IN THE CAR ON THE WAY to the Grosses’ my wife says, “I’m just hoping we can get to know some of these people. Like really get to know them.”
I nod and she goes on, “And I don’t mean like they are projects, like we are just trying to save them.”
I agree with her. I nod again.
“But it’s more than that,” she continues. She is looking in the mirror and fluffing her hair like she does, so that it splays around her shoulders and sticks to her coat with the electricity generated by the cold. “It’s like what we were talking about the other day,” she says. “We need to branch out.” She pauses and adds, “It’s like you said—it’s because of uppity Christians that some people will never think about going into a church.”
I nod again. We were talking about this stuff the other day, like she said. I think she’s mentioning it all again now as a sort of pre-game pep talk. But now I wonder, are we uppity Christians? It just so happens that we’ve always found ourselves around people who are like us.
I’m happy to mingle with new people. Well, I could probably be happier. I’m uncomfortable, of course, small-talking in a room full of people I don’t know, but I assume most people are. And it’s true—I was just saying this the other day: we need to create some meaningful relationships with people whose backgrounds are different from ours. And foregrounds. Is that how you would phrase that?
Lauren and I were both raised pretty conservatively—in the South and in the church. We didn’t go crazy and abandon our faith in college like some of our friends. We both became a lot more serious, actually. Not serious insofar as we keep all the traditions, but serious in a way that we found more to it than that. Which is why we make it a point to do things like keep wine in the house, just so we don’t come off as stuck on conservative dos and don’ts. So we don’t push people away. The only thing is, we have to hide it when Lauren’s Nanny Jean comes over. The wine I mean. It’s not that we are being deceitful—I don’t think it’s that. But that woman has such an ingrained fear of alcohol. She calls anyone having a glass of wine in a restaurant a wino. She would never sit in the bar area at California Pizza Kitchen to save time. Anyway, she would die if she ever saw alcohol in our apartment. She would literally sit down and die. I can’t have that on me.
“So,” Lauren says. “There will probably be a lot of alcohol tonight. Like a lot. And probably some gay couples.” She is counting on her fingers like she is making a grocery list that begins with alcohol and gay couples.
“No,” I say in mock horror. I grip the steering wheel. “That’s it. I’m turning around.”
She laughs, and I can see that she is still uncomfortable about something.
“Well, I just don’t want to be the only ones not drinking. Acting all superior.”
“So have a drink,” I say. “Have two. I’m driving.”
This doesn’t seem to satisfy her. I’m not sure what she’s so worried about.
This Gross lady, Eleanor, works in the art gallery in New Paltz where Lauren was hired a few months ago. We moved here, just outside of the village, for my position at Heritage Church. It’s a Baptist church. Pretty conservative. But these churches are rarities here. At home there were three or four on one street. You might think I’m exaggerating, but no.
Anyway, the Grosses have all these artsy friends. Lauren, my wife, she’s an artist. Is she artsy? I wouldn’t say so. Maybe if I met her now I might think so. Sometimes, when you’ve met someone when you’re young, it’s hard to tell how you would see them if you were to meet now. You just sort of grow together and don’t notice things, like the way you don’t notice your own self gaining weight or getting older.
Lauren is a painter. She started painting in high school and took AP art and then became an art/art history major. I guess they combine the majors so there’s something practical a person can do, like work in galleries and museums. She’s talented. More talented than I probably know, since there’s a lot to it that is over my head. She’s been painting these old people, for example. Big huge paintings of old people. They look so realistic. There are lots of lines in their faces and necks. Really saggy necks. But I know there’s more to it than whether or not the person in the painting looks real. I’ve asked her why—why old people? But she says she doesn’t know. That old people are the only things that come into her head to paint right now.
I’ve been to the Grosses’ once before, for dinner—just us and them. They asked me lots of questions about being a pastor. I’m only a youth pastor—I work with teenagers—but they seemed interested nonetheless. They also asked if we should pray before the meal. I said we should just do whatever they normally do. They asked me more questions. Not that they weren’t respectful. They were.
