July 28, 2003

Gaining Nothing (3/2003: Rhet 144)

I sat at the huge oak desk in my dark paneled office, tapping the butt end of my pen without rhythm against the blank legal pad sitting in front of me, staring blankly into space. My brain was taxed, trying to come up with words to explain a message beyond my understanding. I opened the top left drawer of my desk and took out the weathered leather-bound Bible my parents had given me twenty years earlier for my Confirmation. Maybe reading the week’s Scripture readings for the fourth time would spark some insight or inspiration I could offer to my congregation from the lectern that Sunday.
On the wall directly in front of me hung a painting of the Sacred Heart, an image of a longhaired, bearded Christ with his heart superimposed over his chest, flaming and encircled in a crown of thorns. That was the kind of feeling that came to my mind when I thought about love, a painful burning and laceration of the heart. What could I possibly tell these people about love? How could a celibate “man of God” stand in front of a group of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, and tell them what love is and what it should be? “They probably know more about love than I ever will,” I told myself.
I sat there and read the words over again, First Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verses one through eight, “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
“Love never fails.” It wasn’t even the gospel; it was only the second reading, but for some reason it was preventing me from being able to think of anything worthwhile to say in my homily. I knew that this would be the reading that would appeal to the congregation. I couldn’t just ignore a passage that would obviously resonate with them so much.
“What do I know about love?” I asked myself again. The only love I could really say that I knew was that of my parents and my brothers and my other family. I guess I knew the love of my friends too, although I heard from them less and less with each passing year. A priest isn’t exactly the life of the party; I’d be the first to admit it. They all probably thought that because I’d become a “man of the cloth” I’d judge all their mistakes and misfortunes. Who was I to judge others? My life had been full of just as many mistakes and sins as anyone else’s. My non-Catholic friends were always a little uneasy about my faith, even when I was young and not all that faithful.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon I got off the bus in front of the big three-story house about a mile from campus that my friends shared. It was time for our weekly game of basketball. I walked into the house in my gym shorts and the t- shirt that was given to everyone at the beginning of freshmen year. It was the last Saturday before finals of our senior year. I shocked them all that afternoon, as we were getting ready for the game. I announced to them that I was no longer pursuing the post-graduation path I’d been planning on. I’d turned down my acceptance to the Graduate Creative Writing program at Illinois and to the Graduate Journalism program at Northwestern. Ever since junior year of high school I’d wanted to be a writer. It came as a surprise to all of them when I told them I’d decided to enter a seminary in the fall. I was going to become a priest. Maybe they all resented all the time they spent reading my stories and poems. They were always complimentary and never as critical as I would have really liked them to be. I was never completely satisfied with anything I wrote anyway. But that’s not what prompted my decision to leave that path.

