First there was Edward. Winter turned to spring and I watched him exist in different seasons, retiring his blazers with khakis, his red cashmere scarf over a P coat for penny loafers and Izod shirts. Edward was a young man pressured to succeed in school to acquire a high paying, prestigious career. This is what I deduced from meeting his mother who knew virtually everything about his school life, checked his homework, his grades, edited his college essays. I was fairly sure, however, she did not know Edward and I went parking down by Eastern Point in his father’s Mercedes, stripped down to our underwear, the windows fogged, the heat leaking from the car, the piano music playing, the keys crashing with the waves, the wind, the shadows. I was in love with him then, and only then. I was in love with experience, with sensuality, with the fiery chalice of romance, with the crashing waves, but I was in love, alone. There was no bridge from my heart to Edward’s heart. In Edward’s burgeoning man mind, I had a body, a girl-body he liked because it aroused him, but this is all he knew. I was a girl and he knew nothing about the inchoate mind of a woman. I knew nothing about the inchoate mind of a woman.
I met Christian in art class. He was somewhat lanky, but he had the brightest eyes I had ever seen. Life with Christian morphed into splendor. I had found in Christian a similar spirit who saw the world as I had begun to see it, who wanted to paint it, write about it, who suspected what I suspected, that it was a menagerie, a design, a bounty. I watched him paint, noting how he was patient and forgiving, his soft eyes directed toward the work and nothing else, not even me. There was no anxiety in Christian, no ego. He was an art student the way an art student should be, with no preconceived ideas or expectations.
So I broke Edward’s heart. It was very peculiar to be the one breaking another heart. You volley back and forth from the aching heart to the brimming heart and ultimately you choose the brimming heart. I awoke in the middle of the night, quaking with mere euphoria, manifested in a touch I remembered, or Christian’s kiss.
To put it bluntly, Christian was a Christian, and came from a family that refused to sin. They went to a church that eliminated all forms of possible temptation—movies, dancing, drinking, foul language. Theirs was a religion not of burning passion, but of avoidance. These people didn’t believe you learned from your mistakes.
Their church, a Protestant sect, was the focal point of their lives. If I wanted to date Christian, I needed to assimilate, somewhat. On Sundays, I attended mass with my family in the morning and then went to Christian’s fellowship service in the evening where there was quirky born again Christian music, people singing ballad rock songs about God. It was irksome to me, to combine rock and Christ, sort of like eating spaghetti with a side order of pickles, but I went along with it. “Catholic,” I told Christian, meant “having sympathies with all.” I walked with my head high, like St. Paul amongst the Corinthians.
Christian’s mother was a soft-spoken woman with wide hips. It was her eyes her son inherited, eyes like visible tuning forks that resonated sensibility. But for Christian’s mother, it was fear, mostly. She was terribly afraid of the world. She did not have a job; she rarely left the house, aside from doing necessary chores or going to church. His father stayed within the circle of the church as well, by building more of them. I pictured him maneuvering the spire with the bare, austere cross atop it, lifting it off from the ground, steady, steady, until the cross could be seen for miles.
The fact that I was a Catholic made Christian’s parents very nervous. This is why I had to be extra careful around them, show them I was a decent human being, that I would be open-minded about their religion and participate. This eased their fears somewhat, that I participated in their fellowship services and at church picnics, at youth group where kids would play checkers and chess, discuss Bible readings, gloat about their tepid pranks on Catholics like how they placed a paper bag over the Virgin Mary or stole her from one lawn and carted her to another. In return, Christian’s parents were fairly amenable to me and allowed Christian to take me places in his car.
The churches Christian’s father built were not unlike the one I attended with Christian and his family. They often had some sort of stage with light blue carpeting. The focus was not gold ornate candles, colorful mosaics of glass, pious saints with sorrowful hearts, the Blessed Mother in her bounty of roses; the focus was that bare, austere cross. During the evening service, people randomly stood up and voiced a testimony, a short ditty of how Christ made a difference in their lives. This was new to me, people standing up and speaking out individually.
The young minister, whom everyone called “Pastor Jim” (always with his equally young, pregnant wife one step behind him) was especially diplomatic to me, which made me slightly wary of him (I was also slightly wary of the older men dressed in pale blue or beige suits, who were incredibly austere, my tapestry-like long floral skirts a direct assault against their austerity). Pastor Jim was on the alert for lost lambs. Being a young minister, he was especially eager to gather his flock, supplement his spiritual resume. We conveniently steered away from any religiously divisive topics. Instead, Pastor Jim told me jokes; it was his way of establishing neutral ground. The jokes were always clean; sometimes they were riddles to stump me or get his flock thinking, if others were listening in. I would pretend to laugh and he would chuckle like Curley from the Three Stooges and do that strange snapping thing with his fingers. At some point he would ask me if I were going to such-and-such a gathering and I would decline and he would say, most genuinely, “Good to see you.”
After fellowship, Christian and I went parking at the quarries; being in the company of those austere, sinless Christians made me long for indulgence. Sometimes we dared ourselves at the rock ledge, to move closer, sometimes we hiked down and skipped stones across the placid water. Other times we made love in the bushes. I was indoctrinating Christian, knocking him off, albeit slightly, from the path of straight and narrow.
