In romance novels, they call it meet-cute. If you’re not familiar with the term or even with romance novels for that matter, let me explain. Meet-cute is how our two protagonists, our star-crossed lovers if you will, first encounter the other. It might involve an embarrassing moment, or some great coincidence, or something like a setup or a blind date that goes horribly wrong and does not bode well for the future. See… it’s like there’s that day where everything changes, often in a funny way, and our two love interests begin their journey toward love.
You might look at how Marc Kelly and I met as a meet-cute experience. It went something like this:
Even though I’m a smart guy, at least I think so, I’ve never really had much in the way of education. High school diploma was about it. I always hated school and never did very well in it, which is why I currently wait tables at a little diner in the lower Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle. I’ve been at Becky’s Diner a few years now, since I managed to get my life back in order. And I have to admit I like it. Becky’s is the kind of place alcoholics end up at 5:00 a.m. for an eye-opener and, if their stomachs can handle it, maybe a couple of greasy fried eggs and some bacon. It’s the kind of joint that’s been in Queen Anne since the Depression and still looks like it—scuffed black-and-white tile floors, dark walls, red leatherette booths, and stools at the counter, many of them patched with duct tape. On the other side of the joint is a bar that’s even darker—the drinks are strong, and we get a lot of regulars. The pinball machine over there pretty much goes untouched. Same with the TV, which is always tuned to some twenty-four-hours news crap with the sound turned off. No one watches it. Everyone’s too busy nursing their drinks. Anyway, I wait tables in the diner part.
And I find myself digressing away from my meet-cute. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t really a meet-cute, but it makes for a good story. And that’s what romances are all about, right? Good stories? At least on paper….
Anyhoo, about two weeks ago, this one guy comes in about seven, seven thirty. That day there hasn’t been much of breakfast rush—we’re busier on the weekends—and I’m chilling behind the counter, checking Facebook on my phone. Marc, as I’d later find out his name, walks in, observes the Seat Yourself sign, and does just that—in the last booth at the rear. Right away, I see the guy is old school, as he spreads out an edition—paper, no less!—of the Seattle Times. He looks around expectantly.
I wipe my hands on my apron and approach, my order pad in hand.
I give him my trademark grin, the one I hope will coax big tips out of even the stingiest customers. “Hey there… mornin’! What are you in the mood for?”
He looks me up and down, a little smile twitching. I pick up on the gaydar, the attraction, and pause a little mentally because two things strike me almost simultaneously.
One: This guy is a good bit older than my twenty-three, maybe even by as much as fifteen or twenty years, but he’s a hottie. DILF! His salt-and-pepper hair is full, nicely cut, side part, with more salt than pepper. He sports—rocks—a little goatee that’s all salt. It perfectly frames cupid’s bow lips. How’s that for romance talk? But it’s his eyes that floor me—so dark the pupils just about get lost in them. They grip me. They hold me. They make me wanna quiver.
Two: There’s something about this dude that rings a bell. Not so much in the lust department, although that’s definitely there in spades, but in the area of “Have we met before?” Because, yeah, he looks familiar. I just couldn’t place him—at least not then.
We hold the look for a couple of seconds longer than the average waiter and customer would, and I can put my finger on this dance—it’s called flirting. Gives me the warm and fuzzies inside, except for that nagging feeling that I know him from somewhere.
And when you have a past like mine, you want to be careful with shit like that. Because I’ve not always been the best person, to say the least. Anyway, that’s something I’ve learned not to dwell on.
Can’t undo the past!
All that stuff took, like, thirty seconds to go down. The guy speaks. “I’ll have coffee and a cinnamon roll.”
I pull a pencil out from behind my ear. Not sure I’ll need it, but just in case. “We’re all out of cinnamon rolls,” I say.
He grins, flips a page in the Times. Doesn’t look up at me as he says, “Okay, then. I’ll have tea.” He flips another page. “And a cinnamon roll.”
