Unrequited Love

Tag, You’re It: One Man on Learning Reciprocity Isn’t a Given

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When I was young and stupid, as I have been most of my life, I assumed a certain symmetry in the feelings of others — if I felt it, surely they would. On the playground I asked Jake if he wanted to play tag with me. He did, and brought his friend Chris.

“This is awesome!” I thought. “Jake wants to play tag with me. This is going perfectly.” And it did. Chris had a good time too, probably, I didn’t ask him.

When I was 21 I was still a pretty good tag player, probably better than I was at eight. I had gotten way taller and faster and could probably dominate a whole elementary school if I wanted to. Unfortunately, the other areas of my life had not progressed as steadily — namely my ability to communicate with women.  I was still intimidated by the thought of approaching someone in public, so I leaned on the digital crutch of the internet and did most of my window shopping on social media sites.  This is how I got to messaging Candice — a friend of a friend — on Facebook.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, I can still read these old messages I spent hours carefully constructing.  My first message to her was a masterpiece.  I wanted to make my entrance smooth, sincere, yet mysterious.

“I am interested in peanut butter, satire, and Batman.”

Golden.  Nailed it.

“So you are an English major, that is way cool. I actually just wrote a novel…”

By now she must be thinking, wow, this kid is clearly drowning in art school pussy. By what grace has he crossed paths with me?  I sent the finished note after hours of sweaty deliberation – it was exactly 1.5 paragraphs, some of my shortest but most passionate work. Tag! You’re it, Candice.

Within hours my message was replied to. Not just replied to; anted. Five paragraphs dwarfed my meager endorsement of myself.

“It’s quite sad to see that all things literary in nature are shunned in art school.”

It was, Candice. Feel my pain.

“I want to know about you!” she said. “Don’t hold back silly buns!”

What followed was not dissimilar to a scene from Elizabethtown or any number of manic pixie dream girl movies. The letters turned to essays and short novels, exchanged daily — I can’t believe some of the shit I wrote:

“As for your day, the unnecessary tangents and non-sequiturs did not impair the story — in fact, they made the story. The way the beauty of a symphony might lie in the Cadenza, your charm is revealed in this nuances and corners of each narrative movement.”

Jesus. But they were returned with passion just as ardent:

“I am also pleasantly pleased to see we are on the same page with various issues and ideas. It’s, quite frankly, fantastic. I think that’s one factor that makes this conversation so easy and wonderful, among other things. And Batman! I’m assuming you prefer him to Superman.”

Of course I do Candice. I vowed to make her mine. There was only one fatal flaw in my plan – Candice’s geographical location, in the center of Nebraska.

“Gothenberg, that’s in the middle,” I messaged her.  I drug the map cursor to 299 miles from Denver. “Oooh, look there’s a park.” I took a screenshot, opened it up in Photoshop.

“Here’s where the cannons will go,” I explained, drawing stick figure rotors on the roof of a quaint ranch house near a swing set.  “And the moat…Here.” Shark fins protruded from the paintbrush waves in the front yard grass.

“BUAhahahaha!” Candice lol’d. “Our evil lair is coming along nicely, Mr. Anderson.”

We talked on the phone a lot at that time, so I’m not sure exactly how the next event came about. What I do have is another message in the fall that begins:

“Okay, so I am ironing out the details of the trip!”

“That plan is delightfully perfect,” she replied. “I will be done with things by about noon and will be yours for the rest of the day :)”

I packed an entire box of condoms. Presumptuous, yes, but after an invitation to stay at her place, on her “couch,” I was planning for the inevitable. Driving in the early autumn fog I could see .jpgs of her face filling the sky, a flip-book I had been helping myself to from Facebook for months. I was emotionally charged beyond reason.  Would she want to elope immediately, or was that more of a second trip kind of thing?  Could I move to Nebraska as soon as I graduated?  I hoped her roommate would have the common decency to vacate on the lease for us, so we could stretch each other across the couch as we exchanged bodily fluids and Kerouac quotes.

I arrived at noon on the dot.

“Mrrrr. ANDerson.” Candice greeted me, with the inflection from The Matrix — which I of course had never heard before. It didn’t matter — to her, it was new. To us, everything was new. The day was nothing short of my expectations — we wandered the art building of her college, giggled silently to each other over the abstract paintings that malcontent freshman had carved into innocent canvases.

“I can’t even begin to understand what I’m looking at here. But they clearly want us to sit down and think about it.”  A leather chair had been placed in front of a seven foot charcoal spiral that was smeared with fingerprints in the center.

Candice sat in the recliner, myself on a crate beside her.

“I think they don’t know what they think.” She explained.  “Maybe they started with a whole different plan for it, drawing a big ring — and they kept thinking if I get a little further into the center I’m going to think of something but then they didn’t.  Hence the fingerprints.  They’re trying to claw their way out of their own work, I think.”

In a candlelit Italian restaurant she had picked, we unfolded the cloth napkins while stealing brief smiles over the table.  The setting was perfect, the evening, everything, was awash with the pure kinetic energy of our potential.

“You know, I dated this girl when I was a freshman, all she ate was pasta,” I said, poking at my noodles with a fork. “I think that’s all I ate that year.”

“That’s pretty lucky,” she pointed out.  “I’ve never dated anyone who can cook worth a damn. The guy I’m dating now makes brownies all the time, but they’re from a box.  I don’t think that takes a lot of skill, huh?”

I motioned ‘just a sec’ to her as I attempted to claw a piece of penne out of my throat. “The guy you’re dating now?” I asked.

“Yeah, he eats a lot of brownies. And he’s still so skinny!”

Candice continued to talk but, for the rest of the meal, my mind was someplace entirely different.

I remembered the first time Chris abandoned our game of tag to start a game of hide and seek.

“Seriously?”  I asked Jake. “Hide and seek? Are we in kindergarten?”

But no amount of reasoning would persuade him as he gently, almost sadly tapped my shoulder one last time. “Tag,” he muttered, as he scurried off to find a hiding place before Chris finished his count down from thirty.

I was left sulking on the wooden steps of the jungle gym, the sole participant of the game I’d started.

We left the restaurant and got into my car.

“We need to find you a hotel,” Candice announced, scanning the skyline for a glowing Holiday Inn sign.

“Your couch isn’t — ”

“Noooo, afraid not.  My roommate is weird about guests, turns out.  Oooh, who are we listening to?”

The sound of my hopes shattering, Candice.  I’m surprised you couldn’t hear it over the Iron & Wine mix I was going to present you with at the end of this trip.  Still, I couldn’t grasp the situation clearly as it happened, even as I was handed a plastic key card and Candice gave me a shoulder hug to bid farewell.  I stood silently in the unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar state and listened to air conditioner hum steadily from beneath the window frame.

Tag. I sat alone at the end of my bed, glaring maliciously at the cursed box of condoms.  It was presumptuous, yes. Every part of it.

When I was in third grade I demanded that Jake play tag with me and he wouldn’t do it.  I got red in the face and called him a sabotaging asshole, a pretty complex insult for an eight year old.  I felt betrayed — I thought that his participation was owed to me, but at the same time I realized there was nothing I could do to obtain it.  This was the first time I would learn that you couldn’t have something just because you wanted it, had worked hard for it — just because it was perfect to you.

Candice’s current profile picture is a shot of her with George Takei and the man she plans to marry in September.  I was offered an invitation to the wedding but feel as though I don’t have a place there.  For me she still exists in Gothenberg, sitting on the patio watching the ripples in the hand drawn pool I made in the backyard.  And honestly?  That’s enough. Good game, Candice.  Tag.  You’re it.