We hug before she leaves to go grocery shopping. I pat her on the back when we embrace.
I always do this—the love-patting, I mean. I cannot give her a hug without gently patting her shoulders.
Long ago, during church services, I used to watch married men sit beside their wives. During the sermon, they would all do the same thing. They would place an arm around their spouse and give her a little “love-pat” on the shoulder.
And I remember the first time I ever got my chance to give a pat like this. I sat beside her in church, she was wearing a magnificent perfume. It was grapefruit, or tangerine. Her hair was shoulder-length, she had so much personality it leaked out of her smile—she has always had a slightly devious grin.
So there I was, listening to the sermon. I feigned a yawn. I put my arm around her.
Then, the preacher locked eyes with me. I choked. I chickened out. I withdrew my arm and aborted the mission.
The next Sunday, the pastor was preaching about sin. He always preached on the subject of sin. Even when he was preaching to the elderly women’s missionary society.
That service, most folks within the congregation were wearing looks of remorse on their faces. Some were saying, “amen brother.” Others were nodding in agreement.
But not me. I was wearing the same look Muhammed Ali’s opponents wear after they sustain serious head trauma. I was so nervous beside this girl. My heart was pounding, my throat closed, I forgot my own Social Security number.
After service, I asked the girl: “You wanna go to lunch?”
“Sure,” she said.
“With me, I mean.”
“That’s what I thought you meant.”
I took her to a place where they served greasy sandwiches, wrapped in tin foil. We sat on a bench overlooking the bay. Afterward, she rested her head on my shoulder. I placed my arm around her.
This was my big chance. I sincerely wanted to love-pat her shoulder, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Love-patting, you see, is serious stuff. You don’t want a girl thinking you’re the kind of a man who pats too soon. Strike two.
A few Sundays later, I got to church early. I happened to be walking past the Sunday school classrooms. I heard kids hollering, laughing. I peeked through the skinny window on a classroom door. And I saw her.
She was standing before a bunch of children, pointing at a chalkboard, teaching them about Noah’s Ark. I slipped in to the room and sat in the back row.
“This is Mister Sean,” she announced to the class.
“IS HE YOUR BOYFRIEND?” some freckled kid asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I guess he is my boyfriend.”
And my cup runneth over. In fact, it started to spilleth all over the place. When a girl calls you this in public, it really means something.
“Now boys and girls,” she said to the class. “Let’s all show Mister Sean how we greet special visitors.”
Fourteen children pressed their palms to their lips and made fart noises. And I fell in love.
That same Sunday, the preacher gave a stirring sermon on—I know this might be hard to believe—sin. And in the middle of his hollering and heavy breathing, I decided it was now or never.
I put my arm around her. And I lost myself. So I went in for the kill.
I love-patted her shoulder.
To my surprise, she reached over and love-patted my hand in return. It was a faint, barely feelable tap. But I certainly felt it. And it was that little tap that changed my life.
I’m not kidding. Because this tiny gesture of affection says a lot more than you might think it does. It says: “Hey, I really like you.”
It says: “You know what? I think I might even love you.”
It says: “Hey, if you’re not busy, you wanna spend the rest of your life getting old with me?”
And in a single moment, I felt things. I understood things. Big things. I felt like perhaps, millions of years ago, before this chunk of rock called Earth was ever formed;. before the moon and stars found their places in the heavens; before the first man ever walked upon this florid sod; before a little girl was born in Escambia County, with a slightly mischievous smile; before the beginning of history itself, God came up with this great idea.
He decided that the names “Sean” and “Jamie” would forevermore be said together, and never apart.
You can tell a lot from a little pat on the shoulder.