We should have known from the very beginning that our relationship had an expiration date. If my mother—the one who named me after a constellation—were here with us celebrating my college graduation, she probably would have told me to let the Universe decide our fate. But I thought I had it all worked out.
I was wrong.
“Sox or Cubs?” My father was eying Ryan warily as I returned to the table with some more pint glasses.
“Pardon, sir?” Ryan reached for my hand under the table.
“Well,” my father said slowly, “You’re from a northern suburb, so do they root for the Cubs or Sox up there?”
“Uh, I think Cubs, but I personally don’t like baseball … I do like football—the Bears,” he added quickly as my father’s wary expression became sour.
“Well, I guess no team is better than rooting for the Cubs,” Dad conceded out of the corner of his mouth.
“Let’s see about another pitcher,” Ryan called as he darted back to the bar. My best friend, Estelle, gave me one of her notorious looks; I just shrugged. Ryan wasn’t the first guy my father had tried to scare off, but he was the first boyfriend I deeply cared about. I figured it was only a matter of time before my father admitted to Ryan’s potential, baseball fan or not.
After he came back with another round, Ryan managed to get my father to talk about football—a notable achievement—and when my older brother Cameron arrived, they moved on to soccer. After a few more drinks, I could see that my father was finally starting to warm towards Ryan.
“Well, I guess he won your dad over. I always knew Ryan could charm anyone,” Estelle said as she led the way to the restroom a few minutes later.
“He is definitely charming,” I agreed as I maneuvered my way through the arteries of ripped leather barstools.
“Some might say, like Prince Charming?” Estelle threw me a curious glance over her shoulder, causing her to nearly collide with a drunken undergrad.
“Some definitely would.” I ducked under a bed sheet with the words “Congratulations Class of 2002,” handwritten in black permanent marker.
We arrived at the long line to the ladies bathroom.
“So does that mean there’s a Happily Ever After in the near future?”
I sighed. “I think so. But first we have to get through the long-distance thing.”
We shuffled forward obligingly as an older woman with giant hair-sprayed bangs squeezed past us on her way out of the bathroom.
“You know, Addy, I’ve known you, what, four years now?”
“When I first met you, you were kind of a dork. All you did was hole up in our dorm room all night and study.”
“Whereas you would be out with a new guy every night.”
“But Ryan changed a lot of that,” she continued, ignoring my little dig, “and I think this is the first time I’ve seen you really, what’s the word? Cheery,” she spat out with a grimace. “And while it’s a little annoying to have you ridiculously happy, like your world is all pink and bubbly …” Estelle paused in mid-sentence, her lip curled with obvious distaste as she walked toward an open stall. Whether the distaste was for the lack of cleanliness of the bathroom at the Ritz or for my taking up residence in Barbie’s World, I’ll never know.
Venturing toward my own newly freed stall, I pondered her statement. Throughout most of college, I’d been hyperfocused on my career aspirations, and then the one person let in broke my heart. I had developed a slight inferiority complex after Jed broke up with me. But Ryan had helped to heal that. He always made me feel like it was okay to be myself, bookworm or not. He brought me coffee when I pulled all-nighters, held me through migraines, and when I had a touch of the flu, he made me soup and we watched Gone with the Wind. He was the person who knew me best in the world, and somehow I never scared him off.
“Anyway, I like Ryan and I hope you guys can make it work.” Estelle, in the grand tradition of girlie potty-breaks, finished her sentence as we both washed our hands. I had banned her from “toilet talk” long ago because I had nervous pee and couldn’t go in mid-conversation. “After all, if a guy is willing to buy you a Tiffany necklace for graduation, it might be worth letting him stick around for a while.”
“Yeah.” I fingered the teardrop pendant. “I kind of wish I wasn’t moving to Florida in a few weeks.”
“Are you crazy? You’ve been trying to get this internship for two years.”
“I know. But what does that mean for Ryan and me? He’ll be student teaching and living with his grandma to save money. I won’t see him until Christmas.”
She raised her eyebrows at me. “I think that’s a discussion you need to have with him.”
I nodded at her in the mirror. “I guess we’ve both been putting it off. Pretending like it’s not going to happen.”
“Well, as a marine biologist, you should know what the walrus said …”
I took the bait. “What?”
“The time has come to talk of many things.”
“Right.” I threw my paper towel in the garbage with a little more force than necessary.
