My first real, heart stopping, gut wrenching, nausea inducing crush was on a boy named James. James was a person I hardly knew, and hardly ever came to know. We were in grade eight, thirteen years old. Middle school (in our case, grades six to eight) was an awkward place to be a human.
All of my remaining memories from those years are pretty crap:
- a girl named Bridget approaching me out of nowhere and berated me for wearing my white Kurt Cobain sunglasses—a pair of which, she informed me, she had procured before me—and that I was pathetic in my attempt to copy her;
- a popular girl named Samantha holding forth to anyone who would listen about the tingly sensation experienced when she touched herself “down there”;
- an older boy—admittedly a friend of mine—named Paul hitting me over the head with his tenor saxophone in band class during an uncharacteristic outburst after ‘Mack The Knife’, and the revenge I exacted the next day in which his upper lip made contact with the metal spout of the water fountain and he spun round at me as hissed through a bloody mug, “Fucking Bitch!”, and I fled to Miss Jean’s modern dance class, from which I was promptly extracted by Principal Notte and taken to the office where I had to explain that it was an accident, that I had merely hoped to get his nose wet, and that I was devastated to have hurt my friend;
- my mind wandering in Miss Morgan’s French class as I idly traced the title of the text book—Horizons—onto my note paper, and her discovering it when I’d only gotten as far as HO, and her losing her shit and demanding I see her for detention while she was on bus duty after school, where I went to talk to her while she stood in front of three lines of kids waiting for busses two, three, and five respectively, and when I got there she asked me if I knew what that word meant, and when I tried to deny any foul play she lifted me off the ground by my jacket in front of three lines of kids waiting for busses two, three, and five respectively;
- three rounds of hepatitis B shots;
- the first time changing a pad at school, and making sure to do it during class time to minimize the risk of anyone else being in the bathroom, and coming out of the stall to see my friend Katrina standing there and her saying smugly, “I know what you were doing,” and me feeling embarrassed until she told me that she, too, had her period, and we henceforth became even better friends and strong allies for nearly the duration of our three years in purgatory;
- the keyboarding teacher’s poisonous coffee-and-cigarette breath which in retrospect, although foul, matched his whole recent-divorcé-oversized-plaid-sportsjacket-and-sneakers-and-drooping-moustache chic (to his credit, he forced me out of my shockingly self-destructive habit of using the caps lock key—a quick double-tap of my pinkie—every time I was in need of a single cap);
- having to play the second alto saxophone part of ‘Silent Night’ in the Sidney Santa Claus Parade in December, and my fingers nearly freezing, and then going inside expecting relief but instead encountering the crippling pain of thawing extremities, and then the next year thinking I’d figured it out by cutting the fingertips off my gloves only to discover that that, indeed, did not work and all I was left with was frozen fingies a ruined pair of gloves;
- and a not-very-smart kid named Luke who managed to make my life hell in a number of ways in grade six, so many in fact that he warrants me breaking this list and giving him a few paragraphs of his own.
Luke was a boy blond. He bullied, he acted out in class, he said mean, stupid things to people, and with the bizarre confidence and coolness that is often unfairly bestowed upon the unintelligent—he once made an art project which he hung on the wall of the grade six wing that was a drawing of his Fila-brand high-top, the page emblazoned with the phrase ‘Luke the studly raper’—he was popular and cocky. Much of class time was taken up by his antics, the teacher scolding, negotiating, punishing, ejecting. In seventh grade woodshop each student fashioned a cedar box which, once complete, we varnished, careful—as per the teacher’s suggestion—not to spill any in the interior and ruin the rich deep scent that would be stored in the darkness within forever, or at least until Luke was caught pouring varnish inside each of the drying boxes. He would walk past me saying things like, “Hey Alison, you’re so flat the walls are jealous,” which I of course knew was a ridiculous thing to say, but became tiring nonetheless. I was an easy target, quiet and shy and always on the honour roll, and therefore disliked by—or at least invisible to—many of the school’s cool, masturbating glitterati.
Luke also happened to go the same karate dojo as I did. He was one belt above me (I was yellow with three tips and he was orange) and his class was directly after mine on Wednesday evenings. After class one Wednesday—I can’t recall now if it was the Wednesday that the sensei’s apprentice, Dave, broke wind during an inner thigh stretch, the room full of preteens doing all we could to both remain silent and make sense of an adult doing such a thing in such a public setting, or if it was the Wednesday I finally got to spar with Justin, an overweight child older and larger than I, who would begin giggling each time he was struck and was therefore an ideal opponent—I went downstairs to the coat room and sat down to put my on shoes. I was bent over, tying my laces, when I saw them: Luke’s raper Filas haphazardly flung into a corner. Earlier that day I had been walking beside the school at lunch time when I was clocked in the back of the head by something solid and rough. It was hard enough that it stunned me, and when I turned around I saw Luke running away around the corner of the building. A fist sized rock lay near my feet.
I pulled on my coat, grabbed the sneakers and went out into the night of the parking lot. I made my move right away, knowing my ride would pull up any moment. Beside the dojo was a dense hedge of trees at least ten feet high. One after the other, I lobbed Luke’s shoes into the hedge and trotted down to the curb where my father would be waiting. I felt glib. I felt proud. The entire drive home I relished in imagining the fallout: Luke searching for his shoes, his confusion, his pathetic barefootedness, possible punishment.
