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Flames

It was beautiful, and horrible, and wonderful, and real.

Photo by PICSELI 

Church bells ring and somehow my heartbeat is in synchronization with them. Today is my big day… I knew this day would come, but I always thought I’d be walking down the aisle to someone different.

He was the perfect guy; sweet, funny, had a great job, and came from a well-mannered family. He finished high school and went on to become a pediatric surgeon. Who else would you want, right?

Charles and I had been dating for a few years, and he always treated me well. I don’t think he ever made me cry, and our fights could barely be counted as fights. We moved in together after a year, and two years later he asked me to marry him. I said yes, obviously, or I wouldn’t be standing at the back of this church with a veil irritating my face. Who invented these things, and why did I let my mother talk me into wearing one?

Before Mr. Nearly Perfect came into the picture, my life was… a bit different. I was madly in love with my high school sweetheart.

His name was Jay, but to me he was McMiddle. I gave him the nickname because he wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t good; he was in the middle. Played practically every sport (always excelled in each one), but his favorite was baseball; his grades were satisfactory, and he never got into too much trouble. He was sort of a mix between class clown and typical jock, and I knew of him because I was friends with his friends on the football and baseball teams. I went to a bunch of football and baseball games and knew who the players were.

My grades were always great, I played one sport a year because I needed to be home to help my single mom with my brother and sister, and I never got in trouble because it would have been worse for me if my mom found out. I participated in the Culture Club and that’s where we met. He was a year ahead of me and had signed up to join, but it wasn’t until the first club meeting that he noticed me. My best friend was trying to address our club members, but everyone kept talking over her and not paying attention. Finally, I stood up and yelled for everyone to shut up and listen. It was all crickets from that point on. The club meeting ended and our day went on.

Just before 4th period English was about to begin, my friend Drew — who was also in Culture Club and on the football team — pulled me aside.

“Nicole! Dude, someone’s got a crush on you.”

When he said his name I knew exactly who he was talking about, only because he was our school’s Varsity shortstop, and he was really good.

“I was sitting right next to him at the meeting. He noticed you when you stood up for Karly,” he said, winking at me.

I rolled my eyes and told him to get to class before were both late.

Later that night Drew called me up and mentioned Jay again. Little did I know, he had three-way called me and Jay was on the other line, listening in until the opportune moment to make his presence known. When I heard his voice, I damn near dropped my phone. “Holy crap,” I thought. Jay is on the phone. Anyway, our mutual, sneaky friend eventually hung up so we could talk more, and before I knew it three hours passed by. We made plans to hang out the next day after my fast pitch practice and it was all fireworks from there.

Like I said, we were madly in love. He would walk me to class even if his were clear across campus and he had to run so he wasn’t late, we’d eat lunch together, go to each other’s games and be the loudest ones cheering, and he always made me laugh.

When we weren’t laughing, we were fighting. It turns out, when you’re so much alike, you tend to bump heads. I can’t even remember what we would fight about, but boy did we know how to fight. We’d yell each other, I’d hit him, he’d walk away, I’d break down and cry, and then he’d come running back to me. We thought we would be together forever.

One day, my best friend Karly came up to me during lunch — Jay sat with his football heathens that day — with the news that changed everything.

In high school, I took my virginity pretty seriously. I knew I didn’t want to have sex until the right person came along, and even then I wanted to wait until I was at least out of high school and mature enough to make that kind of potentially life-altering decision. So Jay and I had never gone “all the way.”

Karly, being my best friend since the third grade, walked up to me with a look on her face as if she had seen a ghost. When I asked what was wrong, she told me to follow her. She led me into the foreign language hall, away from all the cafeteria noise and where no one could hear our conversation.

“Don’t freak out, OK?” she started.

“OK, that right there is already making me freak out. What’s going on Kar?”

She replied, “I was in the locker room after gym, changing before the bell rang, and you know that blonde chick in History no one likes?”

“Eww, yeah the one whose legs can’t seem to close?” Trust me, if you spent five minutes with her, you’d know.

“Well…”

“Oh my gosh, spit it out, the suspense is killing me.” As you can see, I’m a little impatient.

“She was bragging about sleeping with #5 on the baseball team…”

Now I was the one who looked like I saw a ghost.

“What do you mean, are you sure she said #5? Varsity baseball?” I had to clarify; there was a chance she was talking about someone else.

Karly’s eyes were spilling over with sadness and anger for me.

