Authors: Ann Marie Frohoff
I felt sick inside. I sat in my car, gripping the steering wheel and finger punching the buttons on the radio over and over again, waiting for Nathan to meet me. Nathan Reynolds, perfect as could be. A 6’2 golden boy and a water-polo-playing super star. I pictured him, with his shimmering, wet body, with broad shoulders, a slim waist and muscular legs. Arms that held me every time I felt lonely, with hands that caressed my hair and lips that kissed me tenderly, but he wasn’t Jake. The gods had made a perfect male specimen, and any girl would die to have him.
I had to let him go.
I watched students filter out of the school gate like ants, some stopping to say hello to each other and others with their heads down. I spotted Nathan smiling and laughing with one of his friends as he walked towards where my car was always parked. His hair was wet from practice, and he was bundled up in a black hooded sweatshirt with Seaside Water Polo in green and gold printed on it. I seriously wanted to cry. He smiled at me, waving, as I got out of my car.
“Hey,” he said, throwing his arm around my shoulders and pulling me close. I seriously wanted to disappear in a puff of smoke.
He looked down at me, and the smile vanished from his handsome face. My eyes instantly began to moisten and I walked away from him, not turning around. “Let’s walk across the street to the park.”
“What’s going on, Aly?” His tone was stern and spiked with apprehension.
“Just walk with me, please. I have to talk to you,” I quietly pleaded.
We walked the rest of the way in silence and I consciously remained a step ahead. I couldn’t even look at him or I’d begin to cry. I felt it right at the surface, prickling at my eyes. I had to do this. I couldn’t lead him on; that would be the shittiest thing I could do. No matter if Jake and I worked out or not, my heart wasn’t in it. When we got to the park bench, Nathan pulled his backpack from his shoulder, setting it down and sat next to it.
“What is it?” he said, kicking at the leaves near his feet. “You know, save it, actually. I know you’re gonna tell me you can’t go out with me anymore.”
I instantly began to cry.
What the hell? Why? Why was I crying?
I was crying because I knew I had let this go on long enough. Goddammit! I sniffled, trying to choke back the tears, and I covered my face. “I’m sorry, Nathan,” I squeaked out. “I just don’t want to hurt you. You deserve better than what I can give you.”
I cried into my hands, not looking at him. I couldn’t believe how I was reacting to this. I had no control. I thought it would be easy because I didn’t want to be with him. I wasn’t sure where this was coming from, so I just sat there and sobbed.
“Hey,” I heard him say softly. The next thing I knew, he was holding me. “I know about you, Aly. I knew you were damaged. I told you, I’m not expecting anything other than what you’re willing to give.”
This made me cry harder.
I pushed away from him. Finally, my eyes met his and I wiped the tears away with the sleeves of my sweatshirt. What he’d said stung.
“Well this is news. After a year of going out with me, you’re finally admitting to me that you think I’m damaged goods?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant I know about what you went through with your ex-boyfriend.” He looked as exasperated as I felt.
I wanted to barrage him with questions about how he knew anything, but who was I kidding? Anyone who was raised in our town knew about Jake and I. It’s just that Nathan never brought it up or asked any questions about it. That’s the one reason we’d lasted so long. Nathan allowed me a fresh start with no prodding; just a new healthy, normal relationship, with no strings attached.
He reached out and grabbed my hand as he backed up to sit down on the bench. “Sit down.” He tugged, bringing me closer. He just stared at me with soft, caring eyes, and it made the water works start again.
“Nathan. I’ve been talking with Jake for some time now.” With those words, he released my hand and his face fell. “And I just need to stop this, you and I. You don’t deserve this. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t deserve
“So you’re getting back with him?”
“I don’t know.” The silence between us was palpable. The children playing yards away echoed in my ears like I was under water. Finally, Nathan spoke words I didn’t deserve to hear from him.
“You’re like this enigma, you know, how you juggle everything. How stoked you get about stuff and your game. You pull people in. That’s what attracted me to you, not to mention, you’re beautiful.” He played with the strings of his hoodie, not looking at me. “I care about you. I really do. You made me work harder at my grades. You made me a better student and a better athlete. You motivated me to go for it, you know.”
I sucked back more tears and he reached out, holding my hand tight. “I’m really sorry, Nathan. I didn’t mean to lead you on.”
“I know. I knew what I was getting myself into. I guess I was hoping that you’d moved on from him.”
“You sound like you know more than I thought you did. You never brought it up.” I said, looking up at him, sniveling.
“Aly, don’t cry.” He reached out, wiping my damp cheek. “I’m the one who should be crying.”
“But you’re not.”
“I guess I’m just not surprised. I kinda knew way back in my mind that this would probably happen. I mean, come on, the guy’s still stuck on you, too.”
“And you know this how?” My heart lurched at where this convo was heading. But I wanted to know what his perception of Jake and I was.
“I’ll admit to being a little nosey about your past. I wanted to know why you were so in love with him. I wanted to know exactly what happened. I was curious. So every now and then I’d pick up a magazine, and there he was with his band, and he spoke about you. Not by name, but I knew he was talkin’ about you as recently as a few months ago – “
my high school girlfriend
, - he’d say.”
We continued to hold hands, rubbing each other’s palms. He was literally the nicest guy in the world. “Wow. I had no idea.”
“I crushed on you for so long. You didn’t know I existed back then, I was kind of a skinny shrimp in 9
I jiggled his hand. “I knew who you were. We just didn’t talk.”
“I was too afraid to talk to you. You were bigger than life back then.” He squeezed my hand. “You still are.”
I wasn’t in a teary mood anymore. I was embarrassed at his candid, caring words and his perception of me. “Nathan, stop being so nice. I don’t deserve it. You have to know that I really care about you. If things were different, I could be in love with you.”
