I attended church every week of my life from vaginal release ’til seventeen. Somewhere through the intervening years they licked away the afterbirth and slipped on my Sunday best. Catholic Mass was a weekly ritual and important component of my parents’ life. We always made it. Circumstances failed to yield exceptions. In CCD I blasted my desk with a vomity, jelly donut spew and still kneeled for church that day.
A blizzard once made it physically impossible to be within holy walls. Our country farm, with a long driveway and rural roads wiring it to the world, was too snowed in. Four of us couldn’t fit in a tractor and chug it five miles to town. With no other options my dad tuned our three channel TV to a local station. Through this my parents, my sister, and myself all watched Mass beamed in from a church ninety miles south. It was much too far for even the strongest-armed layperson to hurl Blessed Sacrament our way. So without Jesus’ toenails on our tongues we watched a slow procession amble toward the cloaked man doling Communion. During Our Father we linked hands, awaiting further instruction. Static fuzzed out entire passages of prayers. I filled the gaps with words from rote, my mind ignorant to their subtext.
At times as a teen my work schedule conflicted with morning Mass. After shifts I drove to the nearby big town and parked outside a Catholic church. Within its crowd, without my family, I could loosen up and feel anonymous. I was free to sprawl my legs and space out at will. That church was hot. Pews creaked with so many elderly kneeling and standing in unison. Their joints must’ve been shot from a lifetime of up and down.
One of these post-shift afternoons a friend asked me along to some movie. But I had church. He conjured the idea of grabbing a bulletin and proffering it as proof to my parents. Prior to this it never occurred that my attendance was optional. That I could miss out on the hour of mindless endurance. I went to Mass that first time, suffering through heat and boredom. A few weeks later I played church hooky. I spent it driving the countryside with four dudes igniting firecrackers inside our ride. It induced more joy and appreciation of life than any sermon lodged in memory.
I spent the next few months of hooky in more mundane ways. I slept in parking lots, waiting for my hour to be up so I could head home. A police officer once knocked on my window and asked why I was sleeping outside Wendy’s. I realized a seventeen year life ritual was evaporating into a haze of naps. I was now free from church but this liberation was still in its infancy.
I didn’t replace church time with substantial things as it felt as if what I’d lost was very little. I often passed on the opportunity to be with friends or enrich myself, instead opting for naps. This ritual of nothingness went on for a few more years until I moved out and into my first place. Now I could sleep in on Sundays without the pressure to pretend. I changed apartments as a junior in college and still continued skipping.
My new apartment housed my sister and her boyfriend, a fellow Catholic, and was a safe haven for lapsed churchgoers. Without a need to wake early for Mass we threw Saturday night parties that resulted in Sunday morning hangovers. In the getting bombed phase of one of these I met Mina.
Mina was a cute, tall chick who worked the DVD booth at a library. She also threw smelly books at alphabetized shelves. Mina wore glasses. She was a 4.2 student. The library was her summer job. Her father was a minister. She was every fetishized cliché conglomerated in one body. And she was friends with my housemate sister, Brittany. Prior to the party we talked a few times when she came for a visit. It was pleasant but never more than a showcase of my goofiness. Then on that party night we connected with hours of chatting and joking on a couch. We grew closer and bolder throughout the night. Though we were near strangers before the booze went in, our drunken state resulted in a night of cuddling.
After a dogged pursuit filled with charm, bad movies, and corny jokes, I unsealed Mina on an old mattress in my father’s Quonset. This was in the woods beside my parents’ home. Catholic guilt over sex had long since departed my bones but she was a virgin. Prior to the shed I put in fingerfucking time in my car outside a theater. I convinced her to gobble down birth control pills. In time we built to a level of comfort where sex wouldn’t weigh in her mind as a regret or the man lurching atop her monstrous.
That first time in the shed we arrived at midnight, hauling blankets to the woods over cold gravel and dew wet grass. Inside it my dad kept his pontoon, tractor, and three lawnmowers. Though it was pitch dark I knew the bed was in a back corner beside a pallet stacked with Folgers cans. These were used in summer for tomato planting.
We got naked on the mattress and with enough wiggling sex began. It was a typical first time experience: clumsy and she didn’t know what she was doing. But that was okay. In the blackness we couldn’t see each other’s faces even at a half-inch distance. I imagined her staring at the ceiling wondering if this was what I begged her for so badly. I spent more time making her comfortable through hugs rather than kisses. We finished and things seemed okay which was relieving. I walked naked to my car to retrieve toilet paper from its trunk. She used the squares to wipe me out.
