I usually listen to some wonderful/horrible “pop cardio” mix on Pandora when I run, but the last few weeks have been tough, even with running, even with eating right, even with picking up the phone and talking to people now and again. So on my last run, I decided to listen to one of my favorite Buddhist teachers talk through ways we can get stuck in unpleasant patterns of thinking and ways we can unstick ourselves from them.

As always, she said some profound, kind, and helpful things. But she also told this anecdote about being away at a retreat and thinking another participant there hated her. She tried all of her meditation techniques and nothing helped her to shake the crummy feeling of being unliked. So one night she went to the meditation room and just sat there with her hurt feelings, all night. She wasn’t meditating exactly, just being present with her bad attitude and the longing it was creating. She says that she realized, then, that everything she does, from the way she smiles to the way she talks and works to make others happy and comfortable, all her behaviors, were in service to avoiding that feeling of someone deeply disliking her.

And of course, because I have always had trouble focusing and paying attention (which is the whole reason I have a favorite Buddhist teacher in the first place), my mind instantly stopped listening to her and teleported me back to the 7th and 8th grade and two boys who broke my heart. I still behave in ways that are designed to avoid feeling the way those boys made me feel. Two dumb boys who have certainly forgotten all about me!

I can’t remember which one of them I met first. But I think it was Chris, and we met on the phone. I was at my best friend’s house—remember how that used to happen? She had called a boy I liked, ostensibly for my benefit, but she was always doing that and then would somehow end up making out with him whenever we all next met, because who knows why? Life is weird! (We don’t speak much anymore, but I digress.) So, Claire had called Matt, and at some point Matt handed the phone off to his buddy Chris, so Claire handed the phone to me—ah, that year between 7th and 8th grade!—and Chris and I started to talk. We had a great conversation and it was either then, or the next time Claire pretended to help me out with a guy (that she hardly even liked like that before at all! Life is SO weird!), that he and I exchanged our own numbers.

We talked a lot, after that. He was funny and smart and he told me he thought I was funny and smart. And he was cool! I had never heard of The Cure until Chris told me that he bet they were my favorite band. By the end of the 8th grade they would be. I have no idea if it’s because he’d planted that seed in my brain box, but I remembered that he’d predicted it. Since I’d gone to school with Matt and since Claire still went to school with them both (I’d had to move away to the suburbs the year before), I figured one or the other of them would’ve told Chris at least a little about what I looked like. It’s possible, though, that Matt didn’t care and I promised Claire not to. I knew what I was, and maybe I didn’t want to ruin my excellent conversations with Chris.

I knew what I was, and awkward was the nicest name for it.

I “met” Michael in a nearly identical fashion, over at my friend Andrea’s house. We were in her family room, dancing around to the radio and drinking Jolt. She called some guy she liked and at some point, his friend Michael and I ended up on the phone while the lovebirds took a breather. But just before Andrea handed me the receiver, she described me for Michael: long blonde hair, blue eyes, and smoking in my hot pink string bikini. She was being “funny” (read: cruel). I was understood to be a complete and total dork, a fatty, and a brainiac. All the worst possible things a junior high girl could be. I told Michael that she was lying and that first and foremost, I was not wearing a hot pink string bikini, nor would I, ever. It was my way of trying to tell him that I was fat and uncool. He took it to be modest humility. But what he said was, “I totally didn’t think you were anyway.” Which I thought meant he understood.

SIDE NOTE: We missed a million nuances before texting, too, everyone. Remember?

We had a great talk. I was still suspicious that he didn’t have the right mental image of me, but I forged on. We exchanged numbers and talked all the time. Sometimes, he’d get a call and put me on hold (remember call waiting?!) and sometimes I would get a call and he’d wait for me. Once, he came back from the other line and I didn’t hear the click because I was trying to teach myself the keyboard part to People Are People (I had an 80s songbook), and when I stopped, he said, “Don’t stop; I love your voice!”

Were Chris and I, and later, Michael and I, flirting? I don’t know. We must’ve been, but there was no overt talk of making out or going out or anything like that. I was a total prude until the end of the 8th grade. It could be that I missed all the innuendo (I’m still a champ at that, sometimes right up until the point where the dude is starting to undress). I know I liked them. I know I liked that they liked me back. I felt giddy at first, talking to them, and then confident and happy.

