Leaving Home, When Your Home Is a Convent

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My father is that rarest of all things, a practicing Catholic priest who’s also married and getting it on the regular from my hot Irish mom. Together they popped out five kids, and instead of living in regular houses, we lived in various Midwest rectories with truly startling crucifixes all over the walls. The beginning of this story finds us in a particularly forbidding one in Cincinnati, Ohio, with me alone on the cusp of escaping into the wider world.

At nineteen, I ought to have been in college along with the rest of my high school class, gaining fifteen pounds of knowledge and bursting the sweatpants of my ignorance. It seemed the very act of stacking boxes in a secondhand car and driving away with your childhood home in the rearview allowed you to be born again in whatever form you chose, and I could hardly wait. I had applied and been accepted, and was all set to start attending a Great Books college in the winter of 2001, but the night before Christmas — two weeks before I was supposed to depart for Annapolis — my father called me into his study for a talk.

The orotund, indignant sound of Rush Limbaugh was blasting from a radio in the corner, and the drunken leprechaun sound of Bill O’Reilly was blasting from the television. It was my father’s pleasure to listen to the two men simultaneously, while emitting the occasional “hoo-HOO” of agreement. He was wearing his most formal boxer shorts, the ones you could almost not see through. He patted a spot next to him on the overstuffed leather sofa. (It was one of his personal commandments that a couch must absolutely always be made of leather. If your couch was made of chintz or something, go live on Fairy Island.) I sat down, averting my eyes, staring past the curve of his cheek and out the window, where the upper feathers of a pillowfight swirled between us and the school next door.

“We can’t do it, Bit,” he said, shaking his curly head kindly, as if it couldn’t be helped. “The money just isn’t there,” he explained, which made me think of a smoke-and-mirrors trick: poof, and the pile of money is gone, the pile of textbooks, the pile of bricks that would have been college.

“Okay,” I said, automatic, from a body that didn’t seem to be mine. I didn’t ask a single question. When I remember this, the urge to fly back and shake my young self by the shoulders shakes my present self to the point of pain. What I knew about the world was from books; what I did not know about the world is that there are ways, there are ways in, through, above, and around it. I accepted the statement as a mountain, a fact on the face of the earth — as final as if he had told me I would not be going to heaven.

Adrift, I moved from the rectory of my father’s church in Cincinnati to the abandoned convent next door. The convent looked out on a petroleum plant, and just beyond that, the polluted, hellbender-colored Ohio River. The sisters had fled long ago and now the building was used for church business during the daytime; I heard the ceaseless counting of collections while I hid upstairs reading books on an old futon. But when the sun sank down and was replaced by an artificial orange somehow brighter than daylight, I tiptoed downstairs and took refuge in a place of living, moving, breathing text, a book that continually wrote itself: the internet.

I sat in the computer chair and spun myself around once, twice: the child’s gesture of sudden and unsupervised freedom. Across the front lawn I saw blacktop, then the road, then the train tracks, then the tanks, then the river, then Kentucky. It looked like the seamed side of something — of the country, of industry, of American progress. Old modes of communication raced across the view, old ways of eating the miles. I turned the computer on and listened to the tower rev and wheeze. The monitor was capacious enough to hold a human head. I lifted my hands to the keyboard and opened up a window. I took a breath and eliminated the distance between two points.

“I wrote a poem today,” I typed to Jason, a total stranger who lived in Fort Collins, Colorado. We had met by chance, on a bulletin board devoted to the discussion of poetry, and were now in the grip of a fevered correspondence. “It’s about Billie Holiday giving herself an abortion in a hot bath.”

“I wrote a poem today too,” he responded, not five minutes later. “It’s about the splendor and the majesty of the tetons.”

The feeling of getting an email! As if the ghost of a passenger pigeon had flown into your home and delivered it directly into your head, so swooping and unexpected and feathered was the feeling. How suddenly full you felt of white vapor. How you set your fingers on the keyboard to write back, and your fingers disappeared almost up to the first knuckle in those clattering beige keys — so much more satisfying than the shallow keys that came later, or the touchscreens that came even after that. The story of any courtship is one of ephemera, dead vehicles, outdated technology. Name cards, canoes, pagers. The roller rink, telegrams, mixtapes. Radio dedications. The drive-in. Hotmail dot com.

“Send me yours,” I wrote him, at the exact moment he responded to tell me to send him mine.

