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I am named for virgins.
Four, actually: three saints and another woman whose canonization has stalled.
Saint Emiliana, aunt to a pope, died in the sixth century, never having left her father’s house. Saint Emily de Vialar didn’t leave her father’s house until she was thirty-five, when she received a large inheritance from her grandfather, which she promptly put to use founding an order of nuns. Saint Emily de Rodat devoted her life to teaching poor children and caring for what her biographers unfailingly call “unfortunate women.” And when the Blessed Emily Bicchieri (beatified in 1769, she, like me, is still awaiting promotion to full sainthood) learned that Dad was planning a big wedding for her, she said no: no, take all that money and build me a convent, please. Which he did and which she entered and there she died, forty years later. On her birthday. A virgin.
So it’s really no surprise, then, that tradition holds Emily is the patron saint of single women.
And no surprise, an Emily, I’m single.
And maybe it’s no surprise that in the fiftieth year of my life, thirty-four years after leaving my father’s house, ten years into a career of teaching children who were, on the whole, quite fortunate, I did something I had never, ever done before.
I kissed a boy.
When I die, a bell will ring. Mrs. Ramirez told me this over coffee, after mass. Mrs. Ramirez, half my height, twice my age. She also told me that she was part Gypsy. That she could see the future. That if I gave her twenty-five dollars she would tell me my fortune, and Father–she was referring to the visiting priest, young, who’d somehow used the Gospel of the prodigal son to spark a homily against MTV, despite the fact that the average age of the congregation (excluding me) was roughly 105, and that we all stood about as much chance of falling prey to music videos as dogs do to being bewitched by Mozart–anyway, Mrs. Ramirez said Father wouldn’t disapprove of my visiting with her, paying her, because what she does isn’t black magic, but white magic, and Jesus Himself sometimes sits with her in the room, and wouldn’t I like to meet Jesus?
Met him, I told her.
Mrs. Ramirez sipped at her coffee, crinkling her face into the cup.
He was awfully nice, I went on, because I was sick of Mrs. Ramirez buttonholing me every Sunday with her sales pitch, and I was even more sick of the fact that death was always part of the pitch. She was forever telling me what would happen when I died. An eclipse, a torrential rain, a dog would bark. And now, a bell. Why couldn’t it ever be sunny and 70, and me inside the pretty hospital, slipping away to the peaceful hum of impotent machines?
Besides, what more do I need to know? I asked her. You already told me, a bell will ring.
Mrs. Ramirez lowered her coffee, looked around, looked at me, and spoke.
For twenty-five dollars, she said, I tell you when.
The good news: to know my life in full, you need not consult Mrs. Ramirez. Rather, simply sit with me the day one of my students brought a corpse to class and made his classmates laugh.
I’m exaggerating, but not much, and not about the laughter. They laughed: that’s what riled me the most. Not that half of them had come into class late–including the young man then giving his oral report–nor that all of them, the girls especially, would take our admonition to “dress up” for Friday’s special mass as license to dress like novice sex workers, nor even that that morning, of all mornings, I was being observed by the department chair.
It was the laughter, which started the way it always did, as nervous giggles, before devolving into loud, bright barks. Laughter, even though this was high school, Catholic high school, and even though my bunch were frequently well behaved. I always thought that if they could have heard just how much they sounded like puppies when they laughed, they would have stopped–but I might have been wrong about that. I was, and am, wrong about a lot of things, especially what fashions, be they cultural or intellectual, students enjoy. The department chair, Father Martin Dimanche, often reminded me of this, but what did he know? He was sixty or seventy (it was unclear, and he answered with a joke whenever I asked). He also had a crush on me, or I on him; that was murky, too. I remember thinking that if I were ever to pay Mrs. Ramirez anything, it would be to find out the answer to high school’s eternal question: does he like me?
I don’t know, not in this memory. I only know the contents of Martin’s eyes, which were deep and gray and clear.
I tried not to look at him, for obvious reasons, but also because he was sitting directly in front of the source of all this trouble, a bookcase. Or rather, the contents of the bookcase: a vintage, complete-but-for-Volume-XIII 1913 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia. Donated to the school the previous summer by an elderly widower, rejected by the library as out of date and rescued by me, who pointed out that just about everything important in Catholicism had already happened by 1913, with the exception of Vatican II (and Lord knows–an idiom I’m licensed for, thanks–there seemed to be less and less reason of late to study that).
