Monday, December 15, 2014

Chapter 26, part 2: Seeker

On Monday at lunch, I was sitting with Breanne and the crew from the Women’s Volleyball house.
Breanne had been telling us through tears how she was pretty sure things were over between her and Lori. “I asked her if she’d come back to Soulfire with me, and she said she’d think about it. She hasn’t called me since.”
Ian approached the table as we consoled Breanne. “Oops, sounds like I’m interrupting some girl talk,” he said.
“No, no, sit with us,” Breanne said, wiping her eyes. “I’ve been wanting to thank you for what you said the other night. That God loves me. I guess I always believed He hated me for being gay.”
“He does love you,” Ian said. “So you’ve been thinking of coming back to another meeting?”
“Does it matter that I’m still attracted to women?” she asked.
“I’m still prone to overeating,” Ian responded, gesturing to his overloaded tray of food with a wink. “Grace means that God meets us where we are at. You don’t heal yourself before you go see the doctor, do you?”
“No, but …”
“Listen, I’m starting a small Bible study in my room on Thursday nights,” Ian said. “Maybe the smaller setting would be more comfortable for you to ask questions.”
Breanne came with Brad and me to the Soulfire meeting the following week. Dwayne Jurgen and Becky Burke led on the topic of loving our neighbor. Drawing from my reading in the Loving Others book, I had plenty to add to the discussion and felt energized and chatty as the meeting ended. A social butterfly, I flitted from Kirsten and her freshman friends to Ewan and Rhys Finley to Breanne and the volleyball team and finally back to Brad. Although I was on clean-up duty with Ian again, I followed Brad outside to continue flirting as we said our goodbyes.

I came back inside to find Ian talking with Becky and Dwayne instead of cleaning up.

“Well I for one am so glad she came back,” Ian said. “She’s really hurting and seeking answers. Where better to find them?”

Becky said, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that she’s seeking God. We just need to be careful about how we handle this.”

“Are you guys talking about Breanne?” I interrupted. “What do you mean, how we handle this?”

Dwayne answered by quoting Scripture, “It’s like what Paul said in 1st Corinthians, not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin.”

“Yes, Dwayne,” Ian said, “but I believe that in the very next verse, Paul goes on to clarify that the instruction didn’t apply to unbelievers, but to those who claim to be believers yet still indulge in any sort of sin, not just sex.”

I remembered the verses. “With such people do not even eat,” it went on to say. What would people in CSF think if they knew about my growing addiction to romance novels and online erotica? I’d be shunned for sure. Good thing I’d ignored that little voice urging me to share my struggle with someone. I’d just have to work even harder to break the habit.

“So as long as Breanne is just seeking, we can welcome her to our meetings,” Becky said. “What I’m worried about is what happens next. What if she eventually makes a public confession of faith, but still identifies as a lesbian?”

“Right,” Dwayne said. “Are her motives in coming pure, or is this just some sort of stunt to make CSF look ridiculous?”

“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Ian said. “We have to trust the Holy Spirit.”

“Yeah, let God do his work so we can do ours and get out of here,” I said, picking up a chair to stack. The whole conversation made me uncomfortable.

Brad, Breanne and I were the only ones to show up to the Bible study in Ian’s room Thursday night.

Breanne came armed with a list of questions and articles printed from pro-gay websites. “Weren’t David and Jonathan gay?” she challenged.

“It’s a common question. Let’s dig into the text and see what we can find out,” Ian said.

We looked up and read aloud and discussed related passages out of First and Second Samuel.

“’I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women,’” Brad read. “Sounds pretty gay to me.”

“It does to me too,” I admitted. “But I wonder if that is just because we’re hearing it differently with modern ears?”

I expected Ian to jump in with the correct explanation. Instead, he said, “Thanks for bringing all these materials, Breanne. I think it will be a fascinating topic for the rest of this semester. I’ll dig up more information on the cultural context and what commentators think, and we can keep discussing this next week if it’s all right with everyone else?”



Chapter 26, part 1: Distractions

Friday afternoon, I doodled in the margin of the notes from journalism class. I had to write a feature story profiling a Elk River student, preferably someone I didn’t know well, by Monday. Might be a good excuse to call Brad.
As I reached for the phone, it rang. The caller ID said Lacey Johnson. I let it ring once more, and then picked up.
“Giselle, I’m so glad you answered. Listen, I owe you an apology. I didn’t know Rob was going to go after you like that.”
“That was no fun, but the worst part was thinking you agreed with him when you took off.”
“Well… no offense, Gigi, but Rob was right about at least one thing.”
I winced anticipating the next words.
“I want to encourage you to read your Bible more. That and leading others to Christ is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“I do read the Bible—well, at least I do sometimes. Mostly it’s in small snatches here and there.” I groaned. “Who am I kidding? I try to read it, but it’s too hard to keep up with. I feel like I don’t understand half of what I’m reading, and then I’ll miss a few days, and well, I just forget to pick it back up again.”
“Listen, Gigi, sorry to do this to you, but Rob just texted me – he’s downstairs waiting. We’re going to town to dinner tonight. I knew I didn’t have much time to talk, but I wanted to make sure we got back on good terms ASAP.”
“Thanks, Lacey. I’m glad we’re still friends.”
“Me too. See you around, sweetie. And as far as reading your Bible goes, just take it slow. Read one verse a day and pray for God to help you understand it. Or ask Ian – he’s amazing at that sort of thing.”
“Yes, but—“
“Oops, look at me starting another conversation when I’ve really gotta go. Bye!”
When Lacey hung up, I started dialing Ian’s number to tell him the good news, then stopped myself.  Wouldn’t it be great if I started to follow Lacey’s advice first?  Then I’d have something really good to tell him. 
I picked up the Bible, and it fell open to the page marked with the scrap of paper where Brad had jotted his new cell phone number Tuesday night.  All thoughts of reading God’s word fell away as I got lost in a daydream of my future with Brad.  Before I quite knew what I was doing, the phone was in my hands once again. 

“Hello? Brad?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“Hi, it’s Giselle.”

“Just joshing you.  Of course I would recognize your sweet voice anywhere.”

I cleared my throat, wondering if blushes traveled through phone wires.  “Well, anyway, I’m doing a project for journalism class and wondered if I could ask you a few questions.” 

After the initial awkwardness of the formal interview questions, we settled into an easy banter, discussing everything under the sun.  Eventually, I realized how late it was. Had we really been talking for two hours?

“Brad, I just realized how late it is.  I have to run to dinner before the dining hall closes.  See you tomorrow at the Passion Play in Exeter?”

“Sure, wouldn’t miss it.” 

