by G.D. Brown
I told her about the rapture, and she laughed. I had learned to laugh too, tired of confusion, of twisting up my face in horror at these laughing women half-hidden in dim restaurants. So, when my dates laughed, I laughed. When they put their hands on my hands and suggested that I see a therapist, I agreed. I said that therapy was a wonderful idea as if I hadn’t already sat on every chaise longue, puffy couch, and barstool within twenty minutes of my apartment, as if I didn’t already pay to spill my guts. When my dates looked around the room for something else to talk about, some commercial on a sports bar television or an odd article of clothing that would pivot us away from the Good Lord and His long-ago promise to bring the saints home in twinkling of an eye, I offered up a simple, non-rapture response. I asked to go to the bathroom.
My date was already done laughing, though, and I was done laughing too. She reached for our waiter, actually put her hand on his back as he asked the family behind us if they were enjoying their vegan nachos and their caprese sandwiches. She was wearing a charm bracelet. The charms, a teddy bear, a sunflower, a frog, they twirled in the light from the low-hanging lamp above us, still bubbly with rapture laughter. They were swaying, unable to contain themselves. I knew the date was over then, but still, it hurt to hear the woman’s rose petal voice all covered in honey and asking for the check, no, for two separate checks. She called for a ride and jangled away with her charms, left me alone at the restaurant.
I don’t know why I was still talking about the rapture. I certainly didn’t believe in it. Regardless, it remained a thief, creeping into each of my dates. I’d be out somewhere nice, somewhere the glassware corresponded with what you ordered to drink, and suddenly I’d be asking my date if she thought that the pro-life people were right, if she thought that fetuses would disappear from their mothers’ bodies to join the righteous in the clouds. I’d walk out of a movie theater and say the outside brightness reminded me of a “New Heaven” or a “New Earth.” At the bowling alley, a voice would come over the loudspeaker like a shout, and I’d toss the ball into the gutter and fall to my knees, my helpless eyes raised while nearby bowlers gaped at the freak and his pavlovian worship. Then we’d be talking about the rapture.
A former friend told me Jesus was like a member of his family. He said I was lucky to leave the faith. He’d wanted to stop believing, wanted to be like me, but he couldn’t, because Jesus was like family. He said he was Italian, and I was supposed to understand that meant that Jesus was really like family, somehow closer than my own mother or grandparents. Either way, the poor guy didn’t know what he’d do without Jesus, so he was stuck calling himself a Christian. Then he didn’t call himself anything, jumped in front of a car.
Jesus never felt like family to me, though. At least, He never felt like the kind of family that I had to care about. Perhaps He was like my mom’s cousin’s kid or a semi-estranged aunt, someone who needed a hug at family gatherings and a card at Christmas, not the sort of loved one who came by on weekends or who gave me presents for my birthday. The rapture, though, that promising end to everything, was as close to me as anybody, the stepfather I never had, the firm man with fists who kept me up at night with his yelling. That’s why I had to spend so much time in therapy.
The night after the laughing woman drove herself home or called someone to drive her home or whatever she did, I sat in my car in the restaurant parking lot, still thinking about the rapture, or rather, thinking about how the rapture was already in the business of taking. Countless dates had disappeared, their promise gone in the twinkle of an eye and without even a trumpet blast. It left me in the stale cold of the parked car, watching sparks fly off our waiter’s cigarette tip while he paced the sidewalk between the restaurant and the parking lot, clearly on a break, still in his black dress shirt. My date had reached out and touched him. I could go further than that. I could feel the sharp beard hairs on his cheeks and taste the cherry red splotches resting above them. But he finished his cigarette and went inside without me. I drove home, where it was OK to be alone.
Only one of my dates had ever been truly familiar with the rapture. Paula had told me that she understood. She had grown up in church, had attended Christian youth camps, had believed her prayerful gibberish was a foreign tongue. Of course, she’d anticipated the end of days back when she believed. She had been waiting for Jesus Christ to split the eastern sky and take her far away from her father. Even after she stopped believing, she sometimes found herself perking up at news of wars or rumors of wars. She found herself listening for the shouting shofar. That’s what she’d told me.
