Natalie Tucci Is Getting Married
Father Dominic hears confessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays between five and five-thirty. At the same time, a rosary devotion lead by a diminutive Guatemalan woman, ironically or perhaps aptly named Maria, begins in the church. Her lilting Hail Marys sneak through the door with each burden-backed sinner.
Today would be an absolutely ordinary Tuesday had Natalie Tucci not posted engagement photos to her Facebook page. Eight years ago Father Dominic decided that his whole heart would belong to God for the rest of his life, but one corner would always belong to Natalie Tucci, to some extent because that little corner couldn’t quite help it. Now a man named Cody would love and cherish Natalie and — as much as any man can — promise her his whole heart for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Father Dominic will continue to hear confessions at St. Anthony’s while Maria leads a devout group of septuagenarians through the Sorrowful Mysteries.
It’s two after five and there are a few sorry souls lurking around the confessional. It’s the kind that is one room separated by a partition, closed by a heavy velvet curtain; it is not the kind with two small chambers separated by a wooden screen, each trapped behind a thin door made of ornately carved oak. Father Dominic knows that’s what you were imagining, because you saw it in a movie or in that old cathedral that your grandmother drags you to on Easter, but it’s not that.
Father Dominic makes a point not to look directly at anyone waiting as he enters the confessional. He prefers to maintain anonymity in the sacrament; even though he has his regulars, he does not address them by name.
On his side of the partition there is a small brass lamp with a dark shade that gives off just a little light. He has a chair that graciously has a small cushion in the seat. From behind the partition he can often see a hand moving the corner of the curtain or a pair of shoes, and he tries to not to associate them with any of the parishioners or Catholics working in the neighborhood who stop by at the end of the day. Father Dominic would love a turkey club right now, but he’s practicing intermittent fasting and trying to become a vegetarian because part of him thinks that a pro-life platform should include all life.
A few things about Father Dominic: he enjoys a medium rare filet, a rich scotch, and video games. He knows everything there is to know about J.R.R. Tolkien like any good Catholic boy and has only watched porn four times. He’s never flossed and used to smoke three packs a week, but with aid from the Blessed Mother— and nicotine patches — he stopped a year and a half ago. He dresses in street clothes on Holy Thursday and hands out socks and shoes to the homeless in Tompkins Square park. He goes to the nursing home on Monday nights with the parish’s young adult group and talks to Francine, who thinks he’s her grandson George. He wears glasses he hopes are fashionable but knows are not, and he’s starting to bald a bit in the back. He tries to cover it but never works. He likes to preach about peace and prayer and potential and not about the dangers of technology or capitalism or online shopping. He secretly hates saying Mass on the day that the Diocesan Appeal envelopes are passed around because Mrs. Hernandez sits in the front row at eleven o’clock Mass. Her face falls as she looks at the suggested donations on printed on the envelope; she would give everything to the Church — foolishly perhaps — but she has little more than the women sleeping on park benches. She has four children and seven grandchildren and works at the laundromat next to the Rite Aid. She hasn’t bought anything for herself in twenty-eight years. She stopped going to the Spanish Mass because Father Dominic does not say the Spanish Mass, and she wants to hear the thoughts of her dear friend on Sundays. Every time Father Dominic sees a young woman with undulating dark hair he forgets to breathe.
There’s a switch next to his chair that ignites a tiny light, like a stoplight, just above the confessional as if to say, “Yield for Shame and the Holy Spirit!” He crosses himself as he sits. He sees Cody’s glowing face as he prays for the grace to hear — and absolve, hopefully — a litany of sins. He flicks the light to green so that those waiting will know that he is now ready. (He is not ready. He should have become a Jesuit; he might be grading theology papers in a beautiful university building right now.)
There is a gentle thud of passing velvet and the soft clink of curtain rings sliding over a rod. Someone settles onto the kneeler on the other side of the partition. Father Dominic changes the light to red.
