I never have loved to run. But for whatever reason, every Spring, I try to convince myself that I do. That’s how I ended up here. Staring from the top of these old concrete stairs, completely out of breath—not only because I’m overweight and out of shape—but because of the staggering flood of memories that have just come rushing back in.
It’s been 30 years since I’ve huffed and cursed and clawed my way past this overgrown chain link fence, with my college boyfriend, C, clapping at my back. We met my Freshman year, at a Christian school in the Pacific Northwest. He was on the basketball team, and a couple of times a week, we’d drive up to this wooded park in the city, and run these stairs: him with his long legs and perfect stride, and me, whining and complaining and pretending to limp, while he yelled “Faster Honky Girl! You’re not fooling me with that!”.
I should probably mention that we were an interracial couple. Him black. Me white. It was the late 80’s, and in our predominantly white, passively liberal microcosm, bigotry and racism had slithered back underground in that way that ugly things often do. But while everyone around us was gushing and congratulating themselves on equality and open mindedness and “how much better everything was”, we knew something entirely different was actually going on.
We knew that Tom Metzger and his Neo-Nazi slobber dogs were well established in our area. And we knew that they had just beaten an Ethiopian college kid to death. And we knew that we were shadowed in stores by suspicious clerks, who kept an extra protective eye on their Little Debbies, any time we were around. And we knew that we were routinely pulled over by the police, for no good reason. And we knew that we had racial slurs thrown our way—mostly from whites, but sometimes from blacks—while we were shopping for groceries in Food 4 Less, or sitting in traffic singing our favorite song, or waiting in line at the bank, or eating dinner at the Taco House, or taking a walk along the waterfront with our dog.
One guy even yelled at our dog.
He was a demented little Shelty, who could eat all 4 legs off of a solid wood coffee table, in an anxious fit of rage. And who sharted minefields of crap around our bed in the night, if we left him for more than a few hours.
“That’s what we get” we’d joke sometimes, about the “messed up kids” that we were told “selfish people like us”, would inflict upon the world. But then for some strange reason, if you were a swamp dwelling racist with a bugged out lazy eye, and a sideways front tooth, who yells racial slurs at dogs, you could procreate all you want. We all see how well that one worked out.
The Christian School that should have been our shelter, was sadly, anything but. It was just as bad the outside world, but in a more subtle and practiced way—which actually made it worse.
The outside world was like opening your mailbox to a find a Peeps and liver fruitcake, with a note written in cat crap, that says “Hey. By the way. I hate you.” Nasty, yes. But also to the point, so at the very least, you knew you didn’t want any of it.
Our Christian world, was like having a home baked pie, with a warm flaky crust, and thick fruity syrup, bubbling off the side, delivered right up to your door. But when you take a bite, it’s filled with fake ass sugar and tiny shards of glass, that leave you cut up and bleeding on the inside—with a sickly bitter aftertaste, that only The Nicest of Racists leave behind.
Not that it was always covert. Every now and then, they’d forget their Bless-Your-Heart Manners, and something downright overt would slip out. Like that day in the cafeteria, when the lady who took our meal tickets, grabbed my arm, and hissed in my face, “You would do well. To stay. With your own kind“.
I still remember how I stood and stared, in a complete zombified stupor. The secret (that wasn’t a secret), had just poked it’s snaggly head out of it’s Louis Vuitton bag, and the unsaid rule about being hateful in the most Christ-like way possible, had just been broken. See, it was perfectly ok for her to smile right past me, and take everyone else’s meal ticket but mine. But to show outright disapproval without even bothering to cloak it, in some sort of Deniable Oopsy Bullshit, or a thinly coded Bible Bomb in a weird sing-songy voice (“Be ye not unequally yoked” or “What fellowship hath dark with light?”), was pretty darn unheard of.
