Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Last Year, not long before I left New York, I went to Queens to see the Virgin Mary. I went with a girl named Catherine, whom I knew only slightly, though I saw her around all the time; we had a lot of friends in common. I guess you could say Catherine and I were both part of a particular group — queer girls in their early twenties, living in New York City. We all lived four or five to an apartment in Queens or Brooklyn or Washington Heights. Some of us were students at Hunter College, while the rest worked downtown as couriers or waitresses or in other rent-paying jobs. Catherine worked as a stripper on the weekends, and during the week she was the part-time, underpaid assistant to a critically acclaimed photographer with a studio in SoHo. Catherine was a photographer herself, but I’d never seen any of her work.
While living in New York, I discovered that it is not one big city, but many small cities piled on top of each other, overlapping and colliding all the time. Some of the smaller cities are defined by physical borders, but most aren’t. For instance, I lived in a queer-girl province whose borders were marked by coffee shops, clothing, music, nightclubs, and the certain way you met another girl’s eyes and held them, a small, erotic, and powerful gesture, letting her know that you knew who she was, what she was. These were the perimeters of our world. Our city overlapped with other cities, of course, and many people existed within several cities at once. We all shared the streets, neighborhoods, and buildings of New York. Nevertheless, I was certain that my world was clearly defined, its boundaries ephemeral and secret, yet reliable and firm. Maybe that’s why I loved living in New York: I felt as though unimaginable possibilities lay just beneath the surface of the city. If I learned the cues, secrets, and passwords, I could move between worlds.
A lot of girls in my circle went to hear bands play in an old Bronx warehouse known as the Firetrap. I used to see Catherine there all the time. She was friends with a couple of girls I knew, and for a while had dated one of my friends. Catherine had also kissed my girlfriend once, before I’d met either of them. They were playing spin the bottle at a party. I thought Catherine was very beautiful, and I was in awe of the fact that she worked as a stripper. I had never known anyone who did sex work, but I’d read a lot of feminist theory in college, so I knew it was supposed to be subversive.
One night, after a show at the Firetrap, Catherine and I were chatting, and she mentioned that she’d just moved to Brooklyn, where I lived. We were practically neighbors; she was the first stop on the N line after the N/R split, and I was the first stop on the R. That night, we took the train home together and said good night when we transferred at Fifty-ninth Street.
After that, I frequently saw Catherine on the train. One day, I noticed that she wore a medal of Mary around her neck, and I asked her about it.
She was embarrassed. “Well, I’m not Catholic. . . . I mean, I grew up Catholic, and my mother — my family — is very religious. But it’s just . . . It’s like a charm. It keeps me safe. That’s all, really.”
I nodded. “I know what you mean.”
“Are you Catholic, too?”
“Kind of,” I said. “I mean, I was, but I’m not now.”
She understood. And that was the end of that.
Sometime later, I read in the paper that the Virgin Mary had been appearing in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, and I knew I had to go. Apparently, a group of the faithful gathered there on feast days to wait for the Madonna to appear with messages for the world. I had never been a person of great faith, but I’d often wished I were, and I half imagined that it might just happen to me someday, in a violent and mystical way. I wanted a vision like Saint Bernadette or ecstasies like Saint Theresa. I didn’t really expect to see Mary, of course — the Virgin Mother of God wouldn’t really appear in Queens — but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what sort of people went to the park to wait for her?
I was afraid to go alone, though, and I knew none of my friends would want to come along. I needed someone who would be respectful and interested, but not a complete nut. Then I thought of Catherine.
I called and sheepishly asked if she wanted to go with me. She hesitated, then said yes. We decided to go the following Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
As we were hanging up, Catherine said, “Wait! . . . What if she does appear?” She giggled, a little embarrassed. “I mean, if she did — what would I say?”
I decided then that I’d invited the right person.
