The Devil Is Dancing

The Devil Is Dancing

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                                       A SHORT STORY

At 28, I guess I would call myself successful. I have a university degree. I married my college boyfriend. We live in a rented apartment in brownstone Brooklyn. He is a computer genius, making a good salary at a Wall Street firm. I am the spokeswoman for a major American bank. We have a dog.

He is Jewish, from a non-practicing family on Long island. I also have a family on Long island, but mine is non-practicing Catholic. Although she was raised a Catholic, my mother insists that no priest has the power to forgive sins. Her sins, she says, are her own business. My father is retired; he plays golf five days a week.

Religion was not a big deal in my life, however. Marcus is an atheist. I am nothing, I guess. We were married three years ago by a Justice of the Peace, on the lawn of rented mansion in upstate New York. It was a great party.
Anyway, although I am successful, things are not great in my life.

Religion was not a big deal in my life, however. Marcus is an atheist. I am nothing, I guess. We were married three years ago by a Justice of the Peace, on the lawn of rented mansion in upstate New York. It was a great party.

Truth be told, my husband embarrasses me. He continues to smoke marijuana, a vice I gave up in college. He eats junk food constantly, and is in consequence vastly overweight. He chain-smokes cigarettes, and lately I have found lone butts, burnt out, standing up on our wooden dresser. There is an inch of ash on them. I clean them up without a word. It’s my job to clean the apartment; he walks the dog in Prospect Park.

In addition to all this, Marcus has now grown a beard, and has taken to wearing a black beret. He thinks he looks like Che Guevara. I just want him to grow up.

I’ve tried showing him examples, discretely, of what a grown up man our age looks like. There’s a guy at work I know, a rising young banker, who invited us out to dinner at a trendy place in the Village for a double-date with his wife, a pretty PR executive. Marcus arrived an hour late, dressed in his Che outfit, and spent the evening trying to bait the bewildered banker.

The next day, the banker asked me where I’d met my husband. 

“He’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that, he’s, well, not what we expected,” he said, sympathetically. “We wondered where you two had met.”

“In college,” I replied, indifferently. But inside I was burning.

That night, in a fury, I insisted that Marcus get help.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” I shouted. “But you need a shrink. Now!”

Marcus sat glumly, smoking. After an hour of parrying my demands to know what was going on, he’d thrust himself into a chair and gazed gloomily out the window.

“It’s not you,” he muttered darkly, avoiding my gaze. “It’s me. You should run away from me. Save yourself, while there’s time.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but two weeks later I found out. The therapist he’d located had insisted that I come to his office for a joint appointment.  I waited in the therapist’s chair, dressed for work and anxious, as he pulled out a piece of paper from his drawer.

“Marcus wants you to know that he is addicted to the following substances,” he said calmly, and began to read a list. The first word I heard was ‘cocaine.’ I heard ‘marijuana’ and ‘tobacco’ too, and some other drugs that I have never heard of. After that I stopped listening. 

“Marcus wants you to know that he is addicted to the following substances,” the therapist said calmly, and began to read a list. The first word I heard was ‘cocaine.’

Marcus was grinning sheepishly at me as the therapist read aloud. Pudgy, pale and nervous, he kept running his fingers through his long, unkempt hair. I looked down at my sensible navy blue pumps and the clear nail polish on my short, home-trimmed nails.

“Is this why that homeless guy walked up to me in the park the other day, when I was walking the dog?” I asked Marcus later, through clenched teeth. We were walking, hunched against the cold, to the subway. “He asked me if I knew you. Is he some ‘connection’ of yours?”

Marcus hung his head.

“Yeah, well that’s all past now,” he replied grimly. “I’m going cold turkey.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Marcus’s uncle Steve died a few days later. I’d actually never met this uncle; he’d been confined to a VA hospital for years. Steve had come home from Vietnam with PTSD and a hell of a heroin addiction. By 1980, he was deemed dangerous to his own life and others, as he kept nodding off with burning cigarettes in his fingers. By age 60, he was dead.

The only people at Steve’s funeral were Marcus’s mother and father and his two brothers. They’d found a rabbi on short notice, a sympathetic young man who’d agreed to say some words by the graveside.

“Just as long as the word ‘God’ isn’t mentioned,” Marcus’s father had said grimly. After the Shoah, Marcus’s whole family had ceased to believe in a God who could permit such horror to happen.

As Steve’s coffin was lowered into the snowy ground at the VA cemetery, I listened to the distress of the family around me. There was no hesitation in their grief. They sobbed hopelessly, as one. As I stood at the edge of that raw grave incised into the brown earth, I had never felt so desolate.

