I WALK OUT OF THE gymnasium and into the blistering 90 degree heat. I stop and wait while my eyes adjust to the blinding light of the overhead sun. My eyes frantically search through the several hundred guests that are waiting eagerly to see their loved one walk through the door. I can't believe that the day has finally come!
After four years of ten hour days and nights exhausted by schoolwork, I am finally at my graduation. I am no longer Audrey, college student. I am Audrey, Registered Nurse-unemployed registered nurse, but it's a start. Andrew is the only reason I was able to go to school full time and not have to worry about keeping a full time job as well. He comes from a family that has more money than God, but you could never tell. He and I have been a couple for seven years now and have lived together for the last five.
My eyes finally catch those deep brown eyes staring at me from the front row of the bleachers set up across the field, and his face lights up. I can't decide who is more proud of me being a college graduate-him, or my mother, who is standing right next to him.
They are surrounded by a dozen other people ranging from my father, my sister (who actually came into town for my graduation), Andrew's parents (Jon and Carol), and some of our other close family and friends. Andrew is wearing his dress blues for me today because he knows that I never think he is more handsome than when he wears them.
He has been in the Army for the last 6 years and has recently gotten his promotion to Captain. I couldn't be more proud of him. The funny thing is he doesn't look the part of a soldier. He looks more like a male model that poses in the Army commercials. Looking at him always makes my heart flutter, and it isn't just because of his looks. He is the most caring, generous, humble and amazing person I know. He sees the world in a different way than most people do. I suppose being deployed three out of the last five years gives you a different perspective than most people, and he takes nothing for granted. Maybe that is the reason I never take him for granted. The only thing harder than being a soldier, is loving one.
We pretty much have what you would call a storybook romance. We grew up together in a small town since we were toddlers. We lived on the same street, and our mothers went to each other's Christmas parties every year. When we were kids, our mothers used to tell us we were going to get married, though we always gagged at the thought. In high school, I always dated the wrong guys and he dated…well, I won't talk about what he used to date, but we always stayed best friends.
It wasn't until our senior year that he told me he loved me though. It was actually at…wait for it…the homecoming football game, where he was crowned the King and I was crowned Queen. Like I said, storybook. After that, we were basically inseparable. After high school, we spent a year together working at the local diner until he decided to join the Army and I started school. That was an interesting conversation with his parents, believe me. I would have graduated a year earlier, but Andrew had insisted on me taking a few extra courses that he knew I wanted to take that were unrelated to my nursing degree. Five years, three deployments, and one puppy later, here we are. We're living my little fairy tale.
I sit for what seems like hours while we listen to the traditional dean's graduation address. Then the professors and students take the podium to talk about our life journey and making our way into adulthood and blah, blah, blah. All I want is to take off my oversized cap and run to Andrew. He just got home a month ago from his most recent deployment, and I haven't quite gotten my fill of him yet.
The valedictorian catches my attention when he says, " (Fill in this blank later to tie n later) ". The next thing I know, the class stands up (me a second too late) and makes its way toward the stage. Then the dean starts reading the names off as the new graduates walk across the stage. I am going to be waiting a while since my last name starts with an R. Sigh.
"Catherine Ranando," he finally calls out.
Two people left ahead of me.
"Devon Raymond." One more.
"Meredith Reed." This is it. It's my turn. Holy crap, holy crap. Don't fall on your face, don't fall on your face.
"Audrey Reynolds," he calls out. I get up and walk toward the stage. I hear cheers coming from the crowd, and I feel my cheeks turning pink as I smile toward Andrew and my family. I approach the dean and take my diploma as he congratulates me, and in that moment, I can't be more proud. I did it!
I walk back onto the grass and settle back into my seat. Once the names are finished, we are officially announced as the graduating class of two thousand and ten. While everyone else is flinging their caps, I pull mine off and run to Andrew. He throws his arms around my waist and twirls me around like a kid on a Ferris wheel kissing me on the lips.
"So, I guess it's time for me to quit my job and you can be my sugar momma, huh?" Andrew beams at me, flashing his perfect smile. Mom smacks him in the arm for me and laughs.
