OCD Love Story
LUCKY FOR ME, I DON’T get panicky in small dark spaces or anything. I’m a different breed of crazy.
So when the power goes out, I don’t do much of anything except try to avoid the horny high school guys trying to feel up girls in the dark. I go to dances at Smith-Latin Boys’ Academy two, maybe three times a year, but nothing like this has ever happened before. Electricity must be out all over the town. There is a hit of silence, like a preparatory inhale, and then chaos.
Maybe it’s true what they say about being blind: Your other senses get stronger. ’Cause the second the lights and music cut out I realize how disgusting the smell in the gym is. And for a moment the sounds of classmates cackling and tumbling over each other and screaming in fake fear take over. Then I hear a familiar noise, a rhythm I know well. It’s the strained, superfast pace of a panic attack. It’s coming from somewhere just to my left, so I use that as a kind of lighthouse to find my way out of the thick of the crowd.
The short gasps turn into longer, more strained inhales, and the poor guy having the attack is choking on his own breath. And this is something I know everything about: I’ve just been lucky enough to come up with ways to stop my panic attacks before they happen. So I sit next to the guy gasping for air; I find his ear and whisper into it. Tell him to slow down and take deep breaths, and I reach in the dark for his forehead, where I can fit my hand perfectly. He relaxes on contact and I do it to myself, too, put my free hand on my own forehead. The touch feels good, this intimacy with a total stranger, so I guess I’m kinda loving the power outage. This is something that would never happen under fluorescent lights. I guess that’s true of a lot of things, come to think of it.
“That feels good,” his still-choking but less-panicky voice says. “I don’t know what just happened.”
“Panic attack,” I say. I’m ready to list all the symptoms and causes and give him the same advice Dr. Pat gives me when I get them, but just as I’m taking a breath to start talking again he cuts me off.
“Got it.” I think it’s on purpose, not letting me talk more, but it doesn’t sound like a dismissal, more like an attempt to save me from myself, which I’ve got to appreciate. As a rule it’s best if I quit while I’m ahead when it comes to talking to strangers. Although in the dark I seem to be pretty good at reading people. I shut my mouth. Take two deep breaths. Then let myself try talking again.
“Is this your first panic attack?” I say. I’d ask this in full daylight, but it feels even more natural in the dark. His body is still twitching a little in the aftermath of the rush of anxiety, and his skin has a cooled-off, sweaty texture. I let my arm stay against his. With all the craziness going on around us it’s good to just have something against me. Someone.
“Guess so,” he says. Then nothing.
“I’m Bea,” I say to fill the air. It’s not that it’s quiet: The room is even louder now than it was with the shitty Top 40 jams blasting at full volume. But this guy is quiet and soon the power will go back on and the reality of our visibility will almost certainly make everything more awkward.
“Beck,” he says.
“Yeah, you too.”
I stretch my legs out in front of me. Now the silence between us feels more like an agreement, a pact, and less like a struggle.
It’s funny how my nerves work: pulsing one minute and retreating the next, leaving me totally spent. If the sense of camaraderie I feel with Beck’s heavy breathing and sweaty hands is right, then he must be riding that exact seesaw right now.
“Wanna try to make our way outside?” I say. Nothing’s changing in here. Teachers are trying to talk louder than the students and it sounds like the middle of the gym/dance floor
has turned into an impromptu rave. If we were at Greenough Girls’ Academy instead of at Smith-Latin, I’d be able to find my way to the library, where I could hide out until this whole power-outage thing ended. I’d have everything I like at my fingertips: couches, portable book lights, the smell of those century-old rare books that our librarian is obsessed with. I’m hoping Beck knows a similar location at Smith-Latin. I’m hoping his sense of direction isn’t impaired in the dark. I’m hoping most of all that his face matches his voice: low and sweet and a little gravelly. Can faces look like that sound, I wonder? And is this the kind of guy I’ve been looking for, instead of the mass of ugly-faced, beautiful-bodied high school athletes I keep finding myself with?
“I can’t move,” Beck says. I reach for his legs, like maybe he has a cast or brace or a missing limb or something. A moment too late I realize this is a really awkward move to make, but as usual I can’t stop myself. My hand is too far up his thigh and it stays there a moment longer than it should.
Good lord, I’m awkward.
I swear I can feel his legs tense and maybe something else shift as well.
“You seem okay to me.” I slide my hand off his leg.
“You should go outside if you want,” Beck says. “I just can’t. I mean, won’t. I’m not going anywhere until the lights are back on, okay?”
