Picture it: Pensacola. Summer 1998. I’m 18, just out of high school. It’s only a few months since my reception into the Catholic Church, which took place during an hours-long Easter Vigil Mass at my uber-traditional, ultra-conservative parish, and at which ceremony I wore all white, including the doily on my head.
“Pius” is 19, home for the summer from his all-male Catholic college, with plans to join the Catholic seminary when he graduates. He is a friend of a friend, but our mutual friend keeps bowing out of plans the three of us make together. Pius and I wind up spending many evenings together watching reruns of the X-Files. He helps me pick out a VHS camcorder to buy with my graduation money since I’m really into making movies and think I might go to film school some day. We hang out on my day off from my job at the bookstore for the college where I’ll be starting in the fall, and we drive to a mall that is an hour away from our own mall, and nearly identical to it, just for fun. At the mall, we eat Chick-Fil-A and play games in the video arcade. We win an assortment of trinkets, including two plastic flower rings. I wear the pink one on my pinkie, and he wears the blue.
We talk about family, faith, our firmly held beliefs in What’s Wrong With Society and how we’ll never conform to the ways of the World. We talk about our dreams for the future, our still-unmade plans. We talk about the capital-C-Catholic husband I hope to have some day, and all the Catholic children I hope will sit around my table like olive branches. I tell him about the guy from church I had a crush on last semester and how I tried to show him what a great Catholic I am so as to plant seeds that would grow into thoughts of, “Wouldn’t she make a great wife?” We go see the X-Files movie in the theater, and we eat pizza, and we go to the next town over for the once-a-month Latin Mass.
I begin to relish instances when strangers in public mistake Pius and me for boyfriend and girlfriend or even husband and wife. I begin to think Pius would be a great candidate for my capital-C-Catholic husband. I begin to write tormented, guilt-ridden entries in my diary about how selfish I am for wanting such a good man for myself when God wants him for the priesthood.
“Oh, terrible, terrible irony! You make my dreams manifest in a man destined for things more noble than I!” *
One night, as my curfew approaches, we lie on his bed, chastely discussing all manner of important topics, and he notices that I am preoccupied.
“What’s your problem?” he asks, joking but kind. “I can tell you have Issues.”
My stomach is suddenly filled with hummingbirds. I deny having Issues. “You’re the one with Issues,” I retort.
He concedes this point, then proposes that he will tell me his Issue if I will agree to tell him mine. I consent to this, then take it back, realizing I’m terrified to confess my feelings for him. “Don’t tell me an Issue,” I say. “I don’t know if I want to tell mine.”
“So there’s this Lord,” he interrupts me. “A Lord with a serf and some land.”
I recognize the beginning of a parable. “Who is the Lord?” I say. “And who is the serf? Are you one of them?”
“No, I’m neither,” he explains. “The Lord… that’s self-explanatory. I am the land.”
“All of the land?” I ask.
“Not all of it; just this one, sectioned-off part of it.”
“Ok,” I say. “Who is the serf?”
He smiles. “I don’t know! You don’t want to hear this story. It could be you–you’ll never know!”
I protest. Now my hummingbirds have multiplied, but I am desperate to hear what he has to say.
He continues. “The Lord tells the serf, go ye, take these seeds, and spread them all over the land. Spread them everywhere–but not that sectioned-off area. Leave that part alone. So the serf goes around, tossing the seeds about Rip Taylorishly–all over the place.”
I have to stop him so he can tell me who Rip Taylor is. He is apparently known for throwing things around haphazardly. Pius pantomimes this with flourish.
“The seeds land everywhere,” he continues. “Some land on the road–“
“What happens to those seeds?” I ask.
“Oh, they shrivel up and… go blind.” I giggle at this. It’s a reference to my last-semester crush. “But some of the seeds end up in the forbidden part of the land, the land the Lord had set apart from the rest,” he continues.
“Oh,” I say.
“And now… now it’s harvest time, and the Lord can see where all the seeds have grown, and he can see they went where they shouldn’t have. He goes to the serf and says, ‘I see some of the seeds are over there. Why did you put them there?'”
Flutter! “So she put the seeds there, even when the Lord told her not to?” I ask. “What will happen to her?”
“Nothing,” Pius reassures me. “She didn’t do it on purpose. But now the land is wondering… and asking the Lord… if he can have her… or if the Lord will just smack the land and say, ‘you’re mine!'”
We both laugh at the unceremonious end to the parable.
Now it’s my turn. I lie silently for several minutes, thinking how to respond.
Pius becomes slightly agitated. The clock is ticking. “Your move,” he tells me.
