when i was in the fourth grade we moved to a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, and my sister and i had to change elementary schools. we weren’t going to get our new house until october, but my mom didn’t want us to switch schools after the year had already begun, so we started at the new elementary school in august.
the new elementary school was scary. painfully shy as i was, i had a hard time making friends. there was one girl in my class, nancy, whom i already knew from bible school, so she and i would sit together at lunch. but nancy didn’t seem to know anyone else, either, so usually it was just the two of us at our table in the cafeteria.
the new elementary school was different, too. at my old school, there wasn’t really a popular crowd. we all had our own groups of friends, sure, but i never felt like i wasn’t cool enough to hang out with one group or another. there was a popular crowd at this new school, though, and i was definitely not a part of it. the popular girls were pretty and tan. their jeans and blouses and purses bore expensive brand names. they had shiny hair and lip gloss, and they were mean.
i have a very vivid memory of being excused from gym class on a day when i wasn’t feeling well. while my classmates played volleyball, i sat in the grass nearby with one of the popular girls, who had broken her foot. she had a bright blue cast on her leg, and her crutches were laying on the grass beside her.
“can i play with your crutches?” i asked.
“no,” she said, glaring at me. i looked away, embarrassed. we were silent for awhile, watching the volleyball. and then:
“what kind of car do your parents drive?” she asked.
the question surprised me. why was she asking me this? did it matter what kind of car we had? i wasn’t sure i even knew. but i had to give her an answer, so i blurted out the only thing i could think of: the name on the back of the car, near the license plate.
“it’s, um, a joe grillo.”
“joe grillo?” she laughed at me. “joe grillo? that’s not a kind of car.”
“then i guess i don’t know what kind it is.”
“you don’t know? how can you not know?”
“i just don’t, okay?” i should have grabbed her crutches and chucked them in a dumpster.
the other strange thing about my new elementary school had to do with boys. at my old school the boys and girls didn’t really get along. the girls got crushes on the boys, and the boys were thoroughly disgusted, but mostly we wanted nothing to do with each other.
it was different at the new school. at the new school, the popular boys hung out with the popular girls all the time. they played games at recess, they teamed up on class projects, they went to one another’s houses after school. they were friends. some of them even dated.
the elementary school dating ritual was pretty silly. i never experienced it firsthand, but i think being boyfriend and girlfriend just meant that you had to hang out at recess. i remember sitting near the swings one afternoon, watching jennifer and drew. they were standing together in the far corner of the playground, talking. drew must have said something funny, because jennifer doubled over with laughter. then she said something, and he laughed, too.
it made me jealous. how was i going to get a boyfriend? for that matter, how did anyone ever get a boyfriend? it appeared impossible; i’d had crushes on boys before, but they were always the boys who made fun of me, or worse, the boys who didn’t know i existed. what if i was forever doomed to like boys who found me repulsive? what if the only boys who ever liked me were repulsive themselves? the odds that someone i liked would just happen to like me back seemed astronomical. in that moment i knew that i’d never find a boyfriend, that i’d be alone for the rest of my life, and that jennifer and drew were going to be together forever.
apparently the idea of compatibility had not yet occurred to me. but last week, when ryan told me that he eats twix bars in the exact same bizarro way that i do, i hugged him so hard that his glasses jabbed me in the eye.