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Kate Angus

 

What is a god? A god is an eternal state of mind.
—Ezra Pound

 

The basement restaurant was too dark, the AC cranked too high, the band sang too loudly over their discordant guitars, as I shared brisket and damp collard greens with a man who had already told me he no longer wanted to date me. Now we were trying to be friends. The last time I’d seen him, we were embracing on a street corner at night as taxis streamed past, their headlights a long bright river. That moment had felt so romantic—so right—that I still wondered if his feelings might change.

My lips and fingers felt greasy from the meat, an oily sheen I imagined reflecting the pale blue lights from the stage. I felt too aware of my body and its flaws: crow’s feet like crumpled paper, my strange Komodo-dragon features, my stomach pressing uncomfortably against my jeans as if the denim were a levee trying to hold the flesh back.

After dinner, we hugged goodbye. I went home and thought about how he might move back to London and that I’ve never really cared that much for British accents anyway. But then I also remembered how his brown hair was softer than dandelion silk and that I would never run my hands through it again.

I thought about all the men I have cried myself to sleep over through the years.

I remembered watching sci-fi movies on my couch with one boyfriend, making jokes with him that no one else would ever understand. I thought about the name of another’s childhood cat (Mr. Buttons) and long road trips with a third, highways unfurling in front of our rental car like ribbons. I remembered tracking down birthday presents of antique compasses and mossy green cashmere sweaters and dusty ships in bottles, and how much I love waking up in the middle of the night and falling back asleep lulled by a lover’s breath. How safe it makes me feel.

My eyes welled up. Cry me not a river but an ocean or a whole planet made entirely of water, a waterfall spilling over from constellation to constellation, a long liquid galaxy sluicing through the sky. I thought: I am tired of crying.

The next day I buried my sorrows under cocktails and conversation with a friend who has never once caused me any sorrow. I spent that night in gin-drunk sleep. Then an afternoon in an airport and a night and morning on airplanes on my way to a writing fellowship. JFK to Rome, three hours waiting at the gate, then Rome to Brindisi, and then a 90-minute drive to Otranto, a small city on Italy’s boot heel.

*

The castle where all the residency fellows work faces the Adriatic Sea where Turkish war ships were once wooden arrows piercing the blue expanse of water and sky.

On the first day, I set up a table in a little alcove on the roof. I arrived laden with books about the Santeria trickster god Elegguá for an essay project that was the focus of my residency, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin my research. It’s not that I felt sad so much as tired—slow and witless as if my skull were crammed full of stones.

Instead of taking notes or writing, I mostly checked email and listened to the castle’s feral cats howl like sad children. For a while, I thought about the man in New York and about how I shouldn’t be thinking about him. Then I just stared across the ramparts at the bright blue sea.

The next day passed mostly the same way.

At lunch on the third day, one of my roommates told me she’d noticed signs in town for the festival of Saint Anthony of Padua.

“They put on a big show for these things in Italy—music, fireworks. They carry the saint’s statue around in the streets. I love Saint Anthony,” she said, “He’s interceded for me.”

“How?”

“He helps people find what they’ve lost or need. After my art studio announced they were closing, I walked home past the Church of Saint Anthony on Houston Street. I’d never been inside so I thought ‘Why not?’ and went in for mass. I said a little petition and asked him to help me find a new studio. Later that week I went to Long Island City to look at studios. I loved the space and then, after I told the new landlord I’d sign the lease, I found out his name was Antonio—like the saint.”

She looked at me with a sly smile.

”You know, sometimes people also pray to him to help them find love.”

I’d told her about the man in New York, about how I missed him.

I stayed silent.

I’ve always felt embarrassed by spirituality. While I believe that some kind of power animates the universe, I only believe a little bit, probably not enough, and when I prayed when I was younger (not to be bullied, for my grandmothers not to die), it didn’t change anything. As an adult, whenever I’ve thought of praying, suddenly all the things in the world more important than what I want start scrolling through my mind—racism, climate change, poverty, transphobia, refugees, war, lab animals in cages, the people I love and their sorrows, anyone dying anywhere—and I stop. It’s always felt too selfish to ask for anything for myself.

