crying into my soda

I’m sitting in the middle of a crowded restaurant while tears stream down my grandmother’s face because I’ve just told her why my sisters have stopped attending Sunday mass. When she tells me she fears for my soul, I don’t know how to explain that I’m happy. I don’t know how to tell her the only demons I’ve met are the ones inside my head. Because I’ve been scared of the dark since before the first grade and it’s like all those rainy days on Noah’s Ark came to stay, locked up between my membranes and blood vessels, blanketing my thoughts in soft tissue.

My pockets are filled to the brim with soil for all the seeds I’ve never planted, but I know, I know, I know, holy water won’t help them grow. So I crush them up between my fingers and leave them for my father and drink only soda for a month. It’s Lent. Sugar is bad for my teeth, but sinning tastes so good, I hide the cans in my closet.

My teacher encourages me to read the Bible, but it turns out kissing girls hurts my eyes much less than size 8 font, 10 commandments, psalms 13, 14, enough already. I’m 16 and the sound of my jaw smacking the edge of a wooden pew is echoing around an empty church, like hello hello hello. I spit blood from my mouth and it’s red, so very red like the flowers that decorate the vestibule each Christmas.

And with the blood comes a rosary I must have choked on long ago, before I registered the difference between force-fed and ‘things you must swallow before your mother allows you dessert’. I have the rosary in my hands, I’m holding it tight between blood-wet fingers while I think on all the times R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion portrayed my life as cliché (the number is Too Many).

I look down at my knees and feel the phantom pressure of them against carpet, against wooden flooring, against a kneeler in a church; there’s a baby crying in a corner and it’s not me, but it is me. And it’s singing, “consider this, consider this.” There are angels painted on stained glass windows and they come alive when the sun hits them. And they are singing, “consider this, consider this.”

I pick the baby up, I cradle her in my arms, she is so tiny, I tell her, “there is so much beauty in this place, I can’t believe it keeps hurting you.” She sings, “consider this, consider this.” And I do. I forgive my childhood, and I kiss my father on the cheek. I read the Bible and pray for so long my lower back burns. When it turns out the friends I’ve made are religious, I love them, I love them, I love them. I love myself.

It’s been 4 years since that day. I have kissed so many girls and I drink too much soda. I smile so my grandmother doesn’t cry, because I never quite figured out how to tell her I’m happy, that I’m okay, that I left the rosary on the alter.

Where do you find God in your life? Everywhere and nowhere at all. In my father’s warm hugs, in my grandmother’s illness, in the freedom I have with other people, and in myself.

—  a bedtime story for atheists // S.M.