Backslide


Jennifer slipped in her kitchen after her husband Donald left for work that morning.  She banged her knee and smashed her hip on the linoleum, couldn't move.  Something felt broken, it hurt so much.  The table and chairs were too far away for her reach.  She yanked the long coiled phone cord that hung from the counter and the phone came down, the plastic cracking on impact.  First, a call to Donald at work.
      "Donald, I fell and I'm hurt."
      A long sigh from her husband.  "Jen—"
      "I think I broke something."
      "Seriously?"
      "I can't move, Jesus, help me.  April's in her crib."
      "I'll call the ambulance.  Don't move.  No, call your mother.  Can you?  I can do that.  You stay put," Donald said.  He hung up.
      Jennifer listened to the dial tone for comfort.  There was a piece of lint by her face, a big black dusty ball.  She blew, and it went skittering across the floor.  The linoleum felt dirty against her cheek.
      She was Pentecostal, so she prayed for Jesus to heal her.
      "I believe in your promises, Lord, to heal if I ask.  Oh, God, it hurts so much, and the baby, Jesus, you can touch me with your power now.  You can touch me, please, Lord."
      She thought about the EMTs finding her so immodest, barefoot, one of Donald's extra large T-shirts under the silk robe.  The pastor had always said that a Christian should dress as if always in the public eye, since God was ever vigilantly watching.  She was twenty-two and in nice shape considering she'd just had the baby eight months earlier.  She took her long red hair and twisted it into a tail, held it against her chest, still crying and praying through chattering teeth.
*
      God had seen the argument that morning, Jennifer thought.  Donald said Jennifer would have to start trusting him again.  He said, "Divorce is not an option," which meant it was, which meant the counseling wasn't working at all.
      "I never said anything about divorce," Jennifer said.
      "I know.  It's not an option."
      "Right."
      He left.  She bathed April, then brushed her uncut hair, now almost to her waist.  Donald was only older than her by a year.  She met him at youth camp, married him in six months.  He was a preacher's kid who seemed ready to go to Bible school and become an evangelist.  But after the wedding, he got a job in an office at the shipyard, only went to church with Jennifer sporadically.
      The new youth minister and his wife came to town while Jennifer was pregnant.  Donald had an affair with the wife, although they both claimed it was nothing more than a few kisses.  Jennifer insisted on counseling with the pastor, and was surprised Donald agreed to it without much argument.  He usually always found some way to criticize Pastor Burtleson.
      The first session, no one wanted to say much or look at each other.  Burtleson reclined in the high-backed chair behind his desk.  The office was decked out in African musical instruments and folk art, since the Pastor had been a missionary there before taking this church.  He talked about Africa all the time.
      Donald and Brother Nate flanked their wives, who looked uncomfortable next to each other, the arms of their chairs touching.
      "Please tell us how this became so intimate, Brother Donald," Burtleson said.
      Donald shrugged a lot while telling him.  "Tabitha's just so easy to talk to, and she makes me laugh.  I don't know, we found reasons to see each other."
      Jennifer looked at her hands in her lap, glanced at Sister Tabitha in the next seat, a Puerto Rican who attended Bible school in Texas.  She was ripe, shapely and full, with long dark shiny hair.  She wore tiny plastic frame glasses over wide eyes always in wonder.  Donald said Tabitha and he met at the public library, wandered and flirted, but kissing was as far as it went, he swore.
      "What was it like to kiss her?" the pastor asked.
      "She put all of herself into it.  It was so warm."
      The pastor laced his fingers together on his chest.  "This isn't really going to help unless you admit to everything, now.  Sounds to me like kissing was only the beginning."
      Donald shook his head and lifted a chin, peeking at Jennifer, Tabitha, Nate, back to Burtleson.  "I thought God was the only one I had to confess to."
      "Brother, when you marry, you become one flesh with your wife.  If you deny this to her, you are denying to yourself, and how can you be forgiven for something you won't admit?"  Burtleson nodded towards Tabitha.  "How about your story?"
      The youth minister's wife bit her lip.
      Until then, Jennifer had believed Donald.  A kiss was bad enough.
      The pastor sighed.  "This won't be easy."
      Tabitha broke down, leaned over and covered her face with her arms.  Brother Nate rubbed his hand on her back.
      Burtleson said, "Let's go slowly then.  It was a kiss at first?  A long embrace?  When did it lead to intercourse?"
*
      After she fell, Jennifer had her mom come over in the daytime to help with April.  She sang to the baby when Jennifer wished she would be quiet and listen to the stereo.  It sat beneath her window, racks of preaching tapes and choir CDs on either side, Precious Moments Bible figures on top.  Jennifer wanted to get up and put in one of the pastor's wonderful Sunday night sermons.  She had missed two now, laid up with a bruised hip and a fractured leg, unable to get out except to the doctors, so her mom brought the tapes.
