An excerpt. Read the full piece in the print edition of Gulf Coast, issue 29.2
“I just can’t get down with all the self-flagellation,” I tell my partner, Chris, who’s been Catholic his whole life—previously in religion, now in countenance. It’s the first Friday of Lent, and we’ve just finished the Stations of the Cross at St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was my first Lenten service, and I’m trying, at the bar afterward, to recount my experience as respectfully as possible. “It’s so…excessive.” I don’t want to offend him, but I want him to understand why I’m feeling unsettled. More so, I want him to admit that there is something to be unsettled about. “Yeah, that wasn’t the best version of the text,” he says. He holds his pint glass between both hands, staring down into the beer. “It was a bit melodramatic.”
During the service, Chris knew each word to say, and when. He knew the verses, the vast choreography of repentance, when and where to turn as the priest walked the Via Dolorosa. I, on the other hand, an atheist from the age of ten, knew nothing. I did not repeat the words of the meditations printed on the pamphlet. I did not bless myself. I didn’t sing. I didn’t kneel. I am slightly angry that he didn’t warn me there would be so much kneeling. The entire congregation was able to witness my indignation, as they fell to their knees at every station. We could at least have chosen seats in the back.
“We often detest characteristics in others that we recognize as representative of ourselves,” I tell my creative writing students at the beginning of every fiction unit. Of course I found the excessive repentance disgusting. “How impure yet is my love!” “I beseech You.” “I weep for the sins which I have committed against You.”
Chris—gracious, charming—shook the priest’s hand as we exited the church. Bowing my head, I felt the urge to apologize. For attending. For my lack of participation, of belief.
“I am sincerely sorry for ever having offended You.”
Houston, Texas, four years earlier. I wake to Miles straddling my face. If this is the first time, I probably laugh. If it is the third or fourth or twelfth, I push him off of me, raise my voice. I remember him telling me, more than once after these incidents, not to yell at him, however I don’t remember ever yelling. I haven’t yet turned down a Fulbright to Colombia to live with him—that comes a bit later—but I’ve helped him move into a bright cottage in the Heights, and am staying for the summer. Instantly, we were won over by the fig and kumquat trees in the backyard, the extra bedroom that he would make into his woodworking studio, the small, separate garage nestled in the back. Upon seeing the narrow gravel path that lead from the street to the garage, I told him, laughing, that I would never try backing up out of there.
The morning after we arrived, he made me. Of course, I could have said no. I could have refused. But there I was, smashing his not-old Subaru into a corner of the garage upon trying not to hit the fig tree while backing out. Instantly, I cried. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I said over and over again. I don’t recall his reaction, which is probably telling, but I do remember resentment welling up inside me alongside my guilt. I told him I didn’t want to.
This was before I began, accidentally, to break things—mugs, champagne flutes, double-walled espresso shot glasses, a plate or two. Before a previously nascent clumsiness was amplified by the fear of breaking any more of his belongings and born into a cringing, full-blown beast. This was before I woke up with his dick on my forehead, before I understood the terms of my staying-there.
I’m so sorry, all that second Texas day long.
It was my mother who first called my attention to how much I apologized. Having spent three years living across the country from her during graduate school and only seeing her for the occasional holiday visit, she could measure me in a way I couldn’t measure myself. Sure, I was aware of the apologizing in an oblique manner, but I was horrified that someone else had noticed it. The weird, obsessive habit I had acquired was no longer my private anxiety—had I said I was sorry for being late? For working late? Did I apologize for waking Miles up? If not, I better say it again, just to make sure. And again. And again—but something else for which I must repent. “I’m sorry…” I said to her, before I knew what I was saying. Sheepishly, I had to stop myself from repeating it.