With fists, with words, with kindness
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When I was a girl in rural East Germany after World War II, I had no men in my life. Mother was single, and I was an only child. One day when I was twelve, in 1952, a policeman came to our door. Mother was terrified: had they found out that we had stolen wood or owned West German fashion magazines? When it turned out he had come just to take the census, Mother was so relieved she invited him in for coffee and bread.
The policeman, whose name was Helmut, stayed for hours and told us about having been a prisoner of war and having worked in the Soviet mines for six years. He was about fifteen years younger than Mother, and his visit was the beginning of an odd friendship between them. On Tuesday evenings Helmut would come over on his old BMW motorcycle, which we could hear coming from far away due to the quiet at the end of our dirt road. We would share our bread and vegetables from our garden with him, and he would bring us some of the sausage he was entitled to as a government official. After a while he began to spend the night.
This was my first real opportunity to observe a man. Helmut and I would horse around and wrestle. I admired his strength and practiced pull-ups and lifting a chair by one leg to build my muscles. He taught me chess and card tricks. Mother talked a lot about Helmut and what he might be doing and whether he liked us and when he’d visit next. I thought her obsession demeaned her. On days he was coming, she’d fuss with her hair and put on her nicest dress — one of three she owned — to make herself attractive. Then she would stand by the window, watching. When he arrived, she’d be nervous but happy; she’d laugh and tease him and show off her singing and guitar playing. I’d never do such things for a man, I decided.
But as the months and years passed, my wrestling matches with Helmut began to give me a strange feeling. I found his smell — leather, sweat, gasoline, and wool — somehow agitating. I admired his black hair, which he combed straight back, and I felt queasy when his dark blue eyes rested on me. And those strong hands! I realized that I, too, waited for the sound of his motorcycle approaching, but I didn’t let on.
When I was sixteen it dawned on me that Mother and I were competing for Helmut’s attention, which felt shameful. By then I was also attracted to a young man my own age, whom I had met in the hiking club. He visited me occasionally, and we joked and kidded around and wrestled and hugged — all in Mother’s presence.
One day Helmut offered me a ride on the back of his motorcycle. Mother was apprehensive and entreated him to be careful, saying that I was her most precious possession.
It was thrilling to speed along the narrow mountain road at ninety kilometers per hour. I’d never felt such a wind against my face, and I leaned into Helmut’s back. We came to an overlook, parked, and unpacked the picnic lunch we had brought. As we lingered after the meal, Helmut quickly gave me a hug and a kiss. I was surprised. He smiled happily.
The next day a neighbor asked me how my trip had gone. I felt she was scrutinizing my face as I answered, “Great.” Later Mother told me that the neighbor had been worried that I’d been molested, but after talking to me, she’d been convinced I was as innocent as before.
The following year Mother and I escaped from East Germany. For five years Helmut had been like an older brother, a father figure, and a first love to me, and a partner of sorts for my mother. But we’d left without saying goodbye to him because he would have had to arrest us.
Santa Cruz, California
After two years at university, twenty and disillusioned with higher learning, I headed for London and got a job as a waitress in an Italian restaurant.
At the end of my first day I sat down at the bar. Gary the bartender was also finishing his shift. “Hello, darling,” he said brightly. “Pour you a vodka and lime?” I happily accepted and sat on the red leather stool, telling him about my former life as a student. He laughed and teased and shared his Marlboros with me. I loved his accent, his wavy brown hair, and his designer jeans. “Fancy coming out tonight?” he asked, and we arranged to meet at a club in the center of the city. Though I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of invite it was, I did my best to look good.
When Gary showed up at the club, he kissed me and asked, “All right, love?” I tried not to read too much into it, but I was falling for him. He seemed to know everyone there — more kissing, more “love.” Did I mention that, along with being twenty and disillusioned, I was also naive? It wasn’t until I saw Gary kissing — I mean really kissing — a man in leather on the dance floor that I realized Gary was gay. He disappeared with the man around 2 A.M., and I caught a cab home alone, feeling embarrassed.
