I Love You, Please
by Melissa Wiley
Cappadocia Church of the Sandal
Photo by TravelTurkey.com
A nun in blue linen waved us inside a church beside the Burger King when clouds, looking like beehives that hung low over Quebec City, had begun to drain and slicken the sidewalks. She fled behind the sanctuary once we shook our umbrellas into the baptismal font, and a man with legs lean as clothespins greeted us in her place.
After smiling and averting his eyes from my face, he cleared his throat and offered us a tour. I said, No, thank you, but my husband accepted. So soon I walked the Stations of the Cross while tapping my umbrella’s tip to the floor in a certain rhythm, watching a man I once had worshipped come closer to martyrdom.
The 200-year-old church connected to a hospital for the elderly, the man intoned, while fluttering one eyelid to remember something he never mentioned. Nuns no less decrepit than their patients nursed them into the afterlife beyond the threshold to our left. And once we had confronted Jesus nailed upon his cross, his stigmata painted the same shade as my fingernails’ polish, we turned and faced a reliquary encasing the tibia of some saint whose name I never heard, so softly had our guide spoken it. Saints, he murmured in a voice scarcely audible above my umbrella’s melisma, must perform two miracles to enter the canon, for their bones to grow drier and drier while still in a box with gold as tarnished as this one.
Why are others’ miracles long past still relevant? I wanted to ask but didn’t summon the courage. I wanted to demand an explanation because sometimes I’d like to expire in an explosion of light myself, though this never happens. A phallus erupting inside me remains my only consolation.
After leaving the church once the rain had thinned into near nothingness, we ate dinner in a candlelit crêperie where the maître d’ rebuked my husband for not giving me a kiss. My husband pleaded he had a cold and didn’t want to risk infection. Then he sneezed, as if to demonstrate the potential damage. As he wiped his nose with a napkin, the maître d’ came closer, saying he couldn’t resist the temptation. He stood me up from my chair and squeezed me low in the hips before pressing his mouth to my cheek. He told my husband I could cause some mischief here if I practiced my French because he soon realized I speak only English.
And if he had been as young as the man who had escorted us through the church down the street, who met my eyes only once while limning the nuns’ application of gauze to broken bodies, I would have taken this as a compliment. I would have thought there might be some mischief worth making, then would have decided against it.
In the Catholic churches of Cappadocia, devout Muslims scratched out the eyes of the saints early Christians depicted on the walls of caves looking like cathedrals ready-made for them, my husband and I had learned the summer prior on a visit to Turkey. The portraits of saints painted with milk mixed with pigeon eggs’ albumen have all been blinded. I think this is just as well because holy people stare too much as it is. Never blinking, they make the rest of us feel past all redemption in comparison. They stand watch against mischief, melee, and mockery, yet even saints can see only so far in the distance. They cannot see through a closed casket any better than you or I, for instance, unless they’re more than human to begin with.
Their outlines are always blurred by radiance, regardless. They look more ghost than human while saying nothing except, “I love you, please . . .” followed by a request: Please bleed your body’s edges into a penumbra, too, so this world has more light in it. Saints don’t want to rest alone, incandescent, but prefer that we luminesce beside them with joys spiritual yet sexless.
Saints, though, I am more and more convinced, are born different. They do not jackknife in their beds amid an erotic spate of unconsciousness, awaking to another day in which they cast no brighter glow than a bottle of ink no one now writes with. They are born and die stone lanterns instead, brightening a space visible only because of its surrounding darkness.
Used to illumine shrine and temple corridors in ages past, stone lanterns no longer comingle with deities to my knowledge. Instead, they ornament walking paths through parks closed by early evening to the public. They sit mutely inside Japanese tea gardens, their light witnessed solely by statues of the Buddha with legs crossed in the lotus position, whose shins are overlaid with a dull patina that only grows duller when it rains. The light of saints and stone lanterns are both redundant come morning.
A crossing guard once warned me, when I was no more than six or seven, not to stare at the sun while I followed her across the street. It was never wise, but today it threatened blindness, she said squinting through hair hanging in her face for protection. If you glanced at the sun for even a second, you would see nothing but blackness until your life ended. Too curious to resist a peek at something so bright as to seem sacred, I looked quickly at the sky and then just as quickly away, I hoped quickly enough to get away with it. Afterward, my eyes still tracked my canvas tennis shoes across the pavement. They detected where my big toe pushed through cotton fibers distended against a rubber half moon.
