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I didn't look again at the outside bulletin board, but the sermon topic was burned into my brain: How Can a Moral Wrong Be a Civil Right? I was the first one out, having taken the side exit so I wouldn't have to shake hands with Rev. Straatman.
Breathless from running the seven blocks home, I tore up the steps, dashed through the front hall into the kitchen, and yanked two slices of dark bread from the wrapper on the counter. After slathering on mayo, I slapped several thick hunks of bologna between them.
Nothing but juice in the fridge. Damn my mother. Damn her being a nurse and making us follow whatever health fad was popular in her magazines at the time. Now she wouldn't even buy milk. Some years ago, we had to eat bread with super-high fiber--until it came out that the fiber in that brand was sawdust. Caffeine had always been forbidden. Then she tried to keep us away from carbonated drinks. My younger sister, Bella, and I had made such a fuss that Mom had compromised--one can of pop a week each. When that was gone, it was gone. Tough.
I filled a large glass with orange juice and climbed the stairs to my room, juice in one hand, sandwich plate in the other. As I kicked my door shut, I heard voices on the front porch.
"Barbara? Are you in here?"
Without answering, I set down my food and slid the bolt into its bracket. Two years ago, I bought the screw-on lock with my own paper route money. Next day we had a new house rule: no locked bedrooms.
That was one fight I won without any compromise. Mom had removed my lock one Friday while I was at school, so I left home that night and holed-up withmy best friend from class, Allen Payne. One night was long enough to drive my mother frantic. It didn't take all that much. She caved in and gave me back the lock.
"Barbara, I know you're in there. Unlock the door this minute!"
Of course I was in here; how else would the dead bolt have become locked? I stood with my back against the door, eating my sandwich as fast as I could, washing it down with juice. My eyes followed the curves of the philodendron vines I'd looped over screw hooks all around my south window and across my ceiling. Bright sun through three windows made the leaves translucent, casting green shadows.
Mrs. Nielson, my junior high science teacher, had given me the vine--her classroom plant--at the end of seventh grade, and I'd repotted it several times over the years. Its vines were so long and lush now, it had turned my room into a jungle, reminding me of the Sendak illustration in Where the Wild Things Are.
In that long moment--ignoring Mom's drill-sergeant voice, my back feeling the vibration of her banging on the door--I said goodbye to my jungle room. I guess I already knew I'd never see it again.
After I hid the dishes under my bed, wiped my hands and mouth on a corner of the sheet, and kicked off my dress shoes, I threw back the bedding. Then I went to the door to push back the bolt. I was climbing into bed as she marched in.
"I have a splitting headache, Mom. Can't you leave me alone?"
She laid a plump hand on my forehead and studied my face. "You're faking, Barbara. I saw you running down the street after you sneaked out of church. People with splitting headaches don't run. Why didn't you go out the front and greet Rev. Straatman? He asked where you were, since he'd seen you sitting with us."
"I'm never going to that church again. You can't force me to go." I got out of bed and took off my church dress, throwing it over a chair, then peeled off my pantyhose. In briefs and bra now, I pulled on jeans, a shirt, and white athletic socks, then sat on the edge of the bed to put on my sneakers.
"As long as you're living under my roof, you're going to attend church every Sunday," Mom said.
I got my scissors, looked in the mirror, and began whacking off my shoulder-length brown hair just below my ears. I'm not sure why I did it. I guess I wanted to cut away the part of me Mom approved of, the part that made me like her.
"Barbara Lynn Gordon! What are you doing to your beautiful hair? What in the world is the matter with you? First you tell me you won't go to church, and now you're making yourself hideous, like one of those wild city kids in gangs. Are you some kind of heathen? Do you want to go to Hell?"
"I don't believe in Hell. And if I did, I'd think that's where your preacher came from."
"Barbara! Get down on your knees this instant! Pray to God to forgive you!"
"No way, Mom! Straatman is full of hate. Any god who'd send a man like that to tell us what to believe would have to be one mean old bastard! I'll never bow down to that god."
She looked at the ceiling. "Lord, forgive my child for this blasphemy and help her to see the light!" Then to me: "Rev. Straatman is trying to save your eternal soul! He hates what's evil and loves the good. He tries to steer us all clear of everything that's hateful to the Lord."
"And that's another thing I don't want anything to do with--this 'Lord' stuff. What kind of god would make people bow down and act like slaves? Why would he need us to tell him all the time how wonderful he is? Some of the meanest people I know make a big deal of praying to that kind of god. Like Straatman."
"It's that Allen Payne again, isn't it? That godless family of his spreading around their heathen lies."
As a matter of fact, Allen and I spent a lot of time talking about religion. Allen's family was Unitarian, though of course there was no Unitarian church in Oakton, our tiny Iowa town. The Paynes sometimes went to the Unitarian Fellowship that met in someone's home in North Falls, a forty-five minute drive from Oakton.
I could almost see the thought that came now into my mother's head. "Is it because of the subject of Rev. Straatman's sermon this morning that you're all of a sudden acting like this?" Her look of horror deepened as she thought of the ramifications of her idea. "Is that what Allen is? An abomination to the Lord?"
"Allen is the nicest guy I know. It's your precious reverend who's abominable."
"Are you saying you believe Rev. Straatman is...?" She couldn't bring herself to say the word in the same sentence.
"He's a homophobe, that's what he is. That means someone who hates all homosexuals. And yeah, a lot of the worst homophobes are worried that deep down they are one!" Allen and I had read a few books written by gay people.
"Where are you getting this? Who's corrupting you like this? It has to be those
Paynes. I forbid you ever to talk to this Allen, or anyone in his family, again. Do you hear me? If you're going to live in my house, you're going to be a good Christian. And that means shunning all evil."
"Jesus hung with sinners. You're just like those Pharisees he didn't like."
She slapped me hard across the face. We glared at each other for a few seconds. Then she would have slapped me on the other cheek with her left hand, but I saw it coming and grabbed her wrist.
"Do you want to be like your father?" She was shouting in my face. "A sinner who turned his back on religion and deserted his duty to his family?"
Still gripping her wrist, I stepped in so close we were almost nose-to-nose. "Yes! I want to be like my father and cut outta here!" My dad had stopped coming home seven years ago when I was nine and Bella four. I let go of my mother and stepped back. "You won't have to live with a heathen anymore."
I got my backpack out of the closet and stuffed it with essentials, hesitated, then tucked my wildflower field guide in with the clothes before cramming my billfold into my jeans pocket and pulling my bill cap over my cropped hair. Mom watched, arms folded across her chest, lips tight. I met her eyes as I passed her to leave the room. "Goodbye, Mother."
She lost her composure then. "Where did I go wrong? I've done everything I could to be a responsible, Christian mother. How could you--"
"I'm just bad, Mother; it's not your fault." I was going down the stairs, not looking back as I spoke, my voice sarcastic. But maybe it was true.
Bella, not yet eleven, was at the foot of the stairs listening. "'Bye, Sis," I said, tugging one of her long dark braids the way I always did, and then putting a hand on her shoulder. Tears spilled down her face, softly rounded like Mom's. My features were sharper, like Dad's. "I'll be all right; don't worry about me."
She threw her arms around me for a goodbye hug. Then I filled my water bottle in the kitchen and was out the door.