Sister Maria Veronica was my seventh-grade teacher. She was tall and young, with a pretty face and wonderful, plump breasts neatly tucked away under her black habit. Her brown eyes were filled with life and set under brows so thick they almost touched each other. Every few weeks she’d tweeze them, leaving a light-gray pattern around each. In my mind, her brows were endearing, and I thought she was cute as hell for thinking that she needed to pluck them.
Once, at the end of a history lesson, she asked if anyone had any questions. My hand was the first in the air. “Did you tweeze your eyebrows last night?” I asked. My question caught her off guard, and I sensed that she was embarrassed by it. I hadn’t meant to put her on the spot. It was just my dumb way of letting her know that I liked her and thought she was special.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I did,” she replied. “And thank you for pointing that out to the class, Mr. Caruso,” she added.
“I thought so.” I beamed. “My sister, Connie, shaves her eyebrows, and they look just like yours.”
The thing I loved about Sister V was that she wasn’t jaded like some of the older nuns at Precious Mother, most of whom were Irish-American and very vocal about having given their life to Christ. I didn’t know why she had decided to become a nun, but I got the feeling she wasn’t entirely on board with the program.
I could also tell that some of the older nuns were jealous of her because she was liked by all the kids. She always tried to make lessons fun and would sometimes have us sing Broadway show tunes. Her favorite was “Do-Re-Me” from The Sound of Music. She would have the boys and girls sing different verses at the same time while she stood up front, waving her arms, ruler in hand, looking like a real conductor. It was great fun; everyone participated and sang out hard and loud.
It was the sixties, and like most Brooklyn parochial schools at the time, Precious Mother had a firm stance when it came to physical exercise and school yard games. The school was strictly focused on academics, with no recreation period, no dodgeball or relay races or any of the fun stuff that most of my buddies who went to public school regularly talked about. Just listening to them made me feel like I was doing hard time at Dannemora.
One day Sister V took our class down to the school yard where she had us do toe touches and jumping jacks for thirty minutes. It wasn’t the same as school yard games, but just to be able to get some sunshine and fresh oxygen in our lungs during class time was a huge relief. When Sister Gilhouly, the principal, got wind of this, she almost had a shitfit. Gilhouly was serious business, a stern-looking nun whose watery eyes peered at you over wire-rimmed glasses pushed far down on her nose. Everyone joked that Gilhouly was actually one of the children of the damned, a fictional group of English schoolchildren who had the power to set a house on fire just by staring at it with their eyes that shot out intense beams of white light. If Gilhouly singled you out for something, she would very slowly lower her head and shoot you one of her death-ray stares over the top of her spectacles, a look that made you want to hide under a desk.
The classroom door was slightly ajar, and we all sat attentively listening to Gilhouly reprimand Sister V in an intense, ear chomping whisper. The way she carried on you would have thought Sister V had taken the class outside for a cigarette break.
“It’s just not how things are done around here!” the old windbag said.
“Yes, Sister, I understand, but—”
“What if one of the children sprained their ankle? What am I going to tell their parents?”
“I just thought a little exercise might help the children—”
“We are a learning institution!” said Gilhouly. “If parents wanted their children to do jumping jacks all day, they would have sent them to public school!”
When Sister V walked back into the classroom, she closed the door behind her and tossed her arms up. “Well,” she said with sheepish smile, “at least I tried.”
My mother had started battling fits of depression. This began when my older brother surprised my parents by enlisting in the army. At the time I didn’t understand what “depression” actually meant. I thought it was something that you caught like a cold and that you could knock it out in a week or so with couple of aspirins and some hot tea. Our doctor put my mother on an antidepressant called Miltown, and for well over a month, she spent a good portion of each day in bed. This placed an extra burden on my nineteen-year-old sister, Connie, who was tasked with taking care of me and picking up the slack around the house while our mother was under the covers. Connie resented her new role as surrogate mother, and most of the time she and I were at odds with each other.
One morning I was getting ready for school and the two of us got into a blowout. It was raining heavily, and she insisted that I put on a pair of old galoshes that belonged to my brother. “It’s pouring outside!” she barked. “If you don’t put these on, you’re gonna ruin your shoes, and then I’ll never hear the end of it from your father.” Connie had a habit of conveniently removing herself from the family lineage. Whenever she got heated with me, she made a point of referring to our dad as “your father.”
