“Kianna, you have such a pretty face, honey.” Miss Bertha examines me as she leans on her tennis ball-capped walker.
I’m not sure why she uses the walker; she’s very spry for her age. I think the walker is more of a prop.
“If only you could lose weight.” Reaching out, she pats my ample tummy.
My mouth turns to cotton. Oh, no she didn’t!
I want so bad to respond, but words fail me. Heat creeps up my neck and floods my cheeks. I can still feel my belly jiggling lightly and I think I’m going to be ill. Tears sting the back of my eyes as I glance around the church hall to see if anyone noticed this mortifying exchange, but no one appears to be watching.
“You know, a pretty girl like you could have any man she wanted if she took care of herself.” Miss Bertha cocks her head and squints her eyes, as if she’s analyzing the amount of effort it would take to make me truly suitable. “Your blonde hair and brown eyes are actually attractive.”
Actually attractive…I’m not sure if that counts as a compliment.
“I’m sure you’re right.” I mumble, clamping my mouth shut on what I want to say—you mean old biddy!
Miss Bertha shuffles forward in line to the refreshments table. Her backside wiggles, and for a moment, her skirt looks like it is harboring a pack of wrestling puppies. And she thinks I need to lose weight? Isn’t that like the hippo calling the elephant fat?
I look for something to distract the nosy busybody. The Women’s Department is serving the drinks and cookies they provided, but they’re too far away to engage in a new conversation. It’s Sunday night at Christ’s Covenant Restoration Branch, my church home since I was a baby. I thought a missionary service would be the one place I was safe.
Wrong. I wish Jason was here. My best friend since childhood, Jason Payne is like the big brother I never had. He always knows what to say or do to make a situation better, but he’s out of town and I’m on my own.
“Did you enjoy the missionary slides?” I ask, as the line moves again.
I want nothing more than to run away, but it would only give her more ammo, so I try to be the better person, respecting my elders and all. I hear her walker click as she moves forward a step with me.
“Oh, yes. The last set especially touched my heart. Jim is such an angel to be ministering to all those children in Africa. Brings tears to my eyes.” Tear drops slide out and ride the wrinkled crevices in her cheeks.
Jim Noble is the hottest missionary I’ve ever laid eyes on. He also happens to be the sweetest. He attended the same church youth events with Jason and me for years and we all stayed good friends even though the guys went to a private Christian school where Jim’s dad taught religion and I went to public school. That was before Jim grew into his ears and before his family moved to the mission field. It doesn’t matter. He’s not interested in me romantically. To him, I’m a friend. Like I am to every other male I know.
“He is a good man.” I agree. “I think it’s amazing how God is working in the communities over there.”
Her head wobbles in agreement. “Too bad he doesn’t have a wife to help him. He’s such a catch; I can’t imagine why he isn’t married yet. I told him so too, tonight.”
I bet you did. “I’m sure he’s waiting for the right person.”
I see Jim across the fellowship hall and feel a stab of sympathy. No one leaves a conversation with Miss Bertha unscathed.
“You might find he’d look your way if you slimmed down.” She eyes my hips and raises an eyebrow.
I bite my tongue. Oh, Lord. Get me out of here before I say something terrible.
“Pardon me, Miss Bertha. I see someone I need to speak to.”
I slide out of the refreshment line and speed walk across the room, ignoring the surprised and probably hurt look aimed at my back. Remembering the wrestling puppies, I slow down and fight the urge to smooth my shirt down over the back of my slacks.
Heaven help me, but I can’t take anymore of Miss Bertha’s supposedly helpful advice. I’m fat and I know it, but patting my tummy in the middle of a packed social hall is about the rudest thing I’ve experienced yet. Following it up with an attempt at conditional matchmaking, well, that’s par for the course.
A crowd still surrounds Jim, but he sees me and waves. I’m surprised he notices me. I return his smile and wave back. Several of the women look surprised at the exchange. I can see the wheels turning in their heads, and after getting Bertha’d, I can’t bring myself to go over there.
