Matthew was daydreaming like usual in Art History class. When he came to, Professor Weisman was explaining how primitive artists of Africa influenced the European Renaissance and made it what it was. The famous artists we know—Boticelli, Giotto, Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael—“appropriated” their best ideas from Africans. Ms. Weisman went on to share names that Matthew had never heard of: Mubanga, Nagudu, Adebowale, Rutendo, and Ekundayo, claiming that without them, we wouldn’t have seen much advancement in art. She also implied that many inventions we currently use in our advanced society were contained in seed form within the art of the Africans, and that “European-derived peoples” were more imitators than inventors. The first time Matthew heard anti-European rhetoric in university, he audibly groaned, and was given a wrathful stare by a mulatto classmate with a septum piercing who considered reporting him to the administration, but since then, Matthew learned to keep his cool and simply learn what was needed to get a passing grade and finally get out of “homo camp,” as he called it, so he could begin his adult life.
Matthew scribbled the African names down in a haze but made several misspellings. Luckily for him, Ms. Weisman’s exams were multiple choice and spelling would not be tested, but even remembering these names would be difficult since they were completely alien to him. If he were to dig into his family tree, every single one of his ancestors would probably react with violence, though not the murderous kind, if they knew what their descendant was being forced to learn, but learn it he must, and so he jammed the names into his short-term memory bank. He figured out how to time his retention of nonsense so that he would have hardly any recollection of what he aced on the exams a day before. This was his quiet revolt. Otherwise, if he didn’t know that the artist Mutombo, through a hazy painting that looked like a lumpy land beast eating grass, actually provided a rudimentary blueprint to the modern jetliner, his expected graduation in three months would be jeopardized.
Ms. Weisman went on to have one of her long asides. “White people like myself need to do better when it comes to…” and there was this and that about racism and microaggressions and she even began crying, channeling her emotion toward the three black students in the class as if confessing to them her sins and the sins of people she who vaguely looked like her. Matthew dozed off. He must have been sleeping for a while because when he awoke, drool was crawling down his slightly uneven chin, which due to his insecurity he attempted to cover by growing a beard so pitiable that one could measure the space between individual hairs with a ruler.
He rubbed his eyes and focused on Ms. Weisman. Immediately he noticed something strange: there was a red cloud over her, nearly three feet in height, that followed all her movements. The translucent cloud was in the shape of an upside-down bowl. Matthew closed his eyes and opened them again, but saw the same thing, and now he noticed that all the students also had a cloud over their heads of various sizes, either red or white. Some clouds were short, only a few inches in height, and some were taller, like with Ms. Weisman. Matthew thought something was wrong with his eyes, and rubbed them so hard that he slightly scratched the cornea of his right eye, but the clouds remained. Everyone had one, either red or white. Otherwise, he could see fine.
Matthew didn’t understand what was happening to him. The first thing he did once class was over was run to the bathroom. He stared into the mirror. There was no cloud over him. His eyes seemed fine, except for some redness in the affected eye, and when he walked out of the art faculty building on the northern end of campus, he saw clouds hovering on every single person, either red or white, and nothing he did could make them go away.
In the span of a few days, he visited two eye doctors, and other than the cornea scratch which healed quickly, they both gave him a clean bill of health. When Matthew told them that he could see clouds over everyone’s head, including the doctors themselves, they advised him to seek a mental health professional. Reading between the lines, Matthew felt that he should keep this problem to himself lest others think he was crazy.
Matthew was a chatty, affable young man with an appearance that most women in his university would deem “sorta cute.” He had enough friends where he wasn’t classified as a loner or nerd, but not so many that he was considered popular. His talkative nature alone would pull many friends out of bad moods, just from the feat of distracting them from their worries with his partially interesting stories, and he did this without effort. He liked talking because it seemed natural to him, but he listened too, just enough so that no one labeled him self-centered, but many times while someone was talking he had already lined up a conversation piece that he was eager to launch into.
Never would Matthew go to the movie theater alone. He would rather go with one of his enemies than go alone. In the dining hall he had a rule: always sit with someone and introduce yourself. He made many acquaintances this way, including a small group of Argentinians studying computer science (he was a business major himself). It’s this personality that charmed his girlfriend Jane, who preferred Matthew to other guys that had nothing to say and would blatantly stare at her voluptuous body like she was a piece of meat instead of a mature woman who could handle conversations about all kinds of topics, even politics.
