The Real Me
E. A. Mallory
Jim Reed unfolded his 6-foot-2 frame from the driver's seat of his car. He didn't have much time to waste, but still he hesitated, leaning against the car door. His eyes surveyed the familiar building in front of him, one he'd never really minded entering before. But this time. . . .
Everything's so different now. I wonder what today'll be like.
He sighed as the 5-minute warning bell sounded, then set off at a sprint toward the entrance of George Washington High School. He didn't want to be late for home room on the first day of his senior year.
He slowed to a fast walk as soon as he entered the front door. Dean Richardson stood there, as he had every year, scowling at every student who looked like he might be tardy. He doesn't want me to be late, but he sure wouldn't let me run in here, would he? Jim fought the urge to shake his head at the unfairness of it all. Dean Richardson didn't like any outward display of what he called "Attitude Problems", so Jim contented himself with rolling his eyes after he got safely past the Dean. Years of practice enabled him to adopt a fast walk that fell just below Richardson's threshold of tolerance. A few more steps and he rounded the corner into room 114. Made it!
Jim blew out a sigh of relief, and scanned the room for an available desk. Great. Only one, and it's right up front. He crossed in front of several familiar students, and felt himself blush as they noticed him. He cringed as he heard the surprised hush go through the room, followed by muffled whispers and barely masked feminine giggles. He wanted to go through the floor, but only the desk offered itself, so he dropped himself into it.
Ouch! His knees slammed hard into the support bar of the desk. Someone tittered behind him. These desks get smaller every year, he griped to himself, but he knew that wasn't the problem. I'm the problem. How'm I supposed to get used to being so much taller?
The blare of the tardy bell spared him further embarrassment. The teacher rose to his feet at the sound, and the class became dutifully silent.
At least I get to go to gym next. I'll show Harold Phillips that he can't call me "Runt" any more!
Jim bolted for his locker as soon as home room ended. He hoped to escape any curious looks or comments, but they followed him through the halls. Soon he began to feel like he had the word "Freak" in neon letters above his head. "Is that Jim Reed?" "Does Jim Reed have an older brother?" "Oh my gosh, how did he get so tall?" And of course some kids had to confront him personally. "Hey, Stretch, how's the weather up there?" "Whoa, Reed, you've been eating your spinach!" And on it went, even as he opened his locker door and tried to ignore it all. And to think, I used to be afraid that my growth spurt would never come. He could hear his father's reassurances in his ears. "Don't worry, son, I was a late bloomer too. Some day you'll just shoot up, practically overnight, just like I did." I used to think he couldn't be right. Now I wish he hadn't been.
Jim slammed his locker door and turned for the gym, but stopped in his tracks at the sight that greeted him. Girls were staring at him. Admiringly. Wait a minute. . . . you mean all that giggling means they like the way I look now? Sometimes girls giggle at the weirdest things. . . . could it be?
Feeling strange and self-conscious, he nodded slightly at the girls and made his way past them. He thought he could feel their eyes boring holes in his back, and he wondered if his face would ever stop flaming. I should feel good about this, right? So why don't I?
At least I can look forward to gym class. Jim had always been a natural athlete, despite his somewhat scrawny build. And now, though he still felt awkward with his new body, he felt eager to put it to the test. He knew that his new physique held the key to his athletic dreams. I was good before. Now I intend to be the best.
He swung the door open, and actually enjoyed the familiar odors of sweat and Right Guard that assaulted his nose. His friends had seen him grow over the summer, so he met with less surprise here. There were a few "Looking good!" comments that helped him forget all about giggling girls, and he got swatted with a couple of towels. Yeah, this is more like it. The way guys behave makes a lot more sense.
An all-too-familiar voice broke into his thoughts. "Hey, Reed!" The voice dripped with contempt, as always. Harold Phillips. Jim turned to face his old adversary, and felt a thrill of satisfaction at looking straight into his taunting eyes. I'm never going to have to look up at you again. He unconsciously tightened muscles that hadn't been there last year, and let his eyes fling contempt right back at Harold. I've been waiting all summer for this, and it feels so good.
Harold looked him up and down, a sneer curling his lip. After several long, silent moments, Jim spoke up. "Well?" he demanded.
"You're still a runt," growled Harold, and stalked off with his cronies.
Jim smiled tightly, feeling triumphant. Harold hadn't dared to try his usual level of rudeness. It was the closest thing to respect Jim had ever gotten from him, and he savored it. He didn't bother looking at any of the other fellows. He could feel it in the air.
They have more respect for me, too.
Jim turned to his locker with a surge of pride. This new body's all right.
"Hey, Reed," a more mature voice called out. "Come over here." Jim smiled at Coach Davis and headed toward him. Davis, an old friend of Jim's father, was an excellent coach and an all-around great guy. The coach turned and walked into his office, motioning for Jim to follow.
Jim greeted a few more friends on his way, then strolled through the office door. "Yeah, Coach?" he asked, addressing the man and accepting his outstretched hand.
