So this is how much I care about this date:
I am currently purchasing new clothing.
I’m not sure where all my dress shirts went. Maybe I threw them out when I committed myself to being a shut-in. I find only two shirts in my wardrobe that aren’t T-shirts or sweatshirts. One was formerly white, but now somehow looks pink, in spite of the fact that I don’t own anything red or pink that might have ruined it in the wash. The other is missing three buttons. I might have been able to get away with two missing buttons, but if you show up with a shirt with three missing buttons, people start to think you don’t really care about your appearance, or else that you’re homeless.
But I clearly don’t care about the date too much, because I’m shopping at Target. I passed a higher end clothing store on the way here, but I couldn’t make myself go in there. I didn’t want to go to a store where someone might offer me assistance. Target is six blocks away from home and it was an agonizingly slow walk in the cold, but it was worth it for the anonymity.
Unfortunately, most of the clothing right in front is the stuff for women, because—let’s face it—women buy a whole lot more clothes than men. By the time I limp over to the men’s section, I feel like I’ve hiked through Death Valley. I’m exhausted and in no mood to try on shirts, but the alternative is to show up in a shirt that has three missing buttons, or worse, is pink.
I wish Target had some couches to sit down on.
I hate shopping. I always have. If the date weren’t tomorrow, I’d buy a shirt on Amazon and cross my fingers that it fit well enough. There are a lot of things I miss about Taylor, but I really miss how she’d pick out clothes for me at the department stores. Striped or solid? Black or teal? How the hell am I supposed to know if any of these shirts would look good on me? I’m a computer scientist.
I’m just going to grab something in my size and assume it will be fine.
“That would look great on you.”
I raise my eyes from the black dress shirt I had been examining. My mouth falls open when I see Noelle standing in front of me, pushing a red shopping cart. She’s got on a black coat, but underneath she’s wearing skintight jeans and black leather boots. She looks… well, out of my league. The smile playing on her lips makes my stomach flip-flop.
Christ, this woman. She always does it to me.
“Jeremy, right?” she asks.
She remembers my name. That’s got to mean something. “And you’re… Noelle.”
“That I am.”
“How were the Froot Loops?”
“Um,” she says. “Magically delicious?”
“That’s Lucky Charms.”
“It’s okay. Honest mistake.”
She glances at the shirt behind me. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to give unsolicited advice.”
“Yeah,” I snort, “because obviously, I am the world’s expert on fashion.”
We both look down at what I’m wearing. Muddy sneakers. Jeans that are worn down to the barest threads. My jacket is open, and I’ve got on a T-shirt underneath that has, much to my horror, a computer joke on it.
“There’s no place like 127.0.0.1,” she reads off my chest. She frowns. “Huh?”
This is so humiliating. “127.0.0.1 is the localhost which is the ‘home’ network on a PC. Basically it is the home for all your network testing and PHP/HTML coding. So, you know…”
“No place like home,” she finishes.
She grins at me. “You’re into computers, huh?”
“Only a tiny bit. An extremely healthy amount.”
“You’re literally wearing a computer joke on your shirt.”
I look down at my stupid shirt again. Why couldn’t I have worn something less geeky? “Right. That’s true.”
“Do you work in computers?”
I try to close my coat to hide my embarrassing shirt. It’s not easy to do when I’ve got only one working hand that’s currently gripping the handle of a crutch. “Just as a day job.”
“And by night?”
“By night? I’m Batman.”
“Ooh, I love Batman.” Her smile widens. “Love that rubber suit. Very sexy.”
She gives me this look when she says the word “sexy.” I know she’s just joking around, but she doesn’t say it like a joke. But obviously, it is. I mean, we’re talking about Batman.
And anyway, I can’t ask her out. I’ve got a date tomorrow with Hayley. I can’t deal with two girls at once. Call me old fashioned, but I can only handle getting rejected by one girl at a time.
“Although,” Noelle says, “I think computer nerds are even sexier than Batman.”
It’s suddenly very hard to swallow. “Do you?”
“Of course! Who’s a bigger superhero than a guy who can come to my apartment and fix my computer? I mean, it’s not like I’m going to be plummeting off any rooftops any time soon.”
