(With more than one Duomo present in Italy, I came about to refer to this one as the Milanese Duomo)
“Yes, we did many
things, then – all
(Come Close, Sappho)
The first time at the Milanese Duomo was with my family. Did we get a cab there? We were staying at the chic Town House Street on Via Santa Radegonda. We walked to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see the Last Supper, but had no pre-booking, so turned to go to the Duomo. I cannot remember what I was thinking. Was I upset that I could not see the Last Supper? Was my mother upset? If so, everything went away when we got out of the cab and took a look at the Duomo. Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente, the guide book instructs. It doesn’t fit in my mouth. It doesn’t fit in my eyes.
It is a few days after Christmas. A giant Christmas tree stands in the square. My father compares it to the one in Trafalgar Square. We’re sprightly, thankful and in awe. We’re a family together in these emotions. All four of us, inspite of the vast age differences, have been gifted with a sense of curiosity and appreciation. Of course we could never stand lengthy museum tours but in our own time and ways looked at and spoke about places. It brought us together, taking us away from our books, our poetry, our business, our social work, our family labour, our tiresome friendships, our schools and importantly, our quick judgement towards each other. Things like this – when we go silent in awe of God’s hand at mountains or gasp in the abundance of tall cathedrals – remind us of the similarities we share. Remind us that we’re together. One family.
The second time to the Milanese Duomo was almost two years after that when I move to Milan. After a session with my tutor, I get here by metro. Everything becomes quiet. Now that I’m alone, without the expression I shared with my family, the Duomo makes me feel devoid of feeling and consciousness. I want to go in but am not allowed for lack of ‘appropriate’ clothing. I resort to standing in the mellow sun. Sinners were never allowed inside. But sinners were loved more.
The third and following times to the Milanese Duomo are with Tom. We’re new in the city. We’re trying to make it feel like home. We’re trying to make each other friends. We’re trying to be writers. We’re trying many things. The Duomo stands, staunch and still. How many times did Tom and I get off the metro and walk through the Piazza del Duomo to find a bank, a pharmacy, a book store, a restaurant, to meet a friend’s ex-boyfriend or even sit at the McDonalds, knowing the Duomo is right there but not looking? Did we not feel the same Gothic chill run down our spine every time we climbed the stairs out of the metro and saw it, never able to grasp it all with one look? Did we not dodge the vendors and selfie stick wielding tourists to pass the Duomo in silence but break into words later? The last time we passed the Duomo together we went to the laRinascente and Tom bought Mr. Knox, a tiny metal figure – a duck wearing a suit and pedalling a tricycle.
When the girls – Hannah and Su – come over and the mood is lighter than usual. When we become one of the picture taking tourists and again one of us is not allowed inside for lack of ‘appropriate’ clothing. Along with the doves and giant bubbles of the piazza, we can hear our laughter. I share some of their awe.
When Adam came over to spend his birthday in Milan and we went up to Maio on the roof of laRinascente where next to us poked out the Duomo. A cold gloom of threat present even on a sunny day. Being so close, looking at it from the side, I wanted to declare something. Something about me and the people I was friends with. The people I was a family with. But there are no words. In between the early dinner, I conjure up their faces and the times we’d spent together which we never might again. Laboriously, a pilgrimage of a line of people make their way to the roof of the Milanese Duomo from where, if they turned just a bit, can take a look at us. But why would they?
A few days later, just a floor below, at Aldo Coppolo where I am packed in a white salon towel, ready for a haircut. It’s right in front of me, a part of it – beige or white or something else. What a luxury I think.
But I’ve been inside the Milanese Duomo a number of times. It’s dark inside, cold and mossy. Skulls, bones, bodies – important to any cathedral as its scriptures and altar-pieces – adorn the large pillars. I cannot estimate it even then. I cannot come to any conclusion about the contents. But there’s silence inside. Every time. Because this is where you’re quiet in front of God. You’re bickering when you kneel down to pray otherwise. You don’t know how to listen. But when you’re threatened, you’re quiet. Every time you walk past this that you take for the magnificent visage of God, the face of God himself, you cannot but be quiet. When you muster the courage to be inside the mouth of it, you’re quieter.
The last time I go inside it or anywhere close to it is with Adam. He has the same dubious face every time we enter a cathedral. Images flood my mind again, the most important one being that of my sister where she stands at the foot of a Cross with a hand against a sacred plate praying.
Walking out, Mr. Knox is with me. Good old Mr. Knox becomes a symbol of friendships we’ve had, the Milanese times we’ve had. We all looked a bit like Mr. Knox – queer and imperfect. We moved like Mr. Knox – wobbly but determined, our metal parts clicking against each other, an eerie silence on our faces along with a few different shades of purple from bruises we suffered from writing or the things we left unsaid. At night, on Tom’s desk, Mr. Knox sat still in silence, casting long shadows like ours when we slept but let our dreams and memories distort us into different beings.
I look back at The Milanese Duomo to see so many people, so many memories, the grace of God or destiny if you will. All like the first time. All the last time.