To be agnostic in New York is essentially a given, at least in the circles I ran in back then. There was an expected trajectory toward agnosticism, from churchgoing or temple-going childhood to liberal arts education to arch post-college cynicism to a more or less comfortably settled adulthood, having netted some managerial role in some creative field and an equally enlightened and overworked spouse along the way. At some point, religion was to be shed like snakeskin, or like an astronaut suit after you’d come back down to earth. Unnecessary.
Hardcore atheism was a little suspect as well, being the domain of incredibly earnest white guys who were sure you would be converted to their sociopolitical opinions if you just read their series of blogs explaining the subject. The ideal stance was secular but open-minded. Gestures could be made toward what might be called spirituality if it helped you find that most skittish of people: yourself. And of course the role of religion in the world made very stimulating material for intellectual debate at whatever gastropub had just opened somewhere downtown, about three or four drinks in, when everyone felt particularly moved to explain their stance.
Let me open my story by saying I was tired. I was physically tired, worn out — I hadn’t slept more than an hour or two each night that week, thanks to a potent combo of work stress and personal anxiety — but I was tired in a larger sense as well. I was tired of New York, certainly. I was tired of paying $1,500 per month to sleep in 10 square feet in a good neighborhood, which meant a neighborhood where I couldn’t afford anything anyone was selling. I was tired of 24/7 work emails, texts, and tweets in the name of journalism, which lately meant writing up videos that showed rats doing something funny in the subway. I was tired of swiping left; I was tired of swiping right. And I let this exhaustion bleed over into all the values I associated with New York, all the things that had drawn me to the place where I was now unhappy. It no longer seemed the haven of diversity and inclusivity and creativity I’d yearned for after a childhood in the sticks. It was just another place for people to be cliquish and empty-headed, although those people were generally in possession of more degrees and better clothes than anyone back home. I was having another disillusionment about another Paradise.
I’d been seeing a girl; it wasn’t working out. She was upset when I told her this. I was the first lesbian she’d gone to bed with, and I could see emotional baggage forming before my eyes as I told her over cold brews that it wasn’t about her at all, we were just at two very different places in our lives. She’d be fine, I thought. She was the type to wind up with a clean-cut guy in finance, I was sure. It’s really fucking hard to see a pretty girl cry, though.
“But we’re supposed to go to Eamon and Kaspar’s wedding this summer,” she said, her face shining with tears. Her cat’s-eye makeup was holding up valiantly in spite of this. She was a makeup artist, she had a photo shoot to get to, but she seemed to have forgotten all about it, latching on to our travel plans as if committing to a destination wedding on the Riviera Maya was an unbreakable link in forging a lifelong bond. For a dizzying moment I felt an irrational surge of hatred toward her, toward all of it, everything I saw as tasteful and expected and meaningless.
“Isabella,” I began, and I closed my eyes and sighed, in hopes of exhaling all my frustration on a wave of carbon dioxide. When I opened my eyes, she was gone.
Everything was gone. I jumped to my feet, nearly falling over in shock. The bustling Manhattan sidewalk and breezy café seating had vanished. I was standing now in a vast, desolate landscape, broad and rocky and dark under a Crayola-purple sky and an indifferent, egg-yellow sun.
I’d been sober for a couple years at that point, but my first thought was that I must have something in my system. I spun around wildly — emptiness in all directions. “Isabella?!” I cried out. Now I wanted her with me very badly. You could always feel her presence nearby, even when she was out of eyeshot. I hadn’t noticed how quietly comforting that was, to have someone compassionate nearby.
I turned again — more slowly this time — trying to decide what to do next. That’s when I saw the cathedral.
I call it that, but it really didn’t look much like a cathedral if you gave the idea any thought. A strange, sprawling cluster of stone buildings, Romanesque and Gothic and Eastern forms taken seemingly at random. Most of its windows were dark, save one: an enormous honeycomb of rainbow colors that sparkled in the sun. All of this was weird enough to begin with. Then there was the fact that it was floating in midair hundreds of feet above me, effortlessly, impossibly.
Was I high? Was I dreaming? Was I dying? How did I get here? And what the hell did it all mean?
The building had no answers for me. It simply was, utterly convincing in its sheer bulk, its luminous form, the shadow it cast on the earth below. As I gazed, I thought perhaps I heard the sound of music from somewhere within its heavy walls. Not so much heard it as felt it, I thought a moment later. It was like stringed instruments rising and falling in both tone and volume. It was like breath, or the beating of a heart. It made the emptiness more serene, somehow. It reminded me of my mother’s last couple of days.
Mom. That hospital room she was in at the end, crowded with people — me and my stepdad and her church friends and the priest I could barely keep myself from rolling my eyes at. (To be fair, he had a very low opinion of me as well.) I was a mess, all bloodshot eyes and unshowered sweat, but she was close to the end, and the peace she had awaited for so long was already upon her. I held her hand, and she held mine back, even when she couldn’t see me any longer. That’s who she was.
She loved me. She always loved me, even when I stopped going to church, left home as soon as I could, forgot to return calls, drank more and more heavily, did more and more drugs. Hers was a goodness that didn’t square with what I thought I wanted. I was an arrow that wanted to fly off alone.
She died before I went sober. She never got to see, well, everything I did with my life. Everything I got to be. The sadness I felt about that always seemed to thread its way through all my other anxieties and frustrations and angers, stitching them together where they might have fallen away. How much harder and worse everything seems to be when you feel alone in the world.
I breathed in the memory of her from where it came humming down on high and felt it all around me and held it, and held it, and held it. I looked up at the cathedral and knew I’d never completely understand.
And when I blinked again, I was back, and there was Isabella still gazing at me helplessly, still not right for me — I wasn’t stupid about these things, after all — but no longer required to be an object of scorn, somehow.
“I’ll send you money for the travel expenses we’ve already made,” I said. “I’m really sorry, Isabella. I’d like to stay friends if or when you’re ready. Can I call you a car?”
She left. Like I said, she was ultimately fine, although she surprised me and wound up with a really cute little dyke who works in IT.
I told a few people about what I’d seen and heard and felt, which I don’t necessarily recommend doing. In return I was given a lot of uneasy looks, the name of a shrink in Flatiron, and a recommendation that I try this really effective detox cleanse. But one or two people listened and asked the right sort of questions — the kind of questions that made me ask further questions of myself about what was really important and work to find the answers. I spent more of my time with people like that afterward.
I don’t have any explanation for what happened. It certainly wasn’t a tidy little come-to-Jesus moment. But I’m starting to think that explanations aren’t always essential. What’s essential is what you do afterward.