My heart sank when I saw who had been assigned to me as my lab partner for chemistry. Artie Johnson was the original SuperNerd. The thick, unflattering spectacles he wore didn’t manage to draw attention from his shaggy, overgrown hair – or his lurid sweater vests and ill-fitting corduroy trousers. His entire look resembled something that had occurred after an explosion in a thrift store – and I would have to spend several hours a week working with him.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a shallow person, a girl so obsessed with clothes and make-up that I only date boys for their looks and not their personalities. (Although admittedly, all my boyfriends have been athletes as well as being some of the best-looking guys in school.) If Artie had possessed a personality, perhaps I could have gotten past his unattractive appearance; but he was genuinely one of the most boring people I’d ever met.
I still remember the book report he gave in seventh grade: when everyone else was reading Percy Jackson or Harry Potter, Artie chose to tell us about a non-fiction book he was reading that listed ‘fascinating’ facts and figures about Alcatraz. And in case you’re thinking that doesn’t sound too bad, let me tell you it was mind-numbingly dull. Artie droned on for twenty-two and a half minutes about the length of every corridor and the dimensions of every cell – not to mention the exact thickness of every wall and the number of doors in the entire prison. For months afterwards we called him the NerdMan of Alcatraz.
Anyway, 16 year old Artie didn’t seem like much of an improvement on his 13 year old self. He barely looked at me the first time we worked together; and when I asked him to pass me a test tube, the tips of his ears turned pink with embarrassment.
Across the room, I could see my best friend Cassie chatting with her lab partner – or perhaps ‘flirting’ would be a more accurate word to use. For a moment, my heart stood still. Cassie knew I liked Byron, so why was she smiling up at him like that and tossing her hair around like a pony shaking its mane?
“I hope your friend’s good at chemistry,” said a soft voice behind me, “because I heard Ken was failing science last semester.”
“He’s called Byron,” I said, surprised that Artie was finally talking to me.
The pink now washed over Artie’s entire face. “Of course he is. I…” He paused. “I call him ‘Ken’ in my head ‘cause he’s like a Ken doll.”
“What, made of plastic?” I quipped drily.
Artie grinned. “He’s the ultimate accessory – I’ve seen you and the other Barbies taking it in turns to flutter your eyelashes at him.”
I fell silent, unable to disagree.
“Cassie’s useless at science,” I said eventually. “She normally asks to copy my homework.” I paused. “Not that I’m any good at science myself – but I’m better than she is.”
“Brains as well as beauty…” Was he mocking me?
“I said I wasn’t good at science,” I corrected him.
“You do pretty well in English, though.” He was blushing again. “Ms del Brocco is always reading out bits of your essays.”
I didn’t really know how to respond to this. I was used to boys complimenting me on my hair or my eyes – not my critical analysis.
“You need to add a drop more sulfuric acid,” he commented, changing the subject. “If we’re going to do this properly, we need to cover the gallium. That way, we’ll get the effect of a beating heart.”
The heat of the Bunsen burner was steaming up his spectacles. He removed them, attempting to polish the lenses on his sleeve, and I noticed that his eyes were an incredible shade of green – almost khaki. You could drown in those eyes if you weren’t careful.
“By the way,” – his glasses were back on again – “I was wondering if you could help me out. You see, there’s this girl I like…” He broke off, sounding embarrassed.
“Is she…” I was about to say ‘nerdy’ but changed the unflattering word. “Is she brainy like you?” I asked.
“So, what’s the problem?” I knew that geeks tended to gravitate towards their own kind – just like the popular kids do.
By way of reply, he gestured towards his flapping corduroys and painful sweater vest. “I don’t suppose you could help me look a bit more…”
“Human?” I supplied.
“Cool,” he finished, shooting me an annoyed look. Noticing my uncertainty, he added, “We could help each other out: you can show me how to dress better and I’ll tutor you so you get an A in chemistry.”
“Okay,” I agreed, thinking that even nerds deserved the chance of happiness, “as long as you don’t tell anyone what we’re doing.”
I knew it would be social death if any of my friends discovered our secret.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I planned how I would reinvent Artie so that he stood a chance of asking out his secret crush without being rejected. From time to time, I wondered whether he really needed to change his image: after all, it wasn’t like he was going after one of the popular girls. With this in mind, I started to pay more attention to the girls on the quiz teams, trying to work out which one had caught Artie’s eye. Melissa had braces and stuttered when she spoke, but her hair was long and thick and luscious – at least, I assumed it would be if she set it free from the restrictive pigtail she’d been wearing for the past two years. Janna was short and her clothes were abysmal, but her smile was amazing; and Stacey had a knockout figure beneath her frumpy, shapeless sweaters. (We were in the same gym class and I’d seen her getting changed.) It was a pity we’d agreed I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was transforming Artie because I realised how easy it would be to play fairy godmother to these girls and give each of them a makeover too.
