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Sara Day

In three days, she would begin her life as a Carmelite nun.

It could have been a perfect greeting card moment: two old friends reminiscing about the old days in a light-filled coffee shop, whispering and laughing about near-forgotten secrets over coffee. But Lisa and I were only eighteen, and it was actually a cloudy day, and neither one of us spoke while I stirred my hot chocolate and she sipped her iced tea.

I was trying to ignore the sounds and smells of the coffee shop— chairs scraping, people talking loudly to be heard over the piped-in music, coffee grounds tossed into a trash can. None of this seemed to bother Lisa, who was sitting completely still, smiling slightly. She was, I understood suddenly, serene. The realization shook me. I had never seen serenity personified before, and here it was in such an unlikely place. Lisa had never been so peaceful.

I found myself fidgeting uncomfortably in the face of so much calm. "When did you decide?" I asked.

"Just a few weeks ago," she told me. "I don't feel I should waste the next four years when I know that this is where I want to be eventually."

"But I thought you wanted to study philosophy— go to grad school some day. University of Chicago?" I was pulling out fragments of sentences, trying to grasp a single thought for more than a few seconds.

"I'll still be able to study. And it will be better there— because that's where I'm supposed to be."

I took a long drink of my hot chocolate, trying not to cringe as the sudden rush of liquid burned the roof of my mouth and the back of my throat, trying not to cringe as I thought about that morning. Lisa and I had spent a few hours wandering through Ursuline's halls, visiting teachers and talking to friends— acting nostalgic, as though more than three months had passed since graduation. And as we walked around the school, she had told each of our teachers the same thing that she told me in the car on the way there: instead of starting college at the University of Dallas, instead of getting her degree in philosophy, she would be entering the convent in three days.

Three days. The timing was curiously perfect. In three days, I would get on a plane to Baltimore; in three days, she would begin her life as a Carmelite.


We met the first day of our freshman year in our Introduction to Theater class. At fourteen, I already considered myself an experienced actress, after spending the past five summers and a great deal of my free time in rehearsals for one play or another. So I rushed to class, took a seat in the front row, and surveyed the other girls as they entered to determine what kind of competition I would have.

Lisa came in late and took the only seat left— the one right next to mine.

It was a typical first day of class, meaning that we were forced into a "getting to know each other" activity right away. I was paired with Lisa, who had spent the first five minutes of class coloring a strand of her long blonde hair pink with a highlighter.

We turned to each other and she smiled at me.

"Can I color your hair?" she said.

I decided immediately that she was going to be one of my best friends.

She had just moved to Texas from Virginia. I had never met someone who had moved around more as a child than I had. Together, we traced our childhood moves and realized we had both lived in Birmingham and Slidell, Louisiana— narrowly missing each other as our timelines just failed to overlap.

We had laughed about these near misses, thinking about how close we had come to knowing each other as children. Our families had even gone to the same church in Slidell.

"We could have been friends our whole lives," I told her once.

"It's okay," she said. "We'll be friends the whole rest of our lives."

We liked to take pictures of our feet. Looking back, I can't imagine that we ever had a rational explanation for that, even then.

My father was offered a job in Kansas at the end of our freshman year, and Lisa was the only one who knew about it. I hadn't intended to tell her— I didn't want to talk about it unless we knew for sure that we'd be moving— but my mother had mentioned it in front of Lisa one night as she dropped me off for a sleepover.

Lisa and I talked about it all night. We were curled up in her queen-sized bed, comforter pulled up over our heads, whispering so her parents wouldn't hear us and tell us to go to sleep. I made her promise that she wouldn't tell anyone about the possibility of Kansas.

Two weeks later, my parents announced we would be staying put. Lisa was almost as happy as I was. And, since the story had a happy ending, I decided to call a couple of our friends and tell them about it.

But they already knew. Lisa had told them. I felt vaguely disappointed— it was supposed to have been a surprise to them. The actress in me looked forward to moments like that. But more than that, really, I was upset that Lisa had told. She promised me she wouldn't, then she did.

