James Joyce published this story that I teach occasionally called “Araby” (read it here) in a collection called Dubliners. In short, the story is about this young boy that has a massive crush on his friend’s older sister. The boy spends the first half of the story unsure of what it means to feel the way he is feeling. As is often the case with young love (and with dudes in general), he doesn’t know how to talk about how he feels or how to interact with the girl at all without coming across as a little creepy.
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. . . . I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
Of course, she does eventually talk to him a bit. She asks if he is going to the bazaar at Araby. Even though she would like to, she isn’t going to be able to go, and he promises that if he makes it, he’ll pick something up for her. To our knowledge, he hadn’t made any big plans for going to the bazaar before this, but at the opportunity to impress her, he started to get excited.
When I was in fifth grade, these three girls came up to me in the lunchroom, and as a group, they handed me a note folded in a square. It was the first note I ever got at school from someone who wasn’t a teacher. I opened it up, and the first sentence said: “Dear Shane, I’m writing because I like you very much” or some other fifth-grade language. There was no name at the bottom, and the three girls told me it was from one of them, but they weren’t going to tell me who until later.
I freaked out. Sure, I had crushes on girls when I was in the fifth grade (Helloooooo, Pink Power Ranger!), but I had never thought about confessing any of those things. I ripped the letter into tiny pieces and shoved it into my pockets, trying to act like I didn’t want to know who wrote it. Just like that kid in Araby, I had no idea how to talk about the things I was feeling. I had no idea how to talk to the girls.
I found myself staying up late at night thinking about the three girls, and I decided that I wanted the author of the note to be the girl with sharp fingernails. I thought she was the cutest of the three. In my playhouse where I had created a CSI-esque headquarters, I put the note back together the best I could on an old drawing table from Fisher-Price to look for clues. I enlisted the help of the neighbor’s kid to help me figure it out. I watched the three girls closely when I was at school, trying to read their hints, and of course, I saw only those things that would affirm what I wanted: that the author was the girl with the long fingernails.
The night of the Bazaar, the narrator of Joyce’s story runs late to the party. By the time he arrives, most of the merchants are closing up shop. He approaches one stall where a girl is selling tea sets and vases. He looks through her products and listens to her make small talk with two boys, and ultimately, he does not make a purchase.
In those moments of the story, the boy realizes that, in his youth and ignorance, he had made something out of nothing. The conversation he overhears is very similar, he realizes, to how his friend’s sister perceived the conversation in which he promised to buy her something from the Bazaar–small talk, a way to waste a few minutes while she waited on her younger brother to come in from playing for the night.
Eventually, I negotiated with the three girls that the last day of school would be the day I would find out who wrote the note, and little Shane wasn’t happy with the reveal. It was one of the girls that I didn’t find as cute as the girl with the sharp fingernails. And for the first time in my life, I had to reject someone at the same time that I had to deal with the disappointment of learning that the girl I had liked wasn’t the one that liked me.
I had sort of given myself over to the idea of having a girlfriend, but only if she was the girl with the sharp fingernails, because she was the one that I thought was cute. It’s dumb, sure. But in the fifth grade, and for a while after that, you think every brush with love might be the last one.
As I left the playground that day, I felt a little bit like the boy from “Araby.” In the final moments of the story, after he realizes that he had only convinced himself that his buddy’s sister was into him or would be into him if he could just buy her a tea set, he leaves the bazaar, and he gives the audience these final words:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
Happy (late) Valentine’s Day, everybody.
What are your earliest memories of love, romance, or heartache?