what I got instead

by Sage Cohen

Early in high school, I became infatuated with Bobby Sullivan. He was in my gym class, a 40-minute reprieve from the caste divides of who is smart and who is popular and who is a stoner and who is a goodie-two-shoes. Bobby was kind in an enigmatic sort of way, and he had those sad, looking-beyond-me eyes that would become my holy grail of fumbled romance for many years to come. Everyone knew that the people you talked to in gym class weren’t the people you talked to in the halls–when you had your real clothes on and your real friends in reach.

For a week or two, I biked past Bobby’s house in Woodcrest every day after school, back and forth, back and forth as the leaves papered the streets with their departure. I don’t know what I thought would happen if he actually came out and found me out there; but there was really no other choice. I’d been sucked into this boy’s orbit. I needed something from him that I couldn’t understand.

Finally, even the bike was not enough to impress my yearning for Bobby in the pavement around his house. I became shy and strange in gym class. And then I decided. I must tell Bobby the truth–I must unburden myself of its weight. I wrote this boy a letter. The words knew what they wanted to say; I wrote and carefully folded the notebook paper and shoved the wad at him one afternoon, overcome with hope and shame, as we headed out into the halls of our respective identities.

Bobby never mentioned the letter.

Though I was fairly certain my feelings would not be reciprocated, being entirely ignored felt pretty awful. But that was only part of the story. Underneath the burning embarrassment was a more settled feeling of what in retrospect could only be called triumph. I had been brave. I had something to share and I shared it. And in doing so, I was released from my compulsive need for reciprocation. Just owning what was true for myself–and reaching for it–was enough.

This is the first memory I have of coming to awareness of the pleasure of “going for it”, as distinct and independent from “getting it.” I told myself that now I didn’t have to wonder what could be possible with Bobby. I had done my part and gotten my answer in his non-answer. Now I could move on.

A decade later in a city across the country from our south Jersey high school, Bobby (now Bob) was dating a friend of mine–someone else from high school who had not been in my social caste at the time. I don’t know how it happened but somehow, in this new context, we were all friends.

One day out of the blue, Bob thanked me for my letter. He told me that its honesty and straightforwardness had terrified him at the time, that he had been far too immature to know how to respond, and that he had always been ashamed of his lack of courage when I had taken such a risk. I was surprised and moved to hear that my letter had affected him at all. And was reminded that even when you don’t get what you want, you can never presume to know why other people do what they do (or don’t do.)

I think of Bobby when I need to remember that it’s ok to be clear about what I want, even if I’m not likely to get it. In fact, I have come to believe that it is not just ok, but in fact essential to my happiness. It’s a rather efficient process, if you think about it. Had I not written Bobby that letter, I might still be circling his house on my 10-speed. Instead, I got my answer and moved on to my next crush–James Gallagher, who pulled arrows out of my chest in a dream shortly thereafter.

I have come to appreciate reaching-and-missing as the best possible kind of psycho-social yoga there is. And, there are not many people who agree with me on this. Seth Godin suggests that we let go of expectation. Pema Chodron advises that we give up hope. But I think not-expecting and not-hoping makes things pretty darn confusing. If you don’t know where you’re headed, how can you know if you have arrived? In my experience, the most pleasurable part of moving towards a goal is the moving towards part.

The sticky part for us humans is how bad we can feel if and when we don’t arrive.

What if we were to consider reaching for what we want the triumph, and anything that comes after that gravy? What if we were to be grateful to know certain things are out of reach, so we can hone in on what may be better suited for us in this moment? When we feel satisfied with how we hold our choices, the outcomes of those choices matter far less.

I didn’t get Bobby the boyfriend, but I got Bob the friend — it just took us a decade to get there. But really what I got when I wrote that letter was my very first glimpse of myself as a woman of clarity, a woman of truth, a woman who could live with no for an answer — and even be satisfied with no answer at all.

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About Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of Fierce on the Page, The Productive Writer, and Writing the Life Poetic, all from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World from Queen of Wands Press. She offers strategies and support for writers at sagecohen.com and for divorcing parents at radicaldivorce.com. This article was re-shared with her permission.

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