Tuesday, January 17, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: Schmuck For Love

The combination of nerdhood and puberty has always seemed a cruel one to me. As if your body deciding to abruptly drag the rest of you on a drive through a cactus patch wasn’t enough, you also have to deal with the wide social gulf between everyone else’s interests and yours. And nowhere crueler than with the ultimate minefield of adolescence: gooshy feelings in the loins.

Being a nerd affected my sexual awakening at every turning point. The second such point chronologically, and third in overall importance, was how it changed “The Talk.” I didn’t get “The Talk.” Instead, I got “The Book,” more specifically, “The What’s Happening To My Body Book For Boys,” by Lynda Madaras. It was certainly instructive (up until that point, I’ll admit that the mechanics of sex had somewhat eluded me, despite my brother’s attempts to introduce me to the wonderful world of skin mags), but I felt a bit cheated. The dialogue was one-way (which I guess makes it a monologue), and I inferred that my parents were either uninterested (or unwilling) in talking with me about sex.

Now, I want to state right up front that the lack of communication, in all respects, was my fault. I could have asked anyone, at anytime, any question I had; I didn’t. But being a nerd made it a lot harder than it would have been normally. I had fallen into the trap of nerd superiority; I was convinced that others had a problem with me because I was different, and that it was their problem. I’d placed a chip on my own shoulder and let it grow into a boulder. I wasn’t alone, but I had very easily make the mistake of convincing myself I was alone. And here all my troubles began…

The chronological third, and importantly first, turning point came with a ring of the telephone. I have no idea what I was doing when the call came through, but I’ll say “reading comics” because it’s narratively satisfying. I didn’t answer the call myself; 9 times out of 10, it was for my brother, and there was an unspoken but fiercely understood agreement that I was to come in contact with his social life as little as possible. So I was quite puzzled when my mother handed me the phone and said, “It’s for you.” I crossed the line from puzzlement to flat-out disbelief when she added, “It’s a girl.” Was this a joke? Who would be calling me? For what reason? And for the love of Stan, why a girl?

I didn’t “get” girls. I’ll say that right up front. Truth be told, I didn’t “get” a number of my peers, but especially girls. The way they gossiped, the way they giggled, why they giggled, and most of all why they gave me such funny looks when I asked them to please quiet down or stop ferreting those notes back and forth because it was bugging me. Was it so hard to put off the correspondence until after class? Weren’t we there to learn?

God, I was a schmuck.

Anyway, the young lady of my acquaintance (I’ll be kind and refer to her only by her initials, A.K.) had a message to pass on to me: “L.S. likes you.” I thanked A., if only because it seemed the thing to do, and hung up the phone. Deflecting my mother’s inquiries as only a thirteen-year-old can, I sat in my comic chair and focused my brain around one thought:

“What the hell do I do now?”

Understand: I wasn’t stupid. I watched Saved by the Bell, I knew in a general way how this sort of thing went. But what was I, Michael, supposed to do? What did I have to offer? Was this even genuine? (My mind easily conjured up a dark and giggly coven picking my name out of a hat to torment and misdirect as part of some nefarious and giggly round of Truth or Dare. As I said, I was a schmuck.)

This is where that “convincing myself I was alone” thing came in. With no one to turn to (or rather, no one I was willing to turn to) for advice, I was left to my own counsel on the matter, and of course, he who is his own counsel has a schmuck for a client. Although I hadn’t yet read Hamlet, I had already decided to emulate him, and do nothing until I received independent confirmation. Which, of course, never came, being that L.S. and I didn’t actually have any classes together. Again, I refer you to my above comment re: schmucks.

And so began my long and sad affair with Rosie Palm and her five sisters. While I never made that mistake again, I made plenty more: Not showing any interest until it was too late; showing too much interest; chasing after girls who’d shown negative interest; contenting myself with scrambled porn on Cinemax… you name it, I made it.

Why? Because I was a nerd. And more, because I was wallowing in being a nerd. I didn’t get it, and on some level, I didn’t want to get it, was afraid of getting it. I hadn’t yet reconciled the hopeless nerd I was with the hopeful nerd I would have to be if I expected to get anywhere in life. I didn’t know, didn’t understand, what being a nerd really was: nothing special. It was just a fragment of my identity. But, at that age, a fragment was all I had.

I’m doing better now; I did eventually go on dates and start to gain as much of an understanding of girls/women as any man does. I haven’t really had what I’d call a regular girlfriend, and I can still count my number of sexual encounters on one hand, but I’m further along than I was. Time and the unique challenges of New York are more obstacles than anything else these days. And I’ve learned from the example of my fellow nerds who have overcome their self-absorbed nerdiness and found a happy middle ground. Their example, and the relative wisdom that comes with relative age, has made, hopefully, a better romantic of me.

Epilogue: Full disclosure and narrative convention forces me to reveal the third in importance and second in chronology turning point. The story there is far shorter: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Amy Jo Johnson. Birth of a gooshy feeling.

1 comment:

Lena said...

I wasn’t stupid. I watched Saved by the Bell, I knew in a general way how this sort of thing went.
Firstly, that's hilarious.

Secondly, I know exactly where you're coming from. I'm a nerd and for a long time I thought that my awkward experiences were completely unique. As it turns out, most nerds share some of the same experiences, especially with dating and relationships. A support group of sorts.