The sound wakes me. A dull thud. I pop up in bed like one of those inflatable air dancers, the kind used to advertise blowouts at furniture warehouses and car dealerships. Reality skids back into focus. New apartment. Pregnancy test. Gary. I rise from my mattress and hurry to the window. Outside, specks of snow are sashaying through the air. The trees in Parc Lahaie stand in formation, their bare branches trembling in the shadow of the church, Saint-Enfant-Jésus du Mile-End. At eye level from my sixth-floor window, a seafoam green statue of the Virgin Mary holds her baby out over the park like she’s Michael Jackson on a balcony.
Moments later, a wail breaks the quiet. I press my nose to the pane. Under the yolky light of the streetlamps, a woman is huddled over a body on the lawn. Limbs bent at odd angles, the white ground stained red. A bleeding snow angel. I step back when I see it. He did it to get back at me. But then, stepping back to the window, No, it’s not him. Gary doesn’t even know where I live now. Bringing my hand to my still-flat stomach, I stroke it the way pregnant women are always doing. Like there’s an actual baby inside and it’s that helpless creature who needs comforting. Not me.
An ambulance siren moans. Red beams zigzag across the walls of my room, like I’m back at one of the dances my high school used to put on. The ones my mother warned me I’d get pregnant for going to. Now that I am probably carrying Gary’s baby, it seems safe to say that nobody is getting pregnant at those dances.
A gang of bystanders in coats and pyjama bottoms have parked themselves on the lawn like parents at a little league game. I watch as someone pulls the woman to her feet and wraps her in a blanket. Her hands cup her face. Horrific. No words. Eventually, she disappears into the ambulance and the procession turns on St-Laurent. Lights off. The onlookers straggle inside. I wonder what they’ll say to each other in the elevators.
Only the blood is left. I stare, imagining what it’s like to die like that. The thought sets me shivering as I grip my elbows, hugging myself. How much, exactly, does it hurt? I don’t—can’t—imagine. My mom used to say committing suicide was like buying a one-way ticket to H-E-L-L. But I don’t believe in hell. To me the saddest thing is the way that pain can never be destroyed. It just carries over to whoever’s left behind.
After that, I don’t bother trying to go back to sleep. My mind returns to the blue-haired cashier who blinked twice in succession when she scanned my pregnancy test, as if taking a mental note not to make the same mistake. Fresh out of the package, the white wand looked harmless. Fifteen minutes spent shivering on the toilet seat and I couldn’t piss.
There’s no way I’ll be able to go through with it now. Not with the image of that body on the ground—a grown man’s—fresh in my mind. I’m brimming with the kind of nervous energy that makes people bite their nails until they bleed or pull their own hair out. I wonder if I shouldn’t eat something, try to calm down. I’ll need to start eating more if I’m really going to have this kid. I go to the pantry, take my box of hosts from the shelf, count out ten and close the box. Each wafer is a perfect circle, with the translucence of skin. Placing the first one in my mouth, I wait for it to melt on my tongue.
They still remind me of going to church at St. Monica’s. My closest sibling is nine years older than me, so the pew space my family occupied shrank as my three sisters and two brothers grew up and moved away—the further from my mother’s piety regime, the better. My First Communion was one of the last times we were all together. I still remember the intolerable itch of the frilly white number my mother stuffed me in for the occasion. I was skittish. From where I stood next to the pulpit, I could see my siblings looking bored in their seats. The balding priest was much taller from up close. Smiling benevolently, he lifted a single host and brought it to my mouth. The Body of Christ, he croaked. I pressed my lips shut. He tried, weakly, to wedge the host between them, but it fluttered to the ground instead. In the audience, one of my brothers snickered.
My mother said I’d done a wicked thing. She probably gave up on me right then and there. By the time I’d turned thirteen, she’d joined some missionary group and taken off to Africa. My dad stopped going to church. He said church was for people who needed tethering down. I imagined a bunch of parishioners tied to the spires of St. Monica’s like a bouquet of balloons, just dying to be set free so they could shrink into the sky. Probably en route to Africa.
