As I flipped through the selection of CDs at Goodwill, I found myself unimpressed. I was just about to give it up and walk away when the cover of All That We Let In by the Indigo Girls caught my eye. The woman on the cover intrigued me. She reminded me of myself in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. I carried my newfound treasure over to my wife, Rachel, who was engrossed in her search for a cute sweater or two to fortify her against the cold weather that was swiftly approaching.
I held on to the CD all the way to the register, and fished it out of the bag as soon as we’d paid. We listened to it in the car on the way home, and I studied the liner notes as though trying to divine its secrets. As the first verses of “Free In You” began, I looked out the window lost in my thoughts, drifting back to the beginning of my life with Rachel.
Chapter 1: A First Glance
A long look
But no luck
I first met Rachel after we’d already been married for five years.
To be totally fair, that’s when she first met Rachel too. Prior to that, she’d been living as my husband Joe.
We locked eyes as he passed, and my brain came to a standstill. Internally, I screamed. Speak, you idiot! Say something!
Joe entered my life in the fall of 2006. I was spending a lot of time on school grounds avoiding the painfully long drive from my mom’s house to campus. The unseasonably warm weather frequently drew me outside to a spot under a tree across from the student center.
One day, I was stretched out on the grass soaking up the early evening sun before driving home. I was engrossed in The Phantom Tollbooth, an old favorite from my childhood I was re-reading for Children’s Lit, when the peripheral glance of a passerby snatched my attention. Something about him took my breath away. He wasn’t stunningly handsome, but he carried himself with the stature of one who doesn’t give a fuck what you think. I spent the next few seconds hurriedly strategizing. I wanted to talk to him, but what could I say that would be so compelling that he’d stop? We locked eyes as he passed, and my brain came to a standstill. Internally, I screamed. Speak, you idiot! Say something!
Chapter 2: A Chance Encounter
A quick glance
A big chance
I took a deep breath and prepared to enter the party, which was in full swing already. I eased into the room, peeking around the corner at the clusters of people, noting familiar faces from the bookstore where I worked. I tentatively took my first steps into the living room.
My friend Sam crossed the room and threw an arm across my shoulder. “Hey, I got a bottle of Grey Goose.” My eyes lit up, and he jerked his head in the direction of the kitchen. “It’s in there, but you’ll have to ask nicely.”
I grinned, and turned towards the kitchen. Then I froze, startled. There he was again — the one from outside the student center. He’d been showing up everywhere lately: across the hall in geography class, then again on my first day at the bookstore, arranging the displays of pens. Now, he was at the party in my friend’s apartment. I had to take a few shots before I could work up the courage to say anything. I wracked my brain for something clever, but the only thing I could think of was the geography test we’d just had. Fuck it, I was just going to go for it.
“So,” I said coyly, “are you as tired of hearing about adiabatic lapse rate as I am?”
…his breath tickling my ear. My pulse quickened, and I felt my face go hot. Something new began to stir inside me.
Chapter 3: A Brief Opening
My heart beat like a drum
Joe slid a piece of paper across the desk and tucked it under my notebook. I glanced at him out of my peripheral vision as the teacher droned on about Tchaikovsky, who she was currently confusing with Beethoven. Joe’s eyes were locked on the professor, but I detected a small smile. I lightly tilted my head her direction and gave a slight roll of my eyes. The smile turned into a smirk, and he nodded toward the note he’d passed. I unfolded the small square of paper and read, “Want to go hiking tonight? I want you to meet someone.” I’d never been hiking and was less than enthusiastic, but Joe had plans to set me up with Brandon. If all went well, he could deflect his girlfriend’s growing jealousy and consolidate his closest friends to a couple in one fell swoop.
A few miles in, I was not loving it. Brandon was a very experienced hiker, and I was having trouble with the pace. I stumbled and swore up the trail. We came to a narrow pass. I hugged close to the rock, petrified of the fifty-foot drop mere inches from my feet. The trail was icy in places from early snow, and I slipped. Instantly, strong arms circled my waist, steadying me.
“I’ve got you,” Joe said, his breath tickling my ear. My pulse quickened, and I felt my face go hot. Something new began to stir inside me. He’d never touched me like that. I chalked it up to adrenaline, but as we lay on a rock staring up at the stars, I couldn’t shake the sound of his voice in my ears and the feeling of his arms around my waist.
About a month later, I was woken up by my phone. I checked the clock and groaned. It was 10 pm, and I had to be up at 4:30 to get to work. It was Joe. His girlfriend had broken up with him. His ex called me minutes later, telling me she was worried about him because he’d taken it hard. I lost all reluctance, and within minutes I was dressed and speeding down the highway. The drive usually took me an hour, but I made it downtown in forty minutes.
I found him outside the bus station, standing where his ex had left him. His sopping curls shed fat drops of water down his face. He crumpled into my arms immediately. I stroked his hair as he shivered and gasped until he was calm enough to guide to my car. I took him home and sat up with him until he fell asleep; then set up some blankets and pillows and fell asleep next to him.
Chapter 4: An Unexpected Ending
First a laugh
Then a kiss
My latest relationship had just fizzled out like a sparkler. I’d had high hopes, and I was bitterly disappointed. I numbly headed for home, stopping only to fill my car with gas. As I waited for the tank to fill, I pulled out my phone. My fingers automatically dialed Joe’s number, and he consoled me as I sat in my car sobbing. He offered to come meet me, but my mom was expecting me at home so we made plans to talk after class the next day.
We walked back to his apartment the next day. Our conversation was a postmortem analysis of my latest breakup. I lamented my inability to find a lasting relationship. This was my fifth breakup in two years, and we’d hardly made it a month.
“It’s not you,” he assured me, “he didn’t know what he had in front of him.” I don’t remember the turn of conversation that led us to fall into bed together. Maybe it was his fingertips on my shoulder blades as he tried to cheer me up. There was a surprising gentleness to his touch; he was normally so gruff, and I was taken off guard by his unexpected tenderness. We explored each other with uncharacteristic timidity. This was one of our last unexplored frontiers, and neither of us was on sure footing.
I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it, and I didn’t want to take the risk. He paused to consider what I’d said, then looked into my eyes and said “But what if we didn’t break up?”
Chapter 5: A New Beginning
I saw you
And I knew
Chances just don’t come
Not like this
There was an unusual lull in our conversation that afternoon. Neither of us had expected to end up in bed together, and hours later we were still in shock. He offered to keep me company on the way to my car, and I gladly accepted.
As we settled into our seats, he tentatively brought up the idea of us dating. I was initially resistant to the idea. He was my best friend, and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. What if it didn’t work out? What if we broke up, just like I had with so many others, and that was it? I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it, and I didn’t want to take the risk.
He paused to consider what I’d said, then looked into my eyes and said, “But what if we didn’t break up?”
A life flashed before my eyes right then, a life with the best friend I’d ever had. I might not have a chance like this again. I took his hand, took the leap, and stepped into the next chapters of our life together.