The Big Chill


When I was dating Larry, I warned him that Billy Joel’s “I Go to Extremes” was my theme song.  “Too high or too low/darlin’ there ain’t no in-between.”  That was true of my emotions, but especially of my personal morality.  People were either good or bad.  Situations were either good or bad, no gray areas.  I knew sex was a big sin to my mother.  We couldn’t even talk about it.  I knew her worst fear for me was that I would have sex before marriage. I was sure that if I ever did, or worse– (!) got pregnant– I’d have to disappear.  It would be unforgivable.  I’d never survive the shame.  It would be years before I understood the source of her intense, angry attitude, but when I was a teenager, it just literally scared the hell right out of me.

It also made me … ashamed.   In addition to her extreme moral rules, my father always regarded feelings as evidence of brokenness that needed to be fixed.  Feelings were nothing but symptoms, and feelings could also be sins.  My father worked very hard to get rid of any indication of emotion in himself, and chastised me and Mom for any displays of negative emotions.  It was as if women were especially prone to such nonsense as feelings.  Feelings had to be controlled.  If they weren’t, you were weak.

This is the mindset that I took with me into my four long years at Messiah College.  I also believed deep down, that when I was in conflict with anyone, I was the wrong one and needed to adjust.  I was adjusting all the time to fit other people’s expectations.  You can imagine the crazy dance that was my life.

So when I came into conflict with just about everyone at Messiah (so it seemed), I was always on the edge.  Something deep down in me still believed that God wasn’t as mean as my classmates made him out to be, but I couldn’t stand up for myself or my beliefs.  I was weighed down by guilt.  Guilt that I didn’t get up at 5 a.m. to have my devotions with God, guilt that I couldn’t quote chapters and verses of the Bible from memory and guilt that I  had not read every single book of the Bible.  (1 and 2 Chronicles? Leviticus?  Seriously?)

People ask why I stayed at Messiah.  There’s no simple answer, but I think I stayed partly because I thought maybe God was trying to teach me something.  Maybe God was testing me.  “Everything happens for a reason,” I believed, so I formed reasons to make sense out of things that didn’t make sense.  And whatever I did, I felt that I was meant to do it the hardest way possible.  For some reason, I believed I was meant to suffer more than others. I believed that God wanted me to help Neil and keep him from killing himself.  God must have put Neil in my path.  And I failed.

During January Term we only had one concentrated class.  I took Speech, and despite my nerves, I did very well at it.  I also met Merly, a Cuban-American daughter of a Reformed Christian pastor in New Jersey.  We became quick friends.  My friendship with Marlene had suffered because of Neil.  He hung out with her and so I couldn’t when he was there. Also, Marlene was so gorgeous and perky that she got asked out a lot more than I did. I was jealous. Her speaking in tongues during her personal devotional time freaked me out a lot, too.  One particular stressful day, I came back to the room and put on an album that I played on such occasions:  a Molly Hatchet album, Flirtin’ With Disaster.  It was loud, it was angry, and I turned it way up.  Marlene came back to the dorm and screamed, “What are you playing??”

I turned it off.  I showed her the album, and she gasped loudly.

“That’s devil music!” She looked at me as if my face had morphed into a werewolf or something.  “That’s druggie music!!”

Dear God, it never ended.  Every time I turned around, I was just all wrong.  I discovered that her attitude was very prominent on campus.  Any secular music was considered “anti-God.”  Lordy.  I saved my favorite music for when I was alone in our room, and listened to her Contemporary Christian music when she was there.

Merly and I were together a lot.  She was uptight about some things (normal things like Free Will vs. Predestination!) but not about my music.  Bruce still hung around us, as did Jen.  Marlene was sometimes with Neil, and sometimes with other friends she’d met who were Pentecostal.  She continued to go on a lot of dates, and then exclusively began seeing Mark.  She was gone till late most nights.

There was a cloud hanging over me already as I started the new semester.  Sandie’s cancer had come back.  She’d been cancer-free for four years.  I’d been staying at their house over a long weekend in New York when she was admitted to the hospital.  The Melanoma was back.

I was grateful for my friendship with Merly and with David.  We had a lot of fun in the bookstore and Merly and I took turns choosing the music for the turntable.  David enjoyed having my friends hang out when I was working.  At other times, he and I would talk about various things.  Sometimes, when I was done with my shift, he invited me for a drink in the snack shop next door.  I felt good being seen with him in the snack shop.  Professors and other staff would greet him and I felt important having such a popular friend.  David’s father was a professor at Messiah, and so he’d literally grown up on campus, attended there and took the bookstore job after graduation.

I always looked forward to going to work, and on days I wasn’t working I usually found a reason to stop in and say hi to David or have a chat.  He always stopped what he was doing and visited for a while.  It was so easy, and it the one place where I could relax on campus and be myself.

I had some tough classes that semester.  So far, I wasn’t feeling affirmed in my choice of psychology as a major.  The stress didn’t seem to let up.  Sometimes when I was at the typewriter in the office,  David would rub my shoulders.  He’d often give me an encouraging hug before I left.   He hugged Merly, too, and it didn’t feel inappropriate.

