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I never loved her. Yeah, I did the whole dating, dinner, engagement thing to a T, but I never loved her. That doesn’t matter, though. I mean, it does, but I’m not as much a savage beast as I sound. She never loved me either. She was in love with the wedding and her parents’ fairy-tale wish for her, and she liked me, enjoyed my company, and I? Well, I stayed out of her way as best I could, and minded my own business. It was my way of trying to help, but it only made it worse. It was a warning sign, that I only now know shows that our relationship was falling apart.

See, when I looked at her, I didn’t see Kate as who she was then. I saw her as the small blond first-grader with a bucktoothed grin, struggling to keep her glasses from slipping off of her nose. We grew up together, in a small town north of Boise. She was always outgoing, trying to coax me into a game of tag or leapfrog, while I hung back, wishing I could go home and play with my Legos. She loved being social and wasn’t afraid to take risks, like befriending someone who didn’t want to be friends, or doing what was generally considered “daring,” (although of course, in a conservative town, that can mean going out and drinking a few, and going home past nine-thirty).

She transferred suddenly to my school junior year. She’d been at whatever public system before. My school, alternately preppy and peppy, didn’t suit her so well, but we became friends again. Over the years, I’d caught myself thinking about her, wondering who she was and what she was doing. However, it was just an old-classmate sort of thing that you think about when you’ve got nothing better to do, nothing more. We went to prom together, and that night, we kissed for the first time. I decided to go to a small college nearby, and found out that Kate was, too. We lived our lives in an odd sense of parallels, and I guess we seemed a good match on paper. Why wouldn’t we, the good-looking couple who’d “always” been good friends and whose parents wanted us together so badly it almost hurt?

Of course, we couldn’t come out from under our parents’ shadows in our town, and we didn’t have the funds and skills to move away, really. Lewiston was the type of town that has a small ice-cream shop, and a thrift store, as well as a few others. People most often come in to visit, when they stay upon the lake. It’s a “destination,” but for us it was a verdant, lush prison. I never felt free, and I know Kate felt the same way, though we never talked about it. Our parents were always close, and as we seemed more and more a couple, although we’d never planned on marrying, her mother started planning our wedding. What could I do? It seemed to make them happy, and you can’t exactly let down your low-earning, older in-laws, one of which who has cancer. I knew what I had to do, and so I did. I’d let down too many people before. This time, at least, I had to make the right choice.

I walked to her doorstep one day, a box of chocolates in my hand, balanced against a bouquet of red poppies, her favorite flower. It was her birthday. I knelt and asked, “Katie Olson, will you marry me?” We shared the chocolates I’d bought carefully, (after standing in the aisle at the local grocery for twenty minutes and feeling like an idiot) and I gave her the engagement ring I’d bought. It was too small, but she seemed happy all the same. We married exactly a year later, on Valentine’s Day, in the small town church, with everyone we’d known there. We were now an official couple, but most of our weekends were spent drifting to different activities, instead of doing the “couple” activities that were expected of us, although we never worried about each other’s being unfaithful. It wasn’t that we were being faithful to each other, but that we didn’t want to be unfaithful to our parents’ wishes. We coexisted, but that’s easy enough. You don’t have to love someone to live in the same apartment with them, and we didn’t.

After that wedding day, she never seemed truly happy. Kate spent most of her free time gazing out of our apartment window, a sad, blank look on her face. We fought more often, arguing over money, the house, criticisms we’d given each other. After one terse argument, I slapped her. I saw the red handprint spread across her cheek, and in her eyes I saw apathy for the first time. Her face no longer had the careless beauty I’d admired in her, and her eyes seemed more sharply defined. I suppose, if I was to be fair, that I’d changed as well. I wasn’t the young man with poppies anymore, and I knew my looks had faded, as well as my little amount of romance. My hair was no longer a smooth dark brown and I needed reading glasses now, although I presumed I still looked better than the town drunk, so at least that was something. As she went to bed, she called bitterly, “Jack, I don’t know why I married you.” That night, I slept on the couch, and we went to bed in silence. She seemed too old for her years, and we gradually stopped talking. It got to the point where one of us would go to the store silently and grimly return clutching the milk, or whatever it was we had gotten. One day, when we were barely acknowledging each other, it happened.

I woke up to the sound of the household phone ringing incessantly, loudly. I awoke and blearily answered, although I wasn’t very coherent at two AM. I felt cold. I raced downstairs, with my heart pounding. I grabbed a jacket, and ran the half-mile to the police station barefoot. As I got the news, I felt shock rush over me. That couldn’t have happened. It never happened, here. Although it only made the eighth page of the local newspaper, I never got over it. I’d never loved her, but I’d cared for her in a way. Enough to know that it wasn’t her fault. Accidents happen, even to people who’ve already dreamed of the future. It happens to those who haven’t, too, but nobody cares quite as much for those. It doesn’t make quite a good story, you see. Though Kate never loved me, only she saw who I really was. Of course, it was all a cruel mistake, wasn’t it? Or could it have been my fault? I’d never loved her, but I’d cared about her some, maybe not enough. The guilt stayed with me for years, always haunting me with what-ifs.

Still, I wonder if it wasn’t for our parents forcing us together, would she have ended up that way? My wife died at twenty-six. The ambulance, after its four-hour drive up to town, pronounced her dead that morning. Sadly, it was only then that I loved her. I loved her not for who she’d been as my wife, or as a child, but who she could have been. I always remembered her, though I kept my grief internal. After the initial grief that paraded through the town, most everyone forgot about her, and she faded in even my memories. Every year on her birthday from that point on, her grave was always surrounded by red poppies.



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