I once bungee jumped off a bridge on Vancouver Island. I already considered myself a graduate of badassery that summer because, the month before, I had tumbled from a single-engine Cessna strapped to the stomach of a parachuted professional. Seeing that I was now someone who’d plummeted over twelve thousand feet, I knew that a meager one hundred and fifty would require little to no mental preparation. Cake walk, I thought. Like skipping the last few steps on a flight of stairs.
The instant I stared down at the shining ribbon of the Nanaimo River, I realized the exponential degree to which I’d been mistaken. The height was close enough to see in detail what lay below, but still far enough to be terrifying. In the end, I had to siphon emotional support through a hand squeeze from a confused bungee employee, a young man I’d met only minutes before when he placed me on a scale, wrote my weight on the back of my hand in black marker, and tied my ankles together. Only then could I bury my trepidation long enough to unfreeze my body from the precipice and initiate a gawky freefall.
Fear is all relative, of course. I can state unequivocally that standing on a bridge from which you must leap, reaching into your stores of gumption and coming up short is not frightening in the least compared to the feeling that you’ve peed yourself in church.
Easter Sunday—the most important day in Roman Catholicism. The day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; the day that ends the forty days of Lent; the day that Christian women drag their Jewish husbands to Mass with them.
Celebrating major religious holidays when you don’t have children yet is awkward enough. Minor ones like St. Patrick’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day have a definite adult bent, but Christmas and Easter are children’s celebrations. There’s just no disputing it. People didn’t invent egg hunts or pictures on Santa’s lap with grownups in mind. But add in interfaith marriage, and the puerility of the traditions becomes all the more evident.
After listening to my exclamations that the Easter Bunny came as I hopped up and down in my pajamas, gesturing to two jelly-bean-filled baskets on the kitchen table, my husband Dan rolled his eyes.
“Hon, I’m not a kid,” he said. “Nor was I ever in my life an Easter-basket-receiving one, so this holds no nostalgia for me.”
After breakfast and light conversation on whether or not we would, in fact, indoctrinate our future offspring on the fabricated existence of a breaking-and-entering, chocolate-bearing giant rabbit, we dressed for church. Dan wore khakis and a light blue button-up shirt and I had on a white knee-length dress with a pink cardigan. We looked appropriately pastel.
I pulled the car out of the driveway at quarter after nine for the ten o’clock service.
“Isn’t this a little early?” Dan asked.
“You’ve never seen this place before,” I told him.
We had recently moved to Las Vegas and I had since learned, to my surprise, that the city was full of religious residents. Of all three churches I’d visited there so far, each one was packed over capacity, this one most of all. The building had more pews than most cathedrals I’d seen and the parking lot had almost as many spaces as those afforded to malls, but both were filled well before the beginning of the service. If one did not arrive at least ten minutes prior, there was not a chance of finding a parking space or an empty seat, barring the arrival of Jesus himself to multiply the too-few pews. And this was only on regular Sundays. Christianity’s equivalent to the Super Bowl required plenty of extra time. I was not standing in the back for over an hour and a half.
When we walked in, the building was already two-thirds full. We found seats in the middle of a short pew, an elderly couple on either side of us. I should have been praying on the kneeler, as my mother had taught me to always pass the time beforehand, but Dan and I instead read our books I’d stowed in my purse. I implored him to keep the cover of his hidden from view. Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs is not a sacrilegious book—sex and drugs are not even large components of its subject matter—but I feared such a title in the house of the Lord could be enough to incite my excommunication.
Fifteen minutes to go, the ushers tried to stuff what they could of the seat-less congregation into whatever inches of butt space still showed on the pews. A large middle-aged woman was shown to our pew. The old couple sitting on that side held their ground, refusing to scooch toward us and acquiesce their exit-row seats, so she stepped over their feet and sat beside me. Dan and I made room by inching the opposite way. As she plopped down, I moved my purse from its spot beside me to the floor to allow her more room. She immediately set her car-sized handbag where mine had been. Most of it leaned into my lap. I tried to elbow it back toward her as unnoticeably as possible.
We put our books away and attempted to shift ourselves into comfort within the small space we now had. A few minutes before ten, my butt started feeling a little tingly. Great, I thought. Mass hasn’t even started yet and my ass is already asleep.
