Story No. 3: Nun
There was this nun at Notre-Dame in Paris. At least I think she was a nun. I’m almost positive. She wasn’t dressed like a nun. There was no black garb and no vail. But there was something nun-like about her. She had this way of speaking. Calm, cool, smooth. Like that. And her voice seemed to have those effects on me. I got calm. I cooled down. I went from feeling rough to feeling smooth. If you can imagine running your hand over a silk cloth to get the wrinkles out? That’s how her voice made me feel.
I didn’t want to be there at the cathedral in the first place. Really, I found Paris in general to be pretty plain. People talk about Paris like it’s some sort of wonderland, but to me it just looked like any other city. The big difference? The grayness. Very gray. Probably it had something to do with the sky, which was apparently eternally overcast.
We got here by bus, me and this other American guy I met in Vienna. His name was Anthony. He was from the midwest. Somewhere near Chicago. Island Lake, I think, or Lake Zurich. Something with a lake in it. If the town really had a lake it in it, I forgot to ask. My parents live in this gated community called Boulder Ridge, but there’s no boulders and no ridge.
Anthony and I would go out and drink together at night. It was fun, drinking in Europe. Everything was more fun in Europe, especially drinking. When you stepped out for a cigarette a little woozy, it was like you were in a movie or something, or in a high-quality work of photography, like a screensaver, for example. It’s hard to overstate how absolutely beautiful it was to watch the city go by during those little smoke breaks outside the bar — all the people walking by speaking French, the cars and two-stroke motorcycles rolling down the cobbled streets, the general spirits of everyone at night, out and about and trying to have a good time. I couldn’t get enough it. But Anthony could. He’d usually head back to the hostel earlier than me, but I didn’t mind. By then I was comfortable.
Anthony was always reading books and jotting stuff down in his notebook and striking up conversations about things I’d never heard of. Most of all he liked big ideas, ones that I had to sit and turn over in my head a while before giving him a response. Sometimes my delays bothered him. I could tell. He’d look at me like, You gonna say something, or? But I may very well be reading into it. I sometimes do that. After all, he probably benefited from my needing to turn things over. It gave him time to preload his next couple of thoughts. As soon as I said my piece, he’d fire away. Our conversations were kind of lopsided that way.
Anthony always left early in the morning to walk around the city. He did his best to keep the noise down so I could sleep off the damage I’d done at the bar the night before. I heard him every morning but I appreciated the attempt. If he was loud enough to wake me up completely, I’d ask where he was going. One day he said Luxembourg Garden. I told him, Have fun. A garden. He was going to a garden. You had to love Anthony.
By then I’d been in Europe almost six months. I read an article about this deal where I could fly to Rome for $199 and I took advantage. There were some logistics to sort out. First there was selling my car. Then there was quitting my job. Finally there was talking to my girlfriend, Vanessa.
She said she was happy for me, and that’s all she said. But despite what she said, I could tell she was sad, sad about us. One time I said, Let’s enjoy the time we have left. But that was a bad way of putting it. In the same way we didn’t talk about the year we lived together, we didn’t talk about the trip. I think she brought it up only once. I was staying over at her place and we were laying in the bed.
You going to miss me? she said.
She turned on her side to look at me. I was staring at the ceiling. She ran her fingers through my hair.
Course I am, I said.
I turned to kiss her head.
I wish you could come, I said.
But if I’m being honest, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t wish she could come. I was excited to finally get the hell out of San Francisco, to finally go on an adventure of my own, to wander aimlessly through places I’d never seen before except on TV. I was getting the hell out of the new world and going to the old, where it felt like I maybe I belonged a little more. But maybe not. I had to go and see.
Things between me and Vanessa should have ended long before that day when we were laying in bed and I was staring at the ceiling, but somehow they didn’t. So the only thing left to do was to keep going even though we didn’t know where we were going exactly. We just kept going because we’d been going so long and to keep going was the only thing to do. Something was going to have to stop us. And my trip, I guess, was that thing.
