I Write Tragedies, Not Sins.
Part I: Talia
By Xiana Fontno
When I was 7, I was caught in the bathroom with a 4th grade girl named Angela Mason, examining her breasts. I was curious. I’d seen my older sister Vivica undressing that morning. She was 16 at the time and was quite physically established for her age. I watched her walk out of bed naked and slide gracefully into a silken slip right before pulling a tight black dress over her slim yet, curvy figure. her breast were perfectly pushed together in that dress. I remember feeling intrigued by this. The lace from the dress lay perfectly across her chest, not ruining the tightly compact cleavage that she now had.
Sister Agnes was the nun who found Angela and I. We were out at recess and snuck into the bathroom. Angela was a bit heavy for her age, but also had breasts. She was 9. She told me about how she had gotten her period already. I winced at this despite not fully understanding what a period was at the age of 7. Vivica had showed me blood in the toilet once while telling me she had her “monthly visit. Angela explained how her mother took her to go buy a bra the other day because she was “becoming a beautiful young lady”. I wanted to see it so we went into the bathroom. She stood in front of me and pulled up her shirt.
“Wanna touch it?” Angela asked.
“Go ahead. It doesn’t bite.” I reached my hand out and felt the cup of her left breast. It was a training bra.
“They feel squishy,” I said, laughing slightly with a smile on my face.
“Mom says that when I get older, they’ll be bigger and then I can get a nicer bra. Only pretty girls get nice bras.”
“Girls! What on Earth are you two doing in here?” Sister Agnes stood at the doorway, her jaw dropped to the floor. I looked at Angela who looked at Sister Agnes. She quickly pulled her shirt down, turning towards the old stone faced nun. We’d never seen much emotion from her until now. Sister Agnes was a stern woman from Ireland and the church was all she ever knew besides from all of the sins of man.
We were both taken to Father Harper’s office immediately. Sister Agnes entered first, talking privately to the Father. When she came out, we were both ushered in. Father Harper looked at us with disgust and slight confusion. There wasn’t much for either one of us girls to comprehend at that age, but it was obvious we had created a dire situation.
“What is this I hear about you two inappropriately touching each other in the bathroom?” asked Father Harper.
“Sorry Father Harper. Angela was just showing me her bra.”
“Why was Angela showing you her bra?”
“I wanted to see what it looked like.”
“That is nothing for you to see at this age child. You should be ashamed of yourself. And Angela, I expect better from you. You’re older. Why would you condone such behavior or even think that what you were doing was okay?”
“I didn’t mean to Father. She just wanted to see what it looked liked,” replied Angela with tears in her eyes.
“You do understand that what you did was a sin yes?” Father Harper asked.
“Yes Father,” we both replied at the same time.
“And you understand that you both must be punished?”
“Yes Father,” we replied again.
“Very well then.”
Father Harper walked over to his closet towards the left side of his desk and grabbed a wooden ruler. The ruler was long and made of hard type wood. Not the cheap plywood looking rulers you see in the hardware stores. Father Harper directed us to the corner of his office where he had instructed us each to kneel down and place our hands on a wooden stool that was nearby. Both of us received 10 strikes. The pain was dull each time it hit my knuckles. Sometimes, Father Harper missed and hit the tips of my fingers. At the end of it, my knuckles were red, a bit numb, and raw.
That night when I got home, my mother made me kneel down on a pile of rice for an hour. My father took his belt and gave me about 10 more lashes. I was sent to my room without dinner after being made to sit in a bath for 30 minutes. The water was hotter than usual. My mother read Isaiah 56:3 as I lay in bed that evening:
“For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” she closed the bible, putting it down by my bedside.
“You shall be loved as an outsider but you must repent your ways and accept God into your life always Talia.”
She kissed my head and then walked towards the door. As she was walking out, she looked back, turning off my light and cracking the door, allowing light from the hallway to come in. I heard her footsteps grow quieter as she walked towards her bedroom at the end of the hall and close the door. Another door opened slowly, squeaking with what sounded like an attempt to muffle them. Bare feet walked along the wooden floors of the hallway. Air slowly moved as the door opened, brushing against the carpet of my room.
“Talia,” said Vivica, “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” I said turning over in my bed to face her.
Vivica slowly moved towards my bed. Her hair was long and had recently been straightened. She wore a white nightgown with spaghetti straps. It cut off at her knees, She came to my bedside, sitting down putting her hand on my head stroking my hair softly.
“I’m sorry for what mom and dad did to you today.” She said with a regretful look on her face.
“Why was I wrong?” I asked
“What did mom and dad say?”
