Two Paths Collided

(A condensed story of how my husband and I met, but wanted to keep it within a certain word count. Hope you enjoy my internal dialogue with myself and how fate guided our two souls together.)


The heat radiating from the sun was being absorbed into my fair skin as I lay on my towel, digging my feet in the sand and enjoying its velvety caress. I have had this much-needed vacation planned a year in advance, with this being my second time enjoying the beauty of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. But I never anticipated that this trip would tear down the walls protecting my heart.

  Jolting upward, the burning sensation becoming unbearable as I decide to head towards the coastal blue ocean that crests into mini plumes of white as it hits the shore. The heat here is more potent than where I grew up, as I am more accustomed to winter and the mounds of snow that come with it. Each step forms a sensual thrill that runs through the soles of my feet as I walk across the light specs of powder; it has been way too long since I have been to the beach. The beach in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, does not compare. Lake Erie’s sand is rough between my toes, the water is murky, and let’s be honest, the bacteria in it is most likely thicker than a bowl of oatmeal. So, this endless vibrant water is welcomed as I dive in. Pure bliss. That is the only way to describe the feeling of the cool saltwater as my body glides through it under the waves.

Shooting up out of the water, I fling my hair back and look up at the beach where my sister and mother sit. How can people layout for hours? I mean, I can lay out for a little while if I have a good book, but I want to be active and have some fun. I booked this vacation with my older sister, saying she wanted to come, so we split the costs, and then last minute, our mom wanted to join, so here we are on a girl’s trip. The crazy thing, neither of them have ever been to the ocean, so I wanted to make sure they can experience as much as they could for the trip. Unfortunately, today is our last full day to soak it all up.

Leaving behind the alluring water, I jog up to my sister and grab the football I brought. “C’mon, sis, let’s go toss the ball.”

She peeks up at me from under her hand, acting as makeshift sunglasses, blocking the blinding rays. She sighs, knowing she is the only one I can play catch with. “Alright, let’s go.”

We stayed for a bit longer before we decided to head back to our rental for lunch. The rental I chose is my favorite place to stay because it looks like a treehouse, secluded with trees and the marsh in the distance. It has a small door at the bottom that is just big enough for laundry and the metal spiral staircase that leads you to the top, which is the main floor. The shape of the sea loft is a hexagon with floor-to-ceiling windows all around that make you feel like you are outside.

As we settle down for lunch, we brainstorm what we could do the rest of the day. I mindlessly doodle on my glass of ice water along with the condensation that formed. I suggest kayaking since we went jet skiing already and they do not want to go wakeboarding. Boo. Everything we have done is their first for it all, so I have let them decide our course of action. “Neither of you has been kayaking yet, and the best part is we can get out to swim, hook our legs on the front and just lay back in the water and chill.”

My mom spoke up after taking a sip of her water, “Oh no. I do not want to have my whole body in the water with who knows what swimming around. How about we go jet skiing again! Kayaking sounds fun if we stay out of the water, but I would love to go back to that jet ski place if there are any spots still open.”

I look over to my sister, who nods her head in agreement. I shrug and make the call. Luckily, they have an opening at 3:30pm, and I instantly booked us the spot; we just all three need to share one jet ski. Already my mind is wrapping around a brilliant yet mischievous idea.

Pulling up to Sea Monkey Watersports, I park the car and am excited to do this again. I am a thrill-seeker, but as long as I am outside, I am down for whatever. I wore my most secure bathing suit with an orange knotted top and black bottoms, tying my hair up in a tight bun. Long hair being whipped at fast speeds stings when it strikes against the skin and not pleasant for whoever sits behind me. I leave my shoes behind, preferring to just be barefoot on the rocky ground as we make our way over to the shack where we check-in. Only one other family is booked for this group which is surprising since it is tourist season. Being the introvert that I am, I do the typical smile and nod to the other family and then keep to myself. Except my mother is just like my grandmother, who can make friends anywhere and begins introducing herself.

“Hi, guys! I’m Rita, and these are my daughters Cori and Ali. Looks like it will be just our two groups jet skiing today, huh?”

A woman with short black hair, a petite, tall frame from the other family spoke, “Hi there, I’m Connie. This is my daughter Grace and son Casey. Over here is my nephew Chris and Ray, and then this is my mother Jenny and her husband, Frank. Just the boys and I and my two are going out. Where are you guys from?”

“We drove down from Ohio. How about you guys?”

