She’s sitting at a table along the wall with two seats looking to the sidewalk, her bag is on one of them. I wave and she gets up moving her back from one chair to the stool in front of our table, I kiss one of her cheeks. I opened my purse and take out a cleaning wipe and pass it over the back of the chair and on the seat, I put the dirty cloth on a small saucer left from the previous guest and then take out another wipe and pass it over the tabletop till the cloth goes from a threatening cloud to white. On my 5th wipe, I sit down and move the small pile in a way that is easy to be carried off by one of the cafe attendants whose been watching my display for the last few seconds. He carries the solution away and offers a couple menus but we wave them away, a thick scent of winter fresh breaks the crisp fall afternoon.
“I missed you this week,” she says, never making a scene of my cleanliness, “I kept thinking about how Saturday was,” she lets go of my hand and the waiter sees that I arrived and walks over. We order two cappuccinos because that’s what you need moments before they clean down the machine.
“Same, I still can’t get his words out of my head,” I say, I think she knows I’m lying because it was all new for me and I couldn’t get over how elaborate the surroundings were, from thick bronze columns to the men wearing thin golden robes that had their light colored hair blending in and then contrasting the heavy dark chains during the opening ceremony. When the preacher came out in a crisp white shirt and ivory pants, he had a surprisingly casual look for a place so fixed with ornaments.
“I think you made an impression too, my friends all asked about you,” she waves her hand, “if we weren’t in a place of worship, I would have been jealous.” I smile.
“I don’t know what took me so long, I felt really comfortable when I sat down,” I say, this is true. She’s been telling me about this church and how it’s a little new age but without all the women in dreadlocks, that the men are in business sectors, that here is a place, like any church, with people who want a purpose.
“And don’t worry about not joining hands in the final prayer, lots of newcomers take their time with it,” our drinks arrive and the foam is thick but not runny. I take out a napkin from my purse out of a ziplock bag, I wipe down the spoon leaving no dust or reside on the silver surface, I put it in the foam to spoon out some of the chocolate flakes to leave it on the side, “not a fan?”
“I’m sure it’s good,” I say until I see none of the dark brown flakes of surface area in my cup, “I love the idea of the church, how a small group of people believe by linking hands that they can be God’s strength, I mean, we’re always taught to ask from God, we’re never told to help.”
“Yeah one of the preachings earlier this year, he was saying how we need to think of God as an almighty being and strive for his forgiveness and with a burden like that on his shoulders for the entire world, that our assistance is no different than a ginger boost during flu season,” she says, pausing to take a sip, “I admit when I joined, I thought it would be a good addition to my meditation practice because really, how do we expect to really make an impact on God.”
“Yeah, that’s probably why most people are calling the place a cult,” I say into the cup before taking a sip, I move the cup down and wonder how many people here know about this practice, it’s been on the news and anyone here on the bus line seems to know what that remote stop with the awaiting coach bus is for, “I mean, I don’t care because I am willing to do anything that will help me through this hump and if that means praying to be God’s strength, then so be it.”
“That’s right,” she says, eyeing up the other table’s dessert, “you have such a healthy attitude to this,” I nodded.
I want to open up to her about my past but it feels like something out of a novel that doesn’t end well for the main character. As far back as I can remember I was a caregiver for my mother, she wasn’t medically sick from anything that would have a support group to join, she was an alcoholic. My dad worked on the road most of the time driving between States, sending me postcards like he was on an exotic vacation with phrases like, “wish you were here,” “the sun’s hot and the drinks are cold,” to “I’ll bring you back more than a lousy shirt.” I had a shoebox full under my bed of pictures of places seen in movies with my dad’s name on it, he felt so well traveled. It wasn’t until after he’d say that the road never had places like these, those spots you had to exit for. When he’d call home on days that meant he had somewhere decent to sleep, he’d say that he never wanted me to experience these hardships. It wasn’t an apology or a promise to himself, it was simply something that had to be said.
“Should we go for a slice of lemon meringue?” I say, something to shake the taste out of my mouth from this mood, memories are the hardest items to swallow.
