Churches have always annoyed me. On the few occasions when I’ve had to spend time inside one, I’ve never felt comfortable. The oppressive, insistent implication that I don’t belong there always hit me right in the chest, and I always felt that the pathetic physical approximation of a divine portal fairly reeked of moral hubris and superstitious, fearful ignorance. I couldn’t relate to anyone who attended church, not for a long, long time; I couldn’t even meet them halfway.
Lately it’s been a bit different. Maybe it’s a little naive, but I considered it a mark of courtesy that I’d recently progressed to something less than my usual violent antipathy toward religion. I’m more able to set foot in a house of worship than I had been in the past, and a few months back I settled easily into the cushy throne of apathetic indifference when it came to dealing with believers. If they left me alone, I would stay out of their hair in return. They had their drug, and I had mine; as long as I was free to destroy my eardrums with Loud Rock Music, blunt or enhance my senses with choice chemical combinations, and blunder through carnal relations with beautiful girls, I didn’t care what any uptight idiot from any denomination thought of my behavior.
I was considering all that for the umpteenth time on a bright May day, while sitting next to Frankie in a cavernous Catholic church on Micheltorena and State, listening to friends of hers sing in a choral performance. I’d managed to lighten up and relax enough to almost enjoy myself, and I think what did it was walking into an edifice that breathed history-or seemed to, at any rate-exhaling stuff much older than what was hinted at by its measly few centuries of existence. Marching over the threshold hand in hand with a gorgeous apparition like Francesca helped out a lot too, though.
As we listened to the porous wall of voices, my ears spilled over with the natural reverb of the huge surrounding space, and I thought of how much fun it would be to record the band in a place like this, to capitalize on the organic acoustics and tape the perfect vocal take or the best guitar lick, drenched in buckets of sound. The warmth of it all, and the woozy contented bliss stealing over everyone who heard it, suddenly made me realize why the sound of reverberation appealed to the human brain-it must be an echo of the womb. It had to be a vestigal memory from all of our unborn, gill-like ears, when the sounds of the outside world filtered in through liquid distortion and nurturing comfort. I savored my momentary lapse into lucid genius with the lack of humility appropriate for such a venue.
It was all like the same kind of aural odyssey that happened at a rock show, which I understood right away, knowing that I’d already have that feeling whenever I needed it just by slipping on some headphones or plunking away at a guitar. The initial ecstatic impression that assaulted Frankie and I upon entering, though, had slowly ebbed away as the performance progressed, and by the time the whole thing was over and she had stepped away to greet her friends in the choir, I was back to my normal church-going behavior-resentfully twitchy and anxious to leave.
Frankie caught on to my escalating toxic vibes soon enough, so we promptly beat a path back through downtown Santa Barbara to the bus station, past posturing hipsters outside Morninglory Music, day-tripping tourists up from L.A. and bubble-headed sorority chicks on their way to happy hour; past exhausted abuelitos going home from work, smelly boys walking back from fishing on the pier and quiet, patient bums holding out their hands for spare change. I was glad to be back outside, although still slightly embarrassed at my quick and tactless exit. I was messily trying to reiterate my personal problems with religion to Frankie, when she stopped me with a breezy laugh.
“Relax, Roy. I’m just glad that you could shrug off your hangups long enough for me to see some people I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Come on, you know I wasn’t dragging you in there for conversion or anything. I already told you that I was way over being a good Catholic girl, and I have supported that statement with numerous, and lascivious, examples.”
I flashed back to five nights previous, when I’d been spooked with confusion by her discarded photos, and then she’d nearly erased my resurgent paranoia with an alarmingly intense display of lust. I never told her what I’d found, but she’d been happy and exuberant ever since, and I let it be contagious, against my better judgement. Olivia seemed a lifetime away, and Nadia might as well have never existed. Frankie was light and cheerful and excited to do anything and everything with me, and I was fine being strapped in for however long she intended to stay that way, and didn’t question it.
“Well yeah,” I finally replied, “I know you’re not really into being a God-fearing girl anymore.”
She spread her arms, palms up, and repeated one of her favorite little aphorisms. “‘God has no reason to fear me, so why should I fear God?’ Besides, my parents didn’t mind, so I was done with it as soon as I wanted out.”
We turned from State onto Carillo and fell under the shadow of the surrounding buildings, hiding away from an intense late-afternoon sun as we cut through the bus station’s parking lot to Chapala and then waited on a bench for the UCSB express line.
“You’ve never been into it, though, have you?” We sat away from the other people expecting the bus, but Frankie still spoke quietly, as if she thought I might get bent at the mere hint of Jesus-talk.
“No,” I replied, “but I’m not, like, a militant atheist or anything. I used to be, sure, when I was about fifteen and I thought that I would turn into a mindless zombie if I came within ten feet of a Bible, but it wasn’t too long before I threw out that insecurity. It might have happened sooner if my mom was still around. She would have made sure of that.”
