Charlie gripped the wheel with both hands as she maneuvered her car through the city traffic. She wouldn’t have driven here except Paul needed her.
After another two miles, she was off the highway and driving slowly down a wide street, looking for the restaurant where Paul had asked her to meet him. She spied his car and pulled in beside it.
The lights inside the restaurant were low and made it hard for her to look for Paul, but she finally saw his broad shoulders at a table near the back wall.
“Hi, Paul.” He glanced up, a startled expression covering his face.
“Hey there, Charlie. Have a seat. I didn’t expect you to get here so soon.”
“Well, when you called me, I knew there had to be a good reason…you never do that, y’ know. So I hurried. I left work early.” She took a seat and pointed to the menu lying on the table. “Is it good here?”
“The food…is it good?”
Paul smiled and nodded. “Yep. I ate here last month when we had a conference in town.”
He stopped talking and Charlie examined his face. Something was definitely wrong with Paul…but what?
They gave their orders and she continued to make small talk and Paul continued to give monosyllabic answers. After the waiter brought their food, Charlie ate quietly. Finally, Paul put down his fork and looked across the table.
“Charlie…you’re the best friend I have…you know that, right?”
“I’m glad you think that, Paul.”
“But, you see, Charlie, all the time I was growing up, I had this ideal in my head…who I would marry. Someone successful…young and, well, you’re going to think this is dumb, but being the nerd I am, I always thought…er…hoped, that I would meet a really beautiful babe-type woman.” He laughed nervously. Charlie’s stomach started to churn but she said nothing.
He continued. “Someday, I knew I would have a good position in the office and maybe that would lead to a date…someone would finally see the real me. Y’ know what I mean? I know you do…you’re so sweet, Charlie...it’s your way, but…” he turned his chocolate brown eyes to Charlie and she knew what he was trying to say.
“ I see the real you, Paul” she said softly.
He blinked…his face turned red, but he continued. “You know, other people have the idea that you and I are, well, dating. That’s not really the way it is. Is it?” His eyes were begging Charlie to understand.
What he was saying sat like a rock in her stomach and caused a painful tug in her heart, but she understood. She understood because she was on the outside looking in, too. She knew the urge to be somebody…to not be overlooked…but, she loved him and it would be hard to let go.
Charlie looked away just as a gorgeous redhead walked past the table. Paul’s eyes followed the model-thin creature all the way to her seat.
Something snapped in Charlie. That longing look he wore did it. She was NOT enough for him, but she didn’t have to be…she suddenly knew he’d either have to accept her love and friendship just the way it was, or she’d have to move on. She stood. Paul watched her every move and it was clear he was feeling a lot of pain, but he didn’t stop her. He stood, too, and leaned close to give her a hug. Just before he let her go, he suddenly pressed his cheek to hers and she heard a soft moan escape his lips. He looked at her and his eyes were sad.
“Look, Charlie…I have some growing up to do…I have some thinking to do and some praying to do. I don’t feel good about my selfish dreams. I just…” he shrugged and dropped his hands to his side.
Charlie smiled at him, gave him another quick hug, and nodded.
“It’s OK. I do understand…but I can’t change how I feel about you and it’s obvious you want more than I can give. I’ll be praying for you. You’ve been my best friend and it’ll be hard to not see you or talk to you, but…” she sighed and began to walk away. At the door, she turned back to see that Paul was still watching her; his face forlorn and already looking lonely.
She waved, straightened her shoulders, and went out into the cold night.
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