Jose Sotolongo

After a year, the sex had started to vanish, and the distance between them, and her resentment, grew.  At first, it occurred frequently, and unpredictably, anywhere in the apartment.  Lucas, at twenty-two, had been a virgin when they met, and had not been with anyone else since.  He remembered loving Angie passionately at first.  It seemed to him that as work had become deeply problematic, his interest in her had waned, and he therefore blamed his job, not seeing any other reasons.  Their income was good, they had a nice apartment, and both got along well with their in-laws.  He found himself wanting to go to sleep quickly each night, turning away from her with a swift “Good night,” not allowing her the opportunity for eye contact that would communicate a need for physical closeness.

He closed the book he was pretending to read, giving Angela, sitting across from him with her laptop, a slight smile, and went wordlessly into the bedroom to pack, hoping to do it alone.  She followed him in, glum, but  ready to help him, getting the duffel bags out of the closet.

“How many long sleeve shirts should I pack?” she asked softly as she placed the bags on the bed.  Unsettled by his plan to spend a week’s vacation away from her at a religious retreat, she was trying to be a sport by staying involved, trying to keep her anger in check.  She was somber as she went through his drawers, finding socks that were mismatched, something they had once joked about. 

“I don’t know,” he said neutrally, without looking at her.  “They didn’t say what the weather would be like.”  Lucas moved slowly around the bedroom, sometimes just standing still, undecided as to what to pack first, then considering which shoes and socks to pack, counting out the yellowing tee shirts and tattered briefs.  He stood and looked at the clothes on the bed, suddenly unsure about his choices, self-absorbed, seemingly unaware of Angie‘s presence.

The monastery of Saint Augustine, on the east slope of a two thousand foot mountain in the Adirondacks, was not far from the Canadian border.  Lucas had found it on a web page listing religious communities.  He had researched them, thinking he might find a reason for his growing indifference to Angie and their growing unhappiness  if  he could immerse himself in introspection at a religious retreat.  His best friend Charles, now happily married and with a good job, had entered a Buddhist monastery right after college, and had become more focused and settled than any of his other friends, many of them unemployed and living with their parents.  When Lucas had contacted the monastery he had been told that, although they did not have guests often, they could accommodate him for a week, given enough notice.  There had been subsequently a brief interview on the phone by the monastery’s contact, Brother William, as to his goal.  The monk had sounded sympathetic, but restrained.  He had not offered any indication as to what life would be like, or what clothing to bring.  All he was told by Brother William, he told Angie as he semi-folded, semi-crumpled his shirts to pack, was that the monastery made its income from organic farming, as well as from the production of goat cheese from their own herd, and that he would be assigned either to the care and growing of vegetables or to the tending of goats.

“Well, good luck with the goats.  They’re smelly animals,” Angela said testily, finally losing her composure as she folded his torn and stained underwear and put it into the duffel bag.  “Are you the same guy who told me last month he didn’t want a cat around because of allergies?”

He went to her, dismayed at her anger, trying to smile, and kissed her quickly on the cheek on his way to the bathroom to get toiletries to pack, but she remained stony.  She took some of his torn underwear, wiped some silent tears away with it, and threw it in the wastebasket.

Their first year together had been sensuous, fun and affectionate.  Nightly they would pour wine and talk about the day, plans for vacation, who they’d see on the weekend.  Sex had been thrilling for both of them that first year, and the whole relationship seemed to work.  Lucas blamed the stress of his job in the district attorney’s office, which had seemed at first like a great opportunity for someone fresh out of law school.  His father, also an attorney, had used his contacts, and he had been hired readily just before their marriage,  but after a year he had developed a growing unease about prosecuting criminal drug users, his main assignment.  It had become clear to him, the more he read about it, that drug abuse was really a biological condition, an illness more in need of treatment than punishment.  He was finding it increasingly difficult to press for harsh and probably misdirected punishment for the criminals he pursued.  This growing awareness had coincided with his disappearing sexual and romantic interest in Angie.

“Are you having an affair?“ she had asked him suddenly one evening as they prepped dinner in silence in the kitchen.  “Is that why we’re not having sex?”

