Chapter 4: James
You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your mother and father.
I’m fifteen. It’s before Matt Adler. Matt divides my life.
James Dolan holds me in his arms, his twenty-something frame locking me in a small, lonely prison. “Do I have to?” I whisper like a doormat. “I really don’t wanna do it.”
“I wouldn’t put a gun to your head,” he says but his words are a gun—a black, shiny weapon filled with much more than a bullet.
James’ mother is a faith healer and travels in the religious circles that define my mother’s life. Around and around they rotate in their world of miracles and scripture. They move as saints among one another while Jesus Christ hangs over their heads on a giant wooden cross in the church of Simon Taylor. The rustic, splintered grip of that cross seems to tear me apart. Entwined in what is right and wrong, I feel the pain of knowing I can never live up to its power, its intense restrictions, its black and white domino-pushing-domino-falling condemnation. I sense that James feels it, too.
I know because we never once talk about it.
James and I first meet when I’m twelve. My mother and I go to their house for a fellowship meeting, one of the many religious outings she takes me on during those years. I’m expected to stay in the shadows; she’s there to save lives. Mine can wait. James, home from college, is a pimple-faced, nineteen-year-old who doesn’t appear to have a single thing in common with a tall, gawky twelve-year-old. Nevertheless he’s told to keep me company. We play backgammon until the prayer and life saving is over—at least four hours.
The next time I see him, I’m deep into an emotional coma. He’s interested in the physical changes he sees but is blind to the irony of it. My face glistens with the spark of sexuality but my heart is an empty, confusing place. James has also changed; he’s a man and he likes me. I drink in the attention, allowing him to stroke my self-esteem. He knows the ropes and, of course, wraps them around me quick and tight. I sleep with him when he swears he’s sterile. Once I realize how ridiculous his claim is, there’s an opportunity for growth. I can learn a lesson, more forward, but I’m incapable. My mind lacks a key pathway. One plus one never equals two. Not yet.
Wandering through the clinic’s maze-like hallways seems better than sitting, waiting, and staring into other eyes, other faces. I can’t go back. I creep down the dull corridor pretending to look for the restroom. Cheap paintings of nature scenes line the walls. No smiling people. No children. The walls need painting.
I hear a voice. “Mrs. Mendez, babies don’t have sex and should not bear children.” Beyond the voice, I hear childlike laughter that’s strangely adult. “Mrs. Mendez, babies don’t have sex and, of course, should not bear children.” The incessant message rings through the clinic hallway like a long, lingering door chime. The voice grows louder and more insistent. The woman speaking will never change her mind. The laughter grows chilling and strange.
“Mrs. Mendez, babies should not have sex.” The voice comes from one of two doors marked COUNSELING. I think about the ten minutes of counseling I received. A small, shy woman simply asked if I understood my options and I answered yes. She handed me two pamphlets on my way out and stressed the importance of a follow-up visit.
Nervous, I look down the hall to see if anyone is coming. The place reminds me of an empty, black hole. Boarded windows drive the natural light away. For a moment, I wonder if I’ll make it out alive.
I know I won’t be the same.
Having found the office that holds the baby, I peer into the cracked open door. Mrs. Mendez is as pitiful as I imagined. Tears stream down her haggard face as it shakes in confusion. Next to her sits a pregnant girl of thirteen or fourteen.
She’s not a baby. But as I watch, I notice that something is wrong with her. Her neck wobbles and turns oddly from side to side as her eyes roll in her blank face. Her rounded body twitches. When her uncontrolled eyes pass over her mother or the other woman, she begins to laugh. She is a baby ... mentally. Mrs. Mendez continues to beg for help, not realizing she’ll never find it with the woman counselor. The baby sits in joyful ignorance. I wonder if perhaps she’s the luckiest of the three. Then I think of her baby. She’ll have to give it up, one way or another. Somehow I know she’ll feel the loss; the situation is hopeless.
A protective anger pushes me toward the woman but my mind refuses to obey. My body wants to grab her, to shake her out of the single-mindedness from which she suffers. My hands want to grab her and slap her but I remain frozen. My mind pulses out the same questions over and over again.
How can I force her to really look? How can I force the blind to see?
I'm a baby, too.
Fearing I’ll somehow become one of the characters in the scene playing before me, I rush back to the waiting room.
The four women sitting around me look sad. I wonder what I look like to them. I sit, trying not to think, trying to put myself on automatic pilot, to complete an objective that was not set by me, but by outside forces I’m not sure I agree with. My opinion doesn’t count. I have no choice.
Babies don’t make intelligent decisions. They react on instinct.
One woman has mousy, brown hair in desperate need of a trim. Her stained white shirt, dingy jeans, and flip-flops tell me she’s white trash. “I already gots three kids. My husband says I gots to get rid of this one because we can barely afford the kids we got. I don’t want to but I got to.” Looking down, she hides her tears. Suddenly I don’t care if she is white trash. I love her. I want to move next to her, hold her in my arms, and dry her dirty tears.
