By Susanne Carlile
I could not decide what to wear to work. As an image-conscious seventeen-year-old, I felt like I needed to look a certain way at all times, but today I wasn’t sure what way. I eventually decided that I needed to look the most like myself, so I settled on “alternative”—this was in the mid-1990s when grunge rock was all the rage. So I wore a flannel shirt, some chunky loafers, and my hip black glasses. In reality, the outfit was probably a nightmare, a huge Fashion Don’t. I know it was.
The reason for my preoccupation that day was that I was training the boy who was replacing me in my summer job at the video store. The next week, I was returning to boarding school for my senior year, so this was the first day of my last week at work. My boss had told me the day before that the son of her neighbor, named Jeremy, would be taking my place.
I had never met Jeremy, but I knew of him. He went to church with my friend Amanda, who was always swooning about any one of the members of his group of friends. He played for his high school basketball team, and I knew he was starting college in the fall, so right there I was magnificently intimidated: a jock and a college boy.
A little bit about me at age seventeen: totally inhibited and shy. I mean, painfully, paralyzingly, poignantly shy, to the point that I didn’t even want to speak in front of strangers. Ever.
So training a popular, potentially cute college boy was almost too much.
I have only a couple of vague memories of how the day went. My clearest memory is of Jeremy walking into the store. The entire storefront was glass, and the mid-morning sun was bright and blinding. He walks in the door, this tall, broad-shouldered boy, and all I remember is his shadowy figure sauntering confidently toward me.
God, I was so nervous. I felt like the biggest moron all day long. I hardly remember anything, except teaching him the procedure for trading out the empty movie box for the video. In fact, I remember very little about that entire week of working with him, except for one thing. After a couple of shifts together, Jeremy started flirting with me.
Every day, he would say either “So when are we going out?” or “So when are you going to give me your number?” I would just laugh, even though I had a total crush on him. He had such a fun way about him, and he made me laugh a lot. Plus, he was massively tall and had that basketball player build. I was a goner.
I remember telling my friend Stephanie about him and the flirting. I had this plan—I always made up plans involving boys—that one night when he was scheduled to close the store, I would leave my phone number and a cute little note taped to the breaker box in the back of the store, so that he’d find it when he turned out the lights before locking up.
Remember how I mentioned I was shy? Well, I was so shy that I not only couldn’t bring myself to leave my number, but I couldn’t even fathom why he was flirting with me in the first place. I honestly thought he was just kidding, trying to embarrass me. I was terrified that if I left my number, he wouldn’t call. Or he would think I was super pathetic for taking his “jokes” seriously. I told myself it wouldn’t do any good, leaving my number, because in a matter of weeks I’d be away at school anyway.
Thinking back on it, I still become giddy. I can’t believe I doubted his sincerity, and part of me wishes I had responded to his “hints.” Can you imagine being eighteen and having a girl laugh in your face? Over and over again? And continuing to come back for more? What was I thinking?
Anyway, I never left my number for him, and we never went out. I went away to school, and my friend Stephanie promptly began dating Jeremy. I didn’t let it bother me, since I lived out of town most of the time. When I’d come home on weekends, Stephanie, Jeremy, and I would get together sometimes for dinner or a movie. I vividly remember one night when we all went back to my house to watch The Usual Suspects. Jeremy and Stephanie were all laid out on my sofa, cuddling and whispering and making out during the movie. I fell asleep. I have still never seen that whole movie (to this day, he denies dating Stephanie. I have no idea why.).
After a few weeks, Stephanie told me that Jeremy wasn’t calling her anymore, and eventually she found out that he had gotten back together with an old girlfriend. I was secretly very pleased about this.
And that was the last I heard about him for that whole year and half of the next. I graduated from high school, got a serious boyfriend, and went away to college. After my first semester, I decided to transfer back to my hometown university. I told people it was because I hated the school, but really it was because I wanted to be closer to the boyfriend.
That relationship was less than perfect—far less. I don’t know why I stayed in it as long as I did. I walked around in a fog for almost two years. But because of that relationship, I found myself back home, and one day walking to class I saw Jeremy.
He was with a girl—cute enough, kind of uptight-looking, with curly dark hair. I was walking toward them, but getting closer I got a vibe from him that I was not welcome to say hello. So I didn’t. I just smiled a little smile and kept walking.
