From Part II of “In Disconnect”: Honey Slumber
He looks down at his tired brown shoes and tries to recall his memory of the ’81 world series. The Dodgers and the Yankees face off for the third time in five years. The venerable coach, Tommy Lasorda, knowing somehow, as if he were the clairvoyant of major league baseball, that the Dodgers would clinch the series in six games. Meanwhile, the rest of the world sat on the edge of their seats, in front of their television sets and placed their collective hearts into the outcome of this series, unsure if they would emerge heart broken or victorious.
In the end, half of the nation emerged triumphant, when the Los Angeles Dodgers indeed sealed the deal in six games. On the east coast, Yankee fans hung their heads low and mumbled grievances against the umpire calls, the poor coaching staff, and the Yankee bums that could not manage to get a hit in the 9th. New Yorkers were quick to betray the team that they once heralded as the greatest of their generation.
Daniel Martinez knits his brow as he conjures the memory of his father popping open another six pack once the Dodgers hoisted the coveted championship trophy high up in the air. Daniel’s father was raising his beer bottle just as high and just as proud as the Dodgers were hoisting that trophy.
That did it, it pushed out the thoughts of Esperanza. Since he arrived at work, all he could think about was Esperanza. It was untenable. But now, he could stand up and face his class.
Daniel Martinez stands up from his desk and faces his class of twelfth grade students. The once eager and bright faces, now downtrodden with anxiety and stress, all twenty of them, awaiting his directions that would begin the instructional period. It is early February, and seniors in high school are mired in the bog of college applications and acceptances. Senior year always spirals into a yearlong study in torture. The relentless anxiety that befalls each student as the fate of their future hangs in a precarious balance results in a noticeable paucity of joy in the lives and in the faces of his students.
As he looks out into the still sea of students before him, he bears witness to the aftermath brought about by their obsession over grades, their cumulative GPAs, letters of recommendations and SAT scores.
Their eyes are lackluster, their pallor contained a hint of grey, and even the prettier girls’ normally vibrant features were dulled.
Nevertheless, a curious phenomenon had been occurring in his classroom since they returned from winter break in January. Every student severely overcompensated in his classroom. When he asked a question, everyone seemed to want to answer. This behavior did not appear to be born out of the love of academic enrichment, he could read from their desperate faces, but instead for the validation that accompanied a correct answer. When they raised their hands and waited to be called on, their eyes were wide and glassy, their faces flushed, the way one appears before they are about to cry. When he assigned a five-page paper, some students turned in ten, out of sheer compulsion. Daniel had to admit, though, every paper he received was arguably better than the last. He ascertained that every paper submitted from his students was truly novel and inspiring work.
As he grades each paper, he can picture each student’s hands raised and their faces pinched as they vie for the spotlight, the floor, for validation, for Daniel to call on them for the answer.
Daniel Martinez is a first-year teacher at the most prestigious college preparatory school on the west coast. It is a beautiful, stately private Catholic school for the region’s most affluent and privileged families. Its name is a symbol of pride and promise: Immaculate Soul College Preparatory high school.
He isn’t sure what he is doing here.
Daniel swore that once he was done with his master’s degree, he would return to his humble beginnings in Brooklyn and not get sucked into the corporate business of education. The business of education is a cold one in which the unfortunate recipient of its ineptness and failings were children. The business of education had the power to condemn an entire generation of people with one capricious, careless flex. It was a business that devoured its young; it engendered a new type of infanticide as it sacrificed those students who required the most support in favor of those that were considered the elite. Schools that only sought the cream of the crop, those whose test scores showed promise, whose students would bring pride to the school and its administrators, systematically and insidiously made education inaccessible to those that could not furnish these things.
But this isn’t news.
This has been the state of education for years, generations. It has shaped the cultural landscape that Daniel, too, traipsed, however apprehensively so.
Nevertheless, when one of the most highly respected professors at Daniels University had secured him the interview at Immaculate Soul, it was impossible to turn it down and profess his auspices for inner city, urban education, which was generally regarded at his University as inferior.
He was told that it was the university’s goal to have at least one graduate a year gain an interview with the staff at Immaculate Soul College preparatory high school. Although he looked upon the school as elitist and regarded it with more than a considerable amount of derision, he nevertheless acquiesced to the interview. A staunch opponent of social Darwinism, he interviewed guardedly. His hopes weren’t high. At that time there had been countless interviews, but no hires for any graduate of his University. And then the tide turned: he was offered a teaching position.
That was a long time ago, he muses as he focuses back to his soundless sea of students.
Still, he questions: What is he doing here?
And then the thoughts come racing back. He’s here because of Esperanza.
Shit, no, no, not right now. Fuck, not again.
He thinks over and over again as he reaches the lector’s podium. He puts his right hand on the Proust that lay before him and fought back the images that were barreling down at him.
