I met Anna in a long gift-shop line at the Center for the Study of Religious Extremism. She was a short brunette with plump cheeks, a curvy body and hair that went straight down to her shoulders. There was a gold crucifix around her neck, but I didn’t make much of it at the time. She held an Easter card, and I was needing aspirin. It must have been the lunch-hour rush.
Anna causally complained to me about the elevators. They were sluggish and crowded and the stairs, terribly, terribly dark.
I told her that I didn’t work here, and she said I was lucky. We exchanged names. Mine was Ralph.
Anna said she was buying the card for her sick aunt whose kidneys had failed, just up and failed. No one could explain it. Her kidney fluids were being pumped and cleaned by machines that beeped and buzzed. The aunt was a “real tough customer” and didn’t like being bedridden.
Orderlies found her in the cafeteria eating carrot cake, dirty kidney fluids and all.
“That must have been some carrot cake,” I said.
Anna smiled. She had this great smile. It was as if her face was made for it. When I noticed her face and the smiling, I asked her to lunch. I’m not usually the kind of guy who asks out random women. In fact, that was the first time I’d ever done it. But, boy, she was pretty, so I made the move despite my natural inclinations.
Anna said no and that she’d already had lunch. Before I was overtaken by roiling wads of selfdoubt, I asked her about dinner plans.
“Dinner,” she said. “Dinner tomorrow. Pick me up at six from my office. It’s on the top floor.”
We bought our sundries and waved goodbye.
In those days, I was plagued by an unusual reoccurring dream. In my dream, I slept next to my wife. I didn’t have a wife in reality, but I had one in my dream. Although I was technically asleep in my dream, I could sort of see what was happening from a weird hovering-phantom point of view, but the one thing that I could not see was my wife’s face. Two monsters would appear next to my dream wife. They had lava lamp-shaped heads filled with rows of improbably sharp teeth and ropily muscled physiques that resembled the bodies of sock monkeys. These monsters would eat my dream wife’s hair. All of it. There was nothing I could do to stop them, even though I struggled to wake my dream-self. But I wouldn’t wake up because I wasn’t really asleep. I was just dreaming that I was asleep while I slept. And because, I wasn’t trying to rouse my true self, I wouldn’t wake up in reality either. I’d spend every night in a bizarre state of restless limbo.
The dreams left me tired and racked with headaches. It had gone on for months, and I had sampled a wide variety of psychiatrists, psychologists and medical treatments. I even tried kookier methods of coping: acupuncture, yoga, aroma therapy, etc. Nothing worked. A friend recommended a well-known Zoroastrian psychiatrist who worked at the Center for the Study of Religious Extremism. Although he was a member of an obscure religion, he practiced rather standard psychiatry, and I stopped seeing him after one session. “Stress, stress, stress.” These psychiatrists all sound like parrots.
The next evening, I arrived at the Center a bit early and rode the slothful elevator to the top floor. Anna worked in the daycare of a non-denominational church. How the congregation rode those lousy elevators every Sunday was something of a mystery. On the walls of the daycare were crudely drawn pictures of anthropomorphic children of all different colors holding hands and standing on a grassy hill. There was even a purple kid, even though purple kids are statistically unlikely. Better safe then sorry, I suppose.
Anna was there, too. She had a little girl on her shoulders. The girl wasn’t purple. She was Chinese and had pigtails. A couple of the girl’s front teeth were missing and her tongue was visible between the gaps when she smiled.
“You got a kid on you,” I told Anna.
“Her name is Maude,” Anna said.
I waved to the girl, and Anna set her down. Maude tore off into a play room full of romping children. Anna wore jeans and one of those white peasant shirts that looked like it was from Bavaria. Some green thread had been embroidered around the edges of it. It showed off her body real well. God, Anna was pretty, and it made me nervous. I’m not great with women. Sometimes, I think that’s why I was picked to be middle-management. Anyways, I wasn’t feeling particularly articulate at the moment.
