FICTION December 2, 2022

All or None

Gracie Naylor joined a convent. When the announcement arrived in my mailbox, it was on embossed ivory cardstock like a wedding invitation. My first thought was, Of course, she did. She was a do-gooder, a Goody Two-shoes—too good. I never liked her. I turned the card over. On the back was a photo of her standing on the cathedral steps, beaming in the nun’s habit, her parents poised under a monumental crucifix. She looked thrilled. I was jealous.

I hadn’t seen Gracie in years. Once, I spotted her selling treacle pie at a community fundraiser over the holidays. She looked so smug dishing out pieces and clasping her hands in gratitude. I avoided the booth. Her parents probably sent the announcement as a courtesy. Or maybe she did, to spite me. I could picture her rubbing the decision in everyone’s face. “Praise him and me,” she’d say. Worst of all, she’d found a calling: the Lord. The Big One. The urge to genuflect, a desire to be chaste. 

I couldn’t judge Gracie’s commitment to the Lord. I also had a boyfriend. His name was Lukas. The relationship was less one-sided, which is to say at no point did he worship me. He wouldn’t stop nagging me in those days. I was unemployed, and he wanted me to contribute. That morning, I was supposed to be looking for a job. I’d meant to call a headhunter or go online or check a local circular for “opportunities.” Now, I couldn’t focus. Lukas had taped a business card for a temp agency on the fridge. I flushed it down the toilet. 

The rest of the day, I paced and waited for Lukas to return from work. I needed someone to help me plot my comeback. Tell me I’d be popular in a convent. Gracie wasn’t the only virtuous one. I might have virtues. Maybe I could be called, too. I squinted at the photo on the card, wondered what God saw in her, and waited for a sign. I looked at the ceiling for good measure. God is up. That I knew. Nothing seemed to happen. Eventually, I got bored, stripped down to my underwear, and took a nap. 

When Lukas came home, he rested his helmet and knapsack near the door and walked through the apartment, flicking on lights. I sat in the dark bedroom, pants-less and surrounded by shredded envelopes and unpaid bills. He flipped the switch and jumped at the sight.

“Jesus, you scared me,” he said, leaning over to kiss my cheek. He put a hand on his chest and took a calming breath. “How was your day?”

“I’m having a crisis of faith,” I said, holding out the announcement. He took it. “What is this?”

“Remember Gracie?” I said. “We grew up together?”

He held the card up to the light. “I guess so.”

I’d told him all about Gracie. How she once beat me in a sack race at the county fair—a bruising defeat. How she tattled on me for scribbling big ass! on the auditorium wall. She wasn’t a devoted friend. Often, I told these stories on our dates, to show my struggle. Lukas had forgotten.

“She joined a convent,” I said. “What have I ever done?”

“That’s not a crisis of faith,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt. “I think you mean an identity crisis.” He turned to fetch a protein smoothie from the fridge. “Why do you care?”

Why didn’t I care?

As an exercise, I pictured becoming a nun, telling my own mother I’d joined a life of service. My mother had worked as an office administrator for the same company, Dante’s Insurance LLC, for twenty-three years. Now, she was retired and spent her days reading serialized romance novels, watching game shows, and weeding her zucchini garden. She was practical and modest. Nobody understood how she’d birthed such an impulsive child. Her troubles began when I was in first grade: I stole yogurt from the lunchroom weekly. The teacher’s aide caught me with one at recess, huddled under a playground slide like a bridge troll. The next year, I took a nap during a statewide aptitude exam, resting my cheek on the test booklet, drool seeping across the unfilled bubbles. I hoarded the good markers in art class and made us late in the morning plaiting my hair.

When Gracie got a choir solo over me, I told her professional singers warm up their vocal cords by screaming the alphabet. She sounded like Tom Waits singing “Silent Night.” I preferred this to her nasal soprano, but her parents disagreed. One night, I paused a VHS on a sexy scene. My mother busted me ogling some symmetrical hunks’ abs. Then, in the seventh grade, I went haywire on a geography teacher who wouldn’t give me the bathroom pass, tearing down the map of Lithuania, drop-kicking a globe, threatening to pee on the linoleum. I was suspended. Afterward, my mom gave up on punishments. She just accepted eternal disappointment.

