The convent was pea green inside and out, with jutting aluminum awnings and tall brown oak doors. Fruitless orange trees lined the entrance. Sister Donna trekked the six of us, four girls, two boys, past the pruney gray-haired woman in the front office. She had sinewy hands and a smile too big for her face.
In the living room the older nuns played checkers or caught up on the soaps or drifted around in wheelchairs on the parquet floors. We were careful not to make eye contact with them, and we always said hello quietly enough for them not to hear. We didn’t want them to ask us to sing for them.
“Even Jodi has gotten fingered,” Mark whispered as we moved through the empty kitchen on our way past the sanctuary toward the pool where Sister Donna took us to swim every Friday after school. I slid my hands along the cold stainless steel countertop where Sister Donna made her breads: braided long and skinny, or stacked sweet buttery fortresses of snowballs.
“Shut up, Mark. Don’t be a dick,” Lucy said.
Lucy was the only friend I was allowed to spend the night with, but not on weeknights and never at my house. In her mom’s trailer on weekends, Lucy and I stayed up too late watching sci-fi movies, eating homemade Chex mix and reading our way through a box of her dead grandmother’s romance novels.
“It’s not my fault that Sarah’s the only one left,” Mark said, and then to Sister Mary Benedict passing near us, “Good afternoon, Sister.” She responded in the deaf voice we had all lost interest in imitating.
“I’m not the only one left,” I whispered. Mark and Lucy and I made up the second half of the line, and Jodi was right in front of us. “You’re an asshole, and you’re not going to make me feel bad just because I’m not a slut.”
My stomach gurgled and I felt a pinpoint pain in my abdomen. I hid a wince.
“Anyway, Jodi got fingered,” Mark said.
Jodi had breasts, but mostly because she was fat. Lucy and I liked Jodi because she had a nice house, she had an Atari and MTV, her older brother was cute, and her mom threw themed pool parties. Their pool had a slide and a waterfall.
Jodi also had a collection of toys that Lucy and I had always wanted: dolls with flashing earrings, plush animals that folded up into furry balls, little sparkly ponies, strawberry-scented action figures. Jodi wouldn’t let us play with them, but we pretended we didn’t care. I got back at her once by making her drink the juice from a bulk-size sweet-pickle jar during truth or dare.
I thought it unlikely she’d been fingered.
We circled the cool sanctuary, genuflected without grace near the altar, and dragged our hands around our fronts to make the sign of the cross.
“Also, I know who did it.” Mark was chubby, with spiky white-blond hair shaved close at the sides and a back full of giant freckles, but he was funny, and he and Lucy and I had been friends since kindergarten.
“It better not’ve been you.”
“It wasn’t. But so what if it was?”
The boys changed in the priest’s chamber, a dark wooden lounge that Father Paul rarely used because he had another, larger office in the main parish hall down the street next to our school, the only room of the church with air conditioning.
We changed in the stale reading room where the young Catholics recited their catechisms supervised by Sister Donna. We yanked the white Saint Anthony’s T-shirts over our heads and slid off the scratchy, polyester phys-ed shorts to reveal our modest navy swimsuits.
Sister Donna crumpled her whiskery brown face at Tara, whose blond chemical curls fell out of her shirt as she pulled it over her head. Her mother had the exact same hairstyle.
I didn’t want to get caught looking at Tara’s body, but I couldn’t help it. She took her bra off nonchalantly, like she was tired of wearing it. I had achy, swollen buds that didn’t necessitate more than a padded barrier under my shirt, and I peeled it off slowly, eyeing the other girls to make sure they didn’t see what I was hiding.
All the nuns knew that Brant had taken Tara out behind the church, propped her against the entrance to the bomb shelter and put his hand up her plaid skirt. And she had put hers in his stiff grey trousers. As a result Brant spent an entire social studies class kneeling on the terrazzo floor with his nose pressed against the blackboard for letting his hair grow past his collar, and Tara had to bang out all the erasers for using hairspray at school.
Sister Donna snatched our clothes from us, folded each article and placed them on the reading room couch. We watched to see where ours went, though we knew she would remember and hand us the right ones later. She picked up a stack of towels, called the boys out of the priest’s chamber, opened the door, and sent us out into the sun.
