Opening night for 'The Odd Couple' was the next Friday, with the curtain going up at 7:00. There were two more performances scheduled for Saturday - a matinee at 2:00 and an evening show at 7:00 - then another 2:00 show on Sunday to conclude the run.
On Monday of that week, Angelica Sims and her boyfriend, Dewayne Freeman (who was also in the show), began joining Jennalee and me for lunch at school. Jennalee and Angelica had discovered through their work together on the play that they had a lot in common beyond just a love for theater and acting. A genuine friendship had begun to form between them, so they wanted to share time together beyond play practice. Jennalee had made many casual friends over the years, but few of them had ever become close friends, and none had ever grown nearly as close to her as I was. I hoped that Angelica would turn out to be a close friend to her for the long term.
On Friday Jennalee naturally left early to go to the school theater for the pre-performance preparations, taking her mom's car. Mrs. Morgan rode with us later. We stopped at a flower shop on the way so Mrs. Morgan and I could each pick up a small bouquet to give to Jennalee after the show.
Before she left, Jennalee had requested that I meet her in the hall outside of the backstage area before I took my seat. When we arrived I immediately went there, leaving the bouquet with my mom.
I knocked on the door that led backstage, and after a minute or so Jennalee came out. She was already in full costume and make-up, and looked amazing except for one thing: an obvious case of pre-show butterflies. Now that it had come down to the Big Night, she was understandably nervous.
"You still think I can do this, right, Mikey?" she asked softly.
"Wrong!" I replied. "I KNOW you can. You're going to blow everyone away, and I can't wait to see it!"
She smiled, though it was still a nervous smile.
"Thanks, Mikey," she said, her voice a bit stronger. "Knowing you believe in me so much, I really think I CAN do that. I just hope I stop feeling so jittery once the show actually starts."
"I've read that many performers experience that kind of thing," I responded. "First of all, nervousness beforehand is natural, because it's a sign that you care about doing well. However, you know this play inside and out now, and know exactly what you want to do out there. Someone in that situation usually gets into a relative comfort zone once they start doing what they've been practicing. I feel very confident that since you're such a natural performer, it will happen that way with you. Just get that first line out, and it will all be downhill from there."
"Thanks, Mikey!" she replied with a smile, visibly less nervous already. "I should have known that you would do research to prepare for giving me a pep talk! Having a really smart boyfriend is a gift from God that never stops giving!"
I chuckled. "Glad to be of service," I said with a little nod of my head. "I better let you get back in there now. Break a leg!"
"Thanks again!" she said. "And don't worry: I intend to make you proud of me tonight."
"I've never doubted I would be," I replied. "How about we say a quick prayer just for some insurance?" We joined hands, and I prayed for God to help Jennalee use the talent He had given her with calmness and confidence. Then we gave each other a quick little hug, being careful to preserve her make-up.
"I love you!" I suddenly said, loudly and quickly.
"Hey, that's not fair!" she giggled. "You knew I wouldn't be thinking about the game now!"
"It made you laugh," I replied with a smile. "That was all I wanted."
"Thanks, I did need that!" she agreed. "Love you too!" Then she turned and disappeared through the backstage door. I rejoined my parents and Mrs. Morgan, and we were ushered to our seats.
Glancing through the program as I waited for the show to start, I saw that Mrs. Fletcher had been true to her word: underneath her own credit as director was 'Assistant Director: Jennalee Morgan.' I hoped everyone would notice it.
By curtain time the school theater was only about half filled. This wasn't surprising, of course: as Mrs. Fletcher had pointed out the week before, the plays at our school seldom drew big audiences. In a way it was probably just as well, at least for opening night, because a packed house might have made it harder for Jennalee to get past her nerves and settle into the play. I said another prayer for her, this one silent, as the lights went down and the curtain began to rise.