I looked at the books on the shelves that lined my office walls. Maybe some bishop or cardinal had written something insightful that I could relay to my parishioners. My pastor from when I was a teenager came to mind and I thought of using his sermon formula: a quick, somewhat lame joke, a few sentences summarizing the Gospel and it’s message, and proceeding immediately to the profession of faith. It was tempting, but I thought the congregation would probably notice the abrupt change in my style.
There was a knock on the door and Theresa, the parish secretary entered. She was a kind woman in her sixties. Her face showed her years of smiles and laughter. “Pat Sullivan is on the phone,” she announced, “Her daughter got engaged last night and they want to meet with you to start preparing for the wedding. When are you free this week?”
“I don’t have any appointments or anything tomorrow afternoon. Tell them to come by the rectory at about 1. It should take about an hour or so.”
“Thank you, Father.” She pulled the door shut behind her as she left the room.
Father. I still cringed a little every time someone addressed me that way. Growing up that’s all I really ever wanted to be. I wanted children of my own, a son I could play catch with and teach about football and girls, a daughter who I could protect too much and wait up late on Saturday nights for her to return from dates. I always pictured myself with graying hair and a timeworn face, wire rimmed glasses and a sweater with patches on the elbows. I’d be sitting in my den, a quite little room lined with bookshelves, at my computer typing away, working on a chapter of my fifth novel. One of my children would come in the door and ask me to proofread their essay about what they did last summer.
Every once and awhile I still found myself fantasizing about those things: a wife, children, a house in the suburbs, and a car in the garage. Any hope of that becoming a reality had long faded. My house was this rectory across the parking lot from the church, my wife the Church, my children the parishioners. No one would ever come to me for help with their homework. The closest I’d ever come was second graders coming to me to make their first confessions. That always depressed me; listening to these little innocent children confess what they perceived as terrible transgression against God. “Give yourself ten years,” I always thought, “then you’ll realize how much sin is really out there in the world waiting for you.”
I glanced down at the legal pad that still separated my erratically tapping pen from the desk and sighed at the realization that it was still blank. I wrote the words “Love never fails” boldly on the top of the blank sheet of paper. It was Thursday and by then I usually was on my second revision of the week’s homily. I wondered how many people would notice if I pulled out an old one from a few weeks ago. I bet myself that at least half the people wouldn’t realize that what I was saying had absolutely nothing to do with the week’s readings. Every time I stood before them speaking I saw their eyelids grow heavy and their faces become expressionless. It wouldn’t have to come to any surprise to me if not one of them ever listened to a word I said.
“Maybe there’s another theme in the gospel I can focus on,” I thought to myself hopefully. “I might be able to completely avoid talking about love altogether.” I leaned forward with my furrowed brow leaning against my hand in front of me. I placed both of my hands on the desk and pushed myself off my chair onto my feet with a sigh of frustration. I walked over to the table underneath the window on the sidewall of the office and poured myself a cup of coffee. “Why do I obsess about things like this?” I asked myself. It was a question I often asked myself and I always came to the same conclusion. This worrying and obsession was a characteristic that I’d inherited from my mother. I stirred cream and sugar into the coffee, because I hadn’t inherited her taste for black coffee.
The door creaked open again and I heard Theresa’s voice. “Father, there is someone here to see you. Can you take a visitor?”
“Absolutely. I’ve got nothing but time. Send them in.”
I heard Theresa leave the room and I heard another pair of feet walk in. I turned and looked over my shoulder. I almost dropped the scalding cup of coffee on myself. I hadn’t seen her in fourteen years. Not since the day before my college graduation. She stood there, beautiful dark hair that was once cropped up to her ear now grown down past her shoulder blades.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, in shock and not realizing how rude this question sounded.
“Hello to you too,” she replied with a tinge of sarcasm in her voice. Her brown eyes studied me as if she was trying to determine whether I was still the same person under those black clothes and white collar. With all my effort I kept my eyes from meeting hers.
“I’m sorry. I’m just really surprised to see you here,” I explained. “I was just having a cup of coffee, would you like some?” I spoke rapidly.
“Sure, I’ll have a cup,” she replied. “Am I supposed to call you “Father” or something? Because I’m not going to.”
“I’d never expect you to; even more, I’d never want to. It’d be too bizarre.” I wondered what she was doing here. Why had she just showed up here out of the blue after ten years of silence?

On a cold night in November eighteen years earlier, I fell in love with this girl. I was sixteen years old and I was over at her house for the first time. Her mom was out of town and some of our friends had decided to take advantage of the situation. I wasn’t eager to go because I didn’t drink and I was going to head home after the movie we’d all gone to see. I told her that I wasn’t going to come and she said, “Come on, it’ll be fun. There’s other stuff to do at my house than drink. I really want you to come.” I was a sixteen-year-old boy and there was no way I was going to deny a request like this from a girl. I ended up going and I ended up sitting on her couch with my arm around, watching TV while some friends sat at the table drinking shots of vodka. I wondered how she felt about it, but I knew I enjoyed it. It turned out she did too and after a few weeks of deliberation I walked up to her locker after school and muttered something resembling “Will you go out with me?” or “Will you be with my girlfriend?” I don’t remember words actually coming out of my mouth, but somehow the message was understood. She never seemed to think I stumbled over my words as much as it seemed to me like I did.

