My breath caught as he walked toward me and I looked around for the person I assumed he was actually meeting. When he smiled and looked straight at me I actually stopped breathing for a second or two and sat up a little straighter.
Matt Caldwell didn’t belong in high school; he belonged on the pages of GQ and on the latest teen angst television drama. He was more than cool and I couldn’t imagine why he was pulling out the chair across from me. I didn’t think I belonged in high school either. I felt like I was above it, smarter than most of the kids and ready to be an adult. I didn’t hang out, I didn’t party, I didn’t have the need to see or be seen. I just wanted to move on and move out.
It’s not like I didn’t know Matt; we’d been in school together for years but we hadn’t said much to each other since we were about ten years old. Still, it was the kind of small town where everyone knew everything but I definitely didn’t know why he was sitting down in front of me in an airport across the country.
It was spring break and I was on my way to visit my sister in New York when I got stuck in Chicago and as it turned out, he was stranded on his way to Philadelphia to visit his grandparents. It seemed like the plot to a bad movie or more accurately, a movie I’d be watching on the weekend.
"So is your flight delayed too?" I nodded. "Mind if I hang with you?"
"Why is that so hard to believe?"
"We don’t hang out, Matt."
"And why is that? It’s not like we don’t know each other."
"I don’t know." I felt embarrassed and didn’t want to have that conversation where the popular boy and the wallflower girl figure out that they’ve both been waiting for the perfect moment when they realize they were meant to be. That’s how the movie plot would have gone. But it wasn’t a movie and it appeared Matt Caldwell actually wanted to hang out with me. I decided to try. "So have you decided on college yet?"
"Northwestern here in Chicago."
My eyes got wide. ”Seriously?”
"Yes. Why do you seem so surprised?"
"Because that’s where I’m going."
"Well, looks like we have more in common than you thought." His grin was unfair. "What are you planning to study?"
"Yeah, I could see that."
"What about you?"
"Not sure yet…maybe education. I think I want to teach."
"Cool." I doubted I sounded sincere because I honestly couldn’t imagine him standing up in front of students of any age teaching them anything. It’s not that he wasn’t smart or anything like that. I just couldn’t see him doing something so seemingly unglamorous.
"You don’t think that’s a good idea?"
"No, it’s good, it is. I just…never mind."
"Caitlin, come on. Tell me what you’re thinking. You don’t think I could be a teacher?"
I sighed. “It’s just that I always pictured you as a model or an actor but if you want to be a teacher I have no doubt you can do it. All the girls will love you.” I smiled and he did too. Then I blushed and turned my head away.
"Wanna know a secret?" I turned back and shrugged then nodded. "I was actually approached earlier this year about modeling."
"Yeah. When we all went to Aspen for Christmas an agent talked to me and my parents and it was pretty tempting but it’s just not something I want to do."
"Wow. But why is it a secret?"
"I don’t know. I just didn’t tell anyone about it, not even Rebecca, because I didn’t want it to become a thing. She would have wanted me to do it." He sighed and leaned back.
"Well I won’t say anything."
"I know." He paused then leaned forward. "The thing is, one of the reasons I wanted to come out here for school was to get a fresh start. Rebecca’s staying home to go to school and I know that’s nothing that’s going to last."
"So why not just break up with her?"
"I don’t know…we’ve been together for so long. It’s weird to think about not being with her even though I know it’s really just a high school thing."
"So you’re just going to string her along? That’s not cool, Matt."
"Yeah, I know you’re right. It’s just not that easy to let it go."
"And waiting until you’re a thousand miles away at school is going to make it easier? Wait, of course it is, because you won’t have to see her face or see the aftermath. So typical."
"Hey." It was unlike me to be so bold but I didn’t have anything to lose and even though I didn’t really know Rebecca I didn’t think it was fair for her to be treated like that.
"Sorry, but I’m trying to put myself in her shoes and they don’t feel very good."
"So you’d want me to break up with you now and make the last few months of school extremely awkward? You’d want me to leave you without a prom date? You’d want me to leave you wondering what happened over spring break to change things?" He put his hand on mine and I froze as our eyes met. I heard the cheesy movie music in my head and wasn’t sure what to say.
"I…" I pulled my hand back. "I don’t know. I’m just babbling."
Attention Ladies and Gentleman: All runways are closed and the storm is getting worse. There will be no flights out until some time tomorrow. Please check with your airline for specific information.
"Perfect." I sighed as I leaned back and closed my eyes.
"Let’s go see what’s up." I opened my eyes and saw him standing over me with his hand out a smile on his face. "And then you can give me more advice about what to do with my life." He winked and I couldn’t help but smile.
