CAR HEADLIGHTS from the Miami traffic outside brushed along the upper chapel walls, grazing the stained-glass windows and the cross suspended there. Ever since Esteban and I had entered the Lutheran church on Fifty-Seventh, we’d been silent. I shifted in the pew. Although Esteban had been carting me to youth group all of freshman year, this Tenebrae service was only my second time in a real sanctuary. The rough stone walls lined with plaques identifying the stations of the cross and the stiff pews had an altogether different quality than the youth loft’s mismatched couches leaking stuffing, the broken foosball table where I’d beaten Esteban repeatedly, and the casual discussions of Bible stories that the youth pastor called lessons. In the sanctuary, tender light from the candles on the walls and altar lacquered the pews and the bent heads of churchgoers, and the room was cold and damp, almost as if we’d gone underground. At the front, the altar was stripped except for the brass communion trays neatly stacked behind a flickering candelabra.
So far the pastor was the only one who had spoken. Between each scripture reading, periods of thick silence were punctuated by the occasional car horn or the brief timpani of rain on the roof. We were supposed to be contemplative, and so I was contemplating Esteban’s sweaty palms, investigating the thin creases there, and he responded to the tickle by squeezing my hand.
In his black acolyte robe, Esteban looked like Harry Potter. His hair was swept to one side and glued there with gel. Dull, black pinpoints clogged the pores of his too-long nose. His eyes flicked from me to his father at the pulpit while we traded affections with our fingers. Some of our friends, also in robes, were spread out across the front two rows holding candle snuffers and awaiting the signal to cover their assigned flames. I was the only one without ceremonial garb, but at least I had worn a skirt for the occasion. I watched the acolytes advance in pairs, holding their snuffers like swords, extinguish their candles, and slowly exit into the night.
Esteban liked being the one to put out the last candle.
“It felt so raw,” he’d told me earlier.
I, too, thought there was something raw about the slow, purposeful darkness, about the way the acolytes brought it on by putting out the flames one by one.
“It’s a funeral service,” he’d said, to prepare me.
“I know,” I’d said, although I didn’t really.
I could hear Esteban breathing beside me as his father blessed the communion cup and bread. I memorized the way people passed the plates, popped the crackers into their mouths, and downed kiddie cups of juice. I still remember the ripple of hands, the bowing of heads, the way people crossed themselves.
Esteban was holding my hand and held it still as the plates passed over.
No wafer, no juice. He wasn’t going to let me take communion.
“You don’t have to pretend,” he whispered, touching my ear with his nose.
I tried not to look around as our friends ate and drank. I fiddled with the prayer cards and service bulletin. I flexed and released Esteban’s fingers.
After the final reading we were told to exit quietly in reverence or to remain and contemplate. The minister nodded. Esteban stepped forward and snuffed the last flame. Smoke wisped toward heaven.
I followed the line of parishioners out the sanctuary doors. They strode silently to their cars: some with grim faces, others holy and lit, clasping hands near their chests as if carrying prayers.
Esteban joined a group of kids whose murmurs threatened to interrupt the quiet. I went ahead and waited at the car until he came with keys. He shrugged his shoulders and tossed his head to get the hair out of his face, his signature way of saying, “It’s your problem, not mine.”
I wanted it to be his problem. I climbed in the passenger side, put my feet on the dash and shook off a little dirt.
“You’re never going to be good enough for your religion,” I said quietly.
He turned on the radio.
“Your God is a myth anyway,” I said.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“You embarrassed me in front of our friends.”
“How did I do that?”
He turned the key and the car hummed.
“You can’t take communion, Elaina.”
“I can do whatever I want.”
When he frowned, his eyebrows slanted toward his nose and his lips puckered. He looked like his father.
“You wait until Easter. You’ll like Easter better,” he said.
But I didn’t like Easter better. Easter was too hard to swallow—this peacock parade of hats and frilly dresses and exchanging “He is risen” with perfect strangers. I liked Tenebrae. I liked being in the dark with Esteban. I’d liked it until he held back my hand from his communion.
After Esteban there was Matthew, then in college Peter and Alejandro and after that Carlos, Oliver, and Pedro. I always fall for Christians. They’re the only men worth having, according to my mother. And I’ve existed on the outskirts of the church long enough to think that might be true.
