05 Nov A Visit to St. Agnes
by Beverly Stevens
I knew something was up when Julie called, wanting to know if I would make the trek into Manhattan to meet her for dinner. Though she tried to mask it, her voice sounded strained. I know Julie; she’s my only sibling.
Not a day over 30. That’s what you would say if you saw her from the neck down. Taut body, honed by countless hours at the gym. Her clothes are expensive and new, in the hipster style affected by the DumBo crowd.
Her long blonde hair is salon-fresh. Her big silver earrings make a modern statement.
However, if you were walking behind her, you might notice that her hair is actually quite liberally streaked with grey. And if she turned around and faced you, you would definitely revise your age estimate. Way north of forty.
Her eyes are puffy, and her face is a smoker’s mask. Her glance is wary, like someone accustomed to betrayal. Her contacts turn her naturally brown eyes to a startling reptilian green. As she narrows her eyes to inspect you carefully, Julie looks a good ten years older than the forty years she can claim on this earth.
But it was not always so.
When we were teenagers, we shared the tiny attic atop our row house on a working class street in Queens. Our dad was a fireman, and mom supposedly worked as a bookkeeper.
We were supposedly Catholic, too. That is to say that we said we were. Just like Mom said she was a bookkeeper; Mom had an alcohol problem, you see. And because she hid bottles of vodka around the house, Dad never knew what she would do. So we tended to stay away from social stuff like church.
Julie was the bright, studious one, who hid her charms behind a wall of baby fat until she turned 20. I was the puffy-headed Molly Ringwald teenager, dating a series of Ferris Buellers.
For God’s sake, she said, I should make something out of myself. She was getting her degree at Queens College.
So, I dutifully got a nursing degree at St John’s University, where in my last year I was introduced to Phil at a friend’s party. At first I was wary of him, older than me, just leaving the Air Force after a six year stint. He was also a practicing Catholic, to my immense shock. To my even greater shock, I fell head over heels for him, and we were married on my 22nd birthday.
Julie disapproved, of course, because she maintained that it was critical that a woman ‘find herself’ before she married. I hadn’t found myself. Instead, I found a husband.
But that was seventeen years ago.
“This,” she said, indicating the row of stemmed glasses in front of us, “is what is called a ‘flight.’”
“A ‘flight’ of wine?” I echoed, eying the five glasses I was supposed to drink. “If I drink all this, you’ll get me back in a taxi, right?”
We were perched atop high stools at an outside bar at a Manhattan ‘enoteca’ – a stylish Italian wine bar. It was a steamy late summer evening, and I had taken the train in from my life as a mom in New Jersey. She had taken off early from her job as an assistant designer at a famous New York clothing design house.
Though it sounds glamorous, Julie’s job is brutal, entailing long hours working for the temperamental Thierry, the head designer. (I would call him abusive, but then what do I know?)
Thierry’s connections in the rag trade and show business keep the famous names coming through their door. But Julie is the hard-working brains behind the operation; he relies on her perfectionism to satisfy their most hard-to-please clients. (And although most of these women are all about saving the whales, they become ‘starzilla’ at the designer’s door, let me tell you.)
So she stays until midnight most nights, while he’s off ‘entertaining.’ And since her last ‘soul-mate’ Jeremy cleared out of her apartment — leaving her with a trail of unpaid bills and yet another broken heart– Julie doesn’t mind the monstrous hours. Work distracts her from the killer anxiety that stalks her day and night, alone in her apartment.
This Friday night, Thierry was off in the Hamptons, so she was free to meet me.
I guess I should be grateful that we are still so close. Julie disapproves mightily of my ‘lifestyle,’ though she’s careful about what she says. Not only are we religious, you see. Worse, I’m a homeschooling mother of five – count ‘em – children.
These days, Phil is a flight engineer at Newark Airport; I work part-time, too. We trade off shifts to make sure someone’s always home, and we live in a not-so-great neighborhood. Our lives revolve around our parish, with lots of other homeschooling families.
But, if I can boast for a second, our kids are great. And our oldest son had just scored a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League school.
“To my nephew Dominick,” Julie said, raising her glass. The summer evening light refracted through the pale wine, giving it a greenish hue. Her contacts glittered verdantly behind the glass. “He’s done good.”
She smiled ironically, and drained her glass.
“So, how’s things?” she asked, and lit a cigarette.
I started to fill her in on the myriad boring details of our lives in the unfashionable suburbs, but soon tapered off when I noticed she wasn’t listening. She tapped her cigarette with a perfectly-manicured finger. Her eyes had a faraway look.
This situation wasn’t new. As the years have worn on, I have often noticed this distracted quality in Julie. It was as if she were politely waiting for me to finish talking, so we could get back to her favorite subject: herself.
