O nobly-born, the time hath now come
for thee to seek the Path ...
At this moment, know thou thyself;
and abide in that state.
Tibetan Book of the Dead
"Purgation, karma, cleansing, leaving behind. We're about to have a look at the concept of Purgatory, students and fans."
"Purgatory!" burst out the student I tended to call Mr. Smarts, or Mr. Clever Student, or Mr. Daring, depending on the nature of the words coming out of his wild horse mouth. "That's all those damn nuns talked about when I was in Catholic school! I never thought I'd hear about that again!"
"Then you picked the wrong course. Did you think Eschatology was about household pets?" Forge on, leave the time-wasters behind. "Purgatory," I stated, pointing at the word on the board, "is a place of purgation, that is, a place or state in which purging takes place. The dictionary definition says that the verb 'purge' means: 'One, to make clean or pure by getting rid of things that are dirty or wrong. The dictionary suggests that water lines in a system must be purged to get rid of corrosion, dirt, or contamination.
"Two, to be rid of persons or things thought to be harmful, dangerous, disloyal, etcetera. Example, in a government purge, traitors or rebels will be removed from office.
"Three, to make the bowels move, as in use of a laxative.'" This last always got a couple snickers from the class. "In the study of eschatology, the first definition is the most appropriate. Purgation is the process of making clean or whole or pure those spirits which are not yet clean or whole or pure, helping them attain completion in a religious system.
"All systematic religious systems include an element of purgation, either in life, or after death. I hope you got that all, because it will be on the final exam and no, said exam will not be your basic color-by-the-numbers multiple choice."
Instant clamoring for a repeat of the definitions.
"In Catholicism, as this religious system has been the first mentioned in this class, purgation can occur both before and after death. If you wish to wade through the precise and mind-stretching theology, you can have a look at the encyclopedic Concise Sacramentum Mundi, which indicates a belief that the separation of the soul from the body is in itself a form of purification, as the consciousness of the being is taken away from the temptations of the world.
"While still in life, however, the Catholic adherent also takes advantage of the purgation of unworthy aspects in Confession, in which the participant sheds the sinful or unworthy actions of his or her life. And also by practices of prayer and ritual, some of which are seen to be as purifying, or cutting down on punishment that might occur after death. And this would be an issue that Luther found galling -- 'indulgences' -- guarantees of successful purgation prior to death."
"Well," said a student with some issues to work through, "what Luther objected to was that people were saying what would get spirits cleansed, not God."
"A good point. Let's look at the New Hebrides island of Malekula. Their purgation or preparation rituals were under-gone by men seeking higher and deeper series of initiations, in order to receive a preordained number of pigs (which were raised by women, by the way) for sacrifice and feast. By their gaining this wealth of pigs, and then giving it up, giving it away, they would, after death, be able to pass the lair of Lehevhev, the terrible spider-woman spirit who guards the road to the Other World at death.
"Who said that their deity said this, and not the Old Woman Pig Market Association?" I asked the class. No answer.
"The Thompson River Indians have, as a stopping place on the Road to the Souls' World, a height heaped with clothes, the belongings which the souls have dragged from the world of the living and which they must leave behind.
"How would they have determined this? Wise elder in the tribe or a direct revelation from their gods?"
The students began to bicker about the sources of Truths of various religions, and I let them take up some time with their explorations. I myself was consumed by meditation on what heavenly encounter I might have in store. That moustache, perfectly trimmed ... did he know how dashing, how wicked he looked? I'd never dated a man with such dark eyes, nearly black. Would I be able to read his emotions in such foreign features? Was he as clever as I hoped? Or would he turn out to be a dull but pretty mistake? I hadn't taken any lovers since the demise of my affair with Moersgard; was Valentine going to be my next big fling? I shook my head to re-focus.
After a few moments of their student clamor, I called them back to task. "If purgation is a cleansing, releasing, growing, whatever, towards completion in a religious system, then what does completion entail in each system, and what are the similarities?"
The key that the students had to find was immolation of self as center of existence. Has anyone really actually factually done that? Personally I wasn't sure if I believed in "completions" of any kind, not religious, not achievements of a lifetime, not in ... love.
On Monday afternoon at about four-thirty, there was a rap at my office door. I looked up to see a spire of delphinium poking past the frame. (I never closed the door while I was there, because I wanted to see what was coming and because if there was someone with me in the office, I wanted no misunderstandings or cause for liability. The way the world is nowadays!) I pushed my chair on its rollers away from the desk to reveal Valentine standing outside the door. I gestured him in, and he sunk into the chair beside my desk as though he were boneless. He looked exhausted.