Connie lit up the moment my mom said Ohio. “Really?! What part? I live in San Diego now because my husband is in the Navy, but everyone else here still lives in good ol’ Cleveland, Ohio.”

            That piqued my interest when she said Cleveland. Just enough for me to include myself in the conversation. “Wow, what a small world. We’re from Cleveland too, but outside of it in the Eastlake area.”

            Her eyes widened when I said Eastlake. Before she could speak, her nephew Chris spoke. “What! That is crazy, we are from Mentor. I graduated from Mentor High School last year”.

  Taking this all in for a moment as I let the shock of how insane this is dissolve. What is the coincidence that all of us live 15 minutes from each other and happen to be here on vacation, with the same time slot to go jet skiing at this particular place? If there was ever a moment where my mind was blown, this would be it.

Mindlessly, I looked down and trace a circle in the sand with my foot and brought my hand to rub the back of my head as nerves tingled through my body. Get it together and say something. Stop being awkward. “Cool. I graduated last year too but from North High School. I wonder if we know the same people.” Smooth.

He scrunched his face and pursed his luscious lips to the side in thought. Wait, what… why am I staring at his lips? Quickly shooting my gaze away from his mouth and back up to his eyes before he notices.

I knew the moment he thought of a name to ask by the way he displayed his full smile that could knock you off your feet. “Do you know Nick Romero?”

A small chuckle escaped my mouth in disbelief. “Yeah, I do, actually.”

Then it was his turn to laugh at how unreal this situation is, and the sound did something to me inside. Such a strange feeling since my mind and heart are safely guarded with walls and chains made of steel. Protecting myself from the pain of my past. I kept to myself and told myself a while ago that I do not need a man. I may be young still, but I am confident in who I am, strong from putting myself together when I was left in pieces. Therefore, I stopped “looking” for that special someone a long time ago.

I can feel the pounding of my heart as I truly take this man before me in. Short chestnut hair that is thick and looks like he just ran his hand through it. With his rosy lips that look feather soft and light scruff that seems he may have skipped a day shaving. He is wearing a cut-off that shows off his golden skin, toned arms, and tattoos on his side and bicep. I wonder if he has more ink… Easily I can see that he is active and in shape, the thought making my cheeks flush. But what really captures me are his searing green eyes. The sun is making them glisten, almost looking like sea glass as he holds my gaze, making it feel as if he can see every part of who I am.

Just now do I realize that he is taking me in, and man, do I wish I did not look like a beach bum. To also make matters worse, my hair is wrapped in such a tight bun on top of my head, making me look like Miss Trunchbull from the movie Matilda. Internally cursing at myself and the universe, that this is how I look in front of the first guy who caught my attention.

All conversations came to a stop when it was time to head out on the water. My mom and sister wanted me to be the first to drive the jet ski since part of it are following the guides out to where we can let loose. Instantly my body thrums with delight as my fingers curl around the level of the throttle. Before we know it, we take off soaring across the glimmering water that is twinkling under the sunlight. Racing through the wind and splitting the salty air like the red sea. Both my mom and sister have not been swimming in the ocean. The deepest they went was up to their knees. Well, that is about to change. My sly plan is to fling them off or tip the jet ski enough to make them fall in. What I did not anticipate is tipping the jet ski so intensely while zooming around to make a donut that not only did all three of us tumble ungracefully into the water, but the whole jet ski flipped upside down.

Our heads popped out of the water, making us look like a game of “Pop goes the weasel.” Right at that moment, awareness tingled down my spine as I spun around to find Chris racing past on his jet ski while giving us a thumbs up. I felt my face heating from him witnessing that whole show. Face, meet palm. I swear, the universe is against me today, and I damn well want to know why. But I turned to my mom and sister to see wide eyes and huge smiles directed towards me. Silence ascended between us before we all bobbled around in the waves erupting in a pit of laughter.

My muscles ached with the good kind of pain as we made our way back to the car. Chris had asked my last name before we departed, which makes me buzz with nervous excitement? Is he actually interested in me? Despite being a complete and utter hot mess? Nah.

The voice of my mom startling me as she draws me out of my internal mumbling. She nudged my shoulder,  “He was CUTEEE! You should have got his number!”

Sighing, I explain my stubborn thought process. “Mom, I’m not going to ask for his number. If he is interested, he will find a way to contact me.”

She rolled her eyes but seemed satisfied with my answer as we were driving away from the parking lot towards the main road. Casually waiting to find that perfect opening to join the other charade of cars, my phone dings. Glancing down at the screen, I freeze. All the airlocks up in my lungs, and my mind cannot seem to process what I am seeing. No. No way. I must be hallucinating. This guy searched for me and requested me on Facebook. We have not even left the parking lot yet, and already he hunted me down.

