The siren’s song.
We last left off with me being Bob Jones University-bound. I’d applied, been accepted for the fall of 2008, and life was good.
As I mentioned previously, I was wary of majoring in web and multimedia design. The head of the department, Peter*, gave me quite a bit of preferential treatment when I was a graphic design major taking two of his classes. I’d thought when I graduated with my degree that I’d be rid of him and never have to worry about it again. Majoring in his department guaranteed that I’d have him as a teacher for almost every class I took. I hoped that I was wrong about his interest in me, and that I could mentally override my interest in him.
To my duel chagrin and delight, Peter continued to treat me with interest. He praised my abilities privately to me and publicly in class. He would stand behind me and watch me work, sometimes placing his hand on my back or shoulder and telling me with tremendous warmth how wonderful I was doing. In extra-curricular meetings we both attended, he went out of his way to sit with me and engage me in conversation, touching me frequently, then walking me to the door to say goodbye. He would sometimes say things that let me know that he had asked other people about me – previous teachers, mutual friends. In class critiques, he constantly deferred to my judgment, and often acted as if I was the only person in the room with something to say. Every week, after spending a weekend apart, he would greet me warmly with a lingering smile and gaze. I’d never felt so special before.
I noticed, however, that whenever a project of mine included anything related to Christianity, he would stiffen. I started to wonder if he was an atheist, until he told another student in my hearing that he was and confirmed my suspicion. As I had grown up to believe that a Christian and non-Christian cannot be romantically inclined, the panic that I already had over falling for my teacher (9 years my senior) increased exponentially as I realized he did not share my faith. When he discovered that I was going to BJU the following fall, he was angry. Over the course of the two semesters I had with him, he kept trying to talk me out of going. He did a lot of research about the school, telling me with great disgust that he couldn’t believe schools like that still existed in the United States. As I had no real idea what the school was like, I tried to ignore his opposition. Finally he admitted that he just wanted better for me, that my talents would be squandered at BJU. After that, he took up for me when other classmates found out and started asking questions.
You know, Christians tend to stereotype atheists as a group of delusional people who are angry at God and determined to live in wretched depravity. As Peter and I became closer as friends, he simply did not fit the bill of the stereotypical atheist. He was always kind to everyone he met, determined to help as much as he could. He was a tremendous humanitarian, making sure his classes understood how privileged we were to have access to so much information and reminding us that it was our duty as humans to help each other out as a race. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his occasional language and the fact that he lived with his girlfriend, I might have pegged him as a Christian.
Oh, yeah. He had a girlfriend. While regularly flirting with me.
Honestly? To this day, I sometimes wonder if I imagined our whole non-relationship. Nothing was ever verbalized. I constantly confided in a male friend, Daniel, from the campus Bible study, to get a male’s perspective. At one point, I had almost talked myself out of believing what was going on. The following conversation ensued:
“I could be imagining things, right? I mean, he wouldn’t risk so much for something so stupid.”
“Oh, he would.”
“…so I’m not imagining things?”
“Well, it’s possible.”
“How possible? Probable?”
The first semester came to a close, and the second semester began. I kept finding excuses to be with Peter. He hired me on as his student aide, meaning that I ended up spending an average of 25 hours a week with him, sitting in on every class he taught to tutor students and help him. He was head of the online student newspaper, and I became editor. It became our custom between classes and after evening classes to stay in the room and talk, sharing what we were learning and talking about our shared interests, occasionally going to the campus eatery and having lunch together. Daniel was becoming increasingly alarmed, especially since I had stopped coming to campus Bible study. He finally cornered me one day and told me that I needed the fellowship and accountability, and that he expected to start seeing me there. This cut into evening time with Peter, but I consented and started going back to Bible study.
It’s so hard for me to explain the struggle I was going through. I felt constantly at war within myself, knowing that a relationship with Peter was wrong on multiple levels and would only end in pain. A Fine Frenzy’s song, “Almost Lover” is a pretty apt description of what my heart was feeling. Again, I struggle with what this relationship was or wasn’t. But there are two things at this point in time that stick out clearly in my mind.
First, Valentine’s Day, in which Peter and my class went on a photoshoot, in which I first thought his interest in me might be sexual. Small things, such as his hand on the small of my back, guiding me through the building, or staring at me from afar without trying to hide where his gaze was. At the end of the evening, he gave me a brochure and registration packet and invited me to come to a 3-day conference with him in Boston.
Second was graduation. Since I had walked graduation the year previously, and since my brother Eddie was graduating, I decided not to walk but instead dressed up and sat in the crowd. It had been a couple of weeks since I had seen Peter, and I had once again talked myself into believing that nothing was going on between us. The entire graduation ceremony, I didn’t see him. I was both relieved and disappointed. As my family and I were getting ready to leave campus, I felt someone’s arm slip around my waist and pull me close. Suddenly Peter’s voice whispered in my ear, alerting me to a freelancing opportunity he had for me if I wanted to meet with him the following week. As I was getting ready to go on vacation with one of my best friends, I told him I’d let him know. I introduced him to my parents and brother and family, then we left. As I walked behind my family, my heart was pounding in my throat and I was fighting tears, the thought reverberating in my head, “I’m not crazy. I haven’t been imagining things. Oh, God.”
My consolation was that I would never see him again, and that I was going on vacation with Amanda* in a few short days’ time.
I had no idea that my life was about to change forever on that vacation.