I hope you all enjoy it and that you let music hit you from time to time.
Notes of Sin and Salvation
By: Stephani Duff
“I’m telling you, Fo, you’ll love him,” June spoke slowly in her sweet, Southern drawl; the accent and innocent fluctuation of words still surprised me in this Midwestern, rural, wasteland we called home.
“June, this feels fishy. It’s just someone for me to sit with at your dinner party? Are you sure? Because it feels like a set up; and you know how I feel about you setting me up.”
“Honey you are never going to let me forget that single bad set up in college, are you? I promised you no more set ups; I mean, what more do you want?!” She spoke that last word like waaauuuunt.
“Juney, it was not a single set up, it was a string of set ups that all ended horribly! Do I need to remind you of Brice the soup slurper who left his wallet at home?”
“Fo, honey, let it go! This is not a set up; his family knows mine and he’s new to the area. Just come and bring your charm.” I could hear her mischievous grin through the phone lines.
“Okay, June, I’ll come and I’ll bring my charm. But I will not date him.”
“We’ll see! See you tomorrow at seven, sugar!”
“JUNE! We will not see, nothing will be seen. We will eat, I will leave, you will lock it up on the set ups, mmmkay?”
“Oh, darlin’, you’re breakin’ up! BYE!”
I shook my head as I hung up the phone. June was always “not” setting me up on dates, introducing me to boys from her church, trying to negotiate my salvation for me. At least this would be a group setting, June was cooking, and soup wasn’t being served. I shuddered at the thought of that soup slurper, turned up my radio, grabbed a drawing pencil off my desk, and sat in front of my easel letting the soft croon baptize me. These fickle, fuddled words confuse me, like, will it rain today? We waste the hours with talking, talking . . .
As I approached the front porch of June’s house the windows were aglow with warm light and I could hear soft music playing from somewhere in the house. We were made to be courageous, and we’re taking back the fight. We were made to be courageous, and it starts with us tonight. I rang the doorbell and saw June’s big, blonde haired head peek around the corner of the kitchen.
“Hey! Come on in! You’re the first here!”
“Am I early? Can I do anything to help?”
“No, everyone else is late, honey. You just sit down here and talk to me while I finish up.”
Just as I sat down at her kitchen table the front door creaked open and a dark hair, green eyed girl walked into the kitchen and flopped down in the chair next to me.
“You must be Lawrence. I’m Fo.” Her smile made her nose crinkle and her rough, gravelly voice caught me by surprise.
“Yeah, Lawrence. Nice to meet you.”
June turned around while untying her apron, “Aw, look at ya’ll, getting along already! Praise Jesus!”
I looked over at Fo and raised my eyebrow, “Praise Jesus.”
June’s kitchen smelled amazing and people were starting to show up in couples; I was pleased to not be the last one to arrive. I was chatting with some of June’s church group and got to finally see June’s newest love interest, Grayson. She had not yet been on a date with Grayson, but, more likely than not, had their wedding planned down to colors, flowers, and their first dance song.
As she called everyone into the dining room, brought platters of foods out and filled wine glasses with Mascato, Grayson stood up and toasted to June and her hospitality, wonderful cooking, and incredible kindness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen June’s face more lit up with a smile before as it was right now.
“Gray, honey, goodness, you know how to make a girl blush! Thank you. Can I lead ya’ll in prayer before we eat?” There was a congregated yes and everyone bowed their heads; everyone, that is, except for Lawrence. I glanced over at him, taking in the relaxed way he sat at the carefully decorated dining room table, his folded arms, and wide open eyes; he caught my stare and smiled at me. That gap between his teeth would likely cause me all sorts of trouble.
I was quickly becoming thankful that I didn’t bail on this dinner party. June’s friend Fo was nothing like what I expected; her green, feline shaped eyes were always dancing with mischief and she had a way of making whomever she was talking to feel like they were all that mattered to her in that moment.
“So what did you go to school for? You were in Georgia, right? That’s how you know June?”
“Yeah, after high school I moved back home . . . to the town that our parents met actually; I went for nursing.” Her eyes widened a little bit. “Is that bad? The look on your face. .”
