It was a couple days later, on Saturday morning, that they were bringing Jeremy home. We were all rushing around, trying to make sure everything was just right for his return. Tommy and Silvy were at our house with Mom and Dad. They were helping Mom make some peanut butter cookies for Jeremy. They were Jeremy’s favorite. I was at Jeremy’s with Jennifer and Jeremy’s dad. TJ had taken Jeremy’s mom to be with Jeremy at the hospital, and she would ride home with him in the ambulance, while TJ followed in his car. We were straightening his room when the nurse from the hospice people arrived. She came upstairs and was looking over the room.
“You’ll need to remove a lot of the things from the room,” she said. “There’s just too many things in here and a lot of them are dust catchers and breeding grounds for germs. We need as sterile an environment as possible.”
“No.” Jeremy’s dad said. “The room stays as is.”
She told him he didn’t understand and the patient’s needs required many things and that having so much stuff around would just make her job all the harder. She needed room to do her job and care for the patient. She reminded him that she was a professional and dealt with these things on a daily basis, so she understood what was needed better than he.
“No.” He replied. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand. Our son wants to be around the family, friends, and things he loves. He doesn’t want to die in a sterile hospital room, and we’re not going to let you or anyone else change this room into just another hospital room. You say you’re a professional and that’s true. You deal with the dying and death as part of your job. This isn’t a job for us, though. This is personal for us...very personal. This is our son we’re talking about. You keep calling him ‘the patient.’ Do you even know his name?”
“It’s right here in the file,” she huffed.
“Exactly! And that makes my point. To you, he’s a job, just a file. To us, he’s Jeremy, our son. We’re not going to be able to use you. You can go ahead and leave. I’ll make other arrangements for Jeremy’s care.”
“You’ll have to speak to my supervisor before I can be dismissed from this case.”
“I don’t think so. This is my house and my son. We signed on to your program at our doctor’s recommendation. We’re paying you for a service and, if that service isn’t what we were told it would be, we have an obligation to our son to find someone who can provide the care he needs in the environment he wants. If your supervisor has a problem with that, then he has our number.”
The nurse angrily left, leaving us all standing there speechless. “That woman wouldn’t last a day working at the hospital,” Jennifer said.
Jeremy’s mom called to say they were leaving the hospital. Jennifer went next door to let Mom and dad know that they were on the way. Jeremy’s dad and I went out front to wait and were soon joined by everyone from next door. The ambulance pulled up out front and TJ pulled into our driveway next door. We all gathered around the rear of the ambulance as Jeremy’s mom got out and the paramedics pulled out Jeremy on the stretcher. They pulled a little lever, picked the stretcher up and the legs unfolded and locked into place.
Halfway up the front sidewalk, Jeremy asked them to stop and to help him sit up. He was looking around at his house and ours, and then was trying to look over his shoulders at the neighborhood. The ambulance guys noticed and turned the stretcher around so he could see better. After a minute or so, his dad asked them if they could take him around back and come in the back door, so he could look around back there too. “Sure,” one of them said.
Around back, on the patio, they turned him around again so he could see everything. We were there for several minutes, as he seemed to be taking mental pictures. He didn’t really have any expression on his face at first, but then his eyes fixed on something and he smiled. He looked at me, then back to where he’d been staring. I looked to see what he’d been looking at, and it was our tree house. I turned back to him and he was looking at me, smiling still. I smiled back at him and nodded, so he’d know I knew what he meant. He was saying goodbye. Goodbye to all the things he loved, and all the fun we’d had for such a long time. Goodbye, because he knew this was the last time he’d ever see these things. “I’m ready to go inside now,” he said.
The IV from the hospital was still in Jeremy’s hand, so when we got upstairs and he was safely in his bed, one of the ambulance guys brought in an IV stand and hung the bag on it. They told us the hospice nurse would explain how to change it, and clean the connection if it needed changing when she wasn’t here, and then they left.
The phone rang and Mr. Palmer went downstairs to answer it. Silvy and Tommy went next door to bring the cookies they’d helped make over for Jeremy. Jeremy’s dad came back up, and said that the hospice people would be sending another nurse over shortly, and asked about Tommy and Silvy. When told they’d gone to our house to bring over some cookies for Jeremy, he asked if it took two people to carry a plate of cookies. “It does when you’re fifteen and in love,” Dad said.
We were all still laughing when they got back and Tommy asked what was so funny. “You two were gone so long, we were wondering if you were making another batch or making out,” Dad told him.
