THE WALK OF SHAME was something I’d never imagined myself taking. The expression was usually reserved for college girls, wasn’t it? At least, that’s what I’d always been told. But as I trudged the snowy pavement, its purity spoiled by city living, past stores yet to open, winter biting at my face, shame washed over me. I was twenty-two but wanted to cry like a disappointed five-year-old. My life had done a flip-flop, and I didn’t know exactly where or when everything changed. But I knew it was some time the night before, and only in spits and spurts, my head screaming with pain, could I remember it.
“Good to see you out with us, kid!” My boss, Ted, squeezed my shoulder and slapped me on the back as he headed to the bar for another round.
It had been a long day at Ansel Advertising, and my stomach growled, missing its dinner. The bar was jam-packed with loud sweaty bodies, patrons yelling into ears to be heard over the rock music, and all I craved was my quiet couch at home. I’d only agreed to go because our young boss Theodore Ansel—Ted for short—had invited the design team out for a drink. It was ironic that he called me kid being only a couple years older than me himself. The son of a big-name advertiser, he looked to make his own dent in the advertising arena. And after landing a hot shot client who could elevate his start-up to the next level, he insisted we all celebrate. What could I say? I was new. Just out of college and lucky to be in a job I enjoyed. I just had to deal with the nightmare of this bar scene for an hour and then call it a night. I could do that, right?
A nudge dug into my left arm, distracting me from my task of searching the cluttered table for a way to discreetly dispose of a shot of Jägermeister in my hand. It was the second I’d been given, and the first was already taking effect. Calling me a lightweight would be an understatement. I’d have a beer or two with my dad while watching a game, but that was the extent of my drinking.
“Dude, check it out.” My work colleague Steve lifted his chin in the direction of the bar entrance where two attractive girls stood. One had wild red hair that fell loose to her shoulders, the other, wavy brown hair flowing down her back. I’d have looked away, but the second girl’s pretty face had me staring as she scanned the room.
“Look, they’re coming our way,” Steve said, shoving me again.
“Yeah, right!” Karl, another work buddy, said, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
I tried not to stare as the girls approached. But as they passed our table, the brunette’s gaze fell on me and our eyes locked. Hers were an emerald green, and they sparkled when she offered me a wide smile, right before joining her friends at another table.
I watched her move in the form-fitting dress she wore. Only when the burn sliced my throat did I realize that I’d downed that second shot without thinking twice.
“Here you go, boys,” Ted said, appearing from behind me and setting another round of shots on the cluttered table.
As he continued to shove one in front of each of us, I groaned inside, already feeling lightheaded.
“You guys, we hit the big time, and I’m relying on you to pull out all the stops,” Ted said, lifting his glass. “To our success!”
Completely out of my element but excited at the prospect of proving myself, I joined in clinking my glass with the others. Too late to pretend to spill a large portion out, I tossed back the full shot of liquor. This would be the last one, I vowed, as the burn journeyed down my throat. I glanced around the room beginning to blur, and my eyes landed on the brown-haired girl, staring right back at me.
My stomach flipped. Up until that point in my life, I’d managed to divert my eyes and attention when it came to pretty girls, especially those in short skirts and low necklines. I’d made a promise to myself and God in an attempt to remain undistracted by the world and focused on His will for me, which I prayed would include the right woman for a wife. But it wasn’t easy when the girl with the green eyes continued to grab my attention all night, catching my eye numerous times, if I recall. And when her pretty mouth curled into a smile, I couldn’t help but respond.
She’d ditched her friends and was at our table, sitting where Steve had been. My buddies had gone off in all directions, leaving me alone with Rebecca.
“So, you’re like a cowboy,” she said, after I explained my country roots. She giggled as she leaned toward me, and I inhaled her sweet fragrance.
“Uh, no,” I said, laughing. “I don’t have any cows.”
I took a sip from my beer, milking it in the hopes of convincing others that I was still participating, but making sure the level didn’t go below the halfway point for fear someone would buy me another. I was enjoying the conversation, at least.
