have been a perfect greeting card moment: two old friends reminiscing
about the old days in a light-filled coffee shop, whispering and
laughing about near-forgotten secrets over coffee. But Lisa and
I were only eighteen, and it was actually a cloudy day, and neither
one of us spoke while I stirred my hot chocolate and she sipped
her iced tea.
I was trying to ignore the sounds
and smells of the coffee shop chairs scraping, people talking
loudly to be heard over the piped-in music, coffee grounds tossed
into a trash can. None of this seemed to bother Lisa, who was sitting
completely still, smiling slightly. She was, I understood suddenly,
serene. The realization shook me. I had never seen serenity personified
before, and here it was in such an unlikely place. Lisa had never
been so peaceful.
found myself fidgeting uncomfortably in the face of so much calm.
"When did you decide?" I asked.
"Just a few weeks ago," she told me.
"I don't feel I should waste the next four years when I know that
this is where I want to be eventually."
"But I thought you wanted to study
philosophy go to grad school some day. University of Chicago?"
I was pulling out fragments of sentences, trying to grasp a single
thought for more than a few seconds.
"I'll still be able to study. And it will
be better there because that's where I'm supposed to be."
I took a long drink of my hot chocolate,
trying not to cringe as the sudden rush of liquid burned the roof
of my mouth and the back of my throat, trying not to cringe as I
thought about that morning. Lisa and I had spent a few hours wandering
through Ursuline's halls, visiting teachers and talking to friends
acting nostalgic, as though more than three months had passed since
graduation. And as we walked around the school, she had told each
of our teachers the same thing that she told me in the car on the
way there: instead of starting college at the University of Dallas,
instead of getting her degree in philosophy, she would be entering
the convent in three days.
Three days. The timing was curiously
perfect. In three days, I would get on a plane to Baltimore; in
three days, she would begin her life as a Carmelite.
We met the first day of our freshman
year in our Introduction to Theater class. At fourteen, I already
considered myself an experienced actress, after spending the past
five summers and a great deal of my free time in rehearsals for
one play or another. So I rushed to class, took a seat in the front
row, and surveyed the other girls as they entered to determine what
kind of competition I would have.
Lisa came in late and took the only
seat left the one right next to mine.
It was a typical first day of class,
meaning that we were forced into a "getting to know each other"
activity right away. I was paired with Lisa, who had spent the first
five minutes of class coloring a strand of her long blonde hair
pink with a highlighter.
We turned to each other and she smiled
"Can I color your hair?" she said.
I decided immediately that she was
going to be one of my best friends.
She had just moved to Texas from Virginia.
I had never met someone who had moved around more as a child than
I had. Together, we traced our childhood moves and realized we had
both lived in Birmingham and Slidell, Louisiana narrowly missing
each other as our timelines just failed to overlap.
We had laughed about these near misses,
thinking about how close we had come to knowing each other as children.
Our families had even gone to the same church in Slidell.
"We could have been friends our whole
lives," I told her once.
"It's okay," she said. "We'll be friends
the whole rest of our lives."
We liked to take pictures of our feet.
Looking back, I can't imagine that we ever had a rational explanation
for that, even then.
My father was offered a job in Kansas
at the end of our freshman year, and Lisa was the only one who knew
about it. I hadn't intended to tell her I didn't want to talk
about it unless we knew for sure that we'd be moving but my
mother had mentioned it in front of Lisa one night as she dropped
me off for a sleepover.
Lisa and I talked about it all night.
We were curled up in her queen-sized bed, comforter pulled up over
our heads, whispering so her parents wouldn't hear us and tell us
to go to sleep. I made her promise that she wouldn't tell anyone
about the possibility of Kansas.
Two weeks later, my parents announced
we would be staying put. Lisa was almost as happy as I was. And,
since the story had a happy ending, I decided to call a couple of
our friends and tell them about it.
But they already knew. Lisa had told
them. I felt vaguely disappointed it was supposed to have
been a surprise to them. The actress in me looked forward to moments
like that. But more than that, really, I was upset that Lisa had
told. She promised me she wouldn't, then she did.
