The Last Catholic: A novel in progress
As we ascended from year to year, growing in wisdom, age, and grace, we all knew our little rebellions were child's play to the trial we would one day face. Catechism preached the truth, but there was one certainty it couldn't contain. To graduate from St. Juliana one had to pass through Ihnee, Sr. Inez, the 8th grade teacher who awaited us [wc] there like a giant bird of prey. That's how she appeared, from the earliest grades, when she'd suddenly swoop down out of nowhere and cuff someone caught talking while we waited in line outside our classrooms for the bell to signal dismissal or on Fridays the start of the slow and orderly processional, class by class, to the Church for rosary. She was always lurking it seemed, just outside one's field of vision, but there whenever one turned and was caught by a malevolent stare that proclaimed her foreknowledge of one's eventual misconduct. She had a way of looking into your eyes that said “go ahead I know what you're going to do before you do go ahead just try it.” Sometimes a cuff wasn't enough. She'd grab you from behind at the ear and twist on it as she marched you out of line and around in circles, like a performing dog. The younger ones cried then. Those who were older and afraid to cry were led by the ear all the way to the principal's office. Or, if it served her whim she'd stop suddenly and march you back to your place in line, followed by a few sharp knocks of her knuckles on the head. “Mind. I've got my eye on you. Open your mouth again and you'll regret it the rest of your time here.”
Everyone feared her. Even the other nuns. You could see it in the way they avoided her on the playground, where they'd often group together chatting, sometimes even laughing. A formality would descend the moment she joined them and a deference shown in how quickly they'd scurry to whatever duty she recalled to their attention. But for the most part she was alone, off to the side, as if studying us, each in turn, probing eyes that shrunk (wc) under her gaze.
She was taller than all the other nuns and one of the youngest. But there was already something that made her grave beyond her years. It was there in the deep hollow under high cheekbones that gave her a hungry look [here the look of one always hungry]. Her eyes were almond shaped—rumor had it one of her parents was Chinese—and when she stared at you she had a way of narrowing them into slits so that all the white went out of them until the only thing left was a dark point of light aimed like an arrow at something inside you. Her skin had a yellow pallor, like you see on people who've smoked all their lives. She wore her face in a scowl, a mask that would have been comic where it not for the surrounding hood which made it stand out in high-relief, like a portrait from some devotional manual of long ago that had survived so that one could see what time and all changes of fashion and disposition could not alter. The other nuns were capable of a range of expression, however limited. They laughed sometimes, grew exasperated, even perplexed and in their tantrums ran a gamut of gestures, melodramatic and often inadvertently hilarious. But Ihnee's look never changed. Hers was a face that could never relax into grace. She never smiled, never laughed. Maybe that's why she'd been chosen as the fit instrument to preside over our final year. None of the others was up to the task. Straka had the necessary streak of cruelty, but her want of intelligence ruled her out. Besides, all she wanted finally was obedience and so was easily satisfied by little victories. Ihnee wanted much more. There was something quick and even fiercely intelligent about her and an eagerness to meet us in battle. You could see it in the way she started sizing each of us up as early as the 6th grade, the way a boxer looks at his opponent when they're being given instructions before a bout. You could feel it: she was starting to take the measure of you, letting you know what awaited you when you were hers.
There were stories too, that filtered down from the older students, though always wrapped in an aura of secrecy and dread as if the tellers were guardians of things that could only be known through rite of passage; vague stories about emotional outbursts and long sermons on subjects that could only be hinted at in ways both tantalizing and ominous; and of corporal punishments too that went beyond the ordinary, of evening meetings with parents who threatened to withdraw their children from the school, and of students warned not to speak of certain incidents at the cost of a month's detention or even outright expulsion.
Ihnee was different alright, beyond anything we'd imagined.
But so was I. That year would be different. I was sure of it. There was a Prize, a Medal and an accompanying Certificate, given out each year at graduation to the one boy singled out for setting the best example. Sister Inez spoke of it at length the first day of class, outlining the criteria that would inform her judgment. “Remember, I'll be watching all year, making little mental notes all the time. We'll see who's worthiest.” She needn't have spoken. I already knew all about it and how my mother's heart was set on it. It had become a theme the past summer, in those sessions late in the afternoon when she'd let me into her dreams. “Think of the pride I'll feel next year when the first of my sons receives his first degree from a Catholic institution. How perfect that night would be if you are the one called forth before everyone to receive that recognition.”
And so the school year began with one of the periodic resolutions that structured my youth. My days of baiting the Nuns to gain favor with my fellow students were over. I'd overcome the reputation as a troublemaker that no doubt preceded me. I'd show her that I'd changed. I soon resumed my former place as the winner of every spelling and math contest. My essays again became the ones that were read aloud to the entire class, praised for their correctness and creativity. She wrote A+ Excellent in bold red letters across the title page of the work I submitted when we were given our first chance to write a “research” paper. Mine was a study of astronomy and the solar system, complete with colored drawings of the planets mapping their relationships, stars connected by lines to picture the signs of the Zodiac, a photograph representing the density of the Milky Way, and a page of rude calculations showing that it was impossible to conceive the distance to the fixed stars and the infinite galaxies beyond. (There was one thing other than books that commanded my unqualified love when I was young: lying in the backyard on summer nights gazing at the stars back in the days before the surface light from our planet banished them to darkness.)
Before long I could see that she'd singled me out—me and Phil Allen. At the start of the year I'm sure no one could have imagined anyone but he would win the award. He was the archetypal teacher's pet, from the earliest grades, the one who stayed behind to erase the blackboard during recess and who was always asking Sister what he could do to help her. So complete was his satisfaction in finding little chores that would please the nuns that he seemed unbothered by his exclusion from every group. And of course he was always the first to raise his hand after every assignment to ask what we could do to get extra credit. But that was his Achilles heel too, because he'd always need it. He was polite to everyone, impeccably neat and tidy and often wore stiffly pressed white shirts with a bow tie fastened to their collar by metal clips. But he also often stammered out the wrong answers when called on. His face would get flushed then and he'd hunch over at his desk for a while.
Despite his diligence, he really didn't have a chance. It's always no contest between an insufferable saint and the charms of a reformed sinner. I could see that Sister was proud of the good influence she was having over me. I'd feel it whenever she'd stop as she walked among us during silent reading and pat me on the back of the head and bend down over my shoulder to whisper a word about how good my last book report was or to compliment me on the choice of the book I was currently sailing through. All I had to do was coast and the Prize was mine.
Besides, I had another motive, and it protected me from every temptation to resume my former ways. There was a glass case under lock and key in the school library. The books it contained were reserved for those eighth graders who'd completed all the required reading assignments and book reports. I'd been looking at that bookcase since the sixth grade—and the gem it contained. The Caine Mutiny. [by?] The cover showed a ship at sea, tempest-tossed with waves crashing against her and lightning making visible the dark waters into which she plunged. The day I'd open the case and select that book had been my dream since the 5th grade. Before I could reach high enough to touch it I could see myself, grown tall, lifting down and clutching in my arms a treasure that I knew would transport me to another world, an adult world full of adventure and hidden secrets. It was coming closer now, closer each day as I whipped out another report on books that had grown old and childish. The Caine Mutiny was my goal. Nothing was going to prevent my obtaining it.
