Finding Religion on the Way to Somewhere

by Aimee Herman on January 4, 2016

Blue

4 train to Union Square 

“Three weeks ago, I believed in God,” he said to me in a cracked whisper.

“I traveled from Jamaica—the island not the borough—where the water is the color of every girl’s eyes I’ve ever fallen in love with. Like real blue. Like before we got our hands on it.” He pointed to the people sitting in front of him as he spoke, ‘we’.

“And…what happened?” I asked.

“The short version,” he began “is this. My mother…she was a good woman. Cancer ate every inch of her, but even before that happened, she thanked God every day. Said, ‘God gave me this skin, these cupboards, the cans to fill them with. God gave me five children and…” Suddenly he paused and I thought maybe he decided all of this was too intimate to tell a stranger during early morning rush hour on the 4 train.

“What was I saying?” he mumbled. “Oh. Here, God hides. In this city, which you all say never sleeps, it’s full of too many shadows. Now, some shadows come with pockets. See, that’s where God hides. But here, too many of you are pocketless. I’ve been to fourteen churches. Not opposed to mosques or synagogues. Went there too. I’ve tried so many and cannot seem to find Him. In Jamaica, God is everywhere. In the clouds and cracks of sidewalks. In the ackee and saltfish. In the music and on every pair of lips I kiss. And I’ve kissed ‘em all. Believe it.”

As he lost the rest of his words to memory and the cloud of smoke it produces, I thought about the last time I believed in God and where it was found. And where it was heard. And how I lost the ability and desire to believe.

I could trace it back to that scar on my right leg in the shape of a severed kayak, once hyper, now lethargic.

Or it might be that stray hair on my right nipple that I used to pluck out of embarrassment, though now love for its rebellious twist and solo star quality. Is that responsible for my loss of belief?

It is so much easier to speak about God—even amidst the uncertainty and invisibility—than to articulate atheism and the loss of perhaps the most intricate relationship one might ever have.

 

A train to Fulton St.

I am desperate for a seat. Each time someone gets off, another leaps toward the empty square. I shift my weight back and forth as though I’m on some veiled see-saw. After several stops, there is a space for me. As I attempt to balance my overstuffed backpack on my lap, a woman, gently aged, turns to me and asks if I’ve let Jesus into my heart

I take a deep breath, knowing I am trapped. We are underground and stuffed like capers into this subway jar and it’s hard to ignore someone whose thigh is fused against yours.

“Uh….” is all I can utter.

She smiles and I cannot help to let my lips melt away from their scowl.

“Can I tell you a little about everything Jesus did for us?” she calmly sings. “He took all of our sins into his wrists. He hung for all our nightmares. But when he comes back…” she warns, “we will all be saved and smoothed out of our wrinkled pasts. You just…” And here is where she grabbed my wrist and I let her as though my body no longer belonged to me—did it ever?—and she polished my rippled skin with her wrinkled fingertips and said, “…you just need to let him in. Okay?”

 

F train to West 4th

I counted four tears. Three out of her left eye and one slowly slinking down her right. She was difficult not to notice: Black eyeliner from yesterday or two days prior. Faded lipstick, kissed off. Stockings and burly black Doc Marten boots. One of those haircuts from seventy decades ago, but she looked to be no more than twenty.

She existed nine years ago on the F train. As I was making my way home from a secret I waited four years to speak out loud.

Commutes were different back then; no blaring video game soundtracks eeking out of fancy phones or hypnotized trigger fingers drunk off candy crush. People just sat. Waited for their stop. Read books more. Listened to music through tiny headphones.

What I wanted to say was this:

The most difficult thing that will ever happen to you is right now. These tears, so insistent, they cannot wait for home. For tissues to sop them up. For a dark closet to pile them into. In this moment, nothing could ever possibly compare to this.

I wanted to grab her fingers and trace enough poems into her skin and knuckles to remind her this salt makes her more human. More alive. More beautiful, even.

And just as I was about to stand up and move toward her—or maybe I was too afraid and never would have—I watched her grab a tiny, beaten-up book with her cracked black-polished fingers.

I thought it was a journal at first. Some kind of aged diary, but then I watched her open it from the end and move her thin lips, quietly reading along. Quietly. Praying.

 

J train to…to…Norwood Avenue

If you have never fallen asleep on the train, resulting in the complete disaster of arriving in a location you know nothing about and of course you contain no map in your pocket—digital or otherwise—and add to that your bladder is full and you are hungry or thirsty in a way your body has never known before and it is dark out so all the street signs are asleep and you are also half asleep and alone and and and….then you understand what it is to believe in something.

Because this is the moment where you get off the train because you have to.

Because it is the last stop and you are the kind of person who obeys rules like that.

And your watch is on your dresser at home and your phone has died—if you even own one—wouldn’t you love to be the kind of person who doesn’t even own one.

You look ahead and there is a person, half awake as well, behind the glass shield of the subway station counter. They are reading a newspaper or playing a game on their phone; this particular detail has no relevance. What matters is this: they notice you in a way you have never been noticed before. Not in a sexual way or a pity-party way because you are lost and your bladder is screaming, but because they see you as human. As someone who has traveled from somewhere and has made it to here—wherever that may be—and they look up and say, “Take a deep breath. You’re only lost if you let yourself forget that everyplace is somewhere and an opportunity to arrive. So, welcome.”

You look around because this person couldn’t possibly be talking to you, but what does it matter? You heard it and suddenly you believe in the possibility of something.

Of being.

Of breathing.

Of the lost in everyone and the unbearable dimension of what it is to arrive.

*

meant-to-wake-up-feeling-front-cover-web

 

Aimee interviews Anne Waldman in great weather for MEDIA’s latest anthology, Before Passing

Read more Aimee in her latest full-length collection, meant to wake up feeling 

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