Jennifer Miller was the belle of the fifth grade. Her long blond hair and geek chic glasses captivated us all. But what really awed us was her refusal to give in to the tacky trends of the time. She continued to wear fashionable black Mary Janes when the rest of the girls turned to My Little Pony sneaks, and when all the other girls began toting Rainbow Bright or Jem accessories, she stayed loyal to her haute couture Rave jelly bracelets. When it came to fashion, Jen refused to compromise, and we rewarded her with our admiration.
I spent countless nights staring at her in our class photo, imagining me standing next to her rather than Jonathan Sinclair. Sometimes I would get behind her in line at the water fountain and watch the way her hair fell over her face as she drank. Life was so unfair. Up to that point, every boy in Miss Green’s class had taken his turn dating Jen Miller. Everyone, that is, except me. I found myself looking for a sign that she might be interested before I made my move. It was like waiting for a sign from God that he existed. I analyzed every little gesture—each giggle, each smile, each “bless you” after a sneeze—but none were conclusive enough to prompt action. I was obsessed, though, and it was that obsession that led me to make my first move.
I carefully crafted a letter for my sister to give to her. It read:
You are cute and pretty. Will you go out with me? Or maybe we could just be friends? If it is just friends, let me know so I can start talking to you more often. If it’s going out, I think you can come with us to the movies Saturday afternoon. It will be cool. But let me know soon. Thanks.
PS — Even though I said we could just be friends, I’d rather go out. Okay? But friends is better than nothing. Okay?
I used my sister’s purple paper because Jen liked purple. I folded it into this little paper triangle Mark Affeld had taught me and gave it to my sister for delivery.
When the next morning came, I felt nauseous. I went into the bathroom and vomited several times. Usually this would be good news, a day off from school, but today wouldn’t do. I needed to get the results of my romantic inquiry. Was Jennifer Miller my first girl friend? Were we just going to be friends? Was I going to be the laughing stock of JFK Elementary School?
Despite my nausea, I gathered myself and headed off to school, a three-minute walk, which I finished in two despite having to trudge through the snow. Outside the brick two-story I snuck into the crowd waiting outside, hoping to go unnoticed. Unfortunately, Arlene Raymond, one of Jen’s best friends, caught sight of me. We all knew she had cooties. Her grandmother once brought in cupcakes for her birthday with cigarette ashes sprinkled in the frosting.
“What you wrote was so cute,” she said.
Cute? What was that supposed to mean? Just when I was about to bail on the whole situation, I saw her. Jennifer Miller was holding my purple triangle in her right hand and her glasses were sagging a bit low on the left side. I was mesmerized by her smile as she stood there in the snow. Then… it happened.
As she began walking toward me, I puked. It snuck up on me, so I was unable to make arrangements for a clean getaway. It just kind of choked out of my mouth and down the front of my coat. Jen’s bright eyes dulled, and her smile flat-lined. I turned without saying a word and ran home.
My mom set me up on the couch with some ginger ale and The Price is Right, my favorite television show. After twenty minutes recuperating with Bob Barker, I got up to use the bathroom. When I returned, a frozen image of a huge piece of cauliflower had replaced my show. I thought I must have accidentally changed the channel to a cooking show when I stood up.
Then the frozen screen cut to video of the space shuttle launch. The black and white ship soared through the blue sky, pumping a billowing trail of smoke and fire behind it. Suddenly, The Challenger’s ascent to the heavens was instantly replaced by a ball of smoke — the cauliflower I’d seen seconds earlier frozen on my screen — with smoky trails shooting off in various directions. A fireball propelled toward the ground. I sat silent. Stunned. Confused.
The days that followed were marred with non-stop coverage of the Challenger disaster. A band of brave astronauts had been obliterated in a heartbeat before the nation’s eyes, including Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher whose smile reminded me of Miss Green’s. My mom cried several times, which scared me and made me cry, too. I watched the replays over and over until I was numb.
After school on my third straight sick day, my sister came to me with a purple triangle folded in her hand. I was sitting on the porch in order to get some fresh air. I took it with trepidation and said a silent prayer before I opened it. The tenor of the rest of my elementary school life would be decided by what it said on that tiny bit of paper. Under my note, Jennifer Miller had written her own and affixed a Strawberry Short Cake scratch-and-sniff sticker. It read:
Thanks for the note. Can I still come with you to the movies if I choose just friends?
PS — I hope the puke gets cleaned off your coat before Saturday.
I looked up at the clouds drifting across a pale blue sky and shivered in the winter cold. I took a deep breath, walked inside, and threw the purple note in the trash.
William C. Friskey is a graduate of Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program in creative and professional writing. He is currently working as a writing professor and lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children.