A Risk Worth Taking

Dear Madam Governor,

I would like to open my letter today by thanking you for taking the time to review my correspondence. You are a busy woman with many events and formalities to oversee. As a fellow politician, allow me to extend my understanding at how demanding the job can be at times. Your work is done well and for that your constituents are thankful.

Alas, there is a matter that I must bring to your attention with the utmost urgency. Enclosed for your review are discipline records, proposals, and transcripts regarding an incident occurring within my school district. I have assured that the board members have taken action appropriately to fit the circumstances, though the concerned parents who demanded no punishment be distributed limited that action.

Thankfully, no media outlets have obtained this story yet. I cannot say confidently whether it will be brought to light publically. Our board members try very hard to resolve matters quickly and efficiently with as little attention from the masses as possible, but this is an issue that I do not foresee dissipating in a flattering manner.

It is my request that you address this matter forwardly. Reading the information available to me there is but one conclusion I can make: this principal must be terminated. The reputation of our schools will plummet both within my district and all those surrounding. Emphasis is heavily placed on the anti-bulling programs in effect and yet this has been allowed to escalate without any true reprimand exercised.

Dramatic action is required to remedy these events and it is one that will bring an unfavorable outcry if I make the announcement myself. My decision would be contested and dragged publically through the court system. Eventually this matter will command your attention.

Today I notify you for the benefit of all parties. This route will allow you more time to prepare statements, delicately call for termination, and start laying the groundwork for your inevitable re-election with your proactive stance. Thank you again for your time. I hope to hear back from you on this matter very soon.

Cordially,

 

Mayor Carlotta Santana

CS/rb 


 

Robert Barns was fully aware that tricking the mayor into signing this letter was fraudulent entirely by itself, and that actually sending it was even worse. For years he’d been Carlotta’s assistant. On some level they were friends; though not exactly best friends and not friendly without the comfort of friendship. Carlotta and Robert were as comfortable around one another as siblings, but as formal with one another as colleagues. Bringing someone from a political campaign advisor all the way to the governor’s office was a long road that didn’t exactly put distance between people. In some strange way, Robert knew Carlotta better than her own family.

 

That’s why he knew that she would not deny the claims he’s made in this letter. She is familiar enough with the information to feign the intrigue that Robert falsely detailed on her behalf. In all the years he’s worked with Carlotta there’s never been a time when she ignored a situation that desperately needed attention. Hot-button issues were as sweet as candy to her, and yet she shied away from this one almost deliberately. Robert knew that if he did not push her then she would not do what needed to be done.

 

The Governor, Elisa Ferguson, was someone who occasionally made positive comments about Carotta’s so called “antics.” They had many aligning points within their various campaigns and political track records. Carlotta aspired to someday take Elisa’s place as governor – convinced that nobody would ever take office until she retired, or opted for a higher position within the government.

 

Robert hoped that the few encounters justified the arguably casual tone of the serious letter. Worst-case scenario, nothing happens and the Governor overlooks the request. Best-case scenario, the Governor takes favorable and the right people are finally rewarded for their positive choices. However, in all scenarios Robert will likely be asked to resign.

 

Carlotta would never fire him, though his leaving would still be scandalous enough to get some attention. If nothing else, he would likely have a career awaiting him in journalism. Perhaps someone would invite him to be a political correspondent for a newscast, paper, or blog. Robert already conceded that he would be happy doing any of these potential jobs.

 

Work droned on as it usually does in the office. Several phone messages were received, and only about half of them were actually forwarded to the Mayor herself. The rest of them were divvied out to the respective department leads and program managers. Categorizing the daily calls was so second nature to Robert that he used this time to review more thoroughly his plan to get Carlotta’s signature.

 

Honestly, he had no idea if she truly looked at the letters. Sometimes she would just pick up the bottom corners of each page and throw a signature onto the pages. It is this truth that prompted Robert to put the letter in between some other letters to ensure minimal chances of her reviewing it in depth. He also made sure to put it into a stack of form letters to give him more peace of mind that she would not feel compelled to read the letters individually. Nothing he was doing here was moral but, like the board member who sent the original call for action, Robert could not simply let this incident go without further investigation.

 

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that his best friend in high school practiced Islam in private at home, for fear of these same repercussions. Perhaps it was the fact that being Jewish is a predominantly Catholic community left him feeling outcast. Perhaps it was simply due to the stupid remarks politicians were making these days about how some religions didn’t have a place in the country highly regarded for the number of freedoms extended to citizens. Robert couldn’t decide on just one motivator, so he silently cited them all as the cause of his insubordination.

 

Nervousness plagued Robert by the time Carlotta returned the signed letters. She asked him to brief her on what she’d just signed, to which Robert said, “The usual. Nothing you wouldn’t approve of I can assure you.” Together they chuckled briefly and then off she went for her scheduled outing with old college friends. Rarely did she take time to herself, which meant her watchful eye was trained on the press during her night on the town. Small-time politician or not, there was always reason to worry that one’s personal life would be used to tear apart a political career. For that, Robert was sure he deserved a pat on the back for the level of planning he put into this righteous scheme.

 

Once her car was officially out of the parking lot, Robert decided it would make the most sense to put his resignation letter into her mailbox tonight. Robert put together his letter quickly. Promptly afterwards he gathered all outgoing mail and took the box with him to his car. Nobody would question his kindness the following day when he arrived in the morning with the box. This was something that Robert did occasionally. Everything was working in Robert’s favor, partially due to his intimate knowledge and manipulation of that knowledge.

 

Regardless, in two weeks he would be packing his desk away and leaving this part of his life behind – hopefully with his lasting reputation as quiet defiance.

The Right Obligations

I don’t do it intentionally. Generally I am a very pleasant person. It’s just – you know – sometimes my job on the school board is difficult in ways I never could have imagined ten years ago. When I first took this job I wanted to prioritize school matters in a way that benefited students and parents. Now?

