Our Lady of Perpetual Help
The concrete walls of the College of Our Lady of Perpetual Help are painted bright yellow—to represent the light of Our Lady in Central America, the nuns like to say, but in reality to hide the urine stains inflicted daily by men, boys, and dogs. There is only one entrance, a narrow iron gate facing west to School Street. The only man who passes in and out of that gate is the delivery man, who comes three times a week, his donkey cart piled with rice and beans, bruised plantains, and whole skinned goats, bright red and glaring. He is no fool; as the girls unload the cart, one of the nuns standing by, he is cagey with his glances.
The men of the port town of Bayhook often make excuses to go along School Street and pass the convent gate. Through the iron bars they glimpse the pupils of Our Lady of Perpetual Help walking primly from the dormitory to the chapel for Sunday mass or, on hot spring afternoons, playing softball—wonder of wonders—in the dirt diamond maintained by the nuns. The school uniforms, boxy brown jumpers and stiff white blouses, leave almost everything to the imagination. Only the legs show: plump ones, skinny ones, bare from just below the knee to the folded white sock at the ankle.
Ranging from ages twelve to sixteen, the pupils are sweetly middle-class Bayhook girls, raised from birth in hat, gloves, and parasol to protect them from the ever-present sun, and thus as fair as is humanly achievable for children who are naturally olive skinned. You, on the other hand, are shamefully swarthy, a skinny ashen stick from one of those backwoods mining towns in the country’s festering interior. At the age of six, while playing soccer in the lane with the neighborhood gang, you followed a wayward ball into the doorway of a house where a group of women sat, sewing. “She’s a lovely child, isn’t she?” one said, stabbing her needle through the edge of a cloth napkin. When you caught her eye, your heart bursting with pride and love, she said, “Not you, you little black thing. Her.” She pointed with her lips at your paler older sister, Loretto, who sat in a rocking chair on the porch of your house, watching with haughty indifference as the other children scuffled in the dirt like animals. You exacted revenge, thoughtless and immediate, tackling Loretto from the porch and rolling with her in the dirt to ruin her white dress. A stout lady grabbed you by the wrist and shook you until your teeth rattled. That night, your rear smarting from a thorough spanking, you dreamed of tearing the white dress into pieces and stamping them into the dirt with your bare feet.
Behaving did not come easy; reading and writing and math, however, did. By sixth grade, a level of education most children in your village did not attain, you were the best student in your class. On the last day of school, the American missionaries made you stand on a few stacked pallets in the schoolyard. Mr. Fields, the skinny, middle-aged director, hung a medal around your neck and announced that you had won a scholarship to go to high school in Bayhook. The back of the medal was engraved with an inscrutable message: “Catholic Mission of Oconomowoc, Wis.” The name put you in mind of The Last of the Mohicans, your only comic book, which featured muscular men, red as devils, with shaved heads and loincloths. You showed the illustrations to Mr. Fields and asked if the people of Oconomowoc looked like that. He said no, because all the Mohicans had died out a long time ago. This made you sad at first, but then again Mr. Fields was so red himself that you thought he was lying about the whole thing. For a long time, you considered the scholarship a misguided gift from a noble and heroic people who wielded tomahawks and traded in wampum and furs.
Now you are thirteen, in the second year at Our Lady, and not any prettier. The nuns say the chronic indigestion you suffer from is due to your nasty temperament; within the walls of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, no worms could exist. From elbow to wrist, your arms are scabby from mosquito bites you can’t resist picking; pink scars pock your rib cage from a late bout of chicken pox last year that you barely survived, imagining through your worst fevers that an enormous cockroach was crouched on your chest, teasing your nose with its antennae.
The other girls are a little afraid of you because of your humble provenance, awful temper, and viciousness playing softball. When you tag out Graciela Diaz in the third inning, she complains loudly to Sister Matilda, the umpire: “That gorilla could grab you from halfway down the baseline.” Two innings later, when you’re pitching, you happen to throw the ball badly. Overhanded. At Graciela’s face. Her nose bleeds spectacularly and the nuns make you scrub the outhouse with ashes and lime. And still Mother Aberlina, whose flat yellow face seems to loom from every corner of the convent, calls you into her office before bedtime.