“Oh no, not at all! I’m always impressed by those with a brain for science and math. I went to school for art, so my mind just doesn’t work like that!”
“And you met June in college?”
She grinned at me and shook her head, “Yes, June was my roommate freshman year; she rolled in with perfectly curled hair, a vision in pink and I thought for sure I was in trouble, but she turned out to be my perfect balance. June really taught me a lot.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve been around June, but she was always eager to answer questions in Sunday school and never let anyone play alone at the park.”
Her nose crinkled and she wound a piece of black hair around her silver ringed finger, “That sounds like my Juney.”
“What sounds like me? Are ya ‘ll over here gossiping about me?” June feigned disgust.
“We were just sharing our ‘how I met June’ stories . . .”
“Well, that’s sweet, sugar, but I’m gonna need to steal my best gal here, for one minute,” Fo stood up from the chair and glanced over her shoulder giving me a smile and wink. Oh boy.
“So, sugar, how are you liking Lawrence?” I raised my eyebrow and winked at my slender, stubborn friend.
“He’s sweet, June. But this isn’t a set up, riiiiight?”
I swatted her shoulder with my hand, “Darlin’ it’s not! Ya’ll seem to be getting along just fine, though. Maybe I finally got it right, huh?”
“Juney I just met him and-“
“Honey, you’ve been talking to him all night! Sarah and Devon came up and asked when ya’ll started dating because of how sweet ya’ll looked together and Trish and her husband Dave mentioned how cute ya’ll were, over there in the corner of the room laughing and teasing each other.” A look of worry passed over Fo’s features. “Don’t panic, Fo! It’s no big thing! I just thought you should know that you and Mr. Lawrence are looking more like a couple than what I believe you’re aware of.”
“Well, we aren’t a couple. There is no coupling. We’re just getting to know each other. Now, why did you pull me over here? What’s so urgent, huh?”
“Look at you, sugar! Rarin’ to get back over there to that delicious boy; well take a breath, darlin’ because you need to meet Grayson! GRAY! Come here, honey! You need to meet my best gal . . . Grayson, this is my best friend Fo. I’ve been dying for ya’ll to meet for a while now!”
Fo smiled that ornery smile of hers and stuck out her hand, “So good to finally meet you Grayson! I’ve heard so much about you.” Grayson looked at her hand and then leaned in for a hug as Fo called out, “Oh!” He held her at arm’s length and said, “June just goes on and on about you, Fo, I’m glad to finally put a face with your name.”
I stepped back as they chatted about school and work and smiled to myself. Fo’s approval is important. She’s such an honest read of people; so far, so good!
“Bye, ya’ll! Thank you so much for coming! Drive safe!”
As I closed the door I turned around to find Fo and Lawrence talking intently at the dining room table. I overheard Lawrence ask Fo in a serious voice, “Do you think I’m a bad guy?” And Fo responded kindly, “Not at all, I just-“ I stepped into the kitchen and turned on the water. Things were going so well . . . what happened? Why would Lawrence be a bad guy?
“Juney, let me help you carry plates into the kitchen.” Fo walked into the kitchen and smiled at me.
“Honey, is everything okay? I overheard Lawrence asking if you thought he was a bad guy . . .” Fo looked down at her feet, “Yea, it’s – fine, Juney. It’s fine. Let’s get your dining room cleaned up.”
We cleared the table and brought the dishes into the kitchen then Fo looked at me and put her hand on my arm, “Juney . . . Grayson seems really nice, but, please be careful.”
“Honey, what do you mean be careful?! Grayson is the sweetest, most precious man I’ve ever laid eyes on!”
“Right, Juney. He is sweet and kind and handsome, but he hasn’t asked you out yet. Just be careful.” Before I could say much more she hurried out the door without another word to me or even a glance at Lawrence.
As he and I stood in the kitchen together he looked up at me and raised his eyebrows, “Fo seems nice!”
“What in the dickens happened? Why did Fo leave so urgently?”
“I uh, well we were talking about family and church and I kind of told her about what happened with Zoe and then blurted out . . . well June, I haven’t been back to church since Zoe got pregnant in high school and I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.” So sad about his sister getting pregnant so young.
