My arms released her as if propelled by explosive bolts. Then my hands closed around her waist and I pushed her away with a strength rooted in sheer terror. As I looked into her surprised eyes, I simply stated, "No." Before words could leave her parted lips, I was on the other side of the door.
In the silent hallway, I briefly contemplated the option of making a blind run down the hall and going as far away as I could. From experience I knew this was futile, so continued to my door and entered my room. I locked and security-chained the door, but I didn't turn on the light. My breathing was heavy and my heartbeat was doing a rapid dance.
I dropped to my knees. My body ached, remembering the press of hers against mine. I still smelled her fragrance on me, and tears filled my eyes as I saw how close I came to giving into my fleshly desires. I groaned. Unashamedly, I admitted to God, "I love her! I haven't loved anyone like this since Barbara! I screwed up. But I don't want to lose her. Please, let her stay! I want her to know You! And I want us to be one."
The cell phone rang. I didn't want to answer it -- what if it was Dot? -- but the ringing was persistent.
"Hello?" I croaked meekly.
"Perry, is that you?" the voice on the other end asked.
"Lea?" Inside, I breathed a sign of relief.
"Yes. Are you all right?"
I wanted to say yes in order to quickly end the conversation, but couldn't. "No. How did you --"
"God woke me up, put you on my heart." I was able to relate to that. "I prayed for you then, but that didn't seem to satisfy things. So I called you -- and I'm glad I did. What's going on?"
"I screwed up," I said bluntly, knowing she'd understand.
"Is Dot okay?" she probed. At my silence, her voice lowered and she said, "Talk to me."
I took a deep breath and related the whole story, taking responsibility for it all.
She was understanding. "Perry. You're torn because Dot's not a Christian." She paused, and opened up. "Andy's always wanted the girls to be happily married. Carrie has no desire to remarry -- she has her career -- so his goal is to eventually see Dot married. She's the oldest granddaughter, you see." She paused. "Andy likes you, Perry . . . and maybe he's been planting some hints. But you've got to do what God wants you to do. Dot's my granddaughter also, and I want what's best for her. But the first thing she needs -- what all of us need -- is a relationship with Jesus Christ. After that, I think you two'd make a good couple."
I sighed, "Yes. Exactly." My breathing was labored. I was tired. The last few days were catching up to me.
"Is she still in her room?"
"I think so."
I heard her take a deep breath. "Okay. I'm going to call Dot. You call Clark and share with him what happened."
"Everything will work out. You should know it always does." She was right.
We ended the conversation. I pressed the speed dial for Clark's cell phone, but only got a recording saying that his cell was not available. I tried Johnny's number, but it was out of service. I assumed that there was a power outage in the area.
I went back to the floor, back to prayer. I wrestled over my feelings about Dot. When talking to others, I admitted that I liked Dot very much, that she was very special to me, and my feelings for her were strong. But here, after the last few days, I cared more about Dot than I had for any woman since Barbara. And I had screwed up by . . . or would have, if God hadn't stopped it. Now I hoped that Dot wasn't angry at me, or hurt. I was afraid she might be. And, selfishly, I prayed that she wouldn't change her mind and leave. I prayed and I ached inside, and eventually I fell asleep on the floor.
I heard a steady rapping on the door. The light through the window told me it was morning. Groaning from the soreness in my neck and back from sleeping on the floor, I called out, "Just a minute!" The rapping stopped. I got to my feet, walked to the door, and unlocked it.
It was Dot. She looked good. In fact, she actually had a smile on her face. "Good morning! How are you --" The smile vanished in a flash of horror. "-- my God! What happened to you?"
"I slept wrong," I explained. More accurately, I felt as if I'd been pulled through a knothole.
The look on her face mirrored both shock and sadness. She closed the door behind her. "Let's talk," she said, taking me by the hand and leading me over to the couch.
She looked me over. She spoke slowly, deliberately. "I won't ask you what happened. I think I know. It's because of me, isn't it?" My ears perked up.
I didn't say anything. I wanted to nod, but couldn't. But she saw it nonetheless. I tried to look her in the eyes, but couldn't.
"Perry. I've tried to be more cautious about how I feel about you. My last boyfriend was three years ago. Larry. Up until last night, I didn't know any better." She paused. "Do you still feel the same way about me as I feel about you?"
I managed a nod. "Yes. But things have changed."
"I know. Last night I told you 'I love you' and you said the same. Last night was wonderful, and I'll never forget it. I still do love you, Perry, but I'm understanding some things I didn't understand before. Loving you and wanting you are two different things. Last night I thought they were the same thing." Her head lowered, avoiding my eyes now. "I . . . don't want to let you go. I assumed you wanted me in the same way I wanted you. I treated you in the same way I would treat any other . . . boyfriend. But you're not like that." She paused. "I was wrong. I was dead wrong to push you. I'm so sorry. I don't want to push you."
