Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 12

She said …

With one more deep breath, the final balloon was inflated.  I tossed it off of my bed and looked around my room at the balloon-covered floor.  I had blown up one balloon for every day separating me from my trip to Iowa—and from Alex.  I sighed and flopped back on the floor, sending balloons scattering.  There were far too many of them.

Time seemed to pass slower every day.  None of my friends from around home were back from college yet, my sisters were at school all day, and my parents were at work.  That left me home alone, bored out of mind, with plenty of time to miss Alex.  He called nearly every day, and as we talked for hours on end, I would walk all over my parents’ wooded property, pretending he was walking there next to me.

I reached over to my nightstand for my phone.  It was 7:30pm.  I automatically subtracted an hour to account for the time difference in Iowa.  Alex was probably home from work by now.  Just as I was about to text him, my phone buzzed first.  Guess who?

So … how would you feel about coming out to Iowa a little early?

 

Sun poured through my window onto my face, gently waking me up.  I had never had curtains in my room at my parents’ house.  Living a half a mile off the road in the woods was plenty curtain enough for me, and I liked waking with the sun every morning.  But this morning, I was much more sleepy than usual, and it was too early for me to remember why.  I squeezed my eyes shut and rolled over, my back to the window, trying to block out anything but sleep.  One thought kept working its way into my mind, however.

Iowa … Iowa … Iowa …

Iowa!  Suddenly completely awake, my eyes flew open and I was out of my bed in a matter of seconds.  Today was the day I was going to Iowa!  I grabbed the pen laying on my nightstand and ran over to my closet door, which had seven more balloons taped to the back of it.  Smiling mischievously at the notion of cheating on my countdown, I wasted no time in popping all seven of them.  And just like that, the day I had been waiting for had come.

 

I had been exceptionally sleepy when I woke up—I had stayed up much too late packing up my trusty Jeep for the ten hour drive to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Somewhere around hour five and cup of coffee number six of that drive, I began to seriously regret my decision to stay up as late as I had.  But that hardly mattered now.  I was only miles away from Alex’s house, and running on pure adrenaline.  I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel from nervous excitement.  I was about to see Alex—you know, my boyfriend.

My boyfriend.  The title in relation to Alex still felt new as it flitted across my mind, and yet I smiled at the thought.  It was like waking up to a whole new aspect of my life that I had never known was there before, and yet had always been a part of me somehow.  But rather than feeling awkward or foreign, the realization was comfortable and familiar, like curling up in a warm, well-worn blanket.  It was the most natural thing in the world.

The houses and fields rolling by outside were starting to look a bit familiar, so I knew I was getting close.  My heart pounded with excitement.  I rolled the window down to let the fresh Iowa air stream through and tousle my hair.  The air smelled of cows and corn—yes, I was definitely close.  Finally, I let Josué roll to a stop in front of a cozy, red house on a hill with a wide lawn that extended out to the road.  This was it.  With a deep breath, I turned the car and rolled up the paved driveway.

Before getting out, I grabbed my phone; I knew Alex would still be at work for a little while longer, but I didn’t mind.  The extra time would give me a chance to clean up a bit after spending more than ten hours in the car.  I was surprised to see that I had a text from Alex.  I must not have heard it over the wind through the windows.

I’ll be home soon.  Go on in—my mama is there waiting for you.

I froze.  Um, excuse me?  I was not at all prepared to meet The Mother, and certainly not by myself.  Sure, I had met Alex’s mom before, but that was different; I was just one of the many friends then.  Now I was The Girlfriend.  I knew that would surely change everything in her eyes—I had a mother too, after all.

I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror.  No makeup, windblown hair, a cutoff t-shirt and old soccer shorts.  Oh dear.  I looked around nervously, trying to come up with a Plan B.  I knew it was too late, though.  I was already sitting in the driveway.  Plus, I really, really had to go to the bathroom.

Trying nervously to prepare small talk topics to attempt to make an at least average first impression, I scooped up the clothes I had brought to change into, walked slowly up the sidewalk, and rang the bell.  A cute, tiny lady I recognized as Alex’s mother instantly pulled the door open.  She was full of smiles and reached out to hug me right away.

“Hi there, Jess!”  Alex’s mother, Sharon, said as she hugged me.  “It’s so good to see you again!”

And with that, every blessed small talk topic instantly fell out of my mind.  The combination of jittery excitement at the notion of seeing Alex, exhaustion from the long drive, possible insanity at being alone for the last twelve hours, pure nervousness at meeting Alex’s mother all by myself, and a very small bladder seemed to have zapped all of my people skills.  Fantastic.

