Sometimes you cut stories short—the ones that make you look too bad, the ones that make you look too good, the ones you’re not proud of. You tell the story to the climax or the punch line, and right where your audience thinks the story is over, you know there is a huge asterisk.
It’s something that no one else can see, but it slaps you in the face every time you tell the story. Accusing: You are False. False. Tell how it really ended. I’ve told this story before, and I’ve covered in the past by making the asterisk an irrelevant detail: Yeah, it was a hilarious first kiss. Things didn’t end well yada yada, whatever, it was a long time ago…
My friend Anthony and I were the only two guys on the hockey team who went to private school. I went to a Christian school with 60 of my closest friends (eighth-grade graduating class of five), and Anthony went to a preppy all-boys school. In the eyes of our peers on the team, we were about equal in social standing—not high. We were also inseparable.
We did everything together: BMX biking, going to the movies, sports, copious amounts of Nintendo 64, but our favorite pastime was trying to hang out with girls, particularly at dances put on by Anthony’s school—they found The Massachusetts Girl’s School to join the event.
They may as well have found The All-Martians-School the way we (I) avoided them.
My first dance was a conversion experience. I went to Anthony’s house and we commenced the Bart Tocci makeover. Anthony gave me an Abercrombie and Fitch long-sleeved shirt, I put on some fresh blue jeans, and thankfully I already had some flashy white sneakers.
We then proceeded into the bathroom where we applied massive quantities of hair gel to get that sexy, just-showered look that was so popular among seventh graders. Then we blow-dried it to get that windblown, messy look like California surfers. We spiked the front, added a little peroxide to try to bleach the tips, and after turning them only slightly orange, we applied more gel. Hairspray to hold it all. My hair helmet was hard enough to withstand a head-on collision with a Mac truck.
Then, the final touch: Abercrombie and Fitch cologne. After Anthony baptized me with this last sacrament, the transformation was complete. I was a bro.
The makeover had mixed results. At my first dance I spent the whole time walking around the outside of the main circle, thinking, “Man, this is lame. What a bunch of losers.” Anthony went around dancing with girls because it turns out if you ask them to dance, they will probably say yes.
But for me, the possibility of failure was too high. I imagined the conversation going something like this:
Me: Hi, want to dance?
Her: Umm, no… Oh and by the way, EVERYBODY, LOOK, THIS KID ACTUALLY THOUGHT I WOULD DANCE WITH HIM! WHAT A FREAK!
At this point the music would stop, the crowd would go silent, and a single beam of light would blind me. My three greatest fears of all time would then come true in a moment: my clothes would fall off my body, I would start gushing blood from the orifices in my face, and somehow, I would lift a loved one up into a rotating ceiling fan. Which would, of course, decapitate them.
Finally, a girl asked me to dance. I was always taught to ‘respect women,’ so we danced with our arms outstretched, creating a mini Arc de Triomphe on the outskirts of the floor. We held onto each other by our fingertips and tilted from side to side as “Stairway to Heaven” concluded the evening. I thanked my new girlfriend and took off with Anthony, because after all, bros before girls you dance with in middle school.
That was my first dance. I remember it vividly because of the excitement, the awkwardness, and the sense of accomplishment. I remember the last dance of middle school because of a girl named Rachel.
The Last Dance
Anthony took out his wallet and sprayed it with cologne. “If you need back up cologne, you just rub this on yourself.” He said it like it was a normal thing. Like most weird things in our friendship, I figured it was something he picked up during his stint in public school. I sprayed my wallet.
This dance was going to be different. I could feel it. I had a broken arm that was in a hard cast, which went all the way up to my bicep forming a huge L, so I looked like a huge loser, but that couldn’t slow me down: I had a lady to dance with.
Two weeks earlier, Anthony had introduced me to Rachel. (Over the phone, of course—this is middle school, after all.) He had actually seen her, and he vouched for her beauty. This was before the days of Facebook. If you hadn’t seen a girl, or you didn’t have photos literally in your hands, then you had to make a judgment call based on her voice.
(We had played that guessing game before, and we lost. The game is called “group-middle-school-blind-date-where-your-parents-have-to-drive-you-to-the-movies-to-meet-girls-whom-you’ve-talked-to-on-the-phone-but-truly-never-seen.”)
Anthony and I would sit in his parent’s small study and call Rachel, talking during breaks from trying to beat the second Surface level in GoldenEye. (Which is impossible. Sure, I like a silenced PP7 as much as the next guy, but when you’re up against dual-wielding Klobbs and KF7 Soviets, and you’re running through a complete maze, ten bullets isn’t enough.) She sounded beautiful.