“Ah,” said Frankie perceptively. “There she is again, your mother.” She leaned in a bit closer, resting her head on my right shoulder. “I’m sorry for pushing you about her the other night.”
I shrugged. “Forget it,” I said, a bit too cool, which Frankie registered immediately, but before she could capitalize on it the bus rolled up and we clambered in, finding an open seat near the middle and slumping in quietly. Frankie didn’t say anything else until the bus lurched onto the freeway and feebly picked up speed in the on-ramp.
“I’m just curious, that’s all,” she said softly, “It’s no big deal if-”
“She committed suicide,” I said coldly, watching the exit signs float by outside the bus window. When I turned back to her, Frankie’s entire body wilted, everywhere except around her eyes, which stared in saddened shock.
“You said…you said it was cancer. M-melanoma.”
“Yeah, well…I lied to you, Francesca. Sort of.” I waited a few beats to let that sink in, amazed that I actually admitted it. “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t exactly enjoy advertising these things, you know.”
She still looked surprised and a little confused. “What do you mean, ‘sort of?'” she asked.
“Sorry,” I said again. “Maybe I should go from the top.” The story came so easy now that I almost believed it myself, especially since it was easier to explain than the actual truth. “My dad was a Marine-he’s dead too, by the way-he was in the Beirut brigade that was bombed by terrorists in Lebanon. His name was Owen, which is also my middle name. It happened on my seventh birthday, actually.” I tried to stay cool, but Frankie’s eyes only got wider and wetter. Crying girls always make me cry too-I dunno why-but I had to hang in there.
“Anyway, I grew up in North Carolina-that’s where Dad was stationed-but after he was killed my mom moved herself and her three kids back to Orange County cause that’s where she was from, and her parents still lived there, in Newport, and she just withdrew from the world and tried to cope with everything.”
“What was her name?”
“Eileen. She was a really gifted writer; she wrote anything, but she wrote more plays than anything else, so to snap out of depression, she threw herself into her work and then tried to break into writing for TV or movies in L.A. She didn’t get far-she couldn’t make people care-and she found it quite beyond herself to be the galaxy of things that she thought she was expected, and expected herself, to be.”
“Such as someone who could square her brilliant creative talent for language with the practicality of writing for a living, while attempting to raise three children virtually unassisted. She did get married again, but my new stepdad was actually her therapist, which is fucked-up in itself, of course.” Frankie grimaced but said nothing. The bus rolled up to the 217 turnoff and chugged toward campus.
“So,” I continued, “my mom had churned out all sorts of things before us kids came along, and I’ve read most of them-plays, fiction, songs, novellas, scripts-the works, but unfortunately for her, and us, after about a year or so of marriage my stepdad had become so wrapped up in his practice that he was basically incapable of sustaining a normal parent-child relationship with any of us.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. My mom had sort of fallen off the radar anyway, had lost the attention of lots of people who could have, and maybe should have, helped her out creatively-other writers, actors, agents, industry people, whomever-when she married my dad and moved back east, and then when she returned to California it would have been tough to break back in.”
“I still don’t get it. How did this end up being your fault?”
“My stepdad Andrew can be sort of an impersonal guy, so maybe Mom needed us around to keep her company. She didn’t need to work, obviously, so she tried to contribute constructive, creative things to the world, and sometimes I think that my brother, sister, and I were part of that process, that desire to create something and then refine it-that is, until we weren’t useful anymore.”
Frankie grimaced. “I don’t buy that. That’s too harsh.”
“Well, churning out works of art is one thing, but when Mom’s creative impulse switched art for raising children who inevitably grew minds of our own and didn’t behave the way she thought we should, or didn’t stay passive extensions of her personality, she got frustrated on a really profound level, and just gave up at some point, because she tried to kill herself at least once by swallowing a ton of pills. It didn’t work, though.”
I said this all evenly, robotically, trying to force my stepdad’s opinion of his wife’s death to seem real all over again by repeating it. As I finished talking the bus pulled into the traffic circle on campus and the doors opened. Frankie and I sat still while everyone else exited, but she finally stood up, shaking her head again in amazement as she stepped into the aisle.
“That still doesn’t make much sense, Roy,” she said. “I mean, I know parents sometimes try to live vicariously, through their kids or whatever, but expecting them to…to stay fixed in time? Stay the same way forever? That’s a shitty excuse for selfish behavior.”
I just shrugged again. “Yeah, well, I’ve had almost ten years to try and figure it out and nothing else has made sense either.”
“You seem to have turned out okay, though.” Frankie winked at me, but I didn’t return it, and instead locked elbows with her as we stepped on the curb. Twilight was descending, and as we silently walked back through the campus in I hoped that if she ever found out how wrong that statement was, I’d either be very far away or else too bombed to regret it.
Or maybe both-some rude awakenings are definitely worse than others.