When Jennalee made her first entrance a few minutes into the show (immediately lighting up the stage with her presence, of course), she still looked slightly nervous. She had to say a long line as she entered - the answer to a trivia question - and when she finished I saw a hint of relief in her face that she had gotten the line out correctly. One of the other girls then asked her a non-trivia question, to which her answer would be her first funny line of the play. I could see Jennalee quickly focusing herself while the question was being asked, and then she delivered her line with just the right pacing and inflection and facial expression to make it as funny as possible. She got a good laugh, and that one very positive response was enough to wash away her remaining nervousness. From that point on she looked completely comfortable and was fully in character, and her confidence quickly grew stronger and stronger as she fed off of the reactions of the audience. By the end of the first scene it was overwhelmingly obvious that acting in starring roles was truly what Jennalee Morgan had been born to do, and I could tell that she knew it too.
Throughout the play her performance was hilarious and emotionally moving in all the right places. She was totally believable as Olive, and richly entertaining. Angelica did an excellent job in her role too, and the chemistry between them that Mrs. Fletcher had spoken about was amazing to watch. The supporting actors also did very well. The whole production was at a considerably higher level than any of the previous plays I'd seen at school, the ones in which Jennalee had taken only a small role. Still, the best thing about this one, unquestionably, was Jennalee's outstanding performance.
When the show was over, I turned out to be wrong about Jennalee's curtain call: she didn't just get the loudest applause and cheers, she got a standing ovation. As she stood up there with tears of joy in her eyes waving to the audience, I wanted to scream out, THAT'S MY GIRLFRIEND!!
I knew it would take Jennalee a while to get out of make-up and costume, so I passed some time hanging out in the lobby with our parents after the show, along with numerous other people who I assumed were parents of other cast and crew members. After a few minutes I noticed a man who was leaning against a wall and writing in a notebook. I strongly suspected that he was the writer from the local paper who was going to do the review, and it occurred to me that I could provide him with some interesting information. So I went over and introduced myself, and he confirmed his identity. I told him that I was Jennalee Morgan's boyfriend, and asked him if he had noticed her additional credit in the program as 'Assistant Director.' I then explained to him briefly what Jennalee had done for the show beyond her own role. He seemed impressed, and thanked me for letting him know about it. Out of curiosity I asked him what he'd thought of the show.
"Since you've been so helpful," he replied, "I'll give you a hint: I think you and your girlfriend are going to enjoy the review very much."
I thanked him, then let him return to his notes.
Soon after this I made my way to the backstage door where I had given Jennalee the pep talk: I wanted to be the first one to talk to her when she came out.
She emerged a few minutes later with Angelica and Dewayne, followed by several other cast members. As soon as Jennalee saw me she ran the three or four steps over to me, threw her arms around my neck and hugged me hard. I hugged her back and said, "I told you you'd be awesome, and everyone here tonight agreed! A standing ovation for your first starring performance! Doesn't get much better than that!"
"No it doesn't!" she agreed as she released her hug and backed up a step so she could look at me. "Thank you again so much for believing in me and talking me into this! You were right, this IS one of the best feelings I've ever had!"
I handed her the bouquet I was holding.
"Maybe that's a bit corny," I said, "but I'm so proud of you right now, and so proud to be your boyfriend, that it's appropriate to give you something traditional to express it. Congratulations!"
"Thanks!" she replied. "I'm going to keep this forever!"
At that point Angelica said, "We're gonna go find our parents. See you tomorrow, Jen! Great job!"
"See you, Angie! You were great too!" Jennalee replied as Angelica and Dewayne walked away. We shared another big hug, then turned and started heading for the lobby ourselves.
Jennalee's mom and my parents met us about halfway there, and I yielded Jennalee to them so she could receive their praise and congratulations, as well as her mom's bouquet. Then we all finished the walk to the lobby together.
When we got there, we found that there were still some audience members hanging around. I barely had time to start wondering why before several of them came up to Jennalee, wanting to tell her how good they thought her performance was. The rest of the people then noticed Jennalee's presence, and before I knew it a line had formed. Some of the people were students, but others were adults. I watched proudly as one person after another gave Jennalee high compliments, and a few actually asked her to autograph their programs. She looked surprised but delighted, and I couldn't have been more delighted for her. Nothing in the world could make me as happy as seeing Jennalee happy, and I had never seen her any happier than this. It confirmed to me once again that acting was what Jennalee Morgan had been born for.
