A/N: Old story being reposted. Hope you like it (or like it again.)
Disclaimer: iCarly characters and all other iCarly material originally created by Dan Schneider does not belong to me.
Christmas Eve - 2017
I've never been much of a reader, but when I was young I got addicted to those 'Pick Your Own Ending' books. I liked the idea that I could control what happened and if, in the end, I didn't like how it turned out I could start all over again – choose differently the next time. I wish life could be like that. In some ways, I guess it is. Things happen that change everything; that decide where you end up. It's not necessarily big things either; it's the small things, the ones that seem insignificant at the time. You choose to stop for coffee on the way to work and miss a 5 car pile-up on the freeway. You stop to talk to someone instead of walking by and make a friend you keep forever. You ignore your feelings for someone and…well, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Fate. That's what some people call it. My best friend from high school, Carly, is a big believer in fate. She's always going on about how things are 'meant to be' but I've never bought into that. I think life is what you make it. It's a series of forks in the road; moments when you're given a choice and your decisions in those moments become the axel the rest of your life spins on. Looking back, meeting him was the first of a series of tiny moments that changed everything. Like that butterfly effect people talk about; if you'd blinked you'd have missed them.
His name was Freddie – well, I suppose it still is. The first time I met him I was standing at my locker, trying to decide if I was going to class or skipping out to catch a movie. Carly came around the corner and right behind her, looking every bit the love sick puppy dog was Freddie. He wasn't anything to look at really, although that would change eventually. If I'd passed him in the hall I probably wouldn't have looked twice.
"Hey Sam!" Carly's voice was typically cheery as she pointed to the short, polo shirt wearing dork standing beside her. "This is Fredward Benson. He just moved in across the hall from me."
"It's Freddie." He said, looking at me for less than a second during which he mumbled a 'nice to meet you' before returning to his embarrassing eye worship of Carly.
I rolled my eyes. Really I should have been used to it. Carly had that effect on guys – all sorts of guys. It was no shock that this newest addition was ready to join her legion of adoring fans. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't jealous or anything. Boyfriends and relationships involved way too much disclosure for my taste. Telling secrets, talking about your life, your hopes and dreams. I hated my life and didn't really have any hopes or dreams to speak of. It wasn't that guys didn't try to hit on me, but it was usually the guys who'd rather spend their time with me in the darkened corners of a movie theater or surrounded by the choking lemon scent of a janitor's closet. This guy obviously didn't fit the bill.
"Nice to meet you Freddork" I laughed under my breath.
"No, Carly. It's fine." He said, glancing at me. "It doesn't matter." His eyes were cold as steel.
I broke the gaze, slammed my locker and walked away.
I skipped out that day; spent an afternoon with a bucket of extra buttery popcorn at a zombie movie marathon. All afternoon I replayed that moment in my mind, trying to figure out why those three little words made me feel the way they did. By the time I walked back out into the Seattle sun, I still hadn't managed to shrug it off.
'It doesn't matter'
I'd said those same words myself a million times or more, but when he said them, it was different.
'You don't matter.' That's what he might as well have said.
I went home that night and tried to push away the irritation. What did I care what some random dork I barely knew thought about me? I was Sam Puckett! What other people thought about me ranked 0 on the importance scale, and his opinion mattered even less than that. I'd probably never see him again anyway.
I was really wrong about that one. Carly would probably call it fate again but it wasn't. It was my inability to say no to her and Freddie's desperation to be near her whenever possible that changed things. She wanted to start a web show – with me as her sidekick. In the loft space her brother Spencer used to store his sculptures, she roped me into helping her create what turned out to be a nice little studio. The show was one part scripted comedy, one part impromptu goofing off and one part completely ridiculous videos people sent us online. Freddie, who was apparently some sort of techno genius, came on as the technical producer and 'iCarly' was born.
I figured it wouldn't last long. Carly would get bored with it, Freddie would figure out that no amount of fancy camera work was going to make Carly love him back and the whole thing would fade to black, letting me return to my Freddie-free existence.
I was wrong again.
