“I had by then loved so much that hadn’t loved me back.”
The church was still there, not changed at all, still with the Pilgrim Travel Hostel on the upper floor and the playground behind. Our apartments—the Church Apartments—were gone, having been razed for parking for the church. Back then, when we lived there, we could always tell who the travelers were. For some reason they always struggled with the lock. We would stand by our window and watch them try to get into the church. You could see not alarm but the warding off of alarm. They would step back and look around as if expecting someone. Richard used to bike to his job at the college. We bought the bike from one of the travelers. We kept it against the living room wall. We didn’t have any money and were afraid of someone stealing it. I would be working in the living room and he would open the door and roll the bike in and then sit on the sofa with his helmet still on. We didn’t have very much furniture—just the couch, a coffee table. We wanted to be ready to move, I think. The apartment building was attached to the church and I found a door that went inside it. I spent time, at night, when I couldn’t sleep, walking the church hallways. Richard always fell asleep right away.
The church ran a daycare called Pilgrim Daycare. During naptime, the children slept on rolled-out mats, without any pillows or blankets. They slept in rows just like that, and made crafts from colored pom-poms—making rainbows that hung from string. I liked the daycare: the colored pom-poms, the snacks in Dixie cups, the day they decorated their bikes in the parking lot.
On Sundays I went to church and Richard stayed in bed. Neither of us was believers, but I was moved by the neighborliness of the event. The deacon had long flowing hair and flowing robes. I was afraid of her equanimity and cheerfulness, but the pastor—a thin, thinning-haired, woman with hurt eyes—it was natural to like her for the stinginess of her gifts. It was the deacon who always read stories during the children’s service, which was the second one of the day, the one that I went to. The pastor sat behind the altar watching as if she had been ordered to stay away from the children.
Back then, a child—a little girl named Ruth Simmons—was taken from Pilgrim Daycare. After class, she had gone out in the hall with the other children and gone up to an adult. They left together, and though the teacher hadn’t recognized the adult, Ruth was so natural that the teacher had thought nothing of it. I don’t remember this time well, except for the pastor, not in robes anymore, but in a linen skirt and blouse in the parking lot, facing the sky as if looking for God. I would say I didn’t believe in God back then, but when I thought of God I thought of the force the woman was communicating with. As if God was everything that wasn’t her. To her we must be God, I thought, though I wasn’t sure what I meant. Mostly back then I thought of how I wasn’t good enough at any one thing. I had by then loved so much that hadn’t loved me back. How was so much inequality possible? Who was loved more than it loved back? Perhaps children. Perhaps that’s why the death of a parent is so painful; it’s the death of the one thing that loved us more than we loved it back.
I knew little about this lost child. I kept meaning to look her up online, to see whether she was found and how. If she had been abused, left again to face an incomprehensible world. Or if some lunatic had simply tried to adopt her in the most direct way. By taking. I’ve always felt that parents, too, take children from some other place. I must have looked it up once. Typing in Portland, kidnapping, Pilgrim Daycare. Or I might not have. I don’t remember the parents from this time. The police were around. They knocked on our door. Richard told them about the place and about ourselves. That we had lived in the apartment for eight months and that he worked at the college. We hadn’t seen anything, had always been happy there, and though it was true people came in and out because of the hostel he had never seen a bad sort. Who knows what he told the police; he had a sensible voice. Early on he thought he might be in radio. They looked about our bushes. Then knocked on the neighbor’s door. You could hear the muffled voice of authority and the gentle response. Not the parents, or reporters, or a change in the events of the church—the only thing I remember was the change in the pastor. In the habit she developed of coming out the back door, the one for the hostel, and staring across the parking lot, her hair blowing.
For years after my divorce I saw a therapist who tried, carefully and slowly, to get me to talk about my father. Because we worked together for so many years, and because those times were spent traveling back—as if in a tube, a dimly felt groping for something remembered—to my childhood, I became girl-like in her presence, as if I were reliving my childhood, this time with her. I became frightened when I found I had no firsthand memories. All my memories were remembered memories. In this way, I disliked talking about them. There was never a way to be certain what happened. My father took me out on the beach. Or we were walking along the shoreline; the tide must have been out because the sand was vast, shimmering. Other people were also on the shoreline and they were far away. My father found a horseshoe crab and flipped it with a stick to show me there was nothing inside of it, but this might have been another time. But he was trying to teach me nature in a meticulous way. This probably happened. But the story I was telling was not the story itself. It was a story I knew because I had told it several times, as a description of my father, a description of his thoroughness.
