As soon as Eddie saw the building, she knew where Rina had taken her. It wasn’t that Eddie recognized it exactly; she had never been here before. If asked, she would have said she noticed the distinctive architecture or an identifying bit of graffiti or the faded yellow notices of closure on the front doors. But the feeling of recognition didn’t sprout in Eddie’s brain; its roots were in her gut, like a cramp or a teenage crush.
“It’s a place of worship,” Rina said.
That was the proper term. By the time Eddie was born, words like temple and mosque had fallen out of use and place of worship described all meeting-places formerly considered sacred regardless of so-called faith affiliation. The word church was reserved for the institution itself, as in “corruption in the church” or “decline of the church.” To Eddie’s Grandma June, church had been a slur, meant to be emphatically spat out.
Eddie’s great-grandmother Mary, whom she had never known, was one of the last worshippers, a fact that her daughter June resented for most of her life. June and Mary’s relationship had always been fraught, but the final, irreparable crack came after the death of June’s father, Ty.
“A proper funeral,” Grandma June would scoff as she told the story. “There was nothing proper about it. It wasn’t against the law yet, but it was definitely backwards. All that looking at a dead body. Disgusting. We had to drive three hours to find a church that would even consider having a funeral. At least his body went to science; it isn’t rotting in the ground somewhere.”
“Let’s go inside,” Rina said, tugging on Eddie’s sleeve.
“Are you serious? We could be killed.”
“We’re not going to be killed.” Rina rolled her eyes.
“You can’t possibly believe that building is structurally sound.”
“It’s held this long. It’s not going to decide to cave in today.”
“How do you know?”
“Ed.” Rina took Eddie’s hands in hers. “Come on. It’ll be an adventure.”
Eddie looked into Rina’s pleading eyes. It still surprised Eddie that Rina’s eyes were that shade of brown, the exact color of the roasted almonds she bought from vendors on the street corners back home. Eddie grew up in a city painted in a warm palette, punctuated by saturated jewel tones from flags, awnings, and food carts. This new city was dull and cold and rusting, everything fading into the same shade of beigey grey. Rina’s eyes were one of the only colors that felt like home here.
Eddie sighed. “Fine. But we can’t stay long.”
Rina grinned and squeezed Eddie’s hands. “Deal. Come on.”
Rina pulled Eddie inside through a hole in the wall, and Eddie half expected to see tracks of stage lights or shelves of books. She had never been in a place of worship before that hadn’t been converted into a theater or a store. In richer cities, the local governments could take over the buildings that dotted their streets instead of leaving them to rot on valuable lots, so they converted them into places of gathering or commerce. Eddie had heard of a few historical societies in more rural areas preserving places of worship as museums.
But from her first breath inside, Eddie knew this space was different. Time and sound had been sucked out of the room. Left behind was a muffled and weighty silence Eddie felt obliged not to break. The walls reached up high overhead to the water-stained ceiling sagging beneath the weight of the caving roof. Dust and debris sat in the rows of benches as if waiting for something to begin.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Rina spoke so quietly that, for a moment, Eddie was convinced she had heard her own thought echoing in the thick silence around her. “Can you imagine this place filled with people? They say on holidays it used to be packed.”
Eddie looked around and tried to imagine it, real people sitting in all those wooden benches, looking toward someone at the front of the room whose words held no meaning for Eddie. Yet that image felt like a fabrication, a covering over of the space’s truth.
Pews. The word floated up from Eddie’s memory as she slid herself into one of the benches. She had probably read it in a book somewhere. Most of Eddie’s conception of religious mythology came from old films and books, plus the basics she was taught in school. By then, the governmental message had solidified: religion was not all bad, but it caused much more harm than good. Blood had been shed in the name of religion since the beginning of time, but historians marked the two most recent decades of theophobia as the catalyst for radical governmental action. Much of the country had already predicted the natural decline of religious mythology as a belief system, but as the ideologies entered their death throes, extremism from the conservative branches of the remaining cults (and their secular opponents) increased dramatically. The government stepped in, enacting the Religious Reform Act and calling it a temporary solution. A hundred years later, the prohibition on religion still stood.
