At a rest stop along interstate 81, about 7 miles north of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, Rosemarie had a vision of the Virgin Mary. She and I had stopped for McDonald's at Pine Grove because Rosemarie had begun to feel a little light headed, and brought the food here so we could stretch a little, and look at the mountains off in the distance, and walk the dogs. I headed off toward the bathrooms at one end of the lot and Rosemarie took Judith and Justina over toward the rocks at the other end so they could pee out of people's way. I looked over at them by accident, as I took a drink from the water fountain outside the cabana, and saw that Rosemarie had stopped still. She was looking at what to me looked like a spot where water leaching out from underground had made the rocks wet, just above her eye level and a little to her right. I knew from the way she was just looking at the rocks and not touching them that something out of the ordinary was going on.
Then as though on command the yellow labs heeled one on either side of her, and lay down in positions like the great Sphinx of Egypt. Rosemarie dropped to her knees and held her hands, palms flat and open, above her head, and sat in rapt silence, unmoving but for her lips, mouthing words she didn't speak. Then still in supplication she stopped doing that.
By the time I had started toward her several other people had taken notice too. They weren't coming immediately toward Rosemarie yet, but they were trying to decide if there really was something to see or if Rosemarie was insane. Some people were also looking at me, and so I went to stand behind her. I tried to look like there was nothing interesting going on in front of me.
Rosemarie and I have established a certain protocol for her sightings, because although Rosemarie has told me she can look at patches of water, or chipped paint, or the shine of the sun on tree leaves and see Her, I can't see a damned thing. I probably wouldn't have noticed the water if Rosemarie hadn't stopped in front of it, although I could see how it might look sort of square and veil shaped if you were willing to see it.
Rosemarie's visions weren't usually this dramatic, or public. She says that before I met her she would stop while walking her dog, or look at the rocker in the corner of her room for several minutes, or at a row of vanilla scented votive candles along the inner edge of the bathtub, and be aware of a presence. Sometimes her dog sat respectfully and sometimes he stayed out of the range of her conversation. But she hadn't generally gone down on her knees like this in public.
Rosemarie stood up then, and with her head bent back she began walking backwards, away from the rocks. After about thirty feet, she turned and walked backwards again, back toward the rocks and the apparent source of her vision. She began mouthing more words, never taking her eyes from the wet patch on the rocks.
One woman who had been walking her Jack Russell near Rosemarie began pulling the dog away from her as fast as she could without actually looking unnerved by the scene, but two boys in their late teens who had gotten out of a beaten up Toyota hatchback were walking toward us. I hoped Rosemarie would hurry but I didn't interfere with her visitation. The boys looked at Rosemarie for a minute, watched her lips move and saw that the dogs didn't move or make a sound, and that only their breathing was visible. The boys looked over at me then, and I shrugged my shoulders. I had noticed as we pulled in that they had a "My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter" bumper sticker on the back of their car. If they were hoping for enlightenment, though, they were going to be shit outta luck.
It is a peculiarity of Rosemarie's visions that she isn't compelled to witness them to other people, and that the messages don't appear to be public information but semi-private warnings or advice. I've only been witness to two of these before, one where she prayed publicly in the rail yard of a coal refinery outside of Wheeling, West Virginia, and another when she was taking a bath one night and I was putting away laundry in the bedroom. I went in to put a stack of towels in the linen closet and she was fixated on the flame of the candle in the far corner of the tub next to the faucet.
Rosemarie also doesn't ever tell me the exact content of her visitations, and I have learned not to ask, but afterwards she generally writes in her journal, then sleeps for several hours, and then make a decision, or appears happier, or is simply relieved. Sometimes she'll give me advice after one of these sightings, and when things seem to be back in order to her satisfaction, she leaves me alone. I have to admit, the advice has never been wrong.
After about fifteen minutes, Rosemarie put her head down in an attitude of supplication, and lowered her hands to her sides. The dogs stood up in tandem, and Rosemarie sat down indian fashion. "Walk the girls," she told me, "I'll be along in a minute."
Both of the boys looked uncomfortable, as if they had been caught peeping in a window, and waited for Rosemarie to speak, or begin to witness. She remained sitting on the ground though, and didn't answer when one said, "Miss? Miss? I believe you've had a profound religious experience. So you've found the Lord Jesus Christ?" But Rosemarie looked up at them with her best blank look, practiced I knew because after these visitations she is unusually sharp, and she didn't answer them.
