It’s a good thing I’m not looking for happily ever after. If I were, I’d move to the dance floor among the other unmarried women in their newly bought dresses lining up to catch the bouquet. I step toward the door, needing some air, and my gaze falls on the bride and groom—two of my best friends. Tony and Anna stand wrapped snugly in each other’s arms, their love visible for all to see. Everyone knows those two are meant for each other, and to be a part of their big day as one of the bridesmaids is a blessing.
Anna’s dark hair falls on bare shoulders, and her olive skin, the benefit of her Greek roots, makes all girls in the vicinity jealous. Tony matches her coloring, though his comes from an Italian gene pool. Tony stares at his wife for the millionth time that day. He gazes at her strapless dress, which hugs every curve, grazes her cheek with his hand, and kisses her softly on the lips.
My heart melts to see Christian, Anna’s brother, whispering in my best friend Gina’s ear. He brushes a stray hair that escaped the glittery clip, somehow keeping her thick Italian mane in place. Those two complement each other in every way, aside from their matching Mediterranean skin tones. Two kids haven’t lessened their love story. If anything, it blooms more each day.
I exit the room, grateful for the cool air. Or as cool as it can be on a May night in Florida. The only time one feels a breeze is when a storm rolls in. That certainly isn’t the case tonight, evidenced by the palm trees a few feet away from me, their branches still as the rocks scattered near the trunk. Tony and Anna chose the ideal resort for their wedding, as I view beauty at every turn. From the perfectly groomed shrubs to flowers that burst out at every glance, including Anna’s favorites—tulips and lilies. Earlier today, she exuded giddiness, taking photos with her wedding party, the heavenly florals as nature’s backdrop.
Two men engage in conversation several feet away. The younger one leans on the deck rail, his build and demeanor somehow familiar. I sit on one of the benches and can’t help but listen. I guess they are father and son—their comfort with each other and how they both slouch against the rail. That same Northern dialect, the little I can hear—all give it away. They are likely here for another wedding—three are happening tonight. I listen to the discussion centered around faith, and a pang of jealousy shoots through me—of conversations never to be held with my own dad. I distanced myself from him a long time ago, after he tossed my mom and me aside.
The young man, who paid me no attention until now, turns my way, and recognition slams against my senses. The messy brown hair, those hazel eyes. My legs go limp. Please don’t faint. Don’t react. Then I turn away from the memories and back toward my best friends—my family, my lifeline. Away from the past, hurtling toward me with a force that almost knocks me to my knees.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. You’re scaring me,” Gina says.
If Gina only knew the truth behind those words. She follows me to my car while I struggle to get my breathing under control. The air does nothing to fill my lungs, and the humidity chokes me with each gasp. I lean against the car, needing something to ground me before my legs give out.
Gina transforms into caretaker mode. “I’m going to get Christian.”
Gina whips around, her face etched with surprise at a tone never directed at her—until now. I stayed by Gina’s side when her first husband and two-year-old daughter were killed in a tragic accident. I know everything about her, yet my past remains locked tight.
“Fine, but you have to tell me what’s going on,” Gina says.
“Not here. And you can’t disappear. It’s your brother’s wedding!”
“You’re right, but text me when you’re home safe. And you need to talk to me at some point. Deal?”
“Deal. Thanks, G.”
She appears unaware that she threw me a lifeline, saving me from the abyss. I would have drowned if I stayed. I’ve treaded water for the past ten years, and I pray the tide fails at swallowing me whole.
It can’t be her. Thoughts of her wrecked me over the last few years—ever since I found God and straightened up my life. I almost reached out countless times or initiated a search to find her, but some invisible force always stopped me.
I remember Liz’s beauty—it’s etched in my memory. But the woman I just glimpsed stole my breath. Her wavy blonde hair hangs longer than I remember, almost reaching her waist. When I peered into those ocean blue eyes, no question of her identity remained. They always pulled me deep into her soul with one glance. One view of her flawless skin, and I’m seventeen again, touching her soft cheek with the back of my hand.
