The Faith Center
My wife and I couldn’t find the entrance to the Faith Center. We’d walked a mile from the Manzoni metro stop amid the thick humidity of late August, and already I’d sweated through my shirt, my sports coat draped over my shoulder in a heap. My wife, ever the solver, flagged down a carabiniere and in her rudimentary Italian asked, “Scusa, signor? Dov’e il Faith Center?” But he just shrugged, and we wandered the perimeter of a walled park until at last I saw them in the distance, silhouetted by the beating sun — my students, the telltale signs of American youth, in t-shirts and shorts looking so different from the Italians they had flown across the globe to supposedly meet. Their European counterparts dressed in uniform—men in blue suits, polished shoes; women in dark jeans, leather jackets — and this only underscored how young our students looked. I was only fifteen years their senior, my wife just ten, yet they still felt like the children we had no intentions of having, smiling good-natured babies.
“Hi, Michael!” One of them shouted. “Hi, Michael!” came another, then another, then another, then similar greetings for my wife. I didn’t mind their informality and had actually encouraged it. But as the chain of thirty students approached, I noticed the surprised look of the middle-aged woman leading them. Silver-haired and confident in clothes that were so plain they were almost attention-grabbing, she reminded me of all those grizzled nuns of my youth, those put-upon women who lorded over my Catholic school in dead end Scranton. Dimitris, the Rome Innovation Campus Director, had told me a little about her — Dr. Claire Logan, an Irish professor of Catholic Studies who directed the Faith Center and was teaching our students Global Christianity. Outside of funerals, I hadn’t been inside a church since my teens and had no idea what a student learned in a class like Global Christianity, but it sounded like torture to me.
“Professor Mancuso,” she said, as Jean and I fell in line, “I’m so thankful to have this opportunity to meet you and your lovely wife. We’re just so blessed to have you.”
She said this like someone who didn’t believe it in the slightest. There was a sarcastic lilt in her voice, and I could tell by her eyes that she was shocked we looked so young. I was perpetually baby-faced even as I approached 40, and I’d long ago made peace with being confused for a student again and again no matter how many ties and jackets I added to my wardrobe. Those days were drawing to their end, and I was trying desperately to enjoy them. “Yeah,” I managed. “Totally.”
Technically, I was Dr. Logan’s supervisor for the semester. The home campus had chosen me to serve as that year’s Academic Director of Rome Innovation which meant that in addition to living with students in Italy for three months while teaching Introduction to Italian Cinema, I was also expected to evaluate the adjuncts abroad and make sure everything was up to Minnesotan standards. It was Dimitris who insisted I attend the first Faith Center Emergence Dinner of the year, Dimitris who with a wry smile said I’d just love the scintillating conversation. Dr. Logan knew this and didn’t comment on it, but who wouldn’t resent being assessed by someone three decades her junior?
She led our parade of loud, gangly Americans around and around the marble enclosure of the Faith Center until at last she came to a small box attached to the wall. She pressed a button, and a small keypad and speaker were revealed. We watched her tap three numbers summoning the front desk, and I stared at Jean and wanted to ask how we would’ve gotten inside if we hadn’t stumbled upon Dr. Logan.
The Faith Center was a series of plain academic buildings surrounded by trees and impressive greenery, marble busts of various saints, a functional chicken coop, and wandering paths where legions of cats roamed free, meowing and stretching in patches of sunlight. Dr. Logan steered us up a hill that overlooked the Coliseum, and even I, someone who crossed the street if I happened upon a priest at night, had to admit it was all somewhat moving. But the students were forever students, squealing over the animals and taking selfies with cats, completely ignoring the view that so few had ever enjoyed. I tried prodding them to the overlook, but Dr. Logan whisked us away. “There’s no time,” she said. “We have a busy and might I add rewarding night ahead.”
