May 13

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 13

He said …

“And that’s the last one,” my Dad said, tossing the final bag from the van into the living room.

“Sweet! Thanks for all your help, guys.”

Dad pulled me into a hug and smacked me on the back. “No problem. That’s what parents are here for, right?”

I sunk down to the couch and looked around the dirty walls, ragged carpet, and stained floors. It was exciting to be living off campus this school year—even if our house did look like it belonged in a slum.

The parents took Jess and I out for dinner. Afterward, we huddled around for hugs and prayers, said our goodbyes, and they got into the van for the long journey back to Iowa. And while they were making the treacherous journey back to Iowa, Jess and I stood in the doorway to my kitchen, looking over the disgusting mess that was my uncleaned house.

“You know. My parents own apartments, and when we were younger we used to have to clean them.” I waved one hand toward the scum-filled kitchen and the other to the rest of the house. “This is the … second most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Wow. I’d hate to hear about the most disgusting thing,” Jess said as she covered her mouth, presumably to keep from vomiting.

“I wouldn’t tell you about it even if you asked. Well, show we clean?”

“That sounds like my idea of a romantic night!”

And clean we did. For hours. Upon hours. The place was so disgusting in fact, taking so many hours to clean, that we had to break the cleaning event up into two days. But as we cleaned, we did what we always did; we cranked up the tunes, sang loudly and off key, talked about our lives, laughed, and had the best time we possibly could. Because we were together.

We reminisced of camp and how we both missed it—it was nice to have Jess to empathize with now. We talked about the crazy things we had done over the summer, the fun dates we had gone on, the best walks we had taken. She told me how much she loved my family and the way we interacted with each other. And I refrained from telling her that I wanted her to be a part of that family.

We had only been dating for three short months at this point, but we both knew where our relationship was going. We both had known where it was going before it had even officially started. It was probably one of those things we both knew from birth, we just hadn’t met each other yet—and apparently when we did meet each other, we were really bad at catching on. Anyway, in the last few weeks, we had become comfortable enough with our future that we began teasing each other about it. Specifically, Jess began teasing me about proposing. She was, as most girls who are in love are, very anxious about getting a sparkly ring.

We thought we knew everything about each other before we started dating. But the summer brought exciting adventures for the both of us, and taught us new ways to investigate each others lives. We were closer than we had ever been—and most people we knew didn’t even know that was possible after observing a friendship like ours had been. Honestly, neither did we.

 

“When are they getting here?!” Jess was jumping up and down on the couch. I was standing calmly on the floor, looking up at her with my arms crossed.

“Will you get down from there? You’re going to kill yourself. And they’ll be here any minute.”

Jenna and Joey, my sister and brother-in-law, were visiting for the weekend. We had big plans. Young’s Jersey Dairy for ice cream, smoothies in Yellow Springs, food from somewhere delicious. And, if possible, they were going to stay for the party on Saturday. The annual festivities of Pyhäinpäivä.

Jenna was, how you say, great with child, so everything the family did seemed to be slowed immensely by her painfully lethargic pace. “They probably stopped to pee. Or Jenna got some sort of weird craving,” I reasoned. “Pregnant women do that, you know. Hold on, I need to run upstairs for a minute.”

Finally, Jenna and Joey arrived, Jenna in all of her pregnant glory. First stop: tour of the campus. This was, after all, Joey’s first time at Cedarville. We took him around and pointed out all of our favorite benches, all our favorite paths for walking, and all our least-favorite class rooms.

“Okay, so when do we get ice cream?” Joey questioned. “Jenna keeps telling me about this amazing ice cream. And I wanna put pickles on it.” Either the tour had made him strangely desirous of ice cream, or Jenna’s pregnancy cravings were seeping into his blood stream.

“Oh, we have to drive there. Are you guys ready for that? Then we can walk around Yellow Springs for a while.”

“Ugh, more walking.” Jenna was usually about ten feet behind us when we were walking. It’s not easy carrying two people around with you.

At Young’s Jersey Dairy, we ate ice cream, petted goats, and Jenna even tried to feed a goat ice cream. Jess and I found a pumpkin patch which we tried to hide in, but some little kid found us. We took the remainder of our cones to Yellow Springs and started meandering the streets. Unfortunately, most of them were starting to close. Naturally, we blamed Jenna for her slow walking.

We spent a good amount of time in the toy store, eventually buying something for our little nephew, Hank. Then, we went and got smoothies.

“We have serious issues,” I suggested to the group.

“How do you figure,” Jess asked.

“Well, we’ve gone from ice cream cones to smoothies. And now we’re getting ready to go eat dinner.”

We were standing out front of the smoothie shop, sitting at one of the tables.

“So, where do we want to go eat?” Jess sipped her smoothie and thought vigorously.

“Well, you know …” Joey shot a look at Jenna. “Jenna’s getting pretty tired. She probably needs to lay down for a bit before the party tonight. Can we meet up with you guys later and you can just go eat without us?”

Jess looked puzzled and disappointed. After all, the main reason Jenna and Joey were there in the first place was to hang out with us—and they weren’t going to be there that long. But babies always win. That’s the rule.

“Sure. We’ll just come find you guys are we eat,” I affirmed.

“Well, why don’t we all just go somewhere in Cedarville? Subway? Colonials?” Jess suggested, trying to keep the group together.

“No, no. Jenna has too many weird allergies. We’ll just go grab something ourselves. You two go eat somewhere else.” Joey was weird. And persistent. And Jess wasn’t one to argue, so she gave up.

We waved goodbye to Jenna and Joey as they loaded into their car—luckily Jess and I had brought our own car. “So, where do you want to eat,” I asked, poking Jess in the tummy.

“Williams!”

As if it was even really an option. The two of us had already started walking hand-in-hand in the direction of Williams, our favorite restaurant in Yellow Springs, before I had asked her the question.

It was an unusual time for dinner, so there was no wait before we were seated. They sat us at a nice picnic-like table on the patio of the restaurant. Like the sloppy gentlemen that I felt like at the moment, I headed straight for my chair and didn’t even think to pull the chair out for Jess. I perused the menu as Jess talked about a million things: what a wonderful semester this was, how exciting it was for Jenna and Joey to be having a baby, how sad it was that they couldn’t come—should she graduate early? Maybe go work at camp again next summer?

I focused intently on her. But Jess seemed far away. I mean, I could see her sitting there just fine—but I felt like I couldn’t reach out and touch her for some reason. I tried, just to be sure. Successfully, I grabbed her hand across the table. Yep, still there.

I ordered the Salmon. Jess ordered the Lomo Saltados. We enjoyed our meal, but it ended too quickly, as it usually did.

“I thought of something,” I told Jess as we were leaving the restaurant after our meal.

“Yah, what’s that?” Jess said, reaching over and taking my hand.

“I have a present for you. I will give it to you … momentarily.”

“But why can’t I have it now?” Jess asked giddily. She did so love presents.

“I don’t know. Just doesn’t feel right.” I looked down at shoes and kicked a rock.

“Well, what would make it feel right?”

“I have just the thing! But we’ll need to take a detour on the way home.”

We hopped in the car and began to drive, Jess pestering me as to the location of our drive, me still feeling like Jess was at the end of a long tunnel. Her present was in the backseat, safely stored under a few sweatshirts.

As we pulled into the parking lot of Indian Mounds, Jess’ face lit up. Her favorite surprises involved presents and walks, and our favorite place to walk was Indian Mounds!

She pulled out her phone and looked at the time, frowning a little bit. “Um, shouldn’t we be getting back soon though? I mean, people will be waiting for us at the party.”

“They’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Reminiscent of months before, I got out of Josue, opened the back door, and pulled out two sweatshirts.

“Can I have my present yet?” Jess said, bouncing up and down like a little girl that had to pee really bad.

“Nope. But you do get to carry it.” I withdrew a large gift bag from the backseat and closed the door. I handed her the bag. “It requires a sunset.”