Finally our two families made our way to the parking lot. Jennalee insisted that I ride with her and her mom, and naturally I approved of that idea completely. We cuddled up together in the back seat as the drive home began.
"What a night, huh?" I commented a minute or so into the ride. "You'll remember this one forever!"
"I sure will!" she agreed. "I've definitely found my calling, thanks to you. Now we just have to figure out what YOURS is."
That topic was becoming increasingly uncomfortable for me to just think about, and I certainly didn't want to talk about it at that moment. So I quickly changed the subject.
"Hey," I said, "I noticed in the program that you were also listed as 'Assistant Director.' What's that about?"
"Oh," she said, turning to look at me. "Well...I guess I helped Mrs. Fletcher out a little with the other actors. It was really nice of her to put that in there."
"You don't need to be so modest," I replied. "Especially with me. As it happens, I talked to Mrs. Fletcher last week because I was curious about the rehearsals. She told me exactly what was happening and how much you were contributing. There's nothing wrong with getting credit for that. You deserved it. By the way, I hope you don't mind, but I may have mentioned something about it to the guy from the paper. I think you and the show are going to get a really nice review tomorrow."
"You shouldn't have done that," Jennalee said. She paused, then continued. "Although in your place I probably would have done it too, so I guess I can't be mad at you. Anyway, the thing about what I did is, I was kinda embarrassed about it, especially at first. We're all just students, after all, and I didn't really feel like it was my place to tell the others what to do. Once it started happening, though, everyone said I was making the show better, so they didn't mind, and so I didn't mind so much; and eventually, helping the others whenever I could started feeling natural to me, just like working on my own acting. Am I making any sense to you?"
"Actually, yes," I responded, "and I'm really glad you're that humble. If and when you become famous, that attitude will serve you well."
"I don't think I have to worry about that for a while," she replied with a smile.
"Well, you signed your first autographs tonight," I pointed out. "So obviously you already have fans!"
She giggled. "That WAS pretty cool, I have to admit. But don't worry, I'll stay humble. If for no other reason than because you'll have my back, like always. You won't ever let me get a big head."
"I don't think I'll ever need to help you with that, but I'll be here just in case!"
"Thanks!" she said, then suddenly added, "I love you! Ha, got you that time!"
"I graciously concede defeat," I chuckled. "After all, this is your night to shine." We exchanged a brief kiss, then she turned and snuggled back into me as the ride home continued.
The review in the morning paper was, indeed, glowing. The writer said it was the best high school production he had ever seen, and that Jennalee was an exceptional young actress with all the tools to be a star someday. He also noted her other contributions to the show, and closed by speculating that someday he might be bragging to his grandchildren that he had seen Jennalee Morgan's first starring performance. There was also a very nice picture of Jennalee and Angelica in character, which I assumed was something Mrs. Fletcher had arranged for and released to the paper.
Jennalee came over that morning for a study session (it was an unusual time for us to have one, but we had to work around her unusual schedule for the weekend). However, we ended up spending more time discussing the review and the show than we did studying. Jennalee was a bit embarrassed by the review, but also very pleased by it. I expressed hope that the article and picture would result in larger audiences for the remaining three shows.
I skipped the Saturday matinee to catch up on some additional studying of my own, then went to the evening show to see Jennalee again, stopping to pick up a couple of extra copies of the paper on the way. She and the rest of the cast and crew had stayed at school between shows, with some of their parents providing a meal for them. I arrived early enough to be able to talk to Jennalee prior to the evening show.
She told me that the afternoon performance had gone very well again, that she had gotten her second standing ovation, and that the audience had been considerably bigger than the one the previous evening: the theater had been at least three quarters full. This was unusual, as normally the Saturday matinee was the lightest attended performance of a weekend run at our school.
"I'm sure the review had something to do with that," I said. "Perhaps word-of-mouth was also part of it."
"Whatever caused it, I'm just glad so many people showed up!" she replied happily. "The more people who see it, the more all the hard work we did was worth it, you know?"
