Twenty-one: The Pain of Knowledge
Roj and Gerry walked along the blighted street together, past fences that were sagging, weeds that were rampant in the cracks of the sidewalk, lawns that were unkempt tufts of grass on a dirt sea, littered with cans and shreds of plastic bags and broken glass. "You have to help me understand this," Roj told Gerry. "Like I showed you."
"Well, just remember, it hurts like hell to be shown, like you did. I felt like I was being chopped up with a field disk, all the memories slicing through me. I'd be mad at you, but ... well, I just didn't know how awful ... I tried to be a good person, but what people must have thought of me ... "
"Yeah, I get it. I never had anyone call me 'Stupid Girl' before. But Desai, my guardian angel, told me I should talk to you about it, so here we are."
"They're something, aren't they? Half the time you can't even tell what they're trying to say, and the other half, you wonder why they said it in the first place."
"Tell me about my stupidity, Gerry. I don't have much time left here."
"You have the holy sign on you, but you've let it get all covered up with ... with ..."
"With what, Gerry? Come on! What is it covered up by?"
Gerry pulled away a little. "With magazines. Ugly magazines. They have pictures of women showing almost all of their tatas on them, and tight dresses, and short shorts. They all say 'orgasm' and 'sex' and 'body' on them."
Roj leaped back with a shout, "I do not! I hardly ever read magazines like that! How can they be on me? Ugh!"
"Well, I never read that garbage, so I couldn't just imagine it on you," Gerry snarled, jutting out her lower spectral jaw. "I'm just telling you what I see!"
It was more than she could bear. Barnacles of bigotry would have been more welcome, or tentacles of greed, but Cosmo plastered across her? She would have rather died -- but she had died, that was a fact -- she would have rather been utterly immolated from the universe, and that she had not. Instead, she carried some stain on her, a stain she would not have thought she had. Roj leapt away from the earth, screaming in fury and revulsion.
She stopped on the dark side of the moon, away from the sun that could reveal her, and weeping spirit-tears, scrubbed at herself with Luna's cold, powdery dust. No! No! I'm not like that!
But hadn't she been? She remembered her first date with Matt, and how she'd chosen the beige suit with the creamy white blouse that cut down almost all the way to the center support of her Wonder Bra. Her cleavage had never looked better, and she had used that to ensure that Matt would hunger for a second date. Looking back at the scene, she had emanated waves of sexual desire like tsunamis, caring nothing for his moral beliefs, desiring nothing but his attention.
In the memory, he was so overwhelmed by physical attraction that he could barely maintain a coherent conversation, his attention drawn to the middle of her shirt and the swell of her breasts.
There was more to it than that, Roj thought, angrily. He and I were also trying to find out if we were real people.
REAL PEOPLE? Another memory washed over her, tumbling her in its wave. It was college, and a spring break party, and she had made sure she was evenly tanned all over before going to the beach with her friends. The shorts she had worn would not have worked with underwear -- she knew her golden cakes peeked out with every stride. She had worn them to deliberately tease and titillate the man-boys, knowing and reveling in their arousal.
It was tenth grade in the next memory that appeared to her, an incident in which she and her girlfriends had huddled around -- yes, a magazine, whose cover promised "20 Secrets to Keep Him in Your Bed." In the vision of the memory, Roj could see clearly the jittering vibrations of their horniness, the darkness on them as they felt themselves chasms away from happiness, and heard the whispers of something slimy and cold and cruel, as it said, "Learn what to do, and the man will never turn away from you to a prostitute." They had thought themselves wise to learn how to please a man sexually, even though none of them had yet experienced it. Reading the article about places to touch and direct their partner's touches made them all radiate heat and a hunger to try out some hot moves. Mom and Dad were right about magazines like that being an unwholesome influence, Roj thought wryly. We just thought our parents were being over-protective, but that article, especially the part about getting the man to lift me ... She had never forgotten it, not really. Being a hot sex chick was what she had put at the center of her existence. She had let sex define her, far more than her intellect, infinitely more than her soul, as she had not taken her soul into consideration at all.
Would Matt have loved me if I had been a virgin, innocent, when he met me? Would he have gone out with me after the first date if I hadn't made it plain I wanted to seduce him?
Everything about her world, her employment, her upward mobility, her status with her co-workers -- all of that had depended upon her being a sexually attractive woman. She knew as a fact that she would not stand a chance of landing a good job if she had worn oxford shoes and a shapeless dress. How one looked was the first and best impression, and a woman had better look stylish and sexy, -- that meant high heels, a good figure, proper makeup, and an aggressive, knowing way of presenting herself. No matter how many degrees a woman had, if she was fat and lachrymose, she didn't stand a chance against a sharp young chick who could do the job, even if the young chick couldn't do it better.
I bought into that from the start, Roj thought, aghast at the creature she had been. What I thought was smart and cool and necessary was all lies. But what would I have done with myself if I had ignored the whispers and hype? Where would I be now? She could not imagine, and suddenly, understood Desai a little better. I don't know, because I can't see what isn't, or what would have been. What was, was. Gerry was right, the knowledge burns and cuts and hurts. I thought I was so smart, and now I find out, after the end of my life, that I was so stupid. What can I possibly do for Matt when I'm such a dope?
