Lunch in a Hospital Cafeteria

Bird’s Nest in Your Hair turned a year old last week, and in celebration of that happy day I thought I’d post a chapter from about the halfway through the novel. In truth, it was brought to mind by Matthew’s call “to write some stuff” in the Slog, Korrektiv, Slog! post below, and Ironic Catholic’s comment #37910 in particular.

Every Monday at noon (Sundays and Mondays were her days off) Diana had a standing lunch date with a friend, Laura, born Catholic, but as Laura herself liked to put it, a recovering Catholic. They met at the hospital where Laura worked. Laura had been a classmate in school who had used her biology degree to go to nursing school, eventually becoming a Nurse Practitioner, a new title that required more education and brought more responsibility. Laura had originally wanted to become a doctor, but wasn’t able to get into medical school and decided on nursing. Her failure at getting into medical school gave her the kind of experience that Diana had come to appreciate while experiencing her own troubles at the lab where she used to work, while Diana’s adoption of the Catholicism was a subject of endless fascination to Laura because of her own experience growing up in a Catholic family, going to Catholic schools, and coming to see it from the inside as a lot of myth and superstition generated by people out of an irrational fear of living life to its fullest. As she liked to put it.

They each picked up a brown, plastic tray and began sliding their way along the metal rails in front of the salad bar. Diana took a dinner plate and piled up some lettuce on top of it. Laura was right behind her, adding cucumbers, carrots, and broccoli as they navigated their way past all the different selections.

“Don’t understand why you like those things,” said Laura, shaking her head as Diana added beets to the side of her plate. “Makes your shit turn purple!” she said, with all the attention to bodily functions that marked her as a true nurse.

“Jeez, Laura. I just want to eat without having to think about how it’s going to look in the toilet,” said Diana. Sometimes she tried to match her friend’s taste for explicit and crude remarks, but she knew she was at a disadvantage. Laura worked all day long with people who maintained the same irreverent attitude towards the body, all the while in service to it.

There was also a fair amount of irony in their conversations, an irony which both of them had come to appreciate with a sense of the greater implications of that irony, each of them still enjoying new insights offered by a different point of view. And because matters of faith have a tendency to blur into of matters of politics, political issues often became the fulcrum on which their conversation balanced. They scrutinized each other as their voices rose and fell like the ends of a seesaw. The only problem for Diana was that her reasons for becoming Catholic were extremely personal, so that even when she agreed with Laura she sometimes felt as if their conversations were missing the point.

For example, Laura was very much against the death penalty, even for the most hardened criminals. The recent execution of a convicted serial killer celebrated in the national media was a natural enough reason for bringing the issue up. True, this execution took place in Texas, but one of the statements Laura lived by was “all politics are local.”

They paid for their salads at the cashier’s station and moved on to one of the booths. It was over by a window and guarded on one side by number of huge plants. Sometimes Laura liked to gossip about work, and she had to be careful in the cafeteria.

“When you think about it, killing them is really a waste. They should be studying homicidal maniacs to find out what makes them tick. Then they might be able to do a better job of weeding them out before they can do any more damage.”

“Yeah, I agree with you. Executions are wrong. That’s why the Church has come out so strongly against it. But I’m not sure I can follow you all the way when it comes to something like profiling. More information is good, but it can’t be right to convict people even before they’ve committed a crime. That’s not right either.”

She also wondered how well this kind of profiling fit Laura’s generally progressive inclinations.

This made sense to Laura, so they were able to find common ground: profiling is bad, counseling ought to be offered to troubled people before things started to go badly, and contributing negative societal factors ought to be ameliorated as quickly as possible. It all sounded nice and they both felt better for having said these things. Of course, neither Diana nor Laura was a homicidal maniac, so they were on fairly smooth ground there. They both understood that things got a little rockier when the issues approached anything personal.

