Really, it all started with this girl named Wendy. She was a graphic designer, and she was looking for a sign from God. She needed to decide whether or not to leave her job at The Bond Group, a terrific little marketing agency in Chicago, and go to work designing for the YMCA. She, Tracy and I, were all sitting at the conference table eating lunch.
Tracy was having Spaghetti-O’s. Yup — Spaghetti O’s. And as she scooped some up she looked down at her spoon and saw that the noodles had formed a freakish little smiley face.
Without missing a beat she said, “Look Wendy! It’s a sign from God! You should take the job!”
(We were all a little sick of her indecision.)
Within 3 weeks, Wendy was off to ‘build strong kids, strong families and strong communities’.
And with Wendy’s empty cube, so begins…
The Story of Nikki and Nick
Also known as…
A Modern Day Tale of Two Cities
Or in certain circles…
When the U-Haul Speaks, You Should Listen
It was October 2001, a lovely autumn in The Windy City, and even then, Nikki Niehus was, without question, adorable. I remember Nikki’s “tour”. Most of us had gone through it — a walk through the agency Joe would conduct with designers he liked. It was always a good sign. If someone came by “on tour” chances were he’d bring them on as a freelancer — and that’s exactly what happened with Nikki.
She fit in perfectly there, too. Why? Because she was a good person. And the Bonds had a knack for hiring good people. The kind you keep for life. The kind that transcend beyond work,
Now I could go on describing Nikki at work before Nick came along (sweet, quiet, funny), but that’s not what this thing is about. It’s about the fact that Nick too, got a tour, and how, from that point forward, the lives of those two people would never be the same.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Nick Lo Bue Experience
Later (much later), Nikki would admit the impact of being introduced to him. How she had lost all voice, all poise. And, when she turned to see if Tracy had noticed him, how hot her cheeks felt, cheeks that were always so quick to blush. Tracy and Nikki’s eyes met and they both mouthed “OH. MY. GOD.” to each other.
Was Joe really going to hire this guy?
At first Nick would go to lunch with the boys, and the women would eat at the conference table and that was that. (Maybe there was some cultural significance, some leftover detritus of a Catholic school upbringing harkening back to the time when the boys and girls had to play on different sides of the playground that caused this. (Or maybe not.) Then one day Nick just started joining the women instead. I was convinced that the only reason Nick was hanging with the girls was because he was one.
“No way.” (Nikki)
“I’m telling you he’s GAY.”
“No, uh-uh. He’s metro-sexual.” (Tracy)
“I’m sorry, but no one that beautiful could be straight. And look at that hair. One errant spark and all that product would go up in flames.”
“He’s divorced!” (Tracy)
(Suffice it to say that I was wrong, and though I was disappointed, I adored him anyway.)
The Way Things Went
So with Nick around, lunches certainly got more interesting. I mean, how could they not…considering Nick was the only designer in the agency who asked for the title on his business card to be “artist” versus the customary “Graphic Designer”. (PLEASE!!) Things like that, and his eye for fashion, and that spiky hair. It all kind of communicated “player” to most of us. But he was somehow different…because he was a smart-ass, funny and warm, and impossible not to like.
He was also shrewd. A flirt, but smart enough to flirt with everyone — certainly knew how to charm all the girls — leaving even the married ones blushing from time to time. But what no one knew was where his heart truly lay…or what was happening between the two people sitting right beside us. Because I must say, Nikki was true to her boyfriend and seemed only as taken-in by Nick as any other woman at the office.
But something had begun, and it began like this…
An e-mail here and there, that slowly grew to so many that now, when Nikki looks back, she cannot remember how she could have possibly designed a damn thing.
Then, Nikki developed a sudden interest in paper samples and a strange need to constantly use the scanner. (Incidentally, Nick’s desk just happened to be near the paper swatch books and scanner.)
…which gave birth to an innocent addiction — their daily afternoon walks to Starbucks that Nick would look forward to from the moment he woke up in the morning.
…to Nikki jokingly inviting him to join her on a road trip to Minneapolis, and Nick’s actual acceptance. (During which Nick met Holly and Nikki met Kristen and do I really need to explain THAT synergy?)
Then Nick’s 27th birthday, when Nikki walked through the door of Webster’s Wine Bar and Nick stopped mid-sentence and said to Dan,
“Oh my God, she came.”
To Nick, no one but Nikki existed that night.
And finally, all of those countless conversations that, whether they were conscious of it or not, were cementing a rich friendship and creating a natural and undeniable intimacy.
But in spite of all this, Nikki held back.
She had a boyfriend.
And Nick held back.
She had a boyfriend.
Two good people desperately trying to do the right thing.
