Keep Being Such a Tease

Posted by Lizzie on 03/08/06

This is it. You won’t have the Old Hag to kick around anymore. That is, at least not for a few days, as we’re off to Austin for THIS, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!!!!! (See that guitar? That…neon thing? Writers will be ROCKING OUT.) We asked Schaubie to do a guide to Austin for us neophytes, but we’ve been too busy writing lipstick copy to see if he did it. In any case, we’ve been told the conference center’s bar serves liquor. Go figure.

Anyway, to tide you over for the weekend, we’re featuring an excerpt from a novel entitled All Saints by the now infamous Liam Callanan. See how excited he got when we told him he was going to be on the blog:
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His publisher has not finalized the cover yet, but we’ve been told they’re going to be working from this:

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We’re worried it might be too subtle for some readers, but, as our grandmother said, face paint can never be too subtle. Here’s the wrapup in the author’s own words:

These selections are from a novel, entitled All Saints, set to launch into an unsuspecting public about a year from now. The narrator is Emily Hamilton, single and 50 and teaching at a co-ed Catholic high school in Orange County, California. She has issues.

Yes. So far Teaser has been all about saints and Catholics, which may be the same thing; we’re not sure. We’re surmising that this is because Catholics reproduce more, hence producing more writers. We’re looking into some Jews, possibly some black folks, for the next one, if we can swing it. Stay tuned.*

*P.S. For those of you who have come this far and may go yet farther, Liam will be reading on Saturday at 1:30 SOMEWHERE in Austin. It should be on the conference schedule. We’re going to be reading from this at some point on Friday in Austin–but, as the song goes, we can’t remember where or when. (Really.) And, since we’re kind of a nervous, skittery reader, do come by and shoot spitballs. Check out the Caketrain table on the books level for more info, or just look around for the really hot girl. She probably won’t know what you’re talking about.

A dark NY scene. [The author left this in here. FYI, it is IRONIC. What follows is not. —Ed.]

I had my first religious vision in midtown Manhattan. My first, and with the way things have gone, probably my last as well. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning, maybe later, maybe earlier, I’m not sure it really matters at that time of night. I’d been in New Rochelle for the evening, visiting a pair of nuns I knew, Maryknoll sisters, Claire and Barbara, who taught there, at the College of New Rochelle. Beautiful women. Sane, grounded women, who knew how to live—who knew, for example, never to let the day pass without a glass of wine, who knew wearing a habit wouldn’t get you a seat on the subway but would sometimes get you a seat on Broadway, who knew war was war even if leaders didn’t call it that, even if most of the fighting was done between men with guns and women with children. Claire and Barbara served in El Salvador in the early 1980s. They were close friends with the three American nuns who were abducted, raped and murdered. Claire and Barbara’s story wasn’t as widely reported, as they didn’t die; it was much more mundane. Claire put a hand to the shoulder of a man who was raping a 13-year-old girl in the back of the orphanage. The man cut off Claire’s hand with a machete. And then, because the man knew they were nuns, and wanted to prove that he, too, was a man of some religious learning, he cut off Barbara’s left ear, just as Peter cut off the servant’s ear in the garden of Gethsemane, in a vain attempt to keep the soldiers from arresting Jesus.

Surely, Claire and Barbara must have screamed. There would have been gasps of pain, tears. But none of the accounts of those in attendance—the girl, the man’s subalterns, other men and women of the village—mention tears or screams. Instead, they all say that Barbara stood against the man and stared and slowly, so slowly, turned her cheek, to expose her remaining ear. And they cite Claire stepping in front of her, holding her handless arm in his face, blinding him with her own blood. The man fell and retched, and, people told authorities, died on the spot.

Claire and Barbara both profess to remember little else of what happened, although they’ve confided in me that he did not die of shame alone.

You’d never know any of their story just looking at them, thanks to plastic surgery, prosthetics, and most incredibly, their ability to still smile, laugh and gossip. Most days they look like they’ve stepped straight out of the pages of one of those expensive gardening catalogs: capable, comfortable and pleased with who they are, where they are.

