The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Girls, look up here! See me hovering close to the water-stained ceiling, above the buzzing VCR. Behold, I am Agnes, patron saint of girls, come to distract you from the climax of your freshman biology class, the video How Christian Girls Blossom into Maturity.
Perhaps they have not told you about me. At fourteen I martyred myself for the King of Kings, and thus lost my own chance to blossom into earthly maturity. In life, I was adored for my perfect, girlish beauty, but boys held no allure for me. My heart belonged to my heavenly husband, Jesus Christ. My suitors, furious that they couldn’t sway me with their charms (which were downright vacuous when compared to the miracles of Our Lord Jesus Christ!), revealed me to the Roman governor as a Christian girl who would not marry. The governor ordered me to choose an earthly husband, but I would not. He then remanded me to a house of prostitution, and gave all Roman citizens liberty to defile me, but Jesus protected my purity by rendering the Romans awe-struck in the face of my devotion. When the governor ordered me dragged from the house, my former suitors raised me above their heads, whispering, “Light as a feather, light as a feather,” and I ascended from their fingertips and floated five feet above them.
The governor’s servants had prepared a red-hot rack for me in the yard. I tumbled to the ground and, in the raw dreaminess of the moment, laughed and raced to grab the iron hooks that would pierce my hands. Seeing my willingness to accept the rack, the governor instead ordered me beheaded. On a spring green knoll dotted with buttercups and milkweed, an executioner began by hacking off my braids and flinging them to the weeping crowd. A group of my friends held hands and crooned softly, “Goodbye, dear Agnes, our sweet friend. Heaven deserves you. We’ll meet again.”
I knelt on the tender grass and bowed my head, waiting in valiant bliss to meet Jesus. As the executioner raised his sword, I heard my best friend’s voice rise above the chorus. “No!” Melissa shrieked. “Agnes, please stay!” I lifted my head and saw, through the crush of people, her sunny, freckled face burst into tears. Then the executioner grabbed me by my newly shorn hair and lopped off my head.
It’s a wacky tale, yet 100 percent true. But why am I blabbering about myself when there will be a quiz tomorrow on How Christian Girls Blossom into Maturity? Look here: Sister Edith Clare O’Hagan, BVM, the narrator, says that a girl who truly respects herself will find a boy who truly respects the fact that she’s a virgin. Sure she will. I guess Sister Edith isn’t hip to the madonna/whore theory. By the way, it’s kind of you not to laugh at Sister Edith’s Ultrasuede pantsuit and her choppy, frizzed hair. Older nuns who started out in wimples and habits often bear an understandable grudge against the ever-changing world of civilian fashion. There is the odd exception: your history teacher, Sister Kathleen, for example — pure Grace Kelly with her classic chignon, stacked heels, and patent-leather handbags. I could have appeared to you in jeans and a T-shirt, or a casual dress and Doc Martens, but in the material world your outward appearance can lend you credibility, so I’ve chosen my saintly attire: a chaplet of pearl roses to rein in my tumbling curls and offset my beatific face, a flowing ivory gown, soft leather sandals.
Now, Sister Edith says Christian girls should never have sex before marriage. Shocking. But I’ve been watching these films for decades now, and they truly are becoming more progressive in explaining the mechanics of sex. They used to rely on animated schools of fish swimming madly into a stone-lipped culvert. And their idea of straight talk about menstruation was “Don’t wear light-colored clothing during your special time, and bathe daily.” Hello! Really, you girls at Saint Theresa’s Academy are luckier than your predecessors. I also like that they’ve switched this film from the language-arts department to biology. (So does your biology teacher, who gets a free hour to read Vogue and balance her checkbook in the teachers’ lounge.) From my heavenly vantage point, it’s clear to me that sex is much more biology than language or art.
I know you girls are thinking, Oh, sure, what would old Sister Edith, sex machine, know about sex before — or after — marriage? But Sister Edith did have sex in her youth, before she became a bride of Christ. Her lover, a sensitive young man (there are some — currently twenty-seven, I believe, in North America: consider it a scavenger hunt!), was unschooled in the ways of passion, and extremely nervous. Therefore, the sin-to-pleasure ratio was not favorable. Little wonder Sister Edith now says that Christian girls should follow the Jesuit example and spend their teenage years celebrating science, art, literature, athletics, and drama. Enjoy the life of the mind, Sister Edith says. Excel at sports. Learn to spike a mean volleyball and win a college scholarship. Go to the YWCA and swim laps until you’re famished. Get a gang together and go bowling! And guard against one-on-one situations with boys, where desire could lead to depravity and pure foolishness. God is watching!