"Very true!" I agreed. "Should be interesting to see tonight's attendance. By the way, you don't seem nervous tonight like you were last night."
"Just a little," she replied with a wink, "but I know I can do this now, so it doesn't scare me anymore. I really LIKE being out there!"
"As I said when we had our discussion," I reminded her, "center stage is where you belong."
"I guess you were right!" she acknowledged. "Thanks again!"
By show time the theater looked full. Sitting in the midst of the big crowd, I could feel a difference from the night before, a higher level of group energy: this audience was much more excited about being here, was clearly expecting to be entertained by something considerably better than a normal high school play.
Jennalee didn't disappoint them. She was completely calm, focused and in character from beginning to end, and she delivered a performance that was actually even better than what she had done the night before.
Seeing how packed the house was, during the intermission I went to the ticket window and inquired about the attendance. I found out that fifteen minutes before curtain time the show had sold out completely. It was the first time that had ever happened in the history of the school. I also found out that many of the tickets for the final performance the next afternoon had also been claimed already. I was glad our parents had bought tickets for the Sunday show for themselves and me the night before.
Jennalee got another standing ovation at the end, and because of the size of the audience it was considerably louder and more impressive than the one I'd been part of the night before.
The Sunday performance also sold out, and Jennalee and her castmates again put on an outstanding show. This time the standing ovation started at the beginning of the curtain calls; Jennalee simply got the loudest and longest applause.
After the show I made my way to the backstage door to wait for Jennalee again. When she emerged, Mrs. Fletcher was with her. After Jennalee and I had hugged and I had congratulated her on another great performance and a great run, Mrs. Fletcher spoke to her.
"So, you're definitely going to do it, right?" she asked. "And help coach the other actors again, too?"
"Sure, if you can arrange everything," Jennalee replied. "And if I win the audition, of course."
"I'm not worried about that," Mrs. Fletcher stated, then continued, "I've wanted to put on 'Hello, Dolly!' for years, it's been a dream of mine, but the level of participation needed for a show like 'Dolly' has always been hard to get here. Plus, I've never had someone who seemed good enough to really bring the Dolly character to life. With you being willing to be a lead I have that matter covered, so I just need to fill out the rest of the cast and chorus. Not coincidentally, I think I also have an excellent means of persuasion to make that happen this time: after what you did in this show, I think the chance to be up on stage with you will be very appealing. Our Drama Club is small, but the choir participation here is pretty large, and singers who can act are just as good for a musical as actors who can sing. I'm optimistic enough about the prospects that I'm not afraid to make a commitment, since I basically have to make one to whatever musical we're going to do right about now anyway. So we're going for 'Hello, Dolly!' next spring!"
"I'll certainly do my part to help make your dream come true!" Jennalee assured her. "Well, thanks again for everything, Mrs. Fletcher. I had so much fun doing this, and I can't wait to start it all over again with the next play!"
"Thank YOU, Jen!" Mrs. Fletcher responded. "I can't wait either! Take care!"
"You too!" said Jennalee as Mrs. Fletcher began to walk away.
As we rode home (Jennalee had insisted on the same arrangement as Friday), I asked her how she felt.
"I feel so many things," she replied, "but I think most of all I feel like I'm really finally growing up. I applied myself to something completely by choice, put myself under pressure, and really worked hard at it, and I could handle all of it. I don't think I could have done that even last year." She smiled at me. "Thank you so much for seeing that I COULD do it, and how happy it would make me. There's no way I would have done it if it hadn't been for you."
"I'm not so sure about that," I replied. "If you think back to that day, you'll realize that it wasn't exactly hard for me to talk you into it. I think deep down you knew you wanted to pursue acting as your career. I gave you a little nudge to get you going, but even if I hadn't said anything, I think it's very possible you would have realized on your own that you wanted to go for a lead this time."
"I'll always give you most of the credit no matter what you say!" she insisted. "But in any case, I'm feeling more and more like an adult now. Which means I'll totally be ready when you propose to me!"
"We've still got a while before that can happen," I noted, "but it's good that you're feeling more ready. Just don't grow up so much that you start losing that free-spirited part of you that I adore."
