The first woman I loved was another writer, a woman I met in my second year of university. Let’s call her Emily. She had blonde hair and blue eyes and when I first knew her she wore her hair long, parted straight down the middle. She looked like she was fifteen. She had a boyfriend and she wore shorts even when it was cold. She was sarcastic and angry and hopeful and sad. She was an excellent writer.
Is an excellent writer. She isn’t dead.
When I was ten years old the Vatican issued an edict allowing girls to act as altar servers. I was the first girl in my church to don the robe. We had white robes with hoods, and belts of red rope. You doubled the rope around your waist and pulled the ends through the loop so that they hung at equal lengths. We wore rough wooden crosses round our necks, carried the Bible, rang the Eucharist bells. When my sister became an altar server too we fought over who got to carry the chalice. One year she tripped and fell as she was carrying Communion wafers to the altar. The wafers spilled out of her dish like confetti.
The priest kept a large square of white cloth at the altar. When he drank from the chalice after blessing the wine, he’d use the cloth to wipe his spit away. This didn’t make sense to me even at ten; surely priests had germs too. Surely, I thought, priests had insides that bled and purged and rotted just like the insides of everyone else.
Once, in high school philosophy, I tried to argue that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married.
“Why not,” said my teacher.
“Because,” I said, “children need the influence of both a mom and dad.”
“Well,” he replied. We were debating à la Socrates. Ask questions, volley back. “What about single moms, then? Or single dads? What happens when a parent dies? Do you think they shouldn’t have children either, simply because they have to raise their kids alone?”
I had no answers. I tried to talk and the words just fell unheard between the chairs.
I stopped talking in class after that day. If you don’t open your mouth, you can’t say stupid things.
My parents were not really religious. When we talk about it now, sometimes they admit that they went to church mostly because we kept on asking questions. Mummy, where do we come from? Daddy, how does God hang the stars?
When my mother was pregnant with my youngest sister she converted to Catholicism. She went to catechism classes with my father on Wednesday nights. I remember this mostly because my cousin came to babysit every week—I was the oldest, so I got to stay up late. Later. We drank fruit juice and watched Unsolved Mysteries. The music from the show gave me nightmares, but I never told anyone that.
When did I fall in love with Emily, exactly? I don’t remember. I was twenty-three, or twenty-two. It was sometime after she and I had the long debate about the Pope. It wasn’t fair that a woman couldn’t be Pope, couldn’t be a priest, couldn’t have a say in things, how could I call myself Catholic, how could I believe in God at all, she said.
I only shrugged. “I don’t want to be a priest,” I said. “So that doesn’t matter to me.”
One summer morning I woke up wanting to kiss her very badly. It felt like I woke up in love but of course it had been growing, bubbling, simmering for so much longer than that.
I did kiss her, eventually, one night when she came over for dinner. She had kissed many women before me but when I took her face into my hands she squeaked, she was so surprised.
Another time, when I was twelve years old or so, I asked my mother about lesbians on the way to the doctor’s office. “Men like watching lesbians in movies,” I said. “But then they make fun of them in real life. How come?”
My mother didn’t answer right away. “Why?” she said. “Are you having…feelings?”
“No. No. I’m just curious. That’s all.”
“Men are very visual,” she said. “For them, it’s all about what they can see.”
Years later, when I told her about Emily, she didn’t seem surprised at all.
“I knew,” she said. “Just something in the way you talked about her.”
I did entertain thoughts of becoming a priest for a while. Or I entertained thoughts of becoming the female equivalent of a priest, which is to say, a minister that no diocese would ever use.
The female chaplain at my university was an ordained Catholic minister. When she went on maternity leave the diocese terminated her employment, and told her to re-apply for her job when the year of leave was over.
I believe in God, the Father the Almighty.
What does that even mean?
For my twenty-second birthday, Emily took me out for Chinese food. We ate potstickers drenched in soy sauce. She was graceful with her chopsticks. I was a failure. She’d cut her hair, and streaked it pink, and every now and then our knees would touch beneath the table.
“Celibacy,” she said. “I just don’t get it. I mean, how can you survive so long by only masturbating?”
“Well.” I coughed. “Actually, I’ve never done that either.”
She laughed so long and hard at this that other patrons around us started to smile.
“That’s what’s wrong with you!” she said, finally. “Jesus Christ. That’s fucking insane.”