"Fine." I took his hand and tried to ignore the tingles.
We went to my airline first and they told me I’d be able to get on a flight the next afternoon provided the storm didn’t make things worse. Matt’s airline gave him similar information, which meant we had almost 24 hours to kill.
"Wanna get out of here?"
"And do what?"
I’d visited the campus in the summer but had been wondering what it would be like in winter. I smiled and nodded then shivered when he took my hand and led me through the airport. It took a while for us to get a cab and by the time we slid into the backseat I was so cold I wasn’t sure I’d ever get warm. Matt was cold too but still, in the world’s most cliché move, he put his arms around me and pulled me close, the theory of course being that our collective coldness would actually make us warmer. As we neared Evanston I finally felt warm and started to pull away but he held on.
"Matt, what are you doing?"
"I’m still cold."
"No you’re not."
"Fine, I just like having you close. Sue me."
"Matt." I pulled away slowly and looked in his eyes. "It’s not fair to Rebecca, no matter how good it feels."
"So you admit it felt good." He winked and I just shook my head and smiled because of course it felt good. "Okay, I’m sorry but you’ve just made me think about so many things and I honestly can’t believe we’ve never hung out."
I was very thankful when we reached the edge of campus and quickly swiped my emergency credit card to pay for the cab. I’d called my parents when I knew I was going to be stranded overnight and told them about running into Matt and our plans to go visit the campus. They thought it was a great idea and told me to use the credit card for whatever I needed. I think they were mostly happy that I was hanging out with a boy.
We spent the two hours or so wandering around the campus, darting in and out of buildings to warm ourselves up, and since school was in session we even snuck into the back of a couple of lecture halls. It was the first time I’d been thankful that my bag was checked and all I had was my backpack. I’d debated carrying the bag on but when my mom decided to send things with me for my sister I didn’t have a choice but to take the bigger suitcase.
We bought ourselves sweatshirts and t-shirts in the bookstore, as well as some snacks for later, then sat down in the food court in the student union and shared a pizza. It really was one of the best days I’d had in a long time and I enjoyed talking to Matt and getting to know him more than I would have expected when our adventure started.
"So how come some guy hasn’t figured out how great you are?"
"How do you know one hasn’t?"
He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head because of course he’d know. Everyone knew everything.
"I’m serious, Caitlin. You’re amazing and so easy to talk to and if I wasn’t with Rebecca…" He reached for my hand again but thought better of it and pulled back. "Is it just not something you want?"
"I just want to finish high school and get to college and, kind of like you, start over. And it’s not that I don’t want a boyfriend or whatever, it’s just…well, it’s not that simple. I don’t know."
"I could set you up if…"
"No," I interrupted. "Absolutely not. School is almost over and college awaits. If it’s supposed to happen for me, maybe it will happen here." I looked around the seating area and wondered if I’d just get lost in the crowd and go unseen like I had most of my life. I sighed and thought about how much I didn’t want to go through life on my own, how much I’d longed for a boyfriend over the years and how I just didn’t know why it had never happened. I actually felt tears pricking the insides of my eyelids and turned completely away until I could control myself. It wasn’t like me to get so emotional but there was something about Matt and the way he just asked things so directly, the way his touch felt, the way I wanted the world to stop so we could just be in it alone.
"Hey." He reached for my hand again and I let him take it. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Are you all right?"
"Probably. I just don’t ever talk about this stuff, especially not with someone like you. It’s fine. I’m fine."
"What do you mean someone like me?"
"Matt, come on. Look at you. You’re Mr. Popular, Mr. Student Council, Mr. Guy-Every-Girl-Wants-to-be-With. You’re not the guy who has these conversations with random girls from the airport. You have much more important things to do with your life."
"Are you part of the every-girl-wants-to-be-with-me group?"
"Really? That’s what you got from all of that? I’m sorry I said anything. Maybe we should just go." I started to get up but he squeezed my hand.
"Caitlin. Stop running away."
"What? I’m not."
"You are. You were doing it in the cab too and even in the airport. What are you so afraid of?"
"I’m not doing this, Matt. I’m not going to be that girl in the movies that just forgets who she is because the cutest guy in school shows some kind of interest in her. And I’m certainly not going to be the other girl!" I pulled my hand from his then stood up so fast that my chair fell over, which naturally prompted every eye in the building to look at me. "Uhh!" I picked up the chair, grabbed my backpack and headed toward the door.
"Miss, are you all right?" I looked up to see a police officer and I felt ridiculous.
"I’m fine, I’m fine. Just…boys are stupid."
"Yes," he laughed. "We can be. Why don’t I walk you back to your dorm or your class."
