A baptismal font is not a font.
This occurs to me as I take my place beside the pedestal. I run a finger along the rim of the broad, shallow bowl. It’s made of brilliant emerald stone, something like marble, grander than the one at our church. There is a drain in the center. Surely they don’t let the christening water go into the sewage pipes. Where, then? Maybe it collects in a holding tank and they use it again. How many Catholics can you get out of one liter? Instant Christian, just add —
It is my cousin Lara whose sins are to be forgiven today. My grandmother, standing beside me, is holding her. We are so close around the basin that the tangled skirts of the gown spill over my arm, blend against my dress. I wore white too. I wonder now if there is a customary prohibition against this, if white is supposed to be the sole privilege of the new believer, as for the bride at a wedding.
The font is already full of water, far more than you’d ever need for single baptism, and when I exhale it ripples like a lake blown by wind, which makes me think of The breath of God moved on the water. It frightened me when I was little, the image of the wind on the dark surface. Empty. When someone in Sunday school asked why God created the world, the teachers told us that it was because He wanted to. I imagine the spiraling black before creation, not a star in the sky. Why didn’t they admit to us that He must have been lonely? No weakness in it. Nothing more difficult than having to be alone with yourself.
I am smiling, tightly, and across the font, Annie catches my eye and smiles back, and then returns her attention to her new daughter. Tom is to her right, hand on his hip, and she eases her own hand through the space between his arm and his body, takes hold of his wrist, rubs it. It’s been a long haul for them, with Lara, at least two miscarriages before the final successful pregnancy and two scares with that one, at two months and then at five months.
“All right,” says the priest. “Grandma, you’ll bring our candidate forward?”
My grandmother leans over the basin, proffering the baby. I see Annie’s mouth tense a little and pull thin. She and Tom made plans to go on a ski trip back in January, their first vacation since the birth. They were going to leave Lara with my parents. Annie couldn’t do it, turned the car around when they were halfway to New Hampshire. You’ll understand if you have one, my mother tells me, usually when she comes to visit me at school and I laugh at her for reminding me to wash my hands, to look both ways before I cross. When you have one.
“Lara Alena McGavin,” the priest says. “What do you ask of the church of God?”
This is my speaking part.
Lara’s eyes roll toward me. Hey, kid. Just signing you up. Don’t lift a finger.
“What does faith offer you?”
“Eternal life.” See? Not bad, Lara Alena McGavin. Alena is included at the behest of my grandparents, who wanted their granddaughter to have a saint’s name. Annie threatened to make it Aphrodisius. Tom talked her down.
The priest places a hand on Lara’s skull, thumb cocked above the forehead. Something glistens on his fingers. “Do you renounce Satan?”
What is that? I almost miss my cue. “I do — renounce him.”
“And all his works?”
Those too. “I do renounce them.” It looks wet. Is that all the water he’s going to use? He’s not even going to take any from the font?
“And all his allurements?”
They want you to be absolutely clear on this point. “I — do renounce them.” I’m trying to vary my inflection from line to line to make the responses more interesting for the celebrant, who must go through this drill a lot. He looks at me, and I think he notices me looking at his thumb. It can’t be water, water would have dried by now. Oil, some kind of oil. It reflects the light of the baptismal candle and for a moment the thumb itself seems to hold its own flickering flame. I flash on a series of Biblical fires. Tongues of, and then the apostles could speak all different languages. He will baptize you with.
He passes his thumb over the forehead and withdraws his hand, and now the candlelight picks out a cross on the vulnerable brow, traced in oil. I’d forgotten about that part. Lara shifts and my grandmother readjusts her arms.
Main event still to come. The priest produces a shallow dipper, slips it into the water and brings it up swiftly.
The last baptism I remember was back at home, seven or eight years ago, just before my parents gave up dragging me to church. It was one of the last ordinary Sundays that I went, a group ceremony during the regular mass, two baby girls and two boys. The girls cried when the water touched them. The boys didn’t. I remember that I wondered if maybe God inflicted pain on females during baptism, an extra punishment for their instigating role in the tree of knowledge debacle. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find it in some theological tract. Twelve years old, or thirteen, a self-declared feminist since four, but already blasé when it came to divine misogyny.
Water splashes back into the basin. Lara cries.
