For seventh grade, you’ll attend The Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. “All girls,” your mother says. “Won’t that be nice?” (Soon you’ll learn its alternate name: The Newton Cunty Fuck Pool of the Secret Lesbian.)
“Aren’t we Jewish?”
“What kind of question is that—are we Jewish.”
“What is a sacred heart?”
“I should know? That’s something you’ll ask the Catholics. The school’s on Dad’s way to work.”
“So I’m going because it’s on Dad’s–”
“You’re going because we say you’re going. You’ll like it,” she says.
A Story About the Sacred Heart
In the thirteenth century, Lutgardis of Aywières (whose feast day follows your birthday), received a visitation—Jesus, like a game show host, had her choose a gift. The stakes were high: She suffered depression. She often stopped eating (fasting for the Franciscans, she called it). But if she picked just the right prize, she’d find meaning and joy and spiritual fulfillment.
Because she’d never had choices before, she didn’t know what she wanted. I want to speak fluent Latin so we can communicate more clearly?
Wish granted, Jesus said, winking.
How ‘bout them apples, he said in Latin, and Lutgardis smiled.
Everything your mother says is true. When she holds you, her big heart booms and your tiny one quiets. She enrolls you in a preschool staffed by nuns. “Do you know how lucky you are? The Jews are a very special people. We stick together. What a gift.”
The French teacher arranges a ring of plastic chairs, stands in the middle, claps sharply. “Écoutez-moi!” On her hair, she wears a navy blue curtain. Her feet are encased in dad shoes. “Sit still!” she yells.
“Stop touching yourself!” she snarls at the boy who scratches his elbow, the girl who fixes her sock.
You’re afraid to move, to breathe. At four years old, you see the quick, red pulse of her wrath. You don’t see her heart.
This was before the days of know-it-alls—those who call Latin a dead language as if they invented that way of discussing Latin, as if clichés aren’t dead language. But fluency in a living tongue did nothing to enliven Lutgardis. I feel empty, she told Jesus, her bottom lip trembling. She’d thought she’d be able to explain herself. But she couldn’t do that in any language. She begged him to take the gift back.
You can’t just return the Latin language. You have to exchange it.
He shrugged, pushing his fingers through his long hair, releasing a sigh from puffed-out cheeks. Lutgardis was so beautiful, her eyes so sad, he blushed. Anything you want, he said.
She stepped close, cupped his ear, leaned in. When she exhaled, Jesus shivered. I want your heart, she whispered.
What do you mean?
I want to want what you want.
You already have my heart.
I want it literally. Her hands pressed against his chest.
Oh, Jesus said. Okay.
At the end of seventh grade, a boy touches you though you tell him no, and tell him no, and tell him no. He gives you nothing except mono. Everyone calls it the kissing disease. They think that’s funny. For six weeks, you’re too sick to move. Your period comes on like a scream. You lie on stacks of towels like the princess who suffers the invisible pea.
In eighth grade, you run for office and become the first Jewish president. But it’s not like real politics. Or maybe it is: You have no power to change things.
You decide to adopt an eating disorder.
Autumn frosts over. Snow rages. Weather means nothing to any of you, except you hope the Saint Sebastian’s boys will give you their jackets, the ones with white leather sleeves, the fronts monogrammed like wedding gifts. When the nuns aren’t looking, you all knot the hems of your shirts with scrunchies, baring your stomachs, flocking before full-length mirrors, pretending not to suck in. You run the sinks for one another, take turns in the stalls. The girl who goes in after you, shrieks, “You left a noodle on the toilet seat!”
You all laugh hysterically. You leave the noodle. Your first violent protest.
One afternoon, Miss S, not a nun but a self-proclaimed virgin, calls you into her office. Christmas is coming. The music floating up from the chapel—the older girls practicing Handel’s Messiah—is so intoxicating, you want to lie down at the altar, close your eyes, feel the vibrations of voices. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halle…lujah. Sometimes you can’t breathe from all the beauty in the world.
