Time once again for “Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from Romance Novels,” where, with the power of enormous backlist, romance solves relationship problems. If you’d like advice, feel free to email me at sarahATsmartbitchestrashybooksDOTcom. I never reveal names or locations, so don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.
Here’s this week’s letter:
Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:
I’m a long-time lurker – having only commented a handful of times – but one mystery has been constantly on my mind lately… and after driving all my friends crazy about it, I thought I might graduate to driving Smart Bitches crazy. I think I’m in dire need of the Everything I Need To Know clue gun.
10 years ago I went to high school with a guy who stared at and followed me for two or three years. Deep, straight-at-my-face, eyes-following-my-every-step-as-I-moved stares. I saw him with at least three different girlfriends in that time, but he went on staring at me, even when he was with them. At first I thought he might have a crush on me, and I was flattered as he was very cute (and I’ve never felt too attractive myself), but after a while I just didn’t know what to think. He never said a word to me, or even attempted to. I knew he was very quiet, but let’s face it, he had game enough to be a minor teenage Lothario. If he had wanted to talk to the nerdy girl in the corner he deemed so stareworthy, he could have found a way – especially as I purposely dawdled close to him sometimes. But when I stood close enough to touch him, he refused to look in my direction at all.
Well, fast forward 10 years and I wound up in the same evening class with this guy. I hadn’t seen him at all in these intervening years, and at first I laughed to myself about those school memories and thought, “Geesh, teenagers! How silly are they?” But lo, first day I caught him staring at me through a window when he was outside smoking, and now he behaves pretty much exactly as he used to 10 years ago. In the classroom, he keeps looking at me furtively – sometimes locking eyes with me for a few seconds – but outside the class he looks more boldly when he thinks I don’t notice. When I look at him in class, he looks away and shifts in his seat and licks his lips nervously. Somehow he always leaves the room when I do, and sometimes brushes against me. One time he left a bit earlier but I found him waiting at the front door to hold it open for me… AND HE STILL DOESN’T SAY ANYTHING. I’m shy myself, but I started saying hi to him because I feel like I “know” him in a way, and because the awkward silence was unbearable. He was taken aback the first time, but now he says (or whispers) hi when he sees me. Yesterday I made an experiment by wearing a slightly sexier outfit than I normally would, and he behaved a bit strangely in the hall. He kept smiling to himself and when he asked another guy about the classroom we were supposed to go to, he laughed out loud, slightly hysterically. Then he said hi to me with a strange smile (a first one, that: he sometimes looks me in the eye when he’s smiling over a joke somebody else told in class, but otherwise his looks are always serious). He behaved normally with everybody else in school, and he behaves normally with the other people in the class now. I don’t know what marked me out as his staring target.
If it were some other guy doing the same things to any of my friends, I’d say he definitely has a crush on her. (Or that he’s a creep.) But with this guy, I just don’t know. Again, if a 26-year-old man has something to say, shouldn’t he be able to come out with it? I feel like I’m back in bloody high school again, analysing his every move. And now I remember just how it felt like back then: like some bizarre game. Me feeling simultaneously flattered and bewildered by his attention; dressing up for reaction sometimes; feeling his eyes on me and a nervous sensation in my stomach; and not knowing whether I would prefer to yell at him to stop looking or to have sex with him in the broom cupboard. It doesn’t help that I’m inexperienced for my age and nervous around men to begin with.
Short of confronting him on the last day and asking him upfront what he’s thinking, will I ever find out what the heck was going on 10 years ago – and now? What would a romance heroine do?
Shy and Bewildered
The smoldering hero who notices you from across the room but who, for the time being and for whatever reason, is content to stay on that side of the unspoken divide is a mainstay in the romance world. I personally have a major literary weakness for the smoldering hero.
But when I read your letter, the way you’ve presented this scenario isn’t so much “smoldering hero” as it is “immature weird guy who either likes having your attention at his command” or maybe “immature weird guy who doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
The fact that in 10 years he hasn’t matured enough to introduce himself and talk to you instead of staring at you all the time does not bode well. Neither does the weird giggling thing. I think you called it when you said it was “some bizarre game.” I’m not inclined to decipher his game, or why he’s playing it, but I think it’s time to move away from feeling the flattery, and act on the bewilderment. He might be crushing on you in a big way- but he’s also acting on it in a very creepy way, one that does nothing for him and belittles you. That shit ain’t right.
There comes a point in a romance where the hero has to man up and take a risk. Seems like you’ve been the one to push the boundaries of this stare-a-thon. You’ve said hi, you’ve approached him, and you’ve taken risks despite, as you’ve said, being nervous around men. Go on with your bad self. That’s excellent for you.
Unfortunately, he’s still staring and doing nothing about it – which is not at all excellent for him. Instead of taking a risk and approaching you, manning up and acting on what appears to be some heavy-duty noticing of you, he’s following a very unhealthy model of behavior.
That smoldering hero might be a frequent player in a romance novel, but that hero ultimately takes a step towards his interest without manipulating her. Reliving high school social interaction at age 26 isn’t a fate I’d wish on anyone – and you absolutely deserve to feel special and noteworthy by a guy who can follow up on his noticing you by, you know, talking to you. And asking you out for coffee.
I think your options are pretty simple. You could confront him and ask if he’d like to have coffee with you, knowing that his behavior hasn’t left much of an indication that he’s all that and a bag of chips in the man-up department. You can attempt to move past your current stalemate with him, but please do so with caution. A lot of caution.
Conversely, and this is the option I much prefer, teach yourself to get in the habit of not noticing him, and look around you at anywhere else but him, and maybe find another guy who you might like to get to know. The fantasy of a guy who seems interested is heady, exciting stuff, but at some point, the state of attraction has to evolve into some sort of definitive action. I worry that he somehow enjoys knowing that you’re aware of his regard, and that’s not heroic in the least. That’s bastard creepy.
A romance heroine might be flattered by the notice of the smoldering guy, but she’d also expect him to grow a pair. The best heroines stand up for themselves, and are met toe-to-toe by a guy who is their worthy equal. You’re worth way more than his behavior indicates, and he’s not acting worthy, nor does he seem equal to the task of acting on whatever has him staring at you.
He’s weird. You’re worth way more than that. Move on and set your eyes on someone else.