***

Saturday afternoon, I racewalked across the Quad, afraid I would miss the bus. Our small group of friends going to the passion play in Exeter had somehow morphed into a full-fledged CSF field trip, complete with transportation in a luxurious motorcoach. Brad was meeting me at the bus, and it was his first CSF activity. How did it get so late?
I knew exactly what had gone wrong. That morning I had finally sat down to read the Bible like Lacey suggested, flipping it open to a random page. Song of Solomon. Was it my imagination, or was that about sex?
I went online to find an expert opinion, and ended up following a rabbit trail to some things I probably shouldn’t have seen and detailed stories I probably had no business reading. I got caught up in the fantasy world created by the words, and then I looked up at the clock and realized it was 15 minutes before I was supposed to be across campus to leave for the field trip. I hadn’t even gotten dressed for the day.
Checking my watch, I broke into a run. The combination of guilt and adrenaline from the race against the clock left me nervous and on edge. What was wrong with me? The prompting to talk to someone about it came unbidden once again. Maybe I would, someday, but now was not a good time.
Just then I caught sight of Brad standing a few feet away from the group of students gathered to go on the field trip. A jolt of energy surged through me, and my stomach leapt. I waved.
“Hi, glad you could make it!” I called as I neared Brad, and gave him a side hug.
I was so conscious of Brad’s presence all day that I barely paid attention to the play, a retelling of the life and death of Christ. Still, when it came time for the crucifixion scene, I didn’t have to fake the tears for my role as one of the women at the foot of the cross. Something about the scene stirred my soul, and I wondered for a moment if the man on the cross would really be in the business of giving bear hugs to little girls.
None too soon, the scene ended and flirtation with Brad distracted me from any further spiritual thoughts.
We sat in the front row of the bus across from a freshman Kirsten had introduced me to at the first CSF meeting, Jonas Manning.
“I think we should start a new trend, and bring back robes and tunics,” Jonas said as we drove away. “So comfortable! And, did you notice, Brad? All the girls looked oddly hot in them. Those Bible dudes knew what they were doing.”
I couldn’t resist joking with him. “Good to know. I’ll sell all my jeans and t-shirts and invest in a line of muumuus.”
“You looked amazing in your caftan, Giselle, don’t get me wrong,” Brad said, “but I gotta say, you were even hotter in the harem costume you had to wear to be an attendant in Herod’s court.” He looked at me appraisingly. “Don’t you agree, Jonas?”

I blushed and couldn’t help smiling at the flattery and attention. 

Chapter 25, part 2: Effort Rewarded?

The volume level in the room rose as the official business of CSF came to an end and the fellowship began. I heard once that God cannot hear the prayers of those who are in willful sin. Did that apply to me? Who knew, but for the moment anyway, I felt relief. I could move forward, and the first order of business was to find Kirsten and check in.
“How were your classes today?” I asked as we walked toward the refreshment table.
“Just okay.” Kirsten sounded defeated.
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing really, but I haven’t been feeling all that great. I couldn’t concentrate all day.” She held her punch and cookies but didn’t eat.
“You’re not coming down with something, are you?” I cringed at how much I sounded like Mom.
“I don’t think so. It’s just … I never thought I would be so homesick. My roommate is driving me crazy. She has people in and out of our room at all hours of the day and doesn’t seem to care that it’s my room too. This weekend was really bad. They just seemed to get louder and more obnoxious when I told her I couldn’t hear Charlie on the phone on Friday, or that I needed to study on Saturday, or that I needed to go to bed at ten last night because I had an early class today.” She sighed and frowned. “I don’t know. I think there’s something else ...”
Before she could continue, the Finley brothers interrupted us to say goodbye.
I turned back to Kirsten but she had disappeared. I saw her at the door, leaving with a group of freshmen girls. Soon almost everyone had cleared out.
The volleyball girls stayed to help Ian and me stack the chairs back in the corner of the room.
“It’s getting late. I should walk you ladies back home,” Ian said as we finished up. We all set off together to the East Hill.

I straggled behind Ian and the others as we walked across the bridge. After saying goodnight to Jenny, Melissa and Sylvie, Ian and I continued and up the hill of Lakeside Drive to the German House. 
Ian told me about a passion play in Exeter, a town ten miles to the east of the college. 
“Sylvie was telling me they put it on every Friday night. Anyone who shows up gets to be extras.  We get to wear crazy robes and pretend to be disciples.  Doesn’t that sound so freakin’ cool?  Would you be up for it, Gigi?”
“You know I would! I didn’t know they had anything like that around here. When I lived in California—“
I stopped short. Brad Talbert sat on the front steps of the German House. Was he waiting for Zoey?
“Hi, Giselle. Hi, Ian,” Brad said. “I couldn’t help overhearing, were you talking about that passion play in Exeter? I grew up there. I remember going once when I was a kid.”
“Yeah, man, you should come with us this weekend!” Ian said. Then he winked at me. "I bet you two have a lot to catch up on, so I’ll leave you alone.”  He let out an obviously fake yawn.  “Time for me to hit the hay anyway.  I have an eight o’clock class tomorrow.” 
Brad grinned at me and invited me to sit beside him. I melted a little inside.
“So, um, how’s Zoey?” I asked. My eyes wandered from his grin to his arm. Well-defined muscles filled out the sleeves of his white t-shirt, and the short blond hairs that dusted his forearms glinted in the moonlight.
“We’re through. I’m here to see you, Giselle,” he said. “I’m so sorry for how things went in Europe. It was all a giant misunderstanding. Can you ever forgive me?”
“Can we talk about what happened first?” I asked.
“You really want to? I’d rather let bygones be bygones and have a fresh start. Let’s never speak of Europe again! Deal?” he said, extending his hand with a glint in his eye.
“Deal!” I said hastily and shook on it. He kept my hand in his. I couldn’t believe he was giving me a second chance. I didn’t want to drive him away again. “I’m sorry too. Can we pick up where we left off?”
“Not exactly… I mean, I want to make sure I do a better job of respecting your beliefs and boundaries. In fact, next week, I’m going to come to CSF and make sure Tom, Owen and Josh come too. Now, it’s late and I don’t want to get that Elkie Grapevine going, so I’ll just give you a quick kiss and let you go inside to bed.”
As our lips parted, he beamed at me. “I missed you,” he whispered huskily.
“I missed you too.” I beamed back at him and stood to go inside. “Good night, Brad.”
The ascent up to bed became a dance of joy. “Bed, bed, I couldn’t go to bed,” I sang. My cheeks hurt from smiling too much. I felt like Eliza Doolittle wanting to dance all night, Liesl Von Trapp on cloud nine after trysting with Rolf in the gazebo, and Nurse Nellie singing about her wonderful guy all rolled into one. This is very promising indeed!
I whistled a medley of tunes while preparing for bed, daydreaming all the while. I lay down to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. Thoughts raced and begged to be shared. Back home, I might have gushed to Alicia, Mom or Kirsten for hours. Now it seemed like a waste of long distance minutes to call anyone in California, Kirsten was probably asleep already, and there wasn’t even a roommate to giggle with. I dug a journal out of a desk drawer and poured my heart onto the page instead.
Oma met Opa here. Maybe Brad was God’s special someone for me?

Chapter 25, part 1: Renewed Efforts

Despite Ian’s encouraging words and the bizarre experience in the woods, Rob’s accusations still haunted me the rest of the week.  Deep down I believed I was a lousy friend and a worse Christian.  It may have been too late to save my friendship with Lacey, but at least I could prove the hypocrite label wrong.