All we’re told to prioritize is the budget. Damn if the kids get the quality education that they want – and that they deserve. Who cares about the kids anymore? It seems that I’m the only one.

So when I slam my briefcase down on the hallway dresser my wife knows that something is very wrong. It wouldn’t take much indication for her to see that there’s something bothering me otherwise. She’s been a high school counselor since she was twenty-six years old – a solid twenty years now. Having been forced to read the signs of changing attitudes and behaviors in teenagers allowed her to grow in her ability to read people of all ages. There some days when my sneeze tips her off to how stressful my day has been!

“What’s wrong, Andrew?” Without a doubt she remembers that tonight I had an open meeting for parents. This was a big one but I hadn’t said as much to Melissa about it. There was a recent proposal made by a student and her parents regarding religious tolerance and school wardrobe rules. A recent debacle, which was somehow brushed under the rug, is coming back to make a loud and clear statement.

I wait until I’ve made it to the kitchen before I even respond; “The open meeting was a disaster.” They always are, to be perfectly honest, because the parents don’t always realize the restriction that even that board is put under when managing the future of our schools. I dread the monthly open meetings for the PTO parents, the working parents, and the barely-cares parents to come in and complain about every little thing that matters to their one child specifically. It sounds insensitive because it absolutely is – and it’s become a requirement in order to do my job effectively.

“What happened specifically this time?” Melissa coos gently as she careens down the hallway in what I imagine is supposed to be a seductive fashion. While I do enjoy all of the pleasurable activities she offers to me after a terrible evening, she isn’t the most graceful person. Most days she is so clumsy she can’t get her shoes on without acquiring a bruise from one of the doorknobs. She’s a beautiful woman but she is uncoordinated beyond belief.

I meet her in the hallway with two glasses of chardonnay. We keep a bottle for Friday nights spent dining in and watching terrible black and white movies. However, when I’ve had a particularly troublesome day, we break out the bottle a bit early; “There was an incident at the junior high a few weeks ago that made some waves. The principal thought that he’d covered up the issue but it became a very public matter at the meeting tonight. Try as I might, nobody seemed to be interested in the proposal.”

Melissa is far more aware than I anticipated. Generally the problems at the junior high stay at the junior high. Socially the kids are too old for the little kids and too young for the big kids. Even the staff doesn’t communicate very much amongst each other unless they’ve worked together in the past; “Is this about the Muslim girl? Didn’t another girl get suspended for yelling at the principal?”

Precisely that came up at the meeting tonight. The parents of the young lady that got suspended didn’t make much for waves as far as fighting the expulsion. They requested a private meeting with me asking that I personally include a rebuttal letter in her file. It had been my belief after that meeting they intended to remain silent on the matter. Even the young Muslim girl withdrew from the school in favor of a private schooling option. It seemed as though this was never going to make it to the mainstream media. Criticism over it would have varied widely and ultimately interrogated my ability to resolve disputes within my system.

I was wrong to believe that anything this controversial would be that simple. In all of my years on the board there was rarely ever something so easily handled. Rightfully, I should have put the principal on leave until a formal meeting could be held with all three involved parties and their representatives. I didn’t follow protocol. In some way I am to blame for the events that took place this evening.

“The girl that got suspended wrote a long speech about religious intolerance in the school system. She called for action to provide stricter policies punishing bullies and staff for taking negative action against individuals wearing religious garb. They also asked that the principal be relieved of his duties until such a time that charges can be filed against him for his discriminatory acts and abuse of power.” Melissa links her pinky around my belt loop while I am talking and escorts me to the living room couch. She fancies this piece of furniture above all others. I like to think it’s because I bought her this couch for her birthday back in college. It has sentimental value.

She nods and bobs and strokes my arms to reassure me that she’s listening. There’s no hiding that she has her own opinion on the matter. If she’s the woman that I married then I’m going to assume that she agrees with me. After explaining the proposal I keep quiet on the events that transpired after the speech was finished. I opened up the floor for questions and comments. I was hoping for a positive feedback on the matter. I hadn’t expected anything but the rallying of all parents behind this concept of protection that should have already been in place.

“So when are you announcing Gregory’s suspension?” she questions. Gregory has been principal for about seven years but the parents have always loved him. I can’t remember a time ever where parents complained of his behavior and treatment of the students. In fact, he’s been the most widely supported member of the administrative staff at the schools in a few decades. This is his first instance of misconduct.

“By popular demand there will be an investigation without suspension. The parents and board members alike do not want to remove him for fear of the damage it could cause to the junior high’s structure.” There wasn’t even a vote. The uproar that followed the call for Gregory’s suspension was horrifying. I watched with empathy as the family was booed out of the conference room. Next to nobody present wanted to see Gregory forced out of his position and I had to accept the terms that he would remain an active staff member. Sometimes you can’t win and I hated to admit this was one of those times.

Melissa understands the language I’ve used to reply to her question. I’ve intentionally chosen to leave specificity out it. I don’t say that I’m supporting this choice but that many people decided upon it. By doing this I reveal that I am not in favor of the result.

“You should do something about it. Maybe you can’t go against the majority in your profession but perhaps there’s something you can do in your personal life. Maybe it will satiate the guilt in the back of your mind?” Her mighty suggestion is that I take this to a power that can openly demand support is almost unfathomable. I could forward the proposal to the mayor. Bringing it to her attention could possibly override the decision that has been made essentially without me.

The only concern I have is that I’d be fired. As the head of household my income is important to our financial stability. Melissa could not sustain the bills on her own and it would be nearly impossible to find another job in education. Nobody would want to hire me after such a scandal.

“I don’t care what happens because it’s always about doing what’s right – not what’s easy.” Melissa couldn’t care less if I lose my job. She would rather see me do what we both know is the right thing to do ahead of saving face for the sake of our own financial stability; “If worse comes to worse – we can always sell the house.” The equity that we have in it would be the majority of one year’s salary. A severeance package may be offered as well since I could argue in any arbitration meetings that I was acting in the safety of students. Between the two I should be stable enough to redirect myself, and there’d always be retirement to pull from at that point were it not. Maybe it’s not the best back-up plan but it’s better than no place. I have avenues to take if the worst happens.

