"Your smile always makes me so happy."
He stood behind the jewelry counter and made random comments like that whenever I passed. And every time, I did the same stupid thing in reply. Giggled and hurried by before he noticed the blush from the heat that engulfed my face.
He drove me crazy. And I mean that in every possible sense of the idiom. But I'm beginning in the middle of the story. Let me backup just a bit.
It was my twenty-eighth year on the planet. Unable to find steady work in my field as a freelance writer, I bounced from job to job. I had just ended a short stint as a server's assistant at a mediocre Tex-Mex joint and now found myself working as an associate at a well-known, once upon a time upscale, but now mediocre, department store.
It was three days into my newest role as a fitting room attendant, while I returned a half dozen elastic waist, petite pants to their respective rack, when I glanced toward the jewelry department and noticed behind the register stood a tall, slender, dark-haired fella in a black suit.
Before I could get all six slacks put back, Nora, who started the same day I did, rushed up to me, a few sequined dresses draped over one arm, a short stack of jeans cradled in the other.
"Have you seen the new guy yet?" Her enticing tone matched the hunger in her eyes and suggested, if I hadn't, I really should.
"If it's the dude in jewelry"– I nodded in his direction–"I just noticed him."
"Yeah, that's him." The yearning in her eyes turned into more of the moon-eyed gaze of a giddy school girl when she looked his way. She heaved a sigh.
"Oh, isn't he a dream?" Carmen walked between me and Nora, leaned on the rack, and peered at him from behind the price sign. I thought for sure she would drool on the polyester pants.
He must have felt the four fiery eyes of my lusty co-workers and my two squinting eyes of curiosity bore into him, because he looked up from whatever he did and glanced in our direction.
Carmen and Nora both squealed and hurried off, each in their own fluster, and left me shaking my head in awe of the outlandish display of adolescent immaturity I just witnessed.
Okay, now I had to get a better look at this dude.
I headed back toward the fitting room for one last check before I left for the day. As I passed the jewelry counter, I attempted my best look-but-don't-look-like-I'm-looking maneuver. And it almost worked, until he looked and caught me not looking him up and down, and I panicked.
"Hi!" I blurted and then said it again, because, well, I'm awkward that way. I could tell my smile was lopsided and my eyes were wide. I tripped over my own foot. My embarrassment burned my cheeks with the flames of a thousand candles.
"Hey." His toothy grin held back the guffaw I knew he wanted to let out. "I'm Campbell." He straightened his name tag, then his tie.
"Oh, I'm Danni." I straightened my smile. "Nice to meet you." And it was. I mean, I wouldn't use Carmen's description or get all googly-eyed over him, but he had a nice face. And the rest of him wasn't half bad, either.
"You, too." He winked. Or maybe his eye only twitched.
At least, that's what I told myself while we stared at each other stupidly. Well, he looked stupid, with his brows raised and his lips parted as though he was ready with the perfect reply to what he thought I was about to say. I didn't want to disappoint him, but I really had nothing more to say. To be nice, I tried to think of something, but all I could do was focus on his eyes.
We've all seen different shades of blue eyes and have heard them sung about in sappy love songs, but I never realized brown eyes came in varied degrees of brownness. Yet, there his were, brighter, more vibrant, than any I'd ever seen.
They had a caramel glint to them, and they resembled the amber pendants that glistened in the showcase he leaned on. Just like the jewels, they were unique and very pretty. And it suddenly became quite warm where I stood. Luckily, per the clock on the wall behind him, it was the-end-of-my-shift o'clock.
"Oh, good! Time to go!" Thinking back, I might've sounded a little too relieved to be leaving. "See ya." I shrugged and walked away.
I didn't get ten feet from the counter, when I tripped on the uneven floor tile I stumbled over on my first day. The mental note I made about it must've gotten erased, and I heard a chuckle from behind. I knew better than to glance back, which meant, of course, I did.