"Are you signing up for all the usuals this year?" the coach asked him.
"Oh, yeah, track, basketball, and football."
"That's great!" The coach looked him over, but his friendly eyes didn't make Jim uncomfortable at all. "Well, I see you did the same thing your father did."
"You knew my father back in high school?" Jim asked, surprised. He hadn't realized they went back that far.
"Oh yeah, and I saw him shoot up like that, too. Right between 11th and 12th grades. You look so much like he did then." Davis patted Jim on the shoulder, and then jerked his thumb toward the scale and measuring rod in the corner. "Let's see what we have here."
Jim stepped up onto the scale, then stood motionless as Davis lowered the rod onto his head. The coach whistled as he compared the results to his team notes from the past season.
"Hmmm, last year you were 5-8, and now you're, let's see, 5-14!" Jim smiled at the joke. "And, wow, you've put on 21 pounds!" Davis continued. "The other team won't know what hit 'em. First football practice is Thursday night. Now, get out on the gym floor and start running."
Jim headed out to the familiar warm-up routine, while the coach yelled instructions to the other guys to do the same. Jim reveled in the sensations of his muscles and bones, heart and lungs working together in strength and harmony. Yeah, this is where everything feels right.
Jean Bailey glanced around herself, trying to get her bearings in the unfamiliar hallways. Mom always did say I couldn't find my way out of a paper bag. Last year she never would have imagined she'd have to learn her way around a new school. Her family's move happened suddenly with her father's job transfer, and now here she stood, wondering how to get to her locker. For a moment she considered asking for help, but then recognition dawned, and she smiled to herself. This way.
It had been hard to leave her friends in the old school, but Jean always made new friends easily. There, her name's Sarah, isn't it? Jean smiled and waved at the pretty blonde from her home room class.
Sarah waved and smiled in return, and soon the two girls were chatting easily together as they collected books from what turned out to be adjoining lockers. Suddenly Sarah fell silent, her eyes focused far from Jean.
"Do you see him?" Sarah asked.
Jean turned to look, and felt her breath catch. Wow.
"Who's he?" Jean asked, trying to sound less impressed then she felt.
"I never would've imagined it," Sarah replied nonsensically.
"He'd end up so tall and handsome." Sarah's voice had a dreamy quality.
"What's his name?" Jean asked impatiently.
"Jim Reed. He's our best track star, and he's pretty good in basketball and football, too. What a dreamboat!"
Jean felt her interest fade into distaste. A jock. No way. Never again. She shook her head and turned away. "He's not my type," she said with a shrug, and went on to class, leaving her star-struck friend behind. You can have him. I'm sure he thinks he's God's gift to women. They all do. Jean almost shuddered as she walked, remembering the one time she'd broken her own rule and dated a jock. She'd spent the entire evening battling with his hands, genuinely afraid that she might not be able to hold him off.
I don't care how cute he is. I'll never spend another date like that again. Never. With that resolution, Jean promptly pushed Jim Reed right out of her thoughts.
Or at least she tried.
Three days later
Jim stood at his class locker, wishing he could make up his mind about life. What's wrong with me? I always wanted to be taller, and now that I am, I'm uncomfortable. I always wanted to get more attention from girls, but now that I am, I'm miserable with it. What on earth is my problem?
His thoughts were interrupted by a pretty brunette, who sidled up to him and flashed him a dazzling smile.
"Uh, hi." He stammered. The last person I wanted to see.
"Hi", she replied, with a coy bat of her eyelashes. "I'm Sherry". Her every motion advertised availability.
"Yes, I remember you", Jim replied, trying to keep the disgust out of his voice. I remember you treating me with contempt. I remember you turning your nose up at the very sight of me, because I wasn't as burly as your current boyfriend. I remember that you seemed to have a different boyfriend every couple of weeks. I remember your reputation in the locker room. Do you know how all your dates really feel about you?
Jim turned his back on her and pointedly ignored her. But Sherry North was not accustomed to being disregarded, and soon he felt her breathing hotly on his cheek. "I like the new you", she murmured.
Her advances brought Jim's inner turmoil to the boiling point. He was certainly not immune to her attractiveness, or to the temptation she placed before him. But her words struck a raw nerve, finally pinpointing the source of his last few days' discomfort.
He swung around to face her, letting his anger pour out in a stream of uncensored wrath.
"The new me? The new me? I've got news for you, Sherry. I'm still the same guy I was last year. The guy you couldn't spare the time of day for. The guy you hoped your boyfriends would beat up for your amusement. I may have changed on the outside, but I'm still the same guy on the inside. If I wasn't good enough for you then, I'm not good enough for you now!"
He paused for breath, his chest heaving with emotion. Sherry stared at him in apparent shock. Guys just didn't treat her like that, Jim knew. It's about time someone did.