Later my roommate brought up the festival again, but this time she said the date.                     

The number echoed in my brain: June 13th. June 13th.

Then it clicked: Elegguá.

When the enslaved Yoruba people were brought from Nigeria to Cuba, they were forbidden to practice their own beliefs. Forced to convert, the slaves worshiped the orishas in the guise of Catholic saints. As time passed, the saints and orishas fused together—the saints becoming just one more manifestation of the gods who often descend to earth to possess human hosts. In Santeria, each orisha manifests as at least one Catholic saint. Elegguá is often syncretized with Saint Anthony, which meant that the festival for St. Anthony was happening on a day that also honored the god I came to the residency to write about.

 

              

 

 

  

*

When coincidences happen, we ask ourselves, What are the chances? and, if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is usually: Pretty good. It’s not poetic, but the truth is, if something is important to us, we’re already primed to notice it.

The man in New York was a passionate Arsenal fan, a British soccer team I’d never heard of before dating him. When I signed up for Tinder after we parted ways, I was matched almost immediately with a man in a red Arsenal shirt. The next man I was presented with shared my recent flame’s first name. It’s not that the universe was willfully tormenting me. Rather, raw recent experience made me notice those details instead of something else in their profiles that had nothing to do with my ex.

Carl Jung defined synchronicity as coincidences that occur with no apparent causal relationship, but feel connected by meaning. He believed synchronicity was proof of the paranormal, that coincidences were the actions of a governing dynamic that ties our individual experience together with the universe.

On the other hand, in 1958 the psychologist Klaus Conrad coined the term apophenia: the tendency to see patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Through these perceived patterns, he said, people can enforce an “abnormal meaningfulness.” According to Conrad, what we notice in these patterns is invariably self-referential, solipsistic, and paranoid. The subject of Conrad’s monograph? Schizophrenia’s early onset.

We want to cobble together cohesive narratives so we can believe our lives have direction when we feel lost. I applied for six fellowships; only one accepted me. I arrived hoping to hermit myself away with books about a god from the West African diaspora, but instead ate lunch with a roommate who noticed a Catholic feast day. She told me about a festival for a saint who happened to also be a kind of spiritual body double for the god I was writing about. I was still sad about my breakup, and people pray to this saint for help finding lost or missing things—including romance.I wanted my coincidences to add up, to believe that what happens in the world has meaning, that random events can be connected. I wanted to feel watched over by a benevolent power instead of alone and adrift.

So I decided to petition Saint Antony.

In fact, I vowed to do a novena: every day for nine days, I would recite a prayer asking the saint to help me find love.

*

On the first day of my novena, I brewed coffee on the stovetop in a silver Italian coffeemaker that looks like a rocket ship and then poured in milk, the liquid unfurling long white tendrils in the black brew like a wraith in a dark hallway.

Then I knelt on the dining room floor.

I began to recite a prayer culled from the Internet.

“The answer to my prayer may require a miracle; even so you are the saint of miracles,” I whispered, “Saint Anthony, please answer my prayer.”

My bare knees ached from the cold stone. I was grateful my roommates weren’t home. I was somehow terrified of being caught, of having to explain myself, as if thousands of people aren’t on their knees around the world praying at any given moment and even though my roommate herself had encouraged me ask the saint to intercede.

But I wasn’t like the faithful who know a benevolent Someone waits in the heavens. Instead, I was afraid I was just some sad superstitious sucker, begging an emptiness to intervene on my behalf. And even if a kind cosmic presence were listening, I worried that praying for love made me pathetic. I felt ashamed of the cold internal plummet of my loneliness, of how much I wanted.

*

St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things because of a book. A novice who’d run away from the friary took St. Anthony’s psalter with him. Not only did the psalms have St. Anthony’s marginalia—the notes he used for teaching—inscribed in their pages, but in the days before the invention of the printing press, books were of immense value, incredibly difficult to replace. St. Anthony prayed his book would be found. The thief, moved by God, rejoined the Order and returned the saint’s psalter. How could a writer not love this saint, venerated by generations because his faith brought a missing book back?

