You received the call at seven-thirty in the morning on a Friday.
If you were normal, you would have been angry that someone would call you at such an ungodly hour on a Friday during summer vacation, but you being the type of person that you were, you were already awake.
Actually, you had been doing some light reading. Jane Austen wasn't your favorite, but some of her books were quite lovely.
"Hello?" you asked into the phone as you flipped the page on Northanger Abbey. "This is (name) (last name). Who's speaking?"
"Oh! Hey, dudette! It's me, Alfred! From history class?"
You nearly dropped your phone on the counter—you certainly dropped your book. You knew exactly who it was, and you found yourself fixing your hair and shirt subconsciously, even if Alfred wasn't even around to see how messy you looked in your frizzy, loose hair and the large reading glasses or the frilly nightgown your grandmother sent you for Christmas.
"Y-yes," you managed as you gripped the phone tightly. You tried not to sound worried. "I know who you are."
"Really?" He sounded relieved and elated. "Hey, this may seem kind of weird, but would you like to go out with me?"
"What?" You nearly choked on your spit. "M-me?" You wanted to add, Don't you have a mile-long line of girls wanting to date you, Alfred F. Jones? What's so interesting about me? "Why me?"
"Oh. You don't want to?" Now he sounded disappointed.
"I...I-I didn't say that! I just..." You glanced over at your calendar. It was immaculate; you planned for everything. You had to plan for everything. You hated disorganization. You had been this way for almost five years now. You had most definitely not planned for Alfred asking you to be his girlfriend. Well, if he was even asking that. Maybe it was just a friendly thing. "What do you want?"
"I just wanted to know if you wanted to go with me to Dunkin' Donuts."
You froze up, the fingers of your hands curling up into a fist. You knew that Alfred was a glutton, but you didn't expect him to just call random people up so he could have company as he stuffed his face. Besides, he had never said a word to you before today, right?
"Actually, I am supposed to clean out my apartment today. Clear out for the next school year." You were going to be a junior next year, having decided since eleventh grade that your major would be teaching. Primary school, of course. You found most teenagers exasperating, and you were still technically one too (until your twentieth birthday). "I have to go deliver some textbooks to the secondhand bookstore, and I need to file every paper I haven't filed for next year. Then I have to visit my mother and I have work at twelve and—I can't. I'm sorry."
"O-oh." He attempted to laugh. At least, that was what it sounded like. Forced laughter. You were all too familiar to the sound of forced laughter. "I understand. How about tomorrow? Or next week? Whenever you're free."
"Well, today is National Donut Day, didn't you know? They give out a free doughnut with every purchase of a drink at Dunkin' Donuts. But if you can't go, maybe we can go elsewhere some other day? I-I mean, just a thought."
Was he in such a hero mentality that he just wanted to go and save all the girls with no friends? Or were you just lucky?
You sighed. "Fine. Today it is. How can I turn down a free doughnut?"
"Wait, really?" You let out a sound of agreement. "Yes! Whoo! So, I'll pick you up in five!"
Then he hung up.
Ugh, that lovable idiot. He's going to have to call back to find out where I live.
Well, that was what you thought, but he never did call back. Instead, he showed up in front of your door. Exactly five minutes after the call had ended, he pressed the doorbell, and you had to rush to brush your hair and change as you yelled out for him to wait a second.
You pulled on a clean pair of skinny jeans and a T-shirt. Stuffing your feet into ballet flats, you rushed over to find your wallet before you finally opened the door for Alfred.
"How did you find my place?"
His face was crimson. "My, uh, my friend lives by here. I just asked him."
You furrowed your eyebrows. You had never seen another college student around here...but if he was one of Alfred's friends, he was probably a party person too, which meant he was probably not home much. It made sense, you supposed...
"Oh, okay." You quickly fixed your hair. "Okay. Let's go."
Alfred opened the door to his car for you once you two got down to the parking lot, and he quickly rushed over to his side to get in. "This'll be fun!" he chirped, putting on a bright smile for you.
