February 2001

I miss third grade.

I wrote that first in fourth grade, when our class was broken up and we only saw each other at lunch and sometimes in gym.

I wrote it again in seventh grade, when I realized how awesome it was to at least have lunch with my friends, instead of maybe lunch and scattered classes with scattered friends – English with Carlos and Tim, history with Wanda and Ralphie, band with Keesha, science with DA, Carlos, and Wanda again, reading with Tim… and lunch with some of them sometimes.

I wrote it again in eighth grade when I was the only one who took French. I wish I was there when Carlos got kicked out of Spanish I, even though he doesn't really speak it that well, just because his name is Spanish. I wish I was there in dance when Wanda made the dance company. I wish I was there in gym when Arnold got pegged in the face with a volleyball. I could have done something to help him out. On second thought, I'm glad I wasn't there, or everyone would have laughed at me. I mean, everyone seemed to know that I liked Arnold, not that it was hard to tell since I couldn't really talk to him much without blushing or shaking or running away.

In ninth grade, we were still in middle school and tried to plan our schedules so we could be together, but there were so many electives…

It got worse in high school. I didn't have the same lunch as Carlos and D.A., so I missed their running to the courtyard intermittently to make up or break up. I wasn't in drama when Keesha and Wanda made call-backs for the first time. I got nervous even thinking about going near the drama room. I did get to sneak a peek at Tim's art – but only because AP art students had a show after school and I ran so I could squeeze it between psychology and after-school choir practice.

I was there at lunch when Wanda revealed her latest plan to get everyone back together in junior year of high school.

"We have to be in the musical for choir." I sighed. "I don't know what I'm going to do." I was sitting at lunch with Keesha and Wanda, as usual.

"If you've got such bad stage fright, how come you're in choir?" Wanda asked.

"I can look at the person in front of me." I explained. "I can close my eyes sometimes."

"And you can in band?" Keesha prodded. She was first sax in jazz band. Wanda raised an eyebrow. She played trombone in jazz band in middle school, but dropped out to be on drill team.

"No." I admitted, staring at my half-eaten slice of cheese pizza. "But I can hide behind my music stand."

"If you don't see them, they don't see you?" Keesha hypothesized.

"Sort of." I nodded.

"I just don't get it – I love being on stage!" Wanda enthused. She was in drama as well as dance company. She had just signed up for choir so she could be in the advanced drama troupe that did a lot of musicals. "You should totally sign up for musical, Pheebs."

"No way." I said, biting into the pizza. I shook my head as I chewed to drive the point home.

"If you're in the chorus, the only people looking at just you are your parents." Wanda insisted. "Well, and I guess Arnold would be looking at you…"

"I'm in the orchestra." I tried. "He – no one can see me there."

"Will that excuse fly in choir?" Keesha asked, concerned. She was pretending she didn't hear me slip.

"I hope so." I hoped that being in the pit where no one could see me would placate my choir teacher. I'd much rather wear black and play clarinet – even for two straight hours – than dance and sing in some ridiculous costume. Our choir director might not buy it though. He had a rivalry with orchestra and no one knew why. Wanda and Keesha were both trying out for leads; they'd even convinced DA to audition for something. I wasn't surprised that they ganged up on me.

"Look, musical practice after school is every day for three months. We could finally all be together again for longer than a few minutes!" Wanda pleaded.

"I'll be in the pit." I said firmly.

"No, because then you'll be in the band room practicing during rehearsal." Wanda continued.

"She has this all planned out." Keesha raised her eyebrows. "Seriously, she's been plotting your downfall on the bus all week."

I miss third grade, when we all rode the same bus. That way Wanda couldn't do this to me – at least not without my knowing.

"Fine." I closed my eyes. "I'll be in the chorus – if everyone else can be. But I'm not trying out for a lead."

"Come ON," Wanda begged.

"Lay off," Keesha warned. "You don't want her to spontaneously combust."

"Right, priorities." Wanda sighed, winking at Keesha.

"Don't do that!" I insisted, throwing a fry at Wanda. "Can't we all gang up on … I don't know, Ralphie?"

"Good idea!" Wanda's eyes lit up. "So, who'll come with me after school to corner him?"

