During the last period on the first day of seventh grade, the teacher assigned me a seat behind Brian. He turned around and smiled at me. My heart was his.
Every day I looked forward to taking my seat. He usually got to class before me. I worried if he didn’t. The smiles turned to conversations, and he became my friend.
I patiently harbored a crush for months, memorizing the line of his short-cropped hair as I stared at the back of his head instead of the chalkboard. At age 12, I didn’t really think about what would happen if he did return my feelings. That wasn’t important.
What was important was seeing Brian at the Valentine's dance. If that mysterious next step were to happen, I knew it would be on that night.
I curled my hair and wore a black velvet off-the-shoulder dress, with white lace trim that curved across the neckline and around my arms. I recognized Brian as soon as he entered the cafeteria in his green silk shirt.
Throughout the night I eyed him as I swayed and giggled with a circle of girls. He chatted with his friend.
And then Whitney Houston’s perfect, unadorned voice cut through the murmurs — “I Will Always Love You,” a song so beautiful it made even a linoleum cavern full of middle-schoolers fall silent.
Brian started to walk toward me. He asked me to dance, taking me gently by the elbow and escorting me to his zone of the cafeteria floor. A mother who was chaperoning whispered, “I don’t think this song is appropriate for children.” I still don't know what she meant.
I put my hands on Brian’s shoulders; he put his hands on my waist. Another couple could have shuffled at a well-mannered distance between us.
While we danced, I gazed up at him. He wasn’t looking at me, but he was smiling. I smiled, too.
Nearly 20 years later, I remember every second of that dance so clearly, my first dance with a boy, my first and only dance with Brian.
The next day I went out and bought a cassette single of “I Will Always Love You” and listened to it relentlessly. My parents asked me what I thought would happen on Monday when I saw Brian. I said it didn’t matter because now we knew we liked each other. I was at peace.
Monday came, and when I got to class he was already there. We smiled and we talked and nothing had changed, which was the most comforting thing that could happen at 12 years old. Months later he called and asked me if I wanted to go to the movies on the last day of school, which was still another two months away. We never went.
With the help of Whitney Houston, the first quiet thrill of love imprinted itself in 1993 on children in school cafeterias across the country. We didn’t know what love meant. We only knew what the emotion in her voice told us — that flawless voice that sang about the love little girls dream of.