We decide to take Damien’s car because it won’t be recognized by anyone. I feel like a bit of a gangster as I slide into the passenger’s seat and wait for Damien to turn the key in the ignition. I remember this flush from when Karen and I first ran away together as kids. My heart had been pounding so loudly that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hear the radio overtop of it. Even now, seated next to a friend and getting ready to face an obstacle that isn’t exactly my idea of a great time. We’d been getting away with something and we knew it. Maybe this time we are too. Subverting everything that church stands for.
“How are your confidence levels, guy?” Damien asks as he pulls away from my place, not even bothering to ask me which church to go to. Everyone basically attends the same one here, and if you happen to go to a smaller service elsewhere, you stand out as someone strange. It’s the company you wind up keeping because nobody’s going to associate with you otherwise.
“I’m not too sure. Ask me again when we’re bursting through the door with our guns blazing.”
“I was thinking we could actually just go in and have a seat in a pew or something. That’s how churches work here, right, or am I just showing a bit of a cultural misconception?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” I answer with a slight smirk, looking back out the window. I always expect to see everyone else holding hands and enjoying life while I’m the only one who’s suffering, but that doesn’t seem to be the way. The autumn chill is setting in, and nobody seems to be outside willingly except for an older man taking in a cigarette on his front steps and a couple of children who ride their bicycles whilst wobbling in the wind. Even the young don’t seem to be effortless and carefree these days.
“Before we go through with this, are you absolutely sure that she’s not going to flip her lid over this?”
“Why should she? She’s always bugging me about getting religious and saving my immortal soul. She’ll be surprised. It’ll be good.” I wonder if I sound more convincing than I feel, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t stand having another day of not being able to read what’s going on in her head.
The lot next to the church is full, so we have to park down the street. It just makes me feel more like we don’t belong since they didn’t even reserve space for us. What if there aren’t enough seats inside, and we have to stand in the back of the room? Everyone’s going to stare at us when we go in. They’ll know that we don’t belong here, and then it’s going to be a battle to get to Karen before we get diverted. They’re not going to like us barging in and interrupting their reverence.
I can tell that Damien senses my increased nerves because he digs his hand within his jacket, no doubt resorting to a hidden inner pocket in order to produce a flask. Just the sight of it makes me want to retreat to a dark room and lose the rest of the day to the sound of a horrible jukebox and glasses hitting the table. “A little liquid courage then?” he asks, giving it a shake. Even standing far enough away from him that I can’t hear the liquid inside, I can tell that it must be full.
“No.” The answer surprises me as much as it does him, but I know myself and how I’ll behave. Having one sip isn’t an option. I’ll down everything I can get my hands on in order to have the distraction, and I don’t need to stagger through the doors of the church drunk. Besides, if anyone smells even a trace of liquor on my breath, it won’t bode well for my stance of seeking redemption. I need to come across sincere, and the best way to do that is basically by going for it with heart.
Shrugging, Damien tucks the flask back into his pocket. I expect him to take a pull from it first, but at least he’s being supportive enough not to get me into any trouble there. “I’ll just go in first then, shall I? That way all eyes will be on me when the door opens. Offer you a wee bit of a diversion.”
It makes the whole thing sound like a military operation or actually dangerous, but I can’t help but smile. I never would have had the confidence to do this on my own. I know I would have frozen on the front steps, only God as my witness I made it that far, but now we’re at the door and he grabs the handle with a wink thrown over his shoulder at me.
“Damien. Thank you. For all of this. I know it’s a bit silly, but thank you.”
He just narrows his eyes at me and tilts his head. “You don’t have to thank me. I’m a believer.”
I’m not sure if he means that he believes in the Holy Spirit or in me, but there’s no time to ask. He has the door open, and out flows the organ that we couldn’t hear while we were just standing outside. The service is about to begin, which means that we have to be the last ones to arrive.
Heads turn in accusation, and I expect the music to stop just to make this moment more embarrassing. The organist has his back to us though, and if he has noticed anything, he doesn’t show it. He probably has to be that professional when dealing with children and other interruptions during the day. God would appreciate the effort, I’m sure.
