One Flesh

Three semi-fictional collisions of faith, intimacy and teh interwebz

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Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-7.03.53-pm

I click on the link he’s sent me and find myself looking at a gallery of Adam and Halli’s Southern wedding, an attractive American couple I’ve never met nor ever will. The masthead is simple and streamlined – white sans serif typeface on black background.

I scroll through the hundreds of photographs, all laid out in pristine, clear-cut rows. There are big, cloud-like balloons filling the frame. There’s a turquoise pick-up truck driven by a petite blonde. Hey, there’s even a candy-striped kissing booth manned by a gentleman in a bowtie.

I marvel at the collision of tattooed backs, lace dresses and the wooden barn so rough and weathered you can almost smell the farm animals. I stop scrolling when I happen upon a candid photo from the end of the night. The bearded groom sits in his chair and glances up to the camera. Meanwhile, the sneaker-wearing bride rests her chin upon his shoulder – worn out, but happy. The shadow of her vintage veil rests upon her cheekbone. As a virginal 22-year-old with a love of all things romantic and safely left-of-centre, I’m completely charmed by it all. In my head, I praise God for unnecessary but wonderful websites that surprise and delight me.

I smile to myself as I picture the unlikely bloke who’s sent these dreamy images to me – Daniel, the boyfriend, the love I kind of assumed would never happen after an uneventful adolescence. I breathe in deeply as I conjure up his AFL player frame; his deep, oaky smell; his ever-present, rash-inducing stubble.

This is all before black and white gives way to grey; before we find ourselves caught between sticking to our Christian convictions and being desperately, disgustingly enamoured with each other; before arguments over purity are had; before I got liberal and he got guilty.

Yet in that moment, staring at these idyllic pictures of love, I feel strong. I see myself and my boyfriend in the hipster bride and groom. I see myself and my beloved in strangers.

Across town, I imagine Daniel sitting inside the dark cool of his office as he re-examines the photographs he’s sent. The sun beats down outside, the light unfiltered by clouds of any kind. He speculates about how the rays would feel on his skin. The crisp images on his screen soothe him as he sees the path before him. He pictures his little girlfriend becoming his little wife. Sure, we don’t see eye to eye on politics and art and whether to tip waiters, but our love for each other and shared faith in Jesus will get us through, right? Right?

He doesn’t notice the flaws in the photographs – the patch of thinning hair at the back of the groom’s head, the scar on the bride’s chest from the melanoma she had cut out two years ago. He sees the golden light, the warm smiles. And it’s perfect. To him.

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Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-7.36.04-pm

My phone dings loudly. Gretel’s announcing she’ll be, ‘Another 10 minutes, just 10 more minutes! Sorrrrry :S’ I order myself another glass of Malbec and decide to stake out two wobbly seats at the bar. The place reminds me of Lost in Translation with its dark, shiny surfaces and photographs of Tokyo.

My phone lights up as I check the time and tap through to my new favourite site. The layout is garish, the pink font unpleasant to read. It’s like having a chat with a very drunk blonde at a wedding who insists on telling you stories about her sexploits with the groom. You know you shouldn’t encourage her, but – after she knocks back another chardy – it’s just a little too tempting to stick around and hear what happened when her and Richard got locked inside the library.

I shift my weight on the high barstool and have another swig of wine. My hair is now long and auburn. I’m four years older – still celibate, but less happily so. I resume reading about an 18 year old losing her virginity while I wait for my friend,

I arrived in Spain in January for a semester abroad. I hadn't had any type of sexual contact with anyone for the entire fall semester, and was mentally preparing myself for experiencing the Spanish language (and Spanish men) in all ways possible. Before I left, I talked with a few close friends and decided it was pretty likely I would lose my virginity abroad. After a few heartbreaks and many nights regretting the opportunities I had to have sex and didn't, I was ready to go to Spain and come back literally a different person…

Alone and on the cusp of tipsiness, my mind flickers back to my own failed Spanish encounter. It’s six or seven months earlier and markedly later in the evening. Even though we know we have nothing really in common, Jorge and I have continued to date for the last few weeks.

There is something magnetic about him – his effortless, unrushed movements; the salty smell of his skin. When I walk into the bar, he is mopping the plastic, grey flooring as if he’s competing in a salsa contest. The door closes behind me and a bell sings out loudly, stinging my ears. He lifts his head and smirks at me from across the empty room. Silence.

Mop on the floor, his hand cradling the back of my head, his warm chest against mine. He kisses in an oozing, assured manner.

In his minimalist bedroom, I assure myself that he knows my boundaries. I comfort myself that he respects my beliefs – hey, he's even been to church with me. I lie to myself that I’m not being naive or selfish.

He kisses me harder and more urgently than he has before. I pull back, knocking something to the ground – maybe a book, no, a video game. I realise I’m too drunk to be here.

I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. The walls are overly and unexpectedly white and in the mirror is a pale girl with dark circles under her eyes. I stare at her and notice her fringe is a tad too long to wear in the middle. I push her fringe to the left. I push her fringe to the right. I push it back to the left.

When I return to his now dark room, I can make out his outline on the bed. He faces the wall. The window is open and there’s a distinct chill in the air.

His voice rises from beneath layers and layers of blanket, ‘How am I supposed to know what you want when you don’t even know?’

He turns around and examines me.

