Eternal Father & The Other Army

It is still dark when I leave the house, bags and rolling cart full of teaching materials stacked up by the door. I let the silence of the road and the slowly lightening landscape pull me into the waking world, coffee clasped tight in one hand, while the other hand steers. I drive for an hour and forty-five minutes up I-5, arriving in Redding with twenty minutes to spare.

I will teach teachers all day at the county office, clicking around in low heels and doing my best impression of what I think a charismatic person does—points excitedly, tells engaging pseudo-personal stories, praises others for their contributions. At the end of the day, I sit for a second and read through the evaluations. Powerful learning. Best professional development I’ve attended. Could’ve provided more snacks.

I gather up all the stray papers, binders, and trash and haul the load back out to my Honda with a dent in the front. I will never get this dent fixed. I don’t care about a pristine car and my daughter says it’s how she recognizes our vehicle in a crowded parking lot. I slip my shoes off and put on some sneakers over my tights. Rather than turn left out of the parking lot toward home, I turn right. I’ve been thinking about that right turn all day.

Just half a mile from here is a white, geometric building that now houses an insurance agency. It’s changed faces many times over the years. Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.

*     *     *

Randy was there the night of my intake. I was snowy-eyed and limp. It was the apex of late June heat, but Mom and I stopped at the outlet stores on our way and I picked out a Stanford sweatshirt. I needed long sleeves because I didn’t want them to see my arms. They all had the manila file, but I still didn’t. Randy brought me up from the blinding lobby, three floors to the Adolescent Ward. He put my suitcase on the bed and pulled out every item—clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, stationary—unzipping and unfolding each object and organizing them in piles.

Being brought to the Hilltop Care Center meant that I was beyond trying to look like things were okay. I relented my control, which I had believed was utter and complete. In Randy’s presence, I cried inexplicably. I asked him questions that others didn’t and requested that he pray with me in my room. He hugged me hard, which was the payoff. He had five kids, a wife, and smelled like Ivory soap. There was a tidiness about him that permeated everything—his collared shirt, high-waisted jeans, clean white sneakers, jet-black hair clipped short over his ears.

Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.

He had control, so I felt I didn’t have to when in his presence.

Randy noticed the small cross I wore, gave me a little book of biblical meditations and wrote a message on the inside cover: What occurs on this earth by the hands of men means little in the eyes of our Eternal Father. He loves you, Sarah. I read the inscription again and again, blurring the words to say, “I love you,” which is what I wanted desperately to hear from him. I wanted him to take me home with him at the end of his shift and plunk me down at that table of seven.

He was one man in a cluster of men that fit a particular profile: Christian, a father, conservative, a caregiving rescuer. These men made me cry easily. I needed their physical touch in a way that was a bottomless asking.

At the HCC, our days were composed of a rigid schedule that started at six a.m. The first few days there I felt half-dead, either from waking early or the myriad pills I swallowed from a white paper cup. At home, I had been sleeping twenty hours a day, spending my brief waking hours in the middle of the night, when the house was dark and silent.

*     *     *

Rose, my roommate, had the same need that I did. She had targeted the male nurse, Greg, who was good-looking, like Huey Lewis, but only had one arm. She hung around the front desk long after everyone had retired to their rooms for Free Time. Joking, she would dance around in front of him, her cut sweatshirt hanging down on one side, showing the hint of tattoo just below the raw fabric. Her makeup was always perfect. She filled our room with a musky, womanly scent.

We bonded quickly, in part, because we were both survivors of sexual abuse. “Sister,” she would start each sentence directed at me, “My sister, Sarah.” I loved my little brother, but I had always had a deep desire for an older sister. I often developed sibling crushes on my friends’, jealous of the shared family knowledge, the way one launched out into the world like a pilot fish for the other to follow. Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.

Her daddy was a biker. During group family therapy, I remember the way she clung to his large, calloused hands and crumbled inside the circle his arms made for her. He was a fortress built of leather, ink, facial hair and buckles, yet he cried when she cried.

In my adulthood, many people have commended me for surviving the early parts of my life. You could’ve been a drug addict, they say, a prostitute, and while I think there are a hundred other possibilities in between those extremes, I always think of Rose. She was a prostitute. She was trading time from the California Youth Authority and could lessen her punishment for getting through the levels of the HCC. I wonder about the shape of her story, whom she ended up loving, if she was able to discover a life in which she didn’t have to sell her body to survive.

I wonder if she would remember me now and if she did, would she still call me “Sister”?

