I didn’t date much before I was married. I briefly had a boyfriend my freshman year in high school. I met him at band camp. He was an upperclassman, a drummer and my first kiss.
My next kiss would be five years later, from the boy who became my husband.
I grew up a product of a very conservative, controlled, Christian environment. I was baptized a Presbyterian as a baby. When I was two and my brother almost four, my mother left my father. She almost immediately remarried, and a few years later, moved us from Los Angeles to Visalia, a much smaller community in California’s Central Valley. It was blazing hot in the summer, cold and foggy in the winter and odious cow dung lingered consistently in the air.
I made friends easily, especially at church. That first summer, I attended vacation Bible school and gave my life to Jesus/was born again/became heaven-bound/got saved/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. I was so moved by the experience that I bowed my head, confessed my sins and walked down the aisle to the altar again the very next day. It was gently explained to me I did not need to keep getting saved; it was a one-time deal. I didn’t really get it, but was relieved to know I would not be going to hell that night if I died in my sleep.
I wanted to share Jesus with everyone, not just talk about him in Sunday School. I anxiously worried that my non-Christian/non-churched friends would go to hell, so I invited them over to try and help them avoid it. One friend, now a successful lawyer, came over to swim in our pool and patiently listened to my pitch. When I finished, she politely yet confidently declined my plea to accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior. I was shocked and saddened by her response, but we ended up going swimming, anyway.
At the age of 11, I chose to be baptized again. I wore a white robe over my pressed, pale pink and blue church dress and stood before the congregation in a scrupulously clean, heated tub, constructed high above the choir loft. Because I was an avid swimmer, I didn’t have to plug my nose when the pastor efficiently dunked me.
Baptism by immersion meant my place in heaven was firmly secured. Now I just had to focus on getting through life without making any terrible mistakes.
As I moved into my adolescent years, I was more and more affected by the church’s position on abortion, drugs, drinking, dancing, politics, premarital sex and listening to the wrong kind of music. I didn’t want to mess up. I watched my peers around me fall, one-by-one, making mistakes. One Sunday, I watched in horror as a high school couple were called to the pulpit to confess they had been engaging in premarital sex. They were publicly shamed, repented and forgiven all within fifteen minutes, while the organist softly vamped on the popular worship song, “People Need the Lord”.
I didn’t want to be brought before the congregation for having sex, getting pregnant or dabbling in alcohol or drugs. I definitely didn’t want to murder an unborn child, invite Satan into my life by backmasking the Beatles or end up left behind at the Rapture.
So I obeyed the rules. It really wasn’t all that hard. I didn’t have druggie friends and I certainly didn’t have any guys banging down my door, trying to impregnate me. I was terrified of the consequences. I was taught if I broke the rules, I would not receive God’s blessing. Furthermore, I believed if I messed up, especially sexually, I would alter my life’s course and might even miss out on the person God intended as my husband.
At the age of 15, I was introduced to a contract called “True Love Waits.” It read exactly like this:
Believing that True Love Waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until I enter a Biblical marriage relationship.
I carefully signed my name in bubbly cursive on the dotted line and vowed to remain pure. From that moment on, I believed if I were to disobey the rules, my future marriage would be problematic from the start. Abstaining from sex would absolutely guarantee a happy, healthy, long-lasting and faithful marriage.
Around the same time, my mom and step-dad announced they were getting divorced. They had been separated on and off for several years. I wasn’t surprised, nor overly fond of my emotionally abusive stepfather, but I felt angry, nonetheless. An already-broken family was broken yet again. My mom started going to a divorce recovery group on our church’s campus. To my teenage judgment, everyone in that circle seemed like they were ashamed, sad, pathetic, desperate, confused and fallen from grace.
I decided right then and there I would never get divorced, no matter what.
I was a senior in high school when I met him.
My best friend Joy’s parents owned the local roller rink in town. I worked there part-time, making cotton candy, charging admission and skate rental, selling nachos and hot dogs, cleaning bathrooms and policing kissing couples.
One weekend Joy’s college-age brother brought home his handsome, charming, dorm mate. They met us at the roller rink. The friend was tall and tan, applied the perfect amount of gel in his spiky blonde hair, drove an orange truck painted a la the General Lee from “Dukes of Hazzard” and sported red Doc Martens with the hammer and sickle on them.
I developed an instant crush but dismissed it. As much as Joy’s family encouraged me, I wasn’t interested in studying at the private Christian college he attended.
But a year later, I found myself registering as a last-minute student.
