In high school and college there’s a spectator quality to dating that disappears in early adulthood. Maybe it’s because, as adults, there are more opportunities to go behind closed doors for the good and the bad. For a lot of parents, keeping kids out where you can keep an eye on them transforms into attempts to prevent teen children from having sex.
The outlook, as unhealthy as it is futile, is part of why so many kids are put on a stage for the length of their school years. My high school economics teacher insisted this was exploitation; that the youth culture of television traced all the way back to communities like the one I grew up in, where the sports teams and musicians and drama club were the core of community culture and entertainment. With farming out of vogue, the burden now fell on children to keep the adults entertained.
That included entertaining adults with our dating exploits. The children with parents that “got it” likely got to have their precious coming of age moments in relative privacy. For the kids like me with parents strict about all the wrong things, it wound up as part of the public stage and public speculation. Office workers at my high school asked whether I planned to attend the same college as my senior year boyfriend. Comments were made about things I did and didn’t do. I even suspect that an incident in a church closet assigned to me happened between my sister or JR and someone my own age.
With or without that precious privacy, these boys – and men – all contributed to acting out the patterns I learned at home, sometimes to breaking them and wholly to my interaction with the public stage established for me because I was a visible teenager in a very small town.
Some of these guys were jerks. Some were wonderful. Most were both. Yet the ones I consider significant are never the ones that the spectators and speculators remember. These guys ducked under the radar; one was even considered fictional to the point that when he went with me to a lock-in hosted by my school, chaperones refused to believe we hadn’t just met.
My exes, for the most part, don’t remember me the same way I remember them. In the case of one guy from high school, it’s evident years later that I really did mean a lot more to him than he did to me. Because I am even now at times naive, I only recognized the full scope of his abusive behavior as an adult – and compared to what else I broke away from, it barely stings. People remember my association with him. They don’t remember me. Some assume he had far more significance to me than he ever did.
The short story of that first one was that, after six months of harassing notes, dating or attempting to date my friends ((this didn’t bother me as much as it had been intended to – I only put the kabosh on it with my BFF because until the day he asked her out in a note, there had been not a single inkling of genuine attraction between them)) and a phase where he would “bump” into me in the hallways with considerable force and borderline groping, I lost patience one day and shoved him off of me.While he had enough energy to follow me down the hallway and scream threats at me for shoving him off me, a few hours later he needed medical attention because he insisted to administrators and the school nurse that I punched him.
A friend of his who could not get on board with this latest attack told me he had been learning biofeedback for controlling a valve in his heart and had practiced creating symptoms for just the moment when I might fight back. I got suspended – and advised that girls shouldn’t fight back. I don’t know what conspired while out of school. By the time I returned there was a sexual harassment policy in place and every single teacher I had refused to enforce the homework suspension rules.
I remember his details not because of any lingering emotion; I remember the details about nearly everyone from that stressful period of my life. He wasn’t special. But I was, based on his own and his friends’ continued fixation over the years.
For me, there wasn’t much too remember. We snuck off and made out a lot. On days we didn’t see each other, I called him while he watched the Simpsons. He liked that power dynamic. I lost patience with it.
My not dating anyone after we broke up had more to do with his creepy stalker behavior than it did with my not being over him. People around me really wanted me to be hung up on him; I just wanted to feel a little bit safer. As soon as he stopped bothering me I stopped giving him any thought at all. Then he dated a girl I’d been super close to. She did it not for him but initially to hurt me; I didn’t understand enough about social violence at the time to understand that she thought she had some victory in stealing my boyfriend. Since I didn’t want what she stole, it was all something of a moot point. At one point early on, she showed me how much more he “liked” her than me by showing me every note he’d written. I hadn’t been particularly impressed by his mash notes to me in the first place and was less impressed to find he used the exact same mash notes, word for word, on his new girlfriend. At least I got the first run material.
After graduation, if I walked into McDonald’s, one of his coworkers would give a yell that I had come in. I would see him staring from behind the shelves that separated the grill from the front. None of my friends ever felt any need to immediately draw my attention to him; most only remembered I dated him when we started comparing ex horror stories. I always rolled my eyes and walked away. He was the quintessential townie and I was just too smart for that shit.
My life in my hometown was never pleasant. This was just one small chapter in relentless bad stuff.
I’m probably part of his personal mythology even though to me he was just an annoying and unfortunate early mistake. There are those that I meant nothing to that I’ve mythologized. We were both imaginative people though he took it in a much less benign direction than I did.
He was not my first love. His mother hated me. I learned from him that some guys are just creeps, and they would do their damnedest to get the women they abuse to blame themselves for it. But it’s not my fault that those guys are creeps. It’s the fault of those guys for choosing to be creeps.
I don’t know what label he slaps on me, but he did teach me something:
there are some guys I really am too good for.