“I have diabetes. My doctors say I shouldn’t have kids,” another woman confides. I look for her wedding ring. Not seeing one, I wonder why she came to a clinic like this instead of seeing her regular doctor.
Everyone has a good reason except me. Maybe they;re all lying anyway. How can I know? Not a word comes from my mouth.
The nurse finally calls my name and I follow blindly, imagining I’m Joan of Arc walking toward the flames. I’m protecting my family and my so-called boyfriend from embarrassment and, of course, I’m salvaging my own future. But I can’t see the future. At fifteen, the future is tonight or maybe next week. So I walk toward my destiny. I lie down in a cold, clinical room, spread my legs, and let them take something precious away from me.
I hate the lady holding my hand. “Put it back,” I whisper but no one hears me over the grinding. When the suction begins, it eats my insides. As my baby splashes away, their sterile instruments open me up. My soul pours over the steel table and then my pain finds its hiding place in the cavity left behind. It paralyzes me. I can’t share it and can’t describe it. My grief is deeper than the love I have for my mother, deeper than my love for God. I lose the last bit of hope for something childlike inside me, something good.
I will soon find myself searching for a crutch, a wheelchair. I will search for someone who can spoon-feed me, wash me—big strong hands to push my wheelchair.
There now exists a clear line between my mother’s pain and my own, and I firmly place my feet on the far side. It’s her that my life revolves around, that all our lives revolve around: her feelings of entrapment in a loveless marriage; her creative temperament; her anger; her God. I always forgave her migraines, lethargy, and forgetfulness. I was convinced of her unshakable justification for how she felt and what she did. By her side, I remained.
Now I’m alone.
A few months later my mother and I stare at each other in the bathroom mirror. The images change as we do but somehow remain untouched by all that happens in our lives. They tell the truth. Our eyes meet and the truth passes between us. She slaps me and the toothbrush in my mouth flies across the room. “How dare you take my grandchild away from me.” She flings the rinsing glass into the mirror, cracking it. I struggle past her, hoping to reach the security of my room but she’s close behind. I jump onto my bed as if it’s a sacred place she dares not go.
Dropping my head over the side, I frantically tug and pull at the blankets until I can see underneath. As blood rushes to my head I see that the letter is gone. I feel faint. Then just as I realize she’s no longer there, she flies back into the room with my father’s black belt in her hand. Our physical comfort with one another and my need for her lifts me into her grip. She slaps me with the belt and I struggle to move away, but merely turn in circles.
She’s my beginning.
Then I see my bulletin board, crammed with the junk that defines my life: two large homecoming corsages, the fake kind that you can hang onto forever; numerous pictures and cards; a napkin from my first date; a large cross. As I face my bedroom window, I notice my view is now completely blocked. Leaves tap against the glass.
And she’s my ending.
For once I take control. I dig my feet in and say, “I’m fifteen years old and if you hit me one more time, I’m gonna hit you back.”
“Why didn’t you come to me?” She slumps onto the bed, covering her face with her hands. A loud grieving pain hurls itself around the room. To her it’s a new spirit taking dominion over our lives, but I know it’s always been there. As a child I would have held her. I would have somehow made her feel better.
“I’m not a kid anymore,” I finally say.
“No, you’re not.” She peers through her fingers as if watching a horror movie, terrified of what she might see. “You’re a murderer. Do you realize that? Do you even realize what you’ve done?”
“What do you want from me,” I say solemnly.
“I want my grandchild.”
What about me? I’m the one it happened to. She has no regard for my disease, for my new wheelchair. She just pushed it out from under me, but can’t see me lying paralyzed at her feet. “That letter was personal," I say. "It had Becca’s name on it, not yours. I made her give it back so I could burn it. So nobody else could read it. You violated my privacy.”
“God led me to read that letter. Peyton, God sees everythang." Her body is suddenly all around me. I cling to her, hoping our physical closeness will somehow bring understanding, that she will, for once, feel my pain and not just her own. "Besides, do you think you deserve privacy after what you’ve done?”
“Please, don’t tell Daddy,” I beg through my tears but she ignores me.
She strokes my back. “Do you want me to pray with you for forgiveness?” She asks, her voice suddenly filled with mother.
I can’t bear to answer. I’m not ready to fathom her accusations. My mind clamps shut as she begins to pray.
“Dear Lord, forgive Peyton for her murderous sins. Wipe ‘em clean so that she may be beautiful and whole once more. Please welcome my grandchild and her child into your lovin’ arms so that we may know that it abides in your kingdom. Bless it and keep it until one day we may reunite in your magnificent presence. Mend its tiny wounds and restore Peyton’s dark spirit.”
BOUNDARIES is Penelope Przekop's first novel. It's a work of fiction based on true events. Since writing BOUNDARIES, she has completed two other novels. ABERRATIONS was published by Greenleaf Book Group in 2008. CENTERPIECES is currently being considered by several publishers. Penelope is working on her fourth novel, DUST.