It happened in my sixth-grade science classroom. A weird place to have your first kiss, although I have to admit that it was only a kiss on the cheek. But for a kid who pined hopelessly after every pretty girl in my junior high, getting a kiss on the cheek from any female outside of my family’s gene pool was an event worth celebrating. The problem was, as with most things in my life, I turned something that should have been a sweet memory into yet another self-generated humiliation.
No, this isn’t a boner story, although I believe a boner was involved. This, my friends, is a story of sheer misguided nerdiness.
Kim McKenzie was an extremely pretty girl who hung out with a group of other extremely pretty girls in our school. They were the ones who would show up wearing very similar rabbit-fur coats and tight bell-bottomed jeans that fit perfectly over their platform shoes so that they almost appeared to be levitating as they walked down the hallways. Kim was the friendliest-looking of the bunch, since the other girls had kind of a hard prettiness that said they would not only laugh in your face if you asked one of them out but also kick the crap out of you as they laughed in your face. But Kim seemed different. She was shorter than the other girls and had big eyes and a permanent smile that made her seem like “the nice one.” I had spent the last several years staring at her from various hidden vantage points in classrooms and hallways and had often fantasized about asking her to a school dance or to see a movie at the mall. But, of course, I never did anything more than fantasize, because the chance of my working up the courage to ask out a girl that pretty was about as likely as my standing up on a cafeteria table in the middle of lunch hour naked and doing an interpretive dance.
But the first day of seventh grade, the Fates dealt me an amazing hand. As I sat down at my assigned desk in science class, which was a lab table that sat two students, a fringed suede purse dropped onto the chair next to me. I looked up to see that Kim had been assigned as my desk partner. We would be sitting next to each other every day for the entire year in the hour before lunch, close enough for our elbows to occasionally touch. I looked at her and she smiled back and said, “Hey, Paul.” She knew my name!
It turned out that she actually was really nice. She immediately struck up a conversation with me and was so friendly that I lost a lot of my awkwardness and was able to joke around with her in a way that almost made me seem entertaining to someone who looked like her. I was in shock. Kim McKenzie was going to be sitting next to me every day for the next year.
That had to mean she’d end up being my girlfriend, right? I thought as we sat taking notes about electrons. How couldn’t it?
A few weeks went by and things were looking good. I was able to regularly make her laugh, usually at the expense of our disheveled teacher, Mr. Durkowitz, who had apparently never heard that nose hairs can be trimmed. I also got pretty good at coming up with witty comments making fun of the pictures of old scientists in our textbook. Also, whenever possible, I’d try to ask her about herself and her likes and dislikes, since my father had given me a book a couple of years earlier entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People that said the key to getting people to like you was to ask them personal questions, as opposed to yammering on and on about yourself.
One day, before class started, we got to talking about music and what our favorite new songs were. Embarrassingly, I blurted out that the one I liked was “The Streak” by Ray Stevens, which was a really stupid song about the fad of that year, which was taking off all your clothes except for your shoes and then running through a public place. But fortunately for me, she said she thought it was a funny song and what was a potential relationship-ending admission by me turned out to be another small bit of bonding between the two of us. But then Kim said in a dreamy voice, “You know what song I absolutely love? ‘I Honestly Love You.’ It’s soooo romantic.”
For those of you who don’t know that song (and I’m assuming that’s most of you since I’m guessing I’m a lot older than the readers of this website), Olivia Newton-John had recorded a very syrupy song back then called “I Honestly Love You” that had become a big number-one hit in 1974. And it really was romantic. I had heard it many times on the radio and had had visions of slow dancing with Kim to it at the upcoming school dance. And so to have Kim tell me to my face that she loved that song almost seemed as if she was telling me that she honestly loved me.
She then said, “I really want to buy that record. I’d play it to death in my bedroom.”
I had my mom drive me to the mall the minute I got home. I ran to the record store and bought a copy of “I Honestly Love You,” inspecting several copies closely. I did this because back in 1974 all records were made of vinyl and if you accidentally bought a copy that was scratched or warped, you’d look like a total loser giving it to someone as a present because it would sound terrible when they played it and they’d think you were an idiot for not having checked it out before you bought it. I then went to the Hallmark store and bought some gift-wrapping paper. I wrapped the record to make it look like a present and even put a bow on it, since I was really hoping to blow her away with this incredibly romantic gesture of mine.
I barely slept that night as I tried to imagine how she would react. Would she scream with joy and throw her arms around me and kiss me? Would she just say thanks and put it in her bag because she was a pretty girl and pretty girls probably have guys giving them presents all the time? Or would she think I was a total weirdo and ask Mr. Durkowitz if she could change seats because she was sitting next to an insane stalker? I had no idea but was definitely hoping for the first outcome.
I was so nervous when I got to science class that I considered not giving it to her after all. I was definitely running the risk of embarrassing myself not only in front of her but in front of my entire class, since if things went wrong it was going to be a very public failure. Fortunately, the Fates dealt me yet another good hand. As I walked in the classroom, Kim was already there at our desk, looking through her purse for something. Very few other students had arrived, and so if I acted now and she screamed and ran out of the room in terror, there would be very few witnesses and I could always blame it on accidentally stepping on her foot or something.
I nervously approached the desk and said as nonchalantly as I could, “Hey, Kim, I got you something.” She looked up at me, surprised. I held out the wrapped record. Her eyes went wide as she looked at it and I waited to see if I had overstepped my bounds. But she gave a little laugh and said, “Oh my god, what did you do?”
