Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 10

She said …

Alex was oddly silent as we made our way to the park. I was glad he had suggested a walk, because there was a lot on my mind, and talking to him always helped me to sort out my thoughts. I had another date with Ted coming up, and I felt the need to determine my feelings about him. On the surface, things seemed great. He made me laugh and was sweet and considerate. I had no reason not to have feelings for Ted, so why did I feel like I had to talk myself into those feelings? It didn’t make sense to me, and when I posed this question to Alex, I was met with silence.

“Hey.” I poked him in the ribs. “Are you listening?”

“What? Yeah, I am. Sorry … what were you saying?” Alex said, stumbling over his words—very unlike himself.

I gave him a sidelong glance and then went on with what I had been saying. Something didn’t seem quite right with Alex. He seemed … distracted, and that wasn’t like him. I knew, though, that if there was something bothering him, he would tell me.

We made our way down Main Street, passed the fire department, and wandered along the road overlooking the creek. All the while, I was verbally weighing the pros and cons of dating Ted, and was surprised to find the amount of pros. Alex was still oddly silent, but I was too lost in my one-sided conversation to notice. Finally, we arrived at our favorite spot. Alex held my hand to keep me from falling as we slid down the grassy bank to the rocky creek bed. We sat down like we had countless times before; Alex on the left, me on the right.

I was babbling on about my upcoming date with Ted—what would I wear? How would I act? Would there be a fourth date invitation at the end of the night? Alex responded, but his answers were short and automatic. I decided that something must be bothering him. I was just about to suggest this as I pulled my phone out to check the time.

“Well,” I started, but then got distracted at how late it had become. We could talk on our walk back. “Wow, we should really get back. We’ve been gone nearly two hours now. And I told Kristi and Ryan we’d meet them for dinner.”

I began to stand, and then noticed the panic-stricken look on Alex’s face. What the heck was wrong with him today?

“No!” Alex suddenly shouted, grabbing my arm and yanking me back to the ground. Realizing that he had just unexpectedly yelled, he lowered his voice. “Uh, I still need to talk to you about something.”
“Then let’s walk and talk,” I suggested nonchalantly, getting back up. I decided to brush off Alex’s weird behavior. He had always been a little quirky—I mean, he had eaten a cotton ball once, for goodness’ sake. “We’re going to be late. And you know how you hate being late.”

“No, sit back down.” Alex insisted, sounding desperate. “This isn’t a walking-and-talking conversation.” I noticed the pink circles on his cheeks were looking much pinker than normal. His palm felt sweaty as he grabbed my hand (much more gently, this time) and pulled me back to a seated position.

I sat down and looked at Alex suspiciously. Something was definitely going on, and I was ready to be all ears. “Okay then … what’s up?”

Rather than talking, however, Alex simply began pulling up the grass in front of him and tearing it to pieces—a nervous habit we both shared. I knew Alex well enough to know that he couldn’t be pushed into talking until he was good and ready, so I told myself to be patient and wait. I’m not very good at being patient, though, and I was starting to get worried. What was going on?

“Okay. Here’s the deal.” Alex burst out suddenly, startling me. “I’m just going to have to say this or it’s not gonna happen at all! I’ve been trying to figure out lately why you going out with Ted bothers me so much, because he’s a good guy, and I totally want to be in support of your relationship if you start dating. But for some reason it just always annoys me! So, I sought the council of my psychiatrist, Kylee, and I think I finally figured out what the issue is.”

“Alright …” I said slowly. This was about Ted? That is not at all what I was expecting. Then what he had said started to register in my mind. “Wait, you don’t like me going out with—”

“Wait, just let me finish.” Alex looked at me for the first time the whole conversation. He looked both serious and nervous, two unusual traits for him.

“Okay, go on.” As soon as I responded, Alex went straight back to staring at the ground.

“Well, I’m pretty sure the reason I’m having such a difficult time coming to grips with it is because …” He hesitated, as if he was unsure how or even if he wanted to go on. I stared at him, completely at a loss as to where he was going with all of this. I had never seen him so frazzled. Before I could say this, he went on.

“… the thing is, see … I may not be altogether convinced that I couldn’t potentially be completely opposed to the idea of sort of maybe possibly dating you at some point in the future. Is the thing. See.”
I paused for a moment, trying to make sense of what he had just said. When it finally dawned on me, I burst out laughing. He was clearly trying to make a joke to avoid saying what he actually wanted to say. Typical Alex. This struck me as very funny indeed, because I had been quite tense in anticipating what he was going to say. I turned to him, laughing and wiping my eyes, ready to ask him to be serious so we could get on to dinner already.

Alex wasn’t laughing, though. In fact, he looked confused at my reaction. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Looking defeated, he sighed and just stared at his pile of shredded grass.
“Oh … you’re serious …” I meant that as I question, but it came out as a statement. A declaration. He was serious. Wait, he was serious? I shook my head, trying to determine if I was just dreaming this whole scenario. It was that bizarre. Was Alex, my best friend, really sitting here telling me that he wanted to date me? After I had been talking for the last two hours about the guy I was currently dating? It was bold—I had to give him that. But, seriously? Suddenly, I realized Alex was talking.

