I am driving to Shreveport to see my counselor, and everywhere I look are crosses. They spring up like weeds in ditches, rustic pine or painted white, sometimes hung with plastic flower garlands. They are peeling bumper stickers and billboards, they dangle from the rearview mirror among wooden beads, they shine fluorescent across T-shirts of drivers—drivers who cross themselves in one slick motion. There is a huge plaster cross right in front of the pine trees before you cross from Texas into Louisiana, about eight feet high and burdened with the anthropomorphic figure of Jesus.
There is an ease to those raised in secular homes, a confidence that I’ll never have. It’s like living in a small town, running into your ex-boyfriend when you’re just trying to buy some catfish or rake up the piles of dead leaves in your yard—and suddenly, there he is, staring you down, still as handsome and young and charismatic as ever. Meanwhile, you’ve gained some weight, you’ve worn the same pair of jeans for five days in a row, you have coffee breath, and your teeth are stained. “Hey, Jesus,” you might say, but he’s looking at you with such compassion and forgiveness and a responsibility you can’t name. Maybe you’ve known the look before, in your mother, when you call her for money or a ride home or just a kind voice.
Since I quit my second job three weeks ago, I’ve been trying to do what my counselor advised me: rest, create lists of goals and plans, become reacquainted with myself—she didn’t really explain what that meant, but I’ve taken it to mostly mean experimenting with new ways of masturbating. I’ve never successfully given myself an orgasm. I just recently discovered where my clitoris is located. You might think that’s funny, that I had to Google it; I had to find a diagram of a vagina and print it out to study. You’re probably laughing to yourself right now—you, the vagina expert. I’ve tried palm, fingers, showerhead, vibrator, pictures of both men and women, alone and together, and then I tried other things like ice cubes, shocking myself by licking a battery, reading a whole book of erotic fiction in which people pretend to be horses or dogs, and briefly, choking myself with a bandanna.
But see what happens when you’re a child bride to Jesus. Special, set apart, part of his holy polyamorous marriage. Unable to orgasm at twenty-four.
I still remember the camp counselor who taught me about sex at thirteen. The camp was called S.O.S.—Song of Solomon, hosted by the Carthage Missionary Baptist Church, meant to explore the “correct” way to have sex, God’s Way, the way Jesus never did, because Jesus was a virgin who always resisted temptation even though he surrounded himself with women. Anyway, her name was Kristin, and she had very straight blonde hair with dark roots, the way so many church girls did at the beginning of the millennium, and she wore pink T-shirts that said things like “God’s Girl” and “True Love Waits” and carried around her worn little black Bible everywhere, even to the edge of the swimming pool where she secretly tanned. We had devotions together twice a day, morning and evening, and she took our prayer requests, asked us if we had any special needs in our lives, any family members who were sick, any friends who needed to meet Jesus. There were always the same requests: for God to be put back in school, for our future husbands to stay pure, for us to be delivered from our little jealousies and rivalries and to truly love one another, but without—of course—desiring one another.
I finally got the courage to suggest a prayer request myself because that morning, in the first session, the preacher had spoken about aphrodisiacs and had given just a brief hint of the pleasure a biblical marriage provided—“an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits: camphire . . . spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the choice spices”—and I’d been thinking a lot about the perfume that Kristin wore, which smelled very fruity and sweet and heavy, like it wanted to replace my breath.
I was quiet—mush-mouthed, my dad used to tell me—but I raised my hand and said, “I need some prayer.”
“What’s wrong, Leah?” said Kristin.
There my vocabulary failed—I didn’t know what masturbation was at the time; I didn’t know what it was I had been attempting to do at night, under the covers, using the palm of my hand pressed on top of my underwear, but only that the desire that was sharp as knives and holding me hostage, that I was too scared to have elaborate fantasies, but I thought about bare breasts a lot, and men’s shoulders, and how hands—anyone’s—would feel.
“I’ve been having some bad thoughts,” I said.
Some of the girls seemed to lean in. “It’s OK,” said Kristin. “You can tell us.”
