The first boy I fell in love with had tan skin and was hot: in the “smart, sensitive boy who loves their mom and listens to songs that remind them of you” fashion of being hot, but also hot in the “his arms had more muscles than my entire body” style of being hot. He thought I was smart and called me beautiful. Not in the cheesy “Heyyy, beautiful,” not-actually-knowing-your-name-but-still-wanting-to-make-you-feel-special way of calling you beautiful, but more in the “sometimes when you aren’t looking I watch you think, the way you furrow your brows when you are trying to figure something out, the curl of your lips as the words come out — it’s beautiful; you are so beautiful,” way of calling someone beautiful. He was kind and funny and he held my hand waffle-style, each finger interlocking with mine.
Even months after we broke up, I had dreams where he was holding me. I could feel his bicep against my ribcage, his lips hovering above my cheeks. In my dreams, I would roll over and hug him. His heart beating the same as it always did. I could smell him, the way Old Spice only smelled on him. In my dreams, I would look into his moon eyes and he would look into mine. My eyes are like blueberries cut in half, and he would compliment them.
Until I woke up and he was no longer there. I would wake up and have to go get ready for school, wake up and begin yet another day of searching for someone new to watch me when I’m not looking, to find the way my brows furrow when I think beautiful.
When I was younger, I spent hours reading magazines that were supposed to teach me how to flirt. Ask questions. Compliment them. Ask for a small favor. Or a big favor. Ask for a pencil. Or help on your homework. Step on the back of their shoe. Tripping them is all the excuse you need to start a conversation. Twirl your hair. Flip your hair. Don’t touch your hair. Instead, bat your eyelashes, but don’t blink too much. Blinking can become creepy. So can too much eye contact, but still make sure to make eye contact. Flirting became a science my eighth grade self felt the need to master.
The first boy who held my hand had curly hair and a lanky middle-school-boy body. He asked me to be his girlfriend in the middle of a crowed junior high hallway. Holding a tray of cupcakes in my hands, I said “yes” before running in the opposite direction. I refused to kiss him until the third date, partially because I didn’t want to be labeled “slutty” by the onlookers. But mainly because I was terrified that my tongue wouldn’t know what to do. Or that my lips would be too chapped. He had kissed a girl before. What if she was better at kissing then I was?
So instead, I made him hold my hand. A month went by when finally he insisted: “Anna, c’mon, kiss me already.” I did, on the park bench, two blocks away from my building; my eyes opened briefly in an attempt to process everything happening around me. Both our middle school bodies were shaking. When he told me he loved me, I giggled. They hadn’t covered how to process that in the magazines I read. We settled on sending each other emoji hearts back and forth, until I broke up with him in a Starbucks not very long after my first kiss.
After my first breakup, it took me a year to find another mouth to touch mine. I met him in an elevator, batting my eyelashes and twirling my hair. We made small talk until it was my floor, and he asked me for my number. Two weeks later, we sat in the stairs of my building. He asked me if he could kiss me before he leaned in. I answered, “If you want to.” I figured enough time had passed to consider myself some sort of born-again kiss virgin to rebrand the moment as my “second first kiss.” It felt more meaningful that way. He moved his hand away from mine when we walked around in public. I thought this was normal until he broke up with me for thinking I was smarter than I actually was.
The next person I kissed was far too much breast and lipgloss. She had her hair tied up in a bun and my hands against her waist. It felt weird, like there were supposed to be broader shoulders, a bigger body. After we pulled apart, she asked me to make her a playlist, so I did. It was all the saddest songs I knew. Something felt so right in how off all of it was. I tried to build her into the boy I wanted — failing, no matter how hard I closed my eyes.
Then there was the boy I loved. I was his first kiss. My red lipstick got all over him. He spoke to me as if I were someone to be trusted. It always felt like we were dancing, even when we weren’t. The laughter made it hard to breathe when I was around him. My heart beat so fast that I could hear it in my ears. I never told him this. Our time was too short. There wasn’t enough room in the conversation to tell him how much I would miss his hands. And even if I did, he wouldn’t have heard, or he would have and it wouldn’t have mattered.
In the time after the “we” that we were left me, I found myself trying to find a new “him” in every other boy body I could find. In my improv class; in my peer tutor; in the poet I kind of knew; in my friend’s ex-boyfriend; in her new boyfriend; in this guy I saw on Facebook and tried to write an article about. I tried to find him in every new tube of concealer I bought, in every friend of my brother’s who visited our house. But none of these boys were trying to find me back.
None of these boys even knew I liked them. I kept it to myself. Instead, I turned them into fantasies that couldn’t hurt me. We had deep conversations they didn’t know about. They held me when I cried and found the way my nostrils flared when I was angry to be cute. Once, we baked cookies and laughed at the mess I made. It was easy like this. These moments were protected in the world of what wasn’t. Stuck in my brain, they were protected from all the rejection I knew to be out there. I kept them protected until I started to miss the feeling of real warm lips and boy body under my hands.
I began looking for real: in the boy who liked my writing; in the boy who thought I was hot; in the boy who was funny in my class; in the boy who was high in my homeroom; in the boy whose hand brushed against mine in the cafeteria; in the boy on the lunch line next to me. Each real life rejection left me to wonder if another “he” would ever actually materialize.
That is why I was so confused when I finally found a new him, a boy with warm lips and rough hands, a boy with freckled skin who let me rest my ear against his chest as we lay next to each other, a boy who complimented me each time we came up for air.
“I like the way you care. The way you try to fix the world around you.”
“I love the way you laugh. I find myself humming it on the way home.”
“I watch you when you think, the way your brows furrow. It’s beautiful; you are so beautiful.”
And I could see everything I’d been wanting for right in front of me in crisp shorts and a pinstriped shirt. I could touch the way his hair felt underneath my palm as I ran my fingers threw it. The way I pictured running my hand through the hair of so many other guys, guys who didn’t look at me the way he looked at me. The boy in the shorts and the pinstriped shirt, he looked at me like I was so, so beautiful, and I felt beautiful when I was around him, in a way I hadn’t felt beautiful in so, so long. I hadn’t felt beautiful since the last guy who let me run my fingers through his hair.
Have you ever eaten a pint of mint chip ice cream all by yourself? It’s late and you are bored or sad or just craving the way it feels when the minty milk separates from the chips, the texture on your tongue. You hear the voice in your head telling you that you are eating too much: You are about to feel sick. Put a lid on it. The ice cream will still be there tomorrow. But you keep eating it because you have something to prove, or you’re sad, or bored, or don’t realize how full you actually are until you are on the floor of your kitchen. And it is 11:55 at night, and you are yelling at yourself for eating a pint of mint chip ice cream all by yourself. And your stomach feels sloshy and milky and you are too nauseous to cry, so you just lie there staring at your ceiling. This is why I was confused when somehow it felt like this too.
I’ve spent my adolescence looking for acceptance in every hallway and street corner, in every school dance and party I wasn’t invited to. I looked for guys to make me feel special and wanted and loved and beautiful. I wanted to feel beautiful so badly. But when I broke up with the “new him," I didn’t feel lonely or heartbroken, I just felt free. I caught my body changing in the mirror and felt my brows furrow when I began to write a poem, and I thought to myself, You are so beautiful when you think.
It was then that I began to wonder why it had taken me so long to get here in the first place.
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