"Remember when you first met me?" Olivia asked. She was sitting next to me on my bed and we had just watched "Stardust," one of our favorites. Saturday movie nights were one of our weekly rituals in this last summer before heading off to college.
Of course I remembered ...
Olivia and I had been best friends forever. When her family moved to our little suburb outside of Milwaukee, she was the only Hispanic kid in my private middle school. On our first day, I stepped in when I saw Olivia crying because some of the other kids were teasing her.
Children can be cruel and, back then, Olivia was an easy target. Her skin was a few shades darker than that of the other kids and she had a slight accent back then because she had grown up speaking only Spanish before her parents moved to the US with her. Olivia's family came to Wisconsin from Houston, where she had fit in much better than in my lily white neighborhood.
I don't know exactly why I protected her on that first day. I was no angel as a kid and I can't say that I never teased anybody about being chubby or bad at sports or something. But seeing her standing in the hallway, completely defenseless with tears slowly trickling from dark brown eyes down her cheeks, triggered something in me.
"Knock it off," I said, putting myself between Olivia and the three kids who had been calling her names. I'm not sure what would have happened if they had challenged me but I'm quite certain I wouldn't have backed down. Maybe they had realized that, too, and were just as happy as I was when the bell rang and they hurried to their classrooms.
I turned to Olivia.
"Hi, I'm Nicolas. Are you ok?"
She just nodded, wiping the tears from her face with the sleeve of her shirt.
"Are you new here? Do you know where you are going?" I asked, not ready to end our brief encounter.
"I think so," she said in a small voice and held out a piece of paper that she had been clutching in her hand. I took it and looked at her schedule.
"History," I said. "You can walk with me, I'm in the same class."
Olivia looked at me and the apprehension in her eyes was replaced with genuine gratitude.
"Thank you," she said. "I'm Olivia."
"Hey Olivia," I responded with a smile. "We better get going. Old Man McDaniels won't like it if we're late on the first day."
That's how we met.
Olivia and I ended up having a few classes together and it turned out that her family had moved into a house only a couple of blocks away from mine. On that first day, I walked her home and this became a daily routine. We kept spending more and more time together and were inseparable by the end of the fall. Being around her just made me happy and she was the best friend any guy could want.
I helped Olivia through her first Wisconsin winter. Ironically, she hated the cold but loved snow. She got a lot of that in the first year and I spent our first Christmas break together teaching her how to ski. One day she made it down the hill without falling down. For some reason, I can remember every detail of that moment. Olivia was wearing a white ski suit with a hood and goggles, her cheeks were flushed and she had a big smile on her face.
"I made it," she shrieked and gave me a hug. Then she gave me a kiss on the cheek. Her lips were so warm against my skin, probably because of the excitement of her first successful run. "Thank you!"
"I knew you could do it!" I said, somewhat embarrassed and wiggled out of her embrace. "Want to go again?"
The triumphant look and the glow had left her face. She looked almost sad but that didn't make any sense because she had just done her first clean run.
"No, let's just head home," Olivia said.
By the time we got to high school, our friendship had also brought our families together. Every Sunday, our families had brunch – alternating between our house and that of the Fuentes. While Olivia had still been teased a bit in middle school (on those increasingly rare occasions when I wasn't around), by the time we got to high school, nobody would dream of doing so again.
Even then, it was clear that Olivia would grow up to be a stunningly pretty woman. While she was a bit chubby when I met her, a small growth spurt at the end of the 8th grade had taken care of that. For those of our classmates who had not seen her during that summer, the change was staggering.
Olivia had always had a pretty face, framed by thick, black hair. Her eyes were large and dark brown, so much so that they almost appeared black when she was angry. Her smile was gorgeous and she had a cute pair of dimples accentuating her cheeks.
As a freshman, her body was beginning to match the beauty of her face, slowly filling in in all the right places as she slowly began her transformation from a cute girl into a beautiful young woman.
