11 Jan Sacrament
A Short Story
by Beverly De Soto Stevens
I have made some big changes since Alex left me. But perhaps the most cleansing was completely re-decorating the house.
OUT went the sleek, low modern furniture with the ‘clean lines’ that Alex loved. (As an investment banker, his taste leaned towards the decidedly modern. Cold, efficient and soul-less. Just like Alex. But I digress.)
I told him, “Take it all” – which he did, without a backward glance.
IN came my ‘shabby chic’ stuff –faded cabbage roses on overstuffed chairs. Mis-matched china plates of mid-century design. Stacks and stacks of pottery, most filled with flowering plants of every description. Alex's conservative beige walls have erupted into color – deep autumnal hues and garden greens, some sponged over with a glowing gilt. I have lampshades with fringes, now.
When Alex came back one day to pick up his Miele vacuum cleaner, he was thunderstruck.
“Well, Kaitlin,” he began, hands on his slim hips, shaking his head.
“You like it?” I asked him, doing my best to sound cheerful and breezy.
“It is different,” he allowed, surveying my ornate, wall-mounted 1906 Spode china.
“Just like me, right?” I countered brightly, and handed him the vacuum cleaner. It was not entirely my fault that before he could grasp it, the thing slipped out of my hand.
He cursed as it hit his toe with a loud crash.
“Oops!” I exclaimed, shrugging my shoulders in mock apology. My silly grin stayed plastered on my face. “Butterfingers!”
Alex was decidedly not a happy camper as he limped off my porch. But he did manage to jump into his new Audi A6 and take off magnificently, vacuum cleaner in tow.
But that’s okay. I’ve got the house, and his Land Rover. Not to mention a monthly alimony check – highly unusual these days, but necessary for my maintenance, the judge said.
You see, being dumped like I was has left me pretty much disabled. I can’t work. I see my shrink three times a week. I sleep on meds. I function on meds. My life, you could say, is possible because of the meds.
Why is this? Because when Alex told me he was leaving me, the shock was too much. The final straw, as it were, after 15 years together. Our entire adult lives, since our salad days at Dickenson College. I was a gawky hippie-ish kid, orphaned by my suicidal mother since babyhood. My dad had been a successful lawyer; my brother and I had endured a parade of his girlfriends since the 1980s. None had wanted to take on two undisciplined, motherless kids, so we drifted along, living on Mc Donald's, indifferently supervised by au pairs.
Alex came from a wealthy Beltway family closely connected to D.C. politics. He was a brilliant nerd, attracted by my fanciful attire and breezy personality. We were inseparable from junior year on, and married the year after we graduated.
To be honest, his mom didn't like me much, old battleaxe that she is. But when there weren't any grand-kids, she turned her attention to her much more prolific daughters. When Alex and I moved north a few years later, it was just as well. He had a great job, and I found work as a librarian. We settled down into our suburban Connecticut life, coping with our various anxieties with gym memberships and occasional, liberal doses of alcohol.
Actually, I had suspected for a couple of years that something was wrong. He came home very late from the bank. He was distant. He responded very badly when I timidly suggested that perhaps if I went off the Pill, we could maybe have a child?
“No,” he’d said flatly. This world was far too treacherous to bring a child into.
No doubt he felt this way, I thought, because of the ferocious, relentless Wall Street world he works in. You see, Alex is a ‘success.’ And I am not the kind of woman he wants, anymore.
He wanted ‘eye candy,” he told me a few weeks before he left. My hips are too fat, he said. He ‘deserved’ a model.
What's more, sex with me makes him ‘ill.’ The 15 years that we had spent together, he told me, was ‘like a prison term.’ He was so glad we never had children. He finished by telling me that I ‘suck all the air out of the room.’
That first night he was gone, I lay in bed unable to sleep, the black waves of depression rolling over me ceaselessly. In the darkness of my room, I peered out at a streetlamp, wondering how I could end my life. Now, I understood why people committed suicide. Living was just too painful.
Straight vodka helped only temporarily; terrified of following in my mother's forlorn footsteps to the grave, I found a shrink. And a predatory lawyer. Both are thick on the ground here in Connecticut.
As bad as all this was, probably the single reason why the judge was so generous was because Alex assented to it. This, in turn, was because my lawyer threatened to discuss the AIDS test results that I had found in the thousand-dollar leather briefcase I’d bought Alex last Christmas.