“Lawrence, go down to Fo’s house and fix this. You guys have something . . . a spark for heaven’s sake! Get out of my house, quit your nonsense talkin’ and scoot your butt down there! It’s the brick house three down from here.” He grabbed his coat, kissed my cheek and ran out the door.
Whew! No set up but I’m already mending fights . . . Praise Jesus!
I rushed into my house and took my sweater off; I was sweating and thinking a hundred miles a minute about the conversation I just had with Lawrence. “My sister got pregnant in high school, once the church found out about it we were asked to step down from our services and we left soon after. I just can’t seem to get past the fact that this ‘family’ turned their backs on us; I haven’t been back to church since.”
It’s not like my entire life is centered on going to church and reading my Bible; I was not as devoted and emotional about my faith as June, but to not believe in anything? In a world where miracles happen every day? I wasn’t sure what to think about this. I ran my fingers through my hair and turned on my music. I needed to breathe; I needed to sketch. But someone was knocking on my door.
As she swung open the door I heard music vibrating through the warm, low lit house. God and the devil alone could not have made you up, the two must have worked as one together.
“Fo, let me come in. I didn’t think this would affect you like this. I guess I read you wrong.”
She raised her eyebrows at me and asked defensively, “What do you mean you read me wrong? How exactly did you read me?”
“You, uh, well you; you didn’t seem as devoted as June to . . .”
“Look, Lawrence. I don’t attend church every Sunday and I don’t always get around to reading a Bible every day, but those factors have nothing to do with my faith. I don’t think you have to be in a building every week to believe in bigger things. How can you be in the world we are in and not know there’s something higher?”
“I guess I never thought of it that way.”
“Listen, Lawrence. Come here. I need to show you something.” I reached out for his hand and pulled him inside my house. I went over and changed the song and turned the volume up.
“Do you listen to music a lot?” He shook his head silently. “Well, music just isn’t something you hear; it’s a movement, a moment- it’s one thousand moments in four minutes. Music is a baptism, virginity lost, it’s a marriage. Music is where I find my salvation, and under the needle of a tattoo gun, and in front of a blank canvas right before I breathe life into a face I’ve never met before. My faith isn’t ground in the wood chips of a church pew or in the colored segments of a stained glass window. My faith is in every moment that I get to experience passion.” I stepped closer to him and grabbed both his hands in mine and placed them low on my hips; as the beat picked up in pulse bumping spurts I flexed my fingers over his biceps.
There’s a drumming noise inside my head that throws me to the ground . . .
I squeezed the tightened muscles underneath my fingers, “This is the movement.”
I swear that you should hear it; it makes such an almighty sound . . .
My hands relaxed and slid down to his forearms, lightly grazing for veins emerging to say hello, “This? This is a baptism.”
Louder than sirens, louder than bells . . .
I reached for his rough, well worked hands and laced my fingers between his, “This is a virginity lost.”
Sweeter than heaven and hotter than hell . . .
I stepped close enough that our inhales and exhales became mirror images of each other and placed my hand where his heart could be felt dancing and drumming beneath his shirt, “And this . . . this is a marriage.” Then I looked up at him and let out a haggard breath I wasn’t aware I was holding.
The moment she let breath escape her mouth I grabbed her face in my hands and collided my lips with hers; she responded to the urgency of my tongue and wrapped her arms around my neck. I reached down and grabbed her hips, lifting her up and allowing her legs to lock like long separated puzzle pieces around me. She pulled her face away from mine and with breathy effort demanded, “Bedroom. Now.” Not being one to argue, I worked my way towards her bedroom, with her still clinging to me. Once we made it into the room she kicked the door shut with her foot and we collapsed onto the soft, accepting mattress. The room was silent with the exception of our synchronized sighs as one song ended and another began. There may come a time, you just can’t seem to find your way. For every door you walk in to, Seems like they get slammed in your face. That’s when you need someone . . . let it be me.
