Emma had been kicked out of her house. This was a first, for Emma or for her siblings, and it really did not strike her as fair. She had not actually done anything, as in, performed an action or committed a crime. All she did was remind her mother of something that happened in the past. And technically she couldn’t be kicked out of the house, because she wasn’t even living at home anymore. She was living in a rented house with five other nice Christian girls near the University of Georgia, where she was a sophomore. But the way her mother acted you would have thought Emma was being cast out into the streets.
In hindsight, if she had to choose a method of rebellion Emma should have done as her brother did. Although all members of their family were devout Southern Baptists, and therefore abstained from alcohol, her brother Mark spent his four years at the University of Georgia drinking himself into oblivion, and doing god knows what else in the mysterious depths of his fraternity house. But then again, he was the boy, and maybe that’s why her parents maintained their willful ignorance. And besides these were minor infractions, surface level sins that could be smoothed over with an extra bible study class. Emma had opened up a primordial wound. One that she wasn’t even supposed to know about.
The problem was that Emma did not have anyone to confide in. Her roommates were too much like her to understand. Or, if not necessarily like her now, they had all been raised in the same vein and the girls would find the whole situation horrifying. What she really needed was a partner to talk to. But Emma did not have a boyfriend, and in fact, had never even come close to being in a relationship. It wasn’t that she didn’t want one. But from her preteens onward Emma had been made aware that her virginal state needed to be protected with a ferocious and constant vigilance.
It was both an individual and team effort. In her young woman ministry at church, the notion of premarital relations was a frequent topic. Emma tried to be patient with these discussions which, if tedious, were only the natural conversational outcome for women who spent their teenage years attending purity balls. Emma was fourteen when she was escorted to her first one. She could still recall so many details of that evening. How she felt like a princess, in her white gown and elbow length gloves. The necklace with the heart-shaped charm, and corresponding key which her father made an elaborate show of placing in his pocket. The charm symbolized her father’s duty to protect young Emma’s heart, the key to be given away only on her wedding day. Imagine going through all that, and then drunkenly losing your virginity in a dingy apartment in Athens, Georgia. And so, Emma was alone.
She unlocked her front door and entered the dark house. It was Good Friday and her roommates were away, ensconced in their own upper-middle-class homes, happily picking out the dresses and bible passages they would display on social media come Easter. She made her way upstairs without turning any lights on. The darkness protected her, creating a buffer between Emma and the inevitable real-world repercussions of what she did. Practical considerations like whether or not she would have to give up her car. The jeep was a gift from her parents when she was accepted into Georgia and received the HOPE scholarship. Emma always felt a little strange about her education being funded by the lottery, though now she was immensely grateful. Tuition payments would be one less thing for her mother to use against her, if it came to that.
There was no telling what the fallout would be. Her mother, Jacqueline, might turn the other cheek, as she so often told others to do. But this seemed unlikely. For Emma, the evening only hastened what she was starting to call her awakening. She called it this half-jokingly – Emma was not inclined to theatrics and really the whole thing was nothing so dramatic. She just slowly started to question certain things about her existence.
Emma was from Milton, Georgia, which was kindly described as metro Atlanta. It was thirty miles north of the city, north even of Alpharetta, which was itself a deep suburb. Milton was an exurb at best and consisted primarily of subdivisions, chain stores, and farms. It was a confusing blend of country and commerce. Sometimes Emma was convinced she lived in the bible-belt, but then again, their next-door neighbor was a lawyer who worked in Atlanta. If one thing united Milton, however, it was the sentiment that things were falling to pieces. The family unit was collapsing, the jobs were being stolen, and in fact, the very fabric of society was fraying. It was, therefore, the citizens’ duty to fight against the forces seeking to weaken their great and moral nation.
Emma could not pinpoint the moment that it started, her great questioning, although she supposed the groundwork was laid her freshman year of college. Up until then, Emma had gone to one school her entire life, the same private Christian academy her mother attended. When Emma arrived at the University of Georgia she avoided the famous nightlife with a puritanical dedication. Although over time she slowly realized something. As much as Emma did not want to be at the parties, the hosts probably wanted her there less. At that time Emma was wary of just about everything – licentious boys, wicked drug dealers, politically active LGBTQ students. Talk about a killjoy.
