Nice Backpack

Nice Backpack

In college, I was sure I had met the girl I was going to marry. Then we broke up, and my life went into a tailspin.

Being the heart-on-the-sleeve romantic that I am, I honestly thought that I had missed the most glorious of kismet and would never be again be fortunate enough to experience love. Years later, I was working as a travelling IT consultant. The job’s lonely existence served me well, giving me the world to experience while my heart mended. One of my projects took me to a small town in southwestern Missouri, whose downtown consisted of some boarded-up shops, liquor stores, a few fast-food restaurants, and a Super 8 Motel. This motel was my home for well over a year.

One night in this extended tour of duty, I felt lonely and began to troll the internet for someone–anyone–to talk to. I eventually stumbled upon the search feature in Friendster. My criteria was quite specific: look for single females located in Dallas, between the ages of 25-35, interested in relationships or friendships. I clicked “Search”, and on the first results page results was the first time I ever saw Jenn, my future wife.

She was wearing that silly little plastic backpack of hers — the one scrawled with the motto “Totally Me”, with a glance towards me that suggested just looking at her photo was only scratching the surface. I was hooked and sent her a message.

Imagine the paths of fate that had to intertwine for the two of us to find one another. Just a week before that night, Jenn had been hanging out with her co-worker Brooke. She was on Friendster and begged Jenn to sign up and be added to her friend’s list. Although Jenn had long ago had her fill of meeting people online, she signed up anyway to help Brooke out. And seven days later, there was a one-line message waiting in her inbox from someone named Matthew.

“Nice backpack,” said the message. And that was it. Even more mysterious than the message is the fact that Jenn actually replied. The next email led to exchange of IM handles, then phone numbers. After a month of talking nearly everyday on the phone, we decided to meet face-to-face. On February 20, 2004 (yes, I am one of those rare men that remembers the most-important days of his life), we arranged to have dinner together at a nice sushi restaurant.

When I first saw Jenn in the flesh, I stopped to take in the picture before me. She was a beautiful petite woman, with raven-dark hair streaked with fashionable red highlights. Her magenta blouse had a bold tone that reflected well against her olive skin. What pictures failed to convery was how great her smile was — one of those deep grins that radiated warmth to my cool heart. I remember everything about that meal: what we ordered, where we sat, the intensity of her green eyes. I found out silly little details, such as the name of her dog (Cali) and that she was in love with the movie “Seabiscuit.”

That evening, the Dallas Museum of Art was celebrating their 100th anniversary by staying open 100 consecutive hours. I wasn’t yet ready for our date to end, so I asked Jenn if she cared to check out the art spectacle. Thankfully, she said yes.

Although neither of us came to the evening with romantic intentions, our friendly dinner was turning into a great date.

A month had passed since Jenn and I started dating. Although it was early in our relationship, there was a spark that told me what we shared was significant.

One Friday night along the way we made plans to go out for the evening. Before I walked out the door to go pick her up, the phone rang.

It was Jenn. She was calling to tell me that she couldn’t go out with me anymore.

I asked why, and Jenn told me it was because I was an atheist, that someone who was Catholic and faithful couldn’t see herself with someone like myself.

Needless to say, I was speechless. Up to that moment, I had expected to be galavanting around town with my cutie. Instead things seemed to be over as quickly as they had begun. I hung up, then laid down on my bed. I was still wearing the nice shirt I had put on for our date. I cradled my head in my hands and stared at my ceiling. There I brooded all night, pondering over in over in my mind how a childhood decision would forever subject me to a lonely existence.

Although I am sure they believed in God, my parents never raised their sons to be religious. Sure, we were baptized, but never once did we attend church together or say grace. I was young, after all, so it’s entirely possible that I am fuzzy on the details. I do remember one thing with perfect clarity: the moment I decided that God didn’t exist.

I was seven years old, and my family was on a houseboat vacationing at Lake Powell, Utah. One night, I was hanging around the kitchen with my family. I was off in the corner eating some hotdogs, while my brother was helping mom mix up some powdered milk for dinner. It was when I was by myself that I had my first-ever revelation. I thought, “There’s no such thing as God.”

