The place: Mrs. Dell’s 6th grade classroom, Idlewild Elementary, Tacoma, WA.
As Valentine’s Day crept up on us like a pink disease, Mrs. Dell read aloud stories of love. Every one of the girls in class were attentive as Mrs. Dell read about love won, love lost, mythical love (both Greek and Roman). We boys, on the other hand, safeguarded our discomfort behind disgusted remarks and inappropriate kissy noises. When I wasn’t busy doing my part to mock the ridiculous concept of love, I kept a clandestine gaze on the chubby-cheeked smile of Kara Pennyday.
Since Day 1 of the fourth grade, I had carried a torch for Kara like an Olympic ceremonial participant on a hamster wheel. She may not have had the girliness of Molly Johnson or the burgeoning A-cup figure of Dotty Curtner, but I found Kara to be the most captivating girl in Idlewild. I was entranced by her bowl cut hair and her uncanny ability to be as well-versed in Star Wars characters as she was in members of boy bands. She was friendly and open-minded. Heck, she was even friendly with Sue Munsen.
It’s debatable whether or not a sixth grader is capable of experiencing actual love–it may be better classified as puppy love or as innocent infatuation. Whatever the correct term was, I was head over heels in it. And maybe the stories that Mrs. Dell read began to sink in because, despite everything my chicken hearted logic told me, I decided that I would try to let Kara know how I felt. The only problem was how to do it.
First, I enlisted the aid of Tim who, because of the close proximity of their homes, had developed a friendship with Kara outside class.
One Saturday, Tim invited me to join him spending the afternoon playing on the swings at Kara’s house. At one point, my opportunity for romantic confessions came when Kara led me to the kitchen where the two of us shared a glass of tap water. As her flushed cheeks glowed not three feet from my own, I wanted to say something to her, but I had no idea what. I drank four glasses of water in order to buy more time with her, until finally I blurted out, “Your tap water’s better than mine.”
She smiled. “Thanks. We like it.”
Moments later, we were back in the yard with Tim and my moment was lost.
After that, I devised a plan that involved Tim putting together a list of Kara’s favorite things, which I would then immediately adopt as my own. My Little Pony? Yeah, I totally own, like, five of those. Kara’s favorite boy band? Wow, I love that one song of theirs! My idea was to make myself so utterly irresistible that she fell in love with me, thereby relieving myself of the burden of making the first move.
Tim described the plan as “totally lame.” He said, “Just tell her, man. Don’t act like my sister.”
Of course, much like the time he told me there were secret coins to be found in Mario games, I knew Tim was right. Cowardice took priority, though, and I decided to postpone my admission to Kara the only way I could: by getting a second opinion. And who better to consult than the sixth grader who wouldn’t think twice before plunging a sharpened number 2 pencil into his own chest for love’s sake: Clint Christensen.
“Just tell her,” Clint said, as he sat in front of the television in his family room, eating a meatloaf sandwich and waiting for a rerun of his favorite syndicated show, Little House on the Prairie. “S’all you can do.”
Once Little House began, Clint would transform into an Ingalls by proxy and would be impossible to talk to. I had to get everything I could from him in the few minutes that remained. My time for information gathering was limited to the current commercials and station identification, then that would be it for another hour. “But how?” I asked with toned down anxiety. “I mean, do I stand up in the middle of class an’ start singin’ to her?”
“Only if you can do it like an opera singer. Girls like that stuff.”
“Seriously, Clint. Do I just walk up an’ say, ‘Kara, how are you and, by the way, I’m in love with you’?”
“Well, wait for the right time, but yeah.”
I was getting flustered. “But, every time I see the right time, I get too scared an’ can’t say nothin’.”
“I don’t know what else you want me to say,” Clint shrugged. He watched the day’s teaser with a quiet absorption that I knew better than to interrupt. His multi-directional teeth dug into the sandwich as the opening credits and theme song filled the screen. As he chewed, he added, “That’s the best advice I got.”
Was I satisfied with this? Of course not. The cowardly part of me (which comprises 70-74% of my DNA) wanted Clint to propose something more roundabout. What I had really wanted was for him to tell me that he would tell Molly how I felt and that she would pass it along to Kara. That way, it would be out of my occasionally washed hands and leaving me to passively await a response.
I watched the commercials as though they were the final granules of sand in an hourglass. I had to get Clint to approve an alternative plan of action before Little House started, but what else was there? And then, in an edge-of-my-seat level of excitement, I blurted out, “What about a letter?”
Clint’s eyes veered from the television momentarily. “A letter?”