“So,” I began, not really knowing what to say. “What brings you here? How’d you find me? How are things? How’s Alex? What are you doing now?” It was as if all the questions that had popped into my mind about her over the last ten years were trying to fly out of my mouth simultaneously.
“I broke down and called your mom. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for awhile now,” she explained. “But I was afraid to talk to anyone who knew where you were. I thought about calling Tom, but I decided it’d be easier just to get in contact with your mom.”
“How’d you know they’d still live there?” I asked.
“Come, it’s your parents. We both know they’ll never move out of that house.”
“True,” I admitted, giving a small laugh. I let my eyes meet hers. It was the first time I’d looked her in the eyes in ten years and it filled me with confusion. “Have a seat,” I said, showing her to a chair on the other side of my desk. I walked around and sat at my chair across the desk from her. She wore a faded t-shirt from college and a pair of jeans. She was thirty-three years old and she’d barely changed, in my eyes, since she was fifteen.
“That thing creeps me out. How can you look at it every day?” she asked, looking over my shoulder at the large crucifix that hung on the wall behind me.
“It doesn’t bother me. It never has. I think it’s an important reminder of the sacrifice that was made for us. You know that, we’ve had this conversation before.”
“I know we have. And you know that I think it’s morbid.”
“So did you come here to criticize my decorating?” I asked, somewhat resentful and still wondering what she was really doing here.
“Your mom and dad sound good. They’re still really healthy and everything. You’re mom’s really proud of your chosen profession, I can tell.”
“Yeah, I guess it makes a Catholic mother feel like she’s done something really right when one of her sons becomes a priest.”
“She was beaming on the phone when she told me where I could find you. I think she’s prouder than she would have ever been if you had the New York Times number one bestseller.”
I laughed. “Maybe. That might be a little extreme though.”
“So what are your brothers doing these days?”
“Well, Joe is still teaching band, but he teaches high school now. And he’s married and has three kids. Dave just moved out to New York a couple years ago. He’s the technical director for an off Broadway theatre company. He’s really happy out there. I went to visit him on my vacation last summer. He’s been dating this photographer for a few years now.”
“Sounds good,” she commented distantly, as if she was trying to picture Joe’s kids and Dave’s East Village apartment looked like and what ten years time had done to my brothers’ appearances.
“I hate to sound short, and I am interested in how your family is and stuff…your little cousin must be twenty now…But I really can’t stop wondering why you’ve come here. Is it just to catch up? Or is there something you want from me?”
An odd expression came to her face; it seemed to be a mixture of pain, disappointment, and anger. “I don’t really know why I came. I just needed to see you. To make sure that you’re ok and that you’re doing well. Alex and I are getting a divorce. I found out he’s been having an affair for a year now.” I could tell that she was holding back an ocean of tears. I got up from my chair and walked around my desk to her, she stood and I hugged her, something I hadn’t done in what felt like a lifetime. We stood there and she leaned her against my shoulder and wept. I held her in my arms and tried to comfort her. I could feel her convulse as she cried. I felt like I was seventeen again and she’d come to me for comfort and solace after having a fight with her parents. For a split second I was back in that place, I was a teenager and she meant the world to me. I almost kissed her before I realized where I really was.

I’d never been in more pain in my life than beginning of the spring semester of my freshmen year of college. She’d cheated on me and despite how betrayed and heartbroken I was determined to keep us together. I was hurt, but I was willing to forgive her because I still loved her. I said I’d love her forever and I meant it. After weeks of fighting over the phone we decided to go “on a break.” It only lasted a few days before she found another guy, Alex. They started dating a few weeks later and dated all through college. Every time I saw them together I brought the bile up in the back of my throat. You’d think at such a huge university I would have been able to avoid them more easily, but I ran into them everywhere. I tried to stay friends with her as long as I could but whenever he came up in conversation or whenever I saw them together it killed me. They invited me to the wedding out of politeness, but there was no way I could have possibly gone.

