In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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This bed is comfortable. It’s a narrow twin in St. Dominic’s Priory near Hampstead Heath in northern London. When I come to this bed I’m always jet-lagged, having arrived from Heathrow not long before and been met in the terminal by Vivian, who is my oldest friend and also a Catholic priest. I dream of this bed on the red-eye over the Atlantic from New York, during the truncated traveler’s night I spend crammed half sideways into a British Airways window seat, trying to stay warm as ice crystals form on the inky window next to my head. So I am stiff-necked, bleary, and longing only for a nap when I am spat off the plane into the high tide of 9 A.M. London life, and there to greet me is Vivian, a silver-haired, handsome Irishman, bright eyed and ready to do something touristy that he’s too cool to do on his own. We stroll through the shrubbery maze at Hampton Court Gardens or ride the London Eye Ferris wheel in the balmy June weather, and as we lift and lower slowly over the Thames, I think of how much I would like to be lying in the bed I caught a glimpse of as I dropped off my green rucksack at the priory. Sometimes Vivian lets me take a brief nap before heading off into the summer fray, and I, vibrating like a struck bell from tiredness, wish only to burrow deeper into its white sheets — so tautly made up by the housekeepers who care for the men of the priory — and lie swaddled, and sleep on.
The priory thrums with the absence of sex. Its three guest rooms are on the upper floors, intermingled with the rooms of the priests who live here. The most common guests are priests from other houses, in London on church business from Toronto or Lagos or Prague. Women ascend these stairs all the time to vacuum or lay out fresh linen, but this is not a house where people menstruate or hang panties to dry on the shower rod. Women don’t breathe the night air here — except for me. I am subtly conscious, even walking fully clothed down the hushed side stairs to the dining room, of my aberrancy, my softer tread, my different undergarments. So I keep it buttoned. (I was well brought up.) When I join the priests in the common room after dinner, I domesticate myself by knitting socks, seated among these men, who chat kindly with me over their cocktails or simply peer at me and then return their eyes to their London Times or the television screen. It is an odd photonegative of the way Vivian must have felt at the time we first met, when he was chaplain for a term at my all-female high school in Trinidad: surrounded every Tuesday by identically dressed adolescent girls, shy and sly in the way girls are and just beginning to taste the might and peril of womanhood; lining up with our eyes closed and tongues slightly extended for his placement of the Host at Mass; sitting in a circle at his feet, gray box-pleated skirts pulled carefully over knees, listening to him discourse on Jesus’s love. He was twenty-eight, seven years younger than I am now.
Vivian and I maintained a friendship by mail for years after he’d left Trinidad. I’ve visited him in London three times, and on this trip, as on previous ones, I stay at his home, the priory, a tawny-bricked Gothic building that abuts the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. The first floor is public space, with black and rust-colored marble tiles in the front cloister, wide oak doors with iron handles, and labeled hooks outside the vestry where the residents hang their identical black capes after Mass. The priory library is upstairs, but most of the other upstairs rooms are bedrooms, and the quiet hallways and stairwells between them display small paintings of the Madonna and Child and of Saint Dominic himself, founder of the order. I am housed on the third floor. Here I take showers at night in the bathroom down the hall after all the priests have gone to bed, and once clean creep to my room wrapped in my damp towel, hugging the walls and feeling the spiky fibers of the maroon carpet against my bare feet. My room has a casement window overlooking the front garden with its statue of Mary; a little porcelain sink where I brush my teeth; and flowered curtains probably sewn by one of the housekeepers, women who chastely wive the men of St. Dominic’s. There is an entire caste of such women, good Catholic girls grown up or old who, married or no, never entirely untangle themselves from the passion-freighted allure of celibate men. They iron for the priests, wash their vestments and their boxer shorts, put a roast in the oven on Sunday, make sure there’s milk in the fridge. They wear pinafore aprons with yellow rickrack around the edges, shapeless tweed skirts or baggy jeans, and flat rubber-soled shoes. They can be a whole world of women to these men, because sex doesn’t intrude. It may slither greenly around the edges of quotidian life (how could it not?), it may shimmer at the corner of the eye, but it is never looked at directly. In its place there is dailiness and peace.
