I moved out here because I wanted to get away. I thought that was what I wanted, a new life for me and Stace. This was going to be it, a home, you know, a home. I mean, we had lived together since we graduated, so I’m not sure why it was such a big deal, but it was the biggest deal, you know, to me.
Neither of our dads saw anything wrong with us not being married. His dad was thrilled he’d found someone, and my dad was even more thrilled. He had wondered about me, worried about me, said I wasn’t the type, you know, the type. I think he meant smiley. In order to get married, you have to be able to smile—smile so wide it breaks the light meter.
I met Stace at a movie night, back in college, The Big Lebowski. He had a mop-head of blond shag back then. We were dressed up like the characters, drinking the characters’ signature drinks, saying the characters’ lines. By the start of the dream sequence, a lot of people had walked out—they didn’t know why we were laughing so hard. Stace’s date walked out. He was standing up and reciting the lines a second before the actors did. Everyone else was doing it—Stace was the only one standing up.
John Stacey towered over everyone like a cornstalk. When he sat down, he turned to where he thought she’d be and grinned real big. I caught his eye instead. I’d been watching him a few bean-bags away, wanted him to know. I got it, the humor he got. I got it the way he got it, more than anyone else there. Like it burned a hole in my chest. I mouthed the next line to him, the one Julianne Moore says, about “coitus.”
Three years later, we’d own matching shoe organizers.
Now he has his hair like a Ken doll for work.
After a brief stint in the city, we got this place in Slumberville. There are fastidious little houses here of every style bunched up next to one another—robin’s egg, sea foam, lavender, rust—most with three porches, white railings, stained glass and cinder-stone carports, little gardens, bathtub Maries. Here, I thought, here’s where we really make it. Make a family.
I write grants for a living, from home, in an executive chair with a sort of mesh-back. I mean, leather is fine if you invite people into your office, want to intimidate them, make a big fuss. But I work alone, and everyone gets indigestion. I don’t know about you, but I don’t work so well in a leather bag full of farts. Mesh is airy.
Stace leaves me alone all day, while I am fixing the mistakes of the selfish, the money-grubbing, the top-skimming, parasitic poor. I try to select causes that I can get behind, but every one of these things ends up depressing me. My English teachers said I could do anything with my talent. I wrote powerful conclusions, brimming with love—universal love—for humanity, a desire to see it thrive, improve, persevere, even flourish!
I bill clients even when I’m not working, and that’s because I’m not a machine. You have to take breaks. Had. Had to.
I thought my problem wouldn’t follow me to the new place. I thought maybe it wouldn’t. But the first time my egg timer rang, I opened up a blank browser, and I didn’t know what else to type. Most people use Facebook or Twitter to kill time. I didn’t really understand the format, the why of it. How do you get people to “friend” you? Why would you want to?
Before I clocked two hours of work in the new place, I had already watched dozens of clips, finished off the last of the K-Y, had to scrub my chair with a soapy paper towel.
I am not a nun.
My problem is one of moderation. I wasn’t raised to see sex as bad or impure, so it’s not the act. It’s the compulsion, the sheer quantity of logged hours, images, videos, and well… fleshlets that I’ve seen—grottoes, hamlets, tumors of flesh. It’s staggering. My brain is an encyclopedia of scenarios, a random act generator, but this fertility—this playfulness of thought, this acuity—is a compulsion, and it’s an empty, fruitless compulsion that doesn’t bring me any closer to Stace.
I suppose everyone has something they hide from the person they love. I’m not saying I’m the only one. But for me, this is my something and my something is killing me.
I called my best friend for support. She moved out to Wyoming to work with animals. She knew about my problem, but to her, it was just a Liz-is-so-quirky type scenario. Maybe that’s the impression I gave her. She knew it bothered me, but I kind of played it off like it was the way you get bothered by unrequited love, a crush on a celebrity, or other things she understood.
“You’re the only girl I know with a porn addiction, Liz.”
She had a new western inflection in her voice, an echo—like she was standing in the Grand Canyon, listening to herself, like on the radio. She kept saying “Oh.” Like she was wise now. Now, she knew.
