By Maia Kowalski
My father started going to church again after he got divorced the second time. Whether it was because he felt guilty or suddenly pious, I’ll never know, but I was forced to go with him every Sunday morning. I don’t know why he wanted the company. We didn’t do a lot of stuff together. Maybe he couldn’t face the good Lord alone.
I had been put in Catholic school growing up. Still, at 16, I wasn’t really interested in whether God was real anymore, let alone sending a prayer to him. There was so much singing and sitting and standing. I refused to believe every service was only an hour because it felt so much longer than that. I didn’t think anyone really wanted to be there either. I figured they were just nervously mulling over all the things they had done in their lives, things they knew would eventually catch up to them.
We never wore our Sunday best. In the beginning, I admit I tried. I wore dresses that I hadn’t worn since eighth grade, stuff that somehow still fit me because I didn’t have anything nice enough for service. Dad wore dress shirts and slacks. But as time went on and the weather got warmer, the both of us gave up. I’d be there, sweating under the church’s impossibly high ceiling fans, in denim cut-offs and a spaghetti-strap tank top. My father wore the same beige cargo shorts and a white polo. I was convinced he never washed them. Every week I swore I smelled last week’s incense, threaded in-between the cotton.
I’m not sure what my father prayed for. He seemed focused, diligently repeating prayers with the rest of the congregation and singing Alleluia with gusto. He kept his head down the longest in prayer once everyone had gotten Communion. I wondered if he was being honest with himself about all the missteps he had taken in his marriages. Sometimes, though, I wondered if he was praying for a third wife.
My father’s marriages were rocky at best. His first one, with my mother, was almost comical, the way they fought in front of and behind me, how they whispered venomous words to each other at bedtime instead of sweet nothings. It became routine for me to listen to their fights before bed. I pretended to be asleep as they tucked me in, and as soon as they left my room, I snuck behind their door frame and listened to the sharp tones and hisses, wondering if I should interfere. The thing I remember most was an argument at dinner, full of the same old yelling crap, me keeping my head down when my father suddenly stood up. His face twisted into something stupid when he was angry, the way the wrinkles in his forehead rolled into his browbone, and the overexaggerated frown lines around his mouth. He looked like a pug throwing a tantrum. But that night, he towered over my mother, who was still in her seat. He spat curses into her face and clutched his dinner fork in his right hand. Then the fork went down, past her, bounced once under the table and settled on the floor with a clatter. My father walked away from us; I heard the front door slam shortly after. My mother got up and cleared both their plates while I sat at the table alone. Then she went up to the bedroom, and I didn’t hear anything from her for the rest of the night. I pushed back my chair and went over to the place where my father had thrown the fork. You couldn’t see anything if you weren’t looking for it, but in a certain light, you saw the evidence: a shallow groove in the dark hardwood. I ran my fingers over it. It looked like it had hurt.
That was the first time I realized I was scared of him. I didn’t creep out of bed anymore when they were fighting. I went straight up to my room after school and ate my dinners quickly. My parents divorced later that year.
My father’s second wife, Iva, left my life as quickly as she had entered it. It was a few years after the first divorce and lasted only three years. But within those years, she had moved in, rearranged our apartment furniture, tried to bond with me by watching old episodes of Friends and then she was gone, without so much as an explanation from my father about what had happened. I was disinterested in his life by then, much more than I had been when he divorced my mother, so peppering him with questions about a woman I barely knew would have seemed out of character for me. He only spoke about it once, when we were in the car, waiting for someone to back out of their parking spot. He said it the same way you’d recite a badly-written riddle: “Sometimes, Evelyn, you meet people, and you think you’re on the same page. But then, later on, you find out that you weren’t the whole time.” And that was it. I just nodded and looked out the window.
