Eve stands beneath a tree in the cool of the day, naked and unashamed. Juice drips down her chin, the sticky blood of knowing. Outside the gates is pain and a promise: unto dust shalt thou return.
I fly back to Florida in September. My grandmother is dead.
Emma asks what I’m wearing to the funeral. I text her a picture of the cast of Pretty Little Liars wearing tight black dresses and oversized sunglasses as they carry a casket. She asks who’s coming to the funeral, I tell her what our mother tells me: a few extended relatives, some people from the church we went to growing up.
At the wake, I find a seat and adjust the safety pin holding my deep-V black dress together, a last-minute attempt at modesty before facing the Evangelicals of my youth. Everyone looks the same as they did ten years ago. Long dresses, bare faces, crossed ankles. How are things in New York, with all those taxes? one woman asks me. I think, weird question for someone who’s never had a fucking job, and I say, oh, it’s not so bad. She says, I pray for you every week, and I think, I pray for you, bitch while I nod and excuse myself.
My father and my uncle and some men from Community Bible Church stand in front of the room. They give speeches about my grandmother that feel more like they’re about them and their ideas of what a woman should be. She was a doting wife, mother and grandmother, a Godly woman, they say. They read scripture about women being patient and gentle and faithful and meek.
I drive to the cemetery. Emma gets stoned in the passenger seat. Heat rises off the seats and the dashboard and the pavement ahead of us. I can see it. I can feel it in my throat. The steering wheel burns my palms. At the cemetery, I park behind a trail of cars with choose life stickers on the windows.
We gather by her casket, which glints in the sunlight. There are no clouds. Pastor Clarence sings a hymn, the words of which I can’t remember. I hold my breath. I grip a sweating plastic water bottle in my lap. I peel the end of the label up and run my fingernail along the edge.
After the funeral, Emma and I stay up into the early morning in our childhood bedroom vaping and drinking pre-mixed margaritas from plastic bottles while we read the diaries we left there.
It’s like every time I think I’ve processed something, I say something new pops up.
Do you remember when he was like, “You have three options in life?” Emma asks.
I shake my head, but I start to remember.
In a dream, I’m in my childhood bedroom. I hear my father’s keys. My mother’s in the kitchen. Something simmers. I know an angry footstep when I hear one. Suddenly I’m underwater. My alarm pulls me out gasping. In my journal, I write had another demented dream about Florida.
It’s the summer before I start middle school. Everything feels weird. My limbs are too long, my teeth too big for my face. There’s a church cookout in Pastor Clarence’s backyard. In my bedroom, I put on a swimsuit. A one-piece, because I’m not allowed to wear bikinis. Over it, I wear a t-shirt and navy blue Soffe shorts. My father waits in the car. He hates to be late. He thinks it makes him look bad. I run out the front door and he whips his head around when I open the car door. You’re not wearing that, he says. He yells it. He’s incredulous. I look down at my outfit. I don’t see the problem. I say, yes I am, which is the wrong thing to say. His voice gets louder. Cover up, he says. My outfit feels smaller. My cheeks get hot. I stomp back inside. I debate changing into a pair of shorts that touch my knees, but instead yank the bottom drawer of my dresser and pull out a pair of jeans. I grab a red wool turtleneck sweater from the back of my closet and throw it on top. I’ll do what he wants, but not exactly. I storm back out of the house, slamming the door behind me. He says nothing and we drive away.
I sit at the cookout in my turtleneck and jeans and refuse to enjoy myself. Sweat pools at my temples and on my chest beneath my sweater. I glare at the elders. I glare at the screaming babies. The older kids take turns jumping into the pool. I glare at them, too. I push potato salad around my plate, but I don’t eat it. I refuse to chew. What I cling to: my father can force me to change and come and sit, but no one can force me to like it.
The next morning, like every Sunday, we go to church. Community Bible Church isn’t a pretty church. There are no stained glass windows, no wooden pews, no velvet curtains. We sit on faded pink waiting room chairs under fluorescent lighting. We drink the blood of Christ out of plastic shot glasses. And it’s not even wine, it’s just lukewarm grape juice. Every week, Pastor Clarence stands at the pulpit, red in the face, waving his arms and shouting about the dangers of sin. He rants about earthly temptations, the rotten desires of the flesh, the whores and the hustlers lurking around corners waiting to seduce us. For the most part, I daydream. I doodle pictures of fashion designs on the backs of my Sunday school handouts. I wonder what I’ll eat for lunch.
One Sunday, on our drive home from church, Emma says she’s never getting married. At a stoplight, my father whips his head around to look at us. There are three things you can do in this life, he says. He yells it. He lists them while he grips the steering wheel: Get married, stay a virgin forever, or be a whore.