Melissa is right.

I don’t just need to do the right thing.

I am obligated to do it.


*Disclaimer – this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real life events or individuals is unintentional.*

A Bold Move

Walking into a quiet home at the end of the day is long forgotten memory of his, and when he does it today it sets off all sorts of alarms. His wife is reading a piece of paper at the table, sipping a glass of tea while shaking her head. As for his youngest daughter, she appears to be sitting in the living room doing her homework. It is uncharacteristic of her to be listening to her mother so plainly.

“How was everyone’s day?’ He shouts into the house excitedly. Perhaps it was just a long day for everyone and they’re tired? The routine he’s become accustomed to over the last few years comes easily. Hang up his coat on the hook, drop his keys into a wicker basket, and kick his shoes off underneath the cabinet so that they don’t get lost in the closet.

The youngest runs away from the coffee table with a smile, as she generally does, and greets him pure joy; “Can I have my after school snack now?” This alerts him that something must have happened that was serious. It must have been something that disrupted the schedule.

“Sure thing, Louisa, but let me talk to mommy really fast, okay?” Poor girl is only seven years old so she doesn’t have as much awareness as her older sisters. Louisa crosses her arms and sticks her tongue out, agreeing to wait just a little bit longer ‘since he asked nicely.’ Back to her homework she goes just before his wife calls him into the kitchen.

“One of us needs to take a vacation, apparently.”

In a predictable fashion he starts listing anything he may have done to upset his wife… (forgot to take the trash out, didn’t fold the laundry, stepped one of the Lego sets… it could be any number of things he brushed off!) Having been cheated on by his last wife, well, he simply couldn’t help but wonder if he’d done something to put Dana off? Marriages fall apart in less time than they’ve been together these days. A second divorce would break him entirely and his daughter, Cassie, probably couldn’t handle it either. She has only just started really bonding with her stepsisters.

“What makes you say that?” Before responding she hollers for Louisa to take her homework into the family room downstairs. There’s a bit of a tantrum. The family room downstairs has a much smaller television because it’s supposed to be a “social” and, or, “activity” room. Louisa hates being down there alone because there aren’t enough distractions from her homework – and how will she stay up later if she finishes her homework right after school? She tries so hard to be a con artist but her mother has the whole heist on lock.

Kissing his wife on the cheek before getting his own drink, which happens to be a small glass of scotch, he tries to stop himself from listing. Lazily trying to bustle through the kitchen forces him to slow down and try to listen for Dana’s explanation. A few minutes of silence do pass, and it drives him nearly mad, but when Dana does begin sharing the afternoon events? He’s actually surprised – one hundred percent shocked.

About three hours ago Dana received a call from Gemma’s school principal. It wasn’t just an office aide contacting her but the principal himself. A young woman was being asked to remove her hijab in front of the entire eighth grade class during lunch. Gemma was less than impressed and went to the young lady’s defense. It ended in a shouting match about prejudice and freedom of expression.

“Gemma says that she calmly told him that he was not at liberty to restrict her wardrobe, especially when fitting within the parameters of the school handbook regarding apparel. A parent was watching from the office, though, and must have wanted immediate results. The principal told her that she had no business to speak on the matter because it was between the young woman, her parents, and the school staff. She had no patience for him after that, I guess, and she’s gotten herself suspended for the entirety of next week, effective immediately.” As he listens to the secondhand recollection there are similarities in the incident to another he faced. Cassie once had a confrontation with a pastor that came to the house after Cassie and he decided to stop attending church. It was his misfortunate that Cassie answered the door – and even worse than that that he had the audacity to imply to an angry teenager that the Church is all forgiving. That man learned a valuable lesson that night, and is hopefully prepared for his own teenagers.

Now with her own confrontation on social issues under her belt, it would appear that Cassie and Gemma will make perfect sisters in the future. Even if Cassie’s spectacle wasn’t nearly as public, Gemma proves by standing up for another person’s rights that she is every bit as conscious about the world as his biological daughter. They’ve both made him very proud.

“Cassie seems to have rubbed off on her, huh?” He says it as a joke. It doesn’t seem to sit well with his wife, though, and he corrects himself; “I’m sorry, Dana. I know that Gemma will have to explain at her college interviews. At least it’s for a good reason and not something that is actually bad. Getting in trouble fighting for justice is not the same as being locked up for assalt.” If he was being honest, he could both see what rules were broken and not understand which rules were violated. In his mind the only question was in regard to the other staff members who chose to let this entire scene play out as it did without stepping in to protect the children who needed it. Plain discrimination such as this deserved to be opposed.

“I’m not worried about Gemma’s permanent record. I’m worried about how she’s going to be treated because of this incident. If the principal is willing to openly demand a young lady to remove her hijab then I can’t see him being unafraid to single out Gemma either. Every toe she puts out of line – or even on the line! – is going to be punished twice as hard now that she’s made a public scene of herself.” Dana drones on and on about all of the issues that come with standing up in a conservative community. Cassie had been ostracized after her abandonment of faith. People who claimed to be her friends whispered of her so called “sinful” lifestyle. It was not at all out of the question that Gemma would face the same passive judgment for her decision to stand up against the principal.

It makes sense to him why one of them needs to take a vacation. They could both technically work from home comfortably. It would just depend on which person has more flexibility in the next week’s schedule. Gemma could technically stay home by herself, but it would be unwise to leave a fourteen year old alone for eight hours for five days in a row.

“Maybe we could get Cassie to come back next week and sit with her. They get along really well and I think that Cassie could coach her through what happens next.” Dana laughs at the proposition initially, but does agree that Cassie may be what exactly the person Gemma needs right now. As parents they both agree with their daughter’s choice in defending the other girl’s right to honor and practice her faith in school. Unfortunately, they have to navigate these waters carefully now. Social consequences are always worse than the school administered punishment.

