I once knew a girl who rode her bike around the block because she wasn’t allowed to cross the street, that would eat ice cream sandwiches with the paper on them and—if she was in a really good mood—would throw on a purple mini-bikini and run through the sprinkler.
Her name was Jillian Dafotis. She lived down the street from me and I fell in love with her when I was in fourth grade. I know that being nine years old may seem kinda young to be in love, but these things started happening early for me—especially after watching that episode of The Wonder Years when Kevin Arnold French kisses Winnie Cooper in the janitor’s closet. I don’t really know how it happened, all I know is that sometime before Martin Luther King Jr. Day in fourth grade, Jillian Dafotis creeped into part of my brain that was usually occupied by comic books and my older brother’s Super Nintendo. She made me feel happy like they did, and warm too; like the time I spilled hot chocolate on my stomach after sledding last winter.
Jillian was by far the prettiest girl in Mrs. Linga’s homeroom class. Joffrey, the kid with the funny name and goofy glasses who sat in the front of the class, said so once. Even back then she was small and perfect. Her hair was blonde and was always combed nicely and shiny; it looked like someone’s hair in a shampoo commercial. And she didn’t wear one of those silly sports team jackets that were baggy and scratchy like everyone else. She had a real coat, one with two stripes of big, shiny buttons down the front, that was soft and a shade of green I’d never seen before (it was sort of like pea soup, but different). She also didn’t listen to whatever was big on MTV; her favorite band was the Beatles. And George was her favorite instead of John or Paul like everyone else. There were rumors that she wore lipstick but it wasn’t true—she did use cherry Chapstick but only because she liked the taste of it. And I didn’t know exactly why, but I wanted to lick her.
It all started one day at recess, while me and Cory Bell—my best friend since we sat together on the bus ride to the aquarium field trip in second grade—were talking about the newest issue of The Amazing Spiderman. Jillian’s best friend, Katie LaChapelle, asked me if I wanted to be Jillian’s boyfriend.
“Jerry,” she said. She was kicking the woodchips that covered the playground where we were. They were soft and damp and smelled good. “Jill wanted me to ask you if you wanted to be her boyfriend.” I said yes. It was a big deal. Katie went back to tell Jillian. I pumped my fist just like Mo Vaughn does after hitting a homerun and then me and Cory started writing a note to her under the plastic, staticy, neon orange slide. It went like this:
I’m glad that we are boyfriend and girlfriend. I have never had a girlfriend. Ever. I like you. Do you like me? I think you’re really pretty. Especially when you wear your hair up. And when you wear those big white earrings. I’m having a big huge birthday party in May. Can you come? Ask your mom and I’ll ask mine. OK, bye.
P.S. – I love you.
I meant it too. Cory wanted me to draw a picture of her for her, but I decided not to. I was pretty good at drawing, especially the comic book characters Cory and I created like Tomahawk and Chainsaw and Blade, but drawing people was hard. Real hard. Especially someone pretty like Jillian. It’s too hard to take someone like that and make them look as pretty on a piece of paper. I tried, but I messed up. Like I said, drawing pretty things is tough. After lunch, she gave me a note back that said this:
Good. I’m glad you wrote me a note. I have never gotten one before. Except from Katie. I like you too. Do you want to sit with me at lunch tomorrow? Katie thinks you are hott, but I told her I wouldn’t tell you so don’t tell her. OK?
Jillian Marie Dafotis
After that, things were good. I told her I would score a goal for her in my peewee hockey game on Saturday. I didn’t though. I tripped on a breakaway because I was nervous, but it was okay. She said she would ride her bike to watch the game because the rink was sorta close to her house. She didn’t though. Her father said no, but it was okay too. Then she asked me if I called my mother “Mom” or “Mommy.” I told her “Mom” even though it wasn’t the truth. Sometimes we did sit together at lunch, like when Cory was absent or we didn’t have any comics to read. Once I lost my lunch money (it was under my spelling workbook) so she shared her chocolate milk with me. We used two straws in one carton. It was nice. Really nice. Then on Valentine’s Day I made her a card out of red construction paper and stiff paper lace. It was nice, I spent like an hour on it. I drew a kid our age jumping in the air with his hands stretched out. I wrote, “You make me feel like this” below it in my best handwriting. Sometimes I’d also make her other things, like this one time I cut out a panel of a comic book I had doubles of that showed Peter Parker (that’s Spiderman) and Mary Jane (his wife) kissing. I wrote “ME” above Peter’s head and “YOU” above Mary Jane’s head. Jillian made me feel like a superhero, like Spiderman. She made me want to fly through a city like he did with his webslingers. Woosh! Through the buildings! Or like the way Mountain Dew tasted, like electricity. Bzzzzzzz! And when I was at home, playing Nintendo, I would think about her and how her hair smelled like apple cider and my stomach would get funny like when my dad would drive his truck fast over a dip in the road, or when I would ride the roller coaster at the carnival on summer vacation.
