- 2004 -
I went to prom for the first time during my sophomore year of high school. Ashleigh stopped me in a church parking lot beside her car, after we’d just performed in our high school choir’s Valentine’s Day program, and asked me. So it was romantic, I guess.
The question took me by complete surprise; freshman and sophomores could only go to prom if asked, and I didn’t at all expect her (or anyone else for that matter) to ask me. We’d hung out together quite a bit the previous year or so, but we certainly hadn’t crossed into romantic territory yet — or if we had, I certainly hadn’t been aware of it. Of course, I’d never been good at recognizing that sort of thing anyway.
It was cold that night. The question arose from her like the last desperate flower blooming in a dry meadow, springing up at the mention of a rainstorm. I didn’t answer for a few seconds; in the silence, she picked nervously at the hem of her dress while fiddling with her car keys with her other hand.
Seeing her like that sent a strange playfulness through me and, recognizing an opportunity to exercise our unique shared sense of humor, I gave her the sourest face I could muster.
“No,” I said.
Her brow furrowed. “What?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah…” A smile finally cracked my somber expression (I’d never been very good at keeping a straight face). She punched me hard on the arm and I knew that she’d seen I was kidding. I burst into hysterics.
“You’re a jerk,” she said.
We laughed for a while about it, but I think she was probably serious about me being a jerk and all. From things she said to me later about that night, I’m not sure she ever forgave me for those few moments of suspense. While we were dating, she used to joke that if I didn’t apologize, she’d turn me down whenever I proposed to her. Still, I don’t think I ever apologized.
When I eventually did ask her to marry me, she said yes.
Ashleigh wore a crimson dress to prom, and matching lipstick with dark mascara and manicured nails. I looked like a complete moron next to her.
See what I mean?
We danced and had a great time. She told me beforehand that we’d just go as friends –– that there really wasn’t anything romantic about it, after all. Because of this, I assumed that our trip to the dance was merely a casual thing. I thought that maybe she hadn’t been able to find anyone else to go with, or maybe wasn’t comfortable asking someone other than a close friend.
But often enough, we say one thing and mean another. I believed her when she assured me there were no strings attached. But there are always strings, always.
We left the after-prom activities early so that I could get some rest before leading worship at church the next morning. I dropped her off at her house and told her I’d had a good time. I didn’t walk her to the door or kiss her or anything. Sometimes I wonder whether she expected me to.
Two weeks after the dance, I started dating another girl in my own grade. I didn’t even consider consequences. The possibility that it might have hurt Ashleigh never crossed my mind.
I heard no anger or backlash from her about it — maybe because I was too painfully oblivious. We mostly just stopped hanging out together. She began dating some guy from the local community college and wouldn’t come to church anymore. In fact, I rarely saw her at all that summer.
My other relationship fizzled out after only a couple of months or so. By that time, I had already done irrevocable damage to the friendship Ashleigh and I had built. Though we had a class together that Fall, she wouldn’t really talk to me much until later, closer to the end of semester, when she and her boyfriend from college split.
All at once after that, our mutual fondness for each other picked right back up where it had left off. She silently started coming back to church. We began finding ways to get into trouble again –– stealing stop signs, running around on our elementary school’s playground after dark, but never addressing that season of awkwardness between us.
That December, I was told by one of her close friends that if I didn’t ask her out before winter break came along, another guy in her Psychology class was going to. I wasn’t sure if that was true, but I drove to her house anyway and asked her out that day. We continued dating throughout high school.
All that time, I remained hopelessly ignorant of the pain I’d caused her until my Senior year, after she left for college a few hundred miles away.
On the first few days of class in third period show choir, a girl in the Alto section stumbled upon an old music folder with a crumpled piece of paper inside. Once she pulled it out and glanced at it, she made her way over to the bass section to hand it to me.
“I think this is for you,” she said.
I glanced at it, confused. A crayon drawing of a mountainside landscape had been colored on notebook paper, with clouds and birds and a rainbow, and a large block of text running along the right side. I studied it closer and found that I recognized the scribbles; they were most definitely Ashleigh’s. At the top, near the birds and clouds, read the words, To: Blake.
Feeling a strange reluctance, I took the paper and read it all.
In a wide array of colors, the words expressed a degree of hurt I had been completely unaware of until that point in my experience with Ashleigh. They said that she’d been deeply wounded by my decision to date someone else, and that in her anger she had found herself in a place she’d never wanted to be. She blamed me for mistakes she’d made and for doubts she’d had in friendship, in love, and in God. Her faith had taken a blow because of my actions.
The sentiments left me somewhat breathless; I’d never heard her vocalize any of these things to me before. That was definitely Ashleigh’s handwriting, but the words sounded so foreign I couldn’t help wonder whether Ashleigh could have actually written them at all.
I read it through once more and then realized the girl was still standing there, watching.
“Where did you find this?” I asked her.
“It was in my new folder,” she said. “Is it Ashleigh’s?”
I hesitated, then nodded. “Did you read it?”
She took her seat. I folded the paper up, stuffed it in my pocket, and it burned like coals against my leg all through class. On my way out of the door, I tossed it in the trashcan.
For the entire duration of our time together, Ash and I communicated like that — never speaking plainly about our condition unless to say, “of course I’m alright.” Never speaking honestly. Never arguing, except for a couple of small squabbles about how best to fold towels or put forks in the dishwasher.
At times, we’d acknowledge this strange passivity. We’d brag to other couples about how we never fought or argued, thinking it was proof of how mature our relationship had become. But that hadn’t been the case at all. Not arguing meant not caring, not wishing to get too close or unveil too much. Can you actually love someone you’ve never argued with?
At times, as happens with every human who wishes to be close to another one, we wounded each other. And when wounded, we’d run off by ourselves to try and mend our hurts in isolation and secrecy. We’d spend our time sewing shrouds to cover all the elephants in our rooms.
And when — like with the crayon paper — one of us ever let a hint or a sign loose that things weren’t all right, the other usually realized it too late, and became too upset or confused to know what to do about it anyway.
When I read the crayon words that Ashleigh had written, I refused to acknowledge the dark part of her that had written it. We spent a lot of time convincing ourselves of our compatibility and our closeness to each other. And we became so comfortable with our own perceived level of intimacy that when those dark glimpses of our cold hearts peeked through the masks we wore for each other, we turned away in horror. We threw the evidence in the trash.
Too terrified to share or see the depths of each other’s hearts, we became the best of pretenders, out to fool ourselves and each other. My guilt about Clay, my tendency towards depression, my desire for approval and fear of disappointment were all locked away in a place we wouldn’t have to deal with together.
In that sense, it could be said that you, the reader, know more about me than my wife ever did.
And by the time we’d gathered up the courage to really examine each other — to dig those old notes back out of the trash and reread them — it scared us so badly that we wanted nothing else but to run.
And that’s exactly what we did.