Alive, but barely.

Alive

Waking up was a painful business. My eyelids felt heavy, but I managed to keep them open this time, though the light was like daggers to my eyes and my head was pounding.

It was the worst headache of my life.

This time I won’t be sick. I won’t be sick. I refuse to be sick . . . 

Once my eyes focused and adjusted to the light, I looked around me and I saw that I had been wrong. It hadn’t been a dream after all—all that screaming, the oxygen mask, and the ambulance ride. It had been real. I recalled it and re-lived the grotesque nightmare.

Everybody was yelling at me. EMTs. Nurses. Then a doctor. They were talking, talking, talking. Yelling at me. Yelling at each other. Making so much noise. Why couldn’t they just shut up and let me rest?

That changed suddenly. I felt a strange surge and was sick multiple times. Clarity. Everything was too loud and clear suddenly.  And then I couldn’t catch my breath. Was I hyperventilating? I could feel my pulse. It was erratic. I couldn’t breathe. An asthma attack? Impossible. I didn’t have asthma. Was I drowning? No, only fish drown in the air. . . . The too-clear sounds and lights and voices began to grow distant.

Panic.

No.

Terror. Terror overwhelmed me then with the full realization that I was not some detached observer. This was for real. This was happening to me.

No!!

NO!!!!

I don’t want to die!!

Please, God . . .  SOMEBODY . . .  I never meant to die. I swear, it’s not what it seems . . .  I never meant for it to get this far . . .

* * *

I was sure that I’d seen the end. But I had woken up.

I was alive, but I was so cold and wretched and alone that I wondered if I’d been granted mercy or punishment. I had tubes stuck to different places of my body. My mouth was dry and tasted gross. It hurt to move, it hurt to swallow, it hurt to breathe.

I shivered and was sick, but nothing other than a sickly substance came out. My sobbing sounds brought someone in eventually, but it wasn’t Mara or Julio or Zuri or anyone I knew. The nurse looked at me with contempt and berated me on the subject of choices and consequences. I didn’t care what she had to say. I curled up in my own vomit and began to cry.

It hurt. It hurt so much….

I never knew just how much it would hurt to live.

Part 23 – If You Only Knew

Being alone sucks, especially if you're stuck at home and it is raining outside

Alone

There was no greater torment for me than staying at home alone with my thoughts while it rained. I could not read books, I could not watch TV, I couldn’t even do homework—the way Mara interpreted scripture, if one could not actively do good works like hand out tracts, or witness, or volunteer, the least evil activity that one could do in the Sabbath was to nap. I was such a contrary daughter that I couldn’t even do that. Tossing and turning and flopping in bed, it was as if I was ten years old again—a chronic insomniac—fighting alone against the hidden demons of my past those many nights.

Determined to put the past behind me, I pushed away those memories, and threw the covers aside.

I had expected that Tony would call, but he didn’t—and I certainly wasn’t going to call him.

I thought about last Wednesday. He’d called me after prayer meeting, just as I got home and was taking off my shoes at the door Mara shouted from the living room, “There’s a call for you in the phone”

“Ok. I’ll take it in my room” I’d said and had run upstairs before she had the chance to catch a glimpse of my red and blotchy face.

“Hello?”

“Hey—Tanya?”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s Tony”

“Tony?” I asked incredulously, “What’s up? How did you get my number?”

“You left your binder at church, kiddo, and I got your number from your student handbook.”

I cursed and threw the phone receiver on my bed while I unzipped my backpack. I glanced inside; no binder. I double checked by dumping its contents in my bed, hoping that he was mistaken. No binder. No notes. No dynamics lab report. No linear algebra homework. No French Literature paper. No student handbook with—

I saw red.

How stupid could I get? How had I left that behind? I thought back. Oh, yes. Zuri had picked me up from work, and I had brought my binder to sketch on while the prayer meeting was going on. Then I’d had my crying fit, and the rest was history.

“I can’t believe I did that.” I spoke into the phone, “Thanks for holding on to it, but what am I gonna do now? I can’t ask Zuri to take me after all the trouble I caused today… and then I don’t see you until Monday….” I calculated my odds of success with Mara. They were not promising.

“Aren’t you going to need it? I can drop it off at your house if you want.”

