The night I met Joe was not the introduction to the world's most perfect romance, and anyone who knows us well knows that. There was a lot of Bad Timing through high school and definitely through college, but I think two things made it all end so well. One is that we stayed friends pretty much no matter what, because we genuinely liked each other. There's a lot of magic in meeting someone new and "falling in love"--those fantastic beginnings in relationships where everything is fresh and wonderful and exhilarating. What Joe and I had was friendship, and magical moments. And like any girl who got her happy ending, I've held on to all of them.
Senior year in high school was probably among the best in my life (though I admit I've had a lot of Good Years). I had finally overcome many of my issues with self-consciousness and uncertainty, and learned to--really--just be myself. I had realized that there are actually people out there who will like me for who I am, and constantly trying to be anything else just isn't worth it.
I had more friends this year than I'd ever had before, and probably have had since. They were good friends, too. There are two that are contained within every memory of that year, and they are Alice and Carolyn.
One cold night in November, Alice and Carolyn drove to my house and picked me up. Our plan was to go nowhere. No, we were't staying at my house. Absolutely not. We had access to a CAR! Instead, we were going to drive around town and enjoy the freedom of Driving Around Town. And hope to be seen by other people also Driving Around Town. Because if you're a senior in high school who doesn't drink much, doesn't try to get into bars, and stays away from illegal drugs, Driving Around Town is Awesome.
"Where should we go?" Alice asked, pulling out of my driveway into a dark and snowy night.
"Hmm, I don't know," said Carolyn. "Any ideas, Mary Pat?"
"You know what would be SO funny?" I asked, trying to sound like this was a complete whim and I had zero personal interest vested in the idea. "Driving by Joe Bielecki's house."
It should be said I hadn't talked to Joe in quite awhile. Periodically one of us might call the other for a, "Hey How Are You" but as for hanging out, it had been at least since summer. But Alice knew Joe well enough through her boyfriend Pat, and that meant Carolyn knew him, too.
And let's face it. They both knew I was secretly in love with Joe.
So after a little bit of straining our memories (or me pretending to), we found our way through the wintry streets of Western New York to Joe's neighborhood. Alice pulled through the turn with extreme care and caution, one of the few decent adolescent drivers ever, and as her headlights fell on the street where Joe lived, they also fell on a lone figure walking.
It was a blond teenaged boy wearing a Canisius High School varsity jacket (complete with white leather sleeves; eat your heart out).
"Is...is that Joe?" asked Alice.
"Why is he just walking down the street?" I wondered aloud.
"We're totally stopping, Mary Pat," Carolyn declared.
My heart started racing. It was pounding. It was November in Buffalo and my hands were sweating and I was pretty sure the walls of Alice's mom's car were closing in around me. Alice was pulling the car over to the sidewalk. Joe was walking away from us, so he didn't know we were there. (How did he not hear us? It was a suburban neighborhood on a silent winter night and no one else was around. I say he's LUCKY it was just a trio of girls.)
I quickly took stock of the situation. Alice and Carolyn were seated in the front. I was in the back. If Joe got into the car, he'd be in the back seat with me.
"Do I look okay?" I squeaked as Carolyn rolled down her window.
"You look fine," she said without turning around. "Beautiful."
"You're not looking!"
Alice faced me and made reassuring eye contact. "You look fine, MP."
By now, Joe was slowing his pace and turning around. I scooted over to the window and rolled down it down.
He squinted his eyes to see in our windows (which was stupid since I'm pretty sure I was hanging out of it from the waist up), and recognition dawned in his face.
"Al? MP?" he said uncertainly, and walked over to us. Yeah, I guess it wasn't nearly so casual as I'd hoped. He lived pretty out of the way and his street led to nothing but other streets within the subdivision so there was really no way we were just passing through.
"Hey!" I said with forced cheer. Sound Fun and Exciting, sound Fun and Exciting. "Wanna go for a ride?"
"Sure," he said, and actually climbed in. I slid back over behind Alice and made room for him. He brought with him the smell of outside, and the distinct Smell of Boy. The good kind.
As I've said before, we had no actual destination in mind and scrambled quickly to make it look like we were trying to figure one out just before we "happened" upon Joe. He suggested Friendly's Ice Cream, and off we went.
The waitress seated us in the back of the restaurant, probably because we were automatically deemed trouble-making teenagers (even though the trouble-making sort would probably be off binge drinking, doing illegal drugs, or trying to get into a bar, as far as I could figure). It was a four-seater booth, and Alice and Carolyn immediately and smirkily slid into one side of it together. My favorite part of it is that I had never once had to say, "Make sure I sit by Joe," or "Joe really gets my blood racing." They just knew, like good friends should.
I slid into the booth with what I hoped was the right amount of perk and confidence: a fun girl with personality. I immediately picked up my laminated menu, as though ordering was the only thing on my mind. Joe slid in next to me with the ease and grace of a teenaged boy a bit too large for the booth.
We ordered and passed the time playing Truth or Dare (very Disney Channel) and always choosing Truth since we weren't the sort of trouble-makers who'd cause a ruckus at Friendly's. I was conscious of every move Joe made. That he laughed at all my jokes, and seemed to look directly at me even when Alice and Carolyn were talking (and that's awkward when you're in the same side of the booth). Suddenly, he leaped out of the booth.
"I'm going to the bathroom," he said, and disappeared.
Alice and Carolyn exploded.
"He likes you," they said together. I felt my face grow hot and stretch into the kind of smile that hurts an makes you feel like should do nothing but try to stop smiling as soon as possible.
I barely had a chance to get involved in a serious questioning of, "Why do you think so?" "What did it mean when he...?" because suddenly, there was Joe, back at the booth. He was smiling.
He slid onto the bench we were sharing, his arm sliding across the back behind my neck. I felt my hair move against his sleeve. He leaned very close to me and looked quite boldly into my eyes with what I can only describe as a Twinkle. Across the table slid his other hand, placing in front of me a foil grape jelly packet. Smuckers brand.
"This," he whispered, "is for you."
I don't know if I've had a more charged moment in all my life. And I STILL have that exact same grape jelly in the bottom of a large pink box labeled: High School Stuff. And of course, I had no idea that an identical grape jelly was looming in my future, waiting for Good Timing.