My head was down, directed to my lap, the large KJV Bible, S.O.S. handbook with the words “God’s Plan for Sex” on the cover, and my legs tucked to the side underneath my favorite floor-length skirt, because my parents thought girls showing their calves was inappropriate, immodest. “I just feel full of . . .” the word I recognized from our first session located in Second Timothy solidified with an image, a bare body touched with grapefruit pink. My voice lowered several decibels, yet the girls managed to read my lips, see the guilt flush my face, “. . . lust.”
There were about ten girls in the group. I barely remember their faces anymore, only that most of them wore pants, which I had never been allowed, not even to sleep in, and their tidy haircuts, typically shoulder-length, were combed neatly to one side of a part or pulled up into little ponytails. My hair was like the undergrowth of a forest, wild and tangled and snagged against itself. I sometimes sat on it, got it caught in car doors and nearly yanked out of my scalp. I constantly worried about getting it in the toilet. My mother tired of my whining, of having to punish me for complaining. She put up a blue plaque in my bathroom, a little golden crown at the top with a single jewel, and underneath the verse, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given to her for a covering.”
They looked at me with—but how can I possibly interpret it now?
Years later, I wonder if it was pity. If I were the weird one, the outcast, whose family was spoken of only in rumors. I’d never been a part of the community. I never went to sleepovers or bake sales for the church. I was visible only on Sunday morning. I was a nod-to-at-the-grocery-store girl.
How could I now accuse those women, many of whom grew up to lead lives so similar to their mothers, who preserved their family’s lifestyles in an almost admirable way, of judging me?
You don’t get much of a shot at community outside of church in the South. At least not in Carthage, Texas. How else are you going to meet people, make friends? There’s a church on every corner to pick from, a like-minded group to help bail you out when you need money or find yourself in crisis, to make sure someone gives you a month’s worth of yellow, carb-filled casseroles when your father dies of cancer.
I started counseling in January, as part of my New Year’s resolution to try and get over the past I’ve been lugging around with me. Carthage has counselors aplenty, but I wanted to go somewhere I wouldn’t be known—or, OK, my family wouldn’t be known. I remember taking monthly trips to Shreveport as a child, because the grocery stores were cheaper there and frugality was one of the marks of a virtuous woman, according to my mother. Something about Shreveport always consoled me, the grime of the Red River eking into wetlands, the yellowing concrete reflected in the water, or maybe the no-shits-given joy of people who don’t have anything left to lose. Even after my father died and I moved out of my parents’ house, I still spent free hours in Shreveport. I told this tommy counselor—her name is Rylie, I call her by her first name because she said it was OK, this friendliness—in our first session, when she asked me a lot about my current life: friends, lovers, hobbies, jobs.
“You sound incredibly isolated,” she said. “You ought to start thinking about some ways to get out and meet people, surround yourself with a support system.”
At the time I was working two jobs: part-time graveyard stocker at a Walmart, part-time morning prep work at a local place called Daylight Donuts, where from four till nine I mixed dough to let rise, made cookie batter for the walk-in, sharpened the knives. The only person who worked in the morning with me was Janet—she always had her earbuds in, sometimes humming softly to herself or moving her shoulders to the music. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t really make work friends. During my first month at Walmart some of the guys invited me to go smoke with them on a short break—I was the only girl working that shift—and when we got outside they started talking about football. I didn’t know how to smoke a cigarette at the time, so I barely inhaled, just followed the motions with my fingers and lips. I know only the most obvious facts about sports: there are teams, there are balls, colors, symbols. When asked what my favorite team was, I panicked—I wanted so badly to be interesting to them—and I thought I had seen a headline once with a red bird, so I said, “the Cardinals.” They laughed, choking on smoke, and one of them said, “Wow, you suck,” but it wasn’t in an endearing way.
On my days off work, I sometimes go to places where I know other people will be: Sammy Brown Library, the H-E-B, Centerpointe Shopping Center—where you can get Chinese for less than a five-dollar bill and fake like you’re waiting for a date. I pretend to browse the shelves and racks but actually listen to how people talk to one another. I try to mimic them as soon as they leave the aisle. I practice these comments and gestures on my counselor, though I don’t know if she’s picked up on it yet.
That’s so funny, Rylie.
You’re so funny, Rylie.
The force is strong with this one, Rylie.
The words move in the back of my throat; I hold them there like eggs. Someday, maybe, they’ll hatch, and I’ll have understanding, but for now it is a comfort just possessing them.