During the day the thing to do was go to a café. I found one I liked where I drank coffee and people watched. I watched them come in and out. I watched them look for some place to sit. I watched them read and talk and scroll through their phones.
People watching was in my blood. My grandpa had been doing it all his life. We’d go out to breakfast or something and while he watched people I watched him. That ended after he moved to Alabama with his new wife. In Alabama, he died, taking two others with him. Basically, he ended up finding out his new wife was cheating on him with his new best friend. I don’t know how he discovered it or when, but I know one day he found the the two of them together in his marriage bed. He went and got his shotgun from a cabinet in the living room shot them both to death, then he shot himself. I’m not condoning it. But like I said, he was people watcher.
There was this woman that came to the café every day. Maybe she was Italian or even Spanish, but I know for a fact she was from somewhere more colorful than Paris. She had olive skin and black hair and green eyes. Her hair was wavy and it gave off this very particular shine, which was really something beautiful in such a gray place. I’d watch her through the window after she took her espresso and left the café. She glided down the street like a gazelle. Anyone near her looked stiff. Once, we locked eyes. She must have noticed me looking. I didn’t try to be sly about it. And she didn’t shy away from my gaze either. Reading into it, I’m pretty sure she said, with her eyes, I like you, and, at another stage in my life, maybe, but right now, it’s impossible. That’s a lot to read, but I swear it was there. We probably could have been very happy together. She was older than me. But so what. She was gorgeous and we locked eyes in a significant way. I wanted her bad, if I’m being honest.
Something similar happened in Florence. But in Florence something came of it and we weren’t very happy together. Her name was Amanda. She was British. We happened to be staying at the same place, an old monastery at the top of a hill that had been converted into a hostel. She had full lips and light skin and green eyes. When dinner was done we explored the monastery together along with some of the other people staying there. It was dark and she stayed close to me. We found the chapel and for some reason we were alone. Then we went into this little doorway that had been carved out of the wall. It led to stairs and when we went up them we found ourselves in a raised pulpit looking down on the abandoned chapel. Then we kissed. We tried to find somewhere to go but there was nowhere, so it happened right there, in the church.
Honestly after that I thought it was love. She lived in Berlin and I went there to see her. It’s strange how something can go from red hot to ice cold so fast, but that’s what happened. When I saw her again I didn’t recognize her. Her lips looked deflated. She seemed shorter. Even her name, Amanda, didn’t have the same romantic ring to it now that we were in Germany. I slept at her apartment the first night and the next morning she made us breakfast. When we were done she had me clean the dishes, like we were husband and wife or something. After that I took my backpack and said my goodbyes and left. She screamed at me then started crying as I made my way down the stairs of her apartment building. That was it for Berlin, and I don’t intend to go back, which is assuming I could afford to, which I can’t.
All my days in Paris were spent happily between the café and the bar and the hostel except for the day at the cathedral with the nun. It was Anthony who got me to go. He met me at the café one afternoon. It was the day he went to the garden. I asked him about it. He said it was beautiful and I said, I bet. I should have seen it, he said, and I said he should have seen the woman with the shining hair.
He told me he wanted to see Notre-Dame before he left, and did I want to come. I told him, I don’t know. What’s so special about it anyway? He said if there’s one thing to see in Paris, it’s that. He told me all about its size and age and that it was completed in 1250. 1250! He said it was an unparalleled example of Gothic architecture and that the coronation of Napoleon had taken place there, who was only one of the most successful war generals in the history of war generals.
My first reaction was, Another church. Churches and more churches. There were a lot of them over here. Apparently, they were a big thing for people like Anthony, who made a point to visit them all. He’d been to the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Saint George’s in Prague, Saint Mary’s in Krakow, and many many more that I can’t name off the top of my head. If there was a church to see, Anthony was going to see it. I couldn’t understand it. They all looked alike. Sometimes they were even pretty ugly. And they were always so quiet inside, like someone died. The quiet was hard to stand. I asked him, Isn’t it all the same after a while, the churches? Then he used my words against me to attack my preference for cafés. I agreed to go.