“Well, Todd, you’ll have to talk to her about it. Her suspension is effective immediately so she can’t go to class tomorrow. She’ll get a jump-start on her assignments since they’re still letting her get credit for her work. If we can get Cassie up here tonight then neither of us has to miss work tomorrow. Although, I left today, so it’ll be your day tomorrow if she can’t.” Dana stands up, admitting that she needs to get Louisa her snack before she explodes with rage. Before his wife even makes it out of the kitchen he’s sent a message to his daughter. Thankfully, she calls rather than texts back – stating that she’ll do anything to help with Gemma – just say the word.

Blended family or not, Todd knows that his girls are each fantastic women. Each person fits perfectly with the others. Looking back at his life he sometimes wonders how the five of them ever functioned without one another. This may not be the life he thought he’d live a few decades ago, but this life was so much better than he could have imagined. Everything was worth getting to this day, and every single day to come.

Unlikely Advice from an Unlikely Friend

Cassie and Madira sat in the cafeteria while everyone buzzed on about their exciting holiday plans next week. Usually they, too, would be jabbering on positively about whatever they had scheduled for the winter break but each girl struggled respectively with their own issues.

“How do I politely tell my father that I don’t want to be in the wedding ceremony?” Madira poses. A few months ago her father had gotten engaged to a new woman after spontaneously divorcing her mother. Nobody had gotten a full and proper explanation until the engagement – which revealed the ceremony to be held at a Catholic church. Similarly to Cassie, Madira forgave her father but was unsure how to be around him knowing that he left her mother and his family.

“How did your grandparents tell him that they weren’t going?” Cassie was almost closer to Madira’s family than she was her own these days. Her father remarried her senior year of high school, which was fine, but it brought with it two younger children. The blended family dynamic was actually pretty calm but there were very distinct differences between how life was for Cassie with her biological parents, with her single father, and now with her stepfamily. Cassie felt more at home with Madira’s family, in spite of the fact that she generally detested religion of any kind.

With her black hair falling over her shoulder while she poked around the cheese curds on her tray, Madira couldn’t fully bring herself to reply. She most certainly did not approve the way her grandparents’ estranged their son. Hinduism can be a strict practice, but it had not been so concrete in her home that such behavior was seen as acceptable. Hinduism was just as susceptible to modern adaptions as any other religion, after all.

Madira and her mother were always progressive in their accomplishments as female leaders in the home. Madira was generally at the top of her classes while her mother nabbed promotion after promotion. She would soon be holding the position as chief financial officer for a decent sized limited liability corporation downstate. She would get to work from home, allowing her father’s parents to reach for a new age interpretation of sannyasi. In fact, they purposely planned a trip to the Amazon during the week of her father’s wedding.

Their way of rejecting their son’s wedding invitation was to call him and say they disapprove of his decision to abandon their faith, and that they refuse to be tied to the bad karma that circles around him. Madira’s devotion certainly put her in a difficult place because her grandparents were not technically wrong. His choices reeked of bad karma due to his selfishness. She often questioned in what ways his desires were more valuable than those of his loved ones. In the end she reached the same conclusion, he lost faith that he could ascertain moshka.

            “I love him and I will attend the ceremony to remind him that my love is unchanged. I just don’t know how to tell him I don’t want to be a bridesmaid for a woman I’ve never met.” People move around the cafeteria without even noticing the quiet dilemma. College is enlightening in that way to a good many young adults. This valuable lesson, though, is one that Madira and Cassie already learned.

“Has he offered to arrange a meet up with her then? Is he even trying to make this easier on you?” Cassie claims that she’s always been a firm believer that everyone pursues their own happiness exclusively. Even as she asks the question Madira knows she already has an answer. Not because that is what she believes but also because she’s right; “If he isn’t trying to accommodate you then why waste your positive energy on him?”

Part of growing up Hindu in America is that many people don’t understand it. Aside from that, people are always mixing up Hinduism, Buddhism, and Muslim faiths. Once someone actually asked Madira if she was Mormon because they couldn’t remember the word ‘Muslim.’ As such, she decided long ago that everyone’s understanding of faith is different but as long as everyone had it then spiritually everyone was the same. Even though Cassie didn’t associate with religion, some days Madira swore that she was starting to adopt Hindu practices and beliefs in her life.

“Honestly, my being unwilling to assist him is bad karma on its own. My mother would be disappointed if she heard this conversation.” Cassie rolls her eyes. Madira is surprised to see her so disrespectful. She doesn’t take it personally, though, because that is just part of who Cassie is as a person. Any other time of day she’s never been shy of totally accepting of Madira’s faith. The pair often engaged in the time consuming practices of yoga, meditation, and Veda readings.

Of course, Madira knows that marriage and romance are sore subjects for her friend. Loving her parents so fiercely made their divorce silently painful. Cassie calls her mom regularly, and visits her dad every other weekend. One of her favorite pastimes is criticizing other college students who only keep in contact with their families online. Unfortunately, Madira has seen the damage unravel periodically over two years.

For example, she’s been asked out several times. Cassie always makes plans and cancels the morning before with some half-assed excuse. Her romantic reputation is best defined presently as “flake.” Madira taps her fingers on the table before looking directly at Cassie; “Will you come to the wedding with me? Having you there would make it easier to deal with how uncomfortable I feel. Plus, you’re familiar with that sort of religion. You can fill in the awkward silences ranting angrily about their choice of faith.”

The offer confuses her for a moment. Generally, Madira has discouraged Cassie’s hateful chatter about religion. She framed an essay she wrote in high school as a reminder as to why she abandoned her church. Poor girl claims that it reminds her that the only thing she can rely on is herself, and that she’ll only be held to her own standards. Hard as it is for Madira to see her that way each day, she accepts that at their center they’re really no different in spirit.

