Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.
Two weeks later, from the warm comfort of her claw-footed tub, Tana recalled exactly how she looked that day, stealing candles at the church. She had glanced at the slats of glass lining the lobby walls to see her reflected, stooped form leaning forward like a woman of 60, not 35.Her brown hair was unkempt, tied back, her oversized shirt and slacks too wrinkled and haphazard. She angled through the anteroom, slouching toward the murmur of the crowd as if it, like steam, could veil her. She straightened. Her eyes roamed casually to either side of the tiled path as she drifted forward, her neck stiff and unturning, her sights set on the tangled iron branches against the far wall. The stand bore dozens of virgin white, unlit stick candles, and with one smooth motion, Tana seized the tallest one, plucked it from its perch, and slipped it expertly up her sleeve.
A quick scan of her immediate surroundings—no one appeared to even notice her—and Tana moved on; she would now find a good pew. She studied her own tan shoes as she circled through the 30 or more people—scattered threesomes, white-haired couples, mingling kindred—and finally, her loaded arm crooked stiffly at her side, she arrived at the vacant mid-point. The tenth planked row. She closed her eyes to the light filtering in through kaleidoscopes of glass, squeezed the candle, and felt the tingling buzz rush from forearm to center.
“How much can the right word do?” the priest asked; Tana opened her eyes, a tall woman was now seated in front of her, nodding. The rosy back of the woman’s swept-up hair bobbed up and down, several wayward strands hooking away from the twist. “We Catholics are interested in discipline during the Lenten season, but is “no” the only word for us?” Tana’s attention stayed with the woman’s dyed hair; her dress was paisley and bloused and complicated, her head changed directions suddenly, shaking from side to side in time with the priest’s refrain. A sailor’s square of lace hung over the woman’s thin shoulders, and Tana peered over them to inventory her personal effects. A leather handbag, a pastry box, and—interesting—a fabric-covered notebook. Tana’s forearms tingled anew.
From the back of the room, a baby cried out in shrieks. The cries pitched like heavy stones around the steep hollows of the church. Paisley craned her neck, straining to grin coyly in the direction of the child. What reflex, Tana thought. Outbursts, when they come from children, are smiled upon by religious people. The church fell silent for a moment, and Tana eyed the hymnal peeking out from the wooden rack by her knees. She swallowed. A man sitting next to Paisley—a perfectly straight back, Tana noted—turned to meet Paisley’s delicate eyes. With the locking of their gaze, the priest’s voice fell away and they both smiled. Not a shy smile, not a smile of collusion, but a knowing, Catholic smile. She looked from them back to the notebook, and forced herself to remain still.
January 27—I know what Ted says is true, that He hears us when we ask, and that what we ask Him for is ours, but I sometimes fear my questions betray me (and Ted). Sometimes I know that if I open myself wide enough, or search within deep enough, I will learn Ted and I ask different things. Then I would be lost to this world forever. If I allowed that, if I allowed the loss, it would be the one thing I control.—Remember to meet Sally for lunch. Henna Rinse. Take paisley dress to cleaners. Resurface.
Even if Saul hadn’t left her that previous Friday night, Tana might have ended up at church that day. Lately she had been curious about trinities. She imagined describing it to him, the incense, the Gothic dampness, the cult-like silence of families, and he would say something that would make them both feel better, but not judgmental. “Religion’s a construct and, like any construct, can be crushed in a second,” he would say. “Better not to become dependent on one in this lifetime. Better to accept contingency for what it is—the only God.” Tana rolled her eyes, and her gaze landed back on the soft-bound notebook.
She wanted it.
January 31—Remember this: I am Mary yet I am distinct from Mary, Yes, I was named for Her (for Him), but I mean at a deeper level, a more abstract level. I am not merely a vessel to be filled . . .with doctrine or with life. That is why, I am sure, this has happened. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not become known. Mysterious ways. Call the plumber. Talk about regrouting.
Paisley shifted and the whole pew creaked with her. It registered with Tana, an ergonomics specialist, that pews have a well-meaning design, but ultimately the wrong makeup. Their inflexibility counteracts an otherwise right-headed impulse to force straightness. Wood, Tana knew, has no regard for the vulnerable lumbar region, one of the most frequently overlooked—abused, she thought, damaged— areas of the human back. “So how much can the right word do?” The priest’s bald forehead shone with new intensity, his gray eyebrows sharp and angular. “Only as much as we allow it by opening our hearts—”
Tana extended her arm over her book bag and let the candle slide into it. The wax had heated up, and her sleeve felt vacant without it. She was thinking, can you fall in love with somebody because of the way they place your name in a sentence, the way they watch you while they smile, the way they turn to you and touch your arm after a moment of inattention? “You know what, Tana,” she remembered Saul saying.
