay out of my life for too long though. She asked if I wanted to go through with an idea we had with a few other friends of ours to have a bad movie day where we’d watch such classics as Birdemic and The Room. My romantic heart got excited, even if it wasn’t a one-on-one date because she definitely wanted to keep seeing me.

That party happened the next week, and the quality of the movies was tragically higher than intended. Birdemic was taken off of Netflix before I arrived, and the person who was supposed to bring The Room dipped, so all that we had was this shitty weather DVD I got for free in elementary school. It lived up to the reputation of bad, but it wasn’t that noteworthy. Max came. He didn’t have any bad movies to speak of, but he did have The Princess Bride, so that’s what we watched.

There were only four people at the “party.” Karen brought a friend, and I brought Max. I didn’t know what to make of this. Obviously I would’ve preferred to just be with her, but was this just as a formality so that it didn’t seem like Karen was having one guy over at her house? I wasn’t sure. So rather than watch The Princess Bride, I analyzed the seating arrangement of the house. Karen was sitting on the love seat with her female friend, and Max and I were sitting in adjacent recliners perpendicular to the couch. Karen was sitting in the seat nearest to me. Did that mean anything? No of course it didn’t. After The Princess Bride, Max had to leave, and Karen’s friend was close behind. I was still committed to asking her out, and I told myself I’d do it, and the perfect opportunity would be with us one-on-one in her house. I was already proud of myself for not being the first one to leave the party for once.

So Karen and I did what we always did: talk. We talked about movies we wished that we got to see that day and about plans for senior year. Karen was a spiritual person. She liked to talk about religion and concepts of God. She never wanted to convert anyone, and she didn’t seem like she herself had strong faith in any particular direction, but the idea of a supernatural other was always fascinating to her. I never really thought about these things on my own, and I liked that someone pushed me into actually thinking about things that made me slightly uncomfortable. I liked having someone I could talk about this sort of deep stuff with.

“Hello, you two,” an adult voice broke up our conversation. Karen’s mom had gotten off of work. She was a librarian, which made sense given Karen’s artsiness. I blushed. Movies taught me that it was embarrassing for co-eds to be caught together. Not that we were doing anything, but the implication was still there. Karen acted normally though.

I excused myself after a while. I knew that if I was going to ask her out or bring up my feelings, it wasn’t going to be with her mom around.

I’ll spare you the details of the next few weeks because they were at best repetitive and at worst painfully boring. Karen was in and out of town due to vacations, a mission trip, and some art thing. Each time it happened I felt worried she was going to lose interest in me. Who wants to be with a loser who won’t take initiative? But no, it makes sense that someone won’t constantly keep in contact when they’re on actual adventures. I kept telling myself that between bouts of self-doubt. When she was in town, we’d hang out every now and then. Sometimes it was just us; other times others were there.

How do you know if something’s a date? I asked myself this with essentially every girl I’ve talked to because the world works in ambiguities while I’m over here looking for concretes. Two people of opposing genders hanging out together with just themselves seems like a date. But it could also just be a hangout. Later in life once I got on Tinder I called every meet-up a date, but who knows what the other party thought. Hell, my girlfriend, who is objectively better on all fronts than Karen, was hesitant to call our first meet-up a date. Can meet-ups turn into dates if something happens? I really don’t know. And I think that’s what really frustrated me during my summer with Karen. I just wanted some sort of an answer, but I was never going to ask for one because I have no backbone.

Once Karen was back in our hometown for good, roughly in mid June, out get-togethers became regular once more. She was a vegan, which made it hard for me to come up with good date -or not date- ideas, but this was made up for because Karen came up with things for us to do. I always appreciated how she was willing to put up with how little life experience I had. Most of the time we’d just go around town doing nothing in particular. I completely let myself down as far as professing my feelings or anything like that, but y’know what? I was content. This was a good relationship. So what if I didn’t get to make out with someone or anything? We spent a lot of time together, had a lot of deep conversations, and knew almost everything about each other. I got about 70% of what I hoped for from a relationship. I never settled for C’s in school, but in life, C’s ain’t half bad.

We had another almost-romantic moment when she asked me to go to a musical with her. The local university was putting on a production of Miss Saigon, and Karen had free tickets because of course she did. We weren’t the only ones there; Karen invited a few other friends. But in the theme of things, she spent most of her time leading up to the show talking with me, and we sat next to each other. My dumb mind kept thinking that maybe we’d get to be like a cute couple in a movie. We’d hold hands on the armrest at some point, kiss when the musical’s couple kiss.

Yeah, Miss Saigon’s not that kind of musical. It’s about the Vietnam War. The first scene involves a lot of strippers, and the show ends with one of the two protagonists committing suicide. I was the king of coming up with excuses for not taking action, and it’s easy to make up excuses when an entire scene of the show is a character singing about the American Dream, which audiences realize he is never going to have the chance to achieve.

But after the show we had a chance to make something happen! It was the day after Independence Day, so they had a fireworks display outside because everyone in America has leftover fireworks. Karen and I were once again standing closer than I imagine most friends would, and I fought a battle in my head over grabbing her hand or doing something. Instead we just kind of smiled at each other, like friends do. And that’s how the night ends. Not with a bang, but with a smile.

