And we found Cuban bakeries. So many Cuban bakeries.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice the change in demographics. The balance now tilted heavily away from Italians and Polish and Irish—the old immigrant communities—and toward Cubans and Venezuelans—the new. Where in New Jersey my parents’ native religiosity was subsumed into a broader Catholic culture that owed more to Irish and Italians than to Hispanics, and from there into a multicultural heritage where Protestant, not Catholic, was the baseline, here my parents found as many Cuban Catholic cathedrals as they cared to encounter. The streets were lined with Miami’s famous “Botánicas” and little devotional shrines to La Virgen de la Caridad appeared behind bank tellers and on street corners and inside large historic edifices devoted to the Cuban exile experience.
They could, at last, assume that strangers they ran into believed as they did, an experience that must have seemed surreal after departing their homelands as children. I had no such luxury. It was far easier to find suitable religious instruction for my brother and sister in this new place, but they made only one attempt for me, which was a total flop whose details resembled far too closely the confusing nightmares of the New Jersey classes. If they had known that the flop was due as much to my not believing as to my being unfamiliar with the specifics of the New Testament and to finding my three classmates uninteresting, they might have started much earlier their occasional prodding that I stop actually thinking about things and simply passively accept the cultural orthodoxy.
Adolescence conferred upon me the unhallowed status of horny AND awkward. The Gordian knot of pubescent sexual obsession, Christian sexual taboos, religious taboos, overweening nerdiness, the United States’s second-saddest school system, and an exceptionally poor grasp of social protocol made sure that the two years I spent at Rockway Middle School are the two years I’d most like to forget ever took place. I felt as though I continually faced the choice of doing nothing and staying comfortably in the miserable, deprived place I had learned to call my own mind, or doing something, and failing spectacularly no matter what it was I did, but knowing that I had at least tried to put myself out there and talk to a girl on the phone. The shyness that my peculiar interests had already embedded into my personality, the poorly-aimed passions of adolescence reinforced into an almost pathological sense of caution. Against all odds, I made a few friends.
And still, I was alone. I had long internalized the idea that, regardless of whether anyone around me was talking about religion, I was not allowed. Whatever they were, I was an unacceptable heretic, and my not getting assaulted was contingent on keeping that fact a secret. If any of my friends then had their own doubts to explore, their own crippling lonelinesses within religious groups to assuage, I could not know. I could not even tell my parents about it, because the most helpful thing they would have been capable of telling me was to not talk about it even more, to stop being so weird, to seek solace in church. I ended up with two good Catholic friends and a handful of self-described Satanists and witches for company; to this day I have no idea how sincere any of them were.
High school proved to be an improvement. Attending Coral Gables High School’s International Baccalaureate Programme (did I mention international?) meant I would not go to the high school in my neighborhood, where most of my middle-school friends settled. It would be the second time my increasingly indifferent social habits would be pitted against the inconvenience of keeping in touch with people I didn’t see often, and far from the last. Those middle-school friends were soon replaced even as I kept in vague contact with the closest of them. The person who would rapidly become my high-school and university best friend introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons, and to a group of friends who would be my first encounter with people willing to admit that they did not take religion seriously. Their presence, and the new hobby turned creative obsession that filled most of the time I didn’t spend on homework or pet maintenance, kept me something resembling sane. I was no less awkward, no less excessively cautious, but I was smiling. And, at long last, I was less alone.
But they were all men, in keeping with the stereotype.
Years of bludgeoning with the ubiquitous religiosity of the American public and the pervasive Catholicism of the Hispanic community left me without any ambition of ever dating a fellow nonbeliever. My journey to that status had seemed so personal, and the results so roundly reviled, that the best it seemed I could hope for was a believer in this or that for whom the question of my religious beliefs was not important. Even the idea that I might someday meet a female nonbeliever seemed too optimistic a fantasy to entertain. This was a time when my parents became belligerent, flat-out angry, if I ever wanted to know why something they were telling me to do had to be done, or why some seemingly easier way to accomplish the same end wasn’t being attempted. The idea that I would feel in any way entitled to knowing why it was I was doing anything, or to even have such a reason, as opposed to simply complying with expectations for the sake of getting along, would prove to be an ongoing battle with them. It feels trite and predictable to say so, but I desperately desired sincerity in those times, and neither my new quasi-nonbeliever, apatheist friends nor my own parents could give that to me. Could I really expect any better from anyone else?
Years spent as an ill-fitting introvert with strange interests, heretical stances, and now even nerdier hobbies than I had before did not prepare me for exploring the new social frontier of dating. I was too cautious, too insecure, too afraid, to undertake the sorts of risky efforts that I now know pay dividends in the long run. I had no stomach for rejection. When I wasn’t blundering into awkward conversations with women I hardly knew, playing too many games at once to play any of them well, I was lusting pointlessly after female friends simply because they were female friends, already close enough that it seemed I didn’t have to hide anything from or prove anything to them. Yet still I hid, for outside the carefully crafted chamber of my D&D group my honest voice was anathema.
