By the time she'd been a part of my life for two years, I knew I couldn't enjoy life without her. The thought of not seeing her daily gave me a cold feeling. We had only begun to share the deeper parts of each other...there was so much more to know and enjoy.
It dawned on me that I'd really changed with her around. I liked myself now. I had stopped hating my old mistakes. I'd let go of hurt and anger I'd been walking around with. I liked this feeling of a new guy who had happiness as a part of each day. Looking back, I'd been hell to be around without her.
I wrote to my brother, Doug. Letters to the prison took time but it was the only way to get a hold of him. It was worth my wait to hear what he had to say. For all the mistakes he had made in life, it meant a lot for him to know what was going on so I could hear his point of view. I took my concern to him and let him know how much she meant to me.
Always warning me to be slow and thoroughly examine my feelings, he respected my attraction. He admitted that he had seen my letters 'lighten up' after dating her in earnest. By far, the most impactful thing he said was to not just drop a ring in her lap but to talk to her about a future together and be on the same page. For a hot-headed little brother like me, this time, I knew he was right.
"Toby, don't go in blind like I did. You grew up around my 14 years of hell and look where it landed me. You can still surprise her with a thoughtful engagement moment, if that is where this leads. But for right now, ask the important questions so you flat out know what this girl is really all about." Doug's words were heavy.
I re-read his letter a dozen times. I thought about what I knew about her and all I knew to be true.
She was an event planner. Her first love had been her high school crush and he'd ruined her on prom night, taking what wasn't his to own. She wasn't sure about cats but knew she didn't like dogs. Walks downtown were her favorite, and anything ice cream was her favorite as long as it involved strawberries. And she loved horror movies that scared the crap out of her...I had the claw marks to prove it.
More importantly, she knew shit I'd been through and knew I was not a bad guy. I didn't have to guess what she wanted. I didn't feel I was a supernatural force within her life, keeping her existence afloat. I could just be me and she could just be her and she never had to feel pressured by me. She was an ebony-haired balm on my scarred heart that ran deeper than the ink on my arm. Much deeper.
Other girls had tried to tame me or make me jump through hoops. I got drug to art festivals, I had to fight to not cut my long hair or I found myself in too many fights over superficial things in general. Years I could have been happy with any one of them were wasted always chasing them and trying to figure out why they couldn't be happy in their own skin - and trying to figure out why being with them was making me so unhappy to be in my own.
Not with Leah.
That she let me be me and accepted my long hair, my tattoos, my runaway passion with NASCAR was not lost on me. She didn't ridicule that I enjoyed whittling like Gramps had shown me. That I was seven years older wasn't a factor to her. That I had felt that I was damaged goods didn't scare her away. She was secure enough in herself to know who she was, whether we were together or not. And she seemed to become more secure, every day, in who I was.
She treasured me. It was scary.
She was too important to be mishandled. The weight of her beauty, inside and out, was not lost on me. She didn't deserve to be bruised or dropped haphazardly. I didn't hop in her bed because I knew, right from the start, there was something between us that couldn't be jeopardized.
So I took her for a drive one night with the intention of feeling out her thoughts about 'us'. The sacred beauty of the woods called me at such a moment. But before we were even halfway there, while still stuck in the truck, I brought it up. I couldn't stand to wait any longer.
"I can't stop thinking about us lately." I started. "About...how we've been building this relationship." Her hand snaked into mine without hesitation. I paused, feeling my heart rise a notch as her touch came so easy. I pulled her hand to my lips. "About how much this means to me."
"Stop." She said.
"What?" I asked, feeling my stomach flip over.
"Stop driving." She said, still holding my hand.
Confused, I complied and stopped beside a field and threw on the four way flashers. Letting go of my hand, she jumped out of the truck. Thinking perhaps she didn't feel good, I hopped out and ran around the hood, only to find her waiting.
"You okay?" I asked, reaching for her hand.
"If you're going to say something heavy to me about relationships, you shouldn't be distracted with driving." She said, offering her hand again, easily. I blew out the breath I'd been holding. Drawing me into a hug, we both kept quiet a moment. That was Leah, wanting to be sure we could both give our undivided attention to something so important.
"Damn, you scared me." I whispered to her, relishing holding her close in the afternoon sunlight.
"You don't talk like that unless it's something serious." She said as her cheek rested on my shoulder.
"I am." I breathed. "I want this. Us. Every day. I can't believe how much I want to know that I'll always have this."
"Always?" Her voice suddenly seemed so small.
"I want to be your husband." I said with total confidence. The moment it was out of my mouth, any hesitation and anxiety that had been floating around evaporated. It felt like the most right thing to say. "But I want to hear about what you want."
Turning her face up to mine, she grabbed at my hair, pulling me down. As we kissed, I hoped she didn't expect a ring because my pockets were emptier than my gas tank. But her passion felt as if she already knew the answer to my question. She pressed against me, lifting up on tiptoe.
"I want a husband like you to always ask for my thoughts." She said, suddenly breaking the kiss. "Who isn't afraid."
That was all that it boiled down to, for her. I wasn't afraid. Her career and her attitude didn't scare me off. Our differences didn't bother me. I saw past the surface things and couldn't turn away if I wanted to.
My brother wasn't happy with the next letter that reached him. I wrote it with a picture of our certificate from the courthouse and the tattoos we got that same weekend. Husband and wife. Both an anchor for the other in the storms of life. I apologized for not being able to wait, but I promised him that his words had helped my prayers to be answered. No longer adrift, I had a life partner now. A co-pilot.
I wasn't going to make the same mistake Doug made.