The Red Sea

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, (F)a(i)theist: How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together (working title, Beacon Press 2012). This book will chronicle my experiences as a former evangelical Christian, a queer person, an atheist and an interfaith activist working to increase understanding between people of different religious and nonreligious identities. Please note that the selection below is a work in progress, and that it may change significantly before the book is published (heck, it may not even make it into the book!).

The morning after my eighteenth birthday party, my first boyfriend—the one I fell in love with in an instant, who told me that God brought us together and made me believe it, who I cared about so deeply that four weeks into our relationship I dug out the certificate I had co-signed with God agreeing not to have sex before marriage from the bottom of my underwear drawer, scattering green and orange boxers across my camel carpet, and triumphantly tore it in two, the one for whom I only applied to in-state colleges, the one I was convinced I’d marry—broke up with me in a text message.

I blinked, trying to make it not true, and thought back to the end of our second date—to the first time we kissed. After a night of nervous conversation buffered by a play that brought the relief of silence, we stood before our cars, positioned side-by-side in an open-air parking garage. We shuffled our feet and looked down at the yellow line beneath us, which I imagined as an impassible buttress, glancing up just long enough to lock eyes before flicking them back down, hearts pounding, palms clammy, dragging out our conversation until we both fell silent. He walked to the driver’s door of the car he had borrowed from a friend and opened it to get in, then pressed a button to unlock the passenger door and motioned for me to join him inside. The click of the lock snapping open resonated out and bounced between the parking garage’s concrete pillars, boomeranging back at me and threatening to knock me over face first into the pavement. I looked at my car, then back at him, and climbed in. I settled in and fumbled with the seatbelt before realizing I wasn’t going to need it, shivering from the cold and my nerves. The floor mat beneath my feet was gravelly and cracked, and I envisioned one of the splits opening up like the Red Sea; if I moved now, I’d finally find freedom, but if I stayed immobile much longer I might be swallowed whole, cast to the bottom of a red sea of hesitance. I sat motionless, eyes directed down, my breathing short, sharp and excited.

Jon interrupted the silence with words tumbling out, spilling and spitting and stumbling over one another like waves of upset dominoes.

“Okay, Chris! We have to kiss! I will not let you out of this car unless we’ve kissed!”

“I know!” I said. “But I’m scared!”

Jon grinned. “Me too,” he said. “I keep asking myself, ‘what if I’m a bad kisser?’”

“I doubt that very much,” I said, smirking in a weak attempt to project confidence. Then, a thought: What if he is a bad kisser? Worse still: “What if I am?”

“Only one way to find out,” he said, his eyes like summer sparklers. “It has to happen tonight. It can’t wait any longer.”

“You’re right,” I replied, my thumbs pressed against one another in a blush of pink and white. “I don’t want to wait any longer either.”

“But you have to kiss me because I’ve never been kissed before,” he said.

“I can do that,” I said, smiling hard and swallowing harder.

“Okay, we can’t do this because it has to be spontaneous and new and whatever, so let’s start a different conversation,” Jon said.

I laughed but it was half-hearted. I was scared. I had only kissed a couple guys before, and I hadn’t had crushes of this magnitude on them. But though Jon and I had only known one another a couple weeks, we had spent so much time talking on the phone and emailing one another during the school day between class periods, attempting to satisfy an unrelenting hunger for one another, that I already felt like I knew him as well as I did my closest friends. So the possibility that this kiss could go poorly—that it could undo everything—seemed all-too-possible.

But instead of vocalizing any of that, I said, “So that play was pretty cool tonight, eh? I really liked the songs.”

“Yeah, they were pretty good,” he said, leaning in a bit, rocking back and forth ever so slightly like a racer on the starting blocks. His eyes said: “Go, Chris! Now, Chris! Hurry up!”

I was still scared, frozen like the ice crystals splayed across the windshield, so I continued: “Yeah, and the story was great.” A plane flew overhead, full of people listening to Nickelback on their Discmans and flipping the pages of some Dan Brown novel, clueless to the milestone moment going on below their buckled waists.

“Uh huh,” he said, while his eyes pleaded with me to move.

“And your friend, the one in the show—he was great! A really good actor, yeah,” I said, stammering.

“Yep,” Jon said, staring me in the mouth, waiting for me to lean forward with my eyes closed and end this charade.

“And the props…” I started.

“Kiss me kiss me kiss me!” Jon exclaimed, unable to wait any longer. And I did. In that moment, the world split open. It was like the first time I successfully rode my bike without feeling like I would topple over in an instant; like the first time I read a book or listened to a song and really felt it; like the first time a fully formed word emerged amongst the gibberish of my infant mouth. All of those years I had been told that homosexuality was immoral and unnatural washed away with the initial mash of our lips. It wasn’t my first kiss, but it was the first that meant anything, and with it I knew that this was, for me, the most natural thing in the world. We kept kissing—dizzy and messy, tumbling over our laughter, arms in the wrong places, foreheads bumping, reuniting every time we tried to pull apart—until I was very late for my curfew.

