'MAY I help you?'' the man behind the counter at the ceramic shop asked. I barely heard him. My gaze was transfixed by the pretty teenager perched on the stool beside him. Her curly brown hair, round rosy cheeks, and shimmering green eyes were so distantly familiar. Once upon a time, eyes like those had captured a schoolboy's heart.
In the summer of 1973, Becky came to work as a waitress at my family's quaint stone inn in the mountains of North Carolina. She burst through the swinging kitchen doors one June morning just as I was sitting down to breakfast. It was love at first sight.
Becky was 16. I was 11. She was pretty, vivacious, and outgoing. I was shy, a little on the pudgy side, and, heretofore, more inclined toward bullfrogs and tree climbing than creatures of the fairer sex.
But there was something about Becky. The certain way she tossed back her head whenever an unwelcome curl drifted down over her eye. Her habit of chewing on the nail of her pinkie finger when she was lost in thought. The way she gracefully tucked her pencil behind her ear after taking an order. Becky was no garden-variety girl.
''What's that?'' Becky would ask innocently, pointing to some imaginary speck just south of my Adam's apple. I always fell for it, and she relished bringing her finger up to pop me on the chin when I looked down. ''Gotcha gain,'' she'd say grinning.
The summer of '73 Becky gave me a boy's greatest keepsake -- attention. She was never too busy to share a secret, a joke, or a playful flick of a wet dish towel. In return, I cleaned off her tables, fetched her soft drinks, sneaked her extra desserts, and worshiped the ground she walked on.
''I think he's cute,'' Becky whispered one afternoon just loud enough for me to overhear. ''Especially when he blushes.''
''Becky, I love you,'' I boldly ventured one morning into the bathroom mirror. ''I'll love you till the end of time.''
Unfortunately, our time was sliding by like a well-waxed shuffleboard disk, and there was nothing I could do to slow it.
''Robbie, can I talk to you for a minute?'' Becky asked one stormy August afternoon. My heart was racing. What could she want? Would she finally confirm her love for me?
''I'm going back to school soon,'' she announced. ''I won't be around much anymore.'' I swallowed hard. ''You've been a great friend,'' she said quietly. ''I'll miss you very much.''
I struggled to stay composed. I had worked so hard for her to see me as a grown-up and I didn't want to fall apart now. But when she grew blurry, and my chin began to quiver, I knew there was no turning back.
''I love you,'' I said abruptly and then cried my eyes out.
For a few minutes she watched me -- a bit startled by my sudden sobbing confession. Then she gently took my hand.
''Robbie,'' she spoke softly. ''I think you're very special and I love you so much as my friend. But I'm not the one for you, and I think, deep down, you know that.''
Slowly, like a steam engine pulling into the station, my sobbing ground to a halt.
Becky smiled at me until she forced me to smile back. ''Someday,'' she confided, ''you're going to find a girl so wonderful you'll know she's the right one for you. Then, you'll forget all about me. I promise you.''
''May I help you,'' the ceramic-shop man repeated a bit more firmly. ''Is Becky in?'' I muttered finally. ''Are you a friend of hers?'' he shot back suspiciously.
''Sort of,'' I mumbled. ''About 20 years ago she spent the summer waitressing at my family's inn. My father and I were waxing nostalgic last evening, and her name came up. He said I might be able to find her here.''
His furrowed brow softened and he extended his hand. ''I'm her husband. This here's her daughter.'' The girl snatched the phone from the wall and began dialing. ''Becky's at home today,'' the man explained. ''She's not been well.''
''Momma, somebody here knows you.'' The girl spoke in her customary mountain twang. ''He says you used to work at his family's inn.'' She listened for a moment and then wordlessly handed me the phone.
I stared at it in my hand as if holding one for the first time. She smiled a dimpled smile that seemed to say, ''go ahead.''
''Hi, Becky,'' I stammered a bit too energetically. The other end of the line was completely still. Five seconds. Ten.
''Robbie, is that you?'' The voice I knew. It was deeper, more grown-up -- but unforgettable.
''It's me,'' I assured her.
''Well, how have you been?'' she asked with a smile in her voice.
''Fine, Becky. How about you?''
We reminisced -- small talk among long-lost friends trying to fold 20 years into a five-minute phone conversation.
''I have such happy memories of that summer,'' Becky said at last. ''I am so touched you remembered. I only wish I could be there to see you because, you really made my year.''
''But, Becky,'' I said smiling at the girl across the counter, ''I'm looking at you right now.''
''Now, don't you go and fall in love with my daughter,'' she teased.
My cheeks flushed bright red. I was 11 again.