Pia had slept as late as she dared on a Sunday. She slipped into a pew halfway up the right side of the chapel just as the bishop stepped to the pulpit to begin the weekly sacrament meeting. She’d looked almost human in the mirror before leaving home, which was pretty good, considering.
She listened conscientiously to the announcements, which had little to do with her, then sang the opening hymn, “Jehovah, Lord of Heaven and Earth,” with as much of her usual fervor as she could muster. Her focus drifted during the brief invocation by one of her neighbors. It drifted further during some quick items of congregation business. But she managed to keep trying, at least, to ponder the Savior and his sacrifice, as the deacons passed the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to the congregation. Everyone at church called the bread and water simply “the sacrament,” but in the privacy of her own thoughts she preferred the more solemn and evocative phrase.
The bishop announced the first speakers, a girl of about fourteen and an old man she’d seen on Sundays but didn’t know, and she drifted away again. She flipped to the Notes app on her smart phone, where she’d composed a sort of letter in the wee, desperate hours – a letter full of things she could never say or send to Doug, her back fence neighbor.
She saw him in his usual place, across the chapel, sitting alone, one row further back, in a heather gray suit (her favorite) and a gorgeous green necktie. She tried to envision him sitting with a wife, when he had one, but she didn’t know him then, and she’d never seen his ex.
She should have entered the chapel from the other side, even if it took half a minute longer to get to the other door. She could have asked to share his pew. He’d have agreed, of course – and she’d have been no more distracted than now. She should have left for church a minute earlier.
Doug’s posture was attentive, but she recognized the expression of a man who was somewhere else. He often looked like that, though not when he was teaching the adult Sunday school class or chatting with her afterward, and usually not in their occasional conversations over their common fence.
What she’d written overnight, as if to him, was unthinkable, but she couldn’t resist reading it again.
Doug, I need to tell you something – not that I really can. But maybe if I write it just for myself, I can get some sleep. I need that too.
I’m lonely. Not lonely for human company in general or for a man, and any decent man would do. I’m lonely for you.
Out of habit, her eyes checked in with the elderly speaker at the pulpit, but her thoughts didn’t. What she wanted in the dark of night, she wanted by daylight too. She wanted it so badly that she was afraid to pray for it, afraid even to hope.
I don’t need you at this moment, if I’m to survive to the next moment. I’m not fourteen. (I’ll turn 34 this year.) But I want you in my life. I want to be in your life. I want us to have a life together.
As if on cue, a familiar gurgling sound made her look up. Two rows to the front, a brown-haired baby girl rested her head on her mother’s shoulder. Dark eyes watched Pia until their eyelids drooped and finally closed.
Pia returned to her reading. She knew what was next. So did the universe, apparently.
You could help me make some new life. I didn’t used to want that with anyone. I didn’t think I deserved happiness. Plus I feared that any teenager of mine might be too much like its mother.
I wish you were attracted to me. Maybe you would be, if I were the kind of woman you’d want to make long-term plans with.
Her year-and-a-half-old memory of their longest, most serious conversation filled her with a grateful warmth, as always.
I don’t regret telling you about my dark and sordid youth. I’m glad I knocked on your door that wintry afternoon, even more desperate than terrified, to ask if you really believed what you said in Sunday school about God’s love and mercy, if you really believed God’s grace is sufficient for someone who did what I did, in the way and for the reasons that I did it. Thank you for helping to persuade me!
You said my heart is ‘long since changed,’ that I’m no longer the person who did those things. I’m really not, thank the Lord. But I was that person, and the effects persist.
Recently, not for the first time, even a rough outline of my past pushed away a good man I was dating, when we got serious enough that I needed to tell him. And that was just an outline, not the grisly details. Four people in the world, including you and me, know everything I told you that day.
You’ve done so much for me already. You don’t have to want me as anything more than a neighbor and casual friend. If you don’t want even that after this, I could move, or maybe the city would approve a taller fence.
That’s why I’m awake when I should be asleep. I wish I could tell you.
Just to be safe, she deleted the note.
