The priest selected a notebook from the pile of books on the desk and began to fire questions at me.
“How long have you known Cynthia?” His attitude made me feel as if I were giving a deposition in the Attorney General’s office. “For four years,” I lied.
I had arrived twenty minutes before the appointment. Uncomfortable under the critical gaze of the secretary who resembled a parakeet, I reminded myself of how important all this was to Cynthia. To suffer the grating unpleasantness of an interrogation in order to marry had to be either wise or crazy. The bird woman, after writing down my name in her appointment book, indifferently motioned to the couch in front of her. “Father Manolo hasn’t arrived yet.”
The room was spacious, sparsely furnished and painted in a sickly white. There was only one religious image, a human sized statue of the risen Christ. From the windows that looked out on the street I could see a parade of shadows of cars and pedestrians. At the far end of the room there was a small wooden desk with two chairs. The secretary walked behind me, taking me by the arm and practically shoving me toward the desk.
Seated with my back to the entrance, waiting for the interviewer I again felt the anxiety of my first confession, the terrible fear of forgetting which sins were officially classified, the mysterious act of contrition, my nervous erection.
“Good afternoon,” said a voice from the door behind me.
“Padre Manolo, what a pleasure to see you!” I said with feigned enthusiasm. “I never imagined that I would find you in this sophisticated church.”
“How is your father? The doctor…”
“…Espinoza, the pediatrician, am I right? ¨ He said quickly. “I worked with him and with your mother.”
I responded with a phony smile and firmly grasped his hand.
The truth was that I had met Cynthia seven months before at my job. We worked in the tax minimization office of an international company. Her first day she arrived dressed in black, showing off her endowments; a sprinter’s thighs and an extravagantly full behind. With that exhibition of sexuality it was impossible to ignore her. I knew that my female co-workers, badly paid and plain, would feel resentful. A month and a half later the pronouncement arrived, abbreviated by the spokeswoman of the harpies: slut.
I have always been drawn to women full of life and them to me, perhaps in a different manner from what I wanted, but with Cynthia things progressed naturally.
“Where did you meet her?” the priest continued after writing a note.
“What is the nature of your relationship?”
“We talk a little during work hours, we eat together almost every day and occasionally we go to the movies.”
“Your relationship is not limited to the workplace.”
The impassive face of the priest was trying to find some clue in my face, which forced me to be quiet and concentrate on the next answer. On the one hand I didn’t want to sabotage Cynthia, on the other hand, although not consciously, I wanted the interview to be a failure.
“We’re good friends,” I said, forcing a smile.
I saw a seed of a doubt in the priest’s face. He wrinkled his forehead creating a map of worry or surprise. It was clear that he could use moments like this to make the marriage more difficult for the couple.
“How close are you to Alberto?”
I was on the verge of telling him that I only knew Alberto as the protagonist of my friend’s melodrama. Cynthia had sighed with acceptance, “If you can put up with routine, you can put up with marriage,” she would argue without any desire to convince herself or me. Her close friends all knew that her engagement was loveless, filled with subtle insults: he treated her as if she were mentally challenged and made fun of her working out to keep up her figure. She made fun of his lack of sexual appetite, which greatly benefitted me. Even so, they were considered the ideal couple of the new rich.
I might have said that and ended the lie, which cost me great concentration to maintain if it hadn’t been for the arrival of a young women who on entering the salon kissed the priest on the cheek and without looking at me left silently as if part of something choreographed and habitual.
“She’s my niece,” the padre mentioned, uncomfortable because of the snigger that escaped me.
I didn’t care about his assertion, I was there to give testimony in the condemnation of Cynthia, which, stubbornly I had decided to do.
“Very attractive, father,” I said, eyeing the derriere of the young woman as she left the room.
“Could you answer me?”
“I won’t lie to you, we aren’t friends at all.” It was the only truth of the afternoon.
The rains had begun and the flower arrangements from the wedding last weekend were a stinking mess in the church’s yard. From my chair I could see a cloud of flies hovering over the flowers withering on their sticks. The priest smiled happily as though he were enjoying the blend of odors of paraffin, greens and the decaying irises and calla lilies. The niece paced from one side to the other in the hallway. I looked at her and smiled. She continued to ignore me.
It had been a long time since I had set foot in a church, certainly never before to lie before God that Cynthia and Alberto were an ideal couple for a Catholic marriage. And worst of all I had to do it in front of Manuel Mendez, a high-ranking priest of the archdiocese, creator of the Summer Youth Ministry. No one who wanted to be part of the right clique could fail to attend. The first weekend of the summer we students from private prep schools went to the beach with the hope of bettering our relationship with God and with the high life.
“Refocus your life.” That´s what they called the main dynamic, which consisted of writing our own epitaphs to imagine with what words we would be remembered. Many of the group were moved to tears reading their legacy to the others; “Here lies a God-fearing man, a model father,” “He died a sinner; he will be reborn as a child of God.” At the climactic moment of the activity the priest with eyes like saucers chose me from all the youth to be the next to read. When it came time I did what was required, I walked to the podium, raised my poster board tombstone, just as I had imagined Moses at Mount Sinai and with a thundering voice said, “Here lies a man hoping to be raised from the dead, to that end he will accept any religion.” The silence was loud for a moment, devoid of friendly hugs and tears, the usual communal reaction. “In all the years I have been here no on has offended so many people in this way. Leave right now and don’t come back.”
“She must have a great weight on her soul that she’s trying to lighten,” I said to divert the intense scrutiny of my inquisitor.
“Who?” he asked, bewildered.