There was grief, of course, in all of it. What was the point in those years spent with that woman? To access the grief, to claim it as my own and be able to move on with it? But I didn’t want to do it. I turned away from the exercises in memory after a time. I simply loved her. She was diminutive. She hardly filled her chair. When she died of a brain hemorrhage I ended up calling a crisis hotline. It was weeks after the funeral. It was the first time I had ever done that, though there had been stints of other sorts, of psychiatric care. I called not because life had become unendurable, but because I wanted to know what to do in case it became unendurable. They told me I could call the hotline any time, and, if it became necessary, that they had a list of places where I could go. After that was three days spent at the Bellevue inpatient clinic with a doctor named Kurt, and then an outpatient psychiatrist I visited every month for my prescription who I did not care for; she always got my appointments mixed up and made me wait in the hall and then filled out incorrect times on my form to make my wait appear shorter. There was a park, though, some blocks from the hospital and a Thai place that had a lunch special and the most efficient service I had ever come across.
When the girl Ruth vanished one day—never to return again—I felt it had something to do with the travelers. Not that Ruth had been taken by the travelers—as the police had carefully questioned the hostel workers and those who had come and stayed—but that Ruth was one of the travelers, that she had never been with us to stay. I walked the hallways at night and thought of why I traveled, of the feeling of suspension, of impending arrival. I understood the truth, that something terrible had taken place. I shouldn’t romanticize child abductions, though what dizzying confusion it is, with those amber alerts texted to you at three in the morning. A child taken in a copper-colored sedan in an area of the city so far away as to be a distant land. You picture the car racing along with a child, not to anywhere horrible or real, but as if to the moon. And you stand at your window in wonderment at this luminous world. I felt the loss of the child—perhaps as a representation of the little girl my father had left, as the little girl I had never been able to become, or as the little girl I wanted to have. These are the ways we might have talked in therapy, and I had participated willingly, hoping that it might help in some way, but mostly because I liked to talk with that gentle woman. I liked the way she guided me through stories. It was an exploration not of me after a time, but of a place we had made up together.
There were questions: Why would evil happen to children? How do we understand it and continue believing? Is there a way we can understand it? I asked the pastor these questions. I didn’t know how to tell her about the travelers. I found, in the way I would find with my therapist years later—as you often find with someone that you love—a common world that felt manageable. I wanted to but didn’t ask: Do we get to go home? Why did it seem more likely that children got to go home? As if they were closer to the beginning when it came time to return. Maybe we had gone too far.
She didn’t garden and I rarely saw her except when she was in front of the congregation on Sundays. She was never memorably eloquent. How does one get to be known as good at that job? What sense of herself or her profession did she have? I used to wonder about this. She told stories during her sermon; in one, she was in a grocery store, in the fruit aisle, faced with so many inexplicable choices. She must have tied this into faith, though I forget the moves she made. Richard disliked the church and found her interminable. I was riveted, but didn’t say it. She hates being in front of people, I thought. I also couldn’t understand being a true believer. It seemed the most fantastical thing, to be so full of belief in the mystical that you would go up front to teach others. Her face, the pinch of it, and the dusty worn of the eyes made her seem too tired to actually be a believer.
Her office was on the second floor of the building. She was, on the day I first went up, tucked into her desk. She looked up when I came to the door. I introduced myself. Yes, I’ve seen you on Sundays, she said. You live in back. With my husband, I said. Yes, and your little girl, she said. No, I said quickly. We don’t have a child. We would like to, but it will be some time . . . I paused and she didn’t speak, though it had been her mistake. She was waiting for me to explain myself. Perhaps those of faith are used to being told, if they sit still and wait—are used to being told everything. I don’t have a girl, you see, I said. Though I would like one. We’re young still, I said. Too young to take in a child, I thought, imagining them as souls in a hall, waiting for someone to open the door so they could pass through, and that we, the parents, were nothing more than that, not the thing itself, not the moment of their creation. I felt that the girl had returned to the hallway to wait again.
The pastor grew up in a town in New Hampshire. Ellsworth, she said, then asked if I knew it. She took out a large green book. I waited for a theology lesson but in fact she was opening an atlas. She pointed to a dot in the middle of New Hampshire. Her mother had died and her father was an alcoholic, she said. The town had one church in the middle of a field. She never went as her father wasn’t religious. It held her more, she said, than had he had religion and she had gone every week. She hasn’t returned to Ellsworth in twenty years, she said, and still had never gone to the church. Though she called our time together her visiting hours and made clear it was part of her work as pastor—to attend to the spiritual needs of the community—she mostly talked about herself and her beliefs, and not in the sense that she was teaching me, but because she seemed to enjoy talking out loud. Perhaps she hadn’t been given such free range in a long time.
I could see the New England in her. You could see her in a turtleneck with her face whitened with the cold. She had asked me about my childhood, and I talked about my parents. My mother was strict, I said. It was a stern upbringing, a New England upbringing. And she said, Yes, as was mine. She said her childhood would have been lonely if not for her faith, which she had from a young age. I asked her what faith felt like, what it felt like in your body, whether it had a physical sensation such as longing had. I wouldn’t know, she said.
