They were just going to the dance as friends. At least that’s what he told himself and everyone else who inquired about it. His statement was certainly made with the best of intentions. He meant nothing derogatory toward his date, it was merely the truth as he currently saw it. Be that as it may, a high school senior year comes about only once in a lifetime and he could not bear for her to be without an escort for the fall dance. That went without saying that he himself also lacked an escort to the same event but he told himself that that was beside the point. Only a few days earlier, she had described to him a particular dress, bought with her own savings, which she, as of yet, had never had the opportunity to wear. The vision of the dress, hanging lifeless in the dark recesses of a closet was too much for him. Having decided to invite his friend to the dance, he was somewhat surprised by the amount of courage that it took to actually offer her the invitation. Perhaps it was just a mere lack of teenage confidence, but he never felt quite certain that a positive response to his invitation was an absolute certainty. Perhaps she would take it the wrong way or maybe she was hoping that another particular classmate would invite her instead. He was justifiably relieved when he finally gathered enough courage to ask her and her response was a polite nod followed by the most innocent of smiles.
She had been his close friend for as far back as his memory could reach, even extending back into the distant memories of childhood. As in the lives of many, his acquaintances over the years had come and gone much like the seasons of the year. However, she had been different. Constant. Steady. Quiet, but strong. The effect of her presence had often reminded him of sitting on the tranquil banks of Spring Creek and listening to the clear water rushing over the exposed limestone. She was not like many of the other girls, loud and always seeking to be the center of attention. It was as if she knew, from an early age, exactly who she was and she needed no other human being to affirm what she already knew to be true. Perhaps that quiet confidence was the exact reason why she was not first in the mind of all the young men in her class. The reason certainly had nothing to do with her features, for her olive skin and auburn-tinged hair which fell in an cascade across her shoulders should have been the envy of most. She fell instead into that unfortunate category where most lovely, quiet and kind-hearted people fall. She was easily forgotten.
Upon arrival, he rung the doorbell and was greeted by the familiar but somewhat suspicious face of her father who, along with her mother, invited him inside.
"Now, listen for just a second," her father encouraged with a smirk as he placed a strong arm across the young man's shoulder. "I've known you for a long time, but when you see my girl come down those stairs, always remember that I was a marine sniper back in the day. I have a rifle and a shovel. No one will miss you."
"I understand completely, sir" came the honest reply.
Just at that moment, his attention was captured by movement at the top of the stairs. Taking a few steps back to get a better view, his eyes were greeted by a vision that he was not expecting. At the top of the stairs, where his friend should have stood, was a young woman whose attire and demeanor could only be described as elegant. The dress was exactly as she had described, the navy color complementing the olive tones of her skin. Slightly off of her shoulders, the modest neckline of the dress highlighted the strand of faux pearls borrowed from her mother. Her hair, the auburn-tinged curls usually flowing below her shoulders, was swept up and secured delicately with another borrowed hair clip. She stood motionless for a moment (which seemed like an eternity) before moving down the stairs to join her date. Standing in front of him, the delicate scent of her perfume surrounded him as she looked him directly in the eyes before reaching up to straighten his tie.
"It was a little crooked."
"I'm not surprised," he responded, not having fully recovered from seeing her. "It was all your dress' fault."
"Why, whatever are you saying Mr. Butler? Surely you don't mean this old rag?" she replied with a smile and her best Scarlett O'Hara accent.
"I really doubt that you made such a beautiful dress from the curtains."
"Well now, if I did, that'll just have to stay my secret, won't it?"
After quickly grabbing her matching clutch purse and saying goodbye to her parents, the couple made their way to the car. As he opened the passenger door for her, he caught another half-threatening look from her father. He then moved to the driver's seat and the pair was off to begin their evening.
He had to admit that he became aware of a growing sense of pride as the pair was escorted to their seats in the restaurant. Yet, he was also becoming aware of the accompanying and unexpected sensation of sadness. At first, he could not place his finger on the exact cause and he found the presence of the emotion on such an evening perplexing. However, once he became completely honest with himself, he realized that the sensation of sadness found its source in the reality that this evening would inevitable end, and that life would subsequently resume its previous course. The elegant dress would go back in the closet and the necklace back in her mother's jewelry box. Then, the loneliness would return and it, that aching, gnawing emotion would take her place and would once again become his familiar companion.
He looked up from his menu at his companion across the small, square table.
"Anything look good?" he asked.
"Hmm.." she replied. "Everything does. It's too hard to decide!"
"Well, if someone told you that you could have anything you wanted with no strings attached, then what would you pick?"
"Probably this," she responded by showing him her menu and pointing at the item she had chosen.
"Well, then there you have it. That's what you should get."
She leaned in closer, a concerned look wrinkling her forehead.
"It's just so expensive."
