Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Putting the 'hopeless' in 'hopeless romantic'

I don't know what the hell I was thinking.

Having bailed on the Halloween dance after getting slammed at the door by a wave of heat and too much perfume and cologne, I decided I'd try the whole school dance thing again.

On Valentine's Day.

Lost to the mists of time is any logical reason 11-year-old me thought this was a good idea.

Let me draw you a quick sketch:

It's 1986, and I've only been 11 for a few months. I'm short, have shaggy brown hair that tends to get greasy within a few hours of washing it (thanks so much, puberty), and though I know I wanted to dance in theory -- I had a mental list of songs that I'd hear on the radio and think that someday, I'd dance to them with a pretty girl -- I'd never actually danced. I had no idea how.

On top of that, I'm socially retarded, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. I can't read body language that well, and to make matters worse, I'm completely uncoordinated even when I know what I want to do.

And the pickle on the crap sandwich that was preteen alienation: Given the chance, I'd rather draw superheroes or read than play football. As you can imagine, living in a small football-centric town, this didn't make me the slightest bit popular with my peers, except as an easy target.

Maybe it was nothing but morbid curiosity; wanting to see what "normal" kids did. I'd become increasingly aware that I was different from my classmates -- or was at least perceived as such. Maybe I could mimic normal behavior enough to not stick out so much. Who knows?

While I was still blasted by a tangible wave of heat at the multipurpose room door, this time I paid my money, waved off my mom, who had dropped me off, and attended my first school dance.

I was given a slip of paper with a number -- 17 -- on it. This, the chaperon explained, was one of two like numbers. The other belonged to one of the girls attending. Over the course of the dance, I had to try to find my counterpart, which meant I'd have to mingle and ask girls I didn't know (pretty much all of them, really) to dance.

I frowned. I'm shy. Like really shy. Best-case scenario, I got a mad case of the stuttering duhs trying to make small talk. Keep in mind, I hadn't been in town quite a year yet, and I didn't know hardly anyone my age, let alone the older kids, let alone pretty girls with their makeup, their perfume, and in some cases, their boobs.

How was I going to interrupt their good time to make them talk to a short, dorky kid wearing floods?

I immediately needed a drink. I spied a table on the other side of the multipurpose room that had a giant orange jug with a haphazard assortment of cups next to it.

Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was the mystical McDonald's-sponsored orange drink of victory. Devoid of carbonation and watered down more than a cocktail at a cheap casino, it was barely a step above Bug Juice.

Still, it was wet, and it kept me from having to interact with anyone.


I looked up from my drink, wiped the orange moustache off my lip, and saw an eighth-grade couple.


Had I taken his drink? Was I standing in the wrong place? Ohcrapohcrapohcrap.

"What number do you have?"


They looked at each other and smiled.

"That's my girlfriend's number. Trade with me."

"Um," I said, taking another sip of Orange Death to buy time to think of a response. The chaperon said we weren't allowed to swap numbers with anyone. Why he couldn't just dance with her anyway, I didn't know, but he was adamant about wanting to trade.

"Well, who has your number?"

"I don't know; I've just been asking about both of our numbers. C'mon, buddy, help us out, wouldja?"

"Okay," I said, forking over my paper. I didn't want to stand in the way of true love, and I certainly didn't want to get my ass kicked. I got a 9 in place of my 17. The happy couple mumbled thank you and disappeared into the ocean of people.

Meanwhile, I had to find the other number 9.

I wandered among the groups of people while The Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey" played, knocking the crap out of the auditorium's feeble speakers. I tried thinking of ways to find Miss 9 without having to, you know, actually talk to anyone.

I got a tap on the shoulder. I turned around; it was the new Mr. 17, and I had no idea what he wanted.

"Hey, little dude, I found the other 9. I think she's your age."

"Oh yeah?" That sounded promising.

"She's over there," he said, hefting a thumb at the area behind him.

"Okay. Um, thanks," I said.

Well that certainly solved that problem. Maybe it wasn't a bad idea to come to the dance after all. A girl my age had my matching number. Maybe it was one of the cute girls I saw in the hallway every day after lunch.

You all know where this is going, right?

Following "Brass Monkey" was Run-DMC's "You Be Illin'," which, in retrospect, was more than a little fitting. As various people got into the music, the crowds parted, just like in the movies, and without asking, I knew precisely who had the other number 9.

She was standing near the stairs to the stage area, her hands folded together in front of her at the waist: one of the girls in my homeroom class who didn't like me. Not that this distinction narrowed it down much, but still. She must have read it on my face, because she broke out into laughter.

"You have number 9?"

I felt the heat rise above my collar; I was embarrassed, mortified and pissed off like only an 11-year-old social pariah could be.

"Don't worry," I said over the booming bass, "You don't have to dance with me."

As the song ended, I walked away -- before she could say anything else -- and out the door, at which point I was reminded that there were no in-and-out privileges.

I silently nodded my head, afraid that if I tried to talk, my voice would crack.

I trudged to the pay phone, dropped in my dimes and called my mom for a ride, making sure to put on my best voice.

"Hi," I said evenly when my mom answered. "I'm ready. Yeah, it was pretty boring. Okay, thanks. Bye."

Before I parked my carcass on a cement planter to wait for my ride, I peered through the open door of the multipurpose room, seeing everyone dancing and having a good time, and hoping that someday I would fit in.


  1. Aw, what a sweet/sad story! I never fit in at school either, was also painfully shy and socially inept. Now I'm glad I didn't fit in. :)

  2. what a loser.

  3. Oh, Jeff. I have SO been there! Thanks for sharing your story. Look how far you've come... you've got one of the cutest, coolest girls I know! :)