Drawn window shades, the husky voice of Ray Lamontagne seeping through the speakers, and hushed conversations gave the coffee shop the feel of dusk even though there were still a few hours left of daylight. Mitch was relaxing in a leather chair searching through Craigslist ads for his next dead end job.
Each time the door swung open he offered a curious glance in that direction, but the sight of the woman walking through the door turned a glance into a lingering stare. It was her. As she approached the counter to order, Mitch’s chest began to ache. The pain swelled until he realized that he was holding his breath. He let the air slowly escape through his nose and closed his eyes.
Two months ago he had been sitting at a table that was currently occupied by a large black man and his son when the soft click of heels on the beige tile pulled him out of the book he was reading. The woman wearing the shoes pulled dark sunglasses off her face and set them atop her black hair. Her skin was the color of Mitch’s coffee with cream and he wondered if it tasted as sweet. He shook the thought away and felt guilty for even thinking it.
She did not have the curves or features that most guys went for, but she was his type. A girl-next-door kind of beauty. He loved that she wasn’t wearing make-up. It told him that she had more to love about herself than her looks. A simple please when she ordered her latte made Mitch smile. It was a small gesture that hinted at genuine kindness.
It was the please that started the war inside him. He desperately wanted to talk to her, but did not know how.
What do I say? She’s gonna think I’m some kind of creeper. I don’t want to annoy her. She would just say no. She’s out of my league anyway.
The barista’s voice snapped his attention back to the woman.
“I have a vanilla latte for Christina.”
After ten imaginary conversations she didn’t know she’d been a part of, Christina picked up her latte, replaced her sunglasses, and strolled out of Mitch’s life without him moving an inch. The next hour was spent alternating between trying to forget the whole incident and beating himself up for his cowardice. He made the promise that every shy guy makes to himself because a promise is easy to make when you don’t believe you will ever have to keep it. Under his breath, with all the bravado that his pretend courage brought, he declared, “If I ever see that girl again I will go talk to her.”
Now, Christine was back and that promise echoed through his mind. He took a deep breath and readied himself to stand. The weight of every insecurity and fear suddenly pressed down on him like a bag of bricks. And each brick had a name. Crooked tooth. Stupid laugh. Belly fat. Lack of confidence. Fear of commitment.
Mitch knew that those bricks could only be as heavy as he allowed them to be, but in that moment their weight was crushing him. The words he had spoken last time he saw her whispered to his pride. One brick he had never allowed to get in his bag was promise breaker. After setting his laptop aside he planted his hands on the brown leather arm rests of his chair and forced himself up to his feet.
The barista had already placed Christina’s drink on the bar so he knew he needed to act quickly. Fear gripped Mitch’s legs, but his determination nudged him towards her. As the gap narrowed his heart began to thump wildly inside his chest. He watched her inspect her drink before heading to the condiment bar. He stopped next to her just as she reached for a napkin.
Pulling a couple napkins free she turned to see him standing there. He suddenly realized that he did not have a drink with him and had no reason to be this close to her.
It came out just above a whisper. A look of confusion flicked across her eyes for a split second before she smiled and said, “Hello.”
Her smile sent Mitch into a panic and he decided that he needed a reason for standing there. He turned away from her and pulled a couple napkins out of the dispenser on his side. All he had to do was tell her that she was beautiful and take her awkward thanks like a man. He turned back and opened his mouth to speak, but the words never came out. She had already moved past him and was walking toward the exit.
Mitch watched her go with a strange mix of relief and regret flooding his stomach. He tried to throw away the napkins he had just grabbed, but the ball they had been crushed into stuck to the sweat of his hand. They fell onto the counter after a frustrated shake so he picked them up and dropped them into the trash.
It had been a long time since he had walked the walk of shame. Each step back to his seat etched a letter in one more brick for his sack. F. A. I. L. U. R. E.
Mitch dropped into his seat and breathed a sigh into his folded hands.
“You wanna know the secret to asking a girl out?”
Mitch looked up and saw the black man smiling at him. His son sat with his back to Mitch playing a game on his phone. Mitch wanted to look around as if to say, “Were you talking to me?” but if his failed attempt to sweep Christine off her feet was that obvious then there was no point in making more of a fool of himself.
“Does it involve large quantities of alcohol?”
A deep rumbling laugh erupted out of the man causing his son to look up for a millisecond before returning his attention to his game.
“No. But that might not be a bad second option!”
The man’s smile held no mockery. His big brown eyes somehow conveyed a kindness that Mitch felt starved for.
“Okay. What’s the secret?”
All the hope that had filled him left with the single laugh that escaped his lips. If he had stopped to think about it, he would have realized that using a sarcastic tone with a stranger twice his size was not the wisest decision, but the words came before his mind could intervene.
