I never planned on going back to church.
I hated it from the beginning. I grew up in a Catholic household, where my mom would drag my brother and I to church each Sunday as we grew older. We never had any clue what we were going there, and we’d usually spend each three-hour church service doodling on the church bulletins, filling in each a and o text bubble or solving the bulletin’s too-easy Jesus-related word puzzles. We only ever paid attention during the hymns; my brother because he wanted to learn to play the organ, me because I liked singing harmony.
My mother, on the other hand, was enraptured. She stood there and prayed with her head down, quietly and gently. She sang along, well off-key, to each of the hymns; she memorized them quicker than either my brother or I did. She wrote little, unintelligible notes to herself on the church bulletin to remember for later. Her two kids were forced to go to youth biblical groups every Sunday evening, where everyone sat around and agreed with each other about how much God loved us and how unfortunate it was for people to not trust their blind faith to Jesus Christ our lord and savior, amen.
And then there was me, quietly disagreeing in the background. I believed in evolution; I didn’t believe in hell; I couldn’t remember what the pastor’s message was that very morning, let alone a biblical story written 1500 years ago. But I never said anything in public about my growing non-belief. I recall being too fearful that the group might find me out for a fake and throw me to the wolves; excommunicate me, in effect.
I slowly stopped going to church in high school and had confidently declared myself an atheist in college. I thought I would never disagree with a religion so fervently in my life than when I was young.
But I never could have guessed what was to come. As they say, God works in mysterious ways.
Church always was a joke. I found it all laughable, that a magic genie in the sky can grant wishes and eternal life. Or that a man who died 2,000 years ago can somehow still be edible at communion. I’d be just as likely to pray to Ra or Zoroaster as I would pray to Jesus or his holier-than-thou-mother Mary.
No one cared when I left the church — except my mother. She was relentless in persuading me to return, but I only had to show her the latest controversy in Vatican City for her to shut up. It seemed there was a new child-sex controversy in the Catholic Church every second, and the longer I was out, the more disgusted I was at myself for ever having been involved.
The youth groups I attended a few times would discuss these controversies — never in depth, mostly just touching on them — offering prayers for healing for those who had been wronged. But, to my secret horror, they also vowed to love God because they thought He knew what was best for them. That was the nail on the coffin.
I thought I had escaped the church for good when I met Daniel. He was 26, to my 21, when we met at 10k race in the town where I attended college. Daniel — always Daniel, never Dan — had kept a job in tutoring and substitute teaching for a few years after graduating and lived with two yellow labrador retrievers on the north end of town.
We hit it off right away. Daniel was suave, clean and neat. He kept a soldier’s haircut with an impeccably shaved face; the idea of stubble repulsed him to the point I would find him inspecting his chin in the reflection of his iPhone screen. His smile was so bright I could see it with the lights off, and he wore polo shirts on a “slob” day working in the yard. He was a literature and language arts tutor at local schools; he could run a 10k in 35 minutes; he enjoyed yardwork and walking his two large, slobbering dogs on a daily basis — in short, he was the perfect man.
There was one catch: Daniel was Catholic, too. I didn’t find out until some months later, when I made the mistake of agreeing to meet his parents. Either he’d somehow managed to hide his religion from me the whole time, or we never did anything with each other with the slightest religious implications.
In any case, it had been almost four months of dating before Daniel invited me to his parents’ house in the suburbs. I wasn’t nervous, not until I stepped over their threshold to see a massive crucifix with a bleeding Jesus figure hanging from the wall in their foyer. My heart started thudding softly all the way up into my throat. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a dying man bleed out while I ate dinner.
Lori and Tim served lasagna, which was delicious, but I was conscious the whole time of saying something unintentionally blasphemous and calling the wrath of the dark lord Satan down into the dining room while we tried to enjoy a wholesome meal.
They asked about my childhood, education, hobbies, thankfully never about spirituality. I felt guilty for being so boring and unimpressive, when Daniel clearly had raved about me to his parents. But the small talk made me nervous, especially when every glance out of the corner of my eye led to Jesus wearing the crown of thorns.