“There’s no one else.  I think it’s my job.  And I need to give this some thought.”

“You haven’t let me near you for three months,” she said, putting the salmon in the oven, not sounding convinced. “And give what some thought?  Us?”

He was sure it was only the job, he assured her, and not their relationship.  And in fact, he did not look at other women in the office, and ignored their passes.  He needed to think about his future, he explained, and how to function normally while working in a profession he wasn‘t sure he believed in.  She remained unconvinced.  “Do you think,“ she said, “that other men who aren’t happy at work just stop being physically affectionate with their wives?”  Afterwards, their evenings became even edgier, no matter how much wine was poured.  Like ink from an octopus, the tension between them enveloped and darkened their life together.

“What are you looking for?”  Angela had asked him weeks later, when he had told her of his plans to be away.  It was the same question Brother William had asked him during their telephone conversation.  His vague response about wanting to explore how religion  might help him find a path and daily peace seemed to satisfy Brother William somewhat on the telephone, and Angela not at all, who had responded, “You don’t even go to church.  What’s going on?”

She now was repeating the question in the bedroom, duffel bags half packed, clothes all over their bed.  He closed his eyes before answering, partly from mental exhaustion, but Angie saw that he was also closing a door.   “I’m trying to understand myself more, what I want out of my life.” He turned away and went on packing, not having the energy now to rehash it all now, realizing that he would welcome a break from this tension to sort out his job and his marriage.

She dropped her chin on her chest in frustration, her short dark hair flopping forward on her brow.  Resigned to being the cause for their unhappiness, he embraced her, gently, sadly, but trying to make it better for her, his wide frame engulfing her small figure, his yellow hair atop her brown.  He kissed the top of her head, still scented, since this morning‘s shower, of  her pear shampoo, and continued holding her, but she pushed away and went back to the living room, and he finished his packing alone.               

The late summer foliage was lush from the window of the north bound train from New York, and the mountains that seemed to rise abruptly just beyond the train tracks lent the landscape an alien, forbidding quality, as if the monastery were accessible only to the most determined.  He read a historical biography of Jesus until the conductor announced Hartwell’s Crossing, the stop where Lucas would be met by Brother William.  The station was little more than a roof over a wooden platform, a two lane road twenty feet away the only other man made structure amidst the fields of alfalfa and corn.  As he got off the train, alone, a thin, bearded man dressed in a loose blue shirt and brown pants, leaning on a pickup truck, began to walk towards him.  “I’m Brother William,” he said, smiling, as they shook hands.  He helped Lucas with his two duffel bags into the pickup, put the truck in gear as Lucas got into the passenger side, and they began the climb up the mountain toward the monastery.  Brother William chuckled as he blew the horn at geese crossing the road, and spent some time naming the various mountain peaks visible from the steeply inclined road.

“You said on the phone you wanted to spend time in an environment that would help you do some introspection.”

“Yes,” Lucas said, looking out over the lower valleys below them.  “I want to see if spending a week here can give me answers to some problems I’m having.”

“Why here?  Why not explore religion in your own community first?”

“I’m hoping to concentrate on it here, in complete immersion, without distractions.”

“I see.  An escape,” Brother William smiled, and Lucas noticed that his teeth were startlingly white against his dark but graying beard.  “What problem specifically triggered your retreat here with us?” he pursued, still smiling, but as Lucas began to say something about work, Brother William cut him off and said as they pulled into the monastery, “It’s hardly ever about work.  But we’ll talk more later.”

They drove through a gate in a stone wall that surrounded several red brick buildings. Brother William led the way up the stairs of the two story dormitory, then down a clean, white walled corridor with several oak doors.  His room was the last one on the right.  Brother William opened the unlocked door and stepped in.

“You see we don’t usually lock doors.  If you want to lock yours the key is on the dresser,” he said as he opened the simple white curtains and lifted the window to air the room.  “We like lights out by ten, and if you’ve brought a radio or music we ask that it be off by vespers at nine.”  Lucas sat on the bed, suddenly tired by the trip and the heat.  “Afternoon prayers in ten minutes in the chapel.  Knock on my door, three doors down on your left, and we’ll go together.  Just give me a couple of minutes.”

