I'm not exactly Miss Popular. I'm not even Miss So-So or Madam OK. The way they treat me at school, you'd think that I wear a nametag that says: Hi, my name is Dorkus McNerd. So what if I'm smart? And stronger than most guys? My acne-ridden face was like bug spray to a mosquito - they backed off pretty quick, but harassed from a distance.
Which brings me back to the note.
Freeman (I refuse to be on first-name terms with him) was one of the mosquitoes. In face, he was more like a horsefly. Instead of the annoying, temporarily uncomfortable comments the girls threw around, Justin launched bombs at me that threatened to tear me apart.
It seemed as though I was the only one who noticed his behavior. All the rest only noticed his hair. He had a blond, swirly mop-top, with bangs that he kept out of his face by quickly twisting his head to the side. He was the Mr. Olympia to everybody in the class, the blue-eyed devil who seemed to silently call, "Come flirt with me! I'm used to it, trust me!" And everybody heeded his beckoning.
Which is why the note surprised me so much.
What would this long-haired beauty want to do with me? I suspected one of the girls had written it, until I saw 'Justin' written in classic style, as only he could write it.
I looked up at him in disbelief when the piece of paper had rested in my hands for a while. He was looking at me intently. When I returned his gaze, he blushed, and made a show of getting out his math homework. I crumpled it and put it in my backpack, and looked at it again after dinner, when I was finished with my homework.
This was just awesome.
There was only one question on my mind: How do I reject him and not be shunned for the rest of my life? Not that I wasn’t already the outcast. But let’s be real - if I rejected Freeman, I would be licking the algae at the bottom of the social ladder for the rest of my life. I weighed my options. Fake a romance with me and Freeman, and maybe be more popular? I chuckled to myself, in spite of my anxiety. No, I was okay with algae. Let Freeman sit on the top rung by himself.
The next day at school, I got my nerve up. Easier said than done, but I managed it. With every ounce of courage I had, I spoke to him. In public.
"We need to talk."
The whole class stared. Dead-on. Right at me. Nerd Girl was talking to Mop-Top. The way their mouths hung open, you'd think that our one-sided conversation was a sign of the apocalypse.
The mosquitoes bit for the rest of the day. I was too busy fighting them off to talk to Freeman. After school, he dragged me out back, where no one could see.
"So?" he asked intently.
"What do you say?" He bit his lip.
I stared at him. "What do you think?"
“I don’t know.”
I was suddenly in a rage. “You? You don’t know? Well, let me tell you what I know, you stupid jerk!” I was screaming at the top of my lungs now. “You have tormented me since sixth grade, made my life miserable – and I never did anything to you, mind you – and suddenly, you’re Mr. I’ll-Just-Sweep-My-Bangs-To-The-Side-And-Give-You-That-Adorable-Face-And-You’ll-Forgive-Me. Well, I am not some bleach-blond caking on my makeup, obsessed with my social status! I am a person, and any person should know that you are not dating material! You’re not even looking material!” I stamped my foot for effect.
He looked at me, gaping.
“Dude, I just….”
“Dude, yourself.” I gave him the ‘Dur-Hur-You’re-An-Idiot’ look and stalked away.
“Wait! Please! Wait!” He ran to me and grabbed me by the back of the collar, and I fell back with a choking sound.
“That’s it. Go ahead and choke the girl you love.” He ignored me.
“Please. Just listen.” He looked at me pleadingly. I stared coldly.
“Look…” he sighed. “You know…that I just teased you to be cool.”
“So mature and impressive, Freeman. Wow.”
His eyes sparked. “What else was I supposed to do? I mean, you know those girls. They would kill me if I showed any hint of interest in you.”
“Thank you. Very flattering.”
“You know it’s true.” He bit his lip anxiously, and hung his head, suddenly quiet, like a little boy who has done something bad. Sighing, he spoke.
“I’ve never told anyone this.” His brow furrowed, and he seemed to take his time.
“At…at my old school….I was the nice kid. I was the smart kid. I was the teacher’s pet.”
I mentally rolled my eyes.
“But I was so unpopular. I got beat up, like, every single day. They threw food at me. Because I wouldn’t insult anybody. I always sat alone.”
I stared. He looked up at me. I stared some more. Really awkward. Was this the same Freeman? I stared some more. Then I spoke:
“Freeman, there is no way that you were ever unpopular. Nuh-uh. You might be a jerk, but not unpopular.”
“It’s true. So….Tess, I know how you feel. Please give me a chance.”
I watched him walk back in.
In the days that followed, my hope that this was all a practical joke quickly subsided.
On Monday, Freeman brought me a box of chocolates.
