The first book I finished in 2020 was Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn, and I adored it. A man finds a secret code hidden in his hand-lettered wedding program, and goes back to the artist a year later to demand how she knew his marriage would fail. The book builds a relationship between the man and the artist through tiny moments of small but significant contact. In Romancelandia (the online space occupied by writers and readers of romance), we call these as Darcy-hand-flex moments, in reference to the scene in Pride & Prejudice (2005) when Darcy and Elizabeth touch bare hands for the first time.
Up to this point in the film, Lizzie and Darcy have had a contemptuous relationship, but both are so moved by their first tiny skin-to-skin contact that she stares at him open-mouthed, and he, as he turns and walks briskly away, flexes the hand that touched hers. It is a brilliant acting choice and beautifully captured, giving the audience unique insight into Darcy’s feelings, the first indication that he is truly and deeply affected by Lizzie. It’s a secret between Darcy and the audience. His body hides his hand flex from everyone else in the scene. But we see it. We won’t be shocked by his proposal and admission of love thirty minutes later the way Elizabeth will be. That hand flex speaks quiet, aching volumes. And it’s become an accepted code amongst romance writers and readers for small moments of seemingly insignificant contact or connection that deeply resonates.
Love Lettering masterfully builds such moments into first a friendship, then a relationship. Because the book is told from the perspective of the main character, Meg, we see only what she notices. So she does notice Reid’s proverbial hand flexes, and what’s hidden from everyone but the reader are her reactions and feelings to them. Meg doesn’t want Reid to know how affected she is by his hand on her elbow or his simple, straight-forward statements, like “I am” and “Especially me.” Meg feels in those moments like she lives for the swoop of his almost smile, and the first time she makes him laugh she wants to find ways to make him laugh again and again all day.
Reading Meg’s secret reminds me that I once had such a secret. And it’s been a secret ever since.
His name was Ben and he was a poet.
He was quiet, serious, and beautiful. Blue eyes, pale skin with acne (how human of him), a ruddy complexion, and a short crop of unfussy blonde hair. He spoke sparingly but with gravity. An introvert with shades of sadness. I’m also an introvert, so I related, but I was friendly and social in a way he didn’t seem to be. He’d glower around the room without malice. And I’d want to see him smile.
I played a very long game of getting to know him. In our first writing class together, I noticed his gravitas and respected his thoughtful comments. He seemed to like my work, and his positive comments made me feel accomplished in a way others’ comments didn’t. As the semester went on, I’d occasionally, strategically linger enough to end up walking out the door with him, and I’d make a comment about his poem or someone else’s imagery. I tried very hard not to catch my breath when I found his full attention fixed on me. I tried very hard not to wonder what his skin felt like. I tried not to notice his back muscles through his fitted t-shirts.
I had a crush on him, but I felt this felt was immensely embarrassing and should be kept secret at all costs, most especially from him. I confided in no one. I didn’t write about it, even in a journal. And I made absolutely sure not to expect anything of him. I set myself up as a safe and familiar space, nothing more. I told myself it couldn’t be a crush—I barely knew him. I avoided eye contact. I avoided looking for him at readings and department events and in restaurants on campus. No strings. No vying for his number or a coffee date. I just wanted to break the ice. And, very gradually, I did.
The next semester, we ended up in 3 classes together, 2 of them back-to-back. We sat near each other in the first class, and when we both walked into the classroom next-door and found ourselves the first ones there, by unspoken maneuvering of “let’s not make this awkward,” we sat a friendly distance apart. The next day, I was already sitting in advanced poetry with a friend when he sat down on my other side. As we left that day, I stayed behind to tell my professor how much I’d been looking to taking his class, and my friend accused me—in front of said professor—of trying to suck up. She wasn’t exactly dead to be after that, but the next class, I turned away from her, toward Ben, and never turned back. She soon moved toward the girl on her other side, which I suspect was some version of what she’d wanted all along.
These 3 classes rapidly accelerated Ben’s and my slightly warm familiarity. And, naturally, my crush got worse. Lord, I lived to make that boy smile, and I got pretty good at it. But I locked down any resemblance of affection. I didn’t neglect getting to know my other classmates better. And when he asked for my number, the reason was so mundane and practical that I didn’t even let myself do a victory dance. I was still in a long game, careful neither to spook him nor to tip my (mortifying) hand.