But the good news — and the bad news — is that God, as all-powerful as he is, cannot hold vigil over every girl at all times. For instance, you, in the back row, Jody Renneker, a responsible baby sitter — you’re feeling sick watching this video because you and Brad Gryska stripped from the waist up and had a seriously freaky make-out session after you put the Clancy twins to bed on Saturday night. Oh, the searing guilt! But really, Jody, considering the hundreds of millions of girls worldwide who had unwedded sex on Saturday night — and given war, and suffering, and the general despair of billions — can you honestly believe that God had time or cause to observe that you went to second base with Brad? Please! God had more pressing concerns. But I watched.
Afterward, you kissed Brad goodbye in the Clancys’ foyer, against a backdrop of gold and silver foil wallpaper, and came away with the taste of wintergreen Chapstick and a flake of skin on your tongue — yours or his? You danced it around the roof of your mouth as he snuck out the back door. Yes, I watched; I sighed. You swiped one of Mrs. Clancy’s Winston Lights from a kitchen drawer and smoked and shivered on the glacial back porch while Brad, illuminated by the street lights, trudged through the diamond-bright layer of ice that had formed on top of the snow. Suddenly and impossibly, bells rang out in the distance, harmonizing with the crunching sound of Brad’s boots, and lending a voice to the skittish new joy inside you.
Thank God I offered my girlish neck to the sword to avoid such horror! I admit, however, that I part company with Sister Edith on the sex issue. What’s wrong with engaging the life of the mind and the life of the body? Consider this: at age seventy-five, you will still be able to curl up on the couch with a book, but you won’t be able to run an impulsive lap around the house in the fresh snow, barefoot, to see how it might feel to be a martyr. You won’t be able to listen to your mother cooking dinner downstairs, the splatter of grease in a pan, while the boy you’ve snuck through your bedroom window finger-traces the states on your naked back, the eastern seaboard through the Gulf Coast.
Why, there’s nothing wrong with the joy of young bodies. I used to tell girls that if they could find a seventeen-year-old with a vasectomy, have at it! And if you can’t, I said, put on a hat and sunglasses and head to the pharmacy. Protection, protection, and more protection was my motto. Some girls had sex and considered it a marvelous, oddly wholesome adventure. But others felt cheapened and lonely, and wept over the phone to their friends until gray morning filtered through their bedroom shades. Each whispered lamentation — Please tell me I’m not a total slut — was a blow to my exuberant spirit. I paced their bedrooms all night, silently admonishing myself for giving overly general advice, instead of tailoring my sex talks to the emotional needs of each girl. With my human girlhood cut short by fervent devotion, was I trying to relive my lost youth through these girls? Who was I, anyway? A girl who knew the great spiritual love of Jesus Christ, a girl who martyred herself for sexual purity. An unvanquished saint.
And that was before the advent of AIDS and potent new strains of other sexually transmitted diseases. Now what advice do I have for you? I’m as baffled as anyone else. My stupidity fills me with self-loathing, and the only cure for that is to eat five spools of cotton candy and take a nap. Through the haze of celestial sleep I hear other saints bad-mouth me as they flutter past my open window.
“Girl saints,” huffs the archangel Gabriel.
“Well, perhaps not all of us are so dreamy and unreliable,” brags Joan of Arc, Miss Hotshot-Peasant-Who-Saved-France.
But listen to you mean girls laugh as Sister Edith delivers tips on developing “meaningful friendships” with boys. As if! Even in her youth, Sister Edith would not have been one to offer counsel on attracting male admirers. And is this really something to aspire to? Is this a topic of great concern for you girls? Well then, you’re in luck, because I know exactly how to make boys like you, and it has zip-o to do with sex. I see a couple of you who like other girls romantically starting to nod off. You may have to fight ignorance and prejudice during your time on earth (humans can certainly be tedious), but as only the spirit ascends to heaven, we are not the boy-girl fanatics they would have you believe.
