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Your Pal, Carol


Hey Margie,

I sent a check to St. Cecilia's yesterday. I thought you should know. I don't have your email or anything, so I hope you and your lawyer husband still live in that same McMansion where you had the reception for the reunion. That's the only address I have.

It wasn't enough. The check, I mean. It wasn't enough money, although it was more than I could afford, being without a job and all. But also it didn't make me feel better. I thought you should know that, too.

Just like all the penances we said as kids. I never felt sanctified after five Hail Marys and three Our Fathers. Did you? You took it all way more seriously than me. And you were lots more adorable in our plaid uniforms and our stupid red berets. You looked like a little French girl in your beret. Mine sat on my head like a flying saucer.

Do you think sending a check was the right thing to do? They'll never know what it's for. Do you think I should have told them?

Sometimes I miss those days, Margie. You were so smart and so funny—it made me feel smart and funny just being around you. There isn't anybody like that today. I had a few friends at work before I got fired, but not like you and I were. They watched me clean out my locker with a "poor thing" kind of look and, poof, I was gone, and so were they. They should have called after I left, at least once. You would have called, I think, if we were still friends.

You always thought I hated going to Catholic school, so how could I miss it, right? But I'm not sure I hated it. I didn't really understand it enough to hate it. This is what all kids do in fourth grade, right? That's what I thought. Cross yourself, pray before tests, walk single file down the hall for Mass every day.

Oh, that part. Yeah, I did hate going to church. Trapped in a pew, listening to the priests drone on, with that idiot Alfonse in front of us making duck noises. The stations of the cross—those pictures were scary with blood and pain and nobody smiling. And my knees were always sore. The only thing I liked about church was when they burned the frankincense on that chain contraption. I didn't know you could get that smell anywhere else until I saw it in the candle aisle at Walmart. Now I burn it all the time. I'm not sure my cat likes it though.

So, you do remember that summer, right? That day? Going into St. Cecilia's to see what it was like without any students? We went into the first grade classroom, and you said all those empty desks had ghosts in them. Children from the past bending over to pick up a pencil, standing at the chalkboard, raising their hands, chewing gum. You even gave them names: Thomas, Charlie, Gloria. I could see them, too, I swear. But I couldn't hear them. It was so deathly quiet.

We skipped down the hall holding hands after that. The floor was all shiny and polished and smooth, we just had to. I felt my pigtails flying. Such devils. Couldn't have done that during the school year, that's for sure.

And then there were the bathrooms, two for the boys and two for the girls. We weren't old enough for the big-girl bathrooms yet, so we snuck inside and gawked at the adult-sized toilets and sinks. I couldn't wait to grow into them. You said you'd miss the mini ones, because they were like right out of a dollhouse.

Strange how I remember every single thing we did that day. Sometimes lately, I can't even remember to get dressed. I get online and look for work and go down some rabbit hole and then it's afternoon already and why bother? I don't suppose you've ever been fired. Do you even have a job?

I wanted to sneak a peek in the boys' room. You didn't have any brothers, so maybe that's why you were shy about it. But I had to see—I'd never have a chance when school started. You waited outside the door and stood guard. Really, you were just being a big baby because there wasn't another soul in the whole building, and you knew it.

No boy ghosts in there. Just those, those alien things along the wall. I didn't know what they were called then, but you gotta admit "urinal" is kind of an alien word, too. There was nowhere to put your butt! And they were right out there in public. Boys sure were weird.

They still are, really. This guy I dated, he was in construction. Every diner we went to, he collected sugar packets. Sometimes, he had his T-shirt on inside out, and he was always picking the dandruff out of his eyebrows. I don't think I much liked him, but he told good stories over nachos and cheese.

Isn't it funny, Margie? Now you have three boys. And you never got to see what urinals look like. Hey, I bet you a million bucks you don't send your kids to Catholic school.

Do you have dreams about that place? I do. Pretty often, it seems. They're not nightmares or anything. Sometimes, Father Ciaccone is there, waving a cross in my face. Or I'm sitting in the secretary's office, maybe in detention, and there's all this bustle around me. In one dream, I was in the eighth grade classroom, sitting in my desk, but it was a little kid's desk and I was too big for it and everybody kept staring at me.

So, after the johns, we went upstairs to the art room, where boxes of crayons and markers and chalk were spread out all over the flat wooden tables. But it also had that humongo black plastic trash can in the corner, loaded to the top with dirty paper towels smeared with red and yellow handprints. You know what? As soon as I saw that trash can, my mind flashed one thing, like a neon sign: "Now there's something that will really burn." I imagined the flames, and then the thick smoke drifting to the ceiling and making its way through the seams of the door into the hallway.

I think all kids are pyromaniacs, actually. My cousin once tried lighting his bed on fire. And the kids next door were obsessed with roll caps, banging stones onto them on the curb and waiting for the puff of smoke and the snap of the cap. That's why I had matches in my pocket that day; it was, like, you know, just in case. I didn't know I was going to use them. Honest.

You freaked out when I showed you the matches. You even yelled at me. "Carol Ann! Don't you dare! I'll never speak to you again!"

I was—I don't know—sort of possessed. Not mean, not destructive, just … commanded, like a robot. I lit one match, tossed it in, and right away it went out. I did it again and made sure the papers caught a flame.

And then we raced like hell out of there, sliding down the slick hallway, taking the stairs three at a time, whirling around each turn on the staircase, and like a shot bolting out the exit door. No one saw us. But we kept running, around the back to the parking lot, through the narrow path around the public tennis courts, and then into the playground, where we finally saw some kids on the swings. We sat on the edge of the empty sandbox and caught our breath.

I couldn't help it, I started laughing. And then we were both in hysterics. But you had this other, crazy glint in your eyes like you were about to cry. I wanted to hug you. I should have hugged you. We walked the rest of the way home, looking like any other nine-year-olds.

Of course, the school didn't burn down. It was there the next day—I checked—and it was there for us the next four years. I always wondered what happened to the fire. We saw the flames, so something must have burned. Smote by God, I guess.

What made me feel bad afterward is that when I saw in my head the smoke leaking out the cracks in the door, I stopped thinking. I didn't take it to the next step. I didn't see the building in flames, I didn't hear the sirens, didn't see the priests and nuns pour out of the rectory and convent, the bake sales to raise money to rebuild the school, the sadness. I only realized later that all that could have happened.

Just like I didn't see it coming when I got shit-canned. They found out I was taking stuff home. I suppose it was stealing, but with all those electronics on the shelves, rows and rows of lamps and hair dryers and coffeemakers, it was easy to pretend it was okay. At least I didn't set the place on fire! Ha ha. That was a joke. I probably should send them a check, too. Once I get a job.

Maybe I should have been like you, all serious and studying and religious like. Do you think that would have gotten me a lawyer husband, too? Another joke. Believe me, I don't mind not being married. There's a lot of freedom in not being hooked up. You must miss it.

You know something? I could have been saved, Margie, but you gave up on me. You literally turned your back on me. And you know when. That day I got caught smoking. Seventh grade. You saw me coming, looked me in the eye, and walked down the hall the other way. I was never in your league when it came to brains, but that was a message I got right away. You never said boo to me after that. Not even at the reunion. Kinda hurts.

So, anyway, the priests at St. Cecilia's are getting a check in the mail, and they'll never know why. They won't know it's because I'm forty years old and I still feel sick about that day. Or maybe they expect there's some kind of shame behind every check they get, because that's what they do best. I just hope I can stop thinking about it now.

Hey, Margie, are you there? Please tell me you remember any of this. I thought you should know in case you're feeling bad about it, too.

Your pal,