THERE ARE MOMENTS YOU KNOW there’s no god, he said after his fourth glass of wine. We’d been talking, among other things, all night. Trying to learn each other was fruitless, like cramming for a test only to find out it’s cancelled, but we were both polite. We’d been raised to nod and smile, even in various states of undress. He was adopted; his birth mother gave him up because she couldn’t take care of him. But if she knew me, he reasoned, I bet she would have stayed. I had kissed him then, by default, because kissing is easy. I know how to kiss. I do not know how to sit quietly with someone else’s pain. To be a woman you have to know how to do both, which is why I will forever be a little girl squirming in the pew as the priest says, Take, and eat. This is my body, laughing because I do not understand.
Thank you, he said as I touched him. Thank you, thank you, thank you. His gratitude made me feel enormous and lonely, and when the shadows shifted, I suddenly registered neatly, in order, both how sour his sheets were and how far I was from home. I pulled away, and started to gather my things. One sock was wedged beneath a couch cushion and I considered leaving it, a kind of reverse trophy. I’m sorry, I have to go, I told him as I began the gentle orchestration of abandonment. It’s alright, he said. Is there anything more forgiving than a boy with his pants around his ankles? I said something about having an early meeting and he said something about calling. I didn’t, and he wouldn’t, but none of that mattered. The things that matter are the things that no one says, like If you stay the night I won’t have to sleep alone, or Your mother is not coming back.
On the train, my seat mates and I were jostled like a pocket of pebbles, the ridged kind that are too stubborn to skip across rivers. The one on my left had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen and a purse plastered with letters I didn’t recognize. Her tank top proclaimed “Party girls don’t get hurt,” but her smile flickered like a carnival bulb at closing-time on Sunday night. The one on my right was a man. He didn’t interest me. When we screeched into the station, I let them off first and considered riding endlessly, thinking of a song I’d hated as a child about a man named Charlie, who doesn’t have enough change to get off the rail. Every day his wife comes to the station and hands him a sandwich through the open window, which drove me crazy. “Just put some quarters in the Ziploc!” I’d wanted to yell at her. It had all struck me as so wretchedly, unnecessarily sad. It’s just a song, my mom told me, as if that was somehow comforting. Its title was “The Man Who Never Returned.” After a while, I’d just skip past it on my tape player. Stuck in motion, all he needed was some change.
The hallway that led to the escalators was long, brightly lit, and fighting a losing battle against graffiti and grime. It smelled like something you’d like to forget and was lined, appropriately, on both sides with people nobody remembered. They sat on cardboard, or on nothing, slumped over Big Gulps and staring without seeing. Little islands of humans, dirty, adrift, but alive. And through it all weaved a melody so lovely it made me shake. A woman had set up a harp and was singing Ave Maria, and everyone, even the most faithless and mascara-smudged, feels that song right down to their marrow. It’s a song of beauty and pain and knowing that they are the same thing sometimes.
There are moments you know there’s no god, and there are moments when you think, of course there is. She’s too big and and far away to notice us, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t there.