I like you. Do you like me?
I remember my friends writing these notes to boys when we were in middle school. I never did. I never thought much about boys. But, my friends were constantly sending these around. Sometimes, they put my name on it and sent it to a boy I liked or a boy they thought I should like.
I miss those simple days.
The performances were not flawless. The jazz class continued to miss one of their cues so that all six dancers finished the number at different times, instead of together. The four ballerinas in the advanced ballet class kept knocking into each other. Two of them had trouble remaining en pointe.
Madám Cherí had both groups practice during the intermission, warning them of their errors and delaying the start of the second act. But, both groups continued to make the same mistake during the dress rehearsal. As a result, Madám Cherí made all three advanced classes stay in the theater to rehearse after dismissing the intermediate and company dancers, even though Melinda's tap class had not made any noticeable errors.
It was a long time before Melinda and her classmates were dismissed, after a long lecture about punctuality. Melinda returned to the black box to remove her costume and makeup, storing both in the greenroom for the following night's performance.
Emerging from the theater into the darkening November afternoon, Melinda checked her phone and realized she had missed most, if not all, of her friends' games. Her friends had begun texting to coordinate their dinner plans.
Sarah, Larry, Walter, and a few other friends had voted on dining hall dinner, since they were running low on cash, and Melinda opted to join them. As much as she wanted to cheer for Andy, she had little hope of the football team actually winning.
Melinda arrived at her usual table, her plate loaded with four glasses of water, a cookie, garlic bread, and an herbed grilled chicken over spaghetti with garlic and oil.
Walter eyed her tray as she sat down. "Thirsty?" he teased her.
"Nearly dehydrated." Melinda downed most of her first glass in one gulp.
Sarah nodded her head towards her roommate. "Where you been all day? I didn't see you at Reflections. Or Math."
"We discussed this. I had rehearsal today."
"Oh, yeah. But, I thought that was after school, while we had sports."
"Nope," Melinda shook her head for emphasis. "We started at nine this morning. Just got out. Haven't even been back to the dorm. I completely missed everyone's games. Tell me about them."
"We got…what's the word I'm looking for?" Jade looked around the table for help.
"Whooped," suggested an unhappy Xandra.
"Creamed," suggested a dejected Sarah.
"Pounded," suggested an usually upbeat Jessi.
"Trounced!" announced Jade, exuberant to find the word she wanted. "We lost 10 to 2."
"Better than we did," said Larry. "40 to 10."
"How about the other sports?" Melinda asked.
"Someone's keeping track on the school website," Walter informed her. "I think one of the water polo teams won, girls JV maybe? But, pretty much everyone lost."
"Leif texted me a little while ago," Jade added. "He said that both the cross country teams lost overall, although he won his heat."
"So, how did rehearsal go?" Caroline asked Melinda.
"My class did well. Company did too, from what I could see. The other advanced classes had some trouble during our first rehearsal. Then, they were late for our second rehearsal, and that just made them mess up even more. So, the director kept us all late. I didn't mind too much. The extra practice gave me more confidence."
"What time's your show tomorrow?" Sarah asked. "I wanna go."
"There's two shows, but the matinee is at two and I think students are free."
"Awesome. Can't wait to see it."
Melinda smiled, and the rest of the meal was spent in a debate over whether they should see the football game. They all wanted to cheer for Andy, but they did not really feel like watching their team lose. The girls wanted to return to Woodward to get ready for the dance.
Finally, Walter started playing on his phone. "The football team is losing by twenty points," he announced after a moment. "It's the second quarter. The stands are full of parents and alumni and students from both schools. It's nearly impossible to get a seat. And, now that the sun went down, it's getting cold quickly."
Everyone had grown so accustomed to Walter always being able to answer their questions that no one asked how Walter had gleaned this information, although Melinda suspected he had been texting his brother.
Sarah clapped her hands together. "Okay, that settles that. I'm going to the dorm."
She was met with a chorus of "Me too" from the rest of the girls. The boys, meanwhile, decided to go cheer for Andy for at least one quarter of the game.
