Josh & Rach 4ever
The quickest way to describe how it felt in that alleyway is: moist. The air, my armpits, my emotional state, my underwear (especially my underwear)—all moist. But I know, we all hate that word, so much so that when you Google: “why do we hate the word,” moist automatically pops up. By now, you probably hate me for using “moist” four times in just as many sentences, for scratching that proverbial chalkboard. I’m sorry, but if you really want to understand what it felt like that night—when I stopped running and screaming and actually took stock of myself—imagine someone whispering “moist” in your ear on repeat, beads of their spit splashing your auricle with each uttered T: moist, moist, moist, moist, moist, moist, moist, moist.
I once read some Internet trivia about the Beatles and learned that ushers of their early shows were tasked with spraying down the venues with Eau-De-Cologne. Throughout the concert, ushers scooted down aisles, between rows of sobbing, jittering, fainting girls, who cried out for Paul and John, for the music, for the joy of being under the same roof as George—even Ringo! The ushers spritzed, and misted to conceal the piercing aroma of elation, the perfume of teenage dreams, that is, the scent of urine rolling past the hems of knee-length skirts, dripping between seats, and pooling in the aisles as thousands of titillated girls involuntarily pissed themselves. It was a response to the moment, to the bliss and joy and fulfilled anticipation of being there—with The Beatles! Their fantasies were colliding with reality, and they peed for the thrill, and the love, and the surrealness of it all.
But perhaps too, their bodies realized something that they, themselves, had not: that this moment wouldn’t last, that their euphoria was fleeting. Soon, John, Paul, George, and Ringo would only exist as black-and-white images on the family’s Zenith console. Soon it would all be over. Perhaps their bodies sensed the heartache ahead, the disappointment that waited—that they couldn’t hold onto this version of reality. So they let go of it. All over the theater floor.
If the lyrics “I don’t want to wait” mean nothing to you, let me explain. The year was 1998; I was in the eighth grade: quirky, angsty, chubby (middle school terminology: fatty). Unlike other girls who were absorbed with teen culture—heartthrobs and boy bands and shopping at Contempo Casual, where none of the clothes fit me, anyway—I was more of a road-less-traveled kinda kid. To my peers, I quoted Dead Poets Society like zealots cite Leviticus: Carpe diem! Stand up for the underdog! Go against the grain! (A middle school death wish). Eventually, I realized the untraveled road led to a bench outside the cafeteria, where I’d eat lunch alone, waiting out puberty by listening to showtunes or re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. I just didn’t want to be a cliché, ya know?
But then a new teen soap opera premiered on the WB network. And once I heard Paula Cole's iconic theme song, "I Don't Want to Wait," I realized I DIDN'T want to wait out puberty outside the cafeteria, alone. So, from then on, I went to The Creek.
Dawson’s Creek was set in fictional Cape Cod town, Capeside, and followed the lives of four hyper-verbal teenagers. It was classic teen melodrama: dysfunctional families, emerging hormones, unrequited love. That first season centered on the idealistic fifteen-year-old film geek, Dawson Leery, and his childhood bestie, Joey Potter. Joey secretly loves Dawson, but oblivious Dawson is hot for Jen, the perky-boobed vixen recently exiled to Capeside to reform her city girl ways. We spend all of season one waiting for Dawson to realize his feelings for Joey—that it’s always been Joey! They’re total soulmates! (The concept of soulmates is super important on The Creek.)
Dawson was clearly intended to be the leading man of the series: sweet, sensitive, born in the labs of Teen Beat magazine. But it’s Pacey Witter, Dawson’s quick-bantering, recalcitrant sidekick—the guy with the tragic bowl cut and grossly oversized Hawaiian shirts—that I instantly fell for. Pacey is played by Joshua Jackson. And here’s really where my story starts: with Josh.
The summer after Dawson’s Creek premiered, I was shipped out to Indian Lake, an Adirondack sleepaway camp specializing in teen weight loss (read: fat camp). I’d like to tell you that my mother sent me away while I protested, “it’s what’s on the inside that matters!” But that’s only partially accurate. I didn’t admit it then, but I think my younger self suspected that high school would be easier, less painful, if I had a body that fit in, which mine didn’t—not at home, nor at Capeside, where mid-drifts and spaghetti straps were particularly trendy.
