Chapter 20 - Alex
Time is fickle. The worst moments of our lives seem to drag on for eternities. Seconds stretch into hours and days become centuries. The good times, conversely, fly by too fast. You blink and all of a sudden six months of bliss are a haze in your rearview. I’m convinced there’s a science to it. The answer’s in relativity. It’s a physics thing. Mass and speed warp the spacetime continuum. Maybe there’s a certain kind of gravity to the moments of import that makes time move differently around them.
Whatever the reason, scientific or otherwise, the next months flew by in a blur of happiness. My memories of that period are like snapshots. Photographs of important scenes, captured and seared into my memory by the intense emotions that went with them.
The first memory occurred just a day after our movie date. Tom and I showed up on Nate’s doorstep with Tom’s Nintendo and two pizzas. It was an unremarkable evening, really. Matt and Tom laughed and yelled at the TV while Nate and I sat at the dining room card table and stole suggestive glances at each other. Then we watched a Pixar movie and ate pizza. At eight, Tom and I left.
I think the only reason it sticks with me is because I was so nervous. I kept waiting for Matt to morph into a gremlin and start screaming at me to stop trying to be his mother and get out of his life. Which, of course, was a ridiculous fear. For all he knew I was just adult supervision for a playdate. Still, I damn near cried when he gave me a hug goodbye. Nevermind that Tom got one too. It was a start.
After that, my memory is just a fast-forward jumble of playdates and adventures. I remember sledding when the last, late-winter storm dropped thirteen unexpected inches and shut down schools and work alike. I recall a matinee kids’ movie on a Saturday afternoon and dinner afterwards. I’ve got snippets of Nate and Matt in the playroom at my house, and of me and Tom in the living room at Nate’s. March turned to April turned to May and on May 9th time slowed down again.
It was a Saturday morning, and Nate called me so early the phone woke me up.
“Hey,” I mumbled groggily into the receiver.
“Shit, did I wake you up?”
“No, no of course not,” I lied, pushing myself up and clearing my throat.
“Fuck, I’m sorry, angel.” He sounded a little frantic, my hazy brain told me. Something was wrong. That woke me up.
“No, really, it’s fine. What’s going on?”
There was silence on the other end of the line, heavy with indecision. I closed my eyes and imagined him grinding his teeth and scrubbing a frustrated hand through his hair as he fought with himself.
“I need a favor, Al.”
“I’ve got a check in with my PO at 10. I usually take Matt with me. They’ve got a kid’s room or whatever. But he’s got some kind of stomach bug, so I can’t bring him, but I really can’t miss the appointment. It’d only be for a couple hours and I could pay you--”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.”
I hung up before he could launch into some drawn out apology-gratitude combination, showered in record time, and drove to his apartment. He meet me at the door with a bear hug that picked me up off my feet.
“You’re a fucking lifesaver,” he said, setting me back down.
“It’s no problem,” I promised, looking around. “Where’s Matt?”
“He’s in his room,” Nate said, brow furrowing. “I really hate to leave you both like this. I swear I’ll be quick. He’s been up since 1 and he hasn’t thrown up in a couple hours so I’m pretty sure the worst of it has passed. He’ll probably just sleep the whole time.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just, uh...” he trailed off, and I realized asking a parent for instructions on caring for their sick child was kind of a loaded question. Rub his back, hold the trash can while he hurls, put a cool cloth on his forehead, coax him into drinking water, read to him to distract him, tell him everything’s going to be okay if he cries, take his temperature, give him medicine, try not to let him paint the room in vomit. “Here, come with me.”
I followed him to Matt’s room. It was dimly lit and smelled faintly of vomit and Lysol. Matt himself was a pathetic, unhappy lump beneath the covers, curled up on his side. He blinked his eyes open when we entered and gave me a small smile.
“Hi, Miss Alex,” he said weakly.
“Hey, buddy,” I greeted. “Your dad says you’re not feeling so good.”
He shook his head minutely before turning his face into the pillow with a small, dramatic moan. I glanced at Nate and he rolled his eyes at me with an exasperated smile on his face. “Matty likes to layer it on pretty thick,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed and rubbing his son’s back. “But I promise he’s not on death’s door quite yet.”
“I feel so icky,” Matt whined into the pillow and Nate raised his face to the ceiling as if begging god for patience before shrugging at me.
“I know you do, kiddo. That’s why Al is gonna stay with you for a couple hours. She does better voices than me, so you should probably ask her to read you something.”