That summer, she told me she was going
to be a nun. I don't remember feeling surprised or confused, because
it was the sort of stunning announcement that you are never prepared
for and can never react to the way you think you should.
"Oh, really?" I had asked, more curious
than anything else. "My godmother is a nun, you should totally meet
"I don't think I'm going to be that
kind of nun," she said. I had never really considered that there
might be types of nuns. My godmother didn't wear a habit, and she
taught English at a local high school but I still associated
her with the nuns from elementary school, in their black and white
uniforms. Nuns, I believed, were out in the world, being holy presences
among us sinners. It seemed pretty simple to me.
"Yeah? So what kind of nun are you
going to be?"
"A Carmelite," she said, with an air
of decisiveness. "I'll be cloistered."
I searched my mind, wondering if I
knew what that word meant.
"I won't be able to leave the convent,"
"Why would you want that?" I asked,
now completely confused.
"It's just I feel called to."
We met a boy named Vinnie at a mixer
sophomore year. For most of the dance, he and I sat in the bleachers,
talking about the sorts of things that seem incredibly interesting
when you're in high school and have just met someone that you want
to impress. He had beautiful blue eyes and spoke quietly, and I
thought he was amazing. But my mother came to pick me up before
the last dance, and I had left him with a group of my friends on
the dance floor.
My friend Jacquelyn told me later
that after I left, Vinnie had danced with Lisa to "Stairway to Heaven"
and given her his school ID pointing out his phone number
so she could call him. By the following Monday, he had told her
he loved her.
They dated for six months, and it
took me most of that time to get over the crush I had on him. We
would go to parties and hang out in the corner, Vinnie and I, watching
Lisa dance to old Beatles songs.
They broke up a week after Valentine's
Day, when he had given her an enormous crystal crucifix. The rest
of us whispered about it for weeks, wondering what could have happened.
She loved the crucifix, she said, but she had given it back to him
it was too expensive. And then, she said, they had decided maybe
they shouldn't see each other anymore. A mutual decision, she said.
Maybe they could still be friends.
The next time I saw Vinnie, he looked
different, older. He was fine, he told me, although he did miss
Lisa. But he understood.
"It makes it a little easier, getting
dumped that way," he said.
"What way?" I had to ask.
"For God, you know? It still hurts
and everything, but at least well, at least it's because of
the whole nun thing. I think it would have been worse if it was
just another guy."
A year later, it was just another
guy. Steve pursued Lisa for months, and on Valentine's Day she opened
her front door to find hundreds of flowers and dozens of balloons.
And that was it.
They had a passionate relationship,
which shocked all of us. Once they started dating, we never saw
them outside of school or, if we did, they weren't really
with us. They would sit off by themselves, with her always perched
on his lap, as they whispered to each other and kissed as though
no one was around to see.
The question the rest of us kept asking
each other, in typical high school fashion, was had they done "it"?
How far could she go and still become a nun?
She was taking something for granted,
I thought. No one our age had the certainty that Lisa had possessed
since childhood, the absolute knowledge of where life was going
to take her. Even though I had always felt drawn to writing, I had
doubts. I would reach the end of an amazing book and feel despondent
as I closed it, wondering if I would ever create something so valuable.
Lisa had been given something so much
sturdier than that. At eight years old, she had received her calling
to become a nun. That, I thought to myself, was the kind of life-shaping
event I would kill for. Why couldn't she lie accordingly? Would
it be so hard to behave as if she were really grateful for the certainty
God had granted her? Instead, she traipsed around with Steve, apparently
unable to keep her hands off him, acting as though her vocation
the rest of her life had absolutely nothing to do with the
life she was living now.
Meanwhile, I lived every second of
my life wondering how today was going to effect tomorrow. I jotted
down every string of words that came to mind, hoping that thee were
the words that would begin my best-selling, award-winning novel.
I met boys, created complex, attractive pictures of them in my mind,
and then dropped them when their realities disappointed me. I had
never met anyone that I couldn't keep my hands off of, never perched
in a boy's lap and whispered in his ear, kissing him as though no
one was watching.