Seconds later, she shook her phone to activate the Undo function. Nothing happened. She tried two more times before remembering the “Recently Deleted” folder.
There it was. The screen said her outrageous note would stay there for thirty days before disappearing forever. She carefully moved it back to its proper folder. Otherwise, she might have to write it again next month.
She put her phone away and tried to pay attention to the meeting. The last speaker was Louisa, an articulate woman with a professional demeanor. She lived two blocks over, was only a few years older than Pia, and led the Young Women organization, which seemed appropriate, since she and Bryce had three teenage daughters. The whole family had shown up with a dozen other neighbors, two years ago, to help Pia move in. Louisa had smiled warmly and said, “My friends call me Lou.”
Now Lou was describing her childhood. It was surprisingly grim. For her eighth birthday, her grandparents gave her an American Girls doll named Samantha, which immediately became her favorite thing in all the world. Two weeks later, her mom sold Samantha, along with Lou’s favorite Disney videos, to buy heroin. Within a month, her mom was back in jail.
“I hated her then,” said Lou, “besides loving her, of course. I prayed for her to get clean, to return each time she went away, to stay when she returned. I needed my mom, but God didn’t seem interested in those prayers. I thought she probably deserved to have God ignore her, but I took his silent refusal to fix things for me as proof that I didn’t interest Him either.”
Pia brushed away a tear, then another. She had blamed God too. Her childhood was far better than Lou’s – but she’d bet money that her teenage years were much worse.
Lou spoke with tranquil strength. “I learned too early, I guess, that life can be too difficult, in too many ways at once. But I also learned, so maybe it was worth it, that God’s silence doesn’t mean he’s absent or disengaged. I learned that he makes us strong enough to do what we must do. I learned that he offers us some joy even as we struggle, and when we’re finished here, he plans to make us glorious. I think he’s made each of us a little bit glorious already, if only we had eyes to see.”
Strength from God would be good, Pia thought, if she knew what to do with it. Some joy would be welcome too. She didn’t feel even a little bit glorious.
In Sunday school, she sat in the back, behind a tall woman and her taller husband, where Doug couldn’t see her clearly as he taught the class. She was too tired to pay careful attention, let alone participate. When it ended, she escaped the building quickly.
For a few seconds, the late-morning summer sun refreshed and restored her. Then it overwhelmed her, and she began to wilt – but the skyful of billowy clouds gave her an idea. She retreated to the shade of an old maple tree in the churchyard to wait for a cloud to cover the sun.
She stared at a page in her leather-bound scriptures so she wouldn’t appear to be waiting for Doug when he came this way. If he came this way. He usually did. A few others waved or called greetings as they left.
Five minutes passed, then ten. She considered the sky. A huge, slow-moving cloud might help in a few more minutes. She closed her thick book and pulled out her phone. Last night’s note was still on the screen.
She jumped and all but screamed when Doug appeared, not three feet away. She hadn’t heard the church doors open or close, let alone noticed his approach.
“Hi. Sorry I startled you. And interrupted your reading.” He was always friendly; it meant nothing more.
“No worries,” she said. She turned off her phone as casually as she could, wishing her hands didn’t shake, and held it at her side.
“You were quiet in class today,” he said. “You okay? You never sit on the back row.”
He couldn’t have read her screen, but what if some of it showed on her face? Something did; her face felt like the sun was on it, even in the shade.
“Just sleep-deprived,” she said. A version of the truth was always best. “Short night.”
What she saw in his face was familiar enough. His brown eyes always appeared slightly sunken, with little bags under them. Now they looked mildly concerned.
“And you showed up anyway,” he said, loosening his necktie. “Good for you. Heading home?”
“I ordered shade for the walk.” She indicated the cloud that was edging its way in front of the huge, round fire in the sky. “Looks like it’s about to arrive.”
“Would you mind some company?” he asked.
Her heart leapt. “Not at all.”
“I’m not being chivalrous,” he said as the sun disappeared. “I need to ask a favor.”
Needing a favor from her was good. “What can I do for you?”
They moved toward the sidewalk.
“It’s pretty big. I should buy you lunch if you agree. Or make you lunch or mow your lawn.”
