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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Trans Am Incident: Part II

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Episode 2 of “Things Which, In Retrospect, I Should Not Have Done”

NOTE: Matt and I also made a short film based on the events described in this story. To see that film, go here.

<<< Back to Part 1

Tuza Office Cleaning, Inc.

“Today, your Christian parents may likewise be afraid for you. Not that they think you are wickedly inclined, but they know from experience that young people are especially vulnerable to Satan’s ‘crafty acts.'”
“Youths-What Are You Pursuing?”
“Watchtower” magazine, 4/15/93

“In the 1960’s ‘dating’ between sexes was prominent and popular in the world. Heavy ‘petting’ and ‘necking’ were in vogue. Was there a danger of our youths becoming sullied and besmirched by ‘loose conduct’ and unclean practices? … Yes, there was! So, Jehovah again, through his organization, pointed out that such practices were not fitting for a ‘holy’ people.”
“You Must Be Holy Because Jehovah Is Holy”
“Watchtower” magazine, 2/15/76

Six months had passed since The Trans Am Incident and my life continued much as before. I only saw Mara at the Kingdom Hall, and we avoided eye contact, just as we always had. I saw Jeri whenever I saw her brother Jim, but we played it cool. I knew things had gotten a little out of hand, and felt that, given time, the seriousness of the transgression would fade, as long as we never verbally acknowledged that it had happened. So I didn’t, and I assumed they didn’t, and it was like our furtive almost-threesome had never happened. Alone in my bed at night, however, I would mentally replay the episode in delectable, terrifying detail, and imagine what might have happened without the restraining influence of a nearby adult… What if – for example – Jeri, Mara and I had been alone in a house, with no parents expected home until the following morning? What if we had access to the spirit-weakening influence of alcohol? Thinking of this, I shuddered. Oh, it could have been so much better…

Or worse. Depending on your perspective.

I had a job at the time, working for Mr. and Mrs. Tuza, a Romanian couple who cleaned office buildings. The Tuzas, who both had the diminutive stature and awkward gait of E.T., lived in a huge, decrepit old house filled with mysterious locked rooms, rotting piles of discarded clothing, damp bundles of Romanian newspapers, roaming prides of feral cats, flocks of demented birds, and several hidden caches of weird European pornography, which I ferreted out and stole whenever possible.

Early every Friday evening, The Tuzas would drive to my house and pick me up. We would spend most of the night traveling to and cleaning office buildings in Lynnwood (Echelbarger Realty), Ballard (a paint store), and Mercer Island (Honeywell Systems). Around 1AM, they would drop me off at home again, exhausted and smelling of Windex, but with an extra 20 bucks to spend on Rush LPs.

On the Friday evening in question, I was at home, awaiting the arrival of the Tuzas, happily preparing a snack to eat on the road between Echelbarger and Honeywell, when the phone rang. My mom answered the phone, then said something that made my blood run cold: “Yes, he’s here, Mara. Just a second.”

My mom narrowed her eyes and looked at me for a beat, then handed me the phone. This was not the first agitated phone call from a girl, or a girl’s parents, or an anonymous informant who saw me at the mall with a girl, and these phone calls were always the beginning of something bad. Too many times, these phone calls had come during dinner, and too many times, the evening had ended in a tearful screaming match, my dad’s patented Elder Voice booming “Don’t you SEE how you have DISAPPOINTED JEHOVAH GOD?” as I ran out the front door weeping hysterically and threatening to kill myself. I suppose my mom had just about had enough by this point. She stood there in the kitchen, directly in front of me, looking searchingly into my eyes with rapidly-growing suspicion, as I tried to understand what Mara was saying to me.

“Jason? Look, I accidentally, um… told someone. About us. About… what we did, you know? On the way home from the assembly, when you- ”

I cut her off. “Yes, yes, I get it. So, uh, what, um…” I stammered, flooded with panic, struggling to absorb this new information. My mom stood, glaring, arms crossed, and I could not escape to another room; this was long before cordless phones were common.