A loud cough cracks through the song, and when I look for its source, I notice an exaggerated hat that could no doubt belong only to Mrs. Pullman. Karen is tucked at her side, not even bothering to glance back. Surely she hasn’t looked yet or else she would have gotten up to greet me. At the very least she would have sent me some signal to indicate that she was proud or surprised to see me here. I’ll just have to bide my time to get her attention.
The last pew on the right isn’t completely full, and we circle around to sit down. It’s hopeless for Damien to be able to see past the hunched shoulders and excessive hats, but it’s not like this is a real visual experience. I’m a bit taller than most, so I can’t help but look for the back of my wife’s head. I want to know who she’s talking to, if she’s aware of my presence yet, how she looks when she’s in a religious mood with people who have the same feelings that she does. There’s really nothing to observe though, as she keeps her head pointing straight ahead.
The music changes, and everyone stands up at the same time. Even Damien seems to know the cue because he’s on his feet with them. I’m the only one sitting down, abstaining without even knowing what the other option is. His hand reaches down to pull on my sleeve, and I pop up with a bit of overcompensation. A few people, particularly the children, pick up books that are nestled into built-in compartments on the backs of the pews in front of them, so I decide to do the same. I see that it’s filled with songs, that much is obvious by the fact that there’s sheet music with the lyrics beneath like anyone here can actually read music, and the book’s contents are numbered according to the hymn rather than the page.
Nobody’s mentioned a number or even a song title, but everyone seems to know what’s going on regardless. Their voices rise up together, everyone from the small children who can’t keep a beat to the elderly men whose gravelly tones send shivers down my spine. By all means, it shouldn’t sound good. After all, these are just everyday people who have gathered together, no more qualified to make music than they are to run for a government office. Individually, there are perhaps five good singers out of the lot. Together though, they’ve treated these thumb-worn hymns to so many replays that they’ve memorized the rise and fall of the notes. They’re singing from the heart because this is what they believe, and I feel embarrassed to be caught out like this, uninitiated and unable to follow along.
When the song ends, everyone sits down at once. I keep my eyes on Damien to know what to do, and so I’m not the only idiot left standing. Once we’re seated, a man gets up from the front pew and turns on a highbeam smile for everyone gathered. He’s young, blond, handsome enough to be called pretty without it being an insult. I can see how any woman would fall in love with him.
I can see why my wife would put him before me. He’s perfect, charming before he even says a word. I want to like him, but I decide instead that I want to hate him. He doesn’t have on a wedding ring, and when his eyes sweep over the congregation, I could swear that he makes eye contact with Karen. I wish I could see even a profile of her face. Did she smile at him? Did she coyly avoid his gaze? Or did she stare boldly into his eyes and let him know that she wasn’t one to back down?
“This was a mistake,” I whisper to Damien, tapping him on the arm just in case he didn’t get the full weight of my message.
“What?” he snaps back a bit too loudly. There was no way that my voice failed to travel to him; he’s just confused about how I could change my mind after a song. I wouldn’t blame him, but the panic is starting to make my blood feel viscous, like it could choke off my veins.
“We need to leave. Now. I need to get out of here. This was wrong. This isn’t going to be good.”
“’I will be a different person when this problem is past.’” The pastor’s voice is clear, loud, and I can tell by his volume level that he’s confident about what he’s saying. He glances at a slip of paper, but when he speaks, he’s making eye contact with his people. “’I will be a wiser, stronger, more patient person; or I will be sour, cynical, bitter, disillusioned and angry. It all depends on what I do with this problem. Each problem can make me a better person or a worse person. It can bring me closer to God, or it can drive me away from God. It can build my faith, or it can shatter my faith. It all depends on my attitude. I intend to be a better person when this problem leaves me than I was when it met me.’
“That’s a quote. Nobody knows who said it, but it doesn’t make the message any less powerful. Your problem is never the problem itself: it’s the attitude that you take towards the challenge. And we are challenged by the Lord because He loves us. He wants us to be able to enter His kingdom and join Him with only love in our hearts. Love isn’t always easy, but it’s the only thing that we can afford ourselves and each other that will plant the seeds of virtue.”