“Would you like to explain this?” she says. At first you think she’s referring to Graciela’s injury, but then she pushes a smudged white paper, folded in half, across the dark wood of the desk.
You keep your hands clasped in front of your stiff brown smock. “What is it?”
“Pick it up and look.”
The paper is heavy card stock. Gingerly, as if handling a sharp piece of tin, you unfold it. Printed neatly, with serifs on each letter like tiny thorns, the writer applying so much pressure they left grooves in the paper, are the words: “I’d die for that blackie girl with the long legs and the freckles.” You drop the note as if bitten.
“Well?” Mother Aberlina says. “What do you make of that?”
“Is it about me?”
“You’re the darkest one here, aren’t you?” She doesn’t mention the long legs. “Who wrote this?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never talked to anyone here.”
“Not even through the gate?”
“Sister Matilda watches us.”
“In the town, then?” Mother Aberlina says, even though she knows very well that you haven’t left the walls of the convent since the term started five months ago. Unlike the families of the other girls, your family is too poor and far away to take you out for ice cream at the Bayhook Hotel or to the tailor’s for a new dress. She continues, “I don’t care how you talked to him, as long as you never do it again.” Reaching under her desk for her bamboo rod, she orders you to face the wall. Completely without interest, as if she were pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, she hits the backs of your calves until the words of the letter—black, legs, freckled, die—buzz in your head. That night, instead of keeping your candle burning by your bed and studying your geometry book—you have a test in a few days and a reputation to uphold as the best student—you lie under the sheet in a fetal position, repeating the message to yourself again and again.
The next day, as the other girls chatter and shove past each other to get into the cafeteria for breakfast, Sister Matilda pulls you aside and hands you the outhouse shovel. From now until after lunch, you are to march around the perimeter of the convent. “And no pretending you’re sick,” she says. “I know your tricks.” As you settle the shovel onto your shoulder you hear Graciela say, “You see, she’s such a savage they make her eat outside like a dog.”
The backs of your legs aching, you patrol the walls, lingering for as long as possible under the sprawling buttonwood in the northeast corner, hurrying through patches of sun. The sea wind blows over the eastern wall, carrying the Caribbean’s fishy tang. The vegetable garden is brown and roiled, newly seeded for tomatoes, pear squash, and peppers; on the compost heap, the convent chickens, half of them speckled black-and-whites, fat and ill-tempered, the others brassy blond and smaller, scratch around in the dried palm branches for new maggots. On the avocado trees in the southeastern corner, the fruits, which will in a few weeks be fat and heavy in the hand, hang green and hard and stingy.
The sun blazes and disappears and blazes. Inside your thick brown smock and stiff white blouse, your skin pours sweat and gives off the embarrassing smell of dirt. Over the convent walls come the cries of women selling buttermilk, cornmeal rusks, patties, and milk sweets. Each has her own song, wild and beautiful like a bird’s cry, the phrasing and intonation shaking the words free of meaning.
Itching your foot against your leg, you feel the small wad of royals moving back and forth under your heel—Christmas money from Mr. Fields that you’ve been hoarding, terrified someone might steal it. You wonder if you could risk buying a patty, or maybe a milk sweet; you love the faint stink of cooked milk, the sweetness of the sugar.
What does he look like, the one who threw the note between the bars of the gate? Seventeen, bright black eyes. Black hair, parted deeply on one side, combed smartly but not brilliantined. Fair skinned. No, dark. Not as dark as you, but golden, yes, golden brown like a milk sweet, and handsome. The kind of boy who would never, not even if a knife were held to his throat, urinate on the convent walls.
The blackie girl, he’d written. No, the girl with long, long legs, the girl with the freckles. Loretto called them stains, as if they were dirt that could be rubbed off. But he said freckles. How close he must have been—he must have had his faced pressed up right to the gate.