Most of my poems were about mermaids losing their virginity to Jesus (metaphor), and most of his poems were about the majesty of canyons, arroyos, and mesas. The West had infected him with some sort of landscape mania — these were essentially poems a cartoon roadrunner would write, after retiring from a career of anarchy. He had, however, written one good image, which stays with me even now: “the milk bottles burst like scared chickens.” It might strike you as irresponsible, to fall in love on the strength of one image about chickens bursting, but this was a different time. I didn’t even know what he looked like. He was under the mistaken impression that I was “fifty years old and Latina.” We were all made up of words.

We progressed from typing to the phone. I would lie on my back on the floor of the convent with my bare feet up against the wall, and talk quietly so as not to disturb the shapes of the absent nuns, which still seemed to flock in their black-and-white forms through the rooms. It surprises me sometimes to think that I was never frightened to sleep there alone, but then I remember that I stayed up in the glow all night talking. Sometimes I would doze off for a minute and wake to a seeming sunrise out the window, trumpets and banners and streaming incandescence, but no, it was only that cloud of radioactivity across the street. When I woke, either his voice or his silence was still going on the other end. And then deep in the valley between two hours, a train would roar and rumble: wheels could roll away from these places, wheels did.

Proenza Schouler tobacco cotton twill breasted trench (left), $1,950 at 121 Greene St.; 212-420-7300. Céline viscose twill shirt, $820 at 870 Madison Ave.; 212-535-3703. Photo: Thomas Slack

We had certain things in common. His father was a Baptist preacher. “What did those people teach you?” he asked me one night, mystified. “What exactly do Catholics believe?”

I’d been preparing my whole life for this question. “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he’s also dead, and he’s also immortal, but he’s also made of clouds, and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he also always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you’re causing him so much suffering whenever you cuss. He is so gentle that sheep seem like demented murderers in his presence, but also rays of sunlight shoot out of his face so hard they can kill people. In fact they do kill people, and one day they will kill you. He has a tattoo of a daisy on his lower back and he gets his hair permed every eight weeks. He’s wearing a flowing white dress, but only because people didn’t know about jeans back then. He’s holding up two fingers because his dad won’t let him have a gun. If he lived on earth, he would have a white truck, plastered with bumper stickers of Calvin peeing on a smaller Calvin who is not a Catholic.”

Jason was aghast. “Thorns?” he whispered. “But that’s the most dangerous part of the rose.”

Mostly, though, we talked about things we liked. All the things we liked and listened to and read fanned out behind us like peacock plumage — or the bursting milk of scared chickens, I guess. We were composed of conversation, so it didn’t matter where our hands and lips and heads were. The legs we walked on were the long and shifting list of what we loved, what we had discovered, what we could not live without.

As we talked, the shape of a future gradually resolved. He would drive out to meet me in Ohio. I would return with him to Colorado. I had visited a place in Colorado once called Purgatory, and now I intended to see the rest. I am not sure why it was so fast, so extreme, so precipitate, but nothing less would have worked. A cliff had presented itself as we were walking along together, and it called for a leap.

Had I really thought it through? you ask. Ridiculous question. I had never really thought anything through, except perhaps Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” — a poem about the landscape licking up to a portal, in love. Were we crazy? We were nineteen.

I knew if I told my parents I wanted to move to Colorado with someone I had never met, they would figure out a way to stop me, so I decided to begin by telling them only that I was meeting a boy from the internet. Even this was a delicate proposition. It was 2002, and back then, everyone believed the internet was a country where murderers lived. “He’s from the poetry internet,” I reassured them, “where everyone just argues about sonnets all the time, and whether endings are Earned,” but it didn’t seem to penetrate.

“Who knows what a freak might do,” my mother hissed, which sounded almost like a philosophical koan. Who DOES know what a freak might do. Could God make a freak so big even he didn’t know what it might do?

“Tricia, I’ve built computers,” my father said. “I’ve built computers with my bare hands. These guys get on the web …”

“What they want to do is cyber,” my mother broke in. “They’ll tell you anything, if it means they get to cyber.” I took a moment to wonder what constituted my mother’s understanding of “cybering.” Hackers in black leather gloves, giving each other handjobs in space, while glowing green numbers streamed through the air?

We were standing in a triangle in the living room of the St. Vincent de Paul rectory, which was so ancient, stony, and capacious it had actually been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The river waited a sprint away, ready to carry or be crossed, and the house itself was rumored to be full of secret passages, which my siblings and I were too stupid to find. The drama of the scene ought to have been tense and throbbing, but it was undercut somewhat by my mother’s decorating, which ran heavily to bowls of gold balls.

“Why should I trust the internet?” my mother asked. “It gets into my house and I don’t know how.”

“Well, so does electricity,” I pointed out.

“Which has fried many children in its day,” she said significantly. “Put your finger in the wrong hole and face the consequences.”

