Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding Each Other, Part 4

Continued from Part 3

Indianapolis, November 1998

Riding the ITC elevator with my male coworkers one day, they stopped at one of the men's floors to get something. There was a short pause, because girls weren't "allowed" in certain hallways. "Oh, Jeri's a guy!", one of them said. This recognition of my status as a friend and a colleague warmed my heart all the way down to my shoes! Another time, an older staff guy took a group of young men out to a steakhouse. My friends got me included--the only female in the party. As usual, Chris and I controverted the stereotypes: I ordered steak with the rest of the men, while Chris ate pasta.

A former member of the Oklahoma CharacterLink crew was living with his family on IBLP's nearby South Campus (a former mental hospital being converted into a fundamentalist institution for Russian orphans). On Sunday afternoon, with nothing else going on, Chris and I went over there and "hung out" with Issac* and his sisters, savoring the outdoors and the more intimate family atmosphere. It was a welcome respite from the center of the city, and the institutional character of the ITC.

Around this time, Chris got sick and spent a day in bed. He ended up  reading his roommate's copy of Quest for Love, a collection of true courtship stories by Elisabeth Elliot. On waking the next morning, he says a thought popped up like a voice in his head. "Get married", it said. Well, Chris had always intended to get married, it seemed like a great idea. He was twenty-three, with no other long-term plans. But who, he wondered. The voice in his head had an answer ready. "Marry Jeri", it said. Of course.

Now the typical response to infatuations within IBLP was to ignore the person who turned you on. If you wanted to know who a guy had romantic feelings for, you asked, "Who is he avoiding?" And so Chris spent the rest of our time together at the ITC trying desperately not to ignore me. He was falling in love and didn't know what to do, but he knew avoiding me wouldn't help. He did a masterful job, too, because I was blissfully unaware that anything had changed!

Then my beloved grandparents arrived in Indianapolis. They were on their way to visit my parents, but stopped to see me. I begged permission from Mr. Gergeni, the acting ITC director that week, who grudgingly approved my request for an overnight pass. I panicked for a few moments when it occurred to me that this man who didn't know me from Eve might refuse to grant me time with my grandparents! On my way upstairs to grab my bag, we passed Chris in the hall and I was able to briefly introduce him to my Grammie and Bebop.

We spent a lovely day and a half together, drinking Earl Grey, visiting a museum downtown, and eating at a pancake house. I remember feeling quite grown up ordering coffee at a restaurant for the first time. (I had tasted Starbucks, but only on rare occasions.) We said goodbye back at the training center and they went on their way.

Later that weekend, Michael arrived from Oklahoma. I didn't exactly desert Chris after that, but I was considerably less dependent. Brother-sister pairs didn't raise eyebrows like heterosexual friend pairs did. And since we were outsiders only there for a few short weeks, the hierarchy couldn't do much about us. Michael and I could sit close to each other on the white sofas in the lobby, we could walk laps around the parking lot together, we could eat together; we even held hands--just to flaunt our privileged status. And Michael drove his car from Oklahoma, so now we could attend church with family friends instead of being assigned a church bus on Sunday mornings.

The three of us did make time for a trip to the fantastic children's museum just a few blocks north of the training center. I cannot now remember how we wrangled approval for that outing but I am certain we had a signed permission slip. We were such obedient minions. When Michael and I went home for Thanksgiving weekend, I wanted to take a girlfriend along, but even though all our parents had approved the plan, one of the ITC "authorities" decided to retract permission. The problem? My single younger brothers would be at the house, too!

Chris went home for Thanksgiving, too. We weren't sure when we would see each other next. I shook his hand the day he left. I had studied that hand for months as it guided his computer mouse across the desk, the long and hairy fingers often tremorous from low blood sugar. But we had never intentionally touched each other's skin before.

Our future plans were uncertain. None of us "characters" had any inclination to stay at the Indianapolis Training Center. Michael and Lisa and Chris had all been offered positions in the I.T. department at IBLP's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, outside Chicago, but no one was sure there was a job for me there. So I was mentally preparing myself to move back home.

Chris had planned to go to Chicago, but now he was having second thoughts. The stay in Indianapolis had called up old ghosts. Marriage seemed like a real goal now, and that would mean getting a real job, wouldn't it? He had already accepted the job at Headquarters, and IBLP was paying for his flight back to Kansas for the holidays. If he told someone he had changed his mind, he was afraid they might revoke his plane ticket. Or something. There was always some kind of control, something to be afraid of. So we said goodbye. I was still hoping we would all be reunited in Chicago. Chris, who was keeping many secrets, was wondering if he would ever see me again.

Michael and I shared everything we knew with the new CharacterLink staff. We did our Christmas shopping on an approved outing to the mall. And then it was time for the annual Christmas Conference. Even Lisa came for that, and we talked in the doorway of my room till way too late, catching up on the events of our weeks apart. Bill Gothard brought his staff down from Oak Brook, and there were even more girls in perfect makeup. The kitchen staff prepared a banquet dinner one night, with an ice sculpture. We went ice skating later, long skirts notwithstanding. The rink played Christmas hymns just for us, and everyone was celebrating the announcement of a new courting couple.

And Mr. Fredrickson, director of the IBLP publishing at the time, informed me that he did indeed have an opening in his department. I could start in a few weeks.

*Names are pseudonyms.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing to me the incredible pressure we were under. The intense scrutiny, the gutting impossibility of measuring up in fashion and beauty to those who were actually paid and given the freedom of shopping. Of my 9 years working at various places in ATI, I was paid $25 a week for only the last year or so. Other than that we paid for me to be there or I was a charity case. Unbelievable. Thank you for reminding me of so many things I've blocked so I can face them and heal from them. XO