The rest of the week passed, and as the champion compartmentalizers and chronic avoiders we were, we soldiered on. Falling back into our standard routines, the pit in my stomach began to loosen as the next few days unfurled without additional incidents.
“It was a nice surprise when you called,” I praised John as we settled into his car, eager to get the night off to a good start. I hadn’t expected his phone call from work that afternoon when he told me we were going out on a date. I was relieved to see John make the first step to reconnect, and I decided to tuck away the tension that had hovered over us and simply enjoy his company. “Where are you taking me?” With a smile, I patted my belly which was soft under the long burgundy dress I wore. “I’m starving.”
“I thought my wife deserved a night out. Good food, good wine. We both could use a break.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever needed it more,” I admitted, and he reached over to squeeze my hand. It was the first physical contact he’d initiated in days, and my stomach tingled.
“This is nice.” I relaxed back into the heated leather seat of the car. My stomach growled, and I asked, “So, where are we going?”
I turned my attention to the windshield where the last fat heavy snowflakes of early spring splattered, instantly melted, and then drizzled down to the windshield wipers. “You’ll see,” he answered with a secret smile.
I squeezed his warm hand in mine, searching my mind for topics of conversation that wouldn’t be inflammatory or send us down the path of ruminating over Wren. I needed one night off where I wasn’t consumed with doubts and worries. Where I wasn’t relegated to the diplomat, keeping the peace between them. I dropped his hand and reached out to scratch the back of his head. He turned toward me with a winning smile. His blue eyes crinkled and my heart tugged. Our recent distance made the contact feel foreign. He nuzzled into my hand, weaving his head back and forth and twisting into my palm as my fingernails gently scratched the back of his scalp. I felt his shoulders loosen, and I smiled and dared to relax.
Things have been bumpy, but we’ll get there. God, I love this man. Even after all these years, he’s still my best friend.
Flirting with my desire to connect with my husband again, but still harboring hurt feelings, I let the normality of the gesture woo me as the pressure valve opened slightly. Darkness fell, and he pulled into the parking lot of a building I didn’t recognize. Looking around for restaurant signs, I was puzzled.
“Where are we?”
“One little pit stop before dinner,” he said. “And then I booked us a table at La Fromage.”
I squealed in delight. Cheese was my favorite food group—my husband knew me well. “Can we get the fondue?”
“Whatever you want, darling,” he answered, and I clapped my hands together. My tummy let out another loud rumble at the idea of dipping deep-fried pretzel bites into thick horseradish gouda. My mouth watered.
I followed him into the building, where he waited at the door and held it open for me to walk through. “Thank you, sir,” I said with a smile, feeling lighter and more carefree than I’d felt in weeks.
“My pleasure.” He took my hand and led me down the hall. We entered a room where a group of men and women were gathered, their heads dipped in prayer, hands clasped in a circle. Confused, it looked like we’d stumbled into some sort of bible study. The group mumbled and chanted in low voices, raising their hands to the ceiling, a gesture that made goosebumps break out on my arms.
I glanced around the room to get my bearings. “God’s love can heal the broken and the wicked.”
Another poster taped to the wall prophesied, “Only when we repent and turn away from our evil ways can we fully know the kingdom of God.”
“Only the Holy Spirit can transform a tarnished soul. At Hearts Restored, we help guide your child back into the loving arms of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
It was a phrase that gave me instant déjà vu. I rifled through my brain for its origin and came up empty. An overweight teddy bear of a man stood and lumbered toward us. His khakis were wrinkled and his shirt rumpled, bearing an orange stain on the front.
“John, it is great to see you again, and this must be the lovely Theresa you’ve been telling me about,” he gushed as he offered a thick, sweaty hand that engulfed mine.
Larger than life, his persona was like another entity in the room, sucking up all the oxygen and overpowering the interaction. I pulled my hand back and tucked it into the pocket of my jacket, resisting the urge to wipe it on my hip. Instinctively, my radar went up.
“Please, have a seat,” he offered. There were two empty chairs at the table where the rest of the group sat quietly.
His eyes were too small, too close together, and disappeared into his ruddy cheeks. His nose had the distinct red veins of a man who spent a lot of evenings deep in a bottle of scotch. “We are so glad you are here. John has filled us in on what’s been happening at home, and we are here to assist in bringing your prodigal daughter back to you.”
I felt the first stab of betrayal and yanked my glance over to my husband who blatantly ignored me, his full attention on Jerry.
“Our program has brought hundreds of children away from the wickedness of same-sex attraction and back into the loving arms of Jesus.”
My mouth dried and I swallowed hard.
“Can I share my testimony with you, sister?”
