I watched the half-full moon flying in inky depths of the sky from the comfort of my futon, eager, now that the children were asleep, to leave a faint impression of self on the canvas of the day. I heard the soft padding of bare feet on linoleum. My daughter appeared, rail thin and pale, fresh from those other depths of sleep. She is seven and almost feral, a lover of puns and bending the day to her iron will.
My daughter doesn’t much resemble the girl I thought I’d have—a sweet and tender child who dearly loved her little brother and helped her parents with chores. Instead, she loves to put her brother in headlocks and scold him for his meager comprehension of the world. But the lives we dream and the lives we live rarely intersect, and I love her fiercely—my intransigent, surprising girl.
That particular night, her eyes, dark like mine, were dreamy and distant; tendrils of sleep coiled around her like honeysuckle to a fence post. She asked her usual questions: What are you doing? Why are you still awake? As though my existence without her and her brother was preposterous, null. After a quiet spell, in which I went back to looking at my computer, she asked if I believed in God.
I paused; her mother and I had talked during the beginning stages of the separation about how I’d describe my relationship to God. I’ll lie, I told my former wife confidently.
That evening, as the question lay between my daughter and I, I looked out the window at the night—shrouds of tree-shaped shadows, a middle school, well-lit, painted in bright red. I can’t be sure about God, I told her.
Not sure? She asked.
Yes, I said. I’m not sure about God. But, I said, still looking out the window as though the sky held answers, Christians believe in God and Heaven and Hell.
I don’t want to go to Hell, she said. Am I a Christian?
You go to church on Sundays, I told her, not wanting to delve into Bible camps and how exactly someone accepts Jesus into their very own heart and whether He exits via the back or the front door if things go awry.
She was soothed by my answer. The promise of eternal life will do that for a child. I shepherded her back to bed, my child of coiled muscle and will. She is like tiger lilies that have grown wild beyond the garden wall.
Who can be sure of anything, man, woman or child, when the planet spins at 1,000 miles per hour, a mad dreidel twirling around the sun? Who can make sense of the rivers of nickel and iron boiling beneath us, or the earth’s inner core, large as the moon and blazingly hot as the sun? Surely, these too must be fairy tales. Who can know anything beyond what’s right in front of them: the rectangular shadow cast on a white wall, the television’s black mirror, a tangle of cords, an apple core discarded by the boy after dinner and flung beneath the leg of a futon, a scattering of sunflower seeds from emptied lunch bags, a blue mug with a silver spoon inside, gathering bits of lamplight on its handle, and already I’m leaving out hundreds of other things, the immensity of even this one quiet room.
To calm myself, I sipped a glass of Cabernet, which tasted of nothing so much as cheap red wine, and thought of my daughter. She’d been sharing puns with me earlier, which she’d gathered from Highlights magazine, a series of ridiculous jokes that provoked small laughter. She’s always loved language. As a two-year-old, she used to ask her mother and I to think of the longest word we could, and then she’d work on perfecting the pronunciation and repeating it from the back seat, in her sing-songy voice. Obfuscation, endemic, supercilious, she crowed, wearing sunglasses too large for her small face, trying already to solve the riddle of language, the riddle of the world.
After telling me a few puns, she said she’d made up one of her own. What’s a bear’s favorite cereal? Grrrranola. We laughed. Did she make it up or was she lying to me? I checked the internet but couldn’t figure it out. Was I lying about God? Was she lying about bears and breakfast cereal?
I opened a student’s essay from my composition course, but I was too exhausted to be analytic, so I mused on God, who had once been my comforter and confidante. I’d prayed to Him daily throughout my twenties. I’d given myself over to His presence by the blue-green Pacific, a sunset in the distance, painting the horizon and water absurd colors, pinks and oranges, shades of cerulean and reseda, the sorts of colors my childhood box of pencils didn’t have names for—who but a Creator could have made such beauty, I’d been asked time and time again. I’d felt His presence almost daily during college, at a small school nestled beneath the Santa Ynez mountains. I’d sat on an enormous granite rock, legs crossed, feeling God, as I listened to the Santa Ana winds passing through the boughs of white alders and Manzanitas, mimicking the sound of the ocean.
And then God had gone silent. Or I’d grown into silence dense as a thicket. Or God had never been there at all. Or I’d never believed in God but had only thought I’d believed in God because of my upbringing. By thirty, it became clear the two of us could not go on. And yet, I dutifully kept attending church, shaking hands and singing hymns, smiling at the baptism of my children, ordaining them to a God I didn’t believe in.
The problem was something wild and autonomous had awoken within me during those years between college and the cusp of middle age. As a longtime Christian, I knew a central tenet was devoting your life to God, giving it over completely and joyfully. I didn’t want to give my short life over to anyone. I was no longer willing to believe that narrative, even if it meant giving up the comfort I used to feel on a warm day, the sun on my skin, God’s love incarnate, which was now just the heat of a distant star.
But perhaps He might still exist somewhere distant, for don’t purple-blooming orchids grow from shelves of rock and sphagnum moss? Their flowery heads crowned by morning light and glittering rain, dipping in the wind as if life were normal there even in the most obscure of places.
The children are asleep. My daughter’s body at a forty-five-degree angle across the floor and my son is nestled in the blankets on the bed we share. They have a bunk bed in the back room that neither of them sleeps in anymore. We all sleep in the same room, inspiring one another to sleep. They are scared sometimes of being alone in the vastness of my new apartment as I am sometimes scared at being alone in the vastness of the universe.
Maybe one day we’ll row a space ship through the stars, push past the outer planets and beyond the Milky Way, searching every nook and cranny of the universe for God. We’ll find Him inside a black hole, bending space and time round Himself. He’ll clamber out shame-facedly, wiping the moss of time from His eyes, astonished by His own existence, by the universe’s absurd expansion, by all that eternity entails—a child’s dying breath, a winter coat gathering moths, a bit of fingernail on the bathroom floor in a hotel in Mexico, potato bugs clambering through layers of sediment, gnats gathering to light, a pod of orcas in the sound, the outline of trees against blued evening air, a single hair on Napoleon’s head, blown wild at Waterloo, an individual snowflake falling in the Hindu Kush mountains—as it flickers across the vast labyrinth of His mind.
© Andrew Bertaina
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Andrew’s interview]