Mondays aren’t usually known for their sunny weather and bright blue skies but there it was. I also wasn’t known for wide smiles on the way to school, but there it was, too, a grin playing across my face. From the backseat of my mom’s convertible, I watched the neighborhood houses slide by with their freshly manicured green lawns and pops of colorful flowers. Somehow what had looked like a suburban dungeon the day before didn’t look so bad this morning. With the top down and the breeze in my face, I didn’t even mind the soft rock my mom always insisted on playing in the car on the way to school.
“What’s going on?” My mom glanced into the rearview mirror at my reflection. “Wait, don’t tell me. You’ve finally got a girlfriend!”
Her eyes questioned me in the mirror. “Is it Sarah? She’s such a nice girl.”
“No, Mom, stop!” I slunk down into the seat to get out of the mirror’s range. “It’s just a good day, that’s all.”
Luckily at that moment we hit a patch of slow traffic and that pulled my mom’s attention away so I could enjoy my good mood in peace. After a bit of stop and go we finally pulled up to the school gate and I jumped out, slamming the car door shut. A quick good-bye to mom and I turned to face the day. Kids swarmed the entrance, laughing and joking in their last few minutes of freedom. I pushed my way into the classroom and felt everyone’s eyes on me. For once I felt like looking back and smiling. It was a good day.
I had just finished my best essay ever. I was going to show it to Jimmy, my best friend, who was an ace at composition. A tingle of excitement accompanied my mental anticipation of what he’d say. I slid into the desk and pulled the pages out of my pack.
“What’s that?” It was Sarah. She didn’t look too bad this morning, either.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk about it. “Nothing,” I said as I folded the papers in half and hiding them under my hands.
“Where were you last night? We missed you at the game.” She smiled. I could feel my face smiling back, an involuntary flush rising in my cheeks.
“I was just . . . busy.” Come on, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her. “Writing. I was writing.”
“Oh, yeah. That essay’s due today, right? Thanks for reminding me, I gotta put something together in study hall.” I glanced down at my essay and quickly pushed away the memory of the hours at my desk, weighing every word. When I looked up, Sarah was still smiling at me, my face smiled back at her, and she still looked good. “Well, I hope you can make the next game,” she said over her shoulder as she took a desk in the back of the room. “I’ll save you a seat.”
I let out the breath I had been holding as Jimmy rushed in, grabbing the desk next to mine. “What did she want?” he asked, glancing back at Sarah who was now in a noisy discussion with a couple of her girlfriends. For the second time that morning, I had no desire to discuss it.
“Nothing. Just something about the game.”
“Oh.” He glanced at the papers in my hand. “Is that your essay? Want me to take a look?”
Eagerly I slid the papers over. I was more than ready to hear the good news. He took them and smoothed out the crease with a flourish. His brow furrowed as he scanned the lines. I took in his concentration and leaned toward him, as if by doing so I could see what had him concerned. Jimmy looked up and laughed.
“Don’t worry, just giving it my best read.” I nodded and sat back, letting Jimmy have his space. Time moved at a crawl as the class filled with chattering students. Talk of the game and next weekend’s parties rang shrilly in my ears as I waited for Jimmy’s verdict.
“It’s not bad,” he said, holding it out to me. “But it’s got a way to go if you’re going for breath-taking.” He smiled to take the sting off, but his words bit through to the pit of my stomach anyway. “I’d be glad to help.”
“No, thanks.” And thanks for nothing, I thought as I snatched my essay away. Disappointment flashed to a red-hot anger. I had worked so hard on it. Had a way to go, did it? I picked up my pack and moved several desks away, feeling the hurt down to my toes. Jimmy looked surprised at my move. The bell rang. I saw him shrug and turn toward the teacher. “Have it your way,” were the last words Jimmy said to me that school year.
Somehow, the time I had spent with Jimmy became time spent with Sarah. I went to games, tried to fit in with her glittering friends, and mimic their nonchalant approach to school. Every time we said good-bye it was torture, but I also found my mind wandering while we were together. Her obvious disdain for school and writing began to grate on me as I was working harder than ever. By the time I finally got the courage up to give her our first kiss, it was clear I was not getting kissed back. The shine was gone and I looked forward to college with frank relief. Mom was more disappointed than I was when Sarah broke up with me the night before I left.
Several years later, I was sitting at a table at a book conference, signing copies of my latest work. The conference was going well. A reading of an excerpt had been positively received and the pile of books on my table was shrinking at a heart-warming and wallet-filling rate. I was still new enough to the game for conferences to be fun and I looked forward to meeting those who liked my writing enough to spend their hard-earned cash on my books. As I finished signing a book for a woman who reminded me strongly of my mom, I glanced up at my next fan, a well-dressed guy about my age in a sharp navy-blue suit. He stepped forward, I looked at his face again. A sharp pang of guilt accompanied my recognition – it was Jimmy.
“Jimmy. Thanks so much for coming out to see me.” I felt my throat tighten with tension.
“I saw you were coming on the internet. Couldn’t let the chance to see you again slip by.” He grabbed a the top book off the pile next to me, flipped it open, and slid it in front of me to sign.
“So what are you doing these days?” I asked. My pen poised above the blank page, waiting for his answer.
“I’m in finance. Working here in town.” That was Jimmy, great with words and numbers.
“Must be lucrative.”
“It’s a living,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Listen, I want to congratulate you. I read your last one and you’ve obviously reached breath-taking all on your own.”
“No. It wasn’t on my own.” It was amazingly clear to me, clearer than it had ever been. That day at school had been the start. “Maybe I wasn’t ready to face it then. But eventually I did and put in the work. Thanks to you.”
I saw the same shrug I had seen so many years before, but inside a well-tailored suit rather than a t-shirt. And instead of it stinging, it lifted me up. “Like I said. Glad to help. I’m proud of you.”
I couldn’t meet his eyes. Instead, I trapped the book pages open with my hand and gulped down the lump in my throat. It tasted bitter but sweet.
“So, can I make this out to ‘My best friend, Jimmy’?”
“Sure. As long as you’re sure.” I nodded and signed the book. We exchanged e-mails and shook hands. I knew where I would send my next manuscript once it was ready for outside eyes. Friends like that were too precious to waste and I had already let ten years get by me with Jimmy.