Following are the first two chapters of Hegira, a recent novel TPI editor-in-chief Nuala Mary Lincke finished. In it, she draws on her knowledge of "my culture" as a cradle Catholic to tell the story of a Catholic religious who leaves the fold. The novel's title Hegira comes from the Arabic word hejira, which means a flight or journey from a dangerous place.
Snow fell that night, after Josephine left. From her bedroom window, Anne watched it; it looked like white feathers floating sideways on a breeze. When the snow first began to fall, she was puzzled (it was early spring), and she thought it was tiny flakes of pollen from the nearby pine forest sweeping over the convent roof (could it be? so early in the year?), and she watched as it grew and grew into silver-dollar-sized flakes and then, suddenly, bloomed into feathers. Snow…! “Is this an omen, Jesus?” she had whispered at dawn, still standing by the window hours later, her small frame shivering in her light, childish cotton pajamas, her lips close to the glass, almost touching it, so she could feel its coldness. “Do you know Josephine’s gone, God?” she had whispered urgently, her large gray eyes beseeching. “Are you in mourning, like I am?” But there had been no reply, only that fabled, much-written-about Great Stillness that she had read about and sometimes seemed to feel. Seemed to feel then, standing by the window. For just a moment. And then it had gone. And she had run her small white hands frantically through her cropped, dirty-blonde hair and had fallen to her knees to pray, injuring them in the process, crashing them hard onto the wooden floor, but she had ignored the pain, and she had begun to recite the rosary fervently—the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, three Hail Mary’s, the Glory Be, and then the first decade of Hail Mary’s in quick succession—her eyes screwed tightly shut, forgetting which day of the week it was, which Mystery of Christ’s life to meditate upon. In her agitation almost hissing the prayers, in loud whispers. Her voice to her own ears like the buzzing of angry bees. But the Stillness had not returned. No matter how hard she prayed. And then somehow she had fallen asleep on the icy wooden floor, hugging her bruised knees to her, and she had woken up an hour or so later in a puddle of golden sunshine. The day had suddenly arrived, the light pouring forth out of the darkness, out of the nothingness, and with it, the heat, and it had melted the snow like it never was, and all the flowers two floors below her in the convent garden had risen their multi-hued heads and unfurled their petals, as if nothing had ever happened. No snow and no cold. And there was no wilting or cringing of any leaf or petal. And the world had simply, mysteriously, gone on. Even though Josephine was gone. She dressed in her habit, but stayed in her room. She did not go down to church for morning prayers and early Mass, or to breakfast. She sat alternately in the straight-backed wooden chair in one corner of her room, staring at her chewed and ragged fingernails, and trying not to chew on them more (a nervous habit since childhood), or stood by her window, looking down into the mysteriously alive and unblemished garden, and no-one came for her, to call her to prayers or a meal, and the convent was silent. Then, she fell asleep in the chair, sitting almost perfectly upright, her hands folded in her lap, her head tilted only slightly to one side, so she looked like one of the statues of the seated saints in the church. It was the voices in the garden below that woke her, at about two in the afternoon. “Fuck you, you whores! I’ve got your books in this backpack, too. Wait for me!” “Then get your fuckin’ miniscule little ass over here. Catch up with us!” There was a burst of shrill, but muted laughter, and Anne flinched and retreated slightly from her bedroom window, where she had gone when she heard the voices, so she could see the students two floors below her without being seen. Two walking abreast along the charming stone path winding through the convent garden to the wooden gate in one of the high stonewalls, watching a video on a cell phone, and a third trailing behind, shifting a bulky backpack from one shoulder to the other. Outside of their school uniforms, the girls looked different, and it took a few moments for Anne to recognize them. The first two. A blonde and a brunette. Long hair cascading down their backs, out of the regulation ponytail, braid or bun. Slender bodies provocative in identical skinny jeans with gashes slashed strategically in them from hip to ankle, cropped tank tops showing their pierced navels. Passing a cigarette back and forth between them as they watched the video. Of course. Ashley Garcia and Emilia Donovan. And the third girl? She was easier to identify. Short and stocky, in a sleeveless black t-shirt and baggy black pants that made her seem bigger than she actually was. The instantly recognizable sleeve tattoos on her arms—dainty pink and red flowers, powerfully feminine, and exquisitely beautiful in themselves—but completely wrong on her, seeming to emphasize rather than camouflage her flabby upper arms. And the unmistakable bright yellow-green stubble on her scalp, the clutter of silver rings in her ears, the silver bullring in her nose, making her look not trendy, but weird and ugly. Moira Kelly. Those three. Anne moved back farther from the window, although she couldn’t be seen from below. “I said fucking wait a minute, you skinny little whores!” Moira bellowed at Ashley and Emilia. “My miniscule little ass is trying to catch up with you!” And she dropped the heavy backpack to the stone path when the other girls kept walking, watching the video and ignoring her, and she screamed out at them “FUCK YOU, WHORES!” Ashley wheeled around, putting a finger to her lips, and flipping her long blonde hair excitedly over one shoulder, she walked rapidly back along the stone path to Moira, her silver-blue eyes alarmed. “Cállate! Shut up, you puta!” she hissed, smacking Moira lightly on one of her tattooed arms. “The nuns might hear you!” “Then you should shut your fuckin’ piehole, you blonde bimbo from Méjico, shouldn’t you? Stop cussin’!” Emilia told Ashley, sauntering along the stone path to the other girls, blowing a plume of cigarette smoke from her lips, and all three girls laughed loudly, but even from two floors above them, Anne could see that they looked slightly nervous, too. Emilia had turned off the video on the cell, and the girls’ eyes darted around them, like one of the sisters—maybe Mother Superior, the trim, upright figure of Sister Philomena herself—might suddenly materialize from behind one of the flowering bushes and assign them detention again. Even if they weren’t always respectful to the sisters, their parents were. And all of the girls’ parents were paying a lot of money for the girls to attend St. Mary’s, the prestigious girls-only prep school. Which was still run by a very traditional order of Catholic sisters that the parents appreciated—and lightly laughed about sometimes among each other—and wanted for their children. Sisters who were very clear about being on the conservative side, not the liberal side, in the increasingly noisy battle that had begun taking place in the Church since Vatican II. Sisters who were consistently in keeping with—and teaching—all salient points of Catholic doctrine: the Virgin Birth; the Immaculate Heart; the Sacred Heart; the right to life from conception to natural death; two genders, male and female; the purpose of human sexuality, to create a family. Most of the parents were cradle Catholics from wealthy families, and as children had been subjected to the same kind of religious indoctrination, and left it behind long ago. But they wanted their children to begin their lives steeped in this culture, as they did. For them the Church was part of a social tradition they knew and understood, and like their regular attendance at Sunday Mass in specific parishes in specific neighborhoods, their children’s attendance at St. Mary’s was a social statement of who they were, rather than what they believed. In the beautiful convent garden of St. Mary’s, Ashley ran her fingers nervously through her long blonde hair. “Let’s get the fuck out of here pronto!” she said. “Before the nuns see us and call our parents.” “Oh, come on!” Emilia said. “What could they say to our parents? That we came back here to pick up our textbooks, so we can study for mid-terms during Spring Break?” “Don’t you understand the way you’re dressed?” Ashley asked Emilia. “In that itty-bitty top and ripped jeans? Like a puta! And you weren’t wearing that puta outfit when you left home this morning. We bought our outfits at the mall this morning!” “Oh, shit! Ash’s right!” Emilia said. “I forgot. We all look like sluts. Let’s get the fuck outta here. I don’t want to have my cell phone and all my other electronic devices confiscated again for all eternity.” “Big deal!” Ashley said. “My dad said if I get into trouble again I will have to live in a convent school—not just attend one during the day, like here. And when I’m not in the convent school I will have to live with my grandma on a ranch in Mexico. In the middle of fuckin’ nowhere!” “No fuckin’ way! Well, that’s fucked-up,” Emilia said. “Tell me about it!” Ashley responded. “Oh, stop freaking out, bee-atches. The nuns are all in the chapel,” Moira told the others brusquely, trying to appear tough and nonchalant, as usual, because, as Josephine had once told Anne frankly (shocking Anne), Moira was not a bad or unkind girl, but she was overweight, and people thought she was ugly, so she felt an aggressive demeanor was the only thing that would cause others to notice her. And it had probably stopped the other kids from bullying her in school, as the fat girl. “But what if the nuns didn’t go to the church?” Ashley giggled. “What if they heard us and saw us all dressed like sluts?” “Or in Moira’s case—like a dyke, Emilia said. Ashley giggled. “What do you think her parents would do to her for that?” she asked. “Like they don’t know already—right, Moira?” Emilia said. “Look at her.” Moira took the cigarette Emilia was holding, and puffed on it with a determined cool, before dropping it on the charming stone walk the girls stood on and grinding it out with one heavy foot encased in a military-style boot. “Fuck you,” she said. “Oh, come on, bee-atch—we were just joking!” Emilia said, winking at Ashley, who giggled. “I already said don’t worry,” Moira told the other girls brusquely. “I saw the nuns through the window when I was inside getting our books. Going to church. A bunch of black-and-white penguins all in a row.” “But it’s Saturday. It’s after twelve. It’s not noon, so they’re not saying the Angelus or doing Holy Hour, or some crap like that—or attending evening mass,” Ashley replied, puzzled. “What the fuck are they doing in the church at this hour?” “Who the fuck knows?” Moira answered, picking up the heavy backpack, and holding out one strap to Emilia, so the dark-haired girl was obliged to share the load with her. “Are they praying, do you think?” Ashley asked, again running her hands through her long blonde hair nervously, watching Emilia and Moira grip the straps of the backpack, balance the load between them. “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Moira asked. “They’re nuns,” she said. “Of course they’re praying!” And all three girls laughed loudly again, and then retreated quickly through the wooden gate in the stonewall surrounding the garden. They must have left the backpack in the sitting room outside Mother Superior’s—Sister Philomena’s—office, after they were done with detention Friday afternoon, for cussing or smoking or texting or sexting or all of that, Anne thought wryly. Been caught up in the excitement that always permeated the school before Spring Break—and not only for the students, but also for the sisters. A week of no school. Not having to deal with each other. A break, indeed. She sighed. Unexpectedly seeing the three girls again—even if she did not have to interact with them—had been unpleasant. In the past, she had experienced a lot of difficulty dealing with the girls, all of whom had been and still were students in the math classes she had taught for the past two years at St. Mary’s. Without Josephine in the school, she wondered if dealing with the three would become hard again. The girls liked Josephine, and they listened to her. Anne stared down unseeingly into the beautiful garden below her for a moment, and without realizing it, she banged her forehead gently against the glass of the window for a few moments, a gentle thump-thump-thump, her hands with their bitten-down fingernails splayed against the glass like a child’s, and her large gray eyes didn’t see the variety of flowers and shrubs arranged so artfully over the past four decades by old Sister Loyola, whose handiwork had been featured in some leading gardening magazines. She wandered back to the wooden chair next to her narrow bed, and sat down slowly, rubbing her forehead absently, her eyes turned searchingly to the blue sky outside the sunlit window, as if she were looking for something in it that she hoped to find. With Josephine gone, the bright day seemed dark, as if it were still night and snowing, and Anne thought that she would start to hate sunny weather the way she had started to hate the smell of pot roast after her father died. She had been eight, and she was sitting impatiently at the dinner table, waiting for him to come home from work so she and her four siblings could eat their dinner, the aroma of pot roast from the covered dish on the table seeming to make their insides twist in hunger. They hadn’t eaten since lunch at school, seven hours earlier. Their mother—one of those rare (in the 2000’s, and in America) devoutly religious Catholics—never let them have a snack while they did their homework after school. She followed St. Therese of Liseux and her “Little Way,” offering up little sacrifices in her daily life to God—such as no snacks between meals. And included her children in this regimen. So of course, she never allowed her children to eat even the slightest bite of dinner until their father had come home, washed, and was sitting at the head of the table, and had said the blessing. But he never came home that day, when Anne was eight; he had died in a traffic accident on his way home from work: “a chain reaction” accident was how one of the two uniformed police officers described it, when they came to the door to announce the death. Several other people had died in the accident, too, their cars colliding horribly into each other after one driver swerved to avoid a box in his lane and careened into the car parallel to his in the next lane. “Now I will hate beautiful spring days, too, not just pot roast,” Anne told herself softly, out loud. Her gaze turned inward, and she stared unseeingly outside the window, her large gray eyes empty, sitting immobile in the wooden chair in one corner of the tiny room, arms crossed tightly across her small chest, chin in one hand, and she didn’t notice that the angle of her head caused the veil of her black-and-white habit to press too hard into the back of her neck, at the base of the skull, where a few errant strands of her short blonde hair, lit by a ray of sunlight, peeked out like pale gold wires. She