Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chapter 34, part 2: Repentance Impossible?

The Kirsten who flew back to Ohio with me the Wednesday after New Years might as well have been a different person from the one who had traveled with Brad and I three weeks before. She talked almost non-stop about her love for Charlie, her excitement at transferring to a different school in the fall, her hope that she’d get along better with the new roommate she’d be getting this semester.

It wasn’t until Brad picked us up from the airport that she fell silent. “See you at CSF on Tuesday I guess,” she said when we dropped her off.

I felt like a zombie the first few days back on campus. My digestive problems woke me up in the middle of the night, and worries about my potential pregnancy kept me from falling back asleep. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to buy a test. Not yet.

I yawned my way through classes, and worked out calculations of how far along I might be instead of taking notes on the lectures. At meals, Brad steered us to empty tables instead of joining our friends. That was fine with me, I wasn’t in a mood to talk to anyone. I just let Brad do the talking while my worries swirled endlessly.

“Giselle? Giselle? I asked you a question.”

“Sorry, I spaced out there for a second.”

“A second? You’ve been a million miles away all week. What’s going on?”

Could I tell him? No, not yet. Not until I was sure. “My stomach’s been bothering me.”

“It’s stress, isn’t it? All that crap with CSF? I still think you should quit.”

“Maybe that’s part of it.”

“Not maybe, definitely. So Jay from my photography class wants us to go to Columbus with him and his girlfriend. I told him we’d meet up with him after dinner. Don’t take too long to pack. ”

“Sorry, I just don’t feel up to it. I think I’m just going to lay low this weekend.” Brad gave me a hard time, but I insisted he go without me. He finally agreed as long as I was staying in my room, “so he’d know where I was.”

I slept in late Saturday morning, and decided to spend the day unpacking and giving my room a long overdue cleaning. I turned on the radio and for some reason settled on the Christian music station. Brad always changed the channel when I tried to listen to that kind of music with him, and I enjoyed hearing some of my old favorites. A hymn hour came on, stirring memories of childhood Sundays.

The next morning after another night of little sleep, I decided I’d go to church since I was awake anyway. Not knowing where else to go, I walked down to Main Street Pentecostal.

Lacey looked surprised when I slipped into the pew next to her just as the sermon got started. Brother Thomas preached on Hebrews 6:4-6. He opened by reading the passage aloud:

“For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened—those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come—and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.”


Was I “such people”? Even though I’d never been sure I was the right kind of Christian, it seemed certain that I’d been once enlightened. Infant baptism, asking Jesus into my heart, responding to an altar call … at least one of those had to have counted. And now I was openly defying God. Wasn’t that the very essence of turning away from Him? Maybe that’s why I’d lost the old joy of Christmas. The phrase “it is impossible to bring back to repentance,” rang in my ears all day.

Chapter 34, part 1: Winter Worries

“Giselle, I am so proud of you,” Mom said on December 23 as we wrapped presents together. “You are turning into such a godly young woman.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

I put my finger on the ribbon she had just wound around the last Christmas present in Santa’s workshop, our family name for the gift wrapping assembly line that we set up in my parents’ bedroom every year. Mom wouldn’t be proud much longer if she knew the dark thoughts I’d been having, or what Brad and I had been doing. Well, she wouldn’t find out unless … oh no, what if we had left evidence in the car?

Mom squeezed my shoulder. “That kind of humility is just one of the many fruits of the Spirit I’ve noticed developing in you.” She stood up from the edge of the bed. “There, that’s done. Let’s get these presents under the tree."

I hardly slept that night. It was Christmas, supposedly a time of joy. But all I felt was emptiness. Maybe it was because the whole Christmas story seemed like a ridiculous fairy tale this year. Or maybe it was just that time of the month like Mom had said the other day?

Wait, when was the last time I’d had my period? I never was very good at keeping track of those things, and I was irregular most of the time anyway. It always managed to sneak up on me.

But this month was different. I’d been sexually active. Could I be pregnant?

A welter of emotion overcame me. Fear of course, but also a surprising joy and affection for the potential life. What if I were really pregnant? Would Brad and I keep the baby? Could I stay in school? What would Mom and Daddy think? Fear began to rise in my heart again.

Stop it, you’re being silly, I told myself. Why was I laying awake fretting about this when I didn’t even know if I was really late?

Still, during the Christmas Eve service the next day, I felt a special kinship with Mary, the unwed mother.

In the week between Christmas and New Years, my stomach that had always bothered me intermittently got much worse. I fought nausea and diarrhea every day. That combined with exhaustion that didn’t seem to go away no matter how much I slept kept me wondering if I might be pregnant. I obsessively checked my panties, but they stayed terrifyingly white. Buying a home test or going to a clinic while I was at home on break felt too risky. What if someone saw me, or worse, if the test were negative but someone found it? I’d be humiliated for no reason.


As I obsessed and analyzed every detail of my body’s functioning for possible symptoms, I alternated between terror and excitement at the prospect that a new life might be growing inside me. I could hardly fathom that I could love someone so much.


Chapter 33, part 2: Old Friends

The Neals were the first to arrive at the party that night, Kirsten in tow. She and Charlie disappeared up into her room, the door cracked just enough for propriety. I successfully avoided meaningful conversation with Pastor Jim by hanging out with Ruth and her friends, playing the part of cool big sister, or sitting on the patio listening to Mom and her friends chit chat.

My ears perked up when their conversation turned political.

“I can’t believe those Evangelical Lutherans are actually ordaining homosexuals,” Mom said. “It’s so sad to see them turn away from God’s word that way.”