      They prayed together, too.  Mom would lay her hands on Jennifer's shoulders and together they would grow louder and louder.
      "Lord we rebuke the devil trying to hurt this dear saint's life and marriage.  We call on you to heal her, speed this healing.  Touch her, Lord Jesus."
      Jennifer held her hands high and let the tears go, praying on the couch, her leg propped up, Mom on her knees beside her.
      Later, Jennifer would say, "Mom, bring me a Vicodin, please."
      "You had one three hours ago.  It says every four hours."
      "But it takes a half hour for them to work, you know that.  Same as last time I had them, and I was just fine."
      Her mom would then pretend to tidy.  "They make you so drowsy."
      "I need drowsy now."
      "Where's your faith?  Ask Jesus to help."
      Jennifer would pout.  "He's a healer, but he didn't want us to be stupid.  He gave those doctors the knowledge to treat us and make those pills to ease our suffering."
      Mom always agreed.
*
      At night, Donald was perfect.  For the first time in a year, Jennifer was glad she fought to keep him instead of tossing him away.  She knew God meant for them to be together, and that Donald needed to be molded.  God had great plans for her husband, but Donald didn't realize yet.  But he would, Jennifer thought.  The Lord had promised.
      Donald helped her change for bed, careful as she leaned on her crutch.  They talked about the day while he unbuttoned her blouse, about April as he unzipped his wife's skirt.  And every time he helped lift her arms to pull the T-shirt or nightgown over her head, he told her, "You're so soft, I can't believe it."
      "Is that what you like?"
      "I love you, love what you are."
      Jennifer liked when Donald brushed his hand across her hip in bed, the sensation not pain but not ticklish.  He prayed quietly until he fell asleep, something she hadn't heard since the first days they lived together.  He said, "Thank you for blessing me, reminding me.  Jesus, thank you for watching over my wife."
*
      Pastor Burtleson stopped by a couple of times after Jennifer's fall, but on Monday he showed up with Brother Nate.  Jennifer smiled as she opened the door and fumbled backwards on the crutch.  The wide pastor and thin youth minister stepped inside.  The older man wore black slacks, a long-sleeved print shirt, almost tribal stripes.  The younger wore Dockers and a Polo.  He had a goofy smile and curly dark hair.
      Jennifer offered coffee, and Pastor Burtleson said he would make it if the others would go on to the living room.  The room wasn't messy, but there was clutter since she couldn't do much.  Jennifer eased onto the couch, and Brother Nate took one of the two chairs across from it.
      "New carpet?" Nate said.
      "It's been a while."
      He pointed at her inflatable cast.  "Is it bad?  Getting better?"
      "Yeah, praise the Lord.  It's healing fast."
      "His mighty hand."  Nate held out an upturned palm, fingers slightly curled and spread wide.
      The Pastor walked in and took the other chair, said the coffee would be done soon.
      "Is it better?" he asked.
      "I think so."  She wasn't sure if he meant the leg or her marriage.  "There's not much pain anymore, and I can hobble around."
      A deep nod.  The pastor was a serious man, making every movement deliberate and slow.  "How's Donald?"
      "Much better.  He seems all right, and is helping me so much."
      Nate's face was a frozen smile.  If his wife wasn't treating him any better, he didn't show it.
      The pastor said, "I noticed he missed the last service.  Was he helping you?"
      "Yes sir.  We'll be back as soon as we can.  I have the tapes."
      "He could at least bring the baby.  You'd be fine for an hour or two."
      She knew it was Burtleson's idea of a joke, and he smiled as he sipped his coffee, but he meant it, too.
      "Donald's been so sweet the last two weeks.  It won't be long.  We'll be back."
      Nate said, "Let's talk about you.  Are you in pain?"
      "It's been sharp today, just when I thought it was about to disappear."  Jennifer looked at her crutch, and then at her feet as she stretched her legs beneath the long dress.
      "We can pray for you, lay hands on you if you want."
      Jennifer smiled so wide.  "Oh, absolutely, yes.  I want Jesus to heal me."
      Pastor Burtleson pulled a small vial of yellow liquid from his shirt pocket.  "I brought a little olive oil, if you don't mind."
      "Yes, it's okay."  She straightened her back as Burtleson and Brother Nate stood.  The pastor dabbed a little oil on his index finger, handed the vial to Nate, who did the same.  They both touched her forehead with their fingertips.
      "Jesus, heal me now, Lord, I have faith in you," she prayed as the ministers shouted.
      "Sprit of healing, set her free from pain, Almighty God, as your Word tells us, we stand on your Word now!" Burtleson said.
