Are there second chances at true love?
I’ve carried that question with me for so long I’ve forgotten what it felt like to not question it. At every failed date, every time I texted: “Really, it’s not you, it’s me,” and every time I wondered: what would I do if I could go back? If I could stop myself from making that one mistake?
I’d rationalized the scene a million times in my head. There was me, upset at my parents’ divorce—my father’s choice, because someone else was pregnant with his baby.
There was me, trying to forget myself at a high school party. If I could dance harder, drink longer, everything would be okay. Maybe even come back to a fixed family. Or at least I wouldn’t remember the brokenness.
There was Felix, coming over to rescue me. This part was blurry in my mind, and probably would have been lost to the hangover haze if I hadn’t been coherent enough to obsess over every detail.
There was me, deep in the throes of making out with someone that wasn’t my boyfriend.
I’d seen him. I’d seen him coming, and somehow, thought my next course of action was to hurt him before he could hurt me.
Was that my thought process? I couldn’t remember, honestly. That was what Felix had told me in our week-long argument. I was distressed over my father’s betrayal, just waiting for every man to disappoint me, and I took my rage out on the one person who had always been there for me.
He’d been there for me through everything since we were in eighth grade, and I’d crushed him. He wouldn’t be treated like that. Like he was a second choice, like he wasn’t enough, not when he loved me.
Only you’ve never said you loved me, I countered. How was I supposed to know?
I’m your boyfriend, Leslie! Shouldn’t it be obvious? he’d shouted on the school lawn, under the tree we always met for lunch—and where we met to have our final arguments.
Yeah, shouldn’t it be obvious my dad should love my mom? But love isn’t always the most obvious thing!
That had only proved his point. I would never trust him; I never had, maybe. He wasn’t my dad, but I would never realize it. His heart, once broken, could never be put back together.
Neither could that moment in time.
What would it be like? If I’d never went to the party, but listened when Felix said he wanted to go to the movies instead. What if I’d never had that first drink? What if I’d never kissed that other boy, whose name I didn’t even know?
What if I blew my only shot at true love?
I stared at myself in the mirror as every what-if scenario raged in my head. I didn’t see a sophisticated, thirty-two-year-old woman in a black skirt and red shirt going to her fifteenth high school reunion. All I saw was a girl scared of rejection again.
A lump formed in my throat. I’d stalked him long enough on social media last night to know that he wasn’t married. He didn’t have any kids.
Maybe he’s waiting for me, too.
Highly illogical, I told myself. He hates you.
But teenagers aren’t known for being logical, and the small part of me that was still seventeen whispered back, But he’s not in a relationship.
I couldn’t argue with that, although part of me fretted that he was and just hadn’t updated his status. And if he came with a woman tonight, then my plan was done. I would not be the other woman; I would not repeat my father’s mistakes. I would surrender, once and for all, to the idea that yes, he may have been my one true love, my one shot, but I was not his.
But there was no more time to ruminate on this, to go over scenarios I’d been through a hundred times before. No, it was time to go find out the answer to my question: are there such things as second chances?
Imagine the moment you had your first kiss. Imagine the trembling, the quavering hands, knocking knees, what will happen now feeling. The slightly breathless, will anything happen like this again moment.
This was a second chance moment, another slice of time in which I felt the same way. Felix sat at a table tucked by the buffet bar, a plate of food in front of him. Most everyone else had abandoned this area already; I assumed bragging and flirting had become more important once old foes, flames, and friends showed up.
That was, after all, the very reason I disregarded several varieties of pies and cakes in my pursuit of the empty chair next to my former boyfriend.
My brain panicked with every step over. There were too many variables in this situation. If I said hi, would he still be angry? Or before I even got a word out, would he swoop in, take me in his arms, and act as if no time had passed? Would he notice that I had bought my old perfume from Bath & Body Works, the very one he would have smelled on me while we were dating?
I was so wrapped up in all the possible paths that I forgot one thing: what to actually say when I arrived at my destination.
So, for a few good, awkward seconds, we stared at each other in silence.
In all my plotting and theorizing, I’d never actually planned for what might happen if neither of us knew what to say after I marched over here on a one-woman crusade.
“Felix! I saw you over here and—and. Hey.” I tried to laugh it off like I hadn’t ruined our reunion. I should have played it cool—should have mingled, tried to catch his eye casually. Let him approach me.
“Hey, Leslie.” He smiled.
I expected my heart to trip a beat, but all I felt was hot, sweaty, and embarrassed.
“Mind if I sit down? My shoes are killing me.”
“Sure. Go ahead.” Felix gestured to the seat I’d had my sights on all along. “I can’t believe it’s already our fifteenth reunion. Feels crazy, right?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Feels like just yesterday we were still in Miss Briggs’ class, worried if we’d pass biology.”
