Can I tell a romantic gesture to politely fuck off?
If I had had the vocabulary, that’s what I would have been thinking on Valentine’s Day in 6th grade. Instead, I stared at my desk in silence, eyeing the ticking time-bomb that sat on top of it: a small, cardboard purse full of chocolates. A quick glance around the room - no other desk had it. In preteen-boy chicken-scratch writing, it read: From - Jack. That alone caused me no grief. Jack did not, in neither name nor personhood, make me feel anything. No, I was welcomed into a special hell because that it said my own name. And that’s what made my ribs crack open and my heart drop to the soles of my etnies. I did not want this. I did not want to deal with this. I did not want to acknowledge it. But the bell to start class was moments from ringing out, and I was going to have to confront this.
And so I did the very, very brave thing. I took that cardboard purse and shoved it in the front zipper of my Jansport and left it there for 3 years.
What was I supposed to do? I hadn’t been trained to rebuff! What movies and TV had been trying to train me to do was acknowledge the bravery of boys for putting their precious hearts on the line...for loooooove.
But what if I didn’t care? Nobody taught me to say no. And so I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I ignored him and the stupid purse and the bad chocolates entirely. It wasn’t until I was cleaning out that backpack in high school to prepare for a bad and boujee North Face upgrade that I remembered it ever happened. I reminisced on the moment, solidifying it as a (terrible) lesson learned: wow, just ignoring a problem seems to work pretty well!
GIve me some credit though, I didn’t always just ignore unwanted romantic gestures. A few years later, I learned to outright deny them!
It was 8th grade. Math class. The last semester before we upgraded to full-fledged high school ballers. My desk was sandwiched between my best friend Grace and a guy I had known for 8 years, Adam. It was fun. We goofed constantly and learned geometry occasionally. With only 3 months left until summer, I felt like I had it made. Until Adam leaned to me one day in class and whispered: “Hey. Guess what?”
I whispered back: “What?”
Adam smiled: “I like you.”
Damn it. Our friendship flashed before my eyes and I saw it all: laughter, the pythagorean theorem. The only thing I didn’t see? A single moment that felt like I had exuded or implied any sort of romantic or flirtatious vibe. Yet here we were - again I was forced to confront something that I did not want. But I was a few years older now, and a few years wiser. So I didn’t just shove Adam in my backpack and leave him in there for 3 years.
I did the even braver thing. I took a breath, looked him in the eyes, and said: “No, you don’t.”
His smile faded and he said “Oh uh...yeah, you’re right, I don’t.”
And then I ignored him for the 3 months until we graduated and parted ways forever.
Okay, the whole ignoring-him-for-3-months thing didn’t exactly fill me with pride, but I understand it. I didn’t know that I was allowed to say no. I did what I could to protect myself in the best way I knew how, as ill-equipped as I was. But the older I got, the more I started to see my experience reflected back at me. I saw women saying no to things they didn’t want. I tried it. It felt good and it felt right. I said no to school dances that expected dates. I said no to men who asked me out while I was at work. And once I said a big ol’ no to alcohol for good, gosh, saying no to things got even easier.
Of course, there are moments when I wish I had said no. Moments I wish I could re-live, re-work, undo. But when I think of that Valentine’s Day in 6th grade, I don’t cringe anymore. I laugh. Because it’s hilarious. So what if I didn’t know how to say no to a boy I’d known since I was 5 after he put a dumb chocolate-filled paper purse on my desk? That’s okay. I got there eventually.