She trembled sometimes. He would walk down from work, down to the first floor of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union Library on Holy Hill, with its big windows and a dramatic painting of Christ hanging from the cross in jagged colors of red and white and black, and Ellie would be hunched behind one of the research computers, pecking at the keys. She would catch his eye and give him a nervous wave, just one back and forth motion with her hand half-hidden in a large shirt sleeve.
Once she walked over to him, and pulled a finger puppet out of her pants. “A Heidegger finger puppet,” she said, laughing. There was a little man with slicked-back hair and a short moustache bobbing like a moppet on her index finger. She was doing her dissertation on Heidegger. He noticed her white hands, how they trembled, and he knew this trembling. He knew it because he had trembled like that before when he was on Paxil or Effexor or Zoloft or Prozac, but he said nothing. He didn’t know her, didn’t want to pry.
Weeks later, they walk down Ridge Avenue, past the Berkeley student co-op and the Geochronology Center, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where he used to work before taking the communications post at the GTU. It could be November, December, January, February—the sun stays the same in his memory. They hang right on Euclid and pass coffee shops and delicatessens, a cleaner’s, a copy store. They cross Hearst and enter the North Gate of the Cal campus. He leads her through a path sheltered by redwoods. On their right, Strawberry Creek runs, trickling down from the Berkeley Hills above. They cross it over a wooden bridge, and he drops a green tarp on the grass, down the slope from the chancellor’s stone house, pink in the light. They’re sitting under a tree that stirs its branches horizontally, as if to cradle them.
They talk about longing, identity, place. He says he’s writing, but not submitting anything, too exhausted from his day job.
“The Eucharist is about the already and the not yet,” she says. Her brown hair shines above her sheer black blouse. She has an itch in her nose, which she moves side to side. “So the kingdom of God is right here, right now, yet there are so many things that are not right about the world, that are not just.”
All we have is the present, she reminds him. Get your story done. Send it out.
He found a picture of her online at an Amnesty International rally in New York, taken a few years before she’d headed west to start over in California. They had this in common. She looked scrawny, hungry, angry. Her hair hung straight down her back to her waist then, like she was out of the seventies. Her pinched face wore a serious look. He liked the fact that she could have this other side to her, one that she didn’t show to him. He had not told her of his hospitalization, or living his twenties in fear of his own mind.
Picking at the grass, she tells him about the E.T. poster in her bedroom, her E.T. shirt. “He’s like Jesus,” she explains. “Someone who comes among us, who is not understood, who no one knows what to do with. He’s trying to get home.”
When she talks, it is like sighing. (“Hi, it’s me,” she whispers on a voicemail, the “me” descending gently from a higher note.) When she TA’s a theology class, her professor admonishes her for hiding behind her hair, for being too timid.
Mid-January, they celebrate his half-birthday at Saul’s Deli, and she’s jumpy, keeps saying sorry to him for the food, for being late. She says she played trombone in the Baylor marching band and that she has baked a cake for him, really, it’s back at her apartment. He grows wary. If you accept a gift, he thinks, you become beholden. She doesn’t know how fucked up he is. He wants the freedom to pull away later. He doesn’t want to give her the power of beneficence, the ability to say, but I baked a cake for you.
She’s from Oklahoma, for God’s sake, from a small town where they filmed some Sandra Bullock movie. Her parents are from Oklahoma City, terrorist bombs and Tim McVeigh. She wears Chucks, doesn’t know what lacrosse is. She’s not one of the Gwathmeys or Megs or Whitneys he’d watched sway by in their clogs and L.L. Bean sweaters between the goldfish pond and the golf course, at the foot of the Connecticut Berkshires at Hotchkiss School, when his father still reigned there—their toned muscles, horsey laughs, never revealing their rawness. You’re just blinded by loneliness, he reasons—what if she isn’t the Right One? With each minute they share, he’s slowly sliding into a tunnel, no escape.
But she emails him Alice Walker and Whitman when he is sick, urges him to jot down dreams when he wakes. She helps him pack for his next apartment on Sacramento Street, and points out that he owns the same book she does: The Highly Sensitive Person.
The first time they are naked together, they’re listening to random goodnight songs from a mix he made. Somehow, as she slides out of her shirt, lets him unbutton her pants, the computer starts playing an audio recording of the service in Boston at the cathedral where he preached a sermon for the first time, about Jesus in the sinking boat with his disciples stopping the storm. Why are you afraid?
On their knees, as if in prayer, they balance on the eight concrete blocks holding up his twin bed as the cars rush past outside on Sacramento Street. Through the speakers he hears Anoma, the celebrant from Sri Lanka, say, “The gifts of God for the people of God.” As he pulls Ellie toward him, he sees Anoma holding the host in the air, her slender arms saluting it like a sun, her white robe sliding down her elbows, her short black hair brushed neatly to one side. He hears the wafer crack. He hears the congregation say, “We who are many are one body, because we all share the same bread.”
Ellie looked so small before. Now she perches on his pillows, round cheeks, heaving lungs. She leans back against the wall. They have to be careful not to fall off the bed. They have to stay close to each