Pacey sat on the front steps of the high school gym, trying to force himself to breathe, to make the world stop spinning. He couldn’t get enough air in…had his lungs actually shrunk in the last 15 minutes? Can that happen?
No, he realized — they were just being squeezed, caught in the same vise that was crushing his heart, forcing his stomach into his throat. He closed his eyes and took in a shallow breath. It was all he could do.
She didn’t feel it .
Elbows resting on his knees, Pacey dropped his head into his hands, reeling from confusion and heartache. How had he misread the situation so completely? The last few weeks had been wonderful…hadn’t they? From the moment her lips touched his in that sweet, sleepy kiss in his bedroom, he’d felt something dormant begin to rise in his heart and mind. Ever since, the subtle white noise that had always been his underlying love for Joey had increased in intensity and volume, becoming a full out chorus that belted into his brain a song of second chances, of wishes fulfilled. “This could be it!”, the song said. “You’ve found your way home!”
It had all been so perfect — until suddenly, it wasn’t.
As they stood outside the gym, he could tell the moment she started to pull away from him — from them. He knew she was scared, and he knew he had to be brave enough for both of them, so he put it all out there, laid his cards on the table, told her everything he was feeling. She had tried to stop him from forging ahead, but he just kept going like the reckless idiot he was. He intimated that he could see himself spending the rest of his life with her — that this could be it .
But this wouldn’t be it, she told him — this couldn’t be it, because she didn’t feel for him what he felt for her. Eddie had come back, and there was nothing left to say.
Pacey cringed as the sting of her words caused a fresh wave of pain. Eddie came back. He remembered accusing her once of being afraid to ask herself the right question. Now, that clearly wasn’t the issue. She had asked herself the question and had found the answer. The answer wasn’t him.
He drew another shallow breath as he tried to get his emotional bearings.
What was it with him and proms? While nothing could top the absolute horror of their senior prom, honestly, junior prom hadn’t been much better. I mean, he and Joey had one perfect dance — two minutes of her in his arms, his fingers on her skin, hers clutching his jacket, cementing in his mind just how right they were for one another — but that ended with her chasing an angry Dawson out the door and him standing on the dance floor, alone.
He chuckled sadly, remembering their conversation aboard the True Love a few weeks later — lying on their backs, holding hands, looking up at the stars, Joey told him what Dawson had said when she caught him outside his parents’ restaurant that night. He had told her he’d created a whole perfect evening for her, trying to remind her of their past, what they could be together. He had even kissed her, saying that she had to make a choice, and if she didn’t choose him, she’d be missing everything.
Not everything , Pacey remembered himself thinking with a smug smile as he squeezed her hand, knowing she’d sleep curled up by his side, not Dawson’s, that night.
Pacey shook his head at the memory — what a dick Dawson had been back then, trying to create a “perfect night,” using their past and her guilt to manipulate her into choosing him, badgering her with his vision of their future together, even when she was no longer in love with him, even when she clearly wanted to be with someone else, even when…
Suddenly Pacey froze as his stomach lurched to his throat. Oh my god, was he the DAWSON in this scenario??
Shit. Look at what he’d done. He knew she had unresolved feelings for that Eddie guy — she hadn’t voluntarily ended things with Eddie, he’d left her. She even admitted at their dream-come-true KMart slumber party that she had really liked Eddie — and though she had said it in the past tense, he could tell she was still hurting.
And so what did Pacey do? He kissed her. He wanted her so badly, the moment seemed so right, their gravitational pull was so strong, that he couldn’t help himself — he kissed her.
What an idiot. She hadn’t chosen him. Heck, she hadn’t even chosen to be there with him that night — she had signed up for a friendly rent-a-date, and then he took advantage of their stranded state and kissed her. He knew she felt abandoned by Eddie. He knew she was a little bit lost and confused about her future. And he used that to his advantage.
He sighed. Sounds exactly like something Dawson would do.
And then tonight. He had done everything he could to make it perfect for her. Everything he could to remedy past wrongs, to remind her of what they could be together. He had cited their past, shared his vision of their future — even in the face of her clear protestations of disinterest. He had wanted the night to end so differently.
This was junior prom all over again, except this time he was playing the role of Dawson.
Pacey closed his eyes and wondered if she was in there right now, feeling horribly guilty that she’d hurt him, worried that she’d destroyed their friendship. The thought made him sick.
He didn’t want to be the guy who held the girl he loved back because she didn’t return his feelings. The guy who manipulated her, preyed on her guilt and nostalgia to stop her from following her own dreams.
He felt like that guy.
He hated that guy.
He would NOT be that guy.