I liked Biola University. In some ways it felt like a four-year church camp, except that it upheld much stricter rules. As part of our admission, we were required to sign a contract saying we wouldn’t drink, smoke, gamble or dance. Furthermore, students were expected to commit to refraining from “sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexual behavior, theft and dishonesty.” And, as an earnest, obedient, wide-eyed and closed-legged 17-year-old, I had no problem signing away.
At Biola, group dating was encouraged as much as possible. Our dorm floors would take turns hosting a special themed event, and we were prompted to find dates for our roommates. The event itself was called a GYRAD (Get Your Roommate a Date).
For my very first GYRAD, I was set up with a wonderful, closeted gay guy. I took matters into my own hands for the second event, and asked out the boy I had been flirting with in Psychology 101. He didn’t waste much time rejecting my offer.
And then came my sophomore year, when Joy lived on my floor. One day, she knocked on my door and told me she had the perfect GYRAD date for me.
“Who?!” I asked. Joy was a freshman; what boys could she possibly know already?
She raised her eyebrows, knowingly. “Remember my brother’s friend?”
“Communist shoes?!” I gasped.
“Communist shoes,” she grinned.
The day of the date, I picked him up in my 1994 Toyota pickup truck, complete with its previous owner’s grandmother’s hand-embroidered dashboard cover that read, “STEELERS”. He was just as tall, blonde, tan, handsome, quirky and charming as I had remembered from our brief, first meeting.
“Football fan?” My date asked, as he slid his thin frame onto the passenger bench seat.
I pressed my foot on the clutch, started the truck and revved the engine.
“Nope,” I shrugged. “But I am a huge fan of embroidery.”
He grinned. I swooned.
The date itself was pretty standard, safe Christian fare: burgers, fries and milkshakes at a popular retro diner, and a treasure hunt at a miniature golf/amusement park. We conversed with ease. During one of the games, we were asked to tie the backs of our hands together with a thin piece of string and make our way through a maze. We got lost and laughed heartily. Once, our fingers accidentally interlaced, and neither one of us let go. A surge of excitement shot through my body, warming my insides and making me temporarily dizzy. My cheeks burned hotly and I couldn’t help but smile.
I stole a glance up at him, whose grin – and blush – matched mine.
We were practically inseparable after a few dates. We would talk on the phone for hours, give each other piggyback rides to and from class, laugh loudly as we rode a bicycle built for two throughout campus, jump in his orange truck and drive to the beach, drink breve lattes, discuss God and debate our preference of theologians and Bible translations. It was the epitome of lightheartedness, innocence, sunshine and Christian college romance.
One winter weekend I accompanied him home to meet his parents. That afternoon we drove to Cambria, located on California’s central coast. We held hands as we strolled along the beach and allowed the salty sea spray to tousle our hair.
We found a log that had washed ashore, and sat upon it. He kicked the sand flea-infested seaweed away from our feet and looked me straight in the eye.
“Leslie, I have a question for you,” he began.
I giggled nervously. I had a feeling what was coming, but I wasn’t quite ready. Would I be any good? What if I did it all wrong? I had been waiting for this moment for a while. It was perfect; romantic. I took in a deep breath.
“May I kiss you?” he asked.
I grinned. “Yes!”
He leaned in, slowly. I allowed my eyes to close as my chin tilted towards him. The blood rushing to my head from my furiously beating heart crashed louder than the waves around me. I felt and smelled his breath — a sweet, almost sugary scent. And then his lips were upon mine: soft, full. I gasped and welcomed the all-over tingling sensation as it enveloped my being.
After that, it was on. We made out like rabbits in the most creative places we could find: the Mormon church parking lot; on a blanket in the park in broad daylight; the front seat of a borrowed car; the top of a picnic table underneath the stars; on a bean bag in the home goods section of Kmart.
For the most part, we kept our hands and subsequent genitalia to ourselves. We were both virgins and had a strong desire to remain as such, as long as we weren’t married. Unbridled sexual fantasies would come true only in marriage, starting with the wedding night. Obeying the no-sex-before-marriage rule guaranteed a secure, blessed future, not to mention a happy, healthy and long-lasting sex life. After all, it’s what good Christians were supposed to do.
Almost as soon as two people were seen together at Biola, they were an item. The words “courtship” and “intention” were drilled into our minds, thanks to mainstream Christian propaganda such as the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. We were taught to frown upon casual relationships. If you were going to date – pardon me, court – you had better quickly figure out if you’re going to marry that person.