He was talkative the entire time, talking about how it loved doughnuts and somehow, by the time you two pulled into the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot, he was talking about how he loved Papa Roach.
"What about you?" he suddenly asked.
You glanced up from your lap. "Papa Roach is nice."
He seemed to be a bit dejected at your response, but he turned off the truck and stepped out, running over to your side to open the door. He held out his hand for you to take, and you ignored the electricity that ran through your fingers as your hand touched it.
"Are you a coffee girl or do you prefer something colder and sweeter?"
"Coffee," you admitted. "You?"
He grinned. "Both."
You smiled back.
The line at the store was surprisingly short, and when you both got up there, you two ordered—though Al's order included about three times the amount of what you had asked for—and then you picked a tall table near one of the large windows.
"So, you have a job, huh?"
"Yeah. I pay for my own apartment."
"Aren't you also a straight-A student?"
"Are you always this hardworking?" he asked as he leaned forward on his elbows, chewing on his doughnut. "I mean, it's hard to get such good grades and still have time for a job to pay for your apartment, huh? Don't your parents help?"
"My mother is a single mother, and she doesn't have enough money for me as well. I have to keep my grades up for my scholarship." Your expression must have changed because Alfred seemed to tense up a bit. Of course, how couldn’t your expression have changed? Since your father had left…
“But you do keep your grades up. You’re absolutely perfect, (name).”
You stared at Alfred after he said that, stared at him without so much as speaking. Alfred then realized what he had said and turned scarlet, laughing as he took another bite of his doughnut.
“Anyway, what are you majoring in?"
"Teaching. Primary education." You looked down at the coffee in front of you. "It's not necessarily a cool job, but it seems as if everyone wants to be famous nowadays, and we need more people doing civil jobs, you know? Like teaching children."
When you looked up at Alfred, his blue eyes were shining as he smiled. "Yeah, I know. You know...I think it's cool, (name)."
And then you smiled back.
You got out of bed and quickly took a shower before you sat down in your living room and pulled out another book.
You had work in two hours, so you had time to finish this one book. Besides, Jane Eyre was probably one of your favorite books. The fact that neither Jane nor Mr. Rochester were perfect individuals was uplifting. If only you could have Jane’s luck. Mr. Rochester had his asshole, condescending moments, but at least he truly loved Jane and learned from his mistakes—
And then your phone rang.
"Hello?" You glanced down at the caller ID. It was Alfred…again? He had texted you a lot since Friday, but this had been the first time he had called you since then.
“What’s up? Are you busy right now?”
“Well…I’m just reading right now. Why? Do you need something?”
He cleared his throat a few times before he finally spoke. “Uh, well, I was wondering if you were busy because if you’re not, then maybe you’d like to go out with me today?”
Again? He was asking you out again? The last time you had thought it might’ve just been something friendly, but this time… No. No way. He had to feel bad for you or something. Always working and studying… You had heard people say he was a nice guy, even if he was sometimes loud and annoying.
“What are we doing, then?”
“Really? You’re interested? In me?”
You turned red after hearing that. “Why not?”
“Well, I was thinking we could meet at the park, maybe eat something? If you really aren’t busy, that is!”
You smiled at the thought, wondering if you could think of it as a real date. It wouldn’t hurt if the thought was only internal, right? As long as everyone else outside knew it was just as classmates, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little selfish.
“That sounds fine with me. I have work in two hours, so after, would you drive me to work?”
“That sounds totally fine! Do you like hamburgers? I know this kickass place to get hamburgers, and we could get them to go and just hang out at the park. You’ve been to Gherry Park, right?” You made a noise that meant no. “There’s this awesome lake and lots of trees and flowers and benches, and you like it, okay? Just trust me, okay?”
You felt yourself smiling. You found yourself realizing that Alfred was the first person in years to make you smile so much—genuine smiles, not those forced ones that made you feel more like a porcelain doll than a human being. “Okay. I trust you.” There was silence on the other end, and you were worried that perhaps he had changed his mind or something. “Alfred? Are you okay? Are you still there?”
