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God of the Friend Zone

 

God of the

Friend Zone

J. Aaron Duane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 J. Aaron Duane

All rights reserved.

ISBN-10: 1519313969

ISBN-13: 978-1519313969

 

DEDICATION

To my dear wife Courtney, thank you for helping me escape the friend zone and to my son Deuce for giving me the motivation to complete this work.

CONTENTS

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS i

1 1

2 12

3 23

4 34

5 51

6 65

7 76

8 90

9 104

10 126

11 142

12 156

13 167

14 182

15 193

Epilogue 211

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

Ebony, Pam, Rachel, Shanese, LaVaugn, Kelley and everyone else that helped me craft this work. I appreciate all the time and effort that you contributed to helping me make this project better than I ever could have imagined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

“If anyone can show just cause why these two should not be joined in Holy Matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace,” the pastor boomed. The cool ocean breeze did little to cool my nerves. I smiled at my bride as I squeezed her hand with my sweaty palms. I held my breath praying no one would oppose. Anyone who had an issue with us was back in Port Haven. The pastor scanned the guests as though waiting for someone to interject. I cleared my throat to hurry him along; last time he ruined the ceremony by stalling like this. The adoring, supportive smiles of our witnesses seemed to placate the pastor as he continued.

“Well, since there are no objections, Benjamin, you may kiss your bride!” Happily, I nearly ripped the veil trying to get it over her head as I leaned in to seal our union. The anticipation of our first kiss as man and wife consumed me, and I could not press my lips against hers soon enough. Centuries of waiting, hoping, and longing were little more than a few interminable moments. Every detail of this moment washed over my mind. The small freckles dotting the bridge of her nose like constellations across the sky. The soft shimmer of her matte red lipstick. The celestial radiance of her angelic brown eyes. She was as perfect as I hoped she would she would be. The overwhelming beauty of the moment threatened to drown my senses. As the warmth of her lips drew closer to mine, a loud horn blared directly in my ear.

 

I opened my eyes. The beach scene was gone; in its place laid crumpled sheets and my cell phone resting against my ear. Groggily picking up the phone to turn off the alarm, I realized I had fallen asleep on the phone. The potential implications sent me into a panic. Did I confirm our plans for tonight? What if I was talking in my sleep? What if she heard something she wasn’t supposed to know? Would we still be cool? Would she act weird around me if I had uttered my plans unknowingly? I took a moment to gather myself. There was nothing to worry about; we had fallen asleep on the phone before. Everything was perfectly okay. Trying to convince myself everything was fine; I picked my comforter up off the floor and attempted to get back to sleep.

A few hours later, the flood of mid-morning sunlight washed away the last vestiges of rest I hoped to enjoy. As I lay there looking at the ceiling, I remembered I was supposed to meet Patrick and Keith at the office this morning. We had some new documents to review and a potential new client to interview. Business had been going well; we were starting to pick up steam, so meeting on a Saturday was worth the effort. I rolled out of bed and said a quick prayer before getting cleaned up and heading toward the Community Resource Center at Maranatha Temple. It wasn’t fair for me to ask my team to come in on Saturday morning if, as the CRC program director, I didn’t join them.

When I got to the office, Keith’s Expedition was parked in front of the building, presumably waiting for me to come and unlock the door. When he saw me approaching the building, he got out of his truck carrying donuts and apple juice. I was still putting the key in the lock as he neared the door.

“You ready for this?! Tonight is the night!” He exclaimed. I shook my head, feigning uncertainty about what he meant. He was undeterred. “You’re finally going to ask Xavia to go on a real date with you! Today is the day you’re getting out of the friend zone! I’m excited for you!” He bellowed. I turned the key in the lock, and we walked into our small office space. I planned to reveal my secret to Xavia today. I had planned to express this to her a hundred times before today, but every time seemed wrong. I always had the impression if the circumstances weren’t exactly right, I would lose everything. Maybe it wasn’t right to put that kind of pressure on me or our friendship; there was no way I could help what I was in my heart.

“I’m not in the friend zone; I just never asked her out before. I won’t lie; I’m a little nervous. I can’t guess at what she’s going to say, or how she’s going to take it,” I answered as I placed my things down on my desk.

“It’s going to be fine man, don’t worry about it. Regardless of what she says you’re going to be fine” Keith assured me. As my computer powered up, I walked across the room to where Keith had placed all the food. Halfway through my hunt for a bear claw, the front door swung open as Patrick blew into office, his ear glued to his phone as usual.

“Yes! We’ll be here today for a few hours! Bring your documents and we’ll do the best we can to help you… Sure, you’re welcome… We’re happy to help! Okay, we’ll see you when you get here!” Patrick declared as he placed his phone back in his pocket. “Mrs. Jimenez said her niece Savannah should be here around noon. She needs some help with her employment and her food benefits application,” he announced. I nodded in comprehension. A massive grin curled his lip as we made eye contact. “Ben, you ready big boy? Today is the day. I don’t get why you’re so nervous; she’s going to ask you what took so long,” he asserted. I smiled apprehensively.

“Yeah, I hope that’s the case,” I responded. “You heard anything from Givend and Mosse?” I asked, changing the subject. We had been looking for a new community partner for a while and making a connection with them would boost the program’s profile exponentially.

“Not yet. I’ve been playing phone tag with their contracts guy, but nothing yet. When we land this placement deal, we’ll be in there!” Patrick announced. Mildly disappointed I reverted to the matter at hand.

“Where is Mrs. Jimenez’s file?” I hoped my momentary distraction was enough to end the questions about what I wanted to happen with Xavia. I didn’t want to talk about what I had planned for the evening. None of them were going to be there with me; all their encouragement was great, but it wasn’t going to matter when Xavia and I were alone. I was the one putting everything on the line. Twelve years of friendship and any future with her as my best friend was an incredible risk. Our date tonight was going to materially change my life going forward; to everyone around me, it was entertainment. Sure, they would be there to help me get past her decision, but they weren’t going to bear the pain if she said no. That would be my cross to bear. So while I appreciated their support, I couldn’t allow them to impact my concentration.

Patrick brought the file over, respectfully slid it on my desk, and rested his gargantuan palm on my shoulder. As it approached the point of awkwardness, I glanced up to brush his hand aside and caught his intense gaze.

“Dude, she’s just as human as you are. Don’t let this thing eat you up, because even if she says no, there are still plenty of girls out there. Being honest, I don’t understand what you see in her. Sure she’s cute, and she’s got a little money, but so what? I love her like a sister, but I think you can do better. Don’t worry about if she’ll say no because either way you’ll be fine,” he offered. It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone say something to the same effect. Xavia routinely rubbed people the wrong way. I had always thought of it as her being feisty and matter of fact; a lot of people found her abrasive or rude. After patting my shoulder, he walked back to his desk and began working again.

The stack of petitions in front of me hadn’t gotten any smaller after two solid hours of working on them. I stood to stretch and considered getting my fourth donut. As I hunted for another pastry, Andrew blasted through the door, his authoritative voice filled the room. “I hope you guys are filling out these forms correctly and setting up payment arrangements with everyone who meets the income requirements! I’m tired of having to explain to Pastor Wright why we’re constantly over budget! If we would follow my outlined procedures, we could be cash positive and still be an asset to the community!” Andrew was our team’s accountant. By the sound of his voice, he was either coming from meeting with or heading to meet with the church’s official board. Either way, there was no mirth in his voice.

“So nice of you to join us today!” Patrick chirped sarcastically. “We’ve only been here for three hours on this beautiful Saturday morning, working hard for the Kingdom, and you stroll in here barking out orders? Where have you been anyway?” Andrew adjusted his glasses before responding.

“If you are truly interested, I was with Pastor Wright and the board this morning reviewing the books in preparation for tax time; it isn’t a quick process. I didn’t know we were meeting today; I would have excused myself from my other meeting to be here with you guys. Did anyone call me and say we were working on documents today?” He asked. No one responded as he shifted his gaze to me. “You were probably too busy worrying about this date or whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing tonight,” he fired derisively. I paused for a moment before responding, because I didn’t want to say something I couldn’t take back. Andrew was laser-focused on our profitability, and while that was good for the existence of the program, it made him a little out of touch with people, especially with his friends. Always concerned with his interests and what put him in the best light, relationships and individuals equated to little more than figures on a balance sheet in his mind. He was more concerned with solvency than salving relationships; he had no problem emotionally writing off people that he found useless. Normally I would let his assertions go unchallenged, but today was not the day.

“We always work documents on the second Saturday of the month. We’ve worked documents on the second Saturday of every month for the five years you’ve been here! I did not call anyone because it’s understood to show up at nine. I didn’t realize you needed a personal invitation to come to work, but one can be arranged for you if that’s the case,” I warned. Andrew shrunk down under the weight of contrition as he moved towards his desk.

“I’m sorry Ben. Pastor Wright and the rest of the staff are giving me all I can handle. It seems like I have been in the office with them every day for the past three weeks. Between figuring out the taxes and getting all the stuff ready for the bank, it’s a lot to handle,” he lamented apologetically.

“It is a stressful time for everyone, and you are putting in a ton of work so it makes sense you’d feel stretched thin. You’re important to everyone, and we all appreciate you here,” Keith offered. Andrew offered a weak half smile in response to the commendation.

“Thanks for that; this place gave me the hours I needed for the CPA exam. My time here is what put me in this position to begin with, and to be honest; I still love what we do here. I hope we can…” his voice trailed off as he stared at the door, utterly transfixed. I whipped around to see what was going on; Andrew was one of the most focused people I knew, so for something to distract him it had to be incredible. I knew she had to be incredible.

In terms of physical beauty, on a scale of one to ten, the girl walking through our door was easily a nine and three quarters, even if she wasn’t adorned the classic sense. Her dark, raven-colored locks flowed to her toned, exposed shoulders, except on the side of her head that was shaved completely bald. It was both distracting and enticing. I tried to focus on something, anything other than her appearance, but the magnetism of her presence was inescapable. Even from across the room, the intensity of her dark eyes held me captive. The thin veneer of experience seemed to add a little more depth to the contours of her face, and her smooth hourglass silhouette had passed more time than it had remaining. The piercing in her eyebrow and nostril immediately told me she wasn’t from Port Haven. Archangels, dates, and names in calligraphy covering her defined amber arms reinforced the fact. She seemed supremely confident and comfortable even though I thought it was a little chilly for the Brazilian flag tank top and distressed jeans she was wearing as her goldenrod pumps clicked across the floor to my desk.

