14 years / by Carey Pace

It was humid just like any other day in August. They say the mountains are cooler in the summertime and that’s why so many Floridians come to live there each June. I never understood that. It felt oppressively hot to me. That day, the sun beat down in the way that causes the little beads of sweat to bubble up on my nose. It was my very first day of high school in 1993. The various old buildings of East Henderson, designated by subject taught, were connected by covered walkways that sprawled across campus. This was glorious in the winter, when you could have a snowball fight during class change, and in the spring, when you could have a quick ‘fix’ of that newness of life all around that everyone clambers to absorb. 

It was less glorious in the heat of summer. Thankfully the walkways were covered with green roofs yielding blessed respite from the rays. We stood at the front of the school, Megan and I, seeking shelter at one of the benches. I met Megan when I entered 7th grade. Elementary schools merged into the junior high and I finally found my tribe of fellow nerdy folk at twelve years old. It was like finding lost treasure you didn’t know was missing. I’d always had a friend or two, but with Megan and a few others it was different. Blissfully so. I always imagined I was closest to Megan because we both understood the pain of growing up poorer and in dysfunctional families. It is so important to an adolescent to feel she isn’t alone in her struggles. 

While Megan and I were alike in most ways, we were very much not alike when it came to boys. 

Where I was painfully shy and hesitant, she was effervescent and outgoing. Where I was timid and awkward, she was confidant and curious. I can’t quite put my finger on why I never felt very comfortable navigating the waters of teen boy and girl relationships. Somehow I felt put on the spot, expected to play a game that no one had ever explained the rules for. And if you know one thing about me, know that I need to know what the expectations are. That, and I really don’t like looking stupid. I simply didn’t know what to do, what to say, what to anything, and I would panic if I was forced to play the game. 

Imagine my panic that August day when Megan suggested we go up and talk to the new guys. A very small town about ten minutes down the interstate had a very small school that ended at eighth grade. Those kids had the choice to attend East Henderson or their county’s high school. So a handful of new students from Saluda started their high school careers with us that day. And Megan being the bubbly personality she is, needed to meet them. 

There were two that I remember. Tall, gangly, and nerdy - they’d fit right into our group. One blond like me, the other dark and wearing large glasses. Fresh meat for Megan. She simply couldn’t wait. Perhaps as a formality she stated “let’s go talk to them!” fully expecting me to tag along. I doubt she expected my resistance, and I doubt she had any idea of the internal conflict pulsing through my body. But I remember that panic today, more than twenty years later, like it was yesterday. 

I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. It was more than I was able, to walk up to two boys I’d never met and just start talking to them. Megan pushed. I wonder if she grabbed my hand and tried to pull me along. I wonder if I resisted like a donkey resists going wherever the farmer leads him. What I do remember is sheer and utter, raw, hysterical panic, my mind racing trying to come up with a plausible reason why we simply could not just walk up and talk to the new guys. Plus, I had sweat bubbles on my nose! She persisted, her need to meet others being great, and my mind clambered for something, anything, I could use as an excuse to be put on the sidelines. 

If it is under duress that our true character seeps out, then my character failed miserably that day. I settled on an idea that was so very unusual for me. I was never mean. I have never liked name calling. I did not hurt other people’s feelings. But Megan was pushing, or more accurately pulling, and I reached for the first reasonable way to stop the scenario. I told her that I wouldn’t go talk to those boys because the dark haired one ‘looks like a bug.’ Oh, the mind of a 14 year old girl. 

I am so ashamed to write that out here. I am not a cruel person and physical appearance is so unimportant to me. But that’s what I said. I remember it so clearly, because it felt like something ripped inside of me that day. I violated my own code of ethics in a moment of panic, and I felt such remorse. But the moment was done. I don’t remember if Megan went on to meet them that day without me or not. I thought I suffered my character transgression alone. Little did I know, the one who ‘looked like a bug’ had heard me. 

High school went on. We did meet. And of course the two guys fit right in with our group. We had classes together and over the years I developed a crush on the dark one. But he never wanted to have much to do with me. He says that my attempts to flirt were pitiful. I suppose they were. If it weren’t for German class in the spring of 1996, my life may have turned out quite differently. 

That spring semester of our junior year was a fond time. We all took AP US History and thus spent an inordinate amount of time together both at school and at the public library. My transportation to and from high school was my own two feet. My house was nearby and I walked every morning and every afternoon, rain or shine. But I couldn’t walk to the library. Megan was always wonderful to give me a ride, but I tried to get one out of the dark headed one as often as I could. I tried to steal his blue baseball cap, too.

It was in German class, however, that the romance really blossomed. We sat across the table from each other. The Frau was stern, strict, and ran a firm classroom and yet there was much freedom in there for us to have fun and get to know each other. There was, of course, ridiculous teenage high school drama for a few months. We formally began our relationship at the beginning of our senior year in 1996. 

It was probably around the time of graduation when he shared with me that he’d heard me that day, calling him a bug. I was mortified. Sometimes people remember things that you can’t recall, but I absolutely recalled this. My heart was broken all the more that he had heard and I had hurt him. It was in German class that I unknowingly redeemed myself and broke down the barrier preventing him from wanting to get to know me. 

One year of high school.
Four years of college.  
Chemical Engineering at NC State, together.  
We got married.  
We bought a house.
3.5 years with me working at Eastman, too.  
2 years of my stay at home wife dom.  
A time of infertility.
We bought another house.  
Almost 9 years of parenthood. 

I chose him because he seemed different. He wasn’t like the other goofy boys. There was a depth to him that I hadn’t previously seen in other guys. And we seemed to be so much alike. We had so much in common. But we were still kids. We thought we knew so much. We knew so very little.

It has now been fourteen years. Fourteen years of life with a wedding band on my hand. Trials and triumphs. Highs and lows. Struggles and successes. We now recognize that we are nothing alike. But that is good. We temper each other the way married couples should. And he has given me the grace and the freedom to be me (artistic, passionate, reactive, volatile, emotional, detailed, analytical, perfectionist, indecisive, wordy, and feisty) and encouraged my creative endeavors. 

For the last four months or so, we’ve lived life in a state of limbo. We sit on the cusp of a huge life change, moving our family from our home of the last 14 years to a new place and new adventures. He has spent most of his time in Virginia these last months, and the separation has been easier and harder than we both expected. 

I anticipated having difficulty adjusting to parenting two kids on my own during the week, but that was much easier than I dreamed. I anticipated appreciating anew the things he does around the house that I largely took for granted, like locking the doors at night and prepping the coffee. But it has been the pang of the lack of his presence that was most surprising to the introvert me. There is a stabilization that comes with the fully in tact and present family that is difficult to describe. There is such comfort and safety in the feel of the same arms I’ve felt since 1996 circling me. There is such comfort and safety in the scent of him. I never realized how much I liked the scent of him until it was removed from my life until Friday afternoons. And there is such comfort in just sharing the proximity of the same space, both reading in bed before sleep, both having coffee on the couch, both riding in the same car. 

I set out in this trial trying to be the encourager. We can do this! We can do anything for a few weeks, a few months! We can get through this! We can DO this! It is funny how roles sometimes shift. I'm not normally the encourager. He encourages me. But this separation has been so much harder on him, to be away from all of us and come home to an empty hotel room day after day. 

We close on the new house on June 23. Two weeks from today. As this time of intermittent separation draws to a close, we are all so very weary of it. I am so hesitant to see our time in Tennessee draw to a close, stealing with it this home that my kids have grown up in. But we are so ready to be all back together again. We are embarking on a new journey. And I am so very thankful that I get to go along with him.