For most of my sophomore year at the Baptists’ Cedarville College, I chased Heloise, a smart, tall philosophy major with blonde hair in tight curls: The Sexy Scholar. Consider the New-Testament archetypes for evangelical women, the resurrected Lazarus’ two sisters: Mary, lavishing expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet in intimate worship; Martha, toiling behind the scenes, setting tables, baking cookies, that sort of thing. Heloise was a Martha — an intellectual worker-bee versus the She-Mystic prayer-warrior Marys all around us. Marjory, my previous crush, for example, heard God audibly tell her to break up with my friend Mick. Heloise, on the other hand, searched for God in what the church and scholars had been saying about God for centuries.
The Apostle Paul and some ancient Greek philosophers had led me to Calvinism, a 16th-century theological system that offered rational coherence and an honest grappling with the Book of Romans’ teaching on predestination I thought the Baptists didn’t want to deal with. When I found John Calvin, the French Reformer, there was Heloise, the French beguiler. She had this porcelain skin, a button nose, and a crooked, omniscient smirk, like she knew things we guys could only dream of. In a boys club of intellectual arm-wrestling, where our attention both flattered and embarrassed her, it was like she’d inverted the old speech-class coping mechanism: Behind her shy smile, she imagined herself naked, in complete control, with us staring at her while she turned in another A paper. With Cedarville’s modest dress code leaving everything to the imagination, her faith-seeking-understanding was a turn-on. I would be her Abelard and she my tutor, reverse roles foreshadowed when I arrived daily from my job in the cafeteria and delivered apples to her desk in Mr. Mills’ History of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.
Young teacher, the subject
Of schoolboy fantasy
He wants her so badly
Knows what he wants to be
In the fall of my junior year, I went with Heloise and some other girls to a party at the closest thing our school had to a frat house. The guys that lived there were known for their booze, drugs, sex — all the things that normal college students did but that made you an outcast at Cedarville. Their ringleader had shoulder-length hair, a scruffy beard and wore loose pants, flannel shirts, and faded sweaters like Kurt Cobain. He looked more like my mental picture of Jesus than anyone on campus, and he was always on the edge of expulsion: The Prodigal Son. One of his roommates had a cover band. That night, they played Edie Brickell’s “What I Am.” It became one of my favorite songs, and somehow I didn’t realize it was making fun of intellectuals like me and Heloise.
I never saw her the whole evening. She disappeared, so I spent most of the night talking to a petite brunette with big brown eyes, the kind that inspired Van Morrison. After a couple of hours, I drove home from the party with Heloise and the girls we’d gone with.
“So, you were talking to Cobain-Jesus for a long time,” one of the girls said to Heloise.
“Yeah, and he asked me to spend the night with him.”
“Yeah,” she said, “and I soooooooo wanted to.”
“Heloise! I’m glad we got you out of there.”
I went back to Bethel Hall, and my friend Josh talked me out of going back to fight this Long-Haired Lover-Boy. He hadn’t really disrespected me; Heloise wasn’t my date. But I felt he had disrespected her and in the meantime lowered my estimation of her. I was personally offended. My beautiful Christian intellectual girl had a capacity for lust — and not toward me! — that I thought was off-limits. It was the sort of sin I was constantly beating myself up over, and to voice it in mixed company! Josh didn’t have such a prudish view of the whole thing.
As freshmen on tour with the men’s glee club a couple of years earlier, he and I had struck up a conversation with the pretty girl selling Dippin’ Dots at Stone Mountain in Georgia. Well, Josh did. I just sort of stood there, dumbfounded: dumbfounded that he could flirt with a complete stranger at an ice cream stand hundreds of miles from home, dumbfounded that he rolled with the conversation even after she suggested we should meet up at Hooter’s later that night.
Josh didn’t need approval from the Shiny People, Cedarville’s mainstream, in their pleated khakis and polo shirts while he wore his baggy cargo jeans, big ringer t-shirts, and a goatee that made him look like Darius “Hootie” Rucker. He was honestly trying to figure out what he believed and to live it. He spooned with his girlfriend, whom he’d met online, when she drove down from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and we went to visit her friends overnight in Cincinnati. They’d just slept together, but it still scandalized me. The only reason Josh came to Cedarville is because his aunt and uncle were paying for it. He embraced his outsider status, writing a regular student-newspaper column called “The Masked Democrat,” arguing for things like social welfare, abortion rights, and why Bill Clinton might not be such a bad guy. I wasn’t nearly so comfortable with the great, big world outside the Christian Right.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. He is author of the spiritual memoir, “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World,” Cascade Books, 2013. He is releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with music videos of songs that help to shape his story.