There was no one left to tell me what to do. At night, I’d lie awake in bed, imagining some faceless priest’s fingers in my mouth, shoving the host down as I gagged. Thinking of a priest that way made it burn between my legs. I’d rub myself against my pillow until the feeling erupted in me and I could drift off to sleep.
After I eat the first host, it’s as though a black hole has opened up inside of me. My need is all-consuming, the panic an empty space I compulsively fill. I stuff the rest of the hosts into my mouth and chew like I maniac, and before I can even swallow, I’m opening the box, grabbing wafers by the handful, shoving them into my mouth, devouring them. The sharp edges which cut the insides of my cheeks, a small comfort. I choke them all back.
Within minutes, the box is empty.
I first noticed it when I was seventeen, but it was probably there all along. A feeling like falling through air, limbs flailing, never landing. Disorienting nothingness. A need for tethering down.
I started going to church alone, hoping my father would notice. He didn’t. By then, the old priest had left St. Monica’s, and his replacement rotated through a bunch of churches across the city, so he was never around. Gary was just a chaplain, not a real priest. The way he scurried around lighting candles and handing out missals every Sunday reminded me of this hamster one of my sisters had when we were younger. It lived in a perpetual state of panic. When I squeezed it, its eyes bulged.
The first time I sat in his office, it was on the pretence of having a chat about how I was doing. Everyone in the parish knew about my parents’ separation and since I’d reappeared at mass I’d become a magnet for sympathetic glances and well-intentioned questions. While Gary went on about God’s plan for me, I stared at the picture of Mary behind his desk. Her heart appeared to be floating atop her chest, yellow rays shining out from it in every direction. But there was a dagger stuck right through it.
“Do you think she was happy?” I interrupted.
“Who? Your mother?”
“Mary,” I said, nodding at the portrait. “Do you think she wanted to give birth to some snot-nosed saviour?”
“She accepted the path God chose for her,” said Gary, swivelling in his chair.
He looked up at Mary and smiled as though she was an old friend of his who’d just told an inside joke. “Just as you should.”
That day, I left Gary’s office with a breathless feeling, like I’d been given some new and important purpose. It started like that, at least.
Panting, I stand before the empty box. Instead of feeling full, I feel hollower than ever before, the pit inside of me boundless, a gaping sinkhole, the kind that swallows people and cars and houses whole. How could someone like me ever expect to be a half-decent mother?
I leave the box on the table and cross the room to my mattress. Out the window, the blood is still visible on the lawn. Maybe that man jumped because he was like me. Wicked. I get into bed, pull the covers up to my neck.
Just look at what I did to Gary.
I started showing up at his office on my way home from school. Unlike my father, who barely acknowledged my presence whenever we found ourselves in the same room, Gary liked my company. Maybe he was chasing the reflection of himself that he saw in my eyes. Shepherd of lost and lonely sheep.
I liked his way of explaining things, always circling back to God’s will. It was soothing, a bright white light to block out the insignificance of everything. I wanted to believe in what Gary said, because in his version it didn’t matter that my mother had been brainwashed by World Vision commercials, or that my dad preferred Stephen King novels to fatherhood, or that I had a crush on a man twice my age. It was all part of The Plan.
Gary was soft-spoken and handsome, with eyebrows slanted in a way that made him seem sensitive. He told me he’d been misunderstood all his life. We shared that, he said. When I asked him why he’d never become a priest, he explained he had been married and it hadn’t worked out because he used to be an alcoholic. I pictured Gary at the altar, his straight hair slicked back, eyes on his bride. His bride was me. I blushed, and Gary noticed and I looked around his office to try to change the subject. That’s when I saw the boxes marked BODY OF CHRIST on the shelf behind his desk.
“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “where do you get the hosts?”
