1:45pm. It was a good time. It was the most logical time, he’d concluded, after several hours of debating when the best time would be. The store should be as empty as it gets during the day and he would have the best chance of striking up a conversation with her in the most nonchalant, seemingly uncalculated way possible. 1:45pm was it. He’d fallen asleep repeating it to himself like a mantra.
He looked at the clock. 1:38pm. He was already sweating. He clenched and unclenched his hands, then wiped his wet palms on his apron. He shook them, trying to air dry them, and told himself to stop it. This was the plan. He would not let himself deviate from it, no matter how nauseous he got.
He’d waited so long for this, refusing to let himself make a move before he earned the promotion. Now, newly settled in the deli department and proudly managing the responsibility of the high-quality deli meats there was no way his inner judge could justify not making a move. He wasn’t monstrous looking, he had a good job, he had an uncanny ability to mimic great moves from classic kung-fu movies and several other quality characteristics he’d been reminding himself of all day. He was just as much of a catch as Charlie Gelecki if not more so because he wasn’t perpetually stoned. Plus, they’d broken up 5 months, 21 days and 6 hours ago anyway.
He looked up over the counter and caught her arraigning a garland of brightly colored fall leaves around the salad bar. She had a slightly far off look in her eyes and a small smile crossing her perfectly shaped lips. He instinctively looked down to avoid her seeing him staring. Dammit! How had she snuck up on him without him noticing?
“Breathe, Jeff- breathe,” he chided himself.
“Dude, you ok?” a voice came from behind him.
He jumped and let out a small, started grunt as he turned around to see Niles looking at him sideways.
“Sh-sh-shit!” he stammered. Goddammit- he was already stuttering. No, no, no! This couldn’t happen, not now! He bit his tongue and tried to breathe through the obstruction in his partially opened mouth.
“Wow- what the hell is going on?” Niles said.
Jeff looked down at his feet and reminded himself of how perfectly ordinary and not on fire they were. They felt like they were on fire, of course. And his stomach felt as if it was about to empty out the remainder of the breakfast he’d barely managed to choke down before coming on his shift. And his head felt like it might fly clear off his body and rattle around the giant building like a pinball in a really big machine. It was all he could manage to move his head in her direction.
“Oh, is it time?” Niles asked him, the dawn of understanding in his voice.
Jeff forced himself to glance up at the clock. 1:42pm. He opened his mouth and inhaled, his tongue bouncing the way it did when his stutter was acting up.
“Dude, it’s ok- seriously. Like I said, we got the best job in the store, you got the best sense of humor and if she’s too stupid to no- yeah, sure! I’ll go get it right now,” Niles interrupted himself, rapidly darting his eyes at Jeff.
Jeff turned and nearly swallowed his tongue at the site of Chelsea standing right in front him, her smiling eyes shining at him.
“Hey” she said, her ponytail bouncing slightly as she tilted her head at him.
“Hey Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-“ he stopped and bit his tongue, hard. Not now! He couldn’t choke now. It must be 1:45pm and 1:45pm was the perfect time. He took a breath, closed his eyes and breathed out “Hey Chelsea.” It sounded normal if a bit a winded. He opened his eyes, looked directly at her and said “How’s it g-going?”
“Good,” she smiled at him. He studied her face. Her smile hadn’t wilted at all and she seemed to be completely ignoring his stutter. It strengthened his determination.
“List-st-sten,” he stumbled. He bit his tongue again and tasted blood. He swallowed, sang the sentence to himself in his head and proceeded, “I was wondering if you wanted to go that Ha-ha-ha-halloween party with me.” It was not the way he had practiced and the ‘halloween’ had come out in a shout. But there was nothing he could do about it now.
He was just starting to curse himself for epically screwing up when the sound of “I’d love to” slammed into his ears like a sonic boom. He blinked and looked up at her.
She was smiling, even wider than before. She wasn’t joking.
“I was actually gonna ask if you wanted to go- I love Halloween, it’s my favorite holiday, like, ever, and I really wanted to go but I kind-of felt stupid going alone and I thought that if you wanted go then we could go together and it might cool and I-“ she stopped herself mid sentence and looked down. Jeff waited, holding his breath.
“I’m babbling,” she said as she raised her head, her lower lip tucked firmly under her perfect top lip as she grinned at him. He’d been studying her facial expressions since he first saw her. He knew the look. She was embarrassed.
He exhaled. His tongue stopped jumping down his throat. The room suddenly cooled and his head settled heavily onto his neck. He smiled at her and forgot all about looking like an idiot.
He’d forget the rest of the conversation they had after that. He’d wonder if she said yes because she liked him or just really loved Halloween. He’d wonder if she had been nervous because it was him or because she just really hated going to parties by herself. He’d drive himself to the brink of madness with anxiety until he’d drop her off that night after the party and she’d place a small, tentative kiss on his cheek before getting out of his car. And after that day, whenever he doodled in his notebook at school, he’d doodle “1:45pm”.