An Afternoon with Fatima in Germany

We were the only American family left in our neighborhood.   The others had already moved away, but my husband was among the last of the battalion to oversee the base closure, and it was taking longer than anticipated. 

I was actually pleased with the situation. It gave me a chance to improve my German language skills and immerse myself in the culture.  I was content to linger in the somewhat constructed world of the expatriate, a reality tinged by foreign perceptions.  Faith was something I never thought of then.  I had an enthusiasm for new experiences, and if questions ever came up about those on the fringes of the culture I so eagerly absorbed, I would have argued all answers should be sought in terms of politics or social reform. 

attachment4

Faith was something I never thought of then.  I had an enthusiasm for new experiences, and if questions ever came up about those on the fringes of the culture I so eagerly absorbed, I would have argued all answers should be sought in terms of politics or social reform. 

I later came to an understanding of the Turks, the Russians, the Albanians, and other degrees of eastern immigrants about, and of their position within the carefully woven veil of German liberality, but on that day I had no sense of it.  Indeed, I could not have said whether Fatima was Croatian or Kentuckian, had never given it a thought.  I knew her German was broken, but was still too preoccupied with my own sense of the foreign all around me to spare a thought for her alien condition.  Our acquaintance centered around the Kindergarten, where we often happened to be picking up our sons at the same time.  When she asked me to coffee I accepted with a “Danke shoen.  Funfzehn Uhr, oder?”

Coffee was almost always at three o’clock, and in our Siedlung, full of couples in their thirties with children, always meant an understood play-date.  I had lived there a long enough time to know that without having to ask, but a short enough time to still feel smug about knowing it.  I fostered a sense of superiority to other Americans stationed in Germany, who could do little more than get by in shops or order a Bier in a Gasthof.

We walked almost everywhere then, and with pleasure.  To pass through our neighborhood on the way to the Bakerei or Supermarkt meant the loveliest of strolls through meticulously tended gardens.  Petra was out weeding hers as we set off to Fatima’s later that day.  My son happily joined her children at play as I stopped to chat.  She welcomed the interruption to her work, and asked where we were off to on such a fine day.

Am Duengerheim.” I answered, acknowledging the unfortunate street name of Fatima’s dwelling.

Ach!  Schoen, schoen…” replied Petra, seamlessly changing the subject to neighborhood matters.  

I was fluent enough to understand all of what was said, but none of what wasn’t said.  I see that now.  She called out to me as we left,  “Stop by on your way back.  We’ll most likely still be out,” and it held no significance for me.

We followed the directions Fatima had given me to her place, which brought us to the other side of the Siedlung, under the train station and beyond the connecting  tunnel.  The style of the neighborhood changed from single dwellings and row houses to apartment buildings on that side of town.  I had no trouble finding her building, as the complex stood directly opposite the Sankt Thekla Kirche, the largest church in our town.       

The structure dominated the cityscape and could be seen from all directions of entry into our village.  I went into the church a few times in a touristy sort of way.   There was an interesting painting of a vaguely middle-eastern looking woman in one of the alcoves. I assumed it was Saint Thekla. The situation of her church strikes me as significant now, but it was the sort of thing I never thought of then.

attachment8

I went into the church a few times in a touristy sort of way.  There was an interesting painting of a vaguely middle-eastern looking woman in one of the alcoves.  I assumed it was Saint Thekla.

When we got to Fatima’s apartment I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to ask her apartment number, and so found myself pondering the names on the doorbell panel, so very different from the German family names to which I’d become accustomed.   Petrovic, Burakgazi, Emmini, Polzin… I wondered how she’d expected me to know which was hers, and considered the problem of having to ring the doorbells at random and ask.  I was at that stage in my fluency where one hesitates to speak by phone or intercom.  

That was when a dark-haired woman I recognized as a fellow Kindergarten-mom approached us.

“Emmini?” she asked, pointing to a third floor window.  She was nodding encouragement and ushering us toward the front entrance.  I nodded and smiled as she amicably gestured and jabbered in a language I couldn’t identify.   A group of helpful pedestrians materialized around us, neighborhood faces I knew by sight but had thought of as disconnected with one another, all converged here in their various home occupations, carrying grocery bags, digging in flower pots, standing in groups and smoking cigarettes.   Everyone seemed to know about us and our visit, as the helpful gesturing commenced all around.  My son looked up at me doubtfully as we entered the building.

attachment5

I nodded and smiled as she amicably gestured and jabbered in a language I couldn’t identify.   A group of helpful pedestrians materialized around us, neighborhood faces I knew by sight but had thought of as disconnected with one another, all converged here in their various home occupations, carrying grocery bags, digging in flower pots, standing in groups and smoking cigarettes.   Everyone seemed to know about us and our visit.

Our guide brought us to a third floor landing, indicated a door on which to knock, and abruptly left us there.  I was still in doubt as to whether we were in the right place, and so felt relieved when Fatima opened the door and welcomed us in.  Her sons greeted my shy little Thomas, and led him away to their room, their cheerful chatter emanating from within.

The apartment was small, but meticulously clean.  It was not so orderly as the homes of my German friends, but one got the impression it was due to the challenges of living with children in a confined space, not from a lack of housekeeping.  I found myself in a different sort of home than I’d expected, and Fatima must have noticed the furtive curiosity in my glance, as she immediately insisted on showing me around.  

She then conducted a comical sort of home tour in which walking from room to was unnecessary, as one could behold the entirety of the dwelling from the front hall.  She indicated the children’s room, with the boy’s bunk beds on one side, the baby’s crib on the other, the tiny master bedroom in which the double bed occupied most of the space, the kitchenette with it’s small dining table, and the living room.  In each case I would somewhat lean in the direction she indicated and express my approval.

“Yes, but…” she shrugged, with an expression of making due with what one’s got.  

We had to speak to each another in our second languages, my German being not perfect, and hers much less so.  She indicated I should take a seat in the living room, and as I did I began to fret how we would fill the space of the typical two-hour coffee visit with conversation.  Then something caught my eye that directed my worry in another direction.

I was sitting directly opposite a photograph of a man in uniform brandishing an AK-47.  It was quite large, framed, and bordered garishly in red and black with bits of green and yellow.  It was not an action shot; it was a posed portrait, which only made it the more bizarre to my thinking.  I tried to hide my astonishment as Fatima brought in the coffee cups from the kitchen.

“Mein Brueder,” she explained.  “Tot.  Im Albanien.”

So she was Albanian.  Her brother had died there in the conflict.  I couldn’t make out much of how it had happened with her language skills.

attachment3

I was sitting directly opposite a photograph of a man in uniform brandishing an AK-47.  It was quite large, framed, and bordered garishly in red and black with bits of green and yellow.  It was not an action shot; it was a posed portrait, which only made it the more bizarre to my thinking.

“He was good”, she said, her eyes welling up with tears.  “And young.”

I made up my mind to try to soften my glance when it landed that way, as it was clear she beheld nothing alarming in the presentation, no more than a portrait of a beloved brother who happened to be a soldier, in her eyes.

I suddenly recalled the day I’d taken Petra along with me to a Book Fair on the American post.  As we’d driven down Colonel’s Row, she’d been shocked to see all the American and German flags at the front of each house, lining the whole of the street.   “What is this?” she’d demanded to know, explaining about not displaying the flag in Germany.  That was before the 2004 World Cup had made it acceptable as a benign sort of fan-accessory.  I wondered if our tame display of patriotism had so alarmed her, what she would make of this.

Fatima and I had the most civilized coffee then, guarded by the watchful eye of her dead brother and his looming machine gun.  She brought everything in on a tray, with pretty cups and saucers, and all the proper accessories, much the same as my German acquaintance would do, but then instead of the usual cake accompaniment, she laid out a sort of flat-bread, layered with sheep’s cheese and oil.  She pantomimed with her hands to show me how much kneading and folding of the dough was necessary to accomplish the recipe.  It was very good, and as we ate we were able to discuss the culinary specialties of our own nations, comparing them with each other’s and with the German variations.  We were still chatting comfortably when her husband came in. 

attachment10

Fatima and I had the most civilized coffee then, guarded by the watchful eye of her dead brother and his looming machine gun.  She brought everything in on a tray, with pretty cups and saucers.

He went into the bedroom to change out of his work clothes, but upon his return sat down and amicably joined us at coffee, something a German husband would never have done.  Fatima introduced him as Flori, and as he eagerly took up the conversation, I found his German was better then hers.  He could even find a word or two of English when we needed it.

He had been a Professor of Mathematics at the University in Tirana.  He and his family had been forced to flee when he was targeted as some sort of an instigator, although I wasn’t quite clear on why he was targeted or whether he actually was an instigator.  In Germany he added to their living by working as a part-time underling for a house painter.  They were apparently glad for him to have a job of any sort, even one so far beneath his abilities.  Most of their acquaintance were unable to find work at all, and it rendered a state of futility upon the male population there.  

Their apartment and those of all the buildings in their complex were paid for by the German government. They tried to explain to me their position of having to be grateful for something they would rather not have been given, and insisted on the desire to work for themselves.  At the same time they described their being on a waiting list for a government house, and petulantly expressed their impatience at the wait time.

“But you know the Germans, how they are.” said Fatima.

I thought of the time I’d remarked on a neighborhood I’d noticed in a nearby village, full of new houses and Petra’s husband sniffing, “Yes.  Those are for the Russians.  Nice, aren’t they.”

Flori then turned the conversation back to me.  “Your husband?” he asked, nodding.  “He was in Kosovo?”

He had been, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to discuss it with them, of all people.  We’d naturally been sympathetic to the plight of the women and children in the camps, but after my husband had spent some months in the region he’d told me “I’m pretty sure we picked the wrong side on this one.”

We’d naturally been sympathetic to the plight of the women and children in the camps, but after my husband had spent some months in the region he’d told me “I’m pretty sure we picked the wrong side on this one.”

“We are so grateful to the Americans for their help,” gushed Flori.  “So very, very grateful.”

“Oh, no,” I reassured him.  “It was the right thing to do.”

I hoped it was true.  It seemed like it ought to have been.  Then he brought up 9/11.  He and Fatima wanted me to understand how very shocked they’d been, watching the news that day.  They wanted to make it clear their sympathies were with the victims.  Flori then touched on the motivations of the bombers, saying “Yes, there are problems.  There are difficulties and disagreements, but to address it this way…”  I was glad the doorbell rang then, interrupting our conversation.

It was the woman who’d led us up to the apartment. She turned out to be Fatima’s sister-in-law, and for some odd reason was named Mary.  Flori didn’t understand my surprise when I remarked on her name.  

“Yes”, he nodded.  “Maryam, Maria, Mary… it is a good name.”

“Yes, but Mary.” I said.  “It’s just, such a Christian name.”

“No, no. We have Mary, too.  Your Bible, our Koran. Yes, Mary.”

I struggled to make the connection of how that could be, but he didn’t seem interested in discussing it further, as the sister-in-law had brought a video tape they’d apparently planned for us to watch.  Flori translated for her, “This is a tape of her wedding day for you to see.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed.  “Is she a newlywed?”

“No,” answered Flori.  “This was four years ago.”

I couldn’t quite understand the point of watching it then, but they all seemed so eager I put on a show of anticipation as well.  As the tape rewound they described to me about their country, how beautiful it had been before conflict had torn it.  They wanted me to understand Islam was not practiced as strictly in their region.  Fatima described to me about facing east to pray multiple times a day and scoffed, “No, we don’t do this.”

“Bekim does.” translated Flori, for Mary.  I assumed she meant her husband.

“So?” asked Flori, playfully.  “Is this what you expect from a Muslim home?”

I could see they wanted me to play along, so I made a little joke about having expected burkhas which pleased them very much.

“No, no!” laughed Flori.  “You walk down the street in Tirana, you think you are in the disco.”

They started the video then, which began with a wedding caravan of cars, and a poor caravan it was, all the economy-sized cars having the appearance of being patched up like faded old jeans.  They were crammed with wedding revelers though, smiling and waving at the camera when it fell on them.  As the caravan started moving there was a general sort of “Hoorah!”, or the equivalent of it in their language, and a honking of horns.  They wound their way slowly through city streets in the most shocking state of ruin, their celebratory joy scarcely piercing the gloom all around.  There seemed to be a habit of waving at passersby which they persisted in even though there was no one to wave back.  The city really had the most decrepit, abandoned look about it, so that I couldn’t help admiring their cheer in the face of it. 

I never could make out the name of the town they were in, no matter how many times they pronounced it for me.  They explained the caravan was making its way to the bride’s house, where there would be a viewing of her dowry.  I smiled expectantly at Mary, who cast her gaze down to the floor.

“You must understand,” explained Flori.  “Nobody had anything at this time.  Nobody.”

It became clear what they were preparing me for when the video got to the dowry part.  The wedding guests filed into the house of the bride’s family, making their way into a room in which Mary sat, not yet dressed in her wedding clothes.  The normal furniture had been cleared and tables with cloths had been brought in to display all her worldly possessions, which consisted of some clothing and personal articles, and a few pairs of shoes, from what I could make out. 

There was a palpable dip in morale at this point amongst the guests, who filed through the display seemingly at a loss for how to react. Mary hung her head in shame as a guest picked up a hairbrush and optimistically inspected it.  Fatima tried to explain to me with her halting words and big gestures how very vast the array of goods would have been in happier times, how differently the guests and bride would have behaved.  They seemed to feel apologetic toward even me watching the video four years later, although I’d certainly brought no expectations of any sort into it.

Things perked up when they took the bride away in their cars to a house of relatives, to dress her for the wedding.  There was a flurry of female excitement, a general bustling and fussing common to women in such circumstances everywhere.  She emerged from the process in veiled finery, although the veil was so long one could hardly make out much about her dress.  She seemed to drift like a hovering spirit as she walked, and was led out to the car waiting to drive her to the ceremony.

The ceremony itself was not filmed, only the reception after.  Everyone gathered into groups around tables and behaved like wedding guests the world over, like children at play, only there was no alcohol to turn it ugly toward the end. All variety of interesting food was spread on the tables on great platters, and everyone seemed to eat leisurely bits here and there rather than one large meal.  They had a number of unfamiliar traditions they explained to me.  One game I couldn’t make out involved the groomsmen and cigarettes, and had some sort of mildly bawdy implication to do with the wedding night. 