We cuddled, joking about the cold and how the dying bird banging around the rafters made this shack romantic. Before long we were at it again. I could feel in her the wet stick of semen she missed. During sex I often picture fat chicks pooping to halt myself. Inside Mina I focused on something else: my oft repeated thoughts of what it meant to be with a minister’s daughter. I was unsure if it signified more than a good story. I wasn’t decided on whether Mina’s spirituality made me want to know her more or less. But our relationship often brought to mind religious thoughts. It conjured memories of my first taste of Christ. How I licked His bits at one end then ejected them out the other.
First Communion was bitter. They gussied us 2nd graders in suits and dresses to appear aged beyond our years. But I still gritted like a kid after my first sip of blood. My mother’s camera flashed at this moment. Beside her was my father, smiling through his red beard. Back home we had people over. I was to lead grace before the meal but in that moment of pressure the words failed me. An adult labeled me a brat as my mind tried to recall what it only knew from rote. My aunt gave me $20 anyways.
Dad threw his arm around me, pulling in for a hug. “My son. Oh, my son.” He brought me to his bedroom and searched his hand atop the tall dresser.
“These are for you, Nolan.” He handed me a scratch-off lotto with a crisp fifty taped to its backside. He often gifted my sisters and I with scratch-offs from a machine that was said to live in his bedroom.
“Oh sweet!” I hugged him, feeling the most excited I had all day.
With the presents he expressed love and pride for his boy, his Catholic son. First Communion became a day of gifts though I knew it was meant to signify more. Still, I liked the happiness it brought him. Dad worked so often it was important to me the time we had. And now I could follow him down the church aisle to get bread instead of blessings.
I drove Mina home after that first night in the shed. We held hands in silence, in contentment. I didn’t feel like before where I selfishly imagined capturing some great story in this act: Atheist removes virginity from minister’s daughter. Instead our post sex days consisted less and less of thoughts on the fulfillment of desire. The physical was frequent but now normalized and integrated within our lives. It no longer held the power of being a separate, consuming force.
It startled me how I thought of her as more a story than a person I cared for. I hadn’t realized I was growing attached. She both grounded and enriched me. I’d been so into the idea I forgot the realities of intimacy. I slacked on my responsibility toward its resulting emotions. But I slowly grew to feel a renewed sense of connection and appreciation like on that drunken night of cuddling. The appreciation became a love for everything we brought to each other’s lives. It ceased to be just another captivating tale.
Mina and I began spending large swaths of time together. We listened to certain podcasts each week, camped in the woods, and went through DVD box sets on lazy days. Her parents were vaguely aware of my existence but I knew lots about them. I had her relate her dad’s Sunday sermons. In turn she asked about my father’s farming. About my pulling weeds, picking rocks, and cleaning muck shit soybeans off bin floors in super heat. We talked for hours and rolled on the floor when necessary.
We fucked on my lopsided bed and as I drifted to sleep in the after time I thought of childhood Sundays. I pictured myself as a middle-schooler standing with my family at the church steps. It was the same every time. My dad took a small comb out his back pocket and worked the curls near his neck. Then he opened the door for us to follow through.
We sat in the same pew each week. My spot was unpredictable but I hoped to be beside Dad. Mass felt repetitious from week to week. There was no real connection for me. I rarely had religious thoughts. In kneeling I ran through the same rote prayer I recited each night: God protect mom, dad, my sisters, both grandpas and grandmas, and all of grandpa’s cows.
For entertainment I imagined hurling axes out my forehead into the people nearby. They silently crumpled. None broke from hymn or prayer. One by one I eliminated these folks as the dwindling congregation awaited the Father’s next command. After church I snapped back to reality in anticipation of fun. My sister Brit and I ran to the basement for donuts and watered down Hi-C. With sugar in hand we hustled to meet our parents at the car. After dropping off the paper for Grandma the banal Sunday routines were done ’til next week.
At home Dad might start the tractor for the first fun of the day. On one of those times Brit and I peeped out the window in search of his signal. He waved us outside where we awaited the final boarding call.
“Now whoooooooooo wants a tractor ride?”
Brit and I howled that it was us who wanted that ride.
“Well step right up, boys and girls. Two for a dollar. Two for a dollar. No discount for the boy with the long arms and deep pockets.” His fake carny impression, though never changing, was part of the fun.
Our ride was a towering, green John Deere. At the front of its frame was a scoop bucket attached by two elongated, hydraulic arms. Against my mother’s wishes Brit and I sat in the bucket dirtied with mud. My dad shot it skyward with the push of a lever. We were flying ten feet up. The tractor started its slow walk. We lived in the country and had an excess of land and road for travel. Even if we never left the wooded yard it was an incredible voyage.