wondered if any of the other sisters were missing Josephine. In mourning. Or if—after the last year, all the trouble in the last year, Josephine becoming suddenly like a rock thrown into the still pond of their lives in the convent—they were relieved that she had gone. Because of the—the situation between Josephine and Sister Philomena. (Like a bomb that makes no sound.) They were probably relieved, Anne thought. No more Josephine, no more trouble. They had all been ranging against her, against Josephine—Anne included. All of them following Sister Philomena’s lead like—like sheep, Anne thought. It had been like they all—all of the sisters—stood on one side of a large room, and Josephine stood on the other side. Alone. Isolated. She had been isolated at meals at the long, dark cherry wood dining table in the Convent, no one really talking to her. Alone in the crowd. And in daily chapel services, although all the sisters spaced themselves apart in the dark wooden pews, giving each other room for solitary prayer and contemplation, Josephine sat in her own pew. She was noticeably alone. And perhaps as a response to this treatment, in the last year she had begun to sit toward the back of the church, many pews separating her, like dark fences, from the others. And no one ever joined her in the back, came even remotely into her vicinity. Not even once. Anne had thought of going back there, holding her hand, squeezing it. Indeed, she had imagined herself doing so, seen herself doing so. But she had never done so. And now it was too late. Josephine had gone. And with her leaving, it was like one of the Convent walls had fallen down, leaving its denizens exposed to the elements somehow. The Outside. No one had wanted—or more accurately, no one had expected, Anne thought—for Josephine to leave. Josephine would wait for Sister Philomena to do something, and be disciplined. She would be asked to leave. Or because Josephine had attended the school when she was a girl, and because her mother and grandmother had attended the school, and many of Josephine’s female cousins (that was a difficulty, Anne knew), maybe she would be just transferred to a less conservative, less prestigious convent that would agree to accept her. Renegade sisters somewhere. Radical feminists. Something like that. Josephine would be brought into line for—for whatever she had done. (They would find a way. Despite Josephine’s family. Maybe with the help of Josephine’s family.) Sister Philomena would do something. But it had been Josephine who had done something. Before the trouble—Josephine going astray, in ways that were somehow understood, although not always clear (Josephine never spoke out against the salient points of Catholic doctrine)—they had all loved her, Anne thought. Josephine had been one of them. It seemed like a long time ago, one hundred years ago. But it was only two years ago, when Anne first came to the Convent. Anne had loved her! She had! Even the ancient Sister Loyola had loved her. And she was conservative and from Ireland. (Old School.) “Our Golden Girl,” Sister Loyola had said of Josephine, by way of introduction, when Anne had first visited the convent, and was being introduced to all the sisters at a tea for potential novitiates, when Josephine had rushed through the door of the dining room, smiling, a few minutes late—delayed by a meeting with a student. But Sister Philomena? Had she ever loved Josephine? But that was—different, Anne thought. Sister Philomena was the Mother Superior—and sort of like their boss. It was different with Sister Philomena somehow. She had to be—to keep a little distance between herself and the other sisters. To be able to lead them. “To keep order--in the order!” Anne said out loud, and alone in her room, she clapped a hand to her mouth, stifling a giggle, as if she were afraid others might hear her. Like she was doing something forbidden. Giggling in church, during Mass, as she had done when she was a child. Her mother’s eyes darting to her like two dark thunderclouds. Seeming to crackle lightning. And juxtaposed with this memory, Anne had a quick mental image of Sister Philomena reaching over to pat Anne’s hand kindly as she talked to Anne sometimes, and that hand never quite making contact with Anne’s flesh. Josephine had been different. In the beginning, when Anne had first known her, Josephine had been—joyous. She laughed! Her hand when she reached it out to yours would make contact, gently hold your hand, squeeze it sometimes. Yes, of course all the other sisters were in mourning because Josephine had left—just like Anne was. They had loved Josephine! Even Sister Loyola. Once. And that was rare, because at the convent, Anne had been intrigued and somewhat disillusioned to learn when she had begun to live there two years ago, during her first novitiate year, when she was 22, living with a lot of other women could be difficult, and some of the sisters, herself included she supposed, could become quite grumpy at times, and start to dislike another sister simply because of the way she opened the cereal box at breakfast or chewed her food at the dinner table. They were like a lot of fussy old cats sometimes, she thought sadly, even the young ones—the ones like Anne, in their 20’s, and there were few enough of them. Without a man … ! She sometimes wondered if it was against nature—even though they did it for God—and if that was why Josephine had left. But there had been no man that anyone knew of. She had just left. Late yesterday afternoon, Friday, after all the students had left for Spring Break, Josephine had gone to Mother Superior, Sister Philomena, and informed her that she was leaving, and she had walked out the gate a scant three or four minutes later, pulling one blue suitcase on wheels behind her, and climbed into a taxi that was waiting for her. Her mountain bike that she rode for hours before and after school and on weekends was already taken apart, taped up in a large box, and being loaded into the back of the taxi. She must have packed the night before, planned everything the night before, or maybe even weeks or months before: her interview with Sister Philomena, the taxi waiting at the gate. She had been wearing her habit, but not her veil. And her hair, which Anne had never seen before—she had always seen Josephine with her veil or a scarf on, even when she rode her bike, or came to and from the shower room—was pulled back in a dark ponytail that reached to the middle of her back. This last detail had shocked Anne immensely for some reason; there was no rule in their order against long hair, but most of the sisters kept their hair short. At about one that afternoon, Sister Teresa, Sister Philomena’s secretary, had come down to her desk on the ground floor, just outside Mother Superior’s office; she wanted to use her office computer to play a game of online Scrabble with sisters in other convents, and she had seen Josephine meet with Sister Philomena and then leave, and she had reported everything to the other sisters, in hushed whispers as they were preparing the evening meal in the kitchen several hours later. And then Anne had gone straight to her room, and not come out so far. The girls in the school … Josephine’s students … what would they think? Josephine was very popular with the students. Even Emilia, Ashley and Moira. Those three. Especially those three. It would be a scandal for the girls—and their parents. The convent. But then maybe that was why Josephine had left that particular Friday afternoon, after the girls had gone home for the weekend—and for the week immediately after, which was Spring Break. She had given Mother Superior and the other sisters at least 10 days to deal with the issue, to plan—to avert a scandal—because they would need someone to cover for Josephine, who, of course, would not be in her classroom teaching her writing composition and literature classes after Spring Break. Attending daily Mass. Sitting at the long, dark cherry wood dining table during mealtimes. Riding her beloved mountain bike. A tiny figure, seen sometimes in the distance from the church parapet, gliding over the twisting, hilly country lanes surrounding the convent school outside the city. “It was a good time to leave, the perfect time to leave,” Anne whispered to herself, frowning. But Josephine had not said good-bye to any of the sisters. Or to Anne. Although it shouldn’t surprise her, Anne thought. Because of what they had done—the isolation. Isolating her. And why should Josephine take the trouble to say good-bye to Anne, in particular? If she hadn’t said good-bye to any of the other sisters, most of whom Josephine had known for much longer than she had known Anne—for about 20 years. Yes, Josephine had acted as Anne’s mentor during Anne’s first novitiate year, her first year as a sister. But the mentorship had ended badly—been awkward—when at the end of the first year Sister Philomena had replaced Josephine with old Sister Loyola as Anne’s mentor. And although Josephine had still been nice to Anne, smiled at her, things had not been the same between them after Josephine stopped being her mentor. And Anne knew—she felt—it was all her fault. All the trouble. Josephine’s fall from grace. Anne had been the catalyst. Because of what she had said to Sister Philomena. During her talk with Sister Philomena. After which Josephine’s mentorship of Anne had abruptly ended. And—and there was the way that Anne had begun to act toward Josephine after the talk, after the mentorship had ended. The way they had all begun to act, all of the sisters. She had—yes, Anne had shunned Josephine, she supposed. That would be the correct word. She had been—as bad as the rest of them! But she had been so nervous! Anne had been so nervous when Sister Philomena called Anne into her office to talk to her, and then later, of course, after the talk. (It was impressive to teach at St. Mary’s. Impressive! At her age. And what would she do with her life if she were not a sister— if she couldn’t be at the convent? It had always been her plan, her mother's plan. Even before Anne's father had died in the automobile accident. And it was the real reason why Anne—with a respectable, but non-stellar 3.4 GPA—had been awarded a full tuition scholarship to a prestigious Catholic university on the East Coast. Why Catholic hierarchy had also arranged for Anne to receive free room and board, with a non-taxing part-time job at the university chapel to provide for her other necessities, food and entertainment. Because Anne was going to be a sister. And when Anne completed her Bachelor's in mathematics, Sister Philomena had allowed Anne to begin teaching immediately. Despite her lack of experience and a graduate degree—which all of the other sisters possessed. Anne didn’t want to jeopardize that. No, she didn’t want to jeopardize that! The convent school wasn’t like any ordinary high school. It was an old, established prep school. Only the best Catholic families. Or rich families. Which usually meant the same thing. And always top in test scores. Like an Ivy League college. And every bit as expensive as an Ivy League college. It was—special. And everybody knew that. Her family—her mother. All the people she had gone to school with! Those people! At her Catholic high school, the teachers and students who had carefully not said anything—not congratulated her, been part of the small group of Catholic religious and devout students who clustered around her—when she had finally confessed that she wanted to be a sister, on Career Day in her junior year. Who had looked at her with eyes slightly rounded and mouths clamped shut, like they were holding their breath underwater. And they had talked behind her back, she was sure, when she was not around. On lunch break, once, when she had walked silently into a bathroom, she had heard two girls talking to each other in adjacent bathroom stalls, and one had said: “That’s why she’s so uptight.” And the other had said: “You gotta be kidding me! Who’s crazy enough to do that nowadays?” And she knew they were talking about her. No! Anne would not jeopardize her position at St. Mary’s! It was something. It was something.) It happened—the talk happened, Anne thought—because Josephine and Anne had gone out to dinner. At a restaurant. And they had come back to the convent late, about three hours after curfew. That was what had instigated it, Anne was sure. It was because they had decided to walk barefoot on the beach in the dark. Because in the car on the way back to the convent from the restaurant, after dinner, their conversation had somehow wandered to the beach, and Josephine had told Anne how much she loved the beach. And she’d said that her favorite thing to do when she was a child on summer evenings was just to walk along the beach barefoot in the dark, and to look up at the stars, which had both awed and reassured her: proof of God’s handiwork—that everything, the whole universe, was purposeful; there were no random accidents. VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT. “Called or not called, the god will be there." Whether or not you believe in God, God is present. The saying was, Josephine explained to Anne, one of the answers the Delphic oracle gave to those seeking the wisdom and guidance of the gods over the centuries, and the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung—he who formally developed the concepts of archetypes and the collective unconscious—had caused this inscription to be carved above the entrance to his home in Kusnacht, Switzerland. Jung wanted to remind himself and his patients that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And for Jung the God had not necessarily been the Christ. But for Josephine as a child, the God had always been Jesus, the Christ. Her fear and awe of him the beginning of wisdom. And her proof of God was in the stars. The knowledge that God was present. From her earliest childhood the girl who became the Sister Anne had also been drawn to God, sought God, and found God in the silence sometimes (“a still, small voice,” she thought)—and this Anne had been moved to tears by what Josephine told her. And uncomfortable, too. Because of her tears. And because of this older woman, Josephine, who somehow seemed to know everything that Anne thought, felt—that churned in her head—better than Anne did. And when Anne told Josephine shyly that she had never done that, looked up at the stars from a dark beach, Josephine had turned the car around, made an illegal U-turn, and driven to the beach. And Anne and Josephine had walked barefoot along the beach, looking up at the stars. And it had been … it had been wonderful. Walking in the dark along the beach, hearing the gentle crash of the waves, being silent or talking to Josephine—saying whatever came into her head. And the next morning Sister Philomena had sat down with Anne in Sister Philomena’s office for the talk. And Sister Philomena had asked Anne how the mentorship was progressing; did Anne feel that Josephine was addressing Anne’s spiritual needs adequately? And Anne had been truthful—“I was truthful!” she thought. “I didn’t say anything wrong.” But somehow she felt that she had betrayed Josephine. “Yes,” Anne had said. Her spiritual needs were being addressed adequately. Had Sister Josephine ever spoken out against Catholic doctrine? “No,” Anne had said. “Never.” Never? Well, Anne amended, Josephine