“Are you Benjamin?” She had asked before I had a chance to stand and introduce myself. I rose to my feet and extended my hand.

“Yes, I am! May I ask your name?” I inquired. Her penetrating gaze took me aback as she politely grasped my hand.

“My name is Savannah, Savannah Paulson. I believe you’re expecting me. Ava Jimenez is my aunt,” she offered.

“It is a pleasure to meet you! I’ m so glad that you could join us today! Please, take a seat!” I greeted her, motioning for her to sit. She gently placed a small clutch that was the same color as her shoes in her lap. “Your aunt has already done most of the paperwork for you,” I said as I reached for the file that Patrick had given me earlier. Reading over the documents, I could not immediately tell what was missing or how we might help her. “Well, Ms. Paulson-”

“You can call me Savannah,” she interjected. I nodded my head.

“Okay, Savannah. I’ve read through everything, and I’m not quite sure how we can help you.” The confidence that she had exuded walking in the door began to evaporate.

“My aunt said that you all specialized in helping people find jobs, and that’s what I need. I need a job so I can quit stri -..."-She took a deep breath- "So I can get some situations fixed. Can you help me or what?!" She fired. I didn't fully understand the shift in her mood.

"We will most certainly do our best to help you out, but if you're only here because you need a job, your best bet is the Department of Jobs and Family Services. It's just a block away from here. I'd be more than happy to"- she slammed her hand on my desk. "They won't help me! Until That's why I'm here! I'm willing to do anything you can ask! I can't go back to Oakland! Please? I need this to work! Won't you help me please?" She asked, her eyes pleading, almost begging for us to try and help her.

“Of course we can help you,” I answered softly. There was something in the way she looked at me; I had seen that expression on faces all around the globe. It was the embers of dying hope and, despite all the bravado she projected, she was at the end of her rope. “A number of folks here routinely hire people with ‘situations.’ To get the process started as soon as possible, you’ll want to join us during morning service tomorrow. I can introduce you to a few people so we can get that process started while we’re addressing your application and figuring out what else we can do for you,” I said. Her skeptic glare unnerved me for a moment.

“Is that the only way for this to work? I’m not sure sitting in a church is the best way for me to get my problems solved,” she scoffed.

“I can understand why someone may feel like that, and it may seem counterintuitive, but give it a shot. We’ve had some people with ‘situations’ in the past that visited with us in the morning service and eventually made a connection that helped them get to a better place.” Her face began to soften.

“What time do I need to be there?” She asked. I smiled.

“Service begins at eleven o’clock. Do you need directions? Even though we’re on the campus now; these offices are locked on Sundays. If you come in the Windsor Avenue lot, you can reach the main sanctuary.”

“I’ll catch a ride with Aunt Ava or something. I’ll be here. Nothing else has worked, and since you say you’ve done this before, I guess it’s worth a try,” she answered. I nodded my assent as I glanced over her paperwork again.

“While I’m reviewing your petition, is there any sort of work that you are looking to have?”

“Something with a regular paycheck and no touching,” she retorted. The ‘no touching’ statement threw me off a bit, but I didn’t think this was the correct time to ask about it.

“Beyond that, is there a passion or something you would do that maybe you haven’t had a chance to yet? Just because you’ve had issues doesn’t mean you can’t eventually get to your dream job. I can’t guarantee that we will get you exactly what you want, but we will definitely try to get as close as we can.” The pensive expression on her face like she was considering the possibility of doing something different. “Can you think of anything that you might like to do? Do you like working with kids or maybe-“

“I want to sing. Can you make that happen?” Her voice was rife with cynicism, and I knew that I couldn’t let her down.

“For you Savannah, I will do everything within my power to make it happen. At the least, I’ll do what I can to help you maintain until the opportunity arises. I promise I’ll do my best for you,” I assured her. Her face was a mixture of appreciation, hope and disbelief.

“I guess we’ll see what happens tomorrow, won’t we? Do you need anything else from me or are we good for now?” She inquired.

“One more thing, I do need to make a copy of your driver’s license or any state-issued ID that you may have,” I answered. She began frantically flipping through the clutch.

“I know it’s in here somewhere!” She assured me. After a few moments, she hesitantly produced a California driver’s license. I took four steps towards the monolithic copier in the corner of the room. I pushed the button to scan a copy of her license. The old machine started warming up slowly. Every time I used this machine, I remembered how much I hated it.

“How much longer do we have until we can afford a copier?” I called out to Andrew.

“We can’t,” Andrew answered flatly. I took a deep breath and patiently waited for the machine to awaken. Once the copy printed, I pulled the sheet and her license off the machine and stepped back to the desk. After giving her license back and placing the printout in her file, I handed her the folder with all the papers that her aunt had filled out for us previously.

“If you can verify that all this information is correct, we can go ahead and get your paperwork in to the county office first thing Tuesday morning. Our office is closed this coming Monday, or we would submit it then. Also, we’ll need you to complete a financial information form.” I looked over at Andrew to show him that I was respecting his request, and I motioned for him to bring me one of the forms. He quickly grabbed one from his desk and just about tripped in his haste to bring it over to us.

“Here you go. I’m happy to help you with the form or anything else.” Andrew offered eagerly as he began to lean into her space. Savannah leaned away from him as she took the paper.

“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.” Savannah replied as she turned her attention back to me. I tried to ignore Andrew’s outrageous desperation so that I could do what he had been asking us to do for him.

“This form just gives us an idea of where you are financially and helps us to determine how best we can assist you going forward. It also gives you the chance to donate to this center if, in the future, you want to be a partner in helping other people get the same type of service that we aspire to give you. Read it over, for now, and if you have any questions, just let me know,” I explained.

“I hate to ask you for something else, but”-she glanced up at the clock “would it be possible for you to give me a ride to the bus? I had to walk a couple blocks to get here; I don’t think I can get to the bus stop before the next one comes.” The words were scarcely out of her mouth before I heard an engine roar to life. Andrew stood there with a meek smile on his face, his slender fingers still on the remote start button on his keys.

“I was just getting ready to head in that direction; we need some more donuts. I’d be more than happy to take you wherever you need to go,” he said, extending his hand. Savannah’s facial expression said that the decision between getting a ride with Andrew and walking was more problematic than one might have guessed. Trying to avoid the embarrassment that was creeping across Andrew’s face, I looked over at the almost full box of donuts sitting on the serving table. I couldn’t understand why he was pressing so hard to get her attention; it was unusual for him. His chagrin was virtually palpable before Savannah relented. She stood slowly and began moving towards the door. Andrew eagerly ran ahead to the doorway to usher her to his waiting Audi parked directly outside the door. She waved at me before she stepped through the exit and the two of them were on their way.

Keith, Patrick and I exchanged glances with each other desperately trying to contain ourselves because we knew they could hear us through the plate glass window. Once the car pulled away from the curb, the room erupted.

“Oh my god! He was so thirsty! I’ve never seen him try so hard to get at a girl!” Patrick exclaimed.

“I’ve never seen anybody try so hard to get a girl. He was literally falling over himself to get next to her,” Keith surmised. “I may be off base here, but I would say if you wanted to take her out, she would go with you.” I replayed the entire meeting in my mind. Nothing about our interaction led me to believe there was a spark of any type, at least not as far as I was concerned.

“She wasn’t feelin’ me like that; she was glad to be getting help,” I retorted. Keith shook his head in disagreement. Patrick furiously nodded his head as he pointed at Keith.

“Keith is right. You are so into Xavia, if another woman stood in front of you wearing a yellow Vegas Showgirl costume with the peacock feathers, holding a million dollars cash and riding on the hood of a Bugatti with The Ohio State Marching Band behind her it wouldn’t! She just about asked you out, ‘do you think you can give me a ride to the bus?’ You didn’t even realize it, did you?” Patrick postulated in a mock feminine voice as he pranced around mimicking a damsel in distress. He resembled a linebacker in his first ballet class.

“If she rolls in on an Aston Martin, then I might pay her some attention,” I countered. Patrick’s face said he wasn’t convinced. I smiled as I continued. “A smile and a wave don’t mean she wanted to go out with me. Her feet hurt, and she didn’t want to walk to the bus stop. You guys say every woman who walks through these doors wants to go out with me or something, and that can’t be the case,” I responded.

“That is the case because most of them do want to go out with you. You’re stuck on Xavia, and I don’t blame you, but you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities. Dude, think about it like this: you’re educated. You’ve got a good job helping people, and your dad is a founding member of one of the largest churches in the city, if not the state. Not to mention you’re a genuinely nice guy and even though I don’t fully understand how you do it, saving yourself for your wife? You live the life you say you live! It’s a wonder more females aren’t throwing themselves at you!” Patrick exclaimed.

“I appreciate you saying that, even though I don’t know who all these women are or where I can find them,” I responded. Patrick slowly shook his head in disappointment.

“Of course, you don’t because you’re stuck in the friend zone with Xavia,” he said as he approached my desk. “Promise me if tonight doesn’t go the way you hope it does, you’ll give somebody, anybody else a chance! You’re my boy Ben; I can’t stand to see you like this! Plus, if you can’t get a quality woman, what hope does Keith have? He’s going to wind up with Gomer or something!” Patrick bellowed.

“Gomer, are you serious? Is that a biblical reference coming from you? Considering all the time you spend with Delilah, I’m surprised you had a chance to crack a Bible open,” Keith responded. Patrick waved his hands dismissively.

“I wish y’all would stop calling her Delilah! My girl’s name is Jessa and she ain’t holding me back at all! We don’t spend more time together than anyone else, and she doesn’t keep me from doing what I’m supposed to be doing!” He snapped. The Gomer comment must have gotten under Keith’s skin because I could tell he wasn’t about to let up on this just yet.

“You can’t be serious! I’m not here to judge what you do, but as your boy, I’m telling you she’s holding you back. You could be one of the best ministers out here, but no one’s going to invite you to speak because of her. Break-up or get married, whatever makes you happy, I just want you to be cool,” Keith replied. Patrick was unmoved.

