Sixth grade royalty. Guys wanted her, girls wanted to be her. When she passed in the hallway, the harsh yellow hallway lights transformed into beams of pure, life-giving sunlight. Time came to a screeching halt. Her hazelnut-colored hair somehow blew naturally in the stale air of the hallways that reeked of bagged lunches and Richard Devins body odor. Tara was always a first-round draft pick in the the ‘Name Your Top 5’ gossip game that marks the chapter before ‘Shaving Creaming The First One To Fall Asleep’ in the book of Sleepover Rite of Passages.
I’m not ashamed to say that on more than one occasion I fell asleep with my arms wrapped tenderly around my teddy bear, using poor Snuffy as a portal into an alternate universe–a universe where a mere glance from Tara didn’t turn me into a powerless wax statue and her words didn’t have the power to make or break a young man’s life before he ever got the chance to see what he’d become. A universe where I could shed the heavy armor of adolescent angst and perpetual self-evaluation and just hold her, just like in the movies. I’m not ashamed of this admission because Tara was objectively the type of girl who would make a 12 year old risk it all for a graze of her hand or better yet, a personalized note. I’m 30 years old now, and to this day, I maintain the belief that 80 percent of the Proctor School sixth grade class would have gone to war for her if she just said the word. Boys and girls. Even snot-nosed Stephen Chambers, who was afraid of his own shadow.
Me, on the other hand, I was a relative nobody. My mom still combed my hair to the side so I looked like a paperboy from the 1930’s and dressed me in FILA swishy jump suits so I looked like a miniature substitute gym teacher. I was one of the best athletes in my grade, but in a time before organized sports, that gift was like having money in a different currency. My mom never packed me Gushers or Fruit Roll Ups in my lunch, so the method of acquiring clout from dope ass snacks was off the table. My interests at the time consisted of a wide array of worldly endeavors: WWF Wrestling, basketball, and secretly fawning over Tara McCarthy. Not exactly a viable arsenal of conversation topics to bring to a female, or anyone outside my tight-knit band of lovable losers, for that matter. Moral of the story: unless Tara McCarthy’s pore-less skin caught on fire and I stumbled upon her with a fire hose in hand, there would be no realistic reason for her to waste her forever minty breath on me.
Then came Valentine’s Day, 1999.
Valentine’s Day was the shit back then because you not only got candy from everyone in your class but you were awarded the opportunity of blissful delusion, to overthink every Valentine from a female classmate as something more than a formality. Something special. Something extra.
My heart pounded through my chest as I had plucked nearly every Valentine out of my hand-crafted Valentine holder without yet opening one from the goddess amongst us mere mortals: Tara McCarthy. And then, like hot french fries at the bottom of the bag, I pulled out an envelope that said ‘Matt’ in beautifully rounded, bubbly handwriting only a girl is capable of. I took a deep breath and opened the envelope to find a box of candy hearts and a generic Valentine with perforations indicating it had been ripped from a book of the same ones. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I would read next would latch itself on to the deepest annals of my brain, withstanding the test of time and a decade-long period where I would smoke pot until I forgot my phone number.
The card read:
Matt, Happy Valentine’s Day! Meet me at the Bagel Shop tomorrow at 7:30. xo, Tara.
My brain went into glitch mode for a solid 5 minutes before transitioning into a state of euphoria and then settling on an extended period of raw, pants-pissing fear. I avoided looking over in Tara’s direction with the same discipline I do when a residentially challenged man begs for money of the subway. I felt as if eye-contact would reveal to her how criminally obsessed I was with her existence and how often I played a scenario like this over in my head.
I was just your average, small town kid. I had my pogs, my loser friends, and four And-1 basketball t-shirts I rotated wearing religiously. I never had another of value to share with the class during Show and Tell and even if I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t have had the confidence to articulate it.
I waited until school ended to confide in Tony DeLucca, my best friend, and fellow Tara admirer. I needed someone else’s assurance that I wasn’t going to wake up momentarily spooning my stuffed teddy bear. I had been holding the Valentine with the security of a winning lottery ticket. Tony, who rocked thick, female repellent glasses, looked intently at the note and yelled, “You gotta go!”
Despite my debilitating fear of failure, I needed to go. If not for me, for Tony. The staple of Tony’s wardrobe were the turquoise sweatpants the nurse lent him after he fell in mud at recess. Sharp as a tack, but the poor bastard just could never shake that pesky snot from his nose. All. Year. Round. This was a team win as far as I was concerned as I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass over a little nauseating, life-altering terror.
I laid in bed that night solely for appearances. There was no way I was getting any shut eye. I had already chosen my outfit the night before–a Boston College Basketball t-shirt and a pair of dark jeans. This was dressing up for me.
I forget what tall tale I swindled to my mother about why I needed to be dropped off to school early (The Bagel Shop was a stone’s throw), but she didn’t apply much pushback. I remember opening her purse and stealing 5 bucks from her wallet which I planned to combine with my 5 dollars in lunch money to treat my unlikely admirer to a bagel and maybe an orange juice, if things were gong well.
The five minute drive downtown felt like an eternity and expeditious simultaneously. I was drunk off a concoction of trepidation and excitement. During that drive, my mother skidding off the side of the road and into a telephone pole crossed my mind, and the weakest part of me begged for that. Better to die instantly than over a potentially agonizing hour long death at the unforgiving hands of your first ever crush. I grew up more in those five minutes than I have in the last five years of my life. I can’t be sure, but I think I sprouted my first armpit hair on that drive.
My mom stopped the car outside the school. This was my moment of truth. I begrudgingly kissed my mom, got out of the car, popped in a stick of gum I jacked from mom’s purse, and made my way to The Bagel Shop. I was ready. The self-inflicted torture and self-doubt gave way to what resembled confidence. I strolled into the small shop, the bells on the door announcing my arrival. I scanned the shop, looking for the most beautiful girl in the place. And that’s when I saw him.
Quivering under his own laughter, Tony sat at a table by himself femininely waving at me, mockingly saying “Right on time, baby.” I laughed. So I wouldn’t cry. I punched Tony hard on the arm and would have hit him in the face if I wasn’t worried his telescopic glasses would chop up my hand. I had become victim to my first ever troll job.
After Tony wiped his laughing tears away, he bought me a bagel and a chocolate milk for the emotional wounds he inflicted on me. All’s well that ends well.
To this day, Tara is totally unaware of the monumental impact she’s had on my formative years and the incessant banter she’s helped create with my still-best-friend Tony.
Tara, if you’re reading this, a part of me still remains at The Bagel Shop waiting for you, after 18 years. If you want to dump that loser, Zach, I saw you’re now Facebook official with, bagels and coffee on me.
Not a Valentine’s Day goes by when I don’t remind Tony he should be thrown in jail for eternity.
You may have won the battle, Gadget. But you most certainly have not yet won the war.
Powered by WPeMatico