"The Love Quest"

1

It was the ultimate coincidence - Tara Welshman and Luhre Brown giving birth on the same day! They had been best friends since kindergarten, gone to the same college together, graduated at the same time, been engaged on the same day, and even been married on the same day. In fact, it was a double wedding held in the same church. To further the freakishness of it all, their husbands, Aaron Welshman and Steve Brown, had grown up together in much the same way.

The two women gave birth on January 1, 1980, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Tara gave birth to a boy, who was given the name Mark Andrew Welshman. And Luhre had a girl, whom she and her husband named Jayden. Her middle name was "Luhre" after her mother.

As you may have already guessed, the two children grew up as the closest of friends. When they were small, they were always on playdates or in a nursery together. They would sit cross-legged on the floor and toss a rubber ball back and forth, play pretend games in which both of them were some kind of animal, and have races to see who could be the first one to drag a toy train from one end of the room to the other. All this play time wore them out, and at the end of the day they could always be found propped up against the wall, side-by-side, sleeping peacefully. Jayden's head would always be tucked underneath Mark's chin, resting on his shoulder.

Mark had light, fair skin, jet black hair, and emerald green eyes. Jayden's skin was also light and fair, her hair dark red, and her eyes a deep, chocolate brown.

When she was two years old, her mother took her to the local hair salon to get bangs. When she looked in the mirror, her immediate response to what she saw was, "I wook 'tupid, Mommy!" "No, you don't," said her mother, "You look pretty. All we need to do now is put the back in a pony tail and you'll look even better!" The bangs and pony tail were what Jayden wore all her life.

As the years passed, they found Jayden to be a tomboy to her core. By the time she was ten, she could climb trees with ease. She loved to fish, and wore rubber boots more often than she wore shoes. She was spunky and sarcastic, unlike Mark, who was rather laid back and serious.

Mark spent more time thinking than playing, which, at times, quite annoyed Jayden.

Once, at the age of twelve, the two of them were swinging in Jayden's back yard. Mark suddenly stopped and just sat there on his swing. Jayden also stopped. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Oh, just thinking." came the reply. Mark was staring into space, not facing Jayden when he spoke. "Thinking about what?" she inquired. "About who it'll be," he said, "Tell me, Jayden, do you ever wonder who it'll be?" Jayden frowned in annoyance at his unexplained question. "Who'll be what, knucklehead?" He ignored her insult and went on. "The person you marry, I mean. Do you ever wonder who that will be? I do. I think it's one of life's most fascinating mysteries." Jayden stood up from her swing and faced Mark. "Oh, for goodness' sake," she said, "I thought you came over to play, not talk about mushy-gushy garbage!" Mark came out of his trance and looked at her. "Oh, come on," he whined, "Why can't we ever talk about life? All you ever want to do is play. You never want to have a serious discussion!" Jayden turned and began to walk away. Without looking behind her, she called back to him. "Oh, go home, Mark. I'm gonna go climb a tree." "Fine!" he snapped "Be that way!" He rose from his swing, went through her house, and crossed the street to his own home.

Jayden climbed up her favorite tree and seated herself on a sturdy branch. Gazing into the distance, she let out a sigh. When she had snapped at Mark's question, it wasn't because she thought it was "mushy-gushy garbage;" it was because the topic of marriage caused her pain.

Like most girls, she had dreams of getting married when she was older. Dreams of the flowing white dress, the majestic organ music, the handsome groom decked out in black. The kiss that would seal the love she shared with him. The very thought of these things caused her to shudder with excitement.

However, the excitement was short-lived. For anytime she found herself thinking about these things, the realization hit her that no boy had ever shown any interest in her at all. She was almost thirteen, and thought by now she should have had an admirer. But she didn't, and the kids at school made it worse by saying she was too much of a tomboy for someone to have a crush on. They also claimed that most people weren't attracted to redheads, and, as such, she would most likely die an old maid.

It was all too much for her. Still sitting there on her tree branch, she buried her face in her hands and began to cry.

