By Mary Salisbury
Cheap perfume oozed from the Housemoms. Two had taken pains to doll up in flowery dresses for Father Rick’s visit. The head honcho, aka Cactus, had styled her bottle-blonde hair into a halo framing her face.
Three of us girls lived in the shelter with our babies, and we’d been ordered to our rooms. I lingered in the kitchen, but Cactus shooed me away.
The Housemoms acted like they’d never been alone with a man, giggling, twisting their necklaces like rosary beads, as if that’d make him materialize. I hid in the family room, waiting.
He pulled up in an ancient Ford Escort, white paint chipped around the headlights. He smoothed his hair over a bald spot, wearing glasses like John Lennon used to, back in the day. He carried a spiral-bound notebook, the kind I used in school.
The Housemoms circled him like girls around a cute guy at school. Father Rick, in black pants, black shirt, socks, and shoes, bowed his head and shuffled to the most comfortable chair. He removed his white collar with a flourish, as if he’d practiced before a mirror.
“I’m speaking not as a priest today, but as a man, a citizen.”
The Housemoms piled onto the loveseat and couch, while Cactus took the chair beside him. She could’ve passed for a nun, top button cinched, lace collar fluttering under her chin, an angel pin stabbed above her left breast. She perched, close as a cat, hands folded in her lap.
I inched toward the kitchen, ears perked for my sleeping baby.
Father Rick talked about prostitutes from France, giving a history-of-birth-control, detailing how it had turned women into never-ending sex machines, which was not in their best interest. He described the lacy clothes prostitutes paraded around in as similar to the ones girls wore today.
Turning the pages in his notebook, he droned on, blaming the prostitutes for passing on their methods all the way to women of today. And we didn’t even know it! Sex tricks, slutty clothes, the pill—all their fault.
I wondered if he believed prostitutes had done it for fun, as if they could’ve said yes or no. If one of us girls could speak to him, we would tell him about boys like Carl.
But Father Rick wasn’t here to talk about boys like Carl, or any boys. He had the look of a guy who wanted lunch: meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Eyes shiny and black as his pants—indoor eyes.
I thought about those cavernous rooms, a bunch of men milling around picking a new Pope, the smoke changing colors. All those old guys voting to choose who it would be. Wouldn’t they call us girls witches if we did that?
Father Rick yammered on, never mentioning popes or priests in flowing gowns, their purple and crimson, the wide white belts, incense streaming out of jeweled Aladdin-like lamps, never mentioning the centuries of oppression handed down, the solemn men. No whisper of church and the little girls and restless boys, Sunday morning silky dresses, Vaseline-polished patent leather shoes, lace headscarves brushing against your cheek, all a preparation for sacrifice. Every station of the cross ending in slaughter.
I tip-toed to my room to check on Lily.
When Father Rick left, Cactus told the Housemoms to check every drawer in the house, zeroing in on our bedrooms. Any type of birth control had to be dumped in the trash. Condoms crammed in backpacks—out. Pregnancy tests hidden in closets, morning-after pills a volunteer had dropped off back when nobody checked donations—tossed. Cactus was in a frenzy to remove anything she believed led to sex. Didn’t she realize we’d already had sex before we got here?
Next, Cactus called Planned Parenthood to stop the free samples. Just last week, a volunteer had delivered a paper bag of condoms, and us girls had laughed, putting them in a punch bowl, like party favors. Cactus led us into the family room, babies crawling around and us waiting for the axe to drop.
“Father Rick helped us immensely,” she said, poised on her chair. “He’s given us guidelines and aspirations. It’s been getting out of control here. Condoms, Plan B, items left in the refrigerator, and pregnancy tests left in plain sight.”
We all stared at the worn brown carpet.
“While you’re living in Our Home,” she bulldozed on, “you’ll live by Our Rules.”
Some of the Housemoms wriggled in their seats.
“There will be no need for birth control because there will be no sex. There will be no pregnancy tests, because none of you will wonder if you’re pregnant.” Her head turned as if attached to a pole. “No overnight visits. And we’ll provide lessons to teach you how to present yourselves, and how to say no.”
No one knew it yet, but the girl sitting next to me was pregnant.
Perhaps Father Rick hadn’t factored in all the possibilities. Regardless, Cactus rolled on, “The rules will be printed and you’ll each sign a copy. Any deviation will result in your exit from the Home, and could hurt your chance of keeping your baby.”
A week passed, and the pregnant girl went missing. A policeman banged on the door, blabbing into his walkie-talkie. I heard the phrase: ‘a bunch of vipers.’ It turned out she had holed up in her boyfriend’s dad’s trailer, smoking weed, her baby crawling around on the floor, the one inside her still a secret.
But soon she’d start showing, and then what? How would Father Rick and Cactus explain the no sex rule then? They wouldn’t find one stray condom or a single morning-after pill or anything to do with sex in the Home no matter how hard they looked, but they would find three babies, with another on the way.