Suddenly, Pacey knew what he had to do. He’d never subscribed to that, “If you love someone, set them free” thing, but now he saw it in a new light. It wasn’t about setting her free in the hopes that doing so would lead her back; that was the Dawson approach, and look how well that had worked out. No, it was about loving someone so much that you’re willing to step out of the way, no matter how much it pains you, and let them find their own happiness…even if that happiness is with somebody else.
He had to let Joey off the hook.
Pacey sat down next to Joey on the bleachers. She looked at him, pained, and said, “Pacey, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t do this…”, and started to rise.
“Jo…”, he said, and she paused. “Please. I need to say one thing, and then I’ll let you go.”
She sat back down and looked at her hands.
“I was thinking, as I sat outside, that you and I have a long history of walking away from each other. You walked away — actually, more like stomped away,” he said with a wry smile, “from me when I kissed you on the side of the road. You walked away from me on the pier the night that Dawson found out about us. You walked — or ran — away from me when Dawson saw us dancing at junior prom, and a few weeks later, you walked away from me at Dawson’s parents’ wedding. You barely even said goodbye.” She cringed.
He took a deep breath, then continued.
“And then, senior year, you walked away from me” — she raised her head and looked at him, confused — “metaphorically speaking, of course, with your heart. You said your heart was always with me — that I was your fixed point — but that wasn’t true.”
“Pacey…”, she started.
“Please let me finish, Jo.”
“And it wasn’t true that your heart was always with me because someone else kept laying claim to it. You wanted to give me your whole heart, but Dawson wouldn’t let you. He was selfish — he said he loved you, but his focus wasn’t on your happiness. He kept trying to climb into your heart, to sway that needle away from me, and in doing so, he caused you confusion and pain and guilt…and he caused you to do things that broke my heart all over again — but so much worse than junior year, because I knew by then what we could be together.”
“And I hated him for that — for refusing to let you go, to let you be happy — and that hatred tainted my feelings for YOU, causing me to be a person I didn’t even know, to do something that still haunts me and probably always will. I walked away from YOU, in the worst possible way, and I broke your heart. You were my whole world — my dream come true — and I treated you like shit because I hated that some other guy was still tugging at your heart, manipulating you, making you feel guilty, making you feel like you’d lose his friendship if you tried to pursue your own happiness.”
“But Joey, I need you to know something.”
She raised her head to look at him.
“I’m not that guy. I’m not Dawson. I won’t let my love for you prevent you from seeking — from finding — your happiness. I won’t let your guilt about not returning my feelings, or your memory of our past, or your worry that our fragile universe will come crashing down,” — she rolled her eyes with a small smile, remembering her dramatic roadside pronouncement — “stop you from following your heart and being with the guy you want to be with. The guy you love. Once upon a time, that guy was me; now it’s someone else.”
“All the times we walked away from each other before, it was because we were confused about how we felt, but from what you told me tonight, there’s no confusion now.”
She watched him, her eyes unreadable.
“This isn’t the ending I asked for, Jo, but it’s the one I got. And I need to deal with that.”
He paused and lowered his head a bit to look into her eyes.
“But Potter, as hurt as I may be right now, I need you to know: I will never threaten to take away my friendship. I won’t make you choose — there are no ultimatums here. I think that even if I can’t make you happy as your boyfriend” — he swallowed with difficulty — “or whatever else I hoped we would be someday, I can make you happy as your friend.”
Joey closed her eyes and tilted her head up toward the rafters of the gym, trying to stop the welling tears from actually falling.
“We were friends before we fell in love, Jo, and we became friends again after we broke each other’s hearts. You will never lose my friendship, whether you choose to be with Eddie or Dawson or some guy you haven’t even met yet. Your happiness is my goal, Jo — and I’ll play whatever role in your life that I need to to help bring that about.”
He finally stopped, and they sat there quietly — him looking down at his hands, her looking up toward the rafters, still trying to keep those tears balanced on her lower lids — as the current song ended and they heard the distinctive synth rock sounds of the next song begin. “Watch out…love bites.”
Pacey chuckled, still looking down. “Remember in 8th grade when Lindsay Scott supposedly bit Matt Caulfield’s lip during a game of spin the bottle, and for a month, every time she’d walk through the halls, his friends would sing, “Love bites, love bleeds”?”
The corner of Joey’s lips tilted up for a moment, as she brought her head to level, wiping her eyes so those tears wouldn’t spill. Her voice held a hint of a smile as she said, “Poor girl. But then her friends spread that rumor that Matt practiced his kissing on his parents’ French bulldog, so it all worked out in the end.” Pacey chuckled, and turned to her as he stood.