2

That night, mark couldn't sleep. He lay awake in his bed, staring up at the ceiling, still pondering the question of who he would marry when he grew up. He thought of all the possible candidates. The girls at his school. The girls that attended his church. And then there were the girls he only got to see at summer camp. Perhaps it would be one of them. Then again, it could be someone he hadn't even met. A complete stranger, waiting somewhere in his future.

He tossed and turned, questions racing through his mind, until he couldn't stand it anymore. Hopping out of bed, he went straight to the kitchen and began fumbling through the medicine cabinet for sleeping pills. He accidentally knocked over a bottle of vitamins which scattered all over the floor. As he knelt to scoop the tablets back into the container, his mother appeared. "Mark?" she said, "What's goin' on?" He explained it all to her as he collected the last of the vitamins and returned them to the cabinet. "Oh no," his mother said sternly, "I don't want you takin' them pills. Not at your age. I tell you what, let's go in the livin' room and have a talk until you're ready to go back to bed."

When they had seated themselves comfortably on the couch, she began. "So, what was it you said was keepin' you awake, Son?" "Who I'll marry," he answered, "I can't stop thinking about it. It's driving me crazy!" "Well," she sid," Let's talk about somethin' else. So as to get your mind off all that. Okay now, let's see. How was your playdate with Jayden?" "Not so good," he replied, "She got mad when I brought up who we would marry. She didn't want to talk about it for some reason." His mother made a mental note of this but changed the subject quickly. "Oh snap, that's the kind o' stuff we're tryin' to get your mind off of. Now, what else is there to talk about? Oh, I got it! Let's tell each other our favorite foods!" For the next ten minutes, they chatted about crawfish, shrimp, chicken, and so many other things that they couldn't remember them all later on. Finally, Mark was burnt out, and they both went back to bed.

The next day, his mother called her best friend, Jayden's mother, and asked her what was bothering her daughter. Much to Jayden's embarrassment, every detail was told.

After school that day, Mark made his way through the crowd of kids to Jayden. "Hey, Jayden," he said, "Your mom told us what was going on and I though I could help - " "Leave me alone!" she spat. She turned her back on him and began moving away. He caught up with her and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Jayden, I just wanted to -" She turned and swatted him away viciously. "I said 'leave me alone!'" The look of hurt on Mark's face combined with the realization of how mean she was being hit her like a weight. "Oh, Mark, I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have - " She broke down and started to cry. "Listen," said Mark, " I just wanted to tell you that I think you *will* get married." Jayden peered hopefully through the tears in her eyes. "You do?" she sniffed. "Yeah," he answered, "I mean, why wouldn't you? You're just as great as any other girl." She began sobbing again. "But I'm not! I'm too much like a boy. Besides, people don't like redheads anyway!" "Nonsense!" said Mark, "That's all in your head. And you're not too much like a boy. If you were, you'd be lifting weights and doing other stuff like that. You just like to play like a boy, that's all." She rubbed her eyes pitifully. "Oh Mark, why do those things even matter when no boys even act like they like me?" "Who knows," said Mark, "Maybe one *does* like you, but he's too shy to let you know."

They were both quiet for a moment, then Mark's eyes lit up. "I have an idea!" he said, "Let's help each other find someone!" Jayden didn't understand at first. "What?" she said. "I want to get married as much as you do," he went on, "but I have the same problem. No one seems to like me. I was thinking that, *just maybe,* we could help each other out. I could talk to some boys about you, and try to get you hooked up with one of them. And, in turn, you'll try to hook *me* up with a *girl.* What do you say to that?" For a moment she looked at the ground, trying to decide whether or not she wanted to do this. Then her features spread into a smile and she looked up with a gleam in her eyes. "You know," she said, "that actually sounds like a good idea. I'll do it!" "Great!" said Mark, "Now let's get going. The bus is about to leave."

3

Thus began the two friends' search for their future spouses. At first, they each went from person to person without successfully establishing a relationship. However, this did not discourage them, and they kept searching. Eventually, they reached a point where they *did* enter relationships, but those relationships were always short-lived. The years passed and the two of them went from twelve to sixteen. At that point they had been through so many failed attempts at finding "the right one" that they almost gave up. And just when they were about to do so, it happened.

