First Holy Communion
On Sunday morning, my big sister got me ready to receive my third sacrament. Ashley plopped me in front of our plasma screen television and doused my damp hair with children’s apple-scented detangling spray. She handed the lime green bottle to me and began to brush, SpongeBob’s obnoxious laugh making her tug at my scalp more forcefully. The purple octopus on the bottle played jump rope. He looked embarrassed. I stared at the bottle and tried to imagine an octopus jumping rope. Sure, it would be hard to do on land, but it would be pretty easy to do underwater. The octopus would just float over the jump rope, glide through the gravityless, liquid space. If I could do a handstand underwater, I thought, an octopus could definitely jump rope underwater.
“If you’re not watching it,” Ashley warned, “I’m shutting it off.”
She pulled her blow dryer and curling iron out of the wicker basket that she normally stored underneath the bathroom sink. That made me feel sophisticated and womanly, my sister using her own big girl beauty arsenal on me. She got up and wedged herself into the tight space between the wall and the couch to reach the outlet on the wall.
Mom had hung my white dress on the back of the bathroom door to steam it while Dad showered. Mom, upon hearing the water shut off and the shower curtain drawn back, hurried down the hallway and opened the bathroom door to retrieve my dress. Ashley cursed as she attempted to untangle the cord of her blow dryer. Dad began to talk to Mom, his voice low and earnest..
“Sarah,” Ashley said to me.
I ignored her. I strained to hear Mom and Dad’s conversation over the exhaust fan thrumming.
“Sarah,” Ashley said again.
“The whole thing is wrong,” said Dad. “She’s too young. She doesn’t understand. She can’t understand. An eight-year-old kid cannot understand religion.” He spoke quietly, yet quickly, urgently.
Mom let out an emphatic, high-pitched grunt, the same noise that she made whenever she got mad. She walked out of the bathroom gritting her teeth and furrowing her forehead. She still made sure to hold the dress gingerly, though, so that it would not scrape against the doorframe or the hallway wall.
“My father isn’t going to the grave knowing his granddaughter never received her First Holy Communion,” Mom stated with calm, controlled anger.
“Sarah!” Ashley snapped.
“What?!” I whined back.
“Here!” she said, shoving the blow dryer into my hands. “Just hold this while I move the couch.”
Dad never knelt at the monthly Mass that my school held. He never ate the Eucharist, either. I hated it. It embarrassed me. Everyone else’s family knelt and ate the Eucharist at Mass. More than anything, though, it scared me. Was my father bad?
About an hour later, I climbed carefully into Mom’s minivan, trying not to wrinkle my freshly steamed dress. My hair felt crunchy from all the heat protectant and hairspray. I sat forward so that my hair would not touch the headrest, arching my back uncomfortably. I scratched the white nylon that covered my thigh with my fingernail, listening to the sound that it made. It sounded like when Mom would zip up my jacket real fast. My mind wandered. Soon, I thought, I would be like an adult; I would be able to receive the Eucharist at Mass when I went every Sunday with Grammy and Poppop.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the church, I immediately searched for the magnolia tree next to the entrance. I loved that tree. I loved to stand underneath it and look up, pretending that the sky had turned pink.
I could see Christian Sullivan through my window. We would be walking together down the aisle. He stood with his family outside of their car. His mom straightened his tie and needlessly smoothed his hair, hardened with gel. His face contorted with anger as he swatted his mom’s hand away from his head. Dad parked the car. I immediately unbuckled my seatbelt, slid the heavy door open, and hopped out, my heels clicking against the asphalt. Mom yelled at me to slow down, to wait for her to go out into the parking lot.
We followed the cobblestone pathway that led to the entrance of the church. We were approaching the magnolia tree. I looked at my family imploringly, silently begging them to stop when we passed it. They avoided eye contact, and Ashley began to quicken her pace. She hated when I stood underneath that tree. I had done the same thing at her Confirmation the year before. Half an hour after the ceremony ended, we were still at the church because I insisted on playing underneath that tree. I just sat on the ground, picking up one fallen petal by one, feeling its silky surface and admiring the wonder of its seemingly artificial color. This time, though, Mom touched the small of my back with her fingertips and gently pushed me forward. Maybe, I thought to myself, we could stop by afterward.
Once we were seated inside the church, I looked absentmindedly at the choir, who had to stand whenever music started to play. I thought of how I would hate to be part of the choir. It would stink to have to stand over and over again for so long. I would rather sit. I thought of the first Mass I had attended my first year at parochial school. When the altar boy had walked down the center aisle of the church, carrying the crucifix, I noticed Jesus’ body and asked loudly, “Why is he naked?!” Mrs. Berchin did not like that. She gritted her teeth and widened her eyes threateningly at me. I pointed at Sabrina, who sat next to me. Mrs. Berchin stood up and grabbed Sabrina by the arm and led her out of the pew. I assumed Sabrina had gotten over it by now. I glanced at where she sat now. She picked her nose and flicked it onto the marble floor.
During theology class the week before, we were advised to consciously appreciate the deep pain that Jesus endured to save us, the nail piercing his palm, thorn piercing his scalp, the wet heat of sorrow and defeat painting his cheek. Recognize the immortality and innate evil of humankind. I could only wonder what part of his body we would be eating. His left knuckle? His right nostril? His pinky toe? The squishy part of his ear? I wondered how there could be so much body to go around. Had the pope cloned his body so that there would be enough for everybody to eat? I thought of my cousin’s First Holy Communion. He and the rest of his second-grade class were allowed to drink grape juice instead of wine. We were not having grape juice or wine. I seethed with resentment. My sequined white dress scratched my skin raw.
My crown sat snug on my head, pinching my scalp.
Christian and I marched toward the altar to eat God. The scandal of walking so ceremoniously alongside a boy made my stomach flutter with nervous excitement. I glanced at where my family sat periodically, the felt sign that spelt my last name pinned to the end of the pew. Whenever the rest of the congregation knelt, Dad remained seated.
I approached Father Walter. His six foot three figure stood before the altar and towered over me. I expected him to hold up the circular silhouette of the Eucharist that resembled the Nilla Wafer we had practiced with during theology. He instead picked up out of his own palm a chunk of human flesh, dark pink and stringy around the edge, the exact part of the body that it had been taken from indiscernible. It smelled like rotten fruit.
“The body of Christ,” said Father Walter.
I held out my hands the way we were taught, left over right. Father Walter laid the wafer on my outstretched palm, flesh touching flesh. Lost and afraid, I pinched it with my thumb and index finger and popped it quickly into my mouth, ignoring the squishy thickness of it. It felt cold and wet, like it had just been taken out of a freezer. It reminded me of when I would accidentally bite the inside of my mouth, except that this time I could not feel anything. Bile rose at the back of my throat. I looked at my dad. He could not look, stared out the narrow, tall window at the end of their pew. I wanted him to take me, expected him to jump up and save me. He did not move. I wanted to cry.
I looked at the magnolia tree through the stained glass window near the entrance. The pink was not visible through the kaleidoscopic glass, obscured by the deep crimson of the pane.
Natalie Martusciello is a rising senior at College of Charleston. She can be seen eating an obscene amount of watermelon while watching an old sitcom at any time of day (as long as it is during watermelon season). She is too sensitive for her own good and has no control over the way that other people make her feel. Through storytelling, though, she is able to influence emotion, both her own and that of the world around her.