Photo by Eli DeFaria

I marched, oblivious, through my first date with Jim as though it were no big deal—gritting my Florida-grown teeth against the frigid February First Ohio night. My fists jammed into the pockets of my coat. I trudged the ribbon of shoveled cement, snow glittering at the edges, toward my dorm.

I peeked at Jim, tall—I’ve always liked tall—sharp-elbow thin, and hat-less. “You make nine degrees look like a minor inconvenience.”

His chuckle whited the air and dissipated. “Thanks to all those Pennsylvania mornings when my hair froze on the way to school.”

I eyed him, marking off another who-knew? like discovering Christmas card snow turned your fingers to stiff, white corpses.

Beneath our conversation, Jim worried about whether he’d somehow blown it. Was I having a good time? Was there any hope of snagging my interest? Regardless, he had to give it his best shot. He sucked in a breath for courage. “Hey, I heard about a new coffeehouse in Mansfield, The Yellow Deli. They have live music on weekends. Do you want to check it out on Friday?”

A voice in my head said, that sounds like a real date, but he hadn’t tried to touch me tonight, and though he didn’t talk about her, I’d seen his girlfriend. It would be another friends-hanging-out thing like tonight.

Jim when I fell in love with him

Really? said the voice in my head.

I ignored it. “You bet! That sounds like fun.”

The wind pistol-whipped my cheeks and I yanked my hood tighter, waved good-bye to Jim and darted through the glass doors into Amstutz Hall. Heat, light, nirvana.

I jogged up nine flights of stairs—because I disliked elevators and liked exercise—thinking, not about Jim, but about the guy I’d go out with the following night.

Jim walked to his car, hands buried in his coat pockets, whistling, thanking God I’d agreed to a second date.

The me I wore on the outside was a carefree coed, committed to the God I’d spent my later teens looking for. Content, happy, fun to be around my friends told me. I’d done what I could to dispose of my childhood—scribbling my broken heart and bitterness toward Dad onto a steno pad during my sophomore year at Southern. I balled it up, banked it into the trash basket, and labeled myself all-better. But my internal landscape remained a dystopian wasteland. More than anything I wanted to fall in love, but the deep-down me was stuck in survival mode, self-protection my gut response to any guy.

A picture Jim took of me when we started dating

On Wednesday during Alpha Theta I bottled up bad news from home, waiting to process alone. After our usual trek across campus to my dorm, instead of leaving, Jim followed me inside and plunked down on an orange vinyl chair in the lobby.

I slipped off my gloves. I could work through the family drama later.

Jim centered his blue denim gaze on me. “Tell me about your family.”

My eyes widened. The guy had read my mail.

Every last detail of the hot water my brother had landed in spilled out.

Jim soothed my pain with comfort and compassion and forty-five minutes later I felt… better.

Jim stood, shrugged into his coat. He smiled at me, the kind of smile that made me hope he’d read my mail again—soon. Because I’m a sucker for brainy guys, natural leaders, ones with integrity; because his timing was perfect; because my subconscious sensed I’d be safe with Jim—my heart slipped open. Silent. Cataclysmic.

Other than Dad, I’d only bonded on this level with a boy from high school, one who’s bigger-than-life personality and the hot and cold gusts of our relationship, terrified me. I’d dodged nearly all of his romantic advances. My heart hadn’t felt safe.

Even without Jim touching me, he crowded my heart. And it scared me. But he’d already read my mail, and there was no undoing that. So, on Friday I climbed into his car as he held the door for me.

It felt like a date. Excitement knotted in my stomach. I’d just go with it, analyze later.

We sat across from each other in the glow of the restaurant lighting. The clink of dishes and murmur of voices floated around us.

Jim said he and his girlfriend had broken up over the holidays.

I blinked, a geyser of joy springing up in my chest.

Photo by Austin Ban

The conversation moved to the brand new church he hoped to plant someday, a dream of teaching college when he was old. I told him how much his emotional support on Wednesday night had helped. I wanted to have a family full of kids, write fiction. And, under our words ran the bright ribbon of the brand new “us” we were beginning.

We listened to a guy play guitar and sing God songs in the center of the room, then wandered through the gift shop, neither of us in a hurry to leave.

Jim didn’t try to hold my hand. Despite the ten-degree temperature I smashed up against the passenger door in his heater-less 1974 Dodge Dart. But I couldn’t deny that I felt completely different about him than I had a week earlier.

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into my dorm parking lot. I didn’t want the evening to end. “Why don’t you come up?”

We sat in straight-backed desk chairs in my room, a stubby college-issue dresser between us.

Jim’s gaze centered on me. “Would you like to pray together?”

Praying had been the favorite part of my last relationship, something I’d mentioned at The Yellow Deli. Though praying would become foundational in our relationship, it didn’t crest my list of fun things I’d do with Jim. That night, however, prayer became a benediction on what was happening between us.

Jim leaned forward and closed his fingers around my hands.

Warmth skittered across my knuckles.

He bent his head.

My eyes drifted shut. I heard his voice praying for my brother, my dreams. I floated to a place where I wanted to curl up and stay forever.

He thanked God for our friendship and whatever the future might hold.

Photo by by Christopher Campbell

My prayers echoed his, my hands—like my heart—were warm, safe, right where I wanted them to be. I felt God in the room—the One who thought up me and Jim and the two of us finding each other.

Later, good friend and floor-mate, Jeanne Gottschalk, asked me if things felt different with Jim, more comfortable.

Comfortable, yes, but incandescent. My fear of getting hurt had killed so many relationships, but tonight I worried that the feelings would prove ephemeral. I wanted to cling to the euphoria. I had woken that morning looking forward to a not-date to Mansfield. I went to sleep teetering—incandescent—on a ribbon tight-roped over love.