I’m head over heels in love with John Michael Courtney.
My wedding date is set for two weeks from next Sunday. That’s exactly three hundred ninety-eight hours and thirty-two minutes from right now. I know because I’m counting.
I’ve taken care of nearly all the details. I have one gown fitting left and my appointment is for twelve-thirty tomorrow afternoon. I’m off from twelve to one for lunch anyway.
My friends gave me two bridal showers. The first was a kitchen shower and the second a linen shower. Thanks to them, I’m pretty well stocked when it comes to the basic necessities. Besides which, more and more wedding presents keep pouring in every day.
I bought my bridesmaids their gifts last Thursday. I’m lucky because all four bridesmaids own charm bracelets. I got each girl a darling little gold heart engraved with our initials to add to her collection.
We ordered most of our furniture three months ago, and the last piece is supposed to be delivered to our apartment this coming Wednesday. I’ve already asked for two hours off from work on Wednesday afternoon. That way, I can be at the apartment when the delivery truck comes.
We’ve made honeymoon reservations at a really nice hotel about sixty miles outside the city. My future in-laws even gave us a beautiful set of matching luggage as an early wedding gift. So we’re all set as far as our honeymoon goes.
Like I said, everything is nearly ready for the wedding.
There’s just one problem: I’m head over heels in love with John Michael Courtney, but in exactly three hundred ninety-eight hours and thirty-two minutes I’m going to marry Richard Stephen Willis!
I suppose I should explain how I managed to get myself into this mess. I’ll try, but I’m not really sure I can explain. I’m not sure I understand it myself.
I’ve known Richard Stephen Willis for over three years. We started dating during my senior year in high school. Richie is a year older than me, so he was already out of school and working by the time I met him.
Richie and I went together for more than a year before we got engaged. I remember how relieved Mom was about that.
“I used to worry that you might jump into marriage without really getting to know the man first,” Mom admitted.
“I’ve always been pretty sensible, so why would I do a dumb thing like that?” I demanded.
Mom shrugged her shoulders. “You can never be sure. Sensible or not, people do strange things when they think they’re in love. Some girls meet a man and pow—the chemistry is right! They don’t wait long enough to see if it’s just a physical attraction. They rush right into marriage. Later on, they find out that two people need more than sex to keep them together.”
My mother believed in long courtships, but then Mom is old-fashioned. I had known for quite a while that I loved Richie. I was sure he loved me, too. When he finally made up his mind and asked me to marry him, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“I hope you’re not angry because I didn’t get you an engagement ring, Stacey,” he said. “I thought about surprising you, but I decided I would rather have you pick out the one that you really like,” Richie explained. He kissed me tenderly. “I’ll meet you downtown after work tomorrow and we can choose.”
I hesitated for a moment. I’m basically a very practical down-to-earth type person. Besides, I had shopped enough with my engaged and married girlfriends to know the score. “I’m not sure I want a ring, Richie.”
Richie looked surprised. “Why not?”
“We’re going to need millions of things when we get married. And prices are unbelievable. Wouldn’t it be smarter to skip the ring and put the money into good furniture or something useful like that?”
“I-I suppose you’re right,” Richie admitted gloomily.
“Don’t look so down in the dumps, Richie! I think it’s great that we know each other well enough to bring our problems out in the open and talk about them—even big problems like engagement rings and money,” I added.
I finally managed to convince Richie I didn’t need a diamond ring. A couple of days later, though, he gave me a beautiful wristwatch. “I love you so much, Stacey. I wanted to give you something,” he told me.
I guess Richie and I were lucky because right from the start, our engagement was smooth sailing all the way. My parents and my friends all liked Richie. Even more important (at least from my point of view), Richie’s folks seemed genuinely happy to accept me into their family.
Richie and I decided on a June wedding. That didn’t leave us much time, so we immediately started looking for an apartment and furniture. We were like two excited, happy kids, loving and planning and sharing and buying.