“What is this place here? This place here you work at?”
“It’s a church, a Christian church. We run the daycare for the building for free. I watch kids all day.” Behind Anna down the hall, I could see a big room with a bunch of pews in it.
“That must be nice of you.”
“Yeah. I enjoy it.”
“I made our dinner reservations with Emilio’s.”
On our car ride over, Anna explained to me what the Center for the Study of Religious Extremism was. It was created after 9/11 by the Department of Homeland Security as a think tank to study religious extremism and pinpoint possible religion-related terrorist threats. When the recession hit, congress cut its funding. There were still some government offices in the basement, but the top nine floors were rented out at a discount to religion-related businesses, charities and churches.
“I like it,” Anna said. “All those religions getting along under one roof.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a lot like the planet that we live on in that way.”
Emilio’s was a fancy restaurant. They served Spanish and Portuguese food. It didn’t taste that great, but the presentation was superb. Emilio’s is where you go when you want to impress someone.
My food came to the table in the form of two flaming skewers of meat. Anna had an immolated cheese thing on a silver serving tray. Our margaritas bloomed with umbrellas and slivers of tart sea salt. The fried ice cream was noisy, warm and satisfying. A pianist and violinist played in the center of the room, and my somewhat articulate manner of speaking returned. Anna laughed and smiled when I explained the funny, bald man who worked in my office, and Anna told me about the cranky organist who came in looking for work. The organist refused to play any music in three-four time, because it was too fast, too fast for the angels.
This was the first genuinely good time I had in a while. I didn’t want it to end. I told Anna about my job and how much I hated it. And she told me about how much she liked wine festivals in the springtime. We both liked eating catfish, but she didn’t like catching catfish, whereas I did.
She also liked chess, but I was more of a checkers man. That’s all right. I could learn a little chess.
On the ride home, Anna told me she liked the restaurant, but next time, we should go someplace where the food is better.
“Too much presentation, no substance.”
“So you want to go out again?” I asked. All I had really paid attention to was “next time.”
“Of course, Ralph. Don’t you?”
“More than anything, actually,” I said.
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek then hopped out of the car.
I worked for an internet company that created and sold internet websites. My job was to explain things to people. I was middle management. The higher-ups always had plans for the lower-downs. It was my job to explain to the lower-downs what the higher-ups wanted. I also had to explain to the higher-ups why the lower-downs couldn’t do the things the higher-ups asked.
Therefore, It was my job to explain the impossible and just why it was so. Yet, somehow, the
business made money, and I was given a tiny raise every six months.
Kathy called me into her office. She was a tall, leggy blonde. I thought I was in love with Kathy until I realized that she didn’t think very much of me. This was because she was upper management and I was middle management.
“Tell Pamela that we’d like to see more red on the Red.com website. It’s called Red.com and it’s just not that red.” Kathy had a picture of her husband on the desk. She married another guy from upper management, Keith, the Vice President of International Sales. They were married last year. Only upper management and non-management were invited.
“It’s very red,” I said. “We had a meeting about how red it was last week.”
“But it’s not red enough. That’s what was decided at the other meeting that upper management had about it yesterday.”
“Got it,” I said.
Pamela worked two floors down. I stopped by a restroom to use the facilities. There were sounds of people making out in the stall. As middle-management, it was my job to keep people from having intercourse in the bathrooms, but upper management had their own bathrooms. So I rarely interrupted office sex, mostly because I hoped to have it one day.
When I walked through our main offices, I saw Jeanine and Dave holding hands in the break room, Steve and Glen cleaning crumbs off each other’s faces by the water fountain and Robert emailing someone a picture of his boner. All this used to make me lonely.
Pamela was a petite, brown-haired lady with over-sized glasses, a programmer. I thought I was in love with her until I realized that she didn’t think very much of me. This was because I was middle management and she was forced to work under someone who knew less about programming then her.