“… pretty much as surprised as you when I discovered this. And after I realized how I felt, I determined I had three real options. First …” Alex seemed to have regained his confidence, and went on to detail the three options, but my head was spinning too much to listen.

What did this all mean? What would it mean? How long had he felt like this? Oh my gosh, is that why he was so set against Sid from the start? And what about Ted? And what about Alex’s and my friendship?

I sucked in a quick breath as a realization struck me. From this point on, our friendship would never been the same. I shook my head again. I felt dizzy. I tried to focus on what Alex was saying.
“… this is the option I opted for. I’m aware this may complicate things with Ted. And I don’t want you to change your relationship with him based solely on the basis of me. But hopefully you can see that, even though this has now become a very complicated situation, telling you was the best option.”

Alex fell silent, his speech complete. It was my turn to find myself at a loss for words. Without realizing what I was doing, I also started shredding the grass in front of me. A million responses raced through my mind, all of them different. I knew that if I even tried to respond, all of that would spill out and only confuse us both even more.

“Well …“ I began slowly. “I don’t really know what to say. At least not right at this moment. I need to think …”

“Well, you shouldn’t say anything now, anyway. You should think it over first. We should probably get back for dinner?”

Thankful that Alex understood my need to think and process, I let him help me to my feet and we started on our way back. We talked the whole walk back, but by the time we got to my dorm, I had no idea what had been said. I also knew that I was not up for socializing and trying to pretend like nothing was on my mind. Forgetting that I was the one who kept insisting we hurry back from our walk for dinner, I excused myself at the entrance of my dorm. I needed to think, and not even Alex could help me sort through this one.

After an hour of lying on my bed staring at the ceiling, I still hadn’t come to any definite conclusions. In fact, I still hadn’t gotten my head to stop spinning. Suddenly, a knock on my door startled me out of my thoughts.

“Hey, you ready for coffee with Bree?” Emilie stuck her head through the door.

Coffee! I had completely forgot about my coffee date with Emilie and Bree. For a moment, I considered telling her I wasn’t up for it, but then realized that a chance to discuss this with two of my closest friends over coffee (my beverage of choice) might be just what I needed.

“Sure thing.” I answered, jumping up off of my bed. “Girl, do I have news for you.”

Three long, confusing days later, I found myself standing in front of the mirror in my room getting ready for my date with Ted. The time between my walk with Alex and right then had passed in a fog. After my coffee date with Emilie and Bree, I had texted Alex. I thanked him for his honesty, and asked him to give me some space for a few days so that I could think as objectively as possible. I had also avoided Ted as much as I could without being rude. I couldn’t bear to be around either of them, because I instantly felt like I was comparing them to each other, and that didn’t seem fair.

If there was one thing that I had determined over the past three days of being holed up in my room, it was that I couldn’t make this about choosing between Alex and Ted. If I dated either of them, it had to be because I wanted to date that one more than anyone … not just more than the other guy who had offered. Ted was fun and sweet, but Alex was my best friend. I would choose him over anyone—but to date? Did I really want to risk our friendship like that?

Oh, stop it, I chided myself. You weren’t going to dwell on this until after your date with Ted.

With that in mind, I glanced at myself intently in the mirror and then headed out the door, having no idea what was in store for the evening.

A couple of hours later, Ted and I were walking down a beautiful trail in John Bryan Park. All I had been expecting was dinner, but since it was such a nice spring evening, Ted suggested we take a walk. I agreed, my mind too full to protest. And it was a beautiful evening, after all. Some fresh air would probably do me good.

I crossed my arms as we walked down the trail. Ted’s hand had kept casually grazing the back of mine as we walked, as if we wanted to slide his hand around mine. I just couldn’t deal with that at the moment. I was enjoying myself as I always did with Ted, but I couldn’t help but notice how much more forced conversation with Ted felt compared to with Alex. Talking with Alex was like breathing or writing my name. Nothing had ever felt so natural.

Jess! Stop that! You’re on a date with TED. Not Alex. Pay attention!

“One of the reasons I wanted to go for a walk was because I wanted to ask you a question.” Ted said suddenly, interrupting both the quiet of the walk and my thoughts.

“Alright. Shoot.” I responded, still trying to pull my thoughts from Alex.

“Well, I feel like I don’t even have to ask this question, because I’m pretty sure I already know the answer.” Ted glanced at me and smiled warmly. “But, I’d like to make it official. Jess, will you be my girlfriend?”

I stopped dead in my tracks. I must be the most unobservant girl in the entire world. How could two guys in three days sneak that conversation up on me without me even noticing?! I clapped my hand to my forehead and sighed. These guys certainly knew how to boost a girl’s self-esteem, but honestly! I couldn’t take any more declarations of love.

