Samantha Neville ‘19
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Maria’s mother used to make her go to confession by using the same operatic death stare rumored to put young men into cardiac arrest. One day in confession—she might have been five or six or ten, she couldn’t quite remember—she “confessed” to stealing her cousin’s makeup kit, but she didn’t even like makeup yet. Her first lie.
Maria went on to copy her friend Patricia’s assignment, and cheat on a spelling test. Her stories became more elaborate. She spent entire afternoons thinking about what she would confess to that week, rehearsing it, planning when to pause and when to cry. She stole the entire Harry Potter series from the school library, and framed Patricia. In the sixth grade she started a rumor that Ryan Felding wore a thong under his cargo shorts.
Sometimes she threw in truth, for good measure, like telling Father Smith about the stash of illegal Mexican fireworks under her bed. Other times she relied on clichés. She snuck out, got drunk on bad rum in sketchy bars on a fake ID, became a pothead. She raced the speed limit, had trysts with the foreign exchange students in her class, systematically made out with someone in each and every one of the dark stairwells and shadowy corners of her high school. Some of her stories bordered on the fantastic. For instance, she had turned off the power for an entire waterpark because her ex was there with his new girlfriend. And the new girlfriend was skinnier and prettier and blond.
“Ay niña linda,” Father Smith would say each time, and Maria would shudder at the word linda, adorable little girl. “What are we going to do with you?”
“What is it today?” Father Smith asked.
Maria scratched her nose and tousled her mop of dark hair. When she was little, she’d promised herself she would leave little old Tucson, Arizona as soon as she turned eighteen. And yet here she was, in the same dusty God-forsaken poor excuse of a town.
“What does it matter? Aren’t we in Hell already?”
On her way out she was careful to ignore the many iterations of suffering on the church walls that used to haunt her nightmares—the nails, crosses, thorny crowns, drops of painted blood, and upturned glances.
“Looks like disabling the fire alarms came in handy,” her roommate Veronica said, fingering the rosary around her neck. They were both first year art history grad students, and Veronica had disabled the fire alarms because she liked the aesthetic of smoking indoors. She said it made her feel intellectual.
“Mhmm,” Maria muttered. She watched a flame climb up the white tablecloth.
Veronica hadn’t always been religious. She had apparently found Jesus on a very vivid acid trip and got baptized the next day. She had a tattoo on her back of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, the blue-veiled, Mexican Virgin Mary, so she was always with her. Maria still went to church with her mother occasionally, and that’s where they met. She had been taken with Veronica from the beginning. She liked her swaggering, smirking humor. Some part of her, a part of her that she refused to acknowledge, wanted to be Veronica.
“It’s amazing how much destruction you can cause with so little,” Maria said, stamping out the flame with her palm. The tablecloth had been sitting there on the dining room table and mocking her with its fraying, yellowing lace.
“So what did your mother say this time?” Veronica asked.
“All this is,” Maria said, pointing to the blackened match tip, “is potassium chlorate, sulfur, powdered glass, gelatin and dye. Rub it against sand and more powdered glass and you have a spark.”
“She thinks she’s dying again, doesn’t she?” It happened once or twice a month.
“You know what she said when I told her I didn’t like the tablecloth? She said I would regret not using it when she was dead.”
Veronica stifled a laugh.
“She said she felt herself going this morning,” Maria continued. My heart is jumping, her mother had said. I’m going, I’m going.
“Who’s this!” Veronica said, pointing to a grey tabby who had slunk into the room. She picked him up and started scratching behind his ears and making purring noises.
“That’s my mother’s cat,” Maria said, folding up the table cloth and stuffing it in the kitchen trash. “Scarface. She made me take him because she thinks she’s going to die.”
He was Scarface because of the gash across his left eye. Allegedly it came from a misunderstanding with a coyote. Maria had never quite believed the story, and she had never quite gotten past the fact that he had clawed her the first time they met. If Maria looked closely at her hand and squinted really hard she could still see the scars.
Maria awoke to the weight of the cat pouncing on her stomach. Scarface seemed unperturbed by her shriek and proceeded to sniff her face.