Another example: one of Laura’s pet theories for Diana’s interest in the Catholic Church was that Diana had once secretly had an abortion, felt guilty about it, and had decided to become Catholic in order to provide some kind of structure for the guilt she (in Laura’s view, unnecessarily) felt. That Diana hadn’t told Laura this only reinforced Laura’s understanding that Diana’s decision was deeply personal, and about this Laura was absolutely correct. As a matter of fact, however, Diana had not had an abortion. If Diana had had an abortion (she had mulled over the matter this much) she probably wouldn’t have told Laura about it for much the same reason that she had not felt like telling Laura that she hadn’t had an abortion. If it’s possible to imagine something more personal than the decision whether or not to have an abortion, Diana felt that somehow this was it. It was true that Diana’s choice to become Catholic was closely intertwined with personal problems, but she hoped these issues weren’t her only reasons for joining the Church, and didn’t like to see her turn toward Catholicism framed in terms such a limited way. Personal problems seemed to Diana a less legitimate motivation than an objectively verifiable truth.

What Diana learned to appreciate was Laura’s refusal to just come right out and ask her, Diana, if she’d had an abortion, if she felt guilty about it, and whether that guilt had been a motivating factor in her choice of becoming Catholic. She respected this reticence on her friend’s part, and honored it by not assuming (out loud, anyway) that this was in fact her opinion. She let Laura maintain this reticence by not telling her the full truth behind her decision, but one result of all this reticence was a certain lack of clarity in this area of their friendship. Another result was that instead of discussing the matter in personal terms, Laura discussed it in political terms, similar to the way she had discussed the death penalty, but with a good deal more circumspection.

“You know, I really went into medicine because of my grandmother,” said Laura. “She worked as a nurse in the fifties and sixties, and she developed a reputation for helping women who had nowhere else to go.”

“Wow,” said Diana, who knew where this was going, but didn’t want to commit to being much more responsive than offering a simple interjection here and there to help Laura along. She found herself less and less interested in politics as she deliberated over the Church more and more, but as Laura talked, Diana found herself holding peace.

“She grew up Catholic, of course,” continued Laura, “and I think she still considered herself a member of the Church even as she was helping women with abortions when nobody else seemed to care about them at all. For her, it was an issue of social justice. She was inspired by Dorothy, you know.”

Laura meant Dorothy Day, who in the midst of the Great Depression founded a magazine dedicated to social justice called The Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Thomas Merton and a handful of others had by mid-century become beacons for progressives everywhere. She was a pacifist who admired Gandhi for leading his followers down a path of non-violence. She also believed social justice required more than pamphleteering, and therefore ran the House of Hospitality in order to minister to the needs of the poor in New York City. For all this, she was a sign for Laura of the little that was right about Catholicism. True, Laura didn’t consider herself Catholic any more, but this was really the best way she had of talking to her friend about religion. Dorothy had become something of a catalyst for their conversations.

Diana was cutting her circular beets into halves by this time and eating them one at a time. She tried to make her meals last as long as possible, and finished by cutting those halves into quarters, and the last quarter into eighths. She imagined for herself where they would finally end up and started laughing. Laura looked down at her plate and started shaking her head from side to side in mock consternation. Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness was one of the books that had drawn Diana towards the Church. Although she wondered how Laura could square her commitment to legalized abortion with the strict stance on sexual morality taken by Day towards the end of her life, she never pressed the point.

“Yeah, I remember. Your grandma once met Dorothy Day, right?”

“Yep. In the seventies, after a talk she gave in Brooklyn. Grandma says she’s a saint, even though the patriarchy will never recognize her. They can’t afford to. They might appear weak.”

“Yeah. They agreed on almost everything, didn’t they?”

“Almost. Dorothy liked some article she’d written about systemic evil, but she was firm on the old churchy notion of sin. Grandma has always said that when it comes to evil, we always need to take contributing factors into account. Pick your battles. Being good is a luxury that the underprivileged can’t always afford.”

“Huh. That’s something.”

“You know that, don’t you Di? There are always contributing factors.”

