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Five Steps

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“Love doesn’t make sense! You can’t logic your way into or out of it. Love is totally nonsensical. But we have to keep doing it or else we’re lost and love is dead, and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do.” – Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother, Season 9, Episode 22: ‘End of the Aisle’

It was a truth universally acknowledged that Casey McDonald always had a plan.

Whether her plan was actually good was a different story, but the fact remained that she had one to easily pull out and launch into action. And every plan, whether new or old, was treated the same: handwritten neatly on lined paper, slipped inside of a protective plastic sleeve, sorted by subject, alphabetized, hole-punched, and filed away in her black, three-ringed binder, appropriately titled, Plans for Life: A-Z.

Perhaps her enthusiasm could be considered a tad neurotic, but could anyone blame her? Plans brought a sense of relief and security like no other. In a world filled with chaos, unknowns, and things out of her control, Casey desperately needed security.

A single, brilliantly developed plan had the power to alleviate the anxiety that constantly thrummed in her veins and elicit pleasant feelings. She couldn’t explain why, but every time she set pen to paper, she felt deliriously giddy. There was just something so beautiful about the process, from the moment an idea popped into her head to the very end when the plan came to fruition.

While her binder was full of nearly every plan under the sun, she clearly had her favorites. Among them were the Casey Condensation Method for Studying (duh), how to make the perfect green smoothie (the trick was to add a touch of honey to cut the bitterness), and her five-step plan for falling in love.

Yes, she had a strategic plan to fall in love.

Hey, it wasn’t that ridiculous of a notion! Based on all the literature she had read, films she had watched, music she had listened to, and experiences she had witnessed, she knew that love could be the most powerful thing in the world. But, it also had the ability to be overly messy and complicated. To weather that storm, she figured the least she could do was condense it into five (seemingly) easy steps:

Step 1: Meet a charming, handsome stranger in a classically romantic place, such as a coffee shop, a bookstore, a library, an art museum, a theatre performance, an orchestral concert, an opera, or in an intellectually stimulating class.

Step 2: Strike up a conversation with that person and find mutual topics of interest to discuss. Exchange phone numbers, email addresses, or social media information to continue the conversation beyond the initial one. Spend more time together and become friends.

Step 3: After establishing a steady friendship built on mutual respect and trust, disclose feelings and explore where they may lead. Go on a few dates to test the waters. If all systems are a go, define the relationship after the third date to cement the ‘couple’ status.

Step 4: Fully embrace being a couple. Introductions of family members begin here, as well as co-signing birthday cards, being each other’s ‘plus one’ to events, celebrating anniversaries and holidays together, and traveling with one another.

Step 5: These affectionate feelings will continue to grow over time, shifting and morphing into a warm and comforting love. At this point, it is essential to declare this love, in the most romantic and swoon-worthy way possible. This love, when properly nurtured, will last a lifetime. Naturally, the next steps are cohabitating, marriage, and starting a family. The final objective will be to grow old together, just as happily and blissfully in love as those beginning days.

See? Simple. And it was only five steps! (Okay, maybe the first few drafts included upwards of twenty steps, but after many revisions, she shrunk it down to the bare minimum!) The number of steps aside, Casey was positive that anyone could follow this plan and achieve their happily-ever after ending. It was so fool proof that no issues could ever arise.  

At the tender age of twelve, when she first began outlining the details of this masterful plan, she knew that one day, she would meet the man of her dreams, fall deeply in love, and spend the remainder of her life with him.

While she had every intention of following her plan, she never anticipated that it would come with one major flaw.

Apparently, falling in love wasn’t as straightforward as she originally thought.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Oh, she had definitely tried. Every time a new guy caught her eye, she felt her heart stir with hope.

Sadly, that spark of hope tended to fizzle out quickly. She didn’t like to admit it, but none of her relationships had come even close to reaching the requirements detailed in her five-step plan. There were no romantic meetings, no genuine conversations based on mutual interests, no steady friendships that evolved into something more, and certainly no declarations of love.

She knew her plan wasn’t the problem. After all, she had specifically designed it to be infallible.

No, the problem was her.

For some inexplicable reason, she was incapable of falling in love.

And she hated it. She was capable at so many things. Why did this have to be the one thing that she couldn’t do?

She searched high and low for the answer, but could never find it. Even though it killed her on the inside, she eventually realized that it was time to accept that she, Casey McDonald, was never going to fall in love. At eighteen, she already sealed her fate: she’d spend the rest of her life as a sad, lonely spinster.

With abject misery, she raised her white flag, ready to surrender.

But, then…

She accidentally bumped into Evan Lindberg in the library during her first week at Queen’s University.

With a gentle hand on her shoulder to prevent her from stumbling and a softly spoken question, ‘Hey, are you all right?’, he instantly captivated her.