Emma was also starting to uncover a different truth, about the girls she had been so strictly instructed not to emulate. These were the girls who wore tiny rompers and had frat star boyfriends and who ended up in the hospital every weekend from alcohol poisoning. But the girls weren’t really failing out of school or contracting diseases, as Emma had been led to believe. Rather, most of them were nice, and they appeared to do just fine in their classes.
Emma would never admit it but she might even envy the girls. They seemed so carefree and joyful, unencumbered by Emma’s own innumerable worries. At times it felt like her life was dominated by a sensitive and forever changing scoreboard, a tally of who was committing the worst sins, and who would subsequently end up in hell. When Emma caught sight of the girls on Saturday afternoons, laughing and fluttering around campus, they at least seemed to have fun. Emma’s own friends, most of whom she met in the Baptist Student Alliance, were tepid girls who went home every weekend. It was, therefore, a gradual process, this so-called awakening. But if Emma were forced to choose a day – one specific day that ignited the series of events that led to her standing alone in her dark house – she might select the morning that Aunt Nancy went to the pride parade.
It was mid-morning, on a Friday of spring break and Emma was standing with her mother in the kitchen. It was odd to be at home in the middle of the day, and Emma felt listless. Her little sister Grace was at school, and her father and brother were at the office. Mark had just started working at their father’s general contracting firm and was still announcing this decision with great fanfare. As though it had been anything other than a foregone conclusion.
Her mom made a sound of disgust and placed her phone on the counter. Emma leaned over to see a picture of her mom’s sister. Aunt Nancy was, to the horror of the family, a lesbian. The picture showed Nancy and her partner, along with their combined three children. They were attending a pride march in Midtown Atlanta and the five of them stood huddled together under a large rainbow flag. To add insult to injury, Aunt Nancy was wearing a tutu and holding what appeared to be a mimosa.
As far as Emma knew her mother and aunt had not spoken since the day Nancy came over and announced that she was in love with a woman, had probably always loved women, and was leaving her husband of nine years. Even Nancy’s ex-husband was more understanding than Jacqueline, who acted as if the whole thing were a personal insult. For Emma, who had always liked her aunt, it was a real disappointment. Aunt Nancy was the only fun one at church picnics. Emma’s mom still followed her sister on social media though, despite everyone imploring her to stop.
“Daddy would roll over in his grave if he saw that,” her mom muttered. She shook her head, “A whole family destroyed. That’s what they want you to know. To destroy the institutions of marriage and family.”
Emma glanced at the picture again. Her cousin Jeremy had his arm slung over his mom’s shoulder, his smile beaming. There was no way to be sure, but Emma doubted that Aunt Nancy saw her family as ruined.
The following Monday Emma was standing in line for coffee before her history class. It was her one class outside her major of early childhood education, and incidentally the only one she was enjoying. Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and Emma turned to see a boy from the lecture. She recognized him because he sat in the same seat every day. And besides that, he was eminently noticeable – tall, hipster, and obviously gay. The boy introduced himself as Adam and confirmed that they were in the same class. They chatted together as the line slowly advanced, and when they both ordered coffees Adam handed over his credit card before Emma could protest.
When they arrived at the lecture hall Emma followed Adam to his usual seat. He seemed to think nothing of this so Emma acted in the same cavalier manner, even though her heart was racing. There was precisely one gay student at Emma’s high school, and they had never spoken. She had however been required to pray for his soul. After class, as she and Adam were comparing notes and making general chitchat, he pulled out his phone to show Emma a video. It was something about an animal doing things humans normally do, although Emma did not really watch it. Instead, she studied Adam’s profile as he laughed along. It was very hard to think of him as going to hell.