In September, I had set my seniors the task of doing oral reports, based on topics they found in the encyclopedia. In part because I wanted the books put to use, in part because I wanted them to use books. Ours was a supposedly rigorous, college prep program, but there were students who would graduate, I knew, without ever having physically visited a library and done research with the aid of those clothbound, paper-and-ink thingies that the librarians had taken care to arrange so neatly on the shelves. Books: my students tucked their little chins into their chests and looked up at me, eyes angry and sad that I would corrupt them this way. Google was their new God. Books were foolish, impractical things. Maybe that was what drove the laughter: books were inherently laughable, just the notion of them.
Or maybe it was me, Ms. Hamilton, or Mrs. Hamilton, as many of them called me in moments of weakness, so desperate was their innate desire to marry me off. And yet, I’d done that–marry–once, twice, and the third time was no charm, either.
I never took any of my husbands’ names. I took and kept my father’s name, Hamilton, because he didn’t offer anything else. I’ve never liked it. A long time ago, I looked into changing my middle and last name to–true, I live in California–“The Great,” which would have been exactly that, but I didn’t have the money, and then decided it was more satisfying to resent the fact that women who got married could change their names to their husband’s for free whereas the rest of us independent females had to fork it over to The Man if we wanted to liberate ourselves.
By now the kids had stopped laughing, and rightly so, because the boy’s oral report had turned dark indeed.
There are things a teacher does not do in a high school theology class. (Beyond the obvious, I mean–flirt, drink, smoke, leer, fart.) One skims lightly, for example, through the story of the wedding feast at Cana, during which Jesus changes some jugs of water into wine when the party starts running low on alcohol: “Sir,” the headwaiter tells the groom, sotto voce, after sampling the new mystery wine, “usually you serve the good wine first and save the bad for last, since by then everyone’s blotto. But here you’re serving the good wine well after anyone’s in a condition to notice.” (Don’t trust my translation? Then take it from King James: “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.”)
Either way, this tells kids two things they don’t need to know: first, drink enough wine and it doesn’t matter what it tastes like; and second, there’s such a thing as good jug wine.
For not entirely unrelated reasons, one also does not discuss the Book of Revelations, especially not with freshmen.
One avoids the topic of exorcism.
And one skips the story of Onan, unless one has something new to say on the subject. (Which would be what, exactly?)
And in matters of church history, one tries to move as quickly as possible through the saeculum obscurum, the church’s “Dark Century,” the tenth century, when a series of vile, venal popes perpetrated such acts as would cause historians years later to coin the altogether unpleasant word pornocracy. This is not a word one wants to chalk on the board and explain.
Neither is the name of the pope, Formosus, whose death roughly marks the start of this fetid period.
But the church, or at least teaching a course focused on it, is so rarely about what one wants. And so it came to pass that the beginning of the end of my life–or at least that life–commenced with a handsome young man discoursing on a beleaguered old man, Formosus.
Formosus: that was whom this young rapscallion, young Edgar (not even Catholic, parents just sent him to Catholic school for the discipline, when they were the ones who needed scolding: “Edgar”?) had chosen for his report. Edgar–who was eighteen, looked nineteen, acted seventeen, especially around anyone who paid the slightest sort of attention to him–somehow went straight to Volume VI of the rescued encyclopedia, Fathers to Gregory. And out of all the topics he could have selected therein–say, the saintly practice of genuflection, which the encyclopedia had a good 4,500-plus words on, I once counted, and a lot of those kids wouldn’t have known how to kneel even if they were tackled from behind–Edgar selected Formosus. And then played it for laughs, starting with the name itself, which he pronounced as though the long-dead, long-infamous pope were related to Theodore Geisel: Formoseuss. I corrected him. Formosus, For-MO-suss, pronounced like us, which should have been a warning right there, us, we, our: the story you were about to tell, young Edgar, was not about them, not about others, but about us.
No, that gloss was not immediately apparent, even to adults, but those kids, thunderheaded though they might have been, had unusually acute intuition. It’s the mark of their genera- tion. So I would have expected them to be a little more wary of what Edgar trotted out before them, to feel a little more anxious in its wake.
For all Edgar’s faults–and I was planning to review them with him, outlined with Roman numerals if necessary, after class–I could see why he chose this topic from the book he’d grabbed off the shelf. I couldn’t quite discern what hand had guided him to the F volume, other than the fact that he was a boy, and quite possibly could have been in search of the canonical take on farts, or anything else from the dark and dirty world that is F. Instead, he found Formosus.
