written in 2014
Viktor was a first chair clarinet. I met him in band class. He was Russian, six feet tall, and generally humorless. I sat next to him on the first day of school, and as a result, he turned to me and started talking about something too boring to commit to short term memory — let alone ten years after that unremarkable exchange of first words (if I had to venture a guess, it was probably a comment about the clarinet, a question about my clarinet, or classes that we shared, other than band class). Our first-day-of-school friendship thus began in the customary, cautious way, over the platitudes offered to a stranger in hopes that one day, more common ground would be found.
Viktor was likable. He was good at math and the clarinet. He edited people’s papers when asked. He talked about books with some level of deeper understanding, and like me, he played video games. I liked him well enough for all these things. But there was no reason to like like him, which, translated from the peculiar language of high school girlhood, meant that there was no reason to be romantically interested in him.
It was high school, after all, and Viktor had too many strikes going against him. His conversations were plain. He had occasional acne, unfitted clothing, and sandy-brown hair in the shape of a bowl around his ears. The hem of his pants tended to hover an unattractive inch or two above bare, ghostly-white ankles — an unfortunate by-product of his newfound height and infrequent exposure to sunlight. It didn’t help that Viktor walked everywhere with a curious stoop and hopping motion, as if unused to his height, and that with every step, his hair fell across his eyes and bobbed along with him. As all the girls at school knew, there was no reason to ever like like someone with a bowl cut.
But this was high school — and in high school, like liking isn’t about reason.
I considered myself lucky. At the age of fourteen years, I was anything but a silly schoolgirl. I was rational. I had priorities. I maintained a 4.0, studied, and kept a carefully annotated assignment book. I rarely spoke to others. I didn’t flirt with boys and I judged those who did.
Thus I sat, a serious and sobering schoolgirl, next to a lanky Russian boy who played first clarinet, having unanimated conversations with him and, from time to time, eyeing his bowl cut with judgment and pity.
It was one such glance, seeking other things in his appearance or attire to pity, that wandered a little too far from his bowl cut and brought my attention, for the first time, to the soft slant of a bridge from a brow, then to a nose—high, aquiline, European—and finally to a perfect embouchure with pale lips around a reed. It was then that I felt it: things fluttering.
I like liked Viktor.
Like liking is what I also call “butterfly love” — that feeling when everything inside you seizes and freezes because suddenly, things are fluttering in your stomach and you are now at the whims of a horrible cliché that you previously thought applied only to public speaking. If you’ve ever felt butterflies, you know and remember. Butterfly love is baseless and formless, unimpeded by things like reason. Butterfly love manifests as a physical sensation — a shuddering through your body that ricochets down every capillary and clouds every objection.
Butterfly love is when you like someone, but you can’t say, “I like him because he’s smart” or “I like her because she’s pretty” — it’s when you like someone just because.
So butterfly love is what you might call a silly, schoolgirl crush.
All my initial objections and schoolgirl sensibilities died away in the face of butterfly love. Viktor wasn’t lanky. He was just tall. When he brushed his bobbing, sandy hair out of his face, I flushed and looked down in return. Every boring conversation and awkward joke was tempered by the soft lilt of his accent, which I began to fall in love with.
You’d think I’d be horrified to fall victim to butterfly love, but when the butterflies come, all you feel is warmth and happiness and embarrassment. There are many clichés to describe the symptoms — the heart stopping, the insides fluttering, the face flushing — and I fell victim to each and every cliché. It didn’t help to think of these symptoms as unfortunate chemical reactions, because no amount of thinking could reason them away. I fell in butterfly love, just because.
No, that’s not true. There was a reason I couldn’t explain—even to girlfriends in whispered confidences—behind why I liked Viktor. There were many reasons not to like him, but there was only one reason that I did:
The profile of his face while he played the clarinet.
You see, Viktor had a perfect embouchure when playing the clarinet. It was that, and that alone—a flattering angle of an aquiline nose above a well-formed embouchure–that captured my imagination for the better part of my school years.
So began my high school days of falling in love with a nose.