Miss S wears cardigans, calf-length skirts. She is young with the eyes of a Disney deer, severely plucked eyebrows, half her straight hair pulled back with a clip. You picture her whenever anyone mentions Mary (the virgin one or the whore). She wears a magic halo of light, like Bible characters in old paintings. She also teaches sex ed. “I’m worried about you,” she says.
This is wonderful news—someone you weren’t even trying to worry. You wonder if she knows that as commander-in-chief, you have led the eighth grade into war with their bodies.
“You always stare out the window. You’re depressed.”
You’ve never heard that word before. At least, no one’s ever squirted it into your palms. Now you slather it like Body Shop lotion.
In her dreams, the French teacher nun roams free, a remote control in her pocket; when she presses power, the children say, “A votre service, Madame.”
“Peace be with you,” you tell your mother.
“Stop it,” she hisses.
Mother-Daughter Liturgy is less awkward than Father-Daughter Liturgy, which included slow dancing. You know the words to all the prayers. Your mother eyes you warily, a cold little Jewish star shivering at her throat. The girls kneel, interlacing their fingers, resting their foreheads on their knuckles. You glance at your mother, then you go down, too. But you didn’t pull out the kneeler. The girls around you lift their heads when you crash. “Are you okay?”
Knees throbbing, you pretend to have dropped to the wooden floor on purpose, perhaps as a nod to asceticism. Your mother gasps and clutches the back of your collar. “Get up,” she commands. “Get. Up.” She pulls you into the pew. “Do you know what you’re doing? You’re bowing to Jesus Christ.” She says it as if it’s someone’s name—first and last—as if Mary is Mrs. Christ, God Mr.
“That’s what we do here,” you tell her, bewildered. Also smug.
Lutgardis never asked for this, never begged her parents, “Send me to a convent!” But she was unmarriageable, her dowry lost in a bad business deal. When she first arrived, twelve years old, the older nuns thought her a lost cause, this always-crying girl, this drama queen, neither wife nor wife of God.
“Who are you?” they asked. It sounded like, Who do you think you are?
But later, once Jesus chose her, she writhed in religious ecstasy, bleeding from her palms and forehead, levitating in her sleep, waking screaming soaked with sweat.
“Bless her,” the old nuns said, crossing their hearts.
“I’m going to call your parents,” Miss S says.
Life is so weird! One day you’re trapped in synagogue. One day, a nun charges at your forehead, her thumb black with ash. One day you’re a person with depression because your sex ed teacher (who made the Catholic girls cry by announcing, “If you’ve been fingered, you’ve lost your virginity”) saw you look out the window.
“Don’t do that!”
“I have to.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re just a girl,” says Miss S. “We’re adults.”
You run to the chapel, slip into the back pew, close your eyes, walled in by the stained-glass virgin, her stained-glass baby, her clear-glass vagina. Like any good president, you’ll do damage control. After school, you’ll sob, “Miss S thinks I’m depressed! I’m not depressed! She’s going to call and tell you I’m depressed!”
“Depressed?” your mother will say. “You’re thirteen. That’s ridiculous.”
How embarrassing that when you’re grown, eating will still make you feel ugly. How embarrassing that long past eighth grade, you’ll kneel on tile, open your mouth, and worship the gods of your youth. In adulthood, these things will repulse you: patriarchy, organized religion, the self-harming rituals of girls. But you won’t be able to disown them any more than you could an organ.
You wanted sadness to be your secret, yours and Miss S’s. You wanted special clandestine meetings to discuss your mental health. You would have told her, Miss S, my heart. You would have let her hold it. You would have let her have it. You would have told her, It wants what it wants. You would have made her feel better.
Long before she was sainted, she stopped fantasizing alternate lives—her heart thumped so convincingly, she forgot it wasn’t hers.
Printed with permission from Diana Spechler, copyrighted by Diana Spechler @ 2015. This piece, winner of the Spring 2015 Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction and selected by Finalist Judge Pam Houston, originally appeared in Issue No. 18 of the Los Angeles Review.