had never said anything that directly contradicted Catholic doctrine. (Thinking of the beach at night. Which seemed—somehow—forbidden. And VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT. Which also seemed forbidden somehow. “Called or not called, the god will be there.") And how did Sister Josephine mentor Sister Anne? “She gives me books to read, and we go to the movies and out to eat sometimes,” Anne had told Sister Philomena. What books? All kinds of books. No, not just religious books. All kinds of books. And when they ate out, they had wine with their dinner. Once in a while a martini. And in the car in the dark, before they went out to dinner at a restaurant, Josephine would take off her veil, and she had a scarf below it, covering her hair—and she would give Anne a scarf to cover her hair, tell her to take off her veil, so they could have privacy. Wouldn’t attract attention. Could be just people. “Just people?” Sister Philomena queried, raising an eyebrow. And looking at the Mother Superior in her starched and immaculate, almost ankle-length black habit, her white coif, layered over by a short black veil, hiding every strand of her hair, and the heavy and beautiful wooden rosary looped prominently around the front of her belt, Anne felt her cheeks grow hot. And she gripped the pretty crystal rosary in her sweater pocket until it hurt her hand. Tucked her slender calves and ankles, bare in sheer black stockings below the knee-length black skirt of the habit she wore, below the rungs of the chair she sat in. Although Sister Philomena couldn’t possibly see the rosary or the stockings, as the desk was between them. (The rosary and stockings had been expensive, but Anne loved them.) Some sisters, Josephine had told Anne—and Anne told Sister Philomena—seemed to relish the public attention their habits generated. (The increasingly rare sighting, in the new millenium, of a “nun.”) Josephine did not relish the attention. She wasn’t a zoo animal for people to stare at. She was a human being. And Anne told Sister Philomena about walking on the beach in the dark, and looking at the stars—that it was the reason they had been late, come in three hours after curfew. Because Anne had never done that before, and Josephine wanted Anne to have that experience. And all they had done was walk on the beach in the dark and look up at the stars and talk. And what did they talk about? Anne couldn’t remember. Talking to Sister Philomena, meeting her firm blue gaze, Anne had felt—her head had felt jumbled. Her thoughts colliding and crashing into each other, like the waves on the beach in the dark. Seeming to swirl round and round in her head. What had she done wrong? She had done something wrong, hadn’t she? It had been—the wine and the food and the talk, and then walking along the beach in the dark, looking up at the stars, had been too … too pleasurable? Was that it? And God was not pleasurable. God was suffering. Therese of Liseux’s Little Way. God was … a war between the body and the soul. And she had told Sister Philomena that Josephine had told Anne that Josephine had not come from a very religious Catholic family, unlike Anne’s family. That Josephine’s mother had striven mightily to stop Josephine from becoming a sister, because Josephine’s mother thought that the life was too hard. That it was for other people--not people like Josephine and her family. And the life could be hard, Josephine had told Anne. Josephine had learned that. Her mother had been right. And Josephine had said to Anne that it was better to be a good Catholic than a bad religious. And that had been true—Josephine had said all of that. And that at any time Anne could leave the Order if she decided that she would rather serve God in another way. Anne hadn’t lied! She hadn’t! It was the truth—and it had been all right to say that. Because it was the truth. “It’s the truth,” Anne had said to Sister Philomena. “So it’s all right, isn’t it?” “Certainly,” Sister Philomena had said, and she had reached out her hand to pat Anne’s hand—but as always, not quite touching it—and then she had stood up from one of the two chairs in her office, in front of her desk, where she had come to sit beside Anne when Anne came into her office. And Anne knew the talk was over. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what. And Sister Philomena was looking down, at some papers on her desk—she had moved behind her desk again—and so Anne had to leave Sister Philomena’s office. The mentorship had ended that day, and old Sister Loyola had replaced Josephine as Anne’s mentor. Sister Loyola had come to Anne a half hour later, and told her that she would be Anne’s mentor now. And that was all. And after that it had been different with Josephine. They had never talked again. Oh, they had talked, but in passing—good morning and good night and standard courtesies like that. Anne had said the kind of thing to Josephine that all the other sisters said. They said: Please pass the butter, and please pass the salt, and good morning and good night. Talking to her, but not really talking to her. They had all—all the sisters—followed Sister Philomena’s lead. And Anne too, of course. Why? Anne had been… had she been afraid? She had been afraid to talk to Josephine again? Like that, the way they used to. Seeing Sister Philomena’s cool blue eyes looking at her, Anne, sometimes, and then moving to Josephine at the breakfast or dinner table, sweeping across her, as all the sisters sat at the long, dark cherry wood table in the dining room. And Anne had begun to keep a little distance between them. Sit near Sister Loyola, her new mentor, at the table. Keeping Sister Loyola between Josephine and her. Shunning Josephine. “Was-I-afraid?” Anne asked herself aloud in her room, softly, tapping her fingers lightly against her front teeth. A drumbeat. A tattoo. “Was-I-afraid?” A-fraid, a-fraid, a-fraid! Was that why she had done it: been so cruel to Josephine? She had been—afraid? A politician and not a Catholic religious. Following all the other sheep. Following Sister Philomena. And she recalled once when Josephine had reached out, and gently touched her hand in passing, as they were walking in the dining room to dinner, and how she had shrunk back—was she afraid Sister Philomena would see? What had been the look in Josephine’s eyes when Anne had done that? Had she been hurt? But Anne didn’t know. Because she wouldn’t look at Josephine. She had kept her head down, her face averted, turned to the side. Like Josephine’s mentorship of Anne had ended because Josephine had, indeed, done something wrong. Josephine had said nothing when Anne shrunk back from her. Just moved away from Anne, into the dining room. Anne wished she had looked up, into Josephine’s eyes. She wished—she wished she could say sorry. In her bedroom, Anne’s eyes slid over the bright, sunny window to the blank white wall next to it, not noticing the brilliant blue sky outside. “She did not say good-bye to me,” she said softly, out loud, without realizing that she was thinking or even saying the words until she heard them in the silence. The sound of her own voice. Anne had been devastated when Sister Teresa had told them that Josephine had left, as they were preparing the sisters’ evening meal the previous night, and she had exited the kitchen rapidly, murmuring something about not feeling well, so the other sisters would not see the tears streaming down her face. Because Josephine had not said good-bye to anyone. To Anne! But why should she? Anne thought again. Because of what Anne had done! But now, today, thinking about how Josephine had left—without saying good-bye—Anne thought that it would have been hard, hard for both of them, hard for all of them, if Josephine had said good-bye. “Maybe she was being thoughtful,” Anne whispered to herself. “Maybe she didn’t hate me, for everything that I—for what I did … !” But then she thought: “How could she not?” How could Josephine not hate Anne and the others—for what they had done? Josephine had to be angry, at least, Anne thought. Josephine was human, after all. Josephine wasn’t Christ! “I would hate me!” she whispered softly to herself. And she knew then that Josephine had left without saying a word to anyone because yes, it was easier that way, but also because Josephine was angry. She wasn’t Christ. None of them were. And Anne pressed her fingers hard to her lips, not feeling the slight pain the pressure caused to the sensitive skin beneath her bitten-down fingernails. Josephine, Anne knew, was—had been (past tense)—a good sister. A good teacher. Popular with the students. If they weren’t in Josephine’s classes, they knew Josephine by reputation as the cool sister—“the no-shit nun,” Anne had heard Moira call her once, someone who would “stand no nonsense,” to use a Sister Philomena expression, but was endlessly patient, able to break down complex pieces of knowledge—a syllogism or an essay or a novel—and make it understandable. And she was funny. The students had fun in her classes. She joked around a lot with the students, but she maintained her authority as teacher, never let things get out of control, as Anne sometimes did, when Josephine was her mentor, and she tried to imitate Josephine and tell little jokes and stories—Anne’s classroom suddenly becoming chaotic, the students yawning and throwing little pieces of paper at each other, or texting on their cell phones. But then she, Anne, was much younger than Josephine: 22 to Josephine’s 38 years, Josephine had told Anne, when Anne had first come to live in the convent two years ago. Anne was only six or seven years older than the senior girls—who were 18 or nearly 18. So Josephine should be much better at classroom management, Josephine had told Anne. And Josephine also had a graduate degree in her field, writing composition, not just a four-year degree like Anne. When Anne had first come to live at the convent and Josephine was first assigned as Anne’s mentor, everybody had assumed that Josephine would one day take over from Sister Philomena, run the convent and school. Josephine was—the Golden Girl. (Sister Loyola had said that!) Josephine was about 25 years younger, and Sister Philomena was getting older, she was in her 60’s, and Josephine had been like … she had been like Mother Superior’s second-in-command. Calm. Smiling. By Sister Philomena’s side at all the social events involving the parents. And then … all that had changed somehow. After Josephine’s mentorship of Anne had ended. Suddenly they were … there was just this terrible tension between the two of them. Josephine and Sister Philomena. You could see it. Everybody could see it. Every sister. At the breakfast table, at dinner. Prayers. Whenever they were all gathered together. It was there, simmering. Like a pot boiling on the stove. Ready to gather strength, and explode. And of course, it had. Because Josephine had left. It had been her fault that Josephine left, Anne knew. And the tension between the two of them, Josephine and Sister Philomena. It was Anne’s fault! Because of the talk. Anne’s talk with Sister Philomena! And she wondered again what Sister Philomena thought about Josephine’s leaving. No matter what, it had to be … it had to be bad, Anne knew. No matter how things had been between them. Although there was no noise, no commotion in the convent, it was in uproar, Anne knew, its order, the seamless routine with which it ran, in chaos, temporarily put aside, the fact that Anne herself was in her room and her absence had not seemed to be missed all day—no-one had come for her—was a sign of the convent’s extreme distress. In the us/them mentality that existed, however subtly—but sometimes blatantly—between the sisters and their teenage students in the convent prep school—and between all other religious and non-religious throughout the world and throughout time—Josephine had … had “represented” well, Anne thought, using a word that she heard the girls use sometimes. Except for the last year somehow—when Sister Philomena had removed Josephine as Anne’s mentor—Josephine had represented the religious well, the sisters and priests, made their choice to be celibates, to marry themselves to God, to Christ, to the Church, seem so logical … a legitimate, a special, choice. (Josephine had been the Golden Girl!) Anne recalled one particularly awful day in her own classroom in the second year of her novitiate. It had been—yes, it was at the beginning of the year, about two months after Josephine had been removed as Anne’s mentor. The teenage students had begun to ask the young and inexperienced Anne embarrassing and provoking questions about her religious vocation when they were supposed to be studying math. And Josephine had rescued Anne. Although she was no longer her mentor. The questions had begun innocently enough: Your real name isn’t Anne, is it, Sister Anne; doesn’t it feel weird to all of a sudden have a new name that other people call you by when you become a nun; do you ever walk right on by when someone calls you Anne, forgetting it’s your name now; what’s your real name? What’s the real name of all the nuns; do you even know? Although sisters in Anne’s generation didn’t have to choose a new name, Anne had done so—she felt doing so was symbolic of her commitment to God, her shedding of her old life. And she had tried to convey these facts to the girls, but her voice had—she had stuttered, slurred her words somehow! Why, she didn’t know. Maybe—maybe it was all of those eyes looking at her—25 students, 25 pairs of eyes! And then the questions the girls asked Anne had become much more intense, personal: Why didn’t you get married, Sister Anne? did you ever have a boyfriend; did you ever go out on a date; are you infertile—is that why you decided to become a nun; are you a virgin; were you unpopular in high school, an outcast, a nerd … is that why you never dated; how can you stand not to be … well, with a guy, with guys ... are you a lez?" Impertinent and unsettling questions asked mostly by Moira and her buddies, Emilia and Ashley—each daring and increasingly more outrageous question giving birth to an even worse question: Did you ever do some petting with guys, let them feel you up … use their fingers or only one finger … do ‘stinkfinger’ with you; do you kiss your pillow at night?” And all of the students were watching her closely, her reactions: the awful pressure of 25 pairs of watching eyes! Their mean smiles! Overcome, she had rushed out into the corridor outside the room, breathing hard, head down, feeling she might faint, one hand braced against the wall. And through the window in the door of her classroom next to Anne’s, Josephine had seen her, and come out. She hadn’t said anything. Because Anne hadn’t looked at her, hadn’t spoken to her—had looked down, away, her face averted. As Anne had begun to do after Sister Philomena had the talk with Anne. And removed Josephine as her mentor. Shunning Josephine. And Josephine had stood by Anne for a moment, and then patted her lightly on the shoulder, and then led Anne gently by the elbow back into Anne’s classroom—gently insisting with the pressure of her hand on Anne’s elbow, when Anne shrunk away from Josephine, tried not to go back into the classroom, her head turned away from Josephine. The two of them not speaking at all. For the minute or so they stood in the corridor. Not looking at each other. With just the