I hadn’t pondered the question of His existence before that moment, but that answer to an unasked question provided me with absolute comfort even as a kid. And for next three decades, I grew up knowing that things were right in my universe.

My beliefs weren’t seriously challenged until after I left school. In college, it was easy to nuture my atheism because of the rich diversity of people (and like minds) I encountered during my six years. But following graduation, I dated a woman from a large, traditional Catholic family who often was offended by my atheism. She assumed that because I believed in my atheism so strongly that someone as faithful as her must be foolish or at the very least stupid. She assumed this because she herself thought my lack of belief was ridiculous and offensive.

I honestly never thought such a thing, because I didn’t consider people of faith being wrong. I drew comfort from the choices I made; if someone else choose to believe in a higher power I appreciated such decisions. Although they weren’t choices I would make, who am I to judge others? Like any believer in the Golden Rule I hoped they would offer me the same respect.

I thought I had such respect from Jenn. Then that phone call changed my mind.

All of this is what I thought of over and over that one Friday night, lying on my bed with a broken heart.

The next morning, on Saturday, I was woken up by a phone call. It was Jenn. In an emotionally-frayed voice, she asked if I would come over to her place.

Just the night before, Jenn had cancelled our date because she was unable to accept my atheism, so you can imagine my confusion at her request.

I was grateful for the phone call. I told her that I would be up there as soon as I could and that I had some good news to share…

Jenn grew up in Baton Rouge, the oldest daughter in a family possessed of significant Catholic traditions. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade and went to Mass every Sunday with her parents. Jenn’s grandfather was heavily involved with the Knights of Columbus and, along with her grandmother, never missed daily Mass. Even her great-aunt devoted her life to service in the Dominican order.

During our first weeks of getting to know one another, Jenn and I would chat about our families and childhoods. At first, Jenn found my atheism intriguing. Yet, the farther she fell in love with me, the more distressed she was about the future because of the incompatability of our beliefs. Due to past experience dating religious women, I misinterperted her concern as judgement and would sometimes snap at her in frustration. I often asked, “I don’t question what you believe. Why can’t you accept my beliefs in return?”

Jenn wasn’t offended by my beliefs as much as she was worried. In response to my question, she would say, “When I am old and on my deathbed, I want my husband to be at my side reassuring me that we’ll be together in heaven — not that this is it and when I die it will be all over.” She would then ask me to put myself in her shoes and answer, would I want the same thing?

As I lied on my bed the previous evening, brooding about our cancelled date and apparent breakup, that question of Jenn’s kept coming back into my head and wouldn’t leave me be.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my choices and what they meant, not just for me but for those I cared for. After all, when someone becomes an atheist, they are defacto declaring themselves the highest level of their existence. In effect, they are making themselves God; after all, if there isn’t a supreme being, who else to take up that mantle than yourself? It breeds egotism and self-centerness, both of which conspire to prevent you from ever truly being able to love someone. Such thoughts resonated in my mind over and over that night, and I came to experience only the third revelation in my life.

For the first time, I honestly had the feeling that there was something beyond me, something superior with a greater understanding. I believed in God for the first time.

After her call that Saturday morning, I drove north to Jenn’s apartment in Addison. The late winter day was gray and gloomy, and after arriving I discovered her mood matched the weather. We ordered a pizza and sat down to talk.

When I asked why she wanted me to visit, Jenn explained that something about how we met, how we were touching each other’s souls in ways that noone else had, was screaming to her that she couldn’t walk away from this. That despite her religious upbringing and my lack of faith that things weren’t supposed to be over.

I smiled and told Jenn everything that had passed through my mind the night before. Her question about death and love touched me in ways few others have. It made me realize what is important…it’s not myself, but the love & good works that I share with Jenn, my family and friends, and God. Such soul-searching had finally led me to the greatest of loves.