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I’d gotten too comfortable at the bar the night before our visit to Notre-Dame. There was this German guy there who didn’t help things. His name was Konstantin, which I remember because the name struck me as interesting. He kept egging me on even after I told him about my plans the next day. In his defense he congratulated me on doing something besides going to the bar or the café for once. He told me I’d like it and said it’s a magnificent place, which was funny, because right after he said he’d never been and had only seen it from the outside.
In any case, he told me to say a prayer for him when I got there. I told him I wasn’t religious and that made me somewhat uncomfortable. But he said it didn’t matter, he wasn’t religious either, and to do it anyway. He was always smiling and cheerful, but when he told me to say a prayer he got very serious. So I said, I will. Then his smile came back.
My head hurt. Anthony was in good spirits and ready for anything with a little booklet and a camera. The cathedral was huge, and gray of course. He pointed out some of its features and explained them for me.
Those are flying buttresses, he said. Without them the whole place would collapse in on itself.
Interesting, I said.
The cathedral really was magnificent like Anthony and the German guy said it would be. I was glad for Anthony’s finger, which he was using to point out interesting features. It moved fast, but I followed it to a gargoyle, then a statue of a man holding his own head, then a little demon.
We went inside. There were a lot of people. Everyone got funneled onto a narrow track that made a oval-like lap around the building. I almost fell a few times from bending my neck so far back to see the ceiling. It seemed a mile away. And the stained glass windows were impressive and very colorful. Incredibly colorful. Someone else must have also noticed the grayness of Paris and gotten tired of it. They found a way to turn all that gray into color, which was really pretty miraculous. I got so focused on the windows that I ended up losing track of Anthony and had to continue through the cathedral solo. And this is just about when the nun spotted me.
Up near the front of the church I stopped to look at some wood carvings. They were painted and showed a bunch of people doing different things. Some of them were talking and some were looking up at the sky. Some were riding in boats or taking shelter in little houses. There was one guy on his knees, praying and looking up at another guy in a red and gold cape who must’ve been Jesus. It was a story, I think, and I was trying to piece it together when I heard a voice. It was the nun. At least I think she was a nun. Anyway, she was right beside me, like she came from out of nowhere, and she was looking at the wood carvings, too. I don’t know how long she’d been standing there.
Do you enjoy them? she said. She was looking at the carvings, then she turned to look at me. She was really very beautiful, in a plain kind of way.
She told me about them. I didn’t ask, but she told me about them anyway. They depicted a story of Christ. Something about an apparition. They were carved in the 14th century, she told me.
Can I show you something? she said.
She pulled a necklace out of the top of her shirt. There was a big metal key hanging from it. She led me past a small gate that kept the herds of people on track, then to the wall of wood carvings itself. She put the key into a hole in the wall. It was a door, and we went through it.
This is the choir, she said, and there’s the main altar. She had an accent. I don’t know which. Probably French.
We were standing in the center of the cathedral, right in the heart of it. No tourists were allowed there. It was just me and the nun walled in by the wood carvings on both sides and the altar in front of us. She was quiet. I took it in. She was letting me take it in, and it worked. I noticed every little thing. The floor was tiled black and white like a chess board. There were rows of wooden seats along the walls, all of them apparently carved out of one gigantic block of wood. I looked up again and almost fell again. Above the white altar was another stained glass window, the biggest I’d seen yet. I could’ve cried it was so colorful. It cast down its colors on us, painting our skin green and red and blue and pink. It was as if all the colors of the city had been sucked up by this one window, and I liked thinking that maybe that’s why the city was so gray, because all the colors of Paris had been captured here by these windows.
Are you religious? she said.
We both had our eyes on the big window above the altar.
No. I never learned how to be, I guess, I said. But my friend asked me to say a prayer for him.
