By: Jacqueline Skokna
(An excerpt from a novel)
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17
This wrong doubtful body should not have been mine. Mine was. Not this. Was perfect. Once.
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
He’s always with me. Always. There is no peace.
Roxane Gay, Hunger
WHEN I RISE
It was a lovely day until late afternoon came. I was up at seven thirty on the dot. Even though it was a Sunday, I was in the habit of sleeping with one of my curtains open to let the sunlight wake me alongside my alarm. That way, the first thing I saw in the morning was the great big blue sky God made, the clouds opening up into the heavens, the giant trees bending their branches like arms in every which way, gesturing like tall and skinny gentlemen, welcoming me to another day.
My parents had just gotten back late the night before from a Catholic conference in Missouri. I was partially in charge of my two younger sisters, Theresa and Rosie, for the weekend, alongside our family friend, Mrs. Esposito, who lived down the street. With all my parents made us do against our will—Bible camps, Catholic conventions, confession with Father Bob twice a month—when I watched their minivan drive down our street then turn the corner toward the highway those couple days before, the breath I took was like the first breath of my face breaking through the water’s surface in the summers after jumping off the high-dive at the Hinsdale pool; an act done half for my own pleasure of flying up into the air and then down into the cool water, half done so whatever families knew or didn’t know me would look up and wonder: who is that girl, how did she get to be where she is?
I laid down in my bed, mulling over the sense of freedom that comes with the start of a new day. I pulled my comforter off my arms, letting the sunshine warm them instead. I took a long body stretch and rubbed the sleep from my eyes, peering out the window.
My room is on the second story and overlooks a pristine row of suburban homes, complete with grass so perfectly green it looks fake. In fact, many of the lawns are artificial, made of AstroTurf or polyester, those bright green carpet-looking things that are supposed to be a symbol of the American dream. I felt happy my parents weren’t so concerned about the dirt patches that appeared like bald spots on our front lawn made of natural grass. Sure, they were strict, but they weren’t perfectionists about everything.
I padded off to the kitchen: down the stairwell, through the hallway, past the living room, my bare feet sweaty and sticking to the wooden floor every step or two. Downstairs, I was enveloped in the calm of a peaceful Sunday morning, those treasured quiet moments before the whole house awakes and starts buzzing the way bee hives do when they swarm in the spring. A few feet away in their big bedroom, my mom and dad snored in succession, sounding like their own version of one of nature’s cycles, steady and unforced, as expected as the wind when the screen door is left open. While they rested, and my little sisters dreamed their young dreams, I prepared breakfast.
I listened to the coffee maker drip and whine and sizzle soft and slight. Usually it was my father who did this: ground the coffee beans up into a fine mixture similar to the soil in our garden, plopped four tablespoons of it into the unbleached filter, poured four cups of cold water into the plastic bin. But today, it was my turn.
I turned on the kitchen radio, pressing the volume button down to the lowest setting. It was set to an oldies station, but I navigated to one that played acoustic pop. I swayed my hips, a little to the left, a little to the right, in time to the music. My mother would think I was trying to dance sexy, the way popstars do, but really I danced like I belonged in a ballroom, nice and innocent, each move with a reason and a rhyme.
I poured the coffee into my mother’s favorite mug and topped it off with cream, watched it turn into a beautiful swirl of light and dark, stuck in a spoon and spun three little circles, scraping the bottom. Next came the sugar – two full teaspoons of it instead of the usual one.
I finished flipping the last of the pancakes and set them on the table next to the sunflowers my mom bought at the grocery store. Always leave room for something beautiful in your budget, she said.
WHO CAN BE AGAINST US
The stairs creaked and my littlest sister Rosie appeared around the corner, her eyes puffy from sleep and a teddy bear in her hand, the bear she refused to give a name – “he’s just Bear.” Seven years old and my parents’ pride and joy, sweet Rosie. Be more like Rosie, they often told Theresa and I. Rosie would smile like she won an award when my parents praised her like this. Meanwhile Theresa and I would look at each other with skepticism or roll our eyes – not for our parents to see, of course. We weren’t sure exactly what they meant, other than that we should find a way to stop growing so fast. Later, I thought more about the physical implications, thinking they really meant to tell us, stay young and untouched, without curves, without hips. Do not let others look at you like that, and if you do, it’s your fault.
Rosie took a seat at the table and looked at me with puffy, tired eyes. She was seven years old, and according to the church, now at the age of reason, capable of sin that could send her to hell and its eternal flames. But I didn’t buy it. As soon as God saw her face, I knew He’d think twice.
“Good morning cutie,” I said. “You sleep well? What do you want to drink? Juice?” I walked over to the fridge already knowing her answer.
