Each of her two engagements lasted around sixty days. In each case, she bailed out. And she wasn't thirty yet. Well, she will be in a year, having just turned twenty-nine a couple of weeks ago. And now, sitting in this restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard on a Friday night dinner date across the table from this guy Stuart, her fifth date since a week or two after the last disaster six months ago, Ginger found herself wondering if she should continue to pursue marriage any further at this point or maybe just put it off and get on with her work career for a while. The next four or five years. Marry a little later; take a chance like a lot of women were doing these days. Ease the self-imposed pressure.

Meantime, just go out and enjoy. If somebody came along and made the grade, like this guy right now, see him regular and just be friends. Maybe a little sex. Depends. But no more great expectations of that lasting relationship, romance and stuff. At least not for the time being. Save herself some more potential grief, and embarrassment.

Derek, the guy one of her friends, Lisa, was currently seeing, had been pushing for her and Stuart to go out since that party in Santa Monica where they got acquainted a couple of months ago. They had known each other for years, Derek and Stuart, Derek told her. All through high school and some years in college too. At SC.

The guy's a virgin and I'm trying to help break him in, Derek had told her, and she said get outa here. At his age? Thirty-five, is what you said, right?

Seriously, though, he's an okay guy, believe me Ginger, so Derek went on. A little too straight, maybe. Catholic. One of those types. But I don't know your type. Some women, that's what they're looking for. Give it a shot. See how it pans out.

See how it pans out. That's Derek. Talks to a woman the same way he talks to a man. Makes no distinction.

Honestly, she had thought many times and even told Lisa, seems to me like you could do better. But Lisa claims the good part of their relationship more than makes up for the bad part many times over. It's okay by you, Ginger had said, it's okay by me. After all, what do I know with two broken engagements?

Actually, this was their second time out. The first time, three weeks ago, Stuart took her to the Marina Del Rey for dinner. Looking at the boats through the glass window of the seafood restaurant, they talked first-date preliminaries: jobs, family, hobbies, schooling. A little about relationships.

Her first impression: Derek was right about the guy being straight. How straight she couldn't tell. But a virgin? If Derek wasn't kidding about it, she wouldn't go out with the guy. God! At thirty-five, a virgin? Guy must be horny all the time, going around carrying a hard-on like a divining rod all day, Catholic or no Catholic.

He was nice, though. Nice to be with and she had a pleasant evening out with him. Third of four kids. Three boys and a girl. Irish Italian family. How much more Catholic do you want to be?

She's a Protestant, she told him. Methodist. By sheer family ties back east in Piscataway, New Jersey, where she grew up. But right now, she's nothing, she said. She'd go to anybody's congregation, even Catholic, and she did, with friends, on occasions, especially holidays.

She wanted to see how he'd react to that. He smiled at her then with a shrug and told her it's her choice where she wanted to go although he added it's important that people believe in God one way or another. Even the way the non-Christians do. Fair enough, she thought.

Once or twice through that first date, she thought about sex with him. Not then but down the road a little later. She did find him attractive and, no doubt, so did other women. Tall, not quite six feet, five eleven. Tall enough for her five seven. Good body proportion. Black Irish hair, handsome face. But his looking and sounding so straight to her just wouldn't let things fall into perspective in that way. Not that time anyway.

But people are so preoccupied with sex as though sometimes that's all that matters in a relationship. Maybe Derek had a point. There are types and, beyond sex, what type is she really looking for? A straight guy, what else? Even a Catholic. Maybe this is something -- a kind of thinking -- she ought to adapt before getting involved again with anybody. Thinking straight, from the waist up.

But she sure missed sex, was getting hornier week after week now, and didn't know if she could hold off or what she'd do if by any chance Stuart made the move on her.

They were now having dessert, she a strawberry ice-cream pie, he a lemon cheesecake, and had progressed beyond the 'how was your week' polite talk, work talk, other-people talk, to focusing on present company which meant re-hashing what they had previously said about each other in their last date but this time on a more personal level, and with a little more detail.

"Third kid in the family," she was saying about him after her second bite of the ice-cream pie. She wasn't the type, Stuart had noticed the first time he saw her even way back at that Santa Monica party, to be concerned about eating desserts and putting on weight. She had that build, long legs and neck but not bony, young Audrey Hepburn type, where she'd have to try awful hard to get fat. Lucky girl.

"After the sister," Ginger continued, "the only girl in the family. What's she like?"

