In my basement, there is a large Tupperware container filled with high school notes scrawled with a rainbow’s array of shimmery gel pens. Some notes are folded into miniature self-contained envelopes—all the better for concealing within the palm and dropping on a neighboring desk. The only desk I ever dropped notes on belonged to my best friend M. We sometimes wrote about bad grades and cutting class and annoying parents, but mostly we cataloged sightings of our crushes on our campus of over 3,000 students.
Re-reading these notes now feels like flipping through detective case files, if detectives changed pen color every paragraph and relentlessly used the word “hella.” We were on the case of crush: Who did we like and why? Did they like us back? Could we get them to like us back? Each crush had a nickname—from “Freddie,” the Freddie Prinze Jr. lookalike(ish), to FIGIS, the “finest guy in school.” Occasionally we wrote in code, with backwards being our go-to (“ohcaN skool alleh denots”).
These freshman-year notes might seem frivolous, and like compelling evidence as to why I flunked algebra twice. But revisiting them, they strike me as a revealing document of adolescent desire, as well as a catalog of our own grasping attempts to understand the world we were entering into as teenage girls. They also record a moment of support and bonding between friends during a time of uncertain transition. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept those reams of notes for over two decades.
Alongside the Tupperware notes is a diary filled with the high school equivalent of an FBI dossier for each crush. I pasted photocopied yearbook photos alongside annotations about everything from friend group to car make and model. In an entry for “TLC,” a guy who once drove past M. and me while listening to “No Scrubs,” I wrote: “Shy, not flirty,” “Wife-beater tank top,” “Works out at Y,” “Grey/green Landrover.” Of “Honking Guy,” a popular senior at school, I wrote: “Sexy,” “Flirt,” “Beefy,” “Honked at M. & I,” “Looked at us at school,” “White jeep.”
In one note, we made a flow chart of acquaintances of my next-door neighbor, a senior soccer player and verifiable Cool Guy, who sometimes waved (waved!) to me from our neighboring windows. “The Neighbor” was one of our most frequent subjects, in part because sheer proximity made for weekly run-ins, which we recorded, of course:
SATURDAY: As we’re walking up to my house, he walks up to his house. He grins, nods and says, “Hey.” We smile.
SUN: I’m talking on phone, M. is over. I see neighbor staring at me. I stare back. This continues for a while. He turns his back to us while talking on phone and then turns his head and looks at me again.
MON: Neighbor is spotted @ the bus stop w/his weird friend. He recognizes T and waves.
THURS: We see neighbor riding his bike and chase him.
Then, in another note, I wrote, “I hope to GOD that my neighbor doesn’t think I’m a psycho.”
M. and I had little in the way of substantial crush interaction, but nonetheless parsed meaning from the smallest of encounters and strategized future ones, scripting basic dialogue. “I’ve planned what I’m saying to J. next time,” I wrote of my next-door neighbor, whose actual name I’d figured out. “I’m gonna go ‘Wassup?’ & he’ll do his lil ‘Wassuuuup?’ thing & I’ll go, ‘So what’s your name?’ And then that’d be a perfect conversation starter & way to introduce myself.”
Later, I strategized about how to go to lunch with another crush, workshopping a casual, uninvested delivery:
Okay, tomorrow, I need to find some way of asking who he eats lunch with. And then go, “You should eat lunch w/me sometime.” Then I’ll just see what happens. Yea, that’ll work…the only problem w/that is how to bring up lunch & who we eats with. Maybe I could be like, “Hey, who do you eat lunch with? I hardly ever see you at lunch.” Yeah, I could say that hella randomly & it’d be cool. I should hella do that tomorrow.”
I was hella determined to seem my opposite: relaxed and confident.
These notes were an ongoing, collaborative part of figuring out the tricky stuff of sex and relationships. This is similar to the kind of figuring out that happens in early fandom. The media psychologist Sarah E. Erickson writes that adolescent fans “examine the ways that they are both similar to and different from their media attachments.” These evaluations “likely help them think through both their own identity and the identity of future partners.” Young people who are “novices at romance” usually start “to experience it by having crushes before initiating actual relationships.” Fandom can “provide a baseline level of knowledge and set of expectations for young adolescents experiencing romantic feelings for the first time,” writes Erickson.
