I’m going to pass out. That’s what I’m thinking as I stand outside in the snow storm, watching the train pull out of the station - my dreams for the future on board. Head fuzzy with anxiety, I pull out my phone with a shaking hand to check the time - 12:01 a.m. Too late. Always too damn late.
I can’t help but notice the lack of missed call notifications over the photo I set as my wallpaper - the selfie he took of us after he finally gave up trying to teach me to ice skate. He’s got an arm wrapped around me, and I’m bundled up holding a mug of hot chocolate - our noses and cheeks rosy from the cold. I shake the memory out of my head. You really fucked it up, didn’t you, Jules? You lost everything this time.
1 week earlier
“Happy Birthday Jules!” I hear my friends shouting at me as Tucker walks me out to the heated patio at Vines and Spines, my favorite winery-used-book-store combo. I run over to them, tugging Tucker behind me. “Oh you guys! You’re all here!” I see the pleased look on Tucker’s face as I turn to him, my smile brightening. “Did you arrange this?” I ask him. Rubbing the back of his neck, he replies, “Well, I asked Allie if you guys had any plans to celebrate your birthday, and-” “No way! Don’t even think about selling yourself short on this one” Allie interjects with a raised eyebrow aimed at Tucker. She turns to me. “It was all his idea. Hannah, Ash, Kayla, and I just helped to plan the details.”
Tucker and I met almost three months ago. We started chatting while we were waiting in line at a coffee shop, exchanged numbers, and we’ve been doing things together ever since. I think back to the conversation I had with Hannah and Ash after they met him for the first time.
I turn around after closing my front door behind him, and they’re both standing there staring at me, arms crossed, matching smirks on their faces. Ash starts up first, her shoulder length icy blonde hair swinging as she shakes her head, “I’m just gonna say it, if I wasn’t happily married to Mark… I would be all over that man.”
“No kidding. Jacob is lucky I met him first. Why do you keep insisting that you’re just friends? Is something wrong with you?” Hannah asks as she uncrosses her arms and walks over to the couch, pulling the throw pillow on her lap as she sits and curls her legs up under her. I give them both a look. “It’s completely platonic - no feelings, no kisses… Well, that’s a half-truth.” I sigh, resignation entering my voice. “No kissing, but I absolutely adore Tucker. It’s going to sound so cliche, but he’s so kind, and smart, and funny. It would be weird if I didn’t have a crush on him, right? And he’s so attractive. Who knew the perfect combination of Zac Efron, Henry Cavill, and all three Illyrian bat boys existed?” I give them a smirk, and then let it fall. “But like, he’s so great that I don’t want to risk the friendship we’re building.” I collapse onto the couch next to Hannah, my head falling on her shoulder. “You know I don’t take risks. Especially where men are concerned. They’re not worth it. That’s why I stick to fictional men.”
“Listen to the queen of taking risks. That’s me, by the way.” Ash says as she sits in the papasan chair across from us. “Mark and I were friends for 10 years before we starting dating. Mark was silently pining away, unbeknownst to me, while I was playing the field, for lack of a better term. Mark’s mom convinced me to go out with him one night, and it was the best date I’d ever had. Now we’ve been married for almost ten years and the rest is history. Sometimes risks are worth it, Julia.”
“But what if Tucker doesn’t feel the same? Even worse - what if he does?” I muse. “Then the stakes are even higher…”
Fast forward to my 28th birthday, and the wisdom I was hoping would come with another year older doesn’t manifest. I still haven’t decided if pursuing a romantic relationship with Tucker is worth the risk of losing him.
The crisp December afternoon is filled with flights of wine and charcuterie boards, pizza, conversations trying to convince eachother to read our favorite books (right now that’s Ash, Hannah, Kayla, Jacob, and I pushing Tucker, Allie, and Brady to read A Court of Thorns and Roses), lots of laughter, and pleasant conversation that bleeds into a chilly evening.
“Hey Jules, Jacob and I are going to head out. Happy birthday! Love you more than Allie loves Hallmark Christmas movies.” Hannah says as she pulls me into a hug.