Yes, I know I shouldn’t have rifled through his things. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten tested for AIDS myself. My neighbor Jeannie went with me to the doctor’s office, because I couldn’t face it alone. Afterwards, when I sobbed with sheer relief in her car, she had a suggestion.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said darkly. “But if this guy was my ex, I’d have him beaten. Honestly, I got a cousin in the business. You want him taken care of?”
This made me stop crying.
“Well,” I said, wiping my tears, actually beginning to smile at the thought of the haughty Alex scurrying desperately to avoid retribution from the likes of Jeannie’s cousins. “Although he definitely deserves it, I can’t do that.”
“Suit yourself,” Jeannie shrugged. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
So, now, at 37 years of age, I am alone. Though I have no children, I lavish lots of care on my four rescued kitties. Also, objets d’arte that I gleaned from the Greenwich dump.
Yes, I am a ‘dump diver.’ I take Alex’s precious Land Rover and stuff it full of cast-off treasures, served up to me by my willing co-conspirators, the enterprising garbage truck drivers of Connecticut.
That’s right. For a twenty dollar bill, the garbage guys call my cell phone and deliver up the choicest objects being tossed out by the super-rich of Connecticut. Like a 1920’s mahogany chair, upholstered in creamy lemon yellow silk, which I picked up just after Alex left, about a year ago.
“You really got somethin’ here,” opined Tony, as he gingerly loaded the chair into the Rover. He dusted off his hands and regarded me frankly. “Ya know, you ain't the only one doin' this. Ya got competition these days, too.”
So that’s how I came to know Sarah and Patrick, newlyweds who have started-up a trendy ‘antiques’ shop in a newly-gentrifying neighborhood. We are definitely simpatico when it comes to design, so it was a no-brainer for me to accept their offer of a part-time job. As odd as it may sound, this little job – and the friendship of this young couple — have literally saved my life.
Like me, they have a deep appreciation for saving unwanted objects, and preserving their beauty. They are also fair, and reliable. This is probably why so many of their customers return, and why their business is prospering — and why I have a really fun job.
Unlike me, they are struggling financially. I mean, they have thrown everything they have into this store — and they are still living at Sarah's mom's house. Also unlike me, they also have an interest in liturgical objects, mainly statues cast off from Catholic churches. They are practicing Catholics – a religion I have always regarded with suspicion, to be honest – and they actively seek out and restore crucifixes and suchlike.
“Who’s this?” I asked one day. A newly-arrived, life-sized plaster statue of a woman in blue robes, with a small girl-child by her knee, reading a book. The woman had a sweet, grave face.
“St Anne,” smiled Sarah. “She was the mother of Mary. That’s Mary as a child. The legend is that Sarah taught Mary to read.”
I did a quick mental calculation.
“That’s Jesus’s grandmother!?” I said, half- seriously, and laughed. (‘The things that some people believe,’ I thought to myself. ‘My Presbyterian grandmother would roll over in her grave.’)
“Yes,” Sarah responded seriously. “She’s the patron saint of unmarried women. Catholics ask her for help in finding husbands,” she smiled quickly at me. “You should give her a try.”
“Right,” I said facetiously. “After Alex, I have nowhere to go but up, right?”
So it wasn’t out of religious conviction that I agreed to attend a traditional Latin Mass with them, as you can tell. (Although I am ‘spiritual,’ I’ve never been interested in organized religion. Those sober Presbyterians had had their effect on me.)
It was because after all this bitterness, I was getting very tired of being so soul-sick.
So, I agreed to go. And the truth is that I was stopped cold, in my tracks, by this Mass in this old church on the wrong side of Norwalk. It was the Gregorian chant that got me. And the silences.
And the serious, sober intelligence of the priest’s sermon. All about what Catholics call the ‘sacrament’ of marriage, and how marriages were being destroyed by materialism and selfishness. How once people began searching for more exotic pleasures to satisfy their cravings, it always ended in tragedy — and how these tragedies were all around us.
This was why, he said, people couldn’t trust anyone any more. And this was all a result of sin, and Satan wreaking havoc in the world. And women and children – the most vulnerable among us – were suffering in silence.
Well, I choked back tears for the rest of that Mass. Afterwards, at a bleak Dunkin' Donuts across from their church, I questioned Sarah and Patrick closely.
