Father Romy faced the children in the auditorium. He was impressed by their behavior. They were absolutely quiet. Their faces were all turned towards him. None of them even shifted in his or her seat.
“Dear children,” he began, in a tone that he hoped would sound parental. The children did not react. They just sat looking at him, with no emotion that he could identify. They could very well be just manikins or robots.
“Dear children,” he repeated. “Good morning.”
All the children suddenly shouted in unison, “Good morning, visitor!”
Momentarily surprised, Father Romy wanted to laugh. He was not a visitor. He had been invited at the last minute by a fellow priest to conduct a recollection.
He heard the voice of the principal over the loudspeaker.
“Children,” the voice said, “Father is not a visitor. He is here to help you with your spiritual life.”
The children all fell silent.
The principal, who had a wireless microphone in her hand, approached Father Romy on the stage. As she walked towards him, he felt something stir inside him. As a priest, he was not supposed to react in any physical way to women. When women came close to him to take a selfie or to shake or kiss his hand, he never felt anything that he could call remotely physical. He knew that concupiscence was a common problem for priests, but he himself never experienced it, at least as far as he could remember.
Now, however, there was something. It wasn’t quite concupiscence. It wasn’t even what he would consider desire. But it was definitely something.
The principal looked like the stereotype he had in his mind about principals. She was tall and slim. She was dressed in a long-sleeved uniform, revealing nothing of her arms. Except her hands, which had long fingers.
Her skirt was way below her knees. He could see the stockings glimmer in the subdued light of the auditorium. They were nice-looking legs, what he could see of them below the skirt. He shook his head to remove the thought of even looking at her legs. Vaguely, he remembered the prohibition against “bad thoughts.” “If you fill your mind with bad thoughts,” he seemed to remember some older priest telling him, “there will be no place for sublime ones.”
He moved his eyes from her legs to her breasts. Although her uniform was designed so that she would not have to put a hand on her chest every time she would bend to pick up something from the floor, he could still see that she was not flat-chested. Again, he tried very hard to move away from that train of thought. Unconsciously, he looked up at the ceiling, hoping perhaps to find an angel or two hovering there to keep him from succumbing to the ways of the flesh.
“Father,” Julie whispered, thankfully interrupting his inner struggle with himself and bringing him back to the podium, from where he was expected to hurl fire and brimstone on the young children. “I apologize for the outburst of the children. They are used to answering ‘Good morning, visitor’ when someone from the outside greets them ‘Good morning’ in their classrooms. They will now listen attentively to what you want to say to them. Please continue.”
This woman’s authoritative tone bothered Father Romy a bit. He was a priest. He was used to telling his parishioners what to do. For this woman, this lovely woman, this strangely attractive woman, to tell him what to do was, well, unexpected. Not to mention that the two of them were on stage and she was not supposed to talk to him at all.
But Father Romy, drilled into obedience by what he supposed were years of training in a hierarchical church, continued as told.
“Dear children,” he said, for the third time now. “I want to tell you the good news.”
Julie interrupted him in what was now a loud whisper, “Father, I failed to mention that this is an ecumenical recollection. Please do not say anything that will offend the children who have Jewish or Muslim parents.”
Twice interrupted! Father Romy was a little peeved. But she was attractive. He could imagine touching those long, tapering fingers and being touched by them. He shook, then nodded his head. He could not possibly offend the children, he thought, because he didn’t have the proper words to say, anyway.
“Please continue,” Julie whispered.
Father Romy continued. “The good news is that there is a Supreme Being that keeps us alive.”
That was more like it, thought Julie. This priest learned quickly, she said to herself. No talk of any specific god. Just a Supreme Being.
Father Romy continued. “You will learn from your studies now or later that we human beings have been on planet earth for only a very short time. Before us, there were all kinds of animals, even dinosaurs. You have all seen drawings of dinosaurs, right?”
Julie whispered to him. “They have all watched the Jurassic Park series, Father.”
Now, this principal was really getting into his nerves, thought Father Romy. He was delivering what was supposed to be a speech to inspire and she kept talking to him. That had never before happened to him, at least as far as he could remember, which was admittedly not very far back.
Father Romy continued, “Can the dinosaurs or any animal or the trees or the waves on the sea be there without someone or something causing them to exist?”
Julie nodded. This was more like it.
“Did the Supreme Being create the universe and then just leave it alone? That doesn’t make sense, dear children, because we cannot, all by ourselves, cause ourselves to exist. The Supreme Being must still be creating us.”
