May

2001

Bridget

It’s funny, the little things that stick in your mind; the little mnemonic devices that your memory uses to index and catalogue your past experience. Proust wrote a couple thousand pages brought on merely by the taste of madelines. My memory is so patchy and unworkable that I can be taken completely by surprise at the onslaught of some repressed horror that lay buried. And so, when I booted up my Nintendo emulator, started a game of Castlevania and broke out into tears over the keyboard, I wasn’t even all that surprised.

It was 1987. I had been going to the genius school for a couple of years now, and when your grade level consists of eight people, you’re probably not going to make a whole lot of friends if you’re a poverty-level Salvation Army-clad kid amidst a bunch of rich WASPS. I was a weird, bus-taking, dandruffy mess, locked with my finger in my nose.

Of course, when you get a bunch of smart kids together, there’s going to be some camaraderie simply in the combined force of all of that social rejection, so it’s not a surprise that there were a few sallow, sad kids that would be friends.

And it’s no surprise that a twelve-year-old girl would walk into the library, up to an unsuspecting twelve-year-old boy, and ask him if he wanted to “go with her.” The only surprise was if that boy was me.

How long did it take me to tell her yes? How many days spent in my basement room, trying to figure out what it meant, trying to place this within the previously available context of girls making fun of me, beating me up, and spitting on me? I think about a week, and by then, of course, it didn’t matter. I told her yes, walked up to her and said yes, not even knowing what the hell I was saying.

That was the year of Dirty Dancing, the year that (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life was on the radio all year, the year that Brian Nilson grew the first hairy wisps of a mustache on his upper lip. People were changing left and right around me, changing into something grotesque and adult, with motivations far beyond anything I could conceive of. The bizarre, comforting unisexuality of childhood was evaporating, dissolving, into something else.

Girls grew into women, right in front of me, and my strange, lost world of library books and Transformers was being replaced all around me, LEGO brick by LEGO brick, with a hideous kind of junior adulthood, a grim parody of being a grown-up, as the web of rules that accompany that life were tightening around our sorry necks.

A few weeks went by with absoultely nothing different in my life for all of the lead-in. I went through my daily routine as normal, and so did she, I guess. I never understood exactly what motivated her to ask me. I’d like to think it was some kind of abstract pity, but that’s probably simplifying the issue. Maybe somewhere there’s a black and blue website that tells her story.

And then it was over – we weren’t “going together” anymore, and we’d never gone anywhere in the first place. It ended without any discussion, without any arguments; we were “going together,” then we weren’t. And life went on.

Later and later, her birthday rolled around and the first birthday party I’d ever been invited to. Unsurprising, when you think about it. And, of course, my mother, elated that I was interacting with girls, started to pour on the pressure, and I showed up to a room full of people, most of whom hated me, and sat off in a corner, drinking Sprite and watching people do things.

The awkwardness began to get to me, so I gravitated to the object in the room that offered the most comfort; her brother’s NES, plugged into the TV but pushed off to the corner. The other kids shot glances out of the corners of their eyes as I retreated, retreated again into a pixilated world of two-dimensional simplicity, a world where nothing ever changes.

And the song that had been on the radio all year came on the radio again, and as if by unspoken signal girls and boys paired up, one had clasped and one on the hips, the suddenly darkened living room gained a strange psychic charge; as if the entire party had been nothing more than a prelude for this very strange moment, as boys and girls paired off like they were reading instructions. And, slowly, the birthday girl’s blue shadow behind me, standing there, mute.

I had never danced with anybody or anything, never even moved my hips to the radio in the privacy of my own room; you might have well asked me to perform open heart surgery. I could not, would not stand up and dance with this girl, the only girl to ever show romantic interest in me. I couldn’t.

I sat there stubbornly, facing the television, the flimsy Nintendo controller gripped in my hands, the first salty tears beginning to drip down my cheeks.