Jennalee was right, of course: doing the play with her was a LOT of fun, and a fascinating experience in many respects.
First of all, stage acting was a new challenge for me, in multiple ways different from anything I had ever done before.
With Jennalee's help I learned how to use my diaphragm to project my voice, so the whole audience would be able to clearly hear me when I did my little speeches. It took some practice, of course, but eventually I got pretty good at it. She also worked with me on saying my lines in a completely natural way, and in learning how to feel like the character I was playing, another part of being natural and believable in a role.
As a chorus member in some of the other scenes I also had to learn simple dance moves, another completely new skill for me. I not only had to do the moves correctly, but coordinate myself with the other chorus members so we would perform as a unit. Plus, I sometimes had to sing at the same time. Speaking of which, there were also the singing sessions with Miss O'Neill, where all of us in the chorus learned and practiced the songs we'd be performing in the show. There was also the 'blocking,' figuring out exactly where everyone needed to be at any given time during each scene so all the logistics would work out.
For someone like me, who didn't have a lot of basic talent for any of these things, it was a challenge despite my intelligence level. Being able to see the progress I was making in learning all these aspects of stage acting was a very positive feeling.
Much more fun for me, however, was watching Jennalee at work. She took full advantage of her charisma, her engaging personality, and the reputation she had established with 'The Odd Couple' to become virtually a second director of the play, at least for the performing aspects of it. She not only helped anyone who needed and wanted it with any component of their performance, she took it upon herself to make the entire production a happy experience. She was always one of the first to arrive for the rehearsals, and would greet everyone else with a hug and brief conversation. She was constantly upbeat, single-handedly creating a positive atmosphere for everyone. Even when she offered criticism once in a while, it was always in a constructive and encouraging way. She saved her really enthusiastic praise for when it was genuinely earned, which made everyone instinctively work even harder to try to earn it.
It was amazing to be able to look around a stage full of people practicing a play, and not see a single person who wasn't obviously delighted to be there.
The most fun and fascinating part of all, however, was watching Jennalee's own performance evolve. She progressively took herself deeper and deeper into the character of Dolly Levi, working on her voice and mannerisms and cadences until she seemed almost as if she really was a middle-aged widow when she was in character. She polished the delivery of her funny lines until she was getting the maximum out of every one - yet at the same time was so natural that she seemed to be making up the lines as she spoke.
As I watched her from the stage or the wings when she was in character, I sometimes got the eerie feeling that she wasn't just playing Dolly, but that somehow she had actually BECOME Dolly. The quality of her work inspired everyone else in the cast to work even harder raising their own games as high as possible; but no one seemed to mind at all working so hard.
My personal schedule became very tricky for a while, as I had to set things up so I could both continue doing my tutoring and attend enough rehearsals to satisfy Mrs. Fletcher. It was a hectic time, but sharing 'Hello, Dolly!' with Jennalee was worth all of the hassle and much more.
Between Jennalee's efforts with the stage performers, and Mrs. Fletcher working tirelessly supervising all the various aspects of the production in an effort to make her dream come true as fully as possible, the show came together wonderfully over the course of the rehearsal period. Even though I was a novice performer, I had seen enough movies and plays in my life to realize that we had something special going with this production of 'Hello, Dolly!' I had a strong feeling that the show in general, and Jennalee in particular, were going to be received extremely well by our audiences.
This feeling increased even more at the dress rehearsal, when we all finally got to see Jennalee play Dolly in full costume and make-up. Her dresses had some padding to make her look heavier (she always kept herself in good physical condition), and the make-up made her look older. With these visual factors added to her carefully devised and practiced portrayal of Dolly, the illusion she was able to create of being forty or so instead of eighteen was stunningly effective.
Opening night was amazing. The house was nearly full, and from the moment Jennalee began her first speech as Dolly early in the first scene she had that big audience in the palm of her hand, and never let them go. Every word, facial expression and movement in her performance was fully believable yet richly entertaining. She got laughs on several lines that weren't even especially funny in and of themselves, just because her delivery of them was so amusing. The combination of the quality of her performance and her natural charisma and likeability completely captivated the audience.
The rest of the cast also performed well. Angelica and Dewayne were particularly excellent, which was not surprising considering that they and Jennalee had done additional practicing together beyond the regular rehearsals. She had worked even more with me, and if I do say so myself I did a pretty respectable job as the judge, despite the predictable first-show-ever nerves.
