Thursday, October 25, 2007

Under the Table

When I was in middle school, I was somehow conned into dating a boy. I was not happy about this, which could be considered strange, especially when you remember how much whining I have done in my life about not having a boyfriend. But this boy wasn't the boy I wanted. He wasn't blond-haired Ryan McLean, football player, baggy jeans-wearer. Nope. The boy I was conned into dating was a spectacled half-nerd who, it was rumored, had once masturbated underneath a lunch table in the cafeteria. When he would walk by the popular boys during lunch, the popular boys would ball their hands into fists and sneak them under the table and make a big thumping racket. Oh! Oh! Oh! they would chant, rolling their eyes back into their heads, pretending to pitch toward ecstasy.

For a span of three days, this boy would become my boyfriend.

How it happened is still a little beyond me. Things just lined up that way. We were on the verge of a big dance that weekend, and I was, as usual, dateless. I was usually okay with that, but this dance was the Valentine's Day dance, and I was sick to death of being the girl who had to scoot to the sidelines after the DJ transitioned from House of Pain into Boyz II Men.

I also ended up with this boy because we knew him. A year before, he'd briefly dated one of our friends--this was prior to the whole masturbating under the table business--and she gave him a good recommendation. He'd been tested and approved. He was a good starter boyfriend because he was nice and non-threatening. Unlike the boys I had a crush on--the most popular, most beautiful boys at school--he wouldn't expect you to let him touch your chest on the first date, to put his hands down your pants on the third. Those were the things we heard the popular people were doing, but we weren't doing those things. We had no interest in doing those things for awhile. We had other things to worry about. We were busy wondering when was the first appropriate moment to hold hands and when our first kisses would happen.

Most of the dating business between me and this boy was conducted via notes written by my friends in the lunchroom. They lobbied for me, even if I wasn't yet sure it was exactly what I wanted. But by the end of the forty-minutes we had to swallow our bologna sandwiches and Little Debbie snacks, this boy and I were boyfriend and girlfriend. We were going to go to the dance together. I would finally have someone to hang on to during all the best slow songs.

But there was an awful, awful part of me that kept thinking This is a problem! This is a disaster! After all, I couldn't quite stop thinking about the popular kids taunting this boy as he walked past their table with his eyes facing forward, his hands holding onto his tray so tight his knuckles turned white. I couldn't get the noise of their pounding on the underside of the table to stop rattling around my head. There was a part of me that was very embarrassed for him and embarrassed for myself, because now I was his girl.

This embarrassment ate at me for the rest of Friday and all of Saturday, until it was time for the dance, which I went to with a heavy heart. My insides were awash with a complicated tonic of emotion. I was still embarrassed, yes, and on several levels, but now I was also terrified because I was a real-life girlfriend with a real-life date to go on that would have real-life consequences. I was worried that I would disappoint him. I thought maybe I'd be dull, that he'd spend most of his time wishing he were home watching old Star Trek episodes or some nature program about lemurs.

I wasn't sure how I was going to react to all the boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. I'd never been kissed, and I'd never had my hand held. I'd had a boyfriend once before, briefly, when I was in fifth grade, and that was just baby stuff. This, now, was something bigger than all that. Fifth graders weren't allowed to go to dances and worry about the things you needed to worry about at dances (Does my hair look okay? Is there something in my nose? Does my breath smell okay? Are my hands clammy?). But I had a few years on the girl I'd been back at the beginning of middle school, and now the stakes were so, so high. Impossibly high. So high that I freaked. I lost it. Completely lost it.

I was a wreck at the dance. I found it difficult to figure out the equation for how much time you were supposed to spend with your girl friends and how much time you were supposed to spend with your boyfriend. Was I expected to keep him company the whole time? If I wasn't, where would he go in the meantime? Who would he hang out with? Did I have to go get him when a slow song came on, or would he come get me? And where exactly were we going to dance? Did we dance by his group of friends or by mine? How did all of this get worked out?

When it came time to actually dance with him, I was the most uncomfortable that I'd ever been. More uncomfortable than those tenuous few moments before you're stuck with a needle at the doctor's office. Those moments are thick with awfulness--after all, you know you're about to be pinched with a sharp object, and there's nothing you can do but sit there and wait for the doctor to just get on with it. And as much as you prepare yourself, the sting still wells up when the metal bites through your skin. Dancing with a boy was somehow worse than all that. I knew what was expected of me--close contact and appropriate hand placement--but when it came time to demonstrate that I wasn't a social moron who didn't know what to do with a boy now that she had one, I failed miserably.

The boy seemed much more confident than I did. He had no problem with hand placement and close dancing. In fact, he seemed downright comfy with it, which I attributed to his past dating history with my friend. She had an older sister, after all, and that older sister had probably taught her how these things went and then my friend, through her example, taught her boyfriend who was now my boyfriend.

While we were dancing, I could see some of my friends standing along the edge of the gym, giving me thumbs-ups and sipping punch. I wanted nothing more than to be sipping punch with them, but I faked a smile and let the boy spin me in quick-quick circles. Stealthily, some of my other friends--the ones who were coupled up--nudged their dates closer and closer to me and my boyfriend so that now we were all dancing in close proximity. Every time our passes lined up and I could see their faces, they gave me eyebrow-spiked looks of expectation. Their looks seemed to say, Yeah? Yeah? See? Fun, isn't it?

I wanted to tell them no, it wasn't fun at all.