“My brother is gay,” Mrs. Neal said. “I think it’s great that some Lutherans are willing to open their minds.”

“Well, whatever your beliefs, it’s just terrible to see so many congregations torn apart,” Pastor Jim’s wife said.


Apparently adults weren’t any better than college kids at hearing God’s will. They were all just making it up as they went along based on their own prejudices.

The next night Alicia picked me up. “Bet you’re so glad to get away from the snow,” she said as we wound our way down the hill to the freeway. “Or would you rather have a white Christmas?”

“I kind of get the best of both worlds. Since decorations seem to go up earlier and earlier every year, I got my fill of twinkling lights reflecting on the snow before the semester ended.”

“Sounds beautiful.”

“Yeah, it can be pretty the first day it falls, but after that it’s a headache. What I really miss is my boyfriend.”

“What? You didn’t tell me about any boyfriend. I want all the details.”

I filled her in on the whole on again off again on again saga with Brad.

“A former surfer huh? He sounds like a hunk. Quan’s not going to be happy to hear about this.”

“Quan? You still keep in touch with him?”

“Yeah, we kind of hung out by default the first few weeks of school freshman year and we’ve become good friends. Didn’t I tell you?”

“I guess you did mention it last year.”

“He asks about you all the time. I’m pretty sure he never got over you.”

“That’s so sweet.” And maybe a little sad. In the same amount of time I’d dated Brad, had feelings for Ian. I certainly hadn’t been pining for Quan.

“I always thought you guys were such a cute couple. Why did you break up anyway?”

“His parents made him.”

“Oh yeah, he’s told me they want him to marry an Asian girl.”

“Yeah, and well, I never told him this, but I figured we break up eventually because we were going to different schools in the fall.”

“It’s never too late to change your mind. I’d love it if you would transfer to UCLA!”

“What, and miss out on all that snow?”

Our laughter stilled as we crossed the scene of our accident at the intersection of PCH.

“I still flinch every time I drive through here,” Alicia said.

“That was a scary night.”

We drove in silence until we reached the ferry to Balboa.

Alicia turned to me as the ferry pulled away from shore. “I’ll never forget the way your mom handled everything that night,” she said. “It made me wonder for like the hundredth time what was different about your family and how I could get it.”

“I don’t think we’re all that different,” I said.

“You are though, you just can’t see it. It wasn’t until I started going with Quan to church this semester that I figured out what it was that made you different.”

Alicia going to church? I’d been her best friend all through high school and never even tried to talk to her about God, figuring she could care less. “So you’re Catholic now?”

“No. We go to a small student congregation on campus. Just a bunch of kids that are passionate about Jesus.”

In that moment, she reminded me of Ian or even Lacey, so serenely spiritual and secure in their salvation. Part of me was jealous that Alicia seemed to have found the secret that had been eluding me for so long.

But another part of me wanted to tell her to run far away before she got hit by the bait and switch of “churchianity,” as Brad called it. How long would it be before she found out the promise of grace at the front end was just a pleasant disguise for the guilt, hypocrisy and shame of never being good enough?  

Chapter 33, part 1: Family Holiday

When I got back from dropping Brad off at the airport Friday evening, I asked Mom what she thought of him.

“Hmmm… I’m not sure. I didn’t get to know him that well. What does Kirsten say?”

“She’s not around to ask, is she?” Kirsten had been spending every waking moment with Charlie, and was even spending the night at the Neals tonight. “C’mon, you must have formed some impression.”

“Well, first impressions can be misleading. Anyway, my opinion really doesn’t matter, does it? You’re an adult and I have to trust your judgment.”

“So you didn’t like him?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to. Why is everyone in this family so judgmental? Kirsten hates him because they fought the first time they met, and now you have a grudge against him too?” I stormed up the stairs to my room and wrote a long email to Brad. I missed him so much.

Saturday morning, I came downstairs to find Mom rearranging the furniture in the living room.

“Can you give me a hand, sweetie?” she asked, gesturing to the other end of the long sofa. “I can’t have the house looking like a disaster area for the party tonight.”

“Who’s all coming?” I asked as we set the sofa down in its new location.

“The Neals, a few young couples from our Bible study, Pastor Jim and his family. He’s really looking forward to catching up with you.”

Pastor Jim? He was the last person I wanted to talk to. It was hard enough faking the super-Christian act for my family. My old youth pastor would surely see through the charade.

“I didn’t really plan on sticking around. Alicia’s been wanting me to go down to Balboa to look at Christmas lights, and I told her maybe tonight would work.”

“Of course you can do what you want, but it would mean a lot to me if you’d join us. You’re growing up so fast, and I worry this is one of the last few times we’ll spend the holidays as a family.”

“I guess Alicia and I could reschedule,” I said. I just had to find a way to avoid talking with Pastor Jim at the party.

“Thanks, sweetie. About our talk yesterday—”

“Forget about it. I overreacted.”

“That time of the month?” she asked.

“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t really keep track of that stuff.

Mom spent the rest of the morning trying to get Ruth and I to help her and Daddy clean the house. I didn’t really mean to slack off, but every time I’d start a task, I ended up getting distracted by the piano or the itch to check the computer for messages from Brad. Every time Mom found me dawdling, she got more and more worked up. She was so crabby, I started to wonder if maybe it was her time of the month.

We were all upstairs working on various projects when the meltdown happened.

“Ruth Victoria Gottlieb!” we heard Mom scream at the door to Ruth’s room.

That tone in her voice made me cringe with vivid memories of getting in trouble as a child. So much for the new and improved Mom. Dad and I stopped what we were doing and edged toward Ruth’s room as the rant continued.

