The Question of the Weltanschauung
Rachel Gerry (University of Toronto, Canada)
A cold November wind blew through the city, past oak trees and hemlocks, telephone poles and barbeques, and smacked against the third story window of Colleen’s daughter’s apartment. Colleen lay sideways on the sofa, recovering from surgery. After days of immobility she began to enjoy the view. Floating three feet from the ground, she saw from the perspective of The Greats – lovers of artists, dogs with privileges. Everything around her was ugly but hopeful. Bright yellow paint. A large mirror on the south wall. And there, towering above the mantel, a silver crucifix. No matter.
Zoey sat down across from Colleen. “Everything good?”
Colleen nodded. She leaned forward to stroke her daughter’s hair, but was quickly brushed aside.
“I forgot to mention it before, but some people are stopping by,” said Zoey, “we won’t be loud or anything.”
Colleen lay back. “Fine by me.”
Weeks before, Colleen was undressing when she noticed a thick, red lump beneath the crook of her hip. She rushed into the bathroom to examine body parts and sickly pallor, rubbing her body all over, suspicious of whatever was hiding beneath her skin. She waited anxiously for test results, biding her time in front of the television screen. She grew sullen. The voice of Drew Carey echoed through the house as she tried to make amends with death. But then, like nothing, she was saved. Just some fibroids, the doctors said. They would have them removed. A hysterectomy.
After the surgery, her daughter took her in. With Ed gone, there was nobody else to care for her, and it was only fitting that Zoey open her apartment doors – there are certain obligations. It had been ages since Zoey and Colleen had sat across from one another, shared a meal, or had an argument. Ever since Zoey’s conversion they were like friendly opponents. Their aggressions were passive, almost courteous. Colleen didn’t agree with the lifestyle – then again, who would – but she wasn’t about to disown her. In a way, she was thankful for the surgery, without which they might have avoided one another for years.
There was a knock at the door, and a procession of women came filing into the dining room. Colleen peered over the arm of the sofa. One had wispy feathered hair, one was heavy set with a red dress, and another wore a blue-green hat. They exchanged high-pitched greetings and proceeded across the room. Colleen listened in. “So terrible,” said one.
“What do you mean?”
“His lungs gave out.”
“And he passed?”
“I’m so sorry Ruth.”
“Whoever believes in Him shall not perish.”
“God is the measure.”
The women nodded.
Colleen swung back around to face the wall. The words fell through her. God is the measure. If she weren’t so strong of mind, she might have gotten up to put an end to the nonsense. Instead, she would allow Zoey to flaunt her apostles in front of her. She would remain silent. She would face the yellow wall and delve into the half-finished bag of chips that sat crinkled on the floor and salt her frustration. Because that was love, she thought, holding still while the other one made the mistakes they wanted to make.
As far as she was concerned, the conversion came out of nowhere, brick from stone. Whenever they were together, Colleen was caught in a process of mentally revisiting each moment in her daughter’s short life, searching for the tipping point, that instant when reality sweltered.
For a while, she tried to understand. After Zoey joined the church, Colleen brushed the dust off the bible she had sitting at the back of her closet and began to read. She searched for something graspable – a thought, a turn of phrase. She’d held the heavy book in her hands, staring at the tiny front, waiting for something to jump out. Of course nothing did. There were names and genealogies, hymns and psalms. There was the snake. Not a bad beginning. The old stories reminded her of childhood. Things her parents had taught her, stories so ingrained in the culture, she felt as if she were born knowing them. But ultimately, the whole thing was a little antique, overblown and authoritarian.
Colleen searched for something more direct. Something she didn’t have to interpret. She bought a book called I’ve Just Been Born, a piece by the well-reviewed Reverend J. Rood, sort of a ‘what to expect when you’re expecting’ for the new convert. She read it closely, flipping through pages in the late-afternoon light, combing through chapters like: What is sin? What is Prayer? What are the Characteristics of a Christian?
A bird landed on the veranda. Colleen tried to understand. She’d never felt guilt, not serious guilt anyways, only regret, that selfish kind of guilt that tears you up for naught. Colleen was selfish. Her foot itched.
