Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 11

He said …

We pulled our luggage out of the back of Josué, Jess’ Jeep, and slammed the doors shut.

I stood triumphantly in Jess’ driveway, looking up at the house and lifting my arms in relaxed victory. “Is break not the best thing ever?” I asked, directing the question to no particular member of the group.
Emilie was the first to respond, walking over and throwing her arm over my shoulder. “Trampoline?” We exchanged a knowing glance and ran Jess’ trampoline, hopping on as Jess and the others hauled the luggage into the house. We probably should have felt guilty, but, well … we didn’t.

“So, is this weekend gonna be weird?” Emilie question, bouncing in sync with me—she was thoroughly ready for the Easter weekend, already dressed in her favorite yellow button-up.

I thought for a moment before answering. Emilie was one of Jess’ and my closest mutual friends, and she was fully educated on the situation at hand. After I had finally expressed my feelings to Jess by the creek a week and a half prior, Jess had pretty much avoided me until after her date with Ted. I knew she just needed unbiased space to process our life-altering conversation, but it was a difficult week.

Finally, she came to the conclusion that, no matter what her decision, she wanted me in her life. Naturally, I agreed, because if I couldn’t date her, I still wanted her to be my best friend, no matter how weird that might be. We went back to spending ample amounts of time together, but Jess still had not informed me of her decision one way or the other.

“Yah, it’ll be fine,” I replied confidently to Emilie. “We’re at not awkward around each other anymore. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.” Emilie continued staring at me plainly, clearly unsatisfied with my incomplete answer. “The thing is, I already know her decision. I mean, nobody can read Jess better than I can. You know it, she knows it. I know she’s going to come around. But when she does, I’m going to hold off on dating her immediately.”

Emilie to stopped bouncing, and her stare became a questioning frown. “Um, why? You love that girl, so just date her already.”

“Well, that’s true. It’s not because I or she will still be uncertain. It’s mostly just because of Ted.”

“What about him?”

I shrugged. “Well, I feel like there’s some sort of Man Law that dictates that I’m not allowed to ask a girl out within thirty days of another man asking her out.”

The door to the house burst open, and Jess and the rest of our friends came running out to join us on the trampoline. “Hey, thanks for the help carrying stuff in, jerks!” Jess shouted as she jumped onto the trampoline head first, taking Emilie into full-body tackle. Evan and Jake took a more calm approach for climbing onto the trampoline, leaving Emilie and I completely and happily unharmed. Unlike Jess and Emilie, Evan and Jake were completely oblivious to Jess’ and my recent interactions—they were along on this trip for a relaxing time away from school.

The weekend was far less relaxing for me. I loved spending time with friends, especially Jess. I loved a break from school. But I was still waiting around for an answer from Jess. As the weekend progressed, I grew increasingly more anxious for a response from her.

In my restless state, I generally found myself clinging to Emilie over the break. She was sort of the intermediary bond between Jess and me. Funny, because when I first met Jess, Emilie had introduced me to her. When Emilie was gone for a week in Colorado and Jess and I had really started to become friends, I always joked with Jess that she was just a temporary replacement for Emilie. Now, as I waited for a heartfelt reply from Jess, Emilie was my stand-in for her.

On Saturday evening, we all found ourselves in Jess’ toy room, anticipating a nostalgic showing of A Bug’s Life. As everyone else found their way to an empty chair, Jess slid casually into the seat next to me and linked her arms through mine, pulling herself close. “So,” she whispered into my ear, “When do I get this letter?”

I paused before responding. Ever since Jess and I had talked and I had stumbled over my words, I had been writing my thoughts and feelings down in an extensive letter “to her”. I never really intended to give it to her, it was just written in a perspective as if it were to her. Unfortunately, in one of my more emotional and nervous states, I ended up mentioning the letter-that-was-really-a-journal to her. On the one hand, it was a dumb mistake to make—it had to give it to her now or it would drive her crazy. On the other hand, I wasn’t altogether convinced that I hadn’t subconsciously mentioned the letter on purpose. Deep down, maybe I wanted her to read my scribbled feelings, raw and unedited.

