Tuesday night I talked to my sister for about an hour while she watched "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and only half listened to me. She called to tell me that Tim can't come to the wedding because he has to work. They are switching operating systems at the plant, so there will be no vacation time in October.
I—meaning the 27 year old me who is logical and mature and not even that excited about showing up for this wedding myself because I can't stand the thought of everyone looking at me for so long and am sure I will trip while walking down the aisle. I am not really upset by this. But there's a 16-year-old girl in me somewhere telling me that I should be. She's still in there. She's in there, pounding a fist on my organs and screaming "You are not important!" and "Nobody loves you enough!" She's the one who still gets drunk and smokes cigarettes and approaches everything with selfish entitlement. She is not a very good person. She's a teenager. When will I be rid of her?
She snuck out on Wednesday night too. Dave and I were having a perfectly nice night. It was Ash Wednesday and we'd gone to the 7 p.m. Mass at Sacred Heart and had the ashes ground into our forehead. My favorite priest gave me my ashes. He always strikes me as the kind of guy who could have gone one of two ways: the priesthood or the stage. He reminds me of a character in a Tim Burton movie. Specifically, he reminds me of Bill Murray in Ed Wood. He has a great sweep of silver hair and he is vaguely effeminate and very dramatic. He really attacked my forehead with the ashes, booming "Remember! You are dust, and to dust you will return!" as if he were the very voice of God. He gripped my skull with his fingers and made the sign of the cross between my eyes with his thumb. These were not the dusty gray ashes like they used to give at the church of my childhood. These were dark like coal and full of pebbles that felt like ground-up bones. I felt my eyes widen with a combination of shock and ecstasy. Yes! I wanted to shout. This is why I love Catholicism! I swear he smiled a little at my reaction. We had our own thing going on up there. I considered wiping the ashes off and going back through the line.
I felt my eyes widen with a combination of shock and ecstasy. Yes! I wanted to shout. This is why I love Catholicism!
The feeling I got from that priest's strong hand on my forehead and his deep voice professing my mortality stayed with me while Dave and I went home and heated up lasagna from Whole Foods and opened the bottle of wine from the woman he'd helped when she fell on our street. But after this especially gratifying Mass nothing on TV was dramatic enough for us. We settled on "South Park" because it was the one where all the boys—except Kyle, the lonely Jew—are preparing to make their First Communions and First Confessions. Each is overcome by his sins. They become obsessed with making confessions. They are lined up outside the confessional, demanding forgiveness, when they throw open the door and catch the priest buggering some woman. There's a side plot about Satan, who the illustrators depict as a giant red bull dressed like a professional wrestler. He is dating a milquetoast guy who eats organic and tries to understand Satan's feelings for his ex, Saddam Hussein. This episode is the first of two, and it ends with a cliffhanger. Will Satan dump his new man and return to Saddam? Will the newly zealous South Park youth, led by a proselytizing Cartman, reform Catholicism? Dave and I were having great fun. We finished a little more than half the bottle of wine and split a package of Fig Newtons for dessert.
Then Dave started talking about his novel again, and he's really excited about it right now because he finally feels that he has found the way to tell this story so that it is moral and not merely self-indulgent, not just a sex, drugs and rock and roll story, as the multicultural women of the English Department like to call the stories by the young white guys. But I know that Dave is really writing the stories of all his important and formative relationships—aren't we all?—and the 16-year-old suddenly wanted to know where she fit on this continuum.
We love each other. Of course. My grown-up self is sure of it. I have never before felt the psychic closeness that I feel to Dave. With his patience and his goodness—and yes, I swear, he is essentially good in a way that I've never known anyone else to be—he is easing me into adulthood, even though I was so sure that I was the one leading him. But love and marriage kind of snuck up on us. I thought we were just fooling around. This was the first relationship that I ever entered with every intention of ending it after the first night. I was looking for a fling, and it shows me now just how close to spiritual bankruptcy I was that this seemed like the best thing I could do for myself, emotionally and professionally. Yes, we were attracted to each other, and yes, I remember the very first time I saw him getting coffee at the Starbucks in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning and I felt that inner switch flip. But it was just that, a switch. Not a blown transformer. And this is where the 16-year-old comes in, with her manic-panicked hair and her nose ring and her homemade tattoo and the cigarette in her mouth. She won't be ignored.
