I reported a few days ago about a story I told at The Long Wharf in New Haven. Here it is, slightly modified since I can't gesture or change my voice any:
There are only about ten really beautiful days a year in Kansas City, and I was in danger of missing one of them completely, because I thought I had just ruined my life. I was 28 years old, a fundamentalist Christian, a virgin, and I had just broken up with my fiancée, the only woman I’d ever loved. My life experience was so limited that I didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain why I had done it or what I wanted instead. And if my fiancée had accused me of selfishness—the sin of pride—I could not have proved her wrong.
So I had wandered outside on that spring weekend feeling doomed. I couldn’t figure out who I was, how I had become this awful person. All I was sure of was that I had just made a horrible mistake that I would pay for for the rest of my life. My whole future looked bleak, and although I was walking along a streetside brook, with sunshine and flowers and actual butterflies, I thought I might never feel a warm breeze again.
Then a van slowed down beside me. I figured they were asking for directions, so I turned to look. The passenger’s window rolled down, and a young woman in a bikini popped out, she looked at me and said, “Hey…LOVER!” And she whipped off her top, flashed me, the driver floored it, and before I knew it they were around the corner and speeding away, and I could hear them screaming with laughter. It all happened so fast that all I had the presence of mind to do was blow them a kiss. And I thought, “Gosh! What a nice world we live in!” Because, you know, this was Missouri! Stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen here! (It should—it’s the Show-Me State—but it doesn’t.)
But I knew what had really happened, because I had studied the Sociology of Religion in college, and on the first day of class we were taught, There exists in the human heart a propensity to hope. But (the book continued) the troubles and pressures of life beat us down, and we need that hope to be renewed. Normally we do this through family and friends, but every so often we get a renewal of hope that’s so sudden, so unexpected, and so overwhelming that it just seems to light us from within. And that is the beginning of religion.
Here I was, a virgin. I had never seen any live female breasts other than my girlfriend’s, and I was at the lowest moment of my entire life. And then right out of the blue, this happened. So: religion!
That moment stayed with me, and two years later, when I’d shed my faith but retained the moral timidity, I decided to go back to college. And as I was looking at my options, one of them was Florida State University in Tallahassee. Florida, I thought. Women wear bikinis there. I bet some of them drive vans. That’s where hope lives.
So I found myself at age thirty surrounded for the first time in years by hundred of eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-old women wearing beach clothing and everywhere I went I would go, Is that her? Is that her? Is that her? And one day a few weeks into the semester, I passed a bar that said WET T-SHIRT CONTEST FRIDAY NIGHT, and I thought, Probably there, right?
So I decided to go. But I was also terrified. Partly out of guilt, but mostly out of the things they teach you about sex in Sunday School. Sex is a monster. It’s ravenous. If you let it get its claws into you it’ll never be satisfied. And I could already feel this obsession rising inside my heart. I needed this way more than made sense. In fact, the Thursday before the show, I actually had trouble sleeping.
Anyway, I went, and I guess I’d been expecting something like the girl in the van times twenty, you know—one girl after another going, “Hey, LOVER! Woo-hoo!” But of course Tallahassee isn’t a large town—about 150,000—and by a few weeks into the semester you’re going to run out of volunteers. So what they did at this bar was they’d pad the rolls with actual strippers. So instead of this silly celebration of youth and life and exuberance, these girls would grind and thrust and caress guys’ heads—it was all preplanned; the exact opposite of what I wanted.
But I knew what was happening here, too, because the second lesson we learned in the Sociology of Religion was that, after that first experience, people try to recapture it. So they return to the same place, do the same rituals, sing the same songs, hoping that lightning will strike twice. But what happens more often than not is that you wind up building a scaffold around the original experience, and at the core, it’s completely empty.
But it was actually worse than just an empty church. Because the guys in the crowd were such assholes! I was raised without porn, so I find I’ve always loved real women, and real women’s bodies. It never occurred to me to sort of stand in judgment and say, “Oh, sure, you may be cute, but anything less than gorgeous is disgusting!” That made no sense to me. But these guys! Perfectly lovely women would walk onstage and the guys would yell shit like, “Stop eating the donuts! Get a boob job! You’re ugly!” I just wanted to grab these assholes by the collar and say, “What are you thinking? You should be on your knees, grateful that women do this at all! “ I wanted to yell at all of them, “This is supposed to be a house of worship! And you are turning it into a den of bullshit!” It was horrible.
