Chapter 74: We've Only Just Begun

Alley

Well, now what?

From the moment Taylor’s parents graciously accepted our decision, I’d been plagued by that thought. It was sort of odd that I should be so suspicious now that things were going so well. But it was just that for the whole duration of mine and Taylor’s relationship, we’d had something to hide, some issue to resolve. From the moment he showed up in my room, we’d had to deal with secrets and subterfuge. However, it seemed, all that was over. He was awake, alive, and normal, I was going to be his wife, and everyone who mattered knew of our intentions. So… now what? This feeling of freedom wasn’t something I was used to.

I perched on one of the tall stools behind the bar counter, watching Diana fix dinner. We were at the Hansons’ house, yet again – this made the third time that week. Taylor seemed to feel that hanging around the family more would help endear them further to the whole marriage idea, which, as they had said, was something they would hesitantly support. Personally, I wasn’t sure I agreed with that. Hadn’t he ever heard that familiarity bred contempt? I wasn’t sure that an overdose of Alley in their lives so soon was going to do much good to our cause, really. They were going to have to look at me on a regular basis for the rest of their lives – so why cram in so many appearances now?

Taylor strolled into the kitchen, running his hands through his hair, as he was prone to do. He preens more than any man I’ve ever known, and I’ve come to realize it’s not something he does on purpose. He truly doesn’t realize that stroking back his hair in slow motion is sexy – it’s just second nature to him. Like there’s some sort of model-esque behavioral gene in his DNA. And as much as I enjoyed it, it had its drawbacks… for instance, when my future mother-in-law asks me a question, and I’m too busy drooling over her son to notice.

“Huh?” I stammered when Taylor raised an eyebrow at me, shaking me from my reverie. Great, she probably thought I was purposely ignoring her. “I’m sorry… I just, um, zoned out for a minute. What did you say?”

Diana merely smiled, rummaging through the silverware drawer for a mixing spoon. “I asked if you had any specific colors for the ceremony in mind yet.”

“Oh…” It amazed me that she was being so calm about everything. I had the thought that if I’d been in her place, I probably would not have reacted with the same grace she was showing. She actually seemed interested, asking me questions and offering advice stemming from her own wedding. “Well… actually, no. Um… nothing set in stone yet, anyway. But I like blue. Maybe a light blue…”

Taylor grinned. “Yeah… with silver. Light blue and silver. What about that?”

Taylor amazed me. Weren’t guys supposed to be apathetic about weddings? I’d always thought that was the general, accepted standard of conduct from men – the whole ‘You do whatever you want and I’ll keep my mouth shut’ thing, but Taylor was downright eager about it all. You’d have thought he was the freaking wedding planner, not the groom.

Although… he had a point. And he probably knew more about mixing and matching colors than I did, anyway, as sad as that was to say. Light blue and silver would be pretty… I nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah… that could work…”

“It sounds lovely,” Diana agreed. “And would be fitting for summer.”

He beamed with pride, as if she’d just told him he’d gotten a scholarship to Yale. “Well, ladies,” he said, switching subjects. “I’m going to help Dad in the garage. He thinks he’s going to repair that rocking chair from the den and needs someone to hold it steady…” Taylor grimaced. “We might be out there awhile.”

Diana laughed. “Good luck – he’s been claiming that chair will get fixed ‘soon’ for about two years now.”

“So I hear.” Taylor ambled past me, reaching over and squeezing my shoulder. He winked, and I realized that he intended for me to utilize this alone time to bond with his mother. “I’ll be back.”

“Okay,” I said softly. I watched as he left the room, and then turned back to Diana. Hmmm, okay. Though I didn’t feel quite so antsy around Taylor’s parents now, particularly Diana, it still put me on edge a little. I had apparently somehow made a good first impression, and I wanted to keep it that way. I clasped my hands together on the table, threading my fingers as I thought about what to say. As usual, she beat me to the punch.

“What are you going to do while the boys are practicing?” she asked. “They can be down there for quite a while, you know…”

Right, practicing – their summer break over, Taylor and his brothers were getting ready to go back to their ‘job’, which, from what I understood, was a lot more work than I’d originally thought. Taylor had been going on about writing songs and putting together demos for the last couple of weeks, and though it sounded relatively easy and simple to the uninitiated, I was beginning to learn what a long, tedious process it actually was. Which meant in the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with myself while he was busy.

“Well… I don’t know, just yet. I thought about starting up some projects of my own…” I leaned forward on the counter, dropping my chin on top of my hands. “But there’s not really enough room in the apartment for that – I can be pretty messy…”

“Well, we have plenty of room in the basement here, if you ever want to use that…” She glanced over at me. “There’s a whole room down there, not being used for anything. A waste of space. So until you move, if you ever want to work on something, you’re more than welcome to set up down there.” She winked. “And I promise I’ll keep the kids out of your way.”

I was taken aback by her generosity. “Really?”

She laughed at my shocked tone. “Really. You’re very talented, Alley. I’d love to see some of your other work.”

“Oh… thanks. I didn’t actually bring anything with me, because I didn’t figure there would be room,” I said. “But maybe next time I go back, I’ll bring some stuff for you to see.” I laughed a little. “A lot of it is just sitting around in the closet, collecting dust, anyway…”

“Oh, that’s a shame! Bring it here, we’ll put some up somewhere,” she said. “We’ve got too many empty walls, anyway.” Flattered, I agreed to her request, and she turned back to the cutting board.

