Rolling as the third wheel – The High School Adventures, Part 1

After two articles dealing with more general rants, it’s time to once again flash back to one of my previous adventures in dating. A sheltered private elementary school and an overall hellish and traumatizing junior high was now leading into high school, where I was well on my way to being shy, nerdy, neurotic, awkward, and overall undesired. The hormones were naturally in high gear, with attracting the opposite sex once again being on the radar. It was the third time I was changing schools since pre-K, which meant a new commute to get used to as well as a new campus and cast of characters to get to know.

It was not only an awkward time of transition for me, but also likely for society. This was the late 90’s into the start of the new millennium. Bill Clinton was just reelected for a second term and the whole sex scandal thing would soon arise. Cable TV and PC’s which were objects of luxury just five years earlier were becoming more common and even expected of “normal” kids’ families. CD’s were in and audio cassettes were out. VHS was in and Laserdiscs were an overpriced, niche product, but these new digital video discs – DVD”s – were being introduced and would soon be the newest way to watch movies. Cordless phones had given way to cell phones becoming more common, even if beepers were still more widespread. Anime (or “Japanese animation” or “Japanimation”) was still a very new, cultish thing which was just barely starting to be translated with some select franchises put on TV, but with bootleg VHS tapes of the latest “Dragon Ball Z/GT” arc or film still being common. Comic books were also still far more of a niche hobby with the bankruptcy of Marvel Comics, the tanking of “Batman & Robin” in film and the general accesses of the industry that’d peaked and crashed in 1993-1994. Out of the ashes arose WIZARD magazine, which was the only real source for official news and discourse. Even the Internet, which was becoming more a common tool of life, was nowhere near what it would be today, or even five years later.

The high school I attended was considered an “experimental” school, which meant they did things in zanier ways than traditional high schools. They had a differently coded grading system, and they weren’t part of any major system wide athletic league or competition. That meant there were no major sports teams, no cheerleaders, no games to attend, etc. Students also had more control over the classes they picked and their schedule, in a way to prepare them for college. Unfortunately, teenagers are not as mature as college kids so it was easy to self sabotage things for yourself. It was also incredibly easy to skip or cut classes while not facing as severe consequences as teenagers would face by, oh, 2008 (when truancy would become a big reason why social workers might intervene with a family). In addition, my mother’s health began to decline to the point that she became handicapped by the end of the 90’s – which didn’t make our already poverty stricken lifestyle any better.

My best friend from junior high, “Russo”, was attending the same high school as I, but as freshmen our paths began to part. His interests and success with girls were more widespread than I, and there was a clique of kids at our new school who had the same ethnic background as he. I, meanwhile, was still into the same dorky things and didn’t have as big a social network. My attempts to remain friends with him usually wound up playing second, third, or fourth fiddle to his newer friends who would speak in their native tongue at most times. At one point Russo put our new dynamic in very simple and blunt terms [which I will paraphrase]: “You used to be the cool guy I learned from, and now I’m the cool guy and you’re not.” Unintentionally or not, Russo absorbed how to be a “cool” NY American from me at such a fast rate that he’d leapfrogged me considerably due to his own natural charisma. Either he was a great student, or I a great teacher, to have taught skills I myself hadn’t mastered. At any rate, we didn’t end on bad or good terms, our friendship just ended. We weren’t in the same classes, and we stopped hanging out at lunch or after school. I never bore Russo any grudge at all; it’s common for kids to grow up and apart as they go through life, especially from tweens to teens. He was there for me when I needed a best friend at the lowest ebb of my youth, providing me with some sense of fun or joy for an overall horrible year or two. It did, however, begin a theme which would carry over to my new circle of friends that I would make.

Two kids who were minor acquaintances in junior high I wound up becoming more friendly with as we shared some classes, and I also made some connections in the small “Comic Book Club” our school held once a week for a year or so. My clique were on the fringes of what was more common for teenagers there, liking similar things like comics and anime, and bordering on the “goth” black wearing metal fans who would cut themselves or wear leather jackets during the summer. Unfortunately, by this stage due to trauma from junior high (the bullying, the mugging, etc.) as well as laziness (or not being challenged enough), by the time I was 15-16 I was becoming bored with school and attending classes more infrequently. The “experimental” school made it easy, via lax enforcement, to skip classes yet hang out on campus, in the library, or in the cafeteria for most of my time there, and I took advantage of it. I still had awkward gym classes where I was concerned about my weight and where I was always the slowest, lamest guy on court who had to worry about his locker being raided. And there was this huge guy who I shared a few math classes with who threatened extreme bodily harm if I didn’t “help him out” with tests and questions in class, which I always meekly did. But I was struggling with math myself, and school in general rarely interested me. I began spending more time with my friends (who all cut classes sometimes, some more and some less than I) and hanging out on campus more than studying. This drove my mother nuts (as one could imagine), and led to some of our worst arguments we’d ever have.

