Blank and Sacred

Cottonwood Tree

Once her parents had invited the priest for Easter dinner, Leah spent less time thinking of the negative aspects of the arrangement—the divide growing between her doubt and their renewed faith—and instead focused on the really positive thing: the priest was the stable child her parents had always wanted.
The priest wasn’t much older than Leah. She was almost twenty-seven. He was in his early thirties, she recalled. He was tall and thin. She remembered him from high school, how artistic he was, smart too and polite. She remembered dancing with him at prom. She hadn’t been his girlfriend then (only later and in secret), but she’d worn powder blue satin, her hair half up and half down, and he had kissed her during a slow song. Before prom, Leah had admired him from the safety of the far table in the art room, the end of the lunch line, the back row during the mandatory weekly mass. She thought he was cute, kind, not extraordinary, and not particularly zealous or religious, but devoted—to his friends, his art, his homework. She had liked him very much. He had asked her to prom and so, she assumed, he had liked her too.
Leah’s mother said the priest asked after her all the time.
“He always asks how you’re doing,” she said once when Leah’s guilt caught up to her and she called home. Her father had been at work. “You should friend him on Facebook, or something.”
Leah scrolled through his profile on her laptop. He was growing a beard. The title “Fr.” preceded his name, Jason.
“I’m not trying to set you up, or anything,” Leah’s mother added. Leah listened. “I think he just gets lonely—he wants to talk to someone intellectual his own age.”
“Well, yeah,” Leah said. “He’s sort of already taken.”
Leah’s mother sighed. “We invited him for dinner when you’ll be here.”
“Oh,” Leah said. She was going to drive home that Friday. Denver to Rapid City. Six hours mostly heading north through Wyoming and then east through the tail end of South Dakota. She used to hate this drive and what it represented. A reversal. When she was younger (and unemployed, sporting only a bachelor’s degree) she drove between Denver and Rapid City for various reasons—to go back to classes, to interview for a potential job, to move back home for the summer—and her mood shifted depending on the direction. But now, she almost preferred the actual trip, the sensation of transition, to the arrival or the departure. She longed for mobility and relished the freedom of still being in transition. Not a child, but not quite yet an adult. Not exactly settled, but comfortable with being alone (as she had been for years, except for about a week a few months ago when she thought she’d existentially connected with an IT guy who, to her surprise, found her physically unattractive). She believed she needed a change, a chance to really uproot her mundane routine, make a fresh start at something outside her comfort zone. The most she’d come up with was driving.
“Doesn’t he have his own family to spend Easter with?” she asked.
“Not this year,” her mother said. “Fr. Conlin said they were taking a trip to visit his older sister. She lives in Sioux Falls, I guess.”
“It’ll be nice to see him again,” Leah said.
“I think so,” her mother said.

The Wyoming landscape gathered against Leah’s windshield and nestled inside the frame of the frost webbing the corners and fringes of the glass. The wind was really blowing, taking the car in drifts, rubbing its body like stones overrun by water. She lowered the radio to listen.
Bare cottonwood trees stood by an old river and black cows gathered into a dark velvet patch near a muddy water hole. Faint traces of snow pebbled the side of I-25. A dark, heavy mountain loomed like a blue wave over the horizon. She closed her eyes, briefly, the sensation of moving 85 miles per hour blocked by the bulk of the car frame, the steel and iron chugging in the engine, the belts whirling in their grooves. And then she imagined her momentum without the car, the posture of her body enclosed in her pleather coat, a seat belt, hands at the base of the wheel, leaning forward, her feet tucked close to the base of her chair (the cruise control was on). Her hair was still.
She passed small farm houses, whitewashed, too many cars in the yard, a barn but no animals around. She wondered at such lives, lived in the quiet of an isolation that made her both wary and jealous. She placed herself inside one of those kitchens, imagining the warped or yellowed linoleum, the peeling wall paper, except there were no children in her kitchen. She saw only cold pieces of toast on the Formica table, dark coffee rings and chipped mugs of oil black sludge, newspapers and paper bags. There was cold blue light on the floor and only the vague sounds of the traffic moving along the highway. People going the hell knows where, towing every manner of RV or camper she’d ever seen, sticky-faced children gaping at her tiny house, thinking her existence antiquated, a home for ghosts.
She followed the salt brined road, clicking her blinker when she had to pass a slower car. She turned up the radio and began to sing.