"Oh, I, um…I don’t go here. We were just visiting."
Matt reached us as I was explaining what we were doing there and I couldn’t even look at him. I was embarrassed and unsure about everything. I didn’t know how to describe what I was feeling for him but there was definitely something there and it terrified me.
"Caitlin, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry." I looked at him and saw the sincerity in his eyes, or what I perceived to be sincerity anyway. "Please, can we just start over?"
"We’ll talk about it later. Maybe we should just go back to the airport."
"O’Hare?" We nodded when the officer asked and then he told us the bad news. "The airport’s completely closed and they’re not letting any traffic in now."
"I think you better come with me."
We followed him to the campus police station and didn’t say much to him or each other. I wished we had never left the airport, that he’d never seen me sitting in that coffee shop, that I was safely tucked away in a corner reading my book. The officer came back after talking on the phone to someone and we both stood up as he reached us.
"Okay, we’ve got some special campus housing for visitors and I was able to get you a couple of rooms for the night."
I thought about arguing and telling him that wasn’t necessary but a bed, even one in campus housing, was better than nothing. Matt didn’t argue either and 20 minutes later we were being escorted into a building and to the two rooms across the hall from each other.
"Now you just let me know if you need a ride to the airport when it opens tomorrow. I’m not working but I’ll be happy to come get you."
"Thank you, Captain Gregory." I wrapped both of my hands around his. "You’ve been so kind already. I think we can take a cab."
"Now are you two gonna be okay? I’m not gonna get a domestic violence call later am I?" He winked and I smiled.
"We’re okay. I promise there won’t be any calls of any sort."
"Promise, sir." Matt chimed in and his voice was quiet, sad in a way. "I’m sorry for the trouble."
"Let me talk to you for a minute, kid." Captain Gregory put his arm around Matt’s shoulder then walked with him down the hall and I was dying to know what he said. They came back and Matt was smiling and nodding. "So we’re good?"
"We’re good. Thanks." He shook his hand then came and stood next to me.
"You kids be good." We nodded and watched him walk back down the hall. He waved before he turned toward the elevator and we waved back until he was gone and there was just the two of us standing in the hall.
"What did he say to you?"
"He told me to apologize, to remember that you were always right and to realize how good I had it." I blushed as I looked down at my shoes. "I really am sorry, Caitlin. And you were right. It’s not fair to Rebecca. I need to talk to her. I won’t apologize for how I’m feeling about you though. That’s real and something I can’t just ignore. But I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable or scared. If there is something here then I want to do things right. So, I’m just going to say goodnight and we’ll start fresh tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay." I was a little stunned by his speech and didn’t know what else to say. "Thanks, Matt." He nodded then opened the door to his room, said goodnight, and disappeared inside. I stepped across the hall and did the same and knew that no matter how tired I was there was no way I was going to get any sleep after that.
I did sleep though and dreamed about crazy things like showing up for a class naked and wandering lost through random buildings I’d never seen before. I dreamed that Matt and Rebecca were married and having a baby and that I drove by their house regularly just to catch a glimpse of him. I dreamed that my parents decided not to pay for college and that I had to get a job at a greasy diner to supplement the loans I had to take out. When I woke up the next morning I felt more exhausted than I had when I’d fallen asleep.
I had always been a vivid dreamer and knew that things in dreams didn’t really mean anything. They weren’t necessarily literal and more than anything the crazy ones meant I was stressed or worried, which I hadn’t realized I was until that moment. I was worried about school and what it would be like, worried about whether or not I’d make it, worried about whether medicine was the right path for me even though I was truly passionate about it. I was worried about the unexpected feelings I had for Matt and how his touch made me feel. I was worried about what was going to happen next and what would happen when we got back home after our vacations.
I took a shower and slipped back into my clothes after having slept in one of the t-shirts I bought at the bookstore. The university had towels in the guest housing, as well as sample soaps and shampoos like hotels. They’d also given each of us a little pack of travel deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. I hated that I didn’t have clean underwear but there was nothing I could do about it so I just let it go and thanked the Lord that I’d at least had a shower. I would have felt much skeevier if I’d slept in the airport overnight.
Once I was dressed I unplugged my phone, thankful that I’d put my charger in my carry-on bag instead of suitcase, and thought about texting Matt but realized I didn’t have his number. I figured he was on Facebook so I found him and sent him a message that way. He messaged back almost instantly and also sent me a friend request. After exchanging a few messages we met in the hall and decided it was time to go back to the airport. The news from the airport and our respective airlines wasn’t clear about the status of flights but we figured it was better to be safe than sorry.
"How did you sleep?" I figured I’d start with the small talk to be safe.