I glared. He winked. I melted.
“We’re reading The Hobbit,” Matt informed me, pulling his face out of the pillow.
“Oh, that’s a good one,” I said. “That’s a big kid book, though. You must be really smart.”
Matt nodded, and I bit back a laugh.
“Alright, kiddo,” Nate said, brushing a hand through Matt’s hair. “I gotta go, now. I’ll be back before you know it, okay? And Miss Alex has my number so you can call me if you need to.”
“When will you be back?” Matt rolled onto his back, looking up at his father with wide eyes.
“Two hours,” Nate told him. He reached out to the old-fashioned analogue clock on the bedside table and pointed to the hour hand. “Little hand on the twelve. Maybe a little bit before that.”
“Okay,” Matt sighed, lifting his arms up for a hug. “I love you,” he said when they broke apart.
“Love you too, little man.” Nate ruffled his hair one more time before standing and jerking his head toward the door. “I’m gonna talk to Alex outside real quick and then she’ll be back in to sit with you, okay?”
Matt nodded and turned onto his side, closing his eyes once more.
“I’m so sorry about this,” Nate said quietly, as soon as we were safely in the kitchen. “He’s a handful when he’s sick.”
“It’s no big deal,” I assured him, smiling at the distress on his face. “You’ve been dealing with it all night. I can handle it for a couple hours.”
“That’s different,” he said, scrubbing a hand over the back of his head. “He’s my kid.”
“Nate...” I stepped close and stood up my tiptoes, raising my face and waiting until he delivered up the kiss I was requesting. “Someday,” I whispered, interlocking my fingers behind his neck to keep him close. “He’s gonna be my kid as much as he is yours. You gotta let us learn to trust each other at some point. How about we start today, okay?”
He sighed, closing his eyes and pressing his forehead to mine. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. And I’d love to keep standing here, but you need to hit the road.”
He jerked away, glancing down at his watch with a stifled curse. “Alright, I’ll be back in two hours,” he said for the millionth time. “He had a dose of Pepto two hours ago. You can give him more in thirty minutes. There’s a bucket by the bed if he needs to throw up again. You don’t have to clean it out or anything, just make sure it all makes it in. Take his temperature every thirty minutes and if his fever rises over 101 please call me. There’s Pedialyte in the fridge. He’s been keeping that down, but small doses only. No more than half a cup or he’ll hurl it up. If you read to him he’ll probably fall asleep, but if you could just stay with him in case--”
“Nate,” I cut him off, grabbing his arm and dragging him to the door. “You’re going to be late.”
He wasn’t gone more than ten minutes when I was forced to acknowledge that I was wildly out of my depth. Matt was not, in fact, finished throwing up and, inexperienced parent that I was, I didn’t see the warning signs and failed to get the bucket under him in time.
Throwing up on the floor made him cry. Watching him throw up in the floor made me gag. Breathing through my mouth, I cleaned the sticky mess up off the floor, all the while offering a lame attempt at calming, comforting words that only made him cry harder.
“I want daddy to come back,” he sobbed into his pillow.
“He’ll be back in a little bit,” I assured him.
“I want him back now.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just tackled the more straightforward problems. I cleaned up the mess with a kitchen towel, which I left soaking in the bathroom sink. Then I wet a washcloth with warm water and did my best to clean him up while he leaked woeful tears and bemoaned his absentee father. I changed his shirt and tucked him back under the blankets and I was about to despair when he pushed off the covers and launched himself into my arms.
“It’s okay,” I said uselessly, rubbing my hand up and down his back while he squeezed me and cried. “You’ll feel better soon. It’ll be okay.”
My words didn’t seem to help. He just clung tighter and cried harder until I was worried he’d cry out all the remaining moisture in his body.
Then he stopped. Just like that. Like a snap of the fingers.
Kids are fucking weird.
“I’m thirsty,” he said through hiccuping gasps.
“Yeah...” I trailed off, helping him resettle on his pillows. “I’ll go get you something to drink, okay? And some more medicine.”
“The medicine is gross.”
“But it’ll make you feel better.”
He scowled, but when I came back with a dose cup of pink goo he downed it obediently and chased it with the half-full plastic cup of Pedialyte.
“I’m still thirsty,” he said, handing me back the glass.
“You can have more in a little bit,” I negotiated, setting the cup aside. “Let’s make sure that stays down first. Do you want me to read to you?”
