Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 8

He said …

I knew two things to be true: I was a particularly perceptive individual, and Jess was exceptionally easy to read. The two of those in combination led to Jess rarely being able to keep anything from me. I suppose that was the reason I suggested we exchange stories in the first place—it seemed easier than just reading her mind.

But there I was, two days after we had exchanged stories, sitting next to Jess with a level of comfort and ease that I had never experience. I suppose I should have seen something like that coming. But, in all honesty, I didn’t think it was possible for Jess and me to be any closer. We were the best of friends. Exchanging stories seemed natural, but it didn’t feel like it would really change anything.

There was something about being completely open and honest with someone that just felt so … freeing. When you are completely unhindered, that’s when you know it’s the most genuine. And knowing I had the most genuine friendship with Jess was about the most satisfying feeling I had ever experienced. It was something I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Anything. Anything that I wanted, that is. But I would give anything to ensure that Jess was completely safe. And completely happy.

 

She said …

I felt like I was walking on air. Never before had I felt so free. I had never been so honest with someone before. Rather than feeling exposed, I felt more comfortable and at ease than ever before.

In just a little over a year, Alex had gone from a complete stranger to the closest friend I had. Everyone around me seemed to think that Alex and I were perfect for each other, and that surely I would have a “ring by spring” (the mantra, it seemed, of the Christian college community). But it wasn’t like that. Alex seemed to be the brother that I had never had, and after my run in with Sid last year, I could certainly use someone like that—someone I knew I could trust. And if there was one person I trusted unconditionally, it was Alex. He had proven himself time and time again, and I knew he would do anything to protect me.

“Jess!” I jumped, unaware that I had fallen so deeply into a daydream. “Girl, you’ve been staring out that window for twenty minutes!”

It was my friend Bree, one of the few other females in our major. She looked amused as she signaled me that class was over.

“Besides,” she said, standing up to leave. “I think someone is waiting for you.” Bree winked and nodded at the guy a few tables down, who was clearly taking an unnecessarily long amount of time to pick up his books. I caught his glance and saw him smile, then hastily look back down.

His name was Ted. Ted was in nearly every one of my classes and had been since I first arrived at Cedarville. Aside from the group of friends I shared with Alex, I had recently been spending a lot of time with a many students from my own major, and Ted was one of them. We bonded over the fact that we were all youth ministry majors—the loud and goofy side of the Bible Department, which was otherwise filled with the quieter, more philosophical pastors-to-be. The youth ministry majors were a fun group, and I had really enjoyed getting to know them, Ted included.

Lately, however, I had been noticing a change in Ted. When other seats were available in the classroom, he would opt to sit next to me. When everyone in the class would get up and leave, Ted would linger back and talk to me or walk me to my dorm. I wasn’t sure what to make of this turn of events quite yet, but it was definitely interesting.

I glanced up again and saw him coming toward me.

“Hey,” Ted said, smiling a little nervously. “Do you have plans for lunch?”

“Nope, not today.” I answered, slinging my bag onto my shoulder, wondering where this was going.

“Well, would you like to have lunch with me?” He shuffled his feet, still looking a little nervous.

“Sure.” I smiled. Ted was an especially sweet guy, and I always enjoyed hanging out with him.

Awhile later, we were sitting in Chucks, our empty plates pushed to the side. We were talking and laughing, and I was enjoying Ted’s company and his sense of humor.

“I have a question for you.” Ted said suddenly, swallowing hard and shifting back to a nervous expression. “Valentine’s Day is next weekend, and some of the guys I live with are going on a sort of group date to Olive Garden with their girlfriends. I was wondering if, well … would you like to go with me?”

I was surprised and flattered, but a little unsure how to respond. The Sid Situation was far behind me, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready for another relationship yet. But Ted was nice, sweet, and very respectful. I had known him for a long while, and I trusted him. And besides, the boy wasn’t asking me to marry him; he was only asking me to dinner. Maybe that is what I needed: something casual. Baby steps. I decided to play along.

“Valentine’s Day dinner, eh?” I winked at him playfully. “That sounds an awful lot like a date.”

“Well,” Ted responded, looking more relaxed. “Maybe it is. Is that okay?”

I paused. There it was. Right out in the open. A date.

“Okay.” I answered. “I’d love to go.”

Ted’s face broke into a grin. He lifted his fists into the air as if in victory and announced triumphantly to no one in particular, “She said yes!”

I glanced around, laughing, wondering if anyone had seen the display. It was the most adorable response to a date agreement I had ever received, and I relaxed back into my chair. I was glad I had said yes.
One thing was for sure though. Even if it was just one date right now, there was no way it would turn into a second or third unless Alex gave 100% approval to Ted.