So when I needed to get out of town for the Christmas break—I had my reasons, and they weren’t legal reasons, though I didn’t want to stick around to see if there would be legal reasons—Claire and Barbara seemed like a smart choice. If I was in trouble—and I was in a little, maybe more than a little—I thought I’d do well to spend some time with women who’d been in a lot. And survived.

We ate and drank and giggled and talked and I tried to remember, as I always do when I visit them, why I’d not taken a habit, become a nun—a Maryknoll sister, like them. Then I remembered my various transgressions. And when they finally asked how things were out in California, I said—just fine. Who was I to think that I had, or would ever have, problems worthy of discussing with them.

I did ask them to bless me, though, which they did, unquestioningly. Barbara laid her two hands on my head and then Claire laid her two, her “mix-and-match” hands as she called them. It was a well-worn joke of hers, designed to put you at ease, and, I later decided, to disquiet you as well: never forget. And this is how their blessing began, too: never forget who you are, where you are, who you love, and who loves you. We hugged. I left. I was still crying, a nice, quiet, cleansing cry as I stood on the New Rochelle platform, waiting along with the clubbers and Tokyo brokers and pre-dawn custodians for a post-midnight Manhattan-bound train.

I hadn’t asked Claire and Barbara to put me up, because I needed more time alone than that, and, well. New Rochelle. It’s New York, but it’s not New York City. I wanted New York to do for me what it always does, what no other place does quite the same way, which is to simultaneously enfold and ignore you, to force you into its grip, its rhythm, and then pay absolutely no attention to you once you’re there.

I stayed instead where I always stay, Saint Anne’s, one of those places that couldn’t possibly exist in Manhattan, but does: a small hostel operated by a community of nuns. Private rooms, shared baths, breakfast and mass included, $45 a night. That’s all. Less if you can’t afford it, and there have been years I couldn’t. Women only. Seven nights maximum. And they lock the front door at 10 p.m., don’t answer it again until morning. I missed curfew plenty of times, but it’s not so bad; morning for them starts with coffee at 5 a.m., and that often worked out just fine for me.

Even so, you’d think if I were going to have a religious experience in New York, it would be there, in the cool, quiet, cloud-white hallways of Saint Anne’s, or in their completely enclosed, completely still courtyard. Not on Park Avenue. But God doesn’t have time to check where we’ll be when He appears to us. He’s very busy, and so am I; we’re lucky we ever bump into each other at all.

But on Park Avenue, a couple blocks south of Grand Central, east side of the street, crammed in-between the Guatemalan U.N. Mission and a phalanx of medical suites, sat the Church of Our Savior. Since it was dark, and since the façade was flush with the rest of the buildings on the street, I wouldn’t have noticed it, had it not been for the little side courtyard, with its statue of Jesus, arms held up delicately, hands out, as though he were about to catch a pass that you just knew he’d drop. Jesus. Puritan iconoclasts were on to something when they went around smashing all those statues in England. Was it because the decadent papists were worshipping idols? Because what the Puritans should have been afraid of is the fact that we Catholics have never been a people afraid to look upon the face of God, whether sculpted or painted or, as it was that evening on Park Avenue, directly before me.

I stood and gripped the bars. Jesus wasn’t lit; the only light on him was from the street, and it was red. I turned around to see from what—a stoplight, maybe?—but saw nothing. When I turned back to him, I saw the statue waver. Not wave—it didn’t say hi, or move on, or part the bars and c’mon through—but waver, shimmer. This was a result, of course, of the late hour, of the wine, of the fragile state my mind was in. And He didn’t do anything more than that. He didn’t speak to me. He didn’t tell me to tear down this church and build another on the spot. He didn’t tell me to found a new religion. His lips didn’t move, His eyes didn’t tear, His wounds didn’t bleed.

I waited. I told myself I was no Thomas—I did not need evidence. If I knew in my heart the Lord was with me then, He was. I didn’t need suppurating masonry to confirm it.

