On the last day of the longest January I’ve ever lived through I woke up early just to have the house to myself for longer than usual. The only tiny luxuries that I actively can control the outcome of in this new place are my fat, grey cat named Gus, who I rescued when he was two weeks old, making him as sweet as a living stuffed animal, and an entire French press of coffee. I’ve felt like giving up more times I can take account of since moving to New York, but after kicking a pharmaceutical addiction (Adderall, I do love and miss you) and allowing myself these peaceful luxuries, I’m getting a hang of it here. I don’t make unnecessary train mistakes anymore. I have (loan) money in the bank, which sort of makes me less nervous and sort of comforts me. Things are beginning to look up. I might like it here, despite the hard and harsh realization that I don’t love it. My nine-year-old self is disappointed in me. I’m not as bold and wild here as I am at home.
I still get on the train late, always forgetting to add thirty minutes to any journey just for buffer time and train traffic. On this particular morning, my coffee and cat time went on longer than usual. I entered the shower to find the existential dread of a dozen bottles of empty products lining the lip of the tub. The mushy, water-soiled soap bar had a long, curly pube on it. This is why I needed the extra coffee and cat time. My first panic attack, an irrational sinking in my chest, a disappointment in myself for not going to the grocery store on my day off, and my first empty need for medical, chemical intervention, has set in. I exit the shower after rinsing off rather than lathering up, leave the bathroom and stand naked in my bedroom staring into my closet full of clothes I’m not fun enough to wear anymore.
I manifest things and I’m good at it. Whether it be a material object, like an item of clothing I’ve set my sights on or an ugly white dog on my door step—if I put the image from my head verbally out into the universe it usually appears. Sometimes it’s completely accidental. Take the dog, for instance. I made a vague and outlandish prediction before moving to New York City that I was going to find a small, ratlike dog on the street and it was going to become my pet. When my roommate came home in the midst of one of the first snowy days in Brooklyn with the announcement that there was a small dog tied up outside our apartment with all of its things, I didn’t particularly want to have the dog, but I felt a duty to take it in from the cold. The dog, who I fondly named Dave, ended up biting me and leaving a dense, fleshy scar on my wrist. I kept him for four days in from the cold and waited for his owners to come pick him up, but no one ever came. Dave got adopted through a shelter and is a happy family dog now, but I feel a tiny pang of guilt for manifesting him in the first place.
I’m not a religious person, but you don’t have to be when you’re raised by strong Italian Catholic women. Religion, whether close or important, surrounds me because of my family. Religion feels like part of my culture, but in a strange optional way. I could be religious easily, and no one would doubt my faith.
In all of my keepsake boxes, along with love notes from old boyfriends, yearbooks from middle school (when I believe I peaked), and sentimental items, I’m always finding rosary beads and St. Christopher’s mixed in. Tucked away from judgmental eyes, a pendant that stands for protection and good travels makes sense to me lying next to a envelope of love notes and a bent penny that a poet I used to sleep with made me. I keep the penny in a Candy Hearts box labeled “heartbreaker.” These things I collect are more for comfort than memory, because I’ll always have the candy heart box to remind me of “the one time” a poet was crazy enough about me to bend a penny for shits and gigs. I feel silly appointing these items value.
As a young woman, I find these trinkets of religion comforting because they remind me of my mother, my grandmother, my childhood bedroom (which recently was demolished along with the house I grew up in), but as a kid I felt suffocated by religion. I was an atheist before I knew all my options, before “spiritual” was a self-describing category of practice, before “namaste” hit the mainstream.
I’ve absolutely never prayed on purpose, but I find myself mid-plea or argument with God often. God is my first reader. He tells me to cut the fluff. He tells me to trim the fat. He tells me to get to the heart of it. He’s the empathetic listener I speak at when I feel like I’m talking into the void.
Because of my etched and engraved religion and total fear of being found out as a “Jesus-y” kid, as my father often put it, I rebelled at a safe arm’s length by never going to church even if my grandma asked, but also by never fucking under the pulpit of my undergrad’s chapel. The chapel was the spot to hook up throughout college. It was a bucket-list adventure. It was almost a requirement of the sisterhood and camaraderie that I identified strongly with for four years. The experience was handed down from generation to generation. I’m sure, without even doing the deed, I handed down rumors and stories of the pulpit and the chapel. It wasn’t like the poet and the penny, it wasn’t like anything “bad” I had ever done. I didn’t judge anyone for fucking under the pulpit, under the large, realistic crucifix of Jesus, but I wouldn’t do it. No one has ever considered that I hadn’t. I don’t let them know otherwise.