“So, you’re in the book industry, dear?”
“Ah, well, I work at that old used book store downtown. I just graduated, and I’m looking for something more permanent.”
“Oh, that’s nice. What’s the name of the owner there? I remember when he started that business — 1981? 1982? Something like that. Tim, wasn’t he the one you met in the Navy?”
“No, you’re thinking of the pharmacist,” Tim responded, after he’d gulped down another bite. Lori nodded in sudden realization. “That’s right, I remember,” she said, closing her eyes as if picturing the circumstances of their meeting in her mind..
I smiled nervously. It was obvious Daniel’s parents were feigning interest in me; all this empty dinner-table talk made me more anxious I was going to let something slip. I could only imagine what they would do if they found out I was secretly a heathen.
“Well, I hope you find something you like soon. I’m sure Daniel could help.” Lori reached over and pinched her son’s cheek in a way I never knew happened in real life. “It seems like a lot of young people these days are getting jobs completely opposite their studies. But I’m sure you know how God calls us to do things that seem strange to us sometimes,” Lori smiled sweetly, placing her hand on her husbands upper arm in what everyone else seemed to find quaintly amusing but I didn’t understand. I laughed along.
Somehow, I made it through without ever specifying my lack of religion, using the smile-and-nod-with-my-mouth-full tactic to exempt me from adding comments.
After dinner, I called Daniel to the side. “Why didn’t you tell me your parents are Catholic?”
He looked surprised. “I thought you knew.” Stepping closer to me, Daniel pulled out a hidden necklace hanging around his neck: unsurprisingly, and with the fastest sense of dread I’d ever experienced, I recognized it as a crucifix. “I’ve been a devout Catholic my entire life; did that really never come up?” He took my hands into mine, clearly oblivious to the bewildered expression on my face. “I was going to ask you to come to mass with the three of us tomorrow morning. It would mean a lot to me if you could be there.”
I opened my mouth to reply — and for one paralyzing moment, nothing came out.
Shit. Fucking shit, I thought eloquently to myself during a hastily announced bathroom break. Bleeding Jesus gazed down mournfully at me from above.
I don’t remember anything past 9 p.m. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in what I deduced was Daniel’s childhood bedroom. With groggy eyes, squinting in the sunrise, I saw baseball trophies on the mirrored dresser and science olympiad certificates mounted on the wall, right next to the certificate of confirmation and baptism as given by his church. The dresser was mounted with several bottles of cologne and had a crucifix hanging from its left side.
I sat up, wild-eyed in panic for a few minutes before I remembered where I was. Then I saw the note on the door: “Love, I didn’t want to wake you up for mass after last night. Mommy and Dad and I are at church; be back at 11. There are pancakes in the freezer for you. I hope you feel better! Kisses, Daniel.”
As I took the note from the door, silently horrified, I accidentally dropped it, and it fluttered down to the floor and landed on its backside, where, to my further dismay, there was an image of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ brandishing his holy hand, in a menacing gesture that reminded me of Rasputin. That was it. I hightailed it out of of there so fast it was only two days later I realized I somehow had left my bra hanging on the inside of his door.
Slipping on my shoes hurriedly, I fumbled out the door picking up the rest of my belongings. “I’ll call you later,” I texted him. I didn’t.
My mother openly sobbed when she heard his name after that. “He was such a good-hearted man!” she cried, flinging herself at me, practically dripping.
She meant Daniel, of course. We broke up.
It was my fault, the beginning of my mother’s agony, but she blamed herself. After all, what sort of mother would raise an unfaithful daughter, a young woman who is out for nothing but carnal pleasure and not a good, god-fearing Catholic man?
She thought she was a terrible mother because she drove me into the arms of another man. That’s probably why she intervened.