Humorously feeling a little smug, I swivel in my seat to face my mom. I’m displaying a little comedic smirk to play the part while raising my eyebrows up and down in a lazy manner. “See. If he is interested, he will find a way.”

I showed her my phone, and her eyebrows shot to the top of her head. My sister leaned between the front seats to take a peak, and her jaw dropped—all of us staring dumbfounded at my phone before giggling as we became speechless. 

The whole way back to our rental, my mind was churning with uncertainty. Am I ready to rip open my scars if the opportunity arises? To set free the pain coursing through my veins from months of abuse from the one who had shattered me to the core? Constant thoughts course through my psyche, wondering why I felt such a strong pull towards this man I hardly know. My past makes me want to jump ship and continue to sail alone out to sea, but my soul seems to have ignited the slightest flicker of a spark. Anchoring the boat and halting the path I carved for myself.

We ate dinner not long after we settled back down into the rental, and the remaining hours of the day and our time on vacation are ticking away. The only thing my sister and mom want to do is pack the rest of the evening and relax on the couch, but that is the last thing I want to do. A light bulb went off in my head, and an unexpected idea of messaging Chris shot through my brain. Do I take that step and make the first move? Do I want to? Before I can go back into a downward spiral, I already pressed accept and sent him a message. Staring at my phone as if I can will his reply to appear, not blinking. Not even a minute goes by before my phone dings with a notification from him. Holy shit. Gulping down air, I did not know I needed from unintentionally holding my breath. Daring to do something I have never done, I ask him out to see if he can hang tonight since I will be gone tomorrow. To my utter surprise, he says yes.

Wiping my clammy palms on my shorts as I pull up to his timeshare in my sisters’ car, waiting for him to approach. I offered to pick him up since I had a vehicle we could use at the ready, and now my heart is beating so fast I feel like it will run out of my chest. As I try to slow my breathing down, I glance across the road, and there he is. Oh, God. He’s wearing a maroon V-neck shirt with dark faded jeans, grey high-tops, and all of it conforming to his body, making him look like trouble with a capital T.  I’m fucked. What did I just get myself into? He slides into the passenger side, and his cologne hits me and floats around my senses. Sin. If sin and man could be a smell, this would be it. Creating butterflies fluttering in my stomach and forming a need to lean towards him, until his scent is cemented into my being.

My voice is raspy when I go to say hello, forcing me to clear my throat. Get it together. Praying Chris does not take notice of my cheeks which I am sure are flaming from ogling him. “H-hi.” Wow. Smooth Ali. I meet his gaze as I greet him.

His eyes lift at the corners as he gives me his heart throbbing smile. “Hey.”

The more we talk to each other, the less nervous I feel. My breathing soothes out, the tingles coursing through my body before as nerves have now turned into excitement. His voice vibrates through my core, and it calms me. What is it about him that has me drawing to him like a moth to a flame?

            We chose to walk the beach, and I am unsure how far we walked along the shore, shoes in my hand and sand between my toes. The water floating up with each wave, splashing our feet, the sun is setting, creating a reflective sheen on the wet sand. I keep greedily inhaling the fresh sea air as if I can engrave it to my memory. Side by side, we absorb the beauty of our moment in time as we talk about everything. For once, I do not feel shy and awkward. The way he looks at me makes me feel like the only one on the beach with him, as if the rest of the world does not exist. He is the fire to my ice, melting away fears of showing someone my true self. I find myself not wanting this moment to end.

            The sun disappeared as the sky turns an inky black, with the moon illuminating a dim glow all around. We decide to head back for the night with me having to be up early for the drive home and his grandma wanting him to head back. Once again, I find myself with sweaty palms and a fluttering heart as I park in front of his building. We both are quiet as we smile at one another, unsure of how to end the evening.

Before I can say a word, his smile drops, and his eyes form a blazing trail to my lips. “Can I kiss you?”

When I suck in a quick breath, my lips part when all I can do is nod as my eyes meet his. He leans towards me ever so slowly as a small smile tugs on his lips. His scent once again swirls around me, making my head buzz with pleasure. Bringing his warm hand to the side of my face that sparks goosebumps along my skin and pulls me towards him. Gently, I feel the soft brush of his lips on mine, pressing against me creating a tremor through my body. This kiss was patient but sure, as it broke the dam safeguarding my heart; the flow of emotions erupted and began swimming around and making me want to cling to him. The kiss was quick and left me wanting, as I try to keep myself steady. We both say goodnight, and I watch him walk to his door until he completely disappears. 