Soon their meal is over and they brave the harsh winds of the winter season. Cassie never wears a proper coat, generally sporting a ratty windbreaker that she’s had for something like six years. With her hood up and her head down, she decides to finally respond to the question Madira posed back in the cafeteria; “I can’t go to another wedding. If you’re going, and you believe that this will affect your karma if you don’t, then you need to go on your own. I’ll just bring negativity to the event and that’s not fair to anyone.”

Madira knows that her friend is right – again, as she always seems to be in that boggled mind of hers. Bringing her along was selfish idea to begin with, although it would never hurt for Cassie to work on the demons she still harbors in her mind. Regardless, she accepts the answer of her atheist friend. For all her snarky sarcasm, the respect that Madira knew she was capable of emerges once again.

“I suppose you’re right.” Madira smiles while simultaneously shivering. How Cassie was staying warm was far beyond her mental capacity, but it was her choice. Just like being devout to her beliefs was her choice. At the end of the day, frustrating as her choice may feel, Madira knew in her heart it was the only true option; “Thank you for knowing just what to say all the time, Cassie. You’re a better friend than you realize.” Her cocky laugh takes away from the compliment, but there’s nothing she could do to make the statement less true.


Author’s Note:  I researched and read about the Hindu religion for the greater part of the last ten days. Religion can be beautiful, or it can be damning. Too often the media tells a sad story of religions warring constantly. I wanted to show that young adults can be friendly in spite of their different opinions. If you feel that I have misrepresented Hinduism in any way, leave a comment below (politely and maturely) further detailing the error.

Thank you for your continued support. I aim to always represent the people of the world fairly and as accurately as possible. Diversity is real and it should be reflected in the literature and entertainment businesses.

A Teenager’s Essay

Author’s Note: I apologize for posting this a day late. I’ve had a couple of personal things come up on top of being sick. I had this done yesterday but hadn’t had enough time to edit before posting. But it’s here now! Enjoy!


 

WHY I CHOSE TO STOP HAVING FAITH

A Coming of Age Essay

by

Cassie Appleton

 

 

When I grew up the only thing I knew was church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. In a country where Christianity is the prominent religion it never once occurred to me that it could also be a bad one. Sure, there were plenty of headlines that suggested that Christians weren’t the great people I was raised to believe. Nonetheless, for fifteen long years I was genuinely convinced that the media was wrong. The stories had to be wrong. No proper Christian would ever behave in that way.

Unfortunately, shortly after I got my learner’s permit I found out that maybe Christians were not the people I thought they were all along. My generalization sometimes seems unfair, but how is it any different than my experiences with generalization? Two wrongs don’t make a right – but I think it gave me a clearer outlook.

Last year when I moved here I kept my lips shut about why. People don’t ask many questions when you only have one parent anymore because it is pretty normal. There are so many good, bad, and understandable reasons for having one parent that nobody really cares enough to ask anymore. The few people that I became friends with never asked why I lived with just my dad but asked if I had a second parent. They didn’t even so much as assume that my second parent was a mother. I love that I live in a world that doesn’t make presumptions – or at least I am thankful to have found a social circle that is so accepting.

Even with all of my new friends and a reasonably happy home, my father and I still attended church. He made it very clear that if people asked about the reason for divorce it was not to be discussed. The only response either of us uttered was “unresolved differences.” He told me that people don’t care to know about the sexual failings of a marriage. My father assured me that it would be easier for us in the long run to just fudge the details about my mother’s slew of affairs.

Maybe my father suspected we would have a bad reputation if fellow patrons knew about my mother’s interest in other people. As a Christian I could understand on a surface level how that would be perceived as a terrible, sinful thing. Selfishly I didn’t want people condemning my mother to hell for making a mistake. I had considered many times how very different murder and sex out of wedlock truly were in the grand scheme of things. Nobody deserved the same condemnation for unfaithful sex as a violent crime. To me there was no question. That seemed to be only to me…

One day I went to church with my older brother. He was visiting for the weekend while he was on break from school. Since he can drive and my father was feeling off, I told hard-working pops to take a personal day from church. I was ecstatic that he actually agreed. I’ve never seen that man take time for himself – not even through the tough days going through the divorce. What better way to spend a Sunday than at church and brunch with my big brother?

Well, my brother hadn’t really known that my father was keeping the affairs a secret. I was expecting him to just know, I guess, and didn’t follow him around to hear what he was saying. The horrifying truth was that he had no problem telling everyone my mother was a filthy whore. If you want to fail me for using a ‘swear’ word – then please allow me fail you for being extremely outdated in this generation.

I walked into to the lobby to get my coat so that my brother and I could get going – I was so ready for brownie waffles and cough syrup cola. Okay, so maybe it doesn’t actually have cough syrup but it’s a grape soda that reminds me of cough syrup my dad always gave me when I was sick. Anyway, I was walking by and I heard a group of ladies condemning a couple that recently divorced due to marital affairs. My brother was saying what he’s been saying all along…

“My mom was just a selfish witch and it sounds like this guy would be her best friend. People that are unfaithful are a disgrace to our religion.”

            That has basically bee his mantra since he found out the truth about the divorce. He wasn’t home when they broke the news but he hasn’t missed texting me every single day about how angry he is at our mother. All of his social media profiles are filled with rants about fidelity and faithful matrimony. Even though I was disappointed in my mother I never thought to be as upset as my brother. I thought his rage it would burn out and he would forgive the woman. All of her affairs were on her personal time and she never once compromised her time with us. Maybe she didn’t love my father anymore, and maybe he didn’t even love her back either to let this happen so calmly. The only thing I was sure about was that there was never a concern as to whether she loved her children. I hoped so hard that my brother would be able to see that with time and space.

Concerns about his general attitude fell to the background when I heard the other adults arguing with my brother. Each person disagreed with him. “In what ways,” you might be asking yourself. How could these grown ups possibly disagree with what society would generally deem as truthful statements. What I heard made my heart sink but it forced me to grow up in the course of two whole minutes.