“Worried it would ruin your dinner?” she says, I shake my head, “okay let’s do it then,” she waves for the waiter and orders a slice for the table.
“I don’t even know what I’m making tonight,” I say offering the cookie that came with the cappuccino to my friend, she takes it and puts it in her purse.
“Same,” she shrugs, “likely takeout, do you always cook?”
“I do but that’s only because I’m pretty good cook,” I say, it’s because I’ve had so many years to practice for mom, “maybe I’ll do something easy like roasted veggies and beef chunks, kinda on budget too.”
“That sounds so good, I wish I had a girlfriend like you,” she says, “how did you and him meet?”
“I’m not sure,” I say, I try to but I can’t remember. It was a few years after I left my parents house. I left home after I saved up enough money and bought a decent suitcase. It was implied amongst the three of us that I wasn’t coming back, that I had to find my own way. I promised myself to never build a habit of drinking, fearing I’d end up like mom, so I took to the occasional celebration or post break-up binge. Soon after we met I started sending my mom postcards of places that we travelled to, writing phrases like, “The weather here is always raining,” “A popular coffee cake is madeline’s” or “I think you’d like it here.”
“I know what you mean about budget, I’m trying to save money for the church retreat,” she says as the slice of pie arrives with two spoons, I take a new napkin from my purse and wipe it down before I pierce the sugar filled topping, “are you planning on going? I know you’re new but some people enjoy the detox,”
“Yeah I don’t know if detox is in my vocabulary,” I say waving a spoonful a few inches from my mouth, the lemon is slightly tart that balances out any hints of yoke, “I don’t think I’m ready to head out yet.”
“That’s understandable, it’s not easy for everyone to just pick up and disappear in the mountains for a week,”
“But a trip to the Alps sounds like the get-away I need,”
“Is everything okay?” she says, putting the spoon down, a moment of defeat sinks in both of us of any daily diet.
“Yeah for the most part, like I joined the church because I want this to clear up what’s been blocking me, you know that he doesn’t like me joining the church,”
“Oh really? It takes some people more time…”
“It’s not the fear it’s a cult,” I say picking up the glass of water, “it’s the fact he thinks I’ll open up to something that doesn’t exist,”
“Well who knows what does and doesn’t exist when it comes to having faith,” she says finishing her cappuccino.
“He believes in things that are hard to see but he believes in them enough to fear them. I guess everyone has their reasons to believe,”
“I was eager because I had nothing else at the time. After university I kinda floated between companies but nothing felt like a good fit, figured I shouldn’t look for satisfaction solely in my career,” she says shrugging her shoulders, “now I feel more fulfilled here than I did in any relationship or company.”
“Makes sense,” I say and look at the time, “Speaking of, I should get going before the butcher closes, feel free to stay here,” she waves her hand in front of her face.
“No, I should get going too, if I spend more time here I might go for one of those cheese boards which will definitely be hugging me during the sermon,” she says and I smile, “should I save you a seat tomorrow?”
“Yes, if you can,” I say taking out exact change from my coin purse, “I promise I won’t be late,”
“Don’t promise something you can’t keep,” she stands up and kissed my cheek.
“Okay, then I’ll try to be quiet when I come in.”
He needs order to our apartment, he says it’s to keep the chaos from coming in. I don’t love the idea of putting the groceries on a tray above the outerwear before I come in but he tells me it’s so I can free my hands to vacuum the rug. I didn’t do this before him but it feels like something that I picked up as my own actions soon after he entered my life. He tells me that I need to get rid of the film that follows me in from outside. At the beginning it was a checklist to make sure I don’t track in any mud, water, cigarette butts, glass, or pollen on the bottoms of my soul. The vacuum is loud enough for him to know I’m home but I’m not to expect a response, I’m expected to start on dinner.
It’s easy to find my place as I put the meat in a coriander dish to run water over the chunks of meat until the water is clear. After I move the faucet with my wrist and move my hand underneath the soap dispenser to lather and repeat twice. I don’t anticipate any help, a hello, an inquiry into my day, I expect to stay on routine. I turn the oven on and take out the vegetables from the fridge, two green peppers and a red onion. The knife is sharp enough to draw blood so I try to keep it in a sleeve in the drawer, I don’t want to cut myself when I know only I can stomach the wound. I don’t make noise when the lemon squirts a bit into my eye as I marinate the pork. I take out the roasting pan from the shelf and throw in the chunks of vegetables before dousing everything with olive oil. I open the door to the oven, no other sounds than moving metals, no thank you or an offer to help as I set a time for half and hour.
