Heaven or Hell?

“Dad, how come you don’t believe in God now?”

I sat at the stoplight, looking up at a Christian billboard, one of those aggressive ones that shows up all over Utah lately. “Will you be in Heaven, or in Hell?” it asked, with dramatic images on each side. There was a phone number, and a scripture that I would never look up.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 9.41.14 PM

I cocked my head, looking back at A, my precocious 7-year old. He was bouncing his new plastic red-eyed tree frog around in the back seat, idly playing. Although he’d been the one to ask the question, he was barely paying attention now. His older brother, J, now 10 years old, was looking out the window.

“Why do you ask?” I said as the light turned green.

“Well, you’re an atheist now, right? But why?”

I looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Well, I’m happy to answer, but I’m just wondering why you want to know that right now?”

A shrugged, looking at the frog in its red eyes. “I was just wondering, I guess.”

I considered for a moment. My kids had been asking me hard questions for years, and I had learned years before that the direct approach was generally the best one.

“Well, buddy, we can have more serious talks about this when you get older. But I just want you to know that I love you whether you believe in god or not, it just so happens that don’t believe in one anymore.”

I saw J turn his head, more intent in the conversation now. “We know, Dad. You love us no matter what.”

I smiled softly. I loved that he could say that with confidence. Just a few nights before, we had been watching an episode of Queer Eye on Netflix together, and a young woman had talked about getting disowned by her family when she came out as gay. J had snuggled tightly into me and said, “You would never kick me out for anything like that. You and Mom both love me.” I adored that assurance he had in that.

I pulled up to another red light. “Okay, so I was Mormon for a long time, you know that. When I was Mormon, I believed in God and I said lots of prayers and everything. But lots of people told me that I was bad for being gay. Some even told me that God could make me straight if I was a really good boy. And I was a really good boy, but God never made me straight. So when I stopped being Mormon, I stopped believing in God.”

I worried even that much was too much information, but they both seemed to understand. “Okay, cool,” said A.

J looked back out the window. “I haven’t decided if I believe in God or not. But maybe I’ll decide when I’m a grown-up.”

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

And soon we were home, and we played with toys together, then I made dinner while they watched a cartoon. As I grilled the eggs and stirred up the protein pancakes, I contemplated how far removed I am from my former lifetime. I used to be so caught up in the Mormonism of it all, both before and after I left the religion. Now I barely noticed an impact in my life at all, in any capacity.

In November, 2015, the Mormon Church implemented a policy that said that gay people who married a same-sex partner were considered apostate. Then it went on to say that the children of gay people couldn’t be blessed or baptized until they were adults, and only after disavowing their parents. Back then, those three and a half years ago, I had had such a profound anger response to this news. How dare they! How dare they use their influence to shame and label. How dare they use that dirty word, apostate. How dare they make it about children.

Well, this week, they changed their minds. Apparently God decided that it was mean to do this. Now gay people aren’t apostates, they are only sinners. And their kids don’t have to be kicked out any more. A step in the right direction, perhaps. The news came without apology, without acknowledgement for the extreme damage done in the lives of so many three years ago.

But the new news didn’t hit me at all. I barely reacted. When my friends posted notes on social media, heartfelt paragraphs about their coming out journeys, about their struggle to belong to a religion that didn’t want them, about their deep and abiding pain with it all, I just casually observed. I grimaced, I shrugged, I barely noticed the bad taste in my mouth. Look at this as evidence for god. Why would I possibly believe in god when he was always presented to me this way.

After dinner, and pajamas, and a dance party, and brushing teeth, I tucked my kids into their beds. I gave them both huge hugs and told them how much I loved them. I gave them both sincere eye contact. “You’re important to me,” I told them both. And they went to sleep, knowing they are loved.

