I was waiting for the late bus—the only bus in the San Francisco Bay area making stops between midnight and 4 a.m.—sitting under the only working street lamp on the block. Not a person in sight. I sat listening to wind whistling through barbed wire. Fifteen minutes and I’d be safely riding home—if the bus was on time, and if I could brave the wait. But this was West Oakland, after hours. Anything that could happen would most likely be bad.

I took stock. No purse (good), $2.10 in change, a dead cell phone, keys, and glow-in-the-dark rosary beads in my pockets. But I was wearing a long cotton dress that, though modest, wouldn’t let me pass as androgynous. Reduced to the shape of a woman, a vulnerable woman I became. A black sedan drove by twice, braking in front of me each time before driving away. I stopped breathing. I didn’t move. I watched.

Across the avenue, an abandoned fried-chicken shack stood beside a row of gutted payphone booths where I’d seen people sleep, pee, smoke, and drink during the day. A halal butcher’s boarded-up windows were painted with red letters advertising “FRESH MEAT.” The Western Union, Autozone, and God’s Word Christian Center were lightless and empty.

I considered sprinting the five blocks back to my friend’s place and spending the night there. And then to my left I saw movement—a figure walking slowly toward me. I turned; the person had the size, shape, and gait of a man. I faced forward. He sat down next to me, inches from my ear and, as I actively composed my face into a bovine mask, began in a low, sultry voice: “What’s your name, girl? Listen—”

I’d heard it all before. I knew what he wanted, I could foresee a number of ways he might try to get it, and I knew that I needed a plan. Get up and run? No—he seemed strong and sober. Start screaming? No—that could incite violence. Start praying the rosary? No, because that would break street rule number one: Don’t show fear. But he was getting angry. “C’mon, say something. I’m not a bad dude. What about—” It became clear I needed to speak to him, to make human contact.

“Hello!” I beamed, facing him. “How are you? I know you’re not a bad person. To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. And I’m afraid I can’t give you what you’re looking for. I’m Sister Katherine, a Sister of Mercy. We’re a Roman Catholic order—have you heard of a woman named Catherine McAuley? She’s our foundress. 1831.” I kept talking…about my day at St. Anthony’s with the friars, about my favorite theologians, prayers, gospels. I showed him my rosary, and asked him if he believed in God.

At first he was incredulous—“What? Like a nun?”—and couldn’t quite seem to wrap his head around it: “Where’s your cape thing then?” That bought me time. When he cut in with questions—“So you live alone?”—I’d answer him intently, “No, there are about four of us living in community,” and then muse, “Some days it’s a challenge, others a grace....” Pretty soon I’d fully abandoned myself to becoming a character-composite of every nun I knew, acting out of adrenaline or grace. “Grace,” I yelled. “It’s all grace!”

Even so, the bus was now late and my audience was losing patience. His frustration erupted into his hands and he one-two punched the air in front of him. “So you—” he turned and pointed at me, frowning. “You’re saying that you can’t have sex.”

My throat tightened. Our eyes were competitively locked. What to say now? Behind him I saw headlights, the familiar neon-green number 800. The bus. “Well,” I said to the sky, “I don’t really look at it that way. God is good, look. The bus is here.”

I stood up to wave it down, and he sat shaking his head on the bench. I motioned for him to stand, and he broke into a laugh, and kept laughing. When the bus driver caught sight of us, he sped up and nearly drove over the curb. He was staring at me, wide-eyed. “Are you all right, ma’am?” I smiled, nodded, and handed him my fare. “Nah we cool, we cool,” my companion boarding behind me explained. “Sister’s all right.”

Published in the April 11, 2014 issue: View Contents
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