This is actually a slightly edited re-post of the last few entries in my previous attempt at a blog- from way back in 2007. I’m reprinting it because the story recounted here served as part of the inspiration for the novel I’m working on now. Be warned- this was originally in three parts, so it is a bit long.
First, a confession.
During the turbulent years of my adolescence, I fell squarely into the sociological caste classification of “Nerd.” (Those of you who know me, I’m sure, find this shocking.) But what does “nerd” mean, exactly? In contrast to the pop culture mythology of the era in question (mid-to-late 1980’s,) I:
· Did not wear glasses.
· Was not obsessed with “Star Trek” OR Dungeons & Dragons.
· Was not academically gifted.
· Was not on the Chess Club (though I did dabble in Band, Speech and Drama.)
· Knew very little about computers.
· Never built a robot.
· Did not engage in wacky competitions with my mortal enemies, the “Jocks.”
· Did not look like Anthony Michael Hall.
· Did not secretly pine for my girl-buddy Molly Ringwald, who was really in love with Andrew McCarthy.
· Was not a closet party animal who got the girl in the end.
The truth was a bit bleaker.
I was a socially retarded introvert cursed with a paradoxical combination of abysmal self-esteem and the notion that I was somehow superior to everyone else. I had the usual hormonal overload of a teen-age boy, but due to a total lack of social skills and absolutely no sense of fashion or personal grooming, girls would not talk to me. Good thing, too. I wouldn’t have known what to say to them if they had.
Girls. That was the crux of the problem (and the reason I’m writing this today.) Actually, it wasn’t girls so much as A Girl. Singular. There was really only one, at least at first. 7th Grade. Glenwood Junior High School, Chatham, Illinois. 13 years old. Enter Nikki Phillips.
In the beginning, it was a typical first-crush type of situation. Nikki was a pretty girl who played clarinet in the band. (I played saxophone, badly.) I’m not sure what about her made me single her out, but I grew very quickly fixated.
At this point, my entire concept of teen-age social interaction came from TV and movies. With this distorted view of how things really work, I arrived at the conclusion that writing her anonymous “secret admirer” love letters was the key to her heart. It might have worked on TV, or at least led to a series of comically engaging misunderstandings. Real life, of course, works a little differently.
I’m very grateful that time has obliterated the exact content of those letters from my mind. I’m sure they were mawkishly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve declarations. I seem to recall, God help me, that I even wrote her a poem at one point.
This all culminated with the revelation of my identity and a request to meet at the bleachers during lunch to discuss the future of our “relationship.” She did meet with me for a short chat, which time has NOT obliterated. In fact, I remember it verbatim. I said nothing. She said: “I know some high school guys who will kick your ass if you don’t leave me alone.”
Good for her.
I remember at the time feeling a great relief that the whole thing was over with. My stomach had been in knots of anxiety for the entire couple weeks since I’d hatched the scheme. I could not even conceive of what I would done if she had said: “Your obsession flatters me. Will you be my boyfriend?” I knew I was doomed to failure from the start. When this failure came to pass, I was just happy I could digest food again.
End of the story? No. That was just Chapter One.
Flash forward a couple years to my sophomore year at Glenwood High School. Fifteen years old now. While many of my peers had moved on from the awkward first flush of puberty, I was still mired in geeky self-loathing. I’d crushed on several other girls in the intervening time, having seriously impure thoughts about every attractive girl at my school (and many of the unattractive ones as well.) None of them were as intense as my Nikki fixation, though. No more love letters or poetry, just near-constant sexual fantasy.
On the first day of my second year of high school, the fates governing the class schedules whacked me in the face but good. In an eight-period day, I shared five classes with Nikki Phillips. Five. It was uncanny. Nobody else was in more than two of my classes. I would have to spend more than half of every day in close proximity to my former crush. Like most teen-age atheists, I was terribly superstitious. I did not take this as a sign that Nikki and I were meant to be together, though. Just as proof that there was an intelligent force at work in the machinations of the universe, and that this force was intent on fucking with my head.
After a few weeks of this new schedule, something equally as shocking happened. Nikki talked to me. And, wilder still, she turned out to be a really nice person. She wasn’t leading me on or toying with me because she found my fawning to be gratifying. (Trust me, I know what THAT feels like.) She was just friendly. I think she might have even found me funny. (I did come on like a younger, less witty, more neurotic Woody Allen sometimes.) Best yet, she politely pretended not to have any memory of the whole mortifying “secret admirer” episode.
