The Conversion Machine part 2

She was the first friend I had who didn’t care that I was mixed. She just wanted me to dance with her, to do gymnastics in the yard, to talk about all the secret wonderful things about being a girl.

I have to talk more about Desiree. Funny and sweet, she was the kind of friend every girl should have. She was beautiful but unaffected by it and we spent all of our time relishing our childhoods. As I mentioned in part 1 her father was a vietnam veteran and as sweet as his daughter. The man did not have a racist bone in his body. He was a large man with a belly that hung over his camouflage pants and surprisingly kind eyes. He would start drinking every day in the early afternoon, and not long after that his best friend, another vet and a black man would show up and join him. They would share stories of their tours in Vietnam often crying. Rick was a kind drunk, a watery-eyed, wistful, lost drunk, a true casualty of war. He had my picture on the wall next to his daughters. He used to call me his other daughter. Not his black daughter, or his daughter’s black friend. He was never like that. I was his daughter. He would squeeze me and I never minded his beer breath or his sincere sadness. I was just happy to belong. Desiree would do her routines for him and he would get so excited clapping his huge hands. “That’s my girl! Knock ’em dead Desi!” Her little sisters Julie and Jessica and I would watch her in awe. I was endlessly proud of my pretty blonde friend.

Sharon was nothing like Rick. Desiree’s mother was cruel, spiteful and jealous. She would turn on you when you least expected it. She was an angry drunk and she was drunk all the time. We learned to ignore her except when she was yelling at Desiree. After that Julie would cry, Jessica hid and I balled my fists in anger.

When things were good, they were really good. we would play every game imaginable. We would make up dance routines to Paula Abdul and Madonna. We would play at the school twirling on the gym bar. We would stay up late watching scary movies. We would play imagination games in the bedroom, the one bedroom all the girls shared. Eventually we’d fall asleep, a tangle of little girl arms and legs. Those nights were marvelous. And then the birthday party happened. My mother dropped me off at Desiree’s house, and there was a horrifically violent war movie playing. Now we were maybe eight years old at the time. My mom came in and said matter of factly,

“My daughter is not allowed to watch those kinds of movies” (she had no idea I had regular nightmares from the kinds of movies I saw at Desiree’s house.) Sharon just sneered at my mom several drinks in by that point, smoking at the kitchen table. Rick immediately turned it off and apologized profusely. My mom wasn’t exactly comfortable leaving me there but I desperately wanted to stay so she relented. As soon as she left they put on “Bachelor Party” and I couldn’t figure out why there were so many breasts on the television. The majority of us turned our attention elsewhere and began playing. Unfortunately things began to get worse from there. Sharon decided she was going to really tie one on. Jealous of her daughter’s popularity and desirous of attention she began making a spectacle of herself. If you’ve ever seen Sharon Stone in the movie “Casino” that was Sharon. I was walking from the living room to the bedroom to get barbies hoping to not have to be Ken or the one legged black one when I heard Sharon call or rather slur my name. I looked over and she was sitting on the toilet, her pants around her ankles, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The bathroom smelled like hairspray, perfume and stale cigarette smoke. She had blue eyeshadow on up to her eyebrows and bright spots of blush on each cheek. She had lipstick on her teeth.

“So are you having fun?” she slurred at me.

“Um, I guess so.” I wanted to get out of there, had to get out of there.

“You guess so? You can’t say anything nicer that that?! Hand me that toilet paper.” She was angry now and I knew I had to do something, anything.

“Yes ma’am. Um I have to go, I have to get the barbie dolls for everyone.” That seemed like a reasonable way to leave.

“I have to get the barbie dolls for everyone. Jesus Christ!” She mimicked me in a cruel, high pitched voice. “Get out of here then!”

I booked it out and down the hall. I found Desiree. I didn’t want to upset her on her birthday but I had to say something.

“Des…Your mom’s drunk and she’s going to the bathroom with the door open.” Desiree looked crestfallen.

“Ok, I’ll deal with it.” She left the room and headed down the hall. I could hear Sharon yelling at her, berating her, calling her snob, a little bitch,

“I guess I’m not good enough for you and your little bitch friends!!” I did what I had always been taught to do. I called my mom.

When my mom showed up I had gathered up my stuff and Desiree stood in the doorway crying her heart out, My mom kneeled down and hugged her.

“Desiree? Do you you want to come with me? I can call your friends’ moms and you can come to my house. We’ll get you a cake and you girls can watch movies and have popcorn and no one will yell at you or make you cry.”

“I can’t.” Desiree said between sobs. “I have to take care of my little sisters.” She cried and cried,

“They could come too. I know your dad wouldn’t mind I’ll talk to him.”

“He’s passed out. I have to take care of my mom.” So we had no choice but to leave her there. I heard Sharon call her a cunt as I walked to the car. She stood in the doorway crying, and watched us drive away. I’ll never forget her pale little face streaming tears surrounded by falling snow.