The audience came to their feet and cheered and applauded loudly at the end of the finale. The main cast then did their curtain calls, with the applause surging for each lead. Finally, Jennalee came to center stage. The applause and cheers immediately became thunderous, and stayed that way for at least a full minute: the audience simply did not want to let her go. Eventually the whole cast joined hands, and we all took one final bow before the curtain came down.
Then Jennalee and I quickly found each other, and shared a tight and emotional hug. I would have held her a lot longer, but the other performers were gathering around to give Jennalee their own hugs and congratulations, and I had to share her with them.
I had never been involved in a team effort anywhere near this magnitude before, and the feeling of having successfully delivered a great show after all the hard work we'd all put in together was amazing - and doubly so because the person who had led all of us to be able to be so good was the love of my life. I was so thankful that Jennalee had persuaded me to participate in the show. I knew this opening night was an experience neither of us would ever forget.
The first performance was reviewed in our paper again the following morning, and the reviewer raved even more about this show than he had over the previous one. He praised every aspect of it, but naturally saved his greatest praise for Jennalee. He wrote that her performance was professional quality, and that Jennalee was almost certainly a future star in our midst. He ended the review by advising everyone who was reading it to go and see this show, because if they didn't they would regret it someday, when Jennalee Morgan had become famous.
Just as importantly, at least from an attendance perspective, the paper from the Big Town did indeed send their own writer to cover opening night, and her review was also enthusiastic and full of praise, for the whole show and especially for Jennalee. Like her counterpart from our paper, the writer also predicted that someday Jennalee would achieve a significant level of professional success and fame as an actor.
The result was that all three remaining shows for the weekend sold out, and by Monday over half of the tickets for the following weekend had also been bought, either in person or online.
On Sunday evening (there was only a matinee performance that day, of course) our local paper contacted Jennalee and asked if she would do an interview for an article to be published later in the week. A feature reporter stopped in after school on Monday and talked to her for almost an hour. A photographer also took a few pictures of her so they would have a shot of her out of costume and make-up to include with the article (Mrs. Fletcher had previously given the paper some stills taken at the dress rehearsal, one of which had appeared with the review on Saturday).
The article ran on Wednesday, and it was well done, giving a flattering but accurate portrayal of Jennalee Morgan as a performer, student and person. The management of the paper from the Big Town must also have been quite impressed by Jennalee and her performance as described by their own reviewer, because they picked up the article from our paper and used it in their own Thursday edition.
During this time Jennalee was seeing another spike in the number of her Twitter followers, and a considerable number of people were sending multiple Tweets to her because they couldn't squeeze everything they wanted to say into 140 characters. So she and I decided that we should set up an official Jennalee Morgan Fan Page on Facebook, so her fans could more easily post messages to her of any length. I also started a normal Facebook of my own at the same time. Jennalee's page quickly accumulated a large number of 'likes,' of course. She enjoyed all of the messages posted by her fans, and replied to all of them.
With the performances of the play, the reviews, the newspaper article and social media all drawing attention to her, Jennalee was now definitely emerging as a local celebrity.
All four of the 'Hello, Dolly!' performances on the second weekend sold out completely, and the demand for tickets was such that another weekend of performances probably would have sold out as well. The show was a smashing success in every way.
Mrs. Fletcher was naturally ecstatic. Her 'Hello, Dolly!' dream had come true at last, and in a manner beyond anything she had ever imagined. She thanked Jennalee profusely after the final performance for all she had done to make the play so good, and Jennalee thanked her back for the chance to play Dolly, and for the latitude she had been given to take a leadership role in the production.
As had been the case with all of the performances, there were a bunch of people waiting to talk to Jennalee in the lobby afterwards. So it wasn't until the ride home (in the back seat of her mother's car again, of course) that Jennalee and I finally had a chance to really reflect on the whole experience of the show.
"Now that it's all over," I began, before we had even left the school parking lot, "I just want to tell you how impressed I am with you over everything you did with the play. You've truly moved beyond being the girl who just wants to have fun all the time. In many ways you were the most mature of all the students involved with the show. You were a leader who made everything and everyone around you better, as well as working extremely hard to perfect your own performance. I'm even prouder than before to be your boyfriend."
