Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's not you; it's me. And kind of our dads.

One reason my brother says he doesn't regularly attend church is that he knows how the sausage gets made. Growing up that close to pulpit, preacher's kids (PKs) get an up-close view of the hypocrisy and vitriol that coincide with faith and community in all churches. They also develop a critical eye. Since living in LA, I've visited a new church every Easter and I barely make it out to the car before ripping into the sermon length, praising the choir's hymn choice or bemoaning the lack of organization during communion. It's like seeing a movie with a film student.

The weekend that my parents dropped me off at college, we went to Sunday services at the church right off campus. I had no interest in going to this (or any other) church and their minister didn't help the situation. He reminded me of a televangelist, insincere and empty. He was hocking CDs of his sermons at the back of the church and over lunch I entertained my half-disapproving parents with a litany of complaints about him.

While my rebellion against the idea of church was perfectly natural for a college freshman (and practically mandatory for a PK), I had an extra dollop of anger. My father lost his job that summer. In the midst of dealing with what felt like a massive betrayal ("It's just business" is something you'll never hear in a church; it's always personal) and worrying about my family's future, I headed off to school.

Another state away, I knew few people and was frequently miserable. The morning after a particularly grueling all-nighter, I showed up to a study group punch drunk tired and un-showered. There was a new guy there, but I was loopy exhausted and he registered only as Ben, the new guy who was probably smarter than me.

After heading home and napping, I was surprised to find an email from him. We hadn't actually spoken at the study group and I was sure I'd looked like the walking dead, but there was his email, asking me if I'd like to grab some pizza. I emailed back that I'd already eaten, but suggested we do it another time and gave him my phone number.

And so we started hanging out. He wasn't exactly my type, but he was funny and smart. He walked me home across campus and seemed a little shy, like he thought I was out of his league. I was telling my mother all these cute things over the phone when I casually said his full name. She roared with laughter. Judging from the distinctive last name, she guessed (correctly) that Ben was the son of the wannabe televangelist I'd so gleefully maligned.

Horror quickly turned to something close to relief. As a PK, he was among the only people who might know what it's like when your dad's resignation is demanded by the father of kids you babysit every day after school or when your former Sunday School teacher stares right through you at the grocery store. Who better to understand watching your father get treated like a spiritual punching bag?

Shortly after Ben confirmed that his dad was the minister next door, the whole painful story of my dad's resignation came pouring out of me. And in that flood, Ben knew exactly when to nod, when to laugh and when to just listen.

He even tried to commiserate — he'd had to move during high school when his father took his current post. He'd left his whole life behind and started over. But, Ben noted, he understood because it was a prestigious position. Plus, they bought him a car. Inwardly I bristled at the reminder that his father, someone I found to be slick, shallow and politically savvy, was thriving while my dad was substitute teaching to make ends meet.

It wasn't fair to hold that against Ben, but somewhere deep inside, I did. He took our heart-to-heart as a turning point just as I began to pull away, regretting my vulnerability. Suddenly his cavalier attitude about his straight A's was annoying. His enormous collection of books was douchey. His flippant suggestion that I flash our hornball professor to upgrade my B was insulting.

I started returning his calls by using a quirk in the university phone system to just leave a message. I showed up late to his birthday, dragging along a friend and apologizing that I couldn't stay long. His once-friendly roommates gave me the frosty smiles I reserved for the unreliable jerks my friends were dating. Soon Ben gave up the never-ending game of phone-tag.

Though we rarely ran into each other on campus, I'd feel a strange flare of jealousy when I heard through a professor that he was a talented writer or from a mutual friend that he'd won some English award.  It always took a moment to remember that he wasn't some asshole that let me down; he was a guy who actually understood my 18-year-old pain, and who I chose to punish anyway.

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