Then one Monday he came into the office and didn’t even greet me.  He sat at his desk with his back toward me.  I said, “Good morning”, and he mumbled something without turning around.  I asked him if he was ok.  He abruptly got up and went to the door, then turned around.  He was agitated and restless. I’d never seen him like that.

“Kathy and I went to the movies on Friday.”  He sighed heavily, holding onto the door frame and mindlessly working his fingernail into a crack.  “We saw The Big Chill.”  I hadn’t heard of it.  “It just got me thinking,” he shook his head as if to throw off some cobwebs.  He chuckled sadly. “There was a song that reminded me of you.” He smiled and put up his hand in a wave, descending the steps from the office.  I watched him go out the front of the bookstore, toward the snack shop.

Something felt wrong.  A song that reminded him of me?  There was no Google or even internet for me to do a search on the soundtrack of The Big Chill.  I filed the moment away in my head, took a deep breath and started typing.  That weekend Bruce took Merly and me to the mall.  In the record store, I found the soundtrack to The Big Chill.  The only song on the record that might have fit David’s comment was My Girl.  Surely not.  I put it out of my mind.

The following week I dressed up in a skirt and blouse, just to make myself feel better.  I borrowed Marlene’s faux fur coat and wore a bit more make up.  Each of us did this every once in a while, just to feel good.  To feel pretty.  I enjoyed the attention I got in classes, since it was a very noticeable difference.  One guy I’d flirted with in the dining hall asked me out to dinner that night.  “Since you’re already dressed up and all…”  he winked.

When I went to work that day I was still a bit giddy that I’d gotten a date.  I’d had a few since starting at Messiah, but none of them really led to anything more.  David was in the office when I walked into the office, he turned around and blurted, “Oh my God!”  Suddenly he cleared his throat.  “I mean,… well, you look nice.”  He actually blushed.  I laughed.  I liked all the responses I was getting.

Later, after taking a break in the snack shop, David came back and stood in the doorway of the office.  I was typing some invoices and didn’t notice that he wasn’t moving.  After a while, I glanced up and saw that he was still there, just looking at me.  He smiled.  “That song,” he said, referring to the song playing over the store’s sound system, “That’s my song for you.”  He winked and disappeared into the back storage room.

I listened carefully, but still couldn’t make out the words of the song.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.  Merly was working the cash register, so coming out of the office, I made sure David wasn’t back yet.  No one else was in the store, so she was reading a textbook behind the desk.  “Hey Merle,” I said, “what is that song that’s playing?”  I fiddled with some Post-it notes by the register, trying to act casual.

She got up and pulled the album sleeve from the stack.  “Leon Patillo,” she said, flipping the sleeve over to the back.  “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.”  

Oh crap.  I nodded and made an excuse about getting back to work before the boss got back.  David didn’t come back before I was done with work.  All during my supper date I was nervous and distracted.  I’d known that I had a bit of a girlish crush on David.  Shoot, he was good-looking.  He was kind in a place that didn’t feel so kind to me.  He was easy to talk to, we liked a lot of the same oldies music.  We shared a lot of similar opinions on things.  But it was innocent.  I certainly didn’t expect anything from him.  He was married with two adorable little boys.  It was just an innocent thing on my part.

After supper, I went back to my dorm and called Ed.  I had worked myself into a panic.  I’d written Ed often during the year.  He knew about my struggles at Messiah.  He never said I told you so. I wrote him about Neil last semester, and he was very supportive.  I celebrated the small triumphs that I occasionally had.  I wrote about my fears for Sandie that lurked behind everything that second semester.

He knew about David and my job at the bookstore.  He knew of our friendship and what an oasis of grace it was for me.  I told Ed I was afraid now, that David was attracted to me.  I told him about the moments that made me suspicious of that.  As I talked about it, it all sounded kind of dramatic.  Maybe I was being foolish.  But he was kind.  “I’d say if you’re really worried, the best thing to do is talk to him.  Tell him there’s been some moments that you’ve been uncomfortable.  You don’t need to accuse him of anything, just tell him what you told me. It may be that he didn’t even realize that what he was doing made you nervous.  But you won’t know unless you ask.”

Right.  Direct communication was not my strong suit.  We talked a bit more, he made me laugh, and he assured me of his daily prayers for me.  “Let me know what happens,” he said.  I felt better.

Merly could tell something was wrong when she stopped by, and Marlene was there, too, on the odd night of having nothing else planned.  I hemmed and hawed, thinking that this was so awful and shameful that I couldn’t speak it out loud.  I mean, a married man?? Merly grew impatient.  “Alright, let me guess.  David’s in love with you?”

I stared at her.  “How did you know?  I mean, I don’t know, I’m just wondering, but where did that come from?”

She’d seen my reaction at the name of the song, apparently I wasn’t as coy as I thought.  “Besides, it seems obvious to me that out of all of us, he seems to favor you a bit more.”

