Amy in the Spring of 1990

Amy in the Spring of 1990

A Story by Colin

a true but short story.

In junior high, crushes were a debilitating parasite to which I was alarmingly susceptible and since my awkward phase was celebrating its renaissance, my hormones were all too happy to make me look like an idiot whenever possible. By the end of my seventh grade year, I’d already suffered through two humiliating crushes and I wasn’t anxious to make it three. But then I met Amy.

Amy was built like a dancer. She was slender and delicate, with small sharp features and a heart-shaped face. She had light brown hair, long down her back. I remember being enthralled by the way her eyes scrunched up when she smiled or laughed. My junior high school included just the two grades, seventh and eighth. Amy was in the eighth grade while I languished as a “sevie” " essentially a lower form of life. As if that gap wasn't intimidating enough, she was a cheerleader.

She might have been just another crush. But the situation with Amy felt different from the start. It was so different that after it was all over, I was more confused than ever. With Amy, I experienced a brief moment of unexpected confidence, a perfunctory sip dredged up from a clandestine well. This moment evaporated just as quickly as it appeared, but it had been there. It would be a long time before I’d surprise myself like that again.

I met Amy through another eighth grader, Brian, who lived a block away from my home. I’d known Brian since third grade, and we’d played together in some pick-up basketball games. He called one evening to ask if I’d be interested in helping out with a Saturday volunteer opportunity at the Ronald McDonald House in nearby Palo Alto. Flattered that this popular eighth grader would have thought of me, I quickly agreed to help out. It took me a second to realize I might have just volunteered to dress up like the eponymous clown for a large audience of five-year-olds. But it turned out that we’d just be cleaning up their backyard so they could get a garden started.

There were five of us participating: Brian, Amy, me, and two others whose names I don’t remember. I was the only seventh grader there. On Saturday, Brian introduced me to Amy while we lingered in his driveway. I don’t remember ever seeing Amy perform in our school’s modest cheerleading squad, but I must have stored the roster away in my brain somewhere. Brian’s mother gave us a ride to the Ronald McDonald House and almost immediately, I found my eyes gravitating toward Amy. Cute girls were everywhere when I was 12, but now I’d be spending the better part of a Saturday with an incredibly beautiful eighth grader/cheerleader. I remember thinking that I’d have to thank Brian for recruiting me.

I threw caution to the wind then buried it in a shallow grave. It was relatively easy to talk to her, despite the fact there were three other eighth graders bearing witness. I couldn’t strike up a conversation out of the blue with Amy, but since we’d been introduced by a mutual friend and we were stuck together willingly, my words emerged with relative ease. I started with the fact that she was a cheerleader, since that was the only thing I knew about her.

“You’re on the cheerleading squad, right?” I asked, as we turned earth with shovels.

“Yes,” Amy said, smiling and lifting me out of my shoes.

“Have you ever heard of a movie called Cheerleader Camp?” I asked.

I had never seen this horror movie (I still haven’t), but I knew its box from examining it on the video store shelf. It featured an ecstatic cheerleader with a skullface, with poms-poms in the middle of a “Go team!” leap. I described all of this to Amy. I’m not sure why I brought up this movie. I guess it’s what I immediately associated with the word cheerleader. My conversation with Amy continued throughout the rest of the day. For those hours while we worked in the building’s backyard, my brain allowed my mouth to fly solo.

I remember thinking that Amy might be simply humoring me as I babbled, but I was apparently able to ignore this idea. She giggled at my jokes and there was back-and-forth discussion between the two of us and the group. I don’t remember what else was discussed besides that horror movie… If I had known what was ahead, I would have taken notes on everything. By the end of the day I was a goner. I’m sure my devotion was painfully obvious to everybody else present, including the Ronald McDonald House employee who gave us sodas.

