I Think I Love You

I'll always be thankful to David Cassidy for being there, on my lunchbox and in my head, giving me succor and something to dream about

It pains me to read about the recent troubles of my former preteen heartthrob, David Cassidy. Like many erstwhile child stars, he seems to be doing the celebrity death spiral, complete with DUIs, a messy divorce and, just recently, a purportedly drunken TV stint on a British morning show, where he harangued the hosts when they asked about his financial and marital travails.

I take David Cassidy's downfall personally, as if it were happening to a relative. In a sense, David was my relative, though we don't share any DNA. But from 1970 to 1974, when "The Partridge Family" ruled the airwaves and I was heading out of childhood and into the dark morass of puberty, I imagined David as my protector, my older brother, the guy who would guard me against playground bullies and, somehow, make me cool.

That's a lot to ask of any crush, I know. But more than his kisses or the feel of his soft, feathered hair against my cheek, I craved the cachet that being a Partridge would bring. I was a clumsy child, prone to spectacular falls in the most public of places. I was also a bit of a teacher's pet, my hand perpetually in the air. Combine all that with my thrifty mother's penchant for dressing me in matching Danskin shirts-and-pants-sets with elastic waistbands—hand-me-downs from cousins—and it's no surprise that the mean girls noticed me, circling at recess, threatening to punch me and taunting my fly-less pants.

"You're a fag!" they'd say, which had nothing to do with my sexual preference but was the popular word then for "nerd," at least in my Long Island elementary school. God, how I longed for a pair of jeans with a zipper.

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It's not that I was an outcast. I always had friends (other nerds like myself), but I didn't know enough to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I attracted attention, and not the good kind—talking too loudly, sneezing too vigorously, running too ungracefully, my legs splayed out behind me, arms windmilling at my sides.

No wonder I had to endure a daily shove/punch from an older neighbor-girl on my bus as she made her way to the back where the cool kids sat. Not me. After those daily pokes (which were more humiliating than painful), my eyes would brim with tears and I'd stare hard at David's smiling face on my Partridge Family lunchbox, smelly bologna and mustard sandwich nestled inside, and imagine that he could leap out and pop the mean girl upside her head, like any good older brother would.

Instead, I found a boy on the playground to walk around with: a mini-David Cassidy-doppelganger, with long straight hair. He didn't seem to mind when I attached myself to his side. He was only in first grade, as I was, but he was tall, and when we were together, the mean girls kept their distance.

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Eventually, though, the boy moved away and I was left without a bodyguard, which may be why the idea of becoming the sixth little Partridge, after Tracy, took hold. I just knew that David, with his Adidas sneakers, his slender physique and his pretty, boyish face would stave off the daily indignities I suffered. Nights, I forced myself to dream about him, having heard somewhere that if I conjured up an image of a person before I went to sleep, if I repeated their name over and over, when I drifted off, there that person would be, prancing around in my subconscious brain like my very own TV show.

I tried the technique again and again, and sometimes it actually worked: Suddenly, I was part of the Partridges, clad in a pair of purple bell bottoms (with a fly), tagging along behind David, giving him advice on various girls he was crushing on. I'd ride on the psychedelic Partridge Family tour bus to our gigs, sweet-voiced Shirley Jones at the wheel, a mother who wouldn't make me wear cast-offs from cousins. I'd stand on the stage and sing, shaking my maracas, my hair long, straight and silky, like Lori's, the ultimate '70s hair, instead of my uneven pixie, so short that people mistook me for a boy. I'd revel in the applause.

I wanted a lot, more than David could provide, more than any of the Partridges could provide. If I wanted protection, I would have to provide it myself. And while I never threw a punch, the bullies did eventually recede, or maybe they simply grew up, or lost interest in me. It couldn't have hurt that I finally put my foot down about the Danskins, eventually making my way to school in a pair of Levis corduroys the exact color of Crayola forest-green. I finally looked like everyone else, which is closer to a preteen's real dream.

But I still felt thankful to David for being there, on my lunchbox and in my head, giving me succor when I needed it, giving me something to dream about. Which is why, when I see my former crush flailing, the butt of bullying tweets, his face slightly bloated, his hairline receding, his expression slightly aggrieved, I want to protect him, not just because he's getting old (as I am), but because it seems he can't move on from the pretty boy he once was, the boy who crooned "I Think I Love You," the one everyone clapped for. During this embarrassing time in his history, his second adolescence of sorts, with all his flaws on view, I'm clapping for him still.