The show was popular – really popular. People tuned in every week by the thousands, waiting to see what kind of crazy stunts we'd come up with, and we came up with some doozies. It was the first time I'd been a part of anything successful that wasn't illegal. I was good at it, coming up with skits to do and pranks to pull, scouring the internet for the funniest videos. It felt nice to do something I was good at. There was only one down side. Him. He was always there, mooning over Carly and prattling off long lists of facts no cared about.
I discovered that I had a penchant for pissing him off. I mean, I was pretty good at that with just about anyone, a gift my mother says I was born with, but with Freddie I really knew how to twist the screws. So I made it my mission, went out of my way to get under his skin. He always tried to hold it together, trying to show Carly what a good guy he was I guess, but eventually he'd cave. We spent more hours than I can count hurling insults at each other. My favorite form of torture was refusing to call him by his name. At last count I had over a hundred different names to call him.
Freddork. Fredducini. Fredalupe. Freducation. Freddifer. Captain Whizpants. Techno-Dork. Dorkus Supremus. Nub. Super Nub. Queen of the Nubs. You get the point.
On the rare occasion when the name-calling was ineffective, I drew his attention to his one-sided love affair with Carly. It was cruel, I knew that, but I couldn't help myself. I kept thinking back to that first day. Every dig was an answer to his words.
'See…I do matter. Even if it's just because I drive you crazy.'
We went on like that for years. Me picking on him like Chinese water torture until he blew up. Him matching me jab for jab. Other people avoided confrontation with me for fear of violence or humiliation, but not him. I guess I developed something like admiration for that. We'd been strangers, then co-workers, then opponents in a constant verbal sparring match and somewhere in the middle of all that we started to become something else.
He got me. I didn't tell him about how little money we had, and he was nice enough to pretend to be irritated when he bought my smoothies. He knew I hated pity. He didn't tell me how bad it felt to see Carly dating other people, and I was nice enough to look genuinely disgusted when I told her all the reasons the guys she dated were losers. He wasn't much for pity either.
He grew on me. By senior year of high school, you were just as likely to see me with him as with Carly. We started to talk. He never pushed or forced it but just sitting with him I started to let out things that I'd been careful to keep hidden all of my life. With him, I didn't have to be perfect or say the right thing. I could be my abrasive, belligerent self, and he'd just nod his head and toss me another Fat Cake. He was my friend.
"Hey Benson," I said, crawling through the window and onto the fire escape. He looked up at me from his seat.
"Hey Puckett. What are you doing here?"
"Got tired of watching Carly play tonsil hockey with the flavor of the month."
He nodded his head but said nothing, just stared out onto the street.
"He's not gonna last. You know that, right?" I asked, lowering myself to sit beside him.
"Seriously Sam, how many times do I have to tell you – I'm not into Carly like that. Not anymore. That ship has sailed."
I looked over to him, one eyebrow raised. Him not loving Carly was like me not loving free food. Highly unlikely.
"You're never going to believe me are you?" he said
"Sure, I'll believe you, when Lewbert's wart develops superpowers and starts fighting crime."
"Superwart." He laughed, "Clever."
"It's a gift" I shrugged.
"Well, if I'm so in love with Carly why did I have a date…tonight?"
It shocked me the way those words affected me. I mean, this was Freddie. What did I care who he dated.
"You had a date?" I said, trying to steady my voice, refusing to look at him. "What poor lonely girl did you con into that? And how much did you pay her?"
"Ha Ha, very funny Puckett. It was Wendy."
I spit out the Peppy Cola I'd been drinking, showering the ground in front of us.
"Wendy! You mean annoying, gossiping, I wear my clothes too tight, cheerleader Wendy?"
"That'd be her."
"Wow," I said, honestly shocked. As much as she annoyed me, I had to admit, Wendy was the sort of girl most guys at our school dreamed about hooking up with. She was 'that girl'. The kind that laughed at their jokes, even if they weren't funny. The kind that hung on their arms and wrote them notes with little hearts above the i's. The kind that they could take home for dinner. The exact opposite of me.
"Shocked?" he asked.
"So was I."
We sat staring out into the night. Freddie grabbed the corner of the blanket he'd placed on the ground and wiped the Peppy Cola off of my shoe.
"So, if you had a hot date with Hot Wendy, what are you doing out here?"
"Because the date wasn't that hot." He looked over to where I was trying hard not to laugh, "Shut up, Sam. It's not funny."
