I received my first lesson in the Semantics of Relationship at a very young age during my first few weeks of public school in first grade. I attended a Montessori school for pre-school and Kindergarten, so this was also my first experience with riding a school bus. There was a third grade girl who always seemed to sit with me or in the seat across from me and one day I asked her a question. In a pattern that would be repeated many times over my life, we both thought the other meant something completely different even though we used the same words.
“Do you like me?” I asked one day when she sat next to me.
“You mean like like, or like a friend?” she asked back.
“What do you mean?”
“You asked me if I liked you. I want to know if you mean like like or like a friend.”
I was deeply confused. As far as I knew she just repeated herself. I desperately searched for meaning in each phrase. Finally, since they both seemed exactly the same to me, I said, “Like like.”
“No. But I would have liked you as a friend.” She changed seats and never sat near me again.
I must have worn a baffled expression because the boy sitting across the aisle asked, “Do you even know what you just asked her?”
“I just asked if she liked me.”
“No,” he patiently explained, “You asked if she liked liked you. That’s like asking her if she wants to be your girlfriend.”
This further confused me. I had no concept of couples and hadn’t yet Discovered Girls (that would come in middle school for me) so this was completely foreign.
“Oh,” was all I managed to say in return.
“You have to be careful with girls,” he said, “They think all kinds of weird stuff about what we say.” He was truly a wise second grader.
I didn’t have to worry as much about the Semantics of Relationship for the next several years. Whatever bits I gleaned were not from direct experience but learned vicariously through my less-fortunate classmates. In fact, until fourth grade I only had one more major run in.
It happened in second grade when my brother played little league at the ball field at the end of our road. I usually played with kids my age in a mound of sand while he was in the game. One night a group of four of us (three boys and one girls) made little buildings which we quickly stomped on and destroyed.
“It’s like we’re big monsters,” one of the boys said.
“Yeah, a family of monsters,” the other said. This proved to be the wrong thing to say because the lone girl in our group seized on it.
“Yes! A family of monsters. I’m the mommy, of course, and you, “she said as she pointed at me, “are the daddy monster.”
The other boys stopped playing and stared at me. I felt the faint, unfamiliar stirring of excitement that she picked me, quickly followed by confusion that she had, which soon was chased away by wondering why I felt slightly excited, and then it was all trumped by embarrassment when the other boys did exactly what young boys do in such a situation.
“OOOOO,” one said, “She wants to marry you!” Much teasing followed. I quit playing altogether that night. The next week it was if it never happened (and I’ve often wondered how different the world would be if adults dropped awkward situations as quickly as children do).
The main thing about that incident was that it was just a moment one night. In fourth grade the Semantics of Relationship confronted me for weeks. I attended a split fourth/fifth grade class on one of the fifth grade girls had clearly Discovered Boys. Specifically, she discovered me.
I still hadn’t Discovered Girls so I had little interest. I also actively ran from the situation even though I didn’t completely understand it. I did not want to re-experience something like that night at the ball field.
I couldn’t run forever (or ignore the questions her friend always peppered me with), and she managed to corner me in P.E. one day. She literally cornered me. She had her friends block all but one of the exits from a large plastic cube I played in. I thought it was a game until I started through the remaining exit and she blocked me path.
“Not so fast,” she said, “I have a question and you can’t leave until you answer.”
Before I relate the question, I should mention that I was often completely lost when it came to the opposite sex, or even the idea of relationships in general. Everyone seemed to agree upon phrases and concepts, but I never got the memo and always felt as if I arrived late without a dictionary. So when she asked, everyone in ear shot knew exactly what she meant, but I was clueless.
“Will you go with me?” she asked.
“Will you go with me?” Repetition did not help me at all.
“Go? Go where?”
“Not where, silly,” she said, “With. With me. I want to go with you. Will you go with me?”
It should have been obvious to me, even just from context, that she was asking a question similar to the one I mistakenly asked in first grade. I, being really, really, bad at the relationship thing, utterly failed to comprehend.
“But go where? I don’t get what you’re saying! Where do you want us to go?”
She looked hurt. I worried that I caused it somehow, but after all, I didn’t understand and just wanted her to explain.
“You could’ve just said no. You didn’t have to play dumb.” Something that looked suspiciously like tears formed in her eyes. She stood and stormed off angrily.
“I’m not playing dumb!” I called after her (I’ll let you make your own joke), but it was no use. The second grader I met on the bus went to a different school or I might have sought his counsel.
I soon learned what she meant, but I didn’t care much since I hadn’t Discovered Girls yet. I couldn’t imagine all the bother of relationships would be worth it. I figured I would never chase after someone like that. For me the Semantics of Relationship were not worth the time required to learn them and determined I wouldn’t expend the effort.
I probably should have. I eventually did Discover Girls of course, and was ill-prepared for conversations with them. It all became a painful learning experience, but at least now over a decade into my marriage I’m far more comfortable with them and better able to navigate the relationship minefield.
I’ve finally gotten a better grasp of the Semantics of Relationship and understand they add a layer of meaning that often changes the message. Something can be technically correct and innocuous, but others will hear something completely different.
That is why, though I still often stick my foot in my mouth and never got good at starting a conversation with a woman I was attracted to, I will never, ever introduce Chrisie as my first wife. The “and only” is implied, but somehow I don’t think it would go over too well. That’s progress.