She was almost dressed for the party when she heard the knock on her apartment door. She would have ignored it, but figured it was her neighbor who had also invited her to a party that evening.
“He must have forgotten something,” she mumbled to herself as she shuffled to the front door, attempting to zip up her dress at the same time.
“Hey, perfect timing! Can you zip me up?” she yelled lightly as she threw the door open.
“Sure, I can do that,” was the response — but not from her neighbor.
Instead, there he stood, holding a huge bouquet of flowers and a bottle wrapped in brown paper tied with a purple ribbon.
Rendered completely speechless, all she could do was stand in the doorway staring at him.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” he asked finally, breaking the silence. As always, he had a slightly bemused, yet quizzical, expression on his face. He was thoroughly enjoying the moment, pleased that he had once again caught her off-guard and utterly vulnerable.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered, struggling to find her voice and maintain her composure. “How did you know I would be here?”
“Well,” he began as he crossed the threshold, set the flowers and bottle on the dining table, and began removing his coat, “I called your parents. They told me that you had already left town and would be going out to a party tonight. I figured that if I got here in time, I might get to be your date for the party.”
He grinned confidently as she remained planted in the doorway, her mouth, as well as the front door and the zipper of her dress, hanging open.
“So can I go to the party with you?”
She resisted competing urges to either punch him in the jaw or jump into his arms and throw her arms around his neck. Casually, hands in his trouser pockets, he continued smiling at her.
“I guess so,” she stuttered. “Um . . . yeah . . . sure. That would be fine,” she continued muttering. She was still having a difficult time collecting her thoughts.
“Great! So turn around and let me zip you up!” he reminded her.
“Oh . . . ah . . . all right.” She turned her back to him, relieved that he could not seek her cheeks flushing bright red or her hands trembling.
“All set,” he said, as she felt his hand brush the back of her neck, sending shivers through her entire body. She was completely on edge, but beginning to regain her equilibrium. And growing angry.
“You’re late,” she said sternly as she turned to face him.
“I know,” he acknowledged contritely. But he was immediately back on the offensive. “You don’t return telephone calls. So I had no choice but to come here in person to apologize for not showing up for dinner. I’m sorry.”
“What happened?” she asked.
“Well, I ended up going home at the last minute. My mother called and asked if I would come up for the weekend and help her. My little brother’s issues again,” he explained. “I couldn’t say ‘no.’ I took off at the last minute, drove 90 miles per hour the whole way.” As he continued relating the details of his family’s struggles, she began to relax and they fell back into the easy conversational relationship they had been enjoying on a regular basis in the months leading up to the aborted dinner date.
Finally, he said, “I brought a bottle of wine. Why don’t we have a glass before we go to the party?”
“That sounds good,” she replied, finally pausing to assess the flowers, a large mixture of red roses and carnations. “These are beautiful. Thank you. I’ll get a vase and pour us some wine.”
He grinned at her, melting her heart and decimating any anger or hostility she had felt the past few weeks. “I brought you something else, too,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his jacket. “Remember how you were teasing me when we last spoke on the telephone about never having given you one of my senior pictures? Well, now you have one! Here I am in all my high school glory . . . a real treasure for your collection!” he said, laughing.
“Oh, my gosh,” she laughed. “You look so young!” she gazed at the color photo, remembering the young man she had first fallen in love with during their high school years. “Well, thank you very much. I will put it in a frame and I will treasure it,” she continued before she caught herself.
She turned the photo over and was shocked when she read what he had written there: “Better late than never, right? Love, . . .”
She smiled quickly, unable to look at him before hurrying to the kitchen to retrieve two wine glasses and a corkscrew. Again, she could feel heat radiating in her cheeks and did not want him to see her blushing. As she reached for the glasses, her mind was racing. “What does he mean by that?” she wondered, hoping that the answer would be revealed during the course of the evening.
She also recalled the moment back in high school when she had confessed her feelings to him — and immediately regretted doing so. How old had they been? Sixteen, perhaps? So young and naive. But she knew she loved him the very first time she ever saw him and, even then, was absolutely sure that she would love him her whole life. One evening during her junior year she had accepted an invitation to attend a Bible study with a friend. The topic for the evening was “Making Good Choices.” She had not been raised in a particularly religious home. Her parents were not members of a church, although they both espoused a belief in God. From time to time, they would visit different congregations, especially with members of their extended family who were members, but they neither joined a particular group nor attended regularly. Her knowledge of the Bible was limited.
But when the Bible study leader read the text they were to study that evening, she would tell her friend later, “I was meant to hear it. I completely understood it.”
The second half of the sixth chapter of Matthew formed the basis for that night’s Bible study, but she was transfixed upon the twenty-first verse: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He was her treasure. And her heart was with him, she explained to her friend. The next day, she even wrote the text on the cover of her binder. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” She traced the letters absent-mindedly while her teachers lectured and stared at them during lunch while her girlfriends chatted about their boyfriends, always silently longing to be with him instead. Every time she saw him on campus, she thought about it, convinced that the freedom to give him all of her love was the only treasure she would ever need in order to have a truly happy life.
But her friend was not trustworthy and goaded him into asking her about the Bible verse scrawled on the cover of her binder. Her friend had betrayed her, telling him in the typical manner of a high school girl, “She likes you. Go ask her!”
He confronted her in the library, picking up her binder unexpectedly and reading the verse aloud before turning his gaze to her. He seemed genuinely puzzled when he asked sweetly, “Is this about me?”
Surprised and flustered, she had mumbled, “Uh-huh,” gazing up at him expectantly, hopefully.
But then he flashed his confident, somewhat mischievous grin with which she would become so familiar. It was an amused, almost mocking, smile.
He did not say a word that day. He just turned and walked out of the library, leaving her standing there, humiliated, devastated and feeling exposed in a manner and to a depth she had never previously experienced.
“Dammit,” she muttered under her breath as she recalled that day and realized that she was experiencing precisely the same tornado of emotions so many years later right here in her own apartment.
She set the photo down on the kitchen counter before walking back to the dining room table with the glasses and corkscrew. As she removed the wine from the bag, filled the glasses and handed one to him, she reminded herself that she was embarking upon her first date with the man she had been in love all these years.
And after all that time, he was there with her on New Year’s Eve, the night that lovers all over the world spend together. He had driven a long way to be with her, bringing flowers, wine and, most importantly, his photo with the word she had longed to hear from him for so long, “love,” inscribed on the back.
As he said, “Shall I propose a toast?” she nodded hopefully, allowing herself to believe that the New Year might actually mark a new beginning for her, for them.
“Better late than never,” he repeated as they clinked their glasses together and savored the first sip of the bittersweet Merlot.
Click here to read Chapter Thirteen