“Nothing to be scared of. You know, aside from really
horny football players. No offense if that’s what you are. Or are we avoiding someone? Maybe an ugly Greenough girl you hooked up with by accident?” Beck laughs just enough for me to know he doesn’t mind the teasing.
“You’re the only Greenough girl I’ve talked to tonight,” he says, and I’m grinning in the dark like a total loser, like some eight-year-old, which is exactly how I would look if anyone could actually see me. There’s even a space between my front teeth that supposedly gives me a sweet, little-girl smile.
“Well, in that case I better stake my claim,” I say. Things crash around us: people, DJ equipment, school banners. I can’t believe I am so heart-thumpingly into the sound of his voice and the idea of getting him to myself for a few minutes, even though I still don’t know what this guy looks like. I move my other hand from his forehead to his hand, and when our palms find each other, he squeezes. Then again. And again. After a few more squeezes, he exhales. We settle into the hand-holding for a few moments before he starts to panic again. Then he lets go.
“I’m telling you, you’ll feel better with some fresh air,” I say. In the dark I can’t tell if Beck nods his head or anything, but he definitely doesn’t say no, and I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl so I take that to mean he’ll leave with me. I pull him to his feet. It takes some serious effort; he pulls against me in an attempt to stay seated on the floor. I don’t care. “Are you scared to let me see you? Are you superugly?”
I wait for him to laugh but he doesn’t, and it hits me that maybe he is really ugly, and not in some subjective way, but truly disfigured. I have a knack for saying terrible truths to total strangers.
“Um, that was a superawkward thing to say. I’m like that sometimes. Sort of awkward. Or, I like to think quirky. Awkward and quirky.” This right here, this is why I scare guys away.
“So am I,” Beck says. I knew there was a reason I liked him.
The gym is emptying. Teachers are working to herd people out to the parking lot where they can keep a better eye on us. I hear them shouting orders over the chaos. Enough time has passed that most of the other kids are giving in to the request. After all, we’re out of booze for sure and the thrill of touching strangers’ bodies or bumping into your friends in the literal sense has drained from the room.
“Stay quiet and don’t move,” I whisper. I have a feeling that if we are patient we’ll have the whole gym to ourselves. My best friend, Lisha, and I are always trying to find secret spaces where no one will think to look for us. Like a kind of hide-and-seek with the world. When we were little, we decorated the inside of my walk-in closet with glitter paint and pillows and did all our playing and talking and snacking in there. All cozy and ours. I’m thinking staying behind in the dark gym with Beck would be something like that. Lisha, wherever she is in this dark swarm of heavily perfumed teenage bodies, would approve.
I almost call her name, so she can find us, but I know she wouldn’t mind me taking an extra moment alone with the hopefully cute, definitely appealing Smith-Latin boy.
In just a few minutes the gym has gone from mostly crowded to mostly empty and the car lights from the parking lot don’t reach the corner we’ve holed up in. If we stay quiet something great could happen. From the sound of Beck’s sharp inhale, I’m worried he’s starting to panic again (is this kid afraid of the dark or what?) so I find his shoulder and follow the line of his arm down to his hand again. He squeezes.
I consider leaving it at that. At least until I find some way to see a glimpse of his face.
Instead I walk my fingers back up Beck’s arm, wrist to elbow to shoulder to neck until I find his face. And then his lips. And despite the shaky legs holding him up and the heavy ins and outs of his breath, I kiss him. It’s a soft thing that he must get lost in for at least a few seconds, because his body stills against mine. Just as quickly as he relaxed, he tightens right back up again and I let my mouth leave his.
He tasted like wintergreen and cooled-off sweat. Minty. Salty. Perfect.
I really had him, for a second.
“Let’s stay here,” I say. Not sultry, ’cause I giggle on the last syllable. I’m nervous too, just not as amped up as him.
Beck’s feet tap and his breath sounds trapped and he steps back so that he is closer to the wall. He stays glued there.
“I can’t,” Beck says when I take another step toward him. “I should get home. I’m feeling weird. I’m kind of messed up right now.” His voice is a mumble. I can feel the heat of his blush, even from a few inches away. I want to reassure him with a touch, maybe even kiss him again, but as I reach out someone else hurtles into me, full force, knocking me over. I scramble up. Beck has moved away.
“I’m messed up too! I’m totally messed up!” I call out after him, and I think he’s still in the room; I think he’s heard me, but the dark is too heavy for me to see even the slightest movement. I feel for the wall and follow it in the hopes of reaching him, but I don’t come across him in any corner or clinging to any doorframe. He’s left the gym. I guess somehow he’s more scared of me than he is of the dark.