You’re in front of the convent gate now, looking past the bars to the same narrow, muddy School Street you have seen a thousand times. On the other side, bordered by the high concrete sidewalk, there is Mary-Jane’s Sweets, a little green house with bars on the windows, and a stationery shop with a large beaded curtain in the doorway, depicting the Virgin in her blue robes. Her pink face ripples in the breeze. Outside the shop, an enormous old man, his white undershirt yellowed to the same color as his face, snoozes in his rocking chair, his hands folded over his paunch, navy blue work trousers hitched high up over his bony ankles. His head hangs back, gaping up at the sky.
The bars of the gate are thin and painted a bright, cheerful blue. Wrapping your fingers around the bars, you call, “Mister. Mister.”
The man jerks his head forward, his eyes hooded and black and suspicious. He scratches his ankles and says, “What are you staring at me for? Giving me the evil eye?”
“Please, mister. Is this your shop?”
“No, I just like to sleep here.” He slaps his hands on his jutting knees. “Of course I own this shop, you stupid girl.”
“Do you remember someone who was in your shop yesterday?”
“So many people come in and out.”
“A boy,” you pursue. “He was seventeen. He bought a piece of white card paper, thick. Maybe a pencil.”
The old man stares at you. “Perhaps. What do you care?”
“I want you to give him a letter from me. The next time he comes in your shop.” When he doesn’t respond, you add, “I’ll pay. I’ll buy a card.”
“Fine,” he says, and lowers himself into the street and crosses, cursing the mud that wells up around his plastic sandals. You dig in your sock for the folded bills and push them through the gate. He takes the money with a look of disgust, goes back to his shop, and comes back to the gate a second time. The card in his hand is bright yellow, like the walls of the convent, and you wish you could ask for a different color, but it’s too late. You glance behind you; the yard is clear, the nuns in their classrooms. You’ll have to beg someone for the day’s notes.
With a stub of pencil from the pocket of your smock, you write carefully, almost misspelling “Saturday”:
“Come next Saturday and tell the sisters that you’re my relative. You could say someone in the family is sick. We’re allowed to leave to visit family.”
You sign your full name, then add, “The long-legged girl who got your letter.”
You don’t have the heart to write “the blackie girl”—it was hard enough writing “long-legged.” You chew your pencil, and the man says, “I don’t have all day to wait for you to learn how to write.”
“I know how to write,” you snap and add quickly, at the bottom: “The thing I would like to do when you visit is go to the Bayhook Hotel and eat ice cream.” You fold the card, stuff it in the little envelope, lick it, and press it sealed. The man takes it through the bars of the gate.
“What about my change?” you say, once the card is in his hand. “I gave you five royals.”
“One for the card, one for the envelope, and three for the goddamn bother. Good-bye.”
Eyes burning, you watch the old man clamber up onto the high, uneven sidewalk and go into his store. Now you have no money left with which to buy ice cream when the boy takes you to the Bayhook Hotel. Well, he should pay, but you should have the money anyway. Otherwise you’ll be worse than a prostitute.
You eat your lunch of boiled green banana and greasy rice alone in a corner of the cafeteria. When you enter the classroom for study period, your blouse is soaked with sweat, and the other girls shift their desks away with little gasps of horror. Someone makes a gagging noise, and Sister Matilda, who usually naps at her desk while you study, claps her hands and says, “Enough. Get to work.”
The proofs in the geometry book are vague, meaningless, a series of printed letters marching to nowhere. The proof seems engraved on some piece of white limestone far away in Greece, where geometry comes from. You walk past the stone into an enormous garden where the flowers are laid out in symmetrical rows. A boy with neatly combed hair waits in front of a table piled with food.
“You have to wait till the second nun leaves. She hangs around the door,” someone whispers.
“Does she really hang around the door?”
“What do you know? You go to sleep right away. Trust me. We count to 100 first.”
“Hush,” says Sister Matilda drowsily.
“What are you talking about?” you say to Mimi, a short, shy girl with a premature widow’s hump. She is your biggest academic rival but, like an opponent in chess, respects you.
“None of your business, Gorilla,” says Graciela from a row back, her nose still purple and angry looking. “Nobody’s talking to you.” Then she adds, to the rest, “One hundred seconds. Better safe than sorry.”
Mimi glances furtively at you, then shakes her head. “You’ll see,” she says.