“Y-yeah. I’ll be there in twenty minutes, okay? I’ll pick up the food first.”
The line went dead, but you didn’t really care. You felt giddy inside. You felt…well, alive. Had it really been such a long time since you had felt this much interaction with someone else—such a freedom from work and books and facts that weren’t relevant to the real world?
You sighed as you headed into your room, debating what you should wear. You wanted to wear something nice—a pretty dress and a cute pair of sandals—but you realized you didn’t have anything of the sort. You had fancy nightgowns for awards and stuff like that—nightgowns you had spent hours slaving over to manage to afford—and then you had jeans and T-shirts, and a few blouses. It had been so long since you had gone out with friends that you had stopped seeing a need for pretty things like that. As long as you appeared clean, you felt as if you didn’t need dresses and skirts and stuff like that.
You sighed again and pulled out a pair of jeans and a black V-neck. If this was the best you could do, then so be it. This was just a friendly date.
When Alfred arrived, you greeted him with a smile as he opened the car door for you, sliding in. The air-con blew pleasantly in your face, and having Alfred so close by made you feel special. You wondered for a split second if there were other girls he was spending so much time with, but then you brushed away those thoughts before they made you sad and made you want to leave the car and just go back to your books where anything could happen.
“You look pretty today, (name),” Alfred mentioned, and you looked down at yourself, confused. Hadn’t you just had an internal monologue about how you didn’t have any pretty close to wear? “I mean, you always look pretty, not just today!”
“What?” You turned to look at him in surprise.
“Oh, ah…” The American was now a painful shade of crimson. “It’s just…you are… Aren’t all girls pretty?” What a sweet thing to say… Too bad that if he hadn’t explain himself, you might’ve misunderstood. That would have totally messed everything up. “And whenever I tell girls they look pretty today, they get angry, like, ‘I’m only pretty today? Ugh, jerk!’ So, I didn’t want you to get ma—”
“I’m not,” you said, cutting him off with your words and a smile. “Thanks, Alfred. That was a nice compliment.”
“You should smile more often, (name),” he mentioned, leaning his head on his steering wheel. “You only smile when you’re reading books.”
He had noticed you getting immersed into books before? You blushed and lowered your head. “T-thanks. Aren’t we going now?”
“Oh, right! Let’s go!”
This car ride, he managed to get more words out of you. It was a fun experience, you noted. You had never talked so much to another person, not in so many years.
The park was a nice experience. You two sat on a blanket near the edge of the lake, shaded by giant oaks from the hot, summer sun. the hamburgers were truly amazing, not something just picked up from McDonald’s (as surprising as that way seeing as how everyone at school knew how much Alfred loved McDonald’s), and you two fed breadcrumbs to the geese—Alfred had gone to the store and purchased some bread so you two could feed the geese and ducks. It was honestly a pretty good experience.
At the end of it, you two sat against one of the oaks, arms and thighs brushing each other’s. You were soaking in the sweet atmosphere from being near the chipper quarterback and letting the breeze cool you down on this summer day—but of course, being so close to Alfred just made your body temperature shoot up.
“So, I’ve been wondering,” the hero started, and his fingers lightly grazed the top of your hand. They settled down on top of it, and your eyes followed the prickly sensation of your nerves down to where his hand met yours. “I know you work hard to support yourself, but why do you work so hard to be perfect? Are you trying to impress someone or something? It’s pretty freakin’ crazy how smart you are. You never get bad grades or miss a class or anything. You’re absolutely perfect…but it’s because you try hard, right?”
“I’m not perfect,” you whispered to yourself, rising your face towards the hints of blue sky barely visible through the canopy of leaves above your head. “But I suppose you could say that I am trying to impress someone, in a way.”