“Oh, could you go to Porn Addicts Anonymous? Do they have that?”
“I don’t know, probably.” I lied. Yeah they have that. But can’t you just picture it? Me in a room stacked with men. Like here I am, this lanky brunette with a crooked smile, bangs, wearing a man’s shirt, this girl touching her sides, her knees, her ankles, her arches, and there they are, dudes in jeans, just sipping coffee. Nuh-uh.
I’d know exactly what they’d picture—just what I’d picture. The thing is, I’ve seen all the videos they’ve seen.
She came and went, my friend Mary, and I got back to work. I logged four hours before I made lunch. Got up and stretched my butt, boiled some water, peed.
I stirred the powder from the little seasoning packet with a fork. Stace doesn’t want me to use metal near the Teflon, but I’m basically careful.
I should have been hungry. I could feel my insides corroding from the stuff I’d seen. I mean, it wasn’t wrong—it just wasn’t Stace.
The city, I was a mess—I didn’t even draw the blinds—but here, you know, here, I don’t know what I thought. There is a site for porn addicts—I mean, duh, but there is a support-group site. I used to go there, read their literature, but it was eerily elusive. It’s too clean. It’s like the addicts are so worried they’ll turn themselves on that they’ve filtered out any of the grit, the real grit of life. Everything “is” on that website. Nothing pops or jumps. I can see why, like, seething or pushing is verboten, but how about, I don’t know, something concrete… something I can touch? Life is physical.
Porn addicts have no idea what normal sexuality is.
I’m not as bad off as that, I thought. I just needed to learn moderation. I’m in a stable, loving relationship with a healthy sex life, and in five years, that hadn’t changed. It just hadn’t gotten any better, either.
I cannot tell John Stacey I have this problem. That was all I could think, whenever I looked in a mirror and saw my face drop, simultaneous. What if he came home early one day? I scrub my hard drive every day, but what if he could just tell?
It’s not that I felt guilty, I mean I felt bad, but I imagined he probably watched porn, too. I’d never bother him about what’s on his laptop, it’s completely healthy for a man. Or a woman. But I did feel guilty, because ideally, I would want Stace to be there, when I felt like that, that state. Ideally, I would want him to know what is in me, the inside of me. I want—like everyone wants—an only, an unending partner in all things, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Our universe is made up of all things, neither good nor bad.
I smile whenever I think of Stace, like rolling in a field. I opened the sliding glass door, took my soup bowl to the patio where there were a couple of iron chairs someone set up, a tea-party scene. I pictured Stace coming off the bus in a couple hours, thought maybe I wanted a pizza. I made it so we’d have pizza. I shot him a text. He didn’t respond, but he never said no to pizza.
All the noodles ate, gulleted, I drank up all the seasoning pack water. People say it’s bad for you, but it’s in everything. MSG, that’s what they’re worried about? It comes from seaweed. Jeebus Crice, guys.
The bells began. There was a church, a big church, like an armory, the next yard over—kinda funny—I moved in next to a church, like I’m Saint Liz. Every couple of hours the bells rang out in our apartment, no matter what we were doing. There were a few different songs, this jingle and that, but I never really hear them. I only hear the decay. Just the way it dissipates, gong-ng-g—until it’s gone. I hear fading. Bells, to me, are bells fading.
Gave me the shivers. It wasn’t cold, just dusty. Leaves on the ground, but not October’s usual assault, just from the storm. The week before we moved in there was one of these dust hurricanes they have here. It left a layer of dust-trash all over the patio. I went inside, I got out our broom and dustpan and bagged it all up nice. I don’t have one of those brown bags you’re supposed to use, the maintenance guy is supposed to do it, but probably the hurricane messed up his system. I gathered dust in handfuls and lifted it into the bag. The bag developed little pockles, fat like granule-fat.
Got back to work. I started reading a grant for a repertory company, like a particularly show-offy group of “actors.” I made them sound a little more like good people, corrected their grammar, and finished off their plea with some flowery universalities that I truly believe in, believe exist—in other people.
My egg timer went off, electronic, without decay, without fading. I was so determined this time, parked with the emergency brake up. The blinds were up—I could see the steeple cross out the window and an old man walking his dog. I was not gonna Google any body parts, women’s names, weird ideas.