It’s important for you to know that I had never doubted my faith in religion. My devotion God and the Bible were genuine. My dedication to being the average, Plain Jane, Christian teenager was probably a little obscene at times. There was a whole six months when I had posters of Jesus in my bedroom while my friends had posters of boy bands and stolen road signs. I stood by my faith when those around me picked and chose which pieces of the Bible they chose to believe– I thought they were just falling for the Devil’s tricks.

Perhaps you don’t get that vibe from me? Perhaps that is hard to believe considering I don’t act that way? You never will see that part of my past. Nobody will ever see it again.

These adults who struck a conversation with my brother about our parents shamed not just my mom – who did do something dishonest – but they also blamed my father for the results of their marriage. They didn’t stop there, no! These vicious baboons also claimed that my brother and I were at fault for not divulging questionable behaviors that we noticed! Fun fact – WE DID NOT NOTICE!

Overhearing this conversation changed how I see myself. These people who didn’t know us were speaking ill of our situation. When my brother got to the car he was swearing up a storm, he was smacking his steering wheel, and he even drove a bit like a maniac. I didn’t feel safe but I was also amped up about these horrible people that I barely noticed at the time. What made them think our personal lives were up for speculation? When our car jerked into park at the waffle house it dawned on me…

Having faith in my religion was stupid. A lot of good people do everything “by the book.” They follow the guidelines of the Bible and take each word so literally that they would abandon their family and friends if they stepped outside of the outdated lines. Being so strict, though, could result in the chastisement of their iron first by more liberal Christians. No matter what, sects of Christianity will attack one another. Seeing that in action in the smallest way possible brought a light into my life. I used to it reevaluate the worth in my faith.

Should I believe? Should I become more liberal in my faith? Should I approach these women? So many questions filled my head as my brother vowed to make our mother pay for her sins – like a tried-and-true Christian boy. I was appalled at these people at the church. I was mortified by what my brother was saying – so very loudly in the restaurant. My decision to leave my faith behind me wasn’t final when I left the restaurant, but I did get there very quickly.

My brother left the next morning to make it for an evening lecture. My dad missed work because he was still sick and I skipped school because I didn’t feel like facing any rumors. I actually wondered if the reactions would be positive. Don’t most people experience empathy when you’ve been screwed over by a cheating parent? I think that is what socially happens more often than not. The truth was, though, I didn’t trust anything about the world. Those idiots at the church were happy to hang my laundry out to dry without any sort of consideration or compassion. Why should I bother having faith if I couldn’t trust it?

Foundation shaken – it was an official decision inside of myself. All I needed was my father’s support. I’ve never seen him make a decision as fast as he did that day. I told him what happened and he laughed so loud. I mean it was really loud! It actually kind of hurt my ears. Nothing about this incident surprised him either. It was him who voiced the question I’d been practicing in my head.

“Do you want to keep going?” As though I would want to keep going where I see liars rather than people? A place where I fear I will be judged for not being from a perfect family? Somewhere that requires me give up everything for the God that is supposed to give me everything I deserve in life for being devout? A religion that would tell me that my family is unnatural and destined for Hell? Extremists or not, this church was not a place I belonged to anymore.

Or any church for that matter.

I told him I was quitting Christianity and he agreed that it might be for the best. We have been filling those glorious voids by exploring different cultures and faiths. During this time we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and I have never been so happy without the shackles of religion. The expectations have changed in such a big way. Nobody can impose their ideals upon me any longer and I am in control of the person I will become someday.

Everyone’s coming of age story is going to be different. Some people will go through truly harrowing experiences to reach the next level of growing up. Others will write you a short story about a scary dentist appointment using twelve point five font with two point five spacing to reach the three-page limit. All I know is that after hearing the way religious people wiling spoke of near strangers – I have no desire to be controlled by something that doesn’t motivate people equally.

I just want to be a good person. I can only do that if I have an open mind. Maybe they can’t but I am more than capable. I promise I will remain motivated only by good intentions.

An Unwise Choice

There wasn’t a knock on the door or a phone call. Hell, there wasn’t even a missed text message. Terry just stormed into the house with foggy eyes and a slimy grin. Kevin couldn’t have been sure without an explanation, but he knew immediately that there was probably something wrong.

“So I decided to do it.” Terry announced as plainly as anyone might have if they thought their friend knew what was supposed to have happened. Kevin, unfortunately, had no clue. Still – he pretended to go along with it.

“Did you? How long were you waiting to do it again?” Faked enthusiasm poured out of his mouth easily enough. He’d never been the type to lie but Kevin was known to be forgetful at times. Over the last few months his life changed quite dramatically as his marriage opened, and they shared this choice with their closest friends and family. This decision had been discreet and freeing, but they knew not everyone would support the change.

Terry had been one of the only friends that actually encouraged Kevin as he hesitantly prepared for his first date a few weeks back. In hindsight, perhaps this should have been a warning sign. At the time it had not raised any red flags, and it might not have ever done so if that day Terry hadn’t been so very transparent.

“I slept with Karen. We have been dancing around it for years but we finally took the dive. Man, let me tell you, it was worth it.” This man even had the audacity to laugh with sincerity. As far as Kevin knew, Terry’s wife thought Julie was – bonkers, he recalled, was the word. It was not even close to possible that Terry had been given permission to sleep with someone else.

For as close of friends as they managed to be, Kevin could not remember whose face belonged to the name ‘Karen’ in Terry’s life. Close as they were, most of their friendship was reliably casual. They both enjoyed bar hopping on holiday weekends, and touring tri-county food festivals three seasons of the year. Feeling as though he didn’t have enough information to really question Terry further about this action he’s taken, Kevin merely stalls. Part of him hadn’t been completely sure that this admission was even real; “Karen, did I hear she dyed her hair? Maybe it wasn’t her…”

Terry confirmed very quickly that she had trimmed it and darkened it a bit. After surpassing shear amazement at being right with his vague inquisition, Kevin found himself buried in a five-minute long bragging session. Karen looks so young! Someone mistook her for a twenty-something the other day! She’s gotten her body back into shape and is so stunning! Everyone is taking a peak at her when she walks by! Meanwhile, Kevin filled in the tiny breaths Terry managed to draw with double-time effort put into recalling who Karen actually was and if he’d ever met her in person.

