Ginny knew she was pretty. She was petite and had light brown hair, blue eyes, and a dancer’s body. Most of the boys stopped to stare at her as she passed by, and she knew why.
She had a lot of friends, too. She was popular, on the dance team and a student council representative. She knew there were a lot of other girls in school who envied her. She had it all – or at least that’s what everybody else thought.
But Ginny had a secret. She was absolutely, mind-numbingly obsessed with her older brother’s best friend, James.
James and Ginny’s brother Rick had been friends since they were about twelve, but they’d gone away to summer camp when they were fifteen. Sometime that summer, James had suddenly become gorgeous, and he’d also learned to play guitar – a combination that rendered him irresistible to almost all single women within a decade of his age. Ginny, who was a year younger than the boys, had been madly in love with James ever since that summer.
James hung out with Rick almost every day, sometimes at Ginny and Rick’s house whenever their parents weren’t home, but most of the time they went somewhere else… and Ginny stalked him on Facebook to find out where. New girls tagged him in pictures every week. One of them, a blonde named Ashley with legs for miles who always seemed to be wearing a bikini, took “selfies” with herself and James every chance she got. She made kissy-faces in half of them, and it was obvious that she’d applied her lip gloss only seconds before. James, with his languid brown eyes and half-awake expression, gazed back at the camera arrogantly. It make Ginny sick to her stomach.
Ginny was outgoing and cheerful around everyone else, but she became tongue-tied and awkward with James. It was excruciating and miserable, and yet every time she knew he and Rick would be over, she rearranged her plans so that she could be home, to listen like a fly on the wall while the two boys played music together and ignored her totally. But every now and again, just before James drove home for the night, he’d touch Ginny – he’d tuck a wisp of her hair behind her ear, or unnecessarily place a hand on the small of her back – with a sort of self-satisfied smirk, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, and relished watching her blush. Then he’d walk away smoothly before she’d recovered her ability to speak, and the next evening, she’d see yet another photo of him on Facebook (beside the bikini-clad Ashley, or a girl who looked very much like her), and Ginny would cry herself to sleep.
Nobody knew about Ginny’s obsession except for Madge.
Madge was the school counselor. Officially her name was Mrs. Hendelstein, but she told everyone to call her Madge because it was “easier to pronounce.” She was a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Jewish woman with a hooked nose and close-cropped, curly brown hair, and her age was impossible to pinpoint. The gig of school counselor seemed ill-suited to a woman so severe at first blush, but from the first day of Ginny’s freshman year of high school, she had known that Madge would be her very best friend.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Ginny sobbed in Madge’s office at lunchtime. “How do I make him notice me?”
Madge stared at Ginny with her characteristic lack of sympathy. “Well, you stop being such a wilting violet, for one thing.”
That brought Ginny up short. “Huh?”
Madge sighed, exasperated. “Look, honey. First of all, the boy is worthless. No, no, I take that back. Nobody’s really worthless, but he’s doing an excellent imitation of it. So I don’t even know why we’re having this conversation. Do you realize that with your looks and that body of yours, and all the friends you have, you could be dating the entire football team?” She paused for a second and reflected, “Not that I’d recommend that either…”
“Madge,” Ginny cut her off, “I don’t want to date the football team. I want James! But he doesn’t even know I exist… and I don’t understand! What does Ashley have that I don’t have?” Ginny practically spat her name.
Madge stared at her, unblinking. “All right. I think you’re wasting your time and energy on this boy, but I can see you’re not going to believe me unless you find out for yourself. So I’m about to tell you the secret to getting anybody to like you. Are you ready?”
Ginny stopped breathing. Could it be?
“And it’s a secret you already know,” Madge added, rolling her eyes, “because you’re doing it with absolutely everybody in your life except this imitation-of-worthless James kid. But somehow you can’t see it, in his case.”
“You’re gonna make me pass out, Madge!”
“Stop being melodramatic,” Madge snapped. “Here’s the secret. Quit trying so hard!”
Ginny deflated. “That’s it?”
Madge sighed. “Listen. I’m not big on the New Testament, being Jewish and all, but Jesus had a good thing to say every now and again. One of his big principles was that you have to lose your life in order to find it. Ever heard that one?”
Ginny shook her head slowly. “That makes no sense. That’s like saying I have to give up what I want in order to get it.”