"Oh, don't worry!" she assured me. "Just because I CAN be more grown up now doesn't mean I want to do it all the time. In fact, I definitely DON'T want to! As much fun as the play was, I'm definitely ready for a break from all that extra pressure. I'm still the same person, I can just be more mature now when I want or need to be."
"I'm glad of that too," I said with a big smile, "and that you know where your life is going now. You're on your way, Jennalee Morgan!"
She gave me an even bigger smile, then a brief kiss; then she snuggled into me, and I put my arm around her.
You know where you're going, I thought. That just leaves me.
Jennalee's experience with the play had several after effects. One was that she was suddenly even more popular at school than before. She had always turned heads and gotten a lot of little greetings whenever we had walked down the halls together, but now many of those who had seen her in the play were stopping her to give her compliments and engage her in brief conversations.
In the period during and after the run of the play, Jennalee also saw a significant increase in the number of her Twitter followers, and the many nice Tweets she started getting were another source of delight for her. She replied to every one of them, knowing it would make the senders happy.
The responses to Jennalee's performances weren't limited to school and Twitter. She returned to her part time after-school-and-weekend job at the mall after the play was over, and during her first week back she experienced three separate incidents where people came up to her to compliment her and talk to her about the play. Each time she told me about one of these incidents I felt a little frustrated that I hadn't been there to witness and enjoy it.
Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long to see such an encounter for myself.
It happened on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a week after the last performance, while Jennalee and I were out doing some relatively early Christmas shopping. At one point we stopped at a particular store so she could take advantage of a sale price on a gift set of her mom's favorite fragrance.
When we went to check out and Jennalee set the gift set on the counter, the middle-aged woman at the register smiled and said, "Hi, welcome to-" Suddenly her eyes widened a little as she looked at Jennalee. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "I know you! You're Jennalee Morgan, right? The girl from Jefferson High who was in 'The Odd Couple!' My husband and I saw it last weekend after we read the review. I loved it! You're such a good actress, and so beautiful! I bet you're going to be doing TV and movies someday!"
"Thank you very much!" Jennalee replied, looking slightly embarrassed but very happy. "I'm so glad you liked it. We worked really hard to make it a good play, so it's always nice to get compliments."
"Well, I'm very glad to meet you!" the clerk said. She held out her hand. "I'm Annette!" she continued, in her excitement apparently forgetting that she was wearing a large name tag.
"Nice to meet you too," Jennalee responded as she shook the woman's hand. "Thanks for coming to the play. I hope you'll come back to see our musical next spring."
"Well, if you're in it, I definitely will!" the woman declared. As she spoke she absently put the gift set into a bag. "I'll look forward to that!" She handed the bag to Jennalee, then said, "Thank you for shopping here! I hope I'll see you here again soon."
"Thank you, that's very nice of you," Jennalee replied with a little chuckle. She handed the bag back to the clerk. "But I should probably pay for this."
The woman stared at Jennalee for a moment, looked down at the bag, and then blushed brightly.
"Oh, my goodness!" she said with an embarrassed giggle. "You're honest too, that's really nice! I'm sorry for being so distracted." She took the gift set back out of the bag, scanned it, and then quickly re-bagged it and returned the bag to Jennalee, who had been pulling out the money to pay for it at the same time.
With the transaction officially completed at last, the clerk again thanked Jennalee, who gave her a dazzling smile as we walked toward the door.
"Well, you certainly made HER day!" I observed as we made our way to her mom's car. "The word 'starstruck' comes to mind."
"Yeah, she was more enthusiastic than the ones at the mall," Jennalee replied with a chuckle. "Regardless, it's still a little embarrassing for me when that happens, but I'm glad I can make some people so happy so easily. It's a good feeling!"
"It's part of being famous, obviously," I observed, "so I guess it's good for you to get some experience dealing with fans at this level, so if you do hit it big someday you'll be more ready."
"If it does happen, I'm going to try to make as many of my fans as I can as happy as possible," she responded with a big smile.
"Exactly what I would expect from you," I replied, putting my arm around her and giving her a squeeze.