Emboldened by this, I did something which even today I’m proud of. I asked her out. Sort of. In those days, I would occasionally get together with friends (just as socially maladjusted as I) and make Ed Wood-ish horror videos. The immortal “Werewolf Bob” series. I offered Nikki the plum role of a Gypsy fortune teller in our next episode. Amazingly, she said yes.
A few days later, not so amazingly, she cancelled.
Rejection is amplified immeasurably by deferment. The loss of hope is made all the more crushing by having been dangled in the first place.
Still, I couldn’t blame her. In the frame of mind I was in back in those days, her turning me down was actually a point in her favor. She was President-for-Life of the proverbial Club Which Would Not Have Me as a Member.
I was at perhaps the lowest ebb of my entire life right then. Depressed beyond words. Never diagnosed as such, never even in therapy, but if there was ever a poster boy for Prozac, it was me. Problems at home, problems at school. My whole life was a problem. If life was a problem, then the solution seemed obvious.
I was fascinated by suicide. To this day I couldn’t tell you if it was attention-seeking, cry-for-help behavior or a genuine death wish. If I had to guess, I would say it was the first one, gradually moving towards the second.
Nikki Phillips became to me an alternative to killing myself. I saw in her the answer to everything that was wrong in my life. Of course, it’s very unfair to put that much responsibility on someone you don’t even really know.
The “Nikki Phillips” I had set up in my head as my personal savior had very little to do with who Nikki actually was as a human being. The fantasy I had constructed was just a projection of my needs. I knew this. I wasn’t so foolish as to believe she could really save me. Or that I had anything to offer her other than a need to be saved. I wasn’t ready for a girlfriend. I was way too wrapped up in my own pain to let anybody else in.
For the entire school year my daily mood was almost wholly dependent on her. If she said two kind words to me or smiled in my general direction, life was bearable. If she ignored me, or gave any sign that I was annoying her, I would lapse into despair. Being forced to see her for five hours every day, I was never given a chance to recover. My heart was like an open wound, the scab yanked off daily so it never had a chance to heal. Given the perspective of time and adulthood, this seems melodramatic. But adolescence has no perspective.
This got to be wearying. At the end of the school year, I decided to go live with my father in a different town. Nikki played a big part in this decision. It was just too painful to be near her on a daily basis. I knew that if I stayed, things would only get worse. Plus, she would no doubt eventually get a real boyfriend. Jealousy could possibly have been the fatal final ingredient in the already volatile stew of my emotions.
(Of course the “fresh start” with my Dad presented a whole set of new problems, but that is, as they say, another story.)
There is a post-script to the high school section of this story. In my Senior year, I wrote her a letter. I confessed my feelings for her, claimed to have moved past them (I had a “real” girlfriend at the time,) and told her that I just wanted to know that she had made a positive impact on my life. She wrote me a very cordial reply, allowed that she’d had at least an inkling of how I felt (it WAS pretty obvious,) and said she could empathize because she’d had a similar crush on another guy in our class. (That stung a little.) The whole letter had a “how nice of you to write, please don’t do it again” tone. I never saw or heard from her again.
End of story, right? Not exactly. If writing that letter had been a stab at seeking closure, it didn’t work. If it had worked, why is it that twenty years later, happily married, I still have dreams about her?
For the past twenty years, I have kept sporadic dream journals. This is a great aid in boosting dream recall, and by focusing on my dreams, I was even able to play with lucid dreaming for a while. (That’s way fun.) Throughout this time, I would occasionally have dreams about Nikki Phillips. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to get “ikky.” The dreams were never sexual in nature.
It tends to work in one of two ways. Sometimes I dream I’m back in High School and that Nikki and I are close friends. Then sometimes I dream that we meet again as adults, and “catch up” on old times (which didn’t really happen.) It’s never romantic or erotic. In fact, my wife Lea is often in the dream, too, and jealousy is never an issue. My relations with Nikki are always warm, friendly and casual. There is a sense of acceptance. At long last, acceptance.
To the extent that I analyze my dreams, I look at it in a couple different ways. Either the dream Nikki represents my “anima,” the feminine aspects of my being, or more simply she just represents my past. In either case, I think the dreams express a desire to find peace with some part of myself. Of course, I don’t claim to be an expert at dream interpretation (and generally distrust people who say they are experts,) but that’s what I came up with. I do know enough about dreaming to realize that it’s not “really” Nikki Phillips, just a dream character with her name and face. (And even her face is fading with time.)
About a week ago, I had one of these dreams. In it, Nikki came over to my family’s house for some function (reunion, birthday party, something.) We hung out and caught up, and afterwards I drove her home. That was it. Nothing much happened in the dream, but it left me with a sense of peace and happiness that lingered after I woke up. As I have several times over the years, I wondered where the real Nikki Phillips was now.