Remembering Rev. Reynolds’ invitation, I lingered around the Religion table at the activity fair on Thursday, in the guise of helping out.  I listened in on his responses to the students who were brave enough to ask questions, and ended up taking a handful of the free books and pamphlets back to my room.  A self-help book called Loving Others caught my interest most. 
That night, following the instructions in the book, I once again asked Jesus into my heart, just in case my infant baptism, the little prayer Oma had led me in when I was eight, my confirmation, and that altar call at the Pentecostal church last year somehow didn’t count. 

The step-by-step directions in Loving Others made Christian life seem practical, like a self-help program. Spiritual growth was just a matter of following the program faithfully enough.  But this wasn’t just any self-help program—it was the ultimate one, developed by God himself.  If I followed it properly, maybe I could finally deserve the kind of love that the little girl in my vision had.
***
On Tuesday, Jenny called and wanted to walk over to Soulfire together again. Breanne and I had talked over the weekend. She was willing to try another meeting, but not this week. I called Kirsten to see if she wanted me to pick her up, but she said a group of girls from her floor were heading over early and we could meet up afterward.
While waiting for Jenny to answer my knock, I coached myself on how to act, trying to remember the advice from Loving Others.
“Giselle! We’re so glad you came again,” Jenny drawled as she opened the door wide. “Come in for a sec. We’re waiting on Melissa to finish curling her hair.”
“Hi again!” a voice called from the couch. I couldn’t remember this one’s name.
Jenny graciously ushered me in, and then disappeared up the stairs, leaving me hesitating awkwardly in the middle of the living room, Bible in hand, unsure whether to sit next to what’s-her-name or remain standing. Just when I felt nearly suffocated by the silence hanging in the air, another line from Loving Others came to mind.
Loving your neighbors as yourself means you try to make others feel comfortable, especially when you feel awkward.”
“Sorry, I forgot your name.”
“Sylvie,” she said and returned to reading the campus newspaper.
“Guess what? I picked up this amazing book off of Terry Reynolds’ table.”
She put the paper aside. “Oh?”
Was I annoying her? “Uh, right. He was just giving books away, can you believe it? I was so lucky to get this one.” Why didn’t I say it was a blessing from God? Must work on that. “It’s really been making me think.”
“Oh?” Sylvie said again.
Before I could say more, another member of the volleyball team, Melissa, emerged from her room, finally ready. “Jenny not down yet?”
Melissa and Sylvie ran up the stairs to find their missing housemate. “Why don’t you come up?” Sylvie called down from the landing. “We might be a while still.”
I didn’t know whether to bring up the book again, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. As the three girls giggled and primped in front of Jenny’s mirror, I felt like I was intruding on their fun.
It was a relief when we finally strolled down the hill toward the lake in the center of campus. Still not knowing exactly how to join in the conversation, I tried my best to listen and enjoy the late summer evening. A gaggle of Canadian geese stood on the bank in a cluster, all facing toward the water. Two plain white geese floated a few feet from the bank. Their loud squawks broke the hush of the gathering darkness.
I piped up. “Look at those geese, the way they’re standing. When we were freshmen, Ian used to say that the ones swimming in the lake were preaching to those on the bank.”
They giggled. I worried if I’d just humiliated my friend. Did they know Ian or God well enough to think the idea was endearing and not just crazy?
Across the Quad, the lights in the student center blazed. Another record turnout. The week before, 93 people showed up, this week looked even more crowded. If Rob was telling the truth about the nasty rumors on the Elkie Grapevine, could that kind of success last for long?
I pushed the doubts away. Like Oma always said, there was no sense in borrowing trouble. We pushed through the double glass doors of the student center and scrambled to find seats in the crowded room. It was time for the second meeting of Soulfire to begin. 

The twelve leaders of CSF took turns teaming up to present a lesson each week. On this particular evening, twins Ewan and Rhys Finley did the honors. It was a relief to be back the audience after the stress of presenting the week before.
Rhys finished reading the Parable of the Sower, “…It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.’ Jesus explains this parable to the disciples once they are alone…” I’d heard the explanation of the parable many times before, but this time it sparked worry.
If being a Christian was the ultimate self-improvement project, it was also the most challenging. Why couldn’t I stop myself with Brad last year? Why did I end up getting drunk that night in Europe, and why did I hide it from my parents and everyone in CSF? And just that afternoon I had checked another romance novel out of the library and skipped ahead to the juicy parts. That old purity vow had been broken so many times. Why couldn’t I control my thoughts and actions better?
Guilt chased shame in circles and I realized the parable was about me. Crows of lust had been snatching my good intentions away, rocks of perversion kept faith from growing and thorns of guilt choked the fruit a leader was supposed produce.
Offering a silent prayer of confession, I felt a still small voice like the one from the woods urge me to talk to someone about all this. Please, let talking to You be enough, I prayed. I’ll never sin again, I promise. How many times had I said that before? Did I really mean it this time? 

Chapter 24, part 2: Into the Woods

Dry leaves crackled underfoot as I followed Ian down a narrow path through the dense woods at the north end of campus. I began to fret aloud, afraid that Rob’s accusations were at least partly true.
We reached a fallen tree, and Ian motioned for me to sit. He knelt in front of me and took my hand.
“I want you to stop talking to yourself like that, Giselle,” he said gently.
“But it’s all true, isn’t it?” Was that the first time he’d ever used my real name in conversation? 
“Not necessarily. No one’s perfect. We have an Advocate, Jesus Christ, who defends us before the Father against all the Enemy’s slanders and accusations.”
I sniffled and wiped away a tear that slid down my cheek. “I know that sounds right, but I still feel so awful. How can I be sure that God’s not really angry with me?” I asked.
“You really want to know what He thinks of you?”
I nodded.
“Well then, just ask Him.”
“Now?”
“Yes, now. Why don’t you ask God what he thinks about you and just listen for the answer? Scripture says that the Spirit will testify to our spirit that we are his children. I think you could use that assurance right now, don’t you?”
“It sure wouldn’t hurt. It’s worth a try, I guess. How will I know what the answer is? Will I hear a voice?”
“Maybe, or maybe just an impression, or an image. Something so different from what you think about yourself and the way you look at things, that you know it’s gotta be from Him.”
Ian stood and moved behind me, placing one hand on my head and one on my shoulder. When he finished praying, he squeezed my shoulder. I cleared my throat, hesitating. I rarely prayed aloud, and never in front of others. What should I say? Was I praying to the Father, Son or Holy Spirit?
“God,” I stammered at last, “I’m so confused. People I thought were friends have said awful things about me, and worse, I believe them. Can you please show me if they’re right? What do you see when you look at me?” I reached up and touched the hand on my shoulder to let Ian know I was done.
“Good, now we meditate in silence for as long as it takes for the Lord to move,” he said. He sat down across from me. “Just close your eyes again, and listen for God’s voice.”
I did as instructed, feeling ridiculous. Nothing happened. What was I expecting, a ray of light to beam down from the clouds and a choir of angels heralding the answer?
I began to formulate a way to gracefully exit the situation without hurting Ian’s feelings or looking like a heathen. I knew he would want me to share God’s answer, and I had to come up with something plausible. What would God be likely to say?
Before I could concoct anything, I heard it.
Giselle Gottlieb, my precious daughter, I love you more than you can know.
A warm tingle spread from my scalp down to my shoulders. Where did that come from? Did I invent it?
Before I could analyze further, a series of images flashed on my mind’s eye. A small girl ran to the arms of a large man with a full, dark beard. “Daddy!” the child cried with delight. The man swept the girl into a bear hug, and all at once, I was the girl. Arms wrapped around me tightly, rocking me back and forth.
My heart filled with an intense emotion beyond description. I wept.
The vision subsided, and I opened my eyes. I still sat in the cold gray woods. Doubts crept in instantly. Had that been real or just a product of an overactive imagination? Perhaps my subconscious generated the pictures to help ease the pain of the truth?
Ian appeared to be studying me. “It looks like God answered your prayer. If you don’t mind sharing, what did He say?”
“He said … well, it’s not like I heard an actual voice.” Why did I hesitate to repeat the words I had been given? “I saw a man hugging a girl, and then I felt like maybe I was the girl being hugged. I don’t know. Honestly, it feels like I just imagined the whole thing.”
“Don’t be so hasty to say that, Gigi. Think about how you felt when you saw that man hugging the girl. What did it mean to you?”
“It really touched me to see how happy he was to see her, and she him. I’ve never seen such a joyful reunion.”
“Maybe that could have been God showing His heart for you. He does long to spend time with us, you know. And he calls us his children. I want you to keep praying about it this week to get confirmation from the Lord, but it sounds to me like He wanted to give you a powerful experience of His love.”