“Thanks. You’ve changed my life forever.”
The man smiled with the patience of a longtime friend. He nodded at his son and said, “First time I saw his mother, you know what I said to her?”
He didn’t wait for another sarcastic reply before answering his own question.
“Nothin! I was playing football and I could charge a 300 pound lineman without a second thought, but try talkin’ to a 120 pound girl and my knees would start wobblin’ like I was in an earthquake.”
Mitch nodded a knowing reply. He couldn’t think of anything to say. Luckily the man just kept going.
“Then one of my professors told our class about an experiment that made me realize how stupid I was being. A group of sociologists had two groups of people take a test. One group was made up of just normal volunteers. The other group was made up of students who were studying engineering. Both groups were brought through this modern lab with all sorts of cool gadgets and technology before they got to the testing room. In that room the volunteers had to reach their hands into a box and feel what was inside, then tell the researchers what it was. You know what happened?”
Mitch shook his head.
“The regular volunteers all got it right, but most of the engineering students guessed wrong. Funny thing about it was that they just put normal stuff in the box. A big Lego, or cell phone, a globe… stuff like that. Most people would reach in there, recognize what it was, pull their hand out, and tell them. But something funny happened when the engineering students put their hands in. They would leave their hands in for a lot longer than the other people. And the longer they left their hands in the box, the further from the truth they got. A Lego became a miniature remote control. The more they thought about it, the more they made those things into something they weren’t.”
Mitch laughed and suddenly felt like an idiot.
“So you’re saying that I’m making this whole thing worse than it needs to be?”
The man shrugged.
“I can’t speak for you. I just remember a light bulb clicking on when I heard that. I realized that sometimes a Lego is just a Lego. I made asking a girl out into all sorts of stuff it wasn’t. It wasn’t a contest to determine how good-looking I was. It wasn’t a test to see if I was worthy of someone. It wasn’t even about conquering my fears. It was just asking a girl out.”
Mitch looked from the man to his son. He knew the answer to his question, but not the details.
“So after that you just asked her out and the rest is history?”
His smile spread wider showing nearly every tooth in his mouth.
“Yes and no. I saw Monica again that week, but even with the story on my mind I couldn’t do it. I told myself that I would do it the next time, but I got so mad at myself that night that I put a hole in my wall. The next day I went to the store and bought a little box of Legos. I carried one of the pieces in my pocket with me everywhere I went and promised myself that the next time I saw her I would do it. All it was was a guy asking a girl out. And I kept that promise.”
Mitch grinned. It was a strange thought to think of someone who looked so big and strong having the same fears as him.
“And she said yes?”
Another laugh rolled through his barrel chest.
“Actually, she said, ‘About damn time!'”
They both laughed. It felt good. It felt like the man had reached over and swept away the bricks that still weighed on him. If he had never said another word, that would have been enough, but he was not done.
“Tell you what. I wanna give you something.” His great big hands reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys as he spoke. “After we had been dating for a while we were talking. She had seen me every time I had seen her and could tell I wanted to ask her out. She said she nearly gave up on me. I just smiled and told her about the Lego. We dated for a little over a year and I knew she was the one. But the same old fears crept up when I wanted to ask her to marry me. Then one night I hear a knock on my door. I open it, but no one’s there. I almost missed it, but the little box caught my eye as I was closing the door. I stopped and picked up the present someone had left there. When I opened it I found this.”
He had pulled a couple keys off his key ring and held it up for me to see. It was a red Lego that had been attached to a small chain and ring.
“I think it was her way of telling me to just ask. Been using it ever since. We’ve been married thirteen years now.”
The man stood up and the fullness of his size seemed to fill the small cafe. It only took a couple steps for him to reach Mitch. He towered over him and held out the Lego key ring.
Mitch sat frozen. How could he take a gift that was so personal to this kind giant? He held up his hands to say that he couldn’t, but the man lowered his gaze a bit and Mitch knew that he would not take no for an answer. He reached up and took the red plastic piece in his hand. His thumb rubbed the top, feeling the bumps.
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I mean, that doesn’t seem strong enough. This has so much meaning for you. It doesn’t feel right…”
The man brushed it off with a wave.
“I got a better gift now.” He said with a wink.
Mitch transferred the Lego to his left hand and extended his right hand to the man. His giant paw enveloped Mitch’s hand. They shook an understanding shake before the man turned without another word. He rubbed his son’s head and nodded toward the door. Part of Mitch wanted the man to look back one last time, but he never did.
He held the Lego in his hands and laughed at how stupid he had been. Quietly he made one more promise to himself.
“If I ever see that man again I’m going to introduce him to Christina.”
Copyright © 2013 Adam Drake