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So Ahead of Yourself

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The Rinks' Annual Christmas Party, 1991

Adult parties were so boring. It was one of the greatest disappointments of Jenna's life to learn this. Maybe a healthy rendition of "Thriller" would have helped – if she thought it would work. But no, there were too many cinnamon-scented pine-cones and ugly sweaters for even the great powers of Michael Jackson.

As soon as they made all the necessary greetings and small talk, Jenna and Matt fled upstairs. They were working on their college applications together, papers spread out all over Jenna's bedroom floor. The door was open, her concession to her parents, so they still murmured in low tones as they planned and puzzled over the questions together. Jenna had a whole system set up with file folders, colored tabs, and spreadsheets.

Matt gnawed on the eraser end of a #2 pencil as he studied the essay section. "Discuss a pivotal event in your life and how it shaped you," he read out loud, his words muffled a little by the pencil. "I'm eighteen," he complained. "What kind of life experience do they think I have?"

Jenna had spent some time thinking about the same prompt, the one for the NYU application. Briefly she'd entertained the idea of writing about her magic-dust-induced journey into the future, or at least a possible future, but ultimately she'd come to the conclusion that the committee would probably find it unrealistic. It was too bad; the event had given her a real sense of direction in life. From that day, Jenna had known exactly where she was going.

"I think the most important event in my life was when you jumped on me coming out of that closet, like, five years ago," he continued. His teeth were making indents in the metal. Grotty.

Jenna gave him a smile while rescuing the pencil from his attentions and laying it pointedly on the floor beside her. "Matty, that's so sweet."

"I didn't say it was that important. Maybe the rest of my life is just really, really boring." He grinned at her. She mock-gasped, smacking him on the arm and initiating a playful pushing match; soon they were both laughing.

"Besides," she said, once they were sprawling next to each other on the only bare patch of carpet and she was out of breath, "that's what I'm writing about. No essay idea thieving from you."

"About the kiss?" He sounded bewildered. "That can't be . . ."

Jenna nudged him halfheartedly in the side with her fist. "No, doofus. About the birthday party."

Matt seemed relieved, though she wasn't sure why exactly. "Oh. Like with Tom-Tom and the Six Chicks?"

She looked up at the ceiling, where she'd attached glow-in-the-dark stars in patterns only she could see. "Yeah, like that."

"That would make a good essay," he mused. "Too bad all the jocks just ignored my existence completely instead of bullying me."

She laughed. "You jealous?"

"Nah, course not. I escaped the dreaded swirlie." His voice turned shy and soft. "Besides, if they hadn't done what they did, who knows whether we would have ended up, you know, together."

That remark also deserved a smack, but Jenna was feeling too nice and warm to follow through. "Don't be silly, Matty. We belong together. We would have ended up together anyway."

He hummed in an uncertain note, but before she could say anything else, her dad popped up in the doorway to look disapprovingly at them lying on the floor, and by the time she had gotten him to go away, she and Matt had moved on to talking about something else. She didn't think much of it, anyway.

* * *

Jenna and Matt's College-Bound All-Night Rockin' Party Fest, Hosted by the Flamhaffs, 1992

The Flamhaffs weren't any better at parties than the Rinks, unfortunately. In the spirit of celebrating Jenna and Matt's various college acceptance letters, they had decided they would throw a party with an embarrassing name. (It was emblazoned on a banner. God.) They'd managed to find the contact information for some of their own friends, but the under-20 crowd agreed unanimously: it was a bust, and they could only hope it wouldn't actually last all night. Because how sad would that be?

The 'rents and all of their friends stood around in one circle chatting and nibbling on crackers, murmuring approving things about their choices for colleges and reciting the list of schools they'd been accepted periodically, as if on a timer. Jenna fulfilled the bare minimum of her obligation talking to them, mostly chatting about all the great art schools Matt had been accepted to even if he wasn't going to go to them while tugging on her hoop earrings in boredom.

The kids – young adults, we're all adults here, Jenna reminded herself with just a teensy bit of giddiness – stood in the opposite corner in another circle, clutching cups of punch and talking about nothing in particular. Matt's new Discman got passed around, to the admiration of all, which kicked off a debate about the best headphones.

Jenna broke away from the pack to get some more punch. To her surprise, Matt followed.

"Here, I can -" She twisted around to look at him, reaching for his cup.

