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A Sin Too Late: A Short Story

[Note: This story does not reflect my own sense of right and wrong. My intention is to provoke thought and discussion.]

Florienne? Can you hear me? It's Alan. I want to help. I couldn't stay away after hearing what happened. I'm to blame for your being here, even though you would disagree. My guilt is more overwhelming than my fears.

Many years have passed since I last saw you—except for several brief moments last night when you didn't know I was watching you in the parking lot. If I was meant to be your guardian angel, I proved to be a very poor one.

You look as beautiful now as you did when I first saw you. Nothing can change that.

Do you remember the morning we met? It was the first Saturday in October, although I've forgotten the year. How clearly I remember the day, though… Someone was moving into the apartment beneath mine.

Hearing commotion that reverberated from street level all the way up two flights of stairs to my open door, I raised the window shade to see what was happening. A rental truck was blocking the sidewalk in front of the building. I could almost hear the curses of the pedestrians who had to walk into the street to go around it. Several men my age or perhaps slightly older were unloading the truck and bringing boxes and furniture into the building. Although the day was cool, I could see the sweat glistening on their faces.

I was curious about who my new neighbors might be, but my extreme anxiety about going out in public and being recognized by strangers kept me safe inside my own apartment for a while.

Do you know why I finally descended the steep, well-worn wooden stairs to the second floor, Florienne? Can it be I've never told you? Probably not. A premature revelation of that secret would have complicated our relationship and perhaps prevented our friendship from beginning.

If I had told you the truth, though—whether that day, the next month, or the next year—things should have been very different today. That is both my hope and my fear. I might have felt guilty then about telling you how easily you had attracted my attention, but at least I wouldn't feel guilty now for remaining silent.

Which would have been the greater sin? I cannot say. Although I ask Him frequently, God has not chosen to answer that question.

Seeing you on the sidewalk that first time and watching your shiny black, waist length hair blowing unrestrained in the fall breeze made me forget my anxieties about the outside world for a few minutes. I pictured you as an untamed colt running unbridled across a grassy plain.

Although my hair extended below my shoulders, it had never blown free like yours. When my parents abandoned me to this apartment, providing physical necessities but none of their love, they left me too much a prisoner of my fears to dream of such freedom.

I wouldn't go outside. I couldn't, not even for a closer look at you. If you were indeed my new neighbor, I would see you when you came up to the second floor. Yet I had already seen all that mattered: Your hair had captivated me. Or should I say it made me thirst for the freedom I'd been denied since my early teens? I knew you were beautiful. No matter what specific physical features affected your appearance, your freedom defined your ultimate beauty.

When I reached the bottom of my stairs—I'd often practiced going that far—your apartment door stood wide open. A number of unopened boxes were visible from the hallway, stacked along the inside walls like sandbags reinforcing a floodwall. Four men moved awkwardly along the hallway, struggling to keep from damaging an exquisite mahogany table that might have been a treasured heirloom. I had grown up among many such treasures, treasures that were considered more valuable than me.

I took several steps closer to your door without realizing it and stood peering curiously into the living room, unaware that you had just walked up behind me.

"Excuse me, sir," you said as you tapped me lightly on the shoulder, "are you the landlord?"

I would normally have jumped ferociously, but your tone prevented me from overreacting. If you had been an angel saying "Peace! I mean you no harm…" you could not have calmed me more easily.

"No, ma'am," I answered. "I live in the apartment above yours. My name is Alan."

I smiled in amusement at our complementary use of "sir" and "ma'am," for I was only twenty then, and I would discover later that you were just twenty-two.

"Alan, I am Florienne. My husband's name is Richard. Richard, come out and meet our new neighbor."

He shook hands with me cordially, although I had to force myself to allow him to. I couldn't look in his eyes, although I had no problem looking into yours. I observed at once, however, that he was what you must have considered a very handsome man. One quite different from me, I was sure. I thought the two of you must be supremely happy together.

I wanted you to be.

"Alan, are you as strong as you look?" he asked cheerfully.

I must have seemed confused. I had never been asked such a question upon first meeting someone.

"Richard! Alan may not want to help…"

You didn't seem perturbed with Richard. You were simply protecting me from what I came to discover was Richard's aggressive temperament. Your genteel, caring way had already begun warming my heart.