Although there may have been a few students secretly opposed to the RRA on Eddie’s campus, most of the student activism related to religion focused on preservation and education — history lovers pushing to maintain the memory of a practice that had so deeply formed the nation, academics invested in teaching the good and bad of religious mythologies to develop more informed students, a handful of conservatives who revived rhetoric from the First Constitution to call for a return to old understandings of freedom.
Eddie wasn’t a part of those groups. She worried about other things — how she would pass molecular biology, whether she’d look like a pig if she ate two Beyond Burgers at dinner, and Rina.
Eddie met Rina through the poetry collective. She wore tortoiseshell glasses and Black Cherry lipstick. Eddie had seen her before in the hall bathroom — her hair wrapped in a towel and a toothbrush sticking out of her mouth — humming under her breath as she rinsed out a purple tea kettle in her night shirt — darting in with a backpack over one shoulder to quickly fill her water bottle in the morning, because the closest water fountain was three floors up. Eddie’s poem for the first meeting of the collective explored the difficulties of expressing true emotion through limited language. Rina wrote about mangos. They immediately became friends.
Rina was the reason Eddie was (illegally) standing in a (structurally unsound) abandoned place of worship. Eddie had walked out of her biology lecture that afternoon to find Rina waiting for her. Grinning, Rina bounced up and down on her toes as Eddie pulled her grey beanie further over her ears so Rina couldn’t see them turning red.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Nice to see you, too.” Eddie cracked a smile.
“What are you doing tonight?” Rina repeated.
“I have a bunch of work to do this weekend….”
Rina cut her off. “Nope. Not a valid excuse. Do you have anything mandatory tonight?”
“No.” Eddie smirked. “What are you plotting?”
“You’ll see,” Rina sang. “Meet me at 4:30 at Redwood.”
A ball of excitement and terror turned the pit of Eddie’s stomach in on itself. The combination of exhilaration and panic she usually felt when thinking about Rina was only exacerbated by the element of surprise in today’s plans. What Rina called spontaneity, Eddie called chaos.
Eddie felt that same excitement and terror now as she looked at Rina sitting next to her and gazing at the place of worship, the dusty light filtering in to catch the reddish undertones in her curls.
“This used to be a synagogue,” Rina said, the word sounding funny on her tongue. “A Jewish place of worship.” She paused, turning toward Eddie. “I’m Jewish.”
“I’m not Jewish, like, religious Jewish. Obviously.” Rina pushed her glasses up on her nose and struggled to find the right words. “Jewish like… in my blood Jewish. Ethnically Jewish, I guess?”
Eddie had never thought about how Jewish people had been affected by the prohibition on religion before. Other religious mythologies like Christianity and Islam did not claim the same kind of inheritance.
Rina could see Eddie trying to work out the knot. “I know. It’s a little confusing, isn’t it? By law, there’s nothing against keeping track, you know, passing down the label. But we can’t really do anything about it. There’s no legal distinction between the culture or the lineage or whatever and the spiritual beliefs and practices.” Rina kicked at some debris on the floor. “My family passes on the knowledge. The identity. It feels like it means something, to be a part of a people. I’m not sure what exactly.” Rina laughed a little. They sat in silence, Rina wrapping her arms around herself. Eddie wished she could hold her like that.
“My great-grandmother was a worshipper,” Eddie said. She hadn’t told anyone that before. “Christian, specifically.”
“Really?” Rina’s eyes widened behind her glasses. “What was that like?”
Eddie shrugged. “I never knew her. But my grandmother, she hated it. She couldn’t understand why her mom held on to something like that. After my grandma died, my mom just didn’t want to talk about it. Leave it in the past, you know?”
Eddie turned to Rina, and her breath caught in her chest. At once, Eddie felt blissfully isolated from any world that existed outside and remarkably intimate with the space and everything in it — the dusty wood, the sagging roof, the crumbling walls, and Rina. The dim light cast Rina’s face as a painting, and her eyes caught flecks of gold. She looked like an icon from some ancient mythology, returned to her temple, shining with divinity. Eddie was suddenly a supplicant, a spectator, a skeptic; she ached to capture some of what shone off Rina for herself and, at the same time, resisted an urge to run far away.
Eddie reached out to touch Rina’s hair, brushing off a piece of dust caught in a curl. Her hand lingered there.
The corners of Rina’s lips pulled upward, and she softly placed her hand on Eddie’s thigh. The two girls leaned across the pew and into each other, and only when their lips met did Eddie exhale.