We entered a narrow hallway lined with preppy twenty-somethings who literally clapped upon our arrival. I vaguely understood that the Faith Center was an international gathering place for people who wanted to study Christianity a mere three miles from the Vatican. So maybe these were students? Graduate students of some kind? Back on the home campus, the Associate Vice Provost for Global Learning and Strategy assured me that I wouldn’t have to do anything in Rome that made me uncomfortable, that I could skip trips to the Vatican or various churches or really anything that might ignite my anxiety. But when we walked into the cafeteria swarmed with clergy and nuns, I understood that this would be an exceedingly difficult evening. Dr. Logan told the students to find a seat, to mix in with the priests and nuns and strike up a conversation about this evening’s topic — vocation apparently.
I excused myself to the men’s room and locked myself inside a stall. Then I removed the small vial of Propranolol I kept on my person at all times. It’s funny, because my primary care physician prescribed me 20mg of Propranolol a whole year before I saw a therapist and was informed that I’d been wrestling with PTSD for close to two decades. The Propranolol slowed my heart rate and could sometimes halt or even prevent a panic attack, but my therapist, a boomer in the habit of playing ’60s protest songs at the beginning and end of each session, was skeptical of the pill’s effectiveness. According to Dr. Jones, the only path forward was a bi-weekly dose of sessions coupled with daily meditation and books on mindfulness by writers I’d never heard of like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chödrön. When I told him that I’d already committed to leaving the country for ninety days, he frowned and asked, “Bring me back a pizza, paisan?”
I pooled saliva in my cheek and swallowed one of the powder blue pills. When I was eighteen in my final year of Catholic school, my best friend came out to me and I did not handle it well. He was a willowy, sweet kid, former altar boy, deeply religious like the rest of us poor kids in Scranton. Two weeks after he told me, Keith shot himself in his attic, and then I went off to college six hours away and told no one and I mean no one what happened. That regret, that guilt, that denial had calcified into PTSD, a condition I’d tried for years to erase with booze, movies, exercise, anything that briefly lifted me from myself. When Dr. Jones explained this, my first instinct was to apologize. How could I have PTSD when I hadn’t even served? But Dr. Jones assured me it was more common than I thought, and the two of us were still in the early stages of pinpointing my triggers and how to effectively deal with them. Catholicism, however, was one of the big ones, all the reminders of what had shaped both my reaction to Keith’s coming out and his eventual suicide. I felt marked by death and irredeemable, common responses Dr. Jones explained over a Bob Dylan song.
Everyone had already taken their seats in the cafeteria when I returned, the students gulping wine as priests and nuns lectured them. I scanned the room for my wife and found Jean in the corner, surrounded by our most timid and awkward students who sought her out like moths to a light. She caught my gaze and gave me this apologizing look, and I tried to signal her not to worry, that this wasn’t her fault. She was the one who had helped me seek out Dr. Jones, the one who stroked my hair while I drunkenly told her about Keith over and over, retraumatizing myself I learned later. She was my anchor, my tether to the world, and I understood that she’d scarified just by coming to Rome, that the powers-that-be at her job — a high-level marketing firm in the tallest skyscraper of Minneapolis — weren’t exactly thrilled that she’d be working remotely for three whole months. I tried smiling at her, but there was no hiding how easily Jean saw through me.
Instead, it was Dr. Logan who’d made sure to save me a seat, Dr. Logan who grabbed my elbow and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Only three students were sitting at her table. They rarely wanted to eat with the adults, and who could blame them? Instead, Dr. Logan guided me toward members of the clergy and the graduate students who hadn’t touched a drop of their wine. She introduced us and maintained eye contact with me for an uncomfortable length of time. “We really missed you, Professor Mancuso, at the Vatican Museums tour. I do hope you get a chance to visit sooner rather than later. You just have to attend mass at St. Peter’s, although I actually prefer Chiesa di Santa Maria off Piazza di San Bernardo. There’s a spectacular Bernini inside. The Ecstasy of Teresa? Have you been?”
While Dr. Logan led students through a multi-hour exploration of the Vatican Museums, I’d taken tram 19 to VIGAMUS, Rome’s extremely sad video game museum which was essentially just a basement housing a few old arcade games and plaster statues of characters I vaguely remembered from the ’90s. “No, I haven’t been,” I told her.
A priest frowned. “Hmm,” he said. “What’s your favorite church in Rome then?”
I took a long sip of wine and thought about saying VIGAMUS. “I’m not sure yet?”
