Jenny stood staring at the bookshelf, looking for just the right friend to take the edges off a horrid day.
Lifting a sentimental favorite from the shelf, she opened it to inhale the aroma of age and shared history.
Memories spilled forth instead, and as she gazed upon them, she slipped backwards in time…
Years back… To a time when life seemed bathed in a golden light and youthful hearts quaked with fragile feelings.
Ever back her mind drifted. To the day a simple gift of kindness opened her world to the magic within a human heart.
The bell rang and the class bolted from their seats like pardoned prisoners, anxious for the freedom of the weekend.
Only Jenny and Daphne lingered, eager for the chance of one last conversation before the “big night.”
“So?” said Daphne, already flush with conspiracy, “Are you nervous?”
Now it was Jenny’s turn to flush, “Good grief, Daph! It’s just a movie. It’s not like we’re getting married or anything.”
Daphne laughed, “Oh, but this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship that LEADS to marriage!”
“Just imagine,” continued Daphne, giggling, “You could fall madly in love this very night…”
“…and get married and live happily ever after,” finished Jenny, laughing along. “Probably not on the first date.”
But then the anxiety returned, and she looked at Daphne with soulful eyes. “Oh, Daph. Do you really think he likes me?”
“I mean look at me,” she continued, “I’m… boring and… nothing compared to him. Why me? Why choose me?”
Exasperated, she clutched her chest and wailed, “I don’t even have boobs yet!”
Daphne laughed and wrapped her arm around Jenny’s shoulder. “Why not you, silly?”
“Boobs or not, doofus,” she went on, “You’re one the smartest, funniest, and most beautiful people I know.”
“Everybody loves you! You’re just nervous, is all.”
Managing a weak smile, Jenny put her arm around her best friend’s waist and squeezed back warmly.
“If you say so, doofus.”
Together they strolled out of the classroom and into the afternoon light for the walk home.
Along the way they talked and joked about the date to come, and Jenny’s nerves rose and fell on her friend’s warm humor.
When they reached Jenny’s house, Daphne gave her friend one last hug and kiss on the cheek.
“Have FUN tonight, honey,” she said, “Enjoy the movie, enjoy the company, and don’t let your nerves run away with you.”
“I’ll try, “said Jenny, hugging her friend back fiercely, “But I don’t think the nerves are going anywhere anytime soon.”
A short time later, after a quick shower and a not-so-quick stare into the closet, Jenny heard the phone ring downstairs.
For a few tense seconds she was sure her date was about to be cancelled. That disaster was about to strike.
But when her mother announced Benji’s name as the caller, relief flooded in and she flew down the stairs to take the phone.
“Benji!” she squealed into the receiver, “I’m so glad you called! I’m a nervous wreck here!”
Benji chuckled at the other end of the line, “I kinda thought you might be. So you’re still coming to tonight’s show, then?”
“Yes,” said Jenny, “He’s supposed to pick me up in about an hour and we’ll be down there for the 8:45 show. Are you working?”
“Yep,” said Benji. “I’ll be projectionist tonight, so you probably won’t see me on the floor unless you come out for a pee.”
In spite of herself, Jenny blushed again. Benji was always saying stuff like this; he seemed to enjoy embarrassing her.
They had been friends since grade school, meeting in P.E. on Benji’s first day.
Some of the other boys had tried to intimidate Benji by making fun of how his baggy shorts flopped around his skinny legs.
Rather than back down, Benji had asked if they’d rather he took them off, and proceeded to do just that.
As he stood there, basking in their confused responses, he had looked at Jenny and grinned, and a fast friendship was formed.
Over the years, the two had discovered a common love of old books and movies, and had spent many a day sharing stories.
Jenny considered Benji the trailblazer of the two, always quick to try new things and test the waters of life.
He would then recount the results in hilarious tales that made Jenny double with laughter, tears squirting from her eyes.
But it was the movies that really bonded the two together; a shared love of flickering faces and sharp dialog from the past.
When Benji took a job at the local movie theatre, Jenny would visit him and the two would talk film for hours on end.
Today was different, though.
“But you probably won’t have to pee, will you doofus?” said Benji, “What with Mr. Perfection so close by.”
“Stop it, you,” laughed Jenny, “You’re just jealous that I’m going on a date and you’re going to smell like popcorn.”
“I ALWAYS smell like popcorn, silly,” said Benji with mock seriousness, “It’s an important part of a balanced breakfast.”
“Ha. Ha,” said Jenny, “Very funny. I suppose there’s a reason you are keeping me from my VERY important date?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were OK,” said Benji, suddenly serious. “I know how worked up you can get.”