I sighed, “I’m so sorry…but could you?—I’ve got my lab report there.”

“It’s the same address on the cover of the handbook? Halcyon Drive?”

“Yes—Oh! Do you mind not knocking at the door?” I felt immensely awkward, but in this case necessity was greater than my embarrassment so I pushed on, “Mara—I mean, my mother—will ask me a million questions. Can you honk or something?”

“Ok, I’ll call you up when I’m there. You can save the number on your caller ID, that’s my cell phone.”

And just like that, twenty minutes later he called me saying he was in front of my house. He’d handed me back my binder without any comment, except to ask if I was alright. “I’m fine.” I smiled, relief had made me almost giddy, “Thanks for this—really.”

He nodded, and after considering something for a few seconds he turned the ignition off. “Hey, Tanya?”

“Hm?”

“I know how it feels—when in prayer you are confronted with who you are and you realize that it is not the person you want to be.”

I looked down and was silent while I thought back on my prayer, “I don’t know if that’s what happened. I just,” I sighed and hugged the binder tight against my chest “I don’t know if it signifies much, but I just want to start over.”

He nodded, “I know. Take courage, kiddo, I’ll be praying for you.”

“Thanks.”

He’d driven off in his sleek black Jag, and I’d gone back home wondering about the kind of person Tony was— I couldn’t make him out. He was young, but he obviously had a well-paying job as evidenced by his car and the time I’d seen him dressed in a suit. Yet the image of the successful Tony clashed with the image of the guy who had come in to church one rainy night, soaking wet from the rain in jeans and a hoodie—and that image also contradicted the Jesus freak who would eagerly go to prayer meeting on Wednesdays and Bible studies with a bunch of old people.

But that episode with the binder had led to my overestimating him. I suppose after that I came to think of him as someone I could trust, so that on Friday—faced with the menacing thought of returning to Hilltop Church the next morning—I’d called him. I wanted to be talked out of going. Instead, he encouraged me to follow through with it, even going so far as to offering to meet me there.

“Two are better than one,” he’d quoted, “For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow”

Pfft! You sound like a preacher.”

“What?”

“I mean,” I modified my tone and amended the statement lest I come across as offensive, “sometimes you say things that sound like they came out of the Bible. I’m pretty sure Jesus said that.

He chuckled, though I didn’t for a second imagine he was laughing at me, “I know my Bible pretty well, I guess. Didn’t I ever tell you? My father is a pastor”

“What? You didn’t tell me.”

That was when he told me that he’d been the black sheep of the family. He’d made a run for it the moment he had graduated from High School, and now here he was hundreds of miles away from home trying to return to the straight and narrow. I didn’t get to ask about details because Mara had entered my room to inquire why I was still up and who I was talking to.

“I gotta go now.” I said to him after having evaded a minor quarrel.

“Ok, so tomorrow 9:30, right?”

“Yeah.”

“See you tomorrow, then.”

He’d said that, but then he’d never showed up.

More than being angry, more than being annoyed—I was disillusioned. Once more I’d gotten my hopes up, and once more I’d seen that there was no one who really cared. It’s so easy for people to talk and say that they’ll be there for you, but when it came down to it, they are always too busy for you. Adults…they are so fake.

And yet, that was not enough for me to give up hope that maybe he would call and say that there had been a fire, an accident, or someone had been taken ill and had kept him from going. I even refrained from going online to the BookNrds chat room in case Tony called (this was back in the AOL dial-up days).

But it was no use hoping—after all, I was just a stupid kid.

 

Part 22 – If You Only Knew

Cleaning up after a meal

Mara

We decided to forgo the weekly potluck and came home immediately after the service. We had a quiet lunch, Mara and I, of vegetable soup and quesadillas, while listening to a guitar concerto in the radio.

As we ate I marveled at my silliness. It hadn’t been as scary as I’d thought; in fact, I had almost enjoyed it. And though my mind had drifted off for long spaces of time during the service, my musings for the most part hadn’t been morbid. The people I’d known before hadn’t chewed me out, either. The biggest surprise, however, was that Mara and I hadn’t killed each other on the drive there and back home. There was a subtle change between us, and I did not know how it had happened. It was just very odd to discover that though neither one volunteered to begin or carry any form of conversation, the air was not tense as it was wont to do whenever my scatter-brained older brother was not around to liven things up.

