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When I saw her again she was working the back counter at one of those hobby stores, loaded aisle to aisle with sundry objects that made one scratch his head and wonder who would buy them. Three-foot tall flamingoes that lit up. Golden statues of naked men. Plastic or wooden versions of unheard of oil paintings. Miniature porcelain houses, with miniature porcelain golden retrievers waiting for their miniature porcelain owners on the front steps. As is obvious, I was not in this place, this amalgam of poor taste and cheap construction, by any choice. No, I was buying a Christmas present for my mother.

Laura was cutting mats at this particular hobby store. I had been drawn to the back of the store in search of picture frames, and not far away I had spotted her working a massive under-oiled cutting machine. She was staring down at her work, almond bangs hanging over thick-framed glasses. At first, I wasn’t sure it was her—all I could see was her unassuming forehead. Then she looked up for a moment, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. I was positive now that it was her. That brief glimpse had shown me everything I needed, everything I remembered so sweetly about her—the soft angles of her face, a face that never once seemed bitter; her large brown eyes, which had a tendency to steal the scene around them; her perfectly crafted neck, just right for kissing. From that snapshot of her, basically unchanged since the last time I had seen her, a thousand memories flooded my brain.

I was quickly confronted with an important decision—to continue along my way shopping for my mother, or to take a few moments and talk to Laura Flanagan, the only girl I had ever felt truly in love with. I liked to avoid awkwardness in my life, and choosing the latter would certainly be flirting with it. But, it was too irresistible, for though some part of me screamed of the pointlessness of my hopes, I wanted to reconcile things. I wanted to take her to dinner. Or do something. I had never felt so guilty in my life as when I had dumped her, and I had never regretted one thing so much. In any ensuing relationships, I had always pined back to Laura Flanagan—the one girl that had treated me right. Of course, fate wouldn’t be so kind as to let me continue such a relationship.

I took a breath, silencing dissent in my decision, and made my way over to Laura. Would she recognize me? I had changed quite a bit. I had practically bought a new wardrobe. I had trimmed my once long hair. I had shaved my scruffy goatee.

She was still working the mat cutter when I stopped at the counter. I smirked at the red apron over her t-shirt and jeans attire, the nametag pinned perfectly on her chest. It didn’t seem like her, somehow. I cleared my throat, nervousness snatching the words from my mind. Finally, I said very softly, just above the grating squeak of the machinery, “ Laura?”

She stopped her work and looked at me, pushing her glasses up adoringly. She blinked, then her eyes widened. “ Ch-Charlie?”

I grinned uncontrollably. At least she had recognized me. “ Yeah.”

“ Oh my God, it’s been such a long time.”

“ I know, hasn’t it? How have you been?”

“ Pretty good, I guess. Just working.”

“ That’s cool. How long have you been working here?”

Her eyes glanced skyward in thought and her lips scrunched a little, just like I always remembered. “ Oh, about a year and a half.”

This answer surprised me. Last time I had talked to her, she had just graduated high school, and was taking a year off to work and save money. I guess she had found a job and kept it. I didn’t want to say anything, in case that wasn’t how she wanted things to work out.

“ What about you? What have you been up to?” She asked with a general tone of interest.

“ College.”

“ Really? Where do you go?”

“ Muhlenberg College...ever heard of it?”

“ No.”

“ It’s a little liberal arts school up the coast a ways.”

“ Oh, that’s cool. I wanted to go to college, but that didn’t exactly work out, as you can see.” She said, with a smile of exasperation.

“ What happened, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“ Well, my dad wouldn’t even help me pay for it if I was going out of state. He wanted me to rely on all the instate academic scholarships. But I refused to do that, we got in a huge argument...and here we are, I’m still living with him and I’m not in college.”

“ Are you still planning on going?”

“ Yeah, someday.”

“ That’s cool, I guess. I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s a blast. Or at least, it has been for me. Do you still live in those apartment complexes down the road?”

“ No, we finally moved. We’re not too far from there, though. Couple miles.”

“ I see.”

Someone clad in a similar red apron emerged from the doorway behind Laura. He was tall and thin, balding, and reeking of authority. I immediately guessed him to be her superior, and the annoyed roll of her eyes acknowledged my silent claim.

“ You should probably be getting back to work, Laura.” The man said, before turning back to head inside.

“ Well, you heard him. Sorry to cut you short, Charlie.”

