All names have been changed to protect the innocent. It’s not their fault I couldn’t close the deal.
Over the years I’ve had my share of romantic entanglements. Some of those entanglements have given rise to a decent story or two, and someday those stories may inspire me to put pen to paper and share them with you. But the best stories – the funniest, the most entertaining – are about the missed opportunities. And those are legion! Let me share with you one of my favorite missed opportunities. Come with me, if you will. Let me be your sherpa up Blue Balls Mountain. Watch and learn how a certified Grand Master cockblocks himself.
When I was sixteen I somehow found myself ensconced within that strange, mercurial clique known as The Popular Kids, which always struck me as a misnomer since the majority of kids outside that clique hated the lot of them. I’m still not sure how I ended up within their circle, and I’m mystified by how long I stayed in it. Their initial appeal was certainly obvious. The boys were confident, the girls were pretty, and they always had a lot of fun. I would sit with the guys at their table in the cafeteria. I would listen to them castigate one another in the most infectiously deplorable terms, impugn each other’s manhood, ridicule the income of another’s parents. The girls would sit two tables back and the boys would try to catch a peek up their skirts from the reflection in their watches. The girls would come up to me at my locker and lean against my neighbor’s with the most comely posture. They would laugh at my uninspired, spineless attempts at humor with enthusiastic sincerity. When one of them would ask me to drive them home after school, I would readily agree. Once in the car, focusing on the music selection was all I could do to prevent myself from pitching a painfully obvious tent from behind the wheel.
The irony was that I had gravitated to them in the hope of gaining some self-confidence. Oh, they like me and they’re cool, so I must be cool. I was part of their crew for a year, and for that whole year I wore my paranoia like a Castilian panoply. I expected to be found out at any moment, to be exposed as a fraud and a thief. I was like a low-level wiseguy who had betrayed the family and now, surrounded by them all, didn’t know if he was going to be kissed or killed. I expected Jason Barracus to turn into Robert De Niro and send me down an alley to pick up some dresses. Did I ever make a move on one of the girls? No way. How much did I contribute to the boys’ back-and-forth? Take your hand and touch the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb. That much.
One night I attended a party at Mark Maloney’s house set deep in the Byzantine arbor of Medford. I was at a disadvantage before I had even arrived. I knew kids would be drinking with a capital “D,” but my father was driving me and he would be picking me up at the end of the night. You see, my testicles had yet to descend and I did not want to be on the receiving end of his wrath when he picked up his inebriated son. So, upon arrival, I promptly grabbed a Budweiser, cracked it open, and proceeded to nurse that bastard for the better part of four hours.
I made two observations over the course of those four hours. One, lukewarm Bud tastes like Satan’s piss. Two, I had no business being there. There were boys holding themselves upside-down over a keg of beer and they had hoses in their mouths. Greg Bateman was sitting on the edge of a pool table and Tori Moore was sitting next to him and she was smiling at him and laughing and hanging on his every word and he was talking to her like a big jerk. There were three girls huddled in a corner of the basement sharing a marijuana joint and they were giggling in a crazy creepy way and it smelled weird. Jason Barracus was sitting on some milk crates with a case of beer at his feet and he was drinking one and everyone was sitting around him and Bobbi May kept sitting on Jason’s lap until he grabbed her privates and she would hop off and laugh and walk away, then she would come back and sit on his lap again and laugh and spill her beer on herself and laugh again and then Jason would grab her again and…
WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE!?!
After a while, I had taken enough laps around the basement to wear a groove into the floor. Just as I had to come to the conclusion that there was nothing for me at this party, Leigh Mara wobbled up to me.
Leigh Mara was tall and thin, possessed an acerbic sense of humor and a body made to turn priests off kids. She was one of those girls every boy wanted – you know the ones. I was certainly no exception. We had been friendly up to that point, hung out within the company of others a few times. I had always been respectful and gentlemanly toward her in the hope that, Maybe she’ll see I’m a nice guy and she’ll like me. Granted I had applied my modus operandi to every girl I had hoped to attract, but that didn’t make it any less sincere. Or anemic.
And now, on this night, for whatever reason, Leigh Mara, her most recent beer clutched in one hand, stumbled to within six inches of me. Her taut upper body, all the more enticing with the Nineties midriff, waved like a drunken flag. Her hair danced as her head loped from side to side. Her lips thinned to an out-of-focus smile. She leaned into my face and implored, “Tony, hook up with me.”
Just so we’re all clear, I’ll reiterate that in more prosaic terminology: Leigh Mara invited me to make out with her.
Many of you reading this may never have had the pleasure of experiencing the phenomenon of a beautiful woman unambiguously hitting on you. I assure you, I understand. You hear in your head the airy refrain of, “If only…” as if tragically intoned by a Gregorian choir. A wistful sigh is escaping your body. If you tried, you could even squeeze out a tear or two. I’ve been there, folks. But on this night, the dream came true. The opportunity to live out my own little PG-13 Penthouse Letter opened her arms to me. All I had to do was reach out and embrace her.
Of course I didn’t.
“Why not?” you’re screaming. Because this is how sixteen year-old Tony Petracci’s mind processed this information: I know what’s going to happen. I’ll say yes and go to take her hand and lead her to someplace private. She’ll pull away, start laughing like a hyena, and go tell everybody, “He actually thought he could hook up with me!” The house will fill with malevolent snickering. People will approach me under a pretense of sympathy and turn it into backhanded mockery. I’ll become the Punchline That Wouldn’t Die.
Hey, how many of you understood at sixteen that no one is paying attention to you?
I politely said with utmost compassion, “You’re drunk, Leigh. You don’t want to do that.” She staggered off, but five minutes later she shambled up to me again. “Toooooonyyyyyyy, hook up with meeeeeeee!” She literally begged me. And I refused again!
She didn’t try a third time.
In retrospect it’s not surprising that, within a few months of this incident, a Tony-is-gay rumor started swirling about the school.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that my life would have been totally different had I hooked up with Leigh Mara. This isn’t Mr. Destiny. I look at this bit of self-mortification as little more than an entertaining story about a missed opportunity. But it was a missed opportunity of my own creation, and it makes me consider the scores of other people who have allowed their own heads to get in the way of achieving some modicum of happiness, however fleeting and shallow it may be. So many of those people are quality human beings whose negative self-images, from wherever they may spring, prevent them from fulfilling their potential. The greater irony is that so many success stories who think highly of themselves are irredeemable wastes of oxygen who contribute nothing of value to the world.
Christ! No wonder people thought I was gay.