Blaise swung his backpack over one shoulder and then gave Ava a big hug. “Hi, Ava. So, have you come to help us with the yard work?”
“Not a chance, but thanks anyway.” She smiled and Blaise brushed by her and headed to the roses.
“Harper shouted out the door, “What’s this ‘us’?” And Blaise just waved above his head without turning around.
“Ava, come on in. Someone must have posted that I was having a party this morning. Two visitors right in a row. Wow.” Harper was trying to act nonchalant to collect herself. It was good to see Blaise spontaneously reach out to hug Ava, as well. It helped her to try and put what felt very intimate into the category of pastor / parishioner. See, he hugs everybody. Let it go, Harper.
“I dropped by the shop, and Tia said you were taking a day off to relax, so I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind if I popped on by. It’s been a while since we had a good long chat, right?”
“That’s what Blaise did, too. Dropped by the shop, that is. If I want a vacation from work, I’m going to have to be sneakier.” She smiled.
“No, but really . . . is it okay? I didn’t want to interrupt anything.” She gave a sly little grin.
“No, it’s perfectly fine. Blaise just came over to help with trimming the roses and clean up some of the weeds. I made it part of his rental agreement for his mum, and it works great since I hate yardwork.” She was hoping the flush of color had left her face, but with Ava’s winks, she had a feeling she wasn’t selling very well.
“Well, actually, I’ve been meaning to talk with you for a while; and if this is a good time, I’d like to talk now. I brought food.” She held up a tempting bag from the gourmet vegan restaurant in midtown.
“Let’s put it in the fridge to keep till lunch. It’s kind of early for . . . whatever that is.”
“I have no idea,” Ava smiled, “but the waiter said it tastes awesome and is made with organic tofu, cashew cream, and sugar peas something or other. I’m accommodating here, Harp, so give me some credit.” She smiled and stuck the bag in a very empty fridge.
“Can I make you some tea? I would offer coffee, but I gave it up for Lent and would not rather have the smell around.”
“No, I’m fine. I have my water bottle here, and that’s all I need. Thanks. Well, I’d love to hear what’s happening with you and Blaise.”
“There’s nothing happening that is not happening with every other member of his fellowship.”
“Really.” Harper sounded more confident than she felt.
“Okay, then.” Ava adjusted the pillows on the couch and nestled in, but she obviously did not believe Harper’s denials. “I wanted to let you know what’s been going on in my life. It seems ages since we last spent time with each other . . . I mean to really talk, and a lot has changed for me. I need to get it all out before I burst.”
“I’m sorry; it must look like I’ve been avoiding you. I just have had too many things going on in my head, I guess.”
“You were right to. I would have been avoiding me, too, if I’d had a good view from the outside looking in. Hmm. But where to begin.”
“Well, I notice you’ve definitely changed your style. I hardly recognized you at fellowship when you walked in.” Harper tried to begin with something light. Though Ava certainly had what appeared to be a change in attitude, Harper was not ready to throw caution to the wind with her old friend who had caused her so much pain in the past.
“I’ve changed pretty much everything. But not in the way you might think—like one just adopting a new style for fun. I’ve been seeing a really good counsellor, and she has helped me to work through some of the things that have been eating away at me for a long time. Some that I hadn’t even been able to admit to myself. I felt like I needed to go back to a blank slate—physically, emotionally, and I guess spiritually—and to build on that without feeling pressure from others. Or even myself.”
Harper sipped some water to give Ava room to talk. She felt slightly uncomfortable, but curious, too. Even though she had felt compelled to pray for Ava these last few weeks after seeing the picture on the floor, she wasn’t actually prepared for what appeared to be a radical transformation. Ava was still Ava, animated and with plenty of words; but there was a kindness in her words, and dare she say a humility, that Harper could only vaguely remember in her oldest friend.
Ava took a deep breath, clasping her hands in front of her. “After I divorced Joe, I felt so betrayed . . . and empty, and I didn’t know how else to be filled up except to reinvent myself—to be ‘outgoing,’ ‘fashionable,’ and ‘busy.’ I mean, you went through that horror of hiding and divorce with me. Do you remember?”
“It was a long time ago, but how could I forget? I guess I just forgot what you used to be like before, well . . . before all that madness. I was only reminded recently when I came upon an old picture of you and Joe.”
“I made some bad choices in getting into that relationship, but he was also a really good liar; so, there was no way of knowing about his double life. Well, I guess if I’d known him longer, I would have had time to see the real him. But that was my biggest mistake, jumping in too fast. He’s dead now, you know.”
Harper was genuinely surprised. “Really, how?”
“It was a drug deal gone bad. Somewhere in Colorado. I’d lost track of him, but his sister called me when it happened. She said she felt sorry for me and wanted me to know I was finally rid of him. And I have to admit, it was a relief. There was always a part of me that wondered if he would ever come back to hurt me.”
