My star on the horizon had loomed so fantastically in my mind that I was taken aback by the ordinariness of the scene on entering the church basement. There were barely some thirty people in the activity hall, mostly students and two or three older couples waiting for the lecture to begin. My patron saint was not appearing on stage or behind a pulpit, but in a florescent-lit basement complete with red linoleum floor, folding metal chairs and a pockmarked wooden table for a lectern. The church coffeepot stood on a longer table against the back wall–polystyrene cups, powdered cream, fake sugar, donation jar by its side. Next to it in the corner, a tall man in jeans and a herringbone jacket with a black scarf wound round his neck was talking to the minister. His hair was dark, almost black, and cut short and tousled, giving him the tattered appearance of someone with perhaps too much brain activity. It didn’t dawn on me who he was until he turned my way.
I was shaken by the fact that the truth, as I understood it, was standing solidly in front of me. Ross was exactly as he should be; my God that face was amazingly right. The corners of my mouth unconsciously turned up in a smile. (You shall go to the ball . . .!) A slim build, not too skinny, though—strong enough to carry the weight. An intelligent face that showed signs of the strong will lurking just below the surface; a little tired, a little worn, but a face to take comfort in—you could seek sanctuary here. Blue eyes that struck straight at the heart and made the flesh weak and willing—a knockout—everything one would want in this world was in those eyes.
Those eyes were now turned toward their audience as Fowler, slowly unwinding his scarf and draping it over the back of a chair, surveyed the group assembled. His gaze was calm, if slightly defensive, and suddenly it was focused squarely on me. Which wasn’t too surprising since on recognizing him I had taken up a rigid, apparently permanent stance, staring intently at him as if messages from the Great Beyond were encoded in his face. I looked at him so hard in fact his eyes seemed to dissolve into black Xs, giving him a momentarily blank expression superseded by an inquisitive look as he walked over and held out his hand.
“Hi. Ross Fowler.”
“Yes . . .” was all I could get out, shaking his hand, my legs shaking on their own.
Undaunted by my wit, he continued in a half-bantering, half-puzzled tone, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you a member of some kind of obscure religious order?”
The gears in my brain whirled around furiously, but I could come up with no response to this, if indeed any was appropriate. Religious order? Obscure . . .? Why was this happening? My expectations were being blown to smithereens. I’d met Ross many times before in my mind—in fantasies ranging from the merely improbable to the blissfully absurd—but if I had daydreamed for a thousand years, I would never have come up with the scenario playing out now.
Seeing my distress, Ross tapped his finger on his forehead. Mimicking him, I put my hand up to my face and realized what was wrong. I fingered a deep patterned indentation running straight across my forehead, the result, I immediately guessed, of leaning my head against the back of the ornate pew during my ruminations earlier that evening. I’d been too wrapped up in my own weird little world before to notice. If I were wearing bell bottoms, I’d look just like a hippie freak, complete with headband stamped right into my head. As it was, I knew what I did look like—a total ass.
“Oh! Oh! I was up in the church. I must have, uh, Jeez, I was sitting and, ah . . . er . . .,” I was floundering badly.
“Look,” he interrupted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .” He made a vague gesture, twirling his hand around, appearing sincerely contrite, but also trying without great success to suppress a grin, completing my humiliation. “You’re not mad, I hope?”
“No, of course not,” I said stiffly. Ross smiled and awkwardly made a little bow of departure, but a troubled look passed across his face—he knew he had blown it. Mortified, face burning, I turned around blindly and slunk into a chair a few rows from the speaker’s table, hiding behind the large man seated in front of me. What the hell was I thinking? What was I . . . why even try?
Ross was now being introduced by the minister, and hostility welled up in me toward him for making me feel like a fool, but he began his talk and I forgot my anger as his words sunk in and took hold. A quietly forceful speaker of great sense, his calm tone belied the strength of his passion. Your mind took the punch without feeling the blow land.