At Indian Lake, I lived in a cabin with eleven other girls. I slept above Shira Rosenberg, who owned our bunk’s most prized possession: cotton candy flavored Lipsmackers. Before we fell asleep each night, we passed it around, and while we each got a whiff of the sugary summers of yesteryear, we talked about school, and boys, and what going to third base actually entailed. I mostly listened.
I tried to remain independent of any camp cliché, but by the Fourth of July, I was in a group performance of the Backstreet Boys hit, “As Long as You Love Me”—though I spearheaded the effort to change the lyrics to “As Long as You Feed Me.” Social commentary. The only camp activity that I enthusiastically embraced was hockey, which I knew all about from watching Joshua Jackson star in The Mighty Ducks trilogy. Before leaving for camp, I’d fall asleep each night watching Josh (#96, Captain Charlie Conaway) lead the Flying V and nail the triple deke. My bunkmates mistook my ability to quote all three Duck movies for athletic prowess and voted me hockey team captain. As captain, I mostly led my team up and down the floor chanting “Quack, quack, quack—goooooo Ducks!” But this was fat camp, so we petered out pretty quickly.
The one thing that never lost momentum that summer was all of our emerging hormones, the kind I had heard so much about on The Creek. I guess you can say I sorta, kinda, had a crush on Justin Jordan, the cutest boy in Bunk Five, who reached his goal weight halfway through the summer. One night, Justin invited me to a secret rendezvous with the camp’s coolest kids. I was, like, totally excited. We set up a blanket on the soccer field and sat in a circle. Danielle May—a girl who I happened to know from nursery school as an aggressive Lincoln Log stealer—wedged herself between me and Justin and suggested a game of “Truth or Dare.” I remembered this episode from The Creek: Joey is dared to kiss Dawson in a game of Truth or Dare. She’s annoyed at first, but as their lips meet, and bodies push together, and then, when her hand strokes his cheek, you can tell—something changes for them. I only wished that Justin would be dared to kiss me.
Danielle pointed to a boy on the other side of our circle, Justin’s doofy, baby-faced sidekick. I think his real name was Alex, but earlier in the summer, after noticing a horse and buggy ride around camp, he publicly asked if we could take a field trip to visit the Yamish people, earning him a permanent nickname.
“Yamish!” Danielle yelled. “Truth or dare?”
“Okay,” she said, “I dare you to kiss...” I knew what was coming. That goddamned Lincoln Log stealing bitch. “I dare you to kiss Rachel,” she said. “With tongue!” So, in front of Danielle May and Justin Jordan and all the cool fat kids, Yamish scooted in closer and stuck his tongue in my mouth. My first kiss.
I thought of Dawson and Joey’s epic kiss at the end of season one: soft rock playing, fingers running through hair, entwined bodies, the longing, the passion. This was not that kiss. All I really remember of that kiss was Danielle May yelling like a referee for me to close my eyes, and me wishing for her to plateau at the next weigh-in.
After we kissed, Yamish became my boyfriend, though I’m not really sure how or why. I suppose that’s just the natural progression of things when you’re a fourteen-year-old fat camper. Our relationship primarily involved sweaty hand-holding on the walk from aerobics to tennis, and slobbery tonsil-hockey on Indian Lake’s sturdiest hammock—an activity that Shira said I could keep the Lipsmackers for, which almost made it worth it. In my opinion, the one real perk of having a boyfriend was the extra sugar-free syrup Yamish smuggled to me on fat-free pancake morning. Yamish knew a guy who knew a guy who had access to the kitchen pantry.
I didn’t expect Yamish and I would be Dawson and Joey right outta the gate, but this was not what I thought finding a soulmate would be like.
“And what’s that?” my counselor, Kiki asked while we were sitting on the bunk porch with a bucket of water and a can of Gillette (outdoor leg shaving = a staple of camp life). I said I expected to, you know, like my boyfriend; that Yamish wasn’t deep or intellectual; he couldn’t banter; he was no Joshua Jackson, who, according to Seventeen was not only handsome and charming, but an avid reader of philosophy. Yamish never even heard of Kant.
“Did I ever tell you that I know Joshua Jackson?” Kiki said.