The most significant after effect of the play, however, was Jennalee's newfound friendship with Angelica Sims. As I'd hoped, their friendship continued to grow after the play was over, and it wasn't long before Angelica had become Jennalee's closest female friend ever. I was delighted to see it happen.
Thanksgiving was a joyous occasion, because we were both more thankful than we had ever been in our lives. We had both been raised to always be thankful to God for all our blessings, but this particular year we were obviously even more thankful than usual because of how He had guided us into becoming a couple. It was something we were both extremely grateful for every day, of course, but on the annual official Day of Thanks the feeling was enhanced even more. Plus, we were also very thankful for Jennalee having discovered that acting was her destiny. We truly praised God with all our hearts and minds for all He had done and was continuing to do for us.
The final performance of 'The Odd Couple' had been recorded by the school, in part for release on DVD. The week after Thanksgiving, Jefferson High started selling the DVDs, and within three days it had outsold any previous video release of a school production. By the end of the first week it had more than tripled the sales of the next highest seller in school history. It was obviously being bought both by people who had seen the play and those who had missed it. This generated a small new wave of people who recognized Jennalee at work or elsewhere, and came up to her to talk about the play and her performance.
"I believe you're really starting to become a local celebrity!" I commented to her after observing her latest such encounter when I came to pick her up at the mall one Saturday afternoon at the end of her shift.
"I think 'celebrity' is still an exaggeration," she replied with a chuckle. "But I'd have to agree that I'm not exactly anonymous anymore either."
"I'm really interested to see what happens next spring with 'Dolly,'" I said. "You'll not only be the star, you'll have a chance to really showcase ALL of your talent. 'Celebrity' might not be too grandiose a term anymore after that, at least on the local level."
"We'll see," she said with a big smile. "I'm not really concerned about that, I'm just looking forward to doing the play."
Being Jennalee Morgan's boyfriend was still a dream come true for me every day, and it was obvious that she still felt the same way about me. We were both very happy and thankful to be together, and in most ways our lives were going extremely well.
There was one matter, however, that had begun to cast an unpleasant shadow over us - and time was running out to deal with it.
December brought cold weather and the Christmas season - which were stark reminders to me that Jennalee and I needed to begin sending out our college applications very soon. We had both been working on our essays on and off since shortly after our late September conversation about Jennalee's major. I, of course, had also put in a significant amount of time researching potential colleges. I had compiled two lists of ten (with several schools making both lists) that would work well with each of my two possible career choices, each of which also had a very strong drama department.
Obviously, only one thing was preventing us from going any further.
As autumn had gone on, the decision I faced over my eventual career had gradually loomed larger and larger. I had dealt with the mounting pressure pretty well during October and most of November, all the way through Thanksgiving. However, when the glow from that wonderful celebration had begun to fade after a few days, I found myself getting rapidly frustrated, because I still couldn't make any intellectual headway into solving the puzzle I faced. I had been praying about it multiple times a day for over two months, but still hadn't found my answer.
With the arrival of December, the pressure to decide became brutal: time was growing short, and the decision didn't affect only me. My parents and Jennalee's mother were also turning up the heat on me by then, and rightfully so.
A week into the month when Jennalee came over for one of our evening study sessions, she walked into my room looking very serious, almost angry. She closed the door, pulled me off of my desk chair and sat me down with her on my bed, continuing to hold my hand.
"Mikey, we need to talk," she said, in a tone that was both sympathetic and firm.
"About what?" I asked, though I was sure I knew.
"About your decision, of course," she responded. "I know this is tearing you apart, and watching that happen is tearing ME apart! Ever since the play ended you've slowly been acting more and more distracted, and for the last few days you've practically been grumpy. That's so unlike you, and even more unlike what I want you to be. I can't be happy when I'm seeing that you're not, you know that."
"Do YOU have a solution to my dilemma, JJ?" I asked, feeling weak and helpless.
"Maybe," she replied, smiling ever so slightly. "I've been thinking about it a lot this week, more than I've thought about anything since last summer when I was figuring out that I was in love with you."
"So, which option do you think I should go with?"