He nodded as I pulled the covers up, and I retrieved the paperback off his bedside table. The page was marked with a Reading Rainbow bookmark, and I rolled my eyes. Nate had this obsessive compunction about hurting books. I dog-eared my pages and wrote in the margins and bent the spines back, and every time I did he acted like I was mutilating puppies.
“Just use a goddamned bookmark,” he’d told me once, way back when we were in high school. “And write your thoughts down in a journal or something. You don’t have to ruin the book.”
I tucked the bookmark into the back of the book and settled against the headboard.
“You need to lay down,” Matt informed me, reaching up to tug on my arm.
“Yeah, you need to lay down so I can see the pages. I like to read along.”
Swallowing a sigh, I slid down until I was lying next to him, opening my arm instinctively so he could cuddle up against my side. He put his head on my shoulder and I wrapped an arm around him, wondering if Nate felt so powerfully protective when he held me this way.
I cleared my throat and began reading. Bilbo was just manipulating Gollum into the riddle game when my arm turned into a numb, buzzing agony, and I made a mental note to apologize to Nate for unknowingly torturing him every night. By the time the riddle game was over, Matt was asleep and my arm was a lost cause.
I didn’t really mind, though. It was a small price to pay for the knowledge that I wasn’t a complete lost cause in the parenting department.
* * *
Of course, my good deed didn’t go unpunished. The next night I awoke just after midnight and barely made it to the bathroom before spewing my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Getting sick wasn’t the worst part, either. The worst part was that I was at Nate’s place so I couldn’t even wallow in private misery.
I suffered terribly at Nate’s hands. Like some kind of sadistic monster, he held my hair and rubbed my back while I vomited. He carried me back to bed and tucked me under warm covers and placed the cursed bucket by my head. He brought me a warm washcloth and a glass of water every time I hurled, whisking the bucket away and cleaning it out before the smell could set me off again. When I spiked a fever he brought cool cloths for my head and stroked my hair and talked about the good ol’ days until I drifted into unsettled but happy dreams.
Just when I thought his ruthless torture couldn’t get any worse, the sun rose. I glanced blearily at the clock and set about dragging myself out of bed for the long drive home before Matt woke up. Nate pushed me back down with a scowl and ordered me to stay put.
“He was gonna find out sooner or later, anyway,” he said. “You’re staying here.” He waited until I relaxed gratefully back into the pillows before standing up. “Do you think you can stomach some toast?”
I spent the rest of the day in a hell of Nate’s construction. He dragged me out of bed and resettled me on the couch sometime after 9. Matt was already up, perched at the counter and munching on a bowl of cereal. He greeted me with carefully restrained cheer and zero suspicion or distrust. As soon as he was done with his breakfast, he came to sit beside me on the couch, snuggled up under my arm, and asked if I wanted to watch cartoons with him.
It was horrible. And by horrible I mean terribly, painfully, unutterably perfect. It was the culmination of four months of doubt and guilt and fear that I somehow wouldn’t pass the test. That Nate would wake up one day and realize he didn’t really love me, couldn’t really trust me, or both. In that one vomit-filled day, all my doubts burned up and drifted away in the wind. Matt trusted me. Nate trusted me enough to let Matt trust me. Nate loved me. Even when I was splattering his shirt with regurgitated chicken marsala, he loved me.
Then my memory skips again until the day I came over to find that Nate had added a piece of furniture to his bedroom’s decor. Now, in addition to the mattress, there was a distressed-looking chest of drawers.
“It’s a lovely addition,” I said told him sarcastically. “I don’t really understand why it was a priority, though. Don’t you think you should look into a real bed first? Or at least a box spring?”
“Box springs don’t have drawers,” he said, wrapping an arm around me and kissing my cheek.
“Why do you need drawers?” I asked, gesturing at the pile of clothes in the corner. “You’ve got like three shirts.”
“Because if I don’t have drawers, I can’t give you one,” he said evenly. When I pulled away to look up at him, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a shiny silver key. “You’ll need that, too.”
Then, in a flash, it was July. For all intents and purposes, I lived at Nate’s place. I had my drawer, my toothbrush, and my “froofroo flowery shit” in the shower. Matt didn’t question my presence, and told me once in secret that my character voices were better than his dad’s. Even my father and Gemma had given up coaxing me to slow down.
