Years ago, there was this girl I had a crush on. I'll call her J. She was one of the only girls I ever actually had the nerve to tell about the crush I had on them. I'm a coward, you see, and my biggest fear is rejection. The roots of that fear reach deep down into me, and they are plentiful, the deepest of them dipping into my early childhood experiences of loss, of two members of my household dying by the time I was 8, and the seemingly continuous stream of deaths in my extended family as I got older. Somehow my mind seems to have experienced these losses as rejection, and it has done its best to build defenses against anything that might make me feel like that again.
The best way to avoid rejection is not to put anyone in a position from which they can reject you, which has the unfortunate side effect of not putting anyone in a position from which they can accept you. But in J's case, I made an exception. I was 24 years old, and she was 20, and we worked together. We started hanging out, and I told her that I liked her.
At first, she seemed to like me back, but she had recently broken up with a boyfriend and wasn't ready to pursue anything. Being a young and naïve idiot, I took that to mean I could wait things out and eventually she would be ready. Even now, all these years later, I still beat myself up about this. It still upsets me.
We spoke on the phone almost every day for several months. An initial crush became infatuation, and then – I can honestly say this after all these years – I started to fall in love. I had never been in love before. I had never even had a serious relationship. In fact, I probably had less relationship experience than an average high school kid, yet there I was, a college graduate.
I foolishly let myself keep believing that one day it would come to be, that we would be together. She did nothing to dissuade me. She was young and didn't know how to reject me, so she let me go on believing. This continued for the better part of a year.
Then one day she finally told me it was never going to happen. Our relationship had solidified for her as a friendship (yes, I was friend-zoned). In fact, she had actually gotten involved with another guy at work. He was a really good guy, too, not some creep I could easily make the target of any kind of negative feelings I had. I actually pleaded with her, but it had been over for her a long time before. There had never been any chance.
By initially telling her how I felt, I managed to work up the nerve to face the possibility of rejection, my biggest fear. And now here it was. But this wasn't just rejection. It was humiliation. It was the worst version of my worst fear coming to fruition.
I did not date again after that. The fear of rejection I'd had before was multiplied. It was something I absolutely wanted to avoid at all costs. So I gave up. Years passed by. Other crushes came and went, and I never spoke a word of them. I did my best to make myself not feel them.
Eventually, I got asked out, and of course I ended up marrying the woman who asked me out, and of course that ended in divorce. When you believe that something is your one and only shot, you turn a blind eye to even the most glaring deficiencies.
Nowadays, I'm back in the dating pool, except that I'm not really because I am the same way I was before. I can't bear the thought of rejection, so I avoid situations that might lead to it. I have dabbled in online dating, but it hasn't really led anywhere because I can't bring myself to put in the effort, knowing that the likely result will be the thing I fear most.
What amazes me, thinking about all this, is that this stupid experience I had with J nearly half a lifetime ago seems to have had a more long-term damaging effect on me than even my divorce did. I am over the divorce, and I've reached a happy point and formed a good relationship with my ex-wife. We are co-parents of two wonderful kids, and I think we do as good a job as we can with it.
But I am amazed at how long the scars of my experience with J have lasted. It seems to be a permanent kind of damage. There's a chance it will prevent me from ever having a solid romantic relationship again in my life. I'm middle-aged now, and I feel like a teenager when it comes to these things. I am embarrassed by it.
Today is J's birthday. I feel like a fool for even remembering that. She'd be 37 today, and she probably remembers me as little more than a blip in her life, if she even remembers me at all. I essentially broke off contact with her after the rejection, and I have no idea where she went or what her life brought her. I feel no antipathy towards her – she was basically a kid – but the scars of that experience still feel fresh sometimes.
I guess you never truly know how you'll be affected by something until the dust settles and it has found a spot to take up residence in your memory.