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(Story continued below)
It was sticky and hot the morning we met Daniel. We had left the apartment in a rush, as usual: me, taking my time, hoping I would be so slow that my father would let me stay at home for once, and my father, rushing me along, snapping at me for not getting my shoes on fast enough or getting out of my pyjamas in time. On Sundays, church started at 9am. Neither of us ate breakfast, so the Holy Ghost was our appetizer before we went for our weekly brunch after service. The weather report that morning had said it was going to hit 30 by the afternoon, but at 8:45, it was already humid and felt like 25. When I opened my bedroom window, there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze; when I stuck my hand out, only stagnant, warm air surrounded it. My father and I threw on our usual summer-church outfits: cargo shorts and a polo for him, denim cut-offs and a loose tank for me. We slipped on our sandals and flip-flopped our way down the hall, into the elevator, through the apartment lobby and down the street to the church. Looking back, I’m not sure why we rushed. A lot of people in our area were rich — like, rich-rich — and I had seen more than a few minivans, and Range Rovers with canoes strapped to their roofs pass by on their way to cottage country. In the last few weeks, I noticed the average churchgoer change from couples with young kids that ran up and down the aisles during service, who sometimes had to step outside to soothe their screaming baby, to seniors that smelled like sunscreen and mothballs, wearing sun visors indoors and who only sat in the front pews. In the winter, pews were packed. It wasn’t uncommon to stand in the aisles during service. Even in the spring, with all the holidays, there were times when the church was at its capacity. But in the summer, people took a break from school and work and, evidently, their faith, to bask in the sun for a while. I didn’t blame them. I’d want to do that too if that was the kind of family we were.
But since there was a great migration up north to swim and kayak and roast marshmallows over the fire, there was no need for my father and me to rush to service that Sunday. The double doors were open to allow airflow. As we ran up the steps and into the foyer, hastily dipping our fingers into the dish of holy water to bless our arrival, we were greeted with the heavy sounds of the church organ and rows upon rows of almost empty pews. My father and I walked over to the side aisle and halfway up the floor before slipping into an empty row. I saw the usual seniors kneeling in the first three pews, all single patrons, their balding heads or perms a dead giveaway. Dad and I were dishevelled, to say the least. We were both panting, catching our breath from running straight from the apartment, and I wished those ridiculously high ceiling fans spun closer to my body to give me a more satisfying cooldown. The organ was still playing, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the altar boys and priest walking past us down the middle aisle with their holy books and crosses. I slowed my breathing and tried to pull my shorts down a little in an attempt at modesty. Dad smelled like sweat, dark circles growing underneath his armpits.
When the priest reached the altar, he bowed, walked up to it and kissed it. That was when we heard running footsteps, huffing and puffing, and sharp whispers of “Hurry up!” coming from the side aisle. Nobody turned around but my father and me to see a blond-haired, blustering mess of a man running with a small child. They stopped halfway up the church and shuffled into the pew in front of us. The priest hadn’t sat down yet, so neither had any of us. These two latecomers did, though, and groaned in relief as soon as their butts hit the wood. Then the organ stopped, the priest sat down, and so did the rest of us. The blond-haired man wiped his forehead with the front of his shirt and fumbled in the pew shelf in front of him for the right book. He passed the child a copy of the missal and opened one of the songbooks himself. The child kept his head down and started sifting through the pages.
The blond man turned around in his seat. “What book are we supposed to be using?” he asked me. He had a babyface but wore glasses that made him look considerably older and made his eyes look smaller than they should’ve. They were half-fogged up from all the sweating. Then his eyes shifted, and he saw my father. His face broke into a grin. “Patrick?”
I looked at my father. He was smiling, too. “No way. What are you doing here?”
“Church shit,” the blond man said. “Whoops. Not supposed to swear in front of the kid.”
“I didn’t even recognize you,” my father said.
“Are you calling me fat?” was the blond man’s reply, and while my father laughed quietly, he still got shushed from the handful of seniors that sat around us.
The blond man rolled his eyes. “Bunch of sticklers,” he said. “Hey, what are you doing after this? We should catch up.”
“I’m –” my father began, but Lorraine, one of the weekly older ladies sitting in front of the blond man, turned around and glared at him.
“If you must talk, go outside,” she said, her red lips pursed.
