That’s what I wanted. Just like everyone else, I wanted the romance and the stories. I wanted to fall hopelessly and deeply in love with my perfect someone in a way that made me feel crazy.
But, let’s face it, that was somebody else’s love story, or maybe no one’s. The story I got was not my expectation, to say the least. I did get crazy though, more on that to come. I can’t start at the beginning of the “love story” part because that isn’t where the story begins. It begins with Casey Burton. Before Casey, every guy I’d dated was nothing more than a dalliance. Casey was my one, The One. We had a story that burnt hot from the start.
It was my junior year in college. My friend, Annie, had taken it upon herself to drag me out of my hermitage to some fraternity birthday party being held for the guy she wanted to, for lack of a better word, bang. Casey had driven down from Fort Collins, Colorado. You see, the birthday happened to be for his best friend, Drew McAllister. Annie made a straight shot for Drew the moment we stepped through the door, leaving me hiding casually in the corner, doing my best to blend into the wall.
A heavy mist surrounded me. The air was thick and tense. My head was already navigating a rum sea like Captain Morgan himself. The room was hot, and dense with sweaty bodies dancing in ways only acceptable at a college house party. My heart thumped in time with the blaring bass of electronic music, which seemed to echo mindlessly around my head. I took a breath and regretted it instantly. Beads of sweat formed at my hairline and I resisted the urge to swipe them away with the back of my hand.
That’s when I first saw him. Casey was in front of me, sitting at a shiny, domestic IKEA table. Not quite in the center of the table stood a rose vase playing the role of stand-in King’s Cup. The table was littered with shot glasses and red Solo cups. Casey was shuffling a deck of cards. I focused on the sound. It was comforting and gentle amid the jungle atmosphere of the room. He looked so calm and collected in contrast to the hormonal undergrads. I couldn’t stop staring in a way that was probably creepy.
A short Asian girl wearing an extra-large t-shirt as a dress bumped my shoulder, snapping me back to reality. Casey was still shuffling simply. I maneuvered through some bodies to the table and sat beside him. His neck was relaxed, and I couldn’t help but trace it with my eyes. I loved the way the shadow fell beneath his ear, cast by the dim light of the ceiling fan. There was a cluster of freckles that drew a path from his earlobe out to the center of his cheek and up to his right eye as he was looking back towards the window behind us. I loved the look his freckles gave his face, as though each were lovingly painted by the hand of God to enhance his facial structure. From his eye, the freckle path took me to just left of the bridge of his nose. It ended with a single freckle on his forehead, right in a crease of his skin. when he gave me a questioning glance, it disappeared completely.
“Do you know any card tricks?” I joked as I motioned to the thoroughly shuffled deck. I’m still unsure what sparked the question. I hadn’t seen a card trick in years.
I didn’t have a plan for what to say if he said no. Of course, he would say no. No one actually knows any card tricks. I’d have to awkwardly excuse myself to go for another drink and work up the courage to try to talk to him again as I’d done before.
“Yes, actually,” he replied, “I do.” I began to squirm in my chair awkwardly, preparing to retreat for another drink, before his words registered. The surprise on my face was apparent, I’m sure.
He began to shuffle the cards in a choppy fashion and I stared intently.
“Pick one,” he said. “But don’t show me. Memorize it.” I held the 7 of clubs for a moment, trying to distinguish it. I’d called clubs “puppy-dog’s-feet” growing up and couldn’t help calling it that in the moment.
“Put it on the top of the deck,” he instructed, and I did.
“Shuffle it around as many times as you’d like,” he smiled. I did. My entire body felt off balance as I shuffled seven or eight times.
“You can stop whenever,” he laughed. I handed him back the deck and he began flipping the cards over, one at a time. After 12 cards he flipped the 7 of puppy-dog’s-feet. He continued to flip though. 3 more cards. The King of Spades. He didn’t get it.
“Is that your card?” He asked. I shook my head with a slight grin. “No, not the King, this one.” He reached in to the discarded pile and grabbed the 7 of puppy-dog’s-feet and held it at eye level, just off center of his nose. Between the question on his face and my card being held up, I could only see the three-freckled path across his cheek. But in that moment, his eyes tantalized me. They were almost teal. They were searching mine and pleased with the recognition. My mouth dropped open slightly either from the trick or his eyes.
Without warning, Drew appeared and whispered something in Casey’s ear. Casey smiled and patted him on the shoulder. I looked over at Annie who gave me a wink and grabbed Drew by the hand, dragging him out the door.
“Was that your friend?” we asked at the same time. We both laughed and nodded. He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” I asked, my face suddenly glowing fuchsia at the thought of him staying the night.
“Well, I was going to stay with Drew, but I think I may have to find a new plan.” He laughed again. His laugh was full and light and intoxicating.
“You can stay with me if you want!” I spat out, a little too eagerly. “Annie and I have another roommate, but I think she’s spending the night with her boyfriend.” I tried desperately to sound nonchalant. But instantly I was texting Natalie under the table, asking her not to come back to the apartment.
“Are you sure? That would be great, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Oh, not at all!” I couldn’t help the hopeful smile inching its way across my face. This could be it. He could be it.
