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Award Winners Creative Non-Fiction

Forever, Almost Like That

Wise men say only fools rush in, and I fully listened to their sound wisdom, covered my ears with headphones blasting Bon Iver, and sprinted as fast as my tiny and bruised freshman legs could carry me until I hit the brick wall of reality and my own hubris.

Hi, I’m Molly Flynn, and you may remember me from such stories as “Yes, My Nose is Crooked but I Have a Good and Detailed Reason” and “Every Time I Hear ABBA Music Play I Taste Blood, Please Ask Me About It”, but those are two very entertaining tales for another time. This is a story of an incredibly ambitious promise that was impossible to uphold, wrestling with the Divine, bridesmaid dresses, and a whole lot of mascara-stained tears.

***

“Mark my words, I am going to marry Ben Ritter.”

With stars in my eyes and bruises on my armpits from crutching around a mountainside all week at camp, I boldly proclaimed those definitive words to my cabin of exhausted freshman girls on the last night of my first high school summer church camp. Ben was the ex-boyfriend of my cabinmate’s older sister, and we collectively agreed on the first night of camp that he was our “White Boy of the Week” and the greatest desire of our hearts. However, I failed to pick up on the social cues all week that my cabinmates were only joking about the crush, and I was the pitiful fourteen year old whose heart leapt straight off the cliff into the Sea of Love.

I was a doe-eyed freshman with sun-bleached hair, homeschooled romance skills, and no lack of orthodontia, and Ben was the church camp leader. There had been one at every camp since sixth grade – Steven from the eighth grade with the pretty eyes, Joel the worship drummer whom my entire cabin wrote a love letter to at 2 AM, and “Hot Drew” –  but Ben was different. With salt water hair, a Bible in hand at all times, and the goodest looks of anyone my farsighted eyes had ever laid upon, I had been trying to be noticed by Ben all week. Granted, my heart was predisposed to romantic sap, but Ben was hot, kind, and on his way to Bible college (which is evangelical lingo for Engagement Central).

I’m not sure Ben and I ever had more of a conversation that week than me clumsily sprinting to him during the last night worship session of camp and asking him to pray for my dear friend (who happened to be the younger sister of Ben’s ex-girlfriend, and had known him for some time), but when he promptly rushed back with me, prayed for her with me and my best friend at the time, and gave the three of us a massive hug, I had never experienced a deeper joy in my entire life. I don’t even remember if words came out, or just tears, but all was well in the world as the gold-flecked sun descended over our cabin and the freckled galaxies gently peeked out and introduced themselves to the dark.

I had said hardly more than 10 words to him or made eye contact more than three times, but I had already named our 4 blonde-haired blue-eyed children and picked our wedding song that we’d slow dance to on the mountainside as all of our dearest friends came together to celebrate the full-circle perfection of our pure and perfect love. My brain was drowning in happy hormones, and I had no clue of the implication of the promise I made to my fellow small group girls, our two mom leaders, and Haley from the worship team whom we had never met, but was sleeping in our cabin because we had an extra bed. I was going to be Mrs. Molly Ritter, and I could not fathom a better title to hold.

Haley was soft spoken in conversation, but had an impossibly mellifluous voice when she sang on stage. She was dating the worship guitarist (note “Hot Drew” from before), and was also the most beautiful person in the entire world. None of us knew where Haley came from, or who she was, so we felt no shame or anxiety as we divulged our sappy hearts to her in the cabin.

As I promised to my own heart that I was going to marry Benjamin Lee Ritter, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world to maintain perfect attendance at the high school youth group on Wednesday nights. I had other reasons to go – growing in my newfound love for Christ, spending time with the group of upperclassmen girls who had adopted me as one of their own after my own grade quietly rejected me (a breakup many, many years in the making), and the importance of socialization outside of my two high school friends, but getting to imaginarily court Ben each week was one of the strongest incentives for church I had ever known.