*     *     *

Each time we transitioned to a new activity, I had to meet another adult. They liked me. I wasn’t belligerent or acting out. In the schoolroom I read past the passages that were assigned and wrote long responses. I immediately earned enough points to be taken out to pizza for lunch, but couldn’t until I had reached the second level. There wasn’t a set graduation from the program, or really a stated objective we were told to accomplish. Most were pushed out of the program as soon as their insurance stopped paying, which, on the average, was two weeks. It was more like they had to provide us some system to work through, a measurement of “progress.” Some kids were there for eating disorders, others for violent episodes. I was there for what they labeled as “Major Depression” and “Suicidal Ideation.”

Their guiding principle for getting better seemed to be based on proximity—that closeness to the suffering and eventual improvement of others would cause you to follow. It worked both ways. Sometimes there would be a vacuum of despair, everyone leap frogging off the person who just shared, anteing the trauma like tokens of anguish. Other times, you would weep at the earnest confession that another was, in fact, feeling better. I hope, they would admit hesitantly, as if they would be kicked out of the sacred circle for wanting to live.

My therapist, Jamie, had the bluest eyes I had ever witnessed in another human. Mt. Shasta loomed huge out the window of her office and the jagged powdered peaks cut a sky to match them.

Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.

Most of the time, Shasta looked like a postcard with its pristine and ancient presence held in that small frame, but once in a while, I would use it as an imaginative space, a placeholder for the life I would one day have. Maybe I would be a woman who hikes, or one who meditates, as I’d heard the staff talking about both. The native people of the area saw it as the center of creation, a stepping stone for the Great Spirit ascending from heaven.

Conversations around ideas of “spirit” were mostly limited to a Judeo-Christian framework. Jamie and the other staff believed that I could handle adult texts and would take me to the storage room filled with self-help books of every kind. I would go back to my room, arms full, and arrange them on the small desk in my room. Of all the books they offered on spirituality and wellness, the ones I chose were about surviving sexual abuse. And out of all the words in those books, I was interested most in the gritty, detailed descriptions of “what happened.”

There’s a way in which suffering becomes quantified, especially when first identifying it as your own. A need emerges to press your experience into a discernable shape, to measure it next to other shapes, and feel the contraction or expansion of that. When I was fourteen, it seemed everyone had been abused by somebody else. Soon after my father went to prison, he began having flashbacks of an older neighborhood boy. He was discovering the shape of his wounds, too.

Jamie put The Story of a Soul in my hands, the autobiographical writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese died at twenty-four and lived her short life certain that she was meant for service to God. She believed in the power of small sacrifice, in gestures that lift those around you. Those that have studied her note the potential for a kind of mania, of hysteria and oversensitivity. Her mother died of breast cancer when Therese was very young, which triggered what could be characterized as a breakdown, in a strand of many. What cured these hysterical occurrences were her signs received from Christ. She found respite in prayer. She said, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”

It was the simplicity of her message that anchored me. She didn’t deny suffering and was still able to find comfort, to persist into what her mind had first told her was unlivable.

*     *     *

One of the beliefs I held during this time was that I was a pervert magnet. I have a fragmented memory of being very small and holding my mother’s hand as we walked around the downtown plaza of my hometown. As we walked, two men, twins, walked in our direction. They were like living Ken dolls—wavy blonde hair, well-dressed, tan—and my mother knew them. She began to chat with them and one crouched down, trying to engage with me. I lost it. I started crying, screeching, pawing at my mom to pick me up. She told me years later that she was shocked by my response. I had never done such a thing and was usually such a placid child.

Many years later, we read in the newspaper that the twins were brought up on charges of sexually assaulting their own invalid mother. They had thousands of photographs of her nude, in various positions, with them, without them.

“They were always so nice,” my mother commented. She had met them at a time when she was very involved with church and was excessively kind, even when she didn’t have to be. And then she remembered that time I cried at the sight of them. The way I clung to her and squeezed my eyes shut, so they would stop trying to make me see them.

Did I know they were deviants, that somewhere in the perfect curl of their smiles, there was a dark damaged yearning? Maybe I was a sensor, rather than a magnet.

But then what of Mr. Bell, my seventh-grade Science teacher whom people whispered about? He was suspect of lingering too long with female students after school, letting his hand rest on their shoulders, complimented them on their beauty, offered to drive them home. I volunteered to stay after. I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation. He knew what people said about him. Whether he was what they said or not, I wanted to live in his classroom, yet he would make me go home after an hour.

He came to my house to visit me after everyone had found out what my father had done. He was the only teacher who did. I can still see him sitting on the dark blue floral couch in our living room, his checked shirt buttoned all the way up, his ankles crossed in front of him. It’s a terrible thing, he confirmed, but you will be okay. You will have a good life.

Years later, I was in the lingerie section of a department store browsing for something sexy to wear for my boyfriend. I was just out of high school and trying out my new adult identity, attempting to perform something—the wiles of a woman, someone who is capable of seduction.