Once I felt the desire to have a baby it took me a year to realize what it was; something clinched me in a tight place in my chest and pulled me, but I didn’t know what the pulling was. It wasn’t what I would have guessed. That you feel the urge to have a baby and a worry that you won’t be able to have a baby. Instead it feels like you’ll expire, there’s a sense of time running out. An urgency as if you’ll die soon. This is what I tried to describe to her, that I hadn’t imagined that about the desire, how physical it would be. She leaned back in her chair, as if to consider, and said, I haven’t felt those things. I don’t know.
I was traveling once—where was I?—I was in Columbus, I think, and I came upon a historical street sign. One of those that described a landmark. This one said Strangers Church and explained that there had been several churches that served the area hotels. I remembered it because, well, weren’t they all strangers’ churches? Hers had been. She was not fit for the work. The congregation didn’t warm to her. She left a year or two after we left. She had a poor memory and poor facial recognition in a job where you needed both. When I had once asked her, Why did you think I had a little girl that one time, she had said that with such a changing prarish, it’s hard to remember most people. She usually didn’t do what she had done that day—give her lack of memory away—but she had forgotten herself for a moment. It was a good guess, with so many children in the congregation. You know, she said, so many parents come because they want their children to grow up around faith, not because they have faith themselves. Which is not the same, she said. Not the same at all.
On the second service of the day, the deacon read to the children. The children came up and she would motion for them to sit around her. Then she would read a story which, in my memory, always involved lambs and the goodness of Jesus. She was jolly and happy and made the children comfortable. Where was the pastor during this time? Sitting back, watching.
My therapist and I used to work on my attachment problems. I tried my best to remember what had taken place in the Church Apartments. Our living room that didn’t have any furniture. The services I went to sometimes, mostly alone, because neither of us had religion but I liked the quiet hall and the pews that were engraved with names of deceased relatives. My nocturnal habits. The long hallways. The room with the children, and the parents standing outside, waiting to take the children away. What did Richard do during this time? she asked, pointing out that when I told stories, he wasn’t there. You must have been lonely, she said. But he was at work; the silence and hard work no doubt helped him as the hallways helped me. We are all lost. Why blame him. It was silly to remember the stories of us not getting along. The melodrama of any couple breaking apart, even two hapless, neurotic people. My feelings for the man who stayed for a month in the neighboring apartment who made jewelry. He lay earrings on the bedspread and let me pick a pair. Feathers I picked and even wore. Mistaking the relief from loneliness that meeting another fragile soul can bring about, mistaking that for . . . well, I was trying to think of what I mistook it for . . . well, for love, of course, but who’s to say it wasn’t love, or what I felt for Richard, that it was love. Who’s to say, really.
Attachment, my therapist told me, was proven in the 70s, that a child will attach to anyone in a parental role, which is what makes adoption possible, which is what makes love possible. Only sometimes it goes wrong in little ways. And we don’t know why this happens, but it does happen, she said.
Before my husband and I left Portland, I went to say goodbye to the pastor. She was tired that day and struggling to write the sermon. She said that sometimes it came and she could feel the words inside her. But lately, she said, it had become harder for her. It felt as if words were not inside her. I wondered if that meant the faith was also not there, but didn’t ask. She had told me she never doubted her faith, that there could be no crisis of faith, that it would feel like not being alive. She sometimes thought that she wasn’t a good pastor. That the faith in her was a private thing and sometimes she didn’t want to talk about it, though sometimes she did.
When I learned that she had left the church, left the faith, and gone back to New Hampshire, I imagined her at the grocery store. Examining the range of fruit in confusion—the watermelon, so alien to the climate, holding it and then having no one to tell about it later. To sit at home at her table by the window. Perhaps the most important thing is to have someone to tell things to. But no, she had faith, she would have felt herself in conversation all the time. Sometimes I thought that maybe I had faith and simply didn’t identify that when I talked in my mind—and I talked all the time—that I hadn’t identified who I was talking to, not allowed myself to feel the presence there. I had considered this one day when I was walking in the new city I had moved to. In this city there was an elevated train that I was always catching sight of in the distance. It was, sometimes, when the light was right, a magical place. The elevated train, the distant Amtrak tracks, all the children, in my imagination, were also in elevated places, as if there were elevated playgrounds, too. I walked and thought, maybe I should have a child. Or maybe all this, this is the response to what I have been asking, only I haven’t been hearing it properly.
Sara Majka's stories have been published in Guernica, Longreads, PEN America, and A Public Space. She is the author of the debut story collection Cities I've Never Lived In, published by Graywolf Press and A Public Space Books. A former fiction fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, she currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.