Leah rolled into Rapid City a little after 1:00. She parked in the lot outside her father’s office and walked inside. After giving her name at the reception desk, she paced the waiting room. Her father was a pediatrician with his own private practice.
The office reminded her of her childhood. She’d walk here after school, waiting for her mother to pick her up or her father to finish seeing patients. He’d liked his work, but now he was getting short with his staff. His usual routine of sullen disapproval had given way in recent years to outbursts and raised fingers, shaking with a terrifyingly quiet rage. On the phone, her father had told her good help was hard to find.
He had joined a prayer group that met every Saturday for what Leah assumed was equivalent to middle-aged men group counselling. She wondered if her father ever mentioned her—how disappointed he was in her, how she’d failed him, the money she’d wasted attending Catholic schools all her life only to deny her faith, to call it a myth to promote good behaviour and mediocrity, group-think at its very worst. The kind that denied the existence of homosexuality and gave women two essential options: obedience or vessel-hood, both of which required chastity and subservience. How did her father describe the complications of her decision to leave the Church? She pictured his frown, the slight shake of his head coupled with his shrugged plaid-clad shoulders. A group of men echoing his gestures. Once a month, he sent her audio CDs with hour-long discussions and Catholic manifestos about faith and prayer, the Bible, the modern Catholic, and the like. She kept them, she could not throw them away, but she did not listen to them either. Surely her father knew this. Leah told her mother how she’d collected all the CDs in a shoe box she kept under her bed.
Leah unzipped her jacket and stuffed her hands in her pockets.
Leah’s father wrapped his stethoscope across the back of his neck. His tie was loosened already, his usually neat and starched crisp shirt rumpled around his spreading waistline. He smiled, running a hand left to right through his greying hair.
“You made good time,” he said.
Leah nodded, smiling too. “Busy today?”
“Oh,” he said shrugging. “Couple of emergencies this morning. Another girl quit. Did I tell you? She’s suing me for unemployment.”
The receptionist had disappeared.
Leah sighed.
“We’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too,” Leah said. He wrapped his arms around her briefly, his hand patting her back, but then drew away.
“And Fr. Conlin’s coming for Easter,” her father said. “Aren’t you excited?”
Leah nodded.
“Your mom said you used to go to school together.”
“He was a couple years ahead of me, but yeah.”
“Who would have guessed he would have turned out to be a priest, huh?” he asked rhetorically. Leah tried to hide her grimace by glancing quickly across the waiting room.
“Well,” her father murmured, “we’re glad you made it.”
Leah rolled her shoulders. Her father was always saying stuff like that—saying goodbye even before she’d really arrived, thinking too many steps ahead—not because she didn’t matter or he really wasn’t happy to see her (she knew he was) but because her past behaviour of always wanting to leave predisposed him to assume what she truly wanted. She was saddened by this misperception and had begun to consider that there was very little she could do to alter this expectation because her parents only really knew her as a child. They had not witnessed her daily progression into adulthood. She wanted them to see that she was still changing, but also capable of being known. And she knew that, between the both of them, he would be the most difficult to convince.
“Did you call Mom?” her father asked.
“Not yet.”
“She went to the grocery store, but she should be at home now.”
The receptionist returned. She stood a pace or so behind her father and cleared her throat.
“See you at home.” Leah lifted her hand.
“OK, kid,” he said.
As she left, Leah overheard the receptionist say her father’s lawyer was on the phone.