He gets a funny little smile on his face, taking his place behind a podium and shuffling some papers around as though he really needs them. They’re just props; it’s obvious by the way that he pulls out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and puts them on only to look out at the congregation rather than his notes. “Sometimes love isn’t always going to be enough. We have to accept that. Patience can get us far, but sometimes you have to know when to walk away from something. You can’t be punished for others’ actions, nor should you try to make things right.
“I have a friend here today who understands exactly what I’m talking about. Now, I’ll not embarrass her by asking her to come up here and talk to all of you about her problems, we’re all family here after all, but for a long time, she’s been dealing with a problem. Her husband, friends, is an alcoholic. That might seem like it’s just his problem, and by all means, it is, but that doesn’t mean it causes her any less pain. He’s constantly away from home, and she never knows if she should expect him to come home for dinner or to hear from the police that he’s been discovered in a ditch somewhere.
“To give yourself to consuming alcohol is not an act of love. It’s fear. Fear of sobriety, fear of reality, fear of being yourself and not liking what you see. But getting caught up in the everyday and then trying to shut out the world is not the way to earn your place in the Kingdom of Heaven. When we feel pain, it’s important to remember that this world, these bodies are only temporary. We should love them because they’ve been loaned to us by the Lord and made in His image. He wouldn’t want us to treat them like something to throw out like garbage, and He’s not going to want to let us into His company any sooner if we go treating His property like that. That’s not very nice of us at all, is it?
“Now, our friend could have just let her husband bring her down, or she could have joined him in this behavior just to spend more time with him. She has confessed that it would have been easy and tempting to do so. But instead, do you know what this fine woman did?” He pauses, looking around and daring anyone to answer before he can. To punctuate the point, he removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose as though he has to hold back tears. “She went out and bought herself a Bible. While her husband was out drinking to his heart’s content, she was taking in the Lord’s words and finding comfort in His guidance. Now that is inspiring. She hasn’t always had the greatest experience with her family, but she is getting closer to God and understands that His challenges ought to be greeted with love. She is building her faith. And we’re all her family now.”
“That son of a bitch.” I don’t realize that I say the words out loud until Damien gives me a quick punch to the knee. A couple of people turn to look at me, but I don’t care. Having to sit here and listen to all of this abuse is ridiculous. What gives them the right to judge me? How can they pretend they have the slightest clue what any God would think? They don’t know who I am or what I’ve been through. All they know about me, they’ve either heard from Karen or the people who have been around her, poisoning her with their lies and their manipulation. They just want to make her one of them. They don’t actually care about her, and immortal souls have nothing to do with any of it.
I can’t stay. I know I can’t. I’m on my feet, dropping the book of hymns that I’ve been clinging to just to avoid hitting something. It makes an awful sound when it hits the floor, but I find it satisfying to have a bit of an outburst. It’s not like I’ve said anything. It’s just the book. It slipped. It’s not my fault. I shouldn’t be here at all…
I don’t breathe until I’m out the door, and then I collapse down on the steps so quickly that I nearly tumble down them. Clinging to the banister, I feel the hot tears begin to sting my eyes and then hit my cheeks, not even bothering to trickle down my face so much as just dart out. So this is it then. This is how I’m going to lose everything.
The door bangs open again, and there’s Damien, looking bewildered as he comes down next to me. “What was all of that about back there?” he demands, but I can see in his eyes that he knows the truth. We’d have to be fools to think that the “friend” in question was anyone other than my wife.
“She’s going to leave me,” I moan, and I don’t care if I’m crying in front of my only friend or even anyone at all. I don’t care if the whole world sees me stripped of my dignity because it really doesn’t even matter anymore. What point is there in anything else? Why should I be concerned how other people look at me when my own wife doesn’t care to see me anymore?
“You don’t know that, mate. You can’t know.” His voice is weak though, and with the way he touches me, I know that I’m already lost. How can I hope to compete with a whole room of people who see things the same way she does? Maybe I do have a problem. I’m not the only one though. She’s never tried to talk to me about it. She’s never tried to talk me out of anything. I’ve never known that she’s been this upset or that she’s ever wanted me to quit anything. Why can’t she just talk to me? Why does she have to do things this way?
“We should get out of here.” His voice is distant, and when I turn to look at him, I see that it’s because he’s staring behind us.
