After the one hundred hour workweek, after the Saturday morning meeting of the Board of Elders, after the obligatory Saturday afternoon pickup basketball game, after picking up the Haitian kids from Lake Park and taking them home, after the Saturday night casual service, after picking up the metal folding chairs and folding them and placing them on the folding chair sleds and pushing the sleds against the wall, after the after-church outing with the high school youth leadership team, after taking the high school leadership team home in the church van, after parking the church van in the parking lot and replacing the keys in the church secretary’s drawer, after the one in the morning despair in the lonely apartment, after the two in the morning walk around the apartment complex pond path, after the five in the morning Sunday wake-up alarm, after the six in the morning obligatory group prayer, after Red Bull and Bear’s Claw breakfast, after playing the bass guitar in the eight o’clock service and acoustic guitar in the ten-thirty service, after the after-service small group leadership luncheon, after the after-luncheon cleanup, after getting two fingers jammed in the leg of a circular folding table, after dinner with the angry family whose son would not stop smoking marijuana in the church parking lot even though the police had asked nicely, after Sunday night high school youth group, after preaching about the good Samaritan, after taking seven kids home in the church van, after replacing the keys in the secretary’s desk, after sitting down and leaning back in my black reclining office chair:
The phone rings.
Sobbing on the other end.
“What’s wrong? Can I help you?”
I know the voice on the other end. The girl’s name is Allyson. She is nineteen to my twenty-two. For the past two years, she has been living with a Marine Corps sergeant. Two weeks ago, she moved out, though she is still visiting at his house. “I’m still sleeping with him,” she says.
I have never had sex with anyone.
“Do you know how hard it is,” she says, “to stay here at Miss Junie’s house, all alone, wanting to be with him but not being able to be with him?”
Her legs—I kid you not—belong in Vogue. Fashion runway legs. Rockette legs. Better, maybe.
“Then I go over there,” she says—now she’s crying again—“and I tell myself we’re just going to talk. I’m going to tell him about my commitment to God and how I can’t be living with someone who is not going to marry me. Then I start crying like I’m crying now. I can’t help it. I need to cry so I cry. And it makes him feel bad. He’s a good person, it’s true, maybe you don’t think he is, but he is. So he holds me. I’m crying so he wants to comfort me. He can’t help himself but comfort me. Anyone would, right? Any good person.”
“Comfort you?” I say. Through the haze of my exhaustion, I can see her in his arms and feel something, maybe, of what he feels rising within him, having her in his arms. Once she came to my apartment with some other people, and I said I was hungry, and she cooked some black beans and rice on my stove, and for a moment we were alone in the kitchen, standing very close to each other, and when I looked into her eyes, her pupils flared, and I felt as though gravity had tripled, that maybe five hundred pounds had been added to my weight.
“But then his hands are on me, and it’s so familiar. It’s not love, you’ll say, right? It’s just what’s familiar. But his hands. On my back, the small of my back, his hands. These patterns we fall into. Habits. It’s hard to think of anything bad, anything sinful, you know? Later, I mean, all you see is darkness, the darkness of yourself, the darkness you have seen in him, being with him, or what you do together? But not while you’re there. While you’re there, all you feel is a lifting. Everything slows down, and everything feels, you see? And that’s what you can’t find it in yourself to give up, the way everything opens up into feeling.”
I’m thinking of a story the senior pastor likes to tell, of the man who had my job before I did, who married the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She came with another man, he’d say. She was living with him, and I said, Phil, we have to get her saved. And ten months, eleven months later, sure enough . . .
She’s crying again. “You must think I’m terrible,” she says. “You must hate me. Or, how do people say it? Hate the sin, love the sinner?”
“No, gosh no,” I’m saying, I’m hearing myself say, as though I am outside myself. “I would never think anything like that about you.”
“You wouldn’t?” she says. She is fishing. She does this. She fishes, for compliments, for encouragement. Sometimes she wants to be told she is pretty. Sometimes she wants to be held. Sometimes if there are three men in the room, she knows how to find a way to make them all compete for which one gets to stand closest to her. Sometimes I have found myself putting my body between her body and someone else’s body, and sometimes I have found someone else putting his body between my body and her body, sometimes in someone’s kitchen, sometimes in someone’s living room, sometimes after prayer, and sometimes before.
“Well, first of all,” I say, putting on my pastor’s hat—she has called me at the office, not at home, and what does that mean?, what role should I play here?, does she distinguish between one and the other?—“you’re just completely loved in the eyes of God.”
“That goes without saying,” she says, like it’s not an important consideration.