"She's an epileptic," I said helpfully. "She was having a seizure."
One of the boys, who was reaching down to touch her shoulder, moved his hand away quickly.
"She'll be OK. in a minute," I said. The boys looked at each other, shrugged, and headed back toward their car. "Are you sure she's not religious?" One of them asked me before he left.
"Just wired funny in the head," I said. I took Judith and Justina off into a stand of pine while Rosemarie collected herself. She stood up after a couple of minutes, kissed the spot on the rock where she had seen the Virgin, and then headed back toward the van. The dogs seemed to want to follow her so I let them. When we got back to the van Rosemarie had already curled up on one of the bench seats, clutching a pillow we had shoved in to keep the cargo from sliding. Justina put both front paws on the pillows and began to lick Rosemarie's face until Rosemarie began to scratch her behind the ears.
"What did She say?" I asked, the awe of what I had just seen washing over me for the first time. "Bad things or good?"
Rosemarie shook her head no. She told me once that she envied my ability to divide things cleanly along the lines of good and bad. My people were Baptist, when they bothered at all, so I seem to have been born with that talent. Rosemarie was quiet for several minutes. "Are you OK?" I asked finally.
"Yeah." Rosemarie looked out the square window behind me, distracted for a second. "Were they watching me when I saw Her?" She motioned to the two boys, who were still standing outside the Toyota watching us.
"I told them you were an epileptic. They seemed satisfied with that."
"They're looking at me like I'm possessed."
"No more possessed than usual," I said.
"Hm." Rosemarie looked out the window at the boys again. "Just the same, can we go now?"
I crawled between the two front seats and slid into the drivers seat. In a fully loaded van pulling a canoe hitch, we weren't going to do any wheelies out of the parking lot, but people who wanted to talk to Rosemarie would generally give up when they saw us moving. Rosemarie took her post at one of the back windows to watch as we pulled out. As I did the maneuvers with the van that sent the hitch one way and the tail end of the van the other, Rosemarie told me that the boys were still watching us. When I got the van on the ramp to the highway she came up front and sat in the seat next to mine. "Next time tell them I'm Moslem and praying toward Mecca." She grabbed the McDonald's bag away from Judith, who was just about to stick her nose into it, and pulled out the fish sandwiches and french fries. She didn't want to stop again, so we ate on the road.
Rosemarie and I were on a vacation with another couple we were going to meet up with at a motel in New York State. We were trying to escape from work, from Rosemarie's job teaching high school Biology that was keeping her in the closet, especially. I watched her licking tartar sauce off of her fingers and rummaging around in her day pack for her journal, and I was hoping that we would be able to do that, at least for a little while. It was about an hour before I realized that I still needed to go to the bathroom.
Rosemarie tells people that she was a nun in a former life. This life, for her, began six years ago - the life that includes me and the girls - a life of hard candy and dog slobber - began when I decided that it was time for me to find an AA meeting, while I still had my car and my job and my drivers license. I look back on that now and I wonder, because I hadn't hit bottom yet, not really. For an alcoholic as serious and persistent as I was, usually it's necessary to lose almost everything before showing up at an AA meeting. For me it was a strange, persistent desire, almost like an itch, to search the newspapers for the tiny square ads in the back pages. They don't promise much, even less than now, when they say "women only", "all gay" sometimes even "HIV +", or "Wiccan". Then there weren't many that were all women. Only one then, I think, a long bus ride into another part of town. I looked in the paper for one near me, and there was an all gay meeting, also the only one listed, at the Our Lady Queen of Apostles Church. Not close by but close enough.
It was an old church, in a neighborhood made up of well entrenched Italian families, more recent Latino people, and a growing number of gays. We were coming here for the cheap rents and the coffee houses and the bookstore, and the dance club a few blocks up. We had taken to calling this building the Church of the Divine Ms. M., and whenever I walked by I had to fight hard to keep from giving it a couple of snaps. Then the more nights I passed it and didn't go in to the meeting, the more times I watched the saints in the tall pointed windows follow me with their eyes as I took this eight block detour on my way home from work, the less I had to fight that urge. Then one meeting night there was a woman waiting for me by the side entrance.
"I can walk you downstairs and show you the room," she said.
"I can probably find it," I said.
She shrugged, "You'll go in when you're ready. I just thought you might like some help."