“Thanks Han, love you more than Ash loves crafting!” I reply in kind as I squeeze her tight and then let go. “Text me when you guys get home.” The rest of my friends continue suit until it’s down to Tucker and me.
Snow falls softly in the beams of the street lights flickering on as we walk down the sidewalk towards my car - a blacked out Dodge Challenger and one of my first big girl purchases. “My head is still feeling a bit fuzzy from the wine,” I say as I toss him my keys, “You can drive home.”
“Mind if we make a pit stop? I have one more birthday surprise for you, if you’re up for it.”
“You know I can’t say no to you.” I respond with a smile. About 20 minutes later we pull off onto one of the scenic overlooks on the lakeshore. Tucker gets out and moves around the front of the car to my side and helps me out, ever the gentleman. “You know I’m capable of getting out my own car, right?” I ask him, letting the amusement in my voice through.
“Of course. You’re one of the most capable women I know. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy helping you out when I can.” He says, the look of sincerity on his face catching me off guard. Not that he’s ever insincere, but our friendship thus far has been light. We haven’t broached too many serious topics yet.
“Why so serious?” I ask through a nervous giggle, shoving my favorite gray beanie with the fuzzy pom on my head and pulling my puffy purple coat tighter around me. That’s one thing to know about me - I laugh when I’m nervous in serious situations, and this evening’s vibe has just turned down that street. He takes my hand in his and leads me down a small set of wooden steps that ends up on the snow-covered beach. He turns towards me and takes my other hand, his head and gaze angled down enough that I can see his long, thick lashes. Why are men always blessed with such great lashes? I think to myself. It’s really not fair. Why am I even thinking about that right now? I pull myself together before he looks at me, blue eyes shining with a mix of… is that sadness? Hope, maybe? Or a bit of both?
“Look, Jules. I had this pretty speech all planned out in my head, but now that I’m here, I think I just need to come out and say it.” What? This is not how I expected this evening to end. “I like you, Jules. Like really like you. I think I’m falling in love with you. And I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I needed to tell you.” Whoop, there it is. My worst nightmare and best dream come true. I realize I’m staring, eyes wide.
“You don’t need to say anything right now.” He brushes back some of my hair that the wind blew across my face. “You looked shocked, although I don’t see how you could be. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. I’ve been completely captivated by you since our first conversation - which wasn’t at that coffee shop, by the way. You’re fiercely independent, and care about those you love so much that you sometimes forget to care about yourself. Every little thing about you fascinates me. I just wish I had more time to learn every little thing about you and fall in love with every piece of you.”
“Tucker. What do you mean you wish you had more time?” I ask, shaking my head as worry sets in. He rubs his hand down his face and slowly meets my gaze.
“I’m being selfish right now, Jules. I’m leaving for eight months, for a research project for work. I wanted to, I don’t know, stake my claim on you?”
“Stake your claim on me?” I say, furious now.
“Ok, that was not the right choice of words.”
“No, it wasn’t.” I can see in his face he regretted the words as soon as they left his lips, but I’m too angry and frustrated and confused right now to care. “What do you want me to say, Tucker?” I ask, hot tears forming behind my eyes. I turn away from him. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
“I know what I hope you’ll say. But I want you to say whatever you’re feeling. I know this was a lot to drop on you.”
I take a couple of deep breaths to calm my anxiety and drive back the tears before I turn back around. He’s closer than before. So close the fog from our breath in cold mingles. I freeze, staring at his lips.
I plead inanity for what happens next. I take his face in my hands and pull his lips down to meet mine. We both gasp, pausing for a split second before kissing again. I pull away, touching my fingers to my lips.
“Tucker I need time to think about it. What this would mean for us.”
“I leave on the midnight train, a week from today. I need to know by then Jules. I won’t be able to contact you at all during my research. No answer is an answer, too.”
I took too much time. He probably couldn’t answer my call. I want him. I need him. I love him. And now I fucked it all up.
I freeze. Turn around.