sound of Anne’s heavy—her labored—breathing. When Josephine and Anne came back into Anne’s classroom, the girls in Anne’s class were all out of their seats; they had rushed to the window in the classroom door to look out, when Anne had run out into the corridor, and now they rushed back to their seats, as Josephine led Anne gently to her desk at the front of the room, where she had Anne sit down, and then Josephine had walked to the front of Anne’s desk, and perched on it, looking at the girls with a calm smile. “Zup?” she had said. What’s up? What is up? An expression the girls used. And all of the girls had broken into loud and nervous laughter. And perched on the edge of Anne’s desk, and facing the roomful of girls calmly, most fearful and even shame-faced when Josephine walked in with Anne, but all terribly curious, inquisitive, eager for answers to the questions that they would not have dared to ask an older and more seasoned sister … a less vulnerable sister than Anne. And Josephine had talked to them about religious vocations matter-of-factly, about the sisters’ intense love for God, for Jesus, and even used the term “Brides of Christ” without flinching (as Anne sometimes felt she would flinch when she used the term; she knew how strange it sounded to non-religious, even to Catholics), and then Josephine had recommended certain texts authored by Catholic saints for them to read, if they wanted to learn more about “Catholic religious.” And she had told them that she and Anne were “sisters” and not “nuns,” correcting the girls’ use of the word—explaining that “nuns” were Catholic female religious in cloistered orders, orders that had no contact with the outside world—and she had answered every question the girls asked, every question they could think of to ask, but with Josephine, the questions had not been unkind or impertinent attacks, as they had been with Anne; they had been searching questions, deeply personal questions, but serious questions, and there had even been some laughter, some joking around. Moira had been the most aggressive. “You have hormones—I mean, you had hormones when you were our age,” she had challenged Josephine. “Tell me you didn’t do anything bad!” “Hormones—what you’re feeling now—aren’t bad,” Josephine had said calmly. And she had looked at all of the girls, carefully, her eyes sweeping over all of them, meeting each pair of eyes. “Listen to me carefully,” she had told them. “What you’re feeling now”—and she had gestured lightly to her body—“is not bad. It’s fabulous, and it’s beautiful. Because it comes from God. Who made you.” And she had intoned again, slowly and deliberately: “There’s nothing bad about these feelings. None of it—nothing—is bad. And it’s your choice—your own private, personal choice—to do whatever you feel you want or need to do with these feelings in private. And no one has the right to ask you what you’re doing or monitor what you’re doing. Here or at home—or at reconciliation, when you discuss your sins with Father Brady. It’s nobody’s business but yours.” Josephine was talking about masturbation, Anne had suddenly realized, feeling her cheeks grow hot (she could barely think the word to herself), and she had thought, “But that’s not what they want to hear—what they need to hear!” The girls needed to hear that they had been rude to Anne, that their behavior was unacceptable, and be warned that it must end immediately, she thought. And she had looked up nervously, for the first time, at the girls who had harassed her. And she had seen that … the girls were not disturbed. They liked what Josephine was telling them. Some of them were even smiling, nudging each other playfully. And none of the girls were looking at Anne, not one of them. All of them, without exception, were looking at Josephine, their eyes riveted on her. “But what about boys, what we might want to do with boys—or girls?” Moira had asked. “Is that bad?” “Not if you don’t make bad choices,” Josephine had told her, and the class had laughed. “What bad choices?” Moira had persisted innocently. “Oh, come on, Moira,” Josephine had said, smiling. “You know. Do you want me to spell it out for you?” “Don’t get pregnant? Don’t get an STD?” Moira had shot back aggressively. “Don’t have sex because I’m not married and I’ll be a slut if I do and go to hell! And don’t do girls because it’s evil and against God’s teaching and I’ll go to hell!” “Don’t get into something you’re not ready for with somebody who doesn’t love you,” Josephine told her gently. “Remember Plato’s Phaedrus that we read together. Gay or straight, you have the right to be loved—not objectified.” And she walked over to Moira and put a hand to the girl’s face, cupping one cheek gently as she looked into her eyes. And Anne had been amazed to see the belligerent fat girl’s eyes filling up with tears. “What if I did it already—got into something with someone who didn’t love me?” she asked. “And with more than one guy—and girl? And they were older and didn’t give a shit about me because I was just a squirt bag to them?” “Then it’s over, and the world hasn’t ended, so learn from it,” Josephine told Moira softly, and she walked back to the front of the room. The other girls were staring at Moira, but not without compassion, Anne saw—following Josephine’s lead, and not making a big deal. And snuffling, Moira asked one more question of Josephine, perching again on the front of Anne’s desk. “I mean—didn’t you want to have sex with a boy or a girl you knew when you were our age?” Moira had asked. “No, I wanted to have sex with movie stars, but not with any of the boys or girls I knew,” Josephine said, and all the girls erupted into laughter. “But how come—how come you didn’t have sex with them?” Moira questioned over their laughter. “With movie stars?” Josephine asked. “No! You know what I mean!” Moira shouted. “You were a student here—you told us that! You know what it feels like to be us!” And the whole room became suddenly silent, the girls leaning slightly forward in their seats to hear Josephine’s reply. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. And Josephine was silent; she let the silence draw and stretch out, so it was like the silence was something physical, that might break, the tension on it becoming unbearable: the girls eyes—focusing, focusing on Josephine—and Josephine just looking back at them. And then she said: “Because I loved one man above all others. That’s why I never had sex with boys or girls. Or men or women.” And then the silence was like an elastic band snapping, coiling up into itself, all its tension gone. “Jesus,” Moira said. “Yes,” Josephine said. “Jesus. The Christ.” And Josephine smiled at the girls. And she had taken a few more of their questions about what life was like for her and the other sisters, and their faith in God, whether they ever had a hard time believing in Jesus and the Virgin Birth—questions that the girls had longed to ask, Anne suddenly realized, but were afraid to ask. And Josephine had taken all of the questions calmly, answering them seriously but briefly—and appropriately. As Anne knew Josephine should have answered them. For it is byfaiththatwe walk and not by sight. And Anne had been relieved. But then the kiss had happened. Three kisses. And the first had been for Anne. Josephine had leaned down and lightly kissed Anne on the cheek, their eyes meeting for the first time since Josephine’s mentorship of Anne had ended, and then she had walked to Moira, and had leaned down and kissed her lightly on the cheek, too. And Moira had begun to cry loudly, noisily, sobbing, tears rolling down her face, like a stream, a river, and Anne was glad of the noise Moira made, because it made all the girls look at Moira, and Anne could wipe away her own tears quickly—tears that she didn’t know why she was crying. And with all the girls looking at Moira and Josephine, the third kiss had happened. Josephine had leaned down, quite matter-of-factly, and raised the young girl’s heavy face to her own, both of Josephine’s hands on the sides of Moira’s face, cupping it, and she had looked into the girl’s eyes for a long moment, and then she had kissed her softly on the lips, and wrapped her arms around the girl, who had reached up and wrapped her arms around Josephine, too. And then Josephine had left the room. Quietly. Anne had sat stock still at her desk for a moment. Electrified. Horrified. Josephine had kissed a student, a girl, on the--the lips! She didn’t know what to think. All day she didn’t know what to think. For a long time she didn’t know what to think. And that evening she’d confided the whole experience to old Sister Loyola, whom Sister Philomena, Mother Superior, had appointed as Anne’s new mentor during Anne’s second novitiate year, replacing Josephine, of course, because Josephine wasn’t—she wasn’t … what? Traditional? Appropriate? “Oh, dear!” Sister Loyola had murmured when Anne told her about the kiss, “Oh, dear …!” Distressed. “But it’s not bad; it wasn’t bad, was it?” Anne had asked. “But it was just that it was on the lips—that’s why I told you. But I don’t think Sister Josephine meant anything bad.” “Oh, no—no, no! Of course not!” Sister Loyola had reassured Anne, patting Anne’s hand quickly with her old, dry hand that felt light and hollow, not warm and living—like, like wood becomes when it’s separated from a tree, all its pulp gone, Anne thought—Sister Loyola’s old face creasing, her Irish accent suddenly lilting noticeably in her voice, as it sometimes did. “That’s just our Sister Josephine nowadays, isn’t it? Not always … traditional. Appropriate! No, I’m sure she meant nothing bad by it, just trying to—reassure the girl. Moira it was, right?” And she’d asked Anne what else had happened in Anne’s classroom that day, and Anne had told her. What Josephine had told the girls. (Her voice coming low and fast. But she hadn’t lied! She hadn’t! It was just that—that she was still shocked by it.) And sitting in her chair in her room, Anne relived that day, a month ago—every last bit of it, Josephine’s visit to her classroom, until the moment Josephine left the classroom and went back to her own classroom. Before Josephine left Anne’s classroom that day, Josephine hadn’t told the girls to be good, and do their math, and not make fun of Anne, but the math lesson had resumed anyway—as if Josephine had said precisely that. The girls bent their heads immediately, studiously, over their math textbooks when Anne called out a page number, and Anne had felt amazed at how easily she continued with the lesson the girls had so rudely interrupted with their impertinent questions earlier. And her light, childish voice seemed even lighter than usual to her own ears, singing almost, like her words, naming numbers and symbols, seemed to be floating away from her mouth, and she hadn’t been afraid to meet anybody’s eyes, and she had felt so happy and relieved and … joyous. Yes, she had felt joyous that day, at that moment. That the girls were listening to her. Obeying her. But yes, she had still been shocked by the talk about masturbation—that it was … it was okay! And of course by the kiss Josephine had given Moira. The kiss on the lips. And throughout the rest of that class session, she had still seemed to feel the light pressure of Josephine’s lips on her own cheek. But she didn’t tell Sister Loyola that. That it was as if Josephine’s lips were still on her cheek, and Josephine’s dark eyes were still briefly, for an instant, looking into hers, before she kissed her. All throughout the rest of the class—and that day. “Still,” Anne thought, sitting in her bedroom, and reaching up a hand for a moment to press it into her cheek, closing her large gray eyes and immediately seeing Josephine’s dark eyes in her mind. They had been—what had been their expression that day in Anne’s classroom? Searching … concerned? Yes. But also … loving? Yes, they had been loving. And … pitying. Pitying! And Anne screwed her eyes shut tight, suddenly recalling a memory from her second year as a novitiate, about a week after Sister Loyola had replaced Josephine as Anne’s mentor. Anne had found a forbidden red lipstick in a gold case that one of the girls had dropped in the corridor outside her classroom. And instead of turning it in to Sister Teresa, sitting outside Sister Philomena’s office at her secretary’s desk, Anne had slipped the lipstick into the pocket of her habit. And that night—later than usual, when she thought no one else would be there—she had pulled on her big, warm plaid bathrobe, a gift from her mother when she became a novice, and gone to the shower room to bathe. But before she had bathed, she had walked up to one of the small square mirrors over the row of washbasins, and applied the lipstick to her lips. And there, staring at her in the mirror, had been a stranger with red, shining lips. And she had looked at that girl for a long moment. Fascinated. Startled. And then—right at that moment—Josephine had walked into the shower room, in a thick, serviceable white bathrobe, her hair covered by a scarf. Josephine had seen. Anne knew she had. And Anne had stood paralyzed in front of the mirror, staring into it, and she had felt as if her lips were burning. On fire. But Josephine had just said hello to Anne, and walked past her into one of the shower stalls, closing the door behind her, and Anne had seen Josephine’s hands reaching up over the shower door and draping her bathrobe and head scarf over it, and then there was the sound of running water. Anne had slumped over the sink, her eyes locked for long moments on the eyes of the red-lipped girl in the mirror. And then she had scrubbed and scrubbed her lips until the red lipstick was gone, and when she heard Josephine’s shower turning off, she had rushed into a shower stall, closing the door behind her, and turned on the water full blast, even though she was still in her bathrobe. And she had pressed her back to the shower wall, as the water pelted down on her, wetting her bathrobe thoroughly. It was freezing cold, but she didn’t move a hand to turn the faucet to the left, to warm the water. Listening for the sound of Josephine’s slippers on the tile floor, hoping she would leave the shower room quickly, not linger to brush her teeth or perform some other toiletry. Josephine did leave the bathroom quickly. There was the sound of Josephine walking past Anne in her shower and out the door. And Anne had slumped against the wall of the shower, and after a moment, had turned it off, and as best as she could, she had wrung out her cold, wet bathrobe. And when she had crept out of the shower, before she had hurried back to her room, her eyes had inadvertently turned to the same mirror she had used to apply the lipstick, and she thought she could still detect faint traces of the lipstick around her mouth. Even the next night, when she was brushing her teeth—not in front of the same mirror, but a different mirror—she thought she could see traces of the lipstick. Remembering the lipstick as she sat in the chair in her room, Anne’s mind turned helplessly to certain other secret memories. Of lying in her bed in the dark, and touching herself between her legs. Probing with her fingers. The unbidden moans, coming from her own lips, that so surprised her. That she had to stifle. (Their sound—low, and powerful, and like they came not from her throat, but a stranger’s throat.) And she kept her eyes