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From Angels Unaware

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I looked out the grimy window as the hot, crowded bus pulled into the station at Virginia Beach, hoping for a glimpse of Sean. His bus was supposed to arrive a half hour before mine. And Con was supposed to be there to pick us both up. But I didn’t see Sean. What if something had happened and he couldn’t get away? I hadn’t seen him since Christmas, and it just felt like too long.

I hadn’t seen Con in even longer, not since the day of her wedding, over three years ago. We’d all gone our separate ways – me to Maryland for college, Sean to the seminary, and Con to Michigan, where her husband was posted.

Sean and I saw each other at holidays, when he was allowed home from the seminary, and over summer break. But now Con was finally back on the east coast. Her husband had been transferred to the Naval base at Virginia Beach, and they’d been there since June.

I was staying at school for the summer, working to earn extra money. Sean had gone home and was working at Saint Malachy’s, with Father Ryan, who, Sean said, was only too happy to have a seminarian to assist him during the summer. Con was settling in to life on the base, and Lee was at sea for the next three months.

It had been my idea for us all to get together. Every summer of my childhood, my family took an annual vacation to Virginia Beach, and maybe it was nostalgia, but I always remembered them as some of our happiest times. I had memories filled with sand, sea water, salt-water taffy, and the relaxed smiles on my parents faces, as they walked hand-in-hand along the beach, with me running by the water. The last summer before my father died, the summer before our senior year, my parents had invited Sean and Con along with us, and I always remembered that week as one of the happiest times of my life.

When Con had written me that she and Lee were being transferred, I immediately called her up with with a plan. “We can all meet up and go to the beach! It’ll be a fun weekend! Just like old times.” I had written Sean and he agreed to it, providing Father Ryan would let him get away.

So here I was, grabbing my bag, and hoping that Father Ryan hadn't changed his mind, and Sean was waiting for me. I made my way off the bus, pushing past the sweaty, middle-aged man who’d been elbowing me in his sleep for the last two hours, and there was Sean, grinning hugely and waving at me. “Peg!”

I stopped and just looked at him for a moment, drinking him in as I had every time we’d met up since graduation. He was as good-looking as ever, and his long eyelashes were still the biggest source of envy in my life. Jerk.

Sean grabbed me and pulled me into a hug. “Peggy! Your bus was so late, I was starting to worry.”

“Yeah, the driver seemed rather unclear as to what our actual destination was,” I muttered, pressing my nose against his neck, inhaling the clean scent that was so distinctly Sean, and clinging tight. Of course, what I wanted to say was, “I love you, I missed you, never let me go,” but that all seemed a little melodramatic for the bus station, and besides, Sean and I had gotten quite good at reunions and separations over the past two years. He and I both knew nothing was going to change, even if we secretly hoped it might.

Still, we were both reluctant to let go of each other once we had hold, and it took a few moments before we stepped back. I’m not sure all the other people at the bus station appreciated our touching reunion, though — especially the lady with the baby carriage who whacked me in the side and snarled, “Break it up and get outta my way!”

Sean grabbed my bag as I rubbed my hip and looked around. “Is Con here yet?”

He shook his head. “I haven’t seen her, but she said she’d be here by three, and it’s only ten of.”

But at that moment, I heard someone yelling, and I turned to see Con standing in the parking lot beside a big blue convertible, reaching in and blasting the horn. “Peg! Peggy! Sean! Over here!”

Con. It felt more like ten years had passed since the last time I saw her, not only three. But she looked the same: same hair, same grin, same hips. Same old Con. Oh, how I had missed her.

I left Sean in the dust and ran across the parking lot, dodging the lady with the baby carriage who glared at me, and then Con and I were hugging, and half-laughing, half-crying. “Oh god, Con, it’s so good to see you!”

“You too, Peg! I’ve missed you so much!” She stepped away from me, wiping her eyes and grinning, then waved as Sean walked up. “Hey, Sean!”

“Hi, Con, good to see you,” Sean said, pulling her in for a quick hug and kiss. “Or should I say, ‘Mrs. Masters?’”

Con laughed. “Don’t you dare, unless you want me to call you ‘Father McCaffrey.’ Besides, ‘Mrs. Masters’ makes me think of my mother-in-law, and I definitely don’t want to think of her this weekend.” She gestured at the car. “Come on, get in, and we’ll head over to the hotel.”

Sean climbed in the back with our bags, and I got in the front with Con. I couldn’t stop smiling. “This is going to be so much fun.”

***

I was nervous about checking in to the hotel. “Are they going to let two girls check in with a man?”

