[Nonfiction] His Eye, His Hand, His Thumb
I was Catholic and I was gay—one of them stuck and the other didn’t last long, and I didn’t fully understand either, especially without one juxtaposing the other. I cannot say I was or was not born gay just as I cannot say I was or was not born Catholic. I was certainly predisposed to being Catholic, as never was born a guiltier person than I.
In the womb, I took too much of my mother’s time. I fussed and I twirled, and the skin of her stomach rippled in my wake and the months dragged on and my due date came and went and the weeks with it. A squatter was I in my mother’s belly for ten months. The threat of forcible eviction brought me squalling out and try as I might to make up for my delay, I settled in as a quiet, dreaming baby. But my grandmother never let me forget the extra month of torment I caused my dear poor mother. Guilt and nagging were very Catholic traits, and my grandmother was a good Catholic, unlike the rest of us, her wayward brood.
Even before my parents divorced and our pretense for appearing to go to Mass faded away one missed Sunday at a time, I made it very clear that church was not for me. And the church made it very clear just how wrong a choice that was.
I couldn’t help myself. I knew I didn’t belong from age seven. It just took me a few more years to really figure out why. I’m sure if God really did exist, He would be laughing at me right now, pointing His large, pale, white finger at me and holding his white, belted robe into his surprisingly flat stomach. “Girl, I knew you was gay from the start,” He would say. Why didn’t He let me go earlier, then? Why dig His claws in so deep—well, He would say, for the sake of my soul. Of course.
There was no intervention for the sake of my soul, no group of crying, cloistered mothers fearfully hiding away their young daughters as I passed down the street, no attempts from my mother and father to bundle me up and ship me off to camp Make-Me-Straight, the pray-away-the-gay centers where no one seemed to recognize the irony of authorizing the camp counselors to whip the unholiness out of their deviant charges, bared bottoms and scuffed-up knees. I was a lucky one to escape the persecution of my church and my Catholic town and the sidelong looks down the halls of the high school. I never felt the cruel whip of discrimination laid across my shoulders as so many of my counterparts felt, little queer charges tucked in closets and under beds. Perhaps because I hid it so well; my family never had to explain to me the dangers of homosexuality because they never suspected that such an ailment plagued me.
Beyond my homosexual tendencies, I was too much a dreamer for church. These words like Truth, Eternal, Risen, what context did I have for them, a blonde-haired, six-year-old who found stained glass to make pretty rainbows on the marble floor, who once stole from the house of her babysitter one of those little orange-covered bibles they hand out on street corners after school, for free. I could not move or manipulate or hold in my hands and shape to my own understanding these ineffable mysteries with their capital letters. My mind worked with tangibles I was handed, and that then I handed back: recounting tales from my books, one hundred thousand possible adventures to be had by the same four dolls, coloring in unicorns and fairy princesses in shades of blues and greens and purples and lining up the crayon boxes in uniform rainbow colors that, while dizzying, were ordered. The stories told in church could not be changed. They were, they happened, and that was the Truth. When I went seeking out this kind of magic in my own world, I found it all gone. Miracles like that didn’t happen anymore, I was told. Perhaps the magic was all used up, in one huge gulp with the rolling away of a stone from a cave, the rising again of the Truth. Selfish, it seemed to me, to waste all the magic in the world on just one man.
My parents tried; they really did. It wasn’t their fault that the teachings went in one ear and out the other and never hit the mark hard enough to stick. I went to Catechism when I was in third grade. My brother and sister went through Catechism at the same time, though as we were in different grades, we sometimes had different classes from one another. While I was cutting out paper doves and sheep and grapes and bread and pasting them haphazardly over a sheet of pink construction paper (my interpretations of God and church and the Bible and what all this studying actually meant), my brother and sister were playing with the big kids, having discussions of the philosophy of Catholicism, reading passages from the Bible to one another, skipping over the more unsavory parts like where people cut off foreskins and rub them on one another.