Worst of all was the thought that Zoey’s religiosity was some sort of childhood debris, something Colleen had failed to correct. Zoey had always been difficult – the Jesus thing was just her latest stand. Colleen remembers a trip to southern Spain; Zoey must have been around seven. For three weeks they travelled through towns from Cartagena to Seville, waking up early for hikes through the Spanish desert, across landscapes specked with dusty bushes and the cracked walls of half-broken homes. From Ronda to Jerez Zoey refused to wear sunscreen, protesting its stickiness; it made her feel hot. By day six, the girl was burnt as a used matchstick, miserable to the point of despair. They spent half of the trip indoors, Zoey wining and crying. Colleen giving in. Again.
But Zoey was always just a little bit more than a child. There was a piercing certainty to her, and a premature self-awareness. She had authority. Colleen will never forget Sigmor Beach, the summer after Zoey’s first grade. They spent the day swimming and enjoying the scenery amongst a multitude of other families. Zoey turned to her at one point to ask her something about the sky or the current and she was in awe. What a question, what a clever girl, a special little human being! And when the sun got low and the two of them lay heavy, Zoey’s little hand limp on her chest, there was no telling what a thing she would be.
Colleen was willing to forgive the intrusion. She was. She wanted things to go well. She wanted time. Cheeks drooped and veins rose through thinning skin. Flesh mortified.
Zoey hung overtop, changing the bandage that braced Colleen from hip to hip. Colleen craned her neck to meet Zoey’s eyes.
“Who were those people you had over this afternoon?” she asked lightly.
“Committee members,” said Zoey “St. Mike’s Women for Change. We’re planning a charity gala.”
“I didn’t realize that you were so involved.”
Zoey paused to focus on the tape and gauze. Colleen gazed up at her, implying that the conversation wasn’t over, that her comment was more of a question.
“I guess I wanted to do something for the community,” said Zoey, “it’s for kids with cancer, you know, gifts for the holidays.”
“I see.” Colleen took the tape into her own hands, shoving Zoey’s away.
“But do you really want to dedicate all your free time to that sort of thing?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, choosing centerpieces for a church basement. Don’t you think it’s all just a little bit kitsch?” Colleen laughed.
“Pardon me?” said Zoey.
She looked up to see Zoey red in the face.
“Zoey.” Her voice dragged, as her daughter left the room.
There was no doubt in Colleen’s mind that things took a turn after Ed died. The winter of his passing, Zoey came home from university panic-glazed, her clothes forgotten in faraway drawers. Time was slow. Colleen herself was out of sorts, waking up at odd hours in the night and feeling hostile towards household objects. She remembers one evening in late February. She was walking down the hallway when she noticed a glimmer of light seeping out of Zoey’s bedroom. Through an open crack in the door there she was, bare kneed on hardwood, whispering. God something, heaven something.
The following spring, with hair dyed blonde at the edges, a taller, thinner, Zoey showed up at the door, a gold chain straddling her neck bone, weighted down with a crucifix. Any time Colleen brought it up, Zoey became uncomfortable. Colleen asked her about the necklace and then about her evening meetings. Zoey was brief. After a period of darting around the issue, and Zoey moving out, it had slowly become easier to foster misunderstanding.
Days passed and there had been no real follow up or reconciliation but the sort of gradual mellowing that results from the continued sharing of space. Each day Zoey left the house for work around seven forty-five in black slacks and a collared blouse. Monday was purple, Tuesday white, Wednesday green, and so on. Synesthesia of the working week.
