When Aaron entered the room to his and Duncan’s second floor downtown Princeton apartment, it was dark. This, he knew, was a bad sign. Instead of placing his bags on the floor, he dropped them as a test. The loud “thwack” was met by silence, another bad sign.
Short, thinnish Aaron has the ever-notable male college student’s beard. He pulled off his knit cap, revealing, even in the dark, a bald, buffed head.
He stepped slowly about, not due to darkness. The setting August sun provided enough light for him to see just about everything in the room.
He could tell his roommate was home, but not active. The two had known each other for nearly a decade. Duncan had seen him through bullying and low SAT scores. He was the closest thing to being the brother he never had. Aaron called out, softly.
“Dee? I know you are here. At least say hey to a brother.”
In the southern corner of the room, the side table lamp came on. Against the wall, there sat Duncan, unkempt and haggard. Even sitting it was clear that he was taller that his roommate. He mustache was wiry and he needed a shave. His brown skin blended into a side table and the shading. “Damn, man, what happened to you? I can’t leave you alone for two months.” Aaron offered, half-jokingly.
Duncan looked up, said nothing. He slowly shook his head.
“Welcome back. How was… Where’d you go to?”
“Funny. Denver, see my family. But don’t dodge the question. What’s going on? How long you been sitting in the corner?”
“What day is it?”
“I have been here off and on for a day or so, maybe longer. Who cares?”
“Oh brother. I know where this is going. Problem with your doctorate, right?”
Eventually, a weak “no” passed Duncan’s lips.
“That’s good to hear. You’ve been working on that thesis for nearly two years. Anyway, when I left, according to you, you were gaining…”
“I fell hard for someone, and lost her all in two months”
“Oooo, trouble with your doctorate would be easier?” Aaron paused for a moment. “You gonna get up off the floor. I feel weird talking to you like this. Besides, if you fell in and out of love, at least you still have your doctorate?”
Duncan chuckled, inwardly. “I don’t know if I even have that anymore. I might even believe in God now. Not the God of the New Testament, but the God of the Old Testament. The one who made bets with the devil, the one who gets angry and destroys everything.”
“Well that doesn’t necessarily destroy the focus of your thesis. A black atheist, whose thesis is about atheism in the African-American community, finds God while researching his thesis… that might still work.” Aaron sarcastically offered.
“Yeah, right. It might work in the spirituality section of Labyrinth Books but not for my thesis in Ryders Psych program.”
“Look, you are the only black atheist I’ve ever known. Part of your doing this thesis is: ‘this is my way to get into my own spiritual space.’ What happened to you?” Aaron came over and sat on the floor next to Duncan. “Hmmm. You could use a shower.” Duncan raised his eyebrows and gave Aaron an ‘I can’t argue with that’ look.
Finally, Duncan said, “I did a stupid thing.”
“Being an atheist, I didn’t have a lot of recent experience inside a black church, not a Baptist church, not an African Methodist Episcopal, no evangelical church. I didn’t even know where to find black Muslims. I was so deep into my own reasoning, I had very little qualitative data.” He rubbed his eyes. “I thought, well, I could do interviews, but when dealing with innate spirituality, you know, it’s better to see it empirically.”
“Hmm-uh.” Aaron slipped into his role of friend-counselor.
“I’m sorry, man. You just got back, and all of a sudden it is all about me. How was Denver? Your family?”
“Fine and still dysfunctional. In that order. Now, let’s hear it.”
“No, seriously, how was your trip?”
Friend-counselor Aaron said nothing.
“I decided to go to some church and temple services. What I saw ran the gamut, from quiet, orderly services at some churches to emotional upheavals requiring near medical assistance at others. Congregations with less are often more feverish and animated than those with more. My research revealed that in all cultures, not just African-American cultures. You know that.”
“Yeah. You’ve said it to me a thousand times, and I know you believe it because every time you and I get into a fight over religion, you love to throw how Christianity was used to pacify the rebelliously minded poor and oppressed.” Aaron’s voice stiffened.
“It was. Think slavery.”
“Move on. You haven’t even gotten to the point where you fell for this person.”
“Her name is Monique Nettles, and I met her on my way into the Princeton Public Library. She was there in the plaza in front of the library passing out religious tracts. I barely noticed her. Given my research strategy, I took a couple of her pamphlets and went into the library to do my work. When I came out, she was still there, struggling to take down her table. It was windy, so I helped. After I helped her, she said, genuinely, ‘Have a blessed day’. I never know how to answer that. As an atheist, saying ‘you too’ just doesn’t seem appropriate. Nonetheless, I added her church to my places to visit list, and that was the Old Testament God setting me up.
Aaron nodded, more to patronize Duncan than to agree with him.
“I went to services at her church the next weekend, and there she was. I think that is when I saw her, as a woman. She’s short, about your mom’s height.”
“Shorter, with a round face and dark brown eyes, really attractive. Off and on I watched her during the services. I saw her go from happy, to playful, from reverent, to thoughtful. At the end of services, I went over to her. She remembered my good deed, so it got her to have lunch with me. She worked for the church, so our first lunch was there.” Duncan tapered off, lost in thought for a moment.
“We were okay from the start, but our time together was nice — and weird. For instance, you know how I love movies.”
