Far removed geographically from the place of my boyhood. Slowly, over time, since the reprieve given me, my history, and the pain associated with it, rapidly diminished.
Then, a call from an area code I knew too well. Attached to a number definitely not in my contacts.
The dealer, his look unnecessary; no way that I’d have answered.
No message left.
Ringing again, some good natured ribbing directed towards me.
“C’mon, pick up, you don’t need those cards...”
“Someone wants to speak to you badly enough to call back?”
Acknowledging their quips, laughing along with them, a show made of turning off the ringer.
Even under the circumstances of being card dead and rapidly losing chips, everything felt pretty light, pretty easy.
Notification of a delayed voice mail. Cradling the phone on my shoulder, quickly folding the next hand in order to listen, the caller identifying herself as someone who’d been out of my life for many years.
Interesting. So much to say. I’d call her back, definitely.
Leaving after my elimination, stepping outside, fully clear reception and a manageable time difference meant it was time to call. She’d called me, and fuck it, I’d now been reminded of all I’d ever wanted to tell her.
Walking down the street, her end ringing.
A quick answer. So excited to hear from me. Almost too excited. All these years later.
“Happy birthday! You’re 40 now! You know, this officially makes you an old man…”
Having celebrated it three months before, her call now didn’t make much sense. Passing on pointing this out, our conversation devolved into useless banter.
Soon, though, the main purpose of her reconnection revealed itself.
“As your sister, I’ve prayed for you so often, all these years; you just don’t know. Talking to Mom today, our Mom, by the way she misses you, and sends her love, we were thinking how you hit this milestone age. Looking at old pictures, and I just, just, well, a message came down, a message from Jesus. Jesus said: Call HIM...!”
A crappy network, an invitation to speak, or?
Her voice returned.
“…So with the heart of the Savior open to you, I’m inviting you, in His Name, back to Church, back to our family. It would be beautiful. It’s what He wants, it’s what we all want. I love you, little brother.”
Taken aback by the sudden shift in conversation, attempting to be pleasant, quelling my desire to tell her to mind her own fucking business, I came up with a bland excuse.
“No, well, thanks for thinking of me after all this time, but no, I can’t come to church. I’m basically half a world away.”
Driven by Jesus, along with her own personality defects, she couldn’t stop.
“Oh, no, no. It would be wonderful if you did come here and visit. But the invitation is a way for you to find your way back to God, and His home, wherever you are. After all, salvation knows no borders.”
Stopping on the street, having listened to her entreaties, everything had to come out. Now, at this moment, all that I’d carried, all that I knew, all that she didn’t, I’d tell her. More than 5,000 miles away, my sister, calling, then invoking my mother and God in her first words to me in nearly 20 years, and yet, now came my opportunity to speak amazing truth to her. Such a feeling.
“Do you remember the last time you either wished me a Happy Birthday, or even saw me?”
Her inability to give a precise answer presenting the opening I’d hoped for.
“Good! I’m glad you can’t. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember when you last called on my birthday, but the last time you saw me, that’s easy. In the fucking psych ward; you led them in trying to cast the demons from me. That’s where.”
Trying to interrupt me, I kept speaking.
“So, from that moment. Nothing from you. My beloved older sister hasn’t had time for me since then. But now, you call when I have so much to say, now that I’m so much better, and healthier! By the way. Can I point one thing out?”
Seemingly shocked at my exuberance, she managed a few words.
“Yes, please, I’m glad to hear you are doing well.”
Leading up to my birthday, the memory of that day with my mother came back frequently.
“Mom, or as you just put it, ‘our Mom,’ told me to enjoy my worthless life, that I’d never make it to 40. Well, here I am. 40 and a few months, and I’m still breathing. Your Jesus, her Jesus, only lasted through 3 hours of torment on that cross. I’ve lasted 33 plus years of continual crucifixion. His betrayal came at the expense of one traitorous friend, and some greedy, self-serving Jews, not by his own mother, family, and church…”
No. That statement didn’t go over well with her.
“I don’t know or remember what Mom said to you. Both of you always had different versions. But, and please, I see you are still emotional, DO NOT speak of our Savior like this, or I must say goodbye.”