Heaven must have been watching over us because our luck continued to hold. I’ve heard about people who had to search for months and months to find the right apartment, but we found a darling little place on our third day of looking. The present tenants, the Thorpes, were a few years older then Richie and me. Mrs. Thorpe was seven months pregnant.
“I’m sure we’ll be out of here before the end of next month,” Mrs. Thorpe told us. She patted her bulging stomach. “I really want to get into our own house before the baby comes.”
“Also our lease happens to run out at the end of next month!” Mr. Thorpe added.
Mrs. Thorpe laughed as though her husband had said something funny, but I caught the worried little frown between her eyes.
“Oh, I’m sure our new house will be done by the end of the month!” Mr. Thorpe went on to say, “The builder said it’s almost ready for occupancy right now.”
Richie must have seen Mrs. Thorpe’s troubled glance, too. “Don’t worry, we won’t put you out on the street!” he joked.
“Weddings don’t get canceled. If you let us stay here past the end of the month, where would you live?” Mr. Thorpe laughed, but his voice was half-kidding, half-serious.
“We’ll move in with my mom and dad. They have plenty of space,” Richie answered without hesitation. Then he winked at me. “Just temporarily, of course!”
“I’m positive it won’t come to that!” Mrs. Thorpe cried. But she sounded very relieved, and her smile was suddenly young and carefree.
Richie and I turned to go. “You’ll make a lovely bride and groom!” Mrs. Thorpe said. She squeezed Richie’s arm, gratefully, before we walked out of the apartment.
“Good luck!” Mr. Thorpe called after us. He sounded like he genuinely meant it. Even the present tenants of our new apartment liked Richie Willis!
“The apartment doesn’t feel real,” I complained to Richie, as we rode the elevator down to the lobby.
“Hey, here we are, alone in an elevator with six floors to go, and all you can do is talk!” Richie said. He grabbed me up into his arms and covered my face with kisses. We kissed all the way down, until we felt the heavy thud as the ancient elevator bumped to a stop on the ground floor.
Outside the elevator in the small lobby, I caught my breath from Richie’s last passionate kiss. Then, I remembered the Thorpes’ apartment, and all my bewilderment came rushing back. I’ve always been the kind of person who has both feet planted firmly in reality, so the unreal quality of the little apartment upstairs was making me come unglued at the seams.
“Do you think, maybe, the apartment doesn’t seem real to me because there are other people still living there?” I asked Richie.
“Your problem is you’re worried that the Thorpes won’t be out by the end of next month,” Richie said. “Relax, Stacey! Everything will work out. Mr. Thorpe said their house is nearly ready right now.”
“I’m not worried about getting into the apartment, Richie! I just can’t picture us living there—you know, you and me! It’s not real. If I close my eyes, I see the Thorpes in that apartment, but not us.”
We were out on the sidewalk now. “Take it easy, Stacey. I’m sure the Thorpes’ new house will be ready on time,” Richie repeated.
I bit back the tears of anger and frustration. This was the first time I could ever remember that Richie hadn’t understood me. Or maybe he didn’t want to understand me.
We caught a bus on the next corner. “Hey, this is super!” Richie exclaimed. “The bus route runs straight downtown. It will be a breeze to get to work from our new apartment.”
I tried as hard as I could, but I just could not imagine me, Stacy Gebhard, (I’d be Stacey Willis then), heading out to work from the Thorpes’ tiny sixth-floor apartment. The lost, bewildered feeling stayed inside me, until the bus left the unfamiliar neighborhood and turned down Union Avenue.
After Richie and I got off the bus, we stopped at a pizza place for lunch. Then we browsed through several of the bigger downtown department stores, looking at bedroom sets and living room couches and kitchen furniture.
“There’s so much to choose from, it’s hard to come to any decision,” Richie complained.
“I like an ordinary, old-fashioned kind of bedroom set,” I said. I pointed to a very simple, dark brown walnut bed and matching dresser. “See, like the one over there by the far wall.”
