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I was home from college on a break, and thanks to my inclusion in my dad’s health insurance, I was about to score a pair of new reading glasses. I showed up to the optometrist with my mom’s advice in mind -- pick nice frames but not the most expensive, don’t bother with upgrades on the lenses, and pass my parents’ greetings on to the doctor, a long-time acquaintance thanks to public school PTA.
I strode into the office with a newly-acquired LeSportsac -- a Tokidoki collaboration with an adorable animated hellscape that had cost me $160 and massive buyer’s guilt at the Mall of America just weeks before -- and waited to be called in for my exam.
The technician who performed the first few tests noticed my bag, and I was all too excited to tell her the concept, which was two different patterns, one depicting heaven and one depicting hell. She told me it was cute. I preened; no need to feel guilty about a major splurge purchase if people are complimenting it!
The technician told me she’d need to dilate my pupils for the next set of tests. No big deal; I’d had it done once years earlier. She administered the medication and told me to wait in the exam room until my pupils were fully dilated.
I read pamphlets and looked at the gadgetry while I waited. When my pupils were too dilated to make sense of anything besides colors and shapes, I picked up a Rubik’s Cube and began to fiddle. Despite the dilation, I could tell it was decorated with a portrait of Jesus on one of its faces, which was not at all surprising in my hometown.
When the technician returned, she brought with her a second technician and the optometrist, which seemed liked overkill. I didn’t remember it requiring three trained professionals to examine pupils.
The first technician asked the second if she’d seen my purse yet; she hadn’t, so I pulled it up from the side of my chair and proudly showed it everyone. Things immediately got weird. Instead of the praise I had expected to receive for my fashionable accessory, I got teeth-sucking and awkward silence. The doctor picked up the Cube I had put down and got close.
“I see you’ve been thinking about God,” he said. He twisted the Cube in his hands.
“I guess,” I started, unsure and awkward in the face of an examination of my religious beliefs.
As religiously unidentified liberals in the third most Bible-minded city in the United States, my family has always been very conscious of how we deal with discussions of religion. I grew up learning that I needed to respect other religions while keeping quiet about my own beliefs.
As far as my parents were concerned, I could choose any religion that suited me, and we even attended services at a Unitarian Universalist church for years before deciding that we just weren’t very committed. In elementary school, my mom briefed me on proper religion-talk etiquette. I was supposed to be vague and accommodating, never mentioning my own affiliations, or lack thereof. I should listen and nod, but offer as little information about myself as possible.
She and my dad would accept whatever decisions I made about my own faith, but others would probably not be so understanding.
I had survived, more or less, for 18 years on that etiquette. I had been converted at least twice -- it’s easier in middle school to accept a copy of the New Testament and say a half-hearted thanks than it is to lose a close friend -- and had attended church services and even overnight church camp with friends.
My friends and their families didn’t suspect me of being a Godless heathen and continued to invite me for sleepovers, dinner and Sunday School. I attended a wide variety of services and never met anything but smiling faces hoping to welcome me to their religion/denomination/congregation. None of those services ever struck a chord with me, but I had no problem relating to my strongly religious friends.
When the optometrist told me that I wasn’t taking Jesus seriously enough, I nodded numbly, 18 years of silent accommodation informing me. He told me hell wasn’t something to be taken lightly. He never bothered to ask me if I believed in hell; I don’t.
When he asked me if I wanted to pray for forgiveness for owning a bag that depicted hell, I must have choked out a scared noise that he took for assent. One of the technicians locked the door, and they all pulled their rolling chairs close around me.
Things were quickly progressing beyond the usual expressions of concern I received when I equivocated about my beliefs. The last time I had felt this uncomfortable, a classmate’s father had walked up to me after a church service where I had performed a musical piece, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to hell because I had refused communion.
The lights in the exam room were dimmed, the door was locked and I was reclining in a comfortable chair. The atmosphere was perfect for a little funny business, but I wasn’t anywhere conducive to making out. I was locked in an exam room at my optometrist’s office, and I was about to join hands with two technicians and the doctor while they forced me to pray to Jesus.
They made me repeat after them, words that may as well have been nonsense for all they meant to me, until they were sure that I was taking Jesus seriously. I felt powerless to stop them, afraid to offend them, and too polite to try to leave in the middle of an “exam.” My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing.
The technicians beamed brightly when they were done -- I could see their shiny white smiles even in the dim room -- and exited, leaving me with the optometrist, who finished his tests as if he hadn’t just performed some kind of ceremony which would scar me for life.
I picked out frames in a haze and departed with my Rollens. I climbed into my car and cried hysterically in the parking lot.
That night at dinner I attempted to regale my parents with the story of my adventures at the optometrist as though it were a funny story in which the goofy locals tried to make an outsider understand their quaint customs. Instead, I cried again, thinking about Jesus and why an adult would lock me in a room and force me to do anything while I was vulnerable, even if they thought it was right.
My parents were furious; my mom wanted to sue the practice but settled for writing a letter condemning those involved for harassing me. She never heard back, and I never went back.
Those technicians and the optometrist were the authority on eyes, not religion, and no matter how many times I retell this story for laughs at a party -- it goes over like gangbusters with non-Southerners who already suspect us all of being religious zealots -- I will never see what they did to me as anything but a frightening violation of a young girl who had a cute purse but little power to stop them.
Before that visit, religion was an innocuous hobby in which many of my friends indulged; but now when I hear someone talking explicitly about Christianity, I get sweaty. My heart races. “Jesus” has become the scariest word in my vocabulary because it reminds me that at any moment someone might decide it’s their right to lock me in a room and make me pray.