With so much more to say, I couldn’t risk losing her now.
“Sorry, you know, it still hurts sometimes, but can I talk about us for a minute, since I have you on here and you did call me and I appreciate that?”
Calmer now, she gave me a pass.
“I’m glad you were happy enough to hear from me that you wanted to return my call. So, what did you want to say about us?”
“Well, you know, when I was younger, I always thought differently of you. Obviously your clothes, your makeup. Yes. There was that, but also you seemed so smart then, so mature, so beautiful…”
Sputtering at my broaching of a topic so long ignored by those who knew, her response veering toward the only direction she knew.
“Oh, yes? Thank you so much for your words about me. And what happened when you were younger. We all go through phases, it just meant that we knew you were special and different, too. We knew that the Lord only challenges those who are blessed by him. That’s why Mom was so hard on you. To prepare you for pain. That’s why...”
Halting her there, it was vitally important that she both clearly hear and understand my next words.
“Pain? Now this is good news. I don’t feel the pain anymore. See, I was saved. Literally…”
Her voice escalating over mine.
“Praise Jesus! Praise God. Jesus, this was His message. To hear from you. Oh, Heavenly…”
With her on one track of thought now, I had to bring it back to me.
“Well, yes, yes. I was saved. Just by making it to 40, it meant that life itself couldn’t have been that bad. Everything happens for a reason, right? Like this phone call, and your message? One about eternal life and the one we have here, so please. Let me go on. No more cutting me off. Please?”
Frenzied and near breathless over my soul being saved, she found a way to allow me to finish.
“Now that I’m alive. I’m free, free of all my worries, and free of all my shame. God brought me back to life. All my years from now on are, I guess, a bonus. Now my existence is unfettered by fear…”
So long removed, what words to use?
“…growing up, after I stopped wearing your stuff, and grew into my understanding of humanity and what we want and desire, around 11 or so, when you were away at college, and would come home. I can’t tell you the happiness I felt. You coming back. It always gave me hope that I’d be able to maybe make love to you. To bring us closer. It was sweet then…”
Shaky, possibly scared, she muttered out a disjointed response.
“What? What did you just say? I must have misunderstood you. The connection… You felt happy? And… loved me, missed me…when I got home from school?”
My blunt recapping continued.
“No, no. Up until the whole exorcism thing. You were always at the top of the list; gentle, a real attraction. But selling me out, that naturally changed everything. After that, the few times I thought of us, it was pretty simple. Me fucking you til you got pregnant with our child, then you and your Mom could decide if abortion was a good choice. Fucking Mom wouldn’t have…”
She’d heard for sure, responding with threats and obscenities.
“You…you will never find the light. You are as terrible a demon as we always knew. I suspected it. A curse, yes, you are a curse to all around you. I’ll pray for your soul, that you somehow arrive in purgatory. Heaven is too much a reach for such a foul human as yourself. Find redemption. You need it. Oh, you need it. But…it’s beyond you. Go to hell you fucking ANIMAL!”
A response ready, she’d hung up, never giving me a chance to go on.
Still, I felt great. Unburdened. Alive.
Passing the neighborhood church, the afternoon sun allowing its golden domes and the crosses upon them to evoke a glimmering, radiant sheen, I paused in front of the doors, looking up and marveling at the beauty above me, wondering if she’d been touched enough to understand the freedom I’d just taken back. For the first time.
Unfortunately, she seemed caught up in the fucking past. Too caught up, too worried to be aware of the present. To be aware of what I had said. To be aware of the truth. To be aware that I’d survived.
Issues of communication, of understanding, shadowing all meaningful relationships throughout my life.
Maybe to make amends, maybe out of a needy, innate desire to be coddled, or maybe my inclination towards being a dickhead flared?
Whatever the reason, first draft finished, it seemed to make sense to reach out and ask for their feedback, their opinions regarding this tome, this volume, this goddamn life of mine.
An Ex-Wife. An Ex-Girlfriend. An Ex-Lover.
With short notice, each received it, these pages.
A merging of voices, opinions, critiques and concerns.
“Really, do you feel a need to share that passage with the world? Wasn’t it private between us?”