His hand was suddenly gone from yours, and you sorrowfully noted how empty it felt now. You knew you shouldn’t be getting used to having him touch you or be with you—this friendship had only really started a few days ago, so why were you trying to rush things?—but in a few days, everything about Alfred had already captured you. Even if he was flawed, he was perfect, at least to you. He was sweet and funny and always willing to help others. He was athletic and attractive and had everyone wanting to be his friend. Even if he primarily ate junk food and was way too loud a lot and school wasn’t his thing, he could recite lots of historical facts about America and draw a pretty awesome eagle with an American flag on the back. Everything about him captured you…
“So, who is it? Who’s the lucky guy?”
“I love how you assume it’s a guy,” you joked, sitting up straighter.
He sat up with you, and you noticed he was staring at you rather intensely. “Then who is it? Is it…your mom?”
You shook your head, looking down at the geese in the water. “No, it is a guy.” You exhaled, trying to laugh. “It’s stupid, really. It’s…it’s my dad.”
“Oh… But you said your mother was single.”
“She is. My father left her when I was fifteen. Left us.”
“He must be a huge idiot to leave someone as awesome as you.”
You shook your head, lowering your gaze. “He thought I was an idiot. He actually told me that all the time. I was a C-student and could barely remember to put on same-colored socks. I really was stupid. But after that, I just wanted to prove it to him that I the way he thought I was. I killed myself in high school to get where I am now, and it’s too late to turn back now. I know he’s not around, but I think that if I ever do meet him again, I just want to show him that my mom and I are definitely better off without him.”
“Hey, I sometimes forget to put pants on! So, you’re still much smarter than me!” His hand touched your back, and you felt a little shiver take over your body at his touch. Why was his palm so warm? “Besides, you’ll definitely show him, right?”
You laughed at that, covering your mouth. “Thanks, Alfred. You’re the best.”
His hand dropped away again, and he turned from you, staring at the lake. “I-I am pretty awesome, aren’t I? Of course, I’m the hero!” He face turned towards yours, his cheeks tinted pink, and he smiled kindly at you. “But you know, it still is okay to mess up every now and then. No one will think less of you.”
Seriously. It felt like it was so easy for him to say that because even if his grades weren’t stellar like yours, everyone liked him. If he messed up, it was okay, because he was the loveable idiot. You lowered your eyes at that thought, suddenly feeling pretty guilty. But he probably didn’t like being called an idiot. You were exactly like him once, weren’t you? He wasn’t an idiot, and you hadn’t been one either. You guys were just…taking life as it came. You weren’t rushing the process. You were being yourselves.
“Thanks, Al,” you murmured. “That means a lot to me.”
“It does? Even if it is only coming from me?” You turned to look at him, noticing how uneasy he was sounding. His hand clumsily took yours, pulling you closer to him, and he seemed to be trying to find the words to say. “We had history class together…”
You furrowed your eyebrows together. “I know that.”
“No, no—we had history class together. I noticed you since day one; I noticed how hard you tried at everything you did and all the cute expressions you did—when you were working hard, when you were confused, when you were annoyed, even when you were reading a book.” You felt the blood rushing your face, could feel your cheeks getting warmer. “I admired you all semester, (name), and eventually, from far away…I…I…” He dropped your hand for a third time, running his hand nervously through his hair. It seemed impossible that you’d ever witness Alfred looking nervous—he always exuded confidence, no matter what he did. “I asked around to find your phone number and where you lived, and I didn’t find the courage to ask you out until Friday. I know you don’t really know me well, but could you…um…”
“You seem a little feverish,” you whispered, pressing your hand against his forehead. “Are you okay, Alfred?”
“Can I be your hero?” he suddenly asked, and you froze, staring at him in bewilderment. This time, Alfred took both of your hands in his, pressing them against his chest. You could feel how fast his heart was pounding, almost as quickly as yours. “Stop worrying about being perfect because you’re perfect enough for me. If you need help, ask me. If you’re sad, come to me. If you’re angry or happy or just hungry, I’ll be there for you.” He pulled me against him, wrapping his arms around me, and into my ear, he whispered, “I love you, (name).”