“I know where we can see one of those!” Jess grabbed my hand and pulled me down the path before I could finish pulling my sweatshirt on. We had watched the sunset dozens of times from atop the Indian Mound at the end of the winding trail. It was one of our favorite places not only because of it’s prime sunset-viewing potential, but because it was where I had first asked her to be my girlfriend.

 

She said …

The walk was a perfect idea. Everything was going completely according to plan. I had managed to keep Alex away from the house all afternoon, and was very proud of myself. The afternoon had been so much fun, and little did Alex know, it was about to get much more exciting. You see, he thought we were going back to the house just in time for our not-so-traditional Halloween Party. What he didn’t know was that Kylee and I had been secretly planning a surprise birthday party for Alex for months. When we returned from our impromptu walk in the park, he would find all of our friends hiding in the house, ready to jump out and wish him a happy 22nd birthday, which was in just a few days. It was a perfect plan.

During dinner, I had started to wonder if Alex suspected something. He seemed … distracted. After ordering salmon, one of his favorites, he mostly just pushed the food around on his plate, barely eating any—very unlike him. I also noticed that I had done most of the talking. This wasn’t completely unusual, but Alex had been much quieter than normal. I wondered if he was catching on but just trying to play it cool. Although he was very good at surprising me, I’m not that great at surprising him—I get too excited to hold in secrets.

I had also gotten nervous when Joey suddenly announced that Jenna needed to go lie down. Sure, she was rather, um, large. But the plan had been for them to help me distract Alex all afternoon and evening until the party. The two of them heading back to the house so early was way too risky—what if Alex had offered to go with them? It could have ruined the whole plan. Thankfully, Alex had suggested we stay in Yellow Springs.

But now, things were all coming together. After a delicious dinner, a walk in the park, and a surprise present in my hand, Alex’s surprise birthday party would be the perfect end to a perfect day. I was sure things couldn’t get any better.

 

He said …

As we walked, Jess kept glancing down into the big bag filled with tissue paper. Trying to cheat and see what her present was before she got to the mound. I jabbed her in the side and scowled at her.

Finally, we made it to the clearing where the enormous mound sat. We headed for the long, wooden staircase and ascended the mound, skipping every other step. Jess beat me to the top, plopping down facing the sun, setting her present beside her. I sat down next to her and lay my head on her shoulder.

“Can I have my present now?”

“Not now. The sun still hasn’t gone down!”

Jess furrowed her eyebrows at me, then stared intently at the sun as if she were making it go down faster with her gaze. We sat there for a long time, but I don’t recall if we said much. It was like any other time we watched the sun go down. Sometimes, we just enjoyed spending the moment together, not saying a word.

As the sun dipped just below the tree line and I realized Jess wouldn’t be able to see her present if I didn’t give it to her soon, I turned to Jess. “Okay, you can open your present now.”

Before I could even finish my sentence, Jess tore the tissue paper out of the bag and pulled the contents out into her lap.

She held her present high in the air triumphantly. “A stuffed dog! He’s so cute!” She beamed as she pet his soft fur, glancing quickly back in the bag as if she thought there should be something more to the gift. But there was nothing more in the bag.

“Yup, and you have to name him before we go back.”

“Hmm.” Jess stared at the stuffed dog for a long time. “What should I call him?”

“Well, I’ve been calling him Pumpkin. I don’t know why. It just seemed to have a ring to it. But you can name him whatever you want.”

“Then Pumpkin it shall be! Today is Halloween, so it’s a perfect name.” Jess said, thrusting the puppy up into the air again. She plopped him in her lap and threw her arms around me. “He’s awesome. The best puppy I’ve ever gotten. Thanks.”

I pushed her nose and said, “So, you think the puppy can hold you over for a little while longer until you get a ring?” She had been teasing me a lot about proposing to her. Even though it was something we both knew was going to happen eventually, I hadn’t really given her a specific time frame.

Jess sighed. “I supposed he could hold me off a little while longer.”

“How much time do you think he can buy me?”

Jess picked up Pumpkin and looked him mischievously in the eyes. “I’d say … a week or so?”

“A week, huh?” I said, smiling at Jess. “What if he only had to buy you, say, thirty seconds?”

Jess looked at me puzzled. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a little, maroon box. I shifted myself to be in front of her and got down on one knee. I said a lot of things, many of which I can’t remember, since the entire evening had really been a blur up until this moment. But my speech was concluded with, “Jessica Nicole Rathburn. I love you. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So will you marry me and let me be your husband?”

I popped open the little box that contained a sparkly diamond ring from Helzberg diamond.

 

She said …

“You’re proposing to me now?!”

Alex snapped the box back shut. “Well, I can wait a few more weeks if this isn’t a good time for you.

“No, no! Open it back up!” I pried the box back open. “Yes, I’ll marry you! I’ll be your wife!”

Blinking back tears of surprise and happiness, I scrambled to my feet and hugged Alex tight. Was this really happening??

It was almost completely dark, so Alex flipped open his phone and directed its light to something very sparkly within the tiny box. I gasped when I saw the light reflected back at me. The ring was absolutely gorgeous—exactly what I would have picked out for myself. Alex definitely knew me well.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the ring, nor could I wrap my mind around that fact that Alex and I were engaged. After the long, twisted path our friendship had taken, we were now going to get married!

As the sun faded completely behind the trees, we stayed on the hilltop, talking and soaking in every last bit of the moment we could. Finally, we knew we had to head back because it was getting pretty dark. Thankfully, we had made this walk back in the dark a few times before.

Suddenly, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. It was Kylee, asking where we were. Oh shoot, the party! With all of the excitement of Alex’s proposal, I had completely forgotten that there were a ton of people waiting at his house for his surprise birthday! We had to get back—and fast! As casually as I could, I tried to speed things along for our walk back.

Before long, we had made it back to Alex’s house. Now, with a sparkly ring on my finger, I was even more excited for the party. What a perfect time to announce our engagement, with all of our friends around to celebrate!

As we got the dark house and walked in, I shoved Alex forward, knowing that all of our friends were hiding in the darkness to surprise him. Suddenly, the lights flipped on and everyone yelled “Surprise!” I glanced around the room, and the first person I saw was my sister. Wait, my sister? A huge banner hung from the ceiling saying, “Congratulations Jess & Alex!”

Wait, what? Suddenly, it all started to click. I turned to Alex, tears back in my eyes, and saw him grinning from ear to ear.

 

He said …

[Two months earlier …]

“It has to be absolutely perfect, whatever I do,” I said to Kylee as we sat in The Irish Democrat eating our tasty burgers and discussing my impending engagement. “Every girl wants to have the best proposal story.”

“Oh, absolutely. So, what’s our timeline here?”

“I’m thinking … beginning of next semester.”

“So January or February. Valentines Day?” Kylee suggested.

“Ick. Too many people do Valentines Day. Besides, I hate Valentines Day. I’d like to propose of my own volition, thank you very much.”

“Okay, no Valentines Day. What other requirements.”

“Well, food, flowers, a walk, a party.”

“You’re going to have a hard time going on a walk in February in Ohio.” Kylee pointed out.

“Aw, shucks, that’s a good point.”

“Well, how do you feel about the summer.”

“I love the summer,” I said. “It’s my favorite season! But it’s much too far away.”

“Okay. Well, is the walk necessary?”

I looked at Kylee with one eyebrow raised. “It’s Jess and me. We don’t do anything without going on a walk at some point. A walk is more necessary than the flowers are.”

Kylee thought for a moment. Then nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement. “I’ve got it!” She cheered, loud enough that we got a few stares from other patrons of the restaurant.

“Hit me!”

“Can you do it by your birthday?”

“I suppose I probably could. Why?”

“We throw you a surprise birthday party!”

“I don’t see how this benefits me proposing to Jess … and you kind of just ruined the surprise.”

“No, no.” Kylee explained. “It’s not really a birthday party for you. It’s really an engagement party for her!”

