The other day I decided we were all going to enjoy a marathon viewing of The Wonder Years. It had been a while since I had seen it, and there were many episodes I had not watched since they first aired. I suspect there are several installments Dave has never seen at all, since he grew up in a household without television. And while this meant it wouldn’t trigger any nostalgia for him, everyone enjoys a well-written show that stands the test of time. Except maybe Teghan, who mostly just noticed the music. But I’ll take that.
For me, on the other hand….well, I was surprised at just how nostalgic it was. Not because I remember coming of age in the late sixties– I don’t. But because in 1988, as we watched Kevin Arnold enter the seventh grade, I was also entering the seventh grade. I can still remember watching in the living room with my parents as if it were yesterday. Watching again twenty-four years later reminded me of some great moments in life that I had somehow forgotten. Specifically, junior high romance.
It’s funny how we forget things. For example, I have been lucky in love. I take it for granted most of the time. I have been in love with the same man since I was just eighteen years old, so I don’t really think much about the pursuit of love anymore. But once in a while I remember those days from before.
And not just any days. The love life of our youth is a unique and important part of anyone’s story. It is never completely forgotten. Something about the (slightly) more experienced and painful years of high school love can bury those details of junior high. But that is where it all awkwardly began.
Sure, I loved before then. Sort of.
I kissed a boy for the first time when I was three or four years old. Paco. He lived down the street, and our brothers dared us. I thought I would marry him, but I lost interest the summer before third grade when my parents decided to move a few streets over. The truth is, I just liked hanging out with him and playing Star Wars. We rode bikes together. He had a real fort in his yard, and not just a place where we dug out some rooms and a hallway in the woods next to our house. He was a boy I liked being with, and at that age that was all I understood about relationships with the opposite sex. We were good friends, and there was no pressure to be anything else.
Oh, the ways in which puberty turned our world inside out. I actually remember being afraid that someday I would have to stop playing what I called my “people game.” That was my super creative name for playing with little toy people. I loved making houses for them and putting them in dramatic situations. The moms were always pregnant and getting rushed to the hospital to give birth to surprise twins. I used chess pieces for miscellaneous towns people. I seriously worried about how I would hide this passion from my future husband.
Then, around the age of twelve, it suddenly ceased being a concern for me.
Also, slumber parties started to change. At age eleven we were still watching scary movies and playing “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” A year later we were playing truth or dare– but mostly truth. And every question was about boys.
I made some mistakes in that in-between year. In sixth grade we had our first dance (unless you count the Mexican Hat Dance performance of 1987, which I don’t). This was the year we were all introduced to The Snowball Dance. It is still my one and only experience with it. The class officers started the dance by each picking a partner. They danced, and then each would pick a new partner, and so on, until everyone had a turn. Like team captains for dancing! No chance of hurt feelings here. But one of those class officers was my homeroom buddy, Jim. So I was picked first.
And I blew it. I was embarrassed, and I was not a pleasant dance partner. I complained about how stupid it was. I hurt his feelings. Our friendship was never the same. I hate myself even now for making my friend feel like he wasn’t good enough. This was my first love life regret, but not the last. It was just too early for me to have handled it better.
The real story started the summer before seventh grade when I went on vacation with a friend’s family. At a campground in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, my friend and I met a boy from Minnesota. His name was Gabe, and he was the same age as us. I suspected he may have liked my friend a lot more than me, but if something happened between them none of us ever spoke about it. One afternoon we were all hanging out together in the camp’s playground. My friend went to use the bathroom, and for some reason Gabe decided to hold my hand. We just kept talking as if nothing had changed, and I let go when I saw her coming.
That was it. I had no idea what to do about it, so I did nothing. We wrote to each other for almost a year after that, just silly things. We made a pact to get in touch with each other when he made it big as a professional baseball player, or when I found success as a singer. He sent me mix tapes with his favorite U2 songs, and I tried to convince him of how awesome The Beatles were (I think that’s where I finally lost him). Sometimes I wonder what ever became of that boy.