And since the majority of us good Christians were trying to keep our integrity and virginity intact, the progression of the relationship often moved lightning-fast. It was all too easy to ignore the danger of making a lifetime commitment to a partner we barely knew, much less have time to observe behavior patterns within the context of real relationship, not just the teenage hormone-charged honeymoon stage.
First and foremost, a “DTR” — Define The Relationship — was in order. This was almost as exciting as receiving a promise ring. In Christianese terms, a DTR was basically a pre-engagement engagement.
Next came the candle-lighting.
The candle-lighting was a ritualistic engagement announcement ceremony in our all-girls’ dorm. We held it – sometimes monthly – in the lounge. We’d turn the lights off, stand or sit cross-legged in a circle and pass around a single, lit candle with an engagement ring affixed to it. The flame would be passed to each girl at least once until the lucky owner of the ring blew it out.
Although a lot of us hated those gatherings, we secretly coveted our own candle-lighting. It was a rite of passage; a guarantee of a happy future. And God help you if you graduated from Biola without an MRS degree.
One time, a girl got engaged at the ceremony. We all kept passing around this huge, shiny diamond (made even more sparkly in the soft, glowing light) for what felt like an eternity. The girl’s boyfriend suddenly appeared while she was in possession of the flame, got down on one knee, and blew it out.
The news spread like wildfire throughout campus. Guys respected the proposal for its cleverness and irreverence of the séance. The girls became even more dreamy and determined to get engaged, myself included. The dude was a hero in everyone’s eyes, until he got in serious trouble for being inside the girls’ dorm during non-visiting hours.
I never had a Biola candle-lighting. My DTR occurred on a public balcony of the Disneyland Hotel, overlooking the construction of the California Adventure theme park. Afterward, things continued just as they had been: lighthearted, fun and adventurous. Even though we both had an inkling as to where our relationship was headed, we knew it was wise to finish college. Furthermore, I was to spend the first semester of my junior year studying acting and literature in London, England.
He was heading to the UK, as well. It didn’t come as a surprise that both of us had applied to separate study-abroad programs before we even started dating.
“It’s a God thing,” people would smile, knowingly.
I finished my sophomore year and was offered a job as a writer at a Fox news station. However, I couldn’t bear to be separated from my boyfriend, so I quit and moved in with his parents.
Read again: I moved in with his parents.
He and I both got temp jobs and spent the majority of the summer surfing the cold, small waves off the central coast, sneaking into each other’s rooms to make out after everyone had gone to bed, and dreaming about the future.
One afternoon while I was at work, he snatched my peridot ring off the dresser where I had left it. He took it to a local jeweler, had it comparatively sized, and bought an engagement ring with money he borrowed from one of his best friends.
And then he left for England.
I followed a few weeks later. Princess Diana had just tragically passed away, and the entire country was in mourning. He met me at the airport and helped me navigate my way to the university. I was happy to have my own space, but it was located inside a co-ed dorm with shared bathrooms. I was shocked to discover a bar located just down the hall from my tiny room.
I spent the first night with the covers over my head and woke up to the sound of profuse vomiting just outside my door.
I rushed to the nearest red telephone booth and dialed his overseas number.
“Do you want to come see my school?” he offered, gently.
“Yes!” I sobbed.
Two hours and a luxury bus ride later, I arrived in Oxford. He showed me the main hall of his college, chapel and library. Then he led me out to the courtyard. The grass was perfectly manicured and almost glowed a luminescent green.
We stopped in the middle of the cement intersection.
“Leslie, I have given you my whole heart,” he said, in the quiet of the empty square. The fall light began to fade into warm darkness.
He dropped to one knee.
“My heart, like a magnet, is attracted so strongly to you that nothing in my body can hold back,” he continued. “The person you are; the light in your eyes; the fire in your soul. You have given me a view of God I’ve never had. You have opened doors and blown my mind. Every time we’re together I feel our lives are a living prayer. I never knew what it felt like to truly worship God with a whole heart until I met you.”
My eyes began to water. A bird fluttered overhead. Somewhere in the distance, a church bell chimed.
He continued to hold my hand and maintained eye contact with me as he dug around the back pocket of his jeans.
“Leslie Leigh Spencer – “
He proudly presented a yellow gold, quarter carat diamond ring. Although it was much smaller than I had hoped, it still glimmered in the twilight.
“Will you marry me?”
And, just like that, I was saved. Again. I had given my life to Jesus and now I would commit myself to a husband. This meant a lifetime of love and happiness, fidelity and security, family and friends, and guaranteed salvation from co-ed, vomit-laden dorm rooms.