"He was both your leader and your lover."
Going to humanist church as an atheist seems logical until the man you’re sleeping with, who’s also the preacher, but the non-religious kind, tells you he doesn’t think it’s a good idea for you to come anymore, not because of your lack of faith (obviously), but because it’s a distraction to him.
He tells you while you’re in the bedroom, in the secrecy of night, when you’ve just dropped to your knees. “At least you don’t have to pretend to enjoy my talks anymore.”
You say in your best dry tone, “I’m usually bored to tears.” But a small, excavated part of you feels something like loss, and you think, Shit. I was actually starting to enjoy this.
You first attended the Secular Assembly as an experiment, prodded on by your friend, Jerry, who would get tipsy and visit different clubs and groups. “Have you read Bowling Alone?” he had asked me over brunch. “Meaningful communities are like an endangered species.”
You had resisted him at first. Being voyeurs for the Central Park gathering of Furries was amusing, even though it scared your dog, and attending the Moderation Management meeting was strange (“Did you know the founder killed two people in a DUI?” Jerry whispered), but church, church was different. You hated hearing the Bible misquoted to support conversion therapy. You remembered getting in trouble in Sunday School because you showed a boy your vagina inside the toy house; you got a scolding, and he got the belt. You could still feel the baby-knots of fear in your stomach when you tried to sleep, willing your eyes to stay open, listening to that morbid nursery rhyme.
If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
You remembered all of this when you told Jerry no. “What’s the point?” you had asked. “If you have a congregation at a specific time, and a man at a pulpit, it’s still organized religion.”
“I hear you,” Jerry had said. “But this place celebrates people.” He pulled out a promotional postcard, featuring two tattooed men, cheek-to-cheek, holding a chubby baby.
“Fine,” you say. “But if I hate it, I’m taking a smoke break and not coming back.”
You and Jerry had arrived at the building, low-profile, like any other. But instead of taking a creaky elevator, you descended into the basement, where rows of chairs led up to a simple wooden stage. You sat and waited for the rows to fill, as a pop-star rendition of “Imagine” blared from the speakers.
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
A tall, full-bearded man with an untucked shirt moved to the center of the stage, his broad shoulders framed by a large white asymmetrical panel that said Dream It, Live It, like oversized, well-worn wings.
He smiled in our direction and the music faded. “In uncertain times like these, it’s important to remember the power of human beings to fight, even if it’s an uphill battle.” Around you, there was a smattering of applause.
“In the words of Teddy Roosevelt,” he continued, “‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs…because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.’ Or, as a wise man once said, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Next to you, Jerry snickered, and you elbowed him. You were told to view the world in black-and-white; when you became too sexual, too talkative, too hungry, you had to walk away. But you missed being led, craved the euphoria of faith.
After the gathering, you couldn’t find Jerry, so you downed a free mimosa offered by a friendly woman with dreamcatchers hanging from her ears and went outside. Around back, the bearded man stood, smoke-less vapor swirling in his face.
“I’ve been searching for something different,” you said, cigarette between your lips.
He winked, one blue-sky eye piercing you through. “The journey is just as important.”
Through the back doors, you could still hear the band performing “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the singer’s voice tinged with emotion.
Take me to the place where you go
Where nobody knows if it's night or day
But please don't put your life in the hands
Of a Rock n Roll band
Who'll throw it all away
To Jerry’s disbelief, you continued going back, moving up in the rows, watching him with childlike pride; he was both your leader and your lover. Of course you could see the gold ring haloed around his finger, but this was different, you thought, conventional morality doesn’t apply. And you weren’t surprised when he told you not to attend anymore, just disappointed.
And then one day, you are sitting on the subway, listening to Obama’s final speech, pausing every few seconds to take in the language, as if you are inking the quotes on your skin, even though you know, as he beautifully articulates, that the written word is just a piece of parchment, with no power on its own.
But there’s a part at the beginning that you keep replaying because it makes you less scared, but also because you want a blameless leader to speak right to you, and say with sincerity—You did this. You made me a better man.
And then, despite your instincts, you call your pastor-paramour and ask him to come over. You don’t talk before or during sex, but you’re grasping for the right words all the while, and when you stop, because your bodies are sick of each other, you ask him to read you some of his sermons, and you drift off to the sound of his voice.
I am an emerging writer who recently completed my certificate in fiction from UCLA Extension Writer's Program, as well as various fiction workshops run by Catapult, Sackett Street and Blue Stoop. I am a judge for the Scholastic Teen Writing Awards, and my short fiction can be found in Paper Darts, Breakwater Review, Pure Slush and Coil (the journal of Alternating Current Press). Originally from Los Angeles, I currently live in Philadelphia.
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