"Thanks, I'll be OK."
"Maybe," she said.
I couldn't tell how tall the woman would be standing up -she was sitting on one of the stone topped brick pillars at the foot of the stairs. Her voice sounded young. "I've watched you pass by this way every meeting night for the past eight weeks. I live there." She pointed over to the abbey, where the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity lived. "I've got supper duty. That back window is the kitchen."
I looked her over carefully, because the woman sitting on the stone stairs wasn't wearing a habit.
"We don't wear them as much any more," she said.
"Oh." The woman seemed to be guarding the gate, sitting triangularly between the door going in, the sidewalk I had come down, and the way back to my apartment.
"They won't make you stay if you don't want to. They don't even make you speak. You go, you sit, you listen. If you want to go home and do what you've always been doing, you can."
I nodded. Even as I wavered between what to do about this whole situation -- my whole life -- the woman scooted off the pillar and onto the sidewalk. "It's getting cold out here. I need to go inside. The meeting is through that door, down the stairs to the right, the room at the end of the hall. I have friends there. They're OK. people."
It was so dark outside that I still couldn't see the woman very well. I got an impression of long hair, dark eyes, a small frame. I watched her walk down the sidewalk and into the abbey, not looking back at me. Then I looked at the doors, tall and pointed, glowing as the muted lights from the hall lit the stained glass panels in the middle. There were no Saints here, the pattern on the doors was doves, with roses in the lower far corners, and lilies in the upper ones near the center. Tangled in the rose leaves, in the center of the bottom panels, standing by themselves, were the words Pax Vobiscum. I climbed the stairs, twisted the knob of the right door, and pulled it toward me. I was covered in the warn air of the hall. It was nearly wet. Steam heat.
As it turned out, the Sisters of Charity also staffed a temporary women's shelter in the basement of a building about two blocks away. It gave out sandwiches and clothing and had a nurse in every other weekend to provide basic health care. They also let alcoholics dry out there, watching them to make sure they didn't get into trouble, but not costing what a real treatment center would. It had been suggested to me that if I wanted to dry out there I could. I'd been talking about drying out for over a month. I hadn't. Every morning I was still mixing Irish Cream into my coffee. Then drinking bourbon straight.
That week I went to meeting Thursday night, drank Friday morning and again at lunch, arranged to have Monday and Tuesday off, and took myself and my overnight bag to an old brick public school building that the church had bought. I checked in, stowed my bag under a tiny green army surplus cot near the basement window, and I waited. It was around eight o'clock, when I wanted a drink so badly I could feel it in every part of my body, that the little nun came back. She pulled a chair over to where I sat on my cot, trying unsuccessfully to read.
"You came. I was hoping."
"I thought those meetings were confidential."
"They are. This is my shift here. A weekend shift once a month. How do you feel?"
"Really terrible." I put my book down.
"You're doing fine. I'm Rosemarie."
"Hello again Rita."
The little nun sat with me all night when it became clear that I wouldn't sleep. She sat with me the next day, when the sweating and the cramps set in. I would rather have died than lived anyway, and sleep and waking didn't matter. I studied Rosemarie, mostly because she was all I had, all there was to look at. In the middle of wanting to die I forced myself to really look at her. She had waist length hair. I hadn't noticed that before. For some reason I pictured her in silver jewelry, in long earrings and a necklace. Despite the crucifix over the cot and the pictures of Christ on the walls I saw her in secular jewelry. I saw her in beautiful dark red lipstick. I thought about how her skin must feel -- how pale and cool she looked, how almost transparent. I reached out to grab her forearm, to keep still I told myself, because the muscle cramps were still bad. In a room full of other people and other nuns, she brushed my hair out of my face, kissed my forehead, and covered my hand with her own. I looked up at her, felt how warm her hands really were.
It was much later when I found out that the friends she had at the AA meetings were the pack of very underage teenagers that congregated near the back of the room. Rosemarie worked with gay and lesbian teenagers. Gay children.
We stopped again for supper just as the sun was beginning to set. Rosemarie had been quiet most of the afternoon in the van, writing in her journal, looking out at the valleys falling away from the road as we passed through the Endless Mountain region of Pennsylvania, up deep into New York State. She finally leaned back into the seat and put her feet up on the dash, wrapping her arms around her knees and watching the McDonald's and Pizza Huts roll by, scanning the sides of the road for a homey looking place to eat.