I’ve made half-hearted stabs at locating her before, but now I vowed to do everything I could, given an internet connection and a lot of time on my hands. Now I know this sounds all creepy-stalkerish, but believe me, I had no intention of contacting her or re-connecting. My wife is a wonderful, tolerant woman, but I think even she would draw the line at me sending e-mails to a woman I obsessively crushed on in high school. I wouldn’t know what to say to Nikki anyway. I was just curious where life had taken her.
I started with the obvious. Just Googling her name. Of course, there are several “Nikki Phillipses” out there, but none of the ones I found was the one I was looking for.
Then I went on those high school reunion sites. Classmates.com and Reunion.com. Plus, Glenwood High School has an alumni page. These sites only have information on people who have registered on them, and Nikki has not. (I count this as further points in her favor. I felt kinda pathetic registering myself.)
Then I started searching those “People Search” pages. They’re pay sites, but they will give up some information for free. (As a tease, I suppose, for you to shell out the $40 for a background check.) Through one of these, I found a listing for Nicole Christene Phillips, age 35, with addresses in Chatham, Illinois (my hometown,) as well as the towns of Elizabeth, Jeffersonville and Memphis, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky.
Back in school, in a moment of stalker-boy detective inspiration, I stole a look at her Permit in Driver’s Ed class. That’s how I found out her middle name was “Christene.” I even remember the unusual spelling.
So the name was exactly the same. The age was right. It had a listing for the same dinky (pop 5000) Illinois town. Plus, I knew from talking to her that she was from Indiana, and had always thought that perhaps she’d moved back after graduation. So this was her, right? Had to be.
With this information, I searched her name along with the towns where she’d lived as key words. Maybe she’d made the local paper for some reason. Maybe she belonged to an organization with a web-site. Maybe she had an on-line profile through her job. Wedding or birth announcement. Maybe she blogged.
Well, I didn’t find any of those things. What I did find was an obituary.
From a Bedford, Indiana newspaper: Phillips – Nicole Christene Phillips of Louisville, KY, formerly of Jeffersonville, IN, died Wednesday, October 9, 2002, at University Hospital in Louisville from injuries sustained in an auto accident. Born on April 12, 1971, she was the daughter of Thomas and Jill D. (Wagner) Phillips. Surviving are her parents, Thomas and Jill Phillips of Jeffersonville, IN; paternal grandmother, Burnettia Denny of Bedford, IN; maternal grandmother, Vera Wagner of Bedford, IN; several aunts, uncles, and cousins. She was preceded in death by her grandfathers.
She was a public defender in Clark County, IN, and a graduate of Indiana University and University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. She was a member of the American Bar Association and was active in animal rights organizations. Services for Nicole Phillips will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 12th, at North Chapel of Scott Funeral Home in Jeffersonville, IN. Burial will follow in Walnut Ridge Cemetery in Jeffersonville. Friends may call from 2-8 p.m. Friday at North Chapel of Scott Funeral Home in Jeffersonville. The family asks that friends consider memorial contributions be made to the Humane Society.
The original blog post ended with a few pages of denial and a senseless appeal- that the Nicole Phillips in the obituary was not the same person I knew in high school. I’ll spare you that. Spoiler alert- she was the same person. (I received definitive confirmation from her father, actually.)
The experience of reaching out to touch the past and finding out the very worst struck me deeply, and in the near-decade since I’ve often considered writing about it somehow. I was never sure how to approach the material, but as of now, I’m two chapters into a novel entitled “Spin the Bottle,” partly inspired by my reckless Googling. Auto-biographical elements in my books tend to get twisted almost beyond recognition, and entwined with supernatural horror narratives. I’m also fond of flipping genders. The narrator of “Spin the Bottle” is actually a middle-aged woman who searches for a boy she had a crush on in high school. She does find his obituary, and this leads her to an examination of her past- a turbulent adolescent experience that involves a poltergeist manifestation.
The poltergeist bit, too- believe it or not- is based on auto-biographical experience.
The book is off to a good- if frustratingly slow- start. I hope to have it finished sometime this year.
Very interesting tale of love loss and lingering obsession that was also very enjoyable. I thought after reading this how Holden Caufieldish it seemed and would have enjoyed a longer look and perhaps more in time first person moments. Reflective story telling validates your derived perceptions but suspended the vicarious pleasure inherent in the step by step walk to the bleacher show down or stings of rejection following each attempt at reaching out. I would have rather she lived ,achieved a measure of success but realized [too late ] that her life as a mother and wife of a Matt Damon looking Woody Allen clone would have been far more complete.