It didn’t make sense. I fell so short of everyone’s expectations, especially my own. Could God really love me that much?  

Chapter 24, part 1: Unexpected Encounters

Dr. Pearl Larter won my heart the first day of Medieval History class. From the moment she came in dressed like a royal courtier and gave a soliloquy on the modern day influences of the Holy Roman Empire, Dr. Larter captivated her classroom. The elderly professor didn’t just lecture—she physically translated her passion for history to everyone in the room with each vivid description and illustrative action. The seventy-five minutes flew by as she asked volunteers to role-play the crowning of Charlemagne and the subsequent division of the Holy Roman Empire.
Over the clamor and tumult of students in the hall, I thought I heard someone call my name. I turned, trying to place the familiar voice.
Brad waved from the PoliSci department across the way. “Giselle! Come here a sec, will ya?”
He looked as All-American as ever. In his Abercrombie t-shirt and backwards cap, bookbag casually slung over one shoulder, he might as well have stepped out of the pages of the college’s advertising brochures.
“Hey listen, I got my pictures from Germany developed. There were a few shots of you that maybe you’d like to have. I got doubles so…” He trailed off as he held out a thick envelope with my name scrawled on it.
I met his eyes, surprised at the kind sincerity in his voice, and stammered thanks. Things had ended so awkwardly between us. How could he be so nice?
“Go ahead, open it.” He hovered over my shoulder as I shuffled through the stack of prints. “Betcha didn’t know I could take pictures like that.”
His eagerness and boyish bravado made me smile. “They’re really spectacular. Thank you,” I said after flipping through the first ten or so.
Each of the photos, a series of candid shots taken primarily during the visits to Vienna and Salzburg, showed the exquisite composition of an artistic eye. All that athletic talent and looks, and he still had secrets up his sleeve. Why did I walk away from him again?
“Don’t thank me yet. You haven’t seen my piece de restaurants.”
I gritted my teeth to keep from correcting him, remembering at least part of the reason I’d been willing to let Zoey have him so easily.
Brad rested his left hand on my shoulder and reached with his right to slip the last image in the stack to the top. His camera had caught me in profile, hands solemnly clasped behind my back, face and frizz glowing with the riotous pinks and reds of a window in Vienna’s Votivkirche. The expression on my face—joy mixed with awe and silent contemplation—captured all the best feelings of that trip.
Brad touched my shoulder again, ever so slightly pulling me toward him. “Of course, a shot like that would’ve been impossible without a certain type of model,” he said softly, running his hand along the side of my face. “You always did look like an angel.”
Behind us, someone made a dramatic noise of clearing her throat.
“Oh, hi Zoey,” Brad said. “I was just showing Giselle that great shot I took of her.”
“Whatever. Are you ready to go? I’m starved.” She grabbed his hand and started to drag him away.
“See you around, Giselle,” Brad called back, prompting another jerk on the arm from Zoey.

With a sigh, I looked at my watch. Only 10:50. The dining hall didn’t even open for lunch until 11:00. I headed across the quad to my second class, Modern German Cinema.
***
By the time I arrived at Paxton Dining Hall after class and made it through the cafeteria line, Ian, Lacey and her boyfriend Rob sat in front of half-eaten lunches. Ian pushed his food around on the plate with his fork. Rob leaned back scowling, arms folded across his chest. Lacey looked from one to the other and back down at her lap.
“Hey guys, what’s going on?” I said cheerfully. I smiled at my friends, and then started in on my grilled cheese sandwich.
“We were just talking about this week’s Soulfire meeting.”
“How do you think it went, Giselle?” Rob asked in a sinister tone.
“Okay, I guess,” I said warily.
“Okay, huh? You would think that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Just that maybe if you spent half as much time studying God’s word as you do cavorting with lesbians and flirting with frat boys, you wouldn’t have stood there stuttering at a simple question last night. You supposedly represent Christians on campus, and you made us all look like idiots. The Bible says, ‘Always be ready to answer any man concerning your faith.’ Not that you’d know that.”
“Lay off, Rob.” Ian’s voice sounded low and tight.
“No, she needs to hear this. She’s part of the reason why I’m going to start a new club on campus with Lacey, a better one. Here’s another thing that you may not have heard, Ian – did you know rumors are flying around campus that one day last spring, Giselle was seen exiting Brad Talbert’s room?”
“Nothing happened in there,” I protested. “I did let a make-out session go a tiny bit too far, but that’s it.”
“That’s not what Lacey and I just heard through the Elkie Grapevine,” said Rob.
“Why do you always give so much credit to gossip?” I shot back.
Rob scoffed, “No, the question is what were you ever doing in a boy’s room anyway? You should have avoided even the appearance of evil. It’s people like you that make all Christians look like hypocrites. Nice work, Giselle.”
“That’s enough, Rob,” said Ian, slamming his fist on the table. Lacey abruptly got up and left. I could see her through the window, pacing, tears streaming down her face.
I blinked back my own tears. Had I lost Lacey’s friendship after all? Rob obviously hated me and she hadn’t said a word in my defense.
Rob left too after saying a few more choice words. I sat staring straight ahead, feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.
After a few moments, Ian put his hand on mine.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.” I pushed back the tray with its half-eaten sandwich and cold bowl of tomato soup. “I’ve definitely lost my appetite. Can we get out of here?”
“Sure. I don’t have another class until 3:30. We could go somewhere and talk — my room or yours?”
“Neither. I don’t want to risk giving those two any more ammunition against me.”
“How about we hike out into the woods behind the Hollow? There’s a clearing where I like to go and pray in the mornings.” 