But when that summer ended, a whole new adventure unfolded. School started and suddenly everyone was paired up. I had a terrible crush on a boy who made me laugh. It makes me laugh now to look back and remember it. He wasn’t particularly kind, and he liked another girl who most of us considered to be the meanest girl in our class.
I was stupid. He was stupid. That other girl was dumber than everyone I knew combined (maybe). He wasn’t even that cute. I have always been a sucker for funny. He was my first true heartbreak, although I had too much pride to ever admit it at the time. Even now I hesitate to admit it. Or his name.
Meanwhile, a nice boy named Brad was calling me at home and trying his best to find out if I “like liked” him– which I didn’t. Then for some reason, I said yes when Brad asked me to be his girlfriend. Why did I do that? I didn’t even tell my friends. It lasted a day. I just stopped talking to him. We didn’t even discuss it. We were twelve, so I guess that kind of break up was still possible? It is also possible that Brad may have hated me after that. Not sure, since we never talked again. Another regret.
And I cannot talk about junior high romance without mentioning my first date. It was a blind date; a double date with my friend and her boyfriend. This was the same friend who I had previously vacationed with. She always had boyfriends, and she was directly responsible for later introducing me to a number of romantic disasters. This first one was named Ted. I did not like Ted. We went to see Weekend at Bernie’s, and I spent most of the movie feeling terrified that he may try and do something crazy like kiss me. I only think about Ted when someone mentions Weekend at Bernie’s, which is hardly ever. But I suppose there is something to be said about owning that piece of someone else’s brain for the rest of their life.
Then there was Brian. Even less significant than Ted, if it weren’t for him actually attempting to kiss me. Brian was just a boy I met at the beach. The beach…. quite possibly the most dangerous place in the world to send your teenage children. Nothing like a co-ed outing to Lake Michigan for the day! Teenagers will make a point to get lost in sand dunes. But I am getting ahead of myself. My parents didn’t let me go to Lake Michigan unsupervised until high school. I met Brian at a small lake I could ride my bike to. When he tried to kiss me, I changed my mind and politely got the hell out of there. I have never counted this as my first true kiss, except in games of truth or dare. It didn’t count. It just didn’t.
The first kiss that really counted wasn’t until I was fourteen. But I was a freshman in high school by then, and that’s a whole other story…. and decade. It was 1990, and we were definitely not in junior high anymore. It makes me wonder if it’s safe to watch the first season of Beverly Hills 90210.
Junior high didn’t feel too successful in the love department. And, upon reviewing the facts– I wasn’t very lucky. Until we started watching those old episodes of The Wonder Years, I had forgotten a lot of this. But I didn’t just remember it; I could actually feel what it felt like again. The same way it sometimes works with music. Most of us have songs that exist in a specific moment for us. We hear it, and we are there– remembering it in ways we couldn’t have otherwise. Not every experience came with the greatest soundtrack. It’s kind of hit or miss. But if I want to completely leave my life for a while, I just pick some radio hits from the early 90s to get lost in. It’s such a beautiful way our senses work with our brain, really.
Now, if you have read this far you may be wondering what all this has to do with autism. Well, nothing. And everything. I have said from the beginning that I don’t want autism to define who we are. I don’t want to lose our identities. I could tell you how it reminds me of the sadness of never watching Teghan experience these moments; or how I wonder if songs will trigger memories for her someday. Of course they will. And I love realizing those little parts of the human experience that I will share with her. But the truth is, these stories are just a part of who I am. It’s what is on my mind right now. Because all day long we do think about other things, and the thoughts that motivate us affect our perspective and happiness. And that affects everyone around us.
So today I am thinking about past love. The heartbreak, regret, and excitement of youth. Those earliest experiences that all contributed to the path I ended up on. I feel thrilled to think that I did fall in love with Dave when we were so young. We loved stupidly, the way only teenagers can. But we did something right, because through all of our changes I only love him more.
Does this affect Teghan? Maybe more than anything else I could do, and in so many ways.