“What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“Why did you hope that she was right? Did you want me to have a crush on you?”
“Of course I did. Doesn’t everyone want people to have crushes on them?”
“Did you want me in particular to have a crush on you?”
“Sure,” Jesse said as if it were obvious.
“Well, it doesn’t matter why, does it? Because you didn’t. So it’s irrelevant.”
A conversational roadblock.
It was one I could only get past if I admitted the truth. I weighed the pros and cons, trying to decide if it was worth it.
“Fine—I had a crush on you once. Freshman year.”
Jesse turned and smiled at me. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, but it’s over.”
“Why is it over?”
“I don’t know; you were with Carolyn. I barely knew you.”
“But I’m not with Carolyn and you know me now.”
“What are you saying?”
“Why don’t you have a thing for me now?”
“Why don’t you have a thing for me now?” I asked.
And that’s when Jesse said the thing that set my entire adult love life in motion. “I think I actually do have a thing for you. As of about an hour and a half ago.”
I looked at him, stunned. Trying to find the words.
“Well, then I do, too,” I finally said.
“See?” he said, smiling. “I thought so.”
And then he leaned over when no one was looking and he kissed me.
That summer, I had to work triple the normal amount of shifts at the store as penance for my underage drinking. I had to listen to four separate lectures from my parents about how I had disappointed them, how they never thought I’d be the kind of daughter who got detained.
Marie took the assistant manager job, making her my boss for a third of the hours I was awake. I learned that the only thing I disliked more than hanging out with her was taking orders from her.
Olive spent the summer on the Cape with her older brother, waiting tables and sunbathing.
Sam moved to Boston two weeks ahead of schedule and never said good-bye.
But I didn’t mind any of that. Because that was the summer Jesse and I fell in love.
Emma, would you just turn around?”
“What?” I said.
“Just turn around, for crying out loud!”
And so I did, to find Jesse standing behind me on a sandy beach in Malibu, California. He was holding a small ruby ring. It was nine years after he kissed me that first time in the Acton Police Station.
“Jesse . . .” I said.
“Will you marry me?”
I was speechless. But not because he was asking me to marry him. We were twenty-five. We’d been together our entire adult lives. We had both moved across the country in order to attend the University of Los Angeles. We’d spent our junior year abroad in Sydney, Australia, and backpacked across Europe for five months after we graduated.
And we had built a life for ourselves in LA, far away from Blair Books and five hundred–meter freestyles. Jesse had become a production assistant on nature documentaries, his jobs taking him as far as Africa and as close to home as the Mojave Desert.
I, in a turn of events that seemed to infuriate Marie, had become a travel writer. My sophomore year of school, I found out about a class called travel literature offered by the School of Journalism. I’d heard that it wasn’t an easy class to get into. In fact, the professor only took nine students per year. But if you got in, the class subsidized a trip to a different place every year. That year was Alaska.
I’d never seen Alaska. And I knew I couldn’t afford to go on my own. But I had no interest in writing.
It was Jesse who finally pushed me to apply.
The application required a thousand-word piece on any city or town in the world. I wrote an essay about Acton. I played up its rich history, its school system, its local bookstore—basically, I tried to see my hometown through my father’s eyes and put it down on paper. It seemed a small price to pay to go to Alaska.
My essay was fairly awful. But there were only sixteen applications that year, and apparently, seven other essays were worse.
I thought Alaska was nice. It was my first time leaving the continental United States and I had to be honest with myself and admit it hadn’t been all it was cracked up to be. But imagine everyone’s surprise when I found that I loved writing about Alaska even more than I liked being there.
I became a journalism major and I worked hard at improving my interviewing techniques and imagery, as per the advice of most of my professors.
I graduated college a writer.
That’s the part that I knew killed Marie.
I was the writer of the family while she was in Acton, running the bookstore.
It had taken me a couple of years to get a job that sent me out on assignments, but by the age of twenty-five, I was an assistant editor at a travel blog, with a tiny salary but with the luxury of having visited five of the seven continents.
The downside was that Jesse and I had very little money. On the cusp of twenty-six, neither of us had health insurance and we were still eating saltines and peanut butter for dinner some nights.
But the upside was so much sweeter: Jesse and I had seen the world—both together and separately.
Jesse and I had talked about getting married. It was obvious to everyone, ourselves included, that we would have a wedding one day. We knew it was what we would do when the time was right, the way you know that once you shampoo your hair, you condition it.
So I was not shocked that Jesse wanted to marry me.
What shocked me was that there was any ring at all.
“I know it’s small,” he said apologetically as I put it on. “And it’s not a diamond.”
“I love it,” I told him.
“Do you recognize it?”
I gave it another glance, trying to discern what he meant.
It had a yellow-gold band with a round red stone in the middle. It was banged up and scratched, clearly secondhand. I loved it. I loved everything about it. But I didn’t recognize it.
“No?” I said.
“Are you sure?” he said, teasing me. “If you think about it for a second, I think you might.”
I stared again. But the ring on my finger was much less interesting to me than the man who had given it to me.
Jesse had grown up to be even more handsome than he had been cute. His shoulders had grown wider, his back more sturdy. No longer training, he had gained weight in his torso, but it was weight that fit him fine. His cheekbones stood out in almost any light. And his smile had matured in a way that made me think he’d be handsome late into life.
I was madly in love with him and had been for as long as I could remember. We had a deep and meaningful history together. It was Jesse who had held my hand when my parents were furious to find out I’d never sent in my application to the University of Massachusetts, and in doing so, had forced their hand to send me to California. It was Jesse who supported me when they asked me to move home after we graduated, Jesse who dried my tears when my father was heartbroken that I would not come home to help run the store. And it was also Jesse who helped me remain confident that, eventually, my parents and I would see eye-to-eye again one day.
The boy that I first saw that day at the swimming pool had turned into an honorable and kind man. He opened doors for me. He bought me Diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey when I had a bad day. He took photos of all the places he’d been, all the places he and I had been together, and decorated our home with them.
And now, as we firmly settled into adulthood and the resentments of his childhood faded away, Jesse had started swimming long distance again. Not often, not regularly, but sometimes. He said he still couldn’t stand the chlorine smell of the pool, but he was starting to fall in love with the salt of the ocean. I was so enamored with him for that.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this ring before.”
Jesse laughed. “Barcelona,” he said. “The night of—”
He smiled, knowing that he didn’t need to finish the sentence.