Although I struggled to admit it, I was in lust with Noah Peterson*, and I had been for six years. We were juniors in high school at the time of the incident, but my crush on Noah dated back to seventh grade, when Ms. Hamilton, in science class, paired the two of us for a genetics assignment. The project involved using Punnett squares and dice to predict the genetic traits of our hypothetical offspring. We were, in essence, “making a baby” together, and I blushed at the thought. We drew the baby on paper, and Noah declared it “the ugliest thing on the planet.” I laughed, loudly and easily, whenever Noah was around.
The crush was reciprocated back in those days; at least, that’s what everyone claimed. Noah teased me publically, the universal flirting style for a 12-year-old boy. He would make showy, idiotic remarks whenever I entered the classroom, seeking my reaction; I would giggle or roll my eyes to feign annoyance.
I resisted our eighth-grade promotion with vehemence, knowing that high school would change the interactions between Noah and me—or, at least, make them fewer in number. And it did.
But as freshmen in high school, Noah and I went to the TOLO together. I found his number in the phonebook, called up his landline, and asked for Noah when his mother answered. I could barely hear Noah’s words or my own thoughts over the echoing of my heartbeat, but I remember him saying “Sure,” which was more than enough to thrill me.
I picked out matching T-shirts for us to rep his favorite college basketball team together—the dance was an informal one—and coordinated with girlfriends and their dates; we all played games at my house before going out for Mexican food and then heading to the dance. In every picture from that evening (including the professional ones—a miracle!), I looked so happy. My cheeks flushed and my eyes smiled. I had wanted to kiss Noah for years but blissed out instead on slow dancing to his “mom’s favorite song,” Amazed by Lonestar.
Aside from occasional glimpses while passing through the high school hallways, Noah and I did not socialize over the next two years. After all, Noah and many athletically-oriented males did not stray outside the boundaries of their “cool” group any more often than most of my academically-oriented friends and I entered it. I held on tight to my fantasies of dating Noah, though, and my friends knew it.
At a home football game junior year, which was our small rural town’s main event in any given week, the student section was abuzz with talk of homecoming. I did not have a date yet, and there was, of course, only one person I had in mind. In a moment of relative quiet, between quarters, my friend Lily decided to take my fate into her own hands and, cupping them around her mouth, yelled across rows of students to Noah, who sat comfortably amidst the popular crowd.
“Noah!” She got his, and everyone’s, attention; the crowd parted briefly, and heads turned. “Want to take Allie to homecoming?”
I was desperate to disappear, feeling entirely out of control of the situation. The actual act of disappearing (running down the bleachers and through crowds lining the football field) would have drawn more attention to myself and shown that I cared (and cared deeply) about Noah’s response. So, I stood there, vulnerable, paralyzed in my fear.
“Nah, I already went to a dance with her,” he yelled back.
There it was. The final blow to any hope around what might have become of Noah and me. Friends and acquaintances looked back and forth between us, studying my face for signs of disappointment and faintly grimacing at the awkward scene.
I left at halftime, with friends. They tried to comfort me, and I deflected, making light of the situation to prevent pity and preserve dignity. I dispensed self-deprecating jokes and stuffed my face comically with foods.
I told them I wasn’t bothered by Noah’s rejection, which was as far from the truth as I could stretch.
Ten years later, though, on the couch of my therapist, I sobbed about that night. For the first time, I was letting myself feel—really feel—the pain of that very public rejection.
“Allie, this is what you need to tell me. This is what you need to show people,” my therapist told me gently. “I feel more connected to you when you let me see these parts of you.”
And then I realized: Noah’s rejection of me did not make me any less lovable to my people. In fact, it may even have had the opposite effect – making me more relatable, more approachable, more lovable. This reframe of rejection was like a healing balm to my hurting heart, and it freed me to be more vulnerable in like, lust, and love. I still feel fear when expressing romantic interest in others, but the shame is gone – or it’s leaving, anyway.
And thank goodness for that.
*All names have been changed except the author's.