O, but I needed something. Me, an educated woman, an educated 50-year-old woman, a woman with graduate degrees in theology: I needed a Hollywood Jesus right then, a dime-store, neon-colored, straight-talking apparition. Damnit, Jesus, just a word here. I didn’t lose a hand. I didn’t lose an ear. I didn’t turn the other cheek. Just tell me—

I reached through the bars for Him. That’s what I did; I’m not ashamed to say it. It was late, I’d been drinking, it was Manhattan, and He was wavering, humming. As soon as He had summoned enough of whatever He needed—gumption? mercy?—He would reach out for me, I knew. Touch me, and I would be healed. Heal me, Jesus—or just, just find me.

I know. The symbolism. It’s not good. I’m on the outside, Jesus is on the inside. There’s a fence between us. I wasn’t so drunk I didn’t recognize this. Nor was I so drunk that I didn’t loathe the cheapness of it. If I was going to be obstructed, symbolically, why not a three-headed dog? Or a river of fire? Or something much more obtuse: algebra? (I’d never find Jesus if he lay on the other side of x.)

No, I was sober enough to see a way around the pedestrian nature of this set-up. To my left, a gate. With a lock, but ajar. And—fine, tweak me again on cheap symbols if you like, but that’s the way it was. Besides, if you want symbolic, if you want to read this quiet little Manhattan moment of grace as some sort of shorthand redemption, blocked out en scene, the sinner returned to her Lord, Who’s left the door open—then you’re really going to like this. As I passed through the gate to Jesus’s side, trumpets sounded, lights flashed, the cops were called. I’d sounded the alarm.

I ran. I clanged out the gate, down brass-plaqued Park Avenue, past periodontists and psychologists and orthopedists. I didn’t look to see if Jesus were following me, or if the police were. And after a couple of blocks, and a couple of stares, I slowed down, fell into a walk. The easiest way back to Saint Anne’s was to take the subway, the 6 to Astor Place. But I wanted to walk, I needed to walk, and as far as personal safety was concerned, at this time of night, I liked my chances above ground instead of below.

The night was cold, but there was no wind. Taxis pulsed by, lights out, heading home. Doormen sat in their little cubes of light, reading the paper, watching TV, and in the tattier buildings, talking on tiny cell phones. Gavin, my third husband, had an apartment in New York; one of the many secrets that he kept from me during our brief marriage.

I’m keeping a New York secret from you, too, but only for a little while longer. Besides, let’s not let Gavin off the hook, not yet.

Did I know Gavin was a priest before I married him? Well, yes, of course I knew that. And yes, I knew—kind of—that Episcopal priests were allowed to get married, although that didn’t entirely dampen the disestablishment notion I’d eagerly imbued our relationship with.

When I first bused down from Berkeley after leaving Andrew, my second ex-, I needed a job, and found one at Loyola Marymount University. LMU, though run by Jesuits, takes a page from the hydrophilic OSAP handbook: the campus is on a gorgeous bluff overlooking the ocean. The view wasn’t quite enough, though, to distract me from the fact that I was a secretary, nothing more, in the theology department. (I’d started in the English department, but then the theology secretary died, and her job paid better.)

After a few months, I decided to take advantage of the free tuition that came with working at the university and get my M.Div.—master’s of divinity. Hard to find a degree with more earning potential, true, but that’s not what I was interested in at the time. I was engaged in a grudge match—once more—with life, with God, with my associates. One can only work in an academic setting so long—or, rather, I can only work in an academic setting so long—without becoming acutely aware of the inherent hierarchies. I signed up for the master’s in divinity because I wanted to prove to all the professors and grad students I answered phones for, photocopied for, deflected annoying students for, that I was as good as them. Or rather, better. And God, too: He and I had some things to work out, plenty of things to work out. Show me this God, was my attitude. Bring him out here, in the open, in the classroom. Not hidden behind the altar in some church, but right here, right in the middle of the conference table in the seminar room.