My crushes were able to flourish because of my fantasies I’d construct to accompany the crush. These fantasies were pure juvenilia: generic and devoid of anything remotely sexual. In my body’s football team, my hormones were still running laps, warming up. Kissing wasn’t allowed. While I could imagine a conversation or a date out to an ice cream parlor, kissing wasn’t something I could describe to myself. The mechanics alone were puzzling. If I needed to ponder kissing, there were always the James Bond books I was regularly devouring around that same time.

These innocent pipe-dream fantasies were allowed to limp through my head, provided that they promised no coups on the speech centers of my brain. It was a happy compromise. That way, I got to imagine saying things like “Amy, I think you’re awesome, you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met and I like you a lot” without the danger of accidentally saying something like that out loud.

So, in my brain, I could walk up to Amy during lunch and say, “Excuse me, Amy, but I really need to talk to you about something.” Amy would be surprised but willing. As we walked to somewhere more private, I’d be deaf to her friends giggling and the expressions of incredulity from my friends. 

“Amy,” I’d say, “I hope you will forgive me for being so forward, but I wanted to tell you that I, well, I really like you.”

“Well, I like you too,” Amy would say, blushing madly.

I flash a winning smile. “Would you like to go out and play mini-golf this weekend?” It didn’t have to be mini-golf, although in every date fantasy I ever constructed, it was always mini-golf.

“Sure,” she’d say.

“Great. Does three o’clock on Saturday work for you?” I say to Amy.

“Okay. Yes. That’ll work.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you then.”

While this conversation didn’t seem difficult in my head, it was still pure fantasy. I could dream about being brave, but that’s about it. I didn’t think I’d be able to ask Amy out on a date, even if I spent 24 hours trapped in an elevator with her. Girls terrified me, but my crushes terrified me even more. I convinced myself that they could read me as easily as they could read their own bubbly handwriting. On top of that, my school’s rumor mill would happily eat you alive. If you had to tell somebody about a crush, you picked your confidants carefully. If my particularly cruel peers discovered my new crush (on a cheerleader, no less) they could reduce me to a shivering globule of nothing. My crushes had been exposed before. In these humiliating cases, the only recourse was the vehement denial of the crush then its abandonment, followed by several weeks of sulking.

Only a couple weeks remained before the end of the school year. My crush was clearly finite"more than usual. It wouldn't survive the summer. This entire episode began and ended within a month. If you accept that I was head-over-heels over Amy (and I was), how could I be so crazy over someone after knowing her for such a short period of time? I think this can be explained with a quote from Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carrey’s character asks himself, “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” This character is in his 30’s. I was 12, soon to be 13, and I’d spent most of a Saturday gabbing with Amy. Of course I was going to develop a crush on her. It would have been strange if I hadn’t. My parents, noticing my talent for crushes, often quoted adages at me about a new bus arriving every few minutes, and another one about the sea’s fish population. These didn’t help.

So I already had Amy on my mind when I attended the last dance of the year at the local youth center. I rarely attended dances, but when I did, I’d spend the time hanging around the soda table or as far away from the dance floor as possible. I could witness and enjoy the various teenage soap operas going on around me, but I felt like I’d be spontaneously and inexplicably immolated if I put a foot on the dance floor. Of course, sitting alone made me more conspicuous than someone leaning against a wall on the dance floor"but I never applied logic to these situations. So, that night at the dance, I spent the first part of the evening sitting on a bench in the center’s lobby, near the bathrooms. If there was a fire, I was that much closer to the exit.

Open the door to the Wayback Machine and observe me. I’m wearing a semi-formal shirt and jeans. No belt. My hair is cut short. I’m daydreaming. There’s a plastic gray-purple wallet in my back pocket. I will not put a single foot on the dance floor during this entire evening. I will be disappointed when I go home tonight. I’m wearing a Casio calculator watch. When my mother drives me home tonight, I will be sullen and mute. I have an A&W Root Beer in one hand. And hey, look, there’s Amy sitting down next to me ……

My brain flails and sputters. Imagine sparks flying off an old computer after you’ve poured a glass of water onto its electrical system.

