The Stress Test: a Valentine's Story?
I remember Kathleen Madigan was doing a 30-minute special on Comedy Central. I've always found her really funny but it was not my intention at that time at all to watch her. I was in one of those hotel situations where they have enough channels to brag about the selection on their laminated info card but 95% of those channels suck.
I had been scrolling with robotic desperation, trying to find something, anything on the television that would make the clock tick faster. Home Makeover shows? No, too emotional. Forensic Files? No, too erotic. The hotel information channel? Seen it too many times before. After 5 or 6 passes through the entire selection, my now-husband but then brand new ex-boyfriend not so kindly told me to pick something, anything and we laid there in our hotel bed in Washington, D.C. on Valentine's weekend awkwardly close, yet painfully distant trying to figure out how we were going to pass the rest of the time until our bourgeois dinner reservation that was more expensive to cancel than to endure.
He told me he just didn't see it when he looked at me. There was nothing I had done wrong, nothing I'd said or been. But he didn't love me. If I'm being honest I could feel the chasm that was growing between us before this moment, the conversations halted by curt responses and split focus. I could feel the unease with which his eyes met mine when they had no other place to go. I could sense the emotional rigor-mortis that was hardening his attachment to me into stone.
But I was sprung and also confident that the fates that brought us together on gay dot com, solidified over above-average karaoke, over being electrified by the faint touch of our knee during a matinee showing of Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay, over a mutual love for the Golden Girls, and a mutual distaste for the mosquitoes that bite you in the ass when you're getting busy outside in the woods of your alma mater would keep our bond growing always ever stronger.
This is the confidence that led me to spend a small fuck ton of money on this posh hotel on the most romantic weekend of the corporate year (posh being defined as having cucumber-infused spa water in the lobby). It led me to drive six hours in my 2004 Saturn Ion from the place in New Jersey we shared together way too soon in our relationship so we could spend some quality time. We planned an elaborate V-Day weekend that for some reason involved going to a 5-star Indian restaurant. A side note, especially to any people listening who may be into butt stuff. If you're planning on sexy times, don't eat this ethnic right before. You're playing with fire. You want to tone the spice level up in the bedroom, not the bathroom. But I digress....
Anyway, there we were in our lover's suite with several hours to kill until our scheduled culinary voyage to Mumbai. This is the part of the weekend where a happy couple would have been about to break into their second or third bottle of whipped cream, but not us. I was clicking through channels. He was getting tired of my clicking.
Somewhere during Kathleen's set we decided to have sex. It seemed easier than talking to each other and it was too cold in February in D.C. to just be aimlessly outside. If you've never had breakup sex, you're missing out. You do this thing where you try to screw your former lover so good they change their mind about leaving you. And you try not to cum because this will probably be the last time before that particular comfort zone turns into a danger zone. I wanted to look at him, but I also did not him to see me cry.
Unable to penetrate beneath the layers of his rejection, we eventually got dressed and headed to a pool hall in our "attempt to be friends" before keeping our dinner reservation. After blubbering through a 5-course pre-fixe meal that neither of us had the appetite to stomach we returned to our hotel where I stared at the darkness until morning came and I had enough energy and venom to propel us northward on I-95 on a journey back toward our newly broken home.
By the next day, he'd moved out of my place and in with a friend of his in the City. I sat in the old, creaky house where I rented a room across the river and a world away from the boy I knew I loved, the boy who did not love me back. I moped. I smoked a lot of weed. I searched for a sign or a text message that he had changed his mind.
A few days later he called me to see if I wanted to hang out since, you know, we said we were going to try to be friends. We have both since tried to find some twist of fate or unlikely coincidence that forced us to reconnect. It might make a better story if there were reasons more elaborate than "we missed each other" that caused him to want to see me and me to say yes without hesitation.
I met him in Times Square and we decided to take an aimless walk. Running out of things to say but desperate to prolong the moment, he suggested we visit the Church of Scientology on 46th between 7th and 8th. We'd passed this building many times and joked about going in and pretending we wanted to join. Much of our attraction to each other was centered around liking weird shit like this. At one point in my life I was on my way to being a Southern Baptist minister. At one point in his, he wore a lot of Marilyn Manson t-shirts and black nail polish.
