By: Emily Janssen

I was six years old and playing in a sandbox.

The sun beat down on my back, and the dry sand slid between my fingers as I dug down for the damp sand I would use to make my castle. I could see the castle perfectly in my mind, and I knew it was going to be wondrous.

Then they showed up, a group of boys, I don’t even remember who now. They were older than me and bigger, that much I remember. They were teasing me and kicking at the beginnings of my sand castle. I screamed at them and threw sand but eventually just sat in the sand sobbing. They thought my temper tantrum was hilarious and stood over me laughing. Just when it seemed like they were never going to go away, a soft voice spoke up.

“It’s not nice to kick down people’s sand castles.”

I looked up to see a little boy standing just outside the sandbox, glaring at my tormentors.

“Leave her alone or I’ll get a teacher,” he said, and stood over me arguing until the other boys left, then he bent down next to me.

“Are you okay?” he asked, “Should I get a teacher?”

I wiped my face. “I’m fine.”

He smiled. “Good. I’m Tom. Can I help with your castle?”

I was ten and struggling to learn to roller skate.

I’d been inching around the edge of the rink for the last thirty minutes, but I still kept falling. The friends I’d come with already knew how to skate and were chasing each other around the rink, completely oblivious to my struggles. I was just thinking about working my way off the rink, when someone skated up next to me.

“Hey, Kelsey, you look lonely,” It was Tom, I hadn’t realized he was there. “Do you want to skate together?”

“I’m not very good,” I said.

“That’s okay,” he slid his arm through mine. “See, hang onto me, and that way if you fall, I’ll fall too, and you won’t look weird.”

We skated arm-and-arm for the rest of the night, laughing when I lost my balance and dragged us both down.  

I was thirteen and my friends weren’t really my friends anymore.

I huddled in one of the dark practice rooms, crying. I couldn’t believe the girls I’d been hanging out with for years could betray me like this. It didn’t make any sense.

The door to my practice room opened and I jerked my head up. Tom was standing in the doorway holding a trumpet in one hand. He blinked. “Am I interrupting something?”

I wiped my eyes. “No.”

He frowned, then stepped into the room and closed the door. Quietly, he dropped down to sit on the floor next to me. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

I was sixteen and I didn’t have a chance.

That was what went through my head every time I saw Tom and his girlfriend walk by. It wasn’t like that relationship was going to last, in fact at least 50% of the girls in my class were counting on it. The problem was that I didn’t stand a chance with him.

It wasn’t that Tom didn’t know I existed. He did and he had always been nice to me.  We’d been close in eighth grade after I lost my other friends, but we’d drifted apart in high school. Nothing drastic, just that I made new friends and he made new friends, and we didn’t really need each other as much as we had before.

I wasn’t sure exactly when I’d developed a crush on Tom, all I knew was I had one now, and just like in books, nothing was ever going to come of it.

It was that year that in a feat of melodramatic, probably book-inspired emotion I scratched the words “I Love Tom” into the door of the one of the stalls in the girl’s bathroom. If you were to go back there today, it’d probably still be there, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I was eighteen and struggling to say goodbye.

I was going off to one college and Tom was going to another. I figured I’d never have any substantial amount of interaction with him again.

So that meant goodbye.

I spent a lot of time trying to decide exactly what kind of goodbye I wanted. I thought about telling him I liked him, but decided against it.  The last thing I needed was my impossible crush spending the rest of our lives thinking of me as just another silly little girl. Eventually, I just bought a graduation card and went to his graduation party.

“I hope you find everything you’re looking for,” I told him as I handed him the card.

He smiled, the same smile he’d had since we were little. “You too,” he said.

I was twenty-one and I had almost forgotten.

Things were looking up. School was going great. I had great friends and a sweet, steady boyfriend named Jared.

I came home one weekend and went to a basketball game.  While I was there, I ran into Tom while coming back from buying a bottle of water. We talked for several minutes. I discovered that he’d changed his major a while back, we were studying the same thing now. We laughed at the coincidence and we parted ways. I didn’t spend the rest of the game staring at him across the bleachers like I would have in high school.

The way I saw it, I’d officially managed to dispose of my teenage crush.

I was twenty-two and things fell apart.

Jared cheated on me two weeks before graduation so I crossed the stage heartbroken.  Afterwards, I came home and got a job at the local grocery store to tide me over until I could find a different job. I was surprised to find that Tom was working there as well.

After a couple weeks of stocking shelves together, he came to work and took me aside.

“Kelsey,” he said seriously. “I found a place that’s trying to fill two positions with people with our skill type. I just applied. You should to.”

So I applied, not expecting much, but those people must have really been desperate because a month later I got the job and so did Tom.

I was twenty-four and Tom was walking me to my car every night.

“You know,” I said on one of these occasions. I was leaning against my open car door, he was standing on the other side. I spoke before I could lose my nerve, “I had a crush on you in high school.”

For a few seconds he just stared at me with his mouth open, then he unbelievably started to laugh.

“What?” I asked, afraid I’d just made a huge mistake.

“I had a crush on you too,” he said. “But you were always so aloof I figured you weren’t interested so I never said anything.”

I was twenty-five and Tom took me out to dinner.

We talked and laughed all night but something wasn’t right. He was distracted. There was a part of me that was deathly terrified he was going to break up with me. I’d been going out with him almost as long as I’d been with Jared and I really didn’t want to go through that fiasco again.

After dinner, however, he suggested we go for a walk in a local park. There he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him.

Much better than a break up.

Now I’m eighty-six and still in love.

Sometimes I try to figure out exactly what moment sealed my future with Tom. Was it the practice room in eighth grade, the suggestion about the job, or the walks to the car? Or were our paths destined to come together the the instant we met at age six?  Somehow, I doubt I’ll ever know.

All I know is that we’re together now. Somehow we went from a pair of six-year-olds introduced by a single instant of sand castle destruction to one of those elderly couples who watch the world go by together, utterly certain of their feelings for each other.

That is the kind of person I am now, and it has taken my entire life to get here. However, I can honestly say, with my whole heart:

I love Tom.