I went to Good Friday Mass wondering if they were fucking but telling myself not to be crazy. I took the Metro North to Grand Central and then the four all the way over to Brooklyn until the Borough Hall stop and when I emerged from the station a slant of sun setting pink-blue was cast across the sky. “South Brooklyn is creepy,” Zoe Fisher always said. “It’s suburbia all over again.” I had to ask a passing man with square Ray-Bans covering his face where Remsen Street was. He had a New York accent that I liked and he told me it was right there and I followed his finger and it was getting colder. I was wearing a blue polo dress and a red sweater. My dress was technically too short for the standards of where I was going because you weren’t supposed to have your knees exposed at these kinds of places so I kept trying to pull it down longer as I walked fast; I passed the brownstones of such clean brick with the big windows revealing the nicest rooms I’d ever peered into in the city. The sidewalks were so clean I would have felt fine laying on them, getting my hair on them, rolling on them. If I was a kid I would have liked to sit out front and chalk them up and roll around on these sidewalks but if I was a kid in the city maybe I wouldn’t do these things, maybe I would be different. I grew up in neighborhoods where the houses looked alike and I would play alone on black driveways. I liked to crack the rocks from my mom’s gardens open with bigger rocks. I passed the houses and saw into rooms with chandeliers and pale pink walls; it felt old world. This was something that she and I had done on a trip into the city together. A week ago near Jane Street I’d pointed to a second story apartment window that was yellow with hominess and I’d said, “I like seeing into apartments in the city because it makes me think of the future” and she’d said “I want my walls to be blue.” A week later on a dewy day after a night of rain I passed them on my way to the art center. She was laughing with the most popular lesbian on campus, who was walking a tiny teacup terrier on a red leash. I didn’t understand where the dog came from, or the girl.
I was annoyed because the breeze was getting wintry and I was late to Mass. I tried to hike my dress down more and smiled at a family going for an evening walk with their Yorkshire terrier, or some version of those mini fluffy trendy pups. They all seemed to be wearing cardigans and thought I was one of them because I was wearing one too. I was raised to be like them and drink skim milk instead of whole and shop at the GAP but with private hysteria because my family wasn’t actually so clean but knew to fake it and I felt sorry for this cute family with their two young already well-adjusted daughters for deceiving them. I turned the corner and saw the church. It was really big. Lining the streets were cherry blossom trees opening up. Even though it was falling dark out, the petals popped whiteness into the night. There’s something about a church in the city. It was protected by a black iron rod fence with sharp points, which felt gothic.
Down the street I thought I saw lights and water. I wondered what was at the end of the road and if it was a mirage. There were already families going in, the women wearing draping layers of clothes and the men in suits. They all looked like me. They were dark in that certain way. Last time I’d gone to this church it was Easter Sunday a year ago and Zoe Fisher had just gotten kicked out of school for her third trip to the hospital. I went in, smiling tightly at the people who offered me smiles as I went, which a lot did. I sat in a back pew. The church was bright inside and like a small cathedral, with gold stars painted over deep blue on the big dome of the ceiling overhead. I did not think about Grand Central and the mural of the Zodiac there, which two weeks before I’d craned my neck to look at while it took on all new meaning because I was standing beside her. I liked how they simulated a night sky inside the church with vivid shades of paint. The carpet was red. The place was hushed. There was stained glass surrounding me on the walls. It was the color of the dark juices I’d sipped in the Bernstein Bear years, cranberry and grape, shaped into the figures of mournful saints with their eyes on stained glass Jesus. I watched the families walking in; beautiful dark women with stringy nerves and big hair gripping the thin wrists of small brown children, their hard-eyed husbands with heavy faces, all in different shades of olive, ash, and shadow.
Lebanese people everywhere. My dad had told me about this church and had been audibly both ashamed and proud when I reported back to him that it was a place I liked to go. I watched a family that looked like what my family had looked like pass and crowd into the pew in front of me. A grave-eyed, big-nosed man in a suit, with thick black hair clipped close to his head, a stern purple mouth and painstakingly shaven, sunken cheeks that still couldn’t cast away the five o’clock shadow. A whiter looking woman in rose pink heels holding a little monkey of a little girl with her dark baby hair tied up in a spout in the middle of her head and big pools of wide brown eyes.
