My 22 Crushes
This past summer, I flew home to Michigan for the funeral of a childhood friend. After the memorial, I went for a drink with a few pals I hadn’t seen since high school, including Tanya, whom I’d nursed a fluctuating crush on from about third to 12th grade. As was true with most of my early crushes, revealing my feelings seemed like a hopeless and terrifying prospect, and I was pretty sure that Tanya had never known. But what surprised me was that after 25 years — and my own recent marriage — being around Tanya still produced the same giddy rush.
Later, at my folks’ house, I pulled down an old journal and landed on a page where, at age 13, I’d listed the 22 loves of my life, with a red heart around each one. My crushes sometimes overlapped, but usually one shone brightest, and as weeks or months passed, it would fade as another rose to take its place. Seeing the names again after so long transfixed me. There was Heidi, who rode the same bus as I did every day in junior high. Tara, whom I met at the neighborhood pool. Abby, a cellist. Colleen from gym class. And Allison, who shared my love for the Detroit Tigers.
These crushes had given a shape and rhythm to my days. Knowing that I’d see Jenny in English class provided something to look forward to during the doldrums of home economics. Krista went to a different school, but I knew if I caught just the right bus, I might glimpse her walking home. On those afternoons, I’d pound the window until she lifted her head, and when she saw me, she’d light up and give me a wave, and my heart would lay out cardboard and breakdance in my chest.
I’d sit in the woods writing passionate entries in my journal about Lara, Leah, and Javiera or hide out in my basement bedroom lost in romantic torment, bouncing a baseball off the wall, listening to the radio, and — in my mind — dedicating songs to the girls I pined after as I sang along. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack proved especially potent: “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen, with its upbeat yearning, was my song for Krista. Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind,” doomed and aching, was Sarah’s anthem.
The value of these crushes was the crush itself, since it was its own closed-loop experience and almost never led to anything. My hazy goals were to woo one of these girls, become boyfriend-girlfriend, hang out, hold hands, and maybe even kiss — in short, to love her and be loved by her. But my strategies to get there were fogged and misguided. Many of the girls barely knew I existed; some I’d never spoken a word to. If they talked to me, it was usually to ask about my best friend, Mike, a “mysterious dreamboat,” as one girl described him. Their interest in him stung like a pinprick but never felt agonizing. Helping these girls connect with Mike made me feel like Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca: tough-hearted and noble.
Other friends got sick of my constant mooning. One night, on a seventh-grade sleepover, I was goaded into cold-calling Colleen, my crush at the time. I’d never spoken to her. I phoned, dizzy and breathless. “This is Davy,” I said. “From gym class.” A vast expanse of silence opened up. Galaxies died, and new ones were born. At last, I asked her, “Will you be my girlfriend?”
She laughed, but it was a kind laugh. “I don’t even know who you are!” she said. We talked for a few more minutes, and in a moment when she could have made me feel pathetic, she chose to be generous, a kindness that only tripled my affections, though we never talked again.
Some of my crushes were on friends and acquaintances, and occasionally I concocted schemes to ask them out. Abby, the cellist, sat next to me in the middle school orchestra. She was cute and smart; her favorite T-shirt said, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.” My plan was to wait until the orchestra concert at the end of the year, and after we played our final notes, as the audience bathed us in applause, turn to her and say the magic words: “Will you go out with me?” The adrenaline high of the moment, I figured, would play to my favor. But when the moment came, months of mental prep didn’t stop me from freezing up. The concert ended, Abby turned to me with a smile, and I found myself speechless. It was the Super Bowl, and I’d fumbled on the goal line as time expired. As the audience cheered and we stood for a bow, I hung my head low, shameful and defeated.
Soon, a girl named Jasmine started passing me notes. We met at the baseball diamond in a nearby schoolyard and ended the night with a kiss. My mind was blown — at 12, it was my first kiss — but I felt troubled by the absence of something deeper. We had nothing in common and not much to talk about. When Jasmine bolted for Mike a couple of weeks later, I was sad but not shipwrecked.
In ninth grade, around the time I listed all 22 of my loves, two of my longtime crushes ended up in the hospital. Krista had been swimming when a speedboat ran her down. She realized the pilot didn’t see her and dived underwater, but the motor chewed up her legs. Melissa, who’d been in plays with Krista and me, had been diagnosed with leukemia. They’d been assigned to the same room, a curtain hanging between them. I began to visit once a week after school. I’d pull up a chair and work on a jigsaw puzzle with Melissa for hours. If Melissa was sleeping, I’d sit with Krista, recounting the plots of movies, like Labyrinth and The In-Laws, or telling her stories about my parents, trying to get her to laugh.
Although Krista’s condition was much more frightening at the beginning — she went through dozens of skin grafts and surgeries — she was slowly recovering. Melissa started out buoyant but only got worse. One night, after chemo had shaken out all of Melissa’s hair, we talked as Krista slept. Melissa asked if I’d go with her to a school dance in the spring. I’d never been to a dance with anyone. I told her I’d love to be her date. After a few months, Krista was able to walk again, with crutches, and she left the hospital. Melissa and I never made it to the dance together. She died the week before.
