2017 Update: I performed a live (and slightly shorter) version of this story at the Moth Story Slam in Asheville in February of 2016. You can listen to it here:
I was fifteen years old, an awkward, fat fifteen year old, with awkward flat hair still growing out from a fuck the world, running away from home, self-administered haircut dating from seven months previous. I was pretentious, weird and unapologetically nerdy in ways that were not and will never be cool or profitable. I was a drama kid, a madrigal singer, a day student at a boarding school and owner of wardrobe that largely consisted of items either crushed velvet or teal (or both). For five months, I had been impossibly, breathlessly infatuated with The Boy who was eighteen and played guitar and liked Shakespeare and read James Joyce and had pretty blue eyes and a preppy swoop of brown hair. He sent me Yeats poems copied out on that old, ugly gray recycled notebook paper over Christmas break. He was an actor, and thus a profligate flirt. I was naïve and ill-accustomed to boys being nice to me. Mine was the kind of crush that woke me up in the morning, that dictated my music taste (whatever he liked), my diet (vegetarian—just like him), the books I read, the extracurriculars I pursued, the friends I made. I felt weak at his voice and shaky at his approach. I endowed him with magical powers because he was cute and smart and the sort of person I though I wanted to be with or maybe just the sort of person I thought I wanted to be.
Anyway, I went to campus on a Saturday night for the Valentine’s Day dance. I didn’t have a date. I most certainly didn’t have a date with The Boy. Still, I’d put on my favorite sweater (pink angora) and a fair amount of eye make-up (inexpertly). I had a mind to find The Boy and tell him how I felt or at least stand close enough that he might intuit the way I felt and kiss me and we’d maybe slow dance to The Bangles or Peter Gabriel or Tchaikovsky and it would end the way all great fairytales do—with a glass slipper and Jake Ryan and birthday cake on a dining room table.
It took me a while to find him. He wasn’t at the dance or in any of the common rooms. He’d been running the soundboard on a faculty stage show and finally, someone—I don’t remember whom—told me I might find The Boy in the light booth. And so I went to the theatre and edged down the narrow brick corridor and climbed the steep metal stairs to the booth above. I was on this wire between abject terror and woozy excitement, marveling at my own unprecedented bravery I’m going to do this, like, for real. I don’t remember if I knocked. I do remember that when I opened the door I saw The Boy with A Friend of Mine sharing an intimate moment. I remember standing in confused shock for a moment. I remember one of them asking me to shut the door. I remember hovering on the landing for a moment before My Friend came out and asked me (in so many words) to accept that they were dating leave them alone. I remember the door closing behind her. I remember taking the first step, staring at the high brick wall in front of me.
I don’t remember the falling, nor do I remember the screaming, though everyone in the theatre claims to have heard me scream. I was out for a few—maybe five– minutes. When I woke up, The Boy knelt on one side of me, my music teacher on the other. The Friend stood at my feet, staring horror-stricken at my face. They all acted enormously concerned for my well being. They might have thought I’d broken my back or suffered irreparable brain damage. I was a little anxious about my right wrist–which I thought maybe was sprained– but more panicked about my heart—which was most certainly broken beyond repair. My Friend offered to walk me to the infirmary. I let her.
It took a while for the nurse to track my mother down. My Friend sat with me in the darkness of an empty sick room while we waited. She tried to make small talk. I obliged. As the scion of southern matriarchs, I knew no better way to punish than fostering an atmosphere conducive to guilt and self-recrimination. I acted the perfect martyr I’m so sorry I interrupted you and The Boy. I hope I’m not ruining your evening. You’re a perfect angel to sit and wait with me indefinitely while I’m bruised and bleeding when you could be out having a romantic Valentine’s Day. Did I mention how perfectly thrilled I am that you and The Boy are seeing each other? To think that two people I care so much for would find each other . . . it really is magical. I’m just so happy for you both. You deserve all the happiness in the world.
My mother showed up breathless and harried in rhinestones and this dramatic black velvet party dress that made her look like a cross between Joan Crawford and Guinevere. She was worried, but also clearly put out at having been called away from her own Valentine’s Day plans. We drove to the hospital. I rested my pounding forehead on the cold glass, aware that I left a sticky blood residue whenever I pulled away. Mom sighed a lot. She kept patting my shoulder to make sure I didn’t fall asleep.
