Sunday, September 30, 2007

Joy in Mudville Tonight

Well, there’s joy in Mudville tonight if you’re a Philadelphia Phillies fan. Last game of the season, they did what they had to do to make the playoffs: won, while the Mets got hammered by the lowly Marlins, the end of the worst September collapse in baseball history. While that collapse may be historic, it wouldn’t have mattered without the Phils catching fire in September and keeping the pressure on every step of the way.

That poem is a pretty solid take on emotion and sports: “no joy in Mudville tonight.” Implying there may have been the day before, and that lack of joy will fade tomorrow, or the next day, or next week. Of course, things have changed in baseball since then. These days, Mighty Casey will have enough injected testosterone and other undetectable substances coursing through his veins that his home run output would be doubled. He’d have a small jar of children’s urine attached to a rubber penis hidden in his McMansion, the one he uses for drug tests that he bought for $500 from a steroid dealer in his gyms’ parking lot . And his fatal strike-out, as each at-bat, would cost the team tens of thousands of dollars for his services.

Living in the New York area, I don’t get to see many Phillies games in the course of a season. Sure, when they play the Mets. Sometimes the Braves on TBS. Sometimes ESPN will have them on. I tend to frequent the team's website, checking in at night around 10 to see how they’ve done, or early the next morning. But as a rule, I don’t get to see the games until I go back to Pennsylvania, and I’ll try to see as many games as I can, usually up in my old bedroom, the place of dreams, where I once hung baseball gloves on bed posts and slept in Little League uniforms the night before opening day. I’ll cheat a lot, only watching the Phillies at-bat while channel surfing when they’re on the field.

While my fanhood is solid, it surely aint what it used to be, and the emotional connection is such that I’ll feel bad for a little while if they blow a game, but not to the extent of anyone noticing. I have to admit, over this playoff run for the past few weeks, I’ve been elated when the Mets kept losing and the Phils slowly closed ground. I was deflated yesterday when they dropped a key game to the lowly Nationals, thinking, what the fuck are these guys doing, how can they play so lackluster at a time like this?

But that’s the nature of the game. It’s momentum, not easy to predict and not easy to understand how or why it happens when it does. The Marlins came out today in Shea Stadium, after getting murdered the previous day, on the shit end of a very bad season, and laid a totally unexpected ass-bombing on aging ace Tom Glavine, tagging him for seven runs in the first inning. Tom sat in the dugout after being taken out, looking like the only things he wanted to do were go home, bronski that pin-up material wife of his and convert to Satanism. It didn’t get any better as the game progressed and the Mets never caught fire.

I’ve seen two games like that with the Mets in the past three days, the previous being the first game of the series the Mets lost to the Marlins. What was very odd, and somehow touching, was that when it became clear the Mets were going to lose (and that first loss represented the first time since mid-May that the Mets had not been in first place), the cameras started to show fans in the crowd as much as possible. You had people with dejected faces in rally caps (a baseball hat turned inside out), some people crying, a dejected couple, the woman rubbing the man’s back as he looked like someone just shot his dog, beefy guys with handlebar mustaches leaning on rails, the sort of faces you tend to see at wakes and funerals. The strangest thing was the silence: you could have heard someone fart in the upper decks. Shea Stadium was like a giant morgue filled with 30,000 corpses.

Same thing happened again, today, only worse, and a lot of fans didn’t leave the stadium after the game, just sat there, stunned, unwilling to let the season go. They weren’t looking for a curtain call, to have the players come out and give them one last blast of applause, as you’ll sometimes see with teams who’ve over-achieved the fans’ expectations, had a great year, but came up short. That’s a sweet thing to see, but this was more like an old woman clinging to the body of her husband of 50 years who had died two hours earlier. Just refusing to accept it on some basic level, all the while understanding that it’s over. The same way we’ve all clung to bad relationships long after we knew they should have been a memory.

But the thing about sports is you keep coming back, in a strange type of relationship that usually predates and lasts as long as any form of marriage. You fall in love again, every year, ride the season out, soak it in when it’s around, hope for the best, feel like shit when the team plays like shit, and feel great by extension when they excel. To an extent – like I’ve noted, this used to be a much more emotional experience for me when I was much younger.

