sunday scaries2022-10-10 giovannisgroom
I give myself an hour and fifteen minutes to get from Crown Heights to the Upper East Side, even though it really should only take forty-five. It’s Sunday, and I’ve decided to try going to church again. I’ve been audiobooking Alexander Chee’s memoir, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” I want to write creatively more. I need to write my Smith application essays. Chee writes about things like how traumatized memoir writers often write about the present in the past tense and the past in the present tense, and how in his twenties he became somewhat by accident the director of the hospitality committee at the All Souls Unitarian church on the Upper East Side. I’m in my twenties and open to accidents, so I decide to go the All Souls Sunday service. Alex and Eliana are coming, too. And Eliana’s sister Vic, who is now also her 11-year-old roommate. Eliana texts saying she put on her most conservative dress, and I send back a selfie of me waiting for the A train. The Nostrand platform sign is painted in bold black letters on the white tiled wall behind me. “NO RAN” it reads behind me, my head blocking the ‘st’, the angle of my bent arm cropping out the ‘d.’ I am wearing a corduroy + denim outfit that makes me look both like a Brooklyn lesbian and a Montana lesbian, Talia later tells me. “Church girls acting loose,” I sing out to Beyoncé. The C train acts like it’s stuck in Sunday church traffic, stopping between every station. I am sitting, nestled in between bodies on a packed long bench. In my ears, Chee is talking about being sexual assaulted as a kid in his youth choir. “I was not strong,” he said. “Or if I was, it was the adrenaline of the wounded. I was really only broken, moving through the landscape as if I were not, and taking all my pride in believing I was passing as whole.” I think about whether I appear whole to strangers on the subway, or with the pixeled brevity of a seated silhouette seen through the window of a slow passing C train. I think about why I’ll write this is the present tense. A man crosses my line of vision, changing to a seat further down the subway car. I can’t hear anything because of Chee and my effective noise-cancelling AirPods, but I notice a black woman standing in front of the man’s abandoned seat. The woman looks alarmed and appears to be yelling, so I pause the audiobook. She says through tears that she can’t believe we are all ignoring her and how impossible it feels to ask for money or support if she can’t even get someone to acknowledge that she’s screaming in the subway car. She screams so viscerally, which I hear this time. At the next stop, she gets out. At the stop after that, I do, too. It’s somehow been over an hour and fifteen minutes. — — — The Upper East Side is peaceful today. Talia will later call it a dystopia, how the neighborhood can act so pristine and removed from the heartbeat of the city. The sun feels like it’s closer to the concrete here than in Brooklyn, and the people are walking slow. The church is a block from the subway stop, and as I approach, I feel it is shocking in its opulence and terrifying in its silence. It does feel like an accident that I arrived here. Robert, according to his name tag, is the usher, a queer presenting probably mid-thirty-year-old man in a cream-colored sweater I wish I owned. He gives me the bulletin and compliments my lesbian look. I say the same about his sweater. I take a seat, Eliana comes in shortly after, then Alex and Vic. We are four of the thirty people in a building that could hold 500. Our pew is empty, but we nestle together the four of us. The continued silence makes us squeeze even closer together. I think about how the subway car fit more 30 people and the echoes of a scream. The choir’s opening hymn reverberates through the empty space between the bodies the stained glass windows, and the high pointed ceiling fixtures. The choir sounds professionally trained, and I realize I don’t even know the language. I used to go to the All Souls Unitarian church in DC. Claudia and I lived a few blocks away, and if we both woke up in our beds on a Sunday morning, we’d walk the few blocks to hear a PhD student give a sermon on the liberation of black women resting or the meditation of baking bread not for profit but for yourself. It felt so relatable and comfortable I even brought a date with me to a service once. I hoped NYC would have a similar congregation. Wasn’t everything a little better in NYC, anyway? Unitarian service isn’t supposed to feel decisively Christian. It isn’t a missionary religion, and there is no deity. Missionary religion to me feels so contradictory to honest spirituality, which is why I give Unitarian services a chance. During the first hymn, we are asked to repeat the collective phrase, “may we carry forward the intention of our covenant, the audacity of our covenant, the promise of our covenant.” For the sermon, a white woman tells us about how a black woman told her one day that she would believe in faith if the white woman became her preacher; and how the white woman took the hands of the black woman and promised her she would study and work as hard as she could to become a preacher; and how the white woman is standing here today telling us how that black woman changed her life. The white woman is screaming into the microphone, and it seems like everyone but us is acknowledging her every word. A donation basket is passed around. $20 bills fall in like feathers. On our way out, I hear Robert ask Eliana how she liked it, and she says it had her “thinking some things.” He laughs, and says he is glad she came and tried it. Later, sitting in the park, Eliana says we should have asked Robert to come with us. If us eating bagels in Central Park is a religion, I would be okay with us being missionaries to Robert. He could be the director of the hospitality committee. — — I have some alone time in the park before meeting up with Talia and Alex for dinner. I sit on a sun-lit park bench next to a beautiful pond that’s probably famous and I should know the name of. My favorite season is fall and leaves are criss-crossing through the fractals of light making the blue sky glisten, but I can’t shake that I feel gutturally unsettled. I try to figure out if it’s because of last night’s Negronis, or reading about Chee’s sexual trauma and remembering my own, or the Sunday scaries even though I don’t even work tomorrow. I remind myself it is usually a path to nowhere trying to figure out what makes the anxious pit in my stomach swell like the everything bagel I just ate. I can feel the pit today quite clearly, though. It feels like $20 bills celebrating a white woman taking the hands of a black woman and feeling whole, while a black woman thirty feet below moves slowly through the NYC landscape, disappearing with every stop. “The audacity of the covenant,” I repeat out loud. Maybe the Sunday scaries have more to do with a spiritual existentialism that is heightened on the Christian Sabbath. A reminder of how off the promise of religion has been in my life, in the lives of others. I get a call from Talia, who is my weekend Dom, a friendship kink we are practicing. She tells me where to meet her and at what time. I say “thank you, Dom Daddy,” and hang up, walking west to leave the park. I put Chee back in my ears: “What is the point even of writing, if this can happen?” — If I could ask Alexander Chee a question, I would want to know if he sang in the All Soul’s choir as an adult, after what he experienced in his youth choir. I would want to know if we can turn our screams into music.