Where is my great love story? She demands. Dave doesn't know how to deal with this little girl.
Don't ask me to explain it, he told me. I love you like I never knew I could love anyone, he said. And the cliché made him angry. And I mistook his anger at the cliché for anger at me and before I knew it we were facing opposite directions in our bed and drifting off to sleep in silence.
We both woke at the same time about an hour later. Conan O'Brien was on, and they were doing my favorite bit, where they project some famous person's head on a TV screen next to Conan's desk, and an actor moves his lips in the famous person's head and impersonates him or her—poorly. It's so low-tech, it reminds me of something Jennifer and I would have done when we were little girls. It's totally hilarious. On this night they were doing Arnold Schwarzenegger, and when I woke up Schwarzenegger was yelling at Conan, "THAT'S GUVENA SCHWARZANAYGA TO YOU, CO-NAN!!" And I couldn't help myself from laughing at loud. Hilarious, I tell you.
I thought we were just fooling around... I was looking for a fling, and it shows me now just how close to spiritual bankruptcy I was that this seemed like the best thing I could do for myself.
So then Dave was laughing at me for laughing at this, and then he was curled up at my side with his head on my shoulder, and I moved my fingers in the curls at the nape of his neck, the curls that mean he needs a haircut, and I felt sorry, because now that I'd slept off a little of that red wine and Newtons I know that he was only frustrated because he couldn't think of the right words to talk about love and that he was probably disappointed that I would want him to. It's little moments like this that make me feel so petty and immature and ashamed and filled with admiration for him, and so grateful that despite my constantly sticking my head deep into the dark cavity of the proverbial horse's mouth, God continues to bless me.
I take it back. I do remember a moment when the transformer blew. It was the day after our first night together, and we were laying head to toe on my sofa nursing hangovers, passing a pint of peanut butter cup ice cream back and forth and watching "The Exorcist" on cable.
You know what my favorite part is? Dave asked, and passed the pint. "It's when the priest says that the devil wants us to despair."
And that's when I felt my stomach get all hot and tingly, and I said, yes. "Yes! That's my favorite part too."
Thursday night Rachael and I went to Pittsburgh Jeans Company and the salesgirls were unbelievably rude to us and implied that Rachael was too big to wear fashionable jeans. All she wanted was a pair of jeans that don't show her crack when she sits down, and these girls kept yelling over the loud techno unz-unz-unz that it wouldn't matter because she would only wear these jeans "out" which I guess means "to the club," where she wouldn't be sitting down anyway. I thought Rachael would flip. So this is where the women's movement has gotten us, I could almost hear her thinking. They basically kicked us out of the place, and now I wish that I had gone back and banged on the glass door and flipped them both off. When I got home, it was about 8 p.m. and Dave still wasn't there. All the lights were off except the dim yellow lamp in the corner of the living room. We never turn that one off.
It's been so long since I have come home to an empty house. I am instantly worried. Usually Dave calls me at least once every afternoon. He calls me at my office from the office he shares with the other adjuncts at the university. He talks so softly that I am always asking him to repeat himself, or speak up. He very rarely has anything to say. He is just calling because he can. Sometimes he reads me a paragraph or two of something he has written or something that he is reading. Or he tells me that he has band practice. Or he asks for a ride from Oakland. Or he asks me if I need a ride home, if he's taken the car. He lingers on the phone. This makes me impatient. I'm trying to work, which is hard enough when you share a one-room office with three or four women you adore, and when you hate the phone anyway and can't wait to get off.