At dinner, you don’t feel hungry. Instead, you nibble your bread daintily, trying to elongate your neck and make your eyes gentle, because women in books always have long necks and gentle eyes. You chew on your ragged fingernails, trying to even them out. There’s a bad scab on your forearm in the shape of a triangle, and, wanting your skin to be smooth and perfect, you pick it, unearthing a little pink-and-white pocket with a dot of blood at its middle.
The girls file into the dormitory under the nuns’ watch. In the long room, the metal cots are crowded so close together that everyone must kneel at the foot of her bed to pray. The beds are so close that, drifting off to sleep, you lose all sense of where your body ends and the others’ begin. You can’t get any air, and even your dreams cease to be your own. The other girls’ desires seep in; you dream of a long yellow ponytail tied with a pink ribbon, of a ripe mango the size of a human head and a delicate, pearl-handled knife to eat it with.
You wake to the click of the latch. The first sentry—Sister Matilda, judging from the soft grunting—puts her head in the door and casts her eyes over the room. The girls lie awake and quiet, arms stiffly down at their sides; others, thinking themselves cute, clasp their hands under their heads like dreaming cherubim.
Everyone knows that the first nun only comes to lull the girls, and that the second nun appears at the precise moment they abandon their charade. Still, it takes lifetimes for the second nun to come. Meanwhile, you slip in and out of sleep, lying on your back, then rolling onto your stomach, mashing your face into the pillow, which smells like old bread. Finally the latch clicks again. Mother Aberlina hulks in the doorway, sparks flying from her eyes as she examines rows of slumbering bodies. The room blazes with collective fear, and you’re sure the Mother will smell the sudden outpouring of sweat. And then the door closes, and the minds in the room hum, willing themselves not to be caught. You can almost hear them counting. Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine—
“You have it?” says a hoarse voice—Graciela’s.
After a pause, another voice, small and unsure of itself, answers: “I have it.” That’s Mimi.
“What’s your price?”
“A week’s worth of meat,” Mimi says, her voice trembling at her own daring. “Including eggs, if we get them. And I get to use the toilet before you in the morning.”
An appreciative silence follows this demand: early mornings in the dormitory, waiting for a turn at the outhouse, are harrowing.
“Shut up a second.” The girls hold their breath. Then: “Okay.”
Someone lets out her breath too loudly and everyone else calls her an idiot.
“Shut up. I’m going to slip down.” The voice sounds muffled when it says, “All takers, come to Mimi’s bed. Down here between Mimi’s and mine.”
The rustling of the sheets is so preposterously loud you are certain it will travel across the cement courtyard and into Mother Aberlina’s ears. You pretend to be asleep. “Too good for it?” a girl taunts as she passes.
“She’s beyond help,” giggles another.
Silence of concentration, the occasional muffled giggle and coo of admiration.
From beyond the concrete walls of the convent comes the chorus of a popular calypso tune, sung by a drunk at half speed: “Oh Johnny, what you done? / Stab up de wife and run er down.” You press your eyes closed until you see lightning. “Oh, Johnny, what you done? / Grab up de knife and let de blood run.”
I would die for you, girl with the long legs and freckles.
Meanwhile, the girls are whispering.
A quiet smacking sound, more giggling.
“How does it look?”
“Oh, you look so nice!”
“I don’t know. Her lips are already kind of big.”
“You know. Like a fish.” Kissing noises.
“Better than you. You don’t have any lips at all—like a dog.”
“Shut up, all of you,” reprimands the hoarse voice.
In another minute:
“Don’t use it all.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. I paid for it, fair and square.”
“Well leave some for the rest of us. How much is left?”
You sit up. The beds on this end of the dormitory, near the window, are empty. Ten beds down, toward the door, the girls in their white nightdresses cluster like ghouls. “Hey,” you whisper, walking toward them. Your voice sounds deep and harsh. Like chickens interrupted at their feed, the girls swivel their heads toward you for a moment. Their mouths are stained red, like they’ve been eating cherries. “What’s going on?” you say.
