It really wasn’t until the fourth grade at Crowell Elementary that Doug began to pay attention to girls. Until that point they had been more or less something to put up with, if anything. There were always girls his age around the house growing up; his mother, after all, ran a full-time daycare out of their home. And at his father’s place on the weekends he had his stepsister Jaime and her friends to deal with, all just a couple years younger than himself.
Romantically speaking, though, none of these counted. It wasn’t until he laid eyes on the new girl at school, Melissa, that Doug could truthfully tell himself he had found love, at long last. Not that his affections were in any way returned, though. Indeed, he was fairly certain she was unaware of his existence. This inconvenience, though, he was determined to remedy.
For a new kid, Doug marveled at just how quickly Melissa was able to make friends. It seemed within weeks of her transfer from some town he’d never heard of, she had an entire retinue of girls, not just to play with, but to do her bidding. It wasn’t uncommon to see one of her friends make extra trips to the cafeteria to fetch her whatever entree or dessert she fancied. On more than one occasion, Doug even witnessed a few girls giving up items from their bag lunches. These were usually filled with such coveted items one could never get in the cafeteria; treasures like Pop Tarts and Fruit Rollups. Melissa would take a little of it all. The funny thing was, though, he rarely witnessed her actually eating any of it. She’d stick the booty in her backpack and, as far as he could tell, there it would remain the rest of the day.
Doug was bewitched.
Despite being a Crowell Cougar for only a few short months, Melissa had already far surpassed Doug in popularity. Not that this was a tremendous feat in itself; he was largely considered a nerd among all but a few students who were, naturally, just as (or more so) nerdy than himself. This lowly status was largely because he spent much of his time with his nose stuck in books. The cool kids, such as his nemesis Garret, were good at football, baseball, boring stuff like that. When they’d be out throwing a ball around, he’d be in the library. Needless to say, this situation did not work any wonders for his social life.
So Doug decided, with Melissa as his objective, not to stop reading, but rather to do so on the sly. Going to the library was now out of the question. He needed to be spotted, if not on the field, at least on the playground during recess. It was crucial he at least appear as if he fitted in with the majority of other boys.
This charade turned out to be much easier said than done. For one thing, aside from his own small group of fellow nerds, nobody had any interest in even speaking with him, much less becoming his friend. The sad fact was that nobody had any interest in getting to know anyone who wasn’t considered cool.
Doug could remember a time when he had been cool. It had been way back in the second grade when his father had visited the school in his police uniform for a demonstration during Bring Your Parent to School Day. In the immediate aftermath of his father’s impressive display, Doug’s star had burned bright but it had also burned brief. Within just two weeks, the kids had more or less forgotten about his dad’s police uniform, gun, and badge. Accordingly, he had been promptly returned to nerd status. Truth be told, though, he hadn’t really enjoyed this newfound esteem, short as it was. He had discovered that being popular involved talking to a lot of people you’d really rather not, being extra attentive about how you looked, taking care about such things as what clothes you wore or how you styled your hair. You even had to be ever conscious about how you talked, what you talked about, who you were seen with, and all kinds of stuff that, as far as Doug was concerned, didn’t really amount to much of a pay off, considering the amount of effort involved. His friends might be dorky but they’d never turn on him over something as stupid as the ever-shifting winds of fads, trends, and overall ranking in popularity among his peers.
Still, unlike before, he now had a higher purpose, one with beautiful green eyes and long brown hair. So Doug set about trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the girl he was certain he loved. Someday, if all went well, he might even muster enough nerve to actually speak with her. But, before that milestone, he had to first build up his image. He didn’t kid himself that this would in any way be an easy feat. But, if nothing else, he was stubborn.
Unfortunately, Doug had not anticipated the difficulty involved in fooling this girl. It turned out to be an extremely delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he had to stand near a group of popular kids, placing himself just near enough to seem as if he were part of the conversation if viewed from a distance but far enough away that the boys would take no notice of his lurking presence. Had anyone taken the time to actually scrutinize his behavior, the entire ruse would crumble and he would come off a complete and total jackass. Caution and diligence were of utmost importance.