Emma was still thinking about Adam when she went home that weekend, as she and Grace sat on the living room couch with their parents. Even though her daughters were twenty and sixteen, Emma’s mom was still fretting to find a suitably inoffensive movie. Emma was guilty of this too, in a way. In her mind, Grace was still ten years old and begging Emma to play dolls. Their TV was perpetually set to the same conservative news channel, and as they waited for Jacqueline to make her decision the family watched the headlines. It was always the same. Doom and gloom. Everyone against us. The lead segment was about food stamp fraud and some family where the members were double and triple applying to get as many benefits as possible. Her dad sighed loudly and made a point of muting the TV.
He said, “People don’t want to work, but they’ll spend all day trying to figure out how to game the system. Those are our tax dollars, girls.”
Emma’s mom agreed wholeheartedly. She said, “People just want to be handed things. That’s what’s wrong with this country.”
To Emma’s surprise, Grace was nodding along fervently, their mother finally articulating a point Grace had been struggling to make. It was entirely possible that, had the segment not aired, Emma never would have found the diary. But the conversation seemed to inspire her father, who looked at Emma with new scrutiny. Perhaps he was worried his children were turning into those entitled snowflakes he had heard so much about. He cleared his throat and asked his daughters what they were doing the following morning. Grace had a ready answer. She was making four dozen cookies for her bible study. Emma was not so lucky.
“Well,” he said, “your mom and I have been meaning to clean out the attic. We sure could use some help organizing.”
After a brief pause, Emma replied. She would be happy to help, she said and tried to infuse her response with extra enthusiasm. Her parents looked at each other as though they had just received favorable data from an experiment.
The next morning Emma reluctantly climbed the stairs to the attic. She found that none of the stuff had been touched in years, and none of it meant anything to her. She didn’t know what to do, so she half-heartedly shifted things around, hoping that the scene would appear more orderly. Emma then moved on to the next section where at last there was something interesting. She almost missed it, this box that belonged to her mother.
Emma discovered the box was from her mom’s college days, and she slowly removed the old textbooks. And there, snug against the bottom of the box was a diary. Her mother’s diary. It was simple hunter green, not the kind of pink, flowery thing Emma would have expected. She debated for a moment if she should read the diary, even if she wanted to. But then she opened it to the middle, where her mother’s familiar cursive script covered the page. And so, in the unnatural quiet of the attic, she entered the mind of twenty-year-old Jacqueline. And it was boring. Nothing but the minor trials of a sheltered, privileged co-ed. Emma flipped several pages forward and that was when the name David appeared.
David was her mom’s boyfriend, although it was difficult to discern much about him other than the fact that the couple met at church. But one thing was clear – Jacqueline was smitten. Emma smiled as she read her mother’s gushing words. But then something changed. There was a gap in the entries. Almost a month passed before her mother wrote again. And this time the entry was brief, written in choppy sentences, and lacking the jubilant tone of before. “Told David today. He was awful. He said he did not love me the way that God intended a husband to love his wife. He quoted 1 John 4:12. He said that God’s love is not complete in him. Surely, we are done. My life is over.”
Emma snapped the diary shut. So, Jacqueline told David that she loved him, and he had not reciprocated the sentiment. Emma was embarrassed for her mother, both at the rejection and the subsequent histrionics. Emma knew 1 John 4:12 – “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” To be honest, David the boyfriend kind of sounded like an asshole, using scripture to break up with someone. Emma felt suddenly invasive, so she rose and placed the diary back in the box. She layered the textbooks on top of it and firmly closed the lid, shutting away young Jacqueline’s heartbreak.
It was only later, just as Emma was falling asleep, that the thought formed at the edge of her consciousness; that entry was all wrong. “My life is over,” Jacqueline wrote. Her mother was not a model of stoicism, but she was not that dramatic. Emma opened her eyes and waited as they adjusted to the darkness. If Jacqueline hadn’t confessed her love for David, then what did she tell him? Something life altering. Something potentially life ruining. It was impossible, and yet Emma kept returning to the same conclusion. David had gotten her mother pregnant.
She had to confirm this wild theory. Emma crept back up the attic stairs, praying she did not wake her parents. She dug for the diary and, using the light of her phone, turned to the section about 1 John 4:12. Then she flipped a few weeks forward, and there she found her answer.