I started tracking with where Kylee was going with this. “Woah! So you mean you’d tell her that she was planning a surprise birthday party for me. And she’d do all the preparations for such an event. And, inevitably for a surprise birthday party, you have to get the birthday boy out of the house … so when she gets me out of the house for a walk, I propose!”

“Bingo!” Kylee high-fived me across the table.

“Okok. However, my birthday is not on a weekend. But Pyhäinpäivä is, and it’s just before my birthday! What if we did some sort of a trio. A Pyhäinpäivä celebration, which everyone expects, so she won’t expect me to get suspicious. A birthday celebration, which will distract her from what’s really going on which is … a proposal celebration, which will be planned by you and me!” This was an excellent plan, I thought.

 

Over the next couple of weeks, Kylee slowly put the idea of a surprise birthday party for me into Jess’ head. “After all, you only turn twenty-two once,” she had said to her. “We should make it special!”

Slowly, Jess began to accept the idea. And Kylee was subtle enough that, eventually, Jess thought the surprise birthday party was her own idea! After the idea had settled, Kylee fed Jess all the necessary information. The date it needed to be, the people that needed to be invited, how to get me out of the house.

“Here’s an idea,” Kylee suggested to Jess one evening. “You’ll want Jenna and Joey to come over for his birthday party, right?” Jess nodded. “Okay, so have them come over for the weekend so Joey can ‘tour the campus’, since he’s never been, and then you can use them to get Alex out of the house.”

This ended up being a fine idea, but I failed to realize that I would eventually want Jenna and Joey to leave so I could actually propose. So, I used Jenna’s large belly to my advantage. I told her to play sick so Jess and I could go out to eat on our own. Luckily, Joey’s persuasive ways helped with this. All the while, Jess was still convinced that the reason she was getting me out of the house was for her surprise for me, so she was completely surprised when she realized that I was proposing to her on our walk.

 

She said …

[After the engagement party …]

Alex and I were engaged. Engaged! I had never been so happy or excited in my whole life. Once Alex explained how he had been planning the proposal and the party and every last detail, I was completely blown away. I had my dream proposal, the kind that every girl hopes for.

Best of all, I had my dream fiancé, and I couldn’t imagine spending my life with anyone else.

May 10

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 …

Apr 30

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

Apr 23

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.”

Apr 17

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 9

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 …”

He said …

Kylee placed her hands on her knees and leaned forward in her seat, looking at me sternly. “What did you say?”

I sat up suddenly and put my feet on the ground, shifting my gaze from the ceiling to them. I stated much more confidently this time, “I think I like Jess!”

Kylee leaned back and crossed her arms. “I heard you the first time,” she smirked. “I just wanted you to hear yourself say it again.”

I felt dizzy. It was hard to maintain my balance, though I was still sitting. What did I just say? What did I even mean by that? I couldn’t possibly like Jess. Then why did I say it? Has this been true all along? Does Jess like me? What if she starts to date Ted now, and I’ve finally just realized that I like her? These were a few of the hundreds of questions racing through my mind.

“So,” Kylee began, leaning forward again, “What are you going to do about it?”

“I have … no idea. I just finished telling you about Ted and their date this Friday! She’s going to start dating him!”

“And you feel …” Kylee began.

“Obviously very bad about that,” I finished. “I mean, if she dates him and isn’t even aware that I’m interested in her, that’s bad for both of us. And if she someday does find out that I liked her and I never even told her, that could be very frustrating to her … and me!”

An image of Jess, all dressed in white, walking down the aisle to Ted popped into my mind. There she was, looking all beautiful. I suddenly felt very selfish, as she was not looking beautiful for me. The preacher stood before the congregation and asked, “If any man has any just cause as to why these two should not be married, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”

“I object!” I shouted, leaping to my feet.

“Excuse me?” Kylee said, totally shattering my daydream … or maybe it was a nightmare?

“Huh? Oh, nothing.” I retook my seat across from Kylee.

There was a lull in the conversation as we both thought over the comically dramatic situation. “Also, he was kind of there first.” Kylee pointed out, matter-of-factly.

“Yah, I know that,” I replied. “But I’m not sure that’s a reason not to tell her how I feel. I mean, I think she’d want to know that I just had this epiphany. I think she’d be hurt if I didn’t tell her. On the other hand, if I do tell her, it’ll throw a wrench into things with her and Ted.”

This was all much more complicated than I ever could have imagined. I continued, “On the other hand, you could say that I was actually there first. I mean, I’ve known her and been close to her way longer.”
“I don’t think that really counts when he’s the one who’s already intentionally pursuing her,” Kylee reasoned.

“You’re supposed to be on my side.” I shot her a glare for a few seconds, then gave her a wink. It was frustrating, but I knew she was right. And the reason I had asked her for advice in the first place was because I was confident in her ability to help me decide what was best for every person involved.

We continued talking for another hour or so, mulling over every possible scenario, extracting every unknown feeling I never knew I had. There is a reason I come to Kylee with these emotional things. After tiring of talking, we finally narrowed it down to three possible solutions. Ultimately, we knew that the one that meant be open and honest with Jess was the most sensible solution. It wasn’t fair to everyone otherwise.

I left Kylee’s lounge only a few hours after I had entered it, but it felt like I had been in there for an eternity. After all, my entire world had just been changed by a single conversation. I was walking out of that building a new man. A new man who now realized he liked his best friend.

Realizing that I liked Jess was about the weirdest notion I had ever stumbled upon. Usually you would think you’d notice such feelings slowly creeping up on you, but Jess and I had been so close for so long that our relationship just seemed natural.

Walking back to my dorm, I reflected on the decision Kylee and I had come to. Regardless of how I knew I felt, it was decided that I should sleep on it—it’s always best to sleep on big decisions, we had said. Two days, we had said. It was Tuesday when I talked to Kylee, so Thursday was the day I planned on talking to Jess. This gave me plenty of time to sort out my own feelings, and Jess a while to sort out her own emotions before her date with Ted that weekend.

The last thing I wanted was to talk her out of her date with Ted. Whether she said the feelings mutual or not, he still deserved as much respect as possible, and that simply wouldn’t have been fair to him; I planned on making that abundantly clear to her.

I can’t say that I slept much Tuesday night. It’s hard to sleep when you just discovered a side of yourself that you never knew existed. You’ve made the biggest discovery of your life, and you’re supposed to sleep on it? I can barely sleep before an exciting event, let alone a discovery as big as my feelings for Jess.

So, it’s safe to say my emotional state was a bit hazy on Wednesday morning. I went through my morning routine—classes, chapel, classes, lunch, classes. Then, when I was done for the day, I had nothing to do but sit and wait for the day to be over. Sit and wait for Thursday to come. That was what we had decided, after all.

But then … I already slept on it, I thought. And it’s not like my decision is going to change in the next twenty-four hours, I reasoned. And it is a lovely day for a walk, I rationalized. And there’s probably a 100% chance of rain tomorrow or something.

It was true though. It wasn’t as if I had just decided yesterday that I liked Jess for the first time. Yesterday, I had discovered that I had liked Jess all along. It wasn’t something I was unsure of. I had never been more certain of anything.

I flipped open my phone and texted Jess an invitation for a walk. As usual, she replied promptly. A yes and a smiley face. Well, this was it. No turning back now.

“I was just getting my phone out to text you for a walk, you know,” Jess said as she emerged from her dorm, linking her arm through mine.

“Really?” I was surprised. We hadn’t really talked all day, so I had assumed she was busy.

“Yup.” Her abruptness indicated to me that there was something on her mind as well. A moments silence later and she poured into it.

I’d tell you what she said if I could. If I could remember what it was—maybe a tale of woe from the day, or one from her past that was eating at her again. Perhaps a frustration with another guy that was pestering her about a date. I’m certain Ted came up once or twice throughout the conversation—she needed help evaluating the status of her upcoming date. Was Ted as good a guy as she assumed? What should she wear? How should she act? Would there be a fourth date invitation at the end of the night?