squeezed tightly shut for a moment, her breathing agitated, until those memories subsided, and her respiration became calm again. And then … it came to her. An epiphany. Like hands reaching down from the sky to clasp her. She knew suddenly why she had acted as she had toward Josephine. Why she had told Sister Loyola about the kiss … Josephine kissing a student on the lips. Which she was quite sure, somehow, that none of the girls, the students, would ever have told the sisters. And which had been the real catalyst for Josephine’s leaving, she knew—not the talk with Sister Philomena, after which old Sister Loyola had replaced Josephine as Anne’s mentor. Anne had been afraid of Sister Philomena, yes. (Anne wanted to teach at St. Mary’s!) But even more … Anne had hated Josephine. So she had told Sister Loyola about the kiss, Josephine kissing a student on the lips. And she had known it would get back to Sister Philomena. Immediately. But … why? Why had Anne done that? She had hated Josephine for knowing about the lipstick, even though she somehow knew that Josephine would never tell anyone about the lipstick. Would certainly never talk to Anne about the lipstick. And … she had hated Josephine for telling the girls in Anne’s class that day, when Josephine rescued Anne, that there was nothing wrong with masturbation. Touching yourself. Whatever you did alone in your room, in private. In the dark. Because Anne had secretly thought that Josephine was talking to Anne, too, and not just the girls. And she had … hated Josephine for that, she thought, for guessing about her. Guessing accurately. And that—all that, she realized suddenly—was the real reason why she had shunned Josephine. In her bedroom, Anne sat quietly in the wooden chair in one corner, the silence seeming to press in all around her. And she tilted her head, listened. It was almost 24 hours since Josephine had left after prayers the previous evening. It was the middle of the day, just past two in the afternoon by the clock on her wall. But the convent was so silent, no distant murmur of voices or doors opening and closing. You could hear a pin drop, Anne thought to herself. Even her now-calm breathing sounded loud to her. And … sad. She wondered if any of the other sisters and the few other novices were sitting in their rooms, looking out their windows. Maybe they were all in the church, praying, as Moira had told the other two girls, and she should go there, too. But she couldn’t move. She had only one request to make of God at that moment. For Josephine to come back. But she knew somehow, deep inside herself, with absolute conviction, that the request would never be granted. Because Josephine would not come back. Just like her father had never come back, could never come back that day when she was eight. Despite the request that she had made to God that he come back, that God send her father back to her family after her father died in the traffic accident. And it was as she was sitting there, in her room, so silent, so sad, that she suddenly remembered something that Josephine had said earlier that day, when she had rescued Anne from Moira and the other girls in Anne’s math class, in answer to one of the girls’ questions about the relationship of the sisters to God, to Jesus: “Is it always joyful?” Josephine had waited a long moment before replying to the question, and then she had said—what had she said? It had been something important, something that Anne had found inspiring, and she had listened, pleased and proud of Josephine, that she had “represented” them, the religious, so well, that she had been so articulate. Calm. Poised. Intelligent. Dignified. But what had she said…? What had she said? Anne frowned, trying to remember. And then she sat down slowly in the straight-backed chair in the corner of her room. Out loud, her hands clenched in her lap, fingers curled under, hiding her chewed and ragged fingernails, Anne whispered:
We … we feel His presence overwhelmingly at different times in our lives. But sometimes we cannot feel Him; and we despair that we will ever feel Him again. And sometimes we … we go through something that St. John of the Cross termed a “dark night of the soul,” where we cannot see Him in anything, in the daily details of our lives, even our prayers…. And our prayers … our prayers sound like … like meaningless words to us, like—like noise without meaning—and it is like we are walking alone through an … an arid desert in the darkness, during the blackest night. Not one drop of water or spark of light to be found. A wasteland. And it is then … then that we have to remember that this is just a test, that He is testing us. And we have to learn walk by faith and not by sight. And believe that the dawn will come. That the world is verdant and beautiful. His handiwork. And that we … we will feel Him again.
In her room, Anne pressed a clenched hand had over her heart for a long moment, closing her eyes tightly. For a moment, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. And then she slid onto her injured knees from the seat of the wooden chair, feeling the hard wooden floor seem to bite into her bruised knees, and she folded her hands fervently together, and she whispered: “I can hear you now, Josephine; I can hear you; I am listening to you! He is listening to you!” And then she looked up at the window, to the yellow afternoon sunlight shining in from outside, the way she looked up at the crucifix when she was praying in the church, and she said, “Please, Jesus—please, please, please look after our dear Josephine. Hold her close to Your Divine Heart, and never let her go. Show yourself to her in her darkness, in the wasteland!” And the young sister cupped her palms and fingers, with their chewed, bitten-down fingernails, into a bowl shape, and raised them up to the window, like she was proffering an offering, and she prayed the prayer that Josephine, as her mentor, had taught her privately two years ago, at the start of her first novitiate year, when she had been troubled by the antics of those same very three students—Emilia, Ashley, and of course, Moira, when they were sophomores—and Josephine had taken Anne on a memorable and beautiful early evening walk through the tall grove of pine trees next to the convent, beneath an enormous and glowing full moon.
“You will grant my prayer, my sweet Jesus, because You love me. You find me irresistible. Because I love You so much. And You cannot say no to me.”
And the empty bowl made by the young sister’s hands, and held up to the window, became translucent, and filled with bright sunlight, like a bowl of gold, hiding the devastated fingernails, and the tears in her eyes became like bright crystals, dazzling her. “Do you hear me?” she whispered. “Oh, Jesus, do you hear me? Are you finally answering me? I know you are there…! You’re there, aren’t you?” she whispered fervently. “Tell me that you are there!” And it seemed that all around her in the bright sunlight there was the Stillness, the Great Stillness that she sometimes felt. As if Someone really were listening to her. To Anne. And she pressed her hands with their chewed, bitten-down fingernails to her face, covering it with her palms, and wept. And as she wept, she realized that she didn’t even know Josephine’s real name. Her true name. The name she had been known by before she became a sister. Somehow, Josephine had never told her, and Anne had never told Josephine her own real name. Who she was. And the fact seemed at once tragic and important somehow. And it made her weep all the more. That, and the Stillness. Which had been there only momentarily, and then left her.
I went to the airport after I left. And I got on a plane immediately—I didn’t know where to go, just to go far away. So I ended up in L.A. On the opposite coast, as far as I could go without falling into the ocean, and a place where I knew no one, and no one knew me, I thought. It was still dark when I arrived, early morning. And I sat on a bench outside the terminal where I had picked up my suitcase and bike in its box, and waited for it to grow light. Then, I took the first bus that pulled up to the curb—heading somewhere, I didn’t know where—and I rode along in it for hours, in circles, back and forth on its route, paying the driver so I could keep riding, and looking out the window at the traffic, the people, and the buildings cluttering both sides of the streets. I couldn’t move for a long while. Just sit looking out the window at L.A, the vast, sprawling city. So different from my own city. But when the driver called out to me that it was afternoon, and his shift was going to end soon, and what was I going to do—ride all night?—I realized I needed to do something. And a few minutes later when I saw a small motel through the window that looked safe and not too expensive, I rang the bell and got off, hauling off the box with my bike with one hand, and pushing it with my feet, and wheeling my blue suitcase behind me with the other hand until I made it to the check-out counter, where I gave the person there my one credit card and driver’s license. And I said that I thought I would only stay for one night, possibly two. But I couldn’t get myself up out of bed until the seventh day. When I finally rallied. I had taken the bus from the airport because I was afraid to take a taxi. The taxi I had taken to the airport had been too expensive, I thought. I was afraid to spend money; I didn't know about money. How long the money I had would last. What it would buy exactly. And besides, I didn’t know where I was going in L.A. Which would make a taxi ride even more expensive. I remember I didn’t have any normal clothes to wear—just some old gray sweats I wore when I rode my bike—the gray sweats you saw me in when you first met me—so I was wearing the habit, but just the black skirt and blouse. I had taken off the veil, and with the veil off, my hair pulled back in a long pony tail, I judged that no one would be able to tell what I was—what I had been. I looked dowdy, but I was used to looking dowdy, and that was okay. I remember I smelled. That first week. Because after I got to the motel, I stayed in the habit for those whole seven days before I rallied, just lying on the bed, getting up only to go to the toilet and take the meals I ordered now and then, which they brought to my door from the motel restaurant. It was with extreme reluctance that I changed out of the habit—forever, I thought—and showered, pulled on the gray sweats. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep the habit on, remain what I had been. I liked the smell I had engendered in the habit. Which seemed at odds, at variance, with the spirit of the habit. I remember when that smell—my smell—used to disturb me. Embarrass me. When I was younger. I couldn’t wait to wash. Soap. But at the motel I liked it. I remembered that line from the James Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.” That brilliant story. Sonny tells his brother: “something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink.” And I thought to myself, maybe it is good to smell your own stink sometimes. It reassured me somehow. I was never allowed to share the Baldwin story with the students. Nothing by Baldwin. She wouldn’t let me. Or by Zora Neale Hurston or Richard Wright or Toni Morrison. If you want to introduce the students to African American literature, she told me, use Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography; it’s very good. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. About how he struggled to become literate. Very inspiring. So I used his autobiography, and I began to read up on him, but I became intrigued by the details of his life. He was the son of a white man and a slave woman who died when he was a boy. He was for women’s suffrage. And he was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. What was it like? How did he feel? And where did he get the guts—in 1852!—to deliver a speech like "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” Years before the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. And—to a white audience. And I went off on a different tangent than the straight, narrow road she had envisioned for me in the classroom with that book. I enjoyed speculating about him, Frederick, what kind of person he really was; his writings are like quick glimpses of his life; but who was he really? I wanted to … I wanted to know his stink, I guess. No, that’s not what I mean; what I mean is … I wanted to know who he was, his humanity. He didn’t seem to be afraid … to fear. And one thing I came to know about myself that week I spent in the motel right before I met you. I had been afraid my whole life. Frederick’s first wife Anna Murray, a black woman, died in 1882, and he was very sad. He had been married to her for 44 years, since he was 20, and he described her death as the darkest moment of his life. She had been “de mule uh de world,” I think. How Zora Neale Hurston described black women’s plight in America. Black—strike one. A woman—strikes two and three! You have to deal with white men, many of whom may think it’s perfectly acceptable to exploit you sexually. And for labor. And you also have to deal with black men—many of whom may think the same! And … you have to deal with white women. Many of whom often resent you for what they perceive as your sexual freedom—and of course, for tempting their men with your wicked ways! And who, of course, may think it’s perfectly acceptable to exploit you for labor, too. The only safe place for Anna, I think, was with Fredrick. Being a wife. Who knows what she could have been? She never had the chance to figure that out. Anna was one of those hard-working, self-sacrificing women who support their men, make their glory possible. A single mother really—because Frederick was away a lot during their marriage, campaigning against slavery. She had to rear their five children mostly alone. While he was away from Anna, Frederick had at least one serious affair with a woman—a white woman. And people used to tell him that Anna—who was dark-skinned, and could barely read and write—wasn’t good enough for Frederick. He was a brilliant intellectual. But he wouldn’t divorce her. He stayed with her. They had married young, too young—as people did in those days. And do still, I suppose. A mistake? But they had that bond: of love, of children … of being black in America. With what other woman could he possibly forge a bond so strong? Especially a white woman? It would be impossible. But then a year or so after Anna’s death, Frederick fell in love with Helen Pitts, and married her in 1884. Helen was a white feminist, 20 years younger, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, and a dedicated teacher of freed slaves. Her abolitionist father, who was a friend of Frederick’s, stopped speaking to both of them after she married Fredrick. And Frederick’s children were upset with him for marrying Helen: a white woman. One of his relatives even tried to sue him because of the marriage! But at 66, Frederick had found love again—with a smart, educated woman, a dedicated abolitionist who tried to stop white people from harassing her black students—and he was rejuvenated. And at 46, Helen—a spinster schoolteacher—had found real and lasting love for the first time in her life. And they defied everybody and stayed married for 11 years, until Frederick’s