This wasn’t the most conventional religious gathering I had experienced, for sure. This was a church that took itself and its stances very seriously. In the days of George W. Bush, a bad memory now set for slow fade, the minister in his pulpit seethed with righteous indignation about the loss of civil liberties. One was expected to care passionately and reinforce the same talking points. Nothing less than the the future of the country was at stake.
Raised a Methodist, the intersection between politics and religious expression was all unfamiliar to me. Strongly-worded statements and position paper bullet points never found their way into the minister’s sermon. It was suspect enough, in some eyes, that our pastor was a woman. She never made waves, reinforcing the same few scriptural passages with monotonous consistency. The Baptists might bring up The Revelation from time to time, but we played it safe.
Not here. What I found most arresting was not the service, though that was distinct enough in its own way. The church featured a very active young adult group, one in which it took great collective pride. I’ve always been a joiner and organizer at heart, so it wasn’t difficult to assert myself within a few weeks in those areas. Extra hands were always appreciated and needed.
In those days, I was still in my twenties, prime dating material. I’d formed romantic relationships with people in other houses of worship, usually without much success. Taking the traditional male role, I was usually the pursuer and persuader. In this situation, I was greatly in demand almost immediately. Being a traded commodity was initially flattering to the ego, but did not remain that way for very long.
It only took me a few months to register on the radar screens of seven or eight women in their early to mid-thirties. They were unusually aggressive in their burning compulsion to find a man. The first one to make a play had been married once before and was looking to walk down the aisle again. I’m usually the one to overplay my hand, so I saw myself reflected in her behavior. It wasn’t a comfortable realization and made me self-conscious of every subsequent move I made.
Not used to being the object of desire, I could not distinguish between desperation and interest. I found myself dissatisfied within a month of my first choice and, after two or three dates, exited in great haste. Her feelings for me had grown increasingly passionate and overzealous. Being with her felt smothering. I took her to bed because I felt sorry for her. Sex motivated by pity never feels satisfying.
She had consciously suppressed her opinions and passions, letting me rule the roost if I felt inclined. Quietly deferential did not sit well with me. I felt forced, as though I’d been a life goal she’d checked off the list in ballpoint pen with great satisfaction. Now she no longer needed to worry. Her life was finally complete.
One of the paradoxes of my life is that I feel called to leadership roles, but am often made very ill-at-ease by those who follow me. I don’t want to be idolized. Because of this, I have a love/hate relationship with humanity in the best of times. My standards are high and, as a result, my expectations are rarely met. People frequently disappoint me.
The same is true for me in relationships. While I enjoy being adored, within reason, I also appreciate being challenged and stretched. That’s the only way I’ve ever made greater growth within myself. In the book that brought Astrology to a much larger audience, Sun Signs, Linda Goodman writes about romantic pairings, that are, in her words, “pasted together with the sticky glue of bored, insincere flattery.”
I knew where I was headed and had no intention of continuing forward. Her zeal to find a new husband made just about anyone a candidate. I’m no stranger myself to the occasional lapses in judgment that come from low standards. In her situation, she’d never really gotten over the divorce. When sexual relations ceased between the two of them, the marriage effectively. Within a year or so, he re-established himself with a new woman.
She felt rejected and passed over, but these were issues she had to work out within herself. I was wary of taking on baggage beyond my own. The two of us broke things off not long afterwards. Now that I’d given it a try, I dived back into the church dating pool with great gusto. I wasn’t sure what would follow next, but felt optimistic and expectant for once.
A second woman from the group saw an opening and intended to exploit it as best she could. Following a Christmas party, she sought to sweet-talk me into taking a camping trip with her, alone. This was surprisingly transparent and, once bitten, I made my own polite excuses. By then, I had developed other affections and interests.
When I’d showed up a couple Sundays before later with my arm around another woman from the group, her sweetness was gone. This was, without meaning to be, something of a coming out for the two of us. The worship space was circular, bowl-shaped, making it easy to see most everyone in attendance. This made it easy to observe everyone’s strategic positioning. The symbolism was unmistakable and unconcealed.
My spiteful, slighted ex-lover deliberately positioned herself well away from me, yet within easy eyesight. She’d dressed herself up immaculately, almost ritualistically. Seated directly across the auditorium from me was a furious hatred that surprised me with its intensity. Concentrated jealousy beamed through the two of us.
I was not accustomed to being an object of desire, for any reason. I’d witnessed competitive behavior before, but not like this. Most partners I took were too socially awkward and self-doubting to make their feelings this glaringly obvious. I take no delight in producing strongly negative reactions in others.
She had been a freshman in college a couple years after I was born. It seems that we’d been noticed by many. As she exited worship, the minister shot her a quizzical glance. We say that age is just a number, but at times that statement is meant to disguise how we really feel about the spectacle of older women with younger men. With my baby face, I looked even younger than I actually was, while she looked every bit of her age.