Saturday, May 31, 2014

Secret Handshake

It is the late 1970s. We have just moved to Cleveland, and my parents have started taking me to church every Sunday. In our new home, my father is suddenly no longer an atheist, and he follows my mother back to the religion of her childhood. I’ve been in the choir of the Methodist church, and I’m confused about why we can’t join that one instead. They are nice to me there. The rituals of this new church make no sense to me, and I observe the routine with a mixture of skepticism and bewilderment.

“What are they doing?” I’m whispering, because that’s what you do when you’re a child in a big room.

“They’re making the sign of the cross.”

“Little tiny ones?” I’m really confused now.


They want me to be quiet. They want me to fit in and play along, but I don’t understand. “Why?”

A suppressed sigh. Everything is like that now. Muted, so the world won’t hear and judge. “So that God is in their thoughts, on their lips, and in their hearts.”

I want to ask what it means, but I don’t. We’re right under the priest’s nose, and I don’t want to upset him. He’s wearing a wide robe that shines with crimson and gold. I want to ask about that, too, but I don’t.

My mother has dressed me up, and the pleats of my skirt are gauzy and sharp. I gather them with my fingers, a slippery pink accordion. My mother puts a book under my nose, and the fabric falls away.

“Follow along.”

It’s a small book, white plastic and inexplicably puffy. Jesus is inside. He has children on his lap, and he’s laughing. Everyone looks relaxed and happy. I want to find the right words in the book. I want to understand what is going on up on the massive table. If I can find the words, God will put me on his lap, and we can laugh together.

I don’t find the words. I’ve kept quiet, because all of this is new. This city speaks differently. The children don’t want to play with me. My accent is weird, and they don’t like the things I imagine. “Idea” has no R at the end. I can’t have a frappe. I can’t ride the swan boats.

We played in Boston. Back in Boston, I was the Queen of All Seasons and the Captain of the Kissing Girl Team. Here, I am not. Not heard. Not seen.

It’s hard for me to understand why suddenly it is a sin to sleep in on a lazy Sunday morning. The priest tells me that I can go to hell if I don’t go to church on Sunday. No, the Sundays before don’t count. Starting now, though. My concepts of right and wrong are absolute at this age, and I can’t understand what has changed.

I’m going to be Catholic now. Hell is something I need to worry about now. I ask the priest why people believe, if they can avoid hell just by not knowing any better. He sighs.

When I’m sad, I tell my father I want to go home. All the way back, to before church, before Ohio, and even before Boston. My family is in Kansas. I want to go home. I want to understand the words and the gestures and the rules. Nothing here makes sense. I want to pet my grandfather’s dog, play with my cousins, and be far away from these mystifying people and their strange words and gestures that no one ever explains.

My father tells me that Kansas isn’t home. He tells me that if we went back, the place I want still wouldn’t be there. He tells me home doesn’t exist, so I need to be happy here.

I want to be where I belong, but I’m out of sync here. I don’t know what to say while the rosary beads slip through my fingers. I don’t understand what the other kids seem to. I stay silent.

When we all go to high school seven years later, one of the girls speaks to me. She hasn’t before, except to tease on the playground, but now she is new. I am familiar.

“Aren’t you nervous?”


“How do we figure out where to go?”

“Just follow everyone else. It’ll be fine.”

“How can you be so calm?” She’s demanding now, unsettled that the misfit is now stronger than her.

I shrug and move away. This is nothing. I can do this. It’s an even playing field because we’re all new. We’re beginning at the very start of the process rather than being thrown into the middle of the machinery like a wayward screwdriver. This time, we all have to learn these new rules.

How hard could it be? The skirts are polyester, and the pleats are sewn in like the Will of God. My imagination slips out in my words now and then, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not confused, so they like me here. I’m not the awkward girl who doesn’t understand.

I still want to go home.

College comes, and I go. It’s Pennsylvania this time, but by now, I am used to this. The school is a microcosm that I soon carve into, making my place. I have friends, and a boy who says he loves me even though my words aren’t what he wants to hear. I let my imagination out of its box a bit more, I experiment with words, and I say goodbye to the boy. Another boy loves me, and I let him.

I don’t want to go home.

I come back to Cleveland, bringing my boy with me. At first, there is the dream of the next adventure. We can go anywhere, be anything. I consider Alabama. England. Boston. Kansas. And then I look around at where I am.

I may not have understood the motions in church, the unwritten rules of Catholic school, or the ordered suburban lives of my peers back then. But now I find myself in Cleveland, and I understand. There is Playhouse Square, where I saw Yule Brenner and Beverly Sills. I learned to change the theater lights and lace up toe shoes at the Beck Center. The Cleveland Institute of Art showed me that hair is more than just one color, and Severance Hall showed me how music feels when it reverberates off your heart and into your bones. I’ve learned to sing, to paint, to dance, and to write here.

(The violin was a disaster, and I never learned to cook.)

A lot of the old places are gone, but the old places are being made new. The people here shine, and they open themselves to the idea of what a city, a neighborhood, or one old building could be. There is life here, and instead of a secret handshake, a hand is thrust out to pull you into the chaos and wonder of it all. You can be one hundred people here and live every life imaginable.

So this is home now. I came home, but I’m not in Kansas anymore.

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