As a mother, I have observed that children are born thinking they are the center of the universe. Of course, as they mature, they learn to play with others, and as teens they learn to co-operate in more complex ways. It’s like a gradual unfolding of the self to the outside world.
But something has happened to my sister in recent years. It’s like the older she gets, the more fiercely she clings to a kind of false youth. And, like a teenager, she is wholly wrapped up in herself, staring unhappily out of the prison of her narcissism.
When I stopped talking, Julie’s green glance swung around to take me in.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Nothing. How’re things with you? Hear anything from Jeremy?”
She rolled her eyes and grimaced. Jeremy was her latest.
“SO glad I didn’t marry that jerk. Three years of my life was long enough to waste on him.”
Julie had been married in her late twenties to a guy from our neighborhood. He was a so-called electrician’s apprentice. What he was in actuality was a dirt bag who cheated on her, stole all her money and ran off with some girl he’d picked up in a bar while my sister was working nights to pay their bills. It had cost her plenty to get divorced, too, as he had claimed spousal support.
Since then, there had been a string of unsatisfactory lovers, some of whom had left her; others she’d tired of rapidly. She’d thought that Jeremy was different and of course he wasn’t. A handsome, charming commitment-phobe, he’d lost his job at his bank within a year after they’d moved in together and then lived off of Julie for two years until she’d called it quits. It was a bleak life that Julie led, though I wasn’t at all sure that she knew this.
Julie was in mid-sentence when she noticed I wasn’t really listening.
“You know,” she said, sounding annoyed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were bored. But I know that’s not true because you’re out on the town in Manhattan and it’s a beautiful night, right?”
She gave me a glassy smile, and turned around to order another ‘flight.’
“But your New Jersey life is probably so much more glamorous than I can imagine, right?” she continued, turning back to face me. Her mask was slipping. I noticed that her mouth was twitching the way it does when she gets angry.
“Not really,” I said, nettled. I looked around casually at the stylish after-work crowd. The wine was going to my head. “My life is not my own, really. The kids take up every second I’m not working. I see Phil rarely.”
Julie nodded sympathetically. “Poor baby,” she said. Her eyes sparkled unnervingly. She was making me anxious.
“Not really,” I said, again, shrugging in a lame attempt at humor. “I can’t complain. I mean, I could, but what good would it do?”
I smiled disarmingly at her. It didn’t work.
“I never complain,” she snapped, tossing back another glass of wine. “Though some people have no idea what real life is like.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused. I had the distinct impression that we were circling each other warily.
Then, without warning, she attacked.
“Listen, I know that you think my life sucks,” she hissed, her reptilian eyes blazing. Shocked, I glanced around nervously, hoping no one had noticed. “So just lay off the act. I know what you’re thinking.”
“W-what do you mean?” I repeated stupidly.
“You think my life sucks. You pity me,” she replied, with tears starting in her eyes. She took a long drag off her cigarette, and averted her green gaze.
“I do not pity you!” I lied, panicked.
“Yes, you do,” she whispered fiercely. “You have Phil, and the kids. You have a future. And what do I have?”
I didn’t know quite what to say. The agony on her face was awful to see.
“I pray for you,” I whispered, humbly. It was the truth. Every night, I prayed that God would watch over her, and bring her to Him. If that was at all possible, of course.
“Thanks,” she snapped sardonically, took a drag on her cigarette and looked away.
What could I say? Why was my life so charmed, from her point of view? As a Catholic, I would call it living in a state of grace, which comes from frequent confession, communion, and a regular prayer life.
Then, there is the way we live. The cycle of the Church’s feast days – not the holidays on the secular calendar — govern our lives. We eat a lot of home-cooked meals, from the vegetables in our garden. My kids know the stories of the saints from videos and from books that we read to them; they don’t have videogames. They play on the YMCA sports teams, and have sleepovers with the other homeschooled kids. In the summer, there’s lemonade stands and swimming on the Irish Riviera. (That’s the non-sleazy part of the Jersey Shore.)
It all has a kind of cumulative effect. We avoid the near occasions of sin. Or we try to.
I sighed. Even if I tried to explain these things, Julie would not believe one iota. I am not sure she even knows the concept of ‘grace.’ All she knows is that, despite the fact that it’s not supposed to, my life seems so much better than hers.
Dirty diapers, midnight fevers, wearing hand-me-downs, praying that the car makes it one more year — mine is a life she can’t imagine choosing. (‘They’ve discovered what causes that,’ is how she reacted to the news of my fifth pregnancy.)
Nevertheless, she is jealous and angry and it all makes no sense to her.
