The baptism was on a Tuesday at six. I know this with certainty because it is written in my daily journal. Each page notated with three things I looked forward to and three things I was grateful for. It helps too that was the night before a once-in-a-lifetime tropical cyclone hit southern California. As I left the DMV after updating my license – sex and weight, the external features to match the internal – an alert on the car radio said by morning to drive only in an emergency. The day turned dark early, as dark metallic clouds smothered L.A.’s quotidian blue skies. But, when I pulled into the parking lot of the First Revival Church of Los Angeles and killed the engine, the world around me was showered in a familiar soft, pinkish glow.
First Revival was one of those portable churches that pop up on Sunday mornings in high school auditoriums and community centers. This one had taken extended residence inside the corpse of a bankrupt big-box store. An electric cross was fastened on the wide, plaster awning to cover up the geometric stain of the previous tenant’s logo, which lingered like the dried blood of some dead corporate giant. At night, the cross lit up the entire block with a hypnotizing neon light. Except the bulb above the crossbar had burned out, so it resembled the letter T. I parked at the far end of the lot facing the swaying palms on the boulevard. By that time, I hadn’t been to the church in almost a year. Not since Jacqueline, who came on Sunday mornings for service and Monday evenings for the recovery group, where struggling addicts gravitated to the pink light on shuffled feet like clipped-wing moths to sit in uncomfortable chairs and reassure each other change was possible.
With the burning pink T in my rearview mirror, I wondered what unsuspecting drivers thought it meant as they passed by: tacos, tattoos, tits. It was at that moment, I noticed a car illegally parked on the curb, a small, bulbous, plum-colored Geo the shape of a raisin. As there was no other car in the deserted lot except my own, I knew it had to be Pastor Michael’s, but I could not accept it. A pastor’s salary isn’t substantial, but that dried motorized grape was offensive. Where was the long, black, svelte, conveyor of a servant of the highest power in all the universe? It’s funny how our possessions can reveal more about ourselves than we think.
I was a half hour early, having finally conditioned myself to the virtue of punctuality. So, the first thing I did when I got out of the car was check the fitness tracker on my wrist. I had walked around 9,000 steps, short of my 10,000 quota. I had time to spare, so I made my way across the fractured asphalt toward the imperfect cross that was the only light. A strong wind announced the arrival of tomorrow’s storm. The clap of my dress shoes was muffled by the palm tree’s clapping fronds. I walked the circuit from car to church entrance, back and forth, 250 steps each way. As the digital numbers ticked past 10,000, I realized I had taken one step too far. The church’s sliding glass doors parted to reveal Pastor Michael already waiting for me in the sea of bright light of the former store. But I wasn’t ready for the con. I side stepped out of the censor until the doors closed on his baffled look.
Under the sanctuary of the dimly lit awning, I could see my reflection in the long black windows but almost didn’t recognize the man in the gray wool suit staring back at me. I could do this, for both of us, I said. Then I took a deep breath and stepped back in front of the doors. They parted once again. Pastor Michael stood with a wide grin on his face. He was a tall man in his late forties, with dark combed hair and a matching trimmed mustache. That night a rosy complexion on his otherwise hard face softened the lines tracing his eyes and cheekbones. He greeted me with open arms. Remembering him as a man who rarely made small talk and who offered the lightest of handshakes, as if parishioners were keeping him from doing God’s work, I didn’t dare move. Once he read my hesitation, he opted to give my right shoulder a light reassuring squeeze.
“Good evening, Jack. So happy you came, and so good to see you again,” he said.
There was an unfamiliar gregariousness in his voice, too, unlike the hard, baritone pitch of his sermons.
“Hello, Pastor Michael,” I said. “Thank you for making an exception for me.”
With the wave of his hands, he said, “Pfft. It’s not an exception. Anyone who wants to be a son of God is welcome to me.”
“Right,” I said.
My attention was then drawn to the purple collar he wore, which held his flushed face like a pedestal. It was the same flamboyant shade as the car outside, a shade I’d never witnessed on a clergyman.