*

By the third day of the novena, I’d grown tired of trying to pray, of trying to write, of examining my internal landscape for all the reasons my relationship (and others before it) didn’t work out. I decided to look outside rather than inward, and explore the city.

Otranto’s cobblestoned streets, smooth and glossy as beach glass, are too narrow for traffic, leaving the city mostly silent. No car alarms or sirens pierced the low murmur of voices and the sea wind that sometimes rushed through the city like muscled marathoners, strong and brisk, rattling the wooden shutters in their frames and making the laundry hung up on the lines dance.

I walked past vegetable stands piled high with clusters of dark cherries, delicate lettuce like leafy planets, and watermelons in a row—giant green speckled eggs stolen from a dragon’s nest. Wine shops and spice stores lined the winding roads like tiny witches’ caverns hung with dried herbs. Then further, past the beach where huge umbrellas shone pristine white as starched handkerchiefs and the sand swarmed with crowds like bees.

Finally, I found myself alone on a road dusty and bright.

I hopped over a wall and walked an incline to a sharp drop twenty feet down. There, amidst the blue sea, white cliffs rose from the water like jagged teeth. Across the bay, the city’s ancient skyline poked through soft mist.

I imagine slipping back in time—a hundred years, five hundred. If I had been a peasant girl in Otranto married to a fisherman, would I have been happy pulling in his nets rich with fish, their silver scales shining? Would we have grown old, fat with love and feasting; eating dinner with our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren around a wooden table every night?

But who’s to say the fisherman husband would have even been my choice. Perhaps I’d have been forced into marriage and would have wished for death as he clutched me each night or I’d have died in childbirth, ripped apart screaming as a newborn’s head crested between my legs, or perished in plague sweat and pustules or been beheaded by invaders like the 800 martyrs in Otranto’s cathedral whose skulls are stacked in careful rows beside the alter, shielded behind glass and gold. There are so many other lives that each of us could have lived: impossible to say in which one we might find ourselves happy, if in some other century our wishes would have been fulfilled.

I climbed back up the slope and rested my bag on top of the wall so I could clamber over unencumbered.

As if in an old-timey slapstick movie, as if in slow motion, my bag began to roll end over end, off the wall and then down the slope. Inside: my cellphone, my wallet, my passport, my cash and bank card, my apartment key.

I ran after it towards the cliff edge, sandals slipping on loose shale.

At the last moment, I fell and slid, grabbing the bag just as it tipped over towards the water below. I hoisted it to safety one-handed, my other hand grasping for purchase on the cliff’s edge.

My victory had a price: the skin scraped off my knees, the flesh raw and open. Thick trails of blood twined down my legs, but strangely nothing hurt. Instead, I felt jubilant, like I should be crowned with laurels for my triumph: nothing important was lost.   

*

By the morning of the sixth day, my scraped knees began to suppurate, leaking tears of pearlescent pus. My roommate suggested I wash them with saltwater so I went to the beach to swim in the ocean.

I spread my towel on the sand and put down my bag. I stripped off my dress, folded it, and placed my hat and sunglasses on top, making a tiny collapsed woman there.

I walked into the water and let it wash around my ankles; the Adriatic as blue as a painting of blue.

I dove in.

I plunged breast stroke and butterfly, scissor-kicked my legs, rolled on my back and closed my eyes. I unclenched my jaw, letting my neck elongate. The sun beat down. My ears were tunnels filling with water; all sounds having that dull water-thunder sound.

I surrender, I said to Saint Anthony, Elegguá, God, gods, the universe, my ancestors, the world, myself—whoever or whatever may or may not have been listening. I’m tired of trying. If I find love or not, whatever happens, I trust that I will be all right.

When I returned to the beach, there was a flash of silver on the ground. I picked it up and saw a foil heart: two inches long, shimmering like sixth grade unicorn stickers. If I wrote fiction, I’d never tell this story—the coincidence is too easy—but it is the truth.

“Thank you,” I said quietly and walked home.

I checked my email a few hours later and found that the man in New York had written to me, suggesting a fancy steakhouse where he’d like us to dine when I returned.

