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Author's note: To Jason: my inspiration for this novel.
When I escaped from the overcrowded, booming gymnasium where the dance took place, I could finally hear myself think. Alone, I decided to walk to the church. As I entered the room, I was captivated by the glittering mosaics that masked the walls and ceiling. It was serene; something I could not find inside of the party where I felt as out of place as an oasis in the desert. The presence of God filled my heart as I closed my eyes and imagined only the perfection of the church.
Suddenly, I heard a creak and unexpected warmth filled the empty seat next to me in the pew. I opened my eyes to look right into Peter’s sparkling aquamarine ones.
“Hi,” I said, breathing sort of heavily as I broke our five-second hold. After so many years of the silent game we had been playing, I was talking to him. For real. And it almost felt as though we had always known each other, but we only spoken with our eyes and smiles. Now that the moment arrived, I wanted nothing more than to stay there forever.
“Hello,” he answered and grinned. “I thought it was a little loud in there, too.”
With a laugh, I shook my head. I looked back into his eyes for a quick moment and then went back to staring at the floor. My cheeks felt rosy, and without a doubt, Peter noticed.
“So . . . you’re Christina?”
“Yeah . . . and you’re Peter, right?” I said quietly. For the first time, his name tasted foreign to my lips. We’d always known each other’s name. Yet here we were, introducing ourselves as though we’d never known the other existed. Until now.
“You’re a senior right?” he asked.
“Yep, I’m seventeen.” My heart pounded so rapidly inside of my chest, I feared that at any moment, it would burst.
It was silent again as we sat there. I couldn’t believe that we’d let so many years go by. In a few weeks, youth group would be over with. Then, we would be moving away for college. I wished that he’d said something sooner.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said suddenly, breaking the awkward silence that hung in the air.
“Could I . . .,” he trailed. “Could I . . .”
“Go ahead . . . could you what?”
He laughed with a slight nervousness. He took a deep breath and began again.
“Could I kiss you?”
My mind raced, and I finally received the answer I was looking for.
“Maybe,” I said. And before he could say anything more, I kissed his cheek, and walked out of the church, back to the loud party in the gym. With a sense of sadness lingering in my mind, I knew I would never see him again.
When two years had passed, I ran off the plane, splashing in the fresh spring rain towards my family who greeted me with a large, colorful poster reading “Welcome Home, Christina!” I received so many hugs and kisses that I felt exhausted by the time we entered the airport to collect the rest of my luggage. It was a mid-April Tuesday, dressed in blossoms and trees full of bright green leaves when I returned home to America after touring in Europe. It was a gift my family arranged for me after I graduated from college with a double major in English and Education. They always knew I wanted to travel the world and write, and I couldn’t wait to share my stories with them. This would be my first real time back home in awhile.
We went to the car, the same old red Honda we’d had since I was fourteen. I sat down, sighed and looked over at my brother, Demetri, who held a blue cloth in his hand.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“It’s a blindfold. We have a little surprise for you,” he said with a smile and tied the bandana around my eyes.
I was engulfed in the darkness, unable to see anything, but we drove with the windows down so I could smell the clean rain and feel the little droplets hit my arm every now and then. It was comforting to be home; I’d missed it for so long. Too long.
“We’re here,” Demetri said and helped me out of the car. I was glad I’d worn my Mary Janes instead of my open-toed sandals as I walked through puddles until I reached the unknown destination.
As soon as I entered, I realized where I was: the church I’d grown up in, St. George’s. They led me into the memorial room, and my nose was infused the smells of cheese and spinach pies, souvlaki, and Greek desserts of all kinds. My brother untied the bandana and everyone shouted “Surprise!” All of my family and friends were there with smiling faces, arms spread out as a welcome. I ran to all of them and kissed and hugged everyone. Then, it was time to eat. I talked with my friends from youth group and Greek school and older family friends, and all of my relatives. I did all this while eating standing up, my name being called practically every other minute. I’d never been so popular before.
In high school, I was never the “popular” girl. I had friends along the way, lost a few here and there; that made me sad for awhile, but then I realized that they weren’t real friends, so it didn’t matter anymore. I was quiet and most of the time I preferred to stay home on Friday nights rather than go out partying or clubbing or whatever it was crazy teenagers did. The night of my high school graduation was spent with my two best friends, Johanna and Paige. We watched eighties movies all night, gossiped about cute college boys we hoped to meet, and reminisced the years activities. We couldn’t believe that we had finished high school; what happened to eighth grade with all that stupid drama and stupid classes?
Now, I’m twenty-four, about to be twenty-five and some things I regretted about high school. Maybe I should have forced myself to go to at least a few parties or wear those cute shorts I never had enough confidence to rock at school. But while there were mistakes I’d made, I knew that my life was just starting.
For the rest of the party, I talked and ate and enjoyed the company of my old friends and my family members. My parents arranged a slide show for us to watch and I felt so many emotions all at once: I wanted to laugh and cry and smile. Seeing memories brought back things I’d missed while I was halfway across the world. Once the slide show finished, my parents asked me to deliver a small speech. I didn’t mind; I’d done the same thing for my thirteenth birthday.
“I’m so happy that all of you could be here to share this day with me; each of you have a special place in my heart, and I love you all so much. Thank you for coming and extra thank you to my yiayia and Theia Nora for making all the delicious food!” I said and everyone laughed.
After years of just stumbling, I finally realized who I was becoming. And as I looked at the faces of the ones who truly loved and cared about me, for the first time in my life, I was okay with being me.
We said goodbyes and gave final hugs and kisses—I’d received over a thousand, most likely today. The first thing I did once I entered my house again, I went right to my bedroom to relax. Before I knew it, I’d fallen asleep to the sound of the New Jersey rain. It was the best kind of sleep: dreamless and peaceful.
It was six-thirty in the morning when I woke up. The last country I’d visited before returning home was Greece, my fatherland, so that’s why it felt later, like around lunch time. But I suddenly felt the jet lag settle in. I decided to sleep a little longer, but after tossing and turning in bed for another ten minutes, I got up and had breakfast downstairs. A faint morning glow was entering through the crack in the curtain. I sighed and went back upstairs to brush my teeth and get dressed. The weather was supposed to be warmer today and dry, so I dressed in jean Capri’s and a long-sleeved pink shirt. I waited around for awhile, doodling on a scrap piece of paper and surfing the Internet.
Finally, at about nine, everyone else was up. Demetri came into my room and asked when I got up.
“About six-thirty,” I told him and he laughed.
“I remember when I was always the first person to get up in the morning,” he said.
He told me he would be leaving soon for his classes at Rutgers in a little bit, but he would be back around lunch time. I told him I’d see him later and went to ask my mom if my best friend, Nick was around.
“Hm,” she said, while shuffling through pots in the kitchen. “I’m pretty sure he’s home now. I heard he’s been playing soccer. You should call and find out.”
The phone rang three times before a deep male voice answered. Michael, his older brother. I remembered when I was in eighth grade, I used to email Michael a lot. Naively, I told him I liked him, and after that, things between us were always awkward. The short “hello, how are you” conversations shortened to half smiles from across the room. And suddenly, we stopped talking all together.
So when he picked up the phone, my heart nearly leaped out of my chest.
“Uh, hi, Michael . . . this is Christina, um . . . is Nick there?”
“Sure,” he said and I heard him call for his brother in the background. “By the way, Christina, welcome back from Europe.”
“Thank you,” I said shyly, trying to hide the stupid grin in my voice.
“Hello?” Nick asked into the receiver.
“Hey, Nick. It’s Christina!” I exclaimed.
“Wow, welcome back! I missed you so much,” he said.
For some reason, this caught me off guard. Nick for as long as I’d know him had never been one to show affection. He’d rejected all of my hugs, ignored all of my sweet texts saying “feel better” if he was sick or “have a great vacation,” those long summers he’d spend in Greece with his family.
“I, uh, miss you, too. Um, do you want to hang out today? I’m free.”
“I was just about to drive over anyways. Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit. Bye,” he said.
“Bye, Nick,” I replied with a smile and pressed the OFF button on the phone.
I sat in the living room flipping through a book on the art of angels when I heard Nick’s car pull up the street. When I opened the door, I couldn’t help but run off the porch and jump into his arms. He picked me up and swirled me around, and I smelled the faint cologne that lingered on his neck. Had he put it on just for me?
