I am halfway out the front door before I stop to listen for Mark’s footsteps. The only sound is the refrigerator growling, ‘you are free to go.’
Outside, a scattered row of red, orange and blue beachfront cottages are bracing against the blustery wind tearing through their underpinnings. Beyond, unleashed waves are flailing against the shoreline.
My right arm aches and I hide the bruises under the long sleeve of my hoodie, my battered face under its hood. Sunglasses mask my black eye.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. These lines from W. B. Yeats's poem Second Coming echo through my brain. In graduate school, it was Yeats who had inspired me to become a poet. And in copying his writing methods, I would take long meditative walks and write verse at the end of the day. Oh, what I would give to have a moment like that again. The wind gathers my wish and spins it into an upward spiral only to be swallowed by the gray clouds overhead.
I hurry down the wooden steps and run across the road, finding safety behind a pickup truck. A crashing bang forces me to look back. The wind has knocked over a trash can just to prove he has the power to do it. I take off and turn at the first corner. Away from the shoreline, the wind mellows to a slight breeze and the sun comes out from behind the threatening clouds. I am unseen in a sea resort vacated in the dead of winter. I wander down one empty street and then another. My husband only brings me here in this season. He says it is so he can be alone with me. I think he has other reasons.
A pocket of sunshine falls on a freshly painted white clapboard church. The last time it was only a field of weeds and brambling bush. There is a sign nailed to a post in the driveway. It gives the hours of Sunday service at the Church of Salvation. But this isn't Sunday and the parking lot is vacant. The church door locked.
Disappointed, I sit down on the porch step and watch orphaned kittens forage through a bag of trash. I wonder what it would be like to be homeless. Would it be so bad considering the alternative?
A van brakes in front of the church. Church of Salvation painted on its door. A lanky, white-haired black man jumps out. He looks at me suspiciously. The dark glasses and the hoodie give a bad impression. Does he think I’ve come to steal the donations?
I straighten up and try to disarm him with a friendly smile. “Hi. I was hoping the church was open.” I keep smiling until he finally approaches me and I say, “Last winter this was just an empty lot.”
Deciding I am not a threat to him or his church, he introduces himself as Pastor Martin and motions me inside, graciously saying, “You are welcome here, my child.”
I stand in the portico and breathe in the sacred silence. I feel safe, inviolable. Innocent.
Pastor Martin, obviously proud of his new church, offers to show me around.
The kitchen is shiny white with new appliances. A vase of yellow daisies brightens a rustic table. Through the back window I see a rocking chair on a cottage porch. My shawl is crumbled on its seat. I must’ve forgotten it when Mark grabbed me and dragged me inside. I hope the Pastor didn’t hear us.
"My husband and I are staying there," I say, pointing out the window.
"Does your husband strike you often?" he asks.
I held my gaze out the window. “Did you hear us last night?”
“I thought I heard the wild cats that roam our streets. They often fight over food scraps. If I’d known what I heard was a human cry, I would’ve called the police."
I bow my head wishing there was a hole in the floor to drop through.
"Don't be ashamed," he says, gently putting his hand on my shoulder and turning me around. He slips the hood off my face and asks me to take off my glasses. He then looks into my wounded eyes with honest concern and says, "You should show everyone what he has done to you. Shame him. He is the one to blame, not you. But also know that, yes, he has damaged you, but he hasn’t broken you. Know your own strength. Have faith in yourself, my child.”
I want to tell him I don’t know how to do that. Instead I put back on my glasses and turn to leave.
"Wait, please don't go. I haven’t shown you the rest of our church."
I follow him through a door into what looks like a pre-school classroom. Tiny orange chairs encircle a low table where children have started putting together a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves puzzle. I bend down and find the pieces that fill in Snow White’s face.
“Do you have children?” he asks. I shake my head, no.
“I see. Well, there’s still time for you, isn't there? For whatever you want to do.” His face is full of hope, like Mary Magdalena’s.
