Mark and Celia whisked me off campus for the first time since Mom came to visit me two weeks ago. It was almost too hard to see Mom cause it made me so homesick, I hadn't encouraged her to come again. Plus I didn't want her to see that I'd gained weight. Just three pounds, which no one here noticed, but I was afraid she would. I threw up in the mornings still sometimes, but it didn't help too much. I was occasionally indulging in dessert or bread. Homesick wasn't exactly the word. I didn't specifically want to go home. I would've gone someplace other than home if it was some place good. The main thing was that it be away from school. My disappointment that I was unhappy was as bad as the unhappiness itself.
The whole ride over I felt pretty good. For those twenty minutes things were how I'd thought they would be when I moved. I was with friends in a car and we were going to an artsy movie. It was the closest to my imagined image of school that I'd experienced so far, except for my first dreamy thirty seconds or so. Celia was totally silent the whole way there--it was so bizarre. Mark was jabbering about himself and she was eating it up. I thought maybe she wasn't listening to him--just like I didn't listen to her. I thought that would be fitting. She looked fairly rapt, though. She was the sort of girl who hangs on a guy's every word even when they're not so interesting.
It didn't matter to me after a minute--I just listened to the music, a band I'd never heard before, which made me feel like I was experiencing new things. They were smoking clove cigarettes and talking, I asked them to turn up the music and they did.
We got to the movie theater and there were lots of cars parked in front. It was in a strip mall with a crappy sandwich shop that was not a Subway but had sub sandwiches. There was a tire store and a discount bridal warehouse and a Shoe Station. None of these were open, I guess `cause it was a Sunday in Alabama. All the cars seemed to be there to see the artsy movie which no one in our party seemed to know the name of. We got out of the car. We were parked next to van bearing a bumper sticker which said: Yes, Lord, We Will Ride With You! I had seen that on cars before, believe it or not, and I'd never figured out what it could possibly mean.
"What is the name of this movie again?" I asked.
"I have no idea, Mark knows."
"I can't remember. It's something with that guy from that other movie. About drugs and all. Did you see it?"
"Yes," Celia replied and I thought, "Bullshit." Then I began to worry about their ambivalence toward the name of the movie, and that it meant they weren't going to go at all, just to ditch me and then go somewhere by themselves. It seemed like a lot of trouble though. Still, Celia had a lot of goofy ideas, culled from movies and books, seemingly intended to create problems and therefore drama. She was always talking about how her life was so dramatic that it could be a book. How could a person say something like that out loud, over and over?
We reached the ticket counter.
"Overcoming Faith Ministries. A non-denominational house of loving worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What the fuck?"
It made no sense when Mark said it like that, then I read the marquis above the unmanned ticket window. It seemed the movie theater was now actually a church.
Mark began to laugh, so Celia began to laugh hysterically.
"That is so fucked up! Only in Alabama would they have a church in an old movie theater! In a strip mall no less!"
"Yeah. A really fucking shitty strip mall too!"
They were really yukking it up. I was trying to figure out what was meant by "overcoming faith." Presumably they meant a faith that overcomes you, but in that case "Overwhelming" was obviously a better choice. Could they really mean a church devoted to getting over your faith, like abandoning it? That hardly seemed necessary, but we were in the Bible Belt. If more churches were devoted to abandoning faith instead of inspiring it, we would probably be a lot better off. I couldn't stop thinking about the problem of the name. I went over it thousands of times in the short minutes we stood there laughing. Then Mark thought it would be terrifically funny if we went in and checked it out.
My father was really religious, so I used to go to church when my parents were married. Christianity is, obviously, the major religion of this region. I've never even met a Jewish person. Catholicism is pretty exotic; most people are Baptist. My father used to paint Bible verses on signs and nail them to trees along the interstate. It was really pretty strange. I didn't think so at the time, but since I've grown up, I think it's extremely weird. Not totally unheard of-he wasn't the only guy who did it or anything. Mom says he didn't get really fanatical until after I was born, but both of his parents were that way, so probably it was just a matter of time.
Whenever I went to see my grandparents, they'd slip Bible verses on pieces of paper into my hand--they did this the last time I saw them actually. Before I could read I thought it was exciting. They observed the Sunday-day-of-rest thing really strictly and wouldn't even use the phone, or drive, or move.
I can't see how my parents got married, actually, or why. Dad was supposedly better before I knew him, so there must have been reasons. I hate that I was the one who inspired this fanaticism, but unfortunately having a child made him realize what was important, apparently that was being crazy.
I didn't see him too much after my parents got divorced because he became a traveling minister. Specifically, that's why they divorced. He became really intense and wanted us to buy a mobile home, and educate me himself, and "spread the word" and that was the final straw for Mom. Since then he's gotten into ever stranger Fundamentalist type stuff, speaking in tongues. It's sort of sad to think that my own Dad is one of the weirdest people I have ever met.