“The feel, it’s like something from high school. But, it kinda works. If you insist on putting this out there.”
“Ha! Nice try. You left something out... Half your life is missing. Nice job holding back the good stories.”
“What’s your point of this? You’re now looking to the world for therapy?”
“What do you expect to gain by these words?”
My understanding came too late.
The problematic reality of what happens when people who rejected you are the same ones tasked with critiquing your life.
Oh, I tried to answer them. On my terms. To massage. To skirt. To explain away why I’d share now, with an audience of strangers, after having refused to even fully share with them during the prior years. At least, not in the way they needed.
But when you’ve fucked together and cried, omitted, begged, and promised, a default transparency settles in. A skepticism, based not in negativity, but on their experiences with me, caused my explanations and rebuttals to feel empty even before having spoken them.
And so in the end, after rereading, and rethinking, my words about my childhood, about my faith, about my life, I chose to move forward.
You’ve read the ending. You’ve read about the admiration I have for my sister. And you’ve read a few hundred more words now. And if so inclined, you’ll move the pages forward and learn even more. The questions being, Why and How?
The Why is answered in the chapters of Part 1: A Parochial Education.
The How is answered in the choices, discussions, and breakups of Part 2: A Carnal Life.
Start where you wish; it doesn’t really matter.
Oh, and the Interlude is dedicated to my love for three exes above. That section will be just about the only redeeming part of the entire novel. At least to most.
However you decide to walk it, enjoy my path, and the cross that I’m about to have you carry.
A Parochial Education
Reaching over, tussling my hair, her voice extolling a pleasant firmness.
“Good night, Baby.”
A simple reply all that was needed.
“Good night, Mama.”
Turning off the light, sleep arriving easily for her.
For me, it didn’t.
Her coughing, the snoring, repeatedly tossing and turning.
Nearly the same routine nightly.
Eyes pointed in the direction of the bedroom wall, a wall just inches away, yet all but invisible in the dark. Gazing into the black, wishing I’d fall asleep too.
Well, fall asleep fast anyway. Like she did.
That rarely happened.
Not with her making those noises, engaging in those movements. Not with her hands moving about, near me, on me.
Not when made to sleep in the bed with her.
Staring into the mirror. Together.
“Oh, sweety. You do look pretty. So very beautiful. Please believe me.”
To be pretty? Mom loved that word for me. But wasn’t the proper word handsome? But if mom liked me to be pretty, and insisted on using that term, then shouldn’t I want it? To desire what she did, for me?
Deep into the reflection, deep within my mind, however I could formulate it at that age, something was off. Something truly amiss.
The picture didn’t seem pretty. The picture didn’t seem right.
The picture just felt broken.
Not working much allowed for her to have ample time around the house.
Our days, in between my first memories and the start of school, consisted of endless hours of television. Game shows and soaps, broken up by occasional trips to the store, and always, always to Church.
Back then, it was just us. Or seemed that way, with my older sister being gone so often.
Never out of her presence for long, claiming to prefer it that way, her insistence that all the time we spent together was what God wanted made sense to me then.
Her social life didn’t seem full. She’d wave at neighbors, occasionally gossip, but rarely did people visit.
In those days, she really didn’t date anyone either.
Yeah, just me and her.
All the time.
Except for the daily visit to Church, and the gathering for coffee afterwards.
With our entire lives revolving around church, and the way I was growing, a need for proper clothing seemed ever present.
During one trip to the store, walking through the aisles, looking at clothing, a question needed answering, one that took hold of my conscience during our last shopping trip.
“Mama, why do I need so many church clothes? Can’t I ever just wear shorts or something?”
Gently taking my hand, leading me to a quiet area, sitting me down on a bench in front of the dressing rooms, she took both my hands and answered.
“Oh, sweetheart. It’s because you are just so beautiful and tender that when you’re at home, I want you to not forget the lessons that we were taught at Mass. Anything that could allow bad, bad thoughts to get to you have to be cast away. And at Church, well, at Church we are expected to dress a certain way, to please Jesus in his house, so when we leave there, we need to continue pleasing Him in our house, too. Wearing shorts, or jeans, running around, getting dirty, looking lazy, that would allow you to have those bad thoughts and displease God. We can’t have that, can we?”