“I’m glad for you, but that really is sad. You have to wonder what ever happened to him to have him follow such a dark path.”
“I don’t know, but I’m glad it’s done. Having him gone was like a door finally slamming shut on that horrible chapter of my life. It’s one of the things that made me decide to get counselling and try to sort my crazy life out.”
“So did your counsellor have you make changes in dress, hair, I mean everything? Don’t get me wrong; you look great. But you look very different.”
“She didn’t. Not really, at least not specifically. After my divorce, I remade myself to be the life of the evangelical party. Some change was conscious on my part, but a lot of it wasn’t. I needed to remake myself into someone else—someone who was prettier, more desirable, intelligent, savvy . . . I don’t know; pick your adjective. Anybody other than the naïve, plain girl who married a monster to get away from her overbearing parents. But this time . . .” Ava paused and chewed on the inside of her cheek. She took a deep breath and continued. “I don’t mean this in a weird way, but it will sound like an accusation even though it isn’t. I saw how you and Blaise got on so well. I mean, you weren’t even trying to be pretty or desirable—sorry that sounds horrible—and he preferred your company to mine.”
“I don’t know how to take that exactly, but you’re right: I wasn’t trying to impress him or anybody; but that wasn’t necessarily from a place of emotional health, as you know.”
“I know, and I started to get angry at you for it. You were just you—honest, real, and too wounded to see how attractive you still were—are. But that didn’t keep Blaise from seeking you out for friendship. I, however, no matter how hard I tried, was distinctly in the category of being held at arm’s length—kindly, but out there. And I wanted so much more. Not just from him, but from any man, I guess to kind of prove to myself that I was desirable and not just someone to be cast aside.”
Harper wanted to say something supportive, but no words came. She just waited for Ava to continue.
“There was a point I wanted to die.”
Harper couldn’t hide her shock at that admission, and guilt started to well up in her, feeling that she should have been more attentive and not let her own pain make her blind to Ava’s. “I’m so sorry, is there . . .”
Ava interrupted quickly so as not to leave a wrong impression. “I don’t mean I was suicidal—that is to actually do something; it’s just that I . . . I guess I just starting fantasizing about dying . . . accidently. I didn’t want to hurt myself or get a disease where I’d suffer—I’m not that kind of martyr. But I kind of wished that it would all end—life with its pain and alienation and with my steady stream of mistakes. But it was a good place to be, as odd as that sounds, because that was another domino that toppled that drove me finally to talk to somebody. For the first time since the divorce, I feel like I’ve owned what was my part in the relationship dysfunction, as well as Joe’s. I cried it all out and wrote it all out, and well, I did a bit of screaming to my mirror, as well.” At this she smiled. “My neighbors probably thought I had totally lost it, if they hadn’t already thought I was bricks short of a full load. Joe was a piece of work, and he hurt me badly; but I needed to see everything laid out in plain sight to be able to heal and put it all behind me. Those bad choices, and how I enabled him, and all the pain he caused will always color my life, but they will never again control it.”
“But this has only been a couple of months, right? I mean, it’s good, but I’m surprised at how much help you’ve gotten in such a short time.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in process. Daily, I ask God to help me forgive Joe, and I’m also working on forgiving myself. And I have full confidence that I will screw up again and again. But I think I was ready—over ready—to let it all go. To let it go and embrace Christ’s healing and presence in my life. The fellowship has been a big part of that—by the way, we need to find a name for that thing. By starting new and leaving old ‘friends’ behind at the other church, I felt like I could start again in a more honest place and develop friendships without the baggage of the old Ava Gardner person. By the way, that’s not really my name.”
“No, the Gardner part.”
“Really. I mean that was your opening line to new acquaintances for as long as I can remember.”
“Yes, I know. Mom called me Avaline, and I was not given a middle name. So, when we moved here, I made up the Hollywood starlet connection to feel more important. And like so many phony things about me, I’m chucking it. I’m just Ava.”
“Avaline is kind of pretty . . . in a Southern kind of way,” Harper teased.
“Don’t you even dare!” Ava laughed, and the lightness helped break the weight of the conversation.
The laughter died, and they sat still and silent. Blaise peeked in the door. “Is anybody here getting hungry?”
Ava and Harper both yelled out at the same time, “No! Out!” And then, they started laughing hysterically.
Blaise looked amused at the outburst after the shock wore off and made an exaggerated effort to slowly close the door.
Harper called out to his retreating figure. “This is girl talk, so you’re on your own for lunch.” She heard a faint “Okey dokey then” as the door shut. “Speaking of which; let’s bring out the stash you brought. I am suddenly starving.”