See, it’s not that I wasn’t listening to her. And it wasn’t that she didn’t say plenty of things in the hour-and-a-half walk we had. It’s just that I was so preoccupied with the things I wanted to say to her that … I honestly don’t remember what we talked about before arriving at the town park.

The town park had a little river than ran through the middle of it. We made our way the side of the river and sat down on the rocky bank. It was a place we had grown accustomed to. Whenever we had long walks, we almost always ended up on the bank of the river.

I offered my advice to her as peacefully as I could, but I can’t help but think it was muddled and confusing to her. Where I normally would sit and look at her, I was instead staring at the rocks and the river. Where I would normally sit attentively, I was instead pulling up leaves of grass and shredding them between my fingers.

“Well,” Jess started, looking at her phone to check the time, “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.”

Dinner? I had not been informed I had a time limit! It caught me off guard, and I suddenly panicked. “No!” I shouted, tugging on her arm and forcing her to sit again. My own shouting was more of a reflex than a voluntary action, and it made me jump as much as it did Jess. “Uh, I still need to talk about something.”

“Then let’s walk and talk,” she suggested nonchalantly, standing again. Clearly, she had not picked up on my nervous vibes for the entirety of the walk. “We’re going to be late. And you know how you hate being late.”

“No, sit back down. This isn’t a walking-and-talking conversation.”

Jess took her seat by the bank and looked at me suspiciously. “Okay then … what’s up?”

I tried continuing immediately, but I found myself at a loss for a voice. Instead, I turned back to the shredding of grass. After my intense conversation with Kylee, I found that preoccupation was my means of relieving emotional tension. After a painfully long silence and many heavy sighs from Jess’ side of the bank (as she was clearly getting hungry), I finally began.

“Okay. Here’s the deal. I’m just going to have to say this or it’s not gonna happen at all!” I took a deep breath, trying to focus. “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.” Jess waited for me to continue, but I just sort of sat there. “Wait,” she began again. I guess my pause was too long. “You don’t like me going out with—“

“Wait, just let me finish,” I begged.

“Okay. Go on,” she agreed. I took a deep breath and began again.

“Well, I’m pretty sure the reason I’m having such a difficult time coming to grips with it is because …”

I paused for yet another long moment of silence and swallowed hard. Possibly for dramatic effect, possibly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit things to her face. Most likely it was the latter of the two.
It wasn’t that I was uncertain of the feelings I had recently stumbled upon. It was that during each of my long silences, I was fully realizing the ramifications of what I was about to say. It could alter our friendship forever and not necessarily in the way I was hoping.

I looked down and saw that I had created a whole mound of shredded grass. Shyly, I peeked a quick look at Jess from the corner of my eye. She was looking a bit perplexed, and I knew I couldn’t stall any longer.

“… 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 stopped. There, I had said it.

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. I played back my own words in my mind. What the heck kind of a sentence is that, Alex? Communication was usually something in which I took pride … that sentence was not. Here I am trying to confess my love to this girl, and I speak that train wreck of a sentence.

I snapped out of my thoughts, whilst blushing, only to hear Jess … laughing.

Laughing? Apparently she didn’t realize just how serious I was. After a sentence like that, I can’t say that I blame her. Either way, I knew it was time for some serious damage control. Sadly, my train of thought was completely broken, so I just sat there staring at my pile of grass.

Jess stopped laughing and stared at me intently for a few seconds before uttering, “Oh … you’re serious …”

It wasn’t exactly the reaction I had hoped for. “I was pretty much as surprised as you are when I discovered this,” I said, trying to make amends for my rude awakening to her. “And after I realized how I felt, I determined I had three real options.” Here came my logical side, which always kicks in when emotions get too high. I knew I could handle it from here.

“First, I could not tell you. Maybe you and Ted would start dating, but your entire relationship I’d be just waiting for you to break up. So that’s bad. And if I told you then, you’d wonder why I never told you sooner.”

“Second, I could not tell you ever. Just let you and Ted date, and regardless of whether you and he stayed together or eventually broke up, you’d never know my true feelings. So that’s bad too. This just didn’t seem fair to you, really.”

“Third, I could tell you before your date with Ted this weekend and let you decide for yourself. Obviously, 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.”
We sat there quietly, now both staring at my pile of grass. At this point, Jess had even contributed a few shreds of grass to the pile.

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

When she trailed off, I realized I wasn’t going to get an immediate response, so I broke the silence with, “Well, you shouldn’t say anything now, anyway. You should think it over first. We should probably get back for dinner?”

We stood and started walking back to school. Out of nervous agitation, both of us immediately launched into fervent and unrelated conversations. We had a ten minute walk, and we needed to think about something other than the awkward transaction that had just occurred.

“I couldn’t tell you what we said to each other,” I relayed to Kylee later that day. “I know we talked non-stop all the way back to school, but I haven’t the slightest recollection as to what we talked about!”
Kylee shook her head. “I can’t believe you. And weren’t you going to talk to her tomorrow?”

“Well, yes. I was. But I couldn’t take it anymore! My heart isn’t used to handling these emotion things! I was about to burst!”

“You two are perfect for each other,” she said, honestly sarcastic. “So, what’s going to happen now?”

“If I know Jess,” I thought out loud, “and I’d like to think I do. She’ll probably avoid me for a couple days. Then, after she has had some time to sleep with her thoughts, she’ll come to the conclusion that she is and always has been madly in love with me. We’ll be dating by the end of the semester!”

“Slow down there, Mr. Confident. Though I can’t say I disagree. How do you feel about that?”

“Pretty good,” I stated nonchalantly. “Can’t complain. But a lot is riding on this, you know.” I leaned forward and spoke more hushed and seriously to Kylee. “The thing is, see. I already know that if I do start dating Jess … I’m going to end up marrying her.”

Apr 09

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 …”

Apr 02

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.

Mar 26

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 6

She said …

Alex was right.

Through the hundreds of thoughts racing through my mind as I paced back and forth in my dorm room after leaving Sid standing in the Bible Building, this one stuck out most clearly.

Sid was exactly who Alex had said he was. I had just been too stubborn, proud, and insecure to admit it. What had I been thinking? One thing I had always loved about Alex was his ability to read other people, but I had refused to trust him, even when deep down I knew he was right. But it was too late now. I had pushed him away.

The tears welled up in my eyes again. Had I lost such a wonderful friend in one fell swoop? I wiped my eyes and sunk down onto my bed when suddenly a thought struck me. Alex’s words from before came flooding back into my mind.

I love you, Jess, but it doesn’t bother me how upset you are at me. I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship. You deserve more than that.

This time, however, a different portion of it stood out in my mind, as clear as day.

I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship.

I sucked in my breath and covered my mouth with my hand in surprise. How had I missed that part before? Alex had been willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure I wasn’t in a harmful relationship. Even if it meant sacrificing the incredible friendship he shared with me. My safety was more important to him than even that. No one had ever done anything like that for me before in my entire life.

And I just pushed him away.

The tears came again, but this time I didn’t try to stop them. Instead, I reached for my phone. Maybe he would refuse to respond. Maybe he would never want to talk to me again. Could I blame him? But one thing was sure—I had to see him.

 

He said …

*tic* … *toc* … *tic* … *toc* …

Generally speaking, I tried to avoid the monotonous routine of watching the clock. After all, it tended to be fairly regular: tics on the second, tocs on the half. I sipped the Pepsi in my hand and squinted back at the clock on the wall; something between the caffeine in my system and my lack of good sleep was messing with my vision.

“Hey,” a voice said, snapping me back to reality and reminding me that I was in the lounge and not alone. It was Kylee, one of my closest friends, and about the only other person in the world who knew the entirety of the situation, so I felt most comfortable with her in my distracted state. “Why don’t you join the rest of the class?” We were supposed to be studying for our last final, which was in the morning.

