Crush or crush through

Like the infamous Black Monday stockmarket crash, the events surrounding my first crush began towards the end of 1986, and ended abruptly in 1987. I spent Year Four and Five in London, and like most of the boys in my class, I “fancied”, as we termed it in our ridiculous Cockney patois, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmate called – well, I won’t name her, because if the quick Googling I just did is correct, she’s married, and it would seem wildly inappropriate if she somehow read this article.

Besides, she might hold a torch for me, and… whoa, it’s only the second paragraph and things are already getting weird. Let’s rapidly back out of this particular line of thinking.

She was from New Zealand, and she and I were the best readers in the class, a fact that I offer in an attempt to make us seem like star-crossed lovers, but which probably says more about the relative quality of Antipodean public education. We even lived in the same building. Although again, not so much of a coincidence when I admit that it was a hall of residence specifically designed for Commonwealth students with families, like our parents.

And yet I nevertheless somehow convinced myself that we had a Special Bond, and that we were Destined To Be.

Destined to be what, I can’t exactly recall. We were only nine, so I presumably had grand romantic visions of us being library monitors together.

But I can still remember how it felt to become painfully conscious of where she was in the class, what she was doing, and who she was talking to when she wasn’t talking to me. Which was almost all of the time, unfortunately – we were never friends, and if I recall, my attempts to win her favours involved a great deal of avoiding her, and on those rare occasions we actually spoke, adopting a rather unhelpful proto-sarcasm.

In fact, I’m pretty sure we used to insult one another, like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, except that in her case I doubt the outward contempt hid anything deeper. But in my case, her presence inspired unfamiliar feelings of warmth and longing, and I began to feel the first stirrings of the self-consciousness that would make my adolescence such a non-stop treat.

While she and I had a great deal in common, particularly our homesick resentment about being at that dreadful inner-London school, I can’t in hindsight understand why all the boys talked about her instead of anybody else. It now occurs to me that it must have been horribly awkward for her when they did. She probably did like me more then them, entirely because I never told anybody.

To cite just one in a year’s worth of examples, I remember on a school camp, a fistfight broke out in the boys’ dorm because one boy claimed that she was at that very moment “brushing her hair for me”, and another boy took exception, boldly asserting that it was with him in mind that she was preening her lengthy locks. Whereas I remember thinking that she was probably just brushing her hair because she wanted to get it dry, and then mentally congratulating myself for my superior insight into her ways.

What we would have done if she had been brushing her hair “for” any of us, I’ve no idea. Even the thought of a peck on the cheek was uncharted territory in primary school, of course. If my boldest designs had come off, we probably just would have played Travel Scrabble together, and I would have been H-A-P-P-Y. (15 points.)

It’s not just me that remembers my first attraction, as I discovered a few years ago at a twenty year reunion for the Sydney school to which I returned in Year 6. After a few drinks, at least one guy made a drunken dancefloor declaration that he’d been in love with another reunionee back in Year Six. It was hilarious on the night, but I bet there was nothing funny about those first tender feelings back in the days when we were all wearing blue polyester tracksuits.

The thing I find remarkable about my own first crush 26 years ago was its intensity. I could think of little else during the year she spent at our London school, and when she returned to Auckland, I was both heartbroken and somewhat relieved. I’d thought of telling her before she left, but I never did. I’m glad I copped out, because really, what possible good could have come from it?

Okay, so we might have started writing to one another, and one thing might have followed another and… shut up. I told you, she’s married.

The question of whether one should declare one’s secret love was the subject of a typically brilliant Daniel Kitson routine which I saw earlier in the year. He recounted a recent situation where he’d realised he’d fallen for a friend,  and shared a number of pithy reflections on the subject of unrequited crushes which dredged up some uncomfortable laughs from many of us, myself includedt.

You don’t fall in love with someone in those situations, he said. You fall in love at them, because it’s entirely one-directional. We romanticise the years of unrequited devotion shown by Cyrano de Bergerac and Sydney Carton or Jay Gatsby, but in the real world, all of that lofty, intense emotion deflates immediately when pricked by the cruel thorn of indifference. Or should, if you’re to remain sane.

And furthermore, as Kitson pointed out, it seems an act of the most appalling self-indulgence to unburden yourself like that, for the very reason that the other person is somehow expected to carry your burden instead. In such instances a problem shared isn’t a problem halved, it’s a problem multiplied. In many ways, declaring one’s hand is an appalling act of narcissism.

And yet, after making powerful arguments against such gestures, which tend to ignore the subtle, unambiguous signals that crushers are sent by crushees if only they stop being captivated by the vast nobility of their souls for long enough to pick up on them, Kitson told us that he had decided to tell her anyway. I admired his bravado, at least.

But crushes aren’t simple when you’re grown up, not like they were in primary school when everybody’s lives were uncomplicated and anyone was fair game. As an adult, crushes are a curse. Because in adulthood, if you like someone and they’re single, there’s really no excuse for not either trying to do something about it, or giving up and moving on.

For grown-ups, the crushes that linger and fester are the unrequited ones on people in relationships. And in those cases, the only sensible approach is to soldier on as though they don’t exist. How would our society even function if everyone who experienced an intense attraction to someone else simply went around dramatically throwing their cards onto the table? There are good reasons for keeping these things bottled up. Ask Gatsby.

Spoiler alert: In fact, you can’t ask Gatsby, because he’s dead, because of his crush. I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us. He wouldn’t necessarily have been any happier if he’d bottled up his feelings for Daisy Buchanan, but he would certainly have been more alive.

And if my first crush from the mid-1980s does somehow read this article, I’m over it, honestly. No, really, I am. Besides, I’m pretty sure I was the better reader.

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