The bathroom smells like bleach and lavender, dry without a drop left falling from the tap. I don’t bother calling out that I’m going to use the shower as I know walking up the stairs to the loft bathroom carries noise throughout the small apartment. The water is hot not to the touch but on the muscles, the steam fills the room for a moment and imagine what it would be like amongst the clouds, where someone sneaks in to put soap on my shoulders. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to hold someone’s hand, but I need to be a part of the ceremony we all join and listen to the preacher’s blessing on the speakers, blasting about how we are the strands that bind together to create God’s torque and rest on his collar bone. I have to believe that will include me.
As I pass the bedroom I hear a noise like a waft of a book closing, I feel myself flinch.
“Did you remember more cleansing wipes?” I hear like a television commercial mocking the viewer.
“No, I thought we had enough,” I say, regretting using the word enough.
“We ran out, the laptop picked up dust from the open window after last night’s curry was being aired out.”
“I can go to the store,” I say, trying to wonder when the right time to do anything is, “it’s still open.”
“No, that will make things worse,” he says, I hear the spine opening back, “I’ll live with it.” He never leaves anymore.
The next morning I close back up the sofa bed and put the flat sheet and two pillowcases in the laundry on anti-allergy and leave a note on the fridge. The note is that I’ll make it back for lunch, I’ll make lunch and I’m not sure what I’ll make yet. I rub on some concealer and throw in a tub of lipstick, a tasteful daytime pinkish hue. A colour I wish I wear more often, a colour that no longer turns heads.
There are no more places to sit when I get on the last bus to the line heading to the church, so I take out a kleenex and put it in the palm of my hand and grab the bar at the top. I watch the others get off and notice how vacant the bus is getting closer to the last stop by the lot for the church coach bus. People enter the bus in between and ask if I want to sit on the vacant seat in front of me but I wave and insist they sit down, after all I’m trying to use the rest of my energy by stabilizing my body up these hills. I didn’t bother making instant coffee as my nerves would have made me even more nauseous and getting on a bus for this long already has me focused on finding her in the crowd.
As the bus pulls into the final stop I realize it is only myself and a family left to board the coach bus, I insist they pass me as we all exit the second set of doors, the kids scream something out loud as they board the coach for the church. The parents don’t say anything when I pass them for a seat near the back but I watch as the wife looks at my fingers for a ring. I take my seat and I rub on hand sanitizer without knowing if she reached out to check.
The church was renovated from a small one that was said to be out here to preach to those who didn’t have a ride into town, it was sponsored by one of the larger churches. Then when transportation started to add lines for the small towns, people came to the larger one and this one became vacant. Then about a couple decades later our pastor found it and felt it was the perfect size to make the task of collecting enough people to join hands at the end an easy and not so daunting task. Maybe I could slide in next to my friend who stands along the wall, not near the speaker and with a little bit of shade. By the time I look to the front entrance I see the family is well within the church and I quickly head inside, while trying to remember which side my friend usually sits.
I see her hand wave, the charm bracelet glistens off of the sunlight, to where I can almost see residue from yesterday’s cappuccino.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say, moving past a group of people on the edge, those who want to ensure their spot in the circle.
“It’s fine, the service didn’t start yet, they always wait for…” the preacher gets to the podium, a hush starts to fall on the congregation, “you.” I move my eyes to watch everyone else as they fixate on the man in his golden robes, the one that people see in supermarket catalogs with the phrase of how it’s the latest cult in a string of popup cults. I figure the only difference between a cult and a popup cult is the person who is attending, their intention. One that starts and promises a cleansing of the soul through diet could be an easy detox in the Spring with long meditative walks in the mountains. Here the others have a non denominational but thickly spiritual reason to be there and that’s probably why I’m here too, to find out what it is I need to protect.
