The cult gathering that Rachel invites us to is something to do on a Friday night so Frank and I show up and it’s actually not so bad. Complimentary sugar cookies in the lobby go a long way toward lightening us up, and the important thing is the cloaked, candle-holding druids that we had envisioned are nowhere to be found. These people here are just regular people. It’s kind of like, you know how you hear so many awful things about fraternities, but then when you think about it all it really is is just a bunch of guys hanging out, for a price, so seriously what’s the big fuss all about? That’s what a cult is, only they don’t throw keggers, they organize “self-help sessions.” They’re just people hanging out, for a price. And besides, Rachel vouches for them. Says they’ve changed her life. Says she feels so strongly about The Program that she’s willing to cough up most of her next two Red Lobster paychecks in order to personally fund what she calls “advanced training courses” for me and Frank, if we want it.
The way things are starting out, maybe I’d be dumb for saying no to that kind of deal. Everyone here sure looks happier than anyone I know.
We’re seated in the second row of this huge room full of people and chairs and I’m about to get up again for one more sugar cookie when Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” suddenly erupts from a stereo in the back and this middle-aged, rubicund guy comes running up and down several aisles, joyfully high-fiving everyone before eventually stepping onto the stage. He stands up there really tall and proudly scans the entire room, eyes twinkling, arms akimbo, and it’s kind of amusing really, because people won’t stop applauding and he’s having trouble figuring out when to stop saying thank you and when to actually begin his introductory speech. After I don’t know how long, the crowd finally settles and as he clears his throat he looks directly at me and Frank, smiles, says, “I see a couple new faces tonight.”
But before he can continue, someone a half dozen rows behind us blurts out “We love you!” and the man laughs, leans modestly into the microphone, says “I love you too,” and by the time the second ovation has subsided, Frank and I are just looking at each other like omg I’m going to sip a cocktail of vodka and phenobarbital if this is all they do lol.
When the sign-in sheet they’re passing around reaches my lap, I’m not sure what to do. It’s asking for my name and phone number and I totally want to write something phony, like “Michael Jackson”, or “Bart Simpson”, but I can’t. Everyone’s too nice here, and if they found out I wasn’t a sincere attendee, they’d get their feelings hurt. Like an atheist who avoids thinking about pornography when he/she happens to be at church, I just can’t seem to tell a lie in this environment. So I write my shit down.
The Leader finally gets around to his speech, followed by him passing the microphone around the room so that others can share their wonderful stories about The Program. Even Rachel gets in on the act, fighting tears to the very end during her tale of emotional liberation. Everyone claps, and she looks around the room, puts a hand against her chest, does one of those half-smile half-frowns, says, “You people have been so instrumental to my personal growth.”
Says, “You’ve all been like a family to me. But better.”
And it doesn’t stop there. After that session concludes, they separate us into groups of fifteen or so and bring us into these smaller rooms and make us read these pamphlets. I ask one of the instructors if Frank and I can be in the same group together but he coldly shakes his head no and as we’re being guided into our respective rooms, Frank gives me this look like wtf have we gotten ourselves into lol.
So I take a seat, and then this fat lady with hairy arms walks in and closes the door, says, “Open to Page 12.” Out loud, she reads a few paragraphs about relationships, then goes around the room, asking us to share our deepest fears and desires. Ten minutes pass and I’m hearing things from strangers that I shouldn’t be hearing, like how this one chick says she’s cheated on her boyfriend three times in the last six months and she believes that the reason she’s a slut is because she was born without a hymen.
When it’s my turn to speak, I give the old “I’m afraid of failure,” and when the fat lady asks me to elaborate, I’m like, “Hey what if I just give you guys money and don’t attend any of the meetings?”
The lady frowns, says, “I detect sarcasm in your voice,” and this creates a very long, awkward pause that changes the temperature of the entire room. Suddenly, a couple guys next to me make a run for it and I tell her I have to go and follow them too. The lady is like, “Oh c’mon, guys!” Then we’re running down the hallway and I turn around to see that the fat lady is chasing us from behind.
My heart in my throat, I ram through the doors into the parking lot, running as fast as I have ever run in my entire life. I run so hard, my right shoe flies off. And poor Frank, he’s still stuck inside that building, possibly getting brainwashed, and it’s all my fault, and when I look over my shoulder once more that fat lady is standing by the door, screaming their website address, www.landmarkeducation.com.
This all happened a few years ago and I still get phone calls from that damn 415 area code.