We hadn’t worked out though, me and Paula. One night, probably our sixth or seventh date, we went to the rundown shopping mall near my apartment. We wanted to see a movie at the discount theater there, but nothing good was on, so we walked the dirty tile floor and peeked into the sort of retail chains where we worked during the daytime, wondering what it would be like to spend our money in the same places where we made it. We found a photo booth outside the sporting goods store. It was the digital type of booth with a flickering screen and no-wait printing and emailed files for posterity’s sake. I had some dollar bills in my wallet, so we sat inside and smiled at the little camera. Our faces were unfamiliar as they stared back at us. I wasn’t sure if I would have recognized myself if I had somehow been outside and watching, not that anyone really recognizes themselves on their first seven dates.
Back at Paula’s apartment, we sat on the floor and listened to her roommate go on about the Kinsey Scale. Then we talked about high school, and Paula said that she thought she was bisexual back then. She said that’s why her father started beating her. I talked about the way I’d stay awake at night worrying about eternity. Then Paula’s roommate left to buy weed, and I talked a bit longer about high school and about the things that happened to me back then. And something I said led to Paula’s saying goodnight and walking me out to the car.
We didn’t talk much after that, but I still had the file from the photo booth in my email inbox. For weeks I pulled up the pictures of those two strangers in the dying shopping mall. I liked the stranger’s smile, the smile that was supposed to be my smile. I used my thumb to cover up the other stranger, the one I’d called Paula, and it was good. It was nice to pretend that I was somehow connected to the smiling man in the picture. When I never heard back from Paula again, I cropped her out of the file and kept the smiling stranger like pornography, like the private me that I could like, the kind of person who didn’t have to think about the rapture.
* * *
In the middle of the night, when the computer monitor hurt my eyes, I turned to online dating. I found pictures of women who were as lonely as I was. They were wearing swimsuits or their Sunday best. I tried all the Christian sites, the sites where people already knew about the rapture, and so the profiles mentioned Jesus and Bible verses that I’d tried to forget, little clauses of ancient wisdom and the promise of purity or conservative politics. I sent messages to all of them. They had not yet been raptured, but they knew it was coming. They filled every Christian dating site, the ones that mentioned fishes and the ones that mimicked the secular sites. I shared the cropped picture from the photo booth and waited for these women to respond, but soon the stranger in my profile picture appeared vacant, the empty eyes of a non-person, of a tired performance. I began to wonder then about the pictures of the women on the sites, and I found those same vacant eyes in their eyes. I imagined all the empty-faced strangers that had been cropped out of those pictures. I thought of the way that I’d liked my own picture because I only saw a stranger there, and I was afraid that we were all strangers, the whole seven billion of us. What if we only offer the strangers hidden deep inside our own bodies to the kinds of people we so desperately wanted to know us best? And what does this mean about the rapture, the event where we leave our earthly bodies entirely? Would it be this stranger in the cropped photo booth picture who joined Christ in the clouds?
In the monitor’s blue light, I deleted each and every profile. I retreated from the church of binary code, of ones and zeroes and of women splashed tan by the baptismal. Before I was done, though, a sidebar ad caught my eye. I saw a Bible cut in half by a thick red stripe and a face obscured by a tissue, a clear departure from the usual dating site ads, penis enlargement and sexy singles who were looking for people like me. This sidebar call for coping non-believers, was, in fact, looking for someone like me. I clicked on it. There was an online meeting every other week, message boards, a community for those who were willing to say goodbye to the church, to the kinds of folks who had no Uncle Jesus or Grandpa Jesus or Second Cousin Jesus. I clicked through the site until I found the word “apocalypse.” I read through others’ disembodied thoughts on the trauma they’d faced preparing for the end of days. Sometimes they used the word “rapture,” but not always. They didn’t have to. I was sure that these people understood me, and that was why I attended an online meeting the following week.