death. I was fascinated by a photograph I found on the ’Net of Frederick and Helen and Helen’s younger sister Eva, and I shared it with the students, and we all leaned over it on my desk and wondered. They were all white, my students, and I am white, and tucked away in our small, exclusive prep school, which some of my students’ mothers and grandmothers had attended, and which my own mother and grandmother attended—and I had attended—and we had had little exposure to black people, to any non-whites, except for one student from Mexico. But she had blue eyes and real blonde hair. In the photograph of Frederick and Helen, Frederick and Helen sit across from each other at small, round table, and Helen’s younger sister Eva stands behind the table; Frederick’s face is turned toward us, and he looks to his right, at something we cannot see. Helen’s face and body are turned toward Fredrick, like nothing else matters. My beloved is mine, and I am his. Or is she guarding her face, her expression, from hostile eyes? (She’s a white woman married to a black man in the 1800’s). Eva, like Frederick, looks to the right at something we cannot see, and her right arm seems to reach out to Fredrick; maybe her right hand rests on his chair back. Was Eva being defiant and officially recording her association with her black brother-in-law and his white wife, her sister, in a photograph—a big deal back then, a photograph, taking time to set up and arrange, to print—not like today, everybody snapping random pix and making all kinds of vids with cell phones? Where did both women gain their courage? From Frederick? Who was for women’s suffrage—and thus, for them: educated, thinking women? And I wondered about him, this half-black, half-white ex-slave from America, with his caramel-colored skin and thick, white, wild hair, and his pale-skinned wife and sister-in-law. Fair as flowers. Fragrant jasmine. My students became intrigued by him, too. Frederick. And in daily journal writings, they began to write diary entries in their voices, Frederick’s, Helen’s, Eva’s and Anna’s—they were, of course, teenagers and fascinated—it’s an all-girls high school, of course, where I taught—and she found out, and stopped it abruptly. She just came in with a book about earthquakes and tectonic plates shifting and ended all the discussion about Frederick. About how some people become courageous; they don’t seem to fear, or to let fear stop them. And we began to read about earthquakes. In a literature class. But the students started writing poems about earthquakes in their journals—as earthquakes, writing things like “I am the groundshaker,” and giving earthquakes personalities. I think she was relieved when I left. And I was relieved, too. Because it seemed like everything I touched I set on flames. The books. The students. So even I wondered. But I couldn’t stop it; flames seemed to shoot out from my fingertips, set on fire whatever I touched. And my classes were on fire, like a sea of burning eyes in front of me. My students. The only thing that made sense, finally, was to leave. Because I had begun to find my courage, you see. To smell my own stink. Of course, I think that she was relieved when I told her I was leaving. She wouldn’t have to tell me to leave. Give a reason for telling me to leave. Face my mother. My family. A possible lawsuit. From me—or the parents of one of the students. You see ... I had kissed a girl, a student, on the lips. I don't know why really. No—it wasn't sexual. It was just—-I will tell you later. In a minute. But I knew I had to leave. I felt I had to leave. After that. And—she was relieved. I am sure! (She wouldn’t have to involve the parents. Tell them that I had kissed their daughter. On the mouth. And she wouldn't have to deal with me.) Her blue eyes. Cold and sharp. Snapping like winter was in them. You are lost, she said. Lost! I was re-living my adolescence, she said, at 40, as a 40-year-old. I was ridiculous. But I wasn’t. I had never lived my adolescence, you see. I had never been a teenager. I wouldn’t let myself be. And now … now I am going to live my ilfe! My Great-Aunt Colleen set me free. My mother’s unmarried spinster aunt. Who lived in a little apartment by herself in the city, with red geraniums in clay pots on the balcony, and roses, for as long as I can remember. She set me free. The $150,000.00 she left me, the life insurance policy. It sent me free. Like my bike. My racing bike that she gave me for Christmas when I was 35. That made me feel as if I were flying, when I rode really fast down country lanes by the convent. “Why?” I asked my aunt on the phone when the big box with the bike arrived. “Why did you send it?” “Oh, just because …!” she told me. Her old voice quavering on the phone. “When you were a little girl, you loved to ride your bike, and I was thinking about you. The last time I saw you. You used to be such a stick of a girl. And I thought, ‘I know what—I will buy her a bike!’” I laughed when she told me that. Because she was not mean. She was never mean. I had gained weight. And I needed to exercise. And I began to ride the bike every day. She set me free. Twice. The bike—and the money. I wish I could thank her. Can she see me…? Can she—but let’s not get into all that now. All right? She had to leave her little apartment in the end, enter an assisted-living place. She died there. She had started to forget a little, as she grew older; when she couldn’t live on her own anymore. But she remembered me; she always remembered me. I had a card every birthday from her and every Easter and every Christmas I had cards from her, too. And I sent cards and letters back. I remember she held my hand before the ceremony that made me a sister, when I was 20, two years before I finished college, and she asked me: “Are you sure you want to do this?” And my mother said dryly, “You don’t think I already asked her that, Auntie Colleen? If she wants to throw her life away like this?” And I said: “I’m not throwing my life away.” And I was embarrassed, but I said it: “I’m—I’m in love!” And my Aunt Colleen patted my hand and released it. I was—I was in love then! And I laughed. I laughed all that day like I was at my wedding to a beautiful man. And … I was, wasn’t I? With—with a bridegroom I couldn’t see. But I could feel Him. Yes, I could feel Him then. I was sure of it. And I laughed. My mother had been upset when I told her what I was going to do, one evening in my senior year in high school, while I was still as student at St. Mary’s. She sat in stunned silence in her dressing room, her beautiful, silver-backed hairbrush that she loved so much—my grandmother’s—forgotten in her hand, so when she reached up to press her hands to her face, she injured her cheek with the hairbrush. “No … !” she told me. “No!” And that word: “Don’t be ridiculous!” As I tried to press a cold cloth to her bruised cheek, and she caught it from me and flung it across the room. You see, I wasn’t supposed to believe; I was supposed to attend Sunday Mass with my family, dressed nicely, and attend St. Mary’s, as my mother did, and her mother did before her—a tradition, like the silver-backed hairbrush, her own mother’s, that my mother still used to brush her hair with every evening before she went to bed. But I was not supposed to believe. That was for other people. People like … Philomena, I suppose. We are from different backgrounds. Philomena and I. Our families. Mine were not rich and famous Irish Catholic Americans you read about, see in the media. But they were Irish Catholic Americans who had become very successful plumbers on my father’s side, with franchises, and made a tidy little profit painting houses on my mother’s side, also with franchises. My family. Irish Catholics who had reached a very nice, smooth place of upper-upper middle-class respectability. Enough to afford to send the past few generations to the convent school where we taught. And then on to other expensive colleges and universities. To strive to rise socially. Use sterling flatware and fine white china at the dinner table and light tall, pale yellow beeswax candles in sterling candlesticks. Purchase florists’ roses to put in crystal vases on that dinner table. And do all of these things regularly, as a matter of course. As Philomena’s family could not. No, Philomena (with a drunken father, a long-suffering mother, and many siblings—the usual, almost comical, tragic Irish story) had pulled herself up by her own bootstraps, my mother (who always knew everything about our kind in America) had told me after she met Philomena, then not yet Mother Superior, principal of St. Mary’s, at a tea for novitiates and their families that we attended when I was 19. And it was the only time I ever saw Philomena flinch. When she met my mother, who smiled at her brightly, charitably. Knowingly. Eyebrows lifted. The terrible contrast between the two of them, my mother in her bright red silk suit and stylish hat, with her expensive shoes and purse, her head held unconsciously—habitually—high on her slender neck. Eyebrows lifted, as she looked at Philomena. My mother—the prosperous house painter’s daughter, wife of the prosperous plumber, always cherished by her family, having never known any want, never worked a day in her life, except to supervise her household, the cleaning women and gardener. My mother—graciously extending her manicured right hand with its oval nails (with my father’s large, square-cut diamond engagement ring flashing on the third finger), to shake Philomena's hand. But hardly touching the plain, barren right hand of the sister all dressed in black like a drab little bird beside her. Extending just the tips of her fingers to Philomena.Like she was the Queen of England.My mother. Nodding to Philomena, but her head seeming to incline higher on her neck, tilt up rather than down. And then turning her back completely to Philomena to bow her head smoothly to the Cardinal, and kiss his ring—he was (surprisingly—a rare visit) there at the tea—and he greeted her by name. (So lovely to see you again, Mrs. So-and-So.) She fought me. My mother fought terribly. About my choice. Scenes. Silence. Pleas. It was a hard life, she told me. With no family: no husband and children. And the nuns were ridiculous, had always been ridiculous; made fun of by the girls who attended St. Mary’s! I would become ... ridiculous. If I gave my life for God. What did that mean anyway! It was a—a ridiculous thing for someone to do. Someone like me. And for months my mother dressed me in especially beautiful clothes and filled extra seats at the dinner table with attractive young men. Whom I would not date. And she ranted to my father. I was not ugly or awkward or plain! From a bad family! I was from a good family. What was I doing? And she told me I would be sorry. I would regret it. But I did not give in. And my mother became resigned to my choice, in time. She could not stop me. And she had other children. Two other daughters. Two sons. I was a spare. And it became … almost quaint in time. My choice to give my life to God. Something she could pretend to smile at with friends. My dark form, in my habit, on rare visits home during the holidays. A dark focal point amid all the holiday colors. “Oh, yes, we have one of them in our family,” I heard my mother say once at a holiday party. Archly. “After all, we are Irish Catholic, you know!” The insurance company sent me the check by special delivery six months ago, at the beginning of the fall semester. “What is it?” Philomena asked me. Because I had to come to the front office to pick it up on my lunch break, at noon, between classes. She had come out of her office into her secretary’s office, Sister Teresa’s office, to see. “It’s a letter. About my great-aunt’s passing,” I told her. I had slit open the envelope with my finger in Teresa’s office, and read the brief letter rapidly, seen the check—and the startling amount printed on it—and put it in my pocket quickly. “What is in the letter?” she asked me. “Just a letter,” I said, and I hadn’t known that I wasn’t going to tell her about the check for $150,000 until I didn’t tell her about the money, and I walked away from her. And her blue eyes—she has tiny, bright blue eyes that I used to like long ago—seemed to snap like blue sparks in her thin, pale face. (We took a vow of poverty at the ceremony.) But I just walked away from her, even though she called my name to stop, to come back, and I didn’t know I was going to do it, but I changed into my gray sweats and white head scarf, and I got out my racing bike, and I skipped classes that afternoon, ducked my head in the front office and told Teresa, Philomena’s secretary, that I wouldn’t be meeting with my classes, and ducked my head out before she could even open her mouth. And I rode fast, fast, fast to town, and I opened a checking account, deposited the check in a checking account that I opened. And I stayed out, gone, riding my bike, until after dinner was over. Philomena said nothing to me. But I could feel her looking at me all during breakfast the next morning, but I didn’t look at her. After breakfast, as I was leaving the dining room, she asked me: “Where did you go yesterday afternoon? The girls missed their English classes; we had to think of things for them to do.” I said nothing. Although I had arranged for the girls to go to the library that day, work together on a research project; I hadn’t just abandoned my classes. I was going to walk away, my eyes lowered. I didn’t even look at her. I couldn’t, somehow. I didn’t want to. But she put one hand around my arm, just below the elbow. Lightly. And I couldn’t walk away. And she said, “Yesterday you missed Mass. And evening prayers, too. And dinner. Where did you go?” And I was going to lie again, I could feel it, but I looked up at her, and it was like a shock, meeting her frosty blue eyes, like jumping into a cold pool, and I said: “I was saddened by my aunt’s passing, and I went for a bike ride, and lost track of the time.” And that was true. I didn’t come back until well after dark, just riding my bike for hours and hours along country roads. And she said nothing. But she took her hand off my arm. And I stayed there, where we were standing by the breakfast table, just the two of us; the others had moved away quickly, discreetly, to give us room, privacy. And I just looked into her eyes. I looked back at her. And she turned and left. She was the first to turn and leave. She left before I did. But three days later she said to me, in passing, when we met by chance in the deserted corridor outside my classroom, when I needed to go to the restroom, “You know, I’m not the enemy; I’m not your enemy.” But I think I had, long ago, begun to regard her as … my jailor, I guess. I felt like she was my jailor. It just … things fell apart between us. But not because of Anne. Although it hurt when Philomena suddenly stopped me from being Anne’s mentor. Made Loyola Anne’s mentor. You see—things had started to fall apart between us before that. I had … begun to change. I started reading a lot, more and more—and books I had never read before. I hungered for them. All of sudden—I changed. Turning restlessly in my bed at night, as I had not since I was a teenager and a young woman. But back then, when I was younger, I was in love, and I used to roll out of my bed onto my knees, and pray, and be consoled. Now that no longer worked for