Through it all Mary sat unveiled, in the most elaborate dress sewn with pearls and jewels.  They had done her hair and made her up so that she appeared quite another person from the plain woman sitting next to me in the apartment.  Both the wedding guests and the camera seemed enchanted with her, as all gazes turned her way again and again.  One got the sense they’d sacrificed all they had, and gladly, for her to be elevated to such status of beauty, that the point of it all somehow converged in her and everyone knew it, and so were drawn to her because of it.  She did not partake of any of the games or festivities, only observed with regal detachment, her expression very grave.  I pondered what it could mean and looked at her next to me on the couch.  Tears sprung to her eyes, as she said something for Fatima to translate.

attachment7

Through it all Mary sat unveiled, in the most elaborate dress sewn with pearls and jewels.  They had done her hair and made her up so that she appeared quite another person from the plain woman sitting next to me in the apartment. 

“She says… she loves her husband, very much.” said Fatima, as if that explained everything.  It was touching, how although all the attention had been focused on her, she only thought of her spouse, and how she carried that devotion in it’s original form even then, as if time had not gone by.

There was more to the video as a group of men had begun to life the bride up and carry her about the reception hall, when the children suddenly tumbled into the room, begging to play outside.  The adults scolded the interruption, but the boys were persistent; so I used it as an opportunity to observe the time and imply it was nearly time for us to go.  This came as a great surprise to our hosts, who’d evidently expected us to stay for dinner.  I never could have imagined such a possibility as it was never done that way in German homes, so had to politely insist against their protests.  I probably could have rearranged our plans, but the truth was it was all becoming too much, the politics, the machine gun, the wedding.  It was tiring, and I just wanted to get back home and not have to think so much.

attachment2

I probably could have rearranged our plans, but the truth was it was all becoming too much, the politics, the machine gun, the wedding.  It was tiring, and I just wanted to get back home and not have to think so much.

I finally got away by accepting Fatima’s offering of a dish to take back with me for our dinner.  She ladled some sort of hot soup into a large covered container, and wrapped it with a dishtowel so as not to burn my hands.  I bid Flori and Mary farewell, and then Fatima and the boys walked downstairs with us.  We stood in the courtyard for a bit while the children continued to play.

It was summer and so still light out.  We could see the facade of Sankt Thekla’s from between the apartment buildings.  A shadow from the topmost cross on the upper rooftop was cast onto the courtyard pavement, where the children made an impromptu game of hopping from quadrant to quadrant as we watched.  Their own shadows merged with the image of the cross whenever they approached the center of it.

“You are Christian, yes?” asked Fatima.

I supposed I was, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything pertaining to that fact.  I’d been raised Catholic, but my religion had become nothing more than a memory of ceremonies attended and rituals performed.  I looked back at it fondly, but without it having any real connection to my adult life.

attachment11

“You are Christian, yes?” asked Fatima.

I supposed I was, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything pertaining to that fact.  I’d been raised Catholic, but my religion had become nothing more than a memory of ceremonies attended and rituals performed.

“I guess it’s sort of like you not facing east to pray.” I explained.

Fatima nodded and seemed to reflect for a moment.

“I should maybe do better with this.” she finally said. 

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, especially since I felt no such corresponding call in my own life then, so I simply looked up at the sky and observed,  “It’s going to rain.” 

I used the dark cloud moving in as an excuse to say our goodbyes quickly.  I wanted to make it home before the rain began.

As we approached Petra’s house on the walk back, I saw she was still out as she’d said she would be.  Thomas skipped on ahead to our house, as we did not live much further, and her children were not out to play.  She directed a wry smile at the enormous dish I was carrying and asked, “What’s this?  Your nice dinner tonight?”

I nodded that it was, as she leaned in and wrinkled her nose as if smelling something bad.  “Knoblauch!” she said, fanning the air in front of her face.  I never have known a German who could abide the smell of garlic.

“And…?” she asked.  “Did you have a nice visit?”

Ach!  Schoen, schoen...” I nodded.

I hardly knew how to relate my conflicting feelings about it all, so I tried to keep to  innocuous essentials like the flatbread and pretty cups.  It seemed no matter what I said I found myself confronted with a raised eyebrow or a loaded question.  As we conversed, I slowly realized I was being probed for details, and was expected to deliver them in a manner which conformed to her own dry disapprobation. 

I felt the shock of realization and a flare of righteous anger.  I suddenly saw the sharing of the wedding video as an intimate offering of the best they’d had to give, and felt the loss of not having something similar to share with them.  I wanted to somehow defend and justify them in Petra’s eyes.  At the same time I remembered the hint of underlying greed I’d picked up on, their willingness to exploit the system that had been thrust on them, and had to admit my own opinions on the subject were really not so very different from hers.  An image of the brother with the machine gun passed through my mind, and I decided to keep that part to myself.

“Their apartment is so small.” I insisted.  “They really have so little.”

“Oh?  Is there something more they need?” she asked.  Something else we should be giving them?”

I had the distinct impression there was, only I couldn’t think what.  Just then the bells from Saint Thekla’s started ringing six o’clock.  Something about the sound evoked a thought or a memory I struggled to grasp, but couldn’t seem to get hold of.  I felt a  sudden, stabbing conviction the chimes were a herald of something, but then immediately lost hold of that, too.

“Vespers,” remarked Petra.  It was what one said at that hour without it ever meaning anything in particular.  

I had to rush off then as the cloud had blown in and completely obscured the sun.  I ran homeward and felt the first stinging drops of cold rain on my face, the gusting wind muffling the sound of the bells.  I found Thomas waiting at the front door, impatiently wanting to get inside away from the rain.  As we entered the warmth and comfort of our home, I was relieved to find my anger and confusion already beginning to fade. 

It would be many years before I would think back and remember about the bells, the wedding, the shadow of the cross, and begin to wonder what Mary had to do with any of it.

 It would be many years before I would think back and remember about the bells, the wedding, the shadow of the cross, and begin to wonder what Mary had to do with any of it.

Sacrament

A Short Story

by Beverly De Soto Stevens

I have made some big changes since Alex left me. But perhaps the most cleansing was completely re-decorating the house.

OUT went the sleek, low modern furniture with the ‘clean lines’ that Alex loved. (As an investment banker, his taste leaned towards the decidedly modern. Cold, efficient and soul-less. Just like Alex. But I digress.)

I told him, “Take it all” – which he did, without a backward glance.

IN came my ‘shabby chic’ stuff –faded cabbage roses on overstuffed chairs. Mis-matched china plates of mid-century design. Stacks and stacks of pottery, most filled with flowering plants of every description. Alex’s conservative beige walls have erupted into color – deep autumnal hues and garden greens, some sponged over with a glowing gilt. I have lampshades with fringes, now.

When Alex came back one day to pick up his Miele vacuum cleaner, he was thunderstruck.

“Well, Kaitlin,” he began, hands on his slim hips, shaking his head.

“You like it?” I asked him, doing my best to sound cheerful and breezy.

“It is different,” he allowed, surveying my ornate, wall-mounted 1906 Spode china.

“Just like me, right?” I countered brightly, and handed him the vacuum cleaner. It was not entirely my fault that before he could grasp it, the thing slipped out of my hand.

He cursed as it hit his toe with a loud crash.

“Oops!” I exclaimed, shrugging my shoulders in mock apology. My silly grin stayed plastered on my face. “Butterfingers!”

Alex was decidedly not a happy camper as he limped off my porch. But he did manage to jump into his new Audi A6 and take off  magnificently, vacuum cleaner in tow.

But that’s okay. I’ve got the house, and his Land Rover. Not to mention a monthly alimony check – highly unusual these days, but necessary for my maintenance, the judge said.

You see, being dumped like I was has left me pretty much disabled. I can’t work. I see my shrink three times a week. I sleep on meds. I function on meds. My life, you could say, is possible because of the meds.

Why is this? Because when Alex told me he was leaving me, the shock was too much. The final straw, as it were, after 15 years together. Our entire adult lives, since our salad days at Dickenson College. I was a gawky hippie-ish kid, orphaned by my suicidal mother since babyhood. My dad had been a successful lawyer; my brother and I had endured a parade of his girlfriends since the 1980s. None had wanted to take on two undisciplined, motherless kids, so we drifted along, living on Mc Donald’s, indifferently supervised by au pairs.

Alex came from a wealthy Beltway family closely connected to D.C. politics. He was a brilliant nerd, attracted by my fanciful attire and breezy personality. We were inseparable from junior year on, and married the year after we graduated. 

To be honest, his mom didn’t like me much, old battleaxe that she is. But when there weren’t any grand-kids, she turned her attention to her much more prolific daughters. When Alex and I moved north a few years later, it was just as well. He had a great job, and I found work as a librarian. We settled down into our suburban Connecticut life, coping with our various anxieties with gym memberships and occasional, liberal doses of alcohol.

Actually, I had suspected for a couple of years that something was wrong. He came home very late from the bank. He was distant. He responded very badly when I timidly suggested that perhaps if I went off the Pill, we could maybe have a child?

“No,” he’d said flatly. This world was far too treacherous to bring a child into.

No doubt he felt this way, I thought, because of the ferocious, relentless Wall Street world he works in. You see, Alex is a ‘success.’ And I  am not the kind of woman he wants, anymore.

He wanted ‘eye candy,” he told me a few weeks before he left. My hips are too fat, he said. He ‘deserved’ a model.

What’s more, sex with me makes him ‘ill.’ The 15 years that we had spent together, he told me, was ‘like a prison term.’ He was so glad we never had children. He finished by telling me that I ‘suck all the air out of the room.’

That first night he was gone, I lay in bed unable to sleep, the black waves of depression rolling over me ceaselessly. In the darkness of my room, I peered out at a streetlamp, wondering how I could end my life. Now, I understood why people committed suicide. Living was just too painful.

Straight vodka helped only temporarily; terrified of following in my mother’s forlorn footsteps to the grave, I found a shrink.  And a predatory lawyer. Both are thick on the ground here in Connecticut.

As bad as all this was, probably the single reason why the judge was so generous was because Alex assented to it. This, in turn, was because my lawyer threatened to discuss the AIDS test results that I had found in the thousand-dollar leather briefcase I’d bought Alex last Christmas.

Yes, I know I shouldn’t have rifled through his things. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten tested for AIDS myself. My neighbor Jeannie went with me to the doctor’s office, because I couldn’t face it alone.  Afterwards, when I sobbed with sheer relief in her car, she had a suggestion.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said darkly. “But if this guy was my ex, I’d have him beaten. Honestly, I got a cousin in the business. You want him taken care of?”

This made me stop crying.

“Well,” I said, wiping my tears, actually beginning to smile at the thought of the haughty Alex scurrying desperately to avoid retribution from the likes of Jeannie’s cousins. “Although he definitely deserves it, I can’t do that.”

“Suit yourself,” Jeannie shrugged. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

So, now, at 37 years of age, I am alone. Though I have no children, I lavish lots of care on my four rescued kitties. Also, objets d’arte that I gleaned from the Greenwich dump.

Yes, I am a ‘dump diver.’ I take Alex’s precious Land Rover and stuff it full of cast-off treasures, served up to me by my willing co-conspirators, the enterprising garbage truck drivers of Connecticut.

That’s right. For a twenty dollar bill, the garbage guys call my cell phone and deliver up the choicest objects being tossed out by the super-rich of Connecticut. Like a 1920’s mahogany chair, upholstered in creamy lemon yellow silk, which I picked up just after Alex left, about a year ago.

“You really got somethin’ here,” opined Tony, as he gingerly loaded the chair into the Rover. He dusted off his hands and regarded me frankly. “Ya know, you ain’t the only one doin’ this. Ya got competition these days, too.”

So that’s how I came to know Sarah and Patrick, newlyweds who have started-up a trendy ‘antiques’ shop in a newly-gentrifying neighborhood. We are definitely simpatico when it comes to design, so it was a no-brainer for me to accept their offer of a part-time job. As odd as it may sound, this little job – and the friendship of this young couple — have literally saved my life.

Like me, they have a deep appreciation for saving unwanted objects, and preserving their beauty. They are also fair, and reliable. This is probably why so many of their customers return, and why their business is prospering — and why I have a really fun job.

Unlike me, they are struggling financially. I mean, they have thrown everything they have into this store — and they are still living at Sarah’s mom’s house. Also unlike me, they also have an interest in liturgical objects, mainly statues cast off from Catholic churches. They are practicing Catholics – a religion I have always regarded with suspicion, to be honest – and they actively seek out and restore crucifixes and suchlike.

“Who’s this?”  I asked one day. A newly-arrived, life-sized plaster statue of a woman in blue robes, with a small girl-child by her knee, reading a book. The woman had a sweet, grave face.

“St Anne,” smiled Sarah. “She was the mother of Mary. That’s Mary as a child. The legend is that Sarah taught Mary to read.”

I did a quick mental calculation.

“That’s Jesus’s grandmother!?” I said, half- seriously, and laughed. (‘The things that some people believe,’ I thought to myself. ‘My Presbyterian grandmother would roll over in her grave.’)

“Yes,” Sarah responded seriously. “She’s the patron saint of unmarried women. Catholics ask her for help in finding husbands,” she smiled quickly at me. “You should give her a try.”

“Right,” I said facetiously. “After Alex, I have nowhere to go but up, right?”

So it wasn’t out of religious conviction that I agreed to attend a traditional Latin Mass with them, as you can tell. (Although I am ‘spiritual,’ I’ve never been interested in organized religion. Those sober Presbyterians had had their effect on me.) 

It was because after all this bitterness, I was getting very tired of being so soul-sick.

So, I agreed to go. And the truth is that I was stopped cold, in my tracks, by this Mass in this old church on the wrong side of Norwalk.  It was the Gregorian chant that got me. And the silences.

