Rob searched the crowd in the Italian restaurant for a friend. His sun-darkened skin was bronze against his white collar. He felt the heat through his many layers, the weight of black clericals on an August day, the rub of his collar on his brown neck, and wished himself again on the soft shore of Kauai, with cool-warm water lapping his toes, an iced drink at hand. But vacation was over, summer almost gone, and the pace of church life about to pick up dramatically. Rob cupped a hand to his eyes to see across the outside courtyard, where tables were set under an awning, and patrons lounged with wine glasses at the outdoor bar.
There, Rob spied the sun-bleached hair, heard the distinct laugh, recognized at once the erect posture of his best friend, Father Lawrence Poole, bantering with the bartender. They hadn’t seen each other all summer; Lawrence had been in Italy for a month, then Rob had gone to Hawaii to visit relatives. Rob had missed Lawrence more than he’d expected, felt the loss of the regular afternoon call which filled that empty portion of the day; he had missed Lawrence’s wicked laughter through the phone line, the gossip and the companionship that only two souls with the same vocation could know.
Lawrence greeted Rob with a hug. “Hey, there, sweetie. You look relaxed. Did you get lucky over the summer?”
“Ha, ha.” Rob hugged Lawrence back. “You’re projecting. Is there something you need to confess?”
Lawrence put his hand over his heart and made a tragic face. “My lips are sealed.” Lawrence kissed his fingertips, eyes closed reverently.
The maitre d’ arrived to escort them to a table.
As Rob and Lawrence passed through the restaurant, a lingering trace of perfume met them, to Rob, as familiar as the scent of his own pillow, his own warmed bed, sweet and musky as a woman. And there was a woman somewhere in the room, nameless, anointed with a certain scent, one that pulled him like a ribbon of memory. Another woman had worn the same perfume for him, long ago, a fragrance forever associated with her, that time, that place, that choice, leading down to this moment, this life. Rob pushed the thought back as they came to their table, and he took his seat. A waitress stood by to take their order.
“Have a drink with me,” Lawrence said, dropping into his chair. “I want to celebrate.”
“Let’s get a bottle, then,” said Rob, taking up the wine list. He pointed to a Sonoma Chardonnay. “This one’s fine,” he told their waitress. As he spoke to her, he noticed a fading red mark—knife slice, cat scratch?—on the back of her hand.
The young waitress in her black trousers and crisp white shirt noted the wine and nodded. Rob handed her the list, watching the curve of her jaw as she walked away, the one brown strand of hair at the nape of her white neck that her hair clasp had missed. He made himself look around the restaurant, noticing instead the marble counters, the open windows where the breeze came in, and the terra cotta tile of the floor.
“Tell me what we’re celebrating,” Rob said.
“Ah. Yes. Something wonderful.” Lawrence smiled, his face still glowing with a Southern California tan, sun-bleached bangs that he tossed from his forehead like an impatient colt. “I met a man last month when I was home in La Jolla for a few days.”
“Oh, don’t tell me—you’re in love.” Rob covered his ears.
“Oh, no, nothing like that.”
The waitress returned with the bottle of wine. Rob watched her strong hands as she presented the chill green bottle, deftly opened it, poured, and left them again. When Rob had attended St. Joseph’s Seminary, the nuns who had cared for them—washed the seminarians’ clothes, cooked and served the meals—had belonged to a cloistered order. They never showed their faces, but worked silently in the refectory behind a screen, raised just enough to push out plates of food, with only their hands visible. He recalled their unadorned hands, some freckled with liver spots and others blue-veined with age. One particular pair of hands was youthful, smooth and slender, the color of coffee ice cream, with short squared nails. Rob’s first years at seminary had been a torment, dreaming of those hands.