The godmother!” Tom squeezes my shoulder and offers me a piece of frosted angel cake.
I wave it off. “Thanks. I’m set.”
“This is the one they all look up to,” Tom says to the priest, who is a friend of my grandparents’ and so has been invited back to their house for the reception.
“The eldest grandchild?” the priest asks.
I cross my arms over my stomach. “Feeling very old today.”
“She’s a tough act to follow,” Tom tells him. “Went to Zylman for high school. I don’t have to tell you where she goes now. Smart. Intrepid.”
“You were flawless in the ceremony,” says the priest, smiling.
I shrug. “I don’t know what kind of religious guide I’ll make. I wanted to start out on the right foot, at least.”
They laugh, and Tom shakes his head. “This one,” he says. “This one was memorizing the Bible when she was six. She and her mom and I used to take walks by the river when we were all visiting here, and she’d tell the stories to us. The lapsed generation.”
Our man of the cloth looks impressed. “Oh, you like the stories?”
People always act this way, as if someone who can identify Mephibosheth or recognize an allusion to Moses striking the rock must be one of the faithful. I know nothing, I told Tom and Annie when they asked me to be Lara’s sponsor. I can tell you all about it, but I don’t know any of it. I know about Hildegard and her headaches, I can remember 1054 and 1517. No spirit moves in me. I don’t pray. They told me they wanted me there for her anyway, as an advisor in general, if not on matters spiritual. I’m sure there are things you don’t talk to your mother about, Annie said, conspiratorial. I’d love to know that she has someone to go to when that comes up. I know you’d be great for that. I think that was meant to be a vague noun. I don’t know about that, I said, and meant it as a specific demonstrative. She heard it the other way, of course, and I didn’t clarify. That ignorance, I have always kept quieter than heresy in time of inquisition.
“At mass when I was younger — when I was too young to really follow the service, I’d read — ”
“A boredom that my brother and I chose instead to address by crawling under the pews,” says Tom, who has apparently chosen to be hearty, rather than apologetic, about his lack of religion. Better the charming unbeliever than the simpering one. The priest nods.
“I’m just one of those people — I get bored in the shower, I read the shampoo bottle ingredients — ” I am twisting one palm against the other, elbows raised, an attitude I assume when trying to entertain people I don’t know. Shower — is it taboo to mention a situation that implies nudity in front of a celibate? “ — so they had a lot of — sort of — children’s Bibles and things, and of course there was the actual Bible — ”
The priest is still nodding. He is probably thinking that it’s nice to know there are still girls like this, white-clad, bookish, fetchingly shy. He says nothing. For lack of anything else, I ask him about the use of the word font to describe something that is clearly not a font. He commends me for an interesting question.
I’m pouring myself a third Diet Coke at the card table they’ve set up as a bar in the living room. A pair of arms slips around my waist and draws tight, and I start and turn to find my cousin Cait — eleven, exuberant — behind me. I twist to return her embrace with one arm and work the cap back onto the soda bottle with my free hand. “Hey.”
She looks up at me, tilts her head. “Are you twenty?”
“You’re old.” Still holding onto me, she starts to sink toward the floor, clasped arms sliding over my hips. This has been her favorite move since she learned to walk. Once, at a Christmas gathering, she took my skirt with her.
“Easy.” I feel the seams of my dress strain; the neckline, already low for my taste, is receding precipitously.
She lets go suddenly and jumps up. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too. It’s nice to see you. How’s your sister?” Nadia is four years older than Cait, drastically different in temperament.
“Ai-dan,” says Cait in a singsong voice. This is what she calls her sibling when she wants to antagonize her. I am to blame for this, having noted a few years ago that the name, spelled backwards, is a boy’s. Luckily, Cait does not remember that it was I who pointed this out, and so her parents — my mother’s older brother and his wife — think she came up with it herself, one more thing for the girls to fight about.
“Aidan has a boyfriend,” says Cait, making a face of rigid disgust.
“A boyfriend? No way.”
“Yes way. She’s a real teenager now. She has a boyfriend.”
“What’s his name? Have you met him?”
“No, but she talks to him all the time on the phone in her room. His name is Richard.”