“Is that your car outside?” I asked.
“Yes, it is. My absolute favorite color. How do you like it?” he said.
Before I could respond, he started to help me remove my suit coat.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Would you like a drink? Wine?”
He led me over to an old conference table upon which stood the cause of his convivial disposition, a half-empty bottle of wine.
I assumed it was type of test.
“I suppose some vino wouldn’t hurt, right?” I responded sheepishly.
“Of course, not,” he said and motioned me to sit down. Then he filled two plastic cups to the brim and handed one to me.
“The blood of Christ?” I quipped.
“No. Tonight, just merlot,” he said.
One year sober, I merely pretended to drink. He took a sip every few seconds, as if he couldn’t think of what to do with his hands.
“Should we just come out with it, what really brings us here tonight?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
But I knew what he meant. It wasn’t for God’s blessing; it was for the ghost of Jacqueline, who I used to be. I had promised her that I would get baptized, and I broke that promise. For that, I had been haunted by her ghost and an unbearable weight of unhappiness. A wave of personal growth seminars – Release the Lion Within, the Power Shift of Seneca, Unfuck Your Fucking Life – didn’t help. I didn’t believe in the supernatural anymore, but if nothing else made me happy or put her spirit at rest, maybe this finally would.
“Look, I know I may not be exactly faithful, but I need this,” I said.
He interrupted with a short laugh.
“It’s alright. I want to just get everything out in the open.”
I couldn’t muster the courage to admit the truth. What if he called it all off, leaving me tormented another night, a special night for me, by Jacqueline’s ghost.
“I was hoping God could answer some prayers, for a happy life,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and drunkenly swiveled his head.
“You know, answered prayers aren’t guarantees of happiness,” he said. “Anyways, why don’t you just finish your drink and we can commence with it.”
“Okay,” I said.
I felt relieved but guilty for deceiving him. The least I could do was share a bottle of wine with a man of faith. I started to drink. A bead of wine made its way to the edge of my chin and that unfamiliar, hungry grin on Pastor Michael’s face returned.
I have wondered since why I felt that I owed it to him. Was it really a shame I felt for no longer being a believer? I still believed in living a purposeful life, a life that you feel you were born to lead. What’s the difference if I substituted commandments for goals; faith for process; the Bible for life hacks; God for stoics, gurus, masters, rock stars, and icons. It’s all the same; rinse and repeat.
“Shall we get started?” he asked.
We rose and started to walk. But as I turned down the aisle, he kept going toward his private quarters that were once the manager’s office.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I thought that’s where we’re going,” I said, nodding to the alter.
He took a step back toward me and leaned in close.
“You really want to go through with it?”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m here,” I said and nodded my head.
He was silent for a moment.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “That’s it?”
I kept nodding.
“Fine, fine, fine, fine, then,” he said, with a belligerence creeping into his voice. “Tonight, we will have an exorcism!”
I pictured spinning heads and projectile vomit. The effect of his words must have been palpable because he sighed and began to explain:
“A baptism is an exorcism, a form of exorcism. We’re born with original sin, so by nature we are under the spell of Satan. A baptism breaks you free, transferring you from death to life, from dark to light, from our natural sin and its callous instigator, yadda, yadda. An exorcism is a liberation from what would otherwise condemn us.”
In the drab, hollowed space of a former chain store turned drab, hallowed space of God, I wondered just how many exorcisms I’ve had. Maybe life is one long exorcism, or a thousand baptisms for a thousand different gods.
“Alright. An exorcism it is, then,” I said.
“Fine, as you wish,” he said.
Pastor Michael produced a tin of mints from somewhere inside his robes and offered it to me. I shook my head. He popped a handful into his mouth and crunched them loudly with his mouth open, perhaps too drunk to maintain any inhibitions. He then beckoned me down the aisle toward the altar. I followed him past rows of fold-out chairs as he marched on uncertain feet toward a red-carpeted stage in the center of the big open room that had been the sales floor. The altar was merely a long table adorned with a white linen cloth, and in the middle stood a golden crucifix with a golden flogged Christ, flanked by burning candles in silver candlesticks.