I was holding a black and grey lace teddy against my body and looked up to see Mr. Bell approaching from the Housewares section. I blushed at his arrival, letting the garment sag against my leg. He looked just the way he always had—grey-haired and distinguished, like Sean Connery. We made small talk. I told him I was registered to take classes at the community college.

We hugged goodbye, transported by years and the shared knowledge of secrets and the power of what people say. He leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Take a picture of yourself in that and send me a copy.”

*     *     *

At Hilltop, it was easy to get lulled into familiarity. A strict schedule offers someone who is untethered a sense of purpose. Even if that compulsion, what one might call will, was merely the tiny agreement to walk to the Art Therapy room. I loved that room. Wall-to-wall shelves with every craft supply you could think of. For weeks, I worked on a pine box, creating a mosaic on the top surface that was white with a blue cross. I was making it for John, a family friend who had become a kind of father figure.

John was a good man. Maybe the prototype for all of those who came after him. He was conservative, hardworking, and devoted to his family. His wife, Jennifer, was the first person whom I told about the abuse. She was my youth group leader at church.

I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation.

In the chaos after everyone found out, after the police had left, after my father had gone, Jennifer stayed close to our family. She picked my brother and me up from school, something my father had always done. She spent hours listening to me, letting me cry, making us dinner. She told me that when she told John what had happened to me, he cried. I had known them both from the after-part of church on Sundays, when everyone was in clusters chatting and kids and teenagers chased each other around the lawn. He had always teased me.

That he cried made me feel something I had never experienced before. I felt protected. Maybe valued? Loved? It was not sexual, though there was some part of me that was compelled to make it that. The truth is that I didn’t know what to do with a healthy presentation of genuine care.

But I wanted his love and affection so badly that I would work myself into a fit—sit, thinking about my father, his hands, the smell of his hair, set with grease and a metallic dust from the garage. I would allow myself into the worst thoughts. The darkened hallway. His loafers, softly crossing the house to my bedroom. And then I’d be crying. John would come and take my hand, lead me into their room, sit down in his recliner and let me sink into his lap, resting my face on the muscled edge between his shoulder and neck.

I step away from that image now and witness my thirteen-year-old self being rocked by a thirty-year-old. I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.

It was almost impossible to get that kind of contact in the hospital. Hans, a permanently red-faced, red-haired boy, would go on periodic rampages. The kind of screaming that should be reserved for the actual act of murder, the kind that alerted the body to run and get as far away from whatever animal is in such exquisite pain and hide. A staff member would draw some kind of boundary—no more foosball, something fairly benign and you would first see his fists form, like small hearts, flooded with pulse and power. He would spin into a blur of punches. Then he would shoot like a bullet down the hallway, feet pounding the soft carpet after him. The first one to him would wrap him up in their arms, his legs striking for any surface, sweeping through the air—his chaos something so large his small body could not contain it.

Once a week, a man would come to sit with us cross-legged in the group meeting room and play us songs on his guitar. There would be a stir in the group energy when he would arrive, his long, salt-and-pepper hair tied back by a leather string, the black guitar case a new intruding shape on our monochrome, strapped-down environment.

He wrote his own songs, most of them about having been redeemed by Jesus. He had a low vibrato and I would sit in the circle and let tears go. Hans was also affected in this way. He would close his eyes, his freckled cheeks flushed with something that looked like pleasure, like peace.

*     *     *

Then, Billy came through the door in ropes. His parents told him they were going to visit family and when he agreed, they tied him up, shoved him in the car, and drove straight to HCC. We were circled up in our evening group when he arrived, but I could see him through the cracked door. His face was dark with rage. He looked like he could destroy us all. I knew if given the chance, I would let him.

There are two opposing male archetypes that have populated my life. One is the Randy, the John—men that would be described as gentle, loyal, trustworthy, kind. They are the Good Men.

Then there is the other army. The young men who had swallowed a bomb at birth, those who were ignited in their injury and were bent on loving women as a kind of revenge. I could sniff them out, rouse them from their disaffected sleep, and get them to turn their blistering gaze on me. Some of my men were both: older ones who had grown out of a rebellious youth to become righteous, younger ones who looked like disciples from the exterior, but seethed with some caustic potential. No one is just one thing, but for many years, it felt like that.

Billy was sullen, non-verbal and impervious to the tactics of even the most engaging staff. In our many circles, he sat low in a chair, arms crossed. The only time I saw him behave differently was during gym. We were encouraged, but not forced, to spend an hour a day engaged in physical activity. Most of the girls sat with their backs against the wall watching the boys play basketball. I loved basketball, but had spent my gym time each day in the row of girls. It was easier to conform. And I was a little bit afraid to seem okay. I worried that if I indicated enthusiasm toward any given thing, they would take note, and make me leave.