If he was giving her a choice, it was an easy one. “What favor is so big that you have to make me lunch?”
He hesitated. “It’s kind of awkward. What if I tell you over lunch? You can still say no.”
“It’s a date,” she said, blushing again. “So to speak. When were you thinking?”
“Soon. Could be today, if you don’t have plans. I’m grilling salmon for myself, and there’s plenty for two.”
They agreed on lunch at his place in an hour. She spent half of the hour preparing one of her best salads and the other half deciding what to wear. After a light mist of her favorite tropical citrus body spray, she donned a black-and-white peasant blouse and white capris – attractive and even a bit flattering, but not aggressively so.
She spent the entire hour reviewing every twitch and syllable of their conversation, yearning for some hint that this could be more than a friend asking a favor. She found none. But at least she’d be with him for a while.
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She was barely exaggerating later, when she told him the salmon melted in her mouth. He praised her salad and took a large second helping.
Doug’s home had a formal dining room furnished in dark oak, but he’d set their places at a smaller, round table by a window onto his back yard. Her home was in the background. Tall potted plants framed the view at either side. Three hanging plants across the top sent hopeful, white-blossomed tendrils halfway down to the table’s edge.
“Lunch was amazing,” she said, after he’d cleared their places and returned to the table. “Even the ambiance is charming. Thank you.”
He smiled less than he might have. “Been practicing the salmon. Nice to have an audience.” Then his smile disappeared altogether. “I was softening you up for what I’m about to ask.”
Against her will, her voice trembled. “Mission accomplished. What is it?”
He just looked at her for a moment. Maybe it was the nerves in her voice.
“What do you know about online dating?” he asked. “I’ve heard you mention it a couple of times. I need to sign up, and I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Her heart fell, but she tried to hide it. “You’ve come to the right girl. I’m a veteran. Seasoned. Jaded.”
He nodded grimly. “I think I’ve picked a reasonable platform for me, but I could use a second opinion. I drafted my profile, and someone at work took some photos, and I need another pair of eyes on all that too, before it goes live. Sympathetic, feminine eyes would be ideal.”
Her sympathetic, feminine eyes wanted to weep. This favor wasn’t just big. It was very nearly the last thing she’d have wanted to do for him. She’d do it anyway. And there would be little point in joining the same service. Even if the algorithm cooperated, he’d already met her.
“You decided you’re ready to get back in the game,” she said softly. “That was a huge step for me.”
“I didn’t decide anything, and I don’t feel ready. I lost a bet with my sister.”
“What did she put up?”
“Finally seeing a specialist about whatever’s wrong with her foot. I didn’t expect to lose.” He blew out a breath. “I get to pick the platform, but I have to sign up, take my profile seriously, stay on it for sixty days, and at least look at anyone who responds. That might be all I do.”
Or it might not. Pia didn’t care about the NBA, and she’d never met his sister, but she’d managed to lose his bet too.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s earn my lunch.”
“I’m not ready for this,” he said, opening his laptop on the table and turning it slightly toward her.
She scooted closer so she could see the screen, but not as close as she wanted.
His profile was positive but not overdone, and she praised it sincerely. He admitted spending a few hours studying best practices. She suggested some edits, which he made. Then she read it aloud one more time, mentally comparing it to the man she knew. It suggested his keen intelligence, but it could hardly convey his kindness and compassion. She didn’t tell him that. It mentioned his faith and how important it was to him. But he would never believe, let alone boast to strangers, that people who knew him considered him an uncommonly Christian man. She didn’t tell him that either.
She helped him choose the best photos. She tried to be conscientious, but she couldn’t wait for this to end. Something wasn’t sitting well in her gut, and it wasn’t the salmon, the salad, or the sorbet he’d served for dessert.
It was clearly an excruciating half-hour for him too. She might have enjoyed his veiled suffering, since he was unwittingly causing hers, but she didn’t.
He leaned back. “That’s as good as it’ll get and still be me. Thanks for helping.”
He grimaced. “So this is how it’s done in the 2020s, when you’re in your late thirties.”
