Tuesday, December 1, 2009

seventy-one: the end

I wondered for a while if I should preface this, and I decided I should. Yes, this is the end of Paper Perfect. I'm very much saddened that this will be the last post of the story. I've grown to love these two beyond any other characters I've ever written, and I've been writing and working on this for days now. It's taken me this long, I think, because I'm so reluctant to see it end. This entire story has meant so much to me. But I think this is fitting, and I couldn't do it any other way. I'm still working on A Sharp Contrast and there's a new one that will be up and running short, eventually, Immediate Danger (links in sidebar). So, as always, thanks for being on this ride with me. I appreciate your support and love you for it. You're all amazing, and I've never forgotten it. Please enjoy.

Soundtrack Song - Damone, When You Live

My flight doesn't take off until around noon, but I'm so desperate to get out of the house that I pack my bag and leave around seven in the morning. Mommie Dearest is already awake, and my plans to escape unnoticed are foiled.

"Leaving so soon?" she asks me, peering over her steaming cup of coffee.

"Yeah. I'm gonna catch the El out to the airport."

My mom rolls her eyes. "Someone will take you. It's a shame to ride with all those people. It's the day after Christmas—the trains will be packed like sardines."

"It's okay, Mom," I say with a smile. "I don't mind. I kind of miss the big city feel."

"Well, you don't have to go back to Pittsburgh. You can stay here. Max will understand."

I don't say anything right away, because my mind is blank. It's like I can't even compute what she just said. Caroline wordlessly joins us, dragging her feet in slippers toward the coffee pot. Why is she doing this? Why can't she let me be happy as I am? I'm sick of this! I'm sick of my mother, and I'm sick of her shit; I don't deserve it and I don't want to have to put up with anymore. "And do what, pray tell? Stay here with yinz guys?"

Caroline snorts. "Yinz? God, Charlotte, you've been in Pittsburgh too long. That word is like nails on a chalk board in this house. Dad used to say it all the time."

"And what's so wrong with that?" I ask them, raising my right eyebrow. "So what if it's a silly word? It's a Pittsburgh thing, and that's where I live now. And if you don't like it, if you don't like me using it—hell, if you don't like me—I don't ever have to come back."

"Don't be ridiculous," my mother says, thinking I'm overreacting. I shake my head and laugh a little. That settles it: I won't be back. I won't deal with this again. My mom is just like John: hopelessly never going to change. The sooner I realize that, the better.

I leave them in the kitchen, take the El downtown, and then catch the 146 bus all the way out to Adler Planetarium, and then I go sit on one of the cold, metal pedestals by the lake. This has always been my quiet spot to relax and reflect when things got frustrating and confusing. This is where I made my decision to leave Chicago and escape to Pittsburgh—which turned out to be the best decision I had ever made in my life.

It hadn't been an easy decision to make last spring. It probably seems like it should have been a piece of cake, but it really wasn't. I had made John my world, and leaving him was like building a rocket out of scrap metal and flying to the moon. My point is that it wasn't easy. But sometimes, you have to take risks and hope—no, believe—that the alternative is better. Things will get better. The grass is going to be greener, and there are more fruitful pastures waiting to be grazed.

I'm incredibly lucky. I know that; not only did I find my own personal paradise, but I found it so soon. I'm twenty-three and hopelessly in love with the best guy in the world today. Max is everything to me, and everything I needed him to be when I needed him to be it. Without Max, I don't know where I'd be right now or in what state—mentally and geographically. His steady, devoted love has carried me through so much. He'd hate to hear me say this, but he's perfect. Okay, maybe not perfect, because he still wears those horrendous sweaters and shirts. He's still loud and boisterous. But he's perfect for me.

Of course I can see the similarities between the way things were and the way things are now. The way I'm head-over-heels and completely devoted to Max, blind to his faults and willing to give up anything for him. It's a dangerous path I'm treading. Love is dangerous. But it's worth it to give love a shot and hope for forever. It's worth it to risk the pain for a glimpse of happiness. Because I can only imagine that things are just going to continue to get better and better. The best is yet to come.

My trip home for Christmas was less than delightful. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, but it wasn't sugar plums and gum drops either. However, I'm oddly glad that I came to Chicago. It's not that I don't understand how grateful I am for Max; now, I just appreciate him a lot more. Going home showed me everything I left behind. And going back to Pittsburgh is going to be that much sweeter.

I draw the comparisons beyond just the men, and also between both my trips to Pittsburgh. Last May, I was so scared to be leaving. I was so afraid of the unknown. Of having to find a job in a strange city, living in an apartment that Gina picked out for us, and trying to figure out where I should go next with my life. I knew that I had to move on, and I had been trying to; part of me just kept wishing that John would turn back into the man I met and come sweep me off my feet again and whisk me away back to Chicago.

Today, I can't believe I was that person back then. I shake my head as I think about it and stare out toward the water. If I were to meet that old version of myself now, I'd pity her. I'm kind of amazed at myself that I think that. Either I'm a cold-hearted, cynical bitch now, or I really was that pathetic back then. Or a little bit of both.