“What?” she asked.
“I just saw something, watching you just now,” he reached over to touch her dark hair, fanned and striking next to the off-white of her couch. She had been reading a trash novel, though wishing it were a classic, and he was smoking cigarettes in succession. “I just saw a vision of you as an old woman,” he said. Tana blinked hard, surprised by this revelation, daunted by its possibilities. She heard the whining rise and fall of laughter on the street below.
“And you’re going to be absolutely beautiful, Tana. Every creased line and softened part of you.” She smiled at these words now, but remembered feeling something fall inside at the thought of her body withering and folding in on itself. She had closed her eyes to a dreamy vision of a single rose; it began, predictably, a strong-stemmed vision of glory and then, as if it were glass, it cracked and shattered to empty space around it. For the next three days, to her horror, the sad cinema replayed itself, over and over, as if on fast forward, rewind, fast forward. She tried to force a change in plot, imagined the rose planted, attached to an entire bush as it would be outdoors, surrounded by loving thorns. Fortified. Then one day, the dream just vanished.
The ragged wick of the candle peeked out of Tana’s old duffel, and a shot of exhilaration rocked her chest. Her seeking eyes set down back on the notebook, nestled on the pew between Straightback and Paisley. The exhilaration seeped away, absorbed into the spiraling patterns of the notebook’s padded fabric—its soft indigo background with white marbled clouding. The circus of it all spellbound her.
February 5—I can see the design here. It is not time for me; it is time for forbearance. We are luckier than some, we are more fortunate than those who reap unknowingly, without design. Good will come of this. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit any more than a decayed tree can bear good fruit. Can’t he see that “no fruit” is not “bad fruit?” Must he be so silent in not seeing it?
When Saul left her, Tana blocked his way by standing in her doorway, stretching out both arms and clenching the jambs. “I didn’t mean what I said earlier,” she pleaded. He pushed past her—her nails ripping from wood—and told her apologies didn’t matter now. The rims around his eyes were red and glossy. She had rattled him with her candor; and now, he said, he had to go think. Find balance. He folded his coat over his arm and looked at her. He stood like that, still as wood, until she looked away, and then he left. The door slammed, unstilling the plastic model spine Tana used for demos. The third vertebra clattered on its vertical metal rod and Tana darted over to right it, crying. She had left things before—her parents, her hometown—so she knew when a goodbye was the real thing.
Saul had been her only family for the ten years since college, since she wrote her own parents off as antiquated and irrelevant. Saul had appeared, a black-clothed artist, and brush-stroked her into new worlds, new foundations. “I want to take up sculpting and model your body every single day,” he’d say. “I don’t need food, I don’t need water. I want to live on you and your body alone.” He’d laugh when he said these things, then he’d make love to her, and then he’d get up and leave. Tana would smile as he pulled on his jeans and T-shirt— never his shoes or socks—and watch after his barefooted exit. When it was safe, she’d cry into the sock she had snatched with stealth from his clothes pile; she’d cry and blow her nose into it and then throw it against the wall. She decided it was love, and it was new enough to be true.
Her parents loved, she thought, like two slats on a fence—parallel but not touching, utilitarian but unbending. She remembered so many moments from her study of them, so many clues that they loved by different rules. Her dad often brought his unsold Amway products home with him, and her mom would rush over, aproned and cooing, and marvel at the boxes, the detergents. No kisses, no endearments, but a close look at the spray starch, and in return her dad would sniff at the air a couple times and smile. Dinner smells great, he never said, thanks for cooking. “You’ll learn, Tana,” her mother told her confidentially, “you’ll learn that men need importance and strength. But first they need us to believe it in them. Then they can believe it in themselves.” Tana nodded and grinned, and slipped the spray starch up her skirt.
Saul and Tana didn’t sleep together right away. It was part of how they were together—always testing themselves, striving for wayward goals. “Let’s not eat for a week,” he said to her once, his dark brittle hair tied back to reveal his side-burned face. In him, Tana saw graceful frivolity, all that her parents, that she was not. More than his irreverence, his quick wit, his daring rebelliousness, she coveted his unspoiled regard for her: he was someone unacquainted with who she was before. Someone who had not walked her high school halls to see her, skirted and dumb, clawing for locker doors, drinking fountains, exits signs, anything to lend her purpose or let her out. Someone who did not know it was she that took her sixth grade teacher’s copy of The Bastard, causing the whole class to sit through recess in a waiting game that yielded no confessions. He was a person to take her as she wanted to be, any figment accepted. “Then we’ll go to Pizza Joe’s and order three larges just for us.” As always, she persevered, collapsing on the last day with a euphoric thud. He had stopped fasting, he later told her, laughing, on the second day.