She reached out and stroked his back. He was purring. It was the first time he had approached her of his own volition.
“There’s my survivor,” Maria cooed. “But you’re lucky. In Mexico they say cats only have seven lives. Did you know that?”
Maria and Veronica were having their weekly happy hour, as they called it, drinking rum on Maria’s blue-rugged floor. Their faces were reflected in the mirror on Maria’s vanity. Maria touched the skin next to her squinting eyes, as if to rub away the emerging crow’s feet.
“I still don’t understand your problem with your mother,” Veronica said. “She’s the nicest little old lady.”
The grey hair count was up to five, Maria noticed. Maybe old age is contagious, like a virus, she thought as she sat down again.
“You don’t know her,” Maria said. “She and my family all made me feel guilty about everything.”
Guilt was a currency, a rate of exchange with her mother and her extended family. They spoke guilty, like it was a language, breathed it as if their lungs would collapse without it. You were guilty by your dusty shoes, your dirty thoughts. You were as guilty as you were late to class, as the boys you kissed, as your skin was brown. Guilty for the suffering of Christ Our Lord, crucified for it in the cross-shaped church every time you went to Mass. It occurred to her that she was jealous of the Maria who had affairs and shut down waterparks.
So they bought in industrial quantities everything Maria told her friends not to eat. Hot Cheetos, Takis, Doritos, lime-flavored lollipops. Mexican sweet bread, pink-sugared conchas, every single one the bakery had. They bought Red Bull, monsters, sangría.
“This is lame,” Veronica said. “You should have done something more daring.”
The concha was warm in Maria’s hands. She took a bite.
Maria exhaled. “It tastes like dust.”
They took a road trip to the beach that weekend, but Maria fell asleep on her towel and got sunburned. Veronica lured Maria out for drinks a couple times, but no matter how much Maria drank she was still too sober to enjoy it. They spent an entire day at the movie theater laughing at dumb movies. Veronica made Maria a Tinder—as a joke, she said—but Maria could not be convinced to go on a date. They even dipped into Maria’s sparkler supply, reasoning that now was as good a time as ever.
“Want to light the last sparkler?” Veronica asked, extending it to Maria with a flourish.
“I think I’m going to go to sleep.” She seemed more vulnerable in the parking lot light.
“It needs salt,” Maria said to her mother, stirring her spoon in the chicken broth.
She went to the kitchen to fetch the salt shaker. A collection of votive candles with La Virgen and other angels and saints on them flickered in a dark corner by the stove.
Maria returned to their cramped dining room. They sat in one corner of it, since the rest of the table was colonized by coupons and junk mail.
Maria shook some salt into the palm of her hand and sprinkled it over the soup.
“Next time you can make it,” her mother said, as if she were joking, but Maria knew better.
Maria slammed the shaker onto the table. She’s acting like a child, Maria thought to herself.
Her mother folded her hands and closed her eyes. She began to pray in Spanish with a thin but coarse voice.
“Thanks I give to the Lord our God for life and daily bread. You give to me because of who you are, not because I deserve it.”
Maria winced. But of course I deserve it.
“May we have sustenance for the body, salvation for the soul. Oh Divine Providence, may we never lack faith, home, and clothes, bread and health. Praise be to the Lord. Amen.” Her mother opened her eyes and took a sip of diluted cranberry juice. “You haven’t asked about your uncle.”
Maria stopped chewing.
“I know your uncle is angry and temperamental, but he loves you.”
“It’s still dark in here,” Maria said, and yanked the curtains of the closest window open.
She executed the same procedure on all the living room windows, yanking the curtains open. The light illuminated a room fringed with lace and angels at every angle. Tall, short, plastic, glass, fat cherubs and slight saints. One for every New Year’s Maria spent with a friend, every day she hadn’t called, every meal she had critiqued, every white lie she had told, every time she didn’t listen to her mother. The room was exactly as it had been since she could remember. She stopped in her tracks, thinking about when she was a child, and her late night questions.
