The unrequited teenage love that still haunts my dreams

I had one of my recurring dreams last night. It's a little bit like a sex dream in that there is kissing involved, and desire. But it's not a dream about sex at all. It's a dream about longing and identity.

I dream that I am kissing Josh Goldenbum* and that he is madly in love with me. I have been in love with him for years and finally – finally! – he is reciprocating. I feel happy and fulfilled. The endless yearning has been quelled.

‘No matter how much love I have had, or sex, or committed relationships, that feeling of yearning has never been far away.’Credit:Stocksy

I wake up with a lingering sense of relief and triumph. Then, a moment later, I realise it was just a dream. Josh Goldenbum will never love me. The longing will never be requited.

The thing is, I am 50 years old, and Josh was the boy I was in love with at school. I worshipped him for a couple of intense years, staring at the back of his head in class and watching him chat to other girls in the playground. Josh never loved me back.

Worse than that, he never even noticed me.

I tried talking to him. I tried flicking my hair seductively. I tried everything short of physically lying at his feet (and if I'd thought that would help, I would have done that too). And then I stood by, helpless, as he dated every other girl in our year, progressed to girls from the year below, then started working on the year above.

I suspect that if Josh had ever reciprocated my feelings, my crush would have burned out quickly. But he didn't, and so it took on a life of its own. Josh became a convenient projection of all my teenage longing, a symbol of all that I yearned for and could not have.

I moved on from Josh when I was about 16 and transferred my affections to someone else. I have fallen in love, had relationships, loved and been loved in return. And yet, though I have barely thought about Josh since my school days, he keeps popping up in my dreams. It is as though the 15-year-old Kerri remains stuck in my subconscious, caught in an endless loop of longing and pain.

She wants Josh to love her, and even though the adult me isn't interested, she cannot let him go.

Of course, the real Josh Goldenbum is completely irrelevant to my narrative. The Josh of my dreams isn't him at all. He never looks like him or sounds like him, and his appearance changes from dream to dream. He is just a symbol, an embodiment of unfulfilled desire.

I think we all have childhood wounds that can never be healed. Being in love with someone who doesn't love you isn't the worst thing that can happen to a person, but it did imprint itself on my character and psyche. No matter how much love I've ever had, or sex, or the number of committed relationships I've been in, that feeling of yearning has never been very far away.

Our teenage years are profoundly significant, shaping the way we feel about life and ourselves. We leave school and our classmates and begin our adult lives, but we never really leave our teenage selves behind. The cool kids stay confident. The bullied carry their scars. And those, like me, who suffered from unrequited love will forever feel a little bit rejected.

I think of this often as I observe my own two teenagers. What seemingly minor events are going to imprint deeply on them? What will the takeaway messages be for the rest of their lives? I know I can't protect them from pain, just as my parents couldn't protect me. Sometimes, I won't even know what that pain is. My kids may not know either, until they, too, are dreaming of teenage angst well into middle age.

There is nothing we can do to heal our childhood wounds. No happiness or satisfaction in the present will change what is lodged in the past. Short of travelling back in time and forcing a teenage Josh to love me, I'll always carry this sensory memory.

I wish I could change it. I think, perhaps, that this is what I'm doing in my dreams. I am going back in time and rewriting the ending, changing the outcome for teenage Kerri and for me. Except I wake up, and I am crushed all over again. It didn't happen. I am the overlooked teen once more.

I wonder if my character would have been very different if I'd had a crush on someone else. Would I have moved into adulthood with self-assurance and poise? Or did I subconsciously choose an unattainable boy because it was already the theme of my life?

I don't know, but I do wish the dreams would go away. It's lovely when I'm still fast asleep, but it's so damn disappointing when I wake up.

*Not his real name.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 7.

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