“And as far as you and me go,” Estelle continued, opening up the bathroom door. “I will be in the City, but we can keep in touch. We can call each other—my new job’s giving me a cellphone. And e-mail every day, my new job’s giving me a computer. And I can come visit you …”
“Yeah, yeah, your new job’s giving you a car too.” Estelle got hooked up with a big pharmaceutical firm, or as my cousin Lizzie proclaimed, she sold her soul to the devil.
“And don’t forget our bet.” Estelle and I, after a late night of drinking, post Jed the Jerk for me and a bad date for her, made a pact to be maids-of-honor in each other’s weddings. And also the first one to get married wins a 12-pack of beer. Which was really a bet in my favor since Estelle’s men usually never made it to the fourth date. When I asked her once why four was the magic number, she pointed out that after three dates, she could sleep with the guy. “Addy, I don’t do one night stands,” she stated, as if this clarified everything.
“Yeah,” I replied as we made our way back to the table. “You better see if the Man can throw in for free beer.”
“In that case, maybe I’ll even buy you a 24-pack.”
The next morning found me packing up my dorm room to move back home for the summer. Actually, packing up my college career was more like it. Each drawer I empty is one step closer to my new life. I suddenly felt melancholy about the prospect of moving out of state and leaving everyone I loved. Estelle and I had been best friends and roommates for the past four years, and despite our promises to the contrary, our relationship was bound to change on a fundamental level—much like the relationship between Ryan and me. For the last few months, Ryan and I had seen each other every day, and now I was moving twelve hundred miles away. As much as I pretended to put on a brave face, I was secretly terrified.
I was about to do what any girl in my situation would do: put some tear-jerking love songs on my as-yet-not-packed stereo and cry my eyes out, but just then the door to our dorm room was shoved open. A heavy-set man in a gray jumpsuit barged in carrying folded-up cardboard boxes. “You Estelle?” he demanded.
I let out an exaggerated sigh as I shook my head. By now I was used to strange men interrogating me on Estelle’s whereabouts. This one (his nametag said Gabe) walked past me and started unfolding boxes in the middle of the room. A couple more guys with similar physiques walked in as Gabe peered at a piece of crumpled paper and pointed at her side of the tiny dorm room. As they set about grunting and banging, I realized I’d forgotten that Estelle somehow convinced her new company to pay her moving costs. Considering we weren’t allowed to take any of the furniture—in fact, most of it was bolted in place—I would have thought the movers would have been more pleased than their expletives indicated. I looked down as Gabe threw a bunch of Estelle’s lacy thongs into a giant box.
So much for my cry-time. I started to collect the stray pens and random highlighted and torn-out pieces of notebook paper strewn across my dorm-issued desk.
After a few minutes of rounding up paperclips, I glanced over at the movers, wishing my virtually unpaid internship included moving fees into my scholarship. Then again, Estelle’s starting salary was much higher than the typical college grad. Yet I was the one who was often glued to the desk I was now emptying, spending my senior year trying to memorize all twenty amino acids and the scientific classification of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) while Estelle flittered her way through introductory psych classes and an entire semester on what happened during Gettysburg. She never seemed to study and spent a lot of her time distracting me and endeavoring to drag me away from my books.
“Wait a sec,” I called out to the movers. I squeezed my way around them to peer at the bottom of her closet. Since Estelle was a full head taller and about three sizes smaller than me, I didn’t have to worry about her stealing my clothes. My shoes were another matter. As I suspected, she was hoarding a couple of pairs, including my black kitten heels, which were shoved into the back and covered with mud. I hadn’t seen them since last fall.
Occasionally Estelle could convince me to go out, including one weekend last September. It was early enough in our senior year that I was not yet bogged down in my studies, not to mention the unfortunate sighting of my asshole ex- I’d experienced in the student center that day. Jed the Jerk always had a way of appearing just when I thought my sense of self-worth had suitably recovered, as if he possessed a sixth-sense for when my psyche needed a kick in the crotch. I’d been attempting to get money out of the ATM, but my bank account, as usual, didn’t have enough to even cover the withdrawal fee. I’d glanced up in frustration to see Jed in the fast food line with a skinny blonde. The only way to get out of the building was to walk right past them, so I hid in a corner behind a fake ficus tree until they moved to the condiment bar and then I fled the scene.