He shrugged and released my hand. “Could be?”
“Sure. I love you. It’s just not the kind of love you deserve.”
“And Jake deserves your love?” This stung. He’s tone was a bit callous, but what did I expect?
“That’s just it. I don’t know, but it’s a constant thing on my mind. We never had a chance back then. I bet if our parents let us be together back then, we probably would have broken up like most relationships do in high school.”
“So you think I still have a chance?”
I reached out taking his hand again. “I think you have an awesome chance of finding someone who will love you so much better than I could right now.” I kissed his hand.
“Aly, don’t be a stranger…I don’t want you to be somebody I used to know.” He smiled weakly and chuckled. “Lame, huh?”
I laughed sympathetically. “No. Well maybe a little.” I nudged him. Even under sorry circumstances, Nathan found a way to lighten the mood.
Holding my new blue passport, with its crispy unstamped pages, and waiting for my brother to pick me up, made it finally seem real. In a little over fourteen or so hours, I’d be with Jake. Thinking about it made my head spin. I was eighteen and going to London to visit the love of my life. At least, I’d hoped he would be. I’d come to the conclusion that I owed it to myself to find out, to really go for it. Putting to rest the yearning and desires I’d had pent up for so many years. If it didn’t work out between us, than at least we’d know we gave it our best shot. Jake had no doubt in his mind that I was the one for him. Maybe it was because he was older and lived a different kind of life that he knew this. Now I needed to know too.
I could hear my mother’s gentle voice coaxing my father to come and talk to me before I left. It was 7 pm, and my flight to London was due to depart at 10:45. I wasn’t sure if the deep, inaudible whispers of my father were protests, but I didn’t want either of them to accompany me to the airport. I began to draft an email to Jake on my phone when I heard the familiar shuffling of my father’s feet getting closer. I looked up at a wary man who had apprehension swathed over him.
“Hey, Dad.” Every time one of my parents looked at me these days, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Was I really? Is that why I kept feeling this way?
“Hello.” He stepped down into the living room, sitting next to me. “Are you excited about your trip?”
“Really, Dad?” I said softly, half-laughing. “Stop pretending.”
“Alyssa,” he said, exhaling heavily and shook his head. “I’m very proud of who you’ve become. Whether I agree with this or not, I know you’ve taken care of everything you’ve needed to in order to make this happen.”
“Yes, I have. I’ve already finished half of my school work that was assigned over break, and I’ll deal with my coaches when I get back.”
“How did you manage to miss a week of volleyball practice?”
“I told them I had family matters and that I needed my privacy.” I could see my father thinking.
His expression was serious and his eyes lingered on mine. “I don’t like the lying.”
“It’s not really a lie, as far as I’m concerned.” I shrugged, defiant. “It’s all in the spin, right Dad? Don’t you do it all day long in court?”
My father’s eyes narrowed in on mine and then he ran his hand down his face. “Do you have the money you need? Pounds? Euros?” he said, ignoring my ridiculous jab. I was more than surprised he let my sarcastic mocking slide. “Please email me all of Jake’s information. His phone number, his address, your flight information…”
“Please do it now, before you leave.” He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “I wanted to call Jake.”
Hearing Jake’s name fall from my father’s lips made my hands go numb. Would that ever change? “And?”
“It’s very hard for me not to want to protect you.” His voice was hoarse.
“I don’t know.” He looked at me, overcome with emotion. He sniffed.
Holy shit, is my father gonna cry?
He stood up, clearing his throat, and all I could do was just nod at him in understanding. I totally got it.
“Dad,” I said, and my voice cracked. “Thanks for not making a big deal out of this. I really want this. I really want Jake and I to see if we can make this work. I know what I have to do with my life. Please try not to worry.”
He reached out and pulled me close to him, hugging me tightly. His dad smell wrapped around me warmly and I squeezed him back. “I love you, kiddo. Make sure to call me when you land.”
“I will,” I said, swallowing down the lump that formed in my throat.
The static sound of the pilot’s voice filled my ears, startling me awake. I couldn’t believe I had fallen asleep. The pilot’s British accent informed us we would be landing in twenty minutes, and that the weather was dreary and 6 degrees Celsius. I had the window seat and glanced at the woman next to me. She was reading her book. I politely told her I had to use the bathroom and she stood silently, smiling. Ugh, I hated bothering people on a plane ride.
I slid the bathroom door into the locked position and the florescent lights illuminated, flickering. It was the most awful lighting ever; no one on Earth could ever look good in this type of lighting. Thinking of Jake sent ripples of chills all over me, and my heart began to race. I quickly applied my makeup, wondering how the entire trip would unfold.
My breath trembled as I made my way off the plane, and it wasn’t because of the cold hair breezing through the jet bridge. The terminal was bustling. I searched the signs overhead and was thankful I was in a country that was English. I could only imagine if Jake was in France or something like that. I shuffled to the escalator, riding down into the baggage claim area where he’d pick me up. I fumbled to take my cellphone out of my pocket and turned it on. I needed to send my parents a text telling them I’d arrived safely. Everyone around me had an English accent. I thought it was beyond adorable listening to the two little girls next to me speak to each other. They horsed around, tugging and pushing each other, wearing their little pink mittens and hats. I wondered what my accent sounded like to them. Was it a pleasant accent, or a harsh one like the Germans’?
Jake had told me to pack one bag. He’d said it was too much of a hassle to wait for luggage, and I’d agreed. It was tough trying to decide what to pack for a week of cold weather, but I’d managed. The closer I got to the exit doors, I seriously thought I’d pass out. It’d been so long since I felt the Jake rush. I’d forgotten what it was like to get tunnel vision. I stopped to the side of the doors, closing my eyes and breathed in deeply. He’d said to wait under the Terminal 3 baggage claim sign and he’d locate me.