In second grade there was a little boy named Eugene, who would come to represent the debacle of my romantic life. Eugene was an overweight, pink faced, sweaty little boy with glasses who I hadn’t given much thought to. One day in class I was reading a book while the other kids worked on their math worksheet that I had finished a week ago. (Teachers, if you’re going to photocopy all your assignments from the back of the book, don’t be surprised when kids do them all at once and turn them in laminated, indexed and corrected for you.) Eugene randomly and deliberately stood up in class, walked over to me, and dropped a pink and blue beaded necklace on my desk. Without saying anything or making eye contact he turned to walk away.
“Um, what,” I mumbled, picking up the necklace. “Is this, did you, is what is….”
“Huh?” Eugene turned around and looked at me. Eugene was super gross and moist.
“Why did you leave this here?” I held up the necklace at arm’s length like a snake.
“Oh, I made that.”
“Really?” I whispered. Other kids looked up.
“Yeah, I wanted to give it to the prettiest girl in class…” He said.
“Really?” I caught my breath. Maybe Eugene was the love of my life. Maybe he was the only one to see that my tangly messy hair was like a mermaid's.
“Yeah, but Sarah didn’t want it, so…”
“The prettiest girl in class, Sarah, didn’t want it.”
I looked over at Sarah who was staring at me, daring me to take the necklace. She looked smug and calm while my cheeks flushed uncomfortably.
“She said I was disgusting and gay,” poor little Eugene said, hanging his head. “So I guess you can have it or whatever.” He turned to walk away.
“Because I’m second prettiest?” I asked. There was a still pause.
“What? No. I just thought you could have it. I don’t want it.”
“I’m not second prettiest?” I said. Everyone had grown quiet and was looking at me anxiously.
“I didn’t rank everyone.” Eugene said.
“Maybe you should have,” I said (wow, from the girl who would later call herself a feminist.)
“Please, just… I don’t want it. I don’t care. Throw it away if you want.” Eugene walked away.
In retrospect the poor kid was probably way more uncomfortable than I could imagine. He had just tried to give a home made gift to the love of his second grade life and been turned down, humiliated, and then I had called attention to it. It was as if Menelaus had launched a thousand ships and Helen had been like “oh, but, you know, I didn’t want that.” And he was like, “oh, really? Um, you sure? A thousand is a lot. I already launched them for you, because of your face, but okay.” And just when Menelaus thought he couldn't feel any more embarrassed, a bird came and crapped on all the ships and that bird was me.
I left the necklace on my desk and didn’t touch it. I went home and told my mom the story and she said “You need to give that back to him. That is an insult to think of you as an afterthought.”
That complex would stay with me, the more I was around men. Oh you asked Rebecca to the prom and she said no so you thought you’d ask me? No thank you! You got drunk at this party thinking you could french with Jen but she turned you down so you ended up in my dorm room? Fuck you, no way. I've defined myself as a consolation prize since seventh grade. I’m pretty sure if anyone ever proposes to me I’ll be like, which of my friends rejected you?
When I got back to class the next day, the necklace was still sitting on my desk, leering at me like a troll peeking out of a cave to remind you that you're ugly and not special. I could feel Sarah watching out of the corner of her eye as I slid it inside the tiny cubby of my desk. Later that day I made a show of throwing it away in front of a bunch of girls who giggled and cheered as the homemade present went into the garbage, after triple checking that there was no way Eugene could see.
The rest of elementary school every time I saw Eugene I felt like I was going to throw up. Before the necklace instance he had been a creepy pig boy that I never noticed. But now he was someone who did not think I was second prettiest but had noticed me enough to give me the necklace. I made excuses to run into him and blushed whenever he looked at me. He had unintentionally made me aware of my romantic value or lack thereof. Unconsciously I started laughing louder around him, just to show him how much fun I was having not being the second prettiest.