“Come on, Potter. I think I owe you a dance.”
She looked up at him, then slowly took his outstretched hand. She rose, and they walked the short distance to the dance floor. It was that time in the night when the DJ had given up on fast songs and was just playing ballads, and a few remaining high school couples — Harley and Patrick included — were swaying to a song that had played to angst-ridden teenagers at 15 years’ worth of high school proms. Pacey and Joey naturally fell into the position they’d assumed at their own junior prom, three years ago. It felt just as right now as it had then — but this time Pacey didn’t say that to her. He wasn’t trying to confuse her, to bring up their past, what they had been and what he had hoped they’d one day be. This was not the time to remember everything.
Love bites, love bleeds.
It’s bringing me to my knees.
Love lives, love dies.
It’s no surprise.
They didn’t talk, or even meet each other’s eyes, during the dance, and it took all his restraint not to pull her closer, not to run his fingers over the skin of her upper back or wrap them in her soft, thick hair. He knew that this was goodbye — not to their friendship, because that was a given, but to the hopes that had sprung up in his mind and heart recently about their future. He had to let that vision of them go.
As the song wound down to a repeat of those bizarre synth sounds, Pacey slowly pulled away, and their eyes finally met. He took both her hands in his and squeezed them, saying, “We will always be friends, Joey, and I will always, always love you, but you deserve happiness and I want you to find it. And it’s time for me to walk away so you can do that.” He gently released her hands, and turned to go, tears burning in his eyes.
Joey stood there, looking down at her hands as he moved slowly away from her. The first bars of the next song started, and she gave an incredulous sob. It was the Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”, from the Boogie Nights soundtrack. She had watched the movie just a few days earlier with Jack and Pacey on their not quite so obnoxious Bertha replacement tv. She and Pacey sat on his couch, his arm around her shoulders, her legs across his lap, and she felt a degree of serenity, of…well, wholeness, that she hadn’t felt in years. Not since their summer on the True Love.
I may not always love you,
But as long as there are stars above you,
You’ll never need to doubt it.
I’ll make you so sure about it.
God only knows what I’d be without you.
Joey’s heart lurched. Oh my god, what was she doing? And why was she doing it? She didn’t know…she only knew that she couldn’t let Pacey walk out of that gym thinking she didn’t love him.
If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me,
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
God only knows what I’d be without you.
She lifted her eyes and saw him approaching the door. She opened her mouth and, in a desperate whisper, breathed out the first word that popped into her head.
He kept moving — there was no way he could hear her across the loud gym. She closed her eyes, and in a flash saw herself by a campfire, grabbing his hand to stop him from walking away (“If you felt even one shred of what I feel for you…”)…and on a dock, sprinting toward a blue sailboat, hoping upon hope that she wasn’t too late (“I’ve known it since the moment you kissed me, and maybe even before…”)…and in a hurricane, watching in terror as that beautiful sailboat began to sink with her true love onboard, yelling out in desperation…
He froze, but didn’t turn around.
God only knows what I’d be without you…
She walked toward him.
“Pacey,” she said as she approached, hoping he wouldn’t turn around yet, because she wasn’t sure she could bear to see the hurt in his eyes. She stopped a few feet behind him. “You asked me once to give you a reason to stay, and I told you I couldn’t. That was a lie. I could’ve given you a thousand reasons to stay, but I was too scared to do so. I was scared then to tell you that I wanted you, that I needed you, that I couldn’t imagine my life without you. I took the safer route, and that safer route almost led to me losing you. I was almost too late to tell you that I loved you.”
Pacey’s hands were in his pockets, his eyes on the ground. No. He wasn’t going to let this happen. That would be the Dawson move — to take advantage of her fear of losing him, to let her give up happiness with the guy she loved because of a sense of obligation or nostalgia or…
“And I can only hope that I’m not too late to tell you the same thing now. Pacey, I love you. I love you, I want you, and I need you. You are it for me, Pacey. You’re the one.”
He took a deep breath, his eyes closed. No. He wouldn’t let her do this.
“What about Eddie?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
He was surprised to hear a laugh escape Joey’s mouth. “Pacey, look at me.”
“I can’t.” He knew his resolve would crumble if he turned around. He would not be that guy. He would not.
He took a deep breath, turned, and lifted his eyes to hers. He hadn’t expected to see her smiling — he didn’t find anything funny about this moment.
“I told you that Eddie came to the bar last night, but I didn’t tell you what happened.”
“Jo, I really don’t need to hear this. I may be a glutton for punishment, but I don’t want to know the intimate details of your reconciliation.” He looked down.