Not that any of them would be hurtful. It’s just the opposite. Some of the women think being single is the only requirement for a successful relationship and they will push me toward anything with testosterone and a bare ring finger.
Chicken. I kick myself for letting Miss Bertha’s comments bother me so much, but they’re hard to ignore —mostly because, despite her tactless delivery, she’s right.
My happy buzz dries up like a puddle in the hot sun and I’m ready to go home. On my way out of the hall, I see Dana Freeman standing in a corner sipping punch and I angle in her direction. If anyone here can make me feel better, she can.
“Dana, how are you?” I hug the older woman.
Mrs. Freeman, was our junior high Sunday school teacher. She’s a woman of great faith, and I’ve always enjoyed the friendship we developed as she mentored me.
“I’m okay.” She pats my back absently.
Her eyes are red rimmed and the ever-present cheeriness is nowhere in sight.
“Are you?” I look a little closer. “Have you been crying? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, Kee. Everything is wrong.” Tears overflow her eyes in a sudden burst.
Surprised, I lead her to a set of chairs lining the wall and away from prying eyes.
“Tell me.” I sit beside her and take her free hand.
“Paul left me.” It comes out in a whisper, as if the words aren’t real to her yet.
“What?” My voice raises an octave. “No way. You’ve been married forever.”
She nods. “Almost thirty years. He was my first and only love, and I thought he felt the same about me.”
I feel sucker punched. Dana and Paul? This can’t be real.
I wait for her to control the sobs threatening to overwhelm her.
“He’s been having an affair with a woman from his office. They’ve been together for six months and he wants a divorce so he can marry her.” Soft sobs shake her shoulders and her hand convulses more tightly around mine.
Another one bites the dust. Bitterness fills my mouth. It’s sad, but true. As surprised as I am, part of me recognizes that these days, this is normal, even within the church community that once seemed so strong.
“I’m so sorry.” I wrap my other arm around her shoulder and cry with her. “When did you find out?”
“Friday. I caught them at his office when I wanted to surprise him with lunch.”
I’m at a loss for words. The story isn’t even original. The secretary and the boss…it’s a classic. What do I say to ease her pain? Paul and Dana have been an important part of my spiritual growth; I’ve admired their marriage and the closeness they always seemed to share. Now it’s gone and Dana has to pick up the pieces alone.
Where’s the fairness in that, God?
Dana sniffles and wipes her eyes with a wadded tissue from her pocket. “I came tonight in hopes that being surrounded by my church family would help ease my pain, but I can’t bring myself to tell anyone else. I feel so ashamed.”
“Why should you feel ashamed?” I pull back to see her face.
“Paul wouldn’t have strayed if I was making him happy. If I had been a better wife, paid more attention to his needs, maybe he wouldn’t have needed to find someone else.” Her voice edges toward panic.
“That’s crazy talk. You love Paul to pieces and are a great wife. Don’t you dare blame yourself for his weakness. He strayed, not you.” Anger floods my veins and I’d very much like to give him a piece of my mind.
Her head nods faintly. “Maybe.”
“No maybes. It’s true, and you can’t do this on your own. You should talk to the pastor about it. Pray with him and ask for counseling.”
“You’re right.” Dana gives me a weak smile.
I take a breath and try to push the outrage aside. God, give me the words to speak. “I’ll pray with you, too, if you like.”
“Yes, please.” Relief tinges her words.
We bow our heads together and I pour out my heart to God on Dana’s behalf. We’re both in tears when I say amen.
“I think I’ll go find the pastor now.” She hugs me and then wanders away.
Taking another deep breath, I blow it out forcefully. What a night. I can’t stand anymore, so I leave before anyone else can rain on my Sunday joy. I didn’t get to visit with Jim, but it’s probably for the best anyway. I have no romantic feelings toward him, but sometimes I wonder if I could. Then again, what would be the point?
Get real, Kianna. You have a lot to offer, but guys only want friendship. Stick with what you know.
Walking to my car, late August heat billows off the black top like a humid oven. The oppressive humidity surrounds me and seeps all the way to my bones. Snippets of my conversations circle my mind like vultures.