“Well,” I say, “I’d be happy to come over and fix your computer any time you need it. I can be your personal superhero.”
Noelle’s brown eyes widen, and now I’m worried maybe I took the flirting too far. And I’ve got this date tomorrow. So there’s that.
But the truth is, I don’t even want to go on the date anymore. All I want for Christmas is Noelle.
Murphy’s Law hits again: when I run into Jeremy at Target, I’ve got a huge multipack of toilet paper in my cart. I bought a few other things at Target, but the toilet paper overwhelms everything else in the cart. But then again, everyone needs toilet paper, right? There shouldn’t be a stigma associated with buying it. Right?? And fortunately, Jeremy doesn’t even seem to notice.
Toilet paper aside, I can’t stop grinning every time I look at his dorky computer code T-shirt. I’d pegged him as a computer nerd, and it’s gratifying to see I was right. But I was serious when I said I thought it was sexy. I’m so hopeless with computers, it really does seem like a superhero power to be able to fix them.
Then again, everything Jeremy does is sexy.
“So are you going to try on this shirt?” I ask him, nodding at the dress shirt I’d caught him looking at.
“Sure, if you like it.”
“Well,” I say thoughtfully. “It depends what it’s for.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. As I watch, the tips of his ears turn bright red, followed shortly after by his neck. And that’s when it hits me.
“Jeremy,” I say. “Are you buying this shirt for a date?”
“Uh…” He ducks his head down. “I… sort of.”
“Sort of? How can it sort of be for a date?”
And now his face is turning red. “Okay, fine. It’s for a date.”
He looks really adorable right now—it absolutely kills me he’s about to go out with another woman. How did I miss that? No wonder he never asked for my number.
My mind immediately fills with dozens of questions, most of which I can’t possibly ever ask:
Who are you going out with?
How many dates have you been on with her?
Is she prettier than I am?
Do you think you might consider ditching her and dating me instead?
But I can’t ask any of those questions. Especially the last one.
“I think it’s perfect then.” I have to force the words out, because the last thing I want to do is help him look handsome for his date. “You should try it on.”
He checks the size on one of the shirts and pulls it off the rack. “Nah, that’s okay. I’m sure it will fit.”
My mouth falls open. “You’re going to buy it without even trying it on?”
He shrugs. “Yeah. It’s fine. I never try things on.”
“Oh my God.” I shake my head. “You’re blowing my mind here.”
“Why do I need to try it on? It’s a shirt. What could possibly go wrong with a shirt?”
“Maybe it will tent in a weird way.”
He crinkles his nose. “Tent in a weird way?”
“Yeah, like maybe it will make you look like you’ve got a huge gut.”
Jeremy looks down at his flat stomach. “I doubt it.”
“Or boobs. What if it makes you look like you have boobs?”
“What if it makes me look like I have boobs?” He looks baffled. “It’s a cotton shirt, Noelle, not a Sumo wrestling costume.”
“All I’m saying is you never know.”
“Right. Well, I’m going to take my chances.”
Is it terrible to say that I hope the shirt tents in a weird way and his date hates it? Yes, that’s terrible. But I think it anyway.
“Are you done shopping?” I ask him.
He nods. “Yeah, I’m just going to buy this and go.”
“I’m going to check out too.” I nod at my cart. “You want to throw your shirt in there so you don’t have to carry it.”
He hesitates. “Uh, sure. Thanks.”
He drapes the shirt over the side of my cart to differentiate it from my items. Then we walk together to the checkout line at the front of the store.
I’m not going to lie—Jeremy doesn’t walk quickly, especially for a guy his age. He moves his crutch forward, slides his right foot forward in almost a semi-circle, then steps with his left foot (which I guess is his good leg). I could easily take two steps in the time it takes him to take one. But at the same time, I don’t mind. I like walking slowly. Henry is always racing everywhere, and Greg was the same way. When I walked with Greg, I was always jogging to keep pace with him. I hated it.
Jeremy clearly notices I’m slowing down to keep pace with him. “Sorry,” he says.
“Sorry for what?”
He smiles crookedly. “For being slow as ass.”
I return his smile. “I feel like that expression is a misnomer. Are asses really that slow?”