Dr. Logan tilted her head. “You must be jet lagged.”
We’d arrived nine days earlier. “Yes. I’m extremely jet lagged.”
She checked her watch before clinking her fork against her glass. It must be said that Dr. Logan did not strike me as a bad person whatsoever. It made sense that she assumed the Academic Director of Rome Innovation would have some modicum of interest in the Vatican and Catholicism or at the very least would fake it as a model for their students. I was the one in the wrong. Like always, I felt out-of-place, that I needed to justify why I was here, there, anywhere.
“I can’t express how happy I am to see you all here tonight,” Dr. Logan said after moving to a podium at the front of the room.
I watched my students shift awkwardly in their seats. I’d only met them a few times in the run-up to Rome and was still trying to memorize their names. Half of them looked wine-buzzed and, after a day of touring religious sites with Dr. Logan, would probably struggle staying awake. But some looked rapt with attention, sitting with perfect posture, the kind of students who’d gravitated to Rome Innovation because of the implied religious content, churchy kids in long skirts and too-big dress shirts that reminded me of the nerdiest nerds from my high school.
But then my gaze fell on Harrison in the back. He looked absurdly lanky even sitting down and wore the same outfit every day — ripped denim shorts, unlaced Air Jordans, and a deep v-neck tee. His hair was dyed platinum blonde, and it was obvious to everyone that he was the social fulcrum of our trip. Every student adored him, and his loud voice echoed down the halls of our dorm, his name semi-permanent in the WhatsApp chat Dimitris insisted we join, Jean included. Harrison’s messages were a flood of emojis and gifs from TV shows I’d never heard of, and he proudly talked about both his queerness and desire to meet a “beautiful but extremely intelligent Italian gentleman, someone who can cook and is hopefully depressed but not too depressed. A vegan maybe?” My therapist had already identified that I felt overly protective of my LGBTQ students and needed to stop, that I was projecting, that they certainly didn’t need my protection unless they specifically asked for it which few rarely did. But I couldn’t help but observe Harrison in this environment, surrounded by priests and nuns, listening to Dr. Logan explain the ins and outs of modern vocation. He didn’t appear anxious or even defiant. He just seemed bored, fingering a hole in his shorts. I watched him and tried to stop myself from disassociating. I dug my fingernails into my knees and knew Dr. Jones didn’t particularly approve of this coping method.
A man emerged from the back of the cafeteria, waving his hand, and wordlessly the grad students followed him out. A moment later, they returned balancing plates of food like well-trained waiters. Why Dr. Logan continued talking, I didn’t know, because each and every one of our undergrads turned to the food, oblivious to whatever she was saying. I felt grateful for the distraction, and when I received my plate of ragu with its plain little side salad, I immediately plunged a fork into an al dente tube of pasta and brought it to my lips. The priest across from me — Antonio he’d explained — shook his head before I realized that of course we were expected to say grace. Of course!
Dr. Logan bowed her head, and again I tried to ignore her, to imagine a movie playing in my head. The next day, Jean and I planned to visit Cinecittà — Rome’s equivalent of Hollywood with a museum attached to the backlot. I tried picturing the two of us walking hand-in-hand under a clear blue sky surrounded by the ghosts of Fellini, Rossellini, Antonioni. But even this couldn’t calm me, and when Dr. Logan implored us to mangia mangia, I felt my heartbeat thudding in my eardrums, winning the battle against Propranolol in real time.
Sweat pooled on my back and I knew I needed to remove my jacket, but even that felt impossible, a herculean task that might take months, years, a lifetime. I breathed through my mouth hopeful that no one was paying attention, that the students and clergy were either too focused on the food or Dr. Logan. I tried to meditate, to enter a state of mindfulness, to imagine a literal thread running from my head to my feet, to focus on my breathing and pretend it was a ship navigating calm waters. But nothing worked, and I kept drifting back to Dr. Logan over and over.
“I’m so thrilled to introduce our first speaker today. For Christians, vocation can be broken up into three tracks — religious life, single life, and married life. We’re going to hear some brilliant takes tonight by folks who are actually walking those paths, and I can’t wait to hear how you all respond. First up, I’d like to introduce Mrs. Amara Rossi, a lawyer in Tivoli, a fiercely devout Catholic, and, most importantly for our purposes here tonight, a happily married woman.”