“What are you making?” I asked after a moment, peering to see what she had out on the counter.

“Ham, green beans, and potatoes au gratin,” she replied. She gave me a knowing look. “This was Taylor’s favorite meal when he was little.”

“It sounds great…” I watched her grab a mixing bowl from a top cabinet, and found myself envious of her culinary ability. Diana should be a chef, in my opinion – there wasn’t a single thing in the world she couldn’t make, it seemed, and everything she fixed tasted like it came straight out of Southern Living. I’d always thought Louise was by far the best cook I’d ever seen, but my opinion on that was rapidly changing. Not that I’d ever tell her that… but then again, Louise didn’t spend half her day in the kitchen, cooking for a small army of children, either. It seemed like Diana lived in this room – every time Taylor and I visited, she was bustling around, whipping up some sort of meal to feed the clamoring Hanson clan. Her talent made me feel inferior, actually – poor Taylor… he’d grown up eating like a king and from now on, dinner was going to be courtesy of Red Baron and Frito Lay every night. A royal downgrade if I ever saw one…

“MOOOOOOMMMM!!!” I nearly fell off the stool from fright as a shrieking banshee-like scream flooded the room. A head full of blonde curls dashed into the kitchen and latched onto Diana’s waist. Zoe, apparently very traumatized by something. “Tell Mac to STOP IT!”

Diana looked down at her daughter, not fazed at all by this sudden, deafening interruption. My heart, however, was still hammering like I’d just done an entire eight-ball of cocaine. “Stop what, honey?”

Zoe launched into a long tirade, much of which I didn’t understand because of her half-shouting, rapid-fire delivery. I caught the most important parts, however – Mackenzie, Rapunzel Barbie, and a flushing toilet. Diana sighed, putting aside her utensils and wiping her hands on the dishtowel. “I’ll be right back, Alley,” she said to me, walking towards the stairs. “Just let me take care of this first.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at her weary expression. “Okay,” I said. “Good luck…”

When she left the room, I sat quietly at the counter for a minute, taking in my surroundings and ruminating on my new life. I never in a million years thought this was where I would be at this point, I mused. Twenty years old, done with school, engaged, and living in Oklahoma with a beautiful man who thinks the world of me. Where in the world had I gone right? Was it really only two years ago that I’d thought my life couldn’t possibly suck any more? I guess there is some credence to that old expression, ‘There’s nowhere to go from here but up.’ I glanced down at my hand, admiring my new jewelry. Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable.

I stood up, stretching my arms high above my head, and strolled into the kitchen. The Hansons kept a wide selection of sodas on hand – unfortunately for their parents, it seemed each of the kids had developed their own personal favorite, and so their pantry was kept stocked with about five different 12-packs at any given time. I opened the refrigerator, checking to see what was cold. After a little deliberation, I settled on a Mountain Dew and cracked the can open, guzzling it down. When I turned around, Diana was coming back into the kitchen.

“Kids, honestly!” she said, looking slightly frazzled. “Sometimes I think they’re more hassle than they’re worth. Always fighting, always getting into trouble…” She shook her head, chuckling. “There are days when I think we should have stopped after one…”

I smiled. “Oh, I don’t know… I have to say I’m glad you didn’t.”

She laughed, the sound easily flowing from her throat. Unlike Taylor’s staccato, higher-pitched laughter, Diana’s was deeper, almost husky, and smooth. “I’d say you are!” She resumed her spot at the cutting board, and I took a few tentative steps closer.

“Thanks for showing me all those photo albums… and the videos,” I said. “Those were priceless.”

“Oh, they are,” she agreed. “Alley, you don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to bring those back out.”

“I think Taylor was horrified…” I smiled at the memory of his face – sheer mortification – when he’d flipped through the books with me, describing the origin of each picture. And the dancing… oh, my God. There were no words to describe the hilarity of watching a young Taylor breakdance – his face furrowed in concentration, baggy jeans drooping off his hips, shaggy angel-blonde hair flopping in his eyes. I had gleefully threatened to send the video to Access Hollywood, and Taylor had nearly pitched a hissy fit before he realized I was joking. “I’ve never seen him so embarrassed.”

“Oh, it’s good for him,” she said with a chuckle. “He needs to be reminded of his roots on occasion.” She reached under the cabinet and began digging through a large drawer, pulling out a bag of jumbo Idaho potatoes. I watched as she began washing them, one by one. 

“Um… do you need some help with that?” I asked. Well, I might as well do something, rather than sit here like a goon and watch her do all the work.

“Hmmm… sure, Alley.” I walked over and took the potato from her, rinsing it in the cold water of the sink. I picked up another and repeated the process – it was sort of relaxing, really, a mindless way to occupy my hands and pass the time. There was a long window overlooking the yard above the kitchen sink, and I stared outside, observing the way the wind fluttered the trees. They had a huge yard, obviously, and I wondered how many acres of land they owned. And I couldn’t help but think about where Taylor and I would end up – he was already calling realtors and inquiring about houses, a fact which blew me away. How many married couples, particularly our age, could immediately move into a real, actual paid-for home? There were days when I forgot that for him, money was really no object. Need a new car? No problem. Two-story house with a wraparound deck? Got it. Fully equipped art studio? Already in the works. Again, as I said, unbelievable.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Diana remarked after several minutes had passed. “Is anything wrong?”