Jenny was silent for a moment before answering. “I’m OK, I guess. It’s just… you know… it’s a first date.”
“And you really like this guy,” said Benji, finishing the thought for her.
“Look, punkin, ” he continued,”You’ll be fine. This guy wouldn’t have asked you out if he didn’t like you. You know that.”
“But…,” started Jenny.
“But nothing,” said Benji. “You’ll. Be. Fine. Just don’t start molesting him until after the lights go down.”
Jenny blushed again, “BENJI!”
“Haha! Got you, doofus!” he laughed. “Look. See Beth when you get there. I bought your tickets and she’ll have the snacks.”
“I’ve got to run now, and you’ve got to put on the blue dress,” he said. “I’ll talk to you later tonight after close, OK?”
“OK,” said Jenny, with some regret. “I’ll probably be home by eleven. Promise you’ll call me?”
“Sure thing, doofus,” he said, “Keep your fingers and you toes inside the ride at all times. Have fun and ‘bye’ for now.”
Jenny smiled. “Bye, dork,” she said, before quickly adding: “And Benji? Thank you…”
“Talk to you later, Jen,” he said, and then the line fell dead.
Jenny looked at the clock, then immediately ran upstairs to change into the blue dress. It was almost time.
By the time her date arrived, Jenny had checked her make-up six times and changed into four different pairs of shoes.
Her nerves were shot, but she was pleased to see his smile as he looked her over in the foyer.
“You look great,” he said, before ushering her out to his car for the short drive into town.
Parking across the street, they walked side-by-side towards the site of Jenny’s first date.
Beth greeted them inside and waved excitedly to them from the concession stand.
“Everything’s all squared away,” she said with a grin, “Benji’s told me to give you whatever you want.”
“Sweet!” said her date, before ordering a matched set of popcorn and sodas, “Benji’s a real pal, you know?”
They collected their snacks and moved into the auditorium to take their seats.
Jenny felt a tingle of excitement as the lights went low and the beautiful boy beside her snuggled up close.
As the previews played, they munched through their popcorn, then stuffed the empty bags under the seats.
And as the feature played, they leaned closer to one another, whispering commentary back and forth in the shadows.
Jenny’s heart pounded in her chest as his fingers folded into hers, her mind screaming “HE LIKES ME!”
The movie played on, but Jenny no longer had any idea or concern over what it was about.
All she could think of was the warmth of his hand in hers, and how the tip of his index finger caressed her arm.
How she could feel his pulse beating against hers.
His hand had moved further up her arm, and with an electric shock, she felt his fingertip brush against her breast.
As she turned to face him, he leaned in quickly and met her mouth with his.
For a moment, Jenny was too shocked to respond. Lips closed she returned his kiss, letting go of his hand to caress his cheek
It wasn’t until she felt his hand sliding under her skirt that her senses snapped back to reality.
“Mm, wait…,” she began, but he bore down harder on her lips, and she felt his tongue probe for an opening.
His hand moved higher.
Twisting her head to break free from the kiss, Jenny grabbed his hand and tried to push it away from her legs.
His voice whispered into her ear, “Come on, baby.”
“No,” she muttered weakly, “I can’t… Don’t…”
The hand returned, this time more firmly.
Jenny’s heart was now racing for an entirely different reason. Fear and anger had replaced romance and acceptance.
She grabbed his hand again and sharply pushed it from beneath her skirt. “Please,” she said. “Stop.”
His head snapped back from hers and she saw irritation flash behind his eyes.
“What’s the matter, baby?” he said.
Jenny felt the tears coming and knew that if he saw them things would only get worse. She tried to stand.
His hand clutched at her elbow and his voiced hissed, “Where do you think you’re going? You’re making a scene!”
Jenny was now shaking with fear and anger. Violently jerking her arm away, she stood and turned to face him.
“I thought you LIKED me!” she cried.
Her voice had been loud enough for others in the theater to hear. Heads began to turn in their direction.
The beautiful beast looked up at her with an expression so cold, so full of DISMISSAL, that Jenny broke and ran.
Tears flowing from her eyes, she rushed from the auditorium into the lobby.
Beth watched her rush by and started to say something only to be cut off as Jenny flew into the ladies room.
Inside, Jenny shut herself into a stall, and burst into tears.
Fury, fear, but above all, a sense of betrayal washed over her. The pain was as sharp as a razor.
“WHY?!?” she screamed, “WHY ME?!?” Then she crumpled to the floor and buried her face in her hands.
