Julie Marie Wade
Childhood had been for me beset by hairpins and homophones. My mother was always clipping back my hair to keep the stray curls from covering my eyes. It seemed I was in danger of appearing unkempt, ragged and shaggy despite her best attempts to groom me. I had lacey anklet socks and many dresses complete with sash, but my knees were scabbed over and my elbows rough and my skin smelled of milk and mud.
During this time, everyone spoke a foreign language, and the phrases I learned often failed to match the intentions of their speakers. For instance, in church we held hands and recited a prayer that began Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Instead, I heard this new word—hallowed—as two words, hollow wood. And I couldn’t understand, despite my most astute reckoning, why God would want to be called after empty logs.
Similarly, in school, I had heard reference made to holy orders. These, I imagined, were much like the Ten Commandments, the list of rules handed down from that incomplete architecture in the sky. Three such holy orders pertained to men and women who chose to spend their lives in closer communion with God. They would pursue a standard of hollow wood unattainable by the rest of us. Religious fervor would infest their lives like termites, gnawing away at the most shameful humanness within.
In professing these vows—the holy order of poverty, of chastity, of obedience—a woman also became symbolically married to Christ. She wore a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. She abstained from flirting, dating, any physical contact that exceeded the crack of a ruler or the gentle touch of a hand, depending on her affiliation and the severity of her community’s practice. For some nuns, I had heard it was a sin to touch at all, for any reason. The body must be kept hollow for God.
It did not seem appropriate to my young mind that so many women should be married to the same man, even if he was partly divine and entirely invisible. This constituted polygamy, which had been imparted to me as a dreadful sin still covertly practiced by the Mormons. Secondly, if women symbolically married Christ as part of their initiation into the cloistered or semi-cloistered lifestyle, their male counterparts must also have symbolically married Christ. The idea of two men marrying each other seemed ludicrous, and obviously sinful, and the idea of so many monks-to-be becoming husbands of Jesus spiked the sin tally even higher—homosexuality and polygamy. This Church appeared as routinely immoral and deeply contradictory as anything I had read about in chronicles of Zeus, Hera, and their compellingly pagan kind.
But despite these first aversions, I could have loved nothing more than Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Perhaps most exciting to me, beyond even the Austrian scenery and the spectacular soundtrack, was the possibility presented therein of this phenomenon called crossing over, a euphemism for an even stronger word—transgression.
Not simply a love story or a historical fiction, The Sound of Music presented a study of transgressions, including a portrait of both origins and outcomes. The Captain has banished music from his house, yet later, he learns to welcome the sound of his own children’s voices raised in song. In fact, at the conclusion of the film, he joins them in a musical performance destined—or depicted as such—to save their lives. Therein, he transgresses his own boundaries. He lets down his guard.
This transgression is received by the audience favorably. The Captain, singing Edelweiss and strumming his guitar, has grown, softened, evolved. We like to see the strong, silent type made vulnerable before our eyes. (Is this heresy? Is it progress?) But when Rolph, who is Liesel’s beloved and also the local envoy—a boy of seventeen-going-on-eighteen delivering telegrams to wealthy Austrians—stops dancing in gazebos and begins marching with the Nazis in a tight, ugly uniform the color and style of a used grocery bag, he too has crossed over, and no one can lure him back. The Captain insists, prying the gun from Rolph’s hand, “You’ll never be one of them,” and Rolph trembles, thinks maybe this guy is right, then blows the whistle that exposes them all.
So far it’s a clear message, a pure binary: music is good and Nazis are bad. Few people would disagree. What about Fraulein Maria then, the Novice in every sense of the word? I love her best because I am her. We share the same real-life name, and we both have blue eyes and red cheeks, cartoonish faces, with a tendency to get into trouble. We both want to love God, but I suspect she is better at it. We both love singing and dancing and running around in the out-of-doors tearing our clothes and showing up late for supper. What I understand, intuitively, is that Maria has been set on a path, a future of difficult math simplified to the lowest common denominator—do what is expected of you. I had a chart that covered the refrigerator door. I knew my chores. I knew the consequence of every plus, check, and minus. I too was living in a house of holy orders where chastity and obedience were explicitly required.