A woman at the end of my table stood up and smiled. She looked about my age, but everything about her seemed more adult and confident. This was a truth impossible to ignore about the Italians. When I pictured myself or my friends back home, we all felt like overgrown kids. Sure, many of them had high-paying jobs or even children, but they routinely wore t-shirts and jeans, played Xbox, and lined up at the cinema to watch whatever billion-dollar superhero film was all the rage that month. Amara Rossi in her impeccably tailored pant suit and heels looked like an adult from another generation, not an elder Italian American millennial like me, but someone who had truly experienced the world and wanted to share her hard-earned knowledge. She walked to the podium, all sophistication and class, and my familiar impostor syndrome rose out of my chest. I didn’t belong there. How dare I think I deserved ninety days in Italy teaching students. How dare I.
“Ciao,” Amara Rossi said. “You’ll all have to forgive my English. It’s absolutely dreadful.” Like every Italian we’d met who said this, her English was flawless. “Marriage,” she said, voice an octave deeper, “is no easy road. It might be at the beginning when everything’s a honeymoon, but that feeling never lasts. It can’t. It wouldn’t be natural if it did.”
I tried to catch Jean’s attention from across the room — like everyone else, we believed our love was different from other people’s, singular and superior — but her eyes were trained on Rossi.
“But whenever I falter, I think of Christ. Imagine him. Really picture him. At the end of his life, shouldering that cross, how heavy that burden must have felt. He opted into his own death for each of us. He knew he would die but followed his chosen path anyway.”
I was breathing faster now, and Father Antonio noticed and studied me from the corner of his eye. I wanted so badly to pop another Propranolol, but I refused to give him the satisfaction.
“You know,” Amara continued, “it’s becoming very in vogue here in Rome and around the world to rethink marriage, to wonder if maybe this monumental sacrament is for everyone. A man and another man. A woman and another woman. What’s next?” she asked before a light laugh. “It’s not really to me to judge, but it’s important for us to remember that god hasn’t left us here without guidance, that we do in fact have a manual.” She smiled wide. “It’s called the Bible, and there are very clear and deliberate rules.”
Back on the sleepy home campus, a speech like this would cause an uproar. Our students had self-selected into a small liberal arts college in the upper Midwest, and the kids expected the administration to combat microaggressions and bigotry even if they did so in half-hearted, neoliberal ways. There was obviously a gap between the home campus and whatever Dr. Logan was staging here in the Faith Center, and that would fall to me to correct, a conversation I was already dreading. I sought out Harrison and was surprised to find him seemingly unfazed. He shoveled the last bits of pasta into his mouth, then filled his glass of wine. Harrison just seemed so serene, so above it all, and I found myself jealous breathing through my mouth, clutching my knees, wondering if my friend Keith could have survived this dinner as unscathed as my students.
Amara Rossi was followed by Giordano — a single man who dedicated every waking moment to a soup kitchen slowly being priced out of nearby Trastevere — who was followed by Sister Raymond O’Sullivan — a self-proclaimed “super nun” who claimed to rescue sex trafficked women, walking bravely into Neapolitan brothels and offering a hand to anyone willing to follow her back to the convent. My body was flooded with adrenaline, and eventually I settled into my perpetual fear-state, a deep and tangible paranoia. It felt like tumbling through a sheet of ice into a new world where anything was possible, where I might finally access some darker or primordial version of myself, the mask of identity I presented to the world at last stripped away, revealing the maw at the center of my personality.
I drank a third glass of wine and told myself these were not evil people, that Amara Rossi’s homophobia notwithstanding, each of them contributed good to the world, that the problem was me and me alone. I was the only one uncomfortable here, not my wife, not even my students. Dr. Logan asked us to use our after dinner hour as an opportunity to discuss what we’d heard and engage one-one-one with the speakers. Predictably, the students clustered around Harrison who monologued about his weekend plans — an AirB&B in Florence! — while the adults defected one-by-one to my table, all save for Jean who was pinned down by the same group of students from before.
