When Jesus Meant More Than Me

I open my eyes to a brightness that sears the back of my retinas. It hurts so much that I instantly slam my eyes shut. Focus…. Where am I? For a minute it occurs to me that I might be dead. And just as quickly, I wish that I were. Lifting my head up to try and look around, I fall back, wincing in pain. Biting my lip, I fight to keep my stomach from dumping the night before all over the floor. My lungs hurt, my breath is short, and it feels like I’ve smoked an entire carton of cigarettes.

I lay very still for a few more minutes, but I have to pee. I have no choice; I have to move. Taking a deep breath, I sit up and swing my feet to the floor. The room does a couple of vicious loopty-loops. It’s so bad, I just hang there on the side of the bed with my shoulders hunched forward, head down, gripping the edge of the mattress for dear life. My right hand hurts pretty bad. A peek shows me a set of raw knuckles, one likely broken from the looks of it. I try to move my fingers. A cold sweat breaks out, the bile hits the back of my throat and my head is an explosion of raw pain. Fuck! It’s bad. It’s the kind of a cheap liquor hangover that makes you want to jump straight into the fires of hell just to burn it off.

I decide to just concentrate on breathing, that and trying to keep my eyes and head very still. From the little peeks that I do manage, I realize that I have no clue where I am. I’m naked, my jeans, boots and t-shirt are lying on the floor in front of me. My cigarettes and lighter are on the nightstand, along with my keys, wallet and an almost empty bottle of Tequila. “Did I drive here? Where the fuck is here? Stand up or lie back down?”

The sound of someone coughing behind me interrupts my painful reverie. Slowly I turn my head to look and about all I can manage is a one-eyed squint. I can just make out the back of her, which is bare, with the exception of a riot of long black curls spilling across the pillow and down her back. I have no clue who she is. She reaches down and pulls the sheet up, “What are you staring at?”

“Bathroom? Where?” is the only response that I can manage to croak out of the barren wasteland that used to be my mouth.

She flings her arm up and points behind her, to someplace out over my shoulder. Turning as carefully as I can, I make out a doorway across the room. Gingerly I pull on my jeans and t-shirt; it’s 50-50 how this turns out. Dressed? Or puking? Every movement makes me want to roll up into a ball and die, but the need to use the bathroom is becoming an urgent priority. Fighting off another wave of nausea, I stagger out into the hallway in search of the bathroom.

Bladder back to its normal size, I lean on the counter and cup my hand under the faucet and get a drink of water. This turns out to be very bad idea, my stomach roiling anew at contact. I lay my head down on my arms and just ride the wave out. Feeling a little steadier, I manage to rinse my mouth out with mouthwash. Looking in the mirror, I cringe at how bad I look. I splash some cold water on my head, then using my fingers, I comb my short hair into something presentable. Finding a bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet, I take four.

Making my way back to the bedroom, it’s apparent that I am too hungover and probably still drunk, to walk anywhere, let alone drive. I ease myself back onto the bed, where I find my mysterious companion is sound asleep. I lie very still, the only thing moving is my breath and brain, both just barely, as I try to remember the night before. Jumbled, blurry, snapshots, until mercifully, I slide off into sleep.

“Hey! Wake up! You have to go, I’m late for work.”

She’s standing over me, holding out a fizzing glass and a bottle of Gatorade. “Drink these. It’ll help.”

Gingerly I sit up. The daylight in the room has waned considerably and it’s late afternoon. I sit still for a minute and assess my head. “Okay. Much better.” Now it feels like a normal hangover. This I can handle. “Thanks”, I say, taking the drinks from her hands. Finishing off the Alka-Seltzer I start on the Gatorade. “So. Where exactly am I?” 

As she stands there, with her hands on her hips, I am struck by her presence and the look of her. She isn’t a pretty, fashion model magazine kind of girl, but she is striking. And I am pretty embarrassed that I have absolutely no clue who she is.

“You’re at my house and we’re in Temple Terrace. And while it’s been fun, I really do have to leave and get to work. Your truck is out front. You wouldn’t tell me where you lived so I had my roommate bring it over here. She was at the bar too. Seriously though, you gotta get moving. I’m late. I hate to rush you, but I don’t leave people in my house, you really do have to go.”