But I've had a yucky feeling all evening because I didn't get one of those calls today, and now this house is empty except for that awful yellow light. Where is he? The car is parked on the street behind Kate's Volvo, where it is always parked. We walk or take the bus everywhere because we never pay our parking tickets. The keys are in the mailbox as usual, hidden in plain view.
I struggle to remember the morning. Dave leaves so early to catch the bus to make his 8 a.m. class that it is still dark out. He comes in the bedroom smelling like soap and Speedstick deodorant, the curly ends of his hair still wet, and he leans over the bed and kisses me goodbye. When he kissed me this morning, did he say he'd be late? I can't remember. Damn.
I have a deadline the next day but I'm too worried to write. I've been fighting worry all evening, and in fact was proud that I didn't mention it once to Rachael, but now it's approaching full boil and about to blow my lid off.
I turn on the TV and see that "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" is on IFC. I pick it up about half way, when Laura Palmer is just beginning to suspect that her dad may be a shady character. She is in her bedroom, and she is pre-occupied by two framed paintings. One is obviously creepy: It is just a cracked door in a dark hallway. The other is kitschy but creepy. In it, a family or maybe a group of children gather at a table, and an angel stands at the head keeping watch. While Laura watches, the angel disappears from the picture. This is when things really start to go haywire.
He doesn’t know that sometimes I make the sign of the cross over the car before he goes.
I really shouldn't be watching this right now, because I am already so jumpy and so worried and looking out the window every thirty seconds, hoping I hear a car. But Dave and I have been watching all the "Twin Peaks" episodes on DVD lately, and I haven't seen this prequel since I was in college, and I am marveling at how obvious and heavy-handed it all seems, when I used to think it was so cryptic and cool. Sometimes I underestimate how much I have grown up, and revisiting the things I loved at 19 and 20 is such a great reminder. It's also helpful to read the margin comments from all the books I thought I understood. Those make me blush. I was so sure that I had everything figured out. And now, with every year, every passing day, I become less so. Can I really call that maturity? It feels like going backward. Every so often I check the phone to be sure it is plugged in, and that I haven't missed a message. Where is he?
I am telling myself that he is fine, remembering that he always has band practice on Thursday nights. He will be home any minute. But there she is with her shrill, hysterical voice, a Mickey's Big Mouth Lager in one hand and a Camel Light in the other. "He's never coming home!" she shouts. She is always shouting this.
"He's gone! And your last memory of him is fuzzy and half-lit and mostly olfactory and now you will always cry when you smell Speedstick classic clean and Head and Shoulders!" She is almost happy, because she loves nothing more than being right.
I try to smother her. Come on, I say out loud. Grow up! I command her/me. Because I/we are grown up enough to watch this corny movie alone at night and not worry about Dave, who is just fine, who is probably having a great time smoking a joint and playing his trombone in downtown Pittsburgh. You/I have to get over this idea that every time we say goodbye it will be our last. It is making me crazy. And it makes him crazy, the way I am always saying, "Please be careful." I say it a lot. I say it with eyes wide and hands gripping the sides of his arms. Not just when he's going out of town for the weekend with his band to play a show, or to go to an old friend's wedding. I do it even if he is just running out to get a newspaper, or to pick up another six-pack for a party we're having.
It's almost worse then—and this is her talking again—because wouldn't it be awful to think I lost him for a Sunday edition of the New York Times? For one more Dos Equis with a lime? She tells me it would haunt me for the rest of my life, that I let him leave without one last important moment where we looked each other in the eye. I have to perform this superstitious little ceremony where I say the right words and touch him the right way, as if I am blessing him. As if this warning or this appeal—"Please be careful"—followed by this charm—"I love you"—will protect him. He humors me/us. But he doesn't know that sometimes I make the sign of the cross over the car before he goes. He caught me doing that before I got on a plane once, and he laughed and teased me for so long that I have to do this furtively now, on the sly, when I hope he's not looking.