The first time I entered that room, I thought a church seemed to fit well in the great empty space. The tall ceiling gave you a humbling sense of smallness. The reflection of the hanging lights on the waxed vinyl floor created an almost supernatural brilliance. As we climbed stairs to the stage, I was briefly overcome with a sense of awe, a feeling that maybe this place was sacred. It reminded me of what drew Jacqueline to church beyond the pressure from her zealous parents – the ritual, the tradition, the ceremony. But it was mainly from her parents, living, breathing 1950s postcard models. Puritanical and rich, they wore their Sunday best every day of the week. They tried to groom her to join the family business – a small empire of car dealerships in Michigan – and grow the family into a clan. Instead, she fled to L.A. to step out from under their shadow. She had been living off their money though, so their rules followed. Even separated by thousands of miles and in the throes of a daily drug habit, her faith waning with each collapsed vein and scathing text from her mother, she never missed a church service.
They blamed me for her addiction. What they didn’t understand was what it was like to wake every day to a life that wasn’t meant for you. Somewhere the cosmological lottery got it wrong, impregnating your conscious in someone else’s body. The pain that comes from that mismatch is a long, slow, deep burn. That was, until she discovered how to cool it all with a needle prick and squeeze of the thumb, as if detonating an ice bomb and disquieting the outer and inner world like a winter’s morning. Only when was nearly killed, saving her friend Sandy during a drug deal gone bad, only hours later to overdose in the bathroom of an upscale Hollywood bistro, did I start to take control.
Anyway, for me it was all a Pavlovian response. First Revival was no temple, a fact that became apparent the closer you looked. Store shelves and clothes racks stuck out from each end of the black curtain hanging behind the stage where the apse should be, as if swept under a divine rug. Still, I didn’t mind. Truth always lies in the imperfect edges.
Pastor Michael turned toward me with brows raised high and his mouth in a slight frown, silently asking if I wanted him to start. I gave him a nod to begin the baptism, the exorcism, the liberation. He picked up a Bible from the altar and turned to face the invisible congregation. I prepared myself for his deep voice to echo over the empty room. Instead, the words came in a swift, tepid stream: “Almighty and ever-loving God you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan spirit of evil…rescue man from the kingdom of darkness… bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light… we pray for Jack… set him free…”
As the he droned on, I looked about the room. My eyes traveled up to one of the large naked lights. The bright round bulb, like a white sun, was the same last image on the operating table before the drugs kicked in. Is this how babies feel, I wondered, as they are cradled in their devoted mothers’ arms and forced to stare into the light of fluorescent bulbs, or lanterns, or candles, all for a ritual of which they have no say. I turned my attention to the door on the far wall that read EMPLOYEES ONLY, which led to the former breakroom where Jacqueline’s recovery group met. Everyone sat in a circle on hard plastic chairs, sipping flavorless instant coffee in the same place where dejected store employees once found refuge, hoping for the clock to move faster. Like them, the group took comfort in knowing they were not alone in their suffering. The difference was, for the clerk and the janitor, their shifts ended.
“Okay. Here we are,” Pastor Michael exhaled. “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. Jack you have become a new creation.”
A new creation. For the first time that night, I registered what he said. All the diets, the routines, the commitments, chasing to be God and create something new. I wanted to speak, to confess, but before I knew it, Pastor Michael led me to a silver basin filled with holy water and cradled me in his arms. He leaned me backward, placing my head over the placid pool of holy water. His body was close. I felt something hard against my thigh. He trembled as if he couldn’t hold my weight. With a free hand he dipped a small, shell-shaped dish into the basin and held it above me. The tremors of his hand caused the water to breach the lip and spill over. Droplets landed square on my forehead. Then he dropped the dish. Cool water cascaded down my cheeks and over the ridges of my skull into my hair.
“Shit, sorry,” Pastor Michael said.
As he dabbed the water off my face with the baptismal cloth, his eyes roamed the contours of my face like two pale blue orbiters searching for somewhere to land. Eventually, they locked onto mine.
