Sister Catherine looked at the woman who sat in the first row of the empty classroom and said, “Thank you for coming in today, Roanne. I’m very concerned about your daughter, Patrice.”
Roanne Avila sat and thought she heard her days at St. Dominique’s whisper from the wood and metal of the desk. She looked up, her caution forgotten among the memories and a wave of her obviously new hairstyle fell to the side of her face. The nun tensed at the brief appearance of a smudge of reddish-orange at the corner of her former student’s eye, an un-noticed stutter in the application of make-up.
Sister Catherine frowned, more to herself than at the young women, who seemed, like so many students at the end of the school year, to be off somewhere in a daydream. Her elementary school years were spent in a very different environment, one unknown to most, even those who thought they knew her well. Among the parents of the children she taught down through the years, very few would have the suicidal daring to ask about her childhood. As a matter of little-known fact, Sister Catherine’s childhood was spent in an orphanage, an institution with the unlikely name, ‘the Miami Children Center,’ only in part unusual, for being in Ohio. She knew all too well the palette of abuse, the colors of shame and secret pain, stepped around her desk and crouched next to the young woman, who tried to turn her head away.
“Roanne, look at me.” Her tone, while not one of a person only hoping to be obeyed, held a barely noticeable tremor of concern. She reached across with thin, graceful fingers, a plain gold band the sole touch of color and held the younger woman’s chin. The nun’s touch was far more gentle than the wire-rimmed glasses and bleached white wimple framing her face would ever suggest; she turned the woman’s head slightly.
“My husband Roger works so hard at the casino providing for me and the kids. He really is a good man. But sometimes I get so scared when we get the letters and the phone calls from the bank, and I take it out on him. I shouldn’t complain so much. It’s my fault he hit me.” The young woman’s voice held more emotions than a single sentence should be able to contain.
Sister Catherine’s touch grew stronger while remaining gentle, as might a mother, holding close a child, against a sudden onslaught of cold wind. The softness of the touch of her hand was far and away offset by the fire in her eyes. The power of a childless mother radiated through every fiber of her being and, leaning in towards the young woman, said in a whispered shout, “You must never say that. You are entitled to live your life without being hurt by another just because they want someone else to feel as badly as they do.”
A little more than halfway through her novitiate, Sister Margaret Ryan was almost comfortable in her new life at St Dominique’s. She loved the ordered, (and orderly), life of prayer and service offered those women willing to work hard, (on themselves), and sacrifice, (for the benefit of others); of this, there was no question. There remained within the twenty-four-year-old woman, somewhere between her heart and her mind, a disquiet. It was a subtle and easily over-looked element in her life, more, really, a matter of shadows and echoes rather than granite blocks. This reservation showed itself in effect, rather than being directly observable; she exhibited a subtle tendency to veer, from time to time, away from the path, the path to a life of peace and quiet contentment.
This disquiet within Margaret Ryan was really about instincts. As some people do, she possessed abilities and skills, appropriate to a life very different from the one she now hoped to lead. Sister Margaret’s disquiet grew from the fact that her life in the convent did not require, value, or, if the truth be told, tolerate some of the instincts that made her who she truly was.
Consider a young, healthy cheetah who lives in a zoo. Better, make that a wildlife habitat, since the archaic diversion of displaying wild animals in cages, in the name of culture, is mercifully, a vanishing artifact in most modern cities. The animal is cared for and perhaps even loved, by those who work in this artificial world. The fenced-in environment offers all the comforts of the cat’s natural habitat, minus the threat of disease, starvation, neglect or (more powerful) predators. The young and healthy cheetah does not, technically, need claws, teeth and the ability to sprint at 75 mph.
Margaret Ryan was capable of sprinting at 75 mph. Sister Margaret Ryan taught the 3rd grade.
I left my classroom and walked down the corridor just after 3:30. I preferred to stay after school to correct tests and work on my lesson plans, rather than work in my room in the convent. As silly as it might sound, I enjoyed being able to answer the inquires about being in the school, well after classes have ended with, “Correcting tests! I do that in my classroom after the children go home.” I liked the part about ‘in my classroom’.
Not that too many of the other nuns ask. It’s a small convent, and everyone already knows how I spend my days. Even my early morning runs, I fear, are becoming something of a secret pleasure for some of the younger nuns. Including, apparently, Sister Cletus, who despite being the oldest woman at St. Dominique’s has an endless capacity to startle me. Just last week, as I washed the breakfast dishes, she stepped up behind me in the kitchen and said, “Slipping a little on the first third? Remember the old runners saying, “your muscles take you out, but your heart brings you home.” I knew better than to ask how she would know about my times.