The Scientologists are a Times Square staple. Deep underground in the tunnels of the New York City subway system, there is another world where buskers, questionably-legitimate entrepreneurs, and all manner of religious zealots compete for your time, your money, and the right to make you miss the shuttle to Grand Central. Among them are the Scientologists, cloaked under the guise of business professionally-clad helpful citizens. They offer "stress tests," ostensibly designed to determine whether or not you're feeling anxiety (um hello, you're in a stinky subway tunnel talking to a smiling cyborg well-trained in the art of in-person telemarketing. Who isn't feeling anxiety?)
The stress test really is intended to sift through the unmotivated masses to find the lucky sucker who might be down for maxing out all their credit cards to buy L. Ron Hubbard's increasingly ridiculous books as they march down a never-ending journey that is the Ponzi scheme known as the Bridge to Total Freedom.
We were very excited to enter their lair.
We made up fake names and gave yahoo email addresses so they couldn't track us after we left. I was James Harrison, at the time my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler. Jonathon thinks he was Jessie something or other. That sounds right. Jessie is kind of like sensitive greaser name. Like I'll stab you but I'll write a beautiful apology in your blood. Anyway, we went in and they sat us down in their little auditorium for a brief history.
After watching a video about engrams and thetons and why psychiatry is bullshit, the Scientologists split us up. They use that good old divide and conquer tactic to try to break people down and convince them to sign up for their book club cult. One of the lovely alien people escorted Jessie to a corner of the auditorium. Another walked me out of the room and down a long, winding hallway to a private office. She locked the door behind us before sitting down on the opposite side of a desk stacked with Hubbard publications.
Jessie, having already made it clear to them that he wasn't buying what they were selling, had a much shorter meeting than I. For what felt like an eternity, but was probably closer to half an hour, they tried to explain the merits of their faith, how it wasn't really a religion but a philosophy, and how it would unlock my untapped potential. And for half an hour I countered each argument with one from my own religious training. A different extraterrestrial life force already had its hooks in me much deeper for much longer, hooks from which I would not wrangle free for years and from which I will always bear the marks. But the Scientologists were committed to trying to woo me, until they realized I didn't have the money to afford the plan. Hell, I didn't have the money for that D.C trip.
I was never going to join the Scientologists. But from Jonathon's perspective, pacing outside waiting for me, asking the receptionist in the lobby where his friend went and being met with a "What friend?" as a reply, it must have seemed like I had.
When I met him outside the temple, he looked at me differently. Whatever it is, he saw it in my eyes this time. "I was worried I would never see you again," he told me. "I thought they kidnapped you and you were off to the Sea Org on a billion year contract."
Sometimes it's not not love. It's fear. Sometimes in order to look into the eyes of another person you have to remove the blockages from your vision first. Sometimes there are old hurts, scars from old battles around which one has constructed emotional military outposts meant to impede the progress of anyone who might come in and conquer those walls. Sometimes it takes a seismic force, an explosion powerful enough to release billions of thetans from their volcanic prison at the behest of Xenu, ruler of the Galactic Confederacy, to clear the way for you to see what is right in front of you.
We hugged. We laughed. I told him all the things that James Harrison had said to the lovely brainwashed lady. We went our separate ways, he off to the deepest part of Brooklyn to stay with a friend and me back to New Jersey to stay with my hope. About a week after that, he moved into his own apartment in Washington Heights. About a month after that he moved back to New Jersey with me. About three months after that we moved to Los Angeles where we've been seeing each other since.
When I think of romance I think of the Church of Scientology. I think of how we came to Washington D.C. with the best of intentions only to see it go completely sideways. (There's a metaphor in there somewhere). Mostly, I think of the stress tests that our relationship has endured and how we've come out on the other side because did not give in to fear, but instead chose to see each other as we are.