“The clouds parted over her,” he’d tell in his southern gentleman’s drawl. “Nothing could be clearer, as she was the one I was meant to marry.”
This story was like a banner over my childhood—my father’s insistence on love at first sight and destinies we hardly choose for ourselves. I suppose I expected my own story to come about in this way, with spotlights and cheeky cupid himself making an appearance when I saw her. Instead I was at a weekday church group for singles, serving God, tradition and my parent’s expectations. My father was a retired pastor and my mother was the perfect wife. I learned from them that love and Christian duty were synonymous and back then, this was good enough for me. However, though it seemed my years had once crawled by, toward the end of my twenties they began to quicken the way book pages released fan together in a forward momentum.
“Will you ever marry?” my father would ask. My mother was different, simply reminding me what an eligible bachelor I was, “tall as a steeple, and sensible, too.”
In response to this prying and implying, I started to wonder if their story created some sort of pressure, like the very moment I met my true love I’d know. Perhaps that’s why I hadn’t settled down. I never knew for sure and though it pained me to admit it, no one was as good as my mother.
Especially not Annie-Rae Gentry.
I know her name sounds sweet as pie but I’d heard she spent a year or two in a juvenile detention center and I was ashamed for her the day she stood outside the church with a cigarette wedged between pinched lips.
“I remember you,” she said as I unavoidably stepped closer, for she was all but blocking the entrance. “Peter Stevenson.”
“I believe we went to school together,” I answered her. Before you went to jail. I eyed the snake tattoo coiled about her bare arm and gulped. She was all skin and bones, dark hair that floated around her shoulders and eyes like a stale green creek.
“I moved away,” she said.
“Where’d you go?”
“Does it matter?”
I made a face at the ground because I was out of words.
“Hotter than Hades out here,” she said and tossed the cigarette butt onto the pavement. The tip of her sandal extinguished the orange glow, scattering tiny sparks.
I considered her review of the churchyard with a sideways grin. “Ironic.” Her eyes lit at my joke before she turned towards the door.
“You going in?” she asked.
I simply followed her.
We sat together in the back row, her taking the first seat. This was preferred territory for me as I’d grown up forced to sit in a front pew. An organized band sent a melody of worship through the room and I mouthed the words. My eyes occasionally flickered towards Annie, curious if she knew them. It turned out she did and quite well, as the harmony of her voice reached my ears smooth as honey. The service began and the pastor spoke on forgiveness, a worn out subject I could quote forward and backward. But sitting next to Annie-Ray had me feeling all sorts of conundrums.
After church, we walked. She smoked. I couldn’t figure out why I followed her except that I could see a story in her eyes and I wanted to know it.
“You sing like an angel,” I said.
She flicked the cigarette away in an arc. “I grew up in the church too. Got so hurt by life. So lost. I finally took off.” She stared at a line of trees to which we headed.
“You’re back now?”
“Can’t run forever,” she warned, her subtle smile arresting my reservation.
“I don’t intend to.” I’d never run from anything. Always forward and desperate to please my parents. Yet it seemed the harder I tried, the more I faltered. Lately they’d harbored hope I’d join the ministry but I was happy working with my hands. Again I found myself drawn to the snake about her arm. She caught me and bit down on her lower lip before speaking.
“Snakes mean wisdom, you know.”
A burst of bumpy laughter disrupted the quiet as she crossed her arms. “I have another. Designed it myself.” She turned her back to me with not a hint of warning, lifting her shirt to reveal what appeared to be a bouquet of bluebonnets, the pride of Texas. I noticed the delicate ribs stacked along her side and drew in a quick breath. There were no clouds parting overhead and if anything the sun was gradually taking its post for the night, faint starlight dotting the sky. She tugged her shirt back into place and faced me again.
“Did it hurt?” was all I could think to ask.
She shrugged. “Sometimes you need pain to make something beautiful.”
A cool breeze sucked up the last bit of sweltering heat and caused the leaves of a thick forest to dance alongside our trail. We walked further, enjoying the miracle of a wide-open bronze sky and genuine company. Annie-Rae studied me, her eyes squinted in curiosity. “You’re quiet,” she said.
I was quiet but that didn’t mean my mind wasn’t reeling. I imagined bringing her home to my folks, this messy-haired, wild-eyed artist who also smoked and only God knew what else. At once I realized she was the first girl I’d ever imagined bringing home and my feet stalled in the street. I tipped my head and scanned the sky, mustering hope for just one remaining ray of sunshine to come down and tell me if I’d done well.
“You’re gonna hear lots of rumors about me.” She stood at my side, her grin sideways and endearing. “A good bit of them are true.” Her gaze traced me, as I was a head taller. Though darkness settled, I noticed tawny freckles speckling her cheekbones. There was not another girl like her. “But I’m not who I was,” she spoke plainly and gulped.
“I’ve never broken a rule in my life,” I started. “Not sure I’m better for it.”
“I don’t know about rules,” she said. “I want to be good though.”
I considered what this meant, my forehead folded as I tried to decipher her dazed expression.
“I bet you could teach me. I bet you know all about goodness, Peter,” she said.
I know she was hoping I had something to offer her but I didn’t. Our conversation took a turn as I told of the failure I’d become. Not married. Not a preacher. Just another church-goer hoping for destiny to intercept me somehow. I told her the story of how my father found my mother and Annie-Rae bent at her center to laugh.
“That’s hogwash, love at first sight.” She swatted a hand through the air before rummaging in her back pocket for another cigarette. “There’s just people like you and me, taking a chance.”
“My father’s no liar.”
“Of course not. Only a romantic.” She took a drag and eyed me. “You want to fall in love, don’t you?”
“Well, falling is an accident, Peter.” I thought for sure she was challenging me but instead she laughed. I realized how right she was, that I’d always been a thinker. A realist. My infatuation with idealism came only as a result of my parents prodding, their own story inflaming my notions of what love was.
“I’m almost thirty,” I informed her.
“What’s the hurry?” she asked. I felt like she read my mind.
We turned and walked in pursuit of our vehicles, everyone else long gone. Then we stood outside her dented car for a suspended moment of time, our eyes locking and understanding one another.
“I think you’re gonna be just fine,” she said to me.
I nodded, for this became true. I had encountered a purer sort of destiny, one without pressure. One that had Annie-Rae Gentry at my side, causing my heart to beat out of my chest.
Forgiveness. I forgave my father and my mother right then. It wasn’t for fantastical stories that held some degree of truth, but for how they expected me to live their story as some sort of predestined sequel. I pre-forgave Annie, whatever that meant, for all rumors that might possibly find their way to my ears. Then perhaps most profound of all, I forgave myself. She stepped forward once, pressing her ear against my chest in a half-bodied hug. We separated and she slipped into the driver’s seat of her car, eyes bright and lips pursed. She slammed the door and rolled down a window. “Alright, Peter. We’ll talk soon,” she said, and she revved her engine and drove away.
I continued to stand in the quiet parking lot reflecting on the evening. A subtle smile tugged at my lips and I jangled a handful of keys, tossing them from one hand to the other. I didn’t know everything about me and Annie-Rae, but I knew enough. More than I’d ever known before. I had stumbled upon something special, the beginning of what I truly wanted. A love story of my own.