Amy can’t be sitting next to me! This is … crazy. This makes no sense. This shouldn’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This probably isn’t happening. Someone spiked this root beer with marijuana and I’m hallucinating. Does marijuana cause hallucinations? I have no idea. But even if this is a hallucination, I have to do something. I can’t just sit here pretending like she’s not sitting next to me. What can I do? I can panic. I’m good at panicking.

It’s easy to put myself back in that place, but my actual thoughts were less coherent. If a stranger walked up to me and shoved an ice pick into each of my knees, it would have elicited less surprise than the shock of Amy joining me on the bench. Girls didn’t go out of the way to talk to me. This was an entirely foreign concept.

Amy asked me why I was sitting out here, away from everyone else. I didn’t have a good answer. I may have shrugged, my shock having rendered me temporarily mute. She offered some of the cookie she was eating. I declined. At one point, I felt like she was sitting too close so I scooted away a little bit. She followed me.

If I had a piece of paper and a pen on me at the time, I would have written her a note (with a trembling hand): “Dear Amy, I would love to have an actual conversation with you, not this poorly rendered facsimile of a conversation. But, you have to understand that my brain refuses to accept any of this. My brain is closed for business, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to talk to anyone for the next few days. Please go and enjoy your evening. Please forgive my rudeness. Please forgive me. Sincerely, me.”

I might have explained to her (out loud) that I tended to get nervous around girls, but that didn’t make any sense because I had been able to talk to her easily a few days ago. I hadn’t been able to shut up. "Well," I’d have to explain, "that was when I didn’t have a crush on you." Then the earth would be swallowed by a black hole. The sun would go nova. Or she would run away screaming and a trio of eighth grade alpha-males would tear my arms off at the shoulder for disrespecting a cheerleader.  
Giving no excuse for my behavior, never explaining that my nervousness had essentially paralyzed me, I walked away from her to seek sanctuary in the bathroom. I remember turning around to look at Amy sitting on the bench. Her sad, confused expression shot into my head like a poison-tipped arrow. I’d chatted with her a few days before, but now I was acting like she was an enemy.

I don’t know how I was able to continue socializing that night as if nothing had happened, but when you’re a teenager, mini-crisises are par for the course. Later that night, I was sitting out on the patio enjoying the company of a couple friends. To enter the patio, you had to walk onto the dance floor area, but as long as I didn’t get mixed up in the crowd where people were dancing, I felt secure enough.

Amy must have had a knack for appearing out of nowhere, because she was suddenly standing behind me, flanked by a couple of her friends.

“Would you like to dance?” Amy asked.

My brain, having just recovered from the incident in the lobby, abandoned me again like a rat fleeing a sinking ship. I hadn’t expected this at all. I knew I was supposed to answer this question but I couldn’t think of any reply. I couldn’t think of any words at all. I had never slow-danced before, with anybody. That fact alone would be enough to temporarily incapacitate any especially-shy teenager (like myself).
When I wrote about this in my seventh grade diary, I used the word “nervous” in every sentence but I didn’t think to record what I was wearing or what Amy was wearing (I think it was something flowery, and I keep thinking purple) or how she was wearing her hair. Amy was smiling and that, I supposed, was a good sign. I somehow managed to smile back, although I imagine this smile as an unnatural rictus fit for a mental patient, cribbed out of one of Goya’s later paintings. I hadn’t said anything yet. I already felt like I was in way over my head, like a soldier who showed up to the battlefield before remembering that his weapons were made out of cardboard. And he’d left them at home.
What Amy said to me: “Would you like to dance?”

What I should have said: “Amy, I would love to dance with you.”
Or “What an excellent idea.”
Or “Amy, it would be an honor.”
What I did say: “Is that a threat or a promise?”

