By Christopher Caldwell
"Wash the dishes!", my mother yells. How delightfully typical. My whole world is crumbling down around me and I am expected to do something as mundane and ordinary as washing dishes. As I look down at my arms, immersed to the elbows in hot soapy water, I suddenly think of slitting my wrists and ending my futile existence, but the coward in me kicks in. "Slitting your wrist would hurt like hell!", he insists, so I ignore my darker impulses and continue washing. I wash each dish until I could see my ghostly reflection staring back at me, like a goldfish in a glass bowl. The strange-looking curly-haired boy with the cold, slate-grey eyes and the gold skin glares at me, his doppelganger, as if I have taken his rightful place in the real world. Perhaps. But then, perhaps he would not care to trade places with me, if he knew of my constant companion, Sorrow. And so I stand here, elbow-deep in hot foam-flecked water, as my ghosts come once again to haunt me.
Despite token protest from my Protestant father, my brother, Alex and I were raised Catholic. My mother took us with her to Mass every Sunday without fail. I watched the ritual and pageantry with fear and wonder. Mass seemed to me then a strange form of torture, it is no easy task for a small child to sit still, and often I would annoy my mother with my impatient fidgeting, then a lightning flash of a long-fingered hand would strike me into fearful silence. Mass seemed a test of endurance, we were forced to kneel with our backs ramrod straight until our knees seemed to crack from the strain, and then we were forced to stand, usually wearing the sort of shoes that pinch your toes into a point and flatten your arches with hard, wooden soles, until our legs would nearly buckle under, then we were forced to sit absolutely still on the hard, wooden pews until our bottoms were flat and numb, all the while remembering to reply in the right places, and to make the appropriate gestures. Crossing yourself with your left-hand was frowned upon, and as a small, left-handed child, I often became confused and forgot, naming Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but touching my head, heart and shoulders with my left hand. This would earn me a slap from a woman too young and beautiful to raise small children. Fear of my mother often kept me quiet in those long session when otherwise I would have whispered my thoughts to the person nearest me.
But most of the time it was the priest, performing weekly his strange and magical ceremony, that would cow me into silence. Father John was a portly, good-natured man, fond of cakes and pies, kind to children and animals. But once a week, this short, plump, almost comical man would transform into a dread Sorcerer, a vessel for some unknown and fearsome power. Upon that cold marble dais before the altar, he seemed to grow, to swell into some monstrous being capable of sprouting wings and devouring a disobedient child.
It was the Eucharist I feared most, the ceremony where Father would hold aloft ordinary bread and wine and transform it into the Blood and Flesh of God. Weekly this ghoulish, horrifying rite would be performed, and ordinary citizens would rise like zombies to devour the flesh and ever-flowing blood of their savior. I remember more than one occasion where I longed to grab hold of my mother's swirling skirts and prevent her from taking part in this barbary, this horror, but fearful of her thunderous anger, I sat in mute silence, and watched her calmly wait in line to feed on her God. She returned serene, and outwardly unchanged, unaware that her child saw her as a cannibal and a willing participant in Sorcery of the most horrifying kind. After hearing, "You are what you eat", I began to believe my mother was omnipotent, after all, she had feasted on the body and blood of God Himself every week for countless weeks, and fearing she would swoop down on me as lightning or holy fire, I modified my behavior accordingly. I tried always to behave as my mother would wish, even when she, or any other adult was not present. I believed my mother was like God, or at least Santa Claus, and she knew when I was bad or good..
Eventually my fear of the Eucharist ebbed, I learned that the priest was not truly magical, and that the bread and wine was still bread and wine, I even partook in the ceremony that I had once feared above all things. The Church gave me something new to fear, confession. I hated being strapped in that stark, cramped box, alive with the fetid stench of old sins and deceptions. Wrapped in shadows and secrecy, my judge, the father who sat separated from me by a thin wall and wooden lace, would silent listen to the list of sins I rattled of as quickly as possible. Then, in a stern, low voice, father would forgive my sins and give me my penance. Some weeks I could not think of anything sinful to confess, so I lied, and then felt guilty about lying. I could not confess that I had invented my sins, the consequences of that seemed to terrible to ponder.
