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It’s Regrets Week though, so in honor of Valentine’s Day—and in lieu of delving into an actual regret (like having to publish this the day after Michael Miner’s startlingly beautiful Regrets Week post)—I’ll revert to exploring “the dark side of romance,” as Miner did so well.
The experience that zapped the regret portion of my emotional range came in the form of a camping trip I took when I was 18. I’m pretty sure I felt epic regret prior to that day, mainly because I allowed my heart to be shredded by my 16-year-old boyfriend, who, to make matters worse, was a classic Nice Guy. But from that camping trip forward, all regret was muted. While I could vaguely sense its former presence, I could no longer pinpoint regret’s shape or substance.
It's worth noting that high school is the place where, for many people, regret is born. (For a far smaller number of us, myself included, it’s also where regret dies.) Those four years present ample opportunities for making formative life choices that end in devastating mistakes.
His name was Harry. I remember the first time I saw him. It was in Latin class. (The part about him being a Nice Guy is true, see? Only Nice Guys take Latin.) The teacher, calling out attendance on the first day, ventured his name—“Harold?”—to which he replied:
Half the room giggled. He turned red. I felt awful for him.
After several missteps (OK, mistakes I no longer regret) with some seemingly crueler types, I started dating him. It seemed like the smart thing to do. I had tended to fall for brooding, angsty, mysterious dudes. The good-on-paper, heart-on-your-sleeve guys weren’t my type. But I gave in. And it was . . . perfect. For a minute anyway. Then he ruined Nice Guys for me forever.
He dumped me for a cheerleader.
A year and a half later, I was still pissed. I’m pretty sure I didn’t speak to him once after the breakup. I remember walking down an empty ice-blue hallway while class was in session—a really long hallway, one I still have unpleasant dreams about—and he stepped out of a classroom about 1,000 feet in front of me and we were forced to walk toward each other for what seemed like eternity, all the while averting our eyes, and I thought I would scream but I held it together and did my best to simply move on.
We had one other class together, besides Latin: Developmental Psychology. It was a class that only the highest achievers were allowed to take, which always struck me as weird, in that all we did was sit around and talk about ourselves and our feelings. You took Dev Psych I when you were a freshman, then reconvened for Dev Psych II when you were a senior to gauge how much you had, um, developed psychologically.
In Dev Psych II, we listened to recordings we’d made for our 18-year-old selves back when we were 14. We wrote biographies without signing our names and tossed them into a hat, picking one and trying to guess the author. I titled mine “_______: An Introduction,” a nod to “Seymour: An Introduction,” which I assumed every teenager on Earth had read 12 times. But the girl who picked my folded piece of paper couldn’t even begin to guess who—or what—it was. She could only say, judging from the content and the handwriting, that it must be a guy.
The worst was this horrifying exercise where you had to sit in a chair and your Dev Psych classmates formed a circle around you. One of them would ask you a tough yes-or-no question and throw you a ball. You had to answer quickly, before you caught the ball, then throw it to another person who would throw it back to you with another question, and so forth. Students in this class of “high achievers” admitted to all kinds of fucked up shit, like smoking crack. It was Fifteen Minutes in Hell, even as a spectator.
Then it was my turn. I was asked the typical drug questions, yadda yadda yada. It looked like I was getting off easy. Then, it happened.
Interrogator 1: “Have you ever been in love?”
(Whatever, everyone says yes.)
Interrogator 2: “With someone in this school?”
(There are close to 2,000 people in this school. I’m good.)
Interrogator 3, innocently joking, assuming that the object of my now-tainted affection would surely have been some brooding, angsty, mysterious dude as opposed to a Dev Psych II high-achiever guy: “With someone in this room?”
(Half the room giggles, believing the question is a throwaway. I turn red. Really? I have to do this? In front of all these people? In front of him?)
Early summer in Georgia is a glorious thing. I’m driving to the mountains with my best friend. The windows are down. We’re listening to a mixtape I recently made: the Orb, Pet Shop Boys, the Stone Roses. There are a few more weeks of classes left, but who are we kidding? It’s the unofficial end of high school. And she and I are about to place little white squares of paper under our tongues that will send shivers down our spines and make everything hilarious, at first, then meaningful, then frighteningly overwhelming. We’re on our way to the Dev Psych II camping trip on Lake Allatoona. Why not?
This could have been the worst idea ever, which would have meant that I’d still regret it till this day. But this was actually a very good idea. And I don’t regret anything.
We don’t tell anyone what we’re up to, not the few dozen classmates who are gathered around (my ex is there, pitching a tent with his girlfriend), certainly not the Dev Psych II teacher, who is perhaps over-accustomed to unorthodox teenage behavior.
Weeks later classmates will remark, in bubbly letters in the back of my senior yearbook, how amazed they were at my energy level on that camping trip, how utterly confident I was, how I kept the campfire conversation going until the wee hours of the morning. All of that was highly uncharacteristic; I had hated talking in class. I had gotten to the point where I hated talking to people, period.
Even more remarkable than my confidence and energy level, they will note, was the clarity and honesty with which I spoke on the most interesting topic of the night.
I’m sitting there, part of this circle of classmates, staring at flames. The teacher/chaperone is long asleep. People are throwing out questions, not to an on-the-spot individual but casually to the group. Someone brings up soul mates.
I’m not so sure about that, I say. But I do know that there is an ideal guy for me.
Everyone goes quiet. I proceed to explain, in brief but specific terms, what I believe makes love real. And the recipient of that love, I tell them, exists clearly in my head. I know everything about him, as if we’ve been together for a long time and I’m merely remembering the details. Then I describe him.
It's not Harry.