In my earphones, I had Cat Power, the sultry southern singer with that voice that everyone tries to copy. She banged on the piano, so sweet and so percussive at once, ringing like pain, and I skipped to the next song—the Beatles. The one that’s almost a gospel.
“Mother Mary comes to me—”
I thought of the stone virgins all along my street. Each yard has a nice little garden, and in the center, coming out of a clamshell, like Boticelli’s Venus, Mother Mary, arms down, careful not to sully themselves with the touch of her skin, hair, her heat.
I tapped out the name of the church, my church, S—A—I—N—T Theresa.
Saint Teresa dell’isla.
The site looked lush—like they just put money into it, the photos crisp, crispy like megapixels. It was even bigger than it looked, inside—a long vaulted ceiling, as high as it was long. I didn’t know where to look first or next. There were a million things, little ornate things made of wood, marble, gold, glass. Everything wood was dark, varnished; everything glass was brilliant, bright. It was like fifty photos of the same room—all the same—click them, close them. My ear started to hurt, like swimmer’s ear, the kind where touching it makes it better, worse. It was just a really wonderful space.
I guess that’s what a church is.
See, I grew up in a Catholic town, but we weren’t religious. I had very good friends who were Catholic—very good friends. And I could feel it floating them like a swimmies in a pool. That’s how I saw it, like those plastic arm-balloons—like a cheat. A bunch of rituals that give you… comfort, go in, go out, sin, sing, sit down, stand up, ritual. Sin again. And guilt. I didn’t understand guilt—I flat-out disunderstood.
I knew no “sin” from personal experience, unless everything was sin. I mean, without the body, which is basically the site of sin, right, how could we have Shakespeare? Comedy is flaws, bodily flaws, unserious sins that make us laugh.
How could something that makes you laugh be a mortal sin?
It all seemed so overstretched, like a flaw couldn’t just be funny, it had to be deadly and pernicious, eternally, irreversibly. And the thing with abstinence was that in a lot of little towns, all the kids started to wild-out on fellatio and anal sex, only because the Sunday school teachers were on the march about copulation, masturbation, old-timey sins. A stoppered river finds an outlet.
But it looked—those rows and rows under thirty-foot ceilings—it looked like a nice place to sit and think. I was happy it existed—somewhere, for someone. I did my work peacefully.
When Stace got home, it got normal. We talked, ordered delivery, drank boxed wine.
“Did the maintenance guys come sweep?” he asked.
“No, I did.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said, “that’s their job.”
“I know, but I think maybe the dust hurricane threw everyone off. I don’t mind doing it.”
“Really it’s the church that should be cleaning up their yard. All that dust is just going to keep blowing onto the patio.”
“It’s like their anus,” I said. “It’s the one place they forgot to clean.” This isn’t how I want to come off, like publicly, but I want to get a rise out of him.
So. Stace stares at me in disbelief and then guffaws real hard.
“I saw pictures of the inside today,” I said, while I still had him going. “It’s really nice… up inside it.”
Stace shook his head back and forth like you’re hopeless and said, “Saint Lizla of L’isla?” in sing-song.
“Liz-love?” I said.
“I love Lizlove!” he said and then he smooched me.
I love John Stacey is all I could think.
That night, we went to wrestle, and Stace was particularly… nice. I couldn’t get into it at all. It’s weird: in the videos, someone is always put down, degraded. I wouldn’t want it to be that way with Stace, it’s just something I watch.
I gnarled my brow to think up something new, speed things up, stretch things out. I know everyone probably does that, but it felt so… not ideal. Ideally, I would want to be totally present—like cinderblocks—when I was with Stace, like with him. Fully with.
I felt like I should call him up the next day and tell him I cheated on him with a zombie who just kept at it for hours, only I was that zombie. When I thought that, I laughed. Stace was kind of hurt. I had to pretend what he was doing tickled, and then when it really did start to tickle, it wasn’t pleasurable, just annoying. But it reminded me of this twinky tickle porn I saw years ago. I got off on this weird thing that happened at the end with two brothers. Or you know, guys who looked like brothers. I closed my eyes and took it.