She put both tiny hands onto the table, then gazed at them, as if measuring their power. “Juice.”
“Apple or orange?”
“Both.” I turned around to see her gummy smile, three baby teeth in the front missing. Others would be coming in soon.
I laughed. “I love you.” I filled a glass with half orange juice and half apple juice and brought it to her. “Theresa still sleeping?”
Rosie gulped her drink. I noticed she’d set Bear in a sitting posture in the chair next to her, like he was part of the family too.
“Yeah. Can we have a special Sunday Funday today Marci?”
I smiled, proud of my status as the eldest daughter, that I was the one they asked questions like that. “We’ve got eleven a.m. mass and a cook out later. We could go to Kirschbaum’s later today, maybe.”
“Cookies!” Rosie pounded on the table with all her might, her tiny fist like a gavel in a courtroom. My refilled cup of coffee spilled out the edges, dotting the place mat underneath it with a pattern that looked like modern art.
Kirschbaum’s was the local bakery over on Burlington Street right by the train station, famous for their smiley-face cookies, yellow and black icing atop a chewy sugar cookie. My whole family had a weakness for them. We were regulars.
“We’ll see,” I said, getting paper towels to wipe up the mess. “But first we’re having pancakes.”
Rosie and I talked some more. She swung her feet beneath the table, brushing them against the floor. They could just barely reach.
After a little while the steps creaked again, warning us of an imminent presence. Theresa walked toward us in her flannel pajamas, yawning.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” I sang.
“Pancake me,” she said.
“Pancake me, please,” I said.
“Please.” She smiled.
I brought her a plate of food, the same way my dad would do for us on a Saturday morning. How I loved taking care of others; how much easier it was to take care of others than it was to take care of myself.
“Okay, here’s the plan for today,” Theresa began between bites of pancakes doused in syrup. “We bike ride in the forest preserve, we come back and have a movie marathon, then we get enough cookies to make ourselves sick.”
“First mass,” I added.
Theresa’s eyebrows furrowed. “Yeah, yeah. Will Mom and Dad wake up in time?”
“I’d think so,” I said.
“Ugh,” she said. “It was kind of freeing with them gone.”
I smirked. “You could say that. But hey, I’m no pushover.”
Theresa laughed. “I’d cry forever if you were as strict as them.”
“Save your tears, please.”
It was fun, sitting there together, just us three. Eating breakfast, drinking milk, telling stories. Laughing all the while. After Rosie went to the front room couch to watch cartoons, Bear in hand, Theresa spoke to me in a soft yet pleading voice.
“Let’s ditch church today.”
I looked at her with a stern face, lowering my voice. “They’re right over there. Mom would kill you if she heard you say that. I don’t think Dad would be too happy either.”
“And?” she asked me.
Jealousy rose within me, a yearning to question things the way Theresa did, a longing to have a mind as open as hers that was wholly unafraid of going against the traditions we’d inherited like the structure of our bones. Theresa was outspoken, did little things to rebel.
“And I’d rather not deal with angry parents who are also exhausted from traveling.” I turned away from her then and focused on the dirty dishes. The hot water and citrus dish soap onto the cups and plates and forks and knives, the rushing water creating bubbles that reminded me of bath time when I was younger. “Sorry, but we have to go.”
“Fine.” Theresa skipped away toward the stairs. “But if we have to go to mass, we have to get cookies after! It’s only logical. Marci!”
I laughed at her despite my prior seriousness and called over my shoulder. “You’re using your babysitting money!”
EVER THIS DAY BE AT MY SIDE
I walked down the back hallway and gazed at the religious paintings on the wall: one of the Virgin Mother, one of a female guardian angel with massive wings helping two frightened children cross a broken bridge, one of Jesus floating in the air with a cross behind him, his hands raised in either a gesture of peace or subtle defense, perhaps both. An inauthentic gold paneling framed each picture, enclosing the subdued colors of navy, green, gray, and cream in a forever frozen image that was supposed to represent God, or part of God’s plan. Every face possessed an angelic calm, was glowing a kind of whiteness that both included and extended beyond race.
I focused on the painting of the guardian angel and the children, the missing wooden plank from the precarious bridge and the rushing water beneath it, the fir trees and lightning in the distance, the light pink carnations in the bottom left corner like a promise of salvation awaiting the weak, naïve passengers. The angel’s hands were separated, reaching out from her chest, resting a couple of feet above the children’s heads in an obvious display of protection. I imagined my sisters and I in their roles, me as the guardian of course, my sisters as the frightened children. But later, when my pride was eclipsed by my loss of power, the roles would switch. I would be one of the children, maybe both combined, hungry and helpless and seemingly alone, yet unknowingly comforted by my little sisters who flew like guardian angels above me, saving me from myself.