Saturday was a wet and miserable day. Catherine met me at my apartment, because we didn’t want to have to wait for each other on the Fifty-ninth Street platform. We walked to the subway, sleepy but excited in the early-morning rain. It was a fall day, but it smelled like winter, and the rain made everything look glossy and fresh and clean, hardly like Brooklyn at all. We went down into the subway and didn’t come out from underground until an hour and a half later, when the Number 7 train emerged into the open air along the edge of Manhattan, heading east. I’d been tired in the dark tunnels, but as we rode over the river, surrounded by sky and rain, I felt my excitement returning. It seemed like we were almost there, even though we were still some distance away.
The fluorescent light on the train seemed cold, but warmer than the grayness outside. Catherine was wearing bright primary colors — a yellow jacket and a red baseball cap — like a little kid on a summer day. We were too tired to talk much, both preoccupied with our own thoughts. I was wondering what this trip meant to me and why the hell I was going anyway. At least, I figured I would have a funny story to tell later. I assumed Catherine was having similar thoughts.
While I was thinking, I’d been admiring Catherine. She was tall and stunning, with short brown hair, hazel eyes, and pale, freckled skin. I kind of had a crush on her, a small one. I was loyal to my girlfriend, but recently, as Catherine and I had become better acquainted from seeing each other on the train, I’d begun flirting with her. I had gotten in the habit of making small, affectionate gestures: tucking her hair behind her ear, resting a hand on her shoulder, touching her leg for emphasis as I talked — the old tricks of any flirtatious girl. As we rode to see Mary, I did these things again, this time under the guise of excitement and nervousness.
But flirting is complicated between girls. I mean, girls do help maintain each other’s appearance in small and gentle ways. It’s a natural thing, affectionate but not automatically romantic. Now, if I’d been straight and on that train with a boy, and I’d pushed myself forward slightly to whisper into his ear, maybe brushed his ear with my lips, just a little, we both would have known it wasn’t by accident. And if I’d sweetly reached up to tuck his hair behind his ear, it would have been a suggestive caress, not just a simple gesture of friendship. But between girls, it’s different. And that is where the confusion begins.
But I knew my crush on Catherine was idle and innocent, not really much of a crush at all. I think I was simply intrigued by her; I wanted so badly to learn more about her, to understand her and be her friend, that my feelings overflowed into something intense and romantic. At that time in my life, living in New York, I was full of an enormous affection, a love too big and abstract to be contained. I was just one big crush waiting to happen. Some days I had crushes on all my friends, on every cute boy who came into the coffee shop where I worked, on the lovely old ladies I saw on the train. I was able to transform pity, fascination, or casual interest into an enormous love. Maybe it was just my life then: I was twenty-one and happy and living in Brooklyn, in a fabulously cheap apartment with shining wood floors and big windows. I had a sweetheart and a kitten and a nice job with good tips. I was aware of how much I had: I had all this time; I had a whole life. I was full of hope and promise, and it got transformed into love — for everyone and everything.
When Catherine and I finally got off the train near Flushing Meadows Park, where Mary was supposed to appear, we adjusted ourselves in an attempt to look a little more like the sort of young women who would be coming to witness the Virgin. It wasn’t easy: We were dressed in our regular baggy pants, belted low on our hips. I was wearing sneakers, and Catherine wore clunky oxfords. Neither of us had on makeup. My hair was so short it hardly needed the clip I’d stuck in for a feminine touch. Her hair barely stayed behind her ears when she pushed it there. We zipped up our jackets against the weather. Catherine stuck her baseball cap in her pocket, and her soft brown hair got darker and heavier in the rain. When she leaned forward, her bangs fell into her eyes and curled wetly on her forehead. I shoved my hands into my pockets and forced them to stay there.
Catherine’s arms swung casually at her sides. She was graceful and sexy, and at the same time ungainly and sweetly awkward, like a boy I might have had a crush on in the seventh grade. I wanted to grab her hand and lace my fingers into hers, but we were on our way to see the Virgin, who almost certainly would not approve — at least, not this Virgin, the one in this park, visiting this particular group of Catholics. The article I’d read in the paper said they were hard-core conservatives, probably convinced the world had been going to hell ever since the Bible was translated out of Latin.
