They hadn’t had some sort of cosmic, stuff-of-legends “sandbox” meeting at White Park when they were babies. Andrew had met her, along with fifteen other whiny, sticky four-year-olds when they started pre-k together in their tiny Missouri town of Red Oak. It was an unusually chilly September day, which did nothing to ease Andrew’s nervous shaking. Andrew had been timid, afraid to be the first anything, always waiting in a corner with a race car for another kid to start a conversation with him. Carrie Walker had been different, the total opposite, in fact. She was present, always, and she made sure you knew it. She ran up to every single shy, sticky kid in that class, gleefully shouting, “My-name-is-Carrie-I’m-four-who-are-you?!” right in his or her face, her striking chin-length, white-blonde hair flowing behind her. The most amazing thing was that rather than being put off by Carrie’s energy, even the shyest kids felt strangely and immediately comfortable when she did this, forgetting their fears and making new friends.
Carrie fascinated Andrew right from the start, her intensity as well as kindness drawing him to her. Always ready for new people, Carrie greeted Andrew in her exceedingly vocal custom and then took it upon herself to introduce him to all of their now-friendly classmates. Andrew quickly surmised, even at four-years-old, that life was easier, better, brighter, “funner” as she called it, when Carrie was in it and he remained at her side from that scary first day forward.
Carrie was amused by Andrew too. He was quiet and sweet, slow as molasses, and willing to go along with her adventures. When their pre-k class was learning to count, Andrew was so excited that he was the first in their class who memorized all the way through ten that he began bellowing, “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!...” only to trail off, embarrassed, when he realized the whole class, Miss Jessie included, was staring at him in surprise. Carrie did a spot-on imitation of this little performance and gently teased Andrew about it all through grade school. Each time she solicited the trademark blush from beneath Andrew’s chocolate-colored hair, she nudged him with her shoulder and winked to let him know that she was kidding and that he was still her best friend.
And he was. They were truly close; no matter how often their different circles of friends changed, Carrie and Andrew trusted each other and knew that nothing could separate them. Carrie depended on Andrew’s logical advice and quiet support and Andrew knew Carrie could always make him laugh and would stand up for him against anyone. Andrew realized that it was strange for a boy to have a girl best friend at their age (after all, the other boys told him, sixth-grade girls always have the most cooties), but Carrie had always been there and he was more afraid of losing her than of the other boys teasing him and calling her his girlfriend. The truth of the matter was, the boys all secretly thought that Carrie was the coolest girl ever. She was still loud and friendly – that had never changed – but now she carried herself (pardon the pun) with a subtle grace that made her the envy of all of the other girls and the desire of all of the boys in their grade. For once, the most popular girl in school was actually popular for being well-liked by everyone. Carrie’s baby cuteness had developed into all-American girl good looks, pretty without being intimidating. It seemed she was good at everything she tried, everything. She was smart and funny, and had a good voice, but could tackle you to the ground in flag football if you weren’t careful. In other words, she was the kind of girl everyone wanted to hate, but no one could because she was just too nice.
Andrew denied the boys' accusations of Carrie being his girlfriend, even though that possibility made him impressive to otherwise unimpressed schoolboys. He would only admit to himself that all through middle school, up until eighth grade, he watched her date boys in the grades ahead of them with only a slight twinge of jealousy, masking it by playing his role as the “good friend.”
“What do you think of Jordan?” she'd ask, rifling through her closet for something new to wear on her date that night with the captain of the freshman basketball team at the high school.
“Well, taking into account his scoring record, his 3.7 grade-point average, and his already-legendary lady-swooning blond hair, I'd say his prospects are pretty good,” Andrew would respond, secretly thinking that Jordan James was probably a jerk and that Carrie would reach that same conclusion by the date's end.
“Is this top okay? I feel like it makes me look...wide or something,” Carrie would fret, knowing full well that, best friend or not, fashion was not Andrew's forte, Andrew being dressed at that moment in his most worn pair of jeans, some college or sports sweatshirt, and work boots. Yet, Andrew would always reassure her, telling her that she looked perfect in whatever top she had on (because she always chose the last outfit she tried) and that Jordan or Ian or whomever was taking her out that evening would have to be crazy not to see that.
In turn, Carrie would finally relax, turning away from her full-length mirror at last to face him, sitting on her purple and blue bedspread with a fashion magazine upside down in his hands, and smile that amazing smile. She'd sigh with relief and say, “You are such a good friend, I love you, Andydrew,” reverting to her childhood nickname for her best friend, when she'd mispronounce his name and then run gleefully around him in circles. Then Carrie would put her closet right, made a disaster by her desperate search for the right first-date outfit, brush her hair, slip on her shoes, and grab her purse just as a horn honked in her driveway.
“Showtime!” she'd say with nervous-excited smile as she headed for her bedroom door. But she never forgot to give him a kiss on the cheek and say, “Thanks for all your help, buddy,” with absolute sincerity. And then she'd be gone, breezing through her house and out the door, into the waiting vehicle idling outside. Andrew would watch out her bedroom window every time, with every guy, wondering when the world would stop demanding that he share her.
* * * Four years later * * *
“I love you,” Andrew told her, just as they had always said to each other. And it was true, they loved it each other, warmly and unconditionally, like lemonade by the lake on hot days and catching snowflakes on their tongues in the winter. But somehow, his words seemed different this time and she knew it. Her reflex was to play it off, say it back like always. But somewhere along the line, something had changed between them, grown deeper; it was too heavy, too real and there was no going back. He held her gaze with impressive clarity, his sky blue eyes holding nothing new, just the truth she had ignored or misinterpreted or pretended not to see for so long. She looked back. She did love him, that much she knew. But if they went to the place he was taking them, if she gave in, they might never recover their old friendship. She had a choice to make now and it was possibly the biggest one she'd ever make. At that moment, her attention shifted to the sound coming from her pink iPod speakers. It was the song “1, 2, 3, 4” by the Plain White T's. In that moment, she remembered her entire life, a life that had always included Andrew, from learning to count in pre-kindergarten to her parents' ugly divorce to her first solo in the senior show. Andrew and Carrie had been through it all together and she knew that without him, she would not have made it. In that moment, she saw the love and the truth in his eyes and knew she could not let this pass her by. And so she gathered all of her courage, closed her eyes, and leaped.
“I love you too,” she whispered, opening her eyes to see the person she'd always loved standing before her. She smiled her Carrie smile and stared back at him with her old intensity. “I love you,” she said again, more strongly this time, “I always have.”