“There is nothing so lonely as an unmatched sock.”
When it comes to women, there is no one definition of beauty. Most would agree, however, if there were such a definition, it would not describe Lily.
She stood just under six feet tall, had no figure to speak of, and her hair was almost the exact shade between blonde and brown, making it seem as if her hair had no defined color at all. To make matters worse, Lily’s voice had a smoker's raspiness, even though she hadn’t smoked a single cigarette in her entire life.
However, as is the case with many plain women, Lily had developed quite the sense of humor. She had an endless repertoire of raucous jokes, quick-witted quips, and humorous stories that, due to Lily’s reserved nature, rarely found their way into polite conversation.
Lily wanted nothing more than to dive into life, making scores of friends, attending endless events, and maybe even meeting someone special. Yet, for reasons known only to her, she usually faded into the background, living vicariously through the lives of others.
Each morning Lily woke up, showered, and dressed for the day, routine as clockwork. She would then take the elevator down to the first floor, heading to Joe’s Joe, the local coffee hot spot.
Joe's wasn't trendy or hip or even especially modern. It sat on a corner and had large windows covering both street facing sides. There were original oak wood floors throughout and ten tables strategically placed so as not to block the counter, the door, or the short hallway to the bathroom. The shop was always impeccably clean and the coffee was the best for miles.
In a world where one can find a Starbucks inside of another Starbucks, Joe’s Joe was a miracle. The small shop held its own against fierce competition due to the sheer force of will of its owner, Joe Artino. To pay the exorbitant rent, Joe ran the shop as a one-man operation. He would get to the store long before the sun came up; most nights he would head home well after dark. For as long as anyone could remember, just like the post office, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would prevent Joe from opening the shop precisely at eight each morning and closing, just as precisely, at eight each night. It wasn’t that Joe didn’t want to live life—he just didn’t have the time.
Five days a week, sometimes six, Joe would ask Lily, “What can I get for you?”
Five days a week, sometimes six, Lily would answer: “Large brewed, black.”
Even Lily’s coffee order was plain.
Month after month became year after year, and there was no change to either Joe’s or Lily’s lives. Until one day, a small change changed everything.
The line for coffee was unusually long, and even though Joe was handling it with his usual expertise, the gentleman in front of Lily grew angrier by the second. When the irate customer finally reached the front of the line, he used some colorful expletives to order his coffee. Lily could practically see the smoke coming from Joe’s ears as he took the man’s order and made his coffee.
Once Lily stepped to the front of the line, Joe asked, as he always had, “What can I get for you?” Only this time Lily didn’t respond with her usual order.
“I have a joke for you. Are you ready?” she replied.
On almost any other day, Joe would have politely declined. He didn’t have time for jokes, but on this day, he did the unexpected..
“Sure. Fire away.”
“What’s the most dangerous number?” Lily said, a deadpan look on her face.
“I don’t know. What is the most dangerous number?” Joe responded, genuinely curious.
“It’s seven,” she quipped. “Because seven eight nine.”
It was a joke worthy of any fourth grader, yet both Joe and Lily broke out into spontaneous laughter. From that day forward, Lily had a willing audience for her daily jokes.
Five, sometimes six days a week, she would share a new joke with Joe while he made her coffee, just as she liked.
As the days, weeks, and months passed, Joe and Lily became more and more friendly towards one another. Even when the line was all the way out the front door, they would find time to share a story or an anecdote. And there was always a joke from Lily.
Lily discovered Joe was three years older than she was, and Joe found out that Lily worked as a bookkeeper at the same firm that handled his business taxes. Joe regaled Lily with stories of growing up as the child of an immigrant in the middle of a big city, while Lily told Joe of her love of books and expansive knowledge of old movies.
The one thing Lily never shared with Joe was the simple fact she had never been on a date. When she was younger, she had dreams of finding a nice man with whom she could settle down and build a life with, but no one ever asked. Even if they had, she probably would have declined. Lily’s guarded nature had protected her all these years—until Joe. This busy man with no time for anyone was suddenly finding time for Lily. This thought both thrilled and terrified her.
