Fiction

Are You There, God? Because I Doubt It

By: Christina Berchini

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Every weekend for the last year echoed with the guidance counselor’s useless advice, and reminders that I do not really have any friends. To make matters worse, Sunday mornings were now occupied by church pews that I’d rather not be sitting in.

I hated Sunday mornings.

And the weekdays weren’t much better, to tell you the truth. I lost a lot of friends after Dad left. The kids at school treated me like I was contagious or something. Like if they talked to me, or stayed friends with me, that their dads would leave, too.

Jane Seymour was the only one who still came around, when her dad wasn’t being strict. Jane understood me the most, because her mom left the year before. But I mostly see her in school, because her dad doesn’t let her out that much.

My teachers also paid more attention to me, but not in a good way.

“Should I write you a pass for the counselor’s office?” Mrs. Taylor asked me in a low whisper, no less than 500 times a week since Dad left. “You look like you need a break.”

I definitely could have used a break, but not the break Mrs. Taylor thought I needed.

For every friend I lost, I also seemed to gain a couple of enemies. Kids who never knew I existed now noticed every mismatching outfit, every zit, every poofy, frizzy hair day, every ill-fitting pair of pants. Every desperate attempt to fit in.

Hey, Heather Lee!” Val Gold yelled just as Mrs. Taylor had gotten our English class to quiet down. “Nice high-waters!”

Val’s posse snickered.

I looked down at my cuffs. My shins were exposed, as usual. Mom hadn’t been able to take me shopping in a while, and every month it were as though I had grown another six inches. Every pair of pants I owned paid the price after each growth spurt.

“Leave her alone, Val,” Jane growled from the seat behind me. When Jane spoke, people usually listened. Probably because she had an older brother on the wrestling team. He had a reputation for breaking noses, but always got away with it because he blamed it on wrestling. His opponents knew better than to contradict him, and our classmates knew way better than to mess with Jane.

Val smirked in response.

Forget about her, Heather Lee,” Jane whispered.

Mrs. Taylor quietly approached my desk with the pass to the counselor’s office that I didn’t ask for. I guess it’s easier for some teachers to cover up wounds than it is to extract the venom.

***

English is the last class of the day, so I went straight home after my forced trip to the counselor’s office. School was hard a lot of the time, but coming home, especially on Fridays, was harder.

For one thing, Mom also treated me differently, after Dad left. When Dad went away, his income went with him. Mom had to find a job, and her shifts at the Del Rio Diner didn’t pay that much. She used to be a stay-at-home Mom. She was a lot nicer to me back then.

Now she makes me attend church a lot more often.

I used to object, but I got in a lot of trouble for talking back.

Did you ever give your father this much lip?” she yelled, less than one month after we became a family of three.

No, because at least he went with me. At least he wasn’t a hypocrite,” I spat back. Juny, my Irish twin, scurried out of the room. We both knew better than to stick around when the other was in trouble. My mother’s wrath did not discriminate. A single, backhanded crack to the face taught me to stay silent about my Sunday morning preferences.

Every Sunday morning, right before church, I wished Dad would have taken me with him. Just the two of us, but maybe my sister too, in that old green beater he was so proud of.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God or don’t want to believe in God. I’d love to believe in something higher than ourselves, in some “Master Plan.” I’m a bit conflicted about this though. Why do I keep studying for math if God plans for me to fail anyway? I still can’t do fractions very well. Is this in God’s plan? If there is a God, why can’t he make Mom happy again, like moms should be?

Mom’s idea of raising us a “Practicing Catholics” was to drop my sister and me off at church and pick us up when Mass was over about an hour later.

You need church,” she would say, about once a week, on the way to church. She always said it as though we, my sister and I, had done something wrong. Something that required redemption.

She didn’t say these things before Dad went away. He’d never tolerate it.

Before Dad left, he, my sister, and I went to church together. Dad would ask Mom to go, but she never went with us. I secretly wondered if she was Jewish.

The house isn’t going to clean itself,” she’d say, half laughing. When Dad took us to church, the three of us would come home afterwards to a brunch of pancakes, sausage, and orange juice. Mom’s expression of gratitude to him for the gift of some rare alone time.