“Thanks, um, you too.  Uh … can I use your bathroom?”  Wow.  That was the best I could manage?  So much for making an average first impression.

I barely waited for her to graciously point out the bathroom before zipping away and locking myself in it, juggling the pile of clothes and makeup I was carrying.  I leaned against the closed door and tipped my head back to rest on it, mentally kicking myself.  I am normally quite confident in my people skills, but that was just pathetic.  Shaking my head, I took as much time as I possibly could in cleaning up, praying Alex’s mom wasn’t upstairs thinking I was some kind of weirdo for rushing in and taking over the bathroom for an exorbitant amount of time.

When I could stall no longer, I cracked the door and peeked out.  From the typing and shuffling of papers I could hear from where I was hidden, it sounded like Alex’s mom was in her office.  As quietly as I could, I gathered my things and tiptoed right back out the front door, quite certain that I had completely lost my mind.  Feeling about as awkward as I had ever felt before in life, I poked around in Josué for a good twenty minutes, doing anything but returning indoors.  I had already made a fool of myself in front of my boyfriend’s mother, and was much too jittery to try and redeem myself.

After what seemed like an eternity, a silver truck pulled into the drive, and a familiar face smiled through the window.  As soon as the truck was off, Alex jumped out, and I skipped over to him, giggling like a little girl.  He pulled me into a hug, where we stayed for a long, long time.  I squeezed him tightly, happy to be back with my best friend.

Alex changed out of his work clothes as I managed to have a perfectly respectable conversation with his mother.  Then, we set off on a long-awaited date we had decided to have on my first night in Iowa.  We ate what I am sure was a delicious meal at Olive Garden, but we were too enamored with each other to barely notice the food placed before us.  Once we got back to Alex’s house, we roamed all over his neighborhood until the sun was long down, laughing and talking, attempting to make up for the time we had spent apart.  We seemed to have an endless list of topics to discuss.  As we walked, Alex pointed out childhood memories of his home town, and I soaked up every moment of learning new things about him.

When we made our way back to his parents’ house, we wandered down to the barn behind the house.  Nestled within a grove of pine trees that stood on top of the hill overlooking the cow pasture was an old, wooden bench.  We sat down together and Alex slid his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close.  The Iowan sky was full of more glittering stars than I had ever seen in Ohio.  I rested my head against Alex’s shoulder, taking in the moment.  As we watched falling stars shoot across the night sky, we fell silent, not because we ran out of things to discuss, but because some moments are too special to be contained even in words.

 

The weeks leading up to the start of my summer at camp passed in a long, happy blur.  I felt like I was living in a movie.  Every day I woke with the sun streaming in my window, just to get up to spend the day playing my guitar, spending time with Iowan friends, and chasing cows out in the field (shh … don’t tell Pops Laird) behind Alex’s house.  Each evening when Alex got home, we would go on walks down his street and through the fancy developments nearby, picking out which of the huge houses we would live in if we could.  We ate with his family on their back porch, either watching the sunset or watching a storm roll in over the fields.  We walked along the fields and chased each other through childhood memories, every day more perfect than the last.

We reminisced about the past and dreamed about the future; nothing was off limits.  Although the details of the futures we dreamed up changed from day to day, there was one detail that was never questioned—those futures involved the two of us together.  It was never questioned or even discussed.  It was just … there, like the sun streaming down or the grass we were running through.  Somehow it was something we both just knew.  From the moment Alex first shredded a pile of grass and told me how he felt about me.  Deep down I always knew too—this was forever.

 

On one of our final nights before Alex took me to East Iowa Bible Camp, he planned a special surprise date for us.  He came home from work a little early and whisked me away to one of our favorite restaurants—Arby’s.  A couple of bags full of roast beef and curly fries in hand, he took me to Ellis Park, a beautiful place on the edge of Cedar Rapids.  After leisurely enjoying our sandwiches and fries, Alex took my hand and we began strolling along the paved paths of the park.  He was determined to find these flower gardens that he was sure I would love.

We never found the gardens (which we later found out had been destroyed in The Great Iowa Flood of 2008), but in the process got distracted by wading up a creek that made its way through the park.  We were getting soaked, but we didn’t care.  Hand in hand, we stomped and splashed our way through the creek and into the thicket.  After wandering around the brush, trying to find the edge of it, we finally fell out of the brush onto a grassy lawn.  Lying in the grass side by side, we laughed and tried to brush ourselves off.  We sat up, still laughing, and found ourselves staring into the faces a few well-dressed golfers … apparently this grassy lawn was the green of the Ellis Golf Course.  One of the golfers look confused and maybe a little annoyed, but the other was smiling good-naturedly and shaking his head.

