Marianne Leone

Marianne Leone

 

Bride of Christ

M. Leone illo sm
Illustrated by Pat Messina Singer

The seventh grade class blessed the hour, prompted by the bell. They put down their pens at once and crossed themselves, raising their eyes to the crucifix above the blackboard, flanked on one side by Pope John XXIII and the other by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first Catholic president. The class sang “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.” Sister Bernadette smiled at them. The class smiled back, captivated. Sister Bernadette was young, pretty and soft-spoken, a nun so far from the usual coven of harridans teaching at Precious Blood Junior High it was as if Tinkerbell or the tooth fairy had donned a habit and decided to grace them all.

Sister Bernadette held up a picture of a body reclining in an enclosed glass coffin, like Snow White.  She explained to the class that the body was of St. Catherine Laboure, a French nun who had received a message from the Blessed Virgin to tell people to wear a medal she described to the saint, the miraculous medal that many of the class had received at their First Holy Communion. Sister Bernadette went on to explain that Saint Catherine LaBoure died in 1876. Fifty-seven years later, the Church exhumed her body and it was found to be incorrupt: there were no signs of decay and her limbs were still supple. Saint Catherine LaBoure wasn’t the only incorruptible saint, their teacher said. At one time, the Church used incorruptibility as a requirement for sainthood. The Little Flower, Saint Therese of Lisieux, was incorrupt, as was her namesake, Bernadette of Lourdes, and many, many others. Sister Bernadette bestowed another gleaming smile on the class.

Christina heard very little about the incorruptibles. Normally she would’ve been all over this deliciously grisly subject, but so entranced was she by the way Sister Bernadette’s delicately feathered black eyebrows lifted above her indigo blue eyes when she smiled, Christina could think of nothing else but the nun’s radiant beauty. She pictured Sister Bernadette’s matching coal-black hair, shiny and straight, underneath her wimple. It was probably short, like Audrey Hepburn’s in “The Nun’s Story, ” and wispily fine, not coarse and horsey, like her mother’s. She wished Sister Bernie were her big sister. She looked like an adorable elf. She was an elf of God, Christina decided.

“This, class, is a miracle. Can anyone give me another example of a miracle?”   Christina shot her hand up before she thought through her answer. She had to get on Sister Bernie’s radar.

“Yes, Christina?”

Christina stood to answer, averting her eyes. She couldn’t speak and look at Sister Bernie all at once. She swooned to think that Sister Bernie used first names for students without the formal, condescending “Miss” in front of her last name like the other nuns.  She realized the moment she stood that what she had to say was ridiculous and might actually provoke the class to uncontrollable mocking laughter but she plunged ahead anyway, speaking all in one breath, as quietly as if she were confessing to murder.

“Once when I was at Norumbega Park I spent all my money on rides and then I couldn’t get home because I didn’t have money for the bus and then I found a quarter right under the witch at the haunted house like it was a sign from God and I could take the bus home and it was a miracle because I needed to get home.” She cleared her throat. “On the bus which cost a quarter” she added. She sat down and stared at her scuffed wooden desktop. She ventured a peek at Sister Bernie, who was still smiling, except now her smile looked fake, like the smile on a department store dummy. Christina looked around at the class casually, she thought. She saw Patsy, the most popular girl at school, rolling her eyes at her best friend Mary Agnes and shaking her head. Sister Bernadette nodded.

“Er, well, God works in our lives in many ways. I’ll tell you a story from my own life.”

The class stirred with interest. Nuns never told you anything about their personal lives.

“When I wasn’t much older than you, I prayed very hard to hear God’s special voice telling me I had a vocation. You should do the same, boys and girls.”

The girls in the class shifted in their seats, disappointed. This was no juicy insight into Sister Bernadette’s pre-convent life. Instead, it was the same tired pitch to sign up. Noting the audience drifting away, Sister Bernadette picked up the pace.

“And… at that very second, Elvis came on the radio singing ‘I Want You, I Love You, I Need You.’ “The nun stared at the class expectantly. “Do you see? It wasn’t Elvis speaking to me. It was really Jesus’ voice telling me He wanted me, loved me, needed me as His divine spouse!”

