My Only Secret Admirer

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"There will be others." There weren't.

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I'm pretty sure I was in 7th grade, 3rd period when I got my very first, and last secret admirer Valentine. It was a hand-cut red paper heart. It said, "I like who sits here 3rd period." The name had been painted over in White-Out. I felt like I was in a movie. I scanned the room to see if anyone was making eye contact with me. No one was. How stealth! I stared at the chalkboard smothered in Ancient Greek history and cobbled together who my admirer must be. I didn't really have a crush on anyone, so I looked at the facts: he was creative since he made his own Valentine, mysterious because he managed to put it on my desk without anyone else seeing, and looked like Elijah Wood because at 12 years old, that's the only person in the movies I thought was attractive.

"Who's that from?" My neighbor asked.

"I don't know," I said softly, imagining Elijah Wood appearing in the doorway and whisking me off to a tree house like the one in the Kevin Costner vehicle, The War. My junior high love life was free to dream, all thanks to this paper red heart.

Then came lunchtime, where I was approached by Mackabee Maloney. I didn't know much about Mackabee, except that his parents were older than regular parents, he had very red lips, and in 7th grade, had an extreme fondness for Yo-Yo Ma. This was not Elijah Wood.

For some reason I thought, because he had a webbed toe, he'd understand me.

"I wrote your valentine," he said quietly. "I heard you liked it."

"Yes, I did," I admitted in defeat. "I liked it very much."

"Would you like to go out sometime?" He offered. I didn't want to, but I couldn't help acknowledging how nice it was that he asked me outright instead of say, prank calling my house impersonating the Monopoly Man as one gentleman caller had done previously that semester. I said yes.

We agreed to meet in the library the next day. This was mostly because at the age of 12 the locations for a date were limited but also because I knew none of my friends cared much for the library. It's not that they were stupid or hated books, but in junior high the library at lunchtime was used primarily for either story time for the learning disabled or dealing drugs.

The next day I showed up to school and quickly found out two things: 1. Mackabee Maloney was wearing a suit, and 2. Everyone was talking about it.

"Did you see Mackabee? He looks like he's going to a wedding," said one kid.

"It looks like he's going to a funeral!" said another.

"Maybe you should leave him alone or whatever," I said. However, it may have come out as just, "...whatever."

I didn't tell anyone I knew why Mackabee was wearing the suit. Instead when lunch came, I quietly made a beeline for the library, hoping I wouldn't spot anyone I knew, which of course I did. Sasha saw me. Sasha was cool because she used Nair and went to music festivals like Wango Tango unsupervised. She saw me right about the time I spotted Mackabee, waiting outside the library in his suit patiently looking straight ahead as if he were waiting for a bus. Sasha began talking my ear off about boys, or shoes or clothes, about how "nothing's cool" or how "everything's retarded" when we approached the library.

"Why are we going in here?" She asked.

"Just wanted to check out if Govi's still selling Ritalin," I stammered as Sasha and I walked right passed Mackabee and into the library. I felt bad, but I figured if I walked past him without saying a word, he'd get the hint and walk away and still have time to line up for $1 pizza. But he didn't walk away. Instead he followed us right in, as if this were the plan all along.

Sasha and I sat down, she still talking about whatever the female adolescent monkey mind is want to chatter about. I fixed my gaze ahead and out of my peripheral watched Mackabee, who settled on standing in a corner, still waiting for his bus to come, patiently. I gritted my teeth and shuffled my shiny black Airwalks -- the shoes I'd begged my parents for because I thought the right shoes would make the right people like me.

In 4th grade I had a crush on a popular boy named Garrett. I thought Garrett was interesting because he had one webbed toe. When I told him I liked him on Valentine's Day, all of his friends followed me around at recess teasing me and it made me cry. At the time I wore glasses, I didn't have nice clothes, I definitely didn't have boobs. I froze houseflies in margarine tubs because I thought their rainbow scales were pretty. For some reason I thought, because he had a webbed toe, he'd understand me. If he did, he never admitted it. Three years later, off came the glasses, in came the (start of) boobs, and buried I did my fascination with houseflies. I started to get popular friends-- friends that said things like, "No offense but your shirt makes you look like a slut." Mackabee stood out because he was different, and here I was with empathy for the underdog without the courage to do anything but ignore him. Or maybe I was angry at him for not doing the right thing and burying his weirdness. Don't say you like Yo-Yo Ma! Never say you like Yo-Yo Ma! Say Green Day! Or 311! Or Nirvana! Those bands go against the grain. Be like the rest of us and go against the grain!

The bell rang. Sasha asked if I was going to see if Govi was dealing Ritalin. I said, "whatever." She nodded in agreement. We walked by Mackabee, whose bus never came. I can't remember if we made eye contact. I can't remember if I said sorry. I can't tell you how shameful it feels to see a 12-year-old boy in a suit sulk out of a junior high library and know it's all your fault. All I know is after that, Mackabee and I never talked again.

If I had known that was the last time someone would write me a secret admirer message, maybe I would have behaved differently. Because in my heart, I'd always wanted a secret admirer. Maybe I would have told Sasha to take her Nair legs and trot back to the gaggle of other girls who were busy pointing out who's outfit looked trashier. Maybe I would have found out Mackabee thought houseflies looked like shiny flying rainbows, too. But when the bell rang and I made the walk of shame past Mackabee, a hopeful rat of a voice inside me said, "There will be others." There weren't.

I kept that Valentine. I'm sure it's still tucked away in my parents house somewhere. The last time I saw it was a few years ago. It's funny, I'm sure he's shrugged it off by now. After all, it was junior high. In junior high, guys threw other guys in the dumpster when they bought a pair of new shoes, but if you caught on to trends too late you were accused of being poor. You could get accused of smoking cigarettes in the bathroom if the dean saw you walking out of there chewing gum. It was an unfair time for everyone. Still, I think of this story every Valentine's Day -- every year having more and more respect for a guy that can pull off a suit. And a few years ago, I heard some beautiful cello music on the radio, and dammit if it wasn't Yo-Yo Ma.

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Taylor Orci is a journalist and comedian based in Los Angeles. She has contributed to NPR, SlateNew York Magazine, the Independent Film Channel, and Adult Swim.

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