 

He said …

“No, he seems like a great guy,” I said. “Besides, you’ve already said you’ll go. It’s not like you can back out now.”

“Well, I don’t want to back out. But if you thought there was any reason I should, I would.”

There are few things more intimidating than someone relying on your judgment wholeheartedly. Jess had put her trust in me time and time again over the last few months. It wasn’t like there weren’t quite a few guys interested in her. I looked at her and smiled. She was sweet, attractive, fun, and loyal. It was no wonder guys were always interested in her.

But after the Sid Situation, she never did anything without my consent. She ran all of her feelings and thoughts through me. I had little difficulty not taking advantage of that fact, but it was an awful lot of pressure? The only thing I wanted more than Jess’ friendship and safety was her happiness. I did my best not to control her dating life, but she also wouldn’t do a thing without my approval. At least that way I didn’t have to worry about her settling for another trashy male.

The Ted Situation, however, was different. I wasn’t concerned in the least. I liked the little I knew of Ted, and he and Jess got along quite well. Unlike with the Sid Situation, I had no inhibitions about Ted’s intentions tugging at the back of my mind.

“Of course you should go with him.” I assured her. “Anyway, it’s not like he asked you to date him; it’s just a Valentine’s Day dinner. Nobody likes to be alone on Valentine’s Day.” She gave me a half smile, as if she wasn’t completely satisfied with my response. “And,” I continued, “If it should turn into a second or third date, he seems like the type of guy that would be good for you.” That earned me a full smile.

 

She said …

The Valentine’s Day date went about as well as most first ever dates do—a combination of nervous butterflies, embarrassing moments, and get-to-know-you conversations. I had changed my outfit probably five times before Ted came to pick me up, and had sent several pictures to my sister for outfit approval.

The dinner was fun and delicious, and I survived it with only one excessively embarrassing moment: I enjoyed being with Ted, but didn’t really know anyone else there, which made me even more nervous. Unfortunately, when I get nervous I tend to shred whatever is within reach, which in this case meant the plastic wrappers the straws came in. I just needed something to do with my hands. No one seemed to notice, but by the end of the meal I had a small mound of tiny pieces of clear, plastic wrappers sitting next to my plate.

I was trying to partake in the conversation of the group of friends around the dinner table, when suddenly and inevitably … I sneezed. Showers of plastic went all around the table. I gasped and covered my mouth with my hand in embarrassment as the static-filled plastic pieces clung to those nearest me. They began pulling the pieces off themselves, unsure of what had hit him.

“Oh man …” I muttered to myself, staring at my plate. I glanced out of the corner of my eye at Ted to see if he was regretting his choice of date. To my surprise, he was laughing hysterically. Relieved, I cracked a smile.

“Oops.” I mouthed to him. He just laughed and shook his head in amusement.

About a week later, I relayed this tale in The Hive to Alex, who was also shaking his head and laughing.

“You’re ridiculous.” He said, good-naturedly.

“Shut up. I mean, he handled that situation pretty well, which I guess is a good sign. Yeah?”

“Yeah, I’d say so.” Alex sipped his coffee.

I studied Alex for a moment. He had been reluctant at first about the date, but after I listed Ted’s merits, he seemed to warm up to the idea. Something still seemed to cause him to be hesitant about Ted though, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. He had said nothing against him in the slightest, and had commented several times about how good of a guy he seemed. Even so, I couldn’t help to think he still wasn’t completely okay with the idea of me going out with Ted. We had already had a second date, and a third was coming up next weekend. I desperately wanted Alex to like Ted.

“Listen, my youth ministry friends and I are hanging out tonight. Why don’t you come? You could get to know Ted, and I really want to hear what you think of him after spending time with him.”
“I don’t know …” Alex said hesitantly. “I don’t really know any of them.”

“Well, this is how you get to know them! Come on, it will be fun.” I gave him my best puppy dog eyes. “And besides, Ted wants to go out with me again on Saturday. You need to hang out with us so you can get to know him better!”

Alex sighed and smiled half-heartedly. “Oh, alright. I’ll come.”

 

He said …

I went. I spent the evening sitting and talking with their group, laughing at their jokes, eating junk food, watching movies, and most of all watching Ted interact with Jess. I appreciated the way he looked at her. He treated her respectfully. I appreciated how he was attentive when she was talking. What I had grown to suspect, that he was a great guy, was confirmed before my eyes.