Priests have always been the men in my life. I was raised with their hands laid on my head in benediction. I could easily become one of these women. But I am not. When I am here at the priory, I have no apron to shield me and anchor me in place. I am a vagabond, a refugee from the floating world outside, where sex lies coiled. The housekeepers are sturdily unsexy — but then, they don’t have to be sexy. They have standing. I am a guest, glossy and flimsy and as liable to tear as a paper doll. I am a passing breeze in the cloister, stirring the hair at the nape and then gone. So I smile at these women when I come down to breakfast. I cross my ankles decorously at the table, as I was taught as a girl. I eat my toast and marmalade, drink my instant coffee with milk and sugar. I go back upstairs and try to make my bed as tautly as I found it.
This bed is charming. It’s in Ardconnel House, a bed-and-breakfast in Inverness, Scotland, where I’ve rented a room for two days before I head to Skye and then the Isle of Harris, my ultimate destination on this trip. I chose Ardconnel, a four-star B & B, because frankly I’m over thirty, and, despite my budget-mindedness, the bloom is off the rose of grubby, youth-hostel life. I want sparkling sheets and immaculate grout in the bathrooms. My room is small and pale blue, with a window alcove that looks over the slate roofs on the east side of the River Ness. There is a little table near this window with a lace cloth on it, and a tray with a tiny electric kettle, tea bags, orange packets of Sanka, little paper tubes of sugar, and a plastic-wrapped package of sweet vanilla biscuits with cream centers. The bed is a twin with a dark green-and-blue-plaid blanket tucked round its edges and lace-hemmed white sheets at its collar, just below the pillow. Made up, it looks like a spinster schoolteacher.
The main difference between this bed and the one at the priory, which I left yesterday morning, is that Rob is asleep in this one, having dozed off with his brown hair across his face while I was in the shower. I met him last night at the Market, a poky little bar off Church Street, up a flight of steep, pitchy stairs from another poky little bar. I don’t quite know how this happened. Or I do know, in that I remember kissing him on some gossamer pretext as we sat side by side on bar stools listening to Billy Morrison, a guitar player from Glasgow. The place was crowded, the glowing faces turned toward Billy like sunflowers as he played “High and Dry” and “Desperado” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” lilting, corny songs we all should have known better than to like. Rob and I went down into the street together after the bar closed, taking turns walking backward in that swinging, tipsy lovers’ dance, so we could always be looking at each other. We kissed at Ardconnel’s gate as if it were my home, and then I took his hand, and I led him in.
This is a delirious, barefooted whim. This is not the act of the good priory guest of two nights ago. I have always been a woman as solid in modest virtues as a Girl Scout, who carries extra safety pins and ibuprofen and tissues for whoever should need them on the subway or in the restaurant or on the street. I can pack one carry-on bag for a three-week trip overseas. My rucksack is Swedish-army issue, shapeless and indestructible, bought some twelve years ago for eighteen bucks at Kaufman’s Army and Navy. It contains a thick cherry red sweater that I knitted, my old fleece jacket, my green notebook, two pairs of walking shoes, and small gifts for my hosts on the Isle of Harris. This is not the kit of a glistening seducer, or of a dewy seducee, a woman looking for trouble. But something’s come over me. It’s Dimanche Gras, as we say in Trinidad: Carnival Sunday. This weekend the streets in my homeland are boiling with music, and everything shimmers in fuchsia and copper and gold, and even the waists of the Catholic girls call out to be gripped tight in strong arms and moved in rhythm. Nothing is buttoned, nothing careful. It’s Carnival, and Lent will never come, and I am loose in the world outside the priory walls, childish and grown at the same time, entranced by the colors and loamy with the body’s satisfaction. My bed is green.
I turn off the lamp and ease myself into the hand’s-breadth space between Rob and the wall. In the dark he places my fingers on the supple frets of his ribs, showing me simple chord changes. He murmurs throaty Gaelic into my ear, and I rub his stomach as if he were a sleepy child. We fold against each other like the pages of a letter. He tells me stories of river otters and Highland battles, but in the middle he starts to ebb into sleep, and I watch the weightless cage of his lashes lower shut against his cheek.
