The note was sitting on my chair when I returned from the pencil sharpener — a single piece of loose-leaf, folded into a tight square in the way that fifth grade girls must have invented ages ago, passed down from generation to generation as the best method of relaying illicit communiqués across the panopticon of the elementary classroom.
I was surprisingly calm. I slipped the note into my pocket, sat down, and pulled my phonics workbook out of my desk. I discreetly took the note from my pocket and began the laborious and thrilling process of unfolding it while shielding it from view with my workbook.
In truth, I expected the note to be for someone else. I theorized that it had gotten waylaid on the way to someone cool — Jeff Conrad maybe, or Danny Warner. I was not the kind of kid to receive notes from girls. I wore a retainer, combed my hair only for class pictures, and saw nothing wrong with wearing fluorescent green sweatpants to social events. I had never received any kind of uncoerced communication from any girl, except my mother. And she didn’t count.
At the very least, I expected to make the most of this rare opportunity. Perhaps I would learn juicy secrets about Jeff’s trip to the mall with Kristen Valley, earn some small glimpse into the secret world of the popular.
I managed to get the note open without anyone noticing. The words were written in carefully rendered purple ink, the loops and lines unmistakably feminine. Small hearts adorned the margins.
And, impossibly, at the top: My name.
I stole short glances around the room. Was there another student named Dennis, someone polished and worthy of love, who had somehow evaded my notice all year? I didn’t see anyone who fit this description. The only logical conclusion to draw was that this letter was, indeed, for me.
I tried to read the note slowly, to savor every word, but my heart was racing.
Hi Dennis, it began. What’s going on w/ you? This is Marnie MacAlpine. I wrote this letter to tell you how I feel about you.
Marnie MacAlpine? Could it really be? I tried to wrap my mind around it. Marnie was popular. I mean, she wasn’t in the top tier of popularity, because she wore glasses and liked to do math. But she hung out with the popular girls.
I read the letter two or three times. Sixteen years later, I can still remember the highlights. She had liked me for a long time, she wrote, but was afraid to tell me. She wanted to go to the movies with me sometime. And then the line that has been lodged in my memory ever since, conjuring the taste of Salisbury steaks and chocolate milk stored in half-pint cardboard boxes:
Marnie Wilson — I like that name!
It was all happening so fast. She just told me she liked me, and already she was insinuating marriage!
My head was spinning. For lack of anything else to do, I began to chew on my pencil. Small, yellow splinters of number two wood lodged themselves between my teeth.
I decided I needed to hide the letter, to put it in a place where no one would find it. I grabbed my thermos, which I had emptied during morning snack. I unscrewed the top and dropped the note in.
Only one thing was certain. Even though I had never considered it, had never even been vaguely aware of it, I was now in love with Marnie MacAlpine.
By sheer luck, that day happened to be field day at Hildreth Elementary. I wouldn’t have to sit through hours of class, struggling to focus as Ms. Borden explained the proper method of adding fractions. I would be outside, concentrating on the kickball game or trying not to vomit halfway through the dizzy-bat race. I might also be able to talk to Marnie, or send her some kind of signal to let her know that her feelings were requited.
I already knew that Marnie and I were not on the same team. Ms. Borden had assigned teams the previous afternoon; I was on the blue team, and Marnie on the yellow. But the system of rotating competition meant that my team would be competing against hers at least twice. To top it off, each game ended with forced handshakes between competing teams.
At some point, I would be touching her.
The weather that day was sterling — warm, with just the right amount of clouds to throw periodic shade across the soccer field. To me, the grass seemed unusually green and deep, each weedy buttercup an orange-yellow affirmation. It was a grand cliché, but I didn’t know it then. After all, I had never been in love before.