And the serious, sober intelligence of the priest’s sermon. All about what Catholics call the ‘sacrament’ of marriage, and how marriages were being destroyed by materialism and selfishness. How once people began searching for more exotic pleasures to satisfy their cravings, it always ended in tragedy — and how these tragedies were all around us.

This was why, he said, people couldn’t trust anyone any more.  And this was all a result of sin, and Satan wreaking havoc in the world. And women and children – the most vulnerable among us – were suffering in silence.

Well, I choked back tears for the rest of that Mass.  Afterwards, at a bleak Dunkin’ Donuts across from their church, I questioned Sarah and Patrick closely.

Yes, they told me. They believed that their marriage was a ‘sacrament.’ Like the ‘holy communion’ they’d gone to receive, along with a throng of their fellow Catholics. I had watched in wonder as every color, age and shape of humanity had filed by me reverently, on their way to kneel at the altar rail. 

“So ‘sacrament’ is the Catholic word for ‘symbol’?” I asked, groping for some explanation. “Like a symbol of your marriage before God, or something?”

Sarah smiled. “Actually, no. A sacrament is real. NOT a symbol. That is really the Body of Christ we receive.”

Now, if I hadn’t known and respected these people, I would have burst into cynical laughter at this point. As it was, my face must have betrayed me.

“It’s real, like the Sacrament of marriage is real,” Patrick went on, undeterred. “Sarah and I married each other. That is a Sacrament. We believe that this marriage is our way to Heaven.”

“…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,” I said aloud, musingly.

“The Church is where those words came from,” Sarah smiled, nodding.

“Yeah,” I snorted bitterly. “It’s not like most people believe that any more. Wait until you’ve been married a long time, like I was.”

“It all depends on what you think a marriage actually is,” Patrick persisted. “A Catholic marriage is not about a big, lavish ceremony or a party to impress people. The Sacrament is valid regardless of these things. It could take place in the poorest place, with practically no one there. Those things don’t matter.”

“What matters?” I snickered cynically. “’Love’?”

“What matters is that the man and the woman fully understand what a Catholic marriage is,” Patrick answered, his normally kind face set in serious lines. He put his arm around Sarah and regarded me soberly.

“And they must be completely capable of entering into such a marriage,” Sarah continued. “No legal, physical or emotional impediments. They must be open to life. They must understand that this marriage – like a priest’s or a nun’s vocation – is their vocation. It is the path through life they have chosen to find their way to heaven.”

“Right,” I said, still unimpressed. But I was thinking about Alex.

“Your ex-husband,” Sarah began cautiously. “is an example of someone I would think was unable to enter into a Sacramental marriage.”

“He wasn’t married before,” I said shortly. “He could enter into a marriage contract.”

“But Catholic marriage is not a contract,” Sarah countered. “A contract can be broken when one party is no longer interested. That is how the State and most other religions view marriage.”

“NOT a contract?” I said, disbelieving. “Then what is it?”

“It’s a Sacrament,” Patrick said, smiling broadly.

This was difficult to understand. And, if I hadn’t just seen this Latin Mass, I would have dismissed out of hand. But there was Something clawing at my heart.

I looked at Patrick and Sarah, and I had to admit that their level of dedication to their life and their religion was enviable. They were so serious, but at the same time so suffused with joy.

Truth be told, they made my marriage to Alex seem positively grim in comparison. Had there ever been a time when Alex and I had been anything except a rich young couple, out to enjoy life at all costs? Under these circumstances, no wonder Alex had chosen to pursue his pleasures – and to discard me when I became a hindrance to his ‘choices.’ In his ‘values-neutral,’ Wall Street mindset, the only thing that mattered was getting what he wanted.

I sighed, and Sarah reached over to cover my hand with hers. She looked penetratingly into my eyes, which were blinded with tears.

“Where there is life, there is hope,” she said gently. “You have so much to give. Who says that you can’t?”

I shook my head, unable to speak.  I thought of my cats, the only living things that reliably loved me. Why were humans so cruel?

“People are cruel,” she said, reading my thoughts. “Human nature is fallen, by definition.”

I nodded. My experience of Alex and the world in general confirmed this.

“This is ancient wisdom from the Church,” Patrick said calmly. “The Sacraments are what we have to strengthen us, as we make our way through life. They are like, like, a medicine…” he finished somewhat lamely, looking his wife.

She nodded. “We feel that we need the Sacraments,” she said. “Without help, everything – life, marriage, children – would be impossible.”

With that, they looked at each other, smiling.

And that’s how I found out that their baby is on the way. And part of what made me tell them I would accompany them next week to their Latin Mass.

I want to hear what their priest has to say again. I want to lose myself in that chant again. I want to sit in the silences.

I want to understand this idea of ‘Sacrament.’

And I may even give Saint Anne a try.

I shook my head, unable to speak.  I thought of my cats, the only living things that reliably loved me. Why were humans so cruel?

Significant Others

A Short Story

By Beverly Desoto Stevens

It was a great dinner party. All of us – every single woman at the table – is a successful graduate of the same class at Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy. All of our ‘significant others’ are great people. Most of us are gainfully employed. One is still in grad school.

Kieran and Becky are our glamor couple. She’s an art director. He’s a young doctor, tall and dark, with a fashionably scruffy beard and rakish green eyes. Their apartment was beautifully decorated for the holidays. The food was exceptional, yummy and gluten-free.  

It should have been a perfect evening. Maybe it was the free-flowing wine, but that’s when the trouble started.

You see, Melissa has this older boyfriend. And I do mean ‘older.’ Tom must be 45 years old, if he is a day. He was her law professor, first year in Torts.

Now, I’m not trying to be judgmental, or anything. People can do what they want. But Tom started it, with his comments on how all destination weddings were “a huge waste of money for spoiled brides.”

The guy is obviously bitter. He is divorced, and practically penniless because of what he has to pay his ex-wife in child support.  But that was no excuse, because it started this huge thing.

Tom started it, with his comments on how all destination weddings were “a huge waste of money for spoiled brides.”The guy is obviously bitter. He is divorced, and practically penniless because of what he has to pay his ex-wife in child support.  But that was no excuse, because it started this huge thing.

“And what exactly are you gonna do about it?” Kieran laughed. “If a girl wants a wedding, she’s gonna get one, right?”

Beautiful, red-haired Becky shot Kieran a worried look. I know she wants to get married, but he hasn’t asked yet. (She’s already thirty, too.)

Melissa is now in her third year of law school. She shrugged.

“Why would I want to get married?” she announced, smiling somewhat over-brightly at Tom. “Do you know what divorce lawyers make? My parents’ lawyers got $500 an hour. That’s where my college money went.”

Tom laughed.

“That’s because you are brilliant as well as beautiful, babe,” he said approvingly, reaching his arm around her shoulders. She tossed her long dark hair, took a sip of  her white wine and smiled at him.

All I could think of was Melissa confiding in Becky and me about how she was going to stop taking the Pill so she could get pregnant.  But before I could think of anything to say, Meghan interjected.

“Hey, you guys,” she said, as everyone turned to listen to her. There was a note of mild disapproval in her voice. Meghan is on the partner track at a Washington law firm – and she’s married to Spence, who is a free-lancer. “Let’s not get too down on marriage. I kind of like being married.”

Meghan is what my grandmother would have called ‘a pushy broad’ back in Brooklyn. Most of us would never take her on. But Tom wasn’t intimidated.  

“Meghan, so if you do ever get divorced, are you prepared to pay for Spence’s counsel?” he said, leaning forward challengingly.

We all froze on the spot before the men – except Spence – burst out laughing. Seeing the furious look on Meghan’s face, I jumped in quickly to steer the conversation elsewhere.

“Uh, Tom, I really don’t think you want to go there,” I said in what I hoped was a kidding tone. But Meghan was already there, up on her stout little feet.

“Tom, I don’t think you should let your own personal experience color your perception on marriage for all of us,” she declaimed, in her best warning tone.

Tom wasn’t taking any hints, though.

“Oh please,” he said, his face reddening. “Marriage is just an excuse for lawyers to make a fortune off the rest of us poor saps.”

“I don’t think it’s the lawyers’ fault that so many people get divorced,” said Becky, rushing to Meghan’s defense.

This was like pouring gasoline on the fire. Everyone in that room knew that Tom had left his fat demanding wife for the lithesome Melissa.

This was like pouring gasoline on the fire. Everyone in that room knew that Tom had left his fat demanding wife for the lithesome Melissa.

“That’s not the point!” snapped Tom, but before he could explain, Meghan was on him.

“Marriage is a human right,” she announced, in ringing tones. “What do you think gay marriage is all about, Tom? It’s about human rights. Civil rights!”

Tom laughed harshly.

“Oh come on, Meghan,” he said, shaking his head with a grin. “Gay marriage is all about bringing in a whole new market for the divorce lawyers to feed on. It’s a bonanza for our ‘profession.’”

This was too much for Meghan.

“I don’t have to stand here and listen to this!” she snapped, and turning on her expensive heel, marched off into the kitchen. Becky gave Tom a furious look, and went after her.

Spence chuckled distractedly, scratching his balding head.

“You did it now, man,” he said unhappily.  In addition to being a great bread-winner, Meghan is a top organizer. As a result, Spence has a phenomenal life as a freelance photographer; their full-time au pair takes care of their two children.

“What is ‘marriage’?” Kieran interjected in a philosophical tone. Ever the good host, he was pouring more wine for everyone. “It’s a contract. It’s two people signing a piece of paper promising to stay together, file their taxes, raise their kids. It’s an agreement.”

“Exactly,” agreed Tom, nodding his head vehemently. “And like all contracts, it can be broken. And divorce lawyers are the ones who benefit.”

“Okay, okay,” said Spence tiredly. “Whatever, man.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Tom,” said Becky, who had emerged from the kitchen bearing another bottle of wine. “I don’t think marriage is just a contract.”

“Yeah?” Tom responded sardonically. “Then what else can it be?”

“It’s the foundation of a family,” Becky said with emotion. I know Becky’s family. They are ardent Catholics — involved in some kind of ‘movement’ – and they were none too happy about her moving in with Kieran a little under a year ago.

“Oh please,” said Tom, rolling his eyes. “Romantic mumbo-jumbo. Marriage is different for women than it is for men. Women think it’s about love and romance forever and ever. Men know the deal. It’s about working for the rest of your life to support someone who then can treat you any way she pleases.”

Women think marriage is about love and romance forever and ever. Men know the deal. It’s about working for the rest of your life to support some woman who then can treat you any way she pleases.

“Or, you could also say it’s about a woman giving up her career to stay at home and raise some man’s brats, only to be dumped when she turns 40,” retorted Meghan hotly. She had returned on Becky’s heels.

“Or, you could say that marriage is about any number of things” interjected a quiet voice from the corner of the living room. It was my date, Patrick.

We’d met about a month before at a choir meeting at the Catholic parish in Arlington, Virginia near where I live. My therapist had recommended singing as a way to help deal with my depression over the loss of my eight-year relationship with my college boyfriend.  The Parish has an outstanding Gregorian chant choir, something I’d always been intrigued by. 

Patrick is a funny kind of a guy. A bit of a nerd, maybe – not surprising in a policy analyst. I liked him, though. He was careful, measured and pretty good-looking, in a bookish sort of way. At first I thought he wasn’t that ‘into’ me, because he hadn’t made any physical advances. Yet, he’d kept texting, even calling, me.  

“Logically speaking, ‘marriage’ is whatever a particular culture defines it as,” Patrick explained calmly. “The Saudis. The Mormons. The Chinese. All these cultures define marriage according to their norms. What you all are fighting about is what ‘we’ define marriage as. The reason you are fighting is because there is no more ‘we’ in our culture, in the West.”

“The Saudis. The Mormons. The Chinese. All these cultures define marriage according to their norms. What you all are fighting about is what ‘we’ define marriage as. The reason you are fighting is because there is no more ‘we’ in our culture, in the West.”

Marriage,” Meghan declaimed with a tight, scornful smile,is whatever the law says it is.” 

Everyone looked at Tom for his reaction.

“What else would it be?” he shrugged diffidently. “I’m not sure where you’re headed with this, Patrick -?”

“This debate about what marriage is is symptomatic of the larger crisis in our culture,” Patrick said. “Whether or not you know it, it was the Catholic Church that set the rules for Christian marriage at the end of the Roman Empire.

“This, er, arrangement, has lasted a very long time,” he continued. “It’s been the foundation of what we call ‘civilization.’ Those rules – with divorce added, but only in ‘extreme’ cases, depending on the sect – were fundamentally untouched by the Protestant Reformation. They did not really start to change drastically until the last few decades…”

“…so, what you’re saying is that ‘the End is near,’ right?” interrupted Tom waggishly. “Are you one of these ‘Rapture’ guys?”

Everyone laughed, a bit relieved to reduce the tension. Patrick shrugged good-naturedly.

“Not really,” he said, unoffended. “That call is above my pay grade, as they say.”

“So what are you saying, Patrick?” asked Becky. She had settled herself down next to Patrick, intrigued.

“He’s saying he wants women to become legal sex slaves, like the Saudis have,” said Meghan sarcastically.

“YESSS!” cried Kieran, to general laughter.

“I’m saying,” said Patrick, unruffled, “that I think we are entering a time when ‘marriage’ will become whatever people want it to be. I don’t think the political will is there to maintain the current pseudo-Christian structure, enforced by the State.”

“A bonanza for the lawyers!” cried Tom in mock ecstasy. “Just imagine it, Meghan. Divorce cases with three, four, five or six sides – and court-appointed lawyers for all the children!”

“Just imagine it, Meghan. Divorce cases with three, four, five or six sides – and court-appointed lawyers for all the children!”

Meghan rolled her eyes.

“Probably,” Patrick shrugged indifferently. “But likely what will happen is that most people won’t bother to get married. Too expensive. Too stressful. Marriage is already becoming a luxury — for the rich, only.”

Hearing this, Melissa began to nod vehemently.

“I don’t need a piece of paper to make me feel secure!” she announced. “I make my own way in life, anyway. If someone wants to get out of a relationship, they will. No matter what the piece of paper says! Like Tom says: it’s a contract. And contracts are made to be broken.”

“This is why I love you,” said Tom reasonably, patting her affectionately. “Such a smart woman.”

