As expected, it took me an hour to get to Keller in rush hour traffic and another 30 minutes to get to Roanoke, but for once, I didn't mind. Usually an hour in rush-hour traffic made me want to push a Boy Scout off his bike or crush a little kids' Tonka truck, but that day I was completely at ease. I took that hour to picture Cayden and I in a number of situations: Cayden and I on Christmas, opening our presents next to my parents beautiful Christmas tree while everyone else was still sleeping. Cayden and I at a New Years Eve party, both of us decked out in party hats with confetti stuck to our faces and in our hair, kissing at the stroke of midnight. Cayden and I on Valentine's Day, making love next to a roaring fireplace in an English cottage that looks exactly like Kate Winslet's in The Holiday.
The only thing better than spending the week with him was spending that hour with Future Him.
By the time I picked him up from my parents house, I'd already seen what our next year would look like, and it was beautiful.
"So, did you enjoy the aquarium?" I asked after he kissed me in my car.
"It was quite interesting. There were these huge manatees and I even fed a bird."
"A bird? At the aquarium? Was it like a pelican or something? Or some hybrid fish-bird?"
"A tucan. It was kind of like a zoo in there," he said, and then, "I missed you."
"I missed you, too," I told him, even though it felt like I'd just spent the last hour him, even though it was only in my head.
"Being here with you... it's the closest I've felt to home in a long time."
I was choked up in a matter of two seconds. A huge smile took over my face and I felt tears brimming my eyelids. Lock it up. Pull yourself together.
He couldn't have said anything more perfect right then. I was so afraid he'd hate Texas, think it was too slow for him, too small-town. But he didn't hate it. He felt at home.
I turned off of 377 and pulled onto Oak Street, the main road in Roanoke. Cayden's eyes were glued to the window.
"Wow. This is Texas. I mean, this is how I imagined it," he said, pointing to the small storefronts and old-fashioned water tower in the background.
To be honest, that's how I'd pictured Texas as well before I'd moved there. When I found out I was moving to Texas when I was 13, I thought we were all going to have to get horses to ride to school. I'm not kidding. And everytime people came to visit me in Texas, I always wanted to pick them up from the airport and take them straight to Babe's Chicken in Roanoke—where the only things on the menu are fried chicken and chicken fried steak—and say, "well, this is where I live!" just to see their reaction. It has this really country, greasy feel to it, where you end up sharing these long picnic tables with other families and you pass around a giant plate of fried something and heaping bowls of creamed corn, mashed potatoes, and of course, plates of biscuits and honey. That was just about as Texas as you could get.
But looking out the window with Cayden, I realized Roanoke had changed drastically since the last time I was there. It used to be that Babe's was pretty much the only thing there, but as I looked out the window I saw a Twisted Root Burger, Cowboy Chow, Brix Pizza and Wine Bar, and a Mexican restaurant called Mi Familia. I couldn't believe how much the area had grown. It still had that authentic, small-town, old-fashioned feel to it, but now it looked cleaner, less dirt-roads, more cobblestone streets. It was, dare I say it, quite pretty.
"Baby! I finally feel like I'm in Texas!" Cayden said, a look of pure excitement in his eyes.
"Should we stop and get you a cowboy hat? Maybe a set of spurs?" I asked, then laughed at the thought of him dressed in Wranglers and a plaid, pearl-snap button down. It just wasn't him. Nor was it me. But it could make for a great Halloween costume next year.
We pulled into Annie and JC's apartment complex, a nice, modern complex set apart from the old-fashioned Oak Street.
Cayden reached for the knocker on the door and knocked three times.
"Wow," I said. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone use one of those before."
"Well, that's what they're for, aren't they?" Cayden said.
Before I could answer, Annie opened the door and welcomed us with hugs. It must had been two years since I'd seen her last. She looked amazing. Short, blonde, adorable as ever with her giant blue eyes and perfect smile. She was always smiling, but something about her seemed happier than usual.
"Whitney, Cayden, meet JC."
The look on her face when she said "JC" made me figure out what was different about her. She was in love.
