I spotted him in a thicket of people this morning at Revival Market, tall frame sticking up like a rogue blade of grass among the dense brush of customers huddled over tables sipping coffee in the small cafe. My first middle school crush—a crush that carried over into high school, and ended abruptly as all crushes tend to, when college came and cracked open my tiny world.
Sixteen years and he looked exactly the same, close-trimmed black hair and a broad, funny face. He was wearing an adult's costume, though: a heavy wool overcoat and gray slacks, with complementing accessories of a black briefcase and company-issued laptop. I realized too late that I'd been staring openly since ordering my cortado at the coffee counter, and scurried behind the racks of groceries on the other side of the store hoping to seem less conspicuous as I marveled at this bit of cognitive dissonance. Also because I was dressed like an oil field worker and hadn't showered this morning because sometimes it's just too damn cold in the house. But my crush—he looked like a proper adult. It made me feel terribly old and terribly immature at the same time in my rainboots with broken buckles and wrinkled flannel shirt.
I tried not to look at him as I waited for my cortado to appear at the counter. Choppy memories of middle school were lapping up around me. I found myself wishing for the first time that Revival's careful, thoughtful baristas weren't so careful and thoughtful—slosh that caffeine in a cup and let me get out of here before my crush sees me. It wasn't happening; I hid, and remembered things long forgotten.
On my 13th birthday, my friends surprised me in the courtyard outside the cafeteria before the first bell rang at school. Bags and boxes of birthday presents, and an armful of balloons. And my crush, standing in the middle of them all with a giant box in his outstretched hands. I couldn't fathom what he was doing there, offering me a present on my birthday. He was in my broad circle of friends, but mostly ignored me. He was smarter than all of us put together; we all knew even at a young age that he would leave us all in the dust one day. But here he was with his goofy smile and his dark eyes giving me a present. On my birthday. He did think of me. All of my months of pining in our English class and orchestra practice, all those surreptitious glances back to the woodwind section or at his cafeteria table during lunch, all had finally paid off.
I saved his box for last. I knew it would be the best. It was the biggest, after all. When my feet were covered with wrapping paper, and my friends all circled around to see what was in the final box, I could feel a deep blush burning up from my chest and blooming a hot red. Nervous, sweaty hands fiddled with the ribbons until they came off and I could tear out the tissue paper innards. So much tissue paper. Endless wads of the stuff fell out of the box. Until finally, there at the bottom, I spied my gift: a single school photo of my crush, mugging for the camera. He laughed as I picked it up, confused. "You're always staring at me, weirdo," he said. "I figured I'd get you a picture; it'll last longer." He laughed louder and longer this time, and walked away.
But today would be different.
Today I am 20 years older and have suffered far worse humiliations that have resulted in far better stories—after all, what's the point of our daily horrorshow of mishaps and misjudgments if not to give us good stories to tell? And I am not the weirdo that I was in middle school...that we all were in middle school. Am I going to let my morning be defined by a few bad memories from life's most awkward years? No. Today I am in my element; this is my regular coffee shop, not his. I have a really cool job writing about food, and we are in a food place. I'm waving to people I know like I'm someone important. I've got this. It's okay that I look like a lumberjack; I'm going to say hello to this man and we are going to have a brief but pleasant interaction.
My crush gets up to leave. I walk casually to the coffee counter to intercept him. He strides past clutching his briefcase and I catch his eye. I smile the smile of forced confidence.
"Jacob?" I ask. He regards me with bright eyes under a furrowed brow.
"Yes?" he responds.
He nods his head again. He's smiling, but he's uncertain. He's more handsome than I remember. I wonder if he's experiencing a tumble of memories of his own as he cocks his head, staring at me hard. Finally, he breaks into a grin of recognition. He remembers me. I smile a real smile this time, as he crows, "Elizabeth! Great to see you!"