“Yeah, I could write her a letter.” I really wanted to sell Clint on this idea, so built it up the best I could. “I could put it on her desk or in her backpack or… or put it on her front door. I’ve been to her house.”
As Little House began, Clint shrugged, “I guess.” Through my filter, Clint’s “I guess” translated into “That’s a great idea, Mike! Go for it!”
That night, equipped with my mom’s manual typewriter (the one with the broken E key), I spent nearly an hour spilling my feelings onto a sheet of lined paper:
This is MikE. Your rEally fun to hang
around with. Your funny. Your good at history to. I
likEd your housE that timE and you gavE mE watEr. Thank you.
I want to tEll you I rEally think your cutE. Do you likE mE to?
I hopE so. You could lEavE mE a notE that said yEs or no on it.
ps. I likE music and pizza.
Fannie Braun never received a letter that equaled the poetic nature of my heartfelt prose. Sorry, Keats!
Then, as though that wouldn’t be enough to make even the coldest of hearts fall madly in love with me, I included a few tokens of my affection.
The first memento was a bobby pin. I found it imbedded in our living room rug and thought to myself, “Girls like this kinda stuff.” The second item was a single hawk feather. When my dad would go off hunting or camping with his friends, he would sometimes bring back feathers for my mom, who would then place them into the soil of her house plants in a decor statement that screamed, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with a feather? There, that’s good enough’. At the time, the feather had struck me as ingenius because, well, maybe Kara had a plant. From then on, every time she’d look at the plant, she’d be reminded of me.
Satisfied that the letter was like a first class ticket to Kara’s love, I sealed the white, business-sized envelope and, using different colored markers for each letter (nice!), wrote Kara’s name on the front. Then, basking in the afterglow that comes from overwhelming success, I practiced meeting Kara’s parents. I set aside several school yard anecdotes and witticisms that would so charm her parents, that they would welcome me into the Pennyday family with open arms.
The next morning, I arrived early to school. I wanted to scout out the best place to leave the note. I considered waiting until class began, then simply dropping the letter into her backpack, but I figured humiliation might be hard enough to deal with without it involving thirty-odd classmates. Sure, I could have simply handed the note to her, but that would require more directness than I was willing to shell out. The way I saw it, the only way for this to be carried out successfully would be during the midday break. When the bell rang and everyone hurried outside, I would find a reason to stay behind. Then, with no one around, I’d drop it into her bag and wait for her to discover it.
Mrs. Dell noticed my reverie and asked, “Would I be right in guessing you’re looking for something, Mike?”
“I dunno,” I answered. “Kinda.”
“Did you forget to take something home with you, yesterday?”
“Does this have to do with someone in class?”
“Sorta, I guess. I dunno.”
Smiling, she leaned forward in her seat. “Mike, I must admit, I’m intrigued.” Mrs. Dell’s smile reminded that I could trust her, confide my secret to her without concern of embarrassment, but the coward inside of me felt compelled to keep mum. Why? Well, because she was a woman. In mere moments, I had developed a theory that all girls–be they teachers or students or parents–were involved in a secret society: Girls Association To Know How Stupid Boys Really Are (GATKHSBRA). This intricate network of string and tin cans shotgunned information of boys’ romantic feeling to every girl living within a five-mile radius.
“You know, it might be easier if you just told this person what it is you want them to know. But, I guess that seems awfully scary to you, doesn’t it?”
“A little.” I tried, but couldn’t look Mrs. Dell in the face. I felt almost ashamed, but about what I wasn’t sure. As much as I had wanted to keep her in the dark, a part of me was relieved that Mrs. Dell knew what I was up to. It was a sort of validation, her remaining interested, her not trying to dissuade me in any way.
“Think about this,” Mrs. Dell said, “if this person came to you and said to you what you want to say to them, how would you feel?”
“Happy?” I answered, as if guessing.
“Happy. You would be happy to hear this thing. Well, more than likely, that’s how they will feel if you tell them.”
“And with Valentine’s Day coming up, its really good timing on your part.”
“Yeah?” It was strange, but Mrs. Dell had started making real sense.
“Yes.” Clasping her hands as they fell to her waist, she smiled at me with a dimple in her cheeks that I’d never noticed before. “And I’m sure Kara would love to be your Valentine.”
My face went a pale white, then immediately turned a Shirley Temple pink. How had she known it was Kara?! My god, was it that obvious?! If Mrs. Dell knew, Kara must have known, too! And if Kara did know, then why hadn’t she given me any indication, a wink or a coy smile?! Why?! What other reasons could there be, Mike? She didn’t like you and that’s all there was to it. Oh god, Kara hated me.