First she fattened me up on intimate mother-daughter lunches, trying to coax anything out of me about my disbelief and sins. She bought me books, clothes, coffee for days on end, trying to sound nonchalant about wanting to spend more time with me whenever I was at home for a visit, or offering to come up to visit me herself. She casually mentioned she had signed up for a fitness class sponsored by her church and that “it’s a great deal; most gyms charge you three times as much! You could finally quit that dirty gym you go to now.” It’s the university club, Mom, and nice try.
When it was clear I wouldn’t budge, she got serious: she scheduled a meeting with the priest. First, she went alone, but she kept dropping hints that the priest wanted to have a meeting with me. When I finally agreed, mainly to get her to stop crying over me, she sat and talked about my childhood for a good hour, languishing over some small error she must have made to turn me into a sinner.
The priest, a 75-year old man with severe jowls and a round beer belly, gazed at me over the top of his bifocals and sneezed into the crook of his elbow four times before managing to utter a word. “So what led you to run from Jesus? Do you find yourself running from your other relationships? What about this Daniel you were romancing?”
I glared at my mom. “How much did you tell him?” She only shrugged sheepishly.
I crossed my arms defiantly and said, with a raised eyebrow, “I am fine.”
I didn’t look at the priest. Instead, I looked at the figures of Jesus and Mary on his desk, and the ordinances of ministry hanging on his wall. He had a red coat hanging from the back of the door, a strange contrast to his white, flowing robes. A stack of kids’ church bulletins sat on his desk, labeled with a sticky note that said “Sunday” and nothing else.
His fifth sneeze brought me back to where we were. He paused thoughtfully and managed to spew out a few more words about finding oneself and coming to terms with Jesus, all the while stroking the black-leather-bound Bible on his desk with fat, bejeweled fingers. It reminded me of Dr. Evil stroking Mr. Bigglesworth, and I did a poor job at stifling a snort. The priest only stared at me over his bifocals.
Before we left, the priest handed my mom, who was red-eyed and sniffling, two business cards: one for his personal therapist, the other for the Church of Second Chance
Reveille woke us up every morning at 7 a.m.; all of us, scrunched together in our dorm room. It was a harsh reminder of high school marching band camp, only this time we were ushered out of our rooms, Bibles in hand, to the prayer room downstairs. There, we were led in prayer by the camp chaplain, Father Paul, a royal-looking man with menacing eyes who stood in constant surveillance of the state he’d created.
“O, heavenly Father, we give thanks for this sunrise and this new day, and we hope that with each passing meal and hour and day, these young men and women come to see You in your finest graces, and come to see You as their true lord and savior. Amen.”
Father Paul lifted his head, nodded at the servers and proceeded to sit at the head of the faculty table. Only then were we allowed to eat.
Day after day, week after week, we were corralled from session to session, each time our attending priests hoping our transgressions would fall away and we would repent, once again becoming children of God. We had religion classes all morning, broken by lunch, followed by individual sessions with Father Paul. When we weren’t in our confessionals, which were scheduled periodically throughout our stay, we went to small group therapy sessions with associate priests, or we were put to work in the churches, cleaning, organizing, restocking — anything to strengthen our connections with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that presided over those spaces.
That was the whole idea, of course. My mother heard about the camp from her priest, weeks before the three of us had our sit-down in his office. She was desperate, clearly, so she packed me off for a few weeks in Nowheresville, Anyplace to get in touch with my spiritual side. I didn’t object, mostly because it was paid for and, from what it sounded, it was essentially a four-month vacation where I’d have to put up with some Bible verses every now and then.
I played along as best I could for a few weeks, stifling my laughter here and there at the absurdity of it all. But after a few weeks, I noticed that I was the only one losing attention, growing bored at the sessions — the only one who openly mocked what we were doing. At night, when we returned to our rooms, we all were monitored during our bedtime prayers; we were expected to say them aloud in the presence of a parish priest or the chaplain himself, if he graced us with his presence.