“She probably wants to talk to you about him.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m too old to talk about teenage romance now.” I think Nadia, who spent her youth fawning on me much as her sister does now, has recently begun to suspect that I am perhaps not as infallibly worthy as she once thought. The last time we saw each other I had to confess that I didn’t have a first date story to tell her. I also admitted that I only sometimes liked college. She was polite, but I could tell she wasn’t happy with either answer.
“You’re not a teenager anymore,” says Cait, nodding, and then lunges for me again. I inhale sharply. That feeling, that closeness. A hug from a kid. You wouldn’t think it would send me back like that, arms around my waist. Hands shaking, fingertips across the skin of my abdomen.
Cait reaches up and puts a hand on my neck, pulls me down close to her. “Do you know what a nickname for Richard is?” she whispers, and giggles.
At three o’clock, some of the guests are beginning to leave, the tennis partners of my grandparents and the church acquaintances. I go upstairs to the room that has been mine for as long as I have been visiting here and put on my bathing suit. I put the dress back on over it and find my mother and Annie in my grandfather’s study, where a cot has been unfolded for one of the cousins. Lara lies on a towel spread over the cot; Annie is fastening a new diaper at her daughter’s hip.
“We were just talking about you,” my mother says when I come in. “I was telling Annie that I thought you’d had a pretty good year at school.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Great, really.”
Annie works a blue tunic over Lara’s freshly Christian head. “I think Cait was looking for you earlier. Did she find — ?”
“God, she looks a lot like Tom did when he was a baby,” my mother says, offering her index finger to Lara, who wraps her own small digits around it. “Like you, too,” she adds, glancing up at Annie. “Something around the eyes. Looks like they’re going to be brown, after all.”
“It’s good to know that some of those dominant genes actually came out,” says Annie, smiling. “Even though she’s got all this blond hair.” She puts the baptismal gown onto a hanger and lays it on the bed, smoothes it. “Who does this go back to? Is there a keeper of the family gown?”
“Actually — ” My mother considers. “You can probably leave it here. Or bring it home with you. It’ll probably fit Lara for her first communion.”
“Is that why they make them so long — ?” Annie starts, and then laughs. “The Catholics. You never know.”
“That’s why the outfit is the same for every occasion,” I say. Confirmation, wedding. You get a good one when your daughter’s born and you never have to shop again.
“Oh, you’re kidding me.” She runs a hand over the top of the baby’s head. “Are they kidding me? I hope you enjoyed that, miss, because you’ve got seven years until your next big Catholic moment.”
A torturous period, when you’re in the church but still kind of a junior member. They’ve got to keep it interesting, I suppose, space out the thrills. Before I was old enough to take the host, I used to administer pretend Eucharists to myself with water crackers. I worried, when I was finally of age, that I might appear at first too practiced, suspiciously adept in the consumption of the body and the blood.
“I’m going to take a walk by the river,” I tell my mother.
“Okay,” she says. “We all might go down to the beach later. Do you have your cellphone?”
“Stick on this side, then. You’re going to be where we usually walk? I’ll come down and find you if we decide to go.”
Downstairs again, I locate a cluster of grapes in the refrigerator and put them in a plastic bag. I stop at our car in the driveway to get the novel I’ve been reading out of the glove compartment. From the house the town rolls downhill. It’s a clear day and nothing is obscured. The green corridor of the river, the drawbridge at its throat, the ocean beyond.
Hand over the top of the head. I wasn’t practiced for that. And, in the moment, a little self-conscious, because I had been swimming earlier that day and I still hadn’t showered, and my hair was matted with chlorine, fastened tightly back, no treat to run your hands through. Just once, a hug and head inclining to head, click of mouths and then you brushed my hair back, in a gesture that seemed to hold relief. Witnessed, and thus somehow formal, but no one but I saw your face just before it. You were smiling, the gentlest smile I had ever seen, sweet.
I take the straightest route, through the center and across the fenced green to the quay. People are everywhere along the brick walkway but I find a bench and sit down. The river is busy, motorboats negotiating around long sculls, crew teams from the local high school. I find my place in the book and hold it open on my lap. I eat my fruit, I listen to the shouts of the coxswains. I am still on the same page. Why am I still on the same page?