That night and many others after, I followed the sun as it fell immense and rotting and orange behind the soybean fields west of my home in southern Indiana. I watched it grow into a ripe body of fruit until I saw only shifting purple blotches. I thought they might have been spirits or the souls of saints come to visit until I tried to erase them by pressing my eyelids against my fists, producing phosphenes in the process. I saw so much light while falling asleep, sunspots became sun continents, I was afraid I would wake and see nothing. That I didn’t felt miraculous.
Yet I couldn’t resist looking next day again toward the horizon before twilight had fallen. I was transfixed by the light of the star closest to our planet, by the star itself, I think, more than the light that shot from its plexus. I was drawn to the sun as if in the grip of sexual attraction, though resisting—that, too—I learned later, required discipline. The pure light of holiness radiating from saints’ faces dimmed the moment they let someone touch them.
Before the rise of saints among early Christians, when the world was darker come dusk as a consequence, Plato postulated humanity had once consisted of three sexes. There was a man, a woman, and a man and woman mixed, all of whom mirrored the three heavenly bodies known to ancient Greek civilization. The man was the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, while the man-woman was born of the moon. Feeling they had neglected him in their wholeness, Zeus cut each person in half in retribution, prior to which we were all more rounded. He stood us upright and made us walk, forcing us to grow slender. Zeus didn’t cut us all evenly, however, in his vengeance, so some of us are slightly larger halves and some of us smaller. Recombined with the half lost to us, some of us would look rounder than others. Kept separate, some of us feel we’re missing more of ourselves completed.
Those spliced from the man-woman sex, those making mischief with the moon, are either adulterers, Plato says, or life’s greatest sufferers. The space between their legs throbs with the most ardor, and the moon, too, Zeus made appear mostly in fragments thereafter. The other two-thirds—the man and woman whose other halves look similar—are luckier if still only half of what they once were. They stand a better chance of becoming saints provided they go to bed early enough. The moon we can stare at without risk of harming your vision, yet it invites sensual indulgence. Only stone lanterns remain rigid while its love-light beckons.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, a pewter chandelier hung from the center of our living room ceiling. When my sister tore it from its plaster to fix the wiring after both our parents had died of cancer, the ceiling splintered into a diseased eye missing its pupil, a nimbus of forked blood vessels that may have led to blindness for all I knew better. The light, we saw too late, had held the ceiling together. But the bulbs, displaying their filaments like a skeleton experiencing electrocution, had been too bright for the room as it was, and for this reason my parents rarely turned on the chandelier. They preferred the room irradiated by two table lamps with fringe I often braided hanging from their shades. Shedding light, it seems, was hardly the chandelier’s purpose.
Stars, if shining from far enough a distance, we can stare at until we can stare no more, until our eyes become as lightless as stone lanterns in a tea garden come daybreak with no tea served inside its fences. Stars affix themselves to the sky as easily as stone lanterns trace the path to the temple door. Only when stars come too close do they threaten to make the temple vanish altogether.
Can light stand to stare at itself? Do stars see other stars? Do they burn while burning, scorched by their own flames? I want to know. Because if this is the fate of a saint or of someone coming closer to being one than she need bother—of a person filled with so much light she suffers ceaseless combustion, becoming a hell in the heavens—I am done with being a better woman than so many others. My mom is not alive anymore to see her badly behaved daughter.
Before she succumbed to illness, my mom prayed a rosary beneath the darkened chandelier that held our ceiling together as many nights a week as she could manage. The prayers, she told me, were intercessions for Mary to help us return to Jesus. I wanted to wear the rosary as a necklace, but she told me that was sinful, honey. “Then why is it so pretty?” I asked her, feeling a little deprived of the Blessed Virgin’s jewelry.
“Because the Virgin Mary was the most beautiful woman of all,” she answered. And the prettier the woman, the prettier her baubles. The Blessed Virgin had thousands of rosaries while I had nothing.
I knew not to argue with my mom’s reasoning, yet still I wanted to know the use of beauty unspent, by a woman whose only miracle was abstinence, who always kept some space between herself and her other half, he who walks alone as a consequence.
At my mom’s burial, a woman named Terry handed me a two-foot statue of the Virgin Mary that glowed in the dark, which was why she bought it. As she spoke of my mom’s goodness, I held a small effigy of the only person made a saint by virtue of one miracle instead of two, of keeping her legs always glued. Her hair could phosphoresce in a car trunk, but the statue on its own could not stand up. A peg fell from her dress looking like a phallus she had grown and had kept hard in hope, I thought. Terry told me it was intended to stab the ground beside the burial plot.