The day of the meeting, I got off work and watched these other miserable icons from across the state spill their guts in little video boxes on my computer screen. The meeting functioned much like I imagined that AA meetings functioned, except these people insisted that they were no longer helpless, that they were capable of making choices on their own. Their eyes move about their little boxes like an outtake from “The Brady Bunch” theme. Their leader droned on about humanism. He was younger than I was, young and zitty and forgiven in his unbelief. He asked for the new members to introduce themselves. I told everyone hello. I told them about the rapture. They knew what it was I was talking about.
A woman sent me a private message. She welcomed me, said her name was Sam. I found her little square and watched her eyes bounce back and forth. Her eyes weren’t vacant like the eyes on the dating sites. They moved and fluttered and explored some unseen world on the other side of the screen. Maybe they were inspecting my own eyes. I wrote her back. My fingers lingered on the backs of the keyboard keys as they found their footing.
“Thanks,” I typed.
She said she’d been going to meetings for years, said I could ask her for help. I needed help, or I thought I needed help. I wanted her help. I went through a list of every word I knew, wanting to craft the perfect response, trying to woo this real-life, rapture-ready woman. My fingers pounded away before me.
“Thanks,” I typed again. Then I deleted it. “Thank you” felt more formal, appropriate.
The young guy was finished with whatever he was talking about, and I was embarrassed that I hadn’t paid much attention to him, at least not toward the end. I’d missed the bulk of his sermon trying to find my way through a polite response to the woman on the other side of the screen. I realized then that she would soon be gone, though, lost to me in that place where the internet goes to be forgotten. My fingers found their way across the keys.
“Coffee?” I asked, tossing away my attempt at formality. I added my phone number.
Despite my many rapture-hampered dates, I was aware of the adult politics involved in a daytime meetup. I knew that something so banal as a cup of coffee was suggestive of cordiality, of innocence and learning, but I also knew, mainly because of what I had seen on television, that it could still lead to sex. Again, Sam’s eyes bobbed across the screen, and I thought I could see the beginnings of a smirk, or maybe it was the remnants of a smirk, the parting lips lost over my apartment’s wi-fi.
“I’ll text you,” she said.
And she did. We decided to get coffee together one afternoon about a week later at one of the trendy cafes a few blocks from my apartment. I knew that if things went well, my time with Sam would bleed into the evening, become a real date. So, I wore a collared shirt. I wet my neck with cheap cologne.
I never had trouble dating when I was growing up, when I was still part of the church. I’d nearly had sex once, or maybe I’d had sex once. The actions that constituted sex were up in the air back then. When my faith dried up, though, when I was forced out of the pews in favor of bars and therapists, I grew lonely. The seemingly endless sea of women who said they ached for engagement rings and mission trips became awkward questions about family, about the costs of bat-mitzvahs, about the joys of secular Christmas, and then about the rapture. My tongue fell into habits that left me sitting by myself at restaurants.
So, I was relieved when Sam first brought up eternity during our coffee date. She said she didn’t know which was worse, living forever or ceasing to exist. I didn’t know either.
“The Buddhists solved all that with reincarnation,” I said.
“I think it was the Hindus first,” she said.
“Either way, you live forever, but you don’t even realize it. It’s a win-win.”
“But what about Nirvana?”
“Good point,” I said. The square-jawed barista made eyes at a girl in a university sweatshirt at the counter. She must have been the luckiest girl in the world, pulling his heart across the room as she pranced away with her drink. “I guess I can’t be a Buddhist then.”
“Or a Hinduist.”
The barista was back at the counter making eyes at someone new, and I wished someone would make eyes at me that way, even if it were only to sell me coffee. I hated the way I’d learned to long, but I sometimes think that it’s all we ever do, that longing is the only true universal feeling. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that every character should long for something, even if it is only a glass of water. Surely we all long for at least that. Who was the psalmist to pretend otherwise? I shall not want. I shall not want. I shall not want. I shall not want.