When we pull into the driveway, Lauren flips down the visor mirror and puts on some Chap Stick. She is always doing this. Her lips are constantly shiny. “You know what honey?” she says. She snaps the cap back on her Chap Stick, then goes on like this is completely normal, what she is about to say, like she is reminding me who is married to who, and she says, “I think there might be some pot, too.”
“I mean, I don’t know for sure. I just get the feeling it might be around.”
I am looking at her and wondering suddenly if there is something I don’t know. Like for instance, since she said this so casually, I’m wondering if she has some kind of secret familiarity with pot. I’ve never even seen it.
I’m usually kind of laid back, but as we get out of the car, and I’m wondering of course if we should be getting back in, I say, “You know that’s illegal, right?”
“Are you sure?” she says. “Now?”
And then she just straightens her shoulders like she’s about to go into battle and there’s no turning back, and as she shuts the car door she slings her big jangly purse over her shoulder like a weapon.
The house is small, but the area of town we are in means it probably cost three or four times more than it would somewhere else. At the door we are met by Eleanor Gross herself, accompanied by a rich, flowery scent. She sweeps an arm around Lauren, lifting her almost off of the ground. Sweeping is a good word for her. She’s grandiose and cool, tall and slim, with straight black hair cut sort of like an Egyptian’s. She and her husband Michael are maybe eight or ten years older than us—late thirties or so.
“Baby girl, you made it.” She says this warmly, and knowingly, like she’s letting Lauren in on a secret and the secret is that the rest of the guests are all exhausting and my wife is here to revive the party. Lauren smiles and takes the drink that has glided across the room in Eleanor’s hand. She takes a sip, her cheeks going a bit pink, and I can tell that she is flattered that her coworker finds her refreshing.
She has talked to me often about Eleanor. “She’s a lovely woman,” Lauren has told me. “So wonderful, but without hope. No hope for the next life and not much in this one. But the moment—she lives for the moment.”
Eleanor ushers us in. She pats me on the chest like I am a son come home from service. Then she shocks me by leaning up to give me a warm, firm kiss on the cheek. It isn’t something I’m used to, and I know it makes Lauren uncomfortable because she blinks several times. Blinking is what she does when she gets nervous. She’s done it since second grade, or at least that’s the year her teacher brought it to the attention of her parents. Anyway, what does this woman think—that we are living in the twenties, all drinking little something-or-others and kissing everybody hello?
But Eleanor has this vibe about her. She seems important and relaxed. Maybe it’s just confidence, but it feels like everyone who knows her is important, like knowing her is going to take you somewhere. If I had that vibe maybe I could be more influential in people’s lives.
She guides us into the living room and sweeps us toward the couch. I pass everything in a swoosh—hardwood floors and oriental rugs, big pieces of brightly colored art, mismatched end tables, chairs covered with fabric, and candles and glasses all reflecting little twinkles of light.
“Lauren works with me at the gallery,” Eleanor is telling the two women who are sitting in the chairs across from the couch. “And her husband here, Dan, he is a certified clergy member. So if you need anything prayed up for tonight,” she says good-naturedly, “this is your guy.” The two women laugh politely and smile at us.
“I’m Sara, and this is my partner, Jilly,” one of them says.
Well, Lauren was right. About there being gay couples I mean. I smile and stick my hand out the same way I greet people at church, I think—like I meet women partners every day. I can feel the warmth of my wife beside me—the energy, I suppose, that it takes to act like she too meets same-sex partners all the time and doesn’t think twice about it or disagree at all with the lifestyle choice. Or maybe it’s just genuine warmth. Maybe my wife is better at this than I am.
“Nice to meet you,” Lauren says politely and, now I’m sure, genuinely.
“Isn’t Eleanor great?” asks Jilly. Lauren agrees, and the two get into a discussion about Eleanor’s greatness. They are across from one another, leaving me to face Sara. I rack my brain for what to say.
Sara is pretty and around my age, maybe a few years older. I can never be sure now. When I was in high school and college people were either in your grade or in another one, which clearly designated how old they were. She has dark-brown, ear-length hair, and each of her ears is pierced several times, with tiny charm studs. Why can I think of nothing to say? I am wanting to look over at Jilly one more time, to try and think of how they are together as a couple. Is one more feminine? Both seem feminine to me. Does one make the other feel safe? Or do both? Or neither? I just zero in on the earrings and make a goofy smile. There are four in each ear: a star, a bird, a circle, and a diamond, sparkling away.
