My mom has her hands on the steering wheel in the ten-and-two position that they're always preaching us in Driver's Ed. I can tell by the way she's staring straight ahead that she's already talking to me inside her mind, waiting for the words to travel from her brain to her mouth.
"Uh, Mom? The light's green."
She clicks back into reality. "Oh, sorry . . . You know—" Ah, here it comes. "— I think it's good you're making friends and hanging out with other girls your age. It's much healthier than being on that stupid computer all weekend."
I roll my eyes. See, Mom thinks I'm going to the mall to hang out with some girlfriends from school. She probably knows I'm lying, but she wants me to have a social life so bad that she isn't gonna pry too far.
The truth: I'm about to meet my internet boyfriend. His name is Joel and he's nineteen-years-old— four years older than myself. He's cute, he's smart, he's funny . . . He's everything a girl could want. And for some strange reason he's in love with me, and I with him.
I realize how sweaty my palms are once the mall pops up in the distance. I pull down the visor to study my appearance. This is probably the first time I've worn make-up in a year. My hair is loaded with hair spray. I'm wearing what I consider to be my cutest outfit. Yet I'm still worried that Joel's gonna find me disappointing. He tells me I'm beautiful in all the pictures I've sent him, but imperfections are lot more noticeable in person. I'm pudgier than he thinks. Plus I've got this big nasty gap between my two front teeth. I just gotta make sure I don't grin too big.
Mom looks over and smiles, "You sure you're just going see a movie with your friends? You seem awfully concerned with your appearance."
I ignore her and turn up the radio. Thank you, John Mayer, for drowning out my mom.
A couple minutes later we pull up at the mall entrance. I open the door and step out of the vehicle. Mom winks and says, "Have fun on your date."
Inside, the mall is infested with people, mostly young couples in their teens and early twenties. I haven't even walked past Foot Locker before I notice a couple girls from school. Thank God they don't see me.
After checking my appearance one final time in the restroom I head off toward the center of the mall where Joel is supposed to be waiting for me on one of those benches near the wishing fountain. I walk fast, then I slow down; walk fast, slow down. A nervous excitement swirls inside me.
I'm now close enough to see the people on the benches. Two old women are sitting on one. There's a balding man sitting on another; he keeps looking around as if he's expecting someone. I keep walking and—there he is! There's Joel! With his shaggy brown hair and his Adidas jacket. He's looking at me! And he's . . . looking away. What the heck? He didn't even recognize me! Wait a sec . . . That's not Joel! God, what an idiot!
Well, where is he? He was supposed to be here by now. I gasp as the realization hits me: he probably saw me, thought I was a disgusting pig, then quickly left. Crap, I knew I should've—
"Hey, honeybun," says a voice behind me, and I'm instantly grinning. 'Honeybun' is what Joel has always called me. And I can't believe this! He's actually here! I take a deep breath and make sure that my smile isn't showing my big nasty gap.
I turn around slowly . . .
. . . And my smile disintegrates.
Instead of seeing Joel's bright white teeth and shaggy hair, I turn around to see the balding man and his yellowed grin.
He says to me: "You look even more beautiful in person!"
I feel like running into Dillard's to buy myself a belt. I'll hang myself from the highest rack of clothing.
I'm too in shock to move, though. Surely to God this can't be Joel!
This man is about six feet tall and he's wearing a long-sleeved red-and-black checkered shirt with khaki pants that have grass stains on the knees. Apparently he had a beard until very recently, too, because the skin along his jaw is much whiter than the rest of his face.
I look down at his gut, the swollen belly of a beer drinker, and I know that I make a face of disgust. I just can't help myself; it's so nasty, the way it sticks out like a big, round ball. He might as well be eight months pregnant.
The man's expression changes as something inside him seems to break. He stutters when he talks, "I-I know this isn't exactly w-what you were expecting, but I can explain. J-just please—" He reaches out to me. I scream, "Don't touch me!" as I take a step back.
The man immediately looks around and I do the same. People are staring at us, but after a few short seconds they lose interest and go about their business, probably thinking we're just a father and daughter quarreling. Typical teenage drama.
The man gives me that sad puppy dog look and says, all pleadingly, "It's me, honeybun—"
"Don't call me that!"
"Fine, Maggie," —Yeah, that's my name— "Can we please go somewhere else and talk? Somewhere a little less . . . congested?"
"I'm not going anywhere with you!"
"I'm not going to hurt you, okay? I promise."
"How do I know that?" I snap. "You . . . you child molester!"
The man's shoulders collapse; he looks down at the ground. "I knew this was a mistake," he mumbles, shaking his head. "I never should've come. I'm sorry."
Thoughts are racing through my head at a hundred miles per hour, my heartbeat keeping speed. Disgust, fear, disappointment . . . I don't know what to feel. Joel lied to me. For eight whole months he lied to me. And here I was thinking we had something beautiful, thinking we had such a connection . . .