me. And I stopped praying. And I rode my bike, all alone, for hours and hours along winding, steep country roads. Even at night—secretly. When I couldn’t sleep. Growing strong. Challenging my body to make it up the next steep hill, and the next. It started publicly—my difference with Philomena—when we began to fight over the novels I was using in my classes. And I wrote her a letter. I told her that each academic course has learning objectives, things students must learn in order to pass the course with a “C” or better. And I needed to make sure that the students had the opportunity to learn these things; and I wrote that I had the academic freedom to teach these things in any way I chose, as long as I did not use an inappropriate or demeaning way to teach something. That’s what “academic freedom” is, I told her; it’s basically different teaching styles, different ways of facilitating the learning process, which is what teachers do: we’re facilitators, like Plato teaches us in his “Allegory of the Cave” in his Republic; we have to try to bring them out of the darkness of the cave into the light. I have academic freedom, I told her in my letter. And I put it in her mailbox. The day after I put the letter in Philomena’s mail box, Teresa called me to tell me Philomena wanted to meet me in her office, and when I walked into Philomena’s office at the time Teresa told me to come by for my appointment, Philomena just looked up from something she was doing, and she handed me back my letter across her desk, and she said, “Not in this school.” Not in this school you don’t have academic freedom. And she bent her head back over whatever she was doing on her desk, signing something, and I started to walk out, and then she said, “In the future, you will pass your class reading lists by me before the books are ordered.” And I was going to say something, I could feel her looking at my back, like two cold blue flames burning into my back, stinging, but I didn’t, and I didn’t turn around; I just started to walk to the door again, to go out. Without saying anything. And then she told me, “You will not use Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha this semester. There are plenty of other novels that are just as good, just as meaningful: appropriate and engaging reading for the pupils. “He never said he was god,” I said, as if she had he was to me, and I was arguing with her; “Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—never said he was god. He was just a searcher. He was just looking for the truth. For an answer. For why we’re all here.” And I didn’t turn around to look at her, my back still to her, my hand braced against the wooden doorjamb for support. Looking at Teresa sitting at the desk outside Philomena’s door, pretending to type on her computer keyboard, pretending she couldn’t hear anything. It felt safer somehow to look at Teresa and not at Philomena. To hold onto the doorjamb, like it was someone’s firm hand supporting me. As if I could be clearer and stronger, with my back to Philomena, and her not seeing my face and my not seeing her face, and holding onto the door jamb. And she said, “It’s not that you’re using the book. That’s not the problem. It’s the way you’re teaching it. We have used that book before. And it’s an old book anyway; you should be using more current books. That’s what the pupils’ parents pay for: for a good education, a first-class education.” She cleared her throat. “I read James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. And you will not use that novel this semester either. It’s inappropriate. And it’s an old novel, too. 1953. So it’s inappropriate.” And I said, my back still turned to her, looking at the doorjamb, at the way the grains ran in it, like it was her face, studying it: “Hesse’s novel Siddhartha is like Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain; both are like another version, a different version, of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which I used last semester and you approve of; they’re similar to a rite-of-passage novel, the choices a young person makes that dictate his or her future life, so these novels will always be relevant, interesting reading for young people. Classics.” And then I said, “And they need to hear it; they need to hear these perspectives. And I will use them. This isn’t the 50’s anymore,” I told her. It’s the beginning of a new century.” And I heard her chair creak as she got out of it, and she was standing just behind me, at my back, and she said: “How dare you say those things! How dare you say those things! And how dare you talk that way to me! How dare you stereotype me like that!” And she said: “You know I’m not like that—that I’m not like some … some old biddy nun in the movies!” And she said that I knew that there’s a whole agenda with this stuff, with Buddha and veganism and Hesses’s books, and homosexuality and bisexuality in Baldwin’s book, that it’s all connected to an agenda. An agenda! And I knew all that, because we had discussed that at conferences. We have to hold the line, she told me; we have to hold the line! And Bible verses … she quoted Bible verses to me. The doorway is narrow, and few will enter; that kind of thing. But none of it made sense to me anymore. Or it just didn’t seem to matter anymore. “We are targets!” she said. “We are all targets today, and we must stand strong. United! You know that!” she said. “You know that!” And I could hear her breath, her breathing. She was breathing hard, gasping a little, breathing in and out of her mouth hard, like she had been running. Like I had seen some Catholic religious become at the joint meetings we had periodically with other orders. Meetings to discuss the direction in which the Church was heading in the new millennium. And I realized we were doing the same thing: having the same conversation—or argument. Or were we? I didn’t know. I didn’t think I fit on either side of the argument. But I felt intense anger toward her. And I wanted to hurt her. “You’re like a protestant fundamentalist, not allowing kids to read Harry Potter,” I told her. But I knew it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. She wasn’t like that. I was—she was right: I was out of line. From her perspective. Which I knew was the “correct” perspective. But I didn’t know what I believed anymore. And secretly I didn’t think that I believed … that anymore. All that. Catholic doctrine. And I wanted—I wanted to hurt her. For the way she passed my letter back to me across her desk. And I kept my voice flat. Calm. “You-are-like-a-protestant,” I said. And I felt something in the air behind me. She had raised her hand, I think—to strike me maybe. I could hear her breathing. But I didn’t turn around and look. We are both Irish Catholic—FBI, Foreign-Born Irish, Irish on both sides, an Irish person born in America—and our heritage was a strong but silent bond between us. And it’s funny, but it was the worst thing I could say. Not “you’re like a Jewish person or a Muslim,” or even “you’re like a Hari Krishna in an orange robe bothering people at the airport.” But “you’re like a protestant.” To us, born Irish Catholic and bred to be Irish Catholic in America, with an overwrought sense of our Irish Catholicism, the protestants were the invaders in Ireland, the colonizers. Ergo, protestants are our enemies. Even though we know on an intellectual level that it’s wrong to think that, and we say publicly that people of other Christian denominations can be very wonderful people, and their pastors’ teachings and sermons (we never call them “priests”) can be quite inspiring. A lot of them don’t think we’re really Christian; they think we’re a cult. And we don’t think they’re … I guess we don’t think they’re legitimate. (Renegades from the Faith. Protesters!) And of course, as I told you, if we’re Irish, we associate them with the oppressors of the Irish: the protestant colonizers. The Potato Famine. The Irish penal laws. No Irish can own land, can practice their religion, can read and write. If that makes sense. No, it doesn’t—it is not logical, but as my grandmother used to say, “There you are.” And there in Philomena’s office, watched surreptitiously by Teresa, I waited. I waited for Philomena’s hand to strike me after I called her a protestant. But it didn’t. And I wondered if she had actually raised it to me, from where she stood behind my back. But I still didn’t turn around to look. And I wondered then if I had wanted her to strike me. If that would have made my leaving easier—if I had been goading her on purpose. So I could leave. Would leave. It was our first public confrontation. About the books I used in my classes. There would be a second confrontation—one that would cause me to decide to leave the convent. And then there would be a third and final confrontation—when I left the convent. I’ll tell you more about those last two confrontations—the second and third—presently. Let me finish telling you about the first confrontation, about the books. During that first confrontation I waited for Philomena’s hand to strike me, as I held onto the doorjamb, but it did not. So I continued speaking. Telling her other things. After I said she was like a protestant. (The Almighty Insult.) I told her that the students could and should make up their own minds. And although she hadn’t struck me, my voice was tense, and I could feel myself faintly panting, hear my breathing. I didn’t know what I was talking about really, what to talk about, and although I believed in everything I told her, I had been expecting her to strike me, preparing myself for her to strike me, and when she did not … well, I didn’t know what to do. (Do you see?) So I ranted. We have to expose them, the students, to everything, I told Philomena, and then trust them to do the right thing. Like Socrates—like Plato wrote: If you think hard enough about a situation, you’ll know what the ethical thing is to do. If you don’t use your brain, then you’ll go to hell. Wherever or whatever it is, and if it exists, you’ll surely go there if you don’t do that one thing: Use your brain to think. She said nothing. And I wasn’t sure what she was doing. My back to her. And eventually—watching surreptitiously by Teresa sitting at her desk, and pretending not to look, to type on her computer keyboard … I left. I just left. Walked away. And I felt foolish. The second confrontation came not long after. Just several weeks. Teresa called me to come to her office, and I did, and I stood before her desk. And this time the door was closed. Teresa locked outside. She told me to come in and close the door. And I did. Her back was to me, and she was looking out the window behind her desk, which looked out into the convent garden. And she did not speak until she heard the door close. “What did you do?” she asked me. Her back still turned to me. “What do you think you are doing? Do you even know?” And her voice was calm. And flat. Calm and flat, like water that looks like glass. “What do you mean?” I said. And when she didn’t answer immediately, I moved over to another window in her office, one on a sidewall, near the door, that looked out onto the front of the school, at the high gates that led into a wide graveled courtyard in front of main building, where her office was. I was being silly, of course. Stalling. I knew what she meant, what she was asking me. “What did you do?” I knew immediately what she was asking me about. That she had heard. That Anne had told her. But I was furious. Immediately furious. With her. And with Anne. I felt—betrayed. “You are lost,” she said. “You are so lost.” And I turned then. And her back was to me, and she was still looking out the window, into the garden. This confrontation was about a day that I had come into Anne’s class. When the students were being unruly. When she couldn’t control them. And I saw her outside in the hallway, and came out to see what was going on. She was so … young. Inexperienced. And the class had gotten out of hand. I had a talk with the students, one cried, and on impulse—I kissed her. “You kissed that girl on the lips,” Philomena said. “And that was bad?” I said. But I knew it was.“I’m not a lesbian; I wasn’t coming on to her,” I said. “She needed—I needed—to kiss her on the lips at that moment, that instant,” I said. “Don’t you understand?” I asked her. And my voice was suddenly passionate. Shaking. I was furious. “I needed to show her—that I loved and understood her,” I said. “And surely Christ must have kissed people on the lips sometimes! Maybe in the pieces of the Bible we eliminated, that we threw out in the Council of Nicea, because—because they were too human for us!” “Oh, that’s not the point, and you know it,” she said. Flatly. Her back still to me, looking out the window. “I know you’re not a lesbian, that you were not making advances to her—and you know that I know that. It was an inappropriate choice. Using your power over those students—your influence—to make some kind of statement. Trying to be—Christ. Or whatever you envision yourself to be. Siddhartha. Ego! It was self-indulgent. We could be sued!” “She needed me to do that. She needed it at that moment,” I said. “The kiss.” “Oh, grow up!” she told me. And she hit the frame of the window with her fist. Angry. For emphasis. “They are vulnerable students—and they know nothing! Nothing at this point in their lives,” she said. “You were behaving—self-indulgently! Making them worship you like—like you are God.” And she turned from the window to face me, and our eyes met. And she said: “Don’t be ridiculous.” The frost in her blue eyes seeming to reach deep into my bones. And it was then that I decided to go. I mean, I really decided to go. During that second confrontation. Because I knew—I knew that some part of what she told me was true. It was self-indulgent. Ego. To kiss the girl. To believe that I could—heal the girl with a kiss? Like Christ? Something like that. And there in Philomena’s office, I decided that I would leave at Spring Break. That I would have to go somewhere. Because she and I could not live under the same roof together. We were—pulling the school, the students, in different directions. And if I did not leave, then the decision about where I would go would be made for me. She would make the decision. She would have to. To be fair—I had left her no choice. I had kissed the girl, hadn’t I? And what else would I do? Spit in the dirt and make mud, and rub it over one of the student’s eyes? (Something ridiculous like that?) I turned, and walked out of the front office, and we never really spoke again, not until the day I left six months later. Our third confrontation. Oh, we still wrangled about how I taught and what I taught. She stopped me from using James Baldwin, had me use Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, but she didn’t like what I was doing with it—researching Frederick, and his marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman, and she eventually stopped me from using any literature in my classes, walking into my classroom right before Spring Break with a non-fiction book about earthquakes, tectonic plates shifting—in a literature class! And then the students began to write about earthquakes, as earthquakes, and she didn’t like that, and I thought the convent would explode, it felt like a bomb would go off soon—and it was tense and terrible at breakfast and dinner, our