Future, Present, Past
by Katherine Huff
My family lives in a complex called Balmoral Park, a name that belies its humble appearance. The bougainvillea grows wild where we live, and the air is redolent with oleanders and the heavy stillness of periodic tropical rain that comes without warning. Every day I feel like I’m swimming in my own bodily fog.
There’s a pool in the complex we live in, and one day while my mom and I are poolside with some other kids and their moms, I take a running leap and dive in to the deep end. The water envelopes me and I keep go down and down and down like the proverbial stone. I’ve begun to learn to swim, but I usually go in with my inflatable arm floaties on, and I’m not wearing them now. Panicked, my mom dives in to the pool after me, fully clothed. I emerge from the incident unscathed.
I am friends with a boy named Duncan, the child of expats just like mine. I think Duncan is golden; blonde hair that falls in his face, and the ability to do anything. He can wrap his whole mouth around sandwiches; I’m still picking them apart and eating them piecemeal.
I utilize a large brown wicker basket lined with white cloth for storing my stuffed animals. On the day of my birthday party, I take Eric—a cloth doll wearing a blue jumper and cap—Naughty Doll—with her twisted, knotty limbs—and all my other toys out of the basket and dump them unceremoniously on the floor. Duncan and I get in the basket and begin to play. He approaches me, and I dive in: I reach down and grab his face with the fleshy, soft hands of a two year old, and kiss him on the lips, long and hard. For the rest of the party, I am in a daze, envisioning a crystallized future state of happiness in which Duncan and I are in love.
My mom takes a photo of this moment, now preserved in an album at their house in Pennsylvania. The caption reads, “a marriage proposal???”
Throughout my childhood, I will often hear of the type of man my mom hopes I will marry someday—someone, she says, who is as sensitive as I am, who will sit with me for hours on a park bench. As all children do, I internalize these messages.
In the neighborhood where Henry Ward Beecher once lived, my childhood friend Rob and I live in a ramshackle canary-yellow three-story building. Third floor. Rob is here for medical school, I’m here for the glimmering hope of a job in publishing. Now past its sesqucentennial, the building hasn’t fared well; it hasn’t been renovated in decades, and the staircase is falling off the wall, shaking every time my 6’2, 180-pound roommate walks up and down stairs. Lying in bed at night, I listen to the house creak on its ancient joints, imagining I hear a rusty metal sign swinging in the wind.
This year I’m fixated on Matt, a friend of Rob’s. I like that Matt is acerbic and sarcastic. But I always become shy and mute in the exact moments I don’t want to be; every carefully curated thought turns to garbage-day junk when I have a chance to speak it out loud.
When I communicate with Matt online, however, I become the person I want to be in person: funny, outgoing, friendly. I ask him out on dates, which he declines. He likes me, I think, but he wants to respect my space. I fantasize about what it would be like to be in a relationship with this man—constructing an idealized picture in my head.
One evening when Robb is out, I log into his computer and read his instant messages to and from Matt. Something they said catches my eye; they’d been mocking me. Anger begins to percolate.
I message Matt using Rob’s IM handle. “Why did you say those things about me?” I ask.
“What the hell makes you think that you can break into someone’s computer? That’s private stuff,” he says.
“Why are you being so mean to me? What have I ever done to you?” I ask, but never get a response. So I send him another message. Again, he doesn’t answer, and I get angrier and angrier.
I confront Rob when he comes home. We sit together, me drinking wine mixed with tears, as he tries to explain how he feels about my snooping on a private conversation. I keep focusing on the things they said, too absorbed in myself to see Rob and Matt’s point of view.
I send an e-mail to Matt, sharing how I feel about him. Within hours, I receive a long response from him, over 2000 words, in which he tells me about something in his personal history that’s left a lot of scars. My timing is bad, and I’ve grossly misjudged his opinion towards me. Matt t tells me I’m quiet and hard to figure out, and that my declaration comes out of the blue to him considering I barely speak to him when we sometimes hang out together. That’s news to me; I think my feelings are written plainly on my face for everyone to see.
I don’t save the message he sends me, but a phrase at the end of it is seared into my brain—“Please don’t contact me ever again. I know you’ll want to, but I won’t reply.” His no feels like a personal blow that sends me into a depression that lasts for months.
Honesty is a highly prized gift, rarely given, and therefore more valuable when it is.
Rejection teaches us humility and empathy, among many other things.
Dave is a coworker, six or seven years younger than I am, and beautiful, the planes of his face as broad and flat as the plains of Willa Cather’s Nebraska. I’d written him off as a frat-boy jock, but when he starts talking to me about a book he’s reading, I’m hooked.
This is how it always begins, with wide-eyed, quiet watching in a corner, and compulsive thought patterns and fantasy. It’s happened a dozen times before, and I don’t want it to happen again. Obsession translates as passion in other areas of my life, but obsession about another person, especially someone who doesn’t reciprocate my feelings, is dangerous and invasive. This I know, but I keep falling anyways, desperate for a connection with someone who will understand all the misfit parts of me.
Although I know I should be realistic, though, it’s easy to dream. I want to believe that Dave is interested in me, too, but is too shy to approach me. Every time he stands near me, I feel as though I have knives in my stomach; every time he sits next to me at lunchtime, I hold my breath. He holds doors for me, and says hello when we pass in the hallway and ride in the elevator together. I could go back to my old ways and ask Dave out, I thought. But I’m tired of being the woman who pursues men too hard. I don’t want to keep on making mistakes about other people due to lack of information and poor judgment due to having Asperger’s syndrome that wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my late 20s. Instead, I want to feel as though I’m desired and desirable in the way I desire. I want someone to see me instead of look through me. Unreciprocated love is self-centered, I realize; real love, mutual love, is a giving, freeing thing.
On Dave’s last day of work, he stops by my office and shakes my hand. Then he walks down the hallway, hugging other coworkers before he leaves. I’ve never been good at reading body language, but his message pounds in my ears as loudly as if it had been said out loud.
The old disappointment, familiar as a character from one of my favorite novels, returns. When I get home, I go for a run. Running had become a balancing mechanism for me, reducing stress and anxiety, creating emotional equilibrium, and contributing to my becoming a much healthier person. It keeps at bay the depression meltdowns that used to occur when a romantic situation didn’t work out the way I imagined. When I have my earphones in, with my feet beating a steady, predictable tattoo on the pavement, the constant treadmill in my mind slows and even stops, and I can think clearly once again.
Today I Google “how to know if a man likes you.” The first page of results contains articles from various teen magazines. I am thirty-two years old.
Katherine Huff is a medical editor and writer living in Philadelphia.