It should be noted that there is a second chair in the room, forming sort of an isosceles triangle with the kneeler and Father Dominic’s chair. People rarely favor the chair over the concealed kneeler, and when they do, Father Dominic finds that it usually men who presume that God has already forgiven them or believe that he, Father Dominic, is their best friend. He must actively combat his annoyance with both. Occasionally someone will sit there because they are so consumed in grief or guilt that their knees will not hold them, but this is very rare. Sometimes a mother will sit and confess her child’s sins as if they are her own because she feels that they are. He must assure her that they are not. Sometimes a penitent is very old or disabled and kneeling is almost impossible. Father Dominic encourages the chair as soon has he recognizes labored movement behind the curtain.
The person on the other side of the partition must be very short because Father Dominic cannot see their shoes. They sputter, a small cough, as if to let Father Dominic know that they are ready. Father Dominic is still not ready. He contemplates for a moment, really waiting for God’s presence. He doesn’t feel it. But God is always present, so Father Dominic begins.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he intones, signing the cross before the woven screen in the center of the partition. He waits for mumbles from the other side; they do not come or at least he does not hear them. He offers, “Good afternoon. How long has it been since your last confession?” There is not an immediate response. The wait gives Father Dominic room to remember that it is not a good afternoon. Cody’s smiling face winks at him. His stomach lurches.
“It’s been six months, Father,” comes a small voice, a woman, neither old nor young. She doesn’t continue, but allows the silence to speak for itself. The space of a confessional often whispers invitations to vulnerability, but as Father Dominic knows, there is a another voice that grabs you in its teeth, threatening to bite should you decide to share absolutely everything.
“What’s burdening you today, sister?” Father Dominic asks. Whatever this woman is carrying must be weighty because Father Dominic can feel it from the other side of the partition.
“I am attracted to a man, Father,” she begins. Obviously this is not a sin itself so Father Dominic does not reply immediately. All pretenses aside, he does not recognize this woman. She does not elaborate.
“Are you single or married, sister?” he urges after a while.
“I am married, Father,” she admits. Still, this is not a sin itself — Father Dominic himself is partial to dark-haired women with freckles and light eyes, and he has committed himself to a life of celibacy — but he is patient for her human indiscretion to out itself.
“I think that I’m obsessed with another man. I think I’m in love,” she whimpers. Her torment tears at Father Dominic’s concentration. He sees Cody’s face yet again and realizes that he spent just shy of an hour and a half studying Natalie’s engagement photos. Maybe he should de-activate his Facebook account.
“I can see how that might be… preoccupying,” he confirms. “How long have you found yourself drawn to this man?”
“It’s been about seven months. Seven months and two weeks, if I’m being totally honest.” Father Dominic does not need precision to absolve anyone; precision is not necessarily revelatory or truth-telling.
“How have your feelings for this man effected your daily life?”
“Well,” the hesitation in her voice suggests that the effect is rather embarrassing. Father Dominic settles in and tries to focus. “I spend hours stalking him. Online, I mean. Looking at Instagram stories of his dog, following his work history on LinkedIn, reading his articles in his college newspaper, and watching Facebook videos posted from 2009, submerging myself in his internet existence. Then I delete my search history so that my husband won’t know that I’ve been preoccupied with this other man for hours. Or months, honestly. And then I go to sleep next to my husband, and I fantasize what it might be like to be in his arms. Not my husband’s.”
Father Dominic had accidentally “liked” two of the engagement photos, one featuring a romantic looking tree that he hovered over for too long, distracted by an animated argument from somewhere else in the rectory. The other was a particularly stunning portrait in which Cody faced away from the camera, and Natalie stared into the lens as if into his eyes. He immediately “unliked” both of these photos and prayed that Facebook would not notify Natalie. This had all occurred before seven in the morning.
“I see,” Father Dominic continues. Moments like these are delicate; unhealthy attachments are admitted, but no wildly feckless or selfish actions are confessed. He treads lightly. “How have these behaviors impacted your relationship with your husband?”
“Um,” the woman draws her breath as she shifts back on the kneeler, relieving pressure from her knees. “We’re distant. We haven’t had sex in four months. I’m afraid he knows.”
