Updated: Jul 27, 2018
My partner and I were having a conversation over Skype tonight, as we have almost every night this summer. I was showing him interesting things I’d found on the internet, he was telling me about his day, and at one point I told him I had a YouTube video to show him.
“Is it another one of those dancing videos?” he asked me.
I had shown him a few of my favorite routines from So You Think You Can Dance, my favorite dance show, the previous night.
“No, but it has dancing in it,” I replied.
“Is there a kiss at the end?” he asked, grinning.
I went silent, suddenly feeling the ugly, spiteful heat of defensiveness flare up in my stomach, singeing the butterflies the video had inspired several minutes before.
“—because I’ve realized you have a real penchant for dance routines with kisses in them.” he finished, the corners of his lips drooping slightly at my expression.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
It wasn’t a criticism. It wasn’t even a tactless joke. It wasn’t a joke at all. It was a smiling observation, an accurate one at that, but it stuck in the back of my throat like a popcorn hull between tight teeth.
My mom has always considered me the lone female member of Peter Pan’s “Lost Boys.” I’ve never relished the prospect of growing up.
It’s not the gained responsibility or the wrinkles that bother me, those have a solid, almost comforting, inevitability to them. It’s the lost innocence that draws my ire.
I flinched in middle school every time my mom tried to talk to me about puberty or sex. I grinned and bared it, knowing even then that the information was important. But it was still supremely uncomfortable. I made a pact with my girlfriends at a middle school sleepover that when any of us had our first kiss, we would tell the others. Little did I know that I would be 19 before it would be my turn to share. In high school I dealt with shocked, though I must say, not unkind, looks when my classmates, detailing their romantic escapades, asked me if I had done anything, and I replied “No.” Maybe it wasn’t a truly cringeworthy moment, but I remember the pangs of inadequacy and embarrassment like it happened yesterday.
It wasn’t that I was a prude, I was just absurdly pragmatic. I remember watching a friend deal with the trials and tribulations of an on-again-off-again Middle School fling and asking myself “What is the point to this?” At that age going out didn’t entail going anywhere; we couldn’t drive yet. Our brains weren’t fully developed, and relationships, based on what I had seen, were two and a half week transitions from butterflies to angst-ridden heartbreak.
Cut scene to me starting kayak high school my junior year. I was surrounded, at the tender age of 16, by funny, well-muscled, athletic young men and women. But unfortunately or, more likely, fortunately, I was very logical. There were only about 12 of us, and I didn’t want to make any enemies or have to paddle with an ex on a daily basis. I had my favorites, but I largely kept to myself. So it also went for Senior year.
I’m not saying I was the perfect vision of restraint and wisdom; I lacked the natural grace it took to flirt confidently, and if someone was flirting with me, I probably mistook it, nine times out of ten, for garden-variety friendliness. Thus my opportunities for romance stayed at a manageable level of just-about-zero.
So a perfect storm of ineptitude and naiveté carried me to my nineteenth year with no first-hand romantic experience whatsoever. However, during those years in between cooties and crushes I built up a store of second-hand ‘knowledge’ and populated my mental happy place with perfect kisses and sunset picnics from dozens of songs and movies and books.
I feel like everyone has a happy place. It’s where you go when the world gets to be too much for you. For some people, it’s the mind-numbing drone of football announcers, describing a conflict with clear rules and predictable commercial breaks during which you can pee and grab a snack, for others it is a mall full of colorful, trendy clothes with sale racks where you can spend 10 dollars on a 73 dollar sweater and enjoy the buzz of stickin’ it to The Man for the price of an expensive hamburger.
For me this place has been literal: a rushing river that demands focus and respect in exchange for the rush of strength and competence, a dance floor where I can be silly or sensual without fear of judgement.
And it has been mental: a place fueled by familial love and vast stores of encouraging, witty quotes, built of well-written happy-enough endings from my favorite stories, covered in the sweet hopefulness of every younger me, and founded on a lack of cynicism that puts me at my most delighted, and my most vulnerable.
So when my partner, now one of my favorite inhabitants of this place, poked at my unabashed love of sappy dance routines, his words stung unexpectedly. “I was hoping for you.” said the quiet voice of my 13 year old self. Present-day me wished I could just take the comment at face value, but my defensiveness elicited questions, and his questions elicited thoughts, and those thoughts, this explanation.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time. Years. I’ve wanted to tell young people like middle school, high school, and early-college me that it gets better. That it’s ok to feel clueless. That it’s ok to go to the dance with your friends when you don’t get asked, or even if you do. That you can be an entirely functional human being without the french kissing misadventures all your friends seem to be having. That you are, indeed, “a catch,” just like your family is/should be telling you. That someday, you are going to feel more comfortable in your own skin, and you are going to know what you want and what you deserve. And maybe, if you’re very lucky, a wonderful human will come into your life and you might actually get a taste of all those stories you made up in your head. And also, maybe the wonderful human won't appear, or won't be who you expect. You might have to build new stories. That's good too. I have wanted to tell people like me to be gentle with themselves, because they are important. I wanted to say this back then, but it never felt right… I couldn't say for certain if what I felt in my heart was true in practice.
I've collected some more data points for the study--sample size is still one, but the subject has lived a bit longer.
For the most part, the gut feelings hold true.
For anyone interested in the video I referenced, it's a really beautiful animated short film drawn by Glen Keane, a Disney Animation legend. Here is a link to Duet.