Righteous  

Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2004

 

 

             I am a well trained woman.

When Jen, a tall, clear girl, and I sit in her truck at stop lights, she holds my hand through leather gloves making it hard to remember the texture and warmth of our more real fingers.  It’s winter and dark here in this salty city as I talk about my mother’s need to scare me off sin and predators, as she talks of lovers she’s had in thrift store changing rooms, as we talk about our loss of language with men.

“My mother would say we speak in tongues,” I tell her.

Jen points at the windshield.  “Fog needles,” she says as they roll icy down the glass.

We are in love, and snow storms are mystical.  Every day for the past month at noon we walk toward each other over frozen, downtown grass to stand behind the junkyard’s cottonwood tree, our arms warming against each other as we kiss and listen to the bend of frozen metal.  Sometimes the junk man sees us, his orange coveralls faded to pink, and sometimes he nods hello.  When we stopped being afraid and nodded back, he started talking.

“I never been in love,” he says sometimes, the cottonwood cracking a little in the wind.  “I seen a lot of people in love, though.  In the movies.”

We smile.

The junk man smiles.

We move toward the fence and away from his eyes.  Jen’s fingers press cool against my forehead as I relax toward her.

You would think with all this smileyness and touching, with all the bang and pop of infatuation, with all the hoopla of love, I’d finally, once and for all, be able to stop thinking of God’s rhetoric.

But I live in the City of God .

It’s a salty city by an inland sea.

You’ve heard of it.  The golden angel.  The Olympics.  The snow.

Once I was what they call a child of God, and though I stopped being this a year ago, I am a well trained woman.

My work-friend Reina says I’m poisoned.

Mira, hija, you just got to let all that shit go,” she says, chewing on her salad.  “You know, like cast some kind of Wall-Mart spell and be done with it.”

She knows I still hear the voices of belief.  She says she used to hear them too.

“Once when I was sixteen I was having sex this guy and I just couldn’t stop thinking something was wrong.”  She points her fork at me.  “It’s just Catholic guilt shit.”

“Mormon guilt shit,” I say.

It often comes in the form of the following kinds of language:

“The righteous shall rise up and their multitudes of children will bless them and this upholding of life will flow like milk and honey,” said Brother Romney years ago, but I’m hearing it even now, even over beer and salad as if I was still a child breathing God in daily.  Brother Romney was forty and ancient, a fixer-of-cars during the week, always greasy fingernails, always blue tennis shoes, but he liked to sound biblical.  Once at church he stopped me in the hallway as I was thinking about charity, as I was trying to feel every drop of heavenly love a fifteen-year-old could make herself feel.  I was telling all the old sisters how pretty their dresses were even if I didn’t think so.  And I smiled sweetness at all the brothers, even if they smelled funny or had hard whiskers in their ears.  Even if their hands were large and frightening.  And my lies, and my lack of true belief, made me want to shrivel.  The world needs more smiles, a sister had told us earlier, and I wanted to believe her, and so I smiled at Brother Romney.

“You’re going to see an angel someday,” he said.  I looked up at him, then looked away, but I didn’t leave.  I had always wanted to see an angel.  I had always wanted to experience what the prophets did, and see something unexpected and brilliant.  So I waited for him to say more.  He paused, then closed his eyes, put his hand up, and spoke with Biblical force.  “You will see an angel, sister, and on that day, you will assume your righteous place as one of my celestial wives.”

I stopped smiling.  I backed away a little from his loudness.  I looked down at his tennis shoes covered in car grease.

“Every righteous woman has her destiny,” he said.  He looked down at my neck which was bare and feeling suddenly cold.

From then on, I wore turtlenecks.  I moved away any time Brother Romney and his blue tennis shoes started walking toward me.  I could often see them glowing through all the dark trousers and wingtips, so it was easy to escape.  A year later, boys my age began looking at me.   I noticed their eyes moving up and down me from across the foyer, eyes rolling over me from behind.  I avoided them and used Godliness as my excuse.

“I will never have sex,” I told my mother one day.

“Well, at least not until you’re married,” she said.

“Yes.  That’s what I meant,” I said.

Eleven years later, I’m still trying hard to buck the trend.

At car washes, men ask me for my phone number.  I give them the Governor’s personal seven digits gotten from an aide named Brenda who I kissed in the gubernatorial bathroom.

