Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 7

She said …

I slammed the door shut on my Jeep and took a deep breath, stretching my arms out to my sides. It felt great to be back at Cedarville, which I hadn’t expected. After the stressful end to the previous semester, I was worried that coming back school would cause those feelings and emotions to come flooding back. But at the moment, I only cared about one thing—seeing Alex.

I smiled at the thought of him as I headed for the Student Center. Alex had come back to school a little earlier than necessary to attend a friend’s wedding. Because we hadn’t seen each other all summer, Alex insisted that I also come out early to see him. Of course, I happily accepted.

On the hour long drive from my parents’ house to Cedarville, I found myself feeling a little nervous about seeing Alex. Ever since the conversation that I had with my sister a few days prior, I had been wondering what it would be like. Would he seem different somehow? And if so, how would I feel? Did I want things to change between us?

Now, though, as I crossed the empty campus and gazed out over the lake in the direction of the Student Center where Alex was surely waiting for me, I felt overwhelmed by peace.

God, I’m leaving this one up to You. I prayed silently as I walked. He’s my best friend.

I realized just how true that statement had become, and with that realization came another wave of peace. It hit me that I did not care which direction things went between Alex and me. Either way, he would still always be my best friend, and that was all that mattered to me. He was important enough to me that it didn’t matter if anything ever changed between us. I knew I just wanted him to be a part of my life somehow. The peaceful feeling surprised me, and I quickened my pace toward the building.

When I opened the door, I immediately saw Alex leaning against the staircase and smiling. I squealed like a little girl and ran the rest of the way to him, hugging him and jumping up and down. It was so good to see him.

We ordered smoothies and wandered out to a picnic table by the lake, right next to The Rock, which was painted to say “Welcome to Cedarville!” Time flew by as we talked and laughed. One of my favorite things about my friendship with Alex was our ability to pick up exactly where we left off and the comfort between us that never left us short of things to talk about. Today was no exception.
At some point, after the smoothie cups were sitting empty but the conversation had yet to lag, I remembered that I was supposed to be paying attention to see if anything seemed different between us. I chuckled to myself. Clearly things were exactly the same, and I couldn’t have been happier. I had my best friend.

 

He said …

Here’s what Jess needs, I had thought. She needs a guy who will just be friends with her. Who doesn’t try to make her compromise. Who isn’t just waiting around to ask her out, but is genuinely interested in her and looking out for her. I had thought it on the drive home after school ended last semester, and rather than continuing to think it over the summer, I just tried to show her that kind of sincerity and loyalty.

After sitting by the lake and enjoying our smoothies to start the semester, things had only gone up hill. It was as if the smoothies we so thoroughly enjoyed (and, of course, the time we spent together) helped to define what we wanted to be. The closest of friends. In fact, while sucking down the smoothie that was gone all too soon, I realized that I was as comfortable around Jess as I was around friends I had known all my life or even my siblings.

The semester went then in much the same manner. Jess and I spent much of our time together, meeting for coffee (or more smoothies), going for walks, eating at Subway on Sunday nights after she returned from the Youth Group she worked with. We did most everything together. I looked forward to telling her everything; she looked forward to hearing it, and vice versa.

 

She said …

“A trip to Iowa!” Alex perked up. “Let’s do it!”

Our group of friends was sitting around a table in the cafeteria as we did every evening. The topic of discussion for the night was one of great importance: Fall Break plans. We had already decided that we wanted to do something together as a group, but the question on the table tonight was what?

A lot of good ideas had been offered up so far, but … Iowa? I looked at Alex, unconvinced. I knew I had to be careful in formulating my response, as roughly half of the friends sitting among us were native-born Iowans.

“Um, Iowa? What is there to do in Iowa?” That hadn’t come out quite as sensitively as I had hoped, and it was clear from the glares I got from the Iowans at the table that they agreed.

“Hey, Iowa is not such a bad idea.” Dave piped up, an Ohioan like myself. “We could stay with Alex, Emilie, and Kylee, so it would be cheap. We can … ride some tractors. Pet some pigs. Eh?” He looked around the table, as everyone seemed to be in agreement.

“Fun fact,” Alex chimed in. “There are actually more pigs than humans in Iowa.”