"Sorry." He didn't look convinced. "Seriously! Tell me what happened. I won't say a word."
We both knew that wasn't likely.
"It started off okay, I guess. I met her at the mall and we walked around for a while." He looked over at me. "That girl knows more about lip gloss than anyone ought to."
"If you want me to be quiet, you've got to quit saying stuff like that."
"Right. Okay, so then we went to the theater and I figured she'd want to see that Zac Efron movie…the one where he falls in love with the blind chick.
"Love is Blind?"
"Right! But she said she wanted to see the new Undead movie."
"Undead 4? Rise of the Undead?" I was floored. Wendy did not strike me as the type to enjoy watching decomposing bodies over a tub of popcorn.
"Yeah. I couldn't believe it either. So then I told her we couldn't go see it because you and I were going to see it next weekend." From the corner of my eye I saw him looking at me. "And she acted all weird about it. She said why didn't I just take her to see it instead and take you to see Love is Blind. So I laughed and told her that was impossible because you hate chick flicks, especially ones with Zac Efron."
"He's just way too pretty to be a guy."
"Right! That's what I told her and she got kind of huffy about it. So we went to see Love is Blind."
"How was it?"
"Horrible. But she loved it."
"Oh. So she loved the movie and you made out in the dark. What part of this was bad?"
"We did not make out in the dark. I mean, she tried, but…it just didn't feel right."
"Having a girl willing to put her lips on yours didn't feel right?" He shrugged. "Do you know you're probably the first guy in the history of Ridgeway to turn her down?"
"Whatever I was, she wasn't very happy about it."
"So what happened then?"
"We finished watching the movie and we were supposed to go to dinner, but she suddenly remembered something she had to do at home. So she went home, I came here, and that was it. Worst. Date. Ever. Go ahead, you can laugh now."
I didn't laugh, or say anything. No way could I tell him what I really thought. Wendy was an idiot who didn't deserve him. I really believed that, but I wasn't ready to look at why I believed that.
We sat in silence, eating and passing a bottle of Peppy Cola between us. Germs are irrelevant between friends.
"It's all overrated," I said.
"All this 'boyfriend-girlfriend' chizz. Totally overrated."
"Why am I not surprised you feel that way?" he laughed
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm just saying that you've never really tried it. All the guys you've dated were losers that you picked because you knew it was never going to work. Love would seem overrated to someone who avoids feeling it."
He looked at me then but I refused to return his gaze.
"I don't avoid it. I just…I know that it doesn't really exist. Not the way people think it does. Hardly anyone gets to live happily ever after. Most people end up hurt and miserable and, if you're my mother, with your car stolen." I laughed and nudged him with my shoulder. "I just don't see the point. Risking all that on the chance you might be happy."
"Maybe that is the point. Maybe it's worth the risk."
I looked at him. "Was Carly worth the risk?"
He sighed, "Maybe. I don't know. I mean, I guess I always realized, even from the start that Carly and I weren't going to be together. But that doesn't mean I give up on love altogether. I think it'll happen for me one day." he paused, "And it'll happen for you too."
"Seriously, Sam. One day you'll meet a guy who's brave enough to get past that porcupine-like exterior."
"Thanks a lot Benson, I'm flattered."
"You know what I mean," he laughed. "And you'll love him enough to show him the real you."
"The real me? Geez…cheesy much?"
"Yes, the real you. The girl who carries one dollar bills because she thinks it's mean to give loose change to hobos. The girl who adopts the most pitiful looking kitten at the pound because she's scared they're gonna put it to sleep."
"Hey! Frothy is not pitiful!"
"Sam, he's missing half his ear, walks with a limp and is practically feral."
"He's got character!"
"Character, and possibly rabies, but you love him. And that's something that makes you amazing Sam. Frothy – he's proof that you can see the good in things that other people ignore. And one day someone will come along who does the same thing for you. You deserve that." He stared straight ahead, but then reached down and took my hand in his. And I didn't pull away.
Stepping through that window, sitting down with him that day, it was another moment; a choice that changed things. It was the first time I realized just how much he understood me. And I was terrified at how happy that made me.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I'd just gone home. If I'd never listened to him tell me all about the person he was sure would come and break down my walls. If I'd never realized he was that person.
