Thursday, June 11, 2009

Enter the First Boyfriend

It was fifth grade. It was lunch time. We were lined up and ready to walk back down the hallway to our classrooms after we'd had our fill of breaded chicken cutlets. I was feeling pretty good about myself that day. I was wearing a cute outfit--stretch pants and a long, black cardigan--and my hair was permed into tight curls. The only worry I had was that later I might accidentally manage to lean against the chalkboard and get that unfortunate chalk line across my butt.

But I was about to find new worries, and fast.

Standing across from me was a boy named Pat. Even as a fifth grader he was cocky. He was tough. He had attitude. And suddenly he was talking to me.

"Hey," he said. "Hey, Jess."

I looked up.

"Want to be my girlfriend?" he asked.

My face burned. I was not the type of girl boys paid attention to--especially in so public a place, with all our classmates standing around us. Because of this, I was certain he was making fun of me.

"Stop it," I said. I looked down at my feet.

"Why?" he said. "I mean it. Want to be my girlfriend?"

I was so embarrassed. I wanted to melt, to turn to liquid and spread--puddle-like--across the floor, so people would just leave me alone, step around me, and move on without another thought.

"I don't like to be teased," I said.

"I'm not teasing," he insisted.

I moved my gaze from the floor to the ceiling. I definitely didn't want to look at him, and I definitely didn't want to look at everyone else. I was sure they'd all be pinching the corners of their smiles together, trying to keep from laughing at me, at Pat, who was making a big joke out of asking this not-so-popular, not-so-pretty girl to be his girlfriend.

"I like you," he said.

"Would you be quiet?"

"I really like you," he said. "I think you're fun. Be my girlfriend. Come on."

Finally, I looked at him. I needed to. I needed to see how far he was willing to take this, and if I should do something to get myself out of the situation before the entire class burst into synchronized laughter. I could run to the nurse's office or the bathroom or anywhere that was far from where he was.

But no one was laughing. A few people around us were watching, interested but not quaking with laughter. Everyone else was bored, shifting their weight, looking around, wondering if we were going to play Around-the-World during math.

"You're serious?" I asked.

He nodded. He grinned. "Don't you want to be my girlfriend?" he said. "Don't you like me?"

I liked him fine, and all I ever thought about was a boyfriend--wanting one, getting one, keeping one. At ten years old, I was already woefully behind the popular and pretty girls, the ones who traded popular boyfriends around like collectible cards. Really what I wanted was Ryan as a boyfriend, but there was no way that was going to happen. None. He was dating the most beautiful girl in our class. She had perfect acid-wash jeans and long, permed hair and a stunning collection of scrunchies. I was just the weird girl who liked funny earrings. I had a pair that was pigs fashioned out of small balls and googly eyes. I had a pair that formed a cat--her front paws dangled from the front of my lobe, and the back paws connected in the back of my lobe, so it looked like she was actually crawling through my pierced ear. I had pairs that were shaped like hearts, like moons, like planets, like monkeys. It was my thing. And it was not a thing boys found very appealing.

"Come on," Pat insisted again. "It'll be nice."

I was getting nervous with him talking like that, being so insisting. I didn't really see a way out of it. And while I hadn't woken up that morning longing to make him my boyfriend, the thought of it wasn't the worst thing in the world, so I figured it would be okay to try it. Especially if that made him stop insisting there, in the hall, out in front of everyone.

"Okay," I said. "Fine."

"Okay!" he said. "Now you have to give me your phone number. Because I'm your boyfriend, I have to call you."

So when we got back to class, I scribbled my phone number on a piece of scrap paper and shoved it at him, hoping he'd go away fast. I was still embarrassed. Unlike the popular girls, who marched up and down the halls next to their boyfriends, chatting away like it was the easiest thing in the world to find things to say to them, I didn't know how to act around boys. I didn't know what they wanted to talk about or even what they cared about. And the thought of trying to have a conversation with him in front of my friends seemed horrific.

But I didn't have to worry. He slipped that piece of paper in his pocket and went away. He was my boyfriend, and I wished he would never, ever, ever call me.

The next day was a Saturday, and after I had cleaned my room to my parents' satisfaction--I had to present it for an official review after I thought I was done--I sat down to play Barbies. I was listening to the radio and brewing up some sort of sordid affair between Western Barbie, Malibu Ken, and Meiko, Barbie's Hawaiian friend, when the phone rang. My mother answered in her bedroom, right next door. You could hear the sudden change in her voice. It was surprised.

"Hold on," she said. "I'll get her."

It was for me. My mother leaned around the corner and peered into my room. "There's a boy on the phone for you," she said, opening her eyes wide.

I was combing Western Barbie's hair at that exact moment, and when those words fell from my mother's mouth, I dropped the Barbie like she was diseased.

There was a boy. On the phone. For me. And I was playing Barbies, like some baby, like some infant. I was already embarrassed.

I picked up my phone--see-through; neon--and placed it to my ear. I didn't want to do this. I didn't want to do this. I didn't want to do this. I thought my heart was going to explode.

"Hello?" I said.

"Hi," Pat said. And then he carried on like a boy who was practiced in the art of dating. He asked me how I was--I said I was fine--and what I was doing--I lied and said I was watching TV--and what my plans were for the weekend. We talked a little about school and about some people from our class and about our teachers. And then it was over.

I hung up the phone and sat on my bed, staring down at my bedspread. I felt like an idiot. Like a baby. Like a nerd. I had a boyfriend now, and what was I doing when he called? Playing Barbies. Girls who had boyfriends didn't play Barbies. That wasn't very mature. You could never tell your boyfriend, Hey, listen. Can I call you back? I'm playing Barbies right now. You would be a laughingstock. You would be a freak.

It was in that moment that I realized that I wasn't ready for a boyfriend. There was too much pressure. They were too much work. I thought I'd wanted one--I really did--but there were too many consequences. I knew it would mean I'd have to grow up, stop playing Barbies, start becoming more cool and poised, more like those beautiful popular girls with their acid-wash and scrunchies. And that didn't exactly feel possible.

I was shaking by this point. My mother poked her head in my room and wanted to know who that was. "Was that your boyfriend?" she asked.

And I nodded. I moved back down to the floor and started picking up my Barbies, one by one, and putting them back in their carrying case. I couldn't do it. Not right now. I couldn't go back to playing like nothing had changed. I slid the case away from me, and I sat there for a long time, wondering how I could get myself out of this mess.

How I got myself out of it was easy, eventually. I told Pat I wasn't ready for a boyfriend. I actually said that. I stood in a corner with him and explained that I didn't feel like I was old enough to have a boyfriend. I told him I thought he was real nice, very sweet, but it just wasn't for me yet.

And that was that. There was no scene, no harsh words. Not then at least. Everything went on like normal after our talk, and I eventually could pick up my Barbies again, although I now recognized that my days with them were winding down. And a few months later, when we were in gym class, Pat called me a dog, told me I was disgusting, told me I had hairy, gross legs, and that was the official end of our love affair.


Jason said...

I liked him fine, and all I ever thought about was a boyfriend--wanting one, getting one, keeping one.

Comments about verb tense withheld out of self preservation.

Jess said...

Wow. That's ballsy, Jason. REAL ballsy.

Now you know where it all started.