And I can't believe how drastically everything has changed. No doubt, my life has been turned upside-down, and so much has happened. It's amazing. It takes my breath away. I always wondered how happy any one person can be. I think I'll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop and I'll expect it, but I wonder if it ever will.

I sigh and take another look around me, at the skyline and the shore. This view always humbles me. Looking out on Lake Michigan, not really being able to tell where sky meets water, always makes me feel small and insignificant. I'd come out here when things were stressful and remind myself that I was just one tiny person on this large earth. On this small planet in a giant galaxy. So whether John called me or not was irrelevant, because there was a bigger picture. But now, today, I look out and feel like I have the strength to conquer this big world. I can't remember feeling this good, ever.

When my nose feels like it's about to fall off from the cold, I stand back at the bus stop and begin my trek to the airport. It takes a while on the blue line before I'm finally back at O'Hare, and then I get through security and wait at my gate on concourse B. Usually, journeys home seem to fly by much faster than the trips out. This one, however, is taking forever. It's not just returning home. Pittsburgh's where I want to be, and therefore I can't get there quickly enough. Isn't that the way it always goes?

I ignore the flight attendant as she asks me if I want anything to drink. Instead, I look out the window at the passing clouds beneath the plane and stare at my watch, willing the minutes and miles to go by more quickly. I've never been like this. Not jumpy, not anxious... just impatient. I want to be with Max again, just to be around him. Get a glimpse of that easy smile that lights up the room. His scruffy facial hair that subtly disguises the mole on the side of his face that I always kiss on his cheek. That pair of deep cerulean eyes that I can get lost in—and have on many occasions. I want to run to him in the airport, just like in the movies; I want to drop my bags and sprint toward him with all the speed I can muster. I'm not a runner, but I'd run to him in a heartbeat.

The other passengers get annoyed with me as I push past them in the first class cabin. I can't possibly wait any longer! Max told me that he was flying into Pittsburgh sometime in the morning and would wait around in the airport for me. I send out a text to him as I follow the flow of the crowd and the baggage claim signs, navigating down through the escalators and people mover to the turnstiles to wait for my suitcase.

Text after text and call after call go unanswered. I stare at the tiny screen, puzzled and confused. Where is he, and why isn't he answering? Doesn't he want to see me as badly as I want to see him? Maybe something happened with his flight. I'd better check the boards. Before I can, I bump straight into a gaggle of girls. I mumble my apologizes and look around for the screens with the arrival times, but not before I run headlong into another person.

"Sorry," I repeat, not bothering to look at that individual I crashed into. I'm too busy trying to figure out where Max is.

"No problem, baby."

I do a double-take. Here I was, concentrating on finding Max, and he found me instead. There goes my hopes to run into his arms, but I think this is better. "Maxime!" I cry, standing up on the very tip of my toes and wrapping my arms around his neck, burying my face into his body. "Oh, I missed you."

He counters by holding my waist, nuzzling into my hair, and taking a deep breath. "Mmm. I missed you, too." For a minute, I stay in that position. I don't want to move; I can't stay on my toes like this for long, so I lean back and forth from foot to foot, and Max sways with me as he holds on. "Do you want to stay in the airport forever? Or do you want to go home?"

"Home," I say into his neck, and the sounds are muffled.

Soundtrack Song - Michael Bublé, Crazy Love

My flight lands at half past ten, so I have a couple of hours to kill until Charlotte's flight arrives. I grab a coffee and sit and wait. It probably seems useless to waste all this time; I really should just go home and come back out and pick her up, but I can't. The idea of driving back to an empty house, alone, and especially without Charlotte.... I can't do that. I'd rather wait here all day, if I had to.

A couple people walk by and recognize me. I gladly shake their hands, sign some napkins, and chat with them. It's a fun way to spend the time as I wait, especially so since my phone died because I forgot to charge it before I left. I love talking to the fans—Pittsburgh, hands down, has the best and most appreciative sports fans in the U.S. It's so easy to spend the time to talk to them about the game, about the season, and just about anything in general.

"You get back in town?" the one guy asks me, his son looking bored beside him. "We live up in Boston now, and we were down for the holidays."

"Oh, yeah. I went home for a few days. I'm just waiting for my girlfriend's flight." I chuckle and correct myself. "I mean, my fiancée."

"Congrats, man," he says, slinging his bag over his shoulder and aiming his son for the security gate. "She's a lucky girl."

As he walks away, I wonder about his words. Is Charlotte the lucky one? Or am I? I was never adverse to the idea of settling down; I had plans to do that eventually. I wanted a family, and my family wanted that for me, too. It was going to happen. But I didn't imagine it would happen this soon. I figured I had years to go before I was even going to consider finding someone to start my family with. Looking back on it, though, I wouldn't change a thing. I wouldn't have it any other way. So maybe we're both lucky.