Despite our awkward beginning Gary and I became friends. Many nights we went out together and crashed in the same bed for a few hours before our shifts started. He’d get up early and make tea and cheese on toast for me. Once, I walked up behind him, slid my arms around his waist, and said, “Gary, now that you’ve met me, don’t you feel like going straight?”
Gary laughed and said, “Sure, love — straight on to the next man.”
I was an impressionable young woman barely six months out of college when I got a job teaching at a U.S. Army foreign-language school. The course of study was intense, and my predominantly male students were young, smart, and fit. Being scrutinized by them for five hours at a time wasn’t easy. Each day I had a new crush. First it was a dreamy-eyed private who filled the margins of his notebooks with verse. Next it was a Special Forces sergeant who wished that conjugating verbs were as easy as doing pull-ups.
And then came Airman First Class Brandon York. No question was too hard for him, no assignment too challenging. During breaks he read Dostoyevsky and Salman Rushdie. On the weekend I saw him leafing through the Economist at a public library. Whereas my other crushes made me flirtatious and giggly, his presence inspired quiet awe.
One Sunday Airman York showed up at the gym where I played basketball with some fellow teachers and students. He was a good, aggressive player. In the heat of the game York blocked my jump shot, and my left foot landed on his, then rolled painfully to the side with a tearing noise. Within minutes my ankle was swollen. York brought me an ice pack and some ibuprofen, then helped me to the parking lot. “Is your car automatic?” he asked, knowing I couldn’t drive a stick with my injured ankle. My car was automatic, and I suddenly regretted it.
The following week at school, Airman York and I pretended nothing unusual had happened, but the next time we met in the library, we started a conversation and stayed talking in the courtyard long after the library had closed.
It’s been five years since I sprained my ankle. I still feel awe in Brandon’s presence. It took me no time at all to tell that he was exceptional. It’s taken me years to learn exactly how exceptional.
San Jose, California
I first saw her in English class at our small private school. She had an older boyfriend and paid little attention to me. There was not much opportunity for me to talk to her, as she rode the bus to and from school and I lived in a dormitory and wasn’t allowed to leave the campus without permission, but I always managed to have a short conversation with her every Sunday at church. Her best friend had told her that I had a crush on her, but she never gave any sign that she knew.
She graduated a year ahead of me. After the ceremony, as she was boarding the bus to leave, I made a desperate move: I followed her onto the bus, took a seat beside her, and asked if I could see her home. She seemed pleased that I had asked but worried that I would get in trouble for violating curfew. My dorm supervisor, standing outside the bus, smiled his approval through the window.
The bus let us off a half mile from her home, and we set out walking. It was a new moon, and the sky was as dark as printer’s ink. We couldn’t even see each other, so I held her hand to help us stay together and avoid stumbling in the dark.
One of my duties at the school was to build a fire in the potbellied stove on chilly mornings, and I always carried a box of strike-anywhere matches. Now I stopped and lit one. Its flame cast a circle of light that allowed us to take several steps before it went out. I struck another and another. The last match faded and died just as we saw the lamplight in the window of her house.
At the front door my lips sought hers, but she turned her face. I kissed her softly on the cheek and walked back down the dark and lonely road.
Fifty years later, at a class reunion, I asked whether she remembered that walk in the dark. She said she did — but she didn’t remember who the boy had been.
When I was fourteen, my family belonged to a swim club, and I spent my summer days at the pool, hanging around the cabana and talking with Dave, a lifeguard who was starting college in September. I knew he was too old for me and that, with my braces and not-yet-developed body, I couldn’t be his girlfriend, but at night I’d lie awake and imagine us as a couple. My pining for Dave felt safe, because I never expected him to return the feeling.
When I went to Hawaii with my family, I brought Dave back a colorful string bracelet, which he wore until its colors had faded from sunlight and chlorine. Later that summer he went to France with his family and returned with a string bracelet for me. It was navy and red and white, and when he gave it to me, I thought, Maybe. But deep down I knew he was just being polite.