“So what exactly is it you do?” she asks. “Eleanor wasn’t specific.”
What a simple question. Why couldn’t I have asked her the same thing?
“I’m a youth pastor. I work with the students at my church. Junior high and high schoolers.”
“Nice,” she says. “What church?”
“Heritage Church. Have you heard of it?”
“I have,” she says, and I look for her reaction, but her expression is steady. Our church has been known more for what the members are against than what they are for. We want to be known for loving our community well. I am working with some of the other staff on this campaign. We are making up a new logo.
“Do you like your job?” she asks. She is cupping her hands around her coffee mug like she’s in a commercial about being warm and cozy in the winter, and her eyes are focused in on me, waiting with interest to hear my answer.
I think for a minute and take a drink of the punch Eleanor has brought over.
“You know what?” I lean in toward Sara’s focused eyes. “I don’t actually. I don’t actually like it that much.”
“I think I liked studying theology really in-depthly and having discussions with other people who were as interested in it as I was. But the kids don’t really care about all that. I’m mostly babysitting.”
“Me, too. At my job I mean.”
“Oh. I’m sorry—and what is it you do?”
“I teach third grade. I don’t like it as much as I’d hoped either. I wanted to make a difference like all the teachers in movies. I guess everyone does. Like in Dead Poet’s Society. I know, he taught high school, but still. Anyway, in real life you can’t go and tear pages out of the textbooks or let the kids stand up on their desks. The desks are too cheap for one thing. Someone would break their neck.”
“So are you going to stick with it or pursue something else?” I ask.
“I don’t know. You?”
“I don’t know either,” I say, though it feels silly to say that when we just finished unpacking everything we own so I could take this job.
Jilly grabs Sara and Lauren by their arms, like they are all best friends on the junior high cheer squad. “Hey,” she says. “Let’s go inspect the drinks.” And I watch them go skipping off to the kitchen, my wife and two lesbians, and I am left sitting on the couch with my half-drunk cup of punch.
While Lauren is mingling with her new buddies, I decide to try and make some of my own. I walk toward the library area, where books line one wall completely and there are several guys standing around a couple of leather chairs and a big coffee table, all chatting and wearing skinny jeans and sweaters. For some reason, I just keep on walking. A hallway is tucked to the side of the library, almost unnoticeable because of the large, potted tree that stands beside it. I slide behind the tree and into the hallway, and I glance into the first room I pass. First I see a pile of pillows and blankets on the floor, but I do a double take when a bump in one of the blankets moves and I notice a skinny kid, maybe ten years old, lying in the pile and reading. He looks up.
“Just looking for the bathroom,” I say, feeling like I need to explain myself.
“Next door down,” he says. “Just keep on trucking.” I can tell he’s not being a smartass. He’s just being pleasant. I take this as an invitation to ask him what he’s reading.
“It’s a book on space. I’m reading about supernovas. Do you know much about them?”
“Supernovas?” I don’t know anything about supernovas, so I take a guess: “Don’t they implode or something? Suck everything into themselves?”
“I think you might be thinking of a black hole,” he says. “I’m Calvin. Or Cal. Michael and Eleanor’s kid.”
“They don’t mind you hanging around during parties then?”
“Not this one. An astronomer guy is coming. He’s setting up at nine—it has to be really dark to see anything.”
“Setting up? Is he doing a presentation?”
“He’s bringing some telescopes for a viewing party.”
This is news to me. “Well, you have fun reading,” I say.
I go into the bathroom even though I don’t have to use it. I pour the rest of my punch out in the sink. It’s not doing anything for me. Plus, I want to be able to focus my eyes when I talk to people the way Sara the lesbian focused her eyes on me when she asked me about work. I’ve not said aloud that I don’t like my job to anyone. Not even to Lauren.
I put the toilet lid down and sit. Here I’ve gone to divinity school and I don’t even like my job. Also, I suppose I could have struck up some meaningful conversation with the guys in the library.
