We were standing in a circle next to the concrete bleachers listening to M’s Marvel theories. By the time I saw the alarm in his eyes, it was already too late. My glasses flew off my face and a mix of surprised gasps and nervous laughs erupted around me. Someone yelled sorry! from across the court.
“Every time!” I jokingly complained, trying to get my bearings in a world of indistinguishable blobs floating in the red and blue fog of school uniforms.
“Here,” said M, handing me my somehow-intact glasses and pulling me into a side hug. “Are you alright?”
He proceeded to examine me like a real-life Baymax, making sure I wasn’t just pretending to be okay to avoid attention. I laughed as he spun me around to make sure I didn’t have a target on my back and rolled my eyes when he concluded that maybe only athletic people can see it. It was part of our bit: him the class clown, me the annoyed participant in his performances. He once told me sarcasm was my love language. I think he was right.
Just then, F came over.
It was difficult to speak to him without feeling watched. He had already been at our school for a year, but the blond-hair-blue-eyes combination still turned heads. A high position in the social circle had turned many people into certified jerks, but F was always too nice to let the attention go to his head.
“Are you okay?” he asked, sounding genuinely concerned. “The boys think they are Neymar or something.”
I was blushing. I knew why he had bothered to cross the entire court to explain the situation. So did M, and so did all of my other friends who were close by, looking at me with mischievous grins.
“I’m fine.” I assured him, looking up into the blinding halo of sun around his face, trying to sound casual. “Promise.”
He smiled, lingering only long enough for chaos to ensue: “The hair looks nice, by the way.”
M doubles over in laughter, inspiring a cacophony of the established “I just witnessed flirtation” noises that never seem to change. I stared at my white Converse, staging an Oscar-worthy performance of “bored teenage girl” to convince everybody–but mostly myself–that it was just an ordinary interaction. “Look how dirty they are!” I said to no one in particular.
N called me over to sit beside her in the bleachers, saving me from any more pathetic acting attempts. She was lying down, using a backpack as a pillow.
N was a newer friend. All of them were. Before entering high school, I was part of a very close-knit group of girl friends who had all decided to change schools. It would have been fine if our friendship hadn’t been so much like a secret society. I assumed that was normal until they left, and then I was alone with no idea how to talk to people, thinking that, just like my group, no one wanted to bring more friends to their tables.
But N reached out, tearing down my barriers with her warm and motherly personality. So, when she asked me what was going on between me and F, I didn't change the subject.
“Honestly? Nothing. I just know he likes me.”
She squeezes her eyes shut between little bursts of laughter.
“Well, we all know that, but I thought you guys had hooked up at the party last night.”
I furrowed my brows. If it were anyone else I would move away from the subject, but N was never judgmental or distant. So when I asked “Who told you that?” there was nothing accusatory about my tone.
“No one. We just saw you two going to a more private place together and assumed.” She took a sip from a blue water bottle. “I was just curious, not a big deal.”
The party came back to my mind in flashes. The taste of soda, the wind on the balcony and precarious neon lights, but also the rapid succession of intense feelings: from unbothered happiness, to unsettling anxiety and heartwarming melancholy.
“No, we just talked. That’s how I know he likes me,” I began and proceeded to relate my version of the previous night as P.E. class faded from our minds.
It was a Halloween party, or the Brazilian version of one. There would be no trick-or-treating, but it was an excuse for us to put on costumes. I was dressed as Winnie the Pooh—mustard shorts, a red top, and the tip of my nose colored with black eyeliner. The biggest hits of that year had already been played, I’d had three cups of soda (I was feeling wild), and I was walking around trying to find more pizza when F asked if we could talk. I felt my insides shake, as if I had jump-started my anxiety.
I followed him to the balcony like the character that decides going alone to a cabin in the woods is a good idea. The possibility of what was about to happen, the question I would have to answer, the vulnerability I would witness: that was my horror movie.
It was strange, observing the party from the outside; only hearing the strongest beats of a song and the loudest voices. A persistent breeze kept brushing against my legs and even though I was cold, my hands were sweating. It felt like being trapped inside a snow globe, suffocating on the inevitability of coldness. I think I asked if he thought it was going to rain the next day and he had to call my name a couple of times before I was brave enough to face him.
He was disarmingly red, fidgeting with his hands. I hated that he had to see fear in my eyes as he prepared to open up to me.