As I watch the man walk away dejected, his shoulders slumped, I think of all the things I've shared with him— the secrets, the memories, the eight-hour conversations. Strangely, I feel a pang of regret as he disappears into the crowd. Whether I want to believe it or not, this is my boyfriend— my aging, balding, beer-drinking boyfriend. Even though a part of me wants to run away and call the cops, I just can't shake the feeling that I owe this man more than a quick rejection . . .
I mean, he was there for me every afternoon, every evening, every night. Whenever I had a bad day at school, whenever I was depressed, he was waiting online to cheer me up. He knows me better than anyone, and even though I obviously don't know him as well as I thought, I know he has a good heart, a good soul . . .
I manage to chase him down as he's walking through the food court. A bit out of breath, I put on my mean, bitchy face and say, "We'll go outside and talk— alright?"
The man's face lights up. I tell Joel(?) that there are a few benches outside by the cinema and that we can sit out there and talk with just the right amount of privacy.
We soon reach the double doors— my boyfriend and I— and he opens the door and says, "Ladies first." We walk past the couples lined up outside the cinema and stop near the end of the building where benches are lined beneath the posters of upcoming movies.
It's then that I wheel around on Joel and fiercely ask: "Why did you lie to me?"
He looks at me as if I'm dumb, and I guess I am because the answer is really rather obvious.
"Still, though," I say. "For eight whole months? You've should've told me! You should've been like 'Hey, honeybun, guess what? I'm not really nineteen, I'm—what?' How old are you really? Fifty-eight? Sixty-seven?"
"Fourty-four! That's like, thirty years older than me!"
"Shut up! It's the same thing!"
"Look, honeybun, I'm—"
"I told you not to call me that!"
He throws his hands up as if he's backing down from a fight. "Fine! I'm sorry! Just hear me out, alright? Can you really blame me for not telling you the truth? If I'd told you my real age, what would you have done? You would've blocked me off your buddy list, your e-mail, everything. I never would've talked to you again."
"You don't know that!" I say, crinkling my nose, even though I know he's right. Typical teenage rebellion. "You at least shouldn't have never let things get so serious! You made me think I was . . . in love with you!" My voice just cracked. God, I better not end up crying.
"What, you think I meant for this to happen? I'm a forty-four-year-old in love with a fifteen-year-old girl! You think I don't know how that sounds? I'm not some pedophile, okay? I date women my own age. But you . . ." He shakes his head and lowers his voice. "I don't know. You were just so fun to talk to. It's all I looked forward to every day. I knew it wasn't right and I tried to stop it, but I just . . . couldn't."
Tears are pouring down my face. I try to speak but my throat's too heavy.
Joel looks directly at me. "People can't help how they feel, Maggie. A heart has a mind of its own."
Too much is going on. I feel light-headed, so I sit down on the bench and bury my face in my hands. Joel's boots echo on the concrete. I feel him sit down beside me.
"But you lied to me," I moan. "About . . . everything."
"Only my age."
"— The pictures, too," I add, looking up at him. "Who was that, anyway?"
He hesitates and closes his yes. "My son."
"Your son? You have kids?"
"A kid. He's the one whose nineteen."
I try to run my hands through my hair, forgetting it's been petrified with hairspray. "I can't believe this! Your son is older than me!"
He tries to console me by putting his arm around me. I guess he feels me stiffen, though, so he removes his arm. "Look, Maggie, I really am sorry about all this, alright? I started not to even come today, but I knew I had to, even if it got me arrested."
"You're stupid then."
"Why? Because I love you? Because I'd do anything to be with you?"
"Because you're forty-four and I'm fifteen!"
"Shhh!" he says, putting a finger to his lips. He smiles nervously at an older couple as they pass. "Keep your voice down."
"Why? So you can molest me?"
Joel looks disgusted. "Why are you talking like that?"
"Because what you're doing is illegal, Joel! We can't be together! Don't you underst—"
"Who says we can't? That's what I don't understand! Who out there says we can't be together?"
"But why? You're not some little kid. You're fifteen years old! In a few more months you'll be driving. Hell, in some countries you're already considered an adult—"
"Not this one."
"— I mean, I could understand if you were nine years old or something, but you're mature enough to make your own decisions."
I suddenly think to look at his hand— at his finger, to be more precise.
"You ever been married?"
Joel waits a few seconds before responding. "Divorced."
I sigh and look away in the opposite direction, disgusted with myself that I actually felt a stab of disappointment. I can't believe I even care!
I watch the crowd outside the movie theater, which has thinned dramatically from what it was a few minutes ago. Only three couples now remain, and each of them are holding hands with their significant other. That's what I figured I'd be doing right now: holding hands with my boyfriend. But now here I am, with my boyfriend, and I'm sitting as far away from him on this bench as I possibly can.
Joel interrupts my thoughts. "I think we can still work this out. That is, if you want to, of course."
"Work what out?" I ask, not really listening. I'm still staring at the couples— and aw, how cute, one couple just kissed. I wonder what that's like, to kiss the person you love? Guess I'll never know.
"Us," Joel answers.
I give him the stink-eye. "Are you deaf? What I'd just say? We can't be together. It's— illegal."