“So Patrick, you think that marriage is on its way out?” Becky persisted.

“For most people,” Patrick responded. “Except Catholics, of course.”

“Why do you say that?” Meghan wanted to know. She and Spence had been married in a glamorous beach wedding in Jamaica. The ceremony was performed by the hotel’s non-denominational chaplain when Meghan learned that the local Catholic priest would not perform the marriage without pre-Cana certification. (“Who has time for that crap?” had been her pragmatic pronouncement. Spence, who wasn’t Catholic anyway, was away on a safari shoot at the time.)

“Because whatever the environment around it, the Church stays the same. Catholics have always defined ‘marriage’ as a sacrament,” Patrick answered calmly. “This was the case at the end of the Roman Empire. And it’s the case now.”

“Because whatever the environment around it, the Church stays the same. Catholics have always defined ‘marriage’ as a sacrament. This was the case at the end of the Roman Empire. And it’s the case now.”

“Mumbo-jumbo,” interjected Tom heartily.

“To you, of course,” said Patrick mildly. I caught my breath, wondering if Tom would realize that it was a rebuke. But the wine had done its job, and the law professor was too stoned to take offense. Melissa herself looked a little miffed, but said nothing.

“You can’t ‘un-do’ sacraments,” Patrick went on. “You can’t ‘un-do’ a baptism, for example. Once it’s done, it’s done.”

“Oh, please,” snorted Meghan in derision. “The Church grants annulments all the time.”

“You went to Catholic school just like we did,” Becky said suddenly. “Meghan, you know what an annulment is. It says that the sacrament never happened, because the right conditions weren’t present at the time of the marriage.”

At this, Kieran piped up.

“What conditions are these, then?” he said with a wink and a sidelong glance to Spence. “I’m, uh, just checking for future reference.”

“The conditions are that both parties must be fully aware of what they are doing, doing it of free will, without threat or coercion,” Becky declared.

“Whew!”  Kieran smirked in mock relief. “So a man can’t be forced to marry, then?”

Spence and Tom laughed uproariously at this.  Even Meghan and Melissa smiled.

“Don’t count on it, man,” Tom advised, mugging over the general hilarity. “You can be walking down that aisle and not even know how you got there…”

I kept watching Becky and Patrick throughout all of this. Becky’s face was glowing with emotion. Patrick looked thoughtful.

That was where the discussion ended, much to everyone’s relief. The rest of the evening was fairly amicable, though Becky looked somewhat distant. When Patrick and I got our coats to leave, I suddenly saw that she was dressed, too.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” she said quietly. “I could use a breath of fresh air.”

She glanced at Kieran, who looked unconcerned. He was finishing the wine with Melissa and Tom. Meghan and Spence had left earlier, albeit a bit stiffly.

Outside, our breath rose in white clouds in the frosty January night air, as we trekked on the Capitol Hill sidewalk. Patrick offered me his arm, which I took. It felt solid, warm, and real. As Becky shut the door behind us, we looked at each other for a long moment, oblivious to everything around us.

Patrick offered me his arm, which I took. It felt solid, warm, and real. As Becky shut the door behind us, we looked at each other for a long moment, oblivious to everything around us.

“I’m moving out,” Becky said suddenly.

Patrick and I stopped, incredulous, and turned to look at her. Her nose was red, against her pale skin. Her eyes shone with tears.

“I-I made a mistake,” she said miserably. “N-now I know.”

It all came out in a rush. How Kieran was not serious about the relationship, though she’d hoped that moving in together would make him so. How she couldn’t waste any more time. And how she felt like she was going to die.

“He’s going think this is a ploy,” I said, reluctantly. “He’s going to think this is all about getting him to marry you.”

Becky nodded.

“I know,” she said, wiping her eyes. “But it isn’t. I can see now – after tonight – that he doesn’t have a clue about marriage.”

“Actually,” I heard myself say, to my shock, “none of them do. Meghan thinks the law is all that matters. Tom thinks that money is all that matters. None of them have any idea that it is only the Sacrament that matters.”

“Yes,” Patrick said soberly. “And poor Melissa is going to have a rude awakening, though I don’t really think she believes what she is saying. She wants a family.”

Becky and I regarded him with astonishment.

“How did you know that?”

Patrick shrugged, “Because she’s a normal woman. And she’s ready. But if she gets pregnant, Tom won’t want the baby. He already has too many mouths to feed.”

“Tom is a loser,” Becky said darkly.

“Tom is in pain,” Patrick countered. “So he’s going to spread the pain around. Guilt hurts.”

We all looked at each other.

“Where will you go?” Patrick asked Becky, practically.

“I-I don’t know,” she said, sorrowfully. “I just know that I can’t stay in this relationship. Kieran doesn’t know what marriage is. He’s not ‘ready’ – whatever that means. And I don’t want to force myself on anyone. I can’t afford to waste any more time. I know what I want now. I want a Catholic marriage. I want the Sacrament.”

That’s when I heard myself say it.

“Y-you can move in with me,” I announced, with a broad smile. My apartment had a spare bedroom. It had been six months since my own long-distance relationship had melted under the strain of two widely-separated lives. And after tonight, I knew that it would never start up again.

I also knew that Patrick would never be moving in with me – not without a Catholic marriage, that is.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’s not ‘ready’ – whatever that means. And I don’t want to force myself on anyone. I can’t afford to waste any more time. I know what I want now. I want a Catholic marriage. I want the Sacrament.

The Devil Is Dancing

                                       A SHORT STORY

At 28, I guess I would call myself successful. I have a university degree. I married my college boyfriend. We live in a rented apartment in brownstone Brooklyn. He is a computer genius, making a good salary at a Wall Street firm. I am the spokeswoman for a major American bank. We have a dog.

He is Jewish, from a non-practicing family on Long island. I also have a family on Long island, but mine is non-practicing Catholic. Although she was raised a Catholic, my mother insists that no priest has the power to forgive sins. Her sins, she says, are her own business. My father is retired; he plays golf five days a week.

Religion was not a big deal in my life, however. Marcus is an atheist. I am nothing, I guess. We were married three years ago by a Justice of the Peace, on the lawn of rented mansion in upstate New York. It was a great party.
Anyway, although I am successful, things are not great in my life.

Religion was not a big deal in my life, however. Marcus is an atheist. I am nothing, I guess. We were married three years ago by a Justice of the Peace, on the lawn of rented mansion in upstate New York. It was a great party.

Truth be told, my husband embarrasses me. He continues to smoke marijuana, a vice I gave up in college. He eats junk food constantly, and is in consequence vastly overweight. He chain-smokes cigarettes, and lately I have found lone butts, burnt out, standing up on our wooden dresser. There is an inch of ash on them. I clean them up without a word. It’s my job to clean the apartment; he walks the dog in Prospect Park.

In addition to all this, Marcus has now grown a beard, and has taken to wearing a black beret. He thinks he looks like Che Guevara. I just want him to grow up.

I’ve tried showing him examples, discretely, of what a grown up man our age looks like. There’s a guy at work I know, a rising young banker, who invited us out to dinner at a trendy place in the Village for a double-date with his wife, a pretty PR executive. Marcus arrived an hour late, dressed in his Che outfit, and spent the evening trying to bait the bewildered banker.

The next day, the banker asked me where I’d met my husband. 

“He’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that, he’s, well, not what we expected,” he said, sympathetically. “We wondered where you two had met.”

“In college,” I replied, indifferently. But inside I was burning.

That night, in a fury, I insisted that Marcus get help.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” I shouted. “But you need a shrink. Now!”

Marcus sat glumly, smoking. After an hour of parrying my demands to know what was going on, he’d thrust himself into a chair and gazed gloomily out the window.

“It’s not you,” he muttered darkly, avoiding my gaze. “It’s me. You should run away from me. Save yourself, while there’s time.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but two weeks later I found out. The therapist he’d located had insisted that I come to his office for a joint appointment.  I waited in the therapist’s chair, dressed for work and anxious, as he pulled out a piece of paper from his drawer.

“Marcus wants you to know that he is addicted to the following substances,” he said calmly, and began to read a list. The first word I heard was ‘cocaine.’ I heard ‘marijuana’ and ‘tobacco’ too, and some other drugs that I have never heard of. After that I stopped listening. 

“Marcus wants you to know that he is addicted to the following substances,” the therapist said calmly, and began to read a list. The first word I heard was ‘cocaine.’

Marcus was grinning sheepishly at me as the therapist read aloud. Pudgy, pale and nervous, he kept running his fingers through his long, unkempt hair. I looked down at my sensible navy blue pumps and the clear nail polish on my short, home-trimmed nails.

“Is this why that homeless guy walked up to me in the park the other day, when I was walking the dog?” I asked Marcus later, through clenched teeth. We were walking, hunched against the cold, to the subway. “He asked me if I knew you. Is he some ‘connection’ of yours?”

Marcus hung his head.

“Yeah, well that’s all past now,” he replied grimly. “I’m going cold turkey.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Marcus’s uncle Steve died a few days later. I’d actually never met this uncle; he’d been confined to a VA hospital for years. Steve had come home from Vietnam with PTSD and a hell of a heroin addiction. By 1980, he was deemed dangerous to his own life and others, as he kept nodding off with burning cigarettes in his fingers. By age 60, he was dead.

The only people at Steve’s funeral were Marcus’s mother and father and his two brothers. They’d found a rabbi on short notice, a sympathetic young man who’d agreed to say some words by the graveside.

“Just as long as the word ‘God’ isn’t mentioned,” Marcus’s father had said grimly. After the Shoah, Marcus’s whole family had ceased to believe in a God who could permit such horror to happen.

As Steve’s coffin was lowered into the snowy ground at the VA cemetery, I listened to the distress of the family around me. There was no hesitation in their grief. They sobbed hopelessly, as one. As I stood at the edge of that raw grave incised into the brown earth, I had never felt so desolate.

As Steve’s coffin was lowered into the snowy ground at the VA cemetery, I listened to the distress of the family around me. There was no hesitation in their grief. They sobbed hopelessly, as one. As I stood at the edge of that raw grave incised into the brown earth, I had never felt so desolate.

The young rabbi closed his book with finality, and looked at us. The family continued to cry, heedless of anything. As the only one with any wits about me, I stepped up awkwardly and shook his hand.

“Thank you, Father,” I said, without thinking, and then quickly realized my gaffe. “Oh, sorry…”

He laughed quietly, unoffended.

“I am a father,” he said, smiling. “…of two small children, if that counts.”

“Of course,” I said, shaking my head in dismay.

“You’re Catholic, I assume?” said the rabbi, as we started to walk out of the cemetery.

“Er, yes. My family is, anyway.”

“And you?”

“I, er, I don’t know what I am.” I answered him truthfully.  I gestured back at the open grave. “All I know is that this — this is not the end.”

The rabbi looked at me with surprise.

“I wish we all could be as certain as you are about such things,” he said gently. “Does this mean you believe in God?”

I thought about it for a moment.

“We love,” I replied suddenly, surprised by my own certainty. “Human beings love. We are born with that capacity. It’s innate.”

He nodded.

“You love your children, right?” I said.

He nodded again, regarding me carefully.

“That love came from somewhere.”

“Or from Someone, maybe?” he asked quietly.

Marcus and his family, immersed in their grief, did not hear our conversation.  At the cemetery gate, we all parted ways. Marcus and I drove back to the city, and he dropped me off at our apartment.

“I got a few things to do,” he said shortly, as I stepped out of the car. Ignoring my panicked expression, he drove off. He did not come back until very late that night, and he slept on the couch. He was gone without a word by the time I woke up this morning.

In my distress, I actually stopped by a church near where I work in mid-town on my lunch hour. I smelled incense as the heavy door closed behind me.  Up at the altar, far down the nave of this 19th century Gothic church, I could make out a priest in vestments. He was assisted by two grown men, one of whom was swinging an antique brass object disgorging smoke at a congregation of about 30 people.  A single voice rose up to the lofty ceilings– Gregorian chant, redolent of ancient times and old ways.

Far down the nave of this 19th century Gothic church, I could make out a priest in vestments. He was assisted by two grown men, one of whom was swinging an antique brass object disgorging smoke at a congregation of about 30 people.  A single voice rose up to the lofty ceilings– Gregorian chant, redolent of ancient times and old ways.

Looking around me, I saw that a light was on, above an old-fashioned confessional. There was a priest in there, safely concealed behind a screen.

The second I knelt behind that wooden door, a whole lake of tears I didn’t know was inside me welled up. Worse, before I could stop it, the dam broke and the lake poured out of me, in a continuous flow of wracking sobs.

“I-I’m s-sorry, F-Father,” I apologized, between gulps. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was cry.

“That’s all right, my dear,” said a sympathetic voice, with a soft Hispanic lilt. He pushed some Kleenex under the grille towards me, which I gratefully accepted. “Now, my daughter, you can start when you’re ready. I have time.”

It took me a few minutes to finally be able to speak, but when I did, all of my pain poured out. I told that priest about the grave, and the rabbi. About the hopelessness, and the despair. About Marcus, and his addiction. About my success, cold fury, and utter desolation.

“You are trapped by sin,” the priest said, when I had finally subsided. “Do you know what I mean by that?”

“N-no.”

“That’s all right, my dear,” said a sympathetic voice, with a soft Hispanic lilt. He pushed some Kleenex under the grille towards me, which I gratefully accepted. “Now, my daughter, you can start when you’re ready. I have time.”

“Sin is addictive. Because the Devil – you believe in him? I do. Well, the Devil, he wants us to be miserable. Hopeless. Despairing. This way he can do his dirty work more easily. If we are miserable, we are open to all kinds of bad things. And so, it goes, always downward, in a spiral. Do you understand me?”

“Y-yes,” I whispered, wondering where this was going.

“Ah, so here it is. Your husband comes from a family who is angry with God. So they deny His existence. Your husband denies His existence, too. Correct? You are with me so far?”

“Yes,” I affirmed, snuffling.

“This is very dangerous for them, because it makes them miserable. They stand at the edge of a grave and ask, why? And they receive no answer. It is only the grave that they see. Nothing more. And they know it is their end, too. An open grave is a distressing thing, no?”