Chapter 23, part 2: First Soulfire

I was surprised to get a call from Kirsten on Monday afternoon.
“I decided I want to go to that group of yours after all, but I don’t want to walk in alone. Can you meet me at my room?”
When I showed up Tuesday evening, Kirsten’s room was full of people, mostly boys, who seemed to center all their attention on Lisa.
A few of them made smart remarks: “Have fun at your do-gooders meeting.” – “What a waste of time. Whaddya guys do, sit around and congratulate yourselves on being better than everyone?”
Yes, in fact. Sometimes, we do, I thought. Maybe this year I could use my role as Shepherd to change some of the more undesirable attitudes lurking in the hearts of CSF’s members.
At the Volleyball house, it turned out Breanne’s girlfriend Lori had decided to come along to CSF’s first meeting of the year. On the trip to the Quad, Kirsten spent most of her time talking with Breanne and Lori. I’d been hoping to catch up with Breanne, but was glad Kirsten had found a friend.
At any rate, my mental preparations for the gospel presentation I would give made it hard to keep up a conversation. That morning I had woken up with a headache after a night of fitful dreams. I hadn’t taken a single word of notes in class, instead using the time to write out the speech over and over to make sure it was memorized.
When we arrived at the Student Center, I really started to panic. The place was packed. There were at least twice as many people there as usual. Kirsten and the others moved off to mingle and I found Ian.
Wringing my hands and pacing I complained, “Look how many people there are. I was planning to speak to forty or fifty people, not one hundred! What are we going to do?”
He put an arm around me. “Be still and know, Giselle. It’s all in His hands. Let’s pray.”
A tense nod was my only response as Ian once again talked directly to God in that disconcertingly off-handed way of his, arm still around me. Did it mean anything that he was so touchy-feely all of a sudden? More importantly, how could he be so calm?
The meeting began with praise and worship. Singing and clapping lifted my spirits a bit, but it ended too soon. Ian stood and signaled for me to follow him to the center of the open area at the front of the room. He introduced us and plunged right into the planned presentation.
Inspiration struck as I listened for my cue. “… with your stage experience,” Ian had said. Acting in high school musicals, I never suffered stage fright, and hadn’t I made hundreds of presentations and closed scores of sales during the summer by relying on a script? I didn’t need a spotlight to separate me from the audience then, and I didn’t need it now. I could pretend I was merely playing the part of an evangelist! For the first time in my life, I managed to get through a speech without tripping over my tongue or developing a tremor in my hands. Triumph swelled in my chest as we wrapped up the gospel presentation. It’s all thanks to my training with Velocity Marketing, I decided. Now the worst of it’s over and I can relax.
Ian opened the floor to questions.
“Giselle, I heard you say this Christ is the only way to heaven, yes?” an Indian exchange student called from the back of the room. “In my country, there are many who have never heard this name. What kind of divine being would condemn them to eternal torment for their ignorance? Do you really expect me to worship someone so cruel?” About a quarter of the room rumbled in agreement.
I stammered, not knowing what to say. Since Dachau, similar questions flitted through my mind with some regularity.
Ian jumped in to fill the awkward silence. “I don’t know the answer to that, and I’m not going to pretend I do. God is love—that’s all I know. I trust He has a plan for those people. The God I serve would never be cruel or unjust. Next question?”
“What about gays?” a familiar voice asked. “Does God love us too?” Everyone turned to look at Lori and Breanne holding hands.
“God does love you, Breanne, and your friend too,” Ian said with conviction and compassion. Why wasn’t I the one to say that? Some friend.
Thankfully the clock struck nine before anyone could ask another question. Terry Reynolds, the club adviser and school chaplain, stood and announced that if anyone wanted to talk more about the mystery of faith, they should come see him in his office or at his table at the activity fair on Thursday.

That night, I ruminated over Rev. Reynolds’ invitation. I longed to talk to someone about the doubts that started last spring and gained strength in Germany, but how would it look for a leader to admit such deep misgivings?  

Chapter 23, part 1: Door to Door

In respect for Kirsten’s wishes, I tried to limit our contact. It turned out to be easy, since there were plenty of other crises to occupy my mind, like preparing for the speech Ian had signed me up to give. Classes began on a Wednesday, which gave us about a week to prepare for Tuesday’s Soulfire meeting.