“Did you get lost?”  He asked with a wink.

“Um … maybe a little.”  Alex said, standing up and pulling me to my feet.

“But, I think we’ll go … this way!”  I called.  We took off running back in the direction of the creek, laughing all the way and apologizing over our shoulders for interrupting their game.

When we stopped to catch our breath, we realized we had made our way to the edge of the park, which seemed to end in a wide lake.  Alex explained to me that the lake was actually remnants of the flooded river, and was covering a large picnic area.  Sure enough, I could see the tops of picnic tables and grills poking up through the water as far as I could see.  The sun was setting behind the water and glittered off of it as a family of ducks skittered its way through the “lake”.

“Do you think I could make it out to that table?”  I pointed at a flat tabletop sticking out of the water maybe thirty feet away.

“Maybe.  You’ll get soaked.” Alex said, reasonably.  But I could see he was eyeing the table as well.  I shrugged.

“I’m already soaked.”  I tried to judge the depth of the water and the distance to the table, and then quickly gave up.  “I’m doing it.”

I handed Alex my camera and phone and kicked off my shoes.  I started carefully wading into the surprisingly warm water, making my way toward the table.  Within seconds I was wet almost to my waist, but I kept going.  Finally, I reached the slippery table and scampered on top of it, raising my hands in victory.

“I made it!”  I turned back to Alex, who was snapping pictures away like mad.  I waved for him to follow.  “Come on!”

He hesitated for a moment, but then rolled up his jeans and started to make his way through the floodwaters, camera held high over his head.  I tried not to laugh as he picked his feet up high and waded through the deeper and deeper water.  I pulled him up onto the table with me, and we looked around at the water surrounding us.  The sun’s reflection on the water was both blinding and beautiful, and through the glare I saw the top of a grill about another ten feet further into the water.  I turned to Alex, eyes wide.

“Don’t even think about it.”  He said, catching my gaze.

“Oh, come on!  It’s not that much further!  I bet we can both stand on it at the same time.”  Alex rolled his eyes, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist.  After a moment’s discussion, we decided to set the timer on the camera and then try to make it out on top of the grill before the camera started taking pictures.  We counted down, pushed the button, and took off splashing and laughing through the water.  Somehow, we managed to haul ourselves on top of the tiny grill without tipping over into the water.  We even made it with moments to spare before the camera started flashing.

We left soaking wet and muddy, but it was the best date I had ever been on in my entire life.

 

The day I was set to leave for camp, Alex’s sister, Ashley, and her husband, Stephen, came to visit.  Andrew and Laura, Alex’s brother and sister-in-law, came over as well.  The whole day felt like one big party.  I had heard so much about Alex’s family, and it was a blast to be with (almost) all of them together.

After dinner, Alex and Stephen left for a college bible study group we had been attending, but the others insisted I stay behind.  I was torn, because it was my last night to be with Alex before camp, but I really wanted to spend some time getting to know his siblings.  They told me that they wanted to go on a walk and show me all of their childhood hangouts, so I agreed.

As soon as Alex and Stephen left, we took off.  Instead of heading down the road like I expected, however, Ashley, Andrew, and Laura veered off the road and into a field of grass that came almost to our chests.  Ashley linked her arm through mine and began to describe all of the elaborate adventures they had out there as kids.  I listened intently, fascinated by this new aspect of Alex’s life.

For hours we roamed around, a bunch of twenty-somethings pretending we were kids again.  We would skip through the grass, stop to poke at a caterpillar, or chase after a huge moth.  When it finally started to get dark, we took our time wandering back home just in time for Stephen and Alex to get back.  We spent the next couple hours sitting around the kitchen table, listening to each couple tell the story of how they got together and how he proposed.  As stories were shared, I couldn’t help but notice the girls eyeing me knowingly, and I wondered if they also understood what I knew in my heart.

 

“I don’t think I want to do this anymore.”  I said nervously to Alex as he turned off the car.  I looked around at the homey-looking camp.

“Of course you do—you’ve been excited about this since last fall.”  Alex turned to face me.

“I know … but I don’t know anybody here.  Everyone else is already friends.”  I sat there in the car, suddenly convinced that I did not want to get out.

“Yes, but in no time at all, they will be your friends too.”  Alex encouraged.  “Come on.  Let’s just go in so you can meet everyone.”

I sighed and reluctantly got out of the car.  What had I been thinking?  Moving out to the middle of nowhere to a camp where I only knew a couple of people?  And I was supposed to live here?  There was only about one scenario when I am shy, and it was when everyone else already knew each other, and I was the odd one out.  And as Alex pulled open the door of the chapel, I definitely felt like the odd one out.