“Yes,” I replied, the specter of the raw earth of the grave rising before me. I shivered involuntarily.

“So they are even more miserable. Even their rabbi cannot reach them. Though I do think there is hope for them, simply because they reached out to this rabbi. But this is not enough for your husband. His pain, his despair, sends him back to the drugs, correct?”

“Y-yes,” I nodded in the darkness.

“This is a situation where the Devil is dancing with delight. He is dancing because your husband and his family are choosing despair. Like his uncle, your husband is choosing death, over life. And this is very, very sad,” he sighed heavily.

I nodded again. This was all terribly true.

“Sin is addictive. Because the Devil – you believe in him? I do. Well, the Devil, he wants us to be miserable. Hopeless. Despairing. This way he can do his dirty work more easily.

“Do you think that your husband would stop this behavior if you were not around?” he asked gently.

I thought about that.

“No,” I sighed, with finality. “I –my existence — actually doesn’t make any difference to him. If you come right down to it, I’m useful because I make money, and keep his house clean — though he doesn’t seem to care about that.”

I told him about the cigarette butts and the standing ash, left to burn down on the wooden dresser.

“Hmmm, this can cause a fire, you know,” the priest said gravely. “Your life may be in danger from this, you know.”

“Right,” I said uncomfortably. I was ashamed about this, for some reason. Ashamed to have other people know how badly Marcus acted.

“But it is more than your life, I think, that is in danger,” the priest continued in a mild, un-reproving tone of voice. “You seem pretty miserable, too. Your soul is in danger. And that makes the Devil happy.”

I shrugged, uncomprehending, in the darkness.

“But you want to know what I think?  I think the Devil was not too happy at that graveside, yesterday,” he persisted gently. “And this was because of you. You stood at the very edge of that grave, and then you turned and walked away. This was very profound.”

I waited to hear what he had to say next.

“And then what happened?” he asked me sharply.

“A-after I walked away from the grave? I-I spoke to the rabbi,” I recounted, somewhat confused.

“Yes. Then you spoke to a man of God, that rabbi. And you told him what?”

“That I couldn’t believe that the grave was the end,” I whispered back, this time with conviction. “And I still don’t believe it.”

“And this idea that you have, that you are so convinced of, is something you have received. It is a grace from God,” the priest said soberly.

“Yeah?” I replied, not knowing what to think.

“Yes. Most definitely. And these are things we cannot earn. This is faith. And it comes to us as a free gift from God. Do you understand me, my daughter?”

I wasn’t sure.

“And this idea that you have, that you are so convinced of, is something you have received. It is a grace from God,” the priest said soberly.

“You mean that I am somehow different from Marcus, and his family.”

“Yes, I mean that. You are different.”

I thought about this. It was true. Though I loved Marcus and his family, I was not like them. I was not an atheist. I could not live always at the edge of a raw grave. Life was too good, too full of good things. And I could not blunt the pain of this raw grave with drugs, or with anything else.

“You turned away from that grave and talked to a man of God about Life.”

“Y-yes, I did. And you’re right, Father. I am all about Life. I choose Life. I don’t choose the Grave,” I whispered fiercely.

“And what did Jesus say?” replied the priest. “He said, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life.”

“Y-yes,” I said, somewhat uncertainly. I had heard that Bible verse.

“And what does the Bible say that He said right after that? He said to the Apostles, ‘No one comes to the Father but through Me.’”

“Y-yes,” I said, still uncertain.

“I think you have come to a point in the path of your life when you must choose: Life or death. Which will it be?”

Suddenly, I understood.  I was certain of this answer.

“I choose Life, Father,” I said firmly, the tears welling up in my eyes again.

“Good for you!” The priest declared heartily. “You have chosen the right path.”

I smiled through my tears.

“But now, my daughter, I have to tell you. This is not the end of it. The Devil will not rest; he will not give up on you. This choice you have made – life over death — you must keep making this choice, over and over, until the end of your life.”

There was more, but in the end, he gave me absolution.

It’s difficult to convey how I felt when I emerged from that confessional, into that darkened church. Utterly drained, but completely at peace, with a clean heart.

I had chosen. The Devil was no longer dancing all over my life.

Now, we were at war.

Somehow, I knew that. I also knew that that confessional was the only place on earth I could have gone for the truth.

And I knew that the Truth had set me free.

“But now, my daughter, I have to tell you. This is not the end of it. The Devil will not rest; he will not give up on you. This choice you have made – life over death — you must keep making this choice, over and over, until the end of your life.”

How Madison Lost Her Wolf Pack

A Short Story By Beverly De Soto Stevens

 “Jesus!” Madison collapsed on her bed, kicking off a mess of covers and books onto the dorm floor. “God, I hate this woman!”

Mary Kate regarded her roommate with some amusement.

“Well,” she began, folding her arms. “It’s not like you weren’t warned.”

“I know, I know,” moaned Madison dramatically, her voice muffled by the pillow she’d sunk her face into. “But I needed an easy ‘A’ this semester!”

Mary Kate snorted and shook her head.

“What made you think she would be easy?”

Madison sat up and regarded her roommate critically.

“MK, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought you were exaggerating about her because you’re so damned Catholic.”

Unoffended, Mary Kate chuckled ruefully in response, scratching her head.

“Uh, no! She really is a jerk!” she retorted.

Madison rolled her eyes in frustration.

“She just spent the entire class telling us about the evil patriarchy! Again! And now she wants an essay on Virginia Woolf, who she thinks is some kinda goddess or something. JeSUS!”

Mary Kate laughed merrily, and mimicked her roommate’s mid-Atlantic accent.

“So why don’t you do what you always do, and ‘tell ‘em what they want to hear’?”

Madison was not amused. She shook her head in despair.

“Because it’s no good. I can’t figure out what the hell she wants to hear. And this journaling crap! Oh my GOD! I have real classes to worry about – Economics, Math. And I’m gonna fail them because I spend all my time doing this crazy feminist crap! “

Just then a text burbled on Madison’s smartphone. She glanced at it, and threw it back on her bed in disgust.

“Now what?” Mary Kate asked.

“Just my mom. Again.” Madison looked despairing.

“You gonna answer her?”

“Later. After I take a shower.”

Mary Kate watched her roommate gather up her shower things. Back in September, when they’d met at the door, she’d been initially unenthusiastic. Madison’s long blond hair was expensively highlighted. Her Coach handbag dangled ostentatiously from her sculpted arm.  Her polished, East Coast prep school accent reeked of money and privilege, which Mary Kate had only known from novels.

Madison’s long blond hair was expensively highlighted. Her Coach handbag dangled ostentatiously from her sculpted arm.  Her polished, East Coast prep school accent reeked of money and privilege, which Mary Kate had only known from novels.

And Mary Kate had read lots of novels. All of Jane Austen and most of the English lady novelists, all the way through PD James. Not to mention every one of Shakespeare’s plays. All in her online home-school courses, which had prepared her so well that she’d garnered a perfect score on her SATs.

Hence, her full ride scholarship at their middling ‘Catholic’ college, which conversely charged top dollar to the likes of Madison. Like most of the other students there, Madison’s unremarkable academic performance in high school belied her 24-hour schedule of resume-building activities – all coached and administered by her full-time ‘helicopter mom.’

Mary Kate’s mom had been a full-time homemaker, too. But with six other children that she was homeschooling in their ramshackle house in rural Oregon, she’d had no time to hover over Mary Kate. What she had done was make sure that her daughter had had a thorough catechesis in the Faith before she’d sent her off –not without misgivings — to the posh groves of Catholic academe in America’s Midwest.

By Christmas break, Mary Kate and Madison had become friendly, albeit on a somewhat guarded level. Although mystified by her roommate’s lack of interest in partying, Madison admired Mary Kate’s self-discipline and singular lack of affectation. For her part, Mary Kate liked Madison’s pragmatic approach to her classes (“Look, I am here to get my ticket stamped, on my way to B-school. I don’t care what these hippie professors think; I will tell them what they want to hear.”) As it turned out, this mutual respect made them better roommates than most, judging from the vociferous complaints they’d heard around the dorm.

Mary Kate liked Madison’s pragmatic approach to her classes (“Look, I am here to get my ticket stamped, on my way to B-school. I don’t care what these hippie professors think; I will tell them what they want to hear.”)

But when they’d returned for second semester, much had changed. Over the holidays, Madison’s parents’ marriage in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC had imploded. Her handsome father, a well-paid lobbyist, had been waylaid by an ambitious young female lawyer who’d promised great sex and a cool new life in Arlington. Amid much rancor, he’d moved out of the family home on Christmas Eve.

Now, Madison’s mom could barely hold her head up in their posh Catholic parish, where every single one of her 40-ish friends lived in mortal dread of the same fate. Her mother was almost constantly on Madison’s smartphone, seeking solace and venting her pain. Her father, seemingly guilt-free, left her hearty phone messages and deposited healthy sums in her bank account. Madison was furious with them both, though she never let them know it.

Mary Kate could not imagine such a fate for her own parents. Married since their early 20s, they had decided to take the road less traveled. With her father earning a modest income, money had been tight for as long as she could remember. She had to laugh at the absurd idea of a hot young thing falling for her dad, in his 20-year-old barn coat, driving his battered Subaru.

And her parents were a team, she knew. When Gina, their last sibling, had been born with Down’s syndrome, this became abundantly clear.

In fact, Gina had been the reason behind Mary Kate’s uncharacteristic explosion at her feminist English professor last term. She had tried to take Madison’s practical advice — ‘remember, you want the ‘A’ — but could not believe her ears when the woman had breezily announced that ‘if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

A snicker had rippled through the classroom.  Mary Kate, white as a sheet, had simply stood up and walked out, without explanation. But the long knives were out for her with this professor. Despite her high test scores, inexplicably her final grade in “Women in Literature” had been a disappointing B-.

Her handsome father, a well-paid lobbyist, had been waylaid by an ambitious young female lawyer who’d promised great sex and a cool new life in Arlington. Amid much rancor, he’d moved out of the family home on Christmas Eve.

“Why don’t you raise hell?” Madison wanted to know. “My mother would have been all over this!”

Mary Kate had simply shaken her head. As always, she admired Madison’s pluck, but she sensed that fighting this professor would only bring down more opprobrium on her from the rest of the academic staff, whose tenured positions guaranteed their right to ‘academic freedom’ – that is, the right to be as offensive as they chose. ‘Tolerance’ was a virtue they demanded, but did not practice when students’ viewpoints differed from their own.

“I’ve learned a lesson,” she’d said grimly. “I just have to learn to pick my professors more carefully.”

Maybe it had been this experience that had prompted her to seek out Juventutem. Their flyer had been posted on the bulletin board in the school chapel, where she’d gone more than once to seek solace.

At the first meeting she’d attended, she’d found a small group of older students, some of whom had been home-schooled like herself. But Sean had not. Tall, angular, with dark hair and intense blue eyes, Sean was a junior studying engineering. They had liked each other immediately, and soon were spending every possible waking minute together.

For her part, Madison was astounded by Mary Kate’s good luck. She’d stumbled upon them talking earnestly in the cafeteria. After the introductions, Sean had given them both a wry grin and headed for the library, a long night of studying in front of him.

Madison slipped into the seat he’d vacated and lowered her voice meaningfully.

“Okay, you are incredible,” she’d said, half-seriously glancing around. “Without attending one beer thing or so much as downing one Jello shot, you find this guy! How’d you do this?!”

Madison herself, despite her stellar looks, relentless dieting and daily trips to the gym, had so far only managed to acquire a pack of wolfish admirers.

Madison, despite her stellar looks, relentless dieting and daily trips to the gym, had so far only managed to acquire a pack of wolfish admirers.

“Not one of them is interested in a commitment,” she’d confided sorrowfully in Mary Kate after her non-stop, serial ‘dating’ streak first semester. Mary Kate had refrained from condemning her errant roommate, confining her remarks to a quiet suggestion that perhaps Madison should ‘take a break’ from ‘dating.’

That was last semester. Now, with the divorce, Madison’s wolf-pack had melted back into the forest. Not one wanted to hear her agony.

Mary Kate had been reflecting on all this when she noticed the time. Madison had been in the shower for almost an hour, and the water was still running. She knocked cautiously on the door.  When no response came, she opened it.

Peering anxiously through the steam, she saw Madison crouched in the corner of the shower. Her roommate was naked, wet and hunched over, unmoving.

“Madison!” she shouted, terrified, rushing to shut off the water. When her roommate did not respond, Mary Kate cautiously tipped her head back. Madison’s eyes rolled back; she was barely breathing.

Many hours later, in the hospital emergency center, Mary Kate was called in after the doctors finished pumping Madison’s stomach. Her roommate was awake, though pale and groggy.

“Promise me you won’t tell a soul about this,” she’d whispered. She’d taken an overdose of Paxil, it turned out. The anti-depressant had been prescribed for her by the university health service after they’d returned from break, along with a renewal of her birth control pills.

“Too late,” Mary Kate hung her head, guiltily. “Sean’s been sitting with me outside all this time.”

“Oh-h, well, I guess Sean’s okay,” Madison replied moodily. “I just don’t want my parents or anybody else to know.”

Mary Kate hung her head sorrowfully.

“Madison, it’s no good. The whole dorm saw the ambulance. They saw you – and everything.” She finished helplessly. Madison’s shrunken wet form had been strapped to a gurney and rushed through the dorm halls. By now the whole college probably knew.

“Madison, it’s no good. The whole dorm saw the ambulance. They saw you – and everything.” She finished helplessly. Madison’s shrunken wet form had been strapped to a gurney and rushed through the dorm halls. By now the whole college probably knew.

In response to this news, Madison looked weary. Then she turned her head to the wall. A moment later Mary Kate saw that she was crying silently. She stood there, not knowing what to do. She had never seen anyone so wretched.

That was when Sean walked into the room with Father Daniel, the youthful, clean-cut priest who celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass on campus. Sympathetic but correct, Father Dan was beloved by the Juventutem students.