We began walking towards Donaldson Park. It was a sunny day with a slight chill in the air from yesterday’s rainfall. On the way to the park, we talked about life. From our Greek school graduation to the senior prom which we ditched together to hang out and have our own dance party in his basement. We had turned the lights off, blasted Eminem, and opened up twenty packs of glow sticks. When we had woken up the next morning, there was popcorn all over the floor, the video game controllers and fake sunglasses still on the coffee table and my digital camera waiting to be uploaded onto Facebook. I still had those photos on my old laptop. It was the most amazing night of my life; better than any prom.
When we reached the park, we sat down on the bench. It was empty, all of the little children and their frantic mothers having gone home for lunch. It was quiet and serene. I stared ahead at the swings and trees full of pink blossoms.
“I remember this park,” I said, “like the back of my hand.”
I sighed; it was wonderful to see everything again after having been gone for so long.
“Christina . . .,” Nick began, suddenly a nervous edge in his voice.
I looked into his deep, brown eyes. They were unreadable, hiding a secret. I braced myself as Nick reached into his jacket for something: a tiny box.
“Will you marry me?” he asked, opening the box to reveal a glittering diamond ring.
I was so shocked and overwhelmed with emotion that I automatically said yes.
“Yes, yes, yes!” I shouted and jumped into his arms. He slid the ring onto my finger and we kissed for the first time. It felt tingly and warm, something I’d never imagined Nick was capable of making me feel. But somehow, it felt strange simultaneously.
We went back to my house and told my parents. My mother started muttering words of joy and grabbed my face while she laughed in her hearty, joyful voice. She hugged Nick and kissed him.
“I can’t believe it!” she said. “We need to call the family!”
“What’s going on?” my dad said as he and Demetri entered the kitchen.
“I’m engaged!” I said and showed them the sparkling ring on my finger.
My dad wore a tight expression and shook Nick’s hand firmly.
“Daddy!” I tried to laugh. “You’ve known Nick forever! Why all of a sudden, you’re so uptight?”
Then his hard face softened and he started to crack up, and he said:
“I’m just kidding around. Welcome to the family, Nick!”
“I can’t believe this,” Demetri said with a puzzled look on his face.
“What?” I asked.
“That you’re engaged to Nick! I never saw that coming . . . but, hey me and Andrew get to be brother-in-laws like we always wanted!” Demetri said.
I smiled and looked over at my mother who had the phone in one hand, frantically cooking and yelling at all of my relatives: “Christina’s engaged!”
“Come on, Christina, let’s go to my parents’ house,” Nick said, tugging at my hand.
“We’ll see you later,” I said.
“Nick, tell your parents that I want to have a dinner as soon as possible. Ask when they’re free because we need to get together and discuss wedding plans.”
“Okay, Mrs. Rossi,” he said. “I’ll be sure to ask them.”
She gave him a wink. “See you later!”
At Nick’s house, his parents greeted us with an excited smile. They had known this day was coming all along. We exchanged hugs and they looked at me with approval; something I’d never felt when I was younger, and I’d spent the afternoon with them. They invited me into the kitchen where Gemma, their housekeeper who was more like family congratulated Nick and I on our engagement.
“I’m so happy for the both of you!” she said brightly in her warm Jamaican accent. “Come sit and I’ll make you some tea.”
“Did it happen?” I heard Andrew, Nick’s younger brother said as he ran down the spiral staircase and entered the kitchen.
“Yes!” I exclaimed and Andrew practically jumped on me to give me a big hug. “Remember when me and your brother were younger and we wanted to be brother-in-laws?” he asked.
I laughed and told him that my brother had told me the same thing when we delivered the news. Back when I was about fourteen and still in love with Michael, Demetri and Andrew begged me to marry one of Andrew’s brothers. At the time I didn’t know that Nick liked me, so I was thinking about Michael.
“Maybe,” I’d told them and sent them to play Xbox.
Now it was happening. I’d never imagined it would be Nick. But I guess it made sense since we had grown up together. At the very back of my head, I’d kind of always wished it would be Michael, though.
And right on cue, Michael walked in with a petite, dark-haired girl wearing too much make-up, in search of something to eat. I knew the girl; she was Katerina Mubarak, she had gone to youth group with us back when we were in high school. She was half-Greek, half-Egyptian and she was what you might call a fashionista. Today she was wearing neon pink skinny jeans, a flowing white, long-sleeved shirt, and big silver hoop earrings.
“Oh, my god, Christina! How are you?” Katerina said in a overly-excited voice and gave me a big hug.
“I’m good,” I said, almost suffocating. “How are you?”
“Fabulous, darling,” she laughed and let go. Instantly, she noticed the diamond ring and her eyes widened. “You’re engaged!? To Nick!? Oh, I always knew you two were meant to be!”
Michael nearly dropped the box of crackers he was holding in his hand. He turned to look at me and my cheeks burned one hundred different shades of red.
“Well, uh, yeah . . .,” I mumbled.
Something made me smile because I sensed the slightest jealousy in Michael. I was engaged to his brother and apparently no one bothered to tell him. I didn’t want to ask why, so I just laughed nervously.
“I’m so happy for you both,” Katerina said.
“Me too,” Michael said, eating a cracker with a unbelieving face.
“Let’s go, sweetie!” she chirped up and grabbed Michael by the arm in an almost overly-protective way, and I wanted to start laughing so hard because to think that Katerina was jealous of me even when she was more pretty and popular than me in high school was priceless.
Once they left, Andrew stuck his finger in his mouth and pretended to gag. I tried to suppress my giggles as his mom scolded him.
“Here’s your tea, sweetie,” Gemma said as she placed the mugs on the table and motioned for us to sit. “Do you want some creamer or honey?”
“Honey is fine, thank you,” I said and sat down with Nick and his parents at the same table I always remembered. The awkward conversations in choppy Greek with Nick’s grandmother when she’d visited; the nervous eye contact I’d made with my mother when Michael had entered the room without a shirt on, only to have his mother yell at him; the first time I’d ever cried in front of Nick; and now I was sitting here years later having tea with my soon-to-be parents-in-law.
Gemma placed the honey on the table, and I thanked her for the tea once more.
“No problem,” she said with a smile.
“So Christina, how are you? We’re so happy you’re back from Europe; Nick was waiting for such a long time to propose to you. We know it was very sudden, but he just couldn’t bear to wait anymore,” Mrs. Stephanopoulos said as she sipped her tea.
“I helped Nick pick out the ring myself. He wanted only the best for you,” Mr. Stephanopoulos, a jeweler who owned his own business added.
“I’m just so happy to be home and this was truly a pleasant surprise. I couldn’t ask for more possibly . . .,” I trailed. I was at a loss for words. I caught Nick’s beautiful eyes for a split second, but for a moment, I felt unsure of him. This was something I never felt around Nick. We always laughed around each other and we both never shut up. Now, it felt strange sitting in his house not at his best friend, but as his well, fiancé.
“Just wait until the wedding!” Mrs. Stephanopoulos declared.
We spoke for a little while longer, mentioning some wedding plans and my trip to Europe. Nick explained that he was already working in his father’s store but was taking some college night courses to prepare himself for when he would inherit the business one day.
“My mom wanted to know when could have a dinner party to celebrate,” I said just before Nick and I were going to leave.
“We’re actually hosting an Easter party to break fast,” Mrs. Stephanopoulos said.
“Okay, that’s even better. I’ll be sure to tell my mother. Thank you for having me.”
“Goodbye, Mr. and Mrs. Stephanopoulos,” I said as we were leaving.
“Call us Mom and Dad!” she called before she shut the door.
Nick took me to the field where he coached soccer with his team. It was empty since it was Wednesday, around one o’ clock. He took me under the metal bleachers, and I felt like I was back in high school doing something daring. I’d never made out without anyone under the bleachers before; my heart was pounding rapidly as Nick leaned in, and I tried to not hyperventilate. We started kissing; the entire time, I was trying to not to think about the fact that this was Nick in front of me. It seemed weird how one moment we were battling each other in Call of Duty and now we were here.
We kissed for a little longer until I placed my hand upon Nick’s chest and pushed him away slightly. I looked at the ground, and tried to hide my facial expression behind my long hair.
“What’s wrong, Christina?” Nick asked.
“It’s just . . . I-I can’t explain it . . .,” I stuttered.
“No, tell me. I won’t get mad,” he said, brushing away my bangs so he could see my face.
I didn’t look into his eyes when I told him this. “I’m just not used to this. You don’t think we’re risking our friendship by doing this, do you . . .?”
Nick looked at me with a confused expression, his thick eyebrows knitting together as though he were trying to figure out what I meant. My words were as clear as day: Are you sure you want to be my husband one day?
