February 1, 2011
Cindy Martin’s French braids dominate my sight. Painfully taut, the gleaming blond of a pure, good little girl, streaked with the pink of a tortured scalp. I’m unable to look away from the million meanderings of her hair. I wonder if my own mother knows how to create such a thing, if my feral mattes could be trained into such order. I study the braids with a deep-inside inkling that I’m not that type of girl, that we are not that type of family.
Cindy turns to me, fluorescent lights bouncing from the blond and pink intricacies of her head. Is she going to speak to me? Surely, not; I’m clearly out of place. But what’s happening is worse than conversation. It’s my turn. I plead with eyes and voice, with everything I’ve got: I don’t want to play. I don’t know this stuff. I’m just visiting my dad. Please don’t make me.
It’s no use. Teacher Lady has declared it my turn. She knows the danger of changing her mind in front of children; she must follow through. It’s OK, she says, This is a really easy one. She doesn’t know what she’s up against.
I’m in this hell of Sunday School, the room is all table and tiny chairs, nowhere to breathe. My father and step-mother are in another area, engaged in some sort of adult/social/holy interaction with their fellow church-goers. For a moment I envision locking myself in the craft closet, a child-sized space crammed with scissors and colored paper and popsicle sticks, which will be turned into cross ornaments, complete with glue and glitter. But the craft closet is bursting with materials. Even if I did make a run for it, I doubt I could get the door closed. There’s no escaping my sins.
The game is Bible Trivia. It’s the heathen’s turn to answer. I’m that heathen.
What do we eat and drink to represent the body and blood of Christ? Teacher Lady meters out each word; the false hope that her plodding pace will somehow bestow upon me the knowledge I lack. She’s staring at me hard, urging the answer into my head, but we’re not on the same telepathic plane.
I’m a religious mutt. Seventh-Day Adventist with some relatives, Lutheran with others. Saturday night sleepovers at a friend’s house will lead to Catholic mass the next morning, while the majority of my life at home with mom requires no church involvement. I don’t mind having to entertain the faiths of others, but I can’t stand that they are each blind to this splintering, expecting me to conform with ease to the religion at hand.
In the Sunday School room of the Lutheran church, my vision swirls with plaid sweater vests, lace-trimmed collars, and hygiene of an unnatural caliber for small children. I will myself to disappear with a POP! into a speck of dust, then float unnoticed into the crevices of Cindy Martin’s French braids.
Teacher Lady repeats the question with futile breath. What do we eat and drink to represent the body and blood of Christ?
We don’t eat or drink anything, I think. The routine involves kneeling down awkwardly beside my father while the old guy in the robe mutters something and rubs his thumb against my forehead. I hate that. I don’t want to be touched. There is some element of thumb plus forehead that brings a sacrilegious shudder to me.
But what does my father eat and drink? That’s what she’s asking me. It’s wine and a wafer. I know that wine contains alcohol and that alcohol is bad. Alcohol is forbidden in some households, hidden in others, and the reason why everyone I know has an estranged uncle. As a child, you are not allowed any contact with alcohol, so I’m afraid that if I answer “wine,” I will become an alcoholic. Grape juice is how the Seventh-Day Adventists avoid the evils of alcohol, maybe that’s the appropriate answer. But what about the wafer? The word seems too silly to be voiced in response to a religion question. Time is moving and I am still and silent. My mind is full of evolving words and images, bleeding into each other with frenzy: Wine, Bread, Cracker, Nilla Wafer, Fish, Loaves, Lamb of God, Stew, Pew, Satan, Loma Linda, Little Debbie, Vodka.
The boys begin with poorly masked laughter, little bubbles of it boiling up. The girls circulate the whisper of How can she not know this? Their collective stare advances as wolves, clawing at any sense of myself as a person, chewing it with greed and wet smacks. They devour me to counter the restraint they’ll have to muster later at the lobby cookie table.
Teacher Lady looks to me with pity and apology in her eyes. I’m sorry, she’s thinking, I won’t ever make you play again. She’s no match for the room of ten year-olds, rich and golden. They’ve already torn me up, in any case. Poor little heathen. They laugh; I pretend not to cry.
Subsequent Sundays find me sick, missing and feigning death, anything to avoid a spotlight on my biblical idiocy. The overriding fear of my youth develops here, in the possibility that the world will see me, dirty fingernails, a boyish girl, and soured faith, alongside the perfect purity, lace, and manners of Cindy Martin. Decades will pass before I’ll breathe again in the presence of religion. Angst over my fraudulence eventually dissipates when I enter the glory of the kingdom of adulthood and its freedoms.
The Sunday School room tells me nothing of this future. I’m locked in by my ignorance, their mockery, and the walls of the house of God.