When Sarah dragged Melinda to the mall last Sunday to pick out their dresses for the Victory Ball, Melinda had explained to her roommate how she was hesitant about attending the dance. Sarah had convinced her to buy a dress anyway, which she could always wear to the Snowflake Ball next month.
After dinner, Melinda and most of the rest of the girls in her dorm decided they needed to shower before primping for the dance. Melinda and Sarah both managed to find empty shower stalls, but by the time Melinda was done, most of the twenty-one other girls on their floor had begun lining up to use one of the six showers.
Sarah returned to the room a few minutes after Melinda. She looked at her roommate as she closed the door. "So, you decided to go to the dance after all?"
"Yeah. It's not like I'm staying out super late, since it's over before curfew. And, my show isn't until the afternoon."
"So, are you going stag?" Sarah asked. At Melinda's raised eyebrows, Sarah explained. "You know. Are you going alone? Or, do you have a date?"
"Oh. I'm going with Walter."
Melinda scrunched her nose at her roommate. "As friends. Pat wants to hang out with us with his friend. Well, Meghan's friend? I got confused."
"That's just weird. Walter's family being famous. Isn't it weird to be hanging out with Patrick McGregor?"
"But, I'm not. Not really. See, Patrick McGregor is this famous celebrity. Pat Evans is this fifth former who just wants to spend some time with his brother. The weird part isn't that Pat's famous. It's that he's a fifth former that wants to spend time with me."
"I hear what you're saying, but it still looks like you're spending time with Patrick McGregor."
Since no one wanted to be late to the dance, Melinda was not surprised to find herself standing with her girlfriends in front of the Stanton steps more than half an hour before the dance was scheduled to start. She was slightly more surprised to see that most of the boys were ready. Larry explained to Caroline, who was Andy's date, that the game had run late, so he would meet her at the Ball. Caroline decided she did not mind waiting for him in the Stanton Common Room and ascended the steps as the rest of the horde of friends continued to the main entrance of the dining hall, where someone would be checking their school IDs.
Melinda walked with Walter near the back of their group and asked about the varsity game.
"Well it would appear that the Victory Ball is aptly named."
"I thought aptly meant appropriately."
"The football team won."
"How is that possible?"
"Well, by some miracle, and I don't use the word lightly, Kevin did not get injured."
"Not uh." Melinda shook her head. "I don't believe you."
Larry fell back a couple of steps to join their conversation. "No. It's true."
Walter nodded as he continued his story. "Kevin actually played until the fourth quarter, when Andy came on just because. And, because Kevin and Andy were both playing when they weren't kicking, we actually kicked some butt. The final score was twenty to thirty-one, Hartfield."
"They must be elated."
"Actually, I think a couple of them are kinda bummed that they didn't have a no-win season. And that Kevin went one game without getting hurt."
"You're kidding me," replied Sarah.
"No, I think he's right," Larry agreed, although since he and Walter wore large grins, Melinda was never sure whether they were completely serious.
When Melinda walked into the dining hall, she was stunned by its amazing transformation in such a short period of time. The tables in the senior section were covered in platters of finger foods and desserts, with a server preparing glasses of punch or water. The chairs had magically disappeared.
Melinda was more astonished, however, when her friends dragged her around the fireplace to the main dining area, which was completely empty of tables and chairs.
Melinda was again surprised when she realized the DJ was playing actual music that she heard when she listened to the radio, not the club music that tended to blast at the MAC dances. Since no one was yet dancing, Melinda did not want to be the first, so she convinced Sarah to check out the finger foods with her. They found cheese trays and an assortment of crackers. They found warmers full of mini grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken nuggets, and mini meatballs. There was a chocolate fountain with marshmallows and fruit on sticks for dipping. There were dispensers of iced tea, lemonade, fruit punch, and water.
"I know we just ate," Sarah said, "but all this looks so good."
"I want a little of everything." Neither girl wanted to be the first to touch the food. They returned to report their findings to their friends, who had, not surprisingly, found their way onto the dance floor.
