Immaculate Heart: A Novel - Chapter I
The telephone rang.
Mary Catherine put down her book, got up from the beach chair in which she had
been sitting on the balcony of her New York apartment, and went inside to
“Mary Catherine?” An unfamiliar woman’s voice.
“This is Miranda. Miranda Hecht – but it was Skinner when you knew me. At Immaculate Heart. Do you remember me? It’s been, what, thirty years?” She laughed a little.
There was no mistaking that deep, resonant laugh. “Miranda!” she exclaimed.
The first coherent thought that swirled up from the chaos of emotions was that now Miranda pronounced her name in the usual way – with the “a” broad and flat, as in “land.” Back when they last knew each other, in their teens as fellow students at a small Catholic boarding school, she had given it the Latin pronunciation: “Mirahnda.” Worthy of being admired.
“Of course I remember you.” Mary Catherine carried the phone back out to the balcony where her golden retriever, Cilla, raised her head and fixed her searching brown eyes on her, seeming to sense something. She sat down again in the folding chair where, just moments ago, she had been savoring the early-spring weather and enjoying the peace of having her husband and son briefly out of the apartment.
Now the tranquility of the day had suddenly snapped taut with tension, a guitar string overtightened and ready to break. Trying to sound friendly and casual, she said to Miranda, “I’ve often wondered what you’ve been doing. So what’s been going on for the last three decades?”
"Well, I went to Georgetown and got a Ph.D. in social work. I had a private counseling practice for twenty years in Washington DC. Then I met Hal and we got married and moved to Arizona. I do some counseling at a rehab center out here."
“You decided not to become a physician?” That had been the goal she had relentlessly pursued back in the 60s.
“I just couldn’t quite hack the math and science part of it.”
"What does Hal do?"
"He's a photographer. He's been very successful. But lately he's been going through a tough time, because he’s beginning to lose his sight.”
“That’s terrible,” said Mary Catherine. “Like a musician losing his hearing. I’m married to a musician.”
“I could have predicted that,” said Miranda. “What does he play?”
“Trombone. I can only imagine his agony if he had to stop doing what he loves most in the world.”
“It is very hard,” said Miranda. “I’m trying to find ways to keep Hal’s spirits up, new things we can do together. And I’ve also thought that maybe something tactile, like pottery or sculpture, could be a creative outlet for him.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mary Catherine said. She felt stilted and inadequate talking about something so painful, so personal. But Miranda seemed at ease. She went on to say that she and Hal had no children but did have a beloved dog – and Mary Catherine told her about Cilla, then filled her in on her own past, and her present job as a book editor. “We live in New York City,” she said. “The last place I ever thought I’d live! But we’ve made a good life here, and it’s close to Lincoln Center, where Kurt rehearses and performs. So he gets to spend lots of time with our son, Gabriel. He’s ten. The light of our lives.”
“That’s wonderful.” A brief pause. “Have you seen anyone from Immoderate Hurt?”
Mary Catherine smiled at the reference to their old nickname. "I went to a few reunions here in the city," she said. “But there was never anyone there I wanted to see; just the rah-rah alumnae, the socialite set. For a while I’d see Kerry Koenig now and then but she had become a very unhappy woman – so it got to be too much and I stopped getting together with her.”
“Too bad for her. But she never seemed very happy.”
“No…. Once I saw Natasha Conroy. But not to speak to, just in passing.” Mary Catherine felt that her words were like bobbing corks on the surface of a lake, giving only the slightest hints of what was going on beneath the surface – the tangling weeds, the currents, the stirring life, the secret hiding places. As she spoke she had a vivid image of that day in a candy store on Madison Avenue when Natasha Conroy had come in, wild blond hair flying, aristocratic horsey face flushed, nostrils dilated, lips closed firmly over her slightly protruding front teeth. Standing there in front of the curved glass counter shielding its trays of dainty bonbons, Mary Catherine had locked eyes with her former friend; the two of them had exchanged intense gazes in which questions were asked and answered in an instant without a word – after which Natasha had abruptly turned and walked out.
“It seems so long ago. We were so young. Do you know,” Miranda went on, “Mother Marinello gave me quite a talking to at the end of my last year there. She thought we were lesbians. She practically ordered me to put some distance between us. But I told her it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t, was it?”
Mary Catherine was quiet for a moment, weighing her response. “No, it wasn’t,” she said at last. “I really looked up to you – your banjo playing, the fact that you were two years older. Your motorcycle riding. The fact that you were having a real love affair, with Travis.”
“Travis!” Miranda sounded rueful. “Travis Levy. Oh, my. There’s a name from the past. Wonder whatever happened to him?”
“I was very impressionable and a little in awe of you, how cool you were, how sure of yourself.” Mary Catherine pushed on.
“Ha! I had you fooled.”
“But that was it. Just teenage hero worship.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Another memory from that time surfaced. She hesitated, unsure about asking the question if the answer might cause pain, but burning to know. “Your brother James – I hope he came back from Vietnam okay.”
“You remembered!” Miranda said. “Yes. Thank God. I’ll never forget how good you were to me that day I found out he had to go.”
The response that immediately leapt into Mary Catherine’s mind was, “I would have walked through fire if it would have helped you.” But all she said was, “I felt so terrible for you.”
“Thank you. God, I wouldn’t go through all that again for anything.” There was a silence. Mary Catherine could hear a sound like wind rushing over the miles and miles of telephone wires that stretched between them. “Well, listen, I have to run – Hal and I are going into town. But it’s been great talking to you and, I don’t know, maybe we’ll see each other sometime.”
“I’d like that.” Mary Catherine reached down and stroked Cilla’s soft, comforting warmth. “Is your hair still long?”
Miranda laughed. “No – I cut it all off a long time ago. It was too hot, out here in the desert.”
“And…the gold banjo charm I gave you,” she ventured, her heart beating a little faster, “-- do you still have it?”
“Yes,” Miranda said. “It’s one of my treasures.” Another pause. Then Miranda said, “Well – I really have to go. Take care of yourself. ’Bye.”
“’Bye. Thanks for calling.”
Mary Catherine hung up the phone and sat staring at nothing, absently patting her dog. She watched without really seeing the endless procession below her third-floor balcony of couples and families walking to the park in the sunshine with bikes and strollers, dogs in tow.
Her mind was churning. What had kept her from being honest with Miranda? They were far enough apart in time and distance and life circumstances, both happily married. The truth couldn’t hurt now, could it? It might even have been freeing for both of them.
Why had she not said, “Well, actually, Miranda – the fact is, I loved you completely, passionately. You broke my heart. You were my first love.”