What changed that? The Sugar Bowl, January 1, 1979, Penn State losing to Alabama 14-7 in the Superdome, New Orleans. I was 14 years old and watching Penn State playing for a national championship, totally in love with the team, with Paterno and his paternal style of coaching, his highwater pants and white socks, the cheap ties and windbreakers, the coke-bottle glasses, his team dressed in the most basic, faceless uniforms imaginable. I can’t pinpoint the exact year I started following Penn State, probably about 1972 or so, but seeing as how my dad’s generation all did time at the campus (although Dad dropped out on the G.I. Bill, just wasn’t his thing), it was an ongoing family thing. I fell right into line and am still there: of all the sports I follow, Penn State football is the one I tend to get the most emotional about.

But that one game blew me out on some higher spiritual level. The game came down to Penn State getting stopped on the Alabama 2-3 yard line and unable, on four running plays up the middle, to convert. Losing that game was absolutely devastating. I think I went down to the basement, wept, put on brother M’s Best of Bread eight track, and lifted my vinyl-covered cement weights for about two hours. I felt like dogshit for a good week or two after that, just pure depression.

And that was it. I pretty much decided that sports were a diversion, and that it didn’t make any sense to get that emotional over them. It made sense to follow them, to take pleasure in them, to let them help pass the time, but that’s where I drew the line. When I see people doing shit like painting their faces, getting abusive in a stadium, taking the game way too personally, I have to wonder what’s going on with that person. Why it means so much. Why the sense of ceremony, the thousands of dollars spent on tickets, alcohol and travel. No one has ever adequately explained that to me. Nick Hornby tried with is book about being an Arsenal soccer fan, but I honestly didn’t get his emotional connection to the game, it felt like bullshit to me. When I had my teenage heart broken by the Crimson Tide, I made a conscious choice to place sports in a more realistic context, must have been some type of demarcation point for me. I can see the tribal aspects of following a team, but I can also see through it. Much as I came to the same realization about Lou Reed fans, that many of them sucked and were no friends of mine, no matter how much pleasure I took from his music. I just don't get fans on some important level. The low point of this baseball season for me was some guy from Seattle with his son in Yankee Stadium, both excited to be there, and the man gets a broken neck and partial paralysis when some fat, drunken fuck, the kind of which you see in droves at any professional sporting event, fell on his back from a few seats up, was successfully spirited away by his asshole friends and never caught/held accountable for his actions. All this for a baseball game, I thought.

But in general, I still get much pleasure and pain from sports. Penn State went on to win the national title twice in the 10 years following that crushing loss, but they’ve had some rough times since then, and frankly kind of suck this year. The Phillies have sucked for a long time since the early 80s, going to the World Series in the early 90s with that freaky team of fat white guys with mullets, but I knew they were going to lose that one, they were just too strange to make it on that level. When I identify with the Phillies now, as with all sports, it goes back to the 70s, when I was a child, and I did things like collect baseball cards and worship some of these guys. Steve Carlton was my favorite player, because he was a great, no-nonsense pitcher, got up there and fired the ball without hesitation, like a machine, and never talked to the press, which I loved about him, the most intense, zero-bullshit player of my 70s fanhood. I later learned, when he finally started talking to the press years after his retirement, that he was hung up on jews in spaceships ruling the world, thus explaining his choice to live in one of those wilderness states out west, probably with a bunker stocked with ammo and canned soup. But even then, I still loved the guy, even with full knowledge of how totally nuts he was.

This season, for me, goes back to a moment in a supermarket parking lot in Frackville, PA, some time in April. When I go back there and Mom needs to grocery shop, I make it a habit of going along with her to help out. I was doing just that, only she had to stay in the store to renew her animal shelter key chain: it’s from a local shelter with a no-kill policy that she swipes with every purchase at the store to make a $1.00 donation. She was inside getting that taken care of, while I took the groceries out to load in the car.

As I was doing so, I noticed an old-timer a few cars over having trouble loading his groceries. Guy must have been in his late 70s. So I walked over and helped him, loading the bags into the backseat of his car. Thank you, young man, he said … I like that hat. I was wearing a throwback 70s Phillies hat, with the big fat “P” on it from that time period.