Seeing little clouds over people’s heads drew Matthew inward. “What’s wrong Matthew… you’re quiet today,” he’d hear from friends. He couldn’t pay attention to their words but only their clouds, either red or white. He noticed that the clouds were usually red. Since he was good with numbers, he decided to collect some data. He sat in the student union food court during lunchtime, in between the Greek and Chinese restaurants. In front of him was a piece of paper with two columns. The left column was titled “Red” and the right column “White.” He sat for three hours and counted all the clouds. Out of 324 people, 266 (82%) had red clouds and the remainder (18%) had white clouds. What could this mean? A thought flashed through his mind that this may have to do with each person’s spiritual condition, so he decided on Sunday to tell his priest, the first person besides the two optometrists who would learn about his predicament.
For five months, Matthew had been attending the Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church. It was a Western Rite church: outwardly it looked and felt like a Catholic church but it was not in communion with them. When people would ask Matthew what was a Western Rite Orthodox church, he’d reply, “It’s like Catholicism but on anabolic steroids.” His comparison made listeners think that his church was full of bodybuilders, and many asked if it was like a gym, suggesting to Matthew that he needed to come up with a better description. He then said that his church is “like the Catholic Church but more serious,” but that offended the Catholics. Finally he settled on this explanation: “It’s what the ancient Christians practiced, in the Western-style that is similar to the Catholics, but different from the Catholics.” To drive the point home, he would tell a joke: “How many Orthodox priests does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer: “Change?”
He went to Mass on Sunday and stood all the way up front, never once looking back at other parishioners. He noticed that everyone serving in the Mass—the priest, deacons, and altar servers—had white clouds, except for one altar boy, who had a large red cloud. Matthew’s favorite part during the Mass was when the priest pounded his chest, asking Christ for mercy, just like the publican in the Bible. If he wasn’t standing all the way up front, in full view of everyone, he would pound his chest too. He surely needed mercy now that his vision was distorted in such a distressing way.
Father Laurence, with his smooth cadence and booming voice, gave a sermon about the wide and narrow gate. The ending especially pricked Matthew’s conscious: “…so brothers and sisters, which gate do you choose? Because even if you don’t choose consciously, you still choose… you make this choice dozens of times a day by your actions, whether you pray or not, whether you overeat or not, whether you ask for God’s blessing for every action or not, no matter how small, even to bless a trip to the supermarket, and whether you receive the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday or not. Do you choose the wide gate of entertainment, hooking up… ‘It’s just a kiss!’… but it’s not just a kiss if it desecrates your purity, the temple that is holy. Do you choose laziness, of scrolling through your social media feed for endless hours of mindless content?” Here Father Laurence made a lethargic scrolling motion with his right index finger. “Do you choose to be a nosy person, involved in other people’s business? Do you choose to gossip and participate in idle, nonsensical chatter about sports and food and politics? Do you choose the gate of moral corruption, odor, and filth? Or do you choose the narrow gate, which, brothers and sisters, in our time is so narrow that we must squeeze through it sideways. Do you choose the narrow gate of putting God above all worldly fixations and obsessions, of loving your neighbor? We are called to love our enemies, but many of us don’t even love our relatives, and treat them with such irritation and disdain. Do you choose the narrow gate of struggle and spiritual warfare, of zeal that doesn’t fade, of wanting to unite with God now and forever? Examine yourselves, brothers and sisters! This is not a social game to play only on Sunday morning! The only door to the Kingdom of Paradise is the gate of repentance and self-denial, of humility and meekness. If you’re not repenting, if you’re not fasting, if you are not checking your pride, you are going through the wide gate like the world out there, and will suffer eternally for it.”
Many people shifted uncomfortably in their seats, not used to such fire and brimstone from an Orthodox priest. Truth is, a surprising number of people were there for trivial reasons, such as the beautiful singing, the ability to socialize, the prospect of meeting a spouse, and even the tasty food.
After the Mass was over, Matthew made sure he was last in line to receive a blessing from the priest. He couldn’t help but scan the clouds among the parishioners. He did an unofficial count: about two-thirds had white clouds and the rest had red. Father Laurence had a tall white cloud.
It was Matthew’s turn to kiss the cross that Father Laurence was holding. “Father, can I please talk to you? I’m having a spiritual emergency. Something is wrong with my eyes… I’m seeing things.”
“Like a vision?” Father Laurence replied. A mother with her brood came up and asked if she needed to brew decaf today.