I wasn’t the best student; or rather, I clearly was, but I didn’t receive grades reflecting that. It didn’t help that I took issue with almost any point my professors raised—initially, this was due to intellectual need, but in time it just became automatic.

I also sinned against the program when I bedded one of its rising stars. This would be Gavin, the program’s prize catch: an Episcopalian priest who’d decided to “come in from the cold” as the elderly priest who taught our Christology class put it, and convert to Catholicism, possibly even join the Jesuits.

Gavin was in his late 40s at the time, but already had a full head of silver hair. I was the same age and had no gray hair (visible) at all. I liked the way Gavin spoke, the way he presented himself at the conference table. While the other students all adopted varying poses of supplicancy, Gavin always dealt with the professors as colleagues. I didn’t kowtow to the professors, either, but Gavin’s was the neater trick: whereas I spent most of my time doing the intellectual equivalent of running around banging pans together, Gavin kept the faculty engaged, alert, and best of all (to my eye) wary.

He got his degree ahead of me and immediately started teaching in the program. I immediately signed up for all his classes. And why not? He was smart, urbane. Oh, it helped, of course, that he was quite handsome, in an active seniors model sort of way, and that he always got my door, whether we were entering the classroom, his car, or his little beachfront apartment in Playa del Rey.

“How’s an Episcopalian priest rate waterfront digs?” I asked.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Jesuits, my dear,” he said. Why I ever fell for this crap—I marvel at it still. “Not every man of God takes a vow of poverty,” he would add, and pour another glass of prosecco.

We were married nine months later, on LMU’s campus. I was the one who’d proposed, and I think Gavin followed through mostly for the novelty of it. What would this be like? Not just marrying a wild-eyed theology student with a checkered past, but—getting married. The process (not so much the result) seemed to fascinate him. He lived in California but remained a New Yorker, of course—Upper East side, from birth through to his last parish job. And New Yorkers who move to Los Angeles—well, they fall into one of two camps. They go native, which is to say, they move straight to the beach, because like the rest of the world, that’s what they think of L.A. as—a beach town (it’s not). Or, they go anthropologist: they spend their days observing you and then telling you about yourself and your strange customs. On Sundays, they read the New York Times. At the beach.

I got my degree, but we were more or less drummed out of the program afterwards. Gavin found a job first, at All Saints—the OSAP maintained a centuries-old grudge against the Jesuits and were happy to hire someone who’d annoyed them—and then Gavin recommended me. And then Gavin, God bless him, I guess, got a job elsewhere, counseling. Smart choice, because by then he’d divorced me, and taken up with a former student’s sister.

This is all a long way of saying several things. One, I’m more than qualified to teach theology to bright young minds at a college preparatory Catholic school. Two, I have nothing against Episcopalians. Or Jesuits. It’s the Upper East Side I can’t stand. And three, if I met, say, one of my bright young minds, my students, for coffee, as teacher and student, as female and male—

Or, say, if I met one of my ordained colleagues, for a talk, a cigarette, and we—

What I’m trying to say is, there’s a precedent here.

Two or three months into marriage with Gavin—no, I can be more precise than that—three months exactly into our marriage, I remember, because I’d just cooked breakfast, and cooking for him, especially breakfast, was something I only ever did on special occasions, like three-month anniversaries—we were standing in his living room, just inside the sliding glass doors that led outside to this little patio. We had coffee and paper in hand; we were ready to indulge in that most decadent of California pastimes, relaxing our way into the day. But we paused. It was one of those mornings—gray, and cool. Or not cool, cold. Sixty maybe, with the standard-issue ragg wool fog and clouds, the familiar early morning low cloudiness that was such a staple of weather forecasts that weathermen sometimes just abbreviated it to EMLC. Back east, you would have thought you were in for rain, but out here, all it meant was that you’d have to wait a few hours for your blue skies, usually until about 10 or so. Not such a hardship. But it was, it is. Imagine waking to a gray morning every morning. There are some mornings where you can’t wait until 10 o’clock for your mood to improve. There are some mornings, say your 756th consecutive morning, or however long Gavin had been in California by then, when you think, if I’m going to wake to this cold and gray world every day, then why not live back east? Why not live in a concrete canyon? Especially if it means being surrounded by people who read the paper, who are up on the affairs of the world, who are, in fact, directing the affairs of the world. I suppose that’s what Gavin thought. He stood there, at the glass, and said that a new Episcopal high school was getting started in Manhattan—a woman had left her fortune—and exquisite townhouse—for this purpose. He’d been asked if he were interested. He asked me if I was.