Standing up, I pick up my keys, put my wallet in my pocket and grab my boots. “Hey! Fair enough. Yeah. It’s been fun!” Well I pretend that it was, because I really have no idea. I stop in the living room, sitting down in an armchair to pull on my boots; still racking my brain to remember who she is and anything about the night before.

She kneels down in front of me and presses a piece of paper into my hand. “I’m really sorry about what happened last night. My mom is pretty much in the same camp as yours. If you want to hang out or talk about it, give me a call. Now, get out of here! I really have to go!” She kisses me on the forehead and jumps up, “Damn it! Now where did I put my keys?” And just like that, it all snaps into focus. The night before. When my mom walked into a gay bar, looking for me.

Sitting in the cab of my truck, I wave to her as she pulls out of her driveway and disappears up the street. Unfolding the piece of paper, I find the name Deb, along with a telephone number. I light a cigarette, not sure that I’m quite ready to drive anywhere. I sit there with my eyes closed; smoking and sipping on the Gatorade until the heat wins out over the hangover. Cranking the motor, I almost jump out of my skin at the volume of the radio. Quickly shutting it off, I put the truck into gear and pull away from the curb, thinking about the awful night before.  

I stand in the cool dark of the bar’s entranceway, waiting for my eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine outside. I can hear Dee’s voice before I can see her, “The usual hon?”

“You bet!” I begin making my way around the bar, with more than a little strut. At the tender age of 19 I have already imagined and shaped myself into my interpretation of a badass. Although all of the older dykes tease me mercilessly and call me a “Baby Dyke” I don’t care, I’m sold on my own image and I live it to the hilt. I know my drink will be sitting there when I get to my usual place, a little more than a year’s worth of steady patronage having secured my place in the hierarchy. Climbing up on the barstool, I down my drink quickly, knocking off the heat of the day from the back of my throat. Dee sets another one down in front of me. Pulling out my smokes, I light one up and look around to see who is in the bar. Down at the other end I see Vera, one of my absolute favorite drag queens and one of my best friends. She is one of my gay “mamas”, she’d taken me under her wing when I’d first come out. While she isn’t in drag at the moment, it’s always female pronouns and Vera. I don’t think I even remember her “boy name”, although I know she lives and presents as male outside of show nights. Grabbing my drink and cigarettes, I head down to her end of the bar. Over my shoulder I call out, “Hey Dee! Bring Vera a cocktail please!”

As I get closer, it’s clear that Vera is upset. Closer still, I can tell that she has been crying. “Hey girlfriend! What the hell? Why are you sitting over here all by yourself crying?” At that she begins to sob audibly and she leans over into my arms. After a little while of the big ugly cry, she pulls herself together and sits up. Dabbing her tears and then blowing her nose on a cocktail napkin, she says, “That Dirty. Lying. Little. Mother. Fucker! That rat bastard!”

And that’s all the explanation that I need. Billy. Her boyfriend. I think these two spend more time fighting with each other than they do being happy. But she has listened to me carry on more than a few times, so I buckle up for the tale of woe.

“I’m through! I swear to Christ! I’m so through with that lying, cheating, conniving bastard!”

“Now Vera, you know that you’ve said that, how many times now? You know he’ll come back and beg you to forgive him and you will, you always do. Then ya’ll will be carrying on like honeymooners again.”

“Not this time. Not only did he take up with some skanky piece of trade, he stole all of my gowns and jewelry! Everything! He took everything! I can’t put together enough to do one number, let alone a whole show. Not only did he take everything, he up and ran off to Miami with that trailer trash!”

“Seriously? He took all your drag?”

“Every last stich! Clothes, hair, makeup, pumps; all of it! That’s what I get for dating another drag queen, especially one who wears the same size. Damn it to hell! Now what am I going to do? I have to work!”

“Hey Dee! You better bring us another round! Looks like a long night!”

After about an hour of commiserating with Vera about what a sorry asshole Billy was, my pool-playing buddies come in the door. Thursday nights are our regular time to get together and shoot pool. None of us are tournament players, but we all really love to play the game. Well that and hanging out, talking trash and flirting with the girls. Giving Vera a squeeze and a promise to catch up with her soon, I grab my stuff and head over to the pool tables.