He continued, throwing his usual caution aside. "Let me tell you one more thing, Sherry. You are still the same person, too. You haven't changed at all." Jim felt his anger rising again, and he felt the stunned stares of everyone around him. I'm already in this too deep. I'm not gonna back out now. He let his frustration take over. "Your reputation precedes you, Sherry. I know exactly what you are, so why don't you just take your eyelashes and tight sweaters out to the street corner. At least there you could get paid for them."
His words brought a shocked gasp from the many onlookers who had gathered. And almost immediately he found himself reeling from a powerful slap across his left cheek. Sherry stormed off without a word, and the normally boisterous locker area fell as silent as a church.
Jim reeled internally as well. How could I have said something like that? I always thought of myself as a gentleman. Maybe I'm NOT the same person I used to be, after all. . . . .
He fought down the urge to run after her and apologize. Guilt and embarrassment washed over him, and he took a quick survey of the faces around him. Most of the guys turned quickly away, avoiding his eyes. Some of the girls flashed him looks of disgust, while others seemed to quietly approve. And then. . . . .
And then the world stood still. There stood a girl he hadn't seen before. She was beautiful, but that wasn't what seized his attention. Her eyes seemed to engulf him, making him oblivious to everything else around him. In those eyes he saw something he couldn't begin to understand. They said things to him that no girl's eyes had said before.
And then she turned away, closed her locker, and left without a backwards glance.
Jim began to breathe again.
Who in the world was that?
Jean tried to shake the afternoon's events from her mind, but they disturbed her deeply. She only half-listened to her math instructor as he droned on about quadratic equations.
Jean had carefully avoided using her locker while Jim used his, hoping to escape his notice. But the crowd that had gathered around him on this particular afternoon seemed to offer some protection, and she felt a certain morbid desire to watch the jock and the pretty girl.
She had spotted Sherry North on her first day, and with typical feminine intuition had realized what sort of girl she was. So Jean felt no surprise at watching her simpering up to Jim Reed the Jock. That's the kind of girl jocks go for. Jean kept watching, hoping that Jim would show his true colors, and would permanently erase all her interest in him. I don't want to feel anything for that guy.
But then Jim Reed had surprised her, breaking down all her preconceptions. He doesn't want her. I don't believe it.
And then his eyes had locked with hers, and she hadn't been able to breathe. It's him. It's HIM!
I always knew I'd know Him the moment I looked in his eyes.
". . . . plus or minus the square root of b squared. . . ." the teacher's voice broke through her reverie, and she realized with embarrassment that he was standing right next to her desk, staring at her with disapproval.
"All over what, Miss Bailey?"
Jean struggled to pull the obscure formula out of her head.
"Miss Bailey??" The teacher glared impatiently.
"Over 2a?" she asked, her voice barely audible.
"Speak up, Miss Bailey!" the teacher demanded.
"Over 2a, sir", she replied, trying to sound more sure of herself. The teacher responded with only a glare, which she took to mean she'd gotten the answer wrong. But then he turned his back on her and continued with his teaching. He's disappointed that I got it right. Jean made up her mind to pay closer attention.
Substitute "4" for "a" in this equation.
How could it really be Him?
That would mean that the answer is 21.5
Who cares about math? My whole world is upside-down.
Oops, I forgot to make that number a negative. The teacher is glaring at me again.
Jim's eyes are so wonderful. . . .
Will this class never end?
Jim dribbled his basketball with a vengeance, then hurled it at the net as if trying to lob a grenade over enemy lines. What've I done? He groaned as the ball ricocheted off of his garage. I can't do anything right. He hurled the ball again, almost willing it to miss the basket so it wouldn't threaten his bad mood. For the first time in my life, I let myself behave really rudely to a girl, and I go and do it right in front of Her! He caught the ball as it bounced, then dribbled it a while to let himself think. I don't even know her name. I've got to meet her. But what'll I say?
How about, "Don't worry, I won't insult you, too." Jim slammed the ball hard into the ground, and let it bounce into the garden.
Gee, that'd make a great impression on her.
"Yeah, you ought to be mad at yourself, you knucklehead." Jim jumped at the sound of another voice. He hadn't known he was being watched.
Jerry Foster, his next door neighbor and basketball teammate, stared at Jim quizzically. "What do you call that stunt you pulled today?"
Jim turned and walked a few steps to retrieve his basketball, then threw it casually into the hoop. "I don't know what you're talking about." He caught the ball and readied himself for another shot.
Jerry stopped him in mid toss. "Sure you don't. The whole school is buzzing with it. Of course, it gets better with each re-telling."
Jim groaned and felt his shoulders sag.
Jerry tried his own shot with the ball he'd taken from Jim. It swished through, like it usually did. He bounced it a few more times, then turned to contemplate Jim again. "You know, I just can't figure you out."
"Is that so?" Jim answered tightly. He knocked the ball away from Jerry, and they parried for a while before Jim managed another basket.
"Yeah, that's so. Stand still and look at me."
Jim complied, but with fire in his eyes.
"Man, are you nuts? You just had a chance at a girl who doesn't know the meaning of the word 'no'. You insulted her in the worst fashion. . . ."