The telescopes should be nice. I don’t know that I’ve ever looked through a real telescope before. Just the one I had when I was a kid. It magnified about as much as a decent set of binoculars, and I used it during my brother’s baseball games when I would sit up in the woods, on a hill behind the baseball field, and I would zero in on each of the players and make up commentary like on television. Then I would zero in on my parents, putting them together in the little circle like I was the kiss cam at a major league game. They were never kissing, of course. My dad was usually intently watching the game or calling out instructions to my brother, and my mom was maybe eating chicken fingers and fanning herself with a magazine, maybe talking to another mom in the bleachers. Then again, they didn’t know they were on the kiss cam at the time.
I know I could have talked a little more to the kid. Space is a perfect opportunity to bring up big issues like God and eternity. But nothing came up naturally.
I head back down toward the living room, where it seems like the whole party has pooled together, along with most of the drinks.
“Dan,” Lauren calls to me and flags me over. She is sitting next to Eleanor and some punk guy who is all mashed up close to her and saying something I can’t hear. I look at Lauren again. Is she giggling at him? Surely not. She’s not a giggler, and I should know.
“Hey man, I’m Lindon,” says the punk when I nudge him over and squeeze into the spot beside my wife. “You’re just in time for a good old-fashioned drinking game. A little high school nostalgia.”
“Three cheers to nostalgia,” says Eleanor, as though this is a little beneath her but she is going with it anyway. A few people lift their glasses.
Lauren is looking tense. She is smiling and drinking although the game has not begun yet. I reach down and take her hand, which is not as clammy as I would have assumed.
“Honey, we don’t have to play,” I say.
“No, no, no. It’s fun,” she says heavily, like she’s having to make an effort to speak. I happen to know that my wife’s idea of fun is going to the college art museum—free and a short drive from our apartment. Other things she finds fun: reading art blogs, late-night baking, watching people when we are out getting coffee and making half-sketches in a steno flip pad, especially if there are old people around. Sometimes she draws little woodland animal cartoons during church to make me laugh. Things I never knew she considered fun: playing drinking games—even if everyone is being light-hearted about it—and giggling at guys in skinny jeans.
The game is I’ve Never. My youth group students actually play this game when we have socials, and when they stayed up late on our weekend retreat—not the drinking version of course, though it’s possible they do that at other venues. But hopefully not.
I think another reason I don’t like my job is the pressure. The feeling that, if those kids were watching me right now—maybe passing by and peering into the Grosses’ living room through one of the clean, uncovered windows—they would be disappointed in me. Or would they be inspired? Maybe they would say to themselves, hey, here’s Pastor Dan living like Jesus—eating and drinking with regular people at a non-church party. This is what Jesus did, after all. But then, would Jesus be hiding out in the bathroom while his wife wandered around getting all drunk and giggling? Now there’s a question. But Jesus didn’t have a wife, did he?
Across the room from me, a woman I don’t know is going over the rules of the game. She is giddy, like she is participating in a big joke, but also like she is getting excited for real.
“So when it’s your turn to be in the middle, you say, ‘I’ve never,’ and then you finish it with something you’ve never done. It can be anything. Gone rock-climbing, run for government office, cooked naked! This is great for getting to know one another, actually.”
“Wait,” the guy next to her interrupts. “I thought you say something you have done. That’s how we used to play.”
“Why would you say something you have done after you say ‘I’ve never’? That doesn’t make sense. Either way it doesn’t matter whether the person in the middle has done it or not. The point is, for everyone else, if you have done it, you drink. And you switch chairs. The person in the middle gets a chair, too, so whoever is left without one is in the middle for the next round.”
Eleanor begins. She steps into the middle of the circle and smiles. “I’ve never…”—she lets some tension build up—“…forgotten to pick my kids up from school.” She laughs and glances at Michael, her husband.
“Okay, okay,” he says, and he takes a drink and goes to move. A few of the other parents move, too. Michael ends up in the middle.
“I’ve never…” he says, “and I’m proud to say it…been to a Justin Timberlake concert.”
People move, passing in front of me, swishing past one another into their new spots in the circle, including my wife. I’m surprised because I don’t remember her going to one of his concerts, and I’ve known her since she was twelve. She ends up across the circle from me.