“What your mother is trying to say,” my father interrupted, “is that if you go through with this, anything could happen to you, anything at all.”

My heart caught the air like a parachute — if I looked up, I knew I might see Jesus, spiriting me away to another place. Why else would I be doing it?

Only my little sister, Mary, dribbling a soccer ball in and out of the room as we talked, seemed unconcerned. “We are the ones who are not normal,” she said as she passed, her shin guards flashing. “How bad can a guy named Jason be?”

“Disintegration of the family unit!” my father shouted, apropos of nothing — I suspected he hadn’t really been listening — and then disappeared upstairs to fondle his guns and drink cream liqueurs in secret, which was his way of dealing with grief. I fled back over to my room at the convent and began to bundle up my worldly possessions, which included eight androgynous sweaters; two pairs of cascading jeans; various immortal manuscripts, no longer extant; a selection of electronic music that sounded like robots making up their own religion from scratch; four hundred books I needed to live; and deodorant.

Nuns pass their time in a hopeful way, waiting for the man who might be good. On the morning Jason was due to arrive, I woke early, showered, dressed, sat cross-legged on my uncomfortable futon, and joined in their tradition. Above the ambient sound of the tank farm came the crunch of a car rolling up the steep entrance of the parking lot. I took a moment to compose myself and then walked out to meet him. He emerged from his seafoam-green Mercury Mystique — the car NO woman can resist — and waved a shy hello. There was something in the composition of his face that meant he could never look angry; the proportions didn’t allow for it. He had the small, neat, unjudgmental ears of a teddy bear. He unfolded his long arms and legs as he walked, until he stood as straight and easy as a set of chimes, and when he reached the bottom step he took my hand. “The woman in my dream!” he gasped, before he said anything else. He had dreamed of me the year before, when he lived by himself in an apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida, overlooking the water. “You were a witch or something, very beautiful but also very evil, and I never forgot your face.” The romance could not have begun any other way.

Burberry voluminous-sleeve cotton shirt dress (left), $1,495 at Burberry. Prada wool blend knit top, $1,350 at 575 Broadway; 212-334-8888. Photo: Thomas Slack

My father, who has a sixth sense for other cars driving onto his property, exploded in slow motion out the door of the rectory and toddled over to us with as much speed as he could muster. “Gimme your license!” he yelled to Jason. “I got cop friends!” Jason obligingly handed over his license, and my father took it away to have it checked, or just to stand with it inside for a threatening period of time while watching us from behind the gold drapes.

“Do you have a criminal record?” I asked him. It had never occurred to me to wonder. I had never even run a stop sign or stolen a lipstick or torn one of those tags off a mattress. I realized for the first time that I knew very few facts about him, only feelings.

He cocked his head to one side. “No, but the FBI once barged through my front door when I was fifteen years old because they thought I was a genius hacker.”

I remembered the leather gloves and the streaming green numbers, and the sound of the word “cyber” in my mother’s mouth. “WERE you a genius hacker?”

“No, but one of my friends was. He had been stealing people’s credit card information and using it to buy climbing gear. When they caught him, he gave them my name.”

“That’s the most Colorado crime I’ve ever heard of.”

“He works at MIT now. Anyway, they took my computer away and searched it and found nothing but hundreds of guitar tab websites.”

“Your secret shame!”

“When they burst in shouting, ‘WE KNOW WHAT YOU’VE BEEN DOING!’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, the feds know I’ve been trying to learn the chord progression to “American Pie” for months now.’ ”

My father strode back across the blacktop twenty minutes later and returned the license to him with the news that he was all clear. We stood there looking at each other for a minute. I asked my father if we were allowed to go for a drive and he said guardedly that we were, but that we had to return to the rectory in an hour so we could hold a family council.

“Here, I’ll show you around the convent,” I said, not shy exactly, but feeling new.

The appearance of it seemed to confuse Jason. “I thought it would be like the one in Sister Act,” he said, squinting, “where the nuns sang all day and were girlfriends at night. This is just a regular house.” Perhaps it was the mental image of that towering and gargoyled place that had led him to suspect I was locked up in here, somehow, that I could not leave whenever I wanted, though I had never told him anything of the kind.

We tiptoed upstairs to my spartan little room. When we kissed, perhaps because we had so many teeth, it was exactly like two birdcages touching together. We laughed quietly, almost into each other’s mouths, and slipped out again to explore the neighborhood. Conspiracy had arrived to us, whole, intact, and just large enough for two people.

