Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chapter 4, part 1: Prom

The day of the prom, Mom took me to her hairdresser and had them cut my long frizzy hair into a trendy inverted bob, complete with flatiron treatment. The ladies in the salon went on and on about how beautiful I was, and for once, I could see what they might be talking about.

For a moment I decided to make an exception to my vow not to fantasize and let myself daydream about Quan’s reaction when he saw me.

His eyes pop out of his head. He runs toward me and sweeps me into a passionate embrace, leans me backward in his arms, and gives me my first kiss. “I’m sorry to be so forward,” he whispers, “but you look so gorgeous that I couldn’t help myself.”

Prom was going to be amazing!


Quan picked me up at six. We were going to dinner with Alicia and her boyfriend Chet at Citrus Hill restaurant before the dance, which was being held at the local German-American hall.
“Wow, Giselle,” he said as he slipped the white and purple corsage on my wrist. “You look great.”
“Thanks,” I said, blushing. Not exactly like I had imagined, but close enough.
“I bought this for you,” I said shyly, holding out a florist’s box with a white rose boutonniere. “Here, let me pin it on.”
His chest felt solid and warm beneath his tuxedo. His cologne smelled so good.
At the prom, I was more relaxed with my classmates than I had ever been in my life.  I got so many compliments, even from the intimidating popular girls. Alicia and I goofed off with our dates, making fun of the dance’s medieval theme, trying out crazy dance steps to the upbeat songs, and swaying with arms holding up imaginary lighters during the slow ballads.
Then the DJ announced the final song. The smoky voice of Etta James crooned “At Last.”
“Milady, may I have this dance?” Quan said.
“Milord,” I said with a curtsy. 
He led me to the middle of the dance floor. He guided my hands to his shoulders then put his hands on my lower back. As we swayed and turned slowly around the room, his hands pulled me closer and caressed the skin between my shoulder blades.
He sang along softly with the last line of the song, “and here we are in heaven, for you are mine, at last.” We swayed together through the closing bars of the music. Then he whispered, “You know, in college, you are going to have to beat men away with a stick.”
I felt my ears get hot as I stammered a thank you.  I tipped my head up slightly to look at him. He moved his face closer to mine. All of a sudden I knew what he was going to do. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, my first kiss. I’d wondered if tonight could be the night. All day I had caught myself daydreaming about a soft sweet good night kiss.
Quan’s kiss was nothing like that. It was like kissing dry toast. He lips were tense, his stubble sandpapery, and he pecked at me as though he were a chicken and I was a kernel of corn. What a disappointment.
“Guess how long I’ve been wanting to do that,” he said.
“Since we started dancing?”
“More like the first day we met. Before I met you, Giselle, I thought Romeo and Juliet was a stupid story. I couldn’t understand loving someone so much that you would rather die than live without them. But now I think I understand that kind of love.”
I burst out laughing. First the horrible kiss and now these cheesy lines. It was so corny and over the top. How could anyone feel that way, about me? And the Romeo and Juliet thing was probably supposed to be romantic, but it kind of gave me the creeps. And he had wanted to kiss me since freshman year? Was he looking at the same girl I saw in the mirror?
“What’s so funny?” He looked hurt.
I immediately felt terrible. "Sorry, I don’t know why I laughed. Nervous I guess.”
We said our goodbyes to Alicia and Chet. Quan took me home and walked me to the door. “Would you do me the honor of joining me for brunch tomorrow morning?”
“Okay.” He was so sweet, how could I say no?
Then he kissed me again. It wasn’t any better the second time. If anything it was worse because it went on longer.
“I have to get inside,” I said finally. “See you tomorrow.”
The prom continued in my dreams. Quan and I were slow dancing and he kissed me again, only this time it was perfect. Then we fell to the floor and started rolling around together.

Chapter 3, part 3: Prospects

Daddy came home late Sunday night, and left for his office earlier than usual. Was he avoiding me?

Mom drove Kirsten and I to school. Mom didn’t want me to drive for the next week, which was fine by me. I didn’t trust myself behind the wheel for the moment anyway.

