“I know.” I said.
He’s a minister in some far fold of Iowa, one of those places with an annual Corn Princess and prize pigs. My pointer finger mashed the end call button. The iPhone played smooth and white into my palm like the pills assigned to me from the psychiatrist I found through our seminary. There was a Blackberry before that, thrown into Lake Michigan, a symbolic act to separate myself from contacts and nice things. I planned to be devout like a monk. I would become good, read scripture by candlelight and pray with the precision of a glasscutter.
I’m embarrassed now thinking of that Blackberry pinging off the spray-painted rocks, sinking with the beer cans below the algae blooms in a finger of the Great Lakes system.
I called him â€śIowaâ€ť, and he played through three years of seminary studies with the hushed claps of a pro-golfer on television. Posts on the student government, basketball with the inner city Chicago kids that lacked mothers and fathers. Iowa spooned up bulk baked beans at community dinners with white teeth and impeccable small-town manners. I imagine that maybe the worst trouble heâ€™s been in is losing a retainer at lunch. Maybe his mom comes to the nondescript junior high to help him look for it in the trash.
The young women of the seminary sat at his feet in the student lounge, legs tucked into chins listening to him treatise on college football and Christ’s all encompassing love. I imagined Jesus with his own flock of women, His notably best students. It was the women who received the near stonings and it was the Christ who excused it. Leaning in the cafeteria entrance I watched the scene, making all the connections. The late blossoming women of the seminary loved him. In one case a newly out-of-the-closet student pastor loved him too after a string of continual invitations to pie that were gently rejected.
Our draw was the same pairing of that world-class ship and the iceberg. We had problems. We had problems no one knew about in the tiny bubble of religious training. Even if our peers thought they handled the story in delicate lunch line whispers, there were still layers only held by the two of us. Bonafide shipwreck. We didn’t get the luxury of a train wreck because that would imply we had rails to begin with.
I knew what the golden boy from the cornfields looked like unkempt, unshaven in cherry red sweatpants. One January I saw his dorm piled up with garbage, reruns of The New Adventures of Old Christine on mute at three in the morning. There was a breaking point that was unspoken in the seminary. The judgment, the duality. We all cracked. I never particularly knew what his problem was but for some reason I was permitted to witness his private shit show. We would cower together until he would throw me out and I would creep along the gothic architecture back to my car. The five-minute drive to seminary subsidized housing with single moms and professors too steeped in college loans to focus on studying God.
I didn’t graduate into religious service. They don’t take women like me into pulpits or line us up in freshly laundered white robes for ordination. I inhabit all the cartoonish traits of a writer: overuse of metaphor, capable of loving someone with the ferocity of a noir novel you find at a flea market in Ohio (at least on paper) one who smokes American Spirits in the blue package, smoldering stick hanging off my mouth.
“You have blow job lips,â€ť they once said to me. The lunch table of future ministers with fat bellies who spend all their money at the Tilted Kilt if the Cubs win a game. My phone flooding with drunk requests after eleven oâ€™clock. The witching hour where the chorus of overweight Christian girlfriends pensively twisting abstinence rings in consideration and say, “we could just lay together naked and not touch; I guess that’s okay.”
Usually around midnight I was slowly wading into Lake Michigan’s 58-degree water. Sometimes the trips were made in a little green kayak pantomiming a kazoo being dropped into a draining bathtub. Years later, casually reading about storms and missing ships on the Great Lakes, I thought maybe my midnight behavior was more dangerous than everyone else’s. The oceanic quality of the inland sea capable of making island towns disappear.
I invited him once to a lake outing. Iowa and I shimmied in after summer break, in a drought. The lake made a smooth plane straight to the horizon, all her personality flat-lining on our arrival. It’s no irony he paid his way through school lifeguarding the senior citizens at the sunrise water aerobics sessions. Swinging his whistle around with the same authority of wearing a stole, youâ€™re saving lives. Everyone gets saved.
