There are many kinds of prayer. There is a kind of prayer that’s like breathing. There is a kind of prayer that’s like talking to your best friend all day long. There is a kind of prayer in the face of beauty that lifts your hands up because it would be harder to keep them down. There is a kind of prayer for meaning that is answered by the one who wrote the book of the whole world and your life, so that the prayer is like waking up and finding yourself a character in the most elaborate of novels, as you’ve always suspected: authored, written into a world of meaning, a world meaningful because it was created by someone. There is a kind of prayer that is only a listening, the soft voice of God saying your name, saying “come to me, come to me.” There is the prayer of failure, and the answering voice that forgives you. There is the death prayer, your whole body crying “why” and the voice again, telling you that you will see your loved one again in heaven.
And there is one more kind of prayer. In this one, you are tired of wrestling with God—with the problems of evil and suffering and the way that anyone who doesn’t believe in him is going to hell. You’re trying not to masturbate, or think about girls, or about having sex with multiple people at the same time, but you’re masturbating and thinking about girls and about having sex with multiple people at the same time anyway. So you give up. You nearly stop believing. You don’t even have the words to ask God to come back, or be real; you slip down into the region below speech. And then he comes. He fills the bedroom with a presence that is unmistakably outside of you, the peace that passes understanding, a love that in its boundlessness feels different in kind from human love.
When God came into my teenage or college bedroom in that way, unasked and unmistakable, the next morning I would wake up changed. I’d go out into the world and give away everything I could. Wouldn’t drive past a broken-down car without stopping to help, was kind and grateful even with my parents, couldn’t stop singing, built houses for poor people, gave secret gifts to my friends, things like that. Sometimes it lasted for weeks; once, when I was in my early twenties, it lasted for nearly a year. It is called being on fire for God. It’s like you’ve glimpsed the world’s best secret: that love need not be scarce.
It has been fifteen years since I stopped believing, and I have been able to explain to myself almost everything about the faith I grew up in, but I have not been able to explain those experiences of a God so real he entered bedrooms of his own accord, lit them up with joy, and made people generous. For a long time it puzzled me why, if I made God up, I couldn’t make up this feeling myself.
Like most women in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I have spent thousands of hours and dollars on yoga classes attempting to manufacture unconditional love and moral bliss by detaching from my ego and my desires and also, not coincidentally, working on the quality of my ass. Because in the back of my mind, what I have been wondering (is this what the other women are wondering while we sit in lotus position on purple foam cubes, meditating in our jewel-toned leggings and tattoos?) is this: Isn’t there some human who can make me feel this way, instead?
After I stopped believing in God, I would sometimes wake in a panic at being alone without supernatural support. So I memorized Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” to say to myself in the morning. When I woke with someone in my bed, I would recite it to him or her:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Wilbur is talking about laundry dancing on a clothesline outside the window in the morning, white sheets and smocks that one mistakes for angels. It is because one wants to see the laundry as spiritual that “The soul shrinks // From all that it is about to remember, / From the punctual rape of every blessed day, / And cries, / ‘Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry.’ ” Most people I recited the poem to found it a little melodramatic, but it calmed me down.
A few years ago I was living in a loft with a man and two cats and it started to happen again. In the morning, in the split second between sleep and waking, I would almost accidentally start to pray. I’d feel sunlight through the slits in the blinds, register that the alarm on my iPhone was going off, start hitting the bed and the windowsill and digging under myself to find it and tap its little snooze “button.” There were cats on either side of my head, and my human husband, to the right, was snoring hairily on his back, his hands curling and uncurling on his chest like the paws of a tickled kitten. But despite how many of us there were in the bed, I felt alone and too small to survive, too permeable, too disorganized, and trapped in something I didn’t have the words to describe. And something in me stretched up in a physical way toward the place where God used to be. I’d wake up and remember: there is no God. But I wanted to give up anyway, as if in doing so I could be rescued.
There was a red armchair in the corner of the living room, and some days it was as far from the bed as I could get. The first few times I sat in the red chair it was just a comfortable place to think and cry. Then I would find myself in it for whole afternoons. I began to eye the chair, to tell myself not to sit in it. Then I’d tell myself I was just going to sit in it for a little bit. Then hours later the chair would still have me. The cats would sit a few feet from the chair and watch me warily—concerned, but mainly, I believed, judging me. One day when I left for work, I got only to the subway platform and turned back, and the second day, only to the street corner. I told the man about it, and the third day he walked me out and went down in the elevator with me and out the front door, but as soon as he was out of sight I snuck back upstairs to sit in the chair. I remember that for months I could not drive a car but I cannot remember why I could not drive a car.
I do remember the shape of the sentences that were running through my head while I was in the red chair, though not the words that were in them. They all went something like this: Is it this or that. Is it my job or my marriage. Is it my marriage or my mind. Is it him or is it me. It was him or me, him this or him that, and then always, But what if it’s me this, me that. The sentences were all made of impossible twos. Knowing that the dilemmas did not make sense only made it worse; there was not even the smallest movement of my mind I could trust.