That summer, she told me she was going to be a nun. I don't remember feeling surprised or confused, because it was the sort of stunning announcement that you are never prepared for and can never react to the way you think you should.

"Oh, really?" I had asked, more curious than anything else. "My godmother is a nun, you should totally meet her."

"I don't think I'm going to be that kind of nun," she said. I had never really considered that there might be types of nuns. My godmother didn't wear a habit, and she taught English at a local high school— but I still associated her with the nuns from elementary school, in their black and white uniforms. Nuns, I believed, were out in the world, being holy presences among us sinners. It seemed pretty simple to me.

"Yeah? So what kind of nun are you going to be?"

"A Carmelite," she said, with an air of decisiveness. "I'll be cloistered."

I searched my mind, wondering if I knew what that word meant.

"I won't be able to leave the convent," she explained.

"Why would you want that?" I asked, now completely confused.

"It's just— I feel called to."

We met a boy named Vinnie at a mixer sophomore year. For most of the dance, he and I sat in the bleachers, talking about the sorts of things that seem incredibly interesting when you're in high school and have just met someone that you want to impress. He had beautiful blue eyes and spoke quietly, and I thought he was amazing. But my mother came to pick me up before the last dance, and I had left him with a group of my friends on the dance floor.

My friend Jacquelyn told me later that after I left, Vinnie had danced with Lisa to "Stairway to Heaven" and given her his school ID— pointing out his phone number so she could call him. By the following Monday, he had told her he loved her.

They dated for six months, and it took me most of that time to get over the crush I had on him. We would go to parties and hang out in the corner, Vinnie and I, watching Lisa dance to old Beatles songs.

They broke up a week after Valentine's Day, when he had given her an enormous crystal crucifix. The rest of us whispered about it for weeks, wondering what could have happened. She loved the crucifix, she said, but she had given it back to him— it was too expensive. And then, she said, they had decided maybe they shouldn't see each other anymore. A mutual decision, she said. Maybe they could still be friends.

The next time I saw Vinnie, he looked different, older. He was fine, he told me, although he did miss Lisa. But he understood.

"It makes it a little easier, getting dumped that way," he said.

"What way?" I had to ask.

"For God, you know? It still hurts and everything, but at least— well, at least it's because of the whole nun thing. I think it would have been worse if it was just another guy."

A year later, it was just another guy. Steve pursued Lisa for months, and on Valentine's Day she opened her front door to find hundreds of flowers and dozens of balloons. And that was it.

They had a passionate relationship, which shocked all of us. Once they started dating, we never saw them outside of school— or, if we did, they weren't really with us. They would sit off by themselves, with her always perched on his lap, as they whispered to each other and kissed as though no one was around to see.

The question the rest of us kept asking each other, in typical high school fashion, was had they done "it"? How far could she go and still become a nun?

She was taking something for granted, I thought. No one our age had the certainty that Lisa had possessed since childhood, the absolute knowledge of where life was going to take her. Even though I had always felt drawn to writing, I had doubts. I would reach the end of an amazing book and feel despondent as I closed it, wondering if I would ever create something so valuable.

Lisa had been given something so much sturdier than that. At eight years old, she had received her calling to become a nun. That, I thought to myself, was the kind of life-shaping event I would kill for. Why couldn't she lie accordingly? Would it be so hard to behave as if she were really grateful for the certainty God had granted her? Instead, she traipsed around with Steve, apparently unable to keep her hands off him, acting as though her vocation— the rest of her life— had absolutely nothing to do with the life she was living now.

Meanwhile, I lived every second of my life wondering how today was going to effect tomorrow. I jotted down every string of words that came to mind, hoping that thee were the words that would begin my best-selling, award-winning novel. I met boys, created complex, attractive pictures of them in my mind, and then dropped them when their realities disappointed me. I had never met anyone that I couldn't keep my hands off of, never perched in a boy's lap and whispered in his ear, kissing him as though no one was watching.

