South Bronx, New York City
The cardboard box on the rack above my bus seat held what was left of my possessions. In a few hours they would belong to God, and so would I.
I watched the street outside, mesmerized as cars wove through eight lanes of traffic. On a billboard, an electric blonde advertised cigarettes, then suddenly morphed into a giant banana flaunting a reed skirt and long, dark eyelashes.
"You been to the city before?" A man with a black T-shirt waved his hands, brushing my shoulder with his too-broad gesture. He stared, waiting for an answer.
"Yes, I was here in January."
"Really? You look like you never seen a city before. Where're you from?"
I shifted in the seat. Was it supposed to be this personal between passengers on buses in New York?
"Texas?" The man was loud. Other people in the bus turned their heads to look. "What's a kid from Texas doing in New York?"
I wasn't a kid. I was nineteen and I'd just finished a year in the honors program at the University of Texas, with good grades. I didn't see why I should explain to a loud man on a bus that I was in New York because the only thing I'd been thinking of for the past year and a half had been coming to this city to give myself to God. But not answering would have been rude.
"I came to see some sisters."
"Oh, you got relatives here." He seemed satisfied, but his conclusion wasn't accurate.
"Not those kind of sisters. Catholic sisters. Nuns."
"You're coming to New York City to see nuns?"
"To become a nun."
He drew in a whistle as his eyes traveled my body, perhaps looking for some sort of deformity, or maybe, if he was Catholic, a halo. I possessed neither. I didn't expect him to understand. Even my family didn't understand.
The man grew quiet, and I grew less tense. Soon I didn't see the buildings or the billboards anymore. I saw Mom, Dad, my five sisters, and my brother all lined up on the tarmac that morning, waving their eldest off. Four-year-old Heather's hand had never stopped waving-only she seemed to understand the joy of my adventure. Kathy, just thirteen months younger than I, had cried most of the night. She'd said, as she had for weeks, "Mary, you're wasting your life." I'd told her that I'd chosen the best life possible, a life of love, but that morning she'd refused even to look at me. Mom waved but didn't smile. She'd been so insistent that I at least finish college. I'd explained that when God calls, you don't put Him on hold, but she didn't get that, either.
It had been even worse when Dad had taken me to the airport in January for the preliminary week the sisters called "come and see." The plane was delayed, and while we sat waiting, he put his hand on my knee and looked into my eyes, then at my suitcase, the floor, then me again, without saying anything. When tears began to puddle in his eyes, he left without a word or a glance back.
The bus jerked to a halt at Grand Central Terminal. I reached for the rack above, but the man in the black T-shirt saw me and lifted the box before I could. "Best of luck, kid," he said as he placed the box in my hands, then added under his breath, "Pray for me, okay?"
I nodded and smiled, edging my way along the aisle. I told myself to be more careful about judging people in the future. As I stepped off the bus, a wave of heat slapped me-not the familiar heat heavy with refinery fumes and Gulf Coast humidity, but an undulating heat of asphalt, steel, and bodies. I looked for the man in the T-shirt, but he was gone. All I saw were swarms of people-hurrying, determined people who all seemed to know where they were going.
I knew where I was going, too. I'd taken a taxi in January, though the first three cabs to stop had refused to venture into the South Bronx. This time the sisters had sent directions, and I'd memorized them: shuttle bus to Grand Central, the #5 subway, a five-block walk. God, I prayed, lead me through this scurrying city. Lead me to You.
I walked down steps that smelled of urine. On the platform, I flinched a little as trains rushed past, then marveled at their jackets of neon graffiti. I clutched the strings on my box. I'd heard stories of men with knives on subways, and lately the evening news had dwelt on the "Son of Sam." The serial killer, who police said believed he was possessed by the devil, shot women with long dark hair. My hair was sort of dark but short. According to Walter Cronkite, women in New York had bought out the city's entire stock of blond wigs and were on the verge of panic. God, take care of me. I'm working for You now.
When the #5 pulled up, I found a seat and cradled my box. A suitcase would have been easier, but the sisters had said they didn't use them, or purses, either. I'm going to live free, I told myself, like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
The heat and the crowds and the news stories had made my stomach queasy. I checked my pocket for the envelope I'd safety-pinned there- my passport and money were safe. I'd collected the $700 from my summer job as a technical writer, my savings, and money from selling my French touring bike and electric typewriter. The sisters had insisted on money for airfare to return me home if things didn't work out, or to send me to Rome if they did.
My friends had thrown a "penguin party" for me a week earlier, a beach party-"black and white dress required in honor of Mary's new wardrobe." These public school classmates of mine didn't even know my nuns wore white saris trimmed in blue, yet they squatted around the campfire debating the odds of my perseverance. Some claimed the girl who took on the school board in editorials was constitutionally incapable of a vow of obedience, that a star of the debate team, known for humiliating her opponents, wouldn't last ten minutes in a convent. Others countered that I was the kind of person who, once she decides something, will see it through, even if it means taking the layouts of the school newspaper home with her, working on them all night, strapping them to her bicycle the next morning, and delivering them personally to the printer to avoid missing a deadline. They said once I put the habit on, I'd die in it.
I enjoyed confounding their expectations. These were the people who had voted me Most Likely to Succeed. I wondered if they knew how little that title meant to me. That gathering on the beach was only the second party I'd been to since moving from Michigan when I was twelve. My first act at my new junior high had been to speak to a group of kids in a corner of the gym. Seconds later a spitball smacked my head and I heard-as did everyone else-a boy on the bleachers shouting, "Nigger lover." No one, not the five black kids at school nor the seven hundred white kids, accepted any of my approaches for the next three years. When I started earning debate trophies some of my teammates began to tolerate my presence, and Kathy and Kelley and Monica seemed to enjoy working on the newspaper with me, but boys continued to spit on me on the bus, where I was the only rider over sixteen. My classmates all had cars or hitched rides with friends. The penguin party was a nice gesture, probably prompted by their curiosity about my choices, but I doubted these acquaintances understood my outsider's pride in values beyond the mainstream. They didn't know the secret thrill I felt on the streets of Austin when, watching couples walk hand in hand, I savored my relationship with the Creator of the Universe, who shared my every moment, awake or asleep. They didn't know that living the gospel of poverty and love with God constituted real success.
