My Blue Heaven
My dad likes to say that childhood drags because a minute is such a large fraction of the time that’s passed by for a little kid. I disagree. I think childhood drags because it is boring.
When I was ten, I ached for my life to magically plot itself out like a movie. I wanted action, adventure, for nobody to die, and for every boy I knew to fall in love with me.
Instead, I got church.
In the four years I spent at St. Lucy’s, I sat through roughly three hundred masses. One-hundred-and-ninety-two were Saturday evening masses, where my mom sang and played the guitar.
One hundred and ninety two nights, I sat and stood and kneeled in the very first pew beside my brother and sister. One hundred and ninety-two nights, my butt fell asleep. One hundred and ninety two nights, the priest told the same jokes in his homily. Still, the grownups laughed. I said the Nicene Creed. I said the Our Father. I sang, “Aaaaah-men.” But I wondered what would happen if I stood up and screamed, “FUCK!” instead.
Mass was too predictable. The only thing that changed was the crucifix that hung over the altar. For most of the year, we looked up to the concentration camp Jesus, a crooked and writhing bag of bones. After Easter Sunday, this Jesus was replaced with Burger King Jesus, who wore a gold crown and dress. Both freaked me out. I didn’t trust guys with beards. Also, the hymns were always referring to Jesus like he was food, something we were drinking and eating for holiness. That, combined with the bloody bearded sight of him, left a bad taste in my mouth.
I liked the church itself, the dark rafters, the stained glass, the stony walls. I liked our statue of Mary; she looked like she’d give a good hug. I liked the mystery of the Tabernacle, the little red box and candle that never went out, signaling God was there. I liked the sound of bodies shushing into pews and knocking down the kneelers. I liked getting there early, sitting in the cavernous heft of a quiet church. I liked watching the altar boys hurry around the altar, lighting candles and setting up for the Eucharist. Especially when that altar boy was Chris Nabisco.
Once Mass started, rather than pay attention, during those one hundred and ninety two Saturday nights, I liked to go away.
In my daydreams, I saw the walls of St. Lucy’s church explode in a blast of fire. Depending on the year, it was either the Russians or the Saudis. They wanted to attack America, so of course, their prime target was a Catholic Church in Kimberton, Pennsylvania. And the only person who could save us? Me.
I imagined myself single-handedly directing angry men, screaming women, and crying children to the exits. Old Mrs. Castleberry faints; I hand her to the lectern Mr. Berger, who carries her out. My family? Matthew’s got ‘em covered. Meanwhile, fiery beams tumble down all around us. Soon, Chris Nabisco and I are the only ones left in the church. The roof collapses. Thinking this was it, we say I love you. Then I get an idea. I take the rope from his vestments and knot it into a lasso. I toss the lasso up to a single beam, and Chris and I climb up onto the roof. A helicopter swoops down and picks us up. Safe inside, we make out.
One night of those one hundred and ninety-seven, Chris Nabisco talked to me.
It was in the sacristy—the half-kitchen, half-locker room where we went to meet Mom after Mass. Everyone was changing and packing up to go home. Mom put away her guitar. Mrs. Castleberry put on her coat. Father Hayward and the altar boys defrocked.
As the thin white robe came over Chris Nabisco’s head, I tried not to watch his undershirt ride up and flash the soft curve of his lower back. But he turned to me, blond locks tousled as if from sleep.
“Study for the Social Studies test on Monday?” he asked.
“Only a little,” I admitted.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said.
My voice echoed annoyingly in my head. I told myself: So I’m talking to Chris Nabisco. No big deal. It’s just something I do. But it was too late. The shy mask had already shuttled down over my mouth, and I couldn’t come up with anything more to say.
It was Advent season. Outside the black air hung with the syrupy chill of Christmas. Mom unlocked our Ford Taurus. Matthew and Moira scrambled in. I lifted the guitar and music bag into the trunk.
Across the parking lot, Chris Nabisco opened the back door of his father’s BMW convertible with one hand, and waved bye to me with the other. I waved and smiled back. He got in and was whipped away. Alone in the dark, I wondered: How do I make this dream a reality?
I got an idea a few weeks later, one night while the family was watching “My Blue Heaven.”
In the movie, Italian gangster Steve Martin makes over nerdy FBI agent Rick Moranis. There’s a scene where they dress up in satin-y Italian suits, spike their hair, take their “broads” to a club and dance the merengue. As they dance, Steve Martin says: “Sometimes to change on the inside, a person needs to change on the outside first.”
When I was ten years old, everything meant something. This simple line in a movie struck me as a sign. It was a message from God. If I changed the way I dressed, the way I acted, then I could slowly change me.
Think, Annie, I told myself. What makes ugly girls popular?
The answer came back quickly. Sports.
So I had to dress like a girl good at sports. Maybe if I worked at it, I could even become good at sports.
All this time my mind reeled with ideas, I lay sprawled across the family room floor beside my brother, eating ice cream from coffee mugs and gaping up at the TV.
Suddenly, I heaved a great dreamy sigh and mused out loud: “Steve Martin is a genius.”
It felt so good to have a plan.