He had graduated high school the previous summer and was now working as the youth group intern, which basically meant that he’d help run games, make the students feel welcome, navigate sermon slides, and steal hearts. As the weeks turned into months, our friendship blossomed into something I could have never dreamed of months before at the fateful camp. Granted, it wasn’t much – he’d call me by my full name, make eye contact with me occasionally, and asked if I was okay when I got nailed in the nose during winter camp dodgeball – but my rose-colored glasses were cemented to my face, serving to protect my rose-colored contacts underneath. I was infatuated like I had never known before, but I called it love.

All my church friends acknowledged my fact that we were going to be married in a matter of years: our first dance was going to be “Forever Like That” by Ben Rector (an obscure song I promised to myself that if I ever met a man who organically knew the tune, it was the sign that I was going to marry him), the Tangled lantern sendoff, the A-line wedding gown with floral lace sleeves, all of it. They helped to fuel my wedding feverish fire, and I grew more and more convinced throughout freshman and sophomore year that Ben was the love of my life. Ben, of course, knew none of this. He never would, and he never will.

As my heart eventually grew slightly settled into the dream, I found the anxiety in the back of my heart that I wasn’t really in love with him, and that I was only pursuing this dream to fulfill the vow I made to myself 2 years previously. “No,” I thought, “you’re going to be his wife and your incredibly long love story will eventually pay off. Now shhh, and go back to writing his last name as yours and trying to force yourself to like Christian rap so that you two can bond over it.” “Alrighty, whatever you say, brain!” And so I did.

Ben eventually started dating a girl from his graduating class near the end of my freshman year, and it was the first real heartbreak of my life. I remember texting my best friend Abby selfies with pitch black eyeliner tears streaming down my flushed cheeks to document my pain, and blasting “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” by John Mayer on repeat. (Hey, for the first major heartbreak of your life, you’ve gotta go overly melodramatic or go home.) However, as my heart grew wearier over the next year and a half, so did their relationship. The next summer, I received the news that Ben’s relationship had dissolved and my dampened fire was promptly reignited. I was determined more than ever to marry that man as I headed into my junior year, and my diary entries were only growing flowier and more desperate as I used this self-concocted fantasy as an escape from the stresses of my personal life, such as losing friends to suicide, having my ballet studio ripped out from underneath me, and wrestling with my undiagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I said Jesus was my savior, but I was living like Ben was my only hope.

“Molly, have you ever considered the fact that you might be so in love with the idea of Ben, or even the idea of being loved, that you never stopped to consider whether you’re actually in love with this man?” My best friend Abby served as the tapping voice of reason on my heart, but my neural pathways were so cemented on Ben that I was too afraid to realize that as the truth.

“Abs, you’re the maid of honor, and this is going to happen. Trust me, and queue up Forever Like That please and thank you.” I was in her phone as Molly Flynn Ritter for a solid 3.5 years, until she finally took it out this last summer after I begged her to put my heart out of its misery.

That was the summer before junior year. I was growing closer with friends such as Abby and Haley, the same sweet worship leader from our cabin. I had always admired Haley from a distance, but I recall leading worship at one cozy Sunday evening service with her that summer. As the congregants gathered in the sanctuary, Haley and I sat side by side in the lobby and talked about anything and everything; from our deeply human downfalls to the epic highs and lows of high school football. As the setting sun whispered in shades of gold through the steeple windows, Haley and I were tied as true friends and beloved sisters in Christ that night.

On the other hand, it felt as if Ben and I were practically an old married couple that was slowly fading out of view in my heart. My heart had found a home in the vow I made, and I was happy with that life choice. I was happy with a settled dream. I was happy.

The fall of junior year, Ben announced during a leader meeting that he was leaving our church for a new position as a youth pastor downtown, and I was all at once confused, strangely excited for a new beginning for the both of us, and drained to the deepest part of my soul. I grossly sobbed to Bon Iver’s greatest hits on the drive home from his announcement, and briefly questioned whether I would ever smile again, but regained my composure by the last time I would see him at church. I hugged him on his last night serving, and I drove home feeling content in what was to come. God was doing a new thing in my life, and I was invited to a worship night at Haley’s home soon after.