To make a long story short, it didn't work out. Ralphie couldn't miss football practice and Tim was already on stage crew (he did the set design), so I did get to be in the pit after all. Wanda managed to recruit Carlos into the chorus, which was hilarious. I thought I would look funny in a ridiculous costume, but Carlos was funnier. He was such a ham anyway, theatre suited him.

Orchestra and chorus rehearsals were at the same time, but we never saw each other. Wanda convinced the music and stage directors to at least coordinate our dinner breaks. I was amazed she had that much clout. For all her scheming, Wanda wasn't the one making sure we all met up – that fell to Dorothy Ann.

On a Friday night in February, the band director held us for longer than usual to "polish" one of the songs that we couldn't do faster than half the intended tempo. My mouth was exhausted – I'd been playing reed instruments since I was seven, but practicing for hours on end was something else. I hadn't tried talking; I honestly didn't think I could form words.

I walked out of the band room after rehearsal to find my thespian friends (Tim included, even though he was on crew) were outside waiting for me.

"I swear one of these days Mr. B will catch you and Carlos making out in a car," Wanda laughed at DA. Keesha and Tim joined in. Carlos wanted to laugh, but didn't like to do so at his own expense.

"Whatever." He replied. "We're just friends now."

"Seriously this time." Dorothy Ann added, much to the amusement of everyone else. I smiled at how we could make the best out of school on a Friday night. I was a little sad that rehearsals weren't combined yet. The chorus would have a terrible time learning their dances while the orchestra was still learning the notes.

"Hey guys," I said quietly. I rubbed my sore jaw. "Sorry I had to stay longer than usual, those killer runs in the second act…"

"So…" Carlos turned to me, cutting me off. "I heard you have a thing for the pianist."

"What? Our pianist quit." I replied, puzzled.

"She doesn't deny it." Wanda hissed. DA giggled. I looked at them and saw that Wanda had a plan. I narrowed my eyes at Wanda. If it didn't make her feel bad for ganging up on me again, at least it made me feel better.

"The new pianist." Tim added. I hated when people ganged up on me. They all seemed to be laughing and I didn't get it. I hated this feeling. I wish they'd just tell me.

"What new pianist?" I asked, frustrated. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned away from my friends, who were all about to explode with full-blown laughter.

"Hey." Arnold said softly.

"Arnold!" I jumped. "What are you doing here?" I could hear everyone laughing behind me.

"I'm the new pianist." He said softly. "I was working with the leads today, but I'll be in the orchestra next week." Before I could reply, I was interrupted. I wasn't surprised.

"Aw, maybe they'll get caught making out in the parking lot!" Carlos cried.

"Maybe you and D.A. will get back together to go on double dates!" Keesha countered.

"Look how red they both are!" Wanda laughed. I realized that I'd started blushing the second Arnold spoke to me. He'd caught me off guard, or else I wouldn't have been so embarrassed.

I looked at Keesha, hoping she'd come through for me as the voice of reason, but she just gave me a look. DA didn't look like she was going to stop the chaos either. Tim was on the phone – not-so-discreetly. I knew he was calling Ralphie to tell him that we were all out.

"Well, this is ridiculous." Arnold said.

"And awkward." I added.

"Very awkward." He echoed. I watched myself fidget with my left foot.

I had nothing to say. We were standing face-to-face, closer than we normally would to have a conversation. Everyone was lounging around on the grass a few feet away. We were talking so quietly no one could hear – or we had been for all of a minute. It grew exponentially more awkward by the second. I heard footsteps coming near me, but I couldn't look up from my feet.

"Look," a matter-of-fact voice started, "I know it, you both know it, and everyone else knows it. Why are you so afraid to admit you like each other?" Dorothy Ann lectured. I squinted my eyelids shut, knowing that it was the only way I could feel I was hiding any more. I heard Dorothy Ann sigh, but she didn't leave. "If you'd just say it – or something,"

"KISS!" Wanda cheered.

" – or something," DA repeated. I drew the line at kissing. There was no way, not here in front of the high school, not in front of all of my friends, not with DA so close, not because Wanda said so, not when my mom could come pick me up (in case she forgot that I was going to hang out with my friends tonight), just not now. I winced harder. Knowing my luck, Arnold would decide to go for it right now. "Pheebs, is there a muscle in your body you aren't clenching right now?"