Eight other girls shared a room with me, everyone divided into bunk beds. We went around the room: Catherine, demure and pure, prayed to become a better person and role model in her family; Riley, black-haired and tattooed, apologized and asked for acceptance from her family; Hema, the only non-white person in the room, publicized her transgressions of dating outside the family’s will. A few other girls who barely talked. And there was Janine, my bunk mate, a sallow-looking girl of 17 with platinum blond, waist-length hair, who always pleaded for her father’s forgiveness for some never-spoken crime.
They all sounded so genuine. My prayers were more along the lines of, “Oh, hey, Jesus, I know we don’t talk much. But thanks for for all the good things you’ve given me. And, uh, yep. Thanks.” At which point I would jump into bed, curl up under the covers and pretend to fall asleep instantly. Without fail, I always heard Janine quietly tread across the floor and up into the top bunk, sighing when she lay down to go to sleep.
One night after dinner, when the girls in my room were on kitchen duty, I overheard one of the counselors offering a prayer to the younger campers nearby. One thing he said struck me as more ridiculous than the rest, and I snottily responded to it under my breath, but still loud enough for my roommates to hear.
I stole a look around the room, hoping to get a rise of laughter out of someone. Instead, I saw every other girl nervously scrubbing the plates, very obviously not making eye contact with me. Janine, standing across the tub of water from me, swallowed, and I saw her eyes shift from side to side.
“Can I ask you something?” I said, leaning down over the dirty water so as not to attract more attention. “Do you buy any of this? Like, the whole rebirth thing?”
Janine looked startled, and glanced around as though someone were listening.
“Chill out,” I told her, laughing. “This isn’t NSA camp.” Again, I thought she would laugh. But she only looked down at her shoes with more intensity.
“I just think it’s worth a try, okay?” Her voice was tiny. “I’ve been coming for three years, and I really want to become a better person. I think it works.”
I had stopped washing dishes completely, choosing instead to gape at Janine. How in the hell would someone want to come to this camp more than once? I opened my mouth to respond, but Janine turned around and walked hastily away with a stack of plates in her hand. I saw Father Paul walk past the other door in the kitchen a split second later, glancing down at Janine reverently on his way out.
She didn’t return to our room until well after 2 a.m. that night.
My moment of truth came toward the end of the second month of camp. The confessionals with Father Paul were organized alphabetically, and in the middle of one dreary evening, finally it was my turn. The counselor who came to retrieve me, a blithe-looking young woman clicking her way through the hallway in a pair of hot pink pumps, turned to smile at me every once in a while, as if she was worried I was falling behind. I gave her a suspicious smile right back, and she silently gestured toward the door of the chaplain’s office. I watched her scuttle across the pathway into the nurse’s station and close the door.
“Have a seat,” the deep voice on the other side of the wall said. I jumped.
Father Paul was rarely heard and more seldom seen, other than the daily breakfast gatherings. He spent most of his days in his office, either with atoning sinners such as myself, or praying in the chapel, I presumed. His door always was closed. This was the first time I came within 50 feet of him.
When I stepped into the room, I had to squint to see the man, it was so dark. Only one small lamp was lit in the corner of the room, covered by a dark red lampshade that dampened further light. Next to it, sitting at the immense mahogany desk, was Father Paul.
I was shocked by how gaunt he looked up close. His round face at breakfast had elongated here in the dark, highlighting his cheekbones; when he swallowed, I saw his Adam’s apple move up and down through the thin skin on his neck. He gestured to the chair across the desk, casting a demonic shadow on the entire right side of the oval room. Neither of us spoke for a minute or two.
“So. I see that you were once a member of the Catholic Church but stopped attending. Tell me why. ” He read from some papers on his desk, suggesting he had some kind of intelligence on everyone enrolled in his camp. Boy, I thought, this guy’s getting right into it. I cleared my throat, half out of necessity, half out of nervousness.
“Uh, yes. Yes, sir. I went to my mother’s church, but I—I grew out of it.”
“I see. What did you grow out of?”
“Um. The dogma, I guess?”
