She switched to beer from whiskey to dull the pain of being alone in the bar another night. Tom, the bartender, was her friend, as long as she told him to pour another round. She wasn't sure how she had gotten in such a dark place.
A cheerleader in high school, she was one of the popular girls. One night in the backseat of the quarterback's Camaro, she gave up her virginity. In return, she got a cold shoulder at school the next day. She wept and wept in the girls' bathroom, but then made up her mind she'd never let anyone know how much she hurt.
She slept with the quarterback's best friend to pay him back. She became the life of the party, everyone's favorite girl for a good time. College was living for the weekend. When a friend told her she was drinking too much, she replied she could quit anytime she wanted to. She wanted to, sometimes, but the alcohol had become her friend, her comfort.
Past college, she had a couple of long-term relationships, but every time she hinted about marriage, the guy withdrew. In her bed, the tears sometimes returned. She wondered if the guys loved her or were just using her.
She was fired from her last job for showing up late one too many mornings. An expert excuse-maker, she'd begun to believe her own lies. It was unfair, she told her family, but their sympathy was thin, worn out from being lied to one too many times. She hated the job she had now; she took it only for the money. It was getting harder and harder to keep her facade together. Most mornings she was hungover; it took the first hour at work for the cobwebs to clear and for her to be coherent. The blackouts scared her most. Some mornings she woke up and couldn't remember a thing from the day before.
While she was drowning her thoughts in her whiskey, a man sat down beside her. She waited for the pick-up line before she stole a glance to see what response he would get. He ordered a Perrier. Tom, the bartender, had to ask him to repeat it. After he twisted off the top, she said, "That's kind of a strange drink to order in a bar."
He chuckled and said, "I'm a little different." Then she stole a glance. He was early 30s, bearded and looked like he had worked construction. Something about him made her lean in and ask, "Different 'good' or different 'bad?'"
"Just different," he said. "What about you?"
"Different bad, definitely," she replied.
He paused and said, "That's interesting. Tell me about it."
Before she knew it, she was telling him her whole sad story. Maybe it was the whiskey, or his kind smile, or her own heart so full of pain, or the way he nodded, like he understood. She told him about the one-night stands, the nightly doses of whiskey, the loneliness of her life and the sinking feeling she had that this was to be her life, one night after another, starving for love and thirsty for the next drink. She even told him about the abortion she'd had in college that no one knew about, not even her family. Part of her expected him to get up and walk away, but he stayed right there. He was there, listening to her, the first person to really listen to her in years.
When she paused in her tale, he spoke up: "Life doesn't have to be that way, you know." With acid in her voice, she said, "Yeah, it would be nice if I could start over."
"Why don't you?" he said. "How would I do that?" was her skeptical reply.
There was kindness in his eyes when he said, "If you talk to God, he will give you a new start. Call it a new birth. But you have to be honest about your life. Shouldn't be too hard; you already know your life is a mess. But in case you don't know it, God loves you, and he will give you power to start a new life. It's called grace."
"Are you one of those religious nuts?" she asked. "Not really," he replied. "Just call me JC. I'm not about religion. I just like to find hurting people - people like you - and let them know they can tell me about whatever is on their hearts. See, before we ever met, I knew you would need some hope, some love and some grace. I just wanted to share with you some good news - there is a God who loves you and who wants to give you a new start."
She was quiet for a while. He didn't say anything else. Then, in a small voice, she said, "It sounds too good to be true." He said, "A lot of people think that. But you'll never know if it is true or not unless "
She interrupted him: "Unless I try it." He grinned and said, "Tell me about it."
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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