Why I was so afraid of letting myself have a crush

For much of my college career, I tried to picture what it would be like if someone were to want me. Want me desperately, as if he had no choice in the matter; as if I were something he needed under his skin even if he didn’t fully like the idea. “Desperately.” The word is ugly and haunting and beautiful because it reflects a kind of human need that I was conditioned to think I wasn’t supposed to admit to. Before I came to college, I had wanted things desperately—a dog, my mother’s pride, an acceptance letter from my top school—but never a living person, never a boy.

I’ve never known anything thing about boys. I grew up with a brother who spent the majority of our adolescence ignoring me, and I went to an all-girl’s Catholic high school where the only interaction I had with the opposite sex took place during speech and debate tournaments. The boys I was closest to before I came to college were Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley. Much like my experience with love, all my experiences with boys came from book pages and well-crafted sentences. I had no idea how messy and frenetic and uncharted longing would actually be.

When I was a junior in college, I felt a switch go on in my brain. I was always the good girl, the one who thought everything through and could never imagine being with with a boy just because I was inexplicably, annoyingly, and decidedly attracted to him. But I was so, so tired of having to wait and want.

I had first seen him my freshman year as I sat at the photo desk of The Michigan Daily and wondered about the cute boy across the newsroom and what he was like. Two and a half years later, at the end of my junior year, I could probably have counted the number of normal conversations we’d had on one hand despite covering events and late nights working less than ten feet apart and walking together down unfamiliar sidewalks in unfamiliar cities while I looked at him sidelong and knew he would never notice.

“Do you think he could ever be interested in someone like me?” I stammered out the words as I sat in a car with a mutual friend, enquiring because desperation had driven me to ask something I could not yet explain or put into words.

“Someone Indian?” my friend asked me with a sense of confusion I could hardly blame him for.

“No. Maybe. Yes?” I responded, just as confused. That was part of it; as an Indian-American girl, I had grown up believing that at best I would be something for white boys to exoticize: not to understand, not even to necessarily want, but to regard as strikingly “other.”

But that wasn’t all. If it were, I could have honestly told my friend that, yes, I was curious if the boy liked Indian girls. But it was more than that. It was a relative telling me my thighs were so fat that they offended her. It was brushing the peach fuzz on my upper lip and lower back and wondering if it were possible for someone to touch me without feeling anything at all. And in that case, would apathy be better than disgust? Did the electricity of desire only go one way, and could it be stopped in its tracks by a scar, a bruise, or an errant hair? Was there any way a boy, that one or any other, could ever be interested in—not someone like me, but me? Could anyone see me as desirable?

I think that almost everyone is scared of putting him or herself out there; rejection is like a dragon you’d rather not have to go out of your way to slay. But I was scared of more than rejection; I was scared of disgust. I was scared of revulsion. I once wondered if I should bake cookies for the boy if I kissed him, in order to apologize for the trouble of being kissed by me. And that’s when I realized that I had a problem (because that sounds both pathetic and vaguely illegal). But after a lifetime of feeling that I was incapable of being desirable, it was a lesson that was neither quickly nor easily unlearned.

And so, when an acquaintance started whispering to me her previous weekend’s escapades, I could tell where her story was headed before she even said the boy’s name. Before she told me about flirtations and hooking up and an interest and a kindness and a desire he had never shown me. I listened and nodded at the appropriate times, and, the moment I felt I could, I excused myself to call my best friend. I managed not to break down for a good fifteen minutes before sobbing, “I’m never going to be a pretty white girl,” into her confused, loving ear.

It was an admission that startled me as well—was that what this was all about? Why was I so sure that no one would ever want me, physically or romantically? I was afraid of wanting, so afraid of showing want, because nothing terrified me more than coming so close to what I had craved so long and not only falling short but being pushed off the edge by a boy who wanted nothing to do with me. I wanted to protect myself, my hope, and my fragile pride.

I didn’t feel as if my heart was breaking. But it felt as though something was splintering inside me all the same. And every time I saw them together, every piece of gossip someone told me about them, every time the boy walked into a room and didn’t acknowledge my existence, it felt as if there were rubber bands snapping across something soft inside of me that I had never intended to make so vulnerable. You didn’t pick me. The words came with jagged edges. And who is to say anyone ever will?

Sometimes people think that if they could change just one aspect of themselves—their nose, their waist—they would become attractive to the object of their desires. But being a person of color often adds another complicated layer. It can make someone feel undeniably “other.” For me, it adds one more barrier for someone to break down before getting to my thoughts, my mind, my heart. I always thought that boys who weren’t Indian could never view me in terms of attraction—I could be seen and even liked as a friend or a co-worker, but never seen as an object of desire. I felt as if brown were the color of invisibility, and I tried to tell myself that want wasn’t worth the anguish and frustration. I tried to believe that, no matter the reason, I should let it—desire and the want to be wanted—go.

I have always been so afraid of getting burned. But burned by what, exactly? Rejection? Or my own myriad fears and insecurities which would inevitably come with it? The boy, like me, is only human. He cannot decide my self-worth or desirability. No other person has the right to do so.

I realized that I need to stop trying to evade desire because I don’t think I’m worthy. I am worthy, and someday this electricity will be a two-way street. If someone doesn’t want me, then so be it. I’ll still have my fire, and they can avoid getting burned. Now I know that I am worthy of love and want and wanting.

Teresa Mathew is a recent graduate from the University of Michigan who writes about race, family, love, and the intersection of all three. She loves literary redheads and dogs which can be mistaken for bears. Teresa can be found on Twitter @_teamat

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[IMage courtesy Fox]

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