The most amazing transgression, which might be called triumph, which might be called kismet, is Maria’s ultimate rejection of her intended hollow wood vows. I rewound and rewound with delight the scene where the Mother Abbess proclaims, “The love between a man and a woman is holy, too.” I knew it! I just knew it! I rocked on my heels and dug my hands deep in the popcorn bowl. She would have money! She would have sex! She would exercise greater freedoms than her life in the convent would ever permit.
The film was not didactic. It was not even especially religious. The message to young girls was not to escape the convent at all costs; nuns and laywomen alike were presented as equally entitled to a good life. They were encouraged, in the Mother Abbess’s words, “to live the life [they] were born to live.” I could not believe that the life I was born to live would involve such great love or such painful estrangement. I could not have imagined a woman instead of a man waiting there in my grown-up life—there in the book of myths also known as the Future, on the back steps of a stranger’s apartment—to bless me in our mutual transgression. But as in most stories, disparate futures had been foreshadowed; unfamiliar possibilities declared themselves anon.
When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, I read Oedipus the King in my honors English class. In the extensive introduction, there was one sentence I underlined: “One of the functions of myth . . . is to raise deeply disturbing problems that will later demand more precise formulation.” In art history class, we acquired the word and concept of a triptych. We had been primed for it, though, knowing how three was the Biblical numeral of holiness. The Trinity: comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The vows of the Holy Orders: poverty, chastity, and obedience. “Christians like all the threes except for ménage a trois,” someone whispered. I didn’t know the spelling, so I couldn’t look it up, but when I asked my mother “What’s ménage a trois?” her cheeks coursed with blood, and she instructed me, firmly, to watch my mouth.
I began to count my life in triplets, a grand, uneven series well- suited for waltzing and constructing punchlines. Each day I could expect morning, afternoon, and evening, accompanied by breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was childhood, which gave way to adolescence, and later to the much-longed-for realm we call adulthood. And so it happened also, in the backlit, hazy beauty of retrospect, that a triptych foreshadowed my future.
The first panel was a bathroom wall, stained with the usual scrawl. She’ll fuck him for sure. Jennifer has great hair. E=mc2. Even the wall- scrawl appeared in triplets, ranging from confessions to accusations to a static cribsheet sought during difficult exams. But there was also a cut-out in the wall, an inlet just wide enough for a body to perch, legs dangling down, for someone to stand below her—someone she could wrap her legs around.
I came to that bathroom once to wash my hands. I returned often thereafter under pretense of glossing my lips, combing my hair, rituals for which I could not have cared less. Sara perched on the ledge while Heather leaned in. Oblivious to everyone else, they kissed in outlaw bliss against that wall. It was not the dry, tight-lipped kiss of Liesel and Rolph that night in the lightning-lit gazebo. It was not the tender, betrothal kiss of Captain Von Trapp and his newly dis- ordered, forever un-nunned, love-struck governess, Fraulein Maria. They kissed so hard, so wet, and the radiators rattled an accompaniment of ardor without tune, all ecstasy and imprecision. Sara beat the wall behind her with her combat boots, and Heather winked at me once, slicked her hair, said, “Hope you enjoyed the show.”
For all I know, they’re married now—to men. For all I know, they have daughters they send to Catholic school, warn them about temptation and the Golden Rule: one foot must always touch the floor. Because of course, God sees everything. He has a fucking huge telefoto lens. But if God was watching anyway, I reasoned, why not follow His example? If God had a tree house and a telescope, I thought I ought to keep a look-out, too.
The second panel passes through my memory now like a series of slides, the kinds couples used to show off their trips to exotic places like Hawaii or Sedona or New England in its vast, autumnal glow. Guests sat in an overstuffed living room crunching amiably on mixed nuts and sloshing scotch-and-sodas in stout, translucent cups. They were always boisterous and a little bit drunk, and the hosts projected pictures of their journey on a white wall between a boxcar television and an archaic China hutch.
I knew these interiors by heart, the homes of my parents’ friends, the performance of their lives portrayed against new back- drops—palm trees and vineyards and dappled leaves. But once, on our way to the symphony, crossing over the bridge between suburb and urb, we stopped at a housewarming party for my mother’s new boss. She was tight-lipped, mechanical, blotting her mouth and clutching her purse and saying only, “I promised I would put in an appearance.”
