Turning Sixteen // “Across The Universe”


This is a story involving my first high school crush. The guy who made my first mixtape. The guy who taught me about vegan ice cream sandwiches and the joys of cunnilingus.

But this is not a story about him. Bear with me.

It was 2002 and I was a sophomore in high school, in the throes of my most awkward years. I hadn’t quite found my niche in terms of my school’s social cliques; I was nowhere near as outgoing as the “popular kids,” I didn’t listen to enough Streetlight Manifesto to hang out with the ska kids, and I was at a disadvantage when it came to band kids, the theater kids, and the athletic kids, as I had decided long ago I had no knack for those things (after trial and error. Mostly error). I found my place with the newspaper and literary magazine crew. I couldn’t play the clarinet, or recite a monologue, or even kick a fucking ball, but I could write about the people who did those things.

I noticed him one day in late September. He was leaning against my locker, casually talking to one of his friends, when I had to grab my chemistry notebook between classes. I was scared to talk to him, or  at the very least, ask him to move. I considered abandoning the notebook, but with a test looming over my head the following week, I needed as much help as I could get. I approached him and his friend and quietly asked to move. Instead of scoffing and walking away (which admittedly was the most common reaction I elicited from boys at the time), he smiled and said “Sure.”

“Sure.” One word. Out of his lips, it sounded like angels singing. Cut me some slack; I was 15 at the time.


I was surprised that he knew my name when we encountered each other at a Halloween party, one month later and four months prior to my birthday. We talked about horror films and after awhile realized we had a few overlapping interests. From there, we greeted each other in the hallways, “ran into each other” at after-school clubs, and found excuses to call each other, if only for five minutes.

I had fallen hard for this guy, and in a big way. He was kind to me, he took somewhat of an interest in getting to know me, he was a senior, he was in a band, he had “exotic” taste in music (and by exotic, I mean Minor Threat), and he was the coolest guy I had ever laid eyes on. He was the Jordan Catalano to my Angela Chase. He was so beautiful, it hurt to look at him.

I developed a particular sense of bravery as my sixteen birthday party drew near, slowly working up the nerve to ask him to be a guest.  I had thought long and hard about who I wanted in attendance, and after some teenage soul-searching, it was clear that I wanted him there as well.

Upon verbalizing this, however, a friend mentioned to me, “He, like, has a girlfriend and stuff.”

The elephant in the room.  The girlfriend.  The person I knew of, but never once asked about.  She was the daughter of my swim coach.  I’d seen her around school, and we had a few friends in common, and I’d heard nothing but nice things about her.

Teenage logic is a unique, twisted thing, and after approximately five minutes of thinking, I marched up to him in the hallways and asked him to attend my birthday party, based on the flawed idea that it was cool to invite him because we were friends, despite what appeared to be mutual attraction. He said yes without hesitation.

My party was held at the local karaoke joint.  As long as we had a chaperon over the age of 21 (i.e. my mother), we were allowed to hang out in the bar, drink virgin strawberry daiquiris, eat nachos, and sing our hearts out.  My crew of teenage merrymakers assembled at the restaurant, including my best friend and my crush.   My crush sat next to me, and began subtly caressing my forearm.  It was incredibly unexpected, but it did confirm what I had suspected for months: there was in fact something there.  An attraction, chemistry.  But, acknowledging the physical contact would take me into ambiguous moral territory, and I pretended not to notice as a result.  Aside from the weird position my crush was putting me in, we all chatted, laughed, stuffed our faces, and had a great time.

That is, until my crush’s girlfriend showed up.

Suspicious of her boyfriend’s desire to go to a sweet sixteen, my crush’s girlfriend assembled her own crew and arrived at the Mexican restaurant, sitting at a table a three feet behind me.  To say I was uncomfortable would be putting it mildly.  My crush went to her table to say hi, and I guess to ask what she was doing there.  Quickly, they went outside to have words with one another.  My friends, oblivious to the touching that had occurred earlier, were very aware that something was awry after that.

They both stormed back in moments later, she resuming her seat behind me, and he grabbing his jacket.  “I gotta go.  Happy birthday,” he whispered in my ear before ducking out of the restaurant.  There was a tightness in my chest after that and my anxiety was overwhelming.  I convinced myself that I had done no wrong; I did not reciprocate any kind of flirtatious touching, therefore I was free and clear of all blame.

But it was high school.  And high school doesn’t work out that way.

My crush’s girlfriend’s song selection didn’t help my anxiety. Her name was called by the MC and she sauntered up to the front of the restaurant, brushing against me as she moved past. She had chosen some cliche country song about a hussy of a woman stealing her man. Hearing the first few lines, my friends looked at me, aware of the tension, and questioned my next move. I calmly walked to the bathroom to regain my composure, taking a minute to be alone, enjoy the quiet, and splash water on my face. To approach her would be to acknowledge some wrongdoing on my part. To sing some juvenile attack song aimed at her would be immature.

I emerged from the bathroom with a plan and a renewed energy. I was determined to celebrate my sweet sixteen the way it deserved to be celebrated. The party was a symbolic crossing of the threshold between child and adult. And I decided to be the best adult I could be at the time.

When my name was called, my friends cheered as I took the stage. I decided to sing Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe,” a song which to me represented a person unchanged and unmoved by the chaos around them. I wanted to convey that message to my friends, my crush’s girlfriend, and everyone in the restaurant. I also wanted to have fun, and I made my own fun my top priority for four minutes. I glanced at my crush’s girlfriend a few times, but my focus was not on her. I sang my heart out and I felt free, free from whatever guilt anyone was trying to make me feel, free from whatever wrong people perceived me committing, and free from my own skewed self-image for that period of time.

The night ended shortly after, my friends and I went back to my house for cake and a slumber party. My best friend cornered me and questioned me about everything that had happened between me and my crush and I answered honestly, attempting to take some moral high road. I’d like to end this story by saying they stayed together and I did the right thing, but that would be lying.

But that’s another story for another time.


Author: Leila

Just another case of arrested development.

3 thoughts on “Turning Sixteen // “Across The Universe””

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