Seeing families makes me want to cry sometimes. I notice them like a bloodhound dog and want to protect them with the fierceness of a Doberman. Families at church sometimes overwhelm me. I watched all the families in the church, where the father knows best and probably has a temper—“These cavemen,” my mom always said, “they’re all abusive, they think they’re still in the desert”—the women who think tight tropical clothes on their round bodies look best, their worn, rich skin and the sad, tired eyes of all of them. I liked seeing the girls my age with their long hair so dark, it was the same texture that mine is only mine is short, at that chin-length pre-dyke haircut new lesbians just have to get. I considered growing my hair out again. It was supposed to be long and lush. Girls like me, exotic ethnic girls who were made for men, really only look good with long hair. I looked at the baby over the shoulder of the woman in front of me. I used to avoid the sun and pray for blue eyes and pale skin and black hair, when I was seven or eight and still had a hard time believing that I was even actually a girl. I don’t know why I wanted to be white so bad but I’d hide under my towel from the sun whenever we were at a pool.
Zoe Fisher was the whitest girl I knew, even whiter than Adrienne. She had amphibian skin and doughy knocked knees. She fell in love with a white boy named Steve who was lanky. In her mind they could be the best liberal arts couple that ever lived, him in his girl jeans and her in her flannel. She wrote poems about him using words like “redemption” but after one night in her lofted bed he’d had enough.
It was freshman year when we went to her dorm for a party; she lived in the room that had been Yoko Ono’s with the famous mural of a forest on the walls. Only it wasn’t a party. No one had come. The room was lightless except for the tiny spark of her desk lamp underneath the lofted bed so the atmosphere felt candlelit. Rachel and I sat uncertainly on the hardwood. Zoe Fisher was smashed and not wearing underwear under her black mini skirt. She rolled around the floor, kicking her legs out, yelling that Steve had promised he would be there and perhaps we want everything because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing. She sucked on a bottle of Southern Comfort and stared back at us with dead-on eyes when our eyebrows started to look worried at her.
“It was Janis Joplin’s favorite drink,” she’d said. And then she said, “Don’t you dare judge me.”
Zoe Fisher did not believe in God and she wasn’t an atheist either. She said, “If there’s a God, it’s me” and it was a while before I found out that she’d stolen that line from someone else.
I felt recognition with the big holy room. I knew it all already. The Lebanese families smiled at me and I smiled at them like we had a hidden secret and it was that we knew we were the same kind. I realized that I felt the same way here at this Lebanese Maronite church as I did at the bars I’d just nervously started going to so that I could meet other women who were like me. If I saw another girl walking with that rigidity in her knees or particular hunch in the shoulder, the eye contact would be a little different, and that’s how it was in this Mass. This made me grind my teeth. I watched more Lebanese families get situated in their seats and the church filled.
I saw the pictures of agony all over the walls. Christ’s crooked neck, the sad parade of the downtrodden on the way to his death. The morose reverence for Christ and his suffering. I was feeling splinters in my back too and it was how badly I wanted to be standing next to her again right then, right there, I missed her. I wanted it so bad I felt myself cringe. What if I grew my hair out and married a nice Lebanese boy? One of these ones in too baggy suits and old already faces who were eyeing me as they jogged by to pick up the prayer books for their parents?
The priest came out looking weighed down in his robes. He held up his hands, which meant that Mass commenced. He was white and it annoyed me. We all stood for him anyway. There were chants, none in English, and everyone was so intent on offering God their unwavering attention. Their tongues rolled around the ancient words. This was what I used to do every Sunday, holding the hand of my mom and being told to shut up by my dad. I thought about how steady and grave the Middle Eastern are, all elegant and grim. There was so much strength and beauty and still if I could I would take bony hips and pink-hued skin. The entire Mass was somber, about apology, unworthiness, and love. The priest spoke to us. “Being a good Christian isn’t about going to church and repenting once a year.” He said this with irritation in his voice. “It’s about being good in small ways all the time. It is about knowing that Jesus died to save us and living with that knowledge in our hearts every day.” I felt a flip of worry in my stomach. I didn’t see how it helped us so much that Jesus died. He said a scripture, the Galatians. “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” I am cursed. I feel cursed, I thought. Then I felt guilty, a burn at my cheeks, and decided that I could pretend I never thought it. When we picked up the prayer books, everyone sang with adoring sorrow in their voices. I couldn’t sing because I didn’t know Arabic. They all matched with the red books in hands before their closed eyes, everyone row by row. I started to become afraid I wasn’t actually feeling what they were feeling. They seemed to know exactly what they were worshiping. I was under the college girl’s agnostic impression that God was a force and even when I tried to break the claim into individual words in my head, I just wasn’t sure I knew what it even meant that Jesus died for our sins but there he was at the front of the room, his porcelain body hanged front a small wooden cross, haunting us all.