Our kisses were hard and desperate, her hands roamed underneath the thin fabric of my shirt and then in one swift motion she pulled it over my head. I opened my eyes to find the pupil of her eyes dilating and then retracting. I directed her body toward the center of the bed and gently bit the multi colored skin of her shoulders; she quietly moaned in response and dug her fingernails into the skin of my back. I fumbled with the button of her jeans, but finally released the denim from its hold. She slithered out of the skin hugging denim and led my hand to the lacy line of her panties. I lightly traced the skin around her bellybutton and moved my hand lower until it was between the sheen fabric and her warm skin; she raised her hips in salute and rumpled the sheets beneath her hands. Slowly, I moved my fingers into the warmth of her body and felt a shuddered breath dance across my skin. She was excited and I was ready; I lifted my hand up and braced myself above her as she brought her hands behind my neck and pulled my lips to hers; as I moved inside her, her body fell into rhythm with mine as if they had known each other all this time.
With sheets pulled across our bodies I turned on my side and looked at Lawrence as he smiled at me. “In my universe, faith is something that moves you; something that moves you to a reaction of passion.”
His eyebrows shot up in the air, “So, in your world, sex is okay with God because it’s a reaction to passion?”
“I think God loves me because I own this part of my life.”
He grinned, revealing that problematic gap, “I could probably get into your religion . . .”
I sat up and brushed the hair from his unlined forehead; “You should probably get into your own religion, Lawrence. It’s okay that you’re angry for what happened to your sister, but it makes me sad when someone holds onto something for such a long time that they miss out on wonderful things in their life. Zoe moved forward. You holding this grudge? It’s only hindering you.”
Just as he was about to respond there was an urgent knocking on my front door, “FO! Florence! Florence, answer your door! I know you’re in there. FO!” It was June’s southern drawl without the sweet patience I had grown accustomed to. I jumped up and threw on my clothes and snapped my fingers at Lawrence, “Guy! Getchyour clothes on!”
I hurried to the front door and found June in a state I was not familiar with; her hair was on top of her head in a messy bird’s nest with curls springing out of the hair band trying to confine them. Her face was red and splotchy with tracks of tears running down her face.
“Juney, what’s wrong?”
“Fo, oh sweet mother Mary, this night has gone downhill . . . and fast. You are not going to believe this. Honey, can I come in or are you going to make me stand out here and blubber myself into oblivion?”
I stepped back to let her in. “June, sit down. Take a breath. Start from the beginning; are you hurt?”
“Not physically, sugar. Oh Lord . . . honey, Gray- Grayson is gay.”
I had just finished putting the last few dishes away from the dinner party when there was a knock on my door. Maybe Lawrence is back to let me know everything is okay. I walked to the door and opened it, pleasantly surprised to find Grayson on my doorstep.
“Gray! What a surprise. Come in, please, sugar.”
“Sorry to come back so late, June. There’s uh, there’s something I need to talk to you about.” Sweet marbles, he is going to ask me out! FINALLY!
I led him into the living room and we sat down next to each other on the couch. I leaned toward him and batted my eyelashes like my momma taught me back when I was a debutante, but I did not illicit the desired reaction from Grayson, I was met with cheeks flushing three shades of scarlet and him moving his body away from me.
“June, listen. We need to talk . . .”
“Right, sugar. Go on ahead.”
“Well, I kind of got the impression that this relationship is something you want to be moving forward and I think there’s something I should clear up before you get your hopes up.”
“Honey, if you’re saving yourself I am totally on board with that. I am, too, and I’m so happy to have found-“
“June, please.” His eyes looked sad. “June, I’m gay. I don’t . . . I’m gay.”
“Have you ever been with a girl? Maybe you’re just not sure . . . how can you be sure you’re gay, sugar?”
A smile played on his lips. “June, uh, well I know I’m gay because even you, this sweet southern belle with the rockin’ body, don’t do it for me.” His sweet, brown eyes softened as he placed his hand over mine; “June, you are so kind and beautiful and pure. I knew you weren’t picking up on this and I needed to tell you; but I like you, I’d like to be friends and-“
I’m gonna be sick. I am going to vomit all over this pristinely dressed man who likes men and not me.
“Grayson, I need some time. I need to try to wrap my head around this, sugar.” As he let himself out my front door I recalled Fo’s warning in the kitchen earlier. Then I fell to my knees and started to pray.
