The priest stands to the side waiting for the piano to quiet, then walks to the pulpit. I always marvel at his height and wonder if he gave up an NBA career for the cloth, or if perhaps he heard the calling because he was a foot closer to God than most mortals.
I sit between my children—Addie, four, on my right, her white stockinged legs sticking straight out on the pew, her patent leather Mary Janes swishing like windshield wipers; and Drew, eight, on my left, dressed in his pressed khaki pants, his psalm book on his lap. My husband, Gordon, sits beside him, his eyes intensely focused on the altar, devoutly waiting for the gospel to begin.
We look like the perfect family, and I’m happy to pretend.
Father Kimball looks down at his parish. “Welcome, my brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of God . . .”
Beside me, Drew squirms. Gordon’s firm squeeze of his knee stops the squiggling. I take Drew’s hand in mine to keep him still. No one in our small clan has an iron bladder. I slide my eyes in a sidelong glance at Gordon. His jaw is set tight. He won’t be happy if Drew gets up in the middle of the sermon. Of course, he’ll be even less happy if Drew wets himself.
“During the first reading from the Book of Isaiah, we heard that the Lord God said, ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.’ When the Lord God spoke these sacred words, He was commanding His children to set aside the
past in order to open the door to a better future . . .”
I sigh. I don’t want to hear about forgiveness, not today. On the cross behind Father Kimball, Jesus poses in His final moment of martyrdom. On His right, St. Catherine, namesake of the church, angelically smiles down on us, chiseled of marble and more beautiful and flawless than she ever could have been in life.
I smile at her as I have just about every Sunday for most of my life. She died almost a decade younger than I am now, but her legacy has lived almost a millennium, an impressive achievement for a fourteenth-century peasant.
Catherine was the twenty-fifth of twenty-six children born into a poor family in Siena. At seven, she claimed to have had a vision of God and, because of the experience, consecrated her virginity to him. She spent the next dozen years in a nine-footby- three-foot cell praying, fasting, and scourging herself three times a day until Christ visited her and placed a ring on her finger (visible only to her), and she was told to end her years of solitude and enter into the service of God.
The Dominicans at Rome still treasure her body in the Minerva Church, and her head is enshrined in St. Dominic’s Church in Siena.
Below Catherine’s image is an engraving of her writings: If you will wreak vengeance and justice, inflict them on me, poor wretch, and assign me any pain and torment that may please you, even death.
I believe that through the foulness of my iniquities many evils have occurred, and many misfortunes and discords. On me then, your poor daughter, take any vengeance that you will. Ah me, father, I die of grief and cannot die!
I stare at the holy face peering down on me and think, Today you would be diagnosed as a delusional bipolar narcissist with a masochistic streak who probably became that way because you were the twenty-fifth child and your parents were exhausted, and therefore, you didn’t get enough love or attention, and you would still be given a cell in which to pray and starve yourself, but it would have padded walls.
This is what happens with all the unlikely stories of the Bible—my over-rational brain dissects and reassembles them until they make sense and hold no magic or mysticism at all: The walls of Jericho tumbled down because of an earthquake; Jesus was actually walking on a patch of floating ice common in the Sea of Galilee; Mary was naughty and didn’t want to confess.
Yet, even with that much cynicism, I believe. I clasp my hands tight and pray for guidance and mercy. When I see the ocean, I attribute it to God. I aspire to create in His vein, trying feebly to emulate His perfection. He haunts my decisions, and the rules of His church guide me. And I have faith He will help me.
Drew’s hand moves from mine back to his lap. His legs are crossed, his knees knocking together.
Father Kimball is still going strong with no sign of slowing. The ardor of the audience rising with his words, each amen growing in fervor until the parish almost sounds Baptist.
“Go,” I whisper in Drew’s ear.
Gordon’s eyes shift. Drew looks from me to his father, and his
I sneer at St. Catherine.