“Oh, well in that case …” I muttered under my breath sarcastically. Luckily, none of the Iowans heard.

“That’s it then! I’ll get the creamers!” Dave jumped up and ran to get a small container of French Vanilla coffee creamer for each of us. We always sealed important events and decisions with a toast of coffee creamer shots. I gulped down the sickly sweetness, a little unsure of the forthcoming road trip destination, but excited nonetheless to be with my friends.

A week later, we had crammed into the cars and were on the road for the eight hour drive to Iowa. Of course, considering how easily distracted we got by fun things along the way (like trying to spot the Mississippi River, which I somehow managed to miss), it took closer to ten hours. Alex and I were in separate cars, but for most of the drive we texted about the various antics taking place in our respective cars and the adventures we would have in Iowa.

I was particularly looking forward to meeting Alex’s family. He talked endlessly of his parents, his three older siblings and their spouses, and growing up on the Iowan countryside. I had never heard anyone speak as highly of their family as Alex did, so I knew they must be pretty special people.

I was not disappointed. The Lairds were every bit as lovely as Alex had described them to me time and time again, and I was fascinated to watch him with them. I loved how he sat on the couch with his arm around his mother, and always seemed to speak to her in a manner of love and respect. I loved that when we walked in, Alex’s dad clapped him on the back and pulled him into a huge hug, and then promptly gathered us all around to pray and thank God for giving us safe travels.

The week absolutely flew by. Although we never petted any pigs, we did get tractor rides and got see Pops Laird’s cows, of which he is very proud. Alex even took me out one day to visit East Iowa Bible Camp, which I had also heard him speak fondly of on many occasions. Alex had practically grown up there and considered its staff to be another family. He was trying hard to convince me to work there the coming summer, and although I wasn’t at first keen on the thought of a summer in Iowa, after our road trip there, I was beginning to change my mind. More than anything else, I was again fascinated to catch another glimpse into his world.

The whole group

Alex and Jess at East Iowa Bible Camp

 

He said …

“So, what do you think?” She questioned. “You wanna come?”

“Look, I like pumpkins as much as the next guy,” I speculated with a heavy droll, “but this sounds rather cultish to me.”

The Pumpkin Show was the ritualistic reunion that Circleville, Ohio celebrated each year. Aside from taking three years off for the World Wars (it required something of that magnitude to bring it down temporarily), The Pumpkin Show had opened its gates annually, billing itself as The Greatest Free Show on Earth (even though every single thing at it costs money). I was less than convinced.
Jess glared at me with her eyes, but her mouth never was good at hiding a smile. “Come on! There’s pretty much every kind of food at this thing, a parade, awesome desserts. There are pumpkin burgers … you’re from Iowa, you like cows! And rides like at a carnival.”

“You’re not going to win me over with rides that can be constructed out of an oversized truck in less than three hours.” She looked as though she was growing tired of my sarcasm. “Okay, okay. It sounds tolerable. I just have one question. Does The Great Pumpkin show up?”

“No … but there is The Pumpkin Man in the parade!”

I went. We got out of the car, Jess with the phone up to her ear, me with a look of a protest still painted on my face. “We’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said, ending the call with her mother and tossing the phone into her purse. She gestured with her head in the direction of the festivities. “Let’s go!” I followed dutifully.

We hadn’t been walking for two minutes before the sky opened up; rain came pouring down out of nowhere. I glanced up at the sky in surprise, wondering where the clouds had come from, as Jess dragged me toward the row of buildings ahead. We dove under the nearest overhang to wait it out, but it was entirely too late … we were both completely soaked. Jess looked quite distraught, perhaps worried that my first Pumpkin Show experience had been soiled.

“You know,” I said, smiling at her. “When I was little, I used to always ask Mom if I could go out and play whenever it would rain. ‘No’, she’d always say. ‘You’ll get sick’. So logical she was. But here I am, out in the rain. What’s she gonna do about it now?”

The rain finally subsided enough to where we could come out of hiding, and we headed for the show again.

The Pumpkin Man was one of the most terrifying things I had ever encountered. And the pumpkin burgers Jess boasted about? They weren’t burgers! They were sloppy joes. I do have to say, though, that the chocolate-covered-frozen-pumpkin cheesecake was probably the most delicious treat I will ever consume.