On Thursday Colleen decided to go through the house. She entered Zoey’s room. Windows, crown molding, a bookshelf. The walls were painted baby blue. She spun around a few times on her chair. She opened the window. Breeze. Stared at the billboard outside. Shampoo for you. She tried on one of Zoey’s shirts. Too small. She mussed the bed. There was a vanity in the corner of the room. Colleen sat down, lay her hands on its glassy surface, and stared at herself in the mirror and tried hard not to blink, watching as her face blurred around bloodshot eyes, as she herself became peripheral. And suddenly the room seemed so unreal. A copy of Five Word Prayers. Robinson Crusoe. A small King James. A glass cat on the windowsill. And nothing much else to see. There was stuff in the room but it was empty. Unlike whatever orbited Colleen once, whatever intentions once strewn all over the place, some to be picked up and others to be shoved beneath the radiator. Not just lamps but photoelectric, kinetic flashes of humility and humiliation, because assembling your life was a matter of prompting the right kind of accident. If she could have dinner with any person dead or alive, it would be Ed.
By Sunday, Colleen was anticipating her departure. The days had disintegrated; almost two weeks had past. She was taken by how quickly the body healed, working from the inside to conquer the newly formed lack. In hopes of salvaging something out of the visit, Colleen vowed to make a dinner, to break bread with her daughter and simply enjoy. She lit some candles and set out a tablecloth for a spread of avocado tartines and red wine. Zoey arrived home from work in good spirits and Colleen was grateful to see her at ease. She ate and drank, she spoke about work, and together they griped over the cheesecake-coloured walls.
Later in the evening they sat side by side in the living room. All week, Colleen had been admiring her child; just an ounce of baby fat hung over newly refined features. Zoey was the everywoman, the younger-self. Long legs, tight posture, neat lips and dead smart. The two of them sat in the tight yellow space and Colleen began to feel numb-faced. She took another slug of wine and topped off Zoey’s glass.
“You know sometimes I feel like a goddam bottomless pit.” She pat Zoey hard on the back.
“I can see that.”
“Like a one-woman army.”
Colleen glared up at her. She felt the urge to dismantle the situation, to cast away the pretense of normalcy. She wanted the old girl back.
“Why?” she burst out.
“This.” Colleen threw her hands in the air and allowed them to fall back into her lap. “Break with reality.”
“You don’t have a clue,” Zoey said.
“Is that what you think?”
“I think you’re absolutely selfish. I think you can barely see beyond your own nose.”
“Well I think you’re a disappointment. How do you like that?” Colleen smacked the coffee table with her palm. “Giving it all up at twenty three! Well it’s not that simple. You look out for yourself!”
For a long moment they sat in silence. Then Zoey let out a wiry laugh, barely audible; it seemed to come tumbling out her eyes rather than her mouth.
“Wait here,” she said.
Colleen sat for minutes. Her hands were sweaty and her stomach began to hurt. All those words had left her feeling hollow. She no longer knew what she meant, if she was angry with Zoey, or sick in her certainty that she had missed something, that she had failed to properly nurture a child who now felt the need to look elsewhere.
Zoey came back into the room and called forth with utmost poise and solemnity.
“Come here. I want to try something.” Colleen followed her into the bedroom. Zoey grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her onto her bed. She looked at her as if for the first time. “Lie down.” She took Colleen’s hair and moved it from her face. She pulled her hands apart and threw them to her sides. Colleen felt a bruise developing on her shoulder. All she could see was white, flat ceiling. A drawer slammed shut. And then she felt a warmness on her forehead.
“Priests are supposed to do this,” said Zoey, her touch suddenly delicate, hands lank and graceful as always. Drops of oil dripped down Colleen’s face. “For the sick.” Zoey ran her finger along Colleen’s nose and down and around her chin and onto her neck. Colleen wiped her face and began rubbing the oily water along her arms and across her stomach, down her legs, below her knees. She began to lose awareness of herself and of Zoey. Lost in the turbulent nothing, Colleen wanted only to be new. To be naked and squirming and wailing, a modern infant in a new age, reaching out in the sanitary white of a hospital room, terrified of the light, sunk between a stranger’s arms, all feeling and no memory.
Colleen curled up, smearing oil all over the sheets. She hid her face for fear that if she looked up she would sob. For Zoey. For the fact that there was no next world, but only this one.
Rachel Gerry is a Toronto-based writer. She recently completed her Masters in English at the University of Toronto and looks forward to pursuing a career in writing and journalism. You can find her essays and reviews online at Novella Magazine.