I didn’t have any rain boots, and there was no way in hell I was going to wear Frank’s galoshes. They were too big and made my feet look like Goofy’s from The Mickey Mouse Club. “Forget it,” I said. “I’m not puttin’ those on.”
Our argument woke my father, who was sleeping off a hangover. He came charging out of his bedroom, bare chested and wearing boxer shorts. “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” he said.
“It’s raining out, and he doesn’t wanna wear galoshes,” Connie explained flatly, one hand resting on her hip, the other extended in my direction. She sounded like a trial lawyer referring to me as exhibit A.
“Why not?” he asked.
“He says they make his feet look big. I swear”—she shook her head in frustration—“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with him.”
My father grabbed the galoshes and pushed them into my chest. “Put on the goddamn galoshes!” he shouted.
“I’m not wearing them,” I said, folding my arms. “They’re big and stupid looking.”
In an instant my father began to kick and slap me, right hand, left hand. He looked half crazed, his nostrils flared and his eyes wide and threatening. Like a fighter in a clench, I held my arms over my head and tried to back away, but he didn’t let up. He slapped me from the dining area all the way into the kitchen, where he rammed me against the wall and kneed me in my stomach. “I don’t wanna hear another word out of you!” he shouted. He grabbed my hair and dragged me out of the kitchen. “You put on those galoshes, and get your ass to school! And I want you back here by three thirty; no dillydallying after class! Now get movin’!”
Both my cheeks were bruised and puffed, and my thighs were spasming from being kicked. I walked to school flipping him the bird every twenty yards and cursing under my breath. (“Fuck you, you fucking drunk bastard. I hope you fall down a flight of stairs and drop dead!”)
I also hated my sister for ratting me out. She had broken our unspoken agreement, which was: when it came to the old man, always cover each other’s asses no matter what.
When Sister Veronica noticed me in class, she stopped her lesson and asked me to step out in the hall.
“Good Loooord,” she said. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing,” I said. I started to turn away, but she crouched in front of me and examined my face while steadying both of my arms with her hands.
“Listen, John,” she said, peering deeply into my eyes. “I know you don’t believe me, but you can talk to Sister and tell her if something is wrong.”
I swallowed, fighting back tears. I wanted to tell her everything, but I was afraid that if word got back to my father, he would come up to school and beat the crap out of me in front of everyone, something he often threatened to do.
“Did you have a fight with one of the older kids?” I tried to avoid eye contact, but every time I looked away her eyes continued to follow mine, pressing me to speak up.
“My father woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” I said, hoping that would satisfy her.
“Your father did this to you?” she said. The alarm in her voice scared me.
“Please don’t say anything.” I pleaded.
“When did this happen?” she asked, holding my chin in her hand, gently turning my head from side to side.
“This morning,” I said. “If my father finds out I told anybody he’ll kill me.”
“I understand.” She nodded, gently brushing a clump of hair dangling over my forehead. “How about if we talk a little more after class?” she said. “Would you like that?”
My mouth was dry and knees felt weak. I couldn’t speak. I just stood there staring at her and thinking that I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
“It’ll be just be between you and me,” said Sister V, her eyes patient and encouraging. I could feel a lump in my throat.
“Okay.” I nodded.
For the rest of the day my head was buzzing. I was convinced that word of my confiding in Sister V would somehow get back to my father and that he’d break my legs. The old man had this thing about divulging family business to anyone outside of the house. I remember one day back in first grade when my teacher had sensed that something was troubling me; she pulled me aside and asked what was wrong. It seemed like a simple, straightforward question, and I gave her a simple, straightforward answer: I told her my parents had been fighting and that my father had slapped my mother. When I mentioned this to my father, he flipped out. At the time, I was sitting on the toilet seat watching him shave at the sink. In an instant he put down his razor and slapped my face so hard my head flew back like a screen door caught in a windstorm. I was stunned; it was the first time he had whacked me in the face. In the moment, I didn’t understand what he was so angry about. “Don’t you ever . . . EVER tell anybody our business!” he said, jabbing his finger directly into my face. I left the bathroom crying, feeling like I had violated some sacred family code.