“Bingo!” Madge crowed. “But not in the Buddhist, ‘stop desiring things’ kind of way. Jesus didn’t talk about giving up your wants, he talked about laying them down so that you could get them back again. In the Torah, there’s a great illustration of this, when God asked one of the patriarchs, Abraham, to sacrifice his son, Isaac.”
“Like –” Madge mimed a slicing motion across her throat. Ginny looked horrified. “Yeah,” said Madge, nodding to show that Ginny understood correctly.
“Did he do it?” Ginny demanded, a hand at her throat in protective sympathy.
“Just wait,” said Madge, her eyes twinkling. She always got that expression when she was in story mode. “Now, you have to understand first, Abraham had no kids and he was like a hundred years old. God promised him lots of descendants through a son, and that son was Isaac. When Isaac was about fourteen, God told him to sacrifice the kid…”
“That’s almost my age!” Ginny cried.
“Yep,” Madge nodded. “Abraham really, really didn’t want to do it, of course. He loved his son, and besides that, he couldn’t figure out how God could fulfill the promise of descendants if it was a miracle he even got the first kid! But Abraham figured God would raise him from the dead if he had to. So he set up the altar, tied up Isaac and stuck him there, ready to do him in, when God stopped him at the last second.”
“This is a horrible story!” Ginny cried, making a face.
“The point is,” said Madge patiently, “God never told Abraham to give up the dream to be a father of nations. He just told him to do what He said, and trust that it would work out. Well, turned out that Abraham’s obedience confirmed God’s covenant with him, and that’s what set him up for the promise to be fulfilled. God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead, and Isaac went on to become one of the patriarchs too. But without Abraham’s willingness to lay down the specifics, and trust that God would work out the bigger picture, the covenant would’ve been nullified. God would’ve had to find somebody else.”
Ginny stared at her. She felt like Madge was talking way over her head. “I just want to know how to make James like me!”
Madge’s lips twitched, which Ginny knew meant that she was amused. “Okay, so, relevance? We humans have this bad habit when we want something. Doesn’t matter what it is. It can be wanting to fit in with the popular crowd, or wanting to get married, or wanting to get a job, or wanting a particular boy to ask you out. Whatever.”
“What’s the habit?” Ginny demanded.
“The habit,” said Madge, wagging her eyebrows, as if she enjoyed Ginny’s suspense, “is…”
“The habit is this,” said Madge, and held up a hand. Then, very suddenly, she crumpled all of her fingers down as tightly as they would go. Then she took her other hand and covered the crumpled one. Then she pulled both hands into her stomach and doubled her body over them too, like she was writhing.
Ginny knit her brow, not understanding. Then she started to giggle. “The habit is… killing flies?” She giggled harder. “Really, really aggressively?”
“We get so caught up in the thing we think we want that we’re willing to do anything to get it,” Madge clarified. Then her eyes bored into Ginny’s with a sudden intensity. “Anything, Ginny. Even giving up who we really are.”
Ginny stopped giggling. “I’m not giving up anything.”
Madge raised her eyebrows. “Aren’t you?” Then she fell silent, and stared at Ginny until she shifted in her chair and became quite uncomfortable.
“I don’t think so,” said Ginny defensively. Pause. “Well, how can I be myself? He doesn’t even pay any attention to me at all!”
“And what would you do with any other person in the world who didn’t pay any attention to you at all?” Madge countered.
“Ignore him back,” said Ginny automatically. Then her mouth fell open.
Madge grinned at her. “Bingo!” she crowed, “BUT!” she punched her index finger in the air, “there’s a catch!” She resumed her laser pointer stare and added, “The catch is, you can’t ignore him as part of a game.”
“What do you mean?” Ginny demanded.
“Oh, I know how you teenagers think!” declared Madge. “You think that I’m giving you a formula. If you just ignore the boy, then he’ll like you. There’s a word for that. It’s called game-playing. Well, actually that’s two words, I guess…”
Ginny was frustrated now. She ran a hand through her hair and said, “So what are you saying, then? What’s the point of ignoring him if it’s not going to make him like me?”
“Ginny, Ginny!” Madge chided. “Look at yourself! Come, come, stand up!” Madge motioned to her, and with much insistence Ginny reluctantly got to her feet and made her way over to the hammered silver framed mirror hanging next to Madge’s desk. “You are beautiful!” Madge declared.
Ginny smiled bashfully and started to look away from the mirror.
