It’s Christmas Eve and, for the first time ever, I’ve brought a boyfriend home to Louisiana for the holidays. I’m thirty, and Michael is forty, so it might seem odd that lounging together on my squeaky girlhood bed feels so remarkable. But my mom is Catholic before she’s anything else, and this unwed shacking up under her roof is about as welcome as that time I wished a store clerk happy holidays instead of merry Christmas.
Still, she likes Michael. He plays “Jingle Bells” on the baby grand and we have ham, potato salad, pralines, and presents with a slew of aunts and cousins. Then we head out for Jack and gingers at Lafayette’s only gay bar, where we’re safe from the NFL and Fox News. Mid-nineties rock, ironic tees, clacking pool balls, groomed and shellacked men—it’s almost as if we’re back in the Bay Area. The men strut and flirt, clearly at ease in their sanctuary.
Now we’re walking arm in arm in the uncharacteristically frigid night air to another stop on my hometown tour: my elementary school, its wrought-iron gates and brick buildings in a deep holiday slumber. Next to it, awash in violet light, towers St. John’s cathedral, where the all-female choir sings Christmas music for an hour before midnight Mass begins. Michael is awed by the sprawling five-hundred-year-old live oak that grows between the school and the church, as I knew he would be.
Inside, the cathedral is warm, creamy and gilded, like something I want to eat. Michael and I slide into a center aisle pew. I lean my head on his chest and breathe the scent of his laundry soap, which has become my laundry soap. It feels good to be in church on my own terms and not to appease Mom. Michael gently slides his fingers up and down my spine, and my internal thermometer inches higher. I scoot even closer to him as an older couple squeezes in next to us, their eyes fixed on the altar. In her curler-set hair and his pressed suit, they’ve come to celebrate the birth of the most famous hippie in history.
I wonder how many times, over nine years of weekly school Mass, I sat in this very pew. In eighth grade I had my first major crush, on one of the altar boys. We stole glimpses as I walked up the aisle to receive Communion, and though we hardly talked, I wrote his name—Dustin—on my Trapper Keeper, surrounded by a giant heart.
• • •
The angelic choir reverberates around us, and I am pleased to discover I still know all the lyrics to all the songs—even the lesser-known second and third verses. Every seat is taken, and the air has turned steamy, electric. It’s the coziness I love, the wattage turned way up, the crescendo of anticipation. I stare at a statue of Mary, her demure, unlined face, a blue robe pooling at her tender feet. The unluckiest virgin of all: robbed of the pleasures of sex and yet condemned to the pains of childbirth.
When it came to Dustin, my ecstasy was short lived. If Mom disapproved of my crop tops and cutoffs, how would she take my having a boyfriend? Too embarrassed to tell her and too afraid she’d find out, I sent him a break-up note through a friend at recess two weeks after he asked me out.
I felt the same dread when I called Mom to tell her that Michael and I would like to stay together in my room during our Christmas visit. “I can’t approve,” she said, my heartbeat quickening, “but y’all are gonna do what you do, I guess.”
It occurs to me to feel bad—for my whiskey buzz, for my long list of grievances against the church, for wearing a skirt that wouldn’t pass the kneel test—but, blessedly, I don’t. Michael murmurs admiration for the acoustics, the celestial minor chords, and I am thrust back to the early days of our courtship last year, when we sat side by side on his piano bench. The brush of our forearms as he taught me how to move from D to G.
I wish Mom could know how happy I am to be here singing “O Holy Night” with the nuns, relishing the cathedral’s smoky incense and lavish stained glass, as much a part of me as my unplanned hip tattoo and collection of feminist lit—both of which Michael appreciates when we curl up together on his worn Mexican blanket and share a joint in the dappled sunlight of our favorite cemetery. I wish she could know that when it comes to the sacred mysteries of life, there are many ways to worship. Surely every act of love is an act of God?
The choir falls silent just before Mass begins—our cue to escape. We surrender our prime seats and tiptoe down the aisle, past the crowd standing in the back. I swing the heavy door open and nearly run right into the brotherhood assembled on the stairs. At the top is the lead altar boy, bearing a giant cross, followed by more altar boys, half a dozen priests, and finally the bishop, in his medieval miter. The moonlight catches the men’s white robes and gold sashes, and I am reminded of the pageantry and freedom of the gay bar.
The freezing air numbs my thighs. Frankincense drifts from a priest’s swinging thurible, and I hear echoes of the church organ starting up again. The weary world rejoices. As the men begin their measured entrance into the cathedral, Michael and I glide hand in unwed hand down the staircase, back out into the night divine.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
Join the Mailing List