I can’t seem to figure out what he’s saying as I’m trying to tell myself that the hand holding is only a brief moment, after I can cleanse and santitize in the bathroom. I look back and see the hallway and see one labelled men and a wall is obscuring the women sign but that’s okay, doesn’t look to be that far from the…
“Don’t do it,” I hear him say, echoing in the bedroom, “if you touch something,” the book is thrown against the wall, if he allowed me to hang art it would have fallen, “I won’t be here when you come back,” I have no room to plead my case.
“I want to be a part of something,”
“You are, you have me.”
“I want to feel I’m helping…”
“You are keeping me safe, and I am keeping you safe, those out there, they want to see you harmed,” I watch him as he wants to leave the bedroom but he stops at the closet, “do you think I’m trying to hurt us,” I shake my head.
“If you treat others the way you want to be treated is a tale that many have forgotten,” I hear from the preacher, breaking me from us, “I open up my arms and welcome those who wish to be a part of something larger than themselves,” he looks in our area, maybe trying to look for new faces, I don’t try to make eye contact, “if you have a self to protect others, we ask you to stay.” My friend nudges me.
“That’s you,” she says in my ear, “he’s looking right at you,” I don’t want to look up and make it look like I’m looking at the projector. I take out a bit of hand sanitizer in anticipation of the ending remarks.
The sun is not yet bright through the windows when we’re asked to get up from our seats. My friend looks at me in anticipation, she promised me she won’t let me get pushed out from being next to from the crowd but judging today, the circle might be a little more taunt than expected. As we’re exiting the building there’s a team that’s setting up some muffins and coffee in the hallway to the bathroom, making washing my hands a bit delayed given they’ll be a crowd of children and women picking up the chocolate chunk one with the promised largest pieces. I try not to think about that when I feel the heat of a family behind me edging to the door, maybe I should leave right after and wash my hands at home, I won’t say anything when I walk inside, I’ll maybe even pretend I didn’t come here.
I follow my friend and stand in the shade with her, she holds my hand, dry and soft like she doesn’t work in a temperature regulated office building and on the other side a small woman, she has to be someone’s daughter, she doesn’t want to be here and looks at me as such, I match her blank stare and she reaches for me to grab her hand. I was her age once. The end of the sermon starts on the outdoor speakers and I hold her hand, I’m fixed then to a place that I can barely recall, the moment I met him. His rough hands have calluses that’s caked with concrete and there’s dirt beneath his nails, he says men don’t wear gloves as he’s on top of me and then remarks, on anything. I feel each drop of sweat falling on me, my rib cage is dry and smells like summer, a bra thick with elastics, keeping what I have in place, trying to recoil as he moves it with his fingers.
Dirty bitch, no one will want you.
Dirty bitch, tell me my name.
Dirty bitch, make me cum.
I don’t move my hand, I don’t make any more sweat on my palms as I remember where we met. When I started hearing the book close in my bedroom, when I stopped opening that door, when it became easier to sleep on the couch, I think of how I’ve always had leftovers.
“How was it?” my friend says, I blink back, the girl whose hand I was holding is long gone, handling a blueberry muffin and splitting it with her brother.
“It was fine,” I blink and feel my hands are dry, I rub the inside of the one I reached out with my thumb, “I guess I was just a little scared of germs,” my friend smiles.
“Should we head in for a muffin,” she says looking through the crowd to whether or not there’s any left.
“Nah, let’s head back to my place, I’ll make us lunch,” I say, trying not to run to the bathroom to wash my hands and still smelling the alcohol from my earlier squeeze of sanitizer.
“What about your boyfriend? Would we be bothering him?” She says, taking out her car keys from her purse.
“No, he’ll be gone when we get there,” I say putting my arms around her shoulders, “he’s not going to be a problem.”
Trista Hurley-Waxali just finished a stint living in LA for 6 years and is enjoying her new adventure living in the South of France. She has performed at Avenue 50, Stories Bookstore and internationally at O’bheal Poetry Series in Cork, Ireland and a TransLate Night show from Helsinki Poetry Connection. She writes weird short stories and is working on her novel, At This Juncture.