“You think you guys will hook up again?” Stopping the dialogue made little sense with Terry being so frank. By not interrupting the conversation to forcefully interrogate his friend about his marriage the conversation naturally provided answers. As it turns out Karen lives in the home directly behind him behind him. For this reason he is sure that if he wished to sleep with her again there would be no issues in having it arranged. He did briefly whine about work schedules that conflicted, and also about Karen’s husband. Apparently he’d only supported an open marriage if he didn’t see it or know it had happened at all.

By that time, which seemed to have taken both forever and no time at all, it felt totally organic to bring up what had pressing him since the beginning, “What does Caidy think about it? Does she want you to stay out of the house too?” Unsure what he may have expected, Kevin had no reaction that he felt was appropriate for what his friend did. Terry had blown out a hearty laugh…

Like sleeping with other people was a joke his wife couldn’t understand…

“What Caidy doesn’t know doesn’t hurt her, right?” Terry snatched a beer from the refrigerator. Once replaced on his stool he jabbered on about the ins-and-outs of being married for so long to a woman only interested in monogamy. Complaints spewed minute after minute about how not all wives were “progressive like Julie” and accepting of their male partners’ needs to explore other options. The way he spoke disgusted Kevin to the point of physical illness. He pushed aside his own drink and shook his head with fury.

It was misogynistic at best the way Terry discussed his affair. Each recount of his exploit with Karen, a mere neighborhood friend, reflected deep conflict within his marriage. Each excuse consisted of statements blaming his wife for his affair: Caidy wouldn’t do all of the things he told her in bed; Caidy refused to do things when he wanted to do them; Caidy didn’t submit to him when he was ready. He cited the biggest motivator as: “that they simply couldn’t be attracted to each other anymore, just the idea of doing it.”

“Caidy is still your wife and you owe her the respect you promised. You’d defied those vows so you now owe her the truth and an apology. Maybe Karen doesn’t have to account for herself but you certainly do!” Kevin wasn’t about to drop the topic like it was coffee conversation before work. There was a difference between two spouses happily agreeing to have an open marriage and one spouse forcing the other to accepting. Both of those scenarios were extremely different from one spouse going behind the other’s back entirely. Only one of those methods was healthy – and Kevin couldn’t help but silently thank his wife for being such a great person so perfectly matched for him in all the ways that mattered.

It wasn’t even that he thought Terry had done anything wrong. Who was Kevin to judge the yearning to sleep with people outside a marriage? He himself had done just that with another woman. Several times no less! Going behind Caidy’s back is the defining factor making what Kevin does so much more acceptable than what Terry had enacted. What Terry had done was an affair. He betrayed the monogamous relationship to which he committed voluntarily. All Kevin could hope for at that point was that maybe Caidy would have an open heart and find a way to let Terry live his life without her own being sabotaged.

Of course, his friend has no intention of doing what was instructed. This was something he intended to keep hidden; “I ain’t telling her a goddamn thing. Caidy would divorce me without letting me explain myself. She doesn’t take any shit.”

The silence between the two that followed confirmed exactly what Kevin wanted to proclaim. Terry heard it in his own words. The fact that he realized that what he’d done would mess his entire life up – there was nothing more to be said. Well, there should have been nothing more to say, anyway. Kevin managed to let out a deflated cough just before Terry decided to shout in pure rage.

“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU TO TELL ME HOW TO BE MARRIED? YOU ARE SLEEPING WITH SOME YOUNG BITCH YOU WORK WITH EVERY DAY! YOU THINK YOU’RE JUST FUCKING HER BUT YOU’RE JUST LYING TO JULIE! YOU’RE MAKING A FOOL OF YOURSELF!”

Before long Julie stumbled down the stairs with dark eyes and crooked pants. As she asked what all the raucous Terry met her in the doorway. Angrily he actually spat at her feet and insulted her for thinking her husband loved her in anyway. With raised brows she simply waved him out the door, not even bothering to ask what transpired or why. All that fantastic woman did was kiss her husband’s cheek and suggest, “I suppose you have a call to make?”

Kevin didn’t know if it was call to make because it wasn’t his mistake to apologize for, but he supposed that someone would have to tell the truth. Especially if Terry firmly believed that lying was the “respectable” thing to do…

Time to Open Up

Love is both simple and complicated. People oftentimes think that love demands romance. People also think that sex is a mandated experience of love. And, as with many other generalizations about love, people are convinced that love and sex are so intricately intertwined that they cannot exist without the other. For all the awareness and acceptance that the world preaches, people still can’t wrap their mind around some of the non-traditional relationships that do exist, and will continue to exist, in society.

This is why Julie and Kevin sometimes struggled with their dynamic. Since the beginning, Julie was very open about her sexual orientation. She was asexual. She had engaged people sexually before but discovered no matter what the gender or the nature of their connection – she just wasn’t interested in the activity. Her desire in it was absent and her involvement was indifferent. As such, she made no effort to ever seek out those sorts of experiences. When she came across Kevin and found herself head-over-heels in love with him, well, there was a distinct worry their relationship would fail.

Kevin couldn’t have been more opposite in regard to Julie if he tried, if anyone was being honest. While Julie was more interested in emotional connection and avoiding human contact, Kevin was always seeking out physical affirmation and had slept with more people than he could count on two hands. And that had just been during the month that they’d met! As simply as Julie had fallen for him, though, the feeling was completely mutual. It all started over a conversation on sexuality in a sociology class at university.

