Story by Bethany
Have you ever really hated someone?
I mean, really hated them? Despised them, everything about them. Loathed every little red hair on his head and fantasized about something awful happening to him, even though it’s 22 years since you’ve last seen him. Maybe not death, but definitely some prolonged torture. Maybe medieval torture, like with those stretching machines that would attach to his arms and legs and get him to really scream, begging my forgiveness, which I would never grant in a million years.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
When I was eleven years old, more than anything in the world, I wanted a boyfriend.
My best friend Wendy had kissed a boy last year, and as she fed me the details of her sixty seconds of blissful spit swapping in the public library (where her mother had dropped her off to “study”), I felt my skin turning an unattractive shade of green. I wanted to kiss a boy. I wanted a boy to like me. Not that I had any clue what I’d actually do with a boyfriend. My wildest fantasies involved a baby-faced eleven year old boy holding my hand while we sat on a bench in the park, working on long division problems together.
OK, I’ll admit it: I wasn’t the sort of eleven year old girl who boys liked. Some eleven year olds are very obviously budding beauties, but not me. Considering I’m not going to hurt my younger self’s feelings, I know I can be blunt: I was hideous. There were zits covering my cheeks, chin, and forehead, frizzy mud-brown hair, and an extra twenty pounds that’s unfortunately turned into something closer to thirty over the years. My wish for a boyfriend was stupid, but I couldn’t help myself. Raging hormones and all.
And that brings me to the boy. The one who I can never forgive, who set the stage for every insecurity I ever had. Evil incarnate’s name was Alex Connors.
Alex was my first real crush. Some girls liked the bad boys, but Alex was cute in a sweet, innocent way that appealed to someone whose idea of love was gleaned mainly from Disney movies. He had a sprinkling of freckles across his nose, gray eyes, and reddish brown hair that looked like it might curl if it were just a centimeter longer. He was also in that pre-adolescent phase where he hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt (he was my height or possibly an inch or two taller) and his voice occasionally cracked when he answered questions in class, which I found incredibly endearing.
Alex sat behind me in math class. Yet another reason to like him: he was actually good in math. He wasn’t a show off, but he clearly knew his stuff. I was good in math too and I respected intelligence. Although I saw a couple of his test grades and the truth was, I was kicking his ass. I’m not sure if Alex had any idea that the mousy girl who sat in front of him was consistently scoring five to ten points higher than him on every exam, but I made an effort to keep that information to myself. Even back then, I knew boys didn’t like smart girls.
At the end of the first week of school, Wendy and I compared notes on boys while walking home. Wendy had been my best friend since we were in kindergarten and we discovered we were wearing the same dress on our first day of school. Now if I showed up to a party wearing the same dress as another woman, I’d have to hide in the closet all night; but back then, a coincidence like that was enough to bond us together in friendship for the next five years. But I could already tell we were growing apart. Wendy was figuring out that she could be popular if she wanted to be. She was pretty and outgoing enough—all she needed to do was start smoking, which she started to do a few months later.
“Bryan Foster is really cute,” Wendy said to me, her eyes filled with dreamy longing. Bryan was a good looking eight grader who came to school every day with bloodshot eyes that I guessed weren’t from staying up late studying every day. I’d never so much as made eye contact with him and I was happy to keep it that way.
“Do you think he’d like a sixth grader?” I asked, withholding my real opinion.
Wendy beamed. “He told me I was stacked.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “You know, that I have big boobs.”
I automatically looked down at Wendy’s chest. She was way ahead of me in the breast department. I had little unimpressive seedlings, but Wendy was definitely pretty stacked for an eleven year old, as Bryan had graciously noted.
“So who do you like, Rachel?” Wendy pressed me.
I didn’t want to tell Wendy the truth. She had a big mouth. But I was dying to discuss my secret with someone. “I think Alex Connors is kind of cute,” I said shyly.
“Alex Connors?” Wendy crinkled her nose. I wasn’t surprised that she couldn’t see his appeal. He wasn’t cool or dangerous, and I was pretty sure he didn’t smoke or do drugs. “Really?”
“Well, sort of,” I said, although I was actually relieved Wendy didn’t like him. If Wendy decided she liked a boy, he was hers.
Wendy shrugged. “You could probably go out with him. I mean, you’re not that bad looking.” (Wendy had never quite gotten a grasp on how to give out a compliment.)
Free from competition and armed with the reassurance that I wasn’t that bad looking, I dove into halfheartedly flirting with Alex. I was pretty clueless about what to do, so for the most part flirting involved trying (usually unsuccessfully) to find excuses to talk to him. My mother, a Long Island housewife down to her very DNA, assured me that the best way to attract a man was through his stomach—and my father’s substantial gut was a testament to that. With that piece of wisdom guiding me, I thrust as many baked goods on Alex as I could.