The chapel was in another square, brick building, its main distinguishing feature  being the modest steeple.  The inside of the chapel was filling with monks dressed in brown robes, identical to the one Brother William was slipping on over his clothes when Lucas had knocked on his door.  Lucas followed the service in the hymnal and chanted along with the monks, although he found the words uninspired and banal.  After a half hour of this he wondered whether he had made a mistake in coming to stay for a full week.  His wandering mind pictured Angela alone at home, sipping a glass of wine, getting dinner ready, and missed the days when those evenings had been fun.

     A stop in the chanting brought him back to the chapel, and responsive reading ended the service, promptly at five.  Brother William escorted him to the administrative building, where Brother Carl, who handled the sale of produce and goat cheese made by the monastery, assigned Lucas the weeding and general care of three acres of potatoes, to begin tomorrow.

     Brother William and Lucas walked back together to their rooms. Lucas abruptly broke the silence around them left over from the service. “I’m just so unhappy at home.  I hope I can find some answers here.”  Brother William noted how pained he looked, but said noting until they were close to their rooms. “Dinner will be over by seven thirty, and the hour and a half until vespers at nine will be for your private tutoring and discussion, as well as for your private reading.”  They agreed to meet at six thirty, when he’d be introduced in the dining hall to the rest of the community.

The large space that was the dining hall in the dormitory building was filled with monks who were dressed, unexpectedly for Lucas, in brightly colored shirts and jeans.  They joined a half empty table that quickly filled up with other monks as trays of roast beef, mashed potatoes and spinach were brought by others assigned to kitchen duty.  Conversation centered around the heat and lack of rain, the new litter of baby goats, and local gossip.

“Did you hear about the cheese scandal at the convent?” asked a burly, bearded monk, with a smile.

“Ah, the case of the non organic mozzarella,”  Brother William joked, and then to Lucas, “The nuns in our neighboring convent used supermarket milk to make their cheese when their own cows dried up, but didn’t have money to make new labels.”  The meal was simple but perfect, and conversation and laughter were abundant.

The tutoring hour after dinner took place in the quiet library, upstairs from the dining room, where he was shown literature that he was expected to read each evening and be prepared to discuss the next day.  Brother William sat next to him at the library table as they reviewed the reading material, and Lucas detected an odor of smoke and incense, no doubt the residue from the afternoon service.  He felt suddenly comforted by this, although he couldn’t say why.

“You mentioned a dilemma you were having at work when we spoke on the phone,” Brother William said.  Lucas went into some detail about his job seeking punishment for drug addicts, which he considered had primarily a medical problem.

“It’s been ruining my life at home.  I seemed to lose romantic and sexual interest in Angie when I started thinking about work more and having doubts about it.  When I started questioning my career, about the value of punishment, I stated looking differently at my whole life.  And that includes my wife.”

The monk listened, looking at him with a calm and steady gaze, something the others in the dining room also seemed to do when talking to him.  “I think we will be ready for a discussion on punishment in a few days, after we have gotten some basics of Christianity down,” he said, “and then we’ll talk about your home life.”  He gave a toothy smile and stood up, indicating the session was over.

The next day, after seven o’clock morning prayers in the chapel and a breakfast of eggs and hot cereal, Lucas was shown the three acre potato field that he was expected to tend.  He was shown how to pick potato beetles off the plants and drop them in a container of alcohol, to recognize diseased plants, and to pile soil around the base of the plants to prevent the potatoes growing above the soil from being exposed to sunlight, which would turn them green and bitter.  It seemed to him an enormous job to get through in one day, a boring chore to be repeated daily, without variance, as new beetles, new weeds, and new potatoes emerged, but he embarked on it as instructed.  When the bells rang for noon prayer before lunch he had only gotten through half an acre, and the heat and the sun had left him so worn out that he walked back to the chapel wishing he could go directly to lunch.  After a half hour of communal prayer, a half hour for lunch, and an additional half hour of private prayer in the chapel, he was back on the field, the heat now even stronger in the afternoon sun, and was relieved when afternoon prayers were announced by the chapel bells.  It was beastly hot for August at this elevation, and the chapel steamed with the heat and sweat of the monks, who had all put on their brown robes over their damp  work clothes for this, the longest and most formal of the day’s ceremonies.  Lucas, as a resident guest, wore a gray, somewhat shorter robe.  The ritualistic chanting that yesterday had seemed so banal became hypnotic and emptied his mind of the day’s work and his worries about Angela, and he experienced a sudden buzzing in his head, which he attributed to exhaustion, and a strong sense of commonality with the chanting brothers.

