Note: Some parts of the narrator's reporting may be disturbing because of mental health issues, pornography and sexual discussion, social media abuse, and religious questions and implications.
“Why doesn’t Christine get to go to heaven? Why doesn’t God love my best friend?” Ok, maybe a little too whiny.
Mom danced around my words, her responses learned long ago.
“The plan of salvation,” she reminded me, “says only those who believe Jesus was God’s son who sacrificed himself so that we might have eternal life,” she emphasized, “may enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Seeing my face, she hesitated before adding carefully, “Christine’s family is Jewish, and they don’t believe in heaven. But I’m sure God loves them just as much as anyone else and wishes that she and they will believe and enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I knew what she was going to say; I could have said it word for word in advance. But her recital didn’t explain anything to me.
Dad says that’s all a bunch of crap, and only stupid people believe that Baptist stuff. Dad and Mom are fire and water, oil and vinegar, Democrat and Republican, Catholic and Protestant, poor family and rich family, Westchester and Hell’s Kitchen. I sure didn’t want to start any further fighting between them, or between us. Dinner at our house is a food fight. I never quite understood how they could have ended up together. My brother had escaped away to college, and I was alone with the madness. Since he’d gone, their drinking had also picked up a lot. I ducked out of any argument I could.
Besides, Taffy, our wire-haired terrier, was having puppies in the back of the family room, and that was way more important. Christine’s mom had told her she couldn’t come over because that wasn’t something a young lady should watch. I guess her mom had no idea what Christine’s brother showed Christine and me when her mother wasn’t around.
I sure did, and it was downright disgusting. He had stacks and stacks of hidden magazines showing naked ladies all chained up and wearing spooky black leather stuff. And he loved drawing penises. He explained how his father put that into his mother’s private parts. He said he’d heard them doing it, and it sounded like it hurt. He always asked if I minded if he put his hands under my new bra, or if he could put his fingers down my pants, but I pushed him away, and threatened to tell. He posted awful things on Tik-Tok and distorted his sister’s face in an app to make it look like she had a penis in her mouth. Then he posted it. I don’t know why she didn’t tell. A few times, I was really tempted. But nobody likes a rat.
Taffy sounded hurt having her babies. She’d whimper before each one came out. They were wrapped up in these purple sacks of bloody skin, and she licked it off gently while waiting for the next one. Actually, watching the puppies slide out of her reminded me a little of the naked ladies in those magazines. Pretty cool. And then she’d nudge it down to her belly, and the puppy would blindly latch on to her nipples. She had a lot of nipples. It was taking a long time, so I watched TV in between, flipping channels. Mom had a filter on the cable, so what I could watch was pretty limited when she was around. Funny, huh? What with Christine’s brother, and all? Anyway, when nobody’s around, I like “Stranger Things” the best.
It's amazing, a new life, a new puppy coming out from the mommy. How did it all fit?
Taffy’s a tan wire-haired terrier, bouncy for her age. Well, not now, but usually, until she got pregnant. Strange, the first puppy looked black and white, smooth. Not much for hair, either. And the second was mostly black. Sort of little rats. What did I look like when I was born? Never get a clear answer on that. “Beautiful” and “Gift from God.” Yeah, yeah. But did I look like a rat? A big rat? No pictures until I was one. Plenty of my brother, but none of me.
Last night, the fight was a doozy. It’s because of my baptism last Sunday. Dad wouldn’t go because he said Baptists are crazy and dumb. Mom said how dare he demean her religious beliefs, especially in front of the children. My brother, home from college for the weekend, pretty much already agreed with Dad.
He wouldn’t go either. As it stood now, I wished I hadn’t gone.
It started with getting all dressed up, special care of my hair, my lipstick, mom all happy and singing hymns. She has a beautiful voice, my mom. Up until now, I’d say I’ve loved church and Sunday school, learning all sorts of stories from the Bible I never knew, and memorizing psalms and poems from Song of Solomon, and how to pray. It feels good to know that I’ve got a loving and caring Jesus to guide me and watch over me. We talk when I’m upset or scared. Well, not really talk, but I know he’s listening and helping me. And we love to sing. I love singing hymns and Christmas carols, and really, it’s how I learned to read long before other kids did. By four, I knew most of the words in the hymn book, and Dad had helped me back then. We drew pictures and made presents, we helped make food baskets for the poor, we visited nursing homes to sing.
It's all different now. The kids at school make fun of people that go to church, and so do the teachers, really. Not exactly, but you can tell they aren’t believers. Like it’s only a thing for children, right? And the only religion we study about in school is Islam because the teachers say that Muslims been discriminated against. Those girls wear head wrappings to hide their hair, and I’m the strange one? Maybe. The baptism changed everything.
All dressed up in my new slimming dress, feeling lovely, Mrs. Barclay whisked me into the special room behind the choir to get me ready. She handed me a starched bleached white robe and said, “Here’s the big day, my dear! Take off all your clothes and put them on this chair; put on the robe…it ties in the back. Pastor will be along when you’re ready. She vanished.
I could hear the organ starting to play the prelude for service, and the opening homily.
My Aunt Peggy was attending in the congregation with my mom, but she had arrived after we did, and I hadn’t seen her yet. I was slow and confused. Feeling shaken at the sudden revelation that I’d be naked beneath the robe, I shivered with anxiety. Mrs. Barclay had left me in this large…closet…alone and naked with a scratchy robe over my tender skin. I changed my mind. I didn’t want to be baptized. I heard the choir begin: “Just as I am……” and was soothed for a moment.
Just then, the door opened and in strode Pastor Nestor, smiling in what might have been an attempt to be reassuring. He wore a white robe, as well, but his was gold edged and soft. He took my hand quickly and led me up two steps to the baptismal tank behind and above the church choir. I never even had time to scan the congregation for mom and Aunt Peggy.
Pastor said some words about Lamb of God, giving my soul to the care of the Lord, and before I knew what to do, he placed one hand over my mouth and nose, another across my new breasts, and dunked me over his knee backwards underwater. It seemed like forever before I heard some words about washed in the blood cleaned of sins child of God something something. Cold, drowned, rat-like, I stood miserable before strangers hearing strange words feeling empty and ugly and old and naked.
When I returned to put on my beautiful new dress, it looked silly and ridiculous. My wet hair resisted all combing, my underwear seemed to not fit. Rushing to the sanctuary's opening, ragged and cold, I found my mother shaking hands with Pastor Nestor. In the car, she explained that Aunt Peggy had already gone home, and we rode back to our house, Mom repeatedly seeking something from me I couldn't give. A smile, a joy of salvation.
For the remainder of that day, my parents seethed at one another: mom had forgotten the applesauce Dad liked with pork roast. Christine’s mother wouldn’t let her come over, nobody answered my texts, and my brother left to go back to college before dinner was finished. I felt utterly alone, and when I tried to ask Jesus for help, he was strangely absent this time. I knew he wasn't gone forever. It was just that he didn't like Pastor Nestor and that church.
My salvation is a week watching Taffy with her four new puppies, all the love there is, growing furry, soft; and it is enough to let the sunshine warm dark places inside.