Wiping the counter with a stained, musty washcloth, she went about the work of a minimum-wage waitress at a diner, noting the time and trying beat exhaustion to make it another hour until closing. The other helping girls chat near the entrance, leaving Johanna without interruption; the way she preferred it – idle gossip was never her thing. Only a few sparse tables had any customers, regulars mostly, drinking too much coffee too late, and dining on bad food at a cheap price. Outside the restaurant the cool October air blanketed the patrons with the chill of autumn, and made the comfort of a warm booth more inviting than the stale coffee in the carafe on the table. It had not rained in about a week; unusual for a northwest city this time of year, but it was cold enough to wear a jacket which is what she saw first when he walked in.
Dylan stood tall and walked with quiet confidence, unwittingly catching the eyes of every waitress as he strode behind his dinner company to their seats. He wore the same carhart jacket her dad had, she noticed, and a beanie covering up what appeared to be slightly unkempt blonde hair. The hostess motioned to Catherine – her section – she glanced behind her in his direction, took a deep breathe when she noticed how handsome he was, and then walked over to get their order. “Hey! I haven’t seen you in a long time, Justin, how are you?” She hadn’t noticed this stranger’s company was an old friend from school. With a smile and a quick steal towards the other face at the table, she awaited an introduction.
“This is Dylan… Say hi to Johanna, we went to High School together.”
Blue eyes… She thought, That smile… Nearly losing all sense of herself, she fought off the urge to smile using all the teeth in her mouth, fearing he would think her too easy to give the attraction away that quick; she swiftly asked if they wanted fresh coffee and water, then scurried off before he noticed her blushing. From behind the bar, she turned back just long enough to notice him stealing a glance her way, quickening the heart of a young romantic hopeful, and so casually causing her mind to race, Oh god, do I have something in my teeth? No way he likes me, too…? Old coffee now down the sink, and hot coffee refilling the blue container, she reached for two water glasses, filled her hands with the drinks and two clean mugs, then balanced it all back to the waiting patrons.
“How have you been since school, how long has it been since we’ve seen each other? I live with Dylan now – just down the street.” Justin smiled as he motioned over to his wordless friend pouring hot coffee, smiling shyly.
“He doesn’t talk much, does he?” She teased, looking directly at him. “What’s it gonna be, Dylan?”
Quietly, he ordered a chicken fried steak, nearly at a whisper, then handed her the menu without making eye contact. She wondered to herself what was wrong with this guy but decided quickly that his mystery was worth discovering. Etching their orders into her black folder, she busied along and left them to chat alone.
Thinking to herself, there is something here – I can feel it, she began to dream up the way their romance would blossom, and how great a story it was of how they met. Shaking her head at the private thoughts of a silly dreamer, she put away the notions of love at first sight and came back to reality by the ding of a bell.
Their food waited in the window, she garnished, wiped, and then carried over the hot plates to an old friend and a new stranger, asked if they needed anything else, then decided it was time to start cleaning her section. She felt herself blush before walking from the table, recalling the daydream she just had of their blossoming love story, sure he could see it written all over her face. He had not seemed to notice, so she picked up a rag and began cleaning; the task not as dull as previous nights, this time she had eye candy, and decided to make it fun. Choosing the tables in direct visual to Dylan, she began to stick out her tongue playfully, grinning from ear to ear, until he noticed – arranging sugar packets, filling syrups – all the while playing a fool just to get the attention of a handsome guest at a table a few feet away. He held his coffee up as if to cheer her on, she smiled bigger knowing finally – the payoff! He’s smiling! She thought, unfailing to note the sparkle in his eyes and the way his smile seemed to ignite his face in a pure, radiant glow. I need to know more of him, thinking to herself, unsure if she could be brave enough to make a restaurant flirtation more than what it is meant.
That is all on the story itself for tonight. I am not even certain if I ought to post any of it anymore… Unsure if that matters from the point of making it mine, I mean, at this juncture. Intellectual property, I suppose, no big deal, right?
A lot of this journey, writing about this I mean, is cathartic. I am thoughtful about what I want to write, and have formed aspects of this tale in my mind, yet to be written, that are not at all drawn from real life, to color up the story, and to make it a bright example of what love can be when not tainted by bullshit and the politics of fading youth (that is to say, adulthood, and “experience” that teaches us love is not supposed to be this beautiful). What I love the most about the creative process, something like this – writing – is that it IS all mine. Not a single person can tell me what the coming words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters will involve. Yes, the content may be heavily familiar to some, at any given point, but there is nothing paint-by-numbers here. Archetypes exist, sure; the themes and plots – especially centered on love and the difficult heartbreak often associated with first love – are familiar to us all… BUT, this story, this love… It is mine alone. I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE THAT!
In all this time, and I speak in years here, I held onto something I felt was a truth I would never shake. That love is once. Not easy shallow love. Not replacement for-now love. But true love. It happens once. In a lifetime. That is what I believed.
Did I expect my marriages to fail? Do I expect all current, future loves to fail? Because, how can one believe in a once kind of love and then ever expect to make it with anyone other than that once person? Well, this is what I have learned in all this time, but I will explore this no further tonight… These rhetorical questions are simply few of the themes associated with what I am writing, and my deepest hope out of this is to find peace in the conclusions that will come.
Perhaps, I write because in doing so I resolve the conflicts I have battled internally for years – because God continues to put it on my heart to get this OUT of me and ONTO paper. May I show that I am capable enough to forgive. To forget… maybe.
Suppose I write to come around to the conclusion that there is just a once love, or, perhaps, I write to illustrate that there is not. More than these, however, to show whose love has driven me, from heaven, to love anyone on this earth at all. The most wonderful thing about this process is I just do not know yet – honestly – I have NO idea where my heart will go on this journey. All I know, right now, is that I have to write it, now is here – now is the time.
Countless nights ago, I was in a diner, and I saw a man just a few years older than me escort an old friend into the place I worked. Tonight, I am a single mother with two children living a thousand miles away from the place I grew up. The bridge between where I was then and where I am now is long, paved with broken dreams and beautiful treasures, and I long to be completed in a way unknown to me before now – when this journey is finally walked to its end. I have known many trials and triumphs along the way, loved some amazing people, and love one still today. God has blessed and taken away, walked with me and never let me lonely, and this story is ultimately a testament to that.
Though right now I focus on a tangible love, the first love I knew in my life, what will arch over each avenue of this is the greatest love of my life. The reason I write at all – for the gift God gave me is pure within my heart, and He is the reason I want to do this. To close the circle, and finally become what I was meant to be. I choose to start where I began – when my heart knew love like none I have known – and end where I am today, a better version of myself… Hopefully – I guess we’ll see when I am finished.