I was a nervous teenager. After my parents’ divorce, I locked myself in my room for five years and watched TV. By the time I was sixteen I felt nauseous every time I stepped out of the house. To get me away from TV and turn me into a normal teenage boy, my mother got me a summer job packing boxes at a warehouse. She also made me learn to drive so I could take myself to my job. My hands shook on the steering wheel, I bounced off other cars, and I never learned to parallel-park, but somehow, stomach churning and legs barely able to hold me up, I got to work.
My summer job turned into a year-round position, thanks to a program at my school for academic bums like me. During the school year I went to only a few classes and worked the rest of the day. At my job my nausea was soon replaced by boredom, but I didn’t overcome my nervousness. Not even close. I was as bad as ever, especially around girls.
There were several who worked in the warehouse and a few more in the office. The other guys talked about them all the time: which ones put out, which ones had boyfriends, which ones had what diseases. I liked to hear their talk but would run the other way if a girl so much as smiled at me or said hi. The guys realized that I was no competition to them, and I and a few others like me were known as the “numb nuts” and were always the butt of jokes.
After I graduated from high school (barely), I went to work at the warehouse full time and became comfortable with my routine: waking up at 6:30, driving to work, standing on the cement floor for eight hours, packing box after box, shooting the breeze with the other underachievers, then going home and falling asleep in front of the TV. I had successfully tackled the outside world. My nervousness didn’t hold me prisoner anymore. I was quite pleased with myself.
Then they hired a new girl. Sixteen and working only for the summer, she was taller than me, had thick glasses, and wore baggy pink and green shorts and Izod shirts with the collars turned up. (This was the mideighties.) She was a big-time preppy, and my co-workers and I were all, if not druggies, then druggie look-alikes: long hair, T-shirts, faded jeans. If we wore shorts, they were gym shorts above striped tube socks pulled up to our knees. No guy in the warehouse wanted anything to do with this bizarre-looking girl. We just stood back and laughed as if she were the funniest thing we’d ever seen. She worked on the other side of the rollers — a conveyer belt that brought us merchandise to be packed — and on break she sat by herself in the far corner while my buddies and I argued over sports, movies, music, and all the other topics young guys of little brain power like to debate. Every once in a while I would glance in her direction and see her absorbed in a fat book. None of us knew what to make of this. Why was she reading all the time? Who did she think she was?
In late August two of the guys who packed near me were canned. One got fired when he didn’t realize that the old guy in a tie and penny loafers who said he wanted “less yakking and more packing” was the president of the company. The other was fired after he sabotaged orders in retaliation for the firing of his friend. Suddenly I was all alone on my side of the packing tables. I had no one to talk to as I filled boxes, taped them shut, and put them on my cart. Bored, I glued my fingers together on one hand, then used my packing knife to cut them loose. I took numerous unnecessary bathroom breaks, during which I talked to whoever was in a stall sneaking a cigarette or paging through a Playboy. I got multiple cups of water from the water cooler in the break room, then walked slowly back through the warehouse, making sure to climb the ladder in section C to see what colors the piece of pizza and cup of coffee that had been sitting on the top shelf for years were turning.
One day I strolled back to my area to find my boss moving the new girl to the packing table directly in front of mine, the only one that faced my table. Appalled at this new arrangement, I made up my mind not to say a word to her no matter how much she tried to get me to talk.
Turned out she didn’t try to talk to me. She ignored me just as much as I ignored her. In fact she was even better at it. As the day wore on, I became more and more uncomfortable standing across from someone who was apparently hellbent on acting as though I didn’t exist — uncomfortable and pissed off. It was getting so I was putting the packing tape on crooked because my hands were shaking with anger. Just who did this too-tall, baggy-shorts-wearing, book-reading freak think she was? Was she ignoring me because she thought I was too dumb to talk to? Was she embarrassed to be so close to someone who’d never read a whole book? Was she trying to make me self-conscious because of my ignorance? What was her game? With her Coke-bottle glasses, she seemed to be silently lording it over me. I sneaked peeks at her to see if she enjoyed making me squirm. I could tell by her blank, emotionless face that she did. She was having the time of her life putting me in my place. In the break room I imagined her laughing inside every time she turned a page. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I got so nauseous I couldn’t eat my eighteen-inch Italian sub.
Nor could I sleep that night. I got so worked up I called in sick the next day and even contemplated quitting. Unfortunately I couldn’t come up with a better way to make money, so I was stuck. I had to go back to work with my stomach in knots. This girl had set me back two years. All my hard work to be normal had been wiped out in one day. Damn her!
I made up my mind to take control of the situation. I couldn’t let her push me around. The next day I strode right up to my packing table, boldly looked at her, and asked what those books were that she was always reading.