"My sister? Well, for one thing, she's not a girl anymore. She's almost forty and having the crisis of her life."

"What?" she gasped. "Cancer?"

"No, nothing like that," he said at once to calm her down quickly. "Marital problem."


Married six years now, he said of his only sister Mary, 38, to this man who turned out to be divorced and a father of a child from a previous relationship out of wedlock. He didn't tell her or she didn't find out till some years after they were married. She had wanted to start a family with him but when she found out about all that, she changed her mind and now the marriage was on the verge of divorce. They were now separated. He had moved out of their apartment, amicably, after she asked him to.

Poor Mary. She grew up being Dad's prize child, Dad who was the leading churchgoer in the family and always took her to Sunday Mass with him. Mom looked after the boys in that respect. Dad had hoped for a good Catholic married life for her, much like Ronald (the oldest) now lived with his wife, a Filipino-Irish-American woman, and their three kids.

It was such a blow to her more than anybody, because now it would probably be too late for her to start a family with anybody, by the time she got back on track and started again.

"Happens," Ginger said empathically. "It could've been worse. She could have started a family with him and found out later. Same with me. What if I'd married each man I was engaged to before I realized I shouldn't have? I would've been divorced twice now, if not soon."

"So howcome you decided not to marry either one of them?"

"The first one was a total jerk, it turned out. Couldn't hold a job for more than a few weeks which is what it takes a company to find out he couldn't do the work because he lied about himself in his resume. He did the same to me with just about everything he told me about himself. The second one was even more of a jerk. I found out he was sleeping around. I met a couple of his partners at a party. Scared the hell out of me. I had a complete checkup as soon as I found out."

"Good move. You can't be too careful with the people you meet nowadays."

"You can say that again."

"I mean, you almost have to ask for references like you do somebody looking for a job."

"You know, you're absolutely right," she said with a thoughtful smile. "I sure did learn my lesson."

They went ahead and polished off the dessert, washing it down with coffee.

"That was heavenly," she uttered afterwards. "Now I'm going to have to run around the block a dozen times to get rid of it."

"I know a better way, or place, to do it," he said.

"Oh, yeah? How, and where?" she asked, leaving her mouth half open in anticipation.

"The Continental Club," he said gladly. "Great place for dancing. Derek and I have been there countless times. It's a mixed bag -- Latin-Anglo. But everybody gets along fine. Mostly white collar, professional."

"Great," she said, equally glad. "I love Latin music and dancing."

He was surprised at how open she was to spending more time with him although he had sensed how much more comfortable she had become with him now than during their first time out. He needed to work on his self-confidence, this he had admitted to himself, and to some people he knew close, many times. Especially right now, out on a date with a great looking girl like this, not the greatest, but 'more than I could say about some of the others I'd gone out with in the past.'

There you go again, he thought to himself. Putting yourself down. You must try and figure out how she sees you, he told himself, and you can't start doing that unless you believe you're good enough to be out with her in the first place. Once you know where you stand more or less, then you know what kind of move to make. That is, if you'd like to. Or if you like her.

That was no question at all. He liked her alright, was physically attracted to her. But that was all he knew in himself so far. Beyond that, those two broken engagements, and how many other men she'd known, how she'd known them, that's another matter as far as how he felt about her was concerned.

Derek had pushed hard at getting him to ask her out for weeks. Call her up, he told him. She'd go out with you. She wants to.

Oh, yeah? She told you that?

Yes. Well, she might as well have. She asked about you at the party, and I saw her sizing you up.

What's she like?

She's okay. Believe me, Stu. She and Lisa are close. So, we know. She's a lot of fun. You'll like her. But don't wait too long. Girl looks like that's not gonna stay around too long without anybody.

A lot of fun? he wanted to ask Derek then, but Derek would have known what he meant and would have told him as he had other times, 'Look, you're not looking to marry her. Not right away anyway. Just go out and have fun if she wants to have fun.'

The place was at a side street off Santa Monica Boulevard just outside the Hollywood city limit. People said it used to be a produce depot warehouse converted into a nightclub, which had caught on the last couple of years now. Ginger agreed with what Stu had said about it when they walked in after he dropped the four-dollar cover charge for the two of them at the door. The place was packed both at the dance floor, the long U-shaped bar at one side and the milling areas all around the rest of the inside.

A six-piece band up on a foot-high platform opposite the bar was doing a cumbia that kept the dance floor jammed and hopping non-stop. They plowed their way to a hole at the bar and he managed to get their drinks after about ten minutes of waving his money in the air at the server. Stu ran into some people, a guy and a couple of women he knew, on their way from the bar to a spot away from the band, exchanging quick greetings with each of them.

