After a year of learning how to be religious, I married quickly so I wouldn’t sin. We were practicing abstinence, which was new to me; when my fiancé spoke about women and submission, it made my legs tremble. I agreed with him. I brought up topics that would work around to him talking about submissive women. I had other things in mind than he did, things involving neck ties and orgasms. I see that now. So our blissful honeymoon period was especially short and involved none of what I had spent so much time imagining. It was as if he had been making a list of my faults the whole time we were dating and now he was going to straighten me out. I was always reading, he complained, and not always reading The Bible. I wanted to finish my degree and he said that word as though it smelled bad coming out from his mouth so close to his sensitive nose. I cracked myself up, he pointed out; I thought I was funny. Well, I wasn’t. Not by a long shot, missy.
He began hiding scraps of paper under the microwave and in the back of the canned goods to prove that I wasn’t cleaning the way a Christian wife would want to clean.
Plus a Christian wife would never give her husband the finger. She would never do that. Not with even one middle finger, let alone both.
Most of the houses in our neighborhood were rentals, duplexes. Around the corner from our house was the house I called the Murder House, where a man had murdered his wife shortly before we moved in. The paper still mentioned it occasionally. Down the street from the Murder House was the 7-11 that did not yet have bars installed on the windows and a height chart by the door. That happened a few years later. It was not funny for me to call the Murder House by the name the Murder House. I never said I thought it was funny. I just couldn’t help staring at it and wondering about my new life.
Six weeks after my wedding, my father died in his sleep. The elements of wedding and funeral are so similar – what to wear, what airport do we all fly into, food, food, food including cake – everything similar except for the photographer. Funerals don’t need photographers.
But I was so new to God that I believed that faith was something I had to conjure up and then squeeze out by thinking strenuous faithful thoughts. Like a cartoon of belief, eyes shut tight, the Lion from the Wizard of Oz – I do believe, I do I do I do. So I knew that this was my miracle – that I would believe all the way to where the body of my father was and then I would lay hands on him and then he would be alive and everyone would know that this religion was real, really real, and not just to me, and that this wasn’t a phase, either, this wasn’t just a fortunate alternative to my joining up with, for example, a carnival and traveling around with some meth-heads, pouring syrup on snow cones. This wasn’t me with a wealthy married boyfriend kept off to the side in beautiful hotel rooms. This wasn’t me flirting in a biker bar with no idea what was waiting in the pool table room but stumbling by accident out the back door without getting hurt. This was a real thing and I was better for it.
My father was lying in his satiny casket. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I whisper-prayed as urgently as I could and I discretely laid hands on his chest and I could feel that they had filled his chest up with that spongy crinkly stuff that anchor flower arrangements because, I then remembered, he had been autopsied and my sister who stood at my elbow said careful, don’t press so hard because she was consistently smarter than I was, and my faith trickled away like pee down my leg and my father stayed dead.
After that, my grief became tedious to my husband. He was jealous – and he had a reason: my face let him know that I was considering the even trade of father for husband and feeling that I had been ripped off in the deal. He was tired of it. He brought out the Bible, pointing to scriptures that revealed and reviled me. While he explicated some superficial point out to its least complicated form, I would finish his sentence and then he would have to start from the beginning, more enraged each time. And I. Can. Not. Keep. My. Mouth. Shut. The first slap came after interrogation, nagging and haranguing over aspects of my character. The first slap was not a surprise in terms of anything but its timing. Violence, one of my oldest companions. Under its sting was the heavy thump of recognition: oh, here you are. I have once again chosen the door behind which the flea-bitten, grimy tiger, rather than myself as Lady, patiently waits. It was painted the color of religion, that door, but it was the same door I always chose. So I understood what I was, regardless of numbers of births I had experienced. And the wedding, where I had seen my father for the last time, had not yet been paid for and I could not turn to my inconsolable mother for help and the church was too unsophisticated at that time to be anything but alarmed when I called the police one night that I would bring reproach to what was already an unorthodox doctrine.