"Thanks!" Jennalee replied. "The thing is, though, I WAS having fun, with all of it. I haven't really changed much that way. I've just grown up enough that my definition of fun has expanded. I can have fun WHILE working hard and being mature now, not just with the more relaxing or entertaining kind of fun things. Especially when I'm doing something I really love, of course, and theater and acting are what I love to do most now. It's what I always want to do, because then I can be productive in an adult way and still have a lot of fun too. It's the perfect career for me!"
"Good point!" I agreed. "It makes me very happy to know that you'll be doing something that makes you so happy."
"You deserve to be happy," she responded, "because none of this would have happened for me without you. I know you don't believe that, but I still do. I'm more thankful than ever that I figured out that you were the one I really loved and needed to be with forever."
"Well, regardless of what might have happened with you and acting, I still think I got the better part of the deal when it comes to you and me. The thrill of knowing that you love me still hasn't begun to wear off, even after all this time. By the way, thanks again for talking me into being in the show. It was an amazing experience in so many ways, most of all because I got to share it with you and see firsthand what you can mean to a production and the people involved with it."
"You're very welcome, and thanks again for being in it! It was great to share it with you, too. Plus, you got better with every performance, and that was wonderful to see!"
"Wow, I'm honored!" I replied with a big smile. "Of course, I had a great acting teacher, so I can't take all the credit."
"I guess that's true," Jennalee responded, giggling a little, "but you do have talent as well. That's good to know, too, because if that medical research thing doesn't work out, you'll have something to fall back on!"
I laughed heartily. "I hope it doesn't come to that!" I finally said. "But if my worst case scenario is sharing a career with Jennalee Morgan, I'm pretty much guaranteed to have a VERY good life!"
"As long as we're together, we both are!" she observed. We shared one long, affectionate kiss, and then she snuggled herself into my arms for the rest of the ride home.
During March we had celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and by the end of the month I had received acceptances from all five colleges we had applied to. Jennalee had gotten responses from three. Her other two replies came in early April.
There had been no question that all the schools would accept me, of course. My academic record included, among other things: straight A's since first grade; the maximum number of advanced courses I could take; three wins and several other high finishes in regional science fairs; my nearly three years of tutoring, with nearly every student I'd worked with achieving a significant improvement in their grades; the weekly volunteer work our two families had been doing together for years at the local food bank; and my very high SAT score. Plus, there was my extremely ambitious plan for a double major plus minors on my way to becoming a top level medical researcher. With all that going for me I could have gotten accepted at virtually any college I wanted to go to, with at least a partial scholarship.
So it was just a question of which schools would accept Jennalee. Mrs. Fletcher had written a wonderful letter for her, and we had also sent each college a packet containing the newspaper review and a copy of the DVD of 'The Odd Couple.' With those things added to the excellent grades I had helped her achieve and her own additional extracurriculars, it seemed likely that at least some of the five schools would be glad to have Jennalee Morgan in their drama department.
Over the winter Jennalee had ranked the five colleges in order of her personal preference. There was actually a tie for first place on her list, because both of the two had a drama department head who had been a successful Broadway actress for at least ten years before going into teaching. To our mild surprise, the first of those two schools she heard from actually rejected Jennalee's application. The other was the last response she got, almost a week into April. To our relief, delight and great thankfulness to God, that college accepted her.
The school we would be attending was the second closest of the five to our home city, only about a three hour drive away, meaning we would easily be able to come home for a few weekend visits during the school year. So it seemed to be a good fit for us all around. We immediately arranged for a campus visit together, which we scheduled for the first Thursday after the show closed.
The visit was very enjoyable for both of us. During the course of the day I got a chance to meet with the heads of both the Biology and Biochemistry departments, and both seemed amazed by the extent of my knowledge of their respective disciplines. They assured me that I should, indeed, be able to bypass the lower level courses, which would obviously expedite my ambitious educational plans.
Jennalee hit it off very well with the drama head, who had already seen the 'Odd Couple' DVD. Jennalee tended to make quite an impression on just about everyone she met, of course, but this woman seemed even more impressed by her as both an actor and a person than most. Jennalee treated her to an impromptu performance of one of her speeches and a verse of one of the songs from 'Hello, Dolly!' These were received with sufficient enthusiasm that the teacher made Jennalee promise to send her a copy of the 'Hello, Dolly!' DVD as soon it came out.