He handed me the little vase with the flowers; I put it on my desk.
"Valentine, you look like someone punched you," I said, observing that his upper and lower lip had been cut and were swollen on the left side. "You didn't tell me the secret mission would be dangerous."
"I didn't want you to worry. But I was successful, and now I want to ask you if you'll have dinner with me tonight."
"You have my curiosity piqued, so I'll accept. When would you like to go?" Privately I wondered if he could stay awake through a dinner.
"Now. Or as soon as you're free." He looked at me, hair, eyes, mouth, shoulders, shoes. I had to commend him on not staring at my bosom.
"Let me put stuff away, and let's go. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm okay. I just need some of that great Augusta Renoir humor." He crossed his arms, shut his eyes, and stretched out his legs. I ogled him while I tagged files and paper-clipped memos and sorted things into inbox and outbox and to-do box and probably got them all mixed up looking at the long lines of his slim body, and those beautiful curls. I loaded my briefcase and was done. "Are you awake?" I asked, touching the arm of his long wool coat.
He smiled, his eyes shut. "Mm-hmm. Are we there yet?"
"Are we 'where' yet?"
"Your place. Weren't you going to make lasagna while I napped on your couch?"
"Agent Teshenko, from Planet Earth. Wake up now, or I'll be forced to leave you in the hall for the janitor to pick up." I felt a thrill of anticipation about having him in my house, but his flirtation was too intimate. I needed to know more about who the hell he was before I would drag him into my bed.
"Oh, okay." He stretched his arms over his head, arching his back. I watched him, my eyes widening and skin breaking into a sweat. "Taylor's Inn, would that be all right?"
"Sure," I replied in some surprise. Taylor's was a very nice place.
"I have my car illegally parked outside. Here are the keys, though, could you drive? I'm wrecked."
While I ordered a glass of wine to start, Valentine ordered coffee.
"Look, I don't want to get too -- pushy -- here, but you look like shit," I said to him. "What the hell is going on with you, and I ask this before I take off into the forest again, if you remember our conversation from last Friday."
That snapped him into a position of alertness again, and he took my hand. "Don't bolt. Getting up at four-thirty is just starting to kill me, that's all. And it was a long weekend.
"My landlady doesn't like violin music, so when I practice on my symphony instrument, I have to use the practice rooms at the university. Josef Asaki -- you know, the conductor? -- made arrangements for symphony musicians to use your practice rooms between five and seven in the morning. So I get up and do my piano practice, or the good violin, or oboe from five to seven, if I can get a room, which I usually can, because it's summer. I'll get my keys to the high school practice rooms next week when we start in-services, and then I don't have to do the early morning crap as much."
"Your landlady is a fool, then. Piano and oboe, too?"
"Yes, ma'am. She hates hearing music practice, but she doesn't mind rap music being played until two or three in the morning, loud enough to rattle the dishes in my kitchen. So I don't sleep well. Some nights I've just taken a blanket down to the Municipal Pier and slept on one of the benches."
"All this time I've been thinking you were a cocaine freak who just happened to be mellow on our chance encounters."
"Really?" he asked.
"No." I said, twining my fingers in his hand that covered mine.
"But you're already suspicious about the fat lip. Okay, here goes." He brought his other hand onto the table to cup my hand between his. "I made a major decision last Friday. When that kid asked to play with me, I watched you. You were more interested in him than you were in the music. You were focused on how I was handling the situation, how I would handle a student. When I saw you smile at his success, I felt like I was coming home to the fireplace after a day of rain. I knew you could understand what I was doing. That's when I decided I needed to go back to Concord and break it off with my girlfriend."
"What?" I gasped. "You didn't need to break up with your girlfriend for --"
"Yeah, I did. Because I wanted to ask you out. And maybe you thought I'm a stalker, and a beggar, but one thing I'm not is a cheater. I wouldn't ask a woman out on a date while I was engaged to someone else."
"You were engaged to her? Good God, Valentine, I'm nobody!" I panicked for a second, and then, things added up like a tax return. "Who hit you?" I demanded.
"She did," he said. "She was pretty pissed."
"She's a right-hander," I said.
"Yep. And she's a good pitcher, too. Hit me right above the eyebrow with the ring," showing me the tiny nick where the setting had cut him.
