Late Bloomer

by Sam Romano

Sarah never had much luck with boys. Actually, she'd never had any luck at all. At 25, she'd never been on a date, held hands, or romantically kissed any member of the opposite sex. It wasn't that she didn't want to. At times, she wanted nothing more. But the opportunities just never seemed to materialize for her.

Part of the problem was that she always had crushes on guys she thought were way out of her league. Like her crush on Joey Delgado. All through grade school, she adored him and tried to get close to him. He was intelligent, handsome, funny, and popular. Sarah, however, was not. Though no one considered her ugly except herself, she never felt her looks could compete with the Kerry Spanos, Margeaux Macaffeys, and Rita Washingtons of the world. They were the pretty, popular girls towards whom the likes of Joey Delgado would focus their attentions. Sarah's feelings of inadequacy against stiff competition plagued her well into adulthood.

But a bigger part of the problem was Sarah's shyness. Talking scared her. What if she said the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time? What would people think if an attempt at humor fell with a reverberating thud? Would they give each other those knowing glances that said, "God, what an idiot," while Sarah squirmed in embarrassment? What if she said something that made her sound dumb and insipid? Or even worse, haughty and snobbish? These worries overwhelmed her to the point where she said little, if anything at all. Of course, that worked against her in more ways than one. The girls thought her stuck up; the boys thought her a mute, or worse, a wallflower. And so she retreated into studying and books, which were her truest friends. They never expected her to say anything at all. All she had to do was listen.

Mary Seat of Wisdom's eighth grade graduation dance was, in Sarah's mind, her last real chance with Joey. Though they would be attending the same high school, it would be much larger than their small Catholic grade school, and Sarah feared she'd not see him at all once there. Sarah's mom took her shopping at The Limited for a new outfit: a navy blue mini skirt, a matching navy blouse with white polka dots and a lace collar, and a white headband. Sarah spent hours getting ready, primping in front of the large living room mirrors where she could see herself at all angles. "You look beautiful!" her jolly grandfather exclaimed after watching Sarah stare dejectedly at herself. "Any boy would be lucky to dance with you!" Sarah, of course, didn't agree, but she smiled and gave Gramps a kiss on his bald forehead before heading out the door.

When she arrived, many of her classmates were milling around the dance floor. She spotted Joey immediately amongst the popular kids. She loitered in the hall for a while, waiting to see if he'd dance with Kerry or Rita, who were both flirting unabashedly with him. Much to Sarah's surprise, he spent most of the night dancing with Beth. Beth wasn't overly popular, but she was pretty and generally nicer than the more popular girls. Sarah didn't feel she could compete with Beth for Joey's attentions, but she was relieved that he wasn't dumb enough to fall for Kerry's and Rita's annoying hair flipping.

So Sarah headed off to the sidelines to linger with her comrades, other girls not popular enough to garner an invite to dance even from the dorkiest of their male counterparts, who stood in a huddled mass at the other end of the gym. There was Melissa, who had the most undignified habit of crying for reasons only known to her. There was Jane, who rarely showered and wore deodorant even less often. There was Collette, a transfer student who clearly wanted to be with her old friends back home. There was Amy, an awkward girl with a Play-Doh nose whose mother forced her to wear clothes that were ten sizes too big and ten years too late to be cool. After surveying the prospects, Sarah decided to stick close to Dana, who was not so lovingly referred to as "Birdie" because of her menagerie of parrots and other flying things. But Dana was talkative, taking some of the pressure off of Sarah, and she certainly beat trying to make small talk with smelly Jane.

Sarah and Dana lingered on the sidelines for most of the evening. Once in a while they'd dance to Sarah's favorite songs, like "How Soon Is Now?", but for the most part, Dana would make disparaging remarks about Kerry's crimped hair or Rita's boney ass or Margeaux's bucky beaver teeth, and Sarah sniggered. They gleefully laughed at Mike, one of the popular boys who insisted on doing a booty warrior dance to MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This." "Gawd...what a dork!" Dana declared. This went on for most of the evening until Dana quite inexplicably disappeared. Sarah, assuming Dana snuck out to smoke up and not knowing what to do with herself, wandered into the bathroom, wondering how long it would be until her parents would come rescue her.

As she walked out, Beth was lingering near the door, waiting for Sarah. "Dana told me you wanted to dance with Joe. Why don't you go ask him?"

Sarah instantly panicked and began squirming under Beth's gaze. "Oh, don't know where he is...I, uh, I thought you two were together. I didn't want to interfere." She scanned the gym looking for Joey, unable to find him under the flickering strobe lights.

