I guess I was about four and puking in a bucket with a fever of 105, which I heard his mother tell my mother on the phone, and Old Yeller was on. I was trying to throw up quietly because Luke’s dad would be home soon. I tasted a grape chewable. I was crying.
Luke and I met again at a Culvers when I was 20 and newly diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, broken-bodied and hearted, and I somehow still had this faraway idea that we might be perfect for each other. Childhood friends steeped in sadness and unfortunate circumstances. We weren’t. I don’t think I’m going to talk about that.
Luke was my first best friend. He was afraid of loud sounds and liked plucking fuzzy, black and orange caterpillars off the wooden tower he had in his back yard and handing them to me. I’d put them on his littlest sister with the blondest wisps of curly hair. She would be covered wrist to shoulder in squirmy fuzz in the deep fall. I only remember him wearing a purple sweat suit, though I’m sure he had other clothes. He was the oldest of three, with two small sisters named after attributes of God, and him, “the beloved physician,” Luke.
I remember the first time a doctor asked me if I’d ever thought of hurting myself. I remember thinking, “Doesn’t everyone?” and said, “No.”
On the drive to my in-law’s farmette to grab our mail and see our newest niece, I recited the books of the bible to my husband. I haven’t been to a church service in over five years, but a lot of my childhood was spent memorizing the bible. Not just simple things, like the books, but full chapters of biblical text. I have entire Psalms memorized.
Some of what I’ve memorized makes me angry because of the way my childhood church applied old rules to modern day: “women are to be silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they wish to inquire about something, they are to ask their own husbands at home; for it is dishonorable for a woman to speak in the church.”
I’m angry at the things that reverberate in my head and make me feel small, but I’m not sure who is to blame.
Luke’s house was big and messy; there were no kid-free spaces with stiff couches or coasters, you were always stepping on a plastic something or putting your palm in stick. It smelled good, like fake grape flavor, and I went there most days, around the time when I was learning to tie my own shoes, in the hatchback of his mother’s car, facing backward in bucket seats, Luke waving at the cars behind us, me watching him wave. That house got turned into a parking lot. It’s the carport of a university building where I was in the Pirates of Penzance and wore a hairpiece because I’d cropped my hair in an act of rebellion against I’m not sure who.
His family was the kind that said threatening things like, “Wait until your father gets home.” I never really knew what that meant, but I knew some people were afraid of their fathers and some people had fathers like mine, gentle, making something in the garage for hours with nothing to show for the time spent. Luke’s dad was in seminary, was going to be in charge of some body of Christ. He yelled, which is probably why Luke was afraid of loud noises and, at least partially, why I am now.
Luke could draw. Even now when I picture him, he’s in his purple sweatpants and sweatshirt, sitting at a too-big table with a crayon, his mother saying, “Keep quiet.” I sounded out the names of the crayons: fffflllleshhhhh.
One way we were tested on our biblical study as children was through bible drills. We held our bibles heavy above our heads, not breathing. Sunday school teachers shouted a biblical reference. If you knew the verse, the first to shout it out correctly and in full would be the champion of that round. If you didn’t know it by heart, you’d race the others to locate it in your book.
Bible drills are loud and unmelodious. Children will scream to drown out others from saying their verses correctly, or if you’re nine-year-old me, to distract from the fact that you don’t know most of the verses called. Bible drills were as much of a race as they were an acting exercise. No matter how many verses I reluctantly memorized, I’d never know enough.
A friend I met in a junior high play told me about cutting. She said it felt good and that she liked seeing the blood in her sink and it kept her from killing herself. I told her to stop. I didn’t know how she got her hands on a razor blade, couldn’t ask seeing as how I told her to knock it off, and was too grossed out by the veiny underside of my wrist, so I took a metal mechanical pencil and carved it into the top of my hand during science. It didn’t feel good, it actually just hurt. I still thought maybe it might be nice to die.
I don’t remember Luke and I talking to each other, though we were together every day. I was trying to watch Angels in the Outfield. I was trying to watch Old Yeller while I puked. I was thinking about how the floor looked dirty and asking will my mom be here soon. I was keeping my left eye on the doorway. Luke’s house was where I first realized I wasn’t wanted everyplace. I was somebody’s inconvenience. I was in the way.
When Luke’s dad died, my mom cut out the obituary and laminated it for me to use as a bookmark, said, “accident.” Luke moved away after that. I remember standing in my bedroom, half-crying and holding the bookmark, thinking I should prop it up somewhere for me to look at it. I threw it away at some point, a thing I still feel badly about.
The reason for all of this rigorous childhood memorization was to have Christ’s words “in your heart.” I remember someone saying something to me along the lines of, “What if the holocaust happens again, but to Christians, and we can’t have our bibles?” Am I anxious and depressed and terrified because I was a Christian, or was I a Christian because I was anxious and depressed and terrified?
When I grew up, my mom told me Luke’s dad had rigged the oven in his other house, the one he lived in when he traveled for seminary, to release natural gas, something happened, it all exploded. He exploded. Luke was little and his sisters were littler and I wonder if their mother said “accident” to them, too.
The night I puked through Old Yeller, my mother picked me up and took me home, put a clean, tin bowl next to me and a washcloth on my head. I listened to my Thumbelina book-on-tape and my dad did dishes, ate popcorn, watched TV.
Luke’s dad knew the verses and they tumbled around his head in a cacophony of noise like the children screamed and clawed over each other during their bible drills and the sirens met them there and rolled with them in the flames.
I missed the end of Old Yeller, but you don’t have to tell me how it ends.
Gwen Werner is a sorority dropout from Iowa. You can find her here, if you give a good goddamn: www.gwenwerner.com.