My friend’s concern that I would be sheltered at Messiah College continued to be ridiculous.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that I passed any classes that first year, as I was too busy getting myself tangled up in deep drama. I got a “D” on my first psychology quiz and almost changed majors then. However, I was getting a lot of practical training which received no grades.
Nothing “untoward” ever happened with David. Other than quick hugs, we developed a “hands off” rule. In my mind any misstep would have been completely unforgivable. People told me later that I was really strong throughout the ordeal, but self-judgment and damnation was my motive more than morality or personal strength.
Most days that I went to the bookstore to work, David got up and left, going for a long walk for the duration of my shift. He left a note once telling me that it was just to difficult to be around me. As sad and lost as I felt, there was a part of me that thrived on the intensity. It meant I was alive. It meant I was needed in a place where I felt all wrong. There was one person with whom I could be real and honest. It really was a recipe for disaster.
At least once a week, David didn’t leave when I arrived, but shut the door so we could talk. I felt it was up to me to save his marriage, no matter how ridiculous that sounded out loud. Surely God put me in this situation to test me, I thought.
One weekend I needed a break. I was consumed with David and couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I didn’t have a car at the time, so David took me to the train station. He invited me to his house for dinner beforehand; with his wife and kids.
I met his wife and his two adorable little boys. All during dinner I picked at my food as David played the polite host as if nothing was amiss. I felt so guilty just for having feelings. I felt like a Jezebel, certain that David’s wife thought I was after her husband. On top of that I was sure I had somehow egged his feelings on– surely I flirted with him unknowingly. Perhaps my comfort with him and being myself in his presence was what tipped him into lustful feelings toward me. It was my fault. I was a slut.
That’s what my Dad said, anyway. Not in so many words, but he did suggest that I was a very open person with others, including men. “Too open.” He said I was too touchy and familiar, relaxing too much. And I was a “young, beautiful woman,” he said. My hugging David and joking with him encouraged him. It was my fault.
That weekend was the beginning of one of the worst years of my life. Despite my sketchy relationship with my father, he always played the counselor, and often, like my brothers had done, if there was no one else to talk to, I sought out his counsel. He encouraged this. I was vulnerable. I felt rebuffed by Ed and hurt that he didn’t support me in my not wanting to abandon David. I hadn’t heard anything from him since the phone call.
“I can understand that,” my father said. “You trusted Ed to be there, and he wasn’t. He didn’t support you in what you wanted to do.” Dad sat back in his recliner and crossed his legs. “You know, I know you don’t want to hear this, but perhaps Ed feels threatened. You found out David, and I just bet Ed is afraid you’ll find him out.” If Dad had had a cigar, he would have thoughtfully sucked on it and added the stinky smoke to his Freudian aura.
“Now Sue, I know you think a lot of Ed. But really, he’s too familiar with you. He hugs you too much, he writes you letters. Think about it. You’re a young beautiful girl that absolutely adores him. That’s very exciting to any man…”
“Dad, c’mon, Ed…”
“No, listen. Think about it. You don’t hold back anything from Ed. You tell him everything, you depend on him, you adore him. He’s gotta eat that up. You go to him for hugs, at camp you’re in your bathing suit…”
He went on and on and on. I don’t know that he thought this out. Looking back, I think he believed what he was saying. That Ed was a sex-driven fraud. That weekend at home from college, when I was emotionally and physically exhausted, stressed and in love with a man I couldn’t have who loved me back… I was at Dad’s psychological mercy.
On top of all that, I was already convinced I could not be trusted. I didn’t trust my own perspective or intuition. I wasn’t mature enough to make sound decisions. As Dad said, I was “too touchy,” “too sensitive,” “too trusting.” He questioned the validity of anything I gained from Pennington camp. He questioned Ed’s motives, suggesting that Ed was only interested in my looks, getting me to adore him and shower my adulation on him to feed his own ego.
