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St. Ursula's Girls Against the Atomic Bomb

Valerie Hurley


It was a girl, really—there is a double joy
Of poetry and music that she came from—
And I could see her glowing
through her spring clothes:
She made a place to sleep inside my ear.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

8 The girl wore a peacock blue St. Ursula's jumper and a crisp white blouse. She had woolly golden hair and blue Slovakian eyes. A silver star of David hung around her neck. She reminded him of a loon. Filmy insects were circling the dusty plant on his desk, their transparent wings fluttering in the lamplight, and rain was trickling down the blue wall.

He sat back in his chair and listened to what sounded like a very made-up family history—parents who were children in Slovakia when Hitler invaded, a yellow star sewn onto her mother's coat, people waxing the floor with candle ends and burying their silver in the garden, the girl's childhood fear of being eaten by black ravens, her mother standing on street corners and selling rats disguised as rabbits. Perhaps she was imagining it all. Yet there was something strangely convincing about her tales.

"Did I tell you that my grandmother knew Sigmund Freud?" she said. "She met him in Vienna in 1926, when she was twenty-three and he was around seventy. They strolled through the gardens of the Belvedere Palace. They stopped in cafés for Turkish coffee and marzipan. Banska Stiavnica wasn't very far east of Vienna, and Vikey Kral—that was her name—went there one time after Freud had left for London and walked up to his house at Berggasse 19 and found a swastika flying over the door. But the Nazis couldn't get at him, she said, because he was the man who marched into a burning building as the rats were running out."

"I'm sorry to say that you're about to be thrown out of here, Miss Rassaby," he said. "You don't turn in your homework. You've been demonstrating at the military academy again."

"I always sit there in biology wondering why the amphibians are disappearing," she said.

"What amphibians?" he said.

"All over the world, even in remote places, the amphibians are vanishing. I've read about it in the papers. The scientists think it's weird. To me it seems sort of ominous."

"I see here you have a psychiatrist," he said. "What does she think the trouble is?"

"With the amphibians?"

"With you."

"She says I'm suffering from a kind of extremism, an obsessive-compulsive disorder called scrupulosity."

"I've never heard of it," he said.

"It only happens to Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews. You want to know the definition? Habitual and unreasonable hesitation or doubt, coupled with anxiety, in connection with the making of moral judgments. St. Ignatius Loyola had it too and he said something like, 'After I have trodden upon a cross formed by two straws, or after I have thought, said or done some other thing, there comes to me from without a thought that I have sinned, and on the other hand it seems to me that I have not sinned. I feel very uneasy on the subject, inasmuch as I doubt yet do not doubt.' Scrupulosity robs your life of fun and joy."

He decided not to tell her that they were neighbors. The back of his apartment on West Eighty-ninth Street was diagonally across from the garden behind her parents' brownstone on West Eighty-eighth Street. He had heard her mother practicing her violin.

"Do you have any friends?" he said.

"At St. Ursula's? I tried to talk to one girl about the Holocaust and she thought it was one of the Jewish holidays. Mary's my best friend, though. She works for my parents. My mother read in National Geographic that people from Greenland carry babies around on their back all day and the babies grow up to be fearless."

"Well, who knows?" he said. "Maybe you are fearless. Everyone except you is afraid of the Mother Superior."

"I'm not afraid of her, but I'm afraid of everything else. I keep wondering if I'll get cancer. Maybe a nuclear bomb will kill me and my skin will peel off. Or I could inhale a speck of plutonium."

"I've read through your records," he said. "It seems you have some unusual interests."

"Yeah. Like self-preservation."

"I'm sure young people do get scared of things like nuclear bombs. Maybe St. Ursula's should consider going back to the air raid drills we had when I was a kid. Then if a nuclear bomb ever falls on New York, you'll be prepared. You'll know exactly what to do."

"That's right. I'll vaporize." She stood up, walked to the door, turned around and said, "If you'll excuse me, I think my stamp collection is coming unglued."

