August 4, 2013

And kid, you better get the picture.

In the winter of my sophomore year at college, I became single for the first time.

This was new terrain. I was like a small house cat, raised in captivity and then released into the wild. My instincts were telling me to go out, be free, meet people. But I knew how to do none of those things; I was both enthusiastic and fearful that I'd find myself halfway up a tree before realizing I didn't know how to get down.

A friend who I'd long been attracted to invited me over one Friday night. She was having a house party at her off-campus apartment, and it was clear from the start that she was interested in me. Any apprehension was swallowed by adrenaline and alcohol; we spent the evening chatting away. It probably also helped that she was well on her way to falling-down drunk.

As the party ended, she walked me to the front door, and then into the street. We started making out in front of her building. Eventually her friends dragged her back inside; I found out later that she had been sorta seeing someone else at the time.

But that's no matter to a young man on the prowl. Still fueled by excitement and confused curiosity, I was invited over again a few days later to drink wine and watch Sex and the City. One thing led to another, and I ended up staying the night. It all felt relatively organic and natural. Sure, things were moving very fast, but it wasn't like we were strangers.

You'd think that I'd be on cloud nine; a few weeks after breaking up with my girlfriend, I'd stumbled upon a new lady who seemed to like me a whole lot. Talk about the perfect rebound, right?

Nope. In fact, just the opposite. Suddenly, I was petrified of everything. A switch had flipped in my head; for me, the game had changed. Things were going well, sure, but I had no idea what was happening or how I'd managed to back my way into such a wonderful scenario. Therefore, I was sure that I'd screw it all up.

So I tried to tread lightly. I couldn't call her to shoot the shit or even ask her out for dinner; I was too afraid. Too much pressure, too much room for error. What do you say to girls on the phone?! When I was in a relationship, my answers had felt predetermined. "Sure, let's go there tonight." Now I'd have to think on my feet, be clever. Was I even capable of that?

And my parents hadn't yet paid for a text message package; this was 2005, America was still on the cusp of the SMS revolution. So I couldn't send the casual "what are you up to tonight" messages that now drive 98% of all burgeoning sexual and romantic relationships worldwide.

So I'd send her texts through AOL Instant Messenger; this was back in the service's heyday, and one of its features allowed for messaging to mobile numbers. But you had to be by your computer to compose (or receive) them. So on Thursday nights, when she was presumably out in the world, I'd try and find out what she was up to.

And then I'd wait. I wasn't exactly chained to my laptop, waiting for a message from her with my heart in my throat. But I'd be hanging out with my friends in the other room, only to leap up every 10 minutes or so to peek at my messages. Sometimes, there'd be a reply. Most of the time, radio silence.

Occasionally, I'd summon up the courage to invite her to parties. But the only off-campus friends I had threw big, sweaty affairs that were barely fun for guys, let alone girls. There's nothing impressive about dragging a lady to a humid apartment with seven beers in the fridge and a bunch of dudes staring at whoever walks through the door.

Or I'd drunk dial her; nothing gets your courage (temporarily) up like a few domestic light lagers. But our conversations were far from substantial; even though drinking helped me dial her number, it didn't offer any advice on what to say once she picked up. My liquor-fueled ramblings ended up hurting more than they helped. It became obvious, certainly to me and probably to her, that single me was meek and sad.

Eventually, our "relationship" petered out. I still saw her every now and then; a few years later, it seemed like the spark between us might light up again. Alas, it was not to be. I suspect that, ever since our awkward string of interactions, even my mature and reasonable advances were colored by the memory of an utter inability to hold a normal conversation with a fun person. I took myself out at the knees.

Luckily, I can look back on this whole turn of events now and laugh. I went through at 19 what most people go through at 15; I suspect the whole thing would've been a lot easier if beer and college hadn't been involved. Battling against crippling insecurities are a young (and sober) man's game.

But, as a self-aware person who uses his painful mistakes to promote growth, I learned a lot. My inexperience with the opposite sex was bound to torpedo my existence eventually; in retrospect, I'm pleased that it happened so quickly. And pretty soon after, I talked my parents into the unlimited text package. There's always a silver lining.

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