“Christina, our friendship will only become permanent from this . . . it’s not like we’re . . . I love you, and I just want to spend the rest of my life with you. I know it’s sort of weird, but we can make it work, can’t we?”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized even though I shouldn’t.
“Don’t apologize,” he said, placing his hand upon my face. “I . . . can’t live without you, Christina. When you were away in Europe, I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t see you again. I told my parents I was going to propose to you as soon as you got back. They told me I should wait a little bit, but I couldn’t. I’d waited too long already.”
I was trying to absorb everything he’d just told me. Had he really loved me that much? Was I that blind in high school? I didn’t know how to respond, so I just kissed him one more time before stealing his hat and running off.
The next day, Nick and I planned to get together to eat lunch at a local café, Panera Bread in town before buying some Easter decorations for a family party to celebrate the end of fast. Nick picked me up at around two to eat and get coffee. We talked about the past, the present, and the future over cold deli sandwiches. Nick placed his hand upon mine and our eyes met, causing me to feel guilty. I didn’t know why, but I supposed it was because I wasn’t sure if I was completely in love with him; for now, I only loved him as my friend, nothing more. His love for me was like expensive crystal, see-through and obvious, but at the same time non-reflective. We loved each other, but one of us was in love and the other wasn’t. Yet.
After buying decorations from the craft store in the outlet where we ate lunch, we dropped by my house to relax for a little bit before Nick would go home and help his mother start preparing for the party on Sunday. When we got inside, we went downstairs to watch whatever movie was on TV. I got comfortable in Nick’s arms, the only thing that felt normal between us; no kisses, no sweet text messages, no “I love you”s. Just a girl and her best friend watching the middle of their favorite movie White Chicks. Just at the ending—Nick’s and my favorite part of the movie, the doorbell rang. My mother answered the door and then called me.
“Christina, your friend, Paige is here!”
I jumped off the couch and ran upstairs to give Paige a great hug.
“Oh, my god! I haven’t seen you in so long!” I said. “How are you?”
I looked out at the porch where a very handsome, blond man with glittering blue eyes stood with a small smile. My eyes widened and then I released Paige from our hug and nearly started screaming.
“Tucker!” I said. “Come inside, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Christina, you?”
“I’m all right,” I said and then I realized how awkward this was. Back in middle school, I had the biggest crush on Tucker, but after I finally got over him and started liking Michael, Paige transferred over to our school. Paige started to like Tucker in eighth grade and it took him nearly four years to work up the nerve to ask out to the prom. I had known all along that they would end up together, but I was still surprised and happy for them at the same time.
Nick appeared by my side, placing his hands on my shoulders, causing me to jump.
“Oh, hey, baby, this is Paige and Tucker. We used to go to school together,” I said. “Paige, Tucker this is my fiancé, Nick.”
“Nice to meet you, Nick,” Tucker said, shaking hands with him.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me, Christina!” Paige said. “It’s so nice to finally get to meet you, Nick.”
“Well, we just recently got engaged,” I said, gesturing so that we could all sit together in the living room.
While Nick and Tucker talked about soccer, Paige and I gossiped in the kitchen as I prepared snacks.
“I told you Tucker and you would eventually end up together,” I said as I chopped celery.
“Okay, okay,” Paige said, smiling. “He’s just so perfect . . . I can’t believe we’re dating though. I always thought he was too popular.”
“Well, what did I say?”
“So what’s up with you and your fiancé?” she asked.
I nearly choked.
“Um, well, Nick and I were best friends in youth group . . . so yeah. It’s like I’m engaged to my best friend . . . it’s great,” I said.
Paige raised an eyebrow and leaned against the granite counter top.
“It doesn’t seem that great, the way you make it sound,” she said.
“No, no . . . it’s, well, amazing. I’m just having a hard time going from playing Mario Kart with him to going out on dates. It’s, like, strange.”
“At least he’s in love with you,” she said.
“You think so?”
“Sure, the way he looks at you, the way he smiles in your direction, and hangs on you. You have that boy eating out of the palm of your hand, honey.”
“Tucker is in love with you, too. It’s in his eyes,” I said.
“I hope so because I’m waiting for him to get a solid career, then maybe he’ll finally propose.”
“He will,” I said. “Soon.”
I brought the snacks into the living room and sat next to Nick on the opposite couch, facing Tucker and Paige. Nick straightened and put his arm around me in a protective way; I rested my head on his shoulder in an attempt to appear like a happy couple. We were, weren’t we after all?
“So, I heard you’re working as a Spanish teacher in Highland Park,” Nick started the conversation, rubbing my arm.
“Yes, it’s my second year. I guess Tucker told you all the details,” Paige said, looking up at Tucker with a smile on her face.
“Sure,” Tucker said, winking at Paige and reaching for a celery stick. “We’re staying in Highland Park for awhile.”
“That’s good,” I chimed in. “Nick lives in Somerset, but we’re still thinking about where we want to live once we get married.”
“When is the wedding?” Paige asked.
“We’re not exactly sure yet, right baby?” I asked Nick.
He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, his eyes staring vacantly out the window behind Tucker and Paige. I stroked his hand and repeated:
“Uh, yeah,” he said, snapping back to the conversation. “But we were thinking sometime in the winter.”
“I love the snow; it would be so beautiful if it snowed on our wedding day,” I said.
“I remember when we were younger and we went to Donaldson Park to have snowball fights in third grade or something,” Tucker said with a chuckle.
“I miss those days so much,” Paige said.
“Me too,” I whispered.
We were all silent for a moment. I stared at the ground, waiting for someone to say something when my mother came down the stairs.
“Oh, hello everyone,” she said, “Can I get anything for you?”
“No, that’s fine, thank you, Mrs. Rossi,” Paige said. “Tucker and I were just leaving anyway.”
“Thank you for coming, Paige and, um . . .,” she said.
“Tucker, I’m Paige’s boyfriend. Thank you for having us,” Tucker answered and gave her that same charming smile.
Before Paige and Tucker left, I gave Paige another hug and said she and Tucker could visit anytime they wanted.
“Bye, guys!” I said as I shut the door.
Nick and I went back downstairs, a new movie on the channel we were previously watching.
“Are you okay, Nick?” I asked, noticing his silence.
“I’m fine,” Nick said, “I’m just thinking about things.”
“Bye, Nick,” I said and he waved before driving away in his BMW.
I sat down in the kitchen where my mother was fixing dinner. She turned down the heat on the stovetop before wiping her hands on her apron and leaning on the counter.
“I called Demi and she said we could have an engagement party combined with the Easter party this Sunday. After church, we’re going to their house, so it works out perfectly,” she said, turning to the cabinet to get out the dishes.
“Are we doing the Easter Egg Hunt this year again?” I asked.
“Yes, the baskets for the candy and eggs are in the dining room. You’ll help me go shopping for the candy bags tonight, right?”
We had dinner—vegetarian egg rolls and ginger ale for fast. I loved the taste of my mother’s home-cooked meals; it was something I’d missed while I was in Europe. In the middle of our meal, Demetri’s phone rang and he excused himself from the table to answer the call.
“Who was that?” I asked when Demetri came back into the room, a cheesy smile on his face.
“Um, Maria,” he said, shoving his cell phone in his pocket.
“And who is this?” my mother said, straightening in her seat.
“My, um, girlfriend . . .?” Demetri said.
“When did this happen?” she asked, her voice sounding exactly like my shock.
“A few weeks ago,” he answered. “She’s coming over now, if you want to meet her.”
“Of course,” my mother and I said simultaneously.
We all waited for Demetri’s girlfriend to come over. I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink and staring out at the darkness that masked the side of the house. My mother sat at the breakfast counter, drumming her fingers impatiently as Demetri paced around upstairs getting ready for his date. The doorbell rang and we all suddenly jumped. Demetri jogged quickly down the staircase, dressed nicely in a button-down shirt and dark jeans.
“Hey, Demetri,” the girl, Maria said, giving him a hug. I couldn’t quite see her face, but she had big, curly blond hair like they used to wear in the eighties.
“Hi, Maria,” Demetri said, bringing her into the kitchen where we all were. “This is my family, they wanted to meet you.” I dried my hands on the towel hanging on the oven and placed my hands on my hips.
She was a small girl wearing a spring-like, flowing top, faded jeans and brown, open-toed sandals. She wore a little brown eyeliner and lip gloss, but she was very conservatively-dressed. I thought this relieved my mother.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Rossi,” she said, kissing my parents on the cheek, a common European greeting.