In restaurants as Jen and I touch toes and knees, men wink.  If I’m feeling tired, I try to ignore them.  If I’m feeling vindictive, I wink back, little teaser girl kissing her dark lips at them.  If I’m feeling the guilt of God for not wanting men, on our way out I slap my hand down hard on their leering tables and make their eyes pop.

It took me a lot of years to be able to do this.

And I still always feel bad afterward.

Mormons are supposed to be nice, and I am, as I said, well trained.

On Sundays, I eat pretzels and drink spicy martinis while critiquing religious television.  The sing song preaching, the commercials for Christian window cleaner, the teary-eyed testimonies of people who think they’ve seen His Most Highest Presence all make me laugh somewhat too harshly.

Jen looks at me funny on Sundays.

I try to act secure and calm and cynical, but even after four or five drinks, all those years of righteous language still echo and pierce me.

“There is no happiness without Godliness,” says the white-haired television preacher.  He is surrounded by flowers, an easterner’s version of heaven on earth.  “Sinners are just fooling themselves.  God is never a fool.”

The audience says, “Amen.”

I look over at Jen, then look away, press the mute button.

“Why do you torture yourself, Rhonda?”  She turns off the TV, sits in front of me on the coffee table and begins to kiss my eyes, but my mind filled with drinks and guilt slips sideways and nothing Jen does, not her more forceful kissing, not her biting teeth, or even her most pleasant nakedness can bring me back around.

A year ago I was still celibate and singing in church.

Maybe that’s my problem.

It’s only been 365 days since I was praying and avoiding sex daily.  I wish I could say I was now reborn in women’s bodies, that merely touching the under curve of my first woman’s breast burned God right out of me.

Reinita says I shouldn’t expect miracles.

“It’s milagro enough you don’t go to that stupid church any more,” she says during our morning break.

“Maybe I need an exorcism,” I say.  “You know people who can do that, don’t you?”

“Just try burning something,” she says.  “After my ex left me, I burned all those expensive silk suits of his and felt a lot better.”

I picture myself standing naked in front of a bon fire, roasting marsh mallows, inviting the neighbors over, and because the image is pleasing, that night after work I look through the shelves of a thrift store for things I could burn.  I grab a few ragged Books of Mormon, a few Miracles of Forgiveness, and a pair of white shoes because white is delightsome for Mormons.  As I pass the dolls, I grab a few limbless Barbies, just because.  But in my back yard at home, the pile does not look very impressive, and I feel bad because the grass will die under the flames, and then there’s that problem of not having a burning permit, and it’s hard for Mormons to do illegal things.  So I take the pile inside and put it in my kitchen sink.  I try to light one of the doll’s dresses, but they are apparently fire retardant.  I light another match, hold it against the edge of a Book of Mormon page.  Nothing happens.  I light a candle and put it under the pile, but it goes out.

I call Jen and say a little too shrilly, “I need lighter fluid right now.”   As we drive in her truck, I try to focus on her and nothing else.

Even in winter, her eyes are so dark and small they pull me into her brows and make me want to drive without speed or movement or need.  Jen seems so new and shiny and lightly smiling all the time.  When we kiss, she does not get interrupted by images of a fiery God or blue tennis shoes.

She tells me she’s had her problems with Jesus, but I guess it’s easier for Lutherans.  Somehow, now, she is guilt-free.

I envy her beyond words.

Back at my house I say to her, “You make me so jealous,” as I squeeze gas onto the Barbies.  I light another match and this time the pile opens into blue flame.  Jen’s eyes go a bit big as the fire expands up the ceiling turning it black.  A bit of flame leaps out at my arm, but I don’t move.  I want to feel every cleansing moment.

But that night, as I drink a martini, my arm bandaged and raw, I think of Sister Avery telling us 12-year-old girls to obey, no matter what.

“My dear, young sisters, know this, that only by obedience to the higher laws and the priesthood will you ascend.”  She beamed at us.  She always beamed at us.  Beaming and obedience were like gold in a woman.

You hear these things enough and even the smallest act of defiance seems grand and horrifying.

Once when we were at Sister Avery’s house making lacey bible covers, she whispered in my ear.

“You are a very special angel,” she said.  “God has big plans for you.”

Her lips vibrated velvet against my head.  Her breath was very warm.  I stared at the soft hairs on her arm and suddenly wanted to touch them.  I had never really wanted to touch anyone before, certainly not the brethren, and not my friends at school, though, once, at a church sleepover Susie Davidson crawled into my sleeping bag in only her panties, and we laid there breathing fear.  We didn’t touch, though.  We didn’t even speak.  And we never looked at each other again.

