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When I was small, love seemed like a fantasy, something that only happened to other people and witnessed vicariously. I had crushes on boys, because I thought I should. The ones who seemed like they had their shit together and never talked to me were the ones I liked best.

My middle school had monthly dances, which gave the popular kids a chance to pair up. Their sterile swaying side-by-side formed an impenetrable snake of popularity across the gym to 90’s love songs. You were either in it or you weren’t. Those of us who weren’t felt the chasm of rejection in a big way.

In those days, I wanted nothing more than to be popular, to fit in and to tap that unknowable vibe that all the popular kids seamlessly flowed into, without effort or awareness. I went to nearly 30 school dances before one boy finally asked me to dance. He was the younger brother of a girl I sort of knew, rail thin and awkward like me. In those days, a two year age difference was a like a kiss of death, the stink of desperation for chumming the sea of underclassman for love. The bullies’ work was cut out for them, jokes practically writing themselves. Still he was a nice enough kid, and no one had ever asked me before, so I said yes.

We didn’t join the winding snake of couples, but danced quietly in the corner near the coats were hung. My friends awkwardly stood around, until one asked loudly if we were “going out,” a term akin to marriage in the middle school level. We looked awkwardly at each other and sort of shrugged. I guess that was his way of saying yes, but nothing was very official about it.

Going home that night, my stomach began to sink, the charm of the idea of having my first dance wore off so quickly, I began to hate myself for wanting it in the first place. Now I was stuck with a boyfriend I wasn’t sure I wanted. The news at school would travel quickly and I began to panic.

It was close to Christmas when he began to call me. Every day, I tried to keep up my end of the conversation, but soon found we had little in common. When we returned to school after winter break, he would leave notes for me in my locker, but we never saw each other. But for the teasing I endured from my classmates, it was almost like he didn’t really exist.

The bullies, as predicted, were all over this juicy development in my previously non-existent love life, asking with all the disgust they could muster if it was true. They may as well have asked if I were eating garbage on a pile of dead kittens. I didn’t know how to answer, only knowing I had to end things with this boy.

The best I could do was focus on a comment he’d made that my locker was messy, a flimsy excuse at best, but it would do. I broke it off and went back to pining over the unachievable boys in my own grade. I wouldn’t date again for another two years, each time that followed a more awkward and forced foray into the bizarre than the last.