The Dream Deferred
But during all of that it also went like this…
Nick: “Mary, I have to tell you this. I have to tell someone. I think I’m falling in love with Nikki.”
Nikki: “Mary, I need to talk to you. I need to talk to someone. I’m having these feelings for Nick and I’m so confused and I don’t know what to do.”
Okay folks, here’s the deal. Anyone bearing witness to this age-old ‘my-heart-screams-love-but-my-head-screams-impossible’ crisis, and anyone who has ever lived through it themselves, knows there is no right advice, no magic answer. What do you do? What do you say? I loved these two people. I wanted only happiness for them, but what if Nikki didn’t follow her path?
Would the ‘what if’ get in the way?
Would guilt come into play?
What does someone say?
So I gave the only advice I knew in this kind of situation:
“Listen to your heart.
Do what you feel is right.
It’ll all work out somehow.”
(Yeah — that was about as helpful as Nikki trying to give someone driving directions.)
So Nick was in love and couldn’t hold her. And Nikki was confused and held by a promise. And the only thing they could do was live in the moment and hope that life would bring what they needed.
Which, in retrospect, is exactly what life did.
The Forced Hand
You see, what no one knew was that Nikki wasn’t long for The Bond Group. In February 2002, about the time Nick first came on board as a freelancer, Nikki had been elevated to full time status.
But she had a secret.
She had actually made plans to move to Austin, Texas at the end of the summer, to join her boyfriend who had recently relocated there. Of course she couldn’t tell a soul. She needed this job on her resume, and she certainly didn’t want to jeopardize that. But one day, in June, 2002, as they were walking to their cars, Nick told Nikki that he was thinking of leaving The Bond Group. He needed a full time gig and didn’t see it happening there. Nikki’s heart dropped — farther than she expected. The thought of Nick not being there everyday made her incredibly sad. Then of course, as is Nikki’s way, she also felt terribly guilty. She was in a full time position that she knew she was leaving — one that Nick could have if he just held on until fall. She had no other choice. She had to tell him.
Now as most of you probably know, when a secret is shared it often brings people closer together. For Nick and Nikki this was certainly the case. These two people, who had become good friends, were now inseparable.
Once a month Nikki would go down to Austin to visit her boyfriend. And every Monday morning when she came into work, Nick would stop by her desk and say,
“Thanks for coming back.”
And let it be known that our dear sweet Nick, because he loved her so very much, spent every moment he could with her, and in the end, even helped her prepare for her move.
The Last Ditch Effort
One evening in August 2002, about a week or two before Nikki was set to leave for Austin, they found themselves standing outside of her apartment, where, with the knowledge that soon, the woman he loved more than anyone in all the world, would be leaving for the arms of another, Nick cracked like an egg.
Yeah, he cried.
Like a baby.
He babbled. He apologized for putting her through the confusion she must certainly be feeling. He told her that he believed they belonged together. Would never stop believing that. And told her that if she ever felt that she had made the wrong decision, he would come to Austin and move her back himself.
(This is what we call irony, because as some of you know, that’s exactly what he ended up doing, But we’re not even close to that yet, so settle down.)
The day before Nikki left, Nick went with her to pick up the U-Haul. On their way out Nick jokingly said,
“If the U-Haul breaks down on the way to Austin, you’ll know you weren’t meant to go.”
Months later Nick would learn that the truck did indeed break down.
And apparently, Nikki nearly did too.
The Last Day
On the day Nikki was leaving, all of The Bond Groupians got together to play cards and say their good-byes. Her boyfriend was going to be there and it would be the first time we were all going to meet him. We hoped that he was a good guy, not the least of all, Nick, who needed to be sure that Nikki would be taken care of and happy.
But you know what? Not so much. He just seemed, well, wrong for her…not who we pictured for our little Nikki. But, then again, maybe we were all a little bit biased. And as we all know, never tell your friend what you think of her boyfriend when they’re still dating. As Nikki left, Nick gave her a hug and whispered in her ear…
“Go be happy.”
Now as a witness to that moment I have to say that I wished I could have stopped her. Wished I didn’t have to look at Nick’s face after she left. And I hoped to God that they’d find each other again—when the time was right.
The Cold Front
With Nikki’s move, a great distance grew between them — and not just the miles from Chicago to Austin.
Understand this — she never said ‘I love you’ to Nick. She never gave him anything other than her truest and greatest friendship. And if she led him on, that was never her intention. But regardless, the heart doesn’t lie. Perhaps Nikki realized that although she never physically cheated on her boyfriend, emotionally she kinda-sorta had. And so she had no other recourse but to cut off her ties with Nick and give the relationship with her boyfriend a chance to thrive. She had to look forward — not back.
