Pamela York Klainer
After Mass Katie skipped breakfast in the Sisters dining room, saying she wasn’t feeling well, and returned to her room. Closing the door behind her she looked around, as if for the first time. Like all the other quarters assigned to nuns teaching at the school, her room was a spare, impersonal convent space: a single bed with rough cotton sheets and a simple white chenille bedspread, a reasonably comfortable chair next to a reading lamp set on a small table, a maple dresser whose drawers stuck when she pulled them out, a large crucifix hanging above the bed. A small sink hung from the wall, but the room contained no toilet or shower; the Sisters shared an institutional bathroom down the hall. A braided rug covered the center of the bedroom floor, leaving most of the scuffed and faded wood bare. A shade, but no curtains, offered privacy but no charm. Hooks from which she could hang her religious garb protruded from the faded pink wall. A radio and a clock sat on the small table. Lacking a desk, Katie piled textbooks and student papers on the floor.
Her room at home had more character, and was far more personal. But Sisters weren’t encouraged to personalize their space, or their lives. They were allowed to have small family photos, but Katie carried hers in her prayer book. Sisters were not expected to hang anything on the walls to compete with the crucified Jesus for attention, or add colored throw pillows to bring contrast to muted bedspread. They could have books, of course. Writing paper. Rosary beads hanging from a bedpost near the pillow, should they want to pray to the Virgin before going to sleep.
Sister Perpetua, the oldest of them and still teaching kindergarten, lived in a room just like this and had for sixty years.
Katie had no idea what Stephen’s room in the rectory looked like. She’d never been in it. They had sex in his office, on the couch where she assumed parents sat when they came to a conference with Father Stephen about their daughters’ academic progress.
Katie never gave a thought to what she wanted her first sexual experience to be like. She assumed, upon entering the convent, that she would never have sex. She was giving that part of her life up to God.
The couch was leather, hard and rather narrow. Stephen lay awkwardly on top of her, thrusting, fully dressed but with his pants and underwear pulled down. He never met her eyes. She left hastily when they were done, because Stephen said the door had been closed for too long and he didn’t want anyone to be suspicious. Katie hadn’t expected to meet anyone on the way out, and thank God it was Loretta. Katie felt naked, and vulnerable, and sure that anyone could see that under the swathes of slightly disordered black habit there was a woman who just had sex.
Could that have been only two weeks ago?
Katie kept leaning against the door of her bedroom, unable to move to the bed or the chair. She was startled by a soft knock.
“Katie, it’s me. Loretta. Let me in. I want to see how you are.”
Katie breathed so softly, so shallowly, she thought no one could know she was there. Perhaps, if she didn’t move, Loretta would go away.
How was she indeed, now that Stephen was halfway to Rome?
How was she now that Stephen had gotten someone else pregnant, a student, a child really?
Not good, thought Katie. I am not good.
Loretta knocked again, whispering through the door. “Katie, I know you’re in there. Please let me in. Please.”
Minutes passed, and then Katie moved away from the door, pulling it slightly open.
Loretta slipped inside and looked at her friend, startled by Katie’s pallor and her vacant, fixed stare. Katie needed tea with a lot of sugar. Loretta had even seen her mother give a shot of whiskey, straight, to a neighbor whose child had just been killed by a speeding car. But there was no whisky, and Loretta couldn’t get tea without going to the kitchen. There she was likely to encounter other Sisters cleaning up after breakfast. They would ask about Katie, if she needed anything, if someone should go up and see to her. That would never do.
Loretta led Katie to the chair, and then went the few steps away to sit on Katie’s bed.
“Katie, how do you feel? How is your body, I mean? Do you feel anything different, like you might be pregnant? If you’re not pregnant we can get through this. I know we can.”
Katie looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. How did her body feel? It wasn’t a question one asked of nuns. They knelt in prayer, backs straight, regardless of bodies tired from teaching and from fulfilling their share of housekeeping chores. They wore heavy black habits regardless of the heat. They ate common fare as presented at table, without thinking of likes or dislikes. Katie had a particular aversion to brussel sprouts, whose very smell made her stomach churn the few times her mother served them at home. But brussel sprouts were served the very first night Katie and Loretta began their life as nuns, and Katie ate them without comment and without any thought of her body revolting. Nuns prayed to the Holy Spirit, not the Holy Body. They knew Jesus the preacher, the teacher, the prophet, the crucified martyr, not Jesus the man.
In high school Katie broke her left forearm being knocked to the hard wooden floor in an exceptionally hard fought basketball game. She knew what her body felt like then. Her body felt pain, and the shock of the bone snapping made her nauseous and dizzy.
She had no idea what a pregnant body felt like. None at all.
Loretta, who had no real idea either, remembered her mother pregnant with a fifth child, Loretta’s youngest brother. “I think you feel sick to your stomach, especially in the morning, and your breasts hurt. And you’re tired. Very tired. And the other children get on your nerves. Do you feel like any of that?”
Katie shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not yet.”
The two friends sat in silence, then Katie spoke again. “Loretta, he got one of our students pregnant. A child. And he said what he and I had was special, and that I made him feel like he never felt before. He was lying, just telling me what I wanted to hear.”
Loretta thought about Father Stephen, and his charm, and about everyone chasing after him with adoring eyes, even the mothers. She thought about the couch in Father Stephen’s office, the very place she herself sat while in that office for a committee meeting. She felt rage, and the impulse to burst into tears, and futility. The Bishop, rather than calling Father Stephen to account, had sent his favorite priest to Rome.
“Katie when do you expect your period? How much longer?”
“Two weeks. But I won’t even be sure then, because sometimes I skip.” Katie’s face, if possible, grew even paler. “Loretta, promise me no matter what that you won’t leave. If you weren’t here I wouldn’t have anyone, and I don’t know what I’d do.”
In that moment Loretta guessed that Katie, in her passion for Stephen and imaging a life with him, at least thought about leaving. Loretta thought she and Katie shared everything, but Katie hadn’t shared this. Deceit, like a dark, spreading stain, touched even their friendship.
But now was not the time. Loretta looked at Katie’s panicked face, and nodded. “I won’t leave you. We’ll get through this.”
Loretta thought of Father Leon, and his message to call if they really needed him. No matter what happened with Katie she, Loretta, was really going to need him. When the Sisters in training met with their spiritual advisors religious life sounded so simple, so pure, a straight line between a young woman and a loving God. Now nothing about what Katie was facing, or about their friendship, seemed simple or straightforward at all.