“But you have horses.”
“Yes, that I do.”
As the sun rose over dreary buildings surrounding me, I searched left and right for cars, and then tore across a street. My hands wedged deep into my coat pockets, I tried to recall the moment when things progressed from bad to worse. They obviously had, since I now hurried away, hunched in my own shame. But recollections proved spotty or blurry after we’d talked about horses. I remembered having fun and laughing a lot. And I even remembered my offer to walk her home with the sole intention to bring her home safely. But the walk itself and most of the events that followed? I had no recollection.
Having just left her asleep in the crumpled bed I’d risen from, I became consumed with disgust for myself. Why did I do such a thing? How could I have been so stupid? How could I make this right? I couldn’t. There were some acts that could never be undone. My parents had tried to instill that truth within me, and while I’d never fully understood the value of the lesson before, it hit me now when it was too late. I could never take it back. What an idiot.
My phone buzzed in my jacket pocket, followed by a jolt in my chest. What if it’s her? Rebecca. That was her name. At least I remembered that. I glanced at my phone and exhaled. Just a message from Kevin, my roommate and best friend since childhood.
—Isaac! Where you at, man?
I noted more messages from him.
—Hope ur not doing what I think ur doing, one read.
Even Kevin had higher expectations of me.
But I had done it. And now it was over, and I’d have to live with the consequences. Consequences. My parents had talked to me about those too. I trudged the gray concrete steps up to my brownstone apartment door.
Maybe I shouldn’t have left her. The conflicting thought suddenly came to me, and I gritted my teeth. Maybe we could have built a relationship. That wasn’t unheard of, even after what we’d done. I could go back to her apartment later and suggest a date. We could try to make it work. We seemed to have a lot in common, from what I could remember, at least. Actually, did we?
If truth be told, I couldn’t remember. I was too distracted by those eyes and that smile. And then there was that pretty laugh and the way she lifted her chin and tipped her head to the side, as if I were the funniest, most charming man in the world. Still, the idea of building an actual relationship with her alleviated some of my guilt and lifted my spirits, if only a little. Sure, it was a backwards way of building a relationship and far from what I’d originally planned, but it was better than nothing. I really didn’t have a choice at this point. I couldn’t go back in time and change last night.
Kevin sat at our kitchen bar in the apartment that we shared, already dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve polo shirt. A bowl of cereal in front of him, he spied me through the shaggy brown hair that fell into his eyes. He chewed and waited.
I didn’t have to say one word as I dumped myself into an armchair facing him.
“Oh, man, you had me worried,” he said, his features grave. Then obviously recognizing my distressed expression he added, “Wanna talk about it?”
I shrugged, grabbing a cap from the table next to me and wedging it onto my head. “What can I say? I messed up big time.”
“Okay?” He shoved a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.
“One minute, I’m hanging out, promising myself that I’m not going to stay long, the next . . .” I raised my hands. “I don’t know.”
He nodded. “What happened?”
“What shouldn’t have happened to me.” I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes.
“Did it involve a girl?”
I tipped my head to the side, squinting my eyes at him.
Kevin widened his eyes and jutted out his chin. “You have to narrow it down, dude. I’m assuming you got drunk . . .”
“Yes, I got drunk, I met a pretty young woman, we hit it off, and . . .” I gestured with a roll of my hand, not wanting to speak the details.
Kevin drank the remaining milk in his bowl and then sighed. He stood and took the bowl to the sink.
“I’m sure you’re eager to say, ‘I told you so,’” I said.
He scoffed, squeezing detergent onto a sponge. “Yeah, ’cause I’m that kind of guy, right? Come on, man!”
“No. You’re not. But I’d deserve it if you did.” I dropped my head back, dragging the cap over my eyes. “I should have left after the first drink. I shouldn’t have gone to that stupid bar at all. I mean, what do I expect to happen hanging out at a bar with a bunch of guys who throw down shots of Jäger every five minutes? I’m not used to that. Give me more than two beers and the room starts to tip. What is going on with me?”
