There is a friendly bookstore downtown that has the best collection of literature in the city. That, along with its patio café conveniently situated on the sidewalk, makes it my favorite.
A certain event I witnessed there, though, has also made it quite close to my heart.
I am forty-three years old with a wife of fifteen years and a young son—not someone whom most would see as particularly quixotic. Despite this fact, which I would assume to be generally known and agreed upon, I found my faith in the power of romance rekindled on an otherwise unassuming day at an otherwise innocuous bookstore café.
It was almost March, but it had been miserably cold for weeks. On this particular Saturday, however, it was above fifty degrees. That weather, which would normally be considered mild at best, might has well have been seventy for the city's winter-battered residents. Despite the unusual and welcomed warmth, though, the patio wasn't at all crowded.
The morning had been spent with Joshua, my six-year-old son, at the park near the store. He had wanted to come to the store, though, to see his godmother, who is the store's manager. I had obliged with little to no arm-twisting required, because there was a new psychology book that had been on my to-buy list for weeks.
Joshua had been invited into the back storeroom to help unpack newly arrived books, a task in which he found immense enjoyment. Caroline, his godmother, was always delighted to allow him to count off the number of copies. Counting to one hundred was a skill he had acquired earlier than most children, and it was an ability he showed off early and often.
Safe in my knowledge that my son would be well taken care of, I bought the book and took it out to one of the patio chairs. My chair was facing the only padded seat on the patio, usually reserved for parents reading to their children.
On that afternoon, though, the store was empty of parents and children, Joshua and myself excluded, and the chair had been occupied by a teenage girl who was taking advantage of the pleasant weather. She had thrown herself across the chair's arms, lounging comfortably, so I had to assume that she'd been there many times before. After a moment of observation, I realized that she was something of a regular. In fact, just the previous weekend, she had helped Joshua to find me when he'd gotten lost in the science fiction section. I recalled the curious inquisitiveness and brightness in her blue eyes.
As far as I could tell, she was fairly slender and reasonably tall. Her dark blonde hair, which was almost the same shade as my wife's when I first met her, had been pulled into two braids. The girl's clothing was simple and modest, albeit slightly tomboyish: black jeans that looked like they belonged to a teenage boy, a bright blue long-sleeved shirt, and the sort of beat-up black Chuck Taylor sneakers I had worn on my high school basketball team back in the day. Her foot was swinging in rhythm with the upbeat jazz playing on the café's speakers. She was mouthing along with the words silently, obviously well-acquainted with the selection.
I took a moment to be appreciative of her literary choice—it isn't every day one sees teenagers reading Pablo Neruda's poetry—before refocusing my attention on my own book.
After about fifteen minutes, a rather exasperating buzzing sound erupted from somewhere in my vicinity. Its cause wasn't difficult to pinpoint—the girl had jumped in her seat quite without warning, immediately plunging her hand into the pocket of the somewhat baggy jeans and pulling out a cell phone.
"Hello?" she answered quietly, of which I was appreciative. The café's patio might not have been at all crowded, but it's only common courtesy to lower one's voice in a place with a certain number of books nearby. After a few moments, she repeated her greeting disinterestedly, drawing the word out as one is prone to do upon receiving silence on the other end. "…Hell-oo?"
From my right came the sound of a shoe scuffing against concrete; the girl ignored it, but I sought out the source of the noise. Standing half-concealed by behind a nearby column was a teenage boy who was looking directly at the teenage girl with a strange expression on his face.
Him I recognized immediately; he had short brown hair and surprisingly light green eyes that reminded me very strongly of myself in high school—I wondered if he was of Slavic descent like I am—but I had to admit that this young man was more handsome than I ever was. He was taller than I had been as well; I was putting him somewhere around six-foot. The boy was always hanging around the store as well.
The strangely bright-colored eyes met mine when I cast him a faintly disapproving gaze. He mouthed an apology, but he didn't say it aloud because he was on the phone. Instantly, I had my suspicions. It was a simple equation: a teenage girl receiving a call where the caller said nothing and a teenage boy twenty feet from the girl not saying anything into his own cell phone.
After a few moments, in which I could tell from the exasperated tilt of her head that the girl was planning on hanging up, the boy said, "I see you…right now." He had lowered his voice, which I had heard before to be a warm tenor, into a menacing, gravelly growl.
Slightly taken aback, I glanced at the girl without lifting my head. She was unimpressed. "Yeah, yeah, I'm sure. You've attempted this before; I'm not going to make myself look like an idiot by craning around in search of my moron of a best friend who says he's within eyeshot when I know he's in Washington." She had a wry drawl, accentuated with a roll of her eyes. Despite the dry sarcasm in her voice, though, her demeanor had brightened considerably.
Obviously, the two knew each other quite well.
The boy didn't reply; he flipped his phone shut and commenced to creep forward. I had an idea of what he was going to do when he began to sneak around to the back of the patio. I heaved a sigh, preparing myself for a spectacular display in a few moments' time.
As I had guessed, the boy had managed to remain undetected by the girl, who had been unmoved by the sudden hang-up and had returned to her poetry. He silently tiptoed behind her, bending down slowly until his mouth was right next to her ear. For a long moment, he stayed in that close position as if waiting for her to notice him; then he sprung the trap. From ten feet away, I heard his declaration of, "I told you so!" which he let out without warning beside her ear.
Predictably, the girl let out a yelp, which she managed to muffle by clapping her hands over her mouth, and shot out of her seat. The boy was laughing hard by the time she turned around, her hands still pressed against her mouth as her chest heaved. Her eyes widened in shock, and she threw her arms around his neck in an ebullient hug; he looked momentarily stunned. She pulled back, smiling somewhat wryly, a faint blush tinting her pale cheeks. Then she smacked him on the arm.