I blushed a little, chastising myself. I really needed to learn to stop going off in la-la land while in the presence of important company. The last thing I needed was to come across as a ditzy blonde. “No, nothing’s wrong,” I said. “Just thinking.”

“Something on your mind?” She laughed. “Probably an unnecessary question.”

“Yeah… lots of stuff.” I managed to smile at her. “I have a feeling I’m in for a busy ten months.”

“Oh, definitely. If there’s anything I can help you with, Alley, just let me know.”

“Oh – oh, well, thank you… I will…” I scrubbed the last potato clean and set it on the counter with the others. I turned to face her, unsure if I should be addressing what I was about to address. Taylor had mentioned that his mother had been the convincing factor in that conversation days ago, and while I was eternally grateful, I couldn’t help but wonder why. What had I done, other than almost cry and break down in front of her, to make her think I was worthy of her son? “Can… can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, anything,” she said.

“Well… this might, like, sound bad, but I don’t mean it that way… but… why did you give in?” I immediately corrected myself – that sounded so negative, as if she and her husband had caved, or something. “Well, not give in, but… what made you decide to approve?”

She looked a little surprised at the question, or maybe just at my audacity for asking it. She slowly turned to face me. “I’ll be honest,” she said. “If it had been anyone else… I wouldn’t have. If he’d brought home anyone else, or done this with any of the girls he’s dated in the past… there’s no way.” I bit my lip, nodding slowly, waiting for her to finish. She studied me for a second, one side of her mouth crooking up. “But… I don’t know, Alley. I have a good feeling about you. And I generally have pretty good instincts.”

“Oh,” I said, for lack of any other intelligent response. “Really?”

She actually laughed. “We may not know each other that well yet, but I can already tell that you’re one of a kind.” She smiled wistfully. “I’m not sure why… but something just tells me that you two are going to be alright. You actually remind me much of Walker and I at that age – so determined, positive and eager… and crazy about each other. If we made it work, I believe you can, too.”

I looked down at the floor, suddenly bashful. “Thanks,” I mumbled. So, basically, she’d based her decision on things like instincts and gut feelings, and not on the arguments Taylor and I had laid out for them? Well, considering what the end result was, I supposed I shouldn’t complain. And besides, she was probably used to following her gut – after all, she’d placed a huge amount of faith in her sons’ abilities to make a career in music, hasn’t she? And look how that had paid off…

“So does that answer your question?” She turned back to the matter at hand, pulling out a monstrous knife with a gleaming, razor-sharp blade. She picked up one of the potatoes and began slicing.

“Yeah…” I stood off to the side, nearly mesmerized by the chopping motion of her hands. “I’ll take good care of him,” I blurted out, and immediately wanted to retract that random, silly statement. What possessed me to say that? God, I’d just made it sound like I was keeping her Golden Retriever for a week while she went on vacation, not marrying and taking away her nearly-lost golden-child son.

“I know you will,” she replied, thankfully not offended by my ignorance. She set the knife down and wiped her hands with a paper towel, glancing over at me. “You already have.”

I felt one corner of my mouth turn up at that – well, if only she knew how right she was. If only you knew just how much and how long he’s been in my care… I was practically his own personal babysitter for a year…

“Thanks,” I said softly, since I wasn’t sure how else to answer. How many times had I said that today?

She nodded and smiled at me, crooking her finger. “Now, come here, Alley. I want to show you how to make the au gratin – it’s a very easy dish, actually.”

What?! Me, cook that? Oh, God, a recipe for disaster, literally. I took a few halting steps backward, thrown by her offer. Easy? Ha. For her, maybe, but not incompetent morons like me. She obviously didn’t know what she was getting into here.

“Well, Mrs. Hanson,” I said nervously. “I’m… I’m not a very good cook. Actually, I’m bordering on ‘terrible’ and ‘beyond help’. Seriously, Taylor wasn’t exaggerating when he said I had Pizza Hut on speed dial…”

She threw her head back, another husky, full laugh coming from her throat. “Oh, Alley – it’s Diana. And you have to learn sometime, honey.”

She held the knife and a potato out, beckoning for me to take it. I cautiously took them from her hands and then stood there like a doofus. “Okay, but… Taylor’s tried to teach me several times, and the results were pretty tragic…”

She merely shook her head, amused. “Well, I have plenty of patience, my dear. Don’t you worry. Now, cut that up into slices – the thinner, the better. Like this.” She grabbed another knife and potato to demonstrate, and began slicing it on the cutting board, forming a line of perfect little disks, sort of like unbaked potato chips. “Okay?”

“Okay…” I gingerly set mine down and stared at it for a minute, as if we were in a face-off. Lord, we’d be lucky to make it through this process alone with all small appendages intact. “If I cut my finger off, put it in ice,” I said, unintentionally thinking aloud. Me and my stupid mouth, how uncouth. “That way, the doctors will be able to sew it back on…”

She laughed again, and as I started to saw through the potato, I felt her warm hand squeeze my shoulder. “You’re too funny, Alley,” she remarked. “Too funny.”