Since leaving Milwaukee and arriving in South Dakota in 1996, Leah’s family had lived and moved into four different homes in various neighbourhoods across Rapid City. The last was a house at the bottom of a steeply sloped cul-de-sac about a mile from her father’s office. Her parents had only finished unpacking last month, but still many of Leah’s childhood toys and clothes remained in boxes at the bottom of the basement steps. Leah traced the chins and shoulders of her old dolls. Her mother had arranged them against the dresser mirror just as they’d been arranged in the last house. Gently, Leah held the dolls to her chest and placed them on a shelf inside the bedroom closet.

Leah’s mother was a small woman with dark, nearly black hair and round, enthusiastic eyes. She wiggled into Leah’s hug after Leah had knocked and unsuccessfully tried to open the front door.
“Happy to be home?” she asked Leah.
Leah offered to help her mother with the groceries. “Oh,” her mother said, “I already got them inside. Let’s have some coffee.”
Leah watched her mother open the wrong cabinets, looking for her coffee mugs. “Ugh, there they are,” she said, taking two white cups from a second-level shelf. “I’m forgetting things in my old age.”
“You’re not that old,” Leah said. Her mother was 53, although maybe her mother’s age embarrassment was Leah’s fault. Or maybe not her fault necessarily, but a part of the structure that had divided her mother’s understanding of who Leah was at 18 and who she had become almost ten years later. This pained Leah and she thought to explain herself, but worried the explanation too would be dismissed as pandering to her mother’s age. She relaxed her body into the high backed chair as though her flesh—muscles, limbs, veins, bones, all those inside fluids sluicing their organ linings—was a wholly separate object. Leah—the person she envisioned most when she closed her eyes—braced herself somewhere against the ceiling, reacting as a pure thought: she was anxious to leave again.
She thought of the open road, the deep dusty hue of the prairie and the piney smell of the hills. She forgot this smell—the open and organic warmth of it—until it filtered through the car vents as she made the right turn from highway 89 toward Custer. Then the last forty-five minutes of her drive home made her nostalgic and homesick—not for either Denver or Rapid, but for the world she knew when she was young. The blue house on Sand Lilly Court and the gravelly paved asphalt and the blurry hum of her rollerblades on the street; the white vinyl fence and the above ground pool inside; summers and the heat and her mother showing her how she tested the chlorine levels of the pool using test strips, buckets, and scoops of white powdery stuff. Leah remembered the old tree in the gully, the picked-clean bones of a deer she’d once found with her friends. She remembered how they used to pretend they lived in other times, collecting water from a stream.
Leah’s mother set the coffee on the table in front of Leah before she sat beside her. Leah watched her mother sip the hot coffee as she stared at the plants on the deck. She had never been one of those mothers who touch and often caress. Leah did not hold this against her parents, but she wondered how the sensation of her mother’s hand curling her hair behind her ear would have correlated to her own capability for affection. Without it, she knew the absence of these gestures made her somewhat prickly and inclined to waiting for others to make the first move in terms of a display of affection. She wondered how her mother would react if Leah calmly curled her mother’s hair behind her ear.
“So—how’s work?”
Leah turned the coffee mug on the table, but didn’t pick it up. She shrugged.
“I’m trying. I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should go back to school.”
Leah sighed. “I already did.” She had a master’s degree in printmaking. For her thesis project, she had worked on a series of self-portraits. Her moon white face—threshold warped shadows surrounding her eyes, mouth, and nose—stamped with the word “You” in various colours. Her speciality was dry needle point etchings, images scratched into the surface of plexiglass plates. She covered the plates in ink, draped the damp paper over the plate and ran the paper through the press. Printmaking was repetitive work that required many trial runs, tests, and attention to detail. The work was hard, the etching unforgiving. She spent hours, working her hands into stiff little knots, hurting, the skin depressed with the grooves and edges of the etching tools. Linear sculpting. Two-dimensional relief work.
She had some of her work featured in magazines and she had attempted to apply for a grant so that she could exhibit her work with fellow student artists, but she was often passed over, her work denigrated to student-level work. Interesting, but too conceptual.
Her mother had her heart set on persuading Leah to apply for law school.
“You’re very smart,” her mother often told her. “You could study law.”
Now her mother took another careful sip of coffee and said, “If you’re not happy, you should change your life.”
Leah tried to drink her coffee. It was too hot, but she sipped it anyway, licking her lips.
“It’s not that easy,” Leah said.
“You could move back home,” her mother said.
“I can’t. It’s like taking a step backwards.”
Her mother sighed.
And Leah said it, what she’d been thinking for weeks, just blurted it out because she had no one else to tell. “I think I’m depressed.” She meant the illness kind of depressed. The imbalance in the brain kind. She wasn’t just sad—she felt worse than “sad”—and she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to be trapped by an illness that seemed more like a state of mind, more like fear and anxiety—something she should be able to rationalize her way out of—but instead it was consuming her and had been consuming her ever since she’d completed her master’s.
When Leah looked up, her mother wasn’t looking out the window. She was staring deeply into Leah’s eyes, more deeply than Leah could ever remember her staring.
“Have you tried talking to someone?”
“Like a therapist?” Leah frowned.
“I know,” her mother said. “I never really thought much of that option, either.”
Leah had long suspected that her mother also suffered from depression, mostly because of her father’s various allusions to her mother’s mood or accusations (made in private, when her mother had disappeared for naps during the day, or left the house suddenly after yelling at her father) that Leah’s mother was “a little crazy.” But now, face to face with her mother and the possible hint of what—for Leah—had been a lifelong family secret, Leah couldn’t think of how to respond.
“I take medicine,” her mother said, finally, her fingertips gathered together against the base of her mug. “Not everyday, but when I need it. It helps.” She shrugged. “I used to take it more often.”
“Should I go to a doctor?” Leah asked. She pictured herself at the doctor’s office, explaining: doctor, I feel sad.
Her mother told Leah it might be a good idea, that it couldn’t hurt. “Talking about it does help,” she finished.

