About halfway through Pennsylvania, my father glanced over at me looking agitated, his eyes darting between my face and the road. “And stay away from the Unitarians!” he snapped.
We were on our way from Cincinnati, where sanity rules, with its Methodists and Lutherans, its Episcopalians and Baptists, its Catholics and its Jews—people who have a clear idea of what they believe in—bound for Cambridge and Harvard Divinity School. Right off the bat, my parents smelled trouble.
To begin with, anything east of Pittsburgh was suspect. Cambridge, while not conjuring a particularly negative association itself, meant Boston. And Boston? Well, everyone knew it smacked of liberals and heretics, atheists and academics (which, let’s face it, were one and the same thing in my house). It reeked of old money, the Kennedys, and the benign anarchy of thousands of college students living in alarmingly close proximity. To make matters worse, Boston was a stone’s throw from New York City, where, if you believed my father, danger
lurked on every corner and it cost an arm and a leg just to get a peanut butter sandwich.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, was nestled comfortably between Kentucky and Indiana in the bosom of the Midwest. It was the Queen City, gracious and dignified, warm and modest, a place where no one honked a car horn unless in trouble, and rush-hour traffic moved with such precision it appeared to be following the cues of an invisible conductor. The Midwest stood for patriotism and family and God . . . but the East? It was the unknown region, a place from which some never returned. This perception, of course, made it all the more mysterious and alluring, like the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes.
With each passing mile, the excitement over my being accepted to Harvard was beginning to be replaced with anxiety—not my anxiety, mind you, but that of my parents. They had the foresight to know that these years would change me and the wisdom to let me go anyway. In retrospect, I don’t blame them for worrying—I could not then fathom the fears and the heartache of parenthood. All I knew was that we were hurtling toward the future in a blue Ford van, propelled by time and karma and hope, and that somehow I was on the cusp of adventure.
I dangled my arm out the window as we drove and let the warm air fling it around like a rag doll’s. I shut my eyes and turned my face to the sun as my hair danced wildly on my head, unfettered and free, Medusa’s giddy sister. Meanwhile, outside our speeding blue capsule, the terrain was changing subtly, hypnotically. Even at seventy miles an hour, it felt as if we were crawling in the wake of Earth’s galloping spin. Flat farmland slowly morphed into rolling hills, signs pointed the
way toward unfamiliar cities, trees waved from the sidelines cheering us on. Although their leaves were still green, they could barely contain the explosion of color that was planned for October—and I was feeling the shift, too, feeling my own metamorphosis waiting for its time.
For three hundred miles, we drove east across Pennsylvania; meanwhile, the gods flipped the sun over our heads like a glowing gold coin in a game of cosmic tiddlywinks. I wanted to reach up and snatch it in my hand, feel the weight of it, and send it skipping across the horizon. I felt elastic and fluid, a secret playmate of the universe disguised as a twenty-two-year-old girl from Ohio. As the sun made its graceful exit through the western door, the sky changed from blue to blood orange to inky black as if undressing and dressing again for the evening.
In response to my father’s warning about Unitarians, I had just nodded my head. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what a Unitarian was. I had never met one and wasn’t sure if they were a secret society, a New Age religion, or a cult. Judging from my father’s tone, the Unitarian Church was, for all practical purposes, an oxymoron.
“Is that like a Moonie?” I asked, genuinely curious, but aware that I sounded like a simpleton. I felt about five years old again—which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. (In retrospect, I realize that I was confusing the Unitarian church with Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.) Dad seemed relieved to slip back into his role as teacher, protector, and authority on most things. I leaned forward to listen from the back, my arms draped around the seats that held my parents, head bobbing between the co-creators of my DNA. And, for a few minutes, the world was right again. Common sense prevailed. Although
I don’t recall my dad’s answer, I do know that, instead of fortifying my resolve to stay away from Unitarians, it secretly intrigued me. Unitarians now belonged to that same Forbidden Zone—of which Harvard Divinity School was the epicenter.
Against the dark velvet curtain of the evening sky, I projected my dreams of the future. Harvard became the shiny crimson apple hanging from the tree in the Garden. Despite the warnings, my mouth started to water for it. I wanted knowledge; I wanted exposure to new ideas; I wanted to know what frightened my parents. Oddly enough, I had already discovered that I was naked; in fact, so had they. Maybe this is part of what scared them.
