Charles

 

            Could you possibly imagine how it feels to realize your religion is a stain? I didn’t see at 22 just how damaging that realization could be. I hadn’t even known religion at that point. The biggest crisis of faith I’d had was when I suddenly decided that I didn’t want to go into advertising, a career I’d spent the past four years preparing for. 

            I’ve only been in love once and it happened during this time. And it happened suddenly. That feeling you get when you meet someone beyond any wisdom you’ve ever encountered: it was the sort of love you feel for a prophet. I loved him like a priest loves Christ: unromantically but with all my heart. He called himself Dante, said he saw Hell one time. 

            I met him after I saw a group of kids sitting on a lawn at our college. They looked so happy. I was curious, wondering why they were all dressed the same. Why were they all so carefree? How’d they escape the near-graduation existential crisis I’d come to believe was universal? They told me about him, his ideas. And they said there were a few dozen of them that met every week, mostly college students. I thought he was popular among college kids because we were all so forward thinking, applauding ourselves at how progressive we were. I later found out he targeted us for our naive idealism. Those people in red weren’t even students – they’d dropped out months prior and were planted as a sort of guerrilla marketing tactic. It’s ironic to learn even a commune is trying to sell something. 

            Later, I was one of thousands who saw Dante as a visionist. He’d grown his base, using the same tactics that worked on me.  Some of us lived on a massive ranch in Texas, foolishly isolating ourselves and thinking that was how it needed to be. That was how Dante needed it to be, but we didn’t understand the psychology of groupthink. 

            He enlightened us, taught us that it was okay not to be okay.  He taught us that we were victims of society and that even our weakest had a place there. He changed us all. If our monochromatic red uniforms were the price we had to pay for the truth, it was given at a bargain. 

            The townspeople next door didn’t trust us. I felt it when I went in to buy groceries. My all red garb made me a spot of blood in this white-as-snow town. Passing by, they’d remark, “there’s one of the believers,” spitting the word like it’s milk gone sour. When did it become so repulsive to believe in a power beyond our country’s capitalistic greed? He preached Locke. We should strive to live for the greater good, or not to live at all. My mistake was to listen, so taken with the ideal our leader set forth that I didn’t bother to glance behind the curtain.

            I tried to ignore the papers when the headlines turned on him. The devil doesn’t want the people to know the truth, he’d say of the slander. We were fighting the devil directly, we believed we were chosen. I remember the first inkling of wrongdoings that came about: allegations of exploitation, violence against the townfolk, the first time I heard us referred to as a cult… 

            But that wasn’t true. I could leave. Any of us could leave. Should we choose to give up the faith, we were labeled as one of the Departed, but that’s it. There was no threat that kept us there. In fact, nobody wanted to leave because there was no reason to. When you live in the Garden of Eden, why would you choose to give that up? Only because the devil sold you an apple. 

            It wasn’t until rumors of a death count started up that the disillusionment came for me. I’d been a frog, waiting in a pot of water as the temperature slowly climbed. When I began to see the facts that shattered my truth, I turned on myself. How could I love a man who- 

            But there was no proof. 

            Why would allegations surface if there was nothing substantial? 

            But there was no proof. 

            Then came the arrests. They happened at the ranch as Dante gave a sermon. A red sea watching a god fall. We knew it was coming but that made it worse. Like we were watching our own denial crumble, left staring at the ugliness that remains. He was on stage when two cops walked up, holding a piece of paper. One had his gun drawn but lowered. Dante looked at them and then, as if he knew the charade was up, gave in to the defeat. He just accepted it. Much easier than I did. 

            And yet it was hard to deny his blatant apathy toward his devoted believers.

            Our “religion” (the lawyers make us put it in quotes) tried to keep together, but how could we when we saw the man behind the myth? How could we believe anymore when Dante pled insanity then changed his name to Charles? How could we when we no longer trusted even ourselves?

            I think I’m jaded now. I overheard my mom say into the phone, “it’s sad, she’ll never put her whole heart into anything again.” But I’m nearly 35 now and too tired to find anything else. 

            After the trial, I went home to Kentucky only until I could emotionally stand on my own. It had hurt me to watch a broken man tell a room of broken people that everything was true but that everything was a lie. 

            I visited my old college campus a couple of months ago, and I saw a few students wearing all red. They held a sign that said, “Free Dante.” The man died in prison three years ago. Dante died long before that. 

            I don’t believe in anything anymore. I don’t visit friends. I don't trust. Someone once said I should speak with people that went through it too, but it’s been a decade and everyone’s moved on. And the world keeps turning, waiting for the next prophet to spill his knowledge on the world, watching as it gets mopped up slowly by the truth.