I guess it wasn’t all that subconscious either. After all, I had finished the letter, numbered the pages, folded it neatly, and carried it around in my pocket for the last few days. Was that unintentional?
“Maybe tonight,” I stated, not taking my eyes of the movie. If I was going to give it to her, I was going to drive her crazy a little bit first. After all, that was what she had been doing to me for the last week. “Two can play at this game,” I said, poking her in the side and looking at her with a smile. She furrowed her eyebrows at me, then laughed nervously and squeezed my arm tighter and laid her head on my shoulder.

The rest of our friends drifted off to sleep before the movie was finished. Even Jess was nodding off, still leaning against my shoulder. I was still wide awake. I couldn’t sleep with that letter burning a hole in my pocket. I ran my fingers through Jess’ hair and rested my head against her. Slowly, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the letter, holding it between my fingers and presenting it to her.
Apparently she was unable to sleep either, because she immediately snatched up the letter, jumped to her feet, and darted out of the room. I sat on the couch, arm still in the same position it had been when I handed her the letter. I guess I hadn’t been the only restless one thinking about that letter.

This is it. I thought to myself. I knew that after Jess read my letter, she would know exactly how I felt about her—the feelings I had so far only kept to myself. No matter what, things were about to change.

 

She said …

I practically flew down the hallway to my room, pulling the door closed behind me. Hands shaking, I carefully unfolded the letter as I sank into my fuzzy purple chair. I was amazed at the letter’s length, and flipped through page after page of tiny, scrawled handwriting before settling down to read the letter. It looked like it had been folded and unfolded many times, and I wondered how often Alex had considered giving it to me and then decided against it.

I took a deep breath, somehow knowing that reading this letter would force things to change. That thought was scary, but I had to know Alex’s true feelings. I steadied myself and began to read.

I slowly dropped each page in front of me after reading it, as if in a dream. Every word on every page jumped out at me. It was the most raw, emotional, vulnerable side of Alex I had ever seen. He had poured out his heart into this letter, and the weight of its words that he was entrusting me with bought tears to my eyes. The letter was open, honest, and real. It simultaneously expressed uncertainty and confidence, fear and hope. As I read it, I saw my own emotions reflected before me.

When I had finally dropped the last page to the floor, my heart full to the bursting point, only one thought stood out in my mind loud and clear. There was no doubt about it—this was the man I was going to marry.

With that realization in mind, I suddenly had to tell him my decision. He had waited long enough. My legs carried me into the other room as if with a will of their own. Alex was curled up on the couch asleep. I smiled and tiptoed to the couch, sat down by his head and ran my fingers through his hair. Sleepily, he glanced up, eyes bleary. Apparently I had been gone for a while. As the sleep left him, I could see it suddenly dawn on him that I had returned from reading the letter. Not wanting to wake our sleeping friends, I stood up and grabbed Alex’s hand, tugging him downstairs. For the first time of many more to come, I snuggled up to Alex and told him exactly how I felt about him.

 

He said …

And that was it. The weight of uncertainty, that thing that felt like a house of bricks that had fallen on my shoulders, was finally lifted. I pulled Jess in for a tight hug and smiled—I wasn’t used to feeling so insecure, but those feelings of insecurities and uncertainties of my own future were worth wading through in order to get my best friend in the end.

Suddenly, I held her back away from me a bit and looked her in the eyes. “But the thing is, Jess,” I began slowly, “I can’t date you right away.”

Her smile faded a bit as she wiped her misty eyes. “What? Why not?” She asked, surprised. There was more than a little annoyance in her voice—I really needed to work on my timing.

“Ted basically just asked you out! It’s against the Man Law!” I blurted out.

“Man Law? Like … that’s a real thing?” She looked both confused and annoyed at the same time.

“Yes.” I stated firmly. “And we hold very strongly to it.”

“But … you, of all people, want to wait to date when we both know we’re ready to date? So we’re going to be fake dating until you actually ask me out.” She sounded a bit frantic. “You hate it when people do that!”

