I find there’s a certain kind of power wielded by a six-foot-three, amateur bodybuilder with a recently (but not so recently) shaved chest – especially when he’s shirtless and going full-strummy-throttle on today’s ninth attempt at a perfect Guitar Hero score on DragonForce’s Through the Fire and Flames via a cheap plastic imaginary guitar. It’s truly an unstoppable force – one that makes me willing to go to just about any lengths to get out of our shared two-bedroom apartment. Even if it’s just for half a day. Even if it means potential crucifixion by the family members of the girl of my dreams. The girl of anyone’s dreams.
Let me back up a little.
I first met Preston when he was assigned as my roommate in our sober living apartments. That was after a 90-day halfway house stint, which was after a 60-day drug and alcohol treatment program in the Montana wilderness in 2004. We seemed like an okay-enough match. We were both originally from the same state. We were both 20. We had similar stories of accidentally getting very, very hooked on prescription opioids. We both took our recovery deadly seriously, and we were both claustrophobically, restlessly ready to get out of the sober house we’d lived in for over a year and into our own place. A place that didn’t cram four guys into two bedrooms, didn’t micromanage our every move and – most importantly – had no curfew and allowed girls to visit.
Yeah, the girls part was important. For me, at least.
I first met Leila in the early fall of 2005, 82 days ago. Since then, I’ve dated her for 46 days – but not exactly consecutively. But for all 82 days I’ve been stupidly, irrevocably, ferociously, stubbornly in love with her. She walked in to the coffee shop where I work and announced herself as a new employee with three words that worked like control-alt-delete on my brain.
Like Topper Harley said, “I fell for her like a blind roofer.” She is stunningly beautiful. Not like a blandly, boringly attractive model or a frosted cupcake. She’s beautiful like an ancient mountain range. Or a nebula. Or the way an orchid’s droops and curves and colors all naturally and effortlessly form a wholly unique shape. It’s a type of beautiful that no other woman is – which makes chasing after her that much more infuriating. And rewarding. But that’s just the start. She’s also profoundly interesting. She was born in Springfield, but she spent her early childhood living in the often scary, dangerous, persecuted Palestinian areas of Israel – during the Intifada. While all of us other predictable American millennials spent our adolescent years reading Harry Potter and obsessing over Tamagotchis and boy bands, she was climbing olive trees in Lebanon, becoming fluent in Arabic and remaining blissfully ignorant of Nickelback, Y2K and Sex and the City.
But what makes her interesting is also what explains the 46 non-consecutive days of dating. That’s because she has broken up with me three different times. Why? Because she is a “believer.” She goes to a Pentecostal Bible College near downtown. I don’t know how you can call it “college” if smoking, drinking, R-rated movies, sex, “petting,” gambling and even dancing are explicitly prohibited and chapel is mandatory. My church camp wasn’t even that strict. When her friends found out she was dating a recovering addict, they basically held an intervention and put a quick end to it.
But Leila was my new drug. I needed her. And for once, she was a healthy addiction. Within a few days, I had won her back with a warm, unforgettable kiss in my car as giant flakes of snow fell silently through the dark all around. It was the kind of kiss you curl up and live in while time itself forgets how to work.
Then her friends discovered I wasn’t a “believer.” Or at least not their kind. I was an atheist before recovery and AA showed me the flexibility and wisdom and life-and-death need for a higher power. So I’m not a complete atheist, more of an agnostic. But since I don’t exactly “love Jesus” and don’t swallow everything in the bible in a literal fashion, I’m simply not up to snuff. Leila broke it off again.
Again, I won her back, this time with the best piece of jewelry my recovering addict, coffee shop employee, stretched paycheck could afford – a single diamond ring. That’s when she told her family about me. And that’s when her family told her what they thought about someone like me.
After all, I’m a recovering, agnostic addict. Surely I have a criminal history complemented by a few face and neck tattoos. How could I be anything but a thieving, self-centered, manipulative, dishonest bad influence with otherwise burned up brains and no ambition? And without Jesus, how could I have any direction, any morals or a functioning heart?