So something about Sister Avery’s warm, real-woman’s body so close to my face made me want to do something like put my fingers against her.  And then I did, just touched her arm for the lightest moment.  I told myself all I wanted was to feel her spirit.  She wore thick glasses, and pink, heavy lipstick, and always smelled like bread dough, but her mouth was beautiful.

“You will be a holy mother of missionaries,” she whispered.

I wanted was to touch the grease of her lips.

A year ago I had never tasted liquor or a woman’s mouth.

A year ago I was chewing on sacrament bread passed around by a boy with a short, fat tie.  I looked normal enough in a peach colored skirt.  I sang hymns from memory.  I still smiled at people.  I had been busy at college, so people didn’t yet fear my lack of attachment to men.  Sister Woodson with her loose dentures was at the podium talking about the white and delightsome race of God.  I looked over at Brother Aguilar.  He was sleeping.  Then the toupee man stood up and read a poem full of modern saints and peculiar people and procreation, and he looked right at me and said, “Too many of us take our wonderful savior for granted by not repenting each and every day.”  As he sat down, I pulled my skirt a little lower over my knees.  I crossed my legs.  Susie Davidson-Smith was playing with her new baby.  She, apparently, had repented.  I pushed my fingernails into the flesh of my palms, and looked into the arc lamp above.

That’s when the shimmering started.

With my eyes opened or closed, I could see beautiful light sparking like water, an electrical movement spreading down through the air.

For a moment I thought maybe I was seeing spirits.

I didn’t felt pure or impure.

I felt nothing.

It was wonderful.

But after a while, my head began to hurt. 

Later Reinita said I had had a migraine, but I didn’t care.  After twenty-five years, I decided this was the vision I needed.  This would be the sign.

Finally, I could leave it all behind for good.

The next Sunday, I shook hands with the glasses man and the choir lady and the old women on the back row who often cried when they saw me.  The Bishop smiled and I smiled.  I didn’t look at brother Romney with his greasy shoes and slick hair and polygamist prophesies.

I thought that would be it, the end of a perfectly virginal existence, the end of my pseudo-celestial, guilt-ridden life.

The next day I bought a leather jacket and walked into a lesbian bar.

“I want a martini,” I said.  “A blue one.”  I had always liked how smooth and angular martini glasses looked on television.  The bartender sat it down all frosty in front of me.  Blue glowing coolness against my fingers.  I sipped a little and felt instantly drunk.

“Hi.”  A black woman sat next to me.  Her head was mostly shaved, and she was beautiful.  I stared at her stained, juicy lips.

“I’ve never seen you here,” her mouth said. 

“No,” I said to her mouth.  My new jacket was a squeaky, stiff skin.  I liked that it had small chains around the cuffs.  The metal of them made me feel something like strength.

“I’m Michele,” the beautiful lips said.  The bartender brought her a beer without her having to ask.  She put two cigarettes in her mouth, lit them, then offered me one.  I took the cigarette to distract me from my staring.  I smelled the tobacco, tasted the filter that had just been in her mouth.  I sucked in a bit of smoke and started coughing.

Michele’s hand was close to mine and so dark, so perfectly shaped, so easily holding the cigarette all lazy and ashing.  The bar was getting crowded with blonde and brunette and red-headed women, all shapes of women, all smells and undulations.

Michele turned back to her beer, then looked at me.  I looked at my martini.

“Nice jacket,” she said, touching my sleeve.

I waited for a minute, looked down and said, “I like your hair.”

She laughed.  “Thanks,” she said.

I wanted her to touch me before I bolted, before God appeared to berate me, just as I knew He would, on a large LCD screen above her head, direct from his own personal polygamist planet.  When I saw someone wearing blue tennis shoes, I thought of running, but I had already sipped the martini.  It was too late to go back.

I tried to breathe slowly.  “Take me outside,” I said, and Michele did, and she kissed me in the parking lot, my lips immobilized from excitement and an absence of air.  Her head was so bald, damp from the heat of us, and sweet to touch. 

Then faintly, very faintly I heard Sister Avery say, “Thou shalt not commit sexual endeavors of any kind except within the procreative bonds of matrimony, specifically those bonds that are established within God’s holy of holy temple.”  Her voice seemed to be coming from the tree behind the bar, but when I looked, there were only leaves and pigeons.  Michele continued to kiss me, and Sister Avery continued to talk about celestial this and holy that, and eventually I had to bite my inner cheek. 

