The Anti-Love Story

Caleb Appleton was the single most attractive young man in the senior class- quite possible in all of Bush County High School. He had dark brown chin-length hair that always managed to fall in front of his eyes. Caleb had perfected a masculine toss of the head that would shake his bangs out of his eyes and make the butterflies in my stomach flutter just a little.

I'd been going to the small Midwestern Bush County Public School along with Caleb ever since second-grade, when I'd moved here from Northern Minnesota, but I'd never really began to think of him that way until the end of my junior year.

Caleb and I had always been best friends, and we talked about everything together, like politics, schoolwork, and our goals after graduation.

As my junior prom had approached, I'd only been too aware that I didn't have too many male friends with whom I'd wanted to spend the magical night. Most girls had been pairing off since January to ensure that they had a date by April 27, and I thought I'd ask Caleb, since he was my friend and neither one of us was dating anyone at the time.

When Caleb told me that he'd already agreed to go to prom with Abby Smith, I couldn't believe it. I wouldn't say I was devastated. I didn't look forward to having to find another potential prom date, but mostly, I was just shocked that Abby had even asked him. Abby and Caleb never even talked to each other. I think she convinced him to take her just because she was a sophomore and wanted a date to prom.

I ended up going with Jay Fredrickson, who played second trumpet in jazz band. I played first trumpet that year. Jay was a nice enough boy, but all he talked about all night long was band, and how he'd needed to practice two hours every evening to make sure he didn't mess up on his solo during the spring concert.

Prom was a boring night, and I spent the whole time wondering if Caleb was enjoying his evening with Abby any better.

Caleb had a younger sister, Kelsey, who worked at horse camp with me. Horse camp was a day camp just out of town, and mostly populated by screaming, dirty, energetic little girls who'd all read Black Beauty a few too many times and who thought they were all going to grow up to be famous actors or singers or ballet dancers. Neither Kelsey nor I knew anything about horses; we cooked lunch for the wild girls and their harried councilors.

Since Kelsey was too young to drive herself to camp, Caleb dropped her off and picked her up on most days. Sometimes her mom or her dad would take the job, but usually, it was Caleb, and I never passed up a chance to get away from the heat of the kitchen and the noise of the little girls to talk to Caleb.

I'll admit, I did a good deal of flirting. It wasn't even like I'd figured out that I liked Caleb, because I still only thought of him as a friend. The point was that school was over, I worked in a beautiful outdoorsy environment, and I felt freer than I ever had before.

On the last day of summer camp, we served Popsicles with lunch as a little treat for the girls- as if they needed more sugar. After they all left, I helped myself to one of the few remaining cherry Popsicles, and was just finishing it off when Caleb pulled up in his blue car and climbed out. "Kelsey's cleaning up," I informed him.

Caleb stood next to me to wait, and all of a sudden, he turned to me and said, sort of joking around, "Where'd you get that Popsicle? It looks pretty tasty."

I offered a taste of my quickly melting Popsicle, and Caleb took a bite that caused the rest to break into pieces and fall to the ground. He apologized, and I laughed because he'd slurped melted red juice all down his chin. When I told him, he wiped the juice away with the back of his sleeve, then smiled at me.

Suddenly, I wanted to kiss Caleb. I never had been the sort of girl to just take action, but I was feeling particularly free that evening and that summer. Before I even knew what I was doing, I leaned in really close to Caleb, and our lips touched.

When my senior year started, I knew that Caleb liked me the same way I liked him. Since I planned to go to college but he didn't, we didn't have many classes together. Most everything I took was Advanced Placement or College Prep, while he took fun, easy classes.

At least we had choir together, and by some happy twist of fate, I sat right next to him. We shared music, and when Ms. Wilson wasn't paying attention to us or was working with the Alto section, Caleb would make funny comments, and I'd giggle so hard some of the girls sitting next to me would shoot dirty looks at the two of us.

A few times, Caleb asked me out, but never on a real date. Once I went out to the movies with him and some of his friends, both male and female. Sometimes, he would ask me to do things with him, but I had to turn him down because I was too busy with extracurricular activities or the community service projects that would look so good on college applications.

After a while, I guess Caleb just got tired of getting turned down, because in November, right after the choir production of Oklahoma, he officially started going out with Rachel Newater. Everyone talked about what a cute couple they made.

