*Names changed to protect confidentiality.
The year was 2001, and my cabin-mates and I were finishing up our lunches at a summer camp in the Sierra Nevadas.
As our lunch came to a close, the counselors passed around a hat filled with tiny pieces of folded-up paper, each containing a different camper’s name. The name we drew would become our secret buddy — someone to whom we would give gifts throughout the week, delivered by our choice of designated “messenger.” At the closing campfire, campers would reveal their identities, bestowing one final gift and a “buddy hug” to be witnessed by all.
Loving the idea of secret buddying a person I was crushing on, my eleven-year-old performatively boy-crazy self hoped for the name I drew to belong to a cute boy’s.
The metal bucket made the rounds, arriving at our table as my cabin-mates and I finished up the last of our meals. In went my hand. Out came a name.
“Do you know who Curtis Simon is?” I asked my cabin-mate Denise, after reading the name aloud.
Denise pointed to a table of pre-teen boys, past the table of counsellors to our right. A blond kid in a black muscle tank leaned forward and gripped his sloppy joe with both hands on the bread (meat inevitably dripped down onto the plate; I have yet to meet a kid who can prevent sloppy joe incontinence).
I didn’t know much about the buddy whose name I’d drawn. I knew he went to the same middle school as us; the majority of campers here did. I knew that he was a year younger. I’d noticed he had nice eyes — gently blue, like distilled water in a dentist’s office aquarium. I knew that his boyish cuteness (definite Justin Bieber vibes — it might not be totally off base to call Curtis my first lesbian crush) appealed to me. But apart from that, he remained mostly a mystery.
I was fine with mystery; in fact, I think it was even my preference. A blank canvas felt very close to “I can be whoever you want me to be.”
Throughout that week I gifted Curtis whatever items were at my disposal: Beanie Babies; a set of cards with scenes from Maui; a package of grape-flavored Nerds; and a single ketchup-covered tater tot, which Denise insisted would be funny and capture his attention (when she placed it in his bare hand though, Curtis was not amused).
The end of the week camp dance came around. My roommates had braided my hair, and I was dressed in a green army-patterned tank top. A small disco ball attached to the ceiling threw spinning colors down onto the lodge’s wooden floor.
About twenty minutes in, Denise* approached me. Lowering her head and looked me directly in the eye:
“Curtis really wants to ask you to dance,” she said with a straight face.
Her admission surprised me. I wondered if she was just messing with me, as she often did.
How can he like me when we’ve barely even spoken? Is that why he does? I wondered.
As I stood there processing, the track changed to a 98 Degrees ballad. People, mostly counselors, began partnering off to slow dance. The older kids followed, followed by a few seemingly begrudging but possibly secretly intrigued younger campers.
I felt a tap on my shoulder; turned around, and there stood Curtis. His baby blues, lit up by the lights of the disco ball, shone toward mine as he shyly posed the question: “Do you wanna dance?”
Equally reticent, I nodded and placed my hands on his shoulders. An awkward three feet of distance separated us, large enough for at least two children to run through in a game of limbo.
When the song ended we parted ways with a tentative “see you around,” before returning to our respective groups.
A night later I gave Curtis his final gift at the closing campfire. It was a wooden box I’d carved in wood-shop, filled with candy. We then hugged awkwardly in front of everyone, while the older kids shouted jokes about our new couple status.
Photo by Josh Campbell on Unsplash
He approached me the next morning as campers said their goodbyes. Next to us were buses that would return us to our hometowns. Counselors were loading kids’ bags into the side (luggage-containing) compartment.
“How’s it going?” Curtis asked, eyes sparkling. Redwood trees loomed behind and above us, while specks of dirt fluttered through the pine-smelling air.
“Pretty good,” I responded. Gesturing to my disc-man: “Just waiting to get on the bus. I’m gonna listen to my Good Charlotte C.D.”
“Oh cool, they’ve got some good songs,” he said.
With a bit of a dour face, he shared with me that someone had stolen his candy; I told him I was sorry that had happened.
We parted ways with another tentative hug.
A few days later, I was lounging in my room when my dad knocked on my bedroom door to announce that I had a phone call.