Sean waggled his eyebrows and grinned lasciviously. “The clerk will probably congratulate me on my good luck for ending up with two lovely ladies.”

“I don’t think they’ll care, to be honest, Peg,” Con said. “But if they do, I have a solution.” She waved her left hand, and her wedding band and engagement ring glinted in the sun. “I’m a proper married lady, and you two are my younger brother and sister, and we’re having a family reunion.”

Even after three years away from Catholic school, I was still surprised that most of the wider world did not care about sinful appearances, but Con was right. The desk clerk merely looked bored when Con asked for two rooms, “one for my sister and me, and a connecting room for our brother.”

But when he gave her the keys, he did say, “You’re not the only family reunion this weekend. We just had another brother and sister check in.” He gestured across the lobby at a middle aged man and woman, clad in beach gear, and his grin was sly. It was clear he didn’t believe they were siblings, nor did he believe Sean, Con and I were. Still, he didn’t care.

Sean was looking at middle-aged brother and sister. “She looks familiar, don’t you think?”

I glanced over but didn’t get a good look at her face, since they were heading for the door, but the man didn’t look at all familiar to me. “Not really.”

“Come on, you guys,” Con said. “I want to get down to the beach!”

***

We spent a couple of hours on the beach, where Con and I lay in the sand, talking non-stop, catching up on three years of missed time, while Sean swam in the waves, treating the beach to a fine display of his body (okay, maybe that part was just me). Eventually, we had returned to the hotel, to clean up and dress to go out to dinner.

Con and I had taken turns in the shower, and were getting ready in our room, and Sean was taking a shower in his. I had just put on my nice sandals and was fixing the bracelet Sean had given me senior year on my wrist.

Con finished pinning her hair up, and glanced at me over her shoulder in the mirror. “You know, Peg, maybe you should consider the brother-sister thing with Sean, and sleep in here with me tonight.”

I flopped down on the bed. “You’re probably right, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be sleeping in there. Unless he says no.” Would Sean actually say no? Would that stop me? I was still a junkie for his kisses. Not to mention the Natural Wonder.

Con sat on the opposite bed and looked hard at me. “You’re still in love with him?”

I shrugged. “Yeah. Can’t help it. I’m trying to outgrow him, though,” I added, as if Sean was a bad habit I just needed to leave behind. Although in a way, that was kind of appropriate, considering my addiction to him.

“Oh, Peg. You can’t wait around for him. It’s not going to happen.”

“I know! And I’m not waiting around for him. I’m busy at school. Really busy.” That part was true. Between classes, studying, my part-time job at the library, and working at the school newspaper, I barely had a minute to spare. I loved writing for the Diamondback, but it was hard work – since my freshman year, I had had to fight for every assignment, every column inch, every by-line. And next year, my senior year, I was going to be managing editor, and getting that had been one of the hardest fights of my life. But it was worth it.

“Really busy, and still in love with a boy who is going to be a priest.” Con shook her head. “There’s got to be men at Maryland you could date.”

“There are! And I do. Just… not a lot. And I haven’t met anyone special.” Not like Sean. “Besides, dating is hard. I mean. With non-Catholics. They don’t have all the Rules we did.”

Con laughed at me. “So instead of branching out into Baptists, you keep dating a seminarian. I don’t think that’s what they mean by ‘dating in your own religion,’ Peg.”

“I know! I just…” I sighed. “I just want Sean. And if I can’t have him, I don’t really want anyone.”

“Maybe you should be a nun after all.”

“I don’t think they allow nuns to be Pulitzer-prize-winning war correspondents.” I knew a change of subject when I saw it, and happily took it. “Speaking of journalists, are you still writing for the base newsletter?”

Con narrowed her eyes at me. She knew exactly what I was doing. Still, she answered my question. “Yes, although it’s not being a war corresspondent, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s not even like writing for the Messenger. It’s called the Hive and it’s more of a chatty newsletter for housewives.” She went silent for a minute. “Remember when we interviewed President Kennedy?”

“Yeah. Guess he’s not a big part of the news for the Hive then?”

“No, not quite. But last week, I did a whole article on fudge recipes.” Con sighed. “So much for immortality.”

“I bet that fudge article was immortal. Anyway, I’m sure the more you write for it, the better it’ll be. After all, it’s you! You always bring up the level of sophistication.”

Con huffed a small laugh. “I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be writing for it, in any case.”

“Oh? Giving it all up for the convent?” The convent, Con's go-to solution for any problem.

"No, I'm — " Con started, but at that moment, Sean knocked on the door.

“You girls ready? I’m starving!”

Con stood up. “Come on, let’s go. Sean's not the only one hungry."

I followed her, but I wondered what she was about to say.