Dad didn’t seem to enjoy church very much either, so we made our own fun. We’d sit toward the back and play word games on a piece of scrap paper. Sometimes we’d make fun of the people who seemed to be praying too hard, as they swayed left and right, their lips mouthing silent incantations. My sister always got a little too giggly, which of course meant that Dad would shush her, as he too tried not to laugh. His six-foot-tall frame shielded Juny and me from the evil glares of those around us; from the solemn type who took church too seriously. By the end of Mass, the three of us were usually in tears as we held back fits of laughter. I loved Sundays, and church, when Dad was still here.

Now I go to church with my catechism class, and my sister goes with hers. We sit with our class on opposite sides of the church. I had religion class with Val, Stoney, and some of the other heathens that I go to school with during the week. Because I think God hates me. Sometimes I think that, if there is a God, he wouldn’t force me to attend church with the same people who made my life miserable at school.

To make matters worse, Mom makes sure she drops us off nice and early.

God will know if you’re late to church,” she says, every Sunday, when we get into the car far earlier than we need to.

We also had to get a slip of paper signed by the pastor at the end of each Mass we attended, and submit it as homework at the following Tuesday night’s catechism. The teacher, Mrs. Hayze, a woman about as old and jaundiced-looking as the original Old Testament, wanted proof that we attended Sunday Mass, or any Mass for that matter, which I guess was supposed to double as proof that we are good, God-fearing people or something.

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord. You need church,” she said every Tuesday, right before she dismissed class.

Mrs. Hayze took off points from our grade point average if we missed church the previous week without a really, really good excuse, and gave extra credit to anyone who went to Mass more than once a week. I forgot to get my slip signed once, and she docked me, even though I practically sat in her damned lap in church the previous Sunday.

One time, one of my classmates, Frederick, a really short, skinny kid who wore these impeccably ironed, button down shirts and cardigans to catechism every Tuesday night no matter how damned hot it was, smugly presented three signed slips proving that he had spent minimally three hours at church the previous week.

You’re such a good, special, devout, young man, Frederick!” Mrs. Hayze would say, clasping her hands together in pride. “Now, everyone,” she continued. “We all need to look to Frederick as a role model. A true child of God!”

Frederick beamed while Mrs. Hayze compared him to his less pious peers. I overheard some of my tablemates dub her Horrendous Hayze under their breath.

Look for me in an hour,” Mom said, pulling up to the church and interrupting my thoughts of Frederick and Horrendous Hayze. The muffler popped, banged, and spat brown smoke, a surefire sign that we had arrived. “I’ll be double-parked if I can’t find a spot. And don’t forget to have Father Dougherty sign your slip. I don’t want another lecture from Mrs. Hayze.” Mom idled in front of church and watched us walk in. She always waited until we got inside of any building before she pulled away, because of kidnappers or something.

God damn I hated how embarrassing our car was. To tell you the truth, I hated that car a lot less when Dad was behind the wheel. The size of his biceps and his no-nonsense glare toward anyone who dared look at us funny somehow made it less embarrassing to ride around in a car he called the Green Machine.

A bunch of tall stone angel statues and manicured evergreens surround the brick church as you walk in. The really nice, marble statues are inside, decorating the pulpit. The church is probably the nicest building in the whole neighborhood, with floor to ceiling stained glass windows, featuring more angels, and lambs, and birds, and flowers. A stained glass skylight with the image of Mother Mary takes up nearly half the ceiling.

Today, a pigeon, or seagull, or some other dirty, city-dwelling bird took a giant crap on the head of one of the stone angels that guarded the entrance. I walked past the “No Loiterers” sign that the pastor erected to keep out the homeless who were caught sleeping on the church steps last summer.

Mrs. Hayze’s bulbous shock of artificially red hair was positioned at the front of the church with a few classmates who arrived early. We usually sat near the pulpit, where she always rushed to get us a “good” seat, and staked out two entire pews, even though there were only about ten of us any given week and we didn’t need more than half a pew anyway. I never liked sitting in the front, because it took that much longer to leave when Mass was over. But I didn’t like sitting in the back, either, because it reminded me too much of Dad.

