As mentioned in a previous essay, my parents were syncretists. (Or should I say syn-cray-tists?) Picking and choosing whatever they liked from each Judeo-Christian religion we visited, they held contradictory beliefs without apparent conflict — that is, until their teenage daughter confronted them one day. (That would be me.) I was 16 at the time of this incident, and we were all supposedly evangelical Christians.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And by innocent, I mean no one in my family.
Emily drops me off at my home in Cameron Park one Saturday afternoon after I spend the night at her house.
“I’m home!” I call out, letting my backpack slide from my shoulder. The odor of spicy taco meat wafts towards the front door like plumes of alchemical smoke from a medieval Mexican lab. I silently beg God that the cheese is done because the grater never fails to slice the flesh from my knuckles.
“Hello Mawee-ah!” my father squeals in a girly voice. He careens toward me in his dingy brown polyester pants and oyster white dress shirt spattered with food from last night’s dinner, not to mention fresh dribbles of this morning’s coffee. He wants his “kiss,” which means squashing a slobbery, noisy smooch on my cheek as he makes noises like a squeegee on muddy glass. I reluctantly offer my cheek, putting up a hand between him and my burgundy sweatshirt. While other teen girls cut their sweatshirts Flash Dance–style so that they drape off one shoulder, I’ve re-sewn mine into a Renaissance-style bodice. It laces up the front through metallic grommets with a leather thong over an indigo Academic Decathalon t-shirt that I’ve slashed strategically atop the sleeves and in the cleavage. This is my style: New Wave Renaissance Nerd Princess.
My father, an unworthy peasant, continues. “Did you eat lunch with Emily, Mawee-ah?”
“Yup!” I plow down the hallway towards my bedroom at full tilt, as if I could possibly escape The Question.
He abruptly ceases his baby babble, face darkening as his jowls sweat violence. “What did you eat?” he growls. And now, The Question: “Did you eat pork? YOU DIDN’T EAT PORK, DID YOU?”
Every time I leave their presence and return, The Question hits me like Chinese water torture. Did you eat pork? And every time he asks, I usually brush it off with a breezy “No.” To which he consistently responds, “Good! Because pork is a damn dirty meat! I don’t want any daughter of mine eating it.”
But this time the flint of impatience strikes my flammable teenage hormones and I explode in fiery defiance. “Yes! I ate pepperoni and sausage pizza! So what?”
My mother emerges from the master bedroom with a basket of laundry. She’s a domestic chameleon, her butterscotch slacks and vanilla blouse blending into the walls and carpet. “Awwww, Maria! You didn’t!” The way she says it, you’d think I had announced I’d spent the night at Emily’s robbing banks and shooting heroin.
“I did! Because I’m a born-again Christian, saved by the blood of the lamb, and the bible says I can eat whatever I want!” My bible study is about to payoff. Maybe.
“I’ll show you what the bible says.” My father stomps into the family room towards the lamp stand by the couch where his weathered King James Bible sits. On top of his bible squats his Inter-Linear Greek-English New Testament with Commentary. He loves reading the Greek in low, dry whispers, relishing his arcane knowledge over our monolingual ignorance. He could be making it up, for all I know.
Down the hallway, Danielle’s bedroom door flings open. She explodes from her adolescent alcázar. It wavers with the haze of cheap perfumes, Michael Jackson’s music pulsating within. Great feathery earrings swing from her swarthy lobes as she wades into the fray, heavily glossed lips ready for argument. “Dad? Dad! There’s nothing wrong with pork!” she yells.
Like my father, my pubescent sister has one volume for everything: raucous.
“You be quiet!” he roars.
The volume in the house cranks up as the two of them squabble, Danielle defending my position without any better argument than simply repeatedly shouting, “We’re not Jewish!” Of course, they never ask Danielle what she eats. She and her friends probably go to Long John Silvers for plates of greasy popcorn shrimp and juicy crab legs drizzled with butter. Unlike me, she’s also allowed to listen to rock music – that is, if one can call Michael Jackson “music.” Meanwhile, I have to hide my 45s of Annie Lenox, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden in the album jackets of Brahms and Grieg to play whenever my family leaves the house.
“You go ahead and look that up. I’ll be in here with proof!” I dump my backpack on my bedroom floor and close the door. I then pull my New International Version bible off the bookcase shelf where it lives with my mother’s religious books, and collapse on my bed.