I had a boyfriend at home.

I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.

He was Jennifer and John’s foster son. At different times, they would have between two and six teenage foster boys in their home, but Tim was permanent. Jennifer would pick us all up from school. They had a freezer full of Homerun pies and we would take turns at the microwave warming them up. Mostly they were hot as molten lava, but we would blow and bite, blow and bite, while crowding around on the carpet like puppies, watching Days of Our Lives, Jennifer’s unwavering choice.

After scarfing down the powdery pastry and saccharine fruit gel, some of us would go out to the bare dirt mound where the basketball hoop was mounted. Tim was the best at basketball, and the other boys would get bored after few games of Horse. I was tenacious though, waiting for the moment when everyone else would clear, leaving the two of us alone. In these short lengths of time between the moment we were left and the encroaching night, we would go head-to-head, the ball ringing out against the hard-packed dirt, our hands smooth with dust, sweat sticking to our t-shirts, marking our hands and anywhere we had touched one another with the smudges of our game.

He, like all the boys, had been warned by John to treat me with respect. I was like a princess among them. Except for Tim, who would let his arms wrap around my middle in an attempt to get the upper hand, would place his legs on either side of mine—our appendages woven together—any closeness the ball allowed. It was only a matter of time before we kissed.

It was decided that I would go to Hilltop when I stopped going to school. Things that had been keeping me alive were losing their hold. Tim knew. He seemed to love my damage. He was going to be a Good Man, or at least he was trying. When I said stop, he did. I told him I would come back better.

When Billy passed me the basketball, it was reflex that grabbed hold of it and lobbed it back. He was rough and fast, his movements unfamiliar and jerky. I met him, step to step, didn’t fall back when he pushed forward. I scored on him from the three-point line, expecting the wide-open grin that Tim would’ve reserved for such a shot. I turned into his body and he checked me. I hit the ground hard. He was not my sweet opponent who would sneak a kiss to the back of my neck, who would throw me over his shoulder for winning.

I mistook this boy for another. No one had told him to protect me. To keep me safe from someone just like him.

*     *     *

My mother came to visit every chance she could. She would work all day, get in the car and drive the hour and forty-five minutes north just to see me for forty minutes. There were kids whose parents lived in the same town, but only came on Family Night. I knew then, and have always known, the certainty of my mother’s love. It’s something that set me apart at HCC, that my mother came each day. She gave me letters from my family, my friends, and Tim. She knew every staff member by their first name and asked for detailed updates on my progress.

She is the reason I lived. She believed me, both when I said the truth of what had happened and then again when I questioned the value of my own life. The hardest truth is that a mother’s love can’t always protect the child. Even from the other parent.

That month I was at HCC, there were record heat waves. We didn’t know it or feel it in the air-conditioned bubble of the interior. A week before I was released, our whole unit was allowed to hike up the hillside along the side of the facility to watch fireworks. A few days before, Rose had been moved to another place. She still had time left, but there was no more funding to support her treatment. Her departure was hard on me. I was surprised by the strength of my grief. If she left, I would leave soon too.

Without Rose around, I was vulnerable to Billy’s attention. She recognized immediately what kind of boy he was and would tell him to get the fuck away from us. Once she was gone he began sitting at my table at meal times, passing little misspelled notes: “Yur room. Toniht.”

“You’re not going to get into my room,” I challenged. “Staff are everywhere.”

“Is that a dare?” he sneered, his face red and pocked with acne. I wanted to tell Randy about the notes, but there was a part of me that was testing what would happen, that didn’t want protection, who wanted to see if the pervert curse held. There was also the beguiling hook that he liked me (or I perceived that was what his attentions meant). He wasn’t threatening to sneak into any other girl’s room, which by default, made me special. How many times had I enacted this exchange: aggression, silence, agreement, accusation? Was there ever a time I hadn’t, was more likely the question.

Was I surprised when the hall light, that never turned off, cut a shadow of his figure in my doorframe?

Did I answer him, deflating my name in the static air, hissing, Sarah Sarah Sarah?

I remember that his breath was acrid and mouth dry as he pressed his lips to mine, then the cruel bite, and the warmth of my blood. I was tucked in up to my chin, swaddled in the number-stamped bedding, which he pulled at, my lower lip kept still in his teeth. He found my nightshirt, pulled it up and held my breasts, one in each hand. He held to my flesh like he was intent on remaking me, as if I were clay he could shape into someone else, as if I could be pressed through the small openings his fingers left.

The next day, I had a fat lip. In the mirror, I saw that he left two purple wings, spreading and deepening in color across my chest.