Viktor was in a lot of my classes. I added him on AIM so that we could ask each other about homework. I messaged him whenever I thought I had necessary and sufficient reason, so that my instigation of a conversation wouldn’t prematurely reveal my hand before I confirmed his. I ignored his messages for the same reason.
When I did message him, I typed with perfect spelling and grammar to show him my intelligence. I dotted my sentences with periods. I played him in StarCraft: Brood War and beat him every time. When he began to dodge my one-on-one challenges, I arranged for team games between girls and guys. We played three versus four (and we always won — me, Jean, and Joy against poor Viktor, Ivan, Mark, and Bill, whose pride we were too young or insensitive to take into consideration).
I never started casual conversations with Viktor. I was afraid of being too obvious, and too afraid of being rejected. Instead, I waited for him to say something and replied to everything he said with one sentence or one line or one emoticon — all so that, while I was powerless to initiate conversations, I could prolong them as long as he was interested in responding. Every sentence thus became proof of his interest — proof that he might feel the same way. But even I knew, muddled as I was with hopeful instead of logical thinking, that an instant message or two wouldn’t hold up as proof of anything in the court of love.
Then came irrefutable proof.
There was a fire drill during band class. We shuffled out from the side door in single file, bringing our instruments with us in case of actual fire. I had, by this time, made other friends in band class, but I found myself near Viktor. I always managed to find myself near Viktor. It was a cautious, meandering sort of gravitation that pulled me near him, but not so near as to alert him of my intentions.
We were standing on the lawn in front of the flagstaff when he told a forgettable story or joke. I probably said something in reply—one of those sentences that I hoped he would respond to, to prove that he was interested!—and respond he did, but not in the usual way that people respond.
Viktor laughed, and then patted my head, twice.
People don’t usually pat other people on the head. People shake hands, high-five each other, hug, or pat each other on the back. Patting someone on the head is a gesture unknown to the lexicon of our daily body language, so infrequently used that it’s unsettlingly archaic.
It was a gesture that should have unsettled me, for the condescension that it usually implied. But instead, to a schoolgirl with butterflies, it only proved that Viktor was awkward and sweet and foreign — that he didn’t know how to communicate his interest in the common vein and so tried as best he could with his own language. For each pat on my head, I fell even more in love. Falling in love with a pat on the head perhaps made even less sense than falling in love with the line of his nose. But it happened, like everything else, with no grounding in things like sense. Pat,
and then I was flying.
My secret Xanga turned into a record of every interaction with Viktor, and later it became an elegy for unrequited love. I suspected that he didn’t see me that way, and instead thought of me as a biology partner or editor. I blamed my brains. I blamed my prowess at StarCraft. I blamed my boyishness.
And above it all, I secretly blamed Tina, a beautiful, lithe girl in our year who was paradoxically soft-spoken and fierce, a master of martial arts and a master of words, top of our English class and the purported object of Viktor’s attentions. I don’t remember who purported it, but we all knew for a fact that Viktor was in love with Tina.
You wouldn’t fall in love with Tina because of her eyes, her hair, or her smile. She didn’t have a traditional beauty or prettiness to fall in love with, though unconventional beauty inspires butterfly love all the more because of the lack of reasoning behind it.
Like Viktor, she brought out the butterflies if you knew where to look. Tina glided, fairy-light, when she walked. She made tiny, thoughtful notes in the margins of well-worn copies of schoolbooks, and thoughtful comments in class. She could disarm her opponents with a single blink, and failing that, she was a black belt in wushu.
Did I believe the rumors? Tina was part of our circle of friends—twelve girls who ate lunch together—and Viktor was a frequent visitor during lunchtime. I secretly hoped that it was because of me, but the one he hovered closest to—that cautious gravitation that I knew too well—was always Tina.
“Viktor doesn’t like me,” Tina would say in response to our teasing (Jasmine, Tina’s closest friend, was the main instigator because no one else dared). If someone proceeded to say, “but he like likes you,” a blink from Tina would shut down that thread of conversation.