In the time leading up to visiting her home, Haley grew to become one of my dear friends. She was a few years older than me and had a heart of pure gold. Haley and I weren’t incredibly close, but I had broken bread with her and cried on her shoulder before. Dear friend as she was, I was incredibly close to getting coffee with her and spilling my heart to her about my sadness with Ben leaving. After all, he was her friend too, and girl talk was always fun. However, I felt an ominously ambiguous feeling in my gut and decided to call off seeing her until the worship night.

After a wonderful evening at Haley’s home, Ben walked in near the end and my heart did a ‘!’ when I locked with his deep blue eyes after several weeks of not seeing him. Finally, we could become friends outside of the student-leader dynamic, and I was overjoyed at this new opportunity!

“Molly Flynn! How are you doing dude?!”

“Ben! It’s so good to see you! I’ve been doing good! I just started Running Start, and I’m planning on going to George Fox next year to major in graphic design! I’m also leading my eighth grade girls every week at Tribe, and I’m doing good! How are you doing?” As I nervously shifted underneath the fluorescent lights of Haley’s kitchen, I found myself anxiously leaning against her fridge and fidgeting with my hands as I forgot every word in the English language besides “I’m doing good!”.

“That’s great to hear! Yeah, I’ve been to Fox a few times, such a gorgeous campus. Dude, I really wish I had done Running Start, I’m really glad to hear that you’re doing it! I miss hanging out with y’all at Refuge, but I’m loving this season that God’s led me to.”

“I love that! And yeah, Fox is such a beautiful school. I think my dad’s waiting for me outside, but it was so good to see you and I hope to see you again soon!”

“Bye Molly Flynn, have a great night!”

After almost three years of knowing him, it seems like a shallow conversation, but I think it was a microcosm of our friendship. After years of longing for deep, honest conversations with him and loving him quietly from a distance, I couldn’t muster out more than awkward small talk with someone I had seen semiweekly for years. As I drove home that night with my dad in bliss over having the longest conversation of my life with the man who always called me by my first and last name, I felt a creeping question rise up within me – why was he at Haley’s house so late after the worship night was already over?

I wouldn’t receive an answer to that question for several months. I tucked it away into a deep pocket of my tangled heart, and that fall Ben and I eventually left for two separate churches – while his move was due to a job offer as a youth pastor, mine was a leap of faith as God gently ripped me from the comfort zone of the church I had attended since sixth grade and placed me in the church my dear friend had attended. Although I semi-bravely entered into this new chapter of life, I was still holding onto the possible hope that he’d one day turn around and realize that I was the one the entire time. I was happy. Ben was happy. All was well.

***

Unbeknownst to me, that fidgety fridge conversation with Ben would be the last time I would ever speak to him. Just five months later, I was sitting on the couch finishing a math assignment when I heard a gasp from the kitchen table.

“Oh my gosh, Ben and Haley are engaged.”

A well-known parable from the Bible tells the story of two men; one who built his house on a rock, and one who built his house upon sand. Both houses were initially well and fine – I imagine cute desert accent rugs, historically accurate Greco-Roman columns, and tasteful “Live, Laugh, Love” tapestries hung upon at least 3 separate walls. However, the aesthetics did not matter when the storm came, and the house upon the sand came crashing down – slowly eroding away bit by bit as the winds came gently floating through, and then collapsing all at once. I had built my dreams, my hope, my future happiness, my purpose, every fraction of my desired identity upon the pipe fantasy of marrying Ben. A completely and utterly foolish move in retrospect, but I was a hormonal teenage dreamer, and with those five words the fragile mental world I had delicately yet recklessly crafted came crashing down in an instant.

My heart skipped several beats, and my first three impulses were to call Abby about the contact last name change, sprint upstairs in adrenaline-fueled tears, and give myself bangs. (I did not give myself bangs.) I was fully prepared to spend the next month in my room burning my diary pages and mourning in sackcloth and ashes, but I was reminded by my calendar that I had been scheduled to lead worship with Haley at the middle school winter camp the following weekend. Oh, dear.

No one ever prepares you to be invited to your own fantasy wedding you had planned for years. In a futile attempt to self-medicate my bitter heart away, I spent the following week yelling to nothing in particular (when I was home alone, of course), crying sporadically, and ruminating over the reasons I swore that he was the love of my life while angrily playing darts, scornfully bruising the walls as the saltwater tears in my eyes blurred my vision and disturbed my aim. Coupled with timely school anxieties and an upcoming volunteer overload, at times I was nearly vibrating from stress like a chihuahua going through withdrawal.