I think he humors me because he knows this story: The first time my mom ever left me home alone, she left me at home to go to the grocery store. I must have been 11 or 12, because I begged her to leave me, so I could feel like a teenager. I was sure I'd be fine, and I was, for about an hour. I played my records on my dad's forbidden stereo and danced in the living room. But when she left it was afternoon; soon it would be getting dark, and she still wasn't back. I started to feel sick that I had insisted that she go alone. I would be forever responsible for what happened to her, and I was suddenly sure she was dead. I felt certain that there had been an accident. By the time she pulled up in the driveway I was sitting on our front porch, on the bench with the heart cut out of the back, I was hysterical, crying and sweaty and snotty. It turned out that she had gone to Hancock Fabrics to buy Jennifer and me some more yarn for the friendship bracelets we were into making back then. I was so mad at her for scaring me that I never made another bracelet again, and every time I saw the yarn in the little yellow plastic bag I felt sick, the way I would feel when she told us she had cancer, the same lurching feeling, like vertigo.
Dave knows this story and he is so good and so patient, and so we always say, "I Love You", even if we are only parting for a few minutes. We call it to each other from upstairs to downstairs. While he is leaning over me, smelling like deodorant and soap and the only light is from the bathroom, still steamy from his shower. Even if he has just called to tell me that he has band practice, or to ask me how many eggs to use in a recipe, we say, "I love you" before we hang up.
These are the same sorts of compulsions that made me crazy as a kid. These are the same things that made me think, when my mom really did die, that I had always had a sixth sense about it. That I had always known it would happen. But how psychic is that? Of course we know that everyone will die one day, that it is just a matter of time until the day that someone leaves and doesn't come home. There's nothing so intuitive about that. It didn't even happen the way I thought it would. She wasn't yanked from me by a trip to the grocery store. She faded in a long, torturous illness; it took a year.
What was so different about me, I guess, was not the revelation at all but the obsession with the revelation. Was/am I the only person in the world who was aware that we are all dying? Clearly, I was/am not. So how did/do other people ignore it? How can we do anything or say anything that distracts us from certain mortality? How can we say goodbye for even a few minutes when we know that WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE? That one day it really will be our last goodbye?
Just as the angel appears to Laura in that Red Room with that black and white Op-Art floor, I hear his keys in the lock.
"You are NOT watching Twin Peaks!" he says, disbelieving, depositing his trombone at the foot of the stairs. He knows me well enough but he is still sometimes shocked by the million and one ways I choose to horrify myself every day. It turns out he did tell me that he had practice tonight, and that I didn't remember. He told me this morning when he came in the bedroom to tell me goodbye and that he loved me before he rushed out to catch the bus on the corner of Dallas Avenue in the dark. I was still pretty much asleep.
Was/am I the only person in the world who was aware that we are all dying? Clearly, I was/am not. So how did/do other people ignore it? How can we do anything or say anything that distracts us from certain mortality?
And so he's here and the anxiety fades, like the angel in Laura Palmer's picture. It's not the sort of relief you'd think it is. It's a grudging relief. The 16-year-old is retreating, but she's still scowling with her arms crossed over her chest, and saying so what? So we're okay for now. This was just a rehearsal—only a hint of what it will feel like when he really doesn't come home. The 16-year-old wants to stay mad. I shut her up because he tells me he had a rough day.
He tells me that he had a rough day, a departmental meeting about how to teach "difficult" stories, that ended up, as it always does, to be all about race. Our English Department wants to teach morality through multiculturalism. Dave says I would have been proud, because he stood up and asked what kind of system or standard they were using for the basis of this morality. He is turning into the C.S. Lewis of Pitt. And he's not even that religious, and when he is, he's so private about it. But he is white, and male, and I sense him casting about for a valid academic identity—a way to distinguish himself. Nobody ever talks about God, he tells me. Nobody ever mentions religion, much less Christianity. Instead we are supposed to know what is right and what is wrong simply by empathy. We feel bad that a man was lynched. We recognize that this behavior is wrong. That racism is wrong. But why?