“I know, I know!” I said, equally flustered. “It’s pretty much entirely just because of Ted. I’ve already slapped him in the face enough … I feel like if we start dating right away, it’ll just be another slap.” We both sat in silence for several minutes. It was clear that she was more than a bit frustrated by this turn of events, what with her having just poured out her heart to me. The night had been definitely been filled with many emotions. Of course, I wanted to start dating her. But I also wanted it to be at just the right time, and I needed her to understand that.

“Man Law clearly dictates that I must allow at least thirty days between the time another man asked you out and the time I ask you out.” Jess just glared at me and rolled her eyes. “Therefore, I will ask you out this summer. Also, if I ask you out now, it ruins the surprise! I want you to be surprised. So you can rest assured that it won’t be before this summer, but any time after that is fair game!”

Jess just sighed and shook her head. “Well, I guess that makes sense. Ok, I guess I can wait until summer.” She said, playfully punching me in the shoulder. Summer wasn’t that far away, was it?
Easter break ended, and the remainder of the semester flew by, as it always does after the final break before summer. Jess and I continued spending all of our spare time together, going on non-dates, long walks, and trying to soak up as much time as we could together before the semester came to a close.

Luckily for us, Jess had applied to work at East Iowa Bible Camp during the Fall Semester, and she had gotten a job as a counselor. Knowing that Jess would be at EIBC was even better, because camp was one of the few aspects of my life that Jess hadn’t yet experienced firsthand. I grew up attending and working at East Iowa Bible Camp—it was only forty-five minutes from my house—and the staff there were an extension of my own family. I and many other staff members had talked so highly of the camp on a regular basis that Jess had applied to work there for her summer job, which she had been on the hunt for during the previous semester.

Even though she would only be working forty-five minutes from my house, I knew what a job at camp entailed. It was intense work, and would take the majority of her time. I’d only see her for a brief period of time on the weekends. I knew she’d be in the same state as me over the summer, but I still wouldn’t get to see her all that often. I reflected on this during Finals Week just before the summer was upon us and opted to take her out for one final dinner of Spring Semester 2010.

 

She said …

Even though I would be in Iowa in just a month, I was already dreading the coming morning when I would watch Alex pack up and drive three states away. It was hard every time he left to go home, but this time was different, and I didn’t want him to go. He may not officially have been my boyfriend until I went out to Iowa for the summer, but I was still going to miss him more than I was ready to face.

But I didn’t want to think about that tonight. At any moment, Alex was coming to pick me up for our last “date” before leaving for summer break the next morning. We jokingly argued that our outings were not actually dates because we weren’t dating yet, but we both knew the truth.

I had been looking forward to tonight all week, and it served as my motivation throughout Finals Week. But now, after the last exams had been taken and the final papers had been written, I was ready for a night out with my favorite guy.

I was wearing white capris and a flowy yellow shirt that made me feel like summer. As Alex pulled up, I could see that he had dressed for the occasion as well—a button-up! Very dressy considering it was Alex we were talking about. I climbed into Josué and Alex drove us away to dinner at a delicious Chinese restaurant that was aptly named … Chinese Restaurant. As he turned off the car and I went for the door handle, Alex reached into the back seat and brought forth a single, brightly-colored tulip out of nowhere.

“I got this for you,” he proudly declared, thrusting the tulip under my nose.

“Woah, a flower!” I looked at him mischievously. “Does that mean this is our first date?”

“No dating until the summer, missy. You know the deal.”

Knowing that our time was short before a long separation, we lingered in the restaurant for hours, talking well after our dinner was finished. Like any young couple in love, we couldn’t get enough of each other.

When we finally got back to the car, I was afraid our night had already come to a close. But as hopped in, Alex surprised me yet again.

“We have a stop to make on the way home.”

“Oh, where to?”

“Guess you’ll just have to wait and see!”

As we drove, I pestered Alex about where we were headed, but he wouldn’t budge. Before long, we pulled into the parking lot of Indian Mounds, which was one of our favorite places to go on walks together. I couldn’t have been happier. The Indian Mounds meant even more time to just walk, talk, and be together. Alex jumped out of the car and opened the door to the backseat, pulling out two sweatshirts.

