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Crushing From Afar

It’s safe here in the world of fantasy — there’s nothing risky or scary

Crush City is a biweekly column following the romantic misadventures of New York City high school junior, Anna Koppelman. Her conquests include studying her crush in geometry instead of isosceles triangles and making a secret Pinterest board for the wedding she is definitely going to have with her older brother's friend. Anna may not be talking to any of her exes, but she’s happy to write about them.

My future husband is somewhere in the middle of America in love with a girl named Trisha Marsh who has a really nice ass.

She is in his English class. He watches the way her blonde hair bounces off her shoulders as she raises her hand. He has talked to her exactly three times: She asked him for a pencil, she asked if he was okay when he tripped on the strap of her backpack, he commented on the weather (“It’s cold”).

He comes home from school to an empty kitchen that’s decorated with moss green cabinets and clay tiles. Family photos line the walls. The snapshots are always taken on some kind of adventure: skydiving, hiking some mountain, scubaing in the Galapagos. In the pictures, everyone’s always smiling.

I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of these pictures. Are they really happy in them or are they trying to prove that they are? One day I will ask him. We will sit on a couch in his apartment. He will pour me a glass of Riesling. The bottle will rest on the table — he doesn’t worry about coasters. He’ll nurse a cold beer. I’ll ask about the photos at his parents'. What really happened on those vacations? He will sigh, push the hair out of my face, look at me: “Are we happy in the pictures we take now?” I will nod. He will lean in and kiss me.

But that is in the future.

Right now, he is walking into his kitchen. He opens the freezer and pulls out a box of pizza bagels. Today they are the pepperoni flavor. He puts them in the microwave and waits for them to finish warming up to their soggy, chewy, slightly stale, natural state. One day he’ll talk to me about the pizza bagels like I talk about my first boyfriend — there’s a sense of nostalgia for the high sodium and the fake meat flavor, the way the cheese clung to the back of his throat as he swallowed. I’ll spend hours online trying to find the exact right flavor of pizza bagel. He will come home after a long day of work, open the freezer for some ice or maybe some gelato, and he will find himself looking into a pit of pizza bagels and a note that says “I love you.” He’ll pop a box of them into the microwave, hear the beep, place one in his mouth. Suddenly he is back in the middle of nowhere thinking about Trisha Marsh, her butt, and the way she wrote quotes on her arm.

I hate flirting. There is something so vulnerable in it — in letting the person you are standing in front of know that the way your hand just ran through your hair has been practiced countless times in front of your bathroom mirror. In letting the person know that you tried on five different outfits and changed your lipstick three times that morning, just in case you happened to pass him in the hallway. In letting him know that you spent half your Saturday reading David Foster Wallace essays because you were thinking about what you two would talk about on the phone late at night. How you would tell him about the Nora Ephron quote tattoo you want (elegant, small, cursive, underneath your left breast). How he’ll ask you why.

You will talk about being a self-described essayist and how “everything [really] is copy.” He will chuckle because he likes you, and the things you write, and the fact that you want to get a tattoo of a quote by some deceased romcom writer. And then he’ll contribute his part of the conversation: “So, you like essays. Have you read any Wallace?” and you will not even be quick enough to connect the David Foster to the Wallace, so you will ask “Who?” By the time you realize, it will be too late to save the situation. He will have called your bluff. You are not as true an essayist as you have led him to believe. So you’ve decided to nip the issue in the bud and spend your Saturday reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

There is something vulnerable in letting another human know that sometimes you can’t fall asleep because he pops into your head just when your eyes are about to close and you can’t help but picture what it will be like when he finally kisses you. How he’ll touch your arm look at your lips and ask, “Can I kiss you?” and you will answer something better than “If you want to,” because you have had time to think of your answer.

Maybe it will be raining, or snowing — kissing always seems more romantic when something is falling from the sky. His lips will be soft when they finally touch yours, his tongue you imagine is tasteful. But really all small details of that sort can be fixed. What matters is the weather, and the fact that you will be wearing the very particular blue American Eagle dress you bought thinking it would be perfect for this occasion. There is something so vulnerable in admitting that to another human. I guess I assume that if I were to walk up to a guy and say something like, “That shirt really makes your eyes pop,” or even if I were to just walk up to him and say, “Hey, how was your weekend?” I guess I assume that, somehow, I would be admitting all of the above too.

I’m 22 and living in a walk-up with my best friend. A friend of my brother’s and a childhood crush of mine is visiting town for a few days. I invite him out to dinner so we can “catch up.” We get a little buzzed. My hair is wavy with light blond highlights. I am wearing a peach off-the-shoulder dress. I lined my eyes with a light black pencil. We are talking about Proust or global conflict or whatever sophisticated adults talk about when they’re out to dinner. And then I lean back in my chair and say, “You know I used to be in love with you when I was a teenager. Like, eleventh-grade me would have done anything to get to be with you.” He will laugh, say, “No way.” The mood will shift slightly, the way it always does when you admit attraction. He will look at me. I will look back. We will ask for the check. He will walk me back to my walk-up. Kiss me in front of the stairs. I will invite him up.

It is safe here in the world of fantasy, of crushing from afar. There is no intimacy I cannot control, no fight I don’t materialize. No one knows I sleep with two teddy bears, one in each arm, or what I look like with my shirt off. There is nothing risky, or scary, in living here. In the pizza bagels, in the Wallace, in the stairs. All wrongs done are a figment of my own imagination.

The last time I saw my grandmother, the hospital bed seemed to swallow her. My 8-year-old body wondering where her voice went, where her bright lipstick was. After she died, I developed a tick. I couldn’t go to sleep without telling my mom I loved her again and again: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” It had to be perfect. Death was this terrifying, looming thing that never left me alone. The night my grandmother died, I listened to the song “Stan” for the first time. I still can’t go over a bridge without shaking a little. What if I tell a guy this? Tell him all the dark corners and eerie edges? What if he finds my sadness, my panic attacks, to be too much and decides to leave — what then? Or, worse, what if I tell him about the happy times, and I make him a playlist of all the songs that make me smile, and then he leaves, and I can’t stop crying, and my cheer-up playlist is ruined because every song on it now reminds me of him? What if he finds a way to take away the happy I have spent years building up? What then?

So, instead, I picture it. The curve of a hand on the small of my back. Falling asleep, my head nestled into strong arms. We analyze poetry together. We watch bad TV shows. I am 16 or 18 or 23. Time doesn’t matter. In my head, my romance can be anything. The loneliness is stagnant in its consistency. The joy is of my own volition.

And then I saw Emit. Tall with smooth skin. His hair is swept up. His lips curl at the end. His t-shirt looks soft and worn-in. He sees me standing in my blue American Eagle dress, says: “Hey, Anna.” I feel my fingers shake as I grip my lunch tray. I don’t want to picture us going sledding in the snow, how we will find ourselves on top of each other, my hair covered in ice. How he’ll look at me and smile, and how I’ll lean in and kiss him. I don’t want to dance with him in my kitchen to melancholy indie music. I don’t want to fall asleep as we watch a movie. I want to sit down next to him and ask him how his weekend was.

I say: “Hey.”

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