“Is something wrong?” Michele asked.  She pulled at me, her hands strong on my leathery, wobbling arms. I had that sense of needing to pray which Mormon’s often do for inner peace, but when I sipped the martini, I had vowed never to do so again.

“I feel kind of funny,” I said.  I backed away a little.  “That martini must have been a strong one.”  I kept backing away, backing toward the street, and, yes, I left Michele, a tall, lippy woman, standing beautiful and uncertain on the asphalt.

This is how it is to be poisoned.

When I finally had the guts to flirt all winking and sultry with the Latina receptionist at my doctor’s office, I thought I could hear Brother Romney just inside the exam room door telling the doctor about my evil ways. 

“She’s a . . . and she’s a . . . and don’t trust . . .and no good . . .” came murmuring to me through the plywood door.

When I took a tour at the Governor’s mansion and Brenda Smith said she liked dark girls as she pinned me to the wall mirror in the bathroom, even as we started to rip at each other, I thought I could hear Sister Avery’s voice coming out of the toilet all garbled and liquidy. 

“uuunnggggooooodlllyyy ssssspirit . . .”

I sucked at Brenda’s tongue, but couldn’t focus.  The drowned words kept coming until I ran fast, leaving my new leather jacket behind.

And now, one year, 720 martinis, and eleven interruptus kissing episodes later, I’m here trying it again.

I met Jen under the cottonwoods behind our offices, and we had sandwiches in our warm hands, but even as we talked, the pigeons and leaves would rustle their guilt-voices at me, chasing me back to my office and an empty afternoon.  Still, every day I would go outside and Jen would be there, and she was calm, and she was secure, and her face would be lightly smiling, and her sandwich would be lightly melting, and my organs would turn inside-out for her dark dark hair.  After a few weeks, she came over to me and said, “I guess we like trees,” and I looked right at her, and she fell on top of me, and we fell on the grass in our skirts, and I was able to kiss without stopping.  Eventually I let her take me to her house.

Nakedness was something wholly new to me, the air against my skin, the unapologetic movement of my flesh, and Jen’s eyes watching me.

Mormons just don’t get naked.

One night when we were rolling around on her carpet all sweat and nothing, I noticed how quiet things were.

“Listen,” I said.  I looked out the window at the arc lamp.  It was so bright.  So shimmery.  Then the electricity of it pushed deeper into in my irises.  “What beautiful lights,” I said, and I laid back and closed my eyes as Jen kissed me all over.  The air around us stayed silent.

“I’m having a vision,” I said.

Jen laughed.  Jen kissed.  Jen licked.

Then my headache started, a large, expanding throb, and I began to wonder if someone might be looking at us through the window.

Beauty just doesn’t last for Mormon girls.

A few weeks later Jen drives me to the flat, briny lake north of the city because she and I think it will be a little kinky, and thus religiously distracting, to make out in her truck on the edge of a dead lake, this ancient sea where real desert sunsets go to the lowest horizon line, slightly curved with the earth’s roundness.  The lake looks pink for a moment, and then Jen begins kissing and biting my ear, and then I’m kissing and biting her ear.  My head is quiet, the water is glassy, and Jen’s lips are smooth.  Stars begin to show through black clouds, then Jen bites my tongue.

I can feel the hair on my neck sensitize.

A voice begins to speak behind us.

“Shit,” I say matter-of-factly.  “The Bishop is speaking again.”  Jen kisses me a little more deeply, then coos into my ear.  I try hard to focus on the moment, on Jen’s whispering accent, Minnesotan, and the scratchiness of her nose, and the way my skin feels like something newly ocean wet.  I try to think about her earring clicking against my teeth.  I focus on her hand touching my neck, and then that toothpaste kiss of hers dissolving in my fearful, needy mouth.

I try not to think about all the staring eyes of the past as I unbutton her shirt.

But I am a well trained woman.

“Headlights,” I say, sitting up.  I’m breathing fast.  I try to look like I’m looking at the lake, the calm water, the lack of brine flies.  There seems to be lightening to the northeast, but it’s winter.

“Relax baby, we’re all alone out here,” Jen says, touching my cheek. 

“Relax,” I say.  “Yes,” I say.  “I will relax,” I say.

