by Amber Joy Connelly
On the evening of her twenty-second birthday, Ashley saw her ex-boyfriend standing in the doorway. He stepped forward and timidly wrapped his arms around her, and held her with such tenderness that Ashley momentarily forgot how she hated him for breaking her heart. With three months of silence between them, they stood looking in each other's eyes with awkwardness.
"Wow, twenty-two already," Will said. "It was just one year ago that we had our first kiss. Really nervous, but I kissed you. And now, another birthday."
"Yep," Ashley said.
"Twenty-two," Will said. "Probably not as exciting as turning twenty-one, but it's still cool."
He turned around and noticed the door remained left open. He leaned back and shut it with a push of one arm. For the split second he looked away, Ashley furrowed her brow in puzzlement and repressed her urge to laugh at his awkwardness and the strangeness of the moment. "Can we sit down somewhere?" Will asked.
The living room was the best place to sit and talk. Its big front window let the colors of the setting sun dance on the light carpet and radiate lingering warmth from the early summer day. Ashley recalled sitting in the living room, opening up her presents waiting for Will to arrive for their date exactly one year before. The room was just the same, but they were differrent.
"How about on the couch?" Will said. "I feel kinda dumb just standing and talking to you."
Ashley opted for the mauve cushioned chair directly facing the couch. The couch was too long and she didn't want to sit on the far opposite end, or sit too close to him. They used to cuddle together on that couch. The chair squeaked as she sank into it and leaned against its back.
"So, how is your birthday so far?" Will asked. "You don't have plans that you're about to do or anything, do you?"
"Nope, I just got done opening up my presents from my family," Ashley said. "I couldn't think of anything else to do."
"Oh well." Will said. " I guess not every birthday can be like the one before."
"Guess not. Is there a reason you are here, Will?" Ashley said.
He stared at Ashley for a second, taken back by her uncharacteristic bluntness. He leaned his elbows forward onto his knees. Ashley noticed that his arms were tan and his forearm muscles were taut. She thought to herself that he must be hot working in these sunny days for his dad's construction business, and she felt a twinge of worry for him. Her eyes shifted to his face as he smiled his disturbingly charming smile. His nose and chiseled cheeks were flushed red, and Ashley couldn't tell if he was slightly sunburned or just nervous. His smooth, deep voice broke the silence as Will started talking again.
"Ashley, when you and I went out on our first real date one year ago, I was really liking you. I had already planned out our relationship, and we hadn't even kissed yet. I seriously thought you were `the one.' You were like nothing I had ever experienced before, and all I wanted to do was be with you. Even though people told you I was a player, and didn't take any of my previous relationships seriously, I wanted to be different for you. But, things went really fast with us, and I became overwhelmed. That's why I got weird and suddenly ended us. I didn't know what I wanted. I'm sorry."
Thanks a lot, Ashley thought, resting her temples against her hand, just when I begin to forget my feelings for Will and the pain he caused me, he has to show up and finally say he's sorry. He's going to drudge up those great memories, make my heart feel sorry for him, show his dimpled smile, and then go on his way. This is just the way I want to spend my birthday, redeeming someone else at the expense of my heart. Why couldn't I see how self-centered and selfish he was one year ago, before this whole mess could even start?
She jerked upright, tossed her blonde hair back with the fling of her head, and rubbed her moist palms against her shorts--trying to act as indifferent as her pounding heart would allow. "Okay. Whatever,"she said, her voice a little too forced.
Will sat in the light of the fading sun. He was serious and anxious. His normally smiling face was almost sad. "Remember on your last birthday I promised to be there to wish you happy birthday on your next one?" he said. "I wanted to make it as special as the first one we shared."
"Congratulations," Ashley laughed bitterly, "At least you kept one promise. Is there anything else you wanted to tell me before you let me enjoy the remainder of my birthday?"
Ashley watched as Will slowly got up from the couch and she mirrored him as she too stood up. Cold silence from her last remark was left hanging in the dimming room. She turned to walk him out, but was stopped as a hand grabbed hold of her wrist. Then Will faced her and spoke. "Take me back?"
For a brief second Ashley stood there feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of her. As the initial shock of hearing Will say those words wore off and Ashley remembered to breathe in and out, thoughts raced through her mind.
Instantly, Ashley's memory flashed to an hour before. A chorus of off key voices broke out in, "Happy Birthday to you." Ashley's mother carried in a homemade German Chocolate cake, illuminated by twenty-two flickering candles, and placed it in front of her laughing face. The song concluded with a loud obnoxious ending and everyone started chanting, "Make a wish, make a wish!"
Ashley stared mesmerized by the flame of all the candles and wondered what she could wish for her twenty-second birthday. With a shrug and a smile, she took a deep breath and blew out all the candles.
"So, what’d you wish for?" Ashley's brother asked.
"Can't tell or else it won't come true," Ashley answered.
The slight squeeze of Will's hand on Ashley's wrist brought her back to the present. With a sharp jerk of her arm, Ashley broke free from Will's gentle grasp. Her eyes closed to thin slits of ice blue and her full lips pursed in defiance of the raging emotions of excitement in her chest.
"I don't believe you," Ashley bit out. She became overwhelmed with a desire to slap his adorable face, but instead she just shoved him away from her. Caught off guard by her sudden force, Will stumbled back and watched as she turned her back to him and started towards the front door.
