I hesitate. Am I allowed in?
I’m going to die of sunstroke if I don’t go in. Shrivel up like a sundried tomato in a big summer salad—the back of my neck is already well on its way to a prickling crimson.
I’m going in.
The church is cool, a slab of marble and faith embedded in the mercilessly hot and dusty piazza. I have to blink a little, let myself adjust to the darkness.
Rows and rows of lacquered wood, sitting quietly. There’s some sort of service going on to my left—I wait until the heads are bent and tiptoe past, hoping no one notices the heat-dazed heretic. I pretend I know what I’m doing, pretend to recognize the haloed figures and the murmured words. Pretend to recognize the holiness in the basin of water, the light from the candles. Pretend to recognize God.
I slip into an empty pew farther into the church. Even the wood is cool. Its hardness props up my tired, sagging spine.
I bend my head, too—am I doing it wrong?—and glance furtively sideways. From here I can see into a flank of the building where a baptism is just finishing. The infant is swaddled in pink and white but her soft hairs are dark. I’ve never seen a baptism before.
A couple minutes elapse and no one points, or stares, or even seems to notice me at all. My shoulders begin to relax. I didn’t know they were tense.
The air is thick with the stone’s perspiration. My own sweat mixes with it. Our pores expand together and our bodies smell like sticky gelato drips on a cafe table.
A microphone has been accidentally left on somewhere, and the static is magnified by discretely hidden speakers. The shhhh of trembling particles adds to the texture of the place. Thirsty as I am, it sounds like water flowing, like the rush of an ancient river. I look around and instead of seeing the painstaking handiwork of inspired masons, I see a hollow cavern of marble. The sound is a river, a torrent of water that over centuries has carved out the cavern, eroded the rock into columns and arches. The gold on the walls glimmers, reflecting the river.
Suddenly, we are underground. The slanted shafts of light are chinks in the earth, opening onto the sky through the cruel, crumbling soil. No one in the marble cave wants to surface. We all have a primitive fear of living with the sun beating down on us, defenseless, as we constantly try to make something out of nothing. How can something come from nothing? There must at least have been a space for the something to occupy, when it came into existence. But then “nothing” could not have existed.
Here, even before the waters carved these columns, even when you peel back the gilding and the paintings and the frescoes, there has always been something. “Nothing” has never been a problem. “Nothing” and “no one” were left at the door. We cavemen—when we painted on the walls of a grotto where frescoes are now, when stalactites stood in place of columns—we had a “something” to believe in.
Why live on the surface of the earth, frantically trying to hold onto life in the face of “nothing?” Why not seek refuge here, cool and underground with the murmur of pseudo-water bathing the stone?
Look at the infant, shocked to be splashed by the man in white with the strong hands. She is submerged already, the sound of water forever in her ears, everything else drowned out. But she will never be thirsty. Look, as her shell-pink hand curls around the neck of her mother, who kisses her sparkling head. Look at her father, her new godfather and godmother, and the grandmother with the bottle-red hair. As the priest reads from the book as big—bigger—than she, her godfather gives her his finger to grasp.
She has something to hold onto.
Age 17, Grade 11