Two years shuffled by as quickly as the last day of summer break when I was a kid. The first and only time we ever kissed was back in '88, and I knew I was in love right then and there. The whole relationship was doomed from the beginning when Lynette left the next day for home in Illinois. We exchanged addresses before she headed out and promised to always keep in touch no matter what. And we did.
We slid into the friend zone right away because a long-distance relationship is challenging for anyone. With us being so young, it would have only caused pain. At least that's what I told myself in order to cope with the heartache. I'd send her letters, corny poems, pictures, and postcards from my beach vacations. We got to know each other one postage stamp at a time through the years. She learned everything about my failed attempts at courtship, and I sat back and watched her grow into a beautiful woman with each photograph I received.
I fought the urge to tell her how I truly felt countless times whenever I'd pick up a pen. Part of me didn't want to lose the stable friendship we'd molded, and the other half of my heart needed to express those three words. It was always a struggle for me and something I wish I'd spoken out into the universe at least once. Even rejection is better than never knowing. My heart constantly whispered her name with each beat, and the sound was deafening at times whenever I'd pull one of Lynette's letters from the mailbox. I had to figure out something. I needed to tell her my feelings.
Lynette came to Clarksville a handful of times to see family. We'd hang out and catch up over long drives or innocent strolls before she headed back up north. We went to see a play at Austin Peay during one of her visits. I'd always wished that could have been a date, but my courage was nonexistent, and my sentiments became buried deep beneath mounting anxiety. It was nice to see her face and experience her expressions when I'd say something funny. Meeting her never failed to stir up the sense of passion, lost as soon as we discovered it years ago.
We'd often talked about me visiting her in Gurnee for a change, so I decided to make the eight-hour drive to see Lynette. My journey would not end with a simple meeting between two acquaintances. No, this would be our final encounter as friends because I was ready to tell her everything. I'd look her in the eyes and explain that I've loved her since our very first date two years ago. She would know that I'd do whatever it took to make our relationship succeed by the time I left. It's obvious we have a deep connection, so this will work. It has to.
After saving tips for a couple of weeks of serving at the Catfish House, it was time to take my trip. Memories of our first date, the letters, pictures, and our latest encounters flashed through my head like a silent move the entire drive. Conviction bled from my body the closer I got to my destination. I envisioned finally getting the opportunity to hold Lynette again, and nothing could stop us from creating a life together. Our happily ever after was within reach and all I had to do was speak from my soul. She'd hear my remarks, and then we would wonder why it took so long to realize that what we had was unique. It would be that special kind of love that only existed in fiction until now.
I made great time and managed to arrive a little ahead of schedule. Lynette's whole family came out to greet me as soon as I pulled into the driveway, instantly making me feel at home. Following a firm handshake from her father and a warm hug from her mom, I made my way to the girl of my dreams. After a quick embrace, Lynette showed me to my room so I could unpack. Something felt a little off, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. My courage crept back into some unlit chamber, and I took a deep breath before determining to pause and see how things would play out.
Most of that first evening revolved around everyone sitting in the den and catching up. All I wanted to do was get Lynette alone for a few minutes so that I could push forward with my plan. Even though I could feel something was wrong, I had to tell her. I mean, it's why I came, so I owed it to myself to spill my guts. Eventually, the room thinned out, and I was alone with my hazel-eyed girl. There was no time to waste because I'd only planned on staying for a couple of days, and the sooner she knew, the sooner we could begin our love story. Lynette spoke before I could lay it all out.
"I wanted you to know I have a boyfriend, now."
The sentence felt like some giant hand with a razor claw reached through my ribcage and yanked out my heart. I was able to muster up a response. "Oh, um, that's fantastic news. How did you two meet?"
"We met at work; it just kind of happened suddenly."
All I wanted to do was cry, but I held it back and said, "Good for you. I mean, as long as you're happy, that is all that matters. I hope me being here doesn't cause a problem."
"Oh no. He knows we're just friends, and it'll never go beyond that."
My insides collapsed, and my head rang with some excruciating noise I couldn't shake. I told Lynette I was exhausted after the drive and excused myself. I stretched out in a strange bed far from home that night, feeling more alone than I can ever recall. All I wanted was to drive back to Clarksville and forget this had ever happened. I stayed for two days and witnessed her face light up whenever he'd call. The agony felt unbearable when she talked about him and their plans together, but I hid it the best I knew how. The images of Lynette and me together faded away and were replaced by some guy she met working at Six Flags.
I spent weeks replaying every moment of our relationship, desperately attempting to figure out what I could have done differently. Maybe I should have said something sooner in a letter or during one of Lynette's stops in town. Telling her, she's beautiful or expressing how my palms sweat just thinking about her could have changed everything. Even if I had crashed and burned by saying, "I love you," at least she would have heard it. If nothing else, she would know how I've always felt. The strength never surfaced, and now I'm hollow. My chest is empty, and my stomach aches because I've lost her.
Time does tend to mend the body and the spirit. It may take a while, but the boldness to move forward is in all of us if we live long enough to mark enough blocks off of the calendar. Falling out of love would never be an option, but easier days and romantic distractions kept me from going crazy until she wasn't the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning. Life sure can throw those curveballs when we least expect it. About the time I began to feel like myself again, it happened. All it took was to open the mailbox one day, and there it was—another letter from Lynette.