I couldn’t tell her any of this, however. She would not hear me.
The frustration and sadness of all this made my eyes sting with sudden, mute tears. When Julie saw this, she immediately recanted.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I mean,” she went on, with a visible effort to collect herself, “you do live in that awful neighborhood, and you do work that miserable job, so I suppose life can’t be a bed of roses.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything.
“And you must be thirty or forty pounds overweight, too,” she added, sympathetically. “But that’s nothing that a good regimen of diet and exercise wouldn’t fix.”
And we were off to the races. For the next half hour, I was quizzed about my body mass index, sternly warned against non-organic foods, and counseled about what exercise program would ‘work’ for me. As she spoke, Julie grew more and more animated, and her gestures more flamboyant.
This was safe ground for her, I could see. This worship of the body, this was someplace where she could feel successful. She could play the teacher, the older sister, the guide.
As for me, I watched her, dumbfounded, in a kind of alcoholic haze. We hadn’t eaten yet. She kept talking. Finally, I signaled the barkeep for some menus, ordered some over-priced ‘nibbles’ and made sure my sister ate something. She kept up her bright chatter, and in short order, the earlier, pained Julie had disappeared. Her mask was back in place.
An hour or so later, we were trekking through the gloaming city streets. The warm air was rising off the pavement and all was right with the world. We were once again two amazingly close sisters, laughing and chatting a mile a minute, headed for a taxi stand near Julie’s apartment.
My sister turned to hug me goodbye. Her expensive scent enveloped me, her blonde-gray hair streaming in the evening breeze.
She never saw the large man who slammed into her, hard.
Julie’s sky-high heels instantly gave way, and down she went in a crumpled heap, a strangled cry emitting from her lips. Though she grazed me on her way down, I was steadier – all that extra weight and flat shoes, I guess.
Stunned, I looked at my sister collapsed on the city sidewalk and then turned my outraged fury on the man.
He was a priest.
A priest in a cassock.
“Father!” I shouted in exasperation.
A few curious passersby stopped.
The priest, a middle-aged man with silver at his temples, gaped at me, and then in horror at Julie on the sidewalk.
“Oh, my Lord!” he exclaimed. “I am so sorry! Can you get up?” He bent over to try and lift her. I knelt down beside her and quickly checked her vital signs.
Julie glared at him from her crumpled position on the sidewalk.
“Do I look like I can get up?” she spat out bitterly. Her Coach bag lay sprawled open beside her, the expensive cosmetics strewn on the sidewalk. One high heel was broken.
Relieved, I saw that she was fine. Perhaps bruised. Definitely mad. But physically fine. So I was completely unprepared for what happened next.
My forty year old sister began to sob. And then to wail, loudly. Like a toddler. On the sidewalk on 43rd and Lexington Avenue, at rush hour. Her blonde-grey mane shook convulsively as she cried as if her heart would break, heedless of the stares of passersby.
Astonished, the priest and I looked at each other in a sudden, mute understanding.
“Is there someplace we can take her?” I asked him, hopefully.
A few minutes later, we were in the parish office at the Church of Saint Agnes, which to my immense relief was just a few steps away. The priest, it turned out, was the pastor, Father Esperanza.
It took a little while to establish that Julie had not hit her head, or broken any bones in her headlong sprawl. She had a few scrapes, and was just ‘a little shook up’ as the parish secretary put it. She was also more than a little drunk.
There was a large couch in the ladies’ room and a few minutes later Julie had fallen asleep there, curled up like a child in her preposterously fashionable clothing. I took both her high heels off, and covered her with the soft, clean blanket the secretary gave me.
Father Esperanza was pacing anxiously outside, and I assured him that my sister was fine. Though to be honest, I told him, I was alarmed at her behavior.
He poured me a cup of coffee, and sat down with me in his office.
“I-I feel like she’s really lost here,” I told him sadly. “She moved to Manhattan eighteen years ago thinking it would be like living in the TV show ‘Friends,’ and now it’s become like a nightmare.”
He nodded understandingly. So I told him the whole sad story.
“Looks like her ‘Friends’ have turned on her,” he said with a sigh when I had finished. “And now she’s all alone.”
“Yes, and somehow running into you tonight has brought everything to a head. It was like, like, she just stopped being an adult out there. Like she just reverted to being a child, wailing helplessly on the sidewalk.”
“Yes,” he said sympathetically and sighed again. “Sometimes life gets the better of all of us.”
“No, I think it was more,“ I said, seriously. “I think it was your cassock, and your collar, Father. Something about seeing you made her do this. It’s like she’s thrown herself into the arms of the Church, don’t you see? Because everything else has failed. She’s at the end of her rope.”