An hour later, I went to bed myself, and I contemplated god for a minute. I thought of the rituals I had growing up. The shameful prayers on my knees, the waking every morning and reading chapters of scripture, the three hours of church every Sunday morning, the 2 years I spent as a missionary, the ten per cent of my income that I paid to the church for the first 32 years of my life, the pictures of Jesus and prophets and temples that lined the wall of my home growing up. I remembered how ‘all in’ I was, and how hard it was to leave it all.

And then I assessed my simple and beautiful life now. Happy kids, a job that makes a difference, and a man that I love who shares my bed. And if God looked down at all of this and saw me as a sinner, as an abomination, as an apostate, well, I want no part of that god.

I thought back to the billboard. Heaven or Hell? I’ll take whichever this one is, the one without god and Mormons and self-hatred. This one suits me just fine.

Legal Left Turns

After First Man ended, the boyfriend and I exited the theater, holding hands, a bit silent, contemplative. We muttered back and forth a bit about the progress of man, the quest to be the first country to touch the moon’s surface, and the billions of dollars it cost, all against the moving backdrop of Neil Armstrong’s very personal story. It was a beautiful film. We walked to the car holding hands then pulled out of the parking lot to drive the short mile home.

It was 8 pm on a Sunday evening. I stopped at the red light, left turn signal on, and thought more about the moon as I waited for green. The night was quiet, and no other cars were out. The movie had left me deeply reflective.

The light turned green, and I turned left onto the empty two-lane road headed east. Almost immediately, police lights flashed behind me, and I looked at them flashing in my rearview mirror with surprise.

“Is that for you?” the boyfriend asked.

“It has to be. Weird.”

I pulled into the nearest parking lot, to some business that was closed for the weekend, and watched the cop car pull in behind me at an angle. His lights flashed furiously, red and blue, in my mirror, and stayed that way for several minutes. obnoxious as the drew the attention of every passerby.

I rolled down my window and waited a moment for the officer to approach us. He had his flashlight out, shining brightly into the interior of the car, blasting me in the eyes briefly. I sighed in frustration, but immediately understood. It must be frightening approaching cars at night when on solo patrol. I know many police officers, have had them as both friends and clients, and I knew it was not an easy job in any capacity.

The officer was fit, dark-complected, and wore glasses. His head was shaved. He looked to be in his early 30s.

“Good evening, officer. How can I help you?”

The flashlight scanned the interior of the car briefly. “I pulled you over for two reasons. Did you know your car registration is expired?”

“My registration isn’t expi–”

“I said your registration is expired.” He was stern, blunt. “Now hand me your registration.”

I reached over to the glove box and pulled it out, immediately handing it over. I made eye contact with the boyfriend briefly and he looked nervous. (He hates conflict.)

“See, officer? It expires next year in 2019, look right–”

“Yes, I can see that. But there are no tags on your plate, son. Why are there no tags on your plate?”

I looked baffled. “I put the tags there, sir.”

“And yet they aren’t there, are they? Do you know why else I pulled you over?”

“I truly have no idea, sir.”

“Do you know how to make a left turn?” His voice was thick with sarcasm, and I felt my patience begin to wane.

“I do, officer.”

“Then why don’t you tell me how? Because I just saw you make an illegal left turn.”

I was baffled. I had used my turn signal, I’d waited for the green light. The road was clear. I hadn’t been drinking.

“I–I believe I did make a correct left turn.”

He tsked. “I just said you make an illegal left turn. Why don’t you define a legal left turn for me?”

“Officer, I’m not trying to be difficult. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Define ‘legal left turn.'”

“I don’t know what words you want me to use, and I feel like you are being very sarcastic and stern with me when I haven’t done anything wrong, sir.”

“Define ‘legal left turn’. This is your last chance. You got your driver’s license, correct? You passed the exam? If you read the driver’s manual, then you should be able to define ‘legal left turn’ for me.”

There was a beat of silence as I breathed in steadily, slowly. “Officer, I can’t provide an exact definition, but I believe I did turn legally.”

“Okay, fine.” He sounded exasperated. “You had your chance. Give me your license please.”