After my confession at S.O.S. the other girls stopped talking to me. I overheard one of them telling another that only boys struggled with lust. During the session that covered Proverbs 31, I learned that a valuable woman was primarily identifiable by the good things she did for her husband. Kristin tried to make this more contemporary by talking about how she planned on doing the budgeting for her husband, the taxes, how the house was going to be spotless, and a four-course meal steaming on the table when he came in from a long day at work, how she was going be a stay-at-home mom until the future kids were in school, and then she would work part-time, or maybe from home, so she could contribute to his income and savings.
But connection had been missing from the beginning. Most of them were in a private Christian school—Faith Academy, housed in the church building. There were friendships based on shared knowledge, on secret crushes, on youth group trips to Bolivia.
My mother and father had felt a calling to homeschool my sister and me before we were even born, and when I finished fifth-grade materials, my mother then felt a calling to turn my education to more practical subjects through a program called Training Our Daughters to Be Keepers at Home. Math, sciences, history—all academic subjects were pointless, my mother said. “You’ve learned everything about the world you need. Now you learn how to be in the world, but not of it.” The curriculum had sections on gardening, sewing, embroidery, cooking, a foundational understanding of scripture—passages memorized for comfort and correction—knitting, child training, caring for babies and elderly, soapmaking, candlemaking, basic medicinal knowledge. Ann Ward and my mother together filled in this picture of a woman for me, each covering the empty spaces in my mind.
I try not to admit to anyone that I’m still a virgin. Of course, you know. Nights in bed alone, I talk to you and ask what it will be like, this loss of something unknown. There isn’t a place in my imagination for it, despite my self-education with porn and paperbacks. I can’t feel my virginity, so how will I feel its absence? I wish you had answers. I wish I knew the questions I was trying to ask.
I started to sign up for classes at Panola College this morning, before counseling. I overheard someone say that community colleges were low pressure, that you could just start with one class—a warm-up. I waited in line for two hours, the battery on my phone was dying, and I didn’t have my usual soft, thrift-store book in my bag, so I watched people. At least I was comforted that I wouldn’t be the oldest one there. Women stood in line, women in their forties and fifties—who could have been registering their kids, I guess, but they seemed so nervous and excited. Not like it was an errand, but like it was an event. They wore autumn-colored blush, reds and oranges, expensive lipstick and scarves. I could see that they were a story unto themselves. They were telling the story already to their grandchildren—“And that’s how I learned Spanish or French, how to garden, to dance the salsa after all these years of dreaming.”
At twenty-four, my dreams are usually about dying in my sleep. Nothing dramatic—not like when I was a kid and dreamed of being eaten by lions or falling into a volcano. Now I just dream of dying, of sleeping and finding my body motionless. I’m unable to move even the tips of my fingers. The weight of existing finally leaves me, and I lie there and don’t breathe the air or smell the damp leaves or see shapes in the plaster on the ceiling above me. I am held by gravity like a stillborn child. I wake to my cheeks wet with tears. How wonderful it would be to finally feel one’s position in the universe, so perfectly and surely, without the confusion of motion or matter.
But when I got up to the counter (and I’d made up my mind what class I wanted to take—World Literature I—because it sounded so expansive, a class that studied the entire world) the lady asked for a copy of my driver’s license and my high school diploma.
I tried to explain to her, “I don’t really have one.”
“How can you not have a high school diploma?”
“I was homeschooled, and it wasn’t like a private school or—”
“Well, do you have a GED?” She wasn’t even looking at me. She was texting someone. Her fake nails were green and made the click-clack of a mantis.
Sometimes the most everyday things, like standing in a line when a baby is crying, or tripping over a step, or trying to find the right building to go to renew a driver’s license, make me feel inhuman, monstrous. The slight acne breakout on my chin, the stomach bloat, the scratchy length of my fingernails all remind me that I am disgusting. This was one of those moments. On the wall behind her was a reminder for a mandatory meningitis shot for new students. I’ve never had a shot before, never been immunized, and I wouldn’t know where to go. My body must be crawling with diseases like meat left out for weeks. I wonder what would happen if I infected someone: illness, weeks in bed, missing school and work and dates. Could it be even worse? Could my very presence kill someone?
She didn’t look up for about two minutes. The phone rang and she picked it up.
