A Thing of Transcendent Beauty
As a young girl I had dreamed of love. One day, I met someone beautiful.
Adolescence was full of unhappiness and humiliation as the cult sought to break me down and build me up into a woman worthy of a pedestal. But with him I felt elevated. He represented in the purest way all of the things I believed were lofty and transcendent. I had never felt like this before...he was all I could think about. There was something in the way his eyes sparkled, the way he walked, the way he smelled.
My desire was to be to a man as the Church was to Christ--to be a cherished bride--was the highest honor I could have as a woman. Someday, someone would hold and cherish me, and I would surrender my life willingly to his kindness, integrity, and strength.
In my youth and naivete I saw the love of man and wife as a thing of transcendent beauty. Perhaps I was right, and In a way I was like any young girl, wanting to believe that this idea of romance was one of the most beautiful things about life. But for me it was much more than that. I had been taught that my worth and dignity would come from the love of a man, the meals I would cook for him, the shirts I would iron for him, the home I would make, and the children I would bear.
When I could do these things for a man--when I was worth being kept by a man--then and only then would I have dignity. Then I would be blissfully happy, wrapped in a soft cloud of love and acceptance. Perhaps there would be suffering, but it would be admirable and romantic, like the sadness in the faces of saints in my childhood picture books, eyes gazing upwards, hands clasped at the breast as the light of God's grace shone down upon them.
But I would not be with this beautiful, intelligent person. This love of mine went unrequited.
Now, my wedding date was set and fast approaching. I immersed myself entirely in the preparations.
Man was known for a trademark thinly-sculpted line of beard along the jaw, his affected, over-confident sauntering walk, a paint-spattered red sweatshirt, the hood coming up over his head from a cheap imitation leather jacket he wore on top of it. I had been extremely sheltered, but even I could sense something disturbing and predatory about him, with is 80's style glasses, grubby jeans and dirty white sneakers.
He drove a beat-up tin can of a car that was filthy and smelled of cigarettes inside. If he'd forgotten to turn off the radio before he drove onto campus you'd hear country pop music blaring from the windows.
It was the mid nineties. I was 19. Man was in his mid 20's and had come into this cult from an outside world I had never seen. I only knew that Man was the antithesis of my transcendent beloved.
Almost as soon as I had given my speech on graduation day, I no longer lived with my mother. I didn't like the way she controlled me, and so I went to live in the women's dorm on the cult's campus.
The men's dorm was at the other end of campus, but it was not far enough. Man lived there, and that meant he lived where I lived.
Man, who worked at a shop in town owned by my best friend's family, was known for stalking women around town and on campus.
One day I was running errands on Main Street in our tiny little cult town, and my best friend came to me with a bouquet of flowers.
"This is from Man", she said as she handed me the bouquet.
I don't want it. Why would I want this? My god, I don't want anything from Man. I want my unrequited love.
But I was in a cult. I had been trained for this--for submission--from the cradle. I took the flowers as Man gazed at me from far across the street at my friend's family shop.
Everywhere I went, Man was there, asserting his right to possess me. He crept into my life slowly, spreading into the most hidden corners of my life like a stinking, oozing fungus. By the time I realized he was there, it was already too late. This despicable stalker had broken through delicate shell of the teenage naivete that surrounded my hopes and dreams, and the stinking fungus was inside now. The bright flowers of my innocent idealism began to wilt, fade, decay...die...as transcendence was replaced by Man's base desire for sex and control.
We were in "courtship". Then we were "betrothed". And in this cult, a marriage would be for life.
This was the life sentence Man had given me. I could do nothing but accept the inevitable.
I created six bridesmaids dresses, perfectly tailored to each girl who would attend me. Their calico dresses, modest and feminine, covered with bright pink flowers, would contrast beautifully with my white satin brocade and lace on a warm early June day.
I would make all seven dresses--six bridesmaids dresses and a bridal gown--completely by hand. Part of me was standing at a distance knowing that I was losing everything I had held close to my heart my entire young life. The other part of me was determined that if I couldn't change what was happening to me, perhaps I could still look through other people's eyes and see myself in the romance I had always dreamed of.
All of the dresses would reflect femininity and grace--true Catholic womanhood. They would all be created from the same classic, understated, modest pattern.
I had been making my own clothes throughout my teenage years, so for me this was the kind of rote work that freed my mind to roam unfettered into the recesses of my subconscious, turning anxieties over and over, looking for truth. Looking for control. Looking for a way out. Looking for hope for unrequited love.