But there was another mutiny in progress from the beginning of that year and nothing could contain it. The first day of classes Eugene Freeze showed us a pencil his older brother had given him. It was shaped like a woman's leg with a dark line running up the back as was popular in nylons at that time. [A line like an arrow to divide again what was divided once, twice, and now for a third and fourth time.] He kept it hidden in his pocket, but whenever Ihnee was writing at the blackboard he'd take it out and hold it up toward us like a trophy, with his fingers running slowly up and down the full length of it. We couldn't wait for morning recess now and a chance to play pump-pump-pull-away. About to run, Sharon Sarcia would reach down and lift her skirt and hold it balled at her left hip in the palm of her hand. When she ran you could see her panties white against the rich brown of her thighs. No one had ever been fast enough to catch her. Now no one wanted to. Because you could sit all day with the image of it fresh in your mind, and steal glances at the muscular shape of calf which was all that remained of what had been, for a brief time, so magnificently visible.
And of course there was the ubiquitous hard-on. Mine always came when I was at the blackboard doing math or the new discipline we were told we'd have to master, the ridiculously tedious process of diagramming sentences. I lost all knowledge of grammar that year because all I could think about was how to get back to my desk without anyone seeing it. I soon learned to walk the way Cagney did in Yankee Doodle Dandy, stiff-legged with the shoulders hunched forward and the butt stuck out.
And then there was Bill Dufour who couldn't wait to share his latest discovery, though always only one individual at a time. “See, you take a ring. Any ring. Like this. Put it right there in the crux of your arm. Now fold your arms, like you were curling weights. Now, put your finger in. Go ahead, move it in and out. That's right. See. That's what it feels like.” He beamed, guardian of the mysteries who'd just transmitted the secret knowledge we all craved. “You can do it with Jello too,” he added. “Just put a piece of tissue paper over it. Then rub your fingers on it. You'll see.”
One day, early in the year, Bill Madden brought pages he'd torn out of some magazines he'd found stuck behind some pipes in his father's tool-room. One by one we sought him out on the playground or in the bathroom, like pilgrims seeking access to relics we'd be permitted to glimpse for only a moment before he'd push the crumpled pages back into his pocket. Only he must have gotten careless and shown them to too many of us. Because someone told. Word of it rippled through the corridor as we were returning from recess. Luckily he heard just in time and was able to flush the pages down the toilet so that when Ihnee demanded that he come forth and empty his pockets on her desk “in front of the whole class” all she found was a wallet with a dollar in it, two pictures—one of his mother, the other of his dog—a frayed book of matches and three marbles, one of which rolled slowly across her desk before falling with a thud to the floor. Something about that sound unnerved her. She jumped back from her desk with a startled look as if to avoid contact with something that repelled and scared her. Our laughter got Madden off the hook and earned us our first lesson in what would [soon] become a daily ritual.
“Oh I know you all think it's funny, as if I don't know what's on your sneaky minds. I see what you're up to. Don't think because I'm a Nun I don't know a thing or two, as if you can put one over on me. About the pictures you look at to fill your heads with impure thoughts. I know the kind of movies that are out there now, with women running around half naked in skimpy costumes and provocative poses. Just stop for a minute and think, why don't you, before you puff yourself up so big, what happens to the immortal souls of those women when you gawk at them and use them for impure thoughts and behavior. Every time you use her to sin mortally it's a mortal sin for her too. That's the evil whereby sin is doubled. Your actions have led her into new sin. [to sin anew.] Only now there's no way she can confess and gain absolution. Because there's no way she can know when her image will again be the occasion that leads another into sin. Maybe even long after she's dead. Someone will see her strutting about like that and be led by her into sin. She has to pay for that. Think of it. Think of Kim Novak, raised in this very city by good catholic parents. Until Hollywood got its hands on her and she got all puffed up with dreams of stardom until in no time she's doing anything they ask her, slinking around and posing for photographs that are meant for only one thing: to be a cause of impure thoughts and deeds. So that by now her parents must be ashamed even at the mention of her name. And you think she's some kind of star and want to be just like her with makeup painted all over your faces until you look like what when I was a girl they called a street-walker. A whore. Oh I know you think you know so much because you can't get enough of it now that you're thinking about it all the time without realizing for one second that you're trafficking with your immortal soul. Remember that the next time you get all puffed up and think you've gotten away with it just because I haven't caught you with the goods. I see what's in your mind. Better than you do, mark my words.”
She went on like that for the better part of an hour in a discourse that seemed to grow out of itself as if she could never be done with some fury that was eating at her. Because as she spoke she was transformed. Her voice, usually so cold and distant, as if it came from a place above and beyond the world of our vain concerns, became excited, insistent, as it rose and swelled with the pressures of her theme. The fixed stare of disdain in which she always regarded us vanished. Her eyes flashed with an energy that made her frightening but strangely beautiful, almost feline, as she came alive caught up in the toils of something she couldn't control. There was something appalling about it but also something fascinating. I could see, even then, that something had broken lose in herself that could unravel until there'd be nothing but her voice alone, speaking to a room that had become empty, in a discourse that could never end.
Eventually it ran its course. For the time being. But then it kept breaking out again, in little sermons, the rest of the day, as if everything now reminded her of something she couldn't shake, requiring the renewal of a catechism that would go on forever.
That day marked the beginning of a pressure that kept building in her. [rph] It would break out, in the middle of any lesson, with or without provocation, but always with a greater force as if in the times between had only accumulated the pressure of what must now be expressed. Of a sudden her eyes would gleam, her face would get that excited look like she knew a secret no one else did that she had to communicate before it was too late. She'd be off then on another lecture on a topic that never changed.
I was fascinated by it. This was what I'd been waiting for, something books couldn't provide, something I was unable to do at home during my parent's nightly battles. The chance to study it, to see what was going on inside someone as their soul lost its moorings. I was the privileged observer of a drama that took some new step each day. And I was protected because there was no way I was going to get caught up in it. I had a goal. Nothing was going to get between me and the book I coveted.
Lunch hour. Those of us who don't go home for lunch have to eat at our desk and remain there until she returns to lead us to the playground. I didn't care. By the time I finished my sandwich I was deep into the book I was reading. I'd mastered a way to block out external/irrelevant noise just as I was learning at home to lay in my bed at night and block out the noise from the other room so I could be alone and free in the only world that mattered to me, as everything [and feel everything] fade away until nothing remained but Pip or Ivanhoe or Tom Sawyer or one of the enchanted ones in the book I was then reading, the last one I had to report on in order to complete the year's requirement, and in record time. It was Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare complete with illustrations. It mesmerized me, so much that for a time I even forgot my goal and lingered, rereading some of the stories, dreaming what it would be like when I could read them in his words or see the rough illustrations come to life on that great stage that then first took form in my imagination. Once I even spent the entire lunch hour just staring at the pictures—Romeo climbing to Juliet's outstretched arms; Hamlet sitting on his throne lost in thought; my mother's favorite, Lady Macbeth, rubbing at hands soiled in blood; and the mad Lear out in the storm seeking his daughter. The pictures held me in dreamy anticipation of what it would be like to see such images come to life before one's astonished eyes. And so I didn't know what was happening until it was almost over. I knew that Jack Fleck, the class clown, was again entertaining everyone with fart noises which grew louder and more prolonged following each squeal of approval. But this was just background noise to me, a vague distraction that enhanced the book's power to obliterate it.
