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My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoirby Colleen Carrol Campbell
I still remember the sundress I was wearing that morning; it was black and short, with little white flowers and a scooped neck. Its thin fabric hung loosely on my frame, thanks to punishing daily workouts and a scrupulously fat-free diet, but I felt uncomfortably warm. Perched on the windowsill of our fourth-floor apartment, I dangled my legs in the fresh air. I couldn’t believe it was late October. Milwaukee was usually chillier by now, already beginning its slouch toward the interminable Wisconsin winter. I felt the sun baking my face and legs, still bronze from dutiful visits to the tanning salon. The bright, hot rays made me squint and squirm. I didn’t want to be here.
I had just come home from the night before and was suffering the start of a monster hangover. My head throbbed and my itchy skin begged for a shower. Tom Petty was wailing from the stereo speakers: I’m tired of myself/Tired of this town. In the parking lot below, I spotted empty beer bottles and stray partiers trudging home from after-hours revelry and drunken couplings.
Behind me, a couple of my still-drunk college roommates were singing and dancing like banshees before the large open windows in our living room. The place stank of stale beer and cigarettes from a party we had thrown the first week of our junior year and from the many rowdy weekends that had followed. Although we were only two months into the fall semester, our brand-new apartment complex already bore vomit stains on its hallway rugs and fist-sized holes in its plaster walls—proof of how most of its student tenants spent their weekends.
I liked this vantage point, looking down from a distant perch. It made me feel removed from the chaos. I always had felt somewhat separate from the campus party scene, even as I indulged in many of its pleasures. I was a scholarship student carrying a near-perfect GPA, on track to land a prestigious summer internship in Washington, DC, and serving as editor-in-chief of the campus magazine. I had a résumé packed with honor society memberships and evidence of a properly raised social consciousness.
As for the Catholic faith that had dominated my life in elementary and high school, well, that had taken a backseat to other priorities. I still considered myself a better-than-average Catholic. Since my freshman year, I had been active in all the right social justice organizations, devoting at least one afternoon or evening each week to busing tables at a nearby homeless shelter or feeding vagrants through a campus meals-on-wheels program. I attended Mass every Sunday. When it came to sex, I abided by the letter of the law I had been taught in my Catholic home—no sex outside marriage—though not its spirit. My true zeal was reserved for more concrete concerns, like obsessing over my body to make sure I stayed thin and fit. Unlike the other party girls who devoured late-night pizzas and hid their beer guts under loose-fitting flannel, I told myself, I was in control.
But lately my pride at compartmentalizing my life so completely—being a good girl on Sunday morning and a wild one on Saturday night—had begun to give way to something new, a dawning realization that I was as immersed in the chaos as anyone. Maybe I was even worse, because I was leading a double life. At least the potbellied partiers down the hall were consistent. They were not spending their lives keeping up appearances and juggling personas, playing the role of perfectionist honor student for one crowd and reckless reveler for another.
Looking back over my shoulder into our apartment, I saw my roommates sprawled on the couch, now drowsy and listless after a long night of carousing. I realized that living with them, and living like them, no longer made me happy. Nor did my relationship with the brooding rugby player who routinely rounded up his friends to meet me at whatever bar my friends and I were patronizing that night. I could not call our random meetings dates, and I could not call him my boyfriend. There were no names for such romantic entanglements, no rules of engagement, and most of the time my friends and I had no idea what to make of the men in our lives. We were unconstrained by customs of courtship or social norms. We could do whatever we wanted. Yet the awkwardness, confusion, and disappointment that marked our encounters with men made me wonder: Was our unfettered freedom just a trap in disguise?
This was not what I had envisioned when I set off for college. I had thought I would spend my Saturday nights discussing Aquinas over coffee and dating the kind of men who send roses, open car doors, and pay for dinner. I ran into a few of those men during my college years, but I had become so inured to the anti-dating ethos of campus life by then that I quickly dropped them and rejoined my friends on the party circuit.
Returning my gaze to the bleak scene beneath my window, I realized how much things had changed—how much I had changed—since I first arrived at my freshman dorm that muggy August move-in day. I had lost something. I didn’t know what it was or how to get it back. I only knew that this aching emptiness in the pit of my stomach had grown unbearable.
Suddenly aware that I was shivering, I swung my legs back into the living room. I stood up, slammed the window shut, and strode past my roommates, now sleeping soundly despite the earsplitting music.
It was time to shower, to eat, to put on something warmer.
It was time for a change.
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