He took it and returned to his car. I sat there, baffled, not knowing what had just happened. My brain spun in a dozen directions. Had I done something wrong? Did I have a burned out taillight? Was the cop bored and needed someone to pull over? Why was he being so direct and sarcastic; was he having a bad day, was he on a power trip, did he hate his job, had I done something disrespectful? Had he seen me holding hands with my boyfriend at the theater, and did he hate gay people, and was that why we’d been pulled over? Oh my God, had I really just told a cop he was being stern and sarcastic? I felt a weird mix of confused, angry, embarrassed, and scared as we waited, processing all of this out loud now. I got out my cell phone and set it to record when he returned to the car.

Suddenly, the officer was calm, friendly, and clear. Was it because he knew my phone was on? “Hi, sir, here is your license back. When you are making a left hand turn on to a two-lane road, you must always be sure to choose the lane on the left. Not the turn lane, but the farthest lane away from the curb. You may then use your right-turn signal to move to the right lane. In this case, I witnessed you turning into the right lane of traffic, thus the one closest to the curb, which makes this an illegal left turn. Regarding the matter of your registration, it appears the sticker on your plate indicating the current registration has folded downward, and you need to get that fixed.”

I asked for a bit of clarification, finally understanding why I had been pulled over, though still frustrated as it seemed such a minor offense. I nodded a few times as he explained how to handle the ticket, an offense listed at around $90. I signed the form where he instructed, then took the ticket from his hand.

“Officer, thank you for explaining. I wish you had been this clear. I am confused by the sarcastic and disrespectful approach you used in our–”

He interrupted again. “You think I was disrespectful? Whatever.” He tossed his hands up in surrender and walked away from the car with a sarcastic “Have a nice day.”

And I found myself raising my voice after him, desperate suddenly to get the last word in. “Yes, and you are being disrespectful right now! Why don’t you have a nice day!”

I rolled up the windows in anger and frustration, then realized, again, that I had just talked back to a cop. I said out loud to my partner, “God, what if I’d just acted that way and I was a person of color?”

We drove the mile home in near silence. The boyfriend rubbed my back, reassuring me that things were fine, and I processed through getting the ticket and feeling okay about it, but just hating the way I had been treated. If I had done something wrong, he could have simply been kind and direct, and then issued a ticket, but the whole ‘legal left turn’ definition rigmarole had left me flummoxed.

Two days later, I delivered an official letter of complaint to the officer’s precinct. I let the officer-on-duty know that I go out of my way to report positive experiences when they happen, but I felt obligated to notify the precinct about this encounter. This officer was friendly, and asked if I wanted any follow-up from the complaint I’d issued, and I said that wasn’t necessary, and that I didn’t expect it to change the outcome of the ticket.

The day after that, I called the court number from the back of the ticket. It instructed me to call the number and request a ‘court-appointed mediator’ if I wanted one.

“Well, sir, we don’t have mediators here.”

“Um, the ticket specifically says to request a mediator.”

“Okay, well, we don’t have any. But you can either request a trial or a meeting with the judge?”

“What is the difference?” I asked.

“The difference between what?”

“The difference between a trial or a meeting with a judge?”

“Those are the same thing, sir.”

“You just said I could request a trial or a meeting with the judge!”

“No, sir, I said And, not Or. You can request a trial and a meeting with the judge.”

I sighed deeply, and made the request, feeling I had a valid case to contest the ticket. The woman took my citation number and looked it up.

“You can show up for court in four weeks, or you can pay $120 in advance to settle it.”

“Wait, $120? The ticket says $90.”

She grew impatient. “Look, sir, the police officers are now charging $120 for that offense. The tickets they are using still say $90 because they are using up the box of old tickets before they issue new ones.”

I hung up the phone exasperated, wondering if I ever wanted to drive again. But I had to give the officer credit for one thing. I was now indelibly recorded in my brain forevermore what a proper legal left turn was.