"Richard, I misunderstood your meaning at first," I managed to confess with only slight embarrassment. "Yes, I am strong—strong enough, anyhow—and I'll be happy to help if you need me to."

Why did I say that!

Symptoms of anxiety began exploding throughout my body like out of control fireworks. I could barely move my arms and legs. I felt a tight pressure in my chest, one someone else might have mistaken for a heart attack. My head throbbed, my stomach knotted and unknotted painfully, and bile kept rising higher in my throat. I wished in vain that I could pass out.

Couldn't I make some reasonable excuse and back out? Richard, I forgot that I haven't eaten yet today and need to get my blood sugar up before I can function properly. Wouldn't that have done? Or did I need to admit I was terrified of going out in public?

Of going out and perhaps being recognized…?

My promise to help Richard that day didn't prove to be as much a problem as future promises would be. I'd spoken quickly and foolishly because I wanted to impress you, not Richard. Even so, how could I force myself to go outside? I had occasionally wandered the neighborhood late at night, but never in daylight. And never when others were around.

"Come on, then. We still have boxes on the truck, plus a few large items of furniture, and they aren't going to sashay up the steps by themselves."

You smiled as if Richard had said something truly clever. I could already sense your high degree of loyalty to your husband. In days of easy divorces, that was a rare quality, and I felt just slightly jealous of Richard.

"Friends are dropping off a welcome meal at 6:00 p.m." you said. "You will come and eat with the two of us, won't you, Alan?"

I nodded. Only the three of us would be there. I wouldn't become anxious about that.

As bored as I was with my usual meals, my disinterest in learning to cook more creatively limited my menu. I would never have a wife to help me. How many eligible young women could I hope to meet within the confines of my own apartment?

Dining with you and Richard would be almost like having the companionship of a wife…

I don't know how I made it all the way to the first floor without throwing up and running back to the third floor in a panic. We spent the next several hours bringing things up from the truck. Because we were outside for just moments at a time and I was almost entirely hidden from the view of passersby, being outdoors didn't cause me nearly as much anguish as it might have. When we were finished, though, I collapsed in my own apartment again, not from exertion, but from relief at being safely home again. I had barely noticed the physical labor involved because I kept thinking about your eyes. Yes, Florienne, your eyes. Other women have dark brown eyes that look dull and uninspired.

Yours were alive. They still are.

But they were also—how shall I describe them?—intensely personal. Whenever you looked into my eyes, I felt as if you were watching the inner workings of my heart. And when you listened to whatever foolishness I babbled, you appeared to hear the rhythm of my heart as well.

Do you remember that I blushed a deep crimson several times during that meal? I remember it well enough. I wasn't accustomed to being accepted as normal, especially by someone who must have sensed that I was different from other men my age. And by someone who perhaps unconsciously remembered seeing my picture years earlier but didn't care. Richard drank too much wine that evening, as I came to learn was his occasional habit, and you sent him off to bed. At first he wanted me to go home so you could come to bed with him, but you cajoled him into going on without you.

I was flattered by your preference for my sober company.

You and I sat up talking until after midnight. I felt safe in your living room…safe with you. I revealed only that a "permanent condition" kept me indoors, although I didn't detail the nature or extent of my anxieties. That evening I enjoyed an unexpected but temporary release from the tensions that had plagued me frequently over the years, and I managed to forget the near-terrors of going outside today.

That night was the first of many evenings we would spend talking together for hours at a time. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this to you now even under these circumstances, but you had already stolen my heart.

No, not stolen. You permitted me to give it to you…

No matter what my days were like, I lived for the moment you returned to your apartment in late afternoon. You saw me watching for your arrival from my front window. You waved if I didn't see you and wave first.

My door was always open, and I listened intently for the sounds of your voice as you sang a saucy French tune while cooking or cleaning the apartment. Sometimes you invited me to dine with you and Richard, but other times you waited and asked me down for coffee or hot chocolate during the evening. If you didn't call me soon enough, I came downstairs on my own.

You seemed happy, and your joy had a wondrous effect on me.