“I’m so sorry, Nic. That whore has second lunch, wanna skip 4th period and kick her ass?”

I was still trying to make sense of everything. “Wait, so what else did she say? Tell me everything.” I needed to make sure it was my #5 she was bragging about.

“Well… she said they did it in the back of his Bronco, and that he was so good, and that she almost felt bad that his girlfriend’s picture was taped to the dash.” Karly would never lie to me. I knew I could trust her. And I knew it was the right #5. He was the only one in school who drove a Bronco. And that picture she was talking about was the picture he made me print out for him when he got that Bronco.

“I need some air.” I walked out to the school parking lot with Karly following. I didn’t know what to think or what to say to her. I was angry and hurt and dumbfounded that something like this could happen to me.

Just as Karly was about to say something, she stopped and started yelling.

“Don’t you dare go near her, you ASSHOLE!” I turned around and there was. McCheater. I quickly reacted and got in between who I would have called the two most important people in my life; now just the one important person and the one person I couldn’t even find a dirty enough word to describe. 

I told Karly “I got this,” and asked her to wait inside for me. I had to ask a few times though; she’s a bit overprotective and I knew she wanted to give him a piece of her mind, and foot. Eventually she gave in and walked away, glaring.

“What’s her problem?” He wasn’t very bright. God bless his pretty head, but that’s all it was.

“Are you sure you don’t know?” It took everything in me to keep calm.

“What do you mean, babe?”

“I’m going to give you one chance to be honest with me. One time I am going to ask you, and if I don’t hear the truth, don’t ever speak to me again.” I bet my face was redder than a chili pepper from trying not to explode with rage.

It took him a few seconds, but his facial expression went from “huh?” to “oh, shit.”

The pleading began. “Okay wait, let me explain. It wasn’t planned, and I swear she doesn’t mean anything.”

Again, I was trying to comprehend the whole thing. What was even happening? I was at a loss for words… for a second.

“I cannot believe you. After everything we’ve been through, after everything… Why? Why would you do this? What, am I not good enough to wait for? Do you really have that little self-control?” I was so angry my ears were ringing; I’m surprised I could hear myself speak.

He replied with, “I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. It meant nothing…”

He sure did look sorry. Not enough for me, though.

“Was she good?”

He had the nerve to pause.

“That told me everything I need to know. You know what, she can have you. I don’t want you anymore. I’m done.”

“Please babe, don’t…” He had started to follow me.

“I have nothing else to say to you. Leave me alone.” With tears in my eyes, I walked to class with Karly trying to hug me and walk at the same time. It wasn’t very convenient and we were going to be late for History, but I appreciated the comforting embrace of someone who had my best interest at heart.

After school, he didn’t even go to practice. Instead he waited for mine to be finished to beg and plead some more for me to listen to him long enough to explain himself. I continued to ignore him while I walked to my car and drove off. That night my phone would not shut up. Text after text, call after call, voicemail after voicemail. He filled my voicemail up so he was forced to just text and call. He must have called a hundred times before I finally answered.

“Please leave me alone, I’m trying to go to bed.” It was almost 2 in the morning.

I could tell he had been crying and trying to hide it. “Babe, please… Please just give me a chance to explain.”

“I don’t want an explanation, I want you to stop calling me, and stop calling me babe,” I answered dryly.

I knew he wasn’t going to give up. “I’m not going to stop until you give me a chance to talk to you. Please Nic, can we just meet after your game tomorrow? Just give me a chance to talk and then if you still want to never speak to me again, I’ll leave you alone forever.”

“Fine. We can talk after my game. Now let me go to sleep, some of us care about our grades.”

I hung up, and I was somewhat mad at the fact that I couldn’t slam one of those old school house phones like my grandparents used to have. That really expressed your anger for the person on the other end of the line.

The next day came and he met me at my car before school.

“Hi… You look beautiful today.” He tried his best to look innocent and my eyes could not have rolled hard enough.

“I told you after my game. Until then please act like I don’t exist.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Watch me, and figure it out.” I walked into school by myself. Karly had been waiting just past the front door in case he tried to walk with me. She would have set him straight, I know it. She was always good like that.

The whole day I was dreading my fast pitch game. It was a home game, and I was doing my usual stretches and warm ups with Kar when McAsshole (we were coming up with all kinds of fun names for him now), pulled up with one of his giant signs he would make for me to hold up at every game. He used to tell me “my fan section” was full, even if it was only him in the bleachers. We finally ended with a win, and I had almost forgotten about our arrangement because I was in a good mood. He walked up to me while I was dusting my cleats off to change into my sneakers and smiled.