“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble, Jason, it just… happened,” Mara continued. “The person I told, she told her dad…” Mara named the friend’s dad, who was a respected elder in our congregation. “Anyway, he made me tell my parents, and now they say they’re going to tell your parents unless you tell them first. By this Sunday. The thing is-”

“Yeah, okay, I understand. Well, I gotta go, Mara, um, I’m on my way to work, so- ”

“Jason, I’m really sorry about this,” Mara pointlessly assured me, then concluded, weakly: “Well, crap.”

“Yeah, definitely!” I agreed, too loudly, almost shouting in fact, through the clenched teeth of a frozen smile. In the driveway, I could hear the Tuzas honking their car horn. My mother looked at me with undisguised accusation, her face blossoming with rage. “Okay, Mara, see you later! Thanks for calling!” I concluded with false bravado, hanging up the phone. Before my mom could formulate a complete sentence, I bolted out the door, away from her questions. I think she may have been crying, but I couldn’t risk a glance in her direction; she would see my filthy sinfulness immediately. I had to get away, and I had to think.

All that night, as I emptied the wastebaskets of electrical engineers on Mercer Island, as I cleaned latex paint off the floor in Ballard, I turned the situation over in my mind, weighing my options, rehearsing alibis, speculating on the possible consequences. I had never been in this kind of trouble before; my impending doom hung heavy on me. My conscience (or at least a voice in my head that I assumed was my conscience) branded me a deviant, an animal… no, even worse: a pedophile.

My dad was an elder in the church, for God’s sake! I knew what happened to people like me! First, I would have to meet with the entire body of elders and describe my debauchery to them in lurid detail, while they shook their heads sadly and took copious notes.

They would probably stop me occasionally to verify a point: “Jason, I just want to make sure we’ve got this right – while you were stroking Mara’s nipple with your left hand, you were… let me check my notes… you had your right hand inside Jeri’s panties? Okay, just wanted to make sure we had that right. Please continue…”

They would probably bring Jeri and Mara in; of course they would cry and everyone in the room would look at me as if to say, “See? See what you’ve done to these innocent girls? Defiler! Child of Satan!” Then they would debate whether I was truly repentant, which was a definite problem, because, to be honest, I wasn’t all that repentant. When I thought about the events in the Trans Am, the feelings I had didn’t amount to “remorse,” exactly. So, correctly judging me to be unrepentant, my sins would be announced from the podium at the next Kingdom Hall meeting. I would either be “Publicly Reproved” or “Disfellowshipped,” depending on various opaque criteria that I couldn’t remember at the moment. Being “Publicly Reproved” was bad, and would probably mean that most of my friends’ parents would not let me associate with their children for the next year or so. But “Disfellowshipped” – that was much, much worse. It would mean that all Witnesses (except elders and my own family members) would be prohibited from speaking to me, until such time as I convinced the elders that I was genuinely repentant for touching Mara’s smooth, perfectly-shaped breast…

Our Friday night janitorial duties complete, the Tuzas dropped me off at home, and I trudged slowly toward the front door of my house. I knew that my parents would likely be sitting in the living room waiting to interrogate me, and I still hadn’t come up with any sort of plan or believable alibi. I did know one thing for certain: the moment I closed the front door and submitted to their questioning, my fate would be sealed. I waited until the Tuzas drove around the corner, then started running down the street, away from my house.