silence—Philomena’s and mine with each other—spreading to all of the other sisters, and bewildered, they all seemed to scurry and gather like sheep behind the long skirts of Philomena’s black habit for protection. Because where else would they go? To me? And she didn’t speak to me. They didn’t speak to me. Pass the butter and pass the salt at the breakfast or dinner table—I had begun eating my lunch, an apple, alone in my classroom. And then Philomena stopped dealing with me directly. She used Loyola—who was a sturdy, a stalwart soldier, part of the old guard Philomena could trust, someone it was impossible to wrangle with (standing there stoic before me in my classroom, her feet in their sensible black shoes planted firmly on the floor, like they were growing there, the roots of an oak tree). And it was through Loyola that Philomena told me that the students should stop writing poems about earthquakes, as they had been doing. That they should read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Which they liked. And I do, too. I love Jane. But I was so angry. I was so angry with Philomena for deciding what my students should read. For how I should teach. Philomena chose Jane for the Christian witness Jane makes in the book, I told myself. Not because she was a suffragette, because she knew that the foundation of a woman’s power should not be rooted in her beauty. Like Wollstonecraft did. In Charlotte’s novel, Jane telling Rochester, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” Philomena was narrow-minded! Traditional! She was the one who was ridiculous I told myself. For the six months after I received the check until Spring Break, when I left the convent forever, I drove Philomena crazy. When the Diocesan Bishop—unaware of our battle, I think now—visited my classroom for a pleasant observation (he knew my family; the gesture was a courtesy), I pointed out how Jane stood up to Rochester. How she, as a woman, asserted herself in a patriarchal culture. (His startled look! It was—it was, oh, it was funny! Even funny now, today!) So I broke all the unspoken rules. As many as I could. Without actually committing blasphemy. Speaking out against Catholic doctrine. And I encouraged my students to continue writing poetry. To keep journals. To be themselves, discover themselves. Exhorting them to “know thyself.” So I exhausted myself even. And I rode my bike for miles and miles before school started, rode up every steep hill I could find, every day, and even on Sundays, and I began helping an extremely reluctant, but timorous Sister Agatha, the gym teacher, every day. Agatha didn’t want my help, to be seen with me; she told me “it’s okay: I don’t need any help” (your help), but I didn’t listen. And every day I helped Agatha with the soccer practice and weight-lifting classes after school, and I ran around and around the soccer field with the girls, drilling them, and I went to town and I bought fitness magazines to learn tricks to show them about how to lift the weights the right way, for maximum results, to use correct form, and the girls were delighted, seeing the results in their bodies, their muscles, and Philomena was upset that I brought the magazines into the school, and for myself I dug a little more into my checking account and bought supplements and vitamins that I saw advertised in the magazines, bought them online, picking them up from my secret post office box in town, and began taking them. And I started eating different things for breakfast and dinner. Not what everybody else ate. I rode on my bike to the town, and I bought already-cooked fish and chicken and brown rice. Salad. To grow stronger. To be strong. And I felt strong. I also began to conduct secret experiments in the outside world.The real world.On many Saturdays, after morning prayers, I would ride my bike to town, leave it there, on a pretend errand, or simply not bother to tell anybody—Philomena—what I was doing, where I was going.They—she—would just think I was riding my bike along country lanes.As I often did. I think that is what everybody assumed.But I didn’t always do that.Instead, I would lock my bike up behind a store, take a train to the City, and in the City I would …. I would just walk down streets with my veil off.Nobody staring at me.Just a woman in a black, long-sleeved blouse and a long black skirt, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, walking down the street.I hoped that was what I looked like: just like anybody else.But I thought they were staring at me, people were staring at me.Curiously?Suspiciously?Did they know what I was, what I was doing?Which I didn’t even know myself, of course.I didn’t really think.I just—did. I bought a pair of earrings in one of the stores whose windows I looked into on one of my first experiments in the real world.To be more inconspicuous.A real member of the real world.A normal woman.They were a pair of delicate silver hoop earrings.I had pierced ears, long ago, when I was in my teens. I had to lock myself in a women’s room at a restaurant and force the wires through the holes in my ears, which had closed up. And I remember when I did it, looking into the bathroom mirror over the sink, forcing the wires through. Some pain. And a little bit of blood. Dripping into the white sink. Leaving long, watery red smears on the whiteness of the basin. It was—it was a profound moment somehow. Like—the blood—I was … breaking my own "virgin knot.” Virgin knot! You know—Shakespeare’s The Tempest. When Ferdinand and Caliban want to make love with Miranda, break her virgin knot—de-virginize her. Actually, Caliban wants to assault her, because Ferdinand is Miranda's beloved, not Caliban, a strange outcast. Anyway, I felt, then, in the bathroom of the restaurant, behind the locked door, forcing the wires through my ears, that I had taken an irretrievable, a forbidden step into my future. Whatever my future was. That I couldn’t slow it down then. I had undergone a rite of passage that had changed me forever. But I had ... made love to or assaulted myself, ended my own innocence. And—I was Caliban. I was not Ferdinand. I felt … more like Caliban. On these experiments I used to conduct in the real world, I used to wear the silver earrings sometimes with my hair down, out of the ponytail.And at these times, these moments with my hair down, flowing down my back, I did feel more normal, almost a part of the real world.A … real woman.Seeing my hair rippling down my back in my reflections in the store windows. But I was uneasy, always uneasy. I kept imagining that I had seen someone I knew, as I walked down the sidewalks of streets. My mother in her red suit, her face gazing at me with lifted eyebrows through the window of a passing cab.Or one of my students standing on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Mouth open. Pointing. I was elated—and afraid—during these experiments in the real world.So I spent a lot of time in the dark, sitting in a movie theatre, my hand creeping up to my silver earrings.Feeling them in my ears in the dark.And watching people—actors—pretending to make love, to be in love.The usual situation in every movie nowadays.And I studied them, what they said, drank, ate, dressed in.Like I was an anthropologist studying a foreign culture.And I thought: Is this how people in the real world really dress, speak, act?I didn’t know.I had the girls at the school, their parents, non-religious who worked at our school in various capacities to go by.I had lived a whole life—until I was in my early 20’s—in the real world.But I didn’t know.I felt so unsure.I didn’t know anymore—how did people in the real world act?(Did I ever know?) I remember at night, in the shower, when I came back from these Saturday excursions in the real world.I would run my hands over my body, and it felt strong. It looked strong. And I thought of the photos of the fitness models I saw in the magazines, and wondered if my body looked like theirs now—but there we no full-length mirrors in the shower room. And I didn’t want to look anyway. I was 40. I wasn’t 25 or 30. I was 40. Middle-aged. I could never look the same, I thought. Not like my students.Like the beautiful young girls I saw walking down the streets of the real world.I was older now.But I would make a life for myself, I told myself. Even if a man didn’t want me—although I wasn’t sure, myself, if I wanted a man. I would be in control of my life, I assured myself. Be in top health when I embarked upon my new life. I was rather like a soldier preparing for battle. And I began buying a magazine for “older” women—women in their 40’s—and read it for encouragement. And I looked at my calendar in my classroom every day, as I sat at my old-fashioned oak desk, that looked like it had been in my classroom for 100 years, and it probably had—had been there when my mother and grandmother attended the school—counting down the days, until I could leave in late March, right after the girls left to go home for Spring Break on Friday. And I left. I had my I.D., my one credit card that I had applied for—and I just left. I had packed everything I had, everything I wanted to take with me—just my gray sweats, some underwear and some supplements, my bike—and I looked up a taxi service on the ’Net from a new and secret and expensive cell phone I had purchased, and called it to come get me and take me to the airport. After the driver loaded everything into the trunk, I went into Philomena’s office. It was our third and final confrontation. She was alone; Teresa wasn’t at her desk in the front office. It was early evening, and all the girls had gone home for the week of Spring Break. She was sitting at her desk, reading some papers, and when she looked up, I saw her eyes widen slightly, and then narrow. I had forgotten that I had already taken off my veil, and I put up my hand, and was surprised to feel not cloth, but my hair. And I quickly put my hand down again, by my side. Like I had done something wrong. And that was not the way I wanted our third and final confrontation to go. I felt immediately angry. Although I had been calm when I entered the room, I thought. And I told her abruptly: “I am leaving.” She rose from her desk, walked to the window behind it that looked out into the garden. Her back to me. And I waited, for maybe 10 seconds. And I was going to turn and go, but then she said: “Did you tell your mother?” Not my family, but my mother.And I realized then how much my mother had—scarred her.That day, long ago, at the tea for novitiates. My mother with lifted eyebrows in her red suit holding just the tips of her fingers to Philomena to shake.Philomena standing awkwardly next to my mother like a little drab bird in her black habit.Like … nothing.She had carried that bitterness around with her for years.And I shook my head no, barely moving it—the question startled me—and although she didn’t see me move my head, as she was looking out the window, she knew my answer, nodding her head once. She understood. I had not told my mother anything. And I understood then—she had not told her anything, either. And I was relieved. "You have money to sustain you?" she asked me. I nodded my head, and although she couldn't see me, she seemed to know my answer, that it was yes. Because she nodded her head a moment after I did. And I wondered if she knew about the life insurance money. And if so, how she knew. Did she open the insurance company's letter to me? Did Teresa--by accident? Had Philomena known that day when I opened the letter what was in it? And I tried to remember if the letter had been firmly sealed, but I couldn't recall whether it had--I just remembered opening it, and seeing the letter, and then the check for $150,000. Her back still t urned toward me, she asked: “Are you going away forever?” I said, “I am going away forever.” And I waited for about 10 more seconds, but she did not turn around, and I took off my ring from the third finger of my left hand. It was my silver ring, with the crest of our order, that I received when I took my vows, and never took off, no, not even in the shower, for almost 20 years. I put it on her desk. And I remember I was terrified. With the ring off my finger. The way my mother would be, I am sure, if she took the large, square-cut diamond ring off her finger. If she had to go out into the world and fend for herself. Make it on her own. I felt that I couldn’t move. That to walk out the door to the taxi waiting outside would be a mistake. Because I was 40, and there was a whole world I didn’t know waiting for me outside the door. And what would I do in that world? How would I survive? And then Philomena turned around to face me. And she said, “You are having a mid-life crisis.” I was re-living my adolescence, she said. At 40, as a 40-year-old. And I was ridiculous. And she said terrible things to me. Things that were terrible for me to hear. She said everything to me that I had said to myself—all my fears about leaving: that I was not 20 or 25 or even 30. And how could a woman of 40 start her life all over again? I was already halfway through my life: my best years. And she was calm. And I was not. We knew that—I was at the disadvantage in this confrontation. Crumpling. Even though I had taken the initiative, was the one who had decided that I would leave. And I thought that I would fall down, there in her office. In front of her. But somehow I found the strength in me to turn around and simply … to leave. In the middle of her spiel, her talking, her lecture. From where I found the strength I do not know to this day. It was as if my feet had a life of their own, had decided what to do on their own, and I walked out of her office, and then the convent, and then I was suddenly sitting inside the taxi, and it was driving me away, slowly at first, through the gates, and then faster and faster along a freeway, and suddenly I was at the airport, and leaving the taxi and walking in through the large sliding glass doors, to a ticket counter, where I bought a ticket for a plane that was on its way to L.A. in 15 minutes. It was as far away as I could go from my old life without falling into the ocean. And then I was aboard the plane, sitting in a window seat. And the plane raced down the runway and flew into the sky. And I felt … so alone. Lost. As the plane took off, and I saw my home—where I grew up—far below me, and then swallowed up in a cloud. I had, of course, been on a plane many times before, for family vacations and to visit relatives in other places. But looking down at my home far below me had never been like this. So final. This sense of my leaving. Not belonging anywhere or to anybody. You know, it wasn’t until you held my hand the first time that I realized … I had never held anybody’s hand for a long time. Forever. Since I was a child. And I think that’s what made me start to love you. Because you held my hand. It was like … a candle flame. A light in the darkness. I wasn’t alone anymore. And I realized that’s what’s important in life. What everybody wants. Needs. Not to be alone. To belong. We all have that same wish, don't we? It's that plea in the Matthew Arnold poem, “Dover Beach.”
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
There are no answers to find in this life. Just guesses and hopes. And good companionship on the journey. And ... faith. Once in a while, that feeling that we are not alone. That Someone is always, always with us.