And now, I would never kiss him again. Just like that—a set of words on a silicone screen about his parents’ discovery, about sickness and forbidden sin—and it was done.

I thought back to the nights we walked down dusk-lit streets and extended our goodbyes as long as possible so that time became something that only applied to other people, as if we had uncovered the secret to evading the restraints that kept others at the mercy of hours and minutes and seconds; to the times we spoke on the phone, voices cracking over a crackling wireless connection, longing to be together, happy just to hear one another sigh as we compared ourselves to the biblical David and Jonathan; to how he had cured me of the loneliness that had plagued me from the moment I knew I was queer. I thought back to the first few months of our relationship and how I would listen to Christian rock band Relient K’s “I Am Understood?” earnestly, in disbelief that, for the first time in my life, there was someone who fully understood what it was like to grow up gay and religious, and who loved me because of the person I was, not in spite of it. I thought back to every time he had made me feel like a normal teenager with a normal boyfriend, instead of someone living half of a double-life. To how lucky I felt that I got to have a real relationship in high school, when all I ever heard from those who were older than me, those queer folks who had come before, who had fought for a world where I could live openly and honestly, was that queer adolescence was a time of insufferable isolation, and that love wouldn’t come until at least thirty. I never thought I could wait that long.

Standing in my kitchen in exactly the position in which I received the text message, I recalled how Jon always smelled strangely like lilac, which made him feel immediately familiar, as I spent my summers in childhood cutting lilac blossoms in my backyard to place in vases and mason jars throughout the house, our open windows circulating the scent of lilac from room to room, pressing it into each crook and corner and even deep into the couch cushions so that come December you’d swear you could still smell it there by burying your face deep into the crevices, a smell so large that living there was like inhabiting a bloom of pale violet, and I knew it made my mom happy, which made me happy. Jon had made me happy in that same innocent, all-encompassing way. I recalled how I felt when he showed up at a talk I gave before a group of Christians about growing up gay in the church and sat in the back of the room beside my mom, beaming and extending his thumbs up as if they were pointing toward heaven, how his smile contained everything that was good and right in the world, and how it quashed my anxiety. I recalled how he sat down at the piano and serenaded me with John Denver while his friends laughed in the kitchen, the smell of baking brownies wafting through the threshold and into the dimly lit living room. I recalled how he wore my cross and how it pressed into my chest through our shirts whenever we hugged, and how he always tasted of peppermint Altoids, a flavor I once detested but came to cherish. I recalled the times we talked about going to my prom, and how I felt when we committed to calling one another “boyfriend,” the decision made over the phone while I was in bed recovering from wisdom teeth removal surgery, my mouth full of blood as I lay under a quilt and beneath a James Dean poster, grinning through the post-surgery haze at my bedroom door, eagerly anticipating my mom’s next check-in so that I could let her know, and how she scolded me for using the phone so soon after surgery but couldn’t stop herself from mirroring my goofy grin.

And then, suddenly, those memories disappeared, and I was alone with the realization that it was actually over. I was shattered.

It seemed impossible, a grievous betrayal—after years of feeling different, isolated, alone, years of being the only queer kid at my school and in my church, I had convinced myself that nobody had ever felt the way that I’d felt, that nobody ever would, and that things would never change. And then I met someone who had felt the way I’d felt, somebody who had changed everything, had fixed everything, and the universe, without even asking, had snatched it away, like so many other things before it—my father, my church, the friends who’d abandoned me as I came out—and I was once again afraid, empty, alone. I could not conceive of the possibility that I might experience that kind of intimacy again; it came, it went, and I was left behind.

In that moment it felt worse to know that it was possible to be loved; thinking it was out of the question allowed for a kind of resignation, an acceptance of the condition of things. But this, this knowing, was so much worse. I had tasted something delicious and wanted to eat nothing else, only to abruptly develop a life-threatening allergy; a condition of inexorable swelling that, without intervention, would suffocate me.

I couldn’t breathe and, in a rare embodiment of unbridled and untenable anger, threw my phone across the kitchen. It bounded off the sink faucet, pinging as it landed beside the soap dish like just another dirty plate—something that, having served its purpose, is left to sit in its filth until it can be cleansed and reborn. I ran downstairs to my room, locking the copper doorknob behind me, and climbed into bed—the same bed where I first heard Jon call me “boyfriend” over the phone. I reached out from beneath the covers and put an album by the late Elliott Smith into my CD player.

“If I didn’t know the difference,” he sang, “living alone would probably be okay; it wouldn’t be lonely.”

I shut my eyes and tried to force myself into an exhausted sleep. Upstairs, my mom plucked the remaining candles from the blue-frosted cake she had baked me, returning them one by one to their box. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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