Good morning, Heather Lee,” Mrs. Hayze smiled through thin nicotine-wrinkled lips and stood, oddly overzealous, at the head of the row.

Morning,” I mumbled, and performed the obligatory genuflect before I sat down. God forbid you don’t genuflect in front of Mrs. Hazye before you sit down. Thankfully, about half of the other kids had already arrived, so I didn’t have to sit there alone with her. I didn’t really know the girls who got there before me because we didn’t go to the same school outside of catechism, but they smiled at me as I sat down. The two boys who also arrived early, including Frederick, pretended I didn’t exist. The other boy was really good looking. His teeth and skin were the exact opposite of what people look like at our age, before braces and acne medication.

His name is Giancarlo. We didn’t go to the same school, and he was tall for the eighth grade, and never spoke to me at catechism, and was not about to start now, despite being in church where I naively continue to believe that people are supposed to be kind to each other, if they are going to be kind at all. Rumor has it that his parents make a killing off of their shop, Pane e Dolci, the most successful, most over-priced bakery in our city. They had the best black and white cookies in town, and Dad used to bring home a couple once or twice a year.

Giancarlo’s cookies are seriously my favorite.

It was really only a matter of about a minute before The Jerks showed up. I didn’t have to turn around to know that they arrived. Their hooves paraded down the aisle like they owned the damned place. I also thought the church heated up a few degrees, but that could have been my imagination.

They usually slithered into a row they guarded entirely for themselves. Today was no different. They genuflected, one by one, and filed into the row like a family of holy cockroaches. The Mother Cockroach, Val, sat down directly behind me, followed by her best friend Peppor who’s rumored to have started modeling or something, and that idiot Stoney. He tends to be the worst of the bullies, unless Val felt like competing with him for that honor.

My hair must have been hanging over the back of the row a little bit, because when they sat down, I felt a searingly painful tug. I doubt it was an accident.

Nice hair, Heather Lee,” Stoney cooed, dripping with mock sincerity. It was really humid out today, and my hair took on the appearance of an oversized cotton ball because I was “too young” for styling products, according to Mom. As always, Stoney did not fail to notice, or to deliver. I pretended not to hear him.

Dad, I thought, come back and take me with you. I squeezed my eyes shut. God, how I hated them. I sent a silent prayer to the ceiling, asking God to do something about our seating arrangements.

The image of Val as Mother Cockroach was going to have to sustain me. I slouched in my seat and imagined the stained glass version of her likeness, with little scattered, stained glass cockroaches surrounding her, right up there next to Mother Mary’s.

Father Dougherty, in his long white robes, appeared at the podium, which was our cue that it was time to quiet down and become holy this week.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater…”

I zoned out like I usually do as the pastor began his sermon.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself…”

I didn’t know that I had fallen asleep until I awoke with a bang to a sudden, loud thud directly under my spot on the bench. I jumped what seemed like six feet or so, and I may have even yelped but can’t be sure.

The pastor didn’t seem to notice, or at least he acted like he didn’t, but about a million other people in the congregation did, and Mrs. Hayze was none too amused. She and her hair gave me the evil eye from her seat a few spots over at the head of the row. I crouched in my seat as my entire skull overheated. Mother Cockroach snickered in the seat behind me.

I made a mental note to ask my mom if she can drop me off maybe a little closer to the time Mass actually begins next week as opposed to two-and-a-half days earlier. I need more control over where I sit, and arriving after The Jerks would be helpful, to say the least.

But she’ll probably say no, and tell me to “stop bothering people” and maybe, “just maybe, they’ll stop” bothering me. I don’t think my mom knows, truly, how condescending she has become since Dad left us.

The donation baskets made their usual trek around the pews. My mom always gave me two dollars for the baskets, and I usually kept one for an extra snack or two during the week. One time Stoney threw a fifty-dollar bill in the basket. I guess his parents thought that the higher the donation, the more they’d make up for the evil son they spawned.