We had to kneel. I was eager to do this. Kneeling was something that I understood. Kneeling was desperation. Kneeling was desperate apology. I wanted to kneel until I was sinking through the floor and underground and asleep and a part of the earth and God knew how sorry and afraid I was, whoever he was, whoever I was. I prayed the prayers I knew. The “Our Father,” which my mom boasted to everyone that I knew by heart at the age of four. All around me they chanted in a language I couldn’t understand. Then we stood and in a procession walked out of the church, around the block in the brisk night air, singing still. The hefty grandmother in front of me held the small hand of a little boy, whose eyes were beady and surprised. Her grip engulfed his hand. Her singing voice was beastly. The Easter breeze sailed hard up my nose and I glanced over my shoulder, looking past the thick throng behind me, to check on the lights at the end of the street. The lights were twinkling. People walking their dogs stared as the crowd of Lebanese people congested the sidewalk. I heard one friend, swinging an American Apparel shopping bag, stepping onto the street out of our way, explain to another, “There’s a Lebanese church here.” Her friend marveled, “There’s so many of them.” At the top of the front stairs to the church, still outside, under a rising moon, we had to kiss a crucifix that the priest held up and wiped off with every mouth. Then, walking back into the church, altar boys held up a mini coffin. It was supposed to be Jesus’. We stepped under it and did the sign of the cross. Then I returned to my pew. Mass ended.
I felt empty and also frantic. I kept pushing the image of her face out of my mind. Her face after she fucked me after I’d said no when we were laying on my pillow, pushing each other’s hair off each other’s cheeks, the heaviness of her eyes. Her face when we were drunk on a case of beer we split together and she was looking at her lap, telling me about the last time she’d cried which had been five years ago. My heart hurt, more for her than for God and a million years ago on this night Jesus had died for the sins that had me hurting so much and I wasn’t thinking enough of him.
“We are available for confession tonight,” the priest said. “I do not like noise in the church. Please do not speak as you are leaving.” It took all the Lebanese people forever to leave the church because they all wanted to say hello to each other on their way out, in whispers to heed the uptight priest’s request.
I would be going to confession. I felt like I was too vacant and didn’t know what I had been praying for. The beauty of life? The gift of life? The presence of God in everyone and everything? I have been told that I was devout when I was a child. I went to Catholic schools and got As in bible class where we got pop quizzes on the details of the story of Adam and Eve, what exactly did the serpent say to her?
I had time to kill before confession so I left the church. It was fully night and I walked in the direction of where I’d seen water. I passed two men in worker’s clothes smoking cigarettes in front of one of the nice buildings. I felt their eyes on me as I passed and remembered the old feeling I’d always get when I first started discovering not my own sexuality but everyone else’s. I used to feel like my skin was burning when men looked at me. Now I was almost immune to it but I still crossed my arms over my chest. The look of moon reflecting off of wetness and lights and waves was getting closer. It may not be a mirage. The streets were empty even though there were trees and cars all along them and the lights were on in most of the fine buildings. It was water. I was on the edge of Brooklyn and as I approached I realized it was the water between where I was and Manhattan. It was the East River.
I saw one building across the way, all lit up. I kept walking and the entire island revealed itself. I walked to the fence. There was a highway beneath me but I was on a platform and protected by more iron rods and in front of me was Manhattan, a line of choppy buildings black searing with bright lights all different heights and widths in a silhouette that blinked so bright and so brave and so not sorry. The water was black but glittered in the crests of tiny waves. The city was reflected in it. The city was silent. The island was so big but also so neat before me. It looked really close but I knew better than to think I could touch it or even swim to it.