Tommy started blushing and tried stammering a denial. Silvy just glared at Dad. “Behave yourself, Dad!” she said setting the bowl of cookies on Jeremy’s nightstand. “If you don’t, you can’t have any cookies.” I looked down at Jeremy. He had his eyes closed, like he’d napped off, but there was a smile on his face.
We had been sitting around talking for almost an hour, when the doorbell rang. Jeremy’s mom went to answer and a few minutes later called her husband downstairs.
I noticed Jeremy had his eyes open. “Welcome back, sleeping beauty.”
“Dammit! Did I miss the part where the handsome prince kissed me to wake me up again?” he said with a smile.
“Well, yeah, but Tommy’s here, if you want a kiss.”
“No, thanks,” he laughed. “He’s probably right. I don’t think my heart could stand it again!”
We heard his parents coming back up the stairs. They followed this big woman through the door. When I say big, I mean big. She looked like she was in her fifties and weighed around three hundred pounds. “Oh, a party! I love parties!” she said, looking around the room. “No dancing, though, it looks like. I don’t see a band.” She walked over to the bed and looked at Jeremy. “You must be Jeremy. I love that name. I think I’ll name my next firstborn Jeremy. My name’s Mary but you can call me Zelda,” she told Jeremy. “I’m going to be your nurse.”
Jeremy was laying there with his mouth open, looking at her. “Next firstborn?” he asked.
“Honey, I’ve had eight firstborns so far.” She was smoothing his bed and checking him over while she was talking to him. She pulled a new thermometer out of her pocket, unwrapped it, and stuck it in his mouth. “Don’t talk, listen,” she ordered. She was listening to his heart and lungs as she talked. “It was the first time any of them were born so they’re all firstborns.” She took the thermometer out of his mouth and looked at it, put it back in its tube and laid it on the nightstand. “Cookies!” she said with glee, when she noticed them. “I love cookies! They’d taste a lot better with coffee, though,” she said thoughtfully.
“I’ll get you some, Zelda,” Silvy volunteered.
“My name’s Mary,” she told Silvy, “and thank you, Dear, I’d love a cup...just black please.”
“But, you said we should call you Zelda.”
“No, Dear, I told Jeremy he could call me Zelda. You can call me Mary,” she told Silvy with a twinkle in her eye.
Silvy rolled her eyes and went down to get the coffee for Zelda/Mary. “What are you doing?” Jeremy asked.
“Giving you a quick physical,” she answered.
“I suppose you’re going to ask me to turn my head and cough too?” Jeremy asked with a big smirk.
“Only if you ask nicely, Stud,” she told him, with a smirk of her own.
This struck all the guys in the room as funny, but the women all had confused looks on their faces. Dad leaned over and whispered something to Mom, who got this shocked look on her face, and then started laughing too. Yep, I had the feeling Mary/Zelda was going to fit in just fine and would be good for Jeremy.
“Jenny, Honey!” Mary said, noticing Jennifer for the first time. “What are you doing here with this bunch of outlaws?”
“Everybody has to be somewhere, Mary,” Jennifer laughed.
I could see the wheels spinning in Mary’s head as she sized up the situation. “Uh-huh, and you decided the somewhere should be the house where the crazy folks hang out?” She was walking towards us as she was talking. I stepped a little behind Jennifer, for protection, but Mary just pushed her aside and walked around me, looking me up and down. “So,” she said, continuing her inspection of me. “This must be that hunky boy you’ve been talking our ears off about for the last few weeks, down at the hospital.” I looked at Jennifer and she was blushing, and buried her face in her hands when she saw me looking at her. “Good thing you saw him first, girl. If we weren’t such good friends, I’d steal this one away from you. You must be Tony,” she said, hugging me. “I’m Mary, but you can call me Petunia,” she said, winking at me.
Mary/Zelda/Petunia spent the next hour explaining all that we’d need to do to take care of Jeremy. She told us how important it was to measure his pee so they’d know if they were giving him the right amount of liquids. And then, just like she entered the room, she left, but not without a parting shot. She stopped by TJ and asked him his name. “TJ,” he replied.
“My name’s Mary, but you can call me anytime, Stud Muffin!” and then she was gone.
We were all pretty much speechless when she left. Stunned might be a better word. “What in the world just happened?” Jeremy’s mom asked.