It took several years to get out of the red chair, and to do it I had to leave the loft, the man, and the cats, too. I moved into another loft and took very little furniture with me. Soon I met a man at the bar across the street. He was gentle with me but angry at the world’s rules. He made what little money he needed by less-than-legal means, and owned only five short-sleeved T-shirts, four long-sleeved T-shirts, two pairs of jeans, and a pair of Converse with holes in the soles. We saw other people and talked all about it, which made for a rare kind of understanding between us. The first woman he and I slept with together was tall and thin with long, expensive black hair. When we laid her down on the floor of my new loft and undressed her, we found, tattooed across her abdomen, just above her neatly waxed pussy, the word Freedom.
I’d found Freedom on a South Williamsburg street corner at two in the morning, unlocking her bicycle from a lamppost. She was in a filmy white blouse over shorts and thigh-high stockings, and when I said hello, she started kissing me. I said would you like to meet my boyfriend; do you have a problem with facial hair. He was not really my boyfriend at the time but that’s how it was clearer to talk in certain circumstances. She locked up her bicycle and walked inside the bar to meet him, and she didn’t mind the beard. I said do you want to go home with us and she said yes. We walked up the six flights of factory stairs to my loft. We undressed one another and all ended up on the floor rather than on any comfortable piece of furniture. She and I were making out and he was kind of stroking his beard and watching us. And then he moved in and started eating her pussy, at which point she started saying these two sentences: “I want to steal you. I’m gonna steal you and take you home. I want to steal you. I’m gonna steal you and take you home.” I was stroking her hair and kissing her neck and when she started saying that I said, “No, you’re not gonna steal him, no you’re not, just relax and let him make you come.” And I held her so he could.
Actually, he didn’t make Freedom come; I did. I reached inside her and did what I’ve only ever done before in secret, that is, away from the world of men, and he watched me. He’d never seen this, the way women can fuck each other; it is quite something to have a man who loves you watch you do it.
The next morning he and I ate egg-and-biscuit sandwiches, drank coffee, and went over the details of the previous night and morning. Then we talked about our childhoods, our dead parents, and other people we were seeing at the time. He was obsessed with a Mississippi girl who had trouble coming and I offered some strategies. I told him about something sad that had happened to a man I was seeing. We moved on to discussing which of our friends were fighting, or having problems with love or sex, or depressed.
This man had also spent time in a chair, in a dark room, staring at a wall. We tried to remember how it happens, the giving up: how the mind turns on itself and pinions the body to furniture and then convinces you that it is the furniture that has pinioned your mind. The furniture, or the girlfriend, or the husband, with their supernatural ability to cause your feelings. But it is so hard to remember the demonic logic of the place. For our friends we should remember, when they think they’re stuck with sadness forever and we’re trying to shine some small light on the way out. But mainly it is a blank, like women with babies say labor was.
At one point we stepped outside for cigarettes and were quiet for a moment. It was spring and a new sun was shifting light across the brick buildings on every corner of the intersection. The air felt kind and the neighborhood good, down under the Williamsburg Bridge, just across the river from Manhattan. But it was more than just a nice day: there was a peace immanent and tangible as a body, some kind of giant embrace in the air, and it was most definitely not coming from my mind. I didn’t tell him about it or ask him if he felt it. Because I knew this presence, or I’d known it before. It was the one I’d been wondering about, and we’d made it ourselves, but it didn’t belong to us, any more than we belonged to each other. Between us, on days like this one, there began to be a very strong sense, quite often, that anything might happen next, a feeling like the opposite of anxiety, the opposite of a panic attack, whatever you would call that.
The second woman who came home with us had only four sentences, but she said them over and over again. The first one was to me: “You’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful.” Eventually, she started kissing me. After a while, she broke away from me and said, “You guys are strange. You guys are strange.” She was from another country, and the limited sentences were in part because of this, but it was also as if she were, in the very process of seducing us, passing back and forth between two worlds. When she was in one, she would forget about the other. I said, “Do you want to be here, what do you want?” And she looked at me, quiet, and then, with the ferocity of a small puppy, leaned in to kiss me again for a while, and began to undress me. Then she stopped and leaned back and said, “You guys are strange,” and I said, “But, you decided to be here.” This went on for a while. Later, in the middle of things, she started asking me, “Do you really like me or are you just doing this for him?” And I’d say, “I really like you.” She’d suck his cock or I’d eat her pussy and then she’d turn to me and say, “Do you really like me or are you just doing this for him?” And I’d be like, “I really like you.” And then, hours later, she started saying to me, “You’re a boy. You’re a boy. You’re a boy.” And I’d say, “No I’m not, sweetie.” And he would say, “No she’s not,” and point out various parts of my body. “You’ve been all up in there.” And she’d be quiet for a moment, and then say it again: “You’re a boy.” And I’d say, “No I’m not. I’m a girl.”