Dad was relentless. But he did it with a cool detachment. He didn’t speak as one who might be concerned that his daughter was being sexually harassed or manipulated. He didn’t express compassion that my friend appeared to be someone out to use me and abuse me. He didn’t share concern for my emotional well-being or vulnerability. He behaved like a clinical counselor, offering a diagnosis on a client. He didn’t seem to consider the impact my accusations would have if I shared them with anyone else.
In that exhausted state, I read my journals from Pennington through the eyes of my father’s diagnosis. Whereas I’d written down everything Ed said to me or did as a memory of grace, now it was read through the lens of suspicion. I read pages and pages of my journals, letters Ed had written in response to my own, and read them now as evidence. I cried and felt ashamed that I was so “stupid.” Suddenly everything about Pennington– a powerful spiritual experience of God’s grace and love– seemed completely false. A lie.
Before the weekend was out, I gathered up every memento of Pennington; all the pictures, the signed folders, the daily newsletters and every letter I’d received from each of my camp friends, including Ed’s… and burned them in the fireplace. I knelt in front of the fireplace, sobbing and poking the fire. I was hurt, angry, self-condemning. And I was ticked off with God.
My anger was misplaced.
My father walked through the den, looking at the mail in his hands, and glanced up. “That’s very healthy,” he commented, and continued into his bedroom.
The weekend didn’t offer me any relief from the drama at school. I was devastated. I felt like one of the two most important people in my life had betrayed me. In the meantime, I received letters from Sandie telling me about her new experimentation with diet, meditation and prayer as part of her cancer treatment. I’d never heard the details of her diagnosis after I left her that weekend and contacted my parents. Sandie didn’t offer any details, and when I asked my parents they just affirmed that the cancer was back. Deep in the David crisis that spring semester, I managed a quick prayer each night for her, but my attention was overwhelmed.
During our conversations in the office, I tried to convince David to talk to his wife about their problems. He was reluctant. His wife had appeared a bit rough around the edges and even a bit harsh, but I realized I was biased. Growing up with my father’s encounter groups at church, and his Rogerian therapeutic approach to life in general, I believed that all married people needed to do was to talk. I thought if David just talked to her, all would be well.
One Monday morning, I came into the office, and David was slouched over his desk, staring at a paper clip that he was mangling. “What’s wrong?” I said in greeting.
Without looking up, he said, “She knows.”
I got cold all over and there was a sour taste in my mouth. My heart started racing. “She knows… what?” I whispered.
David looked at me. “That I’m in love with you.”
I sat down in my chair at the typewriter. My life was over. I thought I’d be sick right there. I may as well have had a scarlet “A” on my chest. My feet went numb.
David explained that he’d been moping around all weekend, and on Sunday, he just lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling. He said Beth, his wife, had finally asked him what in the world was wrong with him. And he told her. He just told her. It was just like him, though, not to want to lie.
“What did you tell her?”
“That I’m in love with you but we haven’t slept together or anything, and you aren’t interested in… wait.” He looked at me and narrowed his eyes. “Here I’ve been laying my heart out to you almost every day, feeling like a jerk, but you haven’t said much of anything. So let me ask you, if I weren’t married, would you be interested in me?”
He stared at me. Like him, I couldn’t lie. My heart was pounding and anxiety was making it hard to breathe. I couldn’t look at him. “Yes,” I whispered to the floor.
He sighed heavily and hung his head down between his knees. “I’m sorry I asked.”
I was too.
I didn’t see much of Marlene that Spring semester, as she was dating a new guy. He seemed really weird, but I hadn’t spent much time around him. She was very enthusiastic about him and was gone till late most nights when I returned to the dorm. We were both completely absorbed in our own lives. I spent more time with Merly, and she managed to keep me going to class when I wanted to go back to bed. She tried to get me to focus on my classes, even had me doing exercise routines with the rest of our dorm floor to the soundtrack of Flashdance.
It was getting very close to finals week when I went to work and found a single rose in a bud vase, sitting on my desk in the office. The card was signed, “Thank you for all you did, David and Beth.” Merly came in to see me, and she, too, was carrying a bud vase with the same words on the card. We sat and talked out loud about what could have prompted this when David walked in.