WE FIX OUR ATTENTION NOT ON THINGS THAT ARE SEEN
After I did the dishes, I went to my room to get ready for church. My feet dragged a bit on my carpet floor, feeling stuck on the soft yet rough fabric. A couple of steps later, the smooth, cold tile of mine and Theresa’s bathroom touched my feet, perfect light blue squares that looked like chunks of sky, a mosaic of the canopy outside above us. I rinsed my makeup-less face in the sink, letting the lukewarm water dribble down my neck, beneath my nightgown. I did it a few more times, liking the refreshing feeling, like a thirst was being quenched, my skin brightening more each time. I took out some liquid foundation from my makeup bag hidden in the back of the bottom drawer, behind Q-tips, cotton balls, extra toothpaste, and “feminine products,” as convenience stores, and my mom, liked to call them. My god, I would think. Can we just call them tampons?
Even at sixteen, I was pretty new to the makeup thing. My parents didn’t forbid it, just discouraged having so much on your face—no bright red lipstick, no shiny eye glitter. Not any of those fake eyelashes you attach with sticky glue and no caked-on mascara. No eyeliner either. This left me with foundation, some light brown mascara not unlike the color of my natural lashes, and the lightest shade of blush. I was quietly bitter about this restraint, jealous of the creativity available to other girls my age. While their faces were a blank canvas allowed to be painted any which way, decorated in lovely hues of purple or blue or a mild red, mine was a pre-set work of art, the colors and choices chosen by someone who was not me.
But something was better than nothing. I poured a healthy amount of foundation on my fingers. Its ivory color shined under the warm bathroom light. I dabbed some on either cheek, my nose, my forehead, beneath my eyes, rubbing it all in, feeling the coldness on my skin. I liked how it hid the faint blue-yellow patches underneath my lids that never went away no matter the sleep I got. The thick cream cloaked my face, covering splotches and blemishes and a pimple beneath my nostrils. I ran a small brush back and forth on top of the blush, watching the light pink powder stick to the tiny black bristles, then ran the brush along my cheeks, not knowing then that you were supposed to suck your face in like a fish, your lips coming to a duck like pout that would come in fashion later, only putting the color on the angles of your cheekbones. That morning, I colored most of my cheeks in with the blush, giving myself a look of embarrassment that would be exacerbated by nightfall.
I listened for my mom, Theresa, Rosie, my dad. But no one interrupted my routine. I could stare at my face head on, with its different textures and colors and a mix of excitement and hesitation, and not have to worry about vanity.
I loosened the cap on the mascara and pulled out the wand. The cakey brown makeup had the look and consistency of dirt, was starting to get old and crusted on the rim of the bottle. I pumped the wand back in and out so it would collect more of the mascara. I put it under each of my lashes and dragged upward, noticing their color darken slightly and lengthen half an inch. A small clump ended up near my brow bone and I mistakenly pressed on it, marking my face with a spot like the ones us Catholics received on Ash Wednesday, our foreheads communicating our closeness to God, our superiority to other Christians with clean faces that day. On the outside, I appeared close to my Savior, the perfect bridegroom to Jesus Christ. Inside, I was starving for affection, praying for a true relationship with Him.
I turned the light off on my face in the mirror, heading into my room. I fingered through all the outfits hanging in my corner closet, resting my hand on the dresses I liked most. Modest, professional colors of blush, brown, light blue, and white filled each hanger, nothing standing out to me. I didn’t have to check if they were church appropriate—everything I owned was.
My hands landed on a long, flowy, off-white summer dress. It had longer sleeves that ended a couple of inches above my elbows and a scoop neck that covered most of my sternum. It wasn’t exactly in style that year—or even five years before—but it did make me feel like a woman when others viewed me as a just a girl. I felt tall and old-fashioned in that dress, one my mom got on sale from some upscale boutique the next town over.
I slipped it off the hanger and felt the light scratchy fabric, the embroidery on the bust, the five simple buttons that enclosed the back, then laid it down on my bed, taking off my pajamas to change. As I pulled the dress over my head, I noticed the extra tightness around my arms and chest. I had grown or the dress had shrunk; it was one or the other. I loved the way it gripped my body, like someone was hugging me or a pair of hands was pressing down on me, squeezing out stale air, preparing me to breath in new.
I walked back down our winding stairs to the living room and was met by my mom in the hallway.
“Hey,” I smiled at her tentatively, aware of the way I looked.
“You look nice,” she said. There was only a little edge to it.