Max warned me more than once than inaction was the worst thing I could do. That might not have even been referring to Karen; it could’ve been a lot of things I was doing at the time.  It was most applicable to Karen though. If she was waiting for me to make the first move, which if she did in fact like me was definitely what she was doing, then obviously the only sensible course of action would be to actually do something. And if she didn’t like me like I liked her, then there was nothing to be gained from just waiting it out. Action was the only thing that would give me an answer. Even if it was an answer I didn’t like, that was better than what I was getting, nothing.

The worst potential consequence of inaction is faded interest. If Karen wanted me to act, it’s easy to imagine how my lack of action would’ve changed her mind. Maybe after some time she just realized that I wasn’t going to do anything, thought I might not have liked her, and moved on. I may just be making that up, but it seems like a reasonable train of thought, and it makes sense given what happened.

“Would it be okay if Eva Layton came geocaching with us?” Karen asked the day before we were supposed to hang out. I came up with the idea of a geocaching trip. I had done the odd urban scavenger hunt before, and it seemed like something she would like.

But who was Eva Layton? She was a friend of Karen’s whom I had never really met. I didn’t see why Eva Layton had to come on this particular outing since, again, I didn’t know her. Karen also did this thing when referring to Eva Layton. She was never just Eva. Her name was always her full name. Without fail. So that’s what I’ll call her too.

Like the good, subtle friend I was, I said, “Sure!”

First problem I experienced with Eva Layton: transportation. Karen always drove us. That was how it went. I couldn’t drive all that well, and Karen liked driving. But when I waited for Karen, Eva Layton pulled up to my house, and I was relegated to the backseat.

“Ethan, this is Eva Layton,” Karen said when I got to the car. And then we spent the remainder of the car ride getting introduced. I had the Geocaching app opened up with geocaches in the area that seemed fun to find. Eva Layton didn’t seem too interested.

“I love this song,” Eva Layton said as she turned up the radio to a song I didn’t like from a band I didn’t understand. She was listening to 96.5 The Buzz, Kansas City’s alternative station. A lot of people liked it, but I associated it with every girl from my high school who wanted to seem edgy. They listened to The Buzz in place of having a personality.

When we finally got to our destination, Karen said, “I’ll sit this one out. You two crazy kids can find it.”

Crazy kids? What was this? I had thoughts since I heard Eva Layton was joining us, but I passed them off, but this was getting odd. Still though, I went along with it because I’ll do most things to avoid conflict.

“So do you do this often?” Eva Layton said nervously. I hated the feelings I was getting. She was trying to flirt with me. Did Karen bring a girl along to hit on me? What?

“I’ve done it a few times,” I tried to be nice, but it was hard to keep up a happy facade when I was confused and generally less than happy.

We didn’t find the geocache. I didn’t look too hard. It was hard to be motivated when the person I was trying to show off to was chilling alone in the car.

Geocaching didn’t last as long as it could have. Eva Layton got a call from her dad, and she had to go do something. Mercifully she dropped me off at my house first. I worried about what would happen if she dropped Karen off, and the two of use were stuck together.

I wish I could say that this was just a one-time thing and that things went back to normal between Karen and me, but that wasn’t what happened. After that day, Eva Layton was a regular part of our get-togethers. I hated it. We always had to listen to The Buzz, I always got the backseat, and I couldn’t be as open as I was with just Karen. I hoped Karen would notice how unhappy I seemed with Eva Layton around. She didn’t.

But the more we all were together, the more it was obvious Karen was trying to be a matchmaker. Karen wasn’t as open in her texts anymore, and the one-on-one time we got before was gone. I didn’t want to be with Eva Layton though. She wasn’t as interesting as Karen, not as deep -or what I perceived as deep-, and certainly not as pretty. I wanted to be with Karen. This was how the Loveless Summer of 2013 finished though. It was August by this time. School was starting soon. All summers end; most summer romances end; and summer pseudo-romances inevitably end.

I had so many questions though, and I never got the answers to any of them. Did Karen ever like me? She had to at one point, right? It all just seemed too strange, especially if she didn’t like me. But then where the fuck did Eva Layton come from?

Inaction. To this day I believe inaction was the culprit here. Because I’m 90% certain Karen did like me at one point. I just never acted on it. And that was the ultimate issue. It doesn’t fully explain why Karen decided Eva Layton and I would make a great couple, but it’s a start.

As the school year started, all relations between Karen and I faded. I had a fairly negative view of her thanks to how things “ended,” warranted or otherwise, and frankly I didn’t want to spend any time with Eva Layton. Senior year of high school was a stressful time, and I didn’t want this to occupy any more of my time.

If I were a smart man, this would be the end of the story. Loveless Summer would have lasted a summer, and that would’ve been it. But it’s not. Loveless Summer is not a season; it’s a feeling. It’s a time when things should have been romantic but weren’t, should have been relaxing but were just confusing and stressful. It took a while, but I let my guard down again. That’s a story, or stories, for the final part of this frustrating trilogy.

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