I'm a stalker. The good kind.
Well, I was a stalker. It's been a while. Even so, it's hard to admit that you've followed, eavesdropped, spied, lurked, skulked and bribed in the name of love. But I've done all of those things—rather well, I might add. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter how old you are, what level of schooling you've had or where you live—stalking is innate to the female psyche. We've all been there.
In my case, I stalked Joe Carpenter from the age of fourteen and a half until I went away to college. By stalking, what I mean is this. I knew where my subject lived. I knew his middle name, his mother's name, his sister's name, his dog's name. I knew what kind of truck he drove, his favorite color, the names of his past four girlfriends, his favorite beer, where he went to happy hour on Fridays, which songs he played on the jukebox. I knew where he worked, how he took his coffee and his grade from third year Spanish. There wasn't much I didn't know about Joe Carpenter.
While I didn't quite meet the legal definition of stalking, I may have driven by Joe's house once or twice. Maybe more. (It was more.) I was known to "run into" him, a calculated maneuver executed with military precision and made to look quite accidental. It took years of training to reach the level of "coincidence" I developed. I probably shouldn't be proud of that. Still, a talent is a talent.
It started in freshman biology at Nauset High School in Eastham, Massachusetts. Joe's seat was diagonally in front of mine, and in order to look at the blackboard, I had to look past Joe. And I couldn't. Not many women could look past Joe, even when he was fourteen years old. Then I discovered that his locker was three down from mine, and the stalking began.
Joe might mention to a friend that he was going to the beach after school, and I'd show up, too, crouching illegally in the terns' nesting area so as not to be discovered, watching Joe frolic with the in crowd. I'd see his mom's car at the store as my dad drove me home and suddenly blurt the need for tampons, knowing that feminine hygiene products would ensure that my father remained in the parking lot. I'd skulk through the store aisles, hoping for a glimpse of Joe Carpenter. I'd ride my bike around town, looking for Joe, stopping once I saw him to check the air levels in my perfectly inflated tires, carefully not noticing him, simply lurking in his golden presence.
Joe became, ironically, a carpenter, known professionally as Joe Carpenter the Carpenter. Thanks to my years of research, I knew what others, too sidetracked by his beauty, might have missed—Joe was honest, humble, hardworking and sweet. He performed anonymous acts of kindness, took pride in his work and treated people with benevolence and good cheer. He even adopted a three-legged dog. And yes, Joe Carpenter was gorgeous.
He had the kind of looks that made breathing irrelevant. A smile from Joe could cause waitresses to drop coffee carafes, sending splinters of glass skittering across a restaurant while they stared dreamily at my subject. Cars had collided when he jogged across an intersection, rooms had fallen silent at his entrance. And God in heaven, if he took off his shirt when he was outside working. . . Tourists had been known to stop and photograph the beauty Joe provided. Forget Nauset Light, take a picture of that!
Not a woman alive could remain unaffected by Joe's looks. Dark blond hair, streaked with lighter gold from his hours in the sun. Clean, strong bone structure. Pure green eyes framed by impossibly long, thick golden eyelashes. Dimples. A slightly lopsided, boyish smile. Perfect teeth. Of course, Joe knew he was beautiful—a person couldn't look like that and not be aware of the effect he had on others. But he never flaunted it. Usually a little scruffy, he didn't seem to care too much about his appearance. His hair was often tousled, as if recently from bed. He was frequently unshaven. Clothes rumpled. Effortlessly, magnificently appealing.
Joe and I were both native Cape Codders, both in the same school year. We weren't friends, though we might have said hello to each other a few times in high school. (It was three times, and these slight acknowledgments in front of our peers caused bursts of giddy joy and acne as my hormones surged with the thrill.)
And then came The Time—the monumental event that ensured Joe's status in my heart forever more.
In sophomore year of high school, our class made the trip to Plymouth Plantation. With the curious mix of ennui and exuberance typical of fifteen-year-olds, we spent an hour on our rattling, fume-ridden bus before slouching through the streets of the historic village. Despite the fact that my peers were sullen and bored, I couldn't help but be charmed by "Obadiah," the period-garbed man who was roasting bluefish over an open fire. He offered me a taste. I accepted. He gave me another. I ate that one, too, delighted at his interest in me, ignoring the fact that he made his living by schmoozing tourists.
On the bus home, as kids tossed wads of paper back and forth, shrieking like enraged chimpanzees, that bluefish made itself known me. My best friend, Katie, asked me if I was okay; apparently, I was more than a little green. I answered by throwing up on my shoes. Ah, bluefish. I've never been able to eat it since.
At any rate, the kids around me reacted with all the kindness you'd expect from teenagers—that is to say, none. I gagged a few more times to the taunts and disgusted cries of my peers as Katie went to the bus driver for paper towels. My eyes were tearing in the aftermath of vomiting, my nose prickling, face flaming. And then. . . and then Joe was sitting next to me.
"You okay, Millie?" he asked, pushing his hair off his forehead.
"Yes," I whispered, horrified, thrilled, nauseous and smitten.
"Shut up, guys," Joe instructed affably, and because he was Joe, they listened. He patted my shoulder, and even in my weakened state, I registered every detail—the warmth of his hand, the kindness in his beautiful eyes, the half-smile on his perfect lips. Then Katie arrived with paper towels and kitty litter to absorb the mess, and Joe returned to the back of the bus where the cool kids sat.
Proof. Proof that Joe was more than just a pretty face. College and even medical school didn't help me outgrow my obsession; instead, I'd come home on break and pick up where I left off—find Joe. Run into Joe. Speak to Joe. Sure, I'd feel slightly ridiculous. . . until I caught a glimpse of him, when all embarrassment would evaporate in a cloud of love. He always had the same effect on me, his casual "Hey, Millie, how are you?" sending tremors through my limbs, heat to my face.
Now, at nearly thirty, I was still doing a pretty good imitation of teenage obsession. With my residency finally over, I had just moved back to the Cape, and here I was, in agonizingly close vicinity to Joe again. But this year would be different, I vowed. This was the year I would become Joe-worthy.
I didn't have any illusions about myself. I was a smart, nice person. Funny. Caring. A fine friend. Though I was still pretty new to the profession, I knew I was a good doctor. But in terms of physicality, I was short, chubby, with long, lank hair that I pulled into a ponytail more often than not. Straight enough teeth. Brown eyes. Overall, rather plain and ordinary. Being cursed with an extremely beautiful older sister had certainly not helped my self-image over the years. Nor had my residency improved on what nature had given me, though I had definitely mastered the pasty skin/dark circles/unshaven legs look.
In order to attract the attention of a man who embodied physical perfection, I knew I had to make the most of what I had. While I didn't imagine that I could become a swan, I was determined to become at least, oh, I don't know, a Canada goose? They're nice, right? Nothing wrong with a Canada goose.
My plan was simple, much like those of countless women who had set out to get their men. I would get a good haircut and makeover and shed the excess weight that gave me the Pillsbury Dough Boy figure I now sported. I would buy a new wardrobe with the help of better-dressed friends. I would get a dog, as Joe was a dog lover, and become a better cook. And once I'd done these things, I would insert my newly forged presence into Joe's life and make my move.