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All That Heaven Allows

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

All That Heaven Allows

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I learned the identity of my husband-to-be at the end of a forty-day Divine Principle workshop. Situated in upstate New York, the Unification theological seminary had the hushed libraries, dorms and chapel of a medieval monastery. As my footsteps echoed through the stark, stone hallways, I imagined hooded friars whispering beside me. On the final evening, a Korean minister announced from a pulpit the name and nationality of each student’s "eternal spouse." Mine was Gabriel from Ecuador.
    One week after the workshop, all eligible members were sent to Korea, where we would be blessed in marriage along with 30,000 other couples. Gabriel and I met for the first time in the waiting room at JFK airport. I wore a navy skirt suit, my hair in a french pleat. Gabriel wore a gray jacket, white shirt and gray tie, his wiry hair slicked back into a solid black helmet. I’m five-four; he was a significant inch shorter than me. In our photographs from that day, we stand inches away from each other, staring at opposite ends of space, our bodies pointing keenly apart, our lips stretched vaguely upward in imitations of smiles.
    One of the sisters with whom I shared a room said Gabriel looked like a miniature Sylvester Stallone. Another said he was the best-looking brother of the bunch. Occasionally I see someone and immediately feel that I want to know them better. Gabriel’s face did not have that quality. I felt bemused as I regarded this person — my soul mate — who was a total stranger. If he had approached me in the street, I would have walked away.

Two years earlier, in 1990, I had walked away from my family, my apartment in London, my friends, and the man I loved to enter the Unification Church, a.k.a. "the Moonies," a Christian sect which originated in Korea and is led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who claimed that Jesus Christ had appeared to him when he was sixteen. I had just produced a TV documentary called Soul-Searching, which was funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain. One of the men I interviewed was a Unification Church member named Jurgen.
    After the documentary was finished, I crossed Jurgen’s path several times in one week. This seemed fateful. On my way home from the Cafe de Paris one night, I saw him standing on Charing Cross Road, a tall, potbellied, balding German with sensual lips and cold sores, drenched with rain at three a.m. I wondered: what would possess anyone to stand outside at all hours, in any weather, to ask people to talk about the "purpose of life"?
    We talked. Jurgen told me about the "Divine Principle," which I later learned was Unification theology. He explained that true love could exist only in a monogamous marriage, blessed by God, and that my relationship with my lover was wrong. He promised that if I dedicated my life to God, my brother, who had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, would be healed.
    Tired of my unfaithful lover and frustrated by my inability to help my brother, I was attracted to the extreme nature of the group. They asked me to leave my life behind, claimed they had a living messiah. I agreed to try it out for three months, knowing that once I was in, it would not be so easy to walk away.
    I felt pious when I covered my body in frumpy pantsuits, shaved off my hair (against the church’s wishes), spent my days raising money for the church, praying and vowing never again to think about sex. During four years of living in church centers in London, Edinburgh and New York, I enjoyed

The author with Gabriel (above) and fellow brides (below) during the marriage ceremony.

cultivating my lack of desire, pushing out thoughts of sex the instant they surfaced, focusing on one aim: I will save my brother. I will do anything necessary to help those who are suffering.
    Inside the church centers, men and women referred to each other as brothers and sisters, to emphasize the absence of sexuality in our relationships. We slept in different areas, sat on opposite sides of the room during meetings — the brothers always above, to the right, or in front, to signify their superior status. This subtle detail sank into the minds of the women, helping them realize they were in the "object position" and should follow the men’s lead. This viewpoint was reinforced regularly: Women were shorter because they should look up to men. Women had big hips because they were made to sit down. Women couldn’t run. In sex, women should be underneath.
    I heard about the blessing of marriage but imagined I would never attain the "level of perfection" necessary to participate. One elder brother defined perfection as the state whereby everyone you meet feels loved by you. I knew that my ability to love fell short.