“I think I left something in my car,” I said, which is something I’ve heard people say before, in parking lots and on cereal aisles. The sky is so bright outside, like the underside of a giant cornflower. I think I could drive and drive and never get tired of looking up.
Rylie asks what exactly it is that I miss about believing in Jesus.
“Maybe it was comforting having someone who loved you unconditionally,” she says.
“I guess,” I say.
This is an absence I can feel. He was my friend as a child, especially when I was in trouble, when I needed spankings—usually with a soft leather belt, five strokes on the backside, seven if we started crying during the punishment—there was always Jesus at my side. My parents would sit down with me and explain what I’d done wrong. “Do you know why you’re getting a spanking?” they’d ask.
I’d nod. It was because I’d lied about eating the leftovers or taken my sister’s doll and refused to give it back or ignored my chores that morning.
“Repeat after me,” they’d say.
My father materializes so easily in my mind. He was overweight in the gut, tan, with a beard marbled with black and gray. He always wore plain black T-shirts and jeans, even to church. I see him like this as an adult, even though in my last memory of him he was sick with a brain tumor and half-dead, sallow-cheeked, and shorn and empty as a burned house. But now, I see the muscle in his shoulder, the heaviness in his forearm.
In contrast, my Jesus was thin. He had brown, beautiful hair that curled around his face and beard, and large, dark eyes, looking like the warmth I associated with the forest—tree trunks and rich earth teeming with life that you glimpsed in movements behind leaves, trembling in branches.
“I am sorry for what I did,” my father would say.
“I am sorry for what I did,” I repeated.
“I am ashamed and repent before God and my parents.”
“I am ashamed and repent before God—”
And with those last words, I only felt my mouth moving but could not hear them over the sound of my heart—blood rushing to my ears as I bent over the edge of the bed and accepted it, not crying because I knew it would be worse for me if I did. My father read in a book once that allowing a child to cry during a spanking cultivated weakness, made the child feel like they were the victim when, in fact, they were the guilty party. I think the book was To Train Up a Child by Michael Pearl. I can still see the cover: a family of seven rode in a horse and carriage, the mother nursing a baby in the front with a bearded father, children peeking out of the back of the carriage with smiles. The father didn’t smile.
I found out, from my counselor, that the book was criticized for advocating abuse—potentially causing the death of three children. Rylie says she’s been really interested in Christian fundamentalist culture since she started working with me. She says I’ve opened her eyes to a whole other world within her America.
Tonight, I have a date with a guy named Alex. He’s the younger brother of one of my old coworkers, Mark. I once helped him pick out chocolate for his ex-boyfriend. He says he’s bisexual, which I thought was cool, different, and hopefully meant he was not—and had never been—a Christian. There was nothing worse than dating someone who’d been with Jesus before me and finding out we had shared a love, that we each thought we had loved him better.
We open the date with little facts about our day. He talks about how he got stoned and tried to hand toss pizza dough, about the bits of flour stuck to everything. I talk about the drive to and from Shreveport, the crosses, and the way my counselor always smells like coffee.
“Why are you seeing a counselor?” he asks.
“I have PTSD,” I say. There’s no point in hiding it. If he comes home with me, the way I want him to, he’ll see it all around my bedroom via the sticky notes I’ve put up in the mirror reminding me to eat, sleep, breathe, pay bills, occasionally talk to someone. You may think it’s rash, this preemptive consideration of what he would see in my apartment should he come home with me. You think I should get to know him first. It’s funny—because I’m sure you lost your virginity at sixteen or nineteen or twenty, and did you know them as well as you thought? Did they cup your heart and hear your breath the way you thought they would?
He laughs. I don’t laugh. He stops. “Isn’t that like, an ex-military thing? What, were you in the army?”
“No, nothing like that,” I say. “Look, I have PTSD, I’m working through it, blah blah—enough about me. Tell me something about you.”
“But I hardly know anything about you,” he says.
“There’s nothing to know.”
“OK, all right,” he says. “Well, what is your favorite movie?”