"Friends of yours?" Ginger asked, balancing her drink in one hand while hanging on to his arm with the other.

"Just met 'em here, Derek and I, awhile ago."

Everybody was caught up in the music and the festive atmosphere of the club and they fell right into it. She didn't mind at all that there was hardly any room even just between the two of them to talk without their noses almost touching. He saw that she liked the place when their drinks were down to half and she propped them on a wall shelf nearby and pulled him to the dance floor.

"This is great!" she yelled to him on top of the band music and the din all around, doing the fast Merengue. "Love it! The beat, the lights, the atmosphere, the whole bit!"

They were on the dance floor nearly half an hour before the band took a break. She clung to him throughout, had to for there wasn't room for them to move separately. And when they slow-danced, she pressed hard against him, her whole body, even her face. He held her in his arms, not sure of what she was doing and what he's supposed to do, at first just to keep her from getting bumped in the tight space. Then he started getting aroused, felt embarrassed knowing that she felt him rising, getting hard.

But when she tightened her arms around him instead of pulling back, he breathed a sigh of relief slowly and did the same. She turned to look up to him then and their lips touched and they ended up kissing long and hard, eyes closed, not breathing, then breathing hard just to get some oxygen, their body grinding tight against each other top to bottom.

He struggled with himself as he came ever so close to losing control and she was no help at all when she stuck her tongue in his mouth and continued to press against him tighter and tighter.

He didn't expect this at all. But then he remembered what Derek said about her. This is probably what he meant about having fun going out with her, he thought.

And what else, he wondered?

Through their second drink and most of the rest of the evening, they progressed rapidly in their physical intimacy. With her, it was as if they'd been through this a few times before, long before. But with him, it was one step at a time, follow her lead, every kiss, every squeeze, every arousal.

She had a wonderful time, got all the Friday night partying she wanted out of her. And she felt happy being with him and was leaving it up to him how he'd want to spend the rest of the night, and where.

On the way home, she sat close to him, resting her head on his shoulder as he drove them east on Santa Monica Boulevard toward the Glendale Freeway. She lived in Glendale and he along the way off Sunset Boulevard just before the freeway and so, therefore, she naturally expected a stop-by-my-place invitation from him.

She knew where he lived from the first time they went out for he took the same route coming and going, pointing to the garden apartment building and even the unit he lived in on the third floor as they passed by.

She waited for him to say something when they neared the building while she breathed in his ear and ran her hand up and down his thigh. But all he did was keep his eyes on the road and do the same thing with his right hand on her thigh.

My place or your place? she had actually thought shortly after they drove out of the club. Now that they're past his place and on the freeway less than fifteen minutes from her place, I guess it's my place, she thought.

It would be more convenient for her if they spent the night at her place, now she realized gladly. She always hated getting up in a guy's apartment in the morning. Everything is so unfamiliar and she hated not having even her own hairbrush and stuff to fix herself up even only so he can drive her home not looking like a disaster.

Parking in front of her place, a ten-unit two-story garden, under the shadow of a huge maple tree, he cut the engine and all the lights and they were in total darkness in the car at a quarter past one in the morning. They immediately got into some heavy petting for several minutes. She was unhooking her bra to allow more playing field for his hand which he had under her blouse when he pulled back, breathing heavily and trying hard to keep his self-control.

"Are you alright?" she asked, looking close at his face, knowing exactly what he was going through, and when he said he was alright, fine, in a shaky voice overwhelmed with sexual desire and some emotion, she took the hand under the blouse and put it on her bare breast. Then she kissed him hard with lots of tongue.

He'd have been some kind of angel or saint if he had even tried to resist although the Catholic in him nagged at him some to hold on just for a second. But with a handful of breast in his left hand feeling all that soft flesh and the rest of her body overpowering all his senses, it just wouldn't be human to thwart nature's drive in each of them. At least not in the next five, ten minutes of groping and ravishing each other, feeding their hunger.

When they turned their heads sideways a little later for some air, locked in each other's arms and hands, he opened his eyes wide and found himself staring through the windshield at the night sky over Los Angeles. It was a clear night, not too smoggy and with the three-quarter moon, the stars were just bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

But that wasn't all Stu saw through the windshield. He also saw himself in the confessional four months ago, telling Father Antonelli behind the screen his sins since he last went eight months before; next, in church the following day, Sunday, during the ten-thirty Mass, kneeling at the pew, listening to the priest's Eucharistic prayers before the Communion, then getting up to receive the Sacred Host in front of the altar, head bowed, hands clasped solemnly in front of him.

