Catholic guilt

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My own coming-of-age story falls somewhere between Genesis and the Gospels. My adolescence was infused with Catholicism: picturesque semesters of religion classes, memorizing prayers and discovering sexual preferences. 

Everything my parents had envisioned about an all-girls high school was quickly overshadowed by sex, the unavoidable governing power of puberty and the miraculous skills women had in the bedroom. It wasn’t a complete failure, though. I did, in fact, find myself vulnerably confronting my religion — with a cross dangling above my face, connected to a chain around the neck of a classmate. 

Long story short, it was in the estrogen chamber of my Catholic all-girls school that I realized my faith and bisexuality, my specialized area of study. 

Senior year, rather than nursing my relationship with God, I nursed my feelings for one of my classmates: a tall, athletic brunette, who, despite her stereotypically gay appearance, was somehow still in the closet. She was the final chapter in the book of hot girls I had developed a crush on over the last four years — the final recruit to my team of potential partners. But she was also the first classmate I swooned over who repressed her sexuality. 

We went on a few dates, with the main topic of conversation always revolving around her conservative family and the lies she had told in order to get dinner with me. While I had also lied about the nature of our relationship to my parents, it was not because they didn’t know I was gay. It was rather to conceal the amount of gas I would be using to drive her as far away from home as possible, isolating us from the judgment of her parents. No number of cute texts or dedicated Spotify playlists could persuade her to reconcile her two identities, the good Catholic daughter and gay daughter — the good nature of the latter silenced by fear. 

With every religion class we spent next to each other, our feelings grew. It made the Bible studies much more bearable — my innocent crush carrying me through the course material. There was no point in me paying attention during “Catholic Theology and Morality,” already having committed the ultimate sin beneath our desks: a game of girl-on-girl footsie. Despite my efforts, our short-lived, forbidden romance was rudely interrupted by a worldwide pandemic and an awkward first kiss. 

Our last date was March 12 — what we didn’t know was exactly 24 hours before California’s shutdown with spiking cases of COVID-19 and the final time we would ever see one another. She picked me up from swim practice, graciously entertaining my presence despite the chaotic smell of Dove body wash, Old Spice deodorant and aggressive chlorination that I brought into her car. The next few hours were perfect: the final moments of maskless freedom. 

We drove to a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the aux flipping between the playlists we had made for each other, our faces close enough that with a slight shift of weight our lips would lock. 

You never want to describe a first kiss as “ripping the bandage off,” but in this case, that’s the only way to refer to our rushed exchange of saliva. Succumbing to the silence, our lips met, and just as quickly as my top lip embraced hers, she pulled away. 

I was shocked, but she looked even more surprised. We didn’t exchange many words, but I could feel her shame and regret. As her cheeks turned red, thoughts of her religious, chaste upbringing flooded her mind. Her racing heart would remind her of confession, and the voice in her head, the one that had been formed from 13 years at Catholic school, told her she was at fault. I would know; initially, I had felt the exact same way, but I was fortunate enough to have my family’s support. Yet, in her eyes, liking girls would always be wrong — kissing them even worse, and she had at last crossed the line between the two. 

Tense and raw, she drove me home, terrified that her parents would sense her mistake, a sin she now carried — but they didn’t. It remained our little secret, and two years later, it still does. 

I was embarrassed, convinced the spoiled moment was my fault, when, in reality, she was battling a demon stronger than any crush or temptation: Catholic guilt. 

I was no stranger to this sinking feeling. Although I had grown to avoid manifesting my own shame, her reaction pulled me back in, bringing me back to the depths of insecurity and misunderstanding. My sexuality was a complete betrayal of my religion, muddying the holy water of my baptism. 

Eventually, as our relationship faded to nothing more than the annual birthday text, so did my feelings of shame. I guess time really does heal all wounds, more than any prayer or blessing could have. But I will always be her biggest secret: a surrogate for the sexual identity she, as far as I know, never explored beyond that night in her car.

Gigi Laurin writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.