Fellowship

By Ernestine Montoya

The wine breathes a pleasant heat on the back of my neck. My head lolls a little as the Christmas party, heavy on the Christ, lulls and crescendoes. Two of the women are in the kitchen, gesturing about where to set out pies and lemon bars and discreetly discussing what the hell to do with the bulky plastic the shitty store-bought stuff came in.

Colin is trumpeting another tale of debauchery lite. To this audience, his story, the time he went to a stripclub with a “lost” friend, is titillating. He’s been Roman’s roommate for two months. It’s the third time I’ve heard it.

I rest my head on Roman’s shoulder, mouth slightly agape, and he turns to me, away from Lindsey the Zealot, who is droning about the play she wrote and starred in for the Thanksgiving service.

“Promise you’ll audition for the next one. Weren’t you a theater major?” she asks, her high voice sticky like an itch in my ears. (He wasn’t.) Lindsey puts a hand on Roman’s chest, right in the center, and scratches the spot, like he is a beloved cat. Her husband is in the bathroom.

I’m drowsy enough that the flint of jealousy has difficulty striking fire in my stomach, but Lindsey’s more nut than threat, and her play made me want to be nice to her because it was a shit show, like, an actual showing of shit, even though last week she shared an article on Facebook that maybe was directed at me, about the perils of saying “OMG.”

But it doesn’t matter, because Roman’s eyes are on mine, and they look like they used to on Sunday mornings, when I’d go to the bakery ten blocks away and bring home fat, hot kolaches, and we’d eat like savages, under the sheets and in mismatched pajamas, catching globs of cheese between our lips.

Sundays are for church now. All of them. Sermon in the morning and Life Group at night with the four other couples here. “Bible study,” the accepted term of my upbringing, has apparently lost its cred.

Roman’s eyebrows pull in slightly. “Yeah, maybe we will,” he says, but he doesn’t look back at her.

“Oh, both of you? Yeah. For sure.” Lindsay’s fingers recede.

“You’re tipsy,” he whispers, thin lips brushing my ear.

“Is that bad?” I reach up to trace the line of his jaw.

“Nah. I know you miss it. Once in awhile’s alright. You’ve got wine lips.” His brown eyes have their usual good-natured slant.

I blink for a second or two, straining for deadpan. “If you think about it,” I nod toward a framed painting of a robed, alabaster Jesus leading two peasant children, also vampirically pale, across a bridge, “so did He.”

He chuckles, and I release a breath. His laugh is the same.

 

I’m lucky. I know I am lucky. Roman’s drinking was out of hand sometimes, and he could get a little wild. Mean if he’d had enough. Mostly, he was alright, but then his dad died two days after New Year’s, and by summer, I was getting slurred phone calls about his keys being taken away. We lost a lot of friends.

In June, he’d called from a Montrose bar, and I found him half-conscious, slumped on the curb outside. Ten minutes down the road, he was a dead man violently resurrected, batting on the passenger’s seat window with both hands like a lunatic. He ralphed on my arm and in my hair before I could release the handle.

I went with him to his first meeting, at a moldy Third Ward community center. In the basement, a dozen people sat in a circle of gray metal folding chairs against gray prickly walls on top of gray tiled floors. At the end, there was a prayer, and I glanced over at Roman, because maybe he wanted to bolt, and that would’ve been okay, but his hands were clasped, his eyes shut tight.

 

New Fredonia Church is only two blocks from his apartment, ten minutes from mine. It’s in an old warehouse, and everyone wears jeans, and even though they once had “live painting worship,” in which everyone watched a dude paint random shit while the band played, it isn’t so bad.

I like church. It’s a little ingrained, but the services are familiar, and the sterile adulation that occurs within them calms me down. Sing. Sit. Put money in a pot. Stand again. Sit for a while. Leave feeling a bit lighter.

Mick, the pastor, came over to shake hands on our fifth visit. He’s from London and has crazy eyes, but his hands are always warm, and that counts for something, probably. He’s also twelve years sober. Roman calls him a lot.

We joined September tenth. Two days later, on his birthday, Roman said we should stop having premarital sex.

 

Mick announces after dinner that everyone should try to meet with their Prayer Partner sometime in the evening. (“Holidays are stressful!”) He motions for the men to file into the back yard and look at his new self-built fire pit.

“You gonna be okay?” Roman asks me that at these things sometimes, like I’m a rescue dog untested around strangers.

“Yeah, go. I gotta find Della, anyway.”