She took the present from me and I sat down next to her. “Pretty wrapping,” she said as she carefully began to open it. I suddenly loved her even more, seeing she was someone who hated tearing wrapping paper as much as me. I always felt bad for wrapping paper because it does such a great job looking nice and making people happy when they see it and then two seconds later they tear it to shreds like it was just some ugly old newspaper. But then again, I was also a kid who couldn’t throw out a Cap’n Crunch box because it had a picture of the Cap’n smiling on the front of it and I felt like I was killing him if I sent him to the garbage dump. I think this is called personification of inanimate objects and it’s probably what leads you to become a hoarder and look insane on national TV. But I digress.
Kim pulled the record out of the wrapping and read the label.
“Oh my god!” she gasped. “I can’t believe it! Thank you!”
And with that, she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek.
I almost fainted. It was very rare in my life at that point (and up to this day, sadly) that things went the way I hoped they would go. But this had worked. So well, in fact, that I was immediately kicking myself I hadn’t waited until more people were in the classroom. A girl like Kim McKenzie kissing a guy like me in public would have given me some much-needed romantic cred in a place that knew me as a nerdy kid whose only skill seemed to be the ability to quote Bugs Bunny cartoons by heart. But it didn’t matter because I had accomplished exactly what I wanted. I had made Kim McKenzie like me.
At home that night, all I could do was relive the kiss. I played the moment over and over in my mind. I played it in slow motion. I could still feel her lips on my cheek. I could still feel her arms hugging me. I could still hear her saying, “Thank you!” I could still see her smiling at me during class and hear her saying, “Thanks again, that was really nice of you” as she headed out of the room when class ended and I delayed at my desk to let my boner subside. But it was the kiss that I couldn’t stop thinking about. And I wanted more than anything for it to happen again.
And that was the moment that I made a very bad mistake.
I decided to write her a thank-you note, thanking her for the kiss.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. What could be a more romantic follow-up to giving her a present she really wanted than the handwritten gift of my gratitude? And how else could I get her to kiss me again if she didn’t know how much her small gesture meant to me? It was the perfect plan, I told myself.
I sat down and started to write the note. All I remember verbatim is the opening line, which was: “Dear Kim, I just wanted to write you this letter to say, thanks for the kiss.”
I honestly don’t remember the rest. I’ve torn it out of my memory. But I do know that it was a long sappy letter that drove home repeatedly how grateful I was that she had kissed me and that talked about how girls didn’t usually like me “that way.” I went into great flowery detail about how I felt when she kissed me, referencing things like my heart feeling “light” and how I spent the rest of the day “walking on air.” As I wrote, I played the Olivia Newton-John song over and over in my head and had visions of Kim in her bedroom playing the record repeatedly as she danced around with her eyes closed and imagined I was there holding her close, dancing along with her. I went over the letter many times and was convinced that it said all the things I knew I couldn’t say to her in person. And I couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t be completely swept off her feet once she read it.
I went to bed that night certain I would be kissed again the very next day.
My heart was pounding as I got to class. Kim wasn’t there yet. Should I put the letter on the desk now, I wondered, so that when she arrived she’d be intrigued by this mysterious envelope with her name on it? Or should I hand it to her after suavely saying, “Kim … I’ve got something else for you”? Minutes ticked by and still no Kim. Just as Mr. Durkowitz walked in, Kim rushed through the door and sat down next to me. I gave her a friendly hello nod and she nodded back, looking a bit preoccupied. Then Mr. Durkowitz went into his lecture and I spent the entire hour obsessing about the best way to give Kim the letter. I even considered handing it to her during class so that she could read it as Mr. Durkowitz droned on, but then the vision of him seeing her not paying attention and taking the letter and reading it to the entire class made me realize that wasn’t a viable option.
When class was over, Kim got up pretty quickly. She looked like she was in a hurry to get somewhere, and so I awkwardly said, “Hey, um, you going to lunch?” She said she was and that she had to run to her locker before she met her friends and it was clear that I had to hand over the letter right then and there. And so I did.
“I have something for you,” I said, holding out the letter.
“Something else? Wow.” But she didn’t say it the way you would if you were impressed and touched that a person had now given you a present two days in a row. Her tone was more of the “Why are you giving me things all of a sudden? Are you some kind of psycho?” variety. She took the letter and thanked me and then rushed out of the classroom. And I immediately started to feel like I had made a huge mistake.
My stomach was in knots that night, and every time I reread the letter in my mind, what had seemed so romantic and poetic the night before now sounded desperate and pathetic, as well as catastrophically cringe-inducing. And when I saw her the next day in class, she didn’t mention the letter and was decidedly colder to me. I was completely self-conscious and so pretended to read my textbook once I saw that there was no positive feedback coming as a result of my thank-you note and definitely not another kiss in my future.
Over the course of the next week things only got more awkward. I was too embarrassed to say anything, and it was clear to me that Kim didn’t want to do or say anything that she thought would lead me to believe she had any feelings for me. Which meant she didn’t want to say anything to me because in her mind, if I was a guy who could turn an innocent kiss of appreciation into a declaration of love from her, then I was like one of those people you don’t even want to say hi to for fear they’ll start talking to you and never shut up.
A few weeks later, when Mr. Durkowitz said we could pick our own lab partners to work on projects for the science fair, Kim picked one of the popular guys on the other side of the room and I picked someone else. She moved over to the guy’s desk for the rest of the year and my new partner moved to mine, and Kim and I never really spoke again.
And to this day, whenever I hear the song “I Honestly Love You” on an oldies station, all I can think is one thing: “God, I hope Kim McKenzie doesn’t still have that stupid thank-you letter.” ♦
Paul Feig is a writer of books, a director of movies (most recently, Bridesmaids), and the creator of Freaks and Geeks.