Richie’s eyes lit up. He squeezed my hand. “Hey, that’s my favorite, too! I never thought you’d go for anything so plain and simple, Stacey.”
“A lot of couples have trouble picking out their furniture. They can’t agree on what they want. We’re lucky our tastes are so alike,”I said.
“We’re lucky we have each other!” Richie grinned. He pulled me into his arms and kissed me, right there in the middle of the furniture department.
I struggled to free myself. “Not here, Richie! Everyone can see!”
“Who cares? I love you, Stacey!”
“I love you, too,” I whispered.
We spent the rest of the afternoon debating between a black and white chrome kitchen set and a green and yellow kitchen set. “I guess we both like modern when it comes to kitchen furniture!” Richie commented.
Everything was all right, until the following afternoon when I went for my second gown fitting. I was standing there in front of the store’s full-length mirror, staring at myself and all of a sudden I got this scary, queasy feeling.
When I looked in a mirror, I expected to see me. But the stranger in the floor-length white bridal gown didn’t bear the faintest resemblance to me! I knew I was Stacey Gebhard, but who was that woman in the mirror?
I could hardly wait for the fitter to finish with her endless pins and tucks. I started to sway a little.
“It’s a bit warm in here. Take it easy, Miss Gebhard. I’m nearly done,” the fitter said, through a mouthful of pins.
They had asked me to stand on a small, carpeted platform, so the fitter could measure for the gown’s hem. I felt as though I was going to keel over at any second. I reached out and clutched at the back of a nearby chair to steady myself.
“Just relax, Miss Gebhard. Don’t worry, you’ll be a beautiful bride. All brides are beautiful,” the fitter assured me.
She was wrong, I wasn’t worried about being beautiful. I was worried about losing my mind! I wanted to say I didn’t even recognize that stranger staring back at me from the mirror.
The fitter removed the pins from her mouth. “You’ll probably need one or two more fittings, dear.”
The next week, Richie and I put the down payment on our furniture.
“I can’t believe all that furniture is going to be ours,” I gasped. “I mean, I’ve never owned a kitchen table or a living room couch. Older people own furniture. You know, people like my mom and dad.”
“We’re paying enough for the stuff! It’ll be ours, all right!” Richie assured me, as he grimly signed the order form.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” I protested.
Actually, nothing seemed real to me, during those last two hectic months before the wedding. Most of the time, I felt like I was walking around in a thick fog. My world was changing so fast, I could hardly keep up. I was still Stacey Gebhard, age twenty, living with my parents. But people insisted on treating Richie and me as if we were a grown-up, married couple, and I was having a lot of trouble adjusting to the new image.
We had signed the lease for our apartment and we had put a big down payment on three rooms of furniture. Then one night, an insurance man called to see if Richie had enough life insurance to take care of me in case he suddenly died!
The insurance man was the last straw. “I don’t believe it! This can’t be happening to me—to us!” I wailed.
The only thing in my life that stayed the same was my job at Excel Insulation. I’d liked my job before I decided to marry Richie, but I had never loved it, if you know what I mean.
Now, though, my feelings toward Excel started to change. My job became a haven. It was the only place I could escape from the bewildering kaleidoscope of my new life.
I reveled in the familiar office routine. Day after day I still typed out the same letters for my boss, Mr. Berst. I filed the same old bills and sent out identical new bills. I answered the telephone and the customers always had the same questions and the same problems that they’d had last week or last month.
Also, the men and women in my office continued to treat me pretty much the way they always had. The Excel staff knew I was getting married, but after the initial round of congratulations and a little bit of teasing, life settled back to normal. I didn’t have an engagement ring to remind people, so after a few weeks everyone sort of forgot about my wedding. That was just great with me. At Excel Insulation, I was still me, Stacey Gebhard, with two feet planted firmly in office routine and sane, sensible reality.
The more my life at home changed, the more I appreciated coming to work where nothing ever changed.