“No, not a vision. It’s ongoing. I thought there was something wrong with my eyes but I went to two optometrists and they could find nothing wrong.”
“Stay here, let me first bless the food.” He went through the large double doors into the banquet hall and returned two minutes later, closing the doors behind him. Matthew began to nervously squeeze his hands together, hopeful that Father Laurence would be able to help.
“So what’s wrong?”
“I can see little clouds over people’s heads. The clouds are either red or white, some are short and some are tall. The cloud stays fixed above people, even if they’re moving, and I can’t make them go away. I don’t know what to do.”
Father Laurence cast his gaze downward to contemplate, and then as if enlightened, instantly raised his eyes and said, “Whatever you do, I beg you not to tell me the color of my cloud. Do you promise?”
“Yes, sure, I promise. So what do you think is going on?”
“Have you noticed patterns around the ratio of red to white? Or the type of person who has a red cloud versus a white cloud?”
“I did a count in the student union. 82% had red clouds. And I did a brief count here. About 30% of the clouds are red.”
Father Laurence nodded his head, as if his suspicion was confirmed. “Can you see a cloud over your head if you look at a mirror?”
“No, I look normal.”
“Think of a person who had a large red cloud. What is that person like?”
The first person who popped into his mind was Ms. Weisman. Matthew said, “I have an art history professor who… who seems to hate white people. She’s very progressive. She urges the class to participate in campus protests against racism and the like. Oh and one day she said that God is a myth.”
“Lord have mercy on her,” Father Laurence replied. “And someone with a large white cloud?”
Matthew was about to exclaim, “Yeah, you,” but caught himself. He thought for a second and remembered Peter, a fellow parishioner. He converted his wife to the church (he joked that it was a “flirt-to-convert” courtship) and they went on to have six children, with a seventh on the way. He was on the parish counsel, served at the altar, led the men’s ministry, and also organized food drives for the homeless shelter. His white cloud was as tall as Father Laurence’s. “Peter has a large white cloud,” Matthew said.
“Don’t tell him!” Father Laurence used his hands to encase Matthew’s, squeezing them tightly. “Don’t tell anyone what you can see and what color their cloud is! This is a matter of life or death for their soul.”
“Why? What does it mean?” One could forgive Matthew’s naivety. He was not only new to Orthodoxy but new to faith in general from being raised by secular parents. He had not read the lives of the saints and stories of miracles that far surpassed what he was experiencing (the only miracle he really understood was healing). It was only the week before that he finished his first reading of the New Testament.
“Matthew, God has given you the ability to see who is going to heaven and who is going to hell.” Father Laurence said this matter-of-factly, as if describing that there is a slight chance of rain in the afternoon.
“Heaven or hell? Where they go for eternity?” Immediately his red-clouded friends flashed before his mind, and Ms. Weisman, and in fact, all of his professors, and even some members of the church. With the day’s sermon still in his mind, and knowing that hell is for eternity, Matthew started to cry. Father Laurence was tempted to ask him what cloud is over him, in the case that Matthew was weeping for his priest, but began to pray silently until the temptation faded away.
“Why is God doing this?” Matthew asked, wiping his cheeks.
“For your salvation, I imagine. He has given you this ability for you to grow in the faith and save your soul, but to be more specific than that, I cannot say. What is happening to you is unique but not completely new. There are many holy elders who can smell with their nose a stench of condemnation from people who are damned. There’s no way for me to know, but I suspect the cloud you see is where they’d go if they died at that moment. I wonder… and I hope… that upon repentance or striving in the faith, you would see the color change, because if their fate was sealed, I imagine there would be no reason why they’re still alive. Don’t despair of what God is showing you. Use it for your benefit. If you see a red cloud person, note their way of life they have and don’t replicate it. Pray for them. If you see a white cloud person, engage in fellowship with that person for they are saved and will be saved.”
Matthew went into the banquet hall. He must’ve been talking to Father Laurence for a while because only noodle salad and industrial hummus were left. He wanted something hot so he went to the coffee station where Simon was finishing off a plate of soft tacos. Simon was one year behind Matthew at the university. Since the school was only a few blocks away from the church, there were many students. The cloud over Simon was red.
“Why are your eyes all puffy?” Simon asked.
Matthew could not bear to make eye contact with someone who was going to hell. “Allergies, I guess.”
“So how was your weekend?”
