We gather in cavernous dining rooms. We spread out among the circular tables and watch each other choose seats. The liberals, who want women priests and gay marriage and a Catholic Church similar to Jesus Christ Superstar, do their best to avoid the conservatives, who stay up at night reading papal documents and cry after masturbating and stare into the mirror making faces like the saints they see on holy cards.
But we all feel guilty about it, this avoidance of the political other, because we know Jesus would never do the same. He would grab a chair next to anyone, and he would love them, and isn’t it incredible something as simple as sitting down to dinner reminds us of the disastrous chasms between our personal, tiny lives and the life we are trying to follow.
I received my acceptance into the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus in early May, and afterward I immediately set about crafting my master plan to get laid one last time before committing myself to a life of never getting laid again. Glen called me when he heard the news. He had been my spiritual advisor over the last year, and he was the one who told me I’d make a great priest in the first place. In a way, it was all his fault.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you something an old Jesuit told me right before I entered. Something big is going to happen this summer. You’re going to get a job offer you don’t want to refuse. Maybe you’ll fall in love. Whatever it is, it will be big, and it will make you think twice about driving down to Portland.”
“It is great. It’s all a gift. You can call me anytime. And if something big does happen, remember it’s normal.”
But nothing was normal about what I was doing. In Seattle, there were more white-boy Rastafarians from the suburbs than people lining up to become Jesuits. Normal was nowhere in sight.
The people who cook for us slam pots and pans in the kitchen. They will not stay to see if the Jesuits they feed will devour every last bite. They will return to their own families, where they will chop and heat and stir and bang together pots and pans all over again. Or maybe they will be too tired to cook and will tell their children to fend for themselves. Here is the freezer. This is how the microwave works.
The following afternoon, when the cooks arrive to work, they will ask, “How was everything? Did you like it? It was a new recipe.”
“We loved it,” we will say. “It was delicious.” It doesn’t matter how the food tasted, we will praise its glories. We have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and having personal chefs makes us uncomfortable.
I met Tamara while we were both waiting tables at The Old Spaghetti Factory on Eliot Avenue in downtown Seattle. The brick building squatted in the Space Needle’s shadow, the bay a stone’s throw from the parking lot. Most of our customers were tourists embarking on two-week Alaskan cruises to see the last of the polar bears hop from one deserted ice-flow to another. If I didn’t like the table, I tried to work in horror stories about cruise liners.
“Those ships are huge. They remind me of the Titanic.”
“Cruise ships would make perfect targets for serial killers. Just throw the bodies right into the ocean.”
I introduced myself as Tamara stared into a computer screen trying to not screw up an order. I found the button she needed and held out my hand.
She had beautiful blue eyes, and when she said my name her Michigan accent stretched the vowels from the consonants.
I dropped a bread board on the shoulder of an unsuspecting child the following night. The Spag’s bread boards were thick enough to bludgeon to death all of the world’s overweight, diabetic children begging for their eighteenth refill of strawberry lemonade. His mom was in the bathroom, so I told the kid I would bring him extra ice cream if he kept his mouth shut. Tamara saw it happen and walked up to me in the kitchen.
“I’m pretty sure servers aren’t supposed to drop bread boards on kids.”
“Yeah, well I’m pretty sure new bitches are supposed to keep their mouths shut until they’ve been here for a while.”
Two months later, the weekend before I moved to Portland, I overheard Tamara telling the story to my mother.
“And that’s pretty much when I fell in love with him.”
We stand by our seats and wait for prayer. We hope it will be quick because we are starving. Steam rises from the trays on the buffet line. We eat artisanal salads; we eat string beans prepared in balsamic vinegar; we eat chicken parmesan and flank steaks and on Fridays during Lent we eat fried catfish. On the other side of the room, on the buffet table designated for desserts, there is a pan full of fresh blueberry cobbler. Or there is pecan pie, the layer of caramelized sugar coating the dish, the sheer mouth-watering joy of homemade pastries a poor substitute for the romantic relationships we have forsaken as Catholic seminarians. Instead of sex, we have sweet, sweet apple pie.
We make the sign of the cross and bow our heads. Hopefully, someone will lead us in the standard prayer every single Catholic has memorized but no one actually understands. We will say it fast:
There are some old Fathers around to keep us in line, but the rest of us are training to be priests, so we need to rehearse praying in public. We practice on each other, like nursing students sticking needles into the arms of their classmates, blood spurting out of ruptured veins. If a liberal leads prayer, we will ask God to watch over the poor, the homeless, those suffering from mental illness, those suffering from any slights and grievances real or perceived, all of those suffering from an intolerance to gluten, and for all of the left-handed people across the world without access to left-handed appliances. Once, we prayed for all of those with gastrointestinal issues, and some of us thought, “I’m glad I’m not sitting next to that guy tonight.”
