“The physically ailing can go to the doctor…An ailing doctor can go to a fellow doctor when he is incapable of curing his own ailment…This moral cleanser and healer, has nowhere to go, but to his tainted old self…” murmured the priest, clasping hard a photo in his left hand, even as he placed his right hand on the carvings of a confession box. “My disease is prone to turn terminal if shared with another member of the church.”
“Never thought that I would ever set my foot in this place…” came a voice from behind him that startled Priest Dominique, who quickly shoved the photo back into his pocket and looked at the owner of the voice.
“At least not as long as I still breathed.” The burly man, with a thick set of moustache and a stupendous beer belly, eyed the inside of the church. His blood shot eyes seemed to emanate disgust, and his mouth murmured curses, too rotten to be spoken any louder for the sanctity of the place. The puffy sacks below his eyes, the thinning of his greying hair, his shivering hands and blackened lips indicated great turmoil in the recent past.
“I couldn’t have been happier to see you here, Barry,” said the priest clearly surprised. “The Lord’s gates are always open even for those greatly sinned souls…especially when in desperate need of redemption,” said Priest Dominique. The pudgy forty five year old man, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, golden rimmed glasses and a long nose, beamed at the unlikely visitor to his church, seated askance before him. The whiteness of his teeth and the smoothness of his clerical outfit proved a sharp contrast to his child hood friend, who sat before him with a t-shirt, greatly ruffled, and drenched in sweat.
Barry’s gaze, which was all along moving over the beautifully crafted exterior of the confession box, quickly fell on Priest Dominique, when the words ‘sinned souls’ singed his ears… and heart.
For some unknown reason, Priest Dominique felt an unprecedented chill as his gaze met that of his friend’s. That was strange, for a priest who, during his missionary days, had worked with people with incomprehensible mental illnesses and those having committed the most heinous crimes. Never had he seen such remorse and self loathe in a person’s eyes, as he was seeing then in Barry’s eyes.
Fortunately for him, Barry didn’t have a will strong enough to let the priest, peer into his tainted soul, for too long a time. Silence ensued, as Barry once again focused on the confession box not too far from them.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” said Priest Dominique, attempting to break the awkward silence. “A bunch of white lilies at the top, a passion flower at the center, two daffodils on either side of the passion flower, and a solitary rose, on the bottom of the passion flower. Willard’s youngest son Holly worked on them. Talented kid...Too bad he died of Cholera five years ago. The Lord seems to take back the purest and the most talented of us rather swiftly. It’s as if He realized that He had erred in sending them into this world, well before the world became worthy enough to have them.”
“And then your ‘Lord’ leaves back trash like me in this giant trash can called earth...” scoffed Barry in his usual incredulous way.
Priest Dominique wiped his forehead which was perspiring much more than usual. He once again sought the help of the artwork on the confession box to distract Barry’s attention.
“Do you know what each of those flowers stand for? The rose represents Christ’s sacrificial blood, reminding us that he has already paid for all our sins by sacrificing himself. The daffodil represents eternal life. The white lily represents Christ’s purity. And finally the passion flower reminds us of Christ’s wounds. Quite apt, aren’t they? To adorn a confession box.”
“Apt indeed. The confession box is quite apt to represent the fallacy of your religion...and the fallacy of your God!” Barry spat hard at the floor, beside the priest’s feet. “You can commit all sorts of sins, and then walk into that, and come out clean and purified? What is that? A car wash?”
“Now now, Barry. It is not very decent to-”
“To what? To question your beliefs and point out the errors in your ways?” asked Barry with a snicker.
“To spit on a floor that was just an hour ago wiped clean by a sixty year old church worker. Judelyn spent over 3 hours cleaning the church floors. Even God can’t save you from her fury if she saw you ruining her work,” Priest Dominique laughed in an obviously pretentious manner, as he wiped the spit off the floor using a tissue paper that he had just brought out of a shelf from nearby.