I also went to RE, Religious Education every Wednesday evening with my middle sister. While Catechism was dull and a bit hard to understand, it eventually ended, culminating in my baptism in third grade. But RE seemed to go on forever. I never felt comfortable there, and I never felt accepted. Turns out, I wasn’t accepted there, at least by the other kids.
Whereas in Catechism I was able to stumble along at the back of the pack away from prying eyes of the teacher and the others who were all my seniors in both penchant and piety, in RE I was with students my own age, all of whom seemed more attentive, more devout, more holy than me, and thus, better. I was slower with my recitations; I fumbled my way through the rosary. Get me started, though, and the rote memorization kicked in and suddenly it was within me: it wasn’t the Holy Spirit rising, but it was something.
Me, who would read anything, large nose always inserted into a book, shied away from reading The Book of All Holy Knowledge. So, I never did my homework for RE, even though I was the type of child who loved homework. And I was always late, dragging my feet until the last minute in the vain hope that if we were too late we would be allowed to skip going to RE at all, and then rushing to stuff my sweaty feet into the proper sneakers from the jumble by the door.
My heart pounded, my fists went clammy in my lap as the family van puttered up the hill to the Cathedral of Saint Helena. My eyes darted from the flickering green clock numbers at the front of the van to the tall spires looming over all the other buildings. We were late. We were already late, and yet I would still be made to go. The agony of the experience magnified tenfold as I anticipated the stares and the heat of all eyes on me, late, late, late, coming through the door in the middle of prayers. Breathless, I leapt from the car to the doors of the community center. Through the building rang the echoes of my feet slapping pat pat pat pat pat down the hallway, up the stairs, not quite walking, not quite running. The varnished floor sparkled with glints of mica and quartz set into the concrete, like the glint in God’s eye as He watched me run, like He was privy to all the pitiful inner thoughts and curses of the dream-struck middle schooler and He mocked my fruitless struggle out from under His eye, His hand, His thumb. He would not let me go so easily, He vowed. I was of His flock now, and He would not be denied. The door clicked shut behind me. I slunk down the side aisle to my chair at the back of the room and fixed my eyes on this clock now, tick tick tick, watching the numbers trip onward until it was time for escape.
It was not only God who knew I didn’t belong there; the other children could smell my different-ness on me like blood in the water and they turned to me, pupils wide, mouths gawking. I was never to live down those earliest failings, either. Ten years after we met, when both of us were just kindergarteners—him freckled, lanky and pale with giant green eyes, me a wild-haired child whose nose hadn’t quite popped—a young man leaned across the oiled wooden bench of my high school art class and, hand propped on one elbow, asked me, didn’t we go to RE together once upon a time?
The image formed slowly in my head, a cloudy reminiscence of the little boy in the pint-sized metal chair, shinguards not quite coming up to his scabby knees. He still always wore shiny soccer jerseys with names and numbers of famous players blazoned across the bold-colored stripes.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I totally forgot.” Something blossomed in me, some sort of pride at having been noticed, having been remembered by someone who was now considered sort of a popular kid at school. The warmth flickered, flared out, and coiled into a tight cold metal ball at the bottom of my stomach at his next words:
“Don’t play with her, she’s weird,” he recalled saying, laughing with the retelling. I was someone he had avoided; someone he had scooted his chair away from in circle. He sensed the unbeliever on me. Best not get too close.
The decade that had passed between hearing the words for the first time and hearing them again did not take away their sting. I blinked at him and cracked my lips into a smile, and I laughed along, and it did not make it hurt any less to know it was not all in my head, this idea that I didn’t belong. Everyone else had known it too.
That was the root of my evil: I was never a True Believer in the word of God. But that was my own fault. I was never sure there was such a thing (person, being?) as God, even though everyone around me seemed convinced (and happy, relieved even) of this Fact, capital-F. I played along as best I could, but I stumbled over the too-long hem of my baptism robe and I didn’t pay attention to the words, didn’t feel them in my chest but only mumbled them on cue. My mind had already wandered away, down the stairs and around the corner to the dressing room, where my beautiful neat mint-green-and-white-polka-dotted Easter dress hung, waiting for me to get this bath over with so we could get to the party portion of the event.