It was mid-summer, and they were having an outing at a fast food restaurant. Jayden ordered her food first and then stepped aside to let Mark order his food. But he didn't order. He just stood there, gazing at the pretty Latino girl behind the counter. "Mark," snapped Jayden, "Order your food." Mark's eyes shot wide open. "What? Oh, um, I'll have, uh, silky black hair, with a side of, uh, deep brown eyes, and, uh, hashbrowns. That'll be all." An expression of utter bewilderment crossed Jayden's face. "Mark?" she said, "Are you okay?" The girl behind the counter spoke nervously. "Uh, is everything alright?" Jayden turned to her and said politely, "Yes, eveything's fine. Just do pancakes for him." She quickly placed the money on the counter and took Mark aside. "Hey, what's going on?" she whispered. Mark blushed slightly. "Oh, um, I got distracted." "Distracted?" said Jayden, "Bywhat? Wait, it's her, isn't it?" He rubbed the back of his neck and blushed even harder. "Well, uh-" "Mark," Jayden broke in, "Do you want to go for this girl?" He glanced back at the girl and shook his head up and down. "Yeah, I think I do." The girl suddenly called out, "Excuse me, he didn't order a drink." Jayden stepped back over to the counter. "Orange juice," she said, "Oh, by the way, my friend over there would really like to meet you. Get to know you, I mean." "Really?" came the reply, "When would he like to do that?" Jayden quickly gave her an appropriate time and place to meet Mark after her shift. Then she payed for the orange juice and carried the whole meal over to a table. Mark sat down across from her. "So," he said, "How did it go?" "Well," said Jayden, "She acted like she wanted to get to know you too, so I told her to meet you at the park at 5:00 PM. I forgot to ask her if she was available, but I think it's a safe bet she is." ~

At 5:00 PM, Mark and the girl were sitting side-by-side on a swingset in the local park. There, they told each other all about themselves.

Her name was Rosa Martinez. She was seventeen-years-old, andthe daughter of two immigrants from Colombia. Her parents had her both Spanish and English from the time she was only a small child, and she had gained access to a large number of friends because of this.

She was currently working at the restaurant to raise money for college.

After sharing his own story, Mark asked her if she was in a relationship. She said "No," and they began discussing the matter of dating until Mark eventually mustered up the courage to ask the question. "So, uh, would you be interested in dating *me?*

A short distance behind them, Jayden hid behind a tree and listened. She grinned with satisfaction as Rosa agreed to be Mark's girlfriend. "Yes!" she said under her breath.

Just then, a boy materialized in front of her. He was about her age, with short, sandy-colored hair, and pale-blue eyes. He had a muscular build and measured about 5'11. "Hey," he said, "I saw you standing over here and thought I'd say 'Hi.' Name's Adrian Martin." Jayden was startled at first, but quickly pulled herself together and extended her hand. "Jayden Brown." she said. He shook her hand and then pointed to a group of several other boys standing a short way off. "I'm here with my friends." he told her, "We were just walking, trying to get some excercise. So Jayden Brown, tell me about yourself."

From there, they started a conversation which carried on until Jayden found herself in the same position as Mark. She had a new sweetheart.

4

These two new relationships were the first ones in the lives of Mark and Jayden that didn't end after a week. Both couples were still together by the time two years had passed.

When the time came, the four of them decided to go to a local college together. Things went well the first year, but the second year they began to take a turn for the worse.

Rosa, who had seemed sweet at first, displayed a very ugly attitude when Mark spoke to the other college girls. The slightest comment that Mark made to one of them would provoke her to jealousy. She would even accuse him of flirting with other girls when all he was doing was holding a door open for them.

Things weren't going well for Jayden either. Adrian seemed to be more occupied with other things than her. He often forgot about their dates due to preoccupation with things like cars, movies, and motorcycles. The worst part of the relationship, however, was when he showed up for a date with incriminating lipstick on his lips. The two of them almost broke up over this, but decided to stay together in the end.

Just when things couldn't seem to get any worse for Mark and Jayden, they did. One night, the couples went on a double date to a local French restaurant. While there, they ran into one of Adrian's friends. She was a sweet, shy girl named Tabatha Gilbert. She had light brown hair and twinkling blue eyes. She was short and awkward and wore a dated pair of glasses.

