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Olá from São Paulo, Brazil! I'm visiting family in the midst of a heat wave, sucking water out of green coconuts and eating my body weight in fruits every day. Man, I missed Brazil and the warmth of folks here.
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Also: I turned 50 this morning. It's a little 😵. Age was always just a number to me -- you really are who you show up as every day -- but this mile-marker hits a little different, especially biologically. I'm still walking through the world like a child most days, and I hope that never stops. So: ever-onward... to this week's story!

It was Valentine's Day and fifth grade was buzzing with paper declarations of love.

Throughout our open-plan classroom, valentines printed with Snoopy or My Little Pony were decorated with hearts drawn in fruit-scented markers, secret likes nudged out into daylight.

I never cared about this stupid holiday designed to sell Hallmark cards and push a fairy-tale "Love" fantasy to the Disney believers. Why waste time obsessing over who liked who when I could be programming ASCII cartoons on the C64 in the computer lab, or snorkeling, or reading Ray Bradbury, or wandering vacant lots in the sun with my dog Trum.

Valentine's Day was never interesting to me.

But: over the previous summer, I'd made friends with a Cool Kid named Tim who recently moved into our subdivision. He walked with a swagger, had a blonde mullet and tight acid wash Edwin jeans (when I asked for a pair, my mom took one look at the $100 price tag and laughed). Our mothers became friendly and we took a road-trip together to the Florida Keys where his grandfather had owned a double-wide in a 55+ RV park. I'd never slept in one of those before. While our mothers drank tequila and complained about their men, we stayed up all night playing AD&D and listening to Tears For Fears tapes, then got up at dawn to ride rusty bikes by the seaside.

When school started again, the Guess? Jeans echelon of fifth grade society quickly claimed Tim as one of their own. I was a bookish little science dork with matching short sets and Velcro low-tops. But since he and I were buddies, the door into their clique stayed half-open, for a while. Tim helped me find "my look" in fifth grade: mousse my hair and comb it back, pop the collar on all my shirtsrip the knees in my jeans by "accidentally" falling off my bike over and over and then refusing to let my mother mend them. Anything to pass.

But then Tim's whole cool clique started "dating" – which meant movies and spending Saturdays at the mall and French-kissing – and suddenly I was in deeper water. I thought just the idea of sex was nauseating and probably stinky. Intentionally licking someone else's tongue wasn't much higher on my list.

But there was a girl who'd caught my eye. Her name was Erin and she was in the next class over: our elementary school had a multi-use classroom where the three separate classes comprising Fifth Grade sat with their backs to each other, facing their own blackboards and teachers in the same open-plan space. A stupid design: if you sat in the back few rows of any class, you could hear all three teachers at once but concentrate on none of them.

Erin was very short and thin, with mousy hair and hazel eyes. Her family were Ashkenazi Jews from Buenos Aires. Like me, she was trying to fit in with the Cool Kids – gummi bracelets, plastic earrings, baggy tees – but looked more Kid than Cool, which was kinda cute. When she smiled, she flashed pointy bicuspids, like a preteen werewolf. We'd never actually spoken.

++++

Actually, I did have a real girlfriend before, when I seven years old, the last year I lived in Detroit. Her name was Jessie.

She was the daughter of my mother's friend. We were the same age and our moms introduced us so we could entertain each other while they got high together. Our intimacy was kind of instant. We'd beg our moms to let us have sleepovers, and the moment the lights went out, we'd shed our clothes, climb under the covers together and snuggle skin-to-skin. One day, her alcoholic dad barged in and caught us in flagrante and all further sleepovers were canceled.

I didn't understand what we did that was so unthinkable. We were just cuddling without clothing – the most natural, human thing in the world – but I went home busted, shamed by her parents and in trouble with my own.

Fuck. I haven't thought about Jessie in decades.

++++

What attracted me to little Erin was different, more performative. I'd watched enough teen movies to know Cool Guys "go out" with girls. I had no idea what that actually meant, but I knew it started with getting a phone number.