“We order them off Amazon.” He crossed and uncrossed his legs. Uneasy, like he’d just told me an industry secret that could take down the whole diocese if it got out.
“Can I have one?”
“They’re reserved for mass.”
“I mean,” I said, “could I just taste one?”
“They haven’t been consecrated.”
“That’s why I want to try one. To see if there’s a difference.”
“The Church is on a tight budget. We can’t afford to waste hosts.”
“Oh come on,” I said. “You have so many. It’s not like someone’s counting.”
He gave me a look that implied someone was counting. Church people were always hinting at God like that. Emboldened at the thought that he’d forbidden me, I leapt from my chair to the shelf. By the time I opened the top box, he was behind me. I turned to face him, lifting a single host to my mouth. My lips parted. Gary watched me place a host on my tongue. We both knew what was going to happen next. He bent down to reach my face. I lifted my hands to his cheeks. When we kissed, his tongue filled my mouth.
I toss and turn. I knew it, even then. That emptiness could protect me from pain. That I wouldn’t be the one to take a dagger to the heart. If it came to that. Now I want to call Gary. Just to see if he’s all right. All he has to do is answer, and I’ll know he didn’t go through with it.
When I graduated, Gary resigned and we moved in together. I was eighteen by then. Legal—the crusty old bishops couldn’t do a thing. My father reacted to the news with resignation, looking up from The Dark Tower IV: Song of Susannah just long enough to let me know there were some things of my mother’s in the basement that I could take. If I wanted.
While Gary looked for a new job, I started working at an Italian restaurant off Ste-Catherine. It was right next door to a gentleman’s club called The Kingdom. Every day around three in the afternoon, the manager would call up for delivery and I’d run over with a stack of take-out boxes: spaghetti bolognese, carbonara, penne all’arrabbiata. The girls would crowd around me while I read out the order, coming forward one by one to pay and tip me in cash. They didn’t bother to sit down before they tucked into the food, instead standing in a circle in their bikinis and platform heels, laughing whenever one of them spilled sauce on her cleavage.
Angèle was the only one who ever really talked to me. She asked me if I was still in school, whether I had a boyfriend. I told her about Gary. She listened, and when I was finished, squeezed my hand.
“I’ve got to get back,” she said. Then, in a whisper, “If you ever need anything…” She didn’t finish the sentence. As she turned and walked away, I noticed a pair of wings tattooed across her shoulder blades.
Half-naked, Angèle stands over the body on the lawn, her heels dug into the snow, nipples stiff from the cold. I open my eyes, wide awake and aware I’ve just been dreaming. I think of the woman huddled over the body. Who was she? By now, they must have sent someone to clean up the stain. But when I get up to look, it’s still there, a dark blemish. Like a hole opening up to Hell. I’ve never asked anything of God—if he exists. But tonight, I pray that it snows more, so that the stain will be covered up when she gets back. To spare her that.
Gary had accumulated feelings like bodies of water accumulate old tires and lone shoes. Eventually, they all began to bob up to the surface. I would come home from the restaurant to find him on the couch, on his third bottle of dep wine and his second Philip Seymour Hoffman film. When I asked him whether he planned on getting a new job, he’d say I was pressuring him. He was too drunk to make love, or eat regularly. He just cried a lot and begged me not to leave him.
That made me want to leave him.
I ordered a box of hosts to our address, hoping they might remind Gary of The Plan. But when they arrived, he grew furious. He accused me of letting my adolescent boredom ruin the sobriety he’d spent years working for and dared me to leave him, just like his bitch of an ex-wife. I tried to calm him down, but he staggered into the kitchen and pulled a dull chef’s knife from one of the drawers.
“You know what I’ll do if you leave?” he said, his voice low and gravelly.
“No,” I answered, meeting his eyes.
“I’ll kill myself.” He pressed the tip of the knife to the flabby, middle-aged skin of his own neck. “I’ll end it and you’ll be fucking sorry. Then you’ll know what it’s like to feel guilty.”
