See the boy. Laughing with his friends, living in another country for the summer, enjoying the evening sunshine, seagulls squawking overhead and the smell of pizza and hot dogs rising from the vendors competing on the busy boardwalk. A man now really, at 20, though inside he still feels lost. Like he’s pretending. He knows enough of how the world works to fit in, at least while sober. When he drinks, sometimes he gives in to the blackness that he can normally suppress, and feral emotions rip through him with feverish intensity, leaving an agonising emptiness in their wake. He doesn’t like getting into those states, the regrets and apologies they inevitably bring, yet he does it to himself over and over again.
The tramcars jingle past, of no practical use since they only move at walking pace, but nonetheless packed with people attracted to their novelty. The boy and his friends people-watch and crack jokes at each other’s expense, the evening a highlight of their young lives, though they don’t realise it in this moment.
The boy, some people tell him he is handsome. His ex-girlfriend. His friend’s mother. It’s usually mothers. Cute is used more often than handsome, on the rare occasions when his looks are mentioned.
He hates cute. He wants to be sexy, not cute. Besides, they lie: he is ugly. He knows. Girls look at him and quickly look away in disgust. This is his truth and it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. Etched in his memory is a sunny teenage day when he and his friend meet a couple of girls down near their climbing tree. One girl asks his friend if he will kiss her friend. He says no, so she says to her friend, what about the other guy? The boy blushes and averts his eyes.
Nah, she replies scornfully, he’s ugly. The boy smiles upon hearing this, pretending it doesn’t matter to him, while inside he finds a place for her words and keeps them there for the rest of his life, periodically taking them out, dusting them off and reminding himself of them. No compliment or kindness shall ever eradicate this girl’s words, for they have validated what he already knows to be true. He is in a strange way grateful to her for preventing him from building up false hopes. He is destined to be a social pariah, and he must learn to accept his place at the bottom of that food chain.
It is against this backdrop that the boy, now a man, sits with three friends on the boardwalk of an east coast US beach and watches the girls go by. He’ll never be able to approach them and talk. The anticipation of their scorn, the disgust on their faces, is too much for him to bear. However, he thinks: nobody knows you here. He thinks: nobody will ever see you again. He thinks: you don’t need to talk to them; just say hello to someone. That would be a step.
He sits on a bench, white-knuckled, willing himself to do it. To say hello to someone. To break the spell that silly girl cast on him all those years ago. It is summer. Warm, and he is tanned and happy to be with his friends. If not now, when?
Suddenly emboldened by that rushed urge to grasp the present moment, he raises his arm, waves and shouts “hi girls!” to a group going past. They giggle to one another and wave and say hi back. They show no visible signs of disgust or revulsion. They’re on the tramcar though, so no fear of them actually stopping and talking with him. That was very deliberate on his part. Just in case.
The boy who is now a man smiles triumphantly. His friend, perhaps attuned in some way to what it took for him to do what he just did, slaps his back and says good man. It is a good night, the beach-perfumed air heady and warm. He feels something unusual inside, something strange and unfamiliar yet comforting, improving his mood as it permeates his body from the inside out.
It is, he realises, what confidence feels like.