Listen to Joy Lanzendorfer read Open Secrets
I don't consider myself a religious person. Maybe there's something out there, God or The Universe or something. I don't know.
I mean, how could you know that? Mamo says 'Have faith,' but what does that even mean? Sitting in the dark, saying to the ceiling—"Hello? Are you there?"
Mamo, my great aunt, is childlike in that way. When I told her about these anxiety attacks I'd been having, she patted my knee and said, "Pray, lovey, and God will take it away." Like it's not well established that these things are biological. The doctor even put me on pills for it. They make me slightly dopey, but the scenarios that usually bother me don't anymore.
The psychiatrist didn't understand about the scenarios. It's not that I'm afraid of the things by themselves. I'm not afraid of the bus, for instance. I'm afraid that either a.) the bus won't stop for me and I'll stand there looking stupid as it rolls away, or b.) it will stop and when I start to get on, it'll start driving with me hanging on the side.
When I explained this, Dr. Benson said, "But the fears revolve around the bus."
"Yes," I said. "But the bus itself causes no fear. It's just a big vehicle."
"Bernice," he said, leaning forward. "Would you say that you have a hard time connecting some parts of your life with other parts of your life?"
A week later, I went to see Mamo, who told me that she wanted to go to church so she could pray for her husband George. I don't know what there is to say to God about a man who's been dead for 15 years, but Mamo wants to say it every Saturday. I got her dressed in a pink sweater she's had since I was in Garfield slippers and we started walking, slowly, down the street. As we crossed the intersection, a taxi driver honked at us. I turned and glared at him. He was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.
In church, Mamo sat in a pew and prayed. I hated watching her do that. It was like watching her cry or fart. So I looked through the things in the pew--Bible, hymnal, pencils, and "prayer request" cards.
I wrote on one of the cards:
I secretly like it when I cross the street with my old aunt and traffic has to stop for us. People are so impatient, it makes me want to smack them in the face. Can't they slow down for two minutes for an old lady?
I folded the card in half and put it in my pocket. Mamo was still praying, so I got up to wander around. As I went down the aisle, another old lady looked up at me with sharp, mean eyes. I turned away from her. The side of the church was lined with stained-glass windows. Before each one, a statue was perched on a cement pedestal. I ended up staring at one of the statues--a little man in a blue robe. He wore one of those hats that the Pope always wears and was smirking at me over apple cheeks. He looked like a character on a cereal box. Church Cereal: Eat for Righteousness! would be their slogan.
And then, without even planning it, I lifted the statue and slid the piece of paper under it. I glanced behind me, but no one was looking.
For some reason, I thought about the note all next week. I thought a lot about it when my boss criticized me for not selling enough. I thought about it at lunchtime when I got bored of my novel and salad with low-fat dressing. I thought about it when I took my anti-anxiety pill. I liked to imagine the note sitting there, secretly, under the man in the blue robe. The world seemed suddenly full of places you could put your secrets--the cracks of bus seats or the small space between elevators and their shafts.
In the following weeks, I put other complaints under the statues. I didn't want anything too personal, nothing that a psychiatrist who actually listened would find interesting. But I also wanted a secret. Nothing I would tell Mamo, for example.
Under John the Baptist, I put:
I am writing this with a stolen pen from work. I haven't bought a pen in 6 years because my boss is a bitch. I don't care if it's wrong because she makes every day suck and I figure a free pen is more than fair for having to deal with her.
Under St. Augustine, I put:
When I was 17, I drank wine with Brad Thompson in the graveyard behind the high school. We would have had sex, only he threw up on the graves instead. Even though Brad never spoke to me again, I still look at that night with fondness.
Under Mary Magdalene, I put:
When I was 15, someone told me about masturbation. I was lying in bed and I thought, "This will never work." But it did and I've been doing it ever since.
Under St Peter, I put:
When my co-worker got engaged, she kept fussing about rings and dresses and flowers. I started throwing all my lunch garbage in the trash by her desk. I made sure to eat smelly things like orange peels and every time she said, "What's that smell?" I would laugh to myself.
In two months, I had the entire Church of the Covenant filled with my secrets. I liked it. Every corner was filled with me, and no one even knew.
But there was one last thing to conquer: the statue of Christ behind the pulpit.
The Christ statue was different from the others. For one thing, it was behind where the priest stood, so you couldn't move it without people noticing. Also, it was bigger than the others and looked harder to lift.
I obsessed about it. I went back to the church without Mamo so I could see what it was like at other times of day. Once I saw a janitor dragging a cleaning cart down the rows of gleaming wood. Another time, I came when they had a service going on. Finally, I decided that if you came between 5-8 p.m. on a weekday, no one was there. I guess Jesus comes second to dinnertime.
