I know the word you long to hear…

It could have been a great story.

Boy moves across the country (actually across the town, but at age nine it’s the same difference), girl moves into house across the street. She is ten years younger (actually one year but at age eleven there’s not much difference); naturally they despise one another. Add three years and the ineluctable imperatives of adolescence—that merry prankster who assails bones, skin, and speech with impunity. All of a sudden the girl becomes the all-consuming object of his every impulse (actually he begins to have strong feelings for her, but at age fourteen there is no difference). All he has to do is say something, do anything.

Obviously he does nothing of the sort. He thinks, he dreams, he obsesses, he writes unashamedly of these feelings in his journal and, above all, he is too timid to betray the slightest emotion. In other words, he is making the mistake of his life.

(I know your deepest, secret fear…)

Or is he? Is he not learning a lesson, equal parts valuable and painful, regarding lust vs. love, communication vs. revelation, the realization of a dream vs. a dream deferred?

Is he simply becoming, in his own intractable way, the person he was meant to be: long on thought, short on action; needing a few more years in the shallow pool of teenage socialization? Not unlike a million other boys and girls, content to exist on the fumes of ambitions they can scarcely understand, much less hope to articulate. Still inexperienced enough to have, at best, a slippery grasp of irony and cynicism, still able to idealize scenarios that reality would suck the air out of in seconds, still willing to believe that angels and demons were wrestling on the periphery of his conscience, still naïve enough to misinterpret the mechanisms scrambling to keep a monster called free will out of his arsenal—that key to eventually unlock the floodgates.

What if? is the question that is always prepared to wait as long as it takes. As long as you need to stumble upon it, in the attic one summer evening or in the alley during a winter storm. What if? is the gift that keeps taking, the question that can never be answered, a magic trick that torments even the most peaceful mind. No matter what you’ve done or who you’ll become, you are never able to avoid asking what if? when you are not sure how things might have been. It’s not about better scenarios or even alternate scenarios; it’s mostly about scenarios that, by luck or design, never had a chance to unfold (as if scenarios are actors poised and ready behind stage, waiting to get called into action).

Listen: What if he had just said something, especially since he suspected she shared his feelings? What if he’d been willing to do the unthinkable and stop thinking? Stop dreaming, meditating, willing, and just act.

Just do it, one advertisement admonished, not even realizing its own power; how irresponsible and liberating it might turn out to be. Just say no, the other famous ad told us and this was the sentiment that prevailed. It had less than a little to do with the influence of authority figures and almost everything to do with the big F called Fear. What if she just said no? Inconceivable, unbearable. Better to keep it hidden, safe inside, stoking sensations that could not say their own names if they tried. Like the incense in church, those thoughts: an inexpressible yearning scented the air, hanging over sinful deeds. A redeeming hymn blocking out the resolve to open the window and let free will inside, that vampire who preyed on kids who forgot to pray.

At the window, watching. And listening:

I’m a spy in the house of love
I know the dream that you’re dreaming of
I know the word that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear.

He knew; I didn’t know shit. Which is why I stayed, stealthily (I hoped) behind the curtain, longing to look longingly across the street. Stealing furtive glances so as to not be obvious, obviously I was just doing my homework. An evening stretched into too many possibilities to count: When her lights were on it was too risky; when they were off it was too tantalizing. The soundtrack of my unrequited epiphany playing patiently, at my service: I’m a spy, I can see you. It consoled me, as always (I thought). I did not know enough to suspect it was encouraging me, cajoling me, shaking its head in disbelief. Neither an angel nor a demon, just another witness to my passionless play, the long-suffering second act of my innocence. Squandered opportunity or indelible rite of passage, it sang its same song while, however in tune, I crouched beside that window, keeping free will out and seeing my reflection every time I tried to catch a glimpse of a love I could never explain.

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