The next day, Easter Sunday, Leah wore a spring-green sweater and sat in the right bucket seat of her father’s suburban. Her father started the engine and pulled out into the driveway. They waited for her mother.
“Did you sleep OK?”
“Yeah,” Leah said.
“Good to be home?”
“When are you heading back?”
“Probably tomorrow morning.”
“What time?”
“Not sure.”
“Probably closer to 10.”
“Well, I’ll fill your car up in the morning before I go to work.”
“Thanks,” she said. Leah drummed her fingers on the ridged car windowsill.
“Your mother told me you think you might be depressed.”
Leah rolled her eyes.
“Where is she?” he asked. He whispered it, but not very quietly. “Always late,” he said.
Leah didn’t blame her mother and she had willingly told her mother something she knew would not stay private long. And she knew her father was attempting a rational, scientific approach to the issue, but she hated that he brought it up so casually and diminished its importance to her by punctuating his statement with condescending comments about her mother. Surely he knew the secret was out. She knew he thought she was still naive, but by now he should know she was no longer ignorant, that—if she wanted to—she could leverage the source of her mother’s illness against him, just as he now tried to demean her by drawing comparisons between her and her mother.
“Your mother’s right, you know,” he said now. “I know some psychologists in Denver. I can recommend a few.”
She was curious. Who would he trust her innermost struggle with? Who would he willingly allow to diagnose her particular brand of hurt? How much of all this was about him—about him enforcing some measure of control on her?
Leah shook her head and was about to open her mouth, to tell her father he’d helped enough, when her mother opened the car door.

