Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 15

[p.121]Duncan’s hand reminds me we haven’t had sex for months. I don’t want to think about that either. Duncan can compartmentalize his life; his sexuality wasn’t affected by the abuse, except during his depression that first winter. But I’m different. Everything’s related to everything else.

The church teaches a double message about sex. On one hand, the body with its sexual functions is immortal—God ordained the creation of spirit children into the eternities. But one must always cover the body with holy undergarments, which are supposed to provide protection against harm and licentiousness. Duncan and I wore those garments day and night just as the bishop instructed. The act completed, we’d hop out of bed to clothe ourselves in their purity. We never learned the postlude of love, skin to skin throughout the night. Instead we sprang from corrupted sheets into sheer white nylon. I donned my long-sleeved nightie with virginal forget-me-nots and again became pure and asexual. Uncompromised innocence. A travesty of the sacred and profane I could never untangle.

I can’t think about sex now. Maybe that’s all you think about if you’re in prison.

I’m driving again. Duncan is fiddling with the radio. It’s 4:30.

This generation of kids wouldn’t believe how we learned about sex when I was young.

[p.122]At eighth grade slumber parties, we pooled our scanty knowledge to figure out if boys had something like periods. Maureen’s opinion counted most because she had three older brothers.

“They don’t have periods but this other stuff comes out of them at night,” she told her rapt audience.

“What for? They’re not going to have babies!”

“Do you think they know about us?”

“Oooooh, no, how awful.”

My sister explained intercourse to me when my period started. We were sprawled on the floor in our bedroom, she doing homework and I writing a note to my friend Donna.

“Mother says you’ve started.”

“Yeah, Tuesday, in algebra class. There was blood on my pleated jersey skirt.”

“Are you glad?”

“Glad? I don’t know—I guess.”

“I didn’t know anything when I started, and I thought something had burst inside me and that I would die or something.”

“How awful! Mother should have told you.”

“Yeah.”

A short return to the homework and the note.

“Do you know anything about people having babies?” she tentatively pursues.

“Yeah, sure. I know they grow inside you, like Aunt Elaine, and how they get out.” Defensive, embarrassed, but hoping she’ll continue.

“But how they start?”

“Sure. There’s an egg that grows into a baby and all the blood comes out if you’re not having one.”

“Well, I think you should know what makes the egg turn into [p.123]a baby. But if I tell you, you can’t tell any of your friends or their mothers would be mad at me. It might sound icky, but it isn’t. It’s sacred and wonderful.”

“Who told you?”

“I kind of knew some things, you know, from my friends and stuff, and then I read that Life magazine on the birth of a baby before Mother hid it, but they teach you in health your junior year. They tell you about everything, but I think it’s better not to learn that way, so I’ll tell you if you want.”

“Okay.” Trying hard to sound blasé.

“See, there’re these tubes where an egg comes every month down into this bag thing where it grows if it’s going to be a baby.” Her sketching was adequate to pass any junior year health class. “But the egg has to be fertilized. That means a sperm from the father has to get up in here and swim up and join the egg and then it grows. So the baby’s half the mother’s and half the father’s. Did you know that?”

“Not exactly.” Is she going to stop now … What do I say if she does?

“But you wanna know how the sperm gets up there? Well, this is the part that seems icky, but it really isn’t. It’s just kind of hard to imagine. You know the thing boys go to the bathroom with? It’s called a penis and it has these sperm in it.” Hurrying now as fast as she can and with no more drawing. “Anyway, when they want to have a baby, the father puts it up the hole—the one where the baby gets born—and the sperm swims up to meet the egg.”

A long pause. What am I supposed to say?

“I know it sounds weird, but when two people love each other and want a baby, then they like it.”

“You mean everybody does it?”

“Yes. Only it’s not like you think. We can’t understand it yet.”

[p.124]“I could never do that.”

“It won’t seem like that when you love someone. It’s the way Heavenly Father made it, so it’s all right.”

“But can you imagine Mother and Daddy …?” I shudder.

“You won’t tell anyone?”

“Are you kidding? They would think I was nuts.”

I didn’t tell. But by ninth grade somehow I knew most all the girls knew. Once I asked Marguerite if she could imagine it with her own parents. “No,” she sighed, “but at least it’s not as bad for you. Your parents only have two kids. Think of me … mine had to do it five times!”

That was the world I grew up in. Pregnancy was incomprehensible as were our blurred half-sleeping images of parents everywhere “doing it.” In college, we thought we could identify every girl on campus who wasn’t a virgin. And I didn’t know what a homosexual was until after I was married.

In the space of one generation my world revealed itself and disintegrated beside Jasmine’s world, where she was raped by Clint in her off-hours from kindergarten.

“How ya’ doing?” Duncan interrupts my daydream.

“I’m bleary. But I’d just as soon drive and have something to occupy me. How are you doing?”

Duncan rotates his neck in a slow circle. “I can drive if you’d like. I keep thinking how heavy your guilt over Jeanne and Jasmine has been. This added to it—.”

“That’s not what I asked you. I asked how you are doing. I nearly flipped when you picked-up that hitchhiker.”