“Lord, forgive me,” he whispered and lowered his head.
His tongue entered my mouth in a panic. I don’t know what it was, the act itself, the shock, my fight-or-flight instinct, the elevated levels of testosterone in my body, the annoying tickle of his whiskers, or old memories of audacious men, but I fought free and fired a fist into his nose. I hit him like a man should. He crumpled to the stage. Two vibrant streams of blood poured from his nostrils, followed by tears through his clenched eyelids.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.
“I swear, I didn’t mean it,” he said. “I just thought, with the change, that made you, you know. Please don’t tell anyone. You’re the only one who knows.”
It occurred to me that he must have been in the closet for decades, hiding the truth in the priesthood and living a lie for his parishioners. I was the only person who knew. Though it had just been a kiss, it left me with the weight of a heavy secret, as if I’d taken his virginity.
“Okay. I won’t,” I said.
I turned to leave but stopped.
“Am I baptized? Officially?” I asked.
Pastor Michael held the baptismal towel to his nose. By then it was greater shades of red than white. Over the golden trim I was met with two indignant eyes in the shallows of tear-filled pools.
“Yes, yes,” he said in a nasally voice. “What does it matter, you’re not really a believer, I know it.”
“No,” I said. “At least, I don’t know anymore.”
“Then why did you come here?”
“A promise I made. And, maybe hope for a little wisdom as to what to do.”
After a moment, with a belabored breath, he imparted me with this: “Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly. Proverbs, three, eighteen.”
I took out two hundred dollars from my wallet.
“Here,” I said.
“I can only accept it as donation for the church,” he said.
“It is,” I said. “Your cross is broken.”
He jerked his head toward the altar, and I laid the money at the foot of the gleaming crucified Jesus. Then I walked briskly down the aisle, grabbed my coat, and went out through the sliding doors into what had become a dark torrent of rain and wind.
Back in the shelter of my car, I fantasized about smoking a cigarette to remove the taste of him out of my mouth. Though, it wasn’t that bad, the flavor of peppermint. He had been courteous enough to freshen his breath. That seemed to me to suggest the kiss was his way of asking for permission. He kissed me to see if I would provide the answer; it was his own baptism with my saliva. And for that, I broke his nose. Or, it was what was it was, assault.
I started the car and drove out of the pink halo. I needed something to occupy my mind, so I browsed through podcasts, mainly consisting of interviews with experts who knew the secrets to living your true self, most of which was regurgitated and contradictory platitudes, repackaged with a swear word or two. Treat others as you would treat yourself. Crush the competition. Sleep twelve hours a day. Never stop working. Eat meat. Eat vegetables. Don’t eat at all. Avoid sodium-rich foods. Drink water with salt. Run for an hour up a hill. Sit for an hour in a quiet room. Use a mental strategy to make decisions. Follow your impulses to unleash your creativity. Make your bed. Reject conformity. Embrace yourself. Liberate yourself. Abstain. Indulge. Fuck this. Fuck that. Fuck fuck. A sea of solutions that offered only more ways to drown.
With my hair still wet with holy water, I drove north up Highway 1 to Malibu, out of the city to where Jacqueline was removed from harmful influences. It was the house I was condemned to. Originally built by our great-great grandfather before one of his son’s headed east to make it in the car business. A family heirloom that no one visited anymore, yet I was responsible for taking care of it.
After all the talk of liberation, from dark to light, from death to life, I expected to feel something, an epiphany, a change in perception, a sense of reassurance. I felt nothing. Everything looked the same. The wipers could hardly sweep fast enough to clear away the rain, across the windshield were hundreds of warped red and white lights snaking into the distance. All of us inching along, our feet instinctively alternating between gas and brake until we arrive somewhere. Almost two hours later I turned down a narrow driveway to a rustic farmhouse on a bluff along the ocean.
There was another car parked in front of the garage with the silhouette of a woman in the driver seat. It was Sandy. I jumped out and knocked on her window.