Every Thursday and Saturday, Tom spent the night on Nate’s couch. He and Matt quickly became inseparable. Nate will tell you I’m full of shit, but my theory is that they were bound together by mutual hero worship. Matt thought Nate hung the moon and Tom thought he was Superman. They both loved him to the point of obsession, and somehow it never turned to conflict. Matt was “little man” and he had a monopoly on story time, high fives, and bike lessons. Tom was “big guy” and owned fist bumps, Mario Cart, and a solemn, reverent commitment to ‘keeping Aly safe’. Everything else they shared.
On my birthday, we left Tom and Matt in my father’s care and we went on another ‘real date’. I was a little apprehensive and worried about what to wear, but Nate texted me at noon and told me to wear comfortable clothes that I didn’t mind getting dirty.
I spent the rest of the workday with a painfully wide grin on my face that I couldn’t quite suppress. My father cooked dinner, Nate and Matt showed up at five, and the five of us ate around the dining room table like a strange, multi-generational family. We ate my favorite meal-- pork chops and green beans. They sang a horrific rendition of happy birthday and I blew out the candles on a triple chocolate cake. Nate texted me under the table and told me not to eat too much.
We celebrated as a family until 7. Then we plugged the boys in to a movie, helped my father with the dishes, and left.
“So where are we going?” I asked Nate as we pulled out onto the street.
“Kroger’s,” he deadpanned without looking at me. I laughed and leaned back in my seat and wondered where we were actually going.
Turned out we were actually going to Kroger’s. Speechless, I held Nate’s hand and followed numbly as he led me into the store and retrieved a basket from the stack inside the door. “Hold that, Birthday Girl,” he said, handing it to me and pretending not to notice my dubious stare.
I didn’t complain, of course. Nate had never let me down. I doubted he was going to choose my birthday as the day to start. So I followed him through the deli section, where he prodded me to pick one of the pre-made cold cut sandwiches. I chose turkey. He chose roast beef. Then I followed him to the wine aisle, where he plucked a large bottle off the shelf and set it in the basket. “That’s called a riesling,” he announced proudly. “It’s sweet and refreshing and pairs well with smoked meat, fruit, and cheese. Best served chilled.”
“It’s pronounced ‘rice-ling’ I teased,” holding back a laugh at the wide-eyed horror on his face.
“Are you fucking serious?” he hissed. “I swear to god, the phonetics said--”
“Kidding,” I cut him off, standing on my tiptoes and cutting him off with a kiss. “I was kidding. You pronounced it right.”
He growled at me, pinched my ass, and grinned when I yelped and pushed him away.
“You’re an asshole,” I griped, hurrying to catch up as he turned and strode down the aisle.
“I know,” he said over his shoulder, slowing and holding out a hand. I slipped mine into it and let him pull me to the cookie aisle where he pulled a pack of double stuffed Oreos down and dropped them in the basket. Our last stop was the paper goods section, where he snatched up a small package of paper cups.
I stood by in expectant silence as he paid for our groceries and told the cashier he was going to grab a bag of ice on the way out. Obviously, by that point, I knew what he had planned. I just didn’t want to break the spell by giving voice to it. Back at the car he popped the trunk and transferred our purchases, ice included, into a cooler.
I expected us to drive back to my neighborhood. Instead, I found myself in a beat-down neighborhood park in a vaguely seedy part of town. I sat in the passenger seat, staring at the rusted swing set and seesaw and the dark woods behind them.
“You okay?” Nate asked, pulling the keys from the ignition and unbuckling his seatbelt.
“Yeah,” I said. I’d never been afraid of the woods, but these woods didn’t look as friendly as mine. The sun was setting behind them, so they looked dark and ominous, the trees casting long shadows over the derelict playground. “I thought...” I trailed off, unable to finish my thought. I didn’t want him to think I was disappointed. I just wasn’t sure what he had planned, and I’d let myself grow attached to the idea of finally returning to the spot together. We’d put it off for too long.
“You thought right,” Nate said, a smile in his voice. “We’re just coming at it from a different angle, sweetheart.”
I was still nervous. The woods still looked deep and inhospitable. Nonetheless, I followed Nate out of the car and back to the trunk. “Can I carry anything?” I asked, watching as he shrugged into a backpack and hefted the cooler.”
“Nope!” he answered cheerfully, shutting the trunk and locking the car. “C’mon. There’s still a path but I wanna get there before it’s completely dark.”
The entrance to the path was hidden behind a stand of tall grass, and the trail itself was even more overgrown than the one in my backyard. It was little more than a ribbon of dirt, winding through dense foliage and vine-draped trees.