As I sewed and let my thoughts run wild, I felt all of my girlhood hopes and dreams slipping away from me. Why couldn't I say something to stop this? Why couldn't I scream? Why couldn't I run?
I was bound to Man in a solemn betrothal ceremony in the church, and now my June wedding was creeping slowly but inexorably closer and closer.
The dresses took shape. Bodices. Sleeves. Graceful, modest necklines. Full gathered skirts. All the while I tried to imagine myself telling him that the wedding was off. That I didn't want to marry him. That I didn't love him. That those love letters I had written weren't real. That when I pulled back from his touch, from his kiss, looked away from his gaze that this was not the chaste reserve of a Catholic woman. This was revulsion.
My heart was breaking, but I was powerless to change course. I could not overcome the brainwashing, indoctrination forced so deep into my mind to keep me in submission. A violent battle raged inside my mind but there was nothing I could come up with that was big enough to get me out of this. I was powerless to unravel their narrative, nor could I construct a narrative of my own.
For my bridal gown, I purchased white brocade satin. It would be made from the same pattern as the six bridsemaids dresses: beautiful and formal, but understated and humble as I imagined the Virgin Mary to be. A train would be too ostentatious for an ideal Catholic woman.
Even though I did not entirely know what it meant, I understood that I would have to give my body to this Man.
Man was my superior. I could not offer him an inferior body. He had the right to expect soft skin, as smooth and white as porcelain, and the ideal shape of a womanly figure. I imagined the horror and rejection on his face, and what he might think and say if I did not meet his expectations.
And so I dieted. I lavished lotions and creams all over my body. I constantly checked my figure in the mirror to make sure I was progressing toward perfection.
Even while I was making my wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses, I made new every-day dresses to wear in my new life too--not forgetting that he would have to also admire me clothed. If I was going to make the cut as an ideal Catholic bride, nothing less than the best would do.
Under my veil, I would wear my hair in a bun accented with clusters of pearls. I would not be wearing any makeup. God didn't approve of makeup, but in the beauty of nineteen-year-old youth I didn't need it anyway.
Even as I dreamed of love as a young girl and into my teen years, I had worked hard on my development into the true womanhood. I espoused classical European art and music. I made my clothes, clothes that I believed reflected my role as a true woman. I wore my hair in a bun because I believed that it communicated dignity and worth. I walked with both confidence and humility to prepare for the future role that I dreamed of. As I became an ideal woman, I dreamed of an ideal man.
One night during this time of wedding preparations I went to sleep in the cult women's dormitory and dreamed about Man. I saw him speeding down main street in a red car, similar to his, but larger, enough to fit several other large men. He was standing inside the car while another man drove, almost his entire torso out one of the windows, shooting a gun as a car sped away. The other men were shouting and firing their guns into the surrounding shops.
I awoke drenched in sweat and wracked with sobs, as all of the thoughts that I could not form while I was awake and sewing the dresses and risen to the top of my consciousness in sleep. I somehow knew that he was not what the dignified woman I had worked to become deserved. This was what I thought of him, deep in my soul.
I had to call Man on the phone immediately.
I dialed the phone. He answered in a groggy voice and I told him about the dream.
Maybe if I could talk to him I could remember that it wasn't so bad. He wasn't really a criminal. He wasn't really killing me and everything I had ever wanted in my life.
I arose the next morning to resume my work on the dresses, working frantically as if I could somehow sew my way back to hopes and dreams of love.
The organ played a wistful, achingly beautiful ceremonial march as I walked down the aisle, admired by pews of adoring eyes. My husband gazed upon me from the altar. I was a woman on a pedestal.
The day of the wedding I awoke at my mother's house where I had lived from the time of our exodus from Maryland to my highschool graduation...the blue and white house she had bought because it was the colors of Our Lady. I had moved out of the dormitory on the cult campus in preparation for the move to my new home with my husband. I would be in that new home with him tonight. My fate would be sealed.
I put on my dress that I had made. I put my hair up, and covered my face with the beautiful lace veil. My bridesmades excitedly put on the dresses I had made for them.
We all left the house, but I don't remember the drive to the campus.
I don't remember walking in a beautiful procession of flowing white and floral fabrics from the parking lot to the door of the chapel.
I don't remember going inside.
I have only flashes of memory of standing in my wedding dress in the vestibule with my bridesmaids as the guests arrived.
I know that I walked down the aisle toward Man, my arm in my grandfather's, and that my grandfather gave me away. I know that the organ played the music I had chosen. But I don't remember it.
Perhaps my memories end where my heart finally broke in two.