I watched his name linger on my screen before it notified me of a voicemail. I wasn’t in the mood. I picked up my phone and rolled it over in my hand. Why couldn’t I relax? What was the big deal? Liam was nice, right? He had never proved himself otherwise. He wanted to go on a date with me. That was nice. A start, right? But, I knew deep down inside, I didn’t want to go on a date with him. I wanted to go on a date with Robbie, a real date, and not act like a complete freak.

I sighed and wished my phone would vibrate again. As if I’d willed it, my phone almost jumped out of my hand. I flipped it over. Not Robbie. It was Zella. I bit back my disappointment.

Her chipper voice started as soon as she realized I accepted the call, “Hey! I haven’t seen you in a bit, wanna get together and chat?” She always seemed so happy to talk to me, even though I still had trouble treating her the way she deserved to be treated. 

“Well, you are welcome to come over here,” I offered, looking around to see if anyone was home. “The coast is clear.”

“Really? Okay, cool. Uh –“ she hesitated. “Any way you could pick me up?” she asked with what sounded like a grimace.

“Of course. Listen,” I informed her, “It’s never a problem. Don’t feel guilty about it.”

She sighed, “Thanks, Oona. I really do appreciate it. I should be getting my license soon so it shouldn’t be an issue. You’re seriously the best!”

            I hung up and laughed out loud. Those were three words I never thought I would hear out of her mouth! Of course, I never thought we’d be friends either, but I realized with some comfort, on this dark night when I had pretty much screwed up any chance I might have had with Robbie, she was the only one that I wanted to talk to, after all.

 

We got back to my house, and she plopped on the bed. I watched her for a minute, and I observed that I’d never seen her face so confused. She looked distracted. I couldn’t help but speak my mind, “You haven’t been the same since Toby has been back.”

She put her hand on her head and frowned, “I haven’t, have I?”

“No.”

“I’m miserable!” She threw herself back on my bed.

Her admission surprised me, “What happened?”

“It’s not what happened but what could happen, what I wish would happen and all the time I know better! I need help! Please, Oona, tell me I’m stupid!”

“You’ve come to expect that from me, haven’t you?” I frowned and sat on the floor beside the bed.

“No!” She snickered and smiled, “Well, yes, honestly, but it’s not like that. I feel like I’m going crazy!”

I was still lost. “Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you. You’ve never been a drama queen, don’t act like one now.”

She took a deep breath and sat back up, legs crossed in front of her, “You’re right.” She pulled at the fringe of her frayed jean shorts. “It’s just hard.”

I knew who she was talking about. I knew what was hard. I never understood it, but the frustration and sadness on her face was getting more and more upsetting. For the first time, instead of assuming she was just being stupid and rolling my eyes, I opened up and asked her to explain.

“As far as he knows, I do really well. I don’t let him know how bad it is killing me. But, like the other day, we were watching a movie, my eyes were glued to the TV, but I couldn’t pay attention to anything but him – his laugh, his scent, the way he haphazardly tussles his hair when he’s nervous.” I watched her smile. She was smitten. Then, she frowned, “And all the time I was fighting this huge urge to curl up in his lap, nuzzle into his neck and feel his full lips on mine!” 

I smiled. I understood that urge. I looked at Oona to tell her it was normal, we all have those feelings, but when I saw the look on her face, anger and snark surfaced, “But you didn’t, did you? Because Jesus appeared with a flaming sword and said ‘Thou shalt not cross!’

She laughed, “I wish! If only He would, then it would be easy to shut those thoughts down!”

I wasn’t as amused, “See? That’s what I don’t get! You like the guy so it stands to reason that you would want to kiss him! What’s so wrong with that?”

Zella returned my seriousness, “I made a commitment.”

I responded, “That you obviously didn’t want to make and can’t keep.”

She frowned, “What makes you think that?”

Then it was my turn to laugh, “Aren’t you always struggling?! Surely Jesus wouldn’t have you do that! He loves you right. He loves us all, isn’t that what you tell me? Well, if it’s what you want, wouldn’t it make him happy?”

She grabbed one of my pillows and cuddled it, “That’s what the world says.” 

I couldn’t’ help but feel that her comment was somehow targeted at me. I got defensive, “What’s that supposed to mean?!” 

She looked at me, not at all threatening and said, “There are a lot of things that feel good. And if I gave in to those feelings, I have no doubt that I would feel good in the moment. But after… I’d feel like crap.”