The blond man sighed loudly and looked back at my father. Later, he mouthed and turned back to his songbook.
The priest stood up again and recited the opening prayer. All the churchgoers repeated it in a deadpan unison. When the choir began to sing Gloria, my father leaned over to me.
“I knew him in school,” he whispered. “His name’s Daniel. And I think his kid’s name is Ethan, but I could be wrong. It’s been a while.”
A man with wiry grey hair and circular glasses that made his eyes look like an owl glared at us from across the aisle. We looked over at him briefly before turning back to the choir.
“Anyway,” my father continued in a quieter whisper, so low I could barely hear him beneath all the singing. “He did gain weight, so that’s why I didn’t recognize him. But don’t tell him that.” He grinned at me then, as if we were sharing an inside joke. I gave a small smile back and then dropped it because it felt weird to do it while we were supposed to be listening.
Once the hymn ended, the first reader stood up from the front pew and walked to the podium with a book in his hand. He read the first reading of the mass to silence. Daniel, in front of us, was still sweating. I could see small drops of it slowly dripping down his neck and into the collar of his shirt. When we all stood up to sing another hymn, his knees cracked, and he groaned loudly. The seniors across the row glared at him again.
It was usually by the second reading that I started counting the minutes until church was over. There wasn’t much after that except for more singing, a couple of peace be with you‘s, communion and church news. Some days we slipped out right after getting our daily bread. Other times we stayed behind, just in case the church news contained some gossip. But it usually didn’t.
During the priest’s homily, Daniel hunched over on his phone. His phone volume was low, but I could hear the clicks of a keyboard and the swoosh sound of messages being sent. Ethan swung his legs underneath the pew, sometimes hitting the pew in front of them. Lorraine turned around, a frown on her face, and looked Ethan up and down. Daniel put his hand on Ethan’s leg and hissed, “Stop,” causing Ethan to sit abnormally still. From where I sat behind them, it barely looked like he was breathing.
They didn’t shuffle out of their pew for communion like we did. When my father made eye contact with Daniel, Daniel just shrugged comically at us. We lined up behind the other patrons to take the bread of Christ from the priest and then looped our way back around. Once we knelt to pray, uncomfortably close to Daniel and his neverending sweat, Ethan looked over at his dad.
“Why don’t we get that?” he asked, in a stage-whisper.
“Ask your mother when you get home,” Daniel said. He was still hunched over his phone.
“But I’m hungry.”
“We’ll get McDonald’s on the way out. Be quiet.”
Everyone was in their pews. My father and I sat back. The priest walked to the altar to deliver the church news. Nothing interesting to report.
I spent about half of the mass watching Daniel’s sweat dot his collared golf shirt, and the other half checking in on Ethan, watching the way his shoulders rose and fell, how his breathing quickened whenever his father glanced over at him. This mass passed by quicker for me than others, for which I was grateful, but not by much due to our companions. Still, I was happy when I heard the concluding hymn and the closing procession. The priest followed the altar boys down the aisle towards the back of the church. Ethan arched his head out around his dad to catch a glimpse of the procession. As they walked by, Ethan’s eyes bounced between the sparkly gold cross held by the altar boy, to the Bible held by the priest, to the priest’s face. It was almost as if the priest knew because as he walked by, he looked over into Ethan’s pew and smiled at him. Ethan smiled back. Daniel noticed and looked down at his son with a scowl. Then he turned to us with a disgusted look on his face. My father raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, holding in a laugh. I looked at Ethan, who was fiddling with his shirt again. Once the full procession had gone, my father and I did a half-hearted genuflect in our pew and filed out to the side aisle. Daniel and Ethan didn’t even bother pretending to do one before following us out. We merged with the handful of seniors coming out of their pews to leave the church. Daniel sidled up to my father and swiped his arm.
“Since when do you live around here?”
“Since…how long has it been?” My father looked at me, and I shrugged. “Maybe six months?”
“I had no idea. I thought you were more uptown.”
“I was, but Iva kept the house. So, here I am.”
“You and Iva split up?”