“Is that a question?”
Father Paul frowned, removed his glasses and stood up. “You are in this camp because someone loves you. In your case, your mother loves you enough to want you to see the path of God. And Jesus loves you more. He wants to be in your life again.” In any other situation, I would have rolled my eyes. But not here, not when Father Paul, who had walked around his desk, was in front of me.
“I am hearing from the counselors here that you have been, shall we say, inattentive during prayer sessions. I know it can be difficult to keep up with the rigors of true devotion, especially here. But we must remember that we are all sinners, and if we do not repent, if we do confess our sins to God, we will never be free. We are all sinners. ” His dark eyes made me dizzy, and I blinked hard.
Father Paul reached out and wrenched my arm off my lap. Holding my small, cold hand between his two large, sweaty paws, he launched into a prayer. “Heavenly Father, hear these prayers of two sinners. We are weary here on earth, and we need your divine guidance to cleanse us of our transgressions. Take over our bodies and let them succumb to your grace and will. We will be your messengers to your holy word and sacrifice ourselves to You.”
Now he closed his eyes and moved his head backward, as if staring up at the ceiling, completely incapacitated by God’s connection with him through the power of prayer. “O God, listen to my cry! We are sinners! Our minds and bodies know not what we do. Without You, we cannot be free; without You, we know not who we are. Teach us, heavenly Father, what you want us to be.”
He brought his head down and locked eyes with me, reaching out with his hot right hand to cup the left side of my face. Darkness engulfing his face, he rubbed his thumb up and down my cheek. Wide-eyed, I slowly pulled myself away from him until I nearly fell off the chair. “Amen,” Father Paul said in a low, trembling voice, still staring at me. His voice echoed for a split second in the room. Then, silence.
Suddenly, he stood again and returned to the chair behind his desk, turning over the papers he had been reading from before. “You may go,” he said. I couldn’t leap to my feet fast enough. “But,” he looked up right as I got to the door, “I would very much like to see you again. Be a good girl.”
I stumbled out of the room and closed the door behind me. I felt nauseous; there was a persistent lurching in my stomach. I hurried back to my room as quickly as I could, pausing twice to dry-heave against the wall on the way back. Brushing past the other girls in the room, past shy Janine, who looked at me with sad, sympathetic green eyes, I grabbed clean clothes and immediately got into the shower, where I let scalding water run over me. Dear God, I cried silently, if this camp doesn’t cleanse me of my sins, please let this water cleanse me of whatever the fuck just happened!
An hour later, as I sat on my bed, my heart was still thudding in my chest. I was bewildered by everything Father Paul had said to me. One interaction with this man, and I knew I something was wrong. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started to walk. Alone with my dangerous thoughts, I walked the grounds of the camp, in sight of the night counselors at the front gate but not close enough that they would bother me. I checked my watch: 11:24 p.m. I would be late for bed checks, but I didn’t care.
It was then that I saw him again. Father Paul, creeping against the backdrop of the night sky back into his office, from across the grounds, where his cabin stood. He clearly believed no one was watching, so I followed several dozen paces behind him. He entered the same door I had gone in a few hours earlier, fumbling with his keys in the dark. I didn’t dare get too close, but I sidled up against the side of the building next to a window that was cracked open slightly.
I heard the click of a light turning on, and then his voice. “Good. You’re already here.” I ducked down lower under the window. He’s not alone! “Shut up, I don’t want to hear a word from you.”
I clenched my eyes shut as hard as I could, but the sounds I heard were worse. The desk’s squeaks, the thrusting grunts, the stifled cries of pain. It was less than 15 minutes of terror, inside and outside the window, and soon I heard the papers shuffling and chairs skidding on the floor as the appearance was returned to normal. In a flash, I saw Father Paul leave the room, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was following him as he walked along the buildings back to his cabin. I kept still, huddled under the window.
