The Suspension of Disbelief

A man from a fundamentalist family, a freethinking woman— what does the future hold?

Their son was dating a heathen. That’s what it was, in the end: a woman set to go to Hell and take their son with her by doing nothing to encourage him to come back to the fold. Worse: encouraging him in the opposite direction.

That’s what I was thinking, anyway. I thought it as the four of us greeted one another with cursory hugs in the dark of the Clemson, South Carolina Applebee’s parking lot. Thought it as his parents smiled at me and asked how work was going. Thought it as I said, “Great!”

We’d talked it over before, David and me, and would again, and it always came down to one sentence from him, complete with one unconvincing pat on the back.

“My parents like you.” That’s it. He’d already told me his family’s evangelical Christian worldview and knew it would be a lie to say more. To say, maybe, “They really don’t mind that you’re a tattooed Unitarian Universalist.” These were people who didn’t drink. Didn’t dance. And so I knew: Between my job with the liberal press and my premarital sexual offerings, I was driving him to Hell.

I Will Not Slap My Boyfriend’s Father

I had spent most of my life not giving much thought to Hell in that capital-“H,” actual geographical-place-in-the-cosmos-way. But now I was dating the first son of a family who did, and I knew that to them, facts were facts: It would be Hell or my conversion, which as far as I was concerned, would take place when hell—Well, you know the expression. I knew further, that the persistence of our dating made increasingly likely the moment in which I would be forced to say this outright to his parents. And I knew that then, if prior experience with Southern Bible Belt culture was any indication, I would be told by David’s father, a minister, that I was being prayed for. Just as squarely, I knew the instinctive reaction this would provoke in me. But, no. I would not slap my boyfriend’s father.

His father who was, in fact, kind. Who reminded me of my own father, with his expansive gentle-heartedness and his punny sense of humor.

The day before, he had performed the wedding ceremony of David’s younger brother, and during that ceremony, his words had moved me to tears. A paunchier version of David, David Senior was a man who stood more at ease in his cosmos than did my boyfriend. As he spoke from the altar, looking down at the young couple, Dudley and that nice red-haired girl, the man stood in a stream of sunlight, silver and pure. He stood there in the light and made it his place, this aging son of a minister who was the son of a minister and so on up an ancestral road, one that my boyfriend was meant to have traveled himself, had he not fallen by the wayside.

Reward Or Punishment?

“You look at someone, think, I love you, and in the next moment, But that’s not good enough. Then, you’re back to the first statement again. There is no blessing or damnation from above, only human decision-making; no eternity, only a finite series of moments.”

David Senior spoke of his love for his younger son and for Ashley the redhead, whom Jesus Himself had brought into the family. At these all-embracing words of Family and of Jesus’ place in their marriage, like some third person they were both marrying by marrying each other—Jesus, an arbitrator in times of empty orange juice containers replaced in the fridge or of deeper problems—at all that certainty and rightness, my own eyes filled and overflowed.

It was like a tearjerker of a movie I wanted to believe in, if only for the hour I sat there in my pew. And, like a movie theater’s dusty beam of light suspends within it your disbelief, some part of me really did believe it was true for these other nice people congregated here. As for my own soul, I didn’t kid myself. I had only this solid world, my reward or punishment limited to what I made of this lifetime.

Not that I paraded this belief system around David’s parents. Instead, I greeted the pinched smiles they directed my way with an elaborate show of docility. I spoke in a higher pitch. I dressed carefully (hiding that tattoo whose existence they knew of perfectly well,) and assumed this wide-eyed politeness that made my forehead ache after awhile. I didn’t want to embody to these people, everything that had gone wrong with their first son.

And it seemed to work. Our conversations during these visits ranged from the unusually warm weather of late, to the merits of one brand of Saltines over another, everything skimming along smoothly on cold, exterior tracks.

The Light of Connection

Until moments like now, sinking back into the sticky vinyl embrace of the booth in that South Carolina Applebee’s the day after David’s brother’s wedding. David held his parents enthralled with the latest antics of his senile cat. I made a grab for my Cherry Coke and took a deep pull at my straw, as if to allay an onrush of panic and heartbreak.

I caught David Senior’s eye across the table. Yesterday, he’d said it before everyone congregated: When two people came together in this world, their families did, too. I pictured them here, now: my wine-drinking psychologist father or worse, my mother, the liberal activist and ardent atheist. In my family, meals were a rather raucous affair, anything but staid. When I thought of family, I thought of that: the place you were most comfortable to talk about anything. Watching David settle for volleying pleasantries back and forth across the table with his own parents made my stomach sink. Sure, he was an adult now and knew that this was the only way they could live in peace. But still, I wondered: Where was the light of connection? How on earth was this meal bringing anyone here closer together?

Maybe David and I were doomed.

But as soon as you find one absolute, there’s another lurking just behind it, just as obstinate and inevitable. You look at someone, think, I love you, and in the next moment, But that’s not good enough. Then, you’re back to the first statement again. There is no blessing or damnation from above, only human decision-making; no eternity, only a finite series of moments. Any minute now, it would shift again. From now, David Senior, leaning back in open-mouthed laughter over the climax of his son’s story to now, when David reached over and took my hand, while a car parking in the lot outside suspended all of us in its headlights for just a moment, now, and then gone.