My great grandmother got a visit from the saints in the later years of her life. Great Grandma Michaelina, or “Grandma with the White Hair,” as I called her, is my mother’s namesake. When I imagine her getting a visit, I immediately imagine her being visited by the Virgin Mary at thirteen years old, when she first started getting her period. I’ve heard that story a few times and imagined the fear of what it felt like to wake up in a pool of your own blood to think that you’re shamefully dying because your own mother doesn’t know how to explain it. But, anyway, the Virgin Mary didn’t come to her, the saints did. She described it to my mother as each saint walking into her living room where she was sitting before bed and introducing themselves to her. She told my mother that she was “the only person who she could tell,” in fear of being seen as crazy, but that she did not just imagine this happening. She met the saints, and after each one left she felt more okay with dying. She told my mother that she was the only one who’d understand. It wasn’t until recently that my mother told me that grandma’s visit wasn’t a well-known event in our family. I was trusted with the story just as she had been.
There was something about my great grandmother that resonated with me as completely honest, completely capable, despite her thick Sicilian accent and frail, elderly frame. Regardless of our eighty-eight-year age difference the last time I saw her, which was at her hundredth surprise birthday party when I was twelve, I didn’t feel that she ever made it a point to push her age and knowledge on me. She didn’t expect me to fear her or respect her, but automatically I did. She was a reputable source, an honest matriarch and mouthpiece of our family, who happened to meet God by extension of saints.
My mother, on the other hand, is harder for me to believe. We are too close and too similar for me to believe everything she says, which is partially because she’s known to exaggerate just like I do. My mother’s story is that the Virgin Mary herself came to her in the backyard of our house. I imagine her standing by our slate rock wall, the only point of value and pride of our home for all of us, smoking a cigarette and picking dead leaves off the wild tiger lilies that came back every year. The Virgin Mary came and said one word to my mother: endure. This word and visit came at a time when I’m sure that my mother wanted to do nothing but give up. My mother is an alcoholic and has been in recovery for six years, but this visit came long before she got sober. On top of her own problems with addiction, she married a man who is a narcissist, an addict, and a liar. I try not to blame myself for the wasted twenty years of my beautiful mother’s life. I was the fertilized egg that led to a partnership, a marriage, and another child, my brother. I was the egg that led to the chicken that was my mother’s addiction and mental illness. But that’s another story.
Mary came to my mother before she got sober, and that’s part of the reason why I have trouble believing her story. Before she got sober, she wasn’t stable. She was always on the brink of an emotion, whether good or bad. This message of endurance came to her at a time when drinking was the only relief from sadness and anger, which were ultimately caused by my dad. He frequently used drugs, cheated without apology, and disappeared with no explanation for days at a time. I remember the day Mary came to her vividly because I remember doubting her, rolling my eyes. When I came home that day from school, I found my mother smoking a rolled cigarette inside the house, a frequently overlooked rule that my father made for what seemed like my brother’s and my sake. She usually smoked while she talked on the phone, a double oral fixation. That day, she was on the phone with her grandma, because she mouthed to me “GRANDMA WITH THE WHITE HAIR” through exhales of thick smoke. She recounted the story, repeated the word, and ended the phone call with our family’s signature verbal kiss. “Mwah. Love you.”
So, after that day she endured. She took the high road with my dad, she focused on herself, she got sober. She endured in the most literal way she could, until she realized that “endure” didn’t mean “stay.” On Christmas eve of 2012, when my brother was a sophomore in high school and I was a freshman in college, almost in the opposite fashion of the Holy Mother herself, my mother packed a bag and left my father, leaving my brother and me with him. She’d left before, moving my brother and me to motel rooms or shooing us to sleepovers, but she had always returned. There was something big, monumental about the fact that she left us with him that day. She was enduring for herself. We were expected to endure through this in our own way, too.
This split heavily influenced me, and changed my relationship with my father forever. He blamed me for my mother leaving because she and I had gotten into an argument hours before she left. He didn’t speak to me for four days, including on Christmas. I endured by calling my mother, deflating my pride, and asking to stay with her, wherever she was. Things started getting easier through my mother’s persistence to survive.
On a shelf in my room here in New York I’ve created an altar. Knickknacks and things that remind me of home decorate the shelf, which I found on the street in Bed Stuy and carried on the train home. On the corner closest to my view from bed stands a statue of the Virgin Mary I bought for forty-nine cents at a Salvation Army. My roommates, and even my boyfriend, find my Mary decorations to be kitschy. They laugh at the wall covered in religious art. It’s supposed to be funny because I’m a sort of anti-Christ. I’m loud, overly sexual, I love tequila, I swear and recreationally get fucked up on party drugs often. They are aware of my mother’s vision, of her reminder to endure, yet they still consider my worship to be satirical. I don’t correct them, because I’m not one to ruin a good joke for anyone.
