Earned Love

The second semester of my senior year in college, I had three men making claims on me and my life. To say I was in a muddle would be an understatement.

First, was my high school boyfriend, who had taken my virginity the spring of our senior year. I was lying on rocks down a dirt road we made into lover’s lane, and I remember one poking me in the middle of my back and the bruise it left. I bled profusely. I guess my period must have started with the abrupt ripping pain I felt. I gathered my white dress up and when we went home, stripped it off in the laundry room, and left it to soak. I was committed then, and when he moved overseas that summer with his family to his father’s new job, we promised, as young love does, to be true.

And I was. I met Henry the first Friday the upperclassmen returned to college when he picked up the volunteers for the Y service project. He was an upperclassman, and an officer in the campus YMCA . I liked him, and we spent every Friday afternoon together. While my boyfriend behaved erratically, sometimes writing, more often not, Henry was consistent. Stolid—was that a real word? Stolid? He became my best friend, and I wished I had fallen in love with him, but it was too late, I had carelessly thrown away my virginity.

When my boyfriend returned stateside, he was changed. Instead of the laughing, playful guy who had taught me more than I had been ready to know, he was moody and retreated into dark places. But the deed had been done, and he took me to bed regularly now that we considered ourselves adult and he transferred to a university near my home. I had read Farewell to Arms in college literature, after all. I was liberated and caught up in the romance of it all, desperately trying to make this uncommitted relationship more than it was. One frightening night he took me to a place we’d never been before. I was totally lost—but then I have a poor sense of direction, and it didn’t take much. He pulled me across the front seat of the car roughly and put his hands around my neck.

“I could snap your pretty little neck right now and leave you here. It’d be months before anyone found you.”

The third man who had been making claims to my life jumped suddenly into mind, Jesus. I had been going to church with my college roommate, and in her evangelical church I heard the words of Christ more clearly than I’d ever heard them in my religious upbringing. This Jesus refused to remain on the stained glass or in the printed pages of my prayer book. He invaded my thoughts, sought my attention, and demanded my allegiance.

I cried out to him then, this Jesus I was only beginning to know, begging his help, and somehow I broke away, opened the car door, and ran into the woods. Maybe I’d be lost and hungry for a few days, but I’d find help. We weren’t in the middle of the jungle, for goodness sake, we were in suburban America. But a guess I ran in circles because my boyfriend’s voice was getting closer. Of course his long athelete’s legs were stronger than mine. He was begging for forgiveness, saying he didn’t mean to frighten me. It was cold and very dark, and I decided to surrender.

“Promise you’ll take me home?” I cried out.

“I will. I didn’t mean to hurt you, honest.” I got in the car, and, true to his word, he took me directly home. But I wouldn’t take his calls the couple of days that remained of semester break and went back to college without seeing him again.

Henry picked me up at the airport. Good old Henry, who had applied for graduate school. He wanted to get a PhD in biochemistry and do medical research. An honorable man a solid, responsible man. Not gorgeous, not a star athlete, but comfortable, dependable. If only I’d met him first. I thought about telling him of my dilemma, but I was ashamed. He was a virtuous guy, and I, well, I was a slut, now, wasn’t I?

My roommate, who was the choir director in the little church where she took me every Sunday—now I even attended Sunday School—conned me into singing in the Easter pageant. In my confused and guilty state, I needed the comfort of the kind folks there. One of the other choir members, an assistant in the English Department noticed my changed mood after my frightening experience over the break. He kept hounding me until he got it out of me, listening with horror to the tale of my terrified run through the woods.

“You have to break it off with him,” he counseled me. “He’s an unstable guy. Abusive. Maybe he’s on drugs.”

Because I felt stuck—I had values, although I had betrayed them, and I felt I had thrown my life away, I couldn’t marry. I’d thrown my virginity away to someone who proved to be unworthy, but I couldn’t trust this guy. My choir friend was right. My so-called boyfriend was no good, perhaps even dangerous. I knew that now, and with the prayers and support of this fellow choir member, I wrote a letter breaking it off.

My roommate was relieved, and told her boyfriend, who happened to be in the biochemistry class with Henry, and he passed on the news. Henry called me and asked me to go to a sporting event with him. I made excuses. I was confused, but when he was accepted into his graduate program, I heard about it through the same grapevine.

My hand hovered over the phone. Henry was probably my best friend. I didn’t want to send mixed signals. He knew I had broken up with my boyfriend, but he didn’t know I wasn’t the sweet girl he thought I was. Ah, what the heck, I’m taking him to celebrate.

“Hey, Henry, it’s me, Denver,” I said.

“I know your voice. I’ve missed you the last couple of Fridays.”

I took a breath. “I’ve had a lot going on,” I said. “But I heard you were accepted into grad school, and I want to take you out to celebrate.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, what’s a good evening for you?”

“How about Friday?

“Fine. I’ll take you to Ivy’s. My treat.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Henry said.