After he handed me the phone I closed the door behind me, my heart-rate quickening as I sank back into my navy blue beanbag chair.
“Hey, E…” The voice at the other end spoke hesitantly. “It’s Curtis. The one from camp. How are you?”
Words tumbled from my mouth:
“I’m doing okay. Just chilling at home. I’m sorry again someone took your candy, that’s really…” I babbled.
He said a few more things; then it got quiet.
“So um…what’s up?” Curtis’ attempt to resuscitate the conversation.
It petered out again shortly after.
That was the last time we spoke. Neither of us reached out to the other again. Just like that, we became strangers once more. Since this was before the age of social media, it didn’t take long for him to fall out of my mind more or less completely.
The three-day fling (or whatever you want to call it) still comes to mind now and then — and I used to not understand why.
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
Why think about this boy who really never meant much to you at all, who didn’t significantly hurt you, who was essentially just one insignificant blip on a long coil of experiences that constituted your childhood and early adolescence? I asked myself. More like a cherry or fun fact in your script than any sort of pillar.
Fourteen years and numerous online dating experiences later, I feel like I can at least partially answer that now.
Through the apps I’ve developed fantasy ideas of people based on how they seemed on paper. I’ve rejected and discarded; been rejected and discarded in return. Some were incompatible matches, I don’t doubt. Others, I wonder if I just didn’t give enough time — or if my fear of engulfment led me to prematurely eliminate them as possibilities.
There’s a line between giving a connection a chance to grow and forcing one. I’m not always sure where it lies. I only know that our modern dating climate feels similar in some ways to Uber, Task Rabbit, and Grub Hub. “I’ll rest comfortably over here while you bring me my product; anything less than a quick delivery, and it’s just not worth it. I’ll switch to another,” I imagine people thinking.
Or maybe we’re not looking for perfect. Maybe some of us are afraid more than anything, and the comfort of surplus has made it all too easy to hide from that fear. To bury our faces in the superfluity of readily available options that constitute the buffet of our phones.
Maybe some of us just feel like we need to keep moving so we’re not the ones left behind. Staying with an option for too long leaves you too vulnerable. Keep moving so the stinging jaws of rejection can’t catch up; we’ll beat them, always staying one step ahead. Rejection looms; combat it with swipes, swipe until you forget, it’s the new chain-smoking.
If you’re always the rejector it means you never have to be the rejected.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
I’m not sure how much of this applies to my situation with Curtis. Likely, we were just two eleven-year olds without much in common, and there’s little to say beyond that. Maybe what happened is just exactly what does when you think someone’s cute but don’t share much on an intellectual or emotional level.
Still, every now and then this boy I barely knew comes to mind — when I’m swiping, or when a dating situation fizzles out. I think about how two people can match up without knowing much about one another. They can feel a momentary attraction. They might even feel giddy or excited about each other in the beginning.
Only for the boredom to quickly set in. Reminders surface, of all else that is out there. And just as quickly as it formed, the interest snubs out. All of a sudden the light clicks off, dimming out even the pieces we did share, leading us to downplay their importance.
It makes me wonder if we aren’t incorporating minor flaws into a bigger and more complete picture of the person. Move on as soon as you notice one, goaded on by the culture of instant gratification and shortened attention spans.
I wonder if we’ve lost our natural curiosity towards each other — or if we abandon it the minute we notice a difference or lack of alignment in a particular area.
I picture those two eleven-year-olds, sustained by validation and the ability to momentarily project their desired traits onto another blank canvas of a human. I picture the light going off the minute they begin to truly see each other.
And it leads me to think that honestly, this may just be what dating’s morphed into. The present-day reality might feel hollow. It no doubt feels disappointing. It can make the whole process exhausting.
But in the long run, maybe it just takes us closer to the person who, even with all the freedom in the world to choose differently — and despite the hundreds of matches at their literal fingertips — decides on you, and vice versa. Both of you feel it in your bones that the other is it — and neither of you will question it.
Maybe that’s the kind of connection that’s truly meant to last.
Will we know when we’ve found them? I’d like to think so. Though it hasn’t for me yet, I’ll keep my fingers crossed and my phone on standby.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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