“You have the right to question the ways of all the religions of the world...You might question the existence of a God...Nobody is going to oppose that right of yours...at least not any decent and secure human being will...But I’m not going to lecture you on my point of view nor entertain yours any longer. We’ve done that for well over three decades now...right from our school days, when our paths diverged,” said Priest Dominque mustering what little courage he had, to display his annoyance at Barry’s behavior.
“Our paths didn’t diverge that much mate...You believed in an imaginary friend. I didn’t. That’s the only difference. But we lived a very similar life, if you think about it,” said Barry, as if he was recounting his teenage years. “A life of nothingness, boredom and restrictions that prevented us from exercising our right to satisfy our primal needs.” Barry walked closer to the confession box, as he spoke, eyeing the flowers more closely.
“Huh? What are you on about?” asked Priest Dominique, not sure where the conversation was heading towards.
“You wore the garb...You took the cross. I didn’t. But I lived a life very similar to yours. I didn’t go out and live to my heart’s desire!” yelled Barry, slamming his hand against confession box. “All because of people like you and your ramblings of morality.”
“I…I still don’t get it…What are we talking about again?” asked Priest Dominique genuinely perplexed.
“Alright I drank…I had my occasional puff…but that was about it. I didn’t even touch a single woman before Stacy…” Priest Dominique could hear a quiver in Barry’s tone, even though he could not see the man’s face.
“And shouldn’t you be proud of your loyalty?” asked Priest Dominique looking more uncomfortable with each passing moment.
“Don’t!” yelled Barry, before he lowered his head and covered his face with his palm. The throbbing vein at the side of his neck revealed that he was greatly stressed. “Don’t speak about loyalty…not to me…not now…”
The priest was surprised to see his exact thoughts being reiterated back by his friend. ‘What did he know? Or did he know anything at all?’ Priest Dominique allowed Barry to spend a few more moments as little sobs emerged from his lowered head. “Whatever bothers you, my friend…it can all be corrected…”
“Not this one…Not ever…” Barry’s entire body shook, much to the surprise of the priest, who mistook his sobbing to some emotional outbreak predating an aggressive action.
“Now Barry…We can talk our hearts out to each other…We don’t need to suffer…All can be forgiven…” said Priest Dominique, gently backing away from Barry, not comfortable one bit.
“I am sorry…I’m sorry for what was done…” bellowed Barry, colorless fluid spilling out of his every facial orifice. “I’ve been good all my life…I don’t deserve this…I’ve never betrayed anyone! I don’t deserve this…”
Priest Dominique was horrified more than before, even as his heart felt heavy and his lips quivered seeing his friend in that pitiful and terrifying state. He wanted to speak, but no words came out. Plain air escaped his lips, followed by a gasp, half gulped back in.
Then it all happened in a moment. Barry quickly moved toward the priest, who upon seeing his movement, covered his face as if expecting a thunderous blow. “No Barry…no…let me ex-“ Priest Dominique began to beg, but stopped mid-sentence when he saw Barry falling at his feet, crying like a toddler, his entire body shaking.
“Adultery...I can’t bear it…I just can’t…” sobbed Barry, holding tightly the priest’s legs. Priest Dominique bent down and touched Barry’s shoulders too afraid what his next move would be. His terminal psychological illness seemed to hurt him more now than ever. How desperately he needed a healer.
“What? How?” were the only words that came out of Priest Dominque’s lips, even as he gazed helplessly at the man at his feet. What was he to feel? He didn’t know. But he was feeling a whole lot of emotions. Anger, resentment, guilt, pity, fear, hopelessness, they all bombarded Priest Dominique’s mind.
“I slept with someone…and it wasn’t Stacy…” murmured Barry, his body shaking more than ever, his head still facing the ground.
Priest Dominique was now bombarded with two primary emotions. Surprise and a partial relief…Why? The reason for the former, he knew…the latter, though should have been obvious to him, temporarily appeared unclear. But he was suddenly much more confident, and light.
“Come on, Barry…Get yourself a chair and talk to me” said Priest Dominique as he lifted his friend up from his knees.