When they started dating, it was casual. Julie encouraged him to keep sleeping with women of his choosing and that they could address physical intimacy when their relationship became more serious. A lot of their friends wondered whether or not they would last long enough to see that point. Julie’s friends never questioned her dedication to her asexual identity, but often wondered whether Kevin would truly accept her inability to return physical affection. On the other side of the invisible tennis court, Kevin’s friends constantly argued the probability of Julie becoming jealous of Kevin’s sexual prowess.

The only thing that they didn’t know was that Kevin had stopped sleeping with other people. Maybe it wasn’t right away. In the first few months their relationship didn’t seem very real. Julie and Kevin commented regularly that they just felt like really good friends, in spite of the occasional kisses and cuddles that they shared on late weekend nights when their friends were out partying harder than either of them would prefer. After a year, though, Kevin took Julie out for dinner and shared with her that he wanted to be committed to her and her alone. So that night he decided he would find other methods of sexual pleasure because he belonged to Julie. It surprised both Julie and Kevin’s friends who had not even realized that the two still were in an actual relationship.

It’s been about ten years since that day. Side-by-side they graduated college, got jobs in their chosen fields, bought a house, and even adopted two rescue dogs. Life had been nothing shy of fantastic for the pair of them so far; each step of the way defying the odds in what everyone believed was a doomed relationship. This common mind frame is what made it difficult for Julie and Kevin when it really was time confront the sexless marriage they shared. It all came to a point not when a particular woman caught Kevin’s eye, but rather after attending a family friend’s wedding.

“I think it’s wonderful that they can all do what makes them happy and not a single person in that family is upset by it. They just spent thousands of dollars on a brilliant wedding for Amelia but Kelly marries someone she’s been seeing less than a year! I’m jealous. I’m really jealous of that kind of understanding in a family.” Kevin had started when they got home the following morning. Julie was carrying both suitcases with a frown on her face. Life with Kevin had been difficult over the last couple of months. There was this new gal at work that took an internship with the neighboring department. He’d been talking about her nonstop, even taking lunches out with her sometimes too. It wasn’t that he was doing anything with the intern that bothered her so much as the fact that he couldn’t just admit to her that he was very interested in having sex with her.

So when Kevin admitted a jealousy about the wedding she wasn’t upset so much as exhausted. In secret she knew he agonized over the judgment of others who would look at our marriage and title it a “sham” because of the sexless bond they shared. Painful as it was to listen to him go on and on about a beautiful woman at work; painful as it was to watch a fiasco of a wedding; it was not more painful than watching him suffer silently due to his own unfair expectations. Julie was tired but she knew that this was a conversation they needed to have while the relevant opening existed. Deflecting, ignoring, or brushing it all back under the rug were options for the weak hearted. They were options for someone in denial. Julie was none of those things.

For this reason she replied bluntly to her husband, “The only people that need to be happy in a relationship are the two people in it. Or three, if you’d prefer.” Kevin must have been confused, or perhaps stunned, to have heard her plain reply. She expected he would be, not because he was genuinely surprised, but because he knew he’d been caught lying about something. However, they’d not discussed his sexual prowess since their initial engagement. They’d wondered then if an open sexual relationship was an option but he insisted it would let him stray too far from his wife. Those were his personal values – the personal values of family members that frowned upon her sexuality. They’d never been supportive of their union and it was unlikely a change in their sexual relationship would shift their opinions.

“What does that mean?” Kevin treaded the waters carefully at first, but when she said that a third person in the relationship was an option if he so chose. Julie told him that open sexual relationships weren’t so taboo that individuals could be sentenced to death for participating in such a relationship. At first she saw Kevin’s guilt and denial as he stammered through his questions about why she would propose such a deal – a second time no less.

But within only a few minutes he became more at peace with their reality. Julie painted a picture with her detailed recollection of how Kevin changed since the intern started. Each sentence shaded, contoured, and colored in a man who was no longer the husband he promised himself to be, but rather a man more dedicated to his self-preserved image than what he knows himself to be as a person. When Kevin’s shame dissipated he was able to agree that his closeness to the intern was selfishly motivated by sexual attraction.

“She is a wonderful woman, though. I think you would like her if you met her.” The statement hadn’t been intended literally, but that’s exactly what Julie demanded the instant he concluded his thought. In fact, she listed all of the requirements she had decided upon if he were ever to accept her invitation for an open sexual relationship. Not only must Julie meet his partners in person, but also they must have respect for her and their marriage. His partners were not to be anyone with whom they were close, but it was not to be a stranger who couldn’t be trusted in the event of a medical emergency. As her mandates were announced in planned succession, Kevin seemed to become more and more relieved. It was not long before he resembled the man that Julie had fallen in love with in college.

When she finished her clearly rehearsed speech he simply grinned at her with joy in each winkle on his face, “You knew this day would come, didn’t you?”

“I wanted this day to come because if it didn’t then we’d die resenting your celibacy.” Kevin lifted her up and carried her to the bedroom. For other couples, maybe they would have meant they’d be off to have sex. Not for them. Instead, Kevin carried her to the bedroom so that she could get cuddled under the heater blanket to catch up on her favorite television show. This was what he loved about Julie ten years ago, and it’s the thing he loved about her that day. Even the biggest of decisions weren’t as big as they seemed. Julie did was right and she made it look easier than breathing.

For years going home to Julie had been more than enough. In fact, even with the fresh sexual tension at work, Kevin was still thoroughly satisfied when he came home and crawled into bed with his wife. Having sex with her wasn’t something that he needed, and not having sex at all wasn’t something that he struggled with in any way. Kevin had been committed not just to Julie but his decision to be inactive for her. Somehow over the last decade, something had crawled into his gut and waited for someone to come along and challenge who had become for what he thought was the betterment of his marriage. Kevin was once a man with a gluttonous sexual appetite but until recently it had been forcefully dormant. Maybe he’d be a fool for finally accepting his wife’s offer to open the relationship but the only way to find out was to try. True love grows through the highs and lows, so Kevin would have to defy what he’d always been taught about traditional love once again. Thankfully, he knew he and his wife would work through those changes together.