On Tuesday, a bouquet of flowers showed up at my doorstep, along with a mushy note. I took one to school, stroked it, and smiled at him. He gave me a silly grin. I think ripped the petals off and glared at him. He shook his head and waved his fingers back and forth. I hate that.
On Wednesday, he sat next to me every class. In the middle of math, I got up and asked Jocelyn if she wanted to trade places. She practically knocked her desk over, scrambling to get a chance to sit next to Freeman.
On Thursday, he passed me a poem of how beautiful I was and how he longed to date me. I crumpled it up and threw it in a trashcan.
On Friday, I’d had enough, after he took a picture of himself, photoshopped a picture of me next to him, and given it to me.
“Freeman, you are a stalker. And really weird. And you are not dating me.”
“Please. Call me Justin.”
“Not on your life. Freeman.” I spat out the words.
For the next two months, whether we had substitute teachers, math tests, or half days, rain or shine, Justin sent me some emblem of his undying love (quote en quote from one of his notes). He pursued me doggedly, like I had only seen in movies and fairytales. Like I was Cinderella. But I wasn’t. I was me.
“Why?” I wrote back after getting a note that proclaimed his desire to go steady with me.
The answer totally surprised me. “Because you’re not like everyone else. You’re not all stuck-up.”
“Since when is that a good thing?” I asked.
“The moment you came to this school,” came the reply
The corners of my lips turned ever so slightly upward.
Throughout this one-sided romance, I never heard a word from the girls in my class. Not a peep. Not a rolled eye or a giggle or a whisper. Nada. I guessed they were too green at the gills to say anything. After all, who would tease a girl that Freeman was smitten with? That would be like burning the American flag in the book of unwritten social rules. Some sick-minded part of me enjoyed their jealousy. Even if I wasn’t sick-minded, I would probably enjoy it, for that matter.
Going into the fourth month of Justin’s – I mean, Freeman’s – courtship, I sensed something was off. I couldn’t tell if it was him, or if it was me. Or if it was both of us. The notes and little gifts still came steadily. He still looked longingly at me, like a puppy looks at you for a treat. It had to be me. I did a mental check. Depression? No. Anxiety? Not really, though I did my fair share of worrying for the science fair project. What could it be?
The answer came when another of Justin’s notes came. I actually smiled. A full-fledged smile, radiating warmth. I felt special, singled out, exalted. In every note, he singled out my strengths, pushing away my imperfections. And I liked that. All I had ever known was the swarm of girls that elevated my weaknesses and displayed them. I enjoyed the special attention. That was what was wrong, I realized with a start. I was slipping away from my hate for Justin. Quickly erasing the grin from my lips, I beat myself up.
No! NO! No way is this happening. You are so weak, Tess. You let the same thing happen to you that has happened to every other girl. You are infatuated. You idiot.
I tried desperately to grasp onto the anger, but it slipped out of my fingers. The familiar rage, the one I had always felt, always relished, was gone. The burn of the anger at him and his hair was just gone. I felt a mixture of desperation, frustration, and relief (mostly the first two). Where were my senses in this time of need? How could I even come to this? Unimaginable! But as hard as I tried, the fury would NOT come back, and I couldn’t bring myself to crumple up his next note and throw it away, as I had done before. The spite simply wasn’t there anymore.
That night, my English worksheet sat on my lap, the blanks empty. I was contemplating exactly what had happened to me, that I had actually warmed up to Justin. I didn’t like him, like him – not even close – I scoffed at the thought. But deep inside me, I felt a contradiction arising. I got the feeling that you get right before you go down a steep hill on a roller coaster. My heart skipped a beat; my stomach got twisted in knots. I felt confusion more than anything else. That was it, then.
I was in love with Justin Freeman.
I tried to punish myself. I tried to rewind my thoughts and avoid the realization I had just come to. But every time, I came to the same horrifying, unfamiliar, confusing conclusion. I lay down on my bed just in time to hear the doorbell ring. Hopping down, I floated downstairs, feeling light-headed.
It was Justin.
He stared and I stared. Just the way we had when he told me he’d been a nerd at his old school. I gulped. He blinked. I coughed. He scratched his head. Both of us shuffled our feet awkwardly. The silence went on for about ten seconds, the most uncomfortable of my life. He finally spoke:
He smiled faintly. “So we’re on first-name terms now. Huh. Can I come in?”
I was still staring at him. “Yeah. Okay.”
So what do I say now? Do I tell him straight up? No. Let the guy make the first move. So I did what any nervous, nerdy girl would do: cracked a bad joke.
“Wow. Something finally showed up at my door other than flowers.” I made a dying attempt to chuckle, but it came up my windpipe, and then decided it didn’t want to emerge, and slid back down. I ended up sounding like I was choking. I quickly turned the sound into a cough. “Let’s go into my room.”