I felt my ears burn red. I tried to find the muscle so I could clench it too. "I don't know." I mumbled.

"Come on," DA soothed. "You two are lucky. Most people fear rejection, and it's clear as day that's not an issue for you." She was right and I hated her for it. I hoped she didn't give an ultimatum or anything. "Why don't you just admit it?" She repeated, grabbing my shoulder. I looked up at her as a reflex. She had my shoulder in her right hand and Arnold's in her left. I was afraid she'd – I don't know, push us together, but I knew she wasn't strong enough. She just held on, like she could keep me from running away. I made a note to tell her I'm not in middle school any more.

I bit my lip. Arnold swallowed hard. He was closer to caving than I was.

"I'll give you three good reasons why you should." DA offered. "Ralphie." She paused for emphasis, looking at Tim, who wasn't on the phone any longer. Ralphie was on his way. "Wanda." She was letting each "reason" sink in. "Carlos."

I looked over at Arnold, who looked slightly afraid. "You wouldn't." He managed.

"She would." I countered before DA could respond.

"Fine then, since you two are speaking again, I'll give you five minutes." She let go. I contemplated running.

"Phoebe, I, uh…" Arnold started. His voice cracked and he gritted his teeth shut.

I, however, was not one for initiating earth-shattering admissions. "Why did you join the orchestra?" I asked, softly but quickly before I could change the subject mid-sentence (an art I'd mastered).

"Because the pianist dropped out and I wanted to – I wanted to see you more. I mean, I was hoping we could hang out at rehearsal and stuff, but I understand if you've got sectionals or whatever…" He blurted. I smiled a little – it was so sweet of him to remember that I might have sectionals – I was second clarinet and the harmonies did get difficult.

"No," I said before I realized what I'd said. Arnold's face fell and he started to turn away when I started blurting stuff out faster than I could think. "I mean sure, I'd love to hang out with you or whatever. I meant no I don't usually have sectionals – and I mean… I'm the only sophomore in the clarinet section and they don't really talk to me anyway." I looked back at my feet, wondering if I could still breathe. Even provoking that from him had me flushed. My next words surprised me. "Sorry I asked, I just – I guess I'm just chicken."

"What?" Apparently they caught him off-guard too.

"I'm chicken." I repeated. Why was I still talking? "I guess we were supposed to confess undying love or something and I'm too scared to do it, so I asked a pointed question to make you do it first." I made another mental note to get an exorcism and charge Wanda for it.

He smiled. "It's okay, I know how you feel. That was a lot of pressure." I felt a little relief. At least we were both humiliated together, right? I decided to give up on exorcising the demon within if it ended up okay. I figured I probably should go to an extra mass, though.

"Was?" I asked, laughing weakly. I glanced back at the group. Carlos gave me a thumbs-up. Wanda wolf-whistled. I realized I'd stopped blushing for a moment before because I blushed again.

"Right." Arnold reached out his right hand, which was shaking so hard it was funny. I knew I'd be shaking harder – maybe I just wanted to laugh, but I didn't. I mirrored him, reaching toward him with my left hand. It was awkward and meaningful and sweet and the most embarrassing moment of my entire life all at once.

His palm was sweaty, but I realized that mine was too as I took his hand. I watched our hands tremble, nervous in this new gesture. Arnold looked up at me sheepishly.

"Do you think they'll leave us alone now?" He ventured.

"Maybe." I smiled weakly. I felt like I was going to pass out.

And then I did.

"You killed her!" Wanda was shrieking when I came to. I was flat on my back and could feel the cold grass on my bare arms (thank God for California winters). The night was suddenly chilly. For a moment I could see the dark, vast night sky. It was soon obstructed by Arnold, then pretty much everyone else. My left hand felt cold.

"Are you okay?" Arnold asked, looking very worried.

"Did I faint?" I asked, then laughed a little. "Well, I guess that's obvious. I'm fine, thanks."

"Phoebe!" DA cried. "Are you okay? What happened?"

I took a deep breath. Everyone had gathered around. "I just … fainted, that's all."

"Why?" Tim asked. I wanted to kick him. Wanda grinned at him. Carlos was giving him a look of "Isn't it obvious?"

