Sitting at the kitchen table of our tiny Manhattan apartment, I stared at my untouched dinner. The smell made me gag, and the heat and humidity of the August evening only made things worse. Waves upon wave of nausea washed over me.
With paper napkin in hand, I wiped the sweat from my neck and brow. After taking a long drink of iced tea, I traced a droplet winding its way down the side of the glass.
My roommate, Derek, sat next to me. He began telling his favorite story--again. But I tuned him out.
Instead, I focussed on the stream of First Avenue traffic honking three floors down.
The familiar cacophony of other striving artists flooded my senses: voices singing scales, someone rehearsing lines, and another wailing on a saxophone across the hall. Each carried me deeper into a surreal state.
My roommate's voice wafted back to me from the hodgepodge of local color. Oh, no, here it comes.
The crescendo of his usual overdone finale irritated me. "So, I just put my pride behind me, and I prayed," he informed me with conviction.
And with a gigantic smile and a too gleamy gleam in his eye, he continued. "And my life changed forever."
Oh, please. How quaint. Doesn't Derek understand? This is 1980, and God, the Almighty Father, is dead. He didn't mean the God who lives in all things. Instead, he believed in a Lord who measured human virtues, rewarding the sanctimonious and sending the rest of us to Hell.
We got to know each other in Kaplan, a small Cajun town in Southwest Louisiana. Our families were close, so I thought of him as a cousin. We both journeyed to the Big Apple to study acting and dance at H.B. Studios in the West Village.
In the past, I listened out of kindness, but this time, I said, "I'm going to bed." His Lord-prattling made me want to escape. "I'm going to lie down."
"You all right?
"Yeah. Just tired," I lied.
Once I closed the door, the darkness comforted me as I stretched out on the bed. Dark notions haunted me as I tried to think, but I only ended up with hot tears streaming down my face. Curled up in a ball, I'm too young to be giving up on life. What am I doing here? Why was I born?
Relentlessly, I sifted through the litany of why life sucked. A few months before, I had divorced my alcoholic husband and still suffered from the fallout. Divorce was rare in 1978.
Vietnam killed 50,000 peers. One, a soft-hearted high school friend who stuttered when he asked me to the prom. Also, at the time, most women endured unfair treatment in matrimony and careers. So, I had convinced myself I would never get a fair shake. James Brown's words rang true. This is a man's world.
The door opened, and light from the kitchen startled me. Derek's silhouette loomed. "Listen," he blurted. "What do you have to lose? You can either go on like this or try something different."
A sheepish grin spread across his face. "Sorry, I got carried away, I guess." Taking a seat beside me, he handed me a tissue. This time he spoke in a soft voice. "Seriously, Connie, what do you have to lose?"
His sincerity and the affection in his voice melted my petrified heart. Besides, I hungered for deliverance. "Okay, I'll try."
Alone in the darkness, I stared at the ceiling. John Lennon's words came to mind: God is a concept by which we can measure our pain. However, Bob Dylan sang Gotta Serve Somebody. Which way to go? Thoughts careened and crashed. Conflicted and sorry I agreed to the prayer, I turned toward the wall again.
Because of the promise I made and the need for relief, I decided to probe wholeheartedly. A few times, I opened my mouth to begin, but shut it, thinking myself a hypocrite. If I would pray, it must be an honest plea. In time, I came up with an appeal I could live with: All right, God, if you do exist, help me.
The next morning, when I entered the kitchen, Derek poked his head into the fridge.
"Morning," I grumbled.
Well, how did it go? Any luck?"
The agony I lived with never let up, but I had hoped the attempt would succeed. At that point, I would have tried anything. No matter how foreign. Derek reached for a small leaflet on the bulletin board next to the door. "Momma sent this to me. You might want to think about this."
He laid the small pamphlet entitled Novena Never Known to Fail in front of me. I recognized it as a prayer Cajun ladies said back home in Louisiana. "Oh no," I groaned.
"A lot of people I know have had success with this," he assured me. "You make nine copies of it and place one per day in a church. That's all it is."
"I don't know about this."
"Why not make an effort?" Our eyes met. "If you try this one last thing, I'll leave you alone."
With head cocked to one side, I glared at him. "Oh, yeah?"
He made the Sign of the Cross. "Promise."
"Okay, whatever." I went to the bedroom to dress.
I penned nine copies, and later that day, plodded the four blocks down First Avenue to 87th Street. I remembered seeing a Catholic I had not been in a place of worship since marrying in 1968.
When I reached the enormous wooden portals, I hesitated. The cold air from inside streamed through the bottom of the doors and drifted over my sandaled feet. Because of the promise I gave to Derek, I persisted. So, applying all the mental and physical strength I could muster, I squeezed in.
The darkened cavern of the cathedral reminded me of my youth when I was a practicing Catholic. High ceilings, silence, statues, and water fonts. The sound of kneelers dropping and raising with each undulation of the Mass's rituals echoed from the past.
Nothing struck me as unique. I guess if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.
The last bench stood only a few feet away. Intending to drop the copy and run, I advanced. Events turned out otherwise, though. After taking a step or two toward the back pew, an unknown fragrance encircled me. Am I imagining this? Glancing around looking for incense, flowers, or other possible sources rendered nothing. The gentle, yet beguiling, aroma captivated me. Transfixed, I lost track of time. When I came out of the trance, I hobbled to the wooden seat and left the copy, but now I didn't want to leave. All right God, if you exist, help me. What I experienced was something more significant than religion. This bouquet contained a presence.
Padre Pio, the stigmatist, emitted a mysterious heavenly scent. Not a too sweet kind that engulfs and intrudes. This was mellow and loving. Yes, a scent can be loving. The phenomenon has different names, but the one I knew about was a Gift of the Holy Spirit.
Filled with remorse, I sank to the kneeler, as I realized how much I had always been loved. I could not be separated from this love if I tried. Simple yet profound. Cleansing teardrops healed me. The more I cried, the more I released, the more I healed.
Once purged, I leaned back and mused about the feeble supplication of the night before. All right, God, if you do exist, help me. With a wistful smile, I grinned at the ineptness of my plea. But, considering the results, I guess it was good enough.