"What did She talked to you about?"
"It seems to be very distressing that I've come to be a closeted high school teacher. To me especially. She pointed this out." Rosemarie reached down to scratch Justina between the ears, then pointed to a building tucked off the road a way. It had a green roof with a red weather vane sticking out of the top. There was warm yellow light pouring out of the windows, with dark patches where the plants hanging in front of the glass obscured the light. I pulled into the turn lane and then we saw the sign: Robin Hood Diner. Rosemarie and I look at each other simultaneously. "Do we try it?" I asked.
"If I have to eat Friar Tuck fries and Sherwood Shakes I'm leaving." she said.
We went into the diner and it looked normal enough, with muted music (not muzak thankfully, but some kind of soft country), and a glass case of pies near the front counter. The waitresses' pens looked like little arrows, but the food was normal enough. Rosemarie watched the waitress carry one of the pork laden all day breakfast specials by, and passed over the entrees and into the ala carte section of the menu. Rosemarie is the only vegetarian biologist I have ever met. The waitress poured our coffee and took our order and Rosemarie continued as though we hadn't yet left the van. "She comes at three times usually, when I am in the middle of a crisis, when I have to make an important decision, and when I need to be told not to despair - that the bad times will be over soon." Rosemarie mixed two of the half-and-half containers into her coffee and began to stir slowly. She still had a lightness about her body, the kind of quick animation that these sightings leave her with, that takes a while to go away.
The waitress brought us our plates of food, set them on the table and refilled our cups of coffee. Rosemarie ran several chunks of pancake through a lake of syrup and put a couple of bites into her mouth. Then she put down her fork and took a couple of sips from her juice glass. She pulled her bowl of fruit toward her and stopped suddenly. "And then there those subtle things that happen that make me not doubt Her presence or influence. Like this." Rosemarie indicated one of the bowls the waitress had brought her, studying it with a mix of awe and happiness. "I asked for applesauce. I got mixed fruit."
When I had known her for a couple of months Rosemarie and I had begun meeting for supper before the AA meetings. One afternoon, when Rosemarie met me out in front of the church looking as though the world had collapsed, we went for a walk.
"I think they're going to give me my walking papers, Rita."
"Throw me out. Of the order."
"Why would they throw you out?"
Rosemarie folded her arms across her chest and began to pace. We stopped walking and I leaned up against the side of an office supply store. "Well," she said slowly, "I'm a sister that works with children -- especially gay children -- and . . .I have been given to what they used to call particular friendships."
"There's not to much of a difference, in most people's mind, between gays and pedophiles. The Mother General says I make people nervous, although she says that she believes that I think my intentions are good. She says that maybe I can get an administrative position somewhere." Rosemarie began walking again, faster, and I got the feeling that if she stopped walking she would begin to cry. We went on toward the park, Rosemarie rubbing her upper arms the way she does when she is thinking. "My life is about to change. And not for the better."
"You don't know that."
"People have even less faith in public school teachers and Girl Scout leaders than in nuns. This was my best chance."
We stopped into a sandwich shop next to the park, and I bought us two eclairs and two cups of hot cider. I was starting to need a sugar fix. We sat down on a bench a little away from the street and watched the women jogging before it got dark, and the people walking their dogs after work. Rosemarie pulled her knees up to her chest and circled them with her arms, balancing the eclair on her knees and holding the cider in her hands.
I was trying to think of something to say and was at a loss. To the best of my knowledge I was one of the only outside adults she saw regularly. Most of the people she dealt with closely were either other sisters or people under eighteen. "Am I responsible for this?" I asked her. I hadn't really thought about what sort of risk it was to her to befriend me. I hadn't assumed that she was straight, but thought that her interest in me was professional. But I had begun to wonder. Other people had too I guess.
"No. I had a close friend -- a particular friendship -- in the novitiate. I was warned against it becoming -- too intimate was the term they used for it -- but I wasn't reprimanded for it."
"And you were. . .?"
"No. A vow of celibacy is a vow of celibacy," Rosemarie said. She nodded slowly. "But it isn't that uncommon for nuns or sisters to form bonds of that sort. Whether they actually sleep together or not. It's a way to keep our emotional lives intact. The communal living helps too. Anyway, they were keeping an eye on me before you came here. This isn't your fault."
"I can't help thinking though that if I had been more discreet. . ."