When they greeted her, she seemed to be okay at first. Then it was Mark's turn to say "hi." At this point, she seemed to grow even more awkward. Shuffling her feet nervously, she peered up at him and managed to squeak out the word. "Hello." The sweet, timid look in her eyes displayed a blatant attraction to Mark. But it wasn't an unwelcome attraction. For Mark wasn't so sure that he was not attracted to *her.*

Lately, he had been tiring of Rosa's jealousy. He wanted a wife who was nicer than that. And Tabatha seemed to fit the bill. He immediately began making plans in his head to make the transition from Rosa to Tabatha.

"So," he asked her, "How do you and Adrian know each other?" "We're just friends." she said, "From when we were little."

Just then, a waitress came marching up to them with a pen and paper in her hands. "Alright," she said, " How many do you have?" "Four." said Adrian. "Okay," said the waitress, "Just follow me and I'll show you to your table."

As they parted ways with Tabatha, Mark waved back at her and said, "It was great meeting you! I hope we can get in touch again sometime." Of course, he said this when Rosa was a good distance ahead and out of hearing range.

5

The next day, Mark approached Rosa to break off the relationship. She was in the college library, looking up plane tickets on one of the computers. She heard Mark approaching and spun around in her chair. She smiled up at him excitedly. "Mark!" she exclaimed, "I have great news!" Mark was taken by surprise. This was not the way she had been acting recently. What was going on? "Oh, uh, what's the news?" he asked. She seemed hardly able to contain herself when she answered. "My parents have offered to pay the money to take us on a trip to Colombia! We'll be able to go just next month!" She began jumping up and down and clapping her hands with glee. This is bad, thought Mark. Now's no time to break up with her. He was right. If he burst her bubble when she was this happy, it would be just plain cruel. Plus, the trip to Colombia interested him. He decided to forget about Tabatha and give Rosa a second chance. He smiled back at her. "That sounds great." he said. Mark and Rosa waited eagerly for the first month of Summer to arrive. That was when they would go on the trip. But, when that month did come, things did not go as planned. Mark found out that Jayden's father, Steve Brown, had been shot and killed in a robbery. She would expect Mark to attend her father's funeral, and he knew she would be very hurt if he didn't. Mark would have attended without hesitation, but on the day of the funeral, he would be in Colombia. Now, he had choose between his girlfriend and his *best* friend. He had to decide what to do. He knew either girl would be hurt if he chose the other. This made the decision even harder. Eventually, he decided it would be better to comfort a mourning friend than to take a vacation to South America. When he broke the news to Rosa, she did not have an understanding attitude. "WHAT?" she yelled, "What do you mean you can't go? My parents already paid for the plane tickets, we had everything planned out!" Mark put his hands up defensively. "Whoa, Rosa, calm down! My best friend just lost her father. I want to be there for her, okay? I wish you could understand that." She knew he was in the right, but this only angered her more. She reached the boiling point. Totally forgetting herself, she took off yelling in Spanish. Mark was done with the conversation. He sighed and told her goodbye. Then he went to his dorm room to get some rest from his stressful day. A few days later he went to the funeral. When he walked into the funeral home, he saw Jayden and her mother standing over the body, clinging to each other as they sobbed. He waited till the right moment, then walked up to them. Jayden turned and gave him a hug. "Thank you so much for coming!" she said through her tears. "Don't mention it," he said with a smile. "Where's Adrian?" Jayden looked around. "I don't know," she said," He was supposed to be here a long time ago." The two friends seated themselves when it was time for the service to begin. During the 60 minutes of talking and singing, each one kept an eye out for Adrian. He didn't come. By the time they had left the funeral home and gone to the cemetery, he still had not come. He didn't show up even once.

6

The day after the funeral, Jayden found Adrian in the cafeteria. He was sitting by one of his friends, chatting with him as they scoffed down their breakfast. Jayden walked up behind him and whispered in his ear, "Hey, I need to ask you something in private." He got up from his seat and followed her outside.