What Adrienne didn’t know was how I came out. She only knew with wide oblivious eyes and a clueless smile that I had. She wouldn’t like to know that it had happened two days after our night on Friday the 13th. How I came out was I was spinning in bed from Xanax I’d bought from Zoe Fisher and vodka and even weed and my mom called and I heard my mama’s voice and I cried.
“Are you high?” mom laughed.
“Yeah,” I said. It was seven in the morning. The light coming in from my view of the fire escape was crusting on my skin. My eyelids were inching away from my eyeballs, quivering from the speed of my ceiling’s spiraling.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded. “I’m at brunch with papa and grandma.”
“Adrian,” I garbled.
“Did it happen?” she asked, sounding perverse and thrilled. I heard her tell the murmurs of my grandparents that she would be right back.
“I have to tell you something,” I groaned, and rubbed my face. I could feel the hollows of the bags above my sore cheekbones.
“I think I know.” Her voice was darkening.
“You do?” I was hopeful, and stopped sniffling. “Do you really?”
“You slept with him, didn’t you?” she asked gently. It was a cascade of tears but then I went choking dry very suddenly and took a gasp for breath.
“Adrian is Adrienne.”
“Mom,” I pressed, louder, feeling like I was trying to speak underwater. “Do you get it? Adrienne.”
“Your grandparents…” she said.
“We’re too poor for this,” she said.
“Sick,” she said. “Gross.”
“Mama, make me feel better,” I clamored, curling up under my covers. There was more silence.
“I was always worried about your soul,” she said, then, slithering and quiet. “You were such a bad kid. And now you’re a freak.”
Her hardness fell into tears. My hysteria and drugs tumbled into tears. We whimpered on the phone together.
“You were supposed to be a nice girl.”
Maybe I had to suffer because I wasn’t supposed to like her. Maybe it was a sin after all. The thought had crossed my mind. The city just stared and didn’t give me any answers. I had half expected it to read my mind and send me back some kind of reply.
I turned my back on Manhattan and walked back to the church. I went inside again and it was empty. The gold of the ceiling and the red of the floor framed a gutted looking place. My heart felt heavy again and my throat felt tight like I was going to cry even though I knew that I would not. The families were all gone. I sat in a pew across from the confessional box. Two small connected vestibules covered with red velvet curtains. The whole notion of church was very dramatic. Sometimes an hour in a church felt as melodramatic as a day in seventh grade. There was a couple, a man and a woman in their twenties, sitting in the pew in front of me, waiting for their turn. Someone pulled the curtain back and left. The man got up and went inside. I knew if my mother was there, she’d say, “Of course he goes first and she waits.” I heard their murmurs. I kneeled and tried to pray. I thought it in my head. I just put all the heavy stinking wordless angst into a plea to god. “Tell me what to do.” I felt like it was corny but I wasn’t on my campus in front of all of Adrienne’s mean-girl friends, I was in a church and honesty was the point. “Help me.” I wanted to go back to the edge of Brooklyn and step off it into the cars or better yet the water. I can’t be on a bridge without wanting to fall off so I wasn’t surprised when the thought hit me but I knew if I ever tried to jump my instinct would be to swim, not sink, no matter how strong my wish to just fall to the bottom.
I wondered if they were fucking. I’d seen them walking together twice. I pursed my lips and shook my head at my own paranoia, folded my hands together, tried to pray. I remembered when poetry was my religion, when I was a little younger, I remembered you got to swim not fuck to stay alive. I remembered nobody ever finds the one and nothing else fills. The man left and the woman went in. I waited for her and kept praying. God liked people who could admit to their total raw fear. I told him about it in my head. I’m really afraid, I told him. I heard murmurs from the boxes. The truth was I had been believing in God lately. Ask and you shall receive, they said, so lately I’d been praying, I’d been asking him to let her love me back and she’d been calling. I pressed my fingers together tight. It was wrong that him giving me what I wanted was why I had some faith, but faith was faith. “Prayers shouldn’t be wishes,” my mom said. I knew that all her prayers were wishes. The woman left. I went in and realized as I stepped into my little upright coffin that I’d forgotten how this worked. The last time I’d done confession I was thirteen and picking out my patron saint.