It was clearly a very Jesus-like, graceful conversation. And after that, she was determined to break it off again. But a pattern was emerging and we both knew it. She tried, but when we’re together, it’s just undeniably right – even as wrong and backward and mismatched as it might seem to her friends, my friends and Jesus himself (if he is, in fact, tuning in).
Anyways. Back to the living room, where Preston is gritting his teeth at the screen, vigorously flipping the little fake pick-thing on his guitar hero guitar. He notices me trying to sneak out the door.
“Where you off to?” He asks.
“Leila’s parent’s house.”
He stops playing and looks at me, overemphasizing a stunned stare. He’s not much of an actor. My stomach turns a bit at his pectoral stubble bristling against the cheap black vinyl guitar strap. DragonForce continues to roar from the old second-hand tube TV until he fiddles with the controller to find the seldom-used pause button.
“Are you serious?” he asks.
“Didn’t she just break up with you for like the 61st time?”
“It was the fourth time, and this time it didn’t quite stick.”
“And didn’t her parents say you were never welcome in their house?” Preston asks.
“They did. That one still stings a little. Thanks for the reminder.”
“And that’s where you’re going?” He looks at me quizzically.
“Well, they prayed about it. The whole family.” I can see him biting his lip, holding back the laughter. I can’t help it. I snort a little.
“And?” he asks expectantly?
“And they decided to give me a chance.”
“Yes, apparently he was involved.”
Preston giggles and looks as if his mind is still reeling with the news. Mine is too, honestly. And I’m trying to push the anxiety down, down, down.
“Well, enjoy the bible study.”
“I don’t expect to study it as much as be thumped over the head with it.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. You have to get through all the opening prayers, invocations, consecrations, communions and doxologies first.”
"Shit. You’re right. I probably should take a snack?"
“What? You think they won’t have the wafers?”
“Ha. Alright, alright, I gotta go.”
“Alright. Good luck, buddy. If you come home a Christian, I’ll be very disappointed.”
“Just pray for me.”
As I near Leila’s school in my moderately abused Maxima, I pull out my Nokia and use predictive text to send her a note: “Almost there”. I’m actually pretty good at this. I can do it without even looking. Who needs a RAZR anyway? Gas is over $3 a gallon, so it just makes sense to ride together.
I pull up in front of Miller hall – Leila’s dorm – and can feel eyes of judgment on me from every direction as I take a final couple pulls on my menthol cigarette. To be really honest, I adore the hatred I get from them. It’s gotta be less than 15°, so I toss the smoke, roll up the window and pop an Altoid in as she slides into the car. I know this is probably the only chance I’ll get today, so I steal a kiss and my heart seriously forgets a beat or two as I wonder just how I got so absurdly lucky.
“Hey habibe,” she smiles. (That’s Arabic for my love.)
“Hello hiyate,” I drool back. (Arabic for my life.)
“Are you ready for this?”
“Not in the slightest.”
We get on I-35 northbound and I plug my iPod shuffle into the tape adapter. I hit play and Mates of State’s “A Duel Will Settle This” comes on. Nice. I’m tempted to light another cigarette to calm my nerves, but I know Leila would hate it. And I don’t want to reek when we get there. Leila can sense my anxiety. She’s good at that. She’s also good at easing it.
“They’re really not that bad. I know you have this picture in your head, but that’s not who they are. I know they’re going to like you.”
I stifle a laugh. “Why would they?”
“Because I do.”
I let out a long sigh-cum-raspberry.
“Tell me what you’re so worried about. What’s the worst-case scenario?”
Well. She did ask for it. As if I haven’t been playing it over in my head.
“We pull past the security gate, down the long, wooded driveway to your parents’ suburban cookie-cutter McMansion–”
“–it’s not a big house.”
“Your dad opens the door with a double-barrel shotgun and an armful of bibles. I can see the wall of artistically-arranged decorative crosses behind him under the wall stencil that says ‘faith’ in a scripty font.” Leila starts by laughing but is now staring at me, clearly dumbfounded that I’ve created such an elaborate fantasy. “Your mom pulls your dad to the side, and looks me up and down, her I’d like to speak to the manager hairstyle bobbing and swaying as she looks me challengingly in the eye as if to say, ‘I just dare you, young man.’”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re way off. Let’s just talk about something else. You’ll see when we get there. I wish there was a way I could just kinda show you what they’re like. Like if they were all on MySpace or something.”
