Sometimes it's not about what we'd normally call, "typical" consciousness...sometimes it's about experiencing the wonder in each moment of life. This is a story - with a lot of autobiographical truth in it - about one of those moments.
It’s not like she was beautiful in an overt way. She wasn’t. She was plain looking, as much as I hate that description. I mean, what is a “plain looking” person, anyway? I guess it was the fact that there was no one, definable thing that made her stand out to me. I still don’t know what it was about her to this day.
All I know is that I needed, of all things, some stuff from a craft store to make a gift for my daughter, who is the only real love of my life. I keep it that way. Her name is Hilary; she’s the one that deserves all my attention since I messed everything up with our family five years ago. I write short stories for her. It’s about all I can do right in my life - make this little girl know I love her by writing little ditties about fairies or princesses or unicorns for her.
And she loves them.
Her mom, who doesn’t hate me as much as she used to, now that she’s remarried, usually reads them to her before she goes to bed. I’m glad she does it. It makes me feel like a million bucks when I hand my little girl one of my creations, just to see the look on her face. Once she stunned me by saying that the stories are like code for me saying “I love you” to her. Where does she come up with this stuff? At any rate, I was just there at this obscure, independent craft store to get some supplies so I could bind a little book for her.
So, I walk into this store - it was called, "Collage" - for the first time on the advice of a friend of mine that worked with me. I'd never bound one of my books before. I just stapled them. But it was her birthday coming up and I wanted to do something extra so I asked my friend who is the secretary that works at my company and she told me about the place, pretty close to the office so I could get there and back on my lunch break, easy.
So, I head over there. I walk into the store and I stop when I see her. She was…I don’t know. She looked like a girl I knew when I was a kid, literally like a girl next door. But it wasn’t just that. I wasn't sure what it was about her that got my attention. Her hair was about shoulder-length, not really “done up” or anything. She didn’t wear makeup, and her clothes seemed baggy, too. I could tell she was probably what we used to call a “sleeper chick,” meaning she’d be way better looking - in a traditional way - if she dressed so as to show off a little bit. The kind of girl that probably hid a great body, but I didn’t think about that at the time. She just chose not to flaunt – never has, as long as I’ve known of her. And there is something in that that is more appealing than anything I can name, in some ways.
She herself was a "collage" of sorts - a woman made of a million homey, familiar things.
I walked around a little dazed at first, peering around corners at her, trying to get a bead on what was so attractive about her. I saw someone I took to be the store owner ask her about changing her schedule for the upcoming week, and she agreed. After a while I accidentally found my supplies, but then I waited until there wasn’t going to be a line and walked up to the counter and made the purchase. She looked directly into my eyes.
She smiled, and her teeth were white. Not perfectly straight, but white. Her eyes were brown, but when she looked at me they seemed back lit, making them almost a light green. There was nothing behind them – no come-on, nothing but friendliness and happiness. Well, maybe there was a little something behind them, but nothing much. Certainly, there was no real flirting, just the eyes of a girl that was somehow happy with herself, happy to be working in a little store making $12 an hour in Portland, Oregon. Her questions all had double meanings:
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Is that all today then?”
I replied a tentative and awkward "yes" to both and left in a daze without a returning her wish for a good day to me.
A week later, my boss made an announcement. The company had won an award and we were all invited to some kind of presentation. The mayor was going to be there, and even a state senator. I don’t make much money, so I don’t date much. Women like a guy to have money to flash around, but with my daughter in my life I usually don’t have the desire - or the extra cash to flash for that matter.
But my boss said spouses were welcome, and it didn’t cost anything to get in. And my secretary friend, well, we’re good friends so I’d already told her about the girl at the store; her disarming, easy demeanor and it's stupefying effect on me.
When my boss said spouses were invited, she looked at me and smiled.
I know where she is in her personal life and that she was only recently divorced and still really hurting, so I figured she wasn’t smiling at me for any other reason than that she had a plan cookin’.
I have to admit I was two steps ahead of her.
The presentation was to be on a Thursday. It occurred to me that would it would be perfect to ask the girl at Collage to go with me. The secretary, well, she’s just sitting there grinning at me. She knows I’m alone. She knows just enough about me, thanks to a long and slightly alcohol infused conversation at the previous Christmas party to know that someday I hope to, you know, find a wife again. Someone to grow old with. At the time of the party she was just starting her divorce so we were kind of commiserating like people do sometimes when they’ve had a drink or two. It’s funny; we’d worked at the same company for two years but never really spoke until that night and we’ve been good friends ever since.