Oh, she’d be shocked at my religious turn. Her eyes would get wide, her cheeks might flush for the first time in years. She’d spit, “You’re becoming a what?” or she’d go silent and retreat to tend her zucchini without a word. Either way, I would press my palms together in peaceful reflection and shrug. “He spoke to me,” I would tell her. All I wanted was a calling. Everyone else seemed to have one. Lukas certainly did. 

I’d been with Lukas for several years. He was cool: He wore whimsical socks and high-top sneakers. His nose was pierced. He was very caring, or at least he cared about everything: the disintegration of the ozone, the corporatization of the internet, the plight of the honey bees. He didn’t eat meat. He disposed of the Mrs. Griddles Pepperoni Pouches from the freezer and lectured me about toxic sludge in the rivers. He was right. But some days the hot-cheese blisters in my mouth were all I could feel.

I wasn’t depressed. Just lazy. 

Lukas didn’t understand. He was obsessed with work. He was always encouraging me to follow my dreams or stand in my truth or please get a job. It was easier for him. He co-owned a bike shop with his friends, Sam and Abe. Vélo-ciraptor. Before the store opened, I suggested Vélo-city, but he had already printed a noxious green dinosaur on thousands of t-shirts. It was a T-Rex. I didn’t mention it. 

Whenever I met him at Vélo-ciraptor, his co-workers greeted me with big, bearish hugs, and I pretended not to know how often they told him to dump me. Once, I was en route to the bathroom and heard them gossiping about our relationship in the stock closet. I hid behind a pyramid of boxes—backordered foot pumps, knee pads, pro-tec rollerblades. The store reeked of rubber and sweat. “Why is he dating her again? She looks like Janeane Garofalo,” Abe said, lifting a storage bin. “He always did love a project,” Sam replied, ticking inventory off on a clipboard. I imagined karate-kicking the boxes, stomping into the room like Godzilla. “Janeane Garofalo is iconic,” I’d scream, sending plastic helmets clattering onto the floor. Instead, I backed out of the closet, kissed Lukas goodbye, and went to pee and buy a dozen crullers from the donut shop next door.

Look, I was kind of a loser. Not even a fun one. Sam was right. Most of my misadventures involved aerosolized cheese or expired lotions, not poor sexual decisions or hallucinogens or pink hair dye—nothing alternative, nothing cool. I didn’t do much. I never learned anything. I was all inertia, all the time. 

And yet, Gracie’s postcard gave me new purpose. I started an internet search—becoming a nun, how much work?—and was directed to an online Christian retailer, one peddling religious paraphernalia in bulk. I bought six containers of sacramental bread off When the package arrived, I needed a dolly to get it into the apartment. Upstairs, I used a knife to puncture the freshness seal and put one of the wafers on my tongue. It tasted like dust. I tried another. Then, I started to eat them by the handful.

The fridge had been empty for a week—nothing on the shelves or in the crisper drawers. The cabinets were also bare. Lukas was fasting to hack his blood-sugar levels. I had blown my last paycheck on the order. I’d picked up a few rosary beads as well, but I didn’t think the totems worked; the weight of the rose quartz didn’t feel like much against my chest. The chains itched and knotted. By noon, I was starving. Each time I passed the plastic tub, I grabbed another fistful of wafers then went to eat the discs methodically in front of a reality show about feminist garbage-collectors. “I’ve found my purpose in life,” one woman said, hoisting a trash bag into an incinerator.

I discovered a small issue with Christ’s body. It wasn’t gluten free. In my fanaticism, my celiac disease had slipped my mind, which is how Lukas came home to three empty plastic jars and me dry-heaving into the toilet. “What happened?” he said, gathering the empties. I retched in response.