We got to talking about the Phillies, both of us bemoaning the lack of pitchers like Carlton, hoping this new kid Hamels would step up. It was a windy/cloudy day, chilly. I think the season was a week away from starting. Well, he said, whatever happens, life goes on.

So we bid goodbye and he drove off. It was such a nice, quiet moment to share with a fellow fan, one who obviously went back decades further than I did, and I often get the impression that I’m the old man by knowing my 70s baseball history. Both of us acknowledge that our team had been losers for a long time, would probably be losers again this year, yet somehow, we’d still go on wearing our hats, and having polite conversations in parking lots about the state of the team. I could tell he enjoyed speaking with me as much as I did with him.

And little did either of us know, until the last fucking day of the season, that what both of us suspected wasn’t going to happen this year, happened. And if I see him again in that same parking lot when I got back there again later this week, I’ll be sure to say, wasn’t that something. And he’ll probably respond, that it was, that it was. Wonder how long they’ll take to blow it in the playoffs. It's not so much the nature of the Phillies as it is of life itself: something you learn when your team loses as much or more than it wins.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

City, Country, Privacy

Recently, I had a disagreement with a friend loosely based on the recurring “why don’t you have a girlfriend/wife” routine, although, gratefully, this time it didn’t branch off into the “you must be sucking cock” side theory. There’s something important I have to tell you: if a person appears to be sane, healthy and sufficient, stop wondering anything about the person and accept whatever he’s doing in his life. Anything else is conjecture, usually wrong, and it’s a good idea to keep that stuff to yourself, or only share it with other “concerned” individuals. It serves no purpose to lay these suspicions on the object of these theories. Rule of thumb, unless someone in your life is going off the rails or messing with you in some sense, let him be. It gets much worse than your expectations.

But I think underneath that was what I call the city/country conundrum. This situation may present itself in other geographical circumstances, but in mine it’s the difference between living in the city and country, which I’ve done both of for nearly the same amount of time. (Country has about three year lead.) While I present myself as a “normal” individual, that’s mainly my choice to see myself as a country person who moved to the city. I will always see myself that way and maintain that rural sense of calm. It’s just who I am. When people not from the city meet me and don’t know I’ve spent two decades in New York, they assume I’m some acceptable derivation of a redneck. Mainly because I don’t have all the stereotypical negative attributes of city folk: loud, too cool for the room, arrogant, pushy, brashly liberal, etc.

As noted, what’s really going on is someone choosing one set of values over another, despite the fact that I have a strong understanding of city life, having lived 20 years in the gritty 718s, 10 in what was basically a ghetto, and the past 10 in a predominately working-class white neighborhood (that’s now being over-run by moneyed vampires). I understand the city – in a lot of respects, I love it. I know how hard it can be, know how to carry myself, know when to defend myself and when to keep on walking, basically have that unspoken sense of how to get along here that a lot of people don’t.

This understanding that’s taken me 20 years to develop is pretty much lost on most rural folks. Most people I know from the country have always lived there, and for good reason: they like it, a lot. Can’t picture themselves living any other way. More than likely close to family roots. Surrounded by extended family. If not by lifelong friends, then around familiar faces they’ve always known. Country side. Open space. The feeling that not everyone is out to get you. Waving “hi” to everyone you meet.

You can call that a highly romanticized version of small-town life, but it isn’t. Sure, I’m leaving out small-town gossip, constricted social values, etc. I’d list “lack of diversity” … but honestly, you live in a place like the Bronx, all the black and hispanic kids all act the same and have that same constricted sense of social values. (Yet, you’ll rarely hear anyone stating any need to escape those places and values which, from what I’ve seen, are more negative than anything I came up against in a small town. I really don’t like people painting white rural areas as having a “lack of diversity” when I can personally guarantee you the black/hispanic urban version is no better, and sometimes much worse. “Lack of diversity” is shorthand for “I can’t stand working-class white people and have found this acceptable way to present my loathing.” You’ll never hear anyone harping on the Bronx for lacking diversity; it lacks just as much diversity as any economically-depressed rural area. And I suspect you’d find the same shit in depressed urban areas all over America.)