“You picked a hell of a night to do this,” she said. “To be here tonight is it. Anything else costs you extra.”
We ran in the downpour to the heavy Gothic-shaped front door and let ourselves in. For a few seconds, we stood still and listened to drops fall from our wet clothes onto the floor. Though Sandy hardly wore anything at all. She petite and very thin, wearing a see-through top and leather mini skirt.
“I can’t pay you tonight,” I said. “But I’ll get it to you.”
“You fucking better,” she said.
The foyer led directly into a long open living room with a high, curved ceiling. Through the three cathedral windows, a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room in a bluish aura. I could make out the row of framed pictures on the credenza. They were of Jacqueline from childhood through early adulthood, arranged by her mother as a visual representation of how she still thought of Jacqueline. Her baby girl. I flipped on a light.
“Well isn’t this place majestic,” Sandy said. “Who’s this, your sister?”
“Well, aren’t you gonna offer me a drink?”
“I thought we weren’t drinking.”
“When the situation demands it.”
“The kitchen,” I said.
As Sandy busied herself in the kitchen, I made my way to the master bedroom. I turned on the bedside lamp. Under the halo of dim light lay two syringes, filled to the brim, in a stainless-steel pan. A baptism wasn’t the only thing I promised. One would put me out. Two would kill me. I left the option open.
I turned toward the closet door mirror and shed my damp clothes. Standing there naked in the dimness, I observed my body. A ladder of rib bones climbed to a hard, flat chest. I sucked in my stomach and puffed out my chest with my hands on my hips like a bodybuilder. I flexed new muscles that were starting to take shape, thinner cheeks, a dark mustache starting to fill out.
Sandy let out a laugh. She had made her way into bed, sitting up against the headboard with her bottom half under the covers. Her large, bare breasts bounced with the vibration of her diaphragm. I had been waiting for this moment for a long time.
I turned out the light and slipped into bed, where under the covers, curious hands explored new landscapes. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the singular sense of touch, from what felt like two or more bodies, then none, just a sensual emptiness. Soon we were done and there was no lightning to strike me down.
She got up.
“I have to go,” she said.
“I’m not dying out here.”
I would never find out if she didn’t like it. I just lay in the dark as the thunder got closer like the steps of giants. The storm was coming. The last thing I remember was reaching for the steel tray.
When I awoke, I was not as happy as the thought of me being happy. I wanted to open my eyes to a new world, the happily bewildered state of Alice or Dorothy. The roar of the ocean was louder than usual. The first thing I noticed when I sat up was the smear of blood on the pillow. The waves were so loud because the roof had caved in some in the night. Large beams leaned on the floor, snapped like twigs. Shingles were scattered around the floor. The syringes rested undisturbed in their metal bed.
I don’t remember what really happened. The doctors would say I suffered from a blunt force trauma to the head, giving me a severe concussion. My phone said it was early morning. I tried to stand but woozily fell back upon the bed. I tried again and this time was able to put on a robe and reach the living room. Outside the shattered windows, the sky was gray and the ocean black. I flipped a light switch only to discover the power was out. The storm seemed to have drained the world of color and turned it into a noir film. I ventured out the French doors onto the deck hanging above the beach, which had been turned into a violent landscape. A surging tide had swallowed much of the shore. The neighboring houses were lifeless, some also reduced to wood piles. The dunes had been transformed into landfills, littered with shards of wood and garbage and patio furniture.
But the smell of rain and salt and sand mixed into a strange, invigorating scent. I took a deep breath and was overcome with a tantalizing rush, the kind that springs only after a cataclysmic impact — a car crash, a fist fight, the jolt of awaking from an overdose. It filled my emptiness and I didn’t want to let it go. I was also overcome with the exhilaration that the house was beyond repair. I would be set free.
I went back inside and opened the refrigerator. On the bottom shelf was an old case of beer left over from Jacqueline’s goodbye party. On the deck, I drank one after the other. By the time the clouds lightened under the noonday sun, I was seven or eight beers deep.