He nods. “Not in character, was it? I guess I felt like—hell, what do I have to lose?”

“Because you’ve already lost everything?”

“No. I still have a lot. At least, if this goes like we’ve planned. [p.125]You—my friends—my interests—my health—the grandchildren. But it seems like I’ve played a game of Life and lost.”

“Does that mean you think you’re a loser?” It’s hard to ask that question.

“Not exactly. It’s more like shooting craps and never getting your number.”

Some people think it’s not the losing but how you play that matters. Duncan isn’t one of them.

“Does God control the game?” I ask. I think of Einstein saying God doesn’t play dice with the universe, then changing his mind before he died.

“No, not God. It’s random. Pure randomness.”

I realize I’ve gambled everything on one short act.

“What are your worst losses? If there are no awful consequences from this, I mean.” I sound like a therapist.

“The two things that matter most to me. My family and my religion.” He’s tensing up even more.

“But it’s not like you don’t have a family or a religion anymore.”

“Well,” he objects. I don’t have my religion anymore. I’m not active, or committed. I’m angry at the church and at God.”

“But you still hold onto the form, the idea.”

“I can’t cut my connection completely. I don’t want to.”

“Too scary?”

“No,” he says emphatically. “That’s not it. I believe the teachings are right and I’m grateful for what they mean in my life.”

“Do you go round and round on this in your head?”

“Yeah. I can’t shake it. I don’t have an option.”

“What about your family? Your lost family?” The therapist voice again.

“Mainly it’s that all the children are out, or nearly out, of the [p.126]church,” he says. “I don’t know what the grandchildren will do, but I’m sure that many will leave. My children’s loss of their religion is the worst part for me, and then their pain and suffering when they’re self-destructive.”

“Do you think it’ll get better for you? I mean if we’re not caught?”

“Oh, I think so. I’ll get more accepting of where they’re at religiously and they’ll put their lives together better and better.”

“Do you ever wonder if why you’re so angry at God is because you’ve always thought you—well, not you personally, but your Greer family—are privileged?”

“You mean because we’re old church blood?”

“You know how it is at Greer family gatherings. This odd mixture of humility—and I mean sincere humility, I’m not being facetious—and of thinking you’re these privileged people better than anybody on earth. You have this guarantee straight from heaven.”

“We don’t think we’re completely worthy, you know,” Duncan grins. “We get all the jokes about Mormons thinking they’re the only ones in heaven. We laugh.”

“You know what I mean about privilege?”

“Sure. If you live worthily, you’re privileged. Protected. Rewarded. Exalted. My family has first dibbs. You know darn well I never went for that exalted business. At least I don’t think I did.”

“Not consciously, but it’s your heritage. I always resented it, being of lowly stock myself.”

“That’s the word I’d use to describe your mother, or your grandfather for that matter. Lowly. I’ll have to remember that.”

He adjusts the side mirror.

“You know, Laurel, sometimes—rarely but sometimes—I’ve felt like I know what Christ was saying, what he really meant. The part nobody wants to listen to.”

[p.127]I don’t know how to respond. But he goes on.

“The part that says rules are necessary here in this life but they don’t matter in the end. That he doesn’t care what anybody does, he loves us all no matter. He meant it when he said he loves the saint and sinner equally. It’s only been for moments at a time that I’ve felt like I participate in that unconditional love and that for a moment I can feel it for others. Then it’s gone and I’m back into reward and punishment. I don’t think the greatest minds in Christian thinking have ever put those two themes together in a way that you can grasp. They give these glib exhortations, but it’s not what Jesus said. It’s not what I think he feels. But then, if I lived that way, I couldn’t hate Clint. That’s what I meant when I said I couldn’t judge him but I could hate him. I don’t want to give up hating him. It’s visceral. An addiction.”

“That connection, to Christ and to everybody, that’s worth everything. It’s gone for me now I guess. Except, it doesn’t make sense, but I wonder more if Clint can be forgiven than if I can. I want him to be forgiven. Isn’t that strange? I don’t want him damned and it never occurs to me, even now, that I could be. I know if there’s a God he understands and he doesn’t condemn me.”

“You usually sound guilty when you talk.”

“I know. I go all over. Isn’t wonderful how the mind can never be trapped or contained? Always in flux. You can’t do what I’ve done and not be all over the map. I used to think that was called ‘growth.’”

He sighs heavily. “When I get it together, I’ll give you the word.”

“So what does my act yesterday do to you?”

He’s angry. “I take no pleasure in it. No glee at his death.”

“Do you think I do?”

“Well you must have something. After all, it wasn’t impul-[p.128]sive. You must take something from it, or this whole thing is too farcical to believe.” He pauses for a long time, then goes on. “I do feel relief for his current victims. That it’s better for the world.”

“How do you feel about me, though? That’s what I kept wondering when you picked up the hitchhiker.”

“I’m terrified for you. For me too, as an accessory. For Jeanne and Chris. I haven’t been afraid like this since the war. And I’m afraid of the publicity. Afraid that a crime will confirm the judgment of all those people in the church who already think we’re in the wrong. That it’ll make him a martyr instead of the piece of shit he was.”