Freddie and I had about a million more conversations on that fire escape. We were still friends. He still bought my smoothies and I still bashed Carly's boyfriends, even though he no longer seemed to care who she dated. On the surface, everything stayed the same. But underneath all the sameness was a difference that slowly ate a hole at the center of me.
I was suddenly aware of him, and not in the 'look there's Fredwad' sort of way. It was like I'd been seeing him in black and white but suddenly everything about him was a rainbow of color. If he stood near me, my skin reacted. I noticed things about him I hadn't before. Like the way he bit one corner of his lip when he was editing video for the show. Or the way he had to have just the right combination of red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese on his pizza. The way he always opened the door for me or checked my homework before I turned it in to make sure I hadn't screwed it up, even if I didn't ask him to. How he had a freckle on the side of his neck, beneath his ear. The way he stood with his thumbs hooked into his front pockets when he was nervous and how he walked with his back extra straight so he'd look taller. A million big and small things that sent my world into a tailspin, with him firmly planted at the center. A million big and small things that made me wonder if this is what love felt like.
Love. In the romantic sense, it was a word people threw around too easily. My mom used it for every two-bit loser she hooked up with. Carly used it every time she stayed with a guy longer than two dates. And no one I'd ever seen 'in love' had stayed that way. It always ended, usually in disaster. But if what I felt for him wasn't love, then I wasn't really sure what to call it.
I knew it wasn't going to happen. Freddie was my friend and that was all. He didn't feel that way about me. Loving him was a supremely bad idea. But sometimes, when I was alone, I let myself imagine what it would be like if he loved me too. Those moments never lasted long. I had to be rational. We'd never work. I wasn't right for him-I needed the feelings to go away.
I tried everything. I dated other people, people as different from him as possible. They never lasted. I made a list of all the things that drove me nuts about him. He was too neat, too polite. He loved Galaxy Wars. He chewed with his mouth closed. He always knew what I was thinking, even if I didn't want him to.
I made excuses not to spend time with him alone. I even started doing my homework, just to have an excuse to say I was busy. If he was suspicious, he never said anything, but he found ways around my excuses. He showed up at my house with ribs. Lured me out with tickets to movies he knew I was dying to see. He refused to let me walk away. He demanded my friendship in a way I couldn't say no to.
"Hurry it up T-Bo! I got stuff to do!" I leaned over the counter at the Groovy Smoothie, impatiently watching as the dreadlocked owner took his sweet time preparing my extra-large Blueberry Blast. School had been out for an hour and if I didn't get out of here in the next five minutes I'd risk running into Freddie on his way from his A/V club meeting. He'd cornered me at school today, demanding to know why I was avoiding him, asking me what he'd done. I told him I was late for a detention that, for once, I didn't actually have. He said we needed to talk, that he'd call me later. I could guarantee that call would go straight to voicemail.
"Here you go!" T-Bo said, sliding my smoothie over the counter, "How about some…"
"No time Teebs!" I tossed him three crumpled dollars and headed for the door. He could keep the change. I flung the door open and collided with a solid wall of blue and white plaid.
"Uh…hey, Freddie." He pulled the door open and stepped back onto the sidewalk.
"I thought you had detention?"
"Oh, right. I did, but um…I skipped out early. Told Briggs I had 'lady problems'."
We stood there, him staring at me, me staring at my smoothie.
"So…I haven't seen much of you lately."
"What do you mean? I see you twice a week at rehearsal and every day at school." I tried to laugh. "Speaking of which, I'd better go. Me and Carls are supposed to run through a bit for next week's show." I started to walk past him and felt his hand solid on my arm.
"Cut the crap Puckett. You know what I mean." He pulled me over to the shadowed opening of the store next door. "You're avoiding me. Why?"
"I'm not avoiding you. I've just been…busy." I couldn't meet his eyes. He knew me too well. He might think I was lying but if I met his gaze, he'd know for sure.
"Busy doing what? And since when are you too busy for free movies? I texted you Sunday night to come see Bloodsport 3 with me. We've been waiting to see that for months."
I pulled my arm from his grasp and adjusted my backpack on my shoulder, angry heat rising in my cheeks. I didn't want to talk to him, especially not about this.
