Elizabeth Quirk: Letty’s Saint

The girls had two existences, or double identities: one, at school, shared, and another, after school, at their homes and in their bedrooms, or their many outdoor hideaways, just the two of them. No one knew they still played pretend; at school, they were too old for that, too caught up in the halfway posture of their age, which they both did exceptionally well, coolly tossing out clever quips and exchanging notes with boys, standing with the right groups between classes, wearing the right shoes and cultivated air of indifference. But alone, it was different. Between the two of them, nothing was like expected: cats became hyenas and horses, or else lions and lemurs, subjects of a wild kingdom that together they ruled on equal terms, in fact did not rule at all so much as conjure and conduct, amid trees that were really castles (or the other way around). Here they talked for hours, real and irreal mixing and overlapping, where two queen-brides wed and one time kissed and kissed and kissed (for practice; for hours; afterward burrs had to be pulled from their hair and clothes). Meg had long felt, without saying so, that many of her thoughts were mere formlessness, the shadow of something definite but out of reach; only now, when entered into the rarified air of Letty’s listening, through the interplay of the two girls’ conversation, were they able to gain more firm outlines, sometimes shade and color, too. And hardly anything was outside the purview of their restless consideration. “I have a theory” was their common refrain, occasionally announced instead of hello, the precursor to a painstakingly thorough expression of some new understanding regarding middle school social mores. Or the behavior of a girl in a novel. Or the personality of a blooming flower. From Letty, Meg adopted a mania for “numbers that matter,” as they called it, memorizing, quizzing each other, and endlessly examining the birth, marriage, and death dates of favorite queens and saints, singers and movie stars, imagining in them some secret to their own futures. Her entire life, Meg would remember with precision the pretty symmetry of Elizabeth I’s 1533 and 1603, the numbers conveying somehow in their alternating curves stolen pearl and crimson red.

Letty’s fervent Catholicism was for Meg first a curiosity and then a revelation. With increasing frequency, Sunday mornings found her seated next to Meg amid the rest of her siblings, hushing one another in the faintly incensed interior of the cathedral. It was underneath that high ceiling with its crisscrossed beams, upon those ancient-seeming wood pews that one could tap from behind with a patent leather flat to great satisfaction, beside the warm body of her friend, that Meg felt awaken within her some dormant capacity. She felt at times weak and exultant, dizzy and lucid, yearning and sated, all at once. As she gazed at the painted eyes of hallowed martyrs adorning the wall, she felt something akin to recognition: in their face was the manifestation of an unknown desire— for God, the spectacular, the infinite— as well as, in that perverse rule of equal inversion, the exact weight of its future demise. (Even years later, after complete transformation into seasoned agnostic with wry expression and darkly lacquered nails, suddenly turning in an art history book to St. Philomena in the Ars Shrine could still bring a faint thrill of vertigo, the surprise dots of spontaneous tears.) Looking down at the pink skirt next to her, the crisscrossed legs, Meg considered how Letty knew with such calmness, almost contentment, how to act in the face of all the unknowable mysteries. Still more, the rest of her family knew, too, and all the others there as well. This knowledge seemed for them both comfort and intoxication; it was not a casual fact, like the haphazard religious instruction Meg had previously known (Methodist, bapt. Aug. 1981; tiny cotton gown folded in a chest), but was instead, appropriately, everything.

These thoughts culminated another Sunday morning with Meg’s knees pressed against the soft velvet before the altar and her darkly gleaming curlets falling forward as she bowed her head, silently swearing with the entirety of her heart (.22 lb., 1.49 in.) that she too would devote her life to God (now and at the hour of our death). The evening of the very same day, one hallowed in the private annals of their friendship, Meg and Letty decided to make Polly Klaas into a saint, a transformation they understood as both inevitable and true. (“She will be with Saint Maria and they will be like sisters,” Letty said.) Together, kneeling in the dark sanctuary of Letty’s bedroom closet, they set a large photograph of Polly that they had cut from a magazine cover and pasted onto thick cardboard against a stack of books. They wreathed the portrait in colorful paper flowers and placed three small flickering votive candles beneath. Holding hands, they prayed to Saint Polly in remembrance and reverence, and from their softly glinting thread of fear they knitted together an intricate, almost original design. But not everything felt can be spoken, even to those closest to us, at least not right away, and Meg was still young enough to think that waiting might give them more time. At the same instant, the two girls looked at each other and blew at the candles; they went out; this, everything, these walls and floor, the faint scent of shampoo and dissipating smoke, your shoulder against mine, our beating hearts, was perfect, timeless, (doomed).

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