The way her blouses gather at her feminine waist and meet just above the hemline of her skirt. He had a thing for skirts. Something about the way they revealed just enough of a woman’s body; as if her body contained a secret that could only be revealed in a whisper.
He clears his voice.
1981 Dodgers. 1981 Dodgers. Tommy Lasorda sweating in a dug out. He was a big son of a bitch back then. Bet he stunk. Pit stains and all….
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From “Have Faith” (2015)
He spoke casually into the phone that night. He knew it was late and they’d covered topics that were far too familiar, but he still pressed on.
“A lot of people tend to forget I’m just a regular guy under my collared shirt, slacks, and plastic name badge. They think because I’m a missionary, suddenly I’m this new classification of human,” Elder Tensen said.
“I’m sure a lot of missionaries feel that way.” Layla curled the phone cord around her fingers. She was stretched out on her bed, looking up at the ceiling in the darkness at nearly one o’clock in the morning. As he spoke, she gently touched her belly in small concentric circles. “
You’d probably be surprised, Layla. Most missionaries here are perfectly content with being a non-man. They are okay with abandoning all human proclivities for two years to spread the Good Word. Proselytizing is The Mission in life and I accept that in my heart, but I’d also like to remain a regular human as well. A man.”
Something about hearing him say “man” excited something deep in Layla’s belly beneath her fingers.
“It must’ve sucked having to leave college just as you were getting started,” she said. “A little. But college life was just so… ugh!” They both laughed. After their laughter died down and an awkward silence settled between them, Elder Tensen asked in a low, soft voice, “Know what I’ve been wondering?”
“What’s that?” she asked, her voice bright with curiosity, but still just a whisper.
“What your room looks like.”
“My room? Like my bedroom?” she asked, her concentric circles becoming smaller, tighter.
“Yeah. Describe it to me. What’s on your walls, on your nightstand? What color are your sheets?” Her face flushed. Her room was decorated like any sixteen-year-old girl’s room. There were pictures of her friends on the walls, a picture of her and her boyfriend on the nightstand.
“My sheets are white with this red paisley flower print. I got them over the summer.” He countered by saying, “You know, it would help me understand you better if I knew what you were doing in the moment.”
“I’m not really doing anything interesting,” Layla said, biting her bottom lip. A few moments passed between them, slowly, like rich honey.
“Comfy?” he asked, his voice dipping even lower.
“I bet. All warm and toasty in your pajamas?”
“I don’t really wear pajamas to bed.” She gulped, wondering how that answer flew out of her mouth without her permission.
“You don’t? Well, then what do you wear?” She hesitated for a moment while her fingers danced along the waistline of her underwear. Feeling self-conscious, she closed her eyes tightly.
“I can’t believe I’m telling you this. But, I…um…sleep in my underwear.”
“Why would you be embarrassed by that? It’s perfectly normal. Do you know what I sleep in, Layla?”
“No.” Her fingers danced lively.
“My underwear. You see? Not so bad, is it?”
“I guess not.”
“It’s natural, Layla. It’s natural to want to feel unencumbered and free. In real life and, well, especially while you’re in bed.” She smiled and felt his presence right there, with her. He was in her paisley sheets, as the warmth that started in her belly spread all over her body.
“I liked it. I liked talking to him. That night, I liked everything about it.” Layla spoke candidly to Dr. Dabney.
“That’s fine. Liking a phone conversation is not an indictment on your personal character.”
“But it is. And not just on my character, but on my spirituality. Missionaries are chaste, and we are taught to strive to attain this type of purity. What I was doing that night was nothing but lustful.”
“I see,” the doctor said as she continued writing notes, with raised eyebrows. Layla nodded, holding her arms a little tighter, as if sensing the doctor’s follow-up question.
“Did you think there was anything peculiar with the way he was talking to you? The length of the conversation? The types of questions he was asking you?” Dr. Dabney asked as she sat back in her seat and peered at her patient.
“Peculiar? Well, not exactly. No, at the time it made me feel good. And I couldn’t wait to see him at service on Sunday,” Layla offered. She looked away from the doctor and began shaking her foot. Not wanting to push Layla too far too quickly, Dr. Dabney changed her approach, “So you liked him? You had affectionate, romantic feelings for Tim?”
“Well, yes and no. At the time, I didn’t really have the mental or emotional ability to process my emotions or the physical things I was feeling meaningfully. Even as we speak today, I still don’t. I only have a very superficial understanding of the complexity of my emotions toward Tim.”
“To gain understanding of the experience, it takes time and a fair amount of work.” “Work?”
“What we are doing here,” Dr. Dabney answered softly. Layla’s expression relaxed a little. Her brown eyes rounded out at the edges and her breathing softened.
