Candles in the Rain

Fatima, Portugal – November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)

As I enter through the back gate, thick raindrops begin to fall from the sky. I glance down at my watch. 11:11 a.m. I freeze, then smile. The raindrops lengthen into streams which become buckets. I duck into a church to wait it out. A half hour passes with no sign of it letting up. I open my umbrella and stride into the deserted courtyard, a vast arena that can hold hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Rivers of rain flow over my feet, drenching my pant legs. Rain soaks through the umbrella. I slow my steps, so that I don’t get swept away. 

I have come to light a candle for someone. Sadness and worry keep me awake at night. Helplessness. I don’t know what to do anymore. I am so far away. I buy one of the elegant, rustic tapers from the lady in the booth and await my turn. So many candles here, even now. Some of the flames dance, some burn long and steady. The candles at the front are pelted by the rain. They flicker and go dark for a split second, and then they reignite. So defiant. I move forward, light my flame from another, and place it among the others. 

I am an imposter here, and I’m not sure why I have come. I have not been a Catholic since I was a child. My knowledge of Fatima is obscured, probably on purpose. I remember when my little sister Pebby dressed up as one of the shepherd children for a school event. On the day that Ronald Reagan was shot, while my family was gathered in front of the television, she remarked, “Watch. Now the Pope is gonna get shot.” He did, and it was on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. My father, who had slipped away into schizophrenia, saw signs in everything. He never left her in peace after that. 

I abandoned the Catholic faith when my father got sick. I had prayed for him, for my family. Please make him better. Please protect us. But things only got worse. No one would protect us, so it became my job to take care of everyone. I was thirteen years old.

Pilgrimage sites, of every kind, have a palpable electricity. It’s as if the accumulation of the faith and awe of millions has charged the air. Something happened here, all those years ago. A crystalline lady, a “dancing Sun”, three prophecies. It is natural for inexplicable events to be interpreted through the lens of the culture and time period in which they occur. Christian God, extraterrestrial visitation, mass hallucination. Does it matter what the explanation is? 

The Chapel of the Apparitions is a simple glass box. A statue of the Blessed Mother is the only ornamentation. I sit on a bench. Most of the others are solitary or in small groups. The silence is absolute. A dog wanders in and curls up in the middle of the floor. Faces turn to smile and then settle back into meditation. I watch them. One by one, they are overcome. Bodies tense up. Eyes widen, staring into an endless internal horizon. Gentle nods. Faces melt into wonder, humility, gratitude. There are no histrionics. 

My eyes come to rest on the floor. A long sigh of envy, of defeat. I’ve tried for so long to transcend this depression. So many things I’ve tried. Why can’t I get it right? I wish I would have a breakthrough. The air to my right grows heavy. A sound, like a massive wave, fills my mind. As the wave moves through me, I hear, Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. The wave exits my body to the left. I wrap my arms around myself as the room spins. And then, the light. Flickering, then pure, unwavering illumination. A presence, eminent and kind. A hand on the shoulder. A finger pointing. Look, child. Here. It’s always been right before your eyes. I lean forward, my face in my hands. The hardest person to forgive is yourself. The enormity of it all. The simplicity.

The light. Yes, I remember you from that time, so many years ago. That gloomy winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after my father died and I tried to die. Twenty-three years of life, but so very old. I was working in a cavernous old building in downtown. A furniture company, I believe. Alphabetizing invoices. Hundreds and hundreds of invoices. I’d file them in boxes and load them in the creaky wooden service elevator and bring them up to the archives in the attic. I didn’t have to talk to anyone or think of anything but letters on a piece of paper. I didn’t have to think about how I was going to live. And then, the light. There were no words or thoughts, just radiance. And love. And it didn’t matter anymore what I was going to do with my life. Everything was going to be okay.

I sit, now, and listen. To the things I said to myself. My peers shunned me because I am defective. I was sexually assaulted because I wasn’t vigilant enough. People take me for granted, make the least effort possible, and consider me a last choice, because I am not good enough. I deserve every bad thing that ever happened to me. All of it was my own damn fault. I should have known better.