“Mom said that I had to repent and that my thoughts were not clean. The devil is leading me to do these things and that my curiosity is not healthy. What does that mean?”
“Mom and dad don’t like what you did with that girl today.”
“I just wanted to see her bra.”
“Talia, what do you think of my breasts?” Vivica said while pushing them up with her hands.
“Angela’s felt squishy. Do yours?”
“I saw you watching me in the mirror. Why were you there?”
I didn’t know what to say. My 7 year old brain couldn’t explain what I was feeling or why I was intrigued by my sisters huge breasts. I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. There was no “you caught me red handed” I was 7 and didn’t know what the hell to think. Why did I do this? Why did I do that to Angela?
“ Did you like them?” Vivica asked
I just nodded. Vivica had never scorned me. For an older sister, she was a kind soul, gentle in her ways. Whenever mom and dad punished me, she would always come in to comfort me. It was never to reflect on what I had done to make my superiors so angry however. That night was different. We sat quietly for a moment. I wondered why she would ask me such strange questions. It didn’t feel wrong saying yes. I was just curious as to why everyone else thought it was wrong.
“Talia, you mustn’t watch me while I change from now on okay? If you see another girl without clothes on, look away. It isn’t good for you. You should only see yourself naked. Do you understand?”
“Yes…” I said.
Vivica kissed me on the forehead and went quietly out of the bedroom. I still was unsure as to why looking at another girls breasts was wrong. But what was certain was that from that day on, I dared not ever look into Vivica’s room or ever go into the school bathrooms again unless Sister Agnes was taking the whole class for a break. Angela and I were to not have contact again as per her mother and my parents. Instead, I was made to sit with the other girls from the 1st grade. We were all told that we were no longer allowed to play with girls in a higher grade.
My freshman year of high school was not as heavily under the radar. I’d found a group of friends called books in the library. The public library, not St. Josephine’s Catholic High School for girls. The reading material there was rather limited. On the doors of the school library, there was a banned book list displayed in big bold font. It read: “In this library, you will not find: Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Fountainhead, The Satanic Verses, Harry Potter, Go Ask Alice, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, The Diary of Anne Frank…”
Even for a small Alabama town, Bishop’s public library had an impressive selection of books. Some days, I adorned encyclopedias with my pen, circling things I’d never learn at St. Josephine’s. I did it for the sake of knowing more than just God. At the end of my session, I’d tuck the book away underneath a catalog table so that no one else would pick up the same book. It would be revisited several times a week.
There were days I’d immerse myself into Greek myth. It was forbidden at St. Josephine’s due to it being pagan and idolizing of many Gods and Goddesses. But I learned about the Parthenon, Athena, Spartans, the Oracle of Delphi, but most intriguing, Sapphos and the Island of Lesbos. An island without men, just poetry, music, and the company of other women. Sapphos was a Goddess herself, to me at least, but a poet who idolized Aphrodite at the very least. She pulled me further into the myths of Lesbos, escaping from this downtrodden southern town where friday night lights were the only thing that made headlines. Her sisters, were what would be referred to eternially as lesbians. I’d spent a lot of time on that section in the encyclopedia. The word became that of liberation, art, expression, and love.
At school, it became a scarlet letter. By now, I’d understood why my parents and the church had expressed such concern when I was younger. But, I had suppressed it for years. Yes, I did identify as a lesbian. I was a lesbian and would always be a lesbian. But in the Catholic church, I was what my mother had called me all those years ago, an outsider. My tendencies were that I kept to myself yet, my eyes wandered from time to time. They noticed, my peers. That’s when the bullying started. It picked up more in the 4th grade when people started having crushes. I didn’t have crushes or at least not on boys.
Angela had still gone to St. Christina’s Primary at the time. By the time she was in the 7th grade, she’d matured even more. I’ll admit, I had eyes for her. She was three grades ahead of me and we hadn’t spoken since that day in the bathroom. Her hair was long, brown, and shiny. She was captain of the girl’s volleyball team and had an athletic build. Her legs were long and her skin olive complected. Her rosy red lips parted with a smile as she walked through the hallway towards her group of friends. But she was becoming a woman and I was still a kid.
She was now a senior at St. Josephine’s. Angela was still captain of the volleyball team and had been offered numerous scholarships to colleges out of state. She had her eyes set on Notre Dame of course who had given her a full ride and then some. She was dating Michael Clarey, the captain of the football team. Now they walked the halls together, both planning on going to Notre Dame in the fall.
Sometimes I wondered if Angela ever thought about us in the bathroom. Perhaps it was just more traumatic for me. I took away the fact that I was gay from it, but she may have seen it as her just showing some naive little girl her bra because “it’s so cool and I’m such a grown up now”. Angela never said hi or acknowledged me after that. The most I had gotten was a “sorry” when she bumped my shoulder by accident in the hall one day.