There’s a man in the door, and he doesn’t look happy. I can’t tell if he’s more muscle or fat beneath his jacket, but either way, the seams bulge when he folds his arms across his chest and glares at us beneath a shiny, bald head. “I think you boys probably owe us an apology, but we’re willing to forgive you if we only have to look at your backsides, if you get my meaning.”
I push myself up to my feet. Straighten my jacket. Take another step up and look the man right in his narrow, stupid eyes. “Fuck. You.”
The shock registers on his face slowly, as though it has to bounce around all the cells in his body to actually sink in fully. It takes him a while to unfold his arms, but once he does, it looks like he expects me to run. What’s the point? I’ve been running since I was eighteen years old. I had love to push me forward then. I thought I had a destination, but here I am, just as trapped as ever and without the dedication that Karen had shown me when we had been kept apart. Now we’re never together, and whatever happens to me here and now, I deserve it.
When the fist connects with my cheek, I feel the skin split before it occurs to me that it’s supposed to hurt. Instead it just feels wet, and I know that my body is moving from the momentum. I stagger against the stairs again, not minding that I fall to my knees this time because standing up doesn’t matter. “How dare you say those words in a holy place,” he hisses, missing the irony of his violence.
“What happened to love?”
He hauls me back up to my feet to hit me again, this time getting closer to my eye. I’m just grateful he doesn’t go for my nose because that much blood would be a terror. I go back down on the ground, and his boot gets me in the back. Damien’s screaming profanities, trying to get his attention, but he’s much too small to defend me and is all too aware of that fact. Besides, this is my own fault. This is what everyone inside thinks that I deserve, so why don’t I just take it?
There’s screaming from the doorway. I look up, expecting to see Damien going for help, but instead there are all sorts of people standing there, hands over their mouths. Someone’s whispering, a few women are, and I can’t tell who it is or what’ they’re saying.
Karen shoves through the others, and I reach out to her as another kick gets me in the small of the back, causing me to curl into a ball to try to deflect the pain. If he wants to get me in that spot, he can have it as long as he just stops with everything else.
“Just stay back.” Through all the noise, through the chaos, there’s the clear voice of the pastor. I roll and see him wrap his arms around my wife, tucking her face to his chest so she doesn’t have to see me like this.
“He’s my husband!”
“You know what you have to do, Karen. It’s for the best.”
She struggles against him for just a moment longer, but then the tears come and she sobs against him. I can’t believe I’m seeing this. I can’t believe that she’s given up on me and let them take her instead. I can’t believe that these people could be more important to her than I am, after all that’s gone on.
“You son of a bitch.” Those words again, burning on my tongue. The blood in my mouth makes it difficult to speak, but I still force out the phrase again. The letters seem to gain momentum as I seek them out, so I try to say them again. They feel good. It’s the right message.
“You just shut your mouth and go!” says the giant looming over me, as though anything that he’s said to me so far has had any impact whatsoever. I laugh at him. I laugh at all of them and their mob mentality, their inability to erase me from memory. No matter what they do to me today, I’m still going to live. They won’t be able to kill me. They won’t be able to cut me out.
Still, at least he stops landing blows against me. That’s a start. I roll onto my stomach so I can get my hands against the ground, and then Damien’s there with his hand beneath my armpit to try to pull me up. I shrug him away though. I need to do this myself. Everyone needs to know that I’m capable of doing this myself.
There’s a gasp that travels through the pack when I finally turn around to face them all, and I wonder how bad it looks. Everything hurts, but there’s still that pesky adrenaline that’s shooting through my system and telling me that I can do pretty much anything. The consequences will have to come later. The stains on my clothing will either be washed away or I’ll have to throw away the clothing entirely. It hardly matters.
“Karen,” I say, and the pastor just holds her tighter.
“Son, I think you need to just go cool off for a while.” I hate it when people call me son, particularly when they don’t know me. I don’t tell him that though, because my wife is pulling away from him and stepping towards me.
Her perfect face is red and swollen from the tears she’s shed and the rough material of the pastor’s shirt. Hastily, she swipes at her cheeks and her nose, as though she has to be presentable in front of me. We grew up together and saw the worst of one another, so what’s a little bit of extra embarrassment. “Dustin, why did you have to do this?” she asks me, looking confused and hurt and everything that I wish she would be directing at these people who are trying to keep us apart. They always have conspired against us. Nobody wants us to be happy together, that’s the problem. That’s the only problem, not what she thinks.