Ginger continued to nibble on his neck, ear and face, her right hand busy between his thighs, getting things really going now after unzipping him. He took a deep breath, held it in to flood his brain with oxygen, he thought, so he could think clearly, mind over body; make up his mind what to do.

First thing he managed to do was move his left hand from inside her undies to over her shoulder so he could push her back slowly. Ginger looked up at him, believing he was thinking the same thing she was at the moment and said: "Let's go in."

"Yes," he replied with a quiver in his voice, still not thinking clear enough but just trying to be agreeable. "It's getting late, and it's not safe sitting here."

They hurried and fixed their clothes, got out of the car and walked up to the building. At the entrance, Stu said: "I hope you had a good evening. I did."

"Yes, I did too," she replied, but now looking at him uncertainly.

"I'd like to see you again."

"Sure, but aren't you... coming in?"

He hesitated a moment, put his hands on her shoulders and said: "I'd like to, but I think I better not." He smiled at her, embarrassed or shy she thought but couldn't figure out why. Then he continued: "Not tonight. Thanks for asking."

Things had turned around so quickly for her while her sex drive was still on high gear, making her wonder at first what it was she might have done or said to him that turned him off. But there was no chance to even talk of anything as they were already outside her apartment door and he was giving her a goody-goody peck on the cheek and saying good night to her.

A moment later, watching him through her bedroom window get back into his car, she decided it wasn't any of her doing at all that ended everything so suddenly. It was his or...what he was. He and everything Derek had told her about him. It took her another moment to calm down, physically, after watching him drive away. Then she was a mixture of anger and frustration inside, the frustration part of it being that she didn't feel angry with him. On the contrary, she couldn't help but admire him, while underneath, she didn't like the way it made her feel about herself.

She had never had this kind of experience before, going through this convoluted, twisted kind of feeling after having a good weekend night out. She wondered, on the other hand, what went on inside him for real. What was happening inside him right now, driving home alone at night on the lonely streets of Los Angeles? Was he feeling the same frustration and irritation at having to restrain his physical drive? For what? For what he believed in? For being Catholic?

Is this what they have to go through? What is it really like? To be in that position? To have to summon your strength, at such a time, to fight nature. And, likewise, what happens inside when you fail? How bad does it make you feel afterwards? Or, does one really care?

After the first five minutes making out in the car, the likelihood of them going to bed, him spending the night, had become very real. Somehow he couldn't go ahead with the idea of allowing this to happen only on their second date. But this wasn't all. There was also the passing thought, just a passing thought, not a fully focused one, of this coming Sunday sitting in church and feeling awkward about being there and, again, receiving communion.

It wasn't as if this was the first time he had gone through this, or even that he was a virgin. But every time it happened, whether or not he slept with the girl, or woman, it kindled the same kind of conflict he remembered lusting after a good-looking girl in high school when he was sixteen, or when he started jerking off, or having those wet dreams and he'd wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning sticky and reeking with the rich smell of semen.

That part of it, though, the matter of one's biological growth and development, he got over in due time with plenty of assurances from his peers, the guys who were all going through the same thing; assurances that everything everyone is going through is normal. Quite normal.

But the conflict with what he learned from the Church about self-control, using sex for pleasure, fornication and all that was another matter, something he or anybody he knew who chose to remain with the Church had no idea how to obey without totally denying their physical needs.

The occasions he had recklessly abandoned all his thoughts of Catholicism and religion in general, his rationale was: They want everybody to stick to their doctrines, the world would have to be made up of only three types of people -- saint, celibate and sinner. Nothing in between. That just can't be. Everybody knows the world isn't made up of just people like those.

At one time, somewhere between the ages 12 through 18, he believed he was becoming the first of the three, what with his entire family, starting with his father, really getting into the pure, uncompromising practice of Catholicism. But that was also the time he lost his virginity, freshman high school, and the time the conflict began. Some pain in the neck, he thought then, trying to be a Mr. Catholic as his mother and her two younger sisters, Aunt Patti and Jean who were both married to Protestant husbands, called his father among themselves.

"Here comes his holiness," he would hear, when he was thirteen, fourteen, one of the aunts say about his father, "Mr. Catholic."