Please don’t misread me as damning these inner-city places – I’m just pointing out what I know from experience, that they’re just as constricting in their own strange way as any rural area. And usually a lot more dangerous. That’s the key difference for me between rural and urban life: the constant awareness of danger. It’s a given at night, and you’d be wise to watch yourself during the day, too. It goes without question that doors and windows stay locked here. Shit, when I go to they gym, I keep my valuables in a fanny pack, have it with me the whole time, and hang it on a hook in the shower. Why? My locker was robbed once a few years ago, and a few months after that, found my lock half-cracked open during rush hour at the gym. Why risk having my credit cards, driver’s license, MP3 player, cellphone and house keys stolen? I developed this habit after going to the locksmith after the second incident, asking him what I should do, and he recommended never leaving my valuables unguarded anywhere in a gym, because any lock can be cut in a matter of seconds. Some guys think I’m over-doing it – but I still occasionally see dazed-looking guys explaining to gym attendants that their lock is gone, along with their clothes and valuables, but how could this be, I had a lock … to which I say never under-estimate the can-do spirit of white-collar crackheads.

That’s one huge difference between rural and urban life for me. The other big one is simply how people live in the city, which is to say it’s hard as hell to get anyone on the same page in terms of hanging out. It just doesn’t happen unless you plan it, and even then, people constantly change their plans. I’m not that kind of person. You make a date with me a year from now and never mention it again, I’m going to be at that place in a year waiting for you. But that’s just not reality for most people in the city. And it usually takes much more time to get to a given place, say a bar or restaurant, and then get home from there. Could be minutes, could be two hours travel time all together in terms of walking and taking trains. It’s a time commitment, and the one constant I see in the city is people with very little spare time between work and the travel time to get there. When I lived in the country, you got a phone call, said yeah, hopped in a car and were there in five minutes. That rarely happens here!

Thus, unless you’re living with someone, you spend a lot of time alone, unless you get on a high horse about seeing people every night of the week, which is a job unto itself. Most people I know have their own apartments or have lived that way in the past, assuming they’re now married or living with someone. If you have an apartment to yourself, you have solitude. That is, if you’re geared to be alone. If you’re not, you have loneliness. Call it the glass being half empty or half full – it’s the same thing and is however you choose to define it. I have much more “alone” time in the city, and I like it. Always have, probably always will. It doesn’t bother me. I get shit done. I don’t answer to anyone but myself. I have time and space to think, which is key for any writer. It agrees with me.

And I do sense the difference whenever I go back home to Pennsylvania for a visit every six weeks or so. Because there will always be people in the house, be it my mother, brother or sister, cats and such. I like that, too, as it’s a change of pace for me. I tend to be a pretty easy person to get along with. Don’t bust balls. Don’t have that sort of negative charisma that puts everyone in my presence on guard. (Hard to explain what that is, but I feel it around certain folks in the city all the time.) Willing to roll with a lot of shit. Always glad to help out. Don’t pick fights. If a living environment in the city presented itself where I had to live with other people, so long as they were decent and sane, I’d have no problem with it. If I was fucking that other person, even better!

But I do like that feeling, when I get back to New York after a four-day trip back home and a long bus ride, of unpacking my stuff, sitting down with a sandwich, flipping open the Sunday Daily News, and thinking, ah, now I’m back in my space. I like having both, and I like the balance. Don’t sit around pining for Pennsylvania and cats and mom and siblings and old high-school friends and friendly neighbors. They’re back there, and I can go visit regularly – I’d like to visit more regularly, but I do so as time and work allow.

I have my privacy in the city, and you better believe I value it. Whenever I feel that privacy infringed upon – like with this recent situation with the friend – it annoys me. And I guess you can trace a lot of this back to my mother, and my father when he was alive. Because with them, it never seemed to matter what I did with my life: so long as I stayed alive, they were/are cool with me. I know a lot of parents aren’t like that, that they have high expectations and demands of their kids. Which is fine, but it wasn’t how I was raised. I was raised to understand the key thing was for us to be alive and in each other’s lives. Not warring constantly, or fretting about what we were or weren’t doing with our lives. This sort of understanding runs through me like life blood – it’s how I see the world, and how I treat people in my life. You will never catch me busting anyone's balls (or labia?) regarding how/what he or she should be doing. Sounds like hippie bullshit? It’s more like Depression Era bullshit, where my parents saw that just staying alive, having roof overhead and food on the table was what really mattered. I haven’t forgotten that lesson and will live it the rest of my days. You want to take over the world, have at it. I just want to live in it.