“Do you want to go back for the afternoon service?” Mara asked as we cleaned up. “Some Gospel singers from out of state are coming to sing.”

I shook my head, “I’ve had enough for today, I think.”

Mara scraped something from the kitchen stove, “Well, I suppose it would be too much to ask.”

I regarded her warily from the sink where I was drying the dishes. Was she trying to start a fight? “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She frowned, “It’s not supposed to mean anything. Calm down, Tanya!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down! It’s not like I’m angry or anything.” The dishes clattered loudly as I stacked them in place as if belying my assertions, “You always think the worst of me,” I muttered.

“Don’t give me that.” Mara threw her cleaning rag on the sink and proceeded to wash it clean, “You are the one who suddenly wanted to go to church, so I took you with me. You didn’t want to stay for potluck, I brought you home. I am way past forcing you to go to church. I was simply offering to take you. Do I get a ‘Thanks’? No. Do I expect it at this point? Not really. Just don’t shoot my head off for trying to be civil.”

Her words stuck me. I didn’t exactly agree with her sentiments—she somehow always managed to verbally outmaneuver me—but the revelation that she wasn’t entirely trying to antagonize me left me speechless for a time.

“I’m sorry,” I said after a while. My tone was subdued from the effort of getting down a huge slice of humble pie, “I didn’t know—I thought…” I sighed, “If you are going I’ll join you. I can drive if you want.”

Mara wrung her now clean rag and hung it up to dry. “I wanted to hear the concert, but I had originally thought to spend the day up there. Going back in the rain and then finding a place to park would be an absolute nightmare. Anyway. I thought I’d go see Alma. She’s not doing so well after her surgery.”

“Ok.” I said, as if I had an idea who Alma was.

“You going out today?”

“Pfft! I never go out.”

She looked surprised, and I wondered what it was she thought I did on Saturdays when she was out the whole day. For the sake of our new-found truce I didn’t volunteer any information.

“I think I’m going to do some homework. Or study. I have some big exams coming up.”

“It’s the Sabbath.”

“I’ll take a nap then.”

“Ok. I’ll be back in the evening.”

“Take care.”

Fifteen minutes later Mara left, and I remained at home to listen to the rain.

 

Part 21 – If You Only Knew

church. photo by Floyd B. Bariscale

Return to Hilltop Church

I remembered Mara’s Hilltop church in all its faded glory.

The imposing gray Romanesque façade rising above the busy, dirty street—the broad, shallow steps leading up to the impressive portico and a trio of wooden doors —the pigeons flying out of the unused bell tower—the terraced grounds bordered on all sides by wrought-iron fencing—it was familiar and alien to me at the same time. I wondered at Mara—would she not have liked to attend a smaller church—maybe like Zuri’s? I could not account for why she chose to drive all the way to the inner city to Hilltop church full of people and a sea of faces, when there were smaller churches—of her denomination too—much closer to home. But I figured Mara’s subconscious thing for cathedral-like places of worship was a remnant of her shameful Catholic past.

It was raining and crowded in the portico, so I could not wait for Tony outside, and as Mara and I shared an umbrella, I had no choice but to follow her up the steps and into the church.

There were greeters at the door and at the lobby. They were the deaconesses. They wore name badges on their sober navy-blue suit ensemble. All of them wore flat shoes, flesh-toned nylons, and the hem of their pencil skirts fell below the knee. They greeted me warmly and handed me a church bulletin.

I’d not been shot down—yet.

Despite myself, I glanced around me curiously, stealing glances at people’s faces seeking out any familiar features while I waited around for Mara to finish speaking with this or that church sister. Once she was done, she looked at me, and I could see she was surprised that I was still sticking around, “Where is your friend?”

I had not seen him, “I don’t know. Maybe he is running late.”

“Sabbath school is about to start.”

“Can I wait for him here? I’ll join you once he gets here.”

“Don’t you want to go with the young people?”

I bristled at the thought, “Do I have to?”

“No. But there’s only older people where I’m at.”

“I don’t mind,” I shrugged, thinking back to the Monday night study group—they were all old.