I start thinking about all the movies I haven’t seen. References I never get. Movies all seem to be linked together now—codependent, interdependent, whatever. You won’t understand them unless you understand the culture. I hate movies. I’ve never seen Titanic, never seen Home Alone, never seen Jurassic Park, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, Toy Story, Star Wars, Warhorse, Good Will Hunting, Goodfellas, Psycho. I don’t understand what “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “Soylent Green is people” and “Here’s Johnny” are supposed to mean. I laugh along with everyone else, and I pretend to understand or comprehend—to get it—because they’re human and cool, and admitting that I’ve never owned a TV, that I’ve never watched movies, is like admitting to illiteracy. I’m ashamed. I repent.
“I like all movies,” I lie. “What’s your favorite food?”
We eat our burgers mostly in silence. Occasionally he comments about a song playing in the background or a new upcoming event, or he asks a bland question about my interests, and usually this leads to his telling me an anecdote about drama club in high school, or a party he went to once that was Candy Land themed, or a road trip he took down to Texas to see the cows and cactus and Sufjan Stevens play twice at a crowded bar. I take mental notes: drama club, Candy Land, Sufjan Stevens. Context clues. Memorized lines. Comfortable, worn-out generic responses. Clichés. Platitudes. The grass is always greener on the other side. My mother saying, “A child should be seen and not heard.”
I can tell he’s getting irritated. He wants me to open up.
“I’m sorry I’m quiet,” I say. “I feel like I haven’t lived as much as you. I don’t try new things very often. I guess I don’t know how.”
He taps the side of his nose. “I have an idea. My friend Cynthia just got some DMT. You ever tried DMT?”
I shake my head. There have been dates with other guys that never panned out—friends of friends, numbers handed out at gas stations—there have been moments where I’ve been passed a joint or a little white pill. I always say yes, hoping that enough nodding and agreeing and accepting will take me out of myself and into the world of the initiated, everyday, unvirtuous woman.
“Let’s do it if you’re game.”
I nod. Of course. And silently noted, to myself, Let’s do something if you’re game a way for practicing on my counselor later.
It’s midnight. I can’t sleep again, so I move my right hand down, underneath my striped pajamas, underneath the underwear elastic, and I don’t do anything; I just hold myself and cradle the warmth emanating there.
“And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body be cast into hell”—this is mercy, this is grace. Hurt the child briefly and save them from a lifetime of wrongdoing.
I try to clear my mind, count my breaths, all the things the counselor has taught me to do. I begin to use my fingertips, just the slightest brush of callous to labia, and my breath catches, a hiccup, I find tears running down my cheeks. I withdraw my hand.
I see him another way I saw him as a child: flayed, strips of skin hanging from his body, breath coming in and out as though it had been grated, saying, “For you, for you.” Though it doesn’t make sense anymore, that I am still punished when he took my place of punishment, that I find myself with excruciating sadness on nights like these, filled with shame, intoxicating as straight whiskey, crying because—well, how should I know? Would you know? Do you know better than I about the inner self and selves all clamoring to be heard? Do you know why I feel nauseated and guilty? Do you know where those feelings come from, why they saturate into you with no warning?
My current self tries to rise to the surface. I want to say something to the child inside me, still holding on to these beliefs, this “white as snow,” this “what will wash away my sins, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I want to throw her on the bed and belt her until she bleeds, finally feeling the pain of skin and muscle and touch.
“I am fucked up,” I say to the empty room. I remove my hand and bite my palm.
After my predawn shift at the bakery, I call my sister, Becca. I can hear her children laughing in the background; it sounds like they’re chasing one another. A dog barks. Something about her life seems so staged, so buoyant and well-lit. If I am Shreveport, Becca is Baton Rouge. Truth comes particularly difficult in my family. It’s so much easier to keep repeating the same glossy affirmations: God has everything under control, just pray and let go, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, the storm will soon pass, etc.
But at my father’s graveside, Becca pulled me close for a side hug. Her hand lingered on my lower back. “He loved you,” she said, “but he was too hard on you.”
It happened when I was fourteen. I went to the fair with some of the girls from church—a rare allowance that had been made because I’d memorized the first two chapters of the Gospel of John. I indulged in funnel cakes and Ferris wheels and finally, a little fake tattoo of two birds with a heart between them. The girls convinced me to put it on my lower back, to hide it from my parents. I felt so conspiratorial and gutsy and self-contained, and I kept reaching a finger up under my shirt to feel its glossy outline.