We dropped our loafers and socks next to Father Paul’s back stoop and hopped over hot pebbles through the sad grotto, careful not to bump the mildewy saints grounded in impatiens. The short path opened up into a bricked plot, with the Virgin Mary on the right, Jesus on the left, both tucked into caged caves of cement and angular rocks. Tall candles melted into glass jars and flimsy wildflowers, some with roots, congregated at their chipped pale feet. Mary gazed down at the wilted mess, while Jesus lifted his sad eyes toward the ceiling of his hut.
In the shade of the oaks and citrus trees surrounding the pool, Mark told Lucy and me that Brant had done it to a girl before so it was no big deal to him. He knew how to do it.
“Probably he did it to his sister,” I said. I hated his sister. She was in eighth grade and she did not have to be funny or slutty to get everyone to like her.
Mark said, “It was some girl from the Fox Cunt. A different girl than Tara.”
Mark and Lucy and I did not know what it was like to be a part of the Fox Hunt Club or what it was like to get dressed up and attend a Fox Hunt Ball because we were too poor to hunt foxes, but we did enjoy asking Tara and Brant why they were so interested in hunting balls.
“Tara popped her cherry riding a horse on a Fox Cunt,” Mark said.
Lucy said, “She popped it with her father there and he had to take her home. Everyone knew what had happened.” She pulled her long blond hair back into a ponytail. It was stringy from the humidity.
“You can only pop your cherry from something going inside you,” I said. “Maybe she’d had sex before with some other Fox Cunter.”
Jodi turned around. “Maybe she put a tampon in and popped it that way.”
“You can pop it in a lot of different ways, not just with penetration,” Mark said.
“Shut up.” I hated when he used words like that. I wondered if the boys had different body talks with Sister Roberta in the shed behind the science room than we had with Sister Patricia Anne in the bomb shelter.
“Actually,” Lucy said, “there really are a bunch of ways you can pop it.”
The nuns’ aboveground pool stood in a flocked clearing not far beyond the grotto, separated from the driving range by a single row of pines and palmettos. My father and Mark’s stood on just the other side, crushing empty beer cans and chipping balls into sloppily carved holes obscured by overgrown Saint Augustine grass. We spotted them but let them ignore us.
“My father doesn’t have to go back to work if he doesn’t want to,” Mark said, nodding toward the trees. “He hired a Mexican.”
We could hear the whooshing of golf clubs as they sliced through the air. My dad hit an empty beer can with his club, but it didn’t go far.
“Your dad just sits at the bar all day,” Lucy said.
Mark’s father owned the only freestanding bar in town. He bought it off a dead man named Smitty.
“He hired a Mexican to hold down the barstool?” I asked. “Isn’t that your dad’s only job?” I had heard my dad say this to Mark’s dad before.
“He owns the bar and sometimes he’s got to sit down,” Mark said. “Look at him right now, he’s hitting balls with your drunk asshole dad.”
Even though Mark’s dad and my dad were friends, I was not allowed to hang out with Mark or his family, even when they had parties, because my mom said his parents were drunks, which I thought was funny because I thought my parents were drunks.
Three young, pale postulants exited the pool reluctantly but without resentment, each stepping carefully down the ladder. At the bottom, they patted themselves dry around their dull black tanks and knee-length swim skirts. They whispered to each other and turned their backs on us to laugh. The shortest postulant, the one Lucy and I called “Tubs,” grabbed a pitcher of lemonade from behind the Jesus shrine and poured a glass for each of them. They acted like women, drowsy with sunshine.
These were not our nuns. We didn’t know their names, just that they were too young to be nuns and their hair was not short like a man’s, but Sister Donna left us to them when we came to swim. They never scolded us. They were there to make sure we didn’t drown. Sister Donna, limited by vertigo and swollen ankles, sat between Jesus and Mary , wearing her sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, watching the nuns who were supposed to be watching us.
“Watch Tara’s boobs,” Mark said.
We all watched as she climbed the pool ladder first. She had a dash of cleavage and her bathing suit was stretched high on her hips.We were not allowed to follow each other into the pool too closely, so we stood back. Since kindergarten we’d been maintaining “angel space” between ourselves and the next person. The angels got smaller as we got older.
Brant followed her in. He sat at the top of the ladder for a second before making a feet-first plunge to the bottom. He popped up half-way across the pool, right behind Tara.
Brant was cute in an old-money kind of way. He was shorter than everyone else, and his incisors twisted out too far, making his smile boxy, but he wore a gold necklace and had three straight lines shaved into his hair from his temples to his ears. It balanced him out.
Lucy and I stood alone at the bottom of the ladder, last in line.
“Do you think Sister Donna swims out here?” I asked.
