Lara Longo is a Director of Special Projects at The Atlantic and has an MA in Cultural Studies from King’s College London. Her writing has been published in jmww, Peach Mag, Bodega, and SVJ and is forthcoming in Guernica. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Brother David swept an eraser across the board and rewrote the number in short strokes. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” he said and struck his breast. It mattered little to me, or to the other girls in class suffering boredom, whether he drew a 5 or a 6 or an 8. I was busy staring into the white swells of wiped chalk in the hope some interesting shape would reveal itself from the ghosts of old numbers.
Our senior year, we studied the twitch of the clock’s second hand. Patterns in the crown molding. Our teachers’ faces. We knew the permanent furrow between Brother David’s brows. The way Brother Michael pursed his lips and rubbed the deep hollows of his cheeks when he was working through verb conjugations. How Sister Brigid’s hooded eyes grew large when she would say, “Do you see how we’ve arrived at this answer?” Agnes always shouted from the back of the class, “A miracle,” and we’d shrink in our seats laughing.
St. Joan’s would close at the end of the academic year and re-open as a public school. We’d be off to secretarial training or nursing or cosmetology by then. In those last months, the custodian wheeled out the painted statues that lived in the building’s corners and hallways. Saint Anne, then Saint Francis, Saint Theresa. One by one, they were gone. The floor tiles had dulled where they once stood.
Our reverence for God diminished with each year at St. Joan’s. He hadn’t shown Himself the way they said He would. So we cursed and talked back to our mothers and rolled our pleated skirts so that they swung at the thigh. On the first day of senior year, someone broke into the sacristy and stole the altar linens, the chalice, the holy oils. The custodian recovered a pile of communion wafers in the schoolyard. The little discs had stuck to the wet pavement.
It would be a year of bad behavior. The last class of St. Joan’s was putting a fine point on it. There was the trash can fire in Sister Margaret’s class. The period blood smeared over the bathroom wall. The fighting, the beating of one another with fists. Clumps of knotted hair tumbled along the floors after a brawl.
St. Joan’s continued to pull down its saint statues and crucifixes and godly symbols in preparation for its secular opening. There were rumors so-and-so stole one of the newly disappeared relics. Everyone thought it was a laugh to finally see a hostage photo of John the Baptist’s lamb in Claire Ann’s bedroom.
The administrators kept the effigy of Joan of Arc standing, a witness to our delinquency. She, with her cross nestled in the crook of her arm, her lily flecked flag in a perpetual wave, gave us a never ending look of distrust. The day she toppled from her pedestal, taking Sarah Davitt down with her, Sister Josephine said it was because the girls had been roughhousing. Diana was there. She said it made a terrible sound, the stone-heavy thing concussing Sarah Davitt. She said the statue just fell over, though, without a push or anything.
As we wrote get well cards for our friend, I wondered if we didn’t deserve a knocking down. We had been bad for so long. I wrote, Speedy recovery, Sarah Davitt! across the folded construction paper. Collecting the cards, I saw someone had scrawled joan gives good head. It gave me an awful feeling, that irreverence, and worse, that no one thought it would come back to get us.
Sister Philippa called an assembly the next morning to make an example of Sarah Davitt in absentia. As we filed into the auditorium, we caught sight of the spray paint, red and glossy. A vandal had amended our school motto, drawing a generous letter V over the faded white letter P, making us Women who shave the future. The custodian was already there, bucket in hand, ignoring our titters as he scrubbed hard.
Instead of an intervention or truce, Sister Phillippa dimmed the lights and turned on a short film about a young woman returning to her faith. Girls used the cover of the dark to nap. A row ahead of me, Victoria carved the word twat into the wooden auditorium chair with her house key. Sister Phillippa snapped on the lights and led us in prayer for Sarah Davitt.
I felt uneasy with it all, as though something lurked just out of view, waiting to deliver our comeuppance. I couldn’t help but think it was God Himself, in a vengeful mood. At my first communion, I had resolved that I could never know whether he was here and everywhere or nowhere. After all the years of Catholic school, wasn’t it something, I thought, if he was only presenting Himself now, at the very end.
I played the game of daring Him to signal his realness. In morning mass, I channeled my thoughts to the Jesus statue behind the altar. I asked Him to move his plaster fingers or blow a sheaf of the homily from the lectern, any small gesture to show he was there. Though he sent no sign, I kept willing impossible things, as a child does when they can’t help themself. It only made me want to get closer, to push on with the project.
The school’s call for a Saint Lucia had no takers. As tradition held, on Lucia’s name day, a senior girl would don her wears and host an assembly in saintly drag. There was song to lead and saffron buns to hand out. In a sudden grip of duty, I snuck to Sister Phillippa’s office and volunteered to take the role. She eyed me suspiciously, seeming displeased, but she loaned me the thin white gown and the candle crowned wreath.
