Choose Love John Darrow felt his world shatter the moment he awoke. Outside, the rest of the city slept peacefully, and a beautiful woman breathed lightly next to him. Air conditioning blew across his body, but he shivered from looking at her. He gritted his teeth as he felt tears in his eyes, listening cautiously to the nearby body. He looked at her, full of peace, and felt his stomach tense. The biggest mistake of his life lay next to him. *** John had met Sarah in high school, where they had started dating in their junior year. For several years, John's life had seemed perfect. Star pitcher on the baseball team, popular, a strong leader, family money – John had everything he could have wanted. For two years, John laughed and partied with the most popular students at Albuquerque High School. Loyal friends followed him through school, breaking away only for separate classes. Girls wanted his constant attention. His father's money supplied everything he needed. He didn't care what his father did; he only knew that all his needs and wants were met. John bought a car a few minutes after passing his driving test, and he proudly showed the new toy off to everyone at school. Nothing could have made his life better. Yet in his junior year, he felt his chest tensing every time he drove to school. He wanted to hit every friend who talked about who had asked who out. He turned away from conversations about parties, wondering where his former excitement had gone. One day, a friend told John about a girl he had sex with at the last party. His chest burning, John yelled “I don't want to hear it!” The other recoiled. “Talk about something real, not sex and partying!” With that, he finally understood his anger. Popular kids, in the end, wasted his time. Daily talk consisted of gossip and planning for the next party. After two and a half years, John felt sick when he gossiped, and partying seemed worthless compared to a real conversation. He most hated the constant judgment. Every movement, every breath, merited discussion. He couldn't eat, couldn't read, couldn't talk without someone making note and deciding whether John still mattered. Even caring about a girl as more than an object created a rift between him and the group. He once asked a girl he had met at a party to start dating him. “Sorry,” she had said, frowning. “You're great, but I don't want anything long-term.” John knew they talked about it, but never when he entered the room. Then, everyone acted nice, they smiled, they chatted with him. But he knew they didn't see him the same. That day, he locked his bedroom door and lay on his bed, trying not to cry. All his feelings had erupted at once, and he needed something else. He breathed deeply and eventually fell asleep. Waking up, he felt only slightly better. Yet, an idea had come to him. If he wanted real conversation, he would find it. A way out appeared in Sarah, a newcomer to Albuquerque High School's junior class. Tall, athletic, brown haired, and hazel eyed – she fit the physical definition of a popular girl. Her way with people made her likable, but John had noticed something different when he met her. While everyone else gossiped, she discussed the world, life, religion, and love. She could change a conversation, even if only for a second. John had met her early in the year, and had traded phone numbers with her. Since then, he had spoken to her a few times. He knew he liked her company, and he prayed she would understand his thoughts. His stomach flipped when he dialed her number. Yet even if she rejected him, he needed to try. “Hi, John!” Her voice seemed music when she picked up. “What's up?” “Well,” he said, heart jumping when she answered, “I just wanted to chat for a while.” He paused, and, when she didn't respond, he continued, “Actually, it's kinda serious. Could we meet somewhere?” “Yeah, yeah,” she said. “How about the Starbucks at San Mateo and I-25? I could head over now.” “Yeah, that works. See you soon.” He arrived first, his hands shaking a bit. He ordered a chai to steady his nerves, though it brought little comfort. After about ten minutes, she arrived. “Sorry I'm late. Traffic's heavy.” She hugged him when he stood to greet her. That had always stuck in his mind about her. Most girls gave him a coy smile and flirted. She actually hugged him – and most others. Personal contact – something real. “So,” she said when her coffee finally arrived, “what's up? You sounded a little nervous on the phone.” He chuckled. “It's complicated. I don't know.” He paused and looked at the table. “This is weird, isn't it?” “Only a little,” she said as she smiled at him. God, she's beautiful! “Uh... I'm not really sure how to say this. But...” He looked at her eyes, and noticed something better than her hug – she actually