If a conservative leads prayer, we will pray for the Pope, the bishops, for the preservation of the One Most Holy Catholic Church, for the unborn, for the strict observance of all one million canonical codes, for continued religious freedom, for the conversion of all heathens, and we will watch the blueberry cobbler get cold and most of us will pray for the prayer to end.
Each of us knows, in his own way, there is only one prayer—thank you. That’s it. We receive far more than we deserve, and we are grateful.
I modeled the persona I presented to Tamara on King David. I was a poet, a writer, a man who enjoyed spending his free time playing guitar and writing short stories that mimicked Ernest Hemingway, line after line of terse dialogue filling the page. I had a complicated relationship with my God. I was willing to defend Tamara and her honor at all costs, puffing out my chest as we walked down Pike Avenue. I wanted to embody male perfection, which I saw as some strange combination of a poet and a prizefighter.
Tamara didn’t tell me she lived with her boyfriend until after we had been seeing each other for several weeks. I considered her boyfriend an obstacle to overcome, something to sweeten our first carnal pleasures, whenever that happened. Thus far, our relationship had been platonic punctuated by moments of debilitating sexual tension. In my apartment, I would play Tom Waits’s “Fumblin’ with the Blues” and beg Tamara to dance with me.
Well now falling in love is such a breeze
But it’s standing up that’s so hard for me
I want to squeeze ya but I’m scared
To death I’ll break your back
You know your perfume, well it won’t let me be
I would miss dancing. Hand on the small of her back, hips counting the rhythm, the sweet collapse of the soul-body divide.
I didn’t tell Tamara I was entering a Catholic seminary until after she told me about her boyfriend. We were riding the bus, a carmine sunset covering the Olympic Mountains.
“So there is something I should probably tell you.”
“What, you have a girlfriend?”
“Not exactly. Remember how I told you I was pretty into being Catholic?”
She took the news better than I expected. She said I was an asshole, slapped me across the face, and got off at the next stop. She called later to apologize.
“I didn’t tell you about living with my boyfriend. So I guess we’re pretty much even.”
Tamara spent the night at my apartment the first time because her boyfriend kissed someone else while drunk at a party. Maybe it was the excuse she had been looking for, or maybe she had intended to stay faithful, to only toy with the advances of another man who told her she was gorgeous and tried to dance with her and was entering the seminary.
On the nights the loneliness crept down my walls, the nights Tamara refused to dance with me, I walked alone to the bar where my uncle worked. Eastern European men built like Mini Coopers with heads ran the place, called Amante’s. My uncle was convinced it was a front for an organized crime family from some former Soviet republic. I was nineteen, but they let me drink at the Euro-trash bar at the back, where off-blue fluorescent lamps cast strange shadows over the bottles.
Felons have a difficult time finding regular work. Uncle Bobby spent twelve years in jail for selling weed and carrying a gun. Bobby refused to cooperate with the narcotics officers, unwilling to set for someone else the trap that had captured him.
“If they had waited a day, they would have caught me moving a metric ton of pot from Mexico. I told the feds to go fuck themselves. They told me I was the one about to get fucked. And they were right.”
No matter how much I drank, the bartenders charged me seven dollars. For a nineteen-year-old in Seattle, with its draconian drinking laws, my relationship with Amante’s was a godsend. Occasionally, Uncle Bobby would sit down with me after his shift and we’d work our way through the whiskey supply before returning to my apartment to smoke weed and play chess. I would offer him my bed, but he preferred to sleep on the floor of my living room. He had followed The Grateful Dead and claimed mattresses were bad for his spine.
I convinced Tamara to have a drink with me one night after work, and it became our routine. If I got off before her, I would smoke cigarettes by the water and wait, sometimes for an hour. Because I was entering the Jesuits, I didn’t need the money. I was working there for her.
Sometimes we’d get too drunk and argue about why she wouldn’t sleep with me, or Catholicism, or about anything to distract us from our panic-stricken love affair. Some nights we’d yell at each other in the street, cigarette ash falling on our clothes, and I’d walk back to my apartment by myself, the ground tilted seventeen degrees to the right, using parked cars to stay upright. In the morning, I would call her, not to apologize, but to let her know I was still alive.
I helped her find a new apartment, a studio not far from where I lived on Capitol Hill. She bought a white cat and named it Marley. Our romance progressed at a glacial pace, and I worried that I would be a retired priest living on the Oregon coast before we had sex.