I gave Ian a call that afternoon. “When can we get together to practice for Tuesday?”
“Why do we need to practice? I figured the Holy Spirit would give us the words.”
Most days I admired his extreme spirituality, but no way would I wing something that important. Trusting that God might let me into heaven one day was one thing, but trusting Him to write a speech? That was ridiculous.
At my insistence, we arranged to meet that night as well as Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon to practice exactly what we were going to say.
“How’s Brad?” Ian said when I arrived at his dorm room.
“We broke up over the summer.”
“Before or after your trip together?”
“During … it was pretty awkward. I almost wish I had skipped it and come to Ohio for the leaders retreat instead.”
Ian gave me a hug. “I wish you had been there too, Giselle,” he said. “God really showed up in a big way. It was a mountaintop experience for sure. He has big things planned for us this year. But don’t worry; I’ll help you catch the vision. I know you were there in spirit, praying for us. I’m sure that’s part of what made our retreat so successful.”
I smiled tightly, hesitant to correct him. How could I tell him that while the rest of CSF leadership had been drawing closer to God, I was busy getting drunk and admitting to a non-Christian that I had doubts that God even existed?
No, now that I was back on campus, the thing to do was pretend it had never happened. I wanted to always remember the somber lessons of Dachau, the soft glow of the stained glass in St. Stephan’s Dom, and the glorious view from the windows of castle Neuschwanstein, but I wanted to let the rest of the trip fade away like a bad dream.
The next day, Ian and I collected survey cards from the students at the weekly Thursday chapel service as the senior Shepherds instructed. The first service of the year was the one and only time that chapel attendance was mandatory, our one shot at a captive audience for an advertisement of CSF. That night, the two of us sorted through the cards, setting aside anyone who indicated the slightest interest in campus religious life.
We planned to meet the following afternoon to go door to door to visit the most likely suspects and invite them personally to come to Soulfire. It had been my idea based on some of the marketing techniques I’d learned that summer selling knives. I hoped it would result in record attendance. Maybe then I could feel like I was back on God’s good side.
Friday afternoon, Ian waited at the bottom of the stairs, examining the woodwork. “Man, I love old houses like this. How come you get to live here, when I’m stuck over in the dorms?”
“It’s the German Club’s house. There aren’t that many majors or minors, so I got a spot no problem. The best part is I got a single.”
“Awesome. And check out this huge living room and kitchen. It would rock to hang out down here with your housemates, maybe start a Bible study. Who are they? Do you get along with them?”
I rattled off the five names. “I haven’t seen much of them, to be honest.” It wasn’t completely true. Zoey had one of the three rooms on my floor. I said hi on move-in day, but Zoey flipped her straight auburn hair and stalked off without saying a word. Maybe the blaring Walkman glued to her ears had been to blame for the cold shoulder. I wondered if she and Brad were still an item or if it had been just one of those flings that happen on school trips.
Half hoping to run into Brad, I suggested we start with the fraternity houses at the western edge of campus and work our way back from there. An early afternoon storm had come and gone, leaving the air like a steam bath.
“We better hurry if you’re going to make it to that house church of yours before sundown,” I said.
“Oh, I won’t be going there this year.”
“Why not?”
“Well, for one thing, they disbanded the church over the summer. But, God showed me that all that outward righteousness stuff was a stronghold for pride, and a distraction. I felt like I knew more than everyone else, like I had some inside track on spiritual knowledge, when the truth is I’m just a miserable sinner, a dead man made alive in Christ.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a great Christian. At least, I’ve always looked up to you,” I said.
“That’s just the problem. You should have your eyes on Jesus, not me.”
We walked in silence for a while as I absorbed Ian’s comments. My eyes weren’t on Jesus. What did that even mean?
“It’s so awesome how much you love everyone,” Ian said.
What a nice encouragement. “It’s kind of you to say that.” I hoped that sounded humble enough.
“Uh, sorry Gigi. Not that you don’t love people, but I was talking to Jesus,” Ian said, eyes twinkling. “Over the summer, the pastor at my parents’ church showed me that God wants to be friends with us. Can you imagine if we talked to our friends like most people talk to God? I’d be all like, ‘Dear Most Lovely and Beautiful Giselle, I just want to ask you, Giselle, to just forgive me, Giselle, for just, um, confusing your great and mighty mind.’”
I opened my mouth to respond, but without missing a beat, Ian continued his strange one-way conversation with the Lord. I tried not to eavesdrop as we continued down the East Hill, crossed the thickly wooded Hollow and made the steep ascent to Memorial Hall. He spoke so casually, as if Jesus was just a dude strolling alongside us. Wasn’t that disrespectful? And did he just call me beautiful?
When Ian at last fell silent, I changed the subject. “I finally ran into Lacey today on the Quad. Of course, she and Rob were glued at the hip, just like last year.”
“Whoa, sounds like someone’s jealous.” He made an exaggerated show of flinching, as if he expected a retaliatory smack on the arm for giving me a hard time—again.
I remembered the silent treatment Lacey gave me last spring when the leader selections for CSF were announced, and wondered what Ian would think if I told him it was Lacey who was the jealous one.
“Speaking of Lacey,” Ian said, “that reminds me—I was supposed to give you a message from her. ‘Tell Giselle to live it up in the German House. Don’t worry about me, wasting away in Reid Hall with a strange new roommate. It’s hard to adjust, but somehow I’ll survive.’”
I laughed at Ian’s imitation of Lacey’s thick accent. “Yeah, she gave me that spiel already.”
Lacey joking again was a good sign—maybe she was getting over not being chosen, or that I was chosen in her place. The last month or so of school were awkward to say the least. Spending time with Brad or, when I wanted to avoid him too, studying for finals in Breanne’s room, gave me the perfect excuse to be out of Lacey’s way as often as possible.
“Earth to Gigi. We’re here.”
I looked up and saw that we had reached the last house on Fraternity Row.
Ian waved a hand in front of my face, still teasing. “What were you daydreaming about this time?”
I smiled, grateful for rescue from that particular tangent of memories. “I was just thinking what a blessing your friendship is.” I winced inwardly at that faker-than-fake “churchspeak,” but couldn’t stop myself from reaching over and squeezing his arm with a cutesy little laugh. “I missed you guys over the summer,” I finished. That much was true.
Ian cleared his throat and marched up to the door without responding.
I spent the whole summer selling expensive knives that no one really needed, but never felt as much like a pesky salesman as I did over the next two hours going door to door. By the time we made it back to East Hill and started up Lakeside Drive, the sun hung low in the sky. We agreed to split up to tackle the Women’s Volleyball and Men’s Wrestling Houses. Breanne lived here this year. I thought I’d just spend some time gabbing with her and then meet Ian outside.
I introduced myself. “Is Breanne home?”
“Hi, Giselle, nice to meet you. I’m Jenny Pearson. Sorry to tell you, Breanne’s girlfriend lives only a few miles away, and the lucky dog ain’t got no Friday classes, so she went over there for the weekend. Can I help you with somethin’?”
Automatically and without much passion, I rattled off the spiel about CSF and Soulfire.

Jenny’s warm response came as a surprise. “You can count on me being there, and I’ll see if I can get Breanne and some of the other girls in the house to come too. Tell you what, why don’t you stop by on Tuesday and walk over with us?” 

