I met you when I was sixteen years old while at a small general store in our town. It was my first job.
On day one, our manager brought me over to you. You were stocking colorful, fall napkins. “James, this is Lyla. She’ll be joining us part time after school. Help her feel welcome,” said Mark. He smiled and you grimaced. You motioned to the large cardboard box with the backstock. I reached into the box and handed you a pack of napkins decorated with fall leaves. You pushed the ones on the shelf back slightly so you could add this pack. “So, do you prefer ‘Jim’ or ‘James?’” I asked, gazing up at you on our big orange ladder.
“What?” you asked. The napkins’ plastic wrapping crinkled in our hands. “Um, I don’t care,” you told me quietly, “You can hand more than one to me at a time.”
“Oh. Ok.” I corrected myself and passed more up to you. For a while, we stocked to the sound of pop country music playing in the store. Finally, the box was empty. “All done,” I told you proudly. I watched you climb down the ladder.
“We’ve got more in the back,” you sighed and picked up the empty box. We walked through a maze of aisles and to the large, rubber, black doors which separated the back room from the store. You grabbed up another large box.
You weren’t much taller than me. You looked slightly older than me and I admired your flexing biceps. You carried yourself like you were weighed down by something impossible. Another dramatic exhale escaped your lips, with dark peach fuzz that I could only notice up close, and brought the box out to our little work station. Once again you climbed up the ladder and I began to pass you packs of napkins.
“Do you have a favorite design?” I called up. I couldn’t help but smile at you. I wanted you to like me. You didn’t say anything for a moment and I wished I hadn’t asked.
Then I heard you reply, “I like the ones with the turkeys.” And I caught your smile. This was the first time I knew I had earned a smile. And I caught myself grinning back at you.
For a moment after that, it was just you and me in that store.
But…then, Mark interrupted us, “Once you get that stocked up, I’m having Lyla shift up to cashier.” I smiled and eagerly nodded.
That evening, we all walked out to the parking lot together. My car was right next to yours. The Summer had cooled into Fall and there was a thunderstorm that had swept through. The pavement was humid beneath our feet and I inhaled the fresh smell of the world after it rained. Everyone congratulated me on a successful first day until the only people left were you and me.
I leaned up against the passenger side of my white Civic and you leaned against the driver seat door of your vehicle, the rubber sole of your black Converse All Star pressed up in a model pose. “You did an excellent job today. I was really impressed,” you complimented me. My feet hurt less than they did ten minutes ago. I could stand all night with you. I tugged at my long, black, braided hair.
“Thank you. I had a good trainer,” I complimented you. You studied the ground for a moment. I worried immediately that I took it a step too far when a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky right behind you.
“You were very easy to train,” you told me with a confused look on your face. I couldn’t stop smiling and I couldn’t think of anything to say so you opened your car door. “Good night,” you said.
I whispered back very softly, “Good night, James.”
I worked after school so I didn’t always get to see you as much as I did that first week. When I pulled into the convenience store parking lot, I always looked for your old, grey truck. I imagined someday you’d drive us out to a little camp site in the middle of a Colorado summer. I imagined we’d pop the tailgate and star gaze under a blanket. I imagined kissing you for the first time. And on every future New Year’s, at midnight, surrounding by sparkling Christmas lights.
Before going into the store I made sure my bright red lipstick was perfect and my cheeks were softly pink. I made sure to spritz some perfume on my blouse and smooth out my hair, anything to make you notice me.
One day, there was a note written in chicken scratch on the back of a receipt taped on my cash register. Happy Friday, Lyla. I stocked up on most of the gift cards, but if you need more, we’ve got them in the back. Let me know because it’s tucked up high and I can help you get them down. Have a good night! :) Jimmy
My heart fluttered to life and I traced your name, “Jimmy” with my finger tip. I felt the blush in my cheeks and I felt the stupid, teen girl in love grin fill my face. I tucked my note into my pants pocket.