There—a shared memory. Felix and I had spent hours agonizing over grades in that class. Maybe we would have fared better if we were more concerned with learning than laughing.
“Oh, man. I remember.” Felix chuckled. “We were terrible students. In college, it wasn’t that hard for me. You know, once I paid attention.”
A pause. Would there be a mention of one of our inside jokes? One of the countless ones I’d written in my diary as a teen?
“Yeah, it’ll always be my bane.” I scratched at my birthmark on my hand and struggled for a new route. “So, uh, where do you work at, then?”
As if I hadn’t already discovered he was in pharmaceutical sales from Facebook.
“I’m a pharmaceutical rep. Travel a lot, schmooze people, feed them lots of cookies.” He took another bite and swallowed. “I like it well enough. Get to see lots of places.”
“Sounds like it suits you well.”
“Yeah, it does.” Felix glanced around the room. “What is adult Leslie up to?”
“I run a small café and bakery with my mom.” I searched his face for any reaction besides possibly-feigned interest. “Cookies and Caramel down on Ivy.”
He tilted his head. “Oh, I’m not familiar with the area. But with your mom there, I’m sure the food is the talk of the town.”
My face flushed, but I was unsure if the heat had to do with the room temperature or not. “Yeah—she’s taught me a lot, so hopefully I’m becoming better by association. And I’m a pretty good foam artist as well on...uh...the cappuccinos…”
Oh, this was getting ridiculous. On the cappuccinos? That was why I should never try to brag.
If Felix thought I was asinine—which it was hard to believe he wouldn’t—he at least didn’t say. “You always were talented. I’ll have to stop by next time I’m in town.”
I waited for the thrill of joy at the prospect of seeing him again. I even waited for the tingles when he reached out and touched my shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze, but all I felt was sweltering. “Hey, I think I see Ethan and Drew over there. I’m going to go say hi. It was nice talking to you, Leslie. Don’t be a stranger.”
He stood up, but I did, too. I hadn’t come all this way to be thwarted but his two partners-in-crime.
He turned, eyebrows raised.
I sifted through all my emotions before I decided on the one course of action. What I should have done before fifteen years passed. “I don’t know if you still think about...how we broke up…” I really hoped he didn’t have the image of me face-sucking some stranger ingrained into his mind. I almost lost my nerve right there as tears pricked my eyes. “But—” I want you back? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you want to give us a second try? But all of these words stalled as our conversation played in my head.
What do you want, Leslie? my adult side said.
I wanted things to go back like when we were seventeen. Before my mistake. Before I’d ruined the only good thing in my life at the time.
But I knew.
I knew, from the lump in my throat to the wad in my stomach, that our conversation had proved one thing.
“Leslie,” he began slowly.
“No. Wait.” I shook my head. “It’s not what you think. I’ve...I’ve just waited a long time to say this.” I twisted my fingers around each other and wished I had my apron strings to knot together. “I’m sorry. You were right. About everything. And...I just needed to tell you that.”
Felix slipped his hands into his pockets and curved his shoulders in. I recognized that look well. Somewhere, behind the grown adult Felix, lurked uncertain teenage Felix. “I was a bit too harsh on you.”
“Don’t blame yourself.” I certainly hadn’t. Not in all the scenarios. “If you’d have done the same thing with another girl, I would have reacted the same way.” And the words that I would sooner chomp off my own tongue than admit: “But I guess, in the end...maybe we weren’t meant to be.”
Felix lifted his head. Our eyes met. I waited for anything. A spark. An inward assurance that our second chance hadn’t been blown. That we still harbored feelings for each other. But it didn’t matter, not in the end. My words couldn’t form a time portal to let me crawl back in time and tackle myself before I hurt Felix. I could only live in the present that included a long, frigid separation, a stilted conversation, an invitation to not be a stranger, and an apology.
Felix lingered so long that teenage Leslie thought, for just the briefest of moments, that one of those Hallmark Movie moments was going to happen. The make up, the kiss, the credits roll and everyone lives happily ever after.
But adult Leslie wouldn’t let my younger self get away with too much. She recognized the situation for the goodbye it was.
“I really did mean it about not being a stranger,” Felix whispered.
“Thanks. I’ll send you a message or something.” I took a deep breath. “But—yeah. Go see Drew and Ethan. Just don’t blow up a stink bomb in the bathroom again. I won’t be there to take the fall for you this time.”
He chuckled and raised his hand in a salute.
And I waved as he went, my stomach feeling lighter...but my heart feeling heavier.
I’d finally done the right thing by Felix, but...what now?
My stomach had the only idea: go eat.