I’m in love with the church a little—the way they heap up my plate with their potluck dishes, their endless array of small groups and socials. Whenever I get lonely, I go to church. I tell the greeters that I am inquiring. I am thinking about religion. Then I go to their singles group or young professionals group or on occasion a caregivers’ support meeting and let them try to bring me in. Usually in about a month I’m dating someone or at least we’re hanging out platonically. There’s always a cute church boy who will date a girl on the fringe.
That’s what happened with Vinny. I was feeling agnostic. We’d gone out to dinner a few times. He had a Mustang and worked in the Grove. The thirty-something Christian professionals are more laid-back than the evangelizing college guys. We usually test the waters for a while until they realize there isn’t space in me for belief or until I realize it isn’t genuine for them.
Vinny had been raised by an ultra-religious grandma, and whenever we got into it about faith stuff, he held her up like a banner.
“You’re just not solid enough about this Christian thing,” I said.
I was sitting on a bar stool at the counter in his kitchen.
“You don’t even believe that stuff,” he fired back. He carried plates of chicken curry out to the balcony.
“Yeah, but if you’re going to claim a faith you have to be serious about it. Otherwise how do I know you’re serious about us?” I said. I followed him outside, straddled a chair, and picked at the chicken with my fingers. He batted me away and spooned some onto a dish.
“You just need to meet her.” He handed me the plate. “Then you’ll feel better about us.”
His nostrils flared. There was a patch of hair on his upper lip that would never be a mustache. A black curl had gotten loose from his new, gelled look and tickled his bad ear. It bothered me that he couldn’t feel it. He looked out over the bay. He arranged the table. His chair scraped the floor. I shouldn’t have been picking a fight, but I’d been up all night with my mother and I was dog tired.
“My sister’s going to be at the service,” Vinny said. “It’s about time you met, don’t you think?”
Vinny talked about a friend’s studio in Wynwood. His words floated past me out over the creamy, gray water. Trash collected at the dock below. I could see a fish nibbling at it.
Then the sound turned off. I watched him eat. I tried very hard to love him, to love the skin on his outer ear, rippled like wax on a used candle, to love his gray seal eyes, the inflected staccato of his angry tone. I tried to love his long piano fingers, his chipped front tooth, the wart between his middle and ring finger.
“Don’t stare at me,” he said and covered the ear.
He tried to light a candle, but the wind put it out. He forked the cooling pile on his plate. Why did curry always look radioactive?
“You act like you’re waiting for me to convert, not the other way around,” he said after a while.
“Is that what you’re waiting for?” I said.
He took his plate into the kitchen.
Vinny’s grandmother went to a Byzantine orthodox church on South Beach, so on Sunday we blew across the Venetian Causeway through a hot morning haze. I had on a gaudy necklace, one that made me look like a prostitute, according to my mother. At least that’s what she’d said as I wheeled her over to our neighbor Leo’s for the morning. Vinny and I sat in the car, not touching, listening to Frankie Valli’s slow croon. I’d dressed modestly for the occasion. I even had a cardigan on my lap for my bare shoulders if it was one of those places.
Vinny’s grandmother was waiting on the church steps in a lavender suit, arms spread to gather me. She smelled like toothpaste and bread.
“You’re Vinny’s Elaina. He said you were so pretty. He didn’t say you were tall.”
She clucked her tongue and pulled at her gray curls. I wasn’t sure if this was an approval or disapproval thing. Vinny winked. I wanted to tell him I was tired of his eye spasms. I wanted to tell him to be real, not cool, for once.
“There’s Mita,” Vinny’s grandma said and waved. “Let’s go inside.”
Vinny’s sister, Mita, was clearly in the middle of an identity crisis. A cross between girl-next-door and wannabe punk retro, she sported a strawberry blonde pixie cut, clearly dyed, given that she had the same complexion as Vinny, heavy blue eyeliner, a red pleather coat, and black painted nails. She took the long steps two at a time to get to us and nodded at me as she walked past. I could see her glancing sidelong at her brother. He was ten years older than her at least, but that look of adoration gave her away.