However, his un-looked for appearance now made Mary Kate panic immediately. She widened her eyes and shook her head vigorously, pointing silently to Madison’s turned head. But Sean was unmoved.

“Madison?” Sean called gently.

Madison turned her head. When she caught sight of Father Daniel’s Roman collar, she grew paler.

“Um, I-I don’t think this is the right time,“ Mary Kate started to say, but to her shock Madison interrupted her.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “I-I actually would like to talk with him.”

So that is how Madison came to be involved with the Latin Mass, and a regular at Juventutem meetings. And this is just part of the changes she’s made.

She’s dropped her “Women in Literature” class in order to concentrate on the business classes she loves. She’s also summarily dismissed her wolf-pack, some of whom — incredibly, to Mary Kate — had come around sniffing for easy sex in the wake of Madison’s very public melt-down.

Madison’s parents are still getting divorced, but she’s elected not to renew her Paxil prescription. The constant texts on her smartphone abated after she told her mother that she cannot act as counselor or go-between. To his utter shock, she has also told her father that he needs to go to Confession, and that no amount of his money in her bank account will make him feel better about the choice he has made.

Her blonde highlights have faded, and she no longer haunts the gym, but her new Latin Mass friends don’t seem to mind. Undoubtedly, her new boyfriend Christopher likes her just as she is. They spend every minute possible together, and she’s taken to cheering him on as he rows for the school’s up-and-coming crew team.

And she doesn’t need to be on birth control pills anymore, either, she informed Mary Kate one evening. She had just left Christopher at the dorm door. It was a spring night, and finals were looming.

“I don’t need them,” she said simply.

Mary Kate nodded, and waited. Madison was sitting cross-legged on her bed, arms folded. Her expression was serious.

“I-I guess I’m trying to say that he loves me enough to wait for sex,” she said slowly, wonderingly. “He is very serious about me.”

“And how do you feel about him?” Mary Kate asked.

“You know, I am sort of shocked,” Madison shook her head. “He’s the first guy who has acted like that with me. At first I wondered if it was an act. But, he’s for real.”

“Well, you seem to have a new, uh, approach, ever since…”

Madison nodded.

“It’s not just Christopher, though,” she said slowly. “Ever since I started attending the Latin Mass, I have this completely new perspective. Before, I was all about what I looked like, and how to get ahead, find the right guy — all that. But nothing worked. Not for me. Not for my parents. I felt like I was frantically chasing a dead dream. Somebody else’s dead dream…”

“What do you think the Mass has to do with your, er, change in perspective?”

“I don’t actually know, but it’s something about the slowness of the Latin Mass,” she went on, a faraway look in her eyes. “I love the silences. I love the chant. It’s like an experience from another world.

“At first, I went because of you and Sean because, well, I didn’t want to face all the people I used to hang around with. I was also really done with the guys.”

“And when you guys brought me to the Mass and to the breakfasts afterwards to tell you the truth I wasn’t sure who these people were — I mean, they certainly weren’t like the ‘cool’ people I knew — most  were kinda nerdy,” she glanced sheepishly at Mary Kate, who laughed outright.

“All depends on what you think is ‘cool’, I guess,” Mary Kate grinned, shrugging.

“I guess,” Madison replied somewhat doubtfully, “But after awhile, I liked how intelligent they are. I liked their sense of humor…you know, I like being invited to people’s house for dinner and sitting around and talking about stuff…” her voice petered out.

She regarded Madison thoughtfully. “At first I had no idea what these people were talking about. I mean, they’re interested in all sorts of things that I had never even thought about — history, liturgy, politics. Even cooking!” Madison looked so surprised that Mary Kate had to laugh again.

“My mother would call that ‘civilized,'” Mary Kate smiled. “She is always harping on that.”

“I guess it is pretty civilized,” Madison answered thoughtfully. “But there’s more to it. I don’t even think about the stuff I used to worry about, anymore. I just focus on getting done what I need to for today, spending fun times with Christopher  and…promise not to laugh?”

“I promise,” Mary Kate replied gravely.

 fessio

 

Merry Christmas, Catholic Girl

Merry Christmas, Catholic Girl

A short story

by Beverly Stevens

This is my fourth Christmas as a divorcee.

Four Christmases ago, my so-called husband left me with a broken-down house, a five year old Chevy van, a basement full of water and an utterly empty bank account. Plus a frightened seven year old, and a very angry teenaged girl.

When he threatened us, I made several trips to the police station to beg for help. Finally, one cop took pity on my terror. He solemnly advised me to change our locks and to keep the outside lights on.

Also, never, ever, to let my ex back in the house.

“If he, ah, does something you don’t like once he’s inside,” he told me, burly arms crossed in front of him. His warm brown eyes were sympathetic. “Then our hands are tied. Because you let him in. You understand my meaning?”

I swallowed the tears welling up in my eyes, hating my weakness. Yes, I nodded soundlessly. I understood. Despite the fact that I was a highly educated professional, I understood. My husband, an alcoholic, a vain actor and a cowardly sociopath, was a man. He could hurt me, even rape me. I understood that.

“If he, ah, does something you don’t like once he’s inside,” the policeman told me, burly arms crossed in front of him. His warm brown eyes were sympathetic. “Then our hands are tied. Because you let him in. You understand my meaning?”

Officer Donzella looked concerned, and handed me his card. “You call us if he shows up again, okay? We’ll be watching the house.”

I didn’t have to, thank the Lord. My ex disappeared as soon as the divorce was final.

“He just dove into the bottle and disappeared, right?” said my best friend Jan. Which is about right, I suppose. After all those years of marriage to a raging alcoholic, I was just about finished, myself.

That was four years ago.

Today, my basement is dry. Our house is repaired. We own a sensible, un-sexy car. After 18 months without health insurance, with great relief I began work as a bank manager. I continue to moonlight on weekends as an SAT tutor.

I have a very Catholic housekeeper. She cleans and cooks, and makes sure the kids are taken care of, closely guarded. Nancy is in a Catholic girls’ high school. David is in a small Catholic grammar school. My nightmare, hard to shake off, is that he will kidnap them.

I work seven days a week to maintain this life. After a year on Paxil, I now control my stress and anxiety with exercise. I sleep soundly at night; we have two dogs who bark at the least provocation, and they have slept quietly by our sides for about two years now. Nancy has been accepted at a very good university for next year. David is a happy-go-lucky 11 year old. I have righted the ship.

My best ally in all of this has been my Catholicism. This may seem surprising to some; our parish was the center of a national scandal when our priest and his boyfriend the wedding planner were arrested for stealing $1.4 million. Many people lost their faith in the wake of that scandal, among others.

I did not. My faith was not dependent on our suburban parish; in fact, I had years before started to attend a Latin Mass in a small chapel at a nearby nunnery.

Our parish was the center of a national scandal when our priest and his boyfriend the wedding planner were arrested for stealing $1.4 million. Many people lost their faith in the wake of that scandal, among others.

It was the Gregorian chant that attracted me. But it was the sound Catholic orthodoxy of the brilliant priest that kept me returning, week after week. There, my kids learned to sit still during Mass. Soon, they learned the thrill of the Sacred. And finally, safe in the arms of Mother Church, I could let down my hair and cry for hours in the little chapel. The Sisters understood. Occasionally, I would be aware of the rustle of their habits as they genuflected in the chapel to visit their Lord.

So you can imagine my surprise last week when Officer Donzella – sans police uniform – knelt in the pew opposite us yesterday, on the first Sunday in Advent. Of course my kids had no idea who he was, but afterwards at the coffee and doughnut hour, I approached him.

“Hello!” I began, all smiles. I wondered if he would know me.

He stood drinking coffee in his pressed khakis, looked at me blankly for a moment, then blinked suddenly in recognition.

“Well, hello!” he said, smiling back. David – now an altar boy — was distracted by the doughnuts and his Sunday playmates. Nancy was swallowed up in a group of laughing, homeschooled teenagers.

“I’m surprised to find you here!” Officer Donzella blurted out, then looked abashed.

I laughed merrily.

“Why?”

“Well, ah, you didn’t seem like the Catholic type to me,” he said, truthful, but reddening.

“No?”

“Well, maybe ‘Catholic.’ But not actually Catholic, if you know what I mean. What’s it called? ‘Catholic In Name Only’?”

I let out a peal of laughter.

“I’m pretty Catholic,” I replied wryly.

We both laughed.

“Yeah?” he said, and I noticed his eyes were twinkling.

“Yeah,” I said straightforwardly. “Actually. So what are you doing here?”

Jan was unimpressed. “He’s a cop,” she intoned. “They are all nuts.”

“Oh come on, he goes to the Latin Mass.”

“Great. So he’s a religious nut,” she said. “Even better.”

“I live here. Always have,” he said, and then said grimly, “But I had enough of that business at the parish…”

“No kidding,” I agreed, and waited.

“Somebody told me the nuns have Mass here,” he said. “About the music…”

“The chant?” I supplied.

“Beautiful,” he shook his head, a little dazed. “Outta this world.”

“Yes, it is,” I ventured. There was a short silence.

“So, no more trouble from your ex?” he asked tentatively. “I mean, it was a few years ago…”

“No more trouble,” I said, and knocked on the wooden table next to me. He chuckled again. I noticed that his eyes wrinkled, and wondered how old he was. Somewhere around my age, I decided. Early 40s.

“These your kids?” he asked, indicating Nancy and David, now bearing down on us, dressed to leave. The after-Mass crowd had dispersed.

“Yes,” I said shortly, suddenly shy. Then I recovered myself, quickly shook his hand, and turned to go. He did not try to stop me.

Jan was unimpressed.

“He’s a cop,” she intoned. “They are all nuts.”

“Oh come on, he goes to the Latin Mass.”

“Great. So he’s a religious nut,” she said. “Even better.”

I resisted.

“I like him. He’s the first guy I have liked in years.”

“Yeah? So what’s his story? Does he have kids?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay, listen, just be careful,” she said. “Go have yourself a little fun.”

“I don’t want to have a little fun,” I said, somewhat piqued. “I want to get married.”

I couldn’t believe I actually said it.

Jan eyed me uneasily.

“Really? After all you’ve been through? Why?”

“I don’t actually know, except that it has something to do with the way a life ought to be lived.”

Ought to be lived? Sounds awfully judgmental to me.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I am,” I countered, chuckling. “Call me ‘judgmental.'”

I surveyed myself critically in the mirror before leaving the house tonight. I am still slender, and somewhat stylish, in a muted kind of way. My shoulder-length brown hair is attractively cut. My face is unlined, except for the deep furrow the stress of recent years has worn across my forehead.

I sighed and wrapped a warm red shawl around over my ankle-length black woolen coat. It would be cold tonight at the lighting of the town’s Christmas Tree.

As David and I walked by the police cars stationed at the edge of the crowd, I suddenly heard a voice call out.

“Hey!”

Donzella detached himself from his fellow cops. He was imposing in his policeman’s winter coat, his weapon on his belt. As I looked up at him, our breath fogged the frosty air.

“Will you be at Mass at the convent on Sunday?”

“Uh, yes. Yes, we will.”

“Me, too.”

We eyed each other awkwardly.

“Okay, so we’ll see you there!” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. David tugged on my arm, and I turned to go.

“That’s Trevor’s dad,” he stage-whispered as we walked away. “Trevor Donzella, in my class.”

My heart constricted.

“Yeah?” I replied, crestfallen. The Christmas lights around me suddenly seemed garish, and I shivered in the cold.

“Yeah,” echoed David, “Gotta go!” He patted me solicitously on the arm, and took off to join his friends at the base of the tree.

“Um, listen, would you like to have coffee or something afterwards?”

I sighed, and turned around. Officer Donzella was standing behind me.

I sighed and wrapped a warm red shawl over my ankle-length black woolen coat. It would be cold tonight at the lighting of the town’s Christmas Tree.

“Listen, I’m not sure.”

His face fell. When he spoke, his voice was hurt.

“Oh sure, I understand. It’s okay.”

“I’m not sure you do understand.”

“Y-you have plans. It’s okay.”

“No, I don’t. But I also don’t know anything about you.”

His face softened, and he grinned.

“I’m a cop. A Catholic cop.”

“Right,” I smiled in spite of myself, then shook my head. “But that’s not what I mean.”

His face grew hard.

“You don’t date cops?” He said. The words fell like stones between us.

“No,” I returned, with some annoyance. “I don’t date married men.”

Married? What makes you think I’m married?”

“My son goes to school with your son.”

“Okay, I’m divorced. Like you, right?”

“I’m divorced, yes. But I wasn’t married in the Church.”

He nodded.

“Does all this really matter to you? I mean, I just asked you for coffee.”

I sighed.

“You asked me if I was Catholic. The answer is yes. It matters to me.”

“Okay, so I was married in the Church. We had one child. She left me for another guy. Now we’re divorced. It’s a mess, like everybody’s life is, these days.”

“Okay, so I was married in the Church. We had one child. She left me for another guy. Now we’re divorced. It’s a mess, like everybody’s life is, these days.”

“Right. And you are going to Mass?”

“Yeah, I felt like Trevor needed to go to Mass. So when I don’t have him, I go anyway.”

“Why?”

“Why?” he echoed, puzzled. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Because Mass is where you’ll find a nice girl?”

The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them, but he didn’t flinch. Instead, he held my eyes steadily.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “That’s what I want. Though that is not my main reason for going to Mass.”

I nodded. To my intense annoyance, my heart was beating wildly.

“What did you mean when you asked me if I was Catholic?”

He chuckled.

“I didn’t think someone like yourself, uh, would be. I mean, with following the rules and everything.”

I didn’t understand.

“Following what rules?”

He took a deep breath.

“You’re a professional woman. Professional women don’t believe in the Church’s rules about, well, stuff.”

“You’re a professional woman. Professional women don’t believe in the Church’s rules about, well, stuff. And they don’t date cops.”

Before I could answer, he added in a flat tone, “and they don’t date cops.”

He snickered, then, without humor and turned to look at the multicolored lights of the Tree.

“What are you talking about, the rules?” I was incredulous. “You mean the rules about sex before marriage? Well, you’re wrong. That’s exactly how Catholic I am. I don’t date married men, and I don’t have sex before marriage.”