            Two weeks later, I buzz around my house and anxious as I keep peeking quick glances out the window. Since coming home from vacation, Chris and I have kept in touch and message each other every day. He traveled home a few days ago, and today is the day he asked if he could see me. I see a black car pull up along the curb, and as if in slow motion, I watch him get out to face my house. Don’t rush out there. That will make you look like you were staring out the window the whole time, even though I was… I don’t want him to know that. I give myself a minute as I see him approaching and then open the door. We both stop our movements as our eyes meet, gazes locked. At that moment, it felt as if our souls were attached to a magnetic pull, forcing us to become one. Call me crazy, but the universe may have collided me into the path of my twin flame.

-A. Stuebbe

A piece of me…

*This is a creative non-fiction story that is based on my own personal past. A journey that shaped who I am today, and impacted my view on life. After years of keeping my inner thoughts to myself, I feel a sense of relief to write it down and put it out there for you to read.*

Normal Is Overrated

Lying in my twin-sized bed, staring up at the old faded stars stuck on the ceiling. At some point over the years, they stopped glowing, and I have been too dang lazy to take them down. It’s dark now. Leaving my window open to feel the crisp fall breeze filter inside and letting my thoughts drift with it. Four years. That is how long I have been imprisoned in this unknown agony. Trapped in my own body, my personal cage. My soul is wild and unbound, craving to do everything my body is denying. Forcefully squeezing my eyes shut, I clutch the downy blanket underneath me as I fist my hands. Not fair. This anger and frustration are pushing me to the edge of being defeated. Wanting to let myself succumb to the sadness within. I’m only 13 and 9 when this all began. Four long years of numerous doctors, tests, physical therapy. All were stating that there is nothing they can do, possibly arthritis or something I will outgrow. But this pain abusing my hips feels like a knife is slashing through my joints relentlessly. Depriving me of running, walking with being forced to limp, and even hindering me from putting on my own damn socks. Helpless. My eyes burn as a single tear wanders down my cheek as I drift off to sleep. Mentally preparing myself for another doctor’s appointment tomorrow and seeing no hope in sight.

            The following day, I was sitting in University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. Another waiting room in a different hospital, but they all began to look the same. The warn leather seat I’m sitting in does nothing for comfort. I start mindlessly scraping my nail over the rough edges of a tear in the cushion while silently watching people shuffle around the halls. My mom sits impatiently next to me as we wait to be called back for my MRI the doctor requested before meeting him. Checking in and answering the nurse’s questions feel robotic to me now. Time dragged on before we were called back. The MRI tech informed me that I would be receiving a contrast dye intravenously before the scan begins. The pinch from the needle was minor, and I could feel the dye’s chilled liquid creep through my veins. A sudden rush of metal and a tang of bitterness overflowed my taste buds. The scan was almost tranquil, even if this platform I lay on is unwelcomely cold. Goosebumps raised on my arms as a shiver swept over me. Closing my eyes, enjoying the steady hum of the machine and savoring this unperturbed moment.

An hour later, the nurse sent me to the doctor’s room to wait. I figured I should try to make myself comfortable in this faded brown suede chair since it will be awhile. My mom next to me began flicking her nails. Ugh. The sound of it makes me cringe. Every. Single. Time. Before I tell her to stop, she starts to enlighten me about what she feels might be “wrong with me” from her latest search on Google. My mother thinks Google knows all and can “cure” me. Restraining from rolling my eyes, I ignore her and glance around the room. Just another white, sterile, and impersonal space that smells like disinfectant. My chest begins to feel tight, but why? I have no hope left to give. Maybe it’s nerves or the depressing expectation of another dead end. Amid my thoughts, a knock sounded right before the door edged open. The doctor ushered himself inside, his face brightening offering us a cheerful smile causing the corners of his eyes to wrinkle. He reached out his hand to introduce himself.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Hashkis. So nice to meet you!”. He beamed, gently shaking my hand.

            I looked up hesitantly as I shook his rough, calloused hand. “Hi… Ali. But you probably already knew that.”

            He nodded in agreement. Then proceeded to introduce himself to my mom. I braced myself for what he was going to say next. I could see his eyes vaguely dim as he crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the counter. His smile softened as he looked at me. The pounding of my heart began to quicken. My breath caught when he started to speak.

