I was propelled into debauchery at the Piggly Wiggly.
It was the accident that started it all; crashing into a woman’s cart as I recklessly raced mine around an end cap of the cereal aisle. The impact was significant, scrambling our goods.
“Hey!” she cried angrily. “Whadaya think this is, a racetrack!!?” She glared at me, waiting for a response, and as she did her face dissolved into astonished recognition and she gasped, “Frank!!”
I, too, stood dumfounded, gaping at the girl I had loved and lost so many years ago. I might not have recognized her but for the voice, yet having heard it I could see the younger her: The once-glorious, long, auburn hair surrounding her current close-cropped, graying style like an apparition; her once maddeningly voluptuous figure a transparency overlaying what age had tenderly transformed, and distinguishing crow’s feet miraculously airbrushed from her eyes and mouth.
“Maggie!!” I cried out, impulsively rounding the carts towards her, perhaps a bit too urgently, for her companion flinched as though I might pose some sort of threat. Maggie quickly extended her hand in a gesture clearly meant to slow me down.
“Sister Margaret,” she announced, as I took her hand, then gently said it again to make sure I understood that identifier. It said be careful. It announced important limits, just as I wanted so desperately to hug her.
“That’s impossible!” I blurted out. “A nun!!? But you…”
“Don’t look like one. I know,” she quickly interrupted, as though afraid of what I might have said if given the chance, taking back her hand more quickly than I thought a reunion of long lost lovers called for. “We gave up the habit a long time ago.”
There were so many things I wanted to say, and none of them rang appropriate inside my head. I stood mute, grinning awkwardly, as the rather large woman behind her cleared her throat.
Maggie reacted as though she had forgotten the other nun was there, and stumbled through an introduction.
Sister Ruth nodded a greeting but did not smile.
“We teach at Holy Family High School in town.” Maggie explained. “Well, me not so much anymore. I’m mostly in administration, but I still lead one class.”
Sister Ruth cleared her throat again, a bit more noisily, and Maggie picked up the cue to cut it short.
“Gosh, it’s good to see you, Frank. I…I wish we had more time, but we’re kind of on a tight schedule today.” She began disengaging from the pileup.
“Maybe we could get together over coffee sometime,” I offered as the duo began moving past. “Or is that against the rules, Sister Margaret?”
She didn’t say anything as she looked back at me, but a slight sparkle in her eyes and the hint of a smile told me she was thinking about it. That’s when debauchery, like some shining vision of the Promised Land, seized me, and in that moment I dedicated myself to one goal: prying Sister Margaret from the arms of the Lord and into mine.
I met Margaret-Ann when my family moved into a new school district for my first year of junior high, back then 7th grade, and we got paired up as study buddies in chemistry class. I was the quiet, awkward, skinny boy with blemishes and a crew cut and she the ‘popular’ one who’s tribe considered our pairing a most unfortunate happenstance. We ended up in quite a few classes together and our friendship, to put it delicately, blossomed. By tenth grade I was giving her rides home from confirmation classes at our Catholic parish and she turned the mammoth back seat of my mother’s ’54 Chevy into our secret experimentation laboratory.
Yes, on the way home from confirmation! Right after our shriveled old priest had spent 90 minutes lecturing us about moral imperatives. Right after turning in essays on personal responsibility. And, yes, sometimes on the ride home right after confession!!
We were so bad and, oh, it was glorious! In fact, thanks to her I spent most of high school in a constant state of mortal sin and winced only a little on the few occasions I stopped to think about damnation. My mother’s admonitions regarding clean underwear and car accidents probably carried more weight. I’m pretty sure Maggie felt similarly.
We went off to college in states far removed and gradually lost contact completely. I managed to avoid getting swept up by the Vietnam-era draft, married a fulfilling career but not a wife, accepted an early retirement package and moved back home to be near my aging father.
Life from there on out seemed pretty well scripted. I wasn’t expecting any surprises. I certainly wasn’t expecting to launch an assault upon the provinces of the Lord, but that little twinkle in Maggie’s eyes made me believe she still had feelings for me, and that was the weakness I hoped to exploit: The chink in her nun’s armor. This is not a guilt-free mission, even for an ex-Catholic. Nuns are pedestal dwelling creatures, we were taught; specially selected by God and thus holy, set apart from other mortals. Sacrosanct. But this was Maggie, and I couldn’t help it. Lots of sacrilegious scenarios began tumbling through my head, and I didn’t care what God thought about that.
