My parents come over and ring up the man. He must not have found what he came in for. He is, instead, purchasing a copy of Little Women. No doubt my parents gave up trying to figure out what book he was talking about a few minutes into it and just decided to sell him on Louisa May Alcott.
They want to sell everyone a copy of Little Women. Because it’s a great book, sure. But also because they are proud that it was written just a few miles away. They probably also tried to sell him any Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson we have in stock.
I haven’t been pushing the transcendentalists like they do. Copies stay on the shelf longer than they did when my parents were running things.
They have never given me a hard time about it. My father has never asked why there are copies of Civil Disobedience that have managed to earn dust on them.
My parents have given me an incredible gift: they gave me this store, and they set up a future for me, but they never told me theirs was the only way to do it.
We sell more journals and candles now. We sell tote bags with literary quotes on them. We sell more Young Adult than we have in years. And we sell less of the classics and less hardcovers. That all might be because of how the business is changing. But I also think it’s because of me. Because I do things differently, for better and for worse.
Now, things might change again with Marie coming back. We might grow even stronger.
The man leaves and I prepare to head out to my car and try to win back the love of my life.
“OK,” I say. “I’m out of here. Wish me luck.”
I get to the door before I turn around. I decide that something I’ve left unsaid needs to be explicit.
“Thank you,” I say to my parents. “For trusting me with this store and for waiting for me to fall in love with it on my own, in my own way. Thank you for guiding me toward a life that makes me happy.”
For a minute, my mom looks like she might cry, but she doesn’t.
“Of course, honey,” she says as my dad gives me a wink. That’s parents for you.
You say thank you for gifts they’ve given that have shaped your entire world and their answer is, “Of course.”
As I’m out the door, I turn to Marie and say, “Welcome back.”
As I get into my car in the back lot, I find my days-old sandwich sitting in the front seat. It has already given my car a sour, acrid odor. I grab it and throw it away in the Dumpster and then open up both of my car doors for a minute, trying to air it out.
That’s when I see a car pulling in.
I don’t need to look through the windshield to know who it is.
But of course I do anyway.
My heart starts beating rapidly. I can feel rhythmic bass throbbing in my chest.
I run toward his car just as he steps out of it.
He’s in slacks and a button-down with his tie untied and hanging loosely around his neck. His coat is unbuttoned.
It’s the middle of the day and he should be at school.
Instead, he’s standing in the lot of my store with his eyes bloodshot.
I look at him and I see a broken heart.
“I have to talk to you,” he says, his breath visible in the cold.
“I have to talk to you, too,” I say.
“No,” Sam says, putting his hand up. “I’m going first.”
I can feel my heart start to break in my chest. Is it over? I am devastated that my being unsure has led to the man I love being unsure about me. I feel the urgent need to stall, to draw out this moment, to spend as much time as possible with him before he leaves me for good—if that’s what he’s going to do.
“Can we get in the car?” I say. “Turn on the heat?”
Sam nods and opens up his car door. I run around to the passenger side, rubbing my hands together for warmth. Sam turns on the ignition and we wait for the heat to warm up. Soon, my hands start to thaw.
“Listen,” Sam says. “I’ve spent the past four days thinking.”
It feels like a lifetime has passed but it’s only been four days.
“I can’t do this,” he says as he turns his whole body toward me. “I can’t live like this. I can’t . . . This isn’t working for me.”
“OK,” I say. I can feel my chest start to ache as if my body can’t stand to hear this.
“You have to come home,” he says.
I look up at him. “What?”
“Fifteen years ago, I watched you go off with Jesse and I told myself that you had made your decision and there was nothing that I could do about it. And here we are, all this time later, and I’m doing the same thing. That’s not . . . I can’t do it again. I’m fighting for you.
“I left work after fifth period today because I was considering teaching the jazz band how to play ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’ I’m heartbroken without you. I have spent this time alone moping around like a bird with a broken wing just hoping that you’d come back to me. But it’s not enough to hope. I’m an adult now. I’m not a teenager like I was back then, the first time. I’m a man now. And it’s not enough for me to hope for you. I have to fight for you. So here I am. That’s what I’m doing. I’m putting up a fight.”
Sam takes my hand and implores me. “I am right for you, Emma. What we have is . . . it’s true love. I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. You’re my soul mate. I can make you happy,” he says. “I can give you the life you want. So marry me, Emma. Marry me.”
“Oh, my God,” I say, relief washing over me. “We are so ridiculous.”
“What are you talking about?” Sam asks. “What do you mean?”
“You’re fighting for me?” I say.
“I was about to come find you at your job to fight for you.”
Sam is disarmed and stunned. He is quiet. And then he starts to tear up and says, “Really?”
“I love you, sweetheart,” I say to him. “I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I’m so sorry that I had unfinished business. But it is finished now. It’s over. And I know that you are the man I want to spend every day of my life with. I want our life. I want to marry you. I’m sorry I was lost. But I’m so sure now. I want you.”
“And Jesse?” Sam asks.
“I love Jesse. I’ll always love him. But he was right for me then. You are right for me now. And always.”
Sam breathes in, letting my words flow into his ears and settle in his brain.
“Do you mean all of this?” he asks me. “It’s not just something you’re saying to be dramatic and wonderful?”
I shake my head. “No, I’m not trying to be dramatic and wonderful.”
“I mean, you’ve succeeded in it, for sure.”
“But I mean it. All of it. Assuming that you can forgive me for being uncertain, for needing to leave, for needing more time with him, to find out what I think I already knew.”
“I can forgive that,” Sam says. “Of course I can.”
It’s important to me that he knows what I’ve done, that I face it. “We went to Maine together, alone,” I say.
I don’t say anything more because I don’t have to.
Sam shakes his head. “I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to know. It’s over. It’s in the past. All that matters is from here on out.”
I nod my head, desperate to assure him. “I don’t want anyone or anything except you from here on out, forever.”
He takes it all in, closing his eyes.
“You’ll be my wife?” he says, smiling wide. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more loved than in this moment, when the idea that I might marry a man brings that much joy to his face.
“Yes,” I say. “God, yes.”
Sam leans over to my side of the car and kisses me, beaming. The tears in my eyes are finally happy tears. My heart is no longer pounding but swelling.
No more conflicted feelings. No more uncertainty.
“I love you,” I say. “I don’t think I ever knew just how much until now.” It’s a good sign, I think, that our love has proven to grow, rather than wane, when faced with a challenge. I think it bodes well for our future, for all of the things ahead of us: marriage, children.