"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that."
-- Vatican II. Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World -- Gaudium et Spes. 7 Dec. 1965.
"Aiden, close the refrigerator door."
"I have a meeting at the church that Jess wants me to go to, but dinner is in the oven. Just give it another twenty minutes and it'll be ready."
"Twenty minutes? What am I supposed to do in the meantime?"
"Find something that doesn't involve standing in front of an open refrigerator."
I remember being a kid. Not specifically fourteen, like Aiden, but I remember that whole kind of growing up thing. I hated it, by and large. I hated my parent's constant arguing, I hated teachers always being on my ass, I hated being bullied by the jocks. There wasn't much that I cared for at all when I was young, so even though I don't particularly like him, I try not to hassle Aiden more than I have to. He's a punk, I understand that, and as long as he stays out of my way, I don't mind it. He's Jessica's kid, and I don't mind that either. Aiden's father is dead, so it's not like there's an ex hanging around the edges of the kid's life. In fact, since his father died when Aiden was two, Aiden doesn't know anything but the sanctified memory of the man his mother preserves. In some ways, I'm sure that's better than what I had to deal with growing up with an old man who thought everything I did was a sin.
By definition, as far as I could tell, sin was anything I did or wanted to do. I'm not sure where my father got his information from, since none of us ever went to church. He read the Bible, irregularly, although he never said what he read or why, but he was apparently convinced it gave him complete authority to rule and ruin my life and the lives of my brothers, sister and my mother. That's why we all bolted as soon as we could. My brothers both enlisted while they were still seniors in high school and were out of there on their eighteen birthdays. My sister got pregnant at sixteen so as to have an excuse to leave. I thought the guy she married was a jerk, and even told her that, but she said it didn't matter, she could make it work. She has too, as far as I can see. More power to her. Being the youngest, I went with my mother when she had finally had enough. I was eleven, and Mom made me promise that I would finish school before going off on my own. That was okay, since Mom let me do pretty much what I wanted "as long as the police don't show up at the door." The one time the police did show up, when I was caught shoplifting, she was really cool. I had tried to walk out of mini-mart with a can of beer in my pocket. The owner stopped me and called the cops, but he didn't want to press charges, apparently, just to teach me a lesson. The cops agreed and took me to the police station where I stayed until my mother showed up a couple hours later after she got off of work. When we got home, she didn't say anything other than that had been my one free ride. If I got in trouble again, she would throw me out, and I would have to live with my father. I got religion that day, at least about what I needed to do to avoid living under my father's brand of religion.
"Michael," says the priest. "Would you consider yourself a religious man?"
"Don't know. I never thought about it."
"How would you describe your relationship with God?"
I shake my head. "Like I said, I've never thought about it much, although I'm not the kind of person your god would likely be hanging around with."
"And yet you do his bidding."
"You are an answer to prayer, Michael."
"I don't think so."
"Perhaps you don't, but let me tell you a brief story. I've known Jessica since she was Aiden's age. When I came to this parish eighteen years ago, Jessica's parents befriended me, opened their home to me, and have been my friends ever since. I've watched Jessica grow up, officiated her wedding when she married David, and even baptized Aiden when he was born. Sadly, I also presided at David's funeral Mass.
"Jessica stopped going to church after that. I was not all that surprised, really. It's not hard to feel betrayed in those kinds of circumstances, to blame God for the senselessness of having had your life destroyed before it has really even begun. I prayed every day for her, asking God that he lead her back to the Church. Then you came along, and my prayer was answered."
"I don't think I had anything to do with that."
The priest shrugs.
"So, are you going to marry us or not?"
"Do you want to get married?"
"Please, feel free to be honest."
"Honestly? I like things the way they are. I don't think we need a piece of paper to tell us what we have. I can't see any good would come of it."
The priest smiles and looks down at his desk.
"What?" I say.
"I can see how you might say that, although I am a bit curious about your choice of words. You say no 'good' would come of it."
"You disagree, of course."
"I'm not sure, Michael. I am uncertain what you mean by 'good.'"