Julie motioned to him. She whispered, “Father, please do not be philosophical. The children just need to be told that they should pray before meals.”
This was really silly, thought Father Romy. If that is all this principal wanted, she could have told them that herself.
As though reading his thoughts, Julie said, “They pray before meals, but they do not know why. Just tell them why, Father.”
Father Romy could not believe what was happening. He was being told what to say and what not to say. How dare this woman? But then again, how could she do any wrong when she was so attractive?
Father Romy continued. “So, my dear children, we have to pray before meals.”
He stepped back from the microphone and waved goodbye to the children.
The children shouted, in unison, “Goodbye, visitor! Have a nice day!”
Father Romy turned to get down from the stage of the auditorium. Julie shook his hand and placed an envelope of money in it.
Father Romy took the money, but it wasn’t the money that he was thinking about. He was thinking about how nice it felt to touch this woman’s hand.
“We prepared merienda for you, Father,” Julie said. It was customary to offer a guest speaker refreshments after a speech.
“I don’t really have time,” said Father Romy, following the Filipino formula for such invitations. You always first declined an invitation that you knew very well you would eventually have to honor.
“It’s just a small merienda, Father,” Julie said, continuing the prescribed social formula. “It won’t take up too much of your time.”
“All right,” said Father Romy, finishing the prescribed dialogue.
They sat down to the small snack with five of the teachers. It was small by Philippine standards, just rice cakes and hot chocolate. Most “snacks” after a speech were full square meals.
Father Romy politely took a small rice cake. He was not hungry, at least not for food.
“Father,” Julie said. “My teachers and I are worried about the spiritual lives of the children. We feel that they are growing up without the fear of God. They seem to spend all their time after school in the internet cafes around the corner or in the shopping mall. We don’t see them carrying prayer books or rosaries or bibles or anything at all that seems religious. We force them to say grace before their meals during recess, but it’s just mere routine for them.”
Father Romy nodded. His mind was not on what Julie was saying, but on how her lips moved while she was saying it. They were well-formed lips, almost like the ones in lipstick ads. They reminded him of movies where the actresses always had their lips slightly open, asking to be kissed. He clenched his right fist and hoped that no one noticed. It was his way of reminding himself not to think unthinkable thoughts.
Julie kept speaking. “The Bible says, ‘Suffer the little children,’ but these little children, and I know that many of them are not little anymore, these children cannot recognize Jesus if He walked into this campus.”
Father Romy was surprised, not only at Julie quoting a Bible verse, but at how low-pitched her voice was. On the stage, she was whispering and seemed to be in a panic. Her voice then was high-pitched, or what he thought was high-pitched. Now, she had what he and his friends in school called a “bedroom voice.”
Father Romy was surprised, this time by his having a memory of something that happened before the birthday party, which he thought was his earliest memory. Yes, although he was agitated internally by something stirring in his groin, he was thinking not just of this woman, but of his classmates in his boys’ high school. He was the youngest in his class. He had been accelerated four times in two years, because his teachers had found him too advanced intellectually for his grade level. He remembered how he had been teased all throughout high school by his classmates, who were at least four years older than him. He was still playing with toy trucks and toy soldiers, pretending to be a general in a land war, when his classmates were all talking about the girls in the neighboring girls’ high school and already engaged in the war of the sexes.
Perhaps his memory was coming back?
Julie’s “bedroom voice” made him stare at her well-formed nose. He remembered that, in the seminary, he had been conditioned to look only at people’s noses, not into their eyes or at any other part of their body. That maneuver was supposed to keep priests from being attracted to persons of the opposite sex, as they used to call women then. Another memory!
“Father,” Julie said, “is there anything wrong? You seem so far away.”
“He’s a priest,” a male teacher said. “His mind is always on heaven.”
There was subdued laughter. Father Romy noticed that Julie did not laugh. She just smiled, but almost imperceptibly. It was, Father Romy thought, forgiving himself the cliché, a heavenly smile.
As soon as he politely could, Father Romy left the school and returned to the rectory of his parish. He brought out his metal cilice and placed it around his left thigh. He felt the spikes bite into his skin, but they did not draw blood. It was something he could do to atone for the moments of weakness he felt in the presence of that woman.