Through the sound of the running faucet, Kevin said, “It happens to the best of us, man.”
I lifted the cap and raised my head. “No, it doesn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t. I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but you know me. You know my folks. You know my life. You know them all because you were brought up the same way and we are meant to be a light. Right?”
Kevin sighed heavily, drying the bowl with a towel before placing it in the cupboard. He crossed into the living space and dropped onto the couch opposite me, combing his hair back off his face with both hands.
“Isaac . . .” He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, as if ready to give me counsel.
“I threw it all away in one night, and all it took was a set of green eyes and a pretty smile. That doesn’t show much conviction.” My hands tightened into fists on my lap.
My friend said nothing. He just stared at me, eyes serious.
“I don’t even remember . . .” I shrugged. “Just spurts of memory, in the bar, talking all night. I hardly remember the walk to her place, let alone getting there. But waking up this morning was like . . .” I rubbed my face with my palms as if it would help erase the snippets of memory that beleaguered my thoughts. “We’re supposed to be in the world and not of it,” I said. “We’re supposed to avoid temptation.”
“So, then what?” Kevin’s brow furrowed. “What do you want me to say? You got caught up in the moment. You let your guard down. You made a mistake, Isaac. You can’t beat yourself up about it, man. You just have to start over and try harder, right?”
“But it’s not just the drunk part, Kev. Is it? I mean, I changed my whole life in one night.”
Kevin didn’t say anything. Maybe if I’d said that same thing to one of my work colleagues, they’d have laughed and accused me of being over-dramatic, but Kevin understood where I was coming from. We’d grown up together, a world away from the dingy city, in the countryside. Our parents shared the same Christian values. He couldn’t argue with that.
Shower steam filled the bathroom. I wiped the mirror, revealing a man with the look of complete despair. Brushing my teeth, I continued to gaze into my own eyes, wondering how a guy could have let go of something so valuable, so quickly, so easily. I thought I was stronger than that, but my father had once told me that the devil worked extra hard at tempting the faithful.
I filled my hands with cold water and splashed it on my face, pushing my palms up and down over my eyes. I swiped a towel over my face and peered at my reflection again, trailing my fingers along a scar, coarse under my fingertips, that extended from the top of my left eyebrow and across into my hair line. A birthmark from infancy. My mother said it was almost unnoticeable, but it was still visible to me.
Kneeling in front of a dark, stilted confessional screen, the incense-soaked wood filling my senses, I yearned for forgiveness and absolution. I knew it would come. Jesus had made that promise to me. Through the sacrament of reconciliation, I would be restored to God’s Grace. Yet, a sadness still overwhelmed me, because I’d broken a big promise that I’d made to God.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been three weeks since my last confession.” My heart pounded as I clutched sweaty palms together. I took a long slow exhale in an attempt to steady my breathing before continuing, but my throat was dry and so I cleared it.
“Please continue,” the priest said softly.
“Father, I did something terrible. I . . . I . . .” Squeezing my eyes shut, I envisioned the previous night. Or, rather, what I could remember of the previous night. Images of my interaction with Rebecca at the bar flashed in my mind. I shook the thoughts away, and let out a long, unsteady breath.
“Father, I got drunk last night and then slept with a woman. A woman I’d never met before and whom I may never meet again.” Truth spoken out loud stung. “I never thought I’d break my vow to keep God’s commandment, but I did, and I feel . . .” I hunted for the right word to describe the feeling of utter failure and disappointment and guilt. “I feel as if I’ve let Him down. And I know I’ve let myself down. And . . . and that poor girl.” I waited.
“God loves you.” The priest said it as if he knew I needed to hear those words. “And He has the power to restore you emotionally, spiritually, and mentally through prayer, confession, and penance. That’s why it’s called reconciliation. Only God can make you emotionally and spiritually whole again. He wants to take you to a place where you can be pure again.”