Maybe faith isn’t about how hard you pray, but how deeply you surrender. Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. Such a simple thought, but it is something I needed to understand. I’ve read similar words in books, heard them from “enlightened” ones, but they beaded up and rolled off. It had to come from within. We hold the keys to our unique prisons. The doors must be unlocked, one by one. Every lock is trickier than the last. 

Back outside, the rain has stopped. Into the basilica I stroll. Disheveled and dazed. I drift past the monochrome altar towards the tombs. The austere décor is a perfect tribute to these humble children. So much love in this place. Gentle, motherly love. I sit, once again, and let it hold me. And time passes.

Nine years have passed. Every year, I celebrate this day. The person for whom I lit the candle overcame the struggle very soon after my visit. There has been no relapse. I’ve never told that person of my visit and I most likely never will. With the exception of those who are closest to me, I’ve kept this story locked up in the vault of my memory. A few mornings ago, upon awakening, it drifted back to me and I knew that it was time to share it. “Illumination” was the word I chose for 2020. For most of the year, I’ve felt the complete opposite. As have so many others. My story is not Earth-shattering. I didn’t regain my sight or the ability to walk or conquer cancer. Even so, someone may need to hear it. No flame is too humble to light another. 

Left Behind

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Lisbon, Portugal – November 2011

The far edge of a continent. Nothing ahead but infinite horizon. Lisbon is a place that inspires wanderlust. The everlasting voyage into the unknown. It is a place from which to set out.

In recent years, there has been an exodus. To Brazil and Angola, former colonies that have become greener pastures. Even the immigrants have begun to return to the places from whence they came.

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Derelict buildings in the city center have become canvasses. There’s a finality to the bricked-up windows. The occupants will never return, but the vacant structures will continue to stand. Nothing to take their places but open space. An empty shell is less unsettling than a visible void.

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I stroll the narrow, deserted streets of Alfama, casting looks over my shoulder. Seeking out the shadows cast by the soft November sun. Lace curtains and melodramatic television noises waft from open windows. The salty tang of the sea perfumes the air. There is a forlorn beauty to this emptiness. She is not so much abandoned as left behind. She stands on the shore, for eternity, waiting for him to come home.

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A gentleman materializes. He follows me with the disturbing earnestness of a hungry ghost. After a couple of streets, I manage to shake him off. But not the unease. I meander my way back to the Bairro Alto.

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I take refuge in the animated streets. This quarter becomes more familiar over the next few days. In the early evenings, after I return from trips outside of the city, I come here to eat before returning to my hotel before dark. My last evening in Lisbon, I happen upon a French crepe restaurant. The owner, a French woman, suggests a vinho verde to go with my seafood crepe. Her face lights up when I answer her in French. The other diners, two young women, pay their check and leave. The owner sets my crepe down in front of me. She lingers for a few seconds. She asks where I’m from and how I know French so well. My answers are polite, but short. I don’t want to go on and on about my life. Why would she care? She wishes me bon appétit and walks back to the counter. A man has come out from the kitchen. He sits at a small table to the right of the counter and fixes his steely gaze on her. She sits down across from him and lights a cigarette.

Despite the heavy crepe, the wine shrouds my brain in a gauzy glow. I cast furtive looks at the owner and the man. Her eyes are downcast, cigarette pinched tightly between long fingers. He speaks to her in a gruff, low voice. Her shoulders are hunched forward, taut with the anticipation of a flinch. She takes a long, luxurious drag off her cigarette, and then answers him under her breath. A brief flicker of wistfulness in her eyes as she stares down at the floor. She rises to take care of a group of women who have just sat down. He fidgets in his chair as he watches her.

I walk up to the counter to pay. She sets the bill in front of me. “Do you like Lisbon?” she asks. “Have you been to Sintra?”

I nod. “Yes, but Fatima was my favorite.” I flush with embarrassment at my slurred words.

“It is a magical place”, she agrees. “The basilica is magnificent.”

