We were standing at the big raw-wood counter in the kitchen. My parents had rented a cabin so our family could spend the summer in the mountains by Lake Tahoe, and we were all talking about my girlfriend Dana. Everyone already knew what I hadn't told her. But you can't just tell someone something like that.
At that point, Dana and I had been 'dating' for two months. She was living in California and I was living in Texas, and we'd been talking on the phone and texting each other goodnight. She'd even sung me a song.
We'd met four years earlier in Hong Kong. I was just getting started as a serious writer then, and Dana was finishing school. She was beautiful. We went different directions after Hong Kong, but we regularly wrote each other letters: long, heartfelt, flirtatious, inspiring letters. In theory we were just friends, but eventually we admitted that we'd become something more.
Two months before my family's trip to Tahoe, Dana and I had reunited in person. I'd flown from Austin to LA, and we'd gone from the airport straight to Malibu beach, trembling and giggling throughout the drive. I finally felt the pure and simple joy of Dana's hand in mine. The warmth and the comfort and the promise. We kissed for the first time that night, standing together on the ocean sand.
During those first ecstatic days, I met Dana's roommate, her brother, her sister-in-law, and even one of her college professors. I saw where she lived and worked, and I felt her body close to mine. By the end of the trip, we were "officially a couple". We'd communicated everything we hadn't been able to before; the essential questions of love and relationship were answered. Ironically though, the ceremony of romance and courtship had lagged behind: we were dating, but we'd never gone on a real date.
While I was at the cabin in Tahoe, Dana was with her family at their summer home on Lake Wildwood. Tahoe and Wildwood are about two hours apart, so we decided to meet at a restaurant in the middle. For a date. A real one.
I left our cabin in a rental car. The mountain roads were winding; I could see the sunlit tips of big mountains in the distance. The air was crisp.
I arrived first, and was seated outside on the restaurant's patio. My table had a little waterfall on one side, and green trees all around. Dana joined me a few minutes later, and I stood to greet her. We kissed.
I don't remember what we had for dinner or what we talked about, and it didn't matter. I could smell her perfume and study her smile; I could feel her foot touching my ankle beneath the table. It was just like our first real conversation in a Hong Kong coffee shop four years earlier: relaxed and thrilling, easy and profound. Just tell her, I remember thinking. But I couldn't. Not yet.
We left the restaurant eventually, but neither of us was ready to say goodbye. We got into my rental car and just drove. It was getting dark, and Dana's hand was on my knee. It wasn't long before I pulled into an empty forest drive. The sun finally set, and the darkness and the trees seemed to close behind us like soft curtains.
I turned off the engine, and we kissed. And then the starry sky appeared in the distance through the trees; we opened the doors and stood and breathed. We sat on the hood of the car, side by side, and Dana put her hand in mine.
"I need to tell you something," she said. "A big something."
She didn't wait, and she didn't explain: "I love you."
The words sounded new, natural, and honest.
"I love you too," I replied, and I meant it.
But that wasn't all.
"I need to tell you something else," I added. "It's another big something."
My body started to tremble and my voice quivered in my throat. Dana held me tightly, and then I looked at her; despite the darkness and the curtains of trees, I could see her green eyes. They were bright and open wide.
"I wrote a book for you. I mean, I wrote a book about you." I swallowed and inhaled. "Dana, I've loved you for a long time, and you inspired me to write a book. A love story. The girl in the story – her name is Evangeline Muse – she's you." I inhaled again. "It isn't published yet, but one day it will be. I think it might be a very beautiful book, and I've been waiting four years to tell you."
Dana smiled, and kissed me. She looked at me and her eyes were green and bright. "Can I read it?" she asked.
'The Conception of Zachary Muse' by Jason Hinojosa is published by ROMAN Books