I gathered my delicacies and punch and retreated to a different table, just in case Felix came back. I’d had enough awkward conversations for the day.
“Mind if I sit here?” someone asked as I dug into a creme brûlée.
I didn’t recognize the voice, which meant hopefully I wouldn’t have to fake small talk. “Sure. Knock yourself out.”
“That’s rather aggressive.”
My brow furrowed. I turned, my mouth still stuffed full of dessert, to see the man sitting next to me. He had a head full of curls that went everywhere and glasses. A complete stranger. “What?”
“Knocking myself out. Don’t you think that’s a rather aggressive thing to say to someone who wants to sit down beside you?”
I blinked, and since manners had flown out the window when I talked with my mouth full, I added, “Oh, was that your lame attempt at a joke?”
He gripped his chest. “Ouch. It was pretty terrible, wasn’t it?”
“I’m pretty sure that could go down in history as one of the worst dad jokes of all times. I don’t know if I should say congratulations or leave.”
“You wound me.” He shook his head, which made his curls bounce. “Just as cruel as I remember you.”
That was certainly odd enough to make me stop stuffing my face. I was certain I’d never even seen this boy, let alone taken the time to specifically be cruel to him. “What do you mean? What did I do to you?”
He scrunched up his nose. “You don’t remember me?” He clucked his tongue. “I’m wounded. Although, to be fair, it’s probably these bad boys that threw you off.” He slapped his thigh, but it wasn’t until he pulled his legs out from underneath the tablecloth that I saw he had two prosthetics instead of legs. “I know, I know. You were probably looking for that dorky dude without legs, but now I’m the dorky dude with legs. So I can see where the confusion came in.”
It was a good thing I had swallowed, because I snorted at such an unpredictable response. “Oh, you’re right. That’s it.”
“Don’t worry. Happens all the time.” He scooted back under the table and held out his hand. “Name’s Mike, just in case that slipped your mind, too.”
I shook his hand. “I guess you already know I’m Leslie.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I know. And let’s pretend I haven’t already stalked you online and ask: so, how’s life? What are you up to these days?”
I repeated the same answer I’d given Felix, although with more laughter and not as much cappuccino bragging. I ended it with the traditional: “And what about you?”
“I’m a Paralympic athlete.”
My eyes grew wide. “What! No way.”
“Yep. I won gold.” My disbelief lasted for approximately 5.2 seconds before he started cackling. “I’m just kidding. I’m actually an actor. You might recognize me for my work on Sherlock. I mean, obviously they have to photoshop my legs in, but I’m pretty brilliant.”
I rolled my eyes, but that was belied by the fact I kept giggling. I reached out and swatted Mike on the shoulder. “Come on now! Be serious.”
He made a face. “Ew. No thanks.” But he grinned and held up his hands. “Honest story. I make video games. No jokes there.”
“Oh, now I see why you said you were dorky.”
“You caught me. Guilty as charged.” He grinned. “Which is why it completely made my entire school career when you kissed me, even if you were slightly hammered. Not many girls were lining up to lay one on the dorky dude with crutches and a Gameboy in his hands all the time.”
My mouth dropped open—thank goodness it had been a while since I’d taken a bite. My mind skipped and rewound all those years ago, like I’d done so many times. The scene was still fresh from being replayed earlier:
There was me, trying to forget myself at a high school party. Family issues, daddy problems, blah, blah, blah.
There was Felix, coming over to rescue me. Still very blurry.
There was me, deep in the throes of making out with someone that wasn’t my boyfriend.
I tried to zoom in, to picture this person whose lips I’d become extra familiar with. Even with Mike staring right at me, I couldn’t imagine him at that party. I’d been so wasted, and every bit of hazy recollection swirled around Felix.
“That was you?” I breathed. “I don’t—I’m sorry. I can hardly remember anything from that night. I’m not trying to be a jerk to you, I just...don’t remember.”
“Funny.” Mike swallowed a bit, and for the first time, his smile slipped ever so slightly. “Because I haven’t been able to forget it.”
A few wild heartbeats passed as the whole world—or at least my part in it—waited with baited breath.
“I have a crazy idea.” I pushed my half-eaten plate away. “Let’s go get coffee. My treat.”
“Sure. Anywhere but that place on Ivy. I hear the owner’s a real jerk.” Mike stood up and offered me his hand.
I accepted it, careful not to put all my weight on him. “She is, but I get a really good discount there. And she can do some pretty cool foam designs on a cappuccino.”
Mike whistled underneath his breath. “I am a sucker for some free foam designs. Think she could do a Tri-Force?”
Are there second chances at true love?
I slipped off my pumps and followed Mike barefoot to the parking lot. “You know, maybe.”