The entire interior of the house is painted a weak, custard yellow, and I keep making wrong turns. I pause for a moment at the same wall of framed photos I’ve passed twice now. Placed amid them are carefully weathered signs with verses from Song of Solomon or sayings like “Life is fragile, handle with prayer” painted in swirly ivory calligraphy.

“Did you try the casserole?”

“Oh, hey, Dell. Yeah, it was great. Lentils. Can’t go wrong.”

Della beams. Her father died of ALS two years ago, and though she’s prone to occasional diatribes about the unfairness of Stephen Hawking’s life span, on account of his “hating the Lord,” she isn’t so bad.

I know when to grimace and nod as if to say, “Ain’t that how it goes?” But she sent tall calla lilies over after my old cat, Stella, finally kicked it, and the smooth, white-petaled bodies of them, ancient and tear-shaped, loosened the knot in my chest. Della’s alright.

“Oh, thanks. I found it on some kind of vegan blog, but, you know, I put cheese in there. I’m not crazy.” She throws a hand up and her long fingers knock one of the frames slightly askew.

My brain scrabbles around for what to say next. Della’s weird, perpetually sticky-faced kid is running around here somewhere, but what the hell is her name? I decide on a compliment.

“Your hair—it’s, um, gotten long.”

Della’s hands reach up and cradle an auburn lock. “Aw, thank you. I refuse to look like a mom!” She laughs too loudly.

“Ha. Yeah, I feel you. Hey, so did you wanna pray, or—”

“But you don’t have kids. When are you and Roman getting engaged? Y’all’ve been together like six years already, right?”

“Um. It’s, uh, hard to say.”

“Mel! Got a minute?”

Mick’s wife, Maggie, approaches. Cat-eye spectacles and a cherry, oversized flannel shirt are not enough to camouflage the chasm of attractiveness and decade or so of age between her and Mick.

She doesn’t wait for an answer, but guides me into a little side room. More custard and signs, though these seem to be exclusively devoted to Psalms.

She gestures toward a window bench.

“I just wanted to make sure I was being intentional about meeting with you. I haven’t forgotten about discipling you!”

Maggie owns her own flower shop, and there is a warmth, an appealing wildness about her that I can’t help but like.

“Sorry I didn’t respond last week, to your text? The kids are all ready for Christmas break, so work’s been a little crazy.”

“I bet. And you’ve got … fourth grade, right? Yikes.” Her eyes widen slightly, and I can see little ribbons of gold twirling in the green. “Let’s try to get together this week, though, okay? You’ve been on my heart.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I heard Della just now.” She leans in closer. How are things? With Roman, I mean?”

Pinpricks of indignation rupture up my cheeks, but I remember this now, the accepted invasion of privacy, and the feeling passes. This is where my previous training really shines, after all, so I lean into it.

“Well. It could be better. I know he’s been put in my life for a reason, and we’re definitely being tested.” Brave sigh.

My father was a deacon, my mother head of the Women on Mission. This fall’s been a strengthening of muscles gone slightly to seed. Most parts have been easy. Polishing my “testimony” into bite-sized anecdotes about my experiences with church and God. The exact posture that best conveys engaged interest in Mick’s bumbling, prop-heavy Sunday morning routines. The buzzwords have been easy enough to pick up: Glorify. Grow. Connect. Intentional.

It’s my Church Voice that is speaking, inflecting the correct words with measured pain. “The… physical stuff could be better. The worst part is that we’re spoiling the way God intended it to be.”

It’s a lie. The worst happens after everything, when Roman will dress almost as quickly as he apologizes. Tomorrow’s a new day. Do I want to pray? Oh wait, there is that article Mick and Maggie just emailed, about how praying together too much before marriage might promote false intimacy. Forget he said it. It’s just been a hard week. Maybe we should be more intentional about guardrails? So that it won’t escalate this far? Okay, for one, maybe I shouldn’t be in his bed. You know what, probably I should stop staying over altogether. Too tempting.

Sex is always like this now, a messy transaction. It happens maybe once a week, rushed and silent but for our breath. Sometimes Colin will be around when we come out of Roman’s room, a look of disapproval on his face. I’ve started to feel nauseated after.

“Mm. That’s so tough. Mick and I struggled.” Maggie’s eyes are soft, her body bowed toward mine. She doesn’t look away, and there is a long latent part of me that responds to her concern.