She must have come in silently at the back door, as she did so often, and stood there watching him. Then there must have been the swift swish of the “cape” as she descended on him from behind, the bird of prey one with its target. When she moved fast the sleeves of her habit made a sound like silk being torn. A scream of pain jolted me from the page. I looked up to see the black form looming over him, forcing down the arms that must have been raised to ward off another blow. But he was still too startled to know what was happening because his face still wore that idiot grin it got whenever he was playing the class clown. That was what redoubled her fury as she leaned over him, gripping at his wrists, forcing down his arms as he struggled to twist away. That must have been how her fingernails slipped causing the gash that opened in the soft flesh on the inside of his forearm. He screamed out louder now, in real pain and grabbed under his arm to catch the flow of blood. Then he did the strangest thing. He held his arm out toward her, almost like an offering, his mouth wide open in a big O. He stood then and with his arm held limp and dangling hurried from the room whimpering the way a dog does.
Without saying a word she took her seat at the front desk and glared at each returning student until everyone was back in place seated at their desks, waiting in silence for the bell. It signaled the beginning of a lecture that would last the bulk of the afternoon. It's theme: what it meant when one held up one's middle finger to a girl the way Fleck had been caught doing.
“That's how a man tells a woman he wants to have sex with her. Don't you girls know that yet? What did you think, that all he wanted to do was get you to laugh with him like it was all a big joke. That's how it starts, once you start listening to boys with their smooth talk and big ideas until soon enough they raise their finger up at you that way to tell you they want to have sex with you and touch you in unclean ways all over your body. A temple of the Holy Ghost, that's what we've tried to teach you the body is because it's so easy to forget puffed up the way you all are now with all your big ideas but I'll bet you have no idea what boys like that will do if they can get you alone and make that sign to you, do you?”
She was well-tuned now and rambled on about some girls from last year who were in high school now who she'd seen on the street-corner, dressed up like sluts in cheap costumes with gook painted all over their faces, smoking cigarettes and waiting for older boys to pick them up in cars so they could ride around to strange out of the way places til all hours of the night. She went on like that, singling out different girls in the room and staring directly into their eyes as if her words had the power to turn to stone anything in them that opposed her will. Fleck's transgression was consumed in images far beyond its ken.
None of us knew it, but that afternoon's sermon marked a turning point. She had a fixed purpose now and no way to halt what it demanded. Jack Fleck was absent the next day. Slowly the story spread about how his aunt (he lived with her, his father was dead and his mother had run away) had gone to the Principal demanding to confront Ihnee before withdrawing Fleck from the school. We also heard, from Lucy DiCarlo who lived near him, of the stitches that were needed to close the wound in his arm.
When I told my mother about it all she said was, “Yes, but what did he do to make Sister lose control of herself.” And so I didn't say anything a couple weeks later when the next incident occurred. Ihnee heard Jimmy Lewis say a bad word out in the hall. He was ordered to stand at attention at his desk with his hands over his head. When he couldn't keep them up any longer, even with her standing directly in front of him, ordering him to raise them, she shoved him down into his desk so hard that he and it collapsed together to the floor. He sat there the rest of the afternoon, holding his shoulder, commanded to sit there like a dunce as a lesson to all of us. This time it was my mother who brought it up. “Why didn't you tell me. I had to learn about it from Madge Lewis. She was so upset.” “But he's still there. Why didn't she transfer him. Like Jack Fleck's aunt. To the public school. Everybody's afraid of her, you know.” “I know. I know. Just remember what I told you. How foolish she must look when she's sitting on the toilet. Do that and mind your own business and you'll be alright.”
Soon there were incidents involving the girls. We'd all been making jokes about fat Josephine Brigante since the 6th grade when she already had breasts she was still trying to hide by walking with her shoulders hunched forward and her head bent. She was the perfect foil too because she always pretended not to hear the comments that the girls too now made just outside her hearing. One day she forgot her homework. Ihnee made her stand at attention, in front of the room, with her arms at her sides during a lecture that focused on Josephine's slovenliness and the plain clothes she wore that made her look like a big dumb Ox. “No wonder everyone makes fun of you all the time. Look at yourself sometime in a mirror. Like a big blob oozing out all over.” She also took to making remarks about the other girls, even those who had been her favorites. Suzy Stankowicz's golden curls became the text for a lecture on modesty and flirtatiousness. She was always teasing Jacqueline Ashfield about how thin and gaunt she's gotten and she seemed to derive special pleasure from making frequent remarks about how amazing it was that Sharon Sarcia never lost her tan. It became clear that she was goading her and one day, stuttering, Sharon told her, “I don't have a tan sister. I'm Italian. We're always like this.”
“Oh I know all about you people who live in hot climates. No need to tell me about it. That's where Saint Maria Goretti is from and Pierina Morosini who was recently killed following Maria's example. They lived there but they knew how to keep their bodies properly clothed so they wouldn't become occasions for sin rather than slinking around like so many do when it's warm and everybody gets puffed up with big ideas. Pierina knew the virtue of Chastity. When she was the age you are, when all the big ideas get started, she made a pilgrimage to Rome to attend St. Maria's coronation. She was so inspired by it that on her return she began her own local Purity Crusade and composed a prayer for chastity for its members. ‘Make me a little apostle to all those girls who are led astray by the world.’ That was its refrain. Don't make fun of it. Don't you dare let me catch you doing that. It's not funny. Many times Pierina was heard to say she would like to die the same death at St. Maria. Bet you didn't know that. Nor about the man who harassed her throughout the last year of her life until to win a bet with some friends he lured her into an alley and tried to force his will upon her. She died defending her virtue. That's how precious it was to her. And do you want to know what everyone said when details of the crime became public. ‘What we have here is a new Maria Goretti.’ There are shrines to her now and just wait I think you'll see that in our own lifetime we'll see her beatified and maybe even raised to the rank of Sainthood.”
Ihnee had not lost her devotional fervor. But soon it gave way to another kind of lecture that excited us because it seemed to be addressed only to the girls, concerning things only they could understand: about how now that they were becoming women and saw the signs of it every month this was the most dangerous time because the body was tempting you to do something that was sinful. And so a new vigilance was needed because now when you could feel signs of womanhood in your body every day, it was easy to be misled by glamour magazines and movies. Because there was something dreamy that came over girls of 12 and 13; that was how Satan worked to lull them into that state until all they could think about was putting on fancy undergarments and learning to walk in ways designed to entice men. That's why they had to learn new ways to take care of themselves and protect themselves because sin wasn't just in the world now but their own bodies.
One day she got going about her ring. She held it up in front of her, a little above her head, moving that finger back and forth in an otherwise unmoving hand as she told us about how it meant she was a bride of Christ. “It's a sacred wedding. When one is consecrated as a Nun and takes one's final vows. That's why the trial period is so long. Because once take that vow there's no turning back. It's like saying ‘I do.’ One is married to Christ. That's what we are, the brides of Christ himself, only in a way that's spiritual and pure, not like earthly marriage. There's no higher calling for a young girl. That's why it's so important never to permit anything to sully you.”
This was rich. I could picture her on her toilet dreaming about her bridal gown and how it became her.
And then there was the field trip she said she was planning for the whole class to attend a special daytime screening of a film due out that spring, The Left Hand of God with Humphrey Bogart and Deborah Kerr. She'd read the book and talked often about its importance. It was a story about some priest working as a missionary bringing the faith to China and a nurse he met while caring for the sick in a hospital there. The way she told it, the story got vague then because either she tempted him to renounce his vows or they fell in love, as anyone could see from the way they looked at each other, though neither spoke a word of it, nor of his anguish, alone with his God in his hour of temptation after she told him she'd asked to be reassigned to England far away so that they could be free of it. He knew then on a hill looking out over the harbor at the boat she was to leave on the next day. It was his Gethsemane, when he'd learn the truth of the words “I am the lord thy God. Thou shalt not have other Gods before me.”
