It’s nearly two years ago and I’m at a bowling alley in Eau Claire for my dad’s surprise party. Mom’s got one of the tables bedecked with CONGRATULATIONS and HAPPY RETIREMENT balloons and a cake with a picture of his face in the icing. Aaron and Kelly, my brother and sister, are both in hateful moods for having to make the trip up. Kelly had to break plans with friends that she’d made after forgetting she agreed to come to this, and Aaron won’t stop griping over the cost of gas. It’s why he didn’t bring a present. His presence is a present. Before he leaves, he’s going to shake down Dad for twenty bucks.
Dad hates surprise parties and he didn’t want to retire in the first place (his company forced him out, basically), so when he finally shows up he’s in an evil temper to match everyone else’s. Mom tries to be perky to save everything, but since she hates to bowl and spends the whole time talking on the phone to her sister, it just makes Dad grumpier and they all start fighting.
A man in the lane to our right is bowling alone. I know he can hear my family arguing, because even though I keep telling them to keep their voices down their hissing ends up being just as loud. Also, he’s glanced in our direction a few times.
“Can I pretend I’m here with you?” I ask him jokingly. I’m holding a glittering nine-pound ball I got from behind the counter. I use children’s bowling balls because my strengths lie in the mental arena rather than physical. I’m also not above requesting bumpers.
“Sure.” He smiles at me, and my stomach does a little flip. He’s got cute, wavy brown hair that curls slightly where it falls across his forehead, and an honest smile. Kind eyes.
“Thanks. My family never learned how to behave in public.”
He chuckles and shakes his head. “My family could give them a run for their money, believe me.”
Kelly’s in tears. I hear her call Aaron an asshole for stealing five dollars from her purse to get a bag of weed from someone he just met in the bathroom, and I agree with her. He calls her an asshole right back because she once reported him to the IRS for not disclosing $125.00 he made staining our uncle’s porch, so I agree with him too.
“Can’t believe that, sorry,” I deadpan, and we both laugh. I jerk my thumb at my siblings. “They probably haven’t been great for your concentration.”
“I have been a little distracted,” he admits. Then he slides me a long look. “But it isn’t because of them.”
I think he’s flirting. Is he? I become a cliché and turn around to make sure he’s not actually addressing someone standing right behind me.
His lips curve into a smile. “So, family issues aside, you seem pretty nice.”
Do I? “I’m all right.”
“And I’m nice,” he says, hedging.
I’m cautious as I reply, “You might be.”
“I’ve also been told I’m pretty cute.” Yes, definitely flirting. My insides light up and play eight-bit music like I’ve won a game of pinball.
“You might be.”
He grins, because I’m flirting right back. “You should go out with me tonight,” he says casually, not breaking eye contact as he sends the ball skittering down his lane. I hear it break against a battalion of pin soldiers, but neither of us checks to see how he scored. We’re staring at each other.
“On a date?”
There’s nothing for me to do but laugh. I don’t know this man. I don’t live anywhere near Eau Claire. Our paths are never going to cross again.
“Sure, I’ll go out with you,” I tell him. “If you manage to knock down all your pins right now.”
He studies the pins he’s got left. He’s just bowled a split. His ball shot clean through the middle, knocking them all down except for the one on the far left and the one on the far right. Unless he’s secretly a professional bowler who can curve gravity, there’s no way he can bump off both foes.
They’re too far apart for him to ping one off the other, so the odds of getting a spare are astronomical.
His eyes glint. “You promise?”
I pause before I reply. I’d have to be an idiot to root for him, so that’s what I do. “Sure, I promise.”
As soon as the word leaves my mouth he starts walking right down the center of the lane and knocks over both pins with his shoe. He turns on his heel with a flourish, his reflection spanning over a shining, waxed floor, and sends me a devilish grin. I have to admit he’s got me. The screen over our heads explodes with digital confetti and the letters for the word SPARE!
tumble down with a cacophony like a bag of spilled coconuts.
He looks pleased with himself. There’s an undeniable chemistry between us that tempts me to lean a little closer. Explore it. I should walk away, but I won’t, because there’s something here. It sucks that I live so far away. He won’t bother once he hears I’m long-distance. But I have to let him know.
“I’m not local.”