The group danced together as a large blob for several upbeat songs, congratulating Andy when he and Caroline arrived about twenty minutes later. Then, a slow song played and everyone broke up into their couples. Melinda intended to visit the food tables, but Walter touched her shoulder and asked if she wanted to dance.
It was strange, Melinda thought, for so many reasons. She had never slow danced before, but she had watched enough television to know she should put her hands around his neck while he held her waist. Melinda could not help thinking their movements felt stiff and formal and forced. Neither of them said a word as they danced.
When the song changed, Melinda found she and Walter were alone, as their friends had danced further into the dance floor, losing themselves among the rest of the school. She danced with Walter for a little while before she felt a tap on her shoulder.
"Mind if I join you?" a familiar voice behind her asked.
Melinda smiled and Walter looked equal parts annoyed and relieved as Pat stood between them and his date stood across from him to help make a circle.
"Melinda, this is Chloe," Pat introduced. "Chloe, this is Melinda."
Chloe waved. "Hi!"
Although the music was loud, it was not as ear-splitting as the MAC dance had been and it was possible to hold a conversation, especially near the fireplace where they were dancing, since the DJ was located in the back corner of the smaller dining area.
"Sorry about your game," Pat said to Walter.
Walter shrugged. "We're not as bad as Varsity, so I don't mind losing once in a while."
"We lost our soccer game. " Chloe looked at Melinda. "How about you? Did you lose too?"
"I do dance for my sport. I spent my day rehearsing. About six hours, if you don't include lunch."
"Ouch, that's rough. Okay, we'll count that as a loss, too. So, who wants to go drown their sorrows in some punch?"
Melinda laughed and followed Chloe and the boys to the refreshments, where they sampled all the foods and found it amazingly good. Melinda had just finished her punch when another slow dance played.
"Melinda, dance with me?" Pat asked her.
Melinda had mixed feelings as Pat took her hand and led her to a corner of the dance floor, where he held her as Walter had a short time ago. She put her arms around his neck and swayed to the music with him.
Pat did not say anything while they were dancing, but he did pull Melinda closer to him once or twice. Melinda kept trying to figure out why she felt more comfortable dancing with Pat than Walter, coming to a sudden realization about halfway through the song.
"It's like dancing with Mighty Max!" It was a reference to a character he played in last summer's blockbuster.
Pat looked pained. "I thought you saw past the movie star."
"That's not what I mean." Melinda took a moment to figure out how to vocalize what she had been thinking. "I just meant, I feel safe in your arms. Like you'll protect me. Like Mighty Max had to protect…I forgot the name of Meghan's character."
"Yeah." Melinda shrugged as Pat pulled her a little closer again. "That's what I meant."
Pat considered her for a moment, then reached up to push a stray hair behind her ear. He pulled her a little closer and, keeping his hand behind her head, leaned in slightly. The smell of his aftershave, which she had been secretly admiring throughout the dance, intensified. She realized Pat's intention only a moment before he actually kissed her, not having enough warning to back away. The kiss was lingering and as he pulled her even closer, she felt compelled to kiss him in return, even as a voice inside her reminded her how strange the situation was. A couple of rapid heartbeats later, she regained her senses and slowly backed away, staring at Pat through wide eyes, though he still held her by the waist.
"Sorry," he said.
Melinda glanced behind Pat for a moment and caught a glimpse of Walter glaring in her direction. She watched as he turned and marched towards the senior section.
"I've gotta go talk to him," Melinda said.
"Walter. He looked really mad."
Pat swore under his breath. "Can we talk later?" He ran his hand through her hair before letting go of her.
"Um, yeah." There were traces of sarcasm in Melinda's tone. "I think we need to."
She followed Walter's path, but did not see him near the refreshment tables. She continued past the main entrance, where the two teachers she did not know were still sitting to check student IDs. Melinda found Walter in one of the couches arranged in a U around the fireplace.
Melinda sat beside her friend using the most sympathetic tone she could muster.