“I’m not sure,” Dad said. “I think we just met Tigger and Mary Poppins’ daughter.”
The life kind of went out of the party when Mary left, and soon Tommy and Silvy had wandered off to do homework. Mom and Dad decided they’d better go home too, so they could monitor the homework. Jennifer had to go home, and TJ offered her a ride, since he needed to get going too. Jeremy’s mom and Dad went downstairs to fix some lunch, and it was just the two of us again.
“I like Zelda,” Jeremy said.
“You mean Petunia,” I answered and we both laughed.
“Are you going to read another book to me?”
“Sure, if you want me to. Anything in particular you want to hear?”
“Yea, Tom Sawyer, I think.”
“I have a paperback copy at home. Want me to run and get it now?
“No, I’m going to sleep for a little bit. Don’t leave while I’m asleep, okay?”
“I won’t, Bro.”
We soon established a new routine. I would come home from school, grab a snack, then head for Jeremy’s. I’d stay there until Mary got there and then I’d go home to eat while she did what she had to. Then, I’d go back over and do my homework and read to him until nine or until he fell asleep, whichever came first.
One of his parents was nearly always in the room too. Sometimes, both of them. It bothered me how they were beginning to look. They were only about my parents’ ages, but were looking way older. Mary came in one evening when the three of us were sitting with Jeremy. She looked at the three of us, shook her head sadly, and shooed me out. “Go do whatever it is you do when I’m here, boy. I have work to do.” Jeremy’s mom and dad followed me out.
“I’ll be back in a little while,” I said, and headed for home. I ate and did my homework and got back to Jeremy’s just as Mary was leaving. “Bye, Petunia,” I said rushing by her to get back to Jeremy’s room.
Jeremy’s dad was sitting by his bed when I went in the room. They looked like they were talking, but stopped when I entered. “Hi,” I said. “Are you about ready for some more Tom Sawyer?” I asked.
“In a little bit. Dad? Can I talk to Tony in private for awhile?”
“Sure, Son,” His dad got up and started out, stopped in front of me, and hugged me before he left.
This wasn’t looking good, I thought. “What’s up, Jeremy?” I asked sitting down in the chair his dad had been in.
He looked at me with a puzzled look. “Tony? What do you do when you aren’t here.”
“What? What’s this all about?”
“What do you do when you aren’t here? What do you do for fun?”
“I don’t know. I guess I don’t do anything for fun right now. Everything I ever did, that was fun, we did together.”
“I want you to, Tony, I want you to go out and have some fun. You’ve had a girlfriend for about a month now, and you’ve never even had a date with her. You’ve never had a first date, and I want that for you. I want you coming over the next day and telling me all about it. I want you to have fun and then share it with me when you tell me all about it.”
“How can I go have fun when you’re laying up here sick? How can I be happy when you’re not?”
“What about me, Tony? How can I be even a little happy, knowing how unhappy and sad my best friend is?” He looked away for a few seconds, and when he looked back there were tears in his eyes. “I know I’m the reason you’re sad and unhappy, Tony, I didn’t ask to get sick, but I did.” He turned away again. “Maybe I’ve asked too much of you. I do feel better when you’re around, but I can see the change in you. I can hear it in your voice. You sound tired, Tony, tired and old. It hurts me,Tony, to know it’s my fault.”
“It’s not your fault, Jeremy, it’s not anyone’s fault.”
“Okay, it may not be my fault, but you have to admit that what’s happening is caused by my illness. If it weren’t for that, you and I wouldn’t be talking about this right now. We’d be talking about fun things or maybe playing video games and arguing about which of us is cheating. When bad things happen, there might not be anyone or anything who’s at fault, but things that happen as a result are caused by that bad thing. If it’s you that the bad thing is happening to, you can’t help but feel guilty about how it’s affecting your family and friends.”
“It’s a chain reaction, Tony. What’s happening to me affects you and my family and friends, and how you react affects others, including me. It’s a vicious circle that starts and ends with me. I don’t like seeing what’s happening to you and my mom and dad. I want to see the three of you smile once in a while, again.”
“Tony, go look in the mirror. Take a good look and be honest with yourself. Then let me show you something.”
“Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
I went into their bathroom. I looked in the mirror and what I saw shocked me. I looked haggard and tired, like a younger version of what Jeremy’s parents looked like. My hair, even though I’d brushed it this morning, looked unkempt and was longer than I’d ever allowed it to get. I tried to remember when I last got my hair cut but couldn’t. I stood there for a long time, just examining my image. I didn’t like what I saw.