He swayed in place, then chucked the knife on the kitchen table and ambled past me to the door. As soon as he was gone, I felt something break open inside of me, a rush of relief and panic all at once. The box of hosts was on the table. I ripped it open and ate one, then three, then as many as I could cram into my mouth at the same time.
No one’s coming. I put on my winter coat and step into my boots. In the downstairs lobby, I lift the snow shovel from its hook. Outside, the view is much different from the ground. Everything is hard and dangerous. I might trip on the concrete steps and crack my head open, or impale myself on the handrail. When a car goes by on St-Joseph, I imagine how easy it must be to forget to look and step right out in front of it. Even the snow looks sharp. Why wasn’t the world made softer?
I march across the lawn. I try not to think about the stain coming from an actual body as I turn my head and dig my shovel in, my arms weak. When I lift the shovel again I’ve barely loosened any snow. I dump it over the blood and dig in again.
Angèle leant me enough money for two months’ rent, along with a lead on a one-bedroom apartment in the Plateau—far from where Gary and I lived. She told me I could pay her back whenever. Between lunch and dinner shifts, I took the 55 up St-Laurent, met the landlord, and signed the lease.
When I came home after work, Gary was back. He was wearing real clothes for the first time in a long time, and he smelled of aftershave. He took my coat at our door, and I noticed his movements were rigid, like a robot’s. He stared at me with a solemn expression—the same one the First Communion priest had so long ago. I’d forgotten what his eyes looked like when they weren’t glazed over. He took my hand and led me to the living room, where we sat down on the couch.
“I haven’t been taking care of you,” he said.
“I mean it,” he said. He bowed his head, raising his eyes to meet mine. “I’m—ashamed.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I want to make everything right. I’m going to get sober.”
I thought about telling him about the money Angèle had leant me, the lease I’d signed. How he didn’t have to do anything. I was practically already gone. It was my chance to speak to him like an adult.
“But,” he continued, “I need your help.”
My chance to tell him that I couldn’t help him.
“Will you stay with me?”
“I will,” I answered. “I promise.”
After that, we made love. The next day, I quit my job and changed my phone number. On my way to my new apartment, I stopped at St. Monica’s and left a letter for the new chaplain. Please help Gary.
A taxi pulls up. I know it’s her before she gets out. I stand clutching the shovel, my boots stuck in foot holes punched through the crusted surface of the snow. Caught trying to cover up her grief.
She starts up the walk. I pray she doesn’t notice me, but she stops halfway to the entrance, bringing her hand to her chest in slow motion. She looks from the shovel to the heap of dislodged snow on the ground before her gaze finds mine. I stand there, paralyzed for a second before I set my shovel down and go to her. From up close, she looks profoundly tired, years of pain held in the bags below her eyes, skin draped loose over her cheekbones, wiry gray hair, deep wrinkles bracketing chapped lips. I open my arms and pull her into me as her body starts to heave. Across the road, the church stands, a silent fortress. From this angle, Mary is obscured by shadows. Only her baby, held out over the park, can be seen.
After a moment, the woman pulls away. She takes a deep breath, nods, and continues up the walk until she disappears into the building.
Upstairs, I go to the bathroom and open the medicine cabinet, taking out the pregnancy test. I catch my reflection in the mirror as I push the cabinet closed. I suppose I haven’t really looked at myself in a long time. My face is thin and angular. Kiddish. I undo my pants and tug them down, the air frigid against my bare skin. That poor lady, crying over her son’s body on the ground. Her grief a pit of sadness. And here I am, unable to face the thought. Of a child. How can I be a mother if I’m only a child myself? Plunking myself down on the toilet seat, I bring the wand beneath my legs and close my eyes. Praying.
CARLY ROSALIE VANDERGRIENDT’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Room, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, Riddle Fence, and others. She lives in Montreal, where she is at work on her first novel. Visit her online at www.carlyrosalie.com or follow her on twitter @carlyrosalie.