What are you reading, he asked me in the waiting room. I was in my second month at college, exhibiting a range of conditions that summed to failure to thrive. Not least among them, failure to eat. And so they hauled me in to check me out and scare me straight. He was there to resolve some question of medical insurance. I was reading Chekov for my theater survey. He’d taken it the year before. We agreed that the teacher was great. Other classes? We were both considering an English course in Shakespeare’s comedies. We had both read Measure for Measure on our own. I hadn’t known anyone else liked it. It was a bunch of typical reasons to like someone, a bunch of typical connections and coinciding interests. Friends, all last year, a time when I didn’t make or hold many. He didn’t save my life, he didn’t turn everything around for me, but he was there when I was ready to do it myself.
My stomach cramps around the grapes, and the need to lie down comes on me suddenly, a craving. I look around and then sink from the bench to the ground, stretch out until I am prone on the side of the walk. The sun has been gathering in the bricks all day, and beneath me, they seem to generate their own warmth. It is a heat that feels intense enough to sear through clothing; I rise up on my elbows a moment to make sure that the material isn’t singed. I wore this dress to my high school commencement, and got a sunburn that took six months to fade, a squared patch of red over my upper chest and collar, interrupted on both sides by narrow white bars where the shoulder straps had been. A handful of the boys in our class went out the night after the ceremony for matching tattoos, the year of graduation and the school seal. People were devoted to Zylman. I was. For six months, I smiled at the browning skin and thought of the white tent, the book prizes, the terraced trays of strawberries.
I didn’t smile at a lot of other things during those six months, the rainy autumn of my freshman year. It was the usual story. I missed my old friends, I missed home and the convenience of it. I wanted to be a child again. Was.
A group of girls, probably high school, have formed a circle on the green. They are throwing a Frisbee, and playing some kind of game — whoever has the Frisbee gives a hint, and the others have to guess what famous person she’s thinking of. She throws to the first one who gets it.
“Okay — hold on — someone who just got arrested. An actress.”
There is a chorus of answers, laughter, and the Frisbee is passed.
“All right — okay, someone who has a pirate ship.”
They don’t throw well, and they’re falling over themselves, making fun of each other, happy and stupid together. Is it that one feels less inhibited in a group, able to be stupid without feeling it, or is it that people who want to act as a unit have to operate on the level of the slowest member? My stomach is still bothering me and I am feeling uncharitable.
The Frisbee flies above me and then curves back around, coming to rest atop my book. The girls make playful sounds of distress and one of them rushes over, a girl in pink shorts and a T-shirt that identifies her as a member of a junior varsity crew team.
“Sorry!” she says.
“Don’t worry about it.” I smile and hand the Frisbee back to her. My gut is gradually beginning to unclench. I slip a hand underneath myself and knead it gently.
I don’t think, in high school, that I would have taken up this position in public, no matter how much my stomach was hurting me, and that’s something good that came out of that first year of college, an utter indifference to what people might think. I was doing what I could to get through, and sometimes that meant I didn’t brush my hair or ate alone in a teeming dining hall or went to bed at ten while my roommate stayed up in the common room. I never thought about how people might see me — or, if I did, I realized I didn’t care — never once considered boys or romance. I knew, abstractly, that he was perfectly fulfilled in regard to that. I didn’t care.
I spot my mother on the other side of the river; she is with Nadia and Cait, standing before the display window of a tourist boutique. Annie emerges from a neighboring store, with Lara in a stroller, and joins them. I return my attention to my book, willing myself inconspicuous. There will be time with all of them tonight. Games and conversations, probably music.
I was happy to be home, last year at this time, more than happy, instituted a moratorium on discussion of school. By that spring I had given up, started marking the time until I could retreat for the summer. But sophomore year, I tried. And things were better. I met more people, and suddenly we had more friends in common, he and I. We took absurdist theater together. He started stopping me when we met on the paths around campus, asking me where I was going, what I’d thought of The Future is in the Eggs. By then, I had been so long removed from the world outside the head that I didn’t understand what was going on. And then we were seeing each other every day when we both had parts in a production of Twelfth Night, and finally there was the cast party, I leaving early to study for a French test, everyone else, well aware of what in the offing, trying to distract me into staying longer, one more minute, I think someone was looking for you. It was supposed to be discreet, an invitation to walk outside, but it was so cold and I, still oblivious, was insisting that I had to get back to my room, I had fifty pages of reading, Flaubert, small type. And so I was out the door and down the hallway when someone yelled for me to stay, drew me back to stand at the threshold before them all as for a judgment. Then you.