We sit and look at the stars as I breathe and breathe.  She rubs my hand, then my neck, then she’s kissing my ear again, and I’m rubbing the softness of her belly, and I’m almost completely present with the depth of her flesh when light flashes somewhere near us.  I duck as I always do when lightening or God are near by.

 I hear the boom.

“That was close,” Jen says.

“God,” I say. 

Another flash, and a huge sound cracks the air.

“Fuck,” I say.

“Jeesh,” Jen says.

The steering wheel, the dashboard begins to vibrate, and as I look up, I think this is the end and everything they said to us about Revelations was right, and soon now we’ll hear the trumpets and see the blood red moon and know our love of women’s lips has doomed us to always smolder in eternal, boring time.

“This is my fault,” I whisper.  “I’ve brought this on you.”

Then a flash of light goes off in front of me, right in my eyes, blinding.  The familiar shimmering starts, and I am full of fast fast breathing.  My head gets light.  A large pulsing hum fills the cab, and my eye sight starts to bend.

“I’m going over,” I say.

“Baby,” Jen says, “it’s just a storm.”  I can feel her stroking my arm, my hair, my neck, but she’s a blur.  I want to open my mouth to her and distract myself from the oncoming hellfire.  I form my lips and get ready to relax into her skin, but that’s when the language comes.

 “ . . . and the nothing . . . and the blue mother virgin . . . and the heart roses of evil . . . and the crystalline sphere of Adam . . .and the floating planet Kolob circling with speed and joy . . .”

Everything in front of me is light on water.  I can’t see the truck or the storm or Jen anymore.

“. . . and fluorescent virgins . . .and post-nuclear ochre mountains . . . and round songs with notes beyond joy. . .” 

These are not the voices I’m used to.  They slowly edge into me, slowly gleam through the pores of my skin.

When I was young, I had wanted to see angels, but I had expected them to wear white suits and ties, and speak like Joseph Smith with an Illinois accent and a Jane Austin vocabulary.  I had expected them to have tight smiles and clip boards full of correlated lists of the good, the mediocre, the bad, and the truly evil, and to each his own area of heaven. 

I hadn’t expected this.

My brain is sparks and purple language.

I reach out to touch one of the spiraling words.  When I put it in my mouth it tastes like amethysts.

But whether or not this is God sending me a message in rain and language, the hugeness of the universe begins to open me in a lovely, painful way for the very first time.  Fear begins to burn off me with each letter, with each vowel, with each cooling, purple word.

I guess some people forget to be afraid when they are about to die.

Then my head begins to hurt.  Flecks of cold, multi-syllabic words cut into my scalp, cut through the thin skin of my poisoned self, and I see and feel total whiteness.

Later I wake up in a hospital.  Jen tells me she had opened a window and my head was being pelted with splinters of icy rain, and then my nose began to bleed, and she tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t move, so she got scared and drove fast to the closest emergency room.  I look up at her, at the curtained-off walls, and I’m wearing a gown, and my clothes are piled on a chair, and there’s an IV running into the top of my hand, and I’m very smiley and cold.

“It’s Demerol,” she says.

“Demerol,” I say.  “It taste’s like grape juice, or really, really ripe limes, or something egg-like.  Yeah,” I say.

Jen looks into my eyes, takes my hand.  “They say it was just a bad migraine,” she says.

“Purple stones, like God, like some kind of mountain.  Yeah, like that,” I say.

“You’re going to be ok,” Jen kisses my forehead like I’m a child.

“I like Demerol,” I say.  “Demerol is good.”

Later Jen takes me home, and I have long, cool dreams about eating rocks and kissing Sister Avery long and hard for hours, and days later I wake up, and Jen is there with her red tennis shoes and her dark eyes and warm hands, and I’m suddenly horny as hell, and I pull her down to me, I pull at her clothes and make ravenous, nasty love to her, and we are everywhere with it, the couch, the scratchy floor, upside down and turning at angles, and it makes me dizzy, my head still migraine uncertain, and at times Jen looks Midwestern-scared, but we keep going, breathing ragged hard, pushing and pushing against each other until my nose begins to bleed again, staining her carpet, and I laugh at it, and my head throbs righteously in the afternoon light of our salt city winter as I taste the toothpaste of her kiss.

And later, when I look outside, the air is gray, but nothing is moving, not the cars or the trees or the people.  The world outside stays completely still.

 

Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2002

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