“I just wanted to show you how much I love you. I wanted to be part of something you care about.”
“So you follow me to church just to pick a fight?”
“I didn’t realize that I was going to be in the spotlight today, okay? I couldn’t just sit there and listen to that, so I was going to leave. Then Goliath here decided that he’d threaten me. What was I going to do? I didn’t hit him. I didn’t raise a single fist to him.”
She waves her hands in front of her, and for a second I think she might lash out against me. She doesn’t though, instead just sucking a sharp breath through her nose. “No, we are not doing this right now. Not here.”
“Good. Let’s go home then.”
“I’m not going home, Dustin.” Her voice is firm, and with the way that she stares through me, I know that she means it. There’s something cold in her voice, something that I’ve never heard before. We’ve argued, we’ve had our differences, but never has she produced that kind of icy apathy that makes me feel like dying would be better than remaining the topic of conversation.
“What are you saying?”
She takes a sharp breath and glances back over her shoulder. She’s not sure. Others are nodding. “I’m saying that we’re not working out anymore. This isn’t working, and it honestly hasn’t been for a long time.”
There’s no hesitation in the way she forms her words, and I can tell that she means every one of them. This is it. This is the thing that I’ve been too scared to admit all this time, too intimidated to bring up this issue because I knew that it would result in a talk I didn’t want to have.
“We just haven’t worked on it lately, that’s the issue. We can work it out.” My breath is weak, and I can barely hear myself over the pounding in my ears. I wonder if I’m having a heart attack, but I’ve heard the symptoms before, numb arm and that kind of thing. No, this is more like something going on inside my chest that will never be repaired. It goes down much too deep.
“This isn’t something that we can just work out, Dustin. It comes down to who we are. We aren’t the people that we are when we were kids. We’ve changed. We were just young then. We wanted to get out, but now here we are and what? What do we do together? What do we possibly have in common? What’s holding us together except for the fact that we ran away together so long ago?”
I look to Damien, hoping that he’d be just as confused as I am. Instead he has a wounded expression on his face, his hand slipped inside his jacket like he’s the one who needs a bit of liquid courage now. This is not the way his plan should have worked out at all.
“I love you, Karen. I’ve always loved you. Would we be in this town at all if I didn’t love you? We’d be back home. You’d probably be married off to the first wealthy guy who caught your daddy’s eye, and—”
“Yeah, well, what’s wrong with a little wealth?” Her cheeks are flushed with fury, and I don’t remember her eyes ever flashing like that before. “He just wanted someone who would take care of me. How have you done that, Dustin? With your dead end jobs? With doing seasonal labor? I don’t know where you go. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know a whole lot about who you are now or where we’ve gone since you first started taking off in order to find some work. I don’t care if you left school. You should be able to find a job. You should be able to settle down, support me, start a family. You should just grow up.”
“How can you say I haven’t grown up? I’ve kept food on the table, haven’t I? We don’t have a whole lot of money, but I still make you that you’re not left wanting. We have a roof over our heads, and maybe if you didn’t act so frosty towards me, we would have a family by now.”
“Oh, don’t you turn this around on me now. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know where you go or who you hang out with. Like this guy. Who is he?” She jabs a finger towards Damien, who looks uncomfortable as he holds a pack of cigarettes in his hand, clearly just looking to have a distraction of some sort.
He looks at her slowly, as though English isn’t his first language. “I’m Damien,” he tells her, putting a hand out for a handshake. The way he says it, with confidence in his own title if nothing else, is almost comical. She doesn’t seem to much appreciate the introduction.
“No. This is absurd. This isn’t how people act, and it’s definitely not how people are supposed to live. I can’t, and I won’t. Leave, Dustin. I’m going to stay with some friends, but I want you gone. This is over. I’m done with you. I’m done with the stress and the worry and the fear. I want a divorce.”
My fingers tighten on the necklace in my pocket, and I know that if I let go of it, I’ll be letting go of her. She walks away anyway.