Tomorrow came the next day. With the blinds open, I began to despair. If I didn’t want porn, there was nothing I wanted. My dad always says that if something worked yesterday, it’ll work today. So I typed in Theresa of L’isla. This time I visited a site called “Lives of the Saints.”
Lives can be fun.
I skimmed words like noble birth and arranged marriage. Found an odd thing. “Theresa was given the gift of prayer at the age of twenty-six.” It made no sense. I read seven times.
I Googled “the gift of prayer.” Maybe that was a thing? I mean, most kids learn to pray younger than twenty-six. In Norman Rockwell paintings, cherubs kneel down next to their beds, hands crossed, unnatural like slices of bread. They recite some lines, say, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” say, “Bless mom and dad, and even mean ole Mister Scrooge.” It was more script than gift. More like a bedtime routine. When I was five, I was given the gift of teeth-brushing.
Google led me to everything but what I wanted.
I Googled What is prayer?
I got a list of quotations, theologians, waxing mystical on the virtue of prayer. It is a “communion,” they say, a “union” with God. It was like the addict support group, the words were too holy. When you get that, you lose touch with reality, because reality is grit, sand in your teeth. Only the crazier theologians used plain-speak.
“Prayer,” said Saint Augustus, “is to speak to the Lord, or Jesus, or one’s most Perfect Mother, and to receive in return answer from the Lord, or Jesus, or one’s most Perfect Mother.”
I felt weird. The weirdness was, I had recently turned twenty-six myself, and I had recently started talking to my mom. Just then the bells intoned and faded.
I never really got the chance to know my mom. As a woman, I guess I grew up unfeminine. I always had the lingering doubt in my head that, well, that she would have liked me—would have, if she’d lived, liked me. The way I’d turned out.
The day before we moved, I had no work and I was alone—with all the boxes and the echo of that kind of space. I lay on the bed and looked up at the glowing orb. I pictured my mother, and I said, “Hey, mom?”
“Yes, Elizabeth?” she answered.
“Do you like me?” It wasn’t easy.
“Of course I like you! I love you!” she reassured me, in her voice as well as I could remember it. I cried so hard I laughed even harder. Then I didn’t look at porn all day. It gave me so much hope for the family I was going to create, and that was, could only be, what Augustus meant by “prayer.”
I Googled Paul McCartney. His mother’s name, said Wikipedia, was Mary.
So she was like, his Holy Ghost. I guess people have always worshiped family ghosts; they must be as old as death. Augustus had the mother as part of the trilogy. Paul’s holy ghost was his most perfect mother. And mine is mine.
And we are all saints.
It was like I hadn’t understood the simplest thing my whole life. Prayer wasn’t what all those little kids do. Prayer was what you heard afterwards. It was the voice that answered you.
I felt so renewed. I finished up the application to the Dramaturgy Fund, started something new for the Science Foundation. It was trying so hard to sound impressive, I had no idea what the lab was doing. I wrote a follow-up email asking them to explain to me, as if I were a five year old, how they were going to help people. Then I italicized people, too.
My cursor merged with the italics button. I had to ALT-CTR-DEL my system.
Outside, there was more dust building up. I was about to get the broom, then I thought of Stace. I wouldn’t mind doing it, but Stace would mind for me. They should really clean up their property.
Maybe I’ll go over…
And what, talk? I never really learned small-talk—I didn’t have a mom to show me. I watch other women and it seems to entail cooing, raising your pitch at the worst times. I was always amazed, like who do they think they are! Their mothers.
I waited in front of my house, out of the way of the rectory windows, and the bus pulled up, full of all the people in the enormous windows, and a bunch of them got out, took themselves to church. There were a lot of doors to it, ramps, stairs, like a maze. The people went down the ramp. I went down the ramp.
As I walked in, the placed opened up majestically. I walked all the way down to the first pew and sat near the aisle. I wasn’t thinking about the dust anymore. I was looking around, taking it all in, the reality of it. It was what I had seen in the pictures, 3D.