Every denial gave me hope, and every lunchtime visit took it away. Then the rumors were confirmed to be true: he had asked her to freshman homecoming. She said no. I knew when I had lost, and when to give up. For the next three years, I tried to convince myself to fall out of love with this nose. He wasn’t worthy of being the object of my attentions, I told myself. He was boring. He had a bowl cut. He was someone else’s leftovers.
By junior year, I had quelled the butterflies and succeeded in ignoring Viktor’s nose.
In the meantime, I had fallen in and out of love with another boy, Jerry, who was skinny, average in intelligence, and obsessed with but average at basketball—another unrequited case of butterflies that would never see the light of day. For senior prom, Viktor asked out Tina (and was rejected) and Jerry asked out Jasmine (also rejected), and I stood by, willing all my butterflies dead but unable to stop feeling and loving the warmth of being in love. I gave up hope of being asked by Viktor and acquiesced to an invitation from another boy in our year, Bill, who was even worse at StarCraft than Viktor was. Senior prom came and went. Graduation came and went. By the last day of school, I still stared at and loved Viktor’s nose.
Strangely, Viktor and I managed to become good friends by the end of high school. My strategy of ignoring him on AIM, beating him at video games, and discussing classes with him had strengthened our friendship. I held LAN parties and always invited Viktor, as well as Viktor’s circle of friends—gamers, nerds, and players of Dungeons and Dragons—who were my friends, too. To give you a good idea of the extent of our friendship, I would sit with them once or twice a week for lunch.
It was the summer of 2008 when I held my last LAN party. We were all graduating and going our separate ways for college. I invited the regulars — Viktor, Jean, Joy, Ivan, Mark, Bill. We played StarCraft, as usual, until midnight when people either had to drive home or had arranged for their parents to pick them up.
Viktor and Mark stuck around, and we talked about nothing for a very long time. It was the type of nothing you can talk about only when, out of that thing called friendship, you need neither platitudes to start a conversation nor common interests to sustain it.
We talked about life, nothing, the future, high school, girls, and boys. We probably gossiped, and we didn’t talk about clarinets or classes. It was an unremarkable conversation, and a comfortable one that didn’t go line by line.
Then hours had passed. There was a lull in this conversation about nothing. There came, out of that nothingness, a mutual understanding that it was probably time to go.
Mark said his goodbyes and good lucks. Viktor and I said them too. Then Viktor stood, motioning to leave with Mark — but as if he thought better of it, he turned to me first.
Then he patted me on the head, twice, and left.
There are two ways to read this story.
The first, if you believe in butterflies: this is the story of how I fell in love with a nose and two pats, and how two pats more were a spell to end the enchantment. Pats three and four were a sign from above—like birds from a Greek god—that meant it was okay to let go and time to move on. Even if the conclusion wasn’t what I expected or hoped for, this story had structure. It had meaning. It had two bookends. It wasn’t “just because” or all for naught, because there was a lesson to be learned from all of it.
The second, which I believe because this was life and not a story: this is the story of how I fell in love with a nose and two pats and then fell out of love because of two more pats, just because. Those two pats weren’t a sign from a higher power, but a chance gesture from Viktor made more probable by habit. Those first two pats didn’t mean that Viktor was in love with me, no more than the last two pats meant an end to our intertwined fate.
These were no bookends. They were only gestures, motions. They were only coincidences. They were only things that reminded you of another thing for no reason at all — just like the tiny signs and things that you read into and fall in love with, for no reason at all.
I explained earlier that we fall in butterfly love “just because,” but it wasn’t until Viktor patted me again that I understood what that meant. Butterfly love happens when all those tiny moments and gestures that shouldn’t mean anything at all are spun, by the imagination of a young boy or girl (or an old man and old woman, or anyone at all), into something sweet or beautiful or significant. All you needed was a thing and a story to tell yourself. There are no reasons for anything until you think of your own. Does that mean that all the meanings we make are imaginary? Is butterfly love justifiable only in the sense that wishful thinking makes a wishful reason? Is that reason enough? I don’t know.
But with those two pats, I was freed from all the butterflies—the random chance, the chemicals, the images and objects that we all clothe in some other significance, the nose that I determined to be the object of my affections—that defined my high school romance.