The older we get, the more our father resents us. Always angry at us for growing up. Always angry at our bodies for existing. Always cover up, always, you’re not wearing that, always, you look like the town whore.
He laments having teenage girls. You think you have it bad, I have teenage girls! he says to a friend with sons while my sister and I sit at the table silently. Seen, not heard. He wanted someone to be tough with, not silly, sensitive girls. As if he would last a day as an actual teenage girl. As if he could stomach the blood.
In high school, my periods get painful. By sophomore year, they’re unbearable. I double over from my cramps. I throw up every month. I get migraines and backaches and chills. My pediatrician asks, have you tried taking Advil? I tell her nothing helps. She recommends hormonal birth control pills to help regulate my periods, lessen the bleeding, mitigate the pain. My mother laughs. I’m not enabling my teenage daughter to have sex.
On the car ride home from the doctor, my mother looks on the bright side. I’ve never really minded my periods, she says. The pain is a reminder. It connects us to Eve.
My Florida public school sex education isn’t exactly comprehensive and my parents refuse to sign the permission slips allowing me to sit through the lessons on protection and STIs. They don’t tell me much other than what the Bible says. At church, we watch videos of women crying and sharing their testimonies. They stutter stories through tears about how they came to God after getting abortions. How the babies they think they killed haunt them every day. All sin is equal in God’s eyes, my mother starts. But sex outside of marriage is especially abhorrent. It’s like murder.
For a while, I think my father’s rage must be justified. I’ve done bad things, or I’ve thought bad things, or I will do bad things one day. Every night after dinner, he makes us read the Bible as a family. He prints out discussion guides and asks us questions. If we don’t know the answers, he repeats them louder. You’re not leaving the table until you answer, he says. My mother is one of the students, too. She tries to be on our side without actually doing anything to let our father know she’s not on his. Don’t answer for them, Jan, he scoffs when she pipes up. Emma and I make eye contact across the table. This is nuts, right? we want to ask each other. His voice gets louder. His face turns red. He slams his palms into the dining table. He waves his arms like a lunatic. It’s almost funny. I shut down when he reads. I never have any idea what he’s going on about. It all feels a little delusional to me, to live an entire life based on a book written thousands of years ago. To force others to live entire lives based on the book.
He wields my mother like a knife. You’re ruining your mother’s life, he says when I get home past my curfew. She lets him say it. He twists. She sits at the kitchen counter and cries. I feel sad for her, the way I feel sad when I see a dead rat freezing over on the sidewalk in winter.
Emma gets the worst of his rage because she fights back. I lay low. I don’t ask to hang out with my friends, which makes it hard to have many who feel close. Emma comes home late one night. Our father waits by the front door. He drags her by the arm to her room. He slams doors along the way. He yells. I lie on my bed. I turn up Taylor Swift and Bright Eyes and The Mountain Goats on my iPod. I try to drown out the noise, but eventually I snap. I spring from my bed and push through Emma’s door. His spit touches her face. His fingers dig into her forearms. I push myself between the two of them, my fifteen-year-old frame a white flag. I peel his fingers off her arm. Stop yelling at her, I say.
You’re a peacemaker, my mother’s always told me. I see both sides. I see every side. All I do is look at sides and carry them around with me. I want someone to be on mine. I clench my fists. I hold back tears. My fingernails leave tiny crescent moons on my palms.
Back in New York, I stand in the produce aisle. I stare at a stack of fruit. I pick up an apple and turn it over, searching for bruises. Outside the store is a man who calls good evening, baby and flicks ash at my foot.
I’m supposed to be healing my relationship with sex, says my virtual therapist, but it feels unfair, so I don’t.
Most of the time when I have sex, my body tenses up involuntarily. This makes sex painful. There’s a medical term for it, but I hate the way it sounds, so I don’t use it. Other times, I float. My eyes roll so far back in my head that I become someone else, and I watch the whole scene from my perch on the ceiling.
I tell my boyfriend when it’s painful and he stops, but for the first time in seven years, I try to explain how it really feels. What it’s like to want sex until I’m having it and then to feel my body disappear. How it never quite feels safe. The shame. The loneliness. How my mind always drifts to some twisted heavenly daddy I don’t even believe in looking on, waiting to punish me somehow for my sins, for my desires.
It’s just not something I associate with love, I say. My words feel lost. I feel breathless trying to pull them out of my head and into the room. It’s just not something I was ever allowed to want.
He sits on the edge of my bed in silence, staring at the floor. He’s kind and calm and nothing like my father, but it still seems hard for him to imagine the context of my body outside the context of his.