I’ve known this fight was coming. Thanks to my father’s penchant for violence, I’ve avoided the confrontation as long as I can. My heart now jackhammers in my chest as I anticipate something just short of Armageddon. Sick of the hypocrisy and ignorance, I am going to prove to them that the Jewish food laws don’t apply to us and then maybe — just maybe — my father will stop annoying the living hell out of me with The Question.
I examine the passages in the bible I’ve highlighted and memorized. Although quaking with apprehension, I briefly fantasize about an idyllic dinner at Sizzler ordering shrimps with my steak and potato.
The shouting between my sister and father stops. After a moment, someone knocks on my door.
My father shambles in without even a bible in hand. I wonder what’s up, as he’s never knocked in his entire life and loves dragging out that Inter-Linear book for no reason. It feels unfair to duel an unarmed opponent, but I figure it’s his theological funeral. Of course, it could be my literal funeral.
“What’s this about you eating pork?” His gruffness is shockingly subdued. Still, you could have swapped the phrase “eating pork” for “smoking hash” or “cutting class.” Disappointment paints pouches under his eyes, his gaze strafing the walls rather than meeting mine. He enters the room and shuts the door, plopping down on the sagging edge of the bed.
I point to the bible lying open before me. “Dad, it says right here — ”
He grimaces. “I don’t care what it says. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”
“Yes, it does! In Romans chapter 14, verse 14 it says, ‘As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.’ And then he says, ‘But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.’”
I reign in my enthusiasm for a moment to avoid stumbling into the next verse, which says, ‘If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’ I leave that out because I don’t consider my family to be “brothers,” and “love” rarely figures in the father equation. Besides, verse 16 follows, which somewhat undermines the previous verse. It says, ‘Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.’ I take this to mean merely that I shouldn’t eat unclean meat in front of people who are offended by it and that I should defend my actions when called on it. But I want to end the quote on a strong point, not one that seems to concede to my father’s bizarre obsession.
My line of reasoning clear, I bravely knot my thread of logic so that it can’t slip: “So, according to the bible, for you, it’s unclean. But for me, it’s not! And as long as I don’t eat in front of you, I’m acting in love. That’s what the bible says.” Although I wait with triumph for his concession, I also keep one eyeball on the window as an escape route.
“Maria, Maria.” He wrinkles his nose, his glasses nudging upwards. “The Old Testament lays out the food laws for a reason. It’s forbidden to eat unclean meat. Pigs and cloven-hoofed animals are filthy.”
Actually, cows have cloven hooves, but they chew their cud and therefore remain on Moses’ menu. Since my father is from Chicago and neither of us has ever seen a real live cow except in a field from the car window, the error is understandable. I let the error slide in favor of addressing the more egregious issue.
“Don’t you see that we’re Christian now and we don’t have to follow those laws?” I tear through the pages to 1 Corinthians, chapter 10 and read out loud from verse 25. “’Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, The earth is the lord’s and everything in it.’” I drill a finger into the page and turn the book towards him.
A tap on the door. “Ah, Maria? Steve?” My mother pushes open the door slightly, peering inside.
Jabbing a thumb at her over his shoulder, my father slides off the bed. “Listen to your mother.” He shuffles out as my mother ambles inside.
Stunned by his denial yet undaunted, I gear up to pitch the argument to my mother, although I know from many a debacle that the fabric of her reasoning is badly frayed. But since she’s here, I figure I might as well try.
“So what’s going on?” Her face lights up with excitement as she lowers herself onto the bed. She probably enjoys being included for once in an “intellectual” discussion between my father and I.
I show her the passages I showed my father and make the identical argument, which I end by saying, “Paul said it! It’s right there!”
My mother shrinks up into herself, folding her arms over her bulging abdomen. She squints at me as she doles out what will go down in history as the least scholarly response ever uttered: “But honey, Paul was the least popular of the disciples.”
“Nobody liked him,” she continues. “So, in other words, we don’t have to listen to him if we don’t want to.”
“Nobody liked him?” My mouth drops open and my mind somersaults as it attempts to follow the corkscrew logic. “He wrote, like, half the New Testament! I’d say he’s pretty seriously important!”
“But he wasn’t that important.” She turns up her nose with apparent indignation. The statement seems to clear up things for her. Standing from the bed, she digs her hands into her hips in her signature pose. “Are you having lunch with us? Or did you eat already with Emily?”
“I ate, Mom.”
“Oh. Well, then help me with the laundry.”
My mother’s logic has me hog-tied. My hopes of ever escaping The Question spiral down the gorge of insanity. I’ve been denied a rational discussion and, with despair, I realize I’ll only ever have peace once I leave the house.
That won’t happen soon enough.