“Where did you meet Demetri?” Mom asked, her wrinkles of worry fading.
“At the Rutgers grease trucks, surprisingly,” she answered sweetly as Demetri drew her closer. “All the tables were taken and we ended up sitting together. And I don’t know, he asked me if he wanted to go out sometime and now we’re dating.”
“That’s wonderful,” I added. “Nice to meet you, Maria; I’m Demetri’s sister, Christina.”
“Oh, I love your ring!” she said, admiring the diamond on my right hand.
“Thank you,” I said. “I just got engaged.”
“To whom?” she asked. “I bet he’s very handsome.”
“He sure is. Nick Stephanopoulos,” I answered.
“I remember him!” she exclaimed suddenly. “We all went to youth group together. I didn’t know if you would recognize me without my glasses.”
I thought for a moment and then the memories from Greek school events and GOYA parties came back, and I remembered seeing Maria sitting alone at a table, wearing her thick glasses, her then frizzy hair pulled back in a messy bun, as she’d pretended to look busy on her phone. She reminded me of myself in a lot of ways: quiet and insecure. She looked so much happier now with my brother’s arm around her.
“Yeah, now I remember,” I said. “You look beautiful. Demetri is lucky to have you.”
“Thank you,” she said, that same insecurity still barely visible in her eyes. “I’m sure Nick is even more lucky to be engaged to you. I always looked up to you when I was younger.”
This made me feel bad instantly because I didn’t really talk to her much, thinking she was a loner and would talk my ear off if I gave her the chance to speak. But that brought back even more sour memories of when I was ignored and even gossiped about in church for my horrid dancing skills and huge hips.
“Aw,” I said, looking away. “Well, you and Demetri look very happy together.”
I was quick to change the topic as I looked back at my brother, who was patiently waiting by Maria’s side.
“Have a nice night, you two,” my parents said. “Be safe!”
Demetri gave my mom the thumbs up before they shut the front door and went out on their date.
“She seems like a very nice girl,” my mother said. “I’m glad Demetri hasn’t gone and picked up a ‘Katerina Mubarak.’”
I laughed loudly and said, “Michael is dating Katerina now, Mom. Just like I said they would.”
“Goodness, I hope that girl wears something appropriate when we have the Easter party on Sunday. This is your engagement, not her cheesy fashion runway. Now let’s go shopping for more Easter candy.”
We hopped in the red car and went to Rite Aid in town, raiding all the shelves of sugar peeps, Hershey’s kisses, and Pixie Stix. By the time we had collected all the candy, half the customers in the store were staring at us with funny faces.
“Just ignore them,” Mom whispered as she shoved another box of assorted candies into the cart. “They don’t know how to bargain.”
At the cash register, a lanky man with greasy black hair and tattooed sleeves addressed us with a bored expression, scanning the boxes of 88-cent candy and shoving them carelessly in plastic bags.
“That will be forty-two dollars and seventy-nine cents, ma’am. Lots of candy,” he said snidely, handing me the bags and then turning to face my mother.
She paid him fifty dollars and then said:
“Keep the change, boy. You may want to start saving up to get those nasty tattoos of yours removed.”
And with that, she walked out of the store without waiting for a reply. When we were out of the store, I looked at my mother in shock.
“What?” she asked in the car. “He deserved it for that cruddy customer service.”
At home, I scrubbed off my makeup and washed my face before rolling into my pajamas. As I crawled into bed with my laptop, I daydreamed about the past while I scrolled through old photos of Nick’s and mine’s “prom” back in our senior year. There were pictures of us stuffing our faces with popcorn and singing to their karaoke machine. One of my favorites was of Nick and me giving the camera the middle finger with our tongues hanging out. I remembered Nick saying it was a message to all the haters at prom. Suddenly, I came upon one of the photos and for a moment, I only stared at it with a questioning look on my face. It depicted Nick wearing a pair of dark sunglasses, wearing a goofy expression as I kissed his cheek, a smile visible on my mouth. I was giving the camera a peace sign, my crimped, highlighted hair swung half over my face. We must have been over delirious without the slightest clue what we were even doing. The photo haunted me. The slightly more teenaged face of mine looking digitally edited. Nick and I were never together before our engagement. Had I been completely oblivious to the fact that Nick was always in love with me? Did I love him then, too?
I looked at a few more photos of the two-people party. In every photo, Nick and I were together. We were stupid teenagers; we couldn’t have possibly known what love was. Best friends weren’t supposed to fall in love. It made things too complicated and stressful. Especially when one of them didn’t love the other back. I wasn’t sure if it was Nick or me at this point. Maybe I did have feelings for him that were hidden in my subconscious. I definitely loved him, but not . . . that way. Did I?
Finally, I shut my laptop down and decided to go to sleep, wanting to reboot my brain. I always become a genius late at night. My brain wanted to over think, but I wanted to sleep. I didn’t want to think about this engagement that was tearing me apart. And I had only been in America for two days.
Sunday came quicker than I’d expected. The night before, I’d spent prepping for today. I’d showered and shaved my legs; moisturized, rubbing creams and oils all over my face before choosing my outfit: a lacy Cretan-style dress with my espadrilles for church and then a cute, floral patterned dress and sandal flats for the party. I was busy applying my glittery brown eye shadow and brown lip gloss when Demetri came in and asked me if Maria could help with the Easter Egg Hunt.
“Sure,” I said. “I think Mom wouldn’t mind. All she has to do is hand out the candy baggies we made to the little kids.”
“Okay, I’m leaving after you guys so I can pick her up,” he said.
“See you later then,” I said.
I finished with my makeup and examined myself in the mirror. Not too bad, I thought. All those days I’d woken up early to go for my mile jog had paid off and now my dress fit me better than it had when I originally bought it five years ago.
Soon, we were in the car and driving over to church with four large baskets filled with candy and treats for the little kids. I helped carry one of the baskets into the gymnasium when we arrived, one of the first families. Most people didn’t come to the Easter Sunday service because they attended the Resurrection service the night before, which normally went until two in the morning.
“I’m going into the church now,” I told my mom who was running around, hiding the treats and setting up the hunt for when the service finished.
I sat in the back row of the church; Maria and Demetri came to sit with me when they came about ten minutes later. We listened to the Gospel reading in several different languages: Spanish, Armenian, Mandarin, Italian, German, Greek, French, Bulgarian, Russian, and of course English. This seemed like the most people they had ever had read in years. Since most people didn’t come to this service, there weren’t many that were bilingual. Our priest, Father John gave a small sermon before handing out the traditional red eggs that we cracked to see which person “won.” The red eggs symbolized the tomb where Jesus was buried in. If your egg was cracked, then that meant that the two rocks that were in front of Jesus’s tomb had been rolled away and Jesus had risen from the dead. Easter was always one of my favorite holidays, not for the candy, but the religious aspects and traditions that I’d grown up with as a child.
The service ended in about an hour and we all went outside to help with the Easter Egg Hunt. Chocolates and gummy bears stayed hidden in decorative plastic eggs scattered all over the little area where the hunt took place every year. The little children ran left and right, grabbing eggs and stuffing their baggies with candy. It reminded me of the age of innocence and purity. It was strange to believe that all these screaming, joyful four and five-year-olds were going to be teenagers one day, falling in love, blasting music, and arguing with everyone. Time flew so quickly that it was hard to grasp our childhoods; once those years are gone, you can’t change anything really.
“Should I hand out the baggies yet?” Maria asked, slightly antsy and worried. Maria could have been my younger sister. She had the same serious face and she didn’t talk a lot like me. I thought we’d be great sister-in-laws one day.
“Not yet. We’re waiting for Father John to throw the candy and then you can hand out the baggies,” I said, shifting on my feet.
Demetri came up to Maria and asked if I could take a picture of them. Photography was one of my favorite hobbies, so naturally I agreed, taking five photos when they only wanted one.
“Happy?” I asked in a joking voice, giving Demetri the camera back.
“Ecstatic, thank you,” he replied and then turned just as Father John was coming out of the church.
“Father John, are you going to throw the candy?” Mom asked, gesturing to the baskets filled to the brim with candy.
“Sure,” he answered and stood behind the table and began tossing the candy high up in the air.
All the little children laughed and screamed and fought for the candy, reaching up with their hands and crawling on the ground. Father John was having as much fun as the kids were! Once the candy baskets were completely empty and things started to wind down, Maria took the extra special candy baggies and handed them out to the shy boys and girls who didn’t get as much candy as the others. They thanked her in adorable voices before running off to their parents for other Easter events in the day. It was truly a busy, but exciting and happy morning. In only hour, I would be at Nick’s house for the engagement/break-of-fast party.
