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March 6, 2015 | Nonfiction

The Infidel Approaches Grace

Sara Rauch

The Infidel Approaches Grace photo

Words like Moonlight

Because we have to hide, we are most often outside together, in bad weather and good, skirting borders, sticking to the shadows.

The night we part, not knowing when we will see each other next, we go out walking beneath a swollen, but waning, moon. We harmonize Patsy Cline and he holds me against the damp wind. He looks at me like I am the only woman in the world and tells me I am beautiful and I say, Everything looks beautiful in moonlight and he says, But you— You are especially beautiful.

He’s told me this before, but there’s an awful yearning ache in his words this night, a chasm I throw myself into.

I say, I bargained with the Universe for this.

He lifts an eyebrow.

I swore I’d take all the pain, if I could have you just once.

He says, I don’t want you to be in pain.

I look away into the darkness; I look away knowing it does not matter what he wants.

In the beginning, I asked him: Do you believe in God?

His answer—though it grappled with feeling and proof, the vastness of forests and the silence of crypts, energy ebbing and pulsing—was No.

The moon casts her blue eye upon us. She witnesses how we fit together like key into lock, like plug into socket. She watches us kiss good night, neither able to bear the word goodbye.

           

Trespass

I knew from the start I was not the only woman in the world.

I was the other woman.

And he, the other man. (Consider the fallibility of language: my partner was not a man.)

For a year and a half, we had an affair.

For a year and a half, we did not call it this.

We called ourselves star-crossed lovers. We said eternity. We said elemental. We said electric. We said many things I will not repeat.

I remain amazed at how many code words exist for lust.

             

Mirror

He told me I was his only transgression. That it was I alone he could not resist. That he never wanted to be untrue to his wife, or the vows he’d made.

And how long, you might ask, did it take me to trust him? 

In a strange city, we stepped out of the snow, flakes melting in our eyelashes. We sat down next to each other for lunch. He cupped his palm to my cheek and the confusion that was mine and not mine flickered across our faces. Outside, the city turned blank and quiet.

Later, Billie Holiday warbled, “I’ve got it bad, and that ain’t good…” Gray snow-light filtered in around us. I lifted his palm to my mouth; I drank him in.

My faith, I told him, is nameless. I find it in fallen leaves, in my coffee cup, in the place where a wave kisses the sand before pulling back to oblivion, in the sky, in smooth stones, in red lipstick, in the jagged patterns of our connection.

I pray. I light candles in shrines, in vigil, in ceremony. I cast circles. I chant. I sing hymns. I prostrate. Despite these devotions, I have no doubt that salvation is a fool’s prophecy.

Our romance was not without the traditional rituals. Eye contact. Whispers. Sweet and illicit emails. Double entendre. Secret meetings. Disrobing. But here’s where we veered away: naked and disarmed, we recognized some spark we’d carried since before glaciers and god were born. How impossible it seemed, that afternoon and every day after, to redress and reenter the world.  

I no longer recognize my face in the mirror.

This, I believe, is called penance.

 

Diptych: Cloven Heart

If our most common usage of the term broken heart signifies the loss of a lover, then I offer to you a subversion of this busted-out image: a heart split by the presence of loves at odds. The crooked inch of space between, a mighty river of red, may be the only ground I can occupy.

Heart-half #1

sitting beside her on the couch
falling asleep holding her hand
the warmth of her place in bed after she rises
her scent
her belly
her heartbeat
her hands

 

Heart-half #2

pressing against him by firelight
walking beside him holding his hand
the inviable ache of him after he eases out
his scent
his belly
his heartbeat
his hands

 

Three Circles

Catch a glimpse of my inner right wrist and you’ll see three linked circles tattooed there. Around my neck, I wear three linked gold circles (a style called love knots by the artist).

When asked about this symbol, as I often am, I trot out my spiel: the circles symbolize two people joined by something larger each without compromising their original form.

