While Stacey changed for bed in the bathroom of my motel room I had this flash. It was a like a high speed recap of our story. We met at the party, I met her close and very religious family, great dates, strange church service with doily hats, her optimism and innocence, lines we crossed into territory I’d been before but she hadn’t, her smile, the smell of her hair, piles of letters with heart dotted i’s, and now alone in my motel room. It was a moment when I should have thought everything was right with the world but instead, for reasons I still don’t understand, I was feeling like I’d forgotten something very important and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
Stacey came out of the bathroom wearing an oversized t-shirt and looking extremely nervous. It was very late and we were both very tired. The trip back from East St. Louis had been pretty quiet, fewer driving tips from the backseat but also a little uncomfortable. I think even Stacey could finally feel the tension between me and her best friend’s flirting boyfriend. I don’t think she ever figured out what it was but we got back to Redville, dropped off the roommate and her boyfriend and drove over to the motel I booked for the night. In the back of my mind I was still a little nervous that the police or Stacey’s dad would come busting through the door at any minute. Taking girls to motel rooms was as new for me. But nowhere near as new as it was for Stacey to be alone in motel with a guy.
As we crawled under the covers I reached over and flicked off the light beside the bed. A little glow crept in around the edges of the industrial grade, floral patterned drapes from the huge motel sign that was right outside my window. I snuggled up to Stacey, moving her long, soft hair and kissing her neck. “Do you like my friends?” she asked me and I could hear something in her voice I’d never heard before.
“Sure,” I said, getting even closer, “it was fun tonight.” Then I added, “Didn’t you have fun?” as I tried to figure out what it was that was suddenly different.
“I did, it was fun, I’m, uh, glad you like them…” and she hesitated. And it hit me. The eternal sunshine I’d seen in her eyes, felt in her smile and had heard in her voice, was gone, that’s what was missing.
Technically she’d finished a sentence but there was a pause between thoughts hanging like a tofu filled piñata over the bed. I couldn’t stand the waiting. “What are you thinking?”
“Could we just…this is happening kind of fast. Could we just go to sleep tonight? Just sleep?”
“Sure,” I answered like that had been my plan all along, “of course we can just sleep. I think we’re both really, really tired.” Stacey squeezed one of the arms I had around her and relaxed. It wasn’t until that second that I realized how tense she’d been. It was like holding a beautiful marble statue that suddenly became an equally beautiful statue made of Nerf. She pressed her back into my front, let out a sigh and in a few minutes she was sleeping soundly in my arms.
I thought a long time about cold showers, baseball stats and Stacey’s dad before I could finally relax enough to fall asleep too.
Saturday morning was almost over before we both woke up. When we did wake up we took turns in the bathroom getting showers and dressed. We didn’t talk much as we did all that. I watched cartoons on the one channel, pre-cable, snow infested T.V. while I waited for my turn. I wondered how to talk about where we were and wondered what Stacey was thinking about last night. It was slowly sinking in that over the last few weeks she’d come a lot further into my world than I’d been in hers. She’d come along with me and invested her whole heart and self. I’d come into her world as a tourist. Her family, the whole church thing, her friends, those were all big parts of her world and all I was really interested in was her.
She came out of the bathroom in jeans and a hoody and I went in and tried to remember not to sing in the shower. In the end I was thinking way too much to sing and I couldn’t think of an easy way or even a way to start the conversation with Stacey where it needed to start. By the time I was out of the shower, dressed and ready to go everything seemed like it was back to normal with her. No tension, no awkwardness, everything was good between us. I was happy to ignore reality and decided to stop worrying about saying anything about last night and took her out to lunch.
We spent the whole day together. She showed me around Redville, the college and the ‘ville. She introduced me to a few more of her friends, we shopped a bit, ate dinner and then spent the evening on a couch in the lobby of her dorm watching something stupid on TV. Normally I would’ve called it a perfect day but something kept scratching around in the back of my head leaving me with a vague feeling of restlessness. It wasn’t Stacey though. If it was possible for me to be more in like with her than I already was, this day had done that and more. I knew if this wasn’t love I would happily settle for whatever it was. But the restlessness persisted and at the end of the night I didn’t even suggest going back to my place together. Around midnight I said I needed to go back to the motel and get some sleep. She looked surprised. I told her I’d come by early and take her to church and then we could have lunch and I’d head for home. She walked me out to the parking lot where the Boat waited. We stood for a long time under the cloudless winter sky and looked up at the Milky Way thick in the blackness that stretched over us.
