When we got to the warehouse, it was closed and—true story—the guy who owned the antique store next door said the proprietor had been arrested for racketeering and was awaiting arraignment in Federal Prison. He also said he had a bunch of bolt remnants on the third floor with the vintage clothing, and we might find some interesting material. The guy was creepy but there was an elevator, so I went along.
“Check out the close-out I got from a Hollywood studio,” the guy yelled as the elevator door closed. The close-out was impressive. There were costumes from every century from Roman togas to fringed flapper dresses to 1950’s Loretta Young gowns. Two hours later we were still playing grown-up dress-up in front of a 5X10 foot gilt edged floor mirror.
“You know what I wish?” Any said. “I wish we could walk right through this mirror to yesterday.”
“And find a lion and a witch?”
“Never mind. You’ve looked at yourself long enough.”
“So sayeth my jailer.” She pinned up her recently-regrown wavy auburn hair with bobby pins.
“Vanity is as dangerous as bathtubs full of squishy pudding topping,” I said. I knew what yesterday she was referring to, and it always made me a little queasy, and as ambivalent as her family tree residents obviously were.
Amy’s ancestors hailed from Kentucky, and they’d been more prudent than patriotic, selling grain to both the Blue and the Grey because Kentucky folks fought on both sides of the War of Northern Aggression. They’d also hired their former slaves after the war to work their tobacco fields. But a streak of piety must have run through the gene pool because Amy’s Great-Great Grandmother taught them how to read. She died of influenza at eighty-three, and when Amy donned a nun’s wimple and a veil, she looked as pure and angelic as “Saint” Victoria herself—the Daguerreotype of the once-rebel woman in her coffin had fetched a healthy sum at the estate sale.
That’s where Amy got the idea that it’d be “fun’ to immerse herself in the religious life and write about the experience. As I recollect, her first mention of the idea was the afternoon the two of us were finishing our third Margarita, the back seat of my vintage Volvo full of velvets, satins, and crepe.
“I think you have to have letters of recommendation from your parish priest or something—it’s sort of like getting into an Ivy League college,” I told her, knowing it wouldn’t be too much of a hurdle for someone who graduated a year early from Del Cerro Catholic High. “My second cousin lives in New Jersey and was in the seminary for a few months. He got kicked out when they found a well-worn letter from his girlfriend. If you get my drift.”
“I’ll be known as Sister Margarita Angelicus. It sounds ancient. Like Marcus Arealius or Caesar Augustus. I’ll always sign both names too. And, when I’m a teacher, I’ll insist the students say Jesus Christ and not just Jesus.” I thought she’d change her mind when she got some sleep. Certainly when she found out she wouldn’t be able to keep her boyfriends, shop, or sew Christmas ornaments and sell them on E-Bay, she’d reconsider. But, behind my back, she was going through application hoops. She never said a word even when we were making silk bells, velvet Santas, and crepe Christmas trees. One Sunday, six months after our fateful shopping trip, I got a text telling me she was leaving on a bus to Sacramento Monday morning and I could pick up the two boxes of decorations from her mother’s house.
“R U out of UR mind?” I texted from Dallas where I was making connections to Orlando’s Disneyworld.
“Why U go to FL when there’s Disneyland in LA CA?”
She had a point, and I didn’t get a chance to see her before she headed north like a run-away slave. How desperate is the Catholic Church that it would allow someone as goofy as Amy to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph? After talking with the Mother Superior, however, I realized the Church was mucho desperate and goofiness was a prerequisite, and probably the mote that tipped the scale in favor of Amy’s admission to the novitiate. “Aren’t there visiting hours or something?” I asked Mother Jane Smith.
“Not for the first six months. Contemplation and self-reflection is best done without worldly contact,” she answered. Self-reflection without mirrors? Like I said, goofy.
I told Robbie, Amy’s boy-friend du jour, to give it up and move on, she’d be in Sacramento for at least a year. Robbie told me he’d wait, but he left for Paris to study Expatriate Literature just two months later. That he would be miserable not knowing French and would be snubbed by his teachers comforted me. That Grace Fillmore, the girl destined to be his Baby Mama, knew where he was and had contacted The Maury Show comforted me a lot.
On the other hand, I didn’t wait long to get a new BFF. Robbie’s brother graduated from MCRD, and one look at him in his Marine uniform sent me into a “Pray-for-me-Amy-wherever you-are-spiral” that always ended in fantasies of hooking up with Chad in the Balboa Park Museum of Natural History. “Nice ornaments,” he said when I told him I’d gotten over three hundred orders the first month I posted them. That he was fondling my boob at the time meant I would always have fond memories of the den sofa. He said something about Cool-Whip afterwards, but one humorous ‘Amy anecdote’ put the kibosh on that idea. Thank God.
Finally, Amy came home. Thanksgiving. Dressed head to toe in a black and white ensemble that reminded me she was a virgin—once—made it difficult for me to wax eloquent on Chad’s endowments. But we had a nice chat in her bedroom, sans mirrors, wardrobe, and make-up on her dresser, that included her handing me her cell phone.
“I couldn’t hide pen and paper, but all my notes are stored in here. I’m going to transfer them to a flash-drive, Nicole. Don’t lose it!”
“Then the book’s still a go?” I said cautiously.
“Of course, you think I want to dress like this for the rest of my life?”
I wanted to tell her God might be a lot like butch lesbians, but I was so relieved that she was still herself, I let it go. “How many chapters you got?”
“At least two or three.”
“How long you planning to stay?”