We waded in naked but kept our distance. When we emerged he shivered violently on the coast. We walked back in silence under the moon up the dune and into the parking lot.
Baptism happens in water if you do it right. Never mind that initially this whole big plan of Godâ€™s called for naked men and women tending to plants and animals. We lose everything from shame. And then shame becomes the precise thing that makes us so ugly to ourselves. To one another.
This is where I exit. I leave the whole damn thing. A few weeks later I go missing from my own Halloween party. October 13th. Balancing the 30 packs of PBR on each arm, up three flights of stairs. The skinny celery and carrot sticks fanned out in the usual formation, waiting on the ranch dip in the refrigerator. The bowls of candy corn. The playlist I even took the care to mix. Thriller. Jump. Die Young. Love Will Tear Us Apart. I pushed the cheap IKEA dining room table into the hallway and strung up white Christmas lights.
I remember the lights were too bright. It didn’t feel like Halloween. It didn’t feel like you could grab that same dark corner and hide together. It was for all purposes, inviting, well lit, the warm porch kids see when trick-or-treating, the one that might have a full-size Snickers. The string of lights kept drooping and no matter how many times I pressed duct tape into the light strand it wasn’t going to hold. I wasn’t going to hold.
Particulars aren’t important here. They found me in Wisconsin nowhere near Lake Michigan. Another party, a back-up party was held while college deans, police detectives, and cellphone providers triaged to locate me outside of Madison.
The students danced on in costumes with a karaoke machine in the alcohol-free sanctioned student center. Old Iowa had to report me to the authorities.
They thought I intended to drown myself. A search of my apartment produced missing student fliers of a young man who had drowned at the marina a week before. A whole stack of those sitting on my coffee table with Mother Jones and the giant, red Oxford Bible we all worked from.
The student life dean with her training in gospel music, but not in counseling, concocted a story that I was obsessed with the drowned student and sought to mimic him. They were of course wrong– I had recently removed the missing student fliers from our apartment billboards after local news found his body. A few of us had quietly held a vigil in his honor. We prayed. Not because any of us in that small group believed in miracles, but because this is the thing you do when you go to seminary. You pray for the lost. Sometimes lost is a tangible thing. A body, below the waves.
I went inland because I was trying to save myself. I took a few days off in the Wisconsin Dells checking in to an indoor waterpark and riding a lazy river alone, an infinite loop. Drinking fake summer cantina drinks with October prices.
Returning home Iowa and I had to part ways. There was a bear hug in a leaf pile after curfew, murmurings of what is appropriate and what no longer is.
On actual Halloween night my neighbor who was part of the fat minister’s table threw a costume party. I could see the potato-shaped shadows drinking into the night, across the courtyard back-lit with orange lights and a television. I built U-Haul boxes and marked them “theology books”, “utensils”, “blankets”.
I wasn’t invited. I made people “uncomfortable”. The following year at the seminary Halloween party a fist-fight broke out over a girl. The golden boy from Iowa was there of course, to walk her home. Make good boundaries, assure everyone’s safety and pry red, plastic cups from people’s hands. Police reports were made but the participants still roll in, working in churches, making sure there’s enough lasagna for community nights and urging us to all be what God wants us to be.
We make weak, detached conversation. He wants to know why I am not handing out candy on Beggar’s Night. I want to say that I prefer to stew in my own little ghosts and demons and feed them myself– but I hang back. I say I’m going to a party in my new town, my new state. I’m three hours from Lake Eerie. Nine hours from his parsonage. The rest of students scattered around the United States into little churches with red doors promising to be open.
I think of God sitting at a table after the candy haul with a goody bag sifting out what is good and what is not. I wonder what pile we are all in. That somehow the Holy Ghost is supposed to haunt all of us if we believe it, make us better people. Inhabit our bones and animate our skeletons. I see Godâ€™s bony finger sifting me to the good pile.
C.E. Snow is seminary dropout. She writes about religion, sex and bicycling. Her first book Friction & Momentum is forthcoming in 2015 from Elly Blue Publishing.