“Is there a reason why you like wearing sweater vests?” I asked pointedly one afternoon.
Artie squirmed and looked at his shoes.
“My grandma knits them for me,” he said at last. “I don’t like wearing them, but I don’t want to upset her. She lives with us, you see, so it’s kind of hard to leave the house in anything else. I don’t want her to think I’m rejecting her gifts.”
I found myself unexpectedly touched by this statement. Most of the boys I knew were far too busy being popular to worry about other people’s feelings. I still had a sort-of crush on Byron, but that was diminishing on a daily basis. The more I compared him to Artie, the more immature Byron and his friends seemed to be.
“Did you see what the guys on the football team were doing in the lunch hall today?” I asked suddenly. “They were having a competition to see who could fit the most French fries up their nose.”
Artie regarded me gravely. “Did it make you go weak at the knees?”
“Absolutely!” I told him. “Doesn’t every girl want a boyfriend who’ll flaunt his masculinity in public?”
“So, you like the caveman mentality then?”
“I think you’ll find the Cro-Magnon male had to stuff a pterodactyl up his nose to garner female attention,” I said, feeling pleased with myself.
Artie smiled. “Actually, the Cro-Magnon lived between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, and dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago. I think Cro-Magnon would have had to do something else to attract the ladies.”
I felt torn between feeling mortified that I’d said such a stupid thing and impressed that Artie seemed to know everything about everything.
What’s wrong with you? I asked myself sternly. Don’t tell me you’re falling for a geek!
But the more time I spent with Artie, the more he was beginning to grow on me – despite the ridiculous hairstyle and despite the dubious dress sense. Was that why I kept telling myself he didn’t need to change his image? Was I subconsciously trying to make sure that no one else would see what I saw when I looked at him?
“Speaking of attracting the ladies…” Artie’s voice broke through my confused thoughts, “isn’t it time you started holding up your end of the bargain? I’ve been helping you out with chemistry, but you haven’t told me what I should be wearing instead of these.” He gestured once more at his excruciating ensemble.
“Are you busy after school?” I heard myself ask. When he shook his head, I continued, “Then tonight, Artie, you and I are going to the mall.”
“Aren’t you ready yet?” I grumbled. It seemed like hours since I’d grabbed handfuls of tee-shirts and jeans off the rails in Hollister and told him to go try them on.
“Hang on!” The cubicle door opened and Artie emerged like an unwilling butterfly from a chrysalis, blinking under the harsh lights of the store. “Well? What do you think?”
I felt my heart give a little hop as I took in the new-look Artie. The plain black tee-shirt moulded itself to a surprisingly well-muscled chest. As far as I knew, the only sport he was interested in was chess. Who would have thought that lifting chessmen would have developed his arms and upper body like that! His long legs were encased in tight fitting black jeans, and instead of tennis shoes, he was wearing low black harness boots that lent him an edgy look. There was no denying that he looked cool – even with that dodgy hairstyle.
“You look good,” I said slowly.
“Really?” He flashed me an appreciative grin.
“The clothes are great,” I continued. “Just make sure you hang onto one of your sweater vests to keep your grandma happy.”
Artie nodded, turning to check himself out in the full length mirror. “I would never have thought of anything like this, Lori. Somehow, you knew just what I needed to make me look…”
Hot, I thought.
“Normal,” he finished. Then, “But it would be even better if I got my hair sorted out too. Do you think you could help me with that?”
An hour later, the stylist stepped back and surveyed his handiwork. “You look incredible,” he announced. “Your girlfriend will be beating people off with sticks once they see you looking like that.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Artie said quickly.
I didn’t like the hopeful look in the stylist’s eye as he said this.
“C’mon, Artie,” I said in desperation. “It’s time to go and see what your grandma thinks of your new look.”
He reached for his glasses but the stylist stopped him. “With eyes like that, you should be wearing contacts. There’s a walk-in eye care center just a few doors away – why don’t you call in and ask what they can do for you?”
“I don’t know…” Artie was squinting at his reflection. “What do you think, Lori?”
I think I’ve done my job too well, I wanted to say. It wasn’t just the clothes that made Artie irresistible to me and the stylist: his dark brown hair looked soft and shiny and it flopped into his eyes in a way reminiscent of a very young Hugh Grant.
“It’s better than it was before,” I said nonchalantly, trying to pretend my heart wasn’t beating twice as fast as it normally did.
I steered Artie out of the salon, for once at a loss to know what to say to him.
