I moved to Clifton last week, out of my parents’ home and into my first apartment, just in time for the dog days of summer.
I moved with my family a couple of times over the years. Each time I move I find a trace of my childhood worthy of a chuckle or pang of nostalgia — a movie ticket from a first date, an old diary teeming with girly, juvenile discourse.
During my move to Clifton, I found an old picture album, warped from years of storage; it looked more like a neglected library book. The album contained a mish-mash of random photos I’d collected from my mother — ones that didn’t make the cut for the “official” family photo album. Then I came across one that was smaller, clearly from an old camera, maybe a disposable.
The picture was a candid, likely taken by my mother at some class party during my years in elementary school. Buoyant, happy bodies were scattered throughout the classroom — some chomping on mom-made cookies, some smiling cheekily at the camera.
It disappointed me that I struggled to recognize so many of those faces of children I’d grown up with. Then I recognized a face I hadn’t seen in close to a decade, one I know I’ll never forget. That was Oliver.
Before I moved during sixth grade, I was gutsy. I wasn’t really outgoing, but I was confident and I spoke when I had something to say.
Oliver, however, was tiny for his age, almost demure. His big blue eyes stuck out on his fragile frame, eclipsed by long, sweeping black eyelashes. He was the kind of shy I’d only understand later, after I moved, left all my friends and fell victim to my own insecurities and fears.
I never spoke much to Oliver personally. I certainly never realized he had a crush on me. But my grade was small, so we frequently crossed paths. During class, he’d sit near the back, reticent and unnoticed while I eagerly sat up front, asking questions and offering answers.
During the fifth grade, my friends and I were incessantly discussing our crushes over sleepovers, but we were all still in that awkward transitional phase in which we wanted absolutely nothing to do with boys other than to muse about them over games of Truth or Dare.
I remember the day Oliver had the rose just as vividly as the day it happened.
I was moseying from math class over to my locker to pick up whatever a fifth grade girl stores in her locker: Lipsmackers and gel pens, probably.
Oliver stood at my locker, holding a single rose. He looked smaller than ever standing there; he must have been petrified. Bewildered, confused and oblivious, I approached him.
“Here,” was all he said, thrusting the rose into my arms as he stared bashfully at the ground, fidgety and nervous.
“What is this for?” I asked, dumbfounded.
My skin scorched with mortification. I could feel people gawking in curiosity, including the boy I liked at the time.
“My sister took me to get it; it’s for you,” he gushed, eyes still cast downward.
I was stupefied. During our sleepovers, my friends and I had never covered how to actually deal with a boy who openly confessed his affections. It was unheard of.
Fifth grade boys flirted solely via teasing and verbal abuse. Boyfriends were merely a figment of the imagination. To receive a rose from a boy, much less a boy like Oliver, was undocumented. It was weird.
“You can keep it, Oliver. I don’t want it. But thanks anyway.”
His tiny face collapsed in agony and humiliation. I could have sworn those bright blue eyes of his grayed a little.
“Just take it,” he pleaded. “Please, just take it.”
I’m sure he wanted to take off running just as much as I did by that point.
“No, Oliver. I can’t take that. Please just keep it. I’m sorry.”
I turned around and walked away, tingly with vexation and annoyance. I was almost mad at him. What gave him the right to do that, out of the blue? I tried convincing myself that he was at fault for embarrassing me.
After that day, I never apologized to Oliver. I never thanked him or his sister. I never even took the rose. Instead, I tried avoiding him for those last few days of fifth grade, and by the time I switched schools the next year all was forgotten.
After I moved, I came to understand Oliver’s kind of shy. I learned how it felt to be meek, to feel small and self-conscious. Realizing how much courage Oliver probably had to have mustered up to hand me that rose and how I brushed him off still feels heartbreaking.
I think now that maybe Oliver was a little older than the rest of us in the fifth grade. It took some struggles of my own to realize that naveté isn’t a free pass to be inconsiderate or selfish. I realize now I’d rather be a compassionate wallflower over cruel and confident any day.
For now, that picture of Oliver is packed away with some of my knick-knacks, only to be rediscovered during the next move.
I just wish I had a dried-up rose pressed in the place next to it.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: firstname.lastname@example.org