Brad Pearl and I had very little in common. He was the most popular boy in our seventh-grade class, a five-foot-nine-inch giant, who could play "Wonderwall" on guitar and was rumoured to have touched three girls' breasts.
I was the shortest kid in the middle school, including all the sixth graders and a boy named Arlo who'd been born missing part of his spine. Brad and I weren't friends; in fact we'd never spoken. So I was pretty surprised when he walked up to my locker after school and invited me to go with him on a double date.
"There's this girl from Sacred Heart," he told me. "And Courtney thinks you'd be perfect for her."
I shook my head in disbelief. Courtney was Brad's latest conquest, a shockingly-developed eighth grader from a nearby all-girls school. It was incredible she knew my name, and downright unbelievable she thought I would be "perfect" for someone.
"This date sounds very dope," I told him, using a slang word I'd learnt recently from MTV.
"Great," he said. "Let's go."
I followed Brad to Courtney's house, moving quickly to keep up with his gargantuan strides. Courtney answered the door in a tank top that was so low-cut it caused me to audibly gasp. She French-kissed Brad for several minutes. Then she looked down at me and smiled.
"I'm so glad you came!" she said. "Come on in – Gretchen's waiting."
I smoothed back my hair, stepped inside and looked around for my date. She was hiding behind a sofa, a stooped, pale girl, with wild, fearful eyes.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I said.
I stared at her for some time, trying to discern why Courtney thought I'd be "perfect" for her. Eventually, it dawned on me: we were exactly at eye level.
"You guys look so cute together!" Courtney squealed, taking out a camera. "Stand back to back."
"I don't want to," I mumbled, my face flushing.
"Do it," she commanded.
I looked at Gretchen. She had already turned her back to me, her knobby shoulders slumped in resignation. Her pose looked practiced. I wondered how many of these 'dates' Courtney had subjected her to.
"Gretchen's four-eight," Courtney told me between snaps. "How tall are you?"
"Four-nine," I muttered.
"Are you going to get the shots?" Gretchen asked me.
Gretchen swivelled around and stared at me.
"Hormone shots," she whispered. "My parents want me to get them. But they give you weird hair. On your back and legs and all over your butt."
"Oh my God," I said.
"Want snacks?" she chirped.
Brad gave me a thumbs-up and I reluctantly followed Gretchen into the kitchen. There were some granola bars on top of the fridge. I watched as she stood on her toes, struggling to reach them.
"Here," I said, grabbing the box for her.
She smiled at me brightly, batting her tiny eyelashes.
"You know what?" she said. "I don't think you need the shots. I think you're tall enough the way you are." She peered up at me nervously. "Do you think I should get the shots?"
I was thinking about how best to respond when I heard Brad laughing in the next room. I wondered how long it would be until he brought Courtney's mortifying snapshots into school.
"I need to go," I blurted.
"What?" Gretchen said, her mousy face crinkling with disappointment. "Already?"
I ran out of the house, leaving her standing there, a pair of granola bars in her tiny hands.
I didn't go on any more dates in seventh grade, but I spotted Gretchen that spring at an inter-school dance. I could tell she'd passed on those hormone shots. She hadn't grown an inch. Still, it took me a moment to recognise her. Her posture had become less stooped. She looked calm, composed – even a little bit confident. When the DJ played a slow-song, I figured out why. She'd found a boyfriend.
I watched with amazement as her date wrapped his arms around her waist. He was very short, but wasn't embarrassed by it. It was like no one had told him. She rested her head on his chest and ran both hands through his hair. At the end of the song, he whispered in her ear. Her cheeks crimsoned alluringly and I realised, with shock, that she looked beautiful.
I thought about saying hello to her. But I knew that it was useless. I'd set my bar too high – and now it was too late.
'The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories' by Simon Rich (Serpent's Tail) is published on 31 January