I don't know what Ihnee thought we'd gain from all this though she spoke about the field trip as the great event toward which the whole year was moving. Unfortunately, when the movie finally came out, the Legion of Decency gave it an R rating, immoral but not condemned. (In those days there was a special Sunday each year when everyone in Church was asked to rise, raise their right hand, and pledge to refrain at the penalty of mortal sin from attending any movies that the Legion deemed morally objectionable. The ratings of new films appeared each week in the parish bulletin. I saw it one Sunday and chuckled. For once I couldn't wait for Monday. To see her disappointment when she had to tell us, though I should have known by then that disappointment would be far more satisfying to her than the long anticipated trip because it would give her another chance to get that excited gleam in her eye and that impassioned urgency in her voice as she enlightened us once again about how Hollywood could take anything and turn it dirty, and about how sinful we all were.
Finally, the day arrived. She'd graded my last book report and announced my achievement to the class as she put the last star on the line following my name on the chart she kept on the side blackboard. The class was to sit there, silently, thinking about how many books they had still to read while she took me to claim my reward. We walked together down the long corridor to the library, silent and formal, almost like the way the priest and the altar boys move from the sacristy to the altar. I could feel it already, my fingers moving slowly across the storm-tossed ship illumined by lighting and the words of the title, The Caine Mutiny, and all it promised. Ceremoniously she drew out the set of keys that dangled from the cord at the side of her belt, and held up one before me like a talisman. She turned the lock and opened the case. The image flashed through my mind—the moment when the priest opens the ciborium and you first glimpse the chalice. I reached out my hand and drew my palm and fingers slowly, gently across the cover. I lifted the book up just barely and held it like that in my hands. I didn't want to rush it. I wanted the moment to last. Her hands closed over mine and I felt the book pressed back down. “No. This one is for you.” She moved our hands together onto the big red book embossed in gold. “Read this first.” “But Sister we were told we got to pick whatever one we wanted.” “This first. Then we'll see.” She placed the book in my hands. It was heavy and thick and I could now read the Latinate scroll running in black across the cover: Butler's Lives of the Saints.
I had no idea there were so many. From the earliest grades, each day the nuns would tell us a story about the patron saint of that day. Now I learned the list was endless. Every day had its score with others in waiting, having attained the category of Blessed, though not yet canonized. Their stories too deserved to be told. It was the heaviest book I'd ever held, the thickest, and though I hated it I also saw there was something majestic about it. Here they were, all the Saints in a orderly sequence wedded to the perfect turning of the Holy Year in its immortal and sacred procession. So that each story could be told for itself alone but also comprehended as part of the pattern wherein everything that makes our life partake of contingency was conquered and reconciled in a sublime architecture; time itself thereby raised to an artifice of eternity. Reading about St. Theodosia or St. Leonides one was transported back into the stony era of the earliest Christians and the great persecutions of Diocletian and Septimus Severus. One had but to turn the page to find oneself deep in the Dark Ages with St. Geroldus or present with St. Catherine of Siena at the dawn of that new learning through which the Church triumphant would rise to the greatness it has sustained right down to lives like those of St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier or St. Damien the leper and a past so recent that one could imagine one's own life taking form in imitation of theirs.
As it turned out it would be the last book I'd read that year. I had no idea how appropriate it would be. I began it sullen, that same afternoon in the hour reserved for silent reading. I'd show her. I'd whip through the whole stupid thing in record time and write the perfect report. Next time I'd know better, how to outsmart her and get, by guile if not by right, the book I now wanted more than ever because I knew she didn't want me to have it. But then it happened. I was skimming through the book dreamily, looking for a place to begin, bored already by what I could see would be the same dull repetition of the same tedious tales we'd been hearing for so long about vocations and renouncing the world and devoting oneself to a life of prayer. There are only so many ways one can become a saint and most of them are of a surpassing dullness. I could see it coming more, stories about how good little boys became great Doctors of the Church or rose from humble beginnings to the highest office, that of Pope, and the tears of joy in their mother's eyes if she lived to see that day or the image in his mind's-eye of her joy in heaven as God himself called her forth as an example to the exalted multitude. That was why she'd insisted that I read it. So I'd have more examples to guide me. Only there was something different here. Another dimension. I found it in the first one I read, a story about a little boy who must have been pleasing beyond all others; for when he heard that the legions of the emperor were coming to desecrate the Host he ran to the Church and ate all of them, though it was forbidden for anyone save a priest to touch the host; but he was forgiven because he had prevented the greatest sacrilege, which was why they found him joyful, on the altar, smiling in death, his side pieced by arrows.
This was it, what I'd been looking for, what I couldn't find even in Dickens and Lamb. “The greatest test of her life was swift and sudden but not unannounced. A young man of eighteen, as he had on two previous occasions, attempted to lead Maria into sin against chastity. The childlike virgin of twelve, with the fortitude of a martyr, cried out that she would rather die than commit sin.” The miracle happened. Another world opened itself to me, offering its secrets. I read on, spellbound. Another story, then another. About blessed Lydwina who took no nourishment but Holy Communion the last 19 years of her life. St Gemma Galgani, who bore the stigmata and was often transported in ecstasies that lifted her clear off the ground, and who was so offended that she sweated blood whenever she heard blasphemous language. And St. Mary of Egypt, of incomparable beauty, fleeing to the desert to avoid being a temptation to men, where her hair grew so long that she was able to cover herself with it after all her clothes rotted away.
It was everywhere. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Doctor of the Church, wasn't free of it. Held in captivity by his brothers who placed a naked woman in a locked room with him to shake his vocation and entrap him into sin “but the attempt only ended in the triumph of his purity. Snatching from the hearth a burning brand, the Saint drove from his chamber the wretched creature. Then he knelt down to pray, and forthwith, being rapt in ecstasy, an angel girded him with a cord, in token of the gift of perpetual chastity which God had given him.
The astonished eye fell on the facing page. “But the devils never ceased to assault St. Colette. They swarmed round her as hideous insects, buzzing and stinging her tender skin…or they would appear in the most seductive guise, and tempt her by many deceits to sin.”
St. Colette was one of them. Those who had earned the title that we all knew must be the highest, “Virgin” or even better “Virgin and Martyr.” The nuns had been telling us stories about them for years, but always veiled in piety and chaste reserve. Even Ihnee censored things. How St. Irene was sentenced for life, by imperial decree, to a soldier's brothel. Only her purity so moved the soldiers that they refused to molest her, which so enraged Diocletian that he ordered her executed in the most nefarious way. How Mary of Egypt had run away from her home when just 15 and lived in sin for 17 years, a prostitute in Alexandria, before the Lord called her to repent. And how Saint Maria Goretti (their favorite; recently canonized, hers was the Holy Card given out most frequently as a reward for work well done) was killed by a boy who once locked her in a room and did all he could to assault her virtue, before in his rage at her refusal, plunged the knife into her body, again and again.