Things got complicated at the end of the dance. The assistant principal had announced pretty early on that we would be able to vote for the most popular couple at the dance. The names of all the couples in attendance had been written on construction paper hearts and stuck to the bleachers that wrapped around the perimeter of the gym. I knew there was no way my boyfriend and I were going to be voted Most Popular Couple because the award, of course, would go to someone popular, someone like The Love of My Life, Ryan McLean, but probably not even him. Most likely, it would go to someone older, one of the popular, sparkling, straight-toothed eighth grade couples. But I was okay with that. I was more than okay with that. Less attention that was being paid to me and my new boyfriend was for the best. The likelihood of masturbation jokes was nil if we flew under the radar.

But we didn't. A group of popular boys found our heart and, while we were dancing near the bleachers where the heart proclaiming our couplehood was taped, the popular boys started whistling and pointing at us, then our heart. "Ooooh!" they shrieked. "Oooooh, look at them!" They made obscene gestures with their hands. "Jesss!" they said. "Jess has a booooyfriend! Oooooh! Have you seen him do this, Jess?" And then there were more obscene hand gestures.

"Ignore them," my date said.

"I am," I said, but I wasn't. Instead, I was burning up inside--but for all the wrong reasons. I wasn't enraged for my boyfriend who, really, was just so nice and kind and sweet and didn't in any way deserve to be tortured the way they were torturing him, but because I was embarrassed to be seen with him and his dirty, dirty hands on my hips. I wanted to stop dancing and fling his hands off my body and then run out the doors into the night. I wanted to run the whole way home, along the dark country roads where no one would be able to see what a horrible, awful girl I was.

But I didn't do any of that. Instead, I stayed at my boyfriend's side and danced with him to all the slow songs. And some of the fast songs, too. He got particularly excited when the DJ played American Pie. He whirled me around in giant, loopy circles, and he twirled me until I was dizzy. It was clear he was having a good time with me. He enjoyed dancing with me. He wanted to keep me spinning until I was breathless and having as good a time as he was. And he was trying just so hard--smiling so big and so much. My heart broke in eighty different pieces as Don McLean scaled through the upbeat section of the song and then bottomed back into the syrupy-slow section. My boyfriend leaned against me, catching his breath. His heart beat a million miles a minute against mine, and that's when I knew I was a wretched girl because I would go home and not return his calls, because I would send someone to break up with him on Monday morning, because I couldn't be his girlfriend. I just cared too much about what other people would think.

Later, my boyfriend plucked our heart from the hall and handed it to me. He walked me to my father's station wagon and said goodnight. He said he'd call me tomorrow, and I said, "Okay." The next morning when I woke up I would instruct my parents to tell any boy that called--as if there were going to be many--that I wasn't feeling well and couldn't talk. For the rest of the day I sat around convincing myself I didn't feel well. I convinced myself so perfectly that I actually didn't feel well, and when I thought about going to school the next day I gagged and couldn't stop. The idea of having to go straight to art class, where he and I sat across from each other, and having to either pretend like nothing had happened (all while making plans for one of my friends to break the bad news to him later) or having to pretend like I didn't even know him broke my heart. And my stomach. And my head. I felt like hell.

Luckily, my parents were savvy enough to know that something was wrong with me--even if they didn't exactly believe I was sick-sick. When I woke up the next morning and asked them if I could stay home from school for the day--in the most pitiful and quivering of voices, of course--they ignored the fact that I looked fine and didn't have a fever or any other symptom of illness. They said yes, yes, I could stay home from school. They told me I should take it easy and relax and get better.

But I was convinced there was no better for me. I was convinced I was the world's worst girl, the most evil and foul thing that ever lived. And I continued to feel that even after I passed the boy a note in the next day's art class, a note which told him I thought we were better off as friends. The boy read that note quietly, then folded it in a precise square and stuck it in his pocket. And that was that. He didn't look at me for the rest of the class, the day, the week, the year. By the time we got to high school, he had moved away and was no longer in our class.

But I haven't forgotten him. In fact, the other day I couldn't help myself from slipping back into remembering our brief three day romance, the fling I fouled up from the start. "American Pie" came on the radio as I was driving to Topsham to shop for pillows and curtains and even some shoes for my new life. As the golden-golden leaves flashed by outside my window, I couldn't help but feel his warm and sure hands on my waist. He hadn't known that in a few days I would take him down easily, just by writing a few words on some notebook paper. But while my car cut through the fields and woods of Maine, I was spinning, spinning, spinning in my memory, spinning in his arms, spinning away from him more and more with each second.

Today I looked to see if there was some snippet of information about him on the internet, if there were some small anecdote that would tell me where he was, what he was doing, if he was okay. I found several people with his name, but nothing that could tell me definitively one of them was actually him. Guys who share his name are out there right now doing all sorts of jobs. They are owning asphalt companies and managing banks. They are fishing boat captains and architects. They are working at publishing houses and sub shops. And one of them could be him. I just hope that wherever he is and whatever he's done with himself--well, I hope it's all good, and--really--I hope that he doesn't remember me and what I did to him because it was mean, it was awful, it was ugly, it was everything I never wanted to be or do.


Diana said...

I love love love Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Especially the Fudge Rounds. Yum and yum.

Jess said...

For me, it was Star Crunches or Swiss Cake Rolls.

You cannot beat a frozen Swiss Cake Roll. No, you just cannot.

Jason said...

Oatmeal Creme Pies. OATMEAL CREME PIES!

That is all.

Joe said...

Awesome piece of writing.

Jess said...

Oatmeal cream pies are another one of the best things in the world. How do they stay so moist?

Also, thanks, Joe :)