I understand the trouble she was having very well. The first threesome I was in, before all this, I kept saying to the guy, over and over, “Your girlfriend is gay.” I really did. The first time you feel yourself actually attracted to two people at the same time, in the same place, something very deep is shaken. You want to name the new thing, but you need new syntax to do it. Then you find yourself saying sentences like, “Just relax and let him make you come,” or, “Don’t be nervous, I can tell she really likes you, and I’ll help you pick out a wine she’ll love.” The opposite of the red-chair and dark-room sentences. Sentences that in the speaking give you a feeling that is different in kind from ordinary human love, at least ordinary romantic love. If you try to find the word for this thing that is the opposite of jealousy, you end up at cheesy polyamory Web sites, where it is called compersion: when you feel happiness for another’s happiness, even and especially when it doesn’t involve you. Then your friends think you’re delusional or stuck in the seventies, and you’re basically relegated to having “your song” be George Michael’s song “Freedom,” which is why when we undressed the first woman who came home with us and found that word tattooed above her pussy, we looked at each other in wonder and a kind of fear.
A few months later, he moved in. The first time I laundered our clothes together I began to gather his underwear, and I didn’t recognize it—it must have always come off in his pants, or we were usually drunk—and I thought, Who is this man. When I brought the clothes back from the laundrymat, as he calls it, hot and smelling of “meadow breeze,” I put them on my bed and began to fold them, two black T-shirts, two navy T-shirts, one red T-shirt, two long-sleeved T-shirts, and two pairs of jeans, and I started sobbing and couldn’t stop, as if doing a man’s laundry was the most dangerous thing in the world.
The third woman we brought home had taken some care to lay the groundwork with each of us. With me she would talk about open relationships she’d been in, send me links to articles about unusual arrangements she’d heard of, talk to me about how much she understood. Him, she sexted. When we were together on my couch, there was a moment when she was sucking his cock with real enthusiasm and he was entirely absorbed, away from me, but I was stroking her hair and watching her and it would be the thing she talked about afterward, how much she felt I cared about her during that blowjob. There was a moment when I grabbed his hand and put his fingers inside of me and, for a while, it was just the two of us, together. There was another moment when he turned away and moved on top of her to fuck her and it was only them, but I was there. There is always a time when they turn away from you, together, and you panic, but if you can watch, just on the other side of the panic is a new kind of knowledge. We had come to think that this might be some part of why God forbade eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: eat it and you can no longer believe that your happiness comes from him or me, God or me, him this or her that, or me this or me that. People who are good at monogamy must know these things already.
We have structured our most common sacred relations in twos, but we cannot explain the feeling of God without resorting to threes, or at least the religion I grew up in couldn’t. God the Father made and ordered the world, watched and evaluated us from afar, and punished. He was, in fact, a trap; he loved you more than anyone ever could, but only if you only loved him and no one else. There was no place to hide from him, except in Jesus, who drew close, in the flesh, to talk about real love, fuck with the Father’s rules, suffer to save us, and retreat to heaven, allowing us to figure out for ourselves what we wanted to do. And then the Holy Spirit, who did not judge and didn’t seem to care about these sacrificial games, who just pitched a tent in the air around you and filled it with this wild joy. The one who watched, the one who did, the one who felt. The one with power, the one who suffered, the bliss.
A few months after I first did his laundry, he left in much the same way he’d come, without really asking. He left his clothes in a dirty pile on my bedroom floor. He’d found a girl he wanted to be with, without me, or I’d begun to feel like giving up, or it’s hard to do what we were doing and live under one roof. It was his thirty-third year and he wandered through Brooklyn, sleeping and eating where he could, full of new love, and homeless.
People often ask me what it’s like to believe in God so completely and then stop. It is like leaving someone you love, or falling in love: when living in one world becomes more difficult than the difficulty of leaving without knowing if the new world will be better, you leave.
I thought about it for years before I did it, but it happened all in a moment. I was sitting in my bed, in my basement room in my college house, and I thought, I have no idea if there’s anything else that is true but this can’t be true. I closed my eyes and kind of threw myself off a cliff into an empty space. When I opened my eyes, I saw my bookshelf and my rug and my cat and I saw that I had been right. There was a world outside the world I’d known. I have never been so relieved in all my life. And the first thing I wanted to do, but I did not do it, was pray.
Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.
Lisa Rubenson, The NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest
Geoffrey Brock, Dental Hygiene Through the Ages
Patrizia Cavalli, “But you, are you Christians?…”
Patrizia Cavalli, “Isn’t it amazing that one evening…”
Patrizia Cavalli, “There she is turned into a lollipop…”
Patrizia Cavalli, “In the seething almost Indian heat…”
Patrizia Cavalli, “Oh really, she’s with somebody?…”
Patrizia Cavalli, “When, thanks to the virtues of wine,…”
Patrizia Cavalli, “To look at beauty and never make it yours…”
Henri Cole, Self-Portrait With Rifle
Rachel Hadas, The Veil and the Baby
Karl Kirchwey, A Hundred Years from Now
Gretchen Marquette, Ode to a Man in Dress Clothes
D. Nurkse, Secret of the Lit Window
Henk Rossouw, The Dream of the Road
Donna Stonecipher, From “Model City”
Charles Harper Webb, Respect