I was way louder than I meant to be. People were looking at us as they passed. His face was unreadable, but I thought I detected a glint of humor in his eyes.

“Would you date a cop with an annulment? Without having sex before marriage?”

There was another silence. Then I lifted my chin and smiled gently up at him.

“I would be honored to date a cop. With an annulment. Under the usual conditions.”

The grin spread across his honest face, lighting up his eyes as it went.

“OKAY, then! So you will have coffee with me after Mass at the convent?”

I smiled broadly. “Yes, but only at the convent…”

“Until I have an annulment?”

“Yes.”

“Even if it takes months and months?”

“Yes.”

Pure joy lit his face. Or maybe it was the tears in my eyes that made it seem so. In any case, we stood there on the pavement under the Christmas lights, grinning at each other like fools.

“Merry Christmas, Catholic girl,” he whispered, gazing down seriously into my eyes.

“Merry Christmas,” I replied, and turned to intercept David. “See you at Holy Mass.”

I wrapped my red shawl tighter around me, and together with my son, headed for home.

“That’s exactly how Catholic I am. I don’t date married men, and I don’t have sex before marriage.”

She Lost Her Purity Ring at Christmas

A Short Story

by Beverly Stevens

Living in ‘The Graveyard of Hearts’

My name, in case it’s important to anyone, is Grace. I just turned 30 years old, and I have lost my Purity Ring.

What, you would like to know, is a ‘Purity Ring?’

Well, you wouldn’t ask this if you were brought up as I was, in an Evangelical Christian family. We spent a lot of time at church, and when I was 16 I took part in a little ceremony wherein my sister and I pledged our purity to God, publicly. Yes, I stood up in roomful of other girls and pledged my virginity to the Lord, until the time might come when I would find the husband that Jesus intended for me.

I and my fellow Purity Ring wearers live in what I call ‘a graveyard of hearts.’

That was almost half my lifetime ago. Today, I and my fellow Purity Ring wearers live in what I call ‘a graveyard of hearts.’ We prayed earnestly for a husband. We worked hard at honing our domestic skills. We sought each other’s advice and solace when, one after another, the men we loved chose other girls. Or simply wandered away. Or whatever.

What must God be thinking? I know it’s not my place to question the Almighty, but what, actually? Is. He. Thinking?

My sister Heather does not have my problem.

Oh, she is man-less, too. But she has Jaden, my 8 year old nephew, a product of her ‘relationship’ with a fellow student at the state university she attended briefly before becoming pregnant. Jaden’s dad told her to ‘get rid of it’ – a singularly monstrous response, if I do say so myself.

But to my sister’s credit, she did not. Unsurprisingly, Jaden’s ‘dad’ disappeared immediately.

Jaden’s dad told Heather to ‘get rid of it’ – a singularly monstrous response, if I do say so myself. But to my sister’s credit, she did not. Unsurprisingly, Jaden’s ‘dad’ disappeared immediately.

My sister has not lived happily ever after, in case that’s what you’re thinking. She’s got a job that doesn’t pay much, so she lives with my folks. She goes to a different church, though, where the coffee is better and ‘people aren’t so judgmental,’ as she likes to say these days, in a particularly severe tone of voice. I think she’s talking about the fact that she is quite fat now. Or maybe it’s the tattoos.

Sometimes she doesn’t come home until very late at night, my mom tells me, worriedly. Apparently, my sister’s Purity Ring is lost somewhere, possibly permanently.

So, if you’re thinking that I am jealous of my sister, think again. Exasperated, maybe. But not envious.

Sometimes she doesn’t come home until very late at night, my mom tells me, worriedly. Apparently, my sister’s Purity Ring is lost somewhere, possibly permanently.

This is not to say my life is any great shakes. My Master’s Degree in Library Science earns me about $125 more per week than my sister makes working the baggage counter at the airport. (To be fair, Heather doesn’t have student loans to pay off.)

I have a completely different attitude towards my job, though. I am proud of being a librarian. My dream was always to combine being a librarian with being a wife and mother. I know this is politically-incorrect, but my faith in the Lord allowed me to hold this dream, even when most of my friends from college have shrugged it off. In fact, I would say that my Purity Ring has allowed me to keep this dream alive. Every time I looked down at my hand, that simple silver ring on my right hand was a reminder of the vow I made as a teenager.

And now I have lost it.

I should be clear. By the time I lost my Purity Ring, I had also lost faith in the idyll of Romance that I held for so long. Call me ‘jaded,’ but what I have seen of my friends’ lives has made me quite cynical. There’s beautiful Rose, who married fat little Jason, who of course is very rich. Then there’s successful Jessica, who moved in with Spencer a few years ago. She tries to act like the fact that he hasn’t asked her to marry him doesn’t matter. Oh, and how could I forget my BFF Christian? She has divorced Tim, whom she says is ‘boring.’ (She decided this after she went off the Pill to try and get pregnant, strangely. Now she’s dating a married man.)

By the time I lost my Purity Ring, I had also lost faith in the idyll of Romance that I held for so long. Call me ‘jaded,’ but what I have seen of my friends’ lives has made me quite cynical.

So where is God in all this, anyway? My friends and my sister have all screwed up their lives, as far as I can see. And I am now without my Purity Ring.

The strangest thing is, I don’t know where I left it. Did I take it off to wash my hands someplace? I honestly can’t recall.

To tell the truth, I can’t even recall what my ‘purity’ actually was. I haven’t had sex. Haven’t allowed myself to get sucked into the maelstrom of emotions and betrayals that everyone else has. The few men that got close enough simply disappeared once they learned about my purity vow. It seems they didn’t value my purity.

Did I, for that matter?  

The few men that got close enough simply disappeared once they learned about my purity vow. It seems they didn’t value my purity.

All I knew is that it was December, again. And I was, once again, alone — with my purity.

So two weeks before Christmas I did something highly uncharacteristic. I went out to a bar. (Yes, with Christian, who is normally alone on weekends, as her ‘significant other’ is of course otherwise engaged.)

We took turns talking about our troubles, drank Cosmopolitans, and – again uncharacteristically — wound up talking with some guys at the bar. One of them was a good-looking and intelligent house painter.

Dominick was of medium height, in his middle thirties, with a shock of unruly brown hair. He wore a clean shirt under a black pea coat, and he had an engaging grin.

Unfortunately, maybe because it was Christmas, before long our conversation turned to God. Now, I don’t spend a whole lot of time in bars. So maybe that is why I let the conversation get steered in this direction.

He was, it turned out, a Catholic. But he was warm, and funny. And he seemed to be intrigued by my Christianity.

At first, I thought that he might be good for Heather. Unlike most of the guys she ‘dates,’ Dominick is a successful house painter, with a couple of offices in two cities. He specializes in corporate work, he told me.  Also, his friend announced with a wicked grin that Dominick’s live-in girlfriend had moved out, so that he was a ‘free man,’ available to date.

“Actually,” Dominick sighed to me quietly, once the laughter died down and Christian and the other guys went back to their own conversation. “She moved out about a year ago. I have had plenty of time to think.”

And then I forgot all about Heather. I don’t know what came over me. I just blurted it out.

“I’m sworn to keep my virginity until I get married.”

I don’t know what came over me. I just blurted it out. “I’m sworn to keep my virginity until I get married.”

I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think he could, either. We just looked at each other.

“Well,” he began carefully. “That’s interesting.”

But he didn’t look away, like he was looking for an escape route. In fact, he cocked his head and regarded me with interest.

“So you don’t feel like you have to take a guy for a ‘test drive’ first?”

Now it was my turn to be shocked.

“N-no.”

He nodded carefully.

“I’ve been going to a Latin Mass. Do you know what that is?”

I shook my head, slowly.

“Never heard of it.”

“Yeah, well, it’s made a big, ah, difference in how I see things.”

I didn’t know what to say. That’s when he read my mind.

“You don’t think a house painter is on your level, do you?”

It must have been the Cosmopolitans. In vino veritas.

“Um, it’s not that.”

“You don’t think a house painter is on your level, do you?” It must have been the Cosmopolitans. In vino veritas.

He saw right through me, and laughed like it was a great joke. Through my embarrassment, I liked the way his eyes crinkled. He had a manly laugh.

“Honestly, it’s not that!” I protested, feeling stupid.

“Young lady, I am a house painter with a master’s degree in philosophy,” he declared suddenly, and drained his beer glass. He placed the empty glass carefully on the bar.

“Really?” I said. It came out in a squeak.

We both laughed, then.

“Okay, so now we have discussed sex, religion and social class,” he said, grinning. “I’d say that’s not bad for a few minutes at the bar.”

Between the Cosmopolitans and the conversation, I was feeling a little light-headed, so I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room. When I came back, Dominick was waiting alone, for me.

“Young lady, I am a house painter with a master’s degree in philosophy,” he declared suddenly, and drained his beer glass.

“The others went to shoot pool,” he said, pulling up a bar stool next to him. I sat down, somewhat primly.

“I don’t want you to think that I announce my, uh, convictions to every stranger I meet, “ I began.

This made Dominick laugh again.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, piqued.

He looked contrite.

“I just want to say something,” he said.

His eyes were hazel and kind.

I waited.

“I’m really glad there are women in the world like you, still,” he said gravely, looking with great seriousness into my eyes. “I actually thought there weren’t any, any more. I want you to know that I respect you.”

I took a deep breath, and swallowed hard, suddenly aware that ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ was playing in the background.

“Do you know what a ‘sacramental marriage’ is?” he asked me.

So, that was Friday night. Dominick invited me to his church for Sunday Mass. When I arrived, he was waiting for me, shivering in a suit and tie in the snowy morning air. He stood somewhat self-consciously, waiting, as I ascended the steps of this incredibly beautiful 19th Century architectural gem in a run-down neighborhood that I have, frankly, never dared to enter.

Inside was a riot of gilding and color like I have never seen before. Saints glowed from stained glass windows. The pews were filled with Catholics – lots of young people, and families with many children. Many of the women wore lace mantillas.

By then, I had noticed that my Purity Ring was gone. Somehow, inexplicably, ever since the night I met Dominick, it was no longer on my right ring finger.

And my Purity Ring has not re-appeared, either.

I can’t understand it, at all.

But I don’t miss it too much, really.

Perhaps it has served its purpose.

As I now have a man who prizes my purity.

And my immortal soul.

 Saints glowed from stained glass windows. The pews were filled with Catholics – lots of young people, and families with many children. Many of the women wore lace mantillas. By then, I had noticed that my Purity Ring was gone.

PHOTO CREDIT: Yume Delegato

The ‘Try-On’ Wife

A Short Story, by Beverly Desoto Stevens

After 15 years, they were breaking up. And it was Christmastime.

I stood in the spacious bedroom of the brick Mc Mansion, admiring my surroundings. The expensive furniture. The adjoining ‘master bath’ with every imaginable luxury, all in marble. The carefully-matched carpets and silk drapes — not too girly, but elegant, sober and respectable.

Just the kind of place that a successful St. Louis businessman might lay his head every night. And well he might, it seemed. He had earned every penny, as they say.

Drew would continue to sleep there, too. It was my sister who was moving out.

She was nineteen when she began working for Drew as a secretary. He was five years older, a fledgling builder in a real estate market poised on the brink of expansion. A year later, they’d moved in together, and proceeded to build a spectacularly successful business.

Megan is very pretty – slender, blonde, sweet-natured, she takes after my mother’s side of the family. I take after our dad – dark-haired, solid, hard-working. Mom tried to warn her about living together, but Megan wouldn’t hear a word of it.

Truth be told, we laughed about this in private. Bitter laughter, really. After all, our parents divorced when we were kids, so neither of them really had the right to say anything about our life choices.

As for Dad, he knew better. Never said a word.

After all, our parents divorced when we were kids, so neither of them really had the right to say anything about our life choices.

I stood at the window, looking at Megan’s brand-new Volvo SUV outside, gleaming in the winter sunlight. This was Megan’s ‘consolation prize,’ for her non-divorce.

“Pretty nice, right?” she asked, her voice heavy with the unaccustomed irony. She was packing, her matching Coach luggage overflowing with the loot of her 15-year relationship.  A dozen expensive handbags lay on her bed.

I picked one up, a $2000 beauty – all creamy beige luxury.

Megan snorted. “That was for Christmas last year. About the same time he started dating Gabriella.” She turned away from me then, but I thought I saw a tear gleaming in her eye.

I sighed.

Gabriella was pregnant. That happens pretty fast when you’re 23 years old, especially if you’ve been having sex regularly with some else’s boyfriend. Like Megan, Gabriella is a delicate blond.  Unlike my sister, Gabriella hasn’t been on the Pill for 15 years.

So, Drew and Gabriella will be married in a local mega-church next Saturday. Gabriella is barely showing, so her dewy youth will be resplendent in her strapless gown – a feast for the eyes of the 500 invited guests.  Their wedding photos would be taken against ‘a stunning backdrop of brilliantly-lighted holiday trees,’ too.

We knew this because Drew had inadvertently forwarded Gabriella’s breathless e-mail to my sister, in the chaos which had immediately ensued after his own email announcing his upcoming nuptials to his live-in girlfriend, my hapless sister.

This was uncharacteristic of the careful, business-like Drew. But he was so giddy with joy these days that Drew was making mistakes. This morning on the way out, he’d forgotten himself for a moment with Megan.

Would it be okay, he’d asked, if Gabriella’s gown could be delivered to the Mc Mansion that day?

My sister, normally the accommodating type, had drawn the line there.

No, she told Drew. Not until she moved out.

“Can you believe they’re going to use my dressing room as a nursery?” Megan said suddenly. I stood in the doorway of her pearwood-lined, ultimate luxury statement. The hushed lighting softly illuminated  the thick carpet, now heaped with a messy pile of designer shoes.

To be honest, I was awash in a sea of gut-wrenching emotions, myself. Rage at Drew for his callousness. Pity for Megan in her helplessness. Indignation at how this was how it had to be.

And something else, too. Something even more uncomfortable.

On the way over in her Volvo, Megan had said something uncharacteristically big-sister like.

