One Saturday night late last fall
"Not a one..." Not a single one. I fought back a giggle and gave Annie my droopy-eared puppy dog look. Even at thirty-five, I hadn't forgotten how to do that. "I know almost everyone here, and they're all either married, too young, or too old."
Annie bared her teeth. "Grrr." She took her man-hunting seriously.
I squeezed her shoulder gently. "Looks like we came to this stupid basketball game for nothing. Maybe we should've tried an adult game rather than a church youth league." This had been just one more of Annie's silly ideas. But she'd convinced me that, since we both hated sports, at least we wouldn't have to watch the game. We'd be too busy watching the fellas.
She shook my hand off. "I'm not giving up that easily, girlfriend. What about that guy sitting by himself near the end of the third row?"
My gaze followed her pointing finger across the gym. I smirked. Unintentionally. "He doesn't look like he's sixty-nine, does he? Especially at this distance."
She grunted, and I lowered my voice to a whisper. As if the people at church didn't already know the truth about Mr. Jenkins. "That black hair? Underneath the dye, it's the most beautiful shade of white. Why can't he be satisfied with looking his age?" I paused to let that sink in. "You're not desperate enough to settle for somebody thirty-some years older than you, are you?"
Although she glared as if she wanted to swat me, she groaned instead. "I'll keep looking, thank you very much. And I'll bet I spot an eligible man before you do."
Good luck on that. Since you don't go to church here, you don't know who's single and who's not. You had one thing right about Mr. Jenkins, though. He is single. "Hey, look." I pointed to the fellow climbing the bleachers across the gym from us. "There's Thomas Jefferson Newland—he goes by T. J. He's my-"
"That Bible study teacher you rave about all the time? He's hot. Totally gorgeous. How come you never told me how good-looking he is? Woo!" When the blue-haired lady sitting in front of us turned around and stared, Annie's face heated instantly to a uniquely unappealing shade of red. She lowered her voice. "He's around our age?" She didn't have to tell me she wasn't going to take a chance that time.
I nodded. Regretfully.
She wrinkled her forehead. I could almost hear her thinking, Why did I bother to ask? "His wife's not with him?"
I took a quick look around the gym. "I don't see her anywhere."
I twitched my nose in agreement. A strange habit I'd developed during childhood. "That's not unusual. No wonder those two don't have any kids. I don't think they do anything together."
As soon as I realized what I'd said—or at least unwittingly implied—my face caught fire. It felt like it, anyhow. "I can't recall the last time she came to Bible study. Or church, either, for that matter. For being married to the best Bible teacher I've ever known, she seems strangely unconcerned about spiritual matters."
"He's that good?"
"Mmm." Thanks for not asking anything else about Joanne. I'd almost felt like a gossip just by expressing my opinion. Thank goodness I hadn't passed along everybody else's, which were probably even stronger than mine.
I looked across the gym before continuing. "He's not just handsome. He's a really great guy. Kind, gentle, thoughtful. Polite. Cheerful but soft-spoken. Great sense of humor. If I were married to him—or to someone like him—I'd want to go everywhere he goes just because he's so wonderful." Wonderful was an understatement. But only God deserved to be described as awesome.
I hoped she wouldn't say, You'd even follow him into the Men's room? As a non-Christian, she didn't see anything wrong with semi-crude remarks like that. Instead, she snorted. "Fat chance either of us will ever do that. The really good guys are all taken."
I sighed. Annie was probably right. No wonder I was still single-again. And sick of pretending it didn't matter.
A few minutes passed without further conversation. Until…
"There!" Annie pointed at an unfamiliar man I'd just spotted walking through the gym's double doors. A new arrival, judging by the heavy jacket he hadn't shed yet. "I saw him first! He's single, isn't he? I know that guy's single. He has to be."
Cool it, girl. I rolled my eyes. Mentally, anyhow. "You're wrong. I saw him first. I've never seen him before, though. Must not belong to Calvary Church. His hair and beard look kind of straggly. Maybe he's a street person coming inside to get warm."
We laughed and punched each other in the arm just as we'd been doing for the last thirty-some years. Thank goodness our friendship had proven stronger—most of the time, anyhow—than our rivalry. She quit laughing first. "My first bicycle was prettier than yours."
I wasn't about to admit how right she was. I couldn't even remember my first bike. But I was determined to have the last word—for a change. "The quilt grandma made me was a lot nicer than that old store-bought comforter your parents gave you when they bought a new one. Mine smelled better, too. Like cedar. I still have it." I paused strategically. "Do you still have your first bicycle?"
Bicycles and bed coverings were fun to argue over, but the competition to land a worthy husband was serious business. In what was usually a fun kind of way, too.
I could see it now, the two of us racing down the aisle years from now, our trains flapping behind us like canvas sails in a hurricane. And each of us striving for one final heart- and lung-rending burst of energy to reach the preacher first and gasp, "I do. She doesn't."