“ It’s okay.” I was about to take a big leap. “ Say, would you like to continue this over dinner sometime?”

She looked slightly taken aback, and I could feel my ambitions crashing and burning in the pit of my stomach. But this was short lived, for she responded, “ Um...sure.”

“ When do you get off?”

“ In about two hours.”

“ So you wanna go about...eightish?”

“ Okay.”

I grabbed a business card and a pen from the register next to her, then scribbled my cell phone number on it. “ Here’s my number if you need it.”

“ Okay,” she said, doing the same with hers. “ Here ya go. Give me a call in a little bit so I can give you directions and stuff.”

“ Alright. I’ll let you get back to working.”

“ I’d use the term lightly. But anyway, it was good seeing you again.”

“ Good seeing you, too. Talk to you tonight.” I said, and left awkwardly, not even bothering with the present for my mother.

It was sleeting when I stepped outside the store, blurring the strip mall’s Christmas lights and neon signs into gently swirled smears of color upon the canvas of night. I jogged to my car and sat staring at my windshield for a minute before starting it up, watching the raindrops cluster and slip away. I was nervous, happy, and confused all at once. And I thought I would leave these feelings behind in high school.

I drove home slowly, watching the brake lights on the cars in front of me shine upon my windshield, the little clumps of water reminiscent of bugs swarmed around a lamp. I thought suddenly of me and Laura’s second month anniversary, when we had spent hours outside in the rain. She had to keep removing her glasses to keep them from fogging up. I remembered our goodnight kiss had tasted especially sweet that night, and she had looked beautiful, though her hair was frizzy.

I returned home moody and pensive, still sore from giving Laura up more than two years ago. I was overjoyed at the idea of dinner, of the first real conversation between us since our breakup. I went to my room and laid down on my bed, overpowered by memories. I had to think this one through and decide what I wanted to about this—I hadn’t anticipated her accepting my invitation. She had had every right to hate me after what I’d done.

My relationship with Laura had been short-lived as far as most go, lasting only four brief months. But I can’t recall a single stretch of time where I’ve ever been happier. Or any relationship. She had been so sweet to me, so caring, so open and loving—and I had been too dumb and young to realize that. I had broken up with her because we went to different high schools and my friends didn’t like her, and because she got depressed sometimes.

We had met in the dying embers of summer, when the nights are comfortable and calm and scored by a thousand chirping crickets. I found her a little off putting at first. Her style was offbeat, and she had a tendency to be very blunt. And her best friend could be annoying. They were hardly ever apart. I eventually warmed up to her, though, and that warmth quickly ignited into a mutual passion.

We spent several nights on the phone, talking, quizzing one another until very early in the morning. Then, one night I worked up the courage to ask her to be my girlfriend. She had giggled, commenting on the cuteness of my methods, and then accepted. I was ecstatic.

Our first date was nothing special. We ate dinner somewhere and wondered around the mall, still too young to have our licenses. She was a year older than me, though, and when she found that out a few weeks later, she confessed to not caring and it was never brought up again. A few days after that we went to see a movie that turned out to be quite mediocre, though I had a good time because I got to put my arm around her.

I left for a weeklong vacation not too long after our first date, but we kept in touch. When I came back, we resumed our relationship, which quickly bloomed. We grew inseparable, and our similarities and similar likes and dislikes continued to mount. Our parents were the same age, though hers were divorced. We both had a brother that was seven years older than us. We liked the same movies, and agreed on most things politically. Everything just seemed perfect. No, it was perfect.

Our first kiss was something I’ll never forget. I sort of snuck it in as we were waiting for her dad to pick her up from the mall. And when our lips eventually parted, she said she was shaking. Concerned, I asked her if I had done anything wrong. She replied that I had done everything right. This only elevated my buzz.

As the summer progressed, I fit nicely into her group of friends from her school. The idea of us going to different schools and not seeing each other everyday was lingering, though, a dark cloud on the horizon. But we didn’t talk about it much.

Our last day of summer was spent together at a pool on one of those days that you can’t even pray for. A gentle breeze blew like angel kisses, taking the edge off the burning sun. The water was cool, so cool in fact that my teeth chattered most of the time. But she held me close and kissed me, and I felt better. By the end of the day, we were both sunburned and sad-eyed, unprepared to face yet another year of school.