“But we knew all that before.”

Hearing him voice my thoughts makes me think I’d do it again. It’s when he’s quiet that I think I’ll strangle on this terror.

“At least life shouldn’t be boring for a while,” he says. “Not that it ever has been with you.”

“Anything to save you from being bored.” I try to smile. The conversation is closed for now. Duncan can only take tiny bites of his pain. His grief seems more solid than mine. But not more intense. Duncan doesn’t let himself feel Jeanne’s anxiety or Jasmine’s despair. He doesn’t go back to those first months when Katherine was crazed.

There was the night a week or so after Elizabeth and Shawn had talked. We went to Katherine’s house, and she was smashing her wedding china on the tile floor, piece by piece. It scared Duncan. He thought anyone who broke expensive china was insane—straight out of the snake pit. He’d never before imagined such rage.

I knew she was being crazy but not because she broke the china. I knew she was crazy because there was nothing else to be. Crazy or dead. I’d opt for crazy, too. But can anyone know how hot the furnace must be to bake the clay and bone of children’s [p.129]resilience? How high the temperatures can go before a conflagration? Or what my own firing point would be?

I saw Katherine breaking expensive china, and all I could think of was how when she was little she took her toys to bed with her in a big wicker clothes basket Every night for at least a year there was no room in the bed for her. She rubbed the skin off her nose with her second finger when she sucked her thumb. She still has a tiny hairline scar from that. This wouldn’t matter to anyone but me when they watched her breaking china.

“I wish I’d killed Clint all alone without telling anybody,” I say to Duncan. “Do you wish that?”

“In a way. But you said you’d do it alone. We’ve gone over and over this. I knew what I was doing. I share the responsibility. I think there’s a good chance we’ll get away with it.”

“Maybe I don’t want to,” I reply. “Maybe I killed him so that everyone will know.”

“I hope not,” Duncan whispers.

I can’t talk to him more now.

I have to think of something else. A song. A car game. Twenty questions? I just want to get away from Salt Lake as far and as fast as I can. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time now.

“Why don’t we stay in Palm Springs and never go back?” I ask.

“Suits me.” Then silence. He won’t talk now.

C. S. Lewis says that God is a sculptor chiseling away at man to make him perfect. Only the hammering of suffering can make man reach out of his complacency toward God. Lewis should have stuck to his Narnia books. I’ll never believe that evil exists to make us better or to “test” us. How can god sit there saying “Mrs. Jones could use a deformed baby now,” or “Peru hasn’t had an earthquake lately.” I’d rather let violence be nature playing itself out. Maybe I could learn to accept suffering in the Eastern view that [p.130]everything contains its opposite. Like Shiva’s dance of birth and death, one creative process. Then I could learn how futile resistance is against the cosmic order. Learn to go with the flow and that good and evil are two aspects of the same thing.

Or why not the Zoroastrian belief that good and evil are equal entities battling forever? God and the Devil struggling in a contest where the outcome is unknown. Mormons believe this, and think they’re helping God win. Yet they believe they already know how it ends—since God has to win. So where does that leave anybody?

I want a system where freedom is real. Like the indeterminism of sub-atomic particles, where electrons appear to make a choice. I want to think I can leap from the quantum world to the kind of freedom where what you choose makes a tangible difference. A world where choice is real. How can anybody not want the egoism of Western humanist belief in individual freedom and choice, consequences and all. You have to look the gorgon in the face if you’re free. Then if you’re turned to stone and silence—

“Duncan—Duncan, are you there?”

He’s out again. I wish he could sleep all the way to Palm Springs. The early morning traffic into San Bernardino is picking up. I try to see something in the pre-dawn glow besides cars whizzing by in endless monotony. Trees, buildings—anything but cars. They’re lethal. One glance away from the road and they’re killers. Steel and glass hurtling down the freeway at 80 miles an hour. Impartial, no thought for innocence or guilt.

I’ll never comprehend the origins of human violence. It’s different from the natural struggle of the animal world or the groaning of the earth’s tectonic plates. The chaos and destruction that nature deals seem acceptable because they’re amoral. Benign indifference. But man’s violence? I suppose that violence isn’t so [p.131]bad if you look at history on a grand scale. Only the passion of men willing to fight seems to build governments and social orders. Men who’ll fight—

Duncan’s making funny noises. If he wakes up, I’m still going to keep driving. My back aches. I want it to ache.

I don’t care what violence builds, I won’t consent to it. I’d rather be Prometheus or Sisyphus, Oedipus, Job, or Lear shaking fists at a universe which permits every kind of horror. And now I’ve added to it! Added blood to the swift rising flood that is engulfing all of us.

I used to think that violence was gender-based. That it was perpetuated by men. I thought I could find ways to say “no” to men craving power. No to killing and torture. No to the rape of the planet, to children’s pain and terror. Now I have no voice. I thought I could create a female Savior and say “no” to God the Father. Now I am fallen. He can do with me as he will. My life is a wasteland.

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