I’ve been mishandling love from the start. And I’ve got proof.
I keep all my journals from childhood onwards in a cardboard box that mostly remains in the dark next to my sleeping bag and the clothes I keep planning to drop off at Beacon’s Closet, easily forgettable. And then come the evenings where it’s 1 a.m. and suddenly cleaning out my closet seems like a good idea. Before I know it, I’m wearing a polyester golden sweater and the trucker hat I stole from sleepaway camp, wondering why I don’t use these things more often, and then it hits me: my box of journals, the only books I’ve finished writing to date. Sometimes it hits me literally, because I keep it on a high shelf.
There’s something mortifying and fascinating about having 15 or so years of daily minutiae staring you in the face. Some of my friends say they’ve burned or tossed their old diaries out of embarrassment, but there’s something sick and satisfying about rereading the play-by-play of your own trainwrecks. On my way to becoming a Woman (but no longer a girl), I can generally get away with mentally condensing my identity as a kid or teenager as a couple of blurry highlights and lowlights. Reading it straight from the horse sticker-covered source is another story: an episode of This Is Your Life rated PG, PG-13 at best.
The earliest diary I’ve managed to hold onto all these years is from 1996, has The Lion King characters on the front, and comes with that fake keylock we all believed would keep our families from reading it. It has the typical “keep out — this means you” warning in the front, followed by thrilling accounts of going to the store to purchase said diary and going somewhere in the car with my family. There’s a fake letter I wrote to myself about how sad it made me that we didn’t have a dog, no doubt left out in hopes that my parents would read it. Seven-year-old me only made it through a few months worth of sporadic journaling — the entries stop within the first quarter of the pages.
The last thing I wrote was a list of my boyfriends. There were five of them, apparently, so I guess it helped to keep track: John Travolta (the Grease version, give me a break), the star of the local Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat production, a middle-school boy who played the drums during a concert I had to attend for my sister, a lifeguard I saw once, and a boy whom I later decided was poor marriage material based on how often he cursed in our second-grade class.
8/8/01 — The night it rained, he let me put my head on his shoulder and let ME try his coffee/hot chocolate! His girlfriend is sooo lucky.
Nowhere is love so embarrassingly raw and specific (and, more often than not, misguided) as in the pages of our old journals. It’s far from the stories we tell now, our former selves reworked for blog fodder or cast in a more flattering light for a partner — just the unadulterated, completely biased narrative of the way we saw things then. Also, I have never forgotten the benefits of the coffee/hot chocolate combo, especially in work situations when a packet of Swiss Miss and some stale brew are all that awaits in the kitchen.
4/10/03 — Talent show tomorrow! [redacted]’s band will be playing, yumm. He said, “You better be there.” But did he mean “YOU better be there,” or “Everyone better be there and you are part of everyone?”
Later journals were devoted almost entirely whatever boy I was crushing on at the time. I had gotten cues from everywhere — Hey! Arnold, that “Dear Diary” song Britney Spears had on her first album, so yes, everywhere — that this was the stuff stories were made of, and they had to be documented. Outside the world of my embarrassingly detailed scribes, I was learning the clarinet, swimming at the beach, getting a good grade on a science test — yet none of that was nearly as fascinating to me as deconstructing what a seventh-grade boy meant when he said “See you later.”
Somewhere along the way, I had picked up that near-obsessive note taking on our objects of desire was the first step into falling deeply, totally in love forever, because that’s how everything works.
11/5/03 — Yesterday I wore my big gray comfy pants from Carlos (friend from another town). Today, my crush wears HIS gray pants, exactly like mine. Coincidence? Or on purpose? Perhaps he’s just playing with me (haha RIGHT since he hasn’t said one word to me. Whatevs!)
The disparity between the inches I devote to imaginary potential relationships versus any real-life high school romances is telling. The guys I actually called my boyfriends were documented for statistical purposes only (first kiss: 12/20/01; I knew I would somehow let that one slip from memory).
Yet the will-we-or-won’t-we tales of half-friendships, vague interactions, and promises to make out over the summer on AIM cover pages and pages, from fifth grade right through junior year. Had I thought to look back earlier, maybe I could have seen these false leads only led me in circles. I was holding out for the love stories all the John Hughes movies I bought half-off on VHS told me would happen before graduation. Any cute guy in a band could potentially be my Jake Ryan, and I wanted to have all the details right.
2/26/02 — Eighth grade has been very new for me. I have done a lot of things: kissed someone, dated someone, dumped someone, wore a tube top, became friends with an ice skating rink guard.
The common theme that comes out each time I find my journals is that I sound like an idiot, and the year before, I sounded like even more of an idiot. Yet I still carry the box that manages to fit them all from apartment to apartment. I still write more, and add that to the box. Maybe there’s a part of me that feels protective of the girl with all the unrequited crushes, that sock-hop teenager in love, even if that love was one-sided and doomed from the start. Even if I feel the strong urge to time-travel back to 2002, shake teenaged me by my shoulders, saying, “Girl, there are way better things you could be doing with your time.” There was a reason it had all felt so important then, hanging out in suburbia and wondering if I’d ever amount to anything, dreaming that somebody else believed I would.
I still need to write down all the details of something bothering me or interesting to me just to try and make sense of it all. Text conversations with friends today admittedly read similarly to the pained entries of yesteryear, only I’m wondering about OKCupid dates instead of why my lab partner snubbed me in the hallway. I’d like to think I have a better handle on how people work now, but the truth is, I don’t. Every time I come face-to-face with the chance at a relationship, I don’t know what to do with it. Heck, even if I spot it coming from miles out, waving its handkerchief from the cruise deck, I still feel caught off-guard when it comes to liking people. I mean, like-liking people. Parts of being 24 feel like being 13 all over again, although now there’s a nagging sense that I should have figured it out by now. And in five years, I’ll probably be shaking my head at my current self, wondering how I could have been so shortsighted and ridiculous then.
6/30/04 — Jill capewell’s ideal man (for use in checking possibly toxic boy loves in the future): relatively close to me in emotional maturity, likes my friends, doesn’t bum around in town on bikes all day, cares about the environment, nice hair