"As long as I get to disappear for a year at a time for vacations now, too," I scoff, trying to look intimidating.
"Sweet! Then you're buying dinner," he teases.
Everyone that came to my graduation takes their turns hugging and congratulating me. A couple of people hand me cards. Everyone makes a big deal and about a thousand pictures are taken. A few people trail away and we start walking towards the car.
I hear a voice calling from behind me, and I spin around. I would know that voice from anywhere. It's my best friend, Natalie.
She runs into me without stopping and we nearly fall to the ground laughing. "We did it!!!" she laughs, out of breath as Andrew puts his hands out to steady us. I wrap my arms around Natalie's neck.
"I'm so proud of you!" I tell her.
"I know, you too!" she exclaims.
"Can't you come to dinner?" I beg her.
"No, I totally have to run, but I wish I could. I have like four hundred cousins here that I've never met, and Mom wants to take me to dinner, ya know. I just wanted to come hug ya once before the big night."
"Natalie, I have a present for you in the car if you want to come with me to get it real fast," Mom says with a tight lipped smile.
"Okay, sweet! I love presents! Call me tomorrow, Audrey." She kisses me on the cheek and off she goes. I laugh to myself.
Natalie is one of those friends that is way more outgoing and funny than anyone else that you know-the kind of friend that says the inappropriate thing at the wrong time, just to break the silence. That might be my absolute favorite thing about her though. She, just like Andrew, grew up on the same street as me. We grew up taking baths together, crushing on boys together, and crying over our daily womanly struggles together. Next to Andrew, she is my favorite person in the world.
By now it's five o'clock, and I'm starting to get hungry.
"So where are you taking me anyways?" I ask Andrew.
He looks down at me and rolls his eyes.
I wrinkle my nose at him, "I know, I know. It's a surprise." I skip over to Mom and tug on her shirt. "But Mom will tell me!" I smile my best pouty smile and bat my eyelashes at her.
"No can do, honey. I don't know where you're going. I'm not coming tonight," she says and looks up at Andrew and smiles. "None of us are."
I turn back to look at Andrew, but not before I catch Mom wink at him out of the corner of her eye.
"And you're not throwing a fit, Mom? You must have something really special planned, Andrew."
I search his face, looking to see if it will give anything away, but he just smiles politely and shrugs.
"Sorry, kiddo. My lips are sealed. Captain's orders." I scowl playfully at Andrew.
"Ugh, okay fine. Give me a hug then, Mom." I reach over and wrap my arms around her neck. "I'll call you tomorrow."
"Okay, honey. I love you."
"Love you too, Mom," I smile to her as she gets into her car.
"You too, Daddy."
I wrap my arms around his neck and he whispers in my ear, "You're still my little girl, right?"
"Always and forever," I answer. We have been saying that since I was about three, and it always brings a tear to my eye. Sappy, I know.
"Okay then. You kids have fun tonight. I love you, honey."
"I love you too, Daddy."
I turn around to grill Andrew about where we are going that even Mom and Dad can't come, but when I turn around, he is holding a single red rose in his hand with the car door open for me.
"Shall we?" he asks.
Okay, so maybe the grilling can wait until later.
I skip over to him and lean up on my tip toes, and he leans his head down and pecks me on the lips.
"Congratulations, Audrey. I really am proud of you."
"Thank you, Captain Shields." In the military, you are never known by your first name. It's always your rank and last name, and I had picked up calling him that after being around a few of his military buddies.
I wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him again on the lips, but a bit more passionately this time. A whistle comes from nearby followed by a, "Get a room!" We both laugh and separate and I climb in his car. I can't help but let out a little giggle while I have a moment alone. God, I love this man.
When he gets in, he pulls out something long and pink from the center console and holds it out to me.
"A scarf?" I ask.
"Nope." He makes a popping sound on the p. "A blindfold."
"You have got to be kidding me." I laugh.
"Nope," he says again. "Put it on. It's a short drive, so you won't have to wait long.
"Were going to the city?" I ask excitedly. I love going to the city. We live in a smaller town called Lakehills, but it's only a short drive to San Antonio.
