Chapter 2: The Smitten Nerd

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When I was 17, I wanted to be the prom queen. Instead, I was the girl who beat the football player in a spirit week Twinkies eating contest.

I haven’t eaten one since, nor gained more feminine grace. I’m not an ogre, but I have literally tripped over my own feet, more than once.

In college, a press release came across my desk at the newspaper for a statewide scholarship contest that was actually a beauty pageant. The Miss Fiesta Bowl pageant required essays, interviews and some sort of talent. My essay, to everyone’s surprise, was selected for the interview process. (I was going to college on pennies and fumes; there was no room for feminist discourse on the competition until I was unjustly overlooked for a (far) prettier, more accomplished and better spoken candidate. And then! Well, beauty pageants are sexist drivel!)

The best part of this experience was finding my childhood best friend that night for dinner. I’d driven down from Flagstaff, as she had driven up from Tucson. After a movie and catching up on her parents’ couch, I said, “Can I tell you a secret?”

Her eyes grew wide. Was there anything better than a shared secret between friends who hadn’t caught up in a few months?

She nodded.

“I came to Phoenix this weekend to be interviewed for the Miss Fiesta Bowl pageant.” I said it so softly, and embarrassed, she leaned in with even wider eyes.

Without missing a beat, in the same tone she whispered back. “Me too.”

We both howled with laughter and then compared notes of the Scandinavian supermodels in the interview pool who without a doubt had us beat.

We both secretly wanted to be the prettiest girl in town, with the dumb crown on her head and the scholarship money in her pocket. We were none on these things yet unsurprisingly, still love to remind each other of this story when egos get a bit too big.

Rebecca, as long as I can remember, had a steady stream of boyfriends. There were always boys interested in her. Boys at church. Boys at high school. And definitely boys in college. She had her pick of the pack for school dances and had a certain way about her to know how to manage all the attention. She was one of those girls in high school with the basket of dried roses. She’d been given so many roses, she need a BASKET to hold them in.

Sometimes she even had the nerve to turn them down!

I avoided this kind of attention at all costs. I would have much rather walked across a mosquito-rich football field wearing a bikini than have any sort of emotional conversation with a boy in high school. Or college.

(Come to think of it, walking across that football field in a bikini may have started a conversation or two.)

Where Rebecca had practice in speaking “boy,” I had an obnoxious younger brother who loved to miss the toilet, leave his stinky clothing across our shared bathroom and eat all the food as quickly as possible. I wanted the boyfriends Rebecca had because the dances involved pretty dresses and getting flowers and feeling special. But I didn’t want to have anything to do with boys more than I had to. (Cody can still be pretty gross, and at 33 revels in making his patient girlfriend squeal with his antics.)

So, it was further confusing when I got to college and met a boy who wasn’t these things. He was tall and athletic and pretty much always smelled good. His apartment was clean. He was a great cook, made me laugh and was artistic. He had a nice mom who would come to visit and would take me shopping. He had big gorgeous eyes and enjoyed my company.

That was it. I was hooked.

I’d spend the next two years at the school newspaper, working beside him, smitten. Looking back on it, I am so embarrassed by just how smitten. He had to have known, but we never, ever talked about it.

By day, I was being my normal over-achieving completely obnoxious self in the classroom, acing whatever came my way through sheer determination. By night, I was failing at basic human communication. I had no nerve. The idea of not having him in my life as a friend sounded like a horrible (and probable) alternative.

Instead, he had girlfriends who I’d examine like a biology project. What made them different? Special? Desirable? (For starters, most were able to understand their feelings and speak to them. Also, they all pretty much had great hair.)

When he met his last college girlfriend, I got it. She was gorgeous. And nice. And smart. But most importantly — I saw the spark. There was magic between the two of them that I’d certainly never felt and couldn’t easily be explained. They just worked. (They still do today, two children later.)

Biology. Chemistry. Social Science. If there is one thing I hated more than anything, it was failure.