That’s not normal, he says finally.
The more I process, the more I can’t stand to be touched. I don’t want anyone else telling me what to do with my body, or touching my body, or looking at my body, or feeling entitled to my body. I just want to be left alone. I need to recalibrate. I ask him if we can take a break. I ask if he can just fuck somebody else. But he doesn’t want that. He says he just wants me, but I think what he means is he wants a version of me that’s fixed.
The next weekend, we walk past a t-shirt at a thrift store that says the only thing I love more than reading is fucking and I laugh and point it out to him.
You don’t even like sex, he says.
We break up a few weeks later.
I search for pelvic floor relaxation solutions that are cheaper than physical therapy on r/ReligiousTrauma and r/CPTSD and r/Vaginismus. I don’t know how to get out my head and into my body. The strangers on the Internet suggest watching porn. But I can’t get past the production quality. The fluorescent lighting and bad acting. Who’s directing this shit?
Porn for women is always just porn with some horrible, forced storyline about your neighbor coming over and fucking you when it should really just be porn with good lighting. Porn with a high thread count. Porn with a CB2 bedframe. Porn with two women with trimmed, natural nails. Porn with no men in the scene or behind the camera or behind the screen or in the back of your mind. Porn directed by Sofia Coppola. Porn with a man who offers you a glass of water after, and he brings you the glass, and the glass is clean. I feel bad when I feel good so I feel bad.
In a dream, I stand in a garden.
I leave the club on the verge of tears and on Manhattan Ave they spill over. I wish I had a cigarette, but I’m crying too much to go buy a pack and I think I’m out of cash so I smoke the end of a joint at the bottom of my bag and my fingers start to feel numb. It’s the first really cold weekend of the season. I’m crying because some boy I hardly like won’t text me and I think it’s because of my body, because he stopped in the middle of sex to tell me my body felt bad, and I wish I could show him there’s more to me, but I’m not sure I believe it. Nothing else feels solid.
My sister says he’s prob just insecure and my friend says he’s a fucking sociopath and my other friend says sometimes it just takes one slutty phase to realize it’s not fun and men are bad at sex and my therapist stops me as I’m listing things I should have done to make him feel better to ask do you think you did something wrong? and I’m like yes, always. I text my friend with benefits I want you to come hold me down and fuck my brains out and what I mean is I want to stop feeling like myself for a minute.
I can’t sleep, so I try to read. But I keep identifying with the wrong characters. The ones filled with rage or self-pity or indifference. The selfish, the hateful, the spiteful. The liars and traitors and cheats. The hysterical women. The ones of little faith. The heroes feel so fucking annoying. Imagine the world’s ending and you think you can save it. Imagine wanting to.
I’m looking for new ways to be unlikable. It’s easier to tell myself I’ve felt alone forever because I’m just kind of annoying than it is to deal with the whole truth of things. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m exactly like my father. My sister tells me I’m not. I tell her she’s not. But aren’t we his flesh? His bones? Don’t I hate to be wrong? Don’t I hate to apologize? Don’t my hands bleed when I open them?
In the summers growing up, we drive to the beach every morning before sunrise. My dad puts the seat down in the old green Ford Explorer to slide surfboards into the back. I rest my arm on one and shovel handfuls of Cheerios into my mouth while I read a Nancy Drew book. Now that I’m seven, he’s teaching me how to surf. We paddle out past where the waves break and he holds onto the back of my board while I wait for a wave. I shield my eyes from the sun with my hand until I see one then lie on my stomach and paddle. The water’s cool and glassy. The sky is clear. I push up off my board and stand up and ride the wave to shore. I’m goofy-footed like him. His face lights up. Yeah, Greta! he calls when I make it. I pick up my board and paddle back out to meet him. He feels like my friend.
Someday I’ll be dead and you’ll wish you’d spent more time with me, he says. I’m ten, so I get in the car. I buckle my seat belt. I follow him through Home Depot. He buys me a chocolate bar when we check out.
Outside my window, the top of the Empire State Building glows red and gold. I still don’t know if he loves me. I think he believes he loves me. I close my curtains. I flick off the lights. I crawl into my bed and curl up in the darkness.
In a dream, I stand in a garden. I stand in a garden and pick up a knife. I pick up a knife and twist it into his side. I twist a knife into his side and extract a rib. I extract a rib from his side and I turn it
I turn it
I turn it
I turn it
into a beginning.
Greta Schledorn is an emerging writer with a BA in English from Florida State University. She currently lives in Brooklyn, where she works as a copywriter and takes care of her mildly feral cat.