Even so, Edgar was not a bad boy. I mean, person. We were scolded if we ever called our charges boys or girls: they were young men and women, students, citizens, our future. Other schools, apparently, taught boys and girls. Here we taught centurions of the new generation. Or something like that; one of the things I liked about Edgar–and here, too, in the category of likes, I could generate a neat, Roman-numeraled list, parsed all the way down into those lowercased i’s and v’s–was his vague resemblance to a centurion. He acted tall, stood taller, and liked his looks as much as everyone else.
But this was tricky, this Formosus business, for so many reasons. Martin, for one. When I did a quick status check during Edgar’s talk, I found that Father Martin’s fine gray eyes had darkened, and why not? It was hardly as though one could grin through this gruesome chapter of church history. (Then again, Martin grinned even less when I taught sex ed, though I usually couldn’t stop grinning at such times–church history and sex ed were located in the same department at our high school, something apparently only I found funny. The sex ed class was not called sex ed, of course, nor was it called Stop That! a title I perennially proposed, and which, again, left me laughing alone.)
Stop that: Martin checked his watch, I checked the clock on the back wall, and then I checked Edgar. I should have stopped him. I should have, but I could not, did not. Edgar had turned a corner, from class clown to sober scholar, and I’d turned one, too, from teacher to student. Not Edgar’s student, mind you, but the student I was when I first heard this story. I was roughly Edgar’s age, and it was a difficult time.
For the moment, let’s talk about Formosus instead.
Formosus was born in the year 816, Edgar explained. Died, an old man, in 896. And anyone who knows this story knows that’s the good part, the bad part: the died part. But to Edgar’s credit, he didn’t skip ahead to the story’s gruesome end. I will. Formosus was subjected to a posthumous trial by his successor, Stephen VI. And unlike the wimpy mock trials that law students put on today, retrying old cases with actors or imagination, Stephen went for the big gesture. Had Formosus dug up and dressed in his papal vestments, and then seated him on a little throne right in front of his former peers.
And then he began to speak.
It was not my finest hour of teaching, which I knew without even glancing once more at Martin. Martin, sadly, had been present for many of my worst hours of teaching, such as when, my first year, a smartass student who’d been heckling me all class finally asked, “Is this your first year teaching?” and I told him–trying very hard not to look at Martin, who at the time was in the back of the room, observing the provisional hire for the first time–to “shut the fluff up.”
Now, see, that’s funny. But no one obliged me with a laugh. The students did that stop-breathing thing they do during times of real crisis and slowly turned as one to see a scowling Father Martin stand and stride to the front of the room.
“I believe the phrase is ‘shut the fuck up,’ ” he said, and then, turning to the miscreant, added, “and she should have told you that half an hour ago.” He gave a courtesy nod to me and then wheeled back to the student. “With me, boy.” We all watched silently as they paced out of the room. The looks on the remaining students’ faces–it’s hard to describe. It was as though he had been summoned for execution. I was so new to the school, I half wondered if that really was what was in the offing. It may have been; I never saw the student again.
But there, then, back in the classroom with Edgar, Formosus, Martin said nothing. A more seasoned teacher than I, or for that matter, a real teacher, would have interrupted Edgar, sent him back to his seat, told the class to forget or dismiss everything they’d heard: the history of the church is not to be cast as a parade of horrors, of ghoulish trivia. These are temporal matters, left to other, more myopic historians. What we needed to do–what I needed to do–was instruct them in the foundations of their faith. Formosus was not part of that foundation. Formosus was a footnote.
Allow me, however, to footnote the class, starting with its official title, Church History: everyone, including me, called it Saints and Sinners. The nickname stemmed, I suppose, from my profound weakness for hagiographies (my master’s thesis was a study of early women saints, and, year after year, my students had to do oral presentations on the saints of their choice), or my weakness for proclaiming that all saints were sinners first, so maybe there was hope for them, my students. Even Edgar.
Edgar: not destined for a career as a theologian or, for that matter, any profession requiring much in the way of literacy. He’d told us, for example, that the root of Formosus was Formosa, the “old-fashioned” name of Taiwan. And there you had it, an early medieval pope named after the last redoubt of Chiang Kai-shek. I should have corrected him: Formosus was not Taiwanese; his name means “beautiful one.” (Chiang Kai-shek’s name, part of it, anyway, means “stone”; never mind that the part I always liked was the Italian bit, Generalissimo.)