She pulled out of my arms and stood back from me, the tears still in the corners of her eyes. She looked ashamed and slightly embarrassed. I stood there, just looking at her as she brushed her hair back behind her ears and tried to regain her composure. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant do this to you. I don’t want to put you in a bad position. I just didn’t know where else to go.”
“It’s ok. I’m glad you came to me and I hope I can be some help to you. Have you been going to church at all? How is your spiritual life?”
“Don’t give me that,” she snapped. “I knew you’d guilt me about not going to church. I didn’t come to you because you’re a goddamn priest. I came to you because…because of what we had. And I know it was a long time ago but I just hoped that maybe there was some tiny little ember of it left in you. I don’t know what I’m looking for from you. I just needed to see you.”
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you. What did you expect to happen when you came here? Did you expect me to say, ‘You’re right. I still love you, I’ve always loved you. I’ve never stopped loving you. I became a priest because I knew I could never have you.’?”
“No, I…I don’t know, ok? I just thought you might be able to help me. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I’m a family counselor for Christ’s sake, how can I tell other people how to solve their problems if I can’t even solve my own?” Her face fell into her hands and stepped forward and enveloped her in my arms again. The funny thing was what happened between us really was a big part of the reason I became a priest. I tried dating other people throughout college but I never felt like I could trust anyone. Every time I felt myself getting close to someone I got out of the relationship because I was afraid of getting hurt like that again.
“Look,” she said finally, breaking the silence that had lasted for what seemed like hours. “I’m leaving for Finland tonight. You know I’ve always wanted to go. Well, I’ve never gotten the chance, so I decided to go now. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay or anything. I’m just going. And, well, I have an extra ticket. I didn’t really come here to ask you if you’d come, but will you?”
I looked back at my desk and hesitated to answer. I thought about the sermon I had to write for Sunday that I hadn’t started on. I thought about all the problems that other people came to me for help with because I’m supposed to be a spiritual guide. How could I tell them that sometimes I was just as lost and confused as they were?
“No, I’m sorry. I can’t. You don’t know how much I’d really like to but I have obligations here. This is my life now.”
“Ok. Well, thank you for listening to me. I’ll send you a postcard or something,” she chuckled, wiping the remaining tears from her eyes.
“Write me whenever you need to. And if and when you come back, stop by and see me again. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. She hugged me again and softly kissed me cheek. “Goodbye,” she said.
“Goodbye,” I replied. “Fly safely. You’ll be in my prayers.” She turned and walked out of my office. Followed her to the door and closed it behind her. I held my head in my right hand and returned to my desk. I leaned my head on the heels of my hands and looked down at my desk. I looked down at the words I had written earlier that afternoon. “Love never fails.” I ripped the top sheet off the pad and through it into the wastebasket beside my desk.

Posted by dpetrella at July 28, 2003 8:14 PM
Comments

dude....that was sexy. i liked it a lot

Posted by: eric derr at August 6, 2003 10:18 AM

wowsa, our little diddyp is becoming a writer-man. seems just yesterday he was just a writer-boy, with garbage like rejected mindprint poems and such, and now he's got these short stories!

but seriously, dan, good stuff here

Posted by: hollimer at August 15, 2003 6:46 PM

wowsa, our little diddyp is becoming a writer-man. seems just yesterday he was just a writer-boy, with garbage like rejected mindprint poems and such, and now he's got these short stories!

but seriously, dan, good stuff here

Posted by: hollimer at August 15, 2003 6:47 PM

wowsa, our little diddyp is becoming a writer-man. seems just yesterday he was just a writer-boy, with garbage like rejected mindprint poems and such, and now he's got these short stories!

but seriously, dan, good stuff here

Posted by: hollimer at August 15, 2003 6:47 PM

Hey! I'll have you know that Mindprints accepted the only three pieces I ever submitted.

Posted by: Dan (P) at September 3, 2003 4:07 PM

i loved that story...it left me with chills. youre going to be a great writer someday, i know it.

Posted by: keep me annonymous at May 17, 2004 12:26 AM
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