This was what I'd been searching for in all the books I read. Here was passion, real passion. Evil, undisguised, doing what it did for no motive other than evil; because the sight of innocence enflamed it. And here was true virtue, ready to sacrifice everything, even one's life, to save that which was more precious than anything. That was the best part, these stories were all about them/women. Here was a treasure trove that would take me to the secret places in their hearts. I could study it, all of it, and find answers to the questions that filled me with so much confusion. Here was a research project richer far than the one I'd written about the stars. I could learn everything about them, what they feared, their dreams, what moved their hearts most deeply, and why they'd do anything to protect the thing Ihnee was going on about all the time now: what purity was to a girl and how terrible it was if she lost it because then there was only the shame of something she had to hide forever, especially from her husband. I saw it now. That what she was getting at in the “sermons” that interrupted every lesson; it was what my mother meant too when she told me, as she did so often now when we'd sit and talk, that she knew I was “the kind of boy who would never do anything that would hurt a girl.”
I got so good at that I could flip through the book and find at will the knowledge I sought, liberated from the intervening chaff. All I had to do was look for the words Virgin and Martyr. There was nothing they could hide anymore. I could find out the secret about each of them. All I had to do was look up the name each one had chosen on that special day, her wedding day, when she'd become one of Christ's brides. St. Margaret Mary Alocoque: who “during her infancy…showed a wonderfully sensitive horror of the very idea of sin. As a young nun Jesus appeared to her displaying his Sacred Heart, sometimes burning as a furnace and sometimes torn and bleeding on account of the coldness and sins of men. St. Eustochia, a poor Clare, called “the Cinderella of the cloister.” The daughter of a seduced nun, she suffered from hysterias so violent that they were forced to keep her as one possessed. But when she died the word “Jesus” was found cauterized on her breast.
I even found her, though it took some seeking in the Index. Ines, Inez, Portuguese for Agnes—(I knew what none of them did, the reason for the almond eyes and the olive color of her skin)— who in the year 305 at the age of 12 or 13 was commanded by Diocletian to worship at the altar of Minerva. But in the midst of the idolatrous rites she raised her hands to Christ, her Spouse, and made the sign of the life-giving cross. She hastened gladly to the place of her torture. Seeing that pain had no terrors for her, the emperor inflicted on her an insult worse than death: her clothes were stripped off, and she had to stand in the street before a pagan crowd. But it was then that Christ showed, by a miracle, the value which He sets upon the custody of the eyes. The crowd turned away their eyes from the spouse of Christ, as she stood exposed to view in the street, except for one young man who dared to gaze at the innocent child with immodest eyes. A flash of light struck him blind…. Lastly, her fidelity to Christ was tested by flattery and offers of marriage. ‘Christ is my spouse,’ she answered, until at length the sentence of death was passed. At one stroke her head was severed from her body, and the angels bore her pure soul to Paradise. Her name is read daily in the Canon of the Mass as a special patroness of chastity. In art she is always displayed accompanied by a Lamb, a sign of her innocence and purity.”
Virgin and Martyr. The stories lived on in me long after I'd finished reading them. It got so that I could close my eyes and see it, what the stories intimated, what they left blank, and what one could read between the lines in all they left unsaid. The struggle Maria Goretti and all the others waged, so rudely forced against a wall as he grabbed her and whispered words she could not bear to hear; the fight to escape the hot hands all over her twisting body; the way he tore at her dress and her other garments until maddened he stabbed at her, again and again, leaving her like that, in an alley, bleeding….
And then sometimes, with the images still racing in my mind, and with the rest of them reading, their heads buried in their books, I'd look up and see her sizing us up, one after another, making her notes in the “progress” book she updated every afternoon, with that look she got that told you she could see right through you: Go ahead. Stare at me too why don't you. Tell me another story about what a good boy I am and how next time…Go ahead, see if I care. You can't fool me anymore. I know what's wrong inside you, why you never smile, and why you can't relax even for a minute. It's all you see now, isn't it, when you look at us? That's why you can't stop it from coming out, every time you open your mouth. I don't need to picture you sitting on some toilet. I can see the way you're all sick and twisted inside with pictures of Irene in the brothel; Gemma bleeding whenever she hears “foul language;” Maria Goretti and Pierina and all the other girls walking fast in the twilight with the shadows closing on them. Yeh, and how special you are among them: Inez, Ines, Agnes, virgin and martyr prayed to every day in the Canon of the Mass as the special patroness of chastity. And I bet you see it every time you look at Straka, don't you, the sacred name of Jesus carved into her breast and Alocoque bleeding with her vision of the Sacred Heart. Because I could see the riot now, behind the white band stretched across her forehead, and how it would go on and on forever and without end.
She'd given me the book so I would know her dreams. I was an apt pupil. Now I'd show her what reading could do. I'd started making deliberate errors when she called on me, especially when I could see she was anticipating that my answer would give her another chance to embarrass the “dolts” who'd just “shown their ignorance.” I could see her irritation building. Even her prize pupil was like all the others, distracted all the time by the very thing that was eating on her about us. All I had to do then was ask another one of my questions and we all got to watch her rave on about wayward girls and unnatural acts and the dangers lurking on every street-corner. The detentions I was now receiving on a regular basis were worth it.
One of her favorite topics now was the early martyrs, the constant assaults by the barbarian Romans on their virtue, and how they always resisted even onto death.
“But sister, what if the barbarian soldiers did things to St. Agape and St. Irene against their will, wouldn't they still be virgins in God's eyes?”
“Enough. I won't have it. That's another jug. Keep it up and you'll get a whole week.”
My punishment that day was to write across the blackboard 100 times a single sentence: Please Lord give me the strength not to try Sister Inez beyond her patience. She sat at her desk, fingering her beads. I labored on long after the other detainees had been dismissed, printing it out, over and over, my fingers stiffening. Whenever I'd fill the board all the way from top to bottom I had to stand at attention and wait until she tallied the numbers. “The last three don't count. They're illegible.” Then I'd erase the board and start again. I could see twilight descending, the shadow from the venetian blinds lengthening across the room. Finally the last one was finished, low on the board, printed neatly across its full length.
“Can I go now, Sister. Please. It's a long ride home and the light on my bike is broken.”
She looked up from her beads and glared at me.
“Sit. Sit and think about what you're doing, what your deportment's become.”
I watched the one hand moving in its slow procession around the other two that remained motionless. 5:05. 5:06. 5:07.
“Well. It's so late now, there's nothing for it. You'll just have to walk me back to the convent. It's unsafe for a woman alone on the street at this hour.”
The convent was about a mile away, a big house surrounded by a tall metal gate next to a field where wild grasses grew was about a mile away. Darkness was descending. I'd have to run back to the school and ride my bike home in the dark. I tried to quicken our pace. “No.” She put her arm out in front of me, like a crossing guard. “Can't you feel it. The cool night air. It's refreshing, like in chapel.”
Though no traffic was coming, she dawdled at the next stop sign, swinging the sash on her belt slowly back and forth. “You know when I was a girl my father used to take me out walking with him in the evening after he closed the little grocery store he ran. I'd wait for him at the window. There was only us, and my older sister Rita, who ran the house after my mother died.”
Each block she walked slower. I could feel the cold of evening cutting into me.
“Slow down. Why must you always be in such a hurry. I never have time to talk to you anymore.”
I didn't know what to say.
“What's happened to you? Why have you become such a trial to me?”
Now I was afraid to say anything.
“It's alright, you know. I won't mind. If you want to you can hold my hand while we stroll and we can pretend that I'm your girlfriend.”
I could feel the chill all over, at the back of my neck and running all the way down my legs.