Well, we all agreed that I had to talk to him.  It all seemed so ridiculous to me.  What had I don’t to encourage him?  Had I encouraged him?  And if I did, what did that make me?  I was a nervous wreck.  I took Donnatol that night and again the next morning, to try to calm my nerves.

Shame, shame, shame.  It hung over me like a cloud, pressing me down.  I couldn’t eat all day.  My hands were shaking and sweating.  I kept hyperventilating.  Finally, it was time to go to work.  David was in the office as usual, and I asked to talk.  I got up to close the door.  “Whoa, this must be serious,” he chuckled.

As I spoke, I didn’t notice that I kept pushing my chair further away from him, so that by the time I was finished, I was sitting right in front of the door.

“Peggy, I’m sorry if I did anything to make you feel uncomfortable.  I’ll definitely be more aware of what I say and do.  I certainly don’t want to make you uncomfortable at all.”  He looked at me and then down at my chair.  “Are you afraid of me?”  I realized where I was.

“Ha, no, no. I don’t know why I did that. It’s ok, I just wanted to talk to you.  Thank you,” I said.  He nodded, looking at me as if he weren’t quite sure I was telling the truth, and got up and went out to check on things in the store.

I let out a deep breath as if I’d been holding it.  Thank God.

I wrote Ed a long letter and told him he was right, it was nothing, and everything was fine.  Whew.

Monday afternoon I went to work and David wasn’t in the office.  I was looking forward to just kidding around and keeping it light, feeling bad that I’d been so dramatic about everything.  He didn’t come into the office but checked merchandise in the store, chatted with the cashiers, or went to the snack shop.  He didn’t come into the office once during my shift.  It was really odd.

My shift went until the store closed that day.  As the cashier turned out the lights down front and locked the front doors, I gathered up my things in the office.  David skipped up the steps into the office and waved at the cashier as she left the store.

“You got a minute?” David stood over six feet tall in the doorway, looming over me.  But he looked odd.  He was agitated again.  He kept running his hand through his thick brown hair and looking around nervously, as if to make sure no one was sneaking up to hear our conversation.  I sat back down, clutching my backpack.

He sat down and leaned forward, so that our knees were almost touching.  “Peggy, I didn’t get much sleep this weekend.  When you talked to me Friday about how uncomfortable you were, and even asked me if I was attracted to you, I honestly thought it was just a misunderstanding.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about it all weekend.  I couldn’t sleep.”  He leaned his elbows on his knees, and dropped his head.  The back of my throat tasted sour all of a sudden.

“The thing is, Peggy, I am in love with you.”  He looked up at me and his eyes filled with tears.  He talked about how things with Kathy had been distant for a long time.  They just weren’t close anymore.  As he talked, I think my head went numb and I tuned out for a while.  Oh my God, what was I going to do?  What did I do to lead him on?  Did I flirt with him?  Was I too huggy and touchy with him?  I felt sick.

I said I had to go.  He looked scared.  “I don’t want to mess up your life,” he said.  “I don’t expect anything from you, I just… please don’t run away.  I need you, Peggy.  We can get through this.”  It felt like I was caught in a rip pool, my legs twisted in the strong current, while a huge wave was washing over my head, threatening to fill my lungs with water.  Oh God.  All I kept thinking was I’m so horrible. I’m a horrible person.  I’m a slut.  I led him on. This is my fault. 

I assured him we were still friends.  That I wasn’t going to run away.  A part of me cherished the emotional intimacy, even the love, in a place where I felt so banished and alone most of the time.  But.  I wanted to throw up.  I knew I was in love with him, or what I knew of love at that time.  I adored him.  I wanted to marry someone like him– but not him.  It was fine if it was just me.  But it wasn’t.  And I felt like scum.

I called Ed that night and breathlessly blurted out everything about the conversation with David.  When I took a breath, I was crying.  He was quiet for a moment.  “Wow,” he said, “I really didn’t think he’d respond that way.”  He was quiet again.  “Let me ask you this, P.S., do you have feelings for him?”  Oh crap.  At first I nodded, then realized I hadn’t spoken.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Then you really need to get out of there.  You’re playing with fire. This is just too much for you to deal with, seriously.”

“I can’t!” I argued.  “He’s my friend, I can’t just abandon him!”

“Peggy, this is way bigger than you.  You have to get another job somewhere else on campus, you need to get out of there,” he cautioned.

“Ed, I can’t do that.  I promised…”

He was quiet, and I could tell he was exasperated.  “Well, then, seriously, I don’t know what to tell you.  You’re in way over your head here.”  He was quiet a long time.  I wanted him to tell me to counsel David.  To hang in there.  To be his friend.

We ended the conversation, and it felt abrupt.  I felt abandoned.  Part of me thought he was right, but I couldn’t imagine telling my best friend on campus that I couldn’t be his friend any more.  Just because he was in love with me and I was in love with him. Of course, David didn’t know that part.  And he wouldn’t.

I was also scared I’d just lost Ed’s friendship.  I’d disappointed him.  Or so I thought.

Then I did something stupid.  Something that would affect my friendship with Ed for the next several years.  Something that would make things so much worse before they got better.

I called my father.




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