After a couple hours of playing, it’s down to me and Rhonda to see who’s going to win overall for the night. It’s my shot and I’m stretched out over the table, cigarette hanging off my lip, one foot just barely on the floor, reaching for an impossible shot. Just before I shoot, I look over to the side to see if she’s still watching the game. More importantly is she watching me? This mystery girl that nobody knows, who walked in a little while ago and sat down by the pool tables. She’d refused offers of drinks or conversation from my crew; shooting them down one by one. Told them, “Thanks but no thanks. I can buy my own.” Seeing the lay of the land, I’d left her alone.

Still, I couldn’t help myself, I caught her eye and winked. Turning back to the game, squinting through the smoke from my cigarette, I lined up my shot. Just as I pulled back my stick, I heard my name. Not my nickname, which was the only name that anyone around here knew me by, it was my entire legal name. First. Middle. Last. And it was my mother’s voice who uttered it. My heart slammed loose, banging hard against my chest and for a minute I forget to breathe. I raise my eyes, to see her standing at the end of the table. The look on her face is well remembered, the pinch of her mouth and the anger blazing from her eyes. She’s dressed in her church lady best, holding a Bible in front of her with both hands as if it were a shield.

“Young lady! I need to talk to you. Right now!”

Maintaining my cool outwardly, I stuff my heart back into my chest where it proceeds to rattle around, beating the shit out of my ribcage.

“I said, Right! Now!” She bites off the words like bullets and my friends scatter, nobody wanting any part of this.

I can feel the heat rising in my face, my cheeks feel like they are buzzing, my lips are numb, and my stomach is full of lead. There is a roaring sound in my ears. For a moment I feel as if I’ve been struck blind, I can only see white hot light. I am angry, humiliated and if I’m honest – I’m scared. Normally I’d just stay quiet and wait for her to be done. But she’s come into my space and embarrassed me. Worse still, I’m just drunk enough and mad enough to throw caution to the wind.

“What do you want mama? I don’t think we have anything left to say to each other. You made it very clear that you don’t want a dyke for a daughter!”

“Come outside. I don’t want to talk to you in here.”

“That’s fine with me!”  And it was, the last thing that I wanted was to continue this conversation in the bar. Slamming my cue stick down on the table I stalk outside into the parking lot and head toward the back of the building. Mom is right behind me.

            Well away from the door and the main parking area, I wheel around so abruptly to face her that it startles her, causing her to stutter step backwards a little to catch her balance.

“What are you doing here? You’ve made it very clear how you feel. You’d rather listen to some stranger preaching whatever religion you are this week, telling you to disown your own flesh and blood! I don’t have anything to say to you!”

We stand there with the furious quiet stretching all long-legged between us under the street lamp, glaring volumes at each other. We are both sweating, the mugginess of a Florida summer night laying its weighty mantle across our shoulders.

Just as I began to turn to leave, mom breaks the silence, “You’re my daughter and I love you. I just need you to listen to me. Please.” The urgency in her voice slides through my resolve, and against my better judgment, I stop. Hope pushes its way up through the cracks of my heart, daring to show its face. I don’t think it has ever been a question of love between my mom and I, we just neither one knows how to do it very well in the space of the lives we’ve been given. They say that hurt people make more hurt people. And mom, she’s been hurt bad, a lot. The only solace she’s ever found from the abuse she endured as a child came in the form of her Catholic faith. A faith that had no leniency for a divorce to escape an abusive alcoholic husband. Upon her remarriage she’d been excommunicated from her beloved church. No church to date had filled the void. And she’d tried them all, trying to fill her loss. Still when you’re a queer kid in the early ’70s, struggling to make sense of your world and the hostilities that abound, it’s impossible to separate and understand parental pain that contributes to your own. So here we are, facing off, scarred from so many other battles between us; her for Jesus and me for self-determination.

“You have to stop living this sinful life! You’re going to go to Hell and I can’t bear the thought of that. You don’t have to be gay; you could change if you really wanted to! You have a baby girl, what about what she needs? She needs a father, there’s still time for you to get right with God and build a family for her.”