"She deserved it!" Jim interrupted.
"Probably so, but you could have been having a lot of fun tonight, instead of shooting hoops by yourself." He knocked the ball away from Jim and swished it effortlessly.
"She's not my type." Jim caught the rebound and went for a hook shot. He missed, and stopped to take a breather.
"Not your type?" Jerry shook his head, picked up the ball, and threw it hard into Jim's stomach. "I guess you're not the red-blooded guy I thought you were."
Jim felt rage reddening his face. He backed Jerry up against the garage wall, cowing him somewhat by sheer force of anger.
"Let me tell you something, Jerry." Uh oh, the last time I started a sentence that way, I ended up in this mess. . . . Jim willed himself back under control.
"I'm no less red-blooded than you are, and you can bet the bank on that. Can't you understand? It's not that I need less than you do, it's that I need more! Maybe you can be content with a cheap date who's made the rounds of half the football and basketball teams, but I can't. I need. . . I need. . . ." Jim stopped, unable to put his feelings into words.
"You need to have your head examined," Jerry finished for him, but with a touch of humor to ease the tension. He pushed Jim aside without anger, and walked away, shaking his head. "Good night, Jim. Hope you sleep well. Knucklehead."
Jim smiled humorlessly. What DO I need? What AM I looking for? He thought back to the few times he'd ever indulged his hormones and kissed a girl. He'd enjoyed it, no doubt about that, but only on one level. One very shallow level. In his heart, he felt more hollow after the kiss than before it. There has to be more. There has to be something deeper.
He bounced the ball a few times, and then headed indoors with a sigh.
Sleep well? Fat chance.
Jim lingered beside his locker, looking around for any sign of Jean. He knew she always hung back when she saw him, and would sometimes even turn and walk away. I wish she'd give me a chance.
He had already stood there, feeling foolish, for several long minutes. A quick glance at his watch made him feel even more antsy. He was in real danger of being late for chemistry class.
She'll be late too if she doesn't get here soon. I can wait. She has to come.
It had been a week since his disastrous encounter with Sherry North. All I want to do is explain, or at least to tell her that I'm not really the jerk I seemed to be. He glanced nervously at the clock again, becoming as worried about Mr. Clark's wrath as he was about meeting Jean. He hates it when kids are late.
Jim looked away from the clock, and his heart jumped into his throat. There she is. Jean kept her back to him while she collected her books. She really can't stand the sight of me. The thought made his mouth go dry, and he nearly lost his nerve.
No. He steeled himself and walked quickly toward her.
"Hello", he said to Jean's back.
She gasped, startled, and whirled around to face him. For one glorious moment she looked into his eyes, but then she looked down at her books.
"The bell's about to ring," she said quietly.
"I know. I don't want to talk now. I just want to know if we CAN talk later." Please!
Jean looked up at him again, and her eyes held an expression he couldn't interpret. After a long moment, she looked away and spoke again.
"The bell's about to ring," she repeated. She glanced back into his eyes, and gave him a slight nod that almost seemed …well… regretful. Then she turned and walked away.
Jim stood rooted in place, oblivious to the sound of the tardy bell as it rang. He watched her as she ran the last few yards to her room, making it inside just before the bell's tone faded. She didn't say 'yes'. She didn't say we could talk.
She didn't say 'no' either.
What am I supposed to do now? What does she want from me? He couldn't bear the thought that she might want nothing at all.
His heart felt like lead as he slowly made his way toward his chemistry class. Time to face the music there.
Several months later
Jim waited nervously in front of the clock. This was the hardest time before any game, when he was dressed and ready, the coach had finished his pep talk, and the team had to wait. It couldn't be more than a minute or so, but Jim hated it.
Football season had ended, so basketball now monopolized Jim's attention. He felt glad to have the diversion. After all this time, he still knew nothing more of Jean than her name and that she was a junior. She had clearly continued avoiding him, and whenever she caught him looking at her, she would blush and turn away. Yet in those moments when their eyes briefly met, he knew that she cared about him. So why won't she let me near her?
Jim knew one thing for certain. He would be a perfect gentleman. He had blown it once in front of her, and he didn't intend to do so again. If she didn't want his attention, he wouldn't force it on her.
Even if it kills me.
It's time. Finally. The doors were flung wide, and the team poured out onto the court. The home crowd at Washington went wild with cheers. Jim's adrenaline began to feel less like nerves and more like power. He and his teammates would wipe the floor with Edison High.
And I won't think about her. . . .
Jean stood by the mirror in the girls' bathroom, pretending to fix her make-up. The battle that raged inside of her matched the drama of the basketball game in the nearby gym.
Do I dare?
What will he think of me, when I've ignored him all this time? How do I break the ice?
She pulled a brush out of her purse and passed it through her hair, trying to look as nonchalant as the girls near her.
Jean, be honest with yourself. That's not really what you're afraid of. The last of the other girls walked out of the bathroom, and for the moment Jean had the place to herself. She gave up all pretense of grooming, leaned against the wall, and closed her eyes.