My breathing embarrassed me, so I tried to slow it down. Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed, technically, to be in a church, I think I tried to comport myself so politely, so modestly that I became more pious, just by being there, conforming to the expectations of the place. A woman behind me coughed, real ugly and loud, and I blessed her in my head, with real believable sighing in the vowels, real temperance in the consonants.
Everything was more splendorous in person. The crucifix was so ornately carved, like the wood was human. The anguish in Jesus’s eyes, somehow I thought my own eyes must look the same—I was feeling that feeling a child gets when he wants to be picked up.
I heard loping steps that then stopped, a presence above me. It was a man of about seventy, with white-white hair, matted and pilloried. He was robed, black all over him. I lowered my eyes. He had these big dangly hands. I shut my eyes completely, with feigned and sincere reverence.
He walked past me and pulled away the curtain of the confessional, then sat down facing me. I could see his shaggy old oxfords, the only thing coming out from the robe, but in the folds of the robe, I could see his knees relax open, just a little, then be still.
The box was just… fucking beautiful, unbelievable, like you could never afford it.
All I could think was a million questions. Which side do you go in? Could he listen to two confessions at once? If yes, could the confessors hear one another? If you didn’t like one answer, could you get out and go in the other side to get a better one? Like, turn the other cheek?
A woman went in. She was a neighbor, one of the few people I recognized. I smiled at her once when we were putting our recycling out at the same time. She had kind eyes, like crescents when she smiled. I wondered what she had to confess.
I’m not usually impulsive, I guess no one is. I didn’t jump up out of my seat, sit in the other box, lean in real close. Froze.
I was surprised to see the woman kneel, spread her shins along the ground, and face the priest. “Bless me father, for I have sinned.”
She wasn’t trying to hide anything. She confessed in a normal speaking voice, said she overpaid the rent. “I need the shame,” she squawked.
The priest whispered something to her. It was more measured, monotonous, very low in tone, like vibrator hum. I thought at the time it must be normal, like bass can carry. She came out and she didn’t look any lighter or more relieved. I guess I’d been picturing something like a stamp of purity on her belly, light shining through her eyes.
The priest shifted his legs, and I felt like I was being rude, ungrateful. He had seen me sitting there. What, did I think I had no sins to confess? Was I alone perfect? I certainly didn’t feel perfect. I started to explain myself to him in my head, how sin seems so catastrophic, really catastrophic, and dramatic, whereas imperfection, what everyone has, makes us human.
He shifted his legs again and I got up.
I didn’t at all want to go—I mean, I was afraid—but I was going. I knelt against the bar, and tried to get comfortable. I didn’t have the calluses built up. It was hot as a sauna. He slid the board away, and I nearly fainted, like every cell of my body had been jolted into every other cell.
“What is it, my child?” he said, and his voice when he spoke shook the whole room.
I started the way my neighbor had started, “Bless me father, for I have…” I didn’t want to say it. “I have made mistakes.”
He didn’t correct me.
“I have,” and now I made sure to whisper even quieter, “gone online and looked at porn.”
I guess everyone looks at porn.
“I was supposed to be working, and I billed the client.”
Everyone bills clients for breaks.
“It was two women and they had hired this guy to…”
He finally spoke, “The lord sees your sins, my child…”
“You don’t understand,” I said, “They hired him to kneel down and…”
“He sees your sins and he…”
“No, listen!” I shouted.
He was silent.
“It’s not what they did… It’s just… They were so… so…”
“Lustful, my child?”
I was about to cry. “No! They were so… happy.” I was crying. “And he was so happy. You don’t understand what it’s like to want that with someone. I kills me. It just fu…”
“My child, the Lord loves all his children.”
I could feel the priest’s hot breath though the wooden lattice like a radiator grille. The Lord felt like a scapegoat the way he said it. The royal He.
“Do YOU love me?”
A bead of sweat was drawing at the base of my hair, and when I heard him say, “Yes,” It shivered off and into my leggings. My inner ear pulsated stabs. I was set ablaze.
That’s when all the amazing things started happening.