It had been a tough few months since my graduation from Denison University, starting with a disastrous Parents’ Weekend in the spring. It was always an awkward and somewhat stressful time on campus. The frat houses did their best to clean up for the weekend, even though little could be done to eradicate the smell of stale beer and old socks. Bongs were put away, party girls hid their cigarettes and sashayed around in sweaters and pearls, and everyone, including the professors, tried to act natural. Parents smiled politely as they were led around the campus like circus ponies, and even those who were alumni looked awkward and out of place. On the surface, they were received kindly, but secretly, the campus was on high alert until the last Lincoln Town Car or BMW or airport limo disappeared down the hill. Then it was Exhale. Prime the keg.
I had no bottles or drugs to hide, but I had my own reasons for feeling stressed at the prospect of their arrival. Not only was the deadline for my senior honors thesis fast approaching, but also I knew my parents weren’t crazy about the coed dorm in which I lived or meeting the guy I was dating.
My older sisters had had the good sense to go to more conservative schools, where the dormitories were not only single sex but also had strict rules for visitors of the opposite sex. These included keeping the door open and one foot on the floor (I kid you not). In light of this, Denison must have seemed to them like a high-end Sodom and Gomorrah.
Regarding the new man in my life, my parents were wary, to say the least. They still hadn’t forgiven me for breaking up with my high school boyfriend a few months earlier. Now, there was a guy who could be trusted. Scott was a local boy whom my parents knew and adored, and whose grandfather had worked with mine long before we were ever born. He’d been a high school football star who went to church and came to Sunday dinners; who helped my dad with the grass and blushed when my mother teased him. Whoever this new guy was, he wasn’t Scott. To make matters worse, he was from Connecticut.
That being said, the day managed to go off without a hitch. I introduced my new boyfriend, Andy, who looked (in my mind) exceedingly handsome, with his dark, curly hair and his giant blue eyes. Naturally shy, and understandably nervous, he seemed dangerously close to jumping out of his navy-blue blazer and making a run for it. My parents were cordial but cool—as cool as their midwestern manners would allow. After an awkward but painless visit, Andy left to join his own parents. I introduced my friends, most of whom they had met before; we walked around campus; we chatted with some professors. The day passed.
Before saying goodnight, we made plans to go to church together the next morning. They were to pick me up at 10:00 a.m. for the service. Later that night, Andy came over to study,
and I worked like a madwoman on my thesis—a ninety-page paper on Latin American liberation theology. I had a mere seventy pages to go. For the first time all year, both of my roommates happened to be away for the night. One was sleeping with her English professor and the other had recently decided to drop out and hitchhike to Tennessee for unknown reasons. For once, I won’t have to go to the library, I thought, or sit out in the hall typing so as not to wake them. It was going to be a long, quiet evening of work.
About two in the morning, Andy asked if he could stretch out and rest on my bed while I worked. “Sure,” I answered, hardly looking up.
“Just wake me up when you stop for the night, and I’ll head home,” he said as he pulled off his shirt and climbed into the loft.
“Okay. You rest.”
Another two hours passed. It was four in the morning and my brain was starting to shut down. Must sleep. Must sleep. I looked up at Andy sleeping soundly and couldn’t bring myself to send him stumbling into the darkness of that early morning. I’ll set the alarm for eight thirty, I thought. That should be plenty of time to get him out of here before my parents come. With that, I collapsed next to him in a dead sleep à la Romeo and Juliet.
That fateful decision changed and altered the course of my life in ways I am still trying to come to terms with. Was it destiny or just the way things went—karma or merely the random turn of events that make up a life?