Walkin’ After Midnight

“How comforting to know that Jehovah remembers that we are dust! Never should we reason, however, that this is a legitimate excuse for slacking the hand or perhaps even for doing wrong. Not at all! That Jehovah remembers that we are dust is an expression of his undeserved kindness… Being made of dust is no excuse for being ungodly. A Christian strives to combat wrong tendencies, pummeling his body and leading it as a slave, so as to avoid ‘grieving God’s holy spirit.'”
“Despite Being Made of Dust, Push Ahead!”
“Watchtower” magazine, 9/1/94

Unable to come up with a longer-term strategy, I had only decided on my next immediate step: Walk to Jim’s house and ask for his advice. Or say goodbye. After all, if I was going to be disfellowshipped, it might be a long time before I could speak to him again. And if I really was going to be disfellowshipped, if they really were going to announce at the Kingdom Hall that I had molested two young girls, that I was an unrepentant pedophile, and that nobody was allowed to talk to me, well… in that case, suicide seemed like a reasonable option. Under either the “disfellowshipped” or “dead” scenarios, the heroic tableaux of me professing my undying allegiance to our friendship before walking to the gallows appealed to my teenaged sense of poetic tragedy.

There were a couple of problems with my North Lynnwood walkabout, right off the bat. First, it was very, very cold outside, and I was dressed in my janitorial work clothes: torn jeans and a thin, short-sleeved t-shirt. Second, I didn’t know exactly how to get to Jim’s house – not on foot, anyway. I mean, I knew the general direction, and I could probably make an educated guess on the particulars, but still… and it was dark, obviously, so you had to factor that in. But all of this just added to the delectably tragic narrative I was constructing, and so I set off, into the unwelcoming night.

After walking for a couple of hours, I realized that my conception of distance was – to put it bluntly – hopelessly fucked. Before this night, I had believed that Jim lived – maximum – a couple of miles away from my house. I had been so wrong; I was pretty sure that I’d walked at least five or six miles, and I still wasn’t there. On the plus side, I was not completely lost. I knew approximately which direction to go, and I was recognizing the current neighborhood as one within a mile or so of my destination; we had ridden our bikes through here once.

At long last, I reached Jim’s house, in a quiet middle-class suburban development in Mill Creek. My nose was running freely, and my teeth were chattering. My pale arms were hugged to my chest in a vain effort to keep out the worst of the cold, and my mouth was making barely coherent, involuntary sounds: “ubububa ubububa ubububa ohsweetjesus fuckfuckfuck…”

I climbed up a trellis onto the roof of Jim’s garage, crept to his window, and tapped on the glass. After a few minutes, I heard him stirring inside the room, grumbling sleepily, and he opened the blinds. After rolling his eyes at me for a few seconds, Jim opened the window, and I tumbled clumsily into his room.

Briefly I described to Jim what had happened, though I chose to gloss over the part where I had my hand in his sister’s panties. I focused instead on the Mara part of the story, which was the important part, anyway, because it was the part that would probably get me banished to the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing my teeth. As far as I knew, Mara’s parents – and the elders – only knew about the part where I had delicately cupped my hand around the warmth of Mara’s smooth, perfectly-formed left breast… not the part where I was simultaneously finger-banging her best friend.

I was just getting to the part where I proclaimed my undying allegiance to our friendship, when we heard someone shuffling down the hallway.

“Quick!” Jim barked in a stage whisper, “into my bed!”

I dove into Jim’s bed and pulled the blankets up to cover my face. Jim jumped in next to me and pulled me close to him so that, to the casual observer, my body might appear to be part of his. Jim closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep, and the door opened to reveal his mom standing in the hallway.

“Jim, what’s going on in here?” she demanded.

“Huh? Wha-?” Jim responded, in an unconvincing imitation of someone who has just been awakened from a deep sleep.

“Don’t play stupid with me,” she cut him off bluntly, flipping on the room light. I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was looking around the room, searching for evidence. Her gaze fell almost immediately on the bed, and the body-shaped lump under the blankets next to Jim. I imagined her eyes narrowing in anger as things clicked into place.

“Jim, do you have a GIRL in bed with you?”

“No! Mom, no WAY do I-”

Realizing the futility of the whole ridiculous charade, too tired to continue, I pulled down the sheets to reveal my face. Jim’s mom gasped, then slowly, deliberately crossed her arms and looked closely at me, for a beat longer than I felt was absolutely necessary. Then she looked at Jim, with the same odd expression, as if she was doing a complicated math problem in her head. Then she looked at me again.