 

*****

 

“June 25th, eh? Whose suggestion was that? That sounds like a Taylor idea to me…”

I adjusted the phone under my chin, struggling to hear Louise over the static. As soon as we’d left the Hansons’ and gotten in the Explorer, she’d called, as if she possessed some sort of magic tracking device that alerted her when we weren’t busy. I hadn’t really wanted to answer it – Louise’s enthusiasm about the wedding was slowly blossoming into a sort of unfathomable frenzy, no doubt fueled by her own mother and aunt’s anxiousness. However, when I’d held the phone out to Taylor, begging him to answer it and cover for me, he’d refused. “I had to listen to her for two hours last week,” he’d said, “and then for another hour the other night, giving her the play-by-play of Mom and Dad’s reaction. You’ve gotten off scot-free so far. So now it’s your turn.” And so, since Taylor was being a baby about it, I’d reluctantly given in.

“Actually, that was my suggestion,” I replied, glancing over at Taylor, who was humming along with the radio, per usual. After dinner, he had felt the need for a good, solid caffeine kick, and he’d convinced me that we needed to visit a coffee shop, pronto. Figures. I wondered briefly if they had 12-step programs for addictions to Colombian blend, because he sure could have benefited from one. I continued, speaking louder so that Louise could hear me. “Not Taylor’s. I thought it was very fitting…”

Louise laughed. “It is, it is. Putting all your anniversaries on the same day, that’s the lazy way out.” I started to throw back an indignant reply, but she talked over me. “So… where? Have you thought about a place? What about colors? Flowers? Bridesmaids? Oh! If you don’t make me your Maid of Honor, Alley, I swear to God--”

Yes, you’re my Maid of Honor,” I interrupted her. “Jeez. Chill, Louise. We’ve got eons to decide on this stuff…” I looked over at Taylor helplessly, and he caught my eyes and laughed, delighted that he wasn’t the one getting lectured this time. I scowled, flipping him off.

“It’ll come before you know it,” she replied immediately. “But first things first: we should go dress shopping. What about Labor Day Weekend? I’ve got that Monday off, I could come out there and visit you all…”

“Sure, sure,” I said wearily. Obviously, there would be no rest or peace of mind for me until June 25th was over and done, so I might as well accept that fact right now. “Just don’t bring Joanna, please…”

“I won’t. One Sorrell at a time is all you need, anyway.” Wasn’t that the truth? “Anyway, I can’t wait… what sort of dress do you want? Gothic? Victorian? What about a ball gown skirt? No, wait! A-line. You can’t go wrong with A-line…” I groaned aloud. I was already tired of shopping and we hadn’t even started yet. “And Alley, you should show off those shoulders. What about thin spaghetti straps on the bodice? Or even strapless? You would look fabulous in a strapless dress…”

“Wearing a strapless dress requires certain physical assets to hold it up, Louise,” I pointed out. “So that’s not gonna fly.”

She snorted. “Oh, don’t you worry about that. A little double-stick tape, a padded strapless bra, and you’ll be good to go…” Tape? What the hell? Who was she, the MacGyver of formalwear? I had nightmarish visions of that tape being yanked off my poor, sensitive skin… ooh, not pretty. Suddenly she gasped, another brilliant idea apparently forming. “…or a basque! Ooh, a lacy basque would be very sexy. I guarantee Taylor would love that…”

I didn’t know what the hell a ‘basque’ was, but judging from her impish tone, it was something I would probably be embarrassed to buy in public. And therefore, probably something Taylor would enjoy. “Okay,” I said meekly, deciding not to argue with her. She was far too fired up to listen to reason at the moment. And I already needed a break… “But listen… we’re getting ready to get some coffee, so I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

She sighed impatiently, in typical Louise fashion. “Alright, fine. But Labor Day, alright? Don’t make plans.”

“I won’t. And thanks…” And I did mean that, actually. It was better to have so many people eager to help, I supposed, than to be faced with apathy. “Talk to you later, Lou.”

“Goodnight, Alley. Love you, you silly thing.” And with that, she clicked off, and I smiled, folding my tiny cell phone up and slipping it back into my purse.

Taylor grunted. “That was only fifteen minutes! You got off easy.”

“You just don’t know how to handle her,” I replied airily. “Years of practice, my love.”

He laughed, slowing the Explorer as we made another turn. I had no idea where we were, other than somewhere in the maze of downtown Tulsa. Once we’d left his parents’ house, he’d taken off, refusing to tell me exactly where we were going to get our caffeinated treat. Not that it mattered all that much to me, anyway – coffee was coffee, as far as I was concerned. It all went down the same. Taylor, however, had finicky tastes, and insisted we go somewhere special.

“Hey,” he said after a few minutes had passed, and I sat up a little bit in the seat. “Remember this place?” He grinned devilishly.  I peered up at the building he was pointing at – GYPSY COFFEEHOUSE. I laughed out loud.

“Eh, maybe,” I said. “Might bring back a few memories.”

Taylor parked the Explorer, and we got out, sauntering across the parking lot to the main doors. “Home of the best iced espresso in town,” he announced. “Sounds damn good right now.”

I leaned against him as he took my hand, bumping him with my hip. “Whatever you say…”

He led me inside, and I nearly halted, letting the memories of the small shop wash over me. Of all the places we’d been during our previous trip to Tulsa, this one was by far the most emotionally charged… We sat over there, on the couch… his brothers came in, they sat at that booth right there… I tripped over that chair and fell in the floor right there… Taylor and Louise left when he got upset… my throat constricted unexpectedly at that last thought, and I gripped his hand a little tighter.