I followed the mismatched family into the church—Vinny decked out in slacks and a sweater, preppy, flashy but bohemian at heart; the college-age sister looking lost and plastic in her fake leather; the grandmother, a lavender tulip—all of them leftover pieces from different puzzles. I was curious how they had ever lived together.
“You and Vinny are all wrong,” Mita whispered as we slid into the pew.
I shrugged, looked at Vinny and mouthed, “Happy family.”
He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and I tried to follow the somber intonations of the printed liturgy in my program.
I sometimes think of myself as a connoisseur of church services, and yet the accoutrements of this particular sanctuary surprised me. Incense filled my throat. On the walls, haloed icons prayed to heaven, and heaven itself spread across the domed ceiling like a new morning sky. Pageantry, my mother would call it. She’d never been drawn to ornate things. But I loved the liturgy even when I did not understand. I loved the white robes with gold trim, the gold crosses, the strange inflections of sung prayer. Midway through the service, the minister motioned to the array of bread at the foot of the stairs, half-concealed in giant golden birdbaths, and the people rose all around me in waves, went forward, kissed the cross, and took the bread. The grandmother rose, too, then Mita, then Vinny, who didn’t look at me as he shuffled out of the pew.
I watched as he snaked through the line, singing softly to himself and contemplating the great dome. Some people believe that they are eating God’s flesh in these ceremonies, and I wondered if this was one of those churches. I reached for my program. There was a ladies tea scheduled for the following week and a vespers in the evening. Over the printed sheet, I could see people dipping their hands into the bins and returning to their seats, bearing the bread.
The woman in the pew in front of me turned to offer me some. Maybe she wanted to put me out of my misery. She was clearly a tourist—wine-red tan, eyes rimmed white. She had bleached teeth and bleached hair, too, maybe northern European. I thought I could hear it in the thickness of her voice. I loved the way she was looking at me and holding pieces of bread in her outstretched hand.
“Eat. Everyone can eat,” she said.
I glanced up to the front at Vinny and reached for the bread. I put it in my mouth whole and felt the mass dissolve on my tongue. It tasted fluffy and light and everybody was eating handfuls of it, balancing it on their knees, a few even putting some in little Ziploc baggies for later. The service was long; it ran until well after one o’clock, and people were probably just hungry. They knew the drill. They knew there would be no lunch until mid-afternoon. But I felt satiated.
Vinny returned to our pew, bowed his head, and rested his hand on my thigh. I smiled guiltily.
“She gave some to me,” I whispered. The tourist in front of us was eating her stash with relish, sucking on her fingers and clicking her long, manicured nails.
He brushed a crumb from my hair and whispered, “Don’t worry; it’s only antidoron, blessed bread.”
Then his grandmother slid down the row, offered me some, and the thing turned to ash in my mouth.
There were a few more rituals, but I wasn’t really paying attention. It was a relief to find I wasn’t the only one. Mita never came back to her seat. Her grandmother kept patting the red cushion anxiously, rubbing it, even, as if these gestures would cause her absent granddaughter to materialize.
“I’ll bet she wanted to escape the crowd,” Vinny consoled her as we passed through the arches into the sun. Beachgoers walking by gawked. Off to the left, Mita leaned against a pillar and smoked.
“We were looking for you. Where did you go? I hope you didn’t leave church to smoke,” her grandmother said.
“It was so cold in there,” Mita replied.
“You shouldn’t leave church. Not till it is finished. You know this.”
We stood together a few minutes, shooting the breeze and growing damp beneath the early afternoon sun until the grandmother patted her underarms, smiled stiffly, and excused herself. I was ready for a similar departure, but my ride was chatting with his sister about her classes. English was okay. She didn’t like history. No, she wasn’t dating that guy anymore.
“You look so dorky with that,” Vinny said, trying to snatch his sister’s smoke away.
She waved the vapor cigarette. “I’m quitting, get it?” She closed her eyes and took a drag. “Jesus is enough.”
Our trip to church must have stirred up some manner of sisterly feeling, because Mita started showing up at Vinny’s apartment a lot more than I was used to. She ran there from her place in Brickell. I got a kick out of seeing her sprawled out on his brown microfiber man-couch while he made us omelets with spinach and goat cheese.
“Vinny says your mom’s sick,” she said, sucking thoughtfully on the lip of her Gatorade bottle.