I was coined as lesbo, fag, dyke, and gym class was hell. I avoided the showers or at least when other girls were in there. They avoided me. All of their eyes would watch me as I came into the locker room. Bethany Elliott made it a daily task to torment me in the showers. She herself was quite a butch girl. Beth had a short haircut, played field hockey, and had never gone to a prom with a boy. She’d go with her friends and proclaim camaraderie, risking being the third wheel. No one cared because they liked her. But I knew better. Underneath the eyeliner and lip gloss, she was screaming gay in all directions. Maybe they didn’t see it, but I did. I’d been in the locker room with her alone, unaware that she was there at first.
“What the fuck are you looking at you stupid dyke?” She said to me as she stood in the shower cubicle a couple spaces down.
“I wasn’t,” I said quickly.
“Keep it that way. Don’t even turn your head in my general direction. I don’t wanna be your pillow princess. Bleck!”
I looked down, hiding my chest. I could feel her side-eyed glance nonetheless. I made an effort to not look, even though I really didn’t want to anyways. She laughed slightly, shaking her head as if she’d told me the deal already and was about to repeat herself.
“So, how does it feel being the only lesbo in school?” She said now walking towards me, no towel. All of her assets were on display. I couldn’t reply to this. Instead, she got closer slowly but menacingly.
“You like this don’t you? I bet you look at all the girls in here showering…taking off their clothes…play fighting.” She was now in my shower cubicle.
“I bet you like the way I look right now. Does it get you hot?”
Beth’s body was now touching mine. I was still facing towards the wall of my shower. Her breath was hot on the back of my neck. I stood, cowering in fear. I began to shake all through my being. Beth took her hand and began to stroke my shoulder, running her hands down my arm. She now had her arm wrapped around my stomach. Her other hand began to penetrate my personal space.
“This is what you want isn’t it you lesbian bitch,” she said angrily
She continued for several more minutes, violating me where I stood. She didn’t look me in the eyes for the duration of those minutes. I stayed in place and sobbed quietly to myself as she continued to do as she pleased. Within a few more minutes, voices began to fill the locker room and Bethany quickly pulled away. She grabbed her towel and went straight to her locker conveniently located by the opening of the shower area. She looked over at me with her eyes drilling into mine.
I had went to my respective locker which was located in a stretch of lockers that remained unoccupied. Still shaken, I looked down at the ground, pulling my pants up. Most of the girls that had come in for the next gym class had already went out of the locker room and into the fitness area. I had just finished pulling down my shirt when Beth snuck up on me. She leaned against the locker next to mine, clad in a denim jacket and steel toe boots.
“Tell anyone about what happened and you’re gonna die gay girl,” she said
“I won’t,” I said, looking her dead in the eyes. Mine were hazy with tears.
“You’re such a fucking cry baby,” Beth said, pushing herself off of the locker and turning away.
This happened again on two different occasions until I stopped coming to the locker room later after the other girls had left. Beth came in due to weightlifting and would shower off before her last class. She’d make sure to finish before the last gym class of the day came into change. Once I stopped showing up however, she’d act like a typical school bully, pushing me into lockers, shoving into me, and throwing things at me in theology class.
I never spoke about the rape, not because I didn’t have anyone to talk to; but because I didn’t feel like it was right to talk about. I showed the hurt but never spoke, no matter what the issue might be. Vivica did the same routine. She’d come into my room and try to get me to speak to her. Viv was a psychic if ever there was one. She still didn’t get it. To her it was being nice about the fact that I was a lesbian while still being blatantly against it. It was just like those years ago when I was a child, and it was always the same. “Hide it” or “Think good things”, “Seek out the power of God!”
Mom and dad never spoke to me, or at least not with much comfort or loving intention. They knew I was “sick” but it was up to me to repent and had been for the last 9 years. They’d have conversations about camps and youth groups that I could go to. They didn’t have the money, but they could only dream. Having a gay daughter was so bad for them. Yet, Vivica was set to marry a nice Catholic boy, Toby McHenry. That claimed their attention for a while with wedding preparations and what not. This gave me all of the time in the world to slink away to the library.
I was engrossed by the stack of books I’d saved in a shelf that wasn’t being used in the far deserted section of the library. Some I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. I had my blue pen handy and was ready to learn. For a while, it would be books on prohibition and maybe I’d read again A Separate Peace or Slaughterhouse 5, all of which were banned at St. Josephine’s. I’d bring a pillow from home, my canteen of coffee and begin to dive in. I’d drift off into the worlds of Vladimir Nabokov, John Steinbeck, and Harper Lee. Sometimes I’d drift off to sleep. It was the easiest I could fall asleep. There was no listening to mother and father’s plans to try and get rid of me, and no lectures from Vivica. There was the library cat that curled next to me and Mrs.Calhoun that turned a blind eye to me being there so late.