An hour later, we convened again in the living room. My father sat in a brocade chair, as richly embroidered as the Sun King’s underwear. He adopted his most lordly and intimidating position, with his thighs spread so wide it seemed like there might be a gateway to another dimension between them. Jason unconsciously adopted this position also. A person looking down from space might have thought they were having a squat contest.

My mother and I sat next to each other on the couch, leaning into the softness of each other’s shoulders, and watched the interrogation. She has ultimate trust in tall men, and Jason was six-two with two additional inches of millennial hair, so she no longer suspected he might be a murderer. “He seems so … calm,” she told me in an undertone.

“Maybe too calm.” Indeed, his eyes looked like lotto balls floating on currents of air, and he exuded the trippy peacefulness of a psychoactive toad. He never wasted a movement, and exhaled quiet wafts of new age music. He seemed to actually soothe all people within a six-foot radius of him. I had never been so intrigued.

“We should get some dinner,” said my mother, who believed if you stuffed people’s faces full enough, they would stop arguing with each other. “Let’s go out to Don Pablo’s and talk. We can continue the family council there.” Don Pablo’s was a fake Mexican restaurant that prided itself on the sizzlingness of its food. Why would you want food that sizzled only a little bit, when you could have food that sizzled so loud it sounded like the screaming of souls in hell? “Greg? Do you want to go to Don Pablo’s?”

My father’s face lit up at the suggestion, but then he turned wary. Was my mother trying to use food to trick him into accepting a chat-room bastard into his family? Don’t even try it, woman. “Let me just … get ready … for the meal,” he said craftily, and then came downstairs with a gun tucked into his priest pants.

We climbed into the car and began to drive down River Road. My father turned back to Jason and glared. “If you try anything at the Don Pablo’s, you’ll have to answer to me,” he told him, and tapped the gun.

I’m not sure why I chose this moment to inform him of our actual intentions. Perhaps it was the same instinct that had once caused me to throw a lit firecracker directly at the face of my sister Mary while yelling, “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” It wasn’t the imp of the perverse, exactly. It was just knee-jerk panic.

I asked my body whether it was brave. It said no, but I forged on anyway, filling my lungs and straightening up in my seat. “Mom, Dad, I have to tell you something. I’m going back to Colorado with Jason.”

“NAW!” my father erupted, louder than I had ever heard him. The problems with me going to Colorado were too many to name. For starters, that was where all the hippies lived. My mother said nothing, but she closed her eyes briefly, having a blood-red vision of Colorado legalizing marijuana ten years in the future.

“Colorado?” she repeated. “But where will you live?”

“Oh, we’ll live with my roommates,” Jason said. “We have a house in Fort Collins.” The only thing I knew about these boys was that they ate steak every day and were in a terrible band called Flush.

“You’re not going anywhere,” my dad said. “Where I come from, people get married instead of driving across the country to go live with each other.”

“Ah!” said Jason, seeing an opening. “Don’t worry, Mister … Father.” I worried for a second he might lose his head and call him Your Holiness. “If that’s what you’re concerned about, then I want you to know that I proposed to your daughter earlier, in the parking lot of the grocery store.”

“The Kroger’s,” I added, as if that were the most matrimonial of all grocery stores.

We were telling the truth. When we were cruising around the neighborhood on our own that afternoon, in the single hour allotted to us, Jason had been overcome by a sense of destiny and pulled into the nearest parking lot. He contorted his body down onto the floor of the driver’s seat, gazed up at me like a hunchback in love, and proposed. This additional information should have made my announcement more acceptable, but somehow it didn’t.

“Turn this car around,” my father told my mother, spitting the words like bullets. “If I have to go into a Don Pablo’s right now, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Murder Don Pablo himself, perhaps, just to relieve his feelings. My mother turned the car around.

The remaining three of us weren’t particularly hungry after that, but we went on to the restaurant anyway. The Don Pablo’s in Cincinnati was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico. In the corner, a fake cactus threw up its helpless arms. My mother had not yet reached the stage of her journey where she realized margaritas were a medicine that could relax you, and drank so much iced tea that by the time our food arrived, mariachi music was coming out of her eyes. Jason stared down at his dead fajita, horrified. It had once, in the West, been a majestic animal.

When we came home later, my father was wearing his most transparent pair of boxer shorts, to show us he was angry, and drinking Baileys Irish Cream liqueur out of a miniature crystal glass, to show us his heart was broken.

I cannot overstate how tiny the sips he was taking were. He looked like a gigantic brownie drinking drops of dew. He would screw up his mouth into a rosebud, and siiiiip, inhale the smallest amount of Baileys possible. Greg Lockwood, thank goodness, was never much of a drinker — though he did get so drunk at his own bachelor party that he was still drunk the day of the wedding and almost fell asleep standing up in his sailor suit in the middle of the ceremony. Perhaps that experience taught him a lesson.

