Spring break of senior year, my high school choir toured Italy.
We started raising money in the fall: Each student sold wrapping paper and dip mixes and Christmas trinkets from flimsy glossy brochures; as a group, we sold “Lancer Liquid,” bottles of water at concerts; we spent a fortune recording holiday CDs but made even more on them.
I remember complaining about all the work it took to raise that money.
Until one day, the entire choir — about a hundred of us — filed into the Basilica San Marco in Venice on some afternoon in the middle of Lent.
We made our way into the dark church; prayer candles in clear red jars glowed near the entrance and signs warned us pictures were forbidden. We let our eyes adjust, let the darkness embrace us. The smell of incense hung heavy in the air; ancient stone surrounded us. And…well, God: If He exists, He was there.
We fell into our bowed formation, as we had at the Roman ruins, in the Pantheon, outside the oldest university in the world in Bologna, in a piazza near the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Mr. Resseguie wore a faded sweatshirt and had taken off the Bears hat he’d worn the whole trip. An outline in the darkness raised its arm to begin directing…
And pointed at me.
“Ubi,” he said in a stage whisper, loud enough for the angels to hear.
Ubi Caritas. My eyes widened. The only solo I’d ever sung, and he wanted me to sing it in Venice.
One of the boys played my note on the pitch pipe, and I closed my eyes. Felt the drop of his hand and opened my mouth to sing, and…music came out. Twelve syllables, even fewer actual notes… It felt like an eternity.
A pregnant pause after I cut off, before the choir came in. And I heard two of me. Six seconds of reverberation: I was harmonizing with myself.
It was the most beautiful feeling of my life. Better than sex, better than my first glass of good red wine in Philadelphia or the sublime corn chowder at Gramercy Tavern. I couldn’t breathe for a moment, then I couldn’t imagine missing a single note of our only opportunity to sing a Lenten Mass. For a few minutes — 10? 15? — we weren’t high school students. We weren’t being taped inside our hotel rooms at night and followed by chaperones, one to every five students. We were this all-feeling musical body, shapeless and ageless and able to do no wrong.
When the concert was over, there was no applause. You don’t applaud in a cathedral. We were kids again and dispersed into the stained-glass recesses, into alcoves of rickety wooden pews and altars to saints and desperate pleas to help maintain the centuries-old church. We snuck pictures — the odd flash on an uncontrolled camera gave us away, and we were hushed and scolded, but we risked it because we were convinced we’d never return to such a place again.
We gathered outside afterward, before splitting into groups to explore the city of canals. I paid some gypsies for birdseed and grimaced as pigeons flocked to my arms, my shoulders, the top of my head. A small group of us drifted down the one of the canals, piloted by a man in a striped shirt with a red scarf around his neck.
That day is the sort of memory you cry for because you can’t just live it over and over again.
That makes you curse real life because it was proof that things can just be beautiful and simple and perfect.
And you know if you go back, it won’t be the same.
But never to have had it at all?
I’ll take the tears.
* Where charity and love are, God is there.