“Well she would only go to certain movies. Obviously, those with religious themes were fine. They are hard to find, though. I wanted to take her to see The Avengers, but she thinks Thor and the whole concept of Asgard is blasphemous.”
“Wow. That was a good movie.”
“Yeah. I saw it, alone. But the point is she has a very prescribed approach to entertainment. The music performances were gospel. We even went to see a Christian comedian. He was funny, if you got the Biblical references.”
“Boy, you must have really liked her.” Aaron offered.
“Not early on, but when it hit, it took me by surprise. As far as my research goes, I got a lot out of those dates. By being around her and her fellow parishioners, I got a lot of good data for my thesis. Their whole lives are dedicated to paving the way to the afterlife. While their service to others is heart-felt, at its core, is establishing and reinforcing their standing in the eyes of God.”
“I could have told you that.”
“It is not like witnessing it. There’s more. I went on volunteering missions with them, to feed the homeless, and build houses and churches in poor communities. When we drove back after each ‘mission’, she saw it as fulfilling God’s work, while I intellectualized our efforts as the right things to do for a peaceful, prosperous society and any sound religious organization would do the same. She prayed for poor people’s salvation, and I wanted to teach them how to fish, in a manner of speaking.”
“Well, at least that sounds like your doctorate is still on track. That doesn’t get us to you falling in and sitting in a corner in the dark for hours and hours.” Aaron pointed out.
“True enough. I liked her sincerity. We talked a lot about God and her spirituality. She liked me, too. We held hands.” At that, Aaron laughed. “Yeah, I know that sounds juvenile, even implausible damn near forty years after the sexual revolution, but she believes no sex until marriage.”
“What? Is she some thirty-year-old virgin, or is Monique a kid and you are sitting in a corner waiting for child protective services to pick you up?
“She’s actually a little older than I am-33.”
“A 33 year old virgin? Yeah, right.”
“She was married before. She recommitted to a sort of virginity after her divorce. I respect that. As uncommon as that is, it was not a big deal. She is really a giving person. Her charity is sincere. Those few times I got her away from referring to the Lord, or blessing me and my effort to get a doctorate, she demonstrated a warm, caring personality. Secular or non-secular, it is our own humanity that binds every single one of us.”
“I know you believe that. Did she know about your doctoral thesis? What did she say about you being an atheist?”
“Huh? I didn’t tell her about my thesis, butthead. I told her I was studying religion and spirituality. She accepted that, even though I think she suspected that as an academic, I wasn’t telling her the entire truth. None of her friends felt totally comfortable with me and the idea of studying religion. They accept it as it is.” Duncan took a deep breath. “Still, she invited me to meet her family. I should say her adopted family. She told me about how her actual mother and father fought all the time. He was a mean, sober alcoholic, and her mother was stretched to the limit with him, her and her brother and sister. Monique prayed to God for just one wish: that her parents would stop fighting, stop hurting her brother and sister, and her, and each other. That lasted for years. She went to church and promised God that she would be the best Christian she could be. Yet, they kept fighting. She never lost faith. She said she knew that God was answering her by saying…”
“No.” Aaron inserted.
“Right, except instead of saying ‘no’, He was saying not yet.” Duncan’s voice was fading, the lack of food taking its toll. “She believed that her suffering was God’s will, that there was something she needed to see in all that she and her family were going through. You remember how I told you she was struggling with the folding table the day she was passing out tracks in front of the library?”
“She was struggling because she only has partial control of her middle and ring fingers on her left hand. One Saturday morning her parents got into another fight. Yet, this time her mother had had enough of the abuse. She lost control. She grabbed an ice pick and started jabbing at him. Monique instinctively stuck her hand between them, and the pick sliced through Monique’s left hand, twice, tearing through tendons to both fingers. They had no health insurance, so her father just left; her mother sent her to get her own bandages, her hand wrapped in a bloody towel.” For a long, painful moment Duncan said nothing.
“What happened?” Aaron asked.
“The next day a teacher saw what had happened to Monique’s hand and took her to the nurse. That afternoon child protective services arrived at their house. All that, and she still believes. After her plight, and the countless billions of others who have suffered even worse, she still believes.”
“Like I said, she took me to meet her adopted parents and her brother and sister. It was an after-church affair, very special to them. We were getting ready to have dinner, when her father, Caleb, said, ‘Brother Duncan, would you bless the meal?’ There we all were, sitting around the table, holding hands, waiting to hear this atheist bless the meal. The Old Testament God said ‘gotcha’. I couldn’t do it. In that moment, I was more than an outsider. I was an alien. I was with people I look like, and I talk like, and I didn’t understand them, and I know they would never understand me. I pulled my hand away from Monique on one side of me and Caleb’s on the other side. I apologized and walked out. I got in my car and came home.” Duncan stated.
“Why don’t you reach out to them and tell them the truth?” Aaron asked. “Remind them of how you worked together on common issues.”
Duncan stood up, stretched, and headed for the shower. “Do you think they’d ever really accept me?”
John Kizzie teaches guitar at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown. He has written several short stories, poems, and editorials in addition to writing original music for the classical guitar. He and his wife, Amy, became first time grandparents in July.