I do not mean to make light of his shock. He recognized what I did not: that I was running away. I had never been much interested in story, so I had yet to realize I was participating in one: that I would see rising action, twists, and climax; that there would be conflict, revenge, and resolution; but above all, that I was the engine powering it forward. The landscape slid past me because I was moving. I was keeping the I upright.

Jason went up the great staircase to try to talk to him. He found him sitting in silence, practically nude, and surrounded with gun parts like a deranged warlord. This was at the height of his gun craze, when he used to make the whole family go to the shooting range and compete with each other for accuracy. Whenever he didn’t like people, he cleaned his guns in front of them. Part of me found this habit appalling, but the other part of me respected his flair for high theater. If I wanted to frighten off a chat-room bastard who was trying to be monogamous with my daughter, what better way than to lure him into my rec room and put together the world’s most deadly jigsaw puzzle right in front of his face?

“Your father has had too much Cream,” Jason whispered to me when he came back down. “He’s had too much Cream and it’s gone to his head. Do you think he’ll try to kill me?”

“Did you give him any indication that you were a pacifist or an intellectual, or that you liked abstract art?”

“Hmmmm, I don’t think so,” but his hmmmm had the quality of a yummy sound, like he found the act of thinking itself to be delicious. This was a bad sign. If he had let a hmmmm slip in front of my father, that might have been enough to do it. We decided we had better leave that night, just to be sure.

We walked hand in hand back to the convent, just as the clouds were beginning to ignite. “Oh my god,” he said, flinching at the sight of the river, which must have been the place where mud was invented. “You can practically see the three-eyed fish.” I nodded. If I developed a psychic tumor in my sixth decade, both of us would know why. A beautiful backdrop is an aesthetic luxury, same as shelves of books and music lessons and trips to museums on weekends. It is green, green money to roll in.

Far in the west, the sun was a malignant pearl. Next to the convent was a little anemic wood, and above its scrabbling branches, the sky was a blood transfusion. My view was stunning too, but in a way that would eventually produce mutants. My sister’s words floated back to me: “We are not the normal ones. A guy named Jason is probably fine.”

He was whistling, with a sound as full and fibrous as a violin. He contained a wide and wandering spaciousness, in the same way I contained a cloister. His eyes always seemed to be registering great distances. He cast them over the blunt cliffs of the petroleum tanks and turned back to me. “They remind me of the mesas,” he said.

“Are you really leaving?” my mother asked. The car was packed, and my father was nowhere to be seen. She reached through the passenger window and pressed money into my hand. A mother, as I understood it, was someone who was always trying to give you sixty dollars. Extremity had brought her over to my side.

I told her I was. I was wonderful at endings, I thought. I found an artful and unexpected one every time. Endings sprang out of the tip of my pencil like bouquets: they were magic; they were silk and illusion; they were not earned.

“Please be safe,” she said, her mouth pulled down at both corners like a genius clown’s, a clown known worldwide for her ability to turn human tragedy into facial expressions. My mother understood the fundamental facts about me. She knew that I would always prefer to eat with a tiny spoon rather than a regular one, that I was an excellent Thing Finder because I was always looking down at the sidewalk, that I wanted to recite spells, live in a nutshell, play a gold harp. That I had a house in my head that was far away. But it did not seem plausible, yet, that she and her pain had actually produced me.

I would be fine, I felt. I would be better. I would be free.

“Are you sure you have everything?” she asked as Jason started up the engine, and he smiled and gestured to the piles of my books in the backseat. We pulled out past the sign that said god answers knee-mail and drove away from the church and the rectory, the convent and my stifling upstairs room, the inexplicable thousand-pound statue of a gorilla in the neighbor’s front yard. All of it grew small behind us; I watched it grow small. The stars came out one by one, and the moon: I saw a hinge and a doorknob on the sky.

Excerpted from Priestdaddy: A Memoir, by Patricia Lockwood. To be published May 2 by Riverhead Books. Copyright 2017 by Patricia Lockwood.

Styling by Rebecca Ramsey. Makeup by Laura Stiassni using Sisley at The Wall Group. Hair by Takayoshi Tsukisawa. Photography assistant: Kyle Kesse, Miguel Miranda, and Alex Rapine. Fashion assistant: Indya Brown. Top photo: Balenciaga Rosemary cotton velour ‘scarf’ trench, $2,250 at 148 Mercer St.; 212-206-0872.

Leaving Home, When Your Home Is a Convent