The straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m not sure where the phrase comes from, or even what it means, but as it rings through my ears, it feels wonderfully appropriate. So I repeat it, loudly at first, then softer and softer until I’m barely whispering into the piercing January wind, “This is the last straw. And I’m broken.”
My feet, shoved into heavy, awkward boots, shuffle through three inches of undisturbed snow and take me to St. Valentine’s church. Inside, the heat is on and the lights are off. The snow’s luster illuminates the stained-glass windows, blanketing rows of dark wooden pews with vivid, colorful rays. My eyes follow their path and land on an unfamiliar visitor in the front row, a kneeling woman, her head down. I sigh, irritated. Once it’s been discovered, a sanctuary is no longer a sanctuary.
Deflated, I walk up the aisle, loosening my scarf. When I reach the front row, I enter the pew on the right, away from the stranger. I see her look at me – a fleeting glance. In a thin cotton blouse and petite pencil skirt, she is underdressed for the weather. I sit down, take off my scarf, and stare up at the painted ceiling. Angels dancing, pure mockery.
I close my eyes and breathe. Every repulsive detail of her bracelet – the delicate silver links, the small, pink tulip engraved with the initials A.M.E, the lingering scent of a foreign perfume – is permanently tattooed in my memory. Left in the glove box of his truck, nauseating confirmation of what I’ve known, of what I’ve tried not to know, for months now. The last straw – the one that broke me.
I hear somebody crying, and when I open my eyes I realize it’s me. Embarrassed, I clear my throat and reach for a tissue. I can feel the intruder’s eyes on me, but I don’t look. A deep sob rises into my throat – does she look like me? – and I swallow it painfully. My eyes settle on my lap, where I watch my fingers tear the tissue to shreds until I notice two black heels next to my boots.
“You okay?” Her voice is raspy but feminine, a perfect match for the fair, gaunt face and round, mascaraed eyes – a deep, yearning brown – that meet my gaze. She sits, uninvited, and flips her frizzy russet braid over one shoulder.
“I’m fine,” I reply, turning back towards the tattered tissue. Now leave me alone.
“No, you’re not,” she says, crossing one leg over the other. “There’s someone else, isn’t there?”
Her uncanny wisdom, though shocking, isn’t welcome here, not in my pew. I stay silent.
“I know that cry. For the past two weeks I’ve cried that cry. You think I don’t know that cry? ‘Cause I do.”
My brain, my body, every inch of my physical self, wants her to leave, but my broken soul now wants her to stay. “And?” It comes out crueler than I’d intended, but she pays no mind.
“I can’t stand the house anymore so I come here. To escape, not to pray.” Her voice is strong, but as her bottom lip begins to quiver, I learn that she, like me, is vulnerable. And perhaps she, like me, hasn’t always been that way.
I turn and offer a feeble smile, my first sincere attempt at kindness. She nods sympathetically and reaches for my hand, and only then do I know she understands that this befriending – holy god, is that what this is? – does not come easily.
“It’s quiet,” I say, my cold hand in hers. “That’s why I come. And to pray too, I guess.”
“We’re not weak, you know.” Her stinging words, barely a whisper, are out of context. They don’t belong here, not now. Not fifteen short, long – what time is it anyway? – minutes after the bracelet. Still, she continues. “We’re stronger than dishonesty, stronger than betrayal even. We have to be.”
The sun comes out, flooding St. Valentine’s with a myriad of vibrant hues. I feel it before I see it, the heat on my neck and shoulders, and when I look up at the nearby stained-glass window, I see the fourth station of the cross. Jesus meets his mother.
I’m crying again, this time with no regard for the woman sitting next to me. I’ve lost everything. Everything. The stranger’s eyebrows furrow as she leans towards me, arms outstretched. Torn between pushing her away and thanking her, I sit paralyzed as she wraps me into an awkwardly perfect hug.
“We’re strong,” she says again, and I breathe in her scent. Familiar somehow, like home.
Then, as abruptly as she came, she stands to leave.
“I, uh – thank you,” I mumble softly. Almost inaudibly.
She smiles, offers her hand once again. Her fingers are thin and calloused, weathered by wisdom. “Angela,” she says as her hand grips mine. “Angela Mae Ember.”
And then, as my heart falls into the pit – the deep, empty cavity – of my stomach, she adds with a heartfelt grin, “So very glad to have met you.”