No one else knew when he lost his virginity except of course Bitsy, that one long-weekend day before the end of their freshman year, in a backstage storage room of the gym. They had volunteered with several other students to do the interior decorating for a Saturday night benefit show in the gym and were picked to remain after everybody else had left to finish up and make sure everything was okay for the next day's show. He remembered having offered to marry her if she got knocked up. Such a decent kid... man, he was. But she didn't get knocked up, not even after they did it several more times the following summer before he started using rubbers. That wasn't as much fun but better safe than sorry.

How sex complicates life so much, he began to realize then. If it's not one thing (knocking up the girl), it's another (conflict with the Church teachings), let alone the diseases you could pick up doing it.

This went on through the rest of high school, the conflict, and the underlying rationalization every time he 'sinned' so that he could continue to attend Mass Sundays. To justify receiving communion, he went to confession between one to three months depending on how often he sinned.

In college, he became more liberal and went to confession only once every six months regardless of whether he was having any sex or not. He even started skipping Sunday church, unknown to his father and the rest of the family, until he almost dropped out of the Church altogether, attending Mass only three times a year -- Christmas, Easter, and his birthday.

At that point, he truly believed he had become the third of those three types of people on earth according to the Church. So he quit going to confession, and those three times he went to Mass and maybe a couple other times during the year, he didn't rise to receive Communion, knowing it was a violation of the Sacrament to do so without first having received absolution through the Sacrament of Penance in the confessional.

This went on for like seven, eight years through the rest of college and several years beyond. He was of the flesh alone, as the Church would say, and not of the spirit. But this way, he avoided the conflict and satisfied his worldly desires without guilt.

At first, he didn't care. Catholicism went out of his life, out the window somewhere like dirty laundry. But it was different every time he went home especially during the holidays. He went to the same church the family went to but he managed to avoid going with any of them at the same time except with Ralph, his kid brother who turned out to have become more liberal than he was. The two of them went together one Sunday. Neither one got up to receive Communion and nothing was ever said of it by either one.

"I got to move out soon," Ralph told him that time on their way home from church. He had been out of college over a year and working, living in an efficiency in Pasadena, while Ralph, twenty years old, taking some courses at LACC and working full time for a shipping agency at L.A. International was still living at home, trying to save up enough so he could make it on his own.

It took Ralph over a year since then to move out. He didn't make it on his own, though, because he got laid off from his airport job. It happened just as he was finishing up his associate's degree at LACC and that was good because then when he decided to go in the Army, it helped him get in to the Officer Candidate School.

Ralph. Good for you, kiddo. Serve the country. Be all you can be. He was now in Fort Myer, Virginia, a Captain and shooting for Major.

So, for years Stu went about his life feeling like a heathen, not able to go to Communion, receive the Body of Christ, those few times of the year he went to church. Sometimes he even missed going on his birthday, failing to give thanks to God for having allowed him to live another precious year of life in this wonderful creation of His.

He drifted farther and farther away from the Faith and soon it began to bother him not only because of the thought that he was discarding his family ties, defying his parents, the way they raised him, but because he felt he didn't belong to anything or anywhere. He wanted to be part of something, believe in something. So, then, along came Fred, a born-again he met at a singles dance party in Westwood which turned out to be one of those 'fellowship' nights the Christian Bible group held once a month. It was more like their 'fishermen's night out', he thought later, referring to the group's technique of going out fishing for recruits as St. Peter the Apostle did according to the bible.

Fred succeeded in befriending him and got him to go to the group's other activities. Stu went along for a while, a few months, because he genuinely enjoyed the group's fellowship and camaraderie. They welcomed him and made him feel he 'belonged'. But this wore thin quickly because of the lack of foundation and authority in what they were doing, and the way they were doing it. It wasn't like the Catholic Church which had the Pope as their leader whose authority is supposed to have come directly from St. Peter himself, the first Pope, one of the Apostles who walked the earth and lived a time of his life with Jesus Christ; the man who's supposed to have carried on with the works after Jesus ascended to heaven.

There. How can they top that?

Also, it seemed many of them were just there socially, or because they had nothing else to do with their time. Others used the group as a crutch, attributing everything that happened to their lives, especially the bad things, not to their incompetence or ineptness or any human frailty or weakness of any kind, but to the 'will of God'.

He joined hands and alleluia'ed with them one last time in one of their Saturday night fellowship gatherings and never showed up again.

