When Daniel Smith was 15, his peers were swooning over supermodels. But he had someone else on his mind.

By Real Simple
Updated August 07, 2014
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the summer of 1993, the pantheon of women at which the average heterosexual American boy worshipped was pretty well set. This was the golden age of the supermodel, and it was the rare teenage bedroom, or teenage mind, that wasn’t stocked to excess with images of Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, and Paulina Porizkova. By these standards, I was almost average, but not quite. I paid the usual hormonal fealty to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. But that summer my heart had a new, less common mistress: the great English actress Emma Thompson.

It was my great secret. To confess my love for Emma (in my dreams I called her “Emma”; she called me, for reasons I’d rather not pursue, “my little Creamsicle”) would, I was convinced, mean social suicide. I was only 15, after all; conformity was key. How do you explain to your friends that you’re fantasizing about a Cambridge-educated Shakespearean actress old enough to be your mother? Emma Thompson had never danced half-naked in a music video. She’d never modeled Guess jeans. It was an indefensible obsession!

Yet from the moment I saw her, early that June, in the film version of Much Ado About Nothing (which was directed by her then husband, Kenneth Branagh—my bitter rival), I was smitten. Here was a woman more talented, more sophisticated, and more cultured than anyone I’d ever encountered. When, playing the lively Beatrice, she said, “Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?” I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about. All I knew was that I loved her, and that I would never have her. There was a perverse comfort in this. Unattainable as she was, I had nothing to lose. I could worship serenely, safely, from afar.

But the universe wasn’t about to let me off so easy. Later that summer, my family and I went on a two-week vacation to the Delaware shore, and on the very first day I spotted a girl my age who was, in every way, the exact image of Emma Thompson. The resemblance was uncanny. She had the same wavy auburn hair; the same aquiline nose; the same high forehead; the same charming, toothy grin. I even thought I detected, spying on her and her parents, a British accent. It was as if some occult force were saying, “OK, buddy. You want Emma Thompson? Here she is: the closest we can give you. Go for it!”

But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for it. What about the risks? What if young Emma proved a disappointment? What if she was dim-witted or frivolous or mean? What if she had bad breath or back acne or some wicked toenail fungus? What if she rejected me? My love would wither and die. My dream would be shattered.

For the next week, I mulled over what to do. I fretted and frowned and kicked sand into the ocean. When my brother asked me what was wrong, I took a chance and confessed. He laughed in my face. “Emma Thompson?” he said. “But she’s, like, 40!”

In the end, a decision was made for me. One scorching day, young Emma wasn’t at the beach anymore. The universe had taken her away just as surely as it had offered her up, and I retreated back into my solitary fantasy. But it no longer felt as sweet. The dream had lost some of its purity and its pleasure, and my shame shifted from loving someone inappropriate to not taking a shot at loving someone real. I’d let my imagination, and my fear, win out over flesh-and-blood experience. It wasn’t exactly enough to make me tear down my swimsuit calendar, but it has spurred me on ever since.

About the Author

Daniel Smith is the author of the books Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety ($13, bn.com) and Muses, Madmen and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity ($14, bn.com).