Her percussive answer is accented with shame. He glimpses the shadow of her profile on the thin square of the screen, but reminds himself not to imagine her face.
“Have you…?” Father Dominic does not want to ask this next question. In the Church, it is said that each of us is bound in knots of suffering and sin. Some knots are tighter than others, but almost all can be undone. Tight entanglements, of course, can pinch fingers, occasionally disguising themselves as permanently taut. Discomfort, however, is often a necessary hurdle for grace.
When Dominic broke up with Natalie, he didn’t feel like he was doing it. He felt like he was watching the comic book version of his life unfold strip by strip, speech bubbles floating over his head, pencil lines accentuating gestures. He was choosing a life with God that could not include Natalie, which seemed, quite frankly, like one without Him. In that moment his mind would not allow him to feel either joy or pain. A week later he was curled in a ball on his desk chair, heart split down middle, puddling onto the floor. He tried to remind himself that pain invited healing, and that he definitely shouldn’t try to solve this problem with alcohol. When he didn’t feel strong enough, he consumed himself with his new studies and spent his free time saying rosaries until he fell asleep, often for far more than eight hours at a time.
“Have you acted on these feelings at all?” he asks finally, knowing that there is usually a catalyzing event that leads souls to the confessional. Some penitents simply come regularly — once a week, twice a month — but few have that level of discipline.
“Not until yesterday.” The truth falls heavy from her tongue. “It’s sort of long story I—”
“I don’t need to know all of the details. Just the main events.”
“It was just a kiss. We were drunk,” she fumbles forward. “I know that’s not an excuse. Anyway, he doesn’t really know how I feel. I do want it to end.” The Holy Spirit graces the woman with tears. “I know I should tell my husband. I will, I’m just—”
“I know, sister.”
In the quiet, there is only the little gasps between her falling tears. The longing in her pain inspires in him a sudden urge to call Natalie Tucci. He’s not sure whether or not her number is the same, or if she’d recognize his voice. It’s been about a year since he’s called her, maybe more. It’s been even longer since she’s called him. He hasn’t seen her in person in three and a half years.
“I’m sorry, Father,” the woman sputters.
“Please, sister. Tears are a gift.” He gives her the space to cry for a few more seconds. Father Dominic hopes that this enough time for him to make space for Christ’s mercy. He hopes that Natalie Tucci would answer if he called.
“Our sexuality is sacred, sister. So is marriage,” he emphasizes. “It’s easier to have our our hearts turned by distraction than it is to confront the stagnancy of a relationship no longer in motion. We must dare to move forward if we are to love, for the heart is a muscle and love is active.”
“Yes, Father,” she accepts as if she’s not familiar with such metaphorical consolation. He wonders if she realizes he is speaking to both of them; confession is as revelatory for him as it is for the penitents, if not more so. Father Dominic knows that God is with him in the sacrament through the wisdom he speaks. He himself knows so very little about this life.
Father Dominic would not like to share what the woman says next, as he believes it to be the root of her sin, and he has vowed secrecy (which has, in a way, already been breached by this account, though certain details may have been altered, only to maintain the privacy of the sacrament, of course).
Since her marriage, a relationship created in the very image of the Lord, is at stake, Father Dominic asks the woman to pray a rosary each night for forty days, so that the Blessed Mother may untangle her. He vows to pray one for her each night as well. Quietly, he suggests a friend who is a marriage counselor. He does not usually give penance that requires so much discipline, but he hears it come from his lips before he realizes what it demands. She fumbles over her Act of Contrition, struggling as many do with their formal promise of repentance. The piece of information that the woman revealed to Father Dominic assures him that she loves no one as much as she loves her husband — except, he hopes, the Lord — and there is something worthy there.
