August Tate asked me out the week after Claire left; Mom, at that time, was still putting laundry in the fridge, dish towels covering the egg cartons like blankets and socks rolled up in balls next to the butter. He stopped me outside of history class, one hand flashing out to my wrist and hesitating, as if he could not find a landing place between my sleeve and all my bracelets, stacked like Mom’s fevered prayers.
“Faith,” he said, and smiled. Boys in books always have smiles that are sexy and sugary, evoking candy imagery, but August Tate was not dreamed up by the tip of a pen and he looked, somehow, even more solemn and desperate than he usually did when he smiled, as if the smile were heavy and he were fulfilling an obligation by wearing it.
“So,” he said after a pause. “I was, um, actually wondering if you would maybe wanna go to the drive-in on Saturday?”
I blinked and touched the rims of my glasses. Claire was always nagging me to get contacts, because I’d been wearing the same wire frames since the third grade and she said they made me look like a librarian.
“And not the sexy kind,” she’d say, widening her eyes as if she were speaking in code, as if this were important sisterly wisdom. I would laugh a little, shake my head, touch the wire to make sure it was still on my face. The glasses, like the crucifix above the mantle, were one of the things Claire did not understand.
“Um,” I said, “I’d love to, only—“
“Great!” August Tate said, not exactly smiling but looking less strained, as if there had been tightly wound springs behind the muscles in his face that had just now, at my word, released and allowed him to express emotion. “I’ll get you at seven, okay?”
“Okay,” I said faintly. He looked so earnest, so fragile, that I could not force myself to finish the sentence I had started, make a lame excuse and watch his face fall and attempt to bounce back with another rigid smile. After all, what would my excuse be? That my sister had gone on a date and ended up ruining our family? That my mother was upending the house, trying to find that failure she must have committed years ago, when Claire and I took baths together and still believed in the Tooth Fairy?
“I like your sweater,” August told me before he walked down the hall, slipping in between the bulkier boys like a shadow, like a wild animal evading capture. Later, when I told my friend Sophie over the phone, she decreed that August Tate and I made sense together. Slender, shy, studious; why hadn’t she seen it before? He took pictures for yearbook; I wrote boring, forgettable articles for the school paper, which was distributed in the cafeteria and more often used as napkins and placemats than as reading material or debate fodder.
“He’s not, like, bad-looking,” Sophie said as I sat at my desk and drew interlocking circles in the margins of my calendar. “In fact, he’s kind of cute, in that nerd-ish way, don’t you think?”
“I guess,” I said. “I’d never really thought about him before.”
“Well, start thinking,” she said before she hung up, in that same sisterly tone that Claire had used whenever she spoke about my unfortunately librarian glasses.
I did not tell my parents at dinner, and found my mother with her head bent over rosary beads as I got a glass of water before bed. The beads—ceramic, navy blue, bought at the Notre Dame cathedral two summers ago when we went on vacation—made dull sounds as she moved them through her hands like rope, like she was trying to crawl somewhere. They almost sounded like coins. Her hands were chapped and I knew there would be two red circles like brands on her knees whenever she stood up and crawled into her cold bed. Mom and Dad had not spoken much since Claire’s departure.
Part of me wanted to pray with her, but I couldn’t yet look at the crucifix which Mom so adored, which Dad had chosen over his eldest daughter, so I just took my cup of water to bed and looked up at the brittle ceiling of my bedroom, thinking about that look on August Tate’s face in the dull school hallway, his shy eyelashes leaning over his irises as he complimented my sweater.
The sweater, of course, had been one of Claire’s, left behind.
Being Catholic, to me, was never exactly a religion. It was more like a lifestyle, a ritual. It was a comfort, something to crawl up next to in bed at the end of the day, something to count on. No matter how many people died or how many tragedies occurred in the span of a year, the words to the Our Father would not change. The Pope would remain in the Vatican. Jesus would always rise again. There was a stability in Catholicism which did not exist anywhere else in my life, in the shifting kaleidoscope of growing up in an age of transition, the years of rapid progression of cell phones and screens. There were always new things to want, to buy, to master; in the midst of all that new, I liked having something old. I liked the dependability, which—as I discovered when Claire left—may be an excellent reason to like a car, but not to worship a God. That relied on something that was ironically elusive: faith.
