Institute of Religion class was always spiritually fulfilling but not exactly the most exciting part of her week. All Ashley really wanted to do was go home and do something comfortable like brush Shelly, her pretty mare. She loved her horse almost as much as she loved her own parents.
Her thoughts were far away in the warmth of her barn as she trudged through some leftover puddles on the sidewalk and up to the Ann Arbor Institute building. She shrugged out of her coat and into one of the empty seats next to her friend April. She took a long breath that came out more of a tired sigh and April turned to laugh at her.
“What’s wrong with you tonight?” April asked.
“Just not in the mood to be here, and wishing I were somewhere else.”
“Anywhere in particular?” April asked in a curious tone, as if to glean a tidbit of gossip.
“Don’t get so excited,” Ashley laughed over at her. “I just want to go home and brush my horse, go for a ride and then head off to bed. I’m exhausted. Besides, she’s the only one who doesn’t ask me to do homework!”
“Your life on the farm sounds kind of exciting,” April said. “All those cows and horses and pigs.”
“I don’t have pigs.” Ashley chuckled. “Paul has pigs. He’s really good with them, too. I think he can communicate with them almost as well as with some people.”
“I’m not sure that’s saying much!” April snickered.
“Ah, you don’t know Paul. He’s pretty amazing.”
“So, he’s the boyfriend I’ve heard about, huh? Huh? Is that right?”
“If you could call him that.” Ashley sighed. “In some ways he’s so much more than just a boyfriend. But in others… I don’t know. I’m just not ready to make a commitment to him.”
“Well, for one thing, we’re both really young.” Ashley stopped and April could tell that there was more to the story. “And… he’s not a member of the Church.”
“Ah,” April interjected, as if that explained everything.
“Don’t get me wrong.” Ashley backpedaled. “That’s not going to keep me from marrying him, if that’s what it comes to. I would just really love to get married in the temple. You know how that is.”
“I do know,” April affirmed. “It sounds so easy in theory. Find yourself a nice returned missionary and ride off into the sunset… after getting married in the temple. Easier if you’re at BYU then at U of M.”
Just then the Institute teacher cleared her throat and stood up in front of the classroom as one more student slipped in the door and snuck in to find a seat near the back of the room. Both girls looked over at him and realized that it seemed as if their wish had just been granted.
He slipped out of his jacket and pulled his arms out of his lab coat, draping it over the back of the chair. From the length of the coat, the girls could tell he was an intern rather than an actual doctor. They looked over at each other and gave one another a little grin. He was handsome and confident with a missionary haircut and a fancy gold CTR ring on his right hand. When he looked up and realized he had caught their attention, he blushed a little with a smile and reached down into his backpack to pull out a little set of well-worn scriptures.
It was very difficult for either girl to pay attention to the lesson that evening, and all they could think about was getting to the end of the class when the studying ended and the social time began.
Finally chairs pushed away from tables and students started talking. Mark Straus, who was the Young Single Adult Rep for the Stake walked over to the new student and introduced himself. Ashley and April were close enough to hear him tell Mark that his name was Caleb Rogers, that he was from the Whitmore Lake area and was a fourth-year medical student.
Mark invited Caleb to come with the group of kids out for pizza, like they did every Thursday night after Institute. Ashley didn’t usually stay to go out with the rest of the YSA, but suddenly she felt a little hungry. Caleb glanced over to where the girls were standing and looked back and forth between them. He smiled shyly, then looked back at Mark.
“I guess I could spare a few minutes for a bite to eat,” he told him. His voice was soft and kind, yet strong and masculine. Ashley and April both let out a little sigh and then chuckled over at each other, hoping he hadn’t noticed. They blushed and giggled a little as they gathered their coats and book bags and things to walk from the classroom with the rest of the students.
Pizza Bob’s was just two blocks from the Institute building, so they all walked together as a group. Mark continued to monopolize Caleb’s attention, but when it was time to push tables together to accommodate a group their size, Caleb positioned himself so that he was sitting right in front of April, who sat next to Ashley.
Finally, after the waitress had gotten everyone’s drink orders, he had a chance to introduce himself. “I’m Caleb Rogers, and who might you be?”
“I’m April.” she stuck her hand out to shake his, almost positioning her hand as if she were a southern belle with a white lace glove. He smiled up at her and chuckled. Ashley almost wondered if he was going to kiss her hand like a southern gentleman, but he turned his attention instead over to her with a questioning look in his eye.