“As you wish, then. Fifth pew from the front, left side.” Mara said, as if I could forget the spot we’d sat at for years. There we’d sat when, decked in our best, we had first come to this church–back then father had been holding my hand as well as Mara’s. There we endured the pity and inquisitiveness of our brethren some years later when Mara and I came in by ourselves with scandal trailing behind us. There I’d writhed and suffered agonies pretending that life was OK and growing increasingly angry at seeing Mara’s enormous efforts to keep up the act. All this, and Mara still wanted to know why I had left the church? I shook my head, and tried to clear my mind of things from the past. I was trying to give myself a second chance. I had to let things go…right?

So we parted; Mara went in through the doors to the sanctuary and I went to the far left, to a little hidden bench next to a fake palm tree where I could see the people who stepped in through the main door. I sat and I waited and waited for Tony to arrive.

But he didn’t come.

 

Part 20 – If You Only Knew

Getting Ready

I got up very early Saturday morning to find that it was raining.

No matter. Off I went to the restroom. I brushed my teeth, ran a brush through my hair and jumped in the shower. Once I’d washed my hair I reached for the soap—there was none.

Dripping wet as I was I stepped out and looked for a bar soap behind the mirror—there was none. Not even hand soap. Oh, well. Shampoo is just another liquid soap, right? I stepped back into the shower and yelped as I slipped and landed on the tile floor with a painful smack.

Sh—Ow!!

I stayed on the shower floor a few seconds with rivulets of water running down my body. There, in the heel of my foot, was stuck the thin remnant of a bar of soap. The nasty little culprit had camouflaged against the white tile. I peeled it from my foot and threw it in the toilet bowl before making a gigantic effort to get back on my feet. Somehow I felt much heavier than my full 250 pounds, and it felt like my knee had sustained some serious strain. But I could not blame anyone but myself for this blunder—this was my restroom and my shower. No one else but me would have dropped that tiny little piece of soap that made me slip and fall.

Once I was done showering I carefully stepped out, dried myself, and went to my room to change. I didn’t bother with the hair except blow-drying it and pulling it up in its habitual pony tail. No makeup either. I knew the rules.

As I pulled on my boots, a thought came into my head, and I hurried to pull out my coat. Phone, phone, phone…

I tried to go down the stairs quickly but my knee protested. Just as well. Had it not ached so, I would have laughed at Mara’s face when she saw me come down dressed and ready. I swear, she almost fell from sheer amazement.

“Ready?” she asked, recovering quickly enough

“Just a phone call,”

She arched a brow. Obviously she wanted to know who I was gonna call, but decided against asking. She turned and got the car keys, “There’s toast and jam out. Drink some milk too. I’ll see you in the car. Hurry.”

“Thanks,” I answered as I dialed a number into the phone keypad.

The phone rang three times before he answered it, “Hello?”

“Uh. Hi. Tony?”

“Yeah.”

“This is Tanya.”

“I know. What’s up, kiddo?”

“Um…” I fidgeted with the phone cord, “You’re coming, right? Just wanted to check…”

“Yeah. I’m still getting ready.” His voice sounded a tad deeper than usual, and I wondered at what stage of “ready” he was at. Had I just woken him up? The thought made me crazy anxious.

“Ok. You got the address, right?”

“Uh-huh. Hey,” He paused, “You ok?”

“Yeah. Just…I’m a little nervous.”

“Nervous?”

“I told you, right? I haven’t been there for at least two years…”

“I know. But you want to go this time around, don’t you?”

“Yeah. No…I mean, I wish I could be heading to Zuri’s instead…But it’s all the same, right? Zuri said it’s the same God…”

He chuckled, “I know, you told me.”

I felt stupid. Why was I babbling? “So I’ll see you then?”

“Yep.”

“Ok.”

“Alright, bye,”

“Bye—Oh! And Tony?”

“Yeah?”

I looked at the phone cord in my hand. I had looped and twisted it round my hand in an impossible number of coils, “Thanks”

I heard the smile in his voice, “No problem, kiddo”

I hung up and ran out to the car as fast as my aching knee let me.

I was going to church.

 

Part 19 of If You Only Knew

If My People

When we finally went in to church, I took my usual seat in the back, and Zuri went on and took her seat at one of the front pews. A person sitting some eight pews in front of me turned and looked back. It was Tony. He looked strange—was he growing a beard? He looked much older. He smiled through the gloom of the church, and motioned me to join him there.