“What, exactly, is going on here?” she asked again.

I had no energy to concoct a lie, so I told her a vague version of the truth: I was in some trouble, and wanted to talk to Jim. She accepted this eventually, and offered to cook me some breakfast, which, looking back on it, was awfully sweet of her. I accepted her offer, and she shuffled off to the kitchen. As soon as she left the room, I jumped back out Jim’s window and began the long walk home.

Porneia or Aselgeia?

“To illustrate this in a practical way: An engaged Christian couple might, on some occasion of showing affection toward each other, unintentionally go beyond the point of what is pure and decent. Though not committing what the Bible calls porneia (gross sexual immorality), the engaged couple might, nevertheless, become guilty of a measure of ‘uncleanness,’ as by embracing in a very passionate way, or letting their hands drift into intimate body areas. They may feel ashamed of this and resolve not to do it again. Have they been guilty of ‘loose conduct’ (aselgeia)?

“Not in the full Bible sense of the word, for they were not deliberately and disdainfully flaunting righteous standards. Of course, if they willingly made a practice of such impure conduct, this would show a careless disregard for what is clean, the shameless disrespect described by aselgeia. So, too, a young man who, though having no honorable intentions of getting married, selfishly engages in lovemaking and ‘heavy petting’ with a girl – or perhaps with one girl after another – is manifesting the wanton greed of Scripturally defined ‘loose conduct.’ He does not care how much harm or hurt he causes. The same could be said of a girl taking a similar course.

“Those charged with spiritual oversight in Christian congregations do well, therefore, to distinguish between these Scriptural terms.”
“Questions from Readers”
“Watchtower” magazine, 9/15/73

Unsurprisingly, when I finally got back home, my parents were still up, waiting for me in the living room. I waved off their questions, staggered to my bedroom, and slept for twenty hours. My father woke me early Sunday morning.

“I’m just getting ready to go on my paper route. You’re coming with me today,” he stated flatly.

Over the next six hours, as we stuffed, loaded, and delivered hundreds of the enormous Sunday papers, my father questioned me about my shameful sins, and I told him everything. And when I say, “I told him everything,” I mean, “I told him everything that he would find out anyway, and left out the whole ‘double-dutch’ aspect of the story.”

In my entire life, only three or four episodes have equaled the levels of humiliation that I experienced that morning on the paper route with my father. He seemed overwhelmed by his disappointment and his contempt for my weakness, questioning me in a lawyer’s voice, drained of human emotion. I answered his questions as truthfully as I could, but some questions posed unexpected difficulties:

“Did your fingers, at any time, come into contact with Mara’s labia?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Jason, how could you not know if you touched her labia?” he demanded.

“Uh, well, I’m not sure what a ‘labia’ is. If it’s part of the breast, then yes, I definitely touched it. Several times.”

My father winced. “Here,” he said, handing me a newspaper, “Put this in the box on the porch of the yellow house. Close the box tightly or the customer will complain.” As I got out of the car to deliver the paper, he leaned against the steering wheel, sighed deeply and rubbed his forehead.

By the time we reached home, Elder Toews had determined that – while my conduct had certainly been immoral and unclean and wrong – it probably didn’t constitute “porneia” and therefore wasn’t grounds for disfellowshipping, as long as I was convincingly repentant. Of course, had he known the full story, I’m sure the classification would have shot right past porneia and on to some other Greek word meaning, “Go directly to jail.” Anyway, my dad gave me the expected “Jehovah sees all of your dirty thoughts and you’re making Jesus cry” sermon, but – all things considered – I figured I was getting off easy.

That illusion lasted right up until the moment we pulled into our driveway, which was when my dad told me what I had to do in order to prove my full repentance for softly placing my trembling hand upon the smooth skin of Mara’s warm, perfectly-shaped breast.

My father’s final pronouncement: “I want you to meet with Mara’s parents, and apologize to them for what you did to their daughter.”