The timing was perfect. We both had things on our minds that we wanted to forget about. We were so good for each other back then. Hell, she's still good for me. She's my rock and my constant, always there for me when I need her. Through the wins and the losses, she never changes. When I come home from the long road trips, or even the short ones, she's always there waiting for me. I want that, forever. And I'm pretty sure that Charlotte wants me just as badly as I do her.

Flower said that it was probably because I needed the distraction away from the rink and my injury that I devoted so much time to Charlotte and figuring out the puzzle she presented me. Maybe that's true. Maybe it also had something to do with how she didn't want me at first, as anything other than friends. So I had to take the time to get to know her, as well as let her get to know me. Whatever the reason, it worked. I'm hooked.

After about a billion cups of coffee, I'm wired and have to piss. I run to the restroom and then check the boards for her flight and make sure that's it going to arrive on time. It is, so I check the baggage turnstiles to see which one will have her luggage. Too impatient to wait there, I walk back to the escalator from which she'll descend. A rush of people begin to come down, and I finally spot her as she slowly appears.

Her eyes are trained on her phone, not even searching for me. Charlotte doesn't even look up once. It makes me laugh and shake my head. Doesn't she know I was going to be waiting for her? I call her name out once, but she doesn't hear because she's so absorbed in whatever she's doing. Crazy girl. I yell again, a little louder this time, and it seems that I turn everyone's head except hers.

Since hollering for her isn't working, I just decide to meet up with her. She's not watching where she's going, and she collides with a group of girls. I move in front of her, thinking she'll see me, but she walks right into me, too. Charlotte doesn't bother to look up to see who she's just run into, instead just muttering her apology. "Sorry."

I smirk and answer in a way that I'm sure will get her attention. "No problem, baby."

Charlotte glances up once, turns away, and then focuses back on me. I watch as the recognition dawns on her face and her lips curl up in a smile. "Maxime! Oh, I missed you." She pushes up on her toes and flings her arms around me, pressing her entire body against mine.

I likewise wrap my arms around her waist and inhale the familiar scent of her shampoo. This feels so good that I can hardly fathom a time when she didn't fit in my arms. "Mmm. I missed you, too." We sway back and forth gently, side to side, as if making up for the two or three short days we went without having each other to hold onto. As much as I want to stay this way for a long time, I want to go home, with Charlotte. "Do you want to stay in the airport forever? Or do you want to go home?"

"Home," she answers, still not letting go or stepping away.

"Well, then let's go." I let go of her waist and wait for her to do the same. After a few more moments, she does. Our hands meet like magnets and our fingers lace together. As we walk over to the baggage area, I lift her hand to my lips and kiss her palm. "Did you have a good flight?"

"It was too long," she giggles. "It took too long to get home to you. You'd better be serious about marrying me, because I'm not leaving you again."

I smile at her. "Wow, was your trip home that bad? We'll have more fun when we go together."

She shakes her head and lowers her voice, checking our surroundings before broaching this serious topic. "I'm not going back. Never. Chicago isn't home anymore, and my family doesn't hold me there. I'm done trying to make my mom happy. I'm done with her. It's true what they say, that you can't please everyone. And I'd rather please myself than her."

"You don't mean that," I say. I can't imagine my life without my family; I know hers isn't the best, but to sever the ties so completely sounds wrong.

"I do, Max. Being with your family, seeing them interact.... That's what I want. And my family can't provide that."

"It's yours. My family is yours now." I mean it; whatever I have, I will share with Charlotte.

The carousel kicks on, and the bags begin to trickle down. Hers is one of the first, and I grab it for her and pull it behind me in my left hand and continue to hold her hand in my right. We make our way, just like that, to the parking lot. When we get to my beemer, I move to let go of her hand so I can reach into my pocket for my keys; however, she squeezes my hand tightly and turns to face me. Charlotte reaches her free hand in my pocket to fish my keys out for me, but her hand lingers a little too close to my package for it to be an accident.

"We're going back to your place, right? Our home?"

Everything about this moment feels so right. "Oui."

We both have ridiculously large grins on our faces as her bag gets tossed in the car and we both hop in and head for home. I drive through the tunnel and downtown comes into view. Charlotte sighs and tilts her head to the side. "You know, I never planned on making Pittsburgh my permanent home. I always thought I'd go back. I'm glad it worked out this way, though."

I swallow, a little uneasy about her words. "You know, Charlotte, I can't guarantee that I'll play in Pittsburgh forever. A lot of players—most players, in fact—get traded or don't get resigned and move to other teams and cities. It all depends on the needs of the team, and if I—"

"If, or when, that happens, then we'll move and make that place our new home. It doesn't matter where we are, Max. As long as I'm with you... that's where home is."

I look over at her in the passenger seat and watch her smiling at me. It's such a beautiful sight to behold. She reminds me to keep my eyes on the road before we crash or go careening into the river. It's a difficult thing to do, but I peel my eyes away from her face and try to concentrate on the road and the short journey home.