I chuckle. “We’re all out of cinnamon rolls.”
He nods and looks like he’s taking what I just put down to heart. “Okay, uh, how about a glass of milk and… a cinnamon roll.”
I shake my head. “Dude, I just told you—we’re all out of cinnamon rolls. Sold out during the breakfast rush. But I’ll tell you a little trade secret.” I lean close to his ear and notice a very nice aroma coming off him—something tangy, piney, and manly. “The cinnamon rolls come from the QFC off Mercer. You can buy a four-pack for what you pay for one here.”
“Okay,” he says, looking into my eyes with those killer dark eyes. Those lashes! Man! “Just bring me a cinnamon roll.”
I shake my head and then tuck the pencil back behind my ear. I start to head away, saying over my shoulder as I go, “You let me know when you’re ready.”
I can’t decide if the guy is a cornball, a total asshole, or incredibly charming. He’s probably a little of all three. And I feel a little flutter in my heart that tells me our little meet-cute encounter, which I’ve come to learn he lifted from some old public television kid’s show, means he has his hooks in me.
And yet there’s that nagging feeling I’ve met him somewhere before… and a darkness hides behind the notion that contradicts the fluttery feeling I get when I look at this hunk. In fact, that nagging recognition makes me a little sick.
It’ll come to me. Or it won’t. And something inside, a self-protective part maybe, hopes for the latter. They say ignorance is bliss, right?
He calls after me, “You do poached eggs? Runny?”
I turn. “We do anything. Two?”
He holds up two fingers and nods. “With coffee, no toast, no potatoes, fruit on the side if you got it.”
I jot down the order. “No cinnamon roll?”
He just laughs and begins reading the paper.
When is a meet-cute not a meet-cute?
When you’ve met before.
And my gut drops a couple of inches as I remember where I met him before.
I don’t want to go there. That was a different time. A different me. And there was nothing cute about it.
But I remember this guy because I felt something for him then. And I feel something for him now.
And it could never work.
I watch from the corner of my eye as Cinnamon Roll, as I’ve dubbed him, downs his low-carb breakfast. How someone can eat poached eggs without any toast is beyond me, but it takes all kinds.
“You got a thing for him or what?” Matilda Blake, the other server on duty, whispers to me. She pauses just behind me with three plates balanced on two arms. I smell pancakes, bacon, and the sage aroma of sausage.
I turn a little to grin. “What?”
“Ah, don’t play innocent with me, Mister. I could see the lust in your eyes from fifty paces.”
I shrug. “Guilty. Maybe. A little.”
She laughs, and it’s a sound like a bell tinkling. Matilda doesn’t even reach five feet and probably doesn’t top ninety pounds, but she’s a workhorse like you wouldn’t believe. She has short, spiked blonde hair and numerous tattoos. On the weekends she plays in an all-girl metal band called Two Spirit. And in my head, I call her Tinker Bell, because that’s who she looks like to me. She takes off to serve her customers, but not without prompting me to “Go over and talk to him.”
I busy myself filling ketchup bottles and the salt and pepper shakers I’ve removed from empty tables, but I keep an eye on Cinnamon Roll. His food is gone and the newspaper’s been abandoned and he’s staring off into space. I shudder because I wonder if he’s recognized me and is thinking about our last encounter, a little over two years ago, at his place on Dexter Avenue.
But no, that couldn’t be possible, could it? I’m a different person now, inside and out. Back then I was twenty, twenty-five pounds lighter than my current one hundred and sixty-five. I had a septum piercing like Ferdinand the Bull. My hair, which is now cut high and tight and is reddish brown, was long back then, bleached blond, dirty, and tangled up in dreadlocks that reached down almost to my waist. My skin had, I’m sure, a pasty and unhealthy pallor.
That person doesn’t even exist anymore, and even though it’s only been two years, I look completely different today. He’s probably just thinking about his day or something.