Like I said, my birthday was in May and my mom was planning a big tenth birthday party. Cory and I were excited. There was going to be cheese pizza, soda, sugary chocolate cake, and plenty of video games; four things I liked almost as much as Jillian. My mom knew everything about me and found out that I had a girlfriend. She thought it was “adorable”—so adorable that she called up Mrs. Dafotis and invited Jillian and one of her friends to my party. Which was good, because I wanted her to come anyways. The party was at The Fun Zone!, this place that had an arcade with all these games that gave you tickets depending how good you played it. If you got a high score, you got a lot of tickets. If you got a crappy score, you didn’t get a lot of tickets. After you were done, you could trade your tickets for prizes, like baseball cards or squirt guns or candy. Plus, there was a giant playground with a ball room—yes a room filled with small, plastic balls—that you could swim in. Like I said, things were good.
Then one day, on the Tuesday before my birthday, while me and Cory were looking over an old issue of X-Men Classic, Raymond Randolph—the goofy, chubby kid in our class—came up to us and told me that Jillian was going to break-up with me. I never really liked Raymond before because he had one of those haircuts that were scuzzed except at the bottom back part where it grew out like a horse tail, but that day he really crossed the line. “She says she’s not in love anymore,” he said while showing his crooked smile.
Cory stuck up for me. “Yeah right Raymond,” he said. He sounded angry, like Wolverine. “Then why does she still have ‘J.D. + J.L.’ written on the inside of a heart on her notebook?” Cory was right; I just saw it written there yesterday. I shook my head in agreement.
“She scribbled it out, you idiot,” Raymond yelled. “Plus, you’re gonna be ten and she’s only nine. You’re too old for her. That’s what she said.”
Cory told him to scram.
“It’s a free country,” Raymond said.
“Then how about I give you a free punch in the face?” Cory said back, holding up a fist. He was kind of tough, especially when he wore his jean jacket like he was then. He had the collar up and kinda looked like one of the Outsiders. Raymond left the table, but I was nervous.
“Don’t worry Jerry,” Cory told me. “You know Raymond lies all the time.” He was right. Over the course of the school year he supposedly found The Fantastic Four #5 (the first appearance of Doctor Doom) in his grandmother’s attic, went backstage and hung out with Pee-Wee Herman on the set of his show even though it wasn’t on anymore, sat in the Red Sox dugout during the playoffs against Oakland and got pitching tips from Roger Clemens, and told Stevie Wonder directions to the video store downtown. “He’s probably just mad that you didn’t ask him to go to your party.” I told him he was right and we went back to our comics and Lunchables.
That happened on a Tuesday and the party was on Saturday. Deep down inside I was so nervous that Jillian was going to break-up with me. She was acting weird; she stopped writing me notes and didn’t sit with me at lunch on Friday, pizza day, which she usually did. We’d always eat our pizza and salad soaked in Italian dressing together and then when we would have those cups of half-chocolate, half-vanilla ice cream with the cardboard tops, she’d give me the chocolate side because she only liked vanilla. But it didn’t happen this week and I was worried. Very worried. I didn’t want my birthday to come because I had a feeling that was when Jillian was going to do it. I knew it.
Cory slept over that night and we watched that movie when the kid’s parents leave him all alone in his house over Christmas. My mom said that I was older than the kid in it. I couldn’t believe it, there were movie stars younger than I was. I went into the bathroom because I thought I was going to puke. I splashed some water on my face because that’s what people in the movies always do when they are nervous and looked into the mirror. I thought how I was going to be ten-years old tomorrow and prayed that it wouldn’t happen, that I would wake up again and it’d be my ninth birthday and I could relive the whole year again and again.
