(I told a version of this story at the Moth Storyslam in Louisville.)
Charlie Brown had his little red-haired girl. I had my little red-haired boy.
And there is my little red-haired boy, dancing with my best friend. At the Valentine’s Day Dance, 1989. They are swaying to that perennial romantic favorite, Love Bites by Def Leppard. We all seventh graders at Our Lady of Perpetual Miseries*.
I sit there on metal folding chair in the darkened gymnasium of Our Lady of Perpetual Miseries*, bathed in the disco lights, trying not to cry. I’m wearing a red three-tiered skirt with tiny white hearts on it, a wide white belt with tiny red hearts on it, and a white t-shirt complete with shoulder pads and red grosgrain ribbon bows. My mother had this thing about having clothing made for me and then insisting I wear it, no matter what “everybody else is wearing.” And I suddenly feel very over dressed and even more self-conscious than I usually do. If that’s possible because I’m the most self-conscious person I know.
My friend knows that I like him, the red-haired boy, but I don’t think he knows I’m alive and he’d asked her to dance, not me, so what could she say?
See, I carried a torch for the little red-haired boy for years. Our Lady of Perpetual Miseries* is Kindergarten to eighth grade, and many of us did all nine years there.
My affection started in first grade. In our classroom, there was a birthday display for the whole class – a cartoonish tree and each branch was labeled with a different month. And on each branch gathered cartoonish birds with the names of the kids whose birthdays were in that month. There on the July branch, our fat little birds sat. They were yellow and wore sunglasses and held fruity-looking drinks.
I learned his birthday is the day after mine, the day I was actually due, but thanks to my mother’s dedication to militant punctuality, I showed up early. How I wish I’d ignored her and shared a birthday with the little red-haired boy! Maybe he would have noticed me then…
But sitting there in the dark gym, trying not to cry, I was simply reminded of my place in the pecking order at Our Lady of Perpetual Miseries*. That is to say, last rung. Bottom of the barrel. Not cool.
These days it’s cool to be bookish and nerdy, to wear custom-made clothes and have a big vocabulary. We call it being “quirky.” Zooey Deschanel has made a career of this.
But back then, it was just called “weird.” I was just a weird kid. Bookish, nerdy, perpetually overdressed and never in the “right” clothes. Nobody knew this then, but I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Re-reading my diaries from those years is heartbreaking. The girl in those pages is scared of being crazy, she’s constantly uncomfortable in her own mind, and she is desperate for help.
These days, we would call what happened to me in grade school “bullying.” There would be interventions and talking tos. But back then, adults would just roll their eyes and say, “Little girls are so mean. Just ignore them. They’ll go away.” Only one of those things is actually true. Little girls are mean. The other things are not true. No amount of ignoring, holding one’s head high, or defending one’s self ever makes a bit of difference.
By seventh grade, things do level out a little bit, but I am still over the bullshit.
In eighth grade, the year after that terrible dance, the thought of four more years with these people makes me want to kill myself. I apply to an urban, public, magnet school and I get in. I won’t go to dances with them, I won’t play sports against their teams, I will hardly see them after school ends. What a weight is lifted! I suddenly have a license to give exactly zero fucks about the school or the people in it…except where the little red-haired boy was concerned.
Now, you might remember that who likes whom is of UTMOST importance to people of certain ages. Despite the fact that I carried the torch for the little red-haired boy, NO ONE COULD KNOW, lest that fact be used to torment me even further than they did. And I knew he didn’t even notice me so what was the point?
It is perhaps my first improv performance when someone asks me, “Who do you like?” And I respond, casually, immediately, offhandedly, “Bob.”
Bob? There’s no Bob here. No Bobbies or Robbies, no Roberts or Robs, even. Who is Bob?
Suddenly…strange things happen. Maybe it is the secret crush, or the lack of fucks given, or my acceptance to the city school. People start…being nice to me.
I admit that it is glorious. Like the day one of the legit popular girls brings me a page from Seventeen magazine that said in huge letters, “All About Bob.” It was about the haircut. But she says, “Because you like Bob!” I hang it in my locker. Because that is what you do when you are popular.
I become the talk of the lunch table but not in a bad way. WHO IS BOB? Public school in the city?? Whaa…?
For the last months of school this goes on. I promise I will tell the girls at our graduation party, to reveal the name of the mystery man. But on the caveat that no one tells the boys. Because that’s how it works. We’re friends, we keep secrets.
It’s the end of the night, the end of the graduation party, and the DJ is packing up. My mom is outside. The girls gather around me like a flock of Laura Ashley-patterned sheep. Here it is. My moment.
When I say his name, and I do say it, I want someone to whisper, “But he likes you, too!” And then I could swan across the empty dance floor and the little red haired boy can kiss me.
But nobody says anything and all. They sort of look at each other. And all I can do it watch this stupid blonde girl from my class who always has retainers and spits when she talks, as she breaks the unspoken rules of sisterhood and makes a beeline for the group of boys gathered across the room. She’s going to tell them.
In that breath, it all falls away. That illusion shatters. The idea of popularity, of not giving a fuck. Of feeling pretty in my white graduation dress. The idea that someone like that little red-haired boy might like me back.
I run outside, crawl in my mother’s Buick, demand to go home.
I have no idea what he said when he heard he was Bob. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t delighted.
I saw some of my classmates from time to time through high school, but really just at church. I threw myself into making friends at my new school and became one of those people for whom high school was amazing and fun.
I still change the radio channel if “Love Bites” comes on.
*Not it’s real name. But that would be funny if it was a real place.