"That's just it, Mikey!" she exclaimed, her smile vanishing. "I know you, better than anyone. The best thing about us is how we get each other so well, and the more I've thought about this with that in mind, the more frustrated I've gotten; and what I finally realized is that you're not going to be completely happy as either a doctor OR a biologist. Either way, you're giving up something you really want. That's why you can't decide."
"Wow," I said softly, quickly thinking over what she had said. "I never thought of it that way. I've been thinking so much and so hard about figuring out which career I wanted more that I never stopped to think about WHY I was having so much trouble deciding."
"I know," she said, her little smile returning. "You taught me so well to always keep my mind open to new possibilities, but sometimes you don't follow that advice yourself. You get your mind locked onto something and block everything else out. Like when you decided that what was going on with me and Kyle last summer meant that I was starting to not want you in my life anymore."
"You do know me well!" I agreed. "That's exactly how my mind functions sometimes." I paused. "So, what do I do, JJ? How do I choose?"
"Are you listening to me even now, Mikey?" she replied, her smile gone again. "What did I just say? NEW POSSIBILITIES! I think the whole problem here is that BOTH of those choices are wrong! You can't find the right answer because, as things stand now, there's no right answer to find! The only way to fix that is to take everything off the table and start fresh. Expand your thinking, Mikey! Isn't there another career option that can give you at least most of what you want all in one?"
As Jennalee had been speaking, my mind had kicked into high gear, because what she was saying made perfect sense. She was absolutely right: I was in a no-win situation, a dead end, and the only solution was to start my whole analytical process over from scratch. So I mentally pushed aside the two options that had dominated my thinking about my ultimate career for so long, and let my mind start working on the matter anew, with no restraints.
Suddenly I let out a loud gasp of astonishment as my eyes went wide. It had taken me only a few seconds to see something that now seemed so obvious I couldn't believe it had never occurred to me before. I released Jennalee's hand and grabbed her shoulders.
"That's it, JJ, that's IT! That's the answer!" A shiver of relief went through me, and I felt my face break into an expression of pure joy as the ever-growing burden I'd been carrying for months fell from my shoulders. I suddenly felt as if I could fly.
"What, Mikey, WHAT?" Jennalee demanded, her own expression now one of amazed joy.
"It was right in front of me all along, but without you I might never have seen it!" I exclaimed. "I think I locked out every other option because I already had what I thought were two very good ones, and any more possibilities would only have complicated things even more; but I was wrong, and you made me see it! I know now, I know exactly what I'm going to do with my life!" I threw my arms around Jennalee and held her tightly. "Thank you, JJ!" I said emotionally, "Thank you so much, for loving me so much and knowing me so well that you could give sight to my blind intellectual eyes!"
"For goodness sake, Mikey!" she chuckled in exasperation. "TELL ME, ALREADY!"
I released my hug and took both of her hands in mine.
"Medical research!" I declared. "I'm going to be a doctor who works on developing new medicines and treatments for diseases and conditions. A doctor AND a biologist! And lots of other things too!" My mind was still working at high speed, and I could feel excitement flowing through me as I began considering all the implications of my newly determined career on my educational choices. "OK, let's see," I continued, speaking both faster and louder than usual. "Maybe a double major in biology and biochemistry, with a minor in microbiology, or maybe in pharmacology. No, both! I can handle that! Plus some physics and both general and organic chemistry, of course, and ...oh, wow, there are so many possibilities, it'll take time to work it all out-"
My train of vocalized thought was abruptly derailed as Jennalee suddenly tore her hands free, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me. I instinctively wrapped my own arms around her, and then kissing her back took over my attention from everything else. Within seconds I could feel myself quickly calming down.
Eventually the kiss ended.
"Thanks, I really needed that!" I told Jennalee with a big smile as I released her and leaned back. "What an adrenaline rush that was! I didn't realize just how much anxiety and frustration had built up inside of me over this until I found the answer and it all got released!" I sighed deeply. "I feel so much better now! Because of you, the most important unanswered question about my life has been resolved in a manner that I can completely embrace with absolutely no regrets. Thank you so, so, SO much, JJ!"