The first time my team faced off against Marnie’s was for the tug-of-war. In a way, I was relieved. The tug-of-war offered no threat of embarrassment; it was a purely team effort, with no opportunity for individual failure. Earlier, in my haze, I had managed to strike out during the kickball game. Three times I saw the ball rolling toward me, red and full, and it made me think of everything Marnie — her red barrettes, the red frame on her glasses, the post-exertion blush of her cheeks. Before I knew it, the ball was in the catcher’s hands and I had neglected to lift my foot off the ground. On the third pitch I overcompensated, kicking with all my might but missing the ball anyway, landing on my grass-stained ass amid the taunts of my classmates. Even the gym teacher laughed at me, an act for which she undoubtedly earned a special place in phys-ed hell. Luckily, the yellow team was at the other end of the field, engaged in wheelbarrow racing, and Marnie didn’t see a thing.
I don’t remember who won the tug-of-war game that afternoon. My recollection begins after the game, as I lined up behind Mike Regan, my hand still sweaty and stinging from the rope, to shake hands with the yellow team.
I went down the line, trying to avoid the boys that were most likely to spit into their hands. When my palm connected with hers, something happened. Her hand was not like other hands. When we touched, something passed between us, a deep coolness that spiked through my body. For the smallest of moments, our eyes met, and I could see that she felt it too.
There must be a name for this, I thought. Something better than love.
The next few hours were a blur. I went through the motions of running, of jumping, of attempting to sprint from one end of the field to the other while carrying a raw egg on a spoon. Whenever my team was in the vicinity of the yellow team, I sought out Marnie, and watched her just long enough for her to know I was watching her. Even when she wasn’t close to me, I held myself differently. I felt tall and legitimate, equal to the best of them. I noticed my body in a way I never had before, as something that other people noticed. Not just people, but girls. Not just any girl, but Marnie MacAlpine.
My legs were skinny, and my knees stuck out. My arms were flat. How many push-ups could I do? I didn’t know. I would have to start working out, like my older brother; maybe put mousse in my hair.
The last event of the day for my team was the three-legged relay race, and we happened to be running against the yellow team. We were given bandanas to tie around our ankles and paired up at random. My partner was Jeff Conrad.
“Give me that,” Jeff said, grabbing the bandana out of my hands. He was clearly not happy to be partnered with me. “You don’t know how to tie it right. Everyone else tries to cheat by tying it loose, but the trick is to tie it tight. It’s better for balance. Just don’t fall over, or it will hurt like shit.”
I was pretty sure that was the first time I had heard anyone my age use the word shit; what’s more, he said it so flippantly, as if he were saying lump or lunch or Nintendo. Since I would soon be hanging out with Jeff and Kristin on double dates, I told myself I would have to get comfortable with the idea of cursing.
Jeff tied the knot and pulled it at both ends until our ankles were indistinguishable. The cloth bit into my skin.
“Does it hurt?” He asked.
“A little,” I said.
“Good,” he said. It’s supposed to hurt. Just take it like a man.”
“Okay,” I said. “It is tight, though.” I lowered my voice. “Tight like shit.”
“You’re a dork,” he said. “Everyone knows that shit’s not tight.”
As the relay began and the first pairs of runners took off, Jeff and I practiced our strategy.
“I’m going to count out loud,” he said. “One, two. One, two. Every time I say two, you should be stepping with your inside leg.”
“Okay.” I said.
We tried it for half a dozen steps or so, Jeff calling out numbers, me struggling to keep up with him.
“We’re going last,” he said, “so don’t mess up.”
“I won’t,” I said, and I meant it. This was my chance to show Marnie what I was capable of. Not only would I win the race, but I would win it with Jeff Conrad tied to my right ankle. At the finish line, we would high-five each other, maybe even hug. It would be the fifth-grade equivalent of a celebrity endorsement.
As we hobbled up to the starting line — “One, two. One, two.” — our team was leading by half a field. Our teammates rounded the far corner and began their return. Jeff double-checked the knot on the bandana. I looked to the right to see who we would be running against. I was relieved to see it was just a couple of girls: Rani Dhupia and …
There was no time for it to register. Our teammate tapped Jeff on the shoulder and we were off.
“Take it steady,” Jeff told me. “One, two. One, two.”
I focused on the sound of Jeff’s voice. We were three-quarters of the way to the turning point by the time Marnie and Rani started. On the sidelines, our team was cheering its certain victory.
We rounded the corner and started back. I noticed that Rani and Marnie were making good time; they were already halfway to the turning-around point.