On a cold day in January, the inevitable finally happened. Lily, bundled up in a parka, made her way to Joe’s and patiently awaited her turn in line. When she got to the front, Joe had her coffee ready as he always did. When Lily started to tell Joe her joke of the day, Joe stopped her, saying sheepishly. “Lily, I am not a good looking man, I know this, but I care for you. Deeply.”
Lily, shocked by the admission and suddenly feeling lightheaded, listened as best she could, but she only heard his every other word.
“I haven’t been on a date since high school,” Joe continued, too nervous to notice Lily’s unease. “But I would love it if you would allow me to make you dinner.”
For a moment, the two just stared at each other in silence.
“You mean like a date?” Lily inquired.
“Yes, like a date. With me. And you. What do you say?”
“Say yes,” came a quiet voice from behind Lily. She turned to see a very short, very old woman grinning up at her. “Don’t make this poor man wait to hear you say you’ll go out with him.”
“Yes,” Lily responded, taking a sip of her coffee and walking away. Leaving the counter was probably an inappropriate thing to do after accepting a date, but Lily had never accepted one before and she was lost in her uncertainty.
“Tomorrow night?” Joe called out to her, watching Lily’s back as she headed out the door.
“Okay,” she responded, without even turning around. She simply left the shop, heading into the cold.
Lily didn’t go to work that day. If she could have called in panicked, she would have but, because there was no such thing, she called in sick instead. She retraced her steps back to her building, up the elevator, down the corridor, and into her condo. She didn’t even get undressed before climbing back into bed.
She, of course, did not sleep all that day or most of the night. She kept thinking about Joe and their date. I’ll call him and cancel, she thought to herself before realizing she didn’t have his number. I’ll just never go get coffee again, she thought next. But that too was ridiculous. Then it occurred to her: she liked Joe. She liked him a lot. She wanted to date him. She wanted more than that—but it couldn’t work.
It wouldn’t work.
He couldn’t love her, not if he really knew her. Nobody really knew her . . . but maybe Joe was different? Somewhere around four in the morning, she finally decided it was worth the chance. Only then was she finally able to fall asleep.
The next day was just like every other day while not like any day ever in her whole life. She got up, showered, dressed and headed out for coffee, and more importantly—to see Joe.
When she got there, she could see a relieved smile on Joe’s face. The events of the previous morning had left Joe confused and unsure, yet all his fears were put to rest when Lily got to the front of the line. She told him her worst joke ever.
“Why was the Indian buried on Boot Hill?” she asked, cracking a knowing smile.
“I don’t know, Lily. Why was the Indian buried on Boot Hill?” Joe responded, smiling back at her.
“Because he was dead!” Lily said, as they both laughed as hard as they had during the very first joke she had ever told him.
“Where do you live? What time should I be there?” Lily asked, confirming their date.
“Six,” Joe answered, writing the address on a piece of receipt paper.
“Six?” Lily repeated in disbelief.
“Yes, six,” Joe responded, ignoring the audible gasps from the shocked patrons. "Don't be late," he finished, flashing a sweet smile.
"I won't," Lily said, also with a smile. "See you then."
Lily arrived at Joe’s precisely at six. His house was just outside the city in a small subdivision. Lily knew from her talks with Joe it had been his dream to live outside the city, but someplace close enough to work to still be convenient.
His house was not at all what Lily imagined. It was as if Norman Rockwell had used it to paint one of his famous pictures for the Saturday Evening Post. It was white with light green shutters, its yard enclosed by the proverbial white picket fence. Lily halfexpected Joe’s wife to meet her at the door. A man who lived in a house like this should have a wife, she thought to herself as she made her way up the walk.
Joe answered the door promptly after the first knock. He was wearing a red plaid apron that made Lily chuckle. He took Lily’s coat and hung it by the door, leading her into the living room, adjacent to the kitchen where something smelled heavenly.