I know it doesn’t make sense. It was one of those situations where you end up saying the first thing that comes into your head because you need to say something before everyone around you starts to think you’ve suffered a massive brain aneurysm.

Amy, bless her, answered my question as if it made sense. “A threat,” she immediately replied.

I was aware of the fact that I hadn’t answered her question yet. I stalled for time by stuttering. I was scared to look into Amy’s eyes, and I desperately wanted to look into her eyes. I’d happily spend the rest of the night gazing into her eyes if it was something I could do without embarrassing either of us.
I wanted to say yes. I desperately wanted to say yes. Saying “yes” was usually so easy, but I was busy worrying that this was all choreographed for my benefit. Either Amy was acting on her own volition and asking me to dance for her own reasons … or someone who I’d told about my crush (i.e., Brian) had asked her or encouraged her to ask me to dance.

None of this should have mattered. We’ll leave the 12-year-old me and the 13-year-old Amy frozen for a few minutes while we hypothesize. We’ll get back to them presently. For the sake of argument, let’s say Brian did ask Amy to ask me to dance. Amy could have easily rejected Brian’s proposal. She could have said “No, I don’t want to ask him to dance, I don’t want him to get the wrong idea…” and that would be that.  I’d never be the wiser. I’d remain blissfully ignorant. It’s difficult for me to imagine any teenage boy, even one as popular as Brian, successfully convincing his cheerleader friend to ask another boy to dance. And here’s the thing: even if Brian intervened on my behalf, Amy wouldn’t have agreed if she didn’t want to ask me. Unless blackmail or a monetary bribe took place (and this seems very unlikely).

If Brian had gone to bat for me, I think he would have appeared on the patio around the same time as Amy to witness her question and my reply. Instead, Amy’s friends accompanied her to the patio.

Of course, my 12-year-old self did not have the time to think it through that far. I think I lacked the maturity for such “abstract thought.” In the months that followed, I had plenty of time to ponder these various scenarios. Suffice it to say, at the time I believed that Brian had intervened on my behalf. Maybe, if I had the chance, I would have (casually) asked Amy if she had been talking to Brian. However, before I could say anything else, our “conversation” was interrupted. An acquaintance, Michael pulled me aside. He wanted me to dance with someone named Darcy so she would stop begging him for a dance. This made no sense to me, but he kept insisting. I got the feeling he was desperate.

“Mike, I’d love to help,” I lied, “but I’ve got problems of my own right now.”

Problems. The Amy situation was now a problem I had to solve, like a tough pre-algebra equation. But I wanted to solve it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could imagine myself saying “yes.” I just needed some time to think. Amy and I could sit down in the lobby and talk about this. We could get through this together. But when I returned to the patio, she was gone. Exhausted from the night’s stress, I couldn’t bring myself to look for her even after a friend offered to help. I had managed to screw up two situations with the same girl during the same night.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I was guilty of nervous indecision. I’d rejected Amy, my dream girl. I probably ruined her evening, with my selfish paranoia. My mind kept returning to her expression when I left her sitting on the bench. So, determined to resolve the situation, I spent the weekend working up the courage to apologize. I’ll admit that I was glad to have a ready-made excuse to talk to her. She might resent me for rejecting her (even though I hadn’t, not really) but I’d get my apology out. I’d be able to put the whole affair behind me. While other crushes ended with half-hearted ellipses, this one would have a firm black and white “The End” at its conclusion.

I remember walking toward her as she stood next to her locker. She was holding a textbook with a cover made out of a grocery bag. It felt like I was wading through a swamp. Certain leg muscles tried to convince the rest of me to turn around and forget the whole idea. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the moments when time slows down and details become eerily clear. That’s probably why I remembered the words spoken but very little else.