But my father saw it that night as I bent down for some laundry detergent in the washroom. He grabbed my arm and demanded I pull off my shirt and show him. He said—in the voice that led us in our nightly prayers for repentance and grace and revival of holiness, otherness—“Why do you want so badly to destroy our family, everything we’ve created for the glory of God?”
My mom was out grocery shopping, so she wasn’t there to intervene when he took a wire brush meant for cleaning the grill, pinned me with a broad arm, and began to scrub the flesh away. I cried out, screamed that I hadn’t meant to—was sorry—wouldn’t ever—knew better. How can I tell you what pain feels like—shouldn’t you know? You who bore the pain of us all? A hundred little rips in your flesh, dragging deeper each time, blood rushing to defense, so warm and damp and right.
I saw my sister’s shoes. She watched. When he left me on the floor, red-eyed in shock, she knelt down, eyes clear, face stone-still. First peroxide, then Neosporin. Always the meticulous, structured one. Her bandages were perfect, even amounts of tape on each side, stretched taut, and she never blinked or questioned but reached out to hold my hand as I began to cry again.
We small talk around the family, laugh about Mom’s recent gardening endeavors. My sister and I have so little to talk about. After my father died, I went out and bought a pair of shorts. I had never worn pants before, much less bared my legs. I cut my hair as short as my arms could reach. I think she took it as my personal mourning, but I wanted to attend his funeral as someone other than myself.
She tells me her first-born, Julia, has started taking piano lessons. “Great,” I say. Then, finally, “I’ve been feeling really lonely.”
“Oh?” she says. “Would you like to come have dinner with us?”
I can’t think of anything I want less than to sit across from her clean-shaven husband and two children—always in coordinating outfits—and try to find ways to talk about my life without really talking about it: so I did laundry today, I made chicken cordon bleu last week, I’ve been reading this book about flightless birds.
The hesitation is a giveaway. “How about,” she says, “I come visit you for a quick coffee? The kids are going to Mom’s later for a playdate. I can just stop by quick, catch up.”
“Sure,” I say. Before she’s said goodbye I start hiding the beer bottles, the paperback romances, old cigarettes on the coffee table. I remember that day so vivid: her bandages, the quiet between us. It is consolatory, somehow, that my sister knows absolutely nothing about me but the shared oddness of our past: the evening prayers with his voice droning on, sometimes one of us falling asleep and—of course—punishment, our mother washing his feet on Sundays—kneeling before him with her long hair swept back, the family communion held in solitude, because he didn’t want us to take it with the church in case there were nonbelievers. Yet even these bonds went unspoken. It was as if we had both shared a delusion which we could never admit to one another. And she had her coping mechanisms—kitschy decorations, flower beds, nice clothes from secondhand shops, a respectable and decent and normal church that she could plug into and partake as part of a ritual, like morning coffee.
When she stops by, she has a pet carrier. Inside it is the smallest kitten, white with black speckles. She’s got a Starbucks in the other hand and a shirt advertising Vacation Bible School. “I thought this little guy would help you,” she says, as a way of greeting.
“I don’t want it,” I tell her.
“Come on, Leah, pets are proven to help . . .”
“With what?” I say. She’s staring down at her coffee. “Come on, with what? What do pets help with? Is it loneliness?”
“You said you were lonely.”
“Not for a pet.”
We stare at each other for a whole minute, and I am beginning to think she understands. I think: maybe I should just say I’m seeing a counselor, that my thoughts are terrorizing me, burning memories, shutting down functions. I want to say that if only we had been raised like other girls in church. If only we had dated boys and had sleepovers and worried over lipstick shades and fitted jeans, maybe we could have been real sisters.
And I want to tell her that it all culminates with Jesus, that I see him in the shadows, pouring out of the showerhead, flashing in the storm clouds. That I’m always hiding from him—you.
“Did I tell you I got a new porch swing?” she says. “We put it together last night. It’s the most precious thing, little hearts cut into the side, and I think maybe I’ll paint it green. Next we’re going to add some hanging ferns.”
“Becca,” I say.
“It’s OK. We don’t need to talk about it,” she says. “It’s better to just move on.”
