It's 1995. I'm a 30-year old insomniac because it's 2 a.m. and my boyfriend Ted should've been here two hours ago. He's supposed to spend the night with me so I can follow him to the mechanic at 6 a.m. to drop off his clunker truck and then drive him to Station 17 in Pico Rivera, where he works as a fireman.
I have a sick feeling something's amiss. I've called his cell a few times and left messages to no avail. I've tried his home phone and gotten no answer. Maybe he came home and just fell asleep waiting for me to return from my waitressing shift? Maybe, despite the fact that he's a strapping man in his prime, he's had a cerebral hemorrhage and is lying unconscious in a pool of his own vomit? Maybe he's been car-jacked and ferried to the Second Location? One can only hope. The alternative is a redhead, a brunette or a blonde.
In the year we've dated I've never caught Ted with anyone else, but he trails a miasma of other women.
I can't take it anymore. Bounding out of bed, I yank on a pair of never-seen-in-daylight sweats, stuff my frizzy hair in a scrunchie and fumble around on my dresser for the bent, greasy glasses I wear after I've taken my contact lenses out.
It takes me approximately five minutes and seven seconds to squeal up to the curb of Ted's apartment building.
I slam the car door shut and catch a glimpse of my reflection in the driver's side window. I'm startled to see a heart palpitating, nostrils-flaring mad woman, but I give her no mind as I compulsively speed-walk to apartment 122 where Ted resides. I'm startled to see his truck in its parking space; like a cockroach on a scoop of vanilla ice cream or some other David Lynch-ian harbinger of doom.
Next I detect a gentle flickering from Apt. 122. I detect this because I'm hunched in a crouching tiger position, squinting through the infinitesimal cracks of his Lavaliere blinds. Am I paranoid or do I discern the melodious stylings of KWAVE wafting through the door crack against which I have my ear pressed? A little Teddy Pendergrass circa 1987?
I have a key to Ted's apartment and can simply let myself in. I'm a rictus of indecision. Do I really want to know what's behind that door? I hang there a moment longer, making sweet love to my denial, Ted's key leaving a jagged imprint inside my fist. Then I knock.
Murmurs emanate from within. I hear the ominous shuffling of feet. The door cracks open just wide enough for Ted's face to fit. He's more stoned than usual, his obsidian eyes opaque.
"Ted?" I query.
"Yes?" he responds cagily, as if I'm an anonymous court clerk delivering a summons.
"I thought you were supposed to come over to my house when I got off work?" I shrill.
Instantly I'm a woman in an open sea surrounded by sharks, clutching a deflated life preserver because in Ted's flat gaze I spy nascent rebellion, a hint of cruel pleasure.
And that's when I see Her.
I knew, but didn't know she'd be there, the centerpiece of this philandering scenario lit by Pottery Barn candles and scored by James Taylor's "Mexico."
She's sitting where I've often slept, on Ted's futon. She's junkie-thin and wearing a turquoise mid-riff skimming top that exposes a silver belly ring above skinny jeans. She has close-shorn, spiky platinum hair and exquisite eye art that rescues her from barfly white trash. I wonder, peripherally, if she'd show me how to do that to my eyes. Probably I'd have to pluck my Frieda Kahlo brows more effectively...
"Who's she?" I ask Ted, whose dolorous eyes haven't left my face.
He opens the door slightly and gestures formally between us. "Maureen, Shannon. Shannon, Maureen."
"Glad to meet you," seems the appropriate greeting, but instead I hear my tremulous voice ask from an intergalactic distance, "Are you ... dating her?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I think you better go." It takes much longer than it ought to for me to realize Ted's talking to me.
When he closes the door on my nose one thing becomes patently clear. I need God. And fast.
I was 10 when I lost my grip on God. My stepdad brought my mother to her knees with infidelity and emotional abuse. She gave me to my real father and my stepmom while she tried to swim counter-clockwise against the drain she was circling.
We didn't practice religion in my mom's home and my father is an atheist, but my stepmom took me under her wing, which meant taking me to church with her and my step and half-siblings each Sunday.
Initially I disliked church in the way of a child who gets bored sitting too long in one place. In retrospect, I think it may have saved me. Under my mom's progressively distracted care I'd come to hang out with a lot of older kids in our neighborhood, many of whom openly used drugs. The week before I turned 10 I had my first make-out session with a 12-year-old boy. I was heading down a trip wire road fast, but all of that changed under my stepmom's watchful eye and the church's Christian tenets.
The missionaries started coming to our house to teach me the Gospel. The hope was that I'd convert and agree to be baptized into the church. I felt pestered. Then annoyed. I'd always liked God well enough and been neutral about Jesus. The more I learned about the Gospel, the worse I felt about myself.
