Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.
Sometimes I caught her looking at me in class. Unfamiliar with the reasons why a girl might do such a thing but simultaneously alarmed by what those reasons might have been, I tried to ignore her. As the year went on though, this proved to be impossible. She was friends with Jill, a loud blonde girl that I hated and eroticized at the same time, and Jill gradually lent Nedelia more and more of her assertiveness. Soon the three of us were talking regularly. Still, I tried my best to basically show disdain for both of them. Despite all the bragging that went on about sex amongst the sixth-grade boys, to be discovered actually “liking” a girl was tantamount to suicide. Plus, it always felt like Nedelia and Jill were teasing me—but in a strange, less-hostile-but-infinitely-more-intimidating way than the boys. Even more strangely, it was almost as if I enjoyed it. That is, until one day they took things too far.
It was toward the end of the year—our last one together before making the cosmic shift to middle school—and a group of people were talking about where everyone was headed next year. I volunteered nothing, but eventually someone asked me.
“Monroe,” I said simply. I didn’t know much about the school—just that it was big and close enough to my house that I wouldn’t need to take a bus. Everyone seemed to find the thought of me going there hilarious.
“You’re going to get beat up … a lot,” Nedelia said. Jill and a few others nodded and laughed. Annoyed, I demanded to know why. Nedelia was quiet for a moment, like maybe she shouldn’t say.
“You have very red lips,” she said finally. “And the top one is really curvy—like a girl’s.”
The group exploded into guffaws. I could feel my face growing red to match the girlish hue of my lips. My fists clenched and I gaped at her. No words came out.
For days, I stewed at my desk. I should have said something about her mustache, I fumed. It would have been so easy! But I said nothing. What’s worse, now Nedelia and Jill were more brazen than ever. It seemed like every time I glanced over at them, they were looking at me and giggling. It was maddening.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. Mrs. MacMillan was at the front of the class writing on the chalkboard. Nedelia and Jill were a few rows in front of me, passing notes to each other whenever Mrs. MacMillan turned her back. Occasionally, they glanced back at me. Now I was enraged. Whispering is bad enough—but passing notes! There is a limit to how much a man—even a very small one with curvy red lips—can take. My hand shot into the air and I asked permission to go to the bathroom. Mrs. MacMillan agreed distractedly, waving at me—“Yes, yes, of course”—then turned back to the chalkboard. Apparently she was scribbling the world’s most interesting arithmetic problem. This was my chance. As I walked down the aisle past Jill’s desk, I snatched the note that Nedelia had just given her out of Jill’s hand and bolted toward the door.
Alone in the hallway, my heart was pounding. I hurried to the boys’ bathroom, imagining that Jill and Nedelia were about to come flying after me. Safe inside, I locked myself in a stall. I felt as if I was committing a terrible crime—but I had to know what the note said. On a small corner of loose-leaf paper that had been folded several times, in curly, girlish script that probably reminded her of my lips, Nedelia had written:
Robert has a tiny butt.
Shocked, I tore the paper into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet.
A few days later, after I’d had some time to process what had happened, my friend Phil and I were sitting in the car, waiting for my father to emerge from the house. (Almost certainly, he had misplaced his keys.) Phil was the first of my friends that I ever really “talked about girls” with.
“I think Nedelia likes me,” I said cautiously. “She and Jill write notes about me.”
Already sarcastic in a way that I wouldn’t become until years later, Phil looked over at me and said, “Wow. Congratulations. You know she’s got a mustache right?” Then, after a thoughtful pause, he said, “Jill looks okay though. I mean, I’d tap that.”
“Oh no—I wasn’t saying I like her! I was just saying … you know?”
Mercifully, Phil grunted in agreement. Finishing the thought aloud would have been too shameful. I just thought it was amazing that a girl liked me at all.