"What is it?" he said. When she asked him why he had not attended the funeral, she expected him to say that he had been at a car show or a football game or something similar. What he *did* say, however, was worse than anything she could have thought of. His answer was simply, "I didn't feel like going." Her eyes grew wide. "What?" she gasped, "What do you mean you didn't feel like going?" "I just felt like stayin' here and hangin' out with my buddies, that's all. We had a great time. In fact, I'm glad I didn't go to your old man's funeral. I would've really missed out." He leaned casually against the outside wall of the cafeteria and shoved his hands in his pockets. Jayden's mouth dropped open. "But - but, Adrian," she said "What about me? *Your girlfriend!* Don't you care that I just lost somebody I loved?" "Oh, come on," Adrian said, "Don't be tryin' to manipulate me like that. I'm my own man and I call my own shots. Nobody tells me to go to no funeral if I don't want to." Tears began flooding down Jayden's face. "I can't believe this!" she cried, "First, you forget about our dates, then I catch you with another girl's lipstick on your mouth, and now this! I can't take this anymore, Adrian, we're through!" Before he could protest, she pushed her way back into the cafeteria and left him outside. Inside, she sat down at a table and buried her face in her hands as she cried.

Mark came hurrying over. "What's wrong?" he asked gently. Jayden didn't even look up when she answered. "I'me fine, Mark. I just need to be alone right now."

Adrian appeared beside them. "Fine my foot!" he spat, "Messed up is what you are! Yeah, that's right, messed up! What with thinkin' you can make me go to some funeral when I don't have to! And then breakin' up with me to boot! I'll show you fine!" Jayden let out a shriek as Adrian smacked her in the face. "You keep your hands off of her!" yelled Mark. "Well, well," sneered Adrian, "You want some too, do ya?" He tried to land a punch on Mark's face but Mark caught his fist. Adrian pulled his fist back and was about to swing with the other when Mark swung back at him. Hit in the face, Adrian crashed to the floor.

At this point, everyone else had stopped eating and was watching the episode with great interest. Two campus officials rushed over to Adrian and helped him up. "Come with us," one of them said, "You're going to see the discipline committee."

After the incident, Adrian was booted from the school and neither Jayden or Mark ever saw him again. Mark, however, was pardoned, as the school considered his punching Adrian to be an act of self-defense.

For awhile after these things happened, Jayden did not act interested in finding another boyfriend.

7

Mark and Rosa sat side by side on a campus bench. There, Mark told her gently that he didn't feel she was the one for him and that he would like to move on. At first, he thought she would react by throwing another tantrum. But, to his surprise, she remained calm. "Alright," she said, "If that's really how you feel, it's okay." ~

Later that week, Mark and Jayden went to a restaurant together where they ran back into Tabatha Gilbert. Mark wasted no time in asking her out. She accepted, and they exchanged cell phone numbers. The date was to be the next day at the same French restaurant where they had met.

The next day came. Mark arrived at the restaurant at 6:30 pm. He sat at a table for two and waited for Tabatha. Waited. And waited. And waited. She never came.

He decided to call her but she didn't answer. Something was wrong. He was wondering what to do when he noticed a television on the wall. A news reporter was going on about something, but Mark coudn't tell what it was because the volume was muted. Then he saw the announcement at the bottom of the screen. It read: "Teenage girl, Tabatha Gilbert, dies in car accident."

8

The rest all seemed to happen so fast. One moment, Mark was rushing out the door of the restaurant into the night, trying to see if he could spot the accident. Then, the next thing he knew, three days had passed and he was standing over Tabatha's body as it lay motionless in a coffin.

When he left the funeral home, he didn't know what to think or feel. He was upset, but not so much sad. He hadn't known Tabatha long enough to be sad. Their relationship had barely started.

In July, he and Jayden went home from school to visit with their parents. During this time, Mark told his parents about what had happened, as he sat with both of them on the front porch swing.

"It was really a shock." he told them, "Just when I thought I'd truly fallen in love." Mark's father shook his head pitifully. "Mark," he said, "Please don't tell me you actually just said that." "Said what?" Mark enquired. "'Fallen in love,'" his father answered, "I thought we raised you better than that. Listen to me, Son. Nobody *falls* in love. Love is a conscious choice." Mark gave him a puzzled look. Then Mark's mother joined in. "Mark, what your daddy means is this: Lovin' somebody is makin' sacrifices for their benefit. Givin' *anything* for *their* sake. See?" Mark reflected on this for a moment. "Making sacrifices for someone else's benefit," he said to himself, "Giving anything for them. Hmm." He knew immediately that this was something he would be willing to do for his family. But had he ever been willing to do it for anyone else, especially a girl? Yes, he was a person of character, and he would sacrifice anything for anyone if they needed him to. And there *was* one girl he would go out of his way to do this for.