“Hey, I’m really sorry about Friday, Amy…”
“That’s okay.” She giggles for a second.
“See, I told Brian that I liked you and I thought he"”  

“No, no.” She pauses. “Do you like me?”
“… Yeah,” I say.
Quietly, shyly, while looking down at her feet, Amy says, “Well, I like you too.”
 Somehow, I admitted that I liked her. The original plan (a rough outline) was to say “I thought [Brian] asked you to ask me to dance,” but I was so petrified with terror after this accidental honesty, I deliberately trailed off. It was as if I forgot who I was talking to. There were certainly more subtle ways to explain why I was afraid to dance with her, but instead I revealed the whole truth. I told Amy that I liked her. I had never done that before, nothing even close. I would have laughed and dismissed it as being impossible if you suggested it to me. I was almost 13 at the time of this exchange. At the time, it was the most amazing conversation of my life.

So what happened next?

There isn’t a next. This is the end.

Amy looked up and smiled at me. I smiled back.

I didn’t know what to say. I could have said anything at that point. I could have told her how beautiful she was. I could have invited her to get ice cream after school. I could have told her how great it was to be so honest with a girl and that I’d never done that with anyone, nothing even close. I could have called her that evening, if that was how long it took me to think of something. I wouldn’t have had to ask her for her phone number. There was a school directory with everyone’s phone numbers in it. 

But instead, I just smiled and walked away. Backwards.

Amy asked me point-blank if I liked her, and I’d answered her truthfully. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ when she asked me to dance. But when it was a much more difficult question, I found the ability to say yes. What was wrong with me? But I had to tell her the truth when she put herself out there like that. What was the alternative to answering her question? I could have gone with that good ol' teenage standby: silence. I could have literally shuffled my feet, like a mule with a talent for simple arithmetic.

When I was a teenager, it was common for your peers to ask (or for you to ask yourself): “Do you like her? Or do you like-like her?” The extra “like” meant you liked them more than just a friend. So, when I recounted the episode in a letter a few months later, I wrote, “I wasn’t that naïve back then to believe her. I knew that she meant she liked me as a friend.” No, I had no idea. Amy might have had an affection for me running parallel to my crush on her. At that time, I stood (wobbled) by the belief that Amy didn’t like-like me because if she did, the fact of my total inaction would have been unbearable. It would have felt like the ultimate failure.  
It really wasn’t any more than a crush. Any teenagers who claim to be in love are fooling themselves. Adult crushes are often just a facsimile of love: a photocopy of a photocopy of a piece of old carbon paper. Yet, I think it possessed a certain innocent, fragile beauty, like a sandcastle built on the edge of the tide. When it was over, I mourned its loss. I knew I would miss Amy, even if I hadn't known her very well in the first place.

For the next few years, the memories of those encounters with Amy sat on my brain like a victorious sumo wrestler: immobile and occasionally barking with laughter. Those years were considerably absent of any successes with girls so I feel that it was reasonable for me to take my biggest success/failure and play “what if…?” with it. I could play the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” game for hours at a time when I was a teenager. I’d compare these sessions to a doctor having to rebreak a bone in order for it to heal properly.

What would have happened if I’d been able to say “I really do like you, Amy. More than a friend. We should hang out sometime.” Does having a girlfriend at 13 produce confidence that will carry over into your future years? If something had evolved from this primordial goo of a conversation, would it have been an isolated mutation that died out a few weeks later? Grounded in the truth, all of it feels like an anomaly. Although I’d write letters to girls admitting that I liked them, I was never able to be so face-to-face honest again until college.

If I said “yes” when she asked me to dance, I never would have apologized to her at the lockers a few days later and instead, the entire crush would have ended with an awkward attempt at slow-dancing and Amy spending part of her summer with a sprained toe. Or I might have spent the rest of the evening with Amy, to the point where our parents had to drag us apart. I enjoyed that image.

If I replied when Amy said “I like you too,” I don’t know what would have happened next.