Penance

“Are you sometimes tempted to barter your Christian inheritance, everlasting life, for something as transient as a ‘bowl of lentil stew’? Do you, perhaps without realizing it, despise ‘sacred things’? For example, in recent times some Christians have fallen victim to the modern moral permissiveness. They seem to have Esau’s impatient desire to satisfy a physical craving. Just as he said to Jacob: ‘Quick, please, give me a swallow of the red,’ have they not, in effect, said: ‘Quick! Why wait for honorable marriage?’

“Thus what has happened? A desire for sexual satisfaction at any price has become their ‘bowl of lentil stew.’ As a result, they have despised sacred things, including their relationship with Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. They have disdained integrity, fidelity and chastity. They have jeopardized their inheritance. However, some of these have later been stirred to genuine repentance and apparently have regained their standing with God.”
“Do You Appreciate Your Inheritance?”
“Watchtower” magazine, 11/15/84

So it was that the next Saturday afternoon found me pedaling my Huffy 10-speed over to Mara’s house. I knew that Mara’s dad would want to look up some scriptures as part of our conversation, so I had a Bible in my backpack, as if that was the most natural thing in the world, as if I always carried a Bible when I was out riding my bike. “Going to the arcade? Sure, just let me grab my Septuagint Version!” But appearances are important when you’re meeting with a man whose thirteen-year-old daughter you groped in the backseat of a Trans Am.

Mara’s dad opened the door and grimly invited me into their ornately decorated, pristinely clean living room, where I had attended countless Tuesday night Bible study meetings. All of the windows in the house had been replaced with elaborate stained glass panels designed and constructed by Mara’s father. Mara and her mother hovered tensely in the background. Mara cried quietly throughout the meeting, and was comforted by her mother, who never took her eyes from me, as though afraid I might go berserk, slaughtering the male and having my way with the womenfolk.

For about an hour, Mara’s dad led me through the same series of questions asked by my dad the week before; this time I was slightly more prepared, and also more comfortable acting out the required repentance. Gradually, I came to realize that Mara’s dad wasn’t even that angry; this was all a sort of dumb play, a ritual that we had to perform to erase the stigma of The Trans Am Incident. He performed his role stiffly but efficiently, inviting me to read certain pre-selected scriptural passages. I, in turn, performed my role, reading the scriptures with enthusiasm and speaking earnestly about how much I had learned from this experience, and how sorry I was and praise Jehovah and this will never happen again and even producing some tears and bowing my head in prayer and then it was over and I was pedaling homeward.

Everything I had said was completely sincere and, at the same time, patently false. Some of it was a genuine expression of my emotional response in the moment, and some of it was nothing more than a rote performance of the words I knew they needed to hear. In any case, the part that was most important to them – my promise to never again touch Mara’s perfectly-formed breast – turned out to be the truth. Much to my chagrin.

Epilogue(s)

Six months later, while waiting for our meals in a Mexican restaurant, my mother broke her silence on The Trans Am Incident. While she made it clear that she absolutely did not approve of my unclean and sinful behavior, she told me that she was relieved to know that I was a “normal” boy.

Whatever that means.

“You’ll never have trouble finding girlfriends, will you, Jason?” she said to me conspiratorially, stopping just short of winking at me over the complimentary tortilla chips.

~

Mara’s father, along with two other Witnesses in our congregation, started a small magazine publishing company. Two years after The Trans Am Incident, in my senior year of high school, they gave me my first real job. Five years later, they sold the company, but I stayed on. Today, twenty-three years after the events in the Trans-Am, twenty-one years after Mara’s father hired me, I still work for that company.

~

Like most of my friends, I was married much too young; I married Jen only two years out of high school. At the time of my wedding, Jim had already been married for a year. Jeri was married soon after.