Later that evening, we were closing down the store together. It was a quiet night and most of my time was spent organizing the candy, gum, and drinks we offered up front. “Boo!” I yelped and turned around to see you bent over laughing. “It’s almost Halloween! How could I not give you a scare or two?” you asked me.
Your laughter was as quiet as you. I laughed loudly. I laughed with the freedom and faith that came with being sixteen. Your laugh was soft, like too many people had told you to stop or to quiet down. We laughed that day until there were tears in our eyes.
“Jimmy! Don’t ever scare me like that again!” I scolded you and then my hands flew to my mouth.
It just slipped out.
I called you...Jimmy.
“Sorry,” you told me. You walked away with hunched shoulders and I spent the rest of the evening analyzing the interaction. I wondered if I had snuffed out the small spark you had for me. I justified it in my mind that you had signed the note as Jimmy so I had thought that maybe, I could call you Jimmy. My feet were firmly planted at my station; terror at the idea of an awkward interaction acted as the cement.
The following Saturday we got to work together. I was nervous that Mark put us on the project of cleaning up “The T Shirt Wall” - a large wall in the back of the store with every T-shirt you could possibly want. I started in the kids section and was delighted when you joined me shortly after I arrived, five feet away from me in the men’s section. I caught a glimpse of your belly button as you reached for the top shelf and I blushed wildly. With as much courage as I could, I asked, “James, will you hand me the T-shirt board?”
“Jimmy,” you corrected me softly and I stared for a moment too long at your deep brown eyes. You handed me the board which we used to make out folds as neat as possible and we worked in silence. In the background, a love song began playing in the background which I knew every word to. Unconsciously, I began singing along while I was folding.
“Of course you’d like that song,” you teased me after the song ended. I was embarrassed. I had thought I had sung quietly enough that you couldn’t hear me. I had figured you wouldn’t want to listen to me sing. I aggressively began folding shirts, “What could you mean by that?” I demanded.
“I mean,” you scooted on your knees closer to me. Your long arms reached for the next set of shirts to fold. You were close enough that I became intoxicated by the scent of you once more. “You just seem like the type of girl who’s into that kind of thing,” you told me. I didn’t meet your gaze. I continued folding T-shirts as fast as I could.
“So what if I am?” I asked incredulously. You lit a fire of defiance in me.
“Just seems like a waste of time,” you told me while rolling your eyes.
“How is love a waste of time?” I demanded.
“I’m not saying love is a waste of time. I’m saying that romance is a waste of time,” you corrected me.
“Look, I think that when you find the right girl, you’ll want to romance her. You’ll take her to the movies and buy a bag of popcorn to split. It’ll be perfect,” I insisted. My words flew out, carried on the wings of the butterflies you had stirred up in my belly and I got lost in the fantasy of you picking me up in your silver, beat up truck. I wondered what it would be like to sit in the passenger seat and admire your bobblehead figure of a frog.
“Maybe,” you said, interrupting my daydreaming. “We’re all done. I think Tabitha needs you up front,” you added. So I stood up and wobbled a bit because my legs had gone to sleep after sitting on them while folding T-shirts. You reached out to steady me and I thanked you with a smile. Your fingers were soft and cool. I wonder why your fingernails, bit down to the quick.
I was pondering the interaction when I met Tabitha up front. Her striking red curls made her easy to spot. I logged onto my machine and helped her through the afternoon rush. We began cleaning up our areas and restocking bags. “You know, you…,” she paused for affect, “Are the only one who calls him Jimmy.” I blushed immediately and stared down at the bags in my hand.
“No. I don’t think so. I really only call him James,” I protest.
“I don’t know, I see the two of you. He writes those cute little notes. You write them back. It’s sweet,” she elbowed me softly and tamed her mane into a high ponytail. “Walkie me if you need me!” she called as she walked backwards towards the coolers. I was left to wonder if anyone else noticed the two of us. My hopes were aflutter at the thought that you loved me enough to stir up rumors about the two of us.