Each morning, he walked through the blue hallways decorated with tin crucifixes and paintings of the Blessed Virgin and entered the small furnace room in the basement that the nuns had converted into an office for him. The stone wall under the window glittered with mica. On damp days, a black mold crept out of the stone, drying in the sunlight to a sinister black fuzz. Throughout the day, students drifted in and out of his office. Each girl sat down in the blue plastic chair across from his desk, wanting something from him. The girl talked, he talked, the radiator clanked. Outside the window, sirens squealed. Birds sang. He imagined the chaos of the universe, the confusion, the longing for order. Bells rang. The Mother Superior's voice crackled over the loudspeaker. He wanted to say something helpful to Raine, but sometimes he saw a look in her eye, a question, a gap of some sort that corresponded to a gap he felt inside himself.

* * *

One morning, she dropped a streaked brown bird on his desk. The bird had a pointed face, yellow patches on its wings, a glistening beak, dark, curling feathers, and a flash of yellow on its tail. It was a siskin. Siskins were lively, scrappy little birds. He thought of their merry singing, their coarse and wheezy whistle.

"This bird died," she said. "Don't you feel sorry for it?"

He hated the sight of the bird lying on his messy desk. "You brought a dead animal into my office?"

"I couldn't leave it lying in the street," she said.

"I don't want dead birds in here. Do you mind?"

"You can't hide from death, Mr. Klepatar."

"I'm not trying to hide from death," he said. "I'm asking you not to bring dead birds into my office."

He gazed down at the bird, feathers evolving from reptilian scales, a creature made to be beautiful, to sing. He stared at the bird's matted brown feathers, its tiny, crooked ribs.

"I'm planning a funeral for it," she said. "In my garden. Would you like to come?"

She reached across the desk and placed her white hand on his arm. Long piano fingers, silver rings glittering, nails painted pistachio green. She smiled at him. He froze. Her hand was barely touching the sleeve of his jacket, yet his bones were starting to tingle. He moved his arm away and gazed across the desk at her tangled loops of hair, the odd way her irises were changing color from pale blue to a wild, forlorn grey.

After she left, his head began to buzz. His arm felt numb where she had touched it. The blue walls shrank, closing in around him. He picked up his jacket and hurried up the stairs and through the heavy castle-like doors, out onto Riverside Drive. He crossed the street and walked through the park, the trees and river gliding past him, everything faintly olive green, strangely misaligned. The Hudson shone at his side, a brackish scarlet, darkly rippling.

He walked through the streets, trying to regain the day as it had been that morning. From the first time he had seen Raine in her garden, he had known somehow that he was being drawn into her life. He sank down on a bench and listened to a sparrow singing. Song sparrows sang nine hours a day, ridding themselves of nervous energy. Songs helped birds locate themselves. Birds often sang until they acquired a mate, then fell silent. They sometimes sang a duet with their mate. Song helped to sort out the complex rituals of breeding life. It warned of danger.

* * *

Through the tin gutters of the school, water was gurgling. The sound reminded him of whales singing. The bars in the window were wet and gleaming. "The purpose of this meeting, Miss Rassaby, is to talk about your future," he said. Every time she appeared in his office, it seemed, it was raining.

"Will there even be a future?" she said. "The Cold War is over, but Russia and us still have five thousand nuclear weapons, a lot of them on hair-trigger alert. I don't have much admiration for pessimists, but I find it very hard to be hopeful. Holocaust means burnt sacrifice, and no one—not even God—stopped the Holocaust. So who's going to stop the next one? But then I think that all Homo sapiens alive today have come from a long series of ancestors, and every one of them was smart enough to survive."

"So—your mother plays the violin," he said.

"How do you know that?"

"It says it right here. Violinist with the Jonas String Quartet."

