Stranger Feelings

I spent the first ten years of my life thinking that love was a miracle, and that it existed for me. I spent the next five thinking…quite the opposite. My mind was changed at a prom. I’d spent the day getting my hair curled and pinned and my face heavily made, and I bore witness to my flabby, shapeless body being stuffed inside a glittery cobalt dress with a diamond between the breasts, and I stood twirling before a mirror feeling not happy or sad, but almost…scared of my reflection, because I didn’t exactly recognize it.

“Do you like it?” I remember my mom asking, her face full of hope and pride.

The only way I could say it was, “I’m just not used to being this pretty.”

My date arrived in a black suit with a silver vest and a dark blue tie, to match me. He hadn’t seen my dress before that day, and when he stepped out of the car I stood on the driveway awkwardly, my hands folded in front of me because I didn’t know where to put them. I approached him, and we stood facing each other, both feeling the same pulsing anxiety in our chests as we offered each other smiles.

“I like your suit,” I told him.

“You look beautiful,” he replied. And then we posed for pictures.

We barely knew each other at the time. Sure, we’d been dating, but that’s a terrible word for it. It was more a case of us realizing just how different we were over the course of two months and wondering more and more how the hell we were going to pull the relationship off. He pined for cheesy romance—the courting, the complimenting, the exchange of “I love yous”—whereas I found the whole process chafing and strange. He was (and is) extroverted to high heaven, never content unless he was with somebody; I preferred to spend at least the majority of my time alone. And, to make matters worse, most of our interests were exceedingly different. I was a bibliophile, devoted to multifaceted characters and prose and metaphoric exchange. He preferred the flash and the bang and the cinematography of the modern superhero or video game. Sometimes it felt like we were speaking two completely different languages.

But we went to prom anyway, because we’d apparently both decided that there was at least something in this relationship worth sticking it out for. The room that our school had booked that year was a broom closet compared to the normal size of a prom room. The dance floor was so cramped you couldn’t see the middle at all. Most of the adult chaperones hovered near the refreshments table, nibbling on cookies and trying to ignore the softcore sex that the students were performing several feet away. My love and I couldn’t dance, nor were we at the point in our lives where we didn’t care that we couldn’t dance, so we sat at a table and smiled at each other.

And we…talked. We found things to talk about. We talked about school, about family, about ourselves. And he stared into my eyes and smiled at me and nodded along and asked questions, and I actually felt heard. Usually I got the impression that my topics were unimportant or inferior to whoever else was engaged in the conversation, and I felt embarrassed to open up about certain points of my life, instead choosing to joke and chat about small things. But he encouraged the deeper thoughts. He actually seemed to enjoy them.

You should understand that by this time we’d already said “I love you”, but I still wasn’t honestly too sure. Yes, he was charming and funny and he complimented me a lot, but love? That was an extremely strong word, especially for a girl who’d walled herself up in a cynical box that teenage love wasn’t allowed to get inside of. So why had I allowed this boy, out of all of them, to take me to a prom? Where so many of the girls looked so much prettier than me, and knew so much more than me, and had had so many more boyfriends than I could ever dream of?

“Are you having fun?” he asked me, and I nodded at him and it wasn’t a lie.

There was a balcony at the venue, so we talked out there too, among other high schoolers who’d spent most of the night grinding on each other in the packed room and were now plastered with sweat. Even though it was April, the night held onto its wintry chill, and so my date offered me his tuxedo jacket, and I must’ve looked like a lost Bond girl in it, but it made me blush and that’s what mattered.

I kissed him for it, and he winced quickly but offered me a smile regardless.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Is everything okay?” My stomach turned. Maybe I’d done something wrong.

“Oh, nothing. I’m allergic to lipstick. It hurts my skin.” And then he kissed me again anyway.

I wanted to know why he’d asked me to prom, because it seemed so strange to me. I knew he’d had a host of girlfriends before me. At the time, I’d assumed he’d have dozens to come after me, because there was no reason for him to keep a toad like me around forever. To be perfectly honest, sometimes to this day I still wonder why he asked me to prom, since I had more than my fair share of flaws and I’d done and said plenty of things during the course of our relationship that I’m not particularly proud of.

Whatever the fevered reason he decided to bring me to his junior prom, he asked me in such a way that I felt absolutely amazing. He stashed short love poems all over my normal school day. Some resided with my teachers, one with my best friend, one in my backpack, one in my locker. I loved them to bits and I showed them to all my friends. It culminated into him greeting me with a sign asking me to prom with him, and of course I went because who in their right mind could say no to that? I had no idea why he went to so much trouble for me. (I’ve since learned that he’s a sucker for planning things, and the promposal was probably just as much of a joy for him to set up as it was for me to experience.)

And then there he was, treating me like I was the world. Had I done anything to deserve that? Certainly not, and I stand by that statement. I was nothing but a sheep in wolf’s clothing—and not very convincing wolf’s clothing, either, since plenty of people saw through my holier-than-thou veneer and knew me as the person I actually was. God knows if my date fell in love with the veneer or the train wreck underneath. I puzzled over it for weeks. Why was this boy, who adored cornbread and musicals and artwork and video games and just wanted to be loved, so stubbornly in love with me?

I really wanted to ask him, but then they put a slow song on (one that I hadn’t heard before that night), and finally we decided that this was our speed and we could dance to it, so we walked inside and locked our arms around each other and began to sway.

There are few cinematic moments in life. Unfortunately, reality is much messier and more disappointing than what’s shown on the silver screen, especially in cases of romantic love. But what really did it for me was the way he sang the song lyrics in my ear. I didn’t know them, mind you, but I knew the way his arms felt on my waist and the pressure of his chin on my shoulder. I could feel my heartbeat on the inside edge of my skin, pounding away and making my head whirl. I was scared and happy and on the verge of tears, and God knew I couldn’t cry and ruin my makeup, so I scrunched my eyes shut and held him close and listened to him sing.

What I remember most is that after the song ended, he grabbed my face and kissed me so hard I thought one of my lungs would pop. This, coming from the boy who felt uncomfortable with PDA and was afraid that kissing in school would get us in trouble with the principal. This, coming from the boy who hugged me shyly and treated our relationship more like a dated courtship in which he had to behave properly and get approval from my father and keep me at an arm’s length unless we were alone. This, coming from someone I’d only even had a crush on for a couple of months and suddenly I wanted to wrap my arms around and sob into the shoulder of because I’d never been so overcome with emotion before.

We smiled at each other, frozen in the middle of the room. There are no words for an emotion as strong as that.

He and I pulled through. We’re still pulling through, day by day, smile by smile and song after song. He was there to hold my hand when my uncle passed away, and I was there to drive him to each and every place he needed to be in the weeks after he got emergency dental surgery. It’s been a good three years since we were fifteen and seventeen in matching dark blue prom outfits, and rather as I’m writing this we’re posing as adults and starting to wonder more and more what the living hell we’re doing with our lives, but at least when I see him curled up with one arm under a pillow and snoring I feel a twinge in my gut and remember that if I ever feel alone or scared or wonder if I’m pretty enough to wear a prom dress, he’ll be there with a smile and a reason to tell myself I’m going to be okay.

He wakes up, bleary-eyed, and I ask him, “Do you want me to take you home?”

He lays back down, already falling back into slumber, and I hear him say, “No, I feel better when I’m near you.” And then he’s asleep again.

These last three years of my life convinced me love exists again. There’s no other way to describe the way you feel after hearing something like that.

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