The two then moved to the chairs closer to the confession box and began their conversation.
“It happened last night, Mose…Sorry Priest Dominique” corrected Barry. He was suddenly much more polite and submissive than how he appeared when he first entered the church.
“You can call me by my first name, Barry…I’m here first as a friend,” said Priest Mose Dominique patting Barry’s slouching shoulders.
“You know me for years now, Mose…We’ve been in the same school, living in the same neighborhood, played together, travelled together. We’ve seen many similar things, been with many similar people. You know most people that I know. You know how things were during our younger days. How our friends were…How our schoolmates were…”
“Yes, I do…We’ve seen, been, and done many similar things…” replied Mose uneasily.
“Despite us coming from a very conservative catholic society, you know that most youngsters of our time did many things that were not accepted and approved by our society. They did drugs, got drunk, slept with random strangers, gambled and what not. But they all did it in secrecy. None of their more conservative family members knew anything about their activities. And they themselves weren’t guilty about anything.”
“I know…but what’s that got to do with anything?” asked Priest Dominique running low on patience.
“I’m getting there…I too got drunk once in a while…I too smoked…but I felt tremendous guilt about it all. I’m not a believer of God nor a follower of religion. But you know my old man. He was…old school. He had morals…he believed in principles. He was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t approve of things that easily. And I was afraid of him…I longed for his approval in everything. And I was conditioned into doing only things that were accepted by him. And he accepted very few things. I felt guilty for my occasional smoke and my occasional drink…and yet I saw people all around me doing all sorts of things perceived as bad by their more conservative family members and got away with it all. I saw Jennlyn and Matt kissing in the barnyard…I saw Willard and Kimberly hooking up at the school science laboratory. I saw Stuart, John and Teddy often making visits to the strip club and the brothel at Avenue 5.”
“And why does all that have to bother you?” asked Priest Dominique hardly recognizing half the names being mentioned by his friend.
“It bothered me because I too wanted to be like them, but couldn’t because of my mental conditioning and the guilt that came along with it” bellowed Barry in a frustrated tone. “I so wanted to be with all those beautiful women. I really wanted to be free and liberated. I didn’t believe in going to hell. But I could visualize the disapproving gaze from my father. That was colder than the seventh circle of hell...That made me live a life of strict adherence. I didn’t do anything wild or exciting. I felt dissatisfied. I felt envious seeing all of my friends and school mates and neighbors doing stuff that I so longed to do when I grew into an adult and getting away with it all, but I couldn’t. That drove me nuts. I drank more…smoked more…to numb my guilt. To satisfy myself that I am being rebellious enough…at the same time preventing myself from doing the more rebellious thing of sleeping with random women. Does any of this make any sense to you?”
“You mean to say you were ashamed of yourself for not standing up to your father. At the same time, you didn’t want to do anything that he didn’t give his approval for. You were having thoughts that contradicted each other. And you used booze as your excuse to overcome those contradicting thoughts. And that made you feel more bitter. Is my understanding, correct?” asked Priest Dominique reminiscing his own inner turmoil back in his teens.
“It was indeed a very confusing phase of our lives. But you were able to stay afloat during those tumultuous years where our hormones mess with our sanity.”
Priest Dominique once again grew impatient and restless. What inner demons had troubled him, only he knew. What inner demons troubled him presently, he wished to keep it to himself.
“No man is saint, my friend. I’ve had my share of sins. I still do…” said Priest Dominique in an absent-minded manner.
Barry gazed at his friend for a moment, before continuing on with his own lamentations.
“Whatever…you have done far better than I could ever hope for. As I was saying, I had my desires, but I didn’t have the guts. I suffered seeing others enjoy what I could never enjoy. Then I met Stacy. We fell in love. Our families came together and our wedding happened. For twelve years I remained loyal to her. I won’t lie that I haven’t been interested in other women. I’ve fantasized…but fantasies they had remained…until a few days ago. I hooked up with a woman in Tulio’s bar. We were both drunk. I was emotionally low…severely confused…more than usual. And I did the sin of sleeping with another woman without my wife’s knowledge,” Barry broke down once again.