“Saw Dr. Coretti today. Nancy came with me even though I told her she didn’t have to. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It didn’t even really hurt. I just feel…numb. David has moved back to Macon. I don’t even know what will happen to his classes.”
Emma quickly searched the internet for Dr. Coretti and inhaled sharply. Dr. Coretti was an ob-gyn in downtown Atlanta, only recently retired. Emma felt almost vertiginous, traveling so quickly across the decades. He must have been very young when Jacqueline went to see him all those years ago.
The diary was a focal point, for Emma, for a time, though as the weeks passed it began to fade from the forefront of her mind, cast into a supporting role and then relegated to the background. The spring presented too many other things to keep her busy. Although, every once in a while, Emma would look at her mother and find it impossible that Jacqueline had gone through what she did. Most of the time Emma felt sympathy for her mother, and anger at the weak, faceless David. Never did she have any intention of turning the information into a weapon.
One April night Emma found herself sitting next to Adam in the library, working on their group presentation on the fall of the Roman Empire. She and Adam had become if anything, friends. It happened without Emma really thinking about it. They sat next to one another three times a week and had taken to eating lunch together after class. He was unlike anyone Emma had met before. And it wasn’t because he was gay. Adam was smart and practical and irreverent, and eternally perplexed by people who did not possess the same common sense he did. Emma was fairly certain Adam was atheist, or at least agnostic, though they had yet to broach this particular subject. There were lots of things they had yet to talk about. Emma knew she was purposefully holding these conversations at bay. It was simply too freeing, being treated like a normal person.
They were deep in the third hour of research when Adam threw his pen to the other side of the table and said, “Enough. I need a break.”
They walked down to a diner, that was filled with other harried students drinking coffee. Their waiter was around their age, with dense arm muscles and a buzz cut. Adam’s gaze followed him as he returned to the kitchen.“Not bad,” he said, then nodded to Emma, “Although I think he’s more your persuasion.”
Emma made a noncommittal sound. Then she said, “Can I ask you a question? When did you know you were gay?” Adam countered, “When did you know you were straight?” Emma did not say anything and tried to stem the color rising in her cheeks.
She worried she had offended Adam, but he only laughed and said, “I’m kidding. But isn’t it interesting that nobody ever asks that?” He continued, “I guess I realized it the same time everyone starts thinking about girls. Fifth or sixth grade.” He paused, and then said quietly, “But in a way, I always knew.”
“What did your parents say when you told them?”
Adam shrugged, “They weren’t thrilled about it. But they didn’t try to send me to conversion therapy or anything.”
Emma took a sip of her coffee so she would have something to do. She did not mention that her church offered such therapy. Or maybe they didn’t offer it, maybe it was a camp or something, and the church office was just a middleman. But in any case, if you were looking to change your child’s sexual orientation, their church might very well be a good place to start.
The night that it happened, all three Harrison children were home for dinner. Emma peeled potatoes while Grace set the table and her mom braised chicken thighs. Her father and brother sat in the corner, discussing business in serious tones. As she was dumping potato peels into the garbage Emma caught sight of something out of the ordinary. It was the thick, creamy card stock of an invitation, but before she could note the name the slippery peelings coated it. She asked her mom about it later, once they were all settled around the table.
“Oh yes. Your Aunt Nancy is getting married,” her mom said loudly. The casual observer might mistake her mother’s bright tone for excitement, though to Emma the sarcastic edge was sharp as a knife.“That invitation was outrageous,” Jacqueline said. “They had it made to look like a regular wedding invitation.”
Emma said, “Yeah but, I mean it’s legal for them to get married. So, it is technically just a regular wedding.”
Her mom replied, “It doesn’t matter if it’s legal. It’s unholy. God created each of us male and female, each for the other.” When no one leaped to her aunt’s defense, Emma said, “Aunt Nancy seems happy though. And she was always nice to us. Don’t we at least want her to be happy?”