“What is wrong with you? I don’t know how many times I’ve already told you to get this room cleaned up,” Mom yelled. “And look, all you’ve done is make a bigger mess.” She gestured to the floor where Ruth had apparently decided to reorganize her entire collection of toys, dolls and accessories by dumping everything out in the middle of the floor. “You’re ten years old, I shouldn’t have to babysit your every move. I’m fed up! If this room isn’t sparkling clean in the next five minutes, you’re going to get it!” She raised her hand as if to demonstrate what she meant.

Tears and terror shone in Ruth’s eyes.

Daddy put a hand on Mom’s shoulder. “Millie, you need to take a break,” he said. “I’ll handle it from here.”

Mom stalked out and slammed the door to the master bedroom. I didn’t know whether to run or stay. What would Daddy do to Ruth?

“Ruth, come sit here by me on the bed,” Daddy said gently. “It looks like you really wanted your room to be clean. You wanted to reorganize all your toys, but you got overwhelmed, is that right?”

Had I heard him correctly? Where was the lecture, the threat of punishment?

Ruth nodded. “I was just trying to do my best like Mom always tells me. Why did she get so mad?” she asked.

“She’s anxious about the party tonight and feeling frustrated. She lost her temper and said things she didn’t mean. Now what are we going to do about this mess? Can you think of a solution?”

“We can shove it under the bed,” she suggested.

“We can just keep the room closed during the party,” I offered.

“But I wanted the kids to come play in here with me.” She sighed. “So ... this all has to be put away. Can you help?” she said.

“We’d be glad to help you,” Daddy said. “Let’s start by finding all the doll clothes.”

The three of us working together quickly got the room back in order.

Mom came back just as we finished. “Everyone, I need to apologize for getting out of control like that. Having a clean house is not more important than treating my family kindly. Can you all forgive me?”

“I forgive you, Mom,” Ruth said.

“Thanks, sweetie. Frank, you were amazing. I know you were so skeptical of changing our style at first and even after you saw how it worked, it was a struggle to break old habits. And look at you now, putting me to shame.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Daddy said as he embraced Mom. “Aren’t you always telling me grace is for parents too?”

“Gigi?” Mom asked. “You haven’t said anything. What are you thinking?”

My swirl of thoughts seemed better left unsaid. The scenes from my childhood evoked by Mom’s rage were still replaying in my mind. The pain of punishment had faded, but the anger at feeling misunderstood and helpless to defend myself sprung back to life. Why did Ruth get better parents than me? No wonder I had such a guilt complex.

“There’s still a lot of cleaning to do,” I said. “How about we get back to work?”

Chapter 32, part 2: Rationalization

It was even more wonderful than I had imagined. I never knew I could feel so close to someone.

In the afterglow I wondered, why was something this amazing wrong? It didn’t make sense. Or maybe the Religion 101 professor had been right all along and the Bible was just a human myth, a book of propaganda designed to keep wealthy men in power and oppress everyone else. Was God even real?

But if God wasn’t real, how could I explain that experience in the woods with Ian? Peer pressure? Wishful thinking? No, deep down I knew. God existed as creator and ruler of the universe.

But if that was true, then what I had just done was wrong as wrong could be. It had its own special ugly name: fornication. Sin.

Brad rolled over and kissed me softly. “You were amazing. I love you so much.”

I started to cry.

Brad's brow furrowed.  “Did I hurt you? What’s wrong?”

“Did we make a mistake?”

“Mistake? No, no. Don’t talk like that.”  He brushed hair back from my forehead.

“But sex before marriage …”

“This is different. We’re going to get married. In fact, in God’s eyes we probably already are married. Think about it. In Bible times, they didn’t have marriage licenses. They probably didn’t even have big ceremonies. Just two people committing to each other. Who needs a piece of paper?”

“You’re probably right.”

“Of course I’m right. I understand though. A lifetime of programming is hard to undo. Just keep telling yourself the truth, and soon that kind of false guilt won’t bother you anymore.”

I accepted Brad’s reasoning as a salve for my burning conscience. He said we would get married and I believed him. I lay back in his arms, enjoying the closeness once again. We already were married in God’s eyes … but did that mean I’d miss out on the fun of getting engaged, planning a wedding, having a first dance at the reception?

“Brad?”

“Hmmm?” he said sleepily.

“I know that in a way we’re already married, but… that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for a real wedding. I want to celebrate with our friends and family.”

“Don’t worry. When the time is right, we will.”

I smirked. “How about I give you a little incentive?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“We go back to ‘everything but’ until a ring is on my finger.”

“Why would you want to do that?” he said, running his hands up and down my body.

I couldn’t resist him then or any other time we were together over the next few weeks. Brad was right, the more times we did it, the less guilty I felt.

Still, I tried to hide our activities. Not so much from shame as from an instinct that my friends and the other CSF leaders wouldn’t understand. They were all still lost, stuck in the dark ages of Puritanical thinking.


Or was it me who was lost? CSF meetings had felt like a chore lately. I felt fake just being there, and wondered if everyone there were hiding their own secrets.  
***

The last day of finals before winter break arrived. My parents had invited Brad to come visit for a few days before Christmas.

“Nervous about meeting my parents?” I asked Brad when he pulled up to the curb in front of the German House.

“Naw, I’m more nervous about driving to the airport with your witchy sister.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that. I bet you’d like each other if you’d just give her a chance.”

“Remember, she’s the one who judged me.”

“Can’t you forgive and forget?”

“Sure. As soon as she apologizes and admits that I’m perfect for you.”