“I wish church people would get into their Bibles the same way they get other people’s business! What happens between Jessa and me is between The Lord and us-”

“And Xavia, Cadence, and Madison and anyone else she decides to tell,” Keith interjected. Patrick waved off the implication.

“Well, since we aren’t doing anything, it doesn’t matter who she tells what! But this ain’t even what we’re supposed to be talking about tonight! Why don’t you just stay your lonely self over there in your lonely little corner? We’re trying to help this dude finally get his girl!” Then he turned his attention back to me. “All I’m saying is you’ve got to get out of this friend zone. You deserve better than this. Promise me if tonight doesn’t go as planned you’ll, at least, consider getting to know different people,” Patrick pleaded. There was something moving in his sincerity, even though he had said this before, this time, felt different like he knew something I didn’t know.

“I’m not in the friend zone! But sure Pat, if she isn’t feeling me the same way, I will consider the idea that God has someone else in mind because I know she is the one for me!” I responded. Patrick didn’t seem thoroughly convinced. It did not matter because this wasn’t his situation to resolve. Whether he thought I had a chance or not, I had to believe that this was going to work out in my favor. “Gentlemen, why don’t we go ahead and call it a day? I know it’s a little early, but I’ve got a date to get ready, and I need to pick up some flowers,” I said cheerfully.

As Keith and Patrick began to pack up their things and head for the door, I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know if it was nerves or the bear claw I had eaten. I prayed that it was just an improper breakfast and not the anticipation of being disappointed tonight. Our seven thirty reservation at Lux meant that in a few short hours, I would have my answer.

2

Seven thirty seemed like an odd time to start a date according to Patrick; after a few months of planning, I realized it was the most opportune time of the day. I figured that if things went the way I hoped they might, Xavia and I would have time to catch a show at Café Vive or find something on The Riverwalk. If things went south, it was late enough that by the time I got back to my house, I could call it a night. A backup plan seemed wrong; it was almost like saying I didn’t think things were going to go the way I hoped. I couldn’t think of why she would say no. Instantaneously, I realized that was a lie; there were ten reasons, if not a hundred she might say no. Despite all those reasons, fear of rejection was the main reason I maintained my silence about how I felt for virtually our entire friendship. The eons of silence were coming to an end; I had gone from years down to just over five hours by the time I pulled up in my driveway.

Walking through the garage and into my home, everything somehow reminded me of Xavia and what was on the line tonight. Like one of those movie montages where the guy spots a random object and then he relives some memory of him and his lost love. The half-empty bag of nacho Doritos on the island in the kitchen evoked memories of countless movie nights with the rest of the group. Her sweater that had been lying on my couch for weeks if not a month served more as a testament to our fickle Port Haven weather than my relationship with Xavia. The poignant memory of her napping on my couch came to mind as well. The sound of my sneakers on the hardwood floors reminded me of the hours we spent in the hardware store, wading through color options. Climbing the stairs reminded me of the time I nearly tripped down the entire flight running to find out what she needed in the kitchen. While I’m sure she could have gotten her own drinking glass, it was pretty far back in the cabinet, so I understood why she called me with such alarm in her voice. The shirt and jacket combination lying on my bed reminded me of our trip to the clothing store to find an outfit to impress a “blind date” that didn’t actually exist.

I planned to tell her about this crush months ago, but she had some sort of last minute emergency and she asked for a rain-check that particular evening. Tonight was the first day in months we were both available to go to dinner. The wait to go out with her was well worth it.

I had been home for a few hours when Xavia finally responded to the text I sent her. After spending the better part of the afternoon trying to stay busy around the house, it was finally time to get ready for the big night. I was attempting to envision how the evening would go as I stepped into the shower. I kind of felt like a gladiator going into battle; the happiness that I deserved taunted me from the other side of this encounter. There was no way to escape it, no way around this conversation. I needed to let her know how I felt and try to move this relationship to the next level. A myriad of thoughts and fears washed over me as I scrubbed every square inch of my body with the scented shower gel that Xavia picked out the last time we went to the store.

“She had to know that I was the best person for her. Who else listened to every single problem with every single boyfriend?” I wondered. “Who else had known her since third grade? Who else loved her the way I did? I had to be the right choice! There was no reason she wouldn’t want to be with me; she’d be crazy to pass on a chance at me!” I thought as I attempted to talk myself up for tonight. My logic did little to assuage my fears, much like the antacid did little to ground the jetliners flying a holding pattern in my gut. Undeterred, I decided to soldier onward even if I was terrified of what might happen in the next two hours or so. I drew a smiling face in the steam on the bathroom mirror. Sometimes seeing a smile, even a picture of one helped me feel more at ease. Or at least, that’s what I always told myself.

Finished with the hygienic portion of my preparation, I started putting on the ensemble lying on my bed. After stuffing myself into the shirt and coat and watching my buttons struggle to do their job, a wave of panic washed over me. In my tunnel vision to make arrangements for tonight I neglected to pick up my clothes from the cleaners, so I didn’t have a suitable alternative. My choices were reduced to being comfortable and choosing a different outfit or wearing what she had selected for me, even though it looked like I was still trying to digest Thanksgiving dinner in April. A quick glance at the clock and I decided that I would just unbutton the jacket and hope that she didn’t ask to borrow it to stay warm. I decided it was as good a time as any to call out for some help. As I grabbed my keys and the flowers and headed for the door, I began to pray.

“Lord, I need a little bit of help down here! Please don’t let me embarrass myself tonight! You said that no good thing will you withhold from the ones that walk uprightly. She’s the one for me. Please let this go the way that I want it to go! Jesus, please don’t let me down tonight!” I pleaded. In a moment of clarity, a pang of guilt gripped my heart.

This was the first time that I had said anything to God about anything in a while. As I thought about it, I started to feel even more embarrassed. Here I was, praying that a girl didn’t reject me and people are praying for basic needs like water and shelter. Despite the sobering reality, my nerves refused to settle down before I picked up the phone to call Xavia. The phone rang twice, and as I began to enter a full panic that she might not pick up, the melody of her voice filled my ear.

“Hello?” She asked, yawning in my ear.

“Hey Xav, it’s Ben. We’re still on for tonight, right?”

“Um… Yeah, sure we are. What’s going on again? Are we going to dinner or something?”

“Yeah, remember you said that you wanted to go to Lux with me. Do you need me to come and pick you up or did you just want to meet me at the restaurant?”

“Uh… Yeah, let me meet you at the restaurant. At seven thirty, right?”

“Yeah, seven thirty at Lux. The reservations are under my name.”

“Okay, I’ll see you in a minute,” she slurred before the line quickly went dead. Her tone made me a little nervous. Had she forgotten? Was this a priority for her? Was this even marginally important to her? Why was she sleeping when we were just minutes away from such a pivotal moment in our relationship? Didn’t she know how many strings I had to pull to get this reservation? This was the restaurant that she wanted to go to, and she didn’t even seem excited about it at all. What was I walking into? Had I set myself up for failure? Driving along the highway to the restaurant, the fear of the past two years washed over me. She wasn’t going to like me the same way that I liked her, this was going to be the end of our friendship, and I was going to be alone in the world without my best friend.

I wondered what life would be like without having Xavia around because she was definitely going to put distance between us once she heard what I had to say. I began to wonder if any of this was worth the effort. A trap door had opened under my seat, and I had fallen into an ocean of self-doubt. The blaring horn and flashing headlights from the driver behind me kept me from drifting into another lane. In that instant, my confidence swelled up again. She was going to say yes because there wasn’t a valid reason to say no. Either way, it was too late to back out now. I had to go through with it because I couldn’t keep living like this.

A few minutes later, I pulled up at Lux and anxiously scanned the parking lot for Xavia’s car. In most cases, her two-year-old ice white Jaguar F-Type stood out in a parking lot, and my old pickup blended into the background. In this lot the opposite was true; some of the car notes in that lot were higher than my mortgage would have been. I conceded the fact that I wouldn’t be able to find her car and after a few futile moments of looking for a parking space near the front, I pulled in front to the valet station. When the valets caught sight of my truck, two of them began to act busy and avoided making eye contact with me. I collected the flowers resting on the front seat as I got out of the truck and made my way towards the station. Before I took two steps away from my truck, a familiar voice rang out,

“Mr. Ben is that you?” I turned around. It was Bryan, one of the kids from my old youth group. I smiled as he walked towards me.

“Hey, Bryan! Can you take care of my truck for me?” I asked, extending my hand to shake his. He shook my hand and nodded as he looked at my truck.

“You still drive this truck? Don’t they pay you at church? This truck looks like it’s about to die. You should buy another truck,” he advised me. As long as I had known Bryan, he never meant any harm, even though he was brutally honest and unwaveringly direct. I shrugged off his suggestion.

“This one still works, so I don’t need a new one yet. When it’s time I’ll get one,” I answered. Bryan seemed unimpressed.

“I hope it stops working soon so you can get a new one. You need a better truck. That’s why they don’t want to drive it,” he replied as he climbed into the driver’s seat after handing me a ticket. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you, this time,” he assured me.

“I appreciate you helping me,” I said thankfully, as Bryan pulled away from the valet station. The terse conversation with Bryan was a welcome reprieve from the unrelenting mental torture tonight was causing. I knew what to expect from him. No guesswork; every time he saw my truck it was the same conversation. The reprieve ended as soon as the ebony framed glass door swung open and I stepped inside the entrance.

A scant glance across the room immediately told me I didn’t belong here. It was like all the cool kids in high school came together and made a place where even if I were paying for dinner, I still couldn’t sit with them. Assuming I could even afford to pay for dinner: this was the type of place where a meal easily cost a car note. I understood why Xavia would want to eat in a place like this. The limited seating and richly appointed décor conveyed an air of exclusivity. The people still waiting for tables were all wearing what I conceived to be high fashion. The waiting area was awash of resplendent smiles, tailored suits, diamond jewelry and red-bottomed heels. Famous paintings adorned the walls; a trained eye would realize these were all replicas. If you didn’t know the Mona Lisa was kept in the Louvre it would be easy to believe she was enjoying herself at Lux. The volume of the conversations in the room was as subdued as the lighting. The aromatic symphony emanating from the kitchen drowned out the audio volume. I imagined the complex flavors blending together and wafting through the air were as intoxicating as any of the wines in the extensive cellar. The powerfully piquant savor proved strong enough to momentarily distract me from my purpose for being in the building; the politely waving hand of the maitre’d quickly reminded me.