Again, my parents and me drove separate from Demetri and Maria. Once we got home, I changed quickly into my floral dress and flats, fixing my pin straight hair with a sparkly butterfly pin that I’d received for Christmas when I was fifteen. I kept my makeup neutral, re-applying my brown lip gloss and spraying myself with a refreshing, peach-scented perfume.
When we got through Nick’s front door, I was immersed in a flood of his and my relatives, all speaking Greek and English and Greenglish at me. They congratulated me, admired my diamond ring, and told me how beautiful I’d become over the years. Nick tried to steal me away, but we were pulled outside to enjoy music, dancing, and Greek food, especially the lamb roasting on the spit in their backyard. I was enjoying the attention and the food, Nick attempting to catch up to me.
“Hey, baby,” he said, giving me a kiss. “How was the service?”
“It was beautiful; so many languages this year, I was surprised,” I answered, saying hello to one of Nick’s aunts who passed by, smiling at us.
“Having a good time?” Mrs. Stephanopoulos asked, interrupting Nick.
“Yes, everything is perfect,” I said. “I love the lamb; it’s delicious.”
“I’m glad. After everyone’s finished eating, we’re going to all go inside and have dessert and a mini engagement celebration, so don’t disappear,” she said, swinging towards Mr. Stephanopoulos as he changed the music for dancing.
I sat down at one of the tables and watched as Nick’s younger cousins ran around playing soccer. Nick sat next to me, holding my hand and giving me a concerning smile.
“What, are you jealous?” I asked him, trying to regain our playful teasing when we were teenagers.
“Okay, fine,” he said. “Maybe a little.”
“Ha!” I cried. “I knew it.”
“You are the most beautiful girl in the world,” he said, looking longingly into my eyes.
I felt my happiness deflate. Nick wasn’t supposed to call me beautiful. He was supposed to pretend like things were back to the way they used to be when I could burp in front of him and he’d say “nice one.” Ever since we’d gotten engaged, I felt that special bond we had shared start to crumble. We no longer goofed around, pranked each other, or listened to rap together. Everything was suddenly more serious and boring.
My cheeks burned, which never happened when I was in front of Nick. “Um, thanks, but I think Katerina wins.”
Katerina flaunted around in a long flowing mustard-colored dress with orange, thick-heeled stilettos with red and white polka dots. It looked as though a rainbow had thrown up on her, including her hair which was pin straight and streaked yellow to match her dress.
Nick burst out laughing, holding his hand up to his heart, causing Katerina to turn and look at him sharply. Michael, wearing a simple, plaid T-shirt and jeans swung his arm around her, leading her to the group dancing something Pontic on the deck. They looked hilarious together—a simply-dressed attractive young man with a crazy girl wearing too much dramatic eyeliner and coral lipstick; I knew I would need to take a photograph of them later.
“Trust me, I’m surprised someone hasn’t contacted Animal Control yet.”
This brought the smile back to my face, reminding me that Nick wasn’t a different person. He just had different feelings.
“I love y—,” Nick was about to say, but Mrs. Stephanopoulos cut him off, dragging both of us inside for the cakes and cookies and engagement element of the party.
“I am proud to announce that we soon will be the parents-in-law of Christina Rossi who is going to marry our son, Nick this winter,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said.
Everyone started talking at once. I felt strange, like I was an ancient artifact on display in a museum. When I was younger, I always felt as though I wasn’t “good” enough for a Stephanopoulos boy. My family didn’t have as much money as they did and I wasn’t the one-hundred percent Greek girl that I thought they wanted. But then again, they were probably just glad that Nick was getting married. Even if it was to me. They didn’t care as long as he got married and got out of their house. This wasn’t about me being Nick’s fiancée. This was about me being the key to their freedom. One down, two to go. I didn’t want to believe Mr. and Mrs. Stephanopoulos were like that, but it didn’t make sense that they would actually want me to be their daughter-in-law. One of my old friends, Bernice from GOYA, who was almost a year older told me that she’d overheard Nick’s mother asking Bernice’s mother if Nick could date Bernice. Bernice didn’t like Nick that way, so her mother obviously said ‘no.’ And Nick was going through this hormonal stage where he acted like he wanted blow up the world. I knew that Mrs. Stephanopoulos wanted Nick to date Bernice because Bernice’s family owned a business and had a lot of money.
Nick chose me because I was his best friend. His parents didn’t really have any say in this. But I’m sure they would have been happier if I was coming from a very rich family. Instantly, I felt dizzy and confused. Everything seemed blurry and hot and aggravating. Why couldn’t I be home in bed with a book and Easter candy? I didn’t want to be here celebrating my engagement. I wanted to go to sleep and forget about everything.
“Are you okay?” Nick’s voice was barely audible.
I lied and said that I was only tired, that I was full from the meal.
“You sure?” he whispered. “You look like you’re going to pass out.”
Did I look that weary? I shook my head and rubbed my neck. It felt cold and clammy, and I realized that if I didn’t sit down, I would be on the floor in a few seconds.
“I just need to sit down . . .,” I mumbled, looking for an empty chair.
When I finally got a chance to relax, everyone had headed for the desserts, the speeches were over with. And just like that our “engagement party” had ended. I knew it wasn’t special. I knew it wasn’t Mr. and Mrs. Stephanopoulos’ greatest pleasure to have to introduce me to the family.
“Nick, I think I’m going to leave with my family now; I’m exhausted,” I told him at around seven o’ clock.
“Okay, Christina. I love you,” he said, kissing my forehead.
“I love you, too,” I whispered, not even sure if I meant the words.
Paige and I went to get our nails done at a local salon in Highland Park; I needed a break from all this engagement business and Tucker was away for a soccer tournament, so Paige and I decided we would have a spa day. While our feet were getting scrubbed with soothing herbs and hot water, Paige and I talked about high school.
“I remember when you called me up saying that Tucker had asked you to the prom. All I heard was screaming,” I laughed, flipping the page of the Vogue catalog I was browsing through.
“Well, what did you expect? ‘Tucker asked me to the prom and yeah. He’s cute and stuff,” she said, snatching the Vogue from me. “Ew, what a trashy dress.”
“Hey!” I said. “And fine, I don’t blame you for getting all excited. I didn’t even go to prom.”
“Yeah, why?” she asked.
“I just . . . didn’t want to, I guess,” I said, shrugging.
That wasn’t true at all. The real reason I didn’t go to senior prom was because of what happened right before junior prom. I really liked this guy, Angelo that was in my photography class. He was half-Italian and half-Spanish with floppy, light brown hair and brown eyes: utterly gorgeous. When he’d asked me if I would go to the junior prom with him, I had nearly fainted and told him ‘sure,’ trying to be relaxed, in an attempt to not look like a dork.
“Cool, so do you wanna hang out sometime? I could pick you up on Friday and we can go see a movie,” he’d said.
“Yeah, that’s great,” I’d said, staring into his milk chocolate eyes.
“See you,” he’d replied and once he’d walked away, I’d shut my locker door and practically floated to eighth period Pre-Calc.
Angelo and I had talked a lot in photography class the weeks before the prom, so we could get to know each other better. We’d gone out on a few movie dates, and we’d even kissed. Everything seemed perfect until one week before the prom; I’d found out that Angelo had asked one of my good friends, Kyla to go with him a long time before he had asked me, too. When he’d tried to apologize to me, saying he’d “forgotten,” I’d realized what a jerk he was. And he’d went to the prom with Kyla, anyway! After that, me and Kyla were no longer friends and she and Angelo went out for the rest of our years in high school. I’d felt so angry and frustrated that by the time senior prom swung around, I’d called Nick and asked him if he was ditching. He’d said yes obviously, so we got together and had the best night of our lives. Prom was stupid, we’d both agreed. And we enjoyed each other’s company more than anyone else’s. Who wanted to spend a night watching couples make out and get drunk with teachers running around like hawks, and eat food that would make you sick for days after?
“Hello? Earth to Christina?” Paige said, snapping me back to the salon.
“Oh, sorry, I was just thinking,” I answered.
“Gosh, did you do something illegal that night?” she asked.
“No, no, this engagement is really stressing me out,” I said, rubbing my forehead.
“Almost hitched, honey,” Paige said. “I am still a free woman. Jealous, huh?”
“You know it,” I said. “But I think Tucker’s getting serious, so watch out.”