“That’s the only way it will be. I want to share your achievement. Please?”

“If that’s the only way.”

We chatted a bit, he told me he’d pick me up at six, and we went out to dinner. It was easy after that, Henry was my best friend after all, and we started sharing movies and walks. He happened to be around whenever I needed a ride, and when he called to invite me to a party, I didn’t hesitate, This was my friend. I did feel a bit awkward, though—we were going to an event together. I wore a dressy dress, and he cleaned up nicely in the fine suit he had on when he picked me up, but it was later, in his car behind the dorm when he leaned down and gently kissed me that my traitor body responded.

The revelation when my body did that hit me with a profound revelation: I had never “loved,” I had merely lusted. The truths I was learning at that little church had increased my conviction about my poor choices. I now knew God’s plan for marriage, and sleeping around wasn’t part of it. Furthermore, now I was leading poor Henry on. Henry was a solid, guy, who would want rings and commitment, and I was not a fit candidate to be anyone’s wife.

I was able to avoid him with the press of rehearsals as our Maundy Thursday performance drew close. In a jumble of emotions, I joined that part of the choir screaming “Crucify him!” and suddenly I realized I had. I had crucified him as surely as if I had hammered the nails in his hands. Sinless, he chose to suffer and die for me, Denver Miller, and it hit me: If I had been the only lost lamb in the world, he would have left heaven just for me.

With tears running down my face, I gave my allegiance to the third man who pursued me that spring, and he gave me new life, everlasting life.

My old boyfriend drove all night and caught up with me as I was walking back to the dorm. My pulse quickened—was it fear, guilt maybe even love? But I felt only pity as he swore his love, threatened suicide, and begged me to take him back. “I can’t live without you,” he pleaded.

With a calmness I knew had to come from my heavenly love and from the strength of his indwelling presence, I told my former boyfriend that he would have to learn without me, and that the God I had chosen to serve would help him, and I turned and walked away. I didn’t look back.

Now was my next hurdle. To be true to the God I now served and to myself, but especially to the solid, good man I knew loved me, I had to tell the whole sordid story to Henry: what a weird role reversal this was for the fifties: the virgin guy and the soiled gal. Henry came over, glad the Easter program was over and the rehearsals before it.

Maybe he thought it a bit crazy when I told him I just wanted to go for a walk, but he agreed, hoping to steal an innocent kiss, I’m sure, but I walked silently, weeping. When he saw my tears, he asked what was wrong, I somehow managed to stammer my confession, fully expecting a righteous indignation to rise up in him. I couldn’t look up, and he raised my chin, making me look into his eyes.

“It isn’t what’s past, Denver. That’s over and done. It’s what lies ahead. It’s you and me, from now on.”

I didn’t deserve this man, and if my college roommate hadn’t been at our wedding six months later, I would’ve backed out. I wept my grief that I couldn’t bring my groom the bride he deserved, and she reminded me he’d made his choice, fully knowing the mistakes I’d made. The next day I walked down the aisle and into our life together. Never once in the many years since has Henry ever mentioned what I told him that long-ago night.

I can’t say we lived happily ever after. As every couple, we had our ups and downs—in fact I remember one day sitting on the front porch of our little rented house . I was working to put him through graduate school. I drug home from work, cleaned the house, cooked the meals, hauled our dirty clothes to the laundromat, and he studied. I learned that “solid” meant unromantic and responsibility mean hard work. That translated into a lack of understanding. Heck. he didn’t even know I struggled, and he always put work before play. In fact, Henry didn’t know how to play

Sitting there, I asked God if I had to stay married to this man the rest of my life, and I heard his still, small voice ask me, “Has he been unfaithful?”

“Henry? God, surely you know better! He’d die of embarrassment if another woman saw him naked.”

Again God whispered, “Has he abused you, hurt you in any way?”

“Well, not physically, but you know, he’s not always there for me,” I murmured.

If we can hear God chuckle, I did, and He said, “I hate divorce because I desire godly seed. Now, brush off your hands, roll up your sleeves, and make this thing work. And remember, Denver, I am always there for you.”

I prayed to learn to love my good husband the way I should, and God sent Henry off to war, not even knowing he’d planted a seed of life in me. I learned to love him all right, worrying if he would come home to see the little baby we’d created together, aching when his letters were held up for weeks in the army mail and rejoicing when I got eight in a day. I had our baby alone while he was half a world away, and I prayed for him to know his son. I sent him pictures and glowing letters describing his little actions: ‘he rolled over today’ and sounds: ‘he’s making hard sounds now,’ but the baby didn’t become real to him until he the night he walked in, handsome in his uniform, and looked down into the crib at his sleeping form.

“He’s really real,” Henry said. But he didn’t hold him until the next morning, after he had his way with me, more than once. Henry has given me two daughters and another son since that long-ago night. They are all grown and gone now, with children of their own, but Henry and I are enjoying the love we’ve shared for over forty years. It’s a solid love that a solid man gave to me. An earned love.