Mom had just converted when she’d gotten pregnant with me, and adamantly insisted on a saint’s name. Claire always thought that she was just trying to show off for Nana, who was still suspicious of Mom because she’d come from a long line of Protestants, but I believe Mom believed, at least then. My name switched constantly—one day Theresa, the next day Cecelia—depending on my mother’s mood, whatever profession or virtue struck her as absolutely necessary for her newborn. At one point, my intended name was Lidwina, after the patron saint of ice skaters, and when the time came, she was so overwhelmed with the blessed choices that instead Dad proposed they call me Faith, which they did. I’m still trying to figure out if I actually have any.
The stability I found and loved in Catholicism was, of course, the result of the rigidity of it—something Claire, even from a young age, recognized and detested.
“You shouldn’t have to follow rules to be loved,” she would say. “Mom, you love me even when I break the rules.”
“I’m not God,” Mom would answer, looking pale at the thought. Licking her lips, tasting blasphemy. “Don’t say things like that, darling.”
Even at Claire’s first communion. She chewed up the holy cracker into a paste, swallowed it and grimaced.
“You think Jesus would be better-tasting,” she said out loud. “It’s just a cracker, and not even as good as Ritz.”
A few people—not our parents—laughed, and the rest shifted uncomfortably. My sister was a vision in her petite white dress; she even had dainty little gloves, folded together over her knees. And to hear such touchy things from one so young—it wasn’t right, it wasn’t becoming. The other second graders were just happy for the promises of cake later that afternoon, backyard parties with extended relatives, cash-loaded cards adorned with lambs and flowers. Not Claire— she could not be distracted or deterred. Dad yelled at her on the car ride home, but I was the one who ended up crying. She just said, “I’m sorry, Daddy, I just didn’t want to lie,” and kept murmuring a polite but glaringly insincere apology as our father railed on, his face turning purple as he beat the steering wheel.
“You’re scaring Faith,” Claire said after a while, and then the van was silent, so awful that I almost preferred the yelling. I kept stealing glances at my sister—I was young then, and had a visceral connection with sin, punishment, and Claire in general.
By the time we arrived at home, our parents had smoothed out their worried faces into expressions of pride and kissed the top of Claire’s head as she ate her cross-frosted sheet cake, the pink staining her mouth like Pepto-Bismol. Our aunts and uncles meandered around the backyard and squinted up at the sky. I wondered if they were looking for God to come down and bless us. I wondered if they were waiting for something worse.
Sophie picked me up for school the next morning in her secondhand Toyota, dabbing on eye cream to hide the purple shadows that seemed to nest permanently on her face. She was one of those tightly-wired, bound-to-be-President types and hardly ever slept, so determined to be helpful and correct all the time that her brain could never fully rest. I was one of Sophie’s first projects—shy little Faith Murphy, friendless and bespectacled and reading during recess with her crucifix necklace in her mouth. She had drawn me out into the real world years ago, her method of coaxing much gentler than Claire’s energetic frustration, and still often acted as my guide to people, to parties, to things that seemed foreign to me. Like romance. Like a date with August Tate.
“So, have you thought about it?” She didn’t bother to say good morning.
Sophie was quiet. Usually she liked to listen to the radio on the way to school, play the pop culture trivia games on the morning talk shows, but the car hummed quietly as she hooked a left out of my neighborhood. I bit my lips and touched the bracelets on my wrist, the bracelets that had acted as a barrier against August’s light fingers. Sophie was waiting for me to say something; she always said my tongue needed more exercise, and she meant it multiple ways.
She parked the car by the flagpole and sat there, hands still on the wheel.
