In a small, suburban duplex someplace just northwest of Downtown Detroit, a young man named Gregory has just suffered his first rejection. It came over the phone while his best friend, Liam, sat on the couch, confused and unsure as to how to help. Both boys are just thirteen years old, mid-way through seventh grade, and ill equipped to deal with such reality. Gregory was crushed. Liam wished to help his friend, as he could sense his pain, but was distracted by the incredible caged wrestling match between their two favorite wrestlers that happened to be replaying that evening on TNT. Fifteen minutes east south east of the bi-level home where two young men reveled in the glow of the WWF, the young woman, who had her friend call Gregory to give him the news that she did not desire to be his first girlfriend and that she had decided to instead date an eight grader, took a moment to consider Gregory’s pain then focused her thoughts on her new “older” beau.
Jessica sat next to Gregory in three of his seven classes and behind him in two others. She would frequently tell him she liked it when he read aloud in class. Gregory would simply glow after hearing her express that his voice was “calm and cool.” As such, he was often the only volunteer to read aloud from his Literature, American History, and Biology texts. Her favorite class was English Lit, because Gregory would truly let himself go into the mediocre examples of American Literature that the Michigan School Board deemed appropriate for young teens to study. He would add character voices and emphatic tones that were most often mocked by his peers. Jessica found them entertaining and would play with her tangerine hair as she laid her head on the desk and stared up at Gregory.
Everyone knew Gregory adored her and wished, with every part of his changing body, to have her. Only a few people knew she felt the same way. Gregory was not one of them. He was, in fact, oblivious on all accounts that she had purposefully held a co-ed birthday party to see what he would get her as a gift – her older sister, who was sixteen and believed herself to be the compendium of romantic knowledge, had recommended this as a test to see if he was worthy. Gregory failed, having bought her a gift certificate to the local, one-screen cinema; the gift was described as unromantic, though, thankfully, not to Gregory’s face. Also, while attending the co-ed affair, a first for Gregory, he had a slight anxiety attack. He had never been very comfortable in large groups. Jessica knew this, and it was for this reason that, while the popular crowd attended the local County Fair a few months prior, she pulled Gregory away from the crowd and spent the entire evening alone with him. He will never forget that night. They ate together, laughed about teachers and other students, they held hands for a moment on one of the shakier rides, and he won her an orange elephant from the beanbag toss. She could be no such help, however, at her party. The small house was packed with teens that Greg knew, that he didn’t know, that he liked, that he admired, and a few that he was downright afraid of. His heart started to race and he was sure he was going to do something stupid, something to embarrass himself beyond measure.
So, instead of doing what every part of his being wanted, to call his parents and ask them to come get him four hours early, he used his asthma as an excuse and stepped outside into the frosty January air. He talked to himself aloud and tried to calm his racing heart. His hands were shaking and before he knew what he was doing, he was sprinting. He didn’t want to run away, but he needed to run. Running had always been the one thing Greg was truly good at. He was a mediocre student, an average athlete, a miserable socialite, a semi-decent artist, but he was a great runner. He could go for days without stopping, and, for some reason, on that January Friday, he was faster than he had ever been before. Lap after lap he raced around the three bedroom double decker. It was lap five or six before he noticed the crowds building in the windows. He wasn’t sure if they were there to mock or to cheer him on. Either way, he couldn’t stop. His feet were on fire, pounding the thick snow into the dead grass below. His non-running shoes dug in and pushed through the wet mess with ease. His head was high and his hair was building stacks of snow upon it. His eyes sharpened their focus and all that could be seen was a tunnel and a track. He became unconcerned with time, with people, with his crush, with the shouts from her mother, who had started to try and stop him every time he passed the front door, with the looming fear of what everyone would say, with everything. He just ran. Until, Aaron tackled him. Aaron Severs was the only person at the party fast enough to catch Greg and was close friends with Jessica, who had, apparently, wished to speak to him.
Once inside and thawed, she sat him down and asked if he was alright. Embarrassment settled in, and Greg wished he had just run away. Her sister interrupted, saying some of the guests were leaving. She made a comment about Greg’s abs, which she saw when Greg was brought inside and forced to change out the clothes that had become soaking wet while circling the party. He became even more embarrassed. Greg wouldn’t realize until much later that night that she had been flirting with him. It would be years before he would realize how many times Jessica had flirted with him.
The day of the rejection came months after the party. The fallout was less than Gregory expected – it was joked about for a few days, but when one of the popular boys was suspended for getting a blowjob in the counselor’s office, running around a house seemed insignificant.
Jessica asked him to read aloud in English Lit. The teacher, Mr. Daniels, never declined Gregory an opportunity. It gave him a break from having to read and he respected the level of commitment with which Greg delivered. It was a short story about a boxer who was prepping for his last fight, which he ended up losing. The story was not Greg’s favorite, but it reminded him of one of his dad’s favorite songs. He gave the boxer a grizzly, deep voice. It made Jessica laugh, and she moved her chair closer to his.
After class, while on his way to lunch, three of Jessica’s closest confidants – Emily, Tessa, and Lyla – who also happened to be the three most popular girls in their class and were all dating eighth graders, stopped Greg in the hallway. “So, do you, like, like Jessica?” Gregory froze. He had never had the courage to even say hi to any one of these three teenage Barbie dolls. Lyla moved closer and stared straight into Greg’s wavering eyes. He didn’t know what to say. Tessa took care of that for him, “We know you, like, love her. Alright? Do you want to go out with her?” Greg swallowed and felt the sweat on his back start to drip into his thick, vintage cotton-sweatshirt with the lyric of a lesser-known Talking Head’s song on the front. Emily tapped her high heel against the tile floors and coughed. “Alright, look, if you, like, want to go out with her, you, like, have to ask today, because Brian from the eighth grade basketball team already asked her.” Greg’s heart burned at this revelation. He knew Brian. Sometimes Brian rode his bike past Greg’s house. Gregory had never hated someone he had never talked to before. It was a hate that will never go away. Seventeen years from now, when Brian gets a job working in the same ad agency as Gregory, long after both have stopped caring about the redheaded seventh grader with the flirtatious older sister, Greg will have a resurgence of his teenage inadequacy and will leave the agency, taking a significant pay cut.
Greg took a deep breath and nodded to the real-life version of The Heathers that stood before him. “I like her. I… I… I just don’t know what – “ Emily smiled, Lyla smirked and Tessa stopped tapping her high heel. “We’ll take care of the rest. She’ll let you know tonight if it’s you or Brian.”
The rest of the day went by in a fog. Greg had to sit next to Jessica in three more classes. Luckily, there were tests in two of them. He was distracted by focus. And, after school, Liam distracted him with the excitement over re-watching what they considered to be the greatest professional wrestling match of all time. That is until the phone rang. It was six twenty seven. He thought it was the pizza delivery guy calling for directions; they always got lost on the way. It was Lyla. Her voice was calm and cold. Greg listened and stuttered through the conversation that consisted of Lyla explaining that Jessica had chosen Brian because he was in eighth grade and had dated before. She really didn’t want to be anyone’s first girlfriend. Had Gregory had a backbone at the time, he may have said something other than, “I understand. I’d do the same thing.” Even twenty-two years later, when he meets the woman who will become his wife, those words echo in his memory like tiny daggers.
Gregory Burnbury hung up the phone in his small, suburban home, located northwest of Downtown Detroit having suffered his first rejection. It will not be his last by any means. But, it will stay with him forever.