"Freddie, can't you just leave it alone?"
"No, Sam, I can't." He sighed and lowered his voice, hooking his fingers in the front of his jeans. "I thought we were…friends? I mean, we were hanging out and I thought you were having fun…"
"So what happened then? Did I do something to piss you off?"
"Why won't you drop it?"
"Because something is obviously wrong and I want to know what!"
I pushed my way around him, trying to walk away. "I don't have to deal with this."
He grabbed my arm and turned me around. "Yes you do! Whether you want to admit it or not, we're friends Sam, so you don't get to just walk away!"
"It doesn't matter!" Our voices were loud, drawing stares from the people passing by.
"Yes it does! It matters to me, Sam!" he threw his hands in the air in frustration, "You matter to me!"
My breath left my body in a rush and I took a step back, staring at him. He stood still, his eyes boring into me. The secret place in my heart where I kept everything related to him locked away was screaming. Kiss him, touch him, tell him he matters too! Tell him you love him! But my mind wouldn't let me. He'd said it himself. I was just his friend. I slammed the door to my heart and the moment evaporated like smoke.
"Listen Freddie, I'm…I'm sorry." I looked up at him and forced my face to lie. "I wasn't trying to avoid you. I just had…stuff going on. Nothing's wrong. It's nothing, I swear."
"Really?" He didn't look convinced.
"Yeah, really." I plastered the world's fakest smile across my face. "We'll go see Bloodsport 3 this weekend."
He looked relieved, and my stomach twisted. I didn't want to lie to him, but the truth was just too dangerous.
"Good! I'll check the times and text you, okay?"
"Like always." He smiled and I tried to return it.
"Listen, I really do have to go." I said, moving to walk past him. "You know how Carly gets when I'm late."
"You're always late."
"Not the point Benson." I said over my shoulder, heading off in the direction of Bushwell Plaza.
"Hey Sam?" he called after me. I stopped and turned.
"Don't forget…I'm always here, if you need to talk. About anything."
I rolled my eyes. "You're such a girl."
He laughed. "Later Puckett."
"Later." I walked away, and even though I could still feel his eyes on me, I refused to look back.
After that night I had to admit, at least to myself, that the feelings weren't going away. So I changed tactics. If avoiding him had only made it worse, maybe being around him could make me…immune. The idea is laughable now, but when you're seventeen and in love with someone you can't have, you'll try just about anything to make it go away.
So that's what I did, I spent as much time with him as I could – created my own Anti-Freddie vaccination program. We hung out, went to movies, I even volunteered to work with him and our iCarly intern Brad on a semester-long project for school. I was convinced that this was going to work.
It took exactly four months, one week and three days for me to see how wrong I was.
It was a school lock-in. Twelve hours of unlimited food, limited supervision, and a school full of kids pulling an all-nighter to finish their semester projects.
For our project Freddie created an app for the pearPad – he was a genius like that. Brad and Freddie did most of the work. During project meetings, I spent my time napping or staring at Freddie's lips and trying not to imagine what they'd feel like on mine so I wasn't completely clear on what the app did. All I really knew was that it was called MoodFace, it looked really cool, and we were guaranteed an A.
That night was going to be our trial run. We set up in the cafeteria, the smell of Friday's mystery meat still clinging to the air. I stayed quiet and tried my best to ignore the way his shirt clung to his biceps and the way he smelled like aftershave and breath mints when he'd lean over me. Side by side we worked, him staring at the monitor while I tried not to stare at him.
The conversation was light. Since our Groovy Smoothie conversation, I'd been careful to keep it that way; it was the only way to keep my feelings from rushing in like groupies at a CuttleFish concert. But in the quiet with his arm brushing against mine, the feelings were too close. I needed to get away, increase the distance between us, so when it was time for the app's trial run I was across the room and into the test seat before he could ask for a volunteer. I sat in the chair, legs crossed, staring into the pearPad. Freddie leaned against the table, looking down into the monitor, biting at the corner of his lip. God, puberty had been so good to that boy. His arms were tense and his muscles strained against his rolled shirtsleeves, making me wonder if they felt as firm as they looked. I was still considering this when his eyes went wide as he looked back and forth between the monitor and me. He tapped furiously at the keyboard, shaking his head.