About two weeks after they started dating, my Grandpa Scott died of heart failure. Up until then, he hadn't been in very good condition, so his death didn't really take anyone by surprise, but I still took a long time to cope with the sudden absence of my grandpa.

I spent a lot of time writing angsty poems about mortality and the meaning of life. For a while, I imagined myself to be a particularly deep thinker, and I forgot about things like boyfriends, which at the time I considered to be mundane.

Caleb and Rachel only went out for about a month, and they broke up right before Christmas break. The day after their break up, Caleb called me to ask if I wanted to go ice-skating. I turned him down not because I was busy, but because I thought I had to hold myself aloft from paltry high school romances.

Thankfully, I snapped out of my morbid phase before school started up again the second week of January. By then, I'd applied for uncountable scholarships and at least ten different colleges, and I really wasn't busy with all those application-padding activities anymore. If Caleb had asked me out then, I would have said yes, but he didn't.

I went to prom with my friend Chris Garden that year, mostly because I felt bad about turning Caleb down. I worried that he wouldn't be interested in going to prom with me after that.

One day, I let news of my crush slip to one of my good friends who I knew was an insuppressible gossip, and sure enough, by the end of the day, everyone knew that I had "a thing" for Caleb.

During choir that day, I noticed him casting sideways glances at me when I looked like I was watching my music, but he never said anything.

The month of March was pretty much uneventful, and this time I was the one to ask Caleb out and sometimes get rejected. At the start of spring, he'd thought he'd beat the summer rush and get a job, so he spent most evenings at the community pharmacy.

When he did go out with me, it was always for group things. He came with me to Robbie Washington's eighteenth birthday party, and went to a square dance with me and a group of girls from school.

Caleb came to my graduation party, which I held two weeks before the actual graduation ceremony. I saw him arrive and put a gift bag on the front table, but then my aunt, uncle, and their children approached me to offer their congratulations, and I never had a chance to talk to him. I didn't even see when he left.

Later, I looked in the gift bag to see what Caleb had given me. I found a diary. On the first page, Caleb had taped a photograph of the two of us together. The gift was just ambiguous enough that I didn't know if he wanted to be my friend or my boyfriend, and I decided not to think about it, as I could easily give myself a headache worrying about such things, and actually had several times.

Then, graduation day came. The ceremony was tacky and sentimental, as all graduation ceremonies are. The valedictorian, a girl named Erica Dorsley, began blubbering into the microphone halfway through her commencement speech, and nobody could understand half of what she said.

For ages, the graduating class had to stand in a line outside the gym so that all our parents and friends' parents and random people congratulated us and asked us the same questions again and again, like "Where are you going to college?" and "Are you excited to be done?"

That evening, I got a call from Caleb. He told me that he was at Horse Camp and that he needed to talk to me. I jumped in my car and drove to meet him.

I found him sitting on the fence where the two of us had always talked and flirted. He jumped up when he saw me, and I noticed for the first time that he was holding a red rose.

"Hi, Caleb," I said, speaking first because I feared what he would tell me.

"Hi," he replied, then he cleared his throat. Obviously, he was nervous. I waited for him to explain himself, and after a moment, he said, "Listen, I've been doing some thinking, and . . . I'll just say this. I really like you."

My heart started fluttering. I smiled, only a little, then said, "I like you, too. I hope we can stay in touch."

'I don't think you understand," Caleb said then. "I like you- not like a friend. I want you to be my girlfriend. I've liked you for so long, and I've been so afraid to say anything, but today, everyone was talking about moving on and starting new stages in their lives and everything, and I just told myself that I had nothing to wait for. If I didn't act now, I might loose the chance of a lifetime. So, here we are."

He offered the rose to me, but I didn't take it. I looked down at the ground and kicked the dirt, then said, "I'm sorry, Caleb."

"Sorry? Why?"

"I wish you would have said something five months ago," I said. "Heck, I'd have gone out with you if you'd asked me one month ago, but now, it's too late. I really like you, too, Caleb, but I'm going away to college, and we'll be four states apart. It's too late to start something new now."

"Your semester doesn't start until September!" Caleb argued. "Think of what we could do with this summer! We could have long-distance relationship when you go away; we'd make it work!"

"I'm not willing to do that," I said. "I'm sorry." He stood there, broken-hearted, and I walked away.