“Studying,” Matthew mumbled. “And yours?”
Simon suspected something was wrong, since Matthew was usually more verbose, but he didn’t care because he was dying to tell someone of his date.
“It was amazing,” Simon started, licking his lips. “I had a date with this girl named Brenda, a psych major. I drive her to the overlook, and one thing led to another… you know how it goes… or maybe you don’t.” He let out a loud laugh that drew the attention of a Romanian grandmother. He lowered his head and softly said, “And then right there in the car…” He went on to describe an act of fornication.
“Stop!” Matthew yelled. “You’re baptized! That’s a sin!” Everyone looked. Simon’s face turned red and he attempted to raise his hand as if saying “Enough” but his strength failed him. He became self-conscious of all the eyes on him. He shrugged his shoulders and squeezed his neck, as if to say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but certainly I’m not the sinner that he speaks of.” Matthew, staring at Simon’s red cloud, yelled, “Repent!” Then he faced the room, focusing on the handful of other red clouds, and repeated, “Repent! Or you will go to hell!” A gasp was heard. Someone dropped a small plate of salad that made a squish sound when it hit the floor. Father Laurence stood silently where he was. Many times he had wanted to say the same to his flock, but they were too sensitive and would invariably complain about his “hard” words. Once he was reported to the bishop for telling a woman that Tinder was for harlots, and he was certain that he would get at least two complaints about the day’s sermon. He couldn’t believe that he had to post a large sign reminding his flock to turn off their phones during the Mass, and still phones would go off. During confession, many would simply vent about their spouses or loved ones, complaining about the most trivial of matters, instead of seeking remission of their sins. Inwardly, Father Laurence was happy because Matthew said to all what they needed to hear. “God’s wisdom truly is infinite,” Father Laurence said to himself while pondering Matthew’s spiritual ability.
Matthew set his stale instant coffee on the table and rushed for the door. Before leaving, with the door half-open, he glanced at Father Laurence, who showed neither approval nor disapproval. What pain Father Laurence felt for this young man, who wasn’t even baptized in the church but was given such a heavy burden of knowing who would go to heaven and who to hell. Matthew ran home, crying along the way. A thousand times he asked himself, “Why, God, why?”
Matthew thought about calling his girlfriend Jane, but doubted she would understand. She wasn’t interested in his church, or any church at all for that matter, and would regularly share with others the life philosophy that she assumed came from the nobility of her own mind: “You only need to be a good person and enjoy life.” In her ecclesiology, however, there was no punishment for not being a good person. No young man dared to challenge her custom religion, and actually commended her for it. Oftentimes she would hear, “I never heard of it that way” or “That makes a lot of sense.” If she wasn’t beautiful, in the prime of her life, graced with green eyes, a perfect nose, and mousey lips, one could wonder if her modern axioms would be as well received.
Jane’s entire appearance, fashion, and essence were Instagram-ready. No matter the time of day, if a camera was pointed at her and the shutter was pressed, the picture would be perfect. Other girls had to take one-hundred pictures of themselves to be satisfied with one that made their dull eyes pop and flat lips swell (and even then it had to be digitally processed to remove various skin blemishes), but for Jane the matter was simple: she stared at the camera and imagined a crowd looking at her so that she could receive the love and admiration that was due to her, as if she were a princess just announced on the balcony of the Odessa theater opera. It didn’t matter if she wore a cheap blouse and a simple pair of jeans. Simple, hah! Simple only for the unsophisticated—the jeans themselves, designed by fabulous homosexual men in New York, were akin to a mechanical claw that shaped her body in ways that carnal men desired. She lived as if eyes would always be on her, and she was always ready to be displayed. It’s no surprise that a man like Matthew fell for her, more her body than her spirit, but he has heard of many successful examples of flirt-to-convert, so it was only a matter of time until Jane would be baptized as he would be baptized. She would study all the ancient fathers, read voluminous Biblical commentaries by Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory the Dialogist, and have her worldly mind transformed through the grace of God into an Orthodox mind. He prayed on it, he hoped for it, he was sure of it.
Just when he was about to call Jane with the announcement that he could see where souls would go for all eternity, he put down the phone and surmised that Jane’s response would be, “You should see a doctor.” Then she would make an excuse about how she has to study for an exam in a course titled “Discrimination of transgenders in sexual labor.” He would creep her out… maybe he would never hear from again. Only Father Laurence could know his secret. No one else would understand. His love for Jane was more important. The ability for him to see God’s judgment may fade away, but the love he had for Jane would remain eternal.
