I closed my eyes, made the sign of the cross and tilted my head up. As the communion hit my tongue, my mind raced backward 20 years, when this priest, a former boyfriend, pushed me to my knees and forced himself into my mouth.
"The handmaiden of God, May, receives the body and blood of Christ," he said, as I swallowed the spoonful of wine and bread. I bowed my head, walked away from the altar and tried to digest the horror of what had just transpired.
"Father" Andrew was the first boy I kissed—an event he plotted like a Hollywood movie script. After driving up a windy mountaintop in his sleek black Camaro, he asked me to dance beneath a brilliant starlit sky, overlooking billions of twinkling city lights. Then, with Harry Connick crooning "Recipe for Making Love" from his car's stereo speakers, he delivered a kiss I felt through my entire body.
I was a virgin when we met and a late bloomer by any standard. I averted my eyes when boys looked at me. I didn't know how to flirt. And I wasn't outgoing, sexy or confident. But this college guy, a future priest, took notice (Greek Orthodox priests can marry).
Andrew swept me off my feet, opening doors, bringing me flowers and placing his coat over my shoulders when the temperature dropped below 72 degrees. He once carried me over a puddle, so my shoes wouldn't get wet. I just didn't realize he was also dangling me over a cliff of lost trust and innocence.
I was molested at age 4 or 5, so I was already vulnerable. I already felt defective and unlovable. But Andrew showed up with the church as a cloak and lured me in with the pretense of safety. He was the first to awaken my sexuality after the abuser—and his impact on me was more damaging.
Our relationship developed quickly and soon my infrequent church visits evolved into weekly attendance. I usually sat alone at the back of the church. When our relationship progressed from months to years, I slowly moved up the ranks and occasionally sat in the same third-row pew with his family.
With every nod of approval from his loved ones—"He must really love you." "You're the only one of Andrew's girlfriends I've ever liked" and "You would make a perfect priest's wife"—my confidence reached new heights.
But the pious altar boy the congregation adored was nothing like the image he portrayed in church. He was dark, daring, troubled. And I was hooked. I wanted to be the one to effectively break him of his destructive habits. Still a senior in high school, I didn't yet understand those carefully scripted Hollywood storylines don't pan out in real life.
So, I carved out my role, maintaining his image close to home while he clung to the frat boy role he had created at college. I visited him there, met his friends, and uncovered a deep, dark world I didn't want to see, but couldn't deny existed.
He and his buddies smoked weed every night in darkened rooms. They attended raves and dabbled in acid and psychedelic mushrooms. I never participated, choosing instead to stay in his dorm with microwave popcorn and a movie while he partied with friends.
I learned he got his previous girlfriend pregnant and was grateful when she miscarried. I also discovered he'd had sex with at least a dozen other young women before we met. His argument: "When I'm a priest, I want to be able to relate to young people in my parish. I want to be able to say, 'I know where you are; I was there, too.'"
My response: "I think it would be more powerful to say, 'I know where you are, but you don't have to succumb to the pressure. Here's how.'"
Because of that belief, I charged myself with restoring his chastity, while maintaining my own. Despite his constant pressure during our third year together, we never rounded third base. Our sexual activities were intimate, physically safe and occasionally orgasmic.
We had been dating on and off for two years when I ran into him one cool November night during one of our off periods. Both drunk from too many shots, we had stumbled back to his off-campus apartment. I smelled cold pizza congealing on the stovetop, alcohol oozing from his pores and cigarette smoke in my hair and on his breath. Then I heard his angry voice guilt me into submission.
"You don't know what it's like to feel this intense desire and not be able to express it," he said. "Ever heard of blue balls? It's physically painful."
I asked what he wanted from me. He slipped off his belt seamlessly, lowered his pants and pressed his hands onto my shoulders nudging me down, close to his erection.
I didn't say no. I didn't leave. I wanted him to love me, so I followed his lead. When I began to lick his penis, to taste him in my mouth, I froze.
A man who really loved me wouldn't coerce me to deliver sexually. A man who really loved me wouldn't want me to feel forced.
Half a second later, I stood up and fled. He didn't come after me.
After that night on my knees, our toxic relationship crumbled. We stopped spending time together, we both started seeing other people and I chose to spend a semester abroad, which I realize now was my way of shaking him for good.
I don't think he intended to hurt me. I think he was stuck between two personas: who he wanted to be and who he was battling. As he duked it out internally, he made me feel more self-conscious rather than less, endangered rather than protected. And most devastating, he made me question everything I thought I knew about myself.
With time and space, I have been able to look back with more clarity, and I'm proud of the young woman I was when I was with him (while simultaneously wanting to give her a BIG hug and scream, "He is so not worth it!"). She never succumbed to the pressure, instead rising to her feet and walking home—alone at 1 a.m.—no longer wanting to be party to his hypocrisy.
I often wonder if Andrew remembers that night. If he has any idea how he wrecked me, that the reason oral sex gives me pause, even now at 43 years old, isn't because of a predator who preyed on a 5-year-old. It's because of him.
Today, "Father Andrew" has two teenage daughters and I have three young sons. As I sat in the pew that day, I looked up to the heavens and thought, this is poetic justice. Our shared experience could serve as a positive and powerful beacon for the next generation.
I will teach my boys to ask permission—and wait for an enthusiastic yes—before engaging in a sexual act. I will tell them to save first-time sexual encounters for when their love interest is sober. As for Andrew's girls, I can't know what he teaches them at home, but I imagine he'll steer them away from young men who behave the way he did. I pray that will help balance the scales and protect other girls from being violated.