Two minutes later, I was about to walk to the door when I saw a young woman emerge from it, adjusting her skirt and limping slightly. I froze. Standing rigid against the wall, only my eyes could move. My heartbeat quickened as I watched her slowly saunter out of the dark room and close the door gently it behind her. I couldn’t breathe; I was horrified.
My instinct then was to sprint after him, the bastard. I wasn’t thinking; I just knew I needed to confront him about what just happened. As I tiptoed hastily around corner after corner, I saw him walking a hundred yards up ahead. I hunkered down, advancing slowly when suddenly, I felt my arm being pulled into an open shed. I instantly panicked: This was it! I was done for!
“Shh!” I heard a woman’s voice whisper next to me, to my surprise. “Don’t.” Just barely visible in the darkness, I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me, frightened and pleading with me. When my own eyes adjusted, I saw Janine.
A week went by. I didn’t see her once. She was sleeping in our bunk most nights, because I saw her belongings shift from day to day. I knew then that she was avoiding me; I knew what had happened that night was no single occurrence. Everything clicked at once, and my fears magnified.
It was a Wednesday afternoon when I saw her walking. Afraid she was going to see Father Paul, I yanked her by the elbow, the same way she did to me, and pulled her aside. She had a terrified look in her eyes.
“Janine. Are you okay.” It wasn’t a question. She nodded; I knew she was lying. “Look,” I said as I grabbed her wrist firmly and walked several paces out of the way of the other passers-by, “I don’t know how long this has been going, but please, you have to tell someone.”
Tears welled up in my own eyes as I spoke. I couldn’t believe the words I was saying. “Father Paul — no, that fucking asshole can’t get away with this. You can’t let him do it.”
And then she broke down and told me everything. How she was an only child, abandoned by her mother at age six. How her father beat her for her faults and for being too like her mother. How father was arrested on a different charge of assault when she was 10. How the state took custody of her and put her in a religious institution until they could find a foster home. How that foster home ended up being, disastrously, Father Paul’s camp. She, like a dozen other young girls and boys here, were legally wards of his church.
After a moment of searing silence, I finally spoke. “So when you said this was your third year here, you mean…you live here?” She nodded. “Yes.”
“And are you telling me that he does this with a dozen other people?”
Janine sniffed. “Probably, yes.”
We stood there for a second, heads down, trying to raise hope for what we should do but instead dreading what we knew we couldn’t do. I reached over gently and embraced Janine in a tight hug. She flinched at first, but wrapped her arms around me and squeezed me tightly back. We didn’t let go until we heard a counselor’s yell in the distance.
“Come with me,” I said, holding her by the shoulders. “I’m leaving. I’m not staying here anymore. No one is keeping you here, we can get out—”
She shook her head. “I can’t.”
“I can’t leave. I know what he is, and I know what he does, but he’s my guardian. He’s the only one who provides for me. I have nowhere else to go. He lets me live here and feeds me, and all I have to do—” She started crying again, hot tears streaming down her face, into her hands.
I started to speak again when I saw him advancing behind her. My heart fell. Janine gasped and wiped her eyes dry. Instinctively, I reached for her hand.
“Girls. This afternoon’s session begins in five minutes. You should be heading into the classroom.” He stared at me, eyes dead except for a murderous glint in them and a knowing smile that confirmed it all. He led us both toward the classroom, filing in line with all of the other campers, who were none-the-wiser. Then he pulled Janine to the left and beckoned me to the right, where the part-time counselors took over.
My hand, clenching hers as tightly as possible, slowly began to slip away despite my fighting, and I let go.
True to my word, I left the next night. I packed up and left, telling none of my roommates or the counselors. I couldn’t convince Janine to come with me, and as I walked out to the bus station, as I rode silently across the state back home, I couldn’t — or didn’t want to — imagine what she was doing right now. The trees whipped by the window as the bus rattled down the road, and I thought how easily I could return home, when Janine never really could.
The bus dropped me off a dozen blocks from home, and I hiked the rest of the way wearing my backpack and duffel bag over my shoulders and carrying my sleeping bag under one arm. My mother’s car was in the driveway, a sign she had just returned home — likely from her church’s women’s group, as it was Thursday evening.