Her riddles didn’t make sense to me, “Why?!”

She stood her ground, “Because my flesh was satisfied but my soul was compromised.”

There it was again, that Jesus language of soul and flesh and all the other ramifications of so-called sin and struggle, “What does that even mean? I mean, really, at this point do you even know, or have you gotten so used to the church speech you don’t realize that others have no clue what you are talking about?” 

Zella didn’t seem upset, “What I mean is…I made a commitment. And fair or not, easy or not, I’m gonna stand by it. Following Christ isn’t about what comes easy, it’s about sacrifice and purpose.”

I wasn’t buying it, “So Jesus loves you enough to save you from hell but not enough to let you make out with a guy? I get it.” I couldn’t bite back the sarcastic tone.

She answered, “No. I love Jesus enough not to.”

I tried not to growl, “Do you realize how stupid that sounds?” I stood up and sat beside her on the bed so I could stare her in the eyes. “So, let me get this right? If I became a Christian, I could not date Robbie – ” I saw her eyes widen so I quickly threw in, “Liam, or anyone else, because I wouldn’t love Jesus if I did?”

Zella smiled, “No. Because you didn’t make the same commitment I did.”

I laughed. She was serious. “I bet if you’d have known how hard this would be you wouldn’t have made that vow, huh?”

She looked back down at the pillow, “I’d like to say you’re wrong, but I’m afraid you’re right. If Toby had been in my life before that day, I wouldn’t have been so quick to sign the covenant.”

Okay that made sense, “So Jesus knows this, right? He will forgive you if you back out. I just don’t believe it has to be so hard, Zella.”

“He knows my heart even better than I do. He knows exactly how hard I’m struggling. It’s true. He would forgive me. But, I’m not the kind to go back on my word, to back out of a commitment.”

Fine. I pushed my hair back over my shoulder, resolved.  I guess that’s the way she wanted it, but she was taking a huge gamble so I voiced my concern, “And if Toby gets tired of waiting and dates another girl?”

She looked at me like she wondered if maybe I thought I could slide in, and answered, “I guess that’s a chance I have to be willing to take.”

I started to say again how stupid it all was and reassure her that Toby wouldn’t make that decision, but Zella interrupted “I know. It’s stupid,but I’m willing to take that chance if it means honoring Christ.”

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Zella looked at me, eyes twinkling, curiosity replacing her look of confusion, “So… you said something about Robbie?”

I wasn’t ready to switch gears, and I certainly didn’t want to talk about Robbie right then, “And if he does?” I challenged, again.

“What? Robbie?” She looked confused, or was attempting to change the subject, I wasn’t sure.

“Toby,” I replied, refusing to divert.

“Oh.” She looked at the window.

“If he loses patience, cause he’s a guy, they always do…what then?”

 “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” she answered painfully, looking like she was considering the cost.

I didn’t wish that on her. I didn’t want it to be so hard on her. I just wanted her to face reality. Reality was that no guy would wait forever on a girl just because she made a commitment to God. We were all young. There were lots of years between now and a viable marriage age, lots of pent-up emotions and hopes. It wouldn’t be worth it, even for Toby. I had seen, a man has his breaking point.

She pulled her blue hair up in a ponytail and looked at me, “What if? What if there were actually guys out there that thought it was more important to protect a girl’s heart than to experience her body? What if there were guys that despite their hormones put the girl first? What if there were guys that could recognize a girl’s beauty without trying to find a way into her pants?”

I laughed, “Well, I’d say sign me up!”

She pressed, “Write your name down, because I believe they exist, and I believe that I know at least two of them.”

I smiled, “Let me guess, Toby, of course, and Robbie?”

“Yes.”

I considered what she said. She might be right, or at least have a point, and for a girl like Zella or Celeste or even Mitzi, they would wait, but I wasn’t buying it for myself.. I wasn’t innocent or even a good girl most of the time, and I certainly wasn’t going to hang my hopes on a dream that would never come true.

“Zella?” I asked, thinking about our conversation and the vast differences between us.

“Yeah?”

“Why are you my friend?” I’d never asked that question, mostly, because I wouldn’t believe the answer, but I was feeling bold, vulnerable maybe. I braced myself for the answer, which I assumed would amount to pity and “Because Jesus said so.”

“You’re not my friend,” she paused, as I tried not to look disappointed and shocked. Then she looked at me, eyes soft and loving and finished, “You’re family.”