“WHAT?” I leapt up, waving my disposable Bic in the air. “You know JOSH?”
Kiki told me that years earlier at Camp Shane, the competing Fat Camp, she befriended Shaun Weiss—the kid actor best known as Goldberg the Goalie in The Mighty Ducks movies. And Weiss, she said, was close friends with Josh. “We partied a few times. Josh is pretty cool.”
Of course, he was cool! My hands were too jittery to resume shaving. I took this one-degree separation not as a coincidence, but as an irrefutable sign our paths would cross, and true love would totally follow. And there on that porch, as drops of Gillette slid down my leg, I decided that I didn’t need to bother with the disappointment of pubescent boys. From then on, I would just wait for Joshua Jackson, who was probably, definitely my soulmate. I closed my mind to any other possible scenario and broke up with Yamish on the spot. It was the last relationship (and last base hit) of my entire adolescence.
I wish I could tell you that everything improved when I returned home from Indian Lake. Sure, I was slimmer and tanner and blonder and even motivated to make friends, but not for long. High school was not what I imagined it to be like. I remember reading some think-pieces (AOL reviews) around the time Dawson’s Creek premiered. The reviews hyped the show as the real thing—an actual depiction of teenage life. HA! High school was nothing like I’d seen on TV. But instead of being annoyed at the reviewers for their misleading expectations, I was pissed at my peers, real high schoolers, who were much less relatable than my friends in Capeside. Turns out, actual teenagers don’t have the Creek-like ability to articulate complex emotions, nor do they want to spend endless hours analyzing their feelings or daddy issues. They didn’t appreciate a sense of irony; they rarely wanted to ruffle feathers or stand up for what they believed in—a value system might not look good on a college application.
But to be completely honest, at fourteen, I was no picnic either. Shortly after school started, all that angst and disappointment fermented into a pretty debilitating depression. So, I retreated. These were the days before Netflix, so I recorded each episode and made a VHS library of Dawson’s Creek. Instead of doing homework, or trying to make friends, I rushed home from school, put on my I Love Lucy pajamas, got in bed, turned on an episode, and resolved to wait out high school under the covers. And sure, I know what you must be thinking: for someone who’s guiding principle was “Carpe Diem!” lying in bed with the Capeside crew is not exactly sucking the marrow out of life. It’s true. But being around other people, out there, in the world, was really uncomfortable. My unruly emotions overwhelmed me. My mood was unpredictable. It was hard to be around—I was hard to be around.
So when I felt alone, when I cried in the bathroom, when I skipped parties, was bullied for being fat (the Indian Lake weight loss didn’t last long), or endured another detention for my “big mouth,” I went to The Creek. I went to their prom; I sat at their table in the cafeteria. I bantered outside of the lockers, dressed up for dates, and experienced the excitement of young love. Dawson’s Creek remains the only part of my adolescence that didn’t let me down. I mean, sure, was I thrilled during the episode that Dawson gets all sanctimonious and reports Joey’s father to the police for dealing drugs? No. Did I like it when Pacey’s first girlfriend cheated on him with a patient from her psych ward? Definitely not. But despite the occasional plot twists gone awry, that show, and those characters sustained me.
In season two, Pacey transforms from classic screwup to righteous rebel—a guy who doesn’t shy away from complications, who stands up for what he believes in, even if the consequences include unpopularity. During one memorable episode, a brutish English teacher humiliates a gay student in front of the class, and Pacey intervenes. He defends the honor of his friend and literally spits in the face of authority. On the verge of suspension, Pacey delivers the most impassioned I’d ever heard.
Every day, we come to a place where you guys are in charge. You tell us when to arrive, when to leave, when we're doing well, when we need to be doing better, and we never ever question it because we're afraid to. To question it is to go against the belief that the entire system is built upon, the belief that you guys know what's right, and I'm not afraid to tell you that what happened in that classroom yesterday was not right.
I memorized that monologue, and when I landed myself in in-school suspension for leading a revolt on biology class earthworm dissection day, I spent the hours repeating: “what happened in that classroom yesterday was not right!” When my protests fell on deaf ears, I passed the time scribbling Josh & Rach 4ever all over my notebooks and listing all the irrefutable signs we were definitely soulmates.