I just wanted to wear shorts, not piss off God.
It made sense to me.
“No, no, Mama.”
When coming from her, so much made sense during that period. So much made sense during that period. Everything did.
Except her anger, and the wallowing that followed.
On many evenings, in the hours after the game shows and soaps went off the air, before sleeping, her irritability increased. Screaming inevitably commencing.
Certain topics setting her off.
A state frenzied and maniacal, yelling out to God, asking why He’d fucked her the way he did. Then praise for Him and the blessing that allowed her to shoulder such suffering. Eventually bargaining for His love.
Peace overtaking her as the histrionics ceased.
Or maybe she just exhausted herself.
Although the small house had three bedrooms, inevitably, the nearing of my bedtime brought the suggestion that it would be better for me to lie in her bed.
Just ‘til I fell asleep.
Cajoling me with the guilt of her loneliness, and pangs of her heart, being a willing and obliging participant was easy.
Pleasing her all I wished to do.
Even as kindergarten began, the routine varied only slightly. Church continued, then I’d get dropped off at school.
Naturally, a Catholic school.
A dress code imposed by the nuns, my uniform becoming all I wore. My mother, so proud to show off the crest on my polo, even had me wear it on weekends. Every day, she dressed me in my school clothes. All the time, except for Sunday service.
For me, though, having been forced into wearing a tie every day, this counted as dressing down.
Fighting back didn’t seem necessary. It didn’t cross my mind.
Treating me less as a son than a doll to show off didn’t matter.
She loved me.
I loved her, too.
One day, near the end of school, our teacher announced an “exciting and fun” activity. Parents had volunteered to come in for a career fair, describing their jobs and showing off their duties for us. Structured to allow for immersive interaction, climbing in and out of fire trucks, seeing how handcuffs worked, watching the reptile handler manipulate snakes, then allowing us to touch them ourselves.
For a five-year-old, the best day of school ever.
Most of the people presenting were Dads. Dads possessing really cool jobs.
An exciting day, one which left ideas rushing around in my imagination, one I couldn’t wait to share with Mom when she picked me up.
Recapping the details of what I’d seen as we drove away, I’d exhausted the stories of wonderment I’d been regaling her with by the time we arrived home.
By the evening, when our bedtime routine took place, nearly all had been forgotten from earlier.
Giving her a kiss, receiving one back, I crawled under the covers, trying to, hoping to sleep before she got in next to me.
Each evening and many mornings, without inhibition, she changed in front of me, and on this night, seeing her breasts and body before she put on her nightgown, I asked permission to speak once more before she turned off the lights.
“Yes, honey, go ahead.”
Sitting back up, I mentioned another question about the day I’d had, the only one that mattered.
“Mama, if I had a Dad, would he have a cool job? Would he have come into school today?”
The look appeared. The one that I knew. The one that meant the screams would begin, and the crying was near.
I felt horrible.
This time, the look failed to take hold of her, quickly going away.
Settling on the bed’s edge, she attempted an answer.
In an effort to formulate her next words, a pause.
“…. you do have a Dad. But…”
She pulled me close, hugging me before continuing once more.
“He’s a terrible man. Not like those people you saw today. In fact, I never wanted to tell you this, but God hates your Dad. Yes, your Dad is so evil that the Lord punished him by making him a bad man, a bad, stupid man. Stupid and worthless…”
She’d lost me when she acknowledged that I actually had a father. For the first time.
Too excited to focus on the rest of what she was saying, cutting her off, unable to process anything besides her initial comment.
“Mom, I HAVE A DAD? Can I meeeeet him? Please, can we call him?? Please!”
Overjoyed, scooting over to hug her again, it was too late.
The look returned, and this time remained.
Calmly standing, she looked up, and without addressing me, raised her right hand skyward.
“Oh Savior, oh Lord. In MY world you challenge me every day. And now YOU made me, me, your servant, talk to this sweet child about such a wicked man. Oh, Lord. Why?”
Then to her knees, thrashing the bed with interlocked fists, through fits she spoke to Him from that position.