“Hey… good game, Champ.” I always loved it when he said that. But now I feel like vomiting.

I told him, “Let’s get this over with, I want to go home and shower.”

The whole time he spoke he was going on and on about how she approached him, and of course, he told her he had a girlfriend, but she wouldn’t get the picture. Eventually he forgot why she was even talking to him and started to actually enjoy their conversation because it was just about random stuff. “We actually have a lot in common.” I could not believe he hit me with that.

I scoffed. “Oh I’m so glad, I’m sure you two will make a great couple.”

Still he went on to say that she didn’t mean anything, and it was just a moment of bad judgment and he’d never do anything to hurt me intentionally.

“Okay, I feel so much better now! Wow, thank you. So when you were unintentionally putting your tongue down her throat, and unintentionally letting her mount you — or was it the other way around? — Did you unintentionally forget that you had a girlfriend who you’d been with for, oh, I don’t know, damn near four years?” I was yelling at this point. I usually try not to, but I was allowed this moment, damn it.

“I made a mistake, Nic. I’m human. I mean geez, you’re not perfect, you make mistakes too.” I was even angrier that he chose to answer with that.

“Yeah, I make mistakes. I forget to gas my car until I’m running on fumes and almost ended up stranded on the side of the road; I put shrink-to-fit jeans in the dryer; I drop food in between the counter and the stove and knowingly leave it there. What you did… that was a decision.” He had nothing to come back with.

I thought that was a good way to end the conversation, but my mouth started moving before I knew it. “You know what, you should be happy. Now you can have all the sex you want. And I don’t have to feel so pressured and feel bad that I’m not ‘giving it up’ to my boyfriend. Excuse me for not wanting to end up pregnant in high school. Congratulations, you got your freedom.”

“But I don’t want freedom. I want you. And I’m sorry for making you feel pressured; I never wanted to make you feel as though you needed to break your own rules for me. I respect you for having standards. Please just don’t throw us away for one stupid mishap, give me one more chance,” he pleaded.

The last words I ever spoke to him were, “I didn’t throw us away; you did. I loved you with all of me, and you stepped on that. I would have followed you anywhere you went — any college you chose — and you crushed those plans. Our relationship was never a walk in the park, and we had big stupid fights, but I trusted you with my heart, and I never in a million years thought you would do something like this… I never want to speak to you again. Goodbye Jay…”

His graduation came and he moved out of town. I moved to California, and I heard he got a scholarship to play shortstop for North Carolina. Years passed and I moved on. I still knew a little about him because Karly would always update me, regardless of the fact that I would tell her not to. She was as overprotective as she was forgetful.

Fast-forward to the week before last. I had been making last minute decisions for the wedding, when my phone rang. It was a message on Facebook from my past.

“Hey, stranger.”

It just so happened that Karly was helping me with my wedding plans, as all good maids of honor should, and she heard me say “What… The… Hell…”

She dropped everything she was doing and rushed over behind me to look over my shoulder at my phone. At the same time we asked, “What the hell does he want?”

“Are you gonna reply?” she eagerly asked.

“Why do you sound all excited, I thought we hate this guy.” I was confused.

She tried to change her tone and failed, “We do, but I mean… Well, are you?”

“What is this? Why do you want me to message him?” Still confused here.

“I don’t, I’m just curious is all. I mean you guys were pretty heavy in high school.”

“Yeah, right before he cheated on me with Ms. Legs Wide Open.” Can you tell we had a thing for nicknaming people?

“All I’m saying is isn’t it weird that he’s messaging you two weeks before you wedding day?” She did have a point, but I hated that she had a point. And part of me was also thinking the same thing.

I ended up replying with a simple “Hi,” and we go to catching up. After talking about how our lives had changed since our fallout, he asked me to meet him for coffee.

“Oh my god he’s in town visiting his family, and he wants to meet for coffee, what do I say?” If you only knew how many text replies best friends write for each other.

“DO IT! I wanna know what he has to say.” Karly was way too interested at this point.

Finally, I agreed to meet him the next day for coffee. I really hate that he hadn’t changed one bit. He was still so handsome and still had that stupid grin on his face. Couldn’t you have gotten fat? I was almost regretting meeting him.