I know a lot about her and she knows a lot about me, but not everything. At the time, what she didn’t know was that I pick my daughter up from school every Thursday early afternoon, before I should be knocking off for the day, and that it’s her favorite day of the week.
Sometimes her mother and I though, we make adjustments for life stuff. The man she married, he’s a good man. They got a family. I honor that, for my little girl’s sake, if nothing else. The night of the presentation, my ex had already told me they had a thing to do that involved our little girl and asked me if we could switch nights. I said OK.
So, when the boss made the announcement I figured, yeah, I got a couple days here to make this go since I don’t have Hilary that night now. I mean, we were finding out on a Monday, about ten days before. That’s important because most women think it’s ok to be spontaneous, but not ok to be a shoddy planner. Women see that and they immediately see a guy that does not have his stuff together.
So, I start planning. I figure, maybe this week I take another trip to the store. This is kinda sly because I really don’t need anything there. I mean, the book for Hilary is already made up, right? It went well so maybe I’ll do another one someday, but I don’t need one now and I am not making enough money to be storing a bunch of goods I don’t need immediately. But a girl like that…a girl that looks clean and good, like someone easy to just be with like an old friend, well, she’s worth $16 in supplies for the next book I make for my daughter, even if I have to pay it in advance.
I had it pretty dialed in, what I was going to say, what I was going to buy. This was on a Wednesday night, eight days before the award night, so I was all set to go the next day. I mean, I was about to hit the lights when my ex calls.
“Johnnie, it’s Amber. Hey, I know we were supposed to take Hillary next Thursday, but can we switch back?”
My heart actually sunk. I hadn’t realized I had been looking forward to asking this girl out as much as I was, I guess. But what was I going to say? I had a mean cop that lived inside me at the time that never let me forget my guilt about what I'd put my wife through.
I said yes, automatically.
It was probably the right thing to do anyway, but it made me feel just vindictive enough to ask what happened to their plans. It was an innate, subconscious knowledge that asking would put her in a compromising situation; either she’d feel she had to divulge information that was private or come across as withholding information asked in a purely conversational way by someone who had just granted a favor.
“It’s just, Jack…work…never mind. It’s just frustrating. His plane was late three days ago and it’s thrown his whole week into disarray, so now I’m changing all these plans. One stupid plane flight. I just wish we weren’t so dependent on his work. But that’s not your problem.”
Well, it was now, but I wasn’t going to tell her about it. Somewhere inside me the cop scowled, but I kind of smiled anyway.
I was satisfied. “No problem,” I said. “I’ll just get her like always, then.”
So, I guess I had a date after all, but with Hilary instead. I mean, it's no good to take a stranger on a first date with your daughter. Even a guy that doesn’t date much knows that. That’s hard on the date and the daughter, both.
The night was a success. The mayor spoke, my boss gloated, my daughter and I ate better food than we usually do, and people fawned over her. They always do. I really enjoyed myself, and seeing her do so well in a social situation like that, it really made me proud. She’s really growing up. Still, a small part of me, I have to admit, would have liked to have spent the evening talking to that girl, the girl from the store, just to see if she was really as honest and straightforward and good as she seemed. I kind of felt bad about feeling that way since I love my daughter so much, but I’ve been working on being ok with my feelings so I let it slide.
Three months later it was summer and my daughter and I were walking on the same street where the little craft store is; Alberta Street in Portland. It was a street art fair, and it was warm and perfect with a sweet breeze that came through at just the right times. My daughter’s hair blew around like a halo and she laughed as she watched some street performers.
“Daddy, can we get an ice cream cone?”
I know her mom doesn't want her to eat like that, but I’m a victim to this girl, you know? If I had only $5 to my name I’d give it to her so she could have that cone. As it turned out, things were going pretty well at work – I’m in sales - so I actually had a little change on me for once. Better yet, I’d heard a new and very interesting ice cream shop was on the same block. It happened to be on the same side of the street, just two doors down from the craft store where the girl worked. We walked towards both stores, ice cream and craft.
Sitting outside the ice cream joint eating a cranberry ice cream cone in a summer Thanksgiving match to my daughter’s sweet potato and chocolate chip double-dip, she said to me, “Daddy, why do you keep looking at that store over there? What’s in there?”