“I believe in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
These were the words I spoke, the words I fumbled along with the sign of the cross; right hand from my temple to my stomach, to my shoulders left to right. A similar something was murmured by the priest as he gently reminded me to plug my nose before dipping me backwards into the cooling water of the inflatable pool. Dunked three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I had a pretty good grasp on the first two, I thought, my hair swirling around my puffed-up cheeks, nose clenched tight in my white fist. But that third one, I never quite got that. What the hell was a Holy Ghost anyway? I pictured it looking something like that swarm of green mist that descended over Egypt, killing all the first-borns of those who didn’t believe in that made-for-TV movie The Ten Commandments, but I never said that out loud cause I knew it wasn’t really right and I didn’t want to upset anyone by asking for clarification on one of the more important aspects of my faith. I did a lot in my youth for the sake of not upsetting anyone. I didn’t do a lot, too.
I went through the same routine every Sunday morning. I held my breath minutes after waking, straining to hear tell-tale rustlings that said others were up and about and getting ready for church. Sometimes I would read, sometimes I would play quietly with my dolls, other times I let sleepy fragments of my dreams wash over me, expanding and manipulating them and playing them over in my head until either the clock ticked too close to the hour that I knew we would not make it to church on time even if we tried, or else my father rapped on my door and told me to get up and at ‘em, get ready for Mass.
After the divorce, for a while, we still went to Mass. Then the visits were fewer and fewer. Sunday mornings became baking days. I woke up and made breakfast with my sister, or my mom would come down and put together chewy, golden pumpkin waffles and pull cinnamon rolls from the fridge where they’d been rising overnight.
I can only imagine how it was for my mother, this transition from a life growing up in the church, raised by a mother and father who sung in the church choir and read from the Bible to the whole congregation, to being a divorcee, a single mother who for a while attended Christmas and Easter Mass, and then not even those. I was relieved, but I never asked how it felt for her. If I did everything I could to dodge discussing religion with my grandparents, how hard must it have been for my mother to do the same, when at my grandparents’ table each meal was bookended with a prayer, when my mother’s childhood days were filled with green tartan skirts and nuns with white habits and the Virgin Mary watched over you in Math class?
I don’t remember the day I lost my faith. I don’t know that I ever had any to lose. I never actively decided not to believe, to become or label myself an atheist. It just sort of happened. The lack of support from the community after my parents’ divorce didn’t help. My fears of judgment and scorn for telling my very Catholic family that I was gay didn’t help. My confusion on the details, my lack of knowledge, my inability to keep the Bible and all these names and dates and facts and figures straight in my mind didn’t help. I didn’t feel engaged by the church, or trusted by the church, or loved by the church. I was an outsider sitting in a hard, wooden pew, moving my lips in words of praise to a deity I didn’t believe existed. How could I worship a man or figure or being that I didn’t even know, that certainly didn’t know me in exchange?
That is where faith comes in, people say. But I can’t have faith in what I do not know. I have faith in myself, and faith in other people, and faith that the sun will rise and set each day and that we, all of us, ultimately, will be okay and will keep on going. I have faith in what I can see and touch and smell and hear. I have faith in my capabilities. But I did not have faith in the Catholics or their treatment of those outside their faith.
If one day I let myself down and the world does too; if one day the sun doesn’t rise or doesn’t set; if one day humanity folds in on itself and everything burns to dust or freezes in pain, then what?
What is there after the things I have faith in are gone, you ask? What then?
Well, what then for you after your God is gone, and your faith proves nothing more than mumbled words and false hope?
I feel both will fall on the same day, and both of us will go searching for answers elsewhere.
Paige M. Ferro is a writer, chef, and art admirer living in Bend, Oregon. By day, and sometimes night, she is the Adult Programs Coordinator with Deschutes Public Library. When not writing, she can be found dabbling in the Tarot and picking cat hairs off her various sweaters.