She turned to me. We stood there, looking at each other. Her face was different now, open like a child's but sad and pleading. And then, almost immediately, it changed. I saw something scared in it and desperate. Then the eyes were slits again and the faced fixed in its familiar scowl.
“Silly. I'm just fooling. I was testing you. To see if you'd do it.”
We both moved fast then. When I reached to open the gate, she brushed back my arm.
“I'll be fine on my own, thank you kindly. No need to trouble yourself.”
As the gate swung back toward me she was already receding, the black wings flapping as she hurried down the path and up the stairs.
I stood there, unable to move, my hands tightening hard around the bars atop the gate, because the moment she disappeared behind the door there was only one thing, the question, and I could feel it moving all over me. What did I do to make Sister say that to me? Whatever else she was, she was a Nun. Something terrible had just happened between us and I was to blame. That was the one thing I was sure of. But I had no idea what I'd said or done that had caused her to be tempted like that. All I knew was that it was my fault. Whatever was happening to her, whatever was coming undone in her mind, that was my fault too. But there was no way to confess it and no one I could tell because it couldn't be put into words and it had to remain a secret. That was one thing I knew. What I was feeling then, what I'd feel soon, was something I could never breathe a word of, to anyone. It was mine, mine alone, and in the days that followed I felt it driving away everything else in me until there was nothing else. This was guilt, pure and entire. Everything before had been child's play. What they taught us—how to go through each of the commandments and number your transgressions so that you could give a complete and orderly account to the priest in confession—was useless. Guilt was something else. It seized you, all of you. Something turned over in your stomach and then it swept over you in waves of disgust until it covered you with something that couldn't be washed away. There was no way to separate yourself from it. Guilt showed you who you were. It gave the proof of something you could no longer escape or deny. There was no way to change it, what guilt made you feel. And the worst part—there was no corner of the mind that escaped. Guilt made the mind a torture. That was how it worked: it tore down, from within, every effort you made to free yourself from it. I'd ask myself what it was I'd said or done, examining my conscience the way they'd taught us. I'd go over it, again and again, everything that had ever happened between us. Maybe it was the way I'd started taunting her after I read the book or what I wrote in my report about how the only women who got to be saints were girls who died virgins and martyrs. Or maybe it was how I'd been at the beginning of the year, trying to please her, and what a disappointment I'd become. Maybe she thought that if I knew how much she favored me I'd change back to the way I'd been. But then, in the middle of going over the whole thing once again in my mind there'd be that moment when I'd say “no. I didn't do anything. It came from her. She's the sick one. Sicker than anyone knows. And I'd seen it. I know what's driving her and how twisted she is inside.” But then I'd feel the guilt washing over me again. She might be sick but that didn't alter my responsibility for my deeds. Besides, it was wrong to think about her that way. And the proof was the pleasure that came when I got so angry that I'd picture her in a way my mother never dreamed of, not on toilet but laying on a bed touching herself the way I did sometimes and then calling out for Jesus to come and save her. That's when I'd feel the air go out of me and know that I'd trapped myself again. A mind that could think thoughts like that. That's where the guilt was. It was in the act of thinking. That's where it started way back when I first began taunting her with my smart remarks and questions. There was no way out of it—the mind. It raced round and round inventing solutions that lasted only a moment before they gave way to new doubts and fears so that I had to go over the whole thing again, from the beginning. That was the worst part. There was no way to stop it. Thinking. It kept going on and on, independent of me, mocking every effort I made to bring it to an end. The thing I loved most—being alone with myself, inside my mind, safe in the haven that protected me from the way they went at each other every night, and the way she terrorized us every day—had become a prison. But the only hope was to think my way out of it. Somehow. By going back over it all again, point for point. But every time I did each thought became the other thought until I'd feel the whole thing racing in me again, with the thoughts coming faster, more furious, in a panic that I couldn't stop it now; it'd all keep going around and around like this until the mind burned itself up and they put me away somewhere, with nothing left but guilt taking on some new and more terrible form now that thought had ended.
And so I'd sit there, in her class, listening to her voice going on and on knowing that I had to go over it all again, point by point, until I found the flaw. But then I'd feel it start to race again inside me whenever I'd look up and catch her staring at me or see her fingers snapping and know from the pitch of her voice that I'd been “caught napping” again and that she was going to entertain the class with what had become the favorite part of her daily catechism. “There you go again, just like the others. I don't know what's gotten into you. You've the attention span of a teenage girl.” She was getting a lot of laughs at my expense now. Because I was making errors all the time, not the deliberate ones, but stupid errors, the kind that only a dolt made. Because whenever I'd hear her voice and know the question was directed at me I'd blurt out whatever answer popped into my head. And then bracing myself for her reply I'd realize with a jolt that she was already in the middle of talking about something else that had nothing to do with me, so there was no way to know how long I'd been lost in thought again with the question What did I do to make Sister say that? drowning out everything in the wake of another defeated effort to put an end to it. And I could feel it too now throughout the day, the pressure in my bowels and down low in my stomach. It was back again, the fear that it could still happen someday and then they'd all be pointing at the stain of it running down the back of my pants and laughing so that it was all I could do was try to hold it in and wait for the bell.
I had no way to know we were headed for a final showdown. All I knew was that I had to find some way to stop making careless errors. Because that's what enraged her, their carelessness, as if they were a sign not of rebellion but of contempt. Which would mean she'd lost her power. And that would eat at her, more than anything. But when I finally drove her too far, I wasn't even aware I'd done anything. We were up in front of the class, me and Suzy Stankowicz, the last two standing in the final Spelling Bee of the year. This was something I could still do, reciting the letters by rote the moment I saw the word flash before me. Ihnee already held in her hands the statue of the Virgin Mary that would be awarded to the winner. But then she shrieked and banged it down on her desk and moved down on me in a fury.
“Dolt, that's the exact error she just made. Can't you pay attention to anything anymore? You had it won. But no, you're too busy thinking about yourself all the time, puffed up with your own importance. Take your seat. Now. I'm through with you.”
I went to my desk and after a moment Susy Stankowicz did too, without being told. Ihnee eyed me in silence, fixing me in the slits they'd become.
“What's happened to you? That's what I'd like to know. You were such a model at the start of the year. I told the other nuns about you. They couldn't believe it. No, it's true, I told them. If he keeps it up he's a shoe-in for the Deportment Award. That's the Honor that could have been yours and think how proud your Mother would have been and all your family on graduation night when I announced your name and now you're no better than a dolt with nothing to show for yourself but the same stupid look you've got on your face now just like all the others.”
She was just getting warmed up. It'd be no time before she'd be listing my failures in a way that made everyone laugh. So I said it, before I could stop myself. I had no idea I had it in me until after I said it. Yet the moment I said it I knew it was the perfect sentence that had been waiting inside me for a long time in that place where we form sentences we wait for a chance to say even though we don't know they've been there, waiting, until we say them.
“Oh come on, sister, everyone knows Phil Allen had that Award won before the school year even began.” Everyone did, but now it was out in the open. She was being called a liar and a hypocrite. In front of the whole class. And she knew it. We could both feel their faces breaking into knowing smiles and their quick glances at one another in anticipation of what she'd do. A challenge had been thrown down and everybody was held in the hush of it.