That same season, Pacey’s girlfriend, Andie, spirals into a major depression. In one episode, she locks herself in the bathroom during a mental breakdown (while wearing the same I Love Lucy pajamas I owned—a sign!). I often felt, for good reason, that my depressive episodes alienated everyone in my life, except my mother, who always stood outside the locked bathroom door with a credit card and a screwdriver, trying to break in. But Pacey never retreated from a friend’s mental illness. He talks to Andie from outside the door until she lets him in, and then he holds her, comforts her. When she asks him what if things don’t get better: what if she’s not fine? What if things never work out the way she plans? Pacey plants a kiss on her forehead and says, “Sorry, pal. That’s just not in the cards.” She believed him. I did too.
By 2005, I was a college junior: still quirky, borderline chubby, infinitely less angsty. Dawson’s Creek had been off the air for two years (I still watched reruns on TBS) but Capeside didn’t have the same hold on my life. Nor did my depression. I had interests now; I had joined a sorority; I got out of bed; I sometimes even did homework. I felt a change in myself that year. It was subtle, but it was there—like I was leaning into something, the same way you might bicycle round a corner, ready to embrace whatever’s waiting around the bend.
That January, I was leaving for a semester abroad in London. To prepare, I read Frommer’s, replayed the moment Mr. Darcy kisses Bridget Jones on a snowy Queen’s Park street, and sought the advice of sage sorority girls.
“So, would you say that Frenching’s still a big thing?” I asked, abruptly over brunch.
“Excuse me?” My friend Emmy looked up, her egg sandwich hanging in the air.
“Yeah, like you know French kissing? Is that still what you do? Like, spell your name in his mouth with your tongue?” The last time I received advice on kissing, circa 1998, spelling your name with tongue was all the rage.
“Yeaaah, Rach...” Emmy said, “Frenching is still a thing.”
“You making out with anyone in particular?”
“Well, no,” I said. But I was going to London! There would be men with accents—like Colin Firth! And while yes, an idealistic and naive part of me still dreamed that maybe, one day fate would bring Josh and I together, I was finally ready to make room for other possibilities. So imagine my surprise when I walked out of Heathrow, and spotted Joshua Jackson’s face on the side of a double-decker.
On joshjacksonfangirl.net, I learned that Joshua Jackson was starring alongside Patrick Stewart in a five-month run of A Life in Theater, during the same five months I was in London, studying theater—a sign! I forgot all about the other possibilities. I only believed that all those pining years were leading up to this, the moment the universe would bring us together, 4ever. I didn’t have to wait anymore.
A friend and I bought front row student tickets for a Life in Theater performance in February, and while I waited until show time I made a plan: when Josh walked on the stage, I’d smile, wink, or gesture in some way to make myself stand out. My warm, endearing nod would obviously catch his eye and leave an impression. After the curtain fell, I would beeline for the stage door. As a regular New York theatergoer, I had years of experience pushing through starry-eyed tourists who stood between my Playbill and Bebe Neuwirth’s pen. I also knew that sometimes, if you were strategic, you could even get a little bit more than an autograph or picture. Once I spotted Hugh Jackman on the phone with some fan’s mom, and just that summer I saw Scott Foley, another WB heartthrob alum, leave with a fan who lingered long enough for the crowd to disperse and the opportunity for conversation to present itself.
That’s exactly what I would do: linger. I’d wait out the fans, ask for an autograph, then a picture, then banter for a minute, and then casually mention something about fate.
I recently looked back in my journal to remember how I felt that night—what was I thinking as I rode to the theater? How did I feel when Josh took the stage? What ran through my mind when his character stripped down to nothing but boxer-briefs?
The answer: six pages about thighs. Specifically, that Joshua Jackson’s thighs were much skinnier than I’d expected. After everything that would eventually happen that night, I’m surprised that I devoted so much page space to this. Maybe I was just worried? It seemed like Josh shed quite a few pounds since Dawson’s Creek. Was he eating? Was he happy? Or maybe I was feeling uncomfortable about my own body (his thighs were clearly thinner than mine). Maybe I didn’t look the way he thought a soulmate should?