The coffee shop was crowded, but not packed, and most of the patrons were intently watching a lone guy over in the corner as he strummed a beat-up acoustic guitar and crooned folk songs. Taylor led me through the haze of secondhand smoke over to the lone empty couch – the very one we’d sat on nearly a year and a half before. “I think I’m gonna get a cinnamon roll, too,” he said thoughtfully, glancing over the list of options. “What are you getting?”

I’m getting an uncontrollable sense of déjà vu, that’s what I’m getting… “Um… I dunno… a café mocha sounds good… and sure, maybe a cinnamon roll…” He nodded his approval and went back to looking at the menu.

I set mine aside. A waiter came over shortly, asking for our orders, and as soon as he left, Taylor began chatting animatedly. Nothing earth-shattering, just general excitement about the craziness of the months to come. I tried to pay attention, but it was so hard – once again, I was lost in the surrealism of the whole experience. I fixed my all my senses on him – observing those sharp features, almost inhuman in their perfection. The musical sound of his voice, and the faint, near-imperceptible lisp as he spoke. The way his hands felt – he unconsciously caressed my knee as he spoke, and the juxtaposition between his calluses and the softer skin of his palm was electrifying. I cocked my head to the side, nodding when appropriate. Where would I be without you…? I wondered. How much different would everything be? Do I even want to know?

 
The waiter returned minutes later, our drinks and cinnamon rolls in hand. I daintily picked at mine – truthfully, I wasn’t really hungry, but it was far too delicious and sweet to pass up. The rolls were the kind made of a long strand of twisted dough, sprinkled with cinnamon and smothered in icing. I tore it apart, piece by piece, savoring it as I watched the musician in the corner switch guitars. Taylor’s chatter calmed considerably, his concentration now focused on his own roll and the iced espresso.

“Are there any bookstores around here?” I asked absentmindedly. With Taylor going back to ‘work’, I was going to have to find some productive ways to pass the time… although I intended to take Diana up on her offer to form a temporary mini-studio, I wanted to have plenty of other things to do, as well. And it seemed like it had been forever since I’d had the time to sit and read a good book…

“Bookstores? In Oklahoma? Never heard such a thing,” he said, teasing. “What makes you think us Midwesterners actually read?”

I gave him a withering look. “Okay, so it was a dumb question… but are you gonna answer it?”

Taylor chuckled. “There’s bookstores everywhere, honey.” He paused. “Waldenbooks… Barnes & Noble… tons of rare and used stores around…” He started naming off some of the specific places he’d been to, and I leaned back, thinking.

“Let’s just go to Barnes & Noble,” I said. “Plenty of selection.” There was a clock on the far right wall, right next to the window, and I strained to see it in the dim light. Almost nine… “Can we go tonight?”

“Tonight? It’s all the way across town!” Taylor exclaimed. “What time do they close?”

“Um… ten, I think? At least, the one back in Lexington does…” I said. Taylor grumbled a little, objecting that we didn’t have enough time, but I pleaded. “Please? Please? If you all are going to practice tomorrow I’ll need something to do…”

Taylor finally sighed and relented. “Alright, but we’ll need to hurry. It’s a good thirty minutes over there, by the time you account for traffic.” He eyed me. “You’ve got me wrapped around your little finger, you know that?”

“That’s not true!” I protested. “Don’t say that…”

“What?” He laughed. “You make it sound like it’s a bad thing.”

“Well,” I said uncomfortably, “I don’t think it’s a good thing… and people don’t always look so favorably on girls who do that…”

“Oh, Alley…” Taylor leaned over, his hand sliding possessively to the inside of my thigh. “I didn’t mean it in a negative way. It’s not a bad thing at all. I like taking care of you…” He kissed my temple. “You took care of me for a year – I want to take care of you for the rest of your life. And if that means gunning it to Barnes & Noble to get there before they close, then I’m there.”

If he didn’t stop saying things like that, I was going to start crying or something, and attract too much unwanted attention. “Thank you,” I murmured after a minute, for lack of anything more meaningful to say. How did you adequately respond to something like that?

“You are very welcome.” Taylor fell back against the cushion and relaxed. He patted my knee affectionately and closed his eyes, tapping his feet to the rhythm of the guitarist’s song. It was a beautiful, ethereal tune, very soothing… like floating on your back in a cool swimming pool on a blistering hot day. I listened intently for a few minutes, letting my muscles relax.

“Have you ever wondered…” I began, choosing my words carefully. “Have you ever wondered where you would be… if you hadn’t met me?”

To my surprise, Taylor immediately opened his eyes and nodded – he didn’t laugh, and didn’t even take a second to think about the question. “Yes.”

“Really?” I sat up a little straighter, turning my body on the leather couch to face him. He nodded, and I nudged him a little. “And? What would you be doing?”

“And it’s not something I really like to think about,” he said quietly. “I’d be doing stupid shit, probably. Partying too much, not even because I like it, but because it would be expected of me. Maybe still dating Jennifer, or some other disposable girl. Still making music, yeah, but just going through the motions.” He grabbed at his straw, stirring it around in his cup. “I know you’re going to say this is sappy, Alley, but when I think about how my life was without you in it, it’s empty. I just never realized how empty until I met you. You’re more than just my girlfriend – my fiancée,” he corrected with a smile. “You’ve filled that void. You’re part of me now, I know I’ve told you that before…”

I bit my lip. “Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard. “I remember. And I agree…”

“So what about you?” he countered. “Where would you be?”