“Talia…Talia,” Mrs.Calhoun repeated, “Dear, it’s time to wake up sweety. I have to close now.”
“I’m sorry Mrs.Calhoun, I guess I just lost track of time,” I replied
“It’s quite alright.”
“I guess I’ll get going now,” I said awkwardly, packing up my things.
“You’ve done this before Talia.”
“I know..Mrs.Calhoun. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“I want to make you a deal,” she looked at me from the tops of her spectacles.
“How would you like a key to the library? That way you can lock up and leave whenever.”
“You’d actually give me the key to the library? Is this a joke? I mean, I know I sleep here a lot but, the key?”
“You read here, breathe her Talia. It’s clear that this place is your home and it’s okay. It brings you peace. So yes, I’d like to offer you a key, but on one condition.”
“…okay, what’s the condition?”
“Well, I’m not as young as I used to be Talia. I’m going on 75 this year. My sight is going, can barely hear out of my right ear, and my hip is killing me. I need someone to share the days with me. I can do a morning shift while you’re in school and you can take the afternoons until close. How does that sound? And you can leave anytime that you would like, as long as you remember to keep the doors locked, even if you’re staying inside after hours.” She jingled the keys in front of me, leaning forward with a smile.
“Okay, um yeah I’d love to if you’re serious Mrs.Calhoun.” I said nervously
“Great, then you can start tomorrow and I’ll walk you through everything, go over the rules such and such okay?”
“Sure,” I replied with a smirk, my cheeks slightly red.
I wouldn’t tell my parents or Vivica for that matter. If anything, I could come home at midnight and they wouldn’t ask any questions. It wasn’t a concern of whether I was dead or missing. I had already epitomized the ultimate sin to them. I was fine with that. I had stacks and shelves of books that I could read over and over. I had the key. I had a home.
That very next day after school, I began training at the library. Mrs.Calhoun walked me around with a limp in her step.
“I’d say we begin by me showing you around but you know this place in and out. Here is the office. Your key will also open this door. The office door must be locked at all times when you are not in there. You won’t be in there too often though unless you need to refill the front desk or wheel in a cart of donated books to sort. That reminds me.” She paused, looking to her left where a huge cart filled with books sat by the office door, “All books put on these carts need to be sorted back into their sections by the end of the night.”
The library was pretty archaic. It had wood paneled walls, hardwood floors, and those really sturdy courtroom tables with green shaded lamps attached to them. It was two stories. The bottom floor had your nonfiction and fiction books, while the upstairs had academic books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, computers, and what not. The library was a square. Up top, you could look down to the bottom floor over the wooden railing. I wanted to know how many trees died to make the inside of Bishop’s library. The exterior was built with neat gray cobblestone. It had a greenhouse attached to it that was tended by Eddie Mimsom, the local nursery owner. A children’s section could be found hidden behind french doors to the right of the science fiction.
I began working at the library every night during the week, excluding Sundays and holidays. You’d mostly see mothers with their young children, lawyers, and public school kids. Occasionally, St. Josephine students did come in as well, mostly to go on the computers which their parents probably forbid them from doing. That usually consisted of the stricter catholic households. They made up about 20% of St. Josephine’s, including my own. The rest were rich and preppy, and their parents only sent them their due to the belief that a privatized education was better and more intimate than a public one.
The crowd thinned out by 8 pm. The library was set to close at 9:30 and most nights, I made sure that was the case. I locked those doors at 9:30 on the dot so that no one else could enter, but anyone could leave. I made sure I was alone, which never really was a concern. It was a library and half of this town would rather be drinking moonshine and shooting guns, especially on a Friday night. Except for one.
I had planned to stay behind after close. Most of the town was at the football game for either the Bishop’s public school or St. Josephine’s. That’s when I could count on an empty house by 5 o’clock.I decided to lock up early and have the night to myself. Some would think this is risky but I hadn’t seen a single soul on a Friday any later than 5 since I started working there. I had gone over to the stone fireplace and turned on the gas. I sat down with the only copy of Brave New World.