"Hey!" Rosemarie interrupted me. She put her hand on my forearm the way I had put my hand on hers, weeks before. "People will see what they want to see, and not see what they don't want to recognize. They were looking for me to do something they could haul me in for. You just got lucky."
"Could you take a transfer, maybe lie low for a while and then start again?"
"Secrecy is not the best way to help gay kids, to begin with. Discretion is comforting but absolute secrecy makes them feel like convicted felons. Besides, it would take more than discretion to keep me safe after this. No, what bothers me is that the Mother General said that she believes that I believe my intentions are good. Not that they are good, or that she believes they are good. I think she'll give me a hard time, Rita."
"Well. . ." I didn't have any suggestions immediately. Rosemarie drank some of the cider, then warmed herself over the steam. "There must be something," I said. "Obviously you've thought about this a lot."
Rosemarie nodded carefully. "It's always been a risk, I just didn't believe it would happen. I won't have a job after Friday, or a place to stay. I'm twenty nine years old and I don't even own any silverware of my own. . .You know, I don't even have a credit card."
"You're better off," I said "I wish I didn't have mine. And you can stay at my apartment."
"Thank you, Rita," she said. "But it would feel like such an imposition. . ."
"I haven't been an imposition?"
"That's different," she said.
"So I'm work related?"
"No," she said softly, "Never."
At a later time I would tease her about her "unholy alliance" with me, but at that time those words were what I wanted to hear from her most. "If you stay with me it'll be easier on those kids too. You'll have an address and a phone number to give them. It won't be like you'll have disappeared." That, I think, was what finally convinced her. I set her cup of cider on the ground next to the bench and covered both of her hands with mine. She was getting red in the cold. I began to walk her back to the abbey. A group of her kids were clustered around a table inside the sandwich shop where we had stopped before. They were drinking coffee, not hiding beer, and had books and papers spread out all over the table. They were holding an animated conversation about something, not looking at us.
"Our kids are doing well." she said, as we stopped to look in at them. They had pushed tables together in one corner, where they could hang their coats and bags on the pegs above their heads on one side, and where the light from the windows fell on their work from the other. We moved on before they could see us, "I'll tell them tomorrow." she said, "When I can think of how."
I wrote down my address for her when we got back to the house, and my phone number. I would come for her Friday at noon. For the last time I watched her enter her house.
That night, on her knees before one of the statues of the Virgin in an alcove off of the main sanctuary in the church of Our Lady Queen of Apostles, Rosemarie had the first of the four visions she would have with me so far. This is the only one she has told me about in depth. It was a comfort vision. She was told to look for aid and comfort from strange quarters.
Rosemarie and I paid our bill at the diner and drove around until we found the motel where we were supposed to meet Ann and Leslie. It was called The Silver Fox, and was set behind a long parking lot flush with the highway, a few miles outside of town. I have almost never seen Rosemarie so tired. As I checked in she took the dogs around to the side of the hotel for the last rest stop of the night, and I returned to the van and pulled out the one overnight bag that we packed so we wouldn't have to unload all of the camping gear. Rosemarie brought the dogs back around to our room but they were still too full of energy to take inside.
We tied them to the rail of our small section of porch, then turned our porch light off, so we could sit in the relative privacy of the overhang, and twine our arms around each other and try to gaze past the lights of the convenience store across the highway, over to the smaller lights sparkling in the valley below.
After a half an hour of this, with Rosemarie nearly asleep on my shoulder and the dogs curled up at our feet, a van a little like ours pulled into the parking lot. Six people piled out, all with young voices and quick moving bodies. Four crossed the highway toward the convenience store, and the other two, a boy and a girl from the sound of them, unfolded a map across the hood of the van and positioned it under the light of the street lamp. They talked about directions for a while, debating the fastest and most direct route, in the way of all travelers, and then Rosemarie untangled herself from me, when even the dogs didn't stir, and went over to help them. She pointed up the road, to the on ramp to highway 81, waved them along north with her hands, described another exit. She showed them this on the map, which the girl then marked in pencil. The girl asked a couple more questions, which Rosemarie answered in nods of her head and the motions of her hands, and then she came back to where I was sitting, and reentangled herself with my body, and prepared to fall back to sleep. She lay her head back on my shoulder. We watched the four other people in the party recross the highway, get back into their seats, and then the van pulled back onto the road. We watched them head north again.
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