During the fifteen-hour flight to Seoul, I had the window seat; Gabriel took the aisle. I had no idea what to say to him. He told me that he was raised as one of nine brothers and sisters in an Ecuadorian mountain village which still had no garbage collection and barely had running water. His elder sister had nursed him at the same time as her own son. Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. I grew up with my mother and brother in the English countryside, in an eccentric, artsy broken family.
    "Repeat after me," he whispered. "Te quiero."
    "Te quiero." I knew what it meant but attached no importance to the words. "I love you."
    I remembered Jurgen’s speech to me on the night I joined the church. "Never flirt with brothers," he had said, fixing me with a glare. This meant no touching, no staring, no flattery, no immodest body language, no fantasizing. Now I glanced at Gabriel’s steady tar-black eyes. Had I failed to learn a new set of rules now that I was preparing for marriage? Was flirting now required? Or was I supposed to maintain chastity while he taunted me with romance?
    "When I saw your picture, I thought you were too old for me," Gabriel said. I was twenty-eight. Although he was a year older, Gabriel considered himself hot, eligible and worthy of a much younger wife. "But I liked your lips," he continued, emboldened. "I dreamt that you were a prostitute. I saw you wearing a short dress and red lipstick and you were almost falling over. I thought, that is a sick woman." He paused, allowing this image to linger. "Tell me about your boyfriends."
    "We’re not supposed to talk about that."
    "I had sex with a prostitute," he said, "but I believe that makes me more pure because I didn’t have a relationship with the person. I had a girlfriend also, in Ecuador, but she went out with someone else," he continued.
    I imagined Gabriel’s girlfriend, a petite, pretty Ecuadorian girl in her late teens, with thick, glossy black hair that reached down to her thighs. I imagined them dancing together at a family party, and felt sorry for him. I wished she hadn’t broken his heart.
    Confused by my distraction, Gabriel leaned over. "I am a crazy lover," he said.
    I wondered if he had learned this statement from a Spanish-English phrase book under "Dating."

For single members of the Unification Church, the topic of sex was taboo, except to admit sins or recognize the sins of others. Abstinence until marriage was required. Since most of us were no longer virgins, we had already failed and were required to start anew. Considering the misery I’d experienced because of my lover’s infidelity, abstinence appealed to my desire for peace.
     Lack of sleep, intense scheduling and daily exposure to the church’s theology kept me involved. My contact with outside family and friends was almost nonexistent, and I knew nothing of news or popular culture save what was selectively analyzed by my Central Figure, or advisor, according to the church’s theology. Within three months, the thought of moving away from the church center terrified me. I shared a room with six women, woke at five a.m. for a prayer meeting, spent the day raising money or encouraging others to study the Divine Principle, then returned to sleep around ten p.m., shortly after the evening meeting. When members’ attention slackened, extra requirements were enforced, such as fasting for days or praying for hours.
    For years, I never looked at a man with desire, never touched myself. To resist the occasional attractions I felt to brothers, or fantasies I had about my ex-lover, I took daily cold showers, throwing 120 buckets of icy water over my body with the intention of subjugating my subconscious mind. This took considerable time, and was done in a symmetrical pattern of ten buckets over one shoulder, ten over the other. The frigid water slapping my skin felt like a whip across my back, so cold that it burned.