First, I felt elated. Then I felt sick. If I let myself believe that surrendering to some higher power led me to the silver heart on the ground, did that mean that the email must also mean something? I didn’t want to connect love to just one person, especially one who had already ended things. But I was afraid also that if this coincidence was meaningless, then they all were.

*

On the third to last day of my residency, all the residency fellows visited the cathedral. As we waited outside for our guide, I noticed the playwright had been crying—the previous night, he’d found out his boyfriend had cheated on him. Seeing his wet eyes opened something up inside me.

I should give him my silver heart, I thought. Maybe he’d feel better.

I’d carried it with me, stowed in my sunglasses case so it wouldn’t crease or lose its shine.

Then I quashed the impulse. Well-versed in folklore, I know bad things happen to people who lose their good luck charms.

But as we went inside, I put my sunglasses away and the silver heart fluttered in the case, as if to say: You shouldn’t keep me.

We stood together in the nave where the famous floor stretches out, a 50-foot mosaic ending at the altar: the Tree of Life among whose branches biblical stories are shown. Adam and Eve driven out of the garden. Cain and Abel. The construction of Noah’s Ark. The twelve months revolved in a series of circles; Heaven and Hell unscrolled beneath our feet.

I turned to my friend.

I told him about how sad I felt in New York after my romance ended, about the novena to Saint Anthony where I’d been praying for love, and about finding this heart on the sand after I finally told the universe: I’m powerless. I surrender.

“It made me feel better,” I said, “It seemed special. If you want, it’s yours.”

I was hedging my bets. I wanted to be generous by offering, but also for him to say no.

Oh,” he said, “Oh, Kate. Thank you. Yes.”

I handed him the heart and he put it away safe in his breast pocket. Then we hugged, his arms a tight bracelet around my back. I could feel both his heart beating and the way his body shook with suppressed tears. It felt almost as if he was coming apart around me.

“I’m so sorry,” I told him, and I meant it, glad I gave my heart away.

*

St. Anthony’s feast day arrived and my roommate and I attended together. The church was close to the ocean: white-washed as beach sand inside with high vaulting ceilings, warm with the close press of people and salt-thick air. I didn’t take Communion, but I tossed a few euros in the offering basket to say Thank you both to St. Anthony and Elegguá.

After mass, St. Anthony’s statue was brought outside. Four men hoisted the litter on their shoulders to carry it through the streets.

A brass band and congregants lined up behind the statue. I hadn’t planned on walking, I thought we’d just watch from the street, but when the music started up it felt natural to join the other worshippers, as if I belonged there.

We walked up hills and then down hills, take winding cobblestoned corridors past the castle and then towards the sea. We marched slowly as people in balconies peered down, crossed themselves, and waved. Those who were eating al fresco on their terraces toasted us with glasses of wine. We smiled back. The horns played sonorous golden sounds.

*

On the last full day of my residency, I finished my novena; all that was left were the occasional prayers, the ones recited outside of a ritualized daily cycle. These prayers ask the saint to grant faith and the restoration of “peace and tranquility of mind.”

That night, at our farewell dinner, musicians played pizzica. One of the painters asked me to dance and then all our friends joined us. From above, we must have looked like the patterns inside a kaleidoscope: our clothes bright as stained glass, everyone laughing as we swirled back and forth in shifting partnerships, trying to replicate the traditional dance’s intricate steps.

White wine chilled in ice buckets on the table. A waiter passed a huge platter of strawberries around, each one red like a pinup girl’s pursed lips, sweet as the kind of desire pinup girls promise—which is to say, fulfilled.

I have been so lucky.

*

When I returned to New York, the man from before I left made plans to see me. Two days before our reservation, he emailed to say he was dating someone new and hoped to introduce me to her at our dinner. I replied with congratulations and went out for paella with my friends instead. I was sad for a few days, but not devastated. It hurt to think of him with someone else, but less than I thought it would.