I glanced up from a magazine, “She is.”
“He says you only work part time because you have to take care of her. He says you’re not a slacker or anything.”
“How generous of him.”
“It sounds pretty stressful.”
I shrugged. She rolled over on her back.
“You should run with me sometime. Vinny says you run. It relieves stress.”
“I run a little.”
The truth was, I ran in high school and hadn’t since. When she suggested we meet by the park in Coconut Grove and run over the bridge, Vinny interjected his approval from the kitchen.
I didn’t own a single piece of workout attire, so I showed up Saturday at six am in an old souvenir T-shirt from Disney World and a pair of sweatpants cut off at the knee. The people up at this ungodly hour all looked like they had been to yoga on the beach or were regulars at the outdoor fitness class I’d seen advertised on the sides of vans and park benches all over town.
Mita was already stretching using a street sign. Quite a few runners were taking off from the park, and bikers were whizzing down the road in clusters.
“It gets busy,” Mita said. Her arm was contorted behind her neck so that her palm touched her spine.
“I guess so.” I waved my arms in slow circles, attempted to touch my toes and then gave up.
“Are you loose?” she asked.
We headed down Bayshore Drive toward Mercy Hospital. I could tell she was letting me set the pace. My legs felt jellied, and I was gasping for air within the first quarter mile. We hit Thirty-Second and then the Rickenbacker Causeway. Spandex bodies raced past us. I could just see the blue beyond the cement tollbooths and the bridge climbing like a rollercoaster.
“You’re not serious about my brother, are you?” Mita said.
I’m not sure when I started walking, but she walked, too, perfectly composed, with only a few freckles of sweat.
“That’s a personal question,” I wheezed.
“I don’t think you have enough in common.”
“I’ll take it under consideration,” I replied.
The air was salty and sharp. Kite surfers skimmed the bay and flung themselves into acrobatics and the water heaved, glistening in the fresh sun.
“This isn’t some kind of intimidation thing, is it?” I said.
“No, I thought you were in shape.”
“Well, now you know something about me,” I replied.
“I bet you think you know a lot about us,” she said suddenly.
I shrugged. I knew a few things. Vinny had told me. I knew she was having a rough time at college, that she didn’t like anyone or herself at the moment. I knew she was one of those cute church girls that go to Bible studies and Campus Crusade, and that she didn’t approve of me because, as with King Solomon and his foreign wives, I was bound to lead Vinny astray.
A group of ROTC students in fatigues passed us and we pressed against the wall to give them room.
“Did you know we’re mostly Indian but we were born in Israel,” Mita said.
“Yes, I know,” I replied.
“Our parents died in a bus accident,” she said.
“Vinny told me.”
“That’s how he lost part of that ear.”
I nodded. He’d tried to describe it to me once, the way the ear melted, the way the sound muted, clotted in his head, and stopped. The sudden, forcible darkness and waking up in a hospital camp with everything wrong; he was fourteen—his mother dead.
Mita was already living in the States with their grandmother then. When he came to join them, the airport escalators terrified him. He went to school the first day with a note. “Please help. I do not speak English,” and some boy took him to the office and to him that still felt like God.
But I told her none of this; she must have heard it all before. Maybe it would bother her knowing it was shared between us now.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s get going.”
I could already feel the sun pulsing off of the cement.
“Yeah. Whatever,” she said.
All the way back, she ran ahead of me, flying like a gazelle, fluid, beautiful, until she was so far gone I couldn’t distinguish her from the other runners. I didn’t wonder whether she was sending me a message, or mind that she didn’t wait to see me finish. I didn’t think it was personal.
At home, I relieved our neighbor Leo of babysitting duties and wheeled my mother across the hall into our living room. She slept with her head tilted to one side, saliva dripping from the corner of her mouth. I hadn’t had time to shower her in almost two days and she was starting to smell.
“It’s good for you to get out,” Leo said, rummaging through our cupboards for the oatmeal raisin cookies we both loved. “A boyfriend is good, but friends are better.”
“How was she today?”
He ate a cookie and scowled. “Cranky.”
“Tell me about it.”
“The florist dropped off another arrangement for her. I can haul it over in a little while. It’s potted.”
I sighed. “No more flowers.”