After mass, Leah and her parents waited outside the rectory for the priest to change out of his vestments. Jason was taller and paler than she remembered, his voice more rounded and assertive than she expected, and as he stood to give the homily in the middle of mass, Leah straightened her back in the pew as best she could and told herself to be open.
At last the man emerged. Leah’s mother gave Jason a quick hug. “Very nice homily.” She practically cooed.
Leah adopted what she hoped was a kind smile. Her father shook the priest’s hand.
“Look who’s here,” her father said, pointing at Leah.
Jason reached for her hand and Leah nearly missed his fingers, fumbling into the sweaty pad of his thumb, but quickly grasped and released his hand.
“How are you, Leah?”
“Hi Jason, or I’m sorry, you probably prefer ‘Fr. Conlin?’”
He smiled. “It’s fine.”
“Are you ready to eat?” her mother said.
Jason laughed. “She always complains that I’m too skinny.”

He sat next to Leah in the left-hand bucket seat, but talked to her parents most of the way home. As soon as her father pulled into the driveway, Jason asked Leah about her artwork.
“I always wanted to try printmaking,” he said, “but I only had time to take drawing in college along with my other theology courses too.”
“There are many different printmaking techniques,” Leah said, “but mostly printmaking concerns replication. Creating a functional art object that changes with each repetition.”
“I’d love to see some of your work,” he said.
“We have a couple of Leah’s pieces hanging in the house,” her mother said.
They went inside.

The print in the hall leading to the living room was a female nude. Leah had taken a life drawing class during college and in her master’s program she’d taken some of the better drawings and converted them into plates. She rubbed the ink to the plates in such a way that she created shadows and volume in the faceless figure. It was a young woman with small breasts. She was seated, but the image only showed her upper torso—the top of her head to the tips of her elbows.
“I made the figure’s contour lines with an etching tool that I carved into a plexiglass plate.”
The priest leaned closer to the image. She’d used a red ink on a grey paper and then matted and framed the print herself.
“How many prints did you make with this plate?”
“10 to 12, I think.”
“And this was the best one?”
Leah shrugged. “I made this plate early in the program. It’s flawed,” she admitted. “But I like this image. If I had made more prints it’s possible I could have improved the results.”
“Who is the woman?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Is it you?”
“No,” Leah laughed.
“She has no face,” he said.
“Does that bother you?”
He shook his head. “She is unreal and yet lively—a symbol now.”
“Blank and sacred,” she said.
He made a small sound, like a hum, from behind his beard.

At dinner, Jason competed with her father for best extemporaneous yarn about a near death experience. Leah’s father talked about the time in New Mexico when he’d almost drowned after he fell out of a white water rafting boat—a story Leah had heard him tell to many friends and acquaintances ever since it happened (maybe seven years ago)—and Jason told a story about surviving a freak snowstorm in Switzerland when he was a backpacking seminarian. Either story would have been train wrecks if told by less experienced yarn-tellers, but both were more than entertaining and mood-lifting because each man also included life lessons that—Leah could only assume—were meant for her.
First, her father’s:
“So, if you’re heading down river without the raft, keep your arms and legs up. Don’t stand in a rushing river! The weight of the water will pull you under.”
Then, the priest’s:
“Sometimes we equate love with niceness. Or we think that love is free from conflict, but it’s active. Active in the sense that, as a priest, I can council and give advice, but the person I’m helping has to take the first step to getting better. I have to compartmentalize my emotional involvement with the people I help otherwise it will overrun my life.”
Leah finished her lasagna, but she felt flush and sick to her stomach. The laughing continued and she imagined herself getting sick enough that her father had to carry her from the table.