I waved back and smiled. And while a great part of me wanted to desperately cast away the melancholia induced by solemn talk I’d had in the car with Zuri, I shook my head and stayed where I was.

Zuri had told me to ask God what my purpose in life was.

But how to ask?

And how to know what his will was?

First of all, how could I dare? How could I draw to the altar and bend my knees in prayer, and ask God to guide me with the full knowledge that just today I’d hidden a stash of benzos I’d bought with money I’d stolen from Mara?

I contemplated my life, such as it was. It was distasteful. There was nothing to be proud of. Not even my GPA. The past I hated, and the future I dreaded.

The worship leaders got up on stage and began singing their simple songs.

I’d always listened, with detachment born out of scorn for the simple music. But for the first time I saw and heard it for the heartfelt music that it really was.

I closed my eyes, and bowed my head, hearing intently every single word of the song the others were singing. I’d heard this song before… or, rather, the words of the song. It was from the Bible… we’d read it in the study group—How did it go?

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

I shivered, and hugged myself.

Not again…I thought, believing I’d feel sick as I had the last time I’d prayed with Tony. But it was different. Something like hope replaced the inner desolate void that had existed before when just the thought of prayer alone had made me feel nauseous and sick with grief. And instead of feeling cold I began to feel almost warm.

I don’t know how it happened, but I dropped to my knees. Hot tears streamed down my face, and I began sobbing. Softly at first, and then I had much ado to hold myself together and not draw attention. But it was ineffective. Dimly I felt someone come to my side. Zuri was rocking me in her arms. Soothing me, and praying for me.

Oh, God.

I’ve tried so many times . . . you know I have.

But I can’t draw close to you because I’m a thief, a liar, a drug addict, I question my sexual orientation, I drink, and I watch porn in my computer.

I’m really sick.

Detestable.

A monster.

A blemish in creation, and nothing short of death can put an end to the mess that I am. I wanna die and be lost in oblivion. And yet, I’m begging you. Don’t turn me away. Please don’t give up on me just yet. You listened once to me—twice, with the Terry thing—Can you do it again? Please?

If I’m going to die, then I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to be afraid of you, or of life, or of death. I want to make things right, and be right with you. So please save me . . .

Help me . . .

 

Part 18 of If You Only Knew

Antonieta

Until Mara’s conversion to a new religion back when I was eleven years old, we had never been particularly God-fearing nor religious. The weekends had always been entirely my own before then, and while I had been encouraged to be good and pray before going to bed, none of those ideals were ever enforced in our home.

Our home life changed drastically on that fateful day Mara decided to join a church full of weirdoes who took their religion much too seriously. Mara stopped wearing jewelry and makeup. She became a vegetarian, abstained from coffee, tea, sweets, and salt. She then began introducing hell into our home.

The way we fought and quarreled because she wanted me to join her in going to church, the way she criticized my appearance and anti-social tendencies when I began going to High School, and the way she one day hit me across the face because I had dared tell her that her God was a tyrant made me re-think my idea of hell. It was something that was experienced while alive as well as after we died.

It was during that time when Grandma moved in with us. Grandpa, Dad’s father, had passed away and Grandma was in need of healing in her time of grief and nothing seemed more convenient to that end than a change in scenery and surroundings.

At first I had been extremely wary of the woman. My maternal grandmother had not made herself loved and had even terrorized those closer to her until the heavens deemed it proper to relieve humankind from that querulous woman with the bellicose disposition. I suspect even Mara breathed a little easier after her own mother died.

But Grandma Jovita was much, much, different. She had a heart of gold, a honey-sweet temperament and a patient gentleness that I found absolutely irresistible. Her first words to me had been, “There’s mi nieta Antonieta!”

Ah!

It was the Antonieta that did it. No one else called me by that name, and hearing it from her brought in a rush of memories…

Before they had moved with Auntie Agustina in Dallas, Grandpa and Grandma had lived in the family home in Mexico. We’d gone vacationing there one summer back when I had been a small child, and if my memory is to be relied on, I spent the bulk of my time with her while Mara and Father went on days-long trips to who knows where.