He decided to surprise her in two weeks. He would drive north four hours to see his parents, then visit Jane at her university an hour further away. Hopefully his spiritual gift, which felt more like a curse, would be gone by then.
Matthew bought monochromatic glasses on the internet and had them shipped overnight. They were something like a party favor, allowing him to see only black and white. He could still see the clouds over people’s heads but not the colors. He could now go many minutes, even a whole hour, without being consciously aware of his gift. In this way he was able to maintain enough concentration to continue his studies, with graduation so near. Once in a while, he would lift up the glasses out of curiosity to see if a certain person was going to heaven or hell. Several times he was surprised at the outcome, and was tempted to doubt how God had arranged the cosmos.
He became accurate at guessing colors when the cloud was large. If someone had a big cloud and blasted hip-hop music through a portable speaker, disturbing everyone’s peace, it was always red. If someone had a big cloud and they moved slowly and carefully, invisible in the crowd, careful not to bother anyone, acting as a nobody, a zero, it was always white. Surprisingly, the wearing of cross necklaces did not correlate to salvation. Half of cross necklace wearers were on their way to heaven and half to hell, but this did not count the Orthodox, who usually tuck in their crosses. The pattern that emerged was that the meek students who commuted from home and stayed away from college parties had mostly white clouds. The fraternity and sorority members, along with the professors, were mostly red. Matthew wondered how the white clouds maintained their salvation when they were surrounded by the damned and even instructed by the damned.
With his monochromatic glasses, the gift became almost like background noise, a form of spiritual curiosity at times, and like watching a black-and-white movie at other times. He continued to attend church on Sundays and apologized to Simon for his anger. Other than having to wear glasses all the time, his life was seemingly normal.
Halfway through the drive to his parents’ house, he pulled over at a rest stop, not from fatigue but fear of knowing where his parents would end up for eternity. Based on their secular lifestyles and love of watching television, the odds were not in their favor. How could he maintain a relationship with them if he knew they were among the damned? But he couldn’t just cut off his parents out of this fear. He convinced himself that the judgments were not permanent, that perhaps with his influence, a cloud could change color, but in the three weeks he had the glasses, the only change he noticed was that several individuals had their red clouds grow even larger.
He parked in the driveway of his parents’ split-level home. He took several deep breaths while staring at the old siding that needed to be washed. His breaths became faster and shorter. His hand refused to open the car door. His mother, alerted by the camera system, came out of the house all smiles, happy to see her son. He lowered the window.
“What are you doing in there, Matthew?” She noticed his glasses, which was strange since Matthew never wore glasses. Her motherly instinct convinced her that something was off. She immediately asked what was wrong, becoming overly concerned as mothers are apt to do when their child is in obvious distress or merely displaying a new behavior.
Matthew looked at his mother in black and white. Her cloud was of small size. “Mom, I’m having a problem right now but I can’t tell you what it is. I’m not going to kill myself or anything, so don’t worry, but something has happened and I need to figure…”
“Why don’t you come in and eat with me and your dad, and then you can do what you have to do?” She was always understanding and patient with her only child, an indication to Matthew of her potential salvation, in spite of her attending a mega-church only twice a year that had the highest-rated laser light show in the tri-state area.
“I have to see Jane first, and then I’ll come back. I know this is all weird to you, but just give me a day or two.”
The fact that Matthew was interested in seeing Jane assured his mother. If he’s interested in a woman, he’s unlikely to hurt himself… at least until that woman destroys him, but that didn’t appear to be the case here. Matthew was not sad or grieving, just anxious and impatient. His mother surmised that the relationship was on the rocks and Matthew wanted to see Jane to work things out before he could enjoy time with his parents.
“What do you want me to tell your father? He’s expecting you for dinner. I cooked your favorite meatloaf.”
“Save me some and tell him I’ll be back soon!” He started the car and his mother took two steps backward. “Everything will be fine mom, I’m sure.” He wasn’t sure.
“Drive safely and call me tonight.” Matthew’s mother squinted her eyes in concern, but was not concerned enough to arrange an intervention with his father, or to call the police. Matthew wasn’t a child anymore, though it never happens that a mother stops viewing her grown-up spawn as a child.