On the Isle of Harris I am always the child, and I sleep in the downstairs twin bed as befits a child. This cottage belongs to Margaret and Donald, a couple in their sixties. Donald, a gentle lifelong resident of these islands with fierce gray eyebrows, is retired from doing maintenance on the local municipal buildings, and Margaret teaches a natural-wool-dyeing class that I took when I first came here two years ago. This time I’ve been invited back as a guest and helper, so I help make butterscotch and fish pie from scratch, do dishes, brew gallons of tea. The other three guests here are also older: Mary and Maeve, who are taking the dyeing course, and Mary’s husband, Neil, a starchy retired English-army officer who puts an apple in his pocket and goes off hill-walking every morning, well out of the way of the bustling hens. Here, among these people, I am the good granddaughter. I am polite, funny, solicitous. I visit with the several widowed ladies who live nearby, run back up the little hill to our cottage to fetch a forgotten camera, help Donald stack this year’s peat turfs in pyramids to dry for the coming winter’s fires.
It could be that I sleep in the downstairs bedroom because I am here alone — the upstairs bedrooms are meant to accommodate more than one — but Maeve is also here alone and sleeps upstairs. I don’t mind. The land slopes up from the base of my bedroom window to the hill beyond the house, and the high grass outside filters the lambent summer twilight to give the room a pleasantly turbid, underwater feel. My bed is pushed against the wall opposite the window and lies under a down comforter with a pale lavender cover. My clothes gangle over the peach-colored armchair, and my rucksack slumps open-mouthed next to it. There are round white doilies under the two little lamps, one on the desk, one on the round-topped table next to the bed.
I have trained all my life to be this good granddaughter. I lived with my own grandmother until I was seven, while my parents were overseas, and I absorbed the life of older people, the smells of Yardley’s English Lavender soap and bay rum, the large squarish bottles of cod-liver oil and iron tonic waiting to dose you, the images of grave saints on the walls, the hush in the breezy house while they nap or pray. Effortlessly I can tell what they want. I’m good at tiptoeing, at bowing my head, at listening to stories told at a prewar pace. Universal affection comes my way on this trip because of my skills, and Maeve and Neil and Mary beam at me across the breakfast table in the mornings.
But on this trip I have another self, and she worries me like a bone so that I have no peace. I am not simply the good child in the crisp Easter dress, showing her manners. Now there is also Rob back in Inverness. I call him on his staticky cellphone from the pay phone down the road, and we talk of missing each other, put out tentative feelers toward seeing one another again. I venture: would he like to meet up again if I came back to Inverness a few days early? He says yes. When I hang up the phone, my body is ingot bright with remembered pleasure, and my mind is already formulating an acceptable lie to tell my hosts. It’s also retying the knots in the scourge, swinging a few practice strokes in the air.
Late at night I sit on the hearth rug by the peat fire after everyone has gone up to sleep, fresh from the shower in an old cotton shirt that I use as a travel robe, notebook and pen at my bare feet. I’m thinking of the two nights spent next to Rob, my nose cradled into the hot smell of his shoulder. He’d called me “Rose” — because, he said, I blushed when I kissed him.
But of course it’s not that simple. This is where the scourge makes itself felt. I’m also the guilty teenager, putting on the schoolgirl face of virtue while plotting how to shinny down the drainpipe to the car waiting below and the yawning, musky night. The next day I torment myself over what to do as I collect dye plants, as I take photos of the glinting tide pools on the west side of the island, as I lie between the cool sheets and let them milk the warmth from my skin, awaiting sleep.
Finally I do it: I make up some anemic little lie to tell Margaret and Donald, and then I tell it. They are disappointed but sweet and say they will miss me. I cannot look at my face in the mirror. Sex is all over me, sliding like new-pressed oil into my pores, dripping into my ready ears, calling me back east from Eden, to the mainland. I want to stay, to seal myself from it and be this good person I’m so good at being. I also want to roam, to peel off my skin, spread it wide like a cape, and roll in the green-gold liquid of it. My head is splitting. I, who seldom cry in front of anyone, sob passionately in Donald’s arms at the ferry and say that I don’t want to leave, which is the utter truth. He says, There, there, dear, in his soft Harris accent. He says, Don’t take on so. It’ll be all right.