There was silence as she carefully considered her next words. "Can you forgive me?"
My head raised and our eyes met. Lea had gotten through. "Yes, of course," I said.
"Can I ask a question?"
I nodded. "Sure."
"If you didn't feel about me the way I felt about you, then what were all those signals for?"
I looked at her, puzzled. "What signals?"
Then she started listing off things that I did ever since we arrived in San Francisco. Most of them were innocent displays of TLC while she was recuperating. But then there were others, and I got a sinking feeling as she told them to me: the kisses on her head, the gift of Grape Juice that became a romantic gesture, the holding and hugging. Then my admissions of love and our kissing together. I saw the self-portrait forming in ghastly colors, a picture of a lust-filled Perry Liston saying how much he loves God, yet putting out signals of how much he loved her, how much he wanted her as she wanted him.
My breathing became shallow as I realized the truth. What Dot had done was nothing compared to what I had done. She didn't know the truth, she didn't know better. But I did know better -- and I turned from it. My heart felt heavy as I realized what I had done. Like facing a mirror, I saw that it was God's mercy alone that put the brakes on the situation in Dot's room before I could give into my own lusts, and it was God who gave me the strength to leave her room.
My breath came in gasps, and, unashamedly, I lost it. Tears burst from my eyes, and I started crying as my own wretchedness slapped me in the face. I felt Dot's arms reaching out for me, her hands touching my shoulders. I leaned in her direction, then buried my head in her shoulder and continued to weep as she held me close. There was no lust in our embrace.
I looked up at her and repented. "I am so sorry for all the signals I gave out . . . I didn't want to come across like that. And I am sorry that I did. I do love you. Can you forgive me?"
"I guess so," she said, not quite comprehending what had happened to me. "Yes, I do."
We sat there for a few minutes, silent. Then I stood up shakily, excused myself, and walked to the bathroom. I splashed water on my face and groaned when I saw my reflection in the mirror. No wonder Dot was shocked when I opened the door.
"Perry?" called Dot from the other side of the door. "You okay?"
"Yes." I grabbed a towel. "Yes."
"This is a because you're a Christian and I'm not, isn't it?" she asked.
I offered up a quick prayer, took a deep breath, and came out of the bathroom. "In a way. In one respect, I wanted you as much as you wanted me . . . possibly more. But inside is a different matter. Inside I knew it would be morally wrong." I walked around the room. "It seems everybody wants us to be together. Monk, for one. But it's got to be in God's timing, and under His conditions. Otherwise it's doomed to failure . . . just like my first marriage."
"You were married before?" she said, astonished.
I nodded. "Seven years ago, before I became a Christian, I married my high school sweetheart. Her name was Barbara." For a moment, I pictured her, and my eyes glazed over. "She had the softest honey-blond hair you ever saw. We were madly, passionately, in love." I returned to the present and smiled. "I became a Christian about a year later, as a result of the counseling over a few . . . problems . . . I had. Our marriage grew, so I thought. However, the conditions of our marriage had changed because I was now a Christian. And, although Barbara still loved me, she couldn't accept those conditions. Eventually she found someone else who followed the same conditions as she. She left me for another man."
I turned the focus towards Dot. "You say you believe in God. But that's not enough. It's a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When you and I follow the same rules -- God's rules -- that makes us what the Bible speaks of as 'equally yoked'. Otherwise, we're 'unequally yoked' like Barbara and I were. She followed her rules. I followed God's. Although we were still married, still living in the same house, still . . . in love with one another, we were moving in opposite directions. The two ships that pass in the night. It only became a matter of time. I couldn't compromise my faith -- it meant too much to me. Jesus means too much to me." I spoke with conviction.
"So you're saying that if there's anything to happen between us, I have to become a Christian?" Her tone was defensive.
"Is that such a bad thing?" I said, incredulously. "You make it sound like a punishment, a death sentence. It's not. If anything, it's a life sentence, into a life that is far better than this one." I paused. "Besides, I don't want you to be a Christian just so we can be together. That's not what it's all about. It's about knowing that you can't run your own life anymore and giving it up to someone who can."
I paced the floor. Emotions swirled around me.
"You wouldn't have known me before I became a Christian. I was totally different -- you wouldn't have liked me. I was an ugly beast. I may tell you about it some day. But not now. Now I live a new life free of that past."
I faced her and spread my hands. "Look, I've tried not to push. I've tried to be an example." I paused. "Look at the examples. You knew your granddad before he became a Christian. Have you seen a change in him?"