Estelle had decided the only cure was to drag me to a fraternity party. I was, of course, hesitant to go; somehow she convinced me to tag along, convince in our repertoire meaning I had to give in or be faced with a night of her hounding me.
I had reluctantly pulled on a pair of semi-clean jeans and a cap-sleeved top, low-cut to show off what Jed the Jerk had once called my greatest assets. Estelle didn’t bother to change, although she did take off the white tank she sported underneath the black mesh T-shirt she’d been wearing all day.
“Are you going like that?” I asked her, casually regarding her black bra—of which I could now see every detail—through the sheer shirt. After three years of living with Estelle, it was probably too much to hope that she would don a jacket over her bra/T-shirt combo.
“Yep,” she said breezily, sliding off her Doc Martens and reaching for my leopard print platforms. Estelle had a relatively small shoe size for her five-foot ten-inch frame and was able to squeeze into most of my size seven shoes.
I grabbed my brand new shoes back from her, giving her the evil eye as I stepped into them. She settled on my black kitten heels instead.
On arrival at the frat party, Estelle immediately engaged in a game of Beer Pong, leaving me alone to scrutinize my new surroundings, which consisted of a dingy living room with dirty carpet and banged-up furniture. I’d forgotten how much I hated these scenes. I’m incurably claustrophobic and can’t stand the feeling of people closing in on me. To top it off, years of scuba diving had resulted in a slight hearing loss (although I can never remember in which ear until someone shouts in one) so I can’t distinguish conversation above blaring music. These two slight defects meant I was hopeless at fitting in at the crowded party where I found myself deserted.
To my right, a guy with a long 70’s-style blowout with ends that curled up a little too perfectly was cradling a plastic cup under the keg hose. To my left, a group of lanky, perfectly-coiffed girls was gathered around a bar full of colorful liquor bottles. Sorority sisters, I sighed to myself, glancing at the letters stretched across their tight t-shirts. Just what my ego doesn’t need. I pulled my own top down lower and tucked a stray piece of reddish-blonde hair behind my ear.
A red cup, full enough to spill foamy beer onto the carpet, appeared in my peripheral. Luke Skywalker was holding the cup out to me while simultaneously checking out the coven in the corner.
“No thanks,” I shouted.
He gave me a dirty look. “What are you, the DD?”
“The designated driver?”
“No, I just don’t drink that crap. I drink good beer, the kind where the alcohol-to-water ratio is much higher.”
“Whatever,” he said, leaving a trail of foam on the rug as he walked away.
I flopped down on a sagging orange couch and pretended to be engaged in watching Estelle’s rousing game of Beer Pong, feeling alone and slightly sorry for myself. Having never joined a sorority, it wasn’t my style to belong to a gaggle of girls. Or to be around the boys that ogled them. Unless you counted Jed the Jerk, as the girl hanging off him at the student center had been wearing a Tri-Delt baby tee. Estelle, however, could chug with the best of them, and always ignored any other girls on the horizon, like she was doing now.
“Are you a friend of Estelle’s?” another guy sidled up beside my bad ear. This one was a little shorter than Keg Boy with much more tousled hair.
“Yep,” I said, not taking my eyes off the game.
He mumbled something incoherent.
I turned to toward him. “What?”
“I said, so am I!” he shouted.
He said something else in a much lower volume. I tilted my good ear toward him to better discern what he was saying.
“Sometimes.” He gave me an evil grin and flexed his eyebrows up and down. “If you know what I mean.”
“Well, I’m her roommate, and I’ve never seen you before,” I told him indignantly.
His eyebrows raised even higher. “Roommate? Do you guys ever …”
“No,” I said, turning away. These guys were no different than the baseball players that occupied the bottom floor of our freshmen year dorm. Only one thing on their mind. I struggled to get away from the clutches of the couch while trying to get Estelle’s attention. I knew she would play badly until she could convince them to wager money on the game. Although she usually got tipsy after a few beers at the bar, Estelle could somehow conjure the alcohol tolerance of Marion Ravenwood (a la the Indiana Jones movies) when there was money involved.
I was motioning to her that I was taking off, when a confident voice behind me declared: “Hey, I forgot my phone number. Can I borrow yours?”
Not another one. “Ummm … yeah … no. I’m leaving.” I said without turning around.