In late August my best friend, Sarah, who was fifteen, told me she’d been dating Dave for a month, and she apologized because she knew how much I liked him. It was only then I realized that it wasn’t the age difference that kept Dave from being my boyfriend. It was simply that he wasn’t interested. When I got home, I cut the French bracelet from my wrist. My harmless crush suddenly hurt.
Katie Shullman Gerding
New York, New York
I’d never noticed him, but he picked me out in a lecture hall that sat hundreds. One day, after class, I was sorting through my notes and looked up to find him standing over me, smiling awkwardly. Most of the boys wore oxford shirts with button-down collars and penny loafers, but he had on a faded flannel shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. His curly brown hair came to his shoulders.
“Hi,” he said. “My name is Mark, and I wondered if you would like to have coffee with me.”
“Well, uh, I’m kind of busy right now,” I lied.
“OK, maybe some other time.” He turned and walked away, looking dejected.
I felt bad, but he wasn’t my type. I was attracted to smooth fraternity boys who would take me out once or twice and never call again. But Mark didn’t give up, and finally, unable to come up with yet another feeble excuse, I gave in.
It was a crisp fall day, and we strolled to a local hamburger joint and ordered coffee. While Mark talked about his job — he was working his way through college — I stared around the smoky room, looking for a guy who was more Sigma Chi. That Mark didn’t walk out and leave me sitting by myself was evidence of his infatuation.
We went out a few times after that: for a beer, a movie, a walk. Always Mark would lean in close to hear my words while I barely glanced his way. One day he offered to make me dinner at his apartment. I agreed only because I had no other plans. I don’t remember much about the meal except that I turned my nose up at the canned peas. We drank a lot of cheap wine in the dim light of a dripping candle stuck in a Chianti bottle. Mark told me he was leaving school the next day. He had signed up to become an army medic and was heading to Vietnam. He asked if I would write to him, and I said I would, but of course I never did.
That was forty years ago. Once in a while at 3 A.M., when sleep won’t come and all television has to offer is infomercials, I wonder if Mark made it home, and if he thought of me after that, and if he ever forgave me.
La Verne, California
Christoph transferred to my high school in January of our junior year. He came from Germany and had a curly mop of sandy hair. The boys liked him because he was a good baseball and basketball player (but not good enough to bump anyone from the team), and the girls liked him for his charm, his good looks, and his accent.
Christoph and I were in the same homeroom and study hall, and though he sat less than an arm’s length away, I could barely bring myself to look at him, let alone talk to him. I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing, and Christoph would realize how stupid I was. I had never fit in at my high school. I wasn’t pretty enough, rich enough, or smart enough to be popular, and at five foot ten I towered over most of my female peers.
But Christoph was undeterred by my shyness and inability to relax and would talk to me anyway. Didn’t he realize I wasn’t popular? Once, I unintentionally wore red for five days in a row, and Christoph gave me the nickname “Red.” He called me that for the rest of our time in high school. I imagine the other girls wondered how I’d been lucky enough to receive a pet name from Christoph.
In our senior year Christoph and I had English literature together. I loved that class and participated passionately in the discussions. Christoph would often walk with me to my next class and comment on some point I’d made. I was still painfully shy around him, but I was getting better at hiding it, and I fantasized that, before we graduated, I would tell him that I loved him.
Just as I was practicing what to say, Christoph started dating one of the popular, smart, rich, pretty girls.
Ten years later I was married and living in a different state. One evening my husband came home eager to tell me about a new colleague who had moved here from my hometown: Christoph. He said that Christoph had been excited to learn I was in the area and had even confessed that he’d had a crush on me in high school. I stared at my husband in disbelief. He tried to convince me to take off work and come to the next company softball game so I could see Christoph, who’d joined the team. I shook my head and told my husband that I didn’t remember anyone named Christoph from high school.
As the months wore on, my husband sensed my lack of enthusiasm for his new colleague and stopped talking about Christoph. Meanwhile I hated how I’d reverted to my awkward teenage self, and I decided to go to the next softball game and make conversation like the confident adult I was.
