With too much pride to quarter myself on friends, I tend to spend Thanksgivings by myself. Normally, this suits me fine. Phoenix shuts up completely, so window-shopping in Old Town Scottsdale becomes a study in perfect solitude. It might sound dull, but a certain eeriness quickens the mood. For a thrill, it's just possible to convince yourself that you're the last human survivor of the apocalypse, that zombies have occupied the Pink Pony and the Sugar Bowl and will eat your brains if you stray too close.
But last year I had to break tradition and walk among the living. One evening in November, just before Mass, Sister Lucia buttonholed me in the parish's shrinking smoking section. "A bunch of the sisters are having dinner here at the Newman Center," she said, with that peculiar intentness of hers. "We thought you might be interested in joining us."
It sounded like a dreadful idea. I had met some of these sisters on retreat a couple of months earlier and had liked both them and their dinner conversation well enough. But parish social functions tend to attract people who have few friends and deserve even fewer. I was a 37-year-old bachelor who'd gone without carnal pleasure for longer than he cared to remember. The only thing separating me from these dead-eyed strays was my self-conceit. If I spent too much time with them, I might lose even that.
There was another reason. The retreat where I had met the sisters was a vocational discernment retreat. For about six mad months earlier that year, becoming a priest seemed like an antidote for all my professional and romantic frustrations. Sister had warmed to the idea quickly. Since then, I'd come to realize I had no more business in the priesthood than I had in the NFL. Not only did I reject Church teachings on—well, on pretty much all subjects apart from social justice and God's triune nature—my big mouth had earned me write-ups from one end of corporate America to another. I dreaded having to explain my reasoning to Sister Lucia. Coming down in her estimation would bring me down even further in my own.
It was to my great horror, then, that I heard myself tell Sister Lucia that yes, I'd be happy to attend.
She flashed a tiny triumphant smile, as though she knew all along I'd accept. She probably did know, and that says a great deal about Sister Lucia. Though small-boned and demure as a springbok, she has a knack for nudging people outside their comfort zones. She does it with a finesse that verges on stealth. People surrender before they fully realize they're under siege.
Having struck my own colors, I promised Sister Lucia I'd show up around three. The night before, I got absolutely legless while surfing YouTube. Fake piety annoys me, but the real thing—190-proof caritas—unmans me completely, it's so unfathomable. Whenever it looms, I steel myself with vice. I showed up on time, my head still agreeably foggy.
The first person to greet me was Manuela, a young woman I'd met at the retreat. She was thinking seriously about entering a religious order. With her ineradicable smile and boyish haircut, she looked the part to a T. When she came forward for a hug, I leaned in gingerly and tapped my shoulders against hers. My embraces normally run to the bearish, but something feels gauche about manhandling a woman who's considering a lifetime vow of chastity.
"So, have you been discerning your vocation?" she asked, in an accent oddly like Charo's. I nodded.
"Will you be a priest?" I shook my head. "I'm sorry," she said, and patted my hand. Catholics are instructed to pray for an increase in priestly vocations, and they did so with special fervor last year, which Pope Benedict declared A Year for Priests. Nevertheless, I sensed she thought it was I, not the priesthood, who was missing out.
What felt like a shovel landed on my shoulder just as a foghorn blasted out my name. I turned around and saw Japheth, a man with a boy's open face and the height and paunch of a deputy sheriff in a Blue Stater's nightmare. Like Manuela, he'd attended the retreat. Also like her, he seemed sold on religious life. It would be interesting to see what the Church would make of Japheth. Despite an apparently endless supply of off-putting tics—saliva gathered in his mouth as he talked, making him sound as though he were gargling—he was a warm and gentle soul. On retreat, his sloshing patter had won me over, even to the point where I forgave him for joining the Knights of Columbus at 23.
"'S'up, Baby Huey?" I said. This was my regular nickname for Japheth, a reference to the hulking, infantile cartoon duck. He told me a story about going down to Puerto Penasco with some youth ministry group. When he came across an old man and his wife, selling fireworks from a small stand by the beach, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. Then the man offered him pot, coke, and his wife, in that order.