“Will you marry me?” Ken whispered, his breath warm against my forehead.
Even if I’d had an answer, I couldn’t give it as we boarded the train. I followed Ken through two train cars until he found our seats. He lifted our bags on to the overhead rack as I slid into the seat next to the window.
Our first journey together on a train, but — I smiled to think of it — his second time proposing marriage to me. We were only eight the first time. Ken’s best friend had married us on the last day of school in a shady corner of the playground.
The train lurched forward and Ken sat down. “I’m sorry I blurted it like that. I just couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.” He took my hands in his. “Laura, you’re so cold. Do you want my gloves?” Before I could answer he pushed the soft leather over my trembling fingers. Was I cold?
No, just scared. Would they like me?
The conductor arrived and asked for our tickets. Ken chatted with him as if they were old friends, but I turned away and stared out the window. Evergreen trees blurred together as we picked up speed. Fear clutched at my chest and I implored the train to slow down. Too much was waiting on the other side. I’m not ready.
But I should be ready. All I had ever wanted was Ken, even during high school when he couldn’t see me at all with my flat chest and fierce blushes. Strong and handsome, he was the boy all the girls had wanted.
Senior prom changed everything for us. My date, a quiet boy I thought I could trust, began groping me in a dark hallway at the hotel. No boy had ever touched me there, and no boy had ever ignored my “no.” But this one did. I was too scared to scream, too scared I’d get in trouble. Was I ever so young that being raped was preferable to getting in trouble?
Ken rescued me that night. He had watched me leave the ballroom and, not trusting my date, he had followed. When he found us in the hallway, he yanked the boy off and punched him until I begged him to stop.
“Honey, you’re making me nervous. It’s never a good sign when your favorite girl won’t look at you.”
I turned away from the window.
The conductor had moved on and Ken sat stiffly in his seat with his hands knotted together in his lap, a smile hesitating on the corners of his mouth. “What’s going on in that complicated brain of yours?” he said.
I gave him a half-smile of my own. “Prom.”
My answer must have reassured him because his shoulders relaxed and he began unwrapping the scarf from around his neck. “That was a long time ago, honey. It all worked out.” Ken stood and removed his coat. “What’s brought this on?”
“I don’t know. Your proposal, I guess. High school suddenly feels like it was yesterday.”
Prom night had been our new beginning. We became friends again. And then more. The night before I left for college, while his parents were at the movies, we had given ourselves to each other, his first and mine.
Tradition sent me to my mother’s school in upstate New York. Finances sent him to state college in the same city where we were raised — the same city our train was barreling toward now.
“I wish I’d never gone away to college,” I whispered. Each week of freshman year, we had written long letters to each other and phoned on Saturday nights. Everything changed the next year when my body finally caught up with my age. I’d never been attractive before, not to anyone but Ken. When a graduate student asked me for a date, I had said “yes.”
“Laura, come on, honey, let’s not go through this again.”
I swiped at my cheeks as Ken sat back down. He lowered his chin until his eyes were even with mine. “I forgave you a long time ago. You know that.” He touched his forehead to mine.
“I regretted it immediately.”
“And I regretted what I did.” This time, it was Ken who pulled away. He leaned back in his seat and, for the first time since we’d met again, the years settled into his face. “I should have forgiven you for sleeping with him. I shouldn’t have slept with Tammy.”
“But it was too late.” I leaned back, too, and slowly pulled off his gloves.
“I wanted to hurt you…” — he pressed his lips together and shook his head — “But, I hurt myself more. Tammy was pregnant. What could I do?”
What could he do?
I reached over and pulled his face back to mine. “You could do exactly what you did. You could marry your child’s mother. You could spend your life being a loyal husband, doting father, and,” I ruffled the thick white hair on his head, “an outstanding grandfather.”
“So much time lost.”
“It wasn’t lost. You had a wonderful marriage with Tammy. It just wasn’t our turn yet.” I took a deep breath. “Ken, do you think your kids will like me?”
“Laura, they’ll love you.”
I leaned forward and kissed his mouth, pushing my hands through his hair, then closed my eyes and kissed him harder. His lips parted. My insides quivered and warmed just like 45 years ago.
“Ask me again.”
His hand trembled as it stroked my cheek. “Will you marry me?”