“May I join you?”
I looked up and saw Amara Rossi, smiling, friendly, unexpectedly tall.
She held a plastic cup of panna cotta, completely untouched. “Dr. Logan says you’re running Rome Innovation this year. That’s such a wonderful opportunity. I speak with these students every year, and they’re always such a fascinating bunch. They’re so studious!”
I glanced back at Harrison who was loudly explaining why the tequila sunrise was scientifically the best cocktail. “They really are,” I said.
I tried confining our conversation to small talk — what are your favorite restaurants, what’s the most must-see museum in Rome — but slowly and surely more of the Faith Center regulars glommed onto our conversation. Dr. Logan, Nunzio Giordano, two of the graduate students, even Father Antonio. Amara was describing the church where she’d been married five years earlier, an extremely personal site, she explained, that represented everything good and pure in Italy, a breathtaking architectural marvel that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps if only the tourists could really and truly see it.
“What church were you married in?” Dr. Logan asked me.
“Yes,” Amara said, “please, tell us. American churches are so particular.”
My wife and I had been married in an antique museum beneath a rusted-out boat. Her lesbian aunt presided over the event, and I walked out with my best men to a 1990s rap song peppered with gunshots. I looked at Dr. Logan and knew it was horrible, but I wanted to wound her, badly. I was sweaty and tired and angry and confused. I wanted to explode.
“We weren’t married in a church,” I said. “We …” I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the exact string of words that could convey everything I had held so tightly for so long. I wanted to tell them that I didn’t believe in any of this, that they were wasting not only each other’s time, but the students’ and mine as well. I wanted to tell them that I hated them, everyone who so easily believed, everyone who tossed out laws and dogma like a comforting shawl, oblivious to the consequences, to my best friend climbing into his attic with a shotgun cradled to his chest, the determination and shame our upbringing had instilled. I wanted to blame them, each and every one, but like always my anger deflated like a slashed tire. I would never be the type of man who exploded. I would always turn it inward and implode. Everything had been my fault, all of it, and if only I had behaved better, had said something positive to Keith, had not suggested he pretend he was straight or hide what was so obvious to everyone in our bullshit town, then maybe, just maybe he would still be here. He could be in Rome or Scranton or anywhere really, alive. Alive.
Amara Rossi leaned forward. “Perhaps I’m not following you? Maybe it’s my English.”
I looked at all those moon-blank faces. I felt very far away from myself, watching events from a great and peaceful distance. “The problem is I’m not supposed to be here,” I told them. “I’m the one who should’ve died.”
Twenty years earlier, Keith and I lay sprawled on the roof of his parents’ garage. It was the August before our senior year, and we’d just returned from Wilkes-Barre following a punk show at Café Metropolis, the shady all-ages club. The show itself was fine — headlined by some Marywood kids calling themselves Throat Punch Tim Allen — and now we were smoking a Swisher Sweet Keith liberated from his older brother’s bedroom. He thought it might be laced with weed, but I didn’t feel much staring at the velvety stars, the skyline of Scranton unfurled before us, the neon Electric City sign blinking out an SOS to the wider world. But Keith insisted he was high, that he felt different, fresh, reborn. I passed him the cigar and was overcome by the same melancholia that so many teens from rust belt nowheres must experience — the prickling sensation like a limb fallen asleep that I would never leave this place, that Scranton was as permanent as my circumstances, that I would always and forever haunt these streets above abandoned coal mines, searching for punk shows, weed, anything with the capacity to numb. It was a fear I probed often, the scab hardening into something strange and powerful.
“Hey,” Keith whispered through a giggle, wanting desperately to believe he was high. “Do you think we’ll always be friends? Like fifty years from now or whatever?”
He was invisible beneath the moonglow save for the tiny orange of his lit cigar. I didn’t have to search for my answer, because it was a calculation I’d run countless times in my head. I barely knew anyone who had ever left. The chances of one person leaving were low, the chances of two people who were best friends escaping were essentially zero. I turned to Keith then — still laughing, so blissfully unaware of the tragedy yet to come — and told him no, no, I don’t think so, no.
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