One day, my buddy Jeff stopped me in the hallway.
"Hey, Nick. I have a question for you." He looked a bit embarrassed and paused for a couple seconds before continuing. "I was thinking about asking out Olivia ..."
Jeff paused again.
"That's not really a question," I said, with a knot unexpectedly forming in my stomach. I forced a smile.
"Well, do you mind?" he asked.
"Um, you know I'm not her brother, right?" I said, trying to defuse the awkwardness. "We're just friends."
"Right," Jeff said. "So you're cool with me asking then?"
"I guess. But if you don't treat her well, I'll probably kick your ass."
"Ok," he said and shuffled away.
I had never thought about the possibility of Olivia having a boyfriend. For some reason, I didn't like it, probably because that would mean that I'd get to spend less time with her and she was my best friend.
When we walked home that day, I asked her if she had spoken to Jeff.
"Yeah, funny that you'd bring that up. I was just gonna tell you that he asked me out."
"I thought he might. The weirdest thing happened today. He stopped me in the hall and asked if I minded if he did that. How odd is that?"
Olivia stopped and looked at me with her big eyes.
"What did you say?"
"What was I gonna say?"
I recall there being a frown on Olivia's face.
"I mean, it's silly that he would ask me, right?"
Olivia still didn't say anything.
"Well, I told him I'd kick his ass if he didn't treat you well."
Finally, there was a reaction as Olivia was unable to conceal a smile.
"Well," she said. "I told him 'no'."
For some reason, hearing her say that made me happy.
"What about you?" she asked. "Are you asking anybody out?"
"Dunno," I said and paused while thinking about the question. "I don't think so."
"Let's get some ice cream, Nick. My treat," Olivia said, already skipping ahead.
There were a few more times when one of my friends asked me if I minded if they asked out Olivia. I always gave pretty much the same answer.
When we were kidding around about something one day, I asked her in jest if her friends were doing the same with me.
"Don't be silly," she said, turning serious. "They know better."
"What's that even supposed to mean? You're like a Latina Buddha," I laughed and poker her in the ribs.
Olivia rolled her eyes at me.
"And you're like a Caucasian idiot."
That conversation happened not long before she finally did start dating somebody in our sophomore year. By then, there was no dispute that she was the prettiest girl in our school. Naturally, it was the quarterback of the football team, and a senior no less, who finally got her to agree to go out on a date.
I had heard some stories about his previous conquests and wasn't thrilled about it. I guess it was because I felt that the only guy good enough to date my best friend should only love her. For some reason I was really happy when things fizzled out between them.
I first heard that they had broken up through the school's rumor mill. Naturally, I was concerned about Olivia. The first chance I got, I pulled her aside and asked her if she was ok.
"Why?" she asked.
"Didn't things end with Trent?"
"Oh, right. Yeah, that didn't work out."
"Are you ok?"
She must have seen the look on my face and gave me a hug.
"Yes, Nicolas, I'm ok," she said with barely a whisper, her lips brushing my ear. I remember becoming aware of how good Olivia smelled. "Boys are just idiots sometimes."
"Good," I said, reluctantly withdrawing from her embrace. After all, we were just friends. "Now you can spend the weekend nights with me again."
"You know," I said. "About boys being idiots. Trent wasn't good enough for you anyways. So maybe he didn't realize how awesome you are."
I recall Olivia giving me a strange look before rolling her eyes at me and saying: "Yeah ... that's totally what I was referring to."
While Olivia's dating life was already pretty boring, mine was practically non-existent. I just couldn't find a girl with whom I could envision hanging out all the time.
I was also pretty busy playing basketball and soccer. I made out with a couple of girls at parties but I didn't understand what all the fuzz was about "hooking up." My friends all made it out to be the most amazing thing in the world. I guess it was nice enough but it didn't blow my mind.