I turned to Ted, who was still smiling confidently. And why shouldn’t he be? We had gone out several times, we always had a great time with each other, we had extremely similar passions and future plans … in the eyes of anyone else, especially him, we were the perfect couple. And yet …

“Ted, I really don’t think you want to be asking me that right now.”

Smooth, Jess. Real smooth.

“I … I don’t understand.” Ted’s smile faded into confusion.

“I don’t either, Ted. I’m sorry. I just can’t answer that question right now.” I stared at the ground, mentally kicking myself for ruining this sweet boy’s plan of a perfect date. He at least deserved the truth. “Let me explain …”

As we walked, I told Ted the whole situation. He listened carefully and respectfully, which broke my heart.

“You’re going to date him instead of me, aren’t you?” Ted said quietly, staring straight ahead.

“I don’t know …” I said, honestly. “I just need to think.”

“Well, I can wait for you to think.” Ted turned to face me and reached out and touched my arm. “Take all the time you need.”

My heart broke a little more.

As soon as I walked back into my room from my date with Ted, all I could think about was Alex. I had to see him. Without thinking, I immediately texted him to ask him to come on a walk with me, and moments later I was driving up to the front of his dorm. I didn’t want to be on campus, for some reason, so I drove us to the Indian Mounds. The short drive was quiet, and I could tell Alex was patiently waiting for me to be ready to talk. It wasn’t until we had sat down at the top of the waterfall that I had the courage to speak.

“I just had my date with Ted.” I began, abruptly.

“I thought so.” Alex paused for a moment. “How did it go?”

“Terrible. I completely ruined it.” I pulled my legs to my chest and rested my forehead on my knees like the little girl I felt like.

“How?”

“He … he asked me to be his girlfriend. And I said no.” I was staring at the ground, but I knew this seemed to peak Alex’s interest.

“Ah. You … you said no?” Alex’s voice was a mixture of hope and uncertainty. I raised my head up just enough to turn to Alex and meet his eyes with mine.

“I said no.” I repeated, holding his gaze. “But I am still so unsure about everything. I’m sorry … I still don’t have an answer for you.”

I expected myself to launch into a rambling discussion of my mixed emotions like normal, but the words wouldn’t even form on my mouth. Instead, I thudded my forehead back on my knees and closed my eyes. I felt Alex scoot closer and slide his arm around my shoulders and pull me close. I turned and buried my face in his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around me. In his embrace, the confusion melted away and I only felt safe and secure. Something stirred in my heart, but I couldn’t tell if it was love or fear. Maybe it was both.

“It’s okay, Jess. Take your time.”

“Kylee …” I groaned, staring at the ceiling tiles of her dorm lounge. “What am I going to do?”

I had been laying on that particular couch for quite awhile, spilling my guts to Kylee. So far, I still didn’t have the answer I was looking for – whatever that was.
“Well, do you want to date Alex?” Kylee asked sensibly.

“That’s just it, I don’t know. It’s true that in the past, I have wondered if we would ever get to this point. But that was a long time ago. He is like a brother to me. I love him, Ky, but could I love him as something other than that? I mean, what if something were to go wrong? It could ruin everything …” I trailed off. I went back to counting the ceiling tiles, but I kept losing track. “What should I do?”

“He is your best friend, right? So what better person could you possibly want to date than your best friend? It’s everyone’s dream.” Kylee responded.

“You’re right, but … but would that be weird? Dating my best friend? There is just so much risk involved.”

“Relationships always involve risking something.” Kylee said wisely. “Let’s try looking at this a different way. You said no to Ted, or at least, you didn’t say yes. Let’s say Ted goes home this summer, meets another girl, and starts dating her. Would you be okay with that?”

“I would wonder at first if I had made the right decision, but then I would be fine with it.”

“Why?” Kylee questioned.

“Well,” I shrugged. “Because I could get over Ted. He is a nice guy, but I wouldn’t be upset.”

“Okay. Now, let’s say Alex goes home for the summer, meets another girl, and starts dating her. How would you feel about that?”

Without even thinking, I sat up and glared at Kylee for posing such a horrible question.

“No.” I said forcefully. “No. I wouldn’t be okay with that at all.” My stomach felt sick at the thought.

“So, why would you be okay with Ted dating some other girl, but not okay with Alex dating another girl?” Kylee leaned forward, eying me knowingly.

“Because,” I blurted out, again without pausing to think about the words that were coming out of my mouth. “I could handle losing Ted. I couldn’t handle losing Alex. I could never handle losing Alex.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I wouldn’t be able to handle losing Alex.” I repeated slowly, realizing what I had just said.

“I know. I just wanted you to say it again so you could hear yourself.” Kylee said, in typical Kylee fashion. “And what do you think that means?”

I paused for a moment and stared at the floor. That’s when it hit me full-force, like something I had known all along but had just woken up to.

“It means I think I do want to date Alex.” As soon as I said it, I knew it was true.

“I thought so.” Kylee smiled.

“But there’s something else …” I continued.

“What’s that?”

“If I start dating Alex, then one day I’m going to marry him.”