I’m tired of sleeping with my husband’s grandfather. At least two nights a week Grandpa Gus joins us in bed. It’s not a huge issue, as he is dead and only my husband talks to him, but it’s getting a little crowded in our bedroom. Something must be done.
I find myself at the Melting Pot, a headshop-type store in Midtown Reno, without a shopping list. The lady behind the counter in a feathered vest looks like she might have the answer to whatever I seek. She might even have the answer before I ask it, if you believe in that kind of thing. Her thick red hair is piled high on her head in wide plaits, errant curls tangled in oversized hoop earrings that dance when her head moves. She is effortlessly comforting, with a quiet voice and a stillness about her that reminds me of dusk.
“What are you looking for?” she asks, reading my mind.
A man in a flannel shirt with a braid down the back of his head answers, “What we are all looking for,” and pulls out his wallet.
I wait for him to finish buying a bong that reminds me of the Chihuly glass in the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, and a few bottles of hemp oil. As I wait I check out the merchandise. There are religious statues and icons on shelves next to journals filled with paper that looks like papyrus, Tibetan prayer flags and incense packs from India, and a large selection of corsets and capes. The air is so rich in incense I taste sage and lavender on my tongue, reminding me of St. Thomas More Cathedral downtown where Amuma, my Basque grandmother, took me on Sundays as a child. I have always known what Catholicism smells like, even if I don’t know what it means to be a good Catholic.
I’m drawn to the small statues of a Hindu goddess who is always represented sitting with her legs crossed. I wonder why she sits this way, and I worry about her knees. Her patina suggests the passing of time but she looks young, well kept. Gracefully suspended in metal and eternal youth, she is beautiful, and I decide to take her home. She can join the fat bronze Buddha at my doorstep and the white angel with gold flecked wings who hovers above my bookshelves.
I’ve started collecting religious artifacts in recent years, like gilded crosses and Padre Pio prayer cards, his sainted hands wrapped in cloth to cover his stigmata. I have strands of Nepalese bells on hemp rope that echo the bells that ring at the base of Everest, and a wide assortment of Bibles and rosaries. I am the owner of a Torah, books on women and mythology, and an entire volume on life after death experiences. If I was only seeking answers for my questions, I have failed. If there is peace in the struggle to find peace, I am rich beyond belief, evidence of the search for something on full display in the spiritual collateral that litters my home.
After eleven years of marriage to a man more spiritual and open to the afterlife than I am, I find myself in a religious icon arms race with my husband. It’s too soon to call a winner.
It was Nate’s faith in the unseen that I saw first. He offered meaning in the variety of things he believed in, and I immediately felt at home with him, even though his fringe beliefs were alien. His faith in the unseen spilled over me like wax, mending holes of doubt and the fractures of a broken heart. When we first met, I was two years out of an ugly divorce marked by all manner of Biblical plagues. I was on my own for the first time, with my son Aiden, who has disabilities, my daughter Alicia, and a whole lot of questions about how and why and what was next.
The moment I knew I was in love with him is clear in my mind even though it happened over a decade ago. He was bent over a radionics box, gently placing a lock of dark hair in its clear case. He was tan and fit, cheeks flushed with excitement and optimism.
“This box sends healing energy to you through space and time, kind of like radio waves,” he told me, fiddling with the dials on the leather box, placed in rows like the dials in the cockpit of a plane.
“How do you know this works?” I asked, running fingertips over his collection of Walter Russel books, volumes on channeling and the healing power of water. It was so cute that he wanted to heal me through a juju magic box communicating with my cells that would speak to me over the airwaves, even if I didn’t answer the call.
“I believe it,” he said.
He looked up at my face, still on his knees, and I saw belief in him that was palpable. He did believe, in the box, and in me. Something about his hands on those dials was so proactive, I was won over. I didn’t believe the box would change anything, but I was convinced that Nate might change things for me. Why is it someone’s crazy is so much more attractive in year one of a relationship than in year eleven?
The night before our wedding, at dinner with Nate and his dad, they told me their family saw ghosts and angels on a regular basis.