“Mr. Reston I presume?” He asked, his gaze lingering for a moment. “If I may say, your resemblance to your father is uncanny,” he smiled as he extended his hand. “Right this way, sir.” He led me towards a spot with an incredible view of the river. He motioned for me to take a seat at the table. “Your father and mother often dined in this spot-” he paused for a moment “there was never a more beautiful soul than she,” he opined.

“Thank you for that, she was a wonderful woman.” I nodded thankfully at his kind recollection of my mother. He continued speaking as I took my seat.

“I presume you are still waiting for another?”

“Yes, sir; hopefully I won’t have to wait for her much longer,” I responded wistfully. He gave me a knowing smile.

“I trust the two of you will enjoy this time together, the same way your father and mother always did. Your server will be with you momentarily; in the meantime, I trust you will enjoy the view,” he offered cheerfully before he headed back to his post. His nostalgic recollection of my mother pulled me down memory lane to the nights when she would bring home one of their delectable apple turnovers just for me. It wasn’t often, but when it happened, it was always incredible. I scanned the menu to find out if they were still available; reading their description on the menu, I knew they would be our new favorite dessert. Even though I wasn’t superstitious at all, this had to be a harbinger of a memorable night.

The fading rays of sunlight cascaded along the river, causing the water to glisten as it flowed toward the horizon. Radiant hues of orange and pink stretched across the darkening blue canvas of the sky. Xavia was missing this beautiful view, but in my mind, this scene was missing her. The gas lanterns began to illuminate along the waterway, casting a dreamy amber halo over the Riverwalk. A single candle burned brightly in the center of the table as the reflection of the flickering flame danced down the glasses and across the gold plated flatware. If there was a perfect background for telling Xavia how I felt, this had to be it. I glanced down at my timepiece; it was twenty past seven.

“She’ll be walking through that door any minute now,” I mumbled to myself. I began to rehearse exactly what I was going to say to her when the moment finally came. I wanted her to know I had felt this way before our fathers founded Maranatha Temple almost twenty years ago. I don’t know if it’s possible for a nine-year-old to fall in love, but I was pretty sure I had, and she was the one. She had always been the one, and it was time she knew it. Better yet, it was time I told her.

My eyes darted back and forth between my watch, my phone, and the door. It was only seven thirty-five, and since I knew punctuality wasn’t Xavia’s strongest attribute, I decided to give it just a few more moments before I called her to find out if there was a problem. She had to have known how important tonight was for me, how important it was for our friendship. I told her, at least, three times that I had managed to get a reservation at Lux and that I’d like it if she were to join me for dinner. Had I actually asked her to dinner? She knew that I was asking her, didn’t she? I started to panic. How could I forget to ask her out after planning every other facet of the evening? There was no way that she didn’t know that I was asking her to dinner, just like there was no way she would pass up a free meal at Lux. The wave of icy cold dread that was threatening to wash over me began to subside. Of course she was coming, she knew me, and she knew what I meant when I said it would cool for her to join me for dinner. She wouldn’t miss this. She wouldn’t do that to me. I held on to hope that she would be here any minute.

I couldn’t decide if the candles were exceptionally fast burning or if I had been waiting for longer than I thought I had. It wasn’t until I noticed the reflection of the flame dancing a little lower on my half-empty water glass that I glanced at my phone again. A quarter past eight and still no contact whatsoever from Xavia. I didn’t want to be a bother, but at this point, I felt justified in calling her to find out why she wasn’t here yet. A mix of nerves, irritation and dwindling hope, I scrolled to her number.

The phone rang three times before I hung up in disgust. I couldn’t believe she still wasn’t here. A few moments later, my phone buzzed with an incoming text message. It was from Xavia. My fingers trembled as I opened the message to see what she said.

The message read: “Sorry, can’t talk now, I’ll call you later.” I scrolled down the page expecting the message to continue. Where was her apology for standing me up and ruining what was supposed to be the best night of my life? I guess I could expect it with her apology for wasting this incredibly magnificent view. Maybe I would find it with the millions of other excuses that she had offered over the course of our friendship.

Realizing that tonight wasn’t going to unfold the way I hoped it would, I waved for my server so that I could inform him that I would be leaving. He nodded as though he understood the situation and wished me a good evening. Before I left, I took one last gaze at the incredible scenery and imagined my parents sitting in this spot. How do they do it? How did they manage to turn a friendship into a successful marriage? I should have been able to do exactly what they did and create exactly what they created. I let out a long sigh of frustration, which inadvertently extinguished the candle on the table. Embarrassed, I quickly picked up the flowers and hastily moved towards the door.

As I passed the other tables, joyous smiles illuminated every seat. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy at the people having the time of their lives. The riant atmosphere utterly unaffected by the cloud of dejection hanging over my head, emphasizing the fact I didn’t belong here. I avoided making eye contact with the maitre’d as I exited the building; trying to explain what was going on would have been difficult at best. It would be better for everyone if I could go home and forget about tonight. I blew through the door and rumbled to the stand where I found the valets standing idle. They must have remembered my truck; as soon as I walked out of the door, they instantly began to act as busy. My temperature started to rise; Bryan’s emergence from the parking lot saved his co-workers from my misplaced ire.

“I’ll bring your truck, Mr. Ben,” he said, collecting my ticket. “But you should ask them to let you buy a new one as soon as possible because this one is about to die.” I nodded as I flashed a fake smile. His inadvertent insults threatened to tip over the seething caldron of my emotions, even though I was well aware of his intent. I knew he was expressing genuine concern for my well-being; regardless of how I felt it wasn’t fair to take it out on anyone, least of all a former mentee. The last thing we needed at church was yet another public relations fiasco; a member of Maranatha Temple misbehaving at Lux would have given the community another way to drag our name through the mud.

As I waited for Bryan to return, I began to think about how I allowed myself to get to this point. How did I let her become so important to me? Sometimes I wondered what made her attractive to me. Xavia could be grossly inconsiderate at times. It seemed no matter how high a pedestal I may have placed her on, that fact always made her human again, it made her attainable for me. It was weird; what I liked least about her was the exact thing that convinced me I had a shot at her.

My frayed nerves began to relax a little when my truck pulled up to the door. Bryan stepped out of the rumbling pickup and walked over towards me.

“Here is your truck Mr. Ben! Are you going to be at church tomorrow?” He asked. I smiled weakly and nodded affirmatively, even though the torturous thought of seeing everyone tomorrow after this

“Yes, I will be there. Are you going to be there?” I asked, moving towards the open door.

“Maybe. I’m supposed to be meeting my dad tomorrow.”

“Have fun and enjoy your time together, I’ll catch you later. Thanks for bringing my truck around for me; I really appreciate it.” I climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled the door shut.

Pulling away from the restaurant, my thoughts instantly reverted to what had just happened, or more accurately what hadn’t happened. The scene replayed over and over in my mind, each iteration stinging worse than the one before. Tears began to form as I thought about the disparity between my emotions towards her and the apparent lack of romantic inclination she had for me. As I started to think about how she completely disregarded my time and my feelings and I felt myself getting angrier at her by the moment. I knew she could be inconsiderate, I just never expected her to treat me like this. Even though she may not have known what I had intended, I still thought we were better friends than that. I didn’t know what excuse she may have, and I didn’t care what she might have to say. Unless someone had died between the time we talked on the phone and the time I left the restaurant, our friendship sat precariously on the brink of disaster.

I took my time going home along the most scenic route possible while the thoughts pinged across my mind. Where were we going from here? Could I trust her after this? Did I still want to be her friend? I came up with more questions than answers, and the few answers had I didn’t work in her favor. After thirty minutes of extra driving, I decided to take the next exit and head home. Ten minutes later, as the front tires of my truck touched my driveway, my phone began to ring. My heart skipped the same beat it always did when Xavia called, but this time, my anger wouldn’t allow me to answer. For the first time I could remember, I declined her call, even though nothing prevented me from answering her. Before I could put the truck in park, she called again. My indignation gave way to apprehension. It was odd for her to immediately call back; ordinarily a missed call resulted in a text message. I prayed my “someone had died” condition for her missing our date hadn’t actually happened. Hesitantly, I answered the phone.

“Ben! Oh, thank God you answered! I need some help!” She said frantically. “Can you come over right now? I think I saw someone looking in my window!”

“But your apartment is on the fifth floor! How would you see someone looking in your window?” I asked skeptically.

“I think the guy on the balcony in the other building used his telescope to peep in my bathroom. Ben, please! He’s watching me!”

“No one can see into your bathroom window. Even if they could peep in your window why don’t you just close your curtains?”

“I… I… I can’t close them right now!”

“What do you mean you can’t close them right now? They’re curtains! You pull them in front of the window! I don’t understand what the problem is,” I said through clenched teeth.

“Ben, I can’t explain right now, can you just come over here, please?!” She asked. Part of me wanted to punish her for standing me up, and the other part realized this might help her to think of me as more than a friend. I couldn’t just let her disregard tonight like I condoned her actions. My indignation began to look strong enough to finally overpower my wishful thinking.

“Xav, I’m sorry you’re having an issue, but I just embarrassed myself! I wasted the better part of an hour waiting for you in a restaurant, and you didn’t even have the decency to call me and tell me why you weren’t coming! Then after I cried my eyes out driving all over the city, you want me to come to your rescue because you think someone is looking in your window, even though your unit is on the fifth floor?! You’ve jerked me around for the last time, Xavia Wright! I don’t care who’s looking through your windows; you need to figure this out by yourself! I’m done!” Is what I wanted to say to her. As justified as it was, I couldn’t allow my indignation to jeopardize my hope that maintaining this ethereal kindness would eventually win her affection. So, as usual, I didn’t breathe a word of protest.