He leaned coolly against a column beside the register, his hands in his pockets. His toothy grin sparkled like the gems he peddled and, damn it, his caramel eye twitched again. He really needed to have that checked out, and I really needed to go.
I wish I could say the next time I saw him was less awkward, or the time after that, or any of the three hundred more times I would encounter him over the two years we toiled together in the bowels of retail hell. But I can't. Actually, some shifts were worse. But, regardless of how flustered I might've gotten while speaking with him, I always looked forward to the days we worked together. I could bear not getting paid what I was worth so long as work didn't feel so, you know, worky. And he definitely made each shift more bearable.
I admit it. He got to me. I don't know what did it for Nora or Carmen but, for me, it was those damned melted-caramel eyes of his, and how they sparkled under the bleak, fluorescent department store lighting.
When the one didn't twitch whenever he saw me, the scampish glint in both whenever he not so subtly scanned my figure, simply put, reminded me what it meant to feel like a woman, to both desire and be desired.
And if he did that from behind a broken-down department store counter with nothing but the gleam of the flickering fluorescent lights that refracted off his eyes, just imagine what he could do within arms’ reach, in the soft shine of an end table lamp, with nothing but his hands or, dare I say, his lips.
Oh, believe you me, if I knew, I'd tell you every steamy, torrid detail. But, alas! He and I… we… didn't exist apart from the rusted four-way racks that teetered on uneven feet and scratched showcases with broken locks that we began to resemble, worn out and broken, rudely mistreated by the public.
Why we never met on the outside, I don't know, aside from no one ever asked. It was as though we had some unspoken understanding that whatever awkward flirtations happened within the peeling, faded walls of the store stayed within the store.
It was a good arrangement. Until, one day, he was gone.
"They said he called and said he wasn't coming in anymore because he got some other job offer." Nora shrugged and walked off with an armful of swimsuits in need of hangers.
I have never been punched in the stomach, but, at that moment, I had a much better understanding of how it probably felt. Tears burned the backs of my eyes, and I hurried from the sales floor and reached the fitting room just in time to cry in semi privacy.
He left without so much as a hint of goodbye. How could he just walk away like that? I thought my smile made him happy, and seeing me made his day. Wasn't that worth a goodbye? Wasn't I?
I looked at myself in the dusty, smudged mirror. Tears left my eyes quicker than I could wipe them away, and I wasn't sure if they fell for him or for myself.
Either way, they resulted from a hurt, or maybe an anger, I never knew before, and they needed to stop. I had a jeans wall to organize. But the tears had stubborn minds of their own and soaked my face, in spite of the task that depended on me.
So, I spent the last hour of my shift hiding in the fitting room in silent-cry mode and wondered how much longer I'd be able to drag myself to this dreadful place.
The answer came soon enough.
After almost two and a half years, it was time to quit, anyway. My resemblance to the broken fixtures had become more than just a simile, and I had endured retail weariness as long as I could, especially, without Campbell and his attentive, outspoken eyes there to distract me from the madding monotony.
Oh, those eyes.
Twelve years later, and I've never encountered another pair like them. Sure, I've met the wanton, leering stares of a lascivious creep or two, and I've vainly attempted to gaze adoringly into a pair of dull, hazel peepers that perfectly matched the personality of the man who held me, but never have eyes, and what they sparked within me, haunted me as his have. And never has the memory of a man stalked me as his has.
Oh, what I wouldn't give to go back to those days and that musty old store, when, at any given time, I could glance his way and be met by his impish grin and a wink of his roguish eye.
And what I wouldn't give to go back to any one of those evenings we closed the store together and actually behave like an adult, not some bashful little girl, and be the sensual, appealing woman he made me feel I was, and tell him what I most feared to say. I loved him.
There, I said it. Of course, telling you all these years later isn't quite the same as telling him at the time, is it? But I did. I loved him. And more than that, I was in love with him. And, I guess, if I'm completely honest, a part of me still is.
No, I don't know what did it for Nora and Carmen but, for me, it was those damned evocative, caramel eyes and everything else about the man who knew how to use them.