So it was that day after day, during every recess and lunch period, Doug would strategically place himself just close enough to Garret and his friends, all popular boys who, in reality, he had nothing in common with. From what he could tell, the only subjects these buffoons were interested in were sports and girls. Sure, he could relate to the latter (that was, after all, the entire purpose of his charade) but not in the way they did. It was as if every female on the school grounds was only as good as their physical appearance and/or flirtatiousness. If they had too many freckles, or a mouth full of braces, forget about it. If they didn’t blush and giggle when addressed, they were scarcely worth mentioning and, at times, even ridiculed.
Doug was, of course, not oblivious to the fact that his love for Melissa was based solely on her physical appearance. He had nothing else to go on. She was a grade higher than him and thus, to his profound frustration, not in a single one of his classes. In fact, he’d only heard her speak a small handful of times when he’d ‘happened’ to pass her in the hall. Despite knowing little to nothing about her, though, Doug didn’t regard the girl as simply a pair of legs to be ogled at by the likes of Garret and his pack of cretins. He had genuine curiosity about her as a person. What was her favorite cereal, movie, TV show (was she a Three’s Company kind of girl or did she prefer less risqué fare such as Alf)? There was so much to know, to learn. Sure, he was attracted to her physically, but at the same time was confident there was so much more beneath the surface for anyone possessing the patience and willpower to find out. He knew without a shred of doubt that he was that person. Once she noticed he was more or less a normal kid, maybe even a marginally popular one, all that would be left to do was strike up a conversation.
Simple. In theory, at least.
Doug soon discovered that the single largest obstacle in winning over Melissa was getting her to even look in his general direction. His ruse to appear popular was not having the desired effect. The reason soon became clear. Unlike most other girls at school, she didn’t seem at all impressed with Garret and his circle of dumb friends. Therefore, she wasn’t constantly stealing glimpses of him and his group. This negated Doug’s entire strategy of hanging around on the periphery of their social circle. With no apparent interest in them, he rarely even appeared in her line of sight. Clearly, a new tactic to gain her attention was in order, something bolder.
Soon after abandoning his make-believe friendship scheme with Garret and crew, a new plan began to form in Doug’s mind. His new strategy involved ingratiating himself with those girls he knew to be friends of Melissa. Eventually, if he played his cards right, their paths would cross by way of simply knowing many of the same people. They would be brought together by what would seem, to the outside eye, an inevitable encounter between two people with mutual friends or acquaintances.
It seemed like a solid enough plan, at least in theory. Unfortunately, though, the execution proved much more problematic. For one thing, all of Melissa’s friends were, of course, girls. This wouldn’t be a major obstacle in and of itself if not for the fact that girls, generally speaking, had no interest in him whatsoever. And, to complicate matters, those girls Melissa did know were among the most obnoxious and snooty of the entire student body at Crowell Elementary.
Regardless, without a better plan, he was determined to see this one through. The first stage would be to cut into the lunch line at an opportune moment, placing himself directly behind a girl he knew to be in Melissa’s circle. Ideally, he would do this toward the end of the line. The reason for this was twofold. First, the line fanned out toward the rear, making it easier to ease himself into position without drawing undue attention. Second, doing so would provide more time to work his charm. This latter point was of particular importance. Once the line reached the point where they retrieved their food trays, all speaking would, by necessity, cease. They would be preoccupied with the lunch lady, choosing their veggies and mystery meat from the limited selection. Once the food had been plopped onto their trays, any social interaction was finished and they would head to their respective tables.
Any attempt to continue the conversation beyond this point would be fruitless. The girl would head to her table and he would head to his. It was that simple. Should he try and sit at the girl’s table, he would make a spectacle of himself, one that would be a terrible blow to the image he was trying to build. Though he was never sure why, a boy sitting alone amongst girls was just something that was just not done. It would be tantamount to social suicide.
