I ended up living in a beautiful mansion, behind tall walls and locked gates, in the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. I had a room of my own with a private bathroom, two meals a day, linens laundered and ironed weekly, and access to beautiful gardens and a well stocked library.
That first evening, waiting for confession in the chapel, running through a week's worth of sins, I almost quit my religion. What I had to confess couldn't be spoken.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“How long since your last confession?”
“What are your sins?”
“I spoke curtly to my aunt, disrespecting her authority.”
I could talk about suicidal thoughts, about an obsession with death and escape.
“Father, I have angry thoughts.”
“My child, we must maintain pure thoughts before God. Any thing else?”
God already knew how I felt. God would forgive me.
“For penance, recite twenty Hail Mary’s. In the name of the…”
Why did I not feel better? Confessions were supposed to cleanse your soul and make you feel better.
I was lying to God. I was becoming the person everyone back home thought I would become, an American girl with no scruples, wanting just fun and good times.
My room was next to that of two girls attending California Art Institute. Four other young people lived down the hall, working girls who needed a safe haven at the end of the day. There were also a couple of potential postulants.
Michelle and Pilar greeted me one evening with a box of chocolate and a thermus of hot coffee. Michelle from San Bernadino, Pilar from Spain and Mexico. They explained the kitchen closed right after supper, a very inconvenient time around exams when they needed snacks and drinks to stay awake. Since my light was on after ten, they assumed I needed sustenance too. We spoke easily.
Thursday through Sunday, we could mess up the rooms and keep anything we wanted stashed anywhere. At other times, the rooms were cleaned, linens were changed and trash inspected by snooping eyes.
Not having a car was a real handicap in Los Angeles. The convent was close to Wilshire, and convenient to bus stops. Yet, we could never really see the city without a car. Since our curfew was at ten, we could never be sure to get back in time if we had an evening event and relied on buses to be on time. A used car would have been heaven.
Michele had lived with her brother, a famous radio disk jockey with a successful radio spot living in the hills above Sunset. She had moved to the convent though, because her brother was too noisy, too erratic, and forever entertaining at night. Taking a bus from the Hollywood Hills to the art school took her hours. She was quite accepting of her life finishing school and forgetting any social life.
I purchased a used Oldsmobile for $600.00, more than I made in one month. I only had a learning permit, so Michelle had to drive us around. Suddenly, we were going everywhere.
One weekend, on the occasion of Michelle's brother's birthday, we drove to Benedict Canyon and arrived to hear a new band from England playing in the big garden.The place was crowded, drinks offered to everyone, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. An hour later with more people and more booze, we had trouble keeping up a decent conversation. Nobody noticed when we left early.
On our way back to the convent, we passed the Whisky-a-go-go, the club where the band would be playing later that evening, people clamoring to get in, a long line snaking around the block.
"I want to see that place!" I yelled for Michelle to find a parking spot.
"We can't get in there?" Michelle kept driving away.
"This is our chance. When will be here again?" I was insistent. Something in me didn't want to forgo any opportunity now. I had lived for years without going to a dance, a party or a movie without begging. I was free and wanted to taste the America I had been promised. What would I tell my friends back home, that I lived in a convent in America?
We got in line and had no idea how long we needed to wait, when Michelle saw somebody she recognized and soon we got dragged over to meet them, getting in the club as their guests.
Pilar was catching everybody’s eye the minute we sat down. Someone had sent her a drink, a couple more lined up to ask her to dance. She sent them all away.
“Don’t you like to dance? “ I could not understand her annoyed disposition. I was so excited to be there, in such a happy place. Nobody was asking me to dance. I knew why too. While I was busy buying the car and paying for its upkeep, I had forgot that my clothes were inappropriate outside of the convent.
“Trust me, it’s a bore” Pilar kept saying to me when I went on and on about how I wished someone would ask me to dance.
A couple of bands played fifteen minutes a piece. Two hours later, or so, the group we saw at Michelle’s brother’s house came on stage. They recognized us. We waved back, and suddenly we became the center of attention, and free drinks were sent our way.
Michelle gave an interview to someone with a camera. I had no idea who the band was; but everyone seemed to know them.
“I Don’t Get No Satisfaction” was the song they sang that made people wild.
“Yeah!” everybody shouted, while the place reverberated with pounding drums, filling up with smoke and bodies crowding each other uncomfortably. The loudness drowned everybody’s voices; the beat of the music and the panting of the dancers hid the fear on our faces and the loneliness in our souls.
The place looked like a high school dance about to go wrong. Everyone was touching everyone else, and nobody was leaving the dance floor.
It was late when we got back to the convent and Sister Mary Joseph let us in after a good fifteen minutes of bell ringing.
“Sister, we didn’t realize it was late!” I remained behind to talk to her and explain how the birthday party went so late. She told me we needed to avoid such occasions.
“Maybe we shouldn’t drink.” We felt awful and quite sick by the time we called the night off and left to our separate rooms.
“We shouldn't drink on account of our religion.” Michele said with an air of moral superiority.
“I never heard that!” I responded. We were about to fight, but we all had headaches and were quite tired.. "See you in the morning!" I said, leaving for my own room, where I threw up a few times during the night.
Drinking and partying probably had rules I never heard of.
“Don’t argue with your elders”, was the rule I knew well, and threw around in my own classes. Discipline was easy in Catholic schools: girls accepted strict rules, and their parents supported us.
The next Friday, the girls picked me up from school as usual. I noticed a big pile of stuff in the back seat, and asked:
”So, what are we doing this weekend?”
“We got a big project to work on.” Pilar looked worried.
“How long is your project going to take, two, three hours? Let’s stop at a liquor store, get some booze, pick up a pizza and we can work on your project tonight.”
“Booze?” The two of them looked at me in disgust..
“We need an education, some trial and error.” I said, confidently. "What it amounts to is getting experience without paying the consequences!" I declared.
The bottles of rum and coke were our first try at mixing booze. That night, we talked about how to protect each other and remain pure. We talked about going out together, how to meet boys, and if one of us wanted to leave, everyone had to leave, even if we really liked someone. If we met a guy who really liked one of us, and asked for a phone number, we told him we would meet him for a coke at the corner drug store. If we liked him after that date, we would insist on double date. Boy, he had to be Catholic to agree to that. We needed practice meeting and dealing with boys.
We were aware of the games girls played, enticing, appearing to be interested until sure of the person, and then find an excuse to leave. Pilar was a natural siren, her statuesque stand and amazing looks said it plainly, “You wish you could have me, you fool, I am too good for you, try it, and you will die.”
She was really shy and self-conscious about her accent. We had no trouble understanding her, but she seldom spoke in public. She never liked any of the boys that came to our table, she said. If she did, our game would have ended. After a drink and twenty questions, they would realize that Pilar's interests were elsewhere. Her body was ready, she said, but not her mind.
“In Spain, they know these things,” she went on, “they send you out with chaperons until your body and mind are on the same plane. Besides, I’m here to learn about advertising so I can take over my family business.”
She knows something we don’t know, I thought. How could we be sure when bodies and minds were finally on the same plane?