Maybe she wasn’t insane. Maybe she was brilliant. A master manipulator and con artist who, recognizing her lowly status in life, realized at a young age the perfect escape and, preying on the superstitions and fears of her brethren, masterfully elevated her lowly stature as the twenty-fifth child of a peasant to that of
I return to my churchgoing pose—eyes on the pulpit, lips moving in sync with the audience—while inside I think of Drew holding tight beside me and pray for the sermon to end.
“ . . . I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own
sake, and I will not remember your sins. Amen.”
A glorified united “Amen” from the audience and the pews begin to empty into the day. Drew runs ahead of the throng and into the anteroom before everyone else. I gather Drew’s sweater and trail behind Gordon and Addie.
St. Catherine’s is set into the hills of Laguna and overlooks the Pacific. The morning is quintessential Southern California spring gorgeous—the ocean stretched to a seam of blue sky, a light breeze gently swirling magnolia and jasmine in the air.
Gordon herds us to the car. He needs to sleep. He works tonight and Drew has a Little League game this afternoon, which only allows Gordon a couple hours to rest.
Frozen smiles, polite nods, a few princess waves and we’re in the car and on our way.
A beautiful day. A beautiful family.
I’m happy to pretend.
Like a silent alarm, I jolt awake, alerted by a presence I don’t see or hear. Nine years have honed my senses, so I’m aware of him even before he pulls onto our street or into the garage.
The door to our room, left unlatched so he won’t wake me, pushes open, and the smell of beer and something feminine that’s not me haunts his almost silent footsteps. I peer through slits to see the numbers on the clock—six, five, eight.
His shift ended an hour ago. The drive takes twenty minutes. Familiar disappointment and hurt well behind my veil of
I struggle to keep my breath even so I won’t feel compelled by pride to confront him or humiliated by shame when I don’t. Though the shame decimates me just the same.
The safe opens, and his gun and holster clunk softly as they’re laid inside, then the dial clicks secure. His watch, wallet, and badge are placed on the bureau. There’s a sigh as he sits in the chair beside the dresser and removes his Bates boots. My eyelids glow with soft light as the closet door opens and the boots are placed in the precise row of shoes beneath his hanging clothes. The toes are pointed out and the tips aligned. Across the spread of carpet, my shoes mirror his, aligned just as precisely—men’s shoes and women’s shoes faced off in perfect ranks, prepared to advance against each other in an epic battle.
His trousers and shirt slide down the dry-cleaning chute, his undershirt, boxers, and socks down the laundry chute. The door closes, and despite my efforts, my heart pounds. If the drawer opens to retrieve his pajamas, it will be okay.
Naked footfalls on the carpet. I can’t tell which way they travel.
The sheet pulls open, and as the draft whips across my skin, my mind races. I need to decide whether to resist. It’s a complicated question. One for which there isn’t time.
He grunts more than speaks his disapproval at my grotesqueness, and already, tears fill my eyes. Then, before I can blink them away, his hands grab beneath my arms and I’m half carried, half dragged, from the bed and dropped to the floor.
I land on my knees and palms, but fall flat when my pajama bottoms are wrenched from my hips. With one hand, he rips them from my ankles, with the other, he rolls me to my back. My eyes blink rapidly to bring the moment into focus. He’s on his knees, his chest looming over me. His beard, blonder than his rusty hair, breaks the smooth line of his jaw. His mouth is set in a sneer, and I wince at his hatred. His eyes, during the day, light as glass, are dilated and dark and scan my body to assess how much more I’ve disintegrated.
“Gordon, please,” I manage, my hands instinctively flying in front of me to cover my face. They’re too slow, and heat rises to fill the void where the sting of his palm was a second before.
I bite back the next protest and the hurt and every sound in between as he enters me, his erection at half-mast—the alcohol, my repulsiveness, and the fact he performed minutes earlier with
someone else making the encore challenging.
“Fuck with me and you get fucked,” he says as he pounds
My mind spins to figure out the offense I’ve committed. For three months, he’s been good; we’ve been good. I’ve been so careful.