Matthew didn’t know what he was doing, but somehow, the idea of being in the presence of a beautiful girl who loved him, and whom he loved, made him feel at ease. He imagined she would be filled with joy upon seeing him. Meditating on Jane, no dread or fear entered him. She was a beautiful girl, and so good, that it was incomprehensible for such a beauty to roast in eternal hellfire, but this thought revealed the heavy spell of love—or perhaps lust—that Matthew was under. There is nothing more weakening to a man’s powers or even his common sense than a beautiful female countenance. If you pointed a rifle at Matthew, he’d at least run, knowing he was in danger, and if a grenade was thrown beside him, he’d jump out of the way, but when a beautiful young woman is placed by him, he draws closer and seeks to embrace her, though she is more dangerous than any weapon made by man. The beautiful woman draws men out of their safe foxholes with an irresistible song. Jane is so beautiful and sweet. To graze against her soft lips again for an innocent kiss… just a little kiss… would melt all of his problems away.
Matthew pulled up to her dorm parking lot around 8pm in the evening. He waited by the main entrance and was let in by a stranger. He went up to her room. Her door was slightly open. He knocked softly and waited a few seconds before he went in. “Hey Jane, guess who’s here!” The room was empty.
“Jane?” He stood at her desk and grabbed his phone, ready to call her. Then she came in the door, her hair wet, carrying an overflowing shower caddy the size of a basketball containing all her feminine hygiene and makeup accessories. When she saw Matthew, she stopped dead in her tracks as if spooked by a ghost. Matthew, still wearing his monochromatic glasses, saw that she had a rather large cloud, almost as largest as Ms. Weisman’s.
Due to his glasses, he was not able to notice the fresh layer of makeup on her face that gave it a bright contrasted sheen. She was more than Instagram-ready. Jane thought, “This is my boyfriend, who I haven’t seen in two months. I should be happy right now.” Then she feigned happiness and gave him a hug while still holding onto her shower caddy. Matthew tried to go in for a peck, to touch the lips that would melt away all his life problems, but she denied him. “You’ll mess up my lipstick,” she said.
Matthew looked at her outfit. She wore a tiny skirt of indeterminable color, and a tiny blouse with straps so thin they looked like bare threads. Her hairless midriff was visible alongside her sapphire belly piercing. Matthew fought the temptation to stare at her body, which was perfect in his eyes (and in the eyes of a lot of men), and that perfection would surely be confirmed by the color of the cloud over her head when he decided to remove his sunglasses.
“I wish you told me you were coming,” Jane said. She began rapidly texting on her phone.
“I thought I’d surprise you by coming a couple days early.” Jane didn’t smile. She tapped on her phone five times faster than Matthew was capable of. “Am I… bothering you?” Jane still was on her phone. The silence became awkward.
“What’s with the glasses?” she asked, finally putting away her phone. She reached over to pull them off but Matthew jerked his head back, explaining that he has a temporary eye condition and the glasses help him to see more clearly.
“What is the name of the condition?”
“It’s… umm… ocular… itis. It’s some type of inflammation. So what’s going on? I missed you.”
“Yeah, I missed you, too,” Jane said, and flashed a smile that lasted maybe a tenth of a second. “I’m a little flustered because I didn’t know you were coming, and had made plans with a friend…”
“Oh I’m sorry, well you can still hang out with your friend.” Matthew didn’t mind resting for a while.
“No, it’s okay. And today my friend Beth was having, like, a huge problem, and she was crying to me all day about it.”
“It’s her stupid boyfriend. He doesn’t want her to go to parties anymore, which is ironic because they met at a party. I think he’s being a hypocrite. He said, ‘Parties are for single people,’ which is not true at all. There is nothing wrong with getting to know new people as friends and having a couple of drinks, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for Matthew to answer. “I mean, can you imagine the college experience if you couldn’t party? So anyway, we sat down with a checklist that the Gender Studies department distributes to find out if a man is abusive or not, and were totally shocked to find that Beth’s boyfriend is guilty of most of the things on the list.”
“What’s on the list?” Matthew asked.
“It had like thirty things. Let me see… it’s abuse if he wants affection without first asking if she’s in the mood to give affection. He did that all the time. He criticized her for ‘revealing too much skin’ through her outfits, and the thing is she would dress normal like me. So she ended up buying these loose, frumpy outfits that grandmas wear. They didn’t accentuate her curves at all and made her look fat! One time he raised his voice at her and made her feel unsafe.”