I sighed deeply. This wasn’t going to be an easy trip. Kirsten and Brad would probably spend their time in the car and plane sniping at each other, and I’d be caught in the middle of it.

As it turned out, Kirsten gave us the silent treatment all the way home. Charlie came with Daddy to pick us up at the airport. Kirsten came alive at the sight of him, talking a mile a minute. I realized then just how much I missed my sister. Would we ever be friends again?

Brad and I didn’t spend much time at my parents’ house during the three days of his visit. First we went Christmas shopping. He bought me a pair of purple boots I’d been wanting. Then he had me drive him around so he could show me where he spent time with his cousins way back when. 

The first night I put him off when he tried to sneak into my room after everyone had gone to bed. Somehow being in my parents' house made it seem more wrong. The second night, he had me take him to one of the “makeout spots” in Citrus Valley. My parents’ car still felt just as wrong as the house, but I felt powerless to resist Brad’s advances. At least we were less likely to get caught.



Chapter 32, part 1: Yield

On a snowy night in December, I looked up from a short story written in German. I couldn’t remember anything from the last few pages. I sighed and rolled my head around to relax my shoulders. Stretching out on the bed, I let the book fall across my chest.
How long had I been rereading the same paragraph? Dr. Eberhardt had assigned the selection for German class as an example we could study before crafting our own compositions, the semester final project. From what I struggled through so far, the story seemed interesting, but I couldn’t get lost in it like tales in English.
It was after ten and my eyes were heavy, but my mind was too full for sleep. The infighting in CSF had only gotten worse, and attendance sharply declined. Would the group survive the internal controversy? Too, I wondered how could I repair things with Kirsten, who hadn’t spoken to me since my birthday. And most importantly, what was I going to do about Brad?
We’d come closer and closer to having sex, and I still didn’t know if I was ready. In the heat of the moment, I told myself that God didn’t care what we did. But if I really believed that, why did I always feel so guilty after we fooled around? Then again, if we’d done “everything but,” as Brad liked to put it, what difference would it make if we did this one more thing?
I set the book on the adjacent desk and scooted off the bed. I took out a notebook. Perhaps I could channel these swirling emotions into the cathartic release of writing. Once the words hit the page, I could walk over the fears and worries they represented like Alice in Wonderland did to the deck of cards. Maybe I could even use my German-English dictionary to turn it into raw material for my assignment.
A bleak wilderness covered with impenetrable shadows stretched before Mathilde. She picked her way through the thorny landscape, but no matter how carefully she moved she could not avoid the stinging pricks that wounded her heels and scratched her calves. Behind her was a frozen land, cold and deadened with snow and ice. Past the brambles were the shifting sands of an endless desert, a land different from the one she had left but no more alive.
I smiled grimly at the melodrama of those sentences. Even if I could begin to translate such drivel into German, I wouldn’t make Dr. Eberhardt read one thousand words of that. I crumpled the page and threw it away.
I dialed Brad’s number. “I’m so stressed I can’t think straight,” I said when he came on the line. “Do you mind if I walk over to your place and just hang out for a while? I could really use a shoulder massage and some mindless TV to help me unwind.”
Of course he didn’t mind. As I walked the streets of Elkridge, I sang my new favorite show tune from Jekyll & Hyde, giving a bravura performance to the trees. A nearby community theater had put on the show and Brad had surprised me with the soundtrack after taking me to see it the week before. “Bring on the Men” had caught my ear. Each note rang out in the clear wintry air. I relished the bawdy, naughty fun of the lyrics. Life was so much sweeter when I embraced my sensual nature.
It was suddenly all clear. My pleas for protection from temptation and redoubled efforts at purity never worked, not because I was a worthless, wretched sinner, but because God simply didn’t care whether or not I got hot and bothered. God created me with the ability to become aroused. It didn’t matter one whit to Him whether it was because of a dream I had, a story I read or the way Brad touched me. Maybe God even smiled at me delighting in His creation. The Bible’s warnings against fornication and lust must have been for another time and place, to protect a fragile and backward society.
The line of thought was growing more compelling, but I still felt misgivings about letting Brad have his way with me.
Brad met me at the foot of his street, handsomer than ever in his Elk River letterman’s jacket. We walked hand in hand the rest of the way toward his basement apartment, snow crunching underfoot. He took my coat, sweater and gloves and had me sit in front of him on the floor. He began to massage my shoulders.
“Holy stress ball, Batman, you really are tense. Why don’t you take off your shirt so I can really get into these muscles here? There now, just relax and let it out. What has you so worked up?” he asked.
I sighed. “It’s CSF. I hate to see what’s happened to it. Everyone’s taking sides with Becky or Ewan, and attendance is way down.”
“It kills me to see you like this, so down, so tense. Why don’t you just quit?”
“How can I quit? I made a commitment to them.”
“You’ve done more than enough for them, is what I say. It’s kind of overkill to have twelve Cowhands or whatever anyway. It’s no big deal if you lose one resume builder, right?”
“I guess,” I sighed.
“Here, why don’t you come and sit on my lap so I can reach these knots in your lower back better,” Brad murmured in my ear.
As soon as I landed in his lap the massage was forgotten. We slid into a series of passionate kisses that ended with him lowering me to the couch. The lyrics from the song I’d been singing echoed in my head. Why wait another minute?
“Brad.”
“Hmmm?” came his muffled reply as he started to nuzzle my neck.
“Let’s not stop this time.”
He pulled us into a sitting position and held me at arms length. He searched my face as he took my hands in his. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, babe.” He kissed me tenderly and led me to his bedroom.