Which sort of made me hate her less. Because at the very least, something real and concrete, without blurry lines of debatable insinuation, or deniable innuendo as to what was really meant, had finally been said out loud. Which was honestly better than running every little thing through the Passive Aggressive Decoder Ring, that was issued to us all at birth.
It didn’t take long after the cafeteria incident, for the rest of the faculty to join in. Many of these people, had known me for years. I had stayed in their homes. We had shared holiday meals. And when school first started, they had gone out of their way to ask, “Are you finding your classes ok?”, or “Is there anything you need?”. But the minute the image of a dark skinned boy, cast it’s shadow across my Lily White Mrs. Degree, they turned their heads and pretended not to know me—even if we were the only ones in the hall.
The innuendo of superiority, was pretty hard to miss. I think we all suspected that the reference to Light and Dark wasn’t being used to describe our skin. They were talking about the light and dark of our very souls, not that anyone—including us—was ever going to admit it. Same goes with the “unequal yoking” bit.
So just who was the weaker animal?
Helpful hint: it wasn’t white.
Although the animal reference, was pretty spot on, because that’s really how we were treated: like prized cattle, at the Higher Education Breeder, to create more superior stock like them. Moo.
The women’s dorm was completely fenced off, and was clear across campus from the men’s. They probably would have built a Piranha filled moat if they could have pulled the city permits. We had to sign in and out, using a big spiral notebook, and leave a detailed list of of where we were going and who we’d be with. If you weren’t back by 10 pm, there was a “strike” taped to your door, and a nasty-gram was mailed to your parents. Although sometimes I’d get lucky, and my Accountability Buddy would sneak down and log me back in, if she wasn’t meeting her dealer.
The Den Hen, Miss G., was the stone faced creature they perched at the entrance to the dorm, to ward off Impure Thoughts and Unbecoming Acts from everyone who came and went. I always thought she looked like a perfect cross between the Church Lady, and that Golden Girl who never smiled.
Every so often, she’d lure me to her apartment, with special attention and a granny-like kindness, that looking back, must have hurt.
“I just wanted to know how you’re doing”, she’d soothe, as I picked and fidgeted in an old floral chair, that smelled like Dippity Doo, athletes foot powder, and corn nuts.
“And also” she’d add, offering a plate of stale cookies. “I’d like a list of everyone who’s having sex”.
“Well I’m sure it’s no one“, I’d say as convincingly as I could. “You know, I’m only an incoming Freshman.”
I had a list of Boot Bangers, a mile long—but she was the last one who was ever going to see it.
“Well, with the kind of company you’ve decided to keep……you seem like the sort of girl who would know…..”
Oh, how I hate those high frequency insults—finely tuned—to just the right pitch, so that only certain ears can hear them; the kind that leave you slut shamed and humiliated, by the morality gargoyle, who then pins it on another person’s skin color.
But isn’t that the brilliance behind Passive Aggression? It’s that Believable Deniability, that makes you look like the jerk, if you ever try to call them out on it. “What do you mean I insinuated that dating black boys makes you a whore?!? That really hurts my heart. I was just saying you seem to be a popular girl, who obviously has a lot of friends…..”
What I wished I could say, was “Actually Miss G., I’ve been a slut for awhile now. Maybe it’s a result of that weasel fingered Holy Man, who put his hands up my Tinkerbell underwear when I was little. Or maybe it’s the one who swirled his paws down my sweater, as his good submissive wife watched it happen. Or maybe it’s that time, as a fully developed teenager, I had my pants pulled off, and my bare ass beaten. Beating the shit out of girls is The Lord’s work you know—how else will they learn their position below men? Or maybe it was all of those scripture quoting shame mongers, who reeked of fart dust and their own disappointment. Especially the one with a monster stash of porn piled high under his bed, with a lubed up “back massager” lying right next to it.
Or maybe it wasn’t any of that—and being a slut can just be kind of fun. But I’ll tell you what absolutely isn’t the reason: the color of another person’s skin.”