“I’m in my mid-thirties,” she said. “My early mid-thirties. But yeah.”
“I was talking about myself,” he said unnecessarily. “May I ask a personal question?”
“Do you feel like it’s going to work for you?”
She hesitated. “No. I mean, I haven’t given up. Not yet. I have doubts.”
He nodded. “Then good luck to us both. Especially you. Thanks again.”
“My pleasure,” she lied, and her heart resumed breaking.
He poised a finger over the touchpad, then leaned back and let his hand fall. “I’m a coward. I’m going to sit here and gather my courage. Then I’ll click the fateful button.” He stared at his hand, smiling faintly. “Say something encouraging, okay?”
“I remember the feeling,” she said. “Maybe this will teach you not to bet on sports.”
“This is how you help me be brave?” he asked too seriously.
“I’m no expert at that,” she said.
But bravery was the issue, wasn’t it? Could he hear her despair? What would she say, if she were brave? And why was she becoming angry with him, and not with herself for her own cowardice?
The answer hit her and spilled out in the same moment. “What you lack is not courage.”
Their eyes met, and she answered his unspoken question. “You’re not taking this seriously enough. It’s unfair and unkind. It’s unlike you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Women will see your profile and think you might be a really good guy, which you are. They’ll feel a spark of hope in a part of their hearts that starves for hope, and they’ll muster their own courage one more time and reach out and try to connect. But their hope will be wasted, and their courage too, because you’re not there to connect with someone. You’re just going through the motions, paying off a bet, and then you’ll be gone, after barely being there in the first place.”
His face went slack, and he averted his gaze – out the window in front of them, but it was a thousand-yard stare, aimed at nothing.
She covered her face with her hands. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t … It’s none of … I’m sorry.”
“No,” he murmured after a moment. “You’re right.”
She lowered her hands enough to look at him. His face was still slack, but now his cheeks were slightly flushed, and his eyes were on hers. She attempted a wry smile. “Want your lunch back?”
“No. What should I do?” He sounded overwhelmed, not defensive.
“Why aren’t you trying to connect with someone? Are you … attracted to women?”
“Since I was twelve.”
“Then why … Sorry, it’s …”
“Yes?” Would he invite her to leave now? She still hadn’t said what she most wanted him to know. She’d used her bold moment to accuse him instead.
“It’s not in my profile,” he said, “but I’m pretty messed up. Have been for a while.”
She hesitated. “Someone told me the divorce was devastating, but I don’t know any details, and I’m just guessing it’s that anyway.”
“Six years, and I’m still part of the smoldering wreckage.” He looked out the window again and said too evenly, “I failed at the most important thing I ever tried to do. And I didn’t know I was failing until it was too late. I didn’t know life with me was so miserable for her.”
She yearned to take his hand. “I can only imagine how that hurts.”
He nodded slowly.
“And you don’t want to do that to yourself and someone you care about ever again.”
“I really don’t.”
“What do you do when you feel something for a woman? Does that still happen?”
He spoke carefully. “I … resist it. Repress it, if that’s the word. Fear it, obviously. I’m not dead, but feeling nothing is how I get through the nights. Some of the days too.” He gestured toward his laptop. “What should I do?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I gave my sister my word. But if I’ll be causing pain even to strangers … I don’t want that.”
She bowed her head and said nothing.
“I guess I could just click the submit button and take whatever happens next more seriously.”
This was it: her best chance, maybe her last chance, to tell him what she couldn’t tell him. She looked into his eyes and resisted the urge to bite her lower lip.
“What should I do?” he repeated.
Her internal organs quaked, but she spoke the words that came to her mind. “There might be another way.” Her voice quaked too, and he looked concerned. “There is another way you could approach this.”
“Better than advertising myself at Please-God-Help-Me-I-Am-So-Lonely-dot-com?”
She liked gallows humor, but she couldn’t laugh. “I think it’s better.” She hesitated. “You may not agree.”
“Tell me,” he said. “Please.”
