The other day I got an email from a high-school boyfriend, which drove me headlong into remembrance of a time in my life I’ve tried to forget. My husband is the only person I know who enjoyed high school, so I don’t harbor any delusions that my unhappiness made me unique among teenagers. In fact, my misery found plenty of company. My mother died at the beginning of my freshman year, and while my dad reeled, I got mixed up with the other kids whose parents or grandparents weren’t really watching.
After reading his message, I sat for a long while and tried to remember the year this boy, now a man with his own family, came into my life, the year I turned 15. What surfaced most clearly was a dark road. I’d just gotten my license, and we were always driving. Gas was less than a dollar a gallon, and though I usually couldn’t afford dinner I could scrape together enough coins to get a few more miles.
So I canvassed the town, looking for some diversion. I didn’t have anywhere to be—no club meetings, no soccer practice, no piano lessons, and I couldn’t bear being at home. I’d scoop the change from my dad’s dresser, and if there was any left over after putting a couple of gallons in the tank, I’d splurge on single cigarettes from the quitter’s cup at the Shell station.
Sometimes I’d pick up somebody I saw walking on the roadside. Slidell was like that then; I felt like I knew everyone, and if I didn’t, if they were of a certain age and dressed a certain way, I could bet I knew someone who knew them. I made a lot of friends like that. Friends who didn’t have to be home for dinner. We were a mean little army.
Sometimes I drove all night, too. It was one of those nights that I ended up at St. Margaret Mary, the Catholic parish on the other side of town. The newer, better side of town. I’m not sure how I knew that the chapel was open all night—a few cars in the parking lot, maybe, or the stained glass windows glowing with a warm, inviting light.
They were having perpetual adoration, and though I was Catholic, I had no idea what that meant at the time, or that the Eucharist was there. I just liked that it was quiet and candlelit and safe. I signed my name in the little book at the back of the church and sat in a pew. I’m not sure if I prayed. I might have slept. The chapel was empty, quiet, dim. No music, the only noise from the air conditioning rattling on and off, the only smoke from my spent matches.
I couldn’t believe my dumb luck at finding such a refuge, a place that was beautiful and safe, where the doors were always open. Now I see it as grace. I remember being alone there, but maybe that’s just a trick of memory. Maybe someone else was there. Maybe that person noticed me, prayed for me.
I really don’t want to sentimentalize this time of my life, because it wasn’t good. But there must have been moments of redemption, and people who brought goodness with them whether they intended it or not. The boyfriend of the email, I think, was one of them. He brought a taste for good books and a certain snobbery that convinced me I should like them too. He was also in love with my sworn enemy, who later became like my sister. When she died unexpectedly last year, I thought of him often; I doubt our friendship would have been forged without him.
One of my deepest fears is leaving my daughter motherless in adolescence; I sicken at the thought of her navigating those dark roads alone, exposed, without me to protect her. But in the end, there’s nothing for it but trust.
I used to imagine God sitting in that chapel at St. Margaret Mary, waiting very patiently for me to notice him. But that’s not right at all. He was there all along, all along those dark roads, even when I couldn’t sense his presence, even when I couldn’t respond. Grace operates even in the meanest little army.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.