The next thing that happened began his return to the Church. His Grandma, Dad's mom, passed away at 82. It was time, so said the doctors and nurses who looked after her for several weeks in the hospital since the lung cancer began to spread rapidly into the other organs. But to Dad and the rest of the family, the grandchildren in particular including him with whom she had a close relationship, it was too soon a time. They wanted to see her get better, live longer, a few more years if possible, God willing. But, no.

Her time was up.

It was a sad event in the family. She was missed dearly. At the funeral Mass, he prayed deeply for Grandma's peace and happiness beyond, and wanted so much to get up and receive Communion like the rest of the family but couldn't. His excuse was -- he hadn't gone to confession in a couple of months. He couldn't very well say it had been almost ten years. His dad didn't hound him about it, though. But the man didn't have to.

For weeks he went around feeling awful low inside, like he had indeed thrown his family away, everything they'd ever meant to him. He didn't feel right at all the way he was living his life so the first thing he did to make things right, or feel right, was to stop sleeping around. He was seeing a girl pretty regularly then. He slowly stopped sleeping with her and eventually got out of her life.

He cleaned up his language too, cut down on the four letter words, especially the f word. Even the s and the d words. Next, he attempted to go to confession one Saturday afternoon. When he confessed that it had been many years, eight or nine since he last went, the priest told him that he can not give him absolution as he, in truth, does not share the faith and the beliefs of the Church and therefore is not considered a Catholic. In order for him to return to the Church, he needs to be re-instructed in the faith and be re-confirmed.

That did him in.

So he signed up in a parish program of reconciliation with and conversion to the Catholic faith. A little over a dozen of them, called catechumens, young and old, singles and couples, non-practicing Catholics like him, complete drop-outs and several non-Catholics, met every Thursday night for an hour and a half at St. Timothy's church rectory with good Mother Matilda and learned, or re-learned, the catechism.

It was a six-month study starting in October going through the forty days of Lent, in the year he turned thirty years old. It culminated during the Holy Week when at last they were allowed to go to confession to be granted absolution so that they may receive Communion in the Easter Sunday Mass. When he finally received his Confirmation weeks later during the day of the Pentecost, he felt a sense of unburdening, a sense of release from all the guilt and all the devil that had been dogging him for a long time.

That was five years ago.

Since then, he had learned that you want to stick with Catholicism, getting rid of a burden, you pay a price by carrying another. He was back to where he was before. It wasn't exactly where he wanted to be, but he had no place else to go. That was where he came from, how his family brought him out to the world, and that was where he belonged.

A man's gotta be what a man's gotta be, he had thought to himself many times these past five years and, as a matter of fact, even tonight for one flitting moment as he was walking back to his car from Ginger's front door trying not to change his mind and turn around. Just like John Wayne's 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.'

Same da... same darn thing.

It was Tuesday after work the following week by the time Derek got to sit down with Stu at one of their favorite watering holes in Century City off Olympic Boulevard. He had a pretty clear picture of what happened coming from his girlfriend Lisa, who got it blow by blow from the source.

"She said you guys had a great time," Derek started out over a draft.

"Yes, we did," Stu said innocently.

"Howcome you split?"

"It was late."

"So? You should have stayed with her. Spent the night." Derek began to sound irritated and turned his head to one side then the other.

"I didn't plan on doing that, Derek," Stu explained almost apologetically. "That was only our second date, cryinout loud."

"C'mo-on, Stu. This isn't the fifties, man. Girl wants to get laid she practically tells you."

Stu pulled back in his seat and took a sip of the beer, thinking of the time Friday night at the club, he and Ginger hugging each other tight on the dance floor, her tongue going wild in his mouth; then in the car in front of her apartment, their clothes partly undone.

"You like her, though, don't you?" Derek asked.

Stu took a moment to reply: "Well, yeah --"

"What's the matter? 'Well, yeah', what kind of an answer is that? What -- she's not good enough for good old pretty boy Stu?"

"Hey, I like her, alright? I like her a lot, okay? She's a nice girl. Woman. Attractive. Nice bod, sexy and all. I just didn't want to rush into things. You know, some girls actually appreciate that."

"So, what do you want to do -- marry her first before you take her to bed?"

Stu balled up a fist at Derek then stuck a middle finger halfway out of it at him, careful nobody else in the bar sees it. Then he lifted his beer mug, as did snickering Derek, and they emptied them at the same time.


All these years, he never told anybody about what went on as far as his falling out and back into the Church was concerned. Not anyone in the family, not any of his friends, except Owen.