Chapter 31, part 2: Confrontation Confusion

My stomach twisted in knots. How was I going to do this?

I walked down to the Volleyball House as soon as the meeting ended. The sooner I got it over with, the better.

Amanda sat on the sofa. “Hey, Gigi, what’s up?” she said. “We haven’t seen you much lately. Guess you’re pretty busy with Brad, huh?”

“Yeah, you know how it is... Breanne around?”

“I think she’s up in her room studying.”

“Thanks.” I climbed the stairs and knocked on the door. “Breanne? It’s Zella. Can I come in?”

Breanne opened the door and embraced me. “Zella! I’m so glad to see you! Did Ian tell you the good news?”

“He did. That’s actually why I’m here.”

“Oh?”

“Actually, the other CSF leaders wanted me to come talk to you.”

“Why?”

“One of them saw you with Lori the other day, and was concerned.”

“Concerned about what?”

“That you and she are back together,” I said.

“What if we were?”

“Are you?”

“It shouldn’t matter.”

“Some of the leaders think it does.”

“I knew it. All this, it was too good to be true.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lori and I aren’t back together at all. Yes, we’re friends again, and I have been talking to her down at the grocery store. When I took a walk with her across campus on Saturday, I was telling her about my decision. She doesn’t understand it at all, said I was only opening myself up to a world of hurt. I guess she was right.”

“Breanne—”

“I can’t believe this. When I started coming to CSF, I felt so accepted. Everyone was encouraging me to get to know Christ’s love and grace. And now that I’ve found it, my every move is scrutinized and cast into doubt? Everyone has struggles, Ian said. I thought being a Christian meant we could support each other along the way.”

“We can. I’ll just tell the other leaders what really is going on and you’ll be welcome back.”

“What do you mean, welcome back?”

“I shouldn’t have said that, never mind.”

“They were going to kick me out? I have to be perfect or else get lost? What a bunch of hypocrites! If that’s how they really are, now I’m not sure I want to come back.”

“What about your faith?”

“What about it? CSF doesn’t have the monopoly on following Jesus. I’ll find my own way.”

***

“How did it go with Breanne?” Ian asked me Tuesday afternoon.

I heaved a big sigh. “Awful, just as I thought it would.”

“So she is back with Lori after all?”

“No. I think I went about it all wrong. She was so offended, all she heard was judgment and rejection. She said she’d rather not come back at all than have to jump through hoops to prove she belongs.”

“I should have spoken up more strongly against this whole confrontation idea in the meeting,” Ian said. “I just hope whatever fragile faith she had isn’t damaged beyond repair.”

“She did say she could follow Jesus without CSF.”

“That’s true, but fellowship is important. We’ll have to be really intentional about spending time with her.”

As the semester wore on, every CSF leaders meeting seemed to bring another heated debate.

Ewan Finley dominated most of the arguments as the most vocal proponent of breaking down the barriers between CSF and the rest of campus. “Most students think that CSF is a bunch of stuck-up prudes,” he said at a meeting in late November. “We need to do a better job of following Jesus’ example.”
Rev. Reynolds interjected. “Ewan, I like what you just said about following Jesus’ example,” he said. “But everyone seems to have a different idea of what Jesus would do if he were here today. What do you think is the right answer? Can you give me specifics?”
“Well, remember, Jesus hung out with the tax collectors and prostitutes. So, I think we should encourage our remaining active members to break out of their Christian cliques, go to parties and basically, get involved in every aspect of campus life. For one thing, it would be a lot more fun than our stale movie nights and field trips. But more importantly, I’m beginning to see that it’s the only way we can shine our lights in the darkness. How will anyone know we love them and God loves them if we’re hiding in a bubble? They’re not going to come to us. We have to go to them.”
"I completely disagree,” said Becky. “God’s been speaking to me a lot lately, and last night I had a vision. I’ll spare you the details, but the point was that our problem is that we’re too worldly already. Why should anyone want to know Jesus if he doesn’t make a difference in our lives? We’re not holy enough, not different enough. We’re called to be a city on a hill, not part of the riff-raff in the gutter. In the world but not of it.”
“But Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners. He didn’t think of them as riff-raff,” said Ewan.
“He was a special case. He was the son of God,” Dwayne shot back.
“And aren’t we supposed to be like Christ?” said Ewan.
The debate continued going in circles. My head spun with contradicting theories of what God wanted. Becky thought God told her in a vision that CSF was too worldly and Dwayne agreed. Ewan seemed just as confident as that God was telling him CSF was too isolated from the world.
I could see some truth in both their positions, but they couldn’t both be right, could they? If God were real and operated like I’d been taught, would he really be giving different messages to different factions of people? Probably one or both of them were fooling themselves. But if that were true, then how could I ever know for sure what God really wanted from me? Zoey’s words on the train in Europe came back to me. Did He even care what we did?  


