Are we all Freudian at heart? Can we learn to love without our parents' lessons? Author Eliza Behn explores the daddy issues in "The Father" and artist Ashton Leath's artwork gives us a portrait of a woman undone by her own doing.
by Eliza Behn
She walked into the church late. About five past nine, but it was a weekday mass, so she expected more leniency. The parishioners were mostly pensioners, probably playing catch up with their clemency like they did with their 401K payments their last five years in the workforce. She scanned both sides of the aisle to find him oddly enough sitting on the left. With his hair graying only on the sides, he was the youngest person she could spot.
She walked up to his pew and put her hand on his right shoulder. He seemed surprised, but didn’t pull away instantly as he normally did. He looked up and smiled at her. A type of forced politeness, but she saw (or wanted to see), a genuine appreciation that she came.
It had been almost ten years since she last went to mass. Most likely an Easter or a Christmas she couldn’t get out of with her family. Sure there was the baptism or wedding she had to attend, but those didn’t count the same as non-sacrament mass. And a weekday mass—-she hadn’t gone to one of those since Catholic grammar school.
But church meant a lot to him. She liked to say she was an atheist, but knew it wasn’t true. No one raised Catholic ever got the Church fully out of their system. Especially as an artist, who could resist the calling of the stained glass, the carved wood ceilings? The recitation of prayers and methodology was like the joy of breaking up a particularly rocky eight ball with a dollar and a quarter. Both processes made you fall in love with the Eucharist.
He had said to her she should, “come back.” Almost like how her father denied she was actually an atheist, “because she wasn’t raised that way.” She wondered if her father had come back to church when he went through a depression all those years ago? Did all middle-aged white men come back to God when their worlds fell apart?
He stepped out of the pew to let her in to sit. The kneeler was already down.
“I can’t believe you came.”
She put her right hand on top of his left, gave it a reassuring, but maternal squeeze, “Of course.”
The music started and they both stopped talking to focus on the altar as naughty children chiding themselves for disrupting mass. They both grabbed a hymnal. She wondered if he were the type to sing aloud or silently mouth the words. He was too broken to even do the latter. She thought ahead to parts of the mass when they would be permitted to touch, wondering if he would.
There was the part where they said the “Our Father” where there would be a chance to hold hands. But not every parish had done it that way. Then of course the “Peace Be With You” part. They were too close to just shake hands. Would he kiss her on the cheek or just hug her for it? She sat down and crossed her legs at the ankle because Sister Abruzzo had said “only budons cross their legs at the knee.” He kept his head down most of the time with a crestfallen expression that never let up, even when their eyes met.
She wanted to be what church was for him. She wanted to be a break in his never-ending sadness. She had always wanted to be an older man’s beautiful, youthful silver lining. Instead she had turned into another source of stress for him. She kept a screenshot of the text he had sent her months ago: “I need a breather from our friendship. You’re right, you do add stress to my life. I’m sorry, we’ll talk soon.” It had devastated her to read it. She over-analyzed every part of it. Why did he always have to limit her being just a friend? Was he really not attracted to her? Why did he say he needed a breather and then add in some corporate throw-away line like, ‘talk soon’? They had talked every day for months and leading up to it, she had felt his responses had grown more obligatory---he would just answer a question, never expanding or lengthening the conversation. But instead of giving him space then, she pushed on and brought him to the point he had to be cruel.
Even now, her presence was probably causing him undue stress. But she couldn’t stay away from him. She hadn’t been able to for over a year now. She had thought, or hoped, he felt marginally the same way. That amidst all the pain in his life, seeing “Good morning, handsome ;)” as the first text of his endlessly busy days would make him smile. He had said she was a “great friend.” That he “cherished” her. They had regularly said “love you” “love you, too.” Granted she always said the first part. On text anyway. He always said it first in person or on the phone. She had hoped he would see all the horrible events of the past few months as a way to bring them together.
He always said he just wanted to “know God’s plan” because he couldn’t figure out what awful thing he had done to deserve all the loss and betrayal he was being subjected to. She wanted to say His plan was her. It was them. He once said, “God brought you to me. I know He did. He sent you to me.” She thought in retrospect it was wrong to have responded with, “Thanks for magical negro’ing my existence!” Maybe she should have fed the seed instead of scoffing at it. Maybe he felt scorned. Maybe, again, he was just being polite. She just wanted him to tell her. No, she wanted him to see her the way she wanted to be seen.
They stood and she saw other parishioners grasp each other’s hands. She offered her right hand to him, which he clasped lightly to her disappointment. She started to chant the “Our Father” wondering why they didn’t say the “Apostle’s Creed” as she wanted to impress him with how well she knew it despite her decade-long absence from Catholicism. That somehow this would be a sign for him that they were meant to be together. He dropped her hand instantly as the prayer ended. She held back her tears and followed along in a hollow way. What was wrong with her? Why didn’t he want her? What could she do to change that? She missed him so much. She missed his words. She missed his undying nobility. He had the most beautiful compliments for her work. The first piece she ever showed him he said, “I thought it was based on Marilyn Monroe, but then I thought no. No, it’s Jackie Kennedy.” He knew to say that before even knowing about her obsession with JFK. She felt his pain when she listened to Otis Redding. She wanted him because he had said “no” a million times.
“And peace be with you,” the priest said.
They turned to each other. They both stood motionless.