That wasn’t at all the answer I thought I would hear. I didn’t understand. I had just heard the story of her and Celeste and how they came to be family which made complete sense, but I was her enemy! I was the girl that had tried my darndest to make her life a living hell! I shook my head. I wouldn’t accept it.

She must have read my look, “You don’t believe me?” She laughed and continued, “You call me on my crap. You see me as more than an artist. You don’t adore me. You aren’t afraid to tell me what you think, and if I don’t agree you accept it but want to know why. I have never in my life met someone like you. At times you can be so cold and calculating and in another minute you can possess more heart than Mother Theresa.  You see things as they are. We fight and we make up. We love, but we need our space. What better definition is there?”

I tried to take it all in. It was more than I could have imagined if she spoke the truth, but this was Zella, to the best of her ability she always spoke the truth, even to her detriment at times. The word family stuck in my throat. It was so foreign to me but something I had so deeply longed for! I dared not reach out and grab it. I acted nonchalantly, “Hmmm…that’s interesting.”

She continued, “I’ve faced a lot of reality this last year. More reality than I thought we would be able to handle, and you never seemed overwhelmed or put off. You seemed to deal with it better than I did!

I smirked, “Yeah,” I rubbed my thigh, “I handled it.” If only she realized how much I’d handled it. Every time Zella would break down, I would cut. She would cry, and I would hurt myself. She would yell, and I would grab a razor. She tried to make sense of the mess or at least see good in it, and I escaped. Yet, here she was commending me for having it all together.  

Her eyes followed my hand, “How long?”

“Not long enough, “I admitted sadly.

“Another day is another victory,” she encouraged, with a smile.

“I got rid of all my razors,” I offered.

Her smile lit up her whole face, “Really!? Oh, Oona, I’m so proud of you!”

Wow. There was that phrase again. I’d never heard it in my whole life and in one night I’d been told twice, by two different people that they were proud of me! And what if I saved one? What if I had lied? Would they still be proud? If I were down to one razor instead of a stash, would I still gain their approval? Because I had lied. I hadn’t revealed them all. I couldn’t. They didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t just a habit but a lifeline. The thought of going without ever harming myself again, was unrealistic, and if I was completely honest, terrifying! And they would find out, because as much as I wanted to give it up, history would repeat itself. I would slip up again, and they would know that I had not thrown them all away, and whatever pride they had felt for me, would be washed away like blood down the sink, along with their love for me. Zella would no longer call me her family. In fact, she’d probably hate me. The realization of that and the impending pain forced me to push her away and take back my courage.

“I’m going on a date with Liam tomorrow night, and I’m probably gonna have sex with him.”

The look on her face was shock and fear mixed with “What the crap?” I glanced away. I knew that disappointment was coming. I knew that every day that we were friends or family or whatever she thought of us a time would come when I would do something stupid where her disappointment would look a lot like betrayal, and I wasn’t willing to wait. It’s like pulling a band aid off. If you freak out and pull a little at a time, the hurt lasts far longer, where if you just yank the sucker off, heck yeah, it stings for a while, but eventually the sting subsides, and you wonder what you were so worked up about to begin with. That’s how I saw this. Let me disappoint her completely now, so that she will spare me the pain later. 

Despite my thoughts, I sat on the floor before her seeming disinterested and completely convinced in my response, though truthfully, I had no desire to sleep with him! I just wanted to push her away. I looked up and could tell that she didn’t know what to say. Her big eyes always gave away her emotions.

She shifted a little then focused on me, “Can I tell you something?”

I shrugged.

She bit her lip and cleared her throat, “Don’t be something you’re not.”

Her words upset me, “How do you know who or what I am?”

“I know.”

I laughed, “You know what I’ve allowed you to see! I’m not little Miss Perfect like you! I have had sex before, plenty of times! I’ve messed around. I’ve done stuff that would probably make you blush!”

She wasn’t fazed it seemed, “But deep down you wanted more.”

I couldn’t let her see that she was right so I pushed harder against her sensitivities, “Deeper, longer? Oh yeah! What girl wouldn’t!?” 

She blushed. I knew she would; we both knew that wasn’t what she meant, but I wasn’t willing to admit how deeply I wanted more. How much had I hoped that the physical satisfaction would fulfill the hurt and the longing that I always had to be loved, to feel loved, and to know love? At times, it was more than I could stand. 