Now then, Edgar himself–whose name means “blessed spear” in Old English, and read nothing into the fact that I looked that up–Edgar was the unofficial “beautiful one” of our class, if the silent census I daily took was correct. He attracted eyes, Edgar. Including mine, as he mispronounced exhumed as “ex-hummed”–the disinterred pope a tune you no longer remember–and now it was too late to stop him. I don’t just mean too late in his talk, but too late in the week. It was Friday, and students are always loath to have learning interrupt their Fridays. I distracted myself by scanning faces and betting who would tell their parents about this, and whose would then care enough to call.
Cecily: Cecily would tell her parents. Actually, it was more complicated than that. Cecily told her parents about everything, excepting one category, which was boys. I learned this through the entirely honorable practice of overhearing a bathroom conversation, one she’d had with a friend by the sinks while I was in a stall. (Oh, the pleasures of teaching in a former all-boys school: the male teachers had separate faculty toilets, but the most the school could scrounge up for the women were joint student/ faculty bathrooms.) Cecily’s friend had said something I thought sounded perfectly reasonable–therefore, it must have been ridiculous–and Cecily said, no, I never talk to my mom about boys. Edgar was a boy. And Cecily, like most of the class, was, as I’ve said, taken with Edgar. So it was possible her parents would never hear about Formosus. Or Edgar. Or Paul.
Paul: my quiet, brilliant student with eyes the size of fists and the color of milked coffee. I love coffee (black). I did not love Paul (against the rules). And I did not need to do any restroom eavesdropping to know what he was about; it was all there, embodied in his every action. When Martin departed in the midst of Edgar’s Formosus report, for example–because there was only so long the man could sit through that nonsense, I suppose, or because he was more than thirty seconds late for his midmorning nicotine fix–Paul half stood, because Paul remembered that this is what one did when the chair of the department, the principal, a visiting bishop, or Jesus Himself, come back to snatch skyward the elect, entered or exited the room. A student stood. In this case, though, only the one person stood, Paul, and then he quickly and sheepishly sat back down. It didn’t matter much to Martin, who himself might have stood for Nina Simone, but would have made the pope, any pope, get his own chair.
That’s not what I needed to tell you about Paul, or maybe it is, or maybe it’s what I needed to tell you about Martin. In any case, it will have to do, because by now Edgar had taken advantage of the rising chatter to move to his seat, leaving me his mess. The urchin. What happened next? I thought, since Edgar had finished without really finishing. He’d given us the good gory stuff and had left the rest of the story untold.
The rest of the story. The rest of the Formosus story you can find in a book, one of those books that was on my shelf.
But then, there was this part that involved me.
“What happened next!” I actually said, or shouted, because I’d come out of my reverie a bit more ruined than I planned. Edgar, through errant fortune or divine spite, had chosen a topic certain to reach through me and pluck my spine, make me freeze and shiver all at once. The truth is–as if anyone knows what the truth is–I was so wrapped up in the story, the story was so deeply embedded in me for reasons that these kids didn’t know, wouldn’t ever know, not if I could help it, that when I spoke, my voice sounded shredded. There may even have been tears in my eyes, I’m not sure.
The kids quieted, the giggles suppressing themselves with varying degrees of success.
“Edgar?” I regained control, calm. I was very proud of myself for this. I checked the clock. I had five minutes. The usual preflight ruckus–books getting bagged, zippers zipping, whispers whispering–was due to start any moment.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Hamilton,” he said.
“Ms. Hamilton,” I corrected him.
“Ms. Hamilton,” he said, God bless him, without an ounce of sass. He had a deep vein of–some would call it insecurity but I term it tenderness–and his occasionally smug confidence in his wit and good looks was counterbalanced, I knew, by a deep and secret terror of all this Catholic business. One only had to witness, especially during tests, the nervous looks he furtively shot our room’s own crucified Jesus, who hung above the chalkboard.
“What happened next?” I asked again.
“I don’t know, Ms. Hamilton.”
Then I made my mistake. “Why?” I asked.
Here’s something else about Edgar: he looked at you when he talked.
“Well, this Pope Stephen is what happens next, I guess, and he begins with S, and I only had out the F book.”
And it was on the tip of my tongue to say it–an F shall be your grade, then, for your incuriosity–but I stopped at the last moment, reminding myself once more how unfair a match this was, always is, how a little quip from me could land like a spear (unblessed) in their chests. They were still that young, most of them, they still cared.