I wanted to give away all my possessions and wander the earth, just wander, wander. I went behind the church. It was a graveyard, the whole back of the church, the entire thing, like a dancehall full of stones instead of people, and there was a huge green plaque that said, “Our Glorious Dead.” I asked all the buried people if they loved me, and I felt the ground shake and I heard the song of “yes” go on and on. I, ecstatic, loved them.
There was a hole in the ground without any kind of stone next to it. Maybe it was going to be a grave, I thought. Maybe it was going to be my grave.
I called down to myself in my grave, “Do you love me,” and I said aloud, “Yes.” I heard my husky voice, so low for a woman, so scared and enormous-hearted.
I took everything I had out of my pocket—a twenty dollar bill—and dropped it into the hole. “Thank you,” I said, said to myself—in the grave.
I tried to tell Stace about what happened.
He came in, dragging his bag on the strap, and I had made noodles with some mushrooms and broccoli and dill. The way he was eating, it was like I knew he wasn’t ready for it, but I had to tell him, finally, what was going on.
“I saw the church from the inside.” I said. “It’s…amazing.”
“You went over there?” he asked. “That’s so unlike you.”
“I know, Stace, but now, I feel so…amazing.”
“I can see that,” he smiled.
“It’s like… what I thought was the real world, is really so much smaller than what’s out there.”
“Well sure,” he said. “I think that’s what it feels like sometimes. To grow, as a person. I’m happy for you.”
“No!” I said. “You’re not getting me.”
“Okay,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get you once it settles in. Do you want some wine?”
“Stace,” I said. “I want you to feel this.”
“What?” he was angry, like really agro. “What about her?”
“Talk to her.” I said. “It’s so good.”
“She’s dead, Liz,” he said and walked away.
“You don’t have to think about it religiously, but if you just try, she’ll answer. I promise.”
“There’s nothing left to say, Liz. I don’t want to.”
“Isn’t there something you need to ask her? If she were here right now?”
“Liz, please don’t—I’m just… I’m just trying to move on.”
“Then why won’t she let you?”
“Liz! Drop it!”
“Why won’t you let John move on with his life?” I yelled. I yelled it again. And again. “Let John go!”
Stace grabbed me hard. “Liz,” he said.
I couldn’t speak he was squeezing me so tight. It felt so… good, like an all-over toe-sucking, like a bank account full of cash.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was crying, and I was crying and rubbing his back.
“John,” I called him.
That’s when I started calling him John.
He always answers me with love, in his voice… as well as I can remember it.
I know it didn’t really happen like that, like love-in-July. If it had, I wouldn’t be here in this group house, living with three other girls who hear your floorboards creak when you go to shut the blinds. I moved out to East Slumberville, which isn’t far, just off the roundabout.
I guess my dad was right about me.
I never look at porn anymore. Obsessions can attack and decay with the same mysterious hows, whys, wheres. Now, I use my egg timer to get myself off John’s ridiculous Facebook profile, guessing which of the bleach-strip smilers on there is his girlfriend. The one who says, “Your pictures are always sideways!” or the one who says, “Good luck with that :)”
Mary understands me a lot better now that my problems are more similar to hers. She calls from Wyoming and I go on, like we’re fourteen.
“The ironic thing,” I say, “Is that if I’d told him about the porn, he probably wouldn’t have broken up with me. But for some reason religion… that just made him furious.” We basically moved out because of what the neighbors would think if we didn’t. John’s a pacifist, but he yells, and I only throw forks into the sink and provoke.
Mary gets that. “Oh… do you still talk to spirits, Liz?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s just semantics. To me, everything is a spirit. Rocks are spirits. Wind is a spirit. John is a spirit. Even if he’s not my boyfriend.”
Mary says, “I think you think about him like he’s you’re boyfriend.”
“I don’t,” I tell her. “I think about him like he’s porn.”
And I see him: real as concrete—sitting in his favorite chair in our little one-bedroom place, and I can walk up between his legs, pick up his hands, and get him to stand, go for a walk. Whenever we go into that field of the dead, we look into that hole, and see it is full of money. We never see anyone leaving it, but after that day I confessed, it’s like people think that the grave—the moldy, black ditch—is a wishing well. They fill it with paper bills. Every day there’s more. I want to take some of it, but I’m sure someone’s watching me from the windows of the church.