Richard didn't object to my friendship with you or to my almost constant invasion of his apartment during the evenings. He seldom turned the television on. Neither did he pay any attention to me. He was satisfied to sit, read, and drink beer or wine while you and I discussed the day's events in the minutest detail. Perhaps he was glad to have someone else listen to you instead of him. He never gave you his full attention, not even when you addressed him directly. And he never gave you the attention of his heart.

I couldn't imagine any man ignoring you like that.

But Richard didn't ignore you completely.

He frequently took his eyes from his book or newspaper and looked at you with an expression that said, "This woman is mine. She belongs to me entirely. In an hour I will take her to my bed and enjoy intimacy you cannot imagine. She will do whatever I want just to please me."

Perhaps I couldn't imagine it fully, yet I could dream of it. You were not simply my charming and beautiful conversational partner, but my ideal of womanhood. I could never have someone like you—as if another such woman existed in the world—and you could never be mine. I accepted those facts and was happy with what I had.

Richard began going out one or two evenings a week, not usually arriving home until I had already climbed the stairs and gone to bed. He told you he had some work he needed to finish. Did you suspect something then?

I did.

I could not understand how a man with such obvious taste would prefer to "work" in the evening instead of spending time with his beautiful wife. Even with an ever-present intruder like me around.

Was he just growing weary of my constant presence? No. If he had felt that way, he would have said so. He often sent me home quite early so the two of you could retire to the master bedroom and make love. He never made a secret of his purpose, and I never heard you protest.

I wondered whether you were as interested in lovemaking as he was—his appetite must have been insatiable—or whether you agreed to the frequency of his demands because of your loyalty in carrying out all of your marital duties. Although you and I could talk about almost any subject with ease, I did not have the courage to ask you that question. I didn't realize the extent of his preoccupation with sex until he began bringing magazines to my apartment with pictures of naked men and women. I had never seen such things before. Viewing them made me feel guilty, for I couldn't keep from staring at or being affected by them, and I felt guiltier still when he encouraged me to watch him "enjoy" them. He would have involved me in his activities if I hadn't adamantly refused to, something he dismissed lightly as "your loss, Alan, not mine."

He swore me to secrecy. He explained that you wouldn't understand. You would feel inadequate if you discovered what he was up to. So I was helping you by keeping those things from you.

I couldn't imagine anything making you feel inadequate, but if I was to remain in his good graces and be permitted to spend hours in your company each week, I had to tolerate his activities and feign ignorance of them. I grew to think of them as my payment to Richard for your friendship.

You asked me once what Richard did when he came upstairs. You thought it strange that he would visit me in my apartment by himself while ignoring me whenever I visited in his home. I blushed, unable to respond with more than a meaningless stammer.

I was almost certain you understood what was happening without my having to break my promise to Richard. I recall how you looked whenever Richard came downstairs after a visit with me—as if you had been relieved of some unspecified pressure.

But he began going out more frequently and staying longer, and I caught you sniffling now and then when you didn't know I was watching. Sometimes you didn't feel like talking, and you encouraged me to talk for both of us.

You never seemed to tire of my company. You didn't want to be alone, in fact. You started begging me to remain with you until Richard came home—how could I refuse?—even though I usually fell asleep in his easy chair while waiting.

When I confronted Richard privately about his absences and their effect on you, he laughed crudely, "My dear Alan, a man is entitled to have as much fun as he likes. Sometimes his wife alone can't satisfy him. But don't tell Florienne. She wouldn't understand. Do you promise?"

So his absences went unchecked for a number of months. You finally returned to normal, although I couldn't imagine how. Not if you suspected the truth I already knew.

You and I spent many evenings together alone. The pictures Richard had enflamed me with made me wonder what making love to you would be like. My hormones engulfed my emotions, making them increasingly difficult to control. Sometimes when I looked at you, I thought about you in ways I knew I shouldn't.

How many sermons during my teen years had warned that the man who lusts for a woman in his heart has already committed adultery with her? And how many lessons had I heard that a man should not covet his neighbor's wife? I consoled myself that it was still better that I had committed such sins only in my head and in my heart.

