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Side of Judgment

“Isn’t it nice here?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said to my friend Jen. I made a sweeping glance of the restaurant’s patio, taking in the coral bougainvillea blossoms, the green leaves cascading from the trellis, and the tiny, bold finches that swooped and hopped all around us. Soft “Kumbaya”-esque folk music wafted through the air.

“Don’t they seem so peaceful?” Jen was talking about the servers, who were welcoming diners and checking on tables, all of them sporting the same vacant smile.

“Peaceful? No,” I said. “Those empty gazes and dopey grins are like giant red flags being waved in my face. It’s not natural. I can tell by the muscles flexing in their cheeks that they’re forcing those expressions. Means that they’re hiding something.”

Not one to be thrown by my skepticism, Jen laughed. “Just wait — this is only one of the many, weird little places I’ve discovered in Vista,” she said.

Until Jen moved there, I’d always thought the town of Vista was some farmland by Riverside, inland and rural. I was surprised when I mapped it to see that it’s not far from Carlsbad. Still, because it’s a good 45-minute drive from my place, I need more incentive than an occasional whim to get up there. The first time I visited, it was to see Jen’s new home, which she bought shortly after marrying her beau. The second time, about a week ago, it was to meet her new puppy, a sweet-tempered black Labrador name Loki.

I wasn’t planning on making the long slog to Vista again for a while, but then Jen dropped a big-ass ball of bait to lure me back to the ’hood: “Did you know we have a restaurant here that’s run by some hippie commune?”

David and I drove up to have lunch with Jen at the Yellow Deli, which is owned and operated by members of a group called Twelve Tribes. I’d never heard of them before, but a quick googling before I hit the road revealed the religious sect not to be an association of free-loving hippies, but… well, as one ex-member put it, “Somehow Christian hippie love and a free communal life degenerated into a total control religious cult mixed with Jewish Old Testament and the Christian Gospel.” But, hey, artisanal bread and farm-fresh food! That, combined with my curiosity, was enough to help me overcome my fear of religious fanatics and get on the freeway.

While waiting for an organic version of Diet Coke (some caffeine-free, au naturel substitute), I caught the eye of the scruffy-bearded, long-haired man who’d greeted us when we arrived. He smiled through me. “I’m feeling really judged right now,” I said.

Jen, whose eyes were bright and alive, smirked knowingly. “That’s because you know you’re a sinner,” she said.

“You’re the one who’s dressed like a whore in that tank top and those shorts. Look at these ladies — all clean-faced and covered from neck to ankle. And you, you harlot, coming in here and being all wanton.” For this, I earned another smirk.

One of the women seemed to follow her own dreamy gaze toward us, reminding me of cartoon characters that float through the air as they follow their noses along the promising wispy scent of a fresh-baked pie. She was older, maybe in her 40s, and had stern features — a sharp nose and thin lips that were pulled back to mimic a smile that did not come close to reaching her eyes.

I ordered a turkey sandwich with no onions, sprouts, or mayo. The woman’s face twitched involuntarily — her lips tightened and her eyes hardened into a glare. She recovered quickly, showed her teeth again, and said, “Got it,” before she turned to Jen for her order.

“Tell me you saw that,” I said, once the woman had walked away.

“Oh, yeah, I saw it,” Jen said.

“It’s like a part of her true form slipped through the cracks of her façade.”

“You shouldn’t have ordered off-menu,” David admonished.

“I read online that these women have to be submissive to the men,” I said. “Maybe that one’s finally had enough. Also, speaking of submissive, I forgot to mention — these folks believe that black people should still be slaves.” Jen raised her brows in disbelief, so I fetched my phone to prove it. “Says right here, straight from their cult leader’s lips: ‘Slavery is the only way for some people to be useful in society,’ yada yada… Ah, here it is: ‘If the slaves were mistreated, it was the fault of the slave…even animals know this principle of being submissive.’ And here’s the kicker: ‘No matter what a slave goes through, he can always choose to be submissive — in the same way that wives are submissive.’ He goes on to say that black people can’t be productive without being forced to. Can you believe this shit?”

“The soup’s pretty good,” Jen said.

“Yeah, it is,” I agreed. “I dig the bread, too. Haven’t gotten my side of ranch yet, though. She’s probably back there mixing her spit into it.” David slapped me playfully on the arm.

While waiting for the rest of my meal, I regaled David and Jen with more factoids about Twelve Tribes. “They’re super into beating their kids, they expect them to be quiet and obedient. It’s a pity they’re not allowed to use the internet, visit a library, or watch TV. I mean, if there was ever going to be a kid I’d be okay sitting next to in the movie theater, it would be a Twelve Tribes kid.”

“Oh, you’re going to Hell for that one,” Jen said.

“Probably. But that’s cool, I’ll see you guys there.” I stared off to the side of the table to watch a little bird hop along a low wall. “What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall at one of their house meetings,” I mused. “All the subtext, all those undercurrents of suppressed emotion. How fascinating it would be.”

“You could try joining,” David said.

“Nah, I’m what these people call ‘filthy and unjust’ because I don’t like being told how to think and feel,” I said. “Not to mention the whole communal living thing.”

“Right,” David said. “You can’t even share a room with your sister in Vegas.”

I nodded and smiled for Jen’s benefit to show that David was not exaggerating. “I’m no good at sharing, which means I’m going to burn in the Eternal Lake of Fire. At least, according to these guys I am. But then again, they also think Christianity is akin to atheism and that Jay-Z is in the same sinning category as Hitler. So, let’s just say I’m not too worried.”

I tore off a chunk of bread and used it to sop up some soup. “Don’t get me wrong, Jen, this is awesome. But next time I come up, maybe we can try the Sonic Drive-In down the street. I think I’d feel less judged at a place where all the servers are on roller skates.”

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