“I even saw my dead cat, Snowball, every year around the same time when we lived on the farm in Indiana,” Nate told me over a delicious pot roast. “I would see his tail around the corner and his footprints on the hardwood. I never caught him, but I know he was there.” Over my bread pudding and his dad’s concurrence with said events, I realized it was a little late in the game to call bullshit, so I went with it.
“So, your whole family sees ghosts and angels and dead cats,” I asked, as seriously as I could. I wanted to be as respectful of them as they were of me.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
I didn’t respond. It was easier to outsource work on my faith to someone than to plumb the depths of my own beliefs. It was a relief, to have the universe explained to me.
The guy with the bong and the ponytail at the counter is having an in-depth conversation about the injustices of historical hemp regulation, and from the cocked head of the woman behind the counter, I think it’s going to last a while, so I cruise into the corset section at the back of the store. Liquid leather and color soaked satins mix with buckles and drawstrings, evoking something out of Outlander. Suede chaps with fringe to match hang next to felt caps and thick, almost wooden belts. I try to imagine myself in the wine-colored corset that smells like Patchouli and get stuck on what I would wear for pants. Nate would probably love it, and wouldn’t care about the pants, which is why I won’t buy it. I don’t want to encourage any past life fantasy role play. I have my hands full with Grandpa Gus. I love my husband, but not enough to be a corset-wearing milkmaid from a past life while he is a marauding sailor, raiding my village.
I have always been ill equipped to choose a life partner. Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H is my longest love affair, one that began in the mid-seventies. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which are that he’s a narcissist, a functioning alcoholic, a womanizer, and a TV character. Standing in an operating theater, ankle deep in bloody sponges, soaked in the insanity of war, my guy Hawkeye never spoke of faith. He made jokes and laughed and even cried once or twice, but he was firmly rooted in science. He had what I wanted, that ability to laugh in the face of death, even though survival meant only more suffering. He was a ladies man and yet no woman’s man. I dated men like him for years, thinking if they could only make me laugh I would be happy. I broke myself against the funniest men I knew, till they were the only ones laughing.
My husband is no Hawkeye, which may be the reason we are still married. If people are vessels, he is a Buddhist singing bowl and I’m that wooden puzzle box you buy in an open-air market in Mazatlán to hide your jewelry. I keep wanting him to untangle my anxieties and beliefs, like he has untangled his own. I want him to navigate and negotiate me like his radionics box, one dial at a time until I’m full of faith and belief, in him and in me, in god and life and what comes after.
He says, “Faith is something you earn by searching for it yourself.”
Apparently, faith can’t be swapped like spit. It’s non-transferable, like store credit. God knows I couldn’t have his loose belief system anyhow, because I refuse to accept that sasquatch and yetis are prowling the Sierras, with no evidence ever recorded.
“You need to open your mind,” Nate told me after watching a sasquatch quasi-documentary on the Animal Channel.
“Yeah, I’m sure they’re real, babe, and super evolved too. Probably practice leave no trace and pack their shit in and out in little biodegradable bags.” He didn’t answer. He has stopped listening to me say he is crazy.
I go into a corner of the store I haven’t been yet to make sure I don’t miss anything. There are mittens with no fingers that I think were made for me, woven from thick hemp with pale blue buttons on the wrist, perfect for sitting out back by the fire. When we sit outside by firelight, Nate tells me stories of being raised in the nursing home his parents ran in Indiana, and about Mrs. Johnson who had dementia and would ask for the train every day, trying to get home. She would show up at the nurse’s desk where he worked, suitcase packed, hat on, and gloves to match.
She would ask, “Am I too late for the train?”
“Well, Mrs. Johnson, let’s go see,” he would tell her, and take her to sit on the bench in front of the home. He would hold her hand for a set amount of time and then tell her he messed up the schedule, and the train was in fact coming tomorrow. He would lead her back to her room and she would wait the night, happy, because tomorrow the train was coming. They would do this day after day. I love him more every time he tells the story, how he stayed with her year after year, chasing that train, until she died. I keep asking him to summon me a faith that will sustain me through this life and the next because I can’t find my own. I want him to get me home, like Mrs. Johnson. The train he imagines for me never shows up, because it exists in his mind, not mine, so I am waiting alone.