I was in love with you, Florienne. I had been in love with you since we first met, but I knew you would never betray Richard despite his ceaseless betrayals of you. I couldn't be disloyal to him, either, no matter how selfishly he took advantage of both of us…

You began planning a dinner party for some of your coworkers. I stood near the bottom of my staircase and listened to you tearfully plead with Richard to promise to attend. He screamed, "You are not going to control my life!" He called you hurtful names he had no right to call you, names I cannot stand to say aloud even now.

Then I heard the sounds of scuffling…of breakables being hurled against the wall. Finally, I heard a muffled scream as someone landed clumsily on the floor. I unconsciously hoped you had killed Richard in self-defense.

In self-defense? But surely Richard hadn't…

I knocked on the door. Things had gotten deathly still inside. This wasn't a time to visit, but I had to know what happened.

When you opened the door, I could see numerous bruises discoloring your arms and face. Watching the mingled flow of blood and tears, I fought back my own tears. I couldn't undo what Richard had done to you, but neither could I admit what was in my heart.

So instead of saying what I wanted to—You don't deserve her, and I will take her off your hands if she'll come with me—I invited him to my apartment, knowing you would be safe as long as I kept him upstairs with me.

He stayed with me longer than usual…

Richard arranged to be called out of town on business the day of the dinner party. You had no tears left to shed. You'd done too much preparation to cancel the party during the final hours beforehand. But you acted less than festive.

I don't remember why, but you hadn't invited me to the dinner party. I understood. I respected your need for company other than Richard's and mine. It didn't bother me. I was secure in our friendship.

Before leaving on his trip, Richard had set his suitcase down at the foot of my steps, climbed to the third floor, and knocked at my open door.

"Take care of Florienne for me, would you? You're the only man I trust her with."

Never had I made a promise harder to keep.

Once Richard left, you came upstairs and knocked timidly at my door. I could barely hear you knocking. You had never come to my apartment before, and you did not come all the way in.

You apologized for not inviting me to the dinner party, but I assured you that was not a problem. You seemed relieved and asked if I would accept an invitation now. You needed the companionship of the only friend you had who had never let you down.

I started to respond "not yet," that "even the best of friends let one another down eventually." But you needed my positive support, so I left my opinion unspoken.

When I explained that I didn't own the proper clothes for a dinner party, you assured me that Richard and I were close enough in size that I could fit into his eveningwear. Although I had always thought of Richard as larger than me, your observation proved accurate.

As I pulled a pair of his pants over my sock feet, I looked at myself in the mirror. Did I still resemble those pictures that so haunted me?

I looked at my unmade bed. If I was to be Richard for dinner, how I longed to be Richard all night long! Does that shock you, Florienne? I cannot imagine that it does.

The dinner party went smoothly. You outdid yourself. The roast lamb, potatoes, and baby carrots were the best I'd ever eaten. The chocolate fudge pie was my favorite dessert. You were a thoughtful and considerate hostess, and your guests were delighted.

Do you remember holding my hand under the table when you saw how nervous I was in the presence of six strangers? Perhaps you saw in my eyes the terror that one of them might recognize me.

You dressed beautifully for that dinner—too beautifully. Your fancy burgundy skirt was slit so I saw more of your legs than I'd ever seen before. Your top revealed more bosom than I'd ever seen before except in the pictures Richard brought upstairs. I was thankful that he'd never taken pictures like that of you—or at least that he'd never shown them to me.

Nonetheless, I was so mesmerized that my thoughts skidded out of control like a driver speeding across snow-covered ice. I tried not to spend the evening staring at you, but my still-youthful lust had become yeast in the dough of my pure love.

You were quite weary when your dinner guests left, but I knew how you felt about leaving unwashed dishes sitting around. Although you protested that I didn't need to, I insisted on staying to help clean up.

While I gathered the dirty dinnerware and scraped each piece over the garbage pail, you changed into more modest clothing: an old, comfy-looking bathrobe fastened securely about the middle with a narrow belt that emphasized the trimness of your waist. I was relieved that you were now completely covered except for your face—still showing hints of bruises beneath your makeup—and bare feet.

Nonetheless, I knew what lay beneath that robe. What I hadn't yet seen of your body, I'd seen enough of in pictures of other women to fire my frenzied imagination to an all-time new level.