I walked back into his room, not knowing what to say. “Here,” he said, handing me a photograph. “Recognize it?” he asked, after I’d looked at it.
I nodded. It was a picture taken of the two of us with Silvy, earlier in the summer, when we were all up at the lake for a weekend. We were standing together with Silvy in the middle and the two of us were holding our hands up behind Silvy’s head giving her horns. She had one arm behind each of us, giving both of us horns. It was just a few weeks before we learned about Jeremy’s illness. We all had big goofy smiles on our faces.
I looked at Jeremy and he had a grin on his face. “That was a good weekend,” he said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “It was.”
“You see the looks on all our faces?”
“When I close my eyes, that’s how I want to see you in my mind. You and that goofy-ass smile you have, not the way you look now. And when I’m gone, I want you to remember me like I am in that picture, not the way I am now.”
“I can’t help it, Jeremy. I can’t help the way I feel or the way I look.”
“I know you can’t, Tony, any more than I can help how I look now, but we can still be happy once in awhile. We don’t have to be sad all the time. If the rest of my life is going to be spent all sad and unhappy, I’d rather just go ahead and die now.”
“Don’t say that!”
“I mean it, Tony. Being alive is nothing if you can’t enjoy living, at least once in awhile. Being alive and living are two different things.”
I walked over to the window and stared out it for awhile. “I don’t know how to be any different, Jeremy. I don’t know what you want from me.”
“Well, for starters, go get the phone and call that girl of yours and ask her out this Friday. That poor girl is nuts about you, which, to me anyway, indicates that she’s just plain nuts.” I looked over at him and he had a big grin on his face. I couldn’t help smiling back. “That’s better,” he said.
“Seriously, Tony. Go call her. I want you to have a first date. I’ll even help you plan it, and when it’s over, you can tell me all about it.”
“I don’t have the slightest idea how to ask a girl on a date.”
He smiled again, “That’s what I’m here for. I told you I’d help you plan it.”
“Big help you’ll be! You’ve never been on a date either.”
“True. But I have a better imagination,” he laughed.
We talked it over and decided the best approach would be to just be straight up and ask her if she’d go see a movie with me and maybe have dinner or something. I went downstairs and borrowed the phone, but instead of taking it back to Jeremy’s room, I locked myself in their upstairs bathroom. My stomach was doing flip-flops and I was shaking like a leaf in a wind storm. I didn’t want Jeremy to see my humiliation if she said no.
Jennifer’s mom answered the phone, and after asking me how I was and how Jeremy was feeling, called Jennifer to the phone. “Hi, Tony.”
She asked about Jeremy and, after I told her how he was doing, we just talked about different things. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her out. What if she said no? Even worse, what if she laughed at the idea of going out with me? Before long, we’d run out of things to say and our conversation had pretty much deteriorated in to a lot of ‘uhs and umms’ and even more of just listening to each other breathing.
When she asked if that was all I wanted, I said yeah. I chickened out! I knew Jeremy would never let me live this down, so as she was saying goodbye, I interrupted her. “No! Wait! There is something else.”
“What?” she asked.
“Uhhh, I was wondering, ummm, if maybe you’d like to go out with me on Friday night. You know, to eat and see a movie, maybe?”
I held my breath as she took what seemed like forever to answer. “I’m sorry, Tony, I can’t,” she said. My heart fell to my knees, and if I hadn’t been sitting on the john, I’d have probably sat down in the floor. I started to tell her it was okay, that I understood, when she continued. “I have to work at the hospital on Fridays, can we do it Saturday instead?”
I pulled my heart back up and tried sounding as normal as possible, even though I wanted to jump up and down, shouting ‘YES, YES!!!’ “Sure” I said, “That’s cool.”
We talked a few more minutes before we hung up. I started back to Jeremy’s room, but stopped outside his door. I made sure I had a sad, disappointed look on my face before I entered. “What happened?” he asked, when he saw the look on my face.
“She said no.”
“Jeez, Tony! I knew I should have asked her for you. How the hell did you manage to screw this up?”
I let my face change to a big grin. “She did say no, but only because she had to work on Friday. She asked if we could do it Saturday, instead.”
“YES!” he said as we high-fived each other.
“What are you two up to?” his mom asked, as she entered his room.
