by Melissa Chadburn
I heard the priest place his palm on the wooden shelf. He was waiting. I never did well with silences. I had to say something.
I smiled nervously and thought this is strange and funny but sort of sexy. Could be a great kinky sex scene with my new lover.
It was early evening at St. Augustin’s church in Boyle Heights, CA. A rehearsal for my secretary’s wedding. The jacaranda trees had left a light purple trail on the maroon carpeting that adorned the entrance. The wedding party sat in pews awaiting their turns to confess. Little glints of light bounced off the stained glass windows. I sat outside the yellow pine door staring at the crucified image of Jesus at the altar. When I was a child, I would trace the blood over the arcs of his feet in my mind. When that game ended, I would imagine I lived in the church with all my friends.
Now, in my early thirties, I found myself inside a small dark confessional where there was only enough space for me to kneel. It smelled like burning coal. The seats were lined with blood colored velvet. I was there to earn my turn for that dull wafer and sip of wine. There was a long fat leather kick-stand on the floor to cushion my knees. A smooth light pine bar to hook my feet around. The thin bar with just the right amount of room for you to strike prayer position. A whisper from god or a priest or a master. The tight caress of the wooden room: Good Girl, Good Girl. When I closed the door behind me, the sounds outside stopped. I knelt.
“I’ve never done this before.”
“When did you go to your last confession?” His voice was fatherly-firm, starchy and raspy.
The window screen opened. A dark grate between us. A farce. I knew he was the priest who was speaking to me outside, and he must have known who I was: the only English speaking person there.
I clasped my hands together, bent my head down before the grated window. “This is my first confession.”
“Have you had your first communion?”
“You must have confessed before that.”
I searched my memory for hints. Catechism classes I had to endure for several hours after school. I was sent away frequently to some sort of principal’s office for doodling in my gold book—devil’s horns on Jesus’ head. I manipulated the sketches of myself to look more punk rock. The woman that drove me home every day was a crazy cat woman, the kind that owned so many cats she didn’t even bother to name them all. Her car reeked of piss, fur, and cigarettes; she was overweight and her arms and elbows leaked onto my side of the little white Volkswagen bug every time she shifted gears. That’s when I stopped trusting the whole thing. Just another free after school program, a ride home so my mother wouldn’t have to pick me up.
“I don’t know. I was six or eight.” By now I had slinked out of my prayer position. I shook my head from side to side.
“How old are you now?”
“Thirty-two.” Our eyes met through the screen.
“So how long was that?”
I paused, looked down at my hands. I made math noises.
“About twenty-six years. Something around there.”
“Okay.” He paused. “I want you to lean in and confess your sins.”
I tried to think of the absolute worst thing I’d ever done. An image of my brother’s large dark hand holding a gun came to mind. I saw only the butt of the gun, his hand up a woman’s skirt, between her legs. She had her back against a wall. I was the look-out, watching for witnesses. I kept scanning the parking lot, but I was crying. “Give me your money!” B said. He was just acting; he wasn’t really that bad. But he loved it. He loved this acting. He told me later that he thought his character reached new heights.
The woman’s sad white skirt with brown flowers had crumpled up around her waist; B pushed the gun further up her. He’s huge, 6’5”, black, onyx-black, muscular. It looked so awful. I thought he’d gone too far—sticking a gun up some woman’s pussy for money. He didn’t have to do that. The woman pissed herself, the gun. She was a grown woman, but she was shaking. She had money.
My hands, slightly moist, rested on the window in front of me.
“Omissions to act,” I said. “I think my sins aren’t things I did but things I neglected to do.”
“You’ve not confessed in twenty-six years and that is the only sin you can think of?”
“Except maybe honesty. There are times when I have been dishonest.”
“What about sex? Do you have sex?”
Oh naughty priest.
“Yes, I have sex father.”
I was in my element now. I smiled confidently.
“About how often? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month? Once a year?”
There’s a lot of math involved in this. Let’s see, I’ve been around 32 years; I started having sex pretty young; maybe regularly around 23.
“You want an average, father?”
“Once a week.”
“Are you married?”
“Living with someone?”
I didn’t know how to answer. My boyfriend had left a toothbrush at my house and that had recently elevated the level of our relationship. But I wasn’t quite sure what to call him. I had been living like a lesbian for the past ten years, and now I was dating a trans-guy, and I just wasn’t used to using the words boy and friend as a compound noun. When I was searching for a gender neutral term that I could use to describe him, he suggested I call him toothbrush-leaver. I started to say, “Father I have a toothbrush-leaver”, but thought better of it.
“I’m gay, Father.”
“I don’t care if you are homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, cisexual. You have drifted from your faith. I cannot let you take communion tomorrow because it would be sacrilegious.”