Laura was smiling when she said ‘the old churchy notion,’ because she knew that Diana was right when she had insisted that Laura’s grandmother and Day had agreed on ‘almost everything’. ‘Almost’ said more about their most important difference of opinion than everything said about their agreement. She didn’t really mind that Diana did this, because it gave her a chance to say a little more about grandma and score a couple of more discussion points on her favorite topic. Despite their differences, Laura was nothing if not a good friend. It was important for her to help Diana understand that she wasn’t as guilty as she assumed she was—whatever it was she had done, whatever it was that had forced her into the Church.

Diana liked listening to Laura, and admired her for the tenacity with which she held onto her beliefs. While Diana’s own opinions could probably be considered liberal, she was beginning to feel more and more that political ideologies were insufficient when it came to religion. Since religion is by definition bound to tradition, and the preservation of tradition is usually associated with conservatism, it made sense that in the catechumenate she was finding herself engaged with conservative ideas more and more often. She was a little uncomfortable with this, but not enough to say anything about it to her friend.

After Laura finished her salad, they both got up as if on cue, and took their trays over to the bussing station. This was a long counter, behind which ran a conveyor belt that took the trays back to some unseen worker manning the washing machine in the back. Diana imagined how nice it would have been to have an operation like behind the bar at Queequeg’s. One of her least favorite parts of the job was running the bus tub from behind the bar to the dishwasher in the back of the kitchen. After they left the cafeteria they walked out to the main lobby of the hospital, where they both ordered drinks from an espresso stand by a giant aquarium.

It was relief to listen to her friend, whose commitment to political causes gave Diana a certain amount of elbowroom when it came to discussing religion. Diana no longer considered herself as liberal as Laura; but she didn’t exactly consider herself a conservative either. She’d been given several books by her sponsor that were in a more religious vein, including several popular books on theology by an author who had a cartoon doppelgänger in Ned Flanders of The Simpsons. Some of the books on her shelf that had helped lead her toward the Church included Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Others she hadn’t yet read, such as Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu. She had the official Catechism, of course, and a Bible broken up into daily readings. In her progress there she was about two months behind, all the way back to about a week after she started. For the most part Diana just listened to Laura, who seemed so much more steadfast in her beliefs. Diana did worry that this was something of a cop-out, a way of evading the real issue, but as she listened to Laura it became less clear what that real issue was. Diana wasn’t interested in converting her friend back into the fold. She was having enough trouble sorting out her feelings about the upcoming ceremony. She had the sense that pursuing the matter with Laura would only lead to greater confusion.

They stood up from their well-cushioned chairs and embraced quietly before walking towards the elevators.

“Yep, contributing factors. Know all about ’em.”

“Well, what the world needs are more people like Dorothy Day and my grandma.”

“That’s true.”

“Do you ever think about going into some kind of medical work, Di? You’re obviously smart. You should think about it.”

“You sound like my mom. I know I should. I am. Right now I’m just mulling a lot of different things over.”

“Well, we all need to do that from time to time.”

Diana stepped into an empty elevator and turned around to say goodbye to her friend.

“Yeah. I guess this is my time.”

Each managed a lazy wave before the doors closed. Diana pressed the letter for her floor in the parking garage, telling herself how lucky she was to have Laura as a friend.


  1. In an undocumented interview, lead singer of Arcade Fire admitted that only after reading Brian Jobe’s Bird’s Nest in Your Hair did he feel inspired to tackle porn in art:

    And boys they learn
    Some selfish shit
    Until the girl
    Won’t put up with it.

    On and on and on we go.
    I just have to know.
    I’m not over it.
    I’m not over it.

    You say love is real
    Like a disease.
    Come on tell me please,
    I’m not over it.

  2. Jonathan Potter says

    Happy birthday, Bird’s Nest! Do we know when Diana’s birthday is? I want more Diana, like a short story or a novella or even another novel all about her and her only. Maybe a collection of linked Diana stories.

  3. Have ordered one for me and one for my brother.

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