I stepped in. There was a cushion to kneel on facing the screen where I could too clearly see the priest’s face. Our faces were very close.
“Father, it’s been so long since my last confession that I actually forgot how this works.”
His head moved.
“That’s okay. I can help you through this. How many years has it been?”
“Okay.” I wondered if he was surprised by the youth in my voice. I wondered if he wondered how old I was and if he was impressed that I was there. My mom always said that the younger you are when you do something, the more impressive it is. That’s why she had me reciting “our father who art in heaven” by the time I turned four.
“The way we usually do this is in regard to your relationship with God, your relationship with yourself, and your relationships to others.”
I think I just wanted to tell one more person. From a low part of my throat, I said, “I can tell you anything?”
He paused. “Yes.” I paused.
“I’m gay.” Silence. “I just told my mom before Thanksgiving. She’s so upset. I feel guilty. But it’s not like—it’s not like we were a good family anyway.”
He was quiet. It was weird to vaguely see breathing life behind a screen.
“That must have been a very difficult thing to admit to.”
Our voices were throaty and intimate.
“That is a very big thing to confess to.”
Doubt struck me. He seemed to be avoiding something. The big worry surfaced.
“I don’t know if this is something God approves of. But I’m in love with someone who doesn’t treat me well. I don’t know what to do. I’m just,” I sighed, and felt my voice crackle, “so confused.”
“You’re with someone right now?” he asked, sounding interested.
“No, I’m not with her. She’s just…” I didn’t want to get into my gossip, which I never usually seemed to tire of. “…messing with my feelings.” I took a deep breath. These little boxes were so tiny. “And I don’t know if this is what God is okay with. I want to be good at being a Christian. It’s how I was raised.”
I kept driving at it. I wanted him to address it. I wanted him to respond to it. I said it one more time.
“I wonder if God is okay with me.”
When I told my mom she was hysterical and said that my grandparents would disinherit all of us, “and don’t get me thinking about what God even thinks.” If my grandparents found out, my grandparents who outbid their friend Donald Trump at the last Matisse auction in Palm Beach, we would be cut out of the will, all of us, me, my mom, my little sister. My Greek grandpa was conservative and had worked hard for his money; my mom had daddy issues and lived to see his grin. “We’ll be cut out,” she said, crying. “We can’t afford that.” Because she’d left my dad, he wasn’t enough like her dad, all they had in common was the ethnic tan, and we were a poor family now. “And oh god, what does God think?”
I’d told her God was probably fine with me and dug my nails into my wrist.
The priest sighed.
“God wants you to be chaste, most of all.”
“Okay,” I said, frowning to myself.
“I know I was too into virginity when I raised you,” my mom had said, “but I didn’t mean for you to completely go the other way, fuck.”
The priest seemed to be struggling. I didn’t want him to know I could tell. I waited and counted my breaths for patience.
“Any—any kind of extreme is not good. God just wants you to be moderate. And give it time. Maybe you will get through this. But any kind of extreme, one way or the other is not good.”
Zoe Fisher, my best friend in the glasses who couldn’t have a drink without having seven, and couldn’t write a poem without heaving all her guts into it, I knew she’d be stricken by his answer too because she and I were always saying, “Why can’t we just be balanced?”
We thought it maybe made us saints of poetry. We thought maybe if we had enough poetry we’d never need love because girls like us were seldom loved back. I’m so sorry, God. I wondered if this moment was just another act in my play even though I believed I really was praying.
“God is your father,” my mom and dad told me, tucking me in for bed at five. I looked at my dad, his cute black eyes behind his big spectacles, not understanding and preparing to refuse to disown him.
“No,” I’d wailed, pointing. “He is.” I would not disown him. I could not pretend he wasn’t my father.
“But God is your real father,” they insisted. It took me a while to understand. I understood in moments when I opened the door to workmen who were coming over to fix the holes my dad had put in our walls with his strong caveman fists. They always made our lavender-scented mini mansion smell like wood shavings and their eyes always flickered to my teenage breasts. A father is an ideal as elusive as a poem, or maybe the Easter bunny.