She was newly in love then, with a man named Paul. It shone so brightly on her that every time I was around her I felt intoxicated and small. Her easy talk of sex and death and love made me feel stupid and sheltered but also excited, like I’d been wrong about the world my whole life and was finally getting to learn.
When I was twenty-nine I went to Iona. It’s a tiny Scottish island off the Isle of Mull. From Edinburgh, you take a train and then a ferry and then a bus and then another ferry to get there. The entire journey takes about seven hours. St. Columba landed there in 563 BCE, and built a monastery that was burned in later centuries. In the early 1900s the church was rebuilt and the island reclaimed its status as a place of pilgrimage. George MacLeod, who founded the new spiritual community on the island, called it a thin place—an area where the veil between this world and the next was thin as tissue paper.
I did not really believe in God anymore when I finally went to the island. But what I remember most from that visit is sitting in the abbey during a rainstorm, listening to the wind lash against the roof so hard I felt sure it was going to break. A tiny spot of calm in the middle of a hurricane. I couldn’t stop crying.
When I left the island a day later the feeling went away. I actually felt it retreat when I was on the ferry, watching the island recede. Like waking up from a dream about flying only to discover that you’re rooted firmly to the ground.
Before I fell in love with Emily I was in love with a man who we’ll call Jim. He’d been my English teacher in high school and the crush lasted me from the age of fifteen until about twenty-seven, give or take. It still flares up now and then. It was such a doomed crush, so wonderful and terrible in its implausibility, that sometimes I wonder if it used up all of my romantic energy, if I burned parts of myself out too soon. Though of course that sounds silly now on this other side of thirty. Aren’t we endless? Isn’t our capacity for hope and love the most infinite thing that we have?
I don’t ever remember loving God in this kind of headlong way, even though I wanted to so badly. When we met for Christian fellowship at school I would sit and bow my head, pretend to pray. When really I was just repeating things that everyone else said and hoping, deep down, that one day they would take.
Fake it ‘til you make it. At the hospital where I work, the psychiatrists sometimes say this to their patients. Pretend to be happy and eventually you’ll feel it, too.
Pretend that you love God, I told myself over and over. Pretend that you believe it all of the time, not just in your dark moments, and one day it will all come true.
For two days after the first night that Emily stayed over, I walked around feeling like the most beautiful girl in the world. It was so much better than any God I’d ever known.
Ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat. I know that I know nothing. We call it the Socratic paradox and attribute it to Plato. It is maybe a paraphrase, maybe a lie. The full line comes from Plato’s Apology and runs something like this: This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing. On the other hand, I — equally ignorant — do not believe.
We cannot know, except to understand that knowing itself is dangerous. Except to understand that the world is at its shadiest with you in exactly those moments when you think that everything makes sense.
As a child I was known for taking two helpings of dessert. I want a little bit of both, I always said. Why do I have to make a choice at all?
Alfred Kinsey says it this way: The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.
Here is a secret I’ve never told anyone: when I was thirteen I rented an X-rated movie from the variety store near my house. I still don’t know how I managed to do it. Maybe the clerk wasn’t paying attention. Maybe he just didn’t care. In the movie, a woman is kidnapped and brought to work as a maid in a house filled with other women. One day, the matron ties her to a bed and takes her clothes off. I think she fucks her with a yardstick, although I’m no longer sure. The memory blurs.
I brought the movie home and kept it hidden in my closet. I set my alarm late that night and watched it downstairs, in the basement, after everyone else had gone to bed. I watched and rewound that part on the bed so many times it was getting light outside by the time I turned off the TV. My throat so dry it hurt, my fingers cramped from clutching the remote. I hadn’t touched myself. I washed my hands anyway, then took the video out and boxed it up and tiptoed back upstairs into my room, the space between my legs so heavy I felt like my heart would drop right through it if I wasn’t careful.
In grade Twelve, during the height of my Christian phase, my philosophy teacher threw a Henry Rollins tape into the VCR.
“How awesome would it be,” Rollins said in that particular skit, “to be bisexual? To just walk into a room and go, MMMMM, ALL RIGHT!”
Everybody laughed. I did too, even though my insides were hot with disapproval and shame.
That was fifteen years ago and I still think about it. Sometimes I think it’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard.
I broke my heart over Emily, eventually. I did not know how to tell her what I wanted because I did not, at the time, really know what I was asking.
“I don’t want you to be with me,” I said. We were sitting together on the couch in my tiny little bachelor apartment. It was hot outside and hot inside and I was very young. “I just want…you. That’s all.”