Over the following days the pattern of prayer, work, and discussions with Brother William about Christianity and punishment repeated itself, and although his evening studies became more profound and absorbing, he felt no closer to being at peace either at work or at home.

“Now,” Brother William started on their fifth evening of discussion, “Let’s talk about home and Angie.”

“Something’s changed,” Lucas said, and went on to describe their happy early days, and the gradual souring of their home life as he grew dissatisfied with his job.  “This is why I’m here.  If I can justify in my mind punishing drug abusers, if I can find something here with you that will make me at peace with this job, I think I can salvage my relationship with Angie.”

Brother William said nothing now, but looked steadily at him, and then said, “I can help you understand punishment within the context of Christianity, but I cannot make the connection between your job and your marriage.  Why would being comfortable with punishing drug addicts bring you happiness at home?  You need to think about that.  I don‘t think your job is ruining your marriage.”  He did not wait for an answer, but stood up and left Lucas, confused and embarrassed, sitting alone in the library.  He had come to find peace at work and at home, and he seemed no closer now than he had at the beginning of the week.

Lucas, as he worked the fields the next day, thought about the monk’s dispiriting suggestion that there was no link between his role at work with his role at home.  And yet his questioning of his job and the issue of punishment had seemed to trigger his distance from Angie.  If punishment was a justifiable option in Christianity, wouldn’t he be at peace with it at work? And wouldn’t that heal the rent in his marriage?

At the toll of the bell, at the end of the afternoon’s toil, he walked back to the dormitory, still pondering.  It was the hottest day yet of his stay, and he was parched and starved.  He passed the orchard of Morceau pear trees, as he did every day, and considered plucking one of the low hanging fruit to quench his thirst and hunger.  The pears were ripe for harvesting, unblemished, and he noticed how much this pinkish variety resembled a female human body as Rubens might paint it, with narrow tops and widening, rounded bottoms.  It reminded him of how good sex had been with Angie when things had been going well between them.  He fondled and sniffed one of the dangling fruit, the aroma sharply reminiscent of something familiar that he could not place.  His hunger made him consider plucking it from the branch, but he moved on instead to the dormitory to don his gray robe.

After the afternoon service, and before dinner, he continued to read about and explore the issue of punishment, and though he riffled through the books he had been assigned, he could find no mention of its role in Christianity.  He decided to take up the issue at tonight’s discussion session, which would be his last.  His week’s retreat was coming to an end.  But how to prepare for the discussion?  Where could he read about the relationship between punishment and repentance in Christianity?  He wondered whether it would be an imposition on Brother William to ask his advice now, before dinner, about what to read in preparation for this evening, then remembered that Brother William had encouraged him to seek him out at any time if pressing questions arose.  He took the book in which he had found a brief reference to punishment, Essays on Christianity, and walked down the hall to Brother William’s door.  He knocked lightly, then again more firmly, and got no answer.  He would leave Brother William a note and the book open to the chapter “Wrongdoing, Repentance, and Forgiveness,” asking him what else he should read on the subject for discussion after dinner.  He entered the room, and was struck by the heat, generated by the sun dazzling in through the white curtains and windows.

