Image Credit: David Walker
I think this is where the story starts, in 2003, in my grandma’s bedroom. It’s nearly midnight. The room is draped in the blue vibrating light of the TV. A small, white fan buzzes and rotates in the corner, in chorus with my grandma’s low snores. I’m in a plastic chair at her computer desk, knees pulled up to my chest, pupils tiny pinpricks against the sharp shine of the computer’s bulbous screen. I’m thirteen and scrolling the Neopets’ message boards.
The internet is dial-up, so I have to be ultra-selective about what I click. Every click equals five minutes of me watching whatever late night sitcom is on the TV while the page loads, strip by agonizing strip.
I click “New Post” and sit back in my chair, watching the cursor snap into a spinning grey circle. Soon the list of forums disappears, a blank white slate appearing in its place.
I hear the covers shift and turn to see my little sister, staring blearily at me, black hair piled atop her head in knots. I put my finger to my lips. She rolls her eyes, plopping back down onto the bed.
The page has loaded. I type my subject. “Question About My First Boyfriend Please Help.” I click on the bigger box beneath, and hesitate, my fingers hovering over keyboard.
Now, fifteen years later, I can’t remember the exact question I asked, but the gist of it was, “My first boyfriend is a good guy and so sweat and funny and nice . . . but he is not very cute and embarrasses me in front of my friends. Should I break up with him?”
Post. I lean back and watch Walker Texas Ranger or whatever other ridiculous show is on Nick at Nite at midnight on a Thursday.
Posting on a forum with dial-up internet is particularly painful. After your post finally loads, you have to refresh to see any responses. Each refresh takes minutes, and often there’s nothing new.
I wait the generally appropriate five minutes and click refresh, my heart leaping when I see a handful of replies, already. I lean forward in my chair, eyes inches from the screen.
The first is something along the lines of, “Uhm I think you mean SWEET not SWEAT lol or at least I hope that’s what you meant.”
Another: “Just give him a chance honey :(”
But the one that sticks, the one that makes my stomach churn, is a bit longer, a paragraph partially in all caps, chastising me for being so shallow. The writer calls me a bully and a stuck-up bitch. He tells me to either learn to appreciate people for something other than their looks or dump him immediately because he deserves better than to be with someone so stupid and judgmental.
I delete the post.
In second grade, I met the kid who would be my first boyfriend. His last name started with a K, and he sat behind me. Four years later, in sixth grade, K asked me to dance with him at the middle school sock-hop. I said yes, and we danced in that uncomfortable, fingertips barely touching each other, swaying slowly from side to side kind of way. We barely spoke, and I went home shortly after.
The following Monday, a lot of people in my grade started asking me about K, people who generally didn’t even look at me, much less show any interest in my social life. They thought it was cute when we danced. And hadn’t we been friends for forever? And I should absolutely “go out” with him.
The spotlight excited me. I was fortunate enough to have my own, close group of friends, but the general population of my grade did not like me. I was often ignored, and occasionally picked on. I shouldn’t have cared that suddenly all these “popular” kids were interested in my love life, but I did. I liked it. And K was a friend. Maybe it’d be cool. I don’t remember how he asked me out, but at some point, we became boyfriend and girlfriend.
And it was . . . awkward.
There was absolutely no physicality to our relationship. We never even held hands, but he followed me everywhere. He’d insist on buying me candy while we waited for the bus after school, and would often give me gifts, bracelets and pins that I didn’t like but felt obligated to wear. He told his mother, who, thinking it was so cute, told my mother, that he was going to marry me one day. Meanwhile, on a day that I noticed he was absent from school, I was relieved.
And I want to be clear about something: other than maybe coming on a bit too strong, K hadn’t done anything wrong. I just wasn’t that into him. I felt uncomfortable with all the gifts and unending attention. We had little in common, and often his presence embarrassed me. I wanted to end it. And, despite the discouraging responses I got from my Neopets forum, I did.
We were sitting on the gym floor, during bus duty, our backs up against the stacked bleachers. Our conversation was buried beneath the noise of the rest of our school, all chatting in a dull roar around us. After the deed was done, K stared at me with big, blank eyes, blind-sided. “Why?”
I broke eye-contact, looking down at my shoes, tugging at my laces. He repeats his question. “Why are you breaking up with me?”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew no nice way of telling someone that they were an alright friend, that they hadn’t done anything wrong, but that I just wasn’t feeling it. I had never broken up with anyone before, but I knew that this hadn’t been the best way to do it. I felt like a jerk. A very relieved jerk.