After a long week of ‘angst boot camp’, the dreaded weekend had finally arrived and it was time to meet with the camp band to prepare. With mascara streaks faintly tattooed upon my bitter crimson cheeks, I was standing outside the church with my luggage preparing to load the gear van when Haley walked up and wrapped me in a hug. She was glowing like the sun hiding behind the foreboding February clouds, and the dazzling rock on her finger glinted off her smile.

“Congratulations Haley, I’m so happy for you and wish you two the very best!”

“Thank you so much Molly, I’m so excited! We’re planning on the wedding in June, and we’d love to have you join us in the celebration!”

“I would love that, thank you so much for the invite.”

Did you fully believe that conversation? Me neither. Truth be told, I don’t recall the specifics of any conversation that weekend. I remember Haley asking me what was wrong, and me subsequently bursting into tears during our coffee pitstop but being completely unable to tell her the truth about why my eyes seemed to hold a permanent reddish tint for the weekend from crying every other hour. After all, how do you tell your sweet friend that you’ve been in love with her fiance for almost two and a half years? Answer: you don’t.

Lockdowns came shortly after that fateful camp weekend. Months passed in a quarantined daze, and the world became more and more surreal as the days melded into weeks into months, and seeing Ben’s last name listed twice in my email inbox hardly even phased me.

“You’re going, right Moll?” my mom would ask me, blissfully unaware of the feelings that had ensnared my heart and mind ever since freshman camp.

“Haha, probably not! I just think it’s a bit too fast,” was the answer I strained through my heartstrings in an attempt to hold back the flood of words that is essentially this same story I have archived here. It’s true, just a little wordy when spoken aloud.

It was during the subsequent months-long engagement that I realized that I had been infatuated with the idea of a perfect man. I was in love with the idea of being loved, with the idea of having #calledit as our wedding hashtag, with the idea of looking back one day standing across from him at the altar and remembering how it all began with an impossibly bold promise I had made for a boy who hardly ever noticed me as more than a student for two years. And while infatuation can be a wonderful experience, it can also be dangerously intoxicating if not coupled with true, pure, reciprocated and self-sacrificial love. This is a lesson that many will learn in their lives, but it is sadly one that can only be learned by bittersweet experience.

Thankfully, my heart eventually gave out under the weight of the once-cemented dream after several months of engagement, and when Ben and Haley were finally wed on a perfect August evening outdoors surrounded by their dearest friends and family I hardly even blinked. After all, what was the use in mourning what never was and what never would be? Holding onto the hopeless pipe dream was merely sinking me deeper into a depression which had already been compounded by lockdown-exacerbated mental illness, and I found that I had no tears left to cry.

I wondered how both time and my innocent heart could have possibly slipped through my hands so easily – while I could have spent my early high school years being young and carefree, I was so absorbed in the wisp of a fantasy future that I forgot to embrace the romance-free simple joys of life and instead chose to spend hours and days anxious beyond measure over a man who would never reciprocate the feelings. And for what; for a silly promise I made to myself when I was tipsy on life and felt compelled to uphold for the sake of saying, “I told you so”?

The blue light of my phone singed my eyes as I refreshed Ben’s Instagram late at night for tagged photos of sparkler-filled sendoffs and first dance videos, and my calloused heart had suffered such emotional whiplash that the wedding photos hardly even phased me. I’m not sure whether I was too afraid to feel, or whether I was so tired of feeling everything that I forced myself to accept apathy before resentment was able to sneak its entangled, immovable roots into my soul.

Ben Ritter had vowed himself to my dear friend for the rest of their lives, and I could not feel my own heart anymore, and I built my identity on the sand floor of a silly boy I never had more than five real conversations with, and I did not cry at their monthly anniversary posts, and their wedding song was “Forever Like That” by Ben Rector (truly, I could not make that up), and they lived happily ever after. And there was nothing I would ever do to change it, so I watched.

And then, the light came.