In grammar school, I sit alone at lunch. I'm stuck at the end of the row at the auditorium assemblies, never near the middle where the popular girls sit. I'm chosen last for teams. I'm skinny. I talk too fast. I'm a little nervous. I'm a little Jewish. In art class, the other kids all spell my name wrong on our homemade valentines. I am unpopular.
In junior high, I join the chorus and am good at harmonizing. Other kids look at me with a bit more interest. It feels weird, but I'll take it. I still don't quite fit in anywhere. I still sit alone at lunch, near where the trays and trash are deposited. But I sing the alto harmony in the Thanksgiving performance for the entire school in the big auditorium and the music teacher praises me afterward.
On Valentine's Day, in 7th grade, I see a folded-up piece of paper sticking out of my locker vent with a red heart crayoned onto it. Dreading being hurt, I unfold it to find a note written in excellent penmanship with my name spelled correctly. It tells me I am pretty and have a good voice and they like my hair. It tells me its author is someone I don't know but who likes me, and will write again soon. It's signed "From Your Secret Admirer."
My scalp and the hairs on my arms prickle and I look around to see if anyone watches, but people are rushing to class. Maybe this isn't a joke. Maybe somebody really likes me. I feel different now in a good way. I feel less alone walking down the hall. My back feels warm, like when my aunt holds me in her lap against her big chest. I stand outside history class, stalling out the bell, reading it again.
In history, I feel self-conscious. Is he here? I peek around, but no one looks at me. If he is here, he is a very good pretender. In chorus, I notice I do have a nice voice and wonder if he hears me, but nobody looks my way. All are busy trying to find their notes and read their rhythms. I sing the harmony prouder and louder now. Miss Rudnick smiles at me more.
I can't sleep all night. Who can it be? Is he on student council? In 11 AM study hall? The next day, there is no note, and not the next day either. My stomach falls a little. Maybe he doesn't like me anymore or I did something wrong, or because I have a pimple, and I feel bad. But two days later, there's another note sticking out with a picture of a yellow sun crayoned on it. A quake of joy flutters in my stomach.
I unfold it to find a short note saying he was out for two days with a cold, but imagining me reading this note made him happy, and it's signed "From Your Secret Admirer." I hold it open as I walk to class, feeling more confident than ever before. I really want someone else to see this, someone else to know.
I read the note over and over in class, and the girl next to me notices and, after class, asks what it is. I take a risk and show her. She gets all excited and shows her girlfriend, who asks bluntly who it is. "I don't know," I say, enjoying her interest. Those two tell other kids and all look at me more often.
The next day, there is no note—and not for two more days. The girls are losing interest. I am feeling unconfident again. But on a Friday, a note with a picture of an apple appears folded in my locker vent. As I read, others join me and are looking over my shoulder, and I let them. Popularity is more important than privacy. He tells me he likes me and he likes apples second best. The girls (and one boy) are very intrigued.
"I wonder who it is?"
"We have to find out!"
"Somebody who likes apples, hmm …"
It becomes a puzzle. I am the mystery woman at the center and I like this immensely.
Now I have three girls for company at my lunch table near the tray stacks and trash, and we watch each lunch tray go by to see who maybe has an apple. Suspense is heavy among us. Almost everybody takes an apple back to class that day, and we guess, "Maybe him? Maybe him?" We laugh and laugh together. I have never laughed easily with others, as I have a stupid-sounding hyena laugh, but it makes them all laugh harder, like they maybe like me.
My secret admirer leaves another note with a tree on it. He tells me he will leave me a hint at the oak tree I pass on my way home from school. I'm thrilled that an armada of girls and boys will follow me home from school today. We run up to the oak tree to see a newly carved musical note with my initials in it.
"He must be in music class or chorus!" says one girl.
"Maybe it's Mr. Arpaia, the music teacher!" screeches another, and we laugh and laugh. If he is, you'd never know it. Mr. Arpaia only admires the boys.
On Monday, my secret admirer leaves a note saying that on Friday, he will walk by my lunch table at 12:50 PM, smile and then bite his apple. If I like him, I should smile back. I feel scared. Several girls and guys at nearby tables watch me watching the trays that day.
At 12:49 on the cafeteria clock, I feel nauseous; my jaw aches. A hush falls over the entire lunchroom, more than just the tables near me. The bell rings, and a bunch of students bring trays toward the trash area; several have apples. This feels like a quiz show, waiting for the answer to be revealed. Tension is high as several apple boys approach. Then a black-haired boy rises from a remote table in a band sweater with an apple on his tray. No, not him, I think, as he's not popular. I could never go out with him!
I'm aware that pandemonium has broken out in the cafeteria, and girls look at me and scream, and I smell spaghetti sauce on my plate, which was delicious a minute ago and now stinks like garbage, and I hear myself screaming, too, as I see Albert's neck pulling inside his band sweater shoulders like a turtle as he quickly walks away. I feel like I may explode as people poke at me.
"It's Albert!" "He's a junior" "Albert is your secret admirer!" "Do you like him?!"
I can't tell. I can't feel anything, except at this moment I know how it feels to be popular. And I know how it feels to be cruel.