After the subject of Fatima is exhausted, I start to disentangle myself from the conversation. Deep breath. “Well, I better–.”

She blurts out questions about my life. Where did I live before Budapest? She has known others who have visited New Caledonia. Where will my husband and I go next? Her man turns to face us. Hands clenched. Petulant glare. I narrow my eyes at him, but she is all that he sees. She has taken shelter in incomprehensible language. A realm in which he is not master. She does not cringe. She knows the consequences – women in this situation always do – and yet she persists. She does not want to let me go.

The restaurant begins to fill up as our conversation dies. Her smile is one of weary resignation. I smile in return, pressing my lips closed against the words I want to speak. It’s never too late for escape. I wave goodbye and walk into the darkening streets.

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The Gentlemen of Lisbon

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Lisbon, Portugal – November 2011

Gentleman #1: Gene Kelly Manqué

Ah, Alfama. Winding, narrow streets and blue tiled walls. The smell of sea. The soothing weight of two greasy pastéis de nata in my stomach. My steps are languid. Alfama is not large, so I weave up and down the same streets over and over. The faint squawking and melodramatic music of soap operas wafts from the balconies. It’s too early in the day for fado.

Women lean out of windows to chat with passersby. From behind me, a raspy, yet melodic voice reaches my ears. The Portuguese language is so romantic!

The voice behind me draws nearer, becomes more insistent. Strange. It’s not answered by another voice. And then: “Yes, I’m talking to you. Nice culo!”

I halt and wheel around. However, I do not come face to face with a filthy derelict, but rather a clean cut, diminutive gentleman. He smiles at me, but his eyes are cold.

I brandish my wedding ring. “I’ll tell my husband to beat your culo! How about that?”

His smile widens. The icy sheen on his eyes melts. He says something in Portuguese and points his umbrella up the street behind him. He’s asking me to dance, surely.

I clench my fists and stomp a couple steps away. I’ve given him exactly what he wanted: acknowledgment of his presence. Then I stop again, a sly smile on my face. I pull my camera out of my purse, snap a photo of him, wink at him, and then stride away down another street, giggling out loud at the ideas I fabricate for the photo. Should I post it on a gay dating website, perhaps?

Gentleman #2: O Mestre do Metrô

A new day in Lisboa! My legs are still sore from yesterday’s walk, so I begin by riding the subway from beginning to end. One can tell a lot about a city by watching people in the subway. The doors close and off we go. My eyes are drawn to a tall, broad-shouldered gentleman standing with his back to the door. He’s wearing a black leather trench coat. The top of his head is bald and polished to a sheen. He grips a rolled up newspaper as if it were the handle of a bullwhip. His gaze is fixed on the young woman who sits beside me. His tongue rests on his lower lip. The quick rise and fall of his chest tells me that he’s panting. Everything that he would like to do to this woman is written on his face.

I grimace and turn to look at her. She speaks to a young boy of about six years old, most likely her son. The boy stands in the aisle across from her. She tosses her brassy red hair, bats her eyelashes, and casts furtive glances at the old gentleman. Her voice becomes a purr.

The gentleman’s grip tightens around the newspaper. He has not so much as glanced at me. With age, as I fade and wither and move to the very perimeter of male attention, I’m relieved that I feel relief rather than dismay. I’m now in the position to observe without being observed.

The boy’s eyes glaze over. He sticks his foot out to trip the blind man who’s making his way down the aisle, tapping his stick in front of him. The woman tosses her hair again and beams at her son. Isn’t he cute!

I get off at the next stop.

Gentleman #3: Mr. Peek-A-Boo

Day two, late afternoon. The subway, again. Across the aisle from me sits a man who bears a striking physical resemblance to O Mestre do Metrô. His demeanor, however, is less severe. He stares at me, his expression docile, almost blank. I sit facing his direction, but next to the window, which I stare out of to avoid making eye contact with him. One stop, two stops, four stops. My neck is beginning to cramp from it being turned to the right for so long. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that he’s still looking at me. I turn my face forward. My eyes flicker at him and away. He shifts in his seat and smiles in triumph. I try to stifle the indignation that gnaws at me. I have the right to look wherever I want to look without feeling uncomfortable. I exhale deeply and then reach for my camera. When I aim it at him, he covers his face and then uncovers it. It becomes a game of peek-a-boo for a while.

