Every afternoon after lunch, our second grade teacher would have us push our desks back, and in the middle of the room on linoleum tiles that were splattered with sun, she would put us in pairs and teach us to dance: the foxtrot, the waltz, the jig. I don’t remember what else I learned that year – not much really, since I read way more books at home in a single week than we could possibly stumble through in the classroom, one kid reading at a time in the most painfully slow way – but those afternoons taught me to love the way it felt to move my body to music.
My dance partner had dark hair, white teeth and the personality of a labrador retriever puppy. His hands were warm, and just the feel of them made warmth rise to my cheeks..
Dark-haired Boy would talk to me while we danced, but I was way too shy to answer him back. I would nod yes or no, sometimes even smile. Soon he began teasing me whenever the teacher left the room, pulling on my braids or calling me Brain. I didn't know what to do. No boy in school had ever talked to me like that before. Most people ignored me because I was so quiet. My father's nickname for me was Mouse.
When I told my mother that a boy at school was calling me Brain, she said, "Oh, he’s just jealous because you are so smart. And maybe he teases you because he likes you. Wouldn’t you rather be a brain than an empty head?"
So next time, Dark-haired Boy came up to me and started saying, "Hey, you are such a Brain," I mustered my courage and said, "Empty-head!"
Dark-haired Boy was delighted. My insulting him was just the encouragement he wanted. "You are talking to me!" he said. Everyone knew that I was the shyest kid in the class, and he took my few words as a huge compliment. He bragged to other kids that I had given him a nickname.
Young as I was, I can remember tucking away this nugget of information: boys like it when you insult them. How very peculiar.
My shyness disappeared as I got older. Other crushes came and went, but I always had a teasing insult for Dark-haired Boy. Alphabetical order kept us together even after we both left the small elementary school and went on to the big public high school. He was always in my homeroom, and often sat just ahead of me in classes. He would turn to flash me a smile before a teacher handed out a test. "Quick, give me some of your brain power."
By senior year, we were rarely in classes together, because I had been pushed ahead into classes with kids a year older. We never dated because that would have been weird. I mean, by then we’d known each other so long we were like cousins. We didn’t have the same friends, or belong to any of the same groups, but we were still always in the same homeroom and we’d talk to each other some times, bonded in the way you get bonded to someone you’ve known your whole life, even when you realize that you have little in common.
I saw him last the day of my high school graduation. We were lined up in alphabetical order, but a teacher told me to move to the front of the line because I was to give the valedictory speech. "Brain!" he whispered as I passed him, and I laughed. I knew he was one of the kids who had smuggled cow bells in to the formal ceremony so that he could ring them and make a commotion during funny parts of my speech.
Whenever I run into old high school friends in the grocery store, we talk about who we have seen, and who is doing what. So I heard stories about Dark-haired Boy over the years. I knew he'd made some bad choices. I knew he was drinking heavily.
He was dead by the age of forty. Cirrhosis of the liver. My mother called to tell me. A short illness, the obituary said. I’d heard about his drinking, knew that this death was coming, and yet still seeing his name in print, the name that had been listed just above mine so many times during our school years, was a shock.
When I see old friends and we play catch up and talk about high school days, people tend to sigh and shake their heads when they talk about Dark-haired Boy. But I think of him as my first crush, the first boy to tease me out of my silence, the first boy to make me feel that I wasn't invisible.