Seventh grade was when I ruined any chance I may have had of getting laid during my teens. Seventh grade was when I should have been learning to read the silent cues essential to non-platonic relationship dynamics. Instead, the diligent and concentrated effort I aimed at loathing myself distracted me, putting me officially on the late-bloomer end of the welcome-to-sexy-times-adolescents spectrum. It was the first time in my life somebody liked me -- and I had no idea.
The second year at my private middle school brought three new girls to our grade. Thankfully, this totally changed things. Looking back on it, I should be quietly grateful that the terrible clique I was in was fractured by external forces like the addition of new students and the removal of others. It was a situation that could have made for drama if we’d been left to orchestrate it ourselves. Strangely however, this external resetting seemed to diffuse things. At least temporarily.
I had a friend, two friends, in fact. One was, I’d say, my best friend. Her name was Alanna and she lived in another part of the state. She was arguably the smartest person I’d met my own age. She was also insanely beautiful in that teenaged romantic comedy way -- where you felt like maybe she had no idea this was the case. That’s right, she was the Rachel Leigh Cook of seventh grade and she was my friend. Together we’d sit behind the upper school on the rocks surrounded by trees waiting for our buses or car rides home. We memorized swathes of poetry together. “Quaff oh quaff this fine nepenthe,” still makes me smile. Not because I’m some Poe-obsessed weirdo one step away from like, joining The Following, but because Alanna was the first friend I had who seemed to find words as delicious as I did.
My second friend was my greatest enemy. His name was Jon and even at twelve he was incredibly handsome (said THE CREEPIEST WRITER IN THE WORLD ABOUT A TWELVE YEAR OLD BOY). We rode the bus together, lived in the same neighborhood, liked the same dorky things. I would chatter his ear off on the bus each morning and the poor guy, he listened, even as he was desperate to finish whatever homework he hadn’t managed to get done the night before. He was gawky and sweet and infuriating and he totally liked me and I didn’t get it. Which is classic, because, clearly I was likewise into him, but I didn’t know how to express that. So I didn’t. Instead I publicly declared us mortal enemies.
I had other friends but I was different with them. With Alanna I could come up with funny code names for the boy I loved (We called Pat, Pat The Bunny, which, in hindsight, is not all that clever but then again, I never said cryptography was like, my jam). Alanna, even at twelve, was so very completely herself (or so it seemed to me). I remember one time sitting with some younger girls and chattering mindlessly. Alanna sat in front of us reading. The girls kept harping at her, trying to get her attention. Finally, as polite as can be, she said “I’d really just like to read.”
I’m thirty-one and I still get caught in conversations with strangers on the subway about their potentially imaginary grandchildren. I will never have this girl’s poise.
It’s funny now, as an adult, making friends. We have fewer of them, because we’re no longer so often in social situations where we have no say, no other options. The closest we get as adults to “school friends” are “work friends.” But since we mostly get these as adults, it’s easier to distinguish between what’s real and what’s the byproduct of spending most of your waking hours around people you would not necessarily choose to do so with were the choice yours to make.
While Alanna and I were friends because like recognized like, many of my other school friends and I were buddies because none of us had any say in the matter. It was a very small school, and though there were more girls who joined the ranks in seventh grade, there still weren’t many. I never felt the weight of my own income bracket more. It’s hilarious to think about how much being poor bothered me. Let me make one thing really, really clear: I have never wanted for anything. I don’t know how my parents did it, and I hope I am as lucky, but I never went to bed hungry or cold or afraid I wouldn’t have a home to live in. KUDOS PARENTS.
In seventh grade I didn’t have this perspective. I was a pre-pubescent Jay Gatsby minus all the mad shady, implied Nazi-dealings and eventual murder-suicide ending (#spoilers). I don’t know how actually wealthy my classmates were, but as a I kid I pictured drowning in their McDuck-sized money banks. They all had cool clothes and divorced parents. They wore CK1 and their house smelled like a high-end candle store and weekly maid service. They were gossips. They were disloyal. Drama made them hum with excitement and because we were twelve, oh how they thrived. I recap a lot of different reality shows where women fight and snarl at each other and wear bandage dresses because a girl has got to eat, and the thing that unsettles me most about them is how the main characters all seemed to stop developing emotionally at twelve.
These cool people who I hated and adored and lied to in the hopes of currying favor, they were all dating. Everyone seemed to have a boyfriend, a girlfriend. My mom didn’t believe it, and when a teacher confirmed that this was true it didn’t make her happy with the fact.
She had nothing to worry about. Sex dreams about Ted Danson aside, even when I did manage to try and flirt, I bungled it. Telling a guy you hope he dies might secretly mean “I want our mouths to mash up against each other then show you the part of my backyard I call Terabithia,” but really it just makes you sound like a giant asshole.
“I hate you Jon!” I bellowed at the guy who liked me and who I liked back. It just made him smile. I remember his black jeans and his red button down and his eyes. I remember the school dance where he finally worked up the guts to ask me to dance. Trembling and awkward we stood a mile apart and I watched as my friends cackled with glee to see me dancing with someone I hated.
That same night I danced with the boy I “really” liked and I couldn’t tell you much about it. But Jon’s hands shaking on my waist I remember. I didn’t feel that rush of tender emotion I associated with love, thanks to books. Instead, I felt the bottom of my stomach go crashing to the ground and panic set in. Run, Rebecca, you’ve got to run. I felt sweaty and nervous and I dropped my hands from his shoulders but he didn’t stop holding my waist. I choked out a nervous laugh. I probably made a terribly mean quip.
Last year, he popped up on another friend’s Facebook and before I could think too long about it, I wrote him a note apologizing for being such a giant tool when we were twelve. You know, like a crazy person. I didn’t hear back, but I don’t think he holds a grudge. He accepted my friend request, and it made me happy to see (thanks to my limited stalking of his profile) that he had grown up into the kind of person I would probably be friends with today.
For all I know, he thought it was strange of me to write to him. Maybe he hasn’t thought of me since. It was a long time ago and not everyone holds on to the mistakes they made before they were even teenagers with the kind of obsessive tenacity that I do. Still, I’m glad I did it.
Driving through the neighborhood where I grew up, I can see Jon age twelve riding his bike down the street that connected our blocks. I can see his floppy brown hair and big hands and furrowed brow, the solemn squint that dissolved into a brilliant grin. I think of my awkward dancing and of how I ran away. We never danced again.
I am thinking of my boyfriend’s hands, the notes he scrawls on them. I am thinking of how he can see the runner in me and it scares him. I would track down every boy I hurt and cup their faces and tell them I’m sorry for being afraid if it meant this one boy in front me right now would believe that I am not running again. I’m not twelve anymore. Thank God.