But even if we hadn’t been on our way to see Mary, even if I hadn’t been self-conscious that day about being queer, I still wouldn’t have reached for Catherine’s hand. Because I was already in love with another girl. Sometimes I thought about how easy it would be to ruin it all. I knew that people ruined their lives all the time, that I could do it myself at any moment. But I wanted to keep my life happy, simple, and perfect, the way it was. I was in love with a gorgeous, matter-of-fact girl with warm hands and dark eyes and a soft body. I was in love with a girl who washed my hair for me and sang me songs while we did the dishes together. Right then, my girl was still in Brooklyn, asleep in the bed we shared. She didn’t want to stand in a park in the rain, waiting for Mary to appear in the clouds. For one thing, she was Jewish. But even if she hadn’t been, she had absolutely no desire, she’d said, to be in such close proximity to a bunch of fucked-up fundamentalists.
By the time Catherine and I reached the park, we were soaking wet. We weren’t sure where to go. The park seemed enormous, and we didn’t see any praying people or miraculous rays of sun. All we could see were a few trees and, farther away, the highway and Shea Stadium. The sky was dark, and it was pouring rain. We stood there for a minute, undecided.
“Should we just look up?” Catherine said.
I couldn’t tell if she was serious. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess we could do that.”
We looked up. I didn’t see anything. Catherine scanned the sky carefully, and I began to think that she was much more optimistic than I was. Now that we were at the park, my fantasies of ecstasy and conversion seemed medieval and childish. I was damp and cold, and I felt stupid for having gotten up early on my day off and taken a two-hour subway ride only to stand in a park in the rain. I’d had a small glimmer of hope to begin with, but it was dwindling fast. What sort of people, I wondered, spent their free time faithfully praying and waiting for miracles?
“We should find the others,” Catherine said.
I nodded, wondering if she might, in some hidden part of her, be like those people. No, I told myself. She wasn’t one of them; she was like me.
We set out across the park, tromping through the mud. Before long, my socks and the cuffs of my pants were soaking wet. I began to shiver. Finally, we heard voices, lots of them, speaking in rhythm. We came over a little hill and saw about a hundred people walking in two concentric circles and reciting the rosary. The men, dressed all in gray, were walking clockwise, and the women, dressed in blue, walked counterclockwise. It looked as though they were about to choose partners and start to waltz.
They were a nondescript group, mostly white, of a variety of ages — not much to look at, really. Still, I was a little spooked to see them all chanting like that and dressed alike. I knew the prayers from when I was little and would go to church with my grandmother, but the words sounded different outdoors, chanted by so many people in an intense, cheerless monotone, flattened by the sound of the rain. Or perhaps the Hail Mary always sounded like this, and I simply remembered it differently. When I was a little girl, I had loved going to church with my grandmother, dressing up and sitting on the pew next to her, giving the responses and singing the hymns. That was familiar, but this was foreign, although the words were unchanged.
We stood on the edge of the hill through four Hail Marys and an Our Father. Then Catherine whispered, “Are we staying?” She looked uncomfortable. I felt like a spy, an emissary of Satan secretly checking out God’s chosen people. I tried to feel detached, like an anthropologist studying the natives of another land. In spite of myself, I wished I had worn a dress.
“We’re dressed wrong,” I whispered.
“It shouldn’t matter,” Catherine said, but we both knew it did. I had thought that morning about what to wear and, in a fit of self-righteous defiance, had decided to dress just as I always did. Now I almost regretted that decision. We were far from our home territory. Here, we didn’t look tough or sexy; we looked aberrant and pathetic. If the chanting people had known who we really were, they would have made us leave, or prayed for us, or both.