Several weeks later Maggie agreed to meet at Starbucks in a strip mall not far from the school. She wore jeans, a simple white blouse and blue checkered sneakers. I rose as she got to my table and said, “Nice shoes, Sister.”
“Hi, Frank,” she said warmly, stoking my hope that there could be more from this evocative creature. She looked fabulous, and I wondered if it was appropriate for me to tell her that. “I’ve been looking forward to this,” she added.
“Me, too. Hey, what can I get you? Mocha latte?”
“Sounds indulgent,” she said. “You go ahead. But I think I’ll stick to the straight stuff.”
I came back with two regulars. No cream, no sugar, just as she asked.
“Mmmm. Pretty good,” she said as she sipped. “Not as good as Sister Ruth’s egg shell coffee, but pretty good.”
We sipped in silence for a few moments as I luxuriated in her aura of peace and tranquility. It was something I had not felt for a very long time.
“So, how are you, Frank?” she said, coaxing me back from that remembrance. “You look good.”
She was being kind, of course. I know how the years show on my face.
“It’s the lighting,” I said. “I always look great in a coffee house.” She smiled generously and I filled her in on how I managed to be back in the old family stomping grounds.
She was looking at my ringless left hand as she said, “So, you happy, Frank?”
I lied and said I was. She knew it wasn’t true and shifted gears.
“How about your dad? He’s OK? You living with him?”
“Good Lord, no. I swear, we’d kill each other within a month if I did. But I drop in several times each week. We run out of things to talk about in about two minutes, but he has his favorite TV programs and we watch those, or sometimes a movie. Basically he just enjoys the company, whether we talk or not.”
“He’s in a care facility, then?”
“I wish. He doesn’t even want to talk about it, but I’d love to involve him in that conversation. He’s so isolated in his own place. Hardly ever gets out except for driving to the store. And that’s another point of contention. He thinks he’s a great driver but you should see his car. Full of dings and scrapes. I can only imagine how many cars or posts he’s unknowingly bumped into.”
“That’s a little scary,” she said.
“Understatement of the week, but I have no idea how to advance that conversation, either. He used a riff on that Charlton Heston line once, telling me ‘They’ll have to pry that steering wheel out of my cold, dead hands.’”
She laughed and said, “He sounds like quite a handful. Your brothers and sisters any help?”
“Hardly. I’m the only one left around here; the sole remnant of the Reynolds family diaspora.”
“Maybe you need somebody from the outside to intervene. I wouldn’t mind helping.”
“You already have,” I said. “Just by giving me someone to talk to about it.” I was going to say more when her cell phone rang. She listened intently to the caller, spoke softly but firmly, and folded it back into her pocket.
“Sorry,” she said, grabbing the rest of her coffee as she pushed away from the table. “Emergency.”
“You must be indispensable,” I said.
“Something like that,” she said grimly.
Since that meeting she has, quite literally, become the woman in my dreams. In my favorite, she breezes into the coffee shop wearing full nun gear and her checkered sneakers, her robe billowing sumptuously behind her, and all heads in the place turn to take her in, gaping, as though they have never seen such an exotic creature. She stands at my table and, smiling exuberantly, begins slowly removing her costume: first, the veil; then the face-framing wimple and finally the robe to stand triumphantly wearing nothing more than one of my old, long sleeve, button down white shirts. She strikes a pose, beams even brighter and says, “You still got that Chevy, Frank?”
She didn’t want to talk about the phone call the next time we met, so we talked about her family and I learned that both parents had died and, except for some distant aunt and uncle, she had no family in this world besides the one she had built for herself at the school. That brought me to the question dominating my mind ever since we met at the store, but I didn’t know how to phrase it in a way respectful of her current status. I had no idea where I dared tread.
I told her that and she said anything goes, which made me edgy, because other women had told me that and it always spawned disaster, but I decided to take the risk. I wanted desperately to understand, so I asked how someone with her voracious sexual appetite could possibly have become a nun. My actual phrasing, I thought, was considerably more nuanced.