Acceptance. It was here. That person who would accept you for the way you were—flaws and all. Wasn’t it fine being good enough? Wasn’t it okay to just live for the moment? You weren’t perfect, but here was a person who was all right with all that—someone who would fill the gaps in your armor.
You knew fairytales weren’t real, and you might never get your Jane Eyre romance where you got to live happily ever after with the man you loved, but this was enough. This was good enough. You wouldn’t be able to shed your need for self-perfection right away, but at least now you had someone who wouldn’t mind those unguarded moments that were 100% you.
You would be able to show your dad.
And so you smiled, grasping the cotton fabric of his shirt, and as tears welled up in your eyes, you whispered, “I’d love for you to be my hero, Alfred.”
And so he pulled back, gently grasping your chin, and he pressed his lips to yours, sealing the deal.
This was your first year as a teacher, and you stood by the door, waiting for your class of first graders and their parents to arrive so they could meet you.
The first group to enter was a surprise, and you watched in shock as the aged face of your father walked in with his wife in hand. A young, little girl clung to her mother’s leg, staring at you in fright. She must have been bad with change and strangers.
“Hello, Mrs. Jones,” your father’s wife said, holding out her hand. You shook it, even if you were tense. “This is Emily. She’s a little shy.”
Your father broke away from his wife to lovingly pat the head of his daughter, and you felt something burning inside your chest. “It’ll be all right, baby. She’ll like you, okay? You’re perfect just the way you are.”
And those words hurt more. Your father used to tell you that all the time when you were little. Then he had flipped from kind to awful when you started middle school. Would it happen to this little girl too?
You bent down, gently reaching for the small hand of the little girl. She was hesitant to let you touch her, but she still let you. “Don’t worry. I like everyone. And I’m sure everyone here will like you too.”
Emily smiled a little at your encouraging words.
You stood up straight. “Can one of you sign in for her, please? I’ll take the other parent and give them an overview on what first grade will be like.”
The experience was quick, though a little painful, but you were left with a strangely satisfied feeling afterwards. You had always wanted to show your father how much of an asshole he was; you had wanted him to regret leaving your mother and you. But meeting the little girl and her lovely mother, you couldn’t bring yourself to do it.
And it was fine. Your father didn’t need to know. Holding a grudge wouldn’t help anyone, especially you. You would never get over the pain of having your father leave you, but the best you could do was do your best and become a great teacher.
After the Open House, you wearily headed home to where your husband awaited you with delicious, homemade hamburgers and a kiss. You held him a little longer than usual. You were lucky to have Alfred F. Jones in your life. It had only been four years and a few months of marriage, but you knew your life would be a happy one.
“Why are you still holding on?” your husband whispered lovingly, stroking your hair.
“Because you’re adorable,” you whispered, smiling. “Because you make feel perfect.” You pulled away and sat down at the table. “I saw my father today, you know. He has a new family. I can’t believe it’s been eight years now. He has a six year old daughter.”
“(Name)…are you okay, hun?” Your hero rubbed your arm, pressing his lips against your temple. “Will you be okay?”
“Yeah,” you said, sighing. “I will be. I mean, I have you. How can I be sad if my hero’s around?” You pecked his cheek. “Now, let’s eat. No more sad thoughts. I want to taste your wonderful hamburgers.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course!” And you really meant it. Maybe you wouldn’t inform your mother about this, but you really did know you would be okay. You just hoped he could love his daughter like he didn’t love you. Besides, if he hadn’t left you and made you want to be perfect, you probably wouldn’t have met your lovable hero. “Let’s eat!” you chirped, taking a hamburger from the center of the table. “It looks delicious!”
“You know, babe, maybe we should start thinking about our own kids,” the American joked, and you smirked. “Is that a yes?”
“That’s a maybe,” you said before you held up your hamburger. “These better be wonderful.”
“Would you expect any less from your hero?”