I only ever wanted two things: for boys to like me and for people to think I was smart.
Even now, more than halfway through a puzzling, improvised life, I can't decide whether those goals were too high or too low.
When I was younger, I wanted boys to call me; now that I'm older, I want editors to call me. My life can be charted by the telephones.
Let's do "wanting-boys-to-like-me" first.
In fourth grade I made up an excuse to call Brett Simon who even then--at the very beginning-- was already way out of my league. It started when big-eyed, dark-haired, shy-smiling Brett casually mentioned, in one of his book reports in Mrs. Mckay's class, that he was a fan of Hardy Boys mysteries.
I was overwhelmed by fate.
My brother had all those books in his bedroom. At sixteen, my brother was way too old to read them anymore. He wouldn't even notice they were gone, which meant that I didn't need to ask his permission to remove them.
It was all beautifully simple. Of course I should offer all my brother's books to Brett Simon. This would help Brett fully understand that I was his one true love. He would hold my hand. He would walk me home from school and choose me first to be his partner on every project. We would make volcanos together, our hands mushed into paper mache, and united we would work on fitting rain forests into shoebox panoramas. Lori Frank would no longer be able to assume Brett wanted to sit next to her at assembly. Lori would get fat, ugly, and lonely while I would blossom in the warmth of Brett's unflagging adoration.
Not only did I look forward to being loved; I looked forward to being preferred.
So I found his number (to be honest, I'd looked it up during the first week of school but I used the opportunity to double-check it) and called Brett. His mother answered and, with what sounded suspiciously like a giggle, called him to the phone by saying "It's a girl. She says her name is Gina."
I felt warmly towards Mrs. Simon, who I imagined to be my future mother-in-law. Brett only had to say "Hello?" and I launched into my prepared speech about how I knew he liked the Hardy Boys and my brother had the whole set and I would be happy to give them to Brett and did he want me to bring them to school or maybe even better he'd like to come over to my house to pick them up? There were a lot of them.
I'm quite certain Brett Simon had no idea what hit him. He probably felt like a mouse facing moose; while he could tell that I wasn't exactly his natural enemy, I'm sure he had no earthly idea what to do next.
I don't remember precisely what he said. There was mumbling. There was politeness. There was silence.
There was a profound, cavernous, echoing sense of rejection. Since I knew Brett liked the Hardy Boys, it didn't take a whole lot to figure out what he didn't like.
And that was me.
For months afterwards, I tortured myself. The way you pick at a scab or gnaw a torn cuticle, I'd slice into my small sense of self with the fact that I shouldn't have called him. He'd sit next to Lori Frank in the auditorium during the school concerts and I'd sit in the back row with other ignored girls--girls who had fat faces or old shoes or funny haircuts--and chew on my heart in regret.
"I shouldn't have called him," I'd chant silently , "I shouldn't have called him, maybe if I hadn't called him he'd like me better, maybe he would have called me, I ruined it, I am a ruiner, why did I do such a thing anyway, I'll never do it again."
Does it surprise you that I went on to spend the next twenty years of my life calling boys with big eyes and shy smiles?
That I, emotional moose extraordinaire, kept stomping along life's path frightening young men with my offers of love? Hoping to bribe them into affection by shoving books, poems, homemade lasagna, record albums, tweed caps, and on one occasion, a zither, into their arms?
Hoping that a correctly-timed, perfectly calibrated phone call would illuminate their shadowed love for me? That one sort of ring would lead to another?
(to be continued)