I few minutes in, I heard rustling from upstairs. It sounded like someone had a plastic bag. Mrs.Calhoun had mentioned in passing a mice problem during the colder months. It was mid-October so I brushed it off and continued to read. No more than maybe 10 minutes later, I heard the same sound, but then footsteps. They didn’t sound small enough to be mice. Yet again, I brushed it off, rationalizing that perhaps it was just the wind. But seconds after, I heard a loud bang. I jumped from the couch and stood looking up. I couldn’t see a thing. I had the light of the fireplace, my portable reading light, and a desk lamp in the far distance.
What if someone was breaking in? What could they possibly steal from a library. Nothing I suppose. Maybe a copy of The Grapes of Wrath or Lolita for the very temptatious. I was scared. I didn’t want to investigate. But if I left, what if I came back to the place in shambles. Mrs.Calhoun’s 75 year old heart would shrivel up. “This was my house” I though. I grabbed my phone and headed towards the creaky wooden steps that lead to the upper level. As I rounded the corner that was concealed by the wall, I noticed something on the floor. Moonlight from the windows illuminated what appeared to be a cellphone. I walked over slowly, shining my light onto the phone. The screen lit up green.
“One new message,” it read.
“Hello?” I called out, “Is anyone there?”
I picked up the phone which didn’t have a passcode to unlock. I clicked on the speech bubble icon. It was a video, but it had to finish downloading. I looked through the rest of the phone hoping to find something that would identify the user of the phone. There was nothing. No contacts, social media apps, nothing. I clicked back into the text screen. The video had finished downloading. From what I could see, it was the girls locker room. When the video finished loading, the filmer was moving past various lockers. The room was empty otherwise. A little further in, the got to the shower area. I saw myself. A few seconds later, Bethany was in the shower with me. It was from one of the days she had raped me in the locker room.
I threw the phone on the ground, putting my hands over my mouth. My eyes began to swell with tears. I started hyperventilating. I fell to the floor, gasping for air until I saw the green illumination of the screen again. It was another text message.
“EVERYBODY KNOWS,” it read
“Who is this?” I texted back
“Your worst nightmare faggot.”
Just then I heard the front door slam. I remembered that I had left the keys on the front desk. Realizing my stupidity, I ran to the front door immediately. The keys were hanging in the lock. I pulled them out, locking the door from the inside. I gathered my things quickly, forgetting to reshelf the book I had been reading, and ran out of there, not forgetting to throw the phone in my backpack.
I ran the whole way home. When I approached the front steps of my house, my mother stood at the front door waiting for me.
“Where have you been?”
“The library,” I said, “When did it ever concern you when I came home or not?”
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that. Get in the house now, we are having company for tomorrow that is coming to assist with your sisters wedding. No library, straight home after school. Do you understand?”
“Yeah…sure,” I said looking down.
My mother walked past to the living room where she turned off the TV and went upstairs to bed. Of course it really didn’t matter if I was missing this one time. It had everything in the world to do with Vivica and her wedding. It was all about making us look like a happy family.
I entered my bedroom. There was an extremely ugly yellow dress with a pair of black mary janes on my bed. A note read:
“Wear this tomorrow after school. No exceptions.”
I through the dress and shoes off of my bed, throwing myself against my pillow. I began to sob. I got the phone out of my backpack and rewatched the video again and again. Tomorrow, I was set to walk those halls. “EVERYBODY KNOWS” haunted me everytime my eyes skimmed over it. I buried my face back into my pillow. A small creak from my door caught my attention. It was Vivica.
“Hey,” she said.
“You can’t just come in here Vivica,” I snapped back.
“I was just seeing how you were. Mom and dad were pretty angry when you didn’t come home. Toby’s parents are in town and they came over for dinner.”
“Fuck Vivica, I don’t care! I don’t care that you’re getting married, that mom and dad don’t see you as some freak of nature, and that you’re most certainly not “sick”. How the fuck does it feel? GET OUT! I don’t want another lecture from you.”
Vivica stared at me with her mouth slightly open. She looked hurt. She began to tear up, searching for words to say.
“Could you just go along with mom and dad, just this once? For me?” She said through tears, “Can’t you think about anyone other than yourself right now?”
“Why because you don’t want Toby to know that I’m a dyke? Get out! Fuck you and your wedding.”
Vivica slammed my door and stormed to what I could imagine was my parents room. These last couple of years between us had been rough and she was no longer my keeper. She didn’t have an issue going to our parents anytime the way I acted offended her. I wasn’t too worried about that however. That wasn’t my problem. She spent my whole childhood trying to be a second mother to me, tell me to suppress my urges, just date boys. She was never a “big sister”. She, more than anyone, wanted a picture perfect family so Toby wouldn’t run off because her sister is a lesbian. Now I’d acknowledge it more than ever. I no longer cared. I liked girls and that had been a fact for years. Everyone would know. Everyone already did.