“And now, God, now what, GOD!”
Forced to listen, forced to watch.
It continued. Over and over.
Crawling to my spot next to the wall, eventually sleeping, all appeared fine the next day.
Drawing in my room as she watched TV, I heard her get up and come down the hall toward me.
Looking in, to let me know lunch would be ready soon and to begin cleaning up.
Calling out to her as I began placing my crayons and pencils away, she came back in.
“I was just in here. What? What is it? I told you, I have to make our food. Hurry up.”
Pointing at my bed, neatly made, sheets tightly tucked in, the covers untouched, I asked a question directly related to the news I’d found out the night before.
“Mama, if Dad lived here, would he sleep in bed with you? Could that mean I’d sleep in my own bed?”
Slamming the bedroom door shut, the force knocking the clock off my wall, I heard her in the kitchen.
Glass shattering, loud bangs, the noise of even more breakage.
After that, I knew enough not to bring him up again. Occasionally when trying to ask even the most basic questions about him, she pretended never to hear me and, with information never forthcoming, I eventually gave up.
Although we went through our lives, she was different. Everything colder, more forced.
Late in the summer, with 1st grade set to begin a few weeks later, leaving Mass, she brought him up again. Unprompted.
“Let me tell you why he was so evil. He wanted to kill you. Yes, dead.”
At that, uncontrollable bawling. It didn’t register who wanted me dead, just that someone did.
No sympathy from her.
“Oh, don’t cry. You need to hear this. It’s called an abortion. And your DAD, the person you’ve been asking me about so much, wanted to kill you while you lived inside of ME.”
I couldn’t calm down; didn’t want to.
No consoling from her.
“But you are lucky. You’re lucky that God gave ME to YOU. I used to think that He gave you to ME, but no, I think now you are just another burden. Another test. Now get in the car and get under control, or I’ll have to leave you here.”
Waiting to drive away until my crying stopped, she quickly became incensed as the sobs, trapped by the rolled-up windows and filling the interior, only seemed to get worse.
The realization that came with being stuck in that car with my mother, a woman who spoke so easily about a person desiring to kill me, and then doing nothing to comfort me, brought about immense helplessness.
And at that moment, at the apex of pain and helplessness, she started again.
“Of course, you don’t care. I saved you. And all you want to do is know about that man? I told you how evil he is, and yet, you had to bring him up to me AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN!”
Shutting my eyes, a dry burn coursed under my closed lids. And in that world of momentary darkness, hoping to be gone, to disappear, I knew that there wouldn’t be an escape.
Suddenly, she yanked my face, causing me to involuntarily look at her.
“No, no. No, you don’t. Look at me. If I HAVE TO YELL, you have to LISTEN!”
Finally home, although parked, she wouldn’t open the doors.
“You need to hear this. I didn’t ask for you. God gave me to you. Apparently to save. Oh, I knew, knew in my heart you were disgusting, just like him. But I tried. I tried to make you sweet and pretty. And somewhere in that rancid soul of yours I have to believe that I planted a seed. But now. Now. You are another cross I bear. That means, you are so truly lucky. See, I can’t get rid of you without failing God, without dropping my cross.”
Now my hysterics returned again; the suggestion of being the cause of a problem between her and God, this thought brought deeper sorrow than the mention of my death.
No, no. Thinking of God being mad at me. I didn’t want that.
From that night, a change.
Exiled into my own bed for sleep, she promised to continue providing food and clothes. And a roof.
According to her, she didn’t have to give me anything else, nor did I deserve anything more.
Thankfully, school soon began.
Returning home from the first day, the perfunctory questions relating to my new class were quickly glossed over, as she informed me about a decision she’d reached, one that would greatly impact both our lives.
“Dropping you off at school this morning, in that uniform, watching you walk under the archway and seeing those crosses and the Blessed Virgin, made me understand that all hope isn’t lost with you, that you can be redeemed, you will be redeemed. Just because you carry the stench of your father, it doesn’t mean your soul is lost. So I made God a promise. And not only does HE love it, you will too. In the same way that He gave us his son, Jesus, well, I’m going to give the world YOU.”