We stayed at the party until around midnight.
“Bars! Bars! Bars!” chanted the fraternal choir, one brother banged the backbeat on the doorframe.
Casey patted his pockets. “Damn, I left my wallet and ID back at Drew’s.”
“We can just go back to my place.” I smiled revealing my teeth, and also, probably, my less than innocent intentions. My head was spinning, and my confidence was soaring, fueled by makeshift margaritas.
When we got to the apartment, I fished for my keys and instead fumbled them expertly. My vision was swirling, and when I leaned down to get them, I tipped forward, smacking my head against the door. I rubbed my head and focused on the make-up mark I left.
“Allie, are you okay?” Casey quickly retrieved my keys. Completely, totally fine! When he saw that I was okay, he shed his politeness and burst out laughing. I brushed away one of the brown curls that had fallen onto my face and shoved his shoulder with playful indignation. His laughter was infectious, and I found myself laughing just as hard, leaning against the doorframe. He grabbed his sides trying to take deep breaths long enough to stop. Tears pooled in the corners of his eyes. “Here, let me get the door,” he smiled taking my hand and leading me into my own apartment. “Where are your cups? Let me get you some water,” he said sitting me at my tiny excuse for a kitchen table.
“Oh, no. No. I’m fine, really. Peachy,” I said, as I stood up a little too quickly. I walked towards the sink in the kitchen and my vision began to get fuzzy. I reached up into the cabinet above the electric stove to get a cup for water. I used my right hand on the stove to push my small frame up and steady myself slightly. The plastic cup fell out of my left hand and rolled across the floor as I clutched my right wrist. I yelled something quite un-ladylike. I checked the burner. Sure enough, Annie had forgotten to shut it off after making her mac and cheese. I bit my lower lip. I didn’t even notice Casey at my side. He turned on the sink and grabbed my wrist and led me with one hand on small of my back. Through the searing pain of my hand, I could still feel the heat running from his touch up my spine to the alcohol-induced fuzzy place in my brain. He guided my hand under the cold water and I cringed at the contrast. It was only then that I noticed he was actually quite a bit taller than me, by a good five or six inches. I should have just let him get the stupid cup.
“Keep that under the water,” Casey said as he picked up the cup. “It didn’t look too bad. Do you have burn cream and Band-Aids?” He set the cup by the sink.
“Yeah. Under Natalie’s bed.” I jutted my chin towards the door to our room. “It’s the pink bed with the fluffy pillow.”
He followed my chin into our room and returned with the first aid kit. He tenderly took my hand out from under the water and I could feel a flush of heat return. I stared at the burn. I could clearly see the three rings of the burner blistering a pink rainbow across my palm. Casey dressed the burn. He went to the freezer and grabbed a popsicle. He handed it to me and I returned a look of embarrassed confusion.
“You don’t have any ice,” he frowned.
“Thank you,” I smiled. “I’m sorry. This is probably not how you expected to spend the night.”
He took my other hand. “It’s okay. I like taking care of people. And since you’re cute, it’s even better.” He was looking into my eyes. I put my left hand on his shoulder and stood on my tiptoes. I kissed him. He brought his hands up to my face on either side and stroked the hair behind my ears. Then he scooped me up like a child and carried me into my bedroom. He had basketball player biceps. They were toned and strong. My body started to get excited at the thought of what was next. He set me on my bed and kissed me again. Our lips parted, and he went and sat on Natalie’s bed.
“I have a feeling that we both want the same thing right now,” he said, “and as much as my head is yelling that I’m an idiot for saying this, I think that, maybe we should just sleep and try this again in the morning.”
My heart sank. But he was right. I nodded, and we lay in the separate beds, each anxiously examining the ceiling in silence
“What’s something very few people know about you?” he asked, making me jump a little.
“I’ve never been asked that question before.”
“That’s okay. I didn’t expect you to have an immediate answer,” he said earnestly. I looked to the small fan oscillating in the corner of the room. The fan had no advice for me.
“You know how most people collect normal things, like rocks, or baseball cards? I collect words that people have never heard or forgot existed,” I finally said.
“Really? Why?” He asked without skipping a beat.
“Well,” I paused, knowing what I was about to say would be an overshare. “My dad used to do the same thing. He died when I was young. It’s one of the few things I can remember about him…The way he would speak; it was like, I don’t know,” I hesitated, “like singing.”
“I’m sorry, Allie.”
“It’s okay, I was too young to really remember.” A pause of silence.
“Do you have a favorite word?” He folded his arms behind his head.
“Petrichor,” I replied with a bit of a smile, cradling my injured hand near my heart.
“I love that smell,” he beamed. Even in the dark, my eyes darted toward him in disbelief. “On a calm night, after a storm has blown through, and there’s that comforting smell of rain that just floods the room,” he sighed, “that’s petrichor right?”
I nodded slowly, and a smile inched its way across my face. I said a silent prayer of gratitude for bringing this man into my life.
That was almost four years ago now. Trying to remember that night is like trying to remember a quote I once read. Like the end of the book I never finished.