I got off the train at Third Avenue and 149th Street and began the five-block walk from the subway to the sisters' house. Pulsing Spanish lyrics pushed thoughts of home away. A fruit stand hawking ma and papayas caught my eye, until I sensed boys in front of an electronics shop eying me. I shifted my box nervously from hand to hand. God, keep me safe, I prayed.
A train passed overhead. Kids my own age break-danced under the el, their boom box momentarily overpowered by the train. The smell of hot dogs increased my nausea. I stepped around some broken glass and turned onto East 145th Street. My heart beat a little faster when, midway down the block, I spotted a three-story building behind a high brick wall, barbed wire coiled at the top, a small sign to the left of the gate: Missionaries of Charity. I opened the gate and stood before the door. I swallowed, and hesitated just a moment.
I juggled the box, smoothed my hair, then rang the bell, my hand trembling. Staring at the door, I saw Heather's last wave, Kathy refusing to look.
Dear God, I prayed, please send someone to open the door.
I set the box on the sidewalk-and the door swung open.
A short, dark woman with puffy cheeks, a blue apron over her white sari, smiled at me. "Welcome," she said. The door clicked as she shut it behind me.
Sister Rochelle took my box and nudged me up a short flight of stairs toward the chapel. "Say hello to Jesus," she whispered.
I knelt on the rough carpet. A large wooden crucifix hung behind the altar, with two words pasted on the wall next to Jesus' head. When I read them, I felt as though Jesus spoke those words directly to me: I thirst.
I'd barely begun my silent prayer when Sister Rochelle said, "Come now. We'll take your things." She led me upstairs, climbing quickly. I heard chickens clucking. Nuns keeping chickens in the South Bronx-what surer sign of self-sufficiency and disregard of convention could I have asked for?
"This is the refectory for you aspirants," Sister Rochelle said as we entered a room with a long wooden table, benches on either side. "These are your plates." She pointed to a bookcase marked with numbers cut from calendars. Above each number sat a large white enamel bowl with a small plate, an enamel teacup, and a saucer. Everything was simple, clean, orderly. Above the shelf a plaque read, The Aspirancy Motto: He must increase; I must decrease.
"There are going to be twelve of you," Sister Rochelle said. "You are number nine." There'd been nine of us at home. Nine was a good number.
Another bookcase stood nearby. "Your Bible goes here. Number nine."
She took me up another flight of stairs. On the landing, we set my box down in front of a large wooden bookcase with a sheet hanging over its shelves. Sister Rochelle pulled back the sheet to reveal clothes folded more neatly than any I'd ever seen, each little pile above its own number.
"Number nine?" I asked, and she nodded.
The next door led to a room with a slanting ceiling, a linoleum floor, and thirteen cots crowded close, with barely room to walk between them. A bare bulb hung from a black wire, and simple muslin curtains covered the lower halves of the room's three small windows.
"This is your bed, number nine." Sister Rochelle smiled again as she patted a thin mattress in the corner. "I hope you brought your sheets," she said, and I nodded. "The dormitory is a sacred place and no talking is allowed, but your mistress will tell you all that."
Sister Rochelle headed for the stairs. Over her shoulder, she said, "Now unpack your things and feel at home." Already halfway down, she added, "The bell will ring soon for adoration."
I sat for a moment on bed number nine, eager to absorb the quiet. The attractions of the convent were pure, minimalist, essential-life without the additives. Everything about the convent seemed to proclaim: Only God matters.
I was stacking my clothes on shelf number nine, as neatly as I could, when I heard footsteps. A tall woman with straight, shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling green eyes rounded the corner.
"Hey, Mary!" she said, stretching out her hand. "Sister Carmeline told us to expect another aspirant today-I'm so glad it's you."
"Louise! Great to see you." Louise had been in charge of the catechism program at St. Rita's Church, just next to the convent, and we'd met in January. She was just a few years older than I-a recent graduate of the University of Virginia-and played the guitar at Mass. Her hand was warm in mine. "What's an aspirant?"
Louise laughed, throwing her arms up in the air. "I'm developing a new vocabulary. We're aspirants because we're aspiring to be sisters, or something like that."
We walked together to the dormitory, and Louise pulled back the blue and white checked bedspread on number nine, revealing a homemade mattress, not more than an inch and a half thick, resting on the cot's iron netting. As we stretched out the bottom sheet, the smell of fabric softener reminded me of home. "You mean you're joining the sisters, too?" I asked Louise. "I thought you'd decided not to."
"Yeah, well, I talked to Sister Andrea about it a lot. It's been great to work in the parish, but I do feel something missing. I want to give God everything, and I guess it's worth a try." Louise pushed the tiny pillow into my way too big pillowcase and fluffed it up as much as she could. "The sisters are excited that we'll be the first group of aspirants in the U.S. Till now they've only had a few American vocations, and they've all gone to London for aspirancy."
Suddenly a short woman stepped up so close that I nearly lost my balance. A finger to her lips, small crucifix pinned to her blouse, she shook her head with its closely cropped black hair and whispered with a light Hispanic accent, "The dormitory is a sacred place. We do not speak in the dormitory."
I froze, but Louise shook her head and laughed lightly. "Sister Elvira," she said, "this is Mary. She's just come, and I think we ought to say hello."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.