Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring.
Vladimir Nabokov, Mary
“Chaste, poor, and obedient,” repeated Sister Helena as we left the monastery and turned onto Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe.
“Your habit—” I said, pulling my rolling suitcase behind.
“Pardon?” asked Sister Helena, gathering a loose wisp of hair back up under her headscarf.
“Your habit is such a beautiful blue,” I said. Blue as Lake Michigan in a certain light.
“Our habit is a sign of our consecration as Brides of Christ and the blue is for the Virgin Mary,” she said.
“And your sandals—” I said, thinking of Moses throwing off his sandals and speaking to God.
“My sandals?” Sister Helena looked confused.
“Yes,” I said and all I could think about was how beautiful Sister Helena looked in her white headscarf, pale blue habit, and brown leather sandals. I’ll look beautiful, too, I thought. I’ll trade my bad hair days for a headscarf, my t-shirts and jeans for a habit, and my running shoes for sandals. I’ll be a beautiful Bride of Christ, like Sister Helena, like the Virgin Mary.
“Et voilà! We’re here,” said Sister Helena, stopping in front of an old wrought iron door just a few buildings down from the monastery. I’d never seen a door like it, not in the upper Midwest anyway. The dark metalwork spread out Medusa-like in a symmetrical pattern of flowers and horns of plenty rising up above the head of an angry-looking lion and two griffins. Beatrice’s griffin times two, I thought, from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“Let me help you with your bags,” Sister Helena said.
“Pardon?” I asked, still daydreaming about Beatrice and the angry-looking lion.
“Let me help you with one of your bags.”
“Thank you,” I said and began to untangle the heavy athletic bag from the top of my rolling suitcase. Sister Helena threw the bag over her shoulder and unlocked the door. I followed her inside and up a curving wooden staircase. The stairs were worn in the middle like grass flattened in fields where white-tailed deer had bedded overnight.
“You’ll be living here with five other nuns,” said Sister Helena. She opened the apartment door and we entered a dark hallway. “We maintain silence as much as possible, following our Rule of Life which says, ‘silence is the road to communion as well as its fruit.’”
“I’m quiet by nature,” I said. And shy, though my shyness was much worse when I was younger.
“The toilet’s here,” Sister Helena continued, “but no flushing after 10 o’clock—the pipes are loud—it will wake the sisters.”
Okay, I thought, who flushes after 10 o’clock anyway?
“And the bath is this way,” said Sister Helena, hurrying down the hallway.
We reached the far end of the hallway and stepped into the bathroom and were suddenly awash in sunlight and a sweet smell I’d later recognize as savon de Marseille or Marseille soap.
“Please be conscientious when bathing. There’s not a lot of hot water,” said Sister Helena, glancing toward a deep enamel tub.
“All right,” I said catching my reflection in the small mirror above the sink. I looked tired, jet-lagged maybe, and my hair, cut short like a boy’s, was a mess. I’d always kept my hair long, except for a pixie cut at eight and a shaved head, trying to be punk rock, at eighteen. I’d had it cut this time just after moving to Saint Paul, Minnesota, a year and a half ago to be baptized in the Catholic Church and start a new life.
“And your cell is here,” said Sister Helena leaving the bathroom and turning to her right.
“Your room,” she laughed.
My room was small, with a single bed and a desk near the window. An icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus hung on the wall above the bed. Mary looked tired, jet-lagged maybe, and Jesus, serene. Sister Helena dropped my heavy athletic bag on the floor. I parked my rolling suitcase next to the bed.
“Our community is especially consecrated to the Virgin Mary,” Sister Helena said, looking up at the icon.
“I try to pray the Rosary every day,” I said. I wasn’t going to mention my struggles with the Virgin Mary or with women in general, though. Maybe it was all the years of stealing boyfriends, husbands, and brothers. I’d never meant to hurt anyone, it just seemed to happen, and always with regret afterward.
“Excellent and before I forget, here are your apartment keys.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking the keys.
“You must be tired.”
“Yes,” I laughed. “I think the jet lag’s finally catching up with me.”
“Why don’t you rest and I’ll meet you downstairs at 12:15 for Midday Prayer.”
“Okay,” I said, “and Sister Helena—”
“Thank you for everything.”
“We’re glad you’re here and hope your time of discernment with us will be a fruitful one,” Sister Helena smiled, then disappeared down the dimly lit hallway in a swish of pale blue.
I quietly shut the door, went to the window and finding no screens like back home, opened it and leaned out. I’d spent hours studying my Paris map and knew the monastery wasn’t far from the River Seine, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and further, the Luxembourg Gardens where Ernest Hemingway, with a small notebook and two pencils in his shirt pocket, used to cut through to Gertrude Stein’s apartment on Rue de Fleurus. I felt the faint tremor of a metro train passing underground. I looked at my watch. It was exactly 11 o’clock. I took a deep breath. Paris, here I am.
I kicked off my running shoes and as a way to set anchor, began unpacking. Almost empty Evian bottle, two six packs of candy bars, camera, notebook, aspirin, laminated Paris map, money belt, alarm clock, hot pink Hello Kitty stash box, package of cheap Miraculous Medals, and colored pencils. And, there were my books: Knopf Guide: Paris, signed with love from my ex-stepfather, The Poetry of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, French pocket dictionary, and my New Jerusalem Bible, all of which I stacked in a neat pile on the desk near the window.
I went back to digging until I found a big, green, button-down men’s shirt. It was Jason’s shirt, the kind of shirt my father used to wear. “Take this to France with you,” Jason had said, “and remember me.” I took Jason’s shirt without hesitation, like an intercessor accepting a prayer request. I’d gone to confession a few days later and my penance from the priest had been to pray the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and to promise to go and sin no more.
“Jason, I miss the idea of you,” I said out loud, “but that was then and this is now.”
I pulled Jason’s shirt around me, set my alarm, and crawled into bed. Jason’s shirt would be an anchor to the memory of the girl I used to be. The girl I used to be. I was determined to be faithful now, chaste, poor and obedient, a consecrated Bride of Christ, set apart and holy, like Sister Helena, like the Virgin Mary. I closed my eyes and fell asleep and slept without dreaming, maybe like Eve had slept before she’d sprung from Adam’s rib.
Memoir opening (working title Beautiful) with photograph of monastery bedroom, originally published in slightly different form on Hippocampus, June 2016.