But with a boy, the whole world is different. There’s no need to be the good-natured softball pitcher or the aspiring comedian that you are in real life. The secret is that boys love tragedy, so trot it out: the worst thing that’s ever happened to you — don’t be shy! If you’ve been lucky enough to escape tragedy thus far, just make something up. And if he discovers you’re a liar, he’ll only find you troubled and interesting. It’s a win-win situation!
Hey, now, don’t hate the messenger! Wendy Charbonneau, look at you glaring at me. I know your sister Cindy and her best friend, Gayla, were killed in a car accident driving home from the Weston Mall, where they spent their last hours trying on platform clogs, shoplifting a lipstick sample from the Chanel counter, and drinking Pineapple Julius.
Just before the speeding Mustang plowed into her car, Cindy lit a Benson and Hedges, set the cruise control, and said, “My God, this is a wonderful cigarette. I don’t know why I was smoking those crappy generic ones when you only save, like, fourteen cents a pack. Benson and Hedges rule! If I have twin sons, or daughters, for that matter, I’ll name them Benson and Hedges.”
“Good idea,” Gayla said, lighting a cigarette of her own. “I’ll name my son Viceroy. ‘Come, young Viceroy, come and sit in the parlor with Mummy. Do bring your brothers, Winston and Chesterfield.’ ”
“And your baby sister, Eve,” added Cindy with a laugh. And then the Mustang.
The policeman gave your parents Cindy’s purse in a plastic bag. Your dad handed you the bag, saying, “You can have this, Cindy. . . . I mean — Jesus! — Wendy.” Your mom hugged you weakly, as if she’d turned into a frail stranger, a bizarre, startled senior citizen on a day trip. Later, you fished the stolen lipstick out of Cindy’s purse, examined the nicked case, and then rolled out the smudged, gummy column of Vamp, the eggplant black color popular in all the magazines. On the morning of Cindy’s funeral, you made a pilgrimage to the Chanel counter and stared at the empty space among the bright bullets of lipstick. The Chanel saleswoman passed you over to help a woman who was looking for a tube of Vamp.
“There is no Vamp,” the saleswoman snapped. “Vamp is on permanent back order.” She clicked her opalescent nails on the counter. “Even the sample has vanished.”
You wanted to pull the precious, contraband Vamp from the zippered compartment of your backpack, hold it up to the saleswoman’s creamy, flawless face, and scream, “It’s only lipstick!” But then you wondered, for a heartbeat, if God had given Cindy a harsh punishment for stealing. (Absolutely not, I assure you. It would be a pretty crappy God indeed who would kill two girls over a trendy lipstick.) You edged away from the Chanel counter with salt tears dripping into the comers of your mouth, and raced through the maze-like cosmetics department, where suddenly the customers had all turned into absolute imbeciles, inquiring about retro lip gloss, youth-infusion serum, and seven-day-miracle masks.
The Vamp is now in the cleaned-out bottom drawer of your maple chest, along with Cindy’s hairbrush, her jar of Carmex, her Daisy razor, her Great Lash mascara, her half-used bar of Clearasil soap, her toothbrush, and a string of dental floss that you pulled from the lining of the bathroom wastebasket. You distinctly hear the Vamp’s chic black case roll around when you put your clean socks and underwear in the top drawer. You will never wear that hallowed lipstick down to a dark nub, never even try it on; you will keep it always.
I see you are horrified, Wendy, by the notion of using your beloved sister’s death to make yourself attractive to some clueless boy; you would never submit to the traitorous indignity of it. But Cindy wants you to know that it’s fine with her! In fact, it’s great with her. She wants you to tell her story endlessly, until the boy starts to miss her, too. She wants you to zone out in class and daydream about lost joy. Cindy is a great girl, and you are quite naturally despondent in her absence. But she watches over you. Heaven’s an observatory from which we peer down on the high drama of your everyday lives. You are entertaining the angels, unawares.
But I see anger smoldering through your flinty smiles. You’re thinking, Oh, wise, wonderful patron saint of girls, where were you when I could have used your help? Wendy, I know, is just about bursting to ask why I didn’t intercede on the day of Cindy and Gayla’s car accident. And Caroline Kelly is wondering where ethereal Agnes was when old Uncle Frank stuck his hand down her pants at the family reunion.