“Sorry. Kinda distracted,” I confessed, turning yet another page of the textbook I was pretending to read.

“You did the best you could, man,” Kylee reassured, knowing exactly what was eating at me. “And the best you could was exactly what you should have done. You know that. Stop second-guessing yourself! Besides, it’s a little late for second guessing.” Kylee always did have a way of being genuinely optimistic with just the right twinge of sarcasm. Just the sort of thing that she knew would reassure me and lift my spirits, if only a little. “She’ll come around, and you know it.” She saw that I wasn’t entirely convinced. “You’re a good friend, Alex. The best. She won’t be able to throw that away.”
“I hope not.” We stared at each other for several unsure seconds, both refusing to blink first. “I just want my friend back.”

*buzz* *buzz*

Both our stares were directed at the table where my phone sat. “Bet it’s Jess,” Kylee blurted. I picked up my phone and flipped it open to read the new text message.
“Looks like I owe you a dollar,” I grinned. I read the text aloud. “Hey, I miss you. Can we go on a walk?”
“Well?” Kylee shot me a look of disapproval, jumping out of her chair. “Why the heck are you still sitting here?” She started yanking me from the seat I was so comfortable positioned in. “Go! Go!”

 

She said …

I was back to pacing around my room, trying to calm my nerves. Alex had agreed to see me and to go for a walk, but had said nothing else to reveal what he was thinking or feeling. I had no idea what to expect.

What if he was angry about the things I said to him before? At the very least, he had to be hurt. What if that was enough to keep him from forgiving me? In the midst of all the hurt and confusion surrounding Sid, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing Alex on top of that. Tomorrow, I was leaving for home and Alex was going back to Iowa. That didn’t leave much time.

I sat down on my bed and took a deep breath in an attempt to settle myself down. I am really terrible at confrontation, and my blowup with Sid surprised me probably even more than the confused people who had witnessed it. Even worse than confrontation, I hate knowing that I have hurt a friend, and I knew that I had hurt Alex very much. I gave up sitting and went back to pacing, just as my phone buzzed on my desk.

I’m outside.

My stomach flip-flopped as I gathered all of my courage and slowly stepped out of my unit. I stared at the ground as I walked across the courtyard of my dorm, willing myself not to cry. I suddenly realized that in all my worry about what Alex would say, I hadn’t even considered what it was I should say. I glanced up and saw Alex outside through the tinted double doors, hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground. It was too late now.

I paused for a moment and took a deep breath before shoving the door open. Alex jerked his head nervously up at me, and when his eyes met mine, the tears broke through again. Not knowing what to say, I did the first thing that came to mind. I crossed the few feet separating us and threw my arms around his neck, crying into his shoulder. Without hesitation, Alex raised his arms and wrapped them around me.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry …” I cried into his shoulder. He squeezed me back and told me it was okay and everything was fine. I realized he had forgiven me long ago.

 

He said …

We walked and talked for hours, not really wanting to leave each other. We both knew that once we separated for the evening, only one night’s sleep and a short exam in the morning stood between us and parting for the summer. But the time went too quickly, as it always does when you’re restoring a right relationship, and the summer had come. I sat in the backseat of my van, laying back and reflection over the last several weeks, as my family and I made the long drive back to Iowa.

I was thinking about Jess. I was thinking about how close I had come to losing her if she hadn’t finally seen that all I was trying to do was protect her, not ruin her, as she had initially perceived. I was thinking about how much I missed our three hours walks and talks. I was thinking about how much I had just missed spending time with her—not just in the last week when things had gone off the deep end, but for the entire time she had known Sid!

And Sid. My thoughts kept drifting to his kind. Not “his kind” as in the individual of Sid. “His kind” as in the state of the individual—I held out hope that this entire situation would grow and change him in the years to come. But I kept thinking about the countless other men out there that were just like him.

I settled further back into the van seat, trying to pretend I was sleeping so I could keep thinking without being interrupted by anyone else in my family. Here’s what Jess needs, I 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. Could I do that? Maybe not. But I could certainly try. I had the rest of the summer to restore the good name of my gender with her, and I was bound and determined to do just that.

 

She said …

The summer had absolutely flown by, and with it came healing and a new perspective and outlook on life. After a few weeks at home reordering myself from an insane semester, I got on a plane and flew alone to the Dominican Republic for a 6-week missions internship.

I was happy to go. I needed to get away to someplace with new people and a drastic change of scenery. The Dominican Republic, with its salty ocean air and loving, generous culture, was just what I needed. It was there, with the distraction of my ministry and the help of the girls I shared an apartment with, that I was able to forget about Sid and move on.

And then there was Alex. Ironically, out of everything else that I had made sense of over the summer, he was the one thing I couldn’t quite figure out. He had been amazing for the last two and a half months. Never once, from the moment I walked out of my dorm crying and apologizing, had he ever even hinted at harboring any bitterness or hard feelings about the Sid situation. Instead, he just seemed eager to pick up where we left off, happy to have me back.

Throughout the weeks leading up to my trip to the Dominican Republic, I realized just how much I had missed Alex during our unnecessary time apart the previous semester. We were anxious to make up for lost time, and I knew every night I could expect a call from him just as I was crawling into bed. Curled up under the covers with the phone pressed against my ear, we would talk late into the night until I could no longer keep my eyes open. If there was anything that was keeping me from being completely thrilled about the prospect of the summer in the Dominican Republic, it was the thought of not being able to talk to Alex whenever I wanted.

But despite the distance, the lack of cell phone service, and the limited internet access I had in the Dominican, somehow our friendship didn’t miss a beat. We emailed back and forth constantly, sharing stories of our adventures, and made plans for fun things we wanted to do upon our arrival back at school. The few times I had the opportunity use the phone of my Dominican church to make American calls, I found myself placing them to him more than my own family.

These were the things running through my mind as I sat in my room back at home, packing my bags for Cedarville. Something was different about the way Alex seemed to have treated me throughout the entire summer, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Suddenly the door of my room burst open and my sixteen-year-old sister, Kara, came in, holding out my cell phone.

“You left this downstairs, and it keeps ringing.” She tossed the phone onto the stack of clothes next to me.

“Who was it?” I asked, folding another shirt.

“Who do you think?” Kara winked at me, turning to leave. “Alex, of course.”

“Wait! Come back in here.” Kara turned around and sat down on the floor giggling excitedly. She was clearly ready for some girl talk. She had never met Alex, but I had told her all about him, including details from the summer.

“Alright,” I said, smiling at her excitement. “I have an important question, and I need you to tell me what you think. Okay. Do you think it’s possible that Alex has … um, some other feelings for me besides just as friends?”

Think about it, Jess.” Kara rolled her eyes. “The boy saves you from some other guy by basically chasing him away, he calls you every night, he emails you all the time, he’s always complimenting you and saying nice things about you and telling you that he misses you. What do you think?”

“Well, yeah, I see your point. But that’s also just Alex. He’s a sweetheart.”

“Well, you know him better than me. But let me ask you this. What if he is interested in you? How would you feel about that? I mean, he’s one of your best friends.”

I didn’t respond right away. I guess I hadn’t thought of that yet. How would I feel about that?

“You’re right, he is one of my best friends. And, well, the same reasons why he is my best friend are the same reasons that would make him pretty much everything I would want in someone. So … I guess maybe I would be okay with that.” I responded timidly. “But I love our friendship, and I have no idea if he is even thinking about any of this. And if he’s not, that is fine too. Either way, I just don’t want to lose him again.”

“Well,” Kara said, standing up, “There you go then.” She winked again and walked out of the door. I shook my head affectionately after she left. The kid was pretty smart sometimes for being a little sister.

As for Alex, I decided I would just wait and see. The semester would tell what the summer’s events would lead to for our relationship.