When Saint Lucia’s day arrived, I felt sick to my stomach with embarrassment. I stood in front of my class in the cheap getup, the plastic wreath needling my scalp. The electric bulbs atop each candle had barely enough current to light. My friends sat front row, sniggering the whole way through my hosting duties. Afterward, they jostled me, the little saintly pet, the god girl, the girl god. I laughed, desperate for it to be over. I returned the costume to Sister Phillippa who neither thanked me nor flogged me for the sweat stains I had left on the gown.
At dismissal, I stood at the far side of the courtyard, plucking out the loose plastic pine needles still in my hair. The bell at the top of the tower beat the hours. All the girls, their noses turned up to the sky, waited for the strokes to end, then scattered like blown ash. I had grown used to the flutter of arms and legs and eyes and hair, the ritual of fleeing. Though on Saint Lucia’s day, it frightened me.
It gave Him too many options. Supposing He wanted to teach us another lesson, there we all were. I winced, feeling as though a wave might suddenly crash upon us. Under the current of talk swelling across the courtyard, I heard someone call out my name. Patty was in a brisk walk to the exit.
“Who are you waiting for,” she yelled to me. “Your best friend God?”
I flashed a dead smile. She was probably rushing to her ugly boyfriend’s house to blow him. If the sea did rise up against us or if we were smote into pulp, I wouldn’t have missed Patty. It made me sad to know how few I would miss. I was tired of them all.
The girls never took a day off from talking back or scheming or vandalizing the place. St Joan’s wouldn’t have lasted another year even if it could've stayed open. Was it not enough to be the last girls? Could we not leave the bones? I didn’t even feel particularly virtuous. My heart did not brim with goodness. All I wanted was for a peaceful exit.
I stood in the emptied courtyard and watched the nuns in their black huddle file into the convent across the street. Their knowing a god must be nice, I thought, even if it was the same god that wanted to smash us. I saw Brother David bounding for the gate. From the distance I could see his one knuckle, white and dusty from tapping the board all day.
From the outside, St Joan’s looked more a tired mountain, hunched, drab, its edges blunted. The building should have been knocked down entirely and the earth salted. At the end, it was held together by the custodian’s little fixes. We stuck it out, dodging the odd exposed cable, the bad stairs. The state of the place wasn’t helped by the girls who picked at the plaster and kicked doors off their hinges and flung loose bathroom tiles at one another.
When the grimness of the cafeteria finally put me off eating lunch, I volunteered in the social studies department. “Seeking sanctuary, my dear?” Sister Mary Rose said, and patted my arm. There was little to do but help her box up administrative files for the diocese. It was on Ash Wednesday that the girls I abandoned at the lunch table happened upon me while walking by the office. Their eyes went wide under the smudged black thumbprints on their foreheads. They waved their palm fronds at me, shrieking, “She is risen! She is risen!” Sister Mary Rose swung the door shut, but we could still hear it echoing down the hall.
In the godless months of early summer, after holidays and saints days had passed, we fell into the end of term lull. Classes wound down. Sister Philippa began graduation practice for the seniors. She had reared St. Joan’s for decades and this would be the last ceremony she presided over, the last girls she would see out into the world. Her voice had gone reed thin. I tried to detect a trace of joy in her face, but only found the deep etching of exhaustion.
Our practices were set early, when the girls were too tired to act up. Most went through the motions, blank faced, while some dozed in the back. Sister Philippa guided us through the graduation program and rituals. When we needed to stand, to sit, to kneel, to walk. We practiced a song we would sing on the risers, facing our parents. Sister Philippa stood in for Father Robert, who would do a special prayer. In marking our steps, repeating them, we graduated many times over. We received many blessings.
We were stumbling into formation one morning when the ceiling started to give. First, it came down like sand. The girls in the center aisle got it in their hair, and they shook out the dust with great effect. There was a scattering, a bounding for the doors. There was a great crackling sound, then a rain of mortar, white hunks of it littering the auditorium. Sister Philippa’s instruction was drowned out by shrieks.
Girls continued their screams in the lobby. Some were already laughing their heads off. I felt sick to my stomach, staring back at the skeletal laths of the exposed ceiling. I wanted to run from St Joan’s, the heap of it. When I showed up to the schoolyard that night, it was as much a shock to the girls as it was to myself.
I knew the usuals would be there, at the handball court, far enough from the perimeter of St Joan’s’ gates that no one could see the young girls or their big beers. It served as the initiation grounds, where girls had their first sips of alcohol, where they honed terrible drinking habits, where, on the other side of the handball wall, they found the privacy to squat and piss out the ounces.
The outline of the girls came into focus, then the whites of eyes against the dark. A clang of bottles echoed. “Peg? Is that you, Peg?” someone called out. I waved. “As I live and breathe,” someone said.