Although I didn’t work on my birthday I knew from the posted schedule that you did. When I got to the store Tabitha asked what I was doing there with a wink. I told her I was here to buy myself a treat and marched over to the display of Mug Gift Sets for the holidays.
I slowly considered each set when you startled me saying, “You should pick the one with the penguins.” I turned and beamed at you. You beamed back at me.
“Why should I pick that one?” I asked you.
“The penguins remind me of you,” you answered. You averted your gaze before whispering, “I have something for you.” You motioned and I trailed you like a lost puppy. I was so excited you had remembered my birthday. As we grew closer to the big back door my cheeks began to flush with anticipation. We walked to your locker and you opened it up. Silently, you handed me a card.
“Can I open it?” I asked you with a big smile. You nodded and I gingerly broke the seal. Inside I found a card with a penguin in a birthday hat surrounded by colorful balloons and a banner which said HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I smiled at the penguin and opened it. Inside the typed script it said: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE COOLEST CHICK I KNOW. Below that you had written in your chicken scratch: Have a great birthday Lyla-Jimmy.
I resisted the urge to trace your name again, choosing to say, “Thank you! It’s wonderful!”
“It was nothing,” you began to bashfully blush.
“Jimmy, it’s not nothing. Thank you,” I told you. I did everything I could to resist throwing my arms around your neck and leaning in for a birthday kiss.
“I like that you call me Jimmy, you know,” you said to the floor. I stood in silence. I wondered if you could see my smile in the dimly lit back room.
“I like calling you Jimmy,” I whispered. You seriously couldn’t hear my underlying words? I was screaming, “I like you” with every beat of my heart.
The backroom door swung open and in walked Mark. He was chatting on the phone and you immediately stepped towards the cardboard box behind you. Mark hastened himself to his office and we walked out together. You walked me back to the mug sets and I took the penguin set. Tab checked me out as you hollered, “Have a good birthday, Lyla!” Tab gave me a wink and I put the penguin card on my desk in my bedroom so I could wake up everyday and trace your name.
A week later, Tabitha and I were closing up the store. We were cleaning up when, as casually as I could, I inquired, “James wasn’t here today. Do you know why?” Tabitha made the schedule for us and I knew she knew I liked you. She did her best to justify putting us on the same shifts. I had thought that Saturdays were our days.
“Oh…” she paused her mopping and looked at me for a moment, “Um...Lyla, he’s at the movies.” My heart fell to the pit of my stomach. Suddenly, I felt foolish in my beautiful red lipstick. Suddenly, my perfume felt nauseating and my tank top was too low cut. I burned a bright and powerful red. “He asked for tonight off. I thought you knew,” Tabitha continued.
I interrupted her suddenly saying, “A guy asked me for my number today. He’s a customer.”
Tab began to wring out her mop one final time and said, “You should call it.”
Over the next month, you wrote a few more notes with smiley faces and I placed them in my back pockets, choosing not to write back. I figured that if I was your girlfriend I wouldn’t want some desperate girl pining after you at work.
On Christmas Eve, I dreamt that one of your notes appeared saying: it was just a date. How stupid is that?
I chose to spend my days with Tabitha. Tab was good to me, she never asked why I stopped flirting with you. She never told me any details of your love life and I honestly doubted if she knew anything more than that one night. I never blatantly told Tab that I liked you; she just knew. Instead, I filled her in on my new guy-Nate.
A year passed in the blink of an eye. On the day of my graduation, I wondered if you thought of me. I imagined you tracing my name with your finger as I once had. My heart practically stopped at the sight of your sister’s name two pages after mine because I had thought we both left that little store and all its holiday wonder behind long ago-when you got promoted to manager at the sister store downtown. Tab told me about it over coffee one morning. Her furrowed brow and missing smile tipped me off right away something had changed.
