florence arno (16)Courtney McDonell’s voice struck you; it slammed you right in the chest, and stayed there, in notes never pure or clear but throaty and rough and somehow resonant. That year I saw Mrs. Pritchard plead with her to use her diaphragm, said if she kept singing like that she was going to ruin her vocal chords, but Courtney McDonell got all the solo parts for second sopranos anyway, and the alto parts, too. I sat behind her in the rising rows in choir class, and I saw the way she wore the hem of her jumper shorter than the regulation two inches above the knee. I saw the practiced toss of her highlights, and, when she turned sideways, her eye makeup, which was too heavy and too dark in the gospel according to Mrs. O’Connor, the dean of students, who patrolled the halls, infallible as the Pope. Once, outside the choir classroom, on the worn linoleum of the staircase, I saw Courtney McDonell make some hotshot quarterback fall silent. He had said something about some girl’s cellulite, and she had swung around and shot him a fierce look with her kohl-rimmed eyes and said Fuck off and grow some balls. I saw these things, and other things, I heard from others–in whispers passed through the halls–while intervals of prayer crackled over the intercom. In the name of the Father (she was the fourth of twelve children) and of the Son (she’d dated almost every boy on the soccer team) and of the Holy Spirit (at the last winter cotillion she’d left early with a boy no one knew), Amen. Oh Courtney McDonell–I almost worshiped her: her certain wisdom, the way she could question as I’d never questioned, the way she could make the boys stare, walking down the hall, past the bulletin board tacked with an abstinence banner–Save Sex for Safe Sex in block letters–snapping contraband gum and tilting her hips so the burgundy of her jumper brushed her thighs.

Then one day she couldn’t fit into that jumper. She didn’t bother anymore to fasten the button at the waist. In the halls she held her books at her hip, but from where I stood behind her in choir class I saw, and so did Mrs. O’Connor–or she heard the rumors, already recited beneath fifth period prayers. Then the rumors went like this: Courtney McDonell was called into that confessional of an office, and when Mrs. O’Connor said she needed to know who the father was, and Courtney said God, Mrs. O’Connor sent her home and said she should not bother to come back. And so Courtney McDonell left, though she did come back, once. It was May. She was seven months pregnant. The choir rose to face the crowd in the closeness of the gymnasium. Our robes were so capacious the bulge of her belly was almost invisible, but when Courtney McDonell stood to sing “Immaculate Mary” the parents set down their blinking camcorders and the entire auditorium fell silent. She closed her eyes and opened her whole body and in her voice was blood and sweat and defiance, though that defiance had a different quality than before–was distant and close at once; was something very real, of consequence. I wondered if this was what her labor would become–a song belted out better than before. I do not remember the girl who placed the wreath of flowers the Mother’s Club had sponsored on the Virgin statue. I do not remember what happened when the song ended, if there was clapping or silence or what. I remember this: that Courtney McDonell did not stay in the crumbling cafeteria where there were bowls of punch and plastic trays of doughnuts. I did not, either. After that year, I left, too; I left those crowded, locker-lined halls, those close hot classrooms, that stifling cafeteria where a plaster cast Christ wore a crown and held a scepter and had lips painted fluorescent pink. I left the complimentary holy cards etched with saints. I remember this: that I looked for her, after, stepping out of the high school and into the soft spring twilight, and could not find her. I lay awake that night, and nights after, believing this: that she’d left in the way we’d learned Mary left. That she’d taken all of herself, her whole soul-body, and vanished into the Ave, Ave, Ave of air.

Jennifer Luebbers grew up in Columbus, Ohio, received her BA in English from Denison University, and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Indiana University. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such asBoxcar Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Naugatuck River Review. 

Photo by Dinty W. Moore