“Alright, I’m on the way,” I sighed as hung up the phone, backed out of the driveway and headed towards Xavia’s apartment in Riverview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

The twenty-minute drive from my place in Stockade to hers was more than enough time to think about how I was going to bring up the fact that she had stood me up at dinner. It had to be done gracefully, without pointing out how I called in favors from all over the place to make a reservation or the potential ridicule I was facing from the guys. The effort I had expended would be of little concern to her; I would have to explain tonight in terms of how it would impact Xavia. That was the only way she would understand how her actions made me feel. Usually, I enjoyed making this drive to her apartment because it meant getting closer to her seeing me as more than a friend. This trip seemed more like a masochistic compulsion. I was heading into a situation with the one person I wanted to avoid. It was too late to turn around, so I turned up my radio and decided to enjoy these last few minutes of peace.

Xavia’s complex was situated on a hill overlooking the city. Developers brought all the homes nearest the edge of the hill but didn’t touch the houses on the other side of the street, resulting in a row of older homes across the street from Xavia’s seven-year-old complex. The incomparable view from her unit included the river and the Port Haven skyline as well as the all the city parks. I enjoyed the sights from her apartment; if my father hadn’t given me the house I lived in this would be a great place to rent. I pulled up and parked in the first open spot I saw, and then I ran into the building where I was stopped by the concierge.

“Good evening Mr. Reston. I presume Ms. Wright is experiencing yet another crisis?” He asked wryly. I smiled.

“Hopefully, it’s nothing major,” I responded. He nodded as I approached the elevator. Once it came down, I climbed inside and hit the button for her floor. I wondered what I would find when I got to her apartment. I exited the elevator and walked down a long corridor until I got to her unit. I knocked on the door and covered the peephole.

“Who is it?’ she asked.

“Delivery!” I answered like I had a thousand times before. I had only been at the door a few moments before it flew open. Xavia flung her arms around my neck and gave me the tightest squeeze. Through her scant pajamas, I could feel her feminine curves pressed against by body and even though it wasn’t the first time she had ever hugged me, it was like a dream. The sweet scent of her perfume lingered a little longer than it normally did; it was almost as if she had sprayed just before I got to the door. After allowing her to embrace me almost to the point of awkwardness, I gently patted her on the back so she would let me go. She released my neck, and I stepped inside the door so she could close it.

“Don’t you look sharp!” she declared as she took a step back to look at me.

“Thanks. I tried to look nice for you tonight,” I responded. She quickly brushed off the remark.

“I’m so glad you got here so quickly! Now before I show you what’s wrong, you have to promise that you won’t be mad at me,” she implored as her demeanor began to change from distress to chagrin.

“What did you do?” I asked, uncertain of what to expect.

“Well, I went out with the girls last night after service, and they wanted to try the new sushi place over on Fourth. It was excellent; we should go sometime,” she paused as I shot her an irate glance. “Anyway, I guess I overdid it because I woke up sick this morning.” I raised my hand to stop her.

“Sick like what? Were you throwing up or something?” I asked. She shook her head.

“Worse.”

“What could be worse than throwing up?” I asked. The look on her face screamed, “Please don’t make me say it!” I thought about it for a moment and then the mystery malady became apparent and a grin crept across my face. I could see the chagrin in her eyes, but I couldn’t suppress my laughter. “You had diarrhea?! What did you eat at the sushi place?! I ain’t going anywhere near there! Why would I want to go sushi with a side of the runs?! No, thank you!” I blurted. She playfully slapped me on the arm.

“It’s not funny! I was really sick! That’s why I couldn’t meet you for dinner tonight; I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to have an issue at the restaurant.” She explained. I didn’t know how I felt about her explanation. It was plausible; I wouldn’t want to go to Lux if I was experiencing any sort of intestinal distress. At the same time, she could have just called and told me she was having an issue. Even if she was feeling sick, it still didn’t explain why she needed me to come over in such a hurry. “I had taken some allergy medicine, but I confused the non-drowsy stuff with the extra strength stuff, and I was out. I woke up when you called me. I tried to hurry and get ready, but I was still feeling a little ill. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it, and that’s when I texted you,” she continued. Her recollection didn’t make me feel better about what had happened, but it was helpful to know that she didn’t have malicious intent.

“You missed really nice seats and great company, but I guess I understand why you couldn’t be there. I still don’t get why you needed me to come over now? What’s the big emergency?”

“I wanted you to come over so I could apologize in person, but it wasn’t fresh in here, so I opened up the windows. I went into the bathroom to try and open those windows, but you know I have to stand on the toilet to open them. I lost my balance while I was up there and I caught the curtains to keep from falling,” she explained as she motioned for me to follow her to the bathroom. I surveyed the damage as she continued. “I kind of pulled the hook thingie out of the wall. I figured since you had hung them up for me originally, you could maybe remount it for me please?” she asked, batting her beautiful brown eyes while raising the pitch of her voice. I was up to my shoulders in pulchritudinous quicksand with no way to escape. She knew I was going to do it; we were both just waiting for me to say that I would. As a slave to her smile, I didn’t really have a choice. My pride wanted to tell her to fix it herself; unfortunately, I knew what the correct response had to be.

“Where are the tools?” I sighed. She squealed with glee, her smile illuminating the room.

“You’re the best Ben! This means so much to me!” She rocked onto her tippy toes, threw her arms around my neck and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I drifted into eternity at that moment. Time hadn’t stood still; it had ceased to exist in my mind. Everything about the moment was absolutely perfect. The scent of her hair as she moved closer to my face, the warmth of her arms as she draped them lovingly over my shoulders froze me in the moment. The softness of her body as she leaned against me helped to form an indelible memory in my heart. That was the closest I had ever come to seeing her express any sort of romantic feeling towards me. It didn’t exactly make up for what had happened at dinner, but as far as I was concerned, we were even. I thought she said something about being back in a minute with the tools, but I couldn’t hear her. All of my attention was focused on the two and a half inch spot on my face where my dreams were starting to become a reality. I didn’t fully understand how I got into this situation, but I was glad I was in it.

The happiness in my heart was challenged almost immediately. I had left a set of my spare tools at Xavia’s. I had gotten tired of starting projects and then having to go home and get my tools or driving to the nearby hardware store to get a screwdriver or some other tool. We kept everything in a large yellow toolbox. That yellow toolbox was the only thing I expected to see her carrying when she came back to the bathroom. When she emerged from the back carrying both the tool box and multiple large plastic shopping bags, I felt the pulchritudinous quicksand starting to cover my neck and creep over my head. The heavy metal clanking of the rods and finials was the omen of a project that was much larger than I had anticipated.

“Ben, I hope it’s not too much to ask while we’re fixing the curtains in the bathroom, I want to change a few of my curtains and curtain rods. I guess they were discontinuing these curtains because I got a great deal on them. The finials and rods and I thought since you were free tonight maybe you could help me switch my old curtains for these new ones? Look at them, aren’t they pretty?” she asked, pulling package after package of the most God-awful pastel blue curtains out of a seemingly bottomless shopping bag and placing them on the counter. With each set of folded curtains, this project grew larger and larger; when she pulled the seventh package out of the bag, and it still appeared full, I knew I was in trouble. The pile of glossy packages grew so tall the additional packages began to slide off the stack and onto the floor.

“Xav, you don’t have that many windows in here. If you only want to change a few windows what are you going to do with all these extra sets of curtains?” I asked. She smiled sheepishly.

“I lied. I want to change all of my rods and curtains. The rest of them are for you! We picked your curtains out five years ago when you first moved in there; it’s time for a change. You can take whatever’s left over and hang them at your place,” she offered cheerfully. I smiled weakly, attempting to disguise my distaste for the drapes. They were so ugly I didn’t even want to touch them, much less hang them up and I definitely had no desire to hang them up at my house. I didn’t like the curtains hanging up at my house now, but I didn’t need to give her anything to complain about when she came over, so I just let them hang.

“That was so thoughtful! Thanks so much!” I replied, feigning appreciation as best I could.

“I’m glad you like them! Now come on, because the soon we start, the sooner we’ll be finished. Do you want to begin in the bathroom? Should be a little fresher in there by now, and I don’t think I should leave that window uncovered much longer.”

“I can start in there if that’s what you’d like for me to do.”

After I took off my blazer and hung it on the back of a barstool, I picked up the toolbox and trudged into the bathroom. Xavia was hot on my heels with the new curtains, rods, and finials. As I began the work of repairing the damage she had done to the wall, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a setup of some sort. It was beginning to look like an elaborate ruse to get something out of me while offering next to nothing in return. I turned around for a moment to get some air, and she was standing behind me, watching the whole process intently with her honest brown eyes monitoring every step I took.

Under normal circumstances, I would have enjoyed having her standing so close to me for such a long time. These weren’t ordinary conditions and her micromanaging the situation was proving to be annoying at best. By the time I changed the treatment of the tenth window, the one in her bedroom overlooking the river, I had thought about jumping out one of the windows four separate times. Working for Xavia was never an easy task; I had promised her father I would look out for her. Lately, I could tell she was taking advantage of my willingness to help.

After I had finished the last window, I put all the tools back in the box, put the box in the hall closet and headed for the door. I had ruined my best fitting outfit with sweat; I was tired and more than a little embarrassed. More than that, I had done what she had asked, and I wanted to go home. The excitement I felt from her kiss on my cheek had dissipated, and the disappointment that I felt at Lux had taken its place. I walked back to the dining area and took my blazer of the back of the stool. As soon as I had gotten it over my shoulders, Xavia appeared in the hallway.

“Do you have to leave right now? Can’t you stay just a little longer?” she pleaded.

“Xav, I’m tired, and I need a shower. I don’t have any clean clothes over here and to be honest, I kind of want to go home,” I answered. She frowned at me as she reached out to grab my hand.