But I didn’t say any of that.
I nodded. And ate stale cookies. And appeased. And drank some tea. And never told another soul, about the Sexy Time Witch Hunt that was being launched all over school.
Looking back now, I wonder what would have happened, if I would have let the truth spill out like a murky bowl of our cafeteria soup, and ooze right down my chin. Not just about the sex, but about the addictions, and the pregnancies, and the abortions, and the STD’s, and the clinic runs, and the psych evals, and the suicide notes, and the Satan worshiper, and the gay kids who kept trying to be straight kids, so they didn’t lose their families and spend eternity in hell.
No. They definitely couldn’t have handled the gay kids. They would have taken the Satan worshiper over that.
When all of us got together we were like The Merry Band of Misfit Christians. Minus the merry part.
We had far too many terrifying thoughts and haunting questions, about God; and Hell; and our harsh, legalistic, graceless religion, to feel much more than misery, shame and fear. But we didn’t have the words, to begin to say how we felt. And even if we did, we wouldn’t have had the courage, to ever speak them out loud. So we met in cars, and parks, or some rat-hole apartment that belonged to a friend, of a cousin’s, pissed off ex-communicated friend, and we’d use the biggest cuss words we could think of.
And probably damn.
And we’d drink, and smoke, and have unprotected sex, because everyone knew that the premeditated sin of using a condom, was worse than the accidental sin of tripping into the backseat of a primer gray Corolla, and unintentionally falling on a penis. I guess that explains the pregnancies, and the STD’s, and the clinic runs and the abortions. Then we’d cry and lament and wonder if the fires of hell would be a dry heat, or a steamy heat, which could have catastrophic effects on our hair.
We were like the blind leading the blind through the big stuff. And the hard stuff. And the real stuff, that people our age, on the verge of being adults, should have already known how to do. But being so well steeped in The One World Order, where ideas, and mistakes, and questions were a clear indication of Satan possession had left us stunted and delayed.
Like watching Bambi and ET about to get bitch slapped by the world.
And we didn’t know what to do with the fact that we were slowly coming to see that The Real Things in life, like sex, and addictions, and loving who we loved, no matter how long we’d burn in hell, and questioning our beliefs, and making mistakes, could no longer be rationalized by our religion, or explained away by the same old games of Twisted Scripture, and Pin the Satan Tail on the Sinner.
Because Real Things don’t work like that.
Real Things don’t come with a pre-written script, or neatly packaged, in the same old box, with the same toy surprise (that really wasn’t a surprise) buried in the bottom.
Real Things are unpredictable. And imperfect. And full of mystery. And of surprises.
Some good. Some Bad.
And we wanted them all; because it was better than living life as a church factory product, with predetermined lives, that were fully assembled for us, before we ever even had a choice.
But Real came at a price, because nothing—and I do mean nothing—made The Powers That Be more uncomfortable, than having the greasy fingers of humanity, smeared all over their shiny facade of perfection. And their rage and fear, of not having control, led to an entirely different kind of hell: the special kind, here on earth, that gets handed down from generation to generation.
My earliest memories aren’t of balloon filled birthday parties, or of hugging my favorite stuffed animal. It’s the fear of being scooped up, and thrown out, like a Hefty Bag full of human garbage. You know how some families pass diamond rings and gold watches, down from person to person. Our family heirloom, was being Shunned and Disowned—and it has yet to skip a generation.
There were lots of things that could get you shunned and disowned, but there were 4 that would land you there the fastest: Leaving our Sect was an obvious one. Being gay (or similarly abominated) was another. So was having too many questions in your “mentally ill” head, and spreading the poison of free thought through the herd. Then there was marrying outside of our religion—which was treated the same as marrying someone black. I think that one confused C the most, because I already had a black uncle, and two cousins who were just like my brothers. But then again, in a tribal society full of disordered people, not making sense, is the one thing you can depend on.