Things changed briefly in the summer after my junior year. I spent three weeks with my uncle in Italy. The first few days really sucked. I missed home. Then I met one of the local girls and she said she wanted to practice English with me. That was fine by me because I definitively had a rush on her. Her name was Sophia and she was very pretty. She had olive skin, black hair, dark eyes and a pretty smile with dimples.
We met every day for a week and then, three days before my departure, I kissed her. It was better than those kisses at parties back home but it didn't blow me away.
Before I went to bed, I skyped with Olivia about this new development.
"You know this girl Sophia I told you about?"
"Yeah ...," Olivia said.
"I kissed her today," I said.
Olivia didn't say anything and I thought the screen had frozen.
"Are you still there?
"I'm here," she said, all of a sudden sounding very small and farther away than one continent.
"That's ... quite a surprise, Nick. Did you guys ... just kiss?"
"Yup. It was nice but not great."
Olivia smiled for the first time – a small, unsteady smile.
"Check your email," I continued. "I just sent you a picture."
"I don't know if I want ..." she began before pausing. "Hold on, I'll check it out."
It took her a few seconds to open the file. Then I heard her laugh.
"THAT is what she looks like?"
"She is pretty, right?" I asked.
"Umm, I guess, if you like that type," she said and laughed again. "Are you going to see her again before you leave?"
"I don't think so. She told me something about having to go to Milan with her parents."
"Bummer," Olivia said. "Well, I'll see you in a few days. Your parents said I could pick you up from O'Hare."
Senior year went by too quickly. I had a really good basketball season and got offered a spot on the team of Hope College, a small Division 3 school in Michigan. Since they were strong academically, I accepted and was pretty happy to be somewhat close to the University of Michigan, which had been Olivia's first choice for the last couple of years.
One day when I was watching TV in the living room with my parents, I heard the back door open and, moments later, Olivia practically flew in.
"Guess what," she said out of breath. "I got an art scholarship from Hope College."
"Wow, that's great! I didn't even know you had applied there."
"Oh, right, I probably just forgot to tell you."
My mom got up and gave Olivia a big hug.
"I'm so happy for you dear. Come sit down and tell us all about it."
By then it had sunk in that, if Olivia accepted, I'd have my best friend with me in college.
"Are you going to accept?" I asked.
"Gee, I don't know," she said with a smile.
"Honey," my mom said turning to my dad. "What do you think the odds are that both of the kids would end up at the same school?"
I could have sworn that she winked at him when she asked that.
"Yeah, I'm shocked by the staggering improbability that Olivia might end up going to the same school as Nick."
Sometimes my dad says funny stuff like that.
In the end, Olivia accepted the scholarship. To celebrate, and as a graduation present, our families took us on a trip to New York shortly after we both turned 18.
It was a great summer. As usual, Olivia and I spent a lot of time together and we made plans for college when we weren't at the pool, doing day trips or watching movies on Saturday nights. I was so lucky to have her. I don't think I'd ever get tired of hanging out with her, seeing her beautiful smile, making her laugh, smelling her hair, touching her, kiss...
"Hey," Olivia said. "Earth to Nick: Stop daydreaming. I asked you a question. Do you remember the first time we met?"
"Oh my God," I said softly, feeling waves of emotions crash down on me.
I'm in love with Olivia.
What does that mean? What's gonna happen?
"Are you ok?" she asked and snuggled into me, her head laying on my chest.
"Yes," was the only word I managed to get out.
For the first time I saw Olivia as something other than my best friend. My thoughts were racing. Would this ruin everything? Could I keep it a secret?
Olivia was breathing evenly ... she often fell asleep in my room after movie night. I smelled her hair and my hand was on the small of her back where her shirt had ridden up a little so that my fingers rested on her skin.
I had to say it just once.
"I love you," I whispered, needing to hear those words come from my own lips.
Olivia shuddered and my fingers could feel the temperature of her skin spike.
She turned to me, tears running down her cheeks.
"Finally," she said softly, and kissed me on the lips for the first time.