THIRTY YEARS have passed since that journal entry. I’ve settled down — those crushes are long behind me — but as a way, perhaps, of saying farewell to that perpetually pining teenage version of myself, I had the idea to reach out to some of them.
Of the girls I’d listed, half were untraceable online. I knew so little about some, even at the time, that I had few clues to help me track them down. A handful, though, are still in my life, however vaguely — through Facebook mostly — even if I haven’t seen them in decades. It felt both peculiar and familiar to message them and confess to a crush from middle school or high school. They all responded right away.
I FaceTimed with Hava as she beat around her kitchen, making dinner for her husband and son. In our freshman year of high school, Hava and I were in an arts program, where we drew and painted and collaged and essentially were babysat by students a couple of years ahead of us until our parents got off work. Hava laughed as I told her about my ninth-grade crush. “I had no idea,” she said. “But if anyone had a crush on me, I would never have known. I was too wrapped up in my own shit.” Hava told me her childhood in a claustrophobic Jewish community meant that all she wanted was to meet a nice gentile. She had major crushes on Bo and Luke Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard — good-looking, bad-boy goys with chivalrous hearts. But when she dated the most similar guy she could find, he turned out to be a real dick.
Hava, now a community college instructor, talked about the platonic, aspirational crushes she’d had on the juniors and seniors who oversaw the arts program — slightly older, creatively vibrant kids who skateboarded to school, started zines, and painted murals underneath bridges. “My most important crushes weren’t always romantic crushes,” Hava said. “I didn’t want to be with them. I just wanted to be them. Crushes at that age — they’re not about being with someone. They’re more about feeling out who it is you want to be.”
The woman I was most curious to talk to — and had wondered about the most over the years — was Tara. She lived in a ramshackle apartment complex across the highway from me, and I met her the summer after I turned 12, when we both joined the local public swimming pool’s ragtag diving team. I’d never been an early riser, so my mom suspected something was up when I started setting an alarm for 6:30 a.m. for diving practice and tearing off on my bike, wearing only a sweatshirt and a green Speedo. Unlike every crush I’d ever had, this one turned out to be mutual. Tara and I had intense conversations; we made each other laugh. More than anything, we just liked to be around each other — it was the 12-year-old version of falling in love. Late one night, hanging out at the pool past closing time, we decided that we were officially a couple. There was no ceremonial kiss — we were still working our way up to that — but I was the happiest I’d ever been.
Soon after, I left town with my mom and my brothers for a five-week camping trip out west. From the Badlands in South Dakota to the Oregon coast, I sent Tara postcards, sharing stories of the natural wonders I had seen and the people I’d met. The trip felt all the more magical knowing that an epic romance was waiting for me back in Michigan. But when I got home, Tara had vanished. Her phone was disconnected; her apartment, dark and barren. I was bereft. Nobody at the pool had any ideas to offer; they just said that Tara and her family had been there one day and were gone the next. Finally, a few years ago, she and I connected again through Facebook, but we never talked about our preteen courtship.
So as we Skyped recently, I found myself looking at Tara for the first time in 30 years. She sat in the lobby of an Oakland hotel, on break from a conference about affordable housing — she’s a policy analyst living in the Midwest. Time collapsed on itself. She looked the same, the grown-up version of the girl I’d loved. There was no childhood crush to confess, since she’d known my feelings at the time. But still, I had plenty of questions.
Had she received those postcards I’d sent her from the road? “Yes!” she said. “I loved those!” She remembered sitting at the kitchen table with her mom and sister, dissecting every word. The emotions I’d expressed had escalated as my trip went on, she remembered. There was one with a picture of a mountain sunrise that said “I miss you” and nothing else. Her mom had noticed that at some point I’d begun to sign the postcards “Love, Davy.” “It wasn’t ‘I love you,’ ” Tara said, “but no one had ever written the word love to me.” As a kid, she told me, she liked to write letters to her grandparents. “I felt grown-up doing it. So to receive letters and postcards from somebody — a boy I liked — that was an incredible feeling.”
Tara explained why she had disappeared. That summer, her mom, a nurse raising her kids alone, sometimes having to rely on food stamps, had fallen in love with a doctor and moved across town with Tara and her sister. Soon after, the four of them left for Minneapolis. For Tara, it felt like an impossibly long distance for salvaging a romance.
Tara is married now, and she’s got two kids who are almost the same age we were when we found each other. Still, it was thrilling to hear her say, “You know what? If my family hadn’t moved to another state, I bet you and I would be married right now.” That may or may not be true, but to imagine that in our romantic infancies, full of misfiring, misdirected obsessions, the two of us actually identified what was special in each other is a nourishing thought. Rediscovering our friendship was like digging up treasure I’d buried in the woods as a kid.
In their own way, all my crushes were precious, despite the misery and humiliation they often brought. “Crushes are just so delicious,” Tara told me as our conversation wound down. “A bowl of ice cream, getting drunk, having an orgasm — those are great, but nothing releases the same set of endorphins and hits your pleasure centers quite like a teenage crush. Each one is its own particular joy. The what-if. The what-could-be.”