Mar 19

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 5

He said …

I was forced, in my years as an observant male, to notice that women have strange habits. Men, for the most part, do not and cannot understand these habits either. We don’t understand how women can have so many pairs of shoes. We don’t understand how your hair ties and bobby pins always end up everywhere but your hair. And we certainly can’t understand how you can convince yourselves that a piece-of-crap guy may actually be good for you.

I paced back and forth in Brock 317, glancing out the window of my third-story dorm room. No sign of Sid. He had agreed to meet me in my room to talk, which I considered to be a very daring move in his part. I steadied myself against my bookshelf—confrontation may have been a strong suit of mine, but it almost always made me dizzy.

After Jess’ and my walk to the park, I had plopped down at my computer, logged onto Facebook, and sent the following message to Sid:

Hey Sid,

 

Watch this video. It’s an hour and thirteen minutes long, so you’ll need to set aside some time to watch it, but I know you’ll find the time this weekend, preferably tonight or tomorrow morning. If you have to wake up an hour earlier to watch it, do it. We will be talking either tomorrow morning/afternoon or Sunday afternoon. I don’t care how busy you are, you’re going to watch the whole thing before we talk, and we are going to talk this weekend.

I included a link to the video Marriage and Men, a phenomenal Mark Driscoll sermon that essentially summarized all the things I wanted to scream at Sid at that moment. I clicked send and wished I could be in his room when he opened the message. I don’t know what mechanism spurred my anger toward him the most: my defensiveness of my friends, my protective nature toward Jess in particular, or my defensiveness against the frequent stupidity of my gender in their interactions with females.

I knew it would be good for me to have twenty-four hours to cool down, but it was roughly thirty-six hours later when I was pacing back and forth in my dorm room waiting for Sid, and I my face was still just as flushed. Then, the handle on the door turned, and it slowly opened.

Sid’s head appeared, face nearly as flushed as mine, but he refused to make eye contact. I gestured to the couch for him to sit, and I positioned myself in a chair on the opposite side of the room. I thought it best to be out of arms reach. So we could have a rational discussion, I asked him first about the Driscoll sermon. This gave me a chance to cool down a bit before moving onto more personal matters.

“Sid, you should probably understand,” I said leaning forward, “that you’ve put yourself into a terrible situation. Maybe you’ve gotten away with these sorts of things in the past, but this time, you see, you’ve messed with one of my friends.” I sat back in my chair and watched him sink further into my leather couch. Several long seconds of silence passed before he opened his mouth to try to break the silence. Before he could speak, I continued. “Now, I’m in charge. If you have a problem with this, well, you probably should have thought of that before you pushed Jess so hard last weekend. Now, let’s talk about your friendship with Jess. I say friendship, because the two of you certainly aren’t dating anymore, if that’s what you were doing before. We’re slowing things way down.”

I whipped out a pen and paper. “Let’s talk logistics.” I’m very contractual. For the next half an hour, Sid and I came up with a list of things he was and wasn’t going to do toward Jess. At the conclusion, I said, “This is a list of actions, thoughts, and boundaries, Sid. However, you’re also not going to even be with Jess without my knowledge, do you understand? If you want to go to Chuck’s with her, I expect a text first. And you do understand that I have eyes and ears everywhere on this campus. If you try to pull anything behind my back, I will find out.” I shot him a stern glare with little effect, since he was still looking at his shoes.

We concluded our three and a half hour conversation and Sid thanked me for looking out for him and Jess. “I’d do the same for any of my friends,” I said. “But you did happen to cross one of my closest.”

We shook hands and he hastily walked out the door. He went to pull the door closed, and I reached out and grabbed his wrist. Finally, he looked me in the eye. “Sid, I appreciate you being man enough to meet with me. And I’m sure you understand that if you ever even try to touch Jess again …” [I would record here my threat to him, but we’re trying to keep the story PG … PG-13 at the worst.] He held my stare for a few seconds, then nodded. I loosened my grip on his wrist and closed the door behind him as he left.

I fell onto the couch in complete exhaustion. Though I had been through many interventions in my days, I wasn’t used to being as forceful as I had been with Sid. I didn’t know if it was that I really didn’t trust him, or if I was just unusually protective of Jess. Either way, I had been a lot stronger than I had meant to be with Sid. But that didn’t mean I regretted any of it.

 

She said …

I listened in frustration and confusion as the phone I held to my ear rang and rang, finally ending in Sid’s voicemail. I hung up without leaving a message. I hadn’t heard from him since the afternoon before. Sighing, I tossed my phone in my bag and, slinging my backpack over my shoulder, headed out the door to the Bible Building. Perhaps I could put my frustration with the Sid situation to good use and actually get some studying done.

I stared at my feet as I walked, as had become my custom. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if Sid was done with me. Perhaps he had had his fun and was finished with me and would never call again. I shook my head. No way. He had promised things would be better—that he would be better, and for some reason I believed him. Sid wasn’t perfect, but neither was I. In fact, I was far from it. Deep down, I felt like I deserved a guy like him. Losing him, whatever he was to me, would only mean further humiliation and pain.

Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks. I had glanced up to see Sid through the window, sitting alone on a couch in the Bible Building. I started walking again, through the door of the building and tentatively over to Sid. He was just sort of staring out the window, looking at nothing in the distance

“Sid?” His head whipped around and suddenly he was on his feet.

“Jess! I … uh … was just leaving.” He began gathering up his books and shoving them haphazardly in his bag.

“Excuse me? What are you talking about? Wait just a sec—“ I reached out to grab his arm, but he was moving too quickly.

He paused a brief moment and looked at me nervously before pushing a wrinkled piece of paper in my hands. “I have to go.” And with that, he turned on his heel and walked anxiously away, glancing around as if he was looking for someone or something.

I stood speechless for a long moment, staring after him. Then I remembered the paper he had shoved in my hands and slid to the couch, attempting to smooth it out on my leg. As I read, my eyes grew wide.

 

He said …

I plopped down in my usual seat for class. I hated this class. It was hard enough to focus in it on a normal day, let alone when I had a million other things on my mind. Not to mention Sid was actually in this class with me, and we hadn’t seen each other since our talk the day before.

I was about fifteen minutes early, so I opened up my laptop and logged onto Facebook. I was promptly greeted with an IM from Jess.

Jessica Rathburn: Alex, what the heck do you think you are doing? I gave you permission to talk with Sid, not to end my relationship with him. You had absolutely no right to do that.

My stomach turned. This probably wasn’t going to be the best way to start off class.

Alex Laird: You trusted me enough to allow me to talk to him. If you would like me to better explain my reasons for what I did, we can talk about them in person. But I’m not talking about this on Facebook.
Jessica Rathburn: I trusted you, but you took it too far. What made you think you had the right to do that? He won’t even talk to me.
Alex Laird: I’d rather not talk about this on Facebook.
Jessica Rathburn: I do not need you to tell me how to live or how to handle my relationships. You’ve lost the right to be involved. Stay out of it.
Alex Laird: I love you, Jess, but it doesn’t bother me how upset you are at me. I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship. You deserve more than that. But, really, I’m not talking about this anymore on Facebook.

I closed the lid of my laptop and stood up. My already waning desire to sit through a class had dissolved into intolerance, so I stuffed my computer in my bag and slung it over my shoulder. Maybe I did overstep my bounds, I thought as I pushed the door open, walking out as the rest of my friends arrived for class. The last thing I wanted was to lose Jess. Should I loosen my grip on her relationship with Sid to preserve my friendship with her? Or should I continue to do what I knew to be right (and what others were telling me to do) and continue pressuring the both of them away from their relationship? I valued my friendship with Jess more than almost any other relationship I had. Ultimately, I knew what I was doing was what she needed, whether she was aware of that right then or not.

Not sure where Jess was, I headed in the opposite direction of her dorm. I thought maybe I could hide in the SSC for a while. But as I entered the SSC, a sharp voice came from across the atrium.

