by Megan Ranger
The windshield of Miles’ car fogged up, making halos out of the light from the lamppost we had been parked in front of for the last twenty minutes. I turned up the seat warmer and put my shirt back on, knowing that I was about to be sucked into a drawn out conversation about heaven and hell and fucking and marriage. He turned off the overly-technical heavy metal music he had been listening to. An expectant buzz lingered in the dense air as Miles drew breath to start breaking down the reasons why God and his mother both said we can’t love each other.
“The whole point of dating someone is to marry them. Christians can’t marry non-believers. So, essentially, what I’m trying to say is there’s no point in continuing this relationship.” His fly was still undone and he busied himself with the zipper instead of looking me in the eye. The signature matter of fact tone in his voice that my brother hated so much made the whole statement seem more like a lecture than a break up.
“So, are we done here?” I asked, resorting to frigidness in order to freeze the tears choking my throat. I felt like I was suspended in a vacuum waiting to be shot out into space and burnt up. Miles could destroy me with one word.
“I mean, no. Like, we should be but I don’t want to be. I just don’t know how we’re gonna make this work when we have so many fundamental differences.”
“If it means that much to you, I can see what church is all about. I mean, it’s not that I don’t believe in anything. I just don’t know what I believe in. Maybe it’s what I need.”
“You would do that?” Miles finally met my gaze. The hope in his smile was enough for me to put my own doubts aside and just go with it.
“I just want this to be okay.”
“That means a lot. My mom would appreciate it if you went, too.”
Even though I highly doubted that going to church would thaw out his mother’s insidious bitterness towards me, I figured it couldn’t hurt my chances. The tension was becoming more palpable every time his mom, Julie, walked in on us sitting too close on the couch or kissing in the kitchen. I had to be careful leaving their house in the late hours of the night to avoid raising her merited suspicions. Even though we were both in our early twenties I couldn’t help but feel as though we were in high school again, sneaking out of windows, and too scared to buy condoms in case we ran into his mom at the store.
Miles agreed to pick me up at 8 a.m. for church the next morning. We said our ten-minute goodbyes and continued to message each other as soon as he made it home safely. I fell asleep at around 4 a.m. with my phone in my hand, mid-text.
Three hours later, the sound of bells crept sluggishly into my ears. The sweet chimes resonated with redemption. Even though the sound was beautiful, it wasn’t enough to make me want to get out of bed. I buried my head underneath my pillow and went back to sleep. Thirty minutes later, an agitated knock on my door jarred me awake.
“Megan! Turn off your goddamn alarm! It’s been at it for a half hour now, and I can’t sleep with that shit going off,” my brother yelled.
“Alright… sorry.” I yawned the sleep out of my voice and quieted the bells. I tore back the covers and didn’t give myself any more time to mourn the loss of my warm bed nest. I didn’t have a lot of time to get ready before Miles came to pick me up. I threw my hair up into what I thought was a tastefully tousled knot and snatched my most conservative dress out of the closet.
I met Miles downstairs by the lamp post. He looked disheveled and tired, and his voice was edged with crankiness.
“Hi.” I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and wiped the lipstick smear off with my thumb.
“I wish you wouldn’t wear that stuff. It makes it a pain in the ass to kiss you, and it makes you look like you’re trying too hard.” Miles snapped, rubbing the place on his cheek that I had kissed.
“…Damn. Someone isn’t in a good mood this morning.”
“I’m sorry,” he reached for my hands and held them to make up for his coldness, “I just didn’t get a whole lot of sleep. I’ll be fine.”
I was used to Miles being snippy out of the blue, so I brushed his outburst off in a matter of moments. He turned on his music as we pulled out of my apartment complex and headed out for church.
I noticed that Miles subtly turned off his metal music as we entered the parking lot of the church. Julie was mingling by the front doors in her Sunday best, a watchful eye trained on the parking lot as if she was making sure Miles actually came. She spotted his cherry red Impala, and I saw her reach for the cross around her neck as if to show gratitude. As we got out of the car, I saw her eyebrows raise in surprise as her gaze fell upon me. I certainly didn’t get the feeling that I was waltzing into Julie’s good graces as we approached the heavy oak doors.
“Hey, bud,” said Julie, embracing Miles tenderly. I had always been mildly thrown off by their hands-on affection.
Julie released Miles and turned to me. Her eyes took in my tattoos that I hadn’t thought to cover and my piercing that jutted out underneath my bright red lips. I was everything she warned Miles to stay away from, but she was too pious to ever outwardly put me down. However, she had her own method of making sure I knew how she felt.
“Hi, Megan. That’s such a beautiful dress. But, it’s a little short isn’t it?”
“Is it? It’s kind of the longest one I have.”
“Oh, don’t worry dear. You can just wear a nice pair of pants next time.”
I fought back bitter retorts about spiderwebbed old-woman legs and Lane Bryant pedal pushers as we crossed the threshold of the church house. The lobby was full of people, but nobody greeted me. Women met my eyes as I touched up my lipstick in the bathroom mirror, but they never smiled at me. I felt as though I had wandered into some sort of close-knit backwoods town where outsiders were treated as infidels.
Miles greeted me with a much-needed smile as I picked my way through the mass of chairs to sit with him and his mother at the front of the congregation. The band began to rustle through their papers and tune their instruments, signaling that they were ready to lead in the sermon. A hush fell over the audience as the contemporary Christian rock filled the hallowed void. I couldn’t stifle the tingling second-hand embarrassment as I sat amongst balding middle-aged men, consuming the music as easily as if it were the same edgy rock and roll from their more rambunctious years.
