All That’s Left Is God
Born in the heart of the Bible Belt, the author found refuge on the Front Range after a series of traumas. Through it all, she was discovering who she was—as a daughter, a woman, a partner, and a mother. One woman’s journey to faith and family.
All Saints Catholic Church § Dallas, Texas
I wait to hear Father Kos enter through the other side of the confessional. I cannot do this face to face, even though he’ll know it’s me in the booth. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was Easter. I lied to my parents. Skipped Mass last Sunday. Took the Lord’s name in vain. Kissed a woman. Had impure thoughts. Cursed.” I take a deep breath. “That’s it.”
“Let’s go back to that fourth one.”
“I took the Lord’s name in vain?”
“Nope. The one after that.”
“I kissed a woman.”
“That’s the one.”
Silence. Uncomfortable silence.
Father Kos clears his throat. “Is this a one-time thing?”
“A one-time thing. Definitely. Yes.” Flames of hell lick at my feet. Why doesn’t Father Kos go ahead and condemn me?
More silence. I wince, head bowed.
My knees ache atop the threadbare kneeler, and I can hear my mother’s voice telling me to “offer it up,” which means pain is part of the sacrifice, even though it’s nothing like the death Jesus endured for our sins. I look to my left and right, and can see the whole space without moving my head. The narrow booth is for skinny sinners only. It needs a weight and height limit sign, like rides at Disneyland.
Jesus hangs on his cross above the screen where Father Kos is dreaming up an unparalleled penance for me. I wonder if he will ask me to tell my parents what I’ve done or make me serve meals to men dying of AIDS. He clears his throat, ready to denounce me.
“Your penance is 10 Hail Marys and one Our Father.”
“Please say the Act of Contrition.”
I do not remind Father Kos that this penance is the exact same one he gave me six months ago when I forged a pass to get out of study hall. After I finish the Act of Contrition, he says the prayer of absolution, which ends with the words: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Go and sin no more.”
And like that my slate is clean. Except that I cannot un-kiss a girl. My body remembers it. And it doesn’t feel like an accident or coincidence. Instead, it feels ordained.
Buffalo SPRINGS Lake §>
“I will run over you.” Coach Jarvis Scott drapes an arm out the window of the Texas Tech track van and nudges our calves with the front bumper. With a square jaw, gold tooth, and a college degree in criminal justice, Coach Scott reminds me of a prison guard. Today, she’s announced we’ll be doing three to five, which sounds like years of a jail sentence, even though she means miles. We pick up the pace.
Running has been its own kind of education for me. Coach Scott never steps in to defend me from my teammates, who pretend to kiss each other when I step onto the team bus, refuse to room with me, and call me a hypocrite. If life had a rewind button, I would never have told those girls, no matter how drunk we all were on pitchers of beer from Schooner’s, that I’d slept with a girl named Nancy. Some of my teammates had already confessed to pregnancies, abortions, shoplifting, and snorting cocaine, so I’m sobered to learn that homosexuality falls on the narrowest end of the Bible Belt. I have a boyfriend, am a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and have a 4.0 GPA, but they see my past and cannot accept it.
Maybe they are not the only ones. I do not want to be gay, but I love sports, abhor wearing dresses, and prefer sensible shoes to heels. I date guys, but only to earn the respect and approval of women. I am a stereotype, a cliché, and I am furious about it.
It doesn’t take long for my track career to derail because of my shame and self-loathing. Coach Scott calls me to her office to find out why I’ve gone from promising athlete to train wreck in a matter of months. I do not play the woe-is-me card: I would never win that game against the fortress of a woman sitting in the swiveling chair in front of me. She doesn’t speak about her past. I only know what I have read—that she grew up among gangs, violence, poverty, and racism in the projects of South Central Los Angeles. By the time she was a year older than me, she was an Olympian.
She is the one who says to me, “Prejudice is blind. Rich, poor. Black, white. Woman, man. Old, young. Christian, atheist. There will always be someone who says you aren’t welcome at the table. Stop apologizing for who you are and using all your energy trying to change their minds. Yes, you will lose friends, maybe even family. But you will gain your self-respect. You will know your worth. Once you have that, nothing can stop you.” Coach Scott offers advice but not a refuge. She knows that before I can win any races, I first must learn to stand on my own two feet.
A single drop is nothing, but my mother cries and doesn’t stop. Water like this will carve a canyon between us. My father lowers his head, rubs his hands together. On their floral upholstered sofa, they digest the news that I was sexually abused when I was 11 and that I am gay. I fire off my disclosures before I lose my courage. If they believe that the abuse caused me to be gay, if this softens the blow in any way, so be it.
I believe my father figured out that I was gay years ago, but to keep his home from becoming a battlefield, he adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. My mother swears she had no idea, even though I wear men’s Levi’s and own every CD by the Indigo Girls.
Still they have a few surprises of their own. My father—the kindest man I know, who has, at times, been the only evidence I’ve had that men can be good—says I must have done something to cause the sexual abuse. I invited it in some inadvertent way. It is my mother who says, “I am so absolutely sorry. I wish you felt you could have told me. I would have done anything to spare you pain like that.” I’m undone by their words, but more so by the flash of empathy I see in my mother’s eyes, the look that says she knows all too well the demons I fight, and she would have fought with me too. I have waited 14 years for my mother to wrap her arms around me and comfort me. And because I am gay, I’ve lost that opportunity, and I’ve also lost her.
When my mother leaves the room, my father follows her. I wait. Fifteen minutes pass. My father appears in the doorway from the hallway that leads to their bedroom. He’s tentative, eyes worn like a boxer who’s gone 10 rounds. “You need to leave now, sweetie,” he says. “For good.”
There are few things worse than being abandoned by your parents, even when you are 25 and living on your own six hours away. They do not say good-bye or hug me or tell me to have a safe trip back to San Antonio. Instead, they put an asterisk by my name, negating every good thing I’ve ever done and will do. And because my parents feel that they are somehow responsible for who I have turned out to be, they have put an asterisk by their names, too.