“What is your problem, Alex?” It wasn’t Jess’ voice. I looked around until I found the speaker—it was Faith, a girl from Jess’ unit.

“Excuse me?” I asked, confused as to how she could be talking about the situation I had just come from.

“You think you know what’s best for Jess, but you don’t.” She crossed the room in a frenzy to get in my face. “If she wants to date Sid, let her date him. You have no right interfering with her business.”

“One could say the same to you,” I retorted. “She came to me because she trusted me, and she trusted me enough to let me talk to him. She may not understand why I did what I did right now, but someday she’ll thank me.”

“You know, you don’t know everything,” Faith continued, flailing her arms, getting more in my face. She acted as though she wanted to hit me but didn’t quite have the nerve. “You think that you know him, and you think that you know her, but you don’t!”

“I don’t know him very well, you’re right,” I continued, much more calm than she was. “But I know his kind. And I know Jess better than most. And you clearly do not understand the gravity of the situation.” I put my hand up, separating her from me, and headed back for the door I had just come through. I guess my room is the only safe place on campus, I thought, toning out her shouts from behind me as I left the building.

 

She said …

After blowing up at Alex, I left to go find Sid. His letter had been vague, and I knew very little about the conversation that had taken place between he and Alex, but considering he wouldn’t come near me, it couldn’t have been pretty.

Alex couldn’t possibly understand. My relationship with Sid wasn’t perfect or wrapped in a nice, shiny bow, especially according to Cedarville’s standards. But somehow in the shame of mistakes I had made in the past and the confusion of how I had been treated by guys before, this dysfunctional relationship seemed normal for me. Maybe it didn’t reflect the idealistic image of how a guy should treat a girl, but to me it seemed silly and naïve to expect something different.

And yet, as the next weeks with Sid passed in much the same manner as the previous ones, Alex’s last words continued to haunt me.

I love you, Jess, but it doesn’t bother me how upset you are at me. I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship. You deserve more than that.

 

You deserve more than that …

As the school year began to wane, I felt my self-esteem doing the same. Sid had grown increasingly distant. He made little effort to see or talk to me, and he treated me more like a possession than a person. I seemed to be constantly on the verge of tears, and I was tired of hanging on to someone who only seemed to notice me when it suited him.

But what was I to do? I had walked myself into this and pushed away someone who meant so much to me—the one person I could always go to with anything. I missed Alex terribly, and the more dismal things grew with Sid, the more I was beginning to think that maybe Alex had been right. It didn’t matter now, though; I was too ashamed to face him, and I didn’t deserve a friend like him anyway. Not after the awful things I had said to him.

It was finals week now, and as abysmal as things were with Sid, I did not want to leave for the summer without knowing where we stood. I only had one exam left to take. It was the next morning, but studying seemed impossible. I called Sid and asked to meet him in the Bible Building to study and talk. I was amazed that he even answered, let alone agreed, but I hurriedly grabbed my books and set off, wondering what I would say to him.

We met up and sat down on a couch in a secluded corner. The whole building was packed with students busily studying, and I didn’t want to cause a scene. After a gruff greeting, Sid sat down and pulled out his laptop, saying nothing else. Not knowing what else to do, I pulled out a book and a highlighter and pretended to read. Finally, I could take it no longer. I put down my highlighter.

“Sid, we need to talk.” Sid glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, but continued typing away on his laptop.

“What?” My confidence shook a little at his obvious lack of interest.

“I … well, I need to know what is going on between us. I’m going home tomorrow, but first I want to know where we stand. I want to know what to expect in the future.” There. I had gotten it out.

“The future?” Sid scoffed. “What do you mean, ‘the future’?” He chuckled a little and kept typing.

“I … I mean … the future. Where is this going?” I was so shocked at his initial response that I wasn’t even sure how to continue. What was he saying?

“Look, there’s something you need to understand.” Sid finally stopped typing and turned to face me, his eyes emotionless. “There’s no ‘future’ here. Yeah, I’m attracted to you. But that’s it. It’s just … physical. That’s all it ever has been.”

I stared back at him. It suddenly felt like all the air had been sucked out of my lungs, like I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly, or if I was even awake. Out of nowhere, Alex’s words flashed in my mind again.

You deserve more than that … more than that …

And for the first time, I believed it. What on earth was I still doing here? Why was I allowing myself to be treated like this? Without even thinking about what I was doing, I was suddenly on my feet. I began grabbing my things and shoving them into my bag furiously. Everything around me seemed to slow down, as if I were in a dream. I knew Sid was saying something, but he sounded a million miles away. I didn’t care. I never had to listen to him again.

Hot, angry tears stung my eyes. I couldn’t remember ever feeling more enraged, more used, more disgusted in my entire life. My hands were shaking as I zipped my bag and grabbed it. Not caring if I ever saw Sid again in my life, I stormed away from the couch.

As I marched down the hall and into the main lobby of the building, the angry tears streaming down my face, things suddenly began to come back into focus. I could hear Sid calling my name from behind me; I could hear his quick footsteps catching up. I kept going, not even pausing to glance back.

I felt him catch my arm with his hand. That was it. I swung around and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest, enraged that he had the nerve to follow me or to try and stop me.

“Don’t you touch me!” I yelled. I held up a fist and pointed my finger just inches from his face. “Leave. Me. Alone.”

And with that, I turned and left him standing there, completely appalled. As I continued across the very crowded lobby and out the door, my whole body shaking, I noticed everyone around had fallen deadly silent and was staring at me in disbelief. I didn’t care though—I was finished.

So much for not causing a scene.

Mar 12

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 4

She said …

I gathered up my purse from the floor of the car and turned to face Sid, my hand on the door handle.

“I had a lot of fun tonight.” I smiled a little shyly at him as he slid his thumb across my hand.

“I did too.” His blue eyes looked even brighter than normal as he leaned across the center console of the car toward me. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Of course.” I paused, not wanting the evening to end quite yet. Curfew was in just a few minutes though, so I pulled on the door handle to get out of the car.

“Wait.” I turned back to Sid and was greeted with a peck on my lips, and my breath caught in my throat in surprise. “Good night,” he said, smiling slyly.

“Goodnight.” I slid out of the car and danced up the walk to my dorm, smiling all the way.

The past few weeks had flown by in a blur. A coffee date with Sid had led to another and another, which led to a dinner date—the one that had just ended. Everything about him was fun and exciting. Sid was quite attractive and gave off a slightly dangerous and risky vibe that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was used to relationships moving at a more slow and steady pace, but being with Sid was more like plunging down the hill of a roller coaster. It was different and a little intimidating, but the thrill of the adventure, adrenaline, and speed was the relationship’s greatest appeal. Honestly, I was tired of playing it safe, and the prospect of living a little on the dangerous side made Sid all the more desirable.

This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Suddenly, a conversation I remembered having with Alex in The Hive a few days before played back in my mind.

“Just be careful. I mean, you haven’t really known him that long.“ I looked up from my fries and was surprised to see Alex looking completely serious. I knew the summary of his lengthy warning against Sid was, “I just don’t trust him.”

 

I just laughed and shook my head. “You barely even know him. Don’t worry. This isn’t my first relationship, you know.” I said teasingly as Alex rolled his eyes. “I appreciate your concern, but I promise—I know what I’m doing.”

If I was honest with myself, I knew that Alex wasn’t the only friend to express concerns about Sid. The report back was the same from each of them: he’s a lot of fun to hang out with, but definitely not boyfriend material. Too fast, too risky.

But he seemed so kind and considerate on our date. Shivers still danced down my spine at the thought of it … yes, it was a little faster than probably recommended. But I knew what I was doing, didn’t I?

As I climbed into my bed, quietly to keep from waking my roommate, I decided to push these thoughts from my mind. I was perfectly capable of handling my own relationships, and didn’t care for others telling me how to run them, no matter how well-intentioned. Even so, as I drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t shake Alex’s and my from my mind.