He shrugs at me and rotates his finger signaling me to turn so he can put on the blindfold. I surrender and turn, and he covers my eyes with the pink fabric. I notice that it smells like his cologne. I love that smell.
"Okay, you can turn now."
As we start driving, a piano starts booming from the stereo speakers and I smile. He is playing Nora Jones, "Come Away With Me". She is one of my favorite artists. I feel his hand graze mine and our fingers intertwine.
"Come away with me, in the night. Come away with me, and I will write, you, a song," I sing along with the radio.
The drive takes less time than I expect. Before I know it, we are stopped, and I hear a door open and shut. I want so badly to peek, but I want to keep my fingers attached just as badly, so I wait. In a few short seconds, my door flies open and the breezy night air creeps into the car. In the distance I can hear Frank Sinatra playing. Andrew grabs my hand and pulls me out of the car.
"Be careful," he instructs. "I'll lead the way."
We walk slowly for just a few seconds and then he stops.
"Are we here?" I ask.
"Yep." His hands undo the knot behind my head, and the blindfold falls around my neck.
"Andrew!" I gasp.
In front of me is a huge, beautiful boat. It's not just a boat though-it looks like a two-story, floating mansion with white lanterns lighting the entire deck. It is entirely white with one red stripe around the outside. I know nothing about boats, but I know this one had to have cost a fortune.
"It's ours for the night," he tells me and grabs my hand and kisses it.
I look back to Andrew and smile, and then back to the boat again.
"It's beautiful," I sigh. Just then a little man with dark hair came out from the boat and walked up the deck to greet us.
"Good evening Ms. Reynolds, Mr. Shields. I'm Victor," he tells us with a French accent. "I will be taking care of you tonight," he says, bowing to us. "Shall we?" He waves toward the boat.
"Yes, thank you," I giggle. Andrew and I walk hand in hand up the creaking bridge onto the boat.
The inside is even more luxurious than the outside, if that is possible. The furniture, walls, and fixtures are all white with a few hints of gold in some places. The carpet looks so cozy I immediately want to take off my shoes and feel it between my toes. There are two large sofas and a piano on one side of the room, and on the other side are two doors separated by a large statue of a naked woman. It smells like warm lavender and lilac with a hint of vanilla.
"Would you like to go eat?" Andrew whispers in my ear. His breath on my ear sends chills down my neck.
"Sure," I breathe.
We follow Victor onto the deck where a table has been set up for two. Candles are lit all over the room and Frank Sinatra croons softly in the background. So that's where it came from.
"Boy, you really pulled out all the stops tonight, didn't you?" I joke.
"Well, I'm trying to get lucky."
"Well, you will have no problems there." I wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him deeply. Once again our kiss becomes furious pretty quickly until Andrew starts laughing.
"We better save dessert until we are alone, babe. We don't want to make Victor throw up."
I laugh out loud.
"You're so romantic, Andrew."
"I know," he smiles at me. He walks over to the table and holds out my chair for me.
"Thank you. So what's on the menu?" I ask, taking my seat.
"Well, Ma'am," Victor begins, "for starters we will be having the California Roll with Fresh Alaskan King Crab, followed by a bowl of Wood-Grilled Tomato Soup. For the main course, we will be having an on the bone Filet Mignon topped with Crabmeat and Asparagus, with Lobster Mashed Potatoes and Grilled Asparagus. For dessert, we will finish it off with a White Chocolate Mousse Cake with a hint of Bailey's." It is clear to me that Andrew thoughtfully chose this menu to include all of my favorite dishes.
"That sounds amazing," I say, grinning at Andrew.
"May I start you off with a glass of wine, Miss?" asks Victor.
"A glass of Pinot Noir please."
"Excellent choice, Ma'am. And for you, Sir?"
"I'll have the same please."
"I'll be right back with the drinks," Victor says and scurries off.
"This is really amazing, Andrew. Thank you."
"Well you're welcome, babe. You deserve it. It's a big thing, graduating college. It's a start to a whole different life, and I know you're going to make an amazing nurse."