We both had our good days and our bad, but things evened out for us around the second week of school. It had taken some getting used to, but we had made it. Our one-month came, and she told me she loved me. I responded in kind. Not long after that we attended a science fiction convention, being the nerds we were, and got lost wandering the halls of the hotel it was held at. Something about that day stuck with me, clung to my soul, and to this day, I cannot stand in a hotel without feeling nostalgic. My dad took us home and we went back to my house, where we lounged on the couch in my bonus room. The sun was sneaking in between the blinds, painting the room yellow-red, and I remember having an amazing feeling I couldn’t place.

Our two month came, and our three month. Summer turned into fall, the days cooled down, the leaves fell from the trees. And in turn, we fell further and further for each other. She told me she could see us getting married, and I felt the same, at the time. We spent every weekend together, and she tantalized me with ideas of us vacationing in the summer at her mother’s and being able to stay in the same room and bed. I told her my every feeling and thought, and she listened. I went to her orchestra concerts. We went to a Halloween Party as a goth couple. She showed me there the guy that had once tried to get into her pants and had received a stiff kick to the groin. Afterwards we went back to her father’s apartment and watched TV, and I remember just how right it felt to be holding her.

But despite how well things were going, there was something brewing between us. I was somehow growing tired of her, frustrated with her emotional problems. My friends disliked her because I spent time with her instead of them. Tension was mounting, and in just a matter of weeks it destroyed us. Or rather I did.

It was about a month until Christmas. All the malls were decorated, the weather was becoming considerably cold. That exciting feeling of something great coming just hung in the air, and everyone seemed happier than could be. It was me and Laura’s four month, a Friday. I called her to see that we were still getting together, but couldn’t get through on her phone. I tried again for a few more hours then gave up and went out with my friends. Saturday came and she called me to explain what had happened. She had gotten a detention at school and was grounded by her father. On top of that, he had forgotten to pay the phone bill and they had been denied service for a day. Despite those purely accidental circumstances, the damage had been done. I was growing apart from her already, and this topped everything off. Or so I somehow thought. The next day, I broke up with her, sobbing over the telephone. Almost as soon as I hung up, I knew I had made a mistake. But it was too late, and now I can’t forget the contented, loving gaze she always had in her eyes as I looked up at her from kissing her neck. I can’t forget the poems she gave me on our anniversaries. I can’t forget the walks we would take in the woods, beneath the hot summer sun. I can’t forget anything about her, and it kills me.

A few months later a friend of mine informed me that the guy who she had kicked for trying to get into her pants had actually done more to her than she had told me. He had raped her. I’ve never been so angry. I could’ve killed him that instant. I wanted so badly to tell her that I was sorry that I had never done anything, but we were still too awkward for anything to be done about it. And we stayed that way, only talking every so often, holding stilted, stale conversation that always left me depressed. Not a damn relationship had worked out for me since.

And here I was, two years later, getting my second chance. I could hardly contain myself. The spirit of Christmas was in the air, and I had always wanted to spend it with her. This was my chance. I didn’t allow myself to realize I was going to be leaving again in two weeks.

I called her at seven and got directions to her new apartment. She came outside almost as soon as I showed up, wearing a pair of snug-fitting jeans that I fondly remembered from our past. She looked radiant, gorgeous, brighter than any of the Christmas lights on the block. Her snow white skin, her flawlessly beautiful jaw line, those little hands made crooked from playing viola...they all enchanted me. I tried not to let her notice it though.

We drove to a restaurant a few miles down the road, amidst the slowly tapering sleet. Once we arrived, I opened every door for her between my car and our table. We both ordered vegetarian meals, though neither of us were self-confessed vegetarians.

Our conversation was warm and occasionally nostalgic. I told her about my sad love life over the past two years, how I had been repeatedly broken-hearted. She “ Aww”ed at me, and made sympathetic faces. She told me her love life hadn’t really existed since me, though I had jealously seen her flirting with various guys over the years. We talked of her father, how he had shown a declining interest in her since I had known him. It hurt me to hear that, and how his reluctance to pay for some of her college had held her back. Her mother hadn’t really changed. Laura still played viola, and was wanted by many schools for that. She still liked to draw, and I still had some of her pictures. Did I still like to write? I did, but I had been plagued with writer’s block for some time. How were my parents? Great, still borderline alcoholic, still supportive of my endeavors. Her brother was doing just fine. I asked about her best friend, who may as well have been a sister. She told me how she had married straight out of high school and basically disappeared. I frowned, feeling sorry for her. She asked about my feelings towards graduation and college. We shared our opinion of the weirdness and change of graduating from high school, and I was remorseful for not attending hers. She asked me about college, and I replied as honestly as I could. It didn’t feel right, me telling someone a year older than me what college was like, what growing up and being on your own was like.