Natalie Tucci will likely be getting married in Delaware because she’s from there. Father Dominic is from Annapolis, which is an eighty-nine minute drive from where Natalie Tucci’s family lives in Wilmington. She lives in Philadelphia now. A small part of him fears that she will choose to get married at St. Thomas, the twin steepled parish where they’d met in college, up to their elbows in campus ministry work, waiting to hear God’s call to something. They would split sandwiches and clementines on the steps outside, and look up as Natalie imagined their wedding, musing about the songs, flowers, and the bridesmaids while Dominic listened without objections.
Father Dominic raises his hand above the shadow of her forehead as he whispers, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen.” The woman slips out of the confessional, her heaving chest sending ripples through the little room.
He reaches down next to his chair and flicks the switch.
For a few months, Natalie was considering joining the Sisters of Life. The idea horrified him. She would grapple with the possibility of a consecrated life as they sat in the library and picked at pasta in the cafeteria. She would make a wonderful sister, he knew her heart of service — she was a volunteered at the soup kitchen twice a week and once knitted forty pairs of mittens for soldiers in Afghanistan — was second to none. He prayed nightly for Natalie’s vocation, his selfish wish that it would not be in a convent not likely missed by Whoever was listening.
As the curtain opens, Maria announces, “The Crowning with Thorns,” and Father Dominic hopes there’s not a line. For a moment, he imagines that Cody is next and pulls back the curtain, confronting Father Dominic in the secluded space. You loved her first. How could you. He suddenly feels a gnawing in his mind and a heaviness in his chest, as if he’s been plunged into the ocean and is clawing at the water, desperate to connect with the surface. Father Dominic has been feeling this way a lot lately. He doesn’t yet understand this new darkness and why it has found him in what should be a joyful season.
There is a heavy exhale behind the curtain, maybe a puff of shame or simply exasperation. A rotund man lumbers around the partition and sits in the chair on the other side of the room. Father Dominic inadvertently shifts as the man smooths his stained polo to make himself presentable before the Lord. It’s his annoyance with this action that humbly reminds Father Dominic how unlike Christlike he feels.
“Hi, Father Dominic,” the man clears his throat and combs his beard with his fingers. The man’s name is James. He attends the five o’clock Mass on Sundays with his wife and teenage daughter. He’s won the prize for best burger at the parish barbecue three times and is in charge of campus security at Baruch. Every year his wife brings their pitbull Pickles to be blessed on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. He is altogether a good man, if overly familiar and slightly prying. The anonymity of the sacrament has dissipated. Father Dominic takes a deep breath and reminds himself that he is only uncomfortable with James sitting there due to his own lack of confidence as an administer of the sacrament. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands; every position seems to signal emotional withdrawal.
Father Dominic dislikes face to face confessions. He knows other priests often only allow one or the other and are self-possessed enough to assert this to the confessors; if today has taught Father Dominic anything, it is that he is not nearly as self-possessed as he ought to be. One little part of him is not in the confessional. A bit of guilt pinches his abdomen.
“Welcome,” he says, molding his lips into a soft smile, though he in fact does not feel in the position to offer hospitality. He begins, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” tracing the air before him.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” James commences. It may or may not be important that Father Dominic is not a fan of this particular initiation of the sacrament. This does not prevent any penance or absolution, but at this particular time it strains his ability to be charitable.
James swirls a gold chain on his wrist with an anxious thumb, which comforts Father Dominic because it shows him that enough guilt sits on this man’s heart that raising his eyes feels too brazen. It isn’t that Father Dominic ever hopes that the penitent is oppressed by shame, but he’s rather off put the audacity of those who look him squarely in the eye and presume forgiveness.
James wears a silver, unadorned wedding band. As he begins to fidget with it, Father Dominic sees the pasty flesh underneath that contrasts with his olive glow. Whether Father Dominic would be invited to Natalie Tucci’s wedding ceremony itself is something he hadn’t considered. Is there any sort of precedent for attending your ex-girlfriend’s wedding after you’ve been ordained? There wouldn’t be any chance of him being asked to celebrate. Surely she’d befriended a priest in recent years that wasn’t him. Surely. Would offering his services seem too presumptuous?