I was kind of reluctant to enter this Overcoming Faith place, but I did. Inside it felt exactly like a movie theater, obviously. Some buildings can only ever be one thing, like former gas stations don't make convincing restaurants. There were homemade posters up with Bible verses and pictures of the typical version of Jesus with the long brown beard and sandals. They were actually mounted in the plastic frames for movie posters, so it sort of looked like Jesus was starring in an action movie where he throws the money-changers out of the temple or a political drama where he stands on the mountain and preaches. Also, since the posters were rather crudely hand-painted and had Bible verses magic markered along the top of them, it also looked like Jesus was running for Student Council President.
Nothing about the place said "God" to me--it smelled strongly of popcorn. Each of the six movie theaters was marked differently: "Youth Ministry," "Baptismal," "Singles Ministry," "Welcome Center," "Wedding Chapel," and "Main Chapel." Celia and Mark, giggling irreverently, passed up the "Welcome Center" and headed for the theater marked "Singles Ministry."
We turned the corner and entered the theater-turned-chapel; it was full of people singing to cheesy rock being played by some guy with long hair on the kind of keyboard that has four different drum settings and synthesized horn sounds. The chorus was something like "Our God is an awesome God! Hey, hey!" This was pretty standard Baptist kind of stuff. They're always trying make Jesus hip and sort of downplay his judgmental side, the one that condemns Jews, Muslims, Hindus and gay people to hell. The weird thing, obviously, was that everyone was in a movie theater pretending not to notice that the movie screen was still there hidden behind an enormous tapestry depicting the Crucifixion.
The other thing, which was more exciting than weird, was that leading the singing was the cutest guy I had ever seen. He was running around back and forth trying to get one side to sing louder, then the other, like at a pep rally. He had long hair too, and he was wearing a dress blazer with jeans and a t-shirt. He was short but so was I and I knew we could work it out. We'd make a cute couple, especially when all this black is grown out of my hair and I'm fully blonde again. When the song was over I realized I was still standing in the middle of the aisle gawking conspicuously all by myself. Celia and Mark were gone.
"Let us kneel for prayer, my sisters and brothers in the Lord. I will offer up a prayer that any of you who have not been saved, who have not taken the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, will feel him working in your hearts and minds. I pray that he will do so today."
I panicked, ducked into the nearest row, and knelt with the others. The place was fairly full.
"Brothers and sisters, I just pray that you will take Jesus in your heart today and accept him as your Savior. If any of you feel moved by the Lord today, I will ask you to come up, as Brother Ted plays the keyboard, and kneel with me here in front of this wonderful congregation. Together we will pray for your salvation. We will rejoice in the Lord together and the angels will rejoice in heaven that another child of the Lord has joined the flock."
Everyone had their heads down so I was able to gaze freely upon the preacher guy. He was looking up and swaying to the music with one arm raised above his head. A girl in her twenties kneeling next to me stood up. She was crying, and she scuttled down the aisle muttering "Oh, Brother Jim," over and over. When she reached the front he embraced her, and they knelt down. She had her head buried in his chest and he was holding it there. He entreated the crowd again to come and be saved and several more girls answered his plea. Soon they were surrounding him, hugging and crying. I was not remotely interested in "being saved," having made some sort of claims to that effect when I was about seven and subsequently rejecting that whole deal for obvious, paternal reasons, but hugging Brother Jim did have some appeal. There was something beyond good-looking about him. He had what you would call charisma, even while he was spouting this corny Jesus business.
Suddenly he opened his eyes and saw me staring at him. We maintained eye contact for several electric seconds and I thought, "This is what it feels like. He's the one." I rose and ran out.
Celia and Mark were graphically making-out in the hall when I came out. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn't been overcome with intense longing for Brother Jim. They just laughed and parted.
"Guys, this is a church," I mock-scolded, even though it did seem a little inappropriate. What would Brother Jim say?
"Actually, this is a movie theater, in case you haven't noticed. Do you guys want some Gummy Bears before we go?" said Mark. Celia laughed heartily, even I laughed. Everything seemed funnier and better. The first five minutes of true love are like that, I guess, or maybe I was slightly hysterical.
Since we didn't actually get to see a movie, we went to the Barnes and Noble instead. We got coffee and Celia and I looked at fashion magazines while Mark looked at video game player's guides. Celia took me through the fiction aisles and told me books I should read since she was the big writer. I had already read pretty much all of them, so I tried not to be too smug. We were full of biting wit on the ride back to school, fueled by our shared hilarious adventure. I felt the strongest spirit of camaraderie I had felt with anyone in awhile, certainly the most I'd ever felt with Celia. We stopped and rented a movie. It was not until they dropped me off at my dorm that I realized I was not included in the rest of the evening. I tried not to let it dampen the whole day retrospectively. I could appreciate a need to make out. I had lots of thinking to do anyway, like how to get to Brother Jim without having to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my "personal Savior." When I got to my room, Samantha was gone. It was a pretty good day.
When I was really little, when Dad was still around and the pressure to believe in God was on, I used to wish I could truly believe in him. When I was alone I would pray for Him to give me a little sign for proof so I would be certain. I would think of a test, like pray for him to make a certain thing move or levitate, and I would promise not to tell anyone if he would just show me. Going to that church made me think of this strange ritual and for a second I sort of wished again that he could do a little trick to make me believe. Everything would be so much easier if what Dad and the Overcoming Faith people believed were absolutely true. For one thing, my parents would still be together.