She left abruptly, anyway.
I was surprised when she agreed to see me again. Perhaps the flowers and profuse apologies did the trick.
“I just wasn’t prepared for my reaction to your question,” she explained, but did not elaborate as we left the busy walking path and moved across the grass to a park bench. The location took us out of earshot but was still safely public. As we sat she broke out a baggie of bread for the ducks. She tossed in silence while I wondered. The bag was half empty before she decided to speak again.
“Frank, I’m not upset that you asked it. In fact, dealing with it helped me affirm why I am where I am now in life.”
I wondered about that, too.
“So I’m going to tell you a little about that journey, and the only thing I ask is that you promise to keep it absolutely confidential.”
I could not have sworn more solemnly had the pope himself administered the oath. Even with that she studied me for several uncomfortable moments, and I thought briefly that she might demand sack cloth and ashes.
“OK,” she began, taking a deep breath. “I’ll leave out the prequel to us except to say that you weren’t my first, but I’m sure you knew that back then. You weren’t even my exclusive at the time, but you probably should have been because you were such a sweet guy. I did adore you. I was a wild thing back then, and even that description is a colossal understatement. I don’t know how my parents survived me.”
I was a little disappointed she said ‘adored’ instead of ‘loved’, but buoyed myself imagining more congruence than parallelism between those terms. I knew I had loved her, or at least was pretty sure I had. Why else would I feel about her the way I do now. I certainly would not chalk it up to pure sexual euphoria. That emotion, I know, is not so enduring.
“And then at college…” she continued. “Well, you have to remember that this was the mid to late 60’s, when the free love culture was raging, and boy did I ever embrace it. It was that heady time after the pill but before AIDS. Plus we were all doing weed.
“I’m ashamed to admit now that I was sleeping with quite a few varsity football players, but back then I was intoxicated by playing what seemed a wonderful game. In my mind I was a queen, envied by all the other team-girl wannabe’s. It was a supreme ego trip.”
Her confession made me wish I had been a starting quarterback.
“And then one day a wealthy booster approached me with such an arrogant attitude of entitlement that I suddenly saw myself for what I was: the team whore. It was a crushing realization.
“Looking back on it, painful as it was, I think God sent that booster to me. The Almighty knew what it would take to begin drawing me back. I transferred to another college, completed my teaching degree and followed the calling. Goodness, Frank, you should have heard my confession! And the reaction of my priest!! Lord, I thought the confessional was going to burn to the ground before he literally kicked me out!”
An expression of shocked disbelief may have crossed my face.
“It’s true, Frank! And it was so humiliating that I never went back to complete that confession. I know this sounds awfully Protestant but I came to believe that I didn’t need a priest to become right with God. I confessed it all again to Him directly, and felt profoundly absolved. I think it stands as screaming testimony that God accepts us just as we are and extends grace unconditionally.
“Anyway, eventually I took my vows and I’ve taught at several schools, some with their own convents, and I’ve been here at Holy Family for almost ten years. I have a small apartment off campus and live quite simply, but satisfyingly.”
She emptied the bread bag before continuing.
“So, now you know my journey. As to why I left so abruptly the other day…Well, your question made me realize that the old me is not as far below the surface as I thought she was. I suddenly, inexplicably ached for a man again, Frank. For you. And it scared me. You’d think by this stage of my life I’d have it all sorted out. You kind of kicked the hornet’s nest.”
I liked the sound of that. It had the ring of possibility. I was mentally manipulating one of my little scenarios as she continued.
“Turns out wanting you was another blessing. It brought the old me into clearer focus. Now she and I can exist side by side and that will help me be a better teacher. She informs me, Frank, in a way that is in sharper focus now.”
I was wondering how that dichotomy fit into parochial coursework when she said, “I teach human sexuality, Frank.”
I couldn’t imagine anyone being better equipped for that task, and told her so.
She smiled tolerantly. “It’s not what you think, Frank. We call it a family-life program, and instead of explicit information we bring values like modesty, purity and chastity to the discussion. Armed with morality we confront raging hormones.”
“Sounds like a losing battle to me,” I said.