"I always felt really terrible when she went on tours. Mary and I would put one flower in a vase every morning, and when the vase was full, it was time for Mother to come home. I loved coming down every morning and seeing another flower in the vase. Then one day, her taxi would pull up and I'd run down the steps and get all tangled up in her perfume and scarves. She'd kiss me and push a little package into my hand. It was always wrapped in tissue paper, and I loved the way it crinkled as I held it. Mother would laugh and say, 'Open, it darling!' She almost never called me darling. So I would, reluctantly, because it was the best feeling just standing there with her hand on the top of my head, with her gift in my hand, and Mary standing on the steps, smiling at us. Once she gave me a little glass fish filled with cologne. Once it was a book with a green satin bookmark. Once it was a marble crocodile. Once it was a silver bicycle horn. Then Mary always cooked Mother's favorite dinner, Peking duck. But I always felt sorry for the duck."

"That's a nice story," he said. "But we'd better get down to business. Do you have any career goals?"

"Not really. Daddy always wanted me to be an astronaut. He works for NASA, and every summer until I was twelve, he made me go to the U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama, and for five and a half days, I'd go around in a helmet and boots and gloves and puffy white leggings and a white shirt with plastic shoulder pads. I learned about payloads and propulsion systems. I got to ride in this machine called 5DF—five degrees of freedom. Since he worked for NASA, I was usually the one who got to yell into a microphone '10 - 9 - 8 - 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 -BLAST OFF!'"

"Do you ever just act like a teenager? Do you ever put your worries aside and just try to have some fun?"

"Sometimes I play my bagpipes. When the neighbors complain, Mary always says, 'They live in the noisiest city in the country, but they only complain when you play your bagpipes.' I have a knife collection too."

"But do you have any academic interests?"

"I like to read about animal survival. One thing I learned is that animal survival depends on three things—what can kill them, what they can eat, and who they can mate with, in that order. The Mother Superior is always saying a kiss is the first step into the portals of hell, but Mary doesn't think so. She sleeps with the gardener Mr. Juzeliuna anytime she feels like it, and she didn't seem to mind when Pavel and I went up to my bedroom for our Seder."

"Who's Pavel?"

"This boy I met at a Slovakian picnic in Harriman State Park when I was fifteen. Some night when he's playing the Romance de los Pinos on his cello, I was thinking of climbing up to his room on a ladder, like George Sand did with Chopin."

"How often do you see him?"

"Not too often," she said. "Actually, never."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. He's more like an imaginary friend. Sex has always been pretty confusing to me. All the magazines and videos make it seem like it's about the way you look, the way you wear your hair. It's not about what's inside you. It's not about what you feel. Then there's the church, telling me I'll burn in hell for it. And my father saying, 'Pet your dog, not your date.' And that billboard up on Broadway saying, 'A tisket a tasket, a condom or a casket.'"

The school bell rang and he stood up, relieved that it was time for her to go.

* * *

Every Saturday, he ate the lunch Frieda cooked for him, washed the dishes, scoured the oven and stove, then locked the bathroom door and sank with newspaper in hand into a tub of steaming water. He emerged an hour later—Saturday after Saturday, year after year—with soft, wrinkled skin and a deep feeling of wellbeing.

His weeks at St. Ursula's were linked together by these luscious Saturday lunches. Today, two places were set in front of the window that overlooked the Rassaby garden and the ivy-covered brownstones surrounding it. Gnarled vines of wisteria hung in the window frame. The kitchen smelled of tomato soup and horseradish. A fresh slab of butter glittered on a flowered plate. Linen napkins were folded beneath each set of forks. Frieda laid the steaming bowls of soup and potatoes on the table and, as they ate, she chattered about a social worker who shared her shift at the nursing home, a man named Daniel. Alvin looked out the window at the lush sight of morning glories weaving along the Rassabys' iron fence.

"Has it ever occurred to you, Alvin, that you and I express our opinions but we don't share our feelings? I think it may be because of the Scotch."

"I think it may be because of the coffee," he said, thinking that Frieda was afflicted with an acute sobriety that was as extreme as drunkenness.