“You do have some clean clothes over here! I washed the shirt and shorts you let me borrow that one time. They’re still here! You can just wear that for now! Please! Please don’t leave me; I’m not ready for you to go yet, and plus I need to talk to you!” she insisted. It was hard for me to tell her no, especially when she was asking me to stay with her and I was more than a little intrigued by the fact that she needed to talk to me. I had every reason to walk out of her unit and get into my truck. I knew that there wasn’t anything to be accomplished by staying here any longer, but the part of me that was grasping at the hope of a chance could not be placated by my analysis of the situation. I took my blazer off and began to walk towards the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later, after I finished my shower, I put on the tank top and basketball shorts that I remembered lending Xavia a while ago. The shorts and tank were from a church league that Andrew, Keith, Patrick and I had played in a few years back and both the shorts and the top fit a little tighter than I remembered. I had put on a few pounds, but these clothes felt like they had never been the right size. I thought better of asking her if she had shrunk them somehow. She was highly defensive about her domestic abilities, regardless of how seldom she actually employed them, and that conversation would escalate. She was sitting on the bed reading a book when I came out of the master bathroom. Without pausing, I walked towards the door of her room, heading for the couch. The stark darkness of the apartment was jarring. She had turned off every light in her home save the lamps on either side of her bed. I paused in the doorway. Xavia put the book down on her nightstand and patted the opposite side of the bed. Pensively, I approached the foot of the bed. I wasn’t sure what was on her mind or what she had intended for me this time.

“Why do you look so scared Ben? We’ve been in the same bed before; come over here and sit down, I need to talk to you,” she purred. I sat down at the head of the bed on the opposite side. I tried sitting up for a moment, but the heavenly plushness of her pillow top mattress was far too inviting. It wasn’t long until I had gone from sitting up in the bed to veritably lying down beside her. She reclined from the sitting position she was in when I entered the room on her side with her pillow rolled up and tucked between her head and shoulder. As we sat there with her enchanting, warm brown eyes eagerly searching mine, I wondered what she could want to discuss. In typical Xavia fashion, she did not leave me in suspense for very long.

“I need some advice and I think you would be the perfect person to ask because you’ve known me for so long, and I know you’ll give me a straight answer.” She started. Curiosity piqued, I sat up just a little bit to hear what she had to say next.

“Of course, I’ll be honest with you Xav, what’s up?”

“Do you think I’m ever going to get a deal?” she sighed.

“A record deal? You mean, do I think you’re going to make it as an artist? I do!” I replied. One of Xavia’s life goals was to be known as a recording artist. Even though she had had some minor successes with one of her recorded songs being played on the local radio station, her confidence in her ability to reach her goal was tenuous at best. If she made music that matched her talents, she would believe in herself a lot more.

“You’re just saying that,” she replied. I could tell from her tone of voice this wasn’t really what she wanted to ask me. The “Do you think I’ll get a deal?” discussion was the most hackneyed conversation between the two of us. Lately, it had become a way for us to broach other, more uncomfortable subjects.

“Since when do you need a smokescreen with me? What do you really want to know?” I challenged. Xavia took a deep breath before she continued.

“Well,” she sighed, “Do you think I’m attractive? I mean I know I have my flaws, but do you think that anybody could ever like me for me and not because of my family?” She asked. “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear; tell me what you really think!” she added. I was shell shocked. I wanted to scream “Yes you’re attractive! I know because I’m attracted to you!” but I knew I couldn’t reveal my emotions just yet because I had to see where she was going with these questions.

“I think you are absolutely exquisite. You’re the sweetest person I know, you’re smart, and you’ve got the voice of an angel. What’s not to like?” I asked. She smiled at my words and eagerly clasped my hands.

“You really think so?! I can never really be sure what guys see when they look at me like I’m never really sure what their motives are.” She looked down sheepishly as she broke eye contact with me. “Ben, I don’t know how to say this,” she took a deep breath as I clung to her every word like a rock climber with no rope. “I’m kind of feeling someone. I haven’t talked to you about it because I wasn’t sure what it would mean for our friendship. I’m not sure if he’s feeling me the same way. I’ve known him a long time, and I’m not sure if I can take our friendship to the next level. He’s a really special guy, and I would hate to lose him.” She whispered.

The room froze, and the jackhammer in my chest was threatening to break through my rib cage as I felt myself beginning to float heavenward enraptured by the connotation of her words. This had to be it! This was the moment I had been dreaming of for years. Xavia was finally going to confess she had been feeling the same things that I had been feeling. I tried to think of what I would say next and how to act surprised and flattered at the same time. I was going to play it cool; tell her I was flattered and that I was feeling her too. Waves of anticipation coursed from my head to my fingernails, from my heart to my toes. I had waited for this moment, and I was ready to let her know what I was thinking.

“I’ve had a chance to get to see you up close and learn about the real you. I’m sure he’s just as ready to move to the next level as you are. No matter what happens, we’ll still be friends.” I offered as I reassuringly patted her hand. “What do you have to say?” She looked down, took another deep breath.

“Andrew and I have been spending time together, and I think I’m starting to have feelings for him, but I don’t know if he feels the same way about me. What should I do?” she asked. The room filled up with a sea of the saltiest tears, and the rapturous joy that had lifted me up instantly became a stone chained around my neck pulling me to the lowest depths of the ocean. The palpable pressure on my chest was crushing my heart and made it impossible for me to draw breath. I understood the words she said, but I couldn’t fathom what she just said to me. What had Andrew ever done for her? Was he there when she was sick like me? Did he drop everything to spend time with her when she was lonely? Had he comforted her when her parents divorced? Was he there for that? He had never been there for any of that! So how could she choose him over me? He wasn’t better for her than I was; nobody was better for her than I was. How could she do this to me? I realized I had to come out of my despair long enough to be her friend and answer her question, regardless of how torturous it was to help her.

“When you say you guys have been hanging out, what types of things have you been doing? That’s usually a good way to tell if a guy is into you or not.” I offered, instantly realizing that it meant I was going to once again have to hear about Xavia’s dalliances with another man that wasn’t nearly as good for her as I was. The fact that I had played this role before did not make this iteration any easier.

“Well, we went to movies earlier this week and then last night we-” she stopped and looked away as though she was hiding something. I didn’t know what she was about to say, but I knew it was going to be something that I didn’t really want to hear. I sat all the way up on the bed to make eye contact with her. She gently clasped my hand as she took another slow, deliberate, deep breath. I wasn’t sure if she was nervous or if these were histrionics; either way, I felt myself growing irate.

“Are you having an asthma attack? What are you trying to say?” I fired, sounding more indignant than I had intended. She nodded her head as though she understood my frustration.

“Okay. Ben, I love you, I really do. I feel terrible for not telling you the truth earlier.”

“What are you talking about? What did you do last night?” I pressed.

“I didn’t go out with the girls last night like I told you earlier. Andrew and I went to dinner, and then we hung out on the Riverwalk for a while.” She answered. I had a feeling there was still something she wasn’t telling me. My blood began to seethe as I realized what she wasn’t saying.

“Where did you guys go to dinner?” I asked flatly. I thought I saw a tear form in the corner of Xavia’s eye.

“Please don’t be mad at me Ben,” she pleaded. “We went to Lux. It was Andrew’s idea, and I’ve wanted to go so bad. I don’t even know how he knew I wanted to try it or how he got a reservation so quickly. Or where he got the money because I know you guys don’t get paid a lot down there at the Resource Center. But anyway, it was a total surprise, how could I pass up a chance to go?” she whined. The searing inferno in my chest was hot enough to burn down the city. Their duplicity had reached biblical proportions. It was like Delilah and Judas had joined forces to become some sort of dastardly deceitful duo determined to destroy my chance at the one thing I wanted most in this world, a relationship with Xavia.

As angry as I was at both of them, I realized that my ire would do nothing to change the situation. I could blow up at Xavia, tell her how I really felt and try to show her that Andrew was no good for her, but I knew she was already gone. If I told her how he acted with Savannah this afternoon, she would just think it was a case of sour grapes. The best thing that I could do for her from right here was try to keep being a good friend and be ready to catch her when he let her down. So like I had done with every other time she told me she had a boyfriend, I repressed the hurt, anger, disappointment and sadness, put on a brave face and resolved to help her the best way I could.

“I’m not angry Xav. I hope you remember what I told you about him when you first said something about wanting to go out with him. I guess I understand why you felt like you couldn’t say anything to me.” I offered. The words burned like acid reflux from the time I formed them in my throat to the time I spat them out my mouth.

“That’s what I love about you Ben; you are so understanding! I was afraid it might cause some beef between you and Andy. I mean I know you don’t like me like that ‘cause we’re like brother and sister, but I’m afraid it could get weird because Andy’s your friend.”

“Andrew is my subordinate.” I corrected her bluntly. I’d only known him for the five years that he had been working at the Community Resource Center with me. Even though it wasn’t the relationship I had with Patrick or Keith, Andrew’s disloyalty still hurt my heart, regardless of how I tried to downplay it.

“Whatever he is, I don’t want this to affect things between the two of you or with you and me. Neither one of us wants to lose you as a friend nor are we trying to make things tough for you. I think we both just want to be happy.” She explained. Something still didn’t sit well with me in all of this. I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t seen this coming. It was completely out of the blue and the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was something amiss.

“Don’t worry about all that. You know all I’ve ever wanted is to see you happy. If he’s it then I’ll pray for the both you.” I replied. If I really thought they had a chance, I wouldn’t have said a word. Relief swept over her face as she smiled and reached out to give me a hug. I accepted her embrace. As she released her hold, she whispered.

“I thought you were going to be done with me after this.” I shook my head negatively.

“It will take more than this to drive me away,” I responded masking my real emotions. I was trying to convince her there wasn’t any latent anger; based on her actions, the ruse was effective.

“It’s already pretty late. Why don’t you stay here with me for the night? I’ve got some more questions about Andy that you might be able to help me with… if you’re okay with that.” she asked. She was determined to test my patience, but I couldn’t let her know how deeply this was impacting me because then she would know how I really felt about her. With Andrew in the picture, there was no way I could win. He was what she wanted; I was what she needed.

Though I had put on the bravest face I could muster on the outside, inside I was dying. I was trying to the answer to all the questions she had; she just couldn’t see that the solution was me. I could tell she had never even considered it. I faced the wall and started answering her questions until I began to drift off to sleep. A single tear escaped my eye as I realized that she didn’t see me as the answer, and there was a good chance she never would.

 

 

4

 

I always regretted Saturday Night sleepovers with Xavia because the following Sunday morning was always tough, last night’s chicanery notwithstanding. Sleeping next to Xavia was like trying to get comfortable lying next to a running chainsaw. It wasn’t just the sound; it was the risk of her swinging an arm or kicking a leg while she slept. She had inadvertently kicked me out of the bed on more than one occasion. If that wasn’t enough, I always slept facing the window, so the first rays of sun to creep over the horizon always launched a direct assault on my eyelids. Today was no exception.