As Steve’s coffin was lowered into the snowy ground at the VA cemetery, I listened to the distress of the family around me. There was no hesitation in their grief. They sobbed hopelessly, as one. As I stood at the edge of that raw grave incised into the brown earth, I had never felt so desolate.

The young rabbi closed his book with finality, and looked at us. The family continued to cry, heedless of anything. As the only one with any wits about me, I stepped up awkwardly and shook his hand.

“Thank you, Father,” I said, without thinking, and then quickly realized my gaffe. “Oh, sorry…”

He laughed quietly, unoffended.

“I am a father,” he said, smiling. “…of two small children, if that counts.”

“Of course,” I said, shaking my head in dismay.

“You’re Catholic, I assume?” said the rabbi, as we started to walk out of the cemetery.

“Er, yes. My family is, anyway.”

“And you?”

“I, er, I don’t know what I am.” I answered him truthfully.  I gestured back at the open grave. “All I know is that this — this is not the end.”

The rabbi looked at me with surprise.

“I wish we all could be as certain as you are about such things,” he said gently. “Does this mean you believe in God?”

I thought about it for a moment.

“We love,” I replied suddenly, surprised by my own certainty. “Human beings love. We are born with that capacity. It’s innate.”

He nodded.

“You love your children, right?” I said.

He nodded again, regarding me carefully.

“That love came from somewhere.”

“Or from Someone, maybe?” he asked quietly.

Marcus and his family, immersed in their grief, did not hear our conversation.  At the cemetery gate, we all parted ways. Marcus and I drove back to the city, and he dropped me off at our apartment.

“I got a few things to do,” he said shortly, as I stepped out of the car. Ignoring my panicked expression, he drove off. He did not come back until very late that night, and he slept on the couch. He was gone without a word by the time I woke up this morning.

In my distress, I actually stopped by a church near where I work in mid-town on my lunch hour. I smelled incense as the heavy door closed behind me.  Up at the altar, far down the nave of this 19th century Gothic church, I could make out a priest in vestments. He was assisted by two grown men, one of whom was swinging an antique brass object disgorging smoke at a congregation of about 30 people.  A single voice rose up to the lofty ceilings– Gregorian chant, redolent of ancient times and old ways.

Far down the nave of this 19th century Gothic church, I could make out a priest in vestments. He was assisted by two grown men, one of whom was swinging an antique brass object disgorging smoke at a congregation of about 30 people.  A single voice rose up to the lofty ceilings– Gregorian chant, redolent of ancient times and old ways.

Looking around me, I saw that a light was on, above an old-fashioned confessional. There was a priest in there, safely concealed behind a screen.

The second I knelt behind that wooden door, a whole lake of tears I didn’t know was inside me welled up. Worse, before I could stop it, the dam broke and the lake poured out of me, in a continuous flow of wracking sobs.

“I-I’m s-sorry, F-Father,” I apologized, between gulps. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was cry.

“That’s all right, my dear,” said a sympathetic voice, with a soft Hispanic lilt. He pushed some Kleenex under the grille towards me, which I gratefully accepted. “Now, my daughter, you can start when you’re ready. I have time.”

It took me a few minutes to finally be able to speak, but when I did, all of my pain poured out. I told that priest about the grave, and the rabbi. About the hopelessness, and the despair. About Marcus, and his addiction. About my success, cold fury, and utter desolation.

“You are trapped by sin,” the priest said, when I had finally subsided. “Do you know what I mean by that?”

“N-no.”

“That’s all right, my dear,” said a sympathetic voice, with a soft Hispanic lilt. He pushed some Kleenex under the grille towards me, which I gratefully accepted. “Now, my daughter, you can start when you’re ready. I have time.”

“Sin is addictive. Because the Devil – you believe in him? I do. Well, the Devil, he wants us to be miserable. Hopeless. Despairing. This way he can do his dirty work more easily. If we are miserable, we are open to all kinds of bad things. And so, it goes, always downward, in a spiral. Do you understand me?”

“Y-yes,” I whispered, wondering where this was going.

“Ah, so here it is. Your husband comes from a family who is angry with God. So they deny His existence. Your husband denies His existence, too. Correct? You are with me so far?”

“Yes,” I affirmed, snuffling.

“This is very dangerous for them, because it makes them miserable. They stand at the edge of a grave and ask, why? And they receive no answer. It is only the grave that they see. Nothing more. And they know it is their end, too. An open grave is a distressing thing, no?”