Technically, these were my woods. I’d mapped it out in my head as we walked. We were just entering them from another neighborhood, coming at the spot from the east instead of the west. It was hard to believe, though. This patch of wilderness had always seemed so open and welcoming to me. From this angle it was dark and claustrophobic. Every sound made me twitch, and I had the strange feeling that I was being watched. I tried to imagine Nate, at twelve years old, picking his way through these woods alone. The thought gave me pause and I stopped in my tracks.
“You okay?” he asked, turning to face me. His face was cast in dark shadows, orange sunlight catching dust motes in the air above his head, outlining his silhouette with a piercing glow.
“Yeah,” I said, closing the distance between us and wrapping my arms around him, snaking my hands beneath the backpack and squeezing tight. “I really fucking love you.”
He snorted and hugged me back with the arm not occupied by the cooler. “I love you too, sweetheart. Can we at least get there before you go all maudlin on me, though?”
I huffed in exasperation and pushed him away.
“Lead the way,” I said, and spent the rest of the walk watching his back, thinking about the past and falling more and more in love with every step.
* * *
Thirteen years to the day after our friendship began, Nate and I finally returned to the spot together. It was a still, humid night and the only real motion was the water trickling over the rocks. The sun was gone, the sky a rapidly fading dusky blue. Fireflies hovered at the treeline, and a cricket chirped from the grass lining the rocky beach on the far side of the creek. The air smelled of damp earth and foliage.
Handing me the cooler, Nate clumsily descended the steep bank by the tree that used to shelter our cooler and lawn chairs. When he reached up, I passed the cooler to him and he set it down beneath the tree. Then he reached up again and I took his hand and let him help me down the steep bank. Hand in hand, we leapt across the water and landed neatly on the island.
The second my feet hit the ground, I burst into tears.
“Christ, Alex,” Nate grumbled, enfolding me in his arms. “This was supposed to make you happy.”
“It did,” I sobbed, gripping his sweat-damp shirt and struggling to pack the tears away. “I am. Thank you.”
He held me until I stopped crying and then pushed me onto the rock. I sat obediently and watched him set up our picnic. The backpack contained a worn wool blanket, which he spread out on the damp rocks. Then he pulled out a corkscrew and a small, gift-wrapped box. He stood and, without warning, scooped me off the rock and set me down on the blanket.
Vaulting the creek, he retrieved the cooler and brought it back. The wine made a popping sound as he loosed the cork and he set it aside, digging out the paper cups and pulling two off the stop. “Hold these,” he instructed, placing them in my hands and filling both to the brim with half-chilled riesling.”
My hands were shaking as I raised my cup for a sip, and I wanted to cry some more but fought it back.
“This is really nice,” I said instead, tapping the rim of my cup against his and taking another sip. “Really, really nice. Thank you.”
He grinned and took a sip from his own, wrinkling his nose.
“This shit is sweet,” he complained, glaring down at the cup like it had insulted his mother.
“You knew that, though,” I pointed out, trying not to smile. “You researched it. You even know what it pairs with.”
“I didn’t think it meant sweet sweet,” he argued, taking another cautious sip. “This is awful.”
“I like it,” I said, leaning back against the rock. He sat back as well, shoulder pressed to mine.
“Happy birthday, Al,” he said quietly. “The second my parole’s up I promise I’ll take you to Paris or some shit.”
“Paris is overrated,” I said, tipping my head onto his shoulder and watching inky water ripple over unseen rocks as the creek flowed on, heedless of our long absence and our fateful return.
We sat together as the sky darkened to black and the stars winked into existence. The air cooled off with the sun’s departure, but I wasn’t cold. Not with Nate pressed against me, arm draped casually over my shoulder. Not with the tingling warmth of the wine burning in my belly.
We finished the wine. We ate the sandwiches. We looked at the constellations and Nate indulged my tipsy explanation of dark matter. Then we kissed for a while, and it felt so much like the old days I damn near forgot about the seven years that had passed. We didn’t do anything wildly risque. Our clothes stayed on. He just pulled me into his lap and kissed me, and I kissed him back. That was all we needed, just then. Sex was great, but that scene didn’t need sex. It needed sweet, and that’s what we gave it.
“Alright,” Nate said, gently shifting me back to the ground and leaning forward, pulling the Oreos from the cooler. “Time for desert.”