Every Sunday sounded exactly the same. The pastor spoke, the churchgoers responded with an Amen or something similarly servile. I wondered what Dad was up to. I wondered what Jane was up to. I wondered what my dentist was up to. I wondered if there was a way for me to play a word game by myself. I distracted myself with thoughts of what I’d rather be doing, because the most dreaded part of every Sunday was just a few seconds away.

Be good to thy neighbor and offer each other a sign of peace,” Father Dougherty instructed the congregation. I hated this part of Mass more than I hated cockroaches.

The two girls sitting next to me shook each other’s hands and then shyly extended their hands toward me for an awkward handshake and a barely audible “Peace be with you.”

They turned to Giancarlo next.

He shook hands first with the pretty blonde girl sitting closest to him, and then with the cute redhead sitting next to me.

He looked at me and extended his right hand in my direction. My heart pounded and my skull overheated. I couldn’t bear to make eye contact so I just stared at his hand.

I hate how easily I blush over everything.

Breathless, I stretched my right arm across the other girls to reach for his hand, thinking that he was making his way down the row. But I secretly wondered if maybe, just maybe, he wanted to shake my hand.

The two girls leaned back to give us room. I tried not to crush either of them as I reached for Giancarlo’s hand.

Our fingertips, mine and Giancarlo’s, for the first time ever, are in the same hemisphere. Closer…closer…I’m a split second from shaking his hand and kind of want to puke.

“No thanks!” Giancarlo quickly retracted his hand at the last second, only to give me a quick wave instead. A total psych-out move, as if to say, Did you really think, Heather Lee, that I would be caught dead shaking your hand in public?

I pulled my hand back and straightened up in my seat, but not fast enough.

The Jerks saw the whole exchange. Val behaved as though it were the funniest thing she had ever seen in this lifetime. Mrs. Hayze and her hair sat a few seats away, selectively oblivious.

Peace, Val.” Giancarlo reached behind our row to shake Val’s hand instead. I thought I saw her blush for a second, but she composed herself quickly. She made sure to look me in the eye when he took her hand.

“Hey, Heather Lee! Peace be with you!” Stoney extended his hand in my direction. Like an idiot, I took the bait. Anything to feel accepted after being mocked so publically. Even a handshake with a godforsaken cockroach.

He clenched my hand, but instead of shaking it, he pulled me half over the back of the pew and leaned into me. Stoney’s face was inches from my left ear. I smelled his obnoxious cologne.

“Hey, Heather Lee,” he whispered. “Fuck you and your nasty brillo head.”

****

“Heather Lee,” Mrs. Hayze came up from behind me, as I made my way back to the Pew from Hell after receiving the Eucharist.

“Yes, Mrs. Hayze?”

“Another performance like that and I’ll have to talk to your parents,” she hissed.

“But—”

“There are no buts,” she spat. “Maybe your father allowed that kind of behavior, but you will honor the Lord when you attend church under my supervision. Do you understand me?”

Maybe your father allowed that kind of behavior… My breath caught in my throat.

“Yes.” I knew it was a lost cause. Easier to cover the wound than to extract the venom.

Mom, Juny, and I were halfway home before I realized that I forgot to ask Father Dougherty to sign my proof of piety. Mom grounded me for a week for “not listening.”

“You’re also on kitchen duty when you get home.” Mom stared straight ahead. “And Juny, you’re vacuuming.” I don’t remember the last time she seemed genuinely kind. Or even happy.

I glanced at my sister in the back seat. She sat huddled, staring blankly out the window. She barely spoke two words to anyone, since Dad went away. In a sense, I lost her, too.

I noticed three long-stemmed roses still wrapped in plastic on the seat beside Juny.

“Who’re those for?” I asked.

“We’re visiting your father,” Mom said.

In that moment it occurred to me that Mom probably wasn’t upset with me, not really.

She wanted Dad to come home. But just like she told us the day before his funeral, sometimes addiction doesn’t work that way. Sometimes God doesn’t work that way.

I hated Sunday mornings.

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Categories: Fiction

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