I open my mouth, but something in my chest retracts, and the indignation is back and I don’t want to tell her that I’ve been having sex with the only person I’ve ever loved, my lab partner in freshman Bio, who grinned, even though I’d just sliced his finger with the broad-blade, and suggested I go out with him after class to make up for it, because saying that now, on this window bench made of reclaimed wood, guilt strung along my brow, will make it all wrong, and when Roman forgets to feel bad, in the middle of it, he looks at me like I am lovely, and I clench my hands around the throw pillow in my lap, because I want to keep that for myself.

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“Thanks for saying that. Can I use your bathroom?”

Maggie nods vigorously, blinking once or twice. “Sure.”

The bathroom door’s locked, and as I turn away, I run into Colin.

“There’s one in there, too.” He peers around a doorway.

The master bedroom is softly lit, and a huge computer monitor on the desk occupies a corner. The four or five kids congregate around it, shouting instructions to the one moving the mouse.

The bathroom is oppressively nautical. The bath mats have stout red and white stripes, and the light switch placard is a raised ceramic design of a house on stilts. I sit on the lip of the tub and set the timer on my phone for an acceptable amount of time to hide out. Three minutes.

In a week, we’re going to see my parents down in McAllen. They’ve been thrilled about Roman. My mother sent a little card with some cash inside, the front of it a printed watercolor of a tree frog chilling on a riverbed. “F.R.O.G.” it says, in a silly font along the top. “Fully Rely on God.”

It would be easier if I didn’t believe. But I pray. And there’s something about wind that still gets to me. When a big gust of it swirls my hair, or when a breeze would ruffle Stella’s long hair in the backyard.

And it’s like it blows right through me, up my ribcage, in my ears. Every time it’s happened, since I was a little girl, I look up, and say, “Thank you,” quietly, so no one but the two of us can hear.

I’ve only described this to one person, my childhood pastor, Brother Randy, back in McAllen. Not to Roman, or anybody from Fredonia. There will be pressure to define it, to anchor the wind down with actions, because though they believe, there is an ache to quantify, to see tangible cause and effect, reasons for and advantages of faith.

But when the wind comes, I don’t think about any of that. Like Roman’s eyes when he is not being Roman the Recently Saved, I keep this to myself now, because as Brother Randy told me back then, wind is not enough.

When I exit the bedroom, I run into Roman.

“Hey, I was looking for you. You about ready to head out?”

I nod.

“Is everything alright?” In the dim light of the hallway, his face is as familiar as my mother and father’s, as familiar as if I’ve known him all my life.

“Do you ever feel wind?”

He grins. “What do you mean?”

“Nevermind, I just—I don’t really feel good. Too much to drink.”

“Ah, no, I’ve made you lose your resistance.”

“It’s fine, don’t be dumb.” I head back toward the front room, where keys are being retrieved from pockets and goodbyes exchanged. I feel Roman’s arm around my waist.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He leans closer, and kisses me for real.

“Let’s just go.”

“Wait,” he murmurs. “You look pretty tonight.”

“This is how you talk before,” I say, eyes on his throat. “You’ll be different after.”

“You’re right.” He looks ashamed, which is stupid, so I kiss him, and then his hands are in my hair, and maybe tonight I’ll be spared his manic dirge of reparations.

A throat clears. “Uh, sorry.” The patched elbows of Colin’s navy blazer disappear around the corner.

Roman steps back abruptly. His hands loosen, but don’t leave my hair, because now he is smoothing my curls back into place, fastening the dislodged center button of my blouse.

“Hey, thanks, Dad.”

His hands stiffen. “Don’t, Mel.”

“Relax. Let’s get the hell outta here.” I turn quickly, because the nausea is starting again and the house feels too warm and I want to get out into the cold.

I’ve only taken a step when a shriek sounds from the master bedroom.

We find Della crouched by the computer, her fingers plastered over her daughter’s eyes.

“Is everything alright?” Roman asks.

“Look!” She removes a hand from the bemused kid’s head to point at the computer. “Alice found it.”

Maggie and Lindsey arrive at the scene of the crime, and for a few seconds, we all stare at the monitor.

It’s fairly standard, as pornographic nudes go. The woman’s breasts are too orbed to be natural, the hands on her hips manicured with French tips. Her eyebrows are sealed into an expression of practiced depravity with either Botox or disenchantment, and her pubic hair is neat as the White House lawn. A Santa hat perches on top of her honey-colored tresses, its angle jaunty.

I snort, and Roman looks at me sharply. “What? It’s a little funny.”

Alice vacillates between looking stricken and thrilled, and as she darts from the room in a blur of white tights, eyes sweeping from left to right, I stifle another laugh.