“Right this very instant?” I smiled sardonically. “Probably… hmmm. Probably studying for a microbiology test that I would hate with all my soul, aggravating the hell out of Louise, talking to the cat, and eating Twinkies. You know, my typical Friday evening pre-Taylor…”

“I see,” he said dryly. “Well, that doesn’t sound that bad, Alley. It could be worse…”

I finished off my cinnamon roll, licking the remnants of icing from my fingers. “No… but the thing is, I would have no idea what I was missing. And that’s almost scarier than actually knowing what’s missing.” I glanced around the room, briefly observing the other patrons – music-lovers swaying to the song, friends laughing and talking over cappuccinos, couples holding hands over the tables, and a lone patron here and there, poring over a book. I cocked my head at the closest solo person, a lady who looked to be in her thirties, with a wild head full of salt-and-pepper hair yanked back into a messy ponytail. “Her, for example. She’s not married, there’s no ring. Do you think she’s alone because she wants to be? Has she been a bachelorette all her life? Did she choose to be unmarried, or did she have a chance and waste it? Or worse, maybe she didn’t even know there was a chance to take – if that makes sense. Did fate pass her by?”

Taylor shook his head vehemently. “No. It didn’t pass her by.”

“How do you know?”

He glanced over at the woman watching as she flipped another page in her book. “I don’t know. But I just do.” He stood up, dusting the crumbs from his jeans. I remained silent, poring over that – he seemed so sure, as if there wasn’t even the slightest possibility otherwise, and I wondered at his confidence. I was still pondering this thought minutes later when Taylor chuckled, lifting me out of my reverie.

“I hate to interrupt you, hon,” he said gently. “But if we’re going to Barnes & Noble, we’re going to have to hurry, before they close.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. Okay.” I stood up, accepting his hand. As we strolled out the door, Taylor peeked down at me, the smallest hint of a smile on his face.

“Besides, Alley,” he said as we were greeted by the humid evening air. “There was an extra chair pulled up next to her… and two drinks on the table. You know, two years ago, you were walking around in the mall, carrying men’s clothes, all while supposedly ‘by yourself’. So what makes you so sure that woman was completely… alone… in there?”

*****

We made it to Barnes & Noble just in time – we strolled through the double-paned glass doors just in time to hear a ‘We will be closing in twenty minutes, please bring your purchases to the register’-type message. Twenty minutes? Well, it would be a stretch, but I could make that work. I dashed towards the nonfiction side, pulling Taylor along behind me. The books were categorized by author, and so I led him to the ‘S’ section.

“Okay, we need to make this quick. I’m looking for David Sedaris,” I instructed him. “See him anywhere?”

“What book?”

“Either Naked or Barrel Fever,” I replied. “I want them both.”

“Hmmm… ‘Naked’, eh? Sounds interesting…” He gave me a wolfish grin, and I rolled my eyes at his typical hormone-driven male reaction. A clerk came on the loudspeaker again, announcing the fifteen-minute mark to closing, and I sighed, exasperated.

“Come on! We have to hurry…” We both began scanning the rows of paperbacks, and after a minute, Taylor found both books along the uppermost shelf. He plucked them from the rest, and I eagerly grabbed them from his hand. “Okay, perfect. Ready?”

“Yeah… well, let me run to the restroom real quick,” he said. “Then I’ll be ready…”

“You can’t wait until we get home?”

“Who are you, my mother?” he asked indignantly. “No… it’s about thirty minutes north! Since you made us come all the way to this side of town just to go to this specific store and all…”

I smiled in spite of myself. “Alright. I’ll go check out. Meet me at the door.” He saluted me drill-sergeant style and loped off towards the restroom. I hugged the paperbacks to my chest, wandering towards the front of the store.

The place was completely empty, except for Taylor and I, of course, and the cashiers. Rather than follow the larger aisles that separated the book sections, I chose to dart between the wooden shelves, taking what I thought was a shortcut to the front. I passed through a myriad of literature sub-sections – mystery, romance, fantasy, new age, humor… I turned a corner as I reached the end of one shelf, and scowled as I found myself face-to-face with a solid wall of books, rather than an aisle, like I had expected. What the hell? How was I supposed to get to the front? This place was like a freaking rat maze, or something…

I started to turn back and retrace my steps, when the blue sub-section sign on the wall caught my eye. CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY. My eyes automatically wandered to the beginning of the shelf, where the authors beginning with ‘A’ were. Ignoring the fact that I’d just told Taylor we didn’t have time to mess around, I stepped over, craning my neck to get a closer look.

I stood on my toes, scanning the shiny spines until I found his name. There were plenty of titles to choose from: The Confessions of St. Augustine, City of God, On Free Choice of the Will. Pages and pages of perplexing religious philosophy, stuff that no normal person my age would have any real interest in... except, naturally, I had never been what could be considered ‘normal’. And then I saw it – Retractations, the book I’d been forced to read in class… and the book that had given me the first glimpse into the reason behind Taylor’s out-of-body experience. I pulled the thick tome off the shelf, flipping rapidly through the pages until I found the passage I was looking for – the same one I’d made him read the day he came to stay.

What is it that is loved in a friend, where the love is the purer and more sincere? What in the friend is loved – the mind, or the body?