This self-imposed segregation of the sexes wasn’t a problem, however, provided the lunch line was long enough to give him the time needed to strike up a friendly conversation, one he could build on over time, ultimately ingratiating himself with Melissa’s different friends, slowly infiltrating her social circle. Fortunately, the lunch line was always long. Before this Melissa business, this had always been an annoyance. Now, it was an asset.
Or so he believed.
His first mark, a stuck up little blond with enormous hair named Megan, stood, not at the very end of the line, but fairly close. She was one of Melissa’s lesser acquaintances. Admittedly, not ideal. Still, just because she wasn’t privy to the coveted inner circle, she had access to those who did. It would have to do.
He approached at a casual stroll, hands stuffed in his pockets, doing his level best to put on a careless air. Silent as a ninja, he slipped in line behind Megan. Behind him stood Todd, an insecure red head who, like himself, was somewhat of a loner. Doug knew such a kid would be less apt to protest and, fortunately, in this case, he was correct. Aside from a frown and disdainful shake of the head, Todd kept his mouth shut. The few kids further back didn’t seem to notice that their line had just increased by one.
So far, so good. His luck was holding.
Ever aware of his limited time to work, Doug dove right in. “Hey, what’s up Megan,” he began, with a forced nonchalance that made him feel ill. She looked over her shoulder at him, one eyebrow cocked, as if trying to figure out who was addressing her. He soldiered on. “Fish sticks, again,” he moaned with exaggerated weariness, nodding toward the menu board.
“It’s Mindy, you dork,” she said with a sneer, turning back around.
Doug closed his eyes, silently cursing himself. God damnit, right out of the gate and he was in trouble. He had been certain her name was Megan. He had to think fast. The line was moving right along. Soon they would arrive at the counter.
“Oh, right…Mindy,” he said cooly to the back of her head. “Hi, I’m Mork.”
Silence. This time she didn’t even bother turning around to acknowledge him. Clearly, his joke had failed to land. Or perhaps this girl simply had no sense of humor. He tried to recall what he had ever overheard her talking about. He was in desperate need of some common ground.
Meanwhile, the line inched ever forward.
Nothing came to him. Screwing up her name had filled him with self doubt. Now he couldn’t even be sure which of Melissa’s friends this was, much less what he might have overheard her speaking about. After all, if this was Mindy, then who was Megan? Or had there never been a Megan in the first place? His new strategy, so brilliant in theory, was already floundering, and only after a single attempt.
Still, he had a few precious moments remaining before they reached the counter. He’d already embarrassed himself so, at this point, there wasn’t a whole lot to lose. Going with the first thing to pop into his head, he found himself telling her a particularly bad joke he’d heard earlier that week.
“What’s green and red and spins around and around all day long?”
Mindy released an unnecessarily loud sigh and turned to face him. Doug cocked his head to one side, confident she’d at least want to know the punchline, however dumb it might be.
She stared at him for an uncomfortably long moment. Her eyes were unblinking and he found himself thinking of a National Geographic article about reptiles he had recently read. He was just starting to get a little creeped out when she finally broke into a smile. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It was rather the kind one might use when addressing a small child. “Kermit the frog in a blender,” she replied. “I have two kid brothers, you know.”
They had arrived at the counter. Mindy grabbed a pastel green plastic tray from the rack and slapped it on the metal runner, waiting for the lunch lady to take her order.
Doug, having humiliated himself for the second time in under a minute, knew he was out of time and, in desperation, determined to take things up a notch. He had recently overheard a sixth-grader telling some of his friends a dirty joke. Though Doug didn’t understand it, the older boys had found it hilarious. He decided to go for it. At least it was one her damned kid brothers weren’t likely to know. “Hey, Mindy,” he said. “What do you call that yellowish-brown crusty stuff smeared all over the crotch of a girl’s panties at the end of a hot day?”