By the end of the visit it was evident to both of us that we had definitely chosen the right college. We were both excited, and already looking forward to the start of classes in the fall.
Jennalee's new status as a local celebrity naturally continued after the show ended. The exposure she'd gotten through the article that had appeared in both newspapers was even more significant than the large attendance at all the performances in causing her to be recognized in public. Almost everywhere she went there would be at least one person she didn't know who would come up to her to talk about the play, and sometimes ask for an autograph. Usually it was more than one. The release of the DVD of 'Hello, Dolly!' two weeks after the show closed helped keep this trend going a while longer. Not surprisingly, the DVD sales this time far exceeded even those of 'The Odd Couple,' since there was demand for it not only from those who had seen the show and wanted to relive the experience, but from the many people who had been unable to get tickets, and could thus see a performance only via the DVD.
Gradually Jennalee began being noticed less and less, fame being the fickle thing that it is. Still, through the end of the school year a week never went by without at least one fan encounter, and she continued to enjoy them whenever they would happen.
Aside from the recognition and attention Jennalee was receiving, however, our lives had returned to normal after the play ended, especially in terms of our daily schedules. Graduation was less than two months away at that point, and soon Jennalee began regularly giving me both subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of what she wanted to have happen right after that.
For example, there was a night when Jennalee and I were watching TV together. I hardly ever watched TV on my own, by the way, simply because I almost always had other things I wanted to do that were more important and interesting for me. Though I did always enjoy sharing a good movie with Jennalee, most television shows held no interest for me at all; but clips of real people having real experiences were often fascinating, so I did like watching one of the viral video shows with Jennalee when we had relaxing time available.
On one particular night in early May, the show we were watching had a clip of a public proposal that went horribly wrong. We both cringed at the awkwardness of the moment, and then Jennalee said, "I hope you're not planning a public proposal to ME! I think a proposal should be a private moment between two people who love each other, don't you?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," I replied, intentionally sounding a bit uncertain. "Darn it, I guess I have to scrap that skywriting idea."
Jennalee giggled. "You're so silly sometimes!" she said. "I know you know me too well to ever even think about something like that. Plus, you couldn't afford it."
"Even if I COULD afford it, you're right: I wouldn't embarrass you like that."
"I can hardly wait for it to happen, however you decide to do it."
"Ooh, look at that!" I suddenly exclaimed, shifting our focus back to the TV: I wanted to get us off of the proposal subject before she dragged us any further in.
Late the following Saturday afternoon I picked her up after her shift at the store. I suggested we take a stroll down the mall to relax and window shop before we went home.
As we slowly walked and browsed, someone recognized Jennalee and stopped to say hello to her. This caused several other people to notice her too, and they also joined in the conversation. As always when she met fans, Jennalee was glad to take the time to talk to them.
After a few minutes her admirers went on their way, and our stroll continued. At one point, while we were deep in conversation, Jennalee noticed that we were passing close by one of the display cases of the jewelry store that was located in one of the corner spots at the center of the mall. She stopped in mid-sentence, and her face lit up.
"Look, Michael!" she exclaimed. "Engagement rings! We're going to need one soon, we should look at some of them!"
"Uh, sure, why not?" I replied noncommittally.
"All right, here's a quiz for you," Jennalee continued, apparently not noticing my somewhat guarded tone. "Knowing me as well as you do, what kind of engagement ring do you think I'd want?"
"Hmm," I muttered as I thought for a moment. "Well, you're the kind of person who likes to keep things uncomplicated, including in how you dress: stylish but simple clothes, nice but basic hairstyle, even small earrings, never the big hoops. So based on that, I would say you would want a simple kind of ring: a good stone in a nice but simple setting, nothing high and fancy, and without a bunch of smaller diamonds around it. Am I right?"
"Like I always say," she replied with a big smile, "I love how we get each other! That's exactly right!" She turned back to the display case and looked for a few seconds. "Something like that kind right there!" she continued, pointing to a group of identical rings that were simple but beautiful.
A moment later a clerk came up to the other side of the counter.
"Anything I can help you folks with today?" he asked.
"Can I try on one of those rings, please?" Jennalee asked sweetly, pointing again to the same group. "I don't know which size I need, I don't usually wear rings."
The clerk pulled out the tray containing the rings, and Jennalee tried one on. The first one was slightly loose. The second one she tried fit perfectly.
"That's a seven," the clerk informed us.
