Form: Creative Nonfiction
Written: December 2014
Published in: Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College
It’s my first college party, and I’m graduating in three days. The counter is full of brightly-colored booze bottles, lemons, shot glasses. The blue bottles are vodka. Those warmer oranges: scotch and whiskey. Ben brought hard cider. Kate made Sex on the Beach, a fruity concoction with orange juice, peach schnapps, vodka.
We’re all communications students—soon-to-be-graduates, that is—from our small Christian college. We’ve spent four years quietly disobeying our university’s alcohol ban; this is the first time someone is brave enough to throw a party. Under the guise of a Bible study, no less. We tell each other, tipsy in just fifteen minutes, how we should have done this sooner. Like, four years sooner.
I find myself on the front porch with the smokers. I’m protected here with them. The smokers’ porch: an introvert’s safe zone. I’m standing with the prettiest girl in college, who married the hottest guy in college. They both work at the coffee shop on campus, the one that has an unspoken you must be this good looking qualification for hire. She’s next to a skater kid and Kaleigh, a theatre major, whom I’ve only spoken to in passing.
I share smokes to make friends.
“I really only smoke at gay bars,” Kaleigh tells me. I teach her how to light her cig. “So I’m not very good at it.”
By mentioning gay bars at all, Kaleigh opens the conversation to a favorite topic for us “worldly” communications majors—homosexuality. Our evangelical university takes a certain position, one it would indubitably call The Christian Response to Homosexuality, supposedly a memo from Jesus himself: It is Wrong to Be Gay. And if your kid or uncle or brother’s gay: Pray Away the Gay. But us comm majors think differently. We consider ourselves the most “liberal” of the majors, fully embracing the liberal-media stereotype given to us by Fox News. We comm majors know a few of our peers are gay, but they’re forced to keep quiet. If the university finds out that they’re gay, especially a practicing homosexual, they could be reprimanded: counseling, suspension, expulsion.
“I hate that there are always labels,” Kaleigh says to me. “Like, if I fall in love with someone, that’s what I am.” She tells me that she has made out with a few girls, but has never fallen in love. I wonder what my school would say about her behavior; it certainly would not comply with our “healthy boundaries” training.
“I think we like to categorize things too much, like, to make ourselves feel safe,” I say. “If we can label you, then we don’t need to get to know you.” I’m a bit of a sage while I’m drunk. Hannah, the host, comes outside with sparklers. Kaleigh and I become distracted and our conversation ends.
Later, after some sobering up, I sit on the porch with my friends Mallory and Rachel, smoking. Rachel’s smoking her first ever. Mallory, her second. The three of us, new, social-smokers, feel cool. Deviant. We practice our exhales, trying to make rings, but not knowing how.
I started smoking out of rebellion—against my boyfriend Nate. We broke up, temporarily, the previous winter. Many of our arguments were over smoking: how I hated it, how I wish he wouldn’t do it. This was not so puritanical of me to think this, though. I wasn’t exercising my good Christian morals. I think a part of me was jealous that a tiny cylinder of paper and tobacco got more attention than me sometimes. Four days after we split, I bought my first pack. I’ve been a pack-a-month girl ever since.
I wonder, sometimes, if my sexual activity with Nate came out of rebellion against God or my school, the way I had rebelled against our breakup by smoking. Maybe, subconsciously, I was making a point, like premarital sex doesn’t screw up future marriages; neither does it keep you out of heaven. (I’ve heard these lines so often.) But when it comes down to it, when he and I are together, kissing, then more, then more, then more, I don’t feel like I am rebelling against anything. I feel just the opposite.
But still, the guilt weighs my belly down with bricks. I don’t tell anyone what Nate and I are doing. Though with my friends, drinking may be acceptable, cigarettes too, I fear I must have crossed the line with this bad-girl behavior.
I didn’t always carry these guilt bricks with me. In high school, I hardly had a reason to. I was the star Sunday School student: I could beat anyone in a round of Bible trivia and was the first to offer a benediction prayer at the end of the hour. I tried so hard to be perfect; and it seemed that by my senior year, I had mastered it.
That is, until that spring in the parking lot of a Starbucks, when my best friend came out to me. We sat in my car, holding iced mochas and napkins between our thighs.
“I’m gay,” she said, “well, bisexual.” No need for build-up. She went on to explain why she was jealous of my boyfriends, why she always wanted me around. She liked me.
“No, I don’t think that’s it,” I argued. “We’re just best friends.” I thought of all the times we slept in each other’s bed, how we changed clothes in front of each other. I no longer craved my frothy drink. I practiced my best Christian face: a half-smile my eyes didn’t match. They were wide, I was sure, and on the verge of tearing up.
My practice in being good had not prepared me for this. I believed there was a clear line between what was good (being straight) and what was bad (being anything but straight). So my response to her, that “No, I don’t think you are attracted to me,” was really, “No, I don’t think you are gay.” I wanted so much for her to be on the “good” side with me; I wasn’t ready to give her up to the “bad.” Either way, our friendship ended soon after that.
Off to college in the fall, I expected to blend in with my fellow Christian classmates. But as perfect as I saw myself, everyone around me seemed just that much more perfect. In my classes and mandatory chapel, we were told how by the power of Christ and lots and lots of effort, we could manage to be free of any intentional sin. I could tell I was falling behind, but by then I was doubting that perfection was even worth my time. After all, it had lost me a best friend.
Then my sophomore year, in a chapel series on sexuality, I met those guilt bricks head-on. The speakers, two pastors brought in from some megachurch, re-introduced that good/bad polarity: Do make sure you date a devoted Christian. And, don’t kiss him when the lights are off.
I felt sick to my stomach, guilty—guilty that there was a part of me that might, one day, want to kiss a boy again, lights on or off.
The next year when Nate and I started dating and we found ourselves breaking the chapel speakers’ rules and more, I felt so bad I couldn’t pick up my Bible without crying. I started asking myself, What is wrong with me? How did I go from being a good girl to bad? The only things that kept me from being pummeled by those bricks were months of counseling, anxiety pills, and quietly ignoring everything I had learned from Christians about sex.