An angry mother storms through my office door, dragging her son, a local high school football star.
We sit and stare at each other for an awkward short forever before I speak.
“Can you uh… tell me what brings you here today?”
“This,” she says, shoving her phone in front of my face. The video is grainy and blurred. One boy, her son. Then another boy.
“Whoa,” I tell her. “I don’t need to see that.”
“Yes, you do,” she spits, staring at her son. “He needs to see it, doesn’t he, Coby?”
“Okay,” I say, backing her phone away, “Tell you what. Why don’t you wait in the lobby and let us talk.”
“Raised you in church,” she says with disgust. “You know better.”
She leaves and the room is still. Coby sits forward, hands folded, hanging his head. “Pretty bad,” he says in a quiet voice, “When your mom is spying on you.”
“Pretty bad,” I agree.
“Can I just hang in here awhile?” he asks. “Even, like, ten minutes peace.”
“Sure,” I reply. “Long as you want.”
Coby slumps into the couch. “Man,” he says, staring at the ceiling. “I am so confused right now.”
Attractive couple comes in, the perfect-hair-and-teeth-with-two-pretty-kids kind whose picture we put on the church brochure. They sit lightly on my couch, far apart as possible, avoiding each other’s eyes.
“So,” I say, after a good long while.
She lets out a short snivel and drags a tear across her cheek.
“Crying,” he adds. “She manipulates me by crying too.”
“Oh, Mr. Perfect,” she sniffs. “You’re so good — aren’t you, Mr. Never-Do-Anything-Wrong?” Her words cut razor sharp. “Mr. Five-Miles-Up-The-Pastor’s-Behind….”
“Carla,” he says. “Come on.”
“No, no. You wanted to talk about it,” she says, facing him now. “Why don’t we talk about what I found in the bottom of your bathroom drawer? Huh? Tell him about your little secret, Mark. Let’s talk about that why don’t we?”
He sits back limp, dismissing her with the wave of his hand. “See?” says Mark. “I told you. She’s nuts.”
She flinches and makes a face like the last survivor in a slasher flick, seeing the killer’s face for the first time. “Okay, you,” Carla says, jabbing her finger towards my chest. “You’re the counselor here.” She squares her shoulders and leans in hard. “Why don’t you tell us what you think?”
This week’s schedule: There’s the sweet church secretary whose bondage forays are getting out of hand. A happy couple in their 30’s who haven’t had sex in over a year and a miserable pair in their mid-50’s who still get hot action every day. The preacher’s daughter got caught sneaking boys through the window. A respected elder who can’t stay off the nympho hotline and the straight deacon struggling with gay porn.
I don’t know why sex makes us all so crazy.
“Satan won sex on a bet from God.”
The client looks sort of like Elaine from Seinfeld if Elaine was a little more auburn and Texas tall. A clean-cut woman, smartly dressed. Little psychotic, perhaps.
“Do what now?” I reply, in my most professional tone.
“You know, God and Satan betting,” she adds, matter-of-fact. “Like in the book of Job? That’s why we struggle with the flesh so much.”
“How do you know that?” I ask.
“Jesus showed me in a dream,” she says. “That’s why I’ve been cutting myself.” She points to the pockets of her very sensible pants. “Down there.”
“Down there,” I repeat.
“Like in the Bible,” she says. “If your right hand offends you, cut it off?
“Better to go maimed into Heaven,” she continues, “than whole into the flames.”
“Well, you see–” Trying to find a response here. “I, um, don’t think….”
“It does say that,” she asks. “Right?”
He’s a good old boy in a Bass Pro Shop cap, works at the chicken plant out south of town. She’s a teacher’s aide at Family Christian Academy, a few pounds heavier after three kids. I ask them to rate their marriage on a scale from one to ten.
“Ten,” he answers.
“Ten?” she says, elbowing him hard. “Ten? Dammit, John what planet you livin’ on?” She stops and turns to me. “Sir, I apologize. I didn’t mean to be using profanity up in here.”
She nods and he nods and the room settles back to that square one of silence. His cap is in his hands now. “Sharon, I don’t know,” he says, fingers working fringes nervously into the brim. “At least an eight, huh?”
She takes a deep breath and shuts her eyes, like when you’re counting backwards to keep from losing your cool. “Five on a good day,” Sharon says. “But most days lately? More like a three or four.”
“It’s that bad?” he asks. “Guess I didn’t realize.”
Silence again. Back to square one. “How’s the sex?” I ask, grasping.
Sharon rounds her shoulders and blows out a piffling little breath. “I’d rather have a cheeseburger,” she replies.
“Hey,” he protests, holding out his arms.
“What?” she says. “I like cheeseburgers. He said we should just tell the truth.”
“I love my wife son, so I prayed really hard for the anointing of Solomon.” He’s a pastor, late fifties, with kind blue eyes and a sweet, easy-going smile, thick around the waist with white hair thinning on top.
“King Solomon?” I ask.
“King Solomon,” the old pastor agrees, “He had seven hundred wives. So I figure God must have given him a supernatural sexual stamina to keep all those women satisfied.”
There’s at least a ten second pause before I nod and say, “Okay.”