The day of the game I put on my best-fitting pair of jeans and — hoping Christoph would remember — a red T-shirt. At the softball field, however, I didn’t see anyone who looked like him. When I asked my husband to point him out to me, he seemed surprised and said that Christoph had transferred the week before.
Collingswood, New Jersey
When I was sixteen, I asked the Red Cross for the names and addresses of six soldiers who were fighting in Vietnam, and I wrote to the GIs regularly. Over the course of a year my pen pals stopped writing until only one soldier remained.
I was a prissy Catholic schoolgirl, and he loved to shock and tease me. I remember one of his letters ended, “Well, gotta cut this short. Janis Joplin’s wailing on the radio and I’m needing to go do my daily jerk-off.”
I was a virgin, didn’t do drugs, and decorated my envelopes with peace symbols. He asked me to send him a picture of myself in a bikini, but I didn’t. He sent me his picture. He was gorgeous.
We never wrote directly about the war, but as time went on, his letters became darker. In autumn I sent him a pressed maple leaf from the tree in my backyard, and he wrote back that getting the leaf had kept him alive one more day.
His last few letters were rambling and sometimes didn’t make sense. He apologized, saying he’d “just got back in,” and his head wasn’t screwed on right. He was counting the days he had left. Soon he’d be back in the good old U.S. of A. and would look me up.
After that his letters stopped.
When the Vietnam Memorial went up in Washington, D.C., I planned to go and search for his name, but I put it off year after year. I threw away his letters but kept his picture and service address. Then I lost the address and just had his picture. Eventually it too vanished.
When I sat down to write this, I realized I have forgotten his name.
On my first day in the women’s dance class, I sat next to Diane. Her wide green eyes and highlighted brown hair didn’t strike me as overly attractive — not that they should have: I’m a married woman and have always liked men, sometimes a bit too much.
Then I saw her dance.
Our teacher had instructed us to “free dance” and focus on bodily sensations. I was swaying my hips and moving my arms when Diane twirled in front of me, eyes down, chest thrown out, hair tossed messily around her shoulders. Her red tank top was stretched across her breasts, and her black pants hugged her ass. I was smitten. My mind began conjuring a scene in which we drank red wine on her sofa, then softly sank into each other.
I continued to watch her for the rest of the day, mostly in the wall mirrors. At the end of the class I stood behind a one-way mirror designed to allow parents to observe their children during ballet, and I watched Diane dance. Suddenly she turned, and her green eyes stared directly into mine. She was only looking at herself in the mirror, but for a moment I felt naked.
On the first day of our weekend driver’s-ed class, Lexie sat next to me in the back row. I’d seen her during the week at school, smoking with the tough kids who hung out in the east parking lot. I wasn’t tough, but for some reason, maybe because I sat in the back row, Lexie took me to be a kindred spirit.
During the break in the middle of the four-hour class, Lexie and her friend Sue invited me to the east parking lot. I didn’t smoke, but that didn’t seem to bother them. Lexie had shoulder-length blond hair and freckles, and that day she wore a peasant blouse underneath denim overalls. There was a small triangle of bare skin where the blouse stopped and the sides of the overalls started. That triangle haunted my teenage mind.
What little knowledge I had of girls I’d garnered from my father’s Playboys, which had lots of advice on how to decorate your bachelor pad or mix the perfect Harvey Wallbanger but were no help on how to talk to a tough, Marlboro-smoking seventeen-year-old.
Lexie had a way with a pack of Marlboros. She always smacked them against her palm three times before opening the cellophane. (She claimed it packed the tobacco in for a longer smoke.) She had a silver Zippo lighter that she would open and spark with one quick motion. After lighting that first cigarette, she’d take a deep drag, let the smoke trickle out between her lips, then breathe it back in through her nostrils.
I saw Lexie at school during the week, but I was never brave enough to say more than hi. I was certainly not brave enough to hang out with the tough kids in the east parking lot, although I did gaze at them from afar. I deduced that Lexie’s boyfriend was a tall, skinny kid named Harry who rode a motorcycle to school. I once saw her climb onto the back of his motorcycle, wrap her arms tightly around his leather jacket, and laugh at some bon mot of his as they rode off. That’s when I realized I didn’t have a chance with her.
