A few years ago I made the longest hike of my life to the top of McAfee’s Knob, one of the most-photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail. From trailhead to summit and back is only a little over six miles, and I’ve hiked much lengthier stretches. But there’s something about having your beliefs derided most of the way up and the virtues of celibacy preached at you most of the way down that affects your perception of distance.
I’d met the day’s hiking partner, whom I’ll call R., a few months before, doing some local film work. We’d had a good time goofing around on set and became Facebook friends. R. was also in his late-thirties and enjoyed running and biking and performing. We had a couple casual dates, but the potential for a relationship was limited—he lived over an hour away, and our values were dramatically different. He puzzled me, which was dangerous. People who perplex me compel my attention: mystify me, and I’ll stick around a while just to try and figure you out.
So one clear summer afternoon, with nothing (and no one) else in the offing, I invited him to go hiking.
One incompatibility was our differing perspectives on religion, though the issue was less the differences themselves than R.’s inability to leave it alone. We got maybe halfway up the mountain before we started arguing in earnest. R.’s relationship with God was the “right” kind, the only “true” kind, and he was certain of that. What’s more, he was certain that what was right for him was right for everyone. He knew it. It was true. It was inarguable.
It was annoying.
As a scholar of rhetoric, I know absolute claims of any kind, about anything, are fundamentally illogical, because they can almost never be supported (see what I did there?). And life has seen fit to show me again and again that the only certainty is uncertainty. To claim absolute certainty about faith—by definition, a belief in something that cannot be proven—is arrogant, if not blasphemous: if only God is all-knowing, God is the only being who can claim to know God’s will for certain, right?
R. quoted all the same platitudes at me I’d heard a million times before. A couple sitting close to us at the summit got up and moved away. I wanted to follow. Has anyone ever been successfully harangued into seeing the light? A bigger problem: the underlying rigidity. What other beliefs or ways of being did R. think had to be precisely this way and this way only? What else would he insist I’d have to change for me to be acceptable?
By the time we headed down the mountain, I was deeply weary of self-righteous certitude. Then R. declared his celibacy. According to his reading of the Bible, it was the right choice, the only choice.
He reassured me (I didn’t know I was worried) that he loved sex and that he was great in bed. But sex outside marriage was unequivocally wrong, and until he found the right partner and got married, he’d made a vow to abstain.
Sexual desire is a natural and normal part of adult life, and I wouldn’t marry someone without exploring sexual compatibility myself. Still, I might have been able to admire R.’s choice if he hadn’t been so self-congratulatory about his prowess and his willpower. Or if he’d refrained from uttering the word “re-virgination.” Whenever I’d thrown that kind of hubris out into the universe, it had found a way to turn around and throw a little humility right back.
I shook my head and picked up my trail speed.
After the Zombie Jamboree…
I didn’t see R. again until we were cast opposite each other in another film, a zombie short, a few months later.
My character was a philandering woman who, along with her lover, gets kidnapped by her angry husband and buried alive at the edge of the ocean so that she drowns when the tide comes in. The boyfriend meets the same fate. Then she and the boyfriend come back as marine-life-bedraggled zombies to exact their revenge.
A light, happy little story.
We shot most of the film in a single, long day at the director’s house and a nearby park. The film opened with a scene in which R., playing my boy-toy lover, lay in bed pouting because I was leaving him post-coitally to pick up my unsuspecting (not) husband at the airport. My directions were to walk into the room reassembling clothes and jewelry, sit on the edge of the bed, try to soothe my lover’s ailing ego, then lay one on him with promises of more to come later. Before I could get out the door, we’d get ambushed by the angry hubby.
But let’s linger a moment on that lingering kiss, shall we? Because R. did.
In my defense, I was acting. But I suppose there are good reasons co-stars get together. We had to do several takes of the scene, so five or six times I sashayed into the room, curled up on the edge of the bed, said something flirty, and gave R. a slow, sexy kiss intended to telegraph these two characters are having one hot affair, and he’s threatening to end it, so she’s insuring he’ll be left wanting more.
R. and I carpooled to the park for the “ocean” scenes, and then, back at the director’s, morphed into zombies to shoot the final moments. It was a wrap. A few minutes after I arrived home, R. called and asked if I’d found his wallet, which he thought he’d left in my car when we’d driven to the lake.
He came by to pick it up an hour or so later. When I opened the door, he seemed agitated. Almost…giggly? His expression equal parts eager and sheepish, he shoved his hands down in his shorts pockets and said, “I don’t know about you, but after filming today, I’m feeling a little froggy.”
“Froggy?” I repeated.
He giggled again and ducked his head. Forget morphing into a zombie; he’d morphed into a sixteen year old girl.
“You know,” he said, grinning.
I shook my head. I did not.
R. knew he’d said on the hike that once he kissed someone, he considered it an exclusive contract, but could we maybe revise that, loosen it up a little, because he really wanted to kiss me?
Worrying over the import of a kiss seemed silly, since we’d kissed—albeit in character—multiple times that morning. I nodded. He kissed me, then whispered, “The way you kissed me this morning while we were filming was really hot.”
I felt a flicker of remorse. I knew I’d probably laid it on a little thicker than in most performance situations, having recalled his pious declarations of immunity to temptation.
R. offered a foot massage. I was wary of this tactic, since some years ago, after my brother made the same offer to his longtime friend Lisa, one thing led to another and eventually she became my sister-in-law. But I was also amused, and flattered, and after some months of being unintentionally celibate myself, not a little starved for human touch.
Apparently, my toes were more irresistible than my lips. Within an hour, R. had moved from rubbing my feet to sucking on my toes to sitting naked on my living room couch, urging, “You can hop on if you want, I won’t stop you.”
I demurely declined. If mere kisses were contractual in his world, I certainly wasn’t going to have sex without further discussion.
Then he reached for me and moaned, “How can I witness?”
I almost asked, “Witness what?” before I realized what he meant. He was berating himself for his fall from grace—for trading in the role of holier-than-thou exemplar for that of, well, ordinary human.
I felt a bit guilty about getting between a man and his promise to God. But a grown man expressing vulnerability and desire, however clumsily, seemed far more normal and appealing than one spouting pieties about abstinence.
And all because of a few onscreen kisses. I always thought I was a pretty good actor. But damn.