He had only been there a moment. He knew that’s all he had. Before I could react to his swift violence, he was back in the doorframe, waiting for the right moment to creep back to his room.

I turned over into my wild, beating heart. I never told anyone.

*     *     *

Would it have been easier if Story of a Soul were my story? If praying was the answer to my suffering, letting me embrace the contrast of loss with the love of God. It wasn’t. I never opened that book of scriptures that Randy gifted to me, other than to read his words. It’s in a box somewhere, buried in stacks of letters and worksheets populated with my loopy teen script. If God existed anywhere, it was in those seconds my body was held against his with pure intent, or those few moments John allowed me to fall apart, protected in his arms.

When I was at HCC, I was between dying and finding the next story to live into. I didn’t yet believe that there was something better. I wanted merely to know that eventually the radiant edge of Mt. Shasta would look again like a mountain, rather than a cardboard cutout someone might punch their fist through. The love of those steadfast, uptight, gracious men calmed the gasping, flailing girl inside me, allowing me the knowledge that safety was possible. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the life I would build or know that some suffering abates, that trauma retreats with the discovery of new ecstasies, new grief.

Driving south on I-5 toward home, I watch the last hour of sun play along the hillsides and ravines that make up the landscape between where I’ve come from and where I live. I think of my mother at the end of her long workday, driving these same roads to visit me, the fear and hope she must’ve held together over these miles.

I can barely remember the body and mind of my young self at Hilltop, but I do recall the guided imagery Jamie would lead me through in our sessions. She would lay me back on her couch and cover me with a soft blanket, turn the lights down. Once, she asked me to imagine a place where I felt protected and I saw my childhood bedroom, the butter-yellow walls and crinkled gauze curtains floating over the windows. I moved toward the small closet that my brother and I would hide in sometimes, pretending that we were looking for a portal into another world. There was a board there that you could move aside and see into the guts of the house.

In my mind, I held the edges of the board with my fingertips. I pried at it with all the strength my hands could muster. There was warmth on the other side. And there was light.

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Special Guest Judge, Bernadette Murphy

“’Eternal Father and the Other Army’ is a narrative of healing crafted with lyric language and deep emotional insight. The author limns the human condition in all its complexity and messiness, celebrating moments of peace and redemption amid the pain and difficulties of growing up and moving forward.”

– Bernadette Murphy is the author of, most recently, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, May 2016), and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Sarah Pape Sarah Pape teaches English and works as the Managing Editor of Watershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in New England Review, Passages North, Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, Bluestem, The Pinch, Smartish Pace, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and others. Her chapbook, Ruination Atlas, was published this year (dancing girl press). She curates community literary programming and is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Check out her website for more: www.sarahpape.com.

Disquieting

I hallucinate. Only at night, only when I travel for work. The drug-induced visions are violent but worth it. I take an anti-malaria medicine to stay alive.

Malaria nearly killed my ex-husband when we lived in Vietnam. His fevers reached 107.5. He convulsed, raged, and sweat. He should have died, like our friend Clive.

The disease doesn’t always kill you. If you’re really unlucky, it can cause brain damage. I’m working in Mozambique, where malaria is one of the leading causes of death. It kills more than cancer, tuberculosis, car accidents, heart disease, murder, and diabetes combined.

I want to be lucky, so I take the drug then wait for that in-between state when I can never be sure what is real and who is dangerous. I’m sleeping in my Maputo hotel when I hear the voices. There are two this time. One is angry and loud, the other is scared.

Foda-se! Foda-se! It sounds like Fuck you! Fuck you! It’s strange to dream in Portuguese. I don’t speak the language.

Mom-m-m-m-a! Mom-m-m-m–a!

The mournful, pitiful cry must be coming from my psyche. I run away from it.

In fine print the pill bottle says, Psychotic episodes are rare though one of the undesirable effects. The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me. Another time, I ate that same man, scraping his tattoos off with my teeth. I’m powerful between waking and sleeping.

I get out of bed and open my hotel room door. The only light comes from the doorways open just wide enough so that whoever is standing behind them can see what’s happening without being seen. They are voyeurs. Like me.

The frightened voice is below me. A girl lies naked in the hallway. Her smooth brown skin is exposed, her tiny nipples erect. With no pubic hair I guess she’s younger than my daughter, maybe eleven. She’s crying, but she’s not alone. There’s a wrinkled white man, maybe in his fifties, kicking her with his dress shoe, screaming.

Everyone is watching. She looks up at me.

I think about the time I was in the New Delhi train stationa time I am not hallucinating. A boy sleeps on the platform steps. People are walking over him. His friend, his sister, I don’t know which, pulls on my dress and points. She scares me. The train station is notorious for thieving monkeys and children. The boy is not moving. Is he dead? Someone is supposed to meet me soon. I can’t miss my ride. I don’t know Delhi. Why isn’t anyone else helping?

