Prom season wrapped up a while back, marking an end to the parade of couples taking pictures down at our local park. On a few particular Saturdays in April, instead of the walkers, runners, and families enjoying the outdoors, you’d witness groupings of youths, clad in any manner of fancy dress precariously positioned near the stream. Seeing these groups got me thinking about my own experiences.
For all the fuss people make about proms, they were often a drag. I had a habit of getting dumped right before them, and so for all but one year I didn’t go with the person I’d been dating the whole year before. Indeed, I generally enjoyed picking out my dresses much more than the time I actually spent wearing them.
Junior year was one of those years. I had been dumped (per routine), which royally sucked. I was also in the midst of a proper bout of very adult depression, something I would struggle with for years to come. I was probably the equivalent of a writhing bag of hormone-infused cats. Stand back, folks. Stand back.
You can imagine my reaction, then, given my mood, when prom time came around and people around kept getting asked in exceedingly creative and romantic ways. In equal parts, I wanted to give the lot of them the bird… and I wanted – desperately wanted – to be the object of such attention. I’m sure I was an absolute Debbie-downer to be around: bitter and self-pitying, while also feeling the constant weight of my own self-loathing.
“Nothing like that ever happens to me,” I complained one day.
It was an off-hand comment made in band, but I guess Daniel had been listening.
Daniel and I both played trumpet. We ran in the same circles and took some of the same classes. He was always a bit shorter than me, and pudgy, but with warm, blue-green dappled eyes. On band trips and away games, Daniel shared my seat, especially in the later years of high school. We’d often sit together on bus rides to far-flung places, talking with friends or listening to The Dave Matthews Band, Metallica, or Tool. The entire time I knew him, Daniel never had a girlfriend. Perhaps too shy around many girls, he might have felt comfortable with me because I was a tomboy.
That spring break, I went to Panama City Beach, FL, a trashy place rife with underage drinking and cheap hedonism. All things considered, I didn’t party that much. I drank more than I should’ve, put myself in risky situations with people I didn’t know, but came home pretty much unscathed. What I remember most, though, was a diffuse and all-pervading sense of sadness and loneliness, emotions that persistently occupied the corners of my life at that point and seemed to encroach at odd moments.
I called my mom on our drive back to Tennessee. “You had a very nervous visitor,” she told me. “Be nice.”
Be nice? What the crap? Then my stomach jumped. Had my ex changed his mind? Was he going to ask me out again? Say he’d been wrong? Probably not, but I had to wonder.
I found an envelope and a rose on my bed. From Daniel. His enclosed note explained that he had loved me for a long time, that he thought we’d make a good couple. And he asked me to prom.
Daniel – painfully shy, awkward Daniel – had called my parents while I was out of town, had arranged to come to my house, into my room, and give me the sort of prom invite I thought happened only to other people. It was an act of sheer bravery, carried out with what I know must have been much trepidation. To this day, it represents the single-most romantic gesture ever ventured for my sake. (Austin gets all huffy when I say that, but it’s true). Daniel in no uncertain terms put his case before me, stripping away the pretense of the platonic friendship that had buffered all our previous interactions. He did so without any surety of success; with, in fact, the very real chance of absolute rejection.
I am by no means a beauty queen, and I was not in the popular clique in high school. But by subjective aesthetic standards, I was out of Daniel’s league. I’m not saying it’s good to judge a person’s desirability or worth by appearance alone. Right or wrong, our society has designated certain physical traits as beautiful or attractive, and I’ve grown up in this society. I know that I fit pretty well within its parameters of beauty, and I had always dated guys with particular physical qualities associated with stereotypical handsomeness. Call me shallow. It’s probably true. Regardless, my point here is that Daniel was probably keenly aware that I might not reciprocate his feelings, but he went ahead with his plan anyway.
I called Daniel and gladly accepted his invitation. I never mentioned the rest. Austin thinks I should have at least explained that I only wanted to be friends, and I probably should have. I was cowardly, fearing the sorts of awkward situations I still (perhaps mistakenly) try to avoid. I think he got the message, though, and for the rest of high school we behaved towards each as we’d always done before: as good friends. It helped that I got back together with my ex a while later, an event that pretty much shut down additional overtures.
I have no idea how such passive rejection affected Daniel. Looking back, I imagine that the last year of high school must have been difficult. What was it like seeing me go back to the boyfriend who’d rejected me, who he thought didn’t appreciate me enough? What emotions simmered under the surface of our easy friendship?
Such questions didn’t enter my mind until much later, along with a bevy of mixed emotions. I better recognize the selflessness and bravery of Daniel’s actions, elements previously covered over by my own self-involvement and tumultuous emotions. Daniel’s action affirmed his conception of my worth and his take on how I should be treated. I would spend years coming to terms with myself, to honestly survey my flaws and attributes, and to purposefully enter into relationships that meshed with these qualities and met my needs. Looking back, Daniel in many ways saw through the crap long before I did.
I wish I had been physically attracted to Daniel. It seems a flaw in the universe, a proof against the existence of karma or good old-fashioned justice that I wasn’t. Such an act should have warranted some sort of…I don’t know…reward. Or recognition. Or cosmic brownie points. Perhaps it did, and I’m just not permitted or able to see them. All I know is, that if life were a movie, Daniel should have gotten the girl. He should have gotten me. I should have had that moment of epiphany where his declaration of love engendered or revealed my own. Cue Peter Gabriel music. Cue slow-motion eye contact. Cue culminating kiss.
But life is not a movie, and especially not a romantic comedy. Or if it were, it would instead resemble Duckie’s fate in Pretty in Pink. Although much kookier than Daniel, Duckie is similarly big-hearted, loyal, supportive, and in love with a girl who doesn’t love him back. Not even by the end of the movie. Sure, we’re made to believe that Duckie finds happiness elsewhere, in someone else, but I can’t help but feel like he gets a bum deal. It’s not fair. Life is not fair.
Except that I did love Daniel…sort of. I loved him in a confused and not-quite platonic way. Our vocabulary is ill-equipped to describe and categorize the different sorts of relationships that exist between men and women. I felt affectionate towards Daniel. His presence was comfortable, and I enjoyed his company.
I just didn’t want to make out with him or see him naked. Perhaps When Harry Met Sally had it right. Perhaps “men and women can’t just be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Or in this case, the lack-of-sex part. Or one person’s unrequited wish for sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them. Because that’s ultimately what doomed any chance of a relationship between Daniel and me. I got along with him better than many of my actual boyfriends, but I didn’t want to have sex with him. Sexual desire was the one-thing-needful to transmute our friendship into a relationship.
So I guess that’s the key to a successful relationship: finding someone with whom you respect, feel comfortable, love, and share a mutual wish to see each other naked. It just seems a tragedy, though, that, at least in the case of Daniel and me, the first qualities didn’t make up for a lack of the last. It’s a shame.