“Do you have to go home right away?” he asked.
“Not really? Why?”
My heart was thudding so loud I was sure he could hear it.
“Do you want to grab a Coke or something? I owe you a thank you for the transformation.”
For a brief second, I hesitated: not because I didn’t want to be seen with Artie but because I knew I’d started falling for him. If we went for a drink together, even just as friends, I knew it would make me start wanting things I couldn’t have. Artie had already set his sights on someone – and that girl wasn’t me.
“Maybe another time,” I said slowly, wondering if I would regret my decision.
He caught my gaze and held it. “No big deal. I just wanted to say thanks.”
He leaned in towards me and for a brief, irrational moment I thought he was going to kiss me, but instead he squeezed my shoulder. “Thanks, Lori. You’re a good friend.”
I walked away before I could change my mind.
Artie’s new look was on everyone’s lips the following day at school. Girls who’d never noticed his existence before were suddenly falling over each other to sit next to him in class or to save him a space in the lunch queue. I found myself irrationally annoyed. They were only interested in him because of his hair and clothes: they didn’t know the real Artie like I did.
“What’s happened to the NerdMan of Alcatraz?” Cassie asked as she slid into the empty seat next to mine in the lunch hall.
“Don’t call him that!” I snapped.
Cassie’s eyes widened in surprise. “You were the one who invented his nickname! What was it you said? You’d rather have your eyes torn out by angry wolves than have to sit and listen to another minute of the NerdMan droning on about doors and corridors.”
A sound behind me made me turn my head. Artie was striding away with his lunch tray. Had he heard what Cassie said?
It seemed a long time until our chemistry class that afternoon. As the minutes dragged their way past the hour in math, I found my mind replaying Cassie’s words. “You were the one who invented his nickname.”
It was true – but I hadn’t known Artie then; hadn’t realised that the guy I’d labelled a nerd was kind and sweet and funny, or that I’d end up falling for him so totally, so hopelessly.
“I need to tell you something,” I said abruptly once our chemistry lesson started.
“Just let me get this bit underway first,” he murmured, pulling the wax candle out of an aluminium tea light holder. “A little strontium chloride… a cotton wool ball,,, a few drops of ethyl alcohol…” Noting my incomprehension, he added, “We’re trying to make different coloured flames. Weren’t you listening when Mr Carlucci talked us through the different methods?”
I searched my mind. There had been something about taking care not to set the laboratory on fire and something else about knowing where the fire extinguishers were.
“I think I was thinking about something else,” I said truthfully.
Artie finished pouring different chemicals onto all the little cotton wool balls and stood back. “Now all we have to do is light them,” he said.
“Artie…” I knew I needed to apologise for the name I’d called him – even if it was a long time ago. “It’s my fault people called you NerdMan. I made it up. It was meant to be a joke – like the Bird Man of Alcatraz.”
“I know.” A grin broke over his face. “To be honest, I kind of liked having that nickname. At least everyone knew who I was.” He paused. “I’ve got something to tell you too. Cassie’s invited me to a party at her house.”
Cassie would, I thought bitterly. She had an almost sixth sense for sniffing out boys I liked and then monopolizing them.
“I hope you have fun,” I said stiffly, trying not to let him see how much I minded.
“Hang on,” he said, looking mystified. “Aren’t you going to be there?”
Before I could reply, he rushed on, “I said I’d go because I wanted to see you, Lori. You’re the girl I’ve liked all along – I was hoping you’d have worked that out by now.”
I’m the girl he wanted to change for? “I thought you said she was a nerd,” I said accusingly.
Artie laughed. “I said she was brainy – and you are. Admittedly, not so much at science…” He swiftly retrieved a pair of plastic tweezers that I’d been absentmindedly melting in the Bunsen flame. “I’ve wanted to ask you out for ages,” he continued. “Not just because you’re insanely beautiful, or because you’re super-intelligent, or because you make me laugh, but because you’re one of the most compassionate people I know. No one else would have bothered to take me shopping the way you did, or to wait with me for an hour while I got my hair cut.”
“I enjoyed spending time with you,” I said softly, realising it was true. Sometimes, you don’t realise until too late that you’ve thrown away a treasure, but I was lucky enough to recognise Artie’s worth before it was too late.
“And that’s why I want to be with you,” Artie told me, lighting the rest of the cotton wool balls and letting their colours flame around us like fireflies. “The other Barbies didn’t want to know me when I wore spectacles and sweater vests, but you treated me like a real person.”
His mouth was now very close to mine.
“I think I suddenly understand what chemistry’s all about,” I breathed, wondering if the sparks between us would set the laboratory on fire.
And then he kissed me, and stars exploded around us.