I was in third grade when I experienced my first crush. He was the cool boy with olive skin who stood out from the nasty, gross boys. He kicked the ball the farthest, ran the fastest, and had this mischievous power over the teachers. He was badass, a smart ass, the class clown and yet, those teachers in their polyester slacks and sensible shoes adored him. I couldn’t blame them. He was positively adorable, and I was positively twitterpated.
Of course, to him I was that girl with the perpetual bobbed hair and straight bangs who couldn’t kick a ball and who was almost always in good favor with the teachers because I was a total goody-goody. Even then I was inarguably uncool and yet, my innocent eyes wandered to the gritty, streetwise boy and his motley crew so I could admire his boyishness and also the panache of the girls who dared to circle him, cool chicks unencumbered by his charisma.
Meanwhile, I forgot English and how to function even basically whenever he came within twenty feet of me.
It was a crush from afar that went on until I grew taller than he was and a new boy entered our class, one who was without question the most dangerous person I’d ever seen. By then, Nirvana had replaced New Kids on the Block on our stereos and this actual new kid might as well have been Kurt Cobain’s son for all we knew. He emulated the grunge era. He was bad to the bone, and while I might have memorized the lyrics to every track in Nevermind, the only progress I’d made out of my goody-two-shoes was into flannel shirts. Kurt Jr. knew I existed, but he didn’t share the same affinity for me. His eyes laid squarely upon those of one of my closest friends. Ugh, did that hurt. And I, the self-deprecating, perpetual third-wheel sidekick, did absolutely nothing about it--nothing but to crush from afar and study like mad what it was that allowed others girls to crush up close.
I’m convinced there are preschools where certain children attend to develop coolness. It’s the only explanation I’ve been able to deduce after years of examining the self-assurance, flamboyance, and pizazz of certain individuals. It seems they had to have been taught such behavior and that I clearly had parents who put zero emphasis on my coolness education because I never advanced out of uncoolness and neither did my flirtations or the smoothness required to crush up close. And while I realize I have no supporting evidence for these secret--likely exclusively private--preschools for the future cool kids of America, I wonder if there would have been something greater gained by learning the cool art of how to crush up close.
Beyond occasional flings, brief romances that left no lasting impression on me (with guys I’d rather forget than reflect upon), I continued to crush from afar into college. I’d improved in that I could finally speak to crushes, flirt (albeit badly), and hang out, but one can’t overlook the aid of cheap liquor as a means to sudden confidence. But what mostly stands out in those years are the hours I wondered both why my feelings weren’t reciprocated by crushes and what it was I lacked that girls with successful crushes seemed to have plenty of.
The dreamy fellas for whom I pined seemed untouchable--like rock stars--and yet, in reality they were no more special than I. They lived in the dorm or frat house, took 15 hours of classes, ate in the Commons, and drank cheap beer--just like me. Still, I placed them on a pedestal that made them appear superior. The craziness of it all is that as a speech major, I could crush some guy at the podium in a debate, discredit him in seconds, and yet I couldn’t talk to another guy in a polo shirt and khakis at a party because I was grossly intimidated by his supposed superiority. From third grade to third semester in college, I’d managed to get no farther than from where I started.
But if I take a closer look, it was never just about guys.
One stinging crush--the kind that hurts so badly because no matter how hard you work at it, they never give a damn about you--is emblazoned in my memory not just because I was head-over-heels obsessed with him, but rather because I was equally obsessed with his girlfriend. It was nothing sexual. Everything in me pined for him, but everything in me also pined to be her. (See That Time You Looked at Your Reflection Instead.) After several weeks of careful observation of her, I quite foolishly turned into her. I know because last week while I was cleaning out the attic, Fiona found my college scrapbook and upon one glance at my teased hair, miniskirts, mocha lipstick, and six layers of mascara she exclaimed, “That’s what you looked like in college?”
“Sadly, yes,” I said. And then without even thinking, I blurted out, “Mommy pretended to be another girl because I was afraid of being me.”
The truth slapped me across the cheek—something I needed way back in 1986 when as an eight-year-old I didn’t realize just how flipping fabulous I was.
When I think back to the girls who linked their arms so confidently around the coolest guys, who flirted without effort, and could walk into any room with swagger, they all saw themselves as deserving of attention. Even if beneath their pizazz were insecurities, they were flawless fakers because at least they gave the impression of confidence. I gave crushes the impression that I should be overlooked because of where I placed myself--far below the status of others. How could I drum up the confidence to join them on their make-believe pedestal while I was partaking in such self-destructive behavior? And in turn, why would they want someone who behaved like she wasn’t good enough, or worse, behaved like she didn’t like herself enough to be herself?
But upon further investigation, it was never just about the other girls either.
The other day I was at a party with all the cool kids. Only now they were cool forty and fifty-somethings--accomplished, rich, and successful. One was a heart surgeon, whose name was printed in several medical journals. Another was an author of books people actually read. There were chefs who’d been nominated for James Beard awards and politicians who weren’t crooks. And I, educated by good schools, financially stable, and well-liked, felt small. From my view way beneath their pedestals, they looked like giants--as fabulous as the crushes from afar and the girls whom I studied with the earnestness of a wannabe. I remembered the ridiculous pictures from college and finally stopped the crazy loser train I’d been conducting.
I may have a metabolism at tortoise speed, hair that frizzes within seconds, and I may not always coordinate the best looks. I may step on my words, spill drinks, trip up stairs, and spaz at the fanciest functions, but I’m flipping fabulous and I always have been.
The only person I ever fooled was myself. You could smell my insecurities a mile away. Under every layer of wanting someone special or wanting to be someone else was the fear of being with the only person I could ever authentically be: me. I spent so much time scrutinizing the behavior of everyone else that I never had time to focus on me and how flipping flabulous I was at every age. It’s why those crushes will never know how good they could have had it and why at 41, the hobnobbers--cool kids in executive haute couture--don’t know what they’re missing without my flipping fabulousness rubbing off on them for a change. And neither do the crushes and cool kids in your life—whoever and whatever they may be.
The thing about crushes is that they aren’t always people. Sometimes we crush on jobs, degrees, goals, positions of authority, and reputation. We think we’re not good enough, suave enough, smooth enough, cool enough to crush up close to everything our hearts desire--close enough to finally snatch them up for our own. But the truth is we've always been cool enough. We just needed to see eye to eye with our crushes—level pedestal to pedestal.
I know enough to know that if there is a preschool for cool kids in training, it’s my belief that the first thing they learn isn’t the regular A is for apple, B is for ball that us uncool kids were taught. Their circle time is more like C is for confidence and D is for damn, I look good. And even though I know now that copious time spent on trying to get a person to like you is the weakest sauce going, I also know that’s what weaker is convincing yourself that you don’t have what it takes to stand with the cool kids of America and demand for yourself the same love, admiration, and successes as they do.
You simply can’t be what you can’t see inside yourself.
Before closing the scrapbook, Fiona took one final, disapproving glance at my picture and asked, “Why were you afraid to be yourself?”
“Because I didn’t think I was cool enough.”
She let out a sigh, laden with pity.
“I’m not cool, am I?” I asked.
“No,” she answered a little too quickly.
Then her lips curled into a cool grin. “But you are badass.”
I let out a sigh, laden with admiration.
“You know what, kid?” I said. “You’re pretty badass too.”
Someone has to tell her truth—before she forgets it. After all, she’s smack-dab in the middle of third grade.
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