Born Again

by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

If the phone rings once after midnight, she is to go into the kitchen and wait for it to ring again. Usually it rings within the next five minutes, but there are nights that test her faith, twenty minutes, thirty. On these nights, she stands motionless observing the moon over the backyard, afraid of doing anything more lest she wake her sleeping husband. And when the call comes, she swiftly brings it to her ear and murmurs, “Hello,” in a frail foggy voice like she has a cold, and waits for Jim to respond.

“Mmmmmm. Evelyn. Tell me…”

He is counseling her. He has counseled others before, in his time as a minister, though never under these circumstances. It is important that they remain objective. He does not trust them to speak in the flesh and not give in to temptation. To give in to temptation prematurely, Jim says, could be disastrous to her psyche, as well as her commitment to the Temple. Her commitment means more to him than their personal relationship, as much as he desires to see this relationship fulfilled on all levels.

Jim tells her that he needs her to be honest. Honest and vulnerable. He knows vulnerability does not come naturally to her, that she is a woman who has never truly “been mastered”. He expects the process will be especially painful for her. He wants her to remember always that he loves her, and that nothing she reveals to him during these sessions can possibly change this.

“Tell me ’bout the girl,” Jim requests the first night they speak. “Tiny girl Evelyn.”

So she tells about the girl that she was: a bright responsible girl with a nice smile for photographs and strangers, nice manners, clean clothes, clean hair, not a lot of imagination. A girl who was kind to her dolls and little sisters, who took genuine pleasure in keeping her bedroom neat, pleasing her parents and teachers, dressing up for church and school in saddle shoes, bobby sox, plaid pinafores. She was a girl who never made up stories but liked when her parents read to her, and reading to her sisters when she was old enough. She liked the fairytale worlds, green jungles, purple mountains, vast oceans, the triumph of good over evil. Life seemed full of good things, an essential optimism, until she was in middle school and suddenly it wasn’t.

“What happened to you, baby?”

It wasn’t anything that happened. It wasn’t anything that was said or done. It was just as if she woke up one day and her skin was thinner, the world sharper, all the wind knocked out of her. She took to crying privately about things she had no control over—the Holocaust, Hiroshima, slavery, genocide. She stayed back after classes and in a clear, small voice, asked questions of her teachers, which caused them to praise her sensitivity to the skies. She felt instinctively that this praise was false, that they were missing the point. One week, IQ tests were done and the results were read aloud and there were gasps when it came to her own; this too seemed false, filled her with a grand sense of injustice.

“You didn’t feel you deserved it.”

“I never felt I was intelligent, in any way that mattered. I was never good enough.”

“And Mommy-Daddy? What they say ’bout that big IQ?”

Not much, but they must have noticed the change in her. She remembers a lot of hushed discussions, displays of warmth, encouragement, hugs. She remembers crying facedown on her bed and her father sitting beside her, consoling her. There is shame in this memory. After that, she remembers going places with her father—a peace march where she heard folksingers for the first time, a civil rights rally, a home for amputees—and feeling gradually stronger. She turned thirteen and became more self-conscious about hugging her father, even brushing her arm against his, but she was proud of what a good man he was, found him brave and true and handsome in his clerical robes, loved him.

“I loved him too much. I guess I always knew that.”

Jim lets her cry. She tries to be brief and quiet about it, but cannot get rid of the feeling of constraint in her chest. “You’re doin’ good,” he soothes her. “I thank you for your honesty.” He asks her to speak more about the love that was too much.

She loved her father more than she felt was right. That’s all. She developed breasts and underarm hair and grew to her adult height of five feet three inches. There was a pressing need to distance herself from her father, physically and mentally. Boys liked her; this helped. Girls liked her, listened to her, elected her president of various clubs; this helped. She was independent, vocal, never cried in front of her parents again, knew how to argue and intimidate others with her intellect. She challenged her father about religion and, while never having the courage to declare herself an atheist at his table, made it known that she did not think the Methodist Church was the pinnacle of morality.

“Tell me, honey…Was rejecting God just a way of rejecting Daddy?”

Evelyn considers the moonlight, silence like a coin dropped down a bottomless well.

“To be honest, I think I stopped believing in God the day I stopped believing life was a fairytale.”

*****

Night after night, they trot ‘tiny girl Evelyn’ into the dark kitchen, have her smile her bunny-toothed smile and pirouette, then rob her of her innocence. Sex is something they must discuss in her presence, but also things like sex—self-pleasure, suicidal thoughts, the general desire for oblivion. “How old were you, baby, when you started…?” Eight or nine. “What did you think about?” Oh…men. Men’s hands. Men’s shadows. The looming presence of a man above or behind her. “Were you ashamed?” Not ashamed, really. She knew that it was private, a thing only for alone in her bedroom after dark, but really, it felt too good to be ashamed of.