"I'm really glad you guys told me this," he said to his parents, "It was a huge eye-opener. Now, can I talk to you about something else?"

9

Jayden sat in her living room with her mother. They were relaxing, doing nothing, when the phone rang. "I'll get it." said Jayden's mother. "Hello, Browns." she said as she answered. "Oh hi, how ya doin,' Sweety? What's that? Oh, alright, I'll tell 'er." She pulled the receiver away from her mouth and spoke to Jayden. "Honey, could you go to your room for a few minutes? This conversation's kinda secret." "Wha-? Oh, okay."

Jayden got up and hurried to her bedroom. Then she lay on her bed and waited. The conversation turned out to be longer than she expected. After about thirty minutes, her mother poked her head in the door. "Okay, you can come out now." Jayden jumped up and walked out. Her mother seemed to be glowing with excitement. "What was that all about?" asked Jayden, "Can I know?" "Oh, don't you worry about it," her mother smiled, "You'll know in due time. I'm hungry. What do you say we go get a bite to eat?"

On the next day, they were invited to the Welshmans' house for supper. When they got there, something seemed suspicious to Jayden. Her mother was still giddy with excitement. Mark's mother had puffy eyes, as if she had been crying recently. Mark's father was unusually quiet, and Mark himself seemed very nervous and antsy.

When they all sat down at the table, Mark's father finally spoke. "Alright, everyone, before we eat, Mark has something he would like to say to Jayden." Everyone grew quiet as Mark rose from his seat and walked around the table to her. "Jayden," he said in a shaky voice, "Could you turn your chair to face me, please?" She did so, and he took her hand as he went down on one knee. "J -J-Jayden," he stammered, "I talked to my parents about this yesterday, and then I talked to your mom about it over the phone. They've all given me their blessing to ask you what I'm about to ask you. Jayden Brown, I love you very much." He paused and gulped. "Will you marry me?"

10

A long silence followed. Jayden stared at Mark with eyes as big as saucers. Mark bit his lip, and the parents stared on in silent anticipation.

Finally, Jayden spoke. "M-Mark, are you *serious?*" He nodded up and down. "Oh, I don't know," she said, "Shouldn't we date first?" "Jayden, why should we date?" he said more calmly, "We've known each other all our lives." She looked at him, considering this for a moment. Then her eyes filled with tears and her features spread into a smile. "Okay," she said, "Let's get married!" Applause went up from the parents as the two of them embraced each other and spun around joyfully.

A hot, mid-afternoon sun beat down on the red-brick walls of a large Methodist church in Baton Rouge. People walking by could hear strains of organ music coming from the inside of the building.

It was July 16th, 2000. The happiest day in the lives of both Mark Andrew Welshman and Jayden Luhre Brown. Inside, they each stood facing each other with hands clasped. He was in a black tuxedo, and she was in the flowing white dress of a bride.

The pastor spoke in a low, monotone voice as he led them through their vows. They each messed up once or twice, and everyone laughed. Finally, they got through their vows, and the pastor said the words everyone had been waiting anxiously to hear. "By the power vested in me, by the laws of the state of Louisiana, I now pronounce you man and wife. Mark, you may kiss the bride." As Mark lifted his bride's veil, his heart nearly skipped a beat. Their eyes gleamed as their mouths met. They had both waited for this moment a long time, but they had always thought it would be with someone else. Neither one had ever dreamed they would share it with their best friend since birth.

They pulled away from each other and faced the congregation as the pastor spoke again. "I present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Welshman." The organist started playing again, and the two of them walked out amid cheers and applause.

In the back seat of a car, on the way to the reception, Mark leaned over and gave Jayden another kiss. "I love you." he said with a smile. She returned the kiss and smiled back. "I love you too, knucklehead."

The End