“Hey, you don’t have to go so soon.” Hesitatingly, I glanced backward. The voice belonged to a sandy-haired guy, medium height, glasses.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got better things to do.” I turned again and started to make my way through the throng of sorority girls dancing, sorority girls draped over guys, sorority girls passing out. “Why don’t you try your line on one of them?” I asked, nodding toward some of the drunker ones on the makeshift dance floor/ dingy hallway.
“You seem a lot more interesting. Let me drive you home. I have a new car—it’s an orange Saturn.” He followed me as I shoved my way through the crowd to the front door.
“Again, not falling for it. Besides, I like to walk.” If there is one non-baseball notion that my father instilled in me, it was that getting into cars with strange men from frat parties is never a good idea.
“OK, let me walk you to the door.” He placed his hand on my elbow and steered me away from the sorority traffic. Do these guys ever give up?
“Listen, thanks, for the tour and everything, and it was nice meeting you, uh …” I was about to yank my elbow back, but faltered and ended up merely stepping out of his grasp. Now that I had a good look at him, he didn’t appear to be a typical asshole frat guy. He was wearing broken-in jeans and his T-shirt was devoid of Greek letters—that is unless he belonged to the Gap fraternity. The eyes behind his trendy wire frames were a soft chocolate, like a mocha latte with more milk than coffee. There was something familiar about him, although I couldn’t recall having met him. I found myself hoping he wasn’t one of Estelle’s many hook-ups.
“Ryan,” he said as I turned to leave. “Can I at least get your name?”
“It’s Addy,” I conceded as I flung the door open. Damn. It was pouring outside.
“What’s that stand for?”
“Long story. I’ll tell you about it on the ride home.”
“Oh, so now you want me to give you a ride?” He had one of those contagious grins that make you want to grin back at him. So I did.
I glanced down at my new shoes and pictured them soaked with rain. “I’ve decided that Nature can wait. And I’ve never seen an orange Saturn.” Besides, I was always a sucker for guys in glasses.
“So,” he said once we were ensconced in his orange car.
“So?” I was half afraid he would propose something other than the promised ride home.
“What does Addy stand for?”
“Pleiade,” I told him, relieved that, for the time being, he had no ulterior motives.
“As in the Pleiades constellation? The seven sisters?”
I nodded, shocked. Nobody ever knew what my full name referred to, especially not frat boys with low-slung cars.
Ryan continued. “You know the story behind the Pleiades and Orion, right?”
“Of course. Orion, the hunter, is said to chase the seven sisters across the sky.”
“‘And if longing seizes you for sailing the stormy seas,
when the Pleiades flee mighty Orion
and plunge into the misty deep
and all the gusty winds are raging …’”
I turned to stare at him. “How do you know that poem?”
He shrugged and started the car. “I know stuff.”
Even though the ride home was less than five minutes, I could tell Ryan was different from the other college boys I knew. It turned out we were both biology majors; I was studying marine biology whereas he was studying botany, or, as my brother Cameron would say: You, Fish; He, Plants.
As we arrived at my dorm, Ryan turned to me. “So, can I get your number now?”
I hesitated. He really is cute. And funny. But, I reminded myself, this is my senior year, my last chance to prove myself and keep up my GPA.
“I don’t have time for a relationship right now,” I told him.
“Oh, it’s strictly for educational purposes.” Ryan replied. “If I need to know what the Linnean classification hierarchy is for a Great White Shark, I could call you. You never know when that might come in handy.”
“Oh, you mean Carcharodon carcharias, order Chondrichthyes, family Lamnidae.”
“Bison bison. Gorilla gorilla.”
“Those are the only Latin names I have memorized. I just wanted you to know we speak the same language. Besides, given my name and your name, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least try to pursue you a little bit.”
“Oh, Ryan …” I started, trying to think of another way to brush him off.
I giggled, thinking as I did that it had been a long time since a guy had made me laugh. I dug through my purse, finding a pen and an old receipt. I scribbled down my phone number and handed him the slip of paper.
“Thanks,” he said, pocketing it.
“You’re welcome,” I told him, wondering if this was my cue to get out of the car. As much as I had wanted to get away from him an hour earlier, I was now reluctant to leave. “Do you want to come in?”
He sighed. “No, I should probably get back to the party. Plus, I have to make sure your friend hasn’t confiscated all of my frat’s dues for the next six months.”