She wasn’t put off, she seemed for a moment as if she were talking to someone else in the room before she said, “Oona, I’m gonna let you push me. But, I want you to know something. As hard as you push me out, I’m still running towards you. If you hurt me, if you lie to me, if you do the unthinkable, whatever that might be, I’m still here, and we’re family.”

The tears surfaced in my eyes, and I looked out the window. “For now,” I whispered, halfway to myself.

“For life.” She answered unconvinced, “And you can hold me to it.”

Without looking away from the window, I asked her to leave. I expected her to challenge me, to press me about what I was gonna do, but she just got up from the bed, reached down with a hug and whispered, “I love you, Oona. Jesus loves you.”

I sniffed.

“You don’t have to take my word for it. Words aren’t enough most of the time. Just let us show you.”

With that she shut the door behind her, and I sobbed. She was wasting her time. They all were. They didn’t have to take my word for it. They would see. I would fail them, and they would know that I wasn’t worth their emotions. There was always this feeling inside me that I wasn’t wanted, not really. I was a project or a pet or somebody to make them feel better about themselves. I wanted to resist that feeling, to think something different, but it kept pulling me in and reminding me that any other perception of myself was a fantasy. But that day, deep in the recesses of my soul, I thought I heard a different Voice say,“Who told you that?”

 

The next day came far too quickly. It seemed that the morning and afternoon  flew by, and before I knew it, I was looking at the clock marking time to leave to meet Liam. I wore a long sundress, and a cardigan over it. I wore my makeup very lightly and simply brushed my lips with some gloss. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea and being in public with an almost minister required some modicum of respectfulness, I assumed. Not that I would dress otherwise, but sometimes outfits I thought were cute and figure-flattering, Zella wouldn’t be caught dead in. I chose something I thought she might wear.

The minute I stepped out of my car to meet him at the church, I already noticed that something seemed off. It must have been intuition, looking back, because other than what I felt, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He reached for my hand and spun me around, “You look beautiful!”

I blushed at his approval, “Thank you.”

After the spin, he pulled me in and hugged me, which made me uncomfortable with its familiarity, so I pushed back.

“I don’t bite,” he laughed.

I looked at him between my lashes with disapproval, as I pushed away. I hadn’t suspected as much.

“Oh, don’t get all coy on me,” he said, letting me go. “I know you better than that.”

“Oh really?” I doubted, flipping my hair over my shoulder as I walked toward his car and opened the door. 

“I’ve met you before,” he said with a twinkle in his eye walking around to the driver’s side to get in.

Once he was seated and the ignition was started, I looked at him doubtful still, “When?”

“Once upon a dream,” he smiled.

I rolled my eyes and had to laugh, “Are you really that corny?”

He winked and smiled again, and I have to admit, he did it well, “Maybe.”

He kept dropping corny lines, and before I knew it I found myself dropping my guard as we drove. He was funny. I would give him that. And his charm was undeniable. I found myself drawn in. The attention he was giving was nice. He was obviously flirting but so far it seemed harmless. By the time we got to the restaurant, I was actually having fun.

The waiter had just left our table with our order, and Liam was looking at me intently when he asked, “What’s your favorite position?”

His question caught me off guard, and I doubted I’d heard him right, “Excuse me?”

“On the field.”

“I don’t play ball,” I answered, still doubting his intent.

“Oh,” he replied, “that’s too bad,”

I felt my stomach turn, “For who?”

He smiled and touched my hand, “For you.”

Everything about the way he said that assured me that he was not talking about baseball. I pulled my hand away and looked at my menu, that feeling from before returning and dismissing my appetite.

He sounded frustrated, “You really can’t take a joke can you?”

I didn’t look at him, “Ladies don’t joke about such things.”

He cursed under his breath, and it caught me off guard. I looked at him, but he seemed to have realized I had heard what he had uttered under his breath. I wasn’t sure if it was out of remorse or just fishtailing after being caught. “I’m sorry. It’s just been a long day.”

“Hmmm.” I answered looking back at my menu. 

“What? You’re perfect?” He challenged.

I laughed, “Me? Not a chance.” Then I looked at him, “But then again, I’m not a pastor.”

His face flushed red. I wasn’t sure if I had made him mad or if he were truly embarrassed. He answered, “Good thing God gives us grace,” and gave me that charming smile again. “And I’m not a pastor, I’m an intern.”

