When I was in 7th grade, a keychain made me popular.

The summer before that school year, I went on a family vacation to Memphis, Tennessee. We visited the Peabody Hotel to watch its famous ducks, who make a daily march to the lobby’s fountain while tourists snap pictures. It’s a weird but enduring tradition, dating back to 1933. It can best be described as underwhelming.

The hotel has a gift shop full of duck paraphernalia, and my mom told me I could pick out one thing. I chose a round keychain with a small duck inside that floated on “water.” It looked like this:

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On the night before the first day of school, I fastened it to the front zipper of my Trapper Keeper.

“Oh my God! I love your duck!” a girl named Leah, who I had never spoken to before, exclaimed in our first class. She asked if she could see it, so I passed it over to her. She shook it hard to see what would happen. It looked like this:

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For some reason we both found this hysterical, so we decided to name him Mr. Fizzy.

Over the coming weeks, Leah and I became very close very fast. We had almost all our classes together, and we were always finding weird things to laugh about. We couldn’t get enough of each other. She started calling me every afternoon after school. This was new for me—I’d never had a friend who I had hours-long phone conversations with. (And I haven’t since.)

Mr. Fizzy remained an icon of our friendship. We spoke to and about him regularly. We loved to shake him until he fizzed and then watch the bubbles gradually subside.

One night I went on my computer and typed up an official membership card to the “Mr. Fizzy Fan Club.” I typed Leah’s full name on it along with some formal-sounding membership language and a clip art image of a duck. I printed it out on fancy, certificate paper and presented it to her at school the next day. I’ll never forget the smile on her face. She was thrilled.

Word started to spread about Mr. Fizzy and our fan club. Soon all the other girls in our classes—girls across all social statuses who had never had a reason to talk to me before—were asking if they could join.

Why not?

I spent evenings on my computer, typing up membership certificates personalized for each girl. I included an image of a different duck on each one (this was back in 1999 when images of ducks on the internet were finite, so this was no small undertaking), and assigned each girl’s duck a different name—Mr. Dizzy, Mr. Bizzy, Mr. Tizzy, etc.

All of a sudden, I knew a lot of people and possessed a great deal of power.

I became particularly close with two other Mr. Fizzy Fan Club members.

Anahitta was a modest Iranian girl who proved to have a goofy sense of humor underneath her quiet exterior. I started going over to her house on weekends. No matter what activity we started doing—trying to make perfume out of fruit, or playing catch with pieces of fruit across the length of her kitchen (Were all our hobbies fruit-related? Perhaps…)—the night always ended with us lying on the floor, laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. I had never before had a friend who made me laugh until it literally hurt. (And I haven’t since.)

The other friend was Maureen. Maureen was a bubbly yet endearingly crass red-head who loved anime (I’d never before been able to relate to anyone in the anime crowd—and haven’t since). Maureen was loud and high-energy in a way that was very different from me but that I found fun and exciting. She liked to challenge me to do out-of-the-box things, like write a 17-page essay detailing all the reasons I loved my favorite shirt. I did. I liked making her laugh.

These new friendships came at a good time, because the friendships that had carried me through the last few years had recently turned sour. For the first part of 7th grade I was still sitting with my old friends at lunch—mostly due to that full-body terror that comes along with the mere thought of switching lunch tables in middle school—until one day when one of those old friends pulled me aside in the cafeteria and said, “None of us like you. Anyone who acts like they do is just pretending.”

Her words startled and hurt me, sort of, but it was also the permission I needed to fully immerse myself in the world of my Mr. Fizzy friends. I picked my lunch up off my old table that very day and formed a new table along with Leah, Anahitta, and Marueen (all of whom were coming out of somewhat soured friendships of their own), plus some other periphery Fizzy Fan Club members. And I felt happy. And comfortable in my own skin in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. It was the year of Bat Mitzvahs and I would attend many of them, armed with these new friends by my side. Leah asked me to give the speech at hers.

I know they say that middle school is the worst time of everyone’s life, and for the most part I agree. My 6th and 8th grade years were marred with unrelenting insecurity, jealousy, and anxiety so intense as to be nearly crippling. But for a brief and shining period of time in the middle of all that, I really loved 7th grade.

Of course, any social dynamic can only last for so long at that age until summer inevitably comes along and reshuffles everything.

When 8th grade started, my friends and I found ourselves spread out in different classes. Our lunch table dissolved, Mr. Fizzy quietly retired, and I fell into a depression for a while but then eventually made new friends and a new lunch table. And on and on and on.

I made and lost friends every year from kindergarten through twelfth grade, because that’s what life is as a girl. Most of those friendships I never think about.

But even now, 7th grade stands out in my memory as the year when I had some of the best friends. Most female friendships at that age end on a bitter note, but I have nothing negative to say about any of those girls. They were unique, authentic, and fun to be around. They were there for a brief time when we all needed each other. They made me really happy, and thinking about them still makes me happy.

Leah later had some personal struggles and transferred schools in ninth grade. For the rest of high school I only saw her a couple times a year when my family stopped in to Einstein’s Bagels, where she worked. We’d make small talk about our boyfriends while she made my pizza bagels.

Maureen got absorbed into a group of devoted anime fans, which really made more sense for her. (She messaged me about a year ago to inform me that she reads all my blog posts, which made me almost irrationally happy. Hi Maureen!)

Anahitta ended up moving to California halfway through 10th grade. Fortunately, we stayed in touch and even saved our money to fly out to visit each other once a year. (This seems insane to me now—that we invested so much energy into such a long-distance friendship as teenagers.) As it turns out, friends who throw fruit together stay together. She’s going to be a bridesmaid in my wedding next month.

This summer I went back to Memphis for the first time with my fiancé and best friend. On our last night, I insisted that we stop in the Peabody Hotel. I was hoping that stepping into the lobby would bring back some kind of memory—that I could somehow channel the spirit of that unassuming pre-7th grade girl who was about to stumble into something rare and wonderful so I could feel excited on her behalf. But the lobby didn’t feel familiar to me at all. Neither did the sight of the gift shop, which was closed. But that didn’t stop me from pressing my face against the glass and gazing in at all the duck merchandise.

I couldn’t see any keychains. But I swear some of those stuffed and plastic duck heads were grinning back at me, as though they knew.