"It looks good on me, doesn't it?" she asked rhetorically as she slowly moved her fingers. "Ooh, and the simple stone has such a nice sparkle." She held her hand closer to my face for a couple of seconds so I could see what she was observing; then she abruptly pulled her hand away, quickly removed the ring and handed it back to the clerk. "Sorry," she said to me, "if you want to see a ring like that on my hand any longer than that, you'll have to propose to me with one!" She turned back to the clerk and flashed her biggest smile. "Thank you very much, sir!" she said. "Have a nice day!"
"Thank you, my pleasure, you too!" the clerk replied, looking slightly dazzled but happy, as we walked away.
"Now, that's what I call 'fun AND informative!'" Jennalee said happily. "I'm glad I noticed those rings, it'll make things easier for you, right?"
"I suppose it will," I replied. "Hey, why don't we stop at the frozen yogurt place for a quick treat before we head home?"
"Sure," she replied, looking at me a bit strangely. Then she apparently decided to let whatever might be bothering her go as we continued our leisurely walk down the mall.
Jennalee's occasional hints about expecting a proposal in the near future continued through most of May, whenever an opportunity presented itself to her. It was hard to tell how much she was noticing that my responses were somewhat lukewarm.
On the third weekend in May we attended the Senior Prom together. To absolutely no one's surprise, Jennalee was elected Prom Queen. To my utter astonishment, however, I was voted King. I had no illusions whatsoever about the result of the voting being due to any sudden rise in my own popularity. I knew very well that I had gotten the honor only because everyone who voted for Jennalee knew that it would make her even happier to have me at her side when she was crowned. Which, of course, it did, and that was the best part, even though it was also a pretty cool experience in and of itself.
Finally, graduation night arrived. I was valedictorian, but I kept my speech short, not wanting to bore anyone. I did take the opportunity to talk briefly about how academics are important, but that a balanced life makes knowledge even better, and credited Jennalee with teaching me that lesson. From there I thanked everyone from the principal to my parents, and then gave special thanks to Jennalee, and to God for being the ultimate source of all the good in anyone's life.
When it was all over and we were out of our caps and gowns, we were congratulated again by our parents. Then they carpooled home so Jennalee and I could go out for a late snack to celebrate.
When we got home later I walked her to her door. I could sense her excitement as we went, not just in her face but in her whole manner.
When we reached her front door I gave her a long, passionate kiss.
"Congratulations, grad!" I said with a big smile. "I'm so proud of you. One more enjoyable summer, and then our lives really start getting interesting. It's so exciting."
"Congrats, Valedictorian!" she replied. "Not that anyone ever doubted THAT would happen! I'm proud of you too."
We continued to smile at each other for a few seconds. Then my smile faded, and I sighed.
"Oh, JJ, I'm so sorry," I said, softly and sadly. "I was hoping you were just excited about graduating, but I can read you too well. I can tell it's more than that. You're waiting for me to propose, aren't you?"
"Well…yeah!" she responded in surprise. "You mean…you’re not going to?" The sudden disappointment in her face was painful to see.
"I was afraid to talk to you about it," I said. "I didn't want to hurt you. You haven't dropped any hints this last week or so, and I was hoping that meant…OK, I guess I really did know you still wanted it to happen tonight, I just didn't want to face it."
"What are you saying, Mikey?" she demanded, now looking like she was starting to panic. "Are you having second thoughts about marrying me?"
"NO!" I stated emphatically, almost yelling it. I immediately put my arms around her and held her tightly. "No, no, no! You're still my whole world and always will be, of course! I'm still very much looking forward to marrying you - someday. It's just that…well, I'm not sure anymore that I'm ready to be engaged this soon."
"Wow," Jennalee murmured. She gently pushed herself out of my hug so she could look at me. "I wasn't expecting this." She was silent for a few seconds, and then sighed. "But I should have," she went on, speaking louder. "Those times when I gave you the hints about expecting a proposal soon, I could see you didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about the whole thing; but I couldn't let myself consider that maybe there was a problem. I was looking forward to being engaged to you too much." Then her expression hardened. "But you should have talked to me about this weeks ago, Mikey. You should have known how I'd feel."