After about a month’s hiatus Nikki and Nick began to slowly drop each other emails, checking in on each other’s lives. But of course Nick, not being one to hold back in speaking the truth, opened his big mouth on a subject regarding the boyfriend, and Nikki’s emails disappeared — for nine months.
It was June 9, 2003 when Nikki decided to reach out and contact Nick again. It was his birthday and it was a good excuse to get in touch with him. She missed him. Still thought about him all the time.
From that email forward they continued to correspond. Nick made her CDs and sent them to her every few months — special songs that spoke far beyond the lyrics ever could. And Nikki held on to those as a cherished connection to the days at The Bond Group, when he used to do that very same thing, unbeknownst to the rest of us sitting cluelessly beside them.
And both of them continued to live with a lingering “what if”.
The New Girl
It was February, 2004 and Nikki was gainfully employed at Yellow Fin, an agency in Austin. They had just brought on this girl Jeanine, a new designer, and they had gone out to lunch to celebrate her first day. Nikki thought she’d get to know her better. It went something like this…
“So, where are you from?”
“Really? That’s where I moved from! I used to work at this little agency there, but I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.”
“What’s the name?”
“The Bond Group? It was over on Ashland and…”
“The Bond Group! Oh my God! So you know Nick?”
“YOU know Nick?! Are you freakin’ kidding me?!”
Apparently Nick was looking to leave The Bond Group and had randomly found Jeanine on friendster.com — trying to find someone as his replacement — because that’s just the kind of guy he is. He had actually never even met her. She was interviewed, but didn’t take the job, and through some strange alignment in the universe, she wound up at Yellow Fin in Austin, Texas. (What are the odds, seriously?)
It seemed to Nikki that no matter what she did, Nick always somehow kept popping up in her life.
In April 2004, Nikki and her boyfriend bought a house. I remember getting an email from her telling me about that, and I remember wanting to be happy for her. I think I even told her I was. But I felt really sad for Nick. I had always believed that eventually my two friends would have their chance.
But what I didn’t know was that by January 2005, that house had become a frat house, with Nikki the resident mother. And with that, came the ultimate demise of Nikki’s relationship with her boyfriend — in natural time…the way it was meant to be.
Yes, Nikki and Nick still continued to keep in touch. The news of her buying the house pretty much killed any glimmer of hope Nick had left, but it also finally released him enough to try and move on with his life. He did try. He got a girlfriend. Tried to focus on his new job. But then, things like his office asking him if he would ever consider relocating to, you guessed it, Austin, made it pretty hard. (And he didn’t even know they had an office there.)
When Nick told Nikki about that offer her heart swelled. When she heard his reaction (“Hell no!”) she was crestfallen.
And so it went…until January 2005, when Nikki gave the boyfriend the ultimatum:
“Either your friends move out, or I do.”
On Easter weekend, March 2005, Nikki went to Chicago with Stacy. And on Friday, March 25th, Nikki and Nick saw each other for the first time in nearly three years.
Of course there was fear on both sides. Anxiety. But one look at each other and all of that faded away. They had a wonderful evening, laughing, reminiscing, nearly re-defining cloud nine, but by the following morning Nick felt horrible. All of his old feelings resurfaced and he felt just as stuck as the day Nikki moved away.
They had lunch together that day and she could sense his mood. She felt the same way too. They were both in relationships and they were both feeling that most needless feeling of all — guilt. But ultimately even that couldn’t keep them apart.
Nick thought, ‘I need to make the most of this gift’.
So the following morning he called her. He asked if he could come to her hotel for breakfast. It was 7:00 a.m. and Nikki thought he was kidding, but to go along with the “joke”, she said it was fine. Well, he had actually called her from the lobby and within five minutes he was in the room, jumping on her friend Stacy while she was still hungover in bed. (It’s those little Nick things, like no regard for physical boundaries, which make him the special guy that he is.)
That morning, on Easter Sunday, Nick and Nikki finally had a chance to just be. Over breakfast they laughed and talked like they always used to. Nikki told Nick about how horrible things had become with her boyfriend—something Nick really had no idea about. And that evening, because true love more or less demanded it, they met again.
Both in relationships, and both wanting to honor that regardless of the shape those relationships were in, they came to the understanding that perhaps the stars would never align for them, but that no matter what, they would always remain in each other’s lives.
And so they chose to live them… in their two separate cities.
The next day Nikki left for Austin to face a truly difficult chapter. And Nick met with Kelly, his free-of-charge relationship therapist, to give her the recap and hear her advice.