We trudged in silence. I flopped onto the bed. He sprawled on the floor. Again, the air was heavy with…nothing at all.
“Tess. You know I like you, right?”
Silence. “Yeah.” Another silence.
“It’s just that…” he sighed. “I’ve always dated the popular girls. And they don’t really care. About me. About anything. They’re just….using me as a status symbol, so they can post pictures of us together on Facebook. But you….you’re so real, so down-to-earth. You always say what you mean. You’re so…” he paused, searching for the right word. He looked up at me.
“…beautiful.” He stared at me, not in a creepy way. Somehow, I knew that he meant something more than ‘beautiful’.
I burst out with the question that was on my mind. “Why me? What is so darn special about me?”
He searched my face.
My mind was suffocating with the suppressed statement that consumed me. How do I tell him? I decided to take the safe route: only tell him halfway.
“Justin, you know that I don’t hate you anymore, right?”
He stood up. “Well, that’s a step forward.” He slowly moved toward me.
God, no. Please don’t kiss me. I forced my neck to stay still, and stiff, and unmoving, but I wanted so badly to lean back, and tell him that I loved him, but that I needed to think it over.
Suddenly he reached for my pillow. Giving it a mighty swing, he whopped me in the arm mightily.
“Ha! You might not say much, but let’s see how you fight!”
Yes! I was given my escape. I grinned. Now that I acknowledged that he wasn’t so bad, I actually let myself have fun. Picking up a big one shaped like a bunny that I’d had since I was four, I advanced toward him menacingly.
“Maybe you just TALK big, fella!” Then the fight began.
We screamed insanely as we dealt each other blows that alternately knocked us down. I battered him mercilessly until I had him on the ground. I stopped to catch my breath, but had no time as he launched a surprise attack.
Finally, the battle culminated in helpless hysterics. My sides ached, both from laughter and being whacked repeatedly. It was the most effortless fun I’d ever had. I sat up on my bed and smiled at Justin, who was curled up on the floor, still chuckling. After we’d finally finished, I walked him to the door.
“Good night, Tess.”
I sighed happily and turned my lips inward between my teeth. I looked down before saying, “Good night, Justin.”
As he turned to leave, I ever so quietly whispered, “I love you.”
He turned around. “What?”
“Nothing.” I closed the door.
* * *
I groaned when I saw the posters for the spring dance.
It had been over a week since the pillow fight with Justin. I still cherished the memory as one of the best, but since I was afraid he’d heard my whispered words as he left, I didn’t dare speak to him much at school. But now, I was one hundred percent sure he’d ask me to go to the dance with him, and what would I say to that? I desperately wanted to say yes, but I was afraid that….that…actually, I wasn’t really sure what I was afraid of. I just was. Some part of the thought of going steady with Justin – even dancing with him – scared me. Let’s be real here. I never, ever, ever had been interested in a boy before. Ever. And now, if I said yes, I would be slow dancing with him. This was uncharted territory.
I was about to cross my fingers and wish that he wouldn’t ask me, but he didn’t give me a chance to even mouth the words. He stopped next to me. I pretended not to notice. He ignored my efforts, and spoke the words I’d been alternately looking forward to and dreading.
“Want to go with me?”
I exhaled sharply and answered before I thought.
“See you there.” He put his arm around my shoulder for a brief moment, then walked off. “ ‘Bye, Tess.”
The day before the dance, I stepped into a mall for the first time in my life. I felt out of place in my worn-out jeans and Androscoggin County Fair t-shirt. All around me were teenagers my age, caking on eyeliner, in painted-on skinny pants and name brand polos. I suddenly felt gawky and awkward. I forced myself not to think about it and headed into the most girly shop I could find, armed with one hundred dollars I had saved from doing odd jobs. I felt intense guilt about spending my hard-earned money on one outfit for one dance, but I reasoned that this was going to be forever in my memory, so if I screwed it up now, it would haunt me for eternity.
Two hours later, I walked out of the changing room, feeling even more gawky and awkward than before. The saleswoman persuaded me that blue was ‘definitely my color’ and gave me a dress to try on. I gulped as I looked in my reflection in the mirror. It was a dark royal blue, strapless, with a satin sash in the middle around the waist. It came down just below the knees, luckily for me because I have the boniest knees you’ll ever find. The strapless part of it was the thing that bothered me the most. Before I tried it on, I was certain that I would have to wear those clear plastic straps to hold it up, but I seemed to be doing okay.
The saleswoman squealed. “Oh, look at you. You’ll have to beat the boys off with a stick. Why, it’s gorgeous on you, you beautiful thing!”
