But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
“Am I an angel, Mama?” I asked my mama, and she said no, I’m not an angel, but I can be something like it. I was 10 years old lying on the bed in my pink room with my beige cross on the wall, with greasy black hair that went past my shoulders. It was nighttime, but when I was 10, everything always felt like nighttime. There was a big cloud over my head or a big hole in my heart, and I couldn’t understand why. My skin was soft and sweet smelling with baby soap. Mama was sitting next to me, braiding my hair. I wanted my hair to be wavy for school the next day. I put the loose strands behind my ear and hated myself.
At some point, Mama had told Dad that I was afraid to fall asleep, and I was starting to understand that there was something wrong with my brain. I avoided question number 6 on my homework because I thought answering it would condemn me to hell. I never crossed out the letter C on multiple choice tests because Christ would think I hated Him. I didn’t like to go near churches, because I was afraid I would start burning up and everyone would know I was possessed. Years later, I was diagnosed with OCD. But at that time, Dad thought Mama was ruining my life. But she was just braiding my hair, and I knew he could never love me the way that I wanted.
He would knock on my door looking for me to say that I loved him. I always said the words he wanted, but I kept my door closed. He never cared when I cried, not even when I was even smaller and cuter, when I asked him not to punch Mama in the face. I remember when he pulled her by her hair. I saw her nose bleeding in my bad thoughts. Later, she kissed him.
What is my strength, that I should hope? and what is mine end, that I should prolong my life?
Everything goes wrong after Lot lets two angels into his home. The men in Sodom want to have sex with the angels, and they won’t accept Lot’s virgin daughters as substitutes, even though he offers them up. Lot and his family escape to the mountains while the angels destroy their city. When Lot’s wife turns to look at the destruction, even though God tells her not to, she turns to a pillar of salt.
The summer before I left for college, I went to Bulgaria to visit family and get christened. I was ashamed of it, but I felt like my life was about to undergo an irreversible shift — I was going to become an adult, no longer a girl. I wanted to look back, hold onto it a little longer, but it was time to go. We drove through hills of green grass and barely-populated villages to get to the church, where the priest rubbed holy oil onto my scalp and cut a long piece of hair from the top. My body was new and godly. In the church basement, after the ceremony, I saw a creamy white skull with a hole in it. “Don’t look if you are afraid,” my uncle said, in his richly accented English. “Saint’s skull.”
I took walks by the Dead Sea because I loved the crisp smell of black, nighttime water. It’s sharp, as though someone threw a rock into your lap and you swallowed it like a pill. I don’t understand what I was supposed to learn from Lot’s wife. Should I resent her for wanting, needing to look at what she couldn’t have?
Her body crumbled to the earth, death in the ground forever. Lot walks away, and online Bible explainers and televangelists don’t tell you if he missed her, but you know he doesn’t. I don’t think Lot’s wife went to heaven. I think about how sand sinks under your feet like a million tiny wives, bending to your will as you walk all over it.
I missed my mom the whole time I was in Bulgaria. She never wanted to talk when my dad was home. But on a park bench hairy with moss, as I ate a piece of Tseluvki and smeared feta onto my dinner bread, my grandma wanted to talk about our family. “You have to forgive him,” she always said in Bulgarian. “You’re a Christian, right?”
1 Peter 3:1-6
Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
God, why did you do this to me? God, why did you put me here, in this bed, in this dorm with the painted cross on the wall? Would You love me if I took it off the wall and sat on it? Do You still love me even though I left my family and went to college?
I liked going outside in college. Once, I lay face down in rubbery, yellowy green grass and watched creatures: a fox losing all its hair, three groundhogs waddling into a dirt holes with their fat legs. They were always running away.
Through most of college, starting my freshman year, I told people I didn’t have a dad, and I fucked boys who didn’t love me. That didn’t feel good. I was embarrassed by how desperately I sought out people that made me feel powerless, but desperation and powerlessness were my other words for love. Every night before I went to sleep in my twin-sized bed, I looked at an icon of Mary and baby Jesus that I stuck on the wall with a command strip and bid them goodnight. It always made me shiver. I wonder what they thought of me then.
When I was 19, there was a boy. I worked on the school newspaper with him. When we finished working, he invited me to his dorm for tea. In my memory, that entire year is smudgy and hazy, leftover colors, like painting with water while you cry. Some memories stick out with more definition, like how he wouldn’t look at me while we ate in the 24-hour diner. How we held hands the entire day that he visited me in Manhattan, how convinced I was that I was going to throw up on the subway home. In his room with his Christmas lights turned on, glowing soft white while he touched my body after I shook my head, telling him not to. After that, we stayed friends. I still kissed him after that.
When spring semester ended, he made me a playlist with the song “Kept Woman” by Fleet Foxes on it. I looked up the lyrics. “God above saw, ever in the mind / Blue and white irises in a line / Under your nameless shame / I left you in frame, and you rose to be ossified.” I googled “ossify”: to change into bone. He could see that I was made of salt, that my body crumbled into my twin-sized mattress. There were fish in my stomach laying eggs. They hatched and swam upstream.
2 Samuel 13:21
Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house. When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him
Me: 21st century Tamar or Bathsheba but less beautiful, an unnamed woman cloaked in shame and insubordination
He: Put me on the ground like a wormy apple
“You should be ashamed for being so cold,” my mom thought.
Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.
He broke up with me shortly after. For a while, I felt very lost. I didn’t know who I was, but I was angry. “Fuck Apostle Paul,” said everyone in my class when I was 20. Apostle Paul said, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” But I was overcome by sick, bad thoughts, and a ghost in my bedroom wanted me to wriggle so hard in my sheets that I got tangled and stuck. Eventually, I found a therapist who pushed me. I tried to get unstuck. My therapist helped me learn that my gulping heart was very angry.
Me: At who?
My heart: Everyone.
I wanted to punch a hole in a family portrait. I wanted a family I could sit for a portrait with. I wanted to tell Apostle Paul to go fuck himself. I didn’t want to love my mom anymore. She wouldn’t leave my dad, no matter what he did or said. I saw myself in her.
“I love your father,” she told me. I hated the way it sounded. I stayed up all night writing poems about death and flesh. I watched Carrie and saw her mom with a black cloak wailing, Carrie standing on the school stage, bloody like the apocalypse.
She looked like a martyr, but for what? All she wanted was to go to prom.
When I turned 21, I was dating someone who helped me see that love was something more like faith and important conversations. I learned about boundaries and how to tell people what I wanted from them. But with my family, I couldn’t. I screamed and cried in my mom’s face and she screamed and cried back. But still, she wouldn’t leave him. Still, she loved him. All I wanted was for her to love me. To say she was sorry.
Eventually, an apocalypse goes on for too long, and the world gets very, very quiet. I tried to stop screaming. I learned about who I should forgive and found out it wasn’t everyone. God winked down on me. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I dreamed like Daniel. I made sweet potato and roast chicken for dinner and didn’t leave any for my father. I stared at my pink room swathed in purple sunrise and told my mom that there are so many things I can’t forgive. I love her. I braid my hair so that God can see my face.