“So, I am new to all this,” I tell the now unoccupied lady behind the counter, sweeping my arm to indicate the entire store. “I need something to cleanse the house of a spirit. Of my husband’s grandpa. I was thinking incense.”
“Ah,” she says, like she has seen this kind of thing before, which I find comforting and disconcerting at the same time. “You know products don’t really do what you are talking about,” she tells me, with conviction. “You have to tap into the spirit, to give them what they need to go peacefully. They are caught in the middle ground, looking for something.” I feel closer to Grandpa Gus as she says this, like I’m starting to get him. He wants what I want: a way forward, and a way back. As the shopkeeper smiles at me benevolently, she reminds me of Nate. So earnest, such a believer in her own power to manifest what she must.
“You know why I run Ironman triathlons?” Nate asked me one night over dinner for our anniversary.
I answered, “Because you enjoy pain?”
“Because if we are ever trapped in a snowstorm out there somewhere, I want to be able to throw you on my shoulders and carry you out. That is my commitment to you, baby.”
Five years into our marriage my daughter Alicia got sick. She got strep throat and had a catastrophic immune reaction and developed encephalitis as swelling settled in her brain. She had thousands of motor tics a day, eye blinking, head turning, and hands that opened and closed like tiny beaks. She hummed and made sounds like a little mouse and coughed for hours in a way that was forced and foreign. At night, when she tried to sleep, her body twisted with chorea, the involuntary movements that tangled the sheets around her and caused her to moan and cry out. She was caught in the painful loop of Sydenham’s dance, the name for these movements that is cruel in its irony. She looked like she was possessed, not dancing, and was in terrific pain. I couldn’t soothe her. Despair smothered any hope or faith I had left after my son’s disabilities and my broken first marriage. I was unmoored. I turned to Nate.
“This is part of Alicia’s plan,” Nate said to me from across our dinner table, like he was sharing the weather. “Just like Aiden, she made this agreement in heaven before she came to earth. She is working out her karma through this illness, probably paying for something she did in a past life.”
“I will leave you,” I told him, “I swear to God, if you ever say that shit to me again.” His beliefs went from adorable to abhorred in a single sentence. When Alicia recovered five months later, after large doses of drugs and therapy, I was the one who needed ongoing care. No beliefs of my own could explain what had happened to my children, how my husband’s benign beliefs turned hostile overnight, or how I was adrift and angry. I began to mock him when he spoke of comfort in the unknown or faith in a universal order.
When his mother came to dinner a year after Alicia’s diagnosis, I was still hostile.
She said, “Nate was always so spiritual, you know, always drawing the angels and Jesus.” She looked at Nate like he was the Christ.
“So pious,” I blurted, “yet he dated a stripper when you all moved to Las Vegas.”
Nate didn’t answer. His mother busied herself with the children’s plates. We all understood there was nothing to say. My attack on his sanctity would not be enough to mar him in his mother’s eyes, and no details about his childhood faith would stitch my own together. Beneath the mocking then, and now, is a deep sadness I can’t overcome. I find emptiness where he finds light. I want what he has, or I want him to lack what I lack, so we can be in this together.
My 100-year-old Amuma died ten years into our marriage, and I was alone with her when she passed. I played the Litany of the Saints from Padre Pio’s funeral procession on a YouTube loop and smoothed her hair as she took her last jagged breaths. I was crying, salt in my mouth and sticky sweet ketosis from the dying process on my clothes and in my hair. I felt her life force escape her, breaths mixing with mine, heart seizing under my hand on her chest. She cooled within moments of her heart stopping, while I was hot with fever. The spark she left was in me now. It was like she exhaled it and I breathed it in. I was changed. I felt something. She was in peace.
I didn’t see her ghost even after Nate warned me that he’d been hearing strange noises in the house ever since we acquired her furniture.
He said, “She might be trying to contact you through her things.”
I told him, “Baby, I have a hard time believing she is going to speak to me through her credenza. Plus, my family just doesn’t do hauntings.” I might have felt something when Amuma passed, but I was not about to go searching for her in our cabinets and plant stands.