“But you want to be a youth pastor, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose, someday.”

“So, what’s the difference?”

He looked dejected, which I found odd, and I found myself feeling sorry for him. I understood. I was learning there was a hierarchy of saints in the church, and there was less and less chance that I would ever be good enough. What was the big deal, anyone else and his language wouldn’t have mattered. I pushed back the image of Robbie that surfaced and apologized, “Just took me by surprise is all,” I said looking into his eyes.

He dropped his head, looking down at his menu, “Let me guess, Robbie never cusses?”

His mention of Robbie caught me off guard, could he read my mind, did he see what I didn’t want to admit? I nonchalantly but honestly replied, “I don’t really know.”

“Yeah, I seriously doubt it.” He looked at me with a pout, “That guy is perfect.”

I had never seen Liam look or act so sensitive. It was attractive, vulnerable, and I felt sorry for him. Maybe he wasn’t this cocky prick that always got what he wanted. He was just a vulnerable soul like me that somehow knew he could never measure up. Maybe that was what was underneath his false bravado? He was insecure. His unattainable image was Robbie, and mine was Zella. I found a place where I could sympathize.

With the return of my appetite, the rest of the dinner went smoothly. I had no desire to talk about my issues with Zella, so I didn’t dare bring up his issues with Robbie. I changed the subject to something we would both be comfortable with. We talked about common things, safe things – the weather, what there was to do around town, and about his new apartment.

“Sounds like every bachelor’s dream,” I responded after he told me about the open living space that allowed him to fix his cereal and play video games at the same time. I decided to educate him, “And it’s called an open concept.”

“Would you like to come see it?” he asked, eagerly like a kid with a new toy.

“Well, I don’t know…” Dinner was one thing, but going to his place? That felt a little too intimate, and I started to think about what Zella would say, “My car is at the church.”

“That’s not an issue! It’s within walking distance from there. Really, I can take you to your car first, if you like, and then you can walk over and check it out before you head home.”

I looked out the window, noticing it was still light outside. A quick trip to look at his new place seemed harmless enough, besides, the last half hour had proven him to be far less aggressive than I had first feared. Maybe I had judged him wrong? “Okay,” I answered. “Let me run to the restroom first.”

“No problem,” he answered happily. “I’ll pay the bill, and we will be on our way.”

As I was in the restroom, my phone vibrated. I looked at the name on the screen. It was Robbie. I answered reluctantly, “Hey.”

“Hey.” He didn’t progress. The pause felt heavy.

“You needed something?” I wanted to make this call as short as possible.

“You on your date?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“And?” he pushed.

“What?” I refused to assume what I knew. He was checking to make sure it was going okay.

“How are things?”

I rolled my eyes, “It’s fine. He’s fine. I’m actually having a good time. He’s not as bad as you think he is.” There was a pause again, so I filled it with, “Does that surprise you?”

“Honestly?” he asked.

“Of course, are you capable of lying?” I retorted.

“I still don’t trust him.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said to him but under my breath.

“And that bothers you?”

I decided to level with him, my anger mounting, “Actually yes. Because when you say you don’t trust him what you really mean is you don’t trust me. You don’t trust my judgment. Like, if it weren’t for you, I might totally screw up. And guess what, Robbie? I’ve been on my own for a while, without your protection, without your words of warning, and somehow, God only knows, I have done just fine!”

“Fine!” he sounded frustrated. 

I’d never quite heard that tone in his voice, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I responded like a kid, in kind, “Fine!”

He apparently wasn’t finished, “Wait! Listen-“ He paused, again, “I get it. You’re gonna do what you want anyway. Date who you want to. Trust who you will, But just remember, if your world falls apart and you can’t handle it on your own, I am going to be there!”

There he went again, talking about my potential failures like I was some kind of weak girl that needed a hero! My blood boiled, and my heart hurt, and if I hadn’t gotten off the phone that second, I knew I was going to say something I would not be able to take back and that both of us would regret. “I have to go.”

“Wait, Oona!” he sounded desperate, which just managed to frustrate me more, “I mean it. I’ll be here.”

I heard him, but it didn’t matter. “Bye, Robbie.” I hung up and turned off my phone and went to meet Liam.

When I saw him, he’d just finished paying. He saw me and smiled, standing up to lead the way, “You ready?”

I smiled back and took his arm, “I definitely am.”

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