It’s the witch’s love rune.

It’s hopeful.

It’s noble.

It’s a terrible lie.

That ink upon my wrist is not an irrevocable alteration; thus far I’ve let it stand. I haven’t removed the necklace either. After all, only those gold circles floated between us while we fucked.         

 

Refrain

We shouldn’t do this.

But how, we kept asking, do we resist this unbidden magnetism?

I only ever spoke his name when I was outside, running. I wanted the wind to scatter my wishes. Miles and miles and miles, one foot, the other. I ran as if I might take flight.

We should stop.

But our attempts to let go were like trying to walk away from one’s burning house—what about? what about?—knowing the lives inside.

How do we live with this?

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I don’t know. 

 

The Ghosts Prepare for Battle

I told him I am haunted. I meant it to be sexy, but it came out honest. He asked questions, questions I found I implicitly knew the answers to. Have I seen ghosts? Felt them? When? What were they like? How do you do it?

They drew near while I typed. Brushed across my knuckles, fingered my hair; one particularly brave burr of light burrowed between two ribs, penetrating my flesh.

One evening, falling asleep, I whispered, Help, and when I woke and drew the blinds I discovered an army of spirits amassed on my front lawn. Didn’t take long to understand they’d come to fight for me; they awaited my battle cry.

Crowds—even the type I can walk through unhindered—terrify me, and I had little idea of what to do with the unruly mist camped in my trees, eager for strategy, eager for command.

The messenger—that bright burr lodged in my heart—warned of the formidable strength we were up against. That we had passion but needed patience, that fierce belief is never enough for victory.

The ghost army asked of me one thing: Are you willing to lose?

But, of course, they already knew my answer.

 

Empty Space

If a relationship requires compromise and sacrifice and a tempering of self, cheating is the ultimate exertion of individuality. An affair screams my body, my desires, my connection.

We scream, and in my case, throw dishes or whatever is easily at hand, to protect and defend, to shield our ugly tenderness.

Inside each of us is a room with a triple-bolted steel door, fortified by armed guards. On a tour of the transgressor’s heart, do not ask what is kept there. Politely ignore the rattling knob, the quaking frame, the fear in the guards’ eyes.

Secrets don’t take well to walls. And when a secret breaks those three paltry bolts, it will be wild: sharp teeth, long claws, a beast made stronger by its cage.

Think of a room with battered plaster, wind whistling through, the eerie slap of an unhinged door, leaves funneling in the corners, slash of cloudless blue above.

Think of the silence that follows a scream, the sweet aftermath of carnage, when the lone survivor sets out to cull the ruins.

 

Sympathy

The worst part of my partner leaving me was telling my mother.

The worst part was telling E— and K— and M— and C— and S— and B—.

The worst part was telling my best friend.

The worst part was telling the real estate agent who helped us buy and sell our house.

The worst part was telling the real estate agent I rented my new apartment from.

The worst part was telling my coworkers, my former boss, my MFA mates, my advisor, every friend I ran into in town.

The worst part was telling him.

The worst part was the empty echo of his reply: Damn, I’m so sorry.

 

Chorus

Are you eating?

 

Grace

By his sharp shoulder bones and jittery, unmoored eyes, the 24-hour grocery mart cashier is either an angel or a heroin addict. He watches as I hover over the canned soups, picking up and rejecting each tin in turn.

I carry my selection—Dinty Moore Chicken Stew—to the counter. The angel’s starved gaze zaps to the price tag and then to me; darkness has long fallen on this summer evening and I’m walking home from work, makeup smudged and half-rubbed away, bedecked in jewelry probably worth more than the bulk contents of this store. He stares just long enough for me to catch the silvery thread, taut with loss and sadness and desire.

I say, I’m having a weird craving.

He looks at me without blinking, really, really looks at me and then he shrugs and says, Yeah you are.

 

Chorus

Everything happens for a reason.