“I had a really great day today,” I said, “thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she said smiling, “but I’m the one who should say, ‘thanks’.”
I let go of her hands and I put my hands on either side of her face, her skin soft but cold. She smiled and her cheeks filled my palms and I leaned down and kissed her good night. It was a good kiss. A memorable kiss. As I pulled my head away I could see the starlight in her eyes. I smiled back at her as I brushed some hair away from her face.
“Anything I should know about church tomorrow?” I asked.
“Well, it’ll be a lot different from the last time I took you to church. But I don’t want to say too much or you may not want to go.”
“Are rattlesnakes involved?”
Her smile was turned up a notch. “No, no snakes. But it’s in someone’s living room.”
“Living room? Like ‘in my house I have a living room’, living room?”
“Exactly like that.”
“You take me to the most interesting places.”
“I know, aren’t you lucky?”
“I am, and I’m also tired. I’ll see you at 8:30 at your dorm.”
I smiled, got in the Boat and went back to my room with a very crowded head.
Sleep came easy that night but 7:30 came way too early. I got up, turned off the alarm, turned on the one channel, snowy T.V. and listened to a guy try to convince me that God wanted him to have my money more than God wanted me to have my money. He’d worked it out that I would get rich if I made him rich. I figured God must have poor management skills or he would’ve just given the money to the T.V. guy instead of me to begin with. I jumped in the shower hoping that my new church experience of the day wouldn’t involve women wearing doilies and men bursting into song behind me or T.V. preachers working a con.
I met Stacey at her dorm like I said I would. She surprised me by coming into the lobby wearing, well, wearing normal clothes. Normal as in, non-church clothes and not a doily in sight. At first I thought she changed her mind and was thinking we’d just hang out together for the morning but when I spotted the Bible under her arm I knew we were still going to church. “So what’s the plan?” I asked. “Church!” she said and she said it the way I’d say, “Pizza!” or “The movies!” She held out her hand and I took it. Walking out of her dorm I started towards the parking lot but she pulled me down another sidewalk in a different direction. “We can walk,” she explained, “it’s not that far.”
About two blocks from the campus we were in a residential area and walking down a cul-de-sac. The houses were all still covered in snow and I was pretty sure that most of the occupants were still in bed. At the far end of the turn-around among the rest of the homes sat a little yellow house with a carport on the right side. Cars filled the double driveway and a few parked along the curb in front. Stacey led me to the side door in the carport and stopped. I was expecting some kind of elaborate secret knock but she just knocked once, opened the door and pulled me inside. We were greeted warmly as we entered, well, Stacey was and as we took off our coats and handed them to a 30 something lady that Stacey introduced as Wendy. I met her church away from home. Hippies. The place was full, which amounted to about 6 couples and their kids, and my Spidey-sense told me I’d stumbled onto some kind of hippie enclave. This was confirmed by the liberal use of words like “cool”, “awesome” and “groovy” in the conversations going on around me. The Birkenstock sandal wear added proof as did the funky, relaxed atmosphere and the acoustic guitars beside the couch and chair. I looked at Stacey and raised an eyebrow; she just smiled and pushed me into a glider rocker next to the big, glass sliding door that had been half covered by a drift of snow creeping up the outside. A few more intros were made that included Stacey giving them what sounded like a rehearsed bio on me and I found myself pulled into conversations I didn’t really mean to be having. No one asked me if I was “born again” but Marc, Wendy’s husband, asked me about anthropology and what I liked about it, we talked about movies we’d been to recently and they wanted to know how Stacey and I had met.
Everyone was sipping coffee or drinking herbal tea and when someone finally pulled out a paperback and started to read from it I was expecting something from Heinlein’s, Stranger In A Strange Land, more than a Bible reading. But it turned out to be the Bible. And then a couple guys grabbed their acoustic guitars and started to play and one of the ladies passed around some sheets with columns of words in tiny fonts. I was quick enough to realize these were lyrics but I’d never heard of any of the songs. As I flipped the pages over and over I did notice at least one name that I recognized next to “song by”: Bob Dylan. It was a funny little song called, “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, or something like that. And suddenly I was right in the middle of a folkfest and trying hard not to sing along. Stacey must not hear my ever changing voice trying to sing. Staying cool can be a burden some times!