“Okay,” I told the priest. “I’ll try.”
I didn’t know what message he was trying to send me about being moderate in relation to being gay.
“We will pray together in silence now,” he said. “And when we’re done, go into the church and pray for a few more minutes. Just enjoy some closeness with God.”
He didn’t pray in silence, though. He said, “Dear God, please bless this daughter of yours. I forgive her. Please forgive her.” He also said other things. But when he called me a “daughter” and said “I forgive her” I suddenly got very emotional. Then I left and went to a pew in the empty church and tried to enjoy some closeness with god. I kneeled more and felt like my anxiety was surging up my chest and called it a prayer. My breaths started to move fast and I thought, “God,” in my head and controlled them before they overwhelmed me. I wondered if they would start fucking soon. They would make a nice couple. I squeezed my eyes shut and thought about God. When it felt concluded I put my sweater on and left the church. I walked to the subway station. I went to Grand Central. While I waited for my train I called my dad.
“I just went to Good Friday Mass,” I told him.
“Where?” he asked.
“At the Lebanese church in Brooklyn you told me about.” Grand Central had its usual pious buzz; families nervous and hip-attached were walking slow and taking pictures flashing up at the ceiling, cops with big guns were patrolling the arcs into train platforms.
“You went there?” he asked, distaste making his words tense.
“I’m glad you told me about it,” I said in a short voice.
I looked at the clock in the middle of the terminal. He didn’t know what I was thinking about. He didn’t know I was thinking about a girl. And the time. And how worried I felt at every hour.
“Was it good?” he asked, unable to resist. “Did they chant?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I heard a few different languages tonight. I know Arabic was one of them.”
“Arabic and French, probably,” he said. I liked when his voice sounded so authoritative. I liked him sounding like a dad.
“Why did you go to Good Friday?” he asked. “What about Easter?”
“I don’t know if I am going to be able to get up on time for Easter Mass on Sunday morning,” I said. Because I’m in college and my Saturday night plans include hopefully running into her at a party and getting shitfaced so that I can feel decently confident. I will be hungover on Easter if all goes right in my life.
“Go,” he urged. “Oh god, go. Good Friday is the sad dark Mass about Christ’s death. You can’t not go to Easter Mass if you went to Good Friday. You need the closure. The closure of the hopefulness!” He was saying this more out of logic than any kind of religiousness. I understood. He liked to analyze things and he liked the idea of an experience coming full circle. I knew he was alone in his house, probably in his dark study watching boxing. I knew he didn’t want to hang up.
“Okay,” I said. “I probably will. I forgot that you don’t get communion on Good Friday. I was excited for communion.”
We talked about the dangers of the subway system and hung up.
I went home. I walked back from the train station. Then I saw them. I had to see it for a while, at least fifteen seconds which is quite a while, because we were passing from far away. I had to walk up the hill and see their tiny frames from far away getting closer, and pretend I wasn’t looking at them. They were holding hands. They were both so thin and taut and walking uncomfortably with tight legs and tighter arms. It was one in the morning and so dark and their faces were glowing as they laughed under the streetlamps. It cast blue light on them but they still looked warm even though there were heavy shadows under their eyes. They both had very skinny arms and legs equally sun-kissed shades of crisp tan and soft faces with little pretty mouths. The same fine hair. They looked more liked sisters. Less than a week ago she’d put her arm around me and I’d looked up at her and we’d kissed on the C train. Even then I’d staggered home gaping to myself, surprised she was letting me in and I knew not to take it seriously even though I couldn’t not let myself be really happy.
“Sick and gross,” my mom had said.
I felt sick and gross because I was alone. I felt sick and gross because I was in love with someone who was afraid of being close to people and I’d chased her for a year before she finally started to trust me but in under a week she was holding hands with a new girl she barely knew because this new girl was exceptional and hot and sublimely dykey. I was just an awkward good girl with a big nose and a bottle of pills and a polo dress. “I’m sorry God,” I thought. I wished I was four again, for the days before I started wishing I was white and wishing I was a boy and then later wishing I wasn’t alone. I could only wish for these things; I couldn’t pray for them. It was cold and didn’t feel like spring anymore.