I knew all of this, so why couldn’t I let it go if God forgave me?
The sick feeling in my gut didn’t fade like I’d hoped it would after confession. Not even after I did my penance.
“I absolve you of all your sins . . .” Father had said, acting in the person of Christ.
Not that I don’t believe You, Lord. I absolutely do. It’s just . . .
Absolution meant a new start and an opportunity to put it all behind me. But even as I moved on with my usual daily routine, work, home, making dinner, whatever the chore, I couldn’t release this sense of disappointment in myself, and guilt for what I’d done to myself, God, my future wife, even Rebecca. I found it difficult looking people in the eye, especially Kevin. As if I were a fraud.
I’d fallen. And the realization that I was weak was difficult to swallow. Jesus had said, “Sin no more,” and so I’d just have to try again. But first I’d have to try to make it right.
Mounting the stairs to the third floor of Rebecca’s apartment building, I practiced my greeting and imagined our conversation from there. Would she remember me? My stomach sank for the millionth time that day as I recalled the reality of my actions. This was not who I’d imagined or even hoped myself to be, but it didn’t take much for my whole life to change. Now facing her front door, I sucked in a breath and scraped my fingers through my hair before knocking.
Hearing no movement behind the door, I knocked again. She couldn’t still be sleeping, could she? Relief followed by guilt for feeling relief took turns gushing through me.
I slipped my laptop bag from my shoulder to the floor, pulled out my notebook, and rifled around for a pen. What could I write? We hadn’t exchanged phone numbers the night before. At least, I couldn’t remember doing so, so I wrote mine down on a piece of paper, adding, Had fun. Would like to see you again tonight. Call. Isaac. Rereading it, I cringed, but I ripped the page from the book, folded it, and stuffed it under the door anyway. It was true, but truth didn’t make it sound less pathetic under the circumstances.
She didn’t call me that day. Or the next. Or the next. I made numerous visits to Rebecca’s apartment after that day, hoping to catch her at lunch time or after work, but to no avail.
Halfway through the workday, I caught myself staring at my laptop screen again, the colors of my ad campaign designs swirled and blurred as my eyes lacked the focus of my mind. It was almost four weeks since that awful day, and the sins of my past continued to plague my mind. I’d imagined the many ways that I could fix it. One thing was for sure, I could never get back my virginity. That part of my life was over. I no longer possessed that gift that I’d wanted to share with my wife. I didn’t even have a wife yet. But she was out there. And I’d given that one thing only I could give to her, to someone else. I’d tried to make it better. I tried, Lord. But I failed You and I failed my wife.
“How’re the drafts coming along, kid?” A voice interrupted me and I swung around to face my boss, Ted. Dressed in jeans and a tieless dress shirt, the young, hip entrepreneur, with dark ruffled hair, pushed in beside me to stare through his black-rimmed glasses at my screen.
I leaned to the side to give him room. “Uh, good.”
“Looks great.” He bobbed his head. “How many do you have?”
“More than enough.” He straightened and patted my shoulder. “Get them printed and mounted. The presentation is scheduled for next week. Great job.” He turned to leave, then spun back. “You know, if we get this account, I’ll need another senior designer to pick up the slack.”
I straightened in my chair. “Really?”
“I’d say that the designer who wins this account stands a pretty good chance,” he said, bobbing his head and rocking onto his heels.
I leaned back in my seat. “Who else is working on mock-ups?”
“Just you and Karl.” He prodded a finger in my direction. “But I’m rooting for you, kid.”
Ted left me feeling conflicted. Any other day, that news would have sounded awesome. The competition would have ignited a spark of excitement. But work and promotions just didn’t seem so important right now.
I readjusted my laptop bag’s strap on my shoulder, carrying my coffee and bagel sandwich in one hand. As I meandered through the busy lunch-time crowd, a heavyset woman in a long blue coat stepped in my path. I jerked to a halt and angled away from her to avoid scorching her with my coffee.
She tucked a strand of her black shoulder-length hair behind her ear—a nervous reaction—and her jaw dropped.
