In the reception area of the rectory, Father Romy listened very attentively to Julie as she poured out her frustrations with the government. She wanted to run her school the way she thought it should be run, but the government was always interfering. She wanted an old-fashioned school, run exactly the way her own school was run when she was a young girl. She wanted everyone to be disciplined, to grow up knowing and following the rules, to not rock any boats. She wanted the girls to grow up and marry, have kids, take care of the house, live happily ever after. She wanted the boys to grow up and get jobs, provide for their families, become model employees in big corporations, remain faithful to their wives, live happily ever after.
Father Romy did not agree with anything she said, but he was a priest, and he knew that his role was to listen, not to pretend that he knew how to run somebody else’s life. He could only quote from the Bible if he had to give advice, but he had nothing to say if he were to depend only on his own experience. In fact, he thought, he had very little experience to bank on, because he could only remember things he did after that birthday party. Except for those strange memories or visions or whatever they were of him being stabbed.
“What do I do, Father?” asked Julie.
“Jesus said that we must give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
“That’s Mark 12, 17,” said Julie, unable to stop herself from interrupting.
“Yes, and in your case, the government is Caesar. Let the government do what it has to do. That is not God’s territory,” said Father Romy, knowing very well that he was talking nonsense.
“You are talking nonsense,” said Julie, reading his thoughts.
“That is the word of God. She never makes mistakes,” said Father Romy.
There it is again, thought Julie. He’s using the feminine pronoun to refer to God.
“Father,” said Julie, this time more politely. “May I ask why you refer to God as a female?”
Father Romy straightened up. “Because she is female.”
“That’s nonsense!” said Julie. “How can you say that? You’re a priest, for heaven’s sake. You know as well as I do that God is a man, an old man, with a beard!”
Father Romy did not want to laugh. He vaguely remembered meeting an old man with a beard sometime. It must have been one of his parishioners, he thought.
“No,” he said. “The Bible is very clear. Genesis 1, 26, says that God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our own image, in our likeness.’ Mankind is both man and woman, both male and female. Surely you cannot say that women are not made in God’s image.”
This stumped Julie for a few seconds, but not for too long.
“That just means that we look like God, not that God looks like us.”
“An image is an image. If you look in a mirror, you see you, not someone else,” said Father Romy.
Julie was not dense; she caught that. So the good father is telling me that I should look in the mirror and see who I really am, she thought.
“Maybe God is not a female,” Father Romy continued. “But God is certainly not male, or not only male. God made mankind in her own likeness.”
“Then you should say that God is both male and female, Father. You can’t keep using she and her to refer to God if he is both male and female.”
“Well, yes,” admitted Father Romy. “That’s true. But I like to balance the habit of referring always to God as male. So I refer to him or to her as she.”
“Father,” Julie said, instinctively and unthinkingly taking the priest’s left hand in hers. “I came to ask you to help me think through what I should do with the government directive to change my teaching philosophy. I did not come to talk theology or bible studies or anything like that. You’re the expert in the Bible. I read the Bible, but I am only an amateur. But I am an expert in education and I know that what the government is asking me to do is not good for the children.”
Father Romy could not think. There was something about this woman’s touch that made him lose his train of thought.
Father Romy withdrew his hand. “I am sorry, Miss, but I am not expert in education and I can give you no advice about what to do with your school.”
“Then I have wasted my time and I have wasted yours,” said Julie, standing up abruptly. “Good day, Father. I am sorry to have come.”
Father Romy stood up, too. “No, you did not waste my time, even if I have wasted yours. Please come any time. I am here to help in any way I can.”
He couldn’t help himself. “And I enjoy your company.”
Julie smiled in puzzlement.
“Well, Father,” she said, “I shall be going. Please text me if you need anything.”
She gave him her business card.
Father Romy watched her as she walked down the stairs. He could not help but marvel at how her figure was as lithe as that of an angel.
Being sexually attracted to a woman was an occupational hazard for Catholic priests. A man did not lose his libido when he was ordained. Many are called, but few are chosen, went the rationalization of priests who, in typical religious jargon, “go astray.”
Father Romy vaguely remembered that lesson he must have learned in the seminary about how to counteract “the wiles of the devil.” Or perhaps he just read it in a book. He had to pray before sleeping, so he would not have wet dreams. He had to have a rosary handy when his sexual organ started to react to the physical presence of a woman. Or a man.
Routinely, he had to eat papaya at every meal.
Why papaya? Because it was called “the fruit of the angels” by Christopher Columbus. Because it was touted as a miracle fruit, able to prevent heart attacks, strokes, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, and even prostrate cancer. That part about the prostate was important, Father Romy remembered from reading a book about aging males. A celibate did not have the natural immunity against prostate cancer that a sexually active man had. Whether urban legend or medical fact, orgasm was supposed to keep the prostate active, making it able to kill any cancer cells that might be lurking in it. By implication – although Father Romy was intelligent enough to know that the logic was dubious – papaya deadened the sexual urge.