Ashley had convinced herself after they had broken up that everything Will said and did was a lie. She reasoned that if he cared about her, or ever cared about her, he wouldn't hurt her like he did. All of her ached the day he left her alone with no explanation. The day he was going to propose--Valentine's Day. How could she put faith in what he said anymore when he didn’t even put any faith in her? If he couldn't trust himself then how could she trust him?
"Ashley..," Will began.
"Don't! I think you should leave," Ashley said.
Will ignored her, and remained standing there in the last ray of sunshine filtering through the window. He ran his hand through his dark, brown, wavy hair, and turned his head to gaze out the window for a fleeting moment. Ashley saw him shut his eyes for a second before facing her again and laying his pleading eyes on her. He looked almost vulnerable, like a lonely little boy. "Please give me a chance."
With tears burning at the backs of her eyes, Ashley dropped her head and weakly spoke. "My heart can't take this." But, actually the tears she felt were ones of happiness
rather then the ones of pain she had cried months earlier. All she wanted to do was run to him, throw her arms around him and accept him back into her life with a big kiss; but, instead she stood there with her hand on the doorknob.
One year ago, Ashley leaned against the same door with her heart pounding after sharing with Will the sweetest goodnight kiss she had ever experienced at the end of their incredible first date. She had stood there smiling to herself thinking about how he loved to hold her hand, and how he made her laugh, and how good it felt to feel so comfortable in someone's arms. She remembered how he held her close and said, "I can't believe I've finally met you," and that she wondered what he meant. Most of all she thought about how she thanked God in her prayers that she had finally found someone to make her smile.
Again Ashley was jolted back to the present as her little sister came running into the living room. "Will! Hi!" Sarah excitedly and squeezed her small arms around his left leg. "I missed you."
"Hey, munchkin I missed you too," Will said.
"Stay and play with me,“ she said, giving her best persuasive smile.
Will looked up at Ashley and saw her proudly standing there almost as a challenge, but something in her eyes was soft and achingly sweet. "Maybe another time, cutie. I think your sister wants me to go."
"No she doesn't," Sarah protested.
"Sarah!" The sound of Ashley voice told her little sister that it was time to leave them alone. With a sympathetic smile at Will and a sassy look towards Ashley, Sarah pranced out of the room. Ashley watched as she left her sight and told herself to threaten Sarah about embarrassing her in the future. As she took her eyes off her sister, Ashley was startled to see Will's dimpled face almost close enough to kiss. Her energy was quickly being drained from the intense mixed emotions she was experiencing. Her heart was telling her to give in to the love she still felt for him, but her head was telling her to remember the agony he put her through. Ashley didn't know what the right thing do was. She needed to think.
"You don't want me to go, do you? I can see it in your eyes." Will said, pushing a strand of hair behind Ashley's ear.
The first time Ashley had heard him say that they were on a vacation in the mountains with her family. The day was beautiful so they spent it outside. They were tossing a football back and forth; Ashley had asked him how he knows she loves him and he responded with, "I can see it in your eyes." Later that day they sat on a broken log next to the lake shore watching the orange sun set behind the black mountains as it left crystal reflections off the water. Will said he wanted to put the log in their front yard when they got married. She had started laughing at the absurdity of having a log on a front lawn. In between giggles she asked, "Are you serious?" She was positive that he was kidding about the whole idea, so she was puzzled when he looked almost crushed when she asked the question. He grabbed her hand, looked down at their intertwined fingers, then looked up at her, his vivid blue eyes intensely magnified as the soft setting sun shone upon his face with a bronze color of light. "I do want to marry you." Her heart was pounding then almost as hard as it was pounding now.
"Will, please..." Ashley didn't know what she wanted from him anymore. Ten minutes ago she thought she would have taken him back in a second, but in that short span of seeing him again and listening to him something changed. "Do you know what I wished for my birthday? I wished that you would come back to me." It was the first admission Ashley gave to Will that revealed she still cared for him. Her cold, indifferent facade fell away.
"That is the last thing I expected you to say right now," Will said with a hint of relief.
"I was beginning to think you really did hate me. And you have every right to. I just hoped somewhere in your heart you still loved me, or at least liked me because I know that I still feel something for you. No matter what, you're still my `precious little Ashley girl."' The words he spoke came out slowly but sincere. "I have a present for you." Will reached into his back pocket. With his left hand he grabbed her right hand and turned it palm up. With his right hand he placed a cold silver object in her hand.
Ashley knew what it was the moment she felt it against her skin. It was so familiar to her. He had given her his dented CTR ring the night they kissed. He told her it was formed to fit her finger perfectly--even if she did have to wear it on her biggest finger. In a fit of rage the day they broke up Ashley threw it at him claiming she never wanted the stupid thing. Standing there now, Will pleaded with Ashley by the look in his eyes as he spoke. "There is only one girl that deserves this. It belongs with you. Please take it."
"Thank you," Ashley said clasping her fingers around the ring. The simplicity of what he said and the rawness in his voice sounded so honest. Maybe he was the person she hoped to love and not who she tried to hate.
Will leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on Ashley's cheek. "Happy Birthday, Ash." For a couple of seconds they stood there face to face looking at each other remembering what once was between them, and a hope of what might still be, sparkled in each other's eyes.
Ashley turned the doorknob to let Will out. He slowly stepped onto the porch and Ashley watched as he began to walk away. Suddenly he stopped and turned around. The sun had finally set and the twilight colors glowed behind him in the evening sky. With his charming smile that Ashley could never resist, Will said, "Maybe I could call you tomorrow."
Ashley matched his smile and simply answered, "Maybe."