“Is it fair, Layla, to say that Tim excited you? You were excited to be near him, to see him?” Dr. Dabney asked.
“That’s all I knew at the time: that he excited me, that I felt a connection with him. But beyond that, I was too entrenched in the Church doctrine and still believed he was a missionary, and nothing more. Missionaries couldn’t possibly be the objects of sexual desire. Besides, what is sexual desire? What is sex? I had no idea. Not a clue. I still don’t.” She sighed before she continued.
“A missionary’s only purpose is to spread the word of God. They could heed no distractions, in any form. Did you know that while on their mission they cannot watch TV or listen to the radio? They can only talk to their families twice a year! So, who was I to entertain the thought that Tim was anything other than a good, pure missionary?”
“Did you really believe he was good and pure?” Dr. Dabney challenged her.
“I had to believe that. There was nothing else to believe. The Church made me oblivious to what was really going on.”
“What was going on, Layla?” She looked up at the doctor’s face and their eyes locked. With deep conviction, Layla said, “He was clearly grooming me, luring me away from my world and into his.”
That Sunday service following their phone call, Layla could hardly contain herself. She arrived at church with her parents and two younger brothers, having carefully selected her outfit that day. The Church endorsed only the most modest apparel: knee length skirts for girls, belts and well-fitted slacks for the boys. Cardigans and cotton blouses were a staple for the women, while the men wore collared buttonup shirts. The married men of the congregation were allowed to wear ties.
Layla wore a light pink skirt, a white blouse, and a cardigan. She wore her hair down and applied a minimal amount of makeup. Even though cosmetics, and the application of, were frowned upon in the Church, they weren’t necessarily forbidden. Upon approaching the church, families were greeted by all of the missionaries. At any church, there were four missionaries, usually in two pairs of two. Young men, plucked out of their youth, standing awkwardly in their black slacks and starched shirts, extending their hands and hugs to each member who came their way. Quickly, Layla spotted Elder Tensen standing next to Elder Marcus, smiling politely at the widow Hendrickson, giving her a hand up the one step into the church.
It was the only church in town. The only church for miles and miles. Built of wood, the white paint was chipping and worn from the weather. One sign, written on a wooden board, was the only ornamentation that adorned the church. Its simple message read “Welcome” and hung from the side of the church. Two cement steps and a white wooden railing flowed into the open doors. Two windows framed the door that offered only a glimpse of the activities that took place inside. Having served no utility for decades, a tarnished bell sat atop the church in the steeple, bearing silent witness to everything below it. Layla started to walk toward Tim as her father wrangled one of his two auburn-haired boys and her mother carried the youngest boy, a toddler, whose bright red hair seemed to be the family trademark. She was so mesmerized by Tim that she failed to see her boyfriend approaching.
“Hey,” Roman said, giving his girlfriend a light kiss on the cheek. “I thought that was your family’s car coming in. I’m so glad to see you this morning. I was getting a little nervous. It is just a few minutes until service starts. I hoped your family wasn’t running late.” He embraced Layla. She felt disoriented, but as Roman pulled away from her embrace, she managed to conjure a very convincing smile.
“Do you need any help, Mr. Erickson?” Roman called out to Layla’s father, who was still refereeing the two boys. Layla’s father wasa tall man with thick wavy red hair. His brown eyes were like bark, dark and strong. He wore a trimmed mustache and that morning he was dressed in a neatly pressed collared shirt and tailored trousers. His wife, Layla’s mother, always pressed his clothing and tended to his garments on Saturday nights. He looked younger than his forty years with his shoulders broad and his arms strong. He didn’t smile easily, but he was a devout man of strong convictions.
“No, but thank you. Good to see you this morning, Roman,” her father said as he finally put one boy over his shoulder and tightly gripped the hand of the other one.
“And to you, too, Mr. Erickson. Mrs. Erickson, good Sunday morning.”
“Good to see you today,” her mother said, kissing Roman on the cheek. “Shall we go? It’s almost time.” Layla turned and followed him.
Roman Carter was a tall, lanky, dark-haired boy whose family members were considered leaders within the Church. Roman’s father was a veteran missionary, serving ten years for the Church, when members are only required to serve two years. He was often a guest speaker at Sunday service, and that day, he was giving a short lecture on the importance of heeding the words of the living prophet. Members of the Church celebrated their living prophet. The prophet was their lifeline to God. Divinity in human form. He lived in Zion, a few hours from town, and was rarely seen in public. However, Roman’s father visited the prophet at least once a month in Zion. Roman was never allowed to accompany his father on these visits.