A boy, seven or eight, stands on the quay and throws rocks into the water. The Frisbee sails over and lands at his feet, and he picks it up.
“Want to play?” calls one of the girls. He nods, and they explain the rules. He can’t think of a famous person.
“Just throw it, then,” says the girl who invited him into the game. “There’ll be more chances. You can come up with one after.”
After, there were strained joking emails, both of us trying to feel out where the other stood, and finally I decided to show my hand and sent some bloodless message, I really enjoy being with you and let’s get together for dinner sometime. No reply, and for a day I wondered if I had imagined the entire scene, and then the next afternoon my phone rang and he wanted to borrow my copy of Albee. I went down to let him into the dorm and we were wrapped together before the door closed behind him. Side by side, we tramped upstairs. I’d left my room unlocked.
Someone is standing over me. Cait squats, puts her face close to mine. “Wake up!”
“I’m not sleeping.” I lift my head and squint. My mother is beside her.
“We’re just doing a girls’ expedition around town. We wondered if you wanted to come.”
“No, thanks.” Of course she wants my cousins to have fun, wants me to have fun as well. But, to my own shame, I cannot stand their presence, cannot even talk to them. She makes a few more entreaties, bends down and rubs my shoulders.
“Don’t touch me,” I murmur before I know what I’m saying. They go.
I never imagined that contact could devastate. Maybe sex itself, but not merely the fitting of lips, the hand in the small of the back, the sapid spinal arch as one body bends the other backward. Perhaps, as with opiates, the first exposures are the most intense. So new. Sublime, terrible, in the slightly archaic, less adulterated sense of both words. In between kisses we clung to each other like brother and sister, a firm, comradely hug, not a romantic embrace at all. My legs, interlocked with yours, shook. When you left, I stood against the bed and held my arms straight over my head as you had, tried to feel again the blind fall onto the comforter, your hands pinning mine, my face exposed, unapologizing. For the first time I knew the value of that meager clairvoyance that all of us seem to have, that ability to know what’s about to happen the moment before it does; it was this that allowed me to sway with you, to be moved and touched without question. You pulled me up from the bed and turned me so I stood in profile to you, you put your mouth to my ear. You ran your hands — shaking also — across the skin of my abdomen, and my muscles tightened, I almost laughed. You seemed to like my stomach so much. Why?
You were busy, and you had to go. After you pulled back and told me that, you kissed me on the forehead, and it fell heavier and lovelier than any of the other touches. There was attraction and there was fondness — can I say love, without you here to ratify it? — but also approval, almost paternal. I put my arms around your shoulders and kissed you again, mouth on mouth, and you were smiling when I released you. You put your bag over your shoulder and left, ducking forward as if you were sneaking away. And I in my room was quieter too, trying also to be unobtrusive in the presence of something so large. I was uncomfortably charged, desperate to touch again, left with the shopworn metaphors and paradoxes — the rush that is amphetamine and heroin in one, the revelation that what is gentlest resides in the heart of savagery.
We made plans to have dinner together a few nights later, but he had an unforeseen rehearsal. There were a few weeks of more abortive plans to see each other again, and of course we still saw each other in class. I don’t know what happened. It was the end of the year, he was preoccupied with all the considerations of a rising senior, he’d had a girlfriend not long ago and wasn’t ready, I made reasons. I sent emails. I cried when I thought of his hands in my hair.
I rest my chin in the center of the open book and let my head fall until my right cheek presses against the page. Through the space beneath the bench, I can see the legs of the Frisbee players.
“I’m thinking of someone,” sings a girl, someone I see only as a pair of sweatpants rolled to the knees and socked feet in sandals. “Someone who’s really strong. In a story.”
“Samson!” says the little boy.
“Hercules!” says a girl in pink shorts, the one who reclaimed the Frisbee from me.
“It was Hercules,” says the first girl, sounding apologetic, as if she is eager to include the boy. She takes an awkward step forward and presumably throws; the Frisbee glides wildly high and drops over the edge of the quay. Cries of dismay. They all run to the path, squat down to reach for it. The thrower and the receiver apologize to each other.
“Nick is going to kill us,” says the one in sweatpants, and giggles. She is holding onto a post meant for securing boats and leaning out over the river. Her upper half is as I imagined it: slim, tanned, brown hair slung up in a lopsided bun.