I don’t know why that silly Salvadoran Mormon girl made eyes at me, but I know she’d have to have squatted on my shoes to relieve herself to make me not accept her advances. She was beautiful, and I was desperate. My acceptance of those advances came as a surprise to absolutely no one who was paying attention, which is to say, it surprised my parents. The subtle gradients of Hispanic racism often surprise outsiders, and this family of Caribbean Latinos had nothing good to say about Central Americans, or Mormons. I had no intention of taking her to the temple marriage she fantasized about, and our relationship was predicated on little more than raw physicality. It was a testament to my sense of personal responsibility that we didn’t bareback in the quiet vestibule next to the elevators, as she propositioned more than once. She discussed her faith with me only superficially, and to insist that it was of paramount importance to her. I learned a little more about it, and it didn’t strike me as any more ridiculous on its face than Catholicism, only more cultish, so I let that pass. Her father was not so accepting of my family being non-Mormon, and between his periodic rages that I could assuage by attending Mormon services on a Sunday morning and her clockwork Wednesday insistence that I cancel D&D or not get a migraine or otherwise make time for us on weekends, she and I eventually went our separate ways…shortly before prom. I’m not proud of calling it off then, but then, I’m not proud of absolutely anything that happened in relation to her.
The University of Miami once more saw me lose touch with sections of the people I knew in the previous stages. Half of the D&D group and many of my other friends moved to other towns for school, and those of us who remained succeeded at staying close to various degrees. A tip from one of them led to a new D&D group, which managed to be even more overtly non-religious than the previous one. One member later turned out to be the out atheist who introduced me to the atheist blogosphere, and to whom I therefore owe a greater debt of gratitude than he’ll ever comprehend.
But I was still awkward, desperate me. My dalliance with that bundle of Mormon hormones had only left me lusting after something more fulfilling. I made excessive, unrealistic advances on a friend from high school whom we both now acknowledge would have made a terrible partner, though she’d have had my parents’ unremitting approval. I befriended lady after lady, especially after I took up online dating and got a tutoring job that put me in contact with legions of new people, but I remained criminally inept and excessively cautious, and my compulsion to pursue drawn-out friendships with the most promising of them before making my intentions known, while more prepared gentlemen were making far more competent efforts, undoubtedly sabotaged many, many chances. Even the salsa lessons I began, and at which I excelled, only began to repair the damage.
I found myself entangled in largely fruitless, manipulative romantic games with the first female D&D player I’d ever met and the 29-year-old mother-of-three ex-girlfriend of another player. Those games hinged on the overblown, previously unrequited attachments I was prone to forming, and they led me to places I regret going. They also confirmed for me that I had fallen deeply into the trap of the Nice Guy who thinks that being a good friend to a woman entitles him to a romantic attachment that includes sex. Between the two of them, they cemented a mistrust of my romantic decisions that continues to hamper my relationship to my parents, and they finally did what my unpolished, controlling Dungeon Master technique could not and killed my D&D group.
The atheist blogs that one player brought to my attention before he returned to Norway proved to be rapturous reading as that drama unfolded. In Pharyngula I finally, finally found a community where commenting on the absurdity of religious doctrine was not something to keep shamefully hidden, but to explore out in the open. This was a writer and a commentariat—a burgeoning, massive commentariat—for whom the idea that religion was anti-scientific and dangerous was not something I’d have to prove. I have yet to dive into that particular community, but knowing simply that it existed, that out there an actual communityof nonbelievers, instead of just isolated groups I had assembled by luck and happenstance and which I had just destroyed anyway, was an immense balm for my furtive mind. I followed the links I found there to other gems of the Internet: Greta Christina, the Sensuous Curmudgeon, God Is Imaginary.
I spend a while romancing a Puerto Rican Catholic a few years younger than me in Connecticut long-distance until her father took understandable issue with her plan to meet me during a vacation to see some relatives in Florida. I don’t blame him for cutting that off—even typing out that scenario reminds me that all sorts of things involving me that seemed more-or-less above-board at the time didn’t look good from the outside. She was amenable enough to conversations about religion that I maintained a hope that I could talk her out of it, or at least into not making it an issue if the relationship went anywhere. I don’t know whether I had a lasting impact. I do know that the web site on which I met her was full of crazy people and I canceled my account there, over the protestations of the site administrators, to protect my sanity.
By then, I was finished with Miami, or so I told myself. It felt like I had managed to break almost every attachment that might have convinced me not to disappear somewhere far away, leaving me feeling unmoored and stateless. Even if that had not been the case, I needed to stake out my own place in the world. Living with my parents for the duration of my BSc kept expenses way down, but it was beginning to chafe, and the prospect of bringing a woman home to a place that didn’t feel mine, let alone a place with a teenage sister and thin walls, was not one I wanted to contemplate. My parents seemed intent on having a much more substantial role in my love life than I was prepared to permit. So I applied to two graduate programs in Canada.