“No, no, look!” Madge demanded. She grabbed Ginny’s jaw and forcibly turned her back towards her own reflection. “I want you to really see what I see. I want you to get this. I’m making a point about your looks because you’re sixteen and that’s what you care about, but this is going to be true throughout your life, all right? You asked me when you first came in here what the difference was between you and this Ashley girl. You want to know what it is? Because I guarantee you it isn’t looks. You’re just as pretty as she is, I’m sure of that.”
Ginny bit her lip. “Okay. So what is it, then?”
“The difference is, she believes it.”
Ginny looked at Madge, startled. “How do you know?”
Madge shrugged. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure she’s got massive insecurities too. But at least she believes that James will like her if she throws herself at him, and in the short term that’s often true, unfortunately. Boys do go for that.”
“Madge, I don’t understand,” said Ginny, getting frustrated again. “First you tell me to ignore him, and now you’re telling me to throw myself at him?”
“Ay yay yay!” Madge exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “Forget him! This isn’t about him! This is about you having confidence in you! But not because you’re trying to get some boy to like you! Here’s the truth, Gin. If you stop caring what he thinks of you, then maybe he’ll decide he likes you after all and maybe he won’t, but either way you’ll be a whole lot happier – and you’ll have a real chance at finding someone else, who will actually want you for who you are! But if you want him too much, whether you show it by chasing after him like this Ashley girl, or whether you clam up and sit in the corner, afraid to even speak to the guy – either way, you are guaranteed to lose him. Which in my opinion would be no big loss, but you don’t appear to agree,” Madge added dryly.
Ginny pursed her lips and said nothing. Then, “Huh.”
Madge pulled her back by her shoulders to give her a good once-over. Then she grinned. “You get confident,” Madge said, “and I’ll bet you money that this James character will suddenly find you irresistible. And,” she added, her eyes twinkling mischievously, “because I have a lot of faith in you, Ginny, I’m also gonna say that when he does, you’ll suddenly wonder what you ever saw in him in the first place!”
Two months later
Ginny walked out of the locker room, having just changed out of her dance uniform and into a pair of sweat pants and an old t-shirt. Her hair, still sweat-soaked from the football game, was tossed back in a messy bun, and she’d splashed water on her face, rinsing off most of her make-up. Two months earlier, she wouldn’t have been caught dead in public like that, but after the conversation with Madge, something had shifted inside of her. From that point on, instead of running home every night just in case James and Rick came over, she’d stayed late after dance practice and football games to hang out with her classmates. She’d volunteered to be the student council treasurer, and would be up for elections as the VP of her class in another few weeks. She’d started studying for her classes more. There was even another boy in her class who’d begun to catch her eye.
Rick and James still hung out at their house late at night sometimes, but she was rarely around to see them. And the college girls still posted pictures of themselves with James on Facebook, but Ginny didn’t stalk his profile anymore.
She had almost reached her car, oblivious, when she saw a silhouette leaning against it. She didn’t even recognize him at first.
“Hey,” said James, with a little flicker of his chin that was not quite a nod. “Haven’t seen you around in awhile. Whatcha been up to?”
Ginny did feel the familiar flutter of her heart when she realized it was him, and felt the blood rush to her face like before. But it was too dark for him to see it, and it subsided quickly. Just a residual reaction, she reassured herself. “Been busy,” she shrugged, casually.
He arched his eyebrows and looked her up and down. “So I see,” he said, shoving his body away from its perch on her car and positioning himself between her and the driver’s side. “When are you gonna hang out with me and Rick again?”
Ginny arched an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t know I ever ‘hung out’ with you and Rick,” she observed. “I thought it was more like you and Rick hung out, and I sat in the corner.”
“Ha!” James laughed once. “That isn’t how I remember it. Well, listen, how ‘bout you get yourself cleaned up, and you and me’ll go meet up with Rick and some of our lady friends, all right? Been missing you.”
Ginny stared at him for a second. It wasn’t that she hadn’t understood the invitation, or that she’d been terribly surprised by what he’d said… it was more that she was surprised by her reaction to it. James leered at her with a smug expression which told her he interpreted her silence as desire, and this motivated her to find her tongue.
“James,” she said, slowly and very deliberately, “I can honestly say, that is not even the slightest bit appealing!”
The smug expression disappeared from his face, and he was too stunned to object as she brushed past him, got in the car and drove away.
She had never felt so beautiful in her entire life.