"You're right, you’re absolutely right," I agreed, hanging my head. "I'm so sorry." Then I looked at her again and gently put one hand on each of her shoulders. "Look, JJ, you trust me, right? I don't even need you to answer that, I know you do, absolutely, just like I trust you. It's late now, and I need to figure out how to fully explain to you how I feel, because for once it looks like you DON'T get me." I took her back into my arms and held her tightly again, and didn't continue speaking until I felt her arms securely hugging me back. "But you have to know one thing: I love you, Jennalee Morgan, with all my heart and soul, forever and ever. I want to BE with you forever and ever. Your happiness matters more to me than my own, always has and always will. So believe me that one way or another, this is going to work out for the best. OK?" I released my hug, stepped back and slid my hands down her arms into a double hand hold. "OK?" I repeated, softer and more gently.
"OK," she replied. "I really DON'T get you right now, but I do trust you. We'll talk more tomorrow, right?"
"Definitely!" I stated. "We'll get everything straightened out." I put my arms around her again. "I love you forever, JJ. No matter what happens, that will never, ever change."
"I love you too, Mikey," Jennalee replied.
I loosened my hug just enough so we could kiss, and tried to make it as emotional a kiss as I could. It went on for a while, and when we finally broke it off and I leaned back to see her face, she was smiling. There was still uncertainty in that smile, but I could clearly see her deep and abiding love for me there too.
"That's better," I said, smiling back. "Goodnight, my precious lady. I love you."
"Love you too," she replied. "Goodnight." She went inside and closed the door, and after a moment I walked home.
The next day, which was Saturday, Jennalee came over to our house on her own while I was still eating my breakfast. I had slept in a bit, and my parents had gone out for some weekend shopping.
After I let Jennalee into the house I quickly finished my oatmeal and cleaned up, then sat down with her at the kitchen table.
"Can you tell me now what's going on with you?" she asked softly.
"I don't think I can explain all of it," I answered, "not in a way that would satisfy you, because I don't completely understand everything myself yet. This past school year has been so interesting for me. I've watched you grow so much as a person, get so much more mature while still staying the Jennalee I love with all my heart. I've changed too, though, in different ways. I've always been so serious and mature, but at the same time that you were growing and maturing, I was discovering more of the kid in me.
"I think maybe it was because of being a senior this year, on the verge of legal adulthood for most things. I think I've been looking back on my life, and the person I've been. Doing the play, which was a kind of experience I've never had before, helped clarify this stuff in my mind. I've seen in recent months that even though you've helped me so much to have a balanced life, I've still been trying too hard for too long to be too much like a grown-up; and I feel now like I'm not sure I'm ready to go all the way there yet. Because let's face it: when you get engaged, you're an adult. There's no turning back.
"Most of all, though, is the simple fact that we both want each other to be happy. I want you to be happy by being engaged; but at the same time, you won't be as happy about it as you should be if you see that I'm not as happy about it as you want ME to be.
"So, I have a proposition for you: let's take some time to just have some summer fun together while I keep really thinking this through. Put the whole engagement matter on temporary hiatus for a specific time."
"How long?" Jennalee asked.
"How about until our first anniversary as a couple? That's less than two months. Give me that much time to work things out for myself. Could you do that without hating me too much?"
She smiled and shook her head. "Come on, Mikey, you know I'll never hate you. I guess no couple ever agrees on every important thing ALL the time. We ARE human after all." She took a deep breath and let it out. "All right, fair enough," she said, smiling a little wider. "I promise I won't say anything about proposals and engagement again until our anniversary. I think I still get you, though, in spite of this, and I've got a feeling I know what you'll decide - and that's the last thing I'm saying about it!"
"Thank you!" I exclaimed.
"You're welcome, Mikey. Really, I mean it."
"And you might be right," I added. "Maybe eight weeks or so of acting like kids and having fun times together will be enough to get this conflict out of my system and make me fully ready to be a grown-up. It's certainly possible."
"No comment," Jennalee replied with a big smile.
"All right, then!" I said as I started to stand up, "No work for either of us today, so what do you say we get started on having a fun summer?"
"Now you're speaking my language!" she chuckled. "Wanna go to the beach?"
"The water's probably still a bit cool for swimming," I noted, "but we could ride our bikes down there, hang out for a while and then do the lakeside bike trail. Good fun and good exercise all in one!"
"Sounds great! Let's go!"