looked at him when he spoke. A gate broke in his mind, and words started to flow. “I'm sick of it. Everything. Everyone I've known at school has been fake from the start, and I don't want any of it anymore. I'm done. I couldn't stomach it if I tried.” He looked away, trying to cope with the sudden flood. A small, gentle hand on his regained his attention. “Oh, John,” she whispered, “I'm so sorry! God, how long have you felt like this?” “Only recently. Just this year.” She nodded. “I've felt that way since ninth grade. When I moved out here, I thought I'd get away from it, but I guess it's everywhere.” A sudden smile appeared on her face. “Want to know a secret?” He nodded, and he could feel a smile growing on his face. “It's easier to laugh at them while they waste their time.” And he did laugh, lightly at first, then more each moment. She mentioned all the things he hated – things which not two hours ago had sickened him. And he laughed. They suddenly seemed so useless and nonsensical that he needed to laugh. His stomach ached, he worried that his chai would come back and seek revenge. But he couldn't stop laughing. *** Holding his head in his hands, he couldn't stop crying. The memories flowed endlessly, dragging him down with their waves. The night at Starbucks had been pushed aside at some point, but the memory's return brought him no comfort. He stood and paced silently around the house. Not his house – he wouldn't dare bring another woman to his own home. Quietly, he mixed some orange juice with Kahlua – something which shouldn't have been in the younger woman's home. He resumed his walk, glass in hand. Thinking back, he knew that hearing Sarah talk had made him laugh for several reasons. Obviously, he had needed the change, and the suddenness of it all made the entire popular mindset appear ridiculous. Yet, as he milled around the living room of another woman's home, he understood his laughter. Sarah had saved him that night. Laughter came from that unconscious knowledge: someone else existed who hated popularity as he did. Finding her, he rejoiced in a purely natural way. But no joy existed in the other woman's home. Maybe for her, but not for John. And the memories kept flooding. *** After meeting at Starbucks, Sarah and John spoke more often. They would talk on the phone at night until John's father asked him to be quiet. They eventually switched to talking over IM – both had their computers in their rooms, and by that point knew each other well enough to know exactly how the other would say what they had typed. John did call her again, though – to ask her to start dating him. From there, their relationship strengthened. John's tensions disappeared whenever he spoke to her, grateful he could talk about something other than parties. Though they both remained popular, they had distanced themselves mentally. Everyone at school could have thrown books at them and told them they didn't matter; John wouldn't have minded. For once, he had something real. Their senior prom stood out as the perfect night. Several weeks earlier. John's father had bought him a tuxedo. Not rented – bought. All of John's friends gasped in awe when he mentioned that, but he felt no surprise. The tailor completed his life's work when he finished John's tuxedo. Yet the tailor's best efforts couldn't outdo Sarah's beauty. John, staring at her in wonder when he picked her up, believed that she could have worn rags and looked stunning. The dress her parents had bought her surpassed any other, simply because she wore it. He laughed inside. He knew he sounded like a bad romance novel. But for him, her presence, the very fact that she existed, mattered most. He would remember little about the actual dance. Rather, he remembered what had occurred after the dance. Sarah and he had been dating for a year by that point, and had recognized that they loved each other long ago. Moving from love to sex seemed completely natural. What he remembered most was not the act. The next day, the very idea of holding her in his arms afterward, saying “I love you,” brought the greatest joy to his heart. But he knew that it wouldn't last. Several weeks later, the couple graduated from high school. John planned to go to college in Denver, Colorado, several hours north of his native New Mexico. Sarah had opted to stay in her home state at the University of New Mexico, aware of the reduced cost for state residents. For several weeks, they ignored the time bomb they slept on. However, their feigned ignorance could not stop their growing fears. She called him in the middle of July. “We need to decide,” she said. “About what we're doing.” He didn't respond. “John, you know this won't work. Everyone I know who's tried it hasn't been able to make it happen.” “That doesn't mean