When Rachel and I finally met at the dance, we were inseparable. We danced very closely. In fact, it felt to me that we were just hugging and swaying on the dance floor. It didn’t matter what song came on—DMX, Outkast, Mariah Carey, fast, slow, rowdy—we hugged and swayed and she played with my hair.
I had never held a girl that close. The closest I had come to this contact was holding a girl’s hand while we rollerbladed around a roller-skating rink. It was after that lap that I learned there are two ways to get pruny hands:
1. Keep them in water for a long time.
2. Hold hands with a girl you have a crush on for about 45 seconds.
Rachel’s face was on my face, soft cheeks, girly smells. She turned slightly, and in the middle of moving her head to my other shoulder, she put her tongue in my mouth
OH!WHAT?!YUCK.WHAT?OH! I was completely unprepared for this. I hadn’t kissed a girl at the beginner level, let alone the advanced. And she went in tongue-first! My mouth was still closed, so she was just licking my lips at the start. Kids are weird. All I could think was, this is the slimiest thing imaginable. So much saliva.
And then I thought, that was a kiss. Then I thought, YES! I have kissed a girl! Everything in my life was building up to this moment. All I knew about kissing was from watching Top Gun, so I just moved my mouth up and down a lot.
One girl who saw us said, “You guys look like you’re from a movie!” Good!
Then Rachel said, “You’re actually biting me a lot.” Not good.
We kissed during the rest of the dance. (It was more like tongue-wrestling than kissing, but it was something.) “I kind of like this,” she said, touching my cast. “It’s sexy.” Let me assure you, there was nothing sexy about it. Nothing about twelve year-olds is sexy. (Which sounds a lot weirder coming from me as an adult.)
At one point, I went in for a kiss and she denied me. She whispered, “You haven’t given me a good reason to let you kiss me.” Oh, I didn’t realize that we were coming up with reasons for this. You certainly didn’t give me a “reason” when you started lapping my lips.
Where do kids learn this stuff?
“I think…that you are very pretty”. Middle-school-Bart’s best stuff, ladies and gentlemen. The truth is, all I knew was that my dad only said, “Hey,” and “hey babe,” and other variations of that right before he kissed my mom. And for some reason I didn’t think that would work here. And also, I didn’t particularly want to be thinking about my dad kissing my mom.
I tried variations of “you’re pretty,” using words like “extremely,” and “incredibly,” and “very, very,” and eventually it worked. We did mouth aerobics until the lights came up and the night ended and the saliva ran out. Before I left, we decided that we should be boyfriend and girlfriend.
We talked about the future and our families and we said “I love you” to each other over the phone.
Three days later, we broke up. A day prior to the break up, I had told my friend Anthony that I didn’t think it was going anywhere. What wisdom. I’m only twelve, man. I’m just not ready for this kind of commitment.
She told me that she wasn’t ready to be tied down, and I told her that I wasn’t ready to tie her anywhere. We had this conversation over AOL Instant Messenger: she said sorry, I said okay, no problem, then signed off.
Then I got mad at her. Really mad. I felt so rejected and hurt, even though I knew it wasn’t anything that was good for either of us. I signed back on and started yelling at her in CAPS LOCK.
I don’t know that I’ve ever said anything worse to anyone in my entire life than what I wrote to Rachel over AIM.
I had heard that she had issues with self-harm, specifically cutting—something that very few people knew. I told her that I was glad that we were over, because I didn’t want to be in a relationship with A F****ING CUTTER ANYWAY! That I was planning to dump her and I didn’t need that kind of EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE. I said more things and called her more names that I don’t remember as vividly, but the f***ing cutter line is seared into my memory. I hate remembering it, I don’t like typing it, and when I read this out loud, to myself, I whisper it.
She told me to call her because she was crying. I told her no.
She was this sweet, beautiful, confused, wounded girl. My first kiss and the target of my worst words. I knew, as a twelve year old, that I had crossed a line. It was about me, though. She had rejected me as a boyfriend. She didn’t want me. I know as a twenty-six year old that she has her own story, and this one isn’t about me—it’s about her. I built a wall around myself by rejecting her right back, except I rejected her as a person, which is the far greater betrayal.
I was twelve years old, man. Where do kids learn this stuff?
Maybe she doesn’t like to think about me now, either. Maybe when the goofy stories of middle school dances come up, the sweaty gyms, the waiting to get picked up by parents, I’m the asterisk at the bottom of the page: It was all great! Except for this one time with this one guy…he said some things, whatever, it was a long time ago.
Bart Tocci (’11) lives in Boston where he writes essays, performs at open mics, and threatens to start taco restaurants. He’s been told that he looks like the kind of guy who stands up for what’s right. And who goes to the store before the party. Read more here: barttocci.wordpress.com