So on a Tuesday, I took the bus across town to tackle the Christ statue. When I opened the doors, I saw only one person sitting in the back. As I walked by, I realized it was the same old lady who had glared at me the first day I put a secret under a statue. She looked at me with the same hard, mean look but this time I glared back, thinking Leave, Leave.
I sat in a pew to wait her out. Turning around, I selected the prayer card to write on. I didn't write the secret though, because I had decided it only counted if I wrote it right before putting it under the statue. So I sat there, hunched over, staring at Jesus. Instead of lolling in death, he was holding his arms out as if about to hug someone. The statue looked heavy, like it was made of stone or metal. I wondered if I could even lift it.
There was a shuffling behind me. I turned and saw that the woman was finally leaving. As soon as the door swung shut, I began to write:
I love my great aunt.
I paused, surprised I had written something about Mamo. I continued:
But sometimes I get tired of her. She always wants to do the same things, like a child. She talks about her dead husband and god all the time. Sometimes I think if I didn't spend so much time with her, I would have a family of my own--a husband and kids and all that. I feel like I'm sacrificing the best years of my life for her.
I turned the card over:
The other day when we were getting off the bus, I had an urge to push her down the stairs onto the pavement. I didn't, of course, but I took her arm to hurry her along. I would never hurt her but sometimes I want to.
I looked around the church again. No one was in sight. Why did they leave this place open for people to wander in and do whatever they want to do? I stood up, folding my note, and approached the cross. When I put my arm around the statue to tip it over, I was surprised by how light it was. I wondered if it were hollow inside. Leaning it back so that the base pulled away from the cement block, I slipped the note underneath.
The whole way home, I felt light and happy, like I had accomplished something important. I wasn't pissed off about my job anymore. I wasn't even nervous about getting on the bus.
But then in the middle of the night, I sat upright in bed. My heart was galloping in my chest and heat was running up and down my veins. All I could think was, How could I have said that about Mamo?
Once I could breathe again, I took my anti-anxiety pill. I had no idea what taking two in one day would do to me, but what else could I do? I lay back down and thought about how Mamo used to make me sugar cookies when I was little and started to cry. I hadn't meant what I wrote on the note. I would never want to hurt Mamo. And she would never hold me back. She only wanted the best for me. She had listened to my every complaint for as long as I could remember. She was the only person who was ever on my side, no matter what.
The only thing to do, I decided, was to get the note back. I looked at the clock. It was 3:37 a.m., and there was no way to get to the church now. And anyway, they probably locked it eventually. I would have to go back tomorrow after work.
The next day, it was like my pills had stopped working. I couldn't get on the bus and ended up taking a taxi to work, which cost $30 I didn't have. I called Dr. Benson but the secretary said that if it wasn't an emergency, I would have to make an appointment. Then my co-worker Tammy was grinding her teeth for an hour after work and every time I thought about Mamo, I started crying.
By 5 p.m, it had started to mist outside. I couldn't afford another cab, so I had to wait in the rain for the bus to come. The whole way to the church, I jostled my knee and worried: What if someone was in the church? How would I get my note back? I didn't think I could wait for someone to leave like I had yesterday.
Luckily, when I finally got there, no one was inside. I walked right up the aisle behind the pulpit. As soon as I put my hand on the Jesus statue, relief flooded through me. In a second, I could take it back. It would be like it had never happened.
I pulled the statue up and put my hand underneath to get the note.
There was nothing there.
I gasped and pulled the Christ statue off the pedestal.
Underneath, it was completely bare.
I looked on the floor around the block to see if I had somehow knocked it off.
Then I got on my knees and looked under the block, but there wasn't even any dust.
I stood up and gazed, horrified, at the empty church. Then I looked to the side where my other secrets were stored. Were they gone too? I ran down the steps and went to the first one, St. Peter, and lifted it right off the podium. There was nothing there but cement.
I went down the row, pulling each statue off and looking underneath. By the time I got to the last one, the statue of the cereal box man, I was getting the buried-alive feeling again. I lifted the statue and nearly dropped it as I saw that its podium was also bare. I put it back. The church was still and silent. It was the cleanest church I had ever seen.
"Can I help you?"
I turned to see one of the priests standing before me. He was young and prematurely balding and looked vaguely familiar. He was smiling, but I felt suddenly humiliated, like he could see inside me.
"No thanks," I said, feeling my cheeks getting hot, my heart pounding in my ears.
"Are you here for confession?" he said.
I opened my mouth to reply, but nothing came out. And then, I turned and ran out of the church.
About the author:
Joy Lanzendorfer's work has been in Salon, The Door, Writer's Digest, The Writer, Bust, Bitch, and many others. She is co-founder of the writing group, Word Pirates, and is working on a novel. Her personal blog is ohjoy.org.
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