Seated in the shade of a lone tree on a mountain meadow, I watch as dozens of dragonflies dot the landscape. Their miniscule forms put into perspective the tall, dry grasses and distant green ridgelines disappearing into blue. I am patiently resting while blissfully letting my hot, sweaty head ease its pulsing, paying close attention to the coolness of perspiration.
I wish I’d had this calm sense of objectivity and waiting instilled in me when I was younger. In particular with romantic opportunities. I’ve been looking back at my dating past lately, curious about what I did then and how it relates to me now. I am in wonder at my full immersion into anxiety at those times.
The first time I was asked out, I was 19 years old. A spinster, according to the Jane Austen stories I loved. I was a senior in college, two significant years behind my classmates in age and experience. I’d never held a boy’s hand and had only once talked with a guy, as in an actual, full-length conversation, when I was 16.
Yet one kind soul reached out, sharing his interest in me with a hand-written and illustrated note that he left in my art studio locker after graduation. After a few moments of adoration for this sweet gesture – the perfect way for an introvert-to-introvert communication – anxiety started brewing. A door closed around the corner. Pin prickles of fear from an immediate adrenaline rush coursed through my arms. I fled out of the building, afraid he would walk down the deserted hallway at any moment.
I wasn’t interested in him romantically, and I did not want to have to say so.
I knew what it was like to have a crush on someone and have the feelings left unreturned. I did not want to cause someone that pain, nor did I want to agree to a date. And, I couldn’t ignore him. That would be a terrible way to repay his lovely note.
My internal torment culminated in laying prone and immobile in the foyer at home, where I lived with my parents and little sister. I could stay right here the whole summer, I thought to myself. That sounds nice. The light looks pretty on the wall, and the carpet is comfortable.
I wish I could reach back to that moment and take my younger self up in a hug. Don’t stress, love. You’re sweet; just be honest and kind. Do what feels right for you and things will flow from there as they will.
I decided I wanted to try meeting him. I wanted to push myself to treat this as not a big deal. I wrote him and said thank you for his note. I would be happy to get together but it would be as friends.
I don’t want to read that email. It was probably very formal. Not so much raw honesty as strict groundwork for boundaries so I’d feel comfortable moving forward. I wanted to grow and push myself to build social skills, to move forward with my developmental goals. I wince now. That last line might even have been in the email.
He agreed to my terms and so we met. I arrived thirty minutes early to the cafe, got my drink, and picked our seats. My pulse was racing. I was sweating and hoped my shirt wouldn’t show wet armpits, or, worse, that my shorts would show leg sweat, which I could feel pooling in my seat. This is just a friendly get together, I repeated to myself, No need to be nervous. It’s just hot in here.
I went to the bathroom to double check the status of my leg and armpit sweat. I was soothed. It wasn’t visibly noticeable.
When he arrived, his off-kilter smile seemed kind and self-deprecating. It put me at ease.
He was nice. I don’t remember what we chatted about. I was jittery from the caffeine and remained nervous for much of our hang out. But I think we smiled a fair bit and shared thoughts and stories. I remember thinking I had relaxed, but after we said goodbye and I walked around the neighborhood, enjoying the quiet and the setting sun, I felt my body – heart rate, breathing, thinking – return to normal.
I did it!
I picked our next meeting place: Barnes and Noble to read magazines. I liked when I would go there with my family; it was a fun evening hangout. I got the impression my friend date didn’t enjoy himself as much. Or, at least that’s what I told myself.
We said goodbye in the parking lot, and by the time I got back to my car, I felt sure we weren’t a good fit as friends. I felt relief.
He invited me to get together again, at his art studio. What if we’re the only two there? I quashed my rising panic, thinking of the small, deserted basement studios at school. I said I’d let him know when I was free but that I was busy at the moment.
I avoided getting back to him. One day, weeks later, I was stopped at a red light and I sat facing the art building. I pictured him inside, alone and hurt by me. Then I pictured myself there with him and immediately feared him making a move to kiss me. Physical fear, from a picture in my head. The light turned green, I gripped my steering wheel.
I don’t want to deal with this.
I didn’t write him back.
Eight years later I met him again, at a gallery show opening. My heart rate pummeled my chest when I first saw him. But, I breathed. I have a boyfriend now. I know how to talk to people. I hated knowing though that there was an unspoken past. That I’d been so awkward and rude to him before.
Face to face, standing in a crowd of people amongst the hum of an art reception, our chit chat was friendly. Nothing was mentioned of the missed third get together. I was shaking when I said goodbye to him, but I was also relieved to have a semblance of closure.
The sense of time and space separating my present self from my past selves makes me think I would do it differently if I knew then what I know now. I’d talk to the people I had crushes on, ask them out even. Likely, I would have been rejected, but I could have done my living that way. Not by closing myself off and processing emotions solo. By avoiding people because being alone felt safer.
And yet, I’m realizing that I’m not so different now.
I’m in a committed relationship, seven years steady. It takes work, but we’re good at letting each other know when potentially troublesome issues arise so we can clear the air before it becomes a bigger problem. It’s hard but necessary to be honest.
I still ruminate, though, and hide in my head for too long sometimes. If I let a matter sit for a few days, it becomes extra difficult to start talking about it, and I end up feeling like I’m miles away from where we both are in reality.
In the days leading up to the hike that took me to this meadow, I have been locked in a Ferris wheel of high and low emotions about a particular issue. Even though my boyfriend and I have been discussing it, it will simply take time to work through. While patience is one of my favorite tools in the toolbox, I am inconsistent lately in my ability to stay even-keeled for very long.
How funny that my future self might look back at this time in my romantic history and give me the same advice I wanted to give my 19-year-old self: Don’t worry so much. Be in your body; be honest and kind to yourself and others. Enjoy living. Life is an adventure of constant learning.
On the walk uphill today, I was worrying about getting too hot during the climb and of going too slow for my friend I’m walking with. But both of us were quietly determined to get to this writing spot.
Then, any tension I had from earlier dissipated after sitting down and seeing the view. I am always grateful to mountains and nature to bring me back into myself.
At this, I feel put in my place.
Overhead, hummingbirds are buzzing intermittently amongst the tree branches. The shade is shifting, and the grass is starting to make my legs itch. The view remains spectacular. The space between the distant vista and what’s inside my head, now on this page, feels open and good. I breathe and am still.