“This is about Claire, isn’t it?” she said quietly. I could see the purple that her eye cream hadn’t managed to hide, small moons in her face.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re not her,” Sophie said.
“That’s the point.”
“Be your own person,” Sophie said. “Don’t just be Opposite-Claire.”
She went inside. I stayed in the car until the warning bell echoed across the parking lot, trying to pray, trying to think, trying to remember.
She left the pregnancy test in the bathroom trash can. I think she wanted to get caught.
I came home from the library to a scene out of a soap opera; my mother, sobbing hard enough to break her own bones, and my father shaking his fists in the air, trying to punch something he would never be able to reach. He was purple from anger, from disappointment, from guilt. I stood in the doorway with my backpack still hooked over my shoulders. I remember blinking, adjusting my glasses as if somehow my corrective lenses could correct the bizarre chaos of my kitchen.
Claire was standing by the refrigerator with a duffel bag at her feet and her arms crossed over her stomach. If she had been crying, or feeling anything at all, I couldn’t tell.
“Hi, Faith,” she said. “How was school?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ve had an abortion,” my sister said matter-of-factly. I don’t think that word had ever been uttered in our house. Not even through news programs. Never from my parents’ lips.
My father was breathing heavily. I watched him grab a glass from the counter and hurl it against the wall. My mother and I both flinched.
Claire’s face did not flicker. “And since I have sinned, I am no longer welcome in this house.”
I could tell from the tightness of her mouth that she was repeating words that had already been spoken, a fight that I had not witnessed, the culmination of her rebellion against the guilt our parents felt was a requirement of faith.
“Sins can be forgiven,” I said desperately, and my father’s head turned slowly in my direction. Livid. I shrank back a little. The glass shards on the floor quivered. My mother’s eyes were shielded by her hands.
“Not without repentance,” Claire said. “And I won’t fake it.”
“You’re a murderer,” our father said.
“Then call the cops and have them arrest me.”
“You’ll go to Hell,” our mother said. She looked up, her wide eyes wider in shock and fear. “Baby, please.”
“I won’t,” Claire said, and somehow she sounded so confident, as if she could be as sure of the afterlife as she was of a dentist appointment. “I don’t believe in it.”
“You don’t get to make up whatever rules suit you,” Dad said. He stepped on some of the broken glass and it crunched under his feet. His face was less purple and more stone. He was already accepting the loss, and she hadn’t even gone.
“Isn’t that what the church did?” Claire asked.
She picked up the duffel and slung it over her shoulder, turned to face me. I touched my glasses again, out of habit, out of fear. She almost smiled. It felt strange to be looking at her. She was so beautiful, so sure, and yet any priest would have claimed she had been weak and bent to desire, bent to Satan’s will.
My sister, so confident. My sister, always outspoken. My sister, now homeless.
I stepped back to let her pass. My stomach felt like it ripped open, ripped downward, as she passed by: a single stroke of terror. I wondered how it felt to have something removed from your insides.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be a better big sister,” Claire said. She touched my hair very lightly, as though afraid it would evaporate, and there was a ripple across her face. Sincerity. Emotion. Fear. For a brief moment, I thought she might break down, fall onto her knees, but then she blinked and it was gone. She was diamond; hard and bright.
I had started crying by that point—I was always the first to cry. I could weep without making a sound. Claire touched one of my tears with a finger and bit her lips.
“Pray for me,” she said. And then she walked out the door, walked out of our lives, leaving me alone with Mom, Dad, and all that religion.
It struck me that despite namesakes, despite sins, Claire had much more faith than I did.
I went on the date with August. He wore a collared shirt that he’d pressed into clean angles, and I wore some shimmer lip gloss Sophie claimed complimented my skin tone. He drove his father’s truck, which was the color of a Christmas tree, and he was nervous; when he told me that I looked nice, the words came out in the wrong order and he had to repeat himself. I blushed.