Being Disowned was usually saved for irreversible offenses. Like that half black baby that couldn’t be stuffed back in, in hopes it miraculously came back out white. Or the son who lives in a one bedroom house with his “room mate” of 10 years, and the dog they named Barbara Streisand. In these situations, there’s no point in shunning, because their sin can’t be shamed or bullied out. Besides, they’re embarrassing, so it’s really much better, to use The Magic God Eraser, and rub them out of existence.
Being Shunned, at least our way, was kind of the same, but it was more like Disowned’s mean little buck-toothed brother; and it came with this bizarre expectation, that no matter how bad it got, it was your Christian obligation, to religiously show up for more. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a verse in the Bible somewhere: “Thou shall accept every invitation, so that you, and anyone connected with you, can repeatedly get treated like shit.
Yes. I know it’s not.
But it truly is like showing up to a lobster and prime rib dinner, knowing ahead of time, that there’s a place for you on the floor, right next to the cat dish, with a stale biscuit and a cold wrinkled hot dog. But the minute you stop saying “Thank you for having me, that was the best shriveled wiener I’ve ever eaten”, they accuse you of being disrespectful, and of being the one who abandoned them.
“We have no idea why she won’t come around anymore, especially after we shared that beautiful dinner. I guess all we can do is keep praying, bless her poor little mentally ill heart.”
It’s astounding how we’ve all been trained to give the same pound of flesh— over and over—one tiny slice at a time.
If I had to make a choice, I’d take Disowned over Shunned. At least when you’re Disowned it’s an honest transaction: you’re told up front that you’re unwanted, and you cut your emotional ties and leave.
Being Shunned is an endless game of abuse and manipulation—where you’re the one who gets demonized, if you ever decide to stop playing.
In the 3 years that C and I were together, we never had an in-depth conversation about the bigotry, and racism that we either experienced ourselves, or saw happening all around us, in our elite little bubble of religion. We may have touched on it now and then; mostly as we lay in the dark, taking turns humming songs, and guessing what they were, in our own version of Name that Tune.
“Do you think we can ever go to Mardi Gras? I hear they hunt interracial couples like nutria down south, and then skin ’em in the backs of their trucks”
“Would anyone come to our wedding, do you think?” I thought his step-father probably would.
But then we’d distract ourselves with another song, and another guess, and we’d never take it deeper than that—because going deeper would have opened the door, to all of the scary places that we weren’t ready to go. Places that may make us see ourselves, and the world, and the religion that we clung to, in ways that we didn’t know how to talk about. Places that may make us question our belief in our church, and ask if The One True Way, was ever even true at all. So we went on treating the hatred we saw like it was my four inch tall mall bangs, or his Arsenio Hall flat top—just som late 80’s fad, that somebody, somewhere, would someday say was over; then we’d laugh and joke about how weird it all was, and go Mardi Gras like everyone else. But it wasn’t just a fad. And we haven’t really moved on. It’s a tragically repeating horror story, that destroys families, and lives, and spirits, and faiths; and the “somebody”, “somewhere” to finally say it’s done, ultimately has to be us.
As I stand here still, at the top of these stairs, pulling dark and dusty memories out of a 30 year old trunk, a quote keeps running between them, like hard set rocks in the middle of a constantly moving stream: “We turn, looking back to see the broken image of what we were, in the journey to discover what we are”. I wonder what kind of journey C, and The Misfits, and even the people who didn’t treat us very well, have all taken since we left school. I hope it’s been brilliant, and messy, and unpredictably imperfect, and full of mystery and surprises—some good, some bad—and that they wanted them all; because at the very least, they were Real.
I’m still on that journey, of constantly looking back to who I was before; and not just 30 years ago—sometimes 30 minutes ago—to learn to do things differently, or think about life in a completely new way. I hope it always works like that.
But you know the one thing I’m pretty sure, hasn’t changed at all? This Honky Girl, still hates to run.