"I didn’t sleep much. How ‘bout you?"
"I slept but I don’t feel rested, if that makes sense."
"It does. I couldn’t shut my brain off and was awake most of the night."
"Yeah. I get it."
The elevator arrived and we didn’t say much more until we were standing in the lobby of the building looking at what could only be described as a blizzard.
"There’s no way we’re getting out of here today."
I checked my phone again and got updated information that the airport was still closed and was not expected to open until the next day and only then if the snow stopped falling. The news page actually had a headline that said “Snowpocalypse”, which was completely ridiculous and hilarious all at the same time.
The woman at the desk informed us that classes were cancelled and that most of the shops in the area were closed. She gave us directions to a nearby diner that apparently never closed and told us we could keep our rooms for another night if we needed to. After we went back and dropped our stuff off and prepared for what the weather was going to be like, we pushed open the doors and stepped into winter.
"I guess we’re going to have to get used to this." I nodded in agreement and walked as fast as I could to the diner, which was definitely open and packed. We squeezed our way in and got seated in a small booth a few minutes later. It was actually much bigger inside and most of its patrons were students, students we might have in class the next year.
"Coffee?" We looked up to see a waitress that defined the stereotype of who might work in a diner. Her name tag told us she was Laverne and I guessed she was in her 50s and liked her immediately. And not just because she brought me coffee.
"Thank you!" I wrapped my hands around the cup, closed my eyes and inhaled the aroma as though it were the best thing I’d ever smelled. It might have been. When I opened my eyes and took my first sip I saw Matt staring at me with a huge grin. "What?"
"Just enjoying your enthusiasm about the coffee, that’s all."
"None for you?"
He shook his head. “I’m more of a Coca Cola guy.” A moment later Laverne returned with a Coke and we both ordered an obscene amount of food.
"Someone not feeding you kids at home?"
"No, no, nothing like that. We’re stranded because of the storm and I guess we forgot to eat dinner last night."
Matt gave her the short version of our tale and she seemed genuinely interested. She gave us some other tips for shops and restaurants open in the area and I felt like she really cared. It seemed pretty clear that she was someone’s mom and probably would have wanted her kids treated the same way if they had been stranded. That reminded me that I hadn’t talked to my parents yet and I asked Matt if he minded me giving them a call.
"Hey, mom. Did you see the news about O’Hare?"
"Yeah, we were just waiting for you to call. You still on campus?"
I proceeded to tell her where we were, what we knew and that we could stay another night on campus. After getting some random updates from her I said goodbye and slipped my phone back in my pocket.
"You’re a really good daughter."
"Why, because I called my parents?"
"That and I don’t know…I can just hear it in the way you talked to them. You have a good relationship."
"We do, yeah. Don’t you have that with your parents?" I still hadn’t seen him call them and he hadn’t said anything about them either.
"Not exactly but let’s not get into that today. I’d like to stay positive."
"Got it. But if we’re stranded for much longer I’m going to circle back to this."
"I have no doubt." He grinned and I smiled and went back to my coffee.
We spent a couple of hours in the diner and left a big tip for Laverne when we actually did leave. From there we wandered to a bookstore she’d told us about and spent another hour walking the aisles and talking about books we’d read. I was surprised how similar our tastes were but he didn’t seem fazed by it. I had my Nook with me so didn’t end up buying anything but Matt bought two books and a magazine. We made our way back to the campus guest housing and found a nice fire burning in the lobby fireplace. We took our coats back to our rooms and I grabbed my Nook then we went back to the lobby and settled into the couch to read.
He nodded off after about 30 minutes and when I saw him shiver I pulled a blanket out of the nearby basket and tossed it over him. I refrained from actually tucking it around him or kissing the side of his face, which I totally wanted to do. I kept reading until my eyes got heavy then closed my Nook, leaned against the couch, and fell into a nice nap. I woke up when I got cold and found that Matt was sitting up with his feet on the coffee table. It looked like he was still asleep but when I moved he turned toward me then put a pillow against his legs and patted it. I didn’t feel like talking about how wrong it was because it seemed more comfortable than the end of the couch so I just smiled and lay down. He pulled the blanket over me and left his arm around me, which I also knew was wrong but it felt really nice.
"By the way…" I felt his breath on my skin as he whispered in my ear. "Rebecca and I broke up last night."
That woke me up. I debated whether or not I should turn over and look at him but decided to just speak without moving. “Because?”
"Because it was time. We both knew it."
"And you’re okay?"
"I’m more than okay." He started to play with my hair and I reached for his other hand and slipped my fingers through. I closed my eyes. "So does this mean…?"
"We’ll talk about it later."
© Carrie M. Medders