A few months ago, a twenty-five-year-old man named Alek Minassian pledged his allegiance via Facebook to something called the “Incel Rebellion” before killing ten people, mostly women, by driving down a packed, Toronto sidewalk.
If you’ve somehow magically danced your way around knowing what an Incel is, I’m sorry to inform you that it stands for “Involuntary Celibate.” It’s really nothing new, just another way to talk about the “friend-zone” and self-identified “Beta Males.” This online subculture of angry dudes blame women and alpha-males, or “Chads,” for their blue-balls. It’d be laughable, if these men weren’t killing people and throwing around rape-threats like birdseed at a wedding.
And it’s not just Incels blaming women. In March, in a story about a school-shooting in Maryland, the Associated Press referred to the shooter as a “lovesick teen” after he murdered his ex-girlfriend. Just days ago, a local station in Memphis reported, “Teen stabbed with scissors after pulling student’s dress up.” When the Golden State Killer was caught, some news outlets found it appropriate to run headlines like, “Golden State Killer possibly motivated by breakup with fiancée,” which is a really weird way of saying, “Woman escapes relationship with serial rapists and murderer. Close one!”
Sexual frustration doesn’t just belong to “beta” men, or men at all. In fact, the term “incel” was actually coined by a woman in the nineties, who built a simple website dedicated to adults who were involuntarily celibate. Though the site was originally meant to be a place where rigid gender norms were thrown to the wayside, it quickly became mostly populated by antagonistic men, who would later carry the term “incel” to what it is today: a movement that has claimed that men are biologically entitled to sex, that celebrates mass shooters, and that has called for the mass murder and serial rape of women. So, sexually frustrated women make websites and sexually frustrated men make death threats. Okay, sorry—#notallmen.
Just, like, way too many of them.
I met Y in first grade. We’d spend recess together every day, reenacting movies we’d seen, and swinging on the swing set. Sometimes other first graders would make snide remarks about the two of us, sitting in trees, K-I-S-S-whatever. We didn’t care. We were happy.
Our friendship reached its peak in eighth grade. We were in nearly every class together, got to hangout briefly after school every day while we waited on our busses, and once we got to our respective homes, there was this brand new, incredible thing called AOL Instant Messenger that we’d sign onto every afternoon. Sometimes Y and I would talk to each other from the time we got home until we went to bed. Often our conversations were nothing but absurd jokes, making fun of teachers, bus drivers, the ‘cool’ kids. He introduced me to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books and anime and Halo. We exchanged mix-CDs, worked on science projects together, and were often separated in classes, because we were always laughing. He made me laugh harder than anyone.
It was the next year, in ninth grade, when things started to take a turn. I started kind of seeing another guy in our friend group – T. T and I were never official. We held hands, and he’d come over to my place to hangout sometimes, just the two of us. I’d lay my head on his shoulder while we watched movies. That was really it. But this guy was Y’s best friend, and then suddenly he wasn’t.
Y got quiet, and angry. When I’d ask him about it, he’d talk about hating T. When I’d prod further, try to get a direct answer about why, he’d just call him an asshole, a prick. He even went so far as to say he wished he could kill him.
Sometimes, Y threatened to kill himself.
Once, on a cold, crowded bus, he threatened to bring a gun to school and kill everyone, and then himself. When I didn’t respond, just stared at him as he pressed his temple against the foggy window, he quietly added, with a spit of humor, “Don’t worry. I won’t kill you.”
I didn’t tell anyone about Y.
I was fifteen and felt sure that my friend wasn’t serious. I sort of felt suicidal at times too, but I wasn’t going to do anything about it. High school just really sucked for all of us, right? He’d be okay. We’d be okay.
Here’s why I absolutely should have told someone.
It’s not just about the Alex Minassian’s of the world, though that is a big concern. Elliot Rodger killed six and injured fourteen people in Santa Barbara, California, because women weren’t interested in sleeping with him. Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, was a fan of Elliot Rodger. In 2009, a man who complained on his blog about rejections from women, walked into an aerobics class and killed three of them, and himself. At a community college in Oregon, in 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer killed nine and injured seven, because his “whole life [had] been one lonely enterprise. One loss after another. […] no friends, no job, no girlfriend, a virgin.”
The safety of my classmates was at stake, but so was the safety of my friend. In Tennessee, where we lived, the second leading cause of death for children aged ten to fourteen, is suicide. For ages fifteen to twenty-four, it’s third. There are, on average, 123 suicides in the United States a day, and for every suicide, there are about twenty-five attempts. It’s also worth mentioning that seven out of every ten suicides are committed by white men, which Y was, and a firearm is used in over half of these.
Maybe your loved one isn’t serious.
But, maybe it’s not worth the risk.