“I doubt it. I can’t imagine seeing her legs or even her arms.”
“Her body must be a totally different color than her face.”
“Do you think she even wants to swim? I can’t imagine her even thinking of herself that way.”
“Into the pool, ladies,” one postulant ordered. She had a tall, fleshy space between her nose and her upper lip where a mustache would sit nicely on a man.
We fumbled into the pool without fanfare. Sister Donna yelled for us to behave. Behaving had a sound and that sound was silence. If she couldn’t hear us, she didn’t bother us.
Jodi bobbed in front of us, her vaguely curly hair held loosely in a pink banana clip. She wore chipped, powder-pink nail polish, even though nail polish was forbidden at our school. Jodi was so smiley and pleasant, she rarely got in trouble.
“How’s your brother, Jodi?” Lucy asked. Whenever we asked about Jodi’s brother, Mark got huffy. He took the Lord’s name in vain under his breath and drifted to the wall of the pool, where he put his elbows up on the ledge. His flabby biceps looked like peeled cucumbers.
“Jodi,” I said, “Mark says you already got fingered.”
“Why is he saying that?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Mark has a big mouth.”
“So it’s true?” Lucy asked.
“If I did, I wouldn’t go around talking about it, that’s for sure.”
I imagined Jodi’s cute brother having his friends over and one of them taking an interest in Jodi’s boobs. But then I remembered the purple dollhouse she still had set up in her room, and the pile of stuffed bears and rabbits on her bed pillows.
Mark looked at the place on his wrist where a watch would be. We weren’t allowed to wear watches. “We need to keep a lookout,” Mark whispered loudly.
“For what?” Jodi asked.
Mark said, “Brant told me to tell you guys to keep a lookout. If you want to know why, go ask him.”
The opportunity to ask Brant had passed. He had Tara pressed against the woody veneer of the pool, and together they slid down below the rim. From the ground, you couldn’t see them.
Mark sent Jodi and me to the side of the pool where we could keep an eye on the postulants, and Mark and Lucy kept an eye on Sister Donna, perched between the shrines.
The postulants weren’t watching us. Sister Tubbs was pulling weeds out from under the azaleas, while the other two stood in the shade, sipping their drinks, casually filling in armadillo holes by sweeping their slim feet from side to side and tamping down the dirt. The space between us, the whir of the pool’s motor, and the distant zoom, clatter, and clunk of the occasional prop plane landing at the community air strip made it hard to eavesdrop.
“We shouldn’t be keeping a lookout for them,” Jodi said. “This is stupid.”
I’d rarely been alone with Jodi for long, and I wasn’t sure what we’d talk about.
“It’ll be over soon, and then we can swim or something.”
“Well how how long does this take?”
We only had 20 minutes in the pool, and neither of us wanted to waste it on guarding for Tara and Brant.
I grabbed the rim of the pool and let my nose skim against the surface of the water while I wove my legs through the warm water without making a splash. Above me, Jodi sat slumped on top of the metal pool ladder looking boldly over our classmates to the driving range 50 feet away. Including her breasts, she had three rolls of fat covering the front of her body.
“My mom is going to bring pizza to school for us on Friday.”
Jodi’s mom always brought pizza to school for us on Fridays—one pepperoni, one plain—except during Lent, though Lent didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t Catholic. My parents weren’t Catholic either. I didn’t even know if they believed in God. They said they just wanted to keep me out of the school that all the farmers’ kids attended.
“Maybe we can get her to bring sodas.”
“That’d be cool.”
With my mouth against the water, my voice was louder to me than it was to Jodi.
I turned my head to look at her. “I said ‘That’d be cool.'”
“We should tell on what’s happening over there,” she said.
“Tara and Brant and them.”
I flipped over and kicked my legs in front of me. It was hard to see where Mark’s hands were, but Lucy’s bathing suit straps were not on her shoulders. Lucy watched Tara, whose straps were down too, and, though she tried to keep her hair out of the water, the tips of her curls relaxed as they dipped below the surface.
Mark sank underwater and I could see that he was pushing his face into Lucy’s belly and holding her nipples in his fingers. I pressed my hands against my chest, thinking how a pinch like that would hurt. But maybe Lucy’s chest didn’t ache as badly as mine anymore.
Mark slithered up Lucy’s torso and buried his face in her neck where it met the waterline. She puckered her lips but they met only air. From 25 feet away, she didn’t notice us watching. Mark’s freckled back faced us and the sun.
“We should get out,” I said. “I think I’m burning.”