But now, a decade later, I have to wonder: maybe six-pages of thigh-disappointment was really an inexperienced twenty-year-old girl’s way of expressing disappointment in something else. I suspect that when I saw Joshua Jackson strip on stage, a subconscious part of me realized: this is it. This is all I would ever get. For years Pacey was a staple in my life, but he wasn’t really there. And during the boxer-brief scene, I think I realized that the intimacy between a mostly nude stage actor and front row, craned-neck audience member was the most intimacy Joshua Jackson and I would ever share.
My memory of the night really kicks in the moment I jumped up for applause at the curtain call, grabbed my friend and ran out of the theater. There was already a small, but growing crowd at the stage door. We elbowed through and asked a bouncer about the best place to stand.
“On the left. IF they’re going to sign, they always start on the left and work to the right.”
“IF?” I asked. If was not part of my plan.
As we waited on the left side of the stage door, the crowd grew and grew. Then the theater manager announced we would need to wait longer—the actors were engaged in a post-show Q&A. The crowd grew more and as it multiplied, it seemed that there was no possibility of a lingering meet-cute on the left side of the door. He would sign my program and move on—left to right. So I abandoned my friend and forced myself back through the crowd, Kodak disposable camera in hand.
Though it was London in February the night wasn’t particularly cold. It wasn’t raining either, but everything felt damp, like the bathroom after a shower. And the longer we waited, and the more autograph hopefuls who joined the crowd, and the more personal space we sacrificed, the damper and dewier the night felt.
On the right side of the stage door, I chatted with Blair and Lindsey, two long-time Creek fans who were also studying abroad. While we waited, (and waited and waited) we swapped life stories (“Oh my god! We’re from Jersey!” Blair said, “Tri-state represent!”), played Jewish Geography, and discovered we all knew Shira Rosenburg—a sign!
When Lindsey spotted my Kodak, she asked if I was trying to get a picture of Josh.
“Of him?” I said. “No, I’m going to get a picture with him.” The Jersey girls didn’t know it was Kosher to ask for a picture. I set them straight, cited the Scott Foley precedent, and we agreed to take pictures for each other. Then we waited some more.
Nearly 90-minutes after the show ended, I spotted a glimmer in the distance. Patrick Stewart’s bald head stepped through the stage door, and the crowd roused out of their idle wait-stance: “Oh look! Is it Patrick? Is Josh there?” And then a cheer swept over the crowd as people saw what was happening.
Josh stepped out from the stage door and into the screaming, jittering mass of overcome fans. I didn’t scream, though—I’m sure by that point, I considered myself above clichéd fangirling. My face cramped from a night’s worth of compulsory smiling, smiling to be near him, smiling from the surrealness of it all. He was there. He was so close. In the words of Pacey during season three: “when you like somebody, proximity is a good thing.” He wasn’t a stage or TV actor this time. He was real life Joshua Jackson and was moving toward me.
All I remember was thinking: THIS IS IT! And that’s when I felt the first warm, wet drop splash my underwear, and drip down my thigh, like the first bead of a rainstorm gliding across a windowpane.
Even though the actors had signed dozens of programs, the crowd was expanding, not shrinking; it was becoming louder, wilder, rowdy even. No one was leaving. And just when Joshua Jackson was two ecstatic, outstretched arms away, his security detail yelled, “Come on Josh, we gotta go!”
Think of the moment the Tower of Terror begins its fall, and your stomach flies south, and all your organs seem to exist independently. That was me, watching Josh leave the autograph line. “Nooooooo! Over here! Can we get a few more autographs over here!”
Blair and Lindsey backed me up: “Over here, Josh! Over here!”
A few more drops splashed my underwear.
Josh held up a finger to the security guard, “Just a sec,” he said. A meter separated us. The Jersey girls handed him their programs. “Oh my God! We are such big fans!”
He thanked them for coming to see the show, asked what they were studying, where they were from; he made a Dirty Jerz joke. They joked back. Those bitches were stealing my banter!
“Can we get a pic?” Blair asked.
“Sure.” He tucked a girl under each arm, and all three smiled as I steadied my shaking hand to capture their moment. Blair and Lindsey stepped back, I stepped forward, and I reached out my program, speechless. He began to take it in his hand, and then: “Josh! Let’s go! We need to get you out of here. Patrick’s already in the car.”