I walk over to his table, a little nervous that he’d come to and look at me with an accusing glare. There’d be a scene. And maybe I’d end up getting fired or something. Thinking back to what I did to him, I deserve it.
But when I approach his table, all he does is smile. And that smile melts my heart. It did back then too. Just not enough to keep me from my desperate and dark ways.
“You need anything else?”
He looks down at his paper and back up at me. A blush rises to his cheeks, and I gotta say it—there’s nothing more adorable than this face staring up at me right now. He looks like he wants to say something, but all that comes out is “The check? I gotta get to work. If I don’t get out of here and on the bus, I’m going to be late.”
“Oh?” I cock my head. “What do you do?”
“You don’t want to know. Government contracts. Health care. Downtown. Websites, e-mail, so-called social media from a health-care perspective. Writing boring newsletters.” He laughs. “Not the astronaut I thought I’d be back in kindergarten.”
“Yeah. Well, I always dreamed I’d work in a diner. And look at me. Dreams do come true!” I tap my chest. “Living proof!” We stare at one another for a moment. My heart pounds for a variety of reasons, both sublime and shameful. “I’ll get your check.”
I turn and go to total up his modest bill. My hands are shaking just a tiny bit. There’s this dark shadow of shame hanging over me that I try my best to banish. I remind myself that shadows are made by light and that I should direct my thoughts toward the light, not the darkness.
I look over at him once more. He’s staring off into space again, and I take note of his clothes—the blue-and-white checked button-down shirt, the navy cardigan, the jeans with the rip in the knee of the left leg, the awesome wing tips, maroon and navy. He looks hipster professional. In the two years since I’ve seen him, he’s hardly changed a bit. A little grayer maybe, but essentially the same guy. I get a quick vision of a big black leather headboard, framed in dark wood. A box on the dresser containing valuables….
His name comes to me in full. Marc Kelly. Simple. Solid. Like him. A good guy who never deserved what I gave him.
I should leave him alone. I know I should. No good can come from this.
A little voice inside reminds me that I’m a changed person, one who loves himself, and I shouldn’t beat myself up anymore. I should forgive myself and believe that I’m deserving, especially now, of a man like this.
Still, it’s with a lot of qualms that I write, near the bottom of his $18.65 total, “Jimmy Kilpatrick (206) 555-9407.” I pause for just a moment, thinking I should tear this ticket up and write a new one.
No. I put one foot in front of the other, walk over to him, and set it down in front of him. “You can pay up front. Thanks for stopping by.”
I hurry away before he even has a chance to look down at the check or up at me. I head right through the kitchen and out the back door, where I stand outside by the dumpster in gray and drizzly February air and light up a smoke with shaking hands.
I think that I have to release my wishes, to let them float away on the gray plume I exhale. I need to have faith, I remind myself, that everything will unfold just the way it should.
Much later in the day, after my shift, I head over a few blocks to a Methodist church and enter through a side door. It’s a place I’ve become very familiar with over the past couple of years. Down a short flight of stairs, I’m in a big room with linoleum floors that are scuffed and never clean. Overhead fluorescents buzz and give the people gathered in the room a sickly yellow hue. There’s a big picture of Jesus on the wall opposite. He’s pulled his robe open to expose his heart, and I wonder, as I always do, if that hurts. Near the painting is a bulletin board filled with announcements about things like rummage sales, bingo, and people looking to unload unwanted cars, furniture, and roommates. There’s a minikitchen along one wall, but we never use it.
I join a group of men and women, ten or so in all, seated in a circle on folding chairs. There’s bad coffee and a box of doughnuts someone brought from Fred Meyer, standing open near the kitchen.
“Who wants to start?” Patrick, our de facto leader, looks around and asks. Patrick has always reminded me of the older African American Dr. Webber on Grey’s Anatomy.
I speak up, because I’m anxious and need to do something, else I’ll jump right out of my skin.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Jimmy, and I’m an addict.”