The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me.

Mom-m-m-m-a. I’m back in Maputo. She’s still naked. Stop crying, I want to tell her. Can’t she understand that he kicks her harder the louder she gets? Keep quiet. It can save you. It saved me thirty years ago in a different hotel.

I was seventeen when my rapist broke into a room, dragged me through the window and told his friend to keep watch. He couldn’t get my clothes all the way off. Jeans half on, my legs were trapped. I couldn’t flail them. I stayed quiet. In return, he didn’t kill me. I was thankful. My rapist had been kind.

I’m terrified for this girl. Terrified, wishing for her silence. I have to do something. She’s crying for her mother. Why didn’t I cry for mine? Thirty years of silence.

If I’m remembering, am I hallucinating?

I run to my bed and pull the sheets off, as if the thin white cotton will protect her.

Here’s the part where what I tell people and what I do are different. I tell them I wrap the sheets around her and protect her from the man. This is what I would want someone else to do if it was my daughter, if it was me. But I don’t. I throw them toward her, and she wraps them around herself.

The white man is still yelling Foda-se! Foda-se! when the hotel staff arrives. A young man picks her up while another shushes her like a mother quiets a child. They carry her away in my sheets and leave the man. She’s still crying, Mom-m-m-m-a! as they leave the hallway. The man standing two feet away looks to me.

I run inside my room. There’s no furniture to block his entry. I checked earlier. Like I always do. Everything is bolted to the floor. I should have refused to stay here when I saw the hotel room safe had been stolen, leaving an empty space in the wall. But I didn’t want to be that womena fearful blonde American who insists on a safer hotel, a woman who demands of others. My Blackberry has no service. There is no peephole to see if he’s coming, so I slide my back down the door and hope my body weight will keep him out. I cradle myself, arms wrapped around my knees, staring at my sheetless bed. Then, only then, do I start to make noise. Sobsa crying that’s half in, half out: a pathetic crying that tries silencing itself and results in half breathing, half living.

I’m not hallucinating though wish I was. I long for the power. Instead, I’m crying for the girl, for the girl’s mother, for my daughter. I’m crying because I’m not the woman I want to be. I’m silent. Like everyone else.

Laura P McCarty

Laura P. McCarty is pursuing her MFA at American University. Her work has appeared in the GW Review and is forthcoming in the St. Petersburg Review. In 2016, she was a semi-finalist for the Disquiet International Literary Prize in nonfiction, and a selected reader at The Inner Loop, a monthly literary reading series in Washington, DC. In 2014, she coauthored and published her first book of poetry, My Mother, My Daughter, My Sister, My Self. She lives in Arlington, VA. (Photo credit: Nicole Schofield)

The Illusion of Free Will

Before I was confirmed into the Catholic Church, I was reprimanded by a Buddhist monk in a forest thick with mosquitos. My khaki pants stuck to my legs and my collared shirt clung to my damp neck. The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism. I wanted to appeal to the monk, so I hid the fact that I was shopping for other religions like flavors of ice cream at the Winn-Dixie. I desperately wanted to be his next project. I wanted the monk to look at me and see unbounded spiritual potential in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl who would do anything to escape the Catholic Church.

Instead, I killed a mosquito and scraped the blood off my skin with my fingernail. The sound of the slap reverberated as if caught in the trees and the monk spun slowly to face me.

“Have you learned nothing?” he asked. “What is the first precept of Buddhism?”

Shamefully, I recited what I learned while trying to hide the caked blood on my forearm.

“Abstain from taking the lives of living beings.”

The monk nodded slowly. Everything he did was slow.

The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism.

Humidity congregated on his bald head and slid down his temples. I wondered if his bare feet ached from traveling without shoes in the woods; he showed no indication of pain. When he turned back around and started moving down the path leading to the temple, mosquitos continued landing on my exposed arms and neck. I let them take my blood. Nothing made my life more valuable than theirs.

*     *     *

I was told confirmation was the process of becoming recognized as an adult in the eyes of the church, but no one clued in my mother who still insisted on driving me there twice a week as she had done my entire life. She knew that I disagreed with many lessons taught in my religious education classes, but I never told her that I was ejected once during a discussion about women’s roles in the church.

Although my religious education leader was a woman, she maintained that since Jesus did not ordain any women in the Bible, the church should never allow women to hold any positions of power. She argued that God deliberately made women weaker than men and she cited the Bible as evidence.

“Has it ever occurred to you that book was written by men?” I spat. “You act like it came flying down from Heaven and that’s just bullshit.”