“We could dangle the kid over the side to grab it.” Laughter.
“He wouldn’t be long enough.”
The girl in the pink shorts slips off her flip-flops and climbs haltingly down the quay ladder, stops just above the water, reaches. Unsuccessful, she turns around to address the walkway. “Does anyone have a net or anything?” Already young men are massing in a loose ring around the stricken women, conferring with each other over retrieval strategies. I mark my page and then weight down the empty plastic bag with my book. The little crowd is drifting down toward the bridge, apparently following the progress of the lost Frisbee. I push myself up off the ground and join them.
It seems to have gone farther out into the water than I would have guessed, or maybe the current pulled it; it is ten or fifteen feet from the dock.
I stretch a hand behind me and get hold of the zipper that runs up my back. My heart is accelerating and my fingers slip off the tab; I catch it again and draw it down. I turn away to step out of the dress and align myself with the floating quarry. It starts to sink, and there is another outcry from the girls before it settles a few inches lower, just below the surface.
One of the boys, muscled and tall, notices me. “Hey — are you — ?” He glances out at the Frisbee. “Hey, she’s going in.”
“Really?” says the girl in sweatpants.
I shrug and smile. Everyone is looking. I lock my hands together and bring them up under my chin to cover my chest with my forearms. My face is hot; I do not know if it is a self-conscious flush or an excited one.
The water is five or six feet below us and gives away no indication of depth. Around me there are the girls and the boys and the bridge down the river. I extend my right leg out over the side for a natural stride, the lifeguard jump, but I am thinking too hard about it and I freeze in a goosestep. I step back, retreat a few feet from the edge, step forward again, right leg, a step that takes me up to where I was a moment ago. And then I am left leg first, falling through, groping for purchase in holdless cold.
My foot hits silty bottom and I send myself hurtling back toward the surface, hands raised over my head in a sort of inverted dive. Above, people lean over me, pointing. I look up and my eyes are full of sun. The bridge seems no longer entirely even with the land on our bank of the river, and I realize that in fact it is not; it must be twenty of the hour, and it is rising.
The layers of water at the surface are warm, and I tread and look for the Frisbee. The current seems faster than it did from the land, and already the toy has moved considerably since before my jump. I check for boats, but the river is empty now and I chart a diagonal course, breast. Water washes in and out of my mouth, salt and vegetable and something vaguely chemical. The white circle bobs ahead; I snag it without interrupting my stroke and swing a wide arc back toward the quay. I will have to get out at the ladder. I swim one-handed, and the onlookers walk alongside.
“Hero! Hero!” shouts one of the girls, and I, chin trailing through the water, am smiling, laughing with them, stupid with them.
I find the mossy submerged rungs and pull myself out, dripping long strands. Every puff of wind is ice. I’ll have to walk all the way back to the house like this; I can’t put my dress over my bathing suit, at least not unless I dry off here first.
Someone helps me out and someone else takes the Frisbee and offers appreciation. A man holding a telescoping metal rod touches my shoulder.
“If you’d waited another few minutes, I maybe could’ve gotten it with this,” he says.
“Hey, I was ready to get in the water,” I say. I am shivering now, shoulders flinching toward each other, and my hair is splayed over my back like a single wet wing. Hands passing over my hair, scraped into its braid and matted with chlorine and wind, and still you slid your hand into it, and it felt like relief, grateful.
So I exonerated myself with a million stories, when you didn’t come back. However I told it, it had nothing to do with me, and maybe it really didn’t, but of course I only came up with so many different explanations because I had a feeling that it did. There were the usual worries, the pretty-thin-good enough triad, but I suspected my own deeper faults, couldn’t deny that they were probably evident. You knew how green I was. Maybe you thought I’d cling, and maybe you were right, because here I am, and God knows I haven’t read a word of this book in all this time.
My suit has stopped dripping and I feel the sun again. Across the grass, a bus stops at the curb and the girls pick up their bags and shuffle toward it. They wave at me.
My body dries in patches. Wherever the water evaporates, it leaves the aired regions prickling and cool, as if it carries the skin away with it and bares the raw keen flesh. So acute that almost everything is painful, but glowing with vitality, pulse visible. New.