After psyching myself up for days, I crossed the common room after lunch as fifth grade settled in for our next class. My heart pounding against my ribcage, I asked for hers, nervously but confident enough not to stutter or fumble. All her girlfriends around her sang:

GIRLS [unison]: OoooOOOOooOoOOoOoOoOoOoooOOOooooo~!!

My neck and cheeks flushed hot, but I ignored them and stood my ground – like a man – while she tore a corner out of her spiral notebook and slowly curly-cued her home phone in pink gel ink, her handwriting like a foreign alphabet. She handed it to me, this girl I'd never spoken to before, and I thought: This is the Big Deal? From all the movies? The simple transaction of it threw me so much I didn't know what else to say... so I smiled and she smiled, flashing her fangs and then I turned and walked smack into Vice Principal Gomez' lunch tray.

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We talked twice on the phone.

The first time was that night, after dinner. My family didn't have call waiting yet, and my mom set an egg timer on the table so Dad didn't miss any important calls.

Our conversation was weird at first, we were speaking different languages. I had zero idea what she could be into aside from the girls' toy commercials that ran during my after-school cartoons, so I told her about myself: I loved computers, He-Man, science fiction. They were all a total snooze for her. But when I talked about exploring vacant lots with my English Springer Spaniel, she lit up.

Erin had two white Malteses who she loved named Pepita and Pimenta: she brushed their hair every day, tied bows in their ears – green for Pepita, red for Pimenta – both of us warming up to each other before moved on to discussing our "favorites"--

  • Favorite Food: steak with "chimichurri???" (her), saag paneer (me)
  • Favorite Cartoon: Muppet Babies (her), He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (me)
  • Favorite Color: peach (her), turquoise (me)
  • Favorite Movie: Annie (her), The Dark Crystal (me)

--when my mom's egg timer leapt into the air and had a seizure on the kitchen counter. She came into the kitchen and gave me thirty seconds to say goodbye to my friend and hang up.

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When I saw Erin at school the next day, the whole class knew about our phone call. I was razzed, jabbed, ribbed, poked, tickled all day long. It felt invasive but also kinda cool, being the center of so many conversations. This nerd suddenly had juice.

In the cafeteria, Tim invited me to park my tray with him and other Cool Kids named like Jared and David and Josh.

TIM: So, are you gonna ask Erin out?

ME: Yeah, I think so.

TIM: When are you gonna do it?

ME [with macho confidence]: Tonight.

Throughout the day, I shined smiles across the common room, trying to catch Erin's eye. Mostly they bounced off her back, her neck, her bare shoulder sticking out of her oversized t-shirt. She was straining her body away from my gaze. Was she shy? Or was I just that unbelievably cool?

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I called her again that night, eager to get down to business. It took her a few minutes of muffled mumbling before her mother to passed the phone. When Erin did take the call, she was all business too:

ERIN: Everybody at school knows that we talked last night.

ME [amused]: I know! Who'd you tell? I didn't say a thing to anybody.

ERIN: I only told Gabriela and Robyn. And Lina.

ME: That Robyn's such a big mouth.

ERIN: That Robyn is my best friend, dork!

In my mind: a splash of bird shit lands on the hood of a new car.

ME: Erin, do you... wanna go out?

Silence, but I can hear Erin breathing.

ERIN: Um.

ME: I'm like, a really cool person. Trust me.

She laughed and I imagined her pointy bicuspids. It wasn't a yes but it wasn't a no. Suddenly she said she had to go and hung up.

I put the phone down, punched at the ceiling and jumped in the air like the end of a car commerical:

ME: Yeah! I'm going out with Erin!

MOM: Who's Erin, honey?

I'd totally forgotten my parents were also in the room.

DAD [totally not getting it]: Where are you going?

ME: No, I mean "go out with me" go out with me.

DAD: Right. But where are you actually going together?