Alex and his friend Cynthia are sitting on my broken futon that sags in the middle, and I’m directly across from them, staring into a wine glass of cheap beer. DMT is what Alex has brought, as promised. He and Cynthia have their eyes closed, have entered a dream. I’m holding it now—an upside-down soda bottle with the bottom cut off, the bottom covered with foil that has the DMT trapped between sheets. I practice breathing, heat the foil with a lighter, and then inhale through the neck of the bottle, the colors of the room popping out and receding, anxious heart screaming at me, and then quiet.
DMT let me see him again, so vividly that I believe I’ve entered New Jerusalem. He wears white, of course, a wedding dress—even though I know that I am the one who is the bride. I am naked. I navigate all four seasons to reach him: the heat of summer desert and skin burning, the wind-swept leaves of autumn, the white death of winter with my feet numb and sticking to the frozen ground, and finally the pollinated gasp of spring. When I reach him, he pulls me in for a long kiss—chaste, on my forehead, and then cheek.
“Beloved, beloved, for you,” he says.
I think: this is my vision; I will awake soon. I find myself smiling, only to glance down at my naked body. The flesh is rotting, worms wriggle out of open, seeping wounds, the seasons have left me irreparably decayed. I look up and realize Jesus is much older than I thought, and he lifts a white, gloved hand to touch me, but I am no one, nothing, without form and voice, darkness on the face of the deep.
God is the father, Jesus is the son. My father died of a glioblastoma tumor a week before I turned nineteen. It had been thirteen months brewing in his body. God is the father and the father is separate from the son and the spirit. I wish I understood why the child’s blood must be spilled, why the child must be virginal and pure, why I stood at his funeral and felt guilty for having not visited him in his final hours.
That is when my eyes flutter, and I see the room again. Cynthia has her head resting in Alex’s lap, and he is bent over kissing her, his hands down her pants, biting at her neck. I flush. Was it they that I had been watching all along?
I stand to go into the kitchen, get some water, give them privacy. Alex puts a hand out to catch my wrist. “Come on,” he says. “You next.”
Something stirs—something fearful and aroused—but I see the bride again, and I am afraid, suddenly, of everything that lies before me: the three of us kissing, the bedroom, not knowing what to do with either of them, how to orchestrate the complex staging of sex, where to put my hands, what sounds to make, how to move my body against each organ, where to go next, and then next again. I feel disoriented. I ask them to leave.
There are some prayers I’m close to praying again. You know what I’m talking about. You know. You’ve impregnated women. You’ve killed children. You stood by and watched violence, abuse, incest, rape. You’ve lain on your back, sleepless at night, saying your help mes and forgive mes and never agains. Maybe it’s to another god, or Mary, or your ex-girlfriend. Maybe it’s to me. I don’t know anymore. I find myself hating the tears that well up in my eyes and the hymns that hum in my head while I’m doing laundry—all to Jesus, I surrender, all to him I freely give—and then I find myself talking out loud to you, whoever you are, whoever I imagine you to be. I want you to be kind and compassionate and to have blown up your cheeks and puffed out the world, I want you to be intelligent and artistic and filled with dreamy thoughts—and saying these words alongside me—so close to prayers, so far from prayers—to us, your children. I want you to go by some kinder name—not god but Cosmos, Beginnings, Life Itself.
Who are you? What are you? I used to believe in the warm-blanket comfort of a Savior who would step in front of me, take the bullet from the firing squad while murmuring I love you, and this belief would hold me as I bled from my mouth where I chewed on the sides of my cheeks to keep from crying. I am on the underside of peace. I see the drains, the pooling of sewage. There was divine love in my heart and it died in its cocoon, and now I don’t know how to tear it out. I’m so sorry. I just want that feeling again—you know, the glance at the moon, the awe-struck knowing—hey, someone out there gives a shit about me, but these feelings are burst bubbles and stains on the grass.
There’s only the longing left. The longing. I am my beloved, and he is mine. White dresses, pure glances. The holy passion of fire and brimstone and being chosen, set apart, for someone who was—once upon a time—willing to be strung up on my behalf, but there has been too long a silence between us, too wide a grave, hasty and angry words spoken, and I’m trying to make sense of it here, to tell you exactly what it’s like to lose him, to always be waiting and waiting for him to speak up and say, Come back, but then you know it’s just your fantasy and there is only silence, elongated and eternal before you, like dead stars still burning bright in your eyes—