Priest Dominique could sense genuine regret and shame in his friend’s voice. He wasn’t faking it. Priest Dominique knew that for sure.
“Well Barry…I’m sorry to hea-“
“No! Stop your condescending tone. Don’t look at me like that!” yelled Barry, all of a sudden like a mad man. Priest Dominique moved back a little, genuinely startled. “You don’t know what was going through my mind…You don’t know what’s been happening in my life in the past few months! You don’t know what challenges I and Stacy are facing, as a couple! So, don’t you dare judge me!”
Priest Dominique knew that the reason for Barry’s sudden aggressiveness was his own guilt and accusative inner voice that was probably condemning him incessantly. Priest Dominique even wondered if Barry’s inner voice belonged to that of his father, the one person whose approval he most sought and whose condemnation he most dreaded. But he was not willing to enquire Barry about it. His interest lay more in what Barry had to say about his relationship with his wife Stacy.
“I have no authority to judge or accuse you, Barry…I’m here to heal, not prod your wounds…And what are these challenges…If I may ask?” Priest Dominique contradicted his own words.
“I don’t know…I can’t think straight man!” Barry yelled, before breaking down once again. Priest Dominique gave him a comforting hug and rubbed his back.
“You can talk to me about anything, Barry…Trust me, I’m here to help…” said Priest Dominique in a compassionate tone. “What’s happening between you and Stacy?”
“I…I am not sure, Mose…But I think…I think she is cheating on me, man…”
Priest Dominique removed his hand slowly from over Barry, as a look of terror appeared over his face. “What? I…I can’t…” Priest Dominique seemed to have lost his ability to speak for a moment.
“Inconceivable, isn’t it? Who would have thought that a seemingly conservative girl like her, who spends most of her time in a church, is capable of something like adultery? But I do believe there is more to her. She is hiding much from me,” said Barry with great conviction.
“How…how are you so sure?” asked Priest Dominique, seemingly flabbergasted.
“There are signs…I once saw her hurriedly cutting off the phone, while I was entering the house and she had this appearance of shame and guilt on her face…Like when a kid gets caught red-handed stealing a cookie. When I asked about who was on the phone, she didn’t answer properly. She tried to digress or distract me, asking about my work or my parents. When I insisted upon the phone call, she said she had a headache. Ten minutes later she got dressed and left the house saying she wanted to spend some time in the church before the Lord.”
“Huh-uh…” that was all Priest Dominique could say.
“There was this other instance, where she was writing a letter, very late at night. I saw her from behind a glass pane, in the yard. When I entered the room, she at once dumped the letter into the electronic shredder…When I asked about it, she just said that she tried her hand in poetry after being inspired by a friend, but she was no good at it. She said she had to use the shredder because she was embarrassed about someone seeing her ‘awful poems.’”
“I don’t think these are valid enough reasons to suspect-“
“There is this fragrance, Mose…This fragrance of a man’s perfume that emanates from her. I can’t explain it, but I’m sensitive to such things…And there was of course a bite mark on her lips. She said she had accidently hurt herself while using a fork…but come on, she is no five-year old…And no fork in this world is as sharp…It seems like someone had bit her lips while kissing…”
“You have such a wild imagination, Barry…”
“My neighbor remarked that he often saw Stacy leaving home, as soon as I left for work.”
“Neighbors” snickered Priest Dominique with suppressed anger. “Do people not have even a smidge of decency? Why do they pry into other people’s life? Why do they have to report about a wife to her husband? She could have very well gone to the market or to the church!”
“Of course, church is where she spends a lot of time in, is what I hear from a lot of my friends, who also frequent the church…though not as often as her…Tell me, Mose…Does she really come here often? Do you see her spending most of her time before your Lord?”
Priest Dominique lifted himself off his chair and walked toward a water dispenser nearby to cool down himself with a glass of water. He wiped his forehead with a kerchief and used a handful of water to again wet his eyes.