After the three-o’clock bell, I waited until the class cleared out. Just as Sister V and I sat down to talk, Mr. Jefferies, the school maintenance man showed up with a metal tool box and announced that he needed repair the radiator. Sister Veronica suggested that we go up to the convent located on the top floor of the building. As we lumbered up the stairs, the rosary beads that encircled her waist bounced against her leg and echoed throughout the stairwell.
Outside the nun’s quarters was a small reception area, a plain room with a gray vinyl couch and a few metal folding chairs around a small coffee table. One of the pale green cinderblock walls was adorned with a two-foot crucifix along with an oddly placed electric wall clock mounted above it. It was a little after three and my head was filled with the image of my father tapping the face of his watch with his finger, counting every second I was late.
“Please, have a seat,” said Sister V. I parked myself on the couch, and she sat on one of the metal chairs opposite me. I told her about my fight with Connie over the galoshes and my father wigging out, kicking and slapping me in the kitchen. As I talked, she winced. “Oh my goodness,” she kept muttering. “You poor thing.”
It was comforting to hear an adult outside of my family express genuine concern, but at the same time I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was betraying my father.
“That’s horrible,” she said. “What about your mother, wasn’t she home?”
“She was sleeping” I said. “But he hits her too.”
“Good heavens,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“He beats all of us,” I confessed.
“Listen,” said Sister Veronica, her voice filled with worry. “How about if I talk to—”
“No,” I interrupted. “Please don’t talk to anybody.”
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Just listen for a minute. If you let me, I can talk to Father Michaels. He’s good with this kind of thing. He can call your father—”
“No!” I pleaded. “You don’t know my father. If he finds out I spoke to you he’ll kill me. You gotta promise me you won’t say anything to anybody.”
“Okay . . . Okay,” Sister V spouted. She leaned back in her seat and tossed up her hands, palms exposed “It was just an idea. I won’t say anything.”
“You have my word,” she said, holding up one hand above her head, placing the other over her heart. “Scout’s honor.”
We sat for a few moments, eyeing each other in silence. My leg anxiously bobbed up down, something I wasn’t aware of
until she glanced at my knee and smiled.
“Oh!” She snapped her fingers. “I almost forgot! I’ll be right back.” Sister V popped out of her chair and stepped into the convent leaving the thick wooden door halfway open. The faint scent of incense wafted into the reception area. I leaned to the side trying to get a better view of the living quarters. A long hall just inside the entrance allowed a partial view of the kitchen and, beyond that, a dining room where I could make out a long wooden table surrounded by a number of high-backed chairs. Everything seemed quiet and private; a women’s club where no men were allowed. None of the kids I knew in school had ever been inside the convent; it was the forbidden zone. Catching a look-see through the open door gave me a naughty-boy rush, almost like riding on the subway and copping a peek up a woman’s dress.
Moments later Sister V returned to the reception area with a glass of milk and a plate stacked of chocolate chip cookies. “I baked them last night.”
At first, I hesitated, but she nodded as if to say, Go ahead; it’s okay. I was hungry as hell. I grabbed a few cookies, and she sat quietly, watching me stuff myself. The heavily starched white linen habit that encased her cheeks made her face look like it was gripped in a vise. Her head was completely covered, and I tried to imagine what her hair looked like. Her eyebrows had grown pretty full, and I wondered when she was going to tweeze them again.
“Did you always want to become a nun?” I said, taking a gulp of milk, my mouth half full.
“Why do you ask?” she said, trying to conceal a smile.
“I dunno.” I shrugged. “You seem different from the other nuns.”
“Different how?” She tilted her head, looking at me, one eye squinting. I wanted to tell her straight out that she wasn’t like Sister O’Malley or Gilhouly or some of the school’s other rage queens.
“I dunno.” I shrugged again. “You just seem, you know . . . nicer.”
Sister V smiled appreciatively, then leaned forward and helped herself to a cookie. “Ya know”—she casually crossed her legs, cupping a hand under her chin to catch the crumbs—“when I was your age, becoming a nun never occurred to me. As a matter of fact, I dreamed of someday singing on Broadway.”