The stars seemed dimmed to her, like shaded eyes staring at her, seeing her exposed as a dimwit demi-prostitute, a woman who had used her body to gain friends and influence people. She wished for a way to burrow into the moon and never be seen again. Magazines plastered on her soul, hiding --What was it Gerry had said? -- A holy sign, magazines -- commercial sexuality -- plastered over her, making her something she should not have meant to be. With a start and a pang of anguish, she remembered that when she first appeared to Matt after her death, he had thought she was some thieving prostitute, and the next time, he'd called her a bimbo. He saw what I was, too, without the mask of skin. She gave herself over to keening wails of sadness, alone in the darkness of the moon, without a single star harmonizing with the stricken crying of her voice.
Something near her sibilantly whispered, Yes, you are unworthy. You were such a sex-obsessed woman that you should just leave your lover alone. You ruined his life, you were not worthy to bear his children. Your destiny is to wander alone, forever, and you have earned that destiny.
For a moment, Roj thought the Voice was right. But then she thought of Gerry, who didn't think she should wander alone, and what Gerry had told her of the nameless Voices. "What's your name, Voice?"
"I have all names."
"You have all lies, that's what you have. Go away. Oh, God, please, God, send Desai to defend me!"
With a cry that sounded like "Eeeaauuugh!" the Voice left her.
"How do you feel?" asked Desai beside her.
"Drained, Desai. I was a dumb slut and didn't even think it was abnormal. I strutted my stuff because I thought that's what girls should do. I didn't know how I should be."
"But of course you did. Your parents told you many, many times, I remember that. Ignorance is excusable, but purposefully ignoring what is right is not." Desai's voice was matter of fact, not angry or condemnatory.
Roj put what might have been her face between what might have been, at one time, her knees. "I wish that I had known then what I know now."
Unrelentingly, Desai replied. "You did. That is the point. What you see now is the result of your rejection of what you knew to be right, and some of the consequences, and you are feeling regret."
"You don't feel regret, do you? You've always made all the right choices, haven't you? You don't understand what I feel." Roj was a little angry.
"You are angry because of grief over what your life contained. I do understand that this is how humans begin to deal with loss. You have just lost your vision of yourself, however imperfect that vision might have been, and it angers you. It saddens you. Yet you understand much more about your life than you understood before, and that is good, is it not?
"As to regret, I have none. As to choice, I made one, and needed no other. But I am not matter and spirit, I am merely spirit. As matter and spirit combined, humans are unique. I try to understand, but I am not always successful. Sometimes I go to the Most High to ask how to understand. It has been enlightening."
"I guess it's good. Gerry was right, it hurts like hell, though."
"She was not right," Desai said, his voice suddenly resonant. "Hell hurts far worse than scraped self-images!"
"Sorry, I didn't mean that literally ... "
"But this is the problem of your Age," Desai continued in the same voice. "You use words, the echoes in the air of your vocal cords, to trivialize what is True, what has happened, what is the reality of the universe. You say 'hell' for everything from a hangnail to a pogrom, until no one really understands or believes what Hell is. The Most High has sent salvation from Hell to you, but so very few believe in the salvation, let alone what they are being saved from!"
Roj thought back through her life, seeking references to 'Hell.' Go to Hell; hotter than Hell; colder than Hell; hurting like Hell. Hell's bells, Hell of a job, Hell in a handcart. What the Hell is this? Who the Hell are you? She gave me Hell; living with him was like Hell warmed over. Sinners go to Hell. Ha ha ha, there's no place for me in Heaven, and Hell will get tired of me in no time.
"Do I have to ask to see what Hell really is?" Roj asked, afraid of the answer.
"No, you do not. It is All Ugliness, All Hate, All Despair, All Lies, All Pain, All Betrayal, All Sadness, All Loss. You can understand that. God has sent Salvation from that horror. The Most High treasures all his creations, and does not want them to fall into that Abyss."
"Well, this is something I didn't really know. Maybe I sort of knew about the hot babe thing, but no one ever told me what Hell was, I'm sure of that."
"Now you know. It is worse than non-existence, which you have cried out for. It is existence within all the perpetuation of cruelty and falsehoods and sorrow, with the completion of knowledge of the Most High, and the awareness of freely choosing the alternative to love, welcome, and freedom."
Roj tried to wrap her mind around that definition, and found herself dizzied by the contemplation. "I didn't know. I didn't know."
"No, you didn't, but now you do. You have asked, and you have been answered." 2Viewing her life again, Roj saw the spiritual off-hand gestures, dusting the idea of Hell away from her life, saw her parents doing the same. Sheldon grew up not even knowing that Hell was supposed to be a real place. He had thought Hell was simply another name for Junior High.
Her parents had given up on religious instruction; there was no point for them to teach about Catholicism, which was the only organized religion they knew, seeing as how they lived in a non-Catholic town. How to teach their children about God and worship outside of someone else's catechism class was a bit beyond them.
She and her little brother, Shellibean, had been left adrift.
Once again, she protested. "I didn't know. They didn't know. We just thought Hell was punishment handed out for when people were bad."
"Hell is not punishment," Desai said quietly. "It is self-banishment from the Love of God."