"Good or bad?"
"Have you seen a change in how he gets along with Lea, your mom, and you?"
"Good or bad?"
"Good." She smiled. "He and grandma are like honeymooners all over again." She looked at me. "And you're saying this is because of Jesus?"
"You tell me." I paused. "Jesus has the power to change people in ways that the world can't figure out, let alone repeat. He changed me, he changed your granddad. And he can change you if you let him. He can improve your quality of life in ways that you can't even begin to imagine."
I mused aloud. "You know, if it wasn't for God, you and I wouldn't even know one another. I was just a poor schmuck who used to preach every now and then in a mission in Portland, and you were a security guard in New York. Two individuals out of billions, on opposite sides of the country, with no earthly reason to ever know one another."
I paused. "Now, I don't believe in coincidences, that things just 'happen'. I believe God sets them up because He has a reason for it, like the stage director for a worldwide stage. He moves this person here, that person there, and brings things together at just the right time and place to follow His plan. It's no coincidence that I was preaching in that mission at just the time that Clark walked in. God had prepared me -- subtly, behind the scenes, over many years -- to do just what I did, to preach just what I preached, and then to give me His love for this big bronze man with an infamous past. It was His love that caused me to take Clark back to my home and not turn him into the authorities or the tabloids. And it was God who gave Clark the dream that showed him how to access the Hidalgo gold, which provided us with the funds to start on our 'quest'." I paused, then added, "And it was also God who gave me the boldness to approach that cute lady on the motorcycle who didn't look like the Dorothy Brooks who had been married to Ham Brooks." I smiled, remembering our first meeting.
"God is at work in our lives, subtly nudging us in the right directions. Sometimes those right directions involve some hardships. But it's knowing that He loves us and has our best interest at heart that gets us through those hardships."
She was silent.
I smiled sheepishly. "Okay, sermon's over. I hope I've given you some things to think about. If you have any questions . . . you know."
She smiled. "Deal." Then, reluctantly, she asked, "What happened to Barbara?"
"To be honest, I don't know. She moved away from Portland, and has never contacted me." I smiled. "I guess she saw me as a bad influence."
I looked at her. She was definitely thinking things over. I said nothing, but I did yawn.
"Did you get any sleep last night?"
"A little." I rubbed the back of my neck.
She glanced in at the bed, still undisturbed. "Just where did you sleep last night?"
I pointed to a spot on the floor. "There."
She stood and took my hand. "All right," she announced, her voice firm. "I've got some thinking to do. I'm going to go for a walk. In the meantime, you check out the inside of your eyelids for a few hours. Then we'll get something to eat. Okay?"
I stood obediently. "Yes, ma'am," I quipped with a grin.
I reached out my arms for her. Without hesitation, she stepped into them and we held one another. Then I looked into her eyes. "I do love you," I told her. "It'll work out."
She smiled and nodded.
We hugged once more, then separated easily. She left the room, and I locked the door behind her. I stepped into the shower before my nap, and talked to God while the water eased my sore muscles. When I once more introduced myself to my bed, I drifted into sleep praising God for His moving in this situation.
Dot took the cable car down to Fisherman's Wharf, where she walked and thought. It was like home, with the water there to accompany her. She strolled casually and went over things in her mind. Suddenly, she heard a familiar voice.
"Dottie? Dottie Brooks? Is that you?"
She looked in the direction of the voice and gawked. "Larry?"
A tall, handsome man with a goatee beard came over to her. They paused only an instant before they came together in a strong embrace, like old friends reunited.
"I was . . . just thinking about you," she said.
He smiled. "I hope they were good thoughts. I've been thinking about you, too."
"What are you doing in San Francisco?" she asked. "The last I knew, you were in New York."
He motioned to the camera bag and gear. "I'm doing a photo shoot at one of the art galleries nearby. And what about you? Aren't you a little out of your neighborhood?"
"I'm on . . . vacation," she lied.
His voice softened. "You look beautiful, Dottie. I've missed you."
Her breathing increased. Her eyes gave him the once-over. "I see you're still working out."
"Three nights a week, as often as I can," he explained proudly, then changed the subject. "Why don't we find a quiet spot where we can remember the good old days? Rainier Ale in the bottle, right?"
Her taste buds had a flashback. "Right. Sounds good."
"Then let's go. I don't have much time -- I've got a plane to catch this afternoon for home. But we can still have a few hours . . . together." He worked his arm around her back, and pulled her close. "It's really been lonely without you, Dottie," he said softly, as his hand slowly massaged a spot on her back that was sensitive. Unable to stop herself, she released a low purr.
For an instant, she saw Perry's smiling face. Then it was gone. "I've missed you, too," she said. "Let's go."