“So, the serf.” I begin. “The serf can see where all her seeds have gone. She sees the plants that have grown in the sectioned-off land, and she really likes them there. So she’s thinking about asking the Lord to reconsider what he said about sectioning that land off. But… then she’s all, ‘you’re the Lord! It’s all you!'”
My contribution to the love parable is much less detailed than Pius’s, but it gets the message across. And then it is time for me to leave.
Over the next several days, Pius and I indulge in sitting close together for our X-Files viewings, and holding hands during our drives. We have many anguished discussions about how no one must know we are doing any of this, how disappointed everyone would be in us if they knew. Pius is meant for the priesthood. If I were a better Catholic, I would put the Church’s need for vocations ahead of my own desires. What kind of brazen hussy robs the seminary?
It’s not for a couple of days after the parable that Pius kisses me. He tells me, “One way or another, I will marry you. Either as your husband, or as your priest.” I find this thrilling, yet bittersweet.
But we have a very serious concern about our heady, secret romance. What if God really does want Pius to be a priest, and what if Pius decides not to become a priest because of me? We are in agreement: if that happens, God will kill me. Definitely.
The stakes are high, and the summer is almost over. After a happy weekend together, we decide not to see each other the following Monday. I’ve been spending every free moment with Pius, staying up until the very last seconds before my curfew. We need a day to rest.
But when we see each other again on Tuesday, something is different. With each passing day, he’s touching me less, picking on me more. We aren’t alone as often as we were. Our conversations lose their intimacy.
Finally, with his return to college only a day away, I get a moment alone with him. “So the serf,” I say. He raises an eyebrow at me. “She’s pretty confused, because there was this whole thing with the land and this garden she didn’t mean to plant. And she’s been really enjoying it and everything, but now she doesn’t know what’s going on.” I look at him pointedly.
Pius’s response is not what I want to hear. “I guess the land’s just all, ‘I dunno, whatever.'”
And with that, the threat that Pius would choose me over his “true” vocation, prompting God to kill me, evaporates. Pius goes back to school and doesn’t reply to my letters. I find out later that he is dating someone, and it is not a secret.
One day, a year or two later, I go to a midweek daily Mass downtown. I have stopped going to the uber-traditional, ultra-conservative parish where I was received. I run into Pius before daily Mass starts, and it is a friendly if subdued reunion. By this time, I am dating Lou. Pius points to a girl who looks not unlike me, kneeling in a pew and praying. It’s his girlfriend. The two of them have just arrived to town, having driven overnight from out of state. They both have greasy road hair. As I smile graciously at Pius and say goodbye, I feel inwardly gratified that I do not have greasy road hair and that I am, in fact, looking quite cute and well-dressed that day.
Later still, after I have finished college, married Lou, and moved away to graduate school, Pius and I again find ourselves in our hometown. It is Christmas break. The past is behind us, and we make plans to go to a local church with a Christmas light display. This church used to host a huge festival each fall that was well attended by the locals, and for Christmas, the grounds were converted into booths of Christmas dioramas, toy train displays, and hot chocolate stands. Pius and I walk the grounds together in the cold, admiring the thousands of twinkling lights that hug the tree branches high above. The fall festival and Christmas events have dwindled in recent years. Pius went to this church when he was a child, during its heyday, and he shows me the booth his family used to run, points out the dilapidation of the infrastructure. We notice areas where the lights in the trees are burned out. We sip hot chocolate, reminisce, and catch up.
He drives me to my dad’s house in the car where we once secretly held hands. I’ve had a nice time with him and feel cheerful with nostalgia and letting go. He pulls the car up to the curb outside the house, where I know Lou is inside waiting for me. I reach down into the pocket of the passenger side door to retrieve something of mine, and I find a clear plastic gumball machine egg with a plastic fly inside. “Whose is this?” I ask, thinking it must belong to his niece.
“You don’t remember?” Pius asks.
I shake my head. “No. Should I?”
Pius looks out the windshield. “We won it. At the mall.”
I look at the trinket again, searching my memory. “I remember that day,” I say. “I remember the mall and the arcade. I remember the plastic flower rings. But,” I shrug, “I don’t remember this.”
And that was that.
I haven’t seen or spoken to Pius since then. I have heard he is married (not to the girl with greasy road hair) and has two children. By all accounts, he found the capital-C-Catholic spouse. Maybe she even wears doilies. I wish them well.
I, meanwhile, have learned one thing if nothing else in the intervening years, and that is that God does not kill people for getting married. God does not kill people, period.
This is a lesson I’m glad to have learned.