For the first time, I began to notice that I was not, in fact, ugly, as I had always assumed. My chocolate brown hair cascaded in loose, natural curls that framed my face. I took my glasses off and saw expressive hazel eyes framed with thick eyelashes. Sure, I had a zit or two, but isn’t that what they make concealer for? I timidly twirled around, feeling ever so slightly less awkward.
I turned to the woman. “I’ll take it.”
With my plastic bag under my arm, I set out in search of two more things: pretty shoes and some jewelry. I was very much a Converse girl in the way of footwear, and as for jewelry, I always thought extra adornment was unnecessary. After another hour of snooping around, I left the mall proudly, with a pair of silver teardrop earrings and a pair of three-inch silver heels – the first in my life, mind you.
The day of the dance arrived. I spent nearly three hours in front of the mirror, worrying about how I looked. I had neatly dabbed concealer over every blemish, applied the slightest amount of brown eyeliner, and swirled light pink lipstick on. And still, after every flaw was covered, I still felt apprehension twisted in my insides, an ugly knot.
Finally, I tore myself away and walked serenely downstairs. I still felt the extreme apprehension, but I resigned myself to the fact that I was already in this and there was no getting out. The car ride there was excruciatingly slow. I just wanted to be there and get it over with. I stepped out, feeling half like a clown and half like a princess.
My nervousness vanished as my prince arrived.
He stood tall and proud in a black tuxedo. His shoes were well-polished, and he topped his regal appearance. it off with a red silk tie. He looked like he was going to burst with excitement as he held out his hand.
“Shall we enter?” he said cordially.
I took his hand shyly as he led me inside.
Suddenly, I transformed from awkward Nerd Girl to princess. In my soft dress and high heels, holding Justin’s hand, I felt as though I could conquer the world. The excitement washed over me, being able to dance with the boy I really liked.
The first half hour was uneventful. Justin and I mostly just feasted on chips and dip and talked. A lot of talking. It had been a while since we’d caught up on each others’ lives, so we chattered happily along, never taking notice of the girls glancing at their dates, then at Justin, then at their dates.
I hardly noticed the speaker announce that it was time for the slow dance. I didn’t even regard the softer music and the dimmer lights. But Justin did. He asked me the question I knew he’d ask all along.
“Do you want to dance?”
At that instant, I knew I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“Absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, yes!”
Justin’s face shone with joy. “Wow, big words! C’mon.”
He led me to the dance floor. For all my confidence, I had absolutely no idea how to dance. All I’d ever seen was romantic movies, where two love-struck people tried it for the first time – and got it right. I hoped that would happen to me, but even as I wished, I looked at other couples and got the impression that it really wasn’t that hard. All you did is sway and move your feet a little bit.
I waited for Justin to make the first move. Thankfully, he did. He brought himself closer and wrapped his arms around my waist. His touch made me feel more secure, so I even dared to put my arms around his neck. Each second was like a lifetime. Romantic, yes, very. But that wasn’t all of it. This dance, this slow, slow, dance, was a sign to me that I was not Nerd Girl anymore. I was beautiful, worthy to be loved. By a prince, no less.
Back and forth, back and forth we swayed. I grew accustomed to his hands around my waist and edged ever so slightly closer. My feeling of security grew with my love for Justin. I had no idea how to thank him for this redemption of my spirit that he had given me, so I did the only thing I could think of: laid my head on his shoulder as we danced. He didn’t resist at all, and actually seemed to lean in to me.
It was the best night of my life.
I lost track of time in my quiet ecstasy, and when it was over, I was full of joy, and bubbly excitement. I was totally comfortable holding Justin’s hand now, as I walked outside, and kept holding on even when my phone rang. I picked up with my right, leaving my left to clasp Justin’s. I was not even mildly irritated when my mom told me she would be late picking me up – it meant more time with Justin.
After a while, we were close to the last ones there, waiting in the cold night. I started to shiver, the dropping temperature wearing off on me. Justin felt it, and put both arms around my shoulders, rocking soothingly.
“Thank you for tonight, Tess.”
I turned around, startled. His arms now rested on my back, and I felt his breath on my face.
“What? No.” I whispered. “Thank you, Justin. Not just for tonight. For everything.”
We were only ten inches apart. I felt absolutely no fear at being this close. Comfort in his arms was the only thing I felt now. I realized that he was ever so slowly inching toward me. I could see him coming closer now.
Was I scared about what was going to happen next? Yes. Very. But I also knew that the time was right for this to happen. I, too, started inching closer.
We were a hair’s breadth apart.
“You’re not so bad, Freeman,” I said softly, before leaning in that final millimeter and being rewarded by soft contact.
Three seconds, four seconds. Then I leaned back in amazement. Instead of drawing back in shock, as I had always imagined I would do, I wrapped my arms around him, as a thank you for a truly special moment.