So, I have that sort of “live and let live” attitude about my own little world. On top of which, this is strange to admit, but I never had any privacy living in the country. When I go back to that house in Pennsylvania, I can’t believe that there were seven people living in it. My two brothers and I shared one small bedroom. I sit in that room now and think, “Christ, what kind of insanity was it to have three growing boys in this room?” But it was necessary – there was no other room. What was really chaotic were my father's siblings visiting with their similarly large broods of 5-8 people, in a house that comfortably holds four adults. As Charlton Heston said in Planet of the Apes, it was a madhouse. Many times, I pissed in the backyard because there was a 4-5 people deep line for the bathroom. You present me with that sort of situation now, I'd get a fucking hotel room until everyone left.

Even in the best of circumstances, I had zero privacy. There was none in the backyard either, where we were next to a schoolyard constantly buzzing with kids playing sports, and neighbors on all sides. And everyone knew each other’s business. Not in a friendly, supportive way either. In that cunty “need to know your business so I can feel superior to you” sort of way. I don’t want to paint a stifling picture here, but there is a flipside to having your neighbors know you and be aware of what goes on in your life. And usually that sort of knowledge is superfluous. When I find myself indulging in that sort of shit, I never feel good or sated in any sense afterwards. Whatever problems I have are still there, and whatever brief glimmer of happiness I took in getting some lowdown shit on someone else fades fast.

So it was a strange thing for me to move the city, where there are millions more people, and realize that I would have much more privacy here. I liked it! I still like it now. And I can tell you, there are millions of other people living here just like me, who came here from somewhere else, some with their hearts set on escape (mine wasn’t … there just wasn’t any good work back there for a college grad), and they have a comparably solitary life to the rural/suburban family way of life they left behind. And I’m also willing to bet many of them are as OK with this way of life as I am. There is very little pressure to conform here when you’re not from here. Conform to what?

I don’t like using the word “escape” with small-town life, because I’ve realized you can never escape who you are. You can change your name, run to the other end of the globe, but sooner or later, you’re going to catch yourself doing something and recognize, “Jesus Christ, that’s what Dad used to do” or sensing vestiges of where you came from in how you do things. I think I always wanted a little privacy. That’s why I started writing in that spiral notebook on my bed, because even if there were two guys in the room with me, watching TV or whatever, I could write in that notebook and have my own world. I don’t think I ever got the chance to stand or fall on my own merits until I got to New York City, and for that I’ll always be grateful. I’ve learned a ton of shit about human nature over the past two decades, most of it dark, but valuable knowledge nonetheless. I’d have never learned these things if I’d stayed back there.

And when I go back there, it reminds me that I can have this, too, if I want to move in that direction of creating a family and such. Hardly a “best of both worlds” scenario. Just the option to recognize the value of both worlds, while I firmly live in the city one. Bottom line, I like being alone in the city, have felt that way for a very long time now, and sometimes it’s hard to explain that to people in a small-town who don’t live that way, and find it freakish. It isn't. Which is why I’m happy my mother is who she is, and my father was the way he was, because they’ve quietly taught me the value of life itself, more than how you choose to live it. Can’t end this thing with that sentence, which sounds like something you’d find in the Readers Digest back on the bathroom radiator in Pennsylvania. Yet another city plus: my shithouse literature is much more interesting.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Born Again

I have a real checkered past in terms of dealing with Born Again Christians. Not necessarily referring to the “Born Again” movement that rose to prominence in the 80s. Most Christians will describe themselves as being born again, of having some sort of spiritual awakening where the message of Christ becomes clear to them and alters their paths.