Quan was already there when I walked into AP Biology a few minutes before the bell rang. A cowlick at the top of his head fought against the side part he customarily wore in his spiky black hair.

“Where were you on Friday?” he asked.

“Alicia and I got into a car accident on Thursday night.”

“Oh my God. What happened?”

“A drunk driver ran a red light and hit my back bumper, and then took off.” No point in mentioning the fact that it was my dad’s car, or that I could have avoided the wreck if I weren’t such a lousy driver.

“I never would have known you were in an accident. You look fine. Is Alicia all right?”

“Yes, she’s fine.” I pointed to the small adhesive bandage above my eyebrow. “This is my only real injury. It could have been much worse.”

“Wow, St. Christopher must have been protecting you.”


Quan pulled out a pendant on a gold chain from under his button-down shirt. “He’s the patron saint of safe journeys.”

“I didn’t know you were Catholic. This might be racist, but I figured all Asians were Buddhist or something.”

I’d always seen Quan as just a friend, especially in light of that verse about being unequally yoked. But he was Catholic, that changed everything. If he was a Christian like me, maybe I could at least go to a dance with him, even if he wasn’t really my type physically.

“Some Vietnamese are Buddhist, but my grandparents were converted by French missionaries before they came to the US. Do you go to church?” he asked. “What religion are you?”

On closer inspection, Quan was cute in his own way. On the short side, but definitely good looking. “My family is Lutheran,” I answered.

“What’s that?”

“It’s similar to Catholic in a lot of ways, but we don’t pray to saints or Mary or anything like that.” What it would be like to kiss him?

“I don’t pray to her, but she is an important part of my relationship with God.”

“That’s interesting.” I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy trying to remember if Quan already had a date to the prom. Maybe no one had ever asked me to a dance, but then I’d never asked anyone either. What did I have to lose? “Quan, I don’t mean to change the subject, but are you going to the prom?”

“Why, you want to go together?”

“Why not?”


A few weeks later, I sat on a barstool at the edge of the kitchen counter, drooling over the gorgeous photos of the campus of one of my top college choices: Westmont, a conservative Christian school up the coast in Santa Barbara County. UCLA and the local Cal State campus rounded out my list.
My paternal grandmother, Oma, worked in the kitchen rolling out the dough for an apple strudel on the counter of the island. She was staying with my sisters and me while Mom and Daddy were on a cruise to Baja California. 
“You’re growing up so fast, liebchen,” Oma said.  “College already!  Tell me, though, why should you need to look at all those pretty magazines?  I always thought you would go to Elk River.”
Elk River College was the alma mater of my dad’s brothers and both his parents. Oma always spoke of it as if it were the nation’s premier faith-based institution, a place where true followers of Christ received the most rigorous training for their hearts, souls and minds.  From my earliest childhood, Oma painted a picture of the place with her words, doing her utmost to tempt me, her favorite granddaughter, to one day be brave enough to journey from sunny Citrus Valley back to the snows of ancestral Ohio.  She liked to quote a sentence from their promotional materials: “Perched on a gorge overlooking the rushing rapids of its namesake waterway, the awe-inspiring beauty of the campus beckons students to come contemplate the majesties of the Lord.” 
It did sound amazing, but between the distance and high cost, I had written off attending there as unrealistic. The academic and alumni scholarships they were offering would barely cover room and board.
“That would be wonderful, Oma.  But it’s so expensive, just like Westmont.  They raised tuition again this year, can you believe it?  I’d love a Christian education, but I don’t want to end up with tons of debt. Daddy thinks I should go to Cal State Citrus Valley like he did, but lately I’m leaning more toward UCLA.”
Oma muttered a mild German oath.  She applied the rolling pin to the strudel dough with renewed vigor.  I already knew her opinions of the depravity of California state schools and could read on her face the effort she made to restrain herself from giving another lecture on the subject.   
Abruptly, the motion of her powerful forearms came to a halt.  “So, my alma mater is too expensive, is it?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.  “Perhaps you won’t care that it’s so kostspielig if I pay the tuition? Room and board won’t leave you with much debt.” 
“Oh, Oma! I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Who’s asking?  I insist. It’s a gift of love, an investment in the Kingdom of Heaven.  I know God will bless you there, like he did me, like he did your uncles. I only wish meine kleine Franz had gone there too. But then, he wouldn’t have met Millie, and I wouldn’t have you, liebchen, would I?” 
I knew it would be no use arguing with her.  Not that I wanted her to take back an offer like that.  After all, Oma had always held out Elk River as the epitome of college perfection, and I wasn’t about to talk myself out of a nearly free education. 
I ran across the kitchen and threw my arms around her stout body.  It surprised me how fragile she felt in my arms.  Her spine jutted up in knobby ridges between the sharp outline of shoulder blades.  When I let go, I saw moisture shimmering in Oma’s eyes. 
“Tears of joy, liebchen,” she said quickly in response to my look of concern.  “I only wish your dear Opa could be here to witness this day.”  At my prompting, she told me again of how they met and married during their time at Elk River. 
When Mom and Daddy got back from vacation, Oma insisted that we accompany her to set up a trust for my education.  “I may be joining your Papa in heaven sooner than you think,” she said over Daddy’s protestations.  “Elk River was good for me, it will be good for Giselle, too.” 
“We can’t protect her from the world forever, Mama,” Daddy said.  I noticed that he never spoke directly to me the whole time.