I hid behind Alex like a little girl until he gave me a little push forward.  The crowd of camp employees was already in a circle playing some sort of game, but they all stopped and eyed me warily for a moment, then looked to Alex as if for some sort of explanation.

“This is my girlfriend, Jess,” Alex affirmed, pushing me more into the center of the room.  Several people jumped up and ran over to greet us, and I felt a little better.  It was clear everyone at this place absolutely loved Alex.  I knew that camp had always been a big part of his life, and that he considered its staff to be family.  It was obvious from the moment we walked in that they thought the same of him.  I suddenly felt like I had a lot to live up to, and I became acutely aware of the many, many pairs of eyes looking me up and down.

I cried when Alex left me there.

 

After a week of training, things were looking up.  Two girls in particular, Krista and Sarah, who were both old friends of Alex, made a special effort to get to know me, and there were several other new people who I seemed to instantly hit it off with.  I seemed to have an extra advantage with the staff as Alex’s girlfriend.  There was a sense of acceptance, as if Alex’s approval of me meant instant acceptance from the others as well.  As much as I appreciated this, I made it my goal to be loved by the EIBC staff for me, and not just for my role as Alex’s girlfriend.

 

He said …

It was interesting to see the change in perspective from old friends as the weeks passed.  Where I used to receive “status” reports of Jess’ weekly progress as “your girlfriend and I did this” or “your girlfriend seems pretty awesome”, the reports suddenly stopped sounding like reports and became stories.  They’d start with, “Jess and I were …” or “Jess is amazing because …”.

I knew my camp family would love her.  I knew they would love her because I loved her, and I knew they trusted my judgment.  I guessed that at first she’d be accepted wholeheartedly, but on something of a “trial” period—those that cared about me would want to ensure the girl of my dreams was really who she said she was.  But I knew she’d win them over in just a few short weeks.

I was on my way home from work several weeks later when my phone buzzed.  I pulled it out and saw that it was a text from Tyson.

You picked an incredibly sound girl, Alex.  Don’t let go of this one.

Simple and to the point.  That was Tyson.  This was only one of dozens of texts that I had received from the camp staff on a regular basis.  It wasn’t that I needed affirmation—I already knew just how amazingly perfect of a catch Jess was for me.  But it was always nice to hear it from those who knew me, those whom I trusted, and those that knew what a perfect fit for me would look like.  And they all said the same thing: it looked like Jess.

 

She said …

As the weeks passed, I fell in love with East Iowa Bible Camp.  I was amazed at how much had changed in such a short time.  Camp had the strange ability to instantly feel like home, and I had never felt so welcome at a place before.  I loved everything about it—the staff, my campers, the atmosphere, the fast-paced schedule, spending nearly 100% of my time outdoors in the summer sun.  It was perfect—EIBC fit me like a glove.

If there was one challenging part of being at camp, it was the weekly separation from Alex.  No matter how at home I felt at camp, things never felt completely right without him.  I was so used to having him as a sounding board when faced with challenges—and being a camp counselor certainly produced a lot of them.  On the day and half break I had every weekend, Alex and I would walk all over or sit on the bench by the cow fields, debriefing from our busy, stressful weeks.  It was those rejuvenating times with him that kept me going throughout the summer.

The busyness combined with the lack of cell phone service meant Alex and I were completely dependent upon snail mail.  As much as I missed seeing and talking to Alex face to face, there was something incredibly romantic about checking my mail box every day for a letter.  My heart would flutter every time I would snatch a letter out of my box and carry it around all day until I had a break to sneak away and read it.  Alex’s letters always melted my heart, always making me miss him even more.  But I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.

 

When the summer of camp finally came to an end, packing up my cabin was very bittersweet.  I was excited to get back to school for my final year at Cedarville, and I couldn’t wait to be able to see Alex every day again. But East Iowa Bible Camp and its staff had become a part of me, and leaving that behind was much more difficult than I had imagined it would be.  The summer had taught me a lot about myself, about Alex, and about our relationship.  I had made incredible friends and irreplaceable memories, and I cried the entire drive back to Alex’s house—now I fully understood the passion in Alex’s voice when he talked about EIBC and the family that he loved there.

And just like that, my Iowan summer was over.  It had been the most incredible summer of my life, and I couldn’t believe how fast it had blown by.  The summer had transformed my and Alex’s relationship from a couple of best friends to two people who knew deep down that their lives would be forever entwined.  Now that the summer was over, it was time to start getting excited about what our upcoming senior year of college would hold—and even more important, what the days following our senior year would bring us …