Now, when “normal” kids would skip classes and just hang out on campus all day, they usually did things that you’d expect of teenagers. Drinking, drugs, sex, and/or other assorted larcenies (as there were some gangs around). I didn’t do any of that. Instead I and most of my clique spent our rebellious truancy period playing paper and pencil role playing games like “Dungeons & Dragons” or various WHITEWOLF games (“Vampire: the Masquerade”, “Werewolf: The Apocalypse” and so on). I even would make my own games aping the basic systems of those, but working in my own themes, tastes, and engines. Instead of working on classes or term papers, I’d be inventing some RPG about heroes fighting demons for a d12 system. These games were crude with ever changing and broken rules, but we had plenty of fun. Yet even within this circle, I never any drugs (weed and acid being the most common) or swigged any liquor that someone had brought over. Hell, I’d never even smoked a cig or wanted to! Any time not gaming was spent just shooting the breeze amid dodging patrols from the school security guards, deans, or other “rentacops” as we called them.

My social circle was growing and a part of me assumed that I’d simply find a girlfriend through proximity like everyone else was. Girls hung around the fringes of our goth circle, there was always the one or two random class I attended, as well as fresh crops of freshmen every semester. Yes, 17 and 18 year olds dating 13-14 year olds was not uncommon at all; so long as everyone was attending the same school it was socially accepted. By this time my sense of humor had long budded into a sarcastic cynicism, and I sometimes was guilty of slinging insults and barbs at my own friends – who always responded in kind; teenagers talk trash, I guess. I also was the guy who’d eat a bug or some trash on a dare; lord, do I regret that stuff now. It was compensation for not being tall, or handsome, or hip; I wanted attention and some sort of rep among my clique for something. My perennial stubble (and occasional bursts of temper) earned me a nickname in relation to a bear, which doesn’t sound as cool as it seems. Yet beyond skipping classes I wasn’t much of a troublemaker, or a dangerous rebel, or a tough guy – even if I always wanted to be. I started dressing in black, wearing a black leather trench coat, and other sort of desperate things. At the very least, I learned that I like wearing black. I also was probably at the most hypocritical stage of my life; it was common for me to make jokes about the age gap between my friend and whatever girl they were dating, despite being older (by months or a year at times) and being into said girl myself.

Unfortunately, a girlfriend by proximity never happened. I never got any vibes from any girls I’d met or hung out with that they ever liked me more as some quirky oddball guy who was their boyfriend’s friend or just an acquaintance or classmate. While I was hanging out with larger circles than in junior high, and we were into many of the same dorky things, there always seemed to be this invisible wall between me and them. They seemed to “get” or “catch on” to certain social graces, body language, and elements with dealing (and being dealt by) the opposite sex that I never did. Much as with Russo, I wound up as the third wheel intruding on someone else’s good time with a girl if I wasn’t careful.

The adventure this long rambling set up is leading to captures this theme perfectly. In fact, it was probably a perfect image of my awkwardness and bad luck with girls as a teenager. At one point when I was about 16-17 and a new semester began, that meant new students either as freshmen or transfers from other schools. One of them was a younger girl (she was about 14) who I will dub “Jackie” (which, as always, was not her real name). I forget exactly how she came to be with our circle but she started hanging out with us and integrating herself into the group. By this time my friends were usually either dating someone or in between one break up and their next relationship; some were always single or always not at varying intervals (aside for me, who was always single). Jackie was energetic and sassy, and overall a lot of fun to hang out with; very much “one of the guys” as it were. Most of my friends were middle class kids, and always one in the cast had some rather open minded parents who didn’t mind a house full of their kid’s friends or an open acknowledgement that house parties happened.

Drinking happened at these parties, but not as often as one would think; parents always noticed missing booze. At any rate, I was desperately trying to figure out some time or line to reveal my feelings to Jackie and ask her out. Perhaps due to my experiences in junior high, with the “She Likes You Game” and with 7th grade, I was deathly afraid of it “getting out” that I liked a girl. I feared some of the same ribbing that I, hypocritically, was usually eager to dish out. I also was always guarded about any vulnerabilities or weaknesses, as they’d always been used against me in the past. Recall, the first girl I ever had a crush on turned out to only pretend to like me back on a dare.

Yet at one house party I was trying to make my move, or some move, or something. Jackie and I happened to be alone in my friend’s bedroom while the rest of the house was occupied with the rest of our friends listening to music, playing video games and/or possibly drinking, I forget. Believe it or not despite being a horny teenager, I actually would talk to girls I fancied about small stuff or whatever was bothering them. I imagined that I’d become their friend first and then, if feelings were mutual (or if they pitied me), a relationship would commence. I was chatting with her about why she was depressed this particular day (as she had a rough home life) and trying to figure out some way to be nice and help her while sorting out how to ask her out. And then she said it.

“I’m depressed because I like your friend M***”.

Here I was crushing on someone and being “that friend” when I was just the third wheel between her and a bud of mine. That naturally put an end to any attempt to ask her out or even entertaining it, forever. She did date that friend briefly; it didn’t last. Years later some of my friends were remembering old times with past friends, and another buddy claimed that Jackie actually said she liked me to him but he never told me. I denied it was true and related my story, and he said, “Oh, she liked all of you. She’d totally have gone out with you if you’d have asked.” I never quite was sure which version was true, but as always, it was loo little, too late, for a perennial third wheel.

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