What if he's not like I imagine? I've built him up in my mind, but what if I'm only fooling myself? What if he asks me out, and I go, and then he tries to. . . .
"Are you all right?"
Jean gasped and her eyes flew open. There stood Sarah, looking at her with worried eyes. "Are you ok, Jean?"
"Sorry, I didn't hear you come in. Yes, I'm fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, really. I just didn't sleep well last night, and I'm tired." At least that part is true.
"Oh, well, I hope you feel better. I've got to hurry. Davey is waiting outside, and I told him I'd only be a minute." Sarah hurriedly checked her make-up, touched up her lipstick, and tugged at her skirt. "Do I look okay?"
"You look fine. Have fun."
"Who are you here with, Jean?"
Jean hesitated, not wanting to answer a question that touched her deepest fears. "Nobody."
"I don't get it, Jean. You're such a nice girl, and you're pretty and all, but you act like you want to be a nun."
"I do not!" Jean protested, truly horrified. "I love to go out and have fun. But I don't have to be like Sherry North, you know. I have respect for myself, and I'm looking for a guy who'll respect me. I just haven't met him here at Washington yet." Because I've been avoiding him for months.
"Oh, well, I hope you find him soon. Gotta run, Davey's waiting." Sarah started to leave, then turned with an afterthought. "Hey, we've got great seats up front. Do you want us to save you a spot?"
"Yeah, that'd be great. I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Okay, see ya." The door swished open and closed, leaving Jean alone again.
Her thoughts instantly picked up where they had left off.
What I'm most afraid of is the disappointment. I want him to be. . . .no, I NEED him to be such a great guy, and if he's not, I'll just be crushed.
But if he is a great guy, and I chicken out. . . .
Jean steeled her resolve, checked her appearance in the mirror for real this time, and walked out into the bleachers.
Jim huffed a bit as he waited to make his free throw. Edison put up more of a fight than he had expected, and some of their players were getting rough. The ref had caught one foul against Jim and awarded him this free throw, but several sharp elbow jabs that had bruised Jim went unnoticed by officials.
As was his custom, before lobbing the free throw he turned to look at his father in the stands. His dad gave him the slow nod he expected, and Jim felt a warm glow. I'll make you proud, Dad. I'll play it like you taught me, by the book, no matter how dirty they play.
Jim tossed the ball and watched with satisfaction as it found its mark. He felt so alive at times like this, so sure of himself, and now increasingly sure of his newfound height and strength. Life is good.
He turned and sprinted down the court as play continued, completely focused on the fundamentals that coach Davis had drilled into him. Nothing existed except the court and the action on it. . . .
And Her. Jim didn't even know how he'd spotted her. He wasn't even aware of having glanced at the stands. But there she sat, just behind the players' bench, her eyes fixed on him. For a moment he forgot about basketball. Forgot to watch where he was going, too.
Umph! Somehow he tangled himself up with another player, and they both crashed to the floor. Jim felt his ankle twist unnaturally under him, and his head bounced hard against the court. He couldn't help crying out with the pain.
Whistles blew all around him, and the crowd began to murmur.
Get up, Jim, get up! Why're you just lying here like an idiot in front of everybody? He struggled to get up, but a wave of dizziness and pain shot through him, and he feared he would fall right back onto the court.
Thank goodness! A wall of concerned teammates surrounded him, and friendly arms reached down to offer support. He felt them lifting him, and with their help he hobbled off the court on his one good leg, shaking off his dizziness. The crowd applauded, and Jim blushed. Why can't I just be invisible after I do something stupid?
Coach Davis looked over his ankle with concern, and even Jim felt alarmed by how bruised and swollen it already was. A moment later Jim's father appeared by his side. Oh, no, did you have to come over here? I'm not a baby, Dad. Jim was acutely aware that Jean might be watching.
"Does he need to get to the doctor now, or can he sit out the game?" His father's concerned voice caught the coach's attention. Jim felt relieved that his father didn't touch him, and directed his comments only to the coach. Good. At least he's not treating me like a kid. Jim directed a very meaningful look at the coach, and got a knowing smile in return. "I think he can sit out the game, Dan. He deserves to see it through, after all the points he earned tonight. I'll get him an ice bag."
"All right, good," Dan Reed replied. He gave Jim a man-to-man thump on the shoulder and went back to his seat. Jim breathed a sigh of relief. Someday I'll tell them both how grateful I am for this.
The Washington High Patriots were angry, and they played with a vengeance. Edison's Cougars didn't gain another point, and Jim barely kept himself from jumping to his feet when the final buzzer sounded. Instead he rose carefully, let the ice bag slip to the floor, and supported himself on his left leg. That accomplished, he cheered with all his might, clapping and jabbing a "number one" gesture of victory into the air.
Still clapping, he turned to scan the crowd for his dad, but instead he found himself looking right at Her. Jean. Jean Bailey. His hands fell still, his jaw slackened, and he stared at her wordlessly. She had approached, actually approached the bench, and was smiling very awkwardly and shyly. She's smiling at me!