The rounds continue, and there are lots of nevers that people have done. People have skinny-dipped in lakes, stolen gas, stolen underwear, gone without underwear, thought a friend’s kid was ugly, cheated on tests, and more. I play honestly, but then again, no one seems to notice or mind that I’ve refilled my punch cup from earlier with plain Coke. Lauren has apparently cheated on a test, which doesn’t seem like her, broken her leg, and caught a kitchen stove on fire, though I know she’s never caught our kitchen stove on fire.
When Lindon’s turn comes, he rubs his hands together all mischievously like a goof. “I’ve never…”—he waits—“…been attracted to one of my spouse’s friends.”
I move on this one. I figure, okay, who hasn’t? If you have an attractive wife, she probably has attractive friends. But when I get settled into my new spot and look up to find Lauren, she is not looking at me. Not just not looking at me, but she’s doing her thing where she doesn’t look at me.
It’s people like this Lindon guy—with his annoying name—who I guess I should be striving to make a meaningful relationship with—people like this who make me want to never go out in public.
After the game fizzles out, I am planning our escape when the astronomer shows up with all of his equipment for the viewing party out behind the house. Michael tells all of us to get ready for some stargazing, and he and Eleanor go into the kitchen and start getting hot cider and coffee ready for everyone to take outside. Based on the unfamiliar smell that comes wafting in when the door to the back porch gets opened, there’s more fun lined up outside, too.
Lauren is over on the other side of the room ignoring me. Sara comes over with Lindon, and I try to turn and head outside, but I don’t move fast enough.
“Dan, right?” she says. “I thought you two should meet. This is Lindon.”
“We met briefly,” I say, shaking his hand.
“Since you have something in common,” she says. I wait to hear what it is.
“Lindon is studying theology, too.”
He jumps in after her. “Now what is it you do?”
“I’m just a youth pastor.” I don’t know why I’m always saying “just.” Maybe because my job involves more event-planning than it does theology. Probably because I don’t want people like Lindon thinking I see youth group work as a career.
“Oh, man. I feel for you,” he says. “I worked for a summer youth camp back in college.” He says this like “back in college” was years ago, though he couldn’t be more than a year or two out of college now. “I think I’m done with teenagers,” he says. “Then again, there are the cute teenage girls.”
Sara and I just look at him, and he can’t get “Just kidding” out fast enough. I ask where he’s studying and try to make small talk. I tell him I don’t plan to be a long term youth pastor.
“What do you want to do eventually?” he asks me.
“I’m not sure,” I say.
Everyone is bundled up and headed outside. It’s a cool idea that Michael and Eleanor had. To bring the astronomer. I’d like to do something like it for my church kids because it would be different. I don’t know any astronomers, but I could grill some burgers. Maybe I could borrow Michael and Eleanor’s astronomer.
I get my coat and follow Lauren out the door. She continues to ignore me. In fact, she acts like she doesn’t know me at all.
I notice a chest-high Calvin drifting outside with everyone too. He’s wearing a little North Face pullover and carrying his own small telescope, sort of like the one I had when I was a kid. He’s pointing it upward and looking out of it at the adults right beside him. I guess he’s probably seeing moles and nose hairs. Who knows what.
Outside, we cross Michael and Eleanor’s huge back yard, where the astronomer has three large telescopes set up. One is enormous and looks like a cannon. The other two are smaller cannons. Little groups are forming around each one, and the astronomer—his name is Barry—explains that he will move around for the next little while, adjusting the telescopes and explaining what can be seen through each one at a given time.
Closer to the house the Grosses have got a bonfire going, and the people sitting around it are, I think, smoking pot. Lauren is sitting near the bonfire on a quilt with Eleanor. I try not to focus in on her too carefully. I don’t want to know what she is doing.
I go to the big telescope. “It’s Saturn,” Barry is telling the group around him. “She’ll be visible for the next three weeks. Go ahead and take a look.”
I wait in line behind several others, and when my turn comes I lean in and see nothing.
“I don’t see it,” I say, embarrassed after the guy in front of me has oohed and ahhed.
“Wait just a minute,” Barry says. “I probably didn’t adjust it enough.”