"But we can, Maggs. We just gotta keep it a secret, like we have been. We'll continue to talk online. We can even hang out from time to time. We just won't be able to act romantic except in private."
I scrunch up my face. "What makes you think I'd want to anyway?"
Joel's expression changes from one of hope and eagerness to one of rejection. I start to say I'm sorry, but decide against it. Typical teenage outburst.
When he starts to talk again, all the energy has seeped from his voice. "I know I'm not exactly what you were expecting, and I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do about the way I look. But you always told me that you were glad we met online because it meant we fell in love not because of the way we look, but because of our personalities and our sense of humor and the stuff that really matters. Looks deteriorate over time, Maggie . . . I may not be as handsome as you thought I'd be, but I'm still the same person inside, the same person that you've been talking to for the past eight months—"
"Yeah, but you were supposed to be hot, too! Like the Joel in the pictures!"
"In twenty years, the Joel in the pictures will look exactly like me."
This makes me give Joel another glance, and as I look into his eyes, it's as I'm looking at the computer screen at home, at the same pictures I've been staring at for all these months. This Joel has the exact same eyes as that Joel— those brown-green eyes that so remind me of muddy grass.
"I know it might be weird," says Joel, "to think of dating someone as old as myself. But age is up here—" He points to his head, "— not on a birth certificate. When we first started talking, before you told me your age, I just assumed you were in your twenties. You're a very mature girl. You're older than your age."
You know, it's strange. Just a few minutes ago I hated this man. He'd lied to me. He made me feel uneasy. But already I'm starting to feel this strange comfort sitting beside him. People will probably think I'm stupid or strange or even gross, but I feel something for this man.
"So . . ." says Joel, ending the silence. "What's the plan? Should I just go home and forget we ever talked? Or are you willing to give this— give us— a chance?"
I look down at the pavement, sigh and shake my head. "I don't know. I'm so confused." And I mean it, too. A part of me's still kind of freaked out about his age, yet another part of me wants to like— I don't know— give him a hug or something.
"Should I leave?"
"No. We'll hang out until my mom gets here."
Joel asks me when that'll be. I give him a rough estimate.
"We've got an hour and a half," he says, looking at his watch. "You want to see a movie or something?"
"Nah, but how 'bout a game of checkers?" I smile, flicking his flannel shirt.
"Hey, it took me hours to pick this out!"
"Well that just makes it even sadder! And what's the deal with the albino chin?"
Joel rubs his jaw. "Yeah, I do think I made a mistake in shaving."
Joel glares at me playfully.
"Well, I'm sorry!" I laugh. "But it's weird-looking! Like you've got some kind of disease or something!"
"Gee, thanks." He continues rubbing his jaw. "You're right, though, I should've left it alone."
We go on to talk about various things. I ask about his son and he tells me a little bit about his construction company. We talk about how neither of us got any sleep last night because we were both so excited and nervous about meeting today. We talk about his habit of drinking beer and he defends it, saying he only drinks on the weekend and even then it's just a six-pack. I tell him how much I hate beer and he says he'll quit drinking just for me.
And as we talk and laugh and joke around, I find myself slowly scooting closer and closer to him on the bench, drawn in by his infectious laughter and his vibrant eyes. I've already decided I don't care about our age— not right now, at least. Unlike all the phony couples at school, Joel and I fell in love for all the right reasons. That's what I've always told myself, and it's still true, no matter how he looks or how old he is.
Joel tells me that he likes my hair and I can't help but smile. Then I think, oh, no, my gap! and I instantly shut my mouth.
Joel looks puzzled. "What was that?"
"What was what?"
He mimics my reaction.
"I don't know what you're talking about." Typical teenage cluelessness
"Oh, wait." A grin forms across his face. "I know."
"No you don't."
"Smile for me."
"Come on! Please?"
He keeps on until I give in with a sigh. "Alright, fine!" I say, closing my eyes as he sees my imperfection.
After a painfully long silence— which is probably just a couple seconds— I hear that deep, reassuring voice. "That's what you've been so self-conscious about? Your teeth are perfect, honeybun. They're just as beautiful as you."
I smile bigger. "You called me 'honeybun.'"
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"No, I like it," I say, giving him a smile— beautiful gap and all.
I'm all the way against him now, and I look around to see if anybody's watching. The crowd outside the cinema has resurfaced for an eight o'clock show time, but none of them are concerned with us. I can't believe we've been out here for thirty minutes. Time is flying.
I rest my head on Joel's checkered shoulder and it doesn't even feel a tiny bit awkward. I figure why ruin the moment and get all serious? I mean, we can wait until tomorrow to talk about the future and what we're gonna do from here. For now, I just want to enjoy being with my boyfriend.
I feel Joel kiss me on the top of my head. His warm breath whispers, "I love you, honeybun."
"I love you, too, teddy bear."
A few seconds later two women walk past us on their way to the cinema. I hear one say to the other: "Aw, how cute! Father and daughter bonding."
Joel and I can't help but laugh.