So began our eight weeks of summer fun before the Day of Determination. True to her word as always, Jennalee never said a single thing about getting engaged during the entire time, not even the most subtle allusion to it. Still, I knew she was anxious for the Big Day to come, and that she fully expected to end that day with a ring on her finger.
We had lots of every reasonable kind of fun during those eight weeks. Sometimes Angelica and Dewayne joined us for an activity. Because Dewayne and I had become good friends, and because Angelica and I had also been getting along much better since Jennalee's birthday, there was now a strong sense of unity between the four of us when we were together. We had developed a genuine group friendship, which made the time we shared even more fun than before.
As always, though, I cherished most the time that Jennalee and I spent one-on-one; and as we had done during the last part of the previous summer, we spent as much of our free time together as we could. I enjoyed every minute of it.
The days and weeks of fun went by, and eventually came the day before our anniversary. I suggested we go to the beach again.
Since it was now the heart of summer, the water was excellent for swimming, and we enjoyed an afternoon much like the one we'd shared on the day we became a couple. We even returned to the little park overlooking the beach, where we again spent the last part of the afternoon relaxing and kissing and cuddling and talking.
"It's great to be young and in love, isn't it?" I commented at one point as we were snuggled up together on our towels.
"On a day like this, it great just to be alive," Jennalee replied.
"Most of all," I added, "it's great to be US!"
She didn't respond immediately, and I shifted my position so I could see her face. I could tell that she wanted to say something, but was forcing herself to hold it in. I imagined it was something like, I hope it'll be even greater to be us TOMORROW. Among the many things I loved so much about Jennalee Morgan was that she always kept her promises, and she was certainly keeping one with difficulty at that moment.
"I would never want to be anyone else, or be WITH anyone else," she finally said. I resumed my previous position and held her a little tighter than before.
"I almost wish this could just go on forever," I sighed.
Again she didn't respond, and I wondered how she had taken that last statement of mine. I didn't ask or try to clarify it. Instead, in a slightly louder and quicker voice, I said, "I love you!"
"I love you too, Mikey," she said, with a distinct lack of meaningful emotion.
"Prove it!" I challenged.
She turned herself around and we both sat up. I gently pulled her close, wrapped my arms around her and gave her an affectionate kiss. She kissed back enthusiastically, and for a while the shadow of the following day was lifted from us.
Our conversation on the ride home and our goodbyes for the day were much more restrained than usual. We both knew that an important moment was upon us, and that there was a lot each of us couldn't say yet; and by that point it seemed that neither of us could think of much else.
The night came and then the next day, the day of our anniversary. I had tutoring appointments in the morning and afternoon, and Jennalee had to work the day shift at the store.
Then the tutoring was done, and Jennalee had arrived home. She called to let me know that after she'd grabbed a snack, showered and gotten dressed, she would be over.
So now here I was, looking out the same window I'd looked through a year ago, waiting again for Jennalee Morgan to come across the street to talk to me.
I had thought through my plans for this conversation repeatedly, and I knew what I needed to do, but I still couldn't help going over all of it one more time as the last minutes passed before the arrival of the love of my life.
We had chosen my house as the meeting place because again my parents weren't home. As it was late afternoon on Friday, this time they were away because they had gone out for dinner and a movie. Jennalee and I were also going to go out after our talk to celebrate our first anniversary as a couple, so when she came over she would be dressed nicely. I myself was wearing shirt and tie, dress slacks and the newer of my two sport coats.
Finally, the door to her house opened, and Jennalee emerged. I focused myself as I watched her cross the street. She was dressed VERY nicely, in her usual stylish-but-simple manner, and looked stunning, somehow even more radiant than usual.
A year earlier I'd been unable to get a clear read on Jennalee's mood as she came up the walkway toward my house, a very unusual occurrence for either of us in dealing with the other. This time, however, there was no difficulty at all in seeing what was going on in her mind: she was trying to stay positive, but there was also unmistakable trepidation and anxiety present in her beautiful features. I could see that she wanted to believe things were going to work out the way she wanted, but knew there was a good chance it wasn't going to happen.
I hated seeing her looking and feeling that way, especially since I knew that her worst fears were about to be confirmed.
She took a deep breath as she came up the stairs, and let it out as she hit the porch.
I quickly walked over to the front door. As I looked through the window in the door at Jennalee, our eyes met, and she smiled at me, a smile that held both hope and fear.
I took a deep breath of my own.
"Show time," I whispered to myself, and opened the door.