Life went on and the inertia of high school became unbearable, however, despite the brimming heart, despite my choosing a college to go to and a major. High school was a controlled monotony where there was no room for one’s own rhythms. I had become restless and withdrawn; nothing excited me, not even Christian. I felt small, insignificant, incapable of expression. I pretended, went through the motions, did my homework, went to class, debated deep within me if there was a God. What did it matter which religion you chose? Life seemed to me, meaningless. I had discovered its empty vault, lying cold and hollow beneath all thoughts.
Then there was the day I was holding Etta’s baby and he stopped breathing. We were in my room at the time and I was reading him a story. First I thought it was me, that I was imagining the worst, that everything was coated in death, but then he started to actually turn blue, his cheeks, his hands, blue. I screamed and Etta came running up and took him from me. What happened? she asked. He’s blue! He’s blue! Then my nose started to gush blood. I panicked, I was dying, the baby was dying. This was finally it; all that evil thinking had come to this, all that skepticism. Etta took him from me, lay him flat on the bed and put an ear to his mouth. She began CPR by blowing in the mouth, but she became flustered, took him off the bed and shook him until he coughed.
Had my darkness tried to pull in the baby as well? Was it the devil or Yahweh? Was I going mad? I felt I was sick and should go to the hospital; maybe there was a drug they could give me to make my brain normal again. I slipped out the house late at night and rode my bike across town to Christian’s house. The night and its stars and the ride, the wind, my pulsing muscles— I felt alive then. I crept up to his window, tapped at it gently. He opened the shade and then the window and pulled me inside, steadying me as I climbed in. In the light of the room I could see his smooth skin, his blond hair like an aura; he didn’t look real.
“I’m afraid I killed the baby,” I said. “He’s in the hospital.”
“What are you talking about?” he said.
“He started to cough and turn blue in my arms because of the bad thoughts in my head.”
“I’m sure they’re no worse than anyone else’s.”
“Christian, do you believe in modern day saints?”
“What, you think you are a saint?”
“I don’t think I have a future. I’m head long into the dark night of the soul,” I said.
“You don’t even know what the dark night of the soul is. St. John of the Cross said it’s when the soul purifies itself for God. I think that’s what’s going on. God wants something from me.”
Christian rolled his eyes. He didn’t believe in intercessors. “I think what’s going on is you need some sleep.” He rested his head on his headboard, started to fall back to sleep, and I climbed back outside to my bike. The night was lovely and serene. I was calmer in it, alone with God and the sky. I peddled a mile or two and then I heard it, a blip from the vault. Would you go in his place? it said. I peddled faster. WouldyougoWould yougoWouldyougoWouldyougo? I squeezed the brakes, lay the bike down, went under a patch of pines by Thatcher road. I crouched.
Don’t call to me like you called to them, I said. I fingered the dried needles on the ground, smelled the wet earth from the marsh. I am no saint. No Joan of Arc. No Therese, the Little Flower. I have convictions.
I held my breath for a second. I was a wimp, I decided; I didn’t have what it takes to be a saint, to suffer alone in the black vault for the sake of God. I felt disappointed in myself. No, I argued; that’s not the point. No, no, no. I am not a wimp. I have convictions. And then I saw it, a bird, perched on the overhead wire. It was past midnight and there was a bird, a dark silhouette above me, silent, waiting. I thought perhaps it was confused and nature was losing its foothold; it should be sleeping, away in its nest. I should be sleeping away in my bed. It was an anomaly. I was an anomaly; we were both awake and troubled.
It flew away and I slowly peddled home.
It turned out the baby had apnea and it was a good thing he turned blue in my arms and not alone in his crib at night. You would think that would settle my mind, but it didn’t.
There was one fellowship service when the door of the vault had slammed shut with me inside. I was desperate. Instead of ending with a blessing and a hymn from the small group of religious rock stars on stage, the melodic sounds of the synthesizer radiated throughout the nave. The young bearded minister called people who were experiencing some sort of trouble in their hearts, some darkness they could not name, to come to him at the front of the church. It was uncanny how he could focus on exactly what I was feeling. I watched as more people stood up and went to kneel before Pastor Jim. I stood up. Christian looked at me, his face, incredulous, elated. With shaky knees and head not so high, I went to Pastor Jim who made a b-line right for me. He knelt before me with tears in his eyes, paused and said my name, will you, Samantha, reject all sin and take Christ into your heart?
I thought then, of parking with Edward down by the crashing waves; I thought then of being in love, alone, because this is what was happening to the minister; in his head, he was in love alone, with Christ and the idea of instigating my miraculous salvation.
I had made a big mistake.
But what could I do? Say Sorry I was just looking for the exit? So I lied and tried my best to look redeemed, but the longer I knelt there at the stage with the pale blue carpeting, the more I became enraged that this really wasn’t about me.
Pastor Jim scrutinized me for some indication that it was happening; he waited. I opened my purse and took out my rosary beads. With the eyes of the austere Christians on me, I started to pray, one by one, a Hail Mary for each bead.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, I whispered.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb, I said, louder.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for our sins, now and at the hour of our death, still louder.
“What are you doing?” Christian asked. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The synthesizer sent its electric soul song radiating outward as the whispers hissed around me. I started again with a separate bead and with every word of the prayer, Pastor Jim seemed to shrink, until at one point, I couldn’t see him at all.
The vault inside me had swallowed him whole.