Matt cleared his throat. "No, that's not, uh, actually, what I was thinking was, maybe we could get away for a bit?"

Jenna glanced at his parents out of the corner of her eyes. "Are you sure your mom and dad will be okay with that?"

"They'll be fine." There was something urgent in his tone.

She set her cup down, caught off guard. "It looks like the party's winding down anyway," she offered doubtfully.

That got her the crooked half-smile she loved. "How could you tell?"

He went to tell their parents they were going for a walk. As they left, Jenna slipped her hand under Matt's arm: easy, cozy, comfortable. The silence wasn't as comfortable; she eyed Matt without saying anything. Even though it was obvious he wanted to talk about something, she didn't know what it could be. Better let him spit it out instead.

In her pocket she felt a box of Razzles. Maybe they could eat them later.

"So have you sent in your acceptance letter yet?" he said finally.

That wasn't what she'd expected. "Yeah, last week. But we already knew we were going to NYU."

He took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. "Yeah, that's kind of what I . . ."

Jenna squeezed his arm. "What is it, Matty?"

"We're best friends, right?" His eyes searched her face, as if he actually didn't know the answer to his question. That made her more worried than ever.

"Of course."

"I got accepted to a bunch of schools, you know. And . . ." Here he paused. He wasn't looking at her in the eyes. "I sent in my letter a couple days ago too. But it wasn't to NYU."

It took Jenna a minute to realize what he was saying. "Where did you send it to?" She fought to keep the betrayal out of her voice. It wasn't a big deal, she thought to herself, Matt going to another college. At least they'd still be in New York together, their parents would still be living next door, they would be able to see each other all the time.

"The Savannah College of Art and Design." Before she could respond, he continued in a burst of breath, "They really liked my portfolio and when my family went to Florida for vacation I did an interview on the way, I really liked it . . ."

"Savannah? As in Savannah, Georgia?" That was on the other side of the country. They'd only see each other during holidays, if that.

He nodded.

"Well, that's . . ." Her brow furrowed and her tone was dubious. "I wish you'd have told me you wanted to go there, I could have . . . But we can do that. It'll just be . . . long distance." She brightened. "We could write letters! That can be romantic, right?"

But from the way he was looking at her, like he was breaking bad news to her, all reluctantly, the exact same way grown-up Matty had looked at her on the day he was getting married to someone else – she knew all of a sudden that wasn't what he wanted, either.

"I think we should . . ." He cleared his throat, and his next words dropped between them like stones, heavy and full of dread. "Maybe we should take some space."

"What do you mean?" she asked blankly, automatically. Her mind hadn't caught up – or didn't want to catch up – with what he was saying.

"It's not that I don't love you. I do love you, I love you so much." Underneath his words was a plea for her to understand, and his words all came out in a jumbled rush. "I just think – we're really close, and we've never really been apart from each other, and sometimes it seems like you've got your whole life planned out, and you should – we should – take some time to see if that's what we really want. That's all."

"You want to . . . date other girls?" She was near tears.

He held up his hands, palm out. "No, no way. That's not what I . . ." He hesitated. "I mean, if you . . . you should . . ."

"I don't want to either." There was a stupid frog in her stupid throat. She tried to swallow it down. She could tell he wanted to comfort her, but he'd pulled his arm away already and knew it wouldn't be a good idea.

There was no convincing him. On their way back – she stalked as fast as her legs would allow, wanting nothing more than to curl up in her bed – she fingered the box of Razzles in her pocket, and thought about throwing them in the nearest trash can. Because if you didn't have someone to share them with, what was the point?

* * *

Thanksgiving Dinner, 1993

Large parts of 1992 had sucked majorly, there was no doubt about that, but Jenna had been determined that 1993 was going to be better. It had been, for the most part; the lowest parts so far were her roommate trying to set her up constantly, once springing it on Jenna as an unwelcome surprise, and even though she was past the tears and depression stage of post-breakup life, she still felt a distinctly Matt-shaped hole in her life. They hadn't spoken much since the break-up: The early conversations had all ended in Jenna asking him what she'd done wrong, and the later conversations were all just too awkward and painful. She missed the days when their relationship had been easy and straightforward, even before they'd dated at all.

But on Thanksgiving, she still had a lot to be thankful for. At dinner she cited her new position on the campus newspaper staff as the thing she was most thankful for, and everyone cooed and congratulated her.