For four days, Gabriel and I stayed at the North American camp in Seoul’s Olympic Stadium. The complex was huge, housing church members from almost 200 different countries in different buildings. Our building was a flat gray rectangle. One hundred women slept next to each other in sleeping bags on the floor of one large concrete room, our possessions crammed into small plastic bags. Although our group lived in North America, most of the women were Japanese. There were less than twenty sisters originally from Europe and America. Church leaders claimed this was because Western women were self-centered, unable to subjugate to masculine will.
     In the sisters’ camp, the variety of couples was the main topic of conversation. Within the church, there was an unspoken hierarchy: Asian spouses were considered most favorable, then Caucasian, then black and Hispanic. A blonde American sister who shared my room bemoaned that she was given a Dominican husband rather than a Korean. She and I wondered whether our extreme sinfulness had placed us with our non-Asian spouses. We decided it was, instead, our dedication and ability to endure difficulties.
    Gabriel waited outside our building at 6:30 every evening, his hair freshly gelled back, his shirt tucked into belted black pants. Side by side, we would walk to the meal room. I listened to Gabriel’s plans to help his hometown, and spoke little. Occasionally, I noticed him staring at my breasts and felt liberated that I could allow this without shame, since he was my betrothed.
    In our weeklong stay in Korea, Gabriel and I participated in three ceremonies. In the Holy Wine Ceremony, we wore white, prayed and drank a thimbleful of grape juice from a white plastic tumbler. This symbolized new blood, heralding our entry into the True Lineage. The Blessing Ceremony joined us in matrimony, as 60,000 individuals arranged geometrically in black-suited and white-gowned rows yelled "Yeh!" Our pledge, recited in Korean, expressed our resolve to sacrifice our physical and personal desires for the sake of the greater good. I had seen photographs of these ceremonies and thought they seemed like grand, empty gestures. Being a part of the event, even knowing its spiritual significance, I felt detached, like a fragment in an abstract work of art.
    Finally, in the Indemnity Ceremony, each couple bestowed a symbolic beating to their partner. After listening to a speech detailing how we were to forget our past history with, and resentment toward, the opposite sex, we lined up two by two with several hundred members of the North American camp, in one of the concrete meeting rooms. We dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. A few members arrived wearing short shorts and leather pants.
    "The more you love your partner, the harder you will hit," our Central Figure said. "Just imagine your spouse is a big baby."
    A three-hundred-pound brother beside us turned to his petite Japanese wife."A VERY big baby!" he laughed.
    When we reached the front, a Korean brother handed Gabriel a wooden baseball bat, watched while he whacked me three times on the backside, then handed the bat to me. We bent over to receive our blows, and were advised to hit our partner only on the buttocks and upper thighs. After this, my only physical contact with a man for over two years, I lay on my stomach on my sleeping bag, concentrating on the tingling sensation where wood had met flesh.

Upon returning from Korea, we were moved to different centers to continue fundraising and witnessing until we completed three years of separation from our spouse or reached the age of thirty. For the next two years, until our Three Day Ceremony, Gabriel and I were forbidden to have any physical contact. I lived in the Brooklyn church center. Gabriel lived sometimes in the Bronx center, sometimes with his family members, who had moved to Manhattan to raise money for their family back home. He studied accounting. We saw each other occasionally at religious events. I found myself daydreaming about him sometimes; I believed that fantasizing was not quite as sinful since we were married. In my imagination, our eventual union would be explosive.
    Toward the end of our separation period, I moved to a church-owned hotel to work at their video post-production facility. At around the same time, Gabriel moved to work and live in the same hotel. For the first time in four years, I slept alone. In my twelve-feet square box of a room, its window facing dozens of similar rooms, I began to question if unity of purpose existed within this organization. Before, my every moment had been monitored; now, I could be gone for days before anyone would notice.
    Once, I accompanied Gabriel on a visit to his family in Ecuador, failing to anticipate the difficulty of maintaining chastity away from the church.
    "If you don’t let me kiss you, I will break this blessing," Gabriel challenged me on a street corner in Quito. Pressing me against a faux Spanish wall in eighty-degree twilight, he pushed his tongue in my mouth, grabbed my breasts in his fists.
    Shortly after the kissing incident, Gabriel lay on top of me, fully clothed. The sensation of his erection pressing between my legs was so long-forgotten and exciting that I came within moments, a short, tingling burst through my stomach. I told no one. The premature kissing and closeness would have necessitated a Repentance Ceremony, and a longer separation. When I made a partial confession to my Central Figure, he let me off with a prayer.

The love of my life, whom I left to join the church, was a seductively androgynous filmmaker. With his camera, he could enhance the beauty of a homeless person or a perfect white daisy. He could laugh hysterically at some stupid joke I made, or threaten to rip out my guts if he suspected (needlessly) that I fancied someone else.
    Gabriel was a steady, methodical man who rarely laughed. He drove me frantic with the slow way he set up a computer or checked his accounts. I admired his ambition and felt secure that he would never be unfaithful — his parents were nearing their sixtieth anniversary. In my mind, I built him into an icon of virtue. Secretly, I worried that I might never love freely again.
    I plunged into our marriage, dutiful, determined to succeed, convinced that I was soiled goods and fortunate to be with someone so stable and faithful. Still, I was