“Kathy wants Red.com to be redder,” I said.
“Christ,” Pamela said. She heaved herself and her rolling office chair away from her desk. “It can’t get any redder. The website is as red as it can possibly be while maintaining its aesthetic appeal.”
“Make it redder. That’s the word.”
“Ralph. You tell them that I won’t do it. I have a reputation to uphold. I can’t be the laughing stock of the programming world because my red websites are too red. You tell Kathy that.”
The rest of my day was like this.
I had a date that weekend with Anna at the zoo. The weather was cold and overcast, and Anna wore a long black coat and purple earmuffs. Not to sound like a wimp, but I nearly swooned when I saw her smiling and wearing those earmuffs. She had just come from visiting her aunt at the hospital.
We hugged and held hands.
“You look tired,” she said to me. This was in the aquarium. We were in a hallway that led through a fish tank. There were sharks and rays and turtles floating all around us.
“I have these dreams,” I told her. “They don’t make a lot of sense, but they make me tired.
I’ve tried everything: pills, psychiatry, exercise.”
“Did you ask God for help?” A long-nosed fish swam behind Anna.
I’m not a religious person, but I’m not anti-religious. My parents mentioned God a couple of times in passing when I was growing up, and I studied some of the arguments for and against the existence of a god in my college philosophy classes. Also, I watched a ton of Highway to Heaven as a kid, so I knew the basic gist of Christianity, but I had never given it any serious consideration.
I doubted very much that there was a god. I mean, you just don’t go believing in things without empirical proof, right? That’s like a basic fundamental of interacting with reality. It’s this basic tenet, the tenet of not believing things without proof, that keeps me from being afraid of ghosts, werewolves, superstition and bad-luck curses. Why does god get to exist without any empirical evidence? I mean, if god exists then superstitions might exist, and that’s a road that I’m not prepared to go down.
Anna sat down next to me. She stroked the hair behind my ears and took my hand into hers. It all felt so good.
“We haven’t talked about religion yet, but if this relationship is going to go anywhere, then I need to know that you are a committed Christian. You don’t have to be a bible-thumper or a fundamentalist.”
Heck, I’m about as liberal as a Christian can get. I think gays should be able to marry and women should be priests and we should all just admit that Old Testament was probably the most moral book of its time but hasn’t aged well.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, I’m a Christian, too.”
So what if I wasn’t. It couldn’t be that hard. I imagined a little switch at the back of my mind, a Christian Switch. I toggled it to ‘on.’ That helped me see it as something other than a lie. What was the difference, really? I pretended to believe in something pretend. Who was I hurting?
“Are you a denomination?”
“I’m kind of lapsed. I can do better at being a Christian.” A manta ray glided over the hallway’s transparent roof.
“Did you ask God for help with your nightmares?”
“Not yet,” I said. “I didn’t want to bother him with it. It’s not that serious.”
“Don’t be silly, Ralph. God would love to help you. I’ll pray for you.”
I thanked her and agreed to pray.
Later, Anna and I watched black swans swim in a pond. Anna threw them bread from a sandwich that I bought her.
“For a long time, people didn’t think there were any black swans in the world,” I said. “But they were discovered in Australia. Now black swans are synonymous with the improbable. It‘s kind of like those purple kids that are painted on the wall where you work.”
The wings of these swans were clipped, and when Anna threw them the bread, they flapped madly and honked as they fought over morsels.
“Look at you, Mr. Smart Guy,” she laughed and put her hands in my jacket pockets.
“I’m not that smart,” I said. “That information came out of a book.”
After the zoo, we went to my place. There was bit of a mess in my house. My throw rug was all bunched up, and thirteen errant socks were scattered about the living room. Anna pretended not to notice. We watched a black-and-white spy movie.