And then something happened. Something it’s hard to tell anyone about. By way of confession though I’ll tell you, as best I can, what happened next. The Hippies started playing some song, I can’t even tell you what it was, it wasn’t a hymn or any song I’d ever heard. It was a song about God and to God but I couldn’t tell you a single line or even a word from the lyrics. But right there, in the living room of people who had been total strangers to me 20 minutes before and next to a girl I wanted to impress and make her love me more than anything else in the world, I started to sob.
Didn’t see that coming? Me either.
Have you ever been in a situation where you started to laugh but the harder you tried to stop the harder and louder you laughed? Same thing for me here but with sobs. Full blown, buckets of tears, gasping for air, snot pouring out of my nose sobbing. And I couldn’t stop. I could feel Stacey staring at me and I think the Hippies were pretty freaked out to. They just kept playing, and through my tears I could see them trading glances with each other, shrugging their shoulders and looking to their wives for some help. Stacey leaned over and whispered, “Are you o.k.?” I tried to answer her that I had no idea but all that came out was something like, “snb..oog…agh…” which was no help at all. She handed me a wad of Kleenex and put her hand on my arm and just watched me ooze all over.
I was having what an alcoholic friend told me later was my moment of clarity. Basically I saw me and I didn’t really like what I saw. I saw me without all the pretense and masks I used to cover my malnourished soul. I also saw the size of the gap between me and the God everyone was singing about and I had this idea that I’d made the gap and God had done everything to close it. I had this strange idea that God, though not impressed by me, like me. I “felt it” would probably be a better way to say it. And it made me sob and I couldn’t stop sobbing. It was weird but at the same time I knew something good was happening somewhere deep inside of me. I went through an entire box of Kleenex. I had no idea the human body was capable of producing its own weight in snot. I was still sobbing and oozing snot well into the middle of the little talk that one of the Hippies, Wendy’s husband I think, did about God and Jesus and stuff I can’t remember. The truth is that most of the rest of that morning and day were a blur as I tried to process everything that was happening in me.
Stacey was looking for some kind of explanation and I just didn’t have any words to cover it. Which pretty much sucked. It was a terrible way to end our weekend but it was time to go and I was too shaken up inside to say anything that was even remotely coherent. At some level I was desperate to apologize to Stacey because as much as I thought I loved her I was realizing that I’d been asking her to compromise all that she believed in. All the things that I loved about her, her outlook on life, the joy she brought into every moment, the expectation and optimism, her consistency and her sense of humor, these were all sourced by a spring I was doing my level best to lead her away from. A spring I’d stopped drinking from quite a long time ago.
Two weeks later, back behind the counter at the bookstore, I opened my last letter from Stacey. The first thing I noticed was that her i’s were dotted like everyone else’s. In 4 short paragraphs she told me what I’d known since the day I’d left for home. She thought we should start seeing other people. Which really meant she wanted to start seeing other people. I hadn’t been looking forward to the letter, but I’d been expecting it. It hurt, but I knew it was right. Coming home from that weekend with her and the weird experience I had at the Hippie church, I’d felt like a snake crawling under a porch to shed its skin. Layer by uncomfortable layer I was shedding the dead, dry remnants of a life I didn’t want to own anymore. I wasn’t fit to be in a relationship with anyone, especially Stacey and I had no words to describe to her what I was going through.
For awhile I held out hope that eventually all the change in my life would bring me back to Stacey. But about a month later a mutual friend told me that Stacey had started dating the guy who’d hosted the New Year’s Eve party where we’d met. “She’s not the same,” he said, “I think you probably wouldn’t ask her out if you met her now.” More than a year passed before I tried to get in touch with her again. Just as summer began I called her home and spoke with her mom. I left a message for Stacey but never heard back.
I can’t start a movie or book and then not finish it. When a book or story of any kind leaves some uncertainty about the future of the main character I’m dying for a sequel, I like to see how their story continues. I’ve always felt the same about people who’ve been the main characters in the story I’m in. I wonder where they are, what’s happened to them, how have they changed, what has life been like for them? And I’m always a little bit afraid to find out just in case the places where I added a paragraph or chapter to their story turned it into a tragedy instead of a romantic comedy or a drama with a happy ending. In the end all we have are the stories we’re writing and while our memories do some editing we really can’t go back and do the re-writes we’d like to.
And that’s how I came to have a chapter in my life called, “The Corruption of the Innocent and the Redemption of a devil.”
Normal, shorter posts resume tomorrow. Any feedback on the story, whether love or hate or stuff in between is welcome and appreciated. The Elusive is right when she says that makes me sound desperate… 😉