The first time Dustin asked me out on a date, I wasn’t super excited. In fact, the only reason I considered going was because my mom told me to.

“Just go and be nice,” she said. “He’s a family friend.”

“But, Mom—”

“It’s not like you have to marry him,” she said [cue foreshadowing music]. “It’s just dinner.”

I had not seen Dustin for 10 years, when he was in fifth grade and I was in fourth. But I had known Dustin since soon after I was born. Our dads were both in the Navy and stationed with the same squadron in San Diego, California. While they were deployed overseas, our moms became friends through what was then known as the Navy Wives’ Club. (I was born during that deployment, so technically I met Dustin before I met my dad.) Our families lived down the street from each other until Dustin’s family moved to Guam when he was 4 years old.

I don’t have any real memories of Dustin during this time, except for what our parents have told us and what I’ve seen in old photographs. I do remember that Dustin was run over by a car while he was riding his Big Wheel down the street, because that was a pretty big deal. My mom and I took him coloring books while he recovered from the burns.

Our moms also have a story about me taking my blankey to the Smileys’ house to play, and Dustin calling me a “baby.” I threw away the blankey in the Smileys’ trash, and later that night, Mom had to go get it before I’d go to sleep. There are a few faded photographs of us together, too, one of Dustin stealing away a present at my third birthday party. His socks are pulled up to his knees in typical ’70s fashion, and the resemblance of Dustin’s face to our youngest son today is uncanny. There also is a photo of the two of us standing on a pier waiting for our dads to come home on the aircraft carrier. Dustin has his arm around me.

Those were my only childhood “memories” of Dustin Smiley.

Later, we went to the same school in Virginia for fourth and fifth grade. Dustin was the hall patrol and often told me to “walk, don’t run” when I was headed to the bus. He was a typical, awkward 11-year-old boy who wore jams (remember those?) and quoted lines from Goonies and Ghostbusters. But Dustin also was insanely smart, desperately needed braces, and had “baby weight” that had stayed too long. All of these things made him even more awkward. Plus, I knew he kind of liked me.

When our families got together for dinners, parties and the rare sledding opportunity in Virginia, I avoided Dustin. This probably says more about me at the time than it does about him. And then his family moved away again, and I only heard about Dustin through his family’s Christmas cards. I knew he had gone to a special high school for science and technology, and I knew he had gone to the Naval Academy. Sometimes, however, when you’re young and self-conscious yourself, these things don’t matter to you as much as they should. It’s easy to be influenced by the popular definition of “cool.” In my high school, that was the surfers, and in my mind, Dustin was still the fifth-grader with the orange vest telling me to walk in the halls.

So this was my vision of Dustin when he randomly called and asked me out to dinner as he passed through Virginia on his way to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. I was only going because my mom said I should. And as she tells the story, when she opened the front door that afternoon, it was like birds were singing and rainbows were exploding in the sky behind Dustin. Dustin Smiley had grown up. He had suffered through years of braces. He had lost the weight. And he was very handsome.

What’s more, he was still the smart, responsible, kind person he had always been, even when I didn’t necessarily appreciate traits like that. We were married less than two years later.

I share this story often with my boys and any other young person who will listen, because the teenage years are tough. It’s easy to be swayed by what’s in fashion (not jams) and what’s cool. And not everyone hits their stride at the same time. We’ve all heard stories of some man or woman being overlooked and then arriving at the high school reunion with a fantastic career and life. That was Dustin for me. But the truth is, he was the same person at 21 that he was at 11 (he still quoted Ghostbusters). I just couldn’t appreciate everything he was until I redefined for myself what mattered.

I’m lucky Dustin kept trying.

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