Months later, I saw him again—this time, my boyfriend and I had gone to a Renaissance Festival a few hours out of town. Jeremy was there with the same girl. We were all purchasing our tickets at the same time. Again, we didn’t speak.
Months later, maybe even a year or more, we had a class together. Creative writing. As I remember, he was already seated when I got to class. I sat down next to him, and it was like the previous two years or so of hardly seeing or speaking to each other had been only two weeks. We picked up right where we left off… minus the flirting.
As I mentioned, we were in a creative writing class, and everyone in the class had a pet subject they always seemed to write about. Mine was my deteriorating relationship with my mother. One girl wrote about her son a lot. One guy wrote about sports. Jeremy wrote about his recent breakup with Curly Girl.
The breakup seemed pretty fresh in his mind. He wrote about it, and in the brief chats we’d have before and after class, he talked about it sometimes, too. They had been engaged and were planning a wedding. He even told me about the nacho bar he insisted on having at the reception, which I found pretty cute. Jeremy loves nachos.
Curly had a young daughter whom Jeremy adored—he still carried her picture in his wallet. He was pretty affected by the whole thing, so needless to say, he wasn’t flirting with me anymore.
So we became really good friends. We eventually began working together again at our college publications, where the employees were very tightly knit and sociable. We both hung out at one particular coffee shop in town. We found ourselves in the same circles all the time. But the flirting was long gone.
This friendship lasted throughout the remainder of our college and grad school years. We were incredibly in sync. One strong bond we shared was a deep love for the band Alkaline Trio—Jeremy and I traveled all over to see them play. We always found ourselves in the same places at the same time, especially that coffee shop. We would spend hours sitting there, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes (these were the days before we cared about our health and before the No Smoking ordinances!), talking about Big Issues or playing movie trivia games or having inane conversations.
There was a brief time in there when the flirtation, or something like it, resumed. I had just finished my undergraduate studies and moved into my first apartment on my own. Jeremy would come over almost every day. He was in summer school, and he would bring his homework and just hang out. I’d make dinner. We’d watch reruns of Mad About You. It was like we were married, without all the private details.
One night I got up the courage to ask him out. He turned me down. I was mortified.
Except for an awkward hiding-under-a-rock phase after this incident, we remained friends. But I was still interested in him “that way.” Every time he got a new girlfriend, I would watch him with her, analyzing and critiquing her down to the last detail, trying to find all the points where she was wrong for Jeremy. I could always find lots of points.
I also kept my eye on his female friends, and I could smell it from afar when one of them got interested in him. I vented to my friends that he was a blind jackass if he didn’t see how right we were for each other.
So many clues told me we were right for each other, not the least of which was the fact that we were an unstoppable force when playing the game Taboo. You have these cards that list your key word at the top and five or so banned words below it. You have to describe the keyword and get your partner to say it, but you’re not allowed to use the banned words in your description. We were renegades in that game—no one has ever beaten us. We’re so good at it that we don’t play it anymore, because it’s kind of unfair to the other teams.
Our advantage in Taboo is the fact that we are completely in sync. It’s kind of uncanny. Seriously, it’s like we can read each other’s minds. It has always been that way.
So we stayed good friends, he dated what felt like 1,000 girls, and I waited. I didn’t realize I was waiting. But I was waiting.
One particular relationship of his got fairly serious, and it was with a girl who was all wrong for him. She was too young, too dumb. She wore novelty tees. She couldn’t even get into bars legally, and yet here Jeremy was living with her. I was beginning to lose hope. And then she moved away.
I just knew it was my turn. Finally. It had to be, right?
He started dating someone else almost immediately, someone I approved of even less than the previous girl, which I didn’t even think possible. And at that point, I decided I was not holding out for Jeremy anymore.
So I stopped. For the first time in years, I was truly not interested in Jeremy romantically at all. I quit smoking. I began working out. I meditated. It was all about me.
A few weeks later I had to have emergency surgery. A couple of days after my surgery, a flower delivery came. Roses. I remember thinking as I opened the card, I hope these are from Jeremy. But they were from my dad.
That same day, Jeremy called. He said he had heard about my surgery and just wanted to make sure I was ok. Between my tender reaction to that phone call and my dashed hopes about the flowers, those were my last two Jeremy pangs.