Her sincere concern only increased his sense of pride.
"Listen, it's fine. I've planned for this. I want you to have it."
The emotion of her face changed to one of gratitude without ever voicing a word.
The drive back from Tallahassee following their meal was just as pleasant as before and it seemed like no time passed at all before the lights of their hometown began to glow upon the horizon. She must have thanked him at least ten times for spending his money on her and buying her one of the best meals that she had ever had. His honest response was that he could not think of a better way to spend it.
Within only a few minutes, the pair had driven up to the high school and parked outside the area where the dance was being held. As he opened her door, he could already hear the music coming from within. The pair was greeted by the familiar faces of teachers and chaperones who all wished them a wonderful evening. Even more familiar faces were waiting inside as they mingled with their classmates and shared their stories of the evening. No matter where he went, she never left his side and seemed perfectly content to enjoy his company.
As they were mingling, he became aware of a change in the music as the DJ changed the previous upbeat song to a much slower one.
"So, may I have this dance?" he asked bowing slightly.
"Of course, kind sir," she responded. "But I feel that it is my duty to warn you that you probably should have worn those steel-toed work boots you always wear when you cut wood."
"You're not that bad of a dancer."
"I'll let you be the judge of that."
The darkness enveloped them as he gently took her hand and led her to an open area on the dancefloor. They were only dancing as friends, he told himself, so his intention was to place his hands around her waist at arms' length with her arms in turn across his shoulders. But before he could do any of that, she had already moved close to him and placed her arms around his neck with her hands resting on the back of his hair. Close enough to hear her sigh, he felt her place her head on his shoulder as they began to sway to the music.
He was not prepared for that. For a moment, time stood motionless. The feel of her breathing, the smell of her hair and the perfection of the entire evening washed over him. He tried to hold his emotions in check but he found himself slipping further into a place of swirling music and color. Trying to focus on the room, those dancing around them and even the image of her father with a loaded rifle was completely futile. Almost in completely surrender, he let his head fall forward until his forehead rested upon her shoulder. Her head leaned further against his as the waves of auburn hair seemed to flow all about him.
How did she know? Had she read his thoughts? Did she somehow sense the loneliness that had become his almost constant companion? What insight did she have to understand that the time he spent in his beloved forest could never substitute for the warmth of another human being? He had never spoken of it openly. The heavenly scent of the pine needles of home was no competition for her nor could the sounds of the wind in the oak leaves ever compare to the evening breeze playing with strands of her hair.
No words were exchanged. None were needed. Their friendship had long surpassed that need. Long surpassed it, but he was only now becoming aware of that fact. The song was ending, and the sadness was returning. As the last note of the song lingered, he felt her arms slip down to grasp both of his shoulders as she stared up into his eyes.
"See," he said quietly as he could think of nothing else to say. "My toes are fine."
"I'm glad to hear that," came the quiet response.
He remembered little about the rest of the evening until the time came to leave so as to make sure that she was not late getting home. Walking arm in arm out of the dance, his gait was a little slower and he was not nearly as talkative as he had been earlier. As he opened her door and turned to go to the driver's side, he heard her voice call his name.
"Is there something wrong?"
He turned to see her standing by her open door, her brow furrowed with concern.
"Nothing at all. In fact, I can't remember enjoying myself as much as I have tonight."
"You just seemed a little sad."
She shifted onto her other foot and looked down at the ground briefly.
"Listen, if, I mean if our dance earlier..." she began.
"Heavens no," he interrupted gently. "Please don't apologize. There's no need."
Her eyes returned to his. Now was his opportunity. Now he could tell her how he had struggled this whole evening. How he now saw with blazing clarity that life without her was unbearable. How he had been a fool for not recognizing it earlier. A thousand thoughts filled his head, but he finally settled on the simplest truth of all.
"I just didn't want tonight to end."
Her facial expression seemed to change to express both relief and understanding. She then looked down at her right hand and removed something from her ring finger.
"I have something for you."
She walked over to him and taking his hand in hers, she placed her Claddagh ring in his palm. He had never seen her remove it, nor could he remember a time when she didn't have it.
"So," he stated slowly. "I'm not really familiar with how you wear one of these."
"Well," she began. "If you're not married you wear it on your right hand. If you're available, so to speak, then place the heart so that it faces out. But..."
She seemed to pause for emphasis.
"But if there is someone special in your life, then face the heart inward."
He looked at the small golden circle in his hand. It was too small to fit on his ring finger, so he placed it on his fifth finger with the heart facing outward. Then, without saying a word but never taking his eyes off of her, he turned the heart to face inward. He then brushed her cheek and swept aside a wayward strand of hair.
"Tell me honestly," he then asked after looking quickly at his watch and realizing the time. "Does your father really have a rifle?"
"And a shovel," she replied with the most innocent of smiles.