Beth rolled her eyes at Sarah. "Everyone knows you're in love with him. You're asking him to dance, not get married. Get over it," she said as she pushed past Sarah into the bathroom.

Dana suddenly reappeared with a sly smile. She grabbed Sarah's arm and quite forcefully dragged her to the middle of the gym. Sarah stopped dead at the sight of Joey, who was only a few feet away, bending over to tie his shoe. "I, I, I...I just can't..." Sarah said pleadingly to Dana. Dana gave her a hard shove. Joey turned around with an inviting smile. "Hi, Sarah! I've hardly seen you all night!"

Sarah felt the blood rushing to her white cheeks. She was glad it was dark and he couldn't see her blushing. With a deep breath, Sarah started, "Uh, hi. Yeah, I've just been...well, you know, just hanging out. I was...I was wondering..." her voice trailed off as she began looking for the quickest escape route. Eyes darting here and there, she was thankful that "Pretty in Pink" was blaring loud enough to drown out the shakiness of her voice and the deafening thumping of her heart.

"Wondering what?" Joey asked, still smiling brightly.

"Oh, yeah, I was...well, just wondering if you...if you wanted to dance?" The moment she said it, Sarah wished she could take it back. "Well, anyway..." she began as she turned to walk away, but Joey quickly grabbed her hand and pulled her close to him.

Sarah could feel the eyes of every girl in the gym burning into her as they stared, some with their mouths agape. Colleen, one of the few genuinely nice girls in their class, gave Sarah a big smile and a thumbs up as she danced with her partner. For one of the few times in her life, Sarah really didn't care who was staring. Joey held her quite tightly to him, not like the other boys who danced as far as humanly possible from their partners, as if they didn't want to touch the girls for fear of contracting some contagious disease. No, Joey danced the right way, and Sarah was happy. She had finally gotten what she wanted: Joey's undivided attention, even if for only a fleeting moment.

And it really did only last a few short moments. "Pretty in Pink," already half over when they began dancing, quickly ended, and Joey gave her a brief hug, saying "See ya around." She stared after him longingly as he wandered off towards his friends, all of whom had those smug "you are so never going to live this down" looks on their faces. Sarah, her moment of carefree bliss abruptly ending, wanted to curl up and die under the cold stares of the other girls and the quiet sniggering of the boys. She quickly exited the gym, relieved to see her dad's car already waiting for her in the lot.

And that was pretty much how Sarah spent her teenage years. She had crushes on boys (though none ever quite as strong as her crush on Joey, which lessened over the years but never really went away, even into adulthood when his looks had long ago faded). She even worked up the nerve to ask one boy she studied with regularly to senior prom. She realized that it was her last chance to attend a dance with a boy instead of going stag with her small but close circle of girlfriends. He said "no" without really saying it, giving her some bullshit line about having "a lot of things going on in his life." Of course, Sarah wanted to hide under a rock and die, especially when he began bragging to his friends about how he turned her down.

Prom was quickly approaching, and Sarah, unable to contain it anymore, started crying at the dinner table when her mother innocently asked if she needed to go shopping for a dress. Her mother suggested she call Tom, the kid she walked to school with every day in grade school. Sarah had heard from a few girls back then that Tom actually liked her in a romantic sort of way though nothing he ever did or said hinted at that in Sarah's mind. In fact, he used to antagonize her in every way possible: stealing her pencil case, throwing snowballs in her face, telling his friends they made out behind the rectory after school when, in fact, they had taken his little brother Bobby to the park.

But after a week or so, with prom looming ever nearer, Sarah finally broke down and called Tom. Because they were at different high schools, they hadn't spoken in months, but she convinced herself that the phone call wouldn't be too awkward. After all, they'd been tenuous friends since the first grade. She didn't want him to know that she couldn't find anyone else to go with her, didn't want to seem desperate, especially because he still maintained close friendships with several guys in her class. So she told a little white lie: "Hi, uh, Tom? Hey, it's Sarah...yeah, we haven't talked in a long time, but I was hoping you could do me a favor? See, um, well, my date for prom cancelled at the last minute, and I was wondering, well, if you could come instead?"

A long, dead silence passed, and Tom nervously sighed saying, "Well, I'd love to, but I have a volleyball game that afternoon, and I don't think I could make it there in time, sorry. If it were any other day..." Sarah felt the tears welling up immediately, but she tried to sound bright and cheery, saying "Oh, well, thanks anyway. Maybe we can get together sometime soon and catch up." It was another one of those all-too-common moments she wished she could take back. Even fifteen years later, when she ran into Tom and his new wife and baby in the grocery store, Sarah felt embarrassed about that phone call, hoping with all her might that Tom had forgotten about it altogether, which, of course, he had.