That was a mistake, because now I was on the hook.
Well, go ahead, she said. And she smiled, egging me on.
I realized I didn’t know how to pray, so I just closed my eyes and made an honest attempt. In my head I said God, I pray for the German Konstantin thank you. Then I opened my eyes again.
Do you want to see something else? she said.
I should probably find my friend, I said. He’s probably wondering where I am.
I never got her name. Maybe she didn’t even have one, being a nun and all. Or if she did, it would be an alias?
It will only take a moment, she said.
She led me to the main altar, and on a stone table there was a closed book. It was golden, literally. Like, it was made of gold, besides the pages of course, and the cover was carved with figures of people and twisting shapes. It was the bible, she told me, the same bible that had been used at the cathedral for 300 years, she explained. It was impossible to count the number of people who had touched it. Even the Pope had.
Wow, I said.
And I meant it.
Then she wanted me to touch the book, the book that so many others had touched before. Maybe I’d feel something, she said, a connection to them, a connection to something. But I think she saw that now she was creeping me out a little, because she tried to sweeten the deal by mentioning I would be added to the long list of people who had touched the book, which would be worth it in itself.
Sure, I said.
I’m not sure why, but I closed my eyes when I lifted my hand toward it, then I felt the nun’s small hand wrap around my wrist to guide me to it. She placed my hand on the cover and left it there. The metal was cold, but soon the warmth of my hand made it warmer. I pressed on the book, felt its hardness, felt it give a little as I compressed its thin pages.
And for the first time in I don’t know how long, I felt incredible, felt like I never remember feeling before, like maybe how I felt when I was a kid but don’t remember, like everything was good and okay and happy and peaceful and that someone, even many someones, loved me. Whatever was happening was perfect and joyful and calming and good and I never wanted it to end, but the next thing I remember the nun is telling me it’s time to go.
Just a little longer, I said, keeping my eyes shut and my hand on the book.
I’m sorry, but we need to go now, she said.
But I wasn’t ready just then. I don’t know what she didn’t get about that. So I stayed there with my eyes closed and my hand on the book but the started to pull the book away, which only made me hold on tighter.
A little fucking longer, I said, shutting my eyes tight, holding the book with two hands now, tugging against her.
You’re damaging it, she was saying. She was getting a little frantic to be honest.
But I wasn’t ready to let go yet. I just wasn’t. I’m sorry. I wanted to feel what I was feeling for just a little bit longer. They could kick me out on the street after. They could throw me in jail. They could deport me back to San Francisco. They could take what little money I had left. They could do whatever they wanted to me. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything in the world at that moment besides holding onto that book and that feeling, whatever it was, for a just a little bit longer. ♦
HEAR: We’re watching The White Lotus, and I thought this short piano composition fantastic. “Pianissimo” by Cristobal Tapia De Veer (YouTube)
READ: "JOY RIDE" by, a short story. (Substack)
VIEW: The White Lotus is one of the best shows I’ve watched in a while. Here’s the trailer. (YouTube)
What an interestingly satisfying story! Somehow, after finishing this, you have left me with what appears to be a similar feeling as at the end, what the narrator is going on about.
Here are my favorite lines:
"When you stepped out for a cigarette a little woozy, it was like you were in a movie or something, or in a high-quality work of photography, like a screensaver, for example."
"Reading into it, I’m pretty sure she said, with her eyes, I like you, and, at another stage in my life, maybe, but right now, it’s impossible. That’s a lot to read, but I swear it was there."
"I didn’t care about anything in the world at that moment besides holding onto that book and that feeling, whatever it was, for a just a little bit longer."
Also--thank you for the mention!
I stepped away from the story at one point. I can't recall what line made me do that.
But I was compelled to come back and finish, and I was glad I did.
"It was as if all the colors of the city had been sucked up by this one window, and I liked thinking that maybe that’s why the city was so gray, because all the colors of Paris had been captured here by these windows." This was a truly lovely image.