Gabriel threw off his holy robe. His body looked small and dark on the king-size bed.

unsure of how to approach intimacy. It was essential that I banish all memories of past experience. I could not be overenthusiastic, because our first days together would be ceremonial. So, with my mind twisting with doubt, desire and fear, we began our married life.
    Two years after our wedding, I gathered our checklist of items for the Three Day Ceremony, the consummation of our marriage:

    1) Two Holy Handkerchiefs. These were to wash our bodies prior to intimacy, then to collect the fluids produced by our final union in the ceremony; they were to be kept "eternally."
    2) Holy Salt. This was sprinkled over everything used for the ceremony, to sanctify the proceedings.
    3) Two Holy Gowns. These ankle-length white satin gowns were to be worn before and after each act of love during the Three Day Ceremony.
    4) Two Basins. These were to fill with Holy Water in which to soak the Holy Handkerchiefs before use.
    5) A picture of True Parents. Since the fall of Adam and Eve occurred out of the sight of God, this picture of Rev. and Mrs. Moon stood in for God’s eyes.
    6) Two cushions to designate the places of True Parents.
    7) A Shim Jung (True Heart) candle.

    The first night of the ceremony, I arrived at our room in the church-owned hotel at nine. It was on the nineteenth floor, with windows facing the Empire State Building on the east and the Chrysler Building to the south. Gabriel returned from college at ten, pulled out a book on accounting and a folder, and sat at the desk to write.
    "What time should we start?" I asked.
    He didn’t look up. "I have to finish my homework. I’ll tell you when I’m ready."
    Still wearing my black skirt and white shirt, I lay on the tightly made bed and closed my eyes. No thoughts came, just the distant roar of traffic on Thirty-Fourth Street, the smell of sterile linen. When he finally said my name, I was startled.
    "I’ve finished,” he said. “Shall we do it now?"
    I pulled the pamphlet of instructions out of my bag. We showered separately, never having seen each other naked. After he emerged, I took my turn in the steamy bathroom, then put on my new underwear. Our undergarments had to be new for each day of the ceremony; black satin felt luxurious after the baggy cotton underpants I’d been slouching around in for years. I dressed in my ivory wedding gown, and over that my white holy robe. The sash of my robe was decorated with pink beads, Gabriel’s trim was green.
    "What’s next?" He sat impatiently on the side of the bed. "I have to get up early for class."
    "We’re supposed to pray." I placed the red-and-green embroidered cushions in front of the prayer table I had set up. A picture of Rev. and Mrs. Moon glared out humorlessly, next to the white, vanilla-scented holy candle.
    We bowed to the ground in front of the picture, and prayed for four minutes.
    "All right, let’s do it now." Gabriel threw off his holy robe and lay on the bed in his underpants. His body looked small and dark on the king-size bed. I removed my clothing, then his underpants.
    In the first part of the ceremony, the woman had to be on top, symbolizing the restoration of Eve’s act of love with Lucifer. After two minutes of foreplay, I guided him inside me. Instantly, I felt the emotional disconnect. It was the first time I had felt a man inside me for four years, and it felt good, but there was no holy passion, no divine ecstasy. I moved on top of him, concentrated on bringing him to an orgasm, then removed myself and lay next to him.

Our ritualistic act of love was over in ten minutes. We wiped the fluids onto our Holy Handkerchiefs.


