The story is about the boy she likes.
He cannot go to the sixth grade dance because his parents have said no. He tells her this on the bus, speaking close, I imagine, so others cannot hear.
But if you could go, would you have asked me?
Yes, he answers. Absolutely.
It takes me a moment to let this information inside, distracted still by work I’ve left in my office and Emerson and her little friend wanting snacks and to tell stories of their own. I pause. I turn back to her, realizing what she did.
That was really brave, you know, to ask him that, I say.
She hesitates for a split second and then grins. You’re right. It was brave.
Good for you, I say, humbled. I remind her of the quote about only needing twenty seconds of insane courage. She nods, remembering.
Days later, she tells me another story. He told me he wanted to talk to me after school. It was the longest thirty minutes of my life waiting until the bell rang.
She finds him in the crowded hallway, there eyes meeting like conspirators in a crime, then a flick of his hand to indicate, come here, with me. Pretend it’s just us.
Then they’re walking to the bus. Kids everywhere, like a stream of trout, all headed the same direction. I like you, he says.
I like you too, she replies.
That’s it. The exchange. They slip onto the bus, both hiding smiles behind their placid twelve-year-old masks. But they know the difference between what they show to the outside and what is in the inside, where their hearts live. They were brave and vulnerable. And now they have the truth to keep them warm, to fuel their journey in a hard life, for a while longer anyway – at least long enough to endure one more bus ride home.
This morning, I write another love story at my desk, the cats sleeping as one in their basket, paws encircled. I write of fear – how it keeps my star-crossed lovers from one another. As a storyteller, it’s my job to keep my characters apart for as long as possible, otherwise it’s a boring story no one wants to read, but really I want them to confess their feelings from the moment they first know. I like you. I like you too. Sadly, my characters are adults. They’ve been battered and broken, lied to and cheated on, deserted and ridiculed. The twelve-year-old within them has long ago been dismissed and shamed and called a fool. They’ve loved and lost and now they’re afraid.
Fear is the opposite of love. I know this to be true, and yet I’m afraid too, even as I take all these risks with my work and with my heart. I’m just out here flapping in the breeze, not knowing what will happen with my career or with love. Sometimes the fear of rejection and failure paralyze me with their insidious branches, strangling me so that I cannot do the work I am meant to do. In those moments my heart is no longer soft, but hard and cold, calculating, distrusting. I imagine myself an old lady living on the streets with no money, no one to look after me, no one to love. My children, disgusted by all the risks I took, have deserted me for a stable, safe life. And as I walk the cold streets in my imagination, I rue every moment of insane courage I ever had. I shame myself for all the moments of vulnerability, all the times I said, I like you and didn’t hear back, I like you too.
Along the way, whether from our families or our experiences, we’re taught to play it safe, to live in fear and scarcity. We have these voices inside our head that want to take us down, batter us into submission. Mine are loud. Don’t let anyone see who you really are, what you really want, what you’re afraid of, what makes you want to dance or cry and everything in between. Don’t show your soft underbelly – it’s ugly, unlovable. As a matter of fact, you’re unlovable so it’s best to hide away. Don’t write about all this muck and mud that lives inside you and let them all see what a mess you truly are. Don’t tell him you like him. Can’t you play hard to get? You’re so stupid and ridiculous with all this wanting, all this ambition. And for God’s sake, get a real job.
But I can’t, I guess, no matter how loud the voices. Maybe I fought so hard to move past fear that now I can’t ever go back to living small and safe. I lived that way for so long and it brought only a numb fog that made it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Despite all the times I’ve failed, I believe that to stop trying is the true failure. For all the risks I’ve taken, for every time I’ve been vulnerable and suffered a broken heart or looked really stupid, I’m still willing to fight, to remain in the game. Maybe I’m utterly and completely wrong. Perhaps my writing career will not flourish as I want. Perhaps I’ll never find a partner to share my life with. But I’m going down fighting. And regardless of the outcome, I refuse to believe that we are not somehow rewarded for the choice to live out loud, to take risks, to be vulnerable.
So here I am. Present in the moment. Risking everything. Writing the truth. So for now, I’ve won the fight. I imagine not sinewy branches but the blossoms of a cherry tree or the green leaves of early summer – how they flutter so happily in the breeze.