One unseasonably warm night in April, my friend invited everyone we knew over for a campfire. Her family had one of those outdoor fireplaces. Unlike the fancy, stylish ones people build now, amidst lovely stamped concrete and Pottery Barn sectionals, this was an old-world, stone fireplace with a tall chimney. We gathered up blankets and pop and settled in the damp grass around the thing, heads bent together with giggles and gossip, all the things that make being seventeen years old great.
I was on an old flannel blanket that already smelled like outside, seated beside my good friend Carolyn. Because she was loyal and good, Carolyn was willing to spend more than her fair share of the night hatching a plan with me to make sure that one certain boy, one boy alone, was in my car that night on the ride home. I think you can guess who he was.
When he approached the blanket, flopping down on his side next to me, Carolyn, being loyal and good, excused herself with a fantastically lame reason for leaving. Probably something like, "Oh, I see something shiny over there!" Because this is what good friends--best friends--do. They find fantastically lame excuses to leave you alone with the boy you've loved not-so-secretly for two and half years. So you can make sure he needs you, and you alone, to drive him home.
Which is exactly what happened. A simply agreement, an easy question: Hey do you need a ride home? And his answer: Yeah, I think I do. And since it was April, it was a sure thing that the night would grow chillier. When this boy asked me to move closer to the fire, to sit closer to him, and would I mind if he put his arm around me so we could both stay warmer? I had to say yes, of course that would be fine, because it was purely survival against potential hypothermia. It wasn't because his arm around me gave me chills that had nothing to do with the weather, or because when he leaned down to talk to me in my ear his breath felt like butterfly kisses against my cheek.
When ashes and sparks exploded from the fire because teenage boys will be teenage boys who throw too much lighter fluid and too many logs into the flames too often, and the smell of smoke and earth and spring night swirled around me, and he leaned down and whispered, "You are so pretty tonight," all I could think was, I am so glad to be me.
It was time to go home too soon, and I almost laughed out loud when he said, "What happened to Carolyn, isn't she coming in your car, too?" just as she ran by calling out manically, "Alice is taking me home, I'll call you tomorrow!" He couldn't know what "I'll call you tomorrow" meant, how full of promise that was, because it meant there was something we had to talk about.
The ride home was dark, and because we were cold the car heater was blasting against our feet and our cheeks. I turned the radio low, but it seemed to be a loud overriding soundtrack against the hissing of the heater and the car engine, and when Elvis Presley began singing "Can't Help Falling In Love," I knew I would never, ever forget this night. And I also felt...because it was April and because we could not help but be falling in love right now tonight this minute, I was going to get asked to a prom. Finally. Declarations of love, possible kissing, but definitely the prom. Most certainly.
The car drove around the bend toward his house in his quiet neighborhood. Some houses were still lit, but his was dark, save for the porch light. I pulled into his driveway with a bump, bump, as my front and then back wheels went over the curb. Unwillingly, I turned down the radio, our song, so he could speak. He had turned toward me in the car, unhooking his seatbelt to do so.
"I want to ask you something," he said, in a voice small but strong in that dark, dark car.
"Okay," I said, feigning a nonchalance I would never, ever feel.
"Do you think...do you think I should ask Kelly to my prom?"
Kelly? Kelly. Kelly? Kelly was my friend, my good friend. Not Carolyn, not Alice, but another very good and loyal friend. And I sat there...the radio nearly off now and the air filled with the sound of our breathing in my overly heated car and...I felt sharp pangs in my heart as I thought, No, No, No, you have it all wrong.
But I said, "Of course, I think that would be great," because what else was I really going to say? I couldn't say, "Pick me, please, please just choose me." For good measure, I added, "I will call her tomorrow and make sure she says yes. She'd be stupid not to."
And this is how memories are made and how grudges are formed. The only grudge I will ever hang on to, that my future husband once chose the wrong girl and broke my heart.
And maybe I'm a good enough writer that you can feel that pang in your heart right now, because we all know how high school felt and how miserable those moments of grievous disappointment were.
Or maybe I'm not that good, and you just know that, in the end, it simply doesn't matter.
Because one fine day, six years later, Joe Bielecki would be sitting in a dark, dark car beside me, Bon Jovi playing on the radio (who is far, far better than one Elvis song, let's all agree), and saying, "Why didn't you tell me not to? Why didn't you just ask me to choose you?" and when we laughed softly together in the dark, dark car, he would add the conclusion to our funny little story (though I'll never stop holding the grudge) by saying, "I love you, Mary Pat. You are so right for me."
He calls me a firecracker because of my bad, bad temper. He gets all tight-lipped and twitchy-jawed when I lose my cellphone and my keys AGAIN, and when I forget to pick up his drycleaning the day before a big meeting with his boss, and why don't I just do the ironing, anyway? And he takes off his shoes in our house because I am germophobic, and he tiptoes and whispers after seven pm because I don't want to wake our children, and he wakes up feeling like he is on fire in the middle of the night NOT because I am so sexy but because when I sleep I turn into some sort of wild human furnace and bake our bed to about 700 degrees. He calls my mother when he absolutely doesn't know what to do with me, and I listen to his side of the conversation, consisting of many I knows and I tried thats and thank yous. He brings me flowers and he does something that is very rare for him...he apologizes when he sees that, well, I'm just always so right. And perfect.
I am not perfect, and he is not perfect, and our life is not perfect. But eight years ago, my God, eight years--he managed to reverse the evil of asking Kelly to prom (which didn't go well, if you were wondering). Eight years ago, the front doors to the church were thrown open, and at the end of what seemed like the whole world he stood, his twinkly blue eyes lit up with everything I love about him: hope, goodness, and love. For me.
Falling in love is easy, I think. And commonplace. But staying in love, that is quite different. Staying in love is one of the hardest things two people will ever have to do. It is work, and it is hard, and it has to withstand the crazy of both people. And sometimes death threats.
And staying in love with your best friend? Well...that's just about the most wonderful thing there is, don't you think? I do.
Happy Anniversary, Joe Bielecki. You finally picked the right girl.