I hadn’t realized I’d been looking at it. I’m sure I blushed. And then, in a spirit of bravado I'm not generally in possession of, I smiled back at her. “Well, why don’t we go in and find out?”
A few minutes later we were walking up to Collage, just finishing our cones. I was about to open the door when I saw a sign that read, “No food inside, please”.
“Oops,” I said to my daughter as I pointed to the sign. “Guess we need to finish first.”
The door swung open suddenly. “No, you don’t!” a woman's voice said out of nowhere.
And there she was.
She smiled at us both as she emptied a dustpan of next to nothing into the dirt by the storefront. I have to say I kind of caught my breath. She sparkled just like she had last time; same white, imperfect teeth, same disheveled hair, same self-possession and happiness that I apparently find so disarmingly attractive in women.
At least in her.
I just stood there, stammering, “Oh, I, uh…”
She sensed my discomfort and diffused my masculine confusion by putting her hands on her hips and looking into my daughter’s eyes with a big, warm smile.
“You two coming in here? Don’t worry about the ice cream. No one pays attention to that sign anyway,” she said, laughing as she stood and pushed the door open wider.
I walked in, but not before I caught a whiff of her hair which smelled too much like a tropical salad to be a real high-quality brand of shampoo. I should know; the ones I buy are always the cheap ones, too. They use fragrance to cover up the fact that they're not very good, I think. I don’t care. Apparently, she doesn’t either. More importantly, I was certain that I caught a flash of something personally welcome to me in her eyes. That’s it. Nothing more than she’d project to a woman in her nineties, I was sure at the time. Now I’m not so sure, but it’s what I chose to think then.
We shopped around a bit. When my daughter discovered the pieces in the store like the ones I had used to construct her book, she looked at me with a suspicious smile and a raised eyebrow. Then she shook her head and disappeared to look at fancy paper around the corner.
“She’s adorable,” the girl behind the counter said. “And she sure loves her daddy.” And then she added, “She is your daughter, isn’t she? I was assuming…”
“Yeah, that’s my little girl…love of my life.”
“A good daddy; that means more than you could ever know.”
Looking at her, I could tell she was sincere. A near stranger had just said the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in a month. I’m no Don Juan, so I didn’t know what to say back. I just smiled back at her, but she wasn’t smiling.
“Daddy! Can we get some of this?” My daughter actually startled me, bringing me back from some planet I had forgotten even existed. She was holding up some red paper.
“No, sweetie,” I smiled at her. “Let’s go, angel.”
“You two have fun out there,” she said to Hilary, who smiled widely back. “OK!”
“Thanks,” I said to her over my shoulder, but she was already off on her next project in the store.
I spent the next two weeks trying to figure out the best way to go ask her out, but I just never did it. I really have no explanation, other than Life. Work was really busy, starting to pick up, and school was going to be in session again for my daughter so we were cramming in as much fun as we could before all that started. Before I knew it, as strong an impression as the Collage girl had made on me, I just found it more convenient to not pursue her for the time being.
Life’s weird. I don’t even really watch movies anymore because I don’t need the drama. But I have to say, sometimes things happen that surprise me.
You remember my secretary friend? Her name is Alaina. Well, after her divorce had been final for a while we went to lunch a few times and we began to see each other as very good friends. Not really romantic, but more than friends, too. We hadn’t gone out yet on a real date, but after a few months of spending time with her, well, I kind of wanted to.
It’s complicated work, dating secretaries. Not the best choice, usually. But I’d rather err, conservatively, on the side of finding someone special than preserving a job. Jobs can be replaced. There aren’t that many good women out there – not for me, anyways - especially because of Hilary. I won’t allow a bad person around her, ever. So, while I wouldn’t recommend it, if a guy thinks someone at his work could be someone special, he should carefully look at that. Life is weird, but it’s also short.
Anyway, I saw on the company calendar that Alaina’s birthday was coming up and it had crossed my mind to get her something special, but since I had only just really gotten to know her I had put it out of my mind. However, Hilary had met Alaina at the big shindig a few months ago and had seen her at a company picnic earlier in the month as well. Hilary really liked Alaina and one Thursday she asked me about her.
“Dad,” she said in a tone of voice that she only uses when she is serious, “what about Alaina?”
Sometimes kids just know, you know?