He made a sound, a sigh of sorts, a groan of annoyance to suggest, ugh, sorry.
“Oh!” I yelled. “Oh please!” He didn’t want to disappoint. He took my program. What a guy! “Can we please get a picture?” I asked while he scribbled his name.
“Ehhhhh,” he said.
“Now!” the guard said guiding his shoulder away from me. He looked at the guard and back to me, guilty-ish.
“Please!” I yelled. “I’ve been waiting forever!”
“Okay, come with me,” he said, “but you gotta keep up!”
And before I could say, “Wait. WHAT?” he tore off—slipping through the crowd, racing behind the security guard and down the alley.
My all-time favorite moment of Dawson’s Creek is the last scene of an episode called “True Love.” After a season devoted to a Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle, Joey finally picks her guy. Dawson is her soulmate, but only in a ‘let’s just be soulmate friends’ sorta way. Her True Love is Pacey (obviously). Joey needs to tell Pacey her feelings, but the clock is ticking; Pacey is leaving on a summer sailing excursion to escape all the heartache on the Creek.
The scene opens with Joey charging down the marina dock. I mean this girl is really sprinting: hair flying, mid-drift top flapping in the breeze; she’s screaming: “Pacey! Pacey!” She desperately needs to tell him that it’s him. She doesn’t want to wait. She loves him.
How could anyone explain exactly how it feels when the only person you ever imagined being with—a person way up high on a pedestal of longing and desire, wishful thinking, unwavering after-school companionship, and pure, earnest love—gives you one directive: come with me. It’s like fantasy and reality ram into each other, head on. Glass shatters, the world fades away, and you’re running through this alternate universe where Joshua Jackson is your soulmate, and all teenage dreams really do come true. Just like Joey Potter, you’re chasing after him, arms pumping wildly, hair swinging in the misty London night, screaming for him: “Josh! Josh!” And when, in this alternate universe, he turned his head back mid-run and yelled to me, (not to Joey, to Rachel!), “Keep up! Stay with me!” I thought, for just one tiny second, that I could stay with him 4ever.
In that final scene of “True Love,” Joey catches Pacey minutes before he sails away. He is perched on the deck of the boat, looking down at her as she professes her feelings, and asks to sail away with him. His face is perfect, full of love. This is his dream come true. Joey motions to step on the boat, but he teases her first (classic Pacey!) She exchanges that same look of love, reaches out her hand, and asks, “Permission to come aboard?”
He waits, savors the moment, and finally says, “Permission granted.” Beaming, he takes her hand and pulls her into him. The soft rock is queued; they wrap their arms around each other and kiss. The last shot of the season is them sailing off into the sunset.
I don’t think anything I could write about the moment (or several long moments) I chased after Joshua Jackson would really capture what I was thinking. My body tells a better story: each time my heels hit the cobblestone alley, another warm rivulet rolled down my leg. Wet and sticky, they tickled my inner thigh, before absorbing into the behind-the-knee crease of my jeans.
We rounded one corner, and at the end of another long alley, I saw the town car waiting like a finish line, and my run turned into a graceless, panicked sprint, my body swaying lopsidedly. And as my pace accelerated, so did the streams of pee, which rolled past my knee, down my calf, some even reached my sock. But I hardly noticed. I hadn’t really assessed myself; I only looked forward to him, to the town car, to the possibility that I would reach out my hand and he would pull me to him, kiss my face, and whisk me away.
Halfway down that alley, I looked over my shoulder and noticed that while I was chasing Joshua Jackson, and Joshua Jackson was chasing the security guard, Blair and Lindsey were chasing me, waving the disposable Kodak high above their heads. “The picture! The picture!” they shouted. Eventually, yards away from the waiting town car, we all collided.
“The picture?” I said to him, breathless. The town car’s driver was standing next to the open back to door. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m pretty sure Patrick Stewart might have been waiting on me. “Can we still get that picture?”
“Yeah, okay, hurry,” Josh said and took his place next to me. (Next to me!)
Blair churned the dial on the disposable Kodak and snapped.
“Adorable!” Lindsey said.
“Wait,” Blair said. She tinkered with the camera. “Oh my god!”
“What?” I ran over.
“I’m so sorry!” she said, “I don’t think the flash went off.”