In getting to know Ben, I eventually learned that he had a girlfriend. (I still remember chanting to myself as my heart dropped, “Do not react. Do not react. Do not react.”) A poem a few months later about him having sex with her was tense with passion and beauty and it absolutely slayed me. In part because of how much he clearly missed her (she was in culinary school in Kentucky) and in part because sex was not an aspect of my relationships, nor would it be until after I got married for religious reasons. So even though I still found him beautiful and kind and a gorgeous writer, we weren’t on the same page.
I didn’t ever wish he and his girlfriend would break up. That would have been deeply unkind, and I was trying to build a friendship here. Also, I knew that, even if they did break up, what he expected and wanted from his relationships was different from what I expected and wanted from mine. This fact was immutable. So I could live on a smile I’d caused for days, but I couldn’t ever forget what we were and weren’t to each other. I asked him a question or two about her when she came up. I made myself care about her and their relationship because we were friends and I was staying in the friendship lane. Even if my knuckles were white with the effort. I worked very hard to keep things friendly. Not light. Not vapid. But platonic. We were linked by our respect for the other’s work, and by the friendship we were building.
When you’re in a writing program with a lot of workshop classes, in which you share your writing and your classmates give you feedback, you figure out over time whose comments are most valuable to you, the most helpful or accurate. And some people’s feedback, you know you’ll be able to more-or-less dismiss. I treasured Ben’s comments. And I gave him the same serious, at times blistering feedback I was becoming known for in the department. Not that I wanted to be harsh. I wanted to become a better writer, and I wanted others to be able to do the same.
Critiques, even largely positive ones, get at your tenderest parts. Knowing this, and feeling their effects myself, I made sure to open and close with positives and focus only on what was on the page, not on the person. If my classmates had largely ripped the piece we were discussing, I’d try to provide some balance by focusing more on the positives. Still, I learned that I was earning a reputation for harshness, so I made an extra effort to remain friendly and caring outside of those feedback sessions and to always be honest but never cruel.
Still, at times I felt the distance and coolness of personal affront from people who’s work I’d critiqued that day. I respected that their feelings were tender, so I’d let them not look at me, not speak to me, and I’d quietly slip from the room. One day when I’d shared a deeply unpopular opinion about a classmate’s work, I felt like Public Enemy #1. As I rose to made my escape at the end of class, Ben came to stand behind my chair. When I started for the door, he fell into step beside me. His presence and solidarity in that moment meant the world. I had already chosen him to be my friend, but in that moment I felt chosen as his friend. And I felt understood.
Ben got me as a writer, not always in the specifics but in nature. And from then on, even if one of us was in a hurry, we’d walk out the door together from our two workshop classes. When I or he felt embarrassed because our work had flopped or, in my case, when someone had stabbed at me (not my work) in a critique session, that walk was a tangible solace. Even when we’d critiqued each other’s work that day, and our tender feelings stemmed in part from each other’s words, we left as a unit. Solid. Friends. Respected colleagues. Often, all we’d say on these walks were a simple “bye” or “see you tomorrow” at the end of the hall. Sometimes it was a pained half-smile on my part or a solemn nod on his. All Darcy-hand-flex moments.
I didn’t ever wish for his relationship to fail or for him to develop a faith like mine. Once I understood him better, and especially when he and his girlfriend briefly broke up, I prayed he wouldn’t express interest in me. I didn’t want them temptation of what I knew wouldn’t be a good romantic relationship. We never got dinner or coffee after class. We didn’t linger on the steps for hours talking.
Still, in a small and distant way, I think my long-ago crush on Ben is one of the reasons I enjoyed Love Lettering so thoroughly. Reading a book where the entire relationship, from strangers to friends to lovers, is built through Darcy-hand-flex moments reminds me of those moments with Ben. How my heart seemed to stutter at his eye contact. The times I watched his thumbs rub together over his clasped hands. How making him laugh made me feel victorious. How understood I felt as a writer when he championed a poem everyone else in our class seemed to misunderstand. His silent support on hard days as we walked to the end of the hall. I was so proud of having built a friendship with him. And I remain, more than 10 years later, grateful for it.