“Want a cookie?” I’d ask Alex in the moments before math class was to start, holding out an opened package of a Chips Ahoy to him. I wasn’t much of a baker, so the prepackaged stuff would have to do.
“Sure,” Alex would reply, hesitantly reaching for a cookie as I gazed adoringly into his gray eyes.
Alex made out like a bandit, getting a daily supply of cookies, brownies, and whatever else I could buy at the cafeteria for under a dollar. But it didn’t matter. Alex didn’t seem to know I was alive beyond the fact that he stared at the back of my head for 45 minutes during math class every day.
Until one day he suddenly knew exactly who I was.
I still remember this day like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the cafeteria with my new friends who had replaced Wendy since she had abandoned me for her new, popular friends. They were all like me: awkward, shy, kind of brainy. We sat huddled in an inconspicuous corner of the cafeteria, eating our one-dollar lunches of fish sticks and French fries.
I was too surprised to respond when Alex and his friends approached our table. I was mid-bite and probably had fish sticks caught in the recesses of my shiny metal braces. I had the kind of braces that were held together with rubber bands, which you can imagine really added to my attractiveness. When Alex stood in front of me, I just stared and gawked at him.
“Hi, Rachel,” he said to me. My heart pounded in my chest at the sound of him saying my name. He looked down at me and smiled, and our eyes met—those vivid gray eyes were one of the things I liked best about him. I can’t believe he’s talking to me, I thought excitedly. I need to say something witty.
“Hi,” I croaked. I was the master of wit.
“Are you comfortable, Rachel?” he asked me, that smile still plastered on his face. “You look sort of uncomfortable.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Comfortable?” I stammered.
He looked back at his buddies. “We thought you might need this,” he said, and that’s when I noticed he was dragging a chair over from another table.
“Huh?” I said, now thoroughly confused. I was already sitting down.
“An extra chair,” Alex clarified. “You know, for your giant ass.”
I stared at him, horrified. He looked back at his friends, who snickered appreciatively. Then they started making oinking sounds. I heard one of the guys mutter, “My god, she’s so ugly!”
I was speechless as the boys wandered away, still nudging each other and pointing at me. My friends assured me that Alex and his friends were idiots, but it was all I could do to keep from crying. I spent the rest of the lunch period with my face burning in humiliation, trying to tell myself that he hadn’t meant to be as mean as he was. Alex seemed like such a nice kid. Maybe his friends dared him to say that to me. After all, you can’t turn down a dare.
Except I soon found out that the scene in the cafeteria was meant to be the first of many tortures Alex had designed for me. Every day he would find a new way to make me feel self-conscious about my acne-smeared face, my flat chest, my baby fat. Eventually, I tried to become invisible. When I looked in closet, I searched for things to wear that would call the least attention to my grotesque appearance. Any time I reached for a shirt, the first thought that would cross my mind was, “What will Alex say about it?”
I started skipping meals to lose weight, but when I did come to dinner, I ate way too much. My mother noticed that I was becoming withdrawn and finally confronted me one night after I wolfed down two giant slices of pound cake. I actually tried to throw them up in a halfhearted attempt a bulimia, but I scratched my soft palate with the nail of my index finger when trying to gag myself and quickly gave up.
“What’s going on, honey?” she asked me when we were alone in my room. “You haven’t been yourself lately.”
I was never good at concealing things from my mother, so the entire story spilled out over the next half hour, along with a handful of swear words I had never before used in front of my mother. I punctuated the tale by bursting into tears.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she sighed as she stroked my frizzy brown hair to comfort me. “He probably just has a crush on you.”
That was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. Alex Connors did not have a crush on me. Maybe a boy would pull the hair of a girl he secretly liked, but he wouldn’t tell his friends that she’s so ugly that she has to go to the veterinarian when she’s sick. To be honest, I’ve never believed that boys actually ever torture girls because they like them. I think that’s a conspiracy by the mothers of the world to make their ugly daughters feel better.
The next year, Alex’s family moved to Queens and he switched to a local school. Initially, I worried that his buddies might carry on where he had left off, but it turned out that with Alex out of the picture, I mostly got left alone. I wish I could say that my life got better after that, but it turned out the damage had been done. I was already well on my way to an eating disorder and my fragile self esteem had been ripped to shreds. I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning and dress myself in some shapeless outfit that would attract the absolute minimal amount of attention to myself. Every time I looked at a boy that I liked, I’d hear Alex, my first crush, calling me ugly and assume that must have been what the other boy must be thinking too. Seven years of weekly psychotherapy and I still can’t get past the things that happened when I was eleven years old.
So when 22 years later, a compromised Alex Connors was metaphorically plunked on my lap and I had the chance to get the revenge I always wanted, you can’t really blame me for taking it. Wouldn’t you do the same?