I made the first move, my head swooping towards her lips. She kissed back, and we explored each other with our hands. I was afraid that her Christianity might disallow the removal of her bra, but it did not. In fact, she removed her shirt for me, then she unbuttoned my pants. We had sex even though I was afraid her, or now our, god would get mad. It was great sex though.
“I don’t mind having sex before marriage,” I said. “I hope you don’t think what we just did was sinful.” My hands were behind my head, and I was drifting off to sleep. But the question nagged at me.
“What?” she said. “I’m no fundamentalist. I follow the teachings of Christ, and Christ didn’t say anything about sex before marriage. That didn’t bother him. He hated violence, the powerful taking advantage of the weak and deceit.”
“OK, good,” I said. “That’s what I believe.” I went to sleep and had zero dreams.
I attended church on Sunday with Anna and her aunt whose kidney’s started working again. No one could explain it. The kidneys came back to life like two hibernating bears. Everyone said it was a miracle.
The aunt had a pleasant face replete with smile wrinkles and a deep-furrowed brow. Her hair was naturally white and her teeth were wholly false. She liked to give them a hollow chop when the conversation grew too boring. Aunt Beth, sassy Aunt Beth. That’s how I thought of her.
Aunt Beth took a liking to me, maybe. She smiled when I opened the car door for her.
“What a gentleman,” Beth said. She wore a light blue dress, a matching vest and a white hat with a pile of white lace at the front.
We sat in the middle of the church, and I stumbled through some hymns. It was my goal to at least hum them well, but church hymns aren’t that catchy. I wanted to ask somebody why but didn’t.
The minister was a middle-aged man with brown muttonchops. His sermon was really boring.
He talked about the power of meekness. I tried not to sleep and noticed that other people were napping during the sermon. A man, toupee askew, dozed on his wife’s shoulder. A couple of old ladies sat with their hands in their laps, eyes closed. Even Anna had trouble keeping her eyes open.
Then we got to what seemed like halftime. Men in suits passed out little shots of grape juice and oyster crackers. The church must have really been poor if these were the only refreshments it could afford. Anna didn’t eat her snacks right away, so I saved mine, too.
Then the minister explained that the snacks were symbolic. The juice represented the blood of
Christ and the crackers were his flesh. It was through these things that we could be purified. What a neat idea. Still, sandwiches would have been more filling. We all ate our body and blood, then we prayed.
Church ended shortly after. Anna went to talk to one of her high school friends, and I was left
with Aunt Beth.
“Do you see that man over there?” Aunt Beth asked me. She pointed to a medium-sized guy with brown hair. “He cheats on his wife all the time.”
“Yikes,” I said. “Maybe church will help him.”
Aunt Beth laughed. “The church helps him find more women to poke. He’s had his way with her, her and her.” Aunt Beth pointed to three women. Two of the women had husbands and children.
“Why doesn’t somebody say anything? It seems like it goes against the religion.”
Aunt Beth sighed. “I’m afraid most people aren’t really that interested in religion, except for what it can do for them. They are only here because they are afraid of going to hell. Is that why you’re here? Because you are afraid of hell?”
“No. I’m not afraid of hell.” This was about as honest as I could get. I’ve never worried about hell, and I was even less worried about it now that I knew Johnny Congregation-Poker would probably get into heaven.
“Then why are you here, Ralph?”
I looked at Anna and her short curvy body, perfect in a black dress. She laughed at something her friend said.
“Love,” I replied.
Aunt Beth patted me on the knee. “That’s just what Christ would have wanted you to say. You’re a good Christian boy.”
Except, I really didn’t know Christ from Adam, and it seemed like people only went to church to avoid punishment for all the shitty things they did. My shitty deed, the lying was mollified by the fact that I considered and called myself a Christian. I believed in god, the resurrection and the lamb and stuff.
OK. So I had my doubts.
OK. Mostly, I only had my doubts.
