There are a couple of high school students on the bus I ride home from work, a boy and a girl. They always sit together. They seem nicely matched: they both wear rumpled dark hoodies, and he sits and draws in a sketchbook while she reads graphic novels. Sometimes they don’t even talk for the entire trip, but every day, when her stop comes up first, they share a quick kiss. I don’t stare, but it’s cute and I’m happy for them. And it brings back memories from high school—specifically Juliette, who was in my Latin class. She also rode the bus with me.
Normally riding the bus was an hour of unbearable misery, but when Juliette and I started sitting together things got a lot better. We chatted and laughed and generally had a good time.
To say that when it came to looks Juliette was out of my league would be a gross understatement. Forget leagues. Metaphorically she would have been a football pro while I, with my acne and awkwardness, was bottom rung of a Tuesday night bowling team. And I had already learned a lesson that Harvey Fierstein put so well when he said, “See, an ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble. But a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab-fare.” It was a school bus, though, so Juliette wasn’t expecting me to pay for the ride.
If you are or have been a teenager maybe you’ll understand this: knowing I had no chance with Juliette in a romantic sense took all the pressure off me. With her I was a witty, charming, suave gentleman, whereas with any girl I was actually interested in and thought I had a chance at dating I was Hedorah the Smog Monster. And it didn’t bother me that Juliette talked to me about the guys she dated–she was extremely selective, because she could be, but still managed to get stuck with some creeps, while I could talk to her about a bad breakup I was going through and share really bad song lyrics I’d written, but that’s another story.
Somehow Juliette and I always found ourselves sitting behind Kate and Brian, a pair who weren’t quite as mismatched but vehemently denied they were attracted to each other, creating a whole will-they-or-won’t-they vibe. And then, after a band trip, it became clear they did and, as it turned out, would continue to for some time.
That first day after the band trip we watched Kate and Brian hold hands, kiss, and swoon over each other. Then Juliette turned to me.
“I’m so glad they got together. Aren’t you?”
I preferred their sarcastic bickering, but, yeah, if they were happy then bully for them. Juliette went on.
“Of course you and I would never get together like that.” A smile played across her dewy lips and she gave me an intense stare. “Right? I mean, it could just never happen between us.” She put her hand up and played with her hair a bit.
“Right!” I said, maybe a little too vehemently. “Not us!” It would be, I knew, what Bloom County‘s Opus described as a Billy Joel-Christie Brinkley match, and look how that turned out.
As an aside, yes, some of the most poignant and useful relationship advice I’ve ever gotten has come from a gay playwright and a cartoon penguin.
Juliette and I continued to ride the bus together and continued to laugh and talk, but gradually we drifted apart. I started getting rides home with a friend who had a car and she, well, I don’t know. I wanted her to be happy. I still hope she is, but I knew even our friendship wouldn’t last. We had so little in common beyond riding on the bus together and, silly as it may sound, it was my senior year and I was saving myself for college, where I hoped I’d meet someone more like me.
There’s a saying that as you get older your greatest regrets aren’t the things you did but rather the things you didn’t do. While there are a few missed chances I regret I’m still glad Juliette and I never went beyond friendship even if the tension of possibility remained out there. Sometimes it’s better to just leave a good thing as it is.
That’s a bit of advice I learned from Hedorah the Smog Monster.