"Can I move now?" I asked.
Freddie looked up from the monitor. "Uh…yeah."
"So what's her mood?" Brad took the camera from his shoulder and both of us waited for the results.
Freddie looked nervous. "Uh, it, uh. It's inconclusive."
"No reading?" I asked, grabbing a bag of chips.
"It was working this morning." Brad looked just as confused as I felt.
"Yeah, um, I'm gonna see if Carly has any tissues." Freddie grabbed his laptop and fled the cafeteria like someone had lit his pants on fire.
"What was that all about? Why's he acting so weird?" I asked Brad.
"No idea, but at this point I'm used to the three of you doing weird stuff."
"You've got a point there." I sat back down in the test seat, munching on chips. "Wonder what he went to talk to Carly about."
"Um…" he mumbled, looking at the pearPad, "I think I know…"
I walked over and looked at the screen.
"Shit." I said
"It wasn't inconclusive." Brad whispered.
"It says you're in love."
"I see that."
"Well…" he looked at me. "Are you?"
That was a good question. One I was pretty sure I knew the answer to. But now I wasn't the only one who knew. I laughed at Brad, told him it must be some weird glitch in the software that they didn't catch and tried hard to believe my own lie. I was still failing in that attempt when Carly found me twenty minutes later and said the words that sent my stomach into my throat.
"I know you're in love."
I braced myself, ready for her to bring my dirty little secret kicking and screaming into the light.
The rest of her words were lost on me as my dread turned to confusion.
Brad? Our fudge-making intern?
Carly, and apparently Freddie too, were convinced that I was in love with Brad. The night was going from bad to worse. I'd never looked at Brad that way. He was a great intern and his fudge was life-changing, but me in love with him? That was crazy.
I denied it long and loud. She was unconvinced. What she was convinced of was the idea that Brad was exactly the kind of guy I needed. She'd always been this way; it was one reason my friendship with Freddie was so different from the one I shared with her. Freddie might push me to talk about how I felt, but he only did it to make me be honest with myself. Carly wanted to know my feelings so she could tell me what I should be feeling instead. I know she meant well. Carly wanted me to be happy and, in her mind, Brad was just the guy to do it and she was just the nosy so and so who was going to make sure he did.
As I listened to Carly lecturing me on not being scared to make a move, part of me wanted to give in. To just scream, 'It's not Brad, its Freddie! I love him. I love Freddie!' The words rose in my throat and I fled to the school's courtyard, unsure I had the strength to hold them back anymore.
The coolness of the Seattle night did nothing to calm me. I sat on the stone steps, staring into the starlit sky and wondering why this all had to be so hard. I hated it, the way the sight of him set my heart racing. The way I'd mirror his crooked smile, no matter how miserable I was feeling.
After a lifetime of disappointment in the male species, starting with my dad, Freddie was the first guy I'd ever trusted. I could depend on him and even if he didn't love me I knew I mattered to him. But in my experience every relationship, no matter how strong, has a breaking point, something you can say or do that reduces it to rubble. So I had a choice. I could risk telling him everything and if he rejected me-when he rejected me- I'd be left with nothing. When the school doors opened and Freddie stepped out into my hiding place, the choice was clear.
"Yo, yo." He said, propping himself against the courtyard wall.
"Did Carly send you to find me?"
"So you didn't hear about our little argument?"
He laughed, "Oh, I heard about your 'little' argument. I just said she didn't send me to find you."
"Good." I was irritated, and being around him was only going to make it worse.
"But Carly's right." He said, walking toward me.
"I don't care that your stupid pearPad app says that I'm in love. I'm not into Brad like that."
"Why won't you just admit it?"
"Why won't you just leave it alone?"
"Because, you're my friend and I want you to be happy! And if Brad will make you happy…"
"Ugghh!" I groaned, "What part of 'I don't love Brad' are you not getting?"
"Just go!" I said, standing, daring him to go against me.
"Fine…I'll go." he stopped and for a split second I thought the worst was over. "But before go..." he walked toward me, refusing to back down.
"I'm warning you Benson, one more step and I'll be doing a double fist dance on your face." It had been so long since I'd threatened him that way, the words felt foreign in my mouth.