We talked some more, he talked about his marriage and divorce, and I told him about my nearly perfect fiancé. He asked if I was happy, and for the life of me, I could not come up with an answer. Sure, I was happy that my fiancé wasn’t beating me or constantly on my back about always hanging out with my friends, but I had realized my relationship was so comfortable… it was almost too comfortable. There was no spark, no excitement when we kissed, no fire. Compared to my relationship with Jay, it was a sad song. Holy crap, why am I even comparing it to my relationship with the one who tore my heart into pieces?

"So why didn't it work out with your wife?" I curiously asked.

He softly gazed toward me and said, "She wasn't you."

“I’m sorry, I have to go, I just remembered I have somewhere to be.” I was trying my best to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, and he wasn’t having it.

“Whoa, wait a minute liar, don’t go just yet. We’re not done hanging out.” I always hated how charming he was.

I said, “Oh really? I thought it was just coffee.”

“No, of course not, I have somewhere to take you.”

I was really regretting meeting him now. “I can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?” he called my bluff.

“Come on Nic… for old times’ sake. Please?” 

God, why was he still cute?

I gave in. “Okay, but nowhere far and not too much longer, I’m meeting Kar later.”

“Oh, how is your pit-bull doing?”

I punched him. “She’s not my pit-bull. You’re just mad your best friend sucks.”

He laughed at me the way he always did; when he thought I was being cute. I hated that I remembered that.

We got in his rental car and drove to the outskirts of town, where we used to always hang out when we couldn’t come up with anything else to do. Just sat on the hood and talked.

“Remember this place?” he asked.

How could I forget? I answered, “Yeah, I do.”

We sat on the hood of the car, and then it came. The conversation I didn’t want to have.

“So, are you sure you wanna marry this guy? I mean does he really know you? Like I know you?”

I looked at him, “Whoa wait, please do not assume that you know me. It’s been years since we’ve been together, OK? So just don’t do that. And how dare you? He’s a great guy!”

“If he’s so great, why are you up here with me?” he asked.

Now I was getting mad. “Because you wouldn’t drop it, and I was being nice.”

He replied, “Oh, but if you’re so in love with him, you wouldn’t want to be nice to me.”

“He’s really good to me, and you know what, he’s never made me as angry as you used to. God, you’re still making me angry, what the hell!” I was pacing at this point. He always got under my skin with little to no effort.
He got off the hood of the car and walked over to me. “Look, I know you. I know you hate scrambled eggs. I know you love the smell of Christmas trees and your favorite holiday is Easter. I know you can watch those sappy movies a million times and still cry, like a weirdo. I know you can’t sleep unless your night-light is on and your 500 pillows are all arranged the way you like it. I know your sister gave you that scar on your forehead.”

I scoffed, “Anyone who knows me well enough knows all of that.”

He went on, “I know you hate losing, and you hate when people try to talk to you when the ball game is on, but you’re too nice to tell them to shut up, unless it’s me. I know you love things with all your heart; there’s no lower or middle ground. I know I hurt you… in the most horrible way. And I know how sorry I am for that and I’ve never regretted something so much in my life, to this day."

I looked at him and it was like we were back at the softball field again, fighting for the last time.

“What do you want me to say? I’m getting married in two weeks; you can’t just tell me all these things and make me feel all these ways. I forgave you a long time ago, but you can’t expect me to drop everything just because you’re back in my life… I’m not going to hurt a good man for someone I know will eventually hurt me again. Can you please just take me back to my car? I need to go meet Karly.”

It was complete silence the whole ride back.

Just before I got out of the car, he stopped me.

“I really am sorry. And I really have regretted hurting you every day since. I hope he makes you happy; you deserve the world.”

I couldn’t say anything. I closed the door and walked to my car.

Two weeks were up. He attempted to call me once a day for several days after our meet, but the calls stopped two days prior to the wedding.

I was finally getting all dolled up for my big day. Karly was looking at me with those “Are you sure?” eyes and I just kept giving her my “Drop it” eyes. I always loved that we could communicate using no words at all. She put my veil on and we walked to the limo.

The whole ride to the church, I couldn’t help but think of all the things Jay had said to me that day we had coffee. He was right; my near perfect almost-husband didn’t know me as well as he did. But like I said, he was good to me. And that was enough… Wasn’t it?