Recoiling from a hug that seemed to possess a mother’s warmth, speaking proved impossible to me.
This was terrible!
Needing to know, though, I managed to force the words out.
“Mama, are you giving me up for adoption?”
Stepping back, guiding me to the mirror where she had posed me so often before, she offered clarification.
“Oh, no, no, honey. No. So sorry to scare you, sweety…”
The smile having formed while she spoke now frozen at the corners of her lips while she continued.
“This is almost too beautiful for words. But let me share the plan, the offering I’ve made. I’ve dedicated you and your life to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and promised that I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’ll become a priest!”
And with that, leaning over, she kissed me, telling me once more how perfect and beautiful I was.
Four decades plus of life allowing for the blunting, dulling, and eradication of so many insignificant remembrances of youth. Some events subtly wearing away, others vanquished with such precision as to have never existed. My remaining memories, though, from the earliest days, exist within me fully realized. Embedded in both my conscience and soul, those events maintain a haunting, perplexing vibrancy, neither the emotions nor scenes attached to them finding a way to dissipate.
30 minutes of screen time.
That’s it. That was all.
One event, encapsulating a mere half hour or so, laying the foundation of all which came.
Unquestioned, though, is the parasitic nature of that single viewing. Entrenched in the very nature of my humanity, the most innocuous events carrying the potential to trigger the images of that day, and all that came after.
E.T., Return of the Jedi, whatever the next Superman sequel was, all absent from my life. Now, though, a movie brought into the home, to watch with her, next to her.
Nearly giddy, sending me to the couch with instructions to pay attention, she inserted the tape into the VHS player.
“Mom, I don’t want to watch the movie with you. It’s stupid.”
Fiddling with the buttons, a response came without deviation from her attempts to get the video playing.
“How can you say it’s dumb when you haven’t seen it? I told you how important this topic is, this lesson. You need to see this, to know…”
Succeeding at getting the movie to start, taking a spot next to me, she continued.
“Monsters exist! You and all those kids talking about people in hockey masks, and with claws, what you are about to see, this isn’t just that horrible make believe; no, no, this is real! Now, you will see just how evil your father was, just what he tried to do…”
Pausing on that thought to light a cigarette, her eyes glazing with magnified intensity, their focus absent, as if she wasn’t really next to me.
When she got this way, I just had to listen. There wasn’t any other option.
She began again, the distance in her voice matching the absent look.
“What that prick monster wanted to do to me, and to you, to us, my baby…”
By then, for some time, any usage of endearing words by her seemed forced. Disconnected from the actual feelings she possessed.
“…but, but, I saved you. Never forget that. Never forget it was me that brought you into this world. You were saved by me, carried by me, loved by me…”
There was nothing more for her to say. That she wanted to say. That she could bring herself to say.
Boring. Terribly so.
The suit. The droning voice. The muted colors.
Years later, the atrocious production’s value made sense, private funding allowing for any message to be aired. But in that moment, sitting and watching an old man looking at us, speaking in a manner that, while losing me almost immediately, brought her a buoyant satisfaction, all I could think of was how much it sucked.
Then the examples appeared. Models, and graphics, leading to my first question.
With impatience, she cut me off.
“What, what? I told you not to interrupt me, or the video. You need to focus. It’s too important. So speak, and then be quiet. Do you understand? What is it?”
Hesitant to follow up, the question seemed too important to ignore.
“…is he stabbing the baby?”
Now another cigarette lit.
And the offer of her hand to me. A smile, too.
“So you are paying attention! I knew that you cared about me. I knew it…”
Still, she wouldn’t offer me a real answer.
“…I’m not going to ruin any surprises for you. Just understand that what you are about to see, should have, well, could have been you. So keep watching and be thankful to me, and to God. We saved you.”
Do I wish she’d clarified things? Definitely. Maybe I’d have run off, or very possibly closed my eyes. If she’d allowed it.
My yelling lasting all of a few seconds, replaced quickly by begging.
“Turn it off! Turn it off!!”
No acknowledgement of my outburst.
The pleas making no difference.
Images and words continued on the screen.
Fidgeting, as it became clear as to what I was witnessing, she directed me with a clear command.