How? How can you walk away? Don’t you know that I would shout in the face of God for you?
It was a black night and the bus went grinding up the hill. We sat close, quiet, nervous. Our hands touched. I don’t remember if I wrapped my fingers around hers, for a moment, but there was an electric charge from her skin. My chest ached with joy. We had been to a movie –“Foul Play”, the perfect date movie: laughs, dwarves, gunplay, a cute couple in love (Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn), an albino assassin and a hopeful romantic song, “Ready to Take a Chance Again.”
Even then, all those years ago, it was the song which filled me. With all the world-weariness and romance of any 18 year old, every line felt like my own:
You remind me, I live in a shell / Safe from the past and doing okay, but not very well
Not jolts, no surprises / No crisis arises, my life goes along as it should… it’s all very nice, but not very good
And….I’m…ready to take a chance again, ready to put my love on the line for you
Been livin’ with nothing to show for it / You get what you get when you go for it
And I’m ready to take a chance again, ready to take a chance again, with you.
Now I will admit that it was utterly uncool for an 18 year old guy to like anything from Barry Manilow. It is probably still uncool for a much older guy to say it. Such sentiments had to be kept very quiet (“Mandy” still gets to me, I will confess now that I am free from high school peer pressure). But tonight, on the long bus ride up from downtown to the street where she lived, “Ready to Take a Chance Again” became my anthem. I was in love with this girl – this marvellous, unlikely girl – and I was ready to take a chance.
She was “marvellous” because she was just that: brilliant. Witty. A little cunning, in an appealing way. Not glamorous. Bookish and wise. Fiercely loyal to her friends, whose star power overshadowed her. Living a little in the audience, watching life, afraid to be hurt. Sure of what she knew, unsure of herself. And she was “unlikely” because, for all her brio and seeming sophistication, she was young. Younger than me, anyway. We always think that matters.
We had worked together after school for months, had recently become friends, and I had come to see her for who she was: important. Every word that came out of her was important to me. Every small thing seemed to weigh the world. Her theories and hopes, opinions and ideas; her dreams of travel, her kindness. There were sexier girls and sportier girls, girls who played guitar and smoked and made out in the rec room; girls who went out dancing with their friends and lured in college guys. Girls who seemed taller and sleeker than everyone else.
And then there was this girl, who was so many wonderful things and so imperfect, but really only one thing: important. She was a compass pointing true north.
Ten thousand poets or more have struggled with the endless and eternal question, “what is love?” When I look back on that dark night, so long and far away and now alive only in my memory, that night I held the answer, fleetingly, in my hand. We don’t love the people who are right for us. We don’t love people because they are beautiful or strong or good. We don’t love them because they are who we crave or lust for.
We love them because they are important. We know in our bones, in our flesh, in our eyes, we know in our skin and in our breath, when we see them: this person matters. We can learn it over time, or in a moment – a word, a smile, a flick of her hair across her forehead, the gravity of a silence. And this girl – foolish and silly and smart and wilful and in some way, achingly lonesome – this girl, whom I had barely come to know in a few months – this girl, I loved.
“How can you be in love with her?” my friend scoffed. “You don’t even know her.”
“That’s how I know it’s love” I said. What a wise fool I was.
Love is not a decision. Love is knowing.
We had been to the movies and enjoyed it and gone to the bus laughing about it and climbed aboard and now sat, pushed up against each other. My teeth chattered, not with the cold but with nerves. I had touched her hand. I wanted to kiss her. But what I really wanted was to hold her hand, walk her home and stopping on the corner of her street, put my arms around her and hold her next to me, with her head on my shoulder, for just for a moment. And then say goodnight.
She pulled the cord. The bus slowed. I was happy, and I was scared, and I was ready. And the bus came to a halt.
And she got off the bus. She pushed around me, said goodnight, slipping like a ghost off the back step, out into the suburban dark. I sat there, stunned and silent, while my moment disappeared. Or more accurately, my illusion. What I felt, in my gut, was that she had run away. I was too much. Too keen. Too romantic. Too old. Too clumsy. Too something.
And the next day I didn’t call her. And the next day I didn’t either. But then I saw her – at work, of course – and she was her usual amiable, sunny, friendly self. And it was clear in her hello and in her “see you” that she was most certainly not, “ready to take a chance again.” Not even a first chance. Not with me anyway.
I never asked her out again. To have asked would have made her choose. I couldn’t do that to her – I didn’t want her to be uncomfortable. After all, we worked together, we had friends together, there would be team meetings and the Christmas lunch again someday. She had a right to come to work without dreading the prospect of me, and I didn’t want to be a burden. And I also didn’t want to get hurt.
A man (or boy, I suppose) in this predicament is a hazardous thing. He can write poetry asking his beloved how she could not love him back – after all, didn’t she know that he loved her so much he would shout in the face of God for her? (No she didn’t, actually, because he didn’t deliver any of those poems to her). He can curl up in a ball and die. He can stare out of windows and he can drink too many beers and drive his friends mad by moping all the time. And he can become angry, angry at his unrequited love, and he can use that anger as fuel to burn down the dream he held.
There was only one problem: I couldn’t stop loving her. I couldn’t stop knowing that the things she said were true and important. I couldn’t stop liking her smile. I couldn’t stop feeling my heart leap in my chest and my breath speed up, when she was near. And I couldn’t stop wanting her to be happy – even when the only thing that I could do to make her happy, was to never say how I felt.
All I could do was take a vow of silence – silence about myself – and treat our night at the movies as nothing. Forget Chevy and Goldie. Forget the song. And forget that her fingers and mine had once for an instant touched. And if I couldn’t forget – and clearly, I never could– then I could pretend. Pretend not to care. Pretend that every time I heard her voice or saw her across a room, that I didn’t yearn to see her smile. Pretend she was just another girl at work.
As it turned out, I was good at pretending. I never asked her out again, and she never had to say no. We saw each other at work and we never once had an awkward moment. I played my part perfectly. And if she ever suspected that I adored her, she breezed past it without looking. Maybe she was good at pretending too.
Did it occur to me to try again? Was it possible that she didn’t even realize how I felt? Did she think that I was just on the make? After all, I had a lot of friends who were girls – it was always so easy for me to talk with girls, unless of course, I took one seriously. And now I did, finally, and I could not speak. Did she even know who I really was? How could she know, when I wouldn’t show her?
Isn’t it possible that this girl, so different from all the rest, didn’t realize someone could love her this way? And wouldn’t knowing – even if awkward or unwelcome – be good for her? And wasn’t there a possibility – just a flicker, like a single star in a big black sky – that she might want to be seen for who she was? And that she might even look back and see someone she could love too? Could it be that she was just too shy to say?
And wasn’t there a moment, maybe two, maybe a hundred, maybe every day when I wanted to run up and just say it? I love you.
Sure there was. Of course there was. I just wasn’t ready to take a chance again.