Julie’s foot tapped and her back swayed to the overly-emphasized guitar riffs, her eyes closed from blissful exaltation. Miles mouthed the holy love-ballad lyrics with a grave respect in his eyes. I felt awkward as I halfheartedly attempted to appreciate the passion behind the band’s performance. I certainly didn’t feel that strongly about anything. My eyes glazed over as I thought of the donuts waiting in the lobby for after the service, but I quickly sobered up as Julie spotted my inattentiveness.
The band ended their set and cleared a spot at the front of the stage. An ornate, meticulously polished silver serving tray was placed in the spotlight. Tiny see-through cups filled with grape juice threw splotchy, blood-red shadows on the floor. A man with an undeniable sense of reverence about him stood up from a few chairs down and graciously accepted a box of wafer crackers from the woman who was previously singing soul-wrenching slow jams about Jesus. It slowly dawned on me that we were about to be asked to take communion.
God, damn it. Oh wait— don’t even think ‘God damnit,’ you’re sitting in a church you dingus.
Panic swept over me as I contemplated my options. I didn’t see any way out of the situation without pissing someone off–either deny communion and admit my skepticism, or take it knowing that I didn’t mean it at all. I didn’t know a lot about religion, but I knew that taking communion meant accepting the body of Christ into your life and acknowledging him as your savior. I definitely wasn’t ready for that sort of commitment, and I feared for my indecisive immortal soul if I were to jump the gun for the sake of pleasing a room full of strangers.
As the reverend ushered my row to stand and accept the sacred crackers, I remained seated. Miles followed the queue and took the communion as if it were a mechanical reflex, something he didn’t even have to think about. Julie savored the wafer on her tongue and lifted her head to let the blinding spotlight twinkle on her rapturous grin. After she sipped the divine grape juice, her eyes opened again and her gaze fell upon me. Her head shook in disappointment as I shifted my weight in the stark straight-backed chair, making it obvious that I was comfortable just where I was. After Miles and his mother sat back down, I heard her breathlessly note into his ear, “She could have at least pretended to take it. Out of respect.”
After the service was over, we planned on regrouping at a local diner for the traditional Sunday family breakfast. I didn’t say anything to Miles about my feelings of alienation, or his mother’s relentless judgements. I had become the master of passive-aggressiveness in order to survive tense confrontations with Julie. Everything I felt was better off bottled up than thrown in her face, for the sake of my relationship with her son.
Julie was already sitting at a table at the Stagecoach Cafe, sipping daintily on a glass of iced tea and haughtily observing the people around her. She beamed as she saw Miles approach her, and her smiled turned sour around the edges when she saw that I was still at his side. We took our seats and I felt as though I was preparing to shake hands with my firing squad.
Julie wasted no time in setting her sights on me.
“So, Megan. Did you learn anything today?”
“I mean, I wouldn’t say I learned anything, exactly. But I’m glad I went.” I could feel the defensiveness corrupt my voice that I fought to keep steady and strong. I didn’t want to show her any weakness.
“Well, that’s great Megan. But you know,” Julie took a smug sip of her iced tea, “It’s nearly impossible for a nonbeliever to truly convert. Some people get it while others just never will.” Her lips were stubbornly pursed and her gaze was fixed, looking for any response to affirm her critical opinion of me.
Miles was too busy digging into a heaping pile of hash browns drenched in Tabasco to register the blatant antagonization. I bit my lip piercing until my teeth threatened to crack, and I could almost hear my patience tearing at the seams. Instead of speaking freely, I continued to bite down hard on my indignity.
We finished breakfast with only short bouts of pathetic small talk to splinter the strained silence. After painful compulsory conversation about current events and the weather, I nearly begged the waiter for the check. After fumbling over the check, I insisted that I couldn’t allow Julie to pay for my meal. I didn’t want to owe her anything. It was apparent that Julie thought I was somehow inherently beneath her and her son and that I was therefore not suitable to love Miles no matter what effort I made to prove myself to her.
I continued to date Miles for two years and some change. Our theological differences and his mother were persistent hindrances that eventually contributed to our break up. The elephant in the room can only be cast aside for so long. After we separated, I felt like everything good that I had going for me was ripped away. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t be together. I refused to accept the circumstances, and I desperately repeated—more to myself than to others—that would be back together one day. I was completely lost.
I woke up dizzy and depressed at 7 a.m. on a Sunday after drinking myself to sleep the night before. It wasn’t like me to be so damn pathetic and I was in dire need of some direction. In a moment of presumable clarity, I thought that going to church might help me find some sort of silver lining among all of the bullshit. I hauled myself out of bed, put on the only clean pair of pants I had left and squirmed into the nearest hoodie. A part of me wished that I would see Julie there so that she could take in my moderate ensemble and change her mind about me. My mom asked where I was going as I headed out the door. I was too numb to explain my rationale and decided that I didn’t need to explain my actions to anyone.
I sat in the back row by myself. I waited impatiently for the sermon to start, convinced that whatever the reverend had to say would give me all of the answers to all of my plaguing questions. God must have known that I was waiting for a sign. I sought peace through prayer to the point of nearly screaming through my skull. As the sermon began, I waited for my resolution to sink in. I was expecting some sort of affirmation that I had to hold onto hope, and that someday my faith in our relationship would bring us together again.
Or something. Anything.
The man on the stage merely bleated out the message that Julie had always tried to hammer into my heart: Christians must not mingle with non-believers, or else their relationship will be burdened by sin.
Is this the fucking sign I’ve been waiting for?
I didn’t belong there. I had lost all motivation to assimilate into this community that didn’t want me.
I decided that I couldn’t just sit there and be told who I deserved to love anymore. I stood up from my chair and made no qualms about exiting the church mid-sermon. I was so frustrated that I didn’t care who knew that I was being disrespectful.
As I closed the door on the reverend, I felt like I had finally received my answer.
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