I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride;
I have gathered my myrrh along with my balsam.
I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey;
I have drunk my milk and my wine.
– Song of Solomon 5:1
I married my husband when I was 12 years old on a muggy summer night in the church where I grew up. My family had chosen him for me. We’d been introduced. He liked animals, magic tricks, and talking circles around a thing without ever saying what he really meant. My parents said he was my soul mate. My friends said we were a match made in actual heaven. And so I walked down the aisle of The First Baptist Church of Flowery Branch and asked him to live inside my heart for all eternity.
I was in my mid-20s when I divorced him.
When you’re a little girl growing up in an evangelical Christian church, one of the first things you learn is that you are intended to be the Bride of Jesus Christ. The Bible talks about it nonstop.
Your wedding dress will be your glowing good deeds, like a gown made of threaded moonbeams (Revelation 19). Jesus will spend most of his time washing the gunk off of you because it’s his main job to keep you from being so disgusting (Galatians 6). And don’t ever doubt how grimey you are; everybody knows he plucked you out of whoredom (Hosea 1), which is a little weird since you’ve got to be more virginal than fresh-fallen snow to get him to marry you (2 Corinthians 11).
If you begin to feel slighted that your groom has a million other brides, just remember that God one time said King Solomon was “the wisest man to ever live.” That guy had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and everybody involved in that situation liked it just fine. Read The Song of Solomon, if you don’t believe it. Wait, no. Don’t read The Song of Solomon. Too much talk about “climbing palm trees” and “taking hold of fruit” and “going down” to “the garden.” You’re too young to be thinking about “the garden.” Just hush and calm down (1 Corinthians 14) and God will send you a human husband to stand in for Jesus and teach you what you need to know (Ephesians 5).
Unfortunately, by the time I was 14, the garden was pretty much the only thing I thought about. I didn’t know much about gardens, in general, but what I was working with seemed less like the married person’s vegetable patch the church described and more like a Narnian wonderland full of infinite magical possibility.
So I wandered around the wonderland.
And was assaulted by guilt.
But wandered some more anyway.
And was assaulted by even more more guilt.
I wandered and wandered and wandered until I was drowning in shame and then I wandered under water.
One of the hardest things about having Jesus as a husband is he can see through walls and ceilings and even right inside your head. You’re not alone in the shower. You’re not alone in your bed. His laser vision is better even than Santa Claus’, only instead of chancing a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking, you’re chancing sending your soul to the flaming pits of hell to dwell in endless agony. I tried everything to stop masturbating. Sleeping with my bedroom door open. Not watching HBO. Praying for God to actually take away stuff I cared about, like how I lost my Nintendo privileges if I talked back to my mom.
And then I grew boobs.
The first time my high school boyfriend got an erection, we prayed over it. We’d been riding mountain bikes and when we were loading up our gear to head home, he sprang a hugely conspicuous boner in his cycling shorts. His eyes were as big as the moon when he said we should pray for it to go away, and they were still bugging out of his face when we decided it was my fault because I also was wearing lycra cycling shorts and my cycling jersey was sleeveless and so from now on he would ride in front and I would wear loose-fitting clothes.
I always wanted to argue, but the Bible was never on my side. Abraham’s uncle Lot impregnated his daughters when he was drunk and God said it was all the daughters’ fault. King David, the guy God called “a man after his own heart,” commanded a married woman named Bathsheba to have sex with him after peeping on her in the bath, so God killed Bathsheba’s baby. I mean, right there in Deuteronomy, God says if a woman gets raped she should be stoned right beside the guy she caused to rape her.
I hated my body and I hated myself and I hadn’t even begun to deal with the fact that I spent all my garden time thinking about other girls.
A couple of years ago, I was lying in bed with my girlfriend on a Sunday morning, laughing softly and talking quietly about I don’t even know what. TV probably. Or books. Politics. Football maybe. I was playing with her hair and she was murmuring against my neck and I started to cry. Little tears at first and then sniffly ones. Before I even knew what was happening, I was shaking and sobbing.