She did not want me back, which was something I think I had known all along. At the time I thought I’d never hurt so much, but this is always what you believe during that first flush of grief. Emily and I would stumble through the breakup-that-wasn’t and go back, eventually, to being careful friends. There would be other women after this, and other men. People that made my heart burn just as hard. But right then it felt like I had wanted something I was not supposed to have, and even God had turned away from me.
Once, at a bookstore where I worked, a lesbian coworker told me that bisexuality wasn’t real.
“If you’re with a man,” she said, “then you’re heterosexual. And if you’re with a girl after that, you were never really heterosexual in the first place. You were always gay.”
It didn’t really make sense to me then. Or now. But maybe I was wrong—maybe the belief that you can love a lot of people is just another name for not committing.
You believe in God, or you don’t. There is no in between.
What I want to believe in, I think, even more than God, is goodness. The ability of people to stand up and do the right thing over and over again. To reach inside themselves and find the universe.
That’s a lie, mostly. I want to believe in God too. But the space between the two seems very big now. The path back almost invisible, like realizing one night that you lost an earring at some point earlier in the day. It could be anywhere. Stuffed under some papers at work. Crunched on the floor, forgotten by the garbage can. Dropped into the kitchen sink and gone forever, waiting for water to flush it back out in the open, for someone else to find it.
Somehow my faith slipped from me unannounced. Now it lies waiting somewhere in Scotland or Canada or somewhere I have yet to be. Waiting for me, wishing me back. Or maybe it’s tucked away in my parents’ basement, nestled hidden among macaroni necklaces and handmade cards and other forgotten, childhood paraphernalia.
Still—last year, at a book festival, I spoke on a panel about faith and belief, and how that plays into fiction.
“I grew up Catholic,” I said, “though I’m not Catholic anymore.”
“Yes you are,” said the facilitator.
Everybody laughed, including me.
Does it ever really go away? Give me the child for seven years, say the Jesuits, and I will give you the man.
When I was thirteen my aunt and uncle convinced me that I needed to welcome Jesus into my heart. Baptism and confirmation hadn’t been enough.
“The Catholic church,” my uncle said, “is the largest accepted cult in the world.”
I sat in their basement and repeated what they said and waited for Jesus. My only Lord and Saviour. It felt true. It also felt wrong, somehow, because I didn’t believe it. Not wholly. Not entirely.
You don’t know, said a tiny little voice. As my aunt and uncle cried and hugged me and welcomed me to God. You want to know, but that’s not enough.
You’re a liar.
And still, here I am all these years later, somewhere in the space between lying and the truth.
Sometimes I remember Emily and my arguments in that long ago philosophy class and I think: if there is a God, then that God has a wicked sense of humour. Funny, isn’t it, the things that make sense and then don’t, anymore. Or the things that don’t make sense and then do, and the thin veils between them all.
Maybe infinite sense of humour is the term I’m looking for.
There once was this time when I thought a coworker of mine wanted to kiss me. He was married. We’d left a night shift early because there was nothing to do and he’d walked me home because the street that I live on is nice but maybe not so nice at eleven pm, maybe the kind of street where anything can happen when it’s dark and everyone else has gone to bed. He came up to see my apartment and we talked for a while and then he got up to leave. We hugged on the porch, a little too long, and for an instant of time I thought he might actually kiss me and I pulled back and said, “Shit.”
He said, “What?” like he wasn’t quite sure what had happened.
“Nothing. Never mind.” And then he left.
When I look back on it now it feels like maybe there were no kisses waiting in the first place. Like maybe I have always been so desperate, so eager to believe in signs that are not really signs at all. Like I have been waiting for the universe, or God, to kiss me back in situations where that is so clearly not going to happen.
I am not sure what this says about me, anymore.
A year or so ago I left a burner on my stove unattended for a time. After a while I smelled the gas and fixed the knob—I had turned it off but it hadn’t clicked properly shut. It was too late in the night to sleep at a neighbour’s house so I opened all the windows and turned on all my fans and went to bed, and I prayed the whole time I was awake. Please don’t let this be the end. Please.
Mostly, though, I prayed—to God? to myself?—so as to fight the overwhelming urge to go to the stove and light a match, to stand in the centre of my little kitchen and watch the world ignite, pull aside that tissue and reach out for God’s own face, or nothing. To know, once and for all.
I stayed in bed, not burning. Eventually I fell asleep, and while I was dreaming the air cleared and all the gas blew away.