That woman. He had to refer to the school principal that way. He did not want to pronounce her name, afraid that he would burst out into a song like that in West Side Story. The most beautiful sound I ever heard and all that. He did not want to single her out among the women who came too close to him, invading his personal space, ignoring his celibate status, making him relive the temptation Jesus Himself had in the desert or with Mary Magdalene caressing His feet or the woman found in adultery. He was not sure that he was as strong as Jesus.
Walking with a slight limp due to the cilice, he went to the small library of the rectory and took out a Bible. He knew that he must have read it a lot in the past, because he instinctively knew where to find the passages that would give him peace.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, he read, mouthing the line voicelessly. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
What was this, Father Romy said to himself. When he read the line about the rod, he thought of his own rod, that appendage that he thought was going to be useless in his celibate life. The thought made him even more aware of the discomfort caused by the cilice.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me, Father Romy recited from memory, his eyes away from the pages. He brought his eyes back to the Bible and flipped the page back to Psalm 22, right before Psalm 23. Why art thou so far from helping me?
Father Romy had never been this conflicted before, at least since the birthday party. He felt physically drained by his spiritual battle with himself.
He suddenly remembered a debate he had with the Father Superior in the seminary.
“You can’t take the lines of the Bible out of context,” Father Superior had said to him.
He had retorted back, “But if each line of the Bible was written by God, then each line must be self-contained and true.”
Father Superior was a biblical scholar and was not about to agree with a sophomore seminarian.
“There is no God,” Father Superior said. “That’s straight from Psalm 14. Does that mean that the Bible claims that there is no God?”
Father Romy vividly remembered that he had opened the Old Testament to prove to Father Superior that the latter was wrong. Father Romy – then simply Romy – had to think for at least five minutes after he read the complete verse in the Bible. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. He eventually learned in his literature class that literary critics in the middle of the twentieth century had written about that very verse. But literary critics did not see the Bible as divinely inspired. They read it the way they would read the Iliad, a well-written narrative but devoid of any transcendent meaning.
Father Romy marveled at how old memories seemed to be coming back to him. If he could only figure out what triggered these old memories, maybe he could remember where he was and who he was and what he was. Then maybe he would know where he was going.
* * *
Julie wanted sex. It was that time of the month. Her body craved it.
She had confessed and was, therefore, in a state of grace, but she wanted to give in to temptation anyway. She was still upset over Frankie killing her husband, but Frankie was the only one who would satisfy her monthly craving for an orgasm.
She did not want to do what she had heard other widows did. Widows, not just women who lost their husbands, but golf widows, or women whose husbands worked overseas. She did not want to order sex toys online and use them to simulate lovemaking.
She texted Frankie. “Come,” she texted.
It was, of course, much more convenient now that her husband was dead and buried. Frankie and she did not have to go to hotels or motels or anywhere where her co-teachers or – worse – her students might see her. Now, Frankie could just go to her condo unit. The guards and the maids, having been paid off, would keep their mouths shut and would not even gossip among themselves.
It would be the first time, since her husband’s death, that she would have Frankie in her bedroom. She had told him, frankly, that she did not want to see him again, did not want to hear from him, did not want to have him. She did not know that he was not joking when he said that he would kill her husband. But he had not killed his wife, which was the other part of what she thought was a joke. But she consciously did not allow herself to think that, perhaps, just perhaps, he was never going to leave his wife, never going to kill her, never going to go away to Hong Kong on that fantasy honeymoon.
She took a long, lingering shower, during which she touched herself, wishing that Frankie would touch her again as he used to. She put on some make-up and perfume – the best one her husband had brought home from a business trip to Paris. She chose a negligee that she had bought on a trip to New York; it hid nothing of her charms, which she herself – if she may be so bold, she said to herself – were not entirely unremarkable. She had only the negligee on, nothing else.
Frankie rang the doorbell much earlier than she expected. The maids let him in. He went straight to the bedroom that the maids pointed out to him, where she was waiting, pretending to not be too eager.
He took her into his arms, kissed her roughly, then carried her, yes, carried her, to the bed, where he slowly, oooh ever so slowly, kissed her neck, lingering there, not touching her breasts, then finally touching them, caressing them, kissing them one at a time, alternately, touching her down there, yes, down there, kissing her there, making her tingle with desire, finally removing her negligee and revealing what she had revealed to him so many times before. But always, with Frankie, every time seemed like the first time.
When she finally shouted “OH, MY GOD!” the face she saw with her eyes closed was not that of Frankie, nor that of her late husband, but of, oh my God, Father Romy.