Yes, they told me. They believed that their marriage was a ‘sacrament.’ Like the ‘holy communion’ they’d gone to receive, along with a throng of their fellow Catholics. I had watched in wonder as every color, age and shape of humanity had filed by me reverently, on their way to kneel at the altar rail.
“So ‘sacrament’ is the Catholic word for ‘symbol’?” I asked, groping for some explanation. “Like a symbol of your marriage before God, or something?”
Sarah smiled. “Actually, no. A sacrament is real. NOT a symbol. That is really the Body of Christ we receive.”
Now, if I hadn’t known and respected these people, I would have burst into cynical laughter at this point. As it was, my face must have betrayed me.
“It’s real, like the Sacrament of marriage is real,” Patrick went on, undeterred. “Sarah and I married each other. That is a Sacrament. We believe that this marriage is our way to Heaven.”
“…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,” I said aloud, musingly.
“The Church is where those words came from,” Sarah smiled, nodding.
“Yeah,” I snorted bitterly. “It’s not like most people believe that any more. Wait until you’ve been married a long time, like I was.”
“It all depends on what you think a marriage actually is,” Patrick persisted. “A Catholic marriage is not about a big, lavish ceremony or a party to impress people. The Sacrament is valid regardless of these things. It could take place in the poorest place, with practically no one there. Those things don’t matter.”
“What matters?” I snickered cynically. “’Love’?”
“What matters is that the man and the woman fully understand what a Catholic marriage is,” Patrick answered, his normally kind face set in serious lines. He put his arm around Sarah and regarded me soberly.
“And they must be completely capable of entering into such a marriage,” Sarah continued. “No legal, physical or emotional impediments. They must be open to life. They must understand that this marriage – like a priest’s or a nun’s vocation – is their vocation. It is the path through life they have chosen to find their way to heaven.”
“Right,” I said, still unimpressed. But I was thinking about Alex.
“Your ex-husband,” Sarah began cautiously. “is an example of someone I would think was unable to enter into a Sacramental marriage.”
“He wasn’t married before,” I said shortly. “He could enter into a marriage contract.”
“But Catholic marriage is not a contract,” Sarah countered. “A contract can be broken when one party is no longer interested. That is how the State and most other religions view marriage.”
“NOT a contract?” I said, disbelieving. “Then what is it?”
“It’s a Sacrament,” Patrick said, smiling broadly.
This was difficult to understand. And, if I hadn’t just seen this Latin Mass, I would have dismissed out of hand. But there was Something clawing at my heart.
I looked at Patrick and Sarah, and I had to admit that their level of dedication to their life and their religion was enviable. They were so serious, but at the same time so suffused with joy.
Truth be told, they made my marriage to Alex seem positively grim in comparison. Had there ever been a time when Alex and I had been anything except a rich young couple, out to enjoy life at all costs? Under these circumstances, no wonder Alex had chosen to pursue his pleasures – and to discard me when I became a hindrance to his ‘choices.' In his ‘values-neutral,' Wall Street mindset, the only thing that mattered was getting what he wanted.
I sighed, and Sarah reached over to cover my hand with hers. She looked penetratingly into my eyes, which were blinded with tears.
“Where there is life, there is hope,” she said gently. “You have so much to give. Who says that you can’t?”
I shook my head, unable to speak. I thought of my cats, the only living things that reliably loved me. Why were humans so cruel?
“People are cruel,” she said, reading my thoughts. “Human nature is fallen, by definition.”
I nodded. My experience of Alex and the world in general confirmed this.
“This is ancient wisdom from the Church,” Patrick said calmly. “The Sacraments are what we have to strengthen us, as we make our way through life. They are like, like, a medicine…” he finished somewhat lamely, looking his wife.
She nodded. “We feel that we need the Sacraments,” she said. “Without help, everything – life, marriage, children – would be impossible.”
With that, they looked at each other, smiling.
And that’s how I found out that their baby is on the way. And part of what made me tell them I would accompany them next week to their Latin Mass.
I want to hear what their priest has to say again. I want to lose myself in that chant again. I want to sit in the silences.
I want to understand this idea of ‘Sacrament.’
And I may even give Saint Anne a try.
I shook my head, unable to speak. I thought of my cats, the only living things that reliably loved me. Why were humans so cruel?