"Hey." He refused to meet her gaze and his voice lacked the energy and amusement it had just moments before. It pained Melinda to see him like this.
"Can we talk?"
Melinda decided to try a more forceful tone, she replied, "Fine. I'll talk. You can just listen. Your brother kissed me."
"I don't want to hear about it."
"Too bad." She softened her tone slightly. "I didn't want him to kiss me."
Walter looked at her. "I thought all girls dreamed of kissing Patrick McGregor."
Melinda shook her head. "That's not Patrick McGregor in there. That's Pat Evans, your brother and one of your best friends. He's a pretty nice guy and I didn't want to hurt his feelings when he asked me to dance. I wasn't dancing with him hoping he would kiss me. I was just dancing with a friend. And then, he kissed me out of the blue. And it was like…" she trailed off, trying to think of a good analogy.
Melinda watched Walter's facial expression change a few times before he leaned in and kissed her softly on the lips. He lingered there for a few minutes, keeping one hand on the back of her head to gently pull her towards him. Melinda could feel her lips tingle at the sensation, and did not dislike it, despite the little voice in the back of her head reminding her she was kissing her best friend.
"Like that?" Walter asked glumly as he pulled away from her.
"What was that?"
"I don't know." Walter threw up his hands in exasperation. "I'm mad at my brother for stealing my friend. And, I'm trying to win you back."
"Well, that's just stupid on so many levels." Melinda paused before continuing. "I don't know where to start. For starters, I think of you as a brother. That was probably the best kiss I've had, and I felt nothing."
"That was the best kiss you've had?" Walter could not hide his surprise.
"Well, yeah. It was a nice kiss. But, I just didn't feel anything."
"I've never kissed anyone before."
Melinda smiled. "Well, you're good at it."
"Thanks. I figured I did something wrong, because I didn't feel anything for you, either."
"You did do something wrong. You kissed a friend the way you would kiss a girlfriend. Of course you didn't feel anything."
"I'm sorry. I just saw him and you and I got…jealous. And, I was trying to figure out why."
"Walter, I get it. When Ava started spending so much time with you, I was jealous. And, I realized it was because I felt she was taking away my best friend."
"Yeah, I guess that's how I feel. So, is he? Taking you away from me?"
"That's not my intention," Pat said from behind them.
Walter looked at Melinda. "I'm not okay with this." He rose, glaring at his brother as he returned to the dining hall. Pat sat beside Melinda.
"Is he okay?"
"How about you? Are you okay?" He lifted his hand towards her, but returned it to his lap.
"I'm sorry. I have no idea what happened. I was enjoying dancing with you, and it felt like I was supposed to kiss you. I think I've watched too many of my own movies."
Melinda giggled. "It was just weird."
"I know. You're my brother's best friend. I'm not supposed to feel this way about you, but I do." Pat raked his fingers through his hair in exasperation. "And I have no idea how to handle it."
"Feel what way?" Melinda asked hesitantly.
Pat sighed and stood, pacing between the couches. "I feel like I want to be more than friends. And, I can tell by your reaction you don't feel the same."
Melinda took a moment to choose her words carefully. "It's not that. Not exactly. Like I said, it's weird. I mean, until a couple of months ago, I never really thought about boyfriends. And, you're so much older than me."
"It's only what? Two years?"
"Three. I'm only 13 and a half."
"Really? I never would have guessed. But, three years isn't that big a deal."
"It's not just the age thing. There's Walter."
"You have feelings for him?"
"Ew. No. I really do think of him like a brother."
"And do you feel that way about me?"
"No, I don't."
Pat sat beside her on the couch and ran his fingers through her hair. "If I were to kiss you again, would you run away?"
Melinda shook her head, and he kept his hand behind her head as he leaned in. She placed her hands on his shoulders and he placed his free hand around her waist to gently pull her slightly closer. Their lips met and a warm, tender feeling stretched from her mouth towards her belly.
Pat pulled away, but rested his forehead against hers, still holding her close. He cursed under his breath, almost affectionately.
