Walking through the sliding doors of a Target store is a familiar experience. It is predictable and safe, especially when they are the same doors you have walked through consistently throughout your twenty-six years of existence. However, walking through them for the first time after living somewhere else for a year can feel like a fever dream. The familiar gust of AC when you first enter now feels aggressive, the bright fluorescent and flashes of red carts and baskets zooming by seem surreal, and the same faces you have seen in passing all your life blend to create the overwhelming sense that you are in a movie. When you move away from the bubble that is your hometown, coming back in feels like you are merely playing a part. All of a sudden the costume that used to fit so perfectly feels a little snug. In all this discomfort, at least I was finally reunited with my very best friend. The brief time spent apart seemed almost nonexistent as we seamlessly fell back into our routine. Part of our resolutions for this new year was to start a book club & we could not agree on what to read. She and I argued extensively about where to shop for this book. She wanted to go to Barnes & Noble, but I insisted that going to Target would be just like old times. I thought this was the perfect place to find our January book.. Having spent many nights wandering around the store together, we have a specific path we take on our Target trips. Without hesitation, she grabs a basket and starts toward the dollar section. Like remembering the words to a favorite song I fell back into the familiarity and followed. I stepped in front of the holiday candle display, my eyes glossed over the colorful jars with cork lids and festive names, and shifted, briefly, to a tall figure seemingly gliding through the doors. The mysterious figure swiftly grabbed a cart and began walking. When my mind finally registered who it was that I was looking at, my heart burst into a million butterflies and my eyes shot to the floor. Jackson Hardy. My mind instantly flooded with questions “Did he see me staring?” “Was I looking for too long?” “Did he notice me?” Within seconds my “costume” fit perfectly once again and I was right back to where I was a year ago. Silently crushing on my coworker from afar. Not even sure if he was aware of my name, let alone my existence, I find myself trying to rationalize this coincidence. I then heard Chelsea ask a question about whether or not I thought we could trust the chargers sold in this section of the store. It seemed my mind was made up about something the rest of me wasn’t yet aware of as I simply replied with, “Cute boy. Follow me.” I failed miserably at looking natural as my eyes dramatically shifted from aisle to aisle, section to section while Chelsea barely kept up. I probably looked insane squinting my eyes at strangers at clothing racks & families trying on shoes. I was a girl on a mission to finally make contact with Jackson Hardy.
Though working in the same place for nearly three years, Jackson and I hardly interacted. Unfortunately, my crush had been well known throughout the office, only by the sheer betrayal of the blood rushing to my cheeks at the mere mention of his name. My coworkers teased & joked as I cowered in fear at the possibility of him overhearing. Covid closing the office down made for a convenient chance to go back to school to finish my degree. Having been stuck living in the same place my whole life, I decided to venture out and spread my wings to… the next state over. Not even a four-hour drive, but finally on my own for the first time. Far from everyone I had ever known- I pushed Jackson out of my mind. Now here I was back and racing through Target like a mad woman, plotting an “accidental interaction.” Upon reaching the book section, I noticed him closely examining the back of a book I’d never heard of. Of course, he was a reader. He is perfect. I made eye contact with Chelsea and silently nudged my head towards Jackson while preparing myself mentally for an impromptu “meet cute.” I swung my basket subtly by my side and pretended to peruse the hard-cover fiction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice his gaze flicker to me before returning to his intense examination of an autobiography for a man I’ve never heard of. While I work up a nerve to say something, I notice the corner of one side of his mouth twitch up while his eyes meet mine. Or at least I thought they were meeting mine, but they looked right past me. “Jackson! Hi!” Chelsea said as she pushed past me to playfully grab his arm. Uh, WHAT? He then puts his arm around her in a side hug. I can’t read the expression on his face. It looks like equal parts confused, caught off guard, and handsome. His dark hair had grown out to a little past his ears and I tried not to get lost in the way he looked in that baseball hat as I deciphered what was playing out in front of me. All the words spoken between Chelsea and Jackson melt into background noise as I try to force myself to look unbothered. “You look like you are trying to solve a riddle,” he says while chuckling. When I notice he is talking to me, I feel my cheeks turning red. I hate that I am so easy to read. Chelsea almost looks shocked that he is talking to me at all. What is even going on? Trying to play off my nervousness I say with a soft, forced, smile, “Oh, just trying to remember the name of the book I came over here for.” “Can I make a recommendation?” I want to scream. Instead, I work to keep my voice even and say, “You can give it your best shot!” Both he and Chelsea look surprised by my response (I am also surprised by my answer. Where did THAT come from?), but quickly he smiles & seemingly accepts the challenge. In a moment he is crouched on the floor, squinting, and focused. I am unsure if he has one in mind, or is trying to make it up on the spot. Either way, it is the hottest thing I have ever witnessed.