I slumped over, no longer feeling the good girl caress, no longer caring. Well, no longer caring completely I suppose. You see there’s more to the story about the brother. It’s true he was an asshole and that’s probably what sticks out about him. But his madness was driven by a need to satiate his heroin addiction. I used to take him to pick up his methadone. All the junkies sat around with little waxed Dixie cups, the Easteresque pastel flowers ridiculing their addiction.
They would take those little cups apart, unravel them into one long piece of waxed paper, unfold the curled edges and lick them clean. My brother seemed to hunker down in the chairs, making them disappear. A parent at back to school night. He would look angry, then sheepish; he’d take his communion in his mouth (that’s what we called it “Communion”), and finally he would look relieved for a moment, his whole body an exhale. The last time I took him he stood up to leave and I noticed his hands were still clenched into fists. Not a good sign for him. When he reached the door he smacked some guy on the head with one hand while delicately removing the Dixie cup with his other hand. He was always so coordinated. Never got the BZZZZ in Operation. “Punk ass biatch!” he sneered, and ran outside before anyone moved.
My brother eventually died. I always quote his last words as being, “Fuck it.” This sounds apathetic, but really it wasn’t. It was his faith. You see, he was deeply religious. He wore a gold crucifix around his neck. When he said those words, they came out more like a slur: “Fuuuuuckittt..” And then he paternally stroked the miniature golden figure of Jesus on his crucifix. I took comfort in this. Regardless of all the horrible, mean, desperate things we did there would always be a place for salvation. But this priest was taking away my last hope for salvation. I said I didn’t believe in it. But I wanted to.
“I don’t feel I have drifted from my faith. God is with me in everything I do father.” I pulled my feet and knees out from the holster and crossed my legs in the chair. I raised my hands so my silhouette would caste a deep shadow across his face. If shadows were felt, mine would have been a slap. “But this is your church and I will respect your wishes.”
“Okay, if you promise me not to take communion tomorrow, I will absolve you of all your sins. In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit amen.” He slammed the door of the window shut. And then it was dark.
I sat there feeling sad, as if I had lost something. I looked at the floor, the stupid leather log designed to cushion knees. I could not leave the confessional so I put my head down on the little wooden shelf. My dark curls splayed along my shoulder; my designer jeans fell low on my ass. I placed my sneakers onto the floor to try to get centered.
Did I just get rejected from taking the Eucharist? The thing that people have been hounding me about for so long? Don’t they recruit for this thing?
I became overwhelmed with the guilt and shame of somebody else’s judgment of my spirit. I felt unlovable. And this is where I get stuck. I find it very difficult to write my way out of this because that phrase is so painful. To feel unworthy of love is like having your body hollowed out so your spirit becomes separate from the vehicle that is your body. You’re untethered, insatiable; every movement you’ve made up till now is completely worthless. “Unlovable, it leaves an echo… and my heart feels like a jumbled mass.” Like this:
I pulled myself together, got up and left the confessional. I knew my secretary was waiting for a verdict. I knew I was in there a long time. I passed the procession of expectant faces, not able to tell them of the priest’s judgment, and walked out of the church. I was ripped into the brightness of reality, like when you exit a movie theatre in the afternoon. The church exit led right onto the dark asphalt of the parking lot. There were three cars, my Jeep, a tan Buick, and right next to the front door of the church, in a parking spot designated with a sign that read “Reserved for Father…” there stood the man with the starchy voice. He was tall, bald, and doughy. The type of white man you would be surprised to know was fluent in Spanish. A Phil Donahue, Santa Clause variety of white man. He was bent over struggling with his car. He drove an old Navy blue Cutlass Sierra, with dark blue leather seats. I knew the car because I used to have one and my friends and I used to joke that Cutlass Sierra would be my stripper name.
“Having trouble father?”
I’d like to say that he appeared jolted by my voice, but he did not stop tinkering with his car. His face was red. I got closer and peered under the hood.
“Just think I need a jump.”
His battery was covered in corrosion.
“You might need help getting to those battery plugs. May I?”
He looked up at me, surprised. His starched white priest’s collar was smudged with grease. I looked at him as long as I could, held his gaze, showed him my wet eyes. I just happened to have a bottle of Coca-Cola. I walked around the old priest and poured it over the top, watching years of build-up and break down get eaten away. I hugged the priest goodbye.
Melissa Chadburn is a former law student of Black, Asian, Hispanic, Filipina, and Irish descent who became further aware of racial and cultural differences/similarities when she was adopted as a teenager by Dutch/Indonesian and British foster parents. Following some minor frustrations with blow dryers and blue eye shadow, she has come to appreciate and write about the smorgas-Obama-borg that is her life. Her credits include articles in Political Affairs, and People’s Weekly World as well as a chair on the editorial committee of Dynamic magazine. A current contributor and journalist with The Examiner she has appeared on NPR’s WBAI and CNN. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);