I am standing in a puddle. Rain drips off my lips and a yellow poncho hangs off my skinny shoulders. In a week I will turn thirteen. Today I will fall in love.
My mom created a new definition for “pity party” when she invited Jenny, my friend I hadn’t seen since preschool, to celebrate my Unlucky Thirteen with me. A few months before, my family had moved across the country, and because I was homeschooled and reaching the peak of my introverted stage, my mother had to invent friends to invite to my birthday celebrations for a couple of years.
During the car ride to the concert, Jenny and I spend about five minutes reminiscing about that time in preschool when were sitting in our car seats and eating Life Savers and we both choked at the same time and our mothers almost had to resuscitate us. Then we settle down into a soggy, awkward silence.
We are greeted at the Soul Song Christian Music Festival by a huge clap of thunder. Now we are standing in a puddle, waiting for the moment when First Love, my favorite Christian boy band ever, will dance onto the stage.
Chris, Jared, Josh, Shawn, and Ryan do not dance onto the stage. They rise out of the floor, posed like male, leather-clad Charlie’s Angels. They are so cute. I do not care anymore that I am wet, because I am totally, totally crushing.
Next to me, Jenny is chatting with my nine-year-old brother, Jet. Jet came out of the womb with a tough guy name and today he has a bully side to match. First, he has stolen my faux-friend, Jenny, who finds his boyish charms far more approachable than my aura of shyness. And now Jet is complaining. It’s wet. It’s cold. This is so boring. Dad. Dad. Dad. I want to go home.
I am still watching First Love’s youngest member, Ryan Kelly. Ryan Kelly, with his Brian McKnight voice and quarterback body. Oh. He is my favorite. I love him. I…
“Hey, Bets, I think we’re gonna leave.”
“What? Dad! First Love has only sung one song! And it’s my birthday!”
“Honey, Jet is wet and miserable. We just need to go.”
I pound my forehead against the car window all the way home. Jet and Jenny are laughing at one of their new inside jokes. My love is on stage at the festival, and I sit in a van, wringing out my jacket.
A week later, on my real thirteenth birthday, I go to the hospital and get my tonsils out. For the next few weeks I survive on popsicles and Ryan Kelly—fan sites, message boards, CDs, and his book on godliness and sexual purity. Ryan’s favorite Bible passage is Matthew 5, so I memorize all forty-eight verses of it. I write poems for Ryan, and letters in gold gel pen, which I never send but instead sequester away in a shoe box, as though God will use it as a secret portal to his mailbox somewhere in Nashville. I also write my first songs on my guitar to Ryan. Oh, Ryan, nothing can keep us apart. You soothe my throat and fill my heart.
A part of me is convinced that God is saving Ryan for me, and all I have to do is pray and obsess and write songs for him and pray and obsess some more, and then, like magic (or should I say a miracle!), the next time I see him at a concert, Ryan will notice knock-kneed practically-prepubescent me out of all of the hundreds of drooling girls in line for his autograph and we will exchange addresses and then write letters and then fall madly in love and get married and have musical babies. In another one of my constant daydreams, Ryan’s apartment is burning down and I have to save his life, dragging all six-plus feet of him onto the sidewalk, giving him mouth-to-mouth (gasp!) resuscitation until his eyes open, and, in a heart-pounding rush of oxygen and relief, he knows I am The One. These fantasies in my mind are just millimeters away from what psychologists would call a delusion.
Six months later, I try again. Dad drives me four hours out of the way to the concert with another faux-friend named Ruth, who keeps calling me Beth instead of Betsy. I guess our friendship is still in its infancy. However, I am full of hope because this concert is indoors (no getting rained out!), and my brother Jet is back at home, where he cannot foil my plans.
I quiver as First Love dances onto the stage. Chris. Jared. Josh. Shawn—Ryan? Where is Ryan?
Ryan Kelly quit First Love two weeks before the concert.
I am sitting in the back of the venue, knees scrunched up to my chest, bawling my eyes out. Ruth looks uncomfortable. My dad tries to comfort me, but because he secretly knows this is the stupidest trip he has ever been on in his years as a father, he is no help. My heart is broken.
I am nearly twenty and ex-boy band members are married with beer bellies. My love for Ryan has faded into an amused nostalgia that doesn’t cross my mind often. A month before Christmas vacation one of my college classmates bumps into a burnt-out twenty-something with a Brian McKnight voice and no record label—Ryan Kelly lives in Brooklyn. And a week later he is in my Manhattan apartment building, because, as it turns out, he is dating my friend and former roommate, Victoria. Victoria’s roommate, Sam, is a fellow former First Love fanatic. One day after class she tells me that Victoria is making out under their kitchen mistletoe with the man I once thought I was destined to marry. After squealing and gasping for a while, we concocted a plan for me to meet him: if Victoria ever brought Ryan home, Sam would text me and I would proceed to visit the apartment to “borrow a movie.” The night before Christmas break, I received the anticipated text message:
“Ryan Kelly is in our apartment! Right now!!!”
I knock on the door of Sam and Victoria’s apartment. I cover my mouth and my knees shake.
Sitting at the kitchen table, typing on a laptop and eating macaroni and cheese, is Ryan Kelly. His quarterback body has softened a little, but he still has that thick sandy hair, that straight English nose. He’s wearing a winter jacket and newsboy cap.
“Betsy, this is Ryan, Ryan, Betsy,” Sam says, trying to hide the smile that is making her lips twitch like mad.
I shake his hand, which is disappointingly clammy, and say a casual hello. I chat with Sam and Victoria for a while, and then I turn to him.
“It’s Ryan, right?” I say, with convincing uncertainty. I am a splendid actor.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he says, with a mouthful of macaroni and cheese.
“Ryan, where are you from?” (I already know. It’s Louisville, Kentucky. It was in the exclusive First Love bio book, which I memorized.)
“Oh, that’s cool, I’m from Ohio,” I say.
“Awesome, that means we’re neighbs!”
Neighbs. The unfamiliar slang rolls off his tongue in a dorky way. Major turn-off. This confirms my total apathy and lack of envy toward Victoria for her make-out sessions with the man who should have been mine. Relief sweeps over me.
“…I guess we are…neighbs!”
“Yeah, I’ve been to Ohio a few times, outside of Cincinnati, actually.”
“Oh, cool, that’s where my family lives!” (I know you’ve been to Ohio before, I think. You were there on First Love’s sophomore album tour, and you rose out of the stage. That was when I fell in love with you.)
We talk about our home states for five whole minutes. He does not know that I know about his past life as a Christian boy band member. He does not know that I wrote him songs and poetry. He does not know that I can still quote Matthew 5. I am merely a friend of a friend who came over to drink tea and borrow The Bourne Identity. God is laughing.
I spend every day of Christmas break that year blasting boy band music.
Betsy Brown is on Twitter.