I met a girl in the first grade and though I can’t honestly say that I fell in love with her at that age, as I think about her now, my gut tells me I did. By the second or third grade a nickname somehow crept into use and from then on we all called her “Waffle.” Throughout grade school I told people that Waffle was my girlfriend. I don’t know that she thought of our relationship the same way, but I had convinced myself that it was so. Every year from first until fifth grade, I bought her a heart-shaped box of chocolates. One Valentine’s Day I graduated to a loftier present. My mother helped me pick out and buy Waffle a little necklace. It had only cost a few dollars, but it was jewelry and jewelry is what you buy a girl to announce that you wish to be taken seriously. When we began entering puberty I stopped delivering the perennial boxes of chocolates. I still loved Waffle as much as I always had, but adolescence brings a fear of disapproval from one’s contemporaries that can outweigh even the warmest feelings toward a “girlfriend.” I decided that I needed to grow out of a childhood display of affection and tried to play it cool.
I didn’t hit puberty; puberty hit me. Hard. It happened to me well before it did to most of the other kids my age. Overactive sweat glands helped ensure that nobody would mistake me for being cool no matter how I tried to play it. I worked hard at becoming a character who did not care what others thought of him. The truth was that the way others perceived me was the only thing on my mind. There’s nothing remarkable about feeling like you’re under a microscope at that age. The adolescent brain is a spilled chemistry set where the right hormones have been sloppily doled out in the wrong proportions. It was going to be a long journey from boy to even the very small beginnings of manhood, but even I found that little by little, my body and my awareness of it would slowly transform.
The year between age 15 and 16 was a momentous one. Girls had started to notice me just a bit. During that summer I had worked to find the right glasses, grow and style my hair. When high school reconvened at the start of my sophomore year, the student body assembled in the gym for an introduction by the faculty. As I walked up the steps of the bleachers, I spotted Waffle ahead of me in the line marching into the gym. She had always been lanky and angular, but now her long limbs folded neatly into a body that had recently grown subtle curves. The most prominent of those curves were on display and held in place by a white tank top that, without any bra beneath it, was decidedly unqualified for the job. Had it not been for the unbuttoned flannel shirt that intermittently covered the thin film of taught white cotton, she’d have incited a riot.
With only a few steps to go up the bleachers I paused, waiting for the line of classmates in front of me to continue. As I stood there, staring at her, she turned to take her seat. She twisted in place to find the section of bleachers that she was about to sit on. When she spun around I could see more curves. Her hips had widened a bit, drawing the waistband of her low-slung bell-bottoms taught. She was facing me, but looking down. Then when she began to sit she looked up. Her eyes caught mine. She bolted out of the seat she’d just taken and made a beeline to me. Her approach ended with a hug. Then she backed off a few inches and attacked me with sweet questions. “Oh my God,” she began. “I saw you come into the gym. You look so great, your glasses… your hair… what happened to you?” All of the attention and the fact that we were nearly chest-to-chest put me back on my heels. I was overwhelmed because this was genuine interest, it was tinged with sexuality, and it was all from Waffle.
Days passed, and Waffle found me once again at school. “I’ve got something for you,” she said. She handed me a rainbow of wrinkled tank top. She had tie-dyed it for me. I was speechless. The fact that she’d bothered to think of me was beyond gratifying. On top of knowing that she’d thought of me enough to make something especially for me was having the shirt itself. For it was a constant reminder of the feeling that it sent through me when Waffle had put it in my hands. The shirt offered tangible proof of her affection. I rarely wore it because, unlike my Cher albums, I couldn’t simply go out and buy a second to keep tucked away in a pristine state. It was my one and only, so I treated it like the irreplaceable treasure that it was. Wearing it would require a special occasion. Until one rolled around, I was happy just to have something from her in my possession.
A few weeks later Waffle handed me an opportunity to get even closer to her. She said, “I want you to go to this party with me.” I could see there was more to come so I waited patiently. “We’re going to get high,” she said. I was so obsessed with fitting in that I hadn’t yet looked into the possibility of breaking rules. The only parties I’d ever attended were associated with our church youth group. Waffle was such a free spirit that I felt like letting her chaperone me through new social and psychoactive frontiers would give me the balance of security and excitement I craved. I would use the party to debut my tie-dyed shirt. It would be my official “going to get high” uniform.
The flirting continued for the rest of the school year and into the next summer. We never dated, we just spent time together. We talked. Waffle would tell me the latest developments about the boy she was dating. I marveled at some of her stories and envied how freely she lived. We brushed up against the boundaries of where my role ended and where her boyfriend’s began, but I never crossed the line. True spontaneity is simply too big a risk for the hopelessly self-conscious.