“I know,” he replies, winking at a bowling alley worker who witnessed his stunt and is sending him a stern frown. “You’re from Morris.”
“When did I tell you that?”
“You didn’t. I saw you there myself about two weeks ago loading groceries into your trunk. I live in Morris, too.”
My mouth falls open.
He’s delighted by my shock. “I wanted to walk over and say hi, but figured a strange man approaching you in a dark, mostly empty parking lot while you were alone wasn’t the way to go.” He lifts a shoulder like, Hey what can you do. “But I thought about it after that, wishing I could have another shot at it. How great would it be, to get a second chance? I’ve even gone back to that store a couple times, in case I might see you again.”
I’m gaping at him, and I look over my shoulder to see if my family’s eavesdropping. They’re gone. They’ve left without saying good-bye, and it’s just the two of us—me and this strange, increasingly dazzling man whose name I don’t even know.
“Every year for my birthday, I go to my parents’ house and my mom puts candles on a cake,” he tells me. “Some Facebook friends from college write on my wall to say hey, and I wait until the day’s almost over to reply because I want it to seem like I had better things to do all day than count how many happy birthdays I got. I never go anywhere else or really do anything. Today I woke up and felt like going bowling. It’s the first birthday I’ve ever spent completely by myself. I didn’t want to go to a bowling alley close to where I live because I didn’t want to run into anyone I know, so I looked up other places online and found this one.
Picked it at random. Eau Claire.”
I am wholly riveted right now. His screen blinks in the periphery, nudging him to bowl another frame, but our eyes are glued to each other.
We’re standing close, but not close enough for me to clearly discern the color of his eyes. I think they might be gray.
“This is the first birthday I’ve been alive that I haven’t blown out a candle and made a wish,” he says, taking one deliberate step closer. All the oxygen in the building starts to evaporate, leaving me two insufficient gasps for each lung. “But you walked in here today, anyway. You ended up in the lane right next to mine, and you started talking to me, initiating conversation. What are the chances? Two people from Morris, meeting in Eau Claire? And the very one I wanted to meet.”
I can’t breathe. He steps closer and my pounding senses blur all of his features into a warm, rose-tinted haze. My brain kicks on and off, like I’m intoxicated. It’s a struggle to stay upright. To not lean in that final inch. I don’t know who this person is and I don’t know what he’s got planned for tonight but there’s something here I’ve got to explore. If I don’t, I think I’ll regret it.
“For the first time,” he finishes, “I’ve gotten my wish.”
It’s been so long since we’ve slept in the same bed together that when I wake up on Sunday morning all I want to do is stretch out and enjoy it. But Nicholas drove through the night to be with me, and I want to do something to make him feel special, too. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I’m going to woo him with a home-cooked breakfast. And by home-cooked, I mean I’m going to buy one of everything on the menu at Blue Tulip Café.
Certain muscles that have been atrophying during our dry spell are stiff and sore from last night, and I stifle a small cry when I climb out of bed. I glance at Nicholas, who’s lying on his back with his legs crossed at the ankles, sound asleep. Of the two of us, I’m the sprawler. He sleeps in a neat line like he’s been laid in a tomb, taking up minimal room. I triple in size when I’m in bed, arms and legs fanned out, hair seeking his nose and mouth. These past few weeks of sleeping apart have probably been a mercy for him in this way, but too bad; his nights of rest and relaxation are over. I miss having someone to kick.
For a minute I merely stand there and admire him, a thrill shooting through my nervous system.
He loves me. He didn’t return the words expressly after I spoke them, but I know he does.
On the kitchen table I spot a gift he’s brought back from his trip: a glass paperweight with wildflowers preserved inside. He’s found a way to make flowers functional and cost-effective. Smiling, I leave him a thank-you note.
I take Nicholas’s Jeep so that I can fill up his gas tank for him, then top it off with a trip to the car wash. By the time I pull into the driveway with a huge haul from Blue Tulip riding shotgun, my head is buzzing with ideas for how we’ll spend the day. It’s too cold for outdoor activities, so maybe we’ll do laser tag. Or go to the movies. I duck into my car real quick because I think I have a gift card for Beaufort Cinema in my glove box, and that’s when I notice that the heap of trash bags next to the log pile has grown and the front door is open. It would seem that Nicholas has been busy since I left. He’d better not be in there making food.