It was possible to get radio messages from God, Christina thought, with a kind of wonder she hadn’t felt since the Christmas mornings of long ago. Elvis could change into God, like bread and wine could change into the body and blood of Christ. It was thrilling. There were messages that were trying to come through to Christina, maybe. She just had to pay more attention to the pink plastic radio in her room. She had probably been tuning in to the wrong station, and God was having a hard time coming through Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg on WMEX. As if from a distance Christina heard Mary Agnes asking Sister Bernadette if she had boyfriends when she was a teenager, and her chunky friend Rose’s excited high-pitched giggle.

Sister Bernadette explained that she had lots of dates when she was in high school, but that she wanted something more.  Patsy raised her hand and stood.

“But…didn’t you have fun, S’tah?”

“Oh, yes, dear, I had fun, but the dates didn’t make me happy. What made me truly happy was to give myself entirely to God and experience the fullness of His love away from worldly distractions. Because, boys and girls, today we are discussing miracles. And God’s love is a miracle! Love is a miracle!”

The boys began chasing the girls before they even got out of the schoolyard, trying to hit them with their green book bags. The girls shrieked with delight and simulated fear, coming close then zigzagging away, all except for nuns-in-training Cecilia and Margaret Mary who walked away, their squared shoulders signaling disapproval. The boys ignored them; they had no love for Cecilia and her pale sidekick.

Dennis Dempsey caught up with Christina and scored a direct hit on her shoulder. She turned, squealing, and lifted her bag, but before she could land it he reached in and gave her nose a Three Stooges-style tweak. They stood, panting, facing each other in a limitless time zone of adolescent possibility. Giddy anticipation pushed Christina’s lips into an almost-kissable pout. She wanted to burst out laughing. A boy wanted her! The worst boy in school wanted her! Dennis’ blue eyes were intent on her face. Christina marveled at the adorable cinnamon freckles scattered over his tiny, up-tilted nose. She loved his nose; she wanted it for herself. If she had Dennis’ nose she would be cute, perky, American, like Tuesday Weld, the blonde beauty on “Dobie Gillis.”  Dennis lifted his hand, and in a reverse salute, placed it on Christina’s forehead, above her eyes. He looked at her. Christina thought he would tell her then. He would say “I want you, I need you, I love you.” This was the moment.

“Your eyes are brown. That means you’re full of shit up to here,” he said.

She turned and ran, the rush of disappointment pumping her legs higher and higher, until she caught up with Patsy and Mary Agnes and Rose.

Christina slumped on her bed after dinner, the scenes from that afternoon running through her mind in a headachy loop. She had gone to Mr. Pup’s with Patsy and Mary Agnes and Rose and watched from a corner as the senior boys eyed Patsy and Mary Agnes, ignoring Rose and Christina. One of the seniors, a squat boy with a brush cut and bad skin, even bought Patsy a coke. She ignored him with enviable restraint. How did Patsy always know how to act with boys? Now the brush-cut boy was dazed with love for her. Danny Grillo came in with Dennis. Christina turned away from Rose, her lifeline, and faced the wall, pretending to stare at a dusty, out-of-date calendar. Danny struck up an awkward conversation with Rose, asking to copy her math homework. Christina smirked at the wall, hearing that one: Rose got consistent sixties in math. Mary Agnes gave them the invisible signal to leave, and Christina and Rose got up, like drones following the queen. Christina had to squeeze by Dennis, who acted like she was a person with a contagious disease, not even looking at her, his body leaning farther away than was necessary as she edged by him, eyes to the ground like a penitent.

Through her closed door Christina could hear her mother Rita’s teasing faraway voice responding to something her father Joe said. Christina would never get married. She would never talk to a boy in a special voice. She hated boys, which was good, because they hated her back. She thought of Sister Bernadette and Audrey Hepburn in their little cells, away from the world. She wanted to be shut away from the world and not have to talk to anyone.

Christina leapt up and turned on her pink plastic radio. If Sister Bernie could get a message from Jesus over the airwaves, maybe she could, too.

