“Hell yeah, I have been.” He angled his body toward me, dropping his arm along the back of the bench. “I’ve missed you, Andy. You look good—great. Beautiful.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” I admitted.
His shoulders loosened as if some unseen tension bled out of him. “So…did you talk to your advisor?”
I blinked, surprised. “How did you know about that?”
Tanner grinned. “Not to sound creepy, but I’ve been keeping myself updated on what you’ve been doing.” When I arched a brow, he looked sheepish. “I’ve asked Sydney. I know I could’ve asked you, but I wanted—no, I knew I needed to give you time.”
Syd hadn’t said anything to me about it. Part of me could understand why. The other half wanted to throttle her. “I did talk to my advisor. I was…I was honest about why I missed virtually half the semester. There’s no making up lost time at this point, but they’re going to work with me. He’s checking to see how tuition can be moved to next semester, and we’re checking to see how having a DUI on my record may affect future employment.” Saying DUI out loud was still hard, but I needed to speak it, because that made it real. “It could be tricky with teaching.”
“What will you do then, if it does impact that?”
That was an important question. Good thing I’d spent a lot of time thinking about it. “You remember how you kept asking why I wasn’t going to become a therapist? Turns out that might be a good option.”
His smile was back, spreading across his face. “I like the sound of that.”
I grinned as I shrugged. “Obviously, I have firsthand experience with some of these things, and I think…I think I could help other people. I don’t know. It’s something I’m considering. I have time to decide and I can change my mind. I’m okay with that—with either one. Nothing is written in stone.”
“You’re right,” he agreed, lightly knocking his knee against mine. “You can do whatever you want.”
“It’s such a…a relief knowing that,” I said, and I could tell that he was surprised by the fact I’d spoken that out loud. I was even a little bit surprised, but I’d been surprising myself every day recently. I drew in a deep breath as I glanced out over the grassy knoll. “When you visited me, you said—”
“I told you that I loved you,” he cut in, and my heart jumped a little. “That hasn’t changed, Andy. I love you.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “I didn’t know if you’d still feel that way.”
“Why? Did you think how I felt would change because you have depression?” he asked, his gaze unwavering as he reached up and twisted his cap backward. “Andy, I really hope you don’t think that badly of me.”
“No,” I immediately replied. “You’re a wonderful person.”
“And so are you. You are an amazing person, Andrea. Frankly, you did something so many people never do. You realized you had a problem and willingly got help for it. Yeah, it took something drastic and it could’ve been worse, but you did it. You turned your life around and you’re still turning your life around.”
I blinked back sudden tears. Oh gosh, he was going to make me ugly cry.
“Like I told you before, you made a shitty decision that could’ve been so much worse. You could’ve died. You could’ve killed someone else. You’re lucky that those two things didn’t happen, but you didn’t wallow in that and make more mistakes. You owned what you did and what could’ve happened. I saw your heart break when you told me. You had already realized how badly that night could’ve gone. You didn’t fight what your family wanted. You willingly went into rehab and stayed longer than the minimum. You got help, and Andrea, you have my upmost respect for that. Seriously.”
Tanner smiled at me. “You are incredibly courageous and you’re remarkably strong. You’re beautiful and you’re funny. And you are kind,” he continued. “Why wouldn’t I feel the same way about you?”
“But I…” I almost stopped right there, kept what I wanted and needed to say to myself. Almost. Part of healing and getting better was to be honest. To speak. To not bottle everything up. “I have baggage. Real baggage. I’m working on it, but I know there are going to be moments when I’m annoying and it’s going to be hard. So hard. That’s a lot to want to be a part of.”
“You don’t see me running, do you?”
I shook my head.
“And I want you to know something else, okay? I hear you.”
My throat closed up. “Tanner…”
“I hear you. Okay? I’m always going to hear you,” he said, and my heart broke and was stitched back together in the same moment. He’d remembered what I’d told him about the people who called the hotline, just needing someone to hear them. He tipped his chin to the side. “I just have one question for you, Andy.”
“What?” I whispered, still desperately trying to prevent the tears from falling.
“Why in the world did you have paint and summer sausage in your car?”
His words took a moment to sink in and when they did, a shaky laugh escaped me, and that laugh…it turned into a longer, deeper one that lasted. And goodness, it felt good, that full-body laugh. Tears snuck out the corners of my eyes, and I wiped them away, still chuckling. “Yeah, I bet…I bet that was a weird combo for everyone to see.”