“I asked God to give me that blessing for just one woman. That the Spirit would guide me in the right ways to please her and keep her satisfied.”
“So what happened?” I ask.
He leans in, looking me in the eye. “You really want to know?”
“Oh, yes sir,” I tell him. “I do.”
The pastor shifts sideways, talking with his hands. “First, I cooked her favorite meal, serving her in every way. Then I led her to the bedroom, worship music in the background, playing soft and low –.”
“Like praise and worship,” he says. “Yes.”
“I think it was ‘O for a Thousand Tongues.’”
“Wow, good choice,” I tell him. “Keep going.”
“I had a basin of warm water and slowly I began to undress her. Then I began to wash her feet, telling her all the ways I love and appreciate her. Telling her how beautiful and wonderful she is to me.”
His eyes are glassy now, lost in time. I give him the moment then bump his knee with mine. “And?”
“For ten hours…” the pastor says, with the wonder of a narrator in a Disney fairytale. “But that night seemed to last a hundred years. At one point she fainted and I was afraid. But she came to and said, ‘No, I’m all right. I’ve just never felt this happy before.’”
“Whoa,” I reply.
“Praise the Lord,” he says.
Then he laughs and I have to ask: “So . . . just that one night?”
“Oh no,” he says, with the smile of a man who knows secret things. “A thousand times since that night. And I’m believing for a thousand more.”
Tommy is a big broad deacon who wears pastel suit jackets and gets his hair cut at Fantastic Sam’s.
“Jamie,” he says, slapping my back as we pass in the hall, “When I turned fifty I thought I’d finally got hold of this Christian thing.”
“Not wanting to kill people in traffic. Keeping my thoughts clean. You know that part during song service where some girls lift their hands and sway side to side and you have to fight really hard not to stare at their behinds?”
He cuts the air with the side of his hand. “Not even tempted. Yes, sir, thought I’d finally overcome.”
“Man, that’s great.”
“Not so great,” says Tommy, shaking his head. “Went for my check-up last week. Doc ran some tests and said, ‘Tommy boy, you got the testosterone levels of a twelve-year old girl.’”
“Not so great,” I confirm. “So what’d you do?”
“Oh, Doc got me right,” he says. “Now I’m back to struggling with lust during praise and worship and wanting to fist fight old ladies at the post office again.” Tommy folds his hands in mock prayer. “Thank you, Jesus,” he says. “Thanks for the testosterone.”
The church thrift store across the street calls for assistance.
“There’s some crazy drunk girl over here making a mess,” the manager says. “Can y’all send someone to get her out?”
“Jamie,” the secretary says, “This one’s for you.”
I walk over and find her sitting cross-legged on the floor, tearing out pages from the Christian romance paperbacks. She’s got Medusa hair, lime-green genie pants and a purple sweatshirt that says: PARTY HARD. (On back: PPFB Youth Group Lock-In Party like it’s 1999)
I flop down beside her, listen to a bit of her rambling story and convince her to follow me back to the counseling center. She excuses herself to the bathroom and stays way too long. I send in our intern, Holly, to bring her out.
“Hey look, I ain’t gonna lie,” Medusa says upon emerging. “I just took a bunch of pills and shotgunned a beer.”
Medusa’s eyeballs spiral like the cherries on a slot machine. “Fuzzled the eff up,” she replies, raising one finger, then two. “S’cuse my French.”
I smirk back and she holds up her hand to high five. “You’re one of them churchies that’s heard it all,” she says. “That’s cool. But I can’t look at you too long ‘cause I think I might be a sex addict.” She turns to Holly and sadly shakes her head. “You neither, babycakes.”
“Sex addict?” Holly asks.
“Tried goin’ to that support group thing y’all have,” Medusa nods, “But everybody was hooking up so bad I had to quit.”
“Ohhhh,” says Holly.
“Oh,” I repeat. There are two pictures of Jesus pinned behind my bookcase, one laughing and the other rolling his eyes.
Little help here, Jesus.
“Let’s pray,” Holly says. Heads are bowed, we join hands and as Holly prays, Medusa begins to cry.
“. . . and God, just let her know that you are always with her, help her find her way and have peace in her heart and mind, amen.”
“Amen to that,” Medusa says, wiping away tears. “I knew somebody was sending me over here. You guys are like, saving my life today.”
I point to Holly. Holly points to me. Both of us point to Jesus.
“You think Jesus really laughs and rolls his eyes?” Medusa asks, in a hopeful sort of way.
The clock ticks as she waits for my reply and what I really want to say is that I hope he does, that Jesus laughs with us because he knows we are blood and dirt made spirit by the work of his hands and laughter is the living essence of mercy and hope.
I don’t know why we are all such a mess behind closed doors, why religion and sex and relationships can drive us completely insane. The Bible is full of Jezebels and perverts and peeping toms and people who just can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they try. I hope those parts are there to remind us that God is good, grace trumps sin and mercy stretches from sea to endless sky. That if Jesus laughs it’s to help us not feel so messed-up and alone and to give us hope that somehow, someway, everything’s gonna be all right.
But I can’t quite figure out how to put that into words. So I just shrug and give her a goofy smile.
“Hope so,” I tell her. “I really do.”