You think the priest has gone easy on you – ten Hail Mary’s and one Our Father is a light penance. You double the order. If you had told the entire truth, you may have been assigned an entire rosary. You make it all the way through the Our Father and halfway through a Hail Mary before you start reciting, instead, the new words he has taught you for your body: Hail Mary, full of graceful thighs, hallowed be thy neck, thy elegant neck. Blessed are your limbs like water, your breath like honey. Even if you are smiling strangely over your grandmother’s mother-of-pearl rosary, even if you are breathing more heavily than you should, no one will notice. Unlike the other girls who kneel in the pews to face Jesus, you do your penance before the hushed cave of the grotto, hundreds of tiny candles flickering at Mary’s feet, the robin’s egg blue of her shawl veined with dust and cracks. Her heart pulses out of her chest – pierced with the thorns of the rose wrapped around it, a heart so big her upturned, alabaster hands could never contain it. She looks down at you. Your cheeks burn. You burn all over.
At the commencement ceremony, it is impossible to see if he is in the church, all those downturned heads kneeling behind the pews, all those shadows. But you know he’ll be waiting for you outside when it is over, the engine idling in his brown pickup truck. You cannot sit still in your white cap and gown, the polyester itching your crossed ankles. When your name is called, you walk through the pews towards the altar like you would walk towards him, your eyes narrowed and your lips pursed, cat-like and smooth. Not how a high school girl should walk, you will hear your grandmother whisper to your mother later, when you are eating cake in the basement beneath midnight blue crepe paper that hangs limply in the humid air. You are flush with a new knowledge that eclipses everything else you have learned from Saint Joseph’s Academy. You know only the geography of your own body, the physics of his skin on yours, the short history of his love for you. His words are a prayer ready on your lips. When you reach the altar, you flash the principal your angel white smile and grasp his hand, the cool of his palm foreign and dead, as meaningless as the piece of paper he hands you. When you all file out of the church, you turn one last time to Mary and wonder if this is how she felt when she was visited by the angel Gabriel: chosen.
He is waiting for you in the truck, just like he said, a tan arm dangling against the side of the driver’s door, casual. His blonde crop of hair glints and he looks at you without smiling, the smoke from his cigarette trailing from his lips like a greeting. You can smell the diesel of the engine. You have already forgotten the lie you told your family, the one that released your from their celebratory grip. You think your chest may catch on fire as you run towards him. You pull off your gown, revealing the dress your mother would never have let you wear out of the house and then you are at his window. Get in, he says. And you do.
He hands you a cigarette and shows you how to light it from his own cigarette by holding the red cherries together and breathing in. Though you will try hard to forget him, you will remember that he taught you things like this. How to tell a lie like you’re reciting a poem, how to cover up the smoky pulp smell that clings to your clothes, how to drive too fast without being pulled over, how to ignore the voices telling you to slow down.
By the time you arrive at the campground, it is getting dark. On the grassy edge of the river, you soak your feet in the blue coolness. On the other side, your classmates are arriving in cars. Soon they are building a bonfire, drinking. You hear the high-pitched cackle of a girl’s laughter, the slap of stones against water as the boys skip them across the river. Their faces glow in the firelight, strung together like planets around a sun, lit bright with their newfound freedom. You have circled beyond their range, a distant star. Your joy has nothing to do with theirs. Behind you, he is setting up the tent, securing the canvas flaps to the ground with stakes. You listen as he lays down a tarp and then two sleeping bags you know are plaid on the inside, the flannel pilled from use. You hear him zip them together into an oversized cocoon. You wait for the touch of his fingers on your neck – the scratch of his callouses on the shine of your sweat. You turn away from the other bank.
The only light in the tent is a flashlight he has strung up with twine so that it hangs down like a lantern, creating a swaying sphere that passes lazily over your arms, then his, then yours. The wine he gives you to drink turns the view from the tent hazy, the solar-powered bulbs over the picnic tables flickering like a constellation of weak, earthbound stars. Eventually, he turns off the flashlight.
In the dark you can hear voices from across the river. They are talking, then singing. You feel the earth beneath your shoulder blades, his face above you, a familiar, hovering moon. You will yourself to be in your body. But when you close your eyes, it’s like you lift up out of it and start wading across that river, soaking your dress and sandals. You emerge on the other side a water phoenix – everyone sees you and they are happy you are there. They toast you. As you drift into sleep, you are giving your own toast to them, you are saying thank you.
When you awake, it is morning and you find that, sometime during the night, he has carried you into the cab of the brown truck and left you there, covered in your graduation gown. Beyond the windshield, the cathedral of trees presses its broken limbs into the blue cloak of sky. His boots sit outside of the tent, caked in mud, unfamiliar. Across the creek, the campsite is abandoned, though the fire ring is still smoking, and a girl’s leftover sweatshirt hangs over the seat of a picnic table. In the rearview mirror, your eyes are not the iridescent pools he said they were.
You understand for the first time the meaning of regret. The word tumbles into your mind like a row of children’s letter blocks, the letters bumping against one another dully in your head. So, this is regret you actually think. You know then that love is a feeling that lives in your body and changes when your body does. Later, the names of your friends across the river will come back to you. You will apologize, but never the right away and never enough times, to the parents who spent that whole long night looking for you, believing you were dead. You will learn how it really is possible to erase entire events from your memory through the sheer force of your will. You know this because there are exactly two things you will remember from the day of the procedure: that he asked you to drive home, and that one of the nurses had hands that smelled of cigarettes and roses. The rest is unattainable, even in your dreams.
And much later, when you are married to someone you know you do not deserve, he will insist on seeing all of the specialists – he will want to research in vitro, surrogacy, adoption, drugs – and you will go along with it, because you will want the family he wants. You will say one rosary every night, and then two, until you are reciting the prayers in your sleep and your husband shakes you awake to ask you what you are praying for.
And much, much later, when you have both given up, you will find yourself trying to explain yourself to him – the way you abandoned everything without meaning to, without exactly knowing you were doing it. But you will find yourself lying again. You will tell him that you changed your mind just in time. That you slipped through the slit in the tent illuminated by the lights on the other side of the river, that you waded across, that they grasped both of your hands and pulled until you were free of the water, that they gave you a drink and a blanket like a robe to keep you warm.
Printed with permission from Katherine Van Dis, copyrighted by Katherine Van Dis @ 2013. This piece originally appeared in Issue No. 14 of the Los Angeles Review.