It seemed almost as though Lisa had
stolen something from me, as though she was cheating me out of something
that she already had. I was the one who was supposed to have these
experiences; I was the one who was going to need them when I grew
up. What did she need Steve for? She already had the rest of her
life figured out.
I never admitted how furious I was
with Lisa for her relationship with Steve. I felt as, I realized
with something of a shock that she had been lying to me. After
all, she was constantly telling me one thing then doing another,
even the most trivial things. Before now, the lies had been little
things. We would ask her to come out to dinner with us and she would
say that she was grounded, but then we would run into her at the
restaurant, eating with other friends. Things like that had happened
regularly since we met, but I never spent much time thinking about
it; if I considered it for too long, it made me angry, and I didn't
know how to become comfortable with that. Was it a sin to be angry
with a nun, even if she wasn't quite a nun yet?
But watching her with Steve brought
that same anger to me. For her to tell me that she was going to
be a nun and then get into an admittedly short series of serious
romantic relationships just made me more certain that she was too
dishonest to take a religious vocation. Nuns don't lie, I reasoned.
They aren't allowed.
This was the root of the only fight
Lisa and I ever had, the fight that kept us from speaking to each
other for most of our senior year of high school. I demanded the
truth from her, demanded that she stop answering my questions with
stupid lies. I asked her to tell me how she could justify her relationship
with Steve if she felt called to a lifelong relationship with God.
And she could not respond with the
honesty I thought I deserved.
We sat in class together, at lunch
at the same table every day, and I would try to look as though I
didn't care. Inside, I was wishing she would just confess to me
that she had not always told me the truth, that she would admit
it so we could be friends again.
It never occurred to me to just forgive
and forget. I was sure that I was justified in my anger because
Lisa was failing to be what she said she was called to be. And since
I was right, I had to act the part of the betrayed friend, waiting
for her to fall on her knees and beg me to forgive her. I even had
a speech constructed in my head for when she finally broke down.
The moment, when it actually did take
place, was absolutely anticlimactic. Our whole class was gathered
for mass during our last retreat, just a month before graduation.
When it came time for the Sign of Peace, Lisa found me and said,
"I'm sorry. Forgive me."
And, forgetting all my lines, I just
Which is what I was remembering as
we sat in the coffee shop together, neither of us drinking coffee,
neither of us talking about the past four years. We had not shared
the senior year that we had gone through with everyone else in our
class. We had not discussed what college we could go to or what
we would study. Now seemed the most appropriate time to catch up
on what we had managed to deny ourselves.
"Are you scared about going so far
away?" she asked me.
"Not at all. I'm so ready to get out
"Won't you get homesick?"
"I never get homesick." We laughed.
I hadn't meant to ask that. Things
were suddenly serious again, but she was still smiling.
"I will be home."
She became Sister Theresa Agnes a
year and three days after our last conversation. I went to see her
take her vows, realizing suddenly that Lisa was married, committed
to God for the rest of her life. I couldn't even make a long-distance
relationship last for more than a month. I could barely think about
what was on the other end of graduation for me. Lisa Sister
Theresa Agnes had already made the biggest decision of her
After the ceremony, I stood in line
with the others who had gathered to see her first vows. I grasped
her hands and tried to think of something to say other than "Congratulations,"
or "I'm so happy for you." She just smiled at me, thanking me without
words for coming, promising with her eyes that she would never stop
praying for me. She was the same, serene girl that I would always
remember. Her hair was now hidden under her habit, but her smile
remained the same.
I have not seen her since. I begin
letters that I never send, plan trips to the convent that I never
take, say prayers that somehow taper off before they reach "Amen."
She took her second vows in October
of my senior year of college, a week after Jeremy and I picked out
an engagement ring. The timing, again, seemed curiously perfect.
On the flight back to Baltimore, looking
at my left hand and imagining the way it would look when we announced
our engagement a few months later, it struck me that Lisa would
not be at my wedding. That she had not even met the man I was going
to marry. And that, in a way, I was finally able to understand her.
This was what it felt like to be certain of something.
I caught my reflection in the airplane
window and saw an expression of just for a moment, because
it disappeared when I noticed itserenity.