She nodded slightly. “Since you said ‘please’ …” Her pulse pounded in her ears. She pushed the crucial words out quickly, before she could falter. “You could just forget all this online stuff and date me instead.”
Her gaze clung to his, and she did, after all, bite her lower lip to stop it quivering. Her mind was beside itself. OhGodohGodohGodohGod!
He didn’t visibly melt or reach for her hand or rush to embrace her. He froze. He didn’t even smile. He stared, and she stared back.
His mouth barely moved. “I could … Is that an option?”
“Now you know,” she said softly.
He nodded almost imperceptibly. “Is that what you want?”
Could he speak so evenly, so calmly at this moment, if he wanted it too?
“Yes,” she declared, but her firmness didn’t last. “I mean, if you …”
He stared a little longer before replying. “I’m nothing like the guys I’ve seen you date. You’re … young. Alive. You really want …”
Finally she saw a glint in his eyes. Was it interest? Hunger? Disdain? She was afraid to put a name on it, afraid to put the wrong name on it.
“I want two things.” It was out there now, so she could talk about it – barely. “I want you to see me as more than your neighbor, if you possibly can. More than a friend you see at church. And I want you not to waste time worrying that I won’t feel that way, because I already do.”
“And if that happens, I want us not to be afraid – of ourselves or each other.” She saw his fear now and responded to it. “When one of us is afraid, which I guess makes four things, not two, I want us to face it together. Get through it together. That’s what I want.”
His voice was gentle. “How long?”
“How long have I wanted that?”
It was easier in someone else’s words. “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began.”
“Jane Austen?” His smile was faint, but she didn’t imagine it, because then she saw it fade. “I have no Pemberley to offer you,” he said. “I am in most ways Mr. Darcy’s inferior. Up to and including the tall hat.”
“I don’t need Pemberley. And you’re not inferior to him in any way I care about. Also, you’re not fictional. Even your online dating profile is nonfiction.”
“You really … ?”
“Yes,” she said with untempered emotion.
“Wow,” he said neutrally.
Her anxiety bubbled over. “I’m sorry, Doug. I don’t know what that means. Is it wow, this neighbor woman is unimaginably brazen and repulsive? Wow, she’s lost her mind? Wow, I’ll never invite her to lunch again?”
She watched in vain for a response.
“Those options don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” she murmured, just to break the silence. Why was he silent?
When he spoke, he seemed dazed. “How about, wow, I …” He shrugged. “I don’t know what. Not the bad things you listed. Maybe, wow, you’re the bravest woman I know?”
It wasn’t the answer she needed. Did he feel anything for her? Was he trying to dissuade her? Was her distant past getting in the way, even with him?”
“I’m pretty messed up too,” she said. “As you know.” She swallowed nervously. “Remember when we sat in your living room once, and you changed my life?”
He brightened. “You had already changed. You just needed to finish admitting it to yourself.”
“In your Sunday school lesson that day, you said changed hearts are the greatest miracles you’ve ever seen.”
“And you saw that in me.” Her chin trembled. “You know too much. How could you ever be seriously interested in me?”
There. She’d asked him directly. Maybe her whole future wouldn’t turn on his answer, her mind advised, but the rest of her felt that it might.
“You’re one of the best people I know,” he said. “You’re beautiful on the inside too. It’s like Lou said today. You’re a little bit glorious. More than a little bit.”
“Thank you. I’m not sure that answers my question.”
He said nothing.
“I’m sorry again,” she said, “but I can’t tell what you’re feeling now, and I need to know. Even if you don’t – can’t – feel for me what I …” She stopped a sob half-formed. “Right now I can’t see that you feel anything at all.”
He frowned, and she feared his reply nearly as much as she needed it. After a long moment, he nodded solemnly and took a deep breath. “Pia, I’m sorry.”
Her heart fell hard, and she looked away. She heard a quiet whimper and realized it was her own.
She had tried. It was a good try, better than she could have hoped for. Maybe now she could –
“When the emotions you could show are nearly always negative,” he said slowly, “you learn not to show emotion, or it’s hard for people to be around you. Hard to be around yourself. I will need to unlearn that.” He took another deep breath. “I’m messed up, and it’s already hurting you. I’m sorry.” He hesitated. “I feel stunned,” he said. “Elated. Terrified. Grateful.”