“It’s been a month since my last confession, you know,” James says. Father Dominic did know this, because James sits in the chair on the first Tuesday of every month. As unsettling as Father Dominic finds this, he does admire James’ accountability and remorseful spirit.
Natalie was not present when Father Dominic received the sacrament of holy orders. He hadn’t specifically expected her to come — what is the precedent when your ex-boyfriend becomes a priest? — but she for so long had been the person with whom he’d been the closest. In the moment he was ordained, Father Dominic did not think of her, but wept with joy for his new life. The next day, he scrutinized the pictures, noticing his parents and siblings, a few college buddies and friends from seminary, his aunt and grandad, but couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. The misplaced ingratitude tore at him for days until he ended up staring at Natalie’s number in his phone for almost half an hour, wanting desperately to dial, thumb hovering over the green circle.
“Father it’s been a rough month. I’ve fallen back on an old habit. Not sure even you know about this one—”
Father Dominic has been at St. Anthony’s for almost a year and a half so it didn’t seem unusual that he doesn’t know the past sins of every parishioner; a lifetime at a parish would not make one privy to all of its secrets.
“I’ve been gambling again, Father. And Rose don’t know it yet but—” James shakes his head and catches it in his hands. “I lost nine thousand dollars last week, Father.” James is not a wealthy man, but even if he were, nine thousand is a lot of money.
“How long has it been since you last gambled?” He’s quiet when he asks. Gambling is not vice that he has intimate knowledge of because he’s never had a lot of money, and he’s never been a position to be desperate for more. The vow of poverty has never been the one with which he’s struggled.
“It’s been about four or five years, Father. I thought I was done but, life’s expensive, you know? That’s no excuse, no excuse. Please, Father, I’m very ashamed.”
There is risk associated with answering a call. Of course, there is the belief, hopefully a strong one, that this longing that has been put on your heart will enrich your life. But Father Dominic also has an intimate understanding of the sacrifice that choosing a great life demands of you. If you believe, for example, that you are called to a life of ministry in the Catholic Church, the priesthood perhaps, you will have to set aside any plans you may have to marry your college sweetheart. You must return the square cut diamond ring hiding in your sock drawer to the jeweler. When you take it back, the jeweler look at you with sympathy, because he thinks you’re just another twenty-two year-old whose girlfriend was hoping for bigger adventure. You let him believe that because it’s easier to understand. There is no way to know whether the priesthood will sustain you but leaving things to chance requires faith. Yes, Father Dominic knows risk well.
Certain gambles, however, are risks without faith. “Gambling is a failure of trust. Remember Matthew chapter six, where Christ tells the apostles not to worry. The Lord feeds the birds of the air even though they do not work for their food the way humans do. Are we not more valuable than the sparrows? Will God not provide to his children who are invaluable to him? Now, I don’t mean to say that all of us will end up wealthy or successful in this life, but if we are prudent, hardworking, and open to God’s gifts, why should we fear hunger and thirst?”
“Maybe Jesus didn’t know about college tuition, Father,” James chuckles bashfully. He looks aside, a little apologetic for laughing in the confessional. Father Dominic feels silly for judging James’ choice of the chair over the kneeler. There is less argument in him than many who are eager to face down Father Dominic. His soft-eyed bookishness serves an intermediary for the Spirit, and, for some, a stand in for God. (It should be noted that Father Dominic knows that he is not God’s “stand in.” He just knows that some people think that he is. And it shocks him when these same people have no fear of just punishment.)
When Dominic told Natalie that he was applying for seminary, she looked away from him, embarrassed by her own hurt, her feelings of loss and betrayal. She’d known that he had been contemplating the priesthood throughout their relationship. She never allowed herself to believe that he would actually choose it. Why would he not choose their relationship when so many wait their entire lives for a kind and gentle love? And Father Dominic’s heart numbed itself to her hurt in that moment, removing him from reality while his lips said the words that they both had feared for so long. They had known in the quiet, secret part of themselves for a while: Dominic would serve in the Church because it was simply what he was meant to do. He wonder if she’d looked in the sock drawer.
