When I was four years old and learning to read, my born-again Christian grandfather gifted me a children’s bible. I was unimpressed by this offering because I couldn’t read but the illustrations remain in my mind thirty-five years later, especially the ones involving the gory demise of Jesus at the end of the book.
“Who is that, mom?”
“Why does he look green?”
“Because he died on the cross.”
“He died for your sins.” She pressed her lips together, disappointed in all of the sinners, including me. Now I realize she was calculating how much leverage this narrative would give her in terms of controlling my behavior.
I immediately began to cry for Jesus. I struggled to understand what I’d done to make this poor man die on a wooden cross in his underpants. I wiped my eyes, investigating the wall to wall carpet with an index finger as I baptized it with tears. I considered my indiscretions, wondering which of them had dealt Jesus the death blow.
I had recently whacked the neighbor boy, Johnny, in the neck with a small plastic snow shovel. It’d been a Christmas gift that year and by Spring it had become the preferred tool of my snake hunter persona. Johnny had respiratory issues. His noisy snot-nosed breathing scared every snake in the garden through the hedge and into the neighbor’s yard where I wasn’t allowed.
At four I already considered myself an expert snake snatcher, much to my mother’s absolute dismay, and I had become irate after I told the kid in no uncertain terms, several times, to hold his damn breath if he couldn’t breathe quieter because he was scaring off all the snakes. His noncompliance escalated quickly into my swift, violent piece of work with the snow shovel, and I was immediately relegated to my bedroom without supper, in broad daylight, listening to his wailing from the house opposite ours. My father brought home a pizza that night, and a can of grape soda–rare treats–so the punishment stung as I sniffled myself to sleep, smited, stomach grumbling. Johnny gave me a wide berth after that. I did not care. I caught a lot more snakes without him.
I’d once accidentally pulled Petey the parakeet’s tail feather completely out of his body and cried upon seeing the small crimson dot at the end of his retrices as I grasped the single blue feather in my small sweaty hand. Were these indiscretions sufficient to hang a man on a wooden cross and let him bleed to death wearing a crown of thorns and a saggy diaper?
“Yes,” my mother said solemnly, “Jesus suffered for all of our sins; sins both large and small. All of our sins. Even yours.”
“But how do they know?”
“How does who know?”
“The people who killed him.”
“How do they know what?”
“How do they know I did a sin?”
My mother considered this carefully, still wondering how she could exploit my new fear of having inadvertently murdered Jesus Christ. She took a long deep gulp of her tea.
“God knows everything.”
“Just like Santa.”
But you never see Santa being crucified, I thought.
It was the beginning of my anxiety. That time I swallowed eight one-inch sections of hotdog in sequence to see if I could defecate a whole hot dog? God was watching, white beard flowing somewhere in outer space, brow furrowed, and maybe sending a famine because I had played with my food.
The time I shot Dana with the birthmark in the face with a rubber band? God was looking, ready with the locusts. Tantrum in protest of naptime? God was sending the plague. Got caught flipping Mrs. Greenberg the bird in the second grade? God had seen and would be telling Santa everything; I’d be getting my own cross under the tree if I kept it up. My knees were raw from the near-constant apology prayers on the floor in my bedroom and I’d lay awake at night, worrying, wondering what tragedy would befall our family because of my inability to do right.
When it came time for holy communion, I knew I shouldn’t eat the wafer because of the stink I’d raised over wearing a dress; that had definitely compromised my purity. There were loads of rules about everything. Fold your hands like this. Put the wafer in your mouth but don’t chew. Never giggle during church, even if Timmy rips a fart. Even if the bench is called a “pew.”
I was a ragamuffin in boat shoes and the plaid uniform of the cheapest Catholic school in town. I was always doing everything wrong. I insisted on playing touch football with the boys at recess instead of double dutch with the girls like I was supposed to and when Nicholas made a remark about my being a girl who shouldn’t be playing football, I pushed him and he took a hard header into the bike rack where he split his eyebrow. He bled like his death was inevitable and then sister Dorthea in her neat grey habit, stern, tall, straight-backed, without a trace of nonsense, brought him for stitches, returning him to school with a full-sized candy bar, sutures sticking out of his face like fishing line. I knew I would pay for it later. God was coming for me. But I had questions.