Eddie and Rina visited the synagogue three more times together before Eddie refused. It started with a lie, some fabricated excuse. She was busy, she said; she had a meeting or a p-set due. Maybe next time. Rina knew Eddie wasn’t telling the truth, but she let it go.
Eddie hated lying, especially to Rina, but something inside her decayed into itself at the thought of going back to the place of worship. It had started as a small twinge of uneasiness, far outweighed by the fresh joy of being alone with Rina. But even as they talked and kissed and opened themselves up to each other in that surreal space, Eddie couldn’t shake this blockage, this disconnect, like she was simultaneously pressed against a bolder and staring into a yawning, limitless abyss. Eddie could say with certainty it wasn’t Rina; this feeling was hardly noticeable when they were alone together in a dorm room. It was the place of worship, or Rina in the place of worship, that left Eddie feeling hollow and tense. The more Rina felt at home there, the more Eddie felt at sea.
“Are you ashamed?” Rina asked. They lay in Eddie’s room, not fighting but not far from it. Rina had stopped letting Eddie off easy.
“Of being there. Of me wanting to be there.”
“No, of course not.”
Eddie told her that she was uncomfortable breaking the law all the time and that she was scared the roof might collapse; she told her that she felt the space wasn’t meant for her, given her lack of Jewish ancestry and the history of how people who loved like them were treated in spaces like that. She couldn’t find a way to tell her that the place of worship had ripped out stitches she didn’t know she had and pulled out the stuffing inside.
When Rina left, Eddie lay on the bed staring at the ceiling. She imagined a painting there she vaguely remembered from high school art history. Big fleshy bodies with muscles like clouds caught under their skin, draped on top of each other and pushing against each other like naked subway riders or something more sinister. Two long fingers pressing their prints together right above Eddie’s head. Or maybe they didn’t touch. Eddie couldn’t remember.
She grabbed her tablet from the nightstand and sat staring at the search bar for what felt like a long time. She knew the government tracked search histories for abnormal behavior. She knew they specifically looked for signs of religious zealotry and extremism. Her brain raced through half-read news stories and half-believed rumors before convincing herself that a few vague terms couldn’t raise too many red flags.
Symbols blossomed on her screen — a six-pointed star or two overlapping triangles; a lowercase letter “t,” a swirling circle with black and white halves that fit together like two smitten fish — and art — endless patterns of blue and white radiating like petals or the shell of a divine turtle, intricate golden figures with wings or many sets of arms spread outward like wings or crossed legs beneath serene faces.
She thumbed through images of children holding hands, men in white robes with pointy hats, soldiers with red symbols on their shields and soldiers with red symbols on their arm bands, and many groups of people sitting with their eyes closed and their faces drawn.
When she searched place of worship, Eddie saw thousands of buildings, gold or white or grey or vibrantly multicolored, all stretching toward the sky. When she searched soul, she saw balls of light rising into the sky like in fantasy novels, people being ripped out of themselves like in horror movies, and sexless bodies glowing like in sci-fi video games. When she asked Siri “what does it all mean?,” Siri replied, “I’m sorry; I didn’t understand the question. Would you like to look at shopping results for meaning?”
When her battery ran out, it felt like a relief and a betrayal.
The next day, Rina returned to the synagogue, and Eddie returned to the search bar. She spent several lonely afternoons and sleepless nights changing search terms and scrolling through results until finally, when she found herself typing “is there life after death?” for the fifth time in an hour, she forced herself to disconnect from the WiFi and shut the tablet off.
Eddie stared at her reflection in the black screen without really seeing herself. A pressure built inside of her, like her stomach wanted to fly out through her mouth and disappear into the tablet.
When she closed her eyes, Eddie could see something, like she’d captured the image in the patterns of red and purple and black behind her eyelids. Consciously, she breathed.
Both of them inhaled hard when they saw it. It took forty-five minutes to get there from campus, and it had started to flurry, but it was worth it.
That afternoon, Rina had been surprised to step out of her seminar on Sappho to find Eddie waiting outside of the classroom.
“Hey!” Rina adjusted her glasses.
“What are you doing tonight?” Eddie asked.
Rina paused. “I have an essay due tomorrow, but….”
“Great. Meet me at 4:30 at Redwood.”