I clung to my friendship with Desiree like a child clings to a favorite toy. As time passed she started to grow up and grow up fast. Finally past the barbie rule I was just one of the girls at her parents’ little duplex and if I ran fast enough I could get to her house from mine in less than ten minutes. She lived right next to our elementary school and after my horrible ordeal with Eric the bully from Hell my parents moved me from that school to one across town with an optional program and kids from “the right side of the tracks.” Truthfully I loved the new school, fifth and sixth grade were an oasis compared to my earlier elementary school years. I made friends, some of whom have lasted until today. One was a friend and then family member until recently. She was the one who invited me to the bahai coffee house where I first encountered the conversion machine. In an ironic twist of fate I married her cousin. I suppose we’d still be friends/family if I hadn’t confronted her in a bipolar rage about the abuses and humiliations I suffered as a member of the bahai faith. Don’t feel sorry for her. I’ll give you an example.

Right before my ex-husband and I were supposed to get married, his entire family wanted us to go to Seward (a neighboring town) and get couples counseling from a man named Ivan. Now I was completely and totally against this for good reason. My first encounter with Ivan was walking into Ian’s (my exhusband) house and everyone was sitting around him as he was talking. We took our seats and what came out of his mouth I’ll never forget. He had a thick Belgian accent and was extremely fat. Even his ears and lips were fat. As we took our seats he was talking about “gays.” He was relating a story about a “gay” he knew who was a complete pervert. “They keep their pee and poop in jars under their bed. They are very perverted. You must stay away from them at all costs.” What?! Did he just say that?!  I looked around the room and everyone sat calmly hanging on his every word. My god, I thought, there are children present. I looked at Ian and said

“We’re leaving.” Unbeknownst to me in their family it was a cardinal sin to leave when Ivan was pontificating his sick drivel.

“Oh that’s just Ivan, trust me he means well, he’s an awesome guy,”

“Uh-uh, no way in hell am I staying around to hear anything else this guy has to say and I don’t care if your family kisses his feet when he enters a room, I AM DONE.” Needless to say we left and that was not the end of it. Not by a long shot. So back to Lindsay. My friend of thirty plus years and then family. She took it upon herself to convince me Ivan was worth the effort despite his disgusting side tangents. She felt Ian and I absolutely had to go to Seward and I told her NO WAY. So she, Ian’s sisters, his parents, several of his brothers and best of all Ivan himself all organized an intervention. Ian took me to his house under the guise of hanging out and suddenly I was sitting at a table with everyone staring at me and asking me questions about what I was so afraid of, and why couldn’t I be open with everyone and why didn’t I trust Ivan. Let me tell you I gave them ten minutes and then I was out of there. They called my name, I didn’t care. When Ian finally got to the car I started screaming at him. I told him if ever did anything like that to me again it would be the last time he’d ever see me.

“How dare you?!!” I was filled with rage. “He’s a pig, and I don’t know what the Hell is wrong with you people!” (He really was a pig, he would tear open packages of raw ground beef and eat them by the fistful.) Ian was all apologies and shitty explanations. In the back of my mind I knew I’d have to go to Seward and listen to this blowhard. I was beginning to see the dark side of the bahai faith. The side the conversion machine so cleverly hid from me. I rode with Lindsay to Seward. I just wanted to get it over with. She was chattering on about Ivan’s accomplishments, that he took in wayward youth and helped them get back on track. That his methods were unorthodox but he saw results. Her endless blathering made my head hurt and I tried not to be sick over what I knew was going to be a shit show. I didn’t know how right I was.

When we got to Seward things were fairly benign. I found Ian and he was at ease, which he often was, he never rattled easily. Ivan’s wife ushered us into another room where we sat across from Ivan who had a large white paper notebook on an easel that he could write on and flip when he wanted a clean page. Most of what he said was difficult to follow and made little sense. But a few things are burned into my brain forever. One of them was when he was talking about Ian’s cousin Tea, a minor Ivan had taken in because she was having troubles. He related to us that not only did he let her sleep in bed with him and his wife, he told her as a way to be more comfortable with her heavier stature that “making love to a fat woman is like making love to a cloud in the sky.” Is that really how you should be talking to an underage girl? I thought. But I felt stuck, caught up in the machine. It was as if the longer he spewed his bullshit at me the more my brain started leaking out of my head. I kept looking at Ian for some kind of sign that this was all so very, very wrong but he showed nothing. Nothing but a blind acceptance and reverence. When we finally got our assignment I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We were to have sex that night and make as much noise as possible. He wanted to be able to hear us across the compound. So like good little soldiers we did exactly as we were told. I hated every perverted minute of it. I kept wondering when my brain would find its way back into my head. The next morning when we went to the restaurant part of the compound everyone was all dirty knowing smiles. Ivan laughed loudly and said we put on quite a show. He was right in that regard, it was a show. There was nothing real about our entire visit and it was just as terrible as I feared it would be. I had little contact with Ivan until the wedding where Ian and his family wanted him to make a speech. It was uneventful and I heard nothing more UNTIL

Ian’s mom broke all ties with Ivan because he was accused of molesting several girls at his compound for wayward youth, among them Ian’s cousin Tea. It was a huge mess, Ian’s sisters were under Ivan’s spell and went against their mom to defend him. Ultimately he was guilty and just like insular religious communities everywhere, he was not prosecuted by the authorities like he should have been. He merely lost his voting rights. It’s appalling the way the assembly handles these things. One has to wonder what would be bad enough for them to involve the authorities? Not rape apparently, or child molesting. God only knows. Needless to say Lindsay and I are no longer friends. I mean the whole Ivan thing and then she invited me to get a pedicure for my birthday and I ended up having to pay for myself. Luckily I had cash on me.