Of course, I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. I never did. Suspect I never will. But I respect it, because I have seen people make positive changes in their lives as a result. And I’ve known more than a few Christians who are just good people whom I’d gladly defend to anyone. I’ve pretty much come to terms with Christianity in my life, recognizing The Bible is packed with wisdom, and that for me at least, my respect for religion is based on the knowledge that many of the good things we take for granted in the way we live (wisdom, common sense, compassion, charity, etc.) may not have existed or thrived before the concepts of religion, and books like The Bible, came into being. For all the people who look at religion and see only a black hole of misunderstanding and hatred (believe me, in New York …), I can see the much larger picture, that religion is for the most part good, despite whatever qualms I may have about it and some practitioners of their chosen faith.

But going back to that 80s concept of Born Agains, I did have one rough experience with it. In my sophomore year at college, in one of my classes I sat behind a girl who caught my eye the moment I saw her. P was a real looker, probably still is, long brown hair, warm eyes, but what really caught me was how friendly she was, just a very sweet-natured, open individual. It didn’t take me long to go crazy for her, and in the process I found out she was the sister of a guy from my high-school class, who I liked just fine but wasn’t really friends with.

Unlike her brother, she had gone to the local Catholic school, and therefore inhabited that parallel universe in our small-town area. I noted in an earlier post that even within my town of 500 people there were some kids who once they went to Catholic school in the seventh grade, just did a slow fade from the public-school kid social circle.

With P, it was taken a step further. She was thinking about becoming a nun, much to my chagrin. I know most people look at teenagers and picture them having sex from the age of 14 onward, but that didn't happen for me and P, considering she was on the verge of forfeiting sex all together in the service of the lord. As we got to know each other, I also learned she was often depressed, seemed to have a real negative self image, which is a hallmark of so many women, attractive or not. I still remember her getting a little too far into the Pink Floyd album The Final Cut, the title track of which is the singer contemplating suicide all to a very attractive piano-laden ballad.

When I was at her house, her parents treated me like a boyfriend, or at least boyfriend material, when the reality was I was dealing with a young girl with a lot of shit going on, much of it tied in with her very strong sense of Catholicism; I suspect they were hoping I’d guide her into the boy/girl realm of things. But who knows. Like many homes in the Coal Region, the house was a shrine to Catholicism: Pope and Cardinal dolls, pictures of the pope all over the place, enough crosses to guarantee safety from even near-sighted vampires. Going to her house was like going to a church in a row house – all that was missing was the incense.

My mother met her when I brought her around and her immediate impression was, “Now that’s a beautiful girl.” She was really impressed with P, as was everyone I knew who met her. The idea was stick with this one, if you’re patient and things work out, you’ll have a great woman on your hands and might even end up getting married to her.

One big roadblock was that a few months into this, I was ready for my junior year, i.e., moving from our small branch campus to the main campus – a huge move for a 19-year-old kid who had never been away from home for more than a week at a time. That summer was busy, between working most of it in my dad’s factory on their great “joe college” program for children of factory employees, trying to find a place to live, getting mentally prepared to be on my own for the first time and trying to keep this strange situation together with P.

I can still recall one odd night, a few days before moving, late August, sitting by my grand parents’ graves in the cemetery on the hill, basically wondering what was going to happen with us. It sticks in my mind mostly because I also had the first hemorrhoid of my life, a tiny little knot just above my asshole that was causing me much consternation, as I had no idea what it was. (I still get one of these about once every two years, usually stress related, and my heart goes out to anyone who suffers the affliction on a far more regular basis.)

But I remember her assuring me that whatever strange, hard-to-define thing we had going on wasn’t going to stop, and that I could easily come home on weekends to see her. It was one of those nice little moments of life where another person reassures you that all is not lost due to a looming change. That it took a place on a clear late summer night, in a cemetery, only adds to the odd, touching quality of it in my memory.

And that first year at the main campus (actually both years) was a blast, found myself writing a weekly humor column for the newspaper, made a whole new stable of friends on the same wavelength, found a very tolerable part-time gig in the German Department, and still kept a pretty high GPA, despite much drinking and folly. No urge to screw around, as I was locked in on P in that way only love struck teenagers can be – and believe me, opportunity knocked more than a few times! All the while, staying in touch with P and seeing her most weekends. Towards the end of that school year, in May, she had to come up to the campus herself as it was her turn to transfer, which had me elated.