“Well, yeah. They’re always behind, right?”
I clasp my hand over my mouth to suppress a laugh. “Oh my God, that was so cheesy!”
“I know. Sorry. Ba-dum ching, right?”
“Don’t be sorry. I love cheesy jokes.”
“You’re going to be sorry you said that.” He’s full-on grinning now. “Because my dad was the king of cheesy jokes, and I have a great memory.”
“Do your worst.”
“Um…” He thinks a moment, pausing in his steps. “What’s a pepper that won’t leave you alone?”
I shake my head.
Okay, that was awful. But he’s grinning like he’s really proud of himself. Man, why does he have to have a date with another girl? This is incredibly unfair. “So I’ve got one. What do you call bees who produce milk?”
I smack him in the right arm. “Hey!”
He looks down at his arm where I just touched him, blinking a few times. It was his bad arm, which is clenched against his chest as it always is, and I worry I shouldn’t have done that. But he doesn’t seem at all displeased—just the opposite. The smile widens on his face.
“Sorry,” he says. “I knew the answer. Couldn’t help it.”
“Okay, I got another one,” he says. “How did the hipster burn his tongue?”
I think for a minute. “How?”
“He drank his coffee before it was cool.”
I laugh because that was actually sort of funny. “Okay, got one. What do you call it when Batman skips church?”
His blue-green eyes roll to the side as he thinks about it. Ha, I’ve got him.
“Christian Bale,” I say.
It takes him a second to start laughing. “Wow.”
“Ba-dum ching,” I say.
“Ba-dum ching,” he agrees.
And now we’re just staring at each other, and it’s a little intense, if I’m being honest. I get a little thrill of excitement that starts at my fingertips and goes all over my entire body. Even to my boo-bees. Before I can stop myself, I reach out and pick a tiny bit of lint from his T-shirt, letting my fingers linger on his chest just a moment too long.
“Lint,” I say breathlessly.
He doesn’t take his eyes off mine. “Thanks.”
He’s got a date with another girl. I can’t forget that. For all I know, she’s his girlfriend. Although I get the feeling if she were, he wouldn’t be out buying a shirt. Buying a shirt for a date indicates this is among the first five dates.
“So, uh…” He glances at the checkout line in front of us. “Do you live nearby?”
I swallow hard. “Not too far.”
“Because I could, you know… walk you home.” He ducks down his head. “I mean, if you don’t mind my being slow as ass…”
I’m about to shout from the treetops: NO I DON’T MIND! Except at that moment, I remember that the whole reason I came to Target in the first place was Henry gave me a list of supplies he needed for a school project. Somehow I got distracted by the toilet paper, and then this age-defying cream I had to buy. And then, of course, Jeremy. In any case, I’ve got to pick up Henry in less than half an hour, and I don’t have any of the supplies I promised would be ready for him. I need to buy poster board, a glue stick, and some magic markers. (I have purchased roughly five million magic markers during my time as a mother. I don’t know where they all go. Someday I’ll be moving the sofa and a tower of them will just spill out.)
In any case, I can’t leave Target. Even to walk with Jeremy.
“Actually…” I gesture down at my cart. “I realized I forgot a couple of things I need. So… um, raincheck?”
He sucks in a breath. “Oh, uh… sure. I mean, it’s not a big deal. I just figured if we were headed in the same direction…” He shrugs and grabs his shirt from my cart. “But, you know, whatever…”
Damn, did I ruin everything again? Should I ask him out? Suggest coffee? But how can I? He just told me he was going on a date with another woman. If there’s anything signifying a lack of interest, it’s that. I don’t want to put myself out there and get rejected.
God, I’m confused.
Fuck, I’m nervous. I’m definitely more nervous than excited.
I haven’t been on a date in a year. A year. And the last one I had was flat out awful. I was feeling lonely and signed myself up for an online dating site, which amounted to a lot of nothing. I finally ended up meeting a girl for drinks, and after five minutes, she made up an obviously fake excuse and got the hell out of there. So it was barely even a date. But if I don’t count that one, it’s been nearly two years.
Two years. I’m more than rusty. Why the hell did I think this was a good idea again?