“She was driving him somewhere, and there was a pedestrian in the street that she saw a mile away, but he thought she didn’t see the pedestrian, so when it seemed like she was going to hit him, but she wasn’t, he yelled at the top of his voice, ‘Hit the brakes now!’ She did what he said and stuff in the car flew all over the place. She was rattled for hours.”
Matthew thought to himself, “If preventing an accident is considered abusive then every man should aim to be abusive.” Jane kept going. The boyfriend bought gifts for no reason, got jealous when she talked to other guys, and dared to voice his preference for her to have long hair.
“Oh and one more thing which is like icing on the cake,” Jane added. “He complained to her that her family dog barks too much. Can you believe it?” Jane tilted her head and stared at Matthew, expecting him to agree, but he remained still. He began to wonder what had happened to his girlfriend, and who exactly was this crabby person he was speaking with, but nothing happened to her—she was always the same, but something in Matthew changed ever so subtly with his spiritual gift, and for the first time since he met Jane, he became concerned for her salvation. He thought, “It’s possible that her cloud is red. That would be bad.” But he didn’t dare lift up his glasses. The knowledge of her condemnation would be impossible to bear. He reasoned that she was just in a flustered mood, and saying things that she didn’t really mean, only parroting what she heard from gender studies professors, and that Christ fully resided in her heart, temporarily concealed from his human senses, and that she was on track to receive heavenly blessings from the Lord based on the size of the cloud that floated above her head.
“I want to understand you when it comes to abusive behavior, but how is buying gifts for no reason considered abusive?”
“Because it aims to make her feel guilty! Like she owes him something because he keeps buying her stuff. It’s wrong.”
“Okay so how about if he doesn’t buy her anything at all, not even for birthdays or Christmas?”
Jane rolled her eyes. “That’s obvious selfishness. It’s thoughtful when you buy someone gifts on holidays.”
“So I should only buy you gifts only on birthdays and official government holidays, and no other days?”
The strained logic of the gender studies professors made impact with Jane’s mind. That would mean a husband could never buy his wife flowers just because, and had to watch the calendar for the days that he could do a good deed for his beloved. Instead of admitting that the propaganda was wrong, she huffed and puffed and said, “You just don’t get it!” Jane didn’t elaborate further, did not say why he did not “get” it, and grabbed her phone and reviewed her notifications for comfort, many of them from Indian men who fawned over her beauty from halfway across the world. Matthew started to feel the odd sensation that he knew not who this woman was, that she was some type of imposter who replaced the real Jane, but if you were to ask him who the real Jane was, into his mind would come a pleasing image of her face and her physique, and not a single word would follow.
“Let me pose a hypothetical scenario,” Matthew said, elongating his back and tapping his fingers. He wanted to get to the bottom of what this Jane individual thought. “Let’s say that you have a boyfriend, and it’s Saturday night, and you’re at a campus party, one thrown by the best fraternity on campus.” Jane stopped looking at her phone as soon as Matthew said “best fraternity” and allowed her phone screen to darken upon the thirty-second timeout. “You love your boyfriend, but you’re also a social being, and you love to meet people… nothing wrong with that.” A lie, for he did think something was wrong for a taken woman to go to parties and meet people. “You’re at the party and this really hot guy, the hottest guy in the fraternity, tries to start a conversation with you. Just meeting people, no harm is being done, but he’s attracted to you, and puts his hand on the small of your back, and that hand quickly goes lower and lower until finally it’s resting on the top of your butt. Is it wrong for you to permit this kind of touching?”
If Matthew wasn’t wearing his monochromatic glasses, he would have noticed that Jane blushed at the description of the frat stud making a move on her. Through the dilation of the blood vessels flowing to the surface of her cheeks, not only was it clear that she saw nothing wrong with this party scenario, but that she was aroused by it, craved it, and had readily sought it. But why then did she enter a relationship with Matthew? Some women like saying they have a boyfriend because they believe it increases their value in the eyes of other men. It’s an announcement to all that they are so desired that they couldn’t possibly ever be single.
“Is that all or is there more to your story?” Jane replied.
“I don’t understand. Did she do something wrong? There was no sexual activity… or kissing. It’s just two people talking.”
“You don’t think it’s a problem for a man to be touching the butt of a girl who has a boyfriend?”
“Wait, wait… are you saying that my body is your property?”
“No… you’re missing…”
“Oh my God, you’re just like Beth’s boyfriend, So he touched the girl’s butt… big deal! It’s not the end of the world, and doesn’t mean anything is going to happen.”