Lately his slumber had been disturbed by dreams of yellow roses and pink heather, bachelor's-buttons and bitterroot and salmon poppies and moss rose and blue flax and red tulips and yellow water lilies. Beanstalks grew tall, lupine seeds rattled in their pods, the soft, gurgling sounds of bluebirds awakened him. He and Frieda rarely made love, but their drifting apart had happened slowly, imperceptibly. She wanted children, but he had no interest at all in a little Alvin or a little Frieda (who might well turn into a little Raine). He could picture some child of his emptying his glasses of Scotch down the sink and lecturing him on the perils of alcohol. He imagined himself walking into the kitchen and tripping over roller skates. "Children are like mice," he had said to Frieda. "You let one in, and a whole bunch come running in behind them."

"See that girl in the garden?" he said as they ate lunch. "She's one of my students. You know what she's interested in? Bombs."

"Bombs?" Frieda said.

"Nuclear bombs. She's flunking out of school, but she's a whiz kid when it comes to depressing details about the effects of ionizing radiation on the human body."

"I'm sure you'll think of some way to help her," she said.

He was sure that she and Daniel were not having sex, but they were having fun, and this seemed almost as bad—primarily because he could not object to it. There were no boundaries around fun the way there were around sex—but there ought to be. It seemed to him that Frieda had gone over the line, even if there wasn't a line. Daniel had invited them to go biking along the Hudson, and Al conjured up a gloomy tableau of himself pedaling behind Daniel and Frieda in their biker shorts and helmets, huffing and puffing to keep up with them like the little kid that the big kids are trying to shake.

He ate his lunch and tried to listen to her narrations of Daniel's astonishing compassion and marvelous personality, but he was picturing Frieda vacationing in Tierra del Fuego and driving a white BMW, the back seat piled high with children who looked exactly like Daniel with his wiry black hair and hungry, groveling eyes. Each time Frieda talked about him, she seemed to notch him up a tiny bit. He ventured down into the sewer pipes to deliver sandwiches to the homeless. He did Royal Canadian Air Force exercises. He earned a black belt in karate. He had ridden his bike to Texas and back. Every Sunday, he kayaked to New Jersey before breakfast.

After lunch, Alvin longed to smooth his hands down over Freida's sun-warmed hair. But he just sat gazing down at the message on his tea bag: Marriage is when there are two bodies but only one soul. He could hear Raine's mother running through the scales on her violin. He picked up his binoculars and they swayed over to the Rassaby garden, pink veils of roses tumbling over the fence, yellow grapevines climbing the dogwood tree, morning glories and orange nasturtiums tangled in black-eyed Susans. Raine was lying in her hammock, singing:

 

Oh, we'll all go together when it comes,

Oh, we'll all go together when it comes,

Oh, we'll all go together, no matter what the weather,

Oh, we'll all go together when it comes!

* * *

We're going in the wrong direction here, Miss Rassaby," he said after discovering that Raine had once again been found lying in her skeleton costume across the doorway at the Mt. Abrams Military Academy. The sun was rising over the steeple of St. Bartholomew's Church and shining onto the branches of the crumpled crabapples outside his window. "I'm finding you increasingly uncooperative," he said.

"Thank you. I consider that a compliment. Being agreeable in this society is a good way of getting nuked to the Pleiades."

"What is your problem?" he said.

"I have meteors in my head. I talk to dinosaurs."

"If you want to leave St. Ursula's, why don't you leave? Please. Find yourself a window and crawl through it since we all know you're not conventional enough to walk through a door. Save us all the aggravation you're putting us through. Help us conserve some of our energy for our other students."

"I apologize for being an individual and not a flock of sheep," she said. "I'm glad you're not always nice to me, Mr. K. It would make for a very Anglo-Saxon relationship."

"You need to impose some boundaries on your concerns before they become completely out of control."

"Adults always act like they're Gepetto, and they're always afraid someone else is going to breathe life into Pinocchio."