After the casket was lowered underground, Terry impaled the grass with the peg falling beneath the Virgin’s raiment. My dad and I agreed to throw the Virgin out, only maybe wait a week, until Terry got tired of watching a saint light up beneath a moon now waning. Three weeks later, the statue lay at the bottom of my coat closet inside a basement, wedged between my rubber boots. A stray wool mitten nearly suffocated her on a nightly basis while my dad grew weaker from his own form of cancer.
Better to let death remain a place of darkness, I thought then and think even more so now. Better to stumble blindly beside an unlit lantern while walking around a headstone.
And while the Virgin Mary glowed beneath a scarf I left to strangle her if it wanted, I awoke in the night unable to move my arms or any other body part. My husband slept soundly beside me while I watched the door between my bedroom and bath open on its own. I watched a blue-black shadow hover, then cross the room without touching its feet to the carpet. It settled heavily as any granite gravestone on my sternum, until my ribs started to crackle like logs burning beneath it. I couldn’t speak or wake my husband even if I had wanted. I lay motionless while an invisible weight pressed me into the earth—to bury me with my mom, I hoped. Eventually I fell back asleep and the next morning awoke.
It was only sleep paralysis, my husband told me next morning. The condition induces complete muscle atonia and is often accompanied by hallucinations of seeing demons. Yet whatever the explanation, I wanted no more of it. Hallucination or no, I have never been so paralyzed by evil, which now I know is nothing more than ourselves becoming stone.
If I had only been a saint, I would have risen in my bed despite the demon’s shadow. No one would have called that a miracle, would they, though? I would hardly be halfway to canonization of my bones. They would have thought it only natural, turning over in my bed just as I grew restless. They would not have seen or felt the weight of the blue-black shadow while I kept both eyes closed.
When I was eleven years old, my social studies teacher, a nun named Sister Pascal, gave me a cotton necklace with a sallow pendant imprinted with St. Francis’ portrait for winning the spelling bee. My dad, a Baptist and so no believer in saints and lesser deities, saw the heavy brown lines circling my neck and asked why I was wearing such an ugly necklace. He muttered that I shouldn’t pray to ghosts of people who were no more God than he, people he saw no reason for resembling.
He said that if you wanted to speak to God, you had to speak to him directly. What he said made sense to me, Catholic though I was like my mom who, they agreed, would raise my sister and me. But what could I say that God would listen to? To make my body beautiful. To make a boy in class love me. And then it was only a prize, I explained. It was all you got at a Catholic school for spelling “chrysanthemum” correctly.
I had begun wearing a training bra only for the past week and suspected my dad of staring at my breasts which were just beginning to grow when he searched my body for the scapula I kept wearing. I knew this was where people’s eyes were drawn, at a young woman’s body reshaping itself for pleasures the Virgin Mary never allowed herself. I took off my new necklace only for baths, hanging it from the small pewter light above my bed, a light that matched the chandelier’s finish, the chandelier that kept the living room from collapsing.
My first name was the only one not taken from a saint in my class, and Sister Pascal lamented that it denoted nothing sacred. I only reconciled myself to it once I found out it meant “honey bee,” a bee with two stomachs, one for nectar alone. I reconciled myself to its unholy meaning only because I hungered for sweetness endlessly. I hungered for sweetness as if a surfeit of sugar were the missing half that would complete me. In addition to food festooned with honey, I wanted love, and I wanted it from people more than from God, boys especially, though God was easier to please. God loved sheep, God loved lepers, and God loved those who couldn’t spell the name of any flowers. God loved out of hand yet needed worship, whereas people loved only in spurts and mostly other people besides me, myself only occasionally.
Sister Pascal said God, though, had a special love for me, that I might become a nun myself once I got a little older. She had seen an aureole form around my head while I took communion, a light that blurred my body’s edges. I then began to worry that God would mistake me for a saint when I wasn’t, that he would ask me to perform a miracle or two so I could be canonized, too. I worried he would ask me to become Virgin Melissa. He would expect everything of me except to be a natural woman who still was only half a person.
For a time, maybe a year or two, my left breast grew faster than my right, and I wondered whether people noticed my body’s preference for one side over the other. Yet no one’s body is perfectly symmetrical. One arm hangs always longer than the other. One leg takes a shorter stride than its opposite. Autopsies show that on average one lung weighs ten grams more than its mate, the right or left depending on the hand you write with.