My girlfriend asked me what had happened, but I couldn’t answer. She asked me to please talk to her, but I couldn’t say anything. She said I was scaring her, and I finally choked out that I just really, really wanted to have sex. She held my head in her hands and looked in my eyes like she was trying to read the words inside my mind, like maybe if she could see into my brain she could figure out how in the world I’d come to believe that wanting to have sex with her was such a terrible thing.
The day I divorced Jesus and left church for good, I made a to do list. This is it, verbatim:
Step One: Masturbate with the lights on. If that goes okay, Step Two: Masturbate during the day time. If that goes okay, Step Three: Masturbate on top of the covers.
And that’s where the list stops. I’m not sure what I thought needed to “go okay” to be able to move on to the next step of my plan to throw off the chains of sexual oppression, but apparently the idea of getting off without hiding under a thick comforter was the height of sexual liberation to me. I completed my to do list in record time, but smashing my programming turned out to be a lot harder than I’d expected.
“Wicked,” “filthy,” “unclean,” “wanton” and “harlot” were a few of the words the Bible had used to describe me, just by nature of being born with a vagina, and I heard it so often and starting at such a young age that it felt hardwired inside my brain. I was five years old when I learned I was a whore, 12 years old when I found out having a period made me unclean, and 16 years old when my pastor told me my body was a “stumbling block” to god-fearing men. If grown men were having impure thoughts because the shape of my teenage breast was visible through my t-shirt, that was on me.
It wasn’t bad enough that I couldn’t keep my hand out of my own pants; I was also causing other people to stick their hands in their pants. Goddamn that Eve and her original sin, opening the portal of evil into the world, forcing my body to be a sexual land mine, biding its time until it could explode the limbs off of godly man!
I didn’t actively believe any of that wankshite by the time I was in my 20s, but I couldn’t seem to shake it out of my brain either. Having sex with women helped. I’d beaten my queerness so far down into my psyche when I was growing up that I’d never even allowed myself to look at other girls. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Women’s bodies were just the best! The curves! The softness! I could barely even tolerate the faces of the dudes I had dated, but even women’s elbows made my heart beat like a brand new poem!
Having sex with women finally helped me understand why my church had always wanted me to stay away from Song of Solomon. It’s not because it is too racy. It’s because it is a song of female worship. The sachets of myrrh, the clusters of henna blossoms, the lilies of the valley, the hills, the ripe figs, the clefts of the rock, the crannies of the cliff, the slopes of Gilead, the orchard of pomegranates, the honey, the oil, the wine!
It’s hard to convince a woman she’s a nasty hellbeast when King Solomon is so drunk off mountain spice and saffron he can hardly see straight.
The morning I cried about wanting to have so much sex with my girlfriend is the morning everything changed for me. I’ve dated other girls, slept with other girls, loved other girls, but nothing prepared me for the way I love my girlfriend. It is enormous and it is relentless, and that morning when she grinned at me I noticed that she had smile-wrinkles. She didn’t have smile-wrinkles when we started dating. Her face had changed over the years, while we’d been going to sleep and waking up beside each other, and it was somehow even more beautiful than when we met.
I said I really, really wanted to have sex. Not just sex, but sex with her. Not just right then, but almost always. Not just because it felt good, but because the way I loved her was too powerful for words and sex was the only way I could think to say it sometimes.
When she kissed me that morning, I realized, for the first time in my life, that I’d never really been married to Jesus. That wasn’t what it felt like to belong to somebody. This was what it felt like to belong to somebody. What mattered wasn’t the story we’d been told by the men in our church who wanted to control the world by controlling our sexuality. What mattered was the story we were telling each other, about ourselves.
The Bible was right about one thing, though: There’s nothing quite like a trip around the garden, especially when you stop sneaking in and trying to find your way around in the dark.