Owen was four or five years older than him, divorced five years, two kids. Also a Catholic, or would like to think he still was, he's not sure anymore. In fact, he asked Stu some time later after Stu told him a couple of years ago what he had to do to get back in the Church, so to speak.

"I don't know, Owen," Stu had said, feeling helpless. "I really can't tell you anything. You'd have to ask a priest. Somebody. Me... " He shrugged, putting out two empty hands. "...I say you're a Catholic as you've always been. Same as me, and my family. I mean, you haven't murdered, raped, or robbed anybody, as far as I know. You haven't committed any of those mortal sins."

"You know what I'm talking about, Stu," Owen said with some concern. "I'm divorced and I've been with other women."

"I know what you're thinking. A lot of folks have the same problem, or so they think. Have you tried getting an annulment?"

"I've asked around. People I know in the same situation. Some have gotten an annulment. Some just don't bother. They attend Mass, take part in the rituals like everybody else who do."

"So? What's the problem? Unless you're planning on getting married again."

"In the Church?" added Owen.

"Yes. Are you? Soon?"

"No. Maybe someday. If I ever met somebody."

"So? Why worry about it now. Worry about it then."

Stu had an idea what was bugging Owen then for they were much alike as far as being Catholic was concerned. They didn't have the will nor the discipline it took to be a devoted practicing member of the Church but at the same time they wanted to be more than just a nominal Catholic, somebody who was simply born into it, baptized and reared in the religious background of their family.

To be honest, he had no idea what to tell Owen about Owen's situation and was thankful he didn't have the same problem. Especially today, right this Sunday morning in the ten-thirty Mass, listening to the Gospel according to Mark.

'... And for this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one. So they are no longer two, but one. Man must not separate, then, what God had joined together. A man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery... '

He was looking at Owen one row up from him on the other side of the aisle and saw the divorced man cast his eyes down at his feet as the priest finished the reading and contemplated briefly before beginning the sermon. Stu wondered how many other people in the church, men and women, had cast their eyes down at their feet, feeling some heat around the collar, under their seat, and doing battle with the dictates of the Church in their mind. He thought about Mary, his sister who Dad said a few weeks ago had just filed for divorce.

He watched Owen raise his head slowly after a while, do a quick take of the priest dishing it out to the congregation, to him in particular: '...and you all know what they are. I don't have to give a litany on any of them: sex outside of marriage, adultery, fornication, lust, abortion...' Owen then took a deep breath so vigorously that several people around him turned their heads toward him. He found himself locking eyes with an elderly-looking middle-aged woman for a few moments during which he felt every word coming out of the priest's sermon disrobed his whole being for everyone inside the church to see what a sinner he was; a hypocrite and a blasphemer.

Coming out after Mass, Owen caught up with Stu at one of the side exits of the church that led to the parking lot where they always parked. They asked about each other's general well-being as they usually did especially when one saw the other looking sad or glum. It was Stu who thought Owen might be a little troubled by this Sunday's Homily so he did some poking to see how the man felt about it.

He asked about his two boys, fourteen and eleven, who came to church with him once in a while when he had them over the weekend. Owen said they're fine, he won't see them till next week and thanked him for asking. Owen then suggested brunch at Hajimoto's on Melrose Avenue, a small eating place famous for it's omelet and fried rice, offering to drive and drop Stu off back at his car afterwards. Stu was glad to go along as all he had planned was pick up a burger at MacDonald's drive up window, go home and read the Sunday paper. Take it easy.

Once in the car, Owen shook his head, saying: "I got creamed in there again. I sure did, didn't I?"

"You've been through that before," Stu said assuringly. "And you'll go through it again. Why let it get to you every time? You know how many divorced Catholics were there in that church? In every church in town every Sunday?"

"Yeah, I know. I've been to a couple of support groups around. Divorced, separated Catholics. Formerly married Catholics. It does give some comfort. But it doesn't change your situation with the Church. Not one bit."

They ordered Hajimoto's famous fried rice cooked in a wok: white steamed rice stir fried in soy sauce with a sprinkle of diced onions, green peas, scrambled eggs, crunched bacon and a choice of an additional ingredient -- mushroom, cut-up sausage or corned beef.

They both loved it and so did every one of the Sunday regulars at the eatery's brunch line which moved fairly quickly.

"I know how to do this stuff now," said Owen, enjoying his meal. "It's real easy. Nothing to it. You just need to know how to make the rice. I did it last week for the kids."

"Did they eat it?" asked Stu.