Mick blazes in, then, and it’s unfortunate that this is the first time I’ve seen him tonight without his sweater on. The t-shirt underneath is truly terrible: “Takin’ it to the streets,” proclaims a bold yellow font. And underneath, in an even splashier, all-caps red: “THE GOSPEL.”

“Is this your idea of a joke?” Lindsey’s sharp eyes are on me. It makes my laugh gurgle louder.

“I’m sorry,” I sputter, a hand on her lavender sweater. “It’s just—” I can’t get any more words out.

“Listen, I just ran into Colin on his way out. Maybe we can talk to you guys,” Mick says slowly. I receive a few pointed stares.

“Apparently there’s an encore,” I say to Roman. He doesn’t laugh.

After an increasingly uncomfortable five minutes at the kitchen table with Maggie, who has inexplicably insisted on brewing us tea, Mick returns from their boys’ bedroom.

“So, I spoke with both of the boys, very sternly, and I don’t think it was any of the kids. Besides, the parental controls are buried pretty good on our browser, I don’t know that they could’ve gotten past them.” He looks at me for a few seconds.

“Wait, do you think it was us?” I pause, to allow someone to dissuade me. It doesn’t happen. “I thought this was some kind of lecture for laughing about it, because, okay, whatever, that was maybe inappropriate, but c’mon.”

I look to Roman for solidarity. He hesitates, and I finally get it.

“Oh, you all think I did it.”

“It’s just that, well—Colin mentioned to Mick that he saw you in our bedroom, which is fine, I just don’t think anyone else was in there besides the kids, but if you say you didn’t do it, I believe you.” It’s the first time I’ve seen Maggie flustered.

“This is ridiculous. Mel’s a teacher. She wouldn’t do that,” Roman says.

I turn my head slowly, noting the pink flush of his ears. “Nice of you to join us, but I think the hunt’s over.”

Mick’s wayward eyes swivel over to Maggie, and I zip up my coat.

“He jerks off.”

“What?”

“Colin. Like, a lot. To porn. We had to get Roman a sound machine.” The ringing silence alerts me this is a step too far.

“Ah, listen, that’s not what we’re here to discuss—”

“’Cause he’s not the one on trial? Does he get immunity for ratting us out?”

“Mel.” Roman lays a hand on mine, his mouth in a line.

“Roman, you know it was that fuckwad. It had to’ve been.”

But Roman isn’t looking at me anymore, and we are not waiting for a dank stranger to get out of the car, and he won’t mock me for being gullible when we’re alone, and anyway he’s too busy apologizing, and as I look past him, I realize what it is about the custard color that I don’t like. The yellowy-beige seems mixed for just this purpose, to absorb several thousand sorries.

“Hey. It’s been a crazy night. Let’s just… decompress.” Maggie takes a purposefully deep breath, raising and lifting her hands. “Just get some rest. You and I will meet up next week.”

When I don’t respond, she touches my arm. “I believe you, okay?” And it’s the way Roman looked at me earlier. Like they’re waiting for me to lose it, to wrinkle my snout. Snap my teeth.

On the drive back to my apartment, the air in the car is warm and silent. I walk toward my door without saying goodbye, but Roman intercepts me on the porch, pressing me hard against his chest, his sweater soft on my face.

“I’m sorry. I lost my head back there.” He pushes my shoulders back to look at me. “It’s just… all this church stuff, it helps me make it. I’m just trying to make it.” He looks like he did at his father’s funeral, and I feel myself nodding.

“It’s fine, Roman.”

“Are you sure?” He kisses my cheek in an avuncular sort of way. “’Cause we don’t gotta go back, Mel.”

“I’m a big girl. And besides, we have to clear my good name on Sunday.”

He laughs, relieved, and I turn away at the sound. “And I’m gonna talk to Colin, alright?”

“‘Kay. Goodnight.” I don’t want to talk anymore, and I shut the door before he can look lost again. I watch from the edge of my front window blinds until he’s driven away, and then I step back out into the dark.

The complex is quiet. There’s only the noise of cars driving on I-45, the heavy whooshing sounds like that of a giant’s sleeping lungs.

The air is cold and still, but I stand and wait for the wind anyway. I wait and wait for it.

 

Ernestine Montoya is a Fiction MFA candidate at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. She is from Houston, Texas. She enjoys teaching writing to undergraduates, 30 Rock reruns, and pretending to know things about wine. “Fellowship” is her first published piece.

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