Chapter 31, part 1: CSF Leaders Meeting

I awoke from the nap with a sense of dread, a niggling fear that something important had been left undone. I left my room and walked as if in a trance down the hall toward the bathroom I shared with my two upstairs housemates. A splash of cold water on my face would clear my senses. At the end of the hall were two doors. One led to the bathroom. Behind the other I heard more strongly the thump of bass that had awoken me, and then the sound of the handle turning.
Zoey emerged, looking startled to see anyone in the hall. “Hey Giselle, aren’t you usually out meeting with your group of holy rollers on Sundays?”
Adrenaline cleared my head faster than cold water ever could. “Uh, yeah … what time is it?”
“About quarter till five.”
I was very late. The CSF leadership regularly met on Sundays at 4:15 to pray and plan the group’s activities. We sometimes ate dinner together afterward. How could I forget? As I threw on a sweater and jacket and rushed down the dilapidated stairs and across the street to Paxton Hall, I wondered again if the group would be better off without me as a leader.
“Giselle, glad you made it,” Rev. Reynolds said as I tried to sneak into the private party room at the back of the dining hall. The eleven other CSF leaders turned to look at me.
“We’re trying to decide what to do about Breanne,” Becky said.
“Ian shared at the beginning of this meeting how she prayed the sinner’s prayer and said she wants to follow Christ,” Dwayne Jurgen said. “I was surprised to hear it because I saw her this weekend walking across campus with that woman from the grocery store. Suffice it to say they were behaving in a way that made it pretty clear that she hasn’t truly repented of her sinful relationship. Until she does, we should make it clear that she’s no longer welcome to attend our functions.”
“She’s a baby Christian,” Ian said. “Don’t we all still have thorns in our side or pet sins that we have a hard time conquering? How can we hold her to a higher standard?”
“Of course, we are all sinners here. That isn’t the point,” Becky said. “The difference is that we recognize they are sins and are daily repenting of them. Someone needs to call Breanne to that same type of ongoing repentance.”
“Who here knows her best to have that kind of conversation?” Rev. Reynolds asked.
All eyes turned to me.
Based on our last conversation in Bible study and her suspected reunion with Lori, I felt pretty sure Breanne believed committed same-sex relationships weren’t condemned in the Bible, and that those who thought otherwise were ignorant bigots. How was I going to tell her she was wrong, when I wasn’t even sure? No matter how much better I’d gotten at confrontation in the past few months, I knew I couldn’t do it.
“It’s true that I’ve been her friend since freshman year,” I said, “but Ian is the one who led her to Christ. I think he may have more of a standing to say something to her at this point.”
“It’s probably inappropriate for a man to have that kind of conversation with her,” Becky said.
“I could do it, but she really values your friendship, Gigi,” Ian said. “I think it would be more non-threatening coming from you.”
“All right then, we’ll follow the Matthew model of confrontation,” Becky said. “First Gigi will talk to her privately, then you can take Ian along for a second confrontation if necessary, and if she still refuses to repent, we’ll confront her as a group.”
Ewan Finley interrupted, “I think we’re jumping the gun here. Can’t we give her space to discover God’s will as He reveals it to her?”
“Ewan may have a point,” Rev. Reynolds said. “Also, I’m just the adviser and don’t get a vote, but I think you all should consider that this is an opportunity here to reach out to a marginalized group. There are other gays on campus that will be watching closely to see how we handle this. Everyone will really. All the kids in fraternities and sororities, people who think they party too much, drink too much, have too much sex to be saved … they’ll all be watching to see what grace really means to CSF.”
“You know her spiritual condition best, Ian. What do you think?” Becky asked.
“A harsh confrontation would definitely be the wrong move,” Ian said.
“I can’t imagine Gigi being harsh with anyone,” Becky said. “But we can’t be silent about this and have it taken as tacit approval. Gigi, will you do it?”
I reluctantly agreed.

“The talk with Breanne has to happen before the next Soulfire,” Becky said. “We’ll be praying for you to find the right words.”

Chapter 30, part 2: Off Balance

That night Brad and I flipped through cable channels, waiting for Saturday Night Live to come on. Vivian and Walter had long since gone to bed. We settled on a B movie to heckle. Brad stretched out across the couch and rested his head in my lap. I started to run fingers through his hair.

“Braddie Laddie, huh?”
“You called?” He lifted his head from my lap and propped himself up on an elbow across my legs, his back to the TV. “Ridiculous huh? I’ve asked mom a thousand times not to call me that. Only she’s too stubborn to give up on the old baby name.” He rolled his eyes and picked up the remote to flip through the channels again.
“Brad, I thought we talked about that.”
“What?”
I looked at him pointedly.
“Oh, right. Honor your mother and father and all that jazz. Well, she’s not here to hear it, so it doesn’t really matter, right?” He sat up with a lopsided grin that I did not return. “Hey, at least I cleaned up my act for a while after you confronted me this afternoon; don’t I get credit for that?” He made an exaggerated show of getting into a kneeling position, prostrating himself at my feet. “Please, Reverend Mother Giselle, not another lecture! I beg for mercy.”
I finally gave in and smiled at his antics. He climbed back on the couch and softly kissed me. I wrapped arms around him and kissed him back with increasing passion.
After a few minutes lost in a world of sensation, I turned my head. “Let’s not get carried away.”
He resumed his position, sprawled across the couch, head on my lap. I stroked his hair once more.
“Really, Giselle, I am grateful you said something. I’ve really tried hard to forgive my mom after all these years, but treating her like crap is such a habit … I didn’t even realize how bad it still was.” He sat up and leaned in for another kiss as he whispered, “She told me to thank you. She really likes you. But who doesn’t, right?”
I returned the kiss with a peck. “Look, it’s time for SNL to start.”
“Actually, I’m going to head up. Want me to help you make up the sofa bed?”
“No, I didn’t sleep that well on it last night.”
“There’s room in my bed upstairs,” he said with a glint in his eye.
“No, I’ll be fine down here. The couch cushions will probably be more comfy with a few blankets.”
“Okay. Well, see you in the morning.”
Sleep remained elusive. No matter how I tossed and turned, or rearranged the cushions and the blankets, I just couldn’t get comfortable.
“I should have made Brad take the couch,” I muttered to myself, wondering why he hadn’t offered.
Well, he had offered to let me joined him upstairs. Why had I turned that down? It was innocent enough, wasn’t it? We could just snuggle and sleep.
I headed for the stairs.
A creak of a door stopped me in my tracks. I saw a light come on and heard Vivian’s raspy voice.
Like a frightened rabbit I dove back to the couch and pretended to be asleep in case Vivian came downstairs.
As I lay there, I wondered what I would have done if I made it up to Brad’s room and something did start to happen? Could I have stopped it? Did I want to?