I recoiled. His use of the word sister rankled me, but I nodded anyway, knowing the only way out of this meeting was to get through his ‘testimony’ as quickly as possible.
“I fell victim to the serpent when I was seventeen. A man who befriended me came into my life at a time when I was floating, unsure of myself and who I was. His attention felt good, and I began to fantasize about him. My heart was filled with a devilish longing to lay with him that I indulged. It is not an action that I am proud of. But God forgives.”
“Amen,” the other people chorused together in a robotic way that was creepy.
“Yes, he does.” Jerry pressed his thick lips together then licked them and began to continue. I focused on the beads of sweat that dotted his upper lip. “I fell deep into the belly of the beast. Prostituting myself with men, participating in lustful acts. It became an addiction. An addiction to depravity. I couldn’t just stop. It took over my life, filling my heart with black soot. I hated who I was. Dirty and stained, a sinner.”
John nodded his head in agreement, and I felt nauseous.
Jerry continued with a dry smile. “I remember during the deepest darkness of my trial, vividly listening to my namesake, the Reverend Jerry Falwell. I was surfing through the channels one night, desperate to settle down my brain that was obsessed with impure thoughts, and he spoke to me. ‘Homosexuality is a moral perversion and is always wrong. Period. Every scriptural statement on the subject is a statement of condemnation.’” He waited again, and it was beginning to feel like performance art, a memorized monologue that had become his default setting during meetings like these. “God set me free and then revealed the true purpose of my life. He forced me through these trials so I could become the ultimate prophet and lead these broken souls back to him. It was truly my Garden of Gethsemane.” He paused for emphasis and nodded in a way he probably thought conveyed seriousness, but only left me craving a shower.
Broken? The word rattled me. I didn’t feel like my daughter was broken.
“The Holy Spirit can transform your heart. It can give you new desires and wants.” With a dry cough, he continued, “Homosexuality is not a person’s normal or natural state. It is a cancer of the spirit that must be eradicated. One that we have sharpened our sabers and fought against for decades. We have to be diligent in the pursuit of the enemy.”
I looked longingly at the pitcher of water sweating in the center of the table. As if on cue, he reached forward, poured two glasses, and offered one to me. I mumbled a thank you and fought the urge to put it to my lips. I couldn’t bear to take anything from him.
After a long pause, he continued, “What’s happened in her sixteen years that would lead Wren down this path of unholiness and depravity?” he asked then declared, “Theresa, the root of homosexuality is often childhood trauma.”
His statement instantly offended me. I cleared my throat, the words I wanted to say sitting on the tip of my tongue. I detested hearing the sound of our names woven into his testimony and felt the walls closing in.
“The good news is we can save her. She will be washed clean with the blood of the lamb, transformed back into the child of God she was at birth.”
Stunned, I was speechless. I glanced over at my husband, who was hanging on his every word. I struggled to return my focus back to Jerry, who was quickly becoming a caricature in my mind. His words burned, and I was offended. Rage bubbled up, and I struggled to contain it.
“We have raised our child in a godly home,” I corrected, trying to set the record straight. “Wren had a very normal and happy childhood. John, tell him,” I prodded, but John said nothing.
“Trauma can manifest in a myriad of ways, sister.” Jerry leaned forward. The word ‘sister’ uttered again made me taste bile. Afraid he was going to touch me, I leaned back as far as I could in my chair and placed my hands in my lap, feeling my fingernails dig half-moons into my palms.
Childhood trauma? I focused on the phrase. Uncertainty filled me as he spoke. Wren was never traumatized. Was she? The doubt began to unspool, and I tried to come to grips with the claim. I wasn’t with her every minute of every day, but we were exceptionally close. I would have known if she’d been traumatized.
He waxed on, his deep voice booming with the solution he thought we were ready to hear like he was our savior. “The good news is that we are going to heal your daughter before she gets trapped into the lifestyle. John explained during our first meeting that your daughter is just struggling with feelings. You are catching this in the nick of time. The longer this sinfulness plays out, the harder it is to return your child back to her natural state.” He leaned forward again, and I could smell his rancid breath.
First meeting? Anger began to slowly simmer in my gut. I pressed my hands together to stop them from shaking.
“Here, she will have support. Be surrounded by a group of teenagers who understands her pain, who knows her brokenness. There is a comfort in that. I know when I went to my first meeting, the feeling of compassion within the group knocked the wind out of me. For so long, I was alone and afraid, thinking I was the only one who had these unnatural urges. I believed there was something fundamentally flawed with me. Stuck in darkness and unable to find the light.”