We get to the church and everyone’s already inside. My heart is racing as the doors swing open and the organ plays. I walk slowly down the aisle after my beautiful bridesmaids and handsome groomsmen, and when I see his face, I force a smile. As the preacher gives his opening prayer I just keep telling myself, “This is a good idea. He’s a good guy. You love him enough to make a good life with him.”

When the preacher says that line about objecting, I had already convinced myself that I was doing the right thing, and then the doors fling open.

“WAIT! I object! Did you already say that part? Because I object. Fully and profusely object,” he was out of breath and his timing is impeccable. My jaw drops and my poor fiancé is confused.

“Honey, who is this guy?” he asks.

He responds, “Uh, Honey, I’m this woman’s man. Well… I used to be. And then I screwed up, but I could be her man again. If she’ll let me.” Talk about a face palm moment.

Karly steps in and says, “Jesus Jay, get on with it already.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks, Pit-Bull.” He winks at her, but he knows he’s getting gut-punched later.

He takes a step toward me and says, “I know I messed up. And I’m sorry for ruining your wedding day. You look amazing, by the way. But I couldn’t not try. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life, and I can only live with one regret.”

He inched closer and closer to the altar. “I know I hurt you real bad. And I know I was wrong. I should not have cheated on you; I was young and stupid, and I didn’t know just how good I had it when I was with you. You could tell me high school relationships aren’t even serious, but ours was. You are the best thing that ever happened to me, and my life was never the same when you walked out of it. Every home run, every amazing double, triple play I made… it never felt as good as when you were there to cheer me on. We were just kids, but you were always beyond your years. Beyond me, that’s for sure. And you were smart to let go of me; I would have let go of me. But now I’m asking for another chance. Again. Just one more, and I promise you, I will spend the rest of my life making that one mistake up to you… and probably a lot more, because let’s face it, I’m me. But never that same mistake. I will never again betray you like that, and I will do whatever it takes to win back your trust. To earn it back. I know you said he’s a good guy, and honestly buddy you do seem like a good guy. I mean you’ve been listening to me talk this whole time and you never interrupted me. Kudos to you because I would have just socked you in the face for trying if the tables were turned.”

“Focus!” Karly always had my back, but you could tell Charles was flattered. Did he forget what we were there for?

“Oh right! Nic… Sweetheart, I love you. I never stopped loving you. Please give me another chance to prove that you belong with me.”

I was in tears at this point.

“You know, I forgave you years ago… A part of me always hoped our paths would cross again, but when they didn’t I let that notion go. I’m not sure I ever let you go, but I had grown used to the fact that we were over.”

I turned to my ever so patient groom.

“Charles… you don’t want to marry me.”

“I don’t?”

In my most sincere voice, I explained, “No… And I’m sorry I never realized this before all the wedding stuff. But I never really loved you. I mean I care for you a great deal. But face it, we were never in love. You really are a good man. You always make sure I’m taken care of, and you never argue with me, even when I’m being near impossible. But I gave my heart away a long time ago. I just didn’t realize that it was never returned. I’m so sorry.”

I was waiting for an angry reply or maybe a little name-calling, but all he said was, “If you’re 100% sure, then OK. All I want is for you to be happy; even if it’s not with me. And if he makes you happy… then alright.”

He kissed my forehead and made his way toward the exit, with his family following after him.

Just then the flames I thought had been put out years ago, burned as bright as ever. My high school sweetheart scooped me up in his arms and we kissed like brand new lovers.

“I always knew we’d end up together again,” he spoke through his kisses and I tried not to smile so hard.

“Yeah, right, liar,” I said.

The preacher cleared his throat. “Are we still having a wedding today?”

Just then he pulled away, paused, and then got down on one knee.
“Nicole Iris Kennedy… will you be my wife?” His voice was shaky.

“Yes,” I replied, smiling from ear to ear with tears rolling down my face.
The ceremony continued, and I became Mrs. McMiddle.

We made our way to the reception hall, danced and laughed the night away, and ended up in the hotel suite I was supposed to be sharing with that other guy. As I was taking my heels off, whining from my aching feet, he just sat there and watched me.

“You know… it’s rude to stare,” I said.

He gave me my favorite grin and softly replied, “It’s hard not to when you look like that.”

He made his way toward the bed and knelt in front of me. “I am by far the luckiest man in the universe, and I’m never letting you go again.”

He wrapped his arms around my waist and put his head in my lap. I smiled and caressed his back, and we just held each other, relishing in the realization that our bond had never broken. Wounds heal and people forgive, and some flames can never be put out.

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