After dinner, Matt's parents came over, and everyone was gathered in front of the TV for the game. Jenna leaned against the arm of the sofa, sipping occasionally from the glass of wine in her hand - she wasn't sure whether she liked it yet - when she heard the tapping.

No one else seemed to hear it. Jenna looked at the front window to see Matt on the other side, crouched with his hands around his face. She nearly dropped her glass. After seeing that she saw him, he waved for her to come out. She cast a glance over the rest of their families; they were preoccupied. What could he want?

"What are you doing here?" she hissed as she opened the front door, looping a scarf around her neck.

"Not watching football," came the disgruntled reply.

Before she could help herself, Jenna rolled her eyes. "Ugh, I know." Catching herself, she said more severely, "But you didn't answer my question."

Matt shrugged. "I wanted to see you."

It really was that simple for him, she thought. But she couldn't find it in herself to be too angry at him, not when he was looking unfairly adorable with his coat and messed-up hair.

Jenna pretended to consider his answer, taking another sip of her wine to seem sophisticated. "Sure, Matt, I guess. It'll be better than the game, anyway."

He looked at her like he knew what she was doing, but wasn't going to say anything. That was fine. He could believe whatever he wanted. "So how've you been?"

"I'm good," Jenna was quick to say. "I just started writing for the campus newspaper this year, you know. I wrote an article about the grunge look. And one about toxic waste incineration."

He looked way pleased. "That's awesome. I knew you'd be doing something great."

She shrugged one shoulder in what she hoped was a modest way. "What about you?"

"Oh, just taking lots of pictures. As usual." He kicked the ground as they walked around the house.

"I've seen a few of them," she supplied.

Matt looked up, seeming disinterested but watching her closely out of the corner of his eye. "They went around the neighbor circuit, huh?"

"They're really good," she said, although sometimes when she thought about them they bothered her. "Some of them are really . . . weird, though. Not very you."

He laughed, a short bark puffing into the cold night air. "That's cause it's art school. Everyone else wants to do all these crazy darkroom effects and weird poses. I just want to take pictures of people's weddings and stuff."

"The crazy stuff can be fun," offered Jenna. "I liked those psychadelic portraits. With the green and orange?"

Matt groaned. "So much work, though. There's always so much work. Sometimes I think . . . It's a lot harder than I thought it would be." He sighed the deep sigh of the put-upon. "But one of my professors says I should learn to do all this stuff anyway, cause even if I don't use it I'll still 'know how best not to use it.' Or something like that."

"Cool." They walked in silence for a few more minutes, on no particular path, before she got up the courage - maybe it was the wine, even though she'd had less than a glass - to say, "It's good to see you, Matt."

His smile crinkled the edges around his eyes in a familiar way she'd missed. "You too. I missed you."

She was suddenly, powerfully glad he'd said it first, so now she was allowed to say it. "I missed you, too."

"Hey, look, if you want -" He licked his lips, looking unsure. "Only if you want, I mean, do you want to, maybe, keep in touch?"

Jenna was laughing by the end of his stammering, but managed to recover and say, "Yeah, that would be nice. Really nice."

In the end, their little meander hadn't led anywhere except back to the front door, where they'd started. "Are you gonna come in?" asked Jenna, as if it didn't matter to her either way. She toyed with the end of her scarf with her free hand.

His eyes slanted toward the doorway and then back to her. "For football?"

"For the company," she corrected. "That's what holidays are for, right, Matty?"

He smiled wistfully at the nickname. "That would be nice."

It was.

* * *

New Years' Eve Bash, 1999

The party promised to go on for a while yet. Everyone had cheered for the ball dropping, confetti was stuck to everything in sight, and various brightly colored beverages were flowing like milk and honey. Angela's massive, ridiculous studio apartment was host to dozens of young professionals in their mid-twenties. Why wind down now? It was the new millennium!

Jenna appreciated the attitude, and normally she would be all in favor, but between bouts of dancing and trying to avoid looking at the people making out in corners (and not feeling jealous, no sir, no way), a girl needed a little downtime. She went out to sit on the balcony, and found herself surprised to be the only one. Settling into a chair, Jenna propped her feet up on the railing and took a minute to enjoy the scene and relative silence. It was chilly, but under her skin she felt all warm and flushed.