we can't.” “I know,” she whispered. He heard her sigh. “Look, I – I just don't know. I'm scared to leave you and I'm scared to stay together. I think,” she managed past a sob he barely heard, “it would be better to break up. Just in case we meet other people.” “You mean you want to meet other people.” “NO! I mean -” “I know what you mean. I'm sorry, love.” He lay down on his bed, closed his eyes. “I don't know what I think about this. I just – I don't want to lose the only good thing I had.” Tears came to his eyes. Always, he had said that to himself. But he had never told her before. “Oh, John.” He could feel her crying as if she sat beside him. “I'm sorry. It's just better to stop now. Before this gets worse.” He didn't reply, breathed for several moments. Then, determined, he said, “All right. But we keep in touch. I'm not losing a friend because of this.” “Me neither,” she said. “Bye, John. Take care.” She hung up, and he held the phone to his chest for a while. The hardest part about college, it seemed, would be living without Sarah. A week passed without contact. Then, she called him, crying and desperate. He picked her up at the pay phone from which she had called him, then drove to a quiet place. When she had stopped crying, she said, “I'm pregnant.” He couldn't answer her immediately, a response which renewed her sobs. He held her as he had wished he could a week before, stroking her hair and whispering in her ear. They had taken time to consider their options. An abortion, perhaps the best possibility, couldn't happen without alerting Sarah's parents to their actions. Her parents were fairly religious, and they considered premarital sex and abortion the greatest of sins. Sarah could have the child and give it away for adoption, but her parents would still know about the pregnancy. Further, something about both ideas upset John. He wanted this child – his child – but beyond that, he wanted to stay with Sarah so much that her pregnancy suddenly transformed into a blessing. Despite fear of his parents' reaction, he wanted to marry Sarah. And marry her he did. He bought no engagement ring; he couldn't afford it after telling his father his plans. He had not taken the news well. Instead of welcoming the marriage with open arms, he did the opposite and shut both John and Sarah out. The constant flow of money to which John had grown so accustomed evaporated, leaving him with only what he held in his pocket and his own meager bank account. Sarah's parents offered no gifts. They approved of the wedding only because marriage seemed the least detestable route. John and Sarah had been foolish enough to break the rules, and her parents believed they should face the consequences. John believed that, with time, the wounds would heal and that everyone would reconnect in the future. “After all,” he had said to Sarah when she had stopped crying because of her parents' reactions, “we're in love. That should count for something, right?” If he had gained only one thing from being with Sarah, John had found a belief in love. Anything could work out. Because of their love, he gave up college. He could go later, once the child aged a little. For the moment, he needed a job and he needed a place to live. They moved into a small apartment and he found a job at a bookstore nearby. He viewed it as temporary, hoping to either find a higher paying job or advance to a higher position quickly. Yet nothing, not even his father's refusal to communicate, truly dampened his mood. He had Sarah. His heart jumped whenever she visited him on his lunch breaks. He laughed and contemplated the future with her over dinner. And at night as they fell asleep, he held her close, telling her each night that he loved her. Everything would work out. *** Their child was born on February twenty-third around four in the morning. John felt mostly fear as he waited for doctors to tell him everything had gone well. He prayed that Sarah would soon be able to care for their child – new demands at work gave him only a few days at home. The truth was, life had not been easy for John Darrow thus far. The last summer had ended with him in high spirits. He had a steady job as a cashier at the bookstore and still believed he would advance quickly. Sarah had found a job as a waitress, and, although their free time often didn't match up, John felt happy. Being married warmed his heart. No matter what happened, he believed they would overcome. However, Sarah could no longer work in late fall. John had been given a raise, but no promotion from his job as cashier. Food prices rose and his pay felt inadequate. John, used to a never-ending flow of money, found the situation unfair. He couldn't purchase anything without thinking over the consequences. Further, the pair prepared for the