At home I changed and ate dinner with my family. Sometime at the end of the meal—in our house this meant the point when everyone had finished eating but me, and I would be sitting alone at the table well beyond the period in which the others could be expected to stay seated and wait—the phone rang. I knew who it would be. I sat and ate a rice grain and waited. After a minute, Mum covered the mouthpiece with her palm and said, “Alison, it’s Luke’s mother. She wants to know if you took Luke’s shoes after karate.” I looked at my mother and said, “Yes, I did. I took them and threw them into the hedge beside the dojo.” I told Mum about the rock at school earlier in the day, and she returned to her call and repeated the information into the phone. That’s all I remember. My parents weren’t angry, and as far as I can recall, from then on the worst was over when it came to that schmo.
Luke, as it happens, was friends with James. One might think that this would have been a deterrent, but it wasn’t and here’s why: James was a hottie. He was tall and, unlike most boys at that age, had developed as quickly as the girls. This meant he was borderline muscular and his voice had dropped (rumour had it that it had broken in grade five but who ever dared confirm such things). I can not remember the first time I saw him, and I while I had many classes, year after year, with the vile Luke, I never had any with James, the very fact of which may have helped fuel my little, barely pubescent fire—the myth of James remained unbroken. The only times I saw him were in passing in the halls or school grounds, or else when I found an inconspicuous vantage point from which to privately observe him capering with his posse. The crush began sometime in grade seven and seemed to last forever. I had no interest in anyone else. In late grade seven a new student joined my class. He’d moved from Ontario with his family and his name was Josh, and during his first weeks I would often look up from my schoolwork to see him look away from me, a deep blush promptly spreading up from the neck of his t-shirt and swallowing his ears, cheeks and forehead. We talked, and then we hung out a few times, but that was all. He eventually became friends with the group of boys that included Luke and James and we didn’t speak much after that.
One of the aforementioned vantage points from which I could observe not only James but also most of the school population and the ways in which their respective dramas unfolded, was in the foyer near the main entrance to the school, where the Lunch Box and the Lunch Box Jr were located. The Lunch Box was a shop run by the student council, of which I was a member. We worked in various shifts throughout the week during lunchtime, and sold vital goods like ice cream sandwiches, skittles, cans of pop, and potato chips. The Lunch Box Jr was on the other side of the foyer. It was a repurposed utility closet whose door had been replaced with a Dutch door and from which we sold cup noodles only. Even with the upper door opened wide, it was a near toxic fuggy hotbox of dehydrated meat smells and MSG, and the rest of the day one’s hair and garments would be infused with a soupy sodium perfume.
It was at the Lunch Box towards the end of grade eight that James and I finally began talking. When I served him, we would exchange a few words, and soon I noticed that he would hang back if I was busy, waiting for me to approach him to take his order for Cool Ranch Doritos or Ketchup chips or whatever. We would talk in snippets about classes, about the Pixies, plans for summer, and once, how underrated the Empire Records soundtrack was. After lunch, I would arrive five or ten minutes late to class—we were permitted time to close up properly—with a pocketful of wine gums or something, and at the earliest opportunity would share my bounty with Katrina and gush to her about the depth of James’ and my having both recently seen Clueless, or whatever else had come up that day.
Nearing the end of grade eight meant finally approaching our liberation from middle school, and the right of passage would be marked with a dance called the Grade Eight Farewell. This in no way meant our cohort would be parting ways; rather, we would all begin the following September at the high school eight hundred and fifty metres up the road, where we would run out our final four years of public education and perhaps to begin seeing each other, for better or worse, in a new light. I vowed to ask James to the Grade Eight Farewell. It was a necessary risk, a move to achieve closure on this ongoing, unrequited crush. My mum bought me a simple, pale green sixties-style shift dress and we found some nail polish to match. I chose a pair of chunky white sandals and the total effect was to my estimation glamorous and adult, a fitting testament to having outgrown the confines of the place. A couple of weeks before the Grade Eight Farewell I heard that James was already going to the Grade Eight Farewell with someone and when, crestfallen, I told Katrina about it, she told me that indeed she was the one with whom James was going to the Grade Eight Farewell.
I don’t really remember much of the Grade Eight Farewell itself, except that I felt good in my dress, and I felt bad when I saw James and Katrina together. She wore a plaid skirt with a baby tee, cardigan and white knee-highs, à la Cher Horowitz. I think I had one dance with James, but that might be a rewritten memory, an intruder that has taken hold within my recollection of the evening in order to help me forget, even a little, the pain of betrayal, the pain of being infatuated with a near stranger, the pain of the senselessness of the prototypical love emotion. In retrospect it seems almost comical, imagining such young children going through such crises.
The following year at high school, the landscape of social relationships continued to mutate, continued to become more and more complicated as we, as awkward humans, learned more about the complexity of our emotions, learned more about what it felt like to hurt and to be hurt. I made new friends in higher grades, learned to deal with future ill-advised crushes, learned to go my own way, and, after falling somewhat deeply for Paul Rudd after multiple rewatchings of Clueless, adopting Cher’s perspective on high school boys and holding it close:
“I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all but I don’t get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and took their greasy hair and covered it up with a backwards cap and like, we’re expected to swoon? I don’t think so.”
[I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, and I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details.]