    The official handbook said, “Go to sleep in peace. Sleep in pajamas and nightgown. Do not have a physical relationship outside of the content of the ceremony.” We lay on our backs next to each other, not touching, nor speaking.
    The next evening we repeated the same ritual, this time symbolizing the restoration of Eve’s fall with Adam. We hardly spoke; there was nothing to say. When Gabriel withdrew, still erect, I was confused. According to the pamphlet, penetration should happen only once on each day. Seeing Gabriel’s distress, I decided it would be acceptable to bring him to an orgasm with my mouth. His satisfaction relieved me, but I felt no emotional closeness.
    The next day, our final ritualistic act of love was completed in less than ten minutes. We wiped the resulting fluids onto our Holy Handkerchiefs, which I had embroidered with a red X for him, and a red Y for me. Observing the clear, slippery fluid on the handkerchief, I held it to my nose, thought of a baby’s head on a sunny, salty beach. Not allowing our skin to touch, we lay beside each other on cold, white hotel sheets.
    “So we can’t do it again for twenty-four hours?” Gabriel asked, matter-of-factly.
    “I guess not.” I lay there dry, untouched. I was flooded with desire that had no possibility of fulfillment. Would Gabriel and I ever laugh together? Would we ravish each other in an elevator, or in a parking lot? Would we even hold hands and kiss on the street? I wanted to feel wholehearted attraction to, and passion for, my partner. This man knew nothing about me, nor did he care to find out.
    After the twenty-four-hour waiting period, Gabriel and I took every possible opportunity to get close to each other. Our conversations were nonexistent, yet we attempted to sate our physical loneliness in each other. We met during our lunch break, had sex propped on a bathroom sink, in bed, on the floor, sometimes several times a day. For him, sex seemed mainly a release of tension; for me, it was a welcome distraction from the tedium of work.
    Six weeks after we first slept together, I felt the trembling super-reality and nausea that told me I was pregnant. Nine months later, I gave birth to a daughter. She emerged red-skinned, black-haired, screaming. I held her to me like an extension of my body for the next nine months. Soon I was pregnant again, this time with a son: soft-eyed, unblinking, trying to crawl as soon as he drew breath.
    Two miscarriages later, sex with Gabriel — at first a hopeful distraction — became a fearful thing. Contraception was forbidden, but I couldn’t bring more children into the lonely relationship we had built. For six years, we moved from one apartment to another in the hotel. When we moved away from the built-in religious community and into a Manhattan apartment, the reality of our separateness became stark. When our daughter was six and our son four, Gabriel stated the truth: "You don’t love me."
    He left. I resigned myself to the life of a celibate, single mother. I stopped attending church. I freelanced for various TV shows in New York, gradually allowing myself more freedom to be irreverent, laugh, have my own opinions. I visited my brother, who some years ago was well enough to teach computer programming; today he sits in a darkened room, wearing sunglasses, drawing detailed diagrams which only he understands. For two years after the breakup of my marriage, I feared intimate relationships, still believing sex outside marriage to be sinful.
    But I couldn’t help but notice the flirtations people dabbled in daily at work. I began to feel a desire to rebel against my failed attempt at purity. At a bar after work, I had one drink, kissed a coworker and realized I still had desire. From then on, I decided anything was acceptable, as long as it felt right at the time. Fuck you, God, I wanted to say. I promised my life to you, and you didn’t keep your part of the bargain. You didn’t give me love, you didn’t change the world, you didn’t even save my brother.
    The random post-work kiss initiated a frenzy of meeting men on the internet, through speed-dating and in any other way possible. Frustrated by the lack of intimacy, I decided to turn it into a project: I would date fifty men and write about the results. Date number three became a painful infatuation. After three months, I decided if number three wasn’t interested, I’d get intimate with someone who was. Number twenty-five was the one, although I knew it would go no further.
    The next day I abandoned my dating project, and also fell in love with a man I met on the subway. Henceforth, I happily acceded to anything he wanted, however irregular. His rough, uninhibited lovemaking unearthed the desire I buried so long ago. Day to day, I’m unsure whether he will declare me the love of his life, or say he never wants to see me again. But even the pain of the relationship is freeing — it strips away the falseness and piety I strove to affect for so long.
    Last month, my ex-boyfriend whom I left to join the Unification Church, the man I hadn’t dated for fifteen years, theorized over the phone: "You’ve created a new cult centered on your lover. When will you ever learn?"
    But he was wrong. This is the anti-cult. There are no rules. This is life: it grows, changes; it surprises you; it lets you down, then builds you up. As I write this, my boyfriend is breaking it off with his fiancée. I know we may not last. But is any ending really final, and does it matter? I love him; he loves me. Now, the only eternity I hope for is that which exists in the moment.  


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Yolande Elise Brener lives in New York with her two children. She is currently at work on her next project, a narrative about the pleasures and perils of urban dating culture.


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©2005 Yolande Elise Brener and Nerve.com