It took her a second to realize someone was talking to her. When she saw me staring her down, she said, “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Those books you’re always reading, what are they?”
“Oh, nothing special,” she said.
“Yeah? Who wrote them?”
“Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon,” she said.
Since I’d never heard of these authors, I figured they had to be literary greats. Too intimidated to ask what she learned from those books, I moved on to safer subjects: sports, movies, music. I kept waiting for her to call me an “ignoramus,” or some such name smart people call dumb people, but she seemed more than happy to talk to me. In fact, in the break room, as she read her book and I gabbed with the guys, I caught her looking at me.
My nervousness did not end now that I’d begun talking to this girl. It was worse than ever. After a week of talking to her, I’d lost five pounds from my already thin frame, and the boss began complaining about the boxes I packed: several had come back with items broken. What the hell was my problem all of a sudden? he wanted to know.
I freaking liked the freak — that was my problem. I wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t have any solutions.
Then she mentioned she was going back to school on Monday. Just like that. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell her I liked her and ask for her phone number. My legs would have completely given out. Instead I told her that if she ever wanted my phone number, she should look up my stepfather’s name in the phone book: Howard Dunham. “It’s spelled D-U-N-H-A-M,” I said. “That’s D-U-N-H-A-M. Did you get that?” Also I told her I was thinking of reading one of the books she liked. Which one did she recommend? She laughed and said she didn’t think I’d like any of them. I said, “What about that Hemingway guy? I heard he was good.” She said she’d heard the same thing and suggested I go to the library and take out one of his books.
That was how we left it. She went back to high school, and I still couldn’t eat. When I drove, I started bumping into cars all over again — only this time it was my own fender I dented and not my mother’s. Two weeks later I was down to 110 pounds. My mother thought I was sick. She begged me to eat and threatened to take me to the doctor. I just couldn’t look at food. I couldn’t talk much either. I needed to be alone in my misery. At work I took my breaks in my car, and at home I locked my bedroom door and didn’t come out. I thought long and hard about that girl, how I missed her, and what I should do about it. Every option frightened me.
Desperate, I ended up doing something I’d never done before: I consulted my sister. That’s how bad it had gotten. She was two years younger than me, and, truth be told, we’d never talked about anything. We were better at fighting, though that had cooled as we’d gotten older. She’d had a serious boyfriend for a couple of years, so I thought she might actually know something about the subject. One Saturday morning I found her in the bathroom putting on makeup in front of the mirror. I leaned in the doorway and told her about the tall, funny-looking girl who’d gone back to school and how I kept thinking about her.
My sister laughed as she worked on her eyes. “Why don’t you just call her up and ask her out?”
“I don’t have her number,” I said.
“Well, get it.”
“But should I call her? What if I don’t really want to go out with her?”
“Then why are you telling me about her?”
“I don’t know.”
My sister laughed again. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Just call her up and ask her out,” my sister said. “Otherwise forget about her and start eating again. You’re starting to look scary.”
“Thanks for your big help,” I said, standing up straight.
“You’re a strange brother,” she said.
“And you wear too much makeup,” I said.
I spent the day on my bed going over what to do. I had gotten the phone book, found her father’s name, and written down the number. I stared at my chicken scratch, wondering who would pick up the phone and what I would say — if I could even speak. Twice I dialed the number only to hang up before someone answered. No one home, I said to myself.
I thought about how, when I was younger, I had squatted atop a ten-foot-high cement wall beside a neighbor’s driveway. I would look down and wonder if I could jump without hurting myself. For days I contemplated jumping. Only when I was able to block out my fear completely could I leap — my mind a blank, no thought of consequences. There was nothing like letting go of my fear and flying through the air for that second and a half before I hit the ground.
I sucked in my breath, dialed her number, and let it ring until someone answered. It was her. I asked how she was doing, how school was, and if she wanted to go out to eat with me Friday night. She said she did. I said I’d pick her up at six, and she told me where she lived. That was it. I hung up the phone just in time to avoid a heart attack, then lay on my bed thinking about Friday: Five days away. Too much time to think and worry. Too much time to have second thoughts.
Which I did. What had I done? I’d never been out with a girl before. Why did I want to start now? Why would I want to put myself in a position where everything I did and said would be scrutinized by someone I hardly knew? Who was she to scrutinize me like that? I began to resent her, especially when I realized I couldn’t wear my work clothes on our date. Because of her I had to go out and spend money on dress clothes. And I hated dress clothes. I especially hated the look my mother gave me when she saw those new dress clothes I’d bought lying on my bed. She knew something was up and kept pestering me to tell her what it was. I told her to leave me alone.
