Tuesday, June 28, 2011


It was his eyes that I recognized. Small, black, and glinting like sun-struck obsidian. And I thought to myself then, My god, that's Joe.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

I was talking yesterday about the importance of taking chances, and of reaching out and talking to people when we'd like to know them. I learned that lesson well with Joe, the object of my biggest unrequited crush of my twenties. He worked at the library periodicals desk when I was in graduate school, twenty-five years ago. The texts I worked with all happened to be on microfilm—which, for you youngsters, was a method of delivering old books and documents on spools of film that had to be fed into large, noisy, lighted machines. I started noticing him on those long afternoons I spent across from his desk sitting at the massive microfilm screens, looking at eighteen-century texts about which no one gave a damn.

Joe was older than I by perhaps ten years. His build was slender—so thin than the sleeves of his shapeless sweaters hung in loose folds whenever he raised his arms. His face was narrow; his chin was sharp, yet round. His hair was a sometimes unwashed mass of dark curls.

It seemed as if he noticed me, too. He’d smile in my direction from time to time. His eyes, though, were so dark they seemed all pupil. It was sometimes difficult to tell where he was looking. I loved those obsidian eyes; my heart would leap every time they'd turn my way.

We spent a lot of time flirting without actually flirting, that summer. For three hours most afternoons I’d sit there in front of the whirring machine and jot down the occasional notes as I looked through two hundred year-old periodicals. Behind his desk he would position himself just in the spot where I could see him between my microfilm reader and the reader hulking beside me. I’d lean into that space, so he could see me.

Then we’d spend hours pretending we weren’t watching each other.

I grew to know how he smiled—first how his eyes would flatten and narrow, and then how one side of his mouth would rise higher than the other in a lopsided way. I grew accustomed to hearing his shy laugh when a coworker talked to him, and how he would lower his face as if trying to disown his amusement. And how I loved it when he would look in my direction to see if I was watching him.

I always was.

In all the long months of my research—research that probably wouldn’t have taken quite so long if I’d been able to pay attention to what I was doing—we never spoke. We exchanged smiles and lingering glances, but I never worked up enough nerve to approach him. I was stupid, and shy. I could slut around with anyone in the bathrooms at the top of the staircase nearby, but I couldn't bring himself to walk up to Joe and introduce myself to him. I couldn't initiate a casual conversation even about library business with him. I thought we'd have all the time in the world for that, at some unspecified point.

But I stopped seeing him on campus the following year. He was transferred to a different library building that I never visited. I always associated the thought of him with those long, idyllic afternoons in the periodicals section, where I enjoyed the air conditioning and his occasional smile, as I read through The Ladies Monthly Museum.

Then one evening, fifteen years later, I was eating dinner at a Red Robin when I recognized those eyes at a table parallel to mine. I know those eyes, I thought to myself. But I don’t recognize the man. No. Wait. I do. My god. That's Joe.

His hair was wild and still wavy—more salt than pepper. A long Jerry Garcia beard grew from his chin. I could still see the sharp bones on his forearms as he talked and gestured with his hands. He wasn’t unattractive. Just older. Different. And oh, my heart thumped with the old crush once again.

I didn’t stare, once I’d identified him. I just stored away the image so I could remember it later.

I wish there were an easy way to tell people I’ve never met that they made a difference in my life. I wish there were a way to tell total strangers that they've mattered. If I could have done it, I would have walked up to Joe in that restaurant and knelt down and said to him, “You don't know me, but I remember you when you were fifteen years younger. Nothing more than smiles and glances passed between us, but oh, how you impressed me then. . . .”

Yet I didn't.

A year and a half later—yes, this is one of those stories—Joe had passed away. He was young, not even in his early forties. In one of those strange life coincidences, the spouse had sung in a choir with Joe's younger brother, and had run across the obituary in the paper and commented on it.

I sat as if riveted to my chair that morning, at the breakfast table, remembering how I'd seen him at the Red Robin and wished I'd told him, though a total stranger, how much he'd mattered to me.

I wish I’d said those words aloud, even if it had cost me embarrassment.