It seemed almost as though Lisa had stolen something from me, as though she was cheating me out of something that she already had. I was the one who was supposed to have these experiences; I was the one who was going to need them when I grew up. What did she need Steve for? She already had the rest of her life figured out.

I never admitted how furious I was with Lisa for her relationship with Steve. I felt— as, I realized with something of a shock— that she had been lying to me. After all, she was constantly telling me one thing then doing another, even the most trivial things. Before now, the lies had been little things. We would ask her to come out to dinner with us and she would say that she was grounded, but then we would run into her at the restaurant, eating with other friends. Things like that had happened regularly since we met, but I never spent much time thinking about it; if I considered it for too long, it made me angry, and I didn't know how to become comfortable with that. Was it a sin to be angry with a nun, even if she wasn't quite a nun yet?

But watching her with Steve brought that same anger to me. For her to tell me that she was going to be a nun and then get into an admittedly short series of serious romantic relationships just made me more certain that she was too dishonest to take a religious vocation. Nuns don't lie, I reasoned. They aren't allowed.

This was the root of the only fight Lisa and I ever had, the fight that kept us from speaking to each other for most of our senior year of high school. I demanded the truth from her, demanded that she stop answering my questions with stupid lies. I asked her to tell me how she could justify her relationship with Steve if she felt called to a lifelong relationship with God.

And she could not respond with the honesty I thought I deserved.

We sat in class together, at lunch at the same table every day, and I would try to look as though I didn't care. Inside, I was wishing she would just confess to me that she had not always told me the truth, that she would admit it so we could be friends again.

It never occurred to me to just forgive and forget. I was sure that I was justified in my anger because Lisa was failing to be what she said she was called to be. And since I was right, I had to act the part of the betrayed friend, waiting for her to fall on her knees and beg me to forgive her. I even had a speech constructed in my head for when she finally broke down.

The moment, when it actually did take place, was absolutely anticlimactic. Our whole class was gathered for mass during our last retreat, just a month before graduation. When it came time for the Sign of Peace, Lisa found me and said, "I'm sorry. Forgive me."

And, forgetting all my lines, I just hugged her.

Which is what I was remembering as we sat in the coffee shop together, neither of us drinking coffee, neither of us talking about the past four years. We had not shared the senior year that we had gone through with everyone else in our class. We had not discussed what college we could go to or what we would study. Now seemed the most appropriate time to catch up on what we had managed to deny ourselves.

"Are you scared about going so far away?" she asked me.

"Not at all. I'm so ready to get out of Texas."

"Won't you get homesick?"

"I never get homesick." We laughed. "Won't you?"

I hadn't meant to ask that. Things were suddenly serious again, but she was still smiling.

"I will be home."

She became Sister Theresa Agnes a year and three days after our last conversation. I went to see her take her vows, realizing suddenly that Lisa was married, committed to God for the rest of her life. I couldn't even make a long-distance relationship last for more than a month. I could barely think about what was on the other end of graduation for me. Lisa— Sister Theresa Agnes— had already made the biggest decision of her life.

After the ceremony, I stood in line with the others who had gathered to see her first vows. I grasped her hands and tried to think of something to say other than "Congratulations," or "I'm so happy for you." She just smiled at me, thanking me without words for coming, promising with her eyes that she would never stop praying for me. She was the same, serene girl that I would always remember. Her hair was now hidden under her habit, but her smile remained the same.

I have not seen her since. I begin letters that I never send, plan trips to the convent that I never take, say prayers that somehow taper off before they reach "Amen."

She took her second vows in October of my senior year of college, a week after Jeremy and I picked out an engagement ring. The timing, again, seemed curiously perfect.

On the flight back to Baltimore, looking at my left hand and imagining the way it would look when we announced our engagement a few months later, it struck me that Lisa would not be at my wedding. That she had not even met the man I was going to marry. And that, in a way, I was finally able to understand her. This was what it felt like to be certain of something.

I caught my reflection in the airplane window and saw an expression of— just for a moment, because it disappeared when I noticed it—serenity.

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