“Would you like a glass of wine?” Joe asked, heading back towards the kitchen.
“Yes, please,” Lily responded, amazed at how at ease she felt with Joe. All the nervousness of the night before was gone.
“We’re having lamb chops as our main course. And I made Hassleback potatoes with asparagus, too. I hope you’ll like it,” he finished, hoping for a positive response.
“It sounds wonderful and smells delicious,” Lily said earnestly. “I can’t wait to taste everything.”
Joe brought her the promised glass of wine, and they shared an easy conversation while Joe finished the last touches on their meal. When it was finally ready, they moved to the dining room where Joe, ever the gentleman, pulled out Lily’s chair.
“You are the first woman other than my mother to ever be in this house,” Joe confessed in a way that made Lily feel very special. “I honestly was beginning to think mom would be the only woman ever to visit,” he continued. “I’m happy I was wrong, and I’m happy you’re the reason I was wrong.”
Lily blushed. “I’m glad you asked me out. I wasn’t at first, but I am now. No matter what happens after this, I want you to know how happy I am right now.”
The rest of the meal was a combination of eating Joe’s excellent meal and gossiping about customers and telling corny jokes as the evening quickly passed. After the meal was over, Joe had another surprise.
For dessert, he brought out the biggest strawberries Lily had ever seen, covered in chocolate. She heard the pop of a champagne cork, as Joe skillfully filled two glasses. Although Lily didn’t have any personal frame of reference, it was proving to be the most romantic moment of her life.
Lily had seen Pretty Woman as a child and dreamed of a day when she could eat strawberries with a handsome man. To Lily, Joe was the most handsome man she had ever seen. With each bite, however, she started to feel like Cinderella at the ball. They would eventually eat the last strawberry and finish their champagne. Then the evening would be over. Lily didn’t want the evening to be over, but she also dreaded what might come next.
“Close your eyes,” Joe said in a way that put Lily at ease. Against her better judgement, she did as he asked.
Lily felt a soft, single kiss from a man she was now sure she loved. As Joe pulled away from her, she opened her eyes and looked into his. No words were spoken, but in that moment she believed he loved her, too. She had only planned on the one date with Joe, just to know how it felt. Now, everything was different.
“Lily, I’m in love with you,” Joe said, taking her hand in his. “I probably have been in love with you ever since your first terrible joke. Seven eight nine.” They both laughed at the memory. “Is it possible you could love me, too? Please say it’s possible.”
“Joe, I have to tell you something. Something almost no one knows.”
Joe could tell by the look on Lily’s face she was gravely serious.
“You can tell me anything, Lily,” Joe encouraged her. “Anything at all. It won’t change how I feel for you.”
Lily had kept her secret for most of her life, expecting to keep it forever. Now she was going to take the ultimate chance and trust another human being.
“Joe, my birth name isn’t Lily—it’s Lyle. I had it legally changed when I turned 18.” Lily could tell the news was jarring to Joe but she found the courage to continue. “I was born a boy, but I always knew I was a girl.” Lily tried to read Joe’s expression as they both sat quietly but he just stared stoically trying to comprehend what he was hearing.
“I left home when I was 12 years old,” Lily continued. “My parents didn’t want me and I couldn’t live a lie.” There was no stopping Lily now. Her secret was out in the open and she was not finished, “So in answer to your question, yes. It’s more than possible. I already love you,” she said, hanging her head. “I guess the real question is can you love me, now that you know the truth?”
The question hung in the air like an unpleasant odor. To Lily the silence spoke louder than words, until Lily felt Joe’s hand under her chin, lifting her head. Once again his lips pressed firmly against hers. There had been an answer in Joe's silence; it just wasn’t the answer she had mistakenly anticipated.
As Joe pulled away, he looked at Lily and said, “You know what you get when you drop a piano down a mineshaft?”
“What?” Lily asked, wiping her tears away, really smiling for the first time in her life. “What do you get when you drop a piano down a mineshaft?”
“A flat minor.” The shared laughter that ensued told them both everything they needed to know.