Rina touched Eddie’s arm. “Are you okay?” She looked into Eddie’s eyes, grey as the winter sky, and tried to get a read on the meaning behind them.
“I think so.” Eddie smiled a little. “Meet me at Redwood.”
Rina couldn’t have guessed that this was what Eddie had planned. Between a tobacco shop and a dollar store, an old building sagged. The remains of a stone pathway leading up to the front door were barely visible beneath unkempt grass and weeds, and the overgrown shrubbery reached up the sides of the building as though the earth was trying to pull it down into the soil — or shield it. If Rina had passed it on her own, in the time before she first found the synagogue, she may not have even realized what she was looking at.
“It used to be a church,” Eddie said.
“How did you find this place?”
“Let’s go inside.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay.” Rina exhaled, which turned into a light laugh. “Okay!”
Through a combination of stumbling and digging through the mud of the Internet, Eddie had seen pictures of the inside of this church before. But they were all from when it was still operational, before the church shut down, a good thirty years before the RRA. Eddie had been careful to control her expectations. It might all be gutted; it might be much more collapsed than the few recent outside shots revealed. Even as Eddie was climbing through the window into the space, she kept her eyes focused downward on the floor so her hopes wouldn’t be immediately dashed. It wasn’t until she straightened up that she let herself look around.
Eddie felt like she was standing in a secret cave or an ancient tomb. Everything looked like it had been sitting there for a century, undisturbed, untouched. The vaulted ceiling arched overhead like hands cupping a ladybug. Inside them, it was darker and warmer than expected. The floor was covered in a crimson carpet, beginning to grow mold in several places. Most of the windows were busted, but a few internal ones remained, their colored glass seeming completely opaque in the dim light. Toward the front of the room — at the altar — two intersecting planks of wood, which used to hang neatly on the wall, now lay in a heap, limbs shifted into a negating “X.”
Neither Eddie nor Rina could bring herself to disturb the quiet. Silently and slowly, they made their own ways through the room, coming across colonies of spiders and old index cards asking for prayers.
Neither could say how long they had been there when they found themselves sitting side by side in one of the pews.
Rina ventured to speak. “I’m worried about you.”
“I know.” Pulpit. Eddie remembered the word. “This place….”
“I can’t read you.” Rina shook her head. “You put up a wall, and I can’t see you. I don’t know what’s going on in your head.”
“I don’t know most of the time either.” Eddie laughed weakly.
“Are you okay?”
Eddie sat with the question. She thought she was okay, on the whole, or at least she was when she didn’t think too hard. Eddie knew Rina blamed herself, but that wasn’t true. Something had been nagging at Eddie for a while, a sense of bottled-up-ness and a disbelief in her own materiality, like everything pushing at her insides could send her floating into the air at any moment and she didn’t know where she’d end up. It was confusing.
“Why do you keep going back?” Eddie asked.
“To the synagogue?”
Eddie stared at her bitten fingernails.
“It makes me feel like I’m a part of something, like I’m connected to something wide and old. And like I’m participating in my own selfness.” Rina paused. “I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
“You need to be there? To feel it?”
Rina thought, then shook her head. “No. Sometimes it helps, but no. Sometimes I can make myself feel it, when I’m sitting in bed at night. Other times it just hits me, standing in line in the dining hall or in the middle of class or when you look at me.”
“How do you let yourself? Feel that.”
Rina looked toward the altar, searching for an answer there. “I just let myself breathe, I guess. Breathe with my whole self. I don’t need a building to do that.”
“Is it praying?”
“If I want it to be.”
They sat in silence for a long time before Eddie could ask.
“Do you think you could help me do it?”
Rina smiled a little. “I can’t breathe for you. But I could speak. Would that help?”
Eddie nodded. Rina opened her palms and closed her eyes. Eddie listened as Rina gently pressed words out of her mouth, each pulled up from somewhere deep inside her, a part of her that throbbed and ached and hoped and praised. There was music in the way Rina spoke, a rhythm to how each word appeared and expanded in the air.
Eddie sat in this moment, neither praying nor avoiding prayer, simply listening. She let the words pass over her body and sink through her skin, touching someplace deep beneath her ribcage. She found something there, growing warm and expanding. She hesitated.
Eddie breathed, and she was painfully and joyously filled.