Hot Coffee Shop Guy, or, The One That Got Away

This is an essay I wrote for Real Simple Magazine’s essay contest. It didn’t place, but it was fun to write. I titled it “To Have Loved And Lost On Cinco de Mayo” but that doesn’t have to be the title.

I hung up the phone as I pulled into a parking space in the back lot. Having finalized the evening’s plans for Cinco de Mayo with my sister, I prepared to go inside for a quick study session before heading to her house. A quick  curl of my lashes, a touch of mascara and a swipe of shiny lip gloss later, I was ready. I got out of my car, straightened my amethyst- colored, knee-length dress and pulled my hair out of a high ponytail, tousling it into a cascade of waves tumbling around my shoulders. I headed across the parking lot, up the stairs and through the open door of my favorite coffee shop, ready to meet the deep-sea blue gaze of hot coffee shop guy. Only, this time, he wasn’t there.

The first time I saw him was a balmy Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in the coffee shop at a round table near the front window, writing a sermon and sipping an iced caramel coffee. I didn’t see him walk in and set his stuff down but, during a momentary lapse of inspiration, I took a break from writing and looked up to clear my head and found myself staring at the most attractive person I’d ever seen.

He had striking blue eyes, messy-yet-perfect hair, and a perfectly chiseled face. He was impeccably dressed and he was looking at me. I tried for a sultry smile that turned out less sultry and more “oh my gosh I just found a prize in my cereal box!” I spent the rest of the afternoon sermon-writing and taking breaks to look up and catch hot coffee shop guy looking at me. Every now and then, he’d take breaks from his writing to look up and find me looking at him.

We did this dance for about three weeks. Every Sunday afternoon from about three to seven, and on a few random weekday afternoons, we would sit: I at my round table next to the front window and he at a small square table near the back. He would write, I would write, and neither of us ever spoke to each other – just stolen glances here and there. He was absolutely perfect… and I was absolutely awkward.

I’ve been this way ever since I was born. I just don’t know what to do with myself. Am I supposed to let my arms hang by my sides, or is it better to cross them since they are so long? If I want to talk to someone after church and they’re already in conversation with someone else am I supposed to stand next to them and wait, or just watch them like a stalker from afar until they’re free? When a guy is looking at me in the coffee shop what am I supposed to do?

A normal person would walk over and introduce herself. An awkward Sara would sit and stare, which is exactly what I did for three weeks. Pathetic, isn’t it? It’s not like I didn’t think about it but every time I thought I’d garnered enough nerve to go over there and say “hello,”  I’d find another reason not to: “maybe he’s not single and so there would be no point,” “maybe he’s working against a deadline and doesn’t want to be bothered,” “maybe he just doesn’t want to be bothered by me.” Thus, as has been the case for longer than I care to acknowledge, my fear of rejection wormed its way into yet another potentially rewarding situation leaving me (even though I knew I looked great in that dress) less confident and more insecure than ever.

My sister and I discussed it later that evening as she diced tomatoes and onions and I mashed avocado and minced garlic together in a colorful bowl. Our signature guacamole has made an appearance at many a dinner and movie night at her house, especially on Cinco de Mayo. “Well, you’re never gonna get anywhere if all you plan to do is sit and stare. So next time, go talk to him. Give him your number. Who knows what’ll happen?” It was an excellent point, except I knew what would happen. I’d rather have pins and needles shoved under my fingernails than be the first to make a move, so I’d be doomed forever to be the onlooker from afar, the wallflower in the background, the proverbial fly on the wall.

You know that girl that’s always locked in “ the friend zone?” the one with “the great personality?” That’s me. At least, that’s what I’ve always believed. This “what to do when a guy notices you” problem is a recent development for me. Not that I haven’t had my fair share of crushes, I’ve just always been fairly certain that each one was one-sided. I always saw myself as the girl who would have a ton of guy friends, but not necessarily a ton of boyfriends. You know, always a wedding guest, never a bride.

I think somewhere along the path of my life I locked myself into that identity and when, during the “semester of hot coffee shop guy,” something inside me tried to challenge my ugly duckling view of myself, I totally freaked out. It’s why every paper is just short of excellent, why every sermon could go just the tiniest bit further and really hit the mark, why those last few pounds hang on and I let them stay: accepting that I’m good enough, smart enough, pretty enough is so drastic a move and so dramatic a life change that it might actually bring new adventures my way – and that scares me to death. So maybe, instead of rejection, it was a fear of success that kept me from ever talking to hot coffee shop guy.

This year’s Cinco de Mayo was going to be the turning point: the day I left my fears behind and seized the day. I was going to walk through the door, his oh-so-beautiful eyes meeting mine as I set my stuff down. Then, I’d walk to his table, and introduce myself. Instead, after three weeks of letting my fears get the best of me, I walked into a mostly empty coffee-shop, having missed my chance to at least be able to stop referring to him as “hot coffee shop guy,” and at most, prove to myself that it is possible to rise above your fears. I went back several times over the next few weeks, just in case. Each time, he was never there and each time, I discovered that my penchant for letting fear decide the course of my life had gotten the best of me.

I don’t know what would have happened that day, had he been there and had I actually managed to garner the courage to do it. But I do know that life is too short to be sustained on fears of the unknown, whether fears of failure or success. I can’t help but wonder how different this story would be if I’d decided to talk to hot coffee shop guy, instead of shying away in fear.  Next Cinco de Mayo will be different. I won’t be afraid. I will walk over and say “Hi. I’m Sara. I’ll be over at that table and would love it if you would join me for a cup of coffee, and maybe an afternoon of Cinco de Mayo fun.”

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