Rob had never stopped yearning. He knew desire that could sweep through him: the untwisting of a tourniquet, the full heat of blood that floods into a pallid limb, the deliberate twist again to stop the flow. He coped with Zen-like mantras, a Hindu’s control of the physical self, a Jewish sense of guilt. Rob tasted the wheat-colored wine, letting its crisp-tart flavor lie on his tongue before he swallowed its coolness. “So what about this guy?”
Lawrence swirled the wine in his glass and held it to the light to admire its pale color. His long tapered fingers, as if shaped in the womb just to play piano, curved gracefully around the stem of the glass. “It turns out this guy works for Archangel Records. I told him about my plan to compose a Mass, and he was interested.” Lawrence had often talked of composing the Propers for an entire Mass.
“Well, so, he’s interested, so what? That means nothing. I gave him my number and flew back up here, thinking, shot in the dark, chance in a million he’ll call me. My typical luck.” Lawrence sipped his wine. “But this week he actually called. He connected me with this agent in L.A. who handles church music, and they gave me a deadline. I have till June 1 to compose the music, score it, arrange it, make a demo, and get the package to them. And if I make the deadline, and if they like it, we’ll record it. I’ll have a compact disc out for liturgical use—and royalties, I hasten to add. Not bad, eh?” He raised an eyebrow.
“You lead a charmed life, don’t you?” Rob clinked his glass to Lawrence’s. “What’ll you do with the money?”
“Give it to Mother Church, of course. Use it to fund some music minis-tries—like maybe a new cathedral choir.”
“They do need help.”
Lawrence sighed. “But there’s a problem.”
“There are only two priests at Resurrection and we’re both booked solid with meetings every night and weddings every Saturday. I have no free time to compose now. The timing is awful! Autumn is the worst, you know, with all these activities, and next thing you know, boom, it’s Advent, Christmas, then it’s Lent, and where’s the time gone?” Lawrence jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Out the window with my recording contract. If the timing was different, I’d be fine. I can’t pass this up, but I don’t know how I’m gonna make it, either.”
“Why don’t I take some of your weddings? Let me know the dates,” Rob offered, as their entrees arrived. The waitress leaned against him, a brush, a nudge, as she worked; setting plates before them, grinding pepper, offering Parmesan, smooth and efficient. Rob and Lawrence waited until she walked away, and then they bowed their heads for a silent prayer. They began to eat.
“So Italy was good?” Rob asked, blowing on a forkful of steaming pasta.
Lawrence held his hand to his heart again. “The best. It always is. I should move there. I will, someday.” He sighed. “How was Hawaii?”
“Hot.” Rob remembered the warm wind, the heat of white sand at his back. “I just lay around at the beach most of the time.”
“Oh?” Lawrence paused, his fork halfway to his mouth. “And?”
“And I got a nice tan. End of story.”
“I’ll hear your confession later, my son.”
“You’re a real funny guy, you know that?” Rob gave Lawrence a look. “Hysterical. Of course I was good.”
“Nothing less than perfection from St. Robert, virgin martyr.”
“Give me a break.”
Lawrence crossed his fingers as if to ward off a vampire. “Next you’ll tell me the ‘Poor Celibate Rob’ story again.”
“Ah, bite me.” Rob grinned as he twirled another forkful of pasta.
“You just have to get over it, Rob. You made your choice. Offer it up.”
Rob reached to pour the wine, but the waitress stopped at the table and took the bottle, poured more wine into their empty glasses. Rob thanked her, his eyes on her hands, that red scratch, the bottle firm in her clasp.
“No confession, huh?” Lawrence rested his chin on his fist, and grinned at Rob.
They sat back as a busboy cleared their plates. Lawrence’s eyes followed the slender young man as he carried the plates away. Lawrence turned back to find Rob watching him. Rob clucked his tongue at his friend.
The waitress, returning with their coffee, smiled sweetly at Rob. He looked away, knowing that he must seem rude.
When she departed, Lawrence said, “She could have been another chip off your chalice.”
Rob said nothing as he poured the last of the wine.
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Genre – Romantic Suspense
Rating – PG13
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