“Ah, he’s not proposing to me yet. He’s got a lot of work do to before he thinks he’s suitable enough to marry me.”
“C’mon, Paige, he’s so sweet and he loves you. Wouldn’t you say yes if he asked you now?”
“Nope,” she said.
“You’re so mean!”
“I’m just kidding. I’m just not completely sure if I’m ready yet. I mean, I’m barely paying my bills with this teaching career,” she said. “Tucker said he would apply to a teaching job in Highland Park, soon, but I don’t have my hopes up if he’s at his soccer tournaments every Saturday.”
“The school year’s almost out right? Maybe he’ll apply for a job over the summer.”
“I hope so; I can’t be the only one who’s making money in this relationship! It’s hard work dealing with those high school kids. I almost failed three students this past quarter.”
“Kids are becoming lazier and lazier it seems over the years. I’m scared society will be even more screwed up when I have kids one day than it was when we were growing up,” I commented, relaxing in my chair.
“Do you have any ideas for baby names?” she asked, giving me the copy of Vogue back.
“Sure . . . I’ve been coming up with names since I was ten,” I said.
“So what are they anyways?”
“Um, well I like the names Stella, Cassandra, and Aphrodite for a girl and Dimitri or George for a boy,” I said.
“Yup. Why? What names do you like?”
“Valerie for a girl and Ted or David for a boy.”
“That’s nice,” I said, closing the magazine.
“Well, what else is new with you? Besides the engagement and all.”
“Nothing really,” I lied. “Just same old, same old.”
The ladies doing our toes escorted us to another part of the salon where we would get our fingernails polished. Paige and me talked more about Tucker and school and different careers while the ladies glued on French nails and moisturized our hands in sweet-smelling lotions. When we left the salon, we went home, Paige needing to call Tucker and I needing to visit Nick after he left me three voice messages.
I drove for a little while with the windows rolled down so I could enjoy the mid-April breeze. I blasted my favorite station on the radio, singing all the lyrics as loud as I could. Some passengers in other cars turned to stare at me as I sang completely out of tune with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” I didn’t care though. I needed to let everything out. It seemed as though this radio station new exactly how I was feeling because all of the songs matched my emotions. Every song was either about a bad relationship or some cheesy, sad romance.
When I finally pulled into the Stephanopoulos’ driveway and hopped out of my car, the same wooziness that had hit me the other day returned. I used to get that feeling when I’d come to pick up my brother; I was always scared that Michael would answer the door. Even after I told him I liked him and we stopped talking, I was still worried I would be forced to have an awkward conversation with him about the weather if he opened the door.
“Hey, Christina,” Nick said when he opened the door. “I was waiting for you.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied. “I got your messages. What’s up, baby?”
I entered and Gemma offered me something to eat or drink, but I told her I was fine. Nick led me upstairs to his room, the one he shared with his brother. Andrew wasn’t there and wouldn’t be coming home for at least another two hours because he had a college class.
“Sit down,” Nick told me, so I sat on the floor, the way I always had when we were growing up.
“What did you need to tell me?” I asked. Nick rubbed his eyes as though he was worrying over something.
“Christina . . .,” he began. “I really love you, and I want you to know that I’ve always liked you. From our first day of Greek school together to our prom to now. I didn’t know if you ever felt the same way . . .”
Well, it wasn’t like I didn’t daydream about kissing Nick when we were in high school. I sometimes wondered what it would be like to date him, but then I’d shake the thoughts away. We were only friends. That was the way things always were, and I honestly liked Nick much more before we got engaged. I didn’t know how to respond.
“Um, Nick,” I said, not looking in his eyes. “You were always my best friend. Always. But I’m not sure if I ever loved you . . . I mean, until you proposed and all. Then things changed.”
“So you never liked me?” he asked. I glanced into his eyes for a moment and then looked away, in fear.
“No, no . . . I mean, I really love you, Nick and . . .,” I blurted out, not making eye-contact with him. I couldn’t believe those words had just left my mouth.
Nick just stared at me, his deep eyes penetrating through my mind. We didn’t speak for several long moments until Nick placed his hand on my face and drew me into a kiss. His lips upon mine, our foreheads touching, our hearts beating together. And maybe what all those movies made you believe wasn’t true. And maybe I could get used to this. I loved Nick. He loved me. What more could I want?
We were kissing pretty heavily when Nick picked me up and brought me to his bed. I laid on top of him, running my fingers through his thick, longish dark brown hair. His hands crawled along my back as our lips moved against each other. This was somehow better than under the bleachers, where it was wet and smelled like garbage. It always seemed like a romantic cliché, anyway. Here, it was warm and he smelled sweet and we were alone. I opened my eyes halfway and then realized for the hundredth time that this was Nick. My best friend who’d fart in Greek school and then blame it on someone else. My best friend who’d curse in every other sentence. My best friend who’d loved me, but I’d never quite loved him back. Why did these thoughts keep coming back into my mind? I was engaged now. It wasn’t as if I was going to return the diamond ring and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t marry you.” I could never do that to someone.
“Um, Nick,” I said, pushing him away. “I need to go home. My parents are probably wondering where I am.”
“Okay,” he said, sitting up from his bed, his hair tousled and his shirt slightly slid up to reveal his muscular abdomen. “I love you, Christina.”
He kissed me lightly one more time. I could taste the longing on his lips.
When I got home, I slammed the front door and just stayed up against the wall for a few seconds before recollecting my thoughts. Nick made me feel mixed up inside. I refused to keep questioning myself, but I couldn’t stop thinking about his lips upon mine and the way he held me in his arms. I kept replaying the scene over and over in my head. The very last moment when we kissed before I left had made my stomach spin like I was on a roller coaster ride. His emotions were so clear, it was as though I could read his mind.
“Christina?” my mother called.
I jumped and smoothed out my shirt as my mother came down the stairs, with a perplexed look on her face.
“Where were you?” she asked, placing her hands on her hips.
“At Nick’s, Ma,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Don’t be snobby . . . I just asked where you were,” she said, walking into the kitchen to start dinner before I could respond.
I pulled up a chair and sat down at the counter, cupping my chin in my hands.
“Ma?” I asked as she pulled out pans and went to the fridge.
I sighed before speaking. “Am I doing the right thing?”
“What do you mean?” She still moved restlessly around the kitchen, grabbing the chicken and spices from the cabinet.
“Marrying Nick,” I said.
“Why wouldn’t you be doing the right thing? You’re both in love with each other and Nick has become a trustful and responsible man.”
“But what if I’m too young and I’m making the wrong decision?”
“Christina, love doesn’t have an age. If you feel it in your heart, that’s the most important thing. I don’t want to tell you what to do with your life; you’re old enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong for you and others.”
She stopped shuffling through the kitchen and looked at me and said in finality:
“You’re smart, Christina, and if anything ever happens, remember that we love you so much.”
I thought about her words of wisdom for a long time in my room after she shooed me away to finish dinner. I hated having to wonder again about Nick. It was better when I pushed all thoughts of him away. I blasted music in my headphones, doodling in an old notebook in my room. Back when I was a teenager, I used to draw cartoons to express my emotions. A stick-figure version of myself complete with my stupid half curly, half straight hair and mom jeans at dance lessons, talking with “friends,” and at GOYA functions. They all were angry in some way. Sometimes, I wondered why I was so pissed off all the time, but I liked to just think it was because I was a hormonal teenage girl.
The first half and supposedly “best time” of my life was spent at home and on the Internet, wasting countless years falling in love with boys who didn’t even know I existed, blogging, and feeling bitter. Life always seemed like a trap or illusion that never played fair. Now that I had finally gotten over that bump in the road, and things were getting better, I was stuck in an engagement with my best friend. I wanted to disappear. With no worries or concerns or anxiousness. Just peace and an everlasting silence.
My cell phone started buzzing, and I thought: Perfect. Just the person I need to talk to. I looked at the screen and without a doubt, Nick was calling me. Couldn’t he just leave me alone? I ignored my phone and focused on the song that was playing. I spent ten more minutes ignoring my buzzing cell phone until I decided that I needed to get to bed. It was only six pm, but I just wanted to escape reality and dream about a time when I was busier worrying about algebra and getting to school on time rather than how I was going to live the rest of my life with a boy I’d known since I was eight.