He resisted the urge to look around him, to see if there could be someone else she really meant to meet. They regarded each other in silence for several long seconds, and then Jean blushed and looked down at her shoes. Say something, Jim, you knucklehead!
"Uh, hi." Gee, that sounded brilliant! "How are you?" Oh, there was another bit of dazzling wit!
But then Jean looked up at him and smiled again. "I'm fine. How are you, I mean, your leg?"
"Oh, this? This is nothin'" He shrugged, glancing at his ankle. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his father looking at them. Thanks for staying back, Dad. You understand.
Another awkward silence fell between them, until Jim managed to come up with something. "I, uh, I'm glad you came over. I've been wanting to talk to you."
"I know. I'm sorry. I hope I haven't been too rude."
"Oh, no!" he hastened to reassure her. "You haven't been rude. And I hope I haven't been."
"No, you've been a perfect gentleman."
No words could have sounded sweeter to Jim.
"Well, I blew it pretty bad in front of you that time. I don't usually speak so rudely to people, especially girls."
"She deserved it."
They fell silent again, and Jean looked back at her shoes. Jim felt the moment slipping away, and he grabbed for it desperately.
"So, uh, would you like to, I don't know, get a soda or something?"
Jean looked back up at him, and this time her eyes looked full into his, unguarded. She smiled, the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. He almost staggered.
"Yes, I'd like that."
Jim glanced over toward his dad, who gave him a knowing little smile and turned to leave. I'm so glad we came in separate cars!
"Is this table ok?" Jim asked, trying to sound self-assured and mature. I can't believe this is actually happening!
"Yes, it's fine." Jim reminded himself to pull the chair out for his date. Jean seated herself in a wonderful, ladylike manner. Everything about her is so right.
Jim limped over to his side of the table, easing himself gently into the seat. I hope she can't tell how bad I'm hurting. The waitress brought their sodas, bought with the only pocket change Jim had to his name. Jim remembered to thank her, and Jean did the same.
"I hope this place is okay. I know it's not where most of the kids go, but that's why I like it." Jim instantly regretted saying that, afraid of implying too much intimacy.
"It's fine," Jean replied. Silence fell again. Why won't she say something?
Jean stirred her soda, though it could hardly have needed it. Her eyes looked far away, and somehow seemed sad. Do I dare ask her what's wrong?
Jean looked quickly back at him, as if she'd heard his unspoken question. She flushed, looked away, and cleared her throat.
"Jim, I'm afraid I owe you an apology."
Jim had not expected to hear that. "No, you don't! I mean, what for?"
Jean fell silent for a few moments, and then looked back into his eyes, this time without looking away again.
"For misjudging you. At least, I think maybe I did."
"Well, I don't blame you. I was awfully rude to Sherry." Ugh, I do NOT want to talk about this. This time he was the one who chose to look away.
"No," Jean quickly responded, reaching out toward his hand with hers. She quickly stopped her hand before it touched his, which was a good thing, since he probably would have died instantly.
"No, I'm not talking about that."
Jean's answer surprised him. What else could I have done that made her misjudge me? Jim wracked his brain for any misdeed he might have committed, but he came up blank.
Jean seemed to consider her next words carefully.
"When I first saw you, I asked someone about you."
"She told me you were, well, a star athlete. I, I guess I wrote you off right then. I thought all jocks. . .I mean athletes. . . were stuck on themselves, and I thought they would be, well, anything but gentlemen."
"Oh, I see."
"So, when I saw Sherry trying to get your attention, I figured you'd be happy about that. But when I saw that you didn't go for that kind of girl, I realized I had the wrong idea about you."
Jean fell silent, averting her eyes from his again. Jim spent a few moments processing what he'd heard. Finally a single question begged to be asked, and he worked up the courage to ask it.
"Jean, that happened months ago. What happened between then and now?"
He waited patiently for several long moments, contemplating the shade of her hair, the shape of her face. But more than anything, waiting to be allowed into her heart. He knew he belonged there.
When her eyes met his again, they seemed a little moist. "I was afraid."
Afraid of me?
Suddenly her eyes did it again, like they had on the first day he saw her. They invited him into her soul, and drew him there inexorably.
"Oh, Jim, I felt so afraid because I dated a jock once, just once, and I had to fight him off the whole time! I can't believe I'm even telling you this, but. . .but, ever since that time when we, you know, looked at each other, somehow I've felt like I know you. It sounds ridiculous, and maybe that's why I've been afraid to believe it."
"No," he interrupted, "I know exactly what you mean."
"I felt so sure that you were different, even special, but I couldn't make sense of that feeling. How could I know that from just one look? So I told myself to stop letting my feelings run away with me, and that I couldn't ever meet you because you'd, well, try to take advantage of me."
"Never." Jim's single word carried his whole heart with it, and he saw in her eyes that she accepted and believed it. He could have sworn he felt the tension leave her body, though he was not touching her.