I hid in the bathroom for the duration of class, trying to forget the indignant look on my teacher’s face as she silently held open the door for me to leave. On the way home, I stared fixedly out the window so that my mom wouldn’t notice the tears coating my hot cheeks.

When I approached my confirmation mentor to ask if I could explore other religions, she agreed that I should be educated in other systems of faith before committing to Catholicism. She sent me to a synagogue where the Torah was taken down from a sparkling golden shrine and unraveled before my eyes. She took me to an Eastern Orthodox Church where the murals were so bright and enveloping that I forgot to breathe while staring up at them. She even offered me a hijab to wear for my first time entering a mosque.

“Before you enter the masjid, you must cover your head with this,” she said, touching the golden crucifix dangling from her neck. “Non-Muslims are welcome to see the Islamic way of prayer, but you must be modest.”

I think my church knew that my brief voyages into other faiths only provided the illusion of free will. They were constructed to make me feel alien so that when I returned to the familiar wooden benches and stained glass I would feel at home. Catholicism was inevitable for me as long as I lived under the domain of my mother.

For a while, I tried to talk to her about my exploration of other religions. On the way to a Saturday evening mass I told her all about the Muslim’s systematic worship in the mosque. It gave me comfort to remember watching from the balcony as they chanted to Allah and fell to their knees in unison. My hijab kept unraveling and blocking my view, but I pushed it back and kept watching. Their faith was raw and honest and I envied it.

“In Islam, there is no Heaven,” I told my mom. “This life is just preparation for the next realm of existence. So death is just movement, not permanent. Isn’t that interesting?”

My mother didn’t answer. She pulled into our usual spot in the church lot and walked intently through the glass doors leading to the narthex. They swung closed before I could catch up with her, but I entered in time to see her genuflect at the end of our regular pew and drop to her knees. It creaked loudly but I doubt she heard. Her eyes were already squeezed tight and her fingers laced in prayer.

Around the time I was exploring other faiths I was also attending a world history class taught by an elderly man with kind eyes who called himself a determinist.

“Based on what I know of things, I do not believe in free will,” Mr. Johnson told us. “By definition, determinism is the philosophy that every human action is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the ones that came before it.”

I didn’t raise my hand before I spoke.

“Are you saying that you think everything we do is predetermined?”

The old man nodded.

“Exactly. It would require a computer precisely the size of the universe to untangle the future, but I believe we live in a deterministic universe. It’s just best for our sanity to pretend that there is such a thing as free will and act accordingly.”

At night when I was alone, I contemplated free will. I considered determinism and the notion that every single physical movement I made, every thought in my head, every event in my life, was not really my own design and merely a consequence of the events that happened prior. When this became too overwhelming I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined reaching through a sky full of clouds. This image alone put my mind at ease enough to sleep.

*     *     *

My mother taught me at a young age that bodies decompose but the soul is immortal. We rarely discussed death, but my mom once almost drowned in the ocean several years before I was born. She never learned how to swim but she could float on her back, which is how she saw the lifeguard frantically blowing his whistle and waving a green flag to warn her of the undertow. Without her knowledge, the current had already pulled my mom out so far that her toes couldn’t scrape the murky ocean bottom and she quickly sunk under the surface.

Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell.

My mom always discussed Heaven as if it would be lucky to have her. I think it gave her comfort to assume her soul would live forever in a place with no suffering, but Heaven never seemed as inevitable to me.

We read excerpts of Dante’s Inferno in Mr. Johnson’s class. I wrote down the circles of hell in my spiral notebook and tried to decide which circle I would be condemned to after my death. Certainly not the third where the gluttonous lie in vile, freezing slush but perhaps in the sixth circle, where heretics are forever trapped in flaming tombs. The fifth seemed just as likely, where the wrathful and sullen would be forced to fight each other until the end of time. When I started dating another woman soon after I turned eighteen, I changed my mind. My church called gay relationships moral disorder, and maintained that homosexuals are contrary to the natural law. Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell: a level where souls are blown about forever in a violent storm. I belonged in the circle of lust.

*     *     *

I learned I was a sinner at age seven. Around the same time, we were preparing for the sacrament of communion by practicing with a roll of candy Smarties. This specific event was also when my religious education teachers started rightfully identifying me as a threat to their lesson plans and everything about the church they held sacred.

“When I place this on your tongue, you must let it dissolve,” my teacher said. “While it disintegrates you have to contemplate sacrifice.”

The instant the first Smartie hit my tongue I crunched it in half with my teeth.

“No, no, honey. You must let it dissolve,” she said. “Go back to the end of the line and try again.”

Her tone was harsher when I chewed the Smartie a second time.