"You suck." Her statement, which had accompanied the reproving whack, didn't seem to serve to make him feel particularly guilty. He continued laughing, seeming delighted in his stunt.
"You really suck," she muttered with more emphasis, twisting her mouth. She was trying not to laugh at herself, which wouldn't have been a problem had it been me who'd been alarmed in public. I would have been mad; she just seemed slightly embarrassed and very amused at her own jitteriness.
The girl let the boy keep laughing for a few more moments before clearing her throat. "So what are you doing here? Besides stalking me," she asked, fiddling with the poetry book, which she had picked up from the floor. The girl seemed considerably apologetic toward the slim volume for having dropped it on the ground in the midst of her shock at being snuck up on.
"Well, I went to your house first," the boy replied simply, leaning forward to pluck the Neruda collection out of her hand, frowning suspiciously at its cover.
She didn't bother to protest his stealing of her entertainment; her eyebrows pulled together slightly into a frown before she raised the right one into a slight arch. "Why?"
"Because you live there," he muttered distractedly as he looked over a random page's poem with a level of skepticism. "What the hell is this?"
"Captain Obvious called, he wants his cape back. Of course I live there—I should hope that you know that by now. And can't you tell? It's Pablo Neruda's 100 Love Sonnets," she replied easily, undeterred by his disjointed conversational jumps.
He returned the book to her hands, shrugging one shoulder. "Poetry…seems a little dubious."
"Maybe I feel that being a sappy, starry-eyed romantic wouldn't be so bad for once, eh?" The girl was grinning brightly, but the boy seemed incredulous. Just then, the girl seemed to realize that the boy had yet to answer her question. Waving her hands exasperatedly as if shooing a bug, she exclaimed, "Hey! That's way off point! What are you doing here? As in…in-state?"
I got the impression he had been waiting for her to ask that. "I'm home early, dear," he stated slowly, as if to a small child, patting her on the head.
The girl swatted his hand away, narrowing her eyes. "The pre-discussed superhero is becoming exasperated with your use of his power to point out the painfully apparent. Why are you here?" She was getting more curious with every passing second, which I could plainly see.
The boy seemed to enjoy her bewilderment. However, when she tilted her head to the side and looked up the several inches that made up their height difference into his eyes, his resolve crumbled in a manner blatantly obvious to me, an innocent bystander. "There was an earlier flight, and I managed to get transferred. I just wanted to…get home," he answered, sighing.
"But you were visiting family! And then you were going to come home and go to…wherever you were going to go…with Julie," the girl replied insistently.
"Julie and I broke up. Well, I broke up with Julie," he amended, shrugging awkwardly. I raised my eyebrows; the girl didn't get it, but the boy was clearly trying to tell her something.
"How come?" she pressed in a small, incredulous whisper. Her voice was buoyant, but it was suppressed in its optimism.
A small smile curved my lips when he took an almost imperceptibly small step closer to her. "Because," he replied quietly, sliding his hands into the oversized pockets of the large brown winter jacket he was wearing.
Either she didn't notice his step forward or she pretended not to. "Because why?"
"Because…of…you." He drew out each word, looking down diffidently as he spoke but lifting his celery-toned eyes up to meet her blue ones when he finished.
From where I was sitting, it was clear that her intake of breath was shaky. However, she wasn't letting him off so easily. "Why me? I know that she doesn't like me, but that doesn't—"
"You're my best friend…" I almost groaned when he trailed off after interrupting her persistent assertion; he kept losing his nerve.
She picked up his sentence as if it hadn't discontinued it. "She's your girlfriend, and her dislike of me doesn't mean that you have to break up with her."
"No," the boy said firmly, leaning down slightly. "No, see, she knew that I wouldn't choose her over you—I mean, she got that from the beginning. I broke up with her because of you." He raised his eyebrows, as if willing her to understand his meaning would make it happen.
The girl's mouth opened slightly, but then she shut it, frowning. I took a sip of coffee to hide my smile. Eventually, she managed to whisper, "Why?" The smothered hopefulness was back.
"Because…" I had thought he was chickening out once more, but then the boy stepped much more visibly closer to the girl, bending his head over hers slightly. "Because you're the one I couldn't keep out of my head the whole two weeks I was gone. You…you make me laugh. You don't get mad when I offend you, and you usually insult me right back. You play video games with me. You never giggle. You have these…these eyes that just see everything. You're terrible at keeping a straight face. You're jumpier than even the most skittish deer. And…and you're the only girl who never tried to be with me…because you never had to try."
By the time he finished, I was grinning broadly behind the paper cup, and the girl, whose eyes were glassy and bright, looked like she had just been given a basket of puppies.
A smidgeon of her resolve, which even I had been able to see was rather fervent, showed itself in a stubborn pressing of her lips. "But I thought—"
The boy looked skyward for a moment, laughing somewhat resignedly, before cutting her off mid-sentence with the kind of kiss that I thought only existed in films from the forties. A large gust of wind blew up with impeccable timing, and without much of a second thought apparent, the boy pulled the girl closer and wrapped her into his jacket.
When he finally pulled away from her, his hands were on her face, his thumbs gently caressing her cheekbones as if she were the most precious discovery in the world. Her face lit up radiantly in a disarmingly beaming smile.
"You suck," she whispered.
"I know," he replied, wrapping his arms around her possessively.
He couldn't see the way she bit her lower lip in an unsuccessful attempt to conceal the insanely wide smile that danced on her face.
She didn't see the look of disbelieving, pure tenderness that softened his handsome face when she tucked her face into his broad shoulder.
It restored my faith in even the most against-the-odds romances that there are.