Catherine and I hovered there on the hill, keeping our distance. The rain began falling even harder, and lightning flashed apocalyptically in the sky. After a few more Hail Marys, there was a slight commotion below us. All at once, the blue and gray circles parted to reveal a woman standing alone in the center, dressed in blue, like the others. The crowd fell silent and formed a reverent semicircle to our right. The woman stood at our left, facing them. Her white hair streamed down her back, and her hands were raised to the sky.
“Is that her?” Catherine whispered.
I had been wondering the same thing. Of course, it wasn’t. We giggled nervously.
Suddenly, the crowd began to murmur, and the air was filled with flashing lights. It wasn’t lightning. I was startled, and for an instant I felt deeply reverent — until I realized that people were taking flash photographs of the sky.
“Did you bring your camera?” I whispered.
Catherine shook her head.
The woman standing apart from the others began to speak. We moved halfway down the hill, to hear her better.
She was old, perhaps in her nineties, and soaking wet like everyone else; her dress, no doubt blue when dry, had darkened to navy and clung to her body. But while everyone else looked wet and uncomfortable, she looked dramatic and holy, like a priestess or a sorceress — except for the rosaries in each hand and the large cross around her neck.
“Mary is here,” the woman said breathlessly in a high voice.
I moved closer to Catherine, linking my arm through hers. I didn’t care what it looked like; I was nervous and glad Catherine was there with me. I was especially glad that she was a lapsed Catholic, and queer, too. She squeezed my arm.
The woman repeated, louder: “Mary is here!” The flashbulbs popped faster, lighting the sky and the field. The effect was a little unearthly, but I didn’t see anything worth taking a picture of. I felt annoyed and a little scared. I realized I didn’t want to be part of this; these people didn’t want me here, and I didn’t want to be here. I don’t know what I had expected — perhaps something friendlier, or at least less intimidating, easier to ridicule. This group felt very closed off, righteous, and frightening. They would have made good Crusaders, or Inquisitors, I thought. I considered whispering my observation to Catherine, but she was listening intently, and I didn’t want to interrupt.
“She has a message!” said the woman. “A message for the sinners!”
The crowd grew silent, and the flashbulbs ceased, for the most part. Catherine stiffened slightly, and I moved closer to her, pressing up against her.
“Mary loves you all!” the woman said in a loud, flat voice. “You are all sinners!”
The crowd shook slightly, murmuring agreement, as if they were one body.
“She will intervene with Christ for you, her children.” The woman was breathing irregularly, gasping as though she were ill. She looked frail and ancient, yet still charismatic and terrifying. I could see how people might have worshiped her.
“Do not turn from Mary,” the woman said. “Pray to her daily. Your prayers to Mary are all that keep you safe from hell. Your repentance and your love for the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ is all that will protect you on the Day of Judgment soon to come.” She paused, panting slightly. Her arms wobbled in the air as though they might fall, but her face remained turned up to the rain and bore a look of ecstasy. “Wait,” she said softly. “There is more.”
We waited. Several minutes passed. The crowd was silent, the flashbulbs intermittent. Catherine and I leaned tightly against each other, our arms linked, both of us drenched and shivering. The old woman hovered there as though she were a flame. She believed she was standing in the presence of Mary — I was convinced of that. But I didn’t know if she really was. If Mary was there, then wasn’t I standing in her presence, too? It made my head hurt to think about it. All I knew for sure was that I couldn’t see what this woman saw, whatever it was. I was frustrated, but I reminded myself that this was just what I had expected.
Catherine was staring straight ahead, her eyes slightly unfocused, her face a mask. I wondered if she wore that same mask when she was stripping, or if, instead, she tried to look excited, aroused by what she was doing. I wondered if she had become adept at keeping her true feelings hidden. I realized I didn’t know her at all, and I had no idea what she was thinking right now — or seeing. It seemed as though Catherine had been absorbed into the crowd and I was standing there alone.