***

The place we went to for dinner was nothing fancy, just a seafood shack, but the food was delicious and Sean ate like he had never seen a meal before.

He grinned when I pointed this out. "Well, we don't get dinner like this at the rectory. Father Ryan's idea of a seafood dinner is creamed salmon on toast."

"How's that going, Sean?" Con asked. "Is it weird to be working at St. Malachy's?"

He shrugged. "A little. Father Ryan's got me polishing his shoes and ironing his cassocks. I think he'd have me saying nine o'clock Mass if he thought he could get away with it. But I'm working mostly with the youth group and coaching the boys' summer basketball team. That's been fun."

"Except for how he knows nothing about basketball and has to call me," I said.

Sean elbowed me. "You shut up."

"It's true! You just never had that killer instinct, like I did." To be honest, I couldn't imagine Sean with a killer instinct, and I never wanted to. “Maybe I should coach the boys,” I teased.

But Sean was looking over my shoulder. “There’s that couple from the hotel again. The brother and sister. I swear, she looks so familiar to me.”

Con and I both glanced over. “I’m not sure,” I said, but Con was nodding in agreement with Sean.

“There’s something about her I recognize,” she said.

I looked again, but her back was to me, and I could only get a glimpse of her profile. Well, maybe I'd see her on the way out.

But the couple had already left the restaurant by the time we were done, and I forgot about them as we walked along the boardwalk in the warm summer evening, Sean and I holding hands, and Con walking beside me. It was exactly what I had hoped for, a chance to reconnect with my two best friends, to forget about the things that separated us, to pretend for a time that nothing had changed, that everything would be the same as it ever was.

I missed them both so much. It was hard for me to make friends at college - I got along pretty well with my roommate, and some of the other girls in my dorm, but I wished often for a friend like Con - someone who could be my partner in crime, someone who would encourage me to write better, try harder, dream bigger. But I was one of just a very few girls studying journalism, and the competition to get ahead was fierce. In a man's world, there was often only a place for one woman at the table, and no one wanted to get friendly with the person who might beat them out.

I had hoped that when Con's husband got transferred, it would have been to Patuxent, close enough for her to enroll at Maryland, close enough that we would be together again. It was disappointing that they went to Virginia Beach instead, but at least it wasn't halfway across the country this time.

I thought I had let go of my hopes for Con and Sean three years ago. I thought I was brave enough to move forward without them. I guess I just hadn't realized how much I missed them. Missed us. Missed being together.

***

We ended up at one of the many nightclubs along Atlantic Avenue, to listen to the band and have a few drinks before heading back to the hotel.

When the waitress took our order, Sean and I ordered beers but Con just ordered a coke.

"That's all?" I asked her after the waitress walked away, and Con blushed.

"I was waiting for the right time to tell you," she said. "I'm… going to have a baby."

I remembered when Con told me she was engaged to Lee, the confusion I felt then, and it all felt very familiar now. "You… really?"

Sean made up for my lack of enthusiasm. "Con! That's great!" He hugged her. "Congratulations! When?"

"The doctor says late December. I just hope Lee's home by then." She looked at me. "That's why I won't be writing for the Hive, like I was telling you. Lee doesn't think mothers should work."

I nodded slowly. "Yes, I see. Oh, Con, congratulations!" I said, belatedly. "You must be so happy!" And yet, something small and selfish inside me was hoping she wasn't, hoped that the old Con, who wanted to live in an artist's garret in New York, and be the next Dorothy Parker, would surface and with a cutting comment, make the whole thing into a joke.

But Con was nodding enthusiastically. "Oh yes, I can't wait. Our house on the base has a perfect room for a nursery, and I'm already picking out colors, and one of the other mothers is going to help me paint. And there's a mothers' club, and they've all been so helpful and —"

As Con went on, I nodded dutifully, and asked the right questions at the right times, and was grateful for my beer when the waitress brought it.

So much for nothing changing. But one thing was the same. Con was leaving me behind again, going to a place I couldn't, and wouldn't, follow.

***

Later that night, I lay in bed in with Sean after we made love, his arms tight around me. I wanted to stay here with him forever, but I was realizing that what I wanted wasn't ever going to be the same as what happened.

"You seemed really surprised by Con's news."

I nodded. "A little, I guess. I didn't think she'd have a baby so soon."

"So soon? They've been married for three years!"

But it seemed soon to me. "You're right. I guess I was just surprised."

Sean twisted a lock of my hair around his finger. "Do you ever think of having kids, Peggy?"

I felt my stomach twist. "I have," I admitted. "But I don't think it's going to happen."

"No?"