It was only a few moments before she heard a soft knock on the door and Benji’s voice calling her name.
“Jenny? he said tentatively, “Are you in here? Are you alright?”
She heard the door open and the slow shuffle of his feet as he approached the stall.
“Sweetie?” he said, “It’s me. Beth said you were in here. Can you let me in and tell me what just happened?”
“I’m so ashamed,” she sobbed, “I thought he liked me.”
Benji dropped to the floor and wiggled beneath the stall door. Once inside, he wrapped his arms around his friend.
Jenny leaned into him and, and as he gently rocked her back and forth, wept freely into his shoulder.
Benji let her cry.
As the initial wave subsided, he reached up to pull down some tissues for her to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
Jenny took these silently, merely looking up at him briefly through red rimmed eyes before diverting her gaze in shame.
“H-h-he didn’t like me at all,” she began, choking back fresh sobs, “He only wanted…” She let the thought hang there.
Benji said nothing, but continued to hold her close as he stroked her hair and rocked back and forth.
The two friends sat like this for some time, until Beth stuck her head in the door to say the movie was ending.
Knowing the bathroom would soon be occupied, Benji helped Jenny gently to her feet and and walked her to the theater office.
Once there, he guided her to a couch and helped her lie down among the cushions.
Taking a box of tissues from the desk, he knelt beside her and, with the gentlest of motions, began to dry her eyes.
“We’ll stay in here until the place clears out,” he soothed, “Beth can handle finishing things up.”
And so they sat, a damaged girl and a caring friend, until the last of customers had left.
After an hour or so, Jenny’s tears had exhausted themselves, and Benji shifted his position to sit next to her on the couch.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked softly.
“Not really, no,” said Jenny, “I just want to go home and forget this night ever happened.”
Benji nodded, then asked, “Do you want me to walk you home, then?”
Jenny looked up at him and nodded, grateful for the offer.
“Come on, then,” he said, “Let’s get you out of here.”
The night air had chilled somewhat, so Benji shed his jacket and draped it across her shoulders for protection.
As they walked, he began to talk about nothing in particular.
“Do you remember that time we played flashlight tag as kids?” he began, “When I ran headfirst into that tree in the dark?”
“Remember how I had split my forehead wide open and how the blood the blood had everyone freaked out?”
Jenny nodded. It had been a ghastly looking wound, far worse than it actually ended up being.
“You were the only one that didn’t freak,” Benji continued. “You brought me in and cleaned and bandaged the cut.”
“Everybody thought I was going to bleed to death, but you just shushed them all and set about making things right.”
“Hell, I could barely sit still from the pain, but you just kept right on working, asking me if I felt dizzy or lightheaded.”
“Well,” said Jenny, ” I had to make sure you weren’t brain damaged or anything. It’s not like you’ve a lot to spare.”
Benji tipped his head back and roared in laughter. Somewhere, a few streets over, a dog began to bark.
“You see?” he said, catching his wind again, “That’s your magic, Jen.”
“Even in the worst of circumstances, you always find a way to make it better for someone else.”
“Either with kindness or laughter,” he continued, “you find just the right moment to chase all the pain and fear away.”
Benji stopped in front of her and placed his hands on her shoulders.
With level sincerity he looked into her eyes and said, “You, are the best person I have ever known.”
“No matter what happened tonight,” he went on, “You are still YOU.”
He turned away from her and bent to rummage around on the ground.
After a few moments, he stood back up and held out his hand.
“To me, Jenny,” he began, “You’re a little like these wildflowers. Only to untrained eyes do you seem small and fragile.”
“But the people that know you – that have watched you grow into a beautiful young woman – know better.”
“We know how tough your roots are, how strong your hold on life can be.”
“You are magnificent to us because of this, and we look upon you with wonder and awe.”
“You are a gift that fills our lives with color and joy, and we protect you and nurture you as if our lives depend upon it.”
“Know that I am here with you. Daphne and your mom and dad, too. We will ALWAYS be with you.”
“This night is but a moment in time. The worst is over and a new day is coming.”
It was with an entirely different set of tears in her eyes that Jenny took the flowers from Benji’s hand.
She didn’t say anything; nor did she need to.
The two walked in silence the rest of the way home, parting with a hug at the front door.
After washing up for bed, Jenny placed the flowers on her nightstand and fell asleep thinking of them.
Her dreams were a heaven filled with the real love of true friends and family.
And in the morning, she placed the flowers between the pages of a treasured book, a gesture she knew Benji would appreciate.
And here they were again, all these years later, right where they needed to be.
Benji’s promise. Ever kept, and ever treasured.