The house in Queen Anne was sleek and modern, hard wood floors instead of carpet, scant furnishings instead of wall-to-wall. Scott greeted us at the door drinking from a tall green bottle adorned with a red star. He hugged my mother. My father shook hands awkwardly, abstained from small talk, which was not like him at all. Enter David, musician-suave: long hair, Levi’s and a sport coat, hazel eyes. “This is my better half,” Scott grinned, presenting him to us with palpable pride. Suddenly, the slides began to flip faster. A picture on the bookshelf: both men, tuxedo-clad, confettied; a rainbow magnet on the refrigerator door; a woman smoking on the patio, another woman holding her hand. My father checked his watch again. My mother wore her finest, insincere smile. Scott said my mother had told him I played the piano. David showed me his studio, an aisle of cords and guitars proceeding to an altar of drums.
“I need to use the bathroom,” I said. My father’s hand on my shoulder tightened, then slowly relaxed. “Don’t be long now. We have somewhere else to be.” There was a candle burning on an opaque plate, a basket of financial magazines, a hand soap made of lavender and aloe. A strange dizziness came over me, a shift in understanding. It was like the moment when you first learn about improper fractions—how they aren’t really improper at all, just a different notation for the same essential value. Scott and David didn’t need to sneak into a bathroom the way that Heather and Sara did. They had a whole house; they even had their own bed. I had glimpsed it, through a doorway, as we took a guided tour of the house. I slipped out the door, crept down the hall, stepped into the master bedroom. Who did I think I was? What did I think I was doing? These were questions I could not answer. The bed was enormous, bracketed by glass stands. Ordinary objects rested there: a man’s wrist watch, a digital alarm. I sat down. I ran my hand along the comforter. I contemplated the two fluffed pillows placed side by side.
Now the slides begin to blur; the film is distorted, bubbled as if by rain. My mother apologizing. My father strong-arming me through the door. My white dress with the slit on the side, my first pair of heels. Suddenly swoony, gazing back at the bed: this human evidence: this king-sized denominator in common.
The third panel comes to me with eyes closed on a park bench in new millennium London, listening as Breeayn, my fellow American, strums her guitar, hums softly. She is nervous about performing in public. I have become a good listener. We share sandwiches and cereal bars as we backpack around Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Sometimes, when she is tired, she rests her head on my shoulder on the train. When this happens, every muscle in my body flexes, a response I cannot explain.
Breeayn hands me my first cigarette, in a pub outside Stratford- Upon-Avon. “I don’t know how,” I confess, blushing, and she tells me it’s easy. There’s a rhythm to it, like your own natural breath, but better. Soon, we share cigarettes to keep the cost down, her drag, then my drag, then hers . . .
“You don’t seem much like an only child,” she says. “You don’t keep things all to yourself.” The poem from home in my most recent care package: Some secrets I keep even from myself. “I think I’m in love with my best friend,” she confides. “His name is James. I think he likes men.” I want to like men. I want to feel like this when I’m around them. “Have you gone all the way with anyone yet?” Like a well-tuned instrument. Like the high note at the end of a song.
“Almost,” I tell her, clearing my throat. Which is the hardest bridge to cross. Which is the infinite, analog gap between 0 and 1, between the left and right side of a decimal.
She pounds a fresh pack on the pavement, strikes a blue match. “I see your almost and raise you a not quite.”
Childhood had been for me beset by hairpins and homophones. Adolescence continued the tradition of snarls, quarrels, and perpetual mis-hearings. For years, I thought they were cliffs, that treble and bass, that place we were bound to come to in time, for better or worse, for clinging or casting ourselves over. It was the musical term for cusp or edge, another way of saying almost, of resting on the ledge.
At twenty, I cut off my curls and began to have sex with a man. Weary of the nun in me, the “un” in me—un-requited, un-ignited, cautiously frightened of remaining un-loved—I had to do something. “Shorter than this?” she inquired, holding up a newly snipped strand. I nodded. “Than this?” I nodded again. “At this rate, we’re going to have nothing left.” Exactly.
“The story of our lives becomes our lives,” Rich wrote.
She was half-right.
(Almost. Not quite.)
The final Holy Order is revision.