Grandma had aged considerably since then, so we did not take daily walks into the sunshine as we had done when I had been a child. But she was content with sitting in our garden dozing or humming to herself as she embroidered. I practiced my Spanish with her.

“You didn’t bring your guitar with you, grandma?”

“Child, I haven’t played for many years”

“What happened to it?”

“It’s back home.”

“With Auntie Agustina?”

“No. Home.” I saw her eyes take a dreamy, distant look. Did she miss her old home back in Mexico?

“Are you tired, grandma?”

“A little, mijita. But I must keep working on this. It is to be yours when you get married.”

I hooted, “Like that will ever happen!”

“Everyone says that. I used to say it myself. I must have been around your age when I had my first proposal.”

“Fourteen!”

“Fourteen, my dear. But I had my lands, I had my own farm to run. Why would I ever need to marry? Still, a woman always needs a companion and protector, so in the end I married Eustacio who was the poorest of all my suitors, but the one whom I liked best.”

I wanted to know more about it, and would have asked, but looking at her quivering smile and her wistful gray eyes I knew that it was best to change the subject. I did so without realizing that it would make her even sadder.

“Grandma. Do you still believe in God?”

She started,

“What? Yes!”

“Even though he made Grandfather sick, and then took him away from you?”

“If it is his will that your grandfather had to go in that way, then who am I to say anything?”

“But Grandpa was good!”

“Your grandpa was good. But who can understand it all? He’d been so healthy and lively even on his last day. He even went to walk the dog and returned with a bag full of oranges. He asked me to peel him some for his breakfast. Suddenly he just collapsed. He didn’t even cry out. It was the dog who began barking like crazy. So they took him to the hospital, but he never woke up.”

I cut in, worried because she had worked herself up to tears, “I’m sorry Grandma. I didn’t mean to—”

“—I don’t know why God had to take him away like that. I—I—just—I wish he’d taken me too.”

Mara came in at that moment to intervene. She gently led Grandma into the house, then came out and gave me an earful.

Later when the sun was going down I sneaked into Grandma’s room. She was still in bed; her eyes were open and she was alert but very quiet.

“What is it, Antonieta? Why are you so far away?” she extended her arm to me and I took her hand, gingerly stroking the soft, age-spotted, paper-like skin on the back of her hand.

“Grandma. I’m sorry” I said, sitting down on the eiderdown cover.

“Sorry? For what?”

“I’m so stupid. I didn’t want to make you cry.”

“You are not stupid.”

“Oh yes I am.” I began to cry, “And wicked too. So wicked and evil. You just don’t know the things I do and the things I think about.”

“No you are not wicked. You are sweet and kind and good. You’re just going through a difficult time. We all go through it.”

“But I don’t believe in God.”

“Oh, mijita. Why?”

I couldn’t answer. I just continued crying. She scooted over a little to give me room, and once I had lain down next to her I just let go and cried and cried. It was a good thing Mara had set a box of tissues next to grandma’s bed, because I made good use of them.

Once I’d grown calmer, grandma spoke, “My little one. I love you very much. No matter what silly or awful things you may do I will always love you and you will always be my beautiful Antonieta. Can you believe me? Now, I am your grandmother. But God is your maker. He is your father, too. And he loves you very much. That’s who he is. He can’t help but love you. Yes—Yes, he does love you mijita. Much more than I can ever love you. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“And no matter what you’re going through, even when you’re in pain, you can always say the Lord’s Prayer, and he will listen and help you. Do you want to pray with me?”

“Ok”

“Let’s pray together”

“But you can’t kneel”

“My dear, you’ll have to do the kneeling for the both of us.”

I knelt beside the bed and took her hand. And just as she had taught me to back when I was a child, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

“Now repeat after me . . . ‘Our Father in heaven,’”

“Our Father in heaven,”

“Hallowed be thy name,”

“Hallowed be thy name . . .”

When we finished praying I once more put my head in her pillow with my hand clasped in hers. In silence we watched the darkness steal in the room. I felt a strange drowsiness come over me, and with my last conscious thought before I succumbed to sleep I prayed to God–Grandma Jovita’s God–to keep my grandma safe and healthy for many years to come.

 

Part 17 of If You Only Knew