I sat next to June allowing her to rehash the whole conversation with Grayson. She was quietly crying and I was unsure how to approach consoling her.
“Fo, honey, say something! I really thought Gray was- well I wanted him to be . . . And did he tell you? Is that what the cryptic warning was about?”
“He didn’t tell me, June, but I picked up on it. If he weren’t gay he would’ve asked you out by now. You’re infectious and I think Grayson recognizes that; he would’ve asked you by now.”
“I cannot believe you wouldn’t just tell me!”
“Juney, you and I both know you would not have listened to me. You are always taking on the world and looking for people to save, you’re always sprinting towards something; you would’ve set out to prove me wrong; you know that.” Just then Lawrence walked out of my bedroom and stopped.
“Lawrence? Why were you . . . Did I interrupt something?” She glanced from me to Lawrence and back again. “I did. Okay, I’m gonna go.”
“No, stay. Lawrence, come sit down. June was just-“
“I heard. June, I’m really sorry. I’m not surprised, but I’m sorry.”
“Not surprised?! What does that mean?” Her clear, blue eyes were wide with confusion. “June, Grayson was clearly gay. Did you really not see that?” He questioned, not unkindly. “Any guy would jump at being with you if they were straight.”
“No, Lawrence, I did not see that! My mind doesn’t work that way! I thought he was going to be my boyfriend. I thought we could really-“
“JUNEY! Take a breath. Breathe. Lawrence was not trying to upset you; you were missing signs . . .”
“Fo, how am I going to be friends with him? This- this goes against everything I believe in, everything I’ve been raised around.” Lawrence sunk back into the chair he was occupying and eyed me apprehensively.
“June, I don’t think this is about you and how you’re going to handle it; I don’t think Grayson comes into a place skipping and humming Material Girl because he is protective of who he is. I think Grayson came to you, instead of letting you find out from someone else, because you are a woman who is kind and he wanted to trust you.”
“He wanted to trust me? What does that mean, Fo?!”
Lawrence stood up and raised his hands, “Wait a second, June. I don’t think Fo was insinuating anything. . . I think she was-“
I interrupted him, not wanting someone to stand up for me, “I was trying to suggest that perhaps you consider what you claim people need and apply that to this situation; forgiveness, understanding, compassion. Juney, Grayson is not a bad guy because he doesn’t date women . .”
“But, Fo! This is vehemently wrong! Fo, this is a sin.”
“Everyone sins, Juney, everyone . . . including you. I love you, but you have got to stop standing on your soapbox and judging people for not following your decisions all the time.”
She looked up at me as one last, fat tear rolled down her face. “I’m gonna go.” And with that she got up and walked out my door.
I looked up at Fo as she watched June walk out her front door. “I’m, uh, I’m sorry I came out when I did.”
“It’s fine . . . kind of funny, actually, seeing June’s face when you walked out of my bedroom,” her eyes lit up and she threw her head back and laughed more musically than I’d ever heard before. I moved closer to her on the couch, but was met with a slender hand in the air.
“Lawrence, listen. What just happened . . . it was wonderful, but, I have lived my life trying to figure out my own way, walking my own steps to get right where I need to be. And I’m here. But you have things you need to work out; holding the grudge that you are holding is not healthy, it’s really damaging, in fact. I enjoyed your company tonight, more than I expected. But this?” She waved her finger between the two of us. “This needs to become platonic. Until you figure some things out.”
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, “You’re quite the girl, Fo . . . thanks for putting passion back in my life.” Then I got up and let myself out.
The next morning I woke up and decided to go check on Juney; I threw on a pair of jeans and a cardigan and threw my hair up in a knot. When I got to her front door I just walked in.
“Juney?” I peeked into the kitchen to find her sitting with her Bible open in front of her. She glanced up at me and gave me a sad smile.
“Isaiah 1:18: ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.’” She rested her heart shaped face in her hand. “Fo I am having serious trouble reasoning what with happened last night.”
I walked over and sat down next to her, taking her infant sized hand in mine. “Juney, I don’t know that this is something you need to reason with.”
“But how can I be friends with him if I can’t understand this part of his life?”