His hands wedge beneath my butt to assist the hammering. “Fat. Disgusting and fat,” he says as he grabs my excess skin so hard I cry out. I grasp at him to dislodge his grip, my left hand latching on to his shoulder, my right swiping his cheek below his eye with a nail before finding his chest.
The reaction causes him to pinch harder, turning the flesh in his clamped fist.
I remove my hands, bite back the next cry, and pray for it to end.
He slips out, and fear pools in my throat. I reach to reinsert
him, but it’s too late.
“Fucking, disgusting cow.” The blow to my ribs is much
harder than the one delivered to my face, which is how I know
he realizes what he’s doing. A bruise beneath my shirt won’t be
I roll and try to curl, but his left hand cuffs my wrists above my head and his right clamps down on my neck. I gag and my eyes bulge, and the memory of a year ago returns with sheer terror. He grins more than smiles, lightens his grip slightly so air whistles into my lungs, and with renewed strength, thrusts violently back into me to finish the job.
I lay gasping for air, but otherwise unmoving.
When he’s done, he removes himself, delivers a brutal departing kick to my thigh, and stumbles toward the bathroom. A second before the door closes, something light and hard is thrown beside me, the corner nicking my ear.
“Lie to me again and I’ll fucking kill you,” he says. The latch
clicks, and the shower starts.
Tears and semen drip as I push my trembling body to sit.
The thin morning sun through the shades allows just enough light for me to understand. Beside me on the floor is an empty tampon box.
The box had been hidden in the toiletries bag of my workout duffel. It had concealed three doses of Next Choice, otherwise known as the morning-after pill. It’s the contraceptive I’ve used for the past six months. Unlike birth control pills, I can get it over the counter, and there’s no record of it for Gordon to find.
He wants more. I can’t handle what I have.
I stumble from the room, lock myself in the guest bathroom, and try to wash the past half hour from my body. The red bruises on my ribs and thigh and the finger streaks on my butt can’t be washed away, but the other evidence—my tears and his seed—I
scrub until the skin is raw.
The metallic tang of blood touches my tongue, and I realize my lip is bleeding. I press a tissue to the wound to staunch the
Gordon’s shower stops, and I squat in the corner, stare at the door, and wait. I rock, hugging my knees to my chest—scared, nauseous, exultant—grateful I’m alive. I obsess on my beating
heart, the blood pulsing in my veins, the oxygen filling my lungs.
Until you’ve almost died, you don’t appreciate the tenuous tether you have to life, but when you come within a breath of your mortality, suddenly you become very aware of its precariousness.
And as insane as it is, and I acknowledge it’s insane, I’m never so grateful for my life than the moment I realize Gordon didn’t kill me.
My ribs throb, and I’m cold. I wrap a towel around my bare bottom and continue to wait.
Fear does a strange thing to time—a minute or an hour, I can’t be sure—but a door different from the one I’m listening for opens, and I leap from my huddle and dash into the hallway.
“Mommy . . .”
My hand slaps over Addie’s mouth so hard my towel disengages and drops to the floor, and instantly, my baby starts to cry. My hand muffles the noise, and I pray Gordon doesn’t hear. I carry Addie back to her room and mule-kick the door closed. I run to the far corner where her stuffed animals crowd on a beanbag and set her down, pulling her to me to calm her.
“Shhh,” I soothe, as I pray she won’t begin to wail. Her eyes are wide with hurt and fear.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I say, and stroke her red curls.
She whimpers, and my heart breaks.
“Why you do that?” she asks.
I shake my head, unsure if the gesture is because I can’t explain, or because I’m too ashamed to explain, or because the explanation is too burdensome for a four-year-old.
“I didn’t want you to wake Daddy,” I answer honestly.
Her head tilts slightly, then rights itself, satisfied with the explanation. “I need to go potty.” Her tears have stopped, and she seems to have already moved past the moment.
I take her hand and lead her silently back to the bathroom, retrieving my towel sarong as we go.
I sit beside her as she does her deed.
She looks sleepily at my face. “Why you bleeding?” she asks, her shoulders sloped in boredom as she waits for her bladder to remember why it woke her.
A question with no answer.