I knew nothing about Ash Wednesday. When I saw people leaving the church with smudges of ash on their brows, heads bowed, they appeared sad and penitent, like children who'd been chastised but not spanked.
I was sixteen, living near Paris where my military father was stationed for his cold war duties. The closest church, a mile from our home in Croissy-sur-Seine, was Catholic. I liked to walk there along the river bank on Sundays, picturing Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.
In the sanctuary, the smell of incense was exotic. I felt graceful making the sign of the cross, genuflecting, though I simply imitated what others were doing. The service, of course, was in French. I was fluent enough to ask a bus driver questions or to bargain for jewelry at the Flea Market, but I didn't understand a word the priest said.
Nor could I translate the murmured responses of the congregation. At times they spoke in Latin, even more foreign to me. Fidelis, I would breathe, sacramentum, resurgere. The words hummed erotically beneath the cloak of my silence.