James stops thumbing his jewelry with a soulful sigh. “My girl, she wants to go to one of those schools like Wesleyan or Tufts. She wants to have this life in, eh, academia. I can’t be a father to her. Can’t provide to her what she deserves. Who’s more valuable than her?”
Father Dominic’s heart softens; perhaps he and James really are friends. James’ brow crinkles, and Father Dominic wishes he could offer financial advice or a practical solution that would offer more tangible hope for this man’s family. He gives what he has.
“Money will not necessarily always make one a better father. Honesty, however…”
James nods, feeling the truth of this statement, wishing it to be enough for a daughter who certainly deserved all that James thought she did. After a long moment, James says something rather melancholy about himself that Father Dominic would prefer to omit. Father Dominic prays while James closes his eyes, solitary tears forming at the corners. He asks James tell his wife about the nine thousand dollars. He suggests that James to stay for the evening Mass, so he can be reminded that he has a God who he can depend upon. He raises a hand over James’ head and the prayer of absolution fills the roomy with a faint, dewey presence that brings tears even to Father Dominic’s eyes.
After months of crying, Dominic gathered the courage to send Natalie an email, apologizing for any hurt he had caused her. He told her about all of those days at Adoration, offering his heart and letting it be molded like clay. About the boldness and directness of the call to the priesthood, the voice of God, clear and unmistakable. She was, of course, forgave him and affirmed him in his vocation, but as he heard her voice, Dominic began to wonder if his time in seminary was simply a detour, a time to re-prioritize before becoming a husband to a woman of infinite worth. He and Natalie continued to email, to recount their separate lives, his in seminary, hers as a fourth grade teacher at a Catholic school in Philly. After a few months of correspondence, Dominic asked to speak to the rector of the seminary, explaining his consideration of abandoning his preparations in order to marry a lovely and virtuous woman. It was something in Dominic’s hemming and hawing that made the rector put up a finger, pause, and ask him to stay. He had a priest’s heart, the rector said. Dominic had heard it before, a dozen times at least. Whether he was washing chalices in the piscina, slowly watching the Blood of Christ circle toward earth, or organizing a Bible study for a gaggle of open-hearted young people, that phrase seemed to find him, spoken quietly from the lips of someone just a little wiser.
“Thank you, Father.” James has pulled himself together. He finally looks Father Dominic in the eye. Father Dominic simply smiles. James leaves the curtained room behind him. Father Dominic changes the light. The idea of Cody standing outside the confessional now seems absurd.
The curtain moves so slightly that he thinks that someone is just brushing by. He hears Maria’s call and response Hail Marys. She pauses after “thy womb Jesus,” so that the community may complete the prayer. There is a more definitive closure of the curtains, but the subsequent footsteps are so light he thinks that the penitent must be a child.
“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he prompts. There is a shift around Father Dominic that chills him, which could be the Spirit or only the winter air slipping into the room.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” a woman says. It’s barely above a whisper, but Dominic is immediately sure he knows her. He thinks it’s maybe Zoe Boucher from the young adult group. Or her best friend Mary? He shouldn’t spend time speculating.
“How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Three weeks, Father.”
It isn’t Zoe or Mary, he thinks. Is it Vince Bartucci’s new wife? What was her name? Paulina? “Okay,” he affirms.
“I’ve been distracting myself a lot. I’m busy, or I should be busy, planning my wedding. I’ve sort of fallen back into some bad habits because of the stress of it. Binge watching TV. Picking up fast food every night on the way home. Spending a lot of time on social media, comparing myself to women who are more together than me. Even last night, I masturbated. I haven’t done that in like four years. I was pretty depressed several years ago… I used to have a lot of bad habits when I was depressed and now I feel like I’m back there. And I know that I should feel excited, but I don’t,” she admits.
Her list of indiscretions are common place, but it is the event that strikes him as important. “You’re getting married?” Father Dominic clarifies. It definitely isn’t Paulina.