I shook my head and swaggered out of the kitchen. Parents. So clueless, so lame. I crossed the living room where my little brother picked his nose in front of the television. Valentine's Day was coming up in a few days, and I had a little werewolf girlfriend who I think is from Argentina. Life could not be cooler.

Except: was my dad right? Did going out with someone mean you actually had to go places together? Was that were the frenching happens? I had many questions... but also I remembered: boyfriends give girlfriends Valentine's Day gifts.

Staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, I moussed my hair and raked it back with my fingers as I reviewed my options:

  • Flowers (that's for old people!)
  • those chalky candy hearts (every gets those! not special enough)
  • heart-shaped box of chocolates (can't trust myself not to eat them!)

It had to be a Cool Gift. Something I'd be excited to give her, to show her that I listen to her, anticipate her needs, what I great boyfriend I would be. Where did I go to for exciting stuff? There was only one answer: TOYS R US.

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It took some negotiating and light whining about the impending V-Day, but I got my mom to drive me there. I automatically went to the aisles I cared about first – action figures and video games – to see if anything new was out that I needed. There were some new G.I. Joe characters, but then I remembered: Erin. My Girlfriend Erin.

My hand found the sweaty wad of crumpled savings in my pocket. I remembered Erin loved the Muppet Babies cartoon. Inspired, I ran, Velcro low-tops squeaking on the toy store floor as I skidded into the stuffed animals aisle. And that's when I saw her: a stuffed animal of Baby Miss Piggy. Real cloth clothes, shiny blond hair like cornsilk, blue eyes painted on plastic balls. She was the perfect gift.

At home, my mom helped me package Miss Piggy nicely with leftover wrapping paper: we didn't have Valentine's themed paper, just scraps of Happy Birthday with rainbows and cakes or a masculine metallic-blue Happy Chanukah paper, which I went with. As she folded edges and taped down corners, my mom considered her words before speaking softly:

MOM: Honey, I– I want you know you what women want: they want to feel heard. They want to know that you listen to them and you value what they think and care about. It's not enough to just buy gifts. That's not how a real man shows love.

I looked around the room at our things: the VCR and Nintendo. The toys on the floor. My mom's one-touch bread machine. Our IBM PC Jr on the desk in the corner. The Lincoln Mark VII in the driveway. The inflatable rafts mildewing in the pool. Even our dog had piles of slobbery toys everywhere.

Inside, I laughed at her. She didn't know what she was talking about.

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I went to sleep, and when I woke up, it was Valentine's Day. Dressing in my favorite Cool Look, I moussed my hair back, hid the rather-large wrapped present in a Publix bag and walked to school.

Reaching the rusting fence ringing the elementary school grounds, I met my other friends – the ones who still didn't care about girls — while carefully schlepping the gift-wrapped love bomb I intended to detonate and secure my place at the Cool Kids table forever. Hopefully it not require too much french kissing.

Entering the fifth grade common room fifteen minutes before the homeroom bell, I planned to stow Miss Piggy and plan my delivery, but the whole room was an open-air market of frantic Valentine activity: boys and girls bustling to deliver their one-for-everyones while sneaking messages their special-someones.

I didn't bring Valentines for everyone, only my big Chanukah-wrapped gift for My Girlfriend Erin. The clock was ticking, the teachers weren't here yet, and over on her side of the common room, I spied Erin arriving at her desk, lifting its cover and depositing her notebooks.

This was my moment. Our moment.

I floated through the crowd, holding the present close against me, the eyes of friends and Cool Kids watching me, gunslingers in a saloon before the violence. Tim's eyes in particular caught mine, wolf-like: do it Danny, they said.

I stepped into Erin's classroom and stood in front of her open desk. She didn't see me until she closed its cover, and she flinched:

ERIN: H-hi, Danny.

I smiled big, smiled romantic, smiled like Cool Guys in the movies, holding out the present for her. Overhead, fluroscent lights set the wrapping paper menorahs aflame:

ME: Happy Valentine's Day!

The entire common room went dead quiet. All fifth grade eyes were on me. My next words caught in my throat like a feather:

ME: Erin, would you... [I swallowed] be mine?