Some notes, written on blue-lined binder paper with a date in the upper-righthand corner, evidence an effort to pass off disengaged in-class chatter with a friend as studious note-taking. On one such piece of paper, I wrote: “birth control: something that prevents you from becoming pregnant. abstinence: not having sex.” This was sex ed: Learning about the things I already knew and none of the things I longed to understand. Below, I detailed at length an interaction with my latest crush, describing how he was so “real” compared to other people. “Do you have any idea of how many bullshit people there are? The VAST majority of people are,” I wrote, channeling Angela Chase.
I was in the middle of a sex education class that emphasized the potential for unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, trying to sort out the unaddressed: attraction, desire, emotion, connection. Did he like me as a friend or more? Did I like him as a friend or more? What did I want from a “more” relationship?
When I drew a labeled taxonomy of a boy’s outfit—down to his Timberland boots, Kangol visor, and the Newport lights stuffed in his shirt pocket—I was preoccupied with sorting out my own desire, but also coolness and identity more broadly. Unsurprisingly, given the way women are encouraged to live through men, figuring out my taste in boys felt like figuring out who I was and where I fit. Sometimes, that taste felt aspirational, like a wishful decision about fitting in. It was a craving not just for the boy, but for his social status and power within the hierarchy of high school.
But then sometimes it was mostly about the skin-pricking wave of excitement upon seeing a cute boy, as evidenced by a list M. wrote of my abiding interests:
TRACY and her BOYZ
Sexy in general
Publicly revealing this kind of excitement would have been socially precipitous. Any girl who did was quickly labeled “boy crazy” or a “slut.” But in these private notes we found a safe, and sometimes thrilling, route for expression. “It was rebellious… to lay claim to sexual feelings,” writes Lisa A. Lewis in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media of Beatlemania. “It was even more rebellious to lay claim to the active, desiring side of sexual attraction.” The Beatles “were the objects” and “the girls were their pursuers.” In a paper on “Bieber fever,” Louisa Allen and Toni Ingram write, “Erotic attachments to celebrities, teachers and male classmates have been described as a resource for girls’ friendship talk and a fantasy space where different forms of desire can be articulated.”
In my case, that was mostly all-caps exclamations about fine-ness. I wrote to M. of my neighbor after one of his window displays, “He was looking DAMN fine! Wooh! YUM!” Still, there was a lurking sense of danger around these desires, including in how the adult world reacted to them. In one note, I wrote to M. that my mom had observed our excited interest and warned me about the neighbor and his friends, saying, “They’re the sharks and you’re the bait.” Here, I must note that I was the one cataloging his every movement. I was the one creating FBI dossiers.
Soon, M. started drawing elaborate Manga-style cartoons in hardcover blank notebooks that imagined scenarios of my getting together with the neighbor. The cover of one of these reads, “WHAT WILL THIS NAUGHTY GIRL DO NEXT?” (I hadn’t even had my first real kiss yet.) Another cover teased in a speech bubble above my head, “You have no idea all the dirty things I’m thinking right now... .” Another one featured a thought bubble with a big “CENSORED” bar over it.
Slowly, eventually, the distance closed between us and some of our crushes. We no longer just drew ourselves into other people’s bedrooms. As soon as I got into a relationship, the feverish note-passing slowed—that or I stopped storing our missives away like vital pieces of evidence. Instead, I started saving love notes and AIM conversations with my boyfriend. The endless parsing, longing, and uncertainty continued, only it was relegated to my private diary.
It’s the notes with M. that I revisit most often, though. They’re the ones with their own packed-full Tupperware container. I’m wary of my own adult projections here. Still, I feel nostalgic for those days of excitement and anticipation, when we found space to express our desires creatively, obsessively, and collaboratively.