 

Alex's favorite part of The Pumpkin Show

The Pumpkin Show was alright, but I primarily enjoyed seeing Jess in her natural habitat. I met each member of her family, and I got to see firsthand how she interacted with each of them. Call me strange, but I’m always very curious to see how different my friends are when their family is around. Jess was no different. She was the same, reliable friend that I knew and loved.

I had bourbon chicken with her sister, Kara, one of the Queens of the Pumpkin Show (though I was pleased to find that the queen had no affiliation with the Pumpkin Man), and I bought a drink from the booth her youngest sister, Laura, worked at. Her mom snuck me a piece of pie, and her dad … well, he was a lawyer and a Nicolas Cage fan, I found, so I decided to take it slow with him.

 

Queen Kara and Jess

 

She said …

It was getting cold outside, so Alex’s and my regular smoothie dates had turned back into coffee dates. On this particular coffee date, we were reflecting lightheartedly about how our friendship had developed and how far we had come. It had been just over a year since I had watched him choke down a cotton ball, and it was hard to believe that we had grown so close in such a short and crazy year.

And yet, there we were—two best friends who spent nearly every day together. As Alex got up to get more coffee, my mind wandered to a conversation I had recently had with Kylee.

“You and Alex should just get married or something.” She had said, off hand as we walked across the courtyard of my dorm.

I laughed out loud and gave her a shove. “Marry Alex? Get serious.”

“I am serious. You are together all the time. Everyone knows you’re prefect for each other.”

“Ky, he’s my best friend!” I couldn’t believe we were even having this conversation. Those thoughts about a potential relationship between Alex and me had long since stopped crossing my mind.

“Isn’t that what everyone always wants in someone else?”

“Well, I guess so. But, people always start dating and then become best friends, not the other way around. How weird would it be to suddenly start thinking of him as my boyfriend?”

“Maybe if people became best friends first, they would be better off.” Kylee said wisely.

I pulled myself from my memories as Alex slid back into the seat across from me.

“I have an idea.” He said. “We talk all the time about all sorts of things, but I’ve never heard your whole story from start to finish.”

I laughed. “That would take a very long time.”

“That’s why I think we should schedule an afternoon when we’re both free and you can tell me your whole story.”

I considered the idea for a moment. “Okay. But then you have to tell me yours.”

“Deal.” And as simply as it was brought up, it was decided.

We choose an afternoon a few days later. After wandering around campus for a bit, we settled down in a secluded corner down the winding halls of the Student Center. We had promised to be as open and honest as possible with these stories, and even though I trusted Alex completely, there were many aspects of my life story that I didn’t readily share. Some, not with anyone.

And yet as I began, I suddenly realized just how much I wanted to share those things with Alex. I wanted him to know the real me, the me that not just anybody knew. So, I began. I told stories from my childhood, described my family, and shared what it was like to move from a private school to a public one. We laughed as I told about the silly things I used to do with my sisters and my childhood friends. He listened with interest as I described the point in my life when I chose to dedicate it to serving Christ. As I moved through the years of my life, I was surprised at how emotional I became. Alex looped his arm through mine and listened quietly as I cried and shared painful moments and difficult struggles. Through his quiet expression, I could sense him sharing in my joys and triumphs as well as empathizing with the struggles. The story was long and difficult to tell, and was something I had never shared in its entirety with a single person before. I was glad that now I had, and that person was Alex.

Our long talks about our lives spilled over into three successive afternoons, as they turned out to be far more involved than either of us anticipated. When, on the second afternoon, I finally drew my story to a close, I turned it over to Alex.

Alex’s story went surprisingly similar to mine, both in the telling and in the content. I sat, completely riveted, listening to his childhood, his memories, his joys and his pains. I saw him cry for the first time as he described his own struggles, and laughed with him as he reenacted his childhood adventures with his siblings.

When we finished three days later, we sat in a comfortable silence, feeling the weight of the knowledge we had both trusted each other with. I glanced at Alex out of the corner of my eye. Never in my life had I felt so completely at ease with another person, and never had I had anyone know me so completely. When he glanced at me, I could see in his eyes that he was thinking the same thing. He reached across his chair and squeezed my hand. I squeezed back, thankful that we had been able to share these stories together.