But I had noticed, especially when I got home that summer, that she was even more troubled before regarding religion. I think she may have dumped the idea of becoming a nun all together, and was now feeling some sense of void or guilt over it. Whatever it was, I could tell things were off in a way that had nothing to do with me. And that was a shitty summer in general. I guess the factory had an off year financially and dumped the summer college program, which had been a cash cow for me the past two years. I tried my hand at two separate jobs, doing sales help at a commercial lumberyard and working midnight shift at a local lumberyard, but quit both within a week, the second after the first night. I can look back now and see I should have told myself, “Just bite the bullet and do this shit for two months then go back to school.” But at the time, both jobs seemed unbearably awful, the commercial place being run by two guys who made clear their disdain for college kids, the second a weird night shift job where fellow employees told me recurring stories of guys sawing off various body parts, with the shining rainbow that if you put the parts in a plastic bag on ice, they could probably still get you to the local hospital on time to have them re-attached.

I spent most of that summer watching MTV and killing time, while I sensed this thing with P was petering out due to her increasingly cloudy mood. One day around my birthday in June, she showed up at my house elated, which was a shock. We went out walking, and she had told me she met a new friend, E, who was part of a new church that had a wonderful message to tell regarding our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Immediately, I could feel something was off. It was as if a car had shifted from reverse to third in terms of her mood, no transition whatsoever, just an immediate decision to be overwhelmingly happy, which had me understandably suspicious.

P brought around her new friend E, and I knew things were going to be strange from that point on. E was a full-on stereotypical Born Again, not very smart, disdainful, judgmental in a very bad, condescending way, and someone who, I gathered, was on a pendulum swing in life, going from one extreme to the other. She had told me some story of Jesus saving her from drugs and that whole way of life, and right then, I figured she’d probably be better off on drugs. The pendulum swing seemed to be a hallmark of more than a few Born Agains I met in the 80s: people who were on the verge of flushing their lives down the toilet due to some type of self abuse, who suddenly had this magical transformation that made them full, whole, superior rays of light and happiness. I could tell P was overly impressed with E and her routine, when I could clearly see that E was a bullshit artist, not someone I would ever allow into my life, and very bad news for me. As it turned out, very bad news for everyone, as P’s parents, still staunch Catholics, weren’t having any of this Born Again nonsense.

I called bullshit the next day. P and I had always been very honest with each other, and I told her what I thought, that E didn’t strike me as someone I wanted to be associated with, and that I thought the whole Born Again thing was some form of mental illness – and I still believe the same to this day for that odd strain of Christianity. P got offended, said I better get used to it, because E was like a big sister to her now, and that if I couldn’t accept Jesus in the same way, there was no place for me in her life.

What a slap in the face that was on so many levels. One, I was being dumped from her life. Two, I was expected to shoehorn my personal beliefs along with hers, with a strain of Christianity I immediately recognized as counterfeit and wrong. Three, what kind of true Christian would offer that sort of ultimatum? Wasn’t Christianity supposed to open your heart, to allow you to accept others with total love, compassion and humility? My way or the highway wasn't the way of Christ; it was the way of fanatics.

I’ll give myself credit. Even with those odds against me, my immediate response was, “There’s no place for me in your life.” Not that I felt any sort of need to define and stand up for whatever form of spirituality I believed in. It was much more that I wholeheartedly rejected her form of spirituality and her new guide, who would have had a ball at the Salem witch trials burning innocent women at the stake.

When I got back from that meeting, I told Mom, well, you won’t be seeing P around here much anymore, and I told her why. She wasn’t heartbroken, but she was disappointed and angry. Being a Protestant who had married into a family of staunch Catholics, she knew well the sting of meaningless religious dogma and low-level persecution, and thus was just as skeptical as I was with any overt display of spirituality. But she said, all for the best, think how much worse this would be if you’d gotten more involved and something like this had happened.

Of course, these things never stop on a dime. While I distanced myself from P, we somehow stayed in touch, although I can’t remember how. The killer for me was that when she came up to the main campus, she immediately found a Born Again boyfriend and was hanging all over him the few times I saw her. Understand this was a woman who had previously been so uptight about issues like this that just to get her to hold hands was a major triumph. She finds Jesus, bam, next guy in line, provided he has the same beliefs, has this beautiful girl hanging all over him as if he was a rock star and she a groupie. Having spent a good year and a half scrapping for any display of physical affection, it was a real slap in the face.