Months went by. He kept dating that girl. I went about my business. Then one day in early spring, Jeremy and my best friend Summer were over at my apartment, and I had an anxiety attack.
Feeling sick, I went into the bathroom, and I fainted. They heard me fall, but somehow I had locked the door, so they couldn’t get in. Jeremy had to break down the bathroom door. He helped me up. I was wobbly. He put his arm around me to help me walk.
I leaned into him, placed my hand on his chest, and said, “I’m afraid.” I remember feeling like I was melting into him, and for that brief second all my anxiety was gone and I felt so comfortable. That moment felt so incredibly intimate that I was shocked. I jerked my hand away quickly, embarrassed. We went to the hospital and everything was fine. My mother picked me up, and Jeremy and Summer went on their way.
Summer later told me that as Jeremy was driving her back to her own car, he was going on and on about how he thought they had done the right thing, how he was so glad they had been with me when it happened, how he hoped he hadn’t broken my bathroom door when he punched it in. She remarked that his concern was deep and palpable.
Five days after was my twenty-fourth birthday. It was a Friday, and I went over to Summer’s for a little birthday gathering before we all went out. Several friends, including Jeremy, were there, and they gave me their thrift-store birthday gifts. Summer gave me this incredible wood fish (I’m a Pisces) painted with an intricate, mystical-looking design. My sister gave me a little teal blue teacup and saucer with a fish design. Those were the inaugural pieces in my fish collection.
Jeremy had also gotten me a gift, and that was a first in our seven years of friendship. He gave me an engraved and painted clay plate that had a decidedly Grecian feel. There was a delicate border around the edge, encircling the image of a woman in silhouette, seated, playing a harp. Her head is bent slightly forward; her eyes are closed; her fingers are poised on the strings. I caught my breath when I pulled it out of the bag. The plate is beautiful. The woman is serene and connected.
I got the most unusual feeling from this gift. Had Summer or my sister given me the plate, I would have thought it was beautiful and I would have loved it, but it would not have had the same feeling that it had coming from Jeremy. I can’t explain it.
Around the same time, one day, I ran into Jeremy at the coffee shop. I plunked down next to him at the bar, and he pulled a CD from his bag with the words “Songs You Don’t Know” scribbled on the label in his handwriting. He said he remembered this one song I mentioned that I liked (a year and a half beforehand), so he burned it for me, along with some others that he thought I would like.
When he handed it to me, I had this flashback to a conversation we’d had with another friend a long time ago about what it means when you give a girl a “mix tape.” Jeremy and Heath, the other friend, maintained that making a mix tape for someone was a pretty big gesture of interest.
But I blew off the thought and just said, “How sweet! Thank you!”
When I slid the CD into my car’s player, the first song I heard was the one I already knew. I skipped it, and the second song was a new one. As soon as it began my heart started racing.
It was the song “66” by the Afghan Whigs, and from the first sassy, upbeat strum of the guitar I loved it. I can’t explain it—there are very few songs that have evoked such a visceral reaction out of me so immediately. But that song struck all my chords.
Then the singer’s breathy voice—“Yeah.” He sounded incredibly sexy, and all of a sudden the song began to take on meaning.
The lyrics of the first verse go like this:
You walked in
just like smoke
with a little come-on
in your walk
I’ve been waiting
Are you waiting
for my move?
Well, I’m making it.
My heart was ready to fly up my throat and out of my mouth. Within the space of like two seconds, all of these thoughts were flying in my head: Oh my God, surely he knows the lyrics to this song. Why would he put this song on my CD? I would never put a sexy song like this on a CD for a boy—he might think I wanted him. Did Jeremy think I would think that? Does he want me to think that? He has a girlfriend! Surely he isn’t trying to tell me something. What if he is trying to tell me something?
The rest of the song goes like this:
Talk to me
Baby, can you shake it?
If I can move it with you
will you let me take it?
I’ll be down on my knees
screaming Take me
I’ve never felt so
out of control
You don’t even know
what you’re doing to me
Come on and do it to me
Don’t you stop
Come on, come on
Come on little rabbit
Show me where you got it
Cause I know you gotta have it
I’m telling you, even right now as I’m listening to the song and writing this story, I’m going wild. It is such a flirty, sexy song—and on Jeremy’s part, it was a blatant statement, putting it on a “mix tape” for me.