Jacqueline turned her attention back to her plate, daintily rearranging her green beans. She used the voice she always used when quoting scripture.“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived.”
The family paused for an appropriate amount of time, letting the words sink in. Her brother finally broke the silence as he reached for a roll. “Yeah,” he said, “besides how much fun could a dyke wedding be? I’d rather be waterboarded.”
Her mother’s face contorted in a way Emma had seen a thousand times. It was the patented smirk she made when she was pretending to disapprove. But her lips turned upward just enough so that everyone understood the pretense. Emma’s father cast a brief admiring look towards his eldest child. All of this was to be expected. What she was not expecting was Grace’s reaction. Her little sister laughed out loud, probably at the bold use of such a slur, and less because she actually agreed with the statement. But it still pushed Emma over the edge.
She asked her mother, “So you’re not going?”
“No,” Jacqueline said curtly.
“Even though Aunt Nancy went to your wedding?”
“That has nothing to do with it,” her mom replied.
“Sure, it does,” Emma said.
Jacqueline turned towards Emma but did not say anything. She only blinked and looked at her daughter with an inscrutable expression. Emma continued, “Aunt Nancy came to your wedding, even though she knew what you did. I mean, she even went with you. To Doctor Coretti’s office.”
And then, with that momentum behind it, Emma released her mother’s secret. There was silence. Sound that Emma was normally deaf to became outsized and earsplitting. The dishwasher running. The tap of the dog’s nails as it searched for food. The yawning hole in the hardwoods that threatened to consume them all.
Emma reluctantly turned on the light and opened a window, her bedroom felt stifled. On her drive back to campus the radio predicted a thunderstorm, and the air was cool and fraught with purpose. A haze was already starting to overtake the evening. Emma couldn’t remember if she actually said the word abortion, or if she used something euphemistic like procedure. But the family had understood. She tried to remember what her brother’s reaction was, but this too was fading. Her father had simply risen from the table and walked upstairs. He was still upstairs when Jacqueline threw Emma’s purse at her and told her to get out of the house. Grace had not said anything.
Emma stood by the window for a long time. The wind was picking up, rustling the new spring foliage. The adrenaline that had propelled her began to abate, and she was overtaken by fatigue. All she wanted was the darkness. Emma climbed into bed without even changing her clothes and clicked off the lamp. Her thoughts started to unspool. And there it was; the inevitable regret. But it comingled and merged with a hundred other feelings. Uncertainty, apprehension, and the tiniest sense of pride, for finally standing up to her parents. And also, incredibly, there was hope.
The damage she inflicted was deep, though perhaps not irreversible. This was as far as Emma’s tired mind carried her. But there were other thoughts, other realizations, waiting out there in the void. Maybe one day Emma would come to understand how the experience shaped her mother. How Jacqueline Harrison’s biggest fear in life was that her daughters repeat her mistake. Emma might even realize that her mother had been indoctrinated too, brought up in such a fevered way, in such a small place, that she had no choice but to go along with it all. One thing Emma would not know, however, is that on the nights she and Grace were born, when Jacqueline was holding those tiny bundles in her dark hospital room, she told God that she would protect her precious girls with her whole being. Emma would never know this, but she might somehow gain a visceral understanding of it.
And Jacqueline too, lying awake in her own bed, was struck by a similar sense; that things would be different but maybe not as awful as they seemed now. She listened as a soft rain began, peppering the roof and calming her turbulent thoughts. She knew, buried deep beneath the fury and the shame, there were other emotions, though she did not yet attempt to identify them. And they weren’t even emotions really, so much as lingering questions. Like, wasn’t it just a little strange, and just a little cruel, for a God who was all-powerful to make someone gay and then spend the rest of eternity punishing them for it? Surely her God, who had blessed her with so many gifts, wouldn’t do such a thing to an innocent child. Or to Nancy.
All of this would have to wait, however. For now, there was only rain. It would be moving east next, becoming a downpour as it crossed the Georgia hills and reached her daughter. Both women were thankful for the storm. They gave up their worries to the powerful winds, and mother and child were soon lulled to sleep.