And just like that, it’s flame on. Her words spark the pool of gasoline-soaked injuries, resentments, despair and loss for which no amount of alcohol, any amount of drugs, nor the arms of faceless women, has been able to heal. My relief only momentary until sobriety and loneliness finds me again.

We fall into our standard poses, the battle lines drawn, with weapons at the ready. And it occurs to me that this is the only thing that we have done easily between us for as long as I can remember. We hurl the stones of our broken dreams of who we each wish that the other could be, spewing the sizzling acid of our pain that eats out another tender piece of our hearts upon impact. We salt the old wounds with the broken glass of an anger so deep that it’s drowning us. We launch the slings and arrows of our disappointments, the despair, the pain, the rage; until we are incoherent in the maelstrom that we have spun between us. 

Silence abruptly fills the space between us. We are both sweating and breathless and acutely aware that we have dealt another round of death blows and yet we each refuse to die. I think it is only my determination to not be “bested”, to not lose this war with my mother that I have not given in to the constant despair and taken my life. But I think about suicide, a lot. I think about death more than I think about my daughter, girlfriends or life. I wrap the thought of an instant exit plan around me like a shield, secure in the knowledge that if it hurts too much I can just, end it. So, I think a lot about how to end it.

The flames of my fury aren’t done, “Mama, you’ve done everything you can to change me. First you had your prayer group try to pray out the demon. Do you remember that night? When I tried to run away from them and their exorcism, they chased me outside, into the pouring rain and tackled me to the ground. Grown men were sitting on me and you just stood there and prayed. I was so scared! I thought that I was going to die, my mouth and nose full of mud, as they held me down. It was one of the other women who pulled them off of me, not you! You would have let them kill me. Then you sent me away to live in the hell of a mental hospital. I was only 13 years old!  After two years of that, you had me locked up in a Christian girl’s school, where they tried to beat and starve Jesus into me and the devil out. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you! After all of this, don’t you think I’d have changed, if it meant that you’d love me, that you’d stop hurting me. That you’d stop letting other people hurt me in the name of your Jesus? I even tried to be straight for you. I had a child and all you cared about was that I couldn’t keep pretending to be straight and stay with her father. After all of this fucking hell, do you think I’d keep choosing to be so unhappy because I can’t be who I am and have my mother love me? Look at me! Here I am, I’m still gay!”

At this last outburst, all of the fight leaves me, I’m shaking as if my bones will break apart, I feel like I can’t get my breath.

“You need to go home mama. I can’t do this with you anymore.” The tears are pouring out of my eyes, my heart is sliding down my face. “I love you, but we don’t know how to love each other. I’m tired of being hugged with your arms all wrapped up in the barb wire of your disappointment. Just go home mama. Please.”

Mama looks at me, she is crying hard, her breath catching, as she chokes on her sobs. She opens her mouth to speak and then clamps it shut. Without another word she turns and walks back to the front of the parking lot.

I watch her go and my knees almost buckle from the longing to run after her, to beg for her love, to be folded into the smooth, effortless embrace of the hugs my little girl self still remembers. But, I don’t. I stand as still as death, afraid that if I move, I will disintegrate into a million tiny pieces from the razor cuts of our fight. I see her taillights fading away into the night, driving away with them my hopes for any kind of peace between us. We are both so good at the leaving. I don’t know if we will ever learn how to stay.

I fumble for the crumpled pack in my pocket and I fish out a cigarette; with shaking hands I light it. My ears are ringing from the anger, my face is literally buzzing. I feel disconnected from myself, as if I have to find a way to re-enter my own body. I lean up against a friend’s car where I slide down to the ground. I sit there on the hot asphalt, weeping and smoking; my laments, little smoke rings of SOS’s rising unheard, once again.

Finally, three cigarettes in, I regain my composure and I head back into the cool womb of the bar. I don’t go back to the pool table, instead I head toward my favorite bar stool. The person sitting on it, gets up and moves their drink to another part of the bar, apparently aware of what has just transpired. Dee places a drink in front of me, “Hon, are you alright?” I pick up the glass and drain it, “Just pour me another and bring a shot with it. I don’t want to talk about it.” But, I know that if I decide that I do, Dee will be right there. She’s seen various versions of this kind of heartbreak a million times working in a lesbian bar for so many years. Without another word she turns and gets the drinks I’ve asked for.