But, being ever so cautious, I tried to disregard the whole thing. I mean, he was still dating that girl. I will admit this, though—the “mean girl” side of me found it delicious that he gave me that song while still seeing her.
The CD was full of songs with double entendres. Another song had this funny lyric:
You are my personal miracle
I fell for all your charms
I worship you like an eastern goddess
The one with all the arms
Again, I’m thinking, Seriously, did he really just give me a CD with these songs on it? Surely he listened to them before he burned them! I couldn’t fathom why he would put such tender and suggestive songs on a CD for me, of all people.
Soon after, Spring Break began. I moved into a new house with my sister, and then left town with her and my mother to attend my brother’s boot camp graduation. We were gone for almost a week. When I got home, I decided to go to the coffee shop to unwind a bit before unpacking. Jeremy was there.
He began giving me a hard time about not having asked him to help me move. I said that I’d had enough help, and people hate helping people move, so we hadn’t asked more people to help than we actually needed. Jeremy seemed genuinely insulted that I hadn’t asked him for help.
Let me just say, I had moved about six times in the previous three years, and he had never before worried about helping me. Something was weird.
A few days later, a group of us went to a movie. Jeremy and I sat next to each other. At one point, I dropped my water bottle, and it began rolling down the sloped floor of the theater. Jeremy dove down before I could even react and retrieved it for me.
He stopped letting his best friend ride shotgun when I was along for the ride. Suddenly the front seat was for me.
One night, we were all playing drinking games at another friend’s apartment. He sat next to me on the sofa, and as he settled into the seat, his thigh touched mine. He didn’t move it.
He began offering me whatever he was consuming—ice (he’s a big ice chomper), water, food, whatever.
All of this started happening within the space of a week after I returned from the boot camp graduation. It was overwhelming and disorienting—suddenly, Jeremy was this chivalrous, considerate guy. I knew something was going on, but I was not allowing myself to think about it. Even though it was all I could think about.
After a few days of this, Jeremy and I and some friends were at the coffee shop again, and I called Summer to ask if I could borrow her laptop for a project that was due soon, since mine was out of commission. Jeremy overheard the conversation and began silently and enthusiastically mouthing to me that I could come over to his house and use his computer that night.
So I agreed. And for some reason, he offered to pick me up before and drop me off after. Again I agreed.
He drove me to his house and showed me to the computer room. I remember the keyboard was so well used that the letters were rubbed off the keys. He left me alone to do my work.
After a little while, he came back and offered me some ice cream. I got up to go get it from him, and he said, “Stay here. I’ll get it.”
I did not know what to do with all this attention from Jeremy. It was surreal.
I didn’t finish my work until close to midnight. I found him on the sofa with two beers, and he said, “Come sit with me.”
I can’t even explain what I was feeling. I was overcome with something; my heart felt inflated. But at the same time I was holding back—I was afraid to really believe what seemed to be happening.
We sat on his sofa and talked and drank our beer. Then he drove me home, and he put in the Afghan Whigs album with “66” on it. I had never listened to their music before, and if “66” was a flirty, sexy song, some of the others were downright pornographic—and I don’t mean dirty lyrics. The music itself sounded like sex. It was overwhelming. He had it playing quietly in the background while we chatted about the end of the semester and our upcoming graduation. Somehow the conversation wandered to the subject of bars and how much we both disliked this one particular place more than any of the others.
So we pull up in my driveway and Jeremy says, “Since we both hate bars, want to have a drink with me tomorrow night?”
It was like I pressed pause in that moment and stepped outside myself. So many thoughts swirled in my head. It just so happened to be April Fool’s Day, and my first thought was, Is this his idea of a prank? Then I thought, Surely he wouldn’t do that to me. Then I thought, If I say yes, we’re going to get married one day.
So I said yes. That was six years ago. And we will soon be celebrating the sixth anniversary of that first date, which happens to be two days before our fourth wedding anniversary. I still keep a scrap from that ugly flannel shirt I wore the first day I met him. It reminds me.
The rest of the story doesn’t even matter. It was over almost before it began, and it was a very happy ending. We didn’t even have to fall in love, because we already were.