Jeff sped up his count: “One two, one two. Let’s go!”
I tried to concentrate, but we were about to pass Rani and Marnie going the other way. I couldn’t help it — I had to look at her. I had to let her know, somehow, that in spite of this situation that fate had leveled upon us, we were still teammates.
Teammates in the field day of the heart.
We passed, and our eyes locked. Marnie’s gaze was fierce, dogged. Her teeth were gritted, her cheeks blazing. At once, I knew what she was asking of me.
Throw the race, she was saying. If you love me as I love you, you will throw this race.
I hesitated, but only briefly. Doing my best to fake imbalance, I threw myself to the ground. Jeff tripped over my leg; my ankle blossomed with heat and hurting.
Jeff was barely on the ground before he was struggling to get on his feet again.
“Get up,” he was yelling at me. “Get up, you loser!”
Marnie and Rani had turned the corner. Seeing us on the ground, they quickened their pace.
I rose slowly to my feet. Jeff wrenched our tied legs around and we set off again to the tempo of his furious count.
On each two count, new and interesting varieties of pain spread upwards through my leg. Approaching the finish line, we were neck and neck with Marnie and Rani. I slowed my pace the smallest fraction. Jeff pulled ahead. At this point, he was basically dragging me forward by my leg.
It was no use. Team Yellow crossed the finish line ahead of us, and we collapsed to the ground, out of breath and injured.
“You are the biggest loser,” Jeff said. “I can’t believe we lost to girls. Shit.”
As I watched Marnie’s teammates cheer and compete to help untie the knot in her bandana, I tried to act disappointed.
The school nurse was unsympathetic.
“There’s always at least one of you. You’d think it was the Olympics out there, the way you guys take it so seriously. It’s just field day, for crying out loud.”
She handed me a ziplock bag full of ice cubes.
“It’s not sprained or anything. Just keep the ice on it and you’ll be fine.”
I limped back to the classroom for dismissal. Students were at their cubbyholes, snapping homework into their variously-themed Trapper Keepers. As I passed Jeff’s cubbyhole, he turned and punched me on the shoulder.
“Loser,” he said.
“I’m not a loser,” I replied. I knew it was true, and I didn’t have to explain it to Jeff Conrad. He had taken one path to coolness, and I had taken another. I didn’t have to say shit or have a favorite football team or comb my hair. Someone loved me anyway.
As I sat at my desk waiting for my bus to be called, I looked over at Marnie. She was standing in the middle of a group of girls, looking upset.
Without warning, she turned and walked up to me. My insides dropped into my legs.
Is she upset because her friends are making fun of me? I wondered. Is she going to declare her feelings for me now, in front of everyone?
“I just wanted you to know …” Marnie’s voice broke. She was struggling to hold back tears. Her next sentence came out all at once.
“I wanted you to know that Kristin wrote that letter to you I didn’t write it I don’t even like you so just throw it away and don’t look at me anymore!”
She turned on her heels and walked away. There was something in my throat, something behind my eyes. I bent over to look inside my desk, pretending to search for something I had forgotten.
On the bus, I made a decision. I would forget about what happened at dismissal. When I got home, over my snack of milk and Oreos, I would casually tell my mother that a girl had told me she liked me. I would show her the note to prove it.
“Whoa,” my mom would say. “Do you like her back?”
“I don’t know,” I would reply. “She’s kind of a loser.”
Later, in my room, I would hide the letter in a secret place — my first letter from a girl. Every now and then, I would take it out and read it. Over time, I would forget that it had been a joke. All that would remain would be that looping purple script, those hearts, that girl who had placed my last name after hers.
As the bus moved homeward, I unscrewed my thermos and shook the letter out onto my lap. It was soggy, soaked through and stained with grape juice that must have been hidden at the bottom of my thermos.
I unfolded the letter, delicately. The words were smudged into nonsense, the hearts unrecognizable.
Fine, I thought. Fine.
I crumpled up the paper and let it drop to the floor. I would give myself until I got home, I told myself.
Then I would stop loving Marnie MacAlpine.