“Juney, it’s not for you to understand. It’s just for you to know and love him anyway. So you may never date Grayson, or marry him, or have his children, but you can love him and try to support him and show him the heart of gold I know you have. You are always saying how wonderful the people at your church are; they’re kind, forgiving, understanding, they don’t hold grudges, they just love people. Juney, you are just like these people. I mean, yeah, sometimes you give me grief because I don’t go to church every Sunday, but just because I don’t doesn’t mean I don’t know Him.. Perhaps He loves you because you praise His name every time you’re excited, perhaps he loves me because I find His face through music, in colored ink and on blank pages, and just maybe He loves Grayson for going a different way, but still believing through it.”
She looked up at me and let out a deep sigh. “Who knew you were so . . . heavy, Fo?” I reached over and wrapped her in a long hug and kissed the side of her head, “Just open up your heart, Juney. There’s room for all of us in there.”
One Year Later:
“June, turn around! Quit trying to look in the mirror! I have got to get this laced before you dad gets in here.”
“Honey, look at me! Wait, what am I saying? I can’t look at me because YOU are being a mirror hog! Sugar, I know I’ve said this before, but I really mean it this time; this is my day! Let me see!” I quickly finished lacing up the satin ribbon on the back of June’s breathtaking wedding gown and moved out of the way.
“Juney you are a true, blue princess. You’re taking my breath away.” I swiped a lone tear that escaped without permission.
“Sugar, don’t make me cry! Get my flowers. Let’s do this.”
“ . . . So, Juney- I love you more than words can say and I am so happy to be a part of this amazing day. And Lawrence . . . Be good to my June bug.” I smiled at both of them as everyone raised their sparkling champagne and a resounding ‘To June and Lawrence’ filled the air.
After June found peace with losing her chance at Grayson and Lawrence found faith on his own terms, they found each other. And here I was, the maid of honor in their wedding; I smiled to myself at the wicked beauty of this situation and the undeniable love present in the room. Shortly after food was eaten, cake was served, and the dancing began. True to form, Juney planned everything from the colors to the flowers to that first dance song; I’ll open up and be your parachute, and I’ll never let you down, So open up and be my human angel, and we’ll only hit the ground, and we’re gonna hit the ground running.
The night that I met Fo changed my life. She got in my skin, right under the surface and didn’t budge. For weeks after I thought over everything she said to me; finding forgiveness, finding faith on my own terms, searching for grace outside of obvious places. I found it. And then I found her, only it wasn’t Fo.
As the dollar dance came to an end Fo walked up to me with that smirk on her lips and fire in her eyes.
“I get the last dance, guy.” She placed her hands on my shoulders and the music started. Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad, Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud, but there’s no way I can compare All those scenes to this affair, Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.
“Our last dance ended a little differently than this one might.” She looked at me and laughed that musical tune.
“It surely did. Funny how things work out, huh?”
“How do you mean?”
“That night; Turns out we all found a little faith.” She reached up on tip toe and kissed my cheek as the song came to an end. I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula Yer gonna have to leave me now I know, But I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love, Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.
I watched my new husband and my best friend end their dance together and smiled to myself. I have a husband! Hope is something I’ve always grown up with; my parents instilled a sound faith in me from the time I could talk, but I never really got it until that night last year. Faith isn’t always in a musty smelling church or behind Old Testament commandments; faith is in your actions, in your motions, in your wishes. Faith, like grace, is where we find passion when we aren’t looking. I stopped looking for ways to save other people in the days following that night, I stopped looking for ways to mold salvation into others’ lives and started looking for ways to find it on my own terms.
“Juney! Come on!” Fo motioned quickly for me to meet her on the dance floor. As I walked towards her she locked her fingers in mine and kissed me on the cheek, “You’re gorgeous, Juney. I’m so happy for you.” We smiled at each other and in that moment I knew that Fo had her life figured out long before I tried to map it out for her and that while I was trying to make her see my way, she was the one educating me. I let go of Fo’s hands and threw mine up in the air as the music got louder and we danced as the guests circled around us. And the great thing is, we danced in our own ways. I see a tiny light like a flashbulb sparkle in the night; I see a tiny light telling everyone to hold on tight.