Chapter 22, part 2: Missed Opportunity

A few days later, Kirsten complained for the hundredth time about the sweat dripping down her back as we unloaded the car outside yet another motel room. After three days of driving, we were now in some flat, oppressively hot place in the middle of Indiana. She pulled me aside as our parents disappeared into the room.
“Giselle, tell me you were kidding when you said the humidity was not that bad. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.”
“Trust me, it may not seem like it now, but you’ll adjust.” Or maybe she wouldn’t. How could I know how uncomfortable she really was?
“How can I, when each day we drive takes me further from Charlie?” She shouldered past me through the door. “Great. Another dump,” she said to no one in particular, plopping her bag in the middle of the bed closest to the door.
“Frank, do something,” Mom said. “I’ve had it up to here with Kirsten’s attitude.”
“As if I care,” Kirsten snapped. 
I busied myself with my bags, hoping not to get involved.
“Watch your tone, young lady,” Daddy said. He rarely intervened between them, but after three long days on the road, I think all our nerves were frayed. “Your mother and I are entitled to your respect.”
“Then how ‘bout you show me some? I told you two hours ago that I was hungry, but you drove on like you could care less.”
Daddy heaved a big sigh. “No one forced you to be a vegetarian. We’re not always going to be able to stop at a place with salads, nor would I want to. There are four of us on this trip, and in this family, majority rules.”
“Maybe if you stopped at the farmer’s market we passed this morning like I asked—”
Mom talked over her. “You’re going to have to get used to compromise if you’re going to get along with a roommate.”
“Whatever. I know Lisa will be cool. She called me last week, remember? We’re going to get along fine. Even if we don’t, anything would be better than living under the same roof with you.” The intensity of Kirsten’s glare matched her vehement tone.
“For the last time, you are not to speak about or to your mother that way. If you even so much as roll your eyes at her one more time— “
“What are you going to do, Dad, spank me? Huh? Don’t you think I’m a little old for that? I’m eighteen, an adult.”
“Don’t I wish,” Daddy said. “It’s times like this I wish I’d never listened to your mother when she went in for all this positive discipline malarkey. Maybe then you’d know how to act like the adult you claim to be.”
“Maybe if you let me make my own decisions, I’d know how.” She sounded bitter.
Maybe that was the root of her resentment. She had applied to Elk River on her own, but it was our parents who wouldn’t let her change her mind after she got engaged to Charlie.
The argument continued to escalate to name-calling. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more.
“Stop it! Just stop it!” I sprung to my feet, hands balled in fists. Kirsten looked at me as though she were shocked I could be so loud. “Have a little consideration. I can’t stand to hear you all being so hateful to each other.”
Kirsten scoffed. "Get over it. That’s what being a part of this family means,” she snapped, and stormed out of the room into the humid night.
Mom started to cry into Daddy’s chest. I slipped out of the room and left them wrapped in their own little world of worry.
Ahead of me, Kirsten stalked over to a bench bolted to the sidewalk outside the entrance of a Denny’s across the parking lot from the motel.
Scenes like this had been going on all summer. As soon as the ring was on her finger, Kirsten had started her campaign to convince Mom and Daddy to let her live at home and go to community college while she waited to transfer to UC Berkeley to be with Charlie. Yet somehow, they managed to convince her to stick with the original plan and go to Elk River—that the temporary separation would be worth it. Didn’t she want a real college experience of her own, like me? I hated to be used as the bar of comparison, but there it was.
Kirsten once told me that she had only applied to Elk River in the first place because the enthusiastic letters and emails I sent her last year had made the tiny school sound so appealing. The timing of Oma’s death probably had something to do with it too.
I did hope she would come to share my deep appreciation for the friendly community of students and lovely campus—its tidy ivy-covered brick academic buildings, the picturesque rolling hills. Growing up in Southern California, we kids had always wondered together what it would be like to live through real seasons, and I wanted her to share the gorgeous fall colors, crisp late autumn air, the hush of falling snow and the glory of a new spring day in person with me.
I decided I had better go out and talk to her. She was turned away from the motel and didn’t seem to notice me sit next to her.  I cleared my throat to get her attention, ducking my head with a wry smile when she looked my way. “So, you gonna sleep out here or what?”
“I just need to cool down a bit.”
“There’s air conditioning in the room, you know. Or maybe we could go for a swim …” Okay, it was a lame joke, but it made her laugh. 
“Cut it out. You know what I mean,” she said.
After a bit of silence, Kirsten stood and said, "Actually, I was thinking about going in Denny’s to get something to eat. Want to join me?"
We sisters settled into a booth. Kirsten ordered a salad and I asked for apple pie. Neither of us said much as we ate.
“What was all that about back there?” I asked as we lingered over empty plates.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me. I’m not as perfect as you think.”
The waitress brought back change for my twenty, and I stood as if to go. Kirsten patted the seat next to her. “I really don’t want to go back to the room until I’m sure Mom and Daddy are asleep. Can you stick around?”
“Sure. But only if you tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Kirsten sighed and looked away. “I don’t know what's wrong exactly. I’m so confused—”
I interrupted. “Wait, I have a guess.”
“You do?” Kirsten looked terrified and grateful all at once.
“Sure, it’s probably just nerves … you’re worried about being in a strange place on your own, right? So was I. But I’ll be there.”
“I guess that could be part of it. But I don’t want to be the tagalong baby sister this time.”
“I’m sure everyone will love you. I mean, it’s a given that the guys will fall all over you. They always do.”
She shifted uncomfortably. “I’m with Charlie, remember?”
“Never mind. The point is, you’ll be fine.” I patted her leg. “You know what you should do. Come to CSF with me.”
She murmured an agreement, staring out the window to the highway in the distance. We headed back across the parking lot.
Kirsten stopped me just as I was about to slide the card key in the motel room door. “Giselle, can I ask you something?”
“Anything.”
"Do you ever, you know, have sexual thoughts?”
I froze. "Why do you ask?” I wasn’t as perfect as she thought, but I wasn’t ready to talk about this now.
But you need to.

I needed to? Before I could process where that voice came from, Kirsten was talking again.
“Well, we can’t control them right? But they don’t have to mean anything either, right?”
“That sounds right. Um, what’s that Luther saying? You can’t stop a bird from flying past but you don’t have to build it a nest.” I again ignored a strange impulse to tell her about my own struggles with “bird nests.”
“Ok, I guess that’s all I wanted to know. Thanks.”
“What are big sisters for?” I gave her a hug. “Can we go inside now? Mosquitoes are eating us alive out here. Mom and Daddy were getting ready for bed when I left. I bet they’re asleep already.”
We stayed up whispering excitedly about what the next day would hold, giggling softly late into the night as we had when we shared a room as children. The last thing Kirsten said before she drifted off to sleep was how much she was looking forward to our arrival on campus the next day.
We left Terre Haute at nine. Our talk seemed to have done nothing to improve Kirsten’s disposition. If anything, she was more surly. Kirsten and Mom spent the morning bickering over how long it should take to get ready and where to eat breakfast. Daddy and I rolled our eyes at each other when they weren’t looking. I was glad when Kirsten decided to give Mom the silent treatment. Tense quiet was far preferable to the alternative.
We stopped for lunch in Columbus. We all seemed more relaxed with food in our bellies, and spent the last hour of the trip in easy conversation. I told story after story from last year and what Kirsten could look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see my friends again.
We all helped Kirsten settle into her room in Warner Hall. I was glad we were both on the East Hill. We were about done unpacking when Lisa and her parents showed up. We quickly got out of their way. I led my family on a tour of campus, starting with my room in the German program house. After a dinner in Paxton Dining Hall, Kirsten and I walked our parents back to the van.
Mom walked over to Kirsten, arms open for a hug.
Kirsten backed away, refusing contact. “Bye Mom, bye Daddy. You better get going if you’re going to make it back to Terre Haute tonight.”
Mom looked sadly at Daddy and dropped her arms. “Bye sweetie. Have a wonderful semester. We’ll see you girls at Christmas.”
Kirsten and I stood in silence for a moment, watching the tail lights shrink then disappear over the hill at the campus entrance. She told me she was late for a freshman orientation meeting in the dorm and hurried off.
She turned back when she heard me call, “What time do you want to meet for breakfast tomorrow?”
“Who said we were meeting for breakfast?” She kept walking backwards. “You don’t have to babysit me, Giselle. Just pretend I’m not here, okay?”

With that, she turned and ran up the steps of Warner Hall. 

Chapter 22, part 1: Road Trip

When I got back from Europe, among the junk email in my inbox was a message from Ian. “We had an impromptu CSF leaders’ retreat while you were gone. Hope you don’t mind, but I signed us up to run the first Soulfire of the year –that’s what we renamed our weekly meetings. Isn’t it cool? I want it to be a gospel presentation. Talking about Jesus is my passion, and with all your stage experience, I know you’ll do great.”

As much as I loved being on stage, I dreaded public speaking. It was different without the spotlight between me and the audience. The few times I'd had to do it in high school, adrenaline got the best of me and I ended up trembling so hard that even my voice shook.  What was I going to do?

Mom and Daddy drove Kirsten and I across country to Elk River soon after, leaving Ruthie with Aunt Martha.

“We just entered New Mexico, ladies,” Daddy announced the second morning of the trip.

