I knew three things about Anthony. 1) He played football. 2) He was rich. And 3) this made him one of the most popular guys in my 7th grade class. So when my science teacher paired us as lab partners the second day of school, I knew what I was in for—the nerd girl will be doing all the work, and the jock will get his easy A.
But I was wrong.
Anthony sat next to me, his smile kinder than I'd ever expected. "Your name's Natalie?"
"Yup," I said with a nod.
"Cool. You moved here last year, right?"
"Mm hm." I was surprised he remembered this and unsure of what to think about how genuine he seemed. As a dork and loner for all of elementary school, I'd learned not to trust smiles. They were usually followed by cruel jokes and swift abandonment.
"Well, it's nice to meet you."
It was nice. Anthony turned out to be a fabulous lab partner. He always did his homework and did it well. He did his part in class and got as high scores as me on tests. He was smart, he was kind to me, and he never acted like he was that cool guy everyone saw him as. He talked to me—about his 8th grader girlfriend and his older brother and how his parents wanted him to go to the Catholic high school in the area. And he asked me about myself—about my art and playing flute, about my religion and friends and family.
Much to my surprise, Anthony and I became friends. At least for that one hour in science, when our very different worlds were left at the door and we were allowed to just be ourselves.
One time in class, I remember him watching me practice calligraphy. My mom had bought me real ink calligraphy pens to practice with, and I'd spend many a class hour writing the names of my friends or my favorite quotes. Anthony leaned in a little and said, "Hey, I have a favor to ask you."
"What?" I continued writing, not looking up.
"Will you write something pretty like that for me and my girlfriend? I want to give it to her."
He gave me a clean white piece of paper, and I wrote his name, a heart, and his girlfriend's name as best I could. While I carefully rounded the letters, it struck me that his girlfriend was lucky to have such a thoughtful, kind boy like Anthony. I hoped she treated him well. The tiniest pang of jealously weaseled its way into my heart, but I knew better than to expect that kind of affection from a boy. Let alone a popular, cute, taken boy. So it was gone as easily as it had come.
When the semester was over and a new one came, our teacher had an announcement to make. "You may change lab partners if you'd like. You can pick anyone you want."
My heart sunk. I didn't want to switch, but Anthony had other friends in class and surely he was tired of being my partner. How could I ask him to stay with me? I couldn't—I was too shy to ask anyone to be my partner, let alone him.
"Hey," Anthony said, and I braced myself for the inevitable.
"Yeah?" I looked at him, wishing I had the guts to say what I wanted.
"Do you wanna just stay partners?"
Several seconds passed before I could answer, because I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Anthony wanted to be my partner for the rest of the year? Enough that he'd ask me? Then my face broke into a huge smile. "Yes. That'd be great."
He smiled back, which was when I realized he looked pretty nervous before. "Awesome."
Anthony didn't know it, but he was the one boy in my life that kept my faith in good guys alive. At this time, a group of boys in band bullied me incessantly for having a crush on one of their friends. They would whisper his name at me when I passed in the halls. They would call me ugly and stupid and make me feel like gum on someone's shoe. There were other boys who would snap my bra straps and make extremely inappropriate comments about my way-too-big-for-a-7th-grader boobs. By all rights and measures, I could have thought all boys were scum. But there was Anthony, and he reminded me that amazing guys existed.
The school year ended. I spent summer with friends, and one evening I was at a playground with my best friend. As girls do, we were discussing boys.
"No boys like me," I said.
She pursed her lips. "I don't know about that. There's one who sure seemed sad you weren't at the end of the year dance."
This blew my mind to the point that I was incapable of believing her. "What?"
"He came up to me and asked where you were, and I said you didn't come because you're Mormon and not old enough for dances. He seemed really sad, so I asked him if he wanted to dance with you or something." She laughed. "He turned bright red."
"Who?" I asked
"He told me not to tell you. I promised."
"You're just making it up." She had to be. There was no way a guy wanted to dance with me enough to ask my friend where I was. To this day, I still can't quite believe she was telling the truth.
She sighed. "Maybe if you guess, then I won't break my promise."
"No one would do that, so I have no guesses."
"What about a hint? His initials are A.S." I was still stumped. I couldn't think of anyone with those initials that I knew. My friend gave me a look like I was the stupidest girl alive. She rolled her eyes. "Ugh, fine. Anthony?"
My eyes bugged out. "No way."
She shrugged. "He did break up with his girlfriend."
I couldn't believe it. I'm still skeptical. I never did find out the truth.
When 8th grade rolled around, I ended up having science first period. And guess who was standing outside the class the first day? Anthony. Except his once-dark hair was now bleached bright white. It surprised me so much that when he waved at me all I could do was laugh. Yup, I laughed at the boy who was arguably the new King Of School.
"What did you do to your hair?" I asked, trying to restrain my giggles.
His smile fell, and in that moment I realized I might have done irreparable damage to his ego. "Me and my brother thought it would be cool...you don't like it?"
I winced, and this wave of awkwardness washed over me as I remembered what my friend said that summer. Was he looking for my approval? Why? Should I be honest or spare his feelings? "It's...different."
And that sums up pretty much all of my 8th grade dealings with Anthony. Different. More distant. The easiness of being lab partners was mostly gone, though here and there it would surface again in algebra, another class we had together. Anthony sat in front of me, and he would ask me questions and smile and this time I started to really crush on him.
But he was still the popular boy and I was still the nerdy girl. In movies and books these two characters find a way to be together against all odds. In real life, Anthony sat next to his best friend in algebra, a boy who was popular and not-so-nice. And one day while Anthony and I were talking in class and everything was lovely, that friend leaned over to whisper something in Anthony's ear. The boy every girl wanted—the boy I wanted—went white with fear and shook his head, saying, "No."
I'm not exactly sure what was said, but I do know things changed after that. Anthony stopped talking to me like he used to. Eventually he even stopped asking me about the school work. A girl named Allison started coming over just to ask him questions. She was a cheerleader. She was beautiful and tiny and wore lots of makeup. She and Anthony went to the 8th grade dance together like every stereotype in the book. I went to the dance with my friends and hid under tables from the tuba player who wanted to dance with me.
I moved four months after that. I have no idea what happened to that sweet boy, but I hope he stayed sweet despite how easy it would be for him to change. Even if he did change, I'm grateful that, at least to me, he was the kindest boy I knew in junior high. That meant everything to this nerd girl.