But as those first few weeks at school moved on, I recognized I was lucky to have removed myself from the situation, because whatever Born Again road she had gone down, she wasn’t coming back any time soon. I think the first few weeks of that summer, I was sitting around waiting for her to come to her senses, to see through E’s smoke screen, but it just didn’t happen. I recall the last contact I had with her, late October my senior year of college, we sat on the main lawn of the campus, can’t recall what we’d even talk about at that point as I had moved as far from her as I possibly could. But at one point, she recognized a fellow Born Again walking by on the other side of the lawn, told me to watch her stuff and ran over to celebrate or something.

While she was gone, I noticed she had a writing tablet and had been jotting something down. I couldn’t help myself, and looked over to read it. It was a letter to E that read like something a cult member would write to the master. I can’t recall exactly what, but along the lines of, “My life since accepting Christ, and you as my guide, has been nothing but profound joy and happiness, oh, thank you for saving me from eternal damnation.” Again, I can’t recall the exact content, but I do recall the tone and word choice being very much along those lines.

It was then that I sort of heaved a spiritual sigh and said, “Thank you, Jesus, for taking me out of this situation before I got too far in to leave of my own free volition.” Because if I had become engaged or married to this woman, and something this bizarre and off putting had occurred, that would have been much worse than whatever pain I had already put myself through. She came back, found me in a noticeably brighter mood as I had realized she had gone totally off the deep end, bid farewell, and that’s the last time I remember seeing her.

Fast forward seven years, to my 10th high-school reunion. I hadn’t planned on going, but a few of my friends convinced me it could be fun. And sure enough, it was – I had a great time, seeing old friends, getting along famously with people I hadn’t know all that well, and having an all-around fine night. P’s brother was there, and I had been avoiding him most of the night, not sure how he or her family would see me now, all these years later. I hadn’t seen P since that day on the lawn and had totally removed myself from her life, had no idea what has transpired with her and her new beliefs down the road from college.

At one point in the night, I found myself at the same table as P’s brother and his wife. It was later in the night, and we were both pretty hammered. Everyone was, with an open bar and many guys walking around with a beer in each hand. We got to talking, and I didn’t even think to bring up P. He did. And I can’t recall exactly what he said, or even if I have this right all these years later, but he may have insinuated to me that she tried to commit suicide. Again, I’m not sure if that’s true, as we were both drunk at the time, but I do remember sitting there with my mouth open, in shock of what he was saying, and not quite sure how to respond.

If that wasn’t the case, then my apologies to P for getting a very serious issue wrong. If it was true, maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. I could clearly see that whatever she was going through strongly resembled the sort of deranged behavior more often associated with dangerous cults where people have to be kidnapped and unbrainwashed. While she may not have been that bad, she was close, and it wasn’t reassuring that summer when I had said, “There’s no place for me in your life,” and she got up and walked away with a huge Jesus smile on her face and a “your loss, buddy” attitude. I suspect I wasn’t the only person who got the routine – she seemed to be making it clear to everyone around her that if you weren’t on the same wavelength, you were somehow on the outside looking in from that point forward.

Still, no one wants to hear that an old flame tried to do something like that, whatever the scenario. It still troubles me to this day, although not enough to find out for sure, because if I did make contact with her, only to find out she was still mired down in that regrettable form of Christianity, I’d find that even more depressing. I’d like to find a lucid, warm human being, the kind of person she was the day I met her and recognized someone who had a real spark about her, only now she’d be older and wiser. But I’d also rather not take that chance, as I’ve seen how life works out, and I know that would be a best-case scenario.

I’d rather just let that one be for the rest of my days. Even now, there’s a small picture of her back on the dresser in my old bedroom, usually turned face down, mainly to keep dust off the face, P looking just beautiful, think it may have been a high-school graduation photo, but it caught her essence. I’d rather leave that picture gathering dust. It’s as nice a memory now as it was that sunny October day on the lawn in 1985.