“You’re just the person we need to talk to, Mom. Jeremy has a date Saturday night, and he needs some advice.”
“With Jennifer?” she asked, turning to me. When I nodded, she smiled and asked what kind of advice I needed.
“All kinds,” I said. “I need to know everything about girls by Saturday!”
“You don’t want much do you?” she laughed sarcastically. “There’s no way you men will ever learn everything about us women and no way we’ll ever learn everything about you men, and to be truthful, I think it’s best like that. It makes life more interesting.”
“Well, tell what you can then.”
“What do you plan on doing?”
“A movie and something to eat.”
“Okay, I can tell you the four most important things. Number one, be yourself. Don’t try being something you’re not. Number two, Let her pick the movie. Number three, even if you think the movie is too mushy, pretend like you’re enjoying it.” She turned and started to leave the room.
“Wait! What’s number four?”
She stopped and turned around. Number four is probably one of the most important. If you’re taking a woman out to eat, McDonald’s doesn’t count. It has to be somewhere with real food, real plates, and no plastic silverware!”
“McDonald’s is real food,” Jeremy insisted.
His mom looked at me. “How much do you like Jennifer, Tony? Are you going to want a second date with her?”
I could feel myself blushing as I answered. “I like her a lot so, sure, I want a lot more dates with her.”
“Then no fast food. Take her to a real restaurant.” Jeremy and I looked at each other as she left, and shrugged.
“Okay,” Jeremy said to me. “We can cave on rule number four, but I think rule number one has to go. There’s no way she’ll keep dating you if you’re acting like yourself. You have to phony this one up.”
“Shut up, Jeremy,” I said and gave him the finger. We spent the rest of the evening talking about my date and never did get around to reading any of Tom Sawyer.
As the week went on, I got more and more nervous about the date. I went busting into Jeremy’s room Saturday afternoon. “The date’s off! I’m not going! I’ll call her and tell her I’m sick!” I blurted out.
Tommy was there and he and Jeremy were looking at a car magazine. “Hey, Tony. What’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up? I just told you what’s up! The dates off! I’m not going!”
Tommy looked at Jeremy and asked, “First date jitters?”
Jeremy nodded, “A pretty bad case too, I’d say.”
“A pretty bad case? How would you know. You’ve never been on a date either! And you!” I said, turning on Tommy, “What the hell are you doing here? Why aren’t you at my house? You’re always at my house. Sometimes I think you’ve moved in!”
“Displaced anger too,” Jeremy said to Tommy. Tommy nodded and went back to looking at the magazine, but he had a shit-eating grin on his face. “Okay, Tony, calm down and tell me why the date has to be called off.”
“Because I’m just going to make a fool of myself. I don’t know anything about dating. I have no idea what to talk about, and it’ll just prove to Jennifer that I’m a dweeb and she’ll never go out with me again. And besides that, all my clothes make me look dorky. I don’t have any cool clothes to wear.”
I heard a snicker from Tommy’s direction and glared at him. He shut up and went back to the magazine, but I could see he was struggling to keep from laughing. I was a wreck, physically and emotionally, and I was getting no sympathy from either of them.
“Okay, Tony,” Jeremy said. “First off, you’re not a dweeb. Secondly, you have plenty of cool clothes to wear. As for making a fool of yourself, you don’t have to be around a girl to do that, you’ve always been able to do that around anyone.”
“You’re no freaking help at all!” Before I could say anything else, Tommy burst into laughter. “What the Hell’s so funny?” I asked him.
This only made him laugh harder. “Dude,” he finally managed to get out. “You have it almost as bad as I did. I was scared shitless before my first date. I wanted to pretend I was sick, so I wouldn’t have to go too, but Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me. I even tried hiding in my closet, but they found me,” he laughed.
“See, Tony? Problem solved.” Jeremy said.
“So how’s my problem solved, smart ass?”
“We have a bone fide expert here to guide you through it.”
Okay, so I hadn’t thought about that. Oddly enough, it made perfect sense to my addled mind to ask my little sister’s boyfriend what to do on a date. “This just might work.” I thought to myself.
“How many dates have you had, Tommy?” Jeremy asked.
“A lot. I don’t know how many, but I’ve been dating for over two years.”
“Perfect! Why don’t you take my scaredy cat little bro back to his house and explain the facts of life to him?”
“Advice on dating, yes,” I said. “It would be too weird, talking about sex with my little sister’s boyfriend, though!”