Neither one of them had any idea of the ways the world had already found me. A close-knit and accountable Christian community like the one Oma described at Elk River seemed custom-tailored to save me from myself.     

Chapter 3, part 2: Guilt at Every Turn

As soon as we got home, I took the cordless phone to my room called her.

“How are you today?”

“I’m actually feeling OK. The painkillers they gave me at the hospital are pretty awesome. How about you? You’re still alive so I guess your dad must not know yet.”

“Oh, he knows all right. My mom made me call last night and tell him everything.”

“Whoa, she’s hard core. So what’s your punishment?”

“I have to pay a portion of the damages and the bump in his insurance. But, I lucked out. The youth pastor at my church said I could work for him, so it’s all covered.” I knew it wasn’t just luck. Why didn’t I ever talk about God with Alicia?

“That’s cool. Hey, not to change the subject, but before the accident on Thursday I was planning to ask you about your plans for prom.”

“No one’s asked me,” I said.

“I know, but I thought maybe I could talk you into just going ahead and asking someone yourself. It would be so awesome for you to double date with me and Chet.”

“I’ll think about it,” I promised, trying to think of who I’d dare to ask.


Sunday morning we went to church and Bible class like we did every week. Blessed Redeemer Lutheran Church was a large brick building with Gothic spires and huge stained glass windows imported from Germany by the founding members at the turn of the century. Normally I enjoyed the ritual pomp and circumstance of the high liturgy and tried to take notes on the sermon, but today I found it hard to concentrate.

Instead I indulged in some games I’d invented to pass the time in my childhood days when my attention span didn’t match the length of the service. After counting the neatly spaced rows of light bulbs that dotted the ribs of the vaulted ceiling, I hunted for fairies and elves in the patterns formed by the swirl of creamy specks in the maroon carpet. 

Finally I turned my attention to the windows, which each depicted scenes from the life of Christ. I tried to remember each story. The one there with Jesus crouching and writing something with his finger in the dust. In the background, angry looking bearded men wore robes and tunics. A woman cowered nearby. I remembered this one well. The story of the woman caught in adultery. “Go and sin no more,” Jesus would say to her after all her accusers left.

The story was always presented as an example of God’s wonderful grace, but today it struck me that God’s grace had a catch. Could anyone really go and sin no more? Or was it another impossible standard? Is that what having faith really meant? What hope was there left then for me, who sinned over and over?

Kirsten and I walked together from the sanctuary to the old parsonage, where the youth group met for Sunday School. Kirsten squeezed onto one of the many multicolored thrift store sofas crammed in the living room between her best friend Heidi and her boyfriend Charlie. I awkwardly looked around for an open spot and finally just sat on the floor.