“I’d like to stay for the final profession of vows ceremony and wear a wedding dress, but that’s four whole years away. There’s a little ceremony I go through when I move from postulant to novice, though. Nothing worth filming, but I’ll get an all-white outfit that includes a full veil. Imagine me as Audrey Hepburn.”
“As I remember The Nun’s Story movie, it was World War II that caused her spiritual change of heart.”
“It seems like I’ve been away forever! This immersion crap isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.”
“The nuns don’t sing in the hills?”
“Never mind. What do you do all day?”
“Pray. Learn about being super-nice to dirty poor people. Housework. The convent bakes its own bread. Can you believe it? Mostly I do the dirty work. Washing, cooking, making beds. Reading the Bible to the old blind nuns.”
“Are the other postulants O.K.? I mean, do you guys talk about how boring it is?”
Amy thought for a minute. “There’s a girl named Susan. I call her Peggy-Sue in my notes. She’s nice.” Amy sighed. “Too nice.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go back.”
“I wish Robbie was here.” She was taking a pee. Modesty was not a habit with Amy.
“Grace Fillmore says the same thing every time I see her in the Vons market. The baby’s due in February,” I said with as much detachment as I could muster.
She flushed, and washed her hands, sneaking a long look into the medicine cabinet mirror before returning to the bedroom. “I look alright in black. But drab. I hope my husband never dies.”
I was tempted to tell her He was already dead, risen, and in heaven, but thought better of it. “How’d you ever get yourself into this, Amy?’
“I think of it as suffering for my art. Look at these.” She showed me the selfies she’d taken, and pictures inside the convent, the grounds, and the chapel. “Is Chad coming to dinner at your house?”
I don’t know why I took so long to answer yes. I pretended I didn’t hear her because I was absorbed in her pictures, but the truth was I didn’t want her to meet Chad. The truth was I’d removed my engagement ring too. “What? Oh, yeah. Probably. I think so.”
“You don’t know?”
“The Marine Corps keeps him on base a lot because he doesn’t have rank.” Amy gave me a questioning look. “He has to do the dirty work for his superiors too.” She laughed and nodded knowingly. He can’t choose to leave his immersion organization, I wanted to say, even if he did volunteer. And that’s when I realized I resented Amy’s writing stunt. Eventually, Chad would be deployed somewhere. Maybe somewhere dangerous, somewhere he’d die and I’d wind up wearing black.
Amy’s pictures were good. Brilliant. Pictures of frail elderly women in bed with their heads covered by white cotton caps, using walkers to go to Chapel, and praying from the confines of wheelchairs, attended to by too few younger women. Mother Smith meditating before a silver crucifix as an accounting ledger lay open before her, worrying like any other mother about too many mouths to feed with too few dollars. Peggy-Sue smiling as she stood at the sink scrubbing and drying white plates and silver pans the way Chad polished his brass buttons and belt buckle. Not an electric dishwasher in sight. And Amy’s notes were just as intimate. Just as descriptive. There was no question she was a talented artist. Yet, I felt like I should be wearing a trench coat and sun glasses as I clicked through her material.
“What do you think, Nikki? Best seller?”
“The ingredients are certainly all here.” I hoped she believed my hesitancy was the result of being awestruck with admiration for her art rather than her chutzpah.
“I’ll be so glad when this is all over. I deserve every penny I’ll get for this emotionally riveting slice of time. I see a movie script in my future—my first Oscar nod at twenty. An enfant terrible.”
Two days later Amy was on her way back to Sacramento. I had two turkey dinners, one with my family and one with Chad at Camp Pendleton. “Is Robbie going to marry Grace Fillmore?” I asked as we sat in my car.
“Hell no. He’s shacked up with a girl in Paris. She’s wasting her time.”
His words were like LED light beams in a house darkened by a grid failure. That’s what bothered me about Amy and Mother Smith, Amy and the Sisters, and would eventually bother me about Amy and me. She was wasting the time of people who believed she’d made a real commitment to people who needed her. People who had faith in her faith.
“Have you told Grace about the other woman?”
“I told Robbie if he doesn’t tell her, I will. She might not believe me, of course. Lots of people hold on to hope no matter what.”
Even though they were brothers, Robbie and Chad weren’t as close as me and Amy. Still, a confession like that would create a breech between them. Maybe an irreparable one. My visions of a perfect wedding with family and friends fawning over us were fading. “Will you really tell Gracie if he doesn’t?”
Chad said, “Yes,” so softly I barely heard him. “It’s easy to protect people you know. But soldiers have chosen to die, if they have to, for people they don’t know. Doing right never guarantees we’ll be happy. A disabled Iraqi vet told me that.”
And now Chad had told that to me. I didn’t know Mother Smith, but I knew she wouldn’t want a thief to steal the lives of those in her care, and sell them on a literary auction block. I told Chad about my dilemma. I told him I had the evidence that would make Mother Smith believe me, no matter what—Amy’s photos and notes on a flash drive in my underwear drawer. I asked him why the people we love do things that we just can’t accept. I asked him to tell me what to do, and how to do it so Amy wouldn’t get into trouble. And he said no. Think on it. Be your own person. Do what you believe is right. Something in his voice made me believe this was sort of a decency test. There wasn’t a way to do what I believed was right and keep Amy out of trouble.
So there we sat, in my loyal Volvo, thirty miles into Camp Pendleton, surrounded by empty rolling hills, giving thanks for each other, for the few hours we were still young, safe, and untested. And me, wondering why it was so hard to grow up.