“She told me Jesus was sending them,” Leo said laughing.
He handed me the package, and I peeled back the cellophane.
“I’ve heard that too. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“She’s always liked flowers, though. When we were together, I’d pick them up on my drive home from the ladies selling them in the intersections. Sometimes limes too. That always put her in a good mood.”
I smiled. Those days I was living with a roommate across town and came over some evenings to find my mother and Leo cooking together. She’d pinch her spices from the little pots on the balcony and fry up sweet plantains and succulent pork and seasoned black beans. She used to direct me through the steam. “Why don’t you do something useful for once? Chop up that mango, make a salsa or something. We’ve got to eat good tonight.” Her teeth gleaming, her hair swept up in a little bun, she was always graceful in the kitchen, stooping to get the skillet, reaching up for the baking soda and flour, sometimes sweating into the pot and laughing about it. “That’s why it’s so good, Elaina—my secret.”
“Do you know who sent the flowers today?” I asked with the cookie between my teeth.
“Some cousin. Why don’t you ever know who these people are?”
“We’re not close with extended family.”
“No. You keep to yourself like your mother. You will be just like your mother,” Leo said.
“I hope not.”
He shook his head, his peppered black hair falling into his eyes, and gestured into the air. “Not like that. You always run off to church like your mother. You are both strict with yourselves. You make your own way.”
I shook my head. In matters of faith, I was far from my mother’s daughter. She couldn’t love God until her mind began to break, and even then she wanted nothing she deemed superstitious—“a good protestant.” God could be found through prayer and regular attendance at church. There was no place in her religion for icons or prayer to the saints, no veneration of Mary. She hated her own grandmother’s icons, rosaries, and household shrine. She would have found last Sunday’s domed ceiling and dramatic templon ghastly, the incense ridiculous. She would have laughed at my almost mystical encounter with the antidoron, my strange obsession with communion, my reverence for Tenebrae.
And I couldn’t blame her. No one wants their daughter to be taken in.
Later, Mita called to see if I had died. I was giving my mom a shower and had to situate the phone between my shoulder and ear.
“Very funny,” I said into the phone.
I rubbed the cloth briskly over her loose flesh. My calves and thighs already ached.
“That’s cold,” mother said.
“Do you want to get some coffee?” Mita asked.
“I can’t. I’ve got my mom.”
“I’ll bring you some,” she said.
“No, don’t. We’re busy.”
Hot water pulsed from the detachable showerhead, and I could see the steam rising from my mother’s soapy back. Her eyes were closed in a moment of bliss.
“I’ll be there in a few. Vinny gave me the address,” Mita said and hung up the phone.
I dried my mother, dressed her, and put her in a chair before the bell rang, and Mita stood in the hallway, chewing on the lip of a plastic coffee cup.
“It’s a greenhouse in here,” she said, stepping over the threshold.
She handed me an iced latté.
I looked around at the haphazard arrangement of plants and flowers, some potted, others in a variety of vases and vase substitutes, blooming wildly or beginning to wilt—roses, birds of paradise, lilies, mums, gardenias, hydrangeas. We probably looked like plant hoarders.
“You must be Mrs. Rodriguez,” Mita said a little too loudly.
My mother observed our guest through half-closed eyelids and growled.
“She’s tired,” I said. “She doesn’t do well with strangers anymore.”
Mita sat on the couch.
“I’m supposed to apologize about the run,” she said.
“You don’t need to,” I replied, holding the sweating cup in my hands.
There were three-day-old dishes crusting in the sink. My mother’s socks and orthotics were strewn across the floor next to her BiPAP machine. We weren’t poised for guests.
“I’m usually a nice person.”
“I’m sure you are,” I said.
“Vinny wants us to get along.”
“I know,” I replied.
She looked around curiously. “Do you spend a lot of time here?”
“I live here,” I said.
“You ought to open a curtain or something.”
“The light bothers my mother.”
Mita looked reverently at the woman reclining in her adjustable chair. We sat a few minutes silently. Vinny hardly ever came over, and when he did I spent the afternoon cleaning in anticipation. No one but Leo ever saw us in our regular clutter.
“I’d like it if you kept running with me. We could go in the neighborhoods. I know some nice places,” she said suddenly.
“I’d have to arrange for someone to watch my mother, but I’ll let you know,” I said and stood. “I have to put her down for a nap now.”
Mita jumped up quickly and moved toward the door. I caught only a glimpse of her spindly legs as she let herself out.
I hated running. My thighs screamed; my lungs went useless. My body turned suddenly heavy and jointless each time I lumbered after Mita down roads without sidewalks. Peacocks watched us through gilded gates and called from the crowns of trees. They perched on rooftops and sometimes ran ahead of us, their necks propelling them forward as their clawed feet grasped road.
Beside me, Mita occasionally gasped out sudden, riotous scriptures, perhaps at the peacocks, perhaps at me, or at her God. Neither of us listened to music—Mita thought it a sign of weakness—and so there was also a great deal of silence on our runs. The silence magnified the palm fronds, waxy and full of light, the tabebuia trees with yellow flushes, the bougainvillea draped over stucco walls. Sometimes, after a sudden downpour, the air grew dense—the yards dripped, lush with promises—and we ran, brushing the leaves with our palms.
At home, my mother regarded my crimson cheeks from the chair in which she was confined. An oxygen tube threaded into her nostrils. Thick blankets covered her pasty white skin. Even in Miami, she couldn’t seem to get warm. Since Ash Wednesday, the Catholics had been fasting for Lent, and my mother was among them, although involuntarily. She’d grown too weak to swallow and now there was a hospice nurse assisting several times a week. The nurse said my mother liked being read to. The television was too loud. She needed something soothing, so sometimes I read her the Bible. Mita recommended it, and Vinny, too. I tried to soften the same promises Mita puffed dramatically as we ran—“and they will be raised incorruptible!”—though my mother didn’t seem to hear. She stared vacantly or slept, and the words eddied around her open mouth like austere winds. I imagined she ate the words, and I wondered what good they would do, stacked in her stomach, letter upon letter.
Then it was Holy Week. If I hit all the right places I could go to a Tenebrae service at least three times before Easter. Churches staggered the English services, making it easy to church-hop—Maundy Thursday at Granada Presbyterian, Good Friday at Christ the King Lutheran, Holy Saturday at Church of the Epiphany. Vinny was already privy to my obsession—it would be our second go around—but Mita was a little surprised at the quantity of church I had lined up.
“You’re not even a Christian,” she said after one of our runs along Key Biscayne.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to go to church. In fact, if you’re not, they encourage it,” I replied.
“But you don’t want to be a Christian. You said there isn’t space in you for belief.” She slipped ahead of me, jockeying with the other runners and walkers for space on the narrow bridge.
“I like traditions,” I said and wondered if that was true. Maybe I liked the slow darkness, the liturgical readings, and that inevitable withholding of communion. It was hard to imagine here with the rows of parked cars reflecting sun and heat and the copper beaches and the hard brown bodies lying motionless in the sand.
“I’m not a huge fan of the build-up,” Mita replied. “I don’t like to sit around and wait for someone to die.”
There are many ways to die. My mother died slowly, fingers clasped around the metal guardrail on her hospice bed. It already smelled like a funeral in the living room where she slept, all those flowers, some wilting in pots—the mums would last forever.
“I don’t care, of course,” I told Vinny. “She’s crazy. The part of her that was my mother is already dead.”
Vinny was doing that spider thing where his fingertips brushed the top of my hand and made it tingly.
“My mother used to think Jesus was sending her flowers,” I said. “She’d told me a thousand times. She wasn’t even religious before. Of course she doesn’t see them anymore and still the flowers come, from her second ex-husband, her step-niece, members of a local parish. Every day, new flowers. You think people would have the decency to wait until she’s dead.”
Vinny said nothing. Of course he said nothing. Him and his silent, remote God. It was Maundy Thursday and he had forgotten to take me to service. Didn’t he know I loved Tenebrae, him of all people?
“You always say the service doesn’t mean anything to you,” he said stiffly.
“It doesn’t,” I said.
He drove there anyway. He wanted to make it up to me and didn’t know how. But when he pulled up in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Resurrection, I wouldn’t get out of the car.
“I’m not going inside,” I said to him, to this God who would not make me. Everything was collecting and collecting like matter toward my center.
“I need some air,” he said.
He opened my door and coaxed me out. We looped around the lot past the cars parked on the grass, haphazard, frenzied. There must have been a crowd for service. But the church was so dark. We couldn’t even hear the music rising.
On Friday, my mother was stable. I didn’t feel like a run, so Mita and I walked the usual route through a neighborhood just off of Eightieth near Dadeland Mall.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” Mita said.
“People die all the time,” I replied.
“It’s hardest when they’re our people,” Mita said.
“And then we bury them and their bodies decompose and eventually the minds that remember them stop, too,” I said.
Mita was just holding the vapor cigarette now. She needed something between her fingers. She chewed on her lips unnecessarily, but at least she’d given up the act of smoking. I envied her pixie cut, getting a little long at her neck. One of these days she was going to ask me to trim it. She’d seen me trim my mother’s and I knew her. That thought suddenly struck me as strange: how long had it been since I’d really known someone? But she was so young, only eighteen. I felt sorry for her. Even if she held onto the God stuff, she was going to hurt so much.
We slipped into the back pew of a church where her brother was waiting. At the altar, the candles winked, cold as stars. The minister droned. I don’t know what he said, but a prayer was wrapped up in his voice and all service I kept trying to listen through the voice for the prayer, but I never could hear it. People rose, knelt, sat, knelt, rose. Behind us I could hear the occasional titter of children.
Then the last flame. A wisp and the bell tolled.
“That means he’s dead, right?” someone whispered. Someone chuckled, and Vinny elbowed me.
I got it. This wasn’t my first time. I could feel the silent energy and then the noise traveling through my fingertips as mothers and children, men and old men hammered on the pews to commemorate the supernatural anguish of a god who has let his son be killed. I marveled at our execution—the half-hearted taps, the cold banging, the children relieved at having something to do. The sound reverberated in the darkened space. In church, when I was listening, everything began to feel like a prayer, even this inane drumming. But what were we praying for—punishment, death, a communal memory? I wasn’t sure.
The pavement outside was wet from rain, but the rain was finished now. Overhead, palm trees shook like wet dogs. People got into their cars. In the west, fingers of light partitioned the clouds. Mita had a date, but Vinny wanted to walk. So we walked.
The road twisted past overgrown yards shielding houses. I could taste the gardenias, the wet earth and leaves. Cars on the road a few streets over hushed at us. It was only rain, but he was thinking about how the drops begin to feel like nails, how eventually they would begin to crush us. He was thinking about the possibility of hail, the inordinate number of deaths due to lightning strikes in Florida. My shirt would be transparent when it grew wet. If Mita were here, she’d make some ironic comment, and then I wouldn’t have been thinking about how much I wanted to tempt him. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to be uncertain for once. All this wanting made it hard to breath.
In worship, we eat the words. I heard that in a sermon once. It is true. I would eat him. I would eat God.
We passed by Saint Martin’s. I’ve sat in the dim of that church for Tenebrae, wooden blinds draped from ceiling to floor, slowly, slowly closing like evening flowers. I have been to so many churches.
We went further. An occasional gate creaked open and closed, but there were fewer fences. Peacocks called to one another from the trees. I could see their black silhouettes up high. The accent lights in the trees illuminated their trains, their crowns. We shivered at their plaintive mewing. Their sorrows were immense.
I heard Vinny speaking, but nothing he could say would be new to me. How many times had I been told? I am the field. I am the harvest. If only I confess with my mouth. I knew the prayers, had felt them blowing over me like a wind but, when the words got on my tongue, none of them tasted right.
“It’s difficult,” I said.
Vinny touched me so I would think he understood, but he did not understand how indifference built up like a crust, how comfortable it was.
The air was warm and wet. I could smell the canal a few streets over.
“Just tell me what you want,” he said, as if there were words.
I want to unravel the age from my mother’s fingers, pour memory down her ear canal, breathe in her a new life, un-hunch Vinny’s shoulders, resurrect that song in his voice. I want to touch his ear like Jesus touched the soldier in the garden on the night he was tempted, on the night the soldiers fell back at the sound of his word.
“I’d like to take communion,” I said after a while, and maybe that was enough, but I could hardly see him to know. It had gotten so dark.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.