“Of course,” I hear myself saying—with her I always seem to hear myself saying, instead of taking the agency of saying—“and I’m not saying you wouldn’t know it, not that we don’t all need to be reminded of it all the time. I mean, we’re needy. All of us. I’m needy. You’re needy. We all want. We all need. All of us, you know, it’s that tension between what we desire and what we actually need—”
At this, she descends into sobbing of the jerking, heaving kind. She must think I am indicting her, or maybe I am preaching a sermon to her about her ex-boyfriend who she is still sleeping with, which means not sleeping, actually, but having sex—and here I can picture all of the ways that they must be having sex, in what rooms, on what furniture, in what position, except that in his place, in some ways, I am seeing myself, and although all of this is coming from me, it feels, in my exhaustion, less like some kind of script I am writing than it does like some kind of memory, although, as I am painfully aware, I have no memories anything like what I must be imagining is going on between the Marine Corps sergeant and the girl who is crying on the phone, and I don’t know how to bring any kind of comfort to her.
“I understand,” I hear myself saying, “what you were saying before, about him wanting to hold you, because right now, hearing you cry on the phone, I really wish I could be here to hold you, because it is really hard to hear you hurt the way you must be hurting, to cry this way, I mean, and not be able to somehow give you any kind of comfort.”
Here I am crossing a line, and I know that I am crossing a line. Once, a drunken woman came to the office, and I was the only pastor in the office, and she leaned over so I could see across my desk and down her shirt, and she wasn’t wearing a bra, and she leaned back and spread her legs so I could see her panties against her legs and skirt, and I am not a person who is looking for an opportunity to take advantage. If I was, I would have accepted what that drunken woman was offering, but instead, that day, I excused myself and got the church secretary, and asked her if she would go into my office and talk and pray with the drunken woman.
So this isn’t like that. This isn’t that. And this girl, she is not married, and I am not married, and where else will I ever get close with any women if not here in the church, because, let’s be honest, I am working here a hundred, a hundred and twenty hours some weeks, and, anyway, who should marry a person like the person I am, unless it is a person who wants to be around the church all the time, too, which, clearly, is the path this girl wants to head down.
“You would want to hold me?” she says.
“Well, I would,” I say. “I do. I would, I mean, if you were here.”
“You would put your arms around me, and hold me?” she says.
“Yes, I would,” I say. “I wouldn’t be afraid of that. I wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with that. What could be wrong with that?”
She is not crying now, so much as she is sort of breathing into the phone, the kind of post-crying breathing I myself have not experienced since the girl I loved in college told me she could not see me anymore, and after that bout of emotion, I felt like I had found a way to switch off the part of me that could feel that deeply, but now I feel like maybe the switch is getting turned on again, like maybe it is a damaged switch, but it can still be turned. I am trained in these things, I have a college degree and a little bit of seminary, and I know what a metaphor is, and good Lord, I am exhausted, but I’m thinking: What if that switch is damaged such that if it gets turned back on, the process of turning it on breaks it, and then there isn’t any way to turn it back off without hiring an electrician and getting him to order a new switch and repair the switch. Where does a person purchase a switch?
“I don’t think there would be anything wrong with that,” she is saying. “If you were holding me.”
There is a long silence. What she is saying feels like an invitation. It is an invitation I certainly would like to take her up on. I am conscious of the need to worry about what would happen after I took her up on the invitation. I am conscious of the absence of any urgency concerning the worry. I see a vision so clear it is nearly seen through my eyes rather than in my mind alone, of a long red T-shirt I have seen her wear, and a pair of very tight jean shorts I have seen her wear, of her lying on a bed in the guest room of Miss Junie’s house, and the length and the shape of her legs as they rise toward those shorts. Perhaps I should remind her how late it must be, or perhaps we should meet for coffee tomorrow after the morning pastoral staff meeting, or maybe she has to work.
Or maybe if I do not go see her tonight, she will go over to her ex-boyfriend’s house, the Marine Corps sergeant. Perhaps if I do not hold her tonight, he will.
“You feel, it seems,” I am saying. “Just, lonely.”
“Do you ever feel lonely?” she says.
I feel lonely all the time. “Sometimes,” I say, “at night, if I can’t sleep, I walk around the pond behind my apartment. You know? The pond? The fountain?”
“It makes you feel lonely?” she says.
“It reminds me of when I was in college,” I say. “This girl I loved. My best friend’s little sister. Or I thought I loved her. I thought I loved her and she loved me. I don’t know. We did, I guess. Or I did. Or—anyway—when it ended, I couldn’t sleep at night, and there was this sidewalk, maybe two miles of sidewalk, that went around the main part of the campus, and some nights I would just walk it and walk it. It was cold. I would be wearing my coat. Sometimes people would see me, and I wondered if they thought I was homeless or crazy or something. It was too cold to be walking around that circle.”
“But now,” she says. “Do you ever feel lonely?”
“Everyone does,” I say. “Right? Don’t you think everyone does?”
“I didn’t used to,” she says, “when I had someone.”
Now she is crying again. I feel as though talking is the only thing I do or know how to do. Perhaps this is a situation that requires something other than talking. Something, maybe, like going home, to my own apartment, which is, it now occurs to me, the path of wisdom.
“Is Miss Junie home?” I say.
“No, honey,” she says. “She’s gone all night.”
“Maybe,” I say, “I could come over for a little while.”
“Come over,” she says.
“Just for a little while,” I say.
“Please,” she says.