***

I woke up at eight to a silent house. Vivian and Walter came downstairs around nine, and I offered to help Vivian make breakfast. As it approached nine thirty, I crept up the stairs and cracked the door to Brad’s bedroom. He rolled over and pulled the covers back over his head. Not wanting to start the morning mothering him, I gave up and went back downstairs.
Still, I nursed a bit of a grudge against him for leaving me to fend for myself with his parents. I felt so awkward. But soon my unease dissipated as Vivian regaled me with stories about her little Braddie Laddie as a boy. We sat at the kitchen table nursing cups of coffee. Walter sat a few feet away in one of the room’s two recliners, smoking and watching ESPN.
Brad finally dragged himself out of bed at ten, and came down still wearing his flannel pajama bottoms and a white undershirt. He looked so cute and rumpled that my annoyance with him melted away.
Vivian jumped up from the couch. “Braddie Laddie, you sleepyhead, you’re finally up. Sit down. Let me fix you up a plate of flapjacks and eggs.”
“Thanks, Ma.” He smiled at me and squeezed my shoulder. “Good morning, beautiful. Sleep good?”
I nodded, and leaned over to kiss him when he settled into the chair next to me. We held hands under the table.
"I wish you had been sleeping in my bed,” he murmured in my ear, and nibbled my earlobe. I thought again of my words the night before. “Let’s not get carried away.” For a moment that was exactly what I wanted, to be carried away on a flood of all the passion I’d bottled up out of guilt.
“Brad, you missed it,” Vivian called from the stove. “I was just telling Giselle some baby stories about you before you walked down. I bet it was your burning ears that finally woke you up.” She cackled at her own joke.
Brad scowled at first, then suddenly brightened. “Ma, now that we’re on the subject of old memories … I thought you might tell me again how Grandpop proposed to Grandma.”
I shot him a questioning look. Was he that serious about me?
“I’d love to. It’s so sweet of you to ask.” Vivian beamed at him, then sighed as she slipped into reminiscing.
When she finished the story, Brad cleared his throat. “Do you still have the Grandma’s old ring?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I was hoping I could give it to Giselle.” What? What?! Did I just hear him right?
Vivian looked as shocked as I felt. “Wait. What are you saying?”
“What do you think I’m saying? Giselle and I are on the road to marriage.” He gave my hand a squeeze under the table and winked at me.
“Walter, get in here. You need to hear this.”
Walter shut off the television and came to the table.
“Now, let’s talk this through,” Vivian continued. “I can see you two have a special relationship, but why talk marriage so soon?”
Yes, why? Why did he spring this on me? Everything was moving so fast. Too, I hated being caught in the middle of an argument like this.
“What your mother’s trying to say, kiddo, is that you’re too young to be committing to something like this. Why don’t you try living together first?”
“Right, look at your sister Casey and her boyfriend,” Vivian agreed. “They’ve lived together in Exeter for seven years, that’s longer than a lot of people stay married.”
Walter and Vivian switched from a lecture to an interrogation. When were we planning to get married? What would we do to support ourselves? Where would we live?
Brad defended his right to make his own choices so vigorously, it seemed he missed the moment when Vivian gave up.
“Fine, fine. You can stop defending yourself,” she said. “I still think you’re making a mistake, but it’s your mistake to make. I’ll go get the ring.” She ran up the stairs and returned with a burgundy velvet box. “Giselle, I hope you didn’t take offense to all this. We really do like you. I’d be happy to have you as a daughter-in-law one day, but please, wait until you two have had a chance to grow up a little bit.”
“I understand,” I said meekly. How could I say I was as surprised at this as she was?
“Thanks, Ma, Pop.” Brad set the box on the table as he stood. “We’ve got to get ready to go pretty soon. There’s a speaker on campus later today that Giselle really wanted to hear. I’m going to take a shower and pack. Giselle, be ready in thirty minutes, okay?”
***
Most of the drive home was silent. Even when we stopped for lunch and milkshakes, I made no real effort at conversation. The only words I spoke to him the rest of the trip were to ask him to pull over for an emergency stop at the restroom.
As we pulled up to the curb next to the German House I let out a long sigh. “I wish you had talked to me first instead of putting me through that.” It was the longest sentence I had spoken to him since we left Mansfield.
“What do you mean? I thought we were on the same page. When we did that marriage role-playing assignment, it seemed obvious to me that we’re meant to be together. I thought you’d be happy I got the ring for you.”
“It’s just going so fast.”
“Listen, I didn’t mean to imply that we’d be getting married tomorrow. This is a someday kind of thing. There are a few steps in between.”
“So you bought into all that stuff they were saying about shacking up?”
“Don’t put words in my mouth. I never said anything about agreeing with them.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” she said.
“Well, you have to admit, what they said about a trial period made sense. What’s the rush, right?”
“I guess.” I got out of the car, closed the door and leaned through the window. “Listen, I know I said I wanted to see that speaker, but I’m not feeling too well. I think I’m just going to go up to my room and take a nap.”
“Giselle, don’t be like that.”
“Like what?”
“Like you’re punishing me for my sins.”
“It’s not that. I can see why you might think it is, but it’s not. I’m just worn out from the long weekend, and my stomach is still bothering me.”
“That’s my girl. Do you want me to come up to your room and tuck you in for your nap?”
I hesitated. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
“C’mon, you can trust me. No hanky panky, I promise. Just a little back rub for my best girl.” He gave me his most disarming grin, and I reluctantly agreed.
He lay down next to me on the bed, rubbing my back, nuzzling my ear. Before too long, I no longer felt sleepy and started returning his kisses. He ran his hand down my side and pulled me against him, then moved it slowly up under the bottom of my shirt.
I felt like I should stop him, but hesitated. When we first started seeing each other again I had sworn to myself I wouldn’t let the situation last year repeat itself. But each time we were together, Brad tested the limits, and I let him go a little further before I told him to stop. I knew he didn’t agree with my beliefs in this area. He had said he refused to believe that God condemned something that was so natural and felt so good. Could I believe that too and let him have his way with me?
Finally I crossed arms in front of me. “Brad, don’t,” I murmured between kisses. “I don’t want to cross our line.”
How narrow was that line really? What was the difference between what we were doing and the real thing?
Before I could answer my own questions, Brad abruptly broke our embrace.
“I’ve overstayed my welcome,” he whispered as he stood up. “You are supposed to be napping, remember? I’ll come by later and we can go to dinner together.” He leaned over and kissed my forehead. “Sweet dreams.” 