Slowly, a new portrait of my ex-girlfriend was painted for me. She was nineteen and still living with her dad. She was gradually losing her ambition for college. She worked endlessly at a hobby store. Her only friend had abandoned her, and she hadn’t had any interest in the opposite sex since I had broken her heart. I pitied her, and tried not to cringe at every new detail. But through this pity, I still felt that I was in love with Laura Flanagan, no matter how she was turning out. And I could only hope that she felt the same.

When we both had finished our meals, I realized how the night was suddenly drawing to a close and I had little time to bring us back together. Was I rushing this? I didn’t know, I had never done anything like it before.

In an act of compulsion, I reached out and put my hand over hers. She looked up at me, a little bewildered.

“ I miss you, Laura. No one has ever compared to you. I can’t stop thinking about you. I’m still in love with you.”

Her mouth opened slightly, and she stared in partial disbelief for a moment. I could tell immediately that I had acted foolishly. I withdrew my hand. “ I’m...I’m sorry...that was...”

“ No, it’s okay, Charlie.” Laura said, and sighed as she searched for words. “ That was just...”

“ A lot to dump on you?”

“ Yeah.”

“ Sorry.”

“ It’s okay. I just... I don’t know what to say. You’re in college now, Charlie. There must be girls at Muhlenberg that you’ve moved on, you’ve gotten out of this place. You’ve got ambition.”

“ Don’t you?”

“ I have false hopes. There’s a difference.”

“ Well, so what? That doesn’t matter. What matters is...I want you back. I want to be with you. Those four months we spent together were the most amazing I’ve ever had.”

“ Charlie...that was two years ago. We’ve both changed.”

“ True love...true love adapts. And I don’t think we’ve changed that much.” There was an embarrassing desperation in my voice.

“ True love requires two people, Charlie.”

“ But don’t you....” A terrible sinking feeling came over me.

She sighed again. “ Maybe you haven’t changed, but I have. I’s been two years. And you really hurt me. Yeah, I’ve wanted to go back to you a few times, but then I realized that would be regressive. You take something from every relationship, you learn something, you grow. If we got back together, would we not be going back on what we’ve learned? And I always wondered at those times...did I really want you back, or just the stability of our relationship back? Maybe you should ask yourself the same thing.”

My eyes burned, but I refused to cry. I searched for words, but they all seemed lost in the pit of my stomach. All I could say was, “ But...I always thought you were the only one for me.”

“ I’m sorry Charlie, but maybe you were mistaken.”

“ But...”

“ Look, we’re young, we’ve got entire lives ahead of us. Should we really be thinking about ‘the one’ at this point, anyway? And our lives have gone completely different directions. Please, Charlie, just give it up. Not for my sake, but for yours.”

An uncomfortable silence settled on us, during which I felt my entire being collapsing in on itself. I paid the check and we headed back out into the rain. It was pouring now. She removed her fogged up glasses as soon as we got in the car, and I almost lost my fragile composure. I watched, tortured, while her fingers clutched the fabric of her shirt to wipe the fog away and the water dripped from her hair.

The silence remained until I dropped her off at the apartment. I walked her to the door despite her protests and the rain. We paused at the door for a moment, and I stared at her slightly older face and those familiar jeans. I wanted her so badly.

“ Thank you for dinner. It was nice to see you again.”

“ It was nice to see you again, too.”

“ Have fun in college, and cheer up a little, okay?”

I only nodded to this one. Laura leaned forward and gave me a hug, to which I responded weakly.

“ Goodnight, Charlie.”

“ Goodnight.”

I wept the entire car ride home, her words revolving painfully in my head. The culmination of two years of pining had just fallen apart in front of me. I didn’t want to go on, didn’t want to endure another instant of this. But I did, and I went home and laid in my dark room staring at the ceiling for hours. And it was only then that I finally started to think about one thing she had said in regards to myself: “...did I really want you back, or just the stability of our relationship back?”

I wouldn’t know for a long time.

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The following comments are for "Laura"
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