When I pull the dress shirt Noelle picked out from my closet, my thoughts immediately stray to her. If I had a date with her tonight, I’d be more excited than nervous. That playful smile on her lips while we exchanged cheesy jokes was so fucking sexy. She’s so fucking sexy. I don’t know how I can wear this shirt without wishing I were with her instead.
Even when I was walking with her to the checkout line, she didn’t make me feel like I was slowing her down, even though—let’s face it—I’m really slow. After my stroke, Taylor always looked so put out by how slow I walked. I would be trying my best to keep up with her, and she wouldn’t say anything, but she’d sigh and look at her watch. If she said she was going out on an errand and I suggested coming with her, she’d shake her head. I really don’t have time.
It didn’t feel that way with Noelle. I liked walking next to her. That’s why I suggested walking her home, even knowing I had this date. If that had gone the way I hoped it would, I would have canceled on Hayley in a second. But instead, Noelle got this panicked look on her face when I suggested the idea of walking beside her on the street. She made up some lame excuse.
So that’s that.
It’s a wake-up call to how bad my right arm has gotten when I’m trying to get this stupid dress shirt on. Usually my arm isn’t this tight until I’m ready for my next set of Botox shots. I’m doing my damnedest to get my arm through the sleeve, but it doesn’t want to go. It takes me nearly fifteen minutes to get it over my arm, and it’s bunched in a weird way. But what can I do? I’m not showing up in a T-shirt.
The buttons are a further challenge. I can manage the single large button on a pair of blue jeans, but doing up the tiny white buttons on this shirt would be impossible with one hand. I’ve got a little gadget they gave me to help me lace buttons through the holes with just one hand, although I’ve hardly used it. When Taylor was around, she helped me with buttons. And after she left, I didn’t have many buttons to do anymore.
I locate the gadget in a dresser, and it takes me nearly half-an-hour to do a job that would have taken me two minutes years ago. But I get it done. Myself. That’s something.
Once I’m dressed, I check myself out in the mirror for one final look. My face looks fine—I’m clean-shaven, which is rare since I only get around to shaving every three or four days. My hair is short but looks respectable. My glasses aren’t smudged. When I stare at my face, I swear I notice the right side droops a little, but my parents and sister assured me it’s not noticeable at all. Or if it is, it gives my face character, whatever the fuck that means. I already had character from that scar over my eyebrow—I didn’t need more character.
In the first month after my stroke, the right side of my face was so weak, food used to dribble out of the side of my mouth when I tried to eat. It was mortifying. It didn’t help that I was only allowed to eat food that was ground up into the consistency of baby food, because anything else made me choke. It all tasted terrible, but if I didn’t eat, they would give me tube feeds through the belly, which made me want to hurl.
Some of my earliest memories from rehab are of Taylor trying to get me to eat. She would scoop up some of the baby food in a spoon and hold it to my lips. Come on, Jeremy. You have to eat or else they’re going to give you the tube feeds. So I’d try, and then half of it would slide out of my mouth and down my chin. We would go to a lunch group with other stroke patients who were in their eighties or even nineties, and I was doing a worse job than anyone in the room. Jeremy, she would scold me, as if I had any control over it. She’d have to quickly dab at my face to catch the food before it hit my shirt, but she never caught all of it.
I was so impaired then. The right side of my body was at zero, my speech was off, I could barely swallow, and my brain felt fuzzy. I overhead a conversation between Taylor and my case manager, where my wife said, I can’t possibly take him home if he’s like this. I was terrified I was destined for a nursing home. The idea of living independently again seemed forever out of reach.
I should be grateful I got better enough that I could live on my own again. I can walk—something nobody was sure I’d ever be able to do again. And my speech is back to normal too. It’s not slurred anymore. I don’t think I sound the same as I used to before, but everyone tells me it’s not noticeable.
Like I said, I should be grateful. But when I look in the mirror, I don’t feel that way. My disability is painfully obvious. You can’t see the brace on my ankle because my pants hide it, but the crutch isn’t something I can hide or go without. When I walk, my right leg drags behind me. And my arm is a fucking mess.
Oh well. I can either go to the date looking like this or cancel. So I guess I’ll go.