Brother William lay naked and asleep in his narrow bed, face up, his arms over his head and his legs akimbo, a cooling response to the heat.  The sheers over the open windows were hanging still, unmoved by any breeze.  Lucas stood by the door for a minute and watched the monk breathe, then lay the book on the dresser and quietly approached the bed after closing the door, studying the man’s thin and sinewy body.  He stood next to the bed, careful not to step on the underwear on the floor, and bent over, close to the monk’s body, watching closely as the chest rose with each breath.  His nose captured a strong blend of sweat and musk.  There was a warmth radiating from his body that Lucas could feel even in the oven heat of the room.  His upper lip became suddenly wet with perspiration, and he felt short of breath,  both of which he attributed to the intense heat, but he also felt an unexpected throb deep in his lower abdomen and pelvis, which he did not understand.  Then, without knowing why, he removed his shirt and dropped it on the floor, and, bare-chested, crossed his arms, his hands tucked in his armpits.  He continued to observe Brother William, whose breathing now changed from the slow rhythm of deep sleep to perhaps that of shallower sleep, or dim awareness.  He wiped the wetness from his face with his fingers and caught the smell of his armpits on his hands, a different smell from the other man’s, but connected, somehow.  He picked his shirt up off the floor, and quietly left the room.

That evening, throughout their discussion about virtue and punishment, Brother William betrayed no sign that he had been aware of Lucas’s presence in his room that afternoon.  Towards the end of the evening, he summarized the evening’s exploration of Lucas’s questions:  “Punishment is not excluded from Christian principles, per se.  Think of Adam and Eve.  In fact, when thoughtfully applied, it ideally leads to repentance, and hopefully to a change in behavior.”

“In terms of your marital problem,” Brother William continued slowly, “I think that’s a different issue altogether.  All of us have sexual fantasies.  It might be helpful to you to reflect on what yours are, and make the necessary adjustments, maybe with Angie, maybe not.”

That evening, his last at the monastery, Lucas went back to the chapel instead of  his room after vespers.  The chapel was empty, and instead of kneeling in his usual pew, near the last row, he went to the altar and knelt close to the large, looming cross.  It was almost as large as he was, carved out of  a blond, deeply grained wood, and he saw it as an austere but elegant object, uncomplicated, and unadorned.  Lucas considered its strength and immutability a long time.  “It is what it is,” he said out loud.  When he went back to his room to pack, he found underwear that didn’t belong to him rolled up inside the shirt he had worn earlier, and realized he had accidentally picked up off the floor Brother William’s briefs along with his own shirt.  He did not see how he could return it to the monk without an impossibly awkward explanation, and briefly considered leaving it in the closet of his room, but he folded it carefully and packed it in his duffel bag instead.

The trip to the train station the next day was in the company of Brother James, who helped Lucas with his bags into the same pickup Brother William had driven a week before.  “Brother William sends his farewell and good wishes.  He had to attend to some business today and couldn’t drive you.”

They rode mostly in silence, looking out over the green valleys and blue gray mountains, all alit by a bright and diffuse sunlight behind thin clouds.  As they made the final descent into the cornfields near the train station, Lucas said, “Brother James, I was hoping to see Brother William today.  I  needed to say something to him.”

“Do you want me to give him a message?” asked James.

Lucas thought a moment, then said, “Please tell him I apologize.”

Brother James looked mildly puzzled, and said, “Will he know for what?”

“I‘m not sure.  Maybe.  But I  trespassed on his privacy.”

James chuckled at this as he pulled the pickup into the train station, scattering some geese as he did so.  “Brother William is very compassionate, and insightful as well,” he said.  “I know that he’s already understood your actions and forgiven you, and he spoke highly of you, said you‘re a man of conscience.  He’s also certain that the week you have spent with us will be of help to you.”

The kindness stayed with him softly throughout the train ride home, and disarmed him.  He opened his bag looking for his book, and saw the monk’s underwear.  As he picked it up to re-fold it and place it among his own, he caught the familiar scent of musky sweat, which filled him with longing, and a sadness that the longing would linger, would dissipate only at its own pace.  And he suspected that the road to the changes ahead would not be easy, but he resolved to try to minimize the inevitable pain he would have to inflict on her.  He had already, he considered, punished her enough for falling in love with him, and then marrying him.  When he arrived home a tentatively smiling Angie, barefoot, wearing shorts and a tank top, stepped into the hallway from the kitchen with a glass of wine in her hand.  He set his bags down and went to her.  He did not kiss her, but held her in a long embrace.


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