And you, Stacey Ramos, think I must have been off running tra-la-la through a heavenly field of flowers when your cousin Julie slit her wrists clean open with a boning knife after being dumped by her boyfriend, Henry. Oh, Stacey, you have every right to hate me. I should have appeared to your cousin in the bathroom, as she sat naked on the cold edge of the pink bathtub, balancing the knife on a creamy seashell soap and staring down at the interlocking sea horses in the ivory linoleum. I should have whispered, “Julie, you’re going to die someday anyway, and earth is a real kick.” I should have wrapped her in those cotton towels the colors of saltwater taffies and said, “Look, Henry’s just a poseur. He uses the word Kerouacian — and it isn’t even a word. He’s seventeen! It’s just your whacked-out mind that misleads you into believing that death will be a starkly glamorous testament to the depth of your teenage heartbreak.”
But please, girls, forgive me for my errant ways, my deadbeat saintliness. Take pity on me, for I cannot bear to gaze down upon the theater of life for very long: the snap-decision suicides, the crashing cars, the tumbling bridges, the flaming houses, the dreaded hospitals where weary humans have their hearts and brains opened and undergo the torments of skin grafts and chemotherapy.
Why are souls so hearty, so defiantly everlasting, while physical bodies — skin and bones and blood and unreliable, disease-prone organs — are so very delicate? Life on earth is but a breath of eternity; why must it so often be spent in anguish? I ponder this question with other saints, but fly off the handle when they bring up the book of Genesis. “That forbidden-fruit-and-original-sin crap is old as the hills!” I scream, and then I’m admonished for my immaturity, my inability to discourse in a respectful manner. I want to pose my questions to the Son of God, but haven’t worked up the courage. See Jesus re human delicacy filters through all my thoughts, a haunting procrastination.
Yes, I have failed you, but understand that I am a low-ranking and rather temperamental saint. My earth years and good works were few; my title is mostly honorary. Though canonized for blind devotion to Our Lord Jesus Christ, I was not particularly holy; I martyred myself in a crazed moment of girlish passion. And my devotion was not even pure. I fostered romantic inclinations toward a boy, Johnny.
“Hello, Agnes,” he said once, his ruggedly sonorous voice transforming my name from sturdy to breathtaking: I was Catarina, Magdalena, Maria Rosa. My brain shattered into kaleidoscopes of shimmering, bewildered neurons. On that spring day when I martyred myself on the knoll, I spotted Johnny in the crowd, and was glad to be wearing the dove gray dress that made my eyes glow, though I suffered slightly for him to see me with my hair chopped off. As the executioner brought the sword to my neck, my heart sang for Jesus, but an unchristian thought crossed my mind: Now Johnny will truly see how different I am from all the other girls. I thought Johnny might gallantly offer to duel the executioner, or at least scream in protest, but it was only my friend Melissa who cried out for me.
Knowing the less-honorable truth, you girls might look on me as a heavenly lightweight, but I am trying to mature into the kind of saint who would fill your hearts with love and protect you from all evil. What responsibility! I often wish I could give up my saintly status and just loll around like a regular heavenly girl. Cindy, Gayla, and Julie, for example, are spending this morning ice-skating, and this afternoon they’ll go to a matinee. While they sit in the cool, daytime darkness of the theater, eating buttered popcorn and Twizzlers, I’ll be appearing to the fifth-hour biology class at Mary, Star of the Sea, in Naples, Florida. Not that I’m complaining. I, too, enjoy the everlasting company of my earthly family and friends. And many saints are dear to me: Jude is kind, but busy sorting through his mile-high stack of newspaper novenas. Bernadette, scorned on earth by those who doubted the Virgin would appear to a slow girl from a poor family, is a good friend, as is everybody’s favorite, Theresa, the “little flower.” But in heaven, as it is on earth, the friends you love best are those from your girlhood. Melissa and I go out for cappuccino all the time.
Just now, Cindy, Gayla, and Julie have taken off their ice skates. Perfect layers of Vamp coat their lips. They sit on a split-log bench, drinking mocha lattes and smoking; in heaven, everybody smokes. When you arrive, you go to your favorite earth house, which exists here, room for room. Your family is here, and God is everywhere: in your mother’s arms wrapping you in a wild hug; in your grandmother padding across the living room in her lace-up, soft-soled shoes. Your dad sorts through his scratched LPs, sold at a rummage sale after his death, but now returned to their rightful place in the Silvertone console. But your little brother isn’t at the house, and you panic, remembering all those times you told him to go to hell. Your mom, who retains her earthly telepathic abilities, takes your hand and whispers that he’s on his way.