“Just last year.”
Daniel whistled. “Strike two, eh?”
“You found God or something too, then?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
I didn’t know where Ethan was until Daniel pulled him out from behind his legs. He stumbled over his own feet, and Daniel held his arm tight in order to prevent him from falling forward.
“This is Ethan, by the way,” Daniel said. “Rebecca put him in a Catholic school this year, so we have to do this kind of stuff now. They don’t really give us a say once the papers are signed, eh?”
“You’re telling me.”
I wasn’t surprised that my father got along with Daniel so well. He was good at the whole chummy-chummy social thing, especially with people that were similar to him in personality: unabashedly arrogant, know-it-alls with a hint of aggression. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a movie the way he interacted with people like this, the way his facade wouldn’t slip for a moment until we were home. I didn’t know who my father was in these moments. It was fascinating to watch.
Daniel tapped his son on the head like a dog. “Say hi, Ethan.”
Ethan looked up at us, eyes wide, with an intention to wave but without the courage to follow through. With a drop of the head and eyes to the floor, he hid behind his father again.
“Shy, of course,” Daniel said, a note of distaste in his voice. He tried to coax Ethan back out from behind him. “Must have gotten it from his mother.”
I was very uncomfortable. I hated conversations like this, ones that rebuked the parent who was absent for traits their children couldn’t control. Maybe you made him like this, I wanted to say. Maybe he’s too afraid to be anything else than shy. I knew that feeling all too well.
“And who’s this?” Daniel asked, looking at me. I didn’t like looking into his tiny eyes, so I focused on his nose: small and unassuming.
“Evelyn,” my father said. He was smiling as he said it, which I found unusual.
“Evelyn,” Daniel repeated. He studied my face for a while longer. “You look just like your mom. Thank God, too.” He gave a hacking cough of a laugh that made some of the seniors around us turn around.
My father said, “Hey!” and playfully slapped Daniel’s shoulder. “Speak for yourself.”
“I am!” Daniel said. “My kid didn’t get that” — he pointed at Ethan — “from me.” He laughed again, and so did my father. I pointedly looked outside, past the open double doors.
“Well, Pat,” Daniel said. “We should grab a drink sometime. Not weekends, though. That’s when I have this guy.” He tapped Ethan’s head again. Ethan winced.
“I’ll bring Mark with me,” Daniel added. “You remember Mark, right? Psych 101?”
“Course I do.”
“He just got divorced, too,” Daniel said. “He’ll probably need a drink.”
Another laugh between the two of them.
“You have my number?” my father said. He took out his phone, and they swapped numbers, grinning like two kids during frosh week.
Daniel gave him a salute, and me, a wink. “Cheers,” he said.
Then he turned towards the exit and put his hand on the back of Ethan’s head, pushing him gently ahead as he began to walk. Ethan dragged his feet until Daniel awkwardly leaned over mid-step to grab Ethan’s hand. They went down the church steps together, Ethan stumbling on the cracks. When they were out of sight, my father put his hands in his pockets.
“Huh,” he said, letting out a sigh. “I never liked that guy.”
I stared at him. He didn’t seem to be joking. “Really?”
“He’s so loud,” my father said. “He was like that in school, too. I thought Lorraine was going to kill him when he arrived late today.”
“She was pretty close.”
“I almost wanted to warn him, but I figured he deserved it if she said something. He didn’t even go up for communion.”
“I don’t think he knew how.”
My father laughed at that. “I guess not.” He paused. “Did you like him?”
“Good,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you around guys like him.”
I stared at him again. “Yeah. Me either.”
On our way out, we dipped our fingers into the bowl of holy water again, blessing ourselves. We walked out the doors and into the heat, the humidity building up on our skin. Our sandals slapped the pavement in an irregular rhythm as we walked back home.
Maia Kowalski (she/her) is a writer from Toronto, Canada, and has degrees in journalism and creative writing under her belt. She has been published in Yolk Literary, and Montréal Writes. She is currently putting together her first short story collection. Find more of her work on her website.