"Wonderful," I said, resisting the urge to smush him to me, raining kisses on his owchies.
"And after the screaming accusations and whacks, I still had to go to San Francisco and tell my parents the deal was off. My mother had already made guest lists for the wedding." He looked wearily at the wall decorations, which included a couple elaborate neon beer signs and some philodendrons, as well as some paintings done by local artists.
"Valentine," I said. "I hope that you didn't burn bridges that you'll regret losing later."
"Total ashes, my dear Doctor Renoir. And for that, I thank you." At my puzzlement, he continued. "If not for meeting you, I might have married a woman who could do this" and he touched his swollen lips, "in anger; so to quote a very beautiful and intelligent lady, 'I'm one of the lucky ones. I didn't get any broken bones or missing teeth.'"
The topics were too serious, my emotions were out of control, and the immediate future too frightening. I was relieved when the waiter arrived to bow and with theatrical deference, take our order. I removed my hand from Valentine's gently, making sure that I savored the movement of my skin against his. Very scary situation. I knew that I had self-discipline somewhere in my soul -- I must have lost it in a pocket somewhere.
I steered the conversation to the topic of foods that we liked, and restaurants in the Port Laughton area. He knew that I was deflecting his romance, and was entertained.
"I think you need to get some sleep," I told him later, after the fourth yawn he tried to stifle. "Let's call it an evening and set up a napping schedule for you before the next time."
"As long as there's a next time." He held my coat for me to slip over my arms, standing close enough that were I to stumble, I would be plastered against him. Was there anything on the floor that I could use as an excuse? As he offered me his arm in a nearly archaic gesture (and I took it, glad for the pretext for touching him), he smiled sleepily but somehow confidently at me around the bruises on his mouth.
"Madam, allow me to escort you to your castle." We were standing outside of Taylor's, and I stiffened a bit, unsure of allowing him to know where I lived. Tired as he was, he noticed. "Or I can call or a taxi, or take you to the bus stop, and passers-by can point at me and tell each other what a low life cheap son of a bitch I am, dumping a gorgeous date off to take the bus home."
I laughed, I couldn't help it. If any faculty members saw us, that's exactly what they'd think and the topic would be the gossip hit of the week. "I'll pull my coat up over my head so that anyone who sees can think I'm just some college town weirdo, and no one's date, all right?" Valentine was disappointed, but too bad. "Sorry, I know I'm odd, but I don't divulge my digs on a first date." Perhaps he would be offended, and never want to speak to me again, but very few people in Port Laughton, even after more than a decade of my living there, knew where I lived.
Memories always accessible to the present played in my subconscious: Two weeks after I moved in with Kimsky and Burlie, James showed up in the neighborhood, sitting in his (our) car and watching the house. I, knowing James, hadn't ever left the attic rooms except to go to the bathroom on the second story; Kimsky brought me food and water and let me know that Burlie had the shotgun armed and sitting by the kitchen table. On an otherwise innocent morning I had the attic window open and heard James on Kimsky's front stoop, demanding to know where I was, and shook with nausea to realize that James knew when Burlie was not going to be home. Kim and I sat in the attic after he'd left, me weeping in fear, and that feeling of being hunted down was as present to me even now as my sense of smell.
I let Valentine walk me to the bus stop, where the streetlights were just beginning to glow under the fog. We stopped and faced each other and he reached for my hands.
"I'm not going to do any major kissing until my lip is better," he whispered. "The first big kiss has got to be symphony quality." He lifted one of my hands to his lips, and then the other. Then he reached with his right hand and stroked my face, his thumb caressing my cheekbone, evoking such a rush of desire that I took a half-step back.
"Augusta. I would never hurt you, I promise. Come here." He spread his arms for me to hug him, and I did, feeling his arms gently enfold me, his face against my hair. "We've got to work on this trust thing," he said, and just held me close. I was not inclined to leave the embrace, until I knew my breathing was getting faster and there was more arousal for us both than comfort.
The B-line bus arrived at the stop. Valentine kissed my cheek. "Good night, Augusta."
I caught at his sleeve as he turned to walk away, and reached up to cup the left side of his face, pulling him within my reach. I kissed the uninjured corner of his mouth slowly.
He stepped away, shaking his head, a small smile quirking his mouth below puzzled eyes in the dimming light. "You don't play fair, do you?" he said, and walked back to the restaurant parking lot. Once on the bus, I watched through the window as he pulled out and drove away.
No, I guess I didn't.