Now we can only wonder what that was, because as I’ve stated before, giving advice in this situation can be pretty tricky. And frankly, people rarely take the advice they so desperately seek. So I guess we really don’t know if we can credit Kelly for this one or not, but a few short days later Nick e-mailed Nikki and let it all out.
He told her that, as hard as he tried, all of those feelings he had for her never really died. He had just buried them — and not half as deep as he’d fooled himself into believing. Nikki responded, and for the first time ever, she told him the truth. That she had always had feelings for him too.
But in all this time Nick had never ever heard her say it.
Finally he had.
From that point forward, everything had officially — changed.
The Not So Foolish Decision
When Nikki called Holly she hadn’t paid much attention to the date. Her mind was immersed in what she had to share. She had chosen to move out. She was finally through with her boyfriend. And Holly wasn’t buying a word of it.
It was April Fool’s Day.
Can you blame her?
But Nikki was serious.
During this time she received nothing but love, support and a healthy dose of wisdom from her Mom and Dad. And let me tell you, I mean I know this story isn’t about me, but if I had been wise enough to listen to my parents way back when, perhaps I would have ended up as a character in a story like this, instead of one that led me dangerously close to living out of a grocery cart down on Lower Wacker. So listen to your parents.
Anyway…on May 5th, 2005, after over a month of patient conversations, Nikki finally got her boyfriend to realize that it was over.
And sixteen days later, with her mom by her side, she packed up the U-Haul and left.
And this time, the U-Haul ran just fine.
The First Time
By this time Nikki had told Nick about the break-up and they began to email each other “like crazy”. (That’s how they both put it when they each told me their side of the story. Isn’t that cute?) The first time they were together, free of guilt and significant others, came on June 2, 2005. Nick flew to Austin, and together, as Nikki and Nick, they had an amazing night. Later, in her apartment, they kissed for the very first time. When asked, (because you know I had to!) Nick described it this way, and I quote,
“It felt like the first time I had ever kissed anybody, ever. My head felt hot, my stomach was in knots, yet I felt completely comfortable.”
Nikki, on the other hand, just beamed…and blushed.
They’ve been a couple ever since.
If there were ever any question that these two soul mates belonged together, that question was answered with yet another stroke of irony.
Just as Nick was firming up his plans for his first visit to Austin, his employer asked him to travel there for work. He gladly accepted. Wouldn’t you? I mean, c’mon! How awesome is it when your employer foots the bill for you to go see your soon-to-be girlfriend?! He became a solid fixture in the Austin office for the eight months that followed.
He and Nikki took advantage of everything Austin had to offer. They even reinstated those walks to Starbucks, like the ones Nick used to look so forward to four years ago. Plus, he got to know Nikki’s other love of her life — Charlie. That’s her dog. But Charlie’s adventure is another story entirely!
Every once in a while when I was online I’d get an instant message from Nick. And every time I’d ask him where he was and what he was up to he’d say that he was in Austin. Immediately I wanted to know about him and Nikki. Was he seeing her? Was there “news” that he’d like to share? And of course I’d get some smug response that told me absolutely nothing. But man, would I smile. That damn boy. He was finally going to get his girl.
Eventually they realized that they couldn’t live between two cities forever. So Nick began arranging for a transfer to Austin. Then, with little warning, things at Yellow Fin went south. As luck would have it, a position opened up at Grip Design, Kelly’s design firm back in Chicago. Nikki interviewed, and of course, got the job.
And, just as Nick had promised Nikki on the day she moved away, he was there to help her move back “home”. Home to Chicago.
The Moment We’ve All Been Waiting For
So by March 2006, Nikki had finally found her way to where she truly belonged — in Chicago and in Nick’s arms. They took a couple of months to find an apartment they could call their own, and on May 1st they got the keys.
They headed over to their new apartment after work. They walked through the space, talked about furniture arrangement and paint colors — the usual things you discuss when you’re making a move. (Knowing these two however, I’m sure the colors weren’t something you’d find in a standard box of Crayolas.) Then they sat down on the floor in the middle of the empty living room.
Then it went just like this…
“Nikki, are you really ready to do this with me? To live here and be together?”
“Well yeah — I love you!”
She couldn’t figure out why he was asking her such obvious questions. Then she watched him reach into his pocket, and in that instant she knew what was happening. Her heart started pounding, the room began spinning, the lights seemed to flash and she thought…
Is this REALLY happening right now?!
He pulled out the ring…
this IS really happening — right now!
…the ring he designed just for her,
and Nikki said, before Nick could say another word…
“Oh my God. Are you serious?!”
And that’s when he asked her…
“Nikki, will you marry me?”
She said yes.
To be continued…