(About an 8 minute read)
As nearly every adult knows, adolescence — whatever else it is — is a time of confusion and heartache. I think our memories of the heartache can stick with us for life. At 61, they are still almost vivid to me.
The confusion is another matter though. It is quite easy enough to recall being confused, but it can be just as difficult to recall precisely how we were confused. Perhaps that’s because our current clarity has simply crowded out our years of confusion.
Chances are, an adult cannot vividly recall what it was like to, as a child, imagine what sex felt like. In much the same way, it seems difficult to recall now precisely how I felt about people back before my current understanding of human and individual natures.
When I was a freshman in high school, there was a woman in my art class who was a year older than me, and who — near as I can recall today — I was attracted to for three reasons. First, she was pretty. Second, she was a good artist. Last, she was friendly.
Not overly friendly, but I was a bit of an outcast, especially with girls and women — and so her moderate friendliness stood out to me. Perhaps I got a noticeable crush on her because one day she decided to introduce me to her younger sister.
“Janet is in your constitution class. She hasn’t noticed you, but I’m going to tell her to introduce herself to you tomorrow. So be sure you go to class.”
As I recall, I forgot all about it. Thus, I was surprised when a beautiful young, petite woman walked up to me before the bell rang, told me who she was, and then took a seat directly in front of mine.
I’m pretty sure I was excited, flattered, intrigued. But I’m even more certain I was confused. What do I do now?
What do I do now? That question can mean different things. Today, in identical circumstances, I would ask it in the spirit of “Do I want to befriend her or not?” — if I bothered to ask the question at all. But back then, I was probably thinking along the lines of what would be the cool thing to do to impress her.
Thus began both the most painful relationship I’ve ever had with anyone, and hands-down, the most bizarre. It would last at least five years — well into my freshman year at university. And it would be characterized not merely by confusion, but by an extraordinary pattern.
The pattern is easily described. From the very start, Janet would run warm, then cold, the warm again. Rinse and repeat. The pattern was compounded by the fact Janet was chronically absent from school. She once said to me, “The only reason I ever go to school is to see you.” But a month could pass without her attending classes.
The physical heartache began the second day after I met her. I did something awkward — I can’t remember what now — and Janet went from warm to cold on me. As soon as I figured out what had happened my chest tightened and all the rest of it. I might even have gotten teary eyed.
The next day, she wasn’t in class, nor the day after that. With each day she was gone, the pain got worse. Nor did the pain stop at the edge of the school yard. It became a constant in my life. It woke up as soon as I thought of her in the morning. And it didn’t go to sleep until I did.
Janet certainly taught me it is possible to suffer intensely for exceptionally prolonged periods. The heartache would be only occasionally remitting over the next five years.
Janet was by small town standards “wild”. She didn’t often go to school. She used marijuana and experimented with other drugs — avoiding only the opiates. She was a 15 year old virgin when I met her, but by 16 she’d been tricked into sex by the local Casanova, who had then promptly dumped her. She was rough spoken, walked slowly, almost arrogantly, and wore extremely revealing clothing — the shortest shorts in the whole county, from what I could see. No bras, of course.
In my experience, women do not always appreciate how horny a teenage boy can get, but sometimes men do not either. You see, there are lower testosterone boys and higher testosterone boys.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a lower testosterone boy, but I do know what it’s like to come dangerously close to testosterone poisoning. I wish testosterone poisoning were a joke, but it is not. It is said to be rare, but it is very real, and the symptoms are all but indistinguishable from schizophrenia.
Looking back now, I believe I was just short of madness. Besides showing a few schizophrenic symptoms, the relevant thing about it in this context is that I could not for the life of me fully see women, other than my mother and aunt, as persons. I had but a blurry focus on their personalities. They had to have some trait writ large for me to notice it. Any trait subtler than a mountain, I missed.
For instance, it took me all of seven years from the day we met to realize Janet saw herself in almost the same terms as a fundamentalist Christian sees him or herself. As a warring mix of good and evil, with sex being on the evil side.
She even once pointed out to me the reason her favorite outfit was a black T-shirt and white shorts: The colors symbolized her “Good and evil sides”. I still didn’t get it.
I romanticized Janet. Into the void created by my lack of insight, I pumped my fantasies of who and what she was. She eventually caught onto me and warned me she wasn’t who I thought she was, but that made no difference. I couldn’t see who she was, so I made her up.
Above all else, my Janet was a rebel. She was alienated from society because of its hypocrisy, etc, etc, etc., and because she had too much personal integrity to compromise with the dogs.
I much later came to learn the truth: Janet desperately wanted to be accepted by society and was an outcast like me mostly due to her social awkwardness, her limited ability to emotionally connect with people, and perhaps for other reasons. In short, very much the opposite of my “noble” image of her.
I inflated both her general intelligence, and her street smarts. I thought she was about as smart as me in general terms, and much smarter than me streetwise. In truth, she was significantly dumber — although not stupid — and only a little smarter than me streetwise. Janet was always getting taken advantage of.
She was much less rational than me. She was, in fact, superstitious, although she didn’t wear it on her sleeve. For instance, she carried around a lucky rabbit’s foot that she felt dangerously vulnerable without.
Her other traits didn’t much concern me. At that time in my life, I thought intelligence was the root of anything good in a person. If they were smart, they’d be kind, and so forth.
Janet had a very strong sense of guilt about sex that I was, of course, oblivious to. A friend had once had sex with her — sex she apparently got well into — only to become alarmed when she cried for a hour afterwards saying she was a evil person for it.
In the summer before university, an event happened that should have thoroughly alienate me from her, but it didn’t.
Janet came to my home looking for me. We went to my bedroom to talk. She revealed she was pregnant, and then she offered me a business deal. She had noticed that no one was selling drugs to the kids in grade school and middle high. She planned to change that. But she needed someone with brains to run things. That would be me, she said.
I failed to take her seriously. She had only been daydreaming and it would pass when she recognized how wrong that would be.
Not taking her seriously, I lost interest in what she was saying, and I decided to make a pass at her. I lifted her up and carried her to my bed. Probably she didn’t protest because she was surprised. I kissed her, pushed her top up and played with her, hoping to get her interested in sex.
It didn’t happen, but at some point I convinced myself she wanted sex anyway, and that I should push her into what she on some deeper level wanted. Janet responded by going red in the face and shouting, “If you rape me, I will hate you forever.”
The word “rape”, combined with the force with which she shouted it, stung me back into reality. To be sure, I didn’t back then have any empathy for what a woman goes through when raped, but I did have empathy for the fear in her, the tangible fear.
I instantly released her. She soon enough afterwards wrapped her arms around me in a crushing hug and began crying, sobbing really.
“I’m so scared, Paul. I’ve never been more scared in my life. Not about me. About my baby. What’s going to happen to him if I can’t support him?”
After that day, she and I became fairly close. I wrote her love letters, and she wrote back. We visited over the school holidays. We assumed we were a couple now. That went on for about a year. When we broke up the following summer, it was over for good.
A few years later my mother told me that the local police had discovered Janet was behind the drugs that were by then being sold to both the grade school and middle school children.
I never thought myself in love with her. Not even from the start. I fully recognized it for what it was — an infatuation. But I didn’t understand back then how to avoid that trap, and trapped I was indeed.
I think if I met Janet today for the first time, I’d quickly conclude I ought not befriend her.