"Nice to meet you JC," I said, reaching my hand out to shake his. He was tall, maybe 6'1" or 6'2" with big, dark brown eyes and a baby face. The baby face might have had something to do with the fact that he was, in fact, a baby. OK, not a baby, but he was 23, the youngest in the room aside from Colbie's 2-year-old daughter June, who was sitting between Colbie and Justin on the couch.
Colbie jumped up to hug me, and June crawled onto Justin's lap. Colbie looked amazing as well with her glossy brown hair, perfect side-swoop bangs, and dimples. She had that same something-extra to her smile that said she, too, was in love. But I'd known that for a while now.
As soon as we were all introduced, Annie gave Colbie and I a tour of the apartment while JC, Justin, and Cayden formed "Boys Club," acting as if they'd all been dying for some male camaraderie, as if we girls had been suffocating them with talk of relationships and feelings and tampons.
Framed engagement photos hung on the walls, and everything about their apartment felt like a home. They'd made it a home together.
"Those were a wedding gift," Annie said, nodding toward the photos. "So we're not narcissistic or anything, but we just didn't know what to do with them."
"So, what's it like?" I asked Annie. "What's it like to be married and living with JC as your husband?"
"It's amazing. It's almost like we're kids, eating what we want, going to sleep whenever we want. It's like every night is a slumber party with your best friend."
I almost cried imagining that with Cayden. Then I shook my head, trying to clear the thoughts. I didn't want to become one of those girls who planned my whole wedding, honeymoon, and post-marriage living arrangement right down to our framed engagement photos before they were even taken. I'd never been THAT girl before, but for some reason with Cayden it felt OK to think that far into the future.
"Ah, I'm so happy for you. I can't believe we're all old enough to be married and have kids and all that! When did that happen?" I asked, then Colbie's ring caught my eye.
"Let me see!" I said, grabbing her hand. Justin had proposed a few months before and I'd only seen the picture of the ring on Facebook. In real life, it was even prettier.
"Can you believe he finally proposed? Now I'm so excited to plan the wedding!" Her face was consumed with excitement. She'd make a beautiful bride.
From the spare room we could see the guys in the living room, spread out on the couch talking about guy stuff.
"Do you think they even understand each other?" Colbie asked.
It was quite an interesting mix. Justin was 42, a real country boy with a strong southern accent. Cayden, as you know, was 28 with his proper British accent. And JC was 23, with no detectable accent. They were all so different. Did they even have anything in common to talk about?
"I bet Justin and Cayden are having a heyday trying to figure out what the hell the each other is saying," Colbie said, and we all laughed.
We broke up Boy's Club (which little June had become a part of) and headed out to our cars. We'd decided on Twisted Root, the only chef-driven burger joint in town, that served up a mean variety of burgers from Peppercorn Ranch and Bacon burgers to Ostrich burgers. But in my opinion, even better than the burgers are the "adult milkshakes" like the Amaretto Oreo shake. YUM.
Cayden ordered a burger stacked with guacamole and I opted for a grilled cheese. Don't ask me why I ordered a grilled cheese at a place known for their burgers, but for some reason it was calling my name, and so were the mini corndogs. Luckily, June had a grilled cheese, too, so I didn't feel too bad about it.
By the end of dinner, we'd all caught up on each others' lives. Annie decided to be a school teacher after she realized she'd never make a dollar off her journalism degree (smart move!), and Colbie was a dispatcher at the city's police department. In fact, that's how she'd met Justin. He was a police officer there. Actually, he used to be the on-duty officer at our high school and he was often referred to as "Hot Cop." Well done, Colbie. Well done.
It was so strange seeing my old high school friends grown up and starting families of their own. Had I not met Cayden, I would have wanted to shake them by the shoulders and say, "Are you crazy!? We're too young for this! Don't settle down, go have fun!" But I had met Cayden. I am crazy. I'm not THAT young. I wanted to settle down. And sex with Cayden was FUN.
Back at Annie's place we devoured her homemade cheesecake and killed a few beers. And of course, what high school reunion would be complete without a group photo.
On the way out the door, Annie stopped me.
"Whitney, I can't tell you how happy I am for you. Cayden is great, and you seem so happy with him," she said pulling me in for a hug. "You really deserve this."