No, that’s not true, one thing did change during those last hectic months before my wedding. Mr. Berst hired a new salesman to replace Lenny Marshall. Lenny had been with Excel for fifteen years and when he left to open his own business, everyone at the office felt sad, though, of course, we all wished Lenny the best of luck.
The new guy who took over Lenny’s job was named John Michael Courtney. I knew his full name was John Michael Courtney because I actually went to the trouble of checking out his records in Excel’s personnel file.
Johnny was very cute, and I shocked myself by noticing how cute he was.
You ought to be ashamed of yourself! I scolded myself. You’re going to marry Richie in less than two months. You’re not supposed to notice whether or not men are cute anymore!
But I did notice, and Johnny was cute. Very cute. Too cute. Call it chemistry, call it infatuation, call it love, call it anything you want-all I knew was I’d never felt so attracted to any guy in my whole, entire life. And that, unfortunately, included Richard Stephen Willis, the man I was going to marry.
I’m sure no one at the office had ever bothered to fill Johnny in on the details of my upcoming marriage. Johnny hadn’t been around when I’d made my big announcement four months earlier. And since I didn’t have an engagement ring, the subject just never came up.
Johnny certainly didn’t act like he knew about Richie. Not that Johnny spent his days hanging over my desk and flirting with me. It was nothing like that. Johnny respected office decorum just as much as everyone else at Excel Insulation. I suppose if Johnny had acted fresh, someone would have noticed and remembered to tell him I was engaged to Richie.
Instead, Johnny just flashed me those super-special smiles whenever he passed by my desk. (At least I thought his smiles were super special.) And sometimes, if it was before nine and we were still on our own time, he would stop and talk to me.
It was weird, but any time Johnny paid any extra attention to me, my heart would start to pound and these absolutely crazy tingles would race though my entire body.
I’d never felt this way with a guy before — not even with Richie. All my life, I had been so down-to-earth and practical. It was hard to believe a man like Johnny could sweep me off my feet with just a few smiles and some light-hearted chitchat.
But that’s exactly what was happening.
I felt myself falling head oven heels in love with Johnny. I struggled against my feelings, but I couldn’t help myself. Any time Johnny was near, I absolutely went crazy.
One morning around eleven-thirty, Johnny stopped by my desk. My heart started beating like a steel drum. I could feel goosebumps popping out all over my arms.
“Will you have lunch with me today, Stacey?” Johnny asked.
“Okay!” I blurted out, before I could think-of a good excuse to say no.
“Terrific! I’ll see you at twelve!” Johnny hurried off to Mr. Berst’s office before I had a chance to tell him I had changed my mind.
Having lunch with Johnny isn’t dishonest or cheating, I comforted myself. I mean, I have to eat anyway. It’s broad daylight outside, what could possibly happen? And besides, what’s to prevent a woman-even an engaged woman-from having male friends?
But I wasn’t fooling myself. I didn’t think of John Courtney as just an ordinary male friend. My feelings for Johnny ran a lot deeper than simple friendship.
And then Johnny asked me out for a Friday night. Right then and there I should have told him I was engaged. I should have, but I didn’t.
Instead, I told Richie I couldn’t see him that night because I had a bad headache. And I told Mom I was working overtime for Mr. Berst. And I told myself it was better for me to find out before I got married, not after.
I lied my way through three dates with Johnny. And each time I felt guiltier and more rotten than the time before.
The third time was the worst because it was so easy. This time, Richie was the one who canceled out our regular date because he had to work overtime. Knowing Richie, I was sure his excuse was legitimate, not dishonest like mine. Part of me felt awful about seeing Johnny that night, but in spite of my guilty conscience, I managed to have a marvelous time.
I discovered that I loved going out with Johnny. Like I said before, I’m such a practical, down-to-earth type of person—well, Johnny was the exact opposite. He always acted so carefree and full of fun, I forgot all about my problems and troubles. I forgot all about apartments, and insurance, and furniture.
Richie didn’t have to work overtime the next night, so of course, he came over to my house for our usual date.