Father Romy went to the kitchen and got himself a papaya. He sliced it, scooped out the seeds, and downed the whole thing in twenty seconds flat. He also silently chanted a prayer, echoing Jesus berating the devil in the desert. “Away from me, Satan!”
If Julie were Satan, however, Father Romy thought, she was about as different from that fire-breathing monster as anyone could be. She smelled like an angel, not a fallen one, but a real angel, perhaps his guardian angel. Of course, Father Romy had to smile at himself. He didn’t really know how an angel smelled.
Or did he? Suddenly, without warning, Father Romy seemed to see before him an angel or what looked like an angel. It was some person in white waving a light at his face. There was a tunnel of some kind, a very dark tunnel. Father Romy shuddered. I must be losing my mind, he whispered.
When he shook his head to get rid of the vision or whatever it was, Father Romy saw that he was alone in the kitchen, with what was left of the papaya still in his hand. He got another papaya and sliced it open, threw the seeds out, and almost choked himself with it.
He saw himself in a mirror in the kitchen, and he had to laugh. His mouth was overflowing with papaya. His face was distorted almost comically. He still had his collar on. He was a priest, a priest forever. Julie or no Julie, he was going to be faithful to his vow of celibacy.
But his sexual organ seemed not to share his resolve. Father Romy decided that, even if he had not given in to temptation, he should avail of the sacrament of reconciliation. He went to the church to line up at the confessional.
Father Romy was glad to see that the light in the confessional box was on. That meant that there was a priest there, waiting for penitents to list all their sins. Although he was a priest or perhaps because he was a priest, Father Romy had to go to confession like any other Catholic. He could not forgive his own sins; another priest had to do that. Catholic doctrine was even more strict than the unwritten code of medical doctors. Medical doctors could self-diagnose and self-medicate, even if they could not listen to their own heartbeats nor think objectively about their symptoms, but a priest had to have another priest to give him absolution.
There was nobody else in the church except Father Romy and the priest in the confessional. Father Romy waited for a few minutes, just to be sure that there was no penitent inside the confessional box. He knelt down inside the penitent side of the confessional box. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he began. “My last confession was a week ago.”
He did not know and he did not care if it was the other priest of the parish on the other side. All priests were bound by the seal of confession, and even if they would talk later on at dinner, his fellow priest would never mention anything said inside the confessional box. Sometimes, priests from outside the parish would come to hear confessions; that would be even less awkward later.
“I had bad thoughts, Father,” Father Romy said. “In my mind, I looked with lust at a woman’s breasts.”
It was quite a struggle for Father Romy to say the word breasts, but he wanted to describe his sin as precisely as he could.
He could see the shadow on the other side nodding. He himself, when he was hearing confessions, often fell asleep. Hearing people being sorry for their sins was the most boring duty of a priest. He could not pay too much attention to the sins, he could never talk about them to anyone anyway, he wasn’t even supposed to remember them after giving absolution to penitents. He remembered vaguely someone confessing to a murder, but he could not remember who it was.
“In my mind, I undressed her, Father,” Father Romy continued. “I imagined myself embracing her, kissing her.” He could feel a hard-on coming, even when he was just trying to repeat what he did in his mind. Or what he thought he did. He could not even remember whether he did fantasize about Miss Julie when she was in the rectory or whether he was fantasizing only now.
“I am also guilty of the sin of pride, Father,” Father Romy said. “I argued for the sake of argument. I did not think of the welfare of others. I did not think of the principal who could maybe even lose her faith. I thought only of myself, of how I was conflicted, of how I wanted to touch that woman.”
Father Romy spoke faster and faster, his voice matching his excitement in remembering or not remembering, in fantasizing then or now. In his mind he held a portrait of Julie with lips parted.
“Please forgive me, Father. I need absolution. I need your blessing.”
“Go and sin no more,” came the hardly audible voice.
Father Romy stood up and left the confessional box. He stayed in a pew just beside it. He said three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys.
He glanced at the confessional. The light was still on. There were no other penitents around. He was the only one in the church aside from the priest in the confessional box. Then the light turned off.
Father Romy waited for the priest to come out of the confessional. It took a while. Father Romy became bothered. Maybe something happened to the priest. Maybe he really fell asleep, or maybe he even passed out.
Father Romy went to the confessional box and opened the priest compartment. It was empty.
Had his eyes and ears been playing with him? Father Romy was perplexed. He was sure that there was someone in the confessional box. He was sure that he heard a voice saying that he should go and sin no more. True, the voice did not sound at all like that of the other priest in the parish. Nor did it sound like that of any other priest he knew who would visit the parish to hear confessions.
Father Romy went back to the pew and knelt down. He buried his face in his hands. Was he losing his mind? Was he starting to hear voices? There were those visions that he couldn’t explain, visions of him dying. Snippets of conversations, debates, arguments. Some guy in white. He wondered if he should return to the psychiatrist that his bishop had referred him to. But, no, he had already been pronounced perfectly sane, though suffering from total amnesia. Maybe he did imagine the confessional box to be occupied. Maybe he did imagine the light being on and going off. Maybe he felt so guilty about thinking about a woman that he convinced himself that he was confessing to a confessor.