Chelsea is glaring at me. I avoid eye contact, I am not ready for the moment I am sharing with him to be over. Clearly not finding what he’s looking for on the bottom shelf, he moves to the top tier. He smiles and says, “Ah, here it is,” and pulls out a blue & green cover. A cover I recognize immediately. I laugh and say, “Normal People”? That is my favorite book.” He flashes a self-assured grin at me and replies, “I pegged you for a Sally Rooney fan.” I turn to show Chelsea and can see smoke rising from her ears. She is JEALOUS, but why? I turn my attention back to him and hand him back the book. He turns to put it back in its place and says, “We used to work together, right?” I am so shocked that he knows who I am that it takes me a moment to respond. “Yes. I think so?” My attempt to be aloof is an effort, but if he can sense that I am lying, he doesn’t show it, “Yeah. I heard you went back to school! That is so cool. We missed you around the office.” I secretly pinch myself to see if this is all an imaginary scenario I cooked up in my head or my reality. “That’s so sweet. I missed y’all too!” I say. Chelsea physically moves into the tight space between us and I feel a sharp elbow in my side as she says, “Wow Taylor! I didn’t realize you knew Jackson! I shouldn’t be surprised that my two favorite people know each other!” Favorite people? How the heck does she know the love of my life? Thankfully I don’t have to answer because Jackson replies, “We do! I didn’t know you knew Taylor, Chels. I haven’t seen either of you in forever!” CHELS? They are on a cute nickname basis? I take a momentary break to shoot a text to Chelsea that reads, “WTF???” and don’t even realize they are both looking at me until I look up from my phone. Was it obvious I was texting Chelsea? “Well, what do you think Taylor? Are you okay with Jackson joining the book club?” “Oh! Of course. That would be so fun,” I reply. “Great. It’s settled. I have missed my Hardy boys so much! Just text me later with your recommendation for our first book! Clearly, you know our taste. Well, at least Taylor’s taste,” Chelsea says while looking at me with an expression that could kill.
After polite goodbyes, he pushes his cart away and Chelsea and I are finally left alone. She turns and punches my arm. “Ow?” I almost shouted. “How could you flirt with MY CRUSH right in front of me?” I feel like my whole world just fell out of my hands and shattered into a million pieces on the floor. Confused and desperate for an explanation I ask, “Crush? I didn’t even know you knew him.” “Girl bye. I have talked to you about him for the past year! I know you weren’t physically here, but geez Taylor we must have discussed him over a hundred times over the phone.” It all hit me then like a semi-truck.
“JACKSON IS MR. FLANNEL?” I yell. “Ssshhh,” she hushes me, “Yes! Jackson is Mr. Flannel! I have been putting in the groundwork to be asked out for like 6 months. I have had my slow burn, subtle flirtation on LOCK. His little brother is the kid I nannied for last summer! I had no clue you knew him. Why didn’t you say anything?” “Chelsea, you have referred to him solely by his alias “Mr. Flannel” every time we spoke about him. I had no idea. I don't know how to tell you this, but I have had feelings for Jackson for nearly 4 years.” She doesn’t respond. Her eyes slowly close, her fists clenched by her side, and she exhales. I am terrified. When her eyes open back up, she just smiles at me. But not a sweet, “We’ll figure this out bestie!” kind of smile. A creepy, undead, ghost nun kind of smile. All she says next is, “May the best woman win then,” before dropping the basket I forgot she was holding and taking off in the opposite direction. What does that even mean? Just then my phone buzzes with a text from Chelsea: “I am going to go find him & secure a date. Don’t wait up ;)” I stood there in shock that the friend I considered a sister, the person I turn to for guidance and wisdom, is treating this boy like a middle school scavenger hunt. Well, I wasn’t going to just lay down & die while she is off winning him over. I ditched the baskets & headed out of the book aisle.