He came in grinning and sat down at his desk chair. “That’s from Beth and I,” he said, awkwardly stating the obvious. “We stayed up most of the night last night… talking, and I think it really helped.” He seemed a bit awkward, but the smile was real. “We both appreciate all your support this semester, and…” he looked sheepishly at me, “Beth wants to thank you for being so strong.” I blushed.
It was an abrupt end to a long, stressful drama, but Merly and I both offered our congratulations. He nodded. “It was … a good night,” he said, looking at the floor. I think we all blushed. “Thank you, Peggy,” he said, looking right at me. I just nodded. I couldn’t speak. I was relieved, sure. I told Dad later, and he congratulated me like I was his psych intern. A job well done.
My heart was like hamburger.
I rushed to study for finals, feeling like I was a whole semester behind. I was exhausted in every way and just wanted to go home. I caught up with Marlene to find out she had broken up with her boyfriend Sam. She said he’d started acting really weird, even scary. He didn’t take the break-up well, but she was relieved to be rid of him.
At the end of May, my parents and I would be visiting Sandie and her family up in New York, and I longed to see her again. To walk into her loving arms and let her shower me with kisses and hugs and allow her to fill up all the empty space inside of me. It would be like going home.
During Finals Week, I pulled my first all-nighter. Most of it I spent staring at my notes, turning the pages but not really absorbing anything. I stumbled through the exams that day, took an hour-long nap, and began a second all-nighter. While I huddled over my desk by the light of my desk lamp, Marlene came bursting into the room.
“Sam’s gone,” she said, pacing the room. “I saw him earlier today and we had a fight. He said he can’t live without me. And now he’s gone! I don’t know where he is!” She paced and cried, while I tried to comfort her.
The phone rang. Marlene answered it. It was her father. She listened to what sounded like urgent news, and she barely spoke, but nodded silently. Her eyes were really wide. “Dad, I’m so sorry!” she sounded hysterical. “I love you so much!” She hung up.
Sam had gone to her father’s house about an hour from campus with a machete, threatening to kill her family. He was there now. The phone call was very brief. Marlene’s Dad was a big guy, but her step-mom and two half-sisters were there as well, all being held hostage by her crazy ex-boyfriend and his knife. He whispered that he had a plan, and he’d call her later. Marlene was trembling as she hung up and told me.
It was a little difficult to study. Marlene curled up in bed with the phone nestled against her chest while I continued to stare at my notes. In the morning, I was still at my desk when the phone rang and Marlene, who managed to sleep some, jumped to answer it. After an all-night stand-off, Marlene’s Dad had finally managed to subdue Sam and get the machete away from him, calling the police. They were all escorting him now to a psych facility.
My final final exam that day was Abnormal Psychology.
I don’t think I passed. I think my professor, being a Christian, somehow worked the numbers into a D. That’s my only explanation for not having to take it again.
After the exam, I stumbled into the bookstore where Merly was working. I was on my last working nerve. I walked into her arms wordlessly and just sobbed. She held me a long, long time before leading me to the back desk to sit down. I opted for the floor. She left to get me something to drink.
David and I had agreed after his “really good night” that we would have a “no touch” policy from here on out. Avoid any further temptation. He had refused my suggestion that I get another job on campus next semester to put a little distance between us. I was thinking of myself more than him with that suggestion. He said I could work the cash register, get me out of the office. Whatever. The Fall seemed so faraway at the time.
David approached me as I sat sobbing on the floor, looking sad, guilty and handsome. He pulled me up and folded me into a big hug as I continued to cry. So much for “no touching.” At the moment, I didn’t care. “I feel like I wrecked your semester,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
I just kept crying into his chest.
David and I remained friends for the rest of my four years at Messiah, and I doubt I could have endured if we hadn’t. He was my most consistent and faithful friend. We talked often in the snack shop and visited about our lives. He didn’t talk much about Beth anymore or their relationship and there were times I suspected that the good talk had worn off, but I didn’t press. I needed a friend. He did too. And so we were.