My manifestations, sometimes, are purposeful without me knowing. I’ve been waiting for a visit from the Virgin Mary since I was told about the power of these visits as a young, skeptical girl.
I don’t know why I sat where I sat that day. The spot between the man and the woman that I took was, quite possibly, child sized. I am by no means small, nor do I need the validation of anyone telling me that I am. I’m aware that squeezing childbearing hips into a tight spot with no elbow room isn’t wise. I was running late, so with a flushed face and an elevated heart rate I started to mentally beat myself up. The woman to my left kept hitting me with her right knee and elbowing me while fiddling with something between her fingers—which only made me more nervous. It seemed like the moment I noticed why she kept knocking me was also the moment I noticed other seats opening up across the train car.
“Can I help you with that?” A smooth voice came out of me, despite the gravitational pull of the better spot in my reach. “I’m really good at getting knots out of chains.”
“Really?” she said in an accent I couldn’t place. “You’re my angel.”
Before I could process why I had offered to help and how the fuck I was going to get the knot out, I was in the midst of focus. So, for seven stops I shook and prodded with her knotted chain. I found myself wrapped up in thought, needing the chain to budge, wanting it to come untangled without breaking. Occasionally, the woman would cheer me on.
“Don’t give up!” she said sweetly. In a moment where she noticed my fingers were shaking while trying to hold the earring I was using as a tool still (half because I’m an naturally shaky person, but half because of Adderall withdrawal and too much coffee), she held my hand steady for me. Her hand was the warmest thing that’s ever touched me, and immediately I felt a pang in my heart.
When I found myself describing the event to my boyfriend later that night, I tried to get my description of her off the tip of my teeth.
“She was, well, she was beautiful,” I said.
“So you were attracted to her?” he said.
“No! No. Absolutely not. She was beautiful like how a mother is beautiful.”
Despite her cheerleading and occasional check-ins, I wanted badly to say that I couldn’t do it. My stop was approaching, and I started to feel anxious that I would break the chain because I was rushing. Then suddenly, the chain wiggled loose and dropped its knot. The pendant on the end swung easily between my hands, and I noticed that it was a Virgin of Guadalupe rosary. I hadn’t noticed the metal beads linked by chain, or the pendant, while untangling it. She tearfully thanked me over and over so many times that I got nervous, almost embarrassed. I gave her the rosary and told her that she was so welcome, and began to gather my things to get off at my stop.
“Could you put it on me?” There was something intimate and vivid about this question, and I couldn’t say no. She pulled her short hair forward on her neck, giving me a space nestled under her scarf to link the clasp to the chain. My hands, which were clammy and cold, touched her neck. She didn’t pull away or jolt when they touched her neck, they just felt warmer.
“There,” I said, as she lifted her head toward me and smiled. After her rosary was safely back around her neck, the woman gained color back in her face and her eyes brightened.
“I’m Carson,” I said with a shy smile. I didn’t recognize the sweet, smooth, honeylike voice coming out of me.
“I’m Aphra,” she said. “Thank you. You made my day. Don’t give up, and good luck!” I felt newer, or at least warmer, as I walked off the M train. I saw the beauty in the snow falling like a beam of light from the sky, to the street, and into the subway staircase, instead of scrunching my nose at the smell of piss.
I texted my brother and described the encounter as a “religious experience,” noting that her name was Aphra, like Aphrodite. He immediately responded.
“It was Mary.”
On fearing fear itself
I’m afraid of being afraid, afraid of not experiencing, afraid of not being as active as I am mouthy. I’m afraid of the no in my throat before my mouth makes it.
Two days in a row, I paid strangers to touch my feet, back, neck, hands, just to impersonate how loose and limber my joints felt after treading sand, walking water.
I fear what it means to look tired, to die in my worst pair of panties, to be found unfabulous, to be caught off guard.
I like to say things like “I miss missing you” or “I think about you everyday,” but I’m scared to mean it, to really mean it, and feel empty.
You don’t understand, I fear what bug might burrow its way into my skin, the needle I might step on that kills me, whether slowly or quick.
I’ve measured my fear intimately, rarely out loud. Maybe I’m bad luck, maybe the evil eye follows me, or maybe I’m leading a blessed and burning existence where I fear and then I push.