“Answer me, Mose…Does she really come here? If she isn’t…Then I think she is heading to another man’s home behind my back…” asked Barry rushing behind him, desperately seeking for an answer.
“No…I mean yes…Yes she does come to the church…” hesitated Priest Dominique. “And even if you think she is not here, it does not mean she is in the arms of another man. She could very well be meeting her friends or spending time shopping. Why do you act like this, Barry? You are much better than this! Do not construe such false imagery of your own wife. I’ve known her for years…through you of course…She does not seem the type to act the way you think. You’ve got to trust her more, Barry…”
Barry eyed Priest Dominique blankly for a couple moments. His nostrils seemed flared. “A familiar fragrance…Oh gosh, what is wrong with me? Now I’m being paranoid and overly suspicious!”
Priest Dominique sighed and put on an angry face. “Yes, you are Barry! You just want to find an excuse to justify your act of adultery by blaming Stacy for adultery.”
“That is absolutely not true. I didn’t make up any of the things I just said. There was the phone call, the shredded letter, the neighbor reporting, so on…” began Barry nervously.
“Listen to yourself? Neighbor reporting? Do you think this is a spy movie Barry? I’m not saying all those didn’t happen, but you equating those to Stacy cheating on you is plain wrong. Even if she was cheating on you, why couldn’t you have been a better man and confronted her. Why couldn’t you have asked her right to her face about who she was seeing, if at all she was…If she had been cheating, you could have gotten a divorce from her and then moved on to find another partner for yourself. But you didn’t do that, did you? You were just seeking an excuse to satisfy your lust. You had wanted to sleep around ever since you were a teenager. Sticking to one woman wasn’t enough. You feared your father’s condemnation. And you probably married that poor girl Stacy to impress your conservative father. Now that years have passed and your father is no longer around to condemn you, your yearnings to sleep around have reemerged. And you were just using your suspicions on Stacy to defend yourself and satisfy your own guilt!”
Barry gazed at Priest Dominique with his mouth wide open. He hadn’t expected the old priest to be so blunt. Priest Dominique realized his mistake just moments after he had spoken.
“You mean to say I was wrong? That my wife Stacy was and is still a loyal wife. Did I just cheat on her? I…I can’t believe this…” Barry knelt down with his hands on his head.
Priest Dominique knew he had to act quick and smart.
“Now listen Barry. I’m not saying everything to convince you that you were wrong. You know deep inside you that what you had done was wrong. But you don’t need to fret over this. We are humans. We tend to make mistakes. Some petty…some life changing…but you can forgive yourself. You have to, if you want to have peace. Accept your mistake, convince yourself that you won’t repeat it, and spend the rest of your life taking care of that good wife of yours without hurting or suspecting her. No man in this world is sinless. None will ever be. Learning from our mistakes is what is important.”
Barry’s gaze was in the distance and Priest Dominique could sense that there were a lot of thoughts whizzing in that drunken head of his. He knew there was a lot of work to be done. Lots of counselling. Priest Dominique gently moved Barry inside the confession box and closed the door of the box behind him. An hour later, both men emerged out. Barry was still teary-eyed, but there was a lot more clarity on his face. Priest Dominique had a compassionate smile, and had his arms around Barry, as they walked out.
“So, should I talk to Stacey about it and apologize?” asked Barry.
“I don’t think she would be able to take it well, Barry. You made the mistake, you accused yourself, and you need to forgive and make peace with yourself. Stacey doesn’t need to suffer for your sins. She would never be able to live a peaceful life having known that her husband cheated on her. Do you want that? You would never find in any corner of the world, a wife so loyal and loving as Stacey. Do you want to lose her?” asked Priest Dominique.
“No! Of-course not…I…You are right…I should not reveal my indiscretion to her. It was after all a one-night stand…that too in a drunken state…I don’t even remember half the things that happened” Barry snickered.