“Which would you prefer, blue or black?” he asked, holding a sweatshirt in each hand. I reached for the blue one and pulled it over my head, glad that Alex had thought ahead to bring sweatshirts on this chilly evening. He had clearly thought of everything. As we started down the trail, I couldn’t help but think that this was the best non-date I had ever been on.

Although we normally walk to the waterfall, when we crossed the bridge, Alex turned and steered us to the left instead.

“If we hurry, I think we could make it all the way to the mound to watch the sunset.”

Alex smiled at me and slid his hand into mine. We had never made it all the way to the mound before, and it sounded like the perfect place to watch the sunset. As we walked, we talked about the coming summer, focusing on the parts we were looking forward to and avoiding talk of our impending month-long separation.

It was a long walk, but it had seemed like no time at all had passed when we climbed the steep stairs to the top of the mound. The setting was absolutely perfect. We had the whole place to ourselves, and the golden sun had just begun to dip behind the trees in the distance. From the top of the mound, I felt like we were on top of the world. Alex slid his arm around my shoulders and I snuggled up to him, feeling more content than I could ever remember feeling. This was the perfect end to a perfect non-date. Alex turned to face me, and when he opened his mouth to talk, I was sure it meant it was time to head back and face the coming goodbyes. Instead, he smiled slyly, and I couldn’t help but wonder what he was up to next.

 

He said …

“You know,” I began intently, “The semester was officially over at 4pm today.” Jess just started at me blankly, not following. “That means that we’re now officially on Summer break.”

Still no change in expression. Was my timing really always this bad? I looked out at the sun, which was almost entirely behind the horizon now and bursting into a million shades of dark red to match the tulip I had given Jess.

“Well,” I continued, hoping she’d catch on shortly, “I said I wouldn’t date you until this summer.”

“I know! Thanks for rubbing it in.” Jess said, playfully sarcastic. “Only three weeks and I’ll be out in Iowa with you.”

Nope. Not catching on. “No, Jess. It’s summer now.” I turned to face her and took her hand in mine. “And you’re the most amazingly perfect and beautiful girl I’ve ever met.” I paused for a moment and looked in her eyes. “So, would you be my girlfriend?”

Jess’ mouth fell open and her eyes grew wide. I was clearly getting good at catching her completely off guard.

“Right now?” She sputtered.

“I mean, I guess we could wait a little longer if you wanted …” Not exactly the reaction was expecting.

“NO!” she screamed, throwing her arms around me and tackling me to the ground. That was more of the reaction I was expecting. “Yes, I’ll be your girlfriend!”

“Good, because this Symphony bar isn’t going to last much longer.” I hugged her back and then reached into my back pocket and pulled out a very melted, now very squished Symphony bar and handed it to her. Her eyes lit up and she took it and peeled the wrapper off.

“And, since you were such a good girl and said ‘yes’, you have earned this letter … which would have been kind of awkward to give you if you had said no. You know, since I address you as my girlfriend in the first line.”

She looked at me, giggling, and traded the symphony bar for the letter hastily. “I can’t read it. It’s too dark.”

I looked around; suddenly the sun had set completely. We were a mile from the entrance to the park and had a precarious walk with sharp rocks and trees between us and there. I hadn’t planned on that. “Well, this should be fun.” I took my new girlfriend’s hand and we walked, very slowly and very carefully, back to the car. At any other time, a long, confusing walk in the dark might have been inconvenient. But on that night, nothing could bring us down.

We arrived back at Josué, and as I helped Jess with her door and into the car, I opened the back door of the car and pulled out my final surprise for her. “Here,” I said, presenting to her the remainder of the bouquet of tulips. “Now, it is officially our first date.”

 

She said …

It was official. April 30th, 2010 marked the best (and last) first date I had ever had. I couldn’t help but wonder where we would be one year from that special day …

Alex & I over Easter Break

Alex bonding with my horse, Tux – one of the faster ways to my heart

The tulips Alex got me on our first date