"Good -- the opposite of bad."
"Okay, then, what's bad?"
"Stuff that I don't want. Does this have anything to do with getting married?"
"Perhaps. I understand that you have misgivings about why I should even be involved in the discussion of your marriage."
"You could say that."
"Were I simply an agency for the dispensing of marriage contracts, I could limit myself to verification of the legal requirements for such an arrangement and to the providing of appropriate documentation that such an arrangement has been made. But that's not what you're asking for here."
"Well, technically I am not asking for anything here, but if I was, what would I be asking for?"
"The sacrament of marriage."
"Yeah, well you say tomato..."
"No, Michael, this is not to-may-toes and to-mah-toes, this is apples and oranges. Words like good, like marriage, are words that are bandied about so freely that they have become almost meaningless. They are buckets into which people dump almost anything that they want."
"So we agree to disagree."
"It's not that easy. Let's try another word. Do you love Jessica?"
Oh, jeeze. That's not a question you ask people, and it didn't seem like something he needed to know. It wasn't even something Jess and I talked about, not really. Sometimes she says she loves me when she's leaving for work, but that's kind of just another way to say goodbye, and sometimes I'll say it in bed, but of course there's a lot of things I'll say in bed that I'm not really interested in discussing with a priest.
"Does she love you?"
"Yeah, probably. She wants to get married."
"But what does love mean to her?"
The hell if I know. It's damn near impossible to tell what a woman thinks, at least that's been my experience. And this is exactly what puts me off the whole marriage thing. People want to over think everything. It's like the questionnaires on a dating site, you know? Am I tidy? Do I like parties? Am I dominant or submissive? Spontaneous, attractive, frugal? Open, clever, friendly, irritable, healthy, smoker, romantic, shy, kind, responsible, curious? God, the list goes on forever, and then you can only hope the person you meet doesn't lie as much as you do. The problem with dating sites, in fact the problem with relationships in general, is that you can't really tell what a person is like; you can only deal with what's in front of you here and now. The problem with marriage is that all you know for sure is the here and now; all things being equal, there's just no way of knowing if the there and then will work at all.
"Why are we doing this?" I ask Jessica as she moves on top of me. Aiden's gone out, we had wine with dinner, and we had started necking on the couch.
"Because I'm hot, and I want you."
"No. Wait." We haven't made love in three weeks, and as I push Jessica off and get up from the couch, there is a huge debate going on in my head about whether I've lost my mind.
"Well, that's a first," she says. Her hair is disheveled; it sweeps across her forehead and curves back in a spray across cheek, nose and lips. She is propped up on her elbows.
"Yeah, well, this whole thing has me thinking."
"What whole thing?"
"The whole marriage thing."
"Oh, God," she says and falls back onto the couch, covering her eyes with a forearm.
"You say we have to get married so you can do your thing at church."
"No. I say that I want to marry you, or at least I thought I did, because I love you."
"There. What do you mean by that?"
"It means that as far as I know, it still takes at least two people to constitute a marriage. I don't want to do it alone."
"No, I mean what do you mean when you say you love me?"
"What do you mean what do I mean?" She sits up and swings her feet to the floor. She runs her hands through her hair to get it back off of her face, and as she does, her partially opened blouse exposes a distracting amount of skin. The debate in my head tilts in favor of having lost my mind.
"I mean what do you mean when you say you love me?"
"It's a feeling." She places a hand on her chest. "Here."
"Yeah. I guess. I don't know. I don't have the words for it, really, but it's how I feel when I think of you. What do you mean when you say you love me?"
I have to be careful here, because if I am to be totally honest with myself, when I have said "I love you" to a woman, it most always meant the sex had been good. Outside of bed, I can't remember ever saying it, and if I did, it was rhetorical. "That's what I mean, this has got me thinking. I don't know what I mean."
"Do you love me?"
"I think so. In my own way."
"Can you look at me and tell me?"
God, I feel like I am trapped in some soap opera, like if I tell her that I love her, she will then reveal she is Bin Laden's illegitimate daughter, but I look into her eyes and say the words. "I love you."