“The priest says, ‘body of Christ,’ Mom, why?”
“Because Jesus never wants us to go hungry.”
“Why don’t we eat other people but we eat Jesus?”
“Because that’s cannibalism.”
“Why isn’t it cannibalism to eat Jesus?” She looked perturbed.
“Because I said so.” She was in one of those moods. Looking back I realize her mood was probably because my sister was conceived around that time. Neither of my parents were keen on having another disappointing, expensive child.
And then, I accidentally came out when I was in high school because teenagers can’t keep secrets. One of my very pious classmates in the marching band recited a snippet of Leviticus to me one day. She concluded haughtily, “You’ll burn in hell, Lainy.”
My cheeks blazed. I hadn’t read Leviticus. Probably it was edited out of the children’s Bible from my born-again grandpa. When I got home from school I pulled the ancient family Bible down off the shelf and flipped it open to Leviticus. There it was in the yellowed pages: I was going to burn in hell because loving another girl was a sin. I was condemned along with all the people who eat shellfish and wear mixed fabrics.
This was around the same time that Matthew Sheperd was murdered, his battered body strung up like Jesus on a fence in the middle of nowhere. It enraged me and scared me.
I could never be a good Catholic no matter what I did because I didn’t want to be gay but I was, so, I went back to school the next day and when I saw the classmate who told me that I’d be eternally damned, I said to her, in front of the whole woodwind section of the marching band:
“Hey, Betsy! Fuck you, Betsy, you chinless bitch.”
She didn’t have a rebuttal. She opened and closed her mouth soundlessly like a fish and that was the end of it. Thank God there was no social media in the 90s.
When I next saw her dopey, God-loving face come up in “people you may know” on my Facebook account some twenty years later, I thought, “I do know you and I don’t like you,” and clicked “remove.” I sent a prayer to the universe that she would someday find her husband on his knees with another man in his mouth so she could tell him to burn in hell too.
I noticed, scrolling through Instagram recently that the Catholic church, which is the institution most implicated in the notion of reanimated corpses (*see Lazarus, see Easter), has recently adjusted their collective standpoint on how God feels about the gays. The church has reiterated that gays are to be welcomed to the congregation, queer money is still green, after all, and the collection basket doesn’t care what we do with our Saturday nights, but gay marriages are still considered a sham and a sin. But most importantly, the Pope just formally called upon his flock to stop condemning their gay children, and that means fewer Betsy-type child preachers and fewer gay-type child suicides. One can hope that even a small step will help.
I stopped believing in Santa when I found Christmas presents stashed in the garage. I stopped attending church the year I went home and read Leviticus after school. I stopped worrying that God is watching my every move and that each time I kiss another girl, I will be cast further and further into hell. I stopped taking any of it seriously and these days, I find my spiritual expression elsewhere.
A few years ago, I married the love of my life in Brattleboro, VT. We wore flannel shirts, booty shorts, and crocs. Our justice of the peace was a nice old man named Bob.
“Well, what should I say at the end of the ceremony?” Bob asked.
“The part where we kiss?” That seemed fairly straightforward to me.
“The part where I pronounce you…what should I pronounce you, ‘wives?’”
I looked into the warm, beautiful brown eyes of the person for whom my heart beats and with whom I want to share each moment of the rest of my life, and we laughed.
“Wives!” We decided.
We cried happy tears, our dog looked on, panting happily in his little plaid bow tie, and we shared our first kiss as wives on the front lawn of the Brattleboro town hall, on the authority vested in Bob by the state of Vermont. Then we headed off to the woods to celebrate ourselves with beer and cheese. Maybe there is a very hot place in hell that awaits me and maybe there’s not. The Vatican can keep their weddings; ours was sanctioned by sunshine and Bob and the Green Mountains.
Elaine (Livingstone) Tosetti is a queer writer from New England. She does her best thinking in the woods, walking with her spouse, Mia, and their friendly springer spaniel, Gilbert. You can follow her on Instagram @ale_wife.