Gerri swooped in for a hug. “It’s been so long,” she cooed in my ear. A few others put down their beers and wrapped their arms around us.
“Are you here to bust us?” Agnes said, her cigarette wagging between her lips. She laughed into a cough.
“Seeing as we almost died today.” I pulled a can of beer from my purse, pricked it open, and raised it toward them.
“To not getting our fucking skulls bashed in,” Agnes said.
“To tearing the rest of this place apart,” Leigh said. “And getting even.”
How stupid it was to come, I thought, cheersing, beaming a false smile. My beer was sour. I had kept it in my underwear drawer from the last booze-up. I circled the wall and dumped the stale ale.
The girls were still high from the theatrics of the day. They spun up accounts of the ceiling collapse until their versions bore no resemblance to reality. They slagged off the teachers, Sister Phillippa, the junk education, the toothlessness of Catholicism. The girls got drunker, their words more incendiary.
I mimed in the background, sipping air from my bottle, and studied Gerri’s face. How it was a child’s face, how the rim of the beer bottle overtook her whole mouth, how her eyes smiled shut. I pinched her piggy nose and she giggled and dodged me like a little sister.
“Peg,” she said, sidling up to me, “where have you been?”
I wrapped an arm around her and she laid her head on my shoulder. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“You don’t come around, Peg. You don’t want us anymore.”
“Don’t say that.” I played with a strand of her hair. “I’m just laying low. I’m staying out of the way. Do you,” I said, cautiously, “do you ever feel like we’ve got it coming?”
“Got what coming? From who?”
“I don’t know. But I do feel it. And I feel like it will clobber us when it comes.”
“Peg, that’s a horrible thing to say,” she slurred.
“It is, isn’t it.”
“They have to catch us first, right?” Gerri sounded half asleep. “This place is going to shit anyway.”
I kissed her head and told her I was going. I waved a broad goodbye. As I walked away, I heard the clean break of a bottle against concrete and our alma mater sung in a shout.
On the last day of class, someone spray painted over the school motto once again, making us Women who shat the future. No one came to fix it. It would be painted over entirely once the school transitioned from St. Joan’s to Prospect Public High over the summer. I hoped the custodian could rest his hands and knees in retirement. I never saw him or any of the sisters or brothers again.
After the bell tolled from the tower a final time, I wandered to the chapel and turned on the lights. In the pristine quiet, I slipped into an empty pew and kneeled on the hard floor instead of the cushioned tuffet. I willed God to animate the scene stuck on the stained glass window. I thought my sorries and let Him have them.
I knew it would be a long time until I visited a place like this again. A funeral or a baptism or a wedding would do it and that’s exactly the order it would later happen. I left the chapel unsatisfied with its nothingness, then walked out of St. Joan’s for good, her last girl. I supposed I had won a safe departure. There was nowhere I had to be. The cops couldn’t even pick me up for truancy. I was eighteen with no obligations or imagination.
I decided on the nice restaurant down the avenue. It was all suits and client lunches, alcohol bloated faces, peals of laughter over the din. My Catholic school uniform stood starkly out of place. I sat in the smoking section and asked a man for a cigarette. I stifled the reflexive cough while leaning into his light. I ate shrimp cocktail, bummed another cigarette, and left cash on the table linen.
My parents were still at work when I got home. Smoke clung to my hair from sitting in the wisps of it. I found a wrapped present and card with my name on the table. I was sure it was nothing I wanted. My hands itched from nicotine.
It was impossible, I thought, to have reached the end with hardly a murmur. No trumpets sounding, no bottomless pits, tumbling stars. Still, I waited for something of consequence. The Catholics had taught us wrath and curses, punishment, redemption, transformation. Who had fallen behind on the marking of time?
Most of the girls were at Sarah Davitt’s, celebrating, likely tearing into her parents’ liquor stash and jumping in the pool with their uniforms on. I had no desire to see them. Instead, I skulked around my house, opening the drawers and closets as though there was a mystery to solve. Nothing around me called out in a new way. It was hard to know whether I was waiting or searching. I knocked at my chest, little mea culpas each one.
There were few things left in the house to turn over, to open up expecting a spring-loaded trap. I eyed the door that hung high above the kitchen sink. My mother had told me it was a false closet to hide the pipes. I climbed onto the countertop and stood, my feet in the sink basin wet and leaving a faint gray print. It was a strange angle to see the kitchen.
I reached upward for the door handle, my fingertips grazing the iron knot of it. How I wanted to see inside. In my ears, the stretch of my own muscle fibers. My weight, balanced on the balls of my feet. I grasped air.
“ I'm drawn to stories where imminent danger lurks just out of sight. In ‘Mea Culpa,’ I wanted to explore the impulse to search for meaning and safety in an increasingly inhospitable place. ”