“Could be,” he said, nodding. “We see many people at the end of their rope here. Many people who venture inside this church just because they need to touch Him, to feel the Sacred in their lives. It’s tough out there. Most, though not all, are fallen-away Catholics. Their lives are going along pretty well, then something happens. A job loss. A bad diagnosis. A betrayal. A death. A divorce. Sometimes more than one of these things happen at once and their usual coping mechanisms don’t work anymore.”
I nodded. “It’s like they don’t have anywhere else to turn.”
I thought of Phil and me, working our jobs and homeschooling our kids, living on the edge financially and praying together every night. Somehow we always got through things, because the Faith was always there.
But Julie didn’t have the Faith.
Father Esperanza was very kind, of course, but it was getting late and his secretary needed to go home. I woke a still-groggy Julie, who was mightily embarrassed. I left her cleaning up as best she could in ladies’ room.
“Have you seen St Agnes?” Father asked me. “It’s a new church, built to look like a Roman city church, with a classical façade. The interior is quite beautiful, actually.”
So I followed him into the church, gazing at the low lights which set off niches where candles flickered in front of life-sized saints. We walked to the center aisle, our footsteps echoing hollowly on the granite floors.
“Father?” I heard Julie before I saw her, her light hair haloed under the low lights.
The priest was across the floor to her in a heartbeat.
“How are you feeling?” he asked in a voice of deep concern.
She rubbed her head ruefully, looking abashed.
“I-I should have seen you coming,” she stammered.
“Oh come on,” he scoffed. “It was all my fault. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!”
They stood regarding each other for a moment, before Julie dropped her eyes. She looked around the darkened church, her green gaze taking in the flickering candles and the fresco glowing over the altar.
“Who’s that?” she asked, a bit irrationally.
“Saint Agnes, a young girl who lived in ancient Rome,” he answered.
“Why is she a saint?” she asked.
“Agnes was a beautiful young girl from a wealthy family and had many suitors of high rank. According to her legend, the young men, slighted by Agnes' resolute devotion to religious purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity. She was condemned to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, and eventually was beheaded in the arena.”
My sister shuddered at this stark tale.
“There’s also a story about her sister,” Father Esperanza went on. “A few days after Agnes' death, her sister, Saint Emerentiana, was found praying by her tomb and was stoned to death after refusing to leave the place and reprimanding the pagans for killing Agnes.”
“Sounds like something my sister would do,” Julie said absently.
Father looked at me, but I was gazing at Julie. Her eyes were full of tears, which began to spill down her cheeks. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked exhausted. She turned her head and stood gazing at the fresco of the martyr Agnes.
“Let me know how she’s doing,” Father said a few minutes later. He shook my hand warmly, pressing a Miraculous Medal into it as we walked out the door, headed for Julie’s nearby apartment.
So, that is how I got Julie into bed, and called Phil to tell him I would be staying in the city. He was sweet about it, and told me he’d say a prayer for Julie.
I couldn’t bear the cigarette smell, without an open window. Outside, Manhattan traffic roared by all night long, and I had a restless night on Julie’s sofa. She slept soundly, however, and the next morning she woke me with coffee. It was almost eight o’clock, and I could hear the Mass bells ringing at St Agnes’s.
I got dressed quickly in the bathroom, where I noticed something peculiar. Father Esperanza’s card was taped to Julie’s bathroom mirror.
Puzzled, I found my way to her kitchen doorway. My sister stood there, her back to me. She was gazing through the open window, listening to the bells as if hearing them for the first time. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“I’m going to Mass,” I told her.
“Mass?” she echoed quietly. She seemed lost in a kind of reverie. “Right now?”
“Yes. Is there anything you want from the bakery?”
“N-no,” she said automatically. “Too many carbs.”
“Right,” I said, a bit crestfallen, and turned to go. Phil would need to leave soon, and I had to get home. There was only so much I could do for Julie. She no doubt was gearing up for another 14-hour shift as a glamour-slave.
“W-wait,” Julie said suddenly. Then, to my utter shock, she said, “I acted terribly last night. I want to go to church. Give me a second. I’ll go with you.”
When she emerged, I noticed that she had flats on. In fact, her whole look was dialed down – a simpler, less ‘look-at-me’ Julie. I noticed that she had her spectacles on, and when she regarded me, I saw the old, honest brown gaze that I remembered from our attic room in Queens.
Around her neck was a silver chain, with Father Esperanza’s Miraculous Medal.
Julie returned my inquiring look and smiled, somewhat shyly. She looked younger — considerably south of forty, in fact — in the morning light.
I gave my sister a quick hug, and we went to Holy Mass.