Mindy whirled around to face him, furious before he had even had the opportunity to deliver the punchline. “What did you say?” she sputtered.
“Clitty litter,” he said quickly, hoping she would at least find enough humor in the incomprehensible joke that he could avoid being slapped across the face.
For a moment he thought she really was going to smack him. He recalled the time, a few years earlier, when he had learned from some boys at school that women bleed out of their butts once every month. He had gone home and, laughing uncontrollably, informed his mother of this newly acquired nugget of wisdom. She had slapped him across the face; the only time she had ever laid a hand on him, before or since. Standing there looking at him, Mindy had that same sort of look in her eye as his mother had that day. She was harder to read, though. Honestly, it could go either way.
She continued to stare at him with that maddeningly inscrutable expression until, finally, the corner of her lip turned up, and she flashed him a crooked smile. “That’s a good one,” she said. Chuckling lightly, she turned back toward the lunch lady and held out her tray.
Doug was, of course, elated. He had taken a disastrous situation that was quickly going nowhere and turned it around with some dumb joke he didn’t understand, aside from the fact that it was dirty. Mindy got it, though, and that’s all that mattered. Maybe she’d go to her lunch table and retell the joke, letting all her friends know what a funny guy he was. And, who knows, maybe one friend in particular might show a spark of interest in this budding comedian.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. Within the week, girls he didn’t even know began calling him “perv” and “sicko” as they’d pass him in the hall. As for Melissa, she was oblivious to his presence as always.
Only once did they actually make eye contact. It was some weeks following the cafeteria incident. Doug had rounded a corner and, by chance, found himself facing the object of his affections as she walked toward him in the opposite direction. None of her bothersome friends were around. It was just him and her.
They were alone, together.
Realizing at once that such an ideal situation would almost certainly never happen again, he quickly decided he’d toss her a casual ‘hello’ as they passed; not exactly the pickup line of the year but far better than nothing at all, which, up to this point, was all he had achieved toward his goal of winning her heart.
It would have to do.
The hall was not wide. As the distance between them narrowed, Melissa veered to her left. At the same instant, Doug veered to his right. To avoid a potential collision, Melissa then leaned back to her right at the same time that Doug, with the same intention, leaned back to his left. This happened three more times, resulting in what amounted to a ridiculous little shuffle between the two of them. By the time they worked out their respective positions relative to one another, it was too late and she passed him by.
Doug tried to think of something witty to say, some kind of ice breaker to make light of the awkward situation. Before he could do so, though, Melissa muttered something over her shoulder at him that he didn’t quite catch. These were the first words she had ever spoken to him, albeit facing the opposite way. And, just his luck, he’d missed it. Determined not to let this fateful moment slip out of his grasp forever, he turned around and, heart in his throat, asked her what she’d said.
She stopped and turned to face him, wearing a smile so sweet and beautiful it made him feel as if he were made of butter. “You didn’t hear me?” she said.
Doug felt his throat go dry as he dumbly shook his head.
“I said, you walk like a drunken retard.”
She looked at him for a few more agonizing seconds, The smile he had found so endearing just moments before now seemed much more like a malicious grin. Then, without a further word, she turned back around and continued on her way.
Doug stood there in the hall, frozen in place, watching her until she disappeared around the corner. He wasn’t sure how long he remained that way, just standing there like that. For him, time had stopped. The distant ringing of the bell eventually startled him back to the present and he hurried to class.
That night, he didn’t toss and turn, thinking about her, as he had for the past several months. The following morning, he didn’t waste the precious free time between classes or at recess and lunch in a pathetic attempt to attract her eye. He stopped trying to ingratiate himself with her snooty friends.
By the end of the week, he had resumed his long neglected trips to the library. His old friends were happy to see him return, and they asked no questions and made no judgements. Doug was back where he belonged, with his own kind of people, where he could be a nerd, where he could be himself.