“It is tough. We certainly don’t win all hearts and minds. Remember the call that interrupted us that first day at the coffee shop? It was one of my girls, frantic, thinking she was pregnant. Turns out she was just late. We don’t preach safe sex, but you’d think that in today’s world she would have chosen that. Anyway, we keep trying, and hopefully they’ll discover it’s OK to feel sexual desire, and, as I have, use those feelings to better understand themselves. Use them, without surrendering to them.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
We’ve been meeting a couple of times each month, Sister and I, going on half a year now, and I am no closer to my goal. I’ve tried all manner of enticement, and it has been frustrating to see those efforts splat impotently against her rampart of steadfast faith. They will probably carry her feet first out of that beloved classroom, still clutching the Lord.
Still, if I’m honest with myself, I must confess a sense of amazing personal transformation. In spite of my less than holy intentions I have discovered more satisfaction in our deepening friendship than I have in any of my sexual relationships, including the one I had with her. I still treasure those memories, but she has brought so much more to my life the second time around that…Well, quite simply, she has helped me become a much better person. She has driven out emptiness with overflowing joy, transformed selfishness into compassion and desperation into hope.
She has also quite lovingly guided my own tentative faith restoration, largely by revealing her soul to me through a collection of poems she has written over the years: gentle, profound, spirit affirming verses no one else has ever seen. It has been an astonishing experience, akin to diving for the first time onto a teeming Caribbean reef, over and over again.
And then today she really blows me away. We’re sipping Starbucks coffee at what has become ‘our’ corner table, when she hesitatingly pushes a battered sheet of paper towards me. It appeares to have been crumpled and smoothed repeatedly, as though she had often tried to throw it away but could not.
“This is way beyond NSA top secret, Frank,” she cautions. I swallow hard.
It’s another poem, written during the euphoria of taking her vows. I sit absolutely astonished, for in it she describes her Holy courtship and wedding night, using the language of seduction and orgasmic copulation. It makes me wonder who had seduced whom, and if it had been good for God, too.
“Holy moly,” I rasp weakly as she takes back the paper, tenderly folds it into a tight, slender packet, and slips it into the spine of her bible. I don’t know what to say. ‘Who lays her soul so bare, and why?’ pops into my head. I can’t place the line, though it must have been from one of the romantic poets. Or maybe her verses inspired one in me. They certainly turned me on. The Song of Sister Margaret could easily replace The Song of Solomon as the bible’s sexiest commentary.
But why show something so intimate to me? I must have wondered it out loud because she says, “So that you’d know, Frank.”
“How it could be with us,” she replies, smiling warmly. A wave of pure oxygen washes over my suppressed coals of physical desire. Men have passed to the other side via much less stimulation. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t heading in that direction myself, stunned by the sudden possibility that she was inexplicably yielding.
“Us?” I croak. “Us?” My face probably looked like Charlie Brown’s when he conjured possibilities with the little red headed girl. “Like…like in your poem?”
“Not quite,” she says, her eyes continuing the embrace. “But almost. We can have a rarified, pure, spiritual union few people ever achieve, Frank. That’s what I’ve learned on my journey with the Lord. It’s such a beautiful existence. So energizing. And freeing.”
Pure? Spiritual? That’s obviously not what I anticipated hearing.
“Don’t be disappointed,” she says, reading my face. “I thought you’d realized by now that my body is off limits.”
“I kind of did, but after that poem…when you said ‘How it could be with us’… I thought for a minute that…”
“I was talking about our souls,” she interrupts. “Intertwining. A whole new kind of union. So much better than physical sex. So amazingly better you won’t believe it. Accessible now. In this life. Trust us, Frank.”
“Me and God, Frank. This can be more wonderful than you could possibly imagine.”
It instantly strikes me that she might be inviting me into some sort of sacred ménage à trois, and that would be extremely weird, let alone sacrilegious. And she’s right, I cannot imagine it; cannot conjure up images of myself writhing between her and the Lord. I know that’s not really what she means, but right now my less-than-sanctified mind is having trouble processing her concept.
No matter, though. Her eyes are still locked onto mine and I feel like a planet joyfully succumbing to the gravitational pull of its sun. I swing around her in ever decreasing orbits. She reaches out and catches my hand, and pulls me in.