"Will you go out with me?"
In but six words--accompanied by a package of vocal inflections and hesitations denoting the feelings behind them--culminated the worth of years of friendship and higher hopes, days of planning, and several hours of butterflies migrating south from my heart to my stomach in an effort to avoid the wintry cold I had not foreseen.
She froze like a pond in an overnight frost. Her smile vanished as suddenly as my wit had evoked it minutes before.
"You want to go out--with me? On--on a date?" she lallated.
I was the exuberant, outgoing type. People loved to be with me because I loved to be with people. Not even around girls had I ever been reserved. This was not the first time I had ever asked a girl on a date before, and my invitations had never been rejected. I had been close friends with this particular girl, Rachel by name, since kindergarten. Why, then, did I feel so nervous?
"Yes," I said, "yes I would. Very much."
She bit her lip. "I--don't know what to say."
"You could start with 'Yes.' They usually do."
"Who are 'they'?" she asked.
"You know. Most girls."
"But that's just it. I'm not 'most girls'; I'm me. I'm your best friend. I--I don't want to be anything else."
"Is that--Do you mean--Are you saying 'No'?"
"I just want to be friends," she repeated.
"But--but I had these tickets to a restaurant. And I had reservations at this great concert. I--I mean--"
"I'm sorry," she interrupted. "I'm sure somebody else will go with you."
My shoes had suddenly become fascinating. "But I wanted to go with you."
"Look, we're just friends. Best friends. And I don't want to change that."
"Yeah--yeah, of course." I forced a grin across my lips. They felt oddly stiff, moving only with reluctance. I said, "I get it. Friends. Like always."
Her eyes evaded mine. "Friends," she agreed.
"I'll see you around, then?"
She nodded. "See you."
Somehow, as I walked away, I felt as if my bowels had twisted themselves into knots. In my eyes there was an odd tingling sensation I was not accustomed to.
— — — — —
When Mom walked into my room she was so surprised to see me she nearly dropped an armful of clean laundry.
"What are you doing home so early? I didn't hear you come in."
I should have thought of that. I hadn't been home this early since the day I broke a collar bone. And come rain or come shine--especially, perhaps, the former--even the neighbors knew it when I got home. But at the time I had had other thoughts in mind than to keep up appearances.
I said, "I've been home about an hour."
"Why aren't you out with your team? You did have practice today, didn't you?"
"They went out for hamburgers, but I wasn't hungry."
This was another irregularity. I was always hungry. Mom raised an eyebrow.
She said, "Are you feeling all right?"
For a moment I considered telling her the truth. But what good could it do either of us? Instead I forced a grin and answered.
"I'm on top of the world! I just wanted to come home early so I could read." I held up a novel.
That satisfied her. "As if staying up half the night wasn't enough!"
"Well, I got to the denouement."
She scowled good-naturedly, in her a questioning expression.
I explained, "The climax."
"Well, it must be a good book to get you to miss out on hamburgers."
I merely grunted vaguely. She set down the laundry, lingered a moment longer, then left. I returned to staring unseeingly at the pages of the book.
At dinner, everyone knew something was wrong. I barely spoke. My younger brother reasoned I had become a vampire; my sister began babbling something about how nice vampires really are, and how much cooler than me. I ignored them both and stabbed at my plate.
Dad came to my room after dinner. He knocked, requesting permission to enter. When it was granted, he sauntered in, smiling with feebly affected buoyancy, and sat on the corner of my bed. In his hands he held a covered bowl.
"How are you, sport?" he asked.
"How was school today? Pass all your tests?"
"Clear weather on that horizon."
"And how'd you make out with the old pigskin?"
"Dad, don't call it that."
"They were made from the skin of pigs once, you know. But how was practice?"
"Coach said I should save plays like the ones I made today for games." I consciously carved a grin. I went on, "The other guys said I had plenty to spare."
He slapped my shoulder. "That's my boy!"
He looked down at his hands. I examined my own. For a minute, maybe two, we were silent. At last he tried stating the obvious.
"You didn't talk much during dinner."
I shrugged. "I didn't feel much like talking."
He chuckled. "I never thought I'd see the day!" And then he turned to me.
"You didn't eat much, either." He held up the bowl and then set it on my nightstand. "Mom thought you weren't feeling well. She made you some soup."
"Thanks," I replied lamely.
And then he went on, as if he were talking about nothing more consequential than the weather, "Something's wrong. You know it's obvious. I'm here to let you tell me what it is. If you want."
His frankness touched me. I said, "Okay. YOu're right. I guess I didn't hide it very well. But I've never felt like this before. It's just that I asked Rachel on a date today, and she turned me down."
"Ah . . ." He expulsed a deep sigh. "I'm sorry. I know the two of you have been close for a long time. And I know how strongly you felt about her."
This surprised me. "You do?"
"Your Mom told me."
"How did she know?"
His laugh was deep and sonorous. "Women always know, and even when they don't, they find out before long. It's some sort of divine wisdom. Don't ask me to explain what I don't understand, but follow this advice: Never try to hide a secret from a woman."
He regarded me contemplatively. "But tell me this, son. Rachel--did you love her?"
I had not asked myself this question. I said, "I--I don't know. I know I've cared about her for--well, as long as I've known her. But lately it's been a lot stronger. Yeah--yeah, I guess I do."
But Dad shook his head. "Take a few steps back, here. You just said you don't know. If you had said Yes, I would have believed you. But if you have to start guessing, it isn't love. Love isn't guesswork.
"Now, it's only natural that you care. She's been your friend for a long time, and a good one. She's a very nice girl, and pretty, too. You'll meet a lot of women who will make you feel this way. You'll ask yourself about a lot of them, 'Do I love her?' But you will only ever meet one woman who will make you know you are in love."
I listened in silence, but here I asked, "Then why does it hurt so much?"
"There will probably be a lot of women who will hurt you, too. But true love never hurts. The woman will ache you, be sure of it, she may anguish you, or even injure you--but she will never hurt you. Any wounds she gives you will heal, by her own hand. But it will never be as simple as pain.
"And until you meet her, you don't need to worry. Life will go on in spite of the girls who hurt you. You will only find it stopping for true love. And until you find it, and even after, you have a family who loves you. You have your brother and your sister, you have your mother, and you have me. We're always here for you. You can come to any of us whenever you need."
I said, "I know that, Dad."
"And I know," he replied, "how hard it can be to go to some one else. That's why I came to you.
"Most important of all, don't forget you have some one else, too. He is always with you, even though we forget that sometimes. You have a father who cares about you even more than I do." He winked. "If that's possible."
He grabbed my knee and squeezed gently before rising. Halfway to the door he added, "And remember this: Unless you've given it a lot of thought and found a darn good reason, never stop smiling."
He turned and left. But before he passed through the doorway, I said, "Thanks, Dad."
He cast a smile over his shoulder. "Any time, sport." He pointed to the novel discarded on my nightstand. "Hey, remind me how that ends some time. It's been a long time since I read it."
I grinned. "Sure thing."
He closed the door behind him. It occurred to me very suddenly that I had hardly eaten anything during dinner. As I returned to my reading, I fell with alacrity upon the bowl of chicken soup.
Sincerely, Nuile: Lunatic Wordsmith
Edited by Nuile: The Wiseguy, Dec 31 2012 - 05:49 PM.