“Oh, I forgot—they don’t have lipstick in the jungle,” Graciela says in a simpering voice. The other girls titter. Graciela is applying lipstick to Mimi’s mouth. The red makes Mimi look solemn, older, and rather frightening, like a puppet come to life. When she sees you, she takes the lipstick back, as if she’s afraid of losing it forever and with it the extra meat, the relief of possessing the clean outhouse in the cool blue hours near dawn.
“Can I try?” you say.
Graciela whispers, “As if a gorilla like you could be beautiful.”
You ignore Graciela and address your request to Mimi, who stares up at you in terror and wonder, her eyes huge in her narrow, rodent-like face. “You can have my meat,” you say. “And you can be first to the bathroom.”
“That’s not enough,” says Graciela. “The price is higher for you.”
“She has to go to the bathroom after all of us,” suggests another girl. “She has to be last.”
“Not so fast,” Graciela says. “Let’s think about this.”
“She fails the test,” says Mimi, barely above a whisper. “The geometry test on Thursday.”
You’ve been neck and neck in geometry all year. Finally you say, “Only if you let me borrow it on Saturday, too.”
“Thursday I get the best score.” Mimi holds the lipstick out. When you reach for it she pulls back an inch. “Promise?”
“Promise.” Mimi hands it over. The tube is cream colored, scalloped; a gold sticker on the bottom reads Carmine. The lipstick itself, blunted with use, looks like a large, chewed-up bean.
“Let me.” Graciela says and takes the lipstick back. “I’m the one who knows how to do it.” Then, “Kneel down, you’re too tall.”
You kneel, pulling down your white nightgown to cushion your knees against the cement, and grimace, spreading your lips. “Not like that,” Graciela says. “Pout them. There you go.” Her fingers, which are smooth and slightly clammy, hold your face while the other hand runs the lipstick, warm and gummy, smelling of clay and mineral oil, over your mouth. When you flinch, she pinches your chin and says, “Don’t move.”
Little transparent tags of skin, like microscopic mushrooms, cling to Graciela’s cheek. You’ve never noticed them before. “Done,” she says. Instinctively, you lick your lips. It’s bitter.
“You’re not supposed to eat it, pig,” she says. The other girls chuckle, and Mimi hides the tube of lipstick in her clasped hands.
“My turn,” says another girl.
“What about a mirror?” you say, but no one is listening. You grab Mimi’s upper arm, hard. “How am I supposed to see?”
They’re contraband, but Graciela definitely has one. “Let go,” Mimi whines. Everyone is silent; you feel them on the verge of laughter. You rattle Mimi a little and she cries out.
“Shut up,” Graciela hisses. “They’ll hear you.”
Your grandmother used to say that when you got things into your head there was no getting them out, even if those things are stupid and will hurt you. Now you want to see yourself as beautiful. You lick your lips again, as if you could taste beauty. Mimi cowers. Someone whispers, “The gallery.”
“You have a mirror,” you growl at Graciela, but she doesn’t look very afraid, even though her nose is bruised.
“Why would I have one when they’re not allowed?” She smirks. “If you want to see what it looks like you’ll have to sneak out.”
The nuns lock the dormitory door at night, but any girl worth her salt can pick the old lock with two hairpins. Soon you’re in the cooler dark of the gallery, where the windows are only covered with chicken wire. Oh, to pitch a hammock in the gallery, where the breeze at least makes an occasional visit. Even the cement floor is cool. Outside, beyond the huge dim shapes of the buttonwood trees, distant lights wink on hills.
The voice of the drunk carries over the wall, a barking, halting voice, stuttering with anguish:
Now that I-hie lost her
I got to cry cry cry
You imagine it’s the boy, singing to you, and this gives you courage. The gallery is long and dark; where it makes a sharp right turn around the corner of the dormitory, there is a mirror. It’s the height of a girl and twice as wide, set in a tawny wooden frame, thick and sturdy as the figurehead of a ship and carved with roses. The frame rests on two wooden forearms that grip the concrete floor with heavy clawed feet, like a sphinx with a mirror for a head. The nuns use it to divine bad behavior around the corner—the furtive elbow in the ribs, the foot stuck out to trip an enemy.