Their eyes remained locked together for a long time, and Jim began to wonder how he would manage to keep his one-word promise. He had never wanted to kiss anyone so badly in his life, but he didn't want to take advantage of this vulnerable moment. Be a gentleman!
One thing he did know. This tension had to break, or he would kiss her despite his resolve. He dragged himself up to his feet, momentarily forgetting his sprained ankle. The ankle, however, would have none of that. Jim yelped and sat back down.
"Would you believe I was about to suggest going out for a walk?" They both laughed, glad to have some humor to help them back off from that powerful moment. He realized with some surprise that his forgetfulness had not embarrassed him. That's what her eyes told me on that first day. Safety. I'm safe in those eyes. Jim felt something inside himself relaxing, like the unraveling of a long-tied knot.
After a few moments of delightfully comfortable silence, Jim caught her eye again. "You know, I meant what I said to Sherry. I've always known in my heart that I couldn't be satisfied with. . . . that kind of thing." Whoa, Jim, just how personal are you planning to get here? He contemplated her eyes, judging her reaction to the subject matter. She waited with apparent openness, and he began to believe that there was nothing he couldn't tell this remarkable girl.
Jim thought about his next words for several moments, and couldn't come up with any. This whole evening defied words -- so unbelievable, so perfect. He half expected to wake up and find that he had only been dreaming of her. Again.
I guess, if I don't know what to say, I should at least tell her that.
He cleared his throat. "Jean, I don't know how to put into words what I've always known I need." He swallowed hard, wondering if he dared to say what begged to be said.
Her eyes still said safety, and soul mate.
He continued, "I don't know how to put it into words, but. . . " he felt the panic of someone about to fling himself over a cliff, but he also knew he had to say it. ". . . .I believe I saw it. . . in your eyes that day. And I know I see it now."
He didn't know how it happened, or even who started it, but suddenly they were kissing, and he didn't care about the waitress, or the other customers, or anything. He kissed her with a kind of passionate longing he'd never known before, the passion of heart and soul, of wanting to be as close in body as they already were in spirit.
How can this be happening?
We have to stop. The pleasure of the kiss threatened to blur his long-honored lines between right and wrong. No, she deserves a gentleman. She trusts me, she needs me to keep under control. . . .
He withdrew from the kiss, but kept his face very close to hers, smelling the sweet scent of her, feeling her breath warm against him. I never dreamed I could feel this way.
He took her face in his hands, then gently drew her head to his shoulder. He thought his heart would burst when he felt her nuzzle softly against his neck.
But other realities began to intrude. He realized he was, and had been, leaning over the table while he kissed her, and it dug cruelly into his ribs. He became aware of the sounds of the other patrons, and started feeling a bit self-conscious. And his ankle throbbed mercilessly. Slowly he pulled away from Jean and settled back into his seat. She sighed, and reached for his hands.
"All right, you two kids, break it up." The manager of the little eatery glared at them. "You, young man, I thought you weren't the type to come in here and slobber all over some girl."
Jim felt anger color his cheeks. What they had just experienced had been more profound than anything in his life, and this jerk dared to call it "slobbering?"
"Aw, leave 'em alone!" A stranger spoke up from another table. "Don't you know true love when you see it?"
Jim and Jean looked quickly back at each other. True love?
Jean smiled, and he returned it. No words were needed.
Of course it is.
Jean sat comfortably beside Jim in his car, amazed at how easily they talked with each other. I always knew He would be easy to talk to, but not this easy. She had lost all doubts about who He was. She had been right since the moment their eyes first locked. Now she only had to fill in the details, to find out all about the man she already loved.
He wants to be a police officer. What would that mean for me? She studied his face, enjoying not only its handsome appearance, but also its eager enthusiasm. He was talking, no, dreaming aloud about what he called "making a difference in the world." He's so idealistic. I hope he really can make a difference in the world.
He sure has revolutionized mine.
Jim had parked outside her house, so that her parents wouldn't worry. At least, that's the reason he gave. I wonder if he wanted to keep me from worrying. Such a gentleman.
The porch light began to flash, sending an unmistakable message to the young couple. Jean glanced at her watch, and her mouth opened wide with amazement. "Jim, it's 11:00! I can't believe it!"
Jim's eyes widened, and he looked at his own watch. "I don't believe it either." They looked longingly at each other, not wanting their time together to end.
"I'd better go in." Jean said at last.
"Yeah, you better."
Neither of them made any move that resembled leaving.
"I don't want to go," Jean said at last, letting her voice betray the depth of her feeling.
"I don't want you to go either. But I also don't want your parents mad at me." Jim flashed her one of his wonderful smiles, and she couldn't help laughing.
"Kiss me." She'd never actually asked a guy to do that before. But of course she could ask Him.
And of course he complied, eagerly, deeply, hungrily. They kissed as long as they dared, half expecting Jean's dad to come pound on the car door. Jean finally broke it off, breathlessly, and after a few moments managed to say, "I think I'd better get inside."