She moved toward me. This time, I told myself, I'll get my taste of what Fleck and Lewis others got. But then she stopped, mid-stride, with her finger already pointing at me and did something we'd never seen her do before. She began tapping with her fingers on the white band across her forehead. She stood there like that, her eyes closed. Then the tapping stopped. Slowly she passed her palm across the white band the way one draws a cool cloth across one's forehead on hot summer days. Her face became calm, almost serene, and with the beginnings of a smile. Then her whole body snapped to attention and there it was again, that smirk she got and that tone in her voice whenever her words matched in their rectitude the glare that was then in her eyes.
“I've had it, do you hear me? With your insubordination and your smart lip. You've lost the right to remain a member of this class. That's right, take it. Take up your desk. Right now. I'm telling you. Take it. To the cloakroom. You're so smart you can't learn anything from me. See what you learn back there all by yourself.”
And so it started, the strangest time in my youth. At first I just brought candy bars with me and Classics Comics. (I'd collected a bundle of them—War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Odyssey—titles I'd heard of great books I'd find and read one day.) Soon it was cokes too and potato chips and always one of the little chocolate pies wrapped in brown paper that the Greek sold at the candy store near the school. He also stocked the comics that my mother forbade me to have. I remember the outburst one day when she found a copy of Wonder Woman in my room. “I won't have material of this kind in this house. Showing a woman's body in a scanty outfit like that. In all these suggestive poses. To work on impressionable minds. I won't have you reading this kind of filth, do you hear me? Not in this house. Take it, take it and throw it in the trash where it belongs. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
I had them all now—Wonder Woman and Batgirl and Superman's sister Lara Kent—a new one every day, my own private collection folded and shoved in a safe spot between the metal fixture under the desk. I'd sit there in the shadows of the cloakroom, a broken ray of light slanting across my desk from between the slats of the venetian blinds high up on the side wall window, listening to her voice as it rose and fell in the necessity that interrupted every lesson, growing more insistent each day in its rectitude and its frenzy. And as I listened, smiling, I'd lean back on the legs of the chair, feeling the weight of the desk pressing into my knees as I paged slowly through each comic, stopped at will, and gazed long and avid at each image. I was free, free of the boring adventure stories they contained, free to look at the pure shape and length of leg, the line dividing the swell at the breasts, the smooth curve around and behind the hips and always the precious mystery where the thighs came together at the triangle between her legs. And then I'd feel my hand moving slowly back and forth across the hard-on I always had, slowly but with increasing pressure until I'd get afraid again and stop.
And then one day I took it out and held it in my hand and saw for the first time how red it was and how afraid I was she'd burst in on me at any moment. I listened, breathing more rapidly with every rustle from the classroom, hunched over with one hand ready to push it down and the other on my zipper.
And then soon each time I'd keep it out a little longer, listening more carefully to the noises from the classroom until it got to where I knew exactly where she was in her constant passage up and down the aisles and who it was she was stopping to glare at and terrify with another of her interrogations. So that soon it wasn't fear I was feeling anymore, but defiance. Soon I wasn't even looking at the comics anymore but speaking to her, whispering, laughing at her voice, holding it in both my hands as I watched it swell and go red all over.
Then one day I started walking around in the cloakroom, on tiptoe at first, while I'd feel it growing stiff and hard against my pants until I'd feel it rubbing up against the zipper. I'd take it out and wait until I could hear her starting up again. Then I'd arch myself back and hold it proud, as if pointing it at her, as she ran on in another of her perpetual frenzies.
Pretty soon I was marching back and forth, mocking her, mimicking her postures and the twisted up look she got on her face and all the nonsense that came out of her mouth. I was free of it, all of it, and in the burst of that freedom I shook my cock at her (and I called it that then for the first time) until I was afraid I'd shout out and curse, my words against hers.
And so the first time it happened it was a pure accident. One of the girls' scarves was hanging from the arm of her sweater. I grabbed at the sweater, to steady myself and felt the scarf cool and silken all across my palm. I took my cock and touched it to it, gently and slow, and felt it cool all the long length of the silk, moving it back and forth, just barely touching it, as I slid the rest of it out of the sweater. And then I brought it up, to smell the perfume of it, and folded my hands over it, bringing in up close to my face, and kissed it, slowing moving my tongue out toward it the way, yes, the way I did when taking the host at communion, only I didn't feel guilt or blasphemy when this crossed my mind. I was released into something else. All I felt was relief spreading through me as I took deep breaths in and out I don't know how long until with a start I became aware again of a shuffling from the next room. I stood paralyzed, trembling inside. But it was nothing. And so I waited until I was calm and then took the scarf and moved it slowly back up the arm of her sweater until it was the way it must have been before, just barely visible, showing pink beneath the folds made by the elastic that bound the sweater at the wrist.
Soon I chose a different girl each day. I'd stand and squint at the name tag above the hook and picture her sitting at her desk, knowing nothing, while I touched myself to her scarf or rubbed myself between folds of her sweater or touched my cock on her jacket, high up inside the collar where her neck would be so that I'd be there when she gathered it tight around her. I'd still be with her, touching on her, when she got home and was alone changing out of her school-clothes. And then I could picture her, untying the scarf and moving it slow down her neck and across the buds of her breasts and down across her stomach, onto the mound that rose there, and down across her legs, to that spot just inside her knee then back up slowly, inside the leg, onto the soft hair with the silk scarf moving like a yo-yo now in her hands back and forth and into what must be new to her too and frightening and fugitive.
Soon I singled out the favored few they all talked about—Suzy Stankowicz who was so stuck on herself, and Sharon Sarcia whose panties showed so white against the brown of her thighs and Josephine Brigante who they said was ugly but dumb with big teats she was now letting some of them take turns feeling in the movies on Saturday afternoons. Each one. I'd take my cock and rub it across their garments as if to claim each one for myself.
Until there was only her. I stood under her name tag, repeating her name the way I'd done so often throughout the year. Jacqueline Ashfield. She was tall and thin and there was something frail about her and a sadness in her eyes but she was bold too the way she laughed when I'd hear her sometimes in the hallway whispering about Ihnee with the other girls. Her jacket, her sweater, her scarf. I'd touch them gently but this time with my fingers, tenderly and afraid of what I was feeling, moving my arms around the jacket and bringing it in close to me, against my cheek so I could feel her there with me, swaying together, dancing, our eyes closed until we both stopped together and she pulled back and looked at me long and hard and I could see that she was scared, with a look in her eyes as if I'd hurt her. But then I held her face in my hands and she smiled, hesitant and slow, and brought her face to mine and we kissed, moving our bodies together, standing there, feeling each other swell together, pressing into each other, right through our clothes until I felt my hand behind her, hard against the wall, holding her like that, moving up and down, breathing hard together, until I felt it all over me, tingling, in my toes and up and down my legs and like a sharp chill all across my chest and arms and then the fear , both hands over my mouth, feeling myself start to moan and the cry coming and the panic that I wouldn't smother it in time.
That's how she almost caught me. I must have made some noise in spite of myself. “What's going on back here?” I heard her just in time, turning the corner, snapping on the light. So I was able to turn away, though I was sure when she turned me around she'd see it, the way my face would be flushed like it was at home that time I did it in the bathroom before the mirror so that I could see what my face looked like sinning because maybe then I could stop thinking about it all the time. “What are you doing out of your seat.” “Sister, I'm sorry. I got a cramp. In my calf muscle. I get them a lot, from riding the bike so far. I was trying to walk it off.”