The next two months were wonderful. Anna and I saw each other a lot. I picked her up from work and we went to the movies and shopped and spent nights at each other’s apartments. I went to church every week with Anna and Aunt Beth and learned that many people attended church because they were lonely, socially powerless, struggling with addiction or found satisfaction in sanctimony. A wretch like me was certainly forgiven his doubts.
The dreams hit me hard one night, and Anna’s alarm clock didn’t go off in the morning. I arrived at work an hour late. When I rushed into Kathy’s office, she was putting in earrings. Her head was cocked to one side as she fiddled with the diamond encrusted jewelry.
“Sorry, I’m late.”
“It happens,” she said. “I understand, but we need to talk about Pamela. She doesn’t listen to us. She thinks she’s smarter than us. Well, she needs to fall in line. You need to give her a warning.”
Warnings were the worst. My job description did include reprimanding the employees for not
doing the things they should. Of course, employees hated this and me by association. Kathy explained the warning I was to give Pamela.
“And Ralph,” she said. “Don’t be an hour late. How can you give out warnings with any authority if you come in late? It’s like a drunk person advocating sobriety.” She finally got that earring in her ear. She stretched her neck.
“All right,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
The elevator took me down to Pamela’s floor. I knocked on the door and went in. She shifted her body into a defensive stance, arms crossed, legs crossed, sour look on face. I knew this stance, it was the stance people used when I came around.
“Pamela,” I said.
“What?” she asked but made it sound like a demand.
I shook my head and sat in a chair by the door. “Kathy is mad at you.”
“Big whoop,” Pamela said. She leaned forward and angrily typed something into her computer.
“Well, big whoop or no whoop, Pamela, I’ve been asked to deliver a warning to you. You need to use fonts that aren’t so subversive. Kathy thinks you are using certain fonts to deliberately thumb your nose at her.”
“Do you really believe that Kathy knows more about fonts, layout, design and programming then me?”
“I don’t know. But I do know that you know more about programming then me, and I think Kathy knows more about management then me. I don’t know much of anything, really and don’t claim to. The only thing I’m good at is explaining things.”
“OK,” said Pamela. She tapped a pencil against her keyboard. “ Explain this to Kathy. I’m not going to do what she says. You tell her that I will only use fonts that I think are best, and if she looks like a bitch, it‘s because she‘s a bitch.”
This was an absurd situation, and frankly, I was tired.
“Pamela,” I yelled. “Shut up. Every week, I come I here and you treat me like a jerk. I’m just doing my job. My job is to make sure that you do your job so we all have jobs. Use less bitchy fonts. That’s an order. You’ve been warned.”
I slammed the door when I left her office. Every one in the cubicle sea stopped working. They stared at me.
“Get back to work. If I catch you slacking, I’ll put you on report.” For the rest of the day, I carried around a clipboard and infraction reports. I busted up some office sex, caught a pudding thief and cited Robert for emailing boners on company time. This was how I would middlemanage from now on. And for a month my dreams went away.
Then Aunt Beth was hit by a bus. Everyone could explain it. A bus was going fast and Aunt Beth got hit by it. She crumpled like a wet paper doll and went into a coma. I went with Anna to the hospital. Aunt Beth was in a bed with a plastic bubble over it. You could barely see her in there. She looked like a white-topped dandelion stuffed full of tubes. There were yellow bruises where the tubes went in. It was terrible.
Mascara-muddied tears ran down Anna’s sweet, sweet cheeks. I could only hug her so often and my hugs only did so much. Orderlies brought us chairs, and we sat with Aunt Beth.
“Let’s pray,” Anna said. She got down on her hands and knees in front of the bed. I copied her. Anna folded her hands together and closed her eyes. Tears still leaked out. She prayed. I watched her beg the lord to save her aunt.
“Please, whatever you decide, God. Give Aunt Beth comfort. She’s a good woman and deserves mercy.”
Anna’s eyes remained closed, and she had a look of complete sincerity on her face. Anna trembled and wringed her hands. “Save my aunt, please,” she whispered and tilted her head in supplication. She talked to god as if he were real, someone you could invite over for dinner. She loved god. I could see this.