I said yes. Even more enthusiastically, in fact, than when I’d said yes to marrying him.

He nodded; we took our coffee and paper back to the table and finished the morning there. And by the time we were done reading and drinking, the gray had burned off, the sun had come out, the ocean sparkled green clear to Hawaii and we didn’t talk about moving ever again.

I don’t remember where that new high school was to be situated. Upper East Side, of course, is a likely guess. Certainly it was nowhere downtown, nowhere near Saint Anne’s, which is located in a tall, skinny gothic building in the midst of NYU. It was early still when I got there—3 a.m.—and so I decided to keep walking. I’d had a bad experience in Washington Square Park late one night, so I decided to press further south, to the end of Manhattan. I know, I know, this sounds dangerous for someone to be doing alone at this time of night, for a woman to be doing this, for me—but the farther south I walk in Manhattan, the safer I feel. It’s not because the neighborhoods are that much nicer—if anything, the streets are more deserted down there, and I always think that a bad sign—it’s because of Ground Zero. All those souls there, all those thousands of people who died, how could they not be looking out for those of us still living, still walking the streets they once walked?

I’ve seen the design for the memorial they have planned. I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember it. I’m sure it will be lovely, I’m sure it will bring someone peace. What I would have done, or will have them do, if I am—finally—elected president or pope, is build two towering monoliths. The same size and shape and height as the twin towers, but no windows, nothing inside, just four solid walls of metal—aluminum or titanium or whatever; something cool and silver, and anyway, what’s more important is that we’re going to need an awful, awful lot of this material—and inscribed on the sides of these towers, the names, the names, the names, all of them, in letters as large as that much space allows, because I’ve never known a grieving spouse or child or friend who didn’t want to shout the name of their deceased, to see it written not in quiet inch-high type, but six-meters high, bare to the world, loud and tall.

Impractical? Yes. But find me the memorial—outside of those consisting solely of a bench—that is practical. For example, my destination that morning, after my run-in with Jesus. My favorite memorial, located just south of Ground Zero, just west of Battery Park, at Pier A.

It’s the American Merchant Mariners Memorial, and it’s very simple, very direct, very dramatic, never more so than when I visited it that morning. It’s usually lit, I believe, but it wasn’t then. What light there was had to come from the city, the early, early morning light slowly leavening the sky. The memorial consists of four figures, four sailors, three atop this giant slab of metal—their torpedoed ship, sinking—the fourth below them, in the water. One of the three shipboard men is splayed out on his stomach, reaching down to the drowning man, whose hand desperately reaches up from the water.

Their hands do not meet. And while it may seem as though they might, soon—their fingers are millimeters apart—it is nevertheless the case that they never, ever will. They will always be frozen in that gesture, the drowning man always just out of reach, the rescuer always reaching to save him. And that’s not even the most haunting element. This is. The tide. Twice a day, the water rises around the drowning man, rises and rises, and, depending on conditions, leaves him completely submerged. Nothing happens to the other part of the sculpture, of course, the sailors on the slab stay high and dry, they always do, but the one reaching down to the drowning man: I swear I see his face change when the tide rises. His eyes go blank, his jaw goes slack, his outstretched hand loses its rigor, and you can see it in his forehead: how have I let this happen, again?

And Jesus? I don’t even have to look up to know. Sixty blocks north, not budging.

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