My strategy was to power-walk past every section to find him as quickly as possible. I rushed by the toy section, deeming it unnecessary for a grown man to inhabit the aisle. I was halfway past the exercise equipment section before remembering that Chelsea mentioned he had a little brother, and I needed to turn back. Without thinking I did a 180 and darted… straight into a 6’2 man with a musk of sandalwood & cedar that I would know anywhere. “Oh, God! I am so sorry,” I said in a panic. I looked up at Jackson, mortified, but he was just smiling. He clutched his heart with his hand (were his hands always so big?) and said, “Running into Taylor TWICE in ONE day? How did I get so lucky!” I could have melted right into the floor. I could only muster a shaky laugh as a response when I heard the shrieking voice of a newfound enemy to my left. “There you are, Tay! I found those extra absorbent tampons you were looking for! I also thought we could pick up some adult diapers, you know, for your leaking issue. She’s so cute! Every time she laughs, she pees herself,” Chelsea says with an evil giggle and too hard of a “playful” shove. There has never been a time where I wished that I was Sabrina the Teenage Witch more. If I could, I would have cast a spell to make Chelsea evaporate. Or, maybe it would be better if I made myself disappear. Instead, I tried taking the high road, forcing a smile and saying, “Thanks Chels! She is just SO considerate!” Jackson laughed and said, “I wish I had a friendship like you two!” Chelsea pushed through the tension to loop her arm through his and start pushing his cart. The two slowly began walking towards the checkout and I worked to keep up. I struggled to hear their conversation, but I gathered through bits and pieces that they were discussing how his little brother missed Chelsea. How can I compete with that? Without thinking it fully through I blurt out, “It’s so nice that she is so good with kids! Considering she has said that she would never want a child and hates kids!” Okay, I know that it seems like I am playing dirty, but she started it.
Chelsea shot me a look that said “Nice try” before saying, “Hmm- I don’t really remember saying that! I guess it would depend on whatever my partner wanted!” She smiled up at Jackson and gave his arm a light squeeze. Dang it. She is good. Chelsea unravels herself from Jackson and joins my side. She whispers in my ear, “You are never going to get a date, Taylor. Give it up. I just got a tan. I am unstoppable.” “The only thing that “you are” is coming on too strong,” I bit back at barely a whisper. It went back and forth like that for the rest of the walk to the self-checkout line. Jackson didn’t seem to notice and turned to us when we finally made it to the line. He began naming books he thought we could start our club on when a hand appeared on Jackson's left shoulder. My eyes shifted to the origin and found myself looking at the second most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life. Shorter than Jackson, he was about the height of his shoulder. Tan with long blond hair that cascaded about half an inch past his shoulders. He was holding a prescription bag in his hand. Before I could process just how beautiful the two people in front of me were, I snapped into focus after this blond adonis leaned in and kissed Jackson on his cheek. “Hey babe! Looks like you found a couple of friends!” My eyes darted to Chelsea who was already staring at me wide-eyed. Jackson laughed and said, “There you are! These are some old friends of mine who invited me to their book club! Chels & Taylor, this is David. My boyfriend!” Chelsea and I exchanged quiet and timid pleasantries with the two beautiful men in front of us before saying goodbye when their turn was up. After they were a safe distance away, Chelsea and I burst into laughter. We didn’t stop laughing until we got to the parking lot, stopping just outside of our car. “Neither of us stood a chance,” she said in between her giggles. “Honestly I was not expecting there to be a David. He was a tall beautiful blond man. How do we compete with that?” I replied. Chelsea wrapped her arm around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. “How could anyone compete with that?” she replied with a soft smile. We watched as David and Jackson unloaded their bags into their car in the distance. “Just so you know,” I said after a while, “if he weren’t gay, I would have won.” Chelsea snorted and shoved me in response. “We should have just gone to Barnes & Noble.”