“Oh, Jesus,” you say to those who’ve died before you, “it was so goddamn hard without you.” (Because you have made it to heaven, you can take liberties.) “It was the most fucking awful thing of my whole life.”
Then boundless joy triumphs, as you realize everyone will get to spend eternity together in the Kingdom of God. Still, there are things to get used to. On earth you used to worry about your weight, but now, when you step on the old bathroom scale, that creaking purveyor of doom, you weigh exactly zero pounds; you are truly a spirit. Freaky! But wait, there’s more. Open the medicine cabinet and you find the pillboxes and amber prescription bottles filled with gum. In heaven, you will never, ever see anyone dear to you standing at the sink, gulping down pills. Imagine the beauty of a world without illness or death, a world without end, amen.
Though you spend eternity with family and friends, and should, theoretically, be 100 percent jubilant at all times, you aren’t, of course. And thank goodness. Who wouldn’t miss the occasional gloomy day, family fight, or harmless snide comment? No, you retain your human girlhood spirit, and so you sometimes lie in bed on snowy winter days, mysteriously sad, listening to the thunder and clutching at your pillows.
“Mom,” you call down through the heat register, “is that really thunder?”
“Yes,” she yells up from the kitchen, “thunder-snow.”
Thunder-snow. You whisper the word to yourself over and over in your darkened celestial bedroom. Because in heaven you are still you; you are not suddenly transformed into a ceaselessly happy moron, like some contestant on Bible Boys and Gospel Girls. (Even in heaven we laugh at that show.)
But I see Sister Edith is bidding you farewell and the credits are rolling in all their cheap glory. Man! So much for doing well on your quiz tomorrow. You girls must think I’m a real throwback — Grandma Agnes! — to have wasted so much time talking about boys, but I was really gearing up to say that it’s far, far more important to be kind to each other. Duh. Never forsake kindness for cleverness. Keep love and forgiveness in your hearts, and guard against the poison of vengeful thoughts. (Personally, I was never able to resist voodoo dolls. But careful, careful: the power of the human hex is abundant.) Sure, you want to win the Westinghouse Science Award or be class valedictorian, but don’t complain about each other to gain favor with the nuns: in heaven, there are no ass-kissers.
And now you girls are off to eat lunch. Oh, I miss you already. I do! My days as a flesh-and-blood girl were too few. I’ll be no more than a curious memory by the time three o’clock rolls around and you climb on the school bus, where you’ll sit quietly reading the collected works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or sneak a cigarette, or be shot by a wandering psychopath, or have the Virgin Mary appear etched in the frost of your window. Heaven is constant, but life on earth is bewilderment, pure innocence, for who among you knows the future?
Well, enjoy your pork burgers, green beans almondine, tater tots, and frosted brownies. Watch the girl next to you as she eats, the long muscles contracting in her arms as she brings the pork burger to her mouth, the fingers that flutter and snap as she tells a story: “So I told him —” snap! — “to get, like, seriously lost.” Watch her pliable neck as she flips her head forward in a violent seizure of laughter, the ends of her hair sweeping through the brownie’s frosting. Watch all your friends laughing and talking. Their bodies, those glorious, fallible machines, are at their well-oiled and fleeting best: no brittle bones or clogged arteries, no failed kidneys, crow’s-feet, or fading eyesight. Fat or thin, stumpy or tall, take joy in your earthly bodies!
And remember: kindness is providence. One girl doesn’t talk much at lunch, doesn’t touch her food. Her green beans almondine congeal; her pork burger cools. Her particular drama or sadness remains a mystery, but you recognize the mood. As she rises to return her lunch tray, grab her arm and yank her back down in her chair. Tell her it’s ten whole minutes till lunch is over. Tell her she shouldn’t have skipped vocal music — Sister Jean Ann explained how to sing out of your diaphragm. Point to the pack of Camels and the Hershey’s Kisses scattered in the cavity of your backpack. Explain your theory that a fifth major food group — nicotine and chocolate — is essential for the health and well-being of growing girls.
When she pleads, “The library — I have tons of studying to do,” hold her hand in yours and say: “No! Please stay.”
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. See ya.