We each aim to sit at a table with a guest, usually some non-Jesuit from the outside world enjoying the free food and strange company. We call these people “externs.” As in, not one of us. We watch what we say around the externs. We try not to curse or bring up anything disparaging about the Jesuits, like the time some of us were drunk on the back porch late at night and a liberal got into an argument with a conservative about whether waterboarding actually constituted torture. Brian, the conservative, offered to let himself be waterboarded in order to prove it was neither dangerous nor terrifying. Jacob, the liberal, immediately agreed to proctor the experiment. Father Superior came down at four in the morning, not because of the noise but because he always woke up that early, and found Brian coughing up water on the kitchen floor. Afterward, there was no longer a cache of whiskey in the alcohol closet.
That is the type of thing we do not mention to externs.
Guests eat first, which is why we want to sit with them. God forbid we run out of artisanal salad. We stand in line. We rack ourselves with guilt if we take the best piece of steak, because it shows selfishness. We castigate ourselves if we take the worst piece of steak, because it shows self-pride in our own holiness, and the whole thing becomes this terrible paradox, true versus false humility, and the whir of our cerebral cortexes spinning out of control buzzes from our ears, and sometimes we need to take a deep breath and relax because we know there is blueberry cobbler.
The Thursday before I was supposed to move to Portland my mother came up to my apartment. She bought us booze, and Tamara and Mom chatted and smoked cigarettes on the balcony while I played guitar. I looked outside—that was what I was giving up. I would never see my family grow around me. The next day, my stepfather John, little brother Mikey, and mother cleaned up my apartment as I buried my face in the mattress’s crevices, consumed by a whiskey-weed haze.
On Saturday night, Tamara drove down to Tacoma after her shift. We sat on the back porch with my family and smoked pot. Even John, who normally didn’t partake, took a hit. He coughed, started sweating, and passed out on the couch.
Tamara and I went to bed. Over the summer, I had talked a lot of shit about my sexual expertise, constantly informing Tamara about the great time she was missing. When I came in thirty seconds, the first time, it was only fitting.
In the morning, we had to say goodbye. She lay naked next to me, her dark hair covering the pillow. I slipped out of bed and dug a pair of basketball shorts off of the floor. John, who never slept more than three hours at a time because of his Vietnam injuries, had already made coffee. I stepped outside into a Pacific Northwest dawn burning the dew off of the deck to smoke a cigarette.
“I had a great time with you and Tamara last night. She’s a great girl,” said John in his upstate New York accent. He sounded like an English-speaking wood chipper.
“Yeah, she is.”
“You probably don’t want to talk about it. I’ll leave you alone.”
We are more comfortable trading critiques of Stephen Hawking’s latest theory than speaking to any woman under the age of fifty. All of us study philosophy and theology, but some of us also study astrophysics, literature, or biology. We act in community theatres and sing in choirs. We see God in all things, everywhere, in everyone, trained to believe in and reach out to the face of Christ in the places we least expect to encounter Our Lord, like the homeless, or the scholar who dislikes the Church but teaches at a Catholic university, or the people whose hearts we have treated like stepping-stones on the path to fulfilling our vocations.
“If I had to choose between Hamlet and Brothers Karamazov, I’d take Brothers Karamazov.”
“Did you read it in English or in the original?”
“English. My Russian’s not good enough yet.”
I wasn’t allowed to bring my cell phone, so I waited until everyone else in the seminary was asleep, and I used the phone across the hall from the chapel, the crucifix peering at me through the doorway. For the first week, she picked up every night, and we talked about nothing at all. The second week, we spoke four times, quick conversations punctuated by what we weren’t telling each other. By the third week, I called four times and left three messages, each more desperate than the last, none of them returned. And by the fourth week, I had stopped calling.
Someone clears the table and pours the coffee. We finally eat that blueberry cobbler. We take turns washing the dishes. Eventually, we exit the dining room to study, to prep, to smoke cigarettes, to write, to watch television, to pray.
We sleep alone in cold twin beds, staring out from the windows at a moon as alone as ourselves, and, though we believe Jesus is with us, the wooden figurine hanging over our desks is a far cry from the heat of another person, a body, a hand across the small of our backs.
Those are the difficult times. The dark nights of the soul.
In the better times, we think—thank you. For snowed-in nights on a back porch with cheap beer and harmonicas and guitars, singing “Closing Time” by Semisonic off-key and hammered. For a love that is unearned and undeserved, given to us because of our existence. For lives shouting out into the wilderness about another way to live, a prism of self-worth based not on our ability to hoard but our potential to love. We have a long way to go, but we are grateful.
Rumpus original art by Dana Schwartz.