Jim is pleased to hear this.

Jim wants her to talk about her misery, so she tells him about Elliot Goldberg, the gloomy Jewish boy she dated as a high school junior. She tells him how Elliot’s gloominess appealed to her, how they spent hours talking about the Eichmann trial, Babi Yar, Mengele’s experiments, dark and tortured regions of the human soul. She tells him how sometimes she felt flashes of what might be termed ‘anguish’, ‘anarchy’, ‘absurdism’, and would soothe herself by contemplating the shelf of household poisons. Yet she never did anything more, couldn’t justify the selfishness or the pain it would cause her parents, or perhaps was just too attached to her privileged white girl existence.

“I’m glad you’ve thought about it, baby. Shows you serious ’bout life.” Jim’s voice is tender, understanding. “But only reason to lay your life down is if something’s worth dyin’ for. Anything else, that’s self-indulgence.”

He has her tell him about the boys and men—too many to count on one hand, though not so many that it takes all of two. She tells about Percy, Jean-Claude, the faceless string of students between. She tells about the middle-aged businessman when she worked at that hotel in the summer of ’64, how strange it was to be accosted in her boyish bellhop uniform, how she felt like Joan of Arc stripping naked for him, how she had given his twenty-dollar tip to a homeless man. “You liked that?” Jim asks about certain things she tells him, and if his voice registers mild astonishment, he quickly covers it up by talking about ‘ass-fucking’, telling her she’s anal retentive and will need to be fucked up the ass at least once if she’s to become a better human and socialist.

Sometimes they are not completely objective. Sometimes, talking about sex, he gets carried away telling all the things he’d like to do to her and she says, “Oh,” in a small startled voice, and he says, “Don’t play so fucking innocent.” Sometimes he cusses at her for whole minutes at a time, and she doesn’t know whether to weep or moan with gratitude. Once, for reasons unclear to her, he becomes infuriated, tells her he can’t deal with a bitch like her always intellectualizing everything, and hangs up the phone. She waits for him to call back but he doesn’t, and so in her forlornness she goes to the bedroom and tries to make love with Lenny, but it’s hopeless, there’s only one man for her.

Jim knows, in his mysterious knowing way, about her going to Lenny, and the next time they speak he tells her he would prefer if she was celibate. He tells her he hasn’t slept with Rosaline in seven years, and that a similar vow on her part could bring them closer.

They talk about her beliefs: her atheism, her Marxism, her existentialism. He tells her, “That’s all nice and sophisticated, honey, but there’s things beyond that. I mean, things like destiny.” He asks her how she feels about past lives, reincarnation, and she tells him she doesn’t know, honestly has never given it much thought. “I only mention it, sweetheart, because I cherish your soul. Beyond this life. And, uh, I can’t help feeling, we got unfinished business. Last time we were together, see, you died too soon.” He wants to know if she’s willing to go back with him, way back, and she says yes, she will go, anywhere, as far as he can take her.

“Close your eyes, sweetheart.”

He does things with his voice, low dark things that make the air tremble and the spaces within her widen like melting glaciers. She knows that she is in the kitchen holding the phone yet also that there are other places she could be, and when he asks her to tell him what she sees she says, “A cold place.” When he asks her what she’s doing, she says, “Traveling somewhere,” and then, after considering the rocking motion within her, “I am on a train.” He asks where she is going and she tells him, “Where the people are.” What people? “The people, the workers.” She tries to elaborate on the fluttering feeling in her chest and says, “I am not alone,” and also, “Something is going to happen when we reach the station.” He asks if he is with her and she says yes. He asks if she is a woman.

“I am a woman, yes,” she says. “A revolutionary woman.”

*****

She is a revolutionary woman. She has been a girl with parents and lovers and sadness, yet her true identity is as a revolutionary woman, and as his lover. He tells her that she was once the lover of a great revolutionary leader, and in her own right an educator, an organizer, a reformer of systems. He tells her that she was French and beautiful. She is still beautiful. “You’re a beautiful revolutionary,” he croons. “This is your past, your future, your highest being.”

They have been speaking for perhaps three weeks, perhaps three nights a week, for several hours at a time. She has been sleeping little yet performing well in her everyday work, maintaining a distance between her day-self and night-self. On the last night she and Jim speak, she does not sleep at all but remains in the kitchen making herself coffee and watching the dawn so beautiful, the pink and green dawn, and knows she is exactly where she belongs.

That afternoon, Jim comes to the white house when Lenny isn’t home and they do everything they want to do.

(‘Born Again’ was originally published in the Gargouille Literary Journal.)

Last modified on October 23rd, 2016.
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