From that moment onward, they began a comfortable friendship, tinged with shy glances, blushing cheeks, and playful banter. In a matter of weeks, their friendship blossomed into a lovely relationship.

Over the course of their relationship, Casey learned that Evan possessed every quality she looked for in a perfect mate – intelligence, kindness, trustworthiness, respectfulness, maturity, loyalty, ambitiousness, a sense of humor, honesty, and physical attractiveness.

She was sure this was it – she had found the person who would allow her to check off all the steps of her plan.

Step 1: Check. She had met Evan, a charming and handsome guy, in the most romantic place of all – a library.

Step 2: Check. Their first conversation involved a mutual love of books. As it turned out, they shared many common interests, which were discussed at length through text messages, phone calls, video chats, and social events.

Step 3: Check. The transition from friends to something more was an effortless process. After returning from each of their dates, Casey felt like she was floating on Cloud Nine. Without question, this relationship was the best she had ever had.

Step 4: …In progress. She and Evan were a great couple. At least she liked to think so. Except…if they were so great, why hadn’t they met each other’s families yet? Why didn’t they travel together? Why didn’t they attend events as one another’s ‘plus one’? The only things they managed to do were co-signing birthday cards and celebrating holidays and anniversaries.

To her dismay, they remained stuck on Step 4. She waited and waited, fervently crossing off the dates on her calendar. Six months progressed into a year, which eventually turned into two. Time didn’t seem to make a difference, for she never saw any movement from either of them.

For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why. By every standard in the book, they were perfect for each other. So, why couldn’t they move past this?

She discovered the answer on a delightfully romantic date in late September of their third year. After two years together, those three words were finally whispered.

But, she wasn’t the one who had said them.

He had.

Evidently, he had moved past this, but she hadn’t.

Suddenly, the cold and disturbing truth hit her like a ton of bricks: she didn’t love Evan, nor would she ever grow to love him.  

The fact that she didn’t love him was bad enough, but the reason why…well, that was an even harder pill to swallow.

It was the reason she had avoided for years, simply because it was too overwhelming and heart-wrenching to face. If she were honest with herself, it was the reason why all her other relationships had crashed and burned as well.


The thing was, Casey had a meticulous plan to fall in love with a classically handsome and romantic man who would sweep her off her feet. 

And then Derek, in his typical irritating, good-for-nothing, push-all-her-buttons way, managed to completely destroy it without even trying.

It took Casey a total of nine years, four relationships, countless sessions in therapy, several conversations with her college best friend, one outing with her father, and what seemed like a never-ending waterfall of tears to accept the unfortunate reality: she couldn’t control how she fell in love and with whom because love was unpredictable. It was illogical. It didn’t make sense.

Because if it did make sense…well, she wouldn’t have ended up here.  

In the future, if she ever chose to retell this story, she wanted to make three things clear. One, it wasn’t love at first sight. Two, falling in love was not effortless – she fought it whole way, kicking and screaming. And three, she never intended to fall in love with Derek.

And yet…

She did.  Quite madly, deeply, passionately, and irrevocably, for that matter.

There wasn’t one single, earth-shattering moment that caused Casey to topple over the precipice and fall. Rather, it was a collection of small moments, spread across time. After analyzing, re-analyzing, and over-analyzing those moments, she determined that they fit into four windows of time: the months leading up to Queen’s, Year 1 at Queen’s, Year 2, and finally, the beginning of Year 3. Quietly, she gathered those moments, keeping them safely tucked away in a mental filing cabinet she reserved just for Derek.

And by golly, that filing cabinet was full of information. She catalogued and organized every interaction she had with him – the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between – and shoved them into separate ‘folders.’

Whenever she thought of Derek (which was more often than she cared to admit), certain interactions sprang to mind, like her first impressions of him, all the times they came to one another’s rescue, and anything that reminded her of current (romantic) feelings.

Truthfully, she hadn’t been aware of any possible feelings until the last half of Grade 12. Up to that point, she blamed the random (and weird) flashes of attraction on her fluctuating hormones. It was a completely natural reaction – Derek was a seemingly handsome guy and she was a relatively pretty girl. It was basic biology, for crying out loud: add two and two together and some sparks were bound to fly.

It wasn’t as if she liked those brief (but intense) periods of attraction. If anything, they sent shivers (the bad kind, she swore!) right down her spine. Thankfully, as soon as they appeared, they were gone in the blink of an eye. Despite dreading their occurrences, she figured she could live with them.

 But, then, she and Derek just had to break the status quo by entering Dance Mania as partners. That’s when, she supposed, her journey to hell began. Head bowed in shame, she dutifully paid her toll, climbed aboard the vessel, and waited to cross the River Styx.