God and Jesus seemed to come with a lot of baggage; the dying for my sins, the requisite struggle to be Christ-like hence worthy of entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I resented spending three hours in church on Sundays, and fasting once a month and not being able to go anywhere or do anything besides church on Sundays.
I resented the way that members of the church liked me until they realized I wasn't baptized. They were still just as kind, but I became a project, not a person.
My behavior became furtive. I snuck my parents' bodice-rippers off their bookshelves and ferried them into my closet with a flashlight. I poured over the text trembling with lust. This was followed by periods of passionate self-castigation. There were moments I felt so sinful I was tempted to concede defeat and convert.
But I couldn't get past my resistance to One True Church and One True Path to God.
When I was 18 and moved away to college, I put God in a box and buried him under a mountain, in a quarry, in a labyrinth, on Jupiter. I'd be my own God.
Which worked, until Ted introduced me to Maureen.
I manage to navigate my shoe skate Kia back to my claustrophobic studio apartment after Ted picked his one-night stand over me. I suffer a minor panic attack, which involves sobbing uncontrollably; gnashing my teeth and eating a jar of peanut butter tossed with leftover penne pasta.
I stand before the mountain, in a quarry, in a labyrinth, on Jupiter and decide it's time to excavate God. I want Him/Her/It -- well, for me I can't get past Him -- back out of the box.
During my most desperate hours in life, writing has been a bulwark. I've written in a journal since I was 11, so I decide to write my way to back to God.
I recall advice from a former Night-of-the-Seven-Veils stripper in my 12-step program who told me she came to know her Higher Power by first writing -- in detail -- what God meant to her at that very moment. When she finished, she wrote what she wished God could be if she could have anything she wanted.
When she described this exercise to me six months prior I thought it was, at best, improbable, at worst, desperate. In the face of my boyfriend's flagrant betrayal I was desperate. I opened my notebook and wrote:
What is God to me at this very moment? That word 'God' already makes me angry. It's like He's the Big Shot, the Big Guy, God. I have to schedule an appointment to see Him and He barely tolerates me when I'm in His presence.
I see God as a man. My lust and laziness disgust him. He judges and despises me when I don't use the tools he's given me. When I sit in his churches I spitefully imagine seducing all the altar men, even the really, really old ones. I'm angry about God's expectations of me, of the burden of my potential -- I know he's sick of me. He doesn't like me. He doesn't know me. We have no bond, Me and God.
Laying down my pen I consider my opus. It makes me feel small and sadder, if that's possible.
I lose momentum and consider shot-gunning three-dollar chardonnay while watching ancient reruns of "Benny Hill." Instead I sigh and pick up my pen again:
What I would like God to be if I could have anything I want:
God has my Grandpa Rusty's face, wears spurs and a cowboy hat. He helped me catch my first catfish when I was five and gave me the wherewithal to gut, skin, cook and eat it
God is in a baby's eyes. He's in the warm kiss of a lover. He's in friendship and handholding and the smile of each person who welcomes me in this world.
He's in music and song. He's in my chest, near my heart, waiting patiently for me to know he loves me, he accepts me, he sees me, he hears me, he believes me, he is proud of me, my existence gives him joy -- I am not alone.
He knows all of my pain and suffering, he acknowledges my hurt, he knows I must learn to walk by myself and when I can't, he'll reach out and take my hand as I grab for his and help me to walk.
He loves me when I fail because he knows I'll stand back up and try again. He is my father and my mother. He wants the world, the heaven, the moon, the stars for me.
Laying my pen down I know, with a certainty I've never before felt in my life, that what I wish God could be is exactly who he is.
I allowed religion to co-opt God. But now I have him back. I don't need him to be anyone else's God, but am grateful he's mine.
Seventeen years later, I'd like to say that reconnecting with the God of my understanding turned my life around instantly. It didn't.
My relationship with Ted followed classic Battered Wife Syndrome (minus the physical violence); betrayal, followed by a honeymoon, followed by yet another betrayal.
One day, Ted drove me an hour up the coast to a beautiful little beach where he proceeded to attempt to break up with me. I thought, "Couldn't you have picked somewhere closer to home to dump me?" Then I thought, "Man, I have to pee."
I asked Ted to "hold that thought" and ran to the grungy beach bathroom. As I hovered over the toilet, thighs burning, I read the only piece of graffiti in the otherwise immaculate stall. It read, "No Future."
I decided it wasn't a message from God and spent two more years sharing Ted with a hidden coven of women.
I was stubborn.
But I know that finding God through my pen and keeping him tucked safe in my breast pocket is the only reason I walked down the aisle to a man I trust with my heart and who is also a hilarious, constant, inimitable father to our daughters.
I don't call on God much at present because my life currently traverses a smooth rapid, but I know when the waters get rough, as they sometimes do, he'll be there reaching his hand toward mine waiting for me to grab it.
Follow Shannon Bradley-Colleary on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ShannonColleary