The greeter approached the podium to welcome all the congregants and begin the liturgy. The processional song began blasting from the choir and organ, and the hundreds of bodies in the church all lifted and creaked into standing positions. That’s when I felt it. The lower half of my body was wet.
In times of horror, it is remarkable how long a few seconds may stretch into eons. All I knew for certain was that the entire back of my dress was drenched. Sopping, in fact. I gasped so loud the priest, making his way up the aisle with his twenty-pound bible raised overhead, may even have heard it above the concert-volume emanations of everyone else singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” For approximately one and a half seconds, I thought I must have somehow urinated on myself.
What else could explain it? My God, I thought, my body contouring as I reached behind to feel my soaking skirt, worrying it might now be yellow. How could I have peed myself, in church of all places? I can never go out in public again! While everyone around me was singing, “Ha-a-a-a-a-le-e-lu-u-jah,” the word “fuck” was on repeat in my head.
Why I entertained this idea, brief as it was, I’m not sure. I have never suffered from any type of incontinence, and my bladder was comfortably empty in the moments preceding the discovery. Perhaps it’s only natural for the human mind, while in survival mode, to assume the worst outcome in an unexplained situation. Self preservation doesn’t go much further than figuring out how to continue living as a twenty-six-year-old who has wet herself—wearing white, no less—in front of nearly a thousand people.
But the few seconds of self-incrimination ended abruptly when I turned around and looked at my neighbor’s large purse sitting on the pew and the reusable blue bottle protruding from it. Its cap sat at an angle, cascades of water pouring directly onto where I had been sitting.
Everyone in my pew, including the bottle’s owner, had turned to look at me since my outburst. She gasped as well when she saw the cause, and scrambled to pick it up.
“I am so sorry!” she stage-whispered to me. “Oh my gosh.”
Holding my dripping dress, I gritted my teeth and told her it was ok. I still hadn’t fully processed my predicament. I didn’t know how I was supposed to sit, stand and kneel through a longer-than-usual service looking like I had come straight from a water park. I didn’t know how I hadn’t noticed the water drowning my ass until I stood up. And I really didn’t know how her standard-sized bottle had managed to contain the volume of Lake Mead.
“Here,” she said, stepping in front of me, her ample backside body-checking me into the couple beside her. “I’ll take the wet seat.”
It was a generous offer, but now Dan and I were separated, the water assailant between us. Giving him a quick can-you-believe-this-just-happened look, I glanced at her, now nonchalantly sipping what remained in her water bottle.
I figured there was not much else I could do. A woman in the pew behind us gave me some tissues from her travel-size package. They were soaked within seconds.
I sat through the first and second readings, after which the congregation stood for the gospel, and I realized that any seat I had would in effect be “the wet seat.” My dress had more than enough moisture to share with anything it touched.
I leaned toward Dan. “Yeah. I’ve gotta go.”
He did not look disappointed as he followed me out the pew and through the back of church.
“Please tell me my lower half isn’t see-through,” I said as we walked past the hordes of people standing against the walls and blocking the exits. I imagined each of them turning to stare at the woman who was displaying body parts that weren’t supposed to exist within church walls.
“You’re good,” he assured me.
I went in to the bathroom in hope of a hand dryer, but found only a dispenser with brown paper towels. I wrung my skirt into the sink and did my best to absorb the rest into the thin paper. It was better, but far from dry.
I returned to the back of church. Despite enduring public pseudo-humiliation and a near flood, my Catholic guilt would never be assuaged if I left before communion on the holiest day of the year.
I didn’t laugh until we exited into the April sunlight and away from the crowds. Dan joined in, a tone of relief audible in his.
“I’m so glad you’re not mad,” he said.
“Not anymore,” I said. I could already feel my dress begin to lighten and release its cling on my thighs from only a few moments in the desert air.
He breathed in and gave a satisfied exhale out his nostrils. “How do you not get a headache from all that incense they use?”
Right before we reached the car, I stopped. “I just remembered a part of Easter Mass I must have been in the bathroom for.”
“When the priest walks down the aisles and sprinkles everyone with water.”
Caroline Horwitz has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Animal, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Summerset Review, among others. One of her essays received a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2014. She lives in Las Vegas.
Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org