“Your niece. She hasn’t stopped pacing.”
Father Manolo lit a cigarette and offered me one, which I didn’t accept. It was almost noon; someone entered and asked if we’d be much longer. The stranger, without receiving an answer, left the room slightly stooped as if he were permanently bowing to his reverence.
“Tell me a characteristic of this couple.”
Without hesitating I responded, “Respect.” I would have enjoyed the lie if I had not felt so manipulated.
The face of my interrogator, still young but with a trace of sadness distractedly continued to observe me, as if he too were in the room by obligation.
I remembered the visible excitement on the same face when he performed the singing mass in our neighborhood. My parents had organized the installation of the new priest. His charisma caused a competition among the leading couples in the church to invite him to dinner; the winners of the first battle were my parents; they told us this with a pride comparable to that felt by Mary of Bethany when she was chosen to anoint Christ’s feet.
To see the priest eating, using his knife and fork like a surgeon in a private clinic cutting open a wealthy patient, and my parents struggling to keep him from hearing the sounds of the other guests’ cutlery squeaking on their plates, I knew then that the farther I was from the emissaries of religion the happier I would be in this Vale of Tears.
The archdiocese, seeing the potential of the young priest, sent him to a more exclusive neighborhood to convince the lost souls there to cleanse themselves of their sins with generous contributions.
“Would you say that she is a person respectful of the teachings of the church?” my interviewer asked me with a sense of urgency.
As for church doctrine, I only remembered my teacher’s legs; at this thought, I turned my gaze to the door with the hope of seeing the niece’s backside again.
“The rite and all those things are very important to her.”
“Sacrament,” he corrected, annoyed.
It wasn´t clear whether the argument convinced him or exasperated him.
“What is your relation with the family of the bride-to-be? What can you tell me about them?” he continued while he scrawled something in a notebook that had the picture of the Archangel Michael drawn on the cover.
“I know them well, Father. Her mother is a retired teacher and her father has various auto parts stores.”
“Tell me what their marriage is like.”
“Are all these questions necessary?” I tried to divert the conversation to calmer waters. I was not disposed to reveal the misadventures of her parents who had so generously ignored my occasional visit to their daughter’s bed.
“Look, when we know the family, it isn’t necessary, but in this case it’s clear that we need testimonies of people close to the young woman. We want to know if the family is from somewhere else, if they participate in other religious groups, if they work with their church.”
“I suppose you ask the same questions about Alberto.”
“It wasn’t necessary, he’s a professor in a university of Marist monks, he has good references from his superiors, and in addition his family is a benefactor of the Diocese.
I remembered that Cynthia had mentioned, after the engagement dinner, that they had offered her fiancé the position of director at a Marist school, and she confessed, too drunk and incapacitated to lie, that a prerequisite for the job was that he was in a good marriage. Before leaving the apartment Cynthia, still reeking of recent sex, asked me to go the interview.
“Does she sincerely love Alberto?” he asked slowly without requiring a swift answer.
The pastor of sheep with a lot of wool, a priest of one of the few churches with air conditioning and a professional sound system, more like a theater than a house of God was asking me to be sincere.
From one of the rooms of the parochial annex the sound of chattering overrode our conversation with its laughter, exchange of greetings and kisses and then faded away.
“Let me rephrase the question. Is there another person who might get in the way of her love for Alberto?”
I supposed that Cynthia might be in love with me. I had almost arrived at the conclusion that I loved her. We had maintained a certain distance until one day our fragile equilibrium was challenged and we obeyed the stronger laws of gravity and leapt at each other. The rhythm of her heart, the odor of her neck, her chin resting on my shoulder, her ragged breath were the signs I had hoped for and we kissed as if it were the next step and both of us knew it and calmly accepted it.
“Turn off the light,” she demanded the first time. I obeyed without hesitation. The sound of her clothing that signaled her nudity was accompanied by another order.
“No. You two are meant for each other,” I responded without conviction. The world in which she lived, usually irrelevant to our undefined friendship, suddenly revealed a truth impossible to live with in comfort.
The niece entered again, pressuring the priest with a tight smile. He quickly wrote his comments in the notebook and closed it.
“I have the obligation to say this: if you know of any reason why this marriage should not take place, you should tell me now.”
“Or forever hold my peace.”
“Yes. There are some loose ends, certain doubts, but now it’s a question of speaking with the couple.” His voice was a mixture of neutrality and suspicion.
Already tired of the whole thing, I said, “Thank you Father,” and gave him an exaggerated bow.
He accompanied me to the entrance and admitted that my epitaph on that day long ago had even made the rector of the university laugh.
Drained, I remained silent, walking quickly to my car, trying to absorb the recently released whirlwind of thoughts. I looked at the priest’s niece and, this time, she said goodbye to me with a smile capable of founding her own religion.
Before I started the car the voice of Padre Manolo reached me from the door of the annex: “Your testimony has proved to be very helpful although you have omitted some things. The other witness limited himself to answering in monosyllables until he stammered that he loved her. The poor guy was in love with her, can you imagine?”
His words hit me in the gut.
While I drove toward the apartment I reimagined the newly revealed Cynthia, as she really always was: a woman capable of manipulating me with a wink to make me forget her screams in public, her scorn in not answering my calls, the expensive gifts she demanded, “Because you are more than a friend.”
The cell phone rang with the sound I had chosen to announce her calls. I drove more by instinct than design; I changed direction and took a detour toward the east coast where there was no signal. I silenced the phone so as not to hear the hideous sound.
Cynthia was waiting for me in the apartment. Alberto had left to comply with his ministry outside the city.