As we stood silently waiting for the priestess to finish delivering Mary’s message, a woman in the crowd fell and began writhing on the ground and singing in a high, shrill voice, “Praised be the Lord! Praised be his name! I am his, I am his!” A man knelt next to her, holding her body so that she wouldn’t hurt herself in her ecstasy.
Another woman fell. “Hail the Queen of Heaven!” she screamed. “I see you, Mary! I see you!”
“Where?” someone asked her.
“There,” she said, pointing to the sky above Catherine and me. All heads turned in our direction, and the flashbulbs fired again. I looked straight up and searched the clouds, but I saw nothing. Catherine did not move. She didn’t even raise her eyes. Then, as if on cue, we all grew silent and turned back to the ancient woman.
“Mary loves you all,” she said. “Mary loves each one who loves her. Repent in your hearts. Turn away from evil. Turn toward God.” Her arms were still held high, her fingers wiggled, and she swayed silently for another long moment, as if listening. I wanted to hear what she heard, but my ears were filled by the sound of the rain and Catherine’s quick, shallow breathing.
“Give your intentions now,” the woman said to the crowd. “Mary will hear your prayers. Ask, and you shall receive.”
This was what the crowd had been waiting for. Many voices spoke at once. I heard names, “my mother,” “my husband,” “my son,” “my baby.” People were waving photographs and items of clothing, and a few older women were sobbing loudly. I closed my eyes and pretended I could see Mary behind my eyelids. If I had true faith, I realized, I’d be able to see Mary anywhere; I wouldn’t have to go to a park in Queens.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a flash of light, and my heart rose. But then I heard the thunder, and I knew it was only lightning. I felt the rain on my face, monotonous and cold. The voices shouting out prayers for their loved ones quieted to a trickle. “For the unborn babies,” someone said. Then, silence. “For my grandmother,” another voice said. There was a longer silence.
I felt Catherine shiver. She shook off my hand on her arm and stood alone looking serious and blank, like a statue, her head held high. Then she said clearly, “For my sins. Forgive me for my sins.”
I stared at her in shock, feeling betrayed. What did she mean, forgive her sins? What sins? Did she believe this woman had the authority to forgive them? Or did Catherine see something I didn’t? I was bewildered and afraid I was going to cry, although I couldn’t have explained why.
“For your sins,” echoed the old woman approvingly. “Repent, and God will forgive you.” Then she said, “Mary hears your prayers. Now she will go.” The cameras came out again, and the sky was filled with light. I looked up. The rain fell into my eyes.
“There she is!” someone yelled.
“I see her!”
“I love you, Mary!”
Catherine stood rigidly next to me, staring straight at the mystic. Suddenly, she broke away and ran back up the hill, across the field, back toward the subway station.
I stood there, stunned for a minute, then took off after her. “Catherine!” I yelled, but she didn’t stop, or even slow down. She ran much faster than I did.
I chased her all the way across the park. She got to the subway station far ahead of me and ran up the stairs to the elevated platform. I made it to the foot of the stairs, but had to stop there to rest. I could hardly breathe, and I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me all the way up. I was partly ashamed of my arrogance, thinking I had known why Catherine had chosen to come to Queens with me that day. But I was also angry with her. If she didn’t want me following her, then she could go on without me. Fuck her. What was this about, anyway? Her “sins.” Give me a break. I leaned against the railing, panting.
Just then, the sun broke through the clouds, filling the park with light. Even standing in the shadows underneath the platform, I had to blink my eyes. I wondered what the gray and blue Catholics in the park thought about the sun emerging like that, just like the picture on an inspirational poster. I wondered if the old woman was still standing there with her arms held high.