Pale geckos watch from the ceiling as you approach the mirror. The mirror gleams and ripples like water at the bottom of the well. Something flashes white, like a fish jumping. You halt; the mirror is still. Another step and a ghost flickers there. You go cold all over. It’s just you, just your white nightgown, but you’ve heard of duppy brides dressed all in white, riding the breezes to snatch lovelorn girls from their beds in revenge for their own jilting. Or, worse than any folktale, that shape-shifter, the evil one, who can become snake or angel or beautiful boy as effortlessly as a woman changes clothes.
With the freckles, with the freckles, I’d die for you. Perhaps if you are beautiful now, the mirror will only show you beautiful things. You have to go slowly in order to catch yourself unawares and see if you are beautiful or not. You cross the width of the hallway. Far, far away, twice the length of the gallery, deep in the dark, a speck of white does a simpering step, obedient to your movements.
Now you’re in front of it. The nightgown nearly glows, but the rest is dim. The closer you stand, the more you block out the light, and the color seems to drain from the face in the mirror, silvery-gray like one of the stone gargoyles in the photographs of Notre Dame that Sister Matilda showed in class.
When you bare your teeth, a slice of white emerges. Then you touch your mouth in disbelief. The lipstick is slathered thickly, far past the line of your lips. Graciela made you look like a clown. She’s probably giggling now, and so is Mimi, and the other girls are congratulating themselves that you, and not them, were made a fool of. But you don’t look like a clown; you look like something else—a dog that’s been nosing around in a carcass, mouth reddened with the kill. Dreamily you rub your finger over your stained face. Then you smear the lipstick onto your teeth, work it in like you’re trying to clean them. You meet the eyes of the thing in the mirror, then look away cagily. To catch it unawares, you lurch forward, menacing the glass, and from the mirror’s depths a red-mouthed demon lunges.
The nuns will have heard the scream; you must get back into bed before they find you. Turning, you tear down the gallery back to the dormitory and pull on the doorknob. But someone has locked it again, this time from the inside.
“You shits!” you screech, rattling the door. “You whores!”
Poor, stout Sister Matilda, everyone’s peon, is the first to arrive, her woven slippers slapping the floor in surprisingly jaunty rhythm. By now you’ve kicked the door with your heel several times and messed up your braided hair from turning your head this way and that. When she gets close enough to see you, she screams at your reddened mouth and bared teeth.
“What in God’s name have you done?” she says. You take a step toward her and she jumps back. She tries again, with a different voice, terrified and solemn. “Can you hear me, my daughter? Who am I speaking to now? Who is it inside you?”
“It’s me,” you say. “Sister Matilda, I had a nightmare.”
“Is it really you?” She takes another step back. “Say the Lord’s prayer! If it’s the Devil, it will come out backwards.”
When Mother Aberlina and the other sisters arrive, you’re on your sixth repetition of the Our Father, and Sister Matilda is walking a slow circle around you, spitting for all she’s worth to the four cardinal directions and clicking her rosary beads to keep the Evil One from advancing any further on your soul. Every time she closes her eyes to whisper with greater passion, you yank the collar of your nightgown over your mouth to wipe the lipstick onto the inside.
“But I saw it,” Sister Matilda insists, her cheeks trembling as she tells the tale in Mother Aberlina’s dusky office. A kerosene lamp throws an eerie light over everything and makes your shadows hunchbacked. “She had the look of the Devil on her face. It was like a scarlet cast over her.”
“Scarlet, did you say?”
“Over her whole face. Dear Lord, it was like she had been dipped in blood. She must have been possessed, Mother.”
Sister Matilda is talking, but Mother Aberlina’s eyes are fixed on you. Abruptly she stands. Her old face is like clay, the thick creases of skin around her brow and neck greased by the yellow light. To your horror, one of her large hands looms toward you and lands gently on your chin. She turns your head to the right, then the left, and gives you a meaningful look before saying, “Why did you scream, child?”
“Because of the mirror,” you say. “But I didn’t realize it was me.”
“You saw something in the mirror?” Sister Matilda says. “What did you see?”