Father Romy looked up at the statues that adorned the altar. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” He remembered the verse from chapter 20 of Exodus. He knew that, as a Catholic, he was not bound by that commandment. Jesus had said explicitly that the old commandments no longer held, that there were now only two commandments. Love God and love your neighbor. And what was that about love? Could he, a Roman Catholic priest with a vow of celibacy, love a woman? What was he thinking about? He barely knew this principal. He couldn’t possibly already like her. In fact, he positively disliked her, her haughtiness, her self-importance. But there was her sexy body.
Father Romy smiled at what one of the young men in his parish had told him just a few days before, apparently quoting something from social media. “Father,’ the young man had asked, rhetorically, “Is it true that the best way to fight temptation is to give in to it?
Father Romy had taken offense at that remark. Of course, he knew that it was rhetorical, or even a joke. The young man was definitely merely teasing. But he scolded the young man and told him not to quote such nonsense.
Maybe, just maybe, Father Romy said to himself now, the advice is good. The best way to face this temptation is to face it head on, not to give in to it but not to turn away.
He dialed the mobile phone number on the business card that Julie had left with him.
A man answered. “Yes. Who is this?”
Father Romy stuttered in surprise, “May I speak with Julie, please?”
The man said, “Who is this? Why are you calling?”
Father Romy said, “I’m Father Romy. I need to talk to her about her school.”
The voice on the other end said, “Oh, you’re a priest. Okay, Father, you may talk to her. She’s just, well, occupied.” Father Romy heard the man whispering, “It’s a priest.”
Julie got on the phone. “I’m sorry, Father, this is a bad time. Can I call you in a couple of hours?”
“Sure, Miss,” said Father Romy. “Thank you. Goodbye.” He should have said, “God bless,” he told himself after he had hung up.
Julie turned to Frankie. “You shouldn’t have answered my phone.”
“Well, you couldn’t have answered it, since you’re on your knees and I’m standing up and I’m inside your mouth. I’m sorry. I thought you had another lover.”
“What?” said Julie, standing up. “How dare you think I have another lover?”
Frankie grabbed her ass and pulled her towards him. “You’re right. My Thomas is more than enough for your Jane.”
Back in the rectory, Father Romy opened his Bible to the eighth chapter of John and read, “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He did not want to judge, that he may not be judged, but it still rankled that a man answered Julie’s mobile phone. A mobile phone was as private to a person as the person’s own body.
She had told him that her husband was dead. Who, then, was this man?
Julie was completely conflicted. She did not want to do it with Frankie anymore, no, not anymore, not after she had met this priest who seemed so holy, who seemed to live in another world, a more peaceful world, a higher world, who did not say anything about her sexual desires, because, perhaps, he did not know, perhaps could not imagine, the strength and the urgency of the desire of a woman to have a man inside her. He did not want her, the way Frankie wanted her. He did not want her, not even in the way her late husband wanted her. No, he was not attracted to her. He was not like those principals of other schools who would ask to take selfies with her in their educational conventions, just to be able to post her photo on their social media pages. No, he was not like anyone she had ever met.
She could not get that priest out of her mind. Not even while she was occupied with making Frankie come. Frankie had come to her door, unexpected, unannounced. She did not want to let him in, but she could not stop herself from letting him in. Frankie had pushed her to the floor. She found herself on her knees. She knew what Frankie wanted and she wanted to give it to him. Yes, she wanted him. No, she did not want him. Oh God, she said to herself, what shall she do?
Then, as if on cue, that priest called. Did God plan it so that the priest would call to stop her madness? Was being with Frankie madness? Was she mad, with her husband barely in his grave?
She went through the motions with Frankie. She did not come herself. She couldn’t, not with that priest on her mind, not with the guilt that the phone call had caused. Frankie would not leave her unless she came, so she pretended to come.
Soon after, she was alone again in her bedroom, yes, the very same bedroom where she and her husband would have conversations about her school, about the latest revolt she had put down among the teachers, about his many companies, about the latest products he had manufactured and was now selling, about what it would be like to go on yet another cruise, about whether they should adopt a child. Her husband would kiss her, never passionately, just the required conjugal kiss, then perhaps have quick sex. He would snore and she would stay awake, unsatisfied. Yes, this was that very same bedroom.
She broke down and cried, cried like she never cried before, cried because she missed her husband, yes, missed him, for all his lack of feeling, missed him, even for the little sex that she had with him, missed him, especially for the conversations about the Bible, the passages that they argued about.
The thought of the Bible brought back the image of Father Romy. She smiled at the memory of the priest abandoning his prepared sermon when she interrupted him repeatedly during the recollection of the children. She raised her eyebrows when she remembered how he had held her hand a bit too long for a polite handshake. She frowned when she remembered how they had an argument, well, just the beginning of an argument, about whether to use the male or female personal pronoun to refer to God.
She realized that, yes, perhaps, only perhaps, she was falling for this priest, this unreachable, this untouchable, priest.