"I think I'd better meet your parents, since I've been kissing their daughter."
Such a gentleman!
"Would you like to? I'd love for them to meet you."
"Yeah, sure I would. . . . uh. . . . in a minute." Jim seemed suddenly uncomfortable.
Jean figured he wanted to spend that minute kissing, but instead he settled back in his seat, leaned his head back on the headrest, and closed his eyes. I guess he's nervous about meeting them.
After a few minutes she decided to reassure him. "They're nice people, honestly, and I know they'll like you."
Jim chuckled a little. "Yeah, I'm sure they're nice." He turned to look at her again. "They raised you, didn't they?"
Jean laughed. "Come on, let's go meet them." She opened the door and climbed out, grabbing his hand as soon as he joined her. I wonder if Mom will recognize Him.
Jim pulled into his driveway at 12:15 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later than I'm supposed to be. He regretted nothing he'd done this evening, but he hated letting his parents down.
The lights were still on. I wonder if anyone waited up for me. He wasn't sure if he hoped they had or not. He sat still in the driver's seat, once again closing his eyes, reliving the evening. The Bailey's were nice enough. They were a bit annoyed at first, and I don't think they liked how much we were kissing out there. But they warmed up to me pretty quickly. It will be ok. Jim suspected that Mrs. Bailey shared Jean's special ability to see inside of people. I hope she knew she could trust me.
Finally he hauled himself out of his car, locked it, and limped up the driveway. He found the front door unlocked, a dead giveaway. Somebody's still up.
His ankle ached much worse than before, and he couldn't wait to get off of it. Maybe I was just too distracted to notice it before. He pushed the door open and entered the living room.
"Hi, son," his father addressed him from the sofa. Jim guessed from his father's quiet voice that his mother was asleep.
"Hi, Dad," he said softly. "Sorry I'm late."
"I suspect you had a compelling reason. She's a very pretty girl."
"Oh, Dad, she's more than that!"
"Well, then, who is she? Why haven't I heard anything about her?" His father's voice sounded kind, not prying.
"Because I didn't think. . . . I mean, I thought we'd never. . . .get together. She, uh, well, she had her doubts about us, so I gave her lots of space."
"I take it she lost her doubts."
Jim couldn't help smiling. "Yeah." His mind wandered back. Definitely.
When he realized he'd been daydreaming for a while, he forced himself back to the present. His father regarded him with an odd expression on his face, something that spoke both of love and of letting go. At that moment Jim felt torn between his growing independence as a man, and a sudden desire to be a little boy in his Daddy's lap again. There so much I still need to learn.
Jim said "Good night" and turned toward his room, but then stopped himself. I still can. He turned back to his father, for the first time feeling like a man addressing an equal.
"Dad," he began, "How did you know that Mom was the right one?"
Dan Reed smiled softly at his son. Jim watched as he considered his response carefully. We really are a lot alike, aren't we?
"Well, son," his father began, "when I went out with other girls, I always wondered about myself, trying to figure out who to be, who I was, what she thought of me, and how I could avoid bumping noses if I kissed her."
Jim had to laugh. He could hardly imagine his father ever having such feelings.
"But when I went out with your mother," his dad continued, "I didn't have to think about myself. With her, I knew just who I was, and I knew that she accepted me, and I knew I could just be myself. And that made me free to enjoy her. I could focus on meeting her needs, and making her happy." He narrowed his eyes as a new thought came. "But it goes deeper than that. I think she helped to complete me. It wasn't just that she allowed me to be the real me, but she enabled me to. Without her, I wouldn't be who I am."
Jim nodded slowly, thinking back over his evening in the light of his father's words.
"Does that make any sense at all?" his father asked.
"Well, before tonight I wouldn't have been sure. But tonight. . . . I think I know exactly what you mean."
For a moment the two men were silent, lost in their private thoughts.
Finally the older of the two stood up and crossed over to his son. He put his hand on the young man's shoulder and looked into his eyes. "Good night, son."
"Good night, Dad." Jim felt as if he had reached the biggest turning point of his life. He knows it too. He's letting me grow up.
Jim watched his father's retreating back, and then saw his father stop and turn.
"I love you, son."
"I love you too, Dad."
And then Jim was alone. He walked slowly to his room, favoring his right leg. He undressed quickly but carefully, so as not to bump his swollen ankle. When he finally could stretch out on his bed, he had to sigh with relief. It felt so good to put that ankle up.
He stared at the ceiling for a long time, trying to sort through this extraordinary day. He couldn't remember ever feeling so peaceful, so joyful, so content. His father's words replayed in his mind with perfect clarity.
"I knew who I was, and I knew she accepted me."
"I could focus on meeting her needs, and making her happy."
"She helped to complete me. Without her, I wouldn't be who I am."
"She enabled me to be the real me."
Jim smiled up at the ceiling.
Yes, Dad, it makes perfect sense.
Special thanks to KF Garrison, whose suggestions were on target, as always.