In my gut, I suppose I’ve always known he isn’t Mr. Happily-Ever-After. But sometimes I like to pretend.

I’m not quite ready to give up the way I feel when I hear his voice on the phone, when I see an e-mail from him in my In Box, when I open my door to find him standing there with his arms outstretched to hug me.

This thing between us seems to be greater than a friendship and less than a relationship. I know: I could just come right out and ask him, “What’s the deal with you and me?’’ That’s what my friends tell me to do.

But I don’t.

Instead, I call his house at 10 p.m. and — when a woman answers — I hang up. Reflex. A few seconds later — she could be anyone, right? — I hit Redial.

This time he answers. I ‘fess up: “That was me who just called and hung up. Is now a bad time? Got a hot date?’’

He says: “Don’t be silly. She’s just a friend visiting from out of town.’’ He doesn’t even bother to say her name — I like that.

I’ve had a crush on this man since the day he derailed my train of thought just by walking into a meeting. He was — is — tall and athletic with shaggy brown hair. I wanted to touch his arm.

Instead, I avoided eye contact with his side of the conference room (nothing new here: I always avoid the people I most want to meet), certain everyone could hear my heart thumping. I dropped my chin to my chest and feigned serious note-taking. And it worked — we never even spoke.

But I knew his name, and the next day, hoping he’d remember mine, I asked him out to lunch. He said yes.

That was a year ago.

Not quite ‘The Love Boat’

Since then, this man and I have become close. We say, “It’s me’’ when we call. We sign our e-mails with our first initials. We hug hello and kiss goodbye. We’ve fallen asleep on the couch together.

Where is this cruise ship headed? I can’t bring myself to ask.

Maybe because I know it’s already docked. If we were going to have a serious relationship, we’d have one by now, right? We’d be driving each other to the airport, we’d be planning weekend getaways, we’d be meeting the folks. We wouldn’t let two weeks pass without contact.

Not that I’m counting: I don’t have time! I’m much too busy editing the movie of my life — choosing which scenes to leave in, which to slice out.

He’s Jewish, I’m not. I suppose that could be a problem. He’s a spender, I’m a saver. But why focus on little matters when I could be zooming in on more important things?

Like, I know he thinks I’m great — he tells me straight out. He holds the phone out and invites me to sing “Happy Birthday’’ to his mom long distance.

He invites me to go house shopping with him and his Realtor. Stepping through front door after front door with him by my side, I wonder if it makes more sense to sell my house or keep it for rental income.

He goes for his wallet when the dinner check arrives and asks, “Want to see the love of my life?’’

Do I?

Before I can decide, I watch his face melt like ice cream as he hands me a photo of his 2-year-old niece.

And there’s the message he left on my machine last week. I was sure I’d heard wrong. I replayed it six times. Needing an outside opinion, I called my friend Teri who confirmed it on the first listen: He said “Love you’’ right before he said “Bye.’’

Getting the girl

In a flash I was 16 again, when Jay — the first love of my life — tore a page out of his spiral bound notebook, wrote “I Love You’’ in pencil and left it on my windshield. (I still have it, stashed away in a box in my hall closet with every other sappy note any man has ever written me.)

I am a woman. I eat this stuff up.

Of course, I also know I’m kidding myself. But is a little self-delusion such a disgraceful thing? Do I have to be honest with myself all the time?

The thing is, he reminds me these feelings are possible. And that doesn’t seem such a horrible thing to hang onto as I add first date after first date to the pile on the cutting room floor.

He reminds me there’s a gushy girl inside me — a girl I don’t want to lose — who isn’t afraid to follow her heart even if it might get squashed.

The same girl who let herself fall for a guy with a live-in girlfriend when she was 23, thinking he’d dump the girlfriend for her (wrong). The same girl who, at 25, came within millimeters of quitting her job to follow a man to Europe. So what if he was 35 and going nowhere fast? It just felt good to love him.

When it comes to matters of the heart, sometimes I prefer to stay in the dark and lose myself in the fairy tale on the big screen. I know eventually the movie will end and I’ll have to open the door and deal with the bright light of reality.

But for now, I figure, why rush it?

published monday, june 24, 1996, in the san jose mercury news
copyright 1996 jessa vartanian . all rights reserved
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