Back to Chris. I wanted to meet him. Was he reluctant? I don’t remember. Maybe he wanted to meet me, and I was. Regardless, meeting a boy who lived across two suburbs and “town” when you’re just barely an 8th grader is tricky business. I decided to “visit” my old school for a day. I don’t remember how that worked, but I did it a few times in junior high and later high school. I brought a camera and took pictures of all of my friends and a few of my old teachers. I really missed the place and really hated my new school. But, that was not the reason I was there. I was nervous and excited to finally see Chris. The bell between classes had just rung and we were walking down the hall, and Claire pointed to an open locker door that someone was standing behind.

“It’s him!”

I walked up behind the door and when he closed it, I took his picture. That picture exists somewhere, because I remember looking at it later. But I don’t know where. I didn’t put it in any photo albums or scrapbooks. At first he was laughing. He didn’t know who I was (how could he? No FB back then to pre-stalk someone on) until I said so. Then he stopped laughing. He looked me up and down and then after some stammering and mumbling of excuses, he bolted for his next class and we never talked again, except for the few times that I called and he said he couldn’t talk.

And then Michael. We arranged to meet at the mall (it later became famous for housing an ice rink that Tonya Harding practiced on). I was going to bring my friend Jenny and he was going to bring a friend, too. Jenny and I said we’d be waiting on the couches on the ground floor of Nordstrom’s, by the store entrance, at 2:00. We were. At 2:01 we saw two dark-haired boys walk by the entrance. They were wearing ridiculous brightly colored board shorts and pastel t-shirts. They were wearing deck shoes. Just like Michael had said he’d be wearing. They looked at us and never broke their stride. They didn’t even walk in. Later on the phone, Michael would say that it wasn’t him. And then, that they were there, but they didn’t see us there. But also, that he had to go. And he was never able to talk after that.

My god! If I could go back and hug me and tell me that I’m beautiful and they were just dumb jocks and that one day I’ll grow into those eyebrows and another day, I’ll get my teeth straightened out a bit and get lasik. I would tell sad and angry and sad me, that I’ll learn how to cut my hair so that not knowing how to do my hair won’t be quite the same liability, and I’ll find a sense of style that actually works, even if it’s never exactly on time or target. And I’d tell me that even at my fattest, I’ll learn to swagger in four inch heels and turn down better boys than that at the bar every Friday night if I wanted. But despite all that, despite assurances of the beautiful I will eventually feel, I would tell me that I needed to learn right now (not at 40, good lord, don’t wait until 40 to learn this!) that my self-worth does not depend on any boy’s admiration of my looks. How did I never learn that? What book did I fail to read? Which class did I miss? Goddammit, to go back and tell myself just how fucking great I am inside and out. To learn to shake those shitty boys off like dust!

So here’s where I get stuck, still. Here’s the feeling I work so hard to avoid. I want to be wanted, and I will bend myself into crazy personality pretzels to make it so. I do this with men, but also women, also jobs. I just do this in life. Sometimes I don’t do it, too. Sometimes I can say fuck it, this is me, and I’m cool with it whether you are or not. I’m getting better at that. I’m working on it. But other days, it only takes one denigrating or dismissive remark and I’m sitting on that couch at Nordstrom’s all over again.

But I guess that’s why they call it work, right?

I am not sure what the terrible memory of these boys is trying to tell me that I don’t already know. Maybe they just came back to haunt me because I’m feeling vulnerable and because I have some shit to figure out that might mean big changes in the way I live my life. Maybe the reason will be evident later. In the meantime, I’ll try to sit with it until the sting fades a bit more, as stings do.

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Scott Millen · August 29, 2015 at 1:08 pm

O Chelsea, this horrible legacy. Much of my motivation as well has been of the "please like me and think I’m cool too" type. I’ve wondered if there had been more security at home if I would have felt more secure in myself then and now. Of course, now I have children to experiment on. I tell them I love them and listen to every word they share with me, making sure not to wade into "best friend" territory. I guess I have to wait thirty more years to find out if I’ve erased the pain of my past. Lol. You’re not fishing for compliments, I know, but you’re one of those aspirational cool kids I wished I could hang with more. Alas, I was an uptight square. Keep writing. I keep learning from you.

    Chelsea Biondolillo · August 29, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    Scott! I wanted you to like me, too! I even went so far as to try and like They Might Be Giants. I don’t. (But I still dig The Judys.) I don’t know what the magic recipe is where my best friend had all the confidence and I had none. The fact that she got all the attention probably helped, but I think it was her mother more than anything. She was quick and generous with eloquent praise. Which is to say, I think you’re experiment sounds really great. And while we aren’t fishing, I still think you’re pretty cool. ~cb

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