I wish I’d had the nerve.

Too often I feel as if when it comes to life, we're all spendthrifts. We always assume there will be more of it at our ready disposal. We squander opportunities. I had let huge chunks slip between my fingers, even as I knew there weren't always second chances. I made a decision that morning to be mindful of how fast it all slips away, and how much life there is to live before we go.

I've tried to stick to that mindfulness, ever since.

I loved Joe for the way he looked at me across the library floor, and for how his crinkled eyes mingled intrigue with amusement. I loved Joe for the way he smiled at me. He made me feel good. It was a pleasure to the mind and senses to be in his presence.

I still wish I could tell him this simple message: Nothing more than smiles and glances passed between us. But oh, how he impressed me.


  1. You sure left me a good impression of him.

  2. I don't know anyone who lives without a single regret. I've gotten much better about seizing the moment, but it's not easy to unlearn the shy habits of my youth. The fact that you have those moments as well, and that you write about them, makes me luv you even more.

  3. Richard,

    I can't say I've outgrown these moments, but I try to recognize and overcome them when I think it's worth it. And I think it's worth it most of the time.

  4. I spoke some ten years ago, in a situation that was uncomfortable to me, to an unknown man. A little different sort of thing than you've been posting, but maybe not.

    I was in the locker room which has a hot tub in it, and most every one wears no swim suit in it -- it is right next to the open showers.

    I watched an interaction by a very attractive mid-thirties guy and his son, who was about seven. Neither one had a suit on. They were engaged in a remarkably animated dialog. I was very impressed by the spontaneity and equality of their interaction.

    A little later, the man and I were both in the shower, and the son was somewhere else. I went up to the man and said, " I never saw my father naked, and I never saw my father shave, and I never heard my father tell me he loved me. Your son has so much more from you as a father than I ever did, and I want you to know that I think the two of you are very very fortunate. It is a joy to watch the two of you together!"

    Well, he said nothing in response and looked just stunned. I was afraid I had made an egregious misstep.

    Later, I was at my locker in the process of getting dressed. The man, hair still wet, but dressed, has gone up and down the rabbit-warren of a locker room in order to find me. He holds out his hand, and as we shake hands he looks me in the eye, says, "Thank you."

    I say, "You are welcome."

  5. Wharton,

    That's one of the most beautiful stories I've heard. Thank you.

  6. What a sweet but thought provoking story about Joe. I think you made all of us a little sad that we never met him.

    And Wharton, I agree, that is a wonderful beautiful story. I think we should all be brave enough to praise the good and beautiful when we see it, especially when it is beauty of character.

    I my memory, the closest thing to a “Joe experience” happened in a Seoul subway car. I saw a Korean man and everything about him made me desperately want to know who he was...he just had something lovely and positive about him. A healthy intelligence glowed in his eyes and face. But with the probability of a language barrier and my shyness, I didn't do anything but watch him and then watch him exit the car. I knew I would never know who he was or what made him so uniquely special. I guess I should have at least offered him my business card.

  7. Rob my dera friend,
    That post just got me so emotional, my heart was at the top of my throat. I had some friends that i lost over the years and i didn't said anything to them, how i felt and i lost all contacts with them. Now i only have a couple of friend and i don't see them often, especially during the summer because during the week, we work and on week-end, they are at their camping and i don't want to disturb them cause they are some friends over there. sometimes i told them how i feel but that's it. In here, i found two friends that i never met but it is very gratifying to talk to them from time to time. I want to thank you and Ace to be those person.


  8. I know it is a day late, but I wanted to tell you I'm sorry for this experience. I know you've had other experiences with death, and it is never fun. I have had my own, but I think it is too recent and too painful to talk about right now. Maybe I will tell you some day.


  9. That you are now mindful is the important part. I try to be that way, myself. It can be difficult because it might "cost me embarrassment". That cost can be daunting to face going in, and so often non-existent afterward. Vulnerability, openness and candor are not common traits or skills we humans seem to have. But are ones that bring us so much joy in our lives when embraced.
    We may not have exchanged more than written words, but you have truly impressed me.