“Yes,” I replied, the specter of the raw earth of the grave rising before me. I shivered involuntarily.

“So they are even more miserable. Even their rabbi cannot reach them. Though I do think there is hope for them, simply because they reached out to this rabbi. But this is not enough for your husband. His pain, his despair, sends him back to the drugs, correct?”

“Y-yes,” I nodded in the darkness.

“This is a situation where the Devil is dancing with delight. He is dancing because your husband and his family are choosing despair. Like his uncle, your husband is choosing death, over life. And this is very, very sad,” he sighed heavily.

I nodded again. This was all terribly true.

“Sin is addictive. Because the Devil – you believe in him? I do. Well, the Devil, he wants us to be miserable. Hopeless. Despairing. This way he can do his dirty work more easily.

“Do you think that your husband would stop this behavior if you were not around?” he asked gently.

I thought about that.

“No,” I sighed, with finality. “I –my existence — actually doesn’t make any difference to him. If you come right down to it, I’m useful because I make money, and keep his house clean — though he doesn’t seem to care about that.”

I told him about the cigarette butts and the standing ash, left to burn down on the wooden dresser.

“Hmmm, this can cause a fire, you know,” the priest said gravely. “Your life may be in danger from this, you know.”

“Right,” I said uncomfortably. I was ashamed about this, for some reason. Ashamed to have other people know how badly Marcus acted.

“But it is more than your life, I think, that is in danger,” the priest continued in a mild, un-reproving tone of voice. “You seem pretty miserable, too. Your soul is in danger. And that makes the Devil happy.”

I shrugged, uncomprehending, in the darkness.

“But you want to know what I think?  I think the Devil was not too happy at that graveside, yesterday,” he persisted gently. “And this was because of you. You stood at the very edge of that grave, and then you turned and walked away. This was very profound.”

I waited to hear what he had to say next.

“And then what happened?” he asked me sharply.

“A-after I walked away from the grave? I-I spoke to the rabbi,” I recounted, somewhat confused.

“Yes. Then you spoke to a man of God, that rabbi. And you told him what?”

“That I couldn’t believe that the grave was the end,” I whispered back, this time with conviction. “And I still don’t believe it.”

“And this idea that you have, that you are so convinced of, is something you have received. It is a grace from God,” the priest said soberly.

“Yeah?” I replied, not knowing what to think.

“Yes. Most definitely. And these are things we cannot earn. This is faith. And it comes to us as a free gift from God. Do you understand me, my daughter?”

I wasn’t sure.

“And this idea that you have, that you are so convinced of, is something you have received. It is a grace from God,” the priest said soberly.

“You mean that I am somehow different from Marcus, and his family.”

“Yes, I mean that. You are different.”

I thought about this. It was true. Though I loved Marcus and his family, I was not like them. I was not an atheist. I could not live always at the edge of a raw grave. Life was too good, too full of good things. And I could not blunt the pain of this raw grave with drugs, or with anything else.

“You turned away from that grave and talked to a man of God about Life.”

“Y-yes, I did. And you’re right, Father. I am all about Life. I choose Life. I don’t choose the Grave,” I whispered fiercely.

“And what did Jesus say?” replied the priest. “He said, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life.”

“Y-yes,” I said, somewhat uncertainly. I had heard that Bible verse.

“And what does the Bible say that He said right after that? He said to the Apostles, ‘No one comes to the Father but through Me.’”

“Y-yes,” I said, still uncertain.

“I think you have come to a point in the path of your life when you must choose: Life or death. Which will it be?”

Suddenly, I understood.  I was certain of this answer.

“I choose Life, Father,” I said firmly, the tears welling up in my eyes again.

“Good for you!” The priest declared heartily. “You have chosen the right path.”

I smiled through my tears.

“But now, my daughter, I have to tell you. This is not the end of it. The Devil will not rest; he will not give up on you. This choice you have made – life over death — you must keep making this choice, over and over, until the end of your life.”

There was more, but in the end, he gave me absolution.

It’s difficult to convey how I felt when I emerged from that confessional, into that darkened church. Utterly drained, but completely at peace, with a clean heart.

I had chosen. The Devil was no longer dancing all over my life.

Now, we were at war.

Somehow, I knew that. I also knew that that confessional was the only place on earth I could have gone for the truth.

And I knew that the Truth had set me free.

“But now, my daughter, I have to tell you. This is not the end of it. The Devil will not rest; he will not give up on you. This choice you have made – life over death — you must keep making this choice, over and over, until the end of your life.”

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