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Waking Up

This is the opening sequence of chapter 16 and takes place when, 12 years after I entered the monastery, my abbess sends me home to Puerto Rico to help care for my father--a journey that will transform my life.

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When I think again of those days, of the excitement that spiraled continuously within me, I feel the hot sun beating down, the raindrop rustle of the palm trees, the whispered flattery of the men. But most of all, I remember the freedom. I woke that first morning to the sound of waves crashing on the beach below, the pink and gold of the rising sun playing across my face. Despite my father’s condition and my mother’s frailty, I felt a wild surge of happiness. Eight floors below my window, a receding wave shimmered backward to an oncoming breaker, leaving a froth of bubbles to mark the edges of its ride. A solitary man jogged along the beach, the wet sand forming silvery halos around his footprints. The sound of the waves and the beauty of the morning scene filled me with the urge to leave the apartment, to rush out into the morning and onto the street as I hadn’t been able to do in twelve years. I smile at this memory now, for having spent many years since then walking city streets and fighting their traffic from behind the wheel of a car, I find it strange that I should have once thought streets so thrilling. But that morning—filled with the anticipation of setting off into the world after years of voluntary seclusion—I could hardly wait. I didn’t know what time Mass started but decided to go anyway. I could pray while waiting if I was early. I dressed quickly, unlocked the front grate, and slipped into the foyer, deciding to forgo the elevator and take the stairs. I clattered down the eight flights taking great skipping leaps, my habit billowing around me. Once outside the building, I felt like the gulls soaring above me—free, free, free they seemed to cry—and that freedom coursed through me as the familiar ocean breeze pushed me toward the street and lifted my veil. Leaving Ashford with its towering condominiums, I turned onto the smaller streets where charming stucco homes slumbered in the dawn and red and yellow hibiscus waited for the morning sun to prod them into scalloped wheels of color. I was not the first to arrive at the parish church of San Jorge that morning, several women were there already. They knelt close to the altar, their mantilla-covered heads bowed, their rosary beads slipping like shining fish through their fingers. I knelt behind them where their murmured prayers would be less likely to distract me and opened my breviary to recite Matins and Lauds. I lost myself in the familiar words and ancient rhythms of the psalms, allowed myself to be carried to the internal place of quiet I so loved. I was still praying when the rustle of people standing reminded me that I had come for Mass. A priest of medium build, with a shock of hair so thick and black it looked unreal, strode onto the altar with the flair of an actor. He insisted on singing even though there were only a handful of old ladies and myself to join in, challenging us to “sing, sing!” his ringing tenor voice showing us how and encouraging the old ladies’ hesitant notes as his hands marked the time. This priest filled me with contrary feelings. I found his motions embarrassing because they were so theatrical, yet his voice enchanted me. I judged him unkempt because his cassock was frayed and his hair windblown and messy. Yet I found his presence compelling. I was drawn and repulsed simultaneously. The combination troubled me. I knew this man would shake up my life and I set myself against him.