I swam through a sea of guilt, one that grew deeper and more violent as puberty hit, and I learned that I was not only different from the other boys in appearance and interest, I was different in a more crucial way, I learned that I am gay. I began to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and that somehow I had allowed myself to be tainted by evil. I tried to redeem myself through dedication to the Church. When I was thirteen I decided that the only answer was to become a priest. I realized that I could never be attracted to, nor romantically love a woman, and the thought of marrying someone I did not love just for appearances churned my stomach. The other alternative, living my life as a gay man, loving other men, seemed too fearsome to even ponder. I knew that my mother would not approve, and I myself thought that life as a gay man was sinful and evil. The only other way was to live a celibate life, and the priesthood offered a tempting cover to a gay teenager. No one ever asked why a priest never had a girlfriend. Set and bound on my course, I began to read books by the Doctors of the Church, Saints and Martyrs. I read Thomas Aquinas, the Lives of the Saints, Papal Encyclicals, and sundry other documents, declarations and works. My peers began to avoid me. They saw this strange, sad-eyed boy who never swore, never lied (except about who I REALLY was!), never got angry as alien and frightening. I was alone, but I had my faith. Cruel and unyielding as it was, and still is, the Church became refuge from madness. My tormentor had become my ally.
No longer. Today marks the beginning of the end. My epiphany came in the form of a kiss. Mark is not an exceptionally attractive young man. He is tall, awkward, has acne, and speaks in a voice that cracks when he gets excited. He is also kind, patient, intelligent, and has a ready sense of humor that spreads to everyone around him. He can make the most, dour, stone-faced aspiring saint smile. He has a quiet charm that creeps up on you, and despite myself, I found myself falling in love with him. I resisted, of course. I told myself that two men could not truly love each other in that way, because homosexuality is an incomplete and immature union, the only complete union is between a man and a woman. My heart did not listen. I told myself that this feeling I had for him was only a temptation, a test of my devotion. My heart was deaf. I told myself that my feelings for Mark were wholly unnatural. My heart cried out, "What can be more natural than love!?". My mind kept my heart in check until this afternoon. School had let out, and Mark and I were left alone in the poorly lit and cavernous basement room that served as the headquarters for the school yearbook. At various times in the school's history, the room had served as, storeroom, faculty lunch room, and art class, and now was a strange-looking hodgepodge. There were paint stains and art supplies still in the room, boxes stacked in various corners, and an unused kitchen was awkwardly crammed in the far end of the room. Mark and I were editing proofs that the printer had sent back, and we were left alone. In the quiet gloom mark suddenly spoke up.
"Y'know, I used to think you were sort of a snob. You're not all, you're just shy. I'm sorry I'm finding out what a great guy you are so late."
"Thanks", was all I could manage, shocked that this boy that I now loved had given me, of all people a compliment. He just smiled at me. We went back to the proofs. A moment later, however, he placed his hand on mine, seemingly by accident.
I looked up, the longing in my eyes was no longer hidden, and I felt naked. I was surprised to see the exact same look mirrored in his eyes. My heart began to beat, a terrible urge came up in me. I thought to myself, If I don't kiss him, just this once, I will die. Just when the my heart began to beat so fast that I thought it would leap from chest and explode in a riot of carnival red, he leaned over and kissed me. Swiftly, just a peck on the lips, really. I stared at him, mute with shock and wonder, fearing he had done something horribly wrong, he flushed, and fled the room. I wanted to call after him, to return the kiss, but was unable to move. Petrified and electrified, I sat there in the gloom. I knew that I couldn't hide from the world, hide from myself any longer. I wanted to kiss Mark, wanted to love Mark, and it didn't seem evil. I am a gay male with feelings and needs, and not a marble saint. All those years of delusions, and masks and distortions had been torn away from me in that moment.
And now I stand here, elbow deep in soapy water, wanting to live for the first time in my life, but fearing to, still loving the Church that hates me for who I cannot help being, wondering if I am a phoenix, if I can arise triumphant from the ashes of my old life. My mother sits in the living room, ignorant of the fact that the world has been shaken to its foundation. And I wash another dish. As It was in the Beginning, It now and Ever shall be, World without End. Amen.
Christopher Caldwell is a 20 year old sometime student who lives in Los Angeles. Comments and flames can be send to firstname.lastname@example.org