Indoor pool water, at your gym, under artificial light and in a windowless room is never any of those celebrated blues of lake or ocean. It does not sparkle, in the way that the eye of fresh fish on ice in a market does not sparkle. You slice through it, dutifully counting your laps, fearing the germ count. Plasma more than water. Like a guppy in a lava lamp, back and forth you go, and because the pool is short, you take its length below the surface in one held breath.
With a half mile done, I clamp a hand over the rounded tile edge of the deep end and shove the goggles up over my brow. Startled to find that I am not alone in this pool, I am greeted by a familiar voice. The auxiliary bishop of my diocese is treading water and smiling. A man I have known since I was thirteen years old. He had been the one to greet my parents when they delivered me to the seminary. A handsome and athletic man with a warm laugh and a natural ability for languages. I had been in awe of this man. He would teach me introductory French in the morning’s first period. At the bell, he would close his briefcase, exit the classroom and stand quietly, looking at the floor in the corridor while the happy din of students echoed about him. At the next bell, he’d teach others an hour of Italian, and at the next, an hour of Spanish, ending the morning with an hour of Latin. After I had my driver’s license, he would let me borrow his car and grant me special permission to leave the seminary grounds at night to view the foreign language films shown at nearby colleges. Once, when I went to his rooms to pick up the keys, he was in a mood to chat. He invited me in and showed me how he arranged his briefcase for the day to come. For some reason, we talked about shoes. He brought me into his bedroom and showed me his meticulously lined up collection of identical pairs of black and sensible shoes. He laid out for me the rigorous schedule for their polishing and maintenance. It was clear that he was trying to teach me the value of discipline in all aspects of one’s personal life. He was trying to bestow the tools of his life, convinced that I would certainly and forever need their structure. He might just as well have tried to breathe the black plague into my soul. As I drove his car off the grounds, I felt only pity for him with his antiseptic restraint and routine. Still, I loved the fact that he never once asked me about the movies I was going to see. Never felt the need to censor my exposure to the secular. He’s OK, I used to think, and he had a beautiful vibrato to his singing voice, and the only truly flat stomach on the faculty. No one was surprised when he was named auxiliary bishop. Our cold and hide-bound Ordinary needed someone to minister to the growing Hispanic community. We had no Hispanic clergy but we had one seminary professor with shining credentials and shoes who spoke their language flawlessly. Everyone was surprised by what happened soon after his consecration. It was as if some tiny and hard-shelled seed deep within him burst into life in the warm moist ground of his new ministry. He became dangerously liberal. The grapevine reported that Rome was not pleased. He would never be given his own diocese. He became the unofficial underground advocate for the local gay community. At the bars, men who knew my position in the Church would tell me how much they admired him. Some claimed to have slept with him. One man was able to describe with accuracy the interior of the rectory in which he now resided, in the heart of the poor part of town. How could I not have seen this in him, I would wonder to myself. His floodgates had been perfect, I concluded. Finally, I learned that another priest living in that house was the one turning tricks in the rectory and that our auxiliary bishop, alone in his neatly made bed, suffered the slander without protest, absorbing it perhaps because he had no choice, or because he felt there was some greater good to be had in the shouldering of such a cross. I never asked him about it. We greeted each other in French and he did not switch to English until the conversation took a crucial turn.
“Antoine, I hear you have an apartment not far from your rectory.”
“Yes.” I answered calmly. I was not surprised that he knew this. I never made an effort to hide it, spending most of my nights there, rushing out the door in collar and black suit to drive to my parish for the delivery of my assigned morning Mass. My pastor did not care. He himself had a boyfriend and a house in a nearby suburb. I had been to dinner at their place on several occasions. The boyfriend was a decorator fond of Wedgwood. I ate shrimp cocktail in a room that felt like a robin’s egg on white cotton inside a Tiffany box. Drunk on sweet wine, they showed me their complete collection of Village People LPs, and the elaborate biker, cop, Indian and construction worker costumes they had sewn, worn to foreign carnivals and now kept in clear plastic shrouds.
I did not want to become my pastor. I did not want to become the auxiliary bishop. I did not know who I wanted to be, but I knew that I should not remain in the priesthood which had become for me like a tightly belted seat on a ride through the scary fun house of an amusement park, each new year like the jolt of the chain pulling you through swinging doors into another dark room with some fresh horror for the shrieking.