“That’s right,” she confessed with a believe-it-or-not in her voice. “I knew all the Broadway show tunes and would get together with my younger brothers and sisters to put on shows for the kids in my neighborhood.”
“Did you ever sing on a stage? I mean, you know, like in front of an audience?”
“I did,” she said. “In high school I sang in musicals, and I was in a number of plays.”
“What happened?” I asked, feeling disappointed. “I mean, how come you didn’t become a singer?”
“Well, I wanted to, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Wha’d they say?”
“Goodness gracious!” She laughed and looked to the ceiling. “My mother thought I was stark raving mad!”
“What’s wrong with being a singer?”
“Nothing.” She shrugged, gazing down at her lap, carefully dusting crumbs from her legs. “It’s just that, ya know . . . things don’t always work out the way you plan. When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. My father became ill, and I had to take a job to help out . . . That’s just the way it was,” she said with a trace of sadness in her voice. “Then when I got older, I had a girlfriend who was about to enter the nunnery, and well . . . I decided to join her,” she added, sounding as if she’d had little or no choice.
As Sister V spoke, her eyes remained focused on her lap, where she brushed off her legs, even after all the crumbs had been cleared away. After a moment, she looked up. “But enough about me,” she said, her eyes pert and lively. “What about you?” she challenged. “Have you given any thought to what you might like to do when you get older?”
My brain fluttered through a Rolodex of impressive careers, none of which I had any interest in. “I wanna be a scientist,” I blurted, hoping she wouldn’t question me further. Scientist . . . the same bullshit answer I had been feeding people for a while.
Sister V looked puzzled and amused. “A scientist?” I nodded. My science grades were barely passing, and I was failing math. I probably would have had a better shot at convincing her I wanted to play center for the Harlem Globetrotters.
“How on earth did you come up with that answer?” she pressed. “Wanting to be a scientist is very admirable, but I mean, do you even like science?”
I shook my head. Sister Veronica studied me for a moment, and I wanted to slither under the couch. I cleared my throat and could feel my chest sag. “To be honest with you, Sister, I don’t know what I wanna be. Most of the time I feel like I’m not good at anything.” As I spoke, my voice quivered; it was the first time I’d told that to anyone.
She clasped her hands and hunched forward, elbows on knees, and rested her chin on her fingers. “Well, that’s okay,” she said in a near whisper, looking straight into my eyes. “Not knowing what you want to do in life is a good starting point. You’re still very young. You don’t have to know or even decide what you wanna be at this point in your life.”
“But you said that when you were my age, you knew you wanted to be a singer on Broadway.”
“That’s true,” she acknowledged. “But God had a different path for me. It’s different for everyone. Believe me—someday you’ll find your special calling . . . the thing that you really wanna do in life. And when you do, you’ll know it. You just have to follow your heart and have faith in God.”
It all sounded great; I wanted to believe that someday I would find my special calling, but following my heart and having faith in God seemed like empty words to me, like the weekly penance the priest gave after hearing my bullshit confession from behind an anonymous metal screen in the stuffy three-foot-by-four-foot wooden booth. (“I lied . . . I cursed . . . I disobeyed my parents . . .” “Okay—say two Our Fathers, five Hail Marys, an act of contrition, and ask God for forgiveness.”) It was all very superficial, like throwing a Band-Aid on a tumor. What the hell did some faceless priest know about my true feelings and fears? Where was God, Jesus, or the Blessed Virgin when my drunk father slapped my mother and beat the fuck out of my brother and me?
I had completely lost track of time. I glanced up at the clock next to the crucifix and felt the blood rush to my cheeks. My father had been expecting me home by three thirty, and it was already close to four. “He’s gonna kill me,” I said, draping a hand over my forehead.
Sister V told me not to worry and then did something I’ll never forget. She went into the convent and came back with a note to my father saying that she had asked me stay after class, so she could help me with my math assignment and to please excuse my coming home late from school. “There,” she said, handing me the signed note. “Now we both have a secret that we don’t want anyone to know.”
John Califano grew up in Brooklyn, New York and lives in Manhattan. He’s worked as a writer, actor, visual artist and musician and has performed in clubs, feature films, art galleries, and Off-Broadway productions. He recently completed his debut novel, JOHNNY BOY, and is currently working on a second book and a collection of short stories.