Still, I wanted badly to impress her and even stole some cigarettes from my dad and practiced smoking in the cemetery by our house, but I coughed so much that I knew I could never pull it off in front of Lexie. Instead I tried to dazzle her with my knowledge of rock music and told her dirty jokes I’d heard from my father and his friends. I didn’t entirely understand some of the punch lines, but Lexie did. Once, she laughed so hard she cried. I can still hear that laugh: softer and more girlish than you’d expect.
I have no idea what happened to Lexie after high school, but I will always remember that triangle of bare skin, and the way she inhaled her cigarette, and her laugh.
After lunch Carla passed the note to me in the fourth-grade coat room. It read: “Do you like Billy? Yes ( ) No ( ) Check one.”
I checked “Yes” and passed it back to her during math. She smiled knowingly and put it in her desk.
For weeks I thought Billy had asked Carla to pass me the note, and I stared at him from across the room and skipped happily to his side when he picked me to be on his kickball team during recess. In February I even got him a special valentine, different from the ones I handed out to the rest of the class. I watched with anticipation as he opened it. (I could tell which one was mine because it was bigger than all the rest.) He didn’t look at me, just jammed the card back into his valentine “mailbox” — a cereal box covered in red construction paper.
Somehow Carla found out about my special valentine, and that afternoon on the bus she shouted that I loved Billy. I denied it and swallowed hard, trying not to cry. Billy slid down in his seat and said nothing. Carla got everyone on the bus to start singing, “Billy, don’t be a hero, don’t be a fool with your life. / Billy, don’t be a hero, come back and make me your wife.” I yelled for them to stop, but the madder I got, the louder they sang.
Not knowing what else to do, I got up from my seat, walked over to Billy, and tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned to look at me, I sucker-punched him right in the nose. Blood poured from both his nostrils and down his face. I turned back to Carla and shook my fist, indicating she’d be next. The singing stopped.
Billy was the first one off the bus. He ran past me, crying and clutching his nose. As I watched him dash up the hill to his house, I mouthed, I’m sorry, but he never looked back.
Sarah Martin Banse
Several years ago I participated in a weeklong silent meditation retreat at a converted ski lodge in the Swiss Alps. A couple of days after the retreat had begun, a late arrival walked into the dining room at lunch. I couldn’t stop looking at him: those deep, knowing eyes; that thin, angular nose; that pale skin, almost translucent but for the color the mountain air had given his cheeks. He had a certainty of purpose and wore a colorful, fanciful hat. I stared straight at him — which was against the retreat rules — and he returned my gaze, flirting unabashedly.
At some point I saw the ring on his finger. I knew I had no business behaving this way on retreat, much less with a married man. Nevertheless I began to have fantasies of lying in bed with him, and of us building a new life together in Switzerland. Surely this was not good for my meditation practice.
One day, after lunch, we were on kitchen duty together. He stood beside me at the sink, and I noticed I was leaning away from him, even though I wanted to lean closer. I tried to follow the Buddha’s middle way and just stand there and simply feel the sensations in my body in reaction to his presence.
Later he was mopping the dining-room floors as I left the kitchen, and our eyes met again. I swooned but kept walking. At dinner that evening we brushed arms lightly in passing, and after the meal I ran down the mountainside at sunset, thinking of him.
The next day, when we gathered for our morning sit, he was nowhere to be found. He’d left as suddenly as he had arrived. Not a word had passed between us, yet I was heartbroken.
In the language of these retreats, such episodes are called “vipassana romances.” They are supposed to remind us to be with what is and stay apart from the “story.” But, I must confess, I rather like the story.
© Celeste Small
Keith was a thirty-year-old Christian country boy, and I was a forty-year-old Buddhist. We met at a gathering of Kairos, a Christian ministry for prisoners. It was not the sort of setting in which you expect to develop a homosexual crush on someone, but that’s exactly what I did.