 

Grace

Saturday mornings before work, I load my recycling and compost and truck it to the transfer station. Usually I wear the previous evening’s work clothes, and a pair of oversized sunglasses to conceal my sleep-deprived eyes, which means the men and women in t-shirts and Carhartts often stare.

Roll-off containers edge the parking lot at precise angles. Looming behind, the Department of Public Works Building rises—green tar-paper shingles, cement walls—gritty and noble. Across Route 9, on a rolling hill, graze an idyllic herd of Holsteins.

Early on I develop a rhythm: paper, bottles and cans (what the DPW men know about me is I drink too much and feed too many cats), and, last, compost.

The compost bins are kept at the far end of the lot abutting the attendant’s station, past the card table that each week features an array of junk not quite ready for the incinerator: 1000-piece puzzles, plastic dolls in hand-crocheted dresses, dented tin trays, stained silk bouquets, rusty kettles.

A dozen 50-gallon bins line damp stone walls. The smell in high summer is rot and acetone, sharp as a slap. Bees drowse. Flies fuss. Maggots sometimes writhe.

And yet, even as I breathe in little gasps, I take my time. I study the contents of the open bin, divining fortunes in chicken bones and eggshells, tea bags and coffee grounds, seeking in the muck some semblance of a future.

Each week I add my refuse: wilted lettuce and kale stems, ever more coffee grounds, avocado skins, squash seeds, apple cores. And each week I step back, out into the fresh air, leaving the spoils to what they will become.

 

The Ghosts Return Home Defeated with Two Prisoners of War

They bang their tin cups against the bars of their cells, constantly hungry. They snap and snarl at me, at each other, ancient enemies, too busy with their feuding to notice I’ve unfastened the locks.

 

Tlazolteotl

Oh goddess of filth and purification, oh eater of sins, I come to ask of you the impossible task of forgiveness. They say no misdeed is too vile for your cure.

To remove him from me, begin with the obvious places: the whorl of my ear, the skin of my lips, the tender flesh of my throat. There are the retinas, their burned-on images.

There is beneath my fingernails, the lines of my palms, my ticklish inner arms, my nipples puckered in anticipation, the long trail to my belly button, and lower still to the elaborate folds waiting to be parted.    

His storm clouds linger in the cavern of my womb.

You will have to be shrewd. You will have to be cutthroat. You will have to tear me limb from limb. You must crack my fingers, my ulnas and humeruses, my collarbones; shatter my feet, my tibias and femurs, my hips, my pelvis, snap my vertebrae one by one, and the ribs, that awful cage; suck the marrow.

Once the bones are scraped clean, you will find my organ meat succulent from all this time marinating. Kidneys salty with the tears I’ve cried, liver yet filtering the bourbon I’ve guzzled (starting with the one I had in my hand the night he introduced himself), lungs gasping for his breath, and the heart, oh that pulpy, juicy, throbbing prize.

Afterward, rip the hair from my scalp—the hair he loved to grab between his fingers, to fall around his face, to curtain our kisses—and floss your teeth with it.

 

Organ

Once, after we parted, I saw chiseled into the side of a church: Behold I have set before thee an open door. I boarded a city bus and rode through the slushy, unfamiliar streets. Without warning, my chest tightened. I pressed my palm against my breastbone, to staunch what I thought was a break. But there thumped only a bigger heart, ripped through the place where my old had been.

I don’t know much about how the heart works—aorta and arteries, ventricles and veins, conspiring to pulse in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health—but I do know that without this careful workhorse, life ceases. Perhaps, then, it is no mistake that our steady ticker has been assigned the most wild card exploit of all.

Have you ever sat in the back of an empty cathedral and listened to the music of a pipe organ? The sound comes from all places at once, polyphonic, an invasion, echoing through every cell of the body.

This is how I still experience him.

Call it grace.

Call it mess.

Call it lust.

Call it love.

I confess to all of the above.

 

image: Aaron Burch


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