Reflections on redheads and love letters

Deb refilling my coffee mug snaps me from my stupor. “You still wanna wait to order?” she asks, again. I look at my Tracfone. It’s 6:30 a.m. Tomi’s twenty minutes late, and jazz band starts in thirty. I look at the set of silverware across from me in this huge booth. The note’s still in my pocket. I close my eyes. “I’ll wait,” I say, again. Deb, the morning mother of the Eagle Café, leaves my booth to go serve the Round Table, which has been populated by retired farmers every morning since 1942. The youngest at that table is in his late-sixties.

I am a freshman in high school, and I am alone wearing my dad’s cologne on a cold Monday morning in May.

The note had been clear, as all of my eloquent notes were: “My love: Meet an hour b4 jazz tomarrow at the cafe < 3 Ben.” It took me until the end of eighth period to summon up enough courage to scribble the note on the back of a math worksheet, minutes before the final bell rang. She had to have received the note because, per usual, I hand delivered it. I ran it down the senior hallway before the brouhaha and slipped it into locker #262, a.k.a. the locker that school spirit threw up on. Tomi was involved in everything; Tomi was basically everything. Communicating with her only occurred through notes and band practices.

I should have known that could never be enough.

I sat right next to her both during jazz and concert band. She was first chair; I was second. I used to not care for band, the saxophone, or writing in general. Then my hormones met Tomi. If God smiled down upon me, I’d get one-on-one time with her during rehearsal. God didn’t smile often, I guess. Most days she’d text on her Razr all practice and not give me a word. Other days she’d talk to Gretchen from the flute section about her latest boy drama. I’d insert myself as much as I suavely could into these conversations, but Tomi was elusive until she’d decide otherwise. When she decided otherwise, though, she was there.

I should have known that she was too much.

She’d turn to me and put her hand on my sweatpants-ed knee. While Mr. Romaine helped the trumpets tune in the back, she’d leaned in and whisper, “Hey, big guy.” Her long red hair smelled like my mom’s Pantene shampoo. I’d whisper back, “Hey. How’re—” Her hand would dance up my left leg slowly. “—You.” “Fine,” she’d murmur. I felt a single bead of sweat slide down my side. Oh God, I’d think to myself, did I put on my Old Spice this morning? I didn’t. I didn’t. Oh my God. “Oh, Ben,” she’d say a little louder, “Your face is getting red.” My face shone like a stop sign and felt dewy. I needed to save face. “Red like your crotch?” I’d respond. For being the most gorgeous ginger in the world, she had an unbecoming snort-laugh. “Remind me when we’re getting married?” she’d ask after her chortle died down, her hand swirling around on my flexed thigh. “As soon as your daddy lets me,” I’d say. “What Daddy doesn’t know…” she’d start, before her phone would buzz on the music stand. She’d draw her hand away. She wouldn’t notice me slip away to the bathroom. Once in the stall, I’d stuff toilet paper under my armpits to keep from completely pitting through my T-shirt.

Since my body would betray me, I depended on my notes to woo. Notes ranged from scribbles to essays to word searches. I had no shame nor a clue what conciseness meant, so I wrote and wrote and flooded Tomi with me. That’s how I first got her to agree to a marriage proposal. We were in Barnesville’s Tastee Freeze, where she worked. School hadn’t yet started. I wrote a note on a napkin. Business was slow, and she didn’t have cell phone reception. I captivated her. She asked me to ask her to marry her. I said I’d say I would.

“I think I’m okay,” I say to Deb as she glides in for another refill. “Should I go get your tab?” she asks. “Well … maybe one more cup,” I say. She doesn’t know that jazz band starts in five minutes or that I’m going to be late because my date never showed up or actually read any of my notes except that first napkin. Deb doesn’t know that I’ll have to walk seven blocks to school because Tomi was to provide the ride after Mom dropped me off on her way to work. I wish I’d brought gloves. I dig into my pocket and feel the note. The note I spent two hours on last night. The note that asked Tomi to marry me, or maybe just go out on a date with me. With her graduation around the corner, I told her that it was probably now or never, and that it was a no-brainer. She laughed so much at band when she talked to me. We would laugh so much together.

I look at the silverware set still in front of me. I take the napkin and write, “Have a great summer Tomi” and put it in my pocket for later.

I should have known we were never meant to be, but I guess sometimes lessons are learned though breakfast dates for one.

“Hey Deb, could you put in an order of pancakes already?” I say, crumpling up the other note and tossing it in the trash. “I’m famished.”


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