We drive about an hour out to a trail head that leads down a desert mountain into a valley with streams and hot springs. I never would have guessed that an oasis like this would be hidden in the desert. I have never been to a natural hot spring before and my excitement fizzles as we get closer. The stench of sulfur is pungent in the air. Do people really sit in that water? We dip our toes in, but between the desert sun and the heat from the hot spring, we agree that it would be too dangerous for us to submerge our bodies.
Fortunately, there is a cool stream in the valley. Ludo runs into the stream and dunks his body in. He is panting, but looks happy. I shimmy off my shorts and tank top. I’m wearing a bikini beneath my clothes and find myself a place to lounge in the stream water to cool off. Dominic follows suit. We both relax in the water and take a moment to soak in the scenery. I’m amazed at how different it feels in this valley. There’s a breeze blowing through the lush green trees and the trees are surrounded by vibrant green grass and grey rocks. The scenery before we walked down the canyon was dry, desert dirt with spiky bushes and cactus. When we first arrived, I questioned Dominic’s desire to bring me out to the isolated desert.
As we sit in silence and take in the scenery, I turn to check out Dominic before he notices me. I think he senses me staring and we make eye contact.
“Thank you for bringing me here. I’ve never been somewhere so hidden and so beautiful. It feels like this place is ours and we are the only two people on this planet.” The thought of how alone we are out here weighs a little heavy in my chest. I implicitly trust Dominic, who not too long ago was a stranger. If he wanted to, he could dispose of my body out here and no one would ever know. I readjust my posture as that thought creeps in my mind.
“Thank you for coming with us, Lucy. Ludo and I feel very lucky to have you. Words can’t express how you make me feel.” He pauses and moves closer to me. “Lucy, can I tell you something?”
My insides flutter and I am not sure what he is going to say, but I can’t help but feel like I’m going to like it. “Yes, anything.”
“I love you,” he says with confidence and he leans in closer, maintaining eye contact.
His words melt me into a pile of jelly. He loves me, he loves me! Something overtakes my body and I feel like my soul is lifting out. I can suddenly see both of us sitting in the cool water of the stream and Ludo exploring the rocks nearby. When the words come out of my mouth, they don’t feel like my own.
“I love you, too.” We lean in to each other and kiss. I bear witness to it all. It’s an out of body experience and it is one for the history books. Romance authors write about these kind of occasions. They only exist in someone’s imagination, but here we are, living in this moment. I am officially under his spell. Nothing can top this date,. Nothing.
After we finally free each other from our locked embrace, we decide to enjoy a picnic in the shade of one of the big trees. Dominic planned this date down to the snacks. We have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot sticks, and water. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is perfect. I surprise Dominic with my bottle of wine. He ruins my fun when he points out that he doesn’t think we should drink due to the heat and that we still have to hike back up. Reluctantly, I acknowledge his wise decision and put the wine back. “We’ll drink some after our hike, as a celebration,” he promises.
As we hike back up the canyon to our car, I try to hide how out of shape I am. My attempt is futile as I huff and puff while trying to carry on a conversation with Dominic. “I’m extremely,” I try to catch my breath, “happy,” still huffing, “I’m extremely happy to be here. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought you might be bringing me here to kill me, especially after our fight this morning,” I let out an uncomfortable giggle.
“Well, this is the best place to dump a body,” he winks, “but no, killing you wouldn’t get me very far considering I’m hopelessly in love with you, but if you ever leave me…” he smirks. His joke leaves an achy feeling in my stomach and I think my face gives me away. “I’m so sorry! That joke was in poor taste considering the letter you found on your doorstep today. I was an insensitive jerk,” he apologizes. I reassure him that it’s fine and I have already forgotten his failed attempt at making me laugh. I tease him a bit to ease the tension. We hike back up the mountain for what feels like fifty hours, but I know I am merely exaggerating the walk to myself. Halfway up, we stop to take a water break. I sit on a nearby rock, but Dominic warns me that I shouldn’t be so flippant when I do something like that in the wild. Apparently, on hot days, snakes like to hide in the shade and can usually be found under rocks such as the one I am sitting on. My skin crawls just thinking about it. If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s reptiles and bugs. After a five-minute rest, we hike the rest of the trail with minimal breaks. Ludo is panting like crazy. Most of our breaks have been for him to drink water.
Now that rattlesnakes are at the top of my mind, I ask Dominic about Ludo’s safety out here on the trail. “Is Ludo safe, from the snakes, I mean? Will he get bitten?”
“He could potentially be bitten by a snake, yes, but the likelihood of it is slim. Just as you or I could be bitten by a snake. I actually have a friend who runs a training class for dogs to teach them to avoid poisonous snakes. I started taking Ludo to the classes. Granted, he hasn’t completed the course yet, he is still a super smart dog. He picked up on it quickly,” Dominic explains.
“That’s awesome! I should have known you would be on top of it, especially anything that has to do with Ludo and hiking,” I smile at him. “I knew there was a reason I fell in love with you.” Dominic smiles from ear to ear. Honestly, I feel a bit cheesy saying a line like that, but oh well. It makes him happy and that’s really all I care about. After what feels like hours, we finally reach the top and it’s a flat terrain that’s easy to navigate. We gain a lot of ground in no time, and before we know it, we are back at the car. Dominic opens the doors for Ludo and me. We hop in and he starts the engine and turns on the air conditioning. My legs feel like jelly and Ludo sprawls across the back seat and pants with his giant tongue hanging out. I turn around and give him a quick pat on the head and remind him that he is such a good boy.