It was then that I felt the presence of Jacqueline’s ghost behind me, watching. I knew how I must have looked with a pile of empty beer cans at my feet. The pitiful stance of someone relapsing. So, I dared not turn around. I kept my eyes on the horizon, the demarcation line between sea and sky that to me may as well have been as infinitely out of reach as the stars. The family legend was our ancestors chose this house because there was nowhere else to run. All that was left was water.
Brilliant golden rays of light suddenly poured through parted clouds and illuminated the beach. The ocean turned to a pale green and the sand sparkled. I could see with more clarity and noticed the world below wasn’t lifeless after all. A lone black bird with long, sticklike legs and a thin curved beak stood on the shore. Every year the same species of bird built a nest among the rocks. Around that time, it should have nursing newly hatched chicks. But the storm surge must have taken everything – its nest, its children, its partner – out to sea. For a while, I watched the sentinel bird. Mother? Father? Who could tell? The waves lapped high against the shore, peeling back over its rigid legs. The bird did not move. In the face of that suffering, it just waited for the rain to stop and the sea to recede to be a bird again. Should California break off into the sea, the bird would wait to rebuild its nest there, too.
As quickly as it came, the sunlit intermission closed, and a hard curtain of rain began to fall. I heard Jacqueline’s ghost calling: Quick, quick, inside, come inside, you’ll get all wet. The sound of her voice, close and soft like the whisper of a bedside lover.
“It’s just water,” I started calling out. “It’s just water!”
I don’t know if my voice carried in the wind and I didn’t care. I staggered over to a chaise lounge that had survived the storm and plopped down on the damp cushion. I did not want to go where she and the syringes lay. To give in once, is to give in always, I reminded myself. I could start over again on this vulnerable bed of sand, too.
Lost in the audacity of alcohol, I started to sing: “It’s juuuuust waaaaterrrrrr. IIIIIIt’s jus’ whhhaaaaatuuurrrrr.”
I sang like a nostalgic drunk in a rundown bar, repeating the only words of the song he knows in increasingly intelligible pitches. The world moved around me in a dance of breaking raindrops and drifting grains of sand, but I didn’t have to move. I could stay a while in the rain and wait. I could wait until I was sober. I could wait to introduce myself to my parents. I could wait for the contractors. You need not rush to convince others of who you are. I sat under ball-bearing raindrops, wanting of nothing, waiting until I got sober enough to stand.
Waiting for the storm to pass.
Twelve Stories of Aleppo published by Lunch Ticket (Issue 12: Winter/Spring 2018).
Trivial Pickles published by Maudlin House
Readers Report: Too Much, Too Soon published in The Rumpus
Liar published in Across the Margin
In the Land In Between published in Rum Punch Press
ZOOLOGY published in Sonder Magazine
Urban Dad published in 101 Words
Neatness published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine
Smoke waved from the end of her cigarette. The air in the kitchen turned into a gray haze.
‘It’s like a dream,’ she said.
Jennifer had stopped smoking when she was first with child. If there was a time to revive the habit, it was now. She leaned back against the sink and took a long drag. Her straight blonde hair was unwashed. Her halter top, moist with sweat, stuck to her chest.
‘I don’t believe this is real,’ she said.
Tony scrubbed at the granite counters with a sponge. He wore pressed slacks and a bright polo shirt. His dark hair was combed to the side.
‘I just want everything to go back,’ she said.
Tony grabbed the broom and swept the floor.
‘Back to when it was perfect.’
Tony swept under the kitchen table. He put the highchair by the door, next to filled trash bags.
Jennifer watched him, then lit another cigarette. ‘We did all we could, didn’t we?’
Tony started to empty the dishwasher. He opened a bottom cupboard. A stack of food containers fell out. ‘Jesus, why does it always come undone?’ he said. He got down on his knees and tried to quickly stack the little plastic boxes. He placed them back in the cupboard. Again, they tumbled out onto the floor.
‘Oh, leave it, Tony,’ she said.
The dark weight touched him now. He put his hands on his knees and began to weep. He used his shirt to wipe his eyes and nose.