But I couldn't be Richard, tearing the belt away and ripping off your robe to reveal and ravish what lay beneath. Neither could I imagine that you might undo the belt and unfasten your robe for me. Do you hate me for talking like this now, Florienne?

To maintain control of myself, or actually to try to regain control, I began telling you—yes, you remember what I said, don't you?—about the origin of my anxieties. Each case, I explained, is unique.

I was just thirteen or fourteen when a neighbor girl—I believe she was sixteen at the time—invited me into her apartment while the rest of her family was at the movies. She had purposely stayed home because she wanted to "have some fun with me."

She got me into her bedroom, and we lay fully dressed on top of her bed hugging and kissing for several hours. I was too innocent to have wanted more or to have known what more there was to want.

Her family returned sooner than I'd expected. Hearing our bouncing and giggling, they crept to the open doorway and stood there for several moments, apparently trying to keep from breaking out laughing.

Someone coughed, and both of us sat up immediately, instinctively fastening our top buttons as if we'd been doing something wrong.

We shifted apart and dangled our legs over opposite sides of the bed, waiting for someone to yell at us.

But no one did. No one spoke, although everyone was grinning. Even the younger children.

After a moment, the mother brought something out from behind her back. A camera! She held a twenty dollar bill up to her daughter, who ignored it.

The sprinkles of embarrassment that had fallen on me only slightly until then changed to a torrential downpour that drenched me from head to toe with ridicule. Everyone began laughing at the way I panicked and looked about for some means of escape.

But the girl herself didn't laugh.

I was so desperate to avoid having anyone see my blood red face that I began pulling down the bed covers to climb in headfirst.

Even the girl began laughing at me then. Looking once more at the twenty dollar bill in her mother's hand, she climbed in after me and pulled off my shirt. Then I heard the camera's frequent clicking as she simulated poses that only the occupants of that room knew to be completely innocent.

Only later would I recall seeing her accept the twenty dollar bill from her mother and stuff it in her jeans pocket. And only later still would I learn that her parents had held a grudge against my parents for years.

But their vengeance had only begun.

Photocopies of our "activities" appeared throughout the school several days later. Almost everyone seemed to have his own copy. No matter how many I tore off the walls, I couldn't get them all. If anything, they multiplied.

The boys all pretended to be jealous and asked if that had been my "first time." They pestered me for all the details, and the more loudly I stated the truth, the less inclined they were to listen.

The girls pretended to be shocked at my behavior and said they'd keep a safe distance from a "fiend" like me. Their "safe distance" was always within my hearing, however, and the girl I'd only been kissing and hugging elaborated in ways that almost convinced me that we'd done more than we did.

I couldn't escape. I was surrounded, no matter where I went. Everyone took a turn at torturing me, but the older teens who didn't know me were the worst, for they had nothing to lose. I couldn't finish the school day. I went home sick.

Unwilling to believe what happened at school that day, Mother and Father forced me to return to school several days later. But when the pictures began appearing on buildings and telephone poles all over town and even in store windows, they withdrew me from school. They would not have their reputation sullied that way. So they paid handsomely for me to be home schooled for the remainder of high school.

As I explained to you the night of the dinner party, I was terrified at the prospect of going outside and being recognized and taunted once again as "that horrible boy." So terrified that I went outside only for an occasional late night excursion when nobody was around. I had concluded, or my mind and body had decided for me, that I was safe only in my own room—and later on in my apartment.

Do you remember what happened after I told you that, Florienne? We were sitting on the couch, although not close, and you pulled my head onto your lap and began caressing my hair and face. Your hands were soft and warm. I was in tears, though I didn't understand why. And do you remember what you said next?

"Alan, my dear sweet Alan, you feel at home here, too, do you not? You know you don't have to return to your apartment tonight. You have been Richard for me all evening, and you may continue to be Richard if you wish."

Although you seemed to want me to undo your robe, I couldn't. No matter how desperately I ached to be Richard and take you in my arms and spend the night in your bed, I couldn't.

I'd promised Richard that I would watch out for you. I might as well have made that vow to God Himself. I couldn't break it.

Love cannot justify a sin that begins with the breaking of a vow.