St. Dominique’s School was laid out like a small letter ‘n’. The principle’s office, administration and the first two grades at the top, grades 3-8 along the two legs and the gymnasium/auditorium filling the space between. As I walked down the now quiet hall, I heard the hollow pneumatic pinging of a basketball, punctuated by the impatient squeaks of sneakers on wooden gym floors. From further within the late afternoon school, I heard singing. The young voices, their song starting and suddenly stopping, barely heard instructions met with laughter and the occasional groans; it was the gift of youth, enthusiasm standing in for skill; the result was the sound of joyful singing. Hearing them reminded me that the year-end student talent show was only a week away. Held during Graduation Week, the talent show was more celebration than competition, and I made a mental note to remind Sister Clare that we needed to work on our act. I’d originally suggested we sing Hall and Oates’ ‘Private Eyes’, but my roommate had her heart set on the Eurythmics. I liked her idea and believed I could sell the Reverend Mother, but held out little hope that Sister Catherine would approve. ‘Sargent Catherine’ as we sometimes called her, when we were alone in the laundry or working in the kitchen and in a silly mood.
I was almost to the main corridor that joined the two parallel wings of classrooms when I heard an odd sound. It was the dry-swishing sound of a blackboard eraser, but the rhythm was all wrong. As I approached Room 217, the sound grew louder. Opposite the open door of the fifth-grade classroom, I stood quietly and watched Sister Catherine erase the blackboard. The thing was, she erased it again and again, moving carefully from right to left. Holding the black felt eraser in her right hand, she swiped the black slate side-to-side and then up and down as high as she could reach, down to the carved wooden tray at the bottom. She erased the already very erased blackboard, one section at a time. When she reached the end closest to the door, she walked back to the far end and repeated the erasing.
I watched as she repeated this five times. Finally, Sister Catherine stopped and stood and stared through the windows out on to the empty schoolyard.
I walked into the room, sat at one of the desks and waited.
Drusilla Renaude stood in the doorway of her son’s bedroom and watched him sleep. A Dru-shaped shadow protected him from the flashes of movie explosions and news-cycle tragedies thrown soundless from the widescreen TV that dominated the adjacent living room.
Two night-lights came on automatically as she stepped away, her shadow reluctantly followed her out of the room. Turning for a final look, she left the door open a quarter of the way, per their agreement. “I promise I won’t look at the TV, but the light lets me know you’re still here, even when I’m asleep,” Dru experienced a remarkable mix of love and fear at the power of the feelings her son could create in her, especially, when he wasn’t even trying.
She walked through the high-ceilinged living room, pulled off one high-heeled shoe and then the other. The outdoors, now darker, her reflection accompanied her against the sepia backdrop of Chesapeake Bay. Holding her shoes in one hand, she turned to create a profile. The outline of a slender and graceful neck rising from an hourglass figure was replaced by the silhouette of a generously endowed woman, high forehead offset by a strongly aquiline nose. Dru reached with her free hand pinched her waist, smiled and opened the door to her office/gym.
Every home reflects its occupants. Whether a studio apartment in a suburb, a farmhouse in Kansas or a glass and steel contemporary on a hill overlooking the Chesapeake Bay; the person (or people) living within its four walls cause changes that reflect who they are, both consciously, (and deliberately), and unconsciously, (and inadvertently). Sometimes this alteration is barely noticeable, a folded-newspaper on a kitchen table, angry blue circles on the classified pages. Other times its fairly obvious: expensive living room furniture covered in custom slip covers, end tables with glass squares to protect the wood, a coffee table with precisely arranged, un-read magazines. All homes and most houses, from raised ranches to Georgian mansions, are secret diaries of their occupants.
Once she’d made the decision to get her son, Zacharia out of Baltimore, all that remained was scheduling. Drusilla Renaude knew that the contemporary on the hill, with its views of Chesapeake Bay was the house for the two of them, the moment she saw it.
Drusilla Renaude was successful in real estate because she defined the relationship between herself and her clients before ever stepping into a house. She listened very carefully and had a gift for getting the un-said things said. She knew that most buyers held back when asked what they were looking for in a house. Her clients invariably described her as a good listener and a very perceptive woman. The truth was simply that she got her clients to talk openly about what they hoped to find in a house. Dru always ended her first client meeting by informing them that she and they each had a job: once they had established a timetable, it was her job to find them houses that fit their needs and wants, and it was their job, as Buyers, to buy one of them.
Drusilla Renaude was successful, not because she sold houses. She was successful because her clients loved her and considered it their duty to tell everyone about how no other agent could do the job as well as Dru Renaude.
Just off the living room, was Dru’s workroom, her office/gym. Originally a first-floor master suite, it was nearly as large as the living room. It had a master bath, complete with sauna and dressing room. Two walls of the former bedroom were ceiling-to-floor glass. On one wall was a set of french doors leading out to a patio and on the other, sliders to a deck that extended across to the living room and overlooked the vast expanse of lawn.
Her office had a desk, two computers with assorted printers and other office technology. It also had an assortment of very elaborate exercise equipment. When Dru worked in her office, it was often difficult to tell where one activity started and the other ended.
Closing the door to the living room, she crossed to the dressing room, changed into shorts and a tee-shirt, got on the stationary bike and said, “Messages…email, phone.”
One of the several large displays mounted on the wall lit up with a list of recent emails. Her phone’s computer voice came from the built-in speakers, “You have six new messages.”
Drusilla Renaude started pedaling. The second half of her work day began.