When Dominic drops me off, we say goodbye at the car. Usually, he walks me to my door, but Ludo is fast asleep in the backseat and I don’t want to wake him. Dominic tells me he wants me to come to his studio one of these nights so he can teach me self-defense moves. I had opened up to him on our long drive about my paranoia that seems to be stronger and appears in more frequent episodes. He asks me to promise that I will call him whenever I feel the paranoia rising. I promise him I will and we say goodbye for what feels like the tenth time. It’s hard when we have to leave each other.
As I’m walking back to my apartment, I have the strange sensation that someone is watching me. I look around and there is no one in sight. I get to my apartment and take a shower. While I’m washing my hair I hear something crash in the living room. I hurriedly shut off the water and wrap a towel around my sudsy body. I stand as still as possible and listen. I hear another crashing sound, I’m not alone. Someone is in my apartment. My pulse is racing and my hands start to shake. Careful to not make a sound, I channel my inner ninja and tip toe quietly down the hall and peek around the corner. The air is still, but a shadow moves along the wall.
“Hi! Lucy!” says a familiar voice. My heart thumps out of my chest and tries to catch up to my startled body. It takes a second to sink in, but it’s Ellie smiling at me in my apartment while holding my broom. My eyes must be deceiving me. This can’t be real.
“Ellie, you scared the crap out of me. What are you doing here?” I remember now that I had given Ellie a key awhile back so that she can enter freely to water my plants whenever I’m out of town. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I gave her the key a few months ago, but here we are. Ellie is the last person I thought I would be seeing today.
“Oh my gosh, completely my fault, I apologize! I didn’t realize you were home. I was trying to get in and leave you an apology gift while you were out. Then, it would be here when you returned home. It was this whole amazing plan I dreamt up. Honestly, I have been feeling really low since our fight and well, I miss you. I miss us. I just want to be us again. I didn’t mean to scare you. I also want to let you know that I am sorry for my blunder. I accidentally knocked over your plant on the entry table.” She looks genuinely apologetic and points to the cracked ceramic pot with my plant in it. I glance at my plant and I can tell that Ellie placed it back in the upright position and tried to scoop the remaining dirt back into the pot off the floor.
“I need to take this in for a moment,” I admit. At this particular time, I’m feeling quite forgiving and there is nothing in this world I want more than to mend my friendship with Ellie. I look her straight in the eye and tell her, “It’s okay. I love you too much to keep up any kind of feud!” We hug and I instantaneously feel relief wash over me. “Let me go rinse off the soap and get dressed. Hang tight, please?”
“Absolutely, I’ll pour us some wine!”
“Sounds great!” I smile, but when I turn to head back down the hall to the bathroom, I feel a flash of discomfort about Ellie’s unannounced entrance into my apartment. I’m not sure if it’s Ellie’s presence or the mere fact that she managed to get into my apartment without my knowledge. I’m not exactly feeling safe at this moment. I make a mental note to retrieve the key back before Ellie leaves for the night. I rinse off the remaining soap and I dress in my room. I had the best of intentions to throw on my pajamas for the rest of the day and lay on my couch and read. Oh well, this is much better.
When I finally emerge from my room, Ellie smiles and pours me a glass of wine. She hands it to me and I plop down on the next cushion over from where she is sitting. Ellie and I sit on the couch with our glasses full of sweet white wine. e clink our glasses together, say cheers and smile at each other.
“Ahem, Ellie, where’s this gift you spoke of?” I sit with anticipation. I do love receiving gifts. If I know Ellie, and I do, she would have taken our cooling off period as an opportunity to do art. She is a very artistic person. Extremely talented and she loves to make handmade gifts. She pours herself into her creations, so I know if this is the case, her gift will be extra special.
“Um, okay, when I was frantically trying to clean up the pot and dirt on the entry table, I knocked the broom into the gift I had for you. Please forgive me, but it’s cracked and I just really don’t want to give you something that’s damaged.”
Grappling with a little disappointment, I reassure Ellie that I completely understand. My curiosity will need to take the backseat. I can tell Ellie is devastated with the events that transpired during her well-intended plans. Changing the subject, I tell Ellie about the date I experienced with Dominic earlier and we gush over the I love you’s Dominic and I exchanged. Ellie tells me I’m glowing and she finds delight in my happiness. She is beaming, though I am picking up on an underlying emotion. One that I think Ellie has been concealing this whole time.
“Lucy, I want to say this again, I am wholeheartedly sorry that I have been such a pain in your behind lately. I know I don’t say this nearly enough, but I want to reiterate to you that I appreciate our friendship and all I want is to see you thrive in life.” Ellie’s eyes fill with emotion and I feel empathy for her.
“It’s okay. You were just being vigilant and wanted me to be careful to not get hurt. I understand completely. You were being a friend. You’re always being my friend, Ellie. Let bygones be bygones. I want you to know I appreciate our friendship, too!” I burst out and we hug again.
Making up with Ellie on the same day Dominic and I share those three little words is priceless. I’m feeling elated and I know nothing can bring me down or take away the purity of this day.