The rest of that summer, I edited poems for my students. I hiked across an old train trestle with a friend and beside the Hudson alone one evening—the river a long blue scarf covered in golden spangles. I purchased strands of currents at the farmers’ market that glowed crystal red as alien planets in sci-fi movies. I cooked mussels for the first time—their shells lapis ovals in the moonstone-cloudy broth. When I unearthed my violin from its case for the first time in months to practice, each long note resonated: the scales like a series of rooms in a wooden chapel shimmering with stained glass.    

I didn’t consider reciting the novena again, but on many days, in moments under the shower or half-asleep on the subway going to work, I found myself mouthing what could be a prayer—nothing ornate or ritualized, but just silently saying to someone or something: Thank you. I know I’m okay.

I went on a few dates: one with a minor Goth rock star, one at a French restaurant candle-lit dim as an undersea cavern, one with a lawyer who kissed me on the forehead after we met for coffee and who I never called back. Then I simply took a break from dating. Somehow the long sharp ache of loneliness had passed and, although I still hoped to fall in love, I felt content with my life.

There was a heat wave the next summer and when it finally broke, the streets crowded with people emerging from their air-conditioned caves—teenagers smoking cigarettes and flirting, couples laden with grocery bags, parents pushing strollers, old people walking small dogs fluffy as milkweed.

Returning to my apartment, I ran into a man I’d gone to graduate school with. He stood in front of the bar on my corner.

Although we hadn’t spoken much during our MFA program, now we traded stories about former classmates and long ago escapades, and soon found we shared a love for inventing new recipes with whatever herbs might be in season, how we both wandered to the East River to stare at the water’s endless blue whenever we felt sad, that our dead dogs visited us in our dreams.

At one point, he exclaimed “I can’t believe you’re single!” and when he confided that a woman he’d been dating had recently ended things, I made an impassioned speech promising him he’d find the right relationship soon.

I didn’t mean with me. It didn’t occur to me to imagine us together—I liked the coincidence of running into him and enjoyed our conversation, but I hadn’t felt any eureka moment as we spoke. I thought perhaps we might become friends. We exchanged numbers and two weeks later he joined me for an evening on a boat moored on the Hudson. Early that evening, one of my friends pulled me aside and asked if he and I were dating—she thought him handsome and wanted to know if I’d already staked a claim. Without thinking twice, I told her that she should flirt with him—that he seemed kind and I knew he was single.  

But as the evening progressed, he only spoke to me and something seemed to grow between us—tender and humming as if the air between our bodies was full of the soft susurration of bees. As the sun set low and golden, he told me that in graduate school, he’d always thought I was beautiful and interesting, but that whenever he’d tried to talk to me, I’d turned away.

That evening I turned towards him. Later that night, our arms just almost touching as we leaned against the boat’s wooden railing to stare at the illuminated city bright under Manhattan’s starless sky, I felt afraid. Not of him, but of being attached. For all my sorrows and complaints over the years, a part of me had always loved being single: unbeholden to anybody, free--the dishes piled up in the sink dirtied only by me, the hours unspooling each day mine alone to fill however I wanted.

We left the boat so late that the trains to New Jersey, where he lived, ran only sporadically and it would have taken hours for him to get back home. I asked if he wanted to sleep on my couch. Later that night, we kissed for the first time. The next morning, as we shared sweet dark cherries in my living room, our conversation and our kisses felt simultaneously new and familiar, like stepping off the plane in a foreign country where I already knew the language.

Two and a half years later it still surprises me how easily our relationship could have never happened. If I’d lingered on my walk home or if he’d stayed for one round more with his friends at that corner bar, we wouldn’t have crossed paths. We might have missed each other by seconds.

Sometimes it scares me that the life we’re building together could just as easily not exist. But occasionally the coincidences do add up, and the luck dealt out by some saint or a god or the laws of chance or by utter random happenstance can combine the cards in your favor.

 

 


Kate Angus is the author of So Late to the Party (Negative Capability Press, 2016), the founding editor of Augury Books, and the Chair of the Advisory Board for the Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities at Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in various places, including The Atlantic online, the Washington Post, The Awl, Verse Daily, Best New Poets 2010Best New Poets 2014, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, The Academy of American Poets’ “Poem a Day” newsletter and website, and Tin House’s “Open Bar.” More information about Kate can be found at www.kateangus.org

 


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.