My First Date
As a teenager, I was never really allowed to go anywhere without my parents knowledge and permission. I didn’t go on dates, or go to parties, or loiter in parking lots, or whatever else teenagers in the movies did. I knew my parents kept a very close eye on me, and there were pretty dire consequences for deviating from a studious life. I had gotten pretty used to all of my social interactions being under pretty controlled environments: either I met my friends at school or I made sure my parents knew and were comfortable with the people, places and times I was meeting my friends.
I was also, well, a teenager. I wanted to hang out. I fell for girls, wanted to go to parties, etc. I wanted to make my own decisions. As a result, I hid a lot from my parents, and pretty regularly lied. This isn’t uncommon; Sarah Koenig’s Serial covers the topic when she talks about the high school life of a muslim student, Adnan Syed:
So Adnan had to keep his relationship with Hae secret. The state used this against him, …. as they said — look at what a liar he is, how duplicitous. He plays the good Muslim son at home and at the mosque, but look what he was up to. Saad remembers the prosecutor’s closing argument at trial. His family didn’t know that he actually drank, he smoked, he was having sex. This was proof of bad character, someone who could be a murderer. But Saad says, if Adnan is guilty of anything, it’s of being a normal kid with immigrant parents.
So the prosecution had painted Adnan as a totally bipolar or a maniacal dual personality. We all grew up with that dual personality.
But the other bit about me is that I lacked a boldness to step too far out of my bounds. Sneaking out to meet my friends was unthinkable. Calling a girl, while hiding in my closet, was probably the furthest I got to breaking the rules. And even then I was careful not to push it. I probably could’ve gotten away with a lot more, but it was too stressful. So I understood my bounds, and stayed close to them.
This is all to set the stage for the summer I went to debate camp. For twelve hours a day, five days a week, I attended lectures at The University of Michigan, pored over mountains of research at the libraries and fell in love with my first girlfriend. I was 16 at the time, and my parents would have certainly not approved. But for twelve hours a day and five days a week we would sit together, study together and eat together. She also grew up with immigrant parents and was aware of the double life of a second generation American teenager. We were careful at the end of each day that our parents didn’t see us together, and avoided talking to each other when we got home. We were breaking the rules and it was exhilarating.
We always had one hour for lunch between morning lectures and the afternoon session at the library. At first we were careful; staying on campus where our parents expected us to be all day. But over time, we got bolder, walking the ten minutes into downtown. I remember the first time I suggested we walk to Main Street, she said, “We can’t do that!” And I was inclined to believe her. The thought of just walking off campus and going wherever we wanted, without telling anywhere where and why we were going was unfathomable. I felt that sentiment, “We can’t do that.” But at the same time, for whatever reason, there was a competing thought: “Why the hell not?” No one at camp would complain; we had the hour to ourselves. Our parents would never have to know. We definitely weren’t supposed to do it, but there was nothing stopping us besides us. And so I told her that we could. It’s a ten minute walk there and a ten minute walk back which gave us 40 minutes to walk in and out of stores. Stores we had only dreamed of visiting alone someday when we were older. There was an incredible sense of freedom. Of just deciding, “We can do that” and going.
That was a bit of a theme that summer. Of confronting these mental barriers we had set up for years. Of taking ideas that seemed ludicrous or impossible, and doing them anyways. My favorite was the time we got a half day. I’m pretty sure what we were supposed to do was call our parents and go home. But of course we weren’t going to do that. We were going to have a few hours to do whatever we wanted together. And so I got to thinking about what we should do with this rare time.
I had always wanted to go on a date. A real one, like I used to read about. Where you take a girl to the movies or something like that. And so I started formulating an idea. I wanted to take her to go see a movie.
The nearest movie theater was on the other side of town. At the time, our new bounds that constrained us only stretched to where we could walk. It was safe and we could always get back in time to meet our parents picking us up, while they were none the wiser. We obviously couldn’t walk to the movie theater, but there was a bus that could take us. Neither of us had ever really taken the city bus before.
“We definitely can’t do that! Are you kidding me? Getting on a city bus and just going somewhere?” That was so far out of the realm of comfort that our minds nearly rejected it immediately. But, for some reason, I was determined that summer. Determined to do what I want, to have a real relationship with this girl. To do the things we thought were impossible. So I looked up the movie timings. I pulled up bus schedules and meticulously mapped out our route. I calculated the timing of it all, and worked in buffer times here and there. There was a minute-by-minute playbook of exactly how we were going to race to this theater, watch a movie and make it back before our parents came to pick us up. And it was going to be tight. Like, really tight.
As we sat together on this bus cruising away from downtown, we just sat in awe. “I can’t believe we’re doing this” we would repeat. We’d alternate between freaking out and grinning widely. I held her hand and told her (and myself) that we could do whatever we wanted. And in that moment, I believed it. The mental barriers were gone; we weren’t going to call defeat just because we thought it was impossible. In the back of that bus, we felt invincible.
The movie ran a little longer than we expected, and in the final few scenes, I nervously kept checking my watch. I desperately wanted to sit till the end of the movie. To not break this illusion we had created, that we were completely free. I didn’t want to come back to a reality where we really needed to catch that bus otherwise we would have a lot of explaining to do. I wanted to feel like a normal couple for just a few seconds longer. So in the final scene, as the overhead camera began to slowly zoom out, I took her by the hand and we sprinted. We kept running, her hand in mine, unaware of how exhausted we were because nothing mattered more than catching that bus. And when we finally sat back in our seats on the bus, we broke out in laughter. We had done it. The whole event feels small to me now. It doesn’t feel particularly special to get on a bus to go see a movie. But at the time, it was so insane that the whole event felt monumental. I think the both of us changed a little after that. We felt a little less hopeless. And there’s power in that.
There’s a phenomenon known as Learned Helplessness. You get so used to the bounds that constrain you, whether they are real or perceptual, that even when you are capable of doing something, you firmly believe, “I can’t do that.” There are a lot of things that I don’t think I can do. I’ve trained myself to believe certain ideas are just ludicrous. They seem impossible, so I don’t even bother trying. Like writing a book, or traveling alone, or falling in love the way I used to in high school. And when things aren’t going quite the way I want, it often feels like there’s nothing I can do. But the truth is, I have far more control over my life than I can imagine. So sometimes I think about sitting on that bus, feeling like I could do anything. I suppose I have a lot to learn from my younger self.