"It's not that I don't have feelings for you," Melinda said just above a whisper. "It's just that I can't figure out what those feelings are."
"Yeah, I get that." Pat sat up and looked her in the eye. "So, now what? Pretend there's nothing there?"
"Can we just see what happens? I mean, I dunno. Not exactly ignore, but just not do anything about it? Does that even make sense?"
"Actually, it does." Pat gave her his winning smile. "I like that idea."
"Um…I hate to say this, but how or what should we tell Walter?"
Pat winced. "I'll talk to him. Later." He stood and reached for Melinda's hand, leading her back to the dance, where Walter was talking with Chloe and Frank near the chocolate fountain.
Melinda saw Walter glare at Pat as they walked in. She squeezed Pat's hand, then let go. He understood her signal and, looking at Walter, inclined his head back towards the entryway. Walter seemed to understand as he followed Pat back out of the room.
Melinda wasn't really sure what she should do. She had lost Sarah during the first slow song. She did not see any of her other friends. Before she could decide, however, Frank and Chloe joined her.
"Walter is really upset," Frank informed her.
"He'll be fine," Chloe said. "Did you and Pat work things out?"
"Kinda. Sorta. Not really." Melinda figured Pat could explain things to his friends later.
When another slow song played, Frank asked Melinda if she wanted to dance. Melinda wanted to say no, but Chloe wouldn't let her. Melinda followed Frank, who led her towards the center of the dance floor.
Frank was not much taller than Melinda, so when he leaned towards her, she feared he would kiss her, but he simply spoke in her ear. "Thanks for dancing with me. My date went off with some sixth form hotshot. I figure if I dance with a pretty girl, she may get jealous. That's why I picked such a conspicuous location."
Melinda smiled. "You're using me."
"Totally. Is that okay?"
"It's a relief. You're not gonna try to kiss me."
Frank looked excited. "I could! That might make Bianca jealous."
"Oh, please don't!"
Frank leaned in towards Melinda's face, but backed away just before kissing her. "Nah, I'm just messing with you!" he smiled.
"Can I cut in?" Melinda turned her head to see Pat behind her. "Bianca is shooting daggers at you."
Pat nodded his head to the left, where Melinda saw a pretty brunette in a silky green dress glaring in her direction. As Pat took Melinda protectively into his arms, she saw Bianca make her way towards Frank. She turned her attention back to Pat, just as the music got faster. Holding her hand, he led her towards the refreshments.
"Are you and Walter okay?" she asked.
"We will be. And you guys will be, too. You'll see."
Sure enough, when they reached the beverage table, Walter joined them. He told them stories from both football games earlier that day and pretended as if no one had kissed anyone that evening.
Melinda danced another slow dance with Walter, which surprised her, because she had expected Pat to ask her. She saw him dancing with Chloe not far away and felt a mild pang of jealousy, even though she knew they were just dancing as friends, as she and Walter were.
"It's still weird," Walter said after a minute.
"Actually, I was thinking this felt less weird than the last time we danced. That first song."
"No, I didn't mean dancing with you. You're right, though. It was more awkward before. No, I meant the idea of you with Pat."
"I'm not with Pat."
"You will be. You know you will be."
"It's just so weird."
"I'm not going to promise not to let it bother me But I did promise Pat, and now I'll promise you, that I will talk to you guys if it does."
"I don't know if anything will happen between us."
"It will. Just don't make out in front of me."
Melinda punched him on the shoulder playfully as the song ended.
Melinda spent the rest of the dance with Walter, Chloe, and Pat. The final slow song, Pat managed to get Melinda back on the dance floor. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest as he held her close and spoke quietly into her hair.
"Can we maybe get together sometime this week? Just hang out like we did over Parents' Weekend?"
"Maybe. Maybe we can hang out after school. But, someplace unconspicuous. And not our dorms."
Pat smiled. "Why not the dorms?"
"Well, I just don't think it's appropriate."
"Oh, I completely agree. Random question: Have you ever had a boy in your room? Not being jealous. I'm trying to make a point."