Corny but I'd come this far and had to follow through. Then I heard a smattering of "ooOOOOOOoOoO"s before Erin's best friend Robyn shushed the room loudly. Erin was about to speak:

ERIN: Eric Freidberger is my Valentine. And boyfriend. Since last week.

My big movie romance smile sagged, slowly. The music in my head pitched downward and soured out of tune as the room erupted into gasps, then giggles, then ringing, teasing laughter.

ROBYN: Oh my Gahd! Danny Goldman... you're such a loser!

Their laughter swallowed the whole world. Erin looked up at me, not without pity. She wasn't being mean, she was just already committed. She took the present in both hands and passed it back to me through a chorus of fifth grade Ha-Has.

ME [not taking it]: No, it's okay... you keep it.

ERIN: Can we be... Valentine' friends instead?

My classmates were screaming at me, hysterical, but I couldn't hear them. I was a thousand miles underground now. I refused to cry.

ME [sad nod]: O-okay.

She moved to stow the gift under her desk as the fifth grade chanting grew louder:

EVERYONE: O-pen it! O-pen it! O-pen it!

Erin plunked the gift back on her desk and slowly undressed my mother's careful wrapping, peeling away strips of tape, unfolding shiny Chanukah paper without tearing it until Muppet Baby Miss Piggy was revealed.

Erin's hazel eyes met mine, for a split second. A tiny smile, those sharp little fangs. She thanked me, I nodded and the homeroom bell rang.

By the entrance of the common room, our teachers drained their bitter coffee mugs and swallowed their personal problems until three o'clock, corralling us with whip-crack energy:

TEACHERS: All right, everybody PIPE DOWN! And put the Valentines AWAY!

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The school day melted away slowly, like a candle. The slowest clock I'd ever watched.

In the lunchroom, I was a punching bag, a target for flung green peas, a moussed-head to chuck open milk cartons at. Yes, I was barred from the Cool Kids table forever. I would live the rest of my days alone. Loveless. A loser.

Ten thousand years after my death, after my body rot and the soil broke down my bones into calcium dust... the final bell rang and the school day ended.

++++

My mom was waiting outside, her station wagon choking students with black diesel smoke as they poured out of the chain-link back into their lives.

I walked off school grounds in slow motion, yanked the door handle with noodle fingers, dumped guts into the back seat with a janitor's bucket. Nothing would ever be good again. My mother's eyes watched me in the rear-view:

MOM: How was your Valentine's Day, honey? Did you friend like her present?

A slow sigh issued from inside my hollow bones where marrow used to pulse.

ME [softly]: I don't want to talk.

Mom shrugged and started the car, pulled out of the parking. She always called me "overly dramatic" and to her, it was not a good thing. At the traffic light, she reached over and turned the knob on the FM radio.

The smooth lilting saxophones of Wham!'s "Careless Whisper" filled the car. You know the song:

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For extra fun: hit PLAY as you read the rest bc I can't legally reproduce the lyrics 🤷‍♂️

As it played, I smashed my face against the window. Those saxophones, the cheated friend, the wasted chance he'd been given, were slicing me up inside. I never was gonna dance again. I tried to hold in this ocean of what have I done to myself, but the river inside me was flooding, filling, spilling upwards, pouring out of my eyes.

I understood, in that moment, why sad love songs were so popular: they made you feel it all over again. They stirred up what you held down and maybe even pushed it up and out of you.

I choked, I gasped, but refused to weep like a crybaby. I cried my tears out in a slow dance, in saxophone Wham! sadness, watching my fellow students carry their Publix bags full of paper Valentines, yellow safety lights blinking at every crosswalk in the 15mph school zone, all the way home.

Ahem. I hope you enjoyed that.

As you read this, I'll be out in the world, sweaty and enjoying my Brazilian 50th birthday. Reflecting love and precious time back at you for being here.

Até a próxima...

I'm probably eating acarajé