 

He said …

I was branching out. Normally you could find me consuming mozzarella sticks, curly fries, or anything fried while sitting in The Hive. Today, I was sitting with Kristi and Ryan in an upstairs lounge of the SSC. Lately, as Jess had been preoccupied with Sid, our study dates in The Hive had decreased in number. That was what was distracting my thoughts at the moment.

“And you’re going to Texas for break, right Alex?” Kristi asked me, snapping me back to my own reality.

“Yup. Hanging out with Jenna and Joey and The Hen,” I replied, still a bit absentmindedly.

“What’s Jess doing? I haven’t seen her as much lately,” Ryan noted. I pursed my lips, contemplating whether or not to be the one to speak. Apparently my look gave it away. “She’s not doing something with Sid, is she?”

Kristi and Ryan had been there on sledding day and easily noticed Sid’s flirtatious attitude toward Jess. Kristi furrowed her eyebrows into the Teacher Death Glare, an intimidating ability she had been blessed with. I smiled and forced a cough and a laugh, which was my method of confirmation without requiring speech. “Seriously,” Li’l Kristi continued, “has anyone talked to her about him?” Again, I shrugged my shoulders without actually speaking.

I knew what was coming. Among my friends both in High School and continuing into college, it seemed that I was usually elected to be the voice of confrontation and of reason. “I believe I have voiced words of caution,” I said. “Though I’m just not sure how invasive I can be with her.”

“If they continue to progress their relationship at this rate,” Kristi said, rolling her eyes on the word “relationship” and leaning forward, “she’s going to regret it. And I don’t trust him. She respects you more than anyone else, Alex. You probably need to talk to her.” And there it was. I had been elected.

“Well,” I speculated, “I don’t trust him either. But I also don’t think he’s stupid enough to try anything over break. She’s a big girl. I think she’ll be okay.” In this statement, I was more going off of what Jess’ reassuring words in The Hive more than with what my instincts were telling me. But break was tomorrow, and she had made up her mind. She was stubborn, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to change her mind.

She said …

I dropped Sid off at his dorm and pulled away with a sigh. The last few days had been a disaster, to put it lightly. Why had I thought that taking him home for Easter Break was a good idea? Now I was left wishing I had taken the advice of my friends instead of stubbornly insisting I could handle this fast-paced relationship myself. Where had things gotten so out of hand?

For some reason, it had seemed like a fun idea to bring Sid home with me for the long weekend. I was tired of my friends telling me to be careful with Sid—that something about him and the relationship seemed untrustworthy. A long weekend away sounded perfect, so I invited him home with me on a whim. Now, looking back over the horrible weekend, I understood why Alex’s face had stiffened, as if he was trying to decide just how much he could advise without upsetting me, when I hesitantly told him Sid was coming home with me for the holiday. He had kept silent, and I was glad. I knew exactly what he wanted to say.

The weekend started badly and only got worse. From the first day home, Sid’s sweet, smooth-talking had convinced me to cross lines I had not wanted to cross. Something about the way he spoke convinced me that maybe loosening my grip on some deep-rooted values maybe wasn’t such a big deal. And when I found myself fumbling for an adequate response, I gave in.

I wiped a hand across my eyes, which had started to tear up again. I reminded myself that the weekend could have been much, much worse. Despite being thankful that I had eventually came to my senses and stopped things before anything I would have immensely regretted happened, I still couldn’t shake the deep, heavy feeling of disappointment in myself.

As the weekend went on, my feelings of discomfort with Sid continually increased. Even though I reminded him multiple times that I wanted to slow things down, he kept finding manipulative ways to subtly take down my guard, almost without me even realizing it. But the more he pushed my guard down, the more wary I grew, until he finally pushed things too far.

Yet again, I found myself telling him to knock it off. And yet again, I found him teasing me back rather than taking my requests for space seriously. In that moment, I snapped. I wound my arm back as far as I could and smacked Sid across the face.

“Get off me!” I shouted. That seemed to get his attention. He stared at me for a moment, the side of his face pulsing to a rosy red, his eyes a mixture of surprise and anger. I said nothing else, a bit horrified at what had just happened. Sid took in a deep breath, standing to his feet. We stared blankly at each other for a moment—the other side of his face had gone red too at this point. Then marched out the door. I ran to the window and watched him leave the house and walk down my parent’s half-mile driveway.

I paced back and forth in the toy room of my house while he was gone, my anger building as I realized that the “excitement” I had enjoyed in this relationship was not at all worth what it had turned into. After what seemed like hours, he walked slowly back in the door. Before even allowing him a chance to speak, I lashed out at him, making it quite clear that we were through. I expected him to lash back. I expected him to be equally angry, for some reason. But he wasn’t. I was surprised to find him looking guilty and ashamed. Caught off guard, I paused just long enough to allow him to launch into a long-winded apology about what had just happened, the entire weekend, and his behavior as a whole. For some reason, my anger subsided just enough to allow him to persuade me to give him another chance.

Is it even worth it? I wondered this to myself as I pulled into the parking lot at school and carried my bags back into my dorm.

 

He said …

We had been back from break for twenty-four hours, and I hadn’t heard much from Jess. During the brief dinner she had attended with the group, she was offset, quiet, and barely touched her food (though she stared at it plenty). Something was clearly eating at her, and I couldn’t shake the notion that it had to do with her weekend with Sid.

I have an open door policy. I try to be available for my friends whenever I know that they need someone to talk to. Unfortunately, it seemed Jess was too distant at the moment to feel comfortable coming to me, so I thought maybe she needed me to facilitate.

I plopped down on my computer and logged onto Facebook. She showed up in my Facebook Chat list. Perhaps, I thought, she’s not afraid to talk to me. Maybe she just needs an opportunity where she feels comfortable. I clicked on her name to open a chat. Jess was a talker, and I was a walker—we had a bit of a routine—and food makes everyone more comfortable, right?

Alex Laird: Hey. Subway and a walk to the park?
Jessica Rathburn: Sure. Meet you outside my dorm.

Six words. Something was definitely off.

 

She said …

Alex was on to me, and I knew it. In the short time I had known him, I had learned that he was quite good at reading people, especially me. I was sure the reason he had asked me on this particular walk was because he had noticed that something wasn’t quite right with me.

I had been feeling distant and withdrawn ever since Easter Break, and as we settled down in the gazebo at the Cedarville park with a couple of Subway sandwiches, I knew Alex was waiting for me to start talking. I stared at my sub, feeling too guilty and ashamed to even speak. This was new territory for Alex and me, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed with such a delicate topic—or sure that I even wanted to.

“So.” Alex took a bite out of his sandwich and sat it back down. “How was break?” He looked pointedly at me. It was a loaded question, and we both knew it.

I took a shaky breath, feeling the tears already beginning to start. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to have this conversation, but I needed desperately to talk about it. I poked at my uneaten sandwich and blinked back the tears.

“Hey,” Alex reassured, trying to crane his neck down to my level. I glanced up into his kind, sympathetic eyes. “It’s okay.”

And with that, the whole story spilled out of me, in what felt like one long, shaky, crying breath. I told Alex everything, suddenly filled with assurance that I could tell him every detail without fear of him passing judgment. The more I talked, the more I cried … and the more I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. Alex reached across the table and rubbed my arm, patiently letting me get it all out. I glanced momentarily up at him, relieved to see that he looked surprisingly calm.

I wrapped up my rambling story by describing the moments leading up to me smacking Sid, still staring straight at the picnic table, too embarrassed to look Alex in the eye again. When I finally got it all out, still staring at the table, I heard Alex take a deep breath. “Would you mind if I talked to Sid,” I heard him ask. And, surprised, I heard myself consent.

I felt too relieved that I had gotten through the whole story to really think about what Alex had just requested. As I wiped my eyes again, I had no idea what thoughts racing through Alex’s mind about his upcoming conversation with Sid. And though his face was calm and reassuring, I was unaware of his fists clenched in fury beneath the table.

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