"How does that make you feel?"
"Nervous? Like you're embarrassed?"
There is a sudden lump in my throat, and I can feel myself turning red. I can't look at Jess. I hate the feeling. "Like I'm afraid." I wait long enough for the surge of heat to leave my cheeks, and I look at Jess. There are tears running down her cheeks, but she is smiling softly.
"Come here," she says and pats the couch next to her. When I sit down, she wipes the tears from her cheeks. "What are you afraid of?"
"I don't know if I can love you the way you want. I don't know if I know how to be married, or if I can even do whatever that is. You know, all the relationships I've ever had have turned to shit, and I just assumed that's the way things are, Jess. I used to think it was always them that changed, but who knows, maybe it was me, but it doesn't really matter, does it? In the end, it's all the same." We are quiet for a long time, then she leans her head on my shoulder and takes my hand.
"It's funny. We're both afraid we might get married."
"You're afraid? Of what?"
"You. You scare me. I swore up and down that I would never let myself be so vulnerable again; I would never allow myself to be put in the position of having my soul ripped out of me and shredded the way it was when David was killed. I was angry, and bitter, and alone, and the thought crossed my mind that that was how I was going to spend the rest of my life. I blamed God, and told him that if that was the best he could do, then he sucked at being God. That's when you showed up." She turns her head to look at me. The tears have returned, but she's not unhappy.
"So, I was like your knight in shining armor?"
She laughs. "No, that's the funny part. You were like the dirty puppy that shows up at your door with fleas and scabs and shivering in the rain. No offense, but if I had drawn up a list of qualities that I wanted in a husband, it wouldn't have been you. But when I met you, it was if God said to me, 'Here, get over yourself and take care of this for me.'"
"Wow." I don't know what she's saying; I don't know what she's thinking. It's like I've always said, it's damn hard to figure out a woman, and yet, I don't want to walk away from Jess.
"No accounting for taste, eh?"
"The religion thing, Jess, I don't know that I can ever get into that."
She shrugs. "You don't have to. You just need to accept the fact that I do."
"What if I don't know how to love you?"
"If you want it to work, we'll figure it out. Together."
I have never known anyone who married for love that found it, I will say that, but it doesn't seem to stop people as far as I can see. Maybe she's right. Maybe if I just give it a chance, it'll work. Jess gets up and comes around in front of me. She pushes me back on the couch, straddles me, kisses me, and then begins to undo the rest of her blouse buttons. This time there is no debate in my mind.
"Hey," says Aiden who has managed to get in the door without us noticing.
"Jesus," Jess says and jumps up clutching her blouse.
"Is this a bad time?" says Aiden.
"It wasn't supposed to be, no." Jess has already trotted down the hallway towards the bedroom. "What are you doing home?"
"The guys wanted to go drinking, so I came home."
"No shit? Why didn't you go with them?"
"Because they are mostly jerks when they drink and do stupid stuff."
"The guys I know are mostly jerks and do stupid stuff when they drink."
"Yeah, but you're legally stupid. I can wait my turn."
"Really? You know, when I was a kid, I didn't drink with the guys either, because my mother threatened to send me back to my dad if I did, and he would have beaten the shit out of me."
"Yeah, well, I didn't figure you'd care one way or another, but I just feel that not drinking is the right thing to do."
"That's good, because I would kick your ass."
"Wow, that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy."
"I'm going to my room."
"Cool," I say. Jess comes out of the bedroom with a sheet, blanket and some pillows that have been my bedroll since this whole conversation of marriage started up. She plops them on the couch and gives me a wistful look.
"Maybe that was just God's way of keeping us honest."
"So, no sex before marriage, even though we've been sleeping together for eight years?"
She sighs. "Mike, I know this is difficult, but I really need you to understand. I have to do what I think is right."
I wonder if that's what Jess is afraid of, some kind of cosmic ass-kicking if she doesn't toe the line. All I know is that this marriage seems to be driving us apart rather than together.