We talked as we drove about why it’s not usually a good idea to date people you work with, but that didn’t really satisfy her.
“You should just ask her out anyway,” she said matter-of-factly with a frown.
My daughter had never spoken to me before about my so-called love life and here she was, acting like she did it all the time. Eleven-year old girls are a trip.
“Well, she has a birthday coming up,” I unwisely said.
She snapped her head around and beamed. “I knew it! You like her!” she said, pointing at me for emphasis.
I should never play poker. I tried to play it off by telling her that the only reason I knew that was because it was on the company calendar but I don’t think she bought it. I know she didn’t, even though I was technically telling her the truth. Thankfully she didn’t press the issue by asking me to name one other name on the calendar because, of course, I wouldn't have been able to.
“You should write her a story like you did for me on my birthday, and then put it in a book. That way you could tell her in code how much you like her, too!”
The girl's perceptive, I'll give her that.
At any rate she made me promise, so I put some old poems into a little manuscript and went down to the store with the supplies the day before Alaina’s birthday.
There were a couple reasons that I was looking forward to seeing the girl at the store. One was to get the supplies. I am pretty proud of some of my poetry and this was the first time I'd attempted to put any of them in a collection of sorts. The second was to answer a question: how would I feel when I saw the girl at the store? Did she even work there anymore? Would she still be attractive to me, now that I was kind of interested in Alaina? Maybe she’d have a ring on her finger. I swear I have less and less faith in men when I see women like her walking around without one. But, sure as hell, she was there. Still shiny, still plain, still so attractive in her understated way. And no ring.
Men are idiots.
“Another book?” she asked me when I came to the counter, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah, for a friend this time,” I said.
“Your daughter’s beautiful and so charming. You’re a lucky man…for a few more years,” she said with a sly smile.
I laughed. “I guess you’re right. Good thing I’m a good shot.”
She chuckled. “Have a good day, Mr…” as she looked at my bank card, handing it back, “Maxwell.”
“You too,” I said, without asking her name. I mean, why wouldn’t I ask her name? Because she flusters me, that’s why. I’m a salesman. It’s my job to ask names. It’s what I do. But not this time.
As I walked toward my car, I almost abandoned the idea of giving the book to Alaina. I mean, if this nameless counter clerk shakes me that bad, do I have any business treating Alaina like she is extra-special to me? What was I doing? I should just march right back in there, ask her name and then give the book of poetry to her instead, after it’s finished.
I actually considered it. But I didn’t do it.
In the end, it was something about Hilary’s perception about Alaina that swayed me, I guess. I mean, something inside me knows the girl behind the counter would treat my daughter well, too, just like Alaina. But in the end…I just stuck with the plan and the promise I’d made to Hilary.
That was two years ago. Alaina and I have been going out steadily for about fourteen months now. Talk of marriage has even come up a few times. So, the other day I went into the craft store to put together a book of compositions that I wrote for Alaina alone. There are poems about love and short vignettes about the coincidences that bring people together.
The coincidences that bring people together are always interesting, but what about the ones that keep people apart?
As I walked into Collage I saw her again, from a distance, as she spoke with two women who appeared to be looking at rubber craft stamps. Their conversation was animated and punctuated with laughter as if they were old friends, but I knew the women were only welcome customers. As I watched her, part of me wanted to share her with the woman I was now sure I loved, with Alaina, but I didn’t know how.
What could be said? And what did the desire to communicate this, or the inability to do so, say about me as a man, or even as a partner in a relationship? Would there be other secrets between us as well? Was I really ready for Alaina?
I thought of the possibilities that had forever passed by this woman and I, and of the magnitude of the questions that had arisen in my mind alone, depriving her and I both from her perspective on them. All this from a relationship that she didn’t even know she was in. I wondered if she had any idea at all. How could she?
A split second later I made a decision: I would find another place to get book supplies. That felt like the right thing to do, except it provided no lasting answers. I was just tired of those questions and had nothing to reply to them. I hadn’t found the supplies - hadn’t even looked for them - but it was still time to leave.
I turned to go. As I walked toward the door, sun broke through the clouds outside and I could see dust particles floating in the early autumn morning sunbeams, orbiting one another but never really touching.
“Mr. Maxwell!” A lilting voice called behind me. “Can I help you with anything?”
I turned. “No, that’s ok,” I said, smiling. “Thank you.” I walked out with her looking silently after me.
I’ve never returned.