"Sure. They even asked for doggie bags."

Stu laughed, feeling good for his friend and how well he got along with his children. He admired how Owen had managed by himself materially, physically, let alone emotionally the last five, six years since he became single after a ten-year marriage.

But he can see how these church things -- divorce, annulment and, yes, sex other than with his ex who had now gone through a handful of relationships according to Owen, was bugging him.

Stu was thinking while they enjoyed their fried rice how he himself would have managed in Owen's place. After such a long-time relationship. Ten years! Not counting the time they spent going out, building the relationship, sharing the most tender moments in it and then going into their commitment to each other through marriage and family life for all the years ahead in their lives together. Supposedly. According to the Catholic Church in particular.

Imagine all the things they shared in those years, especially when the children came: making a home, raising the family, keeping it together; the birthdays, the holidays; the memories all that built year after year as they became part of their past. God, it would have torn him up when their relationship and the family broke up. It would have taken a lot out of him and probably disabled him for life, emotionally and spiritually.

How do people handle these breakups, and survive? And go on living? How did Owen do it? Of course there's another side to this: some people fall out of love for one reason or another, just don't give a shit anymore and are actually happy to get out of it all.

"You know, you're right," Owen said after their server refilled their coffee and left. "I shouldn't let it get to me, these Catholic... things. At least not all the time."

"Yeah. What are you going to do -- torture yourself everytime you go to church? Everytime somebody or something reminds you of it?"

"I'm not a bad person. I'm not a murderer. Or a bank robber. So I go out and see other women. I don't abuse them. I'm nice to them. I respect them and treat them well." More words wanted to come out of Owen but it was obvious so many of them wanted to just pour out at the same time and got jammed in his throat.

"You're darn right I'm not going to torture myself over this divorce, annulment and sex issue with the Catholic Church," he blurted out after a few more moments of pensive hesitation. "What about all those Protestants whose ministers are even allowed to marry. And divorce and sleep with other partners. Don't they interpret what the Holy Book says about divorce and adultery the same way we Catholics do? Why don't they toss and turn in their seats when they hear this stuff on Sunday like I did today?"

"I know," agreed Stu, loading up his fork with the bacon chips, scrambled eggs and rice. "I've often wondered about that myself. Especially those Southern Evangelists. All those Protestants who rake in millions using the Bible, on TV, and sleep around too even with hookers."

"But, you know," Owen uttered, straining thoughtfully, "I do have mixed feelings about why the Catholic Church is the way it is, or should be the way it is according to its genuine advocates. From the Pope on down."


"Take celibacy, starting with the clergy. If they waive this rule, the rest of what makes the Church what it is would follow down the drain. If it gives up all that makes it what it is, there won't be a Catholic Church anymore. We'd all be Protestants, or something or other."

"What about common mortals like us? I don't want to live my life like a priest As it is, compared to some people I know, I feel like I am living my life like a priest."

Owen regurgitated a mouthful of fried rice, weighing his thoughts before saying: "There ought to be exceptions. Some kind of a waiver for each individual case, under separate sets of categories. Like for my category: divorced people, especially with inter-denominational marriages like mine. My ex is not a Catholic. Her folks are Presbyterian or something. She says she doesn't know what she is and she really doesn't care. She went to church with us occasionally just to see what goes on in there. Other times just for something to do with the kids on Sunday. You can't expect people like us who were married for years, sexually active, to now abstain. Be celibate. It's like making a smoker quit smoking in one day. Cold turkey."

"You haven't said anything about the category I'm under," Stu said, holding forth his fork to prod the divorced man to keep on talking about this waiver thing. "Single, never married adults. How about us? Were you a celibate before you got married?"

That drew a snicker from Owen.

"I don't know, Stu. Maybe... maybe people ought to just hold out for as long as they humanly could. To show some respect to the Church. See how far they could honestly go before they give in to their natural urges. Beyond that, hell what's a guy to do especially when a girl is all over him and he's a twenty-year old horny toad?"

Owen's voice got elevated towards the end of that and he caught himself and toned it down but not before he turned slightly sideways and was surprised to find himself locking eyes again with the same woman during the Mass now sitting at the table next to them. This time, instead of looking away and backing down as he did in church, he kept eyeball to eyeball with her and continued with: "Heck, no, I wasn't a virgin when I got married. I was fourteen when I got broken in."

Before he was through with that, the woman had turned back to her mushroom omelet and a side dish of tofu.


(The preceding text constitutes half of the novella)

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