A glance at her phone, a new Nokia model, told her she'd missed a call from Matt, right before midnight. With a pang of regret, she punched the redial button.

He answered after the first ring. "Jenna?"

"Matty?"

"You sound out of breath."

Jenna giggled, no doubt thanks to the two pina coladas (reserved for special occasions only, because she liked to savor them). "I'm at a party. I just saw you called me. What are you doing?"

"Me? A few of us got together but it kind of . . . petered out after midnight. I was going to invite you to come over for a bit. It wasn't much, though." He sounded apologetic.

"You want to hang out now?" She chewed on the edge of her thumbnail as she waited for his response.

"I – sure." He sounded surprised. "Where are you?"

Not far away, it turned out. They agreed on a meeting place, a big corner within walking distance. It was no great loss to bow out of the festivities – everyone made disappointed noises – and Jenna found a new spring in her step as she contemplated hanging out with Matt on New Year's Eve. New Years' Day, more like: it was after one in the morning.

The intersection's sidewalks were congested with revelers, so it took a few minutes for Jenna to find his familiar mop of black hair in the crowd. "Matt!" she shouted, waving. "Matty!"

His face peeked out from above his scarf, which he tugged down. He was smiling. "Took you long enough," he said loudly, leaning over to speak directly in her ear. It sent a puff of breath across her face, not unpleasantly.

They migrated to a quieter street – at least, "quieter" for Manhattan on New Year's Eve, which was a low bar. But Jenna had been living here for almost a year now, and she was starting to get used to it.

"How was your Christmas?" she asked.

He shrugged one shoulder. "Family asking whether I was ever going to find a nice girl and settle down, the usual."

Jenna couldn't help but laugh. "Aww. I get that, too, you know. Last year I was seeing someone, but this year . . . the entreaties for future grandchildren started. In earnest." She waggled her eyebrows exaggeratedly.

"Oh no." Matt winced in sympathy.

"Oh yes," she confirmed. "I've been waiting. The day is finally here." She held up her arms, as if to herald the occasion, and they both laughed. Somehow they had found themselves on a street that she only dimly remembered: by the water, with a couple of playground swings. This was where they had kissed, before, in that other life, she recalled suddenly, and hoped the cold weather hid her blush.

"What about your job?" he said, distracting her with his crinkly smile.

"Heard through the grapevine I might be promoted to editorial assistant," she said, jogging him with her elbow. "Don't tell anyone yet, though, it's not for sure."

"This was a good year for both our careers."

"My maybe-maybe-not promotion doesn't exactly compete with an all-expenses-paid trip to Canada to take wedding pictures," she teased, just to watch him get all flustered about it.

Predictably, he did just that, hemming and hawing about how it was just a fluke. "What you do is important, though. I just take pictures."

It took her a minute to realize he was steering them toward the swings, and her breath caught a little with deja vu. Feeling like a little kid again, she parked herself in one of the swings and rocked back and forth a little, making patterns in the sand with her toe.

"I have a confession to make," he announced, looking ahead at the water. She perked up with an mmm?. "You remember, almost ten years ago – wow, that's a long time, isn't it – when we broke up?

How could she forget? It was a source of perpetual angst for the following year. "Yeah."

"It was really dumb," he began. "We were so close, and I had this idea, that, that because we were so committed -"

"It's okay," she interrupted, too embarrassed to let him finish. "I know I was a little – clingy. Back then."

"No, no, no, I mean, yeah, a little, but I thought you were gonna do such great things, and I was just gonna – you know, hold you back." He squinted off into the distance. "I mean, I meant what I said about us making sure of what we wanted before jumping into things, but it was also my inferiority complex talking. Which was stupid, because who really knows the future. Where we'd be today. I'm sorry, I guess is what I'm trying to say."

She reached over to grasp his arm and squeeze reassuringly. "It's okay. It turned out okay."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Jenna lost in thought. She'd thought of it – of being with him – in the intervening years since they'd made up and begun tentatively rebuilding their friendship. Only once in a while did it cross her mind, with a mix of nostalgia and a banked love she wasn't sure she was ever going to be rid of. She'd made her peace with that. She'd done her best to move on – and she had, was the thing. She'd dated and fallen in love and even moved in with someone briefly – a dumb idea, in retrospect, but for other reasons.

"Not everybody gets the dream house," she said finally, echoing the words that stood out clearly in the debris of her memories.