Barging through the front door, I expected to see my mother sitting in the parlor as she often did in the evenings, but the room was empty. That’s when I saw all of the religious icons in my own childhood home, things I had never really seen before: the crucifix above the hearth, the nativity scene sculpture next the television, the Bible verses cross-stitched into throw pillows. I looked away, feeling sick.
It was only a minute later, when my mother poked her head around the corner of the room curiously that she noticed me. “Oh! You scared me!” she said, holding a hand over her mouth. “But…. What are you doing here? Camp isn’t supposed to be over yet, is it?” She looked like she was doing her best Julie Hagerty impression.
I looked her straight in the eye and shook my head gravely. “I’m not going back there.” My mom stared at me, puzzled, as I pushed by her hauling my gear.
I never told her about Janine. I knew it would crush her; but more than that, I knew she would never truly believe me. She went back to her castle in the sky, unadulterated by the ruinous experience I had; back again to the church that so harbored her naivete and ignorance. I never would set foot there again.
Seasons changed; time passed. I never completely forgot about Janine, but her scars no longer were mine, and they faded from my immediate memory. I fell in and out of a few short-term jobs before finally moving across the state to work for a university press. I dated a man with no prior religious connections, and we became engaged after a few years. Life went on.
Four years after my departure from the Church of Second Chance, my fiance and I took his two nephews, ages four and seven, to a waterpark about 40 miles south of where we lived. Driving down the road with two bouncing, giggling boys in the backseat, I didn’t notice the road signs signifying where the camp was. If we had gone another 20 miles, we would have driven right past it.
We claimed a few chairs on the beach near the wading pool for most of the sunny afternoon, my fiance and I relaxing and reading books while we occasionally glanced over our sunglasses to make sure his nephews weren’t getting into trouble. A picnic and a semi-organized waterfight later, we laughed together when the seven-year-old wanted to impress us with his breakdancing skills in the middle of the beach. He stood on his head and spun a few times, consequently becoming dizzy and spewing sand all over our pseudo-seaside picnic.
I brushed a clump of sand out of the boy’s hair once he came to and playfully pushed him back toward the water, bending down to pick up the towel in which he’d become entangled. Good thing I brought more than enough towels, I thought, flinging away the sand that clung to it. It was then, as I turned, that I saw the blondest hair I’d ever seen blowing in the warm breeze a dozen feet away. The woman’s profile, shrouded from view by a chubby little boy on her hip, looked so familiar. It couldn’t be….
She turned quickly, her lightning-colored hair whipping across her shoulder. When she saw me, her posture straightened and her eyes instantly lit up. She whispered something to the little boy she was with and led him over to me, gushing. “I thought that was you!” Her hug was firm despite her tiny size — tinier, it seemed, in the years since I’d seen her.
“Are these your sons?” The boys, who had run out of the water to see what the commotion was about, were now suddenly clinging to my legs shyly. I laughed. “No, these are my fiance’s nephews. He’s—” I looked around, but my fiance was nowhere in sight. “Well, he was here.”
The little boy on Janine’s hip had buried his head in her blinding hair, clutching it tightly in his chubby fingers. She didn’t seem to notice. I adopted a cutesy voice and leaned down to him. “And who’s this fella here?” Janine introduced him as George, her two-and-a-half-year-old son. He had her bright green eyes, but his hair was dark, almost black. I looked at her, asking her silently if she was here alone; she stared back, her evocative eyes glinting in the sunlight. Janine then set the boy down gently and told him to go build a sandcastle. George scampered off, waddling on his two unsteady legs; my boys followed, recognizing that the grown-ups needed to have a moment.
“So,” I started awkwardly, “you’re a mom.” She looked down at her feet and nodded. I didn’t know what to ask her. It had been four years; I didn’t know what had changed and what might be triggering. “Who—um, who’s the father?” Janine swung me an upward glance and immediately looked down and nodded again. “I see.”