Forced awake by the cogent combination of Xavia’s louder than usual snoring and the wayward rays of sunlight penetrating the wafer thin curtains I hung for her last night, I gingerly climbed out of the bed. Xavia grunted a little, but otherwise, she wasn’t impacted by my departure. I tiptoed to the bathroom to gather my things. I started to put on the clothes I had worn last night. When I remembered my discomfort in them and the failure they represented, I decided to just keep on the tank top and basketball shorts Xavia had given me. I thought it was better to get out of the apartment as quickly as possible instead of hanging around and risking waking Xavia or worse.

I didn’t see anyone I recognized as I made my way out of the building, so I assumed I made it out without being seen. It was hard to be sure because a few of the church mothers lived in the older homes across the street. There was no telling who was looking for something or someone to discuss during coffee hour at church. In my truck and heading to my house, the colossal failure of last night forced its way to the forefront of my mind. It was like watching a horror movie yelling at the screen, hoping the main character doesn’t go into the creepy cellar even though you know they will. As the depressing scenes played over and over in my mind, I kept yelling at the caricature of myself in the images. I was begging him to pick a different date, or realize this wasn’t going to happen the way he anticipated. I wondered what would happen if I had asked her to go out with me on Friday night instead of Saturday. Maybe Lux was too much pressure; maybe I should have just invited her to get our regular Chinese. No matter how much I tried to visualize a different outcome by changing a single variable or doing just one thing differently. I always saw the same result: me sitting alone wondering where Xavia was and knowing she was at home earnestly contemplating the ramifications of changing her curtains.

My despondency clouded my vision to the point I nearly missed my driveway. The horn from the driver behind me honked as I jammed on my brakes to make the turn. I pushed my garage door opener and waited for the door to rise. To my dismay, it didn’t move at all. I jabbed the button a second time. The monolithic door stayed firmly planted on the ground.

“Lord, why are you doing this to me today?” I yelled as I parked the truck in the middle of the driveway and headed into the house to investigate. As I made my way through the house, I started to think about skipping church. I hadn’t slept well last night, and if I had to fix this door, that was going to be an all-day project. My staunchest opposition to attending service this morning was the fact that Xavia was the leader of the praise team, and I didn’t want to hear anything she could have to say in any way, shape or form.

Visualizing myself listening to her voice this morning instantly caused me to think back to last night. A wave of indignation swept over me carrying images of that infernal bag of endless finials and boundless bolts of cloth, empty seats at dinner and simultaneously lying next to her while being an entire world away from her. I hadn’t missed a Sunday service since my father retired a couple years ago; God would understand if I wasn’t in the number today. He saw what happened last night; this had to qualify as an excused absence. Before I could get comfortable with my decision, I heard the distinct sound of a Miles Davis trumpet solo coming from my pocket. I figured he would have been in church at this point, so a call from him meant something was happening.

“Hello?”

“Benjie! How’s it going, son?!” He asked jubilantly.

“Everything is wonderful dad! Nothing to complain about here!” I responded, my tone belying the idea I was trying to sell my father.

“Is it the thing with Xavia again? Didn’t Jayson get you in at Lux?”

“He did. She never showed up,” I answered.

“Ouch. I know how that must have felt. I had to ask your mother out four different times before she eventually said yes. I’m sorry things didn’t work out the way you hoped. At least this way, you’re in position for who God wants for you,” he offered, attempting to make me feel better about last night’s snub.

“I’m sure you’re right,” I responded

“I am, but that’s not why I called. I’m headed back out of the country again, Mayeso and his folks have started a new church in East London, and I’m heading there to help them get started. I’ll be gone about a month, but I’ll call you when I get back in the States.”

“That sounds incredible dad! Tell Mayeso and everybody I said hello! I’m sure you’ll have a great time!” I replied.

“Thanks, kiddo! You keep making me proud down there! Hopefully, I can come for a visit after I get back.”

“Of course you can! I pray I can get by without using the garage door until you can help me fix it,” I wondered aloud.

“The manual for the door should still be on the shelf in the garage. You might want to get the door fixed as soon as you can; you’re gonna need it pretty soon,” he said cryptically. I wasn’t sure what to make of his warning.

“I’ll start working on it today,” I answered.

“After church,” he demanded. “People in other places risk death for the chance to come together and worship! You better not think about staying home to work on a garage door? Absolutely not!” He declared.

“I was just thinking about it because I need to fix it, but I hear you,” I responded.

“Plus you don’t want to miss the surprise at church today!” He informed me.

“Surprise? What surprise?!” I pleaded.

“You’ll know it when you see him! I gotta get to my gate! Keep an eye on everything for me and I’ll see you when I get back! I love you son!”

“I love you too dad! Be careful and have fun while you’re out there!” I said before the line went dead. My father made it a point to stay busy after my mother passed away and missionary work was usually the best way for him to do that. He crisscrossed the globe trying to spread the message of the gospel and help people in need. Whenever I felt like I had given all I could to the church, I thought of my father and realized if he was still working then I could find the energy to keep working.

I wrestled with the guilt of even considering not going to church and what this ‘surprise’ might be while I meandered towards the garage to investigate why the door wasn’t opening. By the time I reached the garage, I had decided that if there was ever a Sunday to miss, this was it, regardless of my conversation with my dad. Patrick or Keith could tell me what the surprise was. I tapped the door opener, and there was still no movement. I was tired, this door was going to have to be fixed, and I was still at odds with Xavia. I was making the right choice by staying home today. I decided to hold off on repairing the door in favor of catching up on the sleep I had lost at Xavia’s. I closed the garage door and headed towards my bedroom. Drearily, I trudged up the stairs and threw myself onto my bed. Even though I thought I was upset with Xavia, I appreciated the plush, downy softness of the comforter on my bed.

As I lay on the king-sized mattress, it felt like I was sinking into a sea of slightly melted marshmallows. The supple mattress and cozy blanket embraced my body like a warm hug from a close friend. With my feet hanging over the edge of the bed, I kicked off my dress shoes and decided that I would deal with my argyle socks later. I started to wrap myself up in the blanket before I remembered my phone needed to go on the charger. Angrily, I removed enough of the comforter, so I could pull my phone out of my pocket. I connected it to the charging cable and place it on my nightstand, before wrapping myself back up in the blanket and drifting off to sleep.

The worst thing you can do when you’re trying to sleep in is forget to turn off the alarm on your phone. I had scarcely been asleep for half an hour when my Sunday School alarm started beeping. I woke up and began flailing wildly about trying to either grab my phone and turn off the alarm or hit the snooze or break the phone; whatever was going to make the ringing stop. The only thing I was able to do successfully was to knock the phone onto the floor. I tried to reach for it without disturbing my sleep cocoon any further; all I did was push it further under the bed. The only way I was going to be able to put an end to the racket was to get out of the bed, reach under the mattress and grab the phone and stop the alarm. Frustrated, I kicked off the blanket and crawled out of the bed onto the floor to silence the offending gadget. I couldn’t see under my bed, so I reached in and patted around furiously trying to get my hand on my phone. As soon as I got the phone in my grasp the clangor came to an immediate halt. Bewildered, because I hadn’t touched any buttons or the screen to stop the alarm, I pulled the phone from under the bed and glanced at the screen. I had missed a call from a number I didn’t recognize. My mind began to race; Sunday morning phone calls were always enigmatic at best and a harbinger of some new duty that I either hadn’t asked for or didn’t want at worst. While I was debating calling the number back, the voicemail alert chirped. I opened the voicemail as I climbed back into bed and put the phone on speaker.

“Uh, Hi Ben, this is Savannah Paulson, I hope I didn’t wake you up by calling you this early. I got your number off the paperwork you gave me. Anyway, I was calling to see if you would be able to give me a ride to the morning service. Aunt Ava got called into work today, and I remember you saying it was important for me to be at church today so you can try and help me. You can just call this number when you get this,” the voicemail ended abruptly. I had completely forgotten I was supposed to meet Savannah at church today. I rolled over on the bed and stared straight up at the ceiling.

“I can’t take one Sunday off?” I sighed as I sat up and prepared to return Savannah’s phone call. Even though I enjoyed my work in the resource center, off-hour phone calls could be intrusive. I selected the callback option, and the phone had barely rung once before Savannah picked up the line.

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Ben Reston. I’m returning a phone call I received from this number. Is this Savannah?”

“Yeah, it is. I’m sorry to have called you so early; I didn’t wake you up did I?”

“No, you didn’t, I’ve been up for a while. I got your message; I can come and get you. What part of town are you in?”

“I’m staying at my Aunt Ava’s apartment in Yorkton, is that far from you?” She asked considerately. Yorkton was further away from me than Xavia’s place; it was on the outskirts of the Greater Port Haven area. Another mile north and she’d be in another county. It was as far from my house as anyone could get and still be in the city. However, she wasn’t that far from Andrew; he would have to come through Yorkton to get to church from his house in North Haven.

“It’s not that far; but Andrew lives a little closer, and I’m sure he’d happy to help you out,” I answered.

“Uh, no, that’s okay. I can just see you guys on Monday,” she quickly responded. It was enough to make me think something had gone awry during her last interaction with Andrew. Even though I was frustrated at the extra responsibility, there was no way I could allow her to miss such an exceptional opportunity. She needed to be at church today more than I needed to be at home. Begrudgingly, I slid out of the bed and started rifling through my closet for something to wear. Since I didn’t have a clean suit that fit in my closet, I decided to make today casual Sunday. I pulled a light blue button down out of the closet along with a pair of jeans, a jacket and my blue and orange Air Max gym shoes as I continued the conversation.

“We’re not in the office tomorrow. It’s not a problem to come and get you; I look forward to the privilege. If you text me the address, I’ll be on my way shortly.” I answered. I wanted her to feel like I was making every effort to make good on my word to her. Something about her said that she had dealt with more than her share of disappointments in life, and I didn’t want to add my name to the list.