You’ve made your bed, I think. And now here you are.
Ardconnel House is full when I get back to Inverness, so I take a room a few blocks away at the Ryeford. Rob and I had arranged to meet in the town square when I got back, but he isn’t here, hasn’t come, though I’ve stayed over an hour. I sit waiting in my blue fleece on a backless wooden bench facing city hall, watching the buses pull up and leave and the top-heavy pigeons teeter around my ankles, and with every minute that passes I can feel another bright spangle flake from my skin and fall with a thin sound to the pavement. I don’t know how to find him, know nothing about him, really, but that one sequence of numbers. The sun sinks behind the gray stone buildings, and this side of the world cools. I grow cold and stiff with disappointment, with confusion and baffled, congealed desire. And anger. I want the anger to be aimed at him, but in the absence of any certain information I find it comes more naturally to be angry with myself, to be punishingly furious with myself, who left the safe enclosure of the priory, who lied, who let herself want, who deserves no better. My most grievous fault, go the words of the confiteor, and you strike your own breast with your fist as you say it.
Eventually I get up, try him again from the call box on the corner, hear again British Telecom’s crisply ambiguous “out-of-service-area” message. I walk back to the Ryeford, looking over my shoulder even after I round the corner and despise myself for doing it, sheltering my hands against the wind in the worn cuffs of my jacket.
The bed in this room is a double, unlike the others. It has a white-painted iron frame and a coverlet printed with large flowers in shades of orange and gold. The coverlet makes the room seem cheerful but a little fevered, the opposite of the peaceful blues of the room at Ardconnel. The hallways at the Ryeford are covered in dark wallpaper scattered with tiny bunches of pansies. The hall carpets bear a vague dahlia pattern on a pine green background. I open my door, stare at all these flowers, pass my eyes over the surface of my expansive bed to the packet of biscuits with cream centers on the little table by the window, next to the electric teakettle. It’s four days till my flight back to London. I have to spend four days here.
I need to find a Catholic church. I pull on my shoes and lock my room, venture out to the cobbled street, seek out any steeple I can see against the skyline and track it. I go steeple to steeple across Inverness, from Church of Scotland to Free Church of Scotland to Lutheran to Episcopal to Methodist. I find a Mormon temple. I find a Kingdom Hall. I feel raw and orphaned and turned out-of-doors. I haven’t eaten in hours.
Finally on the western bank of the Ness I see the words Roman Catholic next to a pair of bright blue painted doors, and I stumble in, get to my knees. Mass is just ending — I am too late to receive the Host. I hunch awkwardly on the last hard wooden pew and begin simply, openly crying. My face is slick with viscous tears, but I can’t stop. I’ve taken off my glasses so the tears don’t leave a rime of salt on the lenses; the altar candles shine through hazily like sequins. The scourge whistles and sings through the air behind me. The skin is flayed from my body, and ashes are smeared into the wounds.
A nun — a small, older woman in a pale blue blouse and wimple — hesitantly touches my shoulder and asks if I am all right. To her this display no doubt seems an excess of religious devotion. She needs to lock up the church, but she peers at me kindly and doesn’t ask me to leave right away. What can I tell her? What nun would know how to comfort you if this were the story you relayed? I can only snuffle at her, smudge at my cheeks with my sleeve. By now everyone in Scotland has seen me weep. The nun’s name is Winifred; she opens a side door and lets me out into the weak sunlight, presses my hand.
Tonight I will sleep hard and soundly in my tawny room, in my roomy, empty bed. Tomorrow, and the day after that, I will search, will wander the stony, gull-tossed streets inside an aria of my own composing. My heart, loosed from its usual careful tethers, will roar and ramp, will tear off bits of itself and feed. In my searching I will stop in to try the telephone again at a hotel where a Scottish folk band is playing. I’ll get a glass of orange juice from the bar, sit down to listen. The fiddle player will notice me whispering along to “City of New Orleans,” too decorous to start crying again, here among the families out to hear a little music on a Sunday afternoon. He will ask me to join them. And I, here in the wilderness, will open my mouth, will parch and exhaust myself with singing.
This essay previously appeared in the journal So to Speak.