That line… that line said it all. Amazing... How was it that a book written thousands of years ago by some old, melodramatic religious coot could still be applicable in today’s modern society? I closed my eyes for a minute, thinking. Maybe Taylor was right – maybe that woman in the coffee shop wasn’t alone... there had been an empty chair next to her – but had it really been empty? For that matter, who was to say the man I’d seen muttering to himself on the sidewalk yesterday was, in fact, alone? Maybe he was actually talking to someone… Or the girl who had checked us out at Blockbuster the other day – she’d craned her neck and gone to great lengths to look behind us as Taylor had paid for our movie, but we’d been the only ones in the store at the time… was she seeing something we couldn’t see?

It was really a valid point, when I stopped to think about it. There were probably all sorts of mystical, supernatural things happening in the world right this very instant that I had no idea about… and as Taylor had pointed out before, we couldn’t possibly be the only ones, could we? Fate didn’t just randomly pick and choose its subjects, did it?

I was startled back into the real world by another loudspeaker announcement. “Attention customers, our registers will be closing in five minutes. Please bring your purchases to the front of the store for checkout, and have a great evening.”

I flipped the book closed and quickly slid it back on the shelf where I’d found it. I supposed I would never really know the entire truth, at least not in this lifetime, but then, I didn’t need to. Some things were better left unexplained…

“Unbelievable,” I murmured as I stepped back, thinking aloud. I gave the books once last glance before turning around, rushing to find the nearest main aisle… and unable to keep the silly smile from my face.

At the front of the store, there was one lone cashier left at the registers, waiting on me to hurry up and get the hell out so everyone could clean up and go home. She tucked her long black hair behind her ears and smiled pleasantly at me as I scampered up. I laid my books on the counter, smiling guiltily at her. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hold you up.”

“Oh, no problem. Don’t sweat.” She picked up my books and scanned them, nodding her approval. “These are great. Have you ever read Me Talk Pretty One Day?”

“Yeah, I loved it,” I said enthusiastically. “I’m making it my goal to read everything he’s ever written now…”

She laughed. “Nice goal. I think I might try for that, myself.” She slid the books into a thin brown paper bag. “Your total is twenty-two dollars and forty-seven cents.”

I fished through my purse, digging out several crumpled bills. “Here you go,” I said, holding them out for her to take.

“Thanks…” She accepted the bills, and while doing so, her eyes widened and she froze. I looked at her, confused, until her loud exclamation explained it. “Oh! What a beautiful ring! That is gorgeous… let me look at it… show it off, girl!”

I flushed furiously, holding my hand out so she could inspect it closer. “Thanks,” I said shyly. “He did a good job…”

“It’s a Tiffany’s, isn’t it?” she asked. “I just love diamonds…”

I grinned. “What able-minded woman doesn’t?” She laughed merrily and agreed, resuming my transaction.

She handed me my bag and change. “Well, if that ring is any indication,” she said, “you’re a lucky girl.”

I nodded, my hair falling in front of my face. “Yeah,” I murmured. “I think so. Thank you.” I accepted the bag and stuffed the change back down in my purse. I started to say goodnight, but was interrupted by the gleeful laughter of my fiancé.

“Alley! Check out these glasses!” Taylor appeared from around the corner – apparently, he hadn’t gone out the front door to wait, like I’d instructed him. He was grinning from ear to ear, and perched on his nose was the single most hideous pair of glasses I’d ever seen in my life. Thick black plastic, squared-off lenses… they looked like something you’d see someone’s grandfather wearing while reading the latest issue of Modern Maturity.

I sighed, setting my bag down on the counter as I wrestled with my wallet. “Jesus… where did you get those?”

“They had a whole display of reading glasses over there,” he said. “There’s tons of ‘em.”

“But you don’t need glasses, Taylor…” I looked at his beaming face, wondering why someone so beautiful would want to wear something so ugly. “Why in the world would you want to voluntarily wear glasses? That’s like wanting to wear orthopedic shoes, or a hearing aid, or something.”

He scoffed at me. “This is totally different! Glasses make a statement, Alley. And these caught my eye. Aren’t they great?”

If by ‘great’, you mean ‘hideous’… I shook my head at his zeal, and at his sudden, random affinity for such ugly eyewear. A thought hit me then, lightning-fast, a realization that had somehow escaped me all this time we’d been together: Taylor was a dork. For all his beauty, or talent, or romanticisms, he was a bona-fide, true-blue, grade-A geek. Though I had no doubt whatsoever that he loved me, I’d always had the niggling thought in the back of my mind that somehow, he would always be too good for me. That I would be marrying above my station, as the saying went. That he deserved someone prettier, or more talented, or less neurotic, or any number of things. But as he ambled up to me with that shit-eating grin and those frightful glasses, I finally fully understood, without a doubt – God knew what he was doing, in the grand scheme of things. He’d sent me a gift, a man who was every bit as silly, every bit as geeky as me – and the fact that he came in a very pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed package was just icing on the cake, so to speak.

I smiled. Well, I would play along and humor him. “They’re great,” I agreed amiably. “You should buy them.”

“I think I will.” He turned to the cashier, still glowing. “Is that okay? You aren’t closed down, are you?”