Nate told me, “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t understand.”
I couldn’t share with him what I felt at Amuma’s deathbed. It was too personal, too fragile. He evangelizes as easily as he breathes while I hold faith like I hold my breath. I carry my emergent beliefs in my hands like a bird with broken wings, cautious and close to my body, careful not to smother.
I took a few days off after Amuma’s death and started watching The X-Files, which I had never seen. I started at the pilot. It distracted me from my Amuma’s absence and my dad’s grief, and by season four I was thoroughly hooked. I made it through nine seasons in a desperately short time.
I told Nate, “It’s the characters that I’m into. It’s Scully and Mulder, not the supernatural.”
He gave me a toothy grin and said, “You are coming over to my side.”
“Maybe so,” I said, “but I’m not sleeping with Grandpa anymore. That shit has got to stop. Tell him to visit you over coffee or something.”
My husband’s beliefs were ahead of science by a decade or more. Quantum mechanics have verified that atoms communicate across space and time, and Hubble images show worlds upon worlds, ever deeper into the universe. Even for skeptics like me, the astronomical math is starting to suggest there is something more out there. Epigenetics and observation effects on particles lend credence to Nate’s radionics box and his penchant for chasing us around the house, cutting off pieces of our hair. Our souls now have measurement and weight: studies conducted in the early 2000s demonstrate that bodies lose a fraction of an ounce after dying, controlling for the weight of breath. Science itself is conspiring to make me a believer.
As I check the price on a knit cap with a yeti on it, lost for an hour now among the wares in the Melting Pot, I wonder if Nate’s ability to love the unknown in me, and to love me into the unknown, is more powerful than my ability to love him. His faith is a visceral knowing for him, a line of sight into good things to come, Snowball’s paw prints still visible somewhere in Indiana.
Mittens, yeti and goddess in hand, I move toward the checkout counter. My eye catches, behind the counter, the I Want to Believe poster of the spaceship suspended in midair from The X-Files. I blink in the smoky haze created by the clove infused incense my feathered friend just switched to, and I settle my tab. I buy the purifying sage she suggests for Grandpa, a leather-bound journal too pretty to write in, and the poster.
When I get home, I wander through the house for two hours with the unwrapped poster in my hands. I move from room to room, running my fingers over bookshelves and Amuma’s credenza, through our dining room and hallways. Everywhere seems too public, too exposed. I finally end up at the back of the walk-in closet in our master bedroom. I tack the poster up between his ties and my tops. This is the only space we share where my demonstration of faith can hang unapologetically, since Hawkeye has been exiled from our bedroom. I try to explain to Nate that my love for M*A*S*H is more about hope than anything else, that it is an actual belief system. Hawkeye, Scully and Mulder, my own litany of the saints. He doesn’t buy it. He says he doesn’t want to sleep with another man in our bedroom. I remind him of Grandpa Gus, but he won’t budge.
Nate loves the poster as soon as he sees it, and he beams at me. “I want to believe,” he says, reading it aloud. He holds me close, and we both look at the poster, a newly birthed shrine hidden in our closet, built over Netflix and nine seasons. We are bound in this marriage by definitions of so many things, of what we see and what we don’t, of good days and bad, of debts and credits under law and within our love for each other. Without Nate, I am no man’s wife. Without me his radionics box hums on only one frequency, sending its signal out with no return.
He looks at me for a long minute and asks me if I’m starting to see myself as a person of faith.
I put my arms around him tight as I can. “We are still together, aren’t we, baby?”
by Cyndy Cendagorta
Cyndy Cendagorta is working on a collection of short stories about broken things, including bodies, children, faith and love. She holds an MA in Political Science from Washington State University and is a past Women’s Research and Education Institute Fellow, and a special needs advocate. Her first stories are being published in Spring of 2018 in Cagibi and The Spectacle. She lives in Reno, NV, with her husband and three children.
About the Artwork
This page’s featured artwork image is owned by, and used with permission of, I Love Poster. I Love Poster is an Etsy store of art prints including the X-Files I Still Want to Believe poster that is on the wall in the image.
Image is © 2018 I Love Poster. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.