Roman was the oldest of seven children, well, almost seven. His mother was currently pregnant with her seventh. Members of the Church were encouraged to have large families. Most families had five or more children. Layla’s family was considered small, in relation. Nevertheless, Roman was a good kid by all measures. A fine, devout member of the Church. Roman and Layla walked side by side, always in their parents’ eyesight, as this was the appropriate courting behavior in their Church. Hand holding, intimate hugging, and kissing anywhere but the cheek had all been deemed immodest and inappropriate. They approached the church, Layla’s heart beating thunderously in her chest. The first missionary to greet them was Elder Marcus, who seemed genuinely happy to see Layla and her family. His gray eyes beamed unabashedly at the family as he greeted each person warmly.
“Good morning, Ericksons! And happy Sunday! So glad to see you all today.” Elder Tensen looked on as his partner delivered the greetings. Layla couldn’t help but watch Tim expectantly. When it was his turn, he shook Layla’s hand and wished her a perfectly perfunctory “good morning” before greeting her parents and siblings, even kissing the youngest Erickson on his forehead. He opened the church door for the Ericksons and then turned to greet the next family.
Roman led Layla to their usual seats, near the front. The bench seats creaked under their weight. Made of wood, they were not lacquered like pews in a Catholic church. They did not shine. They did not even seem to invite people to take comfort in their refuge. There were five rows straight across the church. This was enough seating for every member of the town—men, women, and the many children. Layla looked over her shoulder as the missionaries quietly closed the church doors. He didn’t even look at me. He barely talked to me. I might as well have been the widow Hendrickson.
Elder Tensen walked alongside his partner and took a seat at the front of the church, with the rest of the missionaries. She looked down at her hands. I may look the same from afar, but I know if people looked closely at me, they would see I’m different. Something about last night changed me.
The crowd ceased its gentle prattle as the service started. Mr. Carter took to the podium. His graying blonde hair receded near the base of his scalp so it looked like his hair was nearly translucent. He smiled and wished everyone a good morning, his voice bouncing off the walls of the church. His dark brown eyes glimmered as the morning sun filtered its light through a bare window. There wasn’t any stained glass in this church, no ceramic idols to light candles at, no leather bound hymnals to sing from. Every one knew the hymns by heart.
“In this living moment,” Mr. Carter began, “we are the luckiest people in the world. We are. I want you to know that and to feel that in your heart. Do you know why?” He paused, jutting out his chin as if he were listening intently for an answer. “Because we are living during the time of a living prophet. Our living prophet, Gerald Hendle, is a direct line to the big guy upstairs. He can tell us exactly what God wants from us. He can tell us how God wants his people to act and what He wants us to do. This entire church and members of our faith across the world are blessed to have our living prophet walking the earth during our time. And what does he say? Hmmm? What does the prophet say God wants? What does God want to see more than anything in the world? Do you think God wants to see more elaborate churches built in His name?”
Well-trained, the congregation responded in unison, “No.”
“Do you think God wants to see more unwed pregnancies and divorce? Alcoholism and substance abuse? Is that what our Father wants for us?”
“No,” the members resounded selfrighteously.
“Of course not.” He raised his arms up enthusiastically over his head, his loud voice booming through the church.
“He loves us!” someone shouted from the back.
“That’s exactly right.” He pointed toward the voice in the back, his forehead now bathed in sweat. “He loves us, and because He loves us, he wants only the absolute best for us! The living prophet tells us He wants us to multiply his love! He wants us to love our families, to care for them and bring them up in the Church in the hopes they may one day know eternal life. The living prophet tells us that all of this begins with the family. Look around you, love your family, for these will be the people you will spend eternity
with, if you are so blessed.”
Roman looked over at Layla and said, “My dad really knows the Word. He lives it everyday.” Without looking at him, Layla said, “You should be so blessed.”
After the service, Roman walked a quiet Layla to her family’s car. “Is there something on your mind?” he asked.
“No,” Layla said, wrapping her arms around her stomach. “I’m just tired.”
“Service today was so rejuvenating, though. Gives you the energy to get though the week, right?” Roman asked, searching Layla’s face for a clue as to whether she felt it or not. Layla smiled crookedly, awkwardly, barely, at Roman. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow,” he said, pecking Layla on her cheek. He went to find his mother to help her load his siblings into their car. His father remained in the church, talking casually with the new missionaries. Before she opened the door to her family’s minivan, there was a tap on her shoulder.
Samantha looked at her excitedly, “I forgot to tell you the missionaries set up our second lesson for today at my house.” Samantha was plain in every sense of the word. Her brown eyes were round, with no distinct spark in them. Her nose was small and her thin lips were pale pink, a sharp contrast to her olive-toned skin. Her hair was dark and kept short. The only remarkable feature about Samantha was that when she was angry, her eyes became beady, like two flat stones. Layla looked over at her father who was struggling with the youngest Erickson, but he poked up his head and said impatiently to Layla, “Yes, go.”
As Samantha ushered Layla over to her family car, it suddenly occurred to her that her father provided her with an answer to a question that she had not asked.
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