So Sarah spent all of high school without so much as a kiss on the cheek. While she listened sympathetically to her friends as they ranted about their asshole boyfriends or when they freaked out about being a couple days late, she couldn't relate. And after a while, she just stopped trying. An acquaintance who was on the yearbook staff with Sarah once said to her, "I'd like to think that I'm single now because when I get older, I'm going to meet a guy who's so fabulous, he'll make up for any time I've spent alone." Sarah hoped that that was true for her as well.

By the time she got to college, she no longer gave relationships with men a second thought. Still painfully shy, Sarah went from class to class, barely talking to anyone. She had a crush on this guy Patrick, who was in many of her honors classes. He even chatted with her once in a while when he needed to borrow her notes, but as often happened, she floundered for something to say, and his real attentions quickly went to the prettier, more outgoing girls. She was used to that sort of thing to the point where it didn't even bother her anymore. After all, as her mother often reminded, she was at school to study, not to find a boyfriend.

Soon enough, Sarah was in grad school studying literature. When she wasn't reading or writing papers, she was working a part-time job at a veterinarian's office and in the school's writing center. When asked by well-meaning aunts when she was going to bring home a handsome young man to meet the family, Sarah's mother would quickly jump in, "Oh, she's so busy with school and working that she hardly has any time to herself, let alone to date. Her aunts, of course, didn't buy that, retorting, "Well if it's important to her, she'd find the time." But being too busy was a believable excuse that became her mantra well beyond grad school. Having a date seemed an unattainable goal, a boyfriend a mere abstract thought. And Sarah convinced herself that she couldn't miss anything that she'd never really had in the first place.

There was this guy Jeff who'd quite regularly come into the animal hospital where she worked; he was a friend of Helen's, one of the girls she worked with. Sarah liked him immediately with his soulful puppy-dog eyes, and he often asked Helen about her. Sarah had hoped that this would finally be the guy she'd been waiting for and was elated when Helen asked if she could give Jeff her phone number. He never called, but the mere thought of his interest in her lifted Sarah's spirits for months afterwards.

Once out of grad school, she took her first "real" job at an environmental firm. Her mom hoped she would meet a cute, successful engineer or geologist. Sarah told her that a "cute engineer" was an oxymoron; they were all old, fat, and dorky. Her dad gently reminded her, "There are men in life, Sarah." Sarah quickly answered, "Yes there are, but I want a career." Which really wasn't a lie; she did, in fact, want to be successful. But she could never admit, not even to herself, that her drive for success had always been fueled by her need to fill her time with something other than men. Success at school and later at work was more her diversion than her goal.

As usual, Sarah mostly kept to herself at work, talking only to those who approached her first. "You need to come out of your shell, Sarah!" exclaimed her jovial, outgoing partner, Cubbie. Though Sarah didn't disagree, she didn't really know how to go about doing that. After a few months of tagging along with Cubbie at lunch, she became friends with one of the office secretaries, Angie, and they often went shopping together over their lunch breaks.

One day, Sarah listened patiently, poking at her burrito while Angie ranted about what an asshole her husband was. Sarah dutifully nodded her head in all the right spots, still never really understanding what Angie was talking about but automatically knowing the appropriate reaction to the complaints. Angie stopped dead at one point and practically screamed, "OH MY GOD!!!! I know a guy who'd be perfect for you! Want me to set you up?"

Sarah squirmed. She had gotten so used to being alone, she didn't even think much about men anymore. And the thought of being set up made her uneasy--it felt so desperate somehow. Sarah swore to herself that no matter how old she was or how lonely, she'd never be one of those pathetic girls she so despised. But Angie was not one to take "no" for an answer, and soon enough, Sarah was on her first official date.

Angie and her husband, Jim, introduced Dan and Sarah over dinner. Dan talked and talked, and Sarah sat back, listening, nodding, smiling. Having never done this before, she didn't quite know what to do or say. She tried making small talk, but that was never one of her talents. She even tried flirting but was so unsure of how to do it effectively that she gave up on it altogether. She certainly couldn't let on that at age 25, he was her first date ever. He'd think her a weirdo or some cultish Bible thumper. So for most of the night, Dan or Angie or Jim talked, and Sarah sat back and listened.

After Sarah accidentally spilled her leftover food on the floor of Dan's car, their date ended awkwardly following a round of glow-in-the-dark mini-golf. When he dropped her off at her car, she thanked him for a nice evening and quickly jumped out.