“You don’t think this can happen to you, right?” she’d said, backing out of my condo driveway.

I was taken aback. Far more street-wise, I’d made sure I got my degree in finance. At 29, I had a good job and a stable relationship with Brendan. We were talking about moving in together, in fact. Though now obviously wasn’t the right time to discuss this with Megan.

“I was a ‘try-on’ wife, you know,” she’d continued quietly, as the beautiful car swept through the suburban streets decorated for Christmas. “Drew is a conservative guy. He wasn’t sure he could handle a wife and kids, so he used me to see whether he could do that.”

“And now he is. All ready, that is,” I replied bitterly. I hated conservative rich guys. Brendan wasn’t like that. He was a regular guy, proudly wearing his scruffy beard to his night job in a cubicle – answering IT questions for idiot baby-boomers.

“I thought about leaving him when I was your age,” she said simply. “I really wanted kids. And he didn’t.”

That sure has changed,” I snapped. Drew was positively glowing with pride when he’d stopped by the Mc Mansion.

How could a man change so much? It wouldn’t have been so bad for Megan now if she did have kids. At least she would have something, now, besides a pile of luxury goods.

“You know,” Megan said quietly, “I know three other women who this has happened to.”

Three other women stupid enough to become a rich man’s plaything, I thought. As if reading my thoughts, she smiled sadly and looked at me.

They didn’t even get a Volvo. Two of them had to pay for the movers themselves. All of them are in their mid-thirties…”

“You can have kids until you’re fifty now,” I said stoutly. “You have time.”

Megan had smiled sadly. “I’m thirty-six years old. The chances that I will find a man who wants kids in the next couple of years are pretty slim.”

“So, you don’t need a man,” I retorted. “You can get pregnant without one.”

Megan didn’t say anything. We drove in silence for a few minutes. When she finally spoke, her voice was choked with emotion.

Listen to me. I am in no shape to have kids on my own. I’ve been on the Pill for 15 years. It would take me months of hormone therapy to get pregnant now. I am a secretary looking for a job in a bad economy. A secretary that’s moving back in with her divorced mother. Get real. This sucks.”

“I know it does,” I said soothingly, trying to head her off at the pass. “You’re just upset now.”

No,” Megan replied sharply. “This is about you, too. Don’t tell me you’re not thinking of moving in with Brendan.”

“Brendan’s different,” I said shortly. The conversation was going in the wrong direction for me.

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“You don’t know.”

“Mind your own business.”

Her breath drew in sharply at the rebuke. I was instantly apologetic.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just that I don’t want to talk about Brendan now.”

She’d sighed, then, and said no more, as we pulled into the driveway of the Mc Mansion. The front door was beautifully decorated, by Megan, of course, who never failed to make a fuss over the holidays.

AD 1

Five stressful hours later, my sister burst into the library, where I was packing books.

“You think you can’t get him unless you let him move in with you, right?” Megan said suddenly, her arms full of linens.

“No,” I said reflexively. Though, of course she was right.

“And you think you’re better than me because you went to college, too.”

“No!” I replied heatedly. But Megan was too far gone to listen. She dropped the linens on the polished wooden floor. Her face was red.

“You think that because you and Brendan are ‘equals’ that none of this can happen to you. You think I’m just a dumb blond who got used by a rich guy. You think your college degree will protect you.

“Well, let me tell you something, little sister. Your job can disappear like that. Your man can, too. And you will be just like me. Middle-aged. Alone. No kids. Nothing.”

Mascaraed tears were coursing down her face, but Megan didn’t care. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.

“You think you’re above all this, right? Smarter than me?”

I didn’t quite know what to say. Of course, she was right. I gulped, and took the plunge.

“So what should I do? Wait until he asks me to marry him? We’ve been together for a year…”

“… and if he hasn’t asked, then he’s not gonna just because you are living together! TRUST ME! I KNOW THIS!”

I looked at Megan, surrounded by the detritus of her life. It was true. The tears came to me, unbidden.

“What the hell am I SUPPOSED TO DO?” I shouted suddenly.

The question hung in the air between us.

Megan shook her head slowly. She sighed heavily.

“Listen, I know exactly how you feel. You think somehow your love will be different. That everything will work out. And you keep taking the Pill, because it’s the responsible thing to do. And you work, and you hope. .

“Well, lemme tell you. It’s NO GOOD. And Brendan is no different than Drew. They get married when they get to a point when they feel like they can support a family. IF they get to that point,” she looked at me meaningfully.

“Brendan works for a living!” I said hotly.

“Yes. But does he earn enough to support you and a baby?”

“No, but I’m not expecting him to.”

“So, you think that you’ll do it all, right? You’ll get pregnant when Brendan comes around to the idea. You’ll take the hormones. Endure the pregnancy. Have the baby. Then you’ll go out and support the baby – and maybe Brendan too, right?”

I knew she was right. But I really didn’t want to admit it. I stood there glaring at her defiantly, tears coursing down my own cheeks.

“Listen,” she began, more kindly. “I know you’re scared. You’re at a make-or-break point with Brendan now, right?”

“Y-yes,” I said, miserably.

“You think it’s time to get to the next stage, right?”

“He does, too,” I said helplessly. “It’s his idea. He says we can save money. And be together.”

“Right. This way he doesn’t have to worry about you going out on him. And his rent bill goes down by half.”

I looked down, ashamed.  Brendan had said almost these exact words.

“Plus, you’ll probably do his laundry, right?” she laughed humorlessly. “Look, I’m not saying Brendan is a bad guy. I’m saying he’s a baby. And he doesn’t want to step up to the plate.”

“H-his parents are divorced, too,” I mumbled.

Megan let out a sudden peal of laughter.  Shocked, I gaped at her.

Everybody’s parents are divorced!” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkling with merriment. “That’s no excuse for not growing up.”

Later, as we drove slowly through the dark, snowy streets, Christmas lights sparkling at every door, I found myself wondering aloud how many unhappy couples lived behind the facades of these Mc Mansions.

“Who knows?” Megan shrugged, carelessly.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked, curious.

“Now?” she echoed, sighing. “I’m going back to Mom’s. Back to where I started when I was nineteen years old. And I’m going to Mass.”

“Ch-church?!” I spluttered, taken aback. “W-why?”

“Because I want to. I’ve started going to a Latin Mass, downtown.”

“In downtown St Louis?” This was not normal for my suburban sister. I would’ve bet she could count the number of times she’d been downtown by herself on one hand. “Why there?”

“Because it’s beautiful,” she sighed. “And right now, I need some beauty in my life.”

I thought about that. I could understand how she was feeling.  The ugliness of the strip-malled road we had turned onto suddenly seemed oppressive.

“Why don’t you come with me?” she said quietly. “We could go, for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Bring Mom, too.”

Maybe I will. Though Brendan probably won’t want to come.

But maybe I will, anyway.

PHOTO CREDITS: YUME DELGADO

When God Hated Susan

A Short Story, by Beverly Desoto Stevens

They are that rare bird, English Catholics. Susan’s mother had insisted on the church wedding to her first husband. Her mum wanted to ‘make things respectable.’  As far as Susan was concerned no amount of respectability could make her stay  with her partying, abusive ex-husband. He was in the Queen’s Arms in Coles End, utterly stoned, while she was in court for the divorce.

Jim was nothing like her ex, though. He was a tall, dark and handsome civil engineer, well-paid by the local council.  And at 29, Susan was still a charmer — small, lithe and filled with fun. Her eyes danced with mischief, and the rollicking good humor of her Irish ancestors. After a quick wedding with a hired preacher in a hotel (“We don’t need to be paying the Church any money for one of their divorces,” Jim had said) they settled in an ‘upper middle-class’ suburb of Birmingham.

She couldn’t get pregnant right away after all those years on the Pill, so she’d endured a year of intensive hormone ‘therapy.’ Two births quickly followed, a boy and a girl. She promptly commenced to take the Pill again afterwards, reasoning that there was no sense in endangering their financial well-being. Plus, Jim showed signs of impatience with the strain of caring for two little babies.

She spent the next few years blissfully caring for their family. But by the time the children were in their early teens, Susan knew there was trouble. First there was the porn she found on his computer, then the pay-for-sex telephone numbers on the bill. Confronted, Jim broke down and sobbed. He was a ‘sex addict,’ he said.

Susan knew there was trouble. First there was the porn she found on his computer, then the pay-for-sex telephone numbers on the bill.

Things didn’t get any better when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40. Shortly after her course of radiation was complete, Jim was arrested for the first time. A ‘sting’ operation had swept him up, along with dozens of other hapless men, in a porn-and-prostitution ring. As it was Jim’s first offense, he was let go with a stern warning. But the illness and the arrest had taken its toll on Susan; she slept in a separate room, and prayed that the nightmare would go away.

It was not to be. Over the next ten years, the internet sex business exploded. The third time Jim was arrested, the police came to the house. He was led away before the incredulous eyes of his 19 year old son and 17 year old daughter. This time, the judge was not so lenient. Jim had progressed further in the sex business, going from consumer to procurer, hustling girls younger than his own daughter for paying clients.  He was convicted on seven felony counts of human trafficking, and sentenced to a minimum of twenty years in prison.

The judge gave Susan control over their finances, which helped them survive. Without marketable skills, she was reduced to stocking shelves in the local Boots pharmacy, at L4.92 (US$7.48) an hour. Their house was put up for sale.

Her son’s fury and shame erupted on the football field one day, and he was beaten quite badly in a melee sparked by his attack on an opposition team player. As he lay unconscious, Susan found herself sobbing uncontrollably in the ladies’ room at the local hospital, when the nun walked in.

Her son’s fury and shame erupted on the football field one day, and he was beaten quite badly in a melee sparked by his attack on an opposition team player.

There’s something about a sister in a habit, as any nun will tell you. People tell you their troubles – especially fallen-away Catholics in deep trouble.

Her excruciating story came out all in a rush. Through her tears, Susan wanted to know what she had done to deserve all this pain, she told the nun. Why did God hate her? She had wanted a family. Was that so bad? She had taken some shortcuts, okay. A marriage outside the Church. All that contraception. But what did the Church expect? That she be a baby-making machine? Jim would have never agreed to any of it, starting with the pre-Cana classes.

“That’s probably true,” Sister Mary Clare nodded, looking into Susan’s swollen red eyes. She handed her a Kleenex. “And then what would have happened?”

“If I-I followed what the Church said, I would have n-never married him.” Susan heard herself say it, as if in a dream. For a moment, she contemplated the truth of this. Her life would have been completely different, had she followed the rules.

Susan was an honest woman. This simple fact was crystal clear: she had married a man who scorned the Church, and everything the Faith stood for. And he had then proceeded to build their lives on his lies, and his addiction.

“Addictions are ways in which we sin, and sin repeatedly,” the nun said sympathetically. “They always involve the people we love, dragging them down with us.”

Susan nodded, looking down at the balled-up tissue she was clutching. After the agony of this sex business, she herself felt besmirched. She knew her children felt it too – smeared filthy with Jim’s sins, and deeply angry. 

After the agony of this sex business, she herself felt besmirched. She knew her children felt it too – smeared filthy with Jim’s sins, and deeply angry. 

It was from that day forward that Susan dated their recovery. Small steps back to sanity, beginning with her own trip to the confessional after more than 20 years away from the Sacrament. The priest was compassionate, listening carefully to her halting attempts to explain her life, between floods of tears that often left her unable to speak between wracking sobs. He taught her The Prayer. I renounce my will. I turn it all over to you, Mary my true mother, to lay at the feet of Your Son. Not my will, but His be done.

“For your penance, I want you to say this prayer at least three times a day, and I want you to visualize taking these great burdens off your shoulders, and laying them at the feet of Our Lord,” he told her. In the darkness of the confessional, tears streamed down Susan’s face as she watched his hand raise in the words of absolution. Afterwards, she knelt in the pew for a very long time, repeating the Prayer over and over again.

She felt cleansed, and at peace for the first time in years, strong enough to persevere through the annulment process from her first husband. She then obtained a simple ‘disparity of cult’ document for her marriage to Jim. A year later, Susan had a heart-to-heart talk with her children.

“The Church took very seriously what I – in my ignorant youth – refused to,” she told them. “This is because the Church understands marriage as a sacrament – not simply as an agreement between a man and a woman that can be dissolved at will. If I had understood that, I would have gotten my first marriage annulled after it was over – which would have helped me understand that both of us had gone into that marriage completely incapable of sustaining it. It would have also prevented me from marrying your father.”

The girl hung her head. “That means that I would have never been born,” she whispered sadly. Her brother looked away stonily.

“Yes,” Susan said quietly. Then she smiled and took both young people in her arms. “But God is always generous, and He gave me you – the lights of my life. You both were the greatest gift I have ever received.”

But Susan wasn’t finished. “That a marriage should be open to life turns sex into a completely different thing,” she went on doggedly, despite her children’s evident discomfort.  “The Church understands the body with great reverence, as the ‘temple’ of your soul. Your body is not a ‘thing’ to be used – manipulated in any way for pleasure, or to produce babies. Your body is to be cherished, and nurtured, and rightly understood by your spouse, and you – because we are made in the image of God.”

‘The Church understands the body with great reverence, as the ‘temple’ of your soul. Your body is not a ‘thing’ to be used –manipulated in any way for pleasure, or to produce babies.’

In that year, Susan discovered Natural Family Planning. NFP required both understanding how her body functioned, and a little bit of restraint, and she wondered why she had never heard of it before. Though she had to admit, Jim would have never accepted such restrictions on his sexual ‘rights’ – just as he had accepted no restrictions on the sexual slavery that led to his prison cell.

Susan’s house was sold, and their belongings moved to a small apartment with cheap rent. Susan has found a job as a receptionist, and she and her children are slowly rebuilding their lives. Both children are attending Mass along with their mother.

As for Sister Mary Clare, she is glad that her habit gave her the opportunity to step into Susan’s life that day in the hospital ladies’ room. “We religious are a sign of God’s love in this world,” she says simply. “Our religious habits make that very clear.”

 As for Sister Mary Clare, she is glad that her habit gave her the opportunity to step into Susan’s life that day in the hospital ladies’ room.