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.