“But it can lead to something happening,” Matthew replied, exasperated at why such an obvious scenario of wrongdoing was a stumbling block for Jane.
“With that logic, I can’t even say ‘Hi’ to any guy because that will lead to sex. That’s insane!”
“Jane, saying hi to people is not an intimate act, it’s a standard way of communicating, but being felt up by a man who wants to have sex with you is not only dangerous, but probably a sin.”
If Jane was of Mediterranean origin, she would have escalated the interaction by making all sorts of rapid hand movements while yelling at the top of her lungs, and maybe even throw a non-expensive item across the room, but Jane’s ancestors were from Northern Europe and lacked the passion of their melanized brethren. Jane merely gave off a disdainful “Whatever” and grabbed her phone.
Matthew rubbed his chin, staring at the huge cloud over her head, replaying the conversation in his mind to identify why he could not break through to her. Behind Jane on the left was her desk, and behind her desk Matthew spotted poster board. He could see the word “MY” written in big bubble letters. Curious, he stood up and walked to the poster board.
“What are you doing?” Jane asked.
Jane physically got in his way, but Matthew, now hungry for the truth, leaned over the petite Jane with determination to reach for the poster. He held the poster board high. It read: “MY BODY MY CHOICE”.
Jane tried to feign disinterest, which couldn’t have been more disingenuous since just three seconds ago she tried to block Matthew from seeing the poster. Two choices presented in Jane’s mind: lie by saying the poster was a friend’s or admit the truth and use it to further portray Matthew as a likely abuser in the vein of Beth’s boyfriend. Since she already hinted at Matthew’s misogynist views, she chose the second option, stressing how a woman should have complete ownership of her body and what goes on both inside and outside of it.
To be against abortion was such entry-level morality that Matthew knew in his heart that Jane in reality was not the same Jane in his mind. He slumped back into the chair and sat in silence while Jane regaled him with a story of her friend who was raped and got an abortion because she didn’t want to have an “evil child from an evil man.” Then there was a banging at the door. A man’s voice yelled, “Jane open up!” Matthew jerked his head to the door and then back to Jane.
“Just a study partner,” Jane said.
“Jane! I know you’re not playing hard to get after last night! Open up!” The man behind the door let out a loud laugh.
Matthew beat Jane to the door. This time it was he who physically blocked Jane. (If Matthew was a student, and Jane reported him to campus authorities, he could have been certainly expelled for “assault.”) Matthew opened the door and a jock who was a full six inches taller stared down at him. The jock looked past Matthew like he was a piece of furniture.
“Uhhhh, you ready to go Jane?” the jock said.
“No, she’s not ready to go. I’m her boyfriend.” Matthew unconsciously puffed out his chest.
The jock looked down at Matthew and said, “Uh-huh, whatever.” He chuckled and then walked away.
Jane went on to deliver the usual boilerplate that all women say when they get tired of a man: you’re controlling… abusive… jealous… my friend was right about you… this isn’t working for me. Jane planned to dump Matthew only after the jock committed to her, but she would have to do it now to save face, which was too bad because the jock would never commit to her, whether she had a boyfriend or not, and she would have to play the same game of entering a relationship with a naïve guy and use him as a means to achieve her secret desires.
Matthew did not try to change Jane’s mind. He was fine with her decision to go on a “break.” Only one question remained: was Jane going to heaven or to hell? There was practically no doubt in Matthew’s mind, especially after the poster and the unexpected arrival of the jock, but he wanted a hard confirmation. He closed his eyes in the middle of Jane’s harangue about him being overly needy and said a prayer to himself: “Lord, I see that Jane is not the girl you want for me, but may you have mercy on her, that she comes to be enlightened by your grace, the same grace that you have given me.” Then he opened his eyes, fully expecting to see an ominous red cloud, but there was no cloud. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but still nothing. He rushed to the window and looked down at the courtyard where four students were talking. They also lacked clouds. His gift was gone.
He stared at Jane for what seemed like forever, but it was actually only ten seconds, and he felt so bad for her, because even without his gift, he knew that she was on the wrong road. “May God be with you,” he said, and walked out of the room. She responded by insulting his height and telling him to never contact her again. He left to his parents’ where leftover meatloaf was waiting for him. He was baptized into the Orthodox Church three weeks later.
Previous Story: The Prayer Rope