“Don’t look at me like that,” her eyes pleaded with me. “Georgie is my everything. I didn’t think” — she broke off, voice cracking — ”I didn’t think I could love him at all, with, you know…. But he’s what I live for. The only thing.” We both turned to watch the three boys playing together, getting messy in the sand. George laughed gleefully and clapped his hands when the older boys added another layer to the castle; every time, he poked his tiny fingers into the castle’s walls, creating what seemed to be crooked, circular windows. “He doesn’t know who his dad is, and I don’t intend for him to ever find out,” Janine said. Anticipating my question, she said, “Father Paul knows. He’s made me tell everyone it was one of my old boyfriends who left me. Not very convincing, but….” Janine shrugged. “It’s not so bad, though; he lets us out to do stuff like this once in a while.” The irony of Paul’s title was not lost on me now, although I kept this to myself.
I watched Janine watching her son for a minute. She looked genuinely content to see her little boy playing, living like a normal little boy could. But Janine looked tired. The dark circles under her eyes, which had been there when we camped together, were more pronounced, perhaps in contrast with her thinner frame. She stood with a hunch and she wrung her hands often like a fretting old woman — and she was only four years older.
My fiance came back to find me then — he’d been chatting about tattoos with a security guard — and I introduced everyone. We gathered all of our children among ourselves and packed up our bags. As I hugged Janine goodbye, somehow I knew this would be the absolute last time I saw her. She made George say goodbye to everyone and walked away, holding his hand; she turned back only once, giving me a half-smile before going on her way for the final time.
My contingency made our way to our vehicle and loaded everything and everyone back inside. As my fiance started the car, the boys were settling in for a nap in their carseats, exhausted from their long but fun day. I sat thoughtfully, gazing out the window lost in my own thoughts. The last place on earth I thought I might run into Janine — if I ever did — and it happened. And she had a son! My brain was processing everything I had learned too quickly, and I didn’t know how to interpret it.
My fiance interrupted me. “So how exactly do you know that woman again?”
I just looked at him sadly and turned back to the window.
I didn’t understand why Janine didn’t leave when I left. But looking at her that day at the waterpark, I began to realize why she never would now. She had a chance to be free, to start her life over again and report Father Paul for what he really was; she could have shut down the camp and likely saved a few more souls the right way. But she needed him — or she thought she did. And she certainly thought so now. I pondered this point the entire car ride home, prompting a few worried looks from my fiance, who thought I didn’t see them. For me, someone who was privileged her entire life and couldn’t even imagine the hardships Janine had faced, the thought of not leaving a nightmare was unfathomable. I had somewhere else to go, so I went.
But for her, the Church of Second Chance was her home. It was broken and backward, yes, but it was Janine’s second chance; in a twisted, warped way, it lived up to its name for her.
To believe in a God, to trust yourself openly to a deity and to commit your entire life to Him as so many of those campers longed to do, and believed they were, was an act of utmost faith. Janine was among those poor, naive souls searching for guidance who happened upon the misfortune of Father Paul and his counselors. She trusted herself to God through him, who believed he was His messenger. It wasn’t God she was serving.
Having a strong faith in redemption and believing in a higher power to guide you in the right direction doesn’t do a bit of good in the end when that being works against you — when it deceives you; when it cuts you down and ruins you through the very people who led you to believe in it.
I once went to church eyes rolling in the back of my head, dismissing it as an intense joke, an elaborate joke. I was the young inattentive church-goer who didn’t care to listen to what the priest was saying in front me, nor the pope across the world in the Vatican. If I had any hope entering the Church of Second Chance, it had been to understand what religion was all about; I wanted to know what compelled people to believe in what I saw as an imaginary omnipotent friend. The church was supposed to allay my confusion, to open up a discussion on placing one’s body and soul in the complete custody of faith.
In the end, it turned out my postulating didn’t matter, because with or without the church, everyone ends up in hell anyway.