“Yeah me too,”Jodi said. She created and aimed a splash with her arm aimed at Lucy. It fell short.
Neither of us moved.
Lucy wasn’t smiling. Head tilted back, she was looking at the sky with her eyes closed. I wondered if Mark was moving his hand between her legs and how deep he could go if his finger was inside her. Iwondered if all of us girls had the same depth and if boys could get all the way to the bottom of us with just their fingers, and if it hurt, and if it did hurt why we’d enjoy it.
I felt a warmth between my legs, unlike the warmth of peeing in a pool. I flexed my buttocks to contain it, and felt the water rush up between my thighs. As I relaxed, the water rushed out. I did this a few times, until I realized the water was inside me. I stood up on the ladder and shuddered.
“There’s something gross.” Jodi said. “Your leg.” She still sat on the pool ladder.
I looked down at the water around me. “There isn’t anything.”
“Like, on you,” she whispered. “Look. Gross.”
I expected to see a water bug or a chunk of soggy, yellow oak pollen stuck to my suit, but there were red, webbed tendrils pasted on my thighs. I hoped I hadn’t popped my cherry.
“Should I get one of the postulants?”
“Should I get Sister Donna?”
“I’ll get you a towel.”
I lowered myself back in to waist-deep and looked down at my legs. Even in the water, the thick, thready webs stuck to my thighs. A fiery clot broke loose from one of the clumps and was floating toward the surface.
I stayed put, afraid that my movements would encourage the clots to rise to the surface. I thought of Tara’s bloody saddle and stained breeches, imagined her father carrying her indoors. I looked to the pines. Our fathers were gone.
“Sister Donna’s coming,” I announced.
“Did Jodi tell?” Mark asked.
“I don’t know.” I moved along the perimeter of the pool, side-stroking to see if I left a trail.
“I thought you guys were supposed to be keeping watch,” Mike said.
“We were. That’s why I’m telling you.”
“Time already,” the tall postulant said as everyone but me clambered down the ladder. She was pretty, but with a plain face and unkempt eyebrows, she already looked like a nun. Her swimsuit was dry, and she hadn’t bothered to untuck her hair from her swim cap.
Jodi headed toward Sister Donna.
The plain-looking postulant asked me if I was going to get out.
“I didn’t really get a chance to swim, so I’m going to stay in for a while, if that’s OK.”
“What have you been doing in there, then?”
“I don’t know.”
I swam away from her, proving that I did want to swim. I swam in circles and slow strokes.
“What is she doing in there?” Sister Donna asked.
“She said she wants to swim.”
“Climb up and get her out of there. Tell her I have her towel.”
The postulant stood high enough on the pool ladder that I could see her hips. I wondered where she was from and if she had real sisters, and if they were nuns too.
“Sister Donna wants you to get out of the pool.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Right now I’m Nancy, but soon I’ll be Sister Mary Bernadette. Sister Donna wants you.”
“Why do you have to change your name?” I swam over to the edge of the pool. Tara and Jodi were talking to Mark and Brant. Lucy looked back at me. Her face was blank.
“Because it marks the change from a regular person into a nun. We pick a saint we want to be like, our favorite saint, and we start a new life, and the Mary part is for the Virgin Mary.”
“So what was Sister Donna’s name before?”
“I don’t know. Is there a reason you won’t come out of this pool?”
I swam to the ladder where Nancy waited. I whispered, “I’m bleeding. Everyone’s going to know.”
“Well, you have to come out of there. Sister Donna has your towel. The longer you stay in, the more suspicious it looks.” Nancy started to climb down the ladder.
I swam to the other side of the pool to look at the postulants. “I can’t come out yet. What about Father Paul? What was his name?”
“His name was Paul. Priests keep their names. Let’s get out before Sister Donna gets aggravated.”
“I can’t until everyone else is inside.”
“I don’t see why you can’t keep your name.”
“This is how it’s been done since the Old Testament. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul, and illuminated women added h’s to their names; it’s just the way it is. Now we have to get you out of here.” She looked down into the water around me. “I don’t even see anything.”
“What do you have to do to get illuminated?”
“Well, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. That’s how.”
“But you aren’t ever going to have kids.”
“Look, you’re have to get out.” She gripped the ladder. Her knuckles turned white and red.
I sat low on the stairs with my back to everyone and flipped the crotch of my bathing suit inside out, studying the little white rectangle of fabric inside. It was clean. I squeegeed my thighs with my hands and turned to climb down the ladder.
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