“Yeah,” I said, twirling the pen back and forth in my fingertips. I spun it a little too rapidly and it flew out of my hand. I reached down to try to locate it underneath the seat. When my fingers finally grasped it and I sat upright again, Ryan was leaning toward me at an unnatural angle. I also scooted a few inches forward, although achieving the proximity needed to kiss him was slightly hampered by the Saturn’s parking brake looming between our two bucket seats. Our lips finally met for the briefest of seconds before he sat back. His lips were very soft, very kissable. After a beat, I realized I was still leaning forward with my hand gripping the arm rest and my eyes closed, so I too sat back. I tucked the pen into my purse and slung the strap over my shoulder. “Well, thanks for the ride.” I said, fiddling with the door handle. Why won’t this thing open?
Ryan got out and came around to help me open it. “Good night, Addy,” he whispered into my good ear.
“Good night, Ryan,” I said, trying to get out of the low car with as much dignity as I could muster in platform heels. Halfway to my dorm, I stumbled slightly over a crack in sidewalk, as if drunk with the high of a first kiss. I glanced backward, hoping he hadn’t noticed me trip. His car was still parked in the circle drive, and he gave me a little wave, which I returned. It wasn’t until I was safely into the lobby that he drove away.
Ryan called the next day. To his credit, he didn’t pretend to have a homework question or recite another poem about my name. He did want to know if I wanted to go for a hike, to which I agreed.
We started dating, casually at first because I was still reluctant to interrupt my studying to make time for a relationship. I was in the process of applying for an internship at the prestigious Boca Ciega Harbor Marine Institute, and had to keep up my grade point average. At least that’s what I told myself. According to my cousin Lizzie it was because I was afraid to open up my heart again.
Ryan was very patient, and recognized that he was not my first priority. As he told me, “I’ll take whatever time you can give me,” which wasn’t much initially, although I started making more time for him once we officially became girlfriend and boyfriend.
Ryan was the first mature relationship I’d had. Mature meaning that we began staying in instead of going out to bars or parties all night. We’d make dinner together at his apartment and play board games or go wine tasting. He introduced me to musicians like David Gray and Nick Drake and Alfred Hitchcock movies, which we would watch together, curled up on his couch with a good bottle of wine. Estelle thought we were morphing into an old married couple. I told her she was just jealous. We used the “L-word” for the first time a few days before Valentine’s Day.
Ryan was almost as pleased as I was when I finally got word that I received the internship in early April. But we never had the “where does that leave us?” talk. I would be moving to Florida for six months, and he was going to stay in Illinois to student teach for an entire semester. We were going to be faced with one of two choices: break-up or continue long distance. I hoped we were both operating under the assumption our relationship would continue on as it had been, only instead of dropping by every day to each other’s respective college apartments, we’d spend hours on the phone. Even though I was never one to procrastinate with schoolwork, I wanted to put off our impending relationship discussion for as long as I could. I think I was fearful of the possibility he wasn’t assuming the same things I was.
The movers finally left, carting out boxes of Estelle’s clothes, minus my shoes, on a dolly. I glanced over at her side of the room. It was now devoid of any evidence of Estelle: the beds stripped of her silk sheets and the closet door gaping open to reveal the black hole within. “I guess this is good-bye,” I told her empty bed. One down, one more to go. I was feeling weepy again and started searching through my CD collection for a suitable song list. I set Chicago’s Love Songs into my player and got the tissues ready.
Cameron chose that moment to barge into the room. “Jesus, Addy, you’re not even packed.”
I scanned my side of the room through wet eyes. My own purple plaid sheets were still on the bed, rumpled from last night. All of my clothes still hung in the closet, and one of my dresser drawers bulged open, too full to close.
“It might be a few minutes or so,” I told him, trying to talk through the lump in my throat and wishing I had coaxed Estelle’s movers to empty my drawers too. The dorm-issued ones. Not the other ones.
“Dad’s waiting in the car.”
“Well, can you tell him to go grab some garbage bags?”
Cameron and I worked quickly, throwing my shoes, including the ones recovered from Estelle, into a few boxes.
“I don’t think we’re going to fit all of this stuff,” my father told me as he walked into the room, requisite garbage bags in hand.
“We can ship home whatever doesn’t fit in the van,” I told him.
“We might have to ship you home,” Cameron retorted.
“I can give her a ride.” Ryan appeared in the doorway of my dorm room. My father clapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand by way of greeting. “Estelle was right,” I thought. Ryan could charm anyone. He was probably the only non-baseball fan my father’s ever willingly shaken hands with. Or maybe Dad was just happy not to have to spend an extra hour at the post office.
