DISCLAIMER: Names changed to protect the
I was 18 years old when my life began.
One balmy summer day, after all the Y2K dust had finally settled, a young, auburn-haired woman walked into the local bookstore where I worked. Meg. The new hire. Her sundress flapped against ivory legs as she took the new hardcovers to the front of the shop.
We were fast friends, chatting in between placing orders and ringing up customers.
“You were maaaade for retail,” she teased, quoting one of our most recent patrons while I rolled my eyes.
I’d gotten the full-time job the same year I’d earned my GED. By the time I met Meg, I was taking classes at the local community college, my sights set on screenwriting. Bullied for glasses, braces and a few spare chins, I had eventually been homeschooled. I sometimes wondered if old soul really meant late bloomer.
Meg regaled me with sordid tales of her past: running away from home, men calling in the middle of the night begging for forgiveness, operatic dreams dashed, sex, drugs and rock and roll.
“You need a little fun in your life,” she said one night as we sipped Sangria at a local bar. She was five years older than I and seemed to know all the places with lenient carding policies.
In March, one month before my 19th birthday, Meg and I took our shoes off in the mud room of her parents’ colonial and walked into the small, dated kitchen, just like we’d done countless times before. Blue painted cabinets and faded wallpaper enveloped us. Despite its age, everything in the house was spotless.
And there he was.
“Gem,” he greeted. (“Meg” spelled backward.) His deep voice rumbled with affection.
The figure sitting at the small round table, munching away on carrot and celery sticks, shared Meg’s fair skin and smile, but had much darker brown hair and eyes. Goodbye Justin Timberlake, hello…
“Ben, this is Jules. Jules, Ben.”
Meg’s twin brother. The apple of her eye. He grinned widely, eyes sparkling.
In addition to sharing physical similarities with his twin, Ben also shared Meg’s intelligence, musical ability and sense of humor. He’d graduated college two years earlier with a degree in psychology, but his true passion was film, giving us plenty in common. He had a serious girlfriend, but she didn’t like his friends, which meant every time I saw him, he was alone.
And suddenly he was everywhere.
The next time we met, we talked for over an hour. The third time, he sprung up and gave me a giant bear hug. His solid frame pressed against me and I lost my breath. I’d never been held like that.
That same night he stopped me from leaving by saying, “That Train CD you gave Meg is really awesome.”
We stood in the laundry room of a friend’s house, in a holding pattern between the door out, for me, and the door back in, for him. We chatted for a few minutes about music.
“Well…goodnight,” I said eventually.
He stepped forward and this time I was ready for it. I lifted my arms so his were forced to circle my waist.
“You give good hugs,” I murmured.
He gave a throaty chuckle and squeezed me even more tightly.
Over the following months, the conversations and hugs grew longer. And longer. But he never made a pass, and I was sure I was imagining things.
Finally, in November, buoyed by quitting a toxic babysitting job, I emailed Ben. “I think there’s something between us,” I wrote, heart racing. “You’re completely amazing, and I wish you all the best life has to offer,” I went on. “I’m just afraid -and my ultimate point lies here- that you won’t realize when it’s being offered to you.”
That was Thursday. On Sunday, Ben replied. It was the longest three days of my life. He explained that his lack of response indicated “slight discomfort” because, while he enjoyed my company just as much, it was in “a different way.” He ended by saying he hoped that we could “continue to chill.”
I was devastated. Humiliated. Yet some part of me wasn’t willing to accept his words. And because of that, our friendship deepened. I was sure if I waited long enough, and tried hard enough, I’d get the thing I wanted most.
Six months later, at 3:00am one May, standing outside his parents’ house, Ben kissed me.
“I thought it was all in my head,” I breathed.
“It’s not,” he replied, brown eyes blazing. He held me and stared deep into my eyes, like he always did.
“I tried to figure out if I just wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough or funny enough,” I gushed. The words were out before I could censor them. I didn’t care.
“That’s ridiculous,” he reassured me.
The following year was speckled with a few more kisses, a couple of midnight confessions, and an endless series of marathon hugs. He loved me, and said I was one of his best friends, but he was never ready to leave his girlfriend and accept all I was willing to give.
Before I knew it, I was 21, tipsy, and begging Ben not to leave a party. He did.
And that was the moment.
The moment I decided to let myself fall in love with someone else. Someone I’d known a long time. Someone who, as it turns out, loved me back.
Meg once told me, when I finally confessed how I felt about her brother, “Your loving Ben has a purpose, if only to make you see how much you deserve in love.”
And she was right. Without Ben, I never would have known how to appreciate that love that’s meant for you is easy. Simple. Happy.
Any time someone talks about “Most Embarrassing Moments,” I think of that email I sent to Ben 17 years ago. I cringe. I blush. I bury my head in my hands. But actually, I love that girl. She put it all out there, fear be damned.
And guess what?
I’m still the same girl.