At 8:15 a.m., just before my alarm was to go off, there was a tap on my door; then it quietly opened. We didn’t lock our doors back then; no one did. In fact, I don’t ever remember
having a key, although I must have. The outside door to the dorm was also unlocked, as usual. My mother still had her hand on the doorknob when she looked up and saw the bare boy chest of the young man, whom she had just met the day before, lying in my loft. If she wasn’t impressed with him in a Brooks Brothers jacket, then one can imagine how she felt about him half-naked. I popped up and said, idiotically, “Uh, hi, Mom . . . come on in.” But she didn’t come in. Instead, she just said, “Oh . . .” quietly, like someone who’s been shot in the heart but has yet to feel the sting of the bullet. Then she backed out just as quietly as she came and shut the door—which happened to be covered with a life-sized black-and-white poster of Clark Gable, dressed as Rhett Butler, from Gone With the Wind. For a moment, I was frozen in place, staring wild-eyed at Clark, the obvious irony of his “I don’t give a damn” attitude completely lost on me.
The next few minutes in my room could only be described as sheer pandemonium. I jumped out of the loft and flew out the door into the dark hallway. Andy, whose huge eyes went even wider with panic, frantically pulled on his shirt. Then, clutching his socks and shoes, he climbed out my window, where the fire escape happened to end. My roommates and I used it as a sort of balcony, decorating it with plants and wind chimes. Now, for the first time all year, it was truly being used as an emergency exit. Because I went to find my mom, who was sitting on the steps with her head in her hands, I missed the visual of Andy slipping and sliding down the fire escape. It had been raining during the night, and the metal steps were quite slick. Little did he know that my father was sitting in his van at the bottom of the stairs observing the whole scene! With socks in hand and shirt half-buttoned, Andy fumbled
with the lock on his Toyota before zooming off. He had seen the van parked at the bottom of the stairs, but the windows were tinted and he couldn’t be sure that my father was sitting inside. Powerless to keep his head from swiveling wildly between the van and his car, I’m sure he was quite a sight.
Turns out my parents had decided to come early to take me to breakfast. Because cell phones were still a thing of the future, and because our dorm had only one pay phone on the first floor, there was no way for them to call me ahead of time. Now each of my parents was wondering whether the other one had seen Andy’s awkward exit out the window. I quickly dressed; my mom and I walked out of the dorm and got into the van. Not only was my heart in my throat—it was squeezed between every other organ in my body. I was about to regurgitate my entire circulatory and digestive system. Needless to say, it was a very icy breakfast, a silent ride to church, and an uncomfortable good-bye. No mention was ever made of the morning drama, nor did they send their warm regards to Andy.
Telling my parents that I’d been accepted to Harvard was the thing that finally broke the ice between us—being named Phi Beta Kappa also helped. Those two calls prompted the first conversations we’d had since that ill-fated Parents’ Weekend. It was impossible for them not to be proud of me, and I was immensely relieved to have something exciting to report. When my mom asked how they would ever be able to pay for Harvard, my dad simply said, “We’ll sell the house!” Luckily, they didn’t have to—I was able to get enough in the way of scholarships and loans to cover my three years there.
The ride to divinity school will always be preserved in my mind, like a leaf pressed into a book. Even then, I knew that I
would look back on it and try to recall the words my father said to me, try to reconstruct the contours of my mother’s face as she looked out her own window, contemplating her own dreams, while I watched the chrysalis of my childhood recede in the rearview mirror. Actually, I was probably more hermit crab than butterfly. Instead of unfurling my newly formed wings in a flash of brilliant color, I would undergo my transformation more gradually, shifting and shedding shells as I inched my way along.
I was not a child then, but I was still my parents’ daughter, raised on the promises of God, grounded in the rich Ohio earth, taught to be kind and to show compassion, to set a good example for others, to work hard and to achieve whatever I put my mind to. Steeped in the mystical yet carved by religious tradition, I was ready to be born, to break out of the parameters that had both constrained and protected me, formed yet inhibited me. It was time to grow up. It was time for a larger shell.
Eventually, the van grew quiet, while the wheels turned and the motor hummed its monotone lullaby. But it wasn’t icy, as it had been on that Sunday, just a couple months before. It was cozy and full of thoughts colliding, like a silent orchestra warming up for a concert. Strapped in our seats, staring into the darkness, we were in our own private theater waiting for the curtain to come up. What is my mother thinking? I wondered. What worries make my father furrow his brow as he drives? I didn’t ask because I probably didn’t want to know. All I knew was that I was ready. Ready for transformation, ready to step out of the van and into my life, forever colored by crimson.