“Why do you have to adjust the lens after every person looks through?” I ask him.
“Because we’re moving.”
“Well, yeah, but do you mean that we’re moving so fast that you have to adjust the lens every few minutes?”
“Every few seconds,” he corrects me. I look in again.
“Wait, is this real?” I ask. I look one more time and watch as the planet slides out of view. It can’t be real. I’ve never seen Saturn in real life, but what I’m seeing looks exactly like a cartoon Saturn, like the Saturn hanging on children’s mobiles, bright and clear and solid, with the rings and all.
“Oh, it’s real,” Barry says. He chuckles, “Otherwise I’ve spent a shitload of money on a big kaleidoscope. Of course, I can’t prove it to you. Well, I could try.”
I try to stand very steadily, and I look down at my feet. It is so dark out, I can’t see them, which makes it even weirder to think that the ground we are standing on is spinning. I mean, it’s spinning quickly enough that things are moving out of view. I know this is something I’ve been aware of since elementary school, but it’s not something you think about every day. For example, I’m never concerned that I might get flung off. I never wonder why everything looks completely flat as far as I can see, why we don’t see even a little bit of the curve of the earth. I stay very still and try to feel the earth. It feels flat.
As I stand in the dark with my eyes closed, trying to see if I feel any spinning, I sense someone next to me. I open my eyes and let them readjust to the dark. The kid, Calvin, is there, standing close to me like I am his big brother, like he has to wait beside me so I can buy our movie tickets or something.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I’m trying to feel the world spinning,” I say.
“You can’t feel it,” he says. “It spins too slowly.”
“That’s what I always thought, too. But apparently we are spinning quickly enough that Barry here has to keep adjusting the telescope so things don’t spin away where we can’t see them.”
“Maybe that’s because they’re moving, too,” he says. This is a good point.
Calvin looks at Barry and says, “I have a question for you. Can you show us any supernovas?”
Barry holds up a finger. “You know, I can actually. It might take me just a minute.” He leans in to the lens of the telescope and fiddles with it for a few minutes while Calvin and I stand silently, looking up at the sky. I try to see Saturn without the telescope, but I can’t.
“Okay, buddy,” Barry says, and Calvin jumps in front of me to see. The telescope is too tall for him. I lift him up by the armpits so he can look in.
“Wow wow wow,” he says. “All I can say is wow.” After a few moments he adds, “But this supernova, it had to have happened millions of years ago, right?”
“That’s right,” Barry nods. “About twelve million years ago. That’s old light you are seeing.”
I stare at Barry, much more dumbfounded than Calvin, who I am supposing has read up on this stuff. Barry turns to me. “A lot of the stars you see every day have already died or become black holes. The light they once emitted is just now reaching us.”
This thought is a shocker to me for some reason. In my whole life so far, I haven’t given much thought to the stars. I haven’t thought of them as stars, actually.
I look at them for a moment, and then I look around in the thick dark. It has gotten darker and darker, gradually, so that I am only now noticing how little I can see. The fire across the yard has settled down to a few stuttering orange embers, and I can’t see anything besides their low, wavering light and the orange flecks popping off onto the ground in the distance.
I can’t see Lauren sitting on the quilt, and I can’t see what she’s doing or whether or not she’s looking upset or if she’s fake giggling. Or real giggling. I move forward, toward those last orange flecks, to find her, but I can’t see a damn thing.
I bump up against someone. I think it’s Lindon, but there’s no way of knowing because whoever it is doesn’t say anything—he just knocks back into me and I knock back again, and then there’s more than one person. I feel a sudden urgency and I push through darkness and bodies with my shoulder, bumping hard into someone, knocking someone else, I think, to the ground.
“Hey!” someone says. “Could you back off?”
I push through again.
“Lauren!” I say. I still don’t see her but I reach out and push through the bodies and I call to her again, and then Eleanor is there next to me. I can smell her perfume and just make out the squared cut of her hair, and I push past her.
“I have to find my wife,” I say to Eleanor, to Lindon, or anyone. I realize I am not just saying it but yelling it. I try to calm myself. “My wife,” I say.
I am frantic to find her. It is suddenly the most important thing in the universe that I find her now.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.