“Ugh,” said Mom. “I always hate this part of the drive. Nothing to see.” She turned as much as the seat belt would allow her and touched my knee. “Gigi--I mean, Giselle--why don’t you keep us entertained? Tell us more about your trip. You’ve been home almost two days and yet we’ve hardly heard anything about it. Didn’t you have a good time?”
“I did have a good time. I was just waiting for the right moment to tell you about it, I guess. Besides, it was kind of hard to come up with entertaining anecdotes while zonked out by jet lag. And then when I was awake, we were all so busy packing and loading Kirsten’s endless suitcases—”
“Don’t exaggerate Giselle,” Kirsten protested. “Anyway, I don’t believe in traveling light. Is it my fault I got all the fashion sense in the family?”
“Now, Kirsten, be kind,” Mom scolded. “Giselle may not be a clotheshorse like you, but she always looks reasonably well put together.”
I rolled my eyes. “Gee, thanks for the rave review, Mom.”
Kirsten giggled. “I wasn’t necessarily talking about Giselle – although, no offense sis, you could stand to watch a few episodes of What Not to Wear. But even Giselle knows better than to go out in public in corduroy slippers – Daddy. And Mom, the eighties called, and they want their big hair back.”
Mom clutched her silvery waves in mock horror. “Very funny, Kirsten. But what’s this program you’re referring to?”
“Oh, you know, it’s on cable. I watch it sometimes when I’m over at Heidi’s.”
Mom’s voice flattened, all joking gone. “You know I don’t like you girls watching the smut on cable.”
“Mo-o-o-o-m, for your information, not everything on cable is smut,” Kirsten protested.
It was too late. Mom had already launched into her oft-repeated rants on modesty and the decaying morals of today’s youth, and there would be no stopping her until she reached the end of it.
I didn’t mind — I still needed to process what had happened in Germany before I wanted to talk too much about it. The more time I had to carefully consider how to describe each moment of the trip without pinging Mom’s vice police radar, the better. Even the slightest allusion to the misunderstood accusations of sexual misconduct, the episodes of public drunkenness and especially the questions and doubts about my faith would inevitably lead to a flurry of questions worse than the Spanish Inquisition.
Daddy caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. “Millie, as relevant as your comments always are, I think Giselle was about to tell us about her trip. I for one am very interested to hear all about it. Did you get your money’s worth?” I winced at the implied condemnation – in the months leading up to my departure he made it abundantly clear he considered the entire trip a foolish waste of money, the pinnacle of bad stewardship.
I cleared my throat to buy precious seconds of more time. The topic was now unavoidable, and faced with Daddy’s challenge, I couldn’t afford to make it sound anything less than spectacular.
“Giselle, it sounds like you had an absolutely wonderful time,” Mom said when the censored and slightly embellished tale was finished. “I’m so proud of you for using that time away to reflect and grow closer to God. Frank, maybe now you’ll listen to me when I tell you we should visit Europe. I’ve always wanted to go, and our twenty-fifth anniversary is coming up next summer.”

I heaved a sigh of relief. Mom’s campaign to get Daddy across the Atlantic was one she wouldn’t easily drop once she got hold of it. I was off the hook. My parents would never have to know the truth. Hopefully the other CSF leaders wouldn’t either.

Chapter 21, part 3: Intoxication

We arrived in Vienna’s Altstadt in time for a late lunch. At a table in a tiny café, I continued talking with Tom and Owen, enjoying their competition to impress me with tales of their feats on the baseball diamond. At the next table, Dr. Eberhardt and Josh debated the merits of malts versus lagers. Zoey and Brad seemed wrapped up in their own little world. I offered a silent thank you to God for the new lack of verbal sniping.
Dr. Eberhardt gave us free time for the rest of the afternoon. After settling into my new room and taking a short nap, I wandered the cobbled streets that led from our hotel to the plaza in front of St. Stephan’s Dom. I sat on a bench, considering all Zoey had said. Although I rejected her theory on God’s existence or character, I did question the wisdom and purpose of abstaining from alcohol. What harm would one drink do?
At dinner, I ordered my first glass of wine.
“Giselle’s taking a walk on the wild side,” Brad said, and his buddies reacted with similar facetious expressions of shock. Choosing to believe it was all good-natured, I took no offense.
The deep glass arrived long before the food. I sipped the dark red liquid, and it burned all the way down to my empty stomach. The more I drank, the better it tasted. The waiter soon brought another, and another. I smiled warmly at my traveling companions. They were such lovely people. What sharp wits they had! Everything they said was hilarious.
“Hey guys,” I blurted. “Guess what happened to me this afternoon?”
“You got a message from God that drinking is now okay?” Zoey called out.
At least a minute passed before my giggles subsided enough to continue. “No, sillies, listen. Something really funny happened. I walked over to the bakery next door to grab a snack. I tried to order “ein glass milch, bitte” to go with one of those huge chocolate covered croissants. I totally screwed it up, because they brought me an enormous glass of mutterbilk. I mean buttermilk.” I slipped into another fit of giggles. “I’ve never seen such a tall glass. It was like this big.” My broad gesture to indicate the size knocked over the nearly-empty fourth glass of wine.
“Best watch how much you drink there, Giselle, dearie, ‘cause I don’t think anyone here wants to hold your hair back if you get sick,” Zoey said.
I smiled dreamily back at her and fell silent. Reclining in the high-backed chair, I enjoyed the warm glow of the candle-lit room and basked in the charming conversation that swirled around. Tom and Owen ordered Jagermeister and asked if I wanted to try some.
“Sure, why not?”
By the time the food arrived, a vague sense of vertigo had set in. I ate a few bites of the wienerschnitzel with noodles, and then pushed the plate back. I asked the waiter to bring a glass of dreaded mineral water. It would be worth choking down if it could settle my stomach.
No such luck. I barely made it to the restaurant’s restroom before the wine, Jagermeister and few bites of dinner came back out. After the room stopped spinning, I stumbled back to the table.
Dr. Eberhardt asked Zoey to walk me the few blocks back to the hotel. She reluctantly agreed. I retched into a bush, and true to her word, Zoey did not hold my hair back. The next thing I remembered was waking up on the floor of the hotel bathroom with another bout of nausea. I staggered to bed.
I woke up the next morning, temples in a vise. I groaned when I saw it was already 11:00 a.m. I had missed the departure time for our excursion to Schoenbrunn palace. The chiming of the clock tower of the cathedral rang in my ears. I sat up, but a dizzy spell sent me back to the bathroom. After I spent myself, I sank back onto the bed with a groan, flooded with guilt. I’d broken yet another vow to God and for what? It had been frighteningly easy to turn against Him to fit in with the world. What would Ian and the other CSF leaders think if they knew what I’d been up to on this trip?
I knelt beside the bed and prayed as if for the first time. In the regret of that morning after, I cried out to God as though my life depended on it, using none of the right words. Everything came spilling out in a jumble of confession — selfishness, pride, sexual fantasies, my foolish choice to poison my body with alcohol.
Most of all, though, I kept repeating variations on one theme. “I don’t know you as well as people think I do. I’m tired of being a fake, just a goody-good,” I whispered between sobs. “Please, I beg you, strip everything that looks good but is just a façade. Give me real knowledge of you. Knock me down and rebuild me from the ground up.”
It was the most honest, most dangerous thing I ever prayed.
And yet, nothing much changed that day, or the rest of the trip for that matter. I made a special effort to get along with Zoey while avoiding contact with Brad as much as possible. I continued to order wine or even beer with dinner but took only a few sips. As predicted, I loved Vienna, and found Prague to be an unexpected treasure. Salzburg, a little disappointing. By the end of the trip, I had chalked up that sobbing conversation with God to a wicked combination of a hangover and the overwrought emotions that always preceded my period, which had started two days later.