I don't know what came over me, he says as he flings his scarf over the coat rack and kicks off his shoes. I must have been filled with the Holy Spirit or something. But I just couldn't take it anymore. Check this out, he says, and he shuffles through his bag for a stapled hand out. "Stages of Moral Development" is printed in bold and centered at the top of the page. Stapled to this is an excerpt from "Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: Stages of White Identity Development." According to the logic of this handout, the highest stage of moral development a white person can attain is when he or she (a) "replaces conformity to racism with a world view that affirms the value of all people and cultures, and seeks to share power and resources" and (b) when he or she "has learned how to function in multi-racial groups, learned how to take responsibility for racism, and is comfortable examining one's own participation in racist systems."
Is this a joke? I ask him, and he throws his hands up and goes to the kitchen to get a beer.
I am in awe of this handout, of the earnestness in it. Someone, everyone believes this? I think I must not understand. I must be missing something. I must be misunderstanding, misquoting, taking it all out of context. This is the secret to being a good person, to having a valuable contribution to society, to history, to academia, to literature? This is the key to good writing, good teaching? Multiculturalism?
I think—my dad was right. This is all completely soulless-these careers we have chosen, this lofty tenure to which we aspire. Professors flush dark with embarrassment or anger or impatience when you mention God. Or they look at you blankly, or with pity.
This is one of those things that amazes me. How, when we all know for sure that we will all one day die, can we type a handout that tells us the way to a fully-realized life is through awareness of racism? Even if you're an atheist. Don't these people know we are all going into the ground one day, each of us?
How can I even waste my time and energy holding this piece of paper when my heart might stop while I'm reading it?
On Friday afternoon I go to the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart, and this is what happens.
The kids file in behind their teachers, and I see "me" at every age. Quiet and intimidated in second grade, checking out the big kids with curiosity. Whispering to my girlfriends in fifth grade, already growing so fast, taller than all the other kids and slouched over trying to hide it. Me in seventh grade, trying to sit next to the boy that I like.
By eighth grade all the girls are taller than the boys, and their plaid skirts are getting too small, and their feet are too big on their skinny legs. They wear lip-gloss and earrings. The boys are getting acne and greasy hair. I recognize all of them. But really it's hard to tell their ages, especially the younger ones. Those distinctions seemed so rigid when I was there. The leap from second to third grade was big and dangerous.
The church is overwhelmed by the scent of these kids. The smaller ones smell like sweat, like recess. Anne Lamott wrote that she thinks this is what God must smell like, like the skin behind a little kid's ear. Like unwashed potatoes. The older girls smell like melon lip-gloss and gum and perfume, but still, despite it all, they smell faintly like sweat and recess. They are eyeing me with suspicion, my sweatshirt and jeans. I think I should spit out my gum and set a good example. But I feel like I could put on my uniform and walk back to class with them in single file and still feel so needy and awkward, so determined to talk out of turn, to get some air time. Sometimes the girl in me isn't even 16. Sometimes she's 13. Maybe I've overestimated her and she's always 13, the age I was when my mom got cancer. Maybe she's 11, the age I was when she was late coming home because she bought that yarn.
This is why I see symbols and metaphors and poetry and death everywhere. Because of the rhythm of these words, these heads all dipping in unison, the bending of knees to kneelers, the tiny sad voices singing the “Stabat Mater”.
Once they are all settled in the pews, one of their teachers stands in the front of the church and calls them to attention by saying, "let's practice." And then she hums the refrain you sing between the stations, the Stabat Mater.
The three lines change with every verse, but the tune is the same. It has the simplicity of a nursery rhyme; it is see-sawy, up-downy, sing-songy, easy for a young shaky voice to master, but it is all in minor key and so sad. I haven't been to Stations of the Cross in 15 years, and when their young voices started I suddenly drowned in nostalgia. The tune and all those little voices hit me like a wave can hit you when you're unprepared, when you're not ready to dive in and ride it. It knocks the breath out of you, and leaves you on your ass on the beach with seaweed in your hair and sand in your bikini, not knowing up from down; manhandled by a force stronger than a man, feeling a little foolish at your own weakness.