A week or so later, at a Halloween party a mutual friend was throwing, Y and T seemed like they had made-up. The three of us hung out with the rest of our friends, laughed loudly and easily, and even danced on this ramshackle stage put together for the party. There was a line of tents turned into a haunted house and we went through it repeatedly. Each time more and more of the teenagers stayed inside the tunnel, coupling up or jumping out at others walking through.
The last time I went in, someone jumped out at me and I ran out, screaming and laughing. T emerged right behind me, giving me a playful push, “Jesus Christ, you scare easy.” I pushed him back, grinning. It devolved into one of those stupid, flirty push fights, until the host of the party said, “God guys, get a room.”
We both quit, embarrassed, but smirking, in time to see Y storming away.
“Wait, is he leaving?” I asked, looking around. Everyone shrugged.
When Y hadn’t reappeared after a few minutes, T told me that he thought he should go look for him. I was annoyed, frustrated that Y had turned this party into something deeply dramatic.
His voice lowered, T told me he agreed, but that Y had taken to carrying around broken shards of CDs. He was worried Y might hurt himself. My stomach flipped. “I’ll go with you.”
T grimaced. “No, that’s not a good idea. I’ll just go find him.”
I didn’t see either of them until the following Monday at school, but Y pointedly ignored me, rushing past me in the hallways with his head down, sitting with other people on the bus. If we did manage to speak, it was short and he kept his voice low, shoving headphones on the first chance he got and turning his music all the way up. Eventually even that petered out, and he never spoke to me again.
The following year Y disappeared.
I don’t know what happened, whether his family moved or if he chose to be homeschooled or what. I asked around. No one seemed to really know.
Y never asked me out. I think about that sometimes.
I had always only seen him as a friend, one of my closest friends, and maybe I would’ve said no. But then I remember how eager I was to get home from school, to sign onto AIM to talk to him. I remember the days I’d get to go over to his place and how we’d play Halo for hours together. How I sucked at the game, and how that almost made it better. I remember the day I caught popcorn on fire in his kitchen and we had to open every window in his house to clear the smoke. I remember putting together a science project that was supposed to be about desert climates but we decided to make it about Mordor instead. I remember sitting out by the snack machines during school dances with the Magick players, eating candy and playing Speed while the rest of our grade slow-danced and did the Macarena.
I don’t know. Maybe I would’ve said yes.
It doesn’t matter. I loved the relationship I had with Y. Maybe I would have eventually wanted more, maybe not, but why should that minimize what we had? Why is his, and many other young men’s, reaction to this so aggressive? How many of these violent young men were actually, deeply loved by their friends, but just couldn’t see it?
I don’t really have any answers to this. I can reiterate that no one owes anyone sex, and that not having sex doesn’t make someone less of a man, doesn’t make someone “beta.” I can talk about the importance of focusing on yourself, developing interests and a healthy life separate from your love life. I can talk about the endless, beautiful wonders of platonic friendship, how valuable and important it is. I can say, again and again and again, for my thirteen-year-old self, that yes, it is more than okay to not be with someone because you’re not attracted to them. This does not make you shallow. This does not make you a bully. This is human. This is acceptable.
Four years after I broke up with K, I got a long message from him on Myspace. We were sophomores.
In the letter, K said that he’d never gotten over me, that he’d wanted to ask me out again for years now. When he saw me in the hallways, he wanted to talk, but didn’t have the courage. He acknowledged that it’d been a long time since we’d even spoke, but he was wondering if we could try again.
We hadn’t had a conversation in three years. I was an emo kid in the marching band and he was a “good ol’ boy” on the wrestling team. We didn’t have a single, mutual friend. As I mulled over his letter, I couldn’t stop thinking that his interest in me was based on my looks and my thirteen-year-old personality, nothing else. And, most importantly, I just wasn’t interested.
I crafted as gentle a response as possible, telling him in my kindest words that, I’m sorry, but he doesn’t really know me, and that, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested, I’m sorry, maybe we could just try hanging out sometime, I’m sorry. I hit send.
Minutes later I received his response, a short and self-defeating, “Yeah. Figured.”
Ryne Walker is an emerging writer and filmmaker from Nashville, Tennessee. She was awarded Watkins College’s “Best Picture” for her short film Sam & Henry and was featured at their “Best of” at the Belcourt Theatre for her web-series pilot, The Adult Life. She has performed her essays for Band of Poets, The Regenerates, Heartbreak Happy Hour, and The Idle Hour Reading Series. She works for The Porch Writers’ Collective and The Bookshop, where she also runs a book recommendation blog on Instagram under the handle RyneReads. This is her first publication.