"You can threaten me all you want, but Carly's still right." He took another step forward, "Look, I know it's scary to put your feelings out there, because you never know if the person you like is going to like you back. Everyone feels that way. But it's worth it because you never know what might happen if you do – if you take a chance."
He was standing so close, impossibly close. And the look in his eyes was chipping away at my resolve. Did he mean it? Did he know that he was it, the chance I needed to take? Did he understand that telling him, revealing everything I'd so carefully hidden, was beyond scary? It was an ice cold fear that froze the blood in my veins and stopped the words in my mouth. He was right, you never know what might happen if you take a chance, and if I didn't make a move now, maybe I never would.
He reached out to me, touched my arm, and looked down into my face. The air all around us was thick with possibility. It was movie-perfect. If it had been one of those chick-flicks Carly always made me watch I would have closed the space between us, tangled my hands in his hair and kissed him for all I was worth.
It lasted all of five seconds, the silence filled with his waiting and the words I couldn't say. If there were such a thing as fate it rolled out a red carpet for me, welcomed me to step into my dream. Dared me to walk through my fear into something wonderful.
But I don't believe in fate, only decisions, and this one was the hardest I'd ever made.
I couldn't do it.
I thanked him for his advice, told him it was unnecessary, and allowed my sadness and cowardice to pour out of me as anger. Anger at him. Anger at me. Anger at being unlucky enough to love someone I could never have. I screamed, I threatened. I told him that even if I was in love it wasn't any of his business. And then I walked away.
This would be an easier story to tell if it stopped there, if I'd walked away and that had been the end of our friendship. But it wasn't that neat and tidy. The Brad incident passed, eventually becoming an inside joke, and my friendship with Freddie continued through graduation and the summer that followed. We talked and hung out. I even went to the airport to see him off when he left for school on the East Coast. But in the years that followed, I allowed the distance to work the way it often did. On the surface, it didn't look suspicious; lots of people grow apart after high school. We lived on opposite sides of the country. No one could really blame me for losing touch. But it was no accident. It was calculated. I encouraged him to go out and meet new people, date women that I secretly hated without ever meeting them.
He pushed me at first, calling and writing, trying to make me talk about important things, trying to make me open up the way we had before. But I knew now the danger in that. If I opened up, just a little, I risked everything. It became an obsession of sorts, protecting myself, guarding my heart. Over time, I buried myself in a fear too deep for him to penetrate. Eventually he stopped trying and the weekly video chats and phone calls became sporadic and strained. The regular letters turned into cards sent on birthdays and Christmas, and then not at all.
It was hard, right up there on the list of the hardest things I've ever done. Staring at the phone, but not picking it up. Watching as his number flashed on my caller I.D. and went unanswered. I loved him as much then as I ever had, but inside a wall just as deep as the love I felt for him had been erected and I refused to move from behind it.
I sometimes wondered if Carly knew. On the rare occasions when we talked about him, she'd give me a certain look, like she was trying to see behind my words. But if she guessed my real feelings, she never called me on it and pretended, just like me, that there was nothing to ignore. She kept in contact with him even after I'd stopped, kept me in the loop on what was going on in his life.
He'd moved to New York after college. He was working as a filmmaker. I'd seen a few of his movies-they were just as amazing as I knew they'd be. He'd always wanted to do it, even though his mother told him it was a pipe dream. People thought he was crazy. He turned down N.I.T. and likely a guaranteed cushy existence for the life of an artist. He'd been terrified to make the decision, sitting with me for hours on the fire escape, holding his film school application while I tried to convince him to follow his dream.
Last year when Carly came back to Seattle for Christmas, she had a package for me. It was from him. I pretended not to care, threw it in my purse and told her I'd look at it later. But when I got home my heart raced as I opened it. It was a copy of his first movie, and I smiled at his familiar scrawl on the note attached to the front.
'Thanks for believing in me'
I did believe in him; I always had. It was me I didn't believe in.