Our mouths hung open with laughter, inviting gnats and flies to chuckling wet chambers. Our butts bounced on the scoop’s metal bottom. The wind blew through our clothes as four legs dangled. Even stilts might fail to touch the ground. When brave we peered back to see Dad behind cab glass, his massive blue muffs blocking the chug-chug noise. He gave a big thumbs-up.
It was after one of these rides he asked I tag along to a nearby field. I was twelve. We rode out in his creaky old pickup. After testing a scoop of wheat for moisture we plopped back down in dusty seats. Instead of turning the key he peered forward in silence. A few moments passed before he turned and drew breath.
“Nolan, we need to talk about something.”
“I want to explain to you what sex is.”
That utterance was my only speech for the entirety of his talk. I was embarrassed. All I could manage were nods of affirmation to his statements. The old pickup was so silent it squeaked as my head gave its yeses. I’d never felt so uncomfortable around my dad.
“Nolan, sex is something a married couple do when they love each other.”
“A man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina. That’s when it’s sex. They can do it to show love. And they can do it to try for a baby.”
The sun hit my dad’s red beard, making it glow the same color as the encircling amber wheat. I’d never knew him without his beard. Nor had my mom or anyone in our family. It was a strange sensation to be lectured on intimacy from a man who’s face was always concealed. A new sensation came over me. I felt both distant and nervous with the person I loved more than all.
He continued, telling me it was natural to like girls. He mentioned erections, saying perhaps I’d had one at a dance.
He went into a fairly detailed explanation of sex and feelings for women, how you wait until marriage for intercourse. How you get married in the church so you can express that ultimate love for another. He seemed nervous but rehearsed. The lecture spanned ten or fifteen minutes. It was a section of time punctuated with long pauses, awkward subjects, and two guys staring off into a spiderwebbed windshield.
When he got through all he wanted we hugged and left the field behind. He drove to my cousin’s so I could play. Before I opened the door he left me with parting words that came in afterthought.
“You’ll start to notice hairs growing on your privates. Maybe in a year we’ll have a chat about that and other things.” But I already knew more than he realized. I left without mentioning what I discovered on my own. Masturbation. I’d been at it for months.
My final collegiate year was looming. I felt as if Mina and I hadn’t done half the things we wanted. We were supposed to walk around Minneapolis and pay hobos to pose with me. Bike more of the countryside and play on hay bales. But school was starting soon. I had one more year in North Dakota. Mina was off to her elite university in New York. The time left for this summer romance was evaporating quick.
I’d been begging for sex on her parents’ bed. She always turned me down. I asked to fuck on my great grandma’s stone. That too was refused. Instead we enjoyed ourselves in fun places such as the back of my car in a field off some country road. During the act I felt humid and disgusting. Every time we cracked a window for air the mosquitoes swooped in to bite our asses. Three months of bites and lowering Mina to my level had a wearing effect. She agreed to sex on the bed.
We drove to her country home which had no neighbors. We fed her dogs and horses. Her bedroom was next to her parents’ in the upstairs. Theirs was a mess. It had papers and files everywhere, a cluttered desk, and strewn clothes. There were some religious items. They reminded me of a wall at my parents’ home. Over the years it became increasingly adorned with Christian decorations: a cross, palm leaves, and mounted prayers.
We undressed in her room. After fooling around I carried her to to the messy bedroom. This was supposed to be the culmination of my sexual life thus far. The minister’s bed. A Holy Grail of fuck locations. We started and after the initial moments of novelty it became normalized. I didn’t mind. It was fitting the novelty effect had finally faded. I was with someone beautiful and good to me.
I dogfucked that goodness with a rabid fervor. Memories I didn’t care to recollect, the ones I only dared conjure under the anesthesia of sex, pooled within my mind. Mina was lost in the physical world so I faded to the spiritual once again.
By the time I entered college I’d not just quit church but also ceased to have a belief in God or gods. Those collegiate years brought me in contact with similar thinkers and new views. I didn’t care to become a militant Atheist. That was unimportant even though Atheism felt more right than what I was raised with. Instead I simply came to believe there was enough to explore and concern myself over in the world of now.
After moving out of my parents’ I only went to services if my dad called to ask. When he did I’d drive out for hometown Mass at his side. I couldn’t say no. And I still loved having special time with him. I cherished our chats in the pickup on the drive in and drive out. During those we never touched on Catholicism or what I believed. Even though he knew my attendance was poor, he still thought I drew value from church like him.
We actually weren’t an overly religious family. We went to church and recited grace before supper. That was about it. No bible readings or discussions on God. Being Catholic was supposed to be an essential part of my life but I never learned quite why. I wasn’t made to understand how these bizarre, unbelievable stories should inform my actions and morals. I didn’t connect with it, nor ever really had. So I didn’t quit Catholicism Instead I realized it’d never truly been me to begin with. For once I was the one making a choice in how to define myself.