After Easter dinner, Jason and Leah stood outside on the deck. A slight wind shifted through the leaves of her mother’s potted plants. Leah heard turkeys scuffle in the wild grass at the back of the yard.
“Do you still draw?” Leah asked him.
He slipped his hands into the black pockets of his slacks.
“I keep a sketchbook. When I have free time, I practice. I remember what I love most about being creative. Giving shape to a thought.”
She wondered what thoughts a priest would shape. She even tried to remember how he held a pencil, the direction of his strokes, how his practice would coalesce into the ideas he imagined, the images he attempted to realize.
“How do you like living in Denver?” he asked her.
The weather was changing. A cool breeze fell down the back of her shirt.
“Denver is my home. It’s where I feel most attuned to my creative self.”
“Not this little town in South Dakota?”
“No,” she said. She did not want to sound angry or bitter; she was just stating a fact. “Well,” she continued, “it’s not so much a matter of place, but the people I’m with.”
“So all your friends live in Denver?”
“Only a few,” she admitted, shrugging. “Mostly, I’m on my own.”
“Why is that?” He stood closer to her, his blue eyes bright and sort of watery and pink, as if he was affected by allergies.
“It’s easier,” she said. She looked away. She wanted him to look away. She wasn’t worth this attention. She knew what he was doing and it was a needless endeavour. Perhaps her mother (or her father! she shuddered) had put him up to it. Was he in her father’s prayer group? She felt silly for not seeing this sooner.
“I used to feel like this,” he said.
“I don’t think what I’m going through is the same thing you went through. I mean”—she lightly laughed—“I don’t want to become a nun, or anything.”
He smiled. “Your father said you’d left the Church.”
“I don’t want to be re-converted. Please don’t. I take back what I said. You’re entitled to live your life.”
“As are you,” he said. She saw he was not angry, had not been offended by her, that what she projected onto him was only anger at herself.
“No one seems to notice that,” she said, quietly. She felt a pain, like something sharp, burrowing into the back of her throat.
“I’m not trying to reconvert you,” he said. He rested his hand on hers. “But you can talk to me. I can see that you’re in pain.”
As much as Leah wanted to scramble away from his touch and condescending concern for her “pain,” she could not stop herself from fantasizing about Jason in his utmost nakedness. She wondered about de-converting him. His hand was warm and he was leaning towards her.
She imagined that she had kissed him, lightly, on the cheek, and that he hadn’t recoiled or said something about the need to compartmentalize. She imagined she heard him say, “Oh,” in a small, embarrassed voice, that he squeezed her hand and gently pulled her toward him, that he folded his black arms around her and held her against the cold.
She imagined what her life might have been like if she had stayed in South Dakota, if she hadn’t broken up with Jason because she had been accepted to an out-of-state university. They had moved away from each other and the break up hadn’t been anyone’s fault, but it remained with her. The unfinished thread of a possible life.
He was so close now that she was scared to let him go again without saying what she needed to say. She felt too hot and sick.
“I leave tomorrow,” she said. Above his stiff white collar she studied the array of beauty marks that freckled his skin.
“What would you like me to say?”
Leah closed her eyes and allowed herself to forget—for a moment—that she was drowning in the ice water of her own sadness. Instead of hovering above the scene she decided to keep herself in it, to stay present, feeling the proximity of another body—a closeness incomplete only because of their clothes. When she felt a tremor run through his body, and her body echoed it, she knew her doubt was a method of selfish preservation that amounted to nothing if she could not keep or create real moments like this.
The moment would soon end, but she would remember it—however incompletely—as long as she could.


About Jacqueline Kharouf

Jacqueline Kharouf has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in The Examined Life Journal, Matchbook Literary Magazine, Harpoon Review, Gingerbread House, NANO Fiction, and South Dakota Review, among others. She lives and works in Denver, CO. Follow her on twitter @writejacqueline. Read her blog at And/or like her Facebook page Jacqueline Kharouf, writer.

Jacqueline Kharouf has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in The Examined Life Journal, Matchbook Literary Magazine, Harpoon Review, Gingerbread House, NANO Fiction, and South Dakota Review, among others. She lives and works in Denver, CO. Follow her on twitter @writejacqueline. Read her blog at And/or like her Facebook page Jacqueline Kharouf, writer.

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