Her eyes were wide and shocked, and it took me a moment to realize why – she recognized him. Hell, at first I’d just thought she was as horrified by the glasses as I was. After a minute, she mutely nodded and indicated for him to bring his purchase over to her. I watched as her gaze tennis-balled back and forth between me and Taylor. I felt my cheeks heat up again, realizing that she was slowly putting two and two together.

I stood quietly to the side as Taylor paid for his new glasses. When he was done, he jauntily waved at the cashier. “Thank you so much. Have a great night.” With that cheery goodbye, he grabbed my hand and started leading me to the door.

“Miss!” the cashier called after us. “Don’t forget your books!”

“Oh!” I let go of Taylor and dashed back to the counter. “Sorry! I’m so absent-minded…” I clutched the bag in my hand. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome…” She looked behind me, where Taylor was about twenty feet back, waiting. She gave a little snort of disbelief and shook her head. “And you are a lucky girl,” she said, her tone matching her stunned expression. “Very lucky.”

I wasn’t sure how to reply in these type of situations – saying ‘I know’ just sounded so arrogant… so instead, I just smiled, letting my sheepish expression say it for me. I managed to tell her goodnight, and as I joined Taylor again, I knew that we’d just let the proverbial cat out of the bag. All it took was one girl to start a chain reaction of rumors, all across the world wide web…

We walked outside into the near-empty parking lot. The breeze blew a stray McDonald’s cup towards us, and I kicked at it when it came close, watching it skid across the parking lot. “She saw the ring,” I said suddenly.

Taylor turned his head, studying me. “Oh?”

“Yeah. She like, saw it… asked to look at it closer… and then, you know, you came in, and she obviously knew who you were, so…” I trailed off, letting him get my point.

“So she knows we’re engaged,” he finished, and I nodded. He grinned, mischief coming into his tone. “Good.”

“Good?” I repeated. “She’ll tell people, and they’ll tell people, and they’ll tell people… it’ll be all over the place in two days… and Lord, we just told your parents five days ago! You don’t think it’s a little soon?”

“Nah. They were gonna find out sooner or later. And besides,” he added with a loud laugh. “It’s more fun to watch them get all tore up over everything. It can be entertaining…”

“You’re sadistic,” I said. “This is how you treat your fans? This is how you treat the girls who bought millions and millions of your records? Who ignored the fact that ‘MMMBop’ isn’t even a freaking word?” I grinned. “The same girls whose money pays for your hundred dollar haircuts and vintage-wash Express jeans?”

Taylor raised one perfectly arched eyebrow, mimicking my tone. “Whose money will also pay for your Sennelier oil paints and custom-cut velvet mats, and your Led Zeppelin collector’s edition box sets, and your astronomical grocery bills?” He laughed heartily. “So don’t knock that song, honey – it’s funding your lifestyle now, too…”

Oh, God, he had a point… “Thanks,” I grumbled. “So I’m going to be living off of tainted money… you realize I’m a sell-out, don’t you? This goes against everything I stand for…”

For some reason, Taylor found that hilarious. “True,” he agreed readily, raking his windblown hair from his face. “But just remember that, when you’re hard at work in your brand new studio, creating beautiful things and doing what you always wanted… that silly song made it all possible.” He nudged me. “But you even said it yourself the other night – pop music’s not so bad, is it?” When I scowled and refused to answer on principle, he dug his fingers into my ribs. “Is it?”

“I guess not,” I finally sighed in dramatic fashion. “I guess there are worse things in the world to listen to…”

“…exactly. Many worse things.” He grinned maniacally. “Like, for example, the ear-splitting rendition of ‘Pinball Wizard’ you sang in the shower this morning… oh, God… honey, I’ve met Roger Daltry, and I have to say I think he’d be appalled…”

“Hey now!” I lifted my left leg, attempting to give him a friendly warning kick in the butt for that snide remark, however true it might be. However, Taylor being the giant that he was, and me being the shrimp that I was, my high-kick attempts ended up causing me to trip and nearly fall to the ground. Taylor guffawed at my clumsiness, catching me around the waist before I hit the asphalt.

“Stop laughing,” I demanded, managing to re-orient myself and stand straight up again. “I didn’t even laugh at you when you bought those ugly glasses…”

“Ugly? These babies are priceless…” Taylor cackled, pulling the glasses out of the bag and slipping them on. “What do you think? Do I look mature and intelligent?”

“You look like Louis from Revenge of the Nerds,” I said. “So, I’ll have to go with ‘no’. I love you, Taylor, but you’re a geek. Accept it.”

“Well, that makes me a perfect match for you, then, doesn’t it?” he replied, repeating exactly something he’d told me not long after he’d returned.

“I believe it does,” I replied airily. “I’m glad you’re catching on...”

He slung his arm around my shoulder, and I leaned into him, loving the way his warm body felt against mine, the way our curves fit together, like lock and key; pieces of a human jigsaw puzzle. So perfect already, and this was just the beginning of a life I couldn't yet possibly comprehend. I glanced up at the starry sky, my eyes roaming across the vast, dark horizon… with just one thought running through my mind: Thank you.

Taylor leaned down when we reached the Explorer, capturing my mouth in a gentle, leisurely kiss. His voice was soft but vibrant as he leaned back and spoke, his lips brushing delicately against my hairline. I shivered, my knees weakened by the adoration and sincerity in his words.

“You and me, Alley Kat,” he murmured, his warm breath tickling the shell of my ear. “It’s gonna be something.”