I saw how it’d been instilled for betterment in others. For years I admired a wonderful priest we had. So I didn’t dislike religious folks nor thought less of them for their devotion. I spent a lifetime surrounded by good people who gained fulfillment from it. And Mina was a believer. Her church was liberal and in alignment with many of my life views. I knew there were more options than the rigidity of a conservative Catholic church. Yet I still didn’t see God as a gateway to finding importance and value. That avenue didn’t compel me.
The only part of Mass I ever liked was the shaking of hands. It was friendly and broke up all that was rote. Now in college, when I came out to church with Dad, I’d spend Mass in my head to prevent boredom. I replaced the axe throwing game with one that incorporated sickness and sexuality. Now through Communion, after I nibbled Jesus and kneeled down, I watched people in line on the conveyor belt to God. As the belt yanked them forward I kept track of which women I’d masturbated to throughout my years. As I thought these things my dad kneeled beside me. He kept his hands clasped and eyes closed, so solemn in prayer. It shamed me to think he might learn what transpired in my head.
I often thought of telling my father the truth of how my faith was discarded long ago. Of how it might’ve never been there. It’d break his heart. I knew he deserved better than a twentysomething son who no longer recited the prayers out loud at Mass. A boy who wanted Judas as his saint for Confirmation, who said he’d put his soul in hock to get money for Doritos. A man who only made the sign of the cross to make his father happy. I didn’t want him to hold false hope any longer. His little Catholic boy, who as a baby he thought might grow to be a priest, was never coming back.
Over the years I’ve told many people I’m an Atheist if they asked. It’s easy to convey my true beliefs to strangers. Even Mina and my sister know. But thinking of how I’d tell Dad wrenches my body with stress. So many times I’ve envisioned how it’d go.
“Dad, we need to talk about something.”
“Yeah?” He looks at me, the tone of my voice causing concern.
“Did you know I don’t go to church anymore except when you ask?”
He nods his head yes. On his face is a horrid look that scares me.
I stare off and mumble out my words. “Dad, I love you, but I’m not Catholic anymore. God’s been dead to me for years.”
Another nod. Then tears. No words, just tears down his red beard. Glasses fogging from the humid drops pouring out his eyes. His mind now aching with something he must’ve long suspected deep within his heart. I put my arm on his shoulder for a hug. I can never decide if he gives it back or sits there still.
As I was in Mina I thought of how my salvation won’t come through doctrine or physical connections with others. That I can’t just numb life’s questions with sex and jokes. I had to discover a new me through my ensuing choices. I needed to become strong and self loving if I wasn’t to have a god to guide me. None of it was comforting.
We lay in the minister’s bed and in silence I thought on a conversation I’d previously imagined.
“Mina, have I told you about the game ‘You Are Healed’ that Brit and I played as kids on our lawn?”
She shakes her head side to side.
“I was a televangelist and placed my palm to her head. I threw Brit down while screaming ‘You Are Healed!’. She’d shake on dead grass.”
“That sounds goofy, Nolan.”
I carry on.
“After Brit tipped she’d soon spring up. I’d push again, repeating the same words to the same convulsive effect.”
“Why did she always come for more if the promised healing never took?”
I think for a moment. “Well, the rules were her sole instruction. She acted on instilled instinct. Down to grass then up to the smacking hand.”
“I’m not going to play that.”
“What saves one hurts another, ya know? It’s like Tic-tac-toe. To one player the recitation of those titular words means something great. To the other it signifies they’re fucked. Yet they’re both hearing the same phrase.”
In the post-sex present I left my mind to jump back to the corporeal. We lay naked in bed and spoke of how fun it’d been. That we should give the mattress repeat business. Eventually we dressed. I stole a Sierra Mist from her fridge and made a sandwich with the sacred spread. We ate without saying much. I gave her peanut butter kisses and left.
I started my car down the road. If I didn’t get on the interstate I’d soon be nearing my childhood home. I could tell Dad everything. Risk breaking his heart to relieve myself of burden. I hoped to move back home for a bit so I could save money in my final year. I dreaded hearing him leave for church on a Sunday morning as I lay in bed half asleep. I thought of Dad missing my presence in the pew. Of how our relationship was more important than revealing all. That some things are kept hidden from parents by both the doubters and the devout.
I rolled the car windows as I sped from Mina’s on a gravel road. I let my tongue lick the fleeting smells of sex. Maybe the physical was in fact miring. But at least it helped with human connection and a feeling of the world’s liveliness and love. I pointed myself toward the interstate away from home. I knew even with things hidden I’d still be myself in Dad’s presence. That he’d always have a big hug cocked and ready for his only son. That his love was the only eternal that mattered.