The movie was some forgettable action-comedy with a rogue cop who had to save the day. Buildings exploded. The love interest cried. We sat in the bed of Mr. Tate’s truck, shoulder to shoulder, and ate overpriced popcorn until our hands ended up holding each other. I noticed that when August laughed, he didn’t look so desperate, but like a time-lapse video of a watered flower coming back to life, and that he blinked slowly, like a camel. He reminded me of a scarecrow, light and scrawny but good-natured. Friendly. His shirt was even plaid.
The rogue cop caught the bad guy and got the girl. We threw away the popcorn and climbed into the cab of the truck, making small talk about the weather (it was nice), the movie (there were some funny parts), and the upcoming history test (hopefully it would be easier than the last). He drove slow on the way back, trying to stretch out this time of camaraderie, of hope. Neither one of us knew what was going to happen when he pulled over in front of my house and we said our goodnights.
The truck rolled to a stop and I looked at my front porch, suddenly scared to look at August, at this nice boy in the plaid shirt with the not-too-awful cologne who was probably expecting a kiss, expecting love, expecting things I had no idea how to give and wasn’t sure I wanted to learn.
Then he said, “Faith, I know about your sister.”
I closed my eyes. The faint glow of the porch light was a dim yellow behind my eyelids. It had been stupid of me to expect that I could avoid Claire entirely, that I could just be Faith for a few hours without the consequences and reminders. Be good. Be better. Don’t sin.
“I just—I just want to say that I’m sorry,” August Tate said. “It must be really hard to, like, have her gone so suddenly and—”
“—and under such scandal,” I said quietly.
“Well, on bad terms with your family,” August amended, but I didn’t say anything.
He cleared his throat. “I like you, Faith,” he said. His voice was thin and solid, a taut cord. “I like you a lot, but I understand if things are—I mean, if you don’t want to—”
I looked over at him. He was stuttering again, trying to find the right words in the right order, but his eyes were steady on me, like I was the lighthouse in a storm and not the storm itself.
It occurred to me he was the first one to say sorry about Claire.
“Can I ask you something, August?”
“Do you believe in God?”
He laughed a little. “Heavy hitter, right off the bat.”
“I guess so.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure what I believe,” he said, certain of his uncertainty, drumming his thumbs on the hard leather of the steering wheel. “You’re Catholic, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m just having trouble being Catholic and being Claire’s sister at the same time.”
The air in my lungs felt old and I was afraid to look at August again. I focused on the air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, a lemon like a small sun. August Tate is a stranger, I told myself. He does not have the answers. There are no answers. Say goodnight. Say your prayers.
August was nodding thoughtfully, tilting his head a little to the left. There was a small port-wine birthmark on his neck, exposed to the moonlight. There are passages in the Bible about birthmarks and sacrifices. There are passages in the Bible about almost anything if you look hard enough.
“I think you can be both,” he said eventually. The car was quiet, just like the street, the neighborhood, my family dinners. Quiet but humming with all the things that weren’t being said. “I don’t think Jesus would mind.”
I almost laughed. “Don’t say that to my mother.”
“I won’t.” He said. “But seriously?”
“I think you can believe whatever you want to believe. I haven’t ever have faith in only one thing; it would be like putting all your eggs in one basket.”
He was looking at me, eyes open and earnest, long lashes casting shadows on the skin of his temples. “I have faith in my mother’s cooking, and I have faith that Bill Belichick will take the Pats to another Super Bowl and I have faith that the snow will melt soon. I don’t believe only one thing. I don’t think I could. I don’t—I don’t think you have to either.”
Claire had always rejected. My parents had always obeyed. And now here, a scarecrow boy I barely knew was offering the solution of choice.
Was that a sin?
“Do you mind if we keep driving for a little while?” I asked.
August Tate turned the ignition without another word.
Tess Walsh lives in Massachusetts. Her favorite things are iced coffee and owls. More of her work can be found atmisstesswalsh.wordpress.com