I had a dream that night that I found a potion that would make me stay nine-years old for the rest of my life. In it, I was able to stay and live in my room forever. I built up a huge comic book collection that took up my entire closet and Jillian didn’t want to break up with me because I wasn’t getting older. I gave her some of the potion too and she didn’t get older either, so we stayed together forever as a nine-year-old couple. I was so happy in my dream until my mom came in my room to wake me and Cory up for birthday pancakes.
Well, it happened in the ball room, right next to where the slide throws you out into them. Katie, who Jillian took so she wouldn’t be the only girl, came over to me and told me. She just said, “Jerry, Jill says she just wants to be friends. Is that OK?”
I told her sure, that I didn’t care, being friends was all right. When she left and I was all alone in the ball room, I started to cry. I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I buried myself under the dirty, multi-colored balls and pretended that I was dead. I wasn’t young anymore. I imagined that I was really old, like a hundred or something, and above my grave—above the dirt, tree roots, worms, bugs and grass—stood all my friends, except that they were still young. They were all sad and Cory said to John Charpentier, one of our other friends, “It’s too bad that he had to get old.” No one ever feels bad for you when you get old though because it has to happen. You can’t really avoid it.
I think I was still crying when I left the ball room because when I walked past my mom she asked me what was wrong. I didn’t want to tell her, so I said I banged my finger going down the slide. I grabbed it really hard so it turned red and showed her. She looked at it and said I would be okay, then kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t cry,” she said. “You’re ten-years old now. You’re almost all grown up.” She smiled and kissed me on the cheek again. I ran back to the ball room to bury myself and cry again.
But Jillian was in there. I don’t know if she was waiting for me, but we talked. Not about us not being boyfriend and girlfriend anymore though, but about the present she gave me. She got me a copy of Rubber Soul, which is a Beatles album. She told me when she first heard “In My Life” (one of the songs on it) that it was her favorite Beatles song. She said she loved it so much it made her dance. She’d put on the record and stand up on her bed and twirl. She had liked other songs almost as much before and some even made her dance, but none the way that song did. For a while, she said she couldn’t listen to it without dancing. She liked it so much that she listened to it over and over. She even made a tape just with that song on it, so she didn’t have to keep moving the needle on her parents’ record player. She said she listened to it so much that one day, she didn’t want to dance to it anymore. She still liked the song, but it didn’t make her want to dance. Still, she listened to it over and over until one day her parents bought her Revolver on cassette. She said “And Your Bird Can Sing” made her want to dance, just like “In My Life” did, but more, so she started listening to that over and over again. I still didn’t feel good, but I felt better. We left the ball room and the party was over.
I never had another birthday party like that again. At least not one as elaborate. For the next couple of years, I’d have some friends over and we’d have cake and watch movies or play football in the backyard, but never an organized birthday party at a place like The Fun Zone.
Birthdays stopped depressing me after a couple of years. My thirteenth birthday was great because my uncle secretly gave me an old stack of Playboys, as long as I swore to him I wouldn’t tell my mother. I had never seen a naked woman before that; there was this one girl in the June 1991 issue that was really sexy—she was the centerfold—named Amber, who I really liked. When I got a car for my seventeenth birthday—a cool, boxy, dark red 1985 Mustang—I could drive this girl I was seeing to the movies or anywhere else I wanted to. And then there was the bottle of Tequila that Maria gave me on my twenty-first birthday.
I didn’t really see Jillian much after the birthday party. We only had a couple months of school left; I’d see her in class and sometimes we’d say hi to each other, but never anything more. Her family moved away that summer to Michigan, so I never saw her again after the last day of school in fourth grade. I still think about her every time I listen to Rubber Soul and I never really got sick of listening to “In My Life.” Even today, it still makes me want to dance every time I hear it because I feel like I’m back in the fourth grade, reading comic books with Cory Bell and eating Hoodsies with Jillian. Sometimes, I wonder if she ever found that song that always makes her want to dance or when I’ll hear another one.