“Thank you so much! I’ll be ready, and I’ll send you the address in a minute,” she replied. I thought I heard a hint of excitement in her voice, even though I couldn’t think of what she might have to be that excited about at this point. As I tried to decide between which shirt and pair of jeans to wear to church, the message with Savannah’s address in it popped up on my screen. Or at least, that’s what I assumed the alert was. Pressed for time, I climbed into the shower without giving my phone a second glance. It wasn’t until I had tied my sneakers that I checked the alert. It was from Xavia. “Thanks for being so understanding last night. Have a good day.” The message read. She had never sent me a message like that the morning after I had stayed the night to help her with some project, so I wasn’t sure if this message had a meaning beyond the actual words. Why was she thanking me? Was it for not telling her what I thought about her and Andrew? Maybe this was an olive branch she was extending to make amends for ruining dinner last night. Whatever it was, the message with Savannah’s address popped up and quickly shifted my thoughts to getting to her to service on time. I darted down the stairs, grabbed my keys and after securing the door, jumped in my truck.

I made surprisingly quick work of the drive to Yorkton; it only took half the time it normally would have taken to travel that distance. I reached the address Savannah had given me. It was in the middle of a row of small apartment buildings that couldn’t have housed more than six units apiece. I parked my truck along the curb and waited for Savannah to come out of the unit. Sixty seconds after I put the truck in park, my phone rang.

“Hey, Ben! Is this you in the red pickup?” Savannah asked eagerly.

“Yes, it is, are you ready?” I responded.

“Yeah, I’m on my way out of the door right now,” she assured me. I took a deep breath because I knew we were going to be late for church. Xavia would say she was on her way out the door, and I would still have to wait for twenty, sometimes thirty minutes before she would emerge from the building. In fact, every woman that I had ever had to pick-up from anywhere had put me through something similar. I had no reason to believe that Savannah wouldn’t be the same way. I was pleasantly surprised when Savannah strode out of the front door mere seconds after we had hung up on the phone. I scrambled out of my seat and around the front of the truck to hold the passenger door open for her. Her smile was inexplicably radiant as she approached my truck. Initially, I was encouraged by her bright smile, but as I took in the rest of the view, I could see how this might be tougher than I thought. As she got closer to my truck, the urgency of my mission to get her to church was in direct competition with my testosterone.

Savannah’s body-hugging sky blue dress was probably better suited moving to rhythm on Saturday Night than service on Sunday Mornings. The bright orange heels laced halfway up her calves assertively struck the sidewalk with each step she took towards my truck. I didn’t mean to stare at her, but there was a beautiful melody in her stride, a siren’s song that I couldn’t ignore. The lilt of her hips and the smooth strength of her saunter composed a visual poetry that I had never seen before, and much to my chagrin, couldn’t stop watching. I tried to look at the ground and pretend like I hadn’t been watching her as intently as I had when she got to the truck. The smile and wink that she gave me told me that I was caught. Once she was seated in the cab, I shut the door and quickly hustled around to my side, and we were on our way.

Savannah seemed excited to be coming to church today, but I could detect a hint of nerves. I was used to church because my parents had been missionaries since before I was born, and so I spent most of my waking hours either inside of a church, going to church or coming from church. It was hard for me to imagine having never been exposed to church in any form like I had assumed Savannah hadn’t been. I wasn’t sure what exactly to say her and judging by the lack of conversation in the truck; she didn’t know what to say either. The ride was silent. Three songs into the trip, she excitedly tapped my arm.

“Ben, is that the restaurant Lux over there?” She asked, tapping on the window. I looked over to see where she was pointing.

“Yeah, that’s it,” I answered dryly, my latent frustration momentarily overpowering my manners. Her excitement seemed knocked down a peg by my tone.

“I didn’t realize I lived so close to it. I’ve heard that they have some of the best replicas in the country; I wish I could get a reservation there just so I can see the artwork,” she opined wistfully.

“The pictures in there are pretty nice according to what people have told me in the past,” I replied. It wasn’t a lie; I was only giving her what she needed to know.

“Someone also told me that the food in there is the best you can get in this part of the country; I’ve always wanted to try it. Have you ever eaten there?” I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach as I thought about how to answer her question without reliving the horror of last night.

“My parents would bring me food from there sometimes, and it was always wonderful. Especially the handmade apple turnovers, I still remember those. I’ve never had one as good as the ones from Lux. My mom’s were almost as good, though. Sometimes, when I was heading back to school after a break, my mom would give me a take home bag from Lux with turnovers in it. For the longest time, I thought that I was eating turnovers from Lux. I didn’t find out until later that she had been baking them at home and just saving the bag for me. Some days I wish that I could have a turnover from Lux and one from my mother so I can figure out how they’re different from each other.”

“Well, why don’t you just call her and ask for one? I’m sure she’d do it for you. If my son called me and asked for something like that, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“My mom passed a few years ago,” I replied softly.

“I’m so sorry!” She gasped. I waved my hand to show her that she hadn’t offended me.

“It’s okay; there’s no way you could have known that. God called her home, and she was ready to go.”

“Still, I feel terrible! You have to let me make it up to you somehow,” she said, her perfectly penciled eyebrows scrunching as she began to think. “I got it! Maybe I can treat you to dessert at Lux one day!” She offered. I smiled at her generosity, but I was wincing internally. How could this woman who had known me less than twenty-four hours be inviting me to the same restaurant where my friend of twelve years had just left me looking like a fool? I thought back to the conversation that I had with Patrick and Keith yesterday; they may have been onto something.

“I may hold you to that!” I replied with a little more mirth than I expected. She smiled sweetly at me.

“I hope you do,” She responded. We rode in silence for about half a song before Savannah decided to strike up another conversation. “Ben, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you remind me of someone.” I was intrigued.

“Really? Hopefully, it wasn’t someone you hate.” I replied. She chuckled as she turned to look out of the window.

“No, I didn’t hate him. He was a great friend, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. He was so easy to talk to, kind of like you. It wasn’t until he wasn’t in my life anymore that I understood how special he was.” She replied. The chagrin she must have felt in speaking about my mother was becoming apparent.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I responded. She waved off my condolences.

“The only loss was the money. He was a foreman in the same factory that Aunt Ava works in; he’s probably still there. I hadn’t talked to him since I left The Peach Pit and that was years ago. The money was good I just couldn’t deal with all the tourists with it being so close to the airport ya know? It was hard to get a regular customer base.” She stopped as though she was embarrassed. I looked over at her to figure out why she had quit talking.

“What was his name?” I goaded. Savannah was visibly confused.

“Thurston. Wait; did you hear what I just said?” She asked. I nodded.

“What, that you worked at The Peach Pit? I already knew that; your aunt listed it in your paperwork. What I do want to know is how I remind you of Thurston.” I replied. Savannah smiled in disbelief.

“You really don’t care that I used to work at The Peach Pit?” She asked. I shook my head.

“Everybody has a past; I’m not worried about yours or anyone else’s for that matter. All I can do is try to help you going forward. I can’t help what you used to do back then, but I can help with what you do now and in the future. Where you came from isn’t as important as where you can go. I help anyone that comes through my doors asking for help, regardless of what they may have done before they realized they needed my help. So whether a person used to sell drugs or work in a gentlemen’s club has no bearing on if I will help them or not. The only thing that matters to me is the willingness to change and accept my help.” I offered. The warmth in her smile said more than any words.

“That’s how you remind me of Thurston; he was the same way. You and I are going to be friends.” She postulated.

“I think I’d like that,” I replied.

A few moments later, we pulled up in the church parking lot. After finding a spot where I didn’t think we would get blocked in, I parked the truck and walked around to Savannah’s door. Between the moment, I swung her door open and the moment her heels touched the ground, the nerves I sensed earlier were undetectable. With aplomb in every stride, she followed me to the door of the church. I could feel other church members looking at us as we made our way to the building. While I was sure most of the attention was on Savannah’s intriguing mien, there was a good chance people would wonder why I was dressed so casually. I had brought other guests to church in the past, but none of them had been nearly as well put together as Savannah. I figured that had to be why Mrs. Reynolds was staring at Savannah so intently.

As one of the church’s greeters, it was her job to welcome everyone that walked through the doors as well as gather imprints from visitors. She had been doing it since this church opened and she knew just about everyone that walked through the doors. If she didn’t recognize you, there was a good chance that you were a visitor. The smile on her face was belied by the judgment in her eyes as we approached the doors.

“Good Morning Benjamin! This must be a new friend; a new friend who’s never been to our church before,” Mrs. Reynolds assumed as she glanced over her glasses. “Sweetheart, is today your first time in service with us?” She asked, motioning towards Savannah.

“Yes, this is the first time that I’ve been here,” Savannah asserted. Mrs. Reynolds smiled as she picked up the pen that was sitting on her lectern.

“Oh, well praise The Lord! What’s your name sweetheart? We like to acknowledge our visitors during the service,” she advised.

“It’s okay; I don’t need to be announced today. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m here,” Savannah rebutted. Mrs. Reynolds was undeterred.

“But it’s our tradition to announce our visitors! We ain’t gonna bother you, honey, we just want to say your name during the service today,” Mrs. Reynolds retorted. Savannah shook her head negatively as she responded to Mrs. Reynolds.

“That’s fine, but I don’t want anyone to know that I’m here. If that’s okay with you,” Savannah responded sharply. Mrs. Reynolds seemed taken aback; Savannah’s refusal frustrated her to some degree. I didn’t understand why the situation seemed to be escalating, but I knew I needed to say something before it got worse.

***

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God of the Friend Zone

Ben and Xavia have been a picture perfect match since childhood. A pillar of his community and the son of a pastor, Ben is the quintessential gentleman. His love for Xavia knows no limit and his devotion to her is unshaken by any of the women that cross his path on a daily basis. Not only is she the daughter of a prominent family in Port Haven, but she is also Ben’s best friend and confidant. Her overwhelming charm, ethereal attractiveness and the depth of their relationship are all reasons why Ben wants to get her to the altar. There’s just one problem- Ben has been relegated to the friend zone with no hope of escape. Or so it seems until he meets Savannah, a woman with an angelic voice and a disgraceful past who desperately needs his help. As he works to help her deal with her issues, a friendship begins to grow and he finds the key to escaping the friend zone.

  • Author: J. Aaron Duane
  • Published: 2015-12-30 06:41:44
  • Words: 88285
God of the Friend Zone God of the Friend Zone