Looking for Joy
CCD was the acronym without a meaning.
I learned today that it stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. No one knew that back then. I doubt anyone knows that now. Catholics aren’t big on learning things. Just on making sure others learn them, whether they like it or not.
I’d go every week after school to St. Patrick’s Church. I didn’t like it very much, but it was essential to my education, as my father insisted. I knew my father wouldn’t lie to me.
I never really told him how much I hated going. I didn’t want him to be sad. I’d tell my mother. I told her everything. She would smile wide, tell me how wonderful it was going to be the next time, and leave the room. She couldn’t look me in the eye afterwards.
I had long hair back then. It fell far past my shoulder blades. My father would have me sit on the floor between his knees as he brushed it back. He would use detangler, he would use conditioner, he would use special rubber bands that were meant to reduce the ache, but I would cry every time. I hated my thick, frizzy hair. I hated that I found comfort when he would brush it, even though it stung.
He’d give me two ponytails, tied so tight that my whole scalp throbbed. Friends would make fun of me for them. I went to him in tears, one day, and asked why I couldn’t have one ponytail like all the other kids. He told me that the others were simply jealous. Two ponytails were much better than one. He pretended not to hear when I argued.
“What does Heaven look like?” the CCD teacher asked, on the first day.
Hands shot into the air. I watched. I didn’t understand.
Smiling faces, round with the lack of all they had seen, dutifully answered the call: “Rainbows. Clouds. Sugar and joy.”
All eyes turned on me.
“What does Heaven look like?” the teacher asked me, expectantly.
I knew what I was meant to say. But my half-formed dreams clouded my already splintered vision. I knew what I thought. It didn’t fit what the other kids had said.
The teacher’s face began to fall.
“Old men in an oil painting,” I proudly proclaimed. “Cracked and yellowed, eyes unfocused, looking for joy from the bottom of their graves. They’re very angry, but they’re all saints, so it’s alright.”
The teacher looked away and changed the subject.
I didn’t phrase it that way, back then. The words wouldn’t fit in my tiny mouth. But I can still see the image in my head, and that’s exactly what it was.
I had never realized that God was supposed to be a joyous thing.
When I thought of God, I thought of my father’s glare as I lowered the kneeler onto the floor much too loudly. I thought of the rare days that he would force me to go to Church, and how I never saw him open a Bible. I thought of the yellowed piece of paper on my mother’s dresser, covered in tally marks of all different colors, reading words that I wouldn’t understand for a long time. I thought of the Psalm she would read every single morning but had failed to memorize after more than ten years.
I had a “Read With Me Bible” as a kid. I still have it, somewhere, falling to pieces on my bookshelf. All I remember from that book is King Nebuchadnezzer and the men he failed to burn alive. I loved how complicated his name was- here was someone else who’d never find their name on a keychain. There were some wonderful stories about Jesus in there, too, but it all seemed very far away. I read it the same way I read Percy Jackson, or Harry Potter. It never seemed like something I could relate to.
God was itchy. God was too-loud clicks of heels on marble floors, uncomfortably wet kisses from relatives I didn’t know, and a faraway force that had never helped me.
God seemed like an old, decrepit man who didn’t like me very much. God seemed like the complicated words that my father would use on purpose when talking to me so he’d seem smart when I was confused. So when someone asked me what Heaven was like, that’s what I shared.
On my worst nights, when I was about five years old, locked in a room in my father’s house with the phone hidden far out of reach, I would pray. I would beg God to bring my mother to save me, beg Him to make me forget about my mother completely so I could learn to love the days I spent with my father. Neither prayer was ever granted.
I hated my First Communion outfit.
I wore a veil. The harsh comb on top of it dug into my scalp with a fury. That veil is the only thing I remember about that day, except for this:
“What did it taste like?” asked an uncle I would stop speaking to in a few years. “The Eucharist?”
I made a face. “Stale, whole-wheat cardboard.”
He looked confused.
I missed my Confession.
I had a whole group of kids that were supposed to do it with me. But for some reason- I’d bet my life savings that I had gotten Strep Throat for the tenth time in a year- I missed the Confession ceremony.
The church set up an alternate date for me to show up, alone, with one other child to receive Confession.
The CCD teacher had given us examples of sins to confess. I kicked my sister while playing soccer was a popular one. I didn’t play soccer. I didn’t have a sister. But I’m pretty sure that’s what I told the priest, anyway. I reveled in the feeling emanating from his hand placed on my head. It was like an egg cracking on top of my skull, purifying my mind and cleansing my soul. I wonder now how much of that was real.
The priest gave me and the other child stickers after our Confession: saints that matched our birthdays. For November 8, I got St. Stephen. At eight years old, I was sure that this man’s name was “steff-en.” No one bothered to correct me as I rambled about him being stoned to death. I don’t think they were listening.
I mentioned it to the CCD teacher one week, and she regarded me with confusion. There was no St. “Steff-en,” she insisted. I must be mistaken. I must’ve imagined it. I must be wrong, as children so often are.
When I stared at a light for long enough, colored spots would swim in my vision. My father told me the spots were angels. I would stare proudly at the sun for much longer than anyone else I knew, because I thought the angels were protecting my eyes. Blue and green would dance in front of the light, and I would give thanks.
Thank you, I would pray. Thank you for making me special. When I was very young, I sat in a church. It was some gathering of my father’s family- I don’t remember what. All I do remember is the huge, black spot that danced in front of the altar. I screamed and cried at the sight, frightened in a way that I had never been before. My father allowed me to go outside. He told me that I had seen an archangel. Or a demon. I don’t remember which.
My father’s cousin was a very spiritual woman. We’d drive all the way up to the Bronx to visit her. I would lose my footing on the steep slopes that held up her apartment building. She would smile at me in her cluttered apartment filled with weeds and skittish cats, and tell me I was special. One day I drew a picture of what I knew my guardian angel must look like. I drew a bunch of vowels and consonants together into what must’ve been an 18-letter monster, confident that God had put the name of my Guardian Angel into my mind. My father’s cousin smiled at me, and I was so proud.
Even then, I felt like the angels were laughing at me.
Religion got worse as I grew.
When I was around ten, I wore a tiny silver cross around my neck, with an even smaller diamond set in the middle. I didn’t wear it because I was religious. I wore it because my mother’s sister had given it to me.
At a Passover Seder filled with my father’s girlfriend’s relatives, I clutched it so hard my knuckles turned white.
My father made me take it off before the dinner. “We don’t want to flaunt the fact that we’re different,” he said. “Don’t worry. God won’t mind.”
I had no choice but to leave it behind.
Every other weekend, I’d be in Philadelphia, or upstate New York, or some other place where my father’s new family lived. I concentrated on the pulse of my mother’s blood flowing through my veins. I wouldn’t let myself get sucked into this world of people who didn’t know me.
I’d be in silence, no matter where we were. The house. A nursing home. A carnival. A t-ball game. I’d wrap myself up in my own thoughts, sending out a cry to the universe. I would pray for God to send me a boyfriend. A boy who would save me. A boy who would whisk me away from my father and take me to a place where I would be happy. I knew it would happen. I just needed to concentrate as hard as I could. God wouldn’t fail me this time.
I’d suck in my belly. I’d stick out my chest. I’d brush my lips with my toothbrush so they’d swell up, try to cross my legs and twirl my hair as coyly as I could. I was never feminine, but I tried so hard to be. If I could get a boy to fall in love with me, I could use him to my advantage. He’d be my ticket out of here.
I think I was twelve when I started doing this.
God never did send me a boyfriend.
When I was older, my father dragged me to a church that we had never visited before. He asked me to get him “a missellette.” I had only been to Mass twenty-odd times in ten years, so I had no idea what “a missellette” was. But this did not earn me mercy.
Later that morning, during the Mass, I couldn’t stop tears from falling down my face. But I stared resolutely at the altar, even as my father’s gaze burned a hole in my temple. I was so proud of myself that day. What a rebellion! I refused to look at him, and never faltered.
I knew that the holiness of churches lied in the respect people gave them. No one dared curse or gossip inside such a holy place. People always spoke in hushed voices, sat silently, and listened to the priest with wonder in their eyes.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I rarely spent time with other children.
The magic spell broke when I started rehearsals for my Confirmation in middle school.
The kids would cackle and scream, cursing and laughing up a storm. They’d roll their eyes at the priest. A boy nicked my phone out of my back pocket when we were standing on line in front of the altar and laughed about it with his friends.
On the day of my Confirmation, the incense stung my eyes so badly that my makeup ran down my face. I sat dutifully in my pew, hands folded in my lap, next to a boy who loved to poke my shoulder and touch my hair without permission. I stared up at Jesus on the Cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I couldn’t feel the magic in the church anymore.
High School was an awakening.
Like they could smell my attraction to girls, the religion teachers doubled down. Every class was an inundation of the horrors of abortion, of dressing provocatively, of having sex before marriage, of even thinking about the softness of another girl’s lips.
Of course, by that time, I had made my first friends.
Most of them ended up being queer, just like me.
In High School, we’d go to Confession as a group. The religion teachers would hand out papers detailing the sins we might’ve committed. We had come a very long way from kicking our sisters during soccer practice.
Instead of stressing, instead of feeling guilt crawling up my spine, I giggled with my friends in a pew in the back of the church. We doodled flowers over explanations of the commandments, genderqueer symbols over Have you had innappropriate thoughts about a peer of the same sex? We hid the papers in our skirt pockets as the religion teacher walked by, still laughing.
“Are you going to go up to confess?” my friends would ask.
“No,” I’d respond.
I thought of my father, aging and balding somewhere out there in the world as my mother sued him for custody. I thought of the psychologist I had sat down with, outlining everything I had ever gone through. I thought of late nights where I’d lie awake, staring at the ceiling, praying to God even though I wasn’t sure if He was listening.
“I have nothing to be sorry for,” I would say.
I see the church as just a regular old building, now. But I have found the magic again.
The magic is in the laughter as I clap along with thirty other girls in my school’s Gospel Choir, singing our hearts out to God. The magic is in texts I get from my friends at one in the morning, in the small smiles that grace my lips in the darkness. It’s in the knowledge that the worst part of my life is over, that I will wake up every morning in my mother’s house, and that I will never have to see my father again. It’s in the laughter that bubbles up my throat as I sit around the table with my chosen family, my small yet mighty bunch. It’s in the connections I forge with other people as I finally grow my own identity.
I still think God is angry with me, sometimes. But I know in my heart that He isn’t.
Alaina DiSalvo is a sixteen-year-old, bisexual junior at Saint Saviour High School in Brooklyn, New York. She plans to study History and Sociology in college, with a concentration in Queer Studies. Later in life, Alaina hopes to become a professor in this field and make a difference in the lives of other queer kids. Her poem “Catholicism: A Student’s Perspective” is available in the Winter 2019 edition of the Rare Byrd Review. She is a Ravenclaw with a love of reading, social activism, and Steven Universe.