Sarah sensed that she didn't really feel a "connection" with him as so many of her friends had felt on first dates. But then she didn't really know what a connection with a guy felt like. Really, couldn't it be something that developed over time? Sarah had no clue what it meant to have chemistry with a man.

When she got to work Monday morning, she emailed Dan, thanking him for dinner, apologizing again for the leftovers mishap (God, she was so embarrassed!!!), and offering him her phone number. He quickly responded, "You were so quiet the other night, I thought you hated me! But how about we go out next weekend without Angie and Jim? They made things a little awkward."

Sarah agreed, giddy at the thought of having a second date in as many weeks. They made plans to go to a hockey game, one of Sarah's favorite things to do. Dan had never been, so she spent much of the night explaining the rules and penalties. Over dinner, she listened intently to his stories about breaking the refrigerator on an ill-fated blind date or rear-ending a parked car as he picked up another date. She laughed, sometimes even adding a few stories of her own (though none ever relating to mishaps with men). For the first time ever, Sarah started to feel at least somewhat at ease with a man other than her father or grandfather.

As the night ended, Dan pulled up in front of her house. He leaned in to kiss her, an act that was utterly foreign to Sarah. It was such an awkward sensation to have someone else's tongue in her mouth. Weird as it felt, she never wanted it to end. Yet as they kissed in front of her house, Sarah started to freak out to herself, wondering if he could tell she'd never done this before. Never knowing what to do with her hands, they sat limply in her lap until Dan finally grabbed one. Surely that must have given her away, but if he knew, Dan mercifully never said anything. They parted with one last kiss, and Sarah practically skipped into the house.

Several more dates followed until finally Dan suggested an evening in, watching movies. That night, their kissing soon progressed to something much more, and again Sarah began freaking out to herself. Never having been naked in front of any man, she felt horribly self-conscious about it now, even in the dark room. Would he hate how she looked without clothes on? More importantly, could he tell that she was a 25-year-old virgin? Would it freak him out if she told him? Would he wonder what's wrong with her?

So Sarah decided the safest course of action, as usual, would be to say nothing at all while trying her hardest to look like she knew what she was doing. She'd at least seen a few pornos and emulated many of those girls' moves. This was particularly true after a few more times together when Dan asked her to go down on him. She worried that she'd be awful at it or, even worse, disgusted by it. But he seemed quite happy when she finished, and he never said anything if he sensed her inexperience.

Valentine's Day was now approaching, and for the first time in her life, Sarah looked forward to it. She actually had something to do other than ordering a deep-dish spinach pizza with her best friend, Marie, and eating Rice Krispie treats directly out of the pot while watching Iron Chef in her sweats. Even if they just made a quick jaunt to McDonald's, Sarah finally had a date for Valentine's Day.

She and Dan made reservations at a nearby hotel for the night. While they'd been sleeping together for several months now, they'd never actually spent an entire night together. So this marked another first for Sarah. Dan bought her some lingerie, a black lace bustier with matching garter belt and stockings. She ducked into the bathroom to put it on, all the while wondering if that extra 20 pounds she'd been meaning to lose would make her look like a stuffed sausage in the outfit. She'd never had any need for sexy lingerie before, so she had no idea how'd she look in it. She stared at herself in the mirror disapprovingly, put the black stilettos she'd been wearing with her jeans back on, and timidly walked out of the bathroom, hoping she could just scamper over to the bed without Dan really seeing her.

Dan, who was lounging on the bed absentmindedly flipping through the channels, stopped dead and just stared at her as soon as she emerged. She nervously crossed her arms in front of her, trying to cover herself and wishing she had remembered to grab the robe that was folded up on the sink. "Wow!" he said, grabbing her hands before she could scurry back into the bathroom. "You look...amazing!"

They kissed on the bed for a while, and Sarah realized that she didn't feel self-conscious with Dan anymore. She was completely comfortable and at ease with him and, more importantly, with herself. She no longer worried about saying the wrong thing in front of Dan or about competing with other girls. She didn't even worry too much when, in the heat of things, she got too close to edge of the bed with the slippery stockings and fell right off with a loud thud. As she started to blush at her inherent clumsiness, Dan giggled and quickly scooped her back up saying, "You're so cute sometimes."

Perhaps because he was her first date, her first kiss, her first real boyfriend, her first everything, Sarah stayed with Dan far longer than she should have. After a year, his interest in her waned and didn't go much beyond sex, a painful fact she knew all too well. Though it hurt her tremendously to know that she wasn't much more to him than a hole to fill, she stayed because for once in her life, she had a Joey Delgado. For the first time in 25 long years, the late bloomer had blossomed, and she didn't want that blossom to die.