Chapter 30, part 1: Meet the Parents

Eventually we reached the residential streets on the south side of Mansfield. Brad pulled the car up in front of a row of snug townhomes, each fronted with a large porch.
“Happy Birthday, Braddie Laddie!” called a short woman with permed blonde hair. She waved as she gracefully stood from a swing on the last porch. She looked elegant in a flowing purple satin tunic over tight black jeans. The hand she waved at us held a lit cigarette.
“Hey, Ma,” Brad called back.
“Why don’t you come over here and give your mother a hug?”
“In a minute, Ma. Let us get the car unpacked first,” Brad replied, then rolled his eyes at me.
“Don’t think I didn’t see that, young man,” Brad’s mom said as she minced toward the car on stiletto heels. “Giselle, you probably have your hands full keeping this one in line. Hi, I’m Vivian. Brad told us to expect you.”
She extended her hand. I set down my bag and gave Vivian a warm hug.
“Well, aren’t you sweet? I’m sorry Braddie here is so rude. I promise it’s not how I raised him.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Vivian. Brad has told me so much about you.”
“He has, huh? Now, why don’t I believe that?” She let out a honking laugh. “He was far too happy to be getting rid of us when we moved up here, isn’t that right, Braddie?” Vivian reached up to pat Brad’s back, then turned to me again. “Not that I begrudge my baby a little independence, you understand.”
Brad tensed at his mother’s touch and shot her a dirty look, but she didn’t seem to notice.
She cackled again in her gravelly voice. “Well, I’ll leave you two alone. Give you a chance to tell my son what you really think of me, eh?” She winked and squeezed my arm before turning to go.
When she reached the porch, Vivian turned and called back, “As soon as you two are settled, Walter and I want to take you to dinner at Sullivan’s in town. Braddie calls it the Blue Hair Restaurant. Isn’t that cute?”
“Braddie Laddie?” I whispered to Brad as soon as Vivian disappeared inside the blue door of the townhouse.
“That’s me!” He winked and hoisted up both our bags.


Saturday morning after breakfast, Vivian announced that she was taking us shopping.

“Braddie’s birhtday is coming up, and he told me you just had yours, Giselle. I like to spoil my kids. Let’s go to the outlet mall and get you both new outfits.”

Her generosity amazed me. “Wow, that is so kind. Thank you!”

Brad rolled his eyes. “Yeah, she deserves the mother of the freakin’ year award. Shopping is the last thing I wanted to be doing this weekend.”

Vivian looked hurt, but didn’t say anything.

“I’d really like to go. C’mon Brad, can we?”

He sighed as if resigning himself to a horrible fate. “Sure. Why not.”

At the outlet mall, Brad followed us around sullenly while Vivian and I looked for the perfect outfit for me. Vivian shook her head at all the girly tops and skirts I picked to try on.

“It’s cute, but not quite right for you,” she said. “Let’s keep looking.”

“How much longer is this going to take?” Brad asked as we left the fifteenth store.

Finally, Vivian asked if she could pick something for me. She held up an dark orange shirt dress with military details. “How about this one?”

I hesitated. “That’s not my usual style. I’ve never worn that color either.”

“Just try it. I think you’ll be surprised.”

When I came out of the dressing room, Brad whistled. “Whoa, Giselle. That’s hot!”

Vivian grabbed a chunky necklace and a straw bag from the accessories rack. “The perfect finishing touch.”

She guided me back to the mirror. I hardly recognized myself. Framed by the outfit, my curls suddenly looked exotic and bohemian instead of just a frizzy mess.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Energy profiling,” Vivian explained. “Your face—”

“Mom, no one wants to hear about that New Age crap.”

“Maybe later,” I said. “Brad, guess it’s your turn now.”

“I’m starved. Let’s eat first.”

I wore the outfit out of the store. As we walked toward the food court, I pulled Brad aside.

“The way you talk to your mom really bothers me. Why are you so rude to her?” I asked.

“Just saying what I feel.”

“Yeah, but we’re supposed to honor our parents. And it is hard to be around the tension between you two. I think you should apologize to her.”

“Now?”

“Why not? I’ll wait here. You can catch up with her and have a moment alone.”

“Okay, okay.” He kissed me. “My little conscience.”