And yet. Something in the pit of my stomach refused to settle. I unlocked the door to my room, tossed the keys on my dresser, and flopped onto the couch, relieved to be alone with my own thoughts for a bit.
It wasn’t Ted. He was a genuine and great guy—I could tell that. I knew his intentions were pure … so I didn’t know what the unsettling issue was. Every identifiable thought within me said, He’s a good guy. She’ll be happy with him. When she inevitably asks, tell her he’d be good for her. Those were the identifiable thoughts. They were made evident by what I knew of him and had seen of him. Yet there I lay on my couch, apprehensive about her dating Ted.

Something has to be causing me to feel this way, I thought. But try as I did, I couldn’t think of anything about Ted that might subconsciously be bothering me. I rolled over, smashed my face into the cold leather, and pulled my phone from my pocket.

“Hey,” I said, my voice muffled since my face was still smashed into the couch. “Are you available? I need to talk.”

“Sure,” Kylee’s voice came back over the phone. “Come on over to my lounge, and I’ll let you in.”

I rolled off the couch in a pseudo-depressed manner and slipped my sandals back on. The only thing worse than being depressed was being depressed and having no idea why. Luckily, my buddy Kylee always had the answers. I knew I could count on her to interpret my thoughts for me!

I trudged out the door into the rainy night and walked across the campus to Kylee’s dorm. She glanced up at me as I walked into the lounge.

“So, what’s up, Al?” She always got right to the point. I appreciated that about her.

“Oh, you know,” I replied, lying down on the long couch across from her. “Nothing, really.” I always thought of her as my psychiatrist when we had conversations like this. “You really need some more entertaining things up in your office,” I teased, staring up at the boring ceiling in the lounge. “It’ll make your patients feel more comfortable.”

“I’ll make a note of that. Now come on. What’s the deal?”

“See, that’s the thing.” I stuck a fingernail in my mouth and bit down. I needed something to shred … “I have no idea. That’s why I came over here. I thought maybe you could tell me what my problem is.”

Kylee sighed, clicked her pen, and pushed her books to the side. “You rarely make things easy for me.”

“Yah, that’d take all the fun out of it.”

“Alright, then at least give me a category.”

I glanced over at her, and she was trying to glare at me through a smile. I looked back to the ceiling and snuggled further into the couch. “Well, I know it’s not my father.” I paused for a long time before continuing. “I’m trying to figure out whether Ted is good for Jess.”

“Ah. Well, it seems you’d know that better than anyone else. Do you like him?”

“Yah, he’s a great guy. I don’t really have any reason not to like him.”

“So what’s the deal then?”

I stared more intently at the ceiling tiles. “I have no idea. I want to be excited about this, and to tell her that I’m looking forward to him asking her out. But I can’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s not that there’s a reason that I can’t be. I mean I can’t be … as in I’m trying, but it just doesn’t work.”

Kylee shook her head and sighed. “So, you know that he’s going to ask her out?”

“I suspect so, at least. I just have this sneaking suspicion that he’s going to make things official on Saturday. I guess that’s why I’m trying to figure all this out now. I’d rather have it figured out before they start dating rather than after.”

“See, now we have something run with—something other than your father, that is. So, what do we need to get figured out before Saturday then?”

“Jess is, like, the best friend I’ve ever had. She’s like a third sister. I share everything with her. There’s nothing she doesn’t tell me. I’ve never had such a close friend, and I feel like if she has a relationship, it’ll pull her away from me. You know?”

“Well, that’s a likely possibility.”

“Yah. It is. So that’s probably the issue,” I surmised, feeling confident with my assessment of the situation. Well, confident for a few seconds anyway. It faded quickly, and Kylee could see it in my face.

“But?” Kylee waited for me to finish her thought.

“But nothing. I got nothing.”

“Look, you want Jess to be happy, right?”

“More than anything,” I stated confidently.

“If Ted really is as good of a guy as you say he is, then she’ll be happy with him, yes?”

“Absolutely.”

“Alright, then. There must be some other lingering issue then.” She sat back and folded her arms confidently.

20 by 40. That’s how many tiles were on the ceiling. 800. Now that I had counted them all, I had nothing to distract myself. I just decided to focus on the single tile right about my head. Ridges. A little crooked, but mostly square. Very nice tiles, I thought. I glanced over at Kylee. She was waiting patiently for something.

Oh. Right. She had asked me a question. My mind drifted off into nowhere to avoid thinking about the answer. I had already thought about the question enough times in the last week, and it never seemed to go anywhere. Why think about it anymore?

And then, out of nowhere, the words formed on my mouth. I had no idea where they came from. I just said them.

“I … think …” I started, being sure to look only at the ceiling tiles and not Kylee. “I think that I like Jess …”