“Better that way” smiled Priest Dominique. “Now remember this thought…Never suspect Stacey ever again. No matter who says what. Your neighbor, your mother or even your siblings. She is incapable of any wrongdoing. She is too innocent and old fashioned. You should trust her whole-heartedly and defend her, even if the whole world accuses her. You got that?”
“Yes…Yes…I will never again suspect her…” said Barry resolutely. “That’s the least I could do after what I’ve done…You were great Mose…I mean Priest Dominique…”
“Just doing the good Lord’s work, my friend. Have a great life…” Priest Dominique led Barry to the exit of the church.
Moments after Barry’s car left the church premises, Priest Dominique returned back to the confession box. He knelt down before it and brought the photo he had from within his pocket. A short middle-aged blonde with curly hair and innocent looking eyes peered at him from the photo.
“Oh, Stacey my dear…You have to be more careful…Good thing I was there to fix it…” Priest Dominique placed the photo before him near the confession box. So much guilt he had carried that morning…He had betrayed the church. He had sinned before his God, right there in that confession box with Stacey. Not once…Not twice…He had been intimate with a woman…A woman married to his childhood friend. For long their relationship had continued. Her church visits providing the perfect cover and the confession box providing the perfect hideout beyond church hours. Barry probably had his father’s condescending voice accusing him for his every trivial sin. Priest Dominique had a million condescending voices beginning right from his own father, to the pope whose speeches he had seen on the television. Now many of those voices silenced. When Barry revealed his suspicions about his wife cheating on him, Priest Dominique had suspected that Barry had found him to be his wife’s partner. But only a few moments of conversation were necessary to make him realize that years of drinking had numbed Barry’s mind. It had made him lose confidence in his own judgement. It didn’t take long for Priest Dominique to break Barry and make him suspect his own perception of the world around him.
By doing so, he had not only removed any traces of suspicion in Barry’s mind about his wife, but had also made him believe that she could never be wrong. If at all he ever suspected her, his own sin of adultery should convince him that he can’t be the one to judge. His one hour of counselling within the confession box ensured that Barry’s father’s voice inside Barry’s head was now replaced by Priest Dominique’s own. He expected Barry to from here on never suspect Stacey and also ensure that he dismissed anyone who came to him citing Stacey’s odd behavior and secret rendezvous with some mysterious stranger.
Learning about Barry’s own adulterous act and having conditioned his mind to the best of his abilities to never suspect his wife, Priest Dominique felt an odd feeling of relief. Yet there remained this nagging feeling deep inside him that continued to accuse him. Priest Dominique knew how to ignore that feeling, even if he was unable to silence it completely. He still had a choice to make. Could he take this little incident that day as a sign from above that he had to change his ways? Has He been given a chance to redeem himself? He could probably stop his amorous affair with Stacey and let the couple live in peace. He could forgive himself for his sins, seek forgiveness before the Lord (for no member of the church can pardon him and let him continue to be a priest) and move on with his life, purified and cleansed…“Like a car-wash indeed” chuckled Priest Dominique to his own self.
Or he could just continue on with his ways with Stacey, with far less guilt, now that Barry wouldn’t be a problem to their relationship. He knew which was the right decision, and which was the more pleasing one. And he continued to be torn between the two. The “right decision” lost the tug of war, no thanks to the voice that emanated from outside.
“Mose, dear…You alone?”
A sly smile appeared on Mose’s lips and he shoved the photo back in his pocket. He got himself up and walked back gently to embrace Stacey.
“I love how you smell, Mose…You still going to keep that perfume of yours a secret from me?” giggled Stacey. Priest Dominique didn’t reply. He just held her close and kissed her on the lips.
“Ouch, be gentler dear…Your last bite hasn’t yet healed” smiled Stacey, touching her lower lip, which had a tiny lesion. Priest Dominique removed her finger from her lip and pulled her closer.
A long, gentler, sensual kiss between the two erased all feelings of guilt and remorse from Priest Dominique’s mind…at least temporarily.
- A. Prashanth Narasimhan (SriVishnuDasan).