"Hearing the truth isn't really what you're accustomed to, is it?" he said. "I notice that you keep yourself away from anyone who might actually challenge your myths about yourself. Your only friend is Mary the housekeeper, and I see you hanging around with the street people who naturally will say what you want to hear since they know you have a pocket full of Twinkies." He walked to the window and tried to compose himself, then he turned to her and said, "Talk about a peaceful world, Miss Rassaby! You are a conflict-generator!" He returned to his desk, took a deep breath, and sat down. He looked up as the door opened and the Mother Superior's heart-shaped white face appeared in the doorframe.

"You've started a club?" she said to Raine. "Who asked you to?"

"You mean St. Ursula's Against the Atomic Bomb?" Raine said. "It's not exactly a club."

"St. Ursula's girls are not against things."

"I decided to start St. Ursula's Girls Against the Atomic Bomb because Gandhi said it's easy to wake a sleeping person but it's impossible to wake someone who's pretending to sleep."

"Some people's minds are so open, the wind blows right through them!" the Mother Superior said. She escorted Raine out of the room, the heels of her shoes clicking on the tile like castanets. Al looked down and discovered Raine's books piled on the desk. He went to his computer to check for the room number of her class, planning to return them, when he noticed a little flowered book stuck inside a copy of a magazine called, Insects Are People Too. Lured into the small rectangle of pink flowers, he opened to the first page and read:

STAY OUT!

THE STORY OF MY LIFE, VOLUME 7,

BEGINNING OCTOBER 1, ENDING______

SENIOR YEAR

ST. URSULA'S CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

He ran his fingers over the journal, its lush peonies imprinted on olive linen. Naturally, he would not read her journal. He piled it with her textbooks on the table in the corner and sat down at his desk.

In spite of her seeming openness, she was a bewildering creature. Her marks on standardized tests were surprisingly high, yet she was failing every subject except biology. She had had a lot of absences and even a few skirmishes with the police. He got up, walked across the room, hesitated. He opened the door and looked down the hallway, hoping she'd appear and grab the journal out of his hand. But the hallway was empty. He looked at his watch. He wanted to go home and soak in the tub. He imagined taking the little flowered book and sinking with the dark, scrawled words, the contents of her heart, like Houdini in his chained and padlocked trunk, to the bottom of the sea.

At two-thirty, he slammed the window shut, loosened his tie, put on his jacket and on his way out the door, snatched the flowered journal from the table and stuffed it into the pocket of his tweed sports jacket.

Walking up Riverside Drive, he felt pale and unworthy, no match for her thoughts, her passions, her dreams nestled into the pocket of his jacket. He imagined the spell of her words written in black ink on soft, ivory paper. He pictured the little journal in his pocket softening like a cherry pit in the stomach of a bird.

He stopped on the corner of Riverside Drive and West Seventy-ninth Street. How could such a small book be such an encumbrance? His only hope of salvaging his integrity would be to walk up West Eighty-eighth Street and slip the journal through the gleaming brass slot of the Rassabys' red front door. Instead he went home, closed the door of his study and placed the journal on the mahogany table beside the photograph of Frieda in her wedding gown.

At midnight, he found himself in his den wearing his plaid bathrobe. Misty orange light was seeping out of the brownstone across the street. The Rassaby house was dark. Frieda was asleep. Foghorns were softly blaring on the river. He remembered the Spanish proverb, Take what you want and pay for it.

St. Ursula's Academy did not have a niche for Raine and he could not create one. What she was lacking was the desire to please. There were other students like her in public school, but none at St. Ursula's. If he taught her anything it would be to pretend, to please the nuns, to get a diploma which would lead her on to college—yet in some ways he did not want to shepherd her back into the flock. She was the one who had strayed away, and he wanted her to stray farther away and even lead him on—but it was his job, his moral obligation, to beckon her back to fealty.