On our third date, Lukas had asked what I’d wanted to be as a kid. I wasn’t working at the time. He thought the exercise might give me direction. I didn’t have an answer. Most recently, I’d been a cashier at an herbal-supplements store. I’d gotten carried away with the customer service. “This one is for your general ennui,” I would say, lining up milk-thistle tinctures. “This one is a love potion. Mix it in juice and ask him out.” This worked for a time. Most people just need to get out of their own way. Then, customers started asking for their money back. “This did not cure my scabies,” an old woman said, slapping a baggy of beetroot powder onto the counter. The herbalist emerged from his mixology room and looked horrified. Turns out my suggestions “violated FDA regulations.” I was fired. I told Lukas the store was downsizing.

“What type of work do you see yourself doing?” he asked. “What is your dream job?”

Something easy, I thought. “Something creative?”

This pleased him. He clipped ads from the Penny Saver: a pottery studio looking for a technician, a cashier position at an art-supply store. The teenager at the counter had a mullet, coke-bottle glasses, a tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon. When I asked for an application, he looked me up and down, took in the plain t-shirt, slouchy jeans, unwashed hair. I didn’t look like an artist. I didn’t look like anything. “We’re not hiring,” he said.  

One evening, Lukas came home and found me watching Sister Act II. I’d bought the VHS from a Goodwill bargain bin. He seemed worried I’d also watched Sister Act I (I had). The films were supplementary material: I had also read all the books on Catholicism from the library. Memoirs from the Merciful Sisters of Roma, a gilded encyclopedia of saints, old bibles with oxidized yellow pages. Lukas looked at the stack and said: “No comment.”

In bed, I told him facts about the Vatican II. “Did you know Mass used to be in Latin?” I said. “Did you know clergy couldn’t drive?”

He sighed. “That’s not a selling point.”

Then, I picked up another book from the nightstand, an airport thriller about nun detectives called Sisters Saviors. I read him a favorite passage, from right after the narrator joins the convent and before she solves her first murder. It read:

Once, existence felt like a solo sojourn in a canoe. I paddled and paddled but only turned in circles, observing the same turbid water, the eerie cathedral pines on the shore. The blessed church changed everything; my paddle strokes became assured, the water crystalline. I traveled downstream at last.

“Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment?”

He crossed his arms. “It seems overwritten.”

This time, I sighed. He mushed a pillow and rolled toward me.

“Do you know how much the Vatican is worth?”

I shook my head. “Not really.”

“Exactly. The pope hoards wealth.”

Now, I was picturing attending a papal event; all the consecrated followers being awarded a doubloon of appreciation in the city square, perhaps a chalice to call my own. My eyes got wide. “Do you think I’d have access to all that?”


I closed the book and scooched down into the comforter.

“I guess I just like the idea of purpose.”

Lukas got still under the sheets. “Please don’t become a nun,” he said and rolled over to click off the light. 

That week, Lukas forwarded me job listings over email. University psychology departments recruiting experiment subjects, ways to make fast cash. While the paychecks were tempting—one paid seventy dollars an hour for individuals “plagued with insurmountable dread”—I couldn’t do it. I was terrified of discovering some latent personality trait. Who knew what could be lurking in my subconscious? Would I look under the hood of a busted car if I already knew the motor was full of rust and gunk and broken gears it’s best not to think about? Of course not. I’d wait until the vehicle broke down on the expressway.

My fear of clinical psychologists began in the sixth grade, when I learned about the Marshmallow Experiment. Psychoanalysts gave unsuspecting children a single marshmallow and offered a choice between eating it or waiting fifteen minutes to receive another. Kids who exhibited patience went on to become big leaders, stock traders, titans of industry. The ones who ate the marshmallow grew up hating s’mores and not into much else.

I would eat the marshmallow. I just knew it. Once, during a road trip, I expressed this anxiety to Lukas. He assured me the study was “actual bullshit” since researchers didn't factor in economic circumstance.

“So, it’s really about food scarcity,” he said, eyes still on the road, “not delayed gratification.”