Here we are. It’s just a modest, unassuming suburban house. Strike one, I guess. As we walk up to the door, I can tell the house is full of life. Lights are on. Music is playing. A little laughter spills out. Leila rings the doorbell and I take a deep breath and breeze through a lightspeed mental rendition of the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to–
“–IIIIIIII’LLLLLLL GET IT!” an enthusiastic young male voice comes from inside.
The door opens and I manufacture my best innocent, “please-don’t-hurt-me” smile. The first thing I see is a 14-year-old boy with emo hair hanging in his eyes. At least there are no multilayered pop collars. He does a practiced head jerk to swing the hair out of his eyes, gives me a very real and very un-emo smile and says “Sup?” while giving Leila a hug. Our presence hereby announced, the rest of the family makes their own beelines to the door from their various activities. I brace for the evaluation and judgment, holding my breath, biting the inside of my cheek and flinching just a touch.
It doesn’t come. Instead I just hear “Ben!” in various tones as they each hug me warmly and introduce themselves: Leila’s doppelganger mom Annette; her exuberant dad, Mark; her delicately beautiful and ballerina-esque younger sister Jenny; charismatic younger brother Derek (who opened the door) and youngest brother Sam – a smaller replica of his emo big brother.
The sudden, unconditional acceptance is surprising. Touching. Disarming. I quickly wipe an unsolicited tear with my jacket before anyone notices.
“Nice to meet you guys,” I say, a little overwhelmed.
“Come in, come in, would you like some coffee? Tea? Cocoa?” Annette asks.
“Wanna see a magic trick?” Sam, the youngest, asks.
“Dude! Of course I do!” I say.
What can I say? I was wrong. Very wrong. The rest of the afternoon and evening was a series of refrains on the same theme. There was no uptight Christian indignation or Bible study. Derek and I showed each other guitar moves. Sam and I built Lego spaceships. I helped Annette in the kitchen and she was surprised to find I know my way around meal prep. We watched a home movie of Jenny’s latest high school dance performance. There was a humble, heartfelt prayer before we all swan-dived into an incredible spread of traditional Lebanese delicacies.
While Mark and the boys take care of the dishes – everyone vehemently objects to my help – I start to let myself believe I’m home-free. Leila looks across the table at me with a questioning gaze, as if to say, “So?” I blush and smile. She mouths a silent “Told you” at me as her Annette calls her into the other room.
I take advantage of this small slice of solitude to check out the books lining the walls of the living room. You can learn a lot about a person by the types of books they have around – or if they have books at all. Here, there are hundreds. Maybe thousands. And they’re not all Bibles, Left Behind collections or Billy Graham memoirs. There’s stuff here on Eastern philosophy, theology, Islam, Jung, Freud, Kierkegaard. Biblical critiques. Even Hitchens. Hitchens??
With my head sidewise, immersed in titles and authors, Mark takes me by surprise. He’s holding two glasses of red wine and two cigars.
“Wine?” he asks. I’m a little confused.
“Oh, no thanks actually. I don’t drink.” I say. He laughs and reddens in the face.
“Hahaha! I’m such an idiot! How could I forget? I’m so sorry.”
“No worries, it’s really okay.”
“I mean really though, you don’t exactly fit the image of I have in my head of someone in treat- I mean, uh, what do you call it?”
“Recovery. Yeah. I mean when Leila told us she was dating a guy who used to be a drug addict, I was imagining like a depressed ex-con with sunken eyes and like a leather jacket or something and – I don’t know. Sorry. That just seems really stupid now.” He laughs again.
“Hey well if it’d make you feel better, I can get my leather jacket and chains out of the car and mope around a bit.” Mark laughs a hearty laugh and puts the extra glass of wine down.
“Have a seat. You do smoke, right? These are pretty good cigars.” He offers me a Garcia Y Vega.
“Thanks. Is it really alright… to smoke – in here?” I ask reluctantly.
“Sure! Special occasion.”