“I missed you so much last night,” Richie murmured, holding me close. “I can’t wait till we’re married, Stacey.”
By now I felt I had to tell Richie it was off between us, but he wasn’t making it any easier for me. Richie pulled me over to the couch and we sat down. He put his arms around me and nuzzled my ear.
“After we’re married, Stacey, I’ll be able to see you any time—even on the nights when I have to work late.”
I pulled away.
Richie still didn’t sense that things weren’t right between us. “Do you want to hear some good news?” Richie said, rushing on before I could find the right words to say what I had to say. “I got a phone call at work today from Mr. Thorpe. Their new house is ready! They’re moving out of the apartment over the weekend, so you can relax. We won’t have any problem. We’ll even be able to get in before the wedding to have our furniture delivered and to do a little painting and fixing up.”
I didn’t say anything, but Richie went on talking as if he hadn’t noticed my silence. “I’ve been thinking, Stacey. Do you remember that time we took the bus downtown and you kept complaining that the apartment gave you a very uncomfortable feeling?”
I finally found my voice. “Everything about our wedding gives me an uncomfortable feeling,” I muttered.
Richie withdrew his arms from around me. We sat in silence for several moments, before he said, “I got the same sort of feeling today after Thorpe phoned me. I finally figured out what’s bothering us.”
I was hardly listening to Richie anymore. I was debating the best way to break the bad news to him. I decided straight out was the best way—the wedding is off!
“Don’t you want to hear what I think is bothering us?” Richie demanded. He was obviously irritated by my lack of attention.
“Okay, what do you think is bothering us?” I shrugged. I asked the question only because I felt I owed it to Richie to be polite, not because I wanted to know the answer. In another minute, I was going to hurt him bad enough.
“You said the apartment doesn’t seem real. I disagree with you, Stacey. I think the problem is that our apartment is too real! When Mr. Thorpe phoned me at work, I realized I actually dreaded going back there next week to paint and put up the curtains.”
My disinterest suddenly vanished. I sat up straighter, and looked into Richie’s eyes. I knew I felt this way, but not that Richie did, too! Maybe Johnny Courtney was a blessing in disguise. Maybe neither Richie nor I was making the right choice, getting married. At least not right now. Maybe Richie also had decided we should put off the wedding for a while!
Richie was still talking. “I know I’m going to have to force myself to walk into our apartment next week. I mean, it’s so real. I can reach out and touch the walls. It gives me this eerie feeling. That apartment is solid proof of the big step we’re taking, Stacey!”
Richie pulled me back into his arms. “The idea of getting married scares me! Don’t get me wrong, Stacey. I love you, but I’m still scared. I’ve already heard enough bad jokes about how the groom is supposed to be nervous.” Richie’s eyes had a pleading look. “Can you understand what I’m trying to tell you, Stacey?”
A great weight suddenly lifted from my heart. “You’re right, Richie! It is the last minute jitters!” I cried.
“Hey, you sound like you really do understand!” Richie exclaimed. He leaned forward and kissed me.
I snuggled closer into Richie’s arms. I saw everything much clearer now. John Michael Courtney is a nice guy, a very nice guy! But I don’t really love him. I do love Richard Stephen Willis.
It was like Richie said, getting married is such a big step. I was just scared out of my head. I mean, marrying Richie is probably the most important decision I’ll ever make. No wonder I was having a hard time trying to stay cool, calm, and collected.
I guess I met Johnny when I was most vulnerable. Johnny began working at Excel Insulation just when I was starting to come really unglued over the big step I was taking. I used Johnny as a convenient excuse to escape from my decision to get married.
Richie was still holding me close. I could feel his heart beating against mine. “You know what, Stacey? I love you!” he whispered.
“I love you, too!” I cried.
And at that wonderful moment, I knew I did love Richie. I loved Richard Stephen Willis with a love that was strong and real and true. And I loved only Richard Stephen Willis, and nobody else.