The first time they had sex, Saul stopped in the middle and asked if he could look into her eyes. She flushed and smiled and said of course he could. She said, You can, but what about me? Should I look back? He nodded and clenched his teeth. He already believed in himself and his art, and he had enough left over to believe in her. She felt it in the way he watched her. Later that night, after he had gone—without his T-shirt, which Tana clutched between her breasts—she called her mother and told her she was wrong. She told her it didn’t all have to be about him, it could be about both. Her mother was silent and then she said, “I’m glad you’ve figured everything out,” and put her father on the phone. He mumbled some words about the wind chill, the deer he killed—”the cleanest shot yet.” Tana hung up and knew she had a new family now. Saul was that to her now. His otherworld, his otherway, was a heritage she wanted planted into her, its roots piercing through to vital organs, nourishing and feeding off her pith.
The priest said, “We mourn, we abstain, we meditate, so we can know how to best love.” She thought of what she would write in the notebook, her body tensing suddenly as if she would spring uncontrollably for it. She calmed. “So often love latches on—an intoxicating weekend of bliss—only to lose hold and fall away with Monday’s sober yank,” she would write. “Saturday’s muse, Sunday’s burnisher of dead passion, scratches awake on Monday with a belch and a remote groan.” Tana wondered how much of the notebook was full, and visualized margin to margin of clean, empty space. The truth of it, the likelihood that it would be full, did not occur to her until later. Things were empty to her now. But only now.
February 18—What do you call one who shines? I must commission one for my soul, it is quite dull lately. Ted’s become an iceman. He obsesses about everything but what matters, all but the tests and the treatments and the turkey basters and the impossibility of things. I tried to bring up the agency people, the waiting list, but he couldn’t stop talking about the chipmunks stealing food from the birdfeeder. Why? My nephew ran in and said, “You’re the one afraid of being stolen from.” What is hidden from the learned has been revealed to the children.
“Love feeds on water,” Saul had once told Tana, his mock British accent overdrawn, his clefted chin deepened. “And the first lesson in liquids : fluidity.” After a monotony of laughter at his pretension, the nugget of truth caught in Tana’s throat. In order to remain in love, they would need to be apart, spread themselves into distinct spaces. She knew this was his belief, and his beliefs had become theirs. Still, when they graduated from Ann Arbor, they ended up in Boston together—in separate apartments yet still joined. Tana felt the familial pull toward him, a need, and knew their situation was becoming less right for her. “Why don’t we just try, Saul? Why don’t we move in together for a trial?” But Tana had promised, he reminded her, that it was okay with her to be this way forever. What happened to marriage being complacent? he asked, What happened to wanting two wholes, not two half selves? She had promised, yes, and then she had truly believed it. But now she knew her career— designer chairs and model spines—did not fill her up, nor did fragments of Saul. She began to worry about her own bones, what had calcified there without her knowledge.
The church quieted again; a moment of silence for Father Michaud, who had, sadly, passed on. Tana was inching closer to Paisley’s sublime book, the wood giving slightly as she slid, tedious, down the plank. The Paisley woman appeared distracted, deep in prayer; the man’s head tilted away, and Tana kneeled forward onto the cushioned shelf before her. She wondered what the notebook smelled like. She did know it was wrong—taking things. In fact, she felt it was rather cliché of her. But the impulse itself was more powerful than her indictment of it, so to mollify herself, she vowed never to let things go to waste. Certainly, she reasoned, she would fill each page of this wondrous book.
March 17—Ted directed me to the Barren Fig Tree in Luke 13. It seemed so cruel to me, he had it laying out by the coffee pot with a note. Later I asked him, “What are you saying? Are you likening me to the vine that bore no fruit? Are you saying I clutter up the ground?” and he said “No, it’s the reading for next week, the third reading for the third Sunday of the Lenten Season.” He’s never prepared me, as it were, for readings before. The vinedresser, responding to the man who had come for three years looking for fruit, said “Sir, leave it another year, while I hoe around it and manure it; then perhaps it will bear fruit. If not, it shall be cut down.”