“The contrast dye that was administered for your MRI scan allowed me to see a more in-depth view compared to a regular scan. What I found was cysts on your hips that are slowly causing those joints to deteriorate. In simpler terms, your body is attacking itself.”

            I think I blacked out. Not sure if I was still breathing. Shell-shocked. Dr. Hashkis noticed my distress and continued speaking before I could ask what all this meant.

            He uncrossed his arms, folding his hands in front of him—sympathy in his eyes. “I need to be blunt on this, and I apologize. Your diagnosis is called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is an autoimmune disease. Your case is rare since, typically, this is most common in someone much older. Then, add that there is no family history with this disease that you are aware of. Unfortunately, there is no cure. There are treatments, though. You are so young, and I am afraid if you do not start treatment… you will need a hip replacement by the time you turn 20.”

            My eyes were burning from the tears that I struggled to hold in. This doctor just laid it all out there. My chest felt like it was just ripped open. My mom began rubbing my back, asking about the treatments, while I retreated to my internal chaos.

            The doctor turned those empathetic eyes back on me. “I want to start treatment today. This will be in the form of injections twice a week, and we can provide your first one here to show you. The shots will need to be administered behind your arms, stomach, or the top of your thighs. The medicine will help, though, significantly.”

            No words left my mouth; I just nodded and let my mom discuss the rest of the details. Well… I got my answer I so desperately wanted. Was I ready to face it? Do I have a choice? No. No choice. I am being forced to dive headfirst before I can even grasp my new reality. NOT CURABLE. Those words constantly cycling in my head. Devastation. Confusion. WHY ME?! I should be thankful the doctor found the reason for my pain. But, why do I feel so frustrated towards him? How awful can I be to be mad at the one person who provided an answer? Deep down, I knew why… it was an answer I did not want to hear. My head dropped down, my eyes downcast, my hair falling over my shoulders, and the tears that threatened to fall finally let loose. Each drop trailed down my face, speckling my denim jeans. I felt broken.

            That night I holed myself in my room, keeping the lights off and drowning in my own misery. My mother now looked at me with pity, as did the rest of my family. I just want to be “normal” like the other kids. Clenching my teeth together, I tucked myself deep in my closet, pressing my face to my pillow, and screamed my bloody heart out. My throat ached as I crawled back in bed. An unforgiving pounding started intruding my head. No more tears would fall tonight as I welcomed the blackness that swept over me, allowing me to escape this harsh truth that was now my life.

            I’m ashamed of myself for the maddening thoughts I have, even though a month has passed. Staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, taking in the bruises that marred my body. The injection sights stayed permanently sore each week. This darkness that invades my thoughts is not who I am—becoming infuriated with myself. Why am I wallowing around when so many others have it worse? The reality of that epiphany slapped me across the face. Dragging my gaze to my eyes, I stared directly at myself—determination washing over me.

            A few months went by, and the pain was subsiding. I could run again. The door to my personal cage tore open. I ran and never stopped. I was reveling in the feeling of the wind brushing through my hair and against my face. The sound of my feet pounding on the concrete, pushing my legs as fast as they would allow. Arms pumping and lungs burning, I felt free.

            With this new form of freedom, I joined the track and cross-country team in 8th grade and all through high school. I pushed my body to the limit every practice. I still felt that my disease was on display as if everyone could tell I was not “normal.” I kept my condition a secret from even my close friends. Afraid they would see me different, with pity-filled eyes.

            I refused to feel helpless again, and a fire developed to keep my body strong. Punishing and demanding myself to exert more strength, I began improving. Finishing each race with a faster time. Reciting the well-known phrase “pain is weakness leaving the body.” I willed that to be accurate and exhausted myself each day, filling my need to do better.

*15 Years Later *

Sitting on the white wood bench, looking out at the crystal blue water of the ocean. The salty breeze billowing around me, seagulls soaring overhead, thinking back to when my life changed. My lips curved upward, wishing I could tell that little girl back then that everything will be okay. I began writing in my journal, becoming aware of the hardship I had to work through; that’s what made me stronger. The battle I had to face mentally in the past had fueled my will—a will to overcome those struggles. I’m proud that I made my body strong because at 28 years old, I still have not needed a hip replacement. My recent MRI scan showed no further damage inflicted on my hips. A sense of calm washed over me, taking a deep breath and exhaling. I looked up at the cloudless sky and huffed a laugh. Remembering that I just wanted to be “normal.” Smiling to myself, I knew with absolute clarity that normal is overrated.

By: A.Stuebbe