She gave him a gentle smile. “We didn’t have a reconciliation, Pacey. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. He came to the bar last night, said that he wanted to be with me, and do you know what I told him? I told him that he was too late. That I’d moved on.”
Pacey’s looked up at her with his brow furrowed, his eyes skeptical.
“And when I said he was too late, Pace, I didn’t mean that he was two weeks too late. I meant that he was three YEARS too late. Because from the moment you got tired of talking and kissed me by the side of the road…well, no other guy has stood a chance.”
“And it wasn’t for lack of trying, Pacey. I tried to get over you. And on the surface, I did. I liked other boys. Shoot, maybe I even loved Eddie, I don’t know. But nobody has ever made me feel as alive as you make me feel. Nobody else’s presence makes me feel complete. Everything else in my life has been plagued by uncertainty; it’s only when I’m with you that I feel SURE.”
Pacey’s head was spinning as he tried to rein in his thoughts. She can’t mean this. She can’t. She just feels guilty. She’s just scared of losing the past. I’m the security blanket now. She really wants Eddie. I can’t hold her back. I won’t be that guy.
She finally reached forward and pulled his hands from his pockets, holding them in both of hers the way he’d held her hands just a few minutes ago when he said goodbye. He let her. She stepped forward and lowered her head so she could look up into his downturned eyes. Oh my god, those eyes.
“You said you didn’t feel it, Jo. You said this wasn’t going to be it . I don’t know how to reconcile what you’re saying now with what you told me 20 minutes ago. I don’t want you to love me just because you’re scared of losing me — I told you already, I will always be your friend.”
“Pacey, I don’t love you because I’m scared of losing you — I’m scared of losing you because I love you.” Joey paused. “I don’t have any real explanation for what I said, Pace. I think everything tonight just brought back so much fear and insecurity — this worry that if I let myself fall completely, if I let myself believe this is forever…well, it’s a level of vulnerability that was always hard for me, but even more so after you broke up with me.” He cringed.
“I knew if I told you that, you’d just stand there and say wonderful things and convince me, and in a way, I didn’t want to be convinced. I didn’t want to open myself to the possibility of forever. It was too scary. And that’s why I brought up Eddie — I knew that that, and only that, would be enough to get you to walk away. It was a terrible thing to do, Pacey — I’m so sorry. This isn’t about Eddie, it’s about me. I’m the scared one. I’m the one who’s guarded.”
“You say your goal is my happiness, and Pace, it comes down to this: there’s no happiness without you. Not just in my life, because I know you’ll always be there, but by my side. I need you by my side. Please stay, Pacey. Please stay with me.”
She stared into his eyes and tried to tell him with a look just how much she loved him. She could see the moment when he started to believe — when the tension began to disappear from his forehead, and a glimmer of hope and levity reappeared in those beautiful blue eyes.
“I’m asking you to stay, Pacey.” She gave him that lopsided smile that he loved so much, and then it grew wider, her tongue peeking out. “I’ll even paint it on a wall, if you have one handy.”
He couldn’t help it — he smiled, and the smile got progressively larger as he looked into her dancing brown eyes. Those eyes were dancing for him. She was in love with him . As his smile grew, he felt his heart expand with it — the vise that had crushed it earlier was gone. Somehow, all of his hopes, all that possibility, his whole future, was resurrected from the black hole that had obliterated his dreams just a half hour before. He had become numb, but suddenly he could feel again, because he knew now that she felt it too.
“That’s okay, Potter. Blank walls are hard to come by in Boston. A billboard should do just fine.”
She grinned at him as he placed both hands on her cheeks and leaned in to kiss her with a jubilant, “Mwah!” He pulled away and paused, holding her at arm’s length and looking into her eyes seriously. “Are you sure about this, Jo? I don’t want walk down this road unless you’re sure.”
She nodded, her eyes smiling. “As sure as I’ve been about anything in my life.”
They both grinned for a second before he reached his arm over her shoulder and said, “Well, good. Let’s go find a Kmart and make out for a while in the camping section.”
Joey laughed. “Sounds romantic.”
Pacey smiled and gave her a wink. “You’d be surprised. And anyway, you’re far too cynical for my romantic overtures.”
She smirked at him good-naturedly. “Doesn’t mean you don’t get points for trying.”
“Oh, come on.” He squeezed her hand, which had reached up to hold his at her shoulder. “You love me.”
She squeezed his hand back and smiled at him. “Actually, I do. You’re absolutely right.”
“There’s a first time for everything, Potter. A first time for everything.” And he pulled her closer as they walked away, out of the gym, into the night — together.