Poking Gala apples in the Charlottesville, VA Trader Joe’s this afternoon, I heard an astonished voice say, “Mary??” And so it was that a wildly unexpected reunion began. This story is not going where you think it’s going. Stay with me.
I turned to see a man from my past (not that kind of man, not that kind of past) approaching me from the bulk nuts. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“It’s Jeff!” the man said, and so it was.
Jeff. Jeff from Milwaukee. My sweet friend Jeff who I met fresh off bus in Chicago in 2001. Jeff, who I haven’t seen in years. Jeff, who is married to Karen, whom I also love and haven’t seen in years because Jeff and Karen, married with children now, have always been connected at the hip and now live in Milwaukee. Here was Jeff, standing in front of me in a Trader Joe’s in Charlottesville, Virginia. Incredible. I gasped like I’d seen a ghost — not incorrect — and I body-slammed him, bubbling over with with joy and surprise. My eyes stung and we hugged hard.
We pulled back to get a good look at each other, smiling like crazy and laughing. Jeff! God, that bushy beard. Those twinkling eyes. The smart glasses. The sort of face, now with a fatherly tone to it, that says, “I own a lot of books” and “I know what good beer tastes like.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, breathless.
“I live here!” Jeff said.
This is when things took a hard left turn into a parallel universe where reality meant nothing and I wanted to crawl into a hole. See, Jeff didn’t say, “We live here.” He said, “I live here.” But remember, Jeff and his now-wife Karen are basically two halves of one person and I hadn’t heard anything had changed. Since Jeff didn’t say, “We live here,” it could be that Jeff and Karen were no longer together and Jeff moved to Charlottesville as a bachelor. Surely I didn’t hear him right.
“Wow! Okay… So… Karen and… You guys live here now, then?”
Jeff corrected me. “Karen? No, Jody.”
Jody. The spinning wheel of death appeared in my head. Jody. No. So did they? But… What? Karen. Jeff. Who is Jody? Hang on: Jeff. Bushy beard Jeff who I haven’t seen in… Wait. Is this… Oh, god.
My friend gave me a very strange look. “It’s Jeff. From Iowa City.” Then, because I was surely looking a shade too neanderthal to not treat with kindness and caution, he gave me more information in a gentle tone. “The Motley Cow? Restaurant? Iowa City?”
I had the wrong Jeff. I had mistaken a very special, dear Jeff from my past for another very special, dear Jeff from my past. I wouldn’t believe this story if I heard it.
This Jeff and I worked at the same restaurant together for years in Iowa City. Jeff bartended. I waited tables. We were good friends. We didn’t drive each other to the airport, but we solved all the world’s problems many times over, late into the night with the rest of the gang. This Jeff gave me my first lessons in wine and shared music with me that was way, way better than the stuff I was listening to. Music and booze and making good money over a packed Friday night dinner shift — this is the stuff bonds are made of. So seeing This Jeff and understanding him to be Iowa City Jeff would have elicited the exact same response from me. But I had the wrong guy.
Please, please try to understand and take mercy on me: Iowa City Jeff now looks identical to Milwaukee Jeff did when I saw him last: same build, same eyes, same glasses, same smile, same cheeks, same (face obscuring!!!!!) beard, same haircut, same height. I’m telling you. I’m telling you. But I was so horribly embarrassed. There was this effusive, insanely happy reunion moment shared with a real friend who then realized he was mistaken for someone else. If that had happened to me, at best it would have been awkward; at worst, it would’ve been offensive and reason to feel pretty lousy. Who doesn’t remember friends? (Don’t answer that.)
We were laughing about it by the end of the (great) conversation. I saw pictures of Jeff’s son and wife, Jody. We caught up on a few people from the restaurant. Jeff told me he knows what I’ve been up to because he reads PaperGirl regularly; thanks, buddy. He actually said, “I’m going to be a blog post tonight, I think.” I told him he thought correctly.
My friend Claus saw all of this happen from the other side of the apple stand, by the way. After Jeff went his way, we went ours and my friend, who had witnessed the entire thing from the other side of the apple stand, told me it was the best theater he had ever seen. I don’t know if it was the best theater I’ve ever seen, but it was certainly the truest comedy of errors I have ever experienced.
It was good to see you today, Jeff. So very good to see you.