newborn by buying all the necessary supplies when they could. John feared that they would miss something critical before the baby's birth. The cold winter proved more than he could afford. Their heater broke a week before Christmas, and they spent the holiday with Lucas, one of John's more friendly co-workers, while saving money for the repair. John tried to pay for food costs while staying with Lucas, but his friend refused, understanding the difficulty of the situation. The cold didn't seem so bad with people such as Lucas in the world. With the baby's birth near, John worked extra hours to bring in more money. While working, he often did what he could to encourage his co-workers – also dealing with low pay – to do the best they could do. Some became quick friends, like Lucas. Other employees looked to him for help – anything from computer problems to difficult customers. By the middle of February, he had made a decent amount of extra money. yet he needed a promotion and a raise more than that. Without them, he would lose time with his child, and, worse, force Sarah to take care of the child for the majority of the time. The day before his child's birth, the owner of the store, a short, stout man named Greg, had called him into his office. “John,” he had said, “I hear you're going to have a baby soon.” “Yeah, that's right.” “Aren't you a bit young for that?” “That's the way things go, I guess.” “Hmm...” Greg scratched the top of his head, then looked John in the eyes. “My wife and I waited a while to have children. Money and all that.” John looked away. “I wasn't planning on having a kid.” Greg leaned back and clasped his hands below his chin. “Is this your only job, John?” “Yeah. I'm working all the hours I can to make sure we have enough money.” “I see. Well, I wanted to talk about that. I've noticed you've been helping out a lot of people. In fact, everyone seems to say your the best worker I have.” “I don't know about that, Greg.” “John, don't discredit yourself. You work hard, and I think you deserve better than you have. I just lost an assistant manager, and I want you to fill the spot.” John nearly jumped. His felt his heart beating all the way through his body. “Really?” Greg nodded. “You'd do a good job. And besides,” he said, smiling, “you might need it more than anyone else.” John didn't know how he should respond. He wanted to jump and shout, but he felt like fainting. “Thank you, Greg! Thank you!” “You should thank yourself,” Greg said as he leaned back in his chair. “And your family. You're working for them, after all.” As he sat in the hospital waiting room, John worried that the promotion would take time away from his family. They would have money, but he risked missing his child's growth. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, began to fall asleep. After working as hard as he had, he fell asleep as soon as he lay down most nights. But if he had needed sleep before because of work, he would be exhausted because of his child. He thought through how much money he would have – a common practice for him. They would have enough to survive. But work and the new child would make things difficult. Despite that, John smiled and relaxed. Something had worked out, and his child wouldn't go hungry. *** The promotion, as it turned out, didn't help anything. Sarah and his son Roger hadn't starved. In fact, they had enough food and more money than ever before. Raises kept coming, and life should have been great. But after two years, money wasn't enough. John came home from work only to hear his son's never ending crying or his wife's complaints. She said he wasn't home enough and that his child needed him. Instead of yelling at her, he quietly said he needed to bring money in. But his stomach ached whenever he heard her whine. He didn't want to drive home when work ended. He would work late or take a longer route home, listening to the radio to prepare for the trials approaching him. Work, while paying better, didn't bring much joy to his life. Because Greg considered him such an inspirational employee, John seemed destined to guide the most foolish new workers. He ground his teeth whenever an employee asked a simple question too many times in a week. If an employee panicked over simple issues, John moved in to pick up the pieces. And if something huge happened – a new employee once yelled at an angry customer – John took the blame. Nothing had worked out for John Darrow. He regretted many of his choices. Sarah should have had an abortion. They could have paid for it by working over the summer and using his father's generosity. They could have kept everything secret! There was no need to marry or stay together. Without college, he knew that he had ruined his chances for a good paying job. He was stuck, and