On our way back to my house, I asked Tommy if he’d really tried hiding in his closet to get out of that first date. “Yep,” he said. “But Mom dragged me out, twisted my arm behind my back and forced me into the car.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Well, a little about the arm-twisting part. When she told me she would, I believed her and went quietly,” he laughed. “Don’t worry, Tony, you’ll do fine. Once the two of you get to talking, it’ll get easy. You’ll see.”
Tommy was a big help to me that afternoon. Not so much with advice, but just by being there and helping me choose what to wear. He had a calming affect on me. I figured, if this nervousness was normal like he said, and if other guys had been just as scared and nervous but managed to make it through their first dates, I could too.
After I’d gotten dressed and it was nearly time to go pick Jennifer up, Dad knocked on my door and asked if I was ready. I heard Tommy yell in the background, “Check his closet if he doesn’t answer!” I smiled and went downstairs for inspection. Tommy gave me a thumbs up; Mom told me how handsome I looked; while Dad just smiled at me. Silvy walked around me and stopped and faced me. She hugged me and whispered in my ear, “Who knew my sloppy brother would clean up this good? You’re going to knock her socks off, Bro!”
“We’ll meet you at the Palmer’s after you pick up Jennifer,” Mom told Dad.
“What for?” I asked.
“It’s your first date, silly. We all want to see you and your first date and take pictures,” she told me.
“Nobody told me there were going to be pictures,” I complained.
“It’s tradition, Dude,” Tommy said, shaking his head. “You might as well grin and bear it; mothers won’t take no for an answer.”
Dad laughed and said, “You got that right, Tommy.”
When we got back to the Palmer’s after picking up Jennifer, everyone was gathered in Jeremy’s room. Both of our moms had their cameras out and ready. After each of our moms had taken some pictures, Jennifer turned us sideways to them and asked me if I wanted to give them a good picture to remember this night by. “Sure,” I said, wondering what she meant. She wrapped her arms around my neck and told me to wrap mine around her waist. I did what she saidb and then she kissed me! I had to endure a few cat calls and wolf whistles from Tommy and Jeremy, but it wasn’t all so bad. As a matter of fact, it was all pretty good.
We finally got away and headed to the mall for our date. Dad was driving and Jennifer and I were sitting in the back. I was still a nervous wreck, and nearly panicked when Jennifer reached across and took my hand. My hand was all sweaty and I was trembling pretty badly. I was afraid Jennifer would think I was a pig. She just looked over at me and smiled, though. I happened to look up and saw Dad looking back at me in the rear view mirror, with a smile on his face.
There was a small diner across the highway from the mall. This was where I’d decided we would eat before the movie. There were real restaurants in the mall, but they were all too expensive for my allowance. I figured we’d eat and then walk across to the theaters in the mall. Jennifer looked at me in surprise when we pulled into their parking lot and Dad stopped. “We aren’t going to eat at the food court in the mall?” she asked.
“I thought you’d like real food.”
“Did Tommy tell you to bring me here?”
“No,” I replied nervously. “If you don’t like it, we can go somewhere else.”
“No, this is great. I love this place. Tommy’s family and mine used to come here nearly every Sunday after church to eat dinner. It had the best spicy wings in the world!” She grew quiet for a minute and then continued wistfully, “I don’t know why we stopped coming here. I guess all our lives just got too busy.”
As we got out of the car, Dad handed me his cell phone. “You kids have fun and call when you’re ready to come home. Don’t make it too late, though. Remember, Jennifer has to be home before midnight.” Jennifer took my hand, and we walked towards the door to the diner as Dad pulled away. My sweating and shaking got worse. We were alone now...I was on my own. “God,” I silently prayed, “Don’t let me throw up.”
We found a corner booth and sat down. We each took a menu and looked them over. “I think I’ll have the medium-size wing meal,” I said, hoping she’d take the hint and order whatever she wanted.
“Me too,” she said.
“Mild, medium or spicy?” I asked.
After the server took our order and brought us our drinks and salads, Jennifer reached across and took my hand. “What’s wrong, Tony? You’re shaking like a leaf like you’re afraid of me. I don’t bite, you know.”
I could have lied and told her nothing was wrong, or that I wasn’t feeling well, but I remembered rule number one and decided to be truthful. “I’ve never had a date before and I’m a nervous wreck. I like you a lot, Jennifer, and want everything to be perfect. I’m afraid I’ll make a fool of myself and you’ll never go out with me again.”