I heard a train rattling along the tracks above my head, but I couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. Looking up, I noticed a woman standing above me, at the head of the stairs. She was dressed all in blue, like the women in the park, and she wore a veil. The sun went behind the clouds again, but a certain strange light lingered around her. Except for the veil, she looked like an ordinary person. She wasn’t, though; she was perfect. I can’t describe it, other than to say that she was just exactly who she was. I felt silly thinking what I was thinking, like I had been brainwashed or something — but there was something about her that I could not explain. The constant din of traffic surrounded me, but my mind was filled with a pure, sweet ringing. I felt something radiating from the woman standing above me, something I didn’t understand — that woman in the park might have called it love, or grace. I stood there on the stairs, clutching the railing, feeling panicked. I shut my eyes tight.
“Catherine!” I yelled. I sounded as if I were being mugged. She must have heard me; she was waiting on the platform just above. But she didn’t respond. When I opened my eyes, the woman was gone.
As the train pulled out of the station, I began trudging up the stairs. I could tell by then that it wasn’t my train. It was heading farther into Queens. I needed to go back into Manhattan, and from there catch another train home to Brooklyn.
I went through the turnstile and saw Catherine sitting alone on a bench at the far end of the platform. I think she was crying. She didn’t look my way, didn’t acknowledge me at all, and I didn’t go over to her. I sat on a different bench, and when the train came, we got on different cars.
I rode through a couple of stops, but then got off. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. Besides, I figured Catherine was going home, and I didn’t want to have to avoid her through two transfers, both of us standing and waiting on subway platforms as though we were strangers. And I definitely didn’t want to talk to her. I didn’t want to hear about what she’d seen, or tell her about what I’d seen, either. I reminded myself that I was still mad at her. If she wanted to talk, she could come to me.
I went down the stairs from the platform and came out onto a busy street in Queens, in a neighborhood I didn’t know. All the shop signs were in Spanish — mercados and restaurantes and tiendas. I was the only white girl around. People were noticing me. The women were tight-lipped and disapproving, but at least they were subtle. A group of men outside a bodega fell silent as I walked by, then began to whistle. I thought again about how New York is made up of so many cities stacked and overlapping and crammed in together. I decided then that New York held too many cities for me, and I didn’t understand any of them, nor did I want to. I felt as though I had just been in a collision and had been thrown out of my place in the world.
I went into a panaderia and ordered coffee, in English. I didn’t know which was worse: to assume they spoke English, or to ask for coffee in my gringa Spanish. I felt as though I was doing something wrong simply by being there.
“Milk and sugar?” the woman behind the counter said impatiently.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, and paid her.
The bakery was long and narrow. Against the rear wall was a small shrine: a painting of Mary holding the baby Jesus, with a row of votive candles glittering in front of it. I found a seat in the front, by the windows. I’d had enough of the Virgin for one day. I drank my coffee and stared out at the street, still conscious of the painting at the back of the room, afraid to look at it, half fearing I’d see tears running down Mary’s painted cheeks.
When I opened the door to my apartment, my girlfriend was sitting at the kitchen table in her pajamas, drinking coffee and reading the paper. She got up and hugged me. I held her tight for a minute, inhaling the smell of her hair, placing my cold cheek against her warm one. She felt the same as before. She let go of me, I let go of her, and we sat down at the table.
“How was it?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Not much to see.” I told her about the people praying and reciting the rosary. The women in blue; the men in gray. The way they were marching around in circles. I knew that, no matter what I said, my girlfriend would think it bizarre. And it was. And I was weird myself just for going, for having wanted to see it.
“This old woman said some stuff about Mary loving us,” I told her. “You know, about repenting for our sins.” I paused, and my girlfriend opened her mouth to say something scornful, but I cut her off. “She said Mary was there,” I said firmly.
“Did you see her?” my girlfriend asked.
I hesitated. “Yeah,” I said, “actually, I did — not in the park, though. She was at the train station afterward.” I made it sound like I was joking, but I wasn’t sure if I was, really. “I guess she was waiting for the 7, too,” I added, deadpan. “But she didn’t get on my train. She must have been going the other way, deeper into Queens.”