Pulling the package open, he took out two cookies and split both in half, pressing the two good sides together and handing it to me before tossing the boring ones in his mouth.
“That’s not fair,” I said, staring down at my quadruple stuffed Oreo. “That’s not how it works.”
“That’s how it works today,” he said, setting the package aside and picking up the gift-wrapped box. I’d been eyeing it all evening, wondering what he might’ve gotten me. It was pretty small. Maybe earrings again? We were reliving the past, after all.
I took a bite of my overstuffed Oreo as he settled back against the rock beside me, holding the box in his lap and staring at it intently.
“Are you gonna give me my birthday present or not?” I asked after swallowing, nudging his shoulder with mine.
“Oh, you thought this was for you?” he asked, holding it up and snatching it back before I could grab it out of his hands. “Shit, sweetheart, this is so awkward. This is actually a present for your dad. I thought he deserved something nice for putting up with you for 25 years.”
“Ha-ha.” I rolled my eyes, trying to steal it, coming up short, and toppling over onto his lap with a distressed squeak. “Gimme the present, Nate.”
“Fine,” he said, helping me sit up with one hand while still holding the package out of reach with the other. “You gotta promise me something, though.”
“Anything!” I agreed, shifting onto my knees and throwing a leg over his lap, straddling him. The world was a little topsy turvy, so I reached out and grabbed his shoulders, steadying myself.
“I’ll give it to you if you promise not to be weird about it,” he said sternly. “If you don’t like it just tell me and we can exchange if for something else, okay?”
“I’m sure I’ll love it,” I said dismissively.
“I’m serious Alex.” He tucked the box behind his back and took my face between his hands, forcing me to look him in the eye. I was hoping he’d kiss me but instead he just spoke, his voice deadly serious. “Promise me,” he said solemnly, “that you’ll tell me if it’s not what you want.”
“Fine,” I said, slightly concerned by the tone shift. “I promise.”
Uncertainty looked strange on Nate’s face. I’d seen all sorts of other expressions. I’d seen anger, apathy, love, and amusement. Lately, I’d seen a whole hell of a lot of happiness. I’d even seen flashes of pain and indecision.
Never uncertainty, though. Never this particular brand of self-doubt. He may have had a problematically low concept of his worth, but I’d never known him to question his own decisions. His hands dropped to my shoulders as I studied the foreign crease between his brows and the wary, subtle frown.
“You’re being so dramatic,” I teased to mask my worry, reaching behind him for the box and making an unsuccessful attempt to kiss the bizarre and disconcerting expression off his face. “I’m sure I’ll love it.”
He opened his mouth and I shut him up with another kiss. “And I promise to tell you if I don’t.” I said, using my free hand to tweak his nose, earning myself the comforting familiarity of a scowl. “May I please open my present now, Nathan?”
“You may open your present now, Alexandra,” he said, tipping his head back against the rock and watching me carefully. The rectangular package fit in the palm of my hand and was wrapped in glossy black paper and tied with a silver ribbon. I pried the ribbon off and cast it aside, attacking the paper to reveal a small, featureless cardboard box.
I held it up next to my ear and shook it, trying to goad Nate into laughing but he just watched me, jaw clenched, the crease between his brows even more pronounced. He was breathing in that slow, meditative rhythm and I got the feeling I was torturing him by drawing the process out. With a sigh and a mental note to talk to him about ruining perfectly fun, lighthearted moments, I lowered the box and pulled off the top.
I swear, my heart stopped. I could feel it clench and seize in my chest, and for a second my vision went a little white around the edges. Somewhere high above, angels were singing. I heard them in the crickets and the soft play of water on rock as I stared down into the box with slack-jawed awe.
I felt like time had stopped with my heart, but apparently it didn’t. Apparently I was staring for a little too long because all of a sudden Nate’s hand appeared in my vision and he took the box gently from my fingers.
“I’m sorry, Al,” he said, his voice rigid and emotionless as he replaced the lid with shaking hands. “Just forget about it, okay? We’ll find something different.”
It took me three swallows to clear the lump in my throat and find my voice. Then I looked up and saw the pained combination of embarrassment and apology in his eyes and the lump formed anew. I cleared my throat, willing the tears in my eyes not to spill, and snatched the box from his hand.
“You don’t get to do that,” I said, aiming for stern and hitting something between laughing and crying. When he frowned and opened his mouth, mostly likely to fucking apologize again, I hugged the box to my chest and shook my head hard. “You do not get to ruin the best moment of my fucking life with your bullshit, misplaced self doubt,” I half-sobbed. “Now give me the fucking speech.”