Ryan glanced around the room. “I see you’re still packing,” he said politely, picking up the leopard platform I’d been wearing the first time we met. The private grin he shot at me felt like a jab in my stomach. I’m really going to miss him. I bent over to tie up another bag.
An hour later, we were finally ready to leave. Dad and Cameron left before us with my precious belongings hastily stuffed into garbage bags in the back of my father’s van. Ryan accompanied me while I finished up various last-minute tasks: checking out of my room with the Resident Advisor and buying a final t-shirt with our college logo outlined in glitter. Ryan insisted on paying for it.
“So …” Ryan said halfway through the four-hour drive home. “Do you think your dad liked me?” He took his eyes off the cornfield-bordered, orange-cone covered I-88 to glance in my direction.
I shot him an encouraging smile. “Not bad for someone who doesn’t like baseball.”
“Is your dad really that obsessed?”
“Everyone in my neighborhood is obsessed with the Sox. White, not Red.” I reminded him. “Dad says my first word was ‘Out!’”
“Supposedly. He claims I used to toddle around with my right arm held up, calling out stuffed animals, my brother Cameron or anyone else around.”
“Yeah. I always thought I would marry a baseball player,” I told him sheepishly.
“You? I didn’t even know you liked sports.”
I shrugged. My father, William Enders, had been a season ticket holder, and I was dragged to game after game until, in a fit of teenage angst, I declared a strike against going. Despite the fact that I had a sports zealot for a father, I was never your typical tomboy.
I decided I was going to marry a baseball player at the ripe age of fourteen. I was a grade-A nerd about to enter high school, with no mother, a best friend that was not even in our division, and a jock-star brother. One evening while my father, as usual, had the game blaring on the living room TV, I spied a blown up, Megatron picture of Robin Ventura, the Sox third baseman, and instantly fell in love. My father couldn’t have been more pleased when I once again began attending the games. And it wasn’t just Robin who swayed my interest, although I was never off getting snacks while he was on deck. It was all the players—mostly the way their strong butts and thighs bent the lines of their pinstriped uniforms. I dreamt that I was going to be one of the perfectly coiffed wives sitting behind home plate, my instant ticket to the in-crowd.
When I revealed my intentions to my father, he was pleased in a way that was inconsistent with his fatherly overbearance. I agreed to attend Western—they had a great biology program, but the best part was the baseball dorm was co-ed.
I thought I had scored when I landed on a floor with the A-team. I can’t remember the exact moment I realized that the A in A-team really stood for Asshole. It must have been less than a semester. My freshmen year had been rocky, as most new beginnings tend to be, especially for someone like me who was not particularly outgoing. My first encounter with one of them happened in my Intro to Spanish I class. Greg (later nicknamed Sticky Fingers by Estelle) asked to see my syllabus, the very syllabus I had last examined while eating an ice cream sandwich. He glanced at the dark smears covering the page and then gave me the once-over.
“Do you take showers?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” I replied.
“Hey, your new nickname is Dirty Girl.” I didn’t dare to ask what my old nickname was. Hence forth, the greater population of the Western baseball team referred to me as “Dirty Girl” or, simply, “Stinky.” I guess it was better than my grade school nickname “Red-Headed Cow,” given to me by my loving brother.
Estelle and I developed our own pseudonyms for most of them; besides Sticky Fingers, there was the Giant Behemoth, Dumb and his roommate, Dumber, the Critter, the Leach, and of course, Jed the Jerk. He was the worst of them all.
It took me until my senior year and meeting Ryan to realize that not all of the boys at Western were jerks—it was only the baseball team.
“Does it count that I played soccer in high school?” Ryan asked me now.
“Of course.” He took one hand off the steering wheel to squeeze my hand. I squeezed back.
“Addy, I have to make a confession.” His voice cracked as he spoke.
I glanced over at him. He was staring straight ahead at the road. I suddenly realized he was nervous.
“Oh?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady, afraid that our much-needed discussion was looming. He paused, seeming to gather his words.
Here it comes. The Talk.
“You thought we met that night at the frat party, but we actually had a class together sophomore year.”
I breathed out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in.
“Botany. Eight a.m.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, remembering. Ulva latuca: sea lettuce. “You were in that class?” I tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “I never noticed.”
