The summer before I turned 18, I traveled to Europe for 6 weeks with a school group. There were about 8 students from my high school, a similar number from a high school in Salt Lake City, and a about 5 or 6 girls from a Catholic school out east. This was my first trip abroad, indeed my first time on an airplane.
During our time there, we traveled from Athens to London, with stops in Italy, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and France. Socially, the trip was as interesting as the cultures we traversed. As you might expect, most of the students from Utah were Mormons. The Catholic girls — each of them beautiful — were full of all the complexities you might expect from an all girls Catholic education. The students from my school, we were all thrilled to be able to drink without restriction, and we were all hoping to hook up with one of the Catholic girls.
There were two people I befriended on the trip. There was a guy named Dave. We were a lot alike. We both excelled in school, did a lot of skiing, and smoked weed. There was also a girl named R-*. We developed a little something in Europe. She was tall with long blond hair, and gorgeous blue eyes. Both Mark and R-* were from Utah, but both were exceptions to the Mormon rule all the others fulfilled. Mark was a stoner, and R-* a Baptist, a Born Again Christian (though I didn’t know this about R-* until after our trip).
R-* and I had a little fling in Europe. It was totally chaste, as you might expect with a Born Again, but there was some light petting. We managed to keep in pretty close contact after our trip to Europe ended. We wrote letters weekly, and had an occasional phone call. It was enough that that winter I flew out to Utah to spend a few days with her. I went just after Christmas.
This trip was a shock. I might even say it changed my life.
R-*’s family was extremely religious. Her father was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He returned with a new religious conviction. There were Christian icons throughout the house. There were just a few books on R-*’s shelves, including a bible and a book on dating.
My first day, I met all of her family. We had dinner with her mother, father, older sister, and her future brother-in-law. I remember her sister’s fiance the most clearly. He was a Christian missionary, and together with his bride to be, he hoped to travel to Africa to do God’s work. That first night, he wore a red shirt with a Coca-Cola logo, with a caption reading, “Jesus Christ the Real Thing.”
After dinner, R-* and I went to see a movie. She asked me about my religion. I had to confess that I had none, that my family didn’t practice any kind of faith.
Driving to the movie we stopped for gas. “I feel so guilty,” I kept saying.
“Don’t,” she said.
It went on like this for several days. I took one break, to smoke and ski with Dave, but for the most part I stayed emersed in this conservative Christian lifestyle for most of my time in Salt Lake City. I went to church with R-* and her family. I tried to sneak a few peeks into her book on dating, but made little ground in determining what type of advice it offered. We continued with some kissing and light petting, still it our relationship remained innocent.
I returned to Denver full of questions about religion, questions that I had to answer. To get things started, I hunted down the book on dating I saw on R-*’s bookshelves. It took a little time to find it, but I finally got a copy at the Mustard Seed, a Christian bookstore in the suburbs of Denver.
The advice surprised me (but more surprised my mother, she being a little less naive about these things than a 17 year old boy). It said, among other things, that a real Christian would never date anyone who isn’t a Christian as well. “That’s horse shit,” my mother said.
Despite my mom’s comments, my need to try and understand religion continued. I decided to take confirmation classes at an Episcopal church in the neighbor, the church where I was baptized (my parents took me to church until I was about 4 or 5). The class was an intensive. It took place over three Saturdays, each session running about 5 or 6 hours. At the end of the class, I denied confirmation. I didn’t feel with confidence that I could offer any committment to the church.
Additionally, I read about other religions. I read about Buddhism and Hinduism, and I read pieces of the Bible and the Koran. I even read a little on the Occult and Alchemy.
All the while, my relationship with R-* continued as before. We exchanged our letters and phone calls for several months after my return. She was impressed by my studies. In her letters, R-* would often say, “You should be a writer.”
After several months of these letters, I received an invitation to R-*’s wedding in the mail. This would be her last letter. I was stunned. She tried to call me, but I never took her calls.