he raged against it. Then, he met Natalie. She had finished high school and began working in the bookstore for the summer. John noticed she was a bright girl, capable of any kind of work. She had moved out of her parents' home a week after graduation, and appeared to be well adjusted to living without much support. John found himself astounded that someone he had trained seemed so adept at working with customers, as most of his trainees seemed like useless fools lacking social skills. Just as he had become friends with Lucas – with whom he now frequented bars when he didn't want to go home – he befriended Natalie. Friendship, however, seemed the last thing on her mind. Although he wore his wedding ring constantly, she flirted with him every chance she got. A friendly touch here, a flash of skin there – as a married man, John knew he should have felt some anger. But none came. Rather, he found himself returning the gestures more often than not. The day he caught himself doing it, he went bar hopping with Lucas and called a cab to get home when he could barely function. He didn't remember if Sarah had been upset. He assumed she had been, because she had left him asleep on the couch when she left for a morning walk with Roger. The next day at work, his stomach churned whenever he caught sight of Natalie. She looked so like Sarah when he had met her – before all the trouble began. She must have noticed that he avoided her for most of the day because she later asked him to help her in the storage room. After some light flirting, she asked, “Did I upset you, John?” Her soft voice seemed to drum in his ears as he looked at her. John shook his head. “No. It's nothing.” “Then why won't you talk to me?” He sighed. His heart jumping, he slowly said, “Natalie, I was wondering if you could talk with me for a while after work.” “What's wrong?” He laughed. “That's a great question. I'll tell you all about it.” Putting her hands on her hips, she frowned at him. “I'm serious, John. What's going on?” “Look, I just need someone to talk to. Help me out, huh?” She looked at him for a few moments. Then, she smiled at him. “Okay. I'll wait for you after the store closes.” His heart felt near bursting, and he couldn't figure out how to stave it off. He knew where he would go with the night. But going home seemed like too near nightmare, like knowing he would dream of pain when he slept. When his shift ended, he found her outside, took her gently by the hand, and led her to his car. *** Sitting on a couch in Natalie's apartment, he breathed deeply to fight off the tears flowing through his guilt. Only a few hours ago, everything had seemed fine. They ate a simple dinner and talked about his issues. But the dinner had turned into an invitation to her home. And, not long after, the suddenness of his failure struck John full force. He had been happy before. Little had truly changed. Money, certainly, affected his life, but the promotion gave him some measure of financial security. He lived with the woman he loved, and they had a child. At first, Roger had united them. But he had woken one too many times to change a diaper. Idiotic employees at work had worsened his mood, and his avoidance of home – of his responsibilities, he now saw – had created a rift between he and Sarah. And here I am, he thought through the deluge of memories, a man who can't figure out his own feelings enough to live right. The air conditioner kicked on again, and he shivered. For the first time since he had met Sarah, he wept from the deepest part of his heart. Quietly, so he wouldn't wake Natalie and worsen his situation, but he wept, more pain than he thought possible flooding him, suffocating him. He had loved Sarah. He had loved her so deeply that he had thrown away everything to be with her. He still loved her. The tears washed away hatred, revealing a deeper darkness: anger at himself. After finding he hated caring for his son, guilt had swept in, making him hate his reaction. Instead of facing it, he buried himself in work, avoiding the situation. Everything escalated, and he knew that Sarah had blamed herself. What a damn fool I am! And now, everything could fall apart at the end of the chain. Denial of his love had led him to another lover – but only physically. He could never love Natalie, not after this, not with the knowledge of his failure. But what could he do? Sarah would never forgive him. She would leave and take Roger with her. Or, she might be willing to deal with this, but blame herself, even though everything belonged on John's shoulders. He had often heard religious people claim that God would forgive everything. Forgiveness. He didn't deserve it, not after how much pain he had caused Sarah. He knew she felt it, though he had never heard it from her. Her