Music thundered through the church, and Tana was gripped by a sense that she should stand. Her legs ached from walking the city so much; what could she do on a Sunday morning but walk the city? She hated that her place had become the place—the place that singles who are lovers always make. The street she lived on was hilly, and every day she huffed its slope, asking questions to herself. What sense is trudging up hills when your destination is an empty room—or an empty room filled with Saul? Why get there at all? Why struggle? She would arrive out of breath and Saul would be waiting and she’d ask him these questions. He’d fumble through words and cigarettes, never getting to a still enough place for answers. He’d smoke three to the butt and tell a joke before asking for sex, which he felt was answer enough. For years, now, Tana had doubted it.
The parishioners were seated again. Tana joined them. The priest said, “Our luck will shine through in how we best love,” and the Straightbacked man reached over to take Paisley’s flat hand. Tana gasped, thrown by the display of what she had convinced herself, in hindsight, was not tenderness. From their profiles Tana saw the white teeth and peaceful eyes of them, and another round of baby shrieks filled the room. Tana could guess what that sound meant to them; their dialogue was not as silent as they thought. She had a whole pew to herself, and that fact began hammering at her temples. The book would be more than full when she got her hands on it.
March 30—He was crying in the dark when I got home yesterday. I turned on the light and he had Matthew opened on his lap. He read to me about the disciples who could not cure the demented boy. The boy’s father turned to Jesus, desperate, and Jesus cured the boy instantly. Jesus said to the disciples that they had no faith. If they had faith the size of a mustard seed they would be able to say to a mountain “Move from here to there,” and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for them then. I turned out the light and left him to cry more. I am shamed that I thought as I walked away: I might move mountains without him. Remember—Pick up paisley dress for Sunday.
Here’s what made Saul leave: that night, while he made love to Tana, she told him exactly what she was thinking. She said, I love you and hate you and don’t know you, all at one time. It’s like a trinity of truths. The pew creaked again, the book beamed. That’s all she said aloud, but in her head the sentences flowed in cruel rants, I hate you for what you’re doing to me, for the fact that you can-grind into me like I’m clay, and disregard that it’s me below you, waiting, waiting for you to— Tana blinked deliberately, staring at Paisley’s hand. Straightback squeezed it, and let go.—I love you for allowing yourself pleasure in front of me; you groan and you strain above me like someone without secrets. You show me that weakness in you.— The baby cries, louder.—But I don’t know you. Who is this man straining above me, arching his back and frowning and asking me to lie still? He strains and he looks down at me, cupping my entire head in the crook of his arm and says, What are you thinking, and then he grinds and he makes faces and has sex. Paisley creaked forward to replace a hymnal, and Tana settled back into the present of things. The priest’s passion was building. “The Lord God is my help,” he read. “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame!” Tana began to feel dizzy. “I tell you, from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the coming of the reign of God!” The priest’s small face brightened to pink.
It was then that she had stared at him, watching him stare back and rock against her, watching him find a spot on the ceiling and forget her altogether. It was then she so hated him. What are you thinking, he had asked her, and she had told him. And he left. Tana choked back a sob and surprised herself, feeling the stares at her back, feeling the red gaze from all directions—the walls, the floor, all so closed—and wanting to scream through the damn glass that made everything so red!
People were standing up. Had she done it? Had she screamed? Was it over? No. They stood up in rows and marched down the center aisle to receive Communion. Tana breathed deeply—thank God!—then hesitated for a moment. Should she follow? She was, after all, not Catholic. It was against some high order, she suspected, to act Catholic when you weren’t. Paisley and Straightback stood to join the procession; they walked completely free of one another, almost like strangers. The woman with the screaming baby passed her pew. She was small and took tiny steps. Tana imagined how she must look to the woman, how she must appear so damned and so alone.
Her hair—she reached up to touch it at her neck—had she even remembered to brush it? It felt flat and pulled-back and she knew it was okay. She inhaled and the notebook’s sharp corner dug into her ribs; the Paisley woman returned to her seat, looking satisfied, full, and alive.
Tana held the notebook above water level in her tub, bathing with the pages as if to absorb their words. She turned to the last filled page and read:
It says in the Old Testament to be fertile, then, and multiply; to abound on earth and subdue it, but I have no desire for that. I have hopes for harmony. I need to live in equality with things, I fail to so value mastery. I cannot yet trust enough of anyone or anything to hand them over my destiny. Including Ted. Including my Church. Including myself. I will control this. I will refresh.
Tana plucked the stopper out of the drain. She turned to the next page, completely empty, and started ordering the words in her mind.