Kai was not an adventurous junior in high school. He was a short, small, 16-year-old whose witty humor could take the place of whatever physical stature he lacked. He also had an unfortunate spell with acne, and you could tell from the way he looked around the classroom and lunch table that his self-confidence was paper thin.
I knew that Kai liked a girl named Kim, my neighbor and fellow junior in my Japanese class. It was the beginning of the school year when homecoming dances come sweeping into adolescent stress like winter’s first blizzard. Kai told me he was going to bring flowers after my class and ask Kim to the dance, and he wanted me to be there for support.
As the class emptied, Kai awkwardly stood in the hallway with a bouquet of roses. When Kim went to pass him, he stepped in her way.
He looked up at her, hope in his eyes. “Kim, will you go to homecoming with me?”
“Um, absolutely not,” she said, then laughed and walked on with her friend as they shook their heads. Kai stared at the ground, roses slipping from his hand.
“Give me the roses, Kai,” I said. “Come on. Follow me.”
I snatched the flowers and resolutely headed for the school cafeteria, Kai and a few other friends trailing behind me. I wasn’t really thinking, just going where I knew I could cheer him up by sacrificing my own social standing. I purposefully strode through the center of the full cafeteria. People began noticing me, pointing and speculating about whom I was going to ask. Multiple groups left their lunch tables to join in the parade.
They all realized where I was going as I turned down toward the chemistry lab. Ms. Levitt, newly divorced 30-year-old who every guy in the school drooled over.
I kicked the door in — yup, actually kicked it in — interrupting her class. Dramatically, I peered my eyes at her in front of the room, sauntered toward her, knelt on one knee and held out the bouquet. All the guys in the class began to rise out of their seats, like their teammate was about to take the game-winning shot.
“Ms. Levitt, would you give me the deepest honor of accompanying me to homecoming?”
The guys in the class lost it, yelling, forming a mosh pit and tossing a couple chairs over. I could see that Ms. Levitt was flattered but also fairly humiliated and unsure what to do. I stood up and whispered to her that I knew she couldn’t go with me and that I was just helping my friend feel better. We snagged a picture together. I met Kai’s eyes and wagged the roses back and forth. He couldn’t stop smiling.
This was my junior year of high school. It was like I finally noticed my limbs shackled by childhood insecurities, and I was constantly pulling, contorting myself to escape them, searching for a key in a frenzy. I did sitcom-like stunts like the Ms. Levitt episode regularly. Most didn’t turn out as well. I didn’t realize why I did these self-deprecating, romantic stunts. Ten years later, as I’m in my final semester of my undergraduate degree, I think I see why.
Her name was Cassie. Freshman year, we shared sixth-period P.E. and health class. Somehow we found ourselves grouped together in every sport unit, swinging badminton rackets side by side. When P.E. transitioned to sex-ed in health class, the teacher still grouped us as partners. Badminton and reproductive anatomy. Sounds bizarre, but man, I thought it was romantic.
Naturally, I fell in love with her. Conversation flowed between us, and yet I didn’t feel like I had to say anything to be accepted around her. Sometimes we’d just sit in silence after school on the cement wall overlooking the football field, and I felt like maybe puberty was concluding and I could find that my heart wouldn’t keep bleeding on alone. You know, freshman daydreams.
I never asked her out. It was like I volunteered for the friend zone, and oh did I trap myself in that prison.
Fast forward to junior year, and I was still stalwartly there. I was so friend-zoned that I actually met Cassie’s boyfriend’s parents. Yeah. Her boyfriend was totally fine with Cassie and me hanging out at her house without him there. Talk about demeaning.
After first period weight training, I’d plop myself in precalculus with Cassie and her best friend Mikayla. I’d smile as I rested my head on my folded arms wrapped around my backpack, and I’d listen to the sweet serenade of Cassie and Mikayla gossiping and roasting everyone in the class. I was just happy to be around her, and I was willing to accept whatever time I could get.
At what cost? Actual happiness? Substantial confidence? Reciprocated love? To junior-year me, it was a no-brainer. Sell it all for sadness.
It blows my mind how I do the same thing now. A decade, mission, marriage, daughter and divorce later, I still do the same transaction: my heart and sanity a combo meal for one-sided infatuation. I think I’m addicted to attaching myself to people who will never care about me as much as I care about them. I’m still in fetters, chains preventing me from embracing someone who’d embrace me back, but unlike junior year, I’m the one who placed these shackles on my wrists and ankles, a mad grin on my face as I voluntarily sacrifice my psyche on the altar of emotional loyalty only a sycophant can maintain.
It’s been ten years, and I still ask out Ms. Levitt. There’s been hundreds of Ms. Levitts, some waiting for a dance partner in the middle of a dimly-lit dance circle, some boasting outrageous Tinder accounts, others calmly reading books on park benches while hordes of guys ruminate about how gorgeous they are but how impossible it’d be to talk to them. I talk to them all, dance with them all, smile and laugh when inside, I don’t care.
Why live like this? Selling my heart with a strict no-return policy? Junior year of high school or senior year of college, it makes no difference. There’s been two other girls that match the Cassie-friend-zone scenario. The woman I married and divorced was not one of them. Given how extroverted I am and eager to meet new people, you’d think I could feel this way a lot, but, truly, it’s such a rare experience that I have no other thought than to deify the emotions crashing around my chest. I love people I find inimitable, overlooking the crucial stepping-stone of reciprocation.
Ten years since junior year and I still stride through cafeterias with a bouquet of roses masquerading as my heart in my hands, gaining crowds who think I’m a happy-go-lucky, fearless maverick. What I hide is that I do it all to run away, to run from whom I’d rather give roses every day of my life. Every day I volunteer as tribute to a selfish, fatalistic game I worry will someday rob me of the woman who’d love me as much as I could love someone else.