“I really like you.” He paused, and I felt nauseous. “I think you are amazing. Do you think there is any chance we could be a thing?”
He had given me too much to hold. I was flattered and panicked, feeling the weight on my response grow by the second as my mind played an opposite game: “It is so nice that he told you in person instead of text, but you shouldn’t date someone just because they did the bare minimum. But remember that art project you did together when you couldn’t fold the fabric because you were crying-laughing? But if you date him you wouldn’t be able to spend every Saturday watching Gilmore Girls. He wouldn’t complain about your quirks, though, he would like them. But do you even truly like him?” I was running out of time. The demon was almost done possessing me.
“Thanks. Really. You are amazing, I just don’t think I am ready to date yet. Does that make any sense?”
And just like that my brain went from utter chaos to complete emptiness. I don’t even particularly remember saying those words, and they must have left my body in an adrenaline rush, the survival instinct that kicks in at the last minute. He placed his hands in his pockets and looked up to the sky. I wasn’t breathing.
“Yeah. I understand.”
We stayed in silence for a while, listening to the cars on the street below. I didn’t want to take it back. I was sure I had done the right thing. Yet I felt horrible: frightened and bone-tired. I knew it didn’t have to do with F, that it could be any boy standing in front of me and I would feel the same. Because I was scared. I was scared of losing myself to love somebody else.
Relationships are made of compromises, and I was afraid I might compromise and compromise until I ran out of things to give. I was scared of pain and heartbreak, of ignoring red flags for the sake of making someone I like happy. I didn’t feel strong enough to set boundaries, didn’t trust myself to carve a way out for myself if needed. I was scared because relationships can go really well and—from what I have read—be magical and fulfilling, but they can also be the subject of horror movies and sneak up on you at Halloween parties. Vulnerability felt like a weakness, like giving people weapons to point at you when you don’t seem endearing anymore. It was such a deep-rooted fear that I refused to admit how much I craved to feel loved. I created an entire reputation based on the fact that for me, relationships and attraction would forever come second. As early as six years-old, watching High School Musical 3 in the cinema, the other girls screamed at a perfect, sweaty Troy Bolton, and I stared at my popcorn, pretending to be unbothered while all I wanted to do was scream too.
“If you ever feel ready, though, can I be the first in line?”
His voice pulled me out from the haunted basement into sunlight. I laughed despite the little tears that I didn’t let him see, and said yes. We both knew that it wasn’t a promise, but we had found our way out of the woods; and while we didn’t reach the clearing holding hands, that moment had bound us together instead of causing us to drift apart. No other sentence has ever made me feel so grateful.
Right then, P came over carrying a napkin and a pizza slice. “I knew you were dying for one of these,” she says, and took me back inside.
I told N all of it, including my internal monologues. I didn’t hold back.
“That was really cute,” she said finally, a supportive grin on her lips. I nodded.
N sat closer to me. She didn’t go for the therapist route of trying to get to the bottom of my feelings. She just told me I shouldn’t feel pressured to do anything I wasn’t ready for yet, validating my fears instead of saying I should just rip off the bandaid.
We sat like that for a while, me resting my head on her shoulder as she drew circles with her thumb on my hand. The sky turned purple and she asked what Gilmore Girls was about.
Soon, P.E. class was over. M came running over to see if we wanted to walk home together. “Maybe you should start hearing a helmet to P.E.,” M started again, and as we talked, I felt strangely at ease in my skin.
A lot has changed since then. The difference between 16 and 19 seems like a small pond until you reach the other shore and realise you have swum an ocean. Some fears are still here, but most of them have been transformed into healthy apprehensions. I don’t regret spending some time in high school away from the dating scene. When my girl friends transferred schools, I was paralysed by the fear that I didn’t know who to be in their absence. We are still the best of friends, but I needed some distance—maybe all of us did—to figure out who I really am.
I know I was scared of relationships long before I met my girl friends, but after a tempest of change and self-doubt, I didn’t trust myself to make decisions, to open up and face the possibility of getting hurt. It took many conversations on the bleachers for me to feel confident in my ability to navigate the world—alone or accompanied—and see relationships in a different light. Now, having a boy confess that he likes me at a Halloween party is not so scary. In fact, it sounds really nice, just like walking home with my friends, allowing myself to be loved and vulnerable without the fear of losing myself in the process. Except if we come across any pigeons. Pigeons are really scary.