“I don’t want to die,” bunny-slipper wearing, six-year-old Maria used to say, nudging her mother awake because sleep tasted too much like death. She was in first grade and had just learned the sun would supernova in five billion years.
“You’re not going to die,” her mother would say, her voice half smothered by her pillow. “You’ll live forever.”
“But I don’t want to live forever,” Maria would say, her voice becoming more desperate.
“Because it scares me.”
“Don’t be scared. You’ll be one of God’s angels.”
“How many people fit in heaven?” Maria asked, sitting on her mother’s bed.
“Stop asking questions,” her mother would say, turning away from Maria. “Just have faith.”
“I have pain here, and here, and here,” her mother said, calling her back to the present, pointing to her shoulder, her legs, her chest. “I need a new body.”
Her mother’s liver spots seemed to have multiplied. The fuzz on her upper lip was pricklier, her nose more crooked, her stomach more bulbous. Maria backed towards the door. She needed to go somewhere to clear her head.
“I have to go,” Maria said. “I forgot to feed the cat.”
She never forgot to feed the cat.
“Wait,” her mother said, slurping from her bowl. “I made you flan.”
“I’ll come back for it later,” Maria said, clutching the doorknob.
Her mother blessed her from her chair as she left.
Maria got home to the news that Scarface was gone. He had gotten out that morning as one of the girls had rushed to leave, without anyone noticing. They did find him, eventually, at the bottom of a wash with his skeleton bare except for his head. The verdict was coyotes.
The light was fading when she got to the San Xavier mission church, the only place where she didn’t feel insignificant. She looked up at the façade, searching for the cat and the mouse among the flourishes of stone and lime mortar.
“They say that when that cat catches that mouse,” her mother had whispered to her the first time she took Maria to San Xavier, “it will be the end of the world.”
San Xavier had survived two tornadoes and a lightning strike. Maria would die, decompose, her tissues broken down by bacteria and her own enzymes, her skin the color of livor mortis, bloating with methane and nitrogen, liquid would escape her every orifice until she was dry, dry like the desert she had never left, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But the cat, he would be chasing his mouse until the sun exploded.
Father Smith was shuffling, back hunched, towards his car. Maria wondered whether she could get away with pretending not to see him, but he turned squarely in her direction and waved. Maria waved back faintly and wondered whether he believed souls were actually immortal.
Maria broke the last of her rosaries, letting the red beads cascade onto the floor. She had already shredded entire books from the Bible and snapped her wooden cross like a twig.
“God is supposed to care for all his creatures!”
That night she couldn’t sleep. The word ‘Sin’ throbbed in her head like a pulse.
We are all sinners, she remembered the priest used to say. Tempted by the Devil.
All lies, she thought. Eternal life, what bullshit. She couldn’t get the image of Scarface, lying at bottom of the wash, out of her head. She hadn’t loved him enough, had not cared for him enough, and this was the result.
This is ridiculous, she thought to herself.
She straightened her hair until it smelt like burnt and headed out the door. At Home Depot she lingered in front of a row of kerosene jugs before purchasing golden spray paint.
She was only five miles from San Xavier but with traffic it took her half an hour to get there. She sat down in the last pew. She bit her lip and passed the spray paint can between her hands. It was surprisingly light.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Father Smith asked, motioning to the colorful apse behind the altar. He had sat down next to her without her realizing it.
“I didn’t cry at my dad’s funeral,” she said. “I cried at home but not at the funeral.” She clasped her hands together. “I let my mother give up vacations to pay my college tuition. I lie to my students and tell them that hard work will save them.”
She took a shaky breath. The priest stroked his beardless chin.
“I volunteer at a tutoring program, and once I called this girl an idiot because she never followed directions,” Maria continued. “Nothing happened because she was so shy she never told anyone. But I felt terrible. I brought her candy every day after that.”
She started speaking faster, more insistently.
“And I don’t love my mother. I don’t. I used to lie to her and tell her I was getting straight As so she would be proud of me. I don’t know. One day I realized how small her world was.”
She rested her face in the palms of her hands, her brows furrowed. “I just don’t want to die.”
She stood up, “I have things I should take care—”
The priest was snoring.