“Ashley.” She shook his hand in a much more traditional way. They all sat back and waited as the waitress placed sodas in front of each of them and went around the table taking orders.
“So what are you ladies studying?” Caleb asked them, looking back and forth between them as equally as he could. It was obvious he was trying not to single out either of them.
“Secondary Education.” April interjected almost before he could finish his sentence. He didn’t seem to notice, just turned to give her his full attention.
“Really? You want to be a high-school teacher?” Caleb took a sip of his pop. “What would you like to teach?” He truly sounded interested. Either he was really good at reaching out to people, or a very good actor. She hoped it was the prior, but tried unsuccessfully to turn her attention back to what her friend was telling him.
“Math,” April said. “Probably Algebra.”
“Wow, that’s really cool. And how about you, Ashley?” He turned to her.
“Pre-med. I’m a freshman though, so I haven’t gotten very far.” What am I thinking? Do I want him to think I’m a little girl? Ugh!
“Well… ” He didn’t seem to be dissuaded, rather a bit impressed. “What kind of doctor would you like to be someday?”
“I’m not sure yet,” she replied. “It’s so early. I have a lot of time to explore my options and decide later.”
“I agree.” He sat back. “I didn’t decide on Orthopedic Surgery until just this past year. Now that I’m almost done with my clinical rotations, I’m really excited to get started into my residency.”
“Isn’t that a five year program?” Ashley asked him. “That’s pretty intense.”
“Most post-grad programs are pretty long,” Caleb said. “You just have to figure out what part of medicine is exciting to you, and commit to it. You’ll figure it out when you’re ready.” He smiled up at her with a confidence that felt very real, as if he already believed in her more than she believed in herself. She liked that about him. In fact, she liked a lot of things about him.
She smiled back at him and seemed to relax into her chair. He made her feel good in a way she didn’t ever remember feeling before. She decided that she liked him a lot. Unfortunately, so did April. As Ashley tried to hide her excitement of having met him, April didn’t disguise her intentions at all. She flirted openly with Caleb, and he tried politely to appear interested.
When the pizza arrived, and slices had been dished out all around, Caleb quietly raised his glass and said, “Well, here’s to our first date.” He wasn’t looking at April. He was looking right at Ashley. She smiled shyly but confidently, and lifted her glass back at him in a subtle toast. April looked down at her pizza and reached for the parmesan cheese, obviously trying to ignore the exchange but realizing she’d already lost that battle.
The rest of the meal was casual and fun with the whole group getting more involved in one another’s conversations. Everyone wanted to know more about Caleb and he spoke freely with the others, explaining how he hadn’t been able to fit in any Institute classes because he usually was at the hospital at odd hours doing rounds and at the library in study groups. Ashley knew that the last few years of medical school were pretty intense, and knew enough about the program to be understanding of his plight.
Caleb smiled at Ashley frequently even as he continued to engage in conversations with others. Ashley decided that he was indeed good with people. She could tell that he wasn’t just acting. He truly was interested in getting to know his new group of friends. When it was time to walk back to campus, he grabbed April’s hand and laced it on his arm and offered his other arm out to Ashley.
“Shall I walk you ladies back to campus? It’s awfully dark and cold.” His voice practically purred at them, and although April had to know that he was merely being polite to invite her as well as Ashley, it was impossible for her not to be drawn in by his engaging personality.
Ashley draped her hand through his outstretched arm and smiled up at him. They talked as they walked, and Caleb was careful to include April in the conversation even though he continued to smile down at Ashley frequently.
They dropped April off at her car first and then Caleb escorted Ashley over two rows to her truck. He didn’t call attention to the muddy tires or ask why a little girl like her needed a big, rugged-looking Ford. He merely held open her door and offered her his hand. She climbed up into the cab and smiled down at him.
“I guess I’ll see you next Thursday?” he asked.
“I’d like that.” It almost felt like she was agreeing to a date with him rather than a recognition that they would both be back for Institute class the following week. She blushed a little at that thought, and reached for her door handle. He took a step back and offered her a smile and a little wave.
Her truck roared to life and reminded Ashley that she was heading back to the farm and he was heading back to someplace up near Whitmore Lake, or maybe an upscale apartment closer to the hospital. She didn’t ask, but got the impression that wherever he lived, it was a lot fancier than anything she was used to. She just pulled out of her spot and left him watching as she drove away. She didn’t look back to see which car he had driven.