Matt's head jerked up, and she watched him puzzle out what she'd said. "I can't believe you remember that thing."

She frowned. "Of course I do. I still have it. Matty."

He groaned at the nickname, then wrinkled his nose. "Please don't. Ah . . . are you saying I was the dream house?"

Jenna shrugged. "The actual house part isn't that important, you know. Of course, if you actually ever felt like buying me a giant pink mansion, I wouldn't say no." At his look, she added, "Not anymore, I don't mean . . ."

At that, he looked vaguely disappointed.

She felt compelled to add, "I'll always love you, Matt, you know that."

"But not like that," he finished.

"I . . ." She was at a loss for words. "I can't tell what you want me to say. Are you – you're not saying you still –"

He grimaced, looking down. "More 'again' than 'still.' I guess. If that makes sense. It was a stupid idea . . . after all this time. Just forget about it."

"Okay," she said in a quiet voice, because part of her was still frozen in panic at his admission. She'd spent the past eight years moving on, trying to work her way out of the box she'd set up for herself. And she just – didn't know what to think. Or say, or feel.

Despite that, the silence on the walk to her apartment was companionable rather than awkward. She was thinking, thinking so hard she was surprised he couldn't hear it, about the past, and the future, and the things she had expected. He smiled at her as he dropped her off at her door, a little strained but still Matt, and she put her hand on his arm as he turned to go.

His confession had woken something up that she was surprised by. "Look," she said, as bravely as she could manage, "we have a lot of history, don't we?"

Unsure, he nodded.

Jenna took a deep breath. "Maybe we should – maybe we should start over, then."

Matt's eyebrows went up. "As in, 'me Matt, you Jenna'?"

"No, just – we should go on a date."

He bit his lower lip. "Are you sure you want to -"

"Yes," she cut him off with a shy smile she couldn't restrain. "I'm just saying, we should see where things go, and if they're where we want them to go, and if it's nice to go there . . ." He was pressing his lips together, she realized as she trailed off, to keep from laughing at her. She smacked him on the shoulder. "You know what I mean."

"Jenna Rink, would you like to go out for coffee on Sunday?"

* * *

Rink-Flamhaff Wedding Reception, 2004

They did the whole cake thing, Jenna taking the opportunity to smear some white frosting on the side of his mouth, where he smiled, and then kissing it off. Who could resist a smile like that? After she was done, she leaned into him, whispering in his ear, "Hey, you wanna get out of here?"

Matt's voice was a low, warm rumble in her ear that sent a jolt down her spine. "I think they might frown on that," he murmured, slipping an arm around her waist, holding her close.

"Not right now, silly, in a little while." She pulled back slightly so that he could see her smile, playful and sneaky. "It's been a long day, and I can think of better ways to spend what's left of it."

"Oh yeah?" he challenged. "What's that? Working on your latest editorial? Scuba-diving? Crafting? I hear knitting is all the rage -" She laughed, bold and bright and clear as a bell.

"Hey lovebirds!" someone called from the crowd, one of Jenna's coworkers, she thought. "Get a room!"

They broke apart, still laughing. It wasn't until an hour later that they finally broke away, to the whistles and innuendos of all gathered. Before they could leave for the honeymoon, they had to make a stop at the new house for some things of Jenna's. Everything was still in boxes, for the most part, and most of the furniture wasn't going to arrive until they were back.

"I knew I forgot something," she muttered, grabbing a few things from a bag of personal supplies, deodorant among them. "I'm terrible at packing."

"We could have gotten that stuff on the way," he pointed out.

She waved him away, opening the master bedroom's closet. "Oh!" she said with surprise, looking up. Behind her Matt sidled up, resting his chin on her shoulder. "I forgot I put that there." It was the pink dream house he'd built her seventeen years ago. Before he could remind her that they were on a schedule, she was pulling it out and setting it down on the bare mattress.

"What's all that stuff on the roof?" Matt asked, studying it while she was quiet. He reached over her to swipe a finger through it and get a closer look. "Glitter?"

She smiled, a private smile he couldn't see. "No, it's wishing dust."

He held out his finger, the tip covered in glitter, in front of her face. "Make a wish," he suggested, kissing the back of her head.

She was quiet for a moment, then shook her head. Turning around, she kissed him and looped her arms around his shoulders. "No, that's okay. I already have everything I want."