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?
Jess 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.