“Welcome back.” She gave me an awkward hug, pulling away after just a second. Her eyes were tired but she was dressed in her Sunday best, a black skirt that went to her ankles with a white blouse tucked in. One pearl adorned either ear and her patent leather shoes reflected the ceiling light above us.
“The ride back was torture,” she said. “Your father nearly killed us.”
Theresa laughed from the other room. I suppressed a laugh myself.
“What happened?” I asked, following my mom as she walked toward the living room. Her heels clicked on the floor.
I joined Theresa on the couch set up against the front window, turning to see Rosie jumping rope outside. She moved halfway down the block then turned around, jumping back to the starting point, her face intent on her journey.
My dad approached us from the downstairs bathroom. “I cut off a semi and the guy almost took us out. Thankfully your mother here asked me ever so eloquently what I was doing.”
“I didn’t know swears could be eloquent,” Theresa said, flipping through the channels on TV.
“Watch it,” my dad said. He looked over at me. “Sweet Marcella.” I got up to greet him. This time, I was the one to give the hug, resting my head for a second between his broad shoulders. I stepped away from him, meeting his eyes. He was only a couple of inches taller than me. “Did you hold down the house while I was gone?”
I laughed. “As best I could.”
My mom appeared not to hear my dad’s question. “How was everything here, Marci?” She entered her anxious mode, fixing pillows on the couch that were already straight, refolding the afghan blanket on the corner chair, the big brown one with the leg extension that Theresa claimed every year at Christmas.
“We had fun,” I said. “But not too much fun.”
“Good answer,” Theresa said.
THE WAY, THE TRUTH, THE LIFE
Where does God reside? Inside the church, inside nature, or inside ourselves? It never occurred to me that it could be all three. My grade school teachers and various priests and nuns convinced me the answer was church, so you better go and say your prayers and genuflect just right and not speak one word after communion. God deserved respect and attention like flowers needed sun; He couldn’t live without it. But I was so busy praising God I didn’t realize I needed to place my body in the light too.
It was mostly rain for me inside the church, an emphasis on sin and weakness, like the good parts of me didn’t exist. I longed for a religion more focused on the New Testament’s forgiveness and grace, but I lacked the words to even communicate this longing. I was so used to kneeling during the consecration of the Eucharist that when my rapist asked me to do so late that afternoon, I floated into the position with ease, not saying one word about how my joints hurt, digging into the ground that way.
THE TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
We walked into church a couple minutes late, but other families and stragglers poured in beside us, the priest and deacon and altar servers still processing through the aisles to the opening hymn, the full, grand sound of the organ placed above us in the choir loft announcing our entrance like we mattered—really mattered—after stepping in to the house of God.
My family moved as a unit through the sparse crowd, as families do, one member stepping a leg forward and the limbs of the others following in the same direction, like we were connected by magnets or a string or were a part of the same flawless group dance, so there was no need to worry about separation. We belonged to each other.
We found our usual spot open and waiting for us, the bottom right corner of the middle pews. My parents genuflected first, sliding into the cushioned seats that might as well have been reserved with a fancy sign that said The Edwards Family. But it was just a Sunday, and we were just another Catholic bunch coming to get our Jesus fill. I entered the pew last, following my sisters into the sacred space. I rested my hands in my lap, picked at a fingernail.
On either side of the church, gentle light streamed through the stained-glass windows that depicted each Station of the Cross. Father Bob’s voice filled the church with a booming echo—another male with a microphone, telling us what to do. It was the music between his words that made me feel most at peace, the responsorial psalm—thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path—the communion song—one bread, one body, one Lord of all, one cup of blessings which we bless—the closing song—Christ, be our light, shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness. When we went up to receive the body and blood of Christ, I sipped in a little more wine than usual, not letting it just touch my lips, but breathing some in, its sweet subtle flavor sinking onto my tongue. My eyes met the Eucharistic minister’s. Her face was soft and kind. I knew she had to be a mother—she had that look about her, a protector’s features, a beautiful face that could quickly turn hostile if anyone thought to touch her young.
The wind flew in from the now-open doors at the front of the building as I followed the other lay members back to my seat. Squinting my eyes from the brightness of the sun and entranced by the green of the trees and blue of the sky and warmth from the early fall weather, I almost passed my pew and walked all the way outside, goodbye Jesus, goodbye family, goodbye final blessing, I’ll find what I need out here.
The taste of the wafer and the wine lingered in my mouth as I sat back down in our pew, pulled down the kneeler, put my face in my hands, eyes shut closed. I was quieter than ever, so quiet the silence became a vastness, began to take a shape. Even so, when I called upon the angels and saints and whoever was up there looking down on me, I didn’t hear a thing in response. It was only the start of my punishment, the first night of many to come.