I also fought back. I also stood up when I was supposed to stay down. I also got the last word despite being limited in my ability to defend myself.
I was finally low enough to buy into the lie that we could pray it away. Bought in enough to bring children into a dangerous home. Bought in enough to eventually believe that my husband was awarded custody of God in the divorce. By this point, I dressed like I was Amish, minus the cap, with five feet of hair trailing behind me and falling into my food like fishing line. I knew better than to glance over at the car next to ours when we were paused at a red light. In case it was a man driving the vehicle next to us. In case it was a man who happened to glance back.
But there on Donahue Street, down the corner from the Murder House, before the babies, before the escape, right smack in the middle of believing and grieving and feeling responsible for what was happening to me but not the kind of responsible where I took control of anything or myself, more adventures awaited. The little Hispanic children we sometimes took to Sunday School came by one afternoon to ask us to pray for a cat. It had been mangled in the engine of the pickup truck belonging to one of the dads.
The children wanted to see something happen, anything, even a few solemn words spoken over the cat. We trudged over to their rental duplex, some of the kids skipping and running, my husband beaming self importance, my church friend summoning up her own best effort at faith. My church friend wanted to see something good come my way, some sign that I was still in the God zone. A giant magnifying glass of self consciousness beamed down onto my shoulders and I jeered at myself with each step.
The guy whose truck engine mangled the cat didn’t say a word to us but gestured to where the cat was yowling in a box. I don’t know why he hadn’t just quickly put it out of its misery, but there we were, praying for this animal in a million degree Texas heat in his garage and parading home with our sad box of pain. We prayed. The cat was not healed and it did not immediately die. My friend had to go home to her own cats and she was afraid that her cats would be unhappy with another cat companion once the Lord healed this cat – she was sure! she was certain! – so she begged me to keep it.
“This is your miracle,” my friend told me, her eyes with that serious, slightly crossed look that seems so reasonable on an owl but signaled anything but reason on her face. And her glasses were slightly crooked and her long religious hair was frayed into a halo around her crazy face. “This is your miracle.” She shook my shoulders with a few shakes of earnestness and faith.
This is my miracle?! This?! And inside I laughed and laughed and laughed and inside I cried and cried and cried and I was furious and I was delighted by the irony and the idiocy and the purity of believing and I wanted to pinch my friend really, really hard. I prayed that the cat would die and soon it did. Years later, I would pray that my husband would also die, maybe suddenly and painlessly, shooting right on up to Heaven if Jesus wanted him there; hopefully his death would be the result of a construction or automobile accident where a modest settlement that I promised to pay tithes on might be involved. He did not die. I did not die, either, which is what I thought might also happen. My deliverance from this constricting place did not directly involve angels, to my knowledge; rather, my sister and I furtively packed – we’re taking ALL of the toys to Grandma’s! – and drove away while my husband worked out of town. For someone who always longed to be rescued, I kept having to claw myself out of the boxes I trapped myself in. And I became like a cat, like the drawing of a star, with five sharp points before you get anywhere near the soft middle, for quite some time.
There is danger with predicting what events constitute a miracle and what events do not – more specifically, what events are a blessing to one person but a punishment to another, especially since I can only see through the gun slits of my finite point of view. But I will say this – my husband had two accidents at work during our marriage. The first, he was electrocuted. He was an electrician and somehow took hold of a wire he did not expect to be live and was shocked until his teeth rattled and then he was flung to the ground. The metaphor, of course, cast me as the live wire. The second accident, he fell from a ladder onto another ladder onto his testicles. That was no metaphor. That was a straight up message from God: stop fucking with her or I will bludgeon your nuts.
I had a dream during this stretch of time where I walking around down a back road from that 7-11, somehow a country road, somehow a country road that held a flea market full of small and ornately carved boxes that I was interested in, when I looked up and saw a tornado splintering our house on Donahue to pieces and during that dream, I understood that someday, after some horrific event, I would be free. And this proved to be true. And we all, miraculously, survived.
It took a while to separate faith from the fist. That’s probably as much of a miracle as I could ever need, right there.