He had missed the point. Why don’t I do the responsible thing? Why didn’t I want to do anything at all? 

“I lack discipline,” I told him. “I’m not prudent.” 

He reached over and kissed my fingers. 

“You’re good at being with me.”  

I tried not to yank my hand away. 

I began to dabble in celibacy. “I’m not in the mood, babe,” I told Lukas piously. He grunted in agreement. Then, an hour later, he was reading a biography of David Attenborough, and his caring about endangered species made me horny and also a bit sad, so I asked him to lie on me for comfort. He was already hard. Then, I was like, Screw it, and asked him to take his shirt off, please, and also his briefs, if he didn’t mind, and promised God it would be the last time.

Sex used to be fun: When I purchased a three-setting vibrator that looked like Poseidon’s trident. This time I picked up a six-piece lingerie set from Madame Buttein town, securing the garters on my thighs, threading the grommets on the bustier with red ribbon. Trying a new position called the “Gregorian Twist.” Now, sleeping with Lukas was the same as being with him. He was selfish, and I couldn’t be bothered. Most nights, he came quick. His body was like a pre-shaken can of Coke. Usually, I felt relieved. I was grateful to roll him off and be left alone. No extra tasks, no fancy postures—the dream.

I wasn’t the only one with a self-control problem. That winter, Lukas subscribed to The Proletariat. His parents begged him not to read the news on account of his high blood pressure, but he couldn’t resist. One night, he went deep on a longform article called “Billionaire Bonanzas”—he dictated the piece back to me over dinner, how the land barons and corporate pocket-protectors were exploiting our labor, stealing our likenesses, and soon we’d all be docile, lobotomized agents of the gig economy. I was positive I already was one.

“Did you know yesterday was my birthday?”

“What?” he said, swallowing a mouthful of lentils. He ate them cold with butter. Mine were drenched in hot sauce and made my nose drip.

“Yesterday. I turned 27.”


I set down my spoon. “Yesterday.”

“Oh.” We stared at each other. He cleared his throat. I blew my nose. Then, we returned to the dinner, utensils clicking against the bowls.

Later, around midnight, he turned on the bedside lamp. “Are you mad at me?”

“No, it’s okay.” I was but hated to fight. I didn’t want to throw a tantrum.  

“Okay, phew,” he said. Then, he turned the light off.

Early in our relationship, I learned arguments with Lukas weren’t worth it. We only fought one other time: The first year, I’d started getting apocalyptic nosebleeds. Out of nowhere, my nostrils gushed. The bleeds happened every month or so. I called them “olfactory periods.” Lukas asked me to stop but agreed the frequency was alarming. One night, the bleeding wouldn’t let up, and as the iron dribbled out of my body, the room tilted and spun. I needed medical attention. Lukas drove me to the hospital but couldn’t come into the emergency room. He needed to be at the store to receive an order of cycling Spanx, but he promised to pick me up after.

The visit took six hours: a nurse walking me through a CT scan, three nasopharyngeal swabs, an intravenous for fluids. When she flushed the drip with saline, it chilled me, a sensation I now recognize as oddly baptismal. Then, there was a brief encounter with a neurologist who told me the scan was clear. “You have eczema in your nostrils,” he said. “Drink more water.” The nurse swaddled my nose in gauze. I was told to go. 

Outside the ER, Lukas didn’t answer my call. The bandage smelled like antiseptic. EMTs pulled up in the roundabout, their ambulance whining, the siren strobing red and blue. The driver waved but didn’t offer a ride. Did nobody care about me? It drizzled a little, grew cold and damp. My hair got frizzy. I shivered and sneezed. At last, a yellow cab arrived with Lukas inside. 

“I’m so sorry,” he said, pushing open the door. “I have a good excuse, I promise.”

 He told me he’d gone to the bar around the corner after work and gotten into it with some libertarian about tax reform. The man wore boat loafers. “Nobody with a sailing yacht should be allowed to participate in the discourse,” he told me. At home, I got too upset.