The night seemed blurry and out of kilter. He remembered Raine's stories of Pavel, of his green and burning eyes—and he felt as though he were becoming entangled with her desires, with her dark Slovakian roots, with Sigmund Freud and her strange grandmother. Simone Weil had said that real evil is gloomy, monotonous and barren, but imaginary evil is romantic and varied. And imaginary good is boring but real good is new, marvelous and intoxicating. Violins, bagpipes, birds singing. Was he losing his mind? He opened the journal and began to read:

October 2   Al thinks I'm a one-trick pony, but I'm not exactly sure what HE knows. Still, he's cute—especially in his navy chinos and also in his white shirt with the flowered tie. I'm also partial to his navy blue herringbone vest. I just wish I could find someone I can talk to who's not getting paid to listen to me.

October 10   I love going to Mother's concerts, sitting in a velvet seat and watching her with bands of silver sparkling in her hair and the lights shining down on the rich burnt gold of her violin that was once a tree, a violin that knows all her secrets like the pink dogwood in the garden knows all my secrets.At her concerts I sit before her as someone sits before a shrine, filled with longing. For me, watching her is almost a form of worship—healthy or unhealthy, I don't know—but centering and elating like worship always is.

October 15   When I'm playing my bagpipes, I spend a lot of time up in the clouds, looking for the silver lining, and Pavel is always the parachute that lowers me into the green field.

October 18   I love to go shopping in the thrift shops on Second Avenue, and I never iron the clothes I buy because a Hindu I met on the street told me that ironing causes a cruel death for the tiny mites living in the fabric. The Mother Superior's always trying to knock me off my perch, and the nuns are trying to fill me up with what they want me to know, which feels like a form of advertising. But I like Al. He's sort of shapeless like the street people, you can roam in and out of him—there's very little border patrol.   The church used to hold us to impossible ideals, and now I feel that the impossible ideals are supplied by the media. Well, that's the way it is, I guess, just like the old Tarzan movies, sometimes the alligator's on top and sometimes Tarzan is.

* * *

He listened to the rusty chattering of a blackbird as it sat in the dogwood tree in her garden, its white eyes glittering, begging him for something. Confess, the bird said. Confess. The garden was bursting out of its fences, the wild grape vines crawling away with their tiny white feet. Frieda was drifting away from him. Why wasn't he stopping her? Raine had been dropped into his nest for protection, but instead of helping her, he had allowed himself to be lured by her mother's violin sonatas, he had gazed into her garden, he had intruded into her sweet, mesmerizing life. Chack, chack, chack, the bird called. Chack, chack, chack—a sound calling back to him from the innocence of childhood: Confess.

* * *

Frost was glittering on the blackened leaves of the garden. The rosebushes were heaped with browning roses. He stood at the locked garden gate and watched her get out of the hammock in her black pants and black sweatshirt that said, in tiny white letters, Better Active Today Than Radioactive Tomorrow.

"Raine?" he called out. "May I see you for a moment?" The clouds were gathering in the sky. A mist was rising out of the flowers.

"Mr. K! What are you doing here?"

"I was on my way to get Frieda some roses, and I saw you sitting there," he said.

"Pavel never gave me roses or anything else except occasionally some mushrooms. But it isn't really flowers and candlelight and love songs that are romantic. You know what's romantic? Being deeply understood by another person."

He passed through the gate and followed her along the brick walk to the wrought iron table and chairs set out under the branches of the dogwood tree. A film of frost was glittering on the last crinkled nasturtiums. "If I had an honest bone in my body, I'd make a complete confession to the Mother Superior and resign from my job," he said.

"Confession is kind of a rip-off, don't you think? First we give someone power over us that they don't deserve and haven't earned, then we confess stuff that's really none of their business."

He sat down in the chair across from her and said, "I stopped in to see you because… because…"

"I used to stutter, too," she said. "It really helps if you take your time."

"Raine, I need to ask for your forgiveness."

"Really?" she asked.

He noticed the snapdragons and bee balm growing along the walk beside the mangled chrysanthemums.

"I've never been in your garden before," he said.