We’ve been steadily clearing out junk Leon left behind in the shed, most of which was already there when he moved in. I glance at one of the trash bags, a gap in the opening from being too loosely tied. The powder-blue color inside sparks recognition, and I step closer. My heart beats a tattoo on my breastbone, but my brain riots against what I think it is, so I have to untie the bag. I have to be sure.
I take out the small box, one of many. There are five of them still in the bag, dented and smashed. A disposable plate smeared with ketchup has gotten on one of them, and I hunch over, lungs compressing to half their size. My ears are ringing with white noise and my eyes sting. I’m going to throw up.
It’s the wedding invitations. He’s thrown them all away.
Across the battlefield, Nicholas saunters gracefully forth, head held high. He twirls his sword. Contemplates. Then he spears me straight through the heart.
I leave the box on the ground and go back to my car without processing or planning any of my steps. I’m on autopilot. I’m a fatally wounded soldier crawling off to hide so I can die alone in peace. I dimly register Nicholas standing on the porch, and I think he might be calling my name, but every self-preservation instinct I have is kicked into full gear and I have to get out of here.
Instead of driving toward Morris, I hurry out of town. The twists and turns I make are like a paranoid criminal evading a cop car. I stop paying attention to road signs and choose the way at random. The only thing that matters is that he doesn’t find me. I can’t let anyone see me like this.
An hour passes before I find somewhere to park—a rest area enclosed by a crop of trees, the view through my windshield sloping down to a public lake. There’s an RV ten spaces down the lot, but we’re otherwise alone and I’ve got plenty of privacy. I press my forehead to the cool steering wheel and inhale deeply, releasing staggered breaths. It hurts. I’m hurting so bad, and I wish I could return to the Naomi Westfield who wanted Nicholas to throw out the invitations and call off the wedding. She would have been celebrating this.
The lake and trees swim. It’s a misty, gloomy day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I keep on driving and driving, never to come back again. I’ll leave Morris in my rearview mirror, bringing a long-standing fantasy to life.
The notification light on my phone is flashing. With shaking fingers, I toss it into the back where I hope it becomes irretrievably lost. I close my eyes but all I see is that smashed box of wedding invitations in my hands.
When I lift my gaze to the windshield, my mind conjures up Nicholas standing in front of my car. A down-low heat ignites and ripples its way up, my anger a thundering roar. Hurt me? I’ll hurt you more. Our old standby.
He has his feet braced apart as though he expects me to run him over but stands his ground anyway. I mouth a single word of warning. Move.
I read his lips. No.
We stare each other down. I let the car bump forward a few inches.
Nicholas’s eyes fly wide but he doesn’t back off, calling my bluff. Not a wise choice. I honk my horn and he ignores it, planting a hand on my hood like his touch alone can stop me. To my undying frustration, I feel that touch. It’s unforgivable.
I love him, I love him. I don’t have to love every little thing about the man, but I love the man. He never said I love you back. Say you love me?
That’s what he said. But why would he say that if he didn’t love me? What about the note he left calling me the most beautiful person he’s ever known? What about the straw wrapper bracelet? He kept it. What a nothing thing that I made. What a nothing thing that he kept.
I refuse to believe we’re still on opposite sides, but I also have a habit of ignoring reality.
The mist has thickened and it’s foggy out as well, so I switch on my headlights as I reverse out of the parking lot. I can’t sit still for too long or I’ll combust. My conjured Nicholas dissipates in the high beams, gone with the flourish of my hand.
My soft, raw heart keeps presenting alternatives to what is happening.
Defense mechanisms. Maybe he loves you, but he just doesn’t want to get married anymore. That’s not so bad. It’ll stay the way it is now. It’s finally feeling good again, even when it isn’t always easy.
But then I remember Nicholas down on one knee, the rest of the world blending into oblivion. Peering up at me anxiously, heart in hand. It’s not enough for you to be my girlfriend. I need you to be my wife.
Not anymore, it seems. Maybe he only loves me eighty percent. No.
There’s no such thing as loving somebody eighty percent.
Am I okay staying with this man if it turns out he does love me but doesn’t want to wear my ring on his finger? Maybe he’ll change his mind someday. Maybe he didn’t mean to throw out six boxes of wedding invitations. Maybe he meant to put them in storage but got the bags mixed up. It’s all an accident, a misunderstanding, and we’ll laugh about this someday.