“Are you deliberately disobeying me? This is the body of Christ,” she said, madly shaking the roll of candy.

It didn’t take long for the other kids to catch on. When they realized that I was being punished with more candy, they all chewed their Smarties too and eventually my teacher threw the extra candy at us in defeat.

The lessons I never interrupted were the ones in which we discussed the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. In high school, one of my friends thought she was pregnant with the next Messiah. She hadn’t had sex but was positive there was a baby inside her. This was never a fear of mine. I sinned enough to be disqualified for the role. That part of Christianity never fascinated me anyway—what did fascinate me was the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Jesus had been born the natural way, but somehow the woman who birthed him was not biologically his mother. He was not a derivative of her and did not share her genetic makeup. It didn’t matter if the Virgin Mary had attached earlobes or a widow’s peak. It didn’t matter if her eyes were blue or brown or if her hair was curly or straight. Jesus was entirely his own person. I wanted to be my own person more than anything in the world.

My mother didn’t pass on many of her physical traits to me, but she blames my grandmother’s genetics for making me queer. She told me one day when we were out at lunch.

“It’s obvious it comes from that woman,” she said. “Think about it—she had three children and the only one that’s not a homosexual is your father. I don’t want you to think I believe this is some sort of genetic problem, though. It’s not. At least it’s not for you. You made a very deliberate choice. And I feel sorry for you, because you’re too stupid to realize that the one you chose will make the rest of your life very hard.”

The first summer I spent away from my mother I worked with artists in Rome and although I walked past hundreds of churches every day, I didn’t attend mass once. Instead, I smoked Macedonian cigarettes in tall grass with people I didn’t understand despite their perfect English. We lay there on the hard ground for hours and stared at the stars, which looked about the same to me as they did in Michigan. The familiarity of the sky gave me the kind of comfort I never found through prayer. I clutched the slim cigarette clumsily between my fingers and expelled the smoke deep from my belly. When it all cleared and I could see the sky again I shut my eyes and smoked and pleaded with the universe not to make me go back home.

*     *     *

Shortly before I was confirmed, I invited Mr. Johnson to a pub down the road from my high school. His stringy gray hair, which was tied back into a low pony tail, stuck to his face at various angles. He drank beer. I drank Diet Coke and swiveled on the stool like a child. He asked me about my future, writing, college, and why I’d wanted to talk to him.

“Of course, as a determinist I would say you had no choice,” he said, chuckling.

I wanted to tell him that his faith in determinism was exactly why I picked him, but instead, I just smiled and shrugged.

I thought of Mr. Johnson when I raised my arms and slid on my white confirmation dress.  Although it hung loosely from my thin frame, I could not take a deep breath while it was on me. I wrapped pieces of my long hair around the curling iron and stared at my hollow reflection.

In church I sat beside my mother. She insisted we should be silent, but before the mass began she knocked her foot against mine and whispered, I hope you get married in this church one day.

Her words knocked the remaining air out of me. Suddenly, I was the one drowning in the ocean. The undertow grabbed my ankles and was dragging me down and I couldn’t fight back. I didn’t know which way was up.

I was confirmed into the Catholic Church feeling violent. When the priest anointed my forehead with oil I felt like a wild horse being held down for branding. His thumb seared my skin and when I opened my eyes and saw everyone watching me and smiling I was struck by how similar they all looked. I wanted to shake them and yell. I don’t belong with you people. This isn’t me. I tried to escape this but the Buddhists didn’t want me and my Jewish books were overdue and my fucking hijab kept falling off. I don’t belong here with you but my teacher says I had no choice. From the moment I was born, I had no choice.

For a brief second I felt faint. From the pew, I concentrated on the window in the lobby. The sky was blue and clouds hung peacefully above the tree line. I shut my eyes and imagined I was reaching into the sky and through the clouds. Slowly I felt my breath even and my chest relax. We lined up for communion and I flattened my white dress calmly. I held my hands in prayer like I had been taught in second grade. I sang the communion hymn from memory.

As I approached the priest, I made a conscious decision. Perhaps the decision was not mine and was predetermined long before I was born. Maybe a computer the size of the universe could have teased out the threads that led to that moment. Or maybe, like my mother insisted, the choice was all my own. I still do not know.

The instant the priest placed the host into my mouth I snapped it in half with my teeth. I hoped everyone heard the sound as loud as the death of a mosquito in a silent forest.

Gabe MontesantiGabe Montesanti is a current MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. She has a BA in mathematics and studio art from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She wrote her senior thesis in Rome, a creative nonfiction piece about working for artists along the Tiber River, and the project was awarded honors from the college. After graduation, she was awarded a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work is featured in Word Riot, Crab Creek Review, Devil’s Lake, and forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom.