by Davita Joie
I didn’t hear the voices that night; I felt them. The tone was urgent, the words were indistinct. We were in revival at the old church. I was fourteen years old and all around me, folks had ‘caught the spirit’. Some spun and danced with abandon, others spoke in tongues I didn’t recognize, and still others kneeled in the wooden pews, crying out to God for deliverance, for forgiveness, for mercy.
All I could do was cry. I didn’t know why. There was joy in that place – brothers and sisters hugged each other, the music was soaring, the organ and the drums pulsed in a united rhythm that reverberated throughout the little church on Depeyster Street. The feverish bop swung down the center aisle of the sanctuary, swooped down the front stairs and sashayed its way straight to the Pearly Gates so St. Pete could tap his toes in praise with us.
But there was a sadness weighing on me. No sobbing or loud wailing. Just streams of water that coursed down my cheeks and slid soundlessly onto my blouse and the Bible propped in my lap. Somewhere, something was very, very wrong. I ‘felt it in my spirit’, words I had heard my mother and grandmother say but certainly had never thought I would ever say myself.
The evangelist that week was Forrest Lowe who generally visited our congregation twice a year. He was a giant of a man, six foot five, with a deep, rumbling voice that made James Earl Jones sound like a prepubescent boy. My brothers and I unofficially adopted him as our godfather; I called him Daddy Lowe until my father made it known that he was the only man his kids should call ‘daddy’. So, I called him Papa Lowe instead. My father was around, but he’d moved out of our house when I was seven. He moved closed by so we saw him on weekends. I had been too young to understand then but the older I got the more I thought I knew and at fourteen, I wrestled with hating and loving the man who in my mind claimed to be my daddy, but left me like a sack of trash. A sack of trash that looked just like him. The night he left, I remember distinctly thinking, “Now who’s going to protect us?” I don’t think I ever got over that sense of being vulnerable in the world.
In the middle of service, while everyone else was praising, Papa motioned for me to come to him and I obeyed, propelling myself down the aisle on wobbly legs.
“Daughter, what’s wrong?” he said, placing his mammoth hands on my shoulders.
The tenderness in his voice made me cry all the more. I couldn’t say anything; it was like my mouth forgot how to form words. I just dropped my head into his chest, still crying silently. Finally, after a few minutes, I managed to get out, “I…think… it’s… my… dad.” Papa just nodded and wrapped me in a great big hug and I know he could feel my shoulders shaking.
“Mmmmm,” he said, and pushed me away from him a little so he could look in my eyes. “Daughter, I’m going to pray for you, ok?” And he placed his hands on each side of my face and used that booming basso voce to summon heaven on my behalf. When I returned to my seat, I had a sense of peace and the crying stopped.
Later that night, we went to the pastor’s house for a late night supper. Mom let me go, figuring it would be good for me to be with Papa and the others; they would see that I got home. It had to be midnight or later and I had a plate full of macaroni and cheese, collard greens and baked chicken but I couldn’t eat; I just pushed everything around and let the surrounding conversation pour over me.
Suddenly, the phone rang and I dropped the fork I was holding; it clanged against the ceramic plate in front of me. I was sweating, my heart was beating faster, I couldn’t catch my breath and I had an ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach. No one had yet answered the phone but I knew that it was bad news. And it concerned me. I watched Papa go to the phone with fearful eyes, the sounds around me swirling in and out of my ears, making me dizzy and nauseous.
When he hung up the phone, tears were again streaming down my face.
“That was your mom,” he said slowly, carefully. At first it sounded like his voice was coming towards me down a long tunnel. “The brakes on your dad’s car failed tonight, just as he was going through one of the busiest intersections in the city. The police said he should have been killed. But, he’s ok….” I slumped down in my chair as he was talking, as if each word physically hit me and pushed me towards the floor.
“Daughter, he’s ok,” he repeated as he walked across the room and put his arms around my shoulders.
Later we found out that Dad’s near accident occurred around the same time Papa had been praying for me.
* * *
When I was twenty years old, I married the boy I thought I loved.
The proposal, after six years of dating, had been perfunctory. No romance, no loving declaration on bended knee. Just a friendly, “I think we should get married.” I learned much later that his father had actually made the suggestion, unknowingly planting a seed in the heart of a son who desperately wanted his father’s approval and felt that he never quite measured up.
I wasn’t opposed to getting engaged; I believed what I felt was genuine devotion. I mean, to the extent that a girl of nineteen understands what love truly is. I was, after all, a girl whose father had left her; a girl whose nose was as likely to be found buried in the pages of a Harlequin romance as any academic text. When I demurred and suggested that we wait to actually get married until I finished my last two years of college, my beloved said, “I honestly don’t know if I’ll still be around then.”
I looked at this tall, handsome young man, he of the chocolate brown skin, rounded afro, and toothy smile, college-educated and church-bred like me, and I thought that we worked. We’d written each other letters over the years, getting to know each other across the distance that separated our hometowns, keeping both Ma Bell and the postal service in business. On paper, we were a good match. And somewhere, in a shadowy corner of my soul, I wondered if anyone else would ever want to marry me. I wondered if this would be my last chance. We married a year later.
The ceremony was on a sunny, Saturday afternoon and three hundred friends and relatives assembled in the stone church, a former monastery with large stained glass windows. Downstairs, it was just my dad and me. He was pacing in the morning suit tuxedo my fiancé had picked out. I hated that suit; I couldn’t resist giving it a little sneer whenever I thought no one was watching. Our first big fight was over that suit. I wanted a classic tuxedo, but my future husband wanted to wear the same morning coat his father had worn. It was the first of many battles I would lose.
I sat on a bench, my long white gown spread out around me, the mutton sleeves were off the shoulder (to my mother’s chagrin), puffy at the shoulders then tapered to the wrists. The veil was on top of my head, my hair upswept in the back. Dad looked jumpy and I was a nervous wreck. I wanted my Mom; she would know what to say. I thought it was sweet that he would try – after all these years – to come up with some words of wisdom before he walked me down the aisle. Sweet but also completely unnecessary.
He knew I was still angry with him. He’d arrived so late for the pictures, we thought he wasn’t coming at all and asked one of my uncles to step in should my father decide not to show. It would be just like my father to try to get back at my mom for some imagined slight by not showing up for my wedding. He was late for everything. He’d been late all my life: softball games, track meets, music concerts, graduation. Late, late, late and late. I’d been mad at him for as long as I could remember.
I saw him hit my mother when I was little. I heard the chauvinistic comments he made about women. I knew that even though he and my mother were separated, he was living with some other…‘ho. He was my dad and I loved him. But here, in this place, at this moment, there was nothing he could say to me about the sanctity of marriage.
That didn’t stop him from trying, right there in that church basement. My father cleared his throat and tried, bless his heart.
“Well,” he coughed. “Never thought we’d see this day so quickly.” He stopped and I just looked at him, silently telling him it was ok to say nothing at all with my small, weak smile.
“I’m just going to ask you a question,” he said. “The same question I’ve been asking you since you were a little girl.”
I was moved in spite of myself. He just might pull this off, I thought. This made me a little teary and I immediately started fanning myself and blinking fast so as not to ruin my carefully applied makeup.
He sat down next to me, took my hands in his and looked deeply into my eyes.
“Do you have to go pee-pee?” he stage whispered. “’Cause I’m not going to be able to help you with that big ole dress.”
I laughed so hard I was afraid they’d hear me all the way upstairs. The tension was broken and I was grateful for this rare tender gesture, as fragile a peace offering as the flowers that made up my bouquet.
A few minutes later, when I walked down the aisle on his arm, I remember looking at the glowing faces of my friends, my cousins, the concerned but happy looks on the faces of my church family, my proud grandmothers. I wondered if my mother, who was my matron of honor, could feel my panic; I desperately looked for reassurance in her eyes. Something from her that assured me my fate would be different. My feet felt heavy and as I glanced up at my soon-to-be husband, who crooked his finger as if to say, ‘walk faster’. Everyone laughed.
But fear was nipping at the heels of my lace pumps, every step of the way. I remember praying, “God, if this is not Your will, please….please….stop the wedding right here. I won’t go if this is not You.”
God was silent.
* * *
Four years later, I ran down the steps of another church, made of yellow stone and elegant stained glass, crying – anguish chiseled into the lines of my face. I drove, I’m sure I drove, but really it was the car that knew the way home. It glided silently through the darkened streets; the way lit only by the eerie orange glow that emanated from the lights on the roadside. Tall and silver, they looked like blurry extensions of the trees that also lined the streets, iron faeries that stretched their arms in a graceful arch towards the middle of the road. Right turn, go three streets, left turn. I have no memory of this nearly twenty-minute drive to the other side of town. Tears blurred the road in front me; I watched the hazy streak of white down the middle. Stay to the right, stay to the right, I urged the car.
The marriage hadn’t been working for a long time. Honestly, it hadn’t worked from day one, that illusion-shattering first encounter that left the no-longer-virginal me counting ceiling tiles and wishing for a do-over that would take me home to my mother’s house and back to school for my third year in college.
One day, early on, I asked my husband why he didn’t start dinner, since he came home two hours earlier than I did. I usually found him passed out on the couch, tie askew, stockinged feet up on the coffee table.
“’Cause that’s your job,” he said matter-of-factly.
Funny, how we didn’t discuss my job description before we got married. Funny, how I had two jobs (one as a receptionist for his father the doctor) and now a second one as cook, maid, and sex slave. Wait, that’s four, right? Four jobs to his one. No wonder I was exhausted all the time.
The sex slave, I mean, wife part became near impossible towards the end. My body physically could not, would not comply. It’s a wonder his …part…didn’t break off and get ground to nothingness so insistent was my body’s unconscious refusal of his advances. His lovely overtures, after weeks and then months of not talking, consisted of phrases like, “You feel like giving up some sex tonight?”
His father, the doctor, was also our pastor and therefore our ‘counselor’. My husband refused to go to anyone else. I asked, I begged, I pleaded. It seemed reasonable to me to go to someone who could be objective, who could hear both of us, but he balked at seeing anyone but his father. He didn’t want to be ‘embarrassed’. Our sessions consisted of passages from the Bible about my duty as a wife and medical lectures on how a man’s body works. Nothing about his duty or my body. My mother-in-law sat silently during these sessions, wearing censure and consent like a shawl. I mostly sat with my mouth shut, arms folded over my chest. I had plenty to say, to scream, but no one was listening to me.
The years stretched into one long, mind-numbing abyss. He threatened to hit me at one point. Frustrated, I’m sure by my ability to reason, to think for myself, to question. In that instance, I saw my mother’s face. I saw my aunties, my father’s sisters, my mother’s sisters, many of whom had been slapped or punched by men who claimed to love. I remembered one auntie in particular who finally turned on her abusive husband, and when she did, when she finally found the strength to fight back against the black eyes and broken bones and midnight calls to the police, that coward locked himself in the bathroom, scared to come out and face her rage. He begged for the police to come and rescue him. I love that story.
I’d already seen my share of that kind of ‘love’. I told him if he hit me, he better kill me because if I got up, I might lose, but he would know he had been in a fight. He only pulled that once. He threatened to break all of our china, a gift from my family and friends, in order to keep me from taking it. “I’ll shatter every last one!” he screamed. “You won’t take anything out of this house!”
He let our birds, two cockatiels, die in our sweltering hundred degree garage one summer day to get back at me for “not listening to him”. I had to take their broken, heat prostrated bodies and bury them in the backyard. Alone.
The year before, he changed the locks on our house, when I went back home for my fifth high school reunion and the high school graduation of my youngest brother. He couldn’t go with me because he’d just started a new job, but I had plenty of vacation time since I was working for the phone company by then. He forbade me to go. That was the word he used. “I forbid you to go.” I was unwilling to miss a once-in-a-lifetime gathering because of his childishness. A one-week vacation did not constitute a separation in my mind. He refused to take me to the airport; he refused to talk to me when I called to say I arrived safely; he refused to pick me up when I returned.
When friends from work brought me home, the house was dark and the locks were changed. He was nowhere to be found. When I called my father-in-law, this man who had promised my parents he would treat me like his own daughter, said only, “He told you not to go.”
The police told me it was my house too, so the next day, I broke a window and returned to my house. And somehow we decided to try again. I remember talking all night, sitting on the edge of the bed, him kneeling in front of me. But it all unraveled after that, less than a year later, like a sad little ball of string in the hands of a young and eager cat.
One night, I again sat in the church listening to the praises all around me. But my heart was not there. My spirit was grieved; I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. My personality had deteriorated to the point where I didn’t even recognize the shell that I had become, this quiet, beat down zombie who went through the motions but whose spirit had clearly died.
An evangelist was visiting, a woman my father-in-law knew and she was also staying at their home. I sat in the back, watching as she called couples to the front of the church and prayed for them. Together. She went to a person…asked where their spouse was…joined their hands, and prayed for them. Together.
My husband, a minister in his father’s church, was standing down front. And when this white-haired lady stood in front of him, she just looked up at him with great, somber eyes and shook her head. Then she prayed for him. Alone.
The noise in the church was deafening and I’m grateful that no one heard the shattering of my heart in the melee, like a bullet had shot through a pane of stained glass and scattered shards everywhere.
I didn’t know what to do, so I ran. Down the aisle, through the double doors, down the stairs, willing my body not to betray me, not to release the dammed up pressure in my chest until I was safely in my car.
Thank heaven the car knew the way.
As we approached the final turn, I felt the car move smoothly into the left turn lane and stop, turn signal blinking. The iron faeries appeared to lean in even further, trying to see what was happening with the young woman in the car who was weeping uncontrollably.
My mind replayed the entire four years of my marriage like a movie on the back of my eyelids. Flashes of a few happy times, friends from church who hung out at our home, raiding the piggy bank to buy gas, pizza for dinner many nights since he managed a pizza parlor and we couldn’t afford anything else; poor but in love. The remaining three and a half years were a war zone of personality and philosophical clashes, dying dreams, broken bird bodies, shattered spirits. He wanted me to call his parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, but would only call my parents by their first names. When he really got angry, he said, “I see why your father left! You’re just like your mother!” I was enraged that night; he didn’t know the first thing about my parents’ marriage, how dare he? He only said that once. Scene after scene after scene like a never-ending film fest unfurled before my eyes. The car didn’t seem inclined to make this final bend until I got myself together.
I was sitting in this spot, when down the road I could see through my scratchy, tired eyes a truck approaching from the opposite direction. To my mind, it had a malevolent face, two square glaring eyes, a shiny silver grill that resembled the bared teeth of a wolf. A row of red lights above the windows looked like tightly drawn brows and another row, below the grill, made it appear that blood was dripping from its ‘teeth’.
A fear greater than I’d ever known seemed to slither into the passenger seat next to me and put its hands on my leg. The closer the truck got, the tighter that hand seemed to squeeze, pushing my leg toward the gas pedal. I couldn’t shake the encroaching despair, the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t leave if my husband wasn’t beating me. I couldn’t leave because God hated divorce. I couldn’t leave because my husband came home every night and wasn’t that the very definition of a good husband?
I was crying so hard at this point, I barely felt the pressure on my leg, the vice around my soul was so intense. I wanted to gnaw at something, my ring finger, like a crazed animal, anything to release myself from this snare.
Behind me, I heard what appeared to be a low growl and I jumped, assuming that somehow someone had gotten in the car with me. I began to turn around when I heard a voice behind me, gravelly and dark and seductive, unmistakably demonic and completely, fully audible.
Drive in front of that truck. Go ahead…it’ll all be over. No more pain, no more crying. Quick, easy….Go ahead. It can all be over. It can all be over. It can all be over.
My ear grew hot, like someone was over my shoulder, whispering into its curves. And for a split second, I could feel my hands start to turn the steering wheel in blind obedience, desperate to silence the voices, the people who didn’t live in my house, the others who weren’t engulfed in my agony, the judgers who judged without mercy or compassion. But just as quickly, I saw a vision of my mother standing next to my coffin, crying as if her heart had been ripped from her chest, my two brothers on either side of her with wet, contorted faces. I saw her collapse into their outstretched arms, felt her grief at the loss of her only daughter.
My dad sat on the front row, handkerchief in hand, clad in the handmade Italian black suit he wore on such occasions. I’d only seen him cry one time when I was nine years old, when his father died; even his cheeks were moist. I felt their collective distress and it was enough to jar me out of whatever stupor I was in. I couldn’t put them through that; my mother especially. This was my family. These were the people who loved me.
The truck’s horn roared in my ears as it passed, slowly fading into the night, the repeating sound a reproach, a cautionary refrain. Almost, almost. The truck had passed close enough for me to feel the heat from its massive engine, mere inches from my car.
I sat there, shaking, for several more minutes. The fog had begun to roll in, and its wisps were curling up around the amber glow of the lamps, folding itself in and around the darkness as if playing hide and seek. Slowly the car made the left turn that would take us down the street to the house and the relative safety of the driveway. I knew in that moment what I had to do. To salvage whatever remained of me, I had to end this so-called marriage or I was going to die. I didn’t need a prophet or pastor or evangelist to tell me; I knew this as sure as I knew my own name. I would die if I stayed in this place.
I knew the voice of God. And I also knew that the voice I heard that night, was definitely not His.
* * *
Within eighteen months, my life was taking on a new shape, like a mosaic made out of shattered tile. I moved three hours away. I made new friends and I found a new church and I started to feel more like myself; upbeat and happy. The mourning period wasn’t completely over but I could see and feel the clouds lifting ever so slightly. I knew I was still broken in places, but the scars were fading.
In the intervening months, my former brother-in-law and his wife also moved to what I had begun to think of as ‘my city’. Job opportunities had brought them there and pure bad luck (in my mind), brought them to the same church where I now worshipped. Even though they were my former in laws, we had no particular issues with each other and were cordial and pleasant in social settings. Only my closest friends knew their true relationship to me and I didn’t feel the need to share with anyone else.
On Good Friday that year, I prepared to go to service, dressed in a salmon-colored skort set with white polka dots and white pumps with gold trim. My hair had grown out, I’d lost weight; I felt pretty good. I ran around the house straightening up, singing to the tape in my stereo. As I turned to walk to the bathroom, I heard this unmistakable voice. Not out loud, but still and soft like a whisper.
Your ex-husband will be in service tonight and you need to be prepared.
I dismissed it immediately as something that emanated from my own subconscious but for what reason, I had no clue. At one point in my life I thought God was pleased with my choice of husband and that man had nearly killed me. I’ve long since learned that what we often call the voice of God is really the voice of our own desires. We want what we want so badly we convince ourselves that God’s silence is His consent. But I’ve also learned that in matters involving our free will, when God is silent, He is respecting our choices, but will give clear indication of His will if we’re open to the signs. And there areusually signs. We just tend not to pay attention.
In the Book of Isaiah, we’re told that the spirit of God will be like a voice behind us, guiding our footsteps, telling us to go left or go right. I didn’t want to believe that I was hearing that my ex-husband was in town. I simply wouldn’t accept it. What possible reason could a loving God have for telling me this? But then again, why would I make it up?
So I shrugged, and tried to laugh it off, but as I continued to turn off lights and grab my coat in preparation for leaving, I felt a tap on my shoulder, like someone was behind me trying to get my attention. Tap, tap. It was so real, I stopped and looked, fully expecting to see a person there.
Listen. Your ex-husband will be in service tonight. He came down a few nights ago to go to the gospel concert and he stayed to celebrate Easter with his brother’s family. He is here with his wife. You need to be prepared.
Now, this was a little more detail than my subconscious was willing to take credit for. I was willing to pay more attention at this point, but I still thought I was out of my head– for reasons known only to God himself. I left with a ‘we’ll see’ attitude, not entirely convinced. But the urgency of that voice stayed with me all the way to service.
When I arrived at the church hall with wooden floors that reverberated with the driving beat of the organ, my friends hadn’t yet arrived and service hadn’t started, so I found a seat towards the back. At one point, I glanced towards the doors and saw my former brother-in-law enter with his son. This felt strange to me; he never arrived without his entire family in tow.
“Hi,” I said. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. My heart started beating a little faster.
“Hey,” he said, finally meeting my gaze. We made small talk, but I could tell he had more to say. I decided to save him the trouble.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” I said. His expression would have been comical if it hadn’t been so shocked. He couldn’t say anything.
“I can’t even tell you how I know but,” I paused. “He came down for that big gospel concert earlier this week and decided to say for the weekend, right?”
I have never seen him so slack-jawed. “Y-y-yes, that’s right,” he choked. “How did…?”
“Not important. I’m ok,” I said. I tried to smile at him reassuredly but I’m sure I just looked like I had terrible gas pains or a really bad stomachache.
He took his son and sat over on the other side of the building. Eventually his wife, my former sister-in-law, arrived with their daughter and when she caught my eye, the apology in hers was evident. I saw my ex-husband and his new wife from a distance. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since the day I left a year and a half earlier and I’d wondered what it would be like when we did finally meet. What would we say?
I didn’t feel the pangs in my heart that I thought I would. I knew I wouldn’t really know if I was over him if I never ran into him; I just didn’t think it would be this soon. I was relieved; I wasn’t pining. I didn’t feel anything. No overwhelming sadness, no unexplained longing, no wishing or hoping or regret. Just peace. A blessed nothingness.
After the service was over, everyone milled around talking and laughing and hugging. I kept one eye on the in-laws, trying to keep them at bay and myself one step ahead of impending close encounters. But of course I got distracted. And before I knew it, I was staring up into the face of my ex and his new wife, his cousin’s friend that we both met at the last family Thanksgiving we celebrated together. The woman he started dating two months after we separated. And he was holding a baby, wrapped in a white blanket.
After we’d exchanged the requisite pleasantries, he said, “I’d like you to meet my son.” To anyone watching us, we probably looked like friends. Anyone who knows me knows I love babies, so the scene would not have seemed unusual to the casual onlooker but I wasn’t prepared to hold this child.
I couldn’t think of a polite way to refuse and before I knew it, I was cradling this baby boy in my arms. A baby boy who bore my ex-husband’s name, who had the same complexion as his father, who shared the shape of his nose, the curve of his lip. A child conceived long before the ink was dry on our divorce papers.
A child that could have been mine.
I felt a pang then; an empty space deep inside me contracted. Not because of the loss of my ex-husband but a twinge at the thought of missing the opportunity to have a child of my own, not knowing if I would be able to in the future. God, I breathed.Please don’t let me drop this baby.
I wonder how I don’t fall apart. I wonder if things would have been different if I hadn’t heard the voice as I was leaving, the preternatural knowledge insulating me from shock and embarrassment. So glad, I thought to myself. So glad I was forewarned.
All the activity in the room seemed to fade into the background. The stage in my mind went dark, the spotlight on me and this child, who in his sleep reached up with his three-month-old hand, settled himself in the curve of my chest, and grabbed my pinky with a sure, firm grip.
* * *
Davita Joie is from the Bay Area of California (by way of upstate New York) and recently graduated with her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently turning her thesis into a book called “The Boxer’s Daughter”, a collection of essays and is also working on a second book of poems about the 1957 unsolved murder of her aunt. She is also furiously trying to find a way to turn her literary life into a paying gig.