Rom-Coms Made Me a Stalker

Sephy Hallow on 2018-08-24

Not Another First Time Story

As an autistic kid in a small town, I creeped out my very first crush

Photo: Donald Iain Smith/Moment/Getty Images

“Whether a gesture is alarming or charming depends on how it’s received.” Ted Mosby delivered this sage advice in the last season of How I Met Your Mother, about 15 years too late by my timing. It’s known as the “Dobler/Dahmer theory”: The idea that any romantic gesture can be perceived as coming from a Dobler (as in, Lloyd, from Say Anything) or a Dahmer (the Milwaukee Monster).

There’s a fine line between those two, a tightrope I fell off long ago — the first time I fell in love.

Adolescence is a lonely place; it is emptier still in a small town where you don’t belong. I grew up in a village of 6,000 people. They lived in red brick houses, backed onto fields and surrounded by stretches of woodland. It was kind of town so bored of itself it makes news of its residents. By the time I was 13, I had lived there all my life, I knew everyone by name, and I still didn’t understand a single one of them.

I couldn’t get along with anyone for long. Sooner or later, I’d say something odd, or miss a social cue. Then, a vague and uncanny expression would wash over their face, and they’d be gone.

In the world of rom-coms, misfits always win out; a flaw is just a perfection waiting to be found.

I wasn’t like the kids at school. I read for fun, and stayed up for the Slow Jam at 2 a.m. I always pulled the wrong expressions, and cracked my knuckles incessantly. I knew that listening to a song 40 times in a row wasn’t normal, but the pull of repetition felt like driving down the countryside’s loopy yet familiar roads; it was a comfort, and a thrill.

I knew there was a kink in my brain that made me different. I just didn’t know it was autism.

Because I couldn’t count on friends, I spent my time with screen heroes. I watched as beautiful weirdoes paired off, each pristine yet somehow broken, until they found another bent cog that fit. In the world of rom-coms, misfits always win out; a flaw is just a perfection waiting to be found. I held out hope, waiting for the day someone would look at me the way Tom Hanks looked at most women in the ’90s. As I steeped in these narratives of love, two philosophies soaked in: One, that any person with a good heart has the capacity to be loved, no matter how odd they seem; and two, that love is an act of defiance in a world hell-bent on calling you crazy.

Love is getting in bar brawls for principle. Love is deception for the greater good. Love is being an objectively terrible person, because love accepts all extremes in its pursuit. Ruin a wedding, get soaked in the rain, fight someone’s parents: All’s fair in love. If your love is requited, all will be forgiven. Love is being accepted for your quirks, even adored for them. In the town that never understood me, I yearned for that kind of love.

One day, it came knocking at my door.

My Tom Hanks was cute, funny, snarky. He had hazel eyes, round cheeks like crabapples, and a horribly fashionable haircut for 2002. He was on the cusp of cool and climbing, while I lived on the bottom rung of the social ladder; we were star-crossed. In class, we were enemies — but in the empty expanse of fields and trees where no one else could see, we became explorers. Every day, we rode our bikes and ruined our jeans, built secret dens in copses and played cards, staying out until the sun set. It was an unspoken bliss, until school broke up for summer — and we did, too.

A part of me wanted to wither away, but my heart wouldn’t give up. Rom-coms had taught me that rejection isn’t the end: It’s an exciting midpoint, the incitement for a grand gesture. Listening to the Slow Jam that night, I took out my pen, and the nicest paper I had.

He didn’t wait around to watch me cry.

I wrote the kind of confession best delivered as a monologue in the rain. I told him how my heart skipped a beat the day he came to my door — and every day since, when he came back, like a recurring dream. How his laughter at the jokes no one else appreciated lit a beacon inside me, a little warm glow that got me through the loneliness of school. How I shivered the day I earned the scar on my back, not because I was cold and bleeding, and gouged out an inch landing on a brick, but because when he lifted up my shirt to see the damage, his fingers brushed my skin in a place I’d never been touched before.

I wrote with such raw honesty I felt a hot wave of sick rising at the back of my throat. I swallowed it, and broke out of the house. I had to do this for love.

The tarmac glistened in the moonlight. The air was still with sleep. I slipped past a woman crying into a payphone. A dancing wind chime made me jump. I pushed on, undeterred. I slipped the letter through Tom Hanks’s door, and crept home.

He was on my porch the next day. The shadows on his face looked deeper, almost older-looking. I felt the surge in my throat again.

“My parents didn’t like your letter.”

He didn’t wait around to watch me cry.

Of course, I couldn’t admit defeat. I had to do better, try harder. I began sneaking out most nights around the witching hour. I placed a stolen rose on his driveway, mimicking the scattered blossoms from his neighbor’s bush, but secreting a poem between the petals — a secret message I was sure wouldn’t be intercepted. When I couldn’t sleep, I stood below his window, willing him to twitch the curtain. Once, I sat on his front wall in the rain for an hour. During the day, I haunted the fields and woods we’d spent our evenings in, lonely and disconnected. I counted the days until summer’s end.

When school started, I was electric with anticipation. I had a new coat I was sure he’d like, and shiny new shoes. As I paused to compose myself, I heard his voice come from the classroom.

“She’s a stalker.”

I felt the breath rush out of me. My body went cold.

“She left me these letters…”

I stood and listened as he rewrote us. Time stopped. My body walked into the classroom, empty. I left my heart in the hallway, suspended in a never-ending summer.