protests of how much he worked were not only for Roger; she asked so she wouldn't go mad. He had abandoned her. No hope for forgiveness. But secrets would only fester in his heart. He would find a strained relationship with Natalie at work, and his guilt would create more walls around him, blocking out Sarah. Tears continued to flow as he thought of the possibilities. Nothing seemed reasonable, nothing seemed like it could work. He breathed deeply again. He took a drink, and placed his glass on a low table. Guilt, anger, pain. They had forced him here, and he had gone along with it. He never pushed back, never truly tried to figure out his life. He remembered happy moments before the tide swept him away. After giving in, he quickly forgot the joy. It could – no, it had worked out. The path had not been easy, but if he had opened his eyes life would have worked! His heart burned again, but now he felt awake. He would tell Sarah. She may leave him, she may stay, but he would tell her. Without that, he could never hope for any change. If he wanted it, he would have to reach for it. He knew his failures, but felt more deeply than ever what had started him on the road: love. Without that, he wouldn't have started. With it, he could change course. After a quick drive, he arrived home around one o'clock. The lights were on. He opened the door and found Sarah in the living room adjacent the entry. She sat on a couch, holding Roger in her arms. She had been crying and hadn't removed her makeup from earlier in the day. Guilt and love vied for John's attention. He questioned his choice to tell her, but knew it to be the best choice. “Where have you been, John? I was worried.” “I'll tell you in a minute.” He looked at Roger. “Dad's home now, kiddo. How about you go to bed, huh?” Roger nodded, only recently able to speak. Sarah led him to bed as John sat on the couch, considering how to tell Sarah the truth. No matter how he did it, the facts would hurt. “What happened?” She sat next to him, looking at him head to toe. He sighed and looked down. “I'm going to tell you the truth. If nothing else, I'll do that right.” He found her looking into his eyes. Without breaking contact, he said, “I have been walking down the wrong road. I should have seen it, but it took sleeping with another woman to open my eyes.” Her eyes widened and she looked away. “I don't expect forgiveness. But I want you to know I won't walk that road anymore. I – I will not blame you or Roger or anyone for what has happened. I gave up – it's my fault.” She remained silent for several minutes. When she looked at him again, she seemed only able to whisper. “John. I can't do this. I can't.” Tears fell, but she pulled away when he reached for her. “I don't know what to do anymore! Damn it, John!” He looked at the floor. “I don't know what you should do. You have to choose. I messed up, and I can't tell how you should react. But I want you to know that I'm choosing to live again. If you want me, I'll be here. Always.” She sobbed, tears making new lines in forgotten makeup. “Everything has been so wrong. How can we ever get back to normal?” “I don't know.” He knelt by her side. “I honestly don't know. And, to be perfectly honest, I'm okay with that. I don't need to know anymore. I just need to live again.” “You have been living. You've been ignoring your son, and – and you slept with someone else!” “Yes, I have. I made those choices. But I made them out of anger and pain. I didn't see love anymore. But if I see you now, if I even think of you, I remember love.” She reached out for him then, and he held her as she wept. “Even if you hate me and leave me, I will love you.” They both cried that night, holding each other. He felt more alive than ever before. He had made a choice. He could do no more. She would leave, or she would stay. The choice fell out of his hands. When he suggested that he sleep on the couch, she pulled him tighter against her. “I'm sorry,” she said, trying to stop her tears. “I just – I can't choose now. But,” she said standing up and turning away, “I'll figure it out. I can't see you right now. I'm sorry.” “You have nothing to apologize for.” She turned to him again. “I wish we had never ended up here.” “We made these choices. We're stuck with them.” “Yeah. I know.” She went to their bed, leaving him in the living room. As he sat, he wasn't sure how she would choose. Losing her would break him completely – it would mean losing all he had left. But despite that, he could make it. He could choose again. If she left, he would understand. He truly didn't deserve her love anymore. Yet no matter what she chose, he would start anew. He stood on a better road, and he could walk however he wished. He would make choices to build instead of break – he chose love.