Most everyone there went to the Lutheran high school, while my parents had sent us to public school after eighth grade. I may not have made many friends at Citrus Valley High, but at least I wasn’t a total outcast like I had been at Blessed Redeemer Elementary. Even though I had grown up with them, I was never very close with the girls in my class, and three years at separate schools hadn’t made the heart grow fonder. Whenever I was around them I felt as awkward and unlovable and excluded as I ever did in junior high.

Pastor Jim introduced the new intern, Jolene. She had the most perfect blond ringlets and a broad apple-cheeked smile. It was how I dreamed of looking.

“Since we finally have a male and a female on staff, today we’ll be covering a topic I’ve been wanting to tackle for a long time now: sex. Girls, you stay here and guys, you come with me upstairs.”

Jolene gave the same basic overview of human sexuality I’d heard in high school health class. She talked about boundaries with boyfriends and how far was too far. She had us write down questions so she could read them anonymously and answer them for everyone. There were a lot of uncomfortable giggles, but we were hanging on her every word.

“Okay, last question. ‘What about fantasies or mutual masturbation? Is that ok?’” Jolene read from one of the slips of paper. She paused to think before answering. “Here’s my opinion. Sex is sex is sex, whether it’s in our mind or simulated, alone or with another person. If you touch yourself, repent,” she said. “Confess to God and then go and sin no more.  It may not be specifically addressed in the Bible, but it does say: He says ‘Be perfect as I am perfect.’  The standard is nothing less than absolute chastity. Sex saturates our media, so it wouldn’t be surprising if any of you girl struggle in this area. Right now, you can give it to God and he will empower you to make better choices. Pray with me.”

I made a vow to God then and there that I wouldn’t touch myself or fantasize ever again.

Chapter 3, part 1: Pastor Jim

Pastor Jim welcomed us warmly to his office. Mom quickly summarized the accident and her concern that it signaled something ominous about me and my future.

“Mrs. Gottlieb, do you mind if I talk privately with Giselle?”

“Of course not. I have some business to attend to in the school office anyway.”

As soon as Mom left, Pastor Jim leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk. “Whoa, your mom is pretty worried about you, huh?”

“I guess.” I braced myself for the next question. Here came the part where he would discover my deepest darkest secrets.

“Well, I’m not worried about you one bit. She’s scared because she loves you, but I don’t think what you did means anything. You’re a great kid, but even great kids make mistakes. I know I had my share of them. It doesn’t mean you’re on the road to perdition. You’re not a troublemaker. So what’s your punishment?”

I thought I’d be relieved that Pastor Jim hadn’t wanted to pry further to diagnose what was wrong with me, but instead I felt a little disappointed. Couldn’t he see how much I was hurting inside?

“I have to get a job to pay for part of the damage to the car and the increase to my dad’s insurance premium.”

“Hmmm … I might be able to help you with that. How’d you like to work for me?”

“Really? That would be amazing.”

“I could use a part-time secretary to help me maintain my files, make calls to organize youth activities and do general stuff around the office here. You’re pretty responsible. How does $10 an hour sound?”

“A whole lot better than minimum wage at McDonald's! You don’t know how much I appreciate this.”

“I’m the lucky one to get someone as bright as you helping out around here. You can start Monday.”

Pastor Jim led me out of the office.

“You can stop worrying, Millie. She’s still the same great kid. You want to tell her the good news, Giselle?”

“I told Pastor Jim I needed a job and he said I can work for him!” I beamed.

“What an answer to prayer,” Mom said. “As soon as we got here I started to think bringing Giselle down here had been an overreaction and waste of your time. While you were in there, I prayed it would come to some purpose.”

“How amazing to see God will work all things for good!” Jim exclaimed.

“Yeah, um, that’s cool,” I said lamely.

“Thanks again for your time, Jim.” Mom shook his hand warmly.

“No problem,” Jim said, then shook my hand. “See you at youth group on Sunday, Giselle?”


“I’ll be introducing the new college intern. I think you’re going to really like her.”

I was only half listening. I couldn’t wait to get home and bring Alicia up to date.