In the chapel, he shows me the organ donated by a parishioner. I brush my hand across the ivory keys, smooth and cool under my fingers.
“Do you play?” he asks.
I tell him that my mother was the organist in our church when I was growing up. I look at the barren walls. Not even Jesus is hanging from the cross. “I was hoping to light a candle for her in front of Mary Magdalena.”
“I don’t want to offend you, my child, but idols can be objects of uncritical devotion. They can manipulate the weak at heart. At our first service last Sunday,” he adds, “seventy-six parishioners filled the pews. They came to seek self-determination that is found only from within. We do not kneel down and worship the saints, as loved as they are.”
“Build it and they will come,” I say, foolishly. If Mark had been there he would have told me to not use stupid clichés that made me sound uneducated.
But the Pastor says, “You're right about that. I’m expecting even a larger turnout next Sunday. Would you like to join us?”
I look down at the row of wooden pedals. I remember curling up next to my mother’s feet while she made ethereal sounds with similar pedals. Hidden from the congregation, I’d look up at the stained-glass windows and imagine celestial angels dancing in the rainbow spectrum. When I tried really hard, I grew wings and flew up to join them or so I imagined.
Pastor Martin’s voice brings me back into the present. He is telling me that it has taken a year to rebuild the church that collapsed under the force of too many storms on Hatteras Island. “This church is much stronger,” he says. “It will not experience a similar fate no matter how many beatings it has to endure.”
“Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes,” I say, relieved Mark isn’t hearing another cliché from my “stupid mouth.” His words, not mine. If he was here, he’d say to the Pastor, “Can you believe how my wife talks. You’d never know that she has a Masters degree in English. Even published a book of poetry.”
But he isn’t here and Pastor Martin says, “How true. Our new church has risen from the ashes of the past.”
I think of what I am planning to do and feeling a bit woozy I ask for a glass of water.
In the kitchen, I lean toward the rear window. My eyes cross like footsteps over the sandy breach, dead bushes, weeds, and brown grasses until reaching a half-collapsed fence that divides the property of the cottage from the church. I shiver. Mark’s silhouette is at the kitchen window.
I gulp down the water, thank Pastor Martin for his hospitality, and ask if I can return the back way. I feel the pastor watching me as I lift myself over the broken fence, but when I turn to wave good-bye, his head is bowed, his hands clasped in prayer. I hope he is praying for my own Phoenix rising.
Keeping low to the ground, I sneak a look at Mark. He is bent over the stove flipping pancakes and doesn’t see me. I smell the sizzling bacon and the sudden remembrance of what once was makes me tumble onto the ground. One last pitiful tear drops from my cheek and bleeds into the sand until there is no trace left of what once was to hold me back.
I stand up and walk away from the stack of pancakes, the sizzling bacon, the heating Vermont maple syrup and the melting butter. How foolish I have been to hold on to these clichés as if someday Mark would magically become the man I married and not this monster I am now bound to by vows once spoken with such love and hope.
Last night I prepared for this moment and put my suitcase in the trunk, my purse and phone on the passenger seat. I take the car keys out of my pocket. I can’t believe I’m finally doing this. I feel a low rumble of excitement when I get behind the wheel and turn the key in the ignition.
Suddenly Mark is standing on the front porch. He's wearing an apron, a spatula in his hand. It's almost laughable how young and innocent he looks. "What are you doing out here?" he says. "Come inside. Breakfast is ready."
I turn on the sound. A Whitney Houston tune. I blast it.
"Heidi!" He starts to come down the steps. The spatula now a weapon in his hand. “Don’t make me have to get you out of the car.” I throw the gear into reverse and screech out of the driveway. In the rearview mirror, I can see him running after me. The spatula flailing in his hand. I hear myself laughing.
I make a sharp turn at the corner just as Whitney Houston belts out I Didn't Know My Own Strength. I join in on the chorus and keep driving until Mark is merely a speck in the rearview mirror.