“I—I . . .” she stuttered, her cheeks flushing.
“It’s fine.” I strained a smile.
She remained in my path, her eyes glued on mine. I waited, until she gasped and stepped aside, muttering something lost in the noise around us.
I continued on to the corner table where Kevin sat staring at his tablet. Probably reading a book. The guy was a huge bookworm. I didn’t have the patience for it.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, slumping into the seat opposite my friend, allowing my bag to slide down my arm to the floor.
“Stalking, were you?” Kevin smiled as he stared at his screen.
“Whatever.” I sat back in the booth.
Kevin sighed and set the tablet down. “How long are you going to do this?”
“What?” I arranged my lunch. “Meet you for lunch and get interrogated?”
He leaned toward me. “Loitering around that girl’s apartment. Someone’s gonna call the cops, you know.”
“I’m not loitering. I just stopped by on the way over. I’m just trying to make things right.” My eyes caught a shadow outside the window, and I glanced out to see the woman in the long blue coat gazing at me as she passed by. It wasn’t my fault, lady.
“It’s been weeks now, with no word. Have you considered that maybe she’s trying to avoid you?”
I pressed my warm bagel with the palm of my hand. “That thought has crossed my mind.”
“So then, give it up. Seriously, you did your best. But you can’t force yourself on people.”
I dragged my fingers through my hair with an exaggerated sigh. He was right. If I continued showing up there, someone would probably report me. I’d tried. I’d gone above and beyond. I was done. It was time to move on. Maybe this was God’s will and His way of inspiring a fresh start.
My mood still low, I hardly had the desire to get out of bed the past several mornings. If it weren’t for my job, I’d probably have slept all day. I hauled myself out and trudged to the kitchen. I couldn’t go on much longer like this. I needed to force myself back on my life plan.
I yanked the fridge door open and faced bare shelves. I slammed it shut and groaned. I’d have to make a trip to the grocery store after work no matter how late or how tired I felt. Kevin had classes all day at the gym and would appreciate the gesture.
I lifted a jar of powdered creamer from the cabinet and scooped some into a cup. Better than nothing, I guess. My phone buzzed on the counter as I filled my cup with coffee. Taking a sip, I reached for it.
The soft voice made my heart leap. A mix of fear and joy and anticipation collided within me, and I took a deep breath to help keep it together.
“Ivan?” she asked.
Closing my eyes, I ran my fingers over my scar. “Isaac.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Hey, Isaac. Listen, this is Rebecca. From a while ago? We met at Leary’s Bar. We . . . well we, y’know—”
“Yes, Rebecca,” I interrupted her, not sure if I was saving her from saying the words or myself from hearing them. “I totally remember you. Of course. I’ve actually been trying to see you again.” Maybe I should have tried again to catch her at home or left more than that first note. I just didn’t want her to think I was stalking.
“Great.” She sighed. “I’m so glad you remember me.”
“Absolutely.” How could I not? “So do you want to get together or something? Is that . . . is that why you’re calling?” I gritted my teeth to stop myself from babbling on like a fool.
“No, yeah . . . actually, yes, I want to see you . . . I . . .” She paused briefly. “I want to see you. I need to see you. Can I see you?”
Whoa! She sounded almost desperate. “Sure.”
“Tonight?” It was Friday. Definitely a good night for a date. And I have the chance to make it right.
We arranged to meet at a local coffee shop. I’d have liked to take her to dinner, but she insisted on just coffee. Maybe she wanted to avoid what happened before. Regardless, I hovered through my day, trying to focus on designs, but always, my mind was on her and the impending date. And when I walked in and saw her sitting in a booth by the window, looking at her phone, a gush of joy filled my chest. This could work, right, Lord?
Dressed in jeans and a peach-colored sweater, her hair loose down her back, Rebecca gazed up. She watched me walk toward the table, her green eyes sparkling, and then she smiled. Yes! This can totally work.
END OF CHAPTER 1