There’s this scene in the 1995 film “Now and Then” where a rival boy group, The Wormers, go skinny-dipping. The leader of The Wormers is Scotty Wormer, played by a then 12-year-old Devon Sawa.
At one point in the scene you can clearly see Sawa’s bare ass as he runs away from the camera and into a lake. This scene was rewound, paused and squealed over at every sleepover I attended in the late ‘90s. The same year “Now and Then” was released, Sawa rejoined his co-star, Christina Ricci, to play the teenage, human embodiment, of Casper the Friendly Ghost. My friends and I all collectively lost our shit.
Devon Sawa was one of my earliest crushes. He was so American with his mop of blonde hair, blue eyes, gapped teeth. He was so American he was Canadian. And that name, Devon, it was exotic in a good way. I went to school with a sea of Steves and Mikes. Devon was extraordinary. Next to him, any real-life guys looked like those poor unfortunate sea creatures sucked of their souls by Ursula in The Little Mermaid.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas, known simply as JTT, is the other reason my standard for men was off the charts growing up. Physically and emotionally, he was the opposite of Sawa, though equally appealing. JTT was a crazy-short brunette prone to playing sensitive arty types. In the holiday classic, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” he quotes E.E. Cummings to his girlfriend, Jessica Biel. And to her friends she’s like, “isn’t he the best?” even though she could AND probably did use him as a basketball and slam dunked him off-set. But yes, yes he was the best. His precociousness was such a turn-on.
When the only romantic relationships you have are with movie characters, you begin to think there is no such thing as a real perfect man. In my fictional world, I could take Devon Sawa’s square jawline and bad boy brood, and pair it with JTT’s swollen pouty lips and love of literature, and combine them to make something that agreed with me. But in real life, no guys had lines written for them or stylists to highlight their hair so they all fell flat in my eyes.
And for a while my friends and I were in agreement on this. No one at our school matched our standards and therefore no one could be considered boyfriend material. This was true…but it was also the easiest way to deal with the fact that no boys were actually interested in us. “We’re too sophisticated” we told ourselves, watching a WB sitcom based on Reba McIntire’s life on a Friday night in high school.
I was scared of being with boys so I built layers around me, walls to reinforce my brand statement: Stay the fuck away. But then something miraculous and unexpected happened when I turned 16, I found out a boy like liked me. Though my friend was the instigator, I did not seek out the opportunity, I was intrigued nonetheless. No longer was it a matter of, “boys are stupid because they don’t like me.” Boys could be stupid AND like me. How exciting! I started wondering if maybe I was wrong to judge a situation before ever experiencing it. So I agreed to give it a shot and go on a series of dates with Todd Hunter.
Todd was a junior and played tennis with my friend. He liked the hand-knotted Chinese staircase hemp necklaces I wore two, sometimes three at a time around my neck. He liked my taste in music as he once noted driving in his pickup truck listening to regional jam band OAR. And he probably said something like, “I can’t believe you listen to Steve Miller Band,” when I sang along to Fly Like An Eagle on a painfully predictable Connecticut mix cd. That’s probably why he made the call to shove his tongue down my throat, in the middle of watching “Minority Report,” on a couch in his unfinished basement. That’s not how I thought first kisses happened.
Based on my extensive media viewing as a kid, I thought first kisses occurred at one of two places: summer camp and co-ed parties. I even attended summer camp for a few years but it never happened for me. I didn’t know how to connect with boys. Instead I sat on the sidelines during sports sessions and claimed I had cramps; this being before I ever got my period. Then I’d sigh loudly and let the girl counselors absently French braid my hair, almost forgetting I was there and sharing details about their adult lives outside of camp. And again, I set my sights on the most unattainable man in sight, totally smokin’ 18-year-old Counselor Steve, who looked just like Marky Mark Wahlberg but slightly more simian.
On Boy Meets World, a T.G.I.F. staple in my house, I watched Corey and Shawn attend a “makeout” party in the basement of a cool girl’s house. When Shawn emerged from the closet after 7 minutes with a girl, the studio audience oohed and ahhed because this 12-year-old finally “got some.” I related more to Corey, a tragically average and neurotic young Woody Allen type, who majorly sweated the idea of being alone with a girl in a closet. But ultimately, even Corey got a kiss from his life-love, Topanga.
When Todd frenched me, he limply held his soggy hand in mine under an afghan that should have been comforting but, given the circumstances, felt like one of those lead bibs you wear at the dentist. It just kept sinking me further into his fratty-ass couch. It was so not like the movies it was criminal. Later, Todd told our mutual friend that he knew it was my first kiss, despite me never telling him that. This bit of information humiliated me and confirmed the deep fear I had that I was the worst kisser in the history of kisses. My initial reaction was to leave the world of real boys for good, like if I could I would have married my platonic girlfriends at 17 and had a great time with life. But something with the Todd Hunter experience intrigued me. Enough to give the second boy who ever liked me, a chance.
Senior year of high school I was convinced to date Evan Reinhard, a guy in my cooking class who, in the “anything goes” world of AOL Instant Messenger, was the first to tell me I was beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. I was a terrible kisser AND baker and I thought it was pretty apparent. Plus I was an athlete and he wore an unironic dog collar and hung out with an unidentifiable clique of fringe classmates you weren’t sure even went to the school.
But this pairing of mismatched people was a movie trope I knew well. Like in the 2000 cheerleading drama “Bring It On.” Hot, popular cheerleading captain Kirsten Dunst falls for the weird, but let’s not get it twisted, HOT, new kid Jesse Bradford. At first they have the world against them because the idea of crossing cliques is disgusting. But then everyone realizes that it doesn’t matter who you’re with as long as they’re hot.
That’s basically what it was like with me and Evan, except he was tiny and pale and I exclusively wore sports bras. We dated the summer leading up to senior year of high school. I’d go over his mom and step-dad’s McMansion and we’d sit in the dark of his new and sterile home theater. We’d watch whatever was in his mom’s disparate DVD collection like “Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood” and “The Human Stain.” And it was never exciting but it felt like that’s what I had to accept because he was the only boy who liked me.
10 years later, with a stronger sense of self-worth, and I now have a long-term boyfriend, and that’s IN SPITE of having seen “The Notebook” 15 times and almost being brainwashed by the Nicholas Sparks Cult. Eventually I learned to love the idea of dating a real person. And in meeting him, I learned I didn’t have to settle for a human stain. Plus, let’s be honest, I reached a point where the statistical probability of me running into Devon Sawa or JTT at a party, sharing some pithy banter, and making them my co-husbands, was impossible. I may have had to give that up to become an adult, but I’m truly happy I have something real and tangible to come home to.
Ali Kelley is a writer living in Chicago. She co-produces Story Club Chicago and performs her stories at series around the city. You can find her talking about ’90s pop culture and teen angst on her blog Sleepoverz and @freegiantparty. She lives life according to Mia Thermopolis.