“Me too,” she said smiling at me.
My heart dropped. “Well, I’ll try my best not to make a fool of myself and embarrass you.”
“No, silly, I didn’t mean that. I meant I was a nervous wreck too and am afraid I’ll make a fool of myself. I like you a lot too, Tony.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “We make a fine pair, don’t we?”
“Yeah, let’s make a deal. I hereby give you permission to make a fool of yourself, any time we’re together, as long as you give me permission to do the same.”
“It’s a deal!”
We both relaxed and soon were talking as easily as ever. When our wings were brought, we both tried to be polite and eat the wings with our silverware. We were pushing pieces of chicken around on our plates, while trying to hold them with our forks and cut them with our knives. I think we were both getting frustrated. I decided it was time to test our deal. I dropped my fork and picked up a wing with my fingers. “There’s only one way to eat wings,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said with a smile, dropped her fork, and dug in with both hands.
Soon, we were both eating with sticky, red fingers and each had a red ring of sauce around our mouths. We were laughing at each other and having a really good time. From that point on, things only got better and better.
We both lost track of time, and when I checked my watch later, I noticed we’d missed the start of the movie. “Uh-oh,” I said. When she asked what was wrong, I told her about talking past movie time.
“That’s okay,” she said. “This has been fun and there wasn’t really anything playing I wanted to see. Why don’t we forget the movie and just check things out at the mall?”
“Are you sure?”
“Great! Let’s go,” I said, standing up and reaching to help her up.
She stared at my hand for a second, then looked at her own and started laughing. “I think we probably should wash up first,” she said, holding her hands up for me to see. I looked at my own hand and laughingly agreed.
We spent the next hour and a half just walking around the mall and talking. I was amazed that neither of us ever ran out of things to say. We stopped at the food court and shared a banana split. We walked around the fountain at the center of the mall and tried counting the goldfish, but they kept moving.
When it got close to eleven, we decided to make one last walk around. We stopped at Spencer’s, a novelty shop, and were looking around. We were checking out the tee-shirts when we saw two that were part of a pair. One said, I’m with Stupid, and the other simply said, Stupid. “Let’s get them,” I said.
“Do you really want to?” she said, examining the two shirts.
“Yeah, I think they’re cool...and we can always flip a coin to see who gets which shirt.”
“Yeah, they are kind of cool, but we won’t have to flip a coin to see who gets which,” she said, holding the shirt that said Stupid up against me to make sure it would fit.
I laughed and took the shirts up to pay for them. While I was waiting in line, I saw some figurines of little boys and girls holding hands. Each one had a little saying at the bottom that started with “Love is.” I picked it up too and asked the clerk to put it in a separate small bag I could hide in my pocket. After I paid and hid the small bag in my jacket pocket, I went back to see if she was finished looking around. Then we called Dad and told him we were ready to go, and that we’d meet him at the main entrance to the mall.
When we got back to Jennifer’s and I was walking her up to her door, I looked back and saw Dad watching us. “Just a minute,” I told her. “I have to tell Dad something.” I ran back to the car and opened the passenger door. Dad gave me a questioning look. “Don’t be watching!” I said, as sternly as I dared. He just laughed, but did look the other direction.
I went back to where I’d left Jennifer standing, and we walked up to her front door. The porch light was on and we could see each other perfectly.
“I had a really great time, Tony,” she said.
“I did too,” I answered. “Maybe we can do it again, some time?” I asked hopefully.
“I’d like that,” she replied.
Now was the awkward goodbye time. I’d asked Tommy earlier how to know if a girl would let you know if it was okay to kiss her goodbye. “You’ll just know, Tony. Don’t worry about it,” he’d told me.
I suddenly remembered the gift I’d bought her. “Here,” I said. “I got this for you,” I said, pulling the bag out of my pocket and handing it to her.
She pulled the little figurine out of the bag and looked at it. “Love is sharing everything,” she read aloud. “All the laughter and all the tears,” she read. She looked at the figurine for a little while, then looked at me. I could see she had tears in her eyes. “This is so sweet, Tony,” she said. I didn’t have time to decide whether to try kissing her good night or not. She grabbed me and kissed me! “Thanks for a good time,Tony. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? I nodded and kind of floated back to the car. I got in and Dad started the engine and we left. “Well?” he asked. “How was the first date?”
“It was okay,” I answered, playing it cool, but on the inside, I was jumping up and down.