I want to say something. I want to apologise. I want to defend myself. I want to tell him off for his sense of entitlement. I want to tell him how much I desire him. I want to scream. I want to laugh at his figurine collection. Instead, I say nothing.

‘Let's just go to sleep,’ he mutters as he turns back to face the wall.

Still fully clothed, I sidle in beside him, pull the musty, ash-coloured covers up and look up at the ceiling. I thank God that night eventually becomes day. When dawn enters through the window to the sound of garbage trucks, I kiss him for the last time and leave.

As the bedroom door closes, I imagine Jorge opening one eye and being relieved that I’ve finally left. I see him reaching over for a glass of water, downing it quickly and thinking what a waste of time that was.

Gretel bashes through the door and I’m ripped back into the small, dark bar. She peers around like a meerkat. I wave enthusiastically and Gretel nods, weaving through the crowd of beautiful people.

Having gone to school and youth group together, we had done all that friendship bracelet shizz, the repeated declarations to never turn out like our North Shore-bound parents, the shared passion for J from Five. And slowly through our teens, Gretel and I had transformed into family. It was probably around the time she started staying over on weekends, when her mother hadn’t been diagnosed with manic depression yet.

At twenty-one, when she married her high school sweetheart and I moved to Japan, Gretel felt like she’d created a new family, that she’d started afresh. Sure, marriage hadn’t been quite the solace she had imagined nor sex quite as transformative, but she was happy. Well, getting there.

‘Sex isn’t that great,’ she assured me over coffee once, ‘I just thought, “Oh, is that it?” once it was over. I mean – don’t get me wrong – it’s great, it’s just not as fascinating when you can have it all the time. You’ll see.’

I rolled my eyes. She meant well. I knew that. However, sex wasn’t desirable to me because it was a toy I wasn’t allowed to play with. Sex was desirable because I was an adult in her mid-twenties with a pulse.

Now as Gretel approaches with arms wide open, my eyes dart back to my phone and the unfinished story of the college freshman in Spain. I can’t help but feel an odd mix of pity and jealousy towards the young American. I hug Gretel and somehow the feeling lingers.

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Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-7.36.34-pm

On awaking from a fitful night’s sleep, I roll over and check my phone. I open my inbox and the Bible Society’s daily verse email. This month’s emails are all related to relationships and I find myself faced with a zinger,

Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. – Hebrews 13:4

My stomach drops. It sinks all the way to the grey carpet beneath my bed, through the floor, into the earth below. Only hours ago someone who didn’t belong to me sat on my bed for much, much longer than he should have. Longer than he should have or than I should have let him.

I feel a lump in my throat as I click through to the rest of the chapter and find myself at Bible Gateway’s cream and white page. The maroon masthead is the same colour as my high school uniform. I remember a time where my faith was new and shiny and the things I struggled with were directly related to family, friends, teachers and little else.

I read the verse again, tempted to avoid context and short-circuit straight to self-loathing. I smell burnt toast. Have I already short-circuited or did my housemate just leave the oven on?

I force myself to start at the beginning of Chapter 13, the final exhortations of a letter to the Hebrews. What I find is a list of ways to honour God through the relationships around me – from showing hospitality to strangers, to visiting prisoners, to respecting marriage. And just when I think that this will require a lot of resolve on my behalf – the neat, uncomplicated font leans towards me and whispers, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’

At breakfast with my towering friend Rob, I prod at my mushroom omelette.

‘Told you. Should have got the bacon roll,’ he smirks. I smile gratefully, glad that someone is attempting levity after what feels like a nuclear apocalypse.

‘You just need to bang someone,’ Rob announces, ‘If you keep bottling it, it’s going to come out in weird ways. You’ll end up breaking up families and shit.’

I lift my eyes wearily.

‘You can still be a Christian and have yourself some premarital sex. Look at me.’

He throws his arms wildly above his head, ‘Best practice.’

I smile meekly at my friend and am glad for him. Maybe that was the case for him, but it didn’t sit right with me. It felt like picking and choosing the Bible as it suited. My near miss last night made me want to back away from the grey, reassess everything in the light of day.

I will not be afraid. I imagine those words onscreen as a gnawing blackness billows in my mind’s eye. Had I let my fear of being unlovable control me? The last few years of grey had been long, tiring and lonely as I bounced between being too Christian for the non-Christians and too secular for the Christians.

Back in my bedroom, buzzing from too many coffees and not enough food, I bundle into my bed and make a nest out of my doona and pillows. My doona hugs me and hovers just above my skin, feather-light. I feel fragile and little.

I draw my laptop towards me and reopen Bible Gateway. The taupe toned margins are soothing, despite the loud ads for NIV Student Bibles screaming for my attention.

…because God has said,Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’So we say with confidence,The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’

Before me, God seems like a stone fort in contrast to my pillow fort. The words onscreen carry more certainty than the doubt in my bed. In this moment, in front of a computer screen, I feel beyond caring about my romantic future. I feel OK about not having all the answers. I will not be afraid.

Also from AltTxt:

Ellena Savage's personal essay, What is the Obligation to Beauty?

A poetry archive of Astrid Lorange's sent mail 

David Finnigan takes us on a private tour of his computer in I Have Friends Who Are Growing Gardens

Adriane Howell's suite of poems on food & social media

Patrick Lenton's series of micro-non-fictions, People I've Never Met From Places I've Never Been

Ryan O'Neill's many multimedia takes on Henry Lawson in The Drover's Wives