I had been in prison ten years, and though I had not been sexually active during that time, I had considered a few men attractive. HIV was rampant in prison, but after a decade I was feeling lonely.
Keith caught my eye because he looked so sad. (I found out later that some of the bigger guys were pressuring him for sex.) I decided to avoid him so I wouldn’t be tempted, but before the night was over, a friend introduced us.
Over the next few weeks Keith and I talked a lot. I told him about my years in prison, and he told me about how rough it was for him. He had been in two fights already with guys who wanted to have sex with him. I felt guilty about my own desire.
One night he asked me, “Did you ever do anything with a man?”
“No, but I have a crush on a man,” I said.
I must have blushed.
“Never mind,” he said. “It isn’t any of my business, anyway.”
I took a deep breath. “It’s you.”
His eyes widened.
I told him I knew he wasn’t into that, and I wasn’t asking for anything. . . . Or maybe I would ask for one thing: Keith was getting out in a month. “I’d like a hug before you leave,” I said.
He laughed and said he’d think about it.
At the next Kairos retreat Keith was given an award for making it through the program. During the closing ceremony he walked up to me and hugged me. (Kairos was the one place in prison that a man could hug another man without question.)
“I’m really proud of you,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “I needed to hear that from you.”
The morning Keith left, I got up at 6 A.M. to say goodbye. I held out my hand, but he pushed it aside and hugged me again and told me I was a true friend. Then he went to the administration building to wait to be released.
That day on the yard my old friend Charles sat down next to me. “Did you get it on with Keith?” he asked.
“No, we were just friends.”
“Everybody on the yard could tell how you felt about him,” he said.
I looked away, embarrassed.
“Don’t sweat it. Everybody knows everybody else’s business in here. And besides, while you two were hanging out, nobody hit on him. They thought he belonged to you. So you did him a favor.”
I nodded, thinking that I was the one who’d truly benefited.
I was twenty-seven when the pain began in my neck and feet. I thought everyone must have a sore neck and sore feet occasionally, so I did nothing for months. Then my hands started to hurt. When I could no longer bend my wrists, I knew I needed medical help.
Dr. B., the rheumatologist, wasn’t particularly good-looking, but he had a certain charisma, and I felt something the moment I met him. When he told me that I probably had rheumatoid arthritis, my eyes filled with tears. After I went back to work, he called me three times with information he had forgotten to tell me.
“I think you’re a bit fragile right now,” he said on the third call. “I want you to know you’ll be OK.”
I didn’t have a boyfriend, and my father had died two years earlier. Dr. B. was the only man in my life who had any concern for my health.
My obsession with Dr. B. continued long after my arthritis had been brought under control. I dated sporadically, but I lived for my appointments every four to six months. Then one day Dr. B. reached for my hands to test for pain and range of movement, and I saw a shiny gold band on his left hand. He had gotten married.
When he took my pulse and blood pressure, both were elevated.
“Are you upset about something?” he asked.
“My mother has cancer,” I said, “and she’s going to have surgery this week.”
It was true, but my body was reacting to a different kind of heartache. And I think somehow he knew.
He was a fellow teacher of mine at the vocational school, and in the last week of school he began hanging out in my classroom. I was attracted to him and wore flirty dresses all that week. We were both married.
I was moving on the following year to teach at a community college and thought we’d never see each other again. But about a month into summer vacation I got an e-mail from him. We continued to e-mail daily and eventually set up a lunch date, during which he complained a lot about his jealous and possessive wife.
He and I began to send each other text messages by cellphone. It was much more immediate and exciting than e-mail. I could text, “do u no wht I wnt u 2 do 2 me rite now,” and within a minute I would get a feverish response. I felt wonderfully naughty getting graphic messages during faculty meetings.
When I suggested we quit text-messaging and act out some of those dirty fantasies in person, he made excuses about why it was impossible. It was clear that he did not want to end his marriage to his manipulative, dependent wife. Meanwhile I released my sexual tension with my unsuspecting husband. I began to think that our text-messaging was just foreplay for my crush’s own marital bed, but for the first time in a long while I felt desired, and I didn’t want to let that go.