The doorbell rings, which jolts me out of my self-pity. I’m meeting Hayley at the restaurant, so it’s definitely not her. I limp over the door and check the peephole.
I debate for a moment if I should pretend not to be home, but I’m sure she heard me limping over to the door. So I throw open the door for her and am slightly amused by the way her eyes grow big when she sees me. Her wrinkled lips form an “O.”
“Jeremy!” she exclaims. “You look so handsome!”
My left hand itches to straighten out my right arm, but I don’t let go of the crutch. “Uh, thanks.”
“Are you off somewhere?” She’s circling me now, like she’s a wild animal who’s chosen me as her pray.
“Yeah, I…” My ears grow warm. “I’m going out.”
I let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m going on a date, okay? With that girl, Hayley.”
“Oh!” She clasps her hand together. “How wonderful! I knew you two would be a good match.”
“I bet you’ll get married,” she sighs.
Yep. Hayley and I will get married. Very likely. “Do you need anything, Fanny?”
“Well…” She cocks her head to the side. “Actually, I met this… well, never mind. It’s not important.”
She studies me for a moment until I start to feel self-conscious. “You’re not going to wear a tie?”
“A tie?” I haven’t worn a tie in six years. I can’t imagine how I’d tie the damn thing. It would be a challenge, that’s for sure. I couldn’t do it very well even before. I don’t have a gadget to help me with it. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
“Oh, Jeremy.” She shakes her head as she pushes past me into my apartment. Christ, does this woman have any boundaries? She heads for my bedroom without asking, and I do my best to keep up with her. When I get into the room, she’s already rifling through my closet. “You do own ties, don’t you?”
“No, because ties are stupid.”
“Here they are!” Fanny cries triumphantly. Damn, I can’t believe I still have some ties. If I’d known Fanny was going to show up and make me wear one, I would have tossed them. I’ve only got two. Like I said, I don’t have much need for them. They don’t go with my T-shirts and sweatpants.
“This one,” Fanny decides, holding up a green tie. “It will bring out the green in your eyes.”
“I’d really rather not.”
“You don’t know what’s good for you. Women like a man in a tie.”
There are a lot of things women like in a man. I can’t think of how many of those qualities I possess. Probably not many. Maybe the tie is a good idea. God knows, I need all the help I can get.
She looks at the tie for a moment, then over at me. Or more specifically, at my useless right arm. “Come here,” she says.
Obediently, I walk over to her and allow her to drape the tie around my neck. “My husband couldn’t tie a tie either,” Fanny muses as her hands expertly form the ends of the tie into a knot. “For forty years, every morning I would tie it for him before he went in to work.”
“So,” I say, “how come he couldn’t tie his own damn tie?”
She lets out a little huff. “You don’t appreciate romance.”
“If making your wife tie your tie every morning is romance, then you’re right. I don’t appreciate romance.”
“You were married once,” Fanny says. “Weren’t there any sweet little things your wife would do for you?”
Immediately, I think of Taylor’s sewing pile. It was a joke between the two of us. When I’d get a rip in my pants or lose a button, I’d tell Taylor and she’d say, “Put it in my sewing pile!” She didn’t actually sew much at all, so her “sewing pile” was just the dining table. I’d toss my damaged garment on the table and she’d sew it up for me that night. I couldn’t sew on a button to save my life. I needed her for that.
“No,” I say. “There wasn’t.”
“Oh, come on!”
“Maybe that’s why we got divorced.”
That or Taylor couldn’t deal with her formerly virile husband having to rely on her for so much.
And also me being kind of a prick about it.
“There!” Fanny brushes some lint off my shoulder and steps back to admire me. “So much better! Oh, Hayley is going to love you.”
Yeah, that remains to be seen. “How could she not like me when I’m wearing this fabulous tie?”
“Exactly!” Fanny says.
I’m not sure if she doesn’t understand sarcasm or purposely ignores it.
“And if it doesn’t work out,” she adds, “don’t worry because I’ve got another girl lined up for you.”
Oh, Christ. “We’ll see.”
“You will find the right woman for you, Jeremy,” she says. “I promise.”
I know I should be excited about this date, but all I can think is I wish I were going out with Noelle tonight.
To be continued.....