If I could go back to talk to my younger self, I’d give her one important message: Stop beating yourself up for your feelings.
As much as I’ve always craved the intensity of crushes, I hated the way they made me feel powerless. Stupid. Broken. They were always the wrong people—too old, too young, obviously gay, or otherwise unavailable. Or they were at the wrong times—say, when I was already in a relationship.
Getting swimmy-headed over Mr. X convinced me that there was something wrong with me. How else could I explain such intense feelings for a man who wasn’t my boyfriend? Maybe, I thought, I was just scared. Maybe buying a house with someone had spooked me, and I was trying to mentally escape commitment. I tried to write my crush off this way, and when I couldn’t, I got angrier and angrier at myself. I ended things with my boyfriend because I knew something was missing, but I hated myself for it.
At my friends’ urging I eventually called Mr. X, and before he left for Iceland we had an awkward lunch date that left me sobbing. Was he interested? Had I made myself look foolish? Why did I ever bother pursuing him when I’d already had a loving partner? I was deeply flawed, I told myself, an incorrigible whore, and I was sure that the universe would punish me for my whoredom. I’d end up alone–and I deserved to.
A friend told me not to despair; she was sure I’d hear from Mr. X while he was in Iceland. But if I didn’t, she said, maybe it didn’t matter. What she meant was this: I didn’t have to have a relationship with Mr. X in order for him to have fulfilled a purpose in my life. Already, he had showed me what intense passion felt like and had spurred me into leaving a relationship devoid of that passion.
I never heard from Mr. X while he was in Iceland, and in the meantime, I started dating another man. Everything had moved very quickly with my new boyfriend. He’d asked me to go on a summer trip to Italy with him. While it seemed as though he imagined a future for us, I soon found myself wishing he’d be more intimate with me—look me in the eyes, kiss me more, tell me that he loved me. I didn’t ask for intimacy and directness for Mr. Italy because I didn’t know how, and honestly, because I didn’t think I had a right to it. My mindset was as such: By some stroke of luck this semi-normal man has fallen out of the sky. For God’s sake, don’t ask any questions, and don’t fuck this up. By the time we got back from our trip abroad, I’d lost track of how many times I’d choked back the impulse to tell Mr. Italy that I loved him. To complicate matters, summer camp was about to begin, which meant I’d soon be seeing Mr. X again.
Thinking that Mr. X might know what I’d felt for him the previous summer made me blush with shame. I tried to prepare myself for our inevitably embarrassing encounter by writing a list of instructions:
- Act perfectly mentally balanced. Affect a lightness in your step.
- Make eye contact sparingly and avoid all physical contact, even in tag.
- Look beautiful, but use a lipstick that makes it look like you’re not wearing lipstick, so he doesn’t think you went to the trouble of putting lipstick on.
Mr. X still had the insolence to smell good, and although I set my jaw firm, passing by him still made me all at once warm and dizzy and nervous and full of sweet, aching longing. I fantasized alternately about fucking him and kicking him very hard in the head. One of the junior counselors obviously had a crush on him and would make displays of hitting and kicking him, whereupon he would defend himself in kind, wrestling her to the ground and restraining her. Because we were often at the pool, he was usually shirtless throughout these spectacles. I sat on the sidelines gritting my teeth. This impudent 14-year-old was a mere amateur who could never hope to rise to my level of crushdom. There was no way she possessed the devotion or the fortitude to scoop out the heart of a Norsewoman with a spoon. I fantasized about challenging her to, as Mark Twain called it, a “spelling fight.” I would spell that bitch under the table!
I didn’t want to care that Mr. X flirted with young, pretty girls. My feelings for him were maddening me. A few nights before the end of camp we all went out for happy hour and promised to bring our significant others. I’d planned to go there and show Mr. X how happy I was with Mr. Italy and what a dumbass he was for ignoring me. Outwardly, maybe I was successful, but inside, quite another thing was happening. As we were there in the bar, among friends and strangers and even in the presence of a man I loved, for me, Mr. X was the only person in the room.
We parted that summer without my ever telling Mr. X the extent of my feelings for him. And maybe, again, it didn’t matter. Within a few months I realized that Mr. Italy and I weren’t in love the way we should have been. A crush—although it can make you feel really, really stupid—is never stupid. It’s how your subconscious lets you know you need something you’re not getting. It doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful, or—especially—broken.
And so, I’d tell my younger self: Embrace a crush, in all its intensity and apparent stupidity. Submit to love, even as it flouts reason. Give up fear. Stop kicking and thrashing and just float, trusting that wherever you end up is exactly the right place.