I sit and I drink, I drink hard trying to drown what just happened, trying to wash away the ugliness of the words, the nuclear holocaust we have rained down upon one another. But the whiskey just won’t kill it and I start drinking shots of Tequila. One of my pool buddies, a good friend in fact, comes up and stands beside me. “Damn! I’d a popped that bitch good if she came up in here trying to mess with me like that! What a fucking cunt! She’s lucky you didn’t knock her ass out!”

And just like that, I snap. Enraged I turn and I punch Rhonda as hard in the mouth as I can. I hit her so hard, it knocks her to the ground. Jumping down I grab her by the front of her shirt and I punch her again and again, each blow punctuated with Don’t. You. Ever. Talk. About. My. Mother… Suddenly I am snatched up off of Rhonda and I am engulfed in a bear hug as someone speaks in my ear, a soothing mantra, “Let it go. It’s not worth it.” For a moment I struggle against my captor and then exhausted in every way, I just give up. I’m done. 

Dee has come around the bar and gotten between me and Rhonda, who is righteously angry and trying to wade back into the fight. I can sort of hear Dee soothing Rhonda’s wounded pride, her anger at the injustice of my assault. But for now, I just don’t care. I’m full of the satisfaction of the physicality of those punches, the impact, the release, the pain of it. 

“Come on let’s get you out of here.” I don’t know the voice. Looking at her I realize that it is the mystery woman from earlier who’d come and been watching the pool games. In my fog I allow her to collect my things from the bar and guide me outside.

“My truck is over there”, I mumble as I try to dig my keys out of my pocket. She laughs and pushes my hand away from my pocket. Not today cowboy. We’re just gonna leave that little pony right there for now. She steers me towards her vehicle which turns out to be a Jeep with the top off. I like Jeeps. Drunkenly I stumble my way up into the passenger seat. And because I haven’t been enough of a gigantic asshole for the day, when she asks, I refuse to tell her where I live.

“Okay!” She says, “If you won’t tell me where you live then you’re going to have to go where I want to go.” She pulls out of the parking lot and in moments I am lost in the cool of the air rushing past me, the noise of the wind silencing the horror of the noise in my brain. I look up and marvel at the riot of stars spilled out across the night time sky. She drives us to a beach. We sit in the sand, the waves lapping at our toes, drinking from a bottle of Tequila that she had in the Jeep. I cry a lot more. I don’t remember going to her house.

Pulling into the parking lot of my apartment, I am sweat-soaked and I am exhausted from the remembering of it all and the hurting that is so constant. The hangover is still picking at me, I feel like death warmed over. I look at my watch. It’s 5:30 pm. If I shower, eat a little something and then hit the bed, I can be ready to go back to the bar by 10:00 pm. I call my brother to see if he will keep my daughter for another night. I know I shouldn’t, but I convince him to let me have another night’s freedom, explaining how bad things were with mom the night before. Even though he gives in, I know that he’s upset with me, but I don’t care.

The truth is, I’m trying to be in that bar every single hour that I’m not working. I know that I shouldn’t. I know this. I want to fix this thing with my mama, I want to be a better mother to my own baby girl, and I want to figure out why it is that this made “bar family” is more important to me than my own daughter. I want to stop drinking and getting high so much. I want relief, I want healing. I want to figure out how to just be happy. I wish with everything in me that I could do all of these things. But I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know how to fix anything. It seems that the only thing that I am really any good at, is wishing. I’m still wishing as I fall asleep.

AUTHOR

Randi M. Romo

Romo is a 63-year-old, Mexican/American, Southern Dyke. She is a self-taught writer, her education disrupted in the 7th grade. Her first book, OTHERED, was selected by the American Library Association as a top-five book in poetry/fiction for 2018, in its annual Over the Rainbow list of Recommended LGBTQ Reading.

Twitter: @RomoTake2

Instagram: @TexMexLez500
 
Facebook: Randi M. Romo
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