Horrible was how I felt. I wanted some of this faith that Anna had, but it escaped me. Where did she get it? How does it work? Who or what exactly is god and why do bad things happen to people like Aunt Beth? These questions swirled about my brain like bats in a grain silo.
Anna had faith, and I was a liar. I closed my eyes and bowed my head and helped Anna with the prayers. It was the least that I could do.
“Amen,” I said.
That night, Anna and I slept in chairs in front of Aunt Beth’s bed. My dreams came back. By the time morning arrived, my dream wife’s hair had been eaten three times and Aunt Beth was
Aunt Beth’s funeral was not the appropriate time to come clean with Anna. That’s why I chose to do it at the Wilpington Grape Festival. They had wine-tasting booths, a grape stomp, a pony show and a Ferris wheel.
The festival took place two weeks after the funeral. The last month had been exhausting. My sleep had never been so terrible. Dreams tormented me from the moment I shut my eyes, until
the moment I opened them. Yet, I still felt obliged to comfort Anna in her time of need but being around her made me physically ill. She was a reminder that I was a liar and a fraud, so in order to punish myself, I waited on Anna hand and foot. I took a vacation from work. I cooked her meals, I bought her groceries and I did her laundry. The whole time I wanted to puke and/or die from guilt, but I did neither.
Anna was still heartbroken. She walked around with a slight slump in her shoulders, but the slump was lessening. The two of us sat at a picnic table with warm flutes of homemade grape wine in front of us. Anna made a sour face when drinking the wine. It made me laugh, but it also hurt.
“No,” I said. “I’ve been lying to you about my faith.”
“Are you secretly a Mormon or something? I don’t understand.”
“I don’t believe in god, but I’ve been pretending that I do in order to be with you. I don’t even know how to believe, but when I saw you praying over your aunt the day she died, I couldn’t suppress my guilt any more.”
Anna put her elbows on the table and sunk he head between her arms. She laughed a little, leaned back and wiped her brow. “You’re a jerk.”
I had a sip of wine.
“You lied to me about the thing I‘ve based my life on.” She drank the contents of her flute in one gulp. “It’s insulting.”
“I lied to you because I love you. If I didn’t pretend to be Christian, we would have never fallen in love.” I reached for her hand, but her hand made no move towards mine. “It’s just that I thought I could believe, eventually, but I failed. Nothing made sense.”
“This is so stupid. You should have just told me. We could have worked together at building faith, and you could have made an earnest attempt to embrace the religion. You could have come to me with your doubts and fears. If it didn’t work out, it would have been better than this.”
“Let‘s do that now.”
“You prayed over my aunt with me while she was dying, and it was a lie. That’s fucked up.”
“Give me some forgiveness. That’s what I‘m asking for.”
Anna stood up and shook her head. “I honestly love you, Ralph, but there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed.”
She walked through the crowd, down the row of wine merchants and then she turned towards parking lot. I drank the rest of my wine, feeling nothing but sorry for myself. Anna was the best thing that ever happened to me. I wanted her so bad that I would do anything for her, even lie some more. Maybe, I could have a sudden conversion. Maybe, I could witness a miracle or see the lame healed. If God wanted me on his team, he could give me just a quick sign, and I’d have no choice but to believe. Anna would take me back.
I raced towards the parking lot, praying for a miracle, a vision, anything. As I turned off the main thoroughfare, I saw that miracle.
A small purple boy was bounding towards a kneeling woman with a snow-white towel. The boy’s hair was purple, his shirt was purple, his skin, shoes, nose and feet were purple. He dripped purple. The woman wrapped the towel around the boy, wiping his face and arms. The purple came right off. He was just a normal white kid. I looked towards the heavens. A banner waved in the wind. “WILPINGTON GRAPE STOMP,” it said.