Sam said she had a dog. She said she had to let the dog out to shit in her yard. It would be fine, though, if I came along. We were talking about bad dates, and I told her about the time I’d collapsed at the bowling alley. She laughed. Her teeth looked sharper than mine. She said she’d been on worse dates, and I made her promise to tell me the dirty details of it all when we got back to her place. She texted me her address and pulled a tangle of keys from her purse on her way out. I simply followed. The barista hardly noticed our leaving.
We took our separate cars to an apartment complex where Sam lived. Her yard turned out to be a patch of grass she shared with three other tenants. Her dog ran circles around the little yard while we picked up our conversation sitting on a picnic table.
“I went on a date with a woman once,” she said.
“A coffee date?”
“No, a real date.”
My heart sank.
“We went clubbing,” she said. “I got real drunk.”
“I think I’ve heard this one before,” I said. I rolled my eyes.
“It’s not what you think. We were sitting outside this club at the end of the night. We were on the curb waiting for someone to come pick us up, and she kissed me. I’d never kissed a woman before, at least, not like that. I wanted to like it. I wanted to get turned on, but I couldn’t get over the thought of her spit, of how it was in my mouth with my spit. I have never thought about that when I was kissing a man. I started feeling sick about it, and I had to get out of there, and that’s where it gets embarrassing.”
“I got up real fast and started walking away from the club all by myself. She got up to follow me, so I told her I had gas and needed to be alone. Then I called a cab. We never talked again.”
“That’s not all that bad,” I said. “Why the gas, though?”
“I don’t know. I was drunk. I thought that would buy me some space. I’d really had a good time. I didn’t want to talk about things. I thought it was a religion thing, from before.”
“I guess it worked.”
She nodded. We laughed together the kind of polite laughter that is only indicative of mutual respect. The story had been underwhelming and far from humiliating, but still I appreciated it in all its simple mystery. Why had she tried to date a woman in the first place? Why hadn’t I ever tried to date men? The dog was squatting across the yard.
She said we should go inside. She had a clump of dog shit in a plastic bag. I followed her after she tossed the shit into a shared garbage can. She pulled me deep into her one-bedroom apartment. I found white carpet with footprints all across it from her slender feet. We were soon kissing, and I was thinking of spit. Then we were in her bedroom. I saw a pillow there, a tartan pattern I’d seen before. I told her I needed some air, and on my way out I saw the pool peek through the gap between the buildings, a turquoise shimmer that almost had me shitting in my pants. I was thinking about the rapture.
There had been a similar tartan pillow on a similar bed once when I was in middle school. Then there had also been the shimmer of the chlorinated water. Sean, he’d said he wasn’t so afraid of the rapture we’d heard about in the morning sermon. We’d played video games in his bedroom, the same room as the pillow. Then he said we could go out to the pool, the blue-green oval in his suburban yard. There we talked more about the rapture. He said it didn’t much bother him. I didn’t have a swimsuit, and he said we could go into the pool. He talked about skinny dipping and slapped at the tight, hairless skin that glowed white where my pants had been. I was sweating, but I couldn’t feel it in the pool. He’d touched my skin, the outskirts of my body, and that was OK, good even. I said the rapture was going to happen, and he said it wasn’t. He was in high school.
In Sean’s pool, there was the strike of joy, the fleshy exit of a million swimming souls gone in the blink of an eye and washing about in the chlorine-like flakes of dead skin. My mouth was open, and the noise that came out was something like a shout. The sun glistened white off the top of the water and turned the bottom of the pool to glass. He was looking back at me from over his fat and perfect lips, hardly aware of what he had done and still pumping his fist between my legs. Then his eyes opened wider, surprised, but I could no longer speak. I could not tell him that I would not be coming back, that I would ask to change schools and pray every night for six months for someone to wash away my newfound aching, my longing. There were not yet words or even thoughts concerning the lifetime of failed dates, of bad photo booth pictures, of clothes wet with water from the apartment pool and Sam’s dog yapping while I was born again. No, I was gone. I was somewhere beyond the clouds, in rapture.