"The only guy ever in my room was Walter and it was only one time. Last weekend, when I broke up with Eliot and needed to talk. Oh, and my dad, when he moved me in."
Pat smiled. "And, have you ever been in a boy's room?"
"Once. I watched Neogenesis with Walter in his room."
"And, there's my point. I feel the same way. The only time I've been in any girl's room was to visit Meghan. I've had a couple of girlfriends, but I've never been in their room or trailer or whatever. It's just not…"
Pat smiled. "That's why I like you. You get me. So, why inconspicuous?"
Melinda winced. "I thought it sounded wrong."
Pat merely kept smiling as the song ended and the lights in the room turned on. He took Melinda's hand and led her out the back stairwell. Most students were heading out the main entrance in the hopes of grabbing a few last refreshments on their way.
"Why inconspicuous?" he asked again as they walked slowly back towards the dorms.
"I don't want people to think I'm Patrick McGregor's girlfriend."
Pat frowned. "I know we said we're just gonna see what happens, but…are you embarrassed to be with me?"
"No, see. If something does happen between us, it'll be between me and Pat Evans, not Patrick McGregor. Does that even make sense?"
Pat smiled his heart-melting smile. "Yeah, I think that'll be okay."
They walked to Woodward, where Pat kissed her hand before releasing it and continuing towards his dormitory down the road. Melinda went straight to her room and changed for bed. She was debating whether she should wait up for her roommate when Sarah finally entered, only moments before curfew.
"Where've you been?" they both asked each other at the same time, erupting in giggles.
"Larry and I took the long way back," Sarah explained as she got ready for bed. "We wanted some alone time."
"Alone time? Is that what they're calling it these days? And what's the long way?"
"We went on the other side of the humanities building. There's some quiet places over there to sit."
"Speaking of kisses, did I see Patrick McGregor kiss you or were my eyes failing me."
Melinda's eyes grew wide. She knew Walter had seen her, but she had hoped no one else had. She did not want to be the subject of celebrity gossip!
"Go finish getting ready for bed and I promise I'll tell you."
Sarah returned to the room in record time, settling settled herself on her bed with her back against the wall. "Okay. Spill."
"So, yes, Pat did kiss me."
"What was it like?"
"Well, the first time –"
"He kissed you more than once?"
Melinda smiled. "The first time he kissed me dancing and it kinda startled both of us, I think. He got caught up in the moment, and neither of us knew what to think. Then, when we were talking it over, he kissed me again and it was… overwhelming."
"So, are you guys a thing now?"
"No, we're gonna kinda just see what happens. It's weird for both of us. And, we don't want to hurt Walter."
"Are you going to tell Walter about it?"
"I don't have to. Walter saw Pat kiss me."
"And how did he react to you kissing his brother?"
"He kissed me," Melinda said casually, nearly smiling as Sarah's jaw dropped.
Melinda could not help giggling as she explained. "I was talking to Walter, trying to explain how I felt about Pat, and he kissed me."
Sarah tried to form words, but she was clearly speechless, so Melinda continued. "It was actually a really good kiss, but I just don't feel anything for him. And, he doesn't feel anything for me. We're just meant to be friends."
"Wait. Didn't I see you dancing with someone else? Dark hair? Green shirt?"
"Frank. Well, his real name is Pete. It's a long story. He's Pat's roommate."
"He kissed you, too." When Melinda shook her head, Sarah insisted. "I saw you. You were dancing, he leaned over to kiss you, and then Patrick McGregor came over."
"We were just talking. He was trying to make some girl jealous. I think it worked."
"So, you go to the dance stag and you end up dancing with three boys and kissing two of them. And get an almost boyfriend. Maybe I should go to the next dance alone."
Melinda giggled. "But, then you wouldn't have any alone time with Larry."
"Oh, I think we can figure that out. So, you've kissed, what, four boys in the past month? Who's the best kisser?"
Melinda did not even hesitate with her answer. "Walter. He's an amazing kisser. I just didn't feel anything for him."