“I saw something moving, and I screamed, but it was just me. It was just my reflection.”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” says Mother Aberlina. “Did you ever see a mirror before you came here, child?”
You rise to the lie. “Once when we were going around for the Virgin’s week. Through the window of Mrs. Gregory’s house.”
“And who is Mrs. Gregory?”
“The boss’s wife. The mine boss.”
“You see,” Mother Aberlina says to Sister Matilda. “She isn’t used to mirrors and it frightened her. Now, will you do the caning? I’m very tired.”
“But Mother, I know what I saw. Don’t you think we should tell the Archbishop?”
“Tell the Archbishop what? That there was a possession within these walls? Within the embrace of Our Lady of Perpetual Help?” Mother Aberlina crosses herself as she says the name; Matilda follows, hesitating, as if by doing so she is giving up her case; finally, as both of them frown, you copy the motion. Mother Aberlina places her large hands flat on the desk. “So. I hope you understand, Sister Matilda. No such thing could happen here.” She pulls out the bamboo rod, and your legs burn with the recent memory of its administration. “And don’t be stingy with it. I’m going to bed.”
The next day, looking almost apologetic, Mimi gives you the lipstick, which you tuck into the band of your underwear. Against your hip, it feels warm and smooth as a bone. That afternoon, while the students are mopping and dusting the dormitory, a miracle occurs: Mother Aberlina calls you to her office once more. She has news, she says: one of your relatives has made arrangements to take you home to visit your sick mother.
“When?” you say, not daring to believe.
“Saturday. Have your bag ready.” After a moment she adds, “I’m sorry to hear about it. We’ll keep her in our prayers.”
You try to look sad, but your stomach burns with excitement. So he got your letter after all, agreed to the plan, came up with the right lie. The rest of the day you’re floating; at night you can barely sleep. The next afternoon, faced with the geometry exam, you find yourself struggling to remember the Pythagorean theorem. On any other day you might tear into the test as though it were a delicious meal, but now the math is far away again, carved on a distant stone. You feel light and strange, as if you are dying or maybe turning into a bird or ascending to heaven. Mimi works steadily on her exam without glancing at you.
During the Friday afternoon softball game, instead of playing shortstop or catcher, you stand in the outfield and keep your eyes trained on the gate, willing each shape that passes to be him. On Saturday morning, you can’t eat. Time drags cruelly as the girls sit in the kitchen, embroidering, Mother Aberlina’s face hovering like an angry yellow clock. “Make your stitches smaller,” she barks. “It’s an altar cloth, not a sail.” You grab the stitch ripper and slice open each loop of thread, undoing an hour of work.
And then, just before lunch, Mother Aberlina signals to you. You put down your needle, pick up your bag, and follow her into the yard, lowering your head. You don’t want to see him until you’re through the gate. The lipstick digs into your hip and you think of the word printed on the bottom of the tube: “Carmine.”
“Here we are,” Mother Aberlina says. “All ready to go.”
Will he be wearing brown shoes or black shoes? Shiny or plain?
You allow your gaze to crawl forward along the ground, through the opening in the gate, and you raise it by a degree to see a familiar pair of black lace-up boots, the hem of a black dress.
Standing at the gate is your grandmother, looking out of place in her black dress with the long sleeves and high collar. You want to believe she’s some sort of apparition, a conjuring, but she looks tired and angry. With her large hands on her hips, hands that have administered many a slap and a spanking over the course of your life, she seems convincingly solid.
“Don’t just stand there,” she says. “We need to get going. Your mother’s not well.” When you merely gawk at her, she glares at Mother Aberlina. “Didn’t you tell her?”
“We told her,” says Mother Aberlina. “The girl has not been herself lately. Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“We’re not sure,” your grandmother says. “Her mother is really not well at all.”
In the pit of your stomach, a jar of hot oil topples over and scalds your entrails. All you did was send a boy a note. But somehow, in writing the lie, you made it real. Your mother is sick, and you did this to her. Your hands twitch in horror at their power.
If only time could spin the other way, the day grow cooler, the shadows lengthen. If only you could march back to your bed and fall asleep.
“Come on,” your grandmother says, and she pulls you through the open gate.