“Well, it was an ungodly early class. You aren’t exactly functional until after ten.”
I gave him a rueful smile. “True.” A pause ensued. “I can’t believe I never realized we had a class together.” I wasn’t sure if I was disappointed or relieved by the direction our conversation was taking.
He cleared his throat. “I used to sit behind you and stare at you.”
My mouth flew open. “What?”
“I did. I would get to class after you, which was really hard because you were always late. And I’d sit a few rows back. You doodled killer whales and dorsal fins all over your notes, but you always got a higher grade than me.”
“How come you never told me this?”
“I don’t know. It didn’t seem right. Our first meeting seemed natural, but it was really contrived. Even that poem. I looked up your name in the school directory, and then I researched the story behind the Pleiades on the Internet.”
Despite myself, I had to smile. “I knew you didn’t go around memorizing Greek poetry.”
He grinned at me before turning his head back to the road. “I couldn’t help it. I ran across it when I was researching your name, and I guess it just stuck in my head. Kind of like you.”
The tears that had been threatening all morning began to fall. I sniffed and stared out the window, attempting to rub them away without Ryan seeing.
“Are you OK?”
I reached up to wipe my nose with my hand, cursing the fact that I was wearing a tank top and not something with sleeves.
After a few minutes of silence, he pulled off the highway to an exit.
“Do we need gas?” I asked him, trying to pull myself together.
He shook his head as he parked. “Addy, I love you.” He was still staring straight ahead although he’d shut off the car. He gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were turning white.
The tears were back again. “I love you too.” I buried my face in my hands and sniffed.
“Hey,” he said, turning toward me and grabbing my hand. “Look at me.”
I glanced over, knowing my mascara was running and my nostrils were probably flaring. I am not the world’s most attractive crier.
He rubbed the skin on the back of my hand. “We can make this work. Six months is not so long in the grand scheme of things.”
“I know,” I sniffed out.
“We’ll talk on the phone every day.”
“What if you meet someone else?” I blubbered.
He held up a hand. “I promise I won’t even look at another girl. Ever.”
“What if the Institute is so impressed they want to hire me?” I felt it was finally time to bring out all of the scenarios running through my head for the past two months.
“Then I’ll move to Florida. I’m going to be a teacher—I can move anywhere. If the only place you can find a marine biologist job is in Japan, I’ll move to Japan with you.”
I managed a grin. “You’d be willing to give up your whole life for me?”
He stroked my hair. “Of course, Addy. I love you.”
“I’ll always love you.” I told him as he started up the car again. “Always.” I repeated, as if to reassure myself. Now that we finally got the conversation over, and with all of his assertions, I should have been relieved. But for some reason I had a sinking feeling I couldn’t shake the rest of the way home.
A few hours later, I was startled to sense Ryan put the car in park before I realized that we were sitting in the driveway of my father’s house. I must have really zoned out.
“You don’t need to come in,” I told him, opening my side of his car.
“Are you sure?” He got out and grabbed my last bag from the trunk.
“Yeah. I’m sure you want to get home.” He still had another hour’s drive from my South Side neighborhood to the northwest suburbs. All I wanted to do was to relax in a hot bath—an elusive luxury after years of dorm living—and try to forget the feeling of forboding that was still dancing around inside my gut.
“OK,” he said, handing me the bag as I got out.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem,” he said, shooting me another one of his grins. “I’ll call you tomorrow. We can meet up sometime next week.”
“Sure, that’d be great.” I said, realizing Ryan would no longer be less than a mile away, able to drop by on a whim. I slowly hoisted the bag onto my shoulder and started walking up the drive.
“Addy,” he called. I turned around. He was leaning on his car, watching me leave. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. He looked so forlorn that I walked back down and kissed him.
“Take care,” he whispered into my good ear. I squeezed his hand one last time and then headed back up the path. I heard him get into the car and shut the door. When I got to the stoop, I glanced back at the driveway. Ryan was sitting in the driver’s seat, watching that I got in the door safely the way he always did. But, instead of inspiring comfort, his lingering only served to make me more melancholy. I twisted the knob on the front door, but the door wouldn’t give. I smiled sheepishly toward the driveway and shoved my weight into the door. It finally budged and I burst into my childhood home only to be greeted by a half-dozen white trash bags piled up in the hallway. I pushed past them and headed to my room, where I promptly threw myself on the bed and burst into tears.
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