My brain moved like a muscle. I raced through everything I had ever known about how
the world was put together, but there was no explanation, nothing to do but put my arms
up and push Monsignor away, his wet lips, his gray pomaded hair, the strange bend in
his knees and the mysterious shudder that passed through him. It was the summer of l964.
I was 17 and didn't know what an orgasm was.
I flew out of the room and down the stairs from his study. I remember thinking I won't
be able to get the screen door open fast enough, but the latch worked and I plunged out
onto the small concrete landing. I was outside, but instead of feeling the release of
escape, I realized that now someone might see me. I made myself stop running, because
if someone saw me, they would know what had happened. I gripped the wrought iron railing
and walked slowly down the steps to the driveway between the Rectory and the Church. I
made myself walk slowly home.
Our railroad-style, two-bedroom apartment had been found for us by St. Joseph, my mother
believed, our family's patron saint. It was Saturday afternoon, and my mother was reading
the newspaper, a half-hour's respite from holding the world together for four teen-agers.
I sat on the couch, with its faded avocado green slipcover, and stared into space. If my
mother had sensed something from behind her newspaper and asked me what was wrong, I would
have said, "Nothing." The sky was an eggshell my voice might crack, so I kept absolutely
still. But even if I had somehow believed that the sky wouldn't fall if I pointed a finger
at my aloof and learned pastor, no one would have believed me. Priests were above reproach.
A few years earlier, as eighth grade graduation drew near, Monsignor brought in an
itinerant preacher from an obscure order of priests. A nervous man, he told us that we did
not need to know what sex was, only that it was forbidden. At the end of his talk, he
rolled before us a diorama of tiny chained souls and lit them on fire to show what it would
mean to burn. Even I knew it was a bit silly, but I wouldn't know until 2002 the extent of
the Church's warped relationship with sex, sickness and the truth.
My mother never spoke about sex, but she was not entirely duped by the Church's authority.
One day after school I found my dresser drawers wide open. My father needed a drink, and
he'd gone through my room again looking for spare change. When my mother sought permission
from the Archdiocese for a separation, the priest "downtown" told her to go home and pray
for the strength to save her marriage. She told me that night that Father So-and-So had not
had the courage to take responsibility for the decision, but that it didn't matter, because
she would take responsibility.
My mother got a legal separation and a restraining order, and my father, whom I loved
absolutely, was gone. It was a relief. It was an aching, open-ended emptiness that
translated every day into a dose of vague fear. What would happen next? Monsignor answered
that question for me.
I liked to shoot baskets, but I'd never played on a team. No one had ever thrown a
basketball or volleyball into my chest, so until Monsignor pushed me against the wall
of his study and shoved my breast around and around in a hard, tight circle, I hadn't
known how much it could hurt. A few weeks later, I went back into that building. Since
I worked there after school, if I had refused to enter the Rectory, I would have had to
say why. It was Sunday, there were a lot of people around, it would be safe if I stayed on
the first floor.
Monsignor approached me dramatically and whispered, "I'm sorry." I looked at the floor,
I looked away, I shook my head quickly to say it never happened. I couldn't believe he
was bringing it up, it was so horribly important to never speak of it. I was certain the
taint was mine. If I'd let myself know it was his fault, it would be an acknowledgement
that the adult world was out of control. Children can live with shame, but they cannot live
with chaos. As he moved away, Monsignor's eyes were blank. I was on my own.