i stand outside, cardboard box of starbucks coffee in one hand, a plastic bag containing two leaking cups of whole milk and half & half in the other. a thin splatter of dairy product stains the left leg of my jeans, and for this i silently curse business meetings and mornings in general. the rest of my department slowly arrives, and we stand around in the dull wednesday sun, waiting. we are here to retreat, to discuss, to reflect on things not entirely clear to us.
my boss, robert, used to raise money at this place. that’s why we are even able to come and gather here – he has a few old friends and a few old keys. his former colleague and current tour guide meets us outside the west entrance to the cathedral, and she tells us the story of the iconography. adam and eve. creation. ex nihilo – out of nothing.
but really, nothing comes of nothing.
in the picture, when it’s developed, the top of a head is visible in the lower right hand corner. it’s the head of a tall, thin classmate – a closely-shaved silhouette that barely makes it into the frame. it doesn’t obscure the rose window at all, which she is pleased about at first. sooner or later, she largely fails to notice him when she looks at the photo. he has become merely another part of the picture, not critical, not detrimental.
at first she looked at the photo often, as she does with the dozens of others she’s taken over the course of the week. she was thirteen, and very interested in pictures of herself and the people that she knows. she and her friends documented nearly ever moment of their week in washington, sublime statues and threadbare hotel rooms alike. after awhile, the picture, along with all of the others, got tucked away in a box, in a closet, in a basement.
she moved along, and the picture remained.
as we break for lunch, the room in the west tower is almost unbearably cold. Robert warned of the potential chill, but the long-sleeved shirt and wool sweater that i am wearing aren’t even enough. the group mills about the room, slowly moving towards the circular staircase that goes through the carillon. the thick ropes of the bell tower dangle through the ceiling, a circular temptation.
you can do anything, robert had said as we made our way up to the room, but don’t touch the ropes.
the largest bell, connected to the last rope, weighs 24,000 pounds. as my last few co-workers drift toward the door, i stare at a loop, which is connected to a rope, which is connected, invisible through the ceiling, to such a metal monstrosity. i long to grasp it with both hands, to steady myself, and to pull with all my might.
i want to announce something, and to do it without words.
she’s not sure where the picture is now, honestly. it is probably in an envelope with other photos from that year – three inches by five inches, slightly sticky with age, and utterly without import to anyone except a small delegation from a certain time and place.
the boy whose head was captured in the corner was named dennis. she’s surprised that now, after all this time, she remembers this – she can’t even remember the last time she looked at the picture. but she remembers it.
a few years ago, she heard that dennis had been killed when his car crashed into a tractor-trailer on the highway. she had not seen or spoken to him in years, and could not be sad in anything but a cosmic way. because really, no one should die under a semi-truck. no one should have to finish it all so soon, and like that.
she did wonder if he had still worn his hair so short, cut so close.
as we wait near a small service elevator, robert searches for a key on his crowded key ring. the low, immaterial sound of my co-workers making small talk thickens the air, and the elevator whirs to a stop in front of us. the lift gives us four simple choices – ancient, grimy buttons labeled 4, 3, 2, and 1. robert chooses 3, and with a small exclamation of delight, also finds the key that he was looking for.
down a thin, dim hallway and through a metal door, we emerge into open space, and i am surprised, almost, by the volume of it. i am against the wall, fifty feet above the nave of the cathedral, and a low heavy balcony separates me from the gleaming marble floor below. i step out, forward, one hand on the balcony and one on the wall. with my eyes, i follow the line of the arches in the vaulting, the repeated curving that supports the whole building without a bolt or a nail. it is all held up by the force of pressure – by the continuing push and pull.
i turn away from the air and towards what is close, what is sturdy. it is only then that i realize i am standing directly underneath the rose window. i am so close that i hardly recognize it; i can only see pieces of the whole, small illuminated sections of blue and red glass, sweeping bends of stone.
i am so close that i could touch it.
it is quiet - the other people on the balcony are hushed, and in the mid-day lull nothing moves below. i raise up my hand, and the momentum of everything slows. i am lifted up out of the river, and i feel in the absence of that roaring stream of time a peculiar sense of calm. i have been given a moment, but just one.
i reach, up, up on tiptoe. with the full stretch of my shoulder, i can grasp the edge of it – the solid circle that contains the rose. the limestone is cool and smooth, and the curve fills my palm and presses outward. i hold on, curl my fingers around it, and close my eyes. nothing comes of nothing, and i am here now.
as we make our way off of the balcony, the far end of the nave fills with echoing noise. a tour guide leads a group of school kids along the marble corridor, their jumbled exclamations rising and falling like a wave. i strain to see, but i cannot make out their faces.