“Not that it matters, though,” she said with a devilish grin, “Because you have Nate.”
I wondered if she could see the sadness behind my smile as I said, “Because I have Nate.”
I found myself engaged and planning a wedding while clutching my cap and gown. He proposed at my graduation party. Everyone applauded and I was even allowed a sip of champagne.
You added me on social media when I posted the engagement photos and I found myself reminiscing on the life we almost built together. I reflected on the love I had felt for you at such a young age.
One night, I got a text from you: hey, why didn’t we ever end up going out?
I laughed and showed it to Nate who said I ought to respond to you because I, “should give the guy a break.” That was the thing about him; he never worried because I kept the gold, diamond encrusted collar he gave me around my finger on at all times.
So I fired back: Mostly because you never actually asked me out.
To which you responded: yeah, why didn’t I do that?
This made me laugh and say: that’s a question only you can answer. I considered adding Jimmy at the end, but promptly deleted it.
A few nights later you apologized over text and explained that it was a late night drunk text. You told me more about your promotion to manager at our old store. I wondered, for the first time in years, if I had left you behind.
I told you all about Nate. You seemed happy. I seemed happy. Nate knew a girl named Jenny who was feeling lonely as we drew closer to New Year’s. I suggested a double date on New Year’s Eve with all of us which you agreed to.
That night the restaurant was extremely busy. Nate and I dressed up before arriving a bit before you. Jenny was beaming with anticipation. She had curled her chestnut hair and put on makeup. When you arrived, the restaurant went dead silent, but only to me. I watched you walk in with the same slight slouch which made me wonder if it still felt like the world was still on top of you.
I felt Nate pull me closer, hand on hip, cheek to cheek. You sat down and I made introductions. We began chatting and it felt easy. I could see no sparks between you and Jenny. Time ticked on until we all began counting down to New Year’s Day.
I felt Nate’s familiar lips on mine-Jenny’s nervous green eyes on us. Once we separated, our bodies fell back into their seats like deflated balloons.
Eventually, while nervously fingering the paper that you ripped off your straw, you said it was time to go and I agreed to walk you out. I wondered if you cringed as Nate kissed my cheek.
We headed outside to a cold parking lot. How is it we always ended up in a parking lot? I walked you to a small, four door car and you could see the surprise on my face. “I had to let go of the truck,” you explained. “It was too old so I finally got something a bit better.”
“I loved that truck,” I confessed with a sad smile.
“Really?” you asked and seemed a bit surprised.
“Yeah…” I affirmed. I didn’t want to say more. I couldn’t say more as I felt the weight of Nate’s diamond ring on my left finger. You stared at the ground for a bit. I shivered in the night. “Why didn’t you tell me your sister was in my graduating class?” I asked. It was barely more than a whisper. My heart pounded in my ears. Could you hear it?
“What?” you asked as your toe scraped the pavement.
“I…um….It’s just…I thought she was older than me…I…never mind….” I stuttered out. Bright red blush filled my cheeks. It always seemed to around you. And I impulsively began twisting Nate’s ring around my finger.
“Uh…she got held back…her sophomore year…so…” you trailed off. We stood in silence and watched couples drunk on love amble to their cars.
I opened my mouth to confess how much you meant to me. The cold breath of Jack Frost, when you tore your eyes from mine. I followed your gaze to the tall, dark, and handsome man who had the courage to ask me out coffee, to ask my parents for my hand, to turn my last name into his. He seemed to skate on the ice before embracing me, placing a wet kiss on my head. I smiled and melted into him.
I wondered if you realized it was because of him I forgot you.
Nate extended his hand. You took it.
“It was good to see you!” I finally exclaimed, louder than I should have.
“You, too!” you said and we hugged briefly. I noticed a bit of cinnamon cologne and realized that you had changed.
As we walked back, Nate leaned into my ear to say, “I wonder if he knows shaking his hand is like holding a dead fish.”