"You're very welcome!" she responded, looking as relieved and happy as I now felt. "I'm just so glad I could help! I owed you one anyway for getting me to finally take acting seriously, and this was the perfect way to return that favor. Just another example of us being us, right?"
"Exactly!" I said. I touched her face gently. "Oh JJ, it's so amazing. Every time I think I've reached the maximum possible love one person could ever have for another, you find a way to make me love you even more. You better not ever go anywhere, because I don't think I could even make myself get out of bed in the morning if you weren't in my life anymore."
"I know what you mean," she replied. "I keep loving you even more too, and I can't even think about what life would be like without you. The idea is just too horrible." As if to force even a hint of that unpleasant thought away, she abruptly changed the subject. "So, medical research, huh? Inventing new medicines and stuff. You'll get to be involved with biology and other science things, and help people too. You're right, that IS perfect!"
"It is, indeed!" I agreed. "It's exciting to think about all the possibilities, all the different diseases out there, and all the people who get them whose lives I might help improve or even save someday."
Suddenly Jennalee sat up straight and laughed in amazement.
"What?" I asked in amused confusion.
"Mikey, I just remembered something!" she exclaimed, grabbing my hand. "I remember one time we were talking, when we were kids, and I said you were so smart you'd probably cure cancer someday. Maybe I was actually right!"
"Well, it's really not a matter of 'curing cancer,'" I responded. "There are many kinds of cancer, and each one has its own challenges when it comes to treating it. It's certainly possible, though, that I could someday help find a cure, or at least a new or much better treatment, for at least one kind of cancer. I'd love to be able to do that!"
"I bet you will, Mikey!" Jennalee said with a big smile. "I believe in you!"
"And just like with me believing in your acting ability, your belief in me makes me believe it too!" I replied. "Thanks again, JJ!"
"You're welcome!" she said happily.
"All right, then," I continued, "let's get our studying done, and then as soon as you’re gone I'm going to go back to the colleges I've been researching. Now that I know almost exactly what I need, I can narrow down the choices easily. I'll have a list of five before I go to bed, and tomorrow we can start putting together our CommonApp applications for those schools. Work for you?"
"Sounds great!" Jennalee said enthusiastically. "I'll be really glad to have it all taken care of!"
We shared another affectionate kiss, and then started in on our homework.
A week later we had filled out a Common Application form (which is a standardized online college application used by most top level schools in the country) for each of the five colleges I'd picked out; had lined up all the recommendations, transcripts and other secondary things we needed; and had filed our applications. So that chore was behind us at last. We could begin looking ahead to the eventual responses, and Jennalee could rank the five schools according to her own preference at her leisure.
By this time we were also becoming fully engulfed in the Christmas season. We finished our shopping, enjoyed the decorations and music, and shared the special Church activities, including a joyful and moving candlelight service on Christmas Eve that our families attended together. It all culminated in our first Christmas Day as a couple, which was naturally very special for us.
One of my presents to Jennalee was a laminated and framed copy of the review from the paper.
"You're always going to look back on that experience as one of the turning points in your life," I explained after she had opened it and given me a giggling 'Thank you!' "I thought you should have a permanent memento of it to put on your wall."
"That's very sweet of you to think of that!" she replied, and gave me a quick hug and kiss.
A week later we got together for New Year's Eve. Since it was very likely that Jennalee would be starring in 'Hello, Dolly!' the following spring, we found a copy of the 1969 movie version and watched it as we waited for midnight to arrive. Jennalee had heard a lot about 'Hello, Dolly!' but had never actually seen it performed. As we watched the movie she kept saying how much she loved the character, and became more and more excited about the chance to play Dolly herself.
At the stroke of midnight we rang in the new year, which promised to bring many exciting and interesting events: our eighteenth birthdays, the Spring Play, prom, graduation, the beginning of our college days. I suggested that we get the year off to a good start with a couple of kisses.
"Only a couple?" Jennalee asked in mock disappointment. "I'm afraid I might lose count."
"Don't worry, I'll keep track," I assured her, just before our lips met.
A minute or so later I breathlessly added, "Or not..."