Not long after that, Richard got a job in another state. You went dutifully, but without enthusiasm. As you kissed me on the cheek before getting into the car to drive away, you whispered, "Alan, you've given me the courage to go with him. But if you'd obeyed your instincts and desires that night, you would have given me the courage to send Richard away without me."

You didn't tell me you loved me. You didn't need to.

But then the car pulled away, and I could see that you were wearing your hair up. You had never done that during the long period we were such close friends. Courage hadn't taken you away, but surrender—the final surrender of your freedom! I wept over your loss for many months.

You never wrote, and I didn't know your new address. While you hadn't totally liberated me from my anxieties, you had expanded my world to include a second floor apartment I would never set foot inside again. And a love that would be forever lost…

Can you imagine how my hands trembled eleven years later as I read and reread your note asking me to meet you at Extra Billy's for supper last night? I felt as if I was being awakened from a long and tormented sleep.

But I was terrified of having to go outside and meet you in a public place. I hadn't been out since the day you moved away. Could it be you hoped I had completely conquered my fears after such a lengthy passage of time? Or perhaps that's why you made our date for 8:00 p.m., knowing I could get there more comfortably under the cover of darkness. Long forgotten symptoms of anxiety became fast-growing tumors spreading throughout every part of my mind and body, and yet they weren't fierce enough to keep me away. I had to see you. Whether your circumstances had changed, I didn't know. But I had to find out.

I waited in the shadows and pretended not to be hiding. I watched for you, fearful I might not recognize you. But I did. You hadn't changed. Not much, anyhow.

You had your hair up again, but—after looking around the parking lot without seeing me—you reached up with both hands and unfastened it so that it blew freely in the wind once again.

I began running towards you and started to call your name when Richard appeared from nowhere. I could smell alcohol on him, although he was many yards away from me. I froze when the two of you began arguing.

I was afraid he would hit you, but instead he yanked you towards his car by your hair. "You never wear your hair down for me, anymore!" he screamed. "Who is he?" With that, he forced you inside the passenger side. You never stopped crying or struggling to break loose. Although I started running again, I couldn't reach the car in time to stop Richard from driving you away.

You know the rest of this story better than I do, even though you're not able to relate it to me yet. Here's what the newspaper reported, though.

"Jealous husband arrested for attempted murder: Former local resident Richard Stephens, 35, was arrested this morning for what police describe as one of the most vicious beatings they've ever seen. Stephens claims that he discovered a notepad on his wife's bedside stand with 'Extra Billy's' and '8:00 p.m.' written on it. Convinced that she was meeting another man, he drove to the popular restaurant, where he found his wife outside alone. He apparently forced her into his car and drove back to the Hyatt, where they'd been staying while in town.

"Police are uncertain of details following that, although hotel officials have released a surveillance video showing Stephens entering the elevator from the parking garage. He was not alone. While the face of his female companion was hidden in shadows, the clothes Mrs. Stephens was wearing this morning when discovered by a hotel housekeeper are identical to the ones worn by the woman on the video.

"At the time of his arrest, Stephens confessed his crime, but showed no signs of remorse. She was seeing another man behind my back,' he said in defense of his crime. 'She deserved what she got and more. I wish I had killed her!'

"In the meantime, Mrs. Stephens is in guarded condition at Memorial Hospital. She has been slipping in and out of consciousness. During a very brief lucid moment, she repeated the name Allen or Ellen several times. Perhaps Mrs. Stephens was unconsciously reaching out for the person she was to meet last evening. Allen or Ellen, if you come to the hospital and make yourself known at Patient Services, your presence may prove vital to Mrs. Stephens's survival and recovery. Rest assured that you are not needed for questioning regarding the assault."

I'm here now, my Love. Please wake up. Richard is out of your life for good. You were faithful to him as long as you could be—longer than he deserved. I was too faithful to him as well. I love you. I have always loved you. I want to marry you whenever that is possible. But when you wake up, please forgive me for failing to commit the sin the night of the dinner party—the sin that would have prevented this whole thing from happening.

And when you're up to our long conversations once again—how I have missed them!—would you give me your candid opinion about something that really bothers me: Did God mean for me to sin the night of the dinner party to protect your life now? Or did I sin more seriously by failing to?

The End