Jesus, Lord, condemned, defiled
May we too be meek and mild
As we tread your holy way
My throat constricted and I choked on a sob. Two of the big kids, I'm guessing 7th or 8th graders, because the girl is wearing lip-gloss, read the text for the stations. They flank the priest in front of the altar. They probably rotate every week, or maybe only the best readers get this honor. That was how it happened in my Catholic school. These kids are good readers, even if they sound more like they should be reading aloud from Seventeen magazine than from the Passion. How can a 12 year old wring the right kind of painful humility from Psalm 118?
I lie prostrate in the dust; give me life according to your word.
I declared my ways, and you answered me; teach me your commands.
Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous deeds.
I wonder what this little girl is thinking as she reads these words from her little "Way of the Cross" booklet, with the cartoons of Jesus in his long white robe. Is she worried about her hair? Her math grade? If her crush is watching? Or is she really praying?
Or is it a little of all of those things? Is she worried that her prayers are futile?
My soul weeps for sorrow, strengthen me with your words.
I am in tears. I often am.
Hearing all these young voices enunciating scripture in unison—sloppy unison, but still unison!—to hear this again is to remember a feeling that I have long forgotten....a feeling that is something like home and a little tribal. It is a feeling of connectedness with the living and the dead, with nature and super-nature. And in this moment it is enough to convince me that my children will go to Catholic school, despite all the guilt of the flesh and even the comparatively bad education. Because this is why I'm a writer, isn't it? This is why I see symbols and metaphors and poetry and death everywhere. Because of the rhythm of these words, these heads all dipping in unison, the bending of knees to kneelers, the tiny sad voices singing the Stabat Mater.
Or maybe I should be in Catholic school now. Maybe this is the vocation I feel I can barely hear. To be the one who stands up and says, "Let's practice."
But I barely have enough time to digest the prayers and the Passion and the intensity of my nostalgia and how much I miss my Catholic school and the life I had when I was this reading girl's age, with a mom and a dad and everything in the right place, before we are on the 14th Station, Jesus is Laid in the Tomb, and it is all over.
The stations have flown by—nothing like I remember. I remember these 14 sections, the 12 hours from Gethsemane to Calvary, taking a little eternity. You do the Stations of the Cross during the last part of a Friday afternoon, the last bit of the school day before going home with a friend or to a slumber party, or to a Lenten fish dinner with my parents and grandparents at Thonn's Restaurant on Pontchartrain Drive. It is painful—so much kneeling and standing and kneeling and standing—and boring, and because it is painful and boring, it is considered a penance, for which you earn a plenary indulgence from the Church—an earned bit of grace, a blessing. But this Passion is over in 45 minutes. It has barely begun when it's over and all the little ones are hopscotching from brick to brick all the way down the center aisle and out the double doors.
I have to wait a minute with my head hung low, dabbing at my eyes while the big kids single-file out, teachers shushing them as they whisper and giggle in ears. When I emerge the little ones are standing on the steps in the 3 o'clock sun, waiting for their rides. The older girls are lying in the grass with their plaid uniform skirts hiked up and their knee socks rolled around their ankles.
While I walk home I think again of that girl in me, and how sometimes I love her. I want to hug her and brush her hair and paint her nails. Maybe I don't want her to go. Maybe she stays because I insist on it. She is, after all, what remains.
Priest: We adore you oh Christ, and we bless you.
All: Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.
The rhythm of the stations is still in my head. It is the first Friday of Lent, and Dave is going to play a show in Detroit. We have a craving for fried seafood, so we meet for oysters in Market Square before saying "I love you" and "goodbye" on the corner of Fifth Avenue.
I/we make the sign of the cross over the car that will bring him back to us tomorrow, safe.