“Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees. That was the song that was playing in the background. I’ll never forget that. Ever.
I was 12-years-old, overweight, and not cool. I had a surplus of acne but absolutely no confidence. And so, when I picked up the phone to dial her, my heart began pounding.
By the time I’d punched in her number (which I had memorized even though I had absolutely no reason to) and I heard ringing, my body had erupted in full-blown spasms.
Childhood will mess you up
“Hello,” a male’s voice answered. Her older brother. The scary older brother.
“Can I talk to Kristine please?”
Of course I stuttered when I asked.
Of course my voice sounded tiny and weak.
Of course the older brother went silent for a moment, probably considering if it was worth threatening me or just hanging up.
Instead, he just took pity on me, probably because I sounded so harmless, and actually put her on the line.
Exactly 57 seconds later, she picked up on another line. “Hello?” Her voice was confused, trying to figure out who exactly I was and why I was calling her.
Again, I stuttered through the introduction I had written out for myself in advance. Hi Kristine, this is Rob. I’m in your homeroom…
Again, probably taking pity on me and my meek little voice, she didn’t flat out hang up on me. Instead, she said, “Hold on a moment” and put the phone down.
That’s when the music came on.
I faintly heard soft wasps of “Killing Me Softly” in the background. To this day, more than a decade and a half later, I still can’t listen to that song because of what happened next.
First, I heard a giggle. It should have sounded harmless. Just a girl laughing. No big deal.
But I knew what it meant. I knew that it was an ominous sound, something that told of the pain I was about to endure.
There was a crackling rustle as someone grabbed the phone. “Who exactly is this?” another girl’s voice came on the line. The voice sounded bossy and aggressive. It wasn’t a friendly question. It demanded facts, justifications.
“This is Rob. I’m in Kristine’s homeroom…” I recited my line again, but the voice cut me off.
“Why are you calling Kristine? How did you even get her number?”
How did you even get her number? That question, to this day, is still one of the nastiest, most deflating things a human has ever said to me. Writing that last sentence makes me feel like a dramatic idiot, but (unfortunately) it’s true. The condescending anger that was laced into that question made it sound like a death sentence. Like I was sentenced to forever be some sort of pesky unattractive and uninvited creep.
I mean, granted, I did get her phone number by looking it up in the Yellowpages. And, granted, I had absolutely no good reason for calling her.
But I was only 12-fucking-years-old!
How was I supposed to know any better?
Kristine Palmari was my first crush, the first girl I couldn’t stop thinking about.
And she was the first girl to shatter my hopes without a second-thought.
As you can imagine, the embarrassment didn’t end when I hung up the phone. The next day in school everyone knew what a “stalker” I was. Whether or not Kristine had anything to do with that, I have no idea (I like to believe that she didn’t). Regardless, the damage was done.
When you’re so young and impressionable, you use others to dictate back to you your own identity. Very few children have enough self-awareness to shape their own self-image. That’s why so much of what happens to us in childhood leaves an indelible scar we live with for the rest of our lives. Or at least until we decide otherwise.
Long after my crush on Kristine Palmari fizzled, I was still haunted by that phone call. I was haunted by the idea that I was a pushy creep. That I was weird. That I had no business calling or talking to pretty girls.
And that belief, as stupid as it was, fucked me up for a long time. It scammed me out of literally hundreds of awesome women.
And it only stopped the day I decided that I’m not longer the sum of my childhood.
I write this week’s article not to give advice but instead to offer a warning: how much of your identity do you carry with you from childhood? If you have any answer at all, then it’s too much.
Forget children. Dictate your own identity.
And if you hear “Killing Me Softly,” please don’t think of me.