“I feel that my inability to control myself right before my life is about to change means maybe I’m not ready for it to change. Or maybe my marriage isn’t meant to be?” Maybe he knows her from another parish, or the coffee shop on the corner? She sounds a bit like the receptionist at Planet Fitness, but he doesn’t think she’s Catholic, though he’s been wrong before.
“Would you say that you are experiencing doubt?”
“What if I’ve been forcing the idea of our relationship or something? Maybe the two of us being together isn’t really what’s supposed to happen.”
There is familiarity in her hesitation, perhaps because he’s had similar questions about his own life. “Perhaps there is fear because there is so much potential for beauty. But also for pain. It’s easier for us to believe that shouldn’t have beautiful things than it is to accept them as God’s grace. Or to accept these gifts with full knowledge that they might be taken away. It requires more faith to move into a new stage of life than it does to cling to the old one. By returning to bad habits, we keep ourselves where we think we are safe, rather than having faith in his plan to move our life forward. We worship our own fear.”
When Dominic was in the rector’s office, he realized that the magnitude of the priesthood frightened him; the day to day work demanded so much strength and discipline, failure seemed like an enviable occurrence. Life lived with a wife and children, in house that was in a row of other identical houses, backed by green yards and swing sets suddenly seemed so neat and clean. He yearned for the familiar in the drafty seminary, Natalie’s bright voice, her fingers combing his through his hair. A life with her was easy to imagine, and he knew it would be happy. What was it in his answer that made the rector ask, no demand, that he stay?
“You think that I lack faith?” Her voice is timid, but he does not believe that she is.
“I think that you must ask yourself where you see God. Is this man a good man?”
“Do you love him? Not only are you in love, which is important, but is he your closest friend? Do you see Christ in him?”
There is a pause. In the quiet, Father Dominic allows himself a peak at her shadow. The gentle bridge of her nose is comfortable, calming.
“Yes. To all of the questions.”
Rather than finding this conviction affirming, Father Dominic feels suddenly alone. It is worthy to note that Father Dominic did not know that there was a Cody in Natalie Tucci’s life until this morning. The appearance of the photo album was overwhelming in his state of insomnia. He realized that his hope of being be close to her always was nothing more than a pick-colored dream, a string of unretrievable candy-coated memories.
“For your penance, two Hail Marys. And…” he trails off, feeling a slight pull toward something he’d rather resist. “Do an act of kindness for your fiancé. It can be ordinary or extraordinary, but let it be unexpected. The moment to act will present itself.”
A smile he is not prepared for pulls at the corner of his mouth. A lightness returns in his chest. He raises his hand.
“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.”
The woman does not stir immediately.
“You don’t need to me make an Act of Contrition?”
“I will say it for you.”
“Sorry — I mean thank you — Father.”
As she carries herself out, a chill crawls up Father Dominic’s legs. He silently makes an Act of Contrition for her. As he prays, his body knows something before his mind does.
There is a woolen mitten lying on the floor just beneath the curtain.
He does not flick the switch as he leaves his chair. As he exits the confessional, he retrieves the mitten. A small boy is waiting with his grandmother outside the room. He sweeps past them, vestments fluttering, ignoring their confused, protestant faces. He follows the woman to back of the church, her espresso-colored hair billowing behind her. Maria and her group have completed their recitation. The church is silent.
The woman stops to secure a hat that looks hand-knit over her head to protect her from the harsh bite of winter. She is willowy and small freckles dot the backs her hands. Dominic feels her name in his throat as she reaches into a font to bless herself. She turns, and he looks into her eyes.
They are deep brown puddles of sadness. Her face is narrow in an unfamiliar way, and her lips are thin and chapped. His mind tremors as it fails to place her. He holds out the mitten to her. She tilts her head as she sees him, as if remembering.
“Oh. I forgot to pray,” she says beneath her breath, so that he barely hears. She takes the mitten with soundless gratitude and slides sheepishly into the last pew.
A wave of absolution passes through Dominic, and he is left he staring at the door, tears sliding into his collar, warmth spreading into his extremities. He lets out a gasp and weeps.