But as soon as I plopped in bed and hid under the covers, my hopes for sleep were robbed. I tossed and turned around, too hot, too cold. My thoughts were restless and when I finally managed to slip into a doze, my head was full of nightmares. Ones where I was thrown off of a boat and drowning in a salty ocean, my eyes burning, the image of Nick floating before me. Help. Help. I was screaming the word, I could see myself, but I couldn’t hear the shrieks. It was like watching a horror movie on mute. I was slowly being pulled under the current. Nick was floating away on his boat, leaving me to drown. My lungs were filling with water and memories shared with Nick flashed before my eyes.
Suddenly, I sat up so quickly in bed that I had a rush of anxiety that hit me like a boulder. I was covered in a cold sweat, my hair frizzing, and my heart thumped like a rabbit against my ribcage. I was breathing so heavily that I thought I might pass out. I looked over at my digital clock. It was eleven pm and everyone else in the house was asleep. I laid back down in bed and tried to recollect myself as I gazed at my blank ceiling. Slowly, I drifted back to sleep, this time without nightmares of Nick.
I woke up the next morning with a bad cold. My head pounded and my nose was stuffed up. It felt as though someone had chewed me up and spit me back out. The light peaking in through my blinds suggested that it was late morning, but I didn’t feel up to any of the day’s activities. I tried to get out of bed to get in the shower to wake myself up. But I just fell back on my pillow and rubbed my temples, wondering what it felt like to be healthy. That’s what always happened when I got a cold. Once I was sick, I thought I would never know what it felt like to have energy again.
I looked over at my night stand and reached for my cell phone. I called my house to see if anyone was home, even though I knew my mother rarely left without telling me she would be gone.
“Hello?” my dad picked up.
“Yeah, Dad? I’m sick. Can you come upstairs?” I asked.
He said okay before hanging up the phone and I heard his footsteps on the staircase outside my bedroom.
“Morning,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“Not very good . . . I’m super congested. Do we have any tissue boxes?”
“Sure, Christina. Do you want some toast?”
“Yes, please,” I said and rolled over on to my side. “I feel horrible.”
“Just relax. I’ll get you tissues and some toast.”
I waited in bed, trying to retrace the steps to my cold. Nick and I had made out the other day and then I was up all night with bad dreams. Figures. I didn’t know how I would be able to live with Nick if he made me this frantic. Today was my day off, and I forced myself to stop worrying and to just relax, like Dad said.
Dad came back with some toast smothered in Earth Balance and Cretan honey and a box of Kleenex. He opened up my curtains and left the window open a crack so my oppressive room would get aired out. I sat up in bed, covered in a thin blanket and supported by three giant pillows to eat breakfast. My throat was scratchy, from spring allergies I guessed.
“Want some Tylenol?” Dad asked.
“I think so. My throat hurts.”
I swallowed the pills in great pain and decided I should probably take a shower. As I scrubbed my hair with my favorite herbal shampoo and stood in the hot water, I felt a little better. I hopped out, got dressed in sweatpants and an old concert T-shirt before wrapping my hair in a towel turban and going downstairs to the TV room to watch Disney movies.
I was in the middle of Cinderella when my mother came into the house with Mrs. Stephanopoulos and Theia Nora.
“Christina! Christina!” Mom called and I laid my plate of a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich on the steps along with my glass of almond milk before going up to the main hallway to say hello.
“How are you?” I asked Mrs. Stephanopoulos and Theia Nora in Greek.
“Wonderful,” they replied.
“What’s wrong with your voice, sweetie?” Theia Nora said.
“I have a little cold,” I answered. My head felt a little better, but my nose was still irritated.
“Dad gave you Tylenol, right?” Mom asked.
“Yup. I feel a little better.”
“Good. Well Theia Nora, Theia Demi, and I went to the bridal shop and looked at some of the wedding themes and decorations. Since your wedding is going to be in late winter, we wanted to have red roses and pearls. Doesn’t that sound beautiful?”
“Gorgeous,” I said, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk about wedding business right now. Nick and I had only been engaged for a month now. Why were already discussing the tiniest details of my wedding day?
“Excellent, then I suppose this will be one of the main themes of the wedding, ladies,” Mom said and wrote down the name of the bridal shop on her notepad then shoved it back in her Coach bag.
“I’m gonna go finish my lunch. I’m still really tired,” I said, not really waiting for a reply.
I went back downstairs to eat the rest of my sandwich and finish the movie. After another twenty minutes, I came back in the kitchen to put my dishes in the dish washer.
“Christina,” Mrs. Stephanopoulos began.
“Nick has been calling you lately and he said you weren’t returning his messages.”
Gosh, now he had his mom nagging me about his calls. If he was planning to invite me over for another “I-need-to-talk-to-you” visit, I couldn’t make it. I had taken a one-way ticket to Australia and wasn’t coming back until the wedding.
“Yeah, well, um, I . . . my phone died before and then I didn’t turn it on today because I wasn’t feeling well. Tell him that I’ll call him as soon as possible.”
“Okay. He just worries about you.”
“Well I’m fine. I saw him the other day, so it’s not like I disappeared . . .”
Wow, that sounded bitchy. But that’s how I felt. Nick was like a mother-in-law; constantly wanting to know where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing. I needed a break. I wasn’t going to keep him updated like a Facebook page. I needed some privacy, too.
“I need to get some sleep,” I said, the throbbing in my head returning. “I’ll see you on Friday for the engagement dinner.”
“Hope you feel better soon,” they said.
“Thank you,” I answered and went to my room.
I turned my phone on just to see how many times Nick called. Four times plus text messages all reading the same thing: I love you. Yesterday was amazing. Call me. I deleted the messages before my mom could be snoopy and then accuse me of something stupid like fornication or whatever. She should just be happy that I never had a real “boyfriend” until now and that I never did drugs in high school like some of my friends.
Nick was romantic and quick, which was probably the reason he had a different girlfriend every week when we were in high school. That was also why I could never understand why he liked me. I was average with light brown hair and light brown eyes. I’d always struggled with my weight, so it wasn’t like I was a model like some of those girls. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I’d lost twenty pounds and was finally allowed to wear stilettos that everyone noticed me. I’d gained some popularity, some new friends, but that’s when I realized how fake everyone was. They only cared about how I looked; they didn’t care about who I was. It didn’t matter who I’d been all those years before. Just because I’d finally changed the way I looked, people noticed me.
But then again, Nick had always known me. Before and after. Ugly and then pretty. A loser and then someone who learned to stop doubting herself. And his feelings never changed. I was still his best friend and I was still Christina. Well until now, of course. Shouldn’t I be in love with the boy that always loved me?
The doctor’s office was cold and smelled of disinfectants and the flu. I was dressed in an old pair of pajamas and my ratty sneakers, feeling worse than the day before. I was blowing my nose and coughing every other five minutes, and I felt like crap. The nurse came out to the waiting room with a clipboard and smile too bright for a doctor’s office on a Monday morning filled with sick people.
“Christina Rossi?” she said. “The doctor will see you now.”
I put the catalog I had been pretending to browse down and went to a little cubical with its walls covered in posters displaying the body. I hoisted myself onto the table covered in paper and waited patiently as the nurse busied herself around the room, searching for that long Q-tip they stick down your throat. When I was younger, I cried every time I knew I had to get a throat culture. It made me gag and feel worse than I already did.
“Now I just need you to relax,” the nurse said, “and we’ll do the throat culture.”
“’Kay,” I said, trying to focus on breathing mainly.
The nurse stuck the Q-tip down my throat and just as I was about to hack, she told me that I would get the results in about ten minutes.
I chugged down my water bottle and sat for a long time before the nurse came back saying the results were negative.
“Just a little cold,” she said. “Doctor Ng will see you in a few minutes, Ms. Rossi.”
“Okay,” I said, covering my mouth with my fist as I coughed. I hated being sick. Ugh.
“Hello, Christina,” Doctor Ng said when she walked into the cubical.
“Hi, Doctor Ng . . . so it’s just a cold? No strep or anything?”
“No strep, no flu . . . just a little spring cold. I’m going to give you a prescription that you can pick up at any pharmacy.”
She wrote down the name of the prescription before scribbling her unreadable signature on the slip of paper and handing it to me.
“You should take the prescription twice a day until the cold symptoms have calmed down. Thank you for visiting and have a good day, Christina.”
I hopped off of the table and entered the waiting room again with relief. I signed a check for the visit, the receptionist complimenting my engagement ring.
“Thank you,” I said with a small smile which I hoped didn’t look as pathetic as I felt.
I drove home without the slightest intention of doing anything but sleeping and watching movies all day. When I got into the house, my mother was in the kitchen with Demetri.
“What did the doctor say?” Mom asked.