“This is the trial God has tasked your Wren with in order to grow her spirit. There are many lessons God wants us to learn, and he often uses sin as a tool to lead us to a place of transformation.”
I found my voice. “God is love. My God loves me unconditionally.”
“Yes, he does. And while that is true, sister, it is often the sinner’s heart that he calls into a relationship. He is using this development to draw Wren closer to him.”
My eyes bugged. I struggled to accept the words that oozed like honey from his mouth. It felt like a performance, and the sentiment, though well-practiced, was hollow.
“The guilt, the shame, it led me to a place where I found myself late one Sunday night after spending a weekend indulging my desires, swallowing pills by the handful. Not wanting to face the destruction of my own soul and screaming for the pain to stop.” He paused again, and John reached over to squeeze my leg. I pulled away and crossed them, shifting in the chair, fighting the urge to stand up and walk out. His voice intensified, “That night in a filthy hotel as dirty as my soul, I was once again on my knees begging for release. Shame obliterated me; the only way out seemed through my death. I drifted off toward the darkness as the pills and the booze numbed me out to the reality of the wicked life I was living. As I faded away, I saw an eternal fight break out over my soul. I saw the darkness and the shadows fighting against a shaft of light. The next day, I woke up in the hospital, and I drew a line in the sand. I said, ‘Jerry, you are no longer going to participate in the destruction of your own soul.’”
I fought the urge to gag. Listening to him refer to himself in the third person was over the top, even for a character like Jerry.
“In that hospital bed, I pledged my future to Jesus.”
I fidgeted in the chair and crossed my arms across my chest. I couldn’t wait for this testimony to be over.
His voice deepened and proclaimed, “I was in bondage. But the Lord set me free!” Jerry raised his hands above his head and closed his eyes. “Yes, Jesus.”
Another chorus of “Amen” filled the room, and I wondered if that was their only purpose. To cheer Jerry on with salutations of “Yes, Jesus,” and “Come now, Holy Spirit.” The way they waved their arms into the air like a toddler eager to be picked up was uncomfortable and leagues away from the controlled Catholic responses I was used to.
I’d had enough. “I’m sorry, but I need to leave.” I stood on my shaky legs and walked proudly to the door and out into the cold night air. Sucking in huge gulps of it, I was desperate to get the stale and mildewy basement air out of my lungs.
Five minutes later, John burst through the door. “That was rude, T. At least we know where our daughter gets her flair for the dramatics from,” John accused.
“You can’t be serious.” My chest tightened. “No way.”
“An extreme response is warranted here,” John answered. “The longer we let this carry on, the harder it will be to turn her around.”
“Do you have any idea how much that destroys a child’s mental health? Have you done any research on the long-lasting effects of this kind of pseudo therapy?” I spat out at him. “The practice is outlawed in most states. And the fact that Jerry is hiding this disgusting reprogramming under the cloak of religion!” I shouted. “It’s outright criminal.” I shook my head back and forth, pacing up and down the sidewalk and burning with rage.
“We need to do something,” he begged, still unable to connect the dots as he paced next to me.
“We need to love her,” I cried. “We need to show her that, no matter who she is or what she does, she is loved. That, at the end of the day, when the world does its best to destroy her, we have her back.”
“I can’t be asked to go against my personal values,” he argued.
“She hasn’t even officially come out!” I shouted at him, knowing the statement was weak the moment it left my lips.
“Come on, T. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…”
“Then it’s a gay duck?’ I shot at him sarcastically, but I couldn’t resist. “We don’t know what she is, and I doubt she does either.”
“Fundamentally, I believe homosexuality is a sin. I cannot accept it. I cannot condone it in my household.”
“Then you are participating in hate. God didn’t make a mistake. He made her the way she is, and whoever that turns out to be is beautiful.” I felt the gravity of the situation and began to plead. “She needs you to love her, and right now, she is testing us. She is floundering, trying to figure out who she is and how she fits into the world. Our only job is to love her, and I don’t believe God would fault us for that.”
“We have to guide her in the ways of the Lord,” John argued. “The bible is clear.”
“It is also the most misquoted and misconstrued book on the planet,” I countered.
“It sounds like you are losing your faith,” John judged me, and I was stunned.
“If keeping my faith requires me to find part of my child repugnant and unlovable, then maybe I am.”
There were no more words on the way home. Where there was distance between us before, I now saw a clearly visible line. On one side was Wren, and on the other was John. I had been trying to straddle the line between them for far too long. I studied my husband as he drove us home, his shoulders tight and his stance unyielding. Though inches away, there was a deepening chasm between us. A bridge he couldn’t bring himself to cross. For the first time in my marriage, I wondered if he ever would.