We ended up meeting somewhere twice, but for all the explicit text messages we had sent, we were reticent and awkward in person and never went any farther than kissing. After each encounter his text messages would become more distant and less frequent. As much as I loved the attention and the possibility of an eventual sexual experience, I felt as if I were being punished for a choice we’d both made. I ended our virtual affair the way it had begun — with a text message.
When I was a fisherwoman in Alaska, I had a crush on a group of fishermen who worked the Bristol Bay sockeye-salmon run. They were a loose affiliation of captains and deckhands who called themselves the “Gypsy Camp” and gave their boats names like the Ancient Mariner, the Howling Knave, and Bite Me.
Most of them were well-read and had traveled the world, but when they fished the Nushagak River, they stopped shaving, showering, and changing clothes, and they lived on beer, candy bars, ramen noodles, and salmon. We’d tie our boats together, cook fish, and wash it down with Keystone beer or peppermint schnapps. Though I hadn’t showered in weeks and had been wearing the same long underwear for days, I’d never felt sexier. I knew they all had wives or girlfriends tucked away in other states and countries, but I would have run away with any of them.
I met him while skiing in Utah, my first vacation since I’d become a widow a year earlier. He lived in my hometown, and we’d each come skiing with friends. After our companions introduced us, I learned that he’d known my husband: both of them were doctors, and he’d worked side by side with my husband on pediatric surgical cases.
Our friends arranged to meet for dinner at an Irish-style pub, where we all mingled, told stories, and laughed. Halfway through the evening a waitress brought me a drink I hadn’t ordered and pointed out the man I’d just met. He smiled. I mouthed, Thank you. Though we didn’t speak, I stared at his hands as they cradled a mug of beer. He had hands like my husband’s: smooth with supple skin and short nails.
The following day I saw him on the slopes. We rode a chairlift together and talked easily for the length of the ride.
After the ski trip I e-mailed him, and we corresponded casually for a while. I had developed a crush on him and looked forward to his e-mails.
One evening, driving to an event to honor my deceased husband, I realized that I had transferred my desire for the man I’d lost onto this other man, whom I knew little about. What attracted me to him were the traits that reminded me of my husband: he was a physician, outdoorsy, a jeans-and-T-shirt guy, gentle, and kind. My crush was not on this stranger, but on my husband’s memory.
Jennifer E. Hassel
I’m reading Jet magazine when, on page 43, I find the person I really want to meet: Marquita is five foot seven with a milk-chocolate complexion and a voluptuous figure barely concealed by a gold-lamé string bikini. Her sparkling, dark brown eyes smile at me, and her hair, styled in ebony coils, falls onto her shoulders and rests on the swell of her breasts.
Marquita is twenty-four and majoring in business management. In addition to modeling, she enjoys working out, reading, and spending time with her family and friends. She is posing on a pier, and I can see sailboat masts and clay-tile rooftops in the background. She looks genuinely happy, squinting into the bright sun. What man wouldn’t be happy to be on that pier beside her? Would that it were twenty years ago, when I too was twenty-four and free.
I take out my contraband razor blade and meticulously cut out her picture, then look for an appropriate spot to place it on the cinder-block wall of my cell, where I post all of Jet’s Beauties of the Week. Marquita ranks near the top, replacing a yellowed, tattered photo from three years ago. Looking up at her, I think she will be there for a while.
Most women I know have had at least one girl crush in their lives. My first was in my early twenties. By the time I was nearing forty, I thought that it would be my only one. Then I met S.
She was a colleague: young, bright, attractive. We were similar in many ways, despite our age difference, and often joked about being separated at birth. She told me her secrets and referred to me as her “touchstone.” Sometimes we even finished each other’s sentences.
One day another friend and co-worker said to me, “I think S. has a crush on you.” She went on to suggest that perhaps it was not one-sided.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, worried that I had done or said something inappropriate.
The co-worker reassured me that it was nothing too obvious. She could just feel the chemistry between S. and me.