“Just a cold. Can you pick this up for me at Rite Aid?” I said, handing her the slip of paper.
“I’ll go,” Demetri said. “I’m going out with Maria anyway.”
“I really appreciate it, Demetri,” I said. “I’m going to sleep.”
I waddled upstairs to my bedroom, still darkened by my heavy curtains. I slipped into bed and turned on my radio to a classical station. I lay in bed for awhile until I was in a deep doze, not quite asleep, but not quite awake either. When the darkness finally hit completely, I thought it would be nice to sleep forever. Or at least until I figured things out in my head.
After about two more days of coughing, sneezing, and fatigue, I was finally healthy again. The first thing on my do-to list was to go grocery shopping for a dinner my mother insisted on having with all of my relatives to celebrate my engagement for what felt like the tenth time. I didn’t see why it was such a big deal. They had all known since last month. But I didn’t want to argue, so I just went to Shop Rite with my mom’s list.
When I pulled into the parking lot, I had a lot on my mind. Everything was running across my brain at once, and it felt like that episode of Spongebob when he needed to clear his mind out so he could focus on being a waiter at a fancy restaurant. I grabbed a shopping cart and started moving towards the store. As I pulled out the shopping list from my purse, I wondered what it would be like to be married to Nick and raise children with him. What if we separated? Or divorced? Where would we be then? The thought scared me, so I pushed it away as far as possible in the back of my head. Now, what was it I needed? Oh right, three bags of salad.
Half of the list was checked off, and I was waiting at the deli counter impatiently. That’s when the unexpected happened. Let me change that. Completely unexpected. At first, I thought he looked familiar, but I was so distracted by my thoughts that I didn’t really pay attention. The back of his head, his posture. Everything about him was easily recognizable. But I didn’t notice that it was Peter until he turned around and groaned, also annoyed by the long wait.
And somehow, time stopped as I looked into those crystal blue eyes. Those same eyes that I dreamt about when I was sixteen. Those beautiful gems that I fell in love with when he talked to me in the church for the first time.
Could I kiss you?
Then, he said something, ruining the moment of recollection.
“Um, Christina . . . is that you?” he asked, unsure of himself.
“Well, I would hope so. Because if I wasn’t, then that would be awkward,” I said suddenly.
He laughed. I missed that sound.
“Peter Demas,” he said, sticking out his hand as a joke.
I shook it anyway. His hand felt beautiful.
“How have you been?” he asked. “How was college?”
“It’s been so long . . . uh, yes, I graduated from Rutgers two years ago. I got back from Europe a little over a month ago . . . but, yeah, what’s been up with you?”
“I applied to med school to become a physician,” he said. “But I’m not doing much else. It’s just been school, school, and more school.”
“Well, good for you,” I said, giving him a smile. “I’m sure your family is very proud.”
“They won’t be proud until I’m the big shot doctor they always wanted me to be,” he said, chuckling slightly.
“I wish you the best of luck.” The line was still barely moving. Goodness, how many people were getting deli meat today?
“So . . .,” he trailed. I could listen to his voice for hours. No matter what he said.
“Are you, um, free . . . sometime?”
I was busy swimming in his eyes of the Mediterranean Sea to realize that he was about to ask me out on a date. And suddenly, I remembered I had left my engagement ring at home, too consumed in my thoughts and worries. Reality came crashing back down on me, and I snapped back to our conversation.
“Um, uh . . .” I was at a loss for words.
“Number Thirty-Two!” the lady behind the deli counter called. I would need to thank her later because Peter stepped up to place his order, which gave me a short amount of time to think about what the hell I was going to say.
After all the years I wasted liking guys that were jerks, I finally found Peter. He was sweet, smart, and charming. His only flaw was that he’d waited forever to finally speak to me. To tell me the words I’d always fantasized about hearing. But now, I was engaged to Nick. And I couldn’t do anything about it.
When Peter was done placing his order, he turned back around to me.
“Maybe we can go out this Thursday?” I blurted out.
“Sure,” he said, almost relieved. “Uh, I’ll pick you up at seven?”
“Uh, no . . . um, I’ll meet you at . . . how’s Ruby Tuesday’s?” I stuttered.
“That’s great. Can I have your number?” he said with a smile.
I wrote it down on a post-it note from my purse and gave it to him, feeling shaky.
“I guess I will see you Thursday at seven,” he confirmed. The deli counter lady gave Peter his sandwich and deli meat.
“Bye, Christina,” he said, giving me a small kiss on the cheek.
“Bye . . .”
What did I just do?
This was probably the most stupid thing I had ever done in my life. Even more idiotic than the time I tried to act ‘cool’ when I was at a hotel with my youth group. Since I was in front all of the popular kids, I’d managed to make myself look a complete loser by taking Michael’s hat and putting it on before saying,
“Peace yo, I’m feelin’ ghetto tonight.”
Everyone stared at me like I had grown a second head. And of course, it was all my fault for even thinking I could be a part of the ‘in’ crowd for once. Psht. What a joke.
But anyways, back to the point: I was engaged, yet I also had a date with a guy that I’d dreamed about marrying, without the slightest hopes that I ever would. Now that Peter and I had met again, the timing couldn’t have been worse. If only I had dated Nick before now. Maybe then things wouldn’t be so mixed up. I didn’t want to cheat on Nick. I didn’t want Peter to know I was engaged. Actually, I didn’t want to be engaged. I wanted to start my life, but it was put on hold when Nick pulled that velvet box out of his pocket. Suddenly, I grew very angry; Nick had caused all of this. Nick with his stupid, selfish needs. If he had loved me so much, then why hadn’t he said so in the first place? We had known each other for sixteen years. Sixteen years and he’d waited until now to screw my life up.
And I decided that I didn’t care anymore. I was going to date Peter. I wouldn’t tell Nick or my family, or anyone, for that matter. The engagement didn’t matter to me. It didn’t then, it didn’t now, and it never would.
On Thursday night, I dressed in nice jeans and my favorite, flowing pink top and wedges. I curled my hair and applied my makeup to perfection. I was putting on my favorite earrings when my mom walked in with laundry and asked where I was going.
“Um, out with the girls,” I lied. “Dinner and then we’re going to see Snow White and the Huntsman.”
“That sounds nice,” she said. “Have a good time.”
“I’ll be home by eleven,” I told her.
“Be safe,” she answered, leaving my bedroom.
I supposed she wouldn’t ever give up on that motherly instinct. Even when I was forty, married with four kids and had enough experience to handle the full responsibilities of adulthood. So far, I wasn’t doing so well.
When I hopped in my car, I called Peter. He answered almost immediately.
“Hi Christina, I’m driving to the restaurant now,” he said nervously.
“That’s great, Peter. I’m just leaving. See you in about fifteen?”
“See you then,” he said, his voice more relaxed. “Bye.”
“Bye.” I clicked END on the phone and started my car. For a split second, I almost reconsidered what I was doing. But then I shook my head, and drove off. No one would find out. I promised myself this.
Peter met me at the restaurant and gave me a sweet hug. We sat down at a nice booth for two and ordered food as soon as the waitress came back with our drinks. While we waited, we talked about everything. It was as if I was talking with an old friend. Peter loved his senior year in high school and he actually didn’t want to be a physician. He had dreamed about becoming a college professor, but his parents thought being a teacher was a horrible idea because they didn’t make as good money. His youngest sister, Melina was graduating from high school this up coming year. And he loved dogs and home-cooked food. I learned more about Peter in the first twenty minutes we spent together than I ever thought I would. He asked me lots of questions, listened to me, and enjoyed my presence. It felt strange. Nick had never just talked with me since we’d gotten engaged. All he seemed to care about was kissing. Even when I told him I wasn’t sure if I was ready for our relationship to escalate this quickly, he still didn’t understand. Peter never took his eyes off of me. He never interrupted me. He was the perfect gentleman.
After we had eaten, he took me out to his car.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Just wait,” he said.
“You do know that I still have to take my car home, right?”
“I’ll bring you back . . . eventually,” he said, giving me a wink.
I trusted him. He would never hurt me.
“Where are we?” was my question when Peter pulled up to a vacant lot, facing a flood of trees.
“Alone,” he answered.
My heart started pounding a million miles a second when Peter leaned in towards me. And as soon as his lips touched mine, I regretted it.
When I got home, my parents were in their bedroom with the TV on, so I snuck into my room, hoping they wouldn’t notice I was home. Peter promised me next Saturday another date. I couldn’t reject him because then he would ask me why and besides, I liked him. Which was what scared me so much.