“You abandoned me,” I said. “You’re a bad boyfriend.” 

Oh, it was very dramatic. Lukas couldn’t handle it. He started crying. 

“Why are you upset?” I yelled. “I’m the one with dermatitis.” 

Then, the crying intensified. His whole torso shook with tectonic sobs; he collapsed onto the couch. He needed comfort. I cradled his head, and he wept and wept until we both fell asleep. I woke up covered in the briny crust of his tears.

Over breakfast, he told me the last time he’d cried was at a sixth-birthday party when a clown popped a balloon giraffe in his face. “I think it was an accident,” he said, “but still harrowing.”

The fallout if we broke up seemed too much. Also, my mother loved Lukas. She used to call him my“Little Switzerland.” “Because he’s a pacifist?” I’d ask, and she’d say, “No, because he’s blonde.” She couldn’t handle another letdown. And, I’d have to find a new boyfriend. I’d be “on the market,” and there’s no worse place to be. The breakup would make me vulnerable, a vagabond, like a creature in one of Lukas’ beloved nature documentaries, a freshly molted snake or a naked hermit crab. 

When Lukas left for work the next week, I took a bus to a nearby monastery called St. Benedictine’s Lonely Heart. The grounds were silent; a cobblestone path led up to the abbey, a small compound with a visitor’s lobby, reading room, and private chambers. Inside the walls were paneled mahogany, a baroque crucifix was mounted overhead, and the mildewed windows turned the light a pond green. I tiptoed through the refectory, floorboards creaking under my sneakers. The long oak table was occupied by a single elderly man in a black cassock, lifting spoons of rutabaga soup to his lips. The hall smelled of sulfur and root vegetable. He looked unbothered. I wanted to be him. 

Already, I was picturing a similar life in the convent. If the other nuns suggested a service trip, I would tell them, “I’m in repose,” and leave to explore the grounds. I’d spend the afternoon skipping between the mossy tombstones, wool robes swishing around my ankles, occasionally pausing to read the names. Oh, how I would lounge. The naps I would take in the grass. I’d be so free.

When I returned to the apartment, I hated the modern interior anew: the cream-colored walls, the big windows, all the cold steel accents. Lukas had insisted on the building because of the bike room. Now, he complained we couldn’t afford the rent. I went to a local dollar store to escape. There, I bought a cross-shaped piñata, a t-shirt printed with “Happy Christening, Charlotte!”and an inflatable flamingo. On the bus, I blew up the flamingo. I am a productive member of society, I thought, looking down at the pink vinyl. I am not sentient chaos

I put on the t-shirt. 

“Congratulations, doll,” this woman leaned over to tell me. I smiled and pretended she spoke not to Charlotte, who wasn’t good enough to exist, but to me, reborn. En route to a lifetime of service and sacrifice and celibacy. If only Gracie could have seen me in that moment, how I was thriving. 

Once at home, the party favors did seem overzealous. I self-consciously hid the bag in an uppermost cabinet, a plan that backfired when Lukas went looking for a frying pan and the piñata fell on his head. He didn’t take the bonk as a divine sign from God, like I suggested. “What the hell is going on?”

I picked up the piñata and brushed it off. “For my christening.” 

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re not religious.”

I twirled the fringe on the piñata.


“Or a baby.”

“I’ll figure it out.” 

He started searching for more of my recent acquisitions, rummaging in the cabinets, crouching to look under the sofa. He swept out some rogue wafers. “What is even happening in this apartment?” He unearthed some of the rented books and a clerical collar and a package of nativity-shaped confetti from the cushions. The bag burst in his clenched fist. Foil camels, angels, and mangers spangled the floor. Then, he spun to fetch a broom and saw it: a marble cross, nailed into the wall. The missing chunk of cement. The death of Christ and our security deposit. His mouth opened and closed like a koi. I whispered: “He is risen.” And, so, we fell.

Mary Kate McGrath is a writer, journalist, and disability advocate from Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Tin House, and Phoebe. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) from Boston University.