      "Jesus, heal me, you know I believe you can."  Jennifer closed her eyes and saw colors, felt heat, as the pastor's fingers pulsated against her skin in rhythm with his shouts.
      Nate prayed, "Yes Lord, yes Lord, release her Lord."
      It was like desert wind but comfortable, and Jennifer wanted to dance, dance, worship Jesus with all she had, if he would heal her, the physical, the mental, the marriage, the trust.  Heal me, sh-sh-la-la.  Her thoughts trailed off and her words melted into stammering lips, other tongues.
      "Heal her!  Praise God," The pastor's shouts became tongues and Jennifer's body burned holy fire all over.
      Holy fire all over.
      Holy fire all over.
      And she caught her breath, heard the shouts fading.  Her own voice, a mess of crying and half-words like a drunk.  She was drunk on the spirit and felt better than she should.
      "I'm healed," she said, the words loud as if shouted from a mountain, heat swirling around her body and mind as she felt God's hands large and comforting wrapped around her soul.
      The ministers waved their hands above their heads and thanked God.
      "I'm healed, thank you Lord, I'm healed."  Jennifer stood, hopped up and down, the cast keeping her a little off balance but she didn't care.  She spun, she danced, dropped the crutch and repeated, "I love you Jesus, I love you Jesus," until she was out of breath.
      She thought of how happy Donald would be.  He would get it now, that this was a sign for him, for both of them.  God healed her so she could show Donald the power of faith.  As she composed her self and wiped tears away, she thanked Brother Nate and Pastor Burtleson, showed them to the door.
      Brother Nate stopped before they left and told her, "Tell Donald I said hello.  We don't play golf anymore, you know."
*
      Donald brought home Mexican take-out for dinner, and Jennifer wrapped her arms around him from behind, covered his eyes.  He set the food on the table and smiled.
      "Who's that?" he said.
      "Guess."
      "You shouldn't be up on that leg."  He took her hands gently and held them, turned to kiss her, a long kiss with all the passion and love rushing to their heads like it was their wedding day.  She was beaming, angelic.  "What's got into you?"
      "Just the best thing, sweetie, the best.  The pastor and Brother Nate came by today and prayed for me.  They prayed, and I was healed, just like that.  Isn't it wonderful how good God is to us?  I feel so good."
      She hugged him, but he didn't hug back.  He held her body at arm's length then, looked at her like she was behind glass.  A moment before, Jennifer had felt his pulse race faster and harder all over as she held him tightly.  No more.  She moved away, still smiling, but confused.
      "Where's April?" he said.
      "In the living room, but what's wrong?"
      He started for the living room with Jennifer right behind him.  The crutch and deflated cast were in the corner.  April's playpen was nearby.  Donald walked right over and picked up his daughter.  The girl's laughs were echoes to Jennifer, who felt that this wasn't the world she knew.  This was a nightmare, and a good jerk would wake her up.  She thrust her hand into the air and felt only air.  But she kept it there outstretched and began to pray in her mind—Jesus, give me the words.  You made your promise, now keep it and help me save him.
      "Donald, I'm healed.  It's wonderful.  What's wrong?"
      "It's so convenient, though, isn't it?  All of the sudden?  Hasn't he prayed with you already?  Don't you pray for yourself?"
      She shook her head.  "You have too, you know.  I'm not going to question how God works, but he did and that's what's important.  Don't you see what it means?"
      Donald held April protectively close to his chest.  "It means you lied to me.  You've been fine for how long?  Most of the time?  Playing me for sympathy, that's what I think."  He sounded like he was trying not to yell.
      Jennifer thought, I rebuke you, Devil.  You can't have him again.  He's mine and the Lord's.
      "I didn't lie.  This is what happened.  This is part of God's plan for us.  You're just as involved," she said.
      "Only to get sympathy," he said.  "It's clear now.  How do I know you wouldn't put roach spray in April's bottles or something?  Are you one of those?"
      Jennifer stomped her foot.  No pain.  She stomped harder.  "I can't believe you just said that.  Did I ever?  Have you gone crazy?"
      Donald hugged April, kissed her cheek, and looked at Jennifer like she was condemned.  He walked into the kitchen, his footsteps on the sticky linoleum rattling Jennifer so she couldn't think straight.  A trick of Satan, it had to be, all the noise, shutting down the still small voice of God in her mind.
      "Donald," she said.  "I'm not letting you go.  This is a good thing for us.  Jesus is reaching out to you right now."
      "I'm taking April to your mother's.  You need time alone."
      "Donald, please."
      He kept going, grabbed keys, out the door.
      Jennifer let out a moan.  She looked around, grabbed a cabinet door and yanked it open.  She put her thigh in-between and slammed the door on her leg.  Slammed again and again.  She kept at it, wishing for pain but praying, Forgive me, Jesus, forgive me.  
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