"I'm going to be busy with my career. I don't think it'll be easy having kids, when I'm a war correspondent. They don't make fatigues for infants," I said, trying to joke.

"You could still have kids," he said, his voice soft, almost as if he was trying to talk me into it. "You don't always have to be in a war zone."

I shook my head. "I think the Church frowns on priests being actual, biological fathers, Sean."

"Peggy!" His green eyes were wide and I could see the hurt in them.

"I'm sorry," I said. But I wasn't, really. "I don't want to have kids with anyone but you. And you're off the table."

"You could always meet someone else," he said slowly.

"Do you really want have this conversation, Sean? Because I don't." I knew Sean loved me, and I knew he was going to be a priest, and that was the trouble with sleeping with him. As much as I loved him, nothing was going to change, and it still hurt so much, to know that he could go off to the seminary, leave me behind, when I wanted him so much. I rolled on my side, away from him, when just a few moments ago, I hadn't wanted to leave his arms.

Sean spooned up behind me, wrapping his arm around my waist. "I'm sorry," he murmured, lips moving softly against my neck. "You're right. We don't have to talk about it."

I didn't want to fight with Sean. I didn't want to think about any of it. This was not the weekend I had wanted.

Sean fell asleep in a few moments, but I lay awake for a long time, thinking about Con and Sean, and how silly I was to think that I could pretend nothing had changed.

***

I woke early the next morning, got dressed, and left both Sean and Con sleeping. I went down to the boardwalk, and wandered alone, as the sun climbed over the waves, that lapped endlessly against the sandy beach.

It had been ridiculous, I knew that now, to try and go backwards. Just like the tide, time was relentless, moving forward, and never looking back. It was time for me to let go of my friends, to stop clinging to the old life and move forward myself, this time whole-heartedly. I needed to outgrow Sean, and try to heal my broken heart. I needed to stop comparing all potential friends to Con, and finding them wanting.

As I was walking, I passed the middle-aged brother and sister we had seen at the hotel. Sean and Con were both right; she did look familiar, but I wasn't sure why.

But her voice and her grip were completely familiar, as she said my name and grabbed my wrist. "Peggy Morrison!"

I stopped. I had no choice. She was, after all, holding firmly to my wrist. "Sister Justinian!"

No wonder I hadn't recognized her. I had never seen one of the nuns out of her habit. But it was definitely her. "What are you doing here, Sister?"

"Visiting with my brother." She nodded at the man beside her. "This is a former student of mine, Peggy Morrison. Peg, this is my brother, Father Martin."

Of course Sister Justinian's brother was a priest. Luckily, she released her grip on me, so I could shake his hand. "Nice to meet you, Father."

I didn't know they gave priests and nuns time off for a vacation. I didn't know that they could wear street clothes during it! I thought I had been shocked by Con's revelation last night, but that was nothing compared to seeing Sister Justinian in pedal pushers.

"Nice to meet you too," Sister Justinian's brother the Father said, and his grip was considerably less tight than hers as he shook my hand. Probably didn't the exercise hers did, clutching a ruler all day long to beat unruly teen girls if they got out of line.

"How are you, Peggy?"

"Very well, Sister. I'm still at Maryland, just here for a few days for vacation."

"Peggy is a journalism major," she told her brother the Father. "We're all very proud of her at Sacred Heart."

I had no idea that Sister Justinian had known that and that she would remember was even more surprising. I thought Sister Justinian's days were occupied with the Holy Mysteries, and how many girls she could reduce to tears over their knee socks not being high enough.

"How nice!" Father Martin said. "Very admirable, for a girl."

"Peggy was one of our brightest students," Sister Justinian told him. "It's a hard path she's chosen, but I know she'll go far."

I thought I was surprised before, but I was pretty sure my jaw had dropped to the ground at this. "Thank you, Sister," I said, my voice faint.

"You'll make us all proud, I'm sure." She nodded. "We must go. Remember me to your mother."

"I will, Sister." And I watched the two of them walk down the boardwalk, talking away, hearing her laugh as she told her brother, "…and they sainted Leon Trotsky!"

This weekend was not what I expected. Not at all. I didn't think it would be Sister Justinian who'd remind of where I wanted to be, how hard I wanted to succeed. My mother always said, "Help comes from unlikely sources, or from angels unaware."

I was pretty sure Sister Justinian was no angel. I had done enough of her homework assignments to know that. But she was the unlikely source I needed right then.

I started to walk back to the hotel. Sean and Con were both going to different places, places I couldn't follow. And I had my own hard path to tread. But they were waiting for me, and even though everything was changed, I could still enjoy this last stolen weekend of childhood with them.