“Oh! The flash!” I yelled. I turned back to him, my voice panicked, “Can we—”
But a car door slammed. And he was gone.
“The flash!” I yelled at the car. “The flash!” I screamed as they pulled away from the curb. “The flash!” I ran after them, and rapids of steamy piss gushed through the elastic barriers of my underwear, soaking my legs, cascading into the opening of my boot—if I had listened closely I’d have heard a squish with each stride.
I chased the car until the first traffic light. And then he was really gone, and I bawled in the middle of the street: “THE FLASH!”
I cried as I watched that car disappear. My euphoria had been fleeting. I couldn’t hold on to my Josh & Rach fantasy—whatever hope was left spilled out of me and on to the street.
I think about that picture sometimes; I think about what it would have looked like if the flash went off, and I was captured there on film, in the same frame as Joshua Jackson! When they gave me back the Kodak, the Jersey girls said there might be hope; a dim light flickered in the alleyway just above the spot where we posed together. I crossed my fingers when I dropped off my camera at CVS’s photo counter, but all you can see on the developed film is two figures shrouded in darkness. I will never know what I looked like there in that alley, next to him. I have no evidence, almost like it never even happened, an episode I can’t access—kind of like my VHS recording of “True Love,” which I re-watched so many times that the ribbon wore out, and Capeside became unrecognizable.
There’s a famous viral Internet meme of Dawson Leery; it’s a close-up of him from the end of “True Love.” In the shot his face is sniveling, pouty, scrunched up; the Internet calls him the World’s Ugliest Crier. It’s pretty hilarious. But each time I see that meme, I empathize with Dawson—not that I’ve ever been in a position where my sorta-soulmate sails off into the sunset with my ex-BFF. But in very many ways, I am a Dawson: an idealist who retreats into fantastical worlds of movies and television to escape the disappointment of a reality that never measures up. So I know that whimpering ugly-cry face; it’s the same one I made throughout middle school and high school, when I locked myself in the bathroom and blubbered, misunderstood and alone. It’s the face captured in old pictures of Beatles concerts, when the Fab Four pack up and hit the road, leaving thousands of overcome girls reaching after them, screaming for them. It’s the face of a concert ending, a door slamming, and a boat sailing away. It’s disappointment, and heartache, and letting go of something you’ve wished for a really long time. And I don’t need a meme or a picture to tell me that’s what I looked like after the flash didn’t go off, and he left, and I ugly-cried all the way home, dripping on the Tube.
That night was the first time I ever cried over a boy. I’d never known a heartache so profound that I couldn’t contain it, that my body had to let go of some of it. And when I did, I let go of the fantasy of Josh & Rach 4ever.
Here’s what else I didn’t know in that alleyway: I didn’t know how much more uncomfortable it could get when I started interacting with the men of real life. Only a couple nights later I went to a bar with my friends, and had my first post-Yamish kiss, with a guy named Lenny who left his gum in my mouth. I would come to find out that peeing my pants in front of a celebrity was nothing compared to the mess of being rejected by a non-celebrity, and dating real men, and even being in relationships with them—not a VHS tape, or a writer’s room in Hollywood, or a fantasy you’ve built for yourself, when you can’t rewind to re-watch your favorite scenes, and fast-forward through the plot twists gone awry.
For all its schmaltz and misleading expectations, Dawson’s Creek has comforted me during my darkest and loneliest hours, and I will love it forever. But here’s a confession: Dawson’s Creek is an infinitely better show when you’re depressed, when you don’t want to exist in real the world; when you can’t carpe diem; when your emotions feel so heavy and hazy that it’s a welcome unburdening to have precocious teenagers articulate them for you—and how good it feels when they really get you. So good, in fact that I once thought as long as I had Dawson’s Creek, I didn’t need real people, and that meant I didn’t need to get used to the disappointment that is real people. But the night I peed my pants chasing Joshua Jackson in a London alleyway I realized that I didn’t have Dawson’s Creek. Pacey was off the air and Josh had ridden away.
Truthfully though, I was ready to move on. I had been for a while. Because even if the worst was yet to come; even if all that waited was ugly crying, a mouthful of a stranger’s gum, and an underwear change, I still wanted to round the corner. I wanted something real. I didn’t want to wait anymore.