I took my seat as the first students made their way through the classroom door. When class started, I found it impossible to focus. All I could do was look at Kara and wonder why she hated me. Was I ugly? Was it because I had inherited my dad’s chin? Was it because video games and a lack of exercise had given me a kid gut? Or maybe she thought I was boring. If so, then why did she allow me over to her house? Oh wait, it was that stupid water comment. That must be it. She thinks I’m a moron. But, then why had she said hello to me just a few minutes ago? Why? Because she didn’t hate me, that was why. Then again, she acted the same way with me as she did toward Tim. Maybe she liked Tim, etc., etc., etc.
By 9:30am, I had given myself a stomach ache. While everyone else in class learned square roots, I mediated a debate in my head between two Me’s, one that argued why I shouldn’t tell Kara how I felt, the other why I should and both with debilitating IQ’s of 47. I knew that if I talked myself out of doing this, I would regret it. Still, the fear lingered. But, alongside the fear of rejection stood a second fear, a fear entirely new to the scene, the fear of allowing my window of opportunity to slam shut and be locked from the inside.
Now, these two fears battled it out for supremacy like cheap monsters in a Japanese movie. Fear I, the fear of rejection, pounded away at Fear II, the fear of regret, with ferocious punches of limited movement. Fear II, beaten down onto all fours, is kicked down the side of a 4-foot tall Mount Fuji and rolls to a near-death stop at the base. Then, just as Fear I raised a boulder over its head to finish the job, Fear II rose up and leveled its opponent with the sparkler-like inferno of its heat breath. Fear I fought back with brute force, but found itself defenseless against the series of rockets shot from Fear II’s portal-like claws. Rocket after rocket exploded against the body of the once mighty Fear I, until it was no more than a lifeless pile of latex. As Fear II let out a triumphant roar, I decided to tell Kara how I felt.
I spent the next two hours of class in a refreshing state of self-assuredness. I was the first to raise my hand to answer Mrs. Dell’s questions, stretching my arm upward to get called on. Now, whether or not the answers I gave were correct made no difference. I was experiencing confidence without the fear of consequence. If confidence had been water, I would have looked like a lawn sprinkler going full blast.
The bell rang.
With the imperceptibility of a veteran wallet snatcher, I took the letter from my backpack and folded it into my back pocket. I timed my exit with that of Kara’s, making sure I was right behind her as she entered the hallway. “Hey, Kara,” I said, as we reached the playground lawn. “Can I talk to ya a sec?”
Smiling and without the slightest ounce of hesitation, she answered, “Sure.” Not a full second passed before Molly’s voice called out for Kara to hurry up. “I’m coming! Hold on!” she answered back. “So, what’s going on?” she asked me.
“Oh, uh…” I watched my confidence waver like a ship in a storm. “I just wanted to give you somethin’.”
She tilted her head slightly and her smile grew. “What is it?”
Now or never, I told myself. Do or die. “A message.”
“What, like mail?” she joked.
All of a sudden, the debate in my mind began its unexpected second round of argument. “I-I was… I was supposed to tell you that…” Do or die! “that…” Come on, come on! “that someone…” That’s it. Atta boy! “likes you.”
Zero hour had arrived. The sound of liftoff rumbled and shook my entire body, sirens rang, lights flashed, champagne bottles waited to be popped in celebration, emergency crews sat in wait in case of a crash. “Yeah, just someone. I’m not supposed to say who.”
Kara was understandably puzzled. “Okay. Well, thanks, Mike.”
“Oh, no prob.” As I turned to meet up with my friends, I added, “Well, see ya back in class.”
“Okay. Bye.” Kara walked to Molly and the others where I knew she would most likely relay what I had just told her.
Standing with my friends, I inconspicuously watched as the group of girls turned a simultaneous glance in my direction. This was the cue that the story had been relayed. Seeing this, I suddenly found myself less concerned with the outcome, believing that it was forever out of my hands. I no longer had control of the situation and that was a more comfortable role to take on. Whatever Kara would think about me, she would do so regardless of what I did or didn’t do from that point on.
As the weeks went by, Kara treated me no differently than she had before. Either she in no way suspected I was the mystery admirer or she was akin to the obvious, but wasn’t repulsed by it the way she had been at seeing Harper shove an entire liverwurst sandwich into his mouth. However the cards were laid out, I was too terrified to find out the truth.
Looking back, I think that I was more afraid of the result being a positive one than I was anything else. At least, if it were bad, I would, after the expected initial sorrow, move on. If it were good, if she did feel the same about me as I did about her, it would mean that I had only taken one step in what could have been a 40k marathon. When all was said and done, that scared the hell out of me most of all.