Either that or in a few months, Nicholas will have moved on to somebody else. This mystery woman will sleep on the palm-leaf comforter he and I picked out together. She’ll have the purple front door, and the narrow middle bedroom that could one day be a nursery. She’ll have Nicholas’s smiles, his skin on hers, his breath coiling in her hair while she sleeps. She’ll have Nicholas.
I could pretend I never looked inside the trash bag. I could drive home right now and come up with an excuse. I’ll say that after I left his Jeep in the driveway with the keys still in the ignition, food on the passenger seat, I was gripped by a sudden, all-consuming desire to get in my car and drive to the mall. I’ll say my phone died. I won’t acknowledge what I saw in the trash and it’ll be like it never happened. I can’t remember if I shoved the box back into the bag before I left, or if I tied it up. I hope I did. If I just left it sitting there, he’ll know I found out.
His actions last night make no sense today. How could I have misread him so wrongly? Maybe he only made love to me because he’d been driving all night and he was tired. He wasn’t himself. He woke up regretting what we did, possibly feeling taken advantage of. He’s mad at me. He thinks I tricked him.
The hours slip away as I drive and drive and drive. It’s dark when the road inevitably takes me back to Morris, even though I beg it not to. I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t have any cash left after refilling on gas and keeping myself busy all day, which just leaves me with my credit card. The second a hotel charges me for a night’s stay, it’s going to pop up on his phone because we share the account and he gets a notification whenever a charge is made.
I’m hungry and haven’t eaten anything today, so I park in front of Jackie’s and go get two large orders of fries. I sit on the hood of my car and eat, the food warm in my cold fingers. I know what’s coming. I knew it since I handed my card to the cashier, and I’ve accepted it, which is why I don’t move a muscle when a Jeep Grand Cherokee rolls into the parking space next to mine.
I just stare straight ahead and eat another fry. I feel him watching me. Is this what he wanted? Either I know him better than anyone on this earth or I don’t know him at all. There is no in-between.
Nicholas leaves his car. Out of the corner of my eye I see that he’s clutching a dented blue box of invitations, and my throat burns like I’ve swallowed acid. “Naomi,” he says.
I can’t do this. “Please don’t. You win, okay? It’s over. I’ll end it so you don’t have to.”
He sits down next to me, car creaking under his weight. He balances the box carefully on his lap, and just having it this close makes the splinters of my heart prick my chest walls. We’ll never sit down and address them together. Our loved ones will never open them and smile, and say, They’re really getting married, then. They’re really going to do it. We’ll never face each other across a flower-strewn aisle and promise ourselves to each other forever.
“What do you mean, ‘over’?” Nicholas asks, quiet and throaty. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to break up with me after all we’ve been through.
That’s not happening.”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“No.” His fingers slide under my chin, raising me to eye level with him.
His gaze radiates an emotion I’m convinced he doesn’t feel, and it’s agony.
My eyes cut to the box on his lap and I want to throw it. “Stop. I don’t want to hear anything else. It’s not necessary.”
“Oh, I think it’s very necessary.”
“It’s over. Just leave me alone.”
His eyes are smoldering. “Naomi, if you say one more time that we’re over, I’m going to lose my mind. I’ve been going crazy all day, not knowing where you went. You didn’t answer your phone, and when you drove away your driving was jerky and all over the place. Do you have any idea what that did to me? I was on the verge of calling up hospitals when I saw the credit card charge.”
It’s ridiculous that I feel guilty for worrying him. “I want you to go away. Please.”
“Because of this?” He taps the blue box, and I flinch.
“Because I’ve had a change of heart.”
I’m off the car before I know what’s happened, caged between the cold metal of the hood and Nicholas. There’s no room to dodge around him, nowhere to go. My senses reel, overpowered by him, collapsing into his touch to meld us perfectly together. His dark stare glitters with fear and fury, and something else that takes me another half second to translate.
Need. Deep and burning. If I weren’t pinned, my knees would buckle.
He places his hand over my thumping, traitorous heart, commanding every nerve ending, every desire. I am wide, wide awake. He shudders an exhale and his face descends so close that I think it must end with a kiss, which is why I close my eyes.
“Your heart is mine,” he says.
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