"I hope so. I'm really nervous about where I'm going to apply. I know I don't want to work at a nursing home. I was thinking maybe I could apply at the hospital in town, but that would be a heck of a drive every day, too. I dunno," I shrug. The closest hospital is about a forty-minute drive. It's in town, but on the other side.
"Well, there is the urgent care in town."
"Yeah, but I don't know if I'm equipped for the trauma. I've seen the pictures of some of the stuff that comes into those places. It scares me. What if I froze or I forgot everything, ya know? It's not just a job; it's someone's life in my hands. Well, you know what I mean. You deal with death everyday over there."
Andrew's smile falters only a little. I don't usually mention what he does over in Iraq. There are few stories that he has ever told me about what he does when he is deployed. It's the kind of top secret stuff that he can't really tell me too much about. He is in a Special Forces unit, and frankly, I don't know how much of what he does I even want to know about. All I want to know is when he is coming home to me.
"Hey, let's not talk business tonight. Tonight is just about you and I and how damn smokin' you look in that dress!" he smiles.
Just then Victor comes out with the appetizers and the wine and water. The steak is especially amazing-so tender and juicy, and fall off the bone good. He couldn't have planned a better dinner. By the time dessert is served, I have had a few glasses of wine and am feeling a bit tipsy.
We both have now eaten all we can manage and we walk together out to the bow. The sky is twinkling and music is echoing out over the water. It is a perfect night, just warm enough that a little shawl is keeping me comfortable. Between that and the alcohol, the night air just feels right.
"Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?" Andrew slides his arms around my waist and kisses the top of my head.
"Mmmm, yes you have. But you can tell me again if you'd like," I smile. He chuckles in my ear.
He turns me around and looks into my eyes, "You look stunning, Audrey. I've never seen anything more beautiful."
I lean up on my tippy toes and wrap my arms around his neck. "I have," and I peck him on the lips.
He grabs my hands and leads me out onto the center of the deck and pulls me close. We start rocking together to the music. We had taken, rather I had forced Andrew to take, some dancing lessons with me two years ago for one of my girlfriend's weddings. We took them for about three months and I had always told him they would pay off. Tonight was only proving it. He did the Tango with the best of them now!
"Hey, what is that?" he looks over my shoulder. I turn around and see that something is dangling from the railing on the other side of the boat.
"I don't know," I say as I walk over toward the string. As I get closer to it, I stop dead in my tracks. I know what kind of box that is. It's a petite box-one just big enough to fit a small piece of jewelry in it. A light blue box. One any girl would know anywhere. Tiffany's.
I walk over to the box, pull it up from the string, and untie it. My heart is beating a million beats a minute and my hands are sweating. I feel dizzy. Maybe the wine was a bad idea. Throwing up mid-proposal might not be so romantic. I always kind of knew this would happen, but…wow. So this is what Natalie meant by "the big night". Man, everyone already knows, too.
Okay, breathe, breathe. My fingers pry open the little blue box as I wait to see what I know is sitting all snug inside, and when I pop it open….it's empty. I twirl around and Andrew is in front of me on one knee with a huge diamond sitting in between his fingers. It's a beautiful princess cut stone with dozens of other small diamonds incasing the larger. The band, in a v-shape, is also covered in the petite diamonds. Tears start welling up in my eyes.
"Audrey, I have loved you my entire life. Every moment I breathe, all I want is to make you happy, like you make me happy every single day. I know it's going to be hard. We will have to go through many more deployments and a million more fights I'm sure, but I want nothing more than for you to go through them with me-as my wife. I love you. Will you, please, spend the rest of your life with me?"
"Oh my God, yes! Yes, of course I will!" Andrew stands up, and I jump into his arms. We kiss passionately for several minutes, his hands entangling in my hair and mine exploring every inch of his neck and back. Then I pull away to look into his smiling face and see tears of joy.
"I'm getting married," I laugh.
"I guess we should start practicing then."
"Practicing? For what?" I ask.
"For the honeymoon." He raises an eyebrow, and before I know it, he knocks my feet out from under me, and I'm in his arms being carried back into the boat, and practice we do indeed.