By Friday my resentment had ballooned, and I made the mistake of telling a guy at work — someone I’d thought of as a friend — about the date. He looked at me and burst out laughing. “Her?” he said. “You’re going out with her?” Five minutes later the whole warehouse knew. They asked if I was bringing a stepladder along (because she was so tall), if I was getting a doggie bag for her, if I was into pink and green, if I was the one who needed glasses, and so on. The whole day it went on like that, until I couldn’t stand the thought of her. After I got home, I tried to call her to cancel the date, but no one answered. So I got dressed up — I’d bought the damn clothes; I might as well get some use out of them — and left. I was absolutely convinced that I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, but it was best to get it over with as soon as possible so I could forget it ever happened.
I was relieved when I got to her house and learned that her parents weren’t home. The last thing I wanted to do was spend time with people whose daughter I couldn’t wait to dump. No way did I want them staring at me, sizing me up, wondering if I was good enough for their little girl. Just who did they think they were, anyway?
On the drive to the restaurant I said nothing. All I wanted to do was get rid of her.
She held up a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. She’d checked it out of her school library for me. “You said you wanted to read Hemingway, right?” she said.
I grunted. I couldn’t look at her: those glasses, those extra-long legs. She said she’d put the book on the back seat. I gritted my teeth. I couldn’t get out of my mind the image of the guys at work laughing at me.
At the restaurant I ordered something but couldn’t eat. She didn’t eat either. Both of us moved the food around our plates, avoiding eye contact. I got up to go to the bathroom and hung out in a stall to kill time. While in there I began to soften a little. I still wanted to get rid of her, but I couldn’t just drive her home and kick her out of my car while it was light out. I had to find something for us to do after dinner. But what? I didn’t want to risk being seen with her. The restaurant was bad enough. Where could I take her until dark without being seen?
I settled on driving around the back roads near the zinc company. On the way there I slowed down in front of the demolished McDonald’s on Lehigh Street. Debris lay everywhere. “Look at that,” I said. “That’s cool, huh?”
I showed her the zinc company, explaining that it was responsible for all the sinkholes in the area. Next we drove to the creek where I liked to fish. I pointed to a spot where I’d caught some trout on the first day of the season. On Highway 378 we passed the gas station that always had cars in its lot that had recently been wrecked. There were two there with their front ends completely smashed in.
“Isn’t that something?” I said.
It was dusk. I figured that by the time we got back to her house, it would be dark enough to drop her off, and then I would burn rubber away from there. In the twenty minutes it took to drive her home, neither of us said a word. The way I saw it, I’d said enough on the only date we were ever going to have. I didn’t want to give her anything more to remember me by. I wanted her to forget me as quickly as I was going to forget her.
I pulled into her driveway and said, “OK.” She opened her door. Before she got out, she asked if I wanted to come inside. I said no, and she closed the door. That was it. What a relief. I took a deep breath and let it out as I drove away. My ordeal was over. Come Monday I would go back to hanging out and joking with the guys at work. I would get back to my normal life, my normal self. Already I was starting to feel hungry.
At home I found my sister in her room. It was odd for her to be home on a weekend night. “You’re back already?” she said, combing her wet hair at her dresser mirror.
“I told you she wasn’t right for me,” I said. “I didn’t want to go out with her.”
“What was wrong with her?” she asked.
“She’s too tall, she wears thick glasses, and she didn’t eat her dinner that I paid for.”
My sister laughed. “You didn’t want to like her, did you?”
“You don’t know me,” I said.
My sister shook her head. I waved a hand dismissively at her and walked down the hall. I stopped when I remembered the book in my car. Damn it! What the hell was I going to do with it? I couldn’t just throw it away. Maybe I could drive by her house and throw it out the window onto her driveway. I would have to do it late at night when no one would see me.
I lay in bed, planning the operation. There was no way I would let returning her book spoil a perfect ending to a night that never should have happened. It was the perfect ending, wasn’t it? What a great job I’d done handling what could have been a messy situation. Her parents hadn’t seen me, so they couldn’t think I was strange; her friends hadn’t met me, so there was no reason for her to talk about our date with them. It was masterful, the way I’d kept her out just long enough to justify calling it a “date” but not so long that she might think something would come of it.
As I closed my eyes, a smile spread across my face. For the first time in a long while I felt comfortable with myself, not nervous or nauseous at all. I was thinking only good thoughts. I certainly was not thinking that I would eventually see how stupid I’d been; that I would ask her for a second date, then a third, and a fourth; that I would eventually conquer my fears and insecurities by going to college; and that I would marry her and have children and build a life that was completely unimaginable to me at eighteen. No, as I fell asleep after my first date, I thought only about how good it felt to be all by myself again.