Regret is an ugly thing. Sneaks up on you while you're busy trying to out run it. From the outside no one would guess I'd have any reason to feel it. I'd been a mess in high school but after Carly and Freddie left I finally got my shit together. I got into The University of Washington by the skin of my teeth and threw myself into school. I didn't date much and other than the occasional frat party, I spent most of my time alone, buried in a pile of books. I got my bachelor's degree, cum laude, and then stayed for an MBA. Who would have guessed I'd be a late blooming overachiever? I didn't tell anyone when I graduated, either time – a fact Carly still hasn't forgiven me for. But it didn't seem like that big a deal to me. Studying was all just a means to an end, a way to forget about things. About him.
After college, I got a job at an ad agency and even if it wasn't the most thrilling job in the world, the pay was excellent and I was good at it. I had a loft on the ninth floor of the building I'd spent most of my teen years in, one floor above where Freddie and his mother used to live and where Carly's brother still did.
Life was good, on the outside, and usually I could convince myself that I felt something like happiness. But at some point my thoughts always came back – to him. I could still see his face. It happened at the oddest times. I'd ride past some place we'd been together, hear a song that was his favorite and it would all come rushing back.
Sometimes when remembering got too hard I'd take a bottle of wine and my pearPod and sit out on the fire escape, our fire escape, and give in to it. Let the regret wash over me and allow myself to think 'What If?'
What if I'd told him?
What if I hadn't been afraid to love him?
What if he'd loved me back?
That's where I was sitting when I got the call.
"Hey Carls! Are you at the airport already? I thought I didn't need to pick you up until five?"
"No, I'll still be there at five." She sounded nervous, "That's not why I'm calling."
"Uh, oh. This sounds serious. Are you pregnant? Married? A lesbian?"
"Sam, be serious!"
"Okay, geesh! What's got your undies in a wad?
"I just wanted to tell you…um…"
"Carly, please spit it out."
"We're going to have an extra guest for dinner tomorrow."
"What, are you bringing someone with you? Who is it?"
"I'm not bringing anyone with me." She was quiet. "It's Freddie. He's coming home."
I was silent. I ran it through my head, turned the words over in my mouth. 'He's coming home'.
It had been a long time, over five years, since I'd seen his face outside my dreams. Five years that felt like ten.
"Sam? Say something."
"Why's he coming?" I asked. Freddie's mother had gotten married three years ago and moved to California, so I knew he wasn't coming to see her.
"I asked him to come."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because it's time Sam. I've spent the last five years pretending. I pretend not to notice that you cringe when I say his name. I pretend it's the truth when I tell him that you're happy; pretend I believe it when he says he is too. And both of you are doing it too! I figured that sooner or later one of you would wise up and get your shit together, but that obviously isn't going to happen. You're too stubborn and he's too scared."
"Don't Sam!" she sighed, "Don't deny it. I know you love him, you have for a really long time. And I know he loves you too."
"He said that?"
"He didn't have to." She said, "Look, I'm not asking you to get married tomorrow. I'm just asking you to see him. Just come to dinner, and…see what happens. Talk to him. And listen to him."
I told her I'd think about it, said I'd see her at the airport in a few hours, then promptly entered my apartment and lost my lunch.
It's tiring, trying to pretend you don't feel something, trying to deny your heart. As I drove to the airport, I realized just how tired I was. I'd been fighting for five years but underneath the fight and the fear that made it necessary he was still there. When Carly got in the car, I surrendered, for the first time admitting aloud what I'd known for so long. I loved him, and I wanted him to love me.
Telling her the story took a car drive and two bottles of wine. When I was done, exhausted but relieved to have spoken the truth and survived, she smiled and in typical Carly fashion she told me it was fate and asked me what I was going to do. I didn't answer her then, but in the space around my heart I could have sworn I heard the sound of a wall crumbling.
That was last night. When Carly left, she asked if she'd see me at dinner today and I said yes. But we both knew what she was really asking, and that my answer was still yes.
Once, a long time ago, I picked my own ending. It didn't work out so well for me, any ending without him in it never will. I realize that now. So I'm going to go back, maybe not to the beginning but at least as far as the 8th floor. I'm going to go back and I'm going to choose differently this time.
Someone once told me, it's scary to put your feelings out there, but it's worth it because you never know what might happen if you take a chance. I'm hoping they're right.
I'm sure you're wondering how it turns out. I can't answer that, but in twenty…make that fifteen minutes I'm hoping for a better ending the second time around.
Cross your fingers. And if you believe in fate…put in a good word for me.