Dressed the part of a bridesmaid, her full-length gown shimmers in the moonlight, but she disappears before I realize what happened. My feet stay glued to the floor, memories rendering me immobile. I want to shout that I’m not the jerk that hurt her all those years ago, who took advantage of her grief and stole her innocence. I crave to divulge that I now share her faith and beg for forgiveness. Instead, I stare into the distance, wondering if I wasted my second chance from God. I’ve thought of her endlessly since the day I tossed her aside, so why am I standing here paralyzed?
My dad notices nothing, which is a relief because I don’t feel like explaining it. He heads back into my brother Greg’s wedding reception while I make no move to join the happy couple—to be reminded of my single status. I thought Florida would provide an escape, yet what just transpired proves otherwise. God sure possesses a vivid sense of humor. I quit my job in Michigan to crash at Greg’s apartment until his lease runs out in six months. He’s moving into his wife’s place, allowing me to take over the rent at his apartment until I determine my next move. Luckily, I built a nest egg in the last few years. Mortgage brokering treated me well, and I could find a similar position here—if I decide to stay.
I sit in a church located just a few blocks away from my brother’s apartment and survey the churchgoers. Young people file in, many around my age, but a beautiful woman with long hair is not among them. Only twelve hours passed since I spotted her last night, but the images remain. There is a slim chance she even lives here—bridesmaids fly in from all over. I need to pull myself together.
I move through my mental list of what I want in a church. This place checks all the boxes. If they have small groups, it will be perfect. Having attended for several weeks online from Michigan, I already love the music and the pastor. I think I found my new Sunday morning home.
A girl in her mid to late twenties with short brown hair and a commanding smile catches my eye. She sends me a welcoming wave, which I return, then attempt to shift my attention back to the message. The pastor preaches on atoning for sins. I shift in my seat, uncomfortable with the words that seem directed at me. I already feel like garbage after seeing Liz last night. Why is God torturing me?
The worship band takes the stage once again, and before I know it, the brown-haired girl stands next to me with her hand outstretched. “Hi, first week?”
“Yup.” I stick out my hand to shake hers. “Tyler.”
“Erica. Welcome,” she says with a huge smile.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. We have a large singles group, and many of us go to lunch after church. Not today, though, as some people are still with family after last night’s wedding. Two of our members got married, and several of us attended. The other half is on a mission trip. But everyone should be back next week.”
“Count me in. I’m here for at least six months.”
“I’ll look for you next Sunday then,” she says, waving goodbye.
I walk away, forgetting the pastor’s words and eager to settle in this new place where I already feel welcome.
Glancing around Greg’s apartment while sipping a cup of dark roast coffee, a comfort settles around me. This isn’t my place, but it feels like home. It could be mine if I decide to stay. From the modern furnishings, the black marble table, and uncluttered surfaces, it’s me. Greg added touches of Michigan and the outdoorsy environment we loved growing up in—despite the frigid temperatures. The photo on the wall of Greg and I with dad, each of us holding our catch from that day of ice fishing, makes me smile. There are signs of our Michigan State pride, too, including the throw blanket hanging over the leather couch.
I bow my head for a quick prayer. Dear Lord, thank you for bringing me here closer to my brother. I have made mistakes in the past. I’m sorry for blaming You today. I know You’re not punishing me, and You have a plan for me. May Your will be done. Amen.
The prayer brings some peace, but thoughts of Liz occupy my mind, and I chide myself for not chasing after her last night. I issued a horrible demand all those years ago. That decision plagues me daily. Will I see her in this town and grab my chance to atone for my sins? Do I want to, or is it better left in the past? The questions playing in my head are endless. Like a bad song playing on repeat and no off button in sight. Spying my running shoes by the door, I look down. I’m already dressed for it, so I make quick work of lacing my Asics and head out the door, eager to get lost in anything but her. Soon, the sound of my feet on the pavement drowns out my thoughts, the sweat already running down my brow. The soundtrack is muted. For now.