In intermediate school I became the lucky beneficiary of my parents' friendship with a senior editor for Bantam Books. They were just launching their Sweet Dreams teen romance line and I received two new freebies in the series each month, which I snarfed up like so much low-grade crack. As a serious, lifelong bibliophile, I knew the books were unoriginal, formulaic crap whose entire plotlines, central conflicts and resolutions could be gleaned by reading the back covers. At the same time, I found their simple and optimistic vision of relationships strongly compelling.
I could relate to the heroines, who were always unremarkable, average plain janes until they were magically transformed by love. And the love came so easily, once they followed the rules: let your hair down from its tight ponytail, freshen up with a little makeup (but not too much!), learn a few basic tidbits about baseball or auto repair or woodworking so you'll have something to talk about with boys (yet be yourself!) and soon you will be swamped with handsome, clean-cut, popular athletes begging for your company (but don't be so dazzled by this that you overlook the shy, cute artist who has been under your nose all along).
The books may have been one-dimensional and predictable, but at the time they were pretty much all I had as a template for teenage dating rituals. Sure, I knew that attracting a boyfriend might take a little more than just strategically dropping my pencil on the floor and batting my eyelashes prettily, a la "The Popularity Plan." But I imagined that once I accomplished this feat, our relationship would play out in the standard manner outlined in the books. We would walk around school holding hands, he would carry my books to class, we would share milkshakes and fries at Foster's Freeze after school, and on special occasions I would receive flowers and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. And suprisingly, I was right - that is essentially what happened when I started to date, probably because neither my few boyfriends nor I were creative enough to deviate from convention.
The funny thing is, I have little recollection of any of these romantic milestones that seemed so critical to me at the time. I have only faint, blurry memories of school dances or Friday night dates, and I have no idea how my boyfriends and I ever commemerated our birthdays or Valentine's Day. In fact, when I try to recall a single moment of real, starry-eyed, weak-in-the-knees romance from this period, what comes to mind doesn't involve anyone I ever dated, but rather a casual friend that I never saw in "that way."
His name was Chris and he was an affable, nice-looking guy who was much-admired for his prodigious musical talent (and indeed, he is now an accomplished professional orchestra conductor). He was also one of the best dancers at school. In the beginning of my junior year I was invited to a wedding or a party or something - I don't recall what - and I got this idea that I should learn how to waltz beforehand. I asked Chris if he would teach me, and he genially agreed. He came over after school a couple of times, and we sat in the backyard drinking lemonade, and he taught me how to do the basic box step, and that was that.
Several months later I was eating lunch with my friends in the school cafeteria, while a rainstorm pounded on the windows outside. Suddenly Chris flew in through the double doors, wet droplets still clinging to his dark hair, and walked right up to my table.
"Aimless, I've been looking for you - would you like to go outside and waltz in the rain?" He made it sound like such a logical course of action - and was so boyishly enthusiastic - that I readily agreed. So we walked out to the quad, and he put up his umbrella, and he put his arms around me, and we spun around and around while he hummed Strauss' Blue Danube in my ear.
To this day that exhilarating whirl through the raindrops stands as one of the most dashing, impulsive, romantic gestures anyone has ever offered me. Strangely, nothing ever came of it. He never asked me out, I never looked at him through new eyes, and we just continued to chat amiably in the hallways and occasionally study our French homework together during free period.
In a way that is probably for the best. If we had dated, we probably would have just crashed and burned into a sad, bitter heap, the fate of most of my attempts at negotiating the minefield of hormones, miscommunication and insecurity that characterized most of my early relationships. Better I should have that one shining moment to remember in all its untarnished glory.
But sometimes I wonder if maybe, for all of my slavish adherence to the Sweet Dreams worldview, I neglected to follow what may have been the most important lesson of all: don't overlook the shy, cute artist who has been under your nose all along.