I took this picture of him nearly 10 years ago.
When I first met James, I thought he was so cool. He was the kind of cool that only a severely-sheltered girl of seventeen with zero worldly experience could imagine was cool. He had this sort of rebellious flair, this laid-back demeanor that made him stand out without having to say or do much at all. He had a presence, and when I first laid eyes on him, I immediately had a crush.
James was tall, fit, and had long legs. He had this mess of blonde, curly hair, and the other boys sort of flocked around him, naturally deferring to him in all matters requiring any sort of decision-making: where they sat, what they did after school, where they hung out during lunch — James was their leader. And when he spoke, it was always with purpose, always in that same deep rumble. He sounded like a man. He never seemed to vie for attention, and I suppose he never needed to, because everything he said made anyone within hearing distance stop to listen, and any small joke he made in passing cued belly-full laughter with ease.
From the first day he arrived at our little school, it became clear the other teenaged girls attending collectively believed that he was the guy to “get”. I remember seeing my female classmates walk by his desk during class to subtly pass him notes, letters he would unfold and read when the teacher wasn’t looking, then quietly smirk to. I remember seeing the school slut (yes, we had one of those) perch atop the edge of his desk and bunch her cleavage together between her arms while leaning toward him, striking up a conversation with him and laughing loudly at everything he said.
Though he was the object of many a girl’s affections, James remained cool. He never gave any one girl more attention than any of the others, and if anything, he ignored most of them to focus, instead, on his “boys”. They worshipped him for it.
For my part, I was never much of a flirt growing up. I was shy, incredibly well-behaved, nerdy, could barely dress myself, and a total tomboy. My idea of a good time was hanging out with my baby brother (still the coolest kid I know, by the way), playing video games, drawing, and writing in my diary. I didn’t exactly have much going on for me in the boobs department (and growing up, I actually believed breasts were everything), so when it became clear that what stood between me and James was a sea of young, hormone-driven teenaged girls all experienced in wooing and all eager to win him over, I gave up on the idea of us ever becoming an item and contented myself to merely fantasizing about what it might be like to date him.
Essentially, he had no idea I existed, and I was much too meek to assert myself and let him know I was alive.
Then one day, he talked to me.
He actually talked to me.
And us formally meeting completely changed my life.
We were in art class. My art teacher was a gentle sort of man, the type who quietly laughed off misbehaving students and very much wanted to be everyone’s friend. He never criticized our artwork even when it was truly terrible, but instead praised every chicken scratch doodle and encouraged us to keep practicing, raining down compliments on us at any sign of improvement. He was a major comic book nerd, and amidst the gaggle of delinquents surrounding me, I was his favorite student.
“Does anyone know who the X-Men are?” He asked us excitedly. There was a general but half-assed murmur of acknowledgement from the class, and I could see his shoulders slump a bit at the lack of energy.
“Yes,” I said, loud enough for him to hear over the mumbling and hoping to perk him up. He brightened at my response, continuing.
“Today, we’re going to invent our own superheroes! Does anyone have a favorite X-Man or superhero?”
“Sailor Moon!!” I squeaked enthusiastically, because Sailor Moon is the shit. Duh.
“WEENIE!!” Someone yelled at me from across the room. The class erupted in a fit of laughter.
Incensed, I swept the sea of giggling classmates for the source of this insult, surprised when I saw that it was him. James. His buddies were laughing and patting him on the shoulder, and he was looking at me with this triumphant smirk on his face, reclining back into his chair.
I couldn’t believe he just called me a “weenie”.
What the heck?!
Who even says “weenie”?!
… But it was such a harmless insult.
And he was just so cute.
And when I locked eyes with him, I couldn’t help my face getting hot.
I smiled nervously, then dropped my gaze to the pile of doodles on my desk, suddenly fascinated with the eraser on my mechanical pencil.
When class ended, I was far too eager to get out of there. Mortified at the idea that he had finally acknowledged my presence and faced with the potential opportunity to actually have a conversation with him, I did what any inexperienced and scared-shitless little girl with a crush would do: I stuffed my things into my backpack quickly, clutched my heavy three-ring binder to my nonexistent chest, and ran away! * To this day, I still suck at getting hit on. But just as I exited the door and had made it a few steps into the hallway, I heard him call for me.
“Hey! Hey, wait!” His voice was so recognizable. I knew it was him. When I hesitantly turned back toward art class, I saw him struggling to stuff his own papers into his backpack and hurrying in my direction. I quickly glanced around me, unsure if it was me he was speaking to.
“Uhm, me?” I asked shyly.
“Yeah, you,” he said, finally slinging his bag over his shoulder and standing next to me.
This was happening.
He was talking to me.
James was talking to me.
My brain short-circuited for a second, and I found myself staring. I had never seen him this closely before.
He had blue eyes. These really pretty, almond shaped eyes. And such long eyelashes. Wow.
And I mean, I know I’ve said it enough at this point, but man. He was so cute, and seventeen year old me was absolutely smitten.
I blurted the first thing that came to mind.
“What’s a weenie?”
He laughed, brushing his fingers through his mess of blonde curls before shoving his hand casually into the front pocket of his navy Dickeys, hiking his bag up higher on his shoulder. “You don’t know what a weenie is?”
“I mean, I know what a … Weenie is,” I said, sort of whispering the term in embarrassment, “but what did you mean?” I smiled shyly. I felt kinda sweaty. Man. Talking to cute boys is hard.
“Y’know. A weenie.” He glanced toward the ceiling and tipped his head from side to side, as if the movement would knock the definition out of his brain and onto his lips. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like, ‘dork’, or something.”
“Why did you call me that?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Because you’re a weenie. You gave a weenie answer.” He was smiling.
“Okay… I guess.” I said, not really knowing what to say to that.
“It was just a joke. You don’t really seem like a weenie,” he said. And I was relieved, for some reason, even though I didn’t know what he meant by weenie, because y’know, he was cute, and I wanted him to think I was cool just like I thought he was cool, because that’s how the teenaged mind works, okay? “What’s your name?” He asked.
“Cheri,” I said, still in disbelief that we were actually speaking to each other. “What’s yours?”
I forget what we talked about after that.
And I guess it doesn’t really matter because the next thing I do remember doing with James was packing a bag and running away from home together, then going on one of the craziest adventures of my life living as a homeless teen for over seven months on the streets of Stockton, California, one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.
That’s a story for another time.