Maybe Amy and I would have gone on that fabled mini-golf date, then we’d have gone steady. I’d have a girlfriend and not just a friend who happened to be a girl. We’d have many conversations on the phone where we’d talk about movies, TV shows, music, or we’d just listen to each other breathe and wonder what the other person was thinking. Maybe we’d go see Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall that summer and I’d try to put my arm around her. I’d be embarrassed by the movie’s nudity. I’d buy her a pair of earrings. We’d hang out at each others houses, watching cable TV. I’d impress her with my knowledge of arcade games and video store inventories. Maybe we’d even kiss once or twice.

The end of the summer would present a challenge. Could our relationship survive our attending different schools? Sure, the high school was less than ten minutes away from our junior high (by bike), but in terms of emotional distance, we might as well be on opposite sides of the country.

Or maybe she just liked me as a friend.

On the final day of school, I tried to find Amy so I could ask her to write something in my yearbook. Ideally, I wanted some sort of last minute absolution, but I'd settle for "Have a fun summer" and a heart shape. To my dismay, I found her sitting in a semi-circle with several of her eighth grade friends. You would think that given the circumstances, I could have rediscovered that hidden store of confidence and asked Amy to write something in my yearbook even though she was surrounded by her friends. I couldn’t do it. There were just too many people around. So I quickly thought of another strategy.

“Excuse me?” I said to the entire group. “Could you sign your pictures?” I didn’t know most of the girls in the group but I hoped that Amy might pick up on my thoughts and write me something to remember her by. Each girl signed their class photo. Amy’s picture was flush against the yearbook’s spine. Her signature came out as a scribble.

An epilogue:

The high school that Amy and I attended used to host a carnival every year. It was set up in the school’s parking lot, complete with carnies, a couple of generic rides, and games where you could win cheap junk. During my eighth grade year, I visited this carnival with a friend of mine. We wandered around for a little while and then I saw Amy. She was volunteering at one of the student-run booths and almost immediately, I started to sweat because I felt an irresistible urge to talk to her. I needed to look into her eyes for another exchange of words. I needed to see if there would be that tiny spark of recognition, something in her eyes that would tell me that she remembered that conversation at the lockers and it meant something to her too. My friend asked me why this was so important to me, and I couldn’t give him an answer.

However, I needed something to say. I was still in junior high and she was a freshman in high school. We didn't have anything in common. I should have just walked over and said hello, but for whatever reason, I decided that it wouldn't satisfy the need that threatened to eat my brain alive.

After a consulting my friend, I decided on a plan of action: I would pretend to not to remember her name and that would be my excuse. Somehow, this made sense. After pacing in front of her with a confused look, I walked up to her and said “I’m sorry, I know I used to know you but for the life of me, I can’t remember your name.”

“Amy,” she said, quietly, smiling.

“Amy,” I repeated. I snapped my fingers. “Of course. That’s right. Thanks.”

I smiled and walked away"again, wondering how I was ever able to tell this girl that I liked her.

In the following years, when I was a high school student, I’d see Amy once in a while. She was on the dance squad and part of the elite Homecoming Court during her senior year. But I never talked to her again. For awhile, I saw her in the quad holding hands with a tall Asian student and I’d catch myself imagining that he was me.

Even now, I wish I would have said something at the lockers that day, if only because I’m curious about what would have happened next. I’ve often thought that I might be a different person if I said something instead of walking away from her. Think about the tiny, insignificant decisions that you’ve made in the course of your life that had unforeseen consequences. If you hadn’t gone to that party, you would have never met that guy or that girl. If you turned left instead of right…if you’d decided on a different restaurant… if you said something more at that conversation at the lockers…

But if given the choice, I think I’d rather stand in the background and watch these scenes play out. I could absorb all the details that I’ve forgotten in the last 15 years, because it might be that in another 15 years, I’ll start to doubt that any of this ever happened.

© 2010 Colin

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Added on January 2, 2010
Last Updated on January 2, 2010
Tags: youth, junior high, california, 1990, teenagers



Portland, OR