So I didn’t want to lose Desiree as a friend but I could tell she was running with a faster crowd than I was and I didn’t even understand her new way of being. It was middle school and I was pretty much the same, but suddenly she was all hairspray and eyeliner and miniskirts and boys. So many boys. One of the last times I saw Desiree was just before her mother almost burned the house down. Drunk as usual Sharon passed out in bed with a lit cigarette in her hand. The bedroom went up like a lit match. I never knew if Sharon was burned or if she woke up in time to deal with her bedroom engulfed in flames. I know they kept living there, the back of the house black from the fire.

Ian and I had over three hundred people at our wedding. Neither one of us had any idea what we were doing. After Ian proposed I said yes because I didn’t know what else to say. I had no idea what love was. I’d never had a boyfriend other than Sir Rapes A lot (Actually After Navid raped me we went to the local spiritual assembly about it and they did nothing other than advise us to pray about it. Truthfully I’m quite sure they didn’t believe me. The whole process was humiliating at best. Shortly after that I heard he did it to another girl. Someone new to the faith, naively investigating it and blindly trusting. Someone just like me. A victim of the conversion machine.) And then Ian. We were kids. We’d followed Bahai law and stayed chaste, Ian’s mom really pushed for the nineteen day engagement period. She wanted us signed, sealed and delivered. I don’t know why she pushed for it since its an encouragement not a law, but I can guess. Bahais take that chastity law pretty seriously.

So it was a flurry of activity. nineteen days is not a long time to plan a wedding. especially when everyone we knew plus the entire Bahai community would be there. The night before the wedding I called Ian and told him we were making a mistake.  He said it was just cold feet. He showed up the next morning with a dozen red roses. It was the sweetest gesture, I thought he’s right, this is just nerves. Of course it wasn’t just nerves.

This next part is the hardest part for me to write. The wedding ceremony was beautiful, my father sang, I felt like a princess. Then it came time to say our vows. Bahai vows are different than other vows. All you say is “We will all verily abide by the will of God.” So our vows said, it was time for the kiss. I didn’t know what to expect but I hoped for butterflies or shooting stars or even fireworks. But I felt nothing. It was like kissing my brother. I felt tears of shame and ager start to well up behind my eyes. I blinked them away and made the kiss long and dramatic so no one would catch on to how I really felt. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, waiting until marriage to kiss someone, to have sex with someone is a terrible idea. The few people who make it work are just that. Few.

I cannot say I regret the marriage. I would never say that. I have two beautiful sons from that union that I wouldn’t trade for the world. There was just so much hardship, judgment and pain they had to endure from the divorce. They say children are resilient and they are, but they are also fragile in ways we are not. They want to be held, reassured. They need security and they need hope. Children are hopeful creatures. In the midst of great turmoil they carry with them a heart shaped balloon of hope. They carry the hope that behind the next door will be an angel, fairy, leprechaun, unicorn…happiness.

Julie came by my house many years later. I hadn’t seen her sister Desiree in years. She said she just wanted to say hi, to see how I was. She said her father died, that he kept my picture on the wall all the way until the end. My other daughter she said he called me. she said I gave him great joy and she thanked me. I looked at her freckled cheeks and pin straight blonde hair. Her blue eyes sparkled.

“Julie you look exactly the same. Like time stopped for you.” She laughed and shook her thin hair.

“I could say the exact same thing about you!” I had to smile.

“So how’s your sister?” I hoped she was free, free of her mother and all of the pressures of being too pretty too soon.

“She’s gone, she left right after dad died, I’m never sure where exactly she is maybe Colorado. She doesn’t like to feel trapped anywhere. She drives an awesome truck, sometimes she visits but she hates mom so she never stays long. I miss her.” Julie lowered her eyes. A single tear slid down her freckled cheek.

“I miss her too Julie. All the time. Next time you see her you give her my love. Tell her I say good for her for going her own way, It’s a brave thing to do.”

After Julie left I smiled, thinking of my friend traveling the country on her own terms. She was the first friend I had who didn’t care that I was mixed. She just wanted me to dance with her, to do gymnastics in the yard, to talk about all the secret wonderful things about being a girl. Not once did she ever make me play with the broken barbie. That was Julie’s thing. Desi didn’t even like barbies. She was always ready to grow up, she liked magazines and cars and makeup. She liked walking through the neighborhood and checking in with all of her followers. She loved going to the movies. And she could spend hours playing Super Mario brothers. For a while at least, she was my sister and my best friend.

To be continued *