It’s almost surreal how I immediately feel so comfortable with Leila’s family. Especially after the remote rough start we’d had. They’re so warm, inviting, welcoming, sweet and genuinely curious about me. It occurs to me that it’d be unfair for me not to admit it.
“So, you know, I gotta admit…” I say, trying to put my words together.
“Yeah?” Mark asks as if we’ve been friends for a decade.
“You guys aren’t really what I expected either.”
“Well I mean, being Assemblies of God missionaries to the Middle East…”
“Oh you were expecting a lot of ‘derka allah, mohommad jihad’?” he asks, starting to laugh. I crack up at his reference in complete disbelief.
“You know Team America?”
“Oh yeah. It’s the funniest movie. Just don’t mention it to Annette.” He says a little surreptitiously.
“Okay so that’s what I mean. I thought A.G. was no drinking, no smoking, no fun, no this or that – sort of holier than thou, you know?”
“Sure. I mean technically it is. But we’re all just real people, right? We’re human. There are things we like that maybe we shouldn’t, but I believe God loves us anyway, that he wants us to enjoy the life he gave us. And I don’t think the humans that codify all these rules are necessarily right anyway.”
“Right. Yeah. I mean, that makes perfect sense.”
“Leila said you grew up in the church.”
“Yeah, I did. I was Methodist, but not so much anymore.”
“She said you have an interesting conception of God.”
“Oh, she told you that?” I say, a little embarrassed.
“She said I should ask you to explain it.”
“Yeah! I mean, if it’s okay with you, of course.”
“Okay. Well, so like I said, I got to a point with church and church people and all of that where I just wasn’t feeling it or buying it anymore.”
“I can definitely understand that.” He says reassuringly.
“I was a pretty militant atheist for a long time, but recovery and AA require belief in some kind of higher power. Any higher power – God, the group itself, a coffee mug, your dog, whatever. And the only god that makes sense to me is, well, nothing.”
Mark looks at me expectantly, clearly hoping the thought doesn’t end here. My old pent-up anger at religion and religious types tempts me to leave it at that. But that would obviously be nothing but self-serving, and Mark is clearly authentically interested.
“What I mean is that, like, I have a hard time believing in some omnipotent, omniscient being directing all life and all the universe for eternity. But I can see patterns of some kind of intelligence. Maybe there is something there.”
“Yeah, all the beauty, the fact that this planet has air we can breathe and water we can drink – like it was all made for us – that sorta thing?”
“Sure, kind of. So imagine a leaf falling from a tree. It doesn’t fall straight to the ground. It whips around, spins, flutters, maybe rises up again. Is the leaf really doing what we perceive it to be doing? Or is it because the air and wind around it are causing it to? The invisible things?”
“Well, it’s really the air and the wind.”
“Right. In a way, when we watch a leaf dance, it’s really the nothing dancing. And when you look at matter on the smallest scale, you see atoms. But between the atoms, nothing. When you look inside those, there’s all kinds of subatomic, inexplicable weirdness. Particles that disappear and reappear or move in unexplainable ways.” I pause to make sure I’m not losing him.
“Yeah, like string theory.” This guy really is packed with surprises.
“Exactly! But maybe it’s like the leaf. The movements of these particles determine what kind of particle they are, and therefore what kind of molecule they are and therefore our entire physical world. But maybe those movements aren’t the quark or the string moving, but the nothing around them moving.”
“God is the nothing.”
“That’s my way of reconciling it all, anyway.”
Just then Annette calls everyone to the kitchen. “Boys! Dessert’s ready!” Mark has a big, authentic grin on his face. We begin to stand up.
“Duuuuuuude,” he says. “You really are not what I expected.”
“Neither are you.”
We sit around the table, eating a delightfully simple dessert of sliced strawberries and regular old vanilla ice cream. Already, it feels a little bit like home. They teach me an addictive card game called 32 while they all impersonate their favorite Looney Tunes, Muppets and Jimmy Stewart moments in a way that’s endearingly un-self-conscious. And hilarious. During an outbreak of laughter, Leila leans over and asks, “So what were you and my dad talking about?”
“Oh, nothing really.” I say with a sincere smile. She kisses me on the cheek and I begin to melt just like the bowl of vanilla in front of me.
I can’t believe I came so close to missing this.