"I don't know, I guess I was overwhelmed or something." I looked around. This was definitely adding to the most embarrassing part of my life.

"What's going on?" Ralphie's voice called. He was jogging our way. I thought about praying for God to kill me now.

"Can we go?" Arnold asked, looking at Ralphie. He had read my mind. I sat up slowly.

"Yeah, sure." Ralphie shrugged. "Where to?"

"We can go to my house." Keesha offered. I sighed. Finally, the attention was off me.

"Thanks," I said softly. "For changing the subject."

"Are you really okay?" Arnold asked. He moved more quickly this time, putting his hand on mine before he had a chance to get too nervous. I smiled.

"Yeah, I'm fine." I turned my hand so our palms touched and squeezed his hand a little. It gave me butterflies.

"Are you coming or not?" Keesha called. We had apparently been left behind – everyone had piled into Tim's Jeep or Keesha's car. "I've got room for you two in here."

"Okay," Arnold replied. We got up, still managing to hold hands. "So…"

"So what?" I asked. I wasn't playing dumb, I just didn't want to say it.

"So are we going out or what?" He blurted. I stopped walking and tried really hard to stay conscious.

"Okay." I stammered. "I mean, if you want. If you don't, that's okay too, but,"

"No," He corrected, "no, I – yeah, I do want to."

"Okay then." I smiled. He heaved a sigh of relief.

"Well that was probably the most awkward thing ever." He joked as we started walking.

"You haven't tried fainting in front of all of your friends." I replied. He squeezed my hand and smiled at me.

"You – you know, I've kind of had a crush on you for a long time." He admitted.

Well I may or may not have been in love with you for pretty much my whole life. I thought. "Yeah, me too – on you, not on me." I blushed. I was spitting out stupid thing after stupid thing tonight. "That sounded pretty stupid, huh?"

Arnold laughed. "Just a little." I laughed with him – nervously, but I was still laughing. This was a good sign.

We got to Keesha's car. She hung up her cell phone quickly.

"What was that about?" I asked. "Please don't tell me Wanda's got another plan."

"No, it was a bet." Ralphie explained. "Wanda thought it would take more extreme measures to get you two together."

"There was a bet?" I cried.

"It's no big deal, just a milkshake." Keesha shrugged as she buckled her seatbelt. Ralphie had, of course, taken shotgun, leaving Arnold and me in the backseat. I tried to convince myself that it wasn't an awkward situation. "I'll buy you one if you want."

"You guys ARE, together, right?" Ralphie probed. I gave him my best "shut up" look that I'd perfected on Wanda.

Arnold looked at me and I turned to him. He wasn't saying anything. I blushed. "Yeah."

"SWEET!" Keesha cried. "I'm getting you a milkshake to celebrate."

"It's okay." I insisted. I had a feeling that she'd get Arnold and me a milkshake to share and I didn't want to faint again.

"So…" Ralphie turned to us. "When's the wedding?"

"Shut up," Arnold retorted.

"They've had enough for one night." Keesha added.

"I think we've had enough for a month." I pitched in.

"So I can bug you about it in a month?" Ralphie sounded excited.

"Shut up." Keesha elbowed him.

"Hey, drive!" Ralphie winced. "There's a cat – you could've killed it just then!"

"Whatever." Keesha rolled her eyes. "At least I haven't hit a garbage can."

"I didn't see it!" He countered.

"It was in the middle of the road."

"Well if it was where it was supposed to be, I wouldn't have hit it!" Ralphie argued.

"Sure." Keesha said cynically.

"Will you lovers just stop it?" Arnold insisted.

There was perfect silence. I smiled coyly.

"Wait 'til I tell Wanda." I whispered to Arnold. Keesha knew we were saying something, but I had covered my mouth with my hand so she wouldn't figure out that I was telling Wanda. Arnold handed me his phone.

"Ever played Snake?" He asked. I smiled. He was quick.

"No." I leaned in, counting on Ralphie and Keesha to be far too embarrassed to do anything about it. Arnold opened up his text messaging menu. "I'll pay you back." I whispered.

"Don't worry about it." He answered. "It's only five cents."

2/9/2001 22:41

To: WANDA (805) 555-9467

MSG: R & K admit they're in love - Phoebe (keep it on the dl)

And that was the first text message I ever sent.