My last year of college I dated a charming pixie from the august, tree-lined burgh known as Winchester, Massachusetts. She was sweet and funny and doing her damnedest to feel slightly less middle-class, if only briefly. I sported a beard, drank too much and wrote pithy little stories about eating the rich. We were determinedly hip and sophisticated, which in those days meant we had to bear our souls utterly, immediately: in the span of a few short weeks we revealed everything, from past lovers to surgery scars, favorite movies to worst deeds (she claimed to have once stolen a car, but not really: it was her friend’s dad’s car, and all she did was park it two streets over). It was actually the first night we kissed (hours before the kiss itself) that we discovered we’d both been raised ostensibly Catholic. “Oh, yeah,” I told her, “Sunday school, First Communion, all the way through Confirmation.”
“You must have been adorable in your little altar boy outfit,” she suggested.
I raised an eyebrow and said, “I was never an altar boy.”
“Of course you were,” she insisted. “You had to be.”
I shook my head. “Nope. Definitely not. I’m sure I’d remember something like that.”
She pursed her lips but was too polite to be incredulous. Sometime after one in the morning when she finally leaned in and said, “C’mere, you,” I suspect she still held in her mind the sweet, saintly image of long-ago me bashfully performing my duties at the priest’s side. Which was fine with me, I was picturing her naked.
A month later I took her home to meet the parents. We had a fine time basking in the warm glow of my childhood hovel, swapping stories about the old days for the girl’s entertainment. After dinner, my mother pulled out the photo album. I sat across the room, indulging the ooh’s and aah’s, the unchecked laughter at me in my purple bell-bottoms (why is that funny? it’s not like I bought them for myself, I was five). Then came the moment when the girl grew suddenly silent and serious. Her eyes narrowed before she looked up at me and said, “I thought you told me you were never an altar boy.”
“Beg pardon?” I asked.
She turned the album my way, and sure enough, there I stood, eyes appropriately downcast, hands folded in front of me, and dressed in the traditional white surplice over an ankle-length black cassock.
“That appears to be me,” I assented.
“Of course you were an altar boy,” my mother chirped. She turned to the girl, “He’s probably repressed the memory because he hated it so much.”
Sure, Mom. That was probably it.
The sex abuse cases that rocked the Catholic foundations were still vague whispers at that point, certainly in our quiet jerkwater. It was 1990, and we had no reason to expect we were witnessing anything more than the sad but limited dismantling of what had been a long-standing bad joke about priests and little boys. The girl thought it was odd that I didn’t remember, but I doubt she suspected anything sinister had happened. Of course, generally speaking, we all know better now, and I’d be both surprised and disappointed if in the years hence that girl hasn’t at least once recounted to a friend that she dated a guy in college who was . . . “Well,” she would say, “the thing is, he doesn’t remember being an altar boy!” And we all know what that means.
Over the next twenty years I took a perverse pleasure, whenever the opportunity presented itself, in telling people I don’t remember being an altar boy. You can’t always direct the conclusions to which people will jump, but this happens to be one of the topics with which you easily can. “Oh my god, really?” Me (grinning): Weird, right? “Yeah, um . . . Oh my god!”
I’ve only been trumped in my fun once, and I should’ve known better. I was sitting at the bar with my best pal Peaches, an inveterate smartass and steadfast match to my wit, especially after I’d faced him one evening while he was chatting up a young woman and turned to me for confirmation when he announced to her, “Well, I’m not completely full of shit,” to which I replied, “No, but it wouldn’t take much to top you off.” Yeah, I had it coming. So there I sat, telling my little joke for perhaps the two-hundredth time, when Peaches pulled out his smart-ish phone and asked, “What was your priest’s name?” I thought nothing of it, rattled off the name, and went back to my amusement. A few minutes later he handed me his phone and said, “Read ’em and weep, altar boy.”
And there it was, a real story in a real newspaper, Father X implicated in Catholic sex abuse scandal, multiple confirmed incidents.
He was a regular Jack the Diddler.
“Where’s your messiah now, funny guy?” Peaches asked.
What could I do? We got drunk and had many laughs, mostly at my expense.
But I thought a lot about Father X after that. He was a bald, obese, painfully myopic old priest: he had to use a staggeringly thick magnifying glass to read scripture. That’s about all I remember about him, except a vague recollection of his Elmer-Fudd voice. I can, however, say with absolute certainty he never touched me, not even appropriately. I don’t think he ever even looked at me. Believe me when I say, I don’t repress anything. I can tell you what I had for breakfast my first day of kindergarten: half a grapefruit, for some unimaginable reason (hell of a time to try out a new food on me, Mom). I can tell you the last time I peed the bed: I was nine and tried to blame it on the cat (volume gave me away). Nothing has ever hurt so badly or shamed me so deeply that I’ve dug a hole in my psyche and buried it there. That ain’t me.
Which leads to what I think is a rather obvious question, given what we know: why not me? I mean, I was cute. I had a near-perfect little boy body, thin and lean and mostly hairless. The pipe-cleaners hanging from my shoulder sockets made it abundantly clear I wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I wasn’t the incessant talker I am now, so I’m sure I didn’t give the impression that I’d tattle. So what was wrong with me? Why didn’t you pick me, Father X?
I believe in the value of reflection, particularly in light of new information. I don’t wish to pin everything on Father X, but give the devil his due. Here I sit, a man in his early forties who has experienced a long and satisfying sex life with some truly delightful women. I don’t scratch shallow troughs in my skin with a knife, don’t wake up crying in the middle of the night, don’t hate my body (although I kind of should). I’m a lot of this and a whole lot of that, but goddamn if I’m not pretty fucking normal. Rejection, whatever form it takes, always comes with some cost.
Perhaps I should just get over it, but I confess, it has been on my mind constantly, so much so that during a recent trip through the family photo album with another excellent girl, something caught my eye and inspired what I consider to be a damned solid theory. Stretched out side by side in my narrow bed, we flipped slowly through the 1970s. There I was again as an altar boy, there in my fuzzy footie pajamas, there in my purple bell-bottoms, and a page later, a picture I had neither seen nor thought about in decades (because it was my sister’s birthday party and thus I wasn’t the focal point): there I stood in a pair of Lee jeans, back-to this time, and immediately the words I’ve heard a thousand or so times in my adult life from the mouths of friends and loved ones rang out in my head like the bells of Notre Dame: “Pull up your pants.” At this mild admonishment I invariably shrug and halfheartedly hitch, meantime explaining somewhat apologetically that I have no ass (it’s true, I have none). It wasn’t until the moment I saw myself from behind in that random Polaroid from more than thirty-five years ago that it finally hit me: I have never had an ass. And clarity washed over me like a rape shower.
I understand you now, Father X, and I forgive you your failure to trespass against me.
You, sir, were an ass-man.