I sat down instead. Because I’m tall, this is always a dramatic act, apparently. In any case, everyone was watching me now, their precious little faces focusing on me with emotions approximating concern. Because they liked me, most of the time, anyway, and they saw that I was upset, and not upset in the usual way, angry at some insufficiency of theirs. Upset now because something was wrong, wrong inside me, and they knew that–like I said, this generation’s intuitive antennae verge on supernatural–and they wanted to know what, why. I looked at the clock again. In two minutes, of course, they wouldn’t give a damn; they had lives to lead, lunch to eat, so I had two minutes to tell them.
Ten more seconds gone.
So I started. “What happened next was that the world broke in two. Oh, not literally–meaning really, truly–but almost. Sickened by Stephen’s sacrilege–sacrilege, meaning ‘disrespect,’ in this case disrespecting a corpse, the church, the cardinals–all Rome rose up, and a mob descended upon the Lateran Palace. They tore Stephen from his throne and then”–mental pause, mental note: book extra time tomorrow to return parent calls–“imprisoned him in a deep, dark dungeon–though not so deep and dark that two hands could not still find him there, late one night, unknown hands that laced around his neck and strangled him.” Too much; I shouldn’t have spoken. They looked horrified, either at the story or my theatricality. I could see some of the boys earnestly, almost frantically, working on a last laugh, but they couldn’t pry it loose.
“And a darkness came over the land, and the earth shook. Which is to say an earthquake, a real earthquake, struck, and leveled much of the city.” I was a century off with the earthquake, but close enough for high school, where a little crash-bang was always needed if you wanted to keep their ears open, especially the boys’. “Fires burned. A new pope was elected. Then another, and another. More evil ensued. For a century, murder took the life of nearly every man to ascend the papal throne. Finally, the millennium passed. A kind and wise man once more took Peter’s chair and order was restored.”
Fifteen seconds till the end of class. I was about to say the magic words, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” when Cecily raised her hand. She cast an automatic glance to brown-eyed Paul, who just as automatically didn’t catch it: it was this game they played or, rather, one Cecily played, hoping that one of these days Paul would finally join in. (Paul sometimes played the same game with Edgar. Edgar just played.) As I’ve said, Cecily was a nice girl, but here’s what I left out of her footnote, or mine: back on the first day, I asked her if she knew the story of Saint Cecilia. Also a nice girl; the patron saint of music. Martyred, of course: after failing to suffocate her, the executioner tried decapitation. Unable to take off her head with three separate sword blows, he left her to bleed to death, which took three days. One of the other girls told me later that Cecily went and threw up in the bathroom.
Well, yes, but–someone had to tell her eventually. And sure, it’s tough bearing a martyr’s name, but Emily isn’t easy, either. At least before she was beheaded, Saint Cecilia managed to get married (although the reason she’s the patron saint of music is because she “sang in her heart” during the wedding ceremony to blot out what was taking place; she later told her pagan husband that if he tried to consummate the match, he’d have an angry guardian angel to deal with: he converted).
But my own Cecilia had no such plans, not yet, not marriage nor martyrdom. Right then, in fact, she seemed to have gotten over any previous squeamishness, because she asked, “But what happened to Formosus? To his body, I mean.”
This is the story of Cecily, of Paul, of Edgar, of Father Martin and the school we all attended. This is my story, and it is part mystery and part love story, and because my life is more screwed up than most anyone else’s will ever be, it begins–begins, in this fiftieth year of my life–with a dead, desecrated pope.
But in the classroom, there was no preamble, and no premonition of what was to come. Mrs. Ramirez was nowhere near. Just Edgar, Paul, Cecily, waiting. Perhaps Father Martin, too, outside the door, head cocked.
A love story? Sure. I’ve been married three times. Maybe they wait outside, as well. Gil, Andrew, Gavin. All of whom were–
What happened was that the Tiber, strangely, went into flood one night, and that same night, a monk along its banks dreamed a horrible dream, of a man, dead and dishonored, floating by. In the morning he awoke to find just such a man, a corpse, washed up alongside him. He examined the body and knew he’d found Formosus. With great secrecy–for who knew what evil still stalked Rome?–he reburied the dishonored pope. A later pope found out, disinterred Formosus yet another time, and returned him to Saint Peter’s, where the corpse was quietly reinterred in a crypt deep beneath the altar.
That’s what happened. But here’s the mystery: back in that classroom, I said nothing about the monk, the corpse, the river in flood. Staring out the window, because that’s where I wanted to be, out, gone, flying, falling, it didn’t matter, as long as I was leaving, I said, “I–I never saw him again.”