After that, of course, I just felt ugly, sullied and depressed, like everything Baby Jesus thought about me was right. And as I was pouring my heart out to a bartender about this, she cocked an eyebrow at me and said, “Dave, what I think you need to do is wait till Spring Break, go to South Florida, and see the real thing.”
Spring Break. This is my first real spring break in my life. Every other spring break I’ve ever done was literally spent doing missionary work in Mexico, except for one year when I went to the beach in San Diego and handed out literature. So here we were, and I was nervous as hell. Again, not only because of my need, but because of my fear. I’m thirty now, and I can pass for 25 in the right light. But I’m not getting any younger, I’m not getting any less creepy, and if it doesn’t work this year, I don’t know what else I’m going to do.
I go down to South Florida—way south—all the way to Key West. I’m traveling with two fellow grad students, just as clueless as me. We’re literally driving around going, “Where are the girls at?” We get into Key West at 10 pm, check into our hotel, and go, “Where’s the wet –shirt contest?” Turns out there’s one a few doors down at Rum Runners. I’m in the very front, and—again—terrified. What if someone notices I’m here? What if something terrible happens inside me?
If you’ve never been to a wet T-shirt contest, here’s how it works: women come up one at a time in thin t-shirts, they get water poured on them, they dance or pose or whatever, and there’s a sort of applause meter. Popular girls get invited back for another round, the others go home. So one woman comes up, and another, and things are going pretty normally. I’m nervous, but it’s titillating, and the crowd isn’t yelling ugly things, so I’m sort of okay.
But then three women come up, arms linked, yelling “Go A D Pi! Whooo!” And they immediately started groping each other and making out, and writhing around on the floor…and I thought, “Ew. This is a little much for me.” And when it came time to clap-vote, I gave this tepid little clap-clap-clap. And then I looked around me, and everyone else was sort of going, “Ehh, not my thing.” And everyone was clapping mildly. We were four hundred drunken college students at a wet t-shirt contest, and we had aesthetic standards! It was amazing.
Then this skinny little white girl came onstage, but she refused to go on unless her girlfriend—meaning lesbian lover—came on with her. So she was joined by her girlfriend, who was this enormously overweight butch black girl. And I thought, Oh god. Here it comes. Here come the racist slurs, here come the dyke jokes, the fat comments…. But there was nothing. Nothing but cheers. And while I want to say it was because we were all so very enlightened, really, I’m convinced it was because these girls were having so much fun. They were giddy and in love and you could see it on every inch of their faces. They practically floated. And when it was over, they got more applause than the sorority girls! I was stunned. I looked around and thought, Maybe I could hang with you people.
The show went on and on until finally we were down to two girls. And at this point they were both naked—when you start with a wet t-shirt, where can you go?—and for a second, the feminist core in me felt really guilty, like this is exploitative and I shouldn’t be watching this. But I saw how much these girls were smiling and I realized, Oh, right. If you told me that if I walked onstage naked, hundreds of people would cheer, you wouldn’t even have to pay me! So I made my peace with that. The problem was that these women were essentially tied. One would step up and get huge applause, then the other one would get the same applause, and this went on for two rounds, three rounds, four rounds. And what sucked is, one of these women was going to get 200 dollars for first prize, and the other was going to get fifty. It didn’t seem fair.
No sooner had I thought this, however, than a guy from the crowd clambered onstage. He and his friends had collected sixty dollars to make up some of the difference for the second place girl. And as soon as it happened, I thought, “That’s it! I’m done!” It was like a huge hand reach down from the sky and checked off that box forever. The monster vanished completely. Because it turned out that I wasn’t looking for the girl in the van. I just needed to know that you could want sex and still be a good moral person. That you could have boobies and niceness.
It was such a great night that the next night, my roommates wanted to go back. But I said, “You know what? The Philadelphia Story’s on. I think I’ll just settle in for the evening.” So they left, and I watched The Philadelphia Story, and it was followed by Lilies of the Field, where Sidney Poitier helps out a bunch of nuns, and I watched that too. My roommates came back a few hours later, utterly silent, looking absolutely stricken. I asked them, “How was it?” and all I ever heard was one of them shook his head hollowly and said, “It wasn’t as good.”
But I knew! I knew! Because the last thing I learned from my religion class—what I’d learned from books, but now knew from experience—was that when the miracle happens you never go back. You let the butterfly land in your hand and you do not clutch. Because as it turns out, life itself is so powerful that even one great night can make up for years of repression. Thank you.
Labels: Dave Update, religion