“The speech?” he asked, clearly baffled by the fact that I was angrily yelling good things at him. I was a little baffled myself.
“The fucking speech!” I yelled, slugging him in the shoulder. “You can’t just give me the ring and then sit there all pensive and stoic. You have to give me the speech about how much better your life is with me in it and how you want to grow old with me and raise babies with me and all that bullshit. Jesus, Nate. It’s like you’ve never proposed before!”
He stared at me. I stared at him. He held out his hand and I placed the box in the center of his palm with a challenging glare. “Do it right this time,” I said, and that earned me a lukewarm eye roll and a weak grin.
“You’re so demanding,” he sighed, setting the box aside and placing his hands on the curve of my hips. I set my jaw and tried not to cry and waited. “Look up,” he said, finally, and I craned my head back and studied the sky. “What do you see up there?”
“Ursa minor,” I said. “Sagittarius and Capricorn are behind the trees.”
“Mmkay. You know what I see?”
“A bunch of random dots?” I teased.
“No, smartass. I see you.”
I brought my eyes down and realized he’d never followed my gaze to the stars. He was watching me, his face soft and serene.
“I don’t think there’s an Alex constellation,” I said lamely. “And if there is you probably couldn’t find it.”
He snorted out a laugh and his hands squeezed my hips. “You want the speech or not?”
I sniffed back stubborn tears and nodded. “Yeah, I want the speech.”
“You’re the stars, Alex,” he said. “Everything they’ve ever stood for, that’s what you mean to me. You’re a light in the darkness. You’re a compass when I’m lost. You’re a vision of my future and you define my place in the universe. You are beautiful and terrifying and unattainable. You’re my proof that there’s more to life than the mundane, and you’re my hope that that life doesn’t end when our time on earth is up. And you are infuriatingly...” he paused, wrapping his hand around the back of my neck and pulling me forward to drop a kiss on my forehead. “...obscenely...” A second kiss landed on my right cheek. “....painfully...” A third on my left. “...fucking confusing.”
The fourth kiss claimed my lips, and I kissed him back, savoring the taste of love and sweet wine.
“That was lovely,” I said breathlessly as I pulled back. “But you still didn’t ask the question.”
“Will you be patient?” he groaned, dropping his head back against the rock, glaring at me until I shut my mouth and nodded. “Thank you,” he said, brushing his thumb over my tingling lips. “As I was saying, you’re a mystery to me, Al. I’ll never understand you. But I’d really like to spend the rest of my life trying. I’d also really like to travel with you and raise some kids with you and maybe buy a house or something. I’d like to watch you get old and make fun of you when your boobs get saggy and catch shit from you when I start wearing my pants up around my armpits. I want to be there through every shitty curveball life throws you and I want your unsolicited advice regarding every challenge it throws me.”
He paused, reaching down and prying the little box open with one hand, tossing the lid aside, and pulling the ring out, holding it between us.
“I know we’ve only been dating for six months,” he said, “but I’ve known since we were twelve that I wanted to be with you forever. So if you haven’t already made plans and you’re not too opposed to the idea, will you please take this stupid ring and put it on your finger and tell me you’ll marry me?”
You’ll be pleased to know that I didn’t cry. For once in my life, I bottled that shit up and I swallowed the lump in my throat, because I didn’t want there to be a single doubt in his mind when I answered. I needed to be articulate and strong and crystal fucking clear.
Without speaking, I took the ring and slid it onto my finger. Then I framed his face between my hands and leaned close. “Of course I’ll marry you,” I said firmly, trying to take a mental snapshot so I could carry it around like a polaroid and visit it when life got tough. It was almost too perfect-- his face in the darkness, and the ring, reflecting starlight on my finger. I brushed my thumb over his cheek, trying to memorize the sensation of warm skin and prickly stubble, and the sound of crickets and water and rustling leaves.
I needed to remember that moment, because for those few seconds life was perfect. We were invincible because our love was unbreakable. Neither distance nor pain nor time nor death could break us apart. In that moment, we made ourselves immortal. I was the stars above his head, he was the earth beneath my feet, and the place where we met in the middle would outlast life and outlive the sun. There we would remain, long after the universe collapsed into a single point of nothingness.
There we would remain, perfect and eternal, until nothing was left but us.