Adventure Car Hop is the place to go

For food that’s always right

Adventure food is always just so

You’ll relish every bite!

The jingle went on for another two verses, then Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg came on urging kids to order the “Ginsburger” that was served on a record you got to keep. And if you said “woo woo” to the carhop, you got another Ginsburger for free. Christina was disgusted. She turned off the radio in the middle of an avalanche of cowbells and klaxon horns. Obviously, she was just a joke to Jesus. She would show Him she was serious. Suddenly determined, she ran downstairs.

“Daddy, I’m gonna be a nun,” she blurted.

Her father was distracted, his eyes on the television news. “Huh?” he said. “I’m gonna be a nun. Like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story,” she repeated. Joe smiled at her.

“Over my dead body. I wanna walk you down the aisle some day.”

Her little brother Vinny looked up from his coloring book. “You’re ugly enough to be a nun,” he said. Christina made her witch face at Vinny, the one that always made him go limp with fear. She walked slowly toward him, adding an eerie high-pitched laugh. Vinny tried not to cower, but the scary voice got to him and he began to whimper. “Eh, s’all right, s’all right” said her grandfather, employing the one English phrase he knew, his skinny body lost in the depths of his chair. Joe lost his patience. “I’m tryin’ to watch this! RITA!” he called. Rita rushed in from the kitchen in time to hear Christina and Vinny stake out their positions. “He called me ugly!” “She tried to scare me, mummy!” Joe looked up at Rita. “Now your daughter wants to be a nun,” he said. Rita looked at Christina and smirked.

You gonna keep your mouth shut?” She mock-blessed herself in Italian. Rita said to Joe: “She wants to wash the priest’s mutande for free for the rest of her life!” Rita and Joe both had a good laugh at the idea of Christina washing the priests’ underpants.

Christina stormed up the stairs to her room, yelling over the railing to her stupid, insensitive family.

“You’ll all have to visit me behind bars when I join the Carmelites!”

“YOU BETTER SHUT UP OR YOU WILL BE BEHIND BARS! IN THE NUTHOUSE!” Rita shot back.

Christina slammed the door to her room and flung herself back onto her bed, her mother’s shrill “Sominabitch! No slamma the door” muted and distant, like a bad memory. She lay back on her pillow, picturing herself in a flattering white habit, her features transformed into Audrey Hepburn’s, nose slimmed and tilted, her now flawless complexion enhanced by the white wimple and flowing veil. Her family would come to visit her and she would receive them, seated behind the grille. They would be nervous and insecure at her calm, saintly bearing. Her mother would beg her to pray for them, and ask her for a winning lottery number. Christina would agree to pray for Rita but would warn her mother that her Bridegroom, Jesus, was unhappy with her, that she never went to church and said too many swears. Rita would fall to her knees, weeping, asking for forgiveness. Then Dennis would come in. He would be struck dumb by her radiant beauty, enhanced by the habit. He would be unable to look at her. He would also beg her forgiveness for his rude behavior. He would tell her that every time he looked into her brown eyes, he could hardly keep from fainting, he was so overcome with love for her, that his love for Christina was making him mad with desire, that she had to be his girlfriend, that he would buy her a Ginsburger and a charm bracelet and a friendship ring to wear around her neck. Christina would be demure, murmuring that her Husband didn’t want Dennis to speak to her like that. Then the voice of God would boom down at Dennis and her heavenly Husband would tell him to GO TO HELL, that he was cursed and could only be redeemed by doing penance for the sin of insulting Christina, the Bride of Christ.

The phone rang in the hall. Christina raced to get it before her mother picked up. It was Patsy.

“Dennis Dempsey likes you,” she said.

 

Bio:
Marianne Leone is the author of JESSE, A MOTHER’S STORY (Simon & Schuster). Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Coastal Living, Post Road, Bark Magazine and elsewhere. She played Joanne Moltisanti (Christopher’s mother) on the Sopranos for three seasons. She is married to actor Chris Cooper. Marianne is a first generation Italian American and her latest memoir MA SPEAKS UP (Beacon Press) is about her immigrant mother, who came to the U.S.to escape fascism and an arranged marriage.

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