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Then he adopts a more contemplative expression.

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My stop is also his stop, so when people rise and head for the door, I slide through to the front. He moves toward me, circling his finger around his temple and smiling. It seems he likes crazy ladies. When the doors open, I slip out and run up the stairs and out to the street, leaving him in the dust.

Gentleman #4: Bubblicious

Saturday afternoon. I’ve saved the Bairro Alto district for last. The streets are nearly deserted. The shutters are shut. It only comes alive at night. After a short wander, I emerge at Rua de Loreto. Trams and cars crawl by. I slow my stride and meld with the crowd.

My way is blocked by a portly gentleman. He’s wearing a hot pink t-shirt with his black suit. The jacket is unbuttoned. His large, perfectly round gut balloons under the pink fabric. I duck my head and step around him. I don’t need to glance over my shoulder to know that he’s following me. I weave in and out among the crowd, increasing my pace, but I can’t manage to put more distance between us. I turn left down Rua do Norte, a quieter street. I start to trot, but when I look behind me, he is, in fact, closer. A clown-like grin stretches across his meaty jowls. He seems to be pulled along by his gut, which now resembles a bubble gum bubble. The Bubblicious bubble gum ads of my childhood become the soundtrack to this absurd chase. The ultimate bubble has the ultimate flavors! Bubblicious! It’s like I’m stuck in one of those nightmares where, no matter how fast or clever you are, you can’t escape that which is pursuing you.

Suddenly, Bubblicious is distracted by something in a shop window. While he’s turned away, I duck into a doorway. And find myself in a cupcake shop. My stomach begins to growl. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I order a bagel with brie and cranberry sauce, a cappuccino, and a chocolate raspberry cupcake. The friendly man behind the counter tells me to have a seat. Bubblicious seems to have disappeared, so I take a seat on an antique chair near the front window. I watch as a young boy speaks to a cat that’s perched in the window across the street. I relax into the velvet cushions.

The cafe is empty, except for the man behind the counter. I finish my bagel and then reach for the cupcake. It is a beautiful creation. The cupcake craze hasn’t yet reached Eastern Europe, so it’s been years since I’ve had one. I lift it to my mouth, lowering my eyelids. Just as I’m about to sink my teeth in, I catch a flicker of shadow out of the corner of my eye. I turn to the window. Bubbalicious’ face peers around the corner into the window. He smacks his plump, grub-like lips at me. The tip of his tongue begins to slither out.

“What the –.” I sigh and set my cupcake down. I reach for my camera and jerk my thumb towards the window. “Is this normal?” I ask the man behind the cupcake counter.

He rushes to the door. Bubblicious sees him and takes off. I feel a huge pang of regret at not having his photo for my collection. The cupcake man stands in the doorway in case he comes back. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We have a lot of crazy people around here.”

While he waits in the doorway, he asks me about my time in Lisbon. I tell him about the things I’ve seen and my other encounters. He laughs and shakes his head. “That’s the older generation. They just love foreign women.” He asks if I’m going out in the Bairro Alto tonight.

I sigh and shake my head. “Are you kidding? Maybe if I come back one day with my husband. But alone…no way.”

He nods. “I never thought about how it is for a woman traveling alone. It’s sad that you have to be careful about going to some places.”

I eat my cupcake, and then I chat with him for a long while. We talk about the differences between Europeans cities and citizens. The shop starts to get busy, so he helps me choose some cupcakes for my night in my hotel room. “The lemon are the best,” he says. I buy three and then bid him farewell.

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*This last photo was taken during this trip, but it isn’t directly related to this post. I wanted to take a photo of the cool retro sign and just happened to catch this guy who stopped to stare while walking by.**