"It's kind of had it, but I still think it's pretty," she said. "I used to go on these bird walks with Pavel at the picnics, and he taught me the calls, and we walked through the woods going, hoohoo-hoohoo-hoohooaw, with him lusting after these birds and me lusting after him." He listened to the uneven warble of an evening grosbeak. "You look awful, Mr. K. Is anything wrong?"

"Everything's wrong, Raine. You'll have to excuse me. I'm afraid my wife—the most pious woman in the parish—has fallen in love with someone. This so-called social worker."

"That's awful," she said.

"Not that it would be ethical to discuss my marital problems with you."

"You could try kissing Frieda with your eyes open. I read in a magazine that it's a good way to see if there are any lies in the relationship. I read a lot of magazines, and I'd say if this guy comes along and carries your wife off, the feelings between you and her probably aren't very deep. Infatuation's always temporary, something that seems strong but is really weak, something based on lust and fantasies, not on anything real. It isn't anything like love. Before you try to get Frieda back, you probably should question yourself about your feelings for her and find out if it's love or infatuation, because infatuation is common but love is rare."

"Raine?" he said.

"Yes?"

"I did a terrible thing," he said. "I read your diary."

"My journal? No you didn't. You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not kidding. I read it. In the middle of the night, when for some reason ethical questions seem a little hazier than they do in the middle of the day. I read all of October."

"You know what, Mr. K? I would not want to be sitting next to you on a flight to Australia."

"And I lied to you. I wasn't on the way to buy Frieda flowers. I've been circling the block for an hour. I live right over there. I see you in your garden all the time."

"You mean you're a voyeur?" she said.

"I'm an impostor. I came over to apologize, Raine. I'm very sorry."

They were sitting by a clump of yellow-throated Chinese lilies, and after a while she said, "Sometimes I look at a rose and think, if we have a war, if somebody drops the bomb, there'll never be another rose. So I really look at it. I see all the soft veins in it and the way the color lightens a little at the edges and the way the petals curl. I hold it up in the sun and look at the milky veins in the leaves." She leaned toward him and said, "I don't know how much difference it makes if you read all that stuff I wrote. People have so many secrets. It isn't okay to say this, it isn't polite to ask that. What'd you think of my writing?"

"It was—I don't know. Colorful."

"It's kind of a strange infraction for a teacher, but it's okay. I think it's a strange world. Zap the bugs, drop the bombs, go directly to death, do not pass Go."

"It is a strange world," he said. "Did you know that Hitler and Freud and your grandmother were all in Vienna at the same time?"

"How cool is that?" she said. "You don't have any children, do you?"

"No. Frieda wants children, but I never have."

"What do you want if you don't want children?" she said.

"Peace and quiet."

"You'll have a lot of peace and quiet after we all get clobbered by a Tomahawk cruise missile," she said. They watched a red ant crawl through the rumpled phlox. "I forgive you, Mr. K. I always get the feeling that you're not like the nuns. You know what? Mary says the world is full of human shadows. They have to be walked on a leash so we always know what they're up to." A caterpillar was crawling up her arm, its chartreuse skin glittering in the sun.

He stood up and said, "Thank you for listening, Raine. I know it's sometimes been hard for us to get along."

"It's okay," she said. "People are always trying to smooth out relationships, but in relationships, you have to leave the lumps."

He picked up his jacket. "And what do you plan to say to this Pavel when he looks up and sees you climbing through his window?"

She smiled. "I'll say, 'My heart is never an embarrassment to me.'"

He clicked open the gate. "Good-bye then," he said.

"Hasta la vista."

He smiled as he walked down the path beside the browning roses and vines of bittersweet, remembering his days as an altar boy, the priest raising his hand, Alvin slipping the cruet into it, the priest dropping his eyelids, Alvin ringing the golden bells.<


Valerie Hurley
has just completed her first novel, "St. Ursula's Girls Against the Atomic Bomb." She recently spent five weeks in residence at the MacDowell Colony.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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