And so, we spoke calmly to each other, sending small ripples over the two feet that separated our heads, as the murky pool became for me a comforting baptism, a relief no less refreshing than the water of Lourdes. I told him that I planned to leave the ministry entirely but that I did not know how to go about it. I had never had a life outside of my childhood, the seminary, Rome and finally the parish. The apartment was my lifeboat. It had three bedrooms. I rented the other two to friends, ex-seminarians who were now medical students. He knew their names. They had been among his brilliant students. I told him that I was thinking of going to medical school but that I had no money and that at the age of twenty-nine, I was probably too old for it. I reminded him that I had no scandal attached to my name. No need to leave town, although I could see in his eyes that he felt that that would certainly be more convenient for all concerned. All except for me, and this was, after all, about me. Not about celibacy, obedience, vows or the will of God. Yes, I blamed the Archbishop for breaking his promise to send me back to Rome. He had been cruel. He had insisted that my willfulness was probably due to some drug or alcohol problem to which I was not admitting. He had tried to have me committed to some type of sanitarium for troubled priests. I had refused this, reminding him that if I had that on my record, I would most certainly forfeit any possibility of a return to Rome. What bishop would take damaged and suspect goods? Finally, I had agreed to a daylong session with a psychiatrist of his choosing. Three weeks later, I sat in the Archbishop’s office and watched him tear up the letter from that psychiatrist. A letter saying that there was nothing wrong with me. That I should be given a ministry to match my intellect or a release to find suitable work elsewhere in the Church. The archbishop, red-faced with anger, told me that he would never write a positive letter of recommendation for me, even if I should find what he described as a “benevolent bishop”. I responded that my record was clean and that without a positive recommendation, no bishop would touch me. I thought he was unfair. He thought I was disobedient. We were both right, and at an impasse.
The fact is that I could have, with very little effort, found a benevolent bishop or cardinal who would have taken me on conditionally and with probation. I was much too proud for that and I abhorred the thought of fighting for my place in the Church. I wanted it given to me. Granted. Bestowed. Awarded. Invested. I had an inflated sense of my own nobility, and with the chair kicked out from under me, I was about to find out what I was really made of. In truth, I wanted everything except another bishop.
“Bien, Antoine” said the auxiliary bishop as he swam away, looking back at me with deep sadness, and worry and not a little fondness. We promised to stay in touch with each other. We did not.
Three summer months went by during which I was now officially “gone”. Every morning, I’d get on my bike and go to a shabby public park where I would play racquetball with the unemployed Puerto Rican men on the outdoor courts. Their girlfriends would sit in the shade of oaks and occasionally bring us fruit or beer. No one asked my name or my background. I was entirely anonymous. It was as if living my daily life in Spanish was an adequate new beginning. In the evening, I’d go to the local gay bar with my roommates. One of the three of us usually managed to score, and I always enjoyed making breakfast for whoever emerged from one of our bedrooms. Over time, we developed a roster of men who had slept with each of us in sequence, just as one might acquire a new Nancy Drew novel, assuming that if you liked what you’d read of the series so far, why not try the next one?
In September, with the change in weather, my friends grew in their concern about my plans, or lack of plans. I received a phone call from a lady who was the housekeeper at a parish where a close friend of mine was pastor. She, a gracious lady, and privy to priestly secrets that would curl the hair of the faithful, had heard about my situation and had a suggestion. A married ex-priest with whom she had remained friendly now held some sort of appointed position in state government. She gave me his number and suggested I call him. Perhaps he could do something for me.
This irritated me. I certainly did not want to work for the state. That was not my idea of an exciting and new future. I wanted to become a banker in New York City where, on weekends, I was being kept by an elderly man who looked like Dwight Eisenhower and who brought me breakfast in bed and my own copy of the New York Times. (We would race to see who could finish the crossword puzzle first, but not as swiftly as I would try to race us through sex with my eyes closed.) On Mondays, he’d go off to work and I would watch the Young and The Restless with his maid while she ironed his shirts. See? I did have a plan. He had gotten me some excellent interviews. With no training, I had botched them miserably. I lost out on an internship to Prince Albert of Monaco. On the train back home, I began to realize that I was in over my head and out of my league.
I knew that the lady housekeeper would call the ex-priest and convince him to meet with me. I had no choice but to contact him. I avoided this, and eventually, he called me, and I agreed to meet him for lunch.