I stared at the bulletin board outside the mail room, heart racing. A flush picked its way across my skin. I peeked down at the letter, its familiar script pulsing with possibility in my palm.
Students jockeyed around me.
He really had written.
The words Student Government Association sorted themselves out on a poster in front of me. Anyone wishing to run for office could pick up an application in the Student Center. Maybe I should grab a form. After all, I’d run on a whim for vice president of my New Smyrna Beach High School class and won. Why not try for freshman senator? I blinked and melded into the humanity eddying past the bookstore into sunshine.
A sharp corner of the envelope poked me in the ribs. Every time I thought I had broken free from the boy back home, something would jab me back to the truth.
I bee-lined toward Allen Spivey Hall and my room. I needed to concentrate on life in Lakeland, not leftover high school longing. I planned my shoestring campaign in my head as I jogged up the dorm stairs.
A week and a package of construction paper later, I passed out my grade-school art in the freshman dorms—a micro campaign that felt painless after the five-minute speech I’d weathered in high school.
And that’s how I fell into freshman senator at Florida Southern College in the fall of 1976. If politics were this easy, maybe I should reconsider which side of the journalistic table I wanted to sit on.
A few days after the election, The Southern photographer positioned frosh president Dale “Hubs” Hightower between me and Diane Lacey, freshman student union rep—and the girl I competed against for stories in the paper.
Hubs needled me through the twenty minute photo session with friendly insults he passed out like butterscotch candies.
After the shoot, Diane rushed off, probably to out-write me on her next assignment.
I grabbed my physical science text that I hoped would penetrate my person via osmosis, notebook, and purse where I’d tossed them on the cement steps in front of Roux Library.
Hubs quirked his thick brows. “Hey, you want to go out?”
My eyes widened. Didn’t see that coming. I stared at him, trying to decide if this was a continuation of his comedy sketch.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.” He sounded confident I’d cave.
His banter had entertained me. My eyes scanned his handsome face, height. I thought about his sense of humor, making-life-happen personality. No carbonation shimmered inside, but after two years of mostly unrequited love, maybe this guy could make my life happen. “Okay, sure. I’ll go.”
“Friday night. I’ll be in touch.” He paced off in his long-legged gait.
If the letter had lassoed me back to New Smyrna Beach, Hubs Hightower planted me here at Florida Southern College—at least until Friday night.
Hubs scored points for a real date—a campus concert—not hanging out at Kau Kau’s—FSC students’ favorite bar—where I always ended up eating peanuts and watching people get wasted. Mr. Luznar’s high school chemistry class had been more captivating.
On Friday, excitement danced through me as I walked beside Hubs to Branscomb Auditorium. My first date at college. Hubs’concoction of cocky, comedy, and I.Q. made me laugh.
Until it didn’t.
Midway through the concert, Hubs waved something at me.
I extracted a hand I’d been sitting on—okay so maybe I was a little standoffish; I had issues—and took the paper from him.
A dollar bill.
“What’s this for?”
Hubs shot me a grin. “I’ll give you a dollar to hold my hand.”
Indignation rose in my chest. As if hand-holding were up for hire! I passed his dollar back, folded my hands into my armpits, and returned my attention to Tom Chapin on the stage who only wanted to serenade me.
Right now, unrequited love sounded like the better option.
As music pooled around me in the dim light, I knew “unrequited” wasn’t exactly right. My mind scrolled back to a night on New Smyrna Beach when my hands had been jammed into my jeans pockets.
Jesse stood beside me at the edge of the Atlantic.
A wave arced toward my sneaker and I zigzagged away.
The words of our conversation tossed in the surf.
Water receded and moonlight bounced off the slick sand.
I followed him across the hard-packed beach of the carless traffic lane. In the distance, occasional headlights crawled down North Atlantic Avenue. We wandered to the dunes—overgrown pitchers’ mounds sporting Charlie Brown tufts of saw grass.
Jesse peered at the constellations in the quiet settling between us.
A breeze played with my hair, tickling my cheek as my chin tilted skyward.
Jesse hooked an arm around my shoulders and pointed. “There’s the North Star, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Scorpius, Leo, Virgo.” He traced each with his finger.
Frayed wires sputtered inside me, my mind on the weight of his arm, the clean smell of soap. Panic tumbled through me. Reason receded, sucked out to sea. My mind screamed that romance would wreck what we had. I’d already waded way past safe with Jesse.
Jesse’s hand cupped my shoulder. He stepped closer.
I slipped out from under his arm, slicing cool air and sand between us. Then I kept walking, not looking back, telling myself I needed to protect our friendship—knowing it was really me I fortressed.
Thirty minutes later a tight-lipped Jesse found me and took me home—the quietest car ride we’d ever shared.
Amazing that he’d hung on after that. But I had the letter tucked carefully into the pages of my journal as proof.
And it wasn’t the first time he’d dusted himself off and come back for more. I paged back to the July between our junior and senior years. Jesse stole a kiss on the steps of the summer-empty Faulkner Street Elementary. I would have ducked if I’d seen it coming. I didn’t run that time. Not physically, just slammed down the storm shutters around my heart.
No one would ever mow down my heart and spew the cuttings across Florida again. I hadn’t had a choice about Dad. But now I did.
Jesse and I managed to dart backwards, date others, and dodge any discussion of what had gone down. A bedraggled daisy chain of classroom conversations, phone calls, walks, and now letters, linked us. And beneath the flimsy flowers, some cosmic super glue cemented me to Jesse.
I glanced at Hubs in the half-light. It wasn’t his fault he’d plowed into my hang-ups. A bright guy who’d become a lawyer someday—he’d probably already assumed as much. While we’d spar through a year of SGA meetings, he’d never suggest so much as a trip to Kau Kau’s.
The music faded. Applause swelled, then ebbed. The lights came up—illuminating a solitary, colorless life laid out for me—strewn with Jesse and Hubs and all the crushes that would crash and crumble on the jagged edge of my issues.
I didn’t know God played rescuer—that He’d save me from myself. I didn’t know He routed romance. That He’d guide the right guy, sure-footed, through the minefield of me. And through that guy, He’d splash a kaleidoscope of healing across the canvas of my life. I didn’t—not really—know God.
[Note: In an effort to spare Jesse my—perhaps warped—version of kissing and telling, I gave him a pseudonym. Since Hubs is a lawyer, maybe I should have dished him one as well—but I’m counting on a little bit of leftover crazy after law school and a lifetime of litigation.]