I realized she was right. I just hadn’t wanted to give it a name. This felt deeper than the girl crush I’d had years before, but I wasn’t about to say anything to S. I was in a failing relationship and therefore vulnerable, and she had a husband. I was also afraid of damaging our working relationship and friendship. Most of all, I was afraid I’d find out she didn’t feel the same way about me.
Still, I thought about her constantly, even dreamed about her. I wondered how it would feel to kiss her, just once. There were times, during intimate conversations, when I wanted badly to confess my feelings. Sometimes, when we were alone, I was certain she was flirting with me. But fear of rejection and embarrassment kept me silent.
I have since moved on to a different job, and I don’t see S. often, but when I do, the chemistry is still there. I could say I don’t know what prevents me from telling her how I feel, but that would be a lie. It’s simple: The risk is too great. Neither of us could abandon our family and responsibilities and wade into unknown territory, as exciting as the prospect may seem. If we did, I am certain I would not get the outcome I want.
So all I can do is write down these words that S. may never read: You have left your mark on me, and I can’t forget you.
San Diego, California
In junior high I learned Jason’s schedule and structured my entire day so I could spy on him as he came out of his classes. I wrote notes to my friend Angie describing what he was wearing, what he’d shouted in the hallway, and what I thought of his girlfriends (bitches, all of them). At school dances I followed Jason at a distance, and in the bathroom I cried to my friends about how he’d wrapped his arms around this girl or that one. It was so unfair. For two and a half years I filled my diary with my longings for him, but I never talked to him, not once.
Years later, after college, I moved home to look for a job. A friend was now dating a guy who knew Jason, and one night she told me she and her boyfriend were going out to a bar where Jason would be. He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend. It might be fun for me to come along.
Jason was every bit as cute as he had been at age fourteen. It turned out we were both graphic designers, and we talked all night. Drunk and giddy, I gave him my number. A week later, when he hadn’t called, I cried like a twelve-year-old and prepared to move on. Then he called the following week.
We dated for four years, and now it’s ending. All I’ve ever wanted is to be married to him. I still sometimes think about that fourteen-year-old boy — not the real one, but the one I dreamed up in my head, who was more perfect than any person could ever be. I wish more than anything else that I could kiss him just once.
East Lansing, Michigan
Growing up in the early 1950s, I always did whatever my older sister did. When I was eight and she was ten, the highlight of our week was the Saturday-afternoon movie. She had a crush on cowboy star Roy Rogers, so of course I did too.
One night my sister offered to let me in on a secret, but first she made me promise that I wouldn’t copy her and do it too. I promised, and she told me she had written a letter to Roy Rogers and asked him to say hello to her at the end of his next movie.
What a great idea! I secretly wrote my own letter to Roy, making the same request.
When Roy Rogers’s next movie came out, I sat next to my sister in the theater, popcorn box in hand, and waited in anticipation for the end, when Roy always posed with his horse, Trigger, before a sunset. That was when he was going to say hi to my sister and me. I hoped she wouldn’t kill me for breaking my promise.
Finally the movie came to an end, Trigger reared up, Roy smiled and lifted his cowboy hat, and then —
Nothing. That was it. No hello to my sister or to me.
The lights went up.
“Too bad,” I said to her sympathetically.
“It’s OK,” she replied, but I could tell she was disappointed. I was too, but I couldn’t say anything.
As we went to the lobby to wait for our dad to pick us up, part of me felt relieved that I hadn’t been caught betraying my sister for a man. It was the first time I’d done it — but it wouldn’t be the last.
In the June 2009 Readers Write on “Crushes” only four out of twenty-one entries were from men. Perhaps I am overanalyzing, but I think this may reflect something about how Western culture views “masculinity.”
It would be nice to read a contribution from a man who expresses his insecurities, vulnerabilities, and heartache; something that would encourage women to see not his “masculinity” (whatever that means) but his humanity. I’m tired of the image of a hardened, detached man who has no emotional or spiritual connection to women. I wish more men would lay themselves bare.