She glared at me. I knew she could see through it, my lame excuse and the red look all over my face. “Please, just don't let her take me like this in front of all of them,” I prayed. But she didn't. She just stood there, staring at me with that fixed look she got, her fingers pressing down into my shoulders as she moved me back to the desk and forced me down. “Sit here and don't move. That's what you're out here for. To examine your conscience. Maybe then you'll know what you need to do to earn a place back in the classroom.”
It didn't take long. That same day after lunch I found my desk back in its proper place. But I was clever enough to wait at the door to the cloakroom until she summoned me silently with a swift wave of one finger, once only, pointing down at the desk. Now it's going to come I thought. When I'm up there in the second row. Only this time I won't have any clever reply, only the shame of it. I sat there all afternoon, wondering why she was waiting so long and why she too looked away whenever our eyes made contact. What I didn't know was that I didn't matter to her anymore. She'd let me back in the room not to renew the battle between us, but so that I'd be there too to see it when it came. She was preparing her masterpiece and she didn't want anyone to miss it.
It came two weeks before the end of the school year. I've written about it elsewhere, many times, in an attempt to feel what they both must have felt inside because if I could do that I wouldn't have to remember what it was for me. A young girl wears makeup to school one afternoon. Outraged and to humiliate her, a half-mad hysteric disguised as a Nun makes her stand in front of the whole class. Wiping the makeup off the girl's face the Nun loses control, shrieks, and draws her nails down across that girl's face. In her frenzy the Nun runs from the room. The girl stands there shaking. Little spots of blood pop up like dots, come together, then flow down her face and drop like raindrops (ink spots) on the floor. No one moves. Finally an old nun comes, shields her in her arms, and leads her from the room. Another enters, commanding us to silent prayer. We sit there that way until the bell rings. And that day no one needs to be commanded to remain silent down the hall and stairway, out the door and across the playground until we're all safely away from one another.
I tell my mother about it that night. “I won't go back there. I won't.” “It's only a little while now,” she assures me. “Offer it up. Or if you can't, picture her, the way I told you. Think how foolish she looks then.”
But Ihnee was gone the next day. (“Sister Inez has taken ill and is not expected back for the remainder of the school year” came the terse announcement over the P.A.) So was the girl. A kind old nun taught us, the last two weeks of the school year, lessons that weren't out of any of the books. One I remember was about Pa-tag-orus (that's how she pronounced it, like my grandmother when at Thanksgiving and Christmas she asked for a sweet pa-tay-dah) and geometry; another was about Plato and Aristotle and how Philosophy (a subject I'd never heard of before) began in wonder and ended in mystery.
Then it was over. Graduation night we all gathered in the classroom and waited to line up for the procession to the Church. The classroom was lit with candles and most of the girls wore new chiffon dresses, white and blue, and flowers in their hair. And Suzy Stankowicz kissed Eugene Freeze right there in front of everyone. She was there too, standing apart, in the back of the room. Jacqueline Ashfield. But no one spoke to her and she had no flowers in her hair and the scratches were still there, faintly visible under the cake of make-up.
It was the last time I saw most of them. Once in a while, the following summer, I'd ride back there on my bike, around the deserted school and playground. Once riding along the field running next to the convent I saw Bill Madden back in the tall weeds, under a tree, smoking a cigarette. I lay my bike down in the short grass and followed the path back to him. “Davis,” he smiled, exhaling a thick stream of smoke. “C'mon over here,” he said, motioning me back behind the tree. Rounding it I saw her, laying there, in the weeds, a young girl. Her blue jeans and her panties were pulled down to her knees. Her blouse and bra were twisted in a knot up under her face. She lay there, like the torso of a mannequin, rigid and lifeless. Cuffing his cigarette in his palm, Madden took a last deep drag and dropped it on the ground near her head. She didn't move. He crushed it out slowly under his heel. Unzipping his pants he took his cock out and started shaking it like he was trying to stiffen it, or to call our attention, hers and mine, to some ritual about to begin. “Whattya think, Davis? Look good to you? Twat. See.” Her flesh was white, fat, her breasts spreading like a pancake. Then he started to piss, a hot and steady stream, alongside her head. I could see little drops spatter up from the ground and onto the side of her face. When he was done, he shook his cock off over her, watching the last few drops fall onto her stomach. Her eyes were frozen, like the look an animal gets when trapped at night in the headlights of a car or like my mother's got whenever my father hit her. He knelt down next to her. Then he turned to me and smirking held his middle finger up, like he was giving the sign of a secret organization. “Watch.” He put it in her. She made a little whimper at first but then lay there silently, staring blankly at the sky. He kept moving it in and out. His expression never changed, it was indifferent, detached, like he was conducting a scientific demonstration. I could see the finger rise then disappear again into what I'd never seen before, a woman naked. That's what they look like. See. A bush of hair opening in the middle. Mysterious. Terrifying. Beautiful. I…. Her hair was full of dirt and weeds. Something must have happened then because her head started moving back and forth and her body turning away from the probing hand. That's when he started to curse her, in a voice that wasn't his own, a voice beyond our years. It was gruff and guttural, like my father and his buddies in the bar. “Cunt, fucking bitch, what did I tell you. Don't move. Keep your fucking mouth shut, understand. You ever tell anyone about this I'll kick the shit out of you. Little fucking whore.” He continued cursing, saying the words over and over, the one's that were on all our lips. And all the time his hand kept moving, up and down, in an out, like a piston. Finally, he was done. He stood over her, dragging out another cigarette. He lit it and bent offering her a drag. She took it and then they kissed, exhaling together, the smoke rising over her head as she lay back and closed her eyes. He turned to me. “Whattya think, Davis. Want some. Go ahead she won't mind. You wanna know what it feels like don't you?” I couldn't move. My legs were jelly, the way they get right before a fight. I remembered the convent window. I could feel it, above us, the eyes behind the curtain, staring down on us. I felt a hot line moving up and down the back of my neck. He could sense it, I was sure, my fear. “What's wrong? You chicken? C'mon. You'll never get another chance like this. Don't worry, she won't tell anyone, will you?” Her head moved back and forth. I felt the sawdust in my mouth. And now it was a new fear, and he could sense that too. “Christ, you a pussy or what? Want me to tell the others what a chicken shit you are. C'mon, it ain't gonna hurt.” “I know,” I forced the words out, “It's not that. Believe me. I would. Only it's the wrong time. I just went to confession. So I can fulfill my monthly obligation and take communion. This Sunday. You know. So I can't now. Some other time. Next time. You'll see. For sure.” He laughed, tossing his cigarette in my direction. “Yeh, well why don't you run along then. Me and her, we got things to do.” I moved backward, without lifting my feet, shuffling them slowly as if reluctantly across the grass and leaves of autumn that had already gathered thick across the ground. As I turned away I caught the convent window in my line of vision, a black unmoving curtain.
I rode fast then, as fast as I could, so that the wind made tears. I wanted to feel the cold air cutting into my face and lungs, the twilight descending, and the distance growing between me and them. But then when I got close to home it hit me. I couldn't go in like this. She'll see it on my face and start questioning me. I'll blurt it all out and then I know how she'll be: yelling at me with that look she gets that scares me so, as if there's something I've done she can never forgive no matter what I do. I smashed on the brakes over some cobblestones and felt the bike go out from under me and then the sharp stones cutting into my face and hands. It was alright then. I could feel it already, her cool hands washing me and then the gentle bites of the iodine she always dabbed on me with such care whenever as a boy I cut myself playing.