The ER was bright I stood at the check-in desk with my mother and watched a gaggle of scrubs wheel in man who was bleeding from his stomach. I thought maybe it was a gunshot wound. I’d never seen a gunshot wound. I tried to say something to Mom about it but she was arguing with the nurse about the severity of my injuries. I made for a chair and endured the stares and at least one old woman patting me hand with a friendly You poor thing, who beat you? look. I tried not to fall asleep and played regular rounds of head injury trivia—Who is the president? How many fingers am I holding up? Are you seeing double?
They put me in a CAT Scan and told me to lie still. I went into the tube thinking that the hospital might collapse and I would mummify inside this machine and future explorers would uncover my remains and I would be called something like “Fat Girl Adolescent #38b, Brain Damaged by Clumsiness, Disappointed In Love. ” Maybe they’d make a movie about me, in which I wouldn’t be fat, but I would be played by the future version of Lara Flynn Boyle or Sherilyn Fenn or any of those girls from “Twin Peaks.” Maybe Martha Plimpton. I liked Martha Plimpton.
I had a minor concussion. The ER doctor told me to take it easy and report back if I started vomiting or going blind. I asked Mom if I could stay home from school for a few days. She told me she thought that would be fine.
I cried on the way home. When Mom asked if there was anything she could do about it, I asked her for a chocolate milkshake. She pulled into a drive-thru and didn’t say anything at all about the calories, for which I was exceedingly grateful.
Two days later, I returned to school to usher the faculty play. I wore some flow-y teal skirt and an elaborate Ophelia-ish crown of flowers my mother had ordered for me as a post-concussion Valentine’s consolation prize. My face was a horror mask—brilliant purple and green bruises and this enormous, Australia-shaped wound on my cheek resulting from sliding face-first across industrial carpet and into a brick wall. I looked like done ten rounds with Apollo Creed before interviewing with the Inquisition and would maybe be burned as an offering at intermission. I smiled benignly as I suffered the shocked faces of my fellow students, and listened to The Boy’s terrible, shitty, douchebag playlist as the house filled, knowing that he was just above me and hating myself for still caring. Every now and then I’d glance at My Friend (who stood just across the landing from me) and try to grin in such a way that she’d see all the cuts and bruises around the outside of my mouth and know that it hurt like hell to smile, but I was going to fucking do it anyway.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Though I’d like to tell you otherwise, I didn’t stop crushing on the The Boy after The Fall. I held a torch for him, even as he gradually stopped speaking to me and making eye-contact with me, after he dated My Friend for months, after he gradated, after I wrote him a long confession of unrequited love on ugly gray recycled notebook paper and he responded with a terse note asking me to kindly fuck off. I spent the first half of that summer—the summer I was sixteen—listening to Morrissey and sobbing, from equal measures of heartbreak and shame. I started hanging out with a classmate who lived down the block. Our friendship consisted mostly of shit-talking The Boy, eating cheap Mexican, listening to Cocteau Twins and chain-smoking as we drove round the most expensive neighborhoods in town criticizing the mansion-dwellers for their abysmal taste. Sooner or later, I grew into a sense of humor and developed a taste for punk rock. It became harder and harder to like—let alone love– an eighteen year old boy who quoted himself on his senior page, aspired to write socially-conscious prog rock operas and complained that no one appreciated his (always capitalized) Art. Was he a douchebag? Almost certainly.
In fairness, I was a weird, unattractive, obsessive teenager, who did repeatedly call his parents’ and hang up over spring break, who did memorize his class schedule so I could always know where he’d be in the hall, who did, the following year, spend a several free periods lounging in My Friend’s dorm room, so I could read the letters The Boy wrote to her from his year abroad in England when she went to the bathroom. Was I a psycho? Sure, but I was also a sixteen and miserable with loneliness and hormones. The Boy wasn’t my last ride at the unrequited love rodeo (in fact, one might argue he was merely the first chapter in what became a depressingly repetitive, darkly comic work in progress), but his kiss off did signal the end my career as a lovestruck, moon-eyed, uncontrollable mess. But I guess I have puberty to thank for that.