My mother loved Jesus. I loved The Police, and Rainer, my boyfriend, whose initial I’d tattooed on my bicep with a hot sewing needle and India ink. I was dying for Reggatta de Blanc. It was too soon to ask my mother to buy me the album, after the pot-smoking incident. I’d answered the police officer’s questions in low monotones while watching my mother’s hands fold and unfold. I avoided her eyes out of habit.
My consequence was to be taken to church, where my mother tried to have me saved. But, I’d refused to go to the altar, to be condemned and delivered before rows of murmuring strangers. Instead, I’d sat stone-faced in the pew, daydreaming about Rainer and what we planned to do when I turned 13. My mother stood next to me, her palms raised; her closed eyelids safe to look at, vulnerable and lavender-veined like everyone else’s. Her whispered tongues swept me up in an opaque sea, so I tried not to hear. Other worshippers fell to the floor, or sang praises to the ceiling that made me squint back tears. I hoped my mother held back from being slain by the spirit for my sake, because she knew the helplessness of seeing a parent lying on the ground.
I only agreed go to church again because she promised me the album if I did.
The church parking lot was empty except for a translucent-looking blonde and an older man emerging from a Mercedes. My mother’s greetings were full of weary gratitude, the voice she used with church friends. I looked down at my sneakers and let my hair fall over my eyes as they approached, playing the part I knew everyone expected. My mother said, “God bless you” at the end of the man’s sentences with the same tender, warbling voice she’d used when she’d told me about the swastika on her birth certificate, the American bomb that dropped through her crib, the Russian tank that crushed her classmate, the single cardboard suitcase her family had fled with. I’d thought that voice was for me alone, for the time we had tea by the window and neither of us left the table angry.
My mother said the couple would take me to a different church, and that she wouldn’t join us. She said it mostly with her eyes, deep-set eyes, grey and unyielding. She didn’t know that whenever she left for work before dawn I’d scramble to the door of our dark apartment in half-sleep, sobbing, calling her name, regretting everything.
I caught her eyes for a split second, then followed the strangers to their car.
They tried talking to me, so I feigned backseat deafness and let my head rest against the window. We drove out of the city into endless, unfamiliar fields. Holding an unlighted cigarette under my nose, I conjured the lyrics to “Walking on the Moon,” and Rainer, who would console me with silent, bewildered hugs when I told him.
The Mercedes stopped in front of a low building that hummed with the sound of voices speaking in tongues. I fantasized about bolting, racing into the fields the way I’d plotted running away from home and knew I never would. The blonde led me into a windowless room where men and women sat on the floor with their palms raised and eyes closed. They sat in random configurations around a single empty chair. I sat in the chair and the lights went out.
Rising voices, a cacophony of unintelligible, random syllables, gathered me in like terrible ocean waves. In bright daylight, with my mother in lipstick and a pantsuit next to me, I could daydream my way out of church. When she’d tried to preach to me at home I shut her out with a feral anger that only she knew, and that she said came from the devil. Perhaps she thought I’d be more open to suggestion in that dark room, without her there to rage against.
I refused to speak to my mother for weeks afterwards. Silence was harder for her to bear than rage. It rendered her defenseless, while leaving me with less to regret. Rainer and I listened to Reggatta de Blanc with the door closed. Part of me wanted my mother to knock, or barge in, fight to have me saved again. Instead, we silently wished the other would repent, unaware that too much silence asphyxiates words into awkward syllables, tinged with hope and longing, but forever incomprehensible.