She dared to meet his eyes again. “So many feelings at once,” she mused, then smiled as best she could. “Who knew men were so complex emotionally?”
“I think I know what to do now. Thank you.” He seemed to grow calm, and his voice turned decisive. “First step, as you said. Forget the online stuff.” He shut his laptop with an exhilarating click. “It’s forgotten.”
Hope flared inside her, undaunted by the possibility that he was just giving up. “What about your bet?”
“If I get the next step right, it’ll count.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. And date me instead. That’s what she’d said. That’s what came next. And getting that right would mean …
He must have read it on her face. “Sounds like I have some catching up to do,” he said. “Maybe less than you think.”
“Are you serious? You’re not just humoring me?”
A hint of a smile touched his eyes. “I have no pretension whatever,” he said, “to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable woman. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere.”
His eyes repaid her smile with a full-blown twinkle.
“How do you know my favorite novel so well?” she asked. “You being a man and all.”
“Pride and Prejudice? Good choice. My sister shamed me into reading it in high school, and I enjoyed it. This winter, when we couldn’t get together for the holidays, she wanted us to reread it together, which we did. We discussed it over the phone almost every evening for two weeks. Even read some scenes aloud together.”
“That’s more fun than I had over the holidays,” she said.
“I like it on its merits too. I finished the audio book again last week. I usually go with comfortable and familiar for my evening commute.” He shook his head. “I’d be well schooled for new romance, if this were 200 years ago and one English-speaking empire to the east.”
He still hadn’t declared his feelings clearly, but she no longer feared to hope. “Did you ever think of me this way before?” she asked.
“I’ve liked you well enough since I met you.”
“In a way that could turn into new romance?”
“Are you sure about me?” he asked with a pained expression. “I’m not … I’m a …”
“Everybody’s messed up,” she said. “You’re a good man.”
It took a moment, but he visibly relaxed. “Thanks for thinking my heart is worth reviving.”
She waited to see if there was more, perhaps something amazing like, “It’s yours if you want it.” Then she waited until she could speak. “Thank you for not abruptly showing me the door.”
A gentle smile appeared. A fond smile. “I think you’ve made yourself … irrepressible.”
She wanted to smile in response, but his smile passed too quickly, and he looked away. She saw despair, and it made her want to weep for him. “Doug, I need to tell you something, and it’s not another ugly confession. There’s something I can see, and it’s real, and you need to see it too.”
He met her eyes.
“I love that you see it in me,” she said, and her voice began to tremble. “I need you to see it in yourself.”
“See what?” His voice was soft and gruff.
“That Lou was right. You’re already a little bit glorious.” She managed a nervous smile. “If you ask me, and you should, it’s more than a little. You’re a good man with a good heart.”
He didn’t take his eyes off her. Something in his expression turned gradually from dark to light, and his wary diffidence fell away. Behind it came a warmth she could feel even before he spoke.
“So,” he said. “Our first date. Tell me you’re not busy after dinner tonight.”
She beamed. “I am now. Hot, buttered popcorn, my sofa, and my choice of BBC video?”
“Perfect.” He pushed his chair back, stood, and reached for her hand. “Come here, Pia. Please?”
She stood and turned toward him.
It wasn’t a kiss. He pulled her to him, hesitantly at first, then firmly, and she held him so tightly her arms ached. She’d hugged him once before, briefly, in gratitude, after their long talk in his living room, but this was different. This felt like home, the sort of home you could spend a lifetime building, if you were lucky. The sort of home she’d never had, the sort of love … – but they could say that word when they were both ready.
In the safety of his arms, feeling overcame thought again, and she began to sob. They clung to each other as her sobs gained strength.
When his own breath became ragged and his chest began to shake, she felt it with her whole soul.
Photo credit: Sam Schooler on Unsplash
“There Might Be Another Way” was published in Lost and Found: Second Chance Romance Short Stories in 2022. The anthology is still available in print and electronic versions.
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