We are born in perfect symmetry when we’re little more than an egg begun hatching. Not until we’re six-week-old embryos does our heart begin to shift sideways, growing chambers and ventricles themselves stretched oblong. Most of our other vital organs migrate right, as if succumbing to a tidal pull of the moon, which must have broken away from the earth for a reason. Perhaps Zeus divided these two orbs, too, because divinities are fond of sundering bodies that are heavenly as well as those more susceptible to gravity.
Yet the organs of one in every 20,000 people are reversed. A woman’s heart may beat behind her right breast. She may and may not be aware of it because we can easily survive living opposite of what is normal. The condition is only of interest to those dissecting cadavers for science. There is an explanation, of course, if not a reason. Because God himself makes mischief.
Hours after my husband and I had left the church and eaten in the crêperie near Quebec City’s center, we walked through the Museum of Mischief. Only we didn’t know its name at first, because the sign was written in French. Still we might have guessed because five free-standing walls without a ceiling to bond them surrounded several flower pots that were flowerless, that instead grew only the legs of mannequins. And circling all of them were people wearing wool berets and silken scarves. These people—actors and actresses, though I like to think it wasn’t all dissemblance—were this museum’s, without a ceiling, natural inhabitants.
They were talking to their visitors among shelves stocked with archery figurines and candlesticks. They wanted us to write something on a library card, we gradually understood from their gestures, and then place it inside a card catalog for reference. They wanted us to record an instance of mischief from our own experience, to place it inside files overstuffed with the heads of paper dolls missing their limbs, their eyes all matted black and lifeless.
So I wrote that I once had stuffed the Virgin Mary in the garbage. I wrote that I had gotten tired of her taking up so much room between the boots in my closet. I couldn’t stand her upright on her phallus, so I tossed her in a dumpster behind the bar beside my apartment. A glow emerged from the dumpster, and Mary’s eyes opened wide like the headlights from a spaceship lowering itself to earth and looking for a landing. She was scanning the beer bottles piled beneath her. My work was finished, so there I left her. And on the library card I wrote, “I love you, please” when the space ran out. I wrote this only because I have never loved someone without wanting him to love me in return, including the man who handed me the card for the Museum of Mischief’s reference, who spoke only French and I only English.
Nuns marry Jesus, and saints marry his father, I assume. But God or Jesus is not enough because neither ever comes and touches or talks to me, whereas one or two people do. They like the taste of honey, and we feed each other spoonfuls on the sofa, growing round as heavenly bodies, which never stare or accuse. They live, like me, with just as much heartbreak as a body can withstand without breaking in two. And because God forgets about them, their only reward is having no eyes scratched out, though sometimes that will do.
As my husband and I walked beyond the halls of mischief beneath a tunnel and back to our hotel, we confronted a sign at the tunnel’s entrance that read, in English first, then in French, “Do not deface these walls,” as if they had a face to begin with, these walls of brick alone beneath a nameless bridge. As if anyone would inflict on these bricks what some devout Muslims had to some saints before them. As if you could deface those who have not been born from a woman. As if graffiti isn’t a harmless mischief, too.
“Clair de Lune,” my mom’s favorite song, is French for “moonlight.” The cover of the piece of piano music I used to play for her depicted the jaundiced face of a girl illuminated by the moon, a harvest moon I always imagined because the song felt like an autumn song with leaves, leached of color, blowing over rivers. I assumed the piece was written for her, too. Her face appeared so haunting by moonlight that the composer had searched for her in the same forest in which he first found her every other full moon of his life thereafter. That he never found her again, though, I felt certain, because the song is an ache set to music.
There must have been some love at stake, of a body missing half its parts, because the song seemed to cry for me well before it had any reason to. I cried without my mom seeing it whenever I played “Clair de Lune,” over and over again in the evenings as she was praying the rosary. By the time I could play the song through, I had started to bleed, under the moon, from the place where someone had once cut me asunder. And I was beginning to understand what saints never may know, that love of God is fine, but it alone won’t do.
A few months after winning the spelling bee, I stopped wearing my scapula and told Sister Pascal that I would be no nun, that I was awaiting no sign for my vocation. She said she understood, that she had seen the light around my head begin to darken like the moon with the dawn of the sun, where all the real light comes from. And lying in my bed, I listened for God, hoping for his forgiveness while I heard only the soft rhythm of my own blood, pulsing through limbs looking symmetrical while one grew slightly longer than the other one.