Also similarly to most of my friends, my first marriage ended in flaming wreckage. One day, after a ten-year slide into disappointment and recrimination, I came home from work to find that Jen had had enough; the house was dark and all her stuff was gone. I wasn’t blameless in the failure of my marriage (I’m guessing that making out with my wife’s best friend was probably the turning point), but I had believed that things were getting better. I was devastated by Jen’s departure. I spent several panicky, sleepless days trying to find out where she was staying, trying to formulate a plan to win her back, threatening to beat up her new boyfriend, and mentally cataloging all the ways I had failed. Sitting on the floor in my half-empty house a few nights later, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t breathe. My chest simply locked up, as if a giant wood clamp was being tightened against my ribs. My vision became blurred, and the floor was first rolling, then lurching violently. I managed to call a friend and wheeze my name into the phone, and they got me to the hospital, where a helpful nurse informed me that it was all just a fairly standard panic attack, nothing to worry about, so they gave me a few injections and sent me home.

Arriving back at my gloomy house, I found the door locked and my key missing. I went to a neighbor’s house and called Jim; he knew where Jen was staying, though she had sworn him to secrecy. “Don’t worry; I’m not trying to find her,” I explained. “I just need her house key.” He said he’d do what he could, and made me promise not to do anything stupid, though I couldn’t tell you what all that might have encompassed; driving my car off a cliff, probably. Sawing my wrists open with a fallen branch, possibly. I went back to my house, sat on the porch, and waited in the dark, hands jammed in my pockets for warmth, trying to trace the steps that had led me to this unhappy place.

Half an hour later, a familiar car pulled up, and Jeri arrived to rescue me.

“Ta-da! I got the key!” she said in a cheery voice, then took a closer look at me. “God, Jason. You’re not doing so well, are you?” Without hesitation, without any awkwardness or embarrassment, she wrapped her arms around me and held me while I sobbed. It was an unadorned, perfectly natural gesture, the kind of thing friends do for each other every day, all over the world, millions of times. But even now, a decade later, it ranks up there as one of the sweetest, most unexpected acts of kindness I have ever experienced.

For the rest of the night, Jeri took care of me. She picked out some warm clothes for me to wear, made me wash my face, helped me clean up the house a bit, then took me out for some late-night food at a 24-hour restaurant.

Her attentiveness and loving concern were doubly surprising, given that she was in the middle of her own acrimonious divorce at the time. Her mother and father were divorced within the year; her brother Jim and his wife, three years later.

As I ate my minestrone soup and listened to Jeri’s voice, as the medication kicked in and my brain gradually slowed to normal operating speed, I started to wonder how things might have been different if Jeri and I had gotten together. I wondered if everything might have turned out less disastrously, if maybe I could have avoided some of the mistakes I had made, some of the disappointment and anger, the panic attacks or that awful moment when I trudged home through the frozen snow to find my wife, my son, and half of my CDs gone. In the end, I had to acknowledge this as a convenient delusion; my fantasy marriage to Jeri would have ended in a shambles, just like my real marriage to Jen.

Then another frightening thought loomed: It was beginning to seem likely that no matter WHO I had married, it would have ended badly, because we were all too young, too selfish, and had absorbed some fairly messed-up ideas about men and women. There was no way around the fact: I hadn’t been a very good husband. That was upsetting, and definitely worthy of more thorough examination, but I couldn’t do anything about it at the moment, there in Stella’s 24-Hour Trattoria.

So, just for the remainder of the evening, or at least until I finished my soup, I pushed myself to notice something else: Despite everything, here was Jeri, my friend, beautiful and kind, sitting right here across the table from me, taking care of me. And that was a good thing.

Dear Jeri: I miss you.

One Comment

  1. Beautiful story. It’s actually a love story – a prose poem to the lovely Jeri. I hope she’s ok,hope she’s Not still with the Borg.

    I was a lot like Jeri, the flaky girl who tipexed out her name at the top of the exam tables. The flaky girl with the violent, alcoholic father. You opened my eyes a lot. Nice to know someone good sees through the flaky act and likes the ‘Jeri’ underneath.

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