Then the poor groom would open his eyes to see which woman he was marrying. Both of us had proposed, and I couldn't begin to explain how we'd coerced him into accepting our twin proposals because I didn't understand it myself. He would've accepted conditionally, of course. Despite America's sick efforts to redefine biblical marriage, he couldn't marry both of us.
After I-doing and kissing the blessed groom, the joyous bride would turn to the loser. "I told you I'd win!"
Have I mentioned that Annie and I took our rivalry seriously—especially in our search for a suitable mate?
Annie poked my arm. Before I could ask what she wanted, she poked me again. Harder. More insistently. "The binoculars. Hand them over." She stuck her hand out. "Please."
I'd wondered why she asked me to bring those things to a basketball game, but I didn't ask. Sometimes it just wasn't worth the trouble. She'd poo-pooed my efforts to explain that—unlike a football, which often got buried out of sight beneath a pile of sweaty males—a basketball was big enough to see throughout the game, no matter who had it or where it went.
When I didn't respond fast enough, she grabbed the binoculars and yanked them over my head, tangling the cord with my favorite wooden cross necklace. Only God's grace kept it from disappearing—probably forever—through one of the crevices between the bleachers; I couldn't imagine the custodians trying to get under there to find a lost item, no matter how precious it was to the owner.
I grabbed the necklace—the thin strand of leather had caught on my shoe and the cross itself was dangling precariously just over the crevice—and pulled gently until I had it in my hand. Then I kissed it and lovingly slipped it on again. Thank You, Lord. You know what that cross means to me.
Without showing the least remorse for the near catastrophe she'd just caused, Annie aimed the binoculars at the opposite side of the gym and turned the dial to focus more clearly on her target—undoubtedly the stranger. "Drat!"
The little blue-haired lady turned and gave her a reproachful stare. No wonder. Annie hadn't exactly said, "Drat." Her non-believer language could get downright salty at times. Peppery, too. Especially in the courtroom when a guilty client got what he deserved in spite of her expert defense. She couldn't stand to lose an argument there, either.
I waited till the old lady turned her attention back to the game. "Drat?" I used the safer word, although I whispered because I knew the old lady might object to drat as well. I would never understand why so many ultra-conservative Christians felt that way, but I did my best to respect their opinion.
Annie rolled her eyes. "You know that's what I meant." Maybe so, but her tone didn't contain one hint more of remorse for her cursing than she had for almost losing my cross necklace.
All I knew was both words started with the fourth letter of the alphabet and contained three additional letters. Honestly, though, I was more curious about what she'd exclaimed about than concerned about what she'd actually said. "What, girl?"
"I can't see his left hand. He's…wait, he's unclasped them. Come on, fella. Let's see…ah, there!" She turned and looked me in the eye. "No ring. And I did see him first."
I faked a grin and shook my head. "Whatever. He's not that great-looking." Not that I cared one way or the other about looks, but Annie did. As gorgeous as she was, that made sense. She wouldn't want to have children unless she had every reason to believe they would be equally gorgeous. "The hair and the beard? Ugh. Besides, you still don't know whether he's really single, do you?"
I'd had too many nasty encounters with guys who prided themselves on hiding their marital status until just after I'd started to really like them. "So what's the plan?"
No matter how high my pure-blonde-to-the-roots BFF scored on intelligence, her heritage had short-changed her on common sense. She could act absolutely ditsy at times. And sometimes it was just an act. But even after all these years, I couldn't always tell. Truth was, being a genius seemed to bore her. Whatever her plan, it would undoubtedly run true to form.
"You've never seen him at your church?"
Haven't you been listening? "Not there or anywhere else." He does look vaguely familiar, though. Maybe I've seen him in a used car commercial or something.
"In that case, I'm gonna go sit close enough to talk to him."
"Good luck on that, my pushy little girlfriend. Maybe you haven't noticed, but he's really focused on the game. Like a dad with a kid on one of the teams." Trying to discourage her that way was fun. Not to mention realistic. "He may not even pay attention to you. What'll you do then?"
She crinkled her deep blue eyes for a couple of seconds before staring into my dark brown eyes. With the same laser look she was known for using when interrogating a resistant witness. "You're just jealous because I saw him first."
I glanced upward. Why, Lord? In the grand scheme of things, who cared who'd seen this straggly stranger first? If I was inclined to wallow in jealousy, I'd pick something more important to be jealous of. Like the fact Annie had passed the Virginia bar exam on the first try when I had to take it three times.
She'd aced it, too. I barely passed. No wonder our law firm had stuck me in the divorce section with little hope of my ever getting divorced from it. If she hadn't told them they had to hire me if they wanted her, I would probably be slinging greasy burgers somewhere and not practicing anything related to law.
She handed me the binoculars. "Watch. You'll see."
She grabbed her purse and scrambled awkwardly down the bleachers. Scrambled as in "almost fell"—as if her legs and bottom had fallen asleep from sitting so long on those hard wooden bleachers. Good thing the crowd was sparse in our area. She might never have reached floor level otherwise. Not without bowling a few spectators out of the way and landing flat on her face. Not an acceptably Annie-esque thing to do.
She shook herself off and wound her way around the outside of the court, seemingly oblivious to the fast-paced on-court maneuvers the stranger appeared to have his attention fully focused on. Then she started climbing towards his row.
Drat! The Christian "drat," of course. Fortune—surely God wouldn't have done it—had blessed her efforts unfairly. The spot beside the stranger was empty, and she bee-lined for it. Maybe someone as crazy and outgoing as Annie really was better suited for criminal law than I was. Or would ever be.
Instead of fretting, though, I twisted the binoculars' focus wheel this way and that, trying to see Annie and the stranger more clearly. Why wasn't…? Oh. My glasses were in the way. I stuck them in my purse and tried again. Now everything was clear.
No, Annie! Don't you dare undo another button. If you're looking for a good man and not just one who'll take whatever he can get and then throw you back, you're playing the wrong game.
I didn't keep watching. I couldn't. As often as I'd told her what I thought of her man-catching methods, I might as well have been preaching to the Statue of Liberty. But Annie was a statue who, according to my standards of right and wrong, had used her liberties a bit too freely over the years. And without the least common sense.
Why should I worry about her, though? She was a grown woman. She would do whatever she wanted. She always did.
And I would keep loving her like the sister I'd always wanted and never had. Even when I felt like giving her a good spanking. Or a swift kick in the hind side.
The game had ended. "Who won?" somebody asked. I shook my head. I had no idea. I'd never bothered to find out who was playing.
Neither did I see the first sign of Annie. But since the stranger was heading towards the exit by himself, her plan must've backfired. Had she learned he was married and didn't want to admit it?
Since we'd ridden together, she would show up again shortly. Outside if not inside. That or I'd have to call a cab. It wouldn't be the first time.
The man didn't look quite as scruffy close up as he'd looked through binoculars. True, the beard hadn't grown out yet, but he'd shaped it as nicely as he could at that stage of undergrowth. And when he took a stocking cap out of his jacket pocket and pulled it down over his ears, I realized his hair looked unruly for a legitimate reason. The cut was actually quite stylish. But why had he dyed his obviously black hair blond without doing the eyebrows?
Reaching the exit door a few seconds before I got there, he slowed down and held it open for me.
I gave him my most appreciative smile. "You're a real gentleman in a world that has too few of them."
"And you're a real lady for permitting me to be one." Wow! Had I seen his smile on a toothpaste ad rather than a used car commercial?
Just as the door slammed shut behind me, I heard a familiar "Argh!" coming from inside. An angry and frustrated one.
You were behind me, girlfriend? Sorry. I waited for her to open the door and come outside. "Where'd you come from?"
She growled again, took my arm, and pulled me towards the parking lot. Pulled? No, actually she just about jerked my arm off. And she totally ignored the stranger, who was only a few yards ahead of us. Too bad. Now would've been a better time to introduce herself than during the game. Oh, well. Too late for that.
She climbed into her car and slammed the door shut. If I'd done that to her precious silver BMW Z-whatever—how often had she insisted that the doors of "quality cars" close with a gentle pull?—she would've given me what-for in her best non-Christian language. I shut the passenger door as gently as I could and buckled up. The ride home threatened to be a rough one.
Even though she had put the key in the ignition, she hadn't started the car. Instead, she sat there staring straight ahead, her hands glued so tightly to the steering wheel that her fingers almost glowed red in the semi-darkness.
Had I upset her? I couldn't imagine how. I couldn't take the silent treatment any longer. "Spill it, girlfriend. What's wrong?" Icy silence. "You got to sit by him. For a while, anyhow. Your plan didn't work?"
When she turned to face me, I gulped. Loudly. The possum they'd caught under the old building that housed our law office had worn the same vicious expression. Obviously dying to tear his captor to shreds.
She took her hands off the wheel and hugged herself. "I introduced myself. I asked if he had a kid playing on one of the teams. He didn't respond. So far, so good, I thought. I told him that—since I was single—I didn't have any kids."
I shook my head and shrugged—not easy to do in a car that small. She'd just described a typical Annie approach.
"He still didn't say anything. He didn't even look in my direction. So I kept talking. Told him my name and asked if he went to Calvary Church. Still no response. I finally got so frustrated I tapped his arm and asked if he'd been listening. You know what he said?"
That you'd worn out his ears and his patience as well? "No idea."
Annie sighed. A long, huffy sigh. "He said, 'No hablo ingles.' I don't hablo Spanish, Carla." She sighed again. "I guess he's all yours now. Even though I saw him first."
I giggled once. And then I giggled again. She would have to forgive me for that, but I couldn't help it. Any man who could ignore Annie on first meeting her deserved a lot of credit. Especially one who used my native language to do it.
But then I smacked myself in the forehead. The ultra-polite stranger had spoken to me in perfect, proper English—without any hint of an accent. What was going on?