I often pride myself on never once getting into a real fight, but this is not, strictly speaking, true. At the tender age of 12, I fought a not-so-tender girl of the same age. I’ll call her Beth in case she’s reading this.
It wasn’t much of a fight really: it mostly consisted of me blocking her punches, slaps, and kicks while attempting to escape the situation. We were on a field in my neighborhood playing either soccer or football, and she was the only female in the group. I recall provoking her into taking a swing at me by saying something nasty—and likely sexist—to her freckled face. Because other boys were watching, when she made fun of my cherubic chubbiness—I went through a late-night snacking phase prior to my growth spurt—I did not think I had a choice but to retaliate in the worst way possible.
What I remember most is that when she finally calmed down enough to cease the onslaught, I walked away, turned my head, and cried. Crying was something I typically did not do, even though I did not come from a household that shamed me for it. I had at least two personas in those years, and the one reserved for my peers did not include shedding tears. I was unhurt but humiliated. I knew my friends were watching—and laughing.
Looking back on it, though, I’m proud of myself for not physically fighting back and also proud that I did not delight in Beth’s rage. A crueler man might have blocked her blows while grinning and posturing for his (male) friends. Instead, I cried. But I did not cry because she hurt me; I cried because I hurt her to the point where she lost her self-control and attacked a guy considerably larger than she.
Long after I went through puberty, it occurred to me that there was much more to the story. Beth clearly had a crush on me long before I had the maturity to reciprocate. The signs were there. They weren’t so obvious because Beth was what my mother would call a “tomboy.” Beth played football with the boys while the other girls were playing with dolls and mascara. Beth wore cutoff jean-shorts. Beth was pretty but not dainty. Beth cursed like a sailor. Beth was comfortable in her awkwardness. Beth fought boys when they pissed her off. But I digress.
One day for some reason Beth came to my house uninvited. Somehow she ended up in my bedroom, sitting on my bed, watching TV or playing video games—which was pretty much all I did in my bedroom at the time. I remember feeling some kind of vibe from her. I remember feeling good about that vibe. But I also remember that nothing came of that vibe.
I was too green to regret it then, but I regret it now. I regret it because she really was my first childhood crush that had any chance of being reciprocated. Instead, I fell for the girls that every other guy fell for—the ones that didn’t want anything to do with a nerdy, sensitive type whose only good moves were in chess. I fell for the cheerleaders, party girls, prom queens, and damsels-in-distress. They gave me nominal attention because I was cute, but the heart of who I was did not appear on their radar. I chased after them like a stray dog chasing a speeding sedan. I was so entangled in the web of acceptability that I did not know where peer pressure ended and my actual desires began. Beth could have been my soulmate.
Now she’s just a punchline.
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