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The Sacred Heart
When I look for sanctuary, I always end up in the same place.
A man is dancing at the intersection on La Cienega Boulevard; he is in the median across the street. I am stopped at the light, heading south. As the traffic passes between us, I watch him wriggle from the median into the crosswalk, spinning and dancing in front of the northbound lanes. He is bald, a little chubby, and middle-aged, headphones and gold-rimmed eyeglasses and a white shirt tucked into his slacks. His head is thrown back. His eyes are closed. In one hand, he has a bible. He is holding it out, waving it over his head, then down across his stomach. His other hand rises upwards, receptive, toward the sky.
As he reaches the sidewalk, he is bouncing, hips rocking. He spins and turns back toward the center median again. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a man dance like this, with utter self-abandon. Or no, I’ve never seen a man dance this way. Certainly never a man like him, pink and sweating, who looks like he should be filing his quarterly taxes or bent over the Xerox machine. His gray slacks shine in the sun.
What is he listening to in those heavy black headphones? He has, presumably, the voice of God vibrating through the diaphragm and urethane mesh into his soft, pink ear. Does God sing to a hip-hop beat? Does God sound like Hendrix? He is on the center median again. He is quivering on the concrete, lifting his legs and turning in slow circles. He holds his bible up for the cars to see, palm wet against the gilded cover, as the left turn lane empties into the intersection. His throat is exposed. His mouth is open with joy.
I think of the dervishes. I think of Saint Theresa and her burning ecstasy.
I file him impassively into a particular folder in my mind and I keep driving south.
We remember what we can tolerate. I don’t remember much of Montreal. It was six years ago, in the fall. There were crowds at Mount Royal Park. A corned beef sandwich I ordered more than once from a diner near the hotel. If I think too much about Montreal—and I don’t think of it very often—a rigid pain begins in my lower spine, as if I’m being held inside a metal brace without relief. That pain belongs to certain memories, and I prefer not to sit with it very long. I know that I should go back to Montreal, if only to drain that feeling from the place.
But as I drove past the man dancing on La Cienega, I thought of Montreal. One memory. The old woman in the Cathedral.
I saw her in the side aisle of the church. I had come in out of the rain and taken a seat near the back. I was damp at the tops of my boots where they met my jeans; damp hair against the side of my face. I sat, nervous, in the last pew, holding myself together through exhaustion. I knew, if I relaxed, even a little, I would have gone to sleep. I still had hours of the day ahead in which to keep myself knitted tightly together, and my lower back was beginning to ache from the effort. I felt for the edge of the pew. I touched my hand to the soft, worn wood.
Outside, the sidewalks were slick with rain and the streets were full of traffic. I had seen the open doors of the cathedral and longed for its quiet. Its emptiness. I came into the cathedral to find my aloneness, though I wasn’t sitting alone.
A midday mass had ended; a few diehards were left in their seats among the pews. As I sat, not praying, not feeling any particular reverence, I surveyed the room. Then I heard a foot stamp against the tiled floor. It took me a moment to find her, the old woman in the side aisle.
First, I noticed her fists. Tight, furious hands held down by her sides. She stamped the floor again with the force of her small black boot. She was at one of the side altars, where she glared up into the face of one of the lesser saints. A pale statue with a wreath of flowers at its feet. Beside the woman was an arrangement of candles on a metal stand.
I could hear her whispering. She cursed a stream of French at the statue. I heard her breath, frantic, between phrases as she looked up into its demure, unchanging face. Her elbows were splayed out like bat wings, draped under a gray shawl, as she raised her fists to her chest. She closed her eyes, her mouth moving continuously. The gravel of words slipped out under her breath.
I watched her as she prayed accusingly up at the saint, pointing and stamping, then hugging her arms to her body. Finally, she stopped. She bent to gather her purse from the floor and left.
All I wanted was to close my eyes and lie down on the pew, and dream of that woman.
I said aloud to my ex-husband, “I wish I had her faith.” That’s what I said out loud. I may have meant, I wish I had her anger.
Where does my faith reside? A few months ago, I was walking up Robertson Boulevard in the rain when my sister texted to tell me our childhood priest had been removed from his duties. Unspecified allegations. Neither proven nor unproven. Neither disputed nor confirmed by the bishop. Reading her text, I was neither surprised nor unsurprised. I had loved my gentle, kind childhood priest. But life is what it is.
I had little-girl faith once. I cried as I kissed the cross on Good Friday. I repeated my rosaries. I stood beneath the crucifix and my eyes found the blood on his face, the blood at his ribs, the blood at his feet. I was drowsy with incense and melancholy. I can’t remember the last time I believed in the religion of my childhood. Catholic school took all that belief from me. Still, there is catechism tattooed in my mouth. When I look for sanctuary, I always end up in the same place.
I have a Sacre Coeur Cathedral in me. It isn’t the real one. The real Sacre Coeur Cathedral belongs to the Parisians, or to anyone else who wants it. I’ve been back inside those stone walls twice, and it wasn’t what I wanted. The Sacre Couer you can visit isn’t the one I keep for myself. My Sacre Coeur only existed once.
It was before they installed the raucous token-dispensers in the entryway. It was evening, the summer of 2004. Just after sunset. And while I imagine the church is never entirely quiet, it felt quiet to me as I found a seat. Or maybe it was just that I had left all the members of my high school French club outside, my teachers and my friends. Without their familiar American voices next to me, as I crossed myself and bowed briefly and took the end seat in a rear pew, I could hear my own thoughts pulsing loudly like blood through a vein. All the thoughts that had been waiting for their moment; a rushing stream of words, all interrogative.
I had been stupid. So stupid.
“Seize ans? J’ai une fille de cet âge.”
He had set his cigarette in an ashtray on the bedside table.
I wanted so badly to be older than sixteen. I wanted my life to be more interesting than the life of a South Dakotan sixteen-year-old girl, shepherded by parents and teachers, chaperones who kept me from harm. I was driven crazy by the cosseting of watchful adults around me all the time. I was suffocated inside my own safety. The night before, in Caen, I had gone looking for harm.
“Tu es sûre? Tu comprends?”
Even he thought I was stupid to say yes. In the discotheque, he looked down at me with concern and asked me if I had understood his question. Oui, I replied. He couldn’t hear me over the music, so I yelled it into his ear. Oui, je comprends. My throat was sore from yelling all night through the smoke.
Only later, when the door of his hotel room closed behind me, did he ask me how old I was.
Seize ans. He repeated it after me. He shook his head. Sixteen. He had a daughter my age.
He was the tour guide. After Caen, he had driven us to Paris and left us, my high school French club, in the morning at the piazza outside the Centre Pompidou. We had a few days in the city before our flight home. No more tour company. No more José in his black jeans, smoking his unfiltered cigarettes and shrugging at us when we spoke to him in English. I saw him glance at me as we boarded the van in Caen that morning, and I looked away.
Vos professeurs, ils ne peuvent pas savoir. As if I were a child who would run to my teachers.
Il n'y a rien à dire. Un bisou. Quelques bisous.
It was more than a kiss.
It wasn’t everything my parents would have feared. It wasn’t everything I had feared as I walked down the fluorescent hallway of the autoroute hotel, over the flowered carpet, and knocked at his door at the prescribed time. It wasn’t what I was anticipating, heart pounding, as I glanced back at his closed door behind me and answered, Seize ans. Fearing and also wanting, fearing and wanting and fearing in equal measure. But it was more than a kiss. He left an imprint on me I couldn’t wash off. His smoke was in my hair and in my clothes. I still smelled like his cigarettes, a night later, sitting alone in the pew at the Sacre Coeur.
I had spent the entire day in Paris as cool as water. I was cool at the gallery that morning. Cool as we checked into the hotel. The girls who shared my room with me in Caen had seen me stumble in the door after 2am the night before. They saw me rush to the bathroom and heard the shower running as I washed my hair and I washed it again and again. But then, in the morning, when I spoke to them, I was as cool as a mountain stream. Last night? It was nothing. It was a laugh. Just a laugh. The night before fell off me like water. We’re in France. These things happen. I opened my suitcase and the smell of his cigarette smoke poured out.
I sat in the pew at the Sacre Coeur and asked myself what was wrong. Did I wish it had never happened? No. Not really. Did I wish it had been more that it was? No. I didn’t.
I only wished that it had been different.
Where does my faith reside? It lives in the heart of that sanctuary, the darkness of the rear pew, beyond the light that washed over the empty altar. The incense in the air, thick and warm, from an earlier mass. God, in the silence of the prayers spoken around me. God, in the silence after the prayers. I felt him there, where my feet touched the bottom. He was confusion. He was my utter aloneness.
A decade later, I was in the car when Paul Simon’s Some Folks Lives Roll Easy began to play on the stereo. You can’t ever predict these things. All at once, on the highway, I was in the Sacre Coeur of my heart, crying wildly.
I can only know God when I’m half-drowned. Only when I’m deeper than the light can reach. I think of God and picture a man I once saw in San Francisco, lying on the floor at St Francis of Assisi Cathedral.
I was visiting my mom that day. It was a few years ago. She and I pushed through the door of the cathedral and immediately I saw the man, sprawled across the tile in front of the altar. He looked—this was the first thought that came to me—like the crucifixion; his legs together and his arms spread to each side. He cocked his head up for a second as we walked in; I tipped him a little wave, and he lay his head back on the floor. That’s when I saw the empty bottle of wine beside him.
I left my mom sitting at a pew in the rear of the church. I could hear a low murmur from the man on the floor and I wanted to know what he was saying. So I moved slowly up the side aisle until I reached a place where I could look at him directly without him seeing me.
His left hand was moving oddly. I realized, after studying him for a few moments, that he was counting. First he extended his index finger; and then each of the latter three. He circled his thumb in the air, communicating… what, exactly, I didn’t know. He muttered in a whisper the whole time. I couldn’t catch the words.
St Francis of Assisi was the name of my church as a child. The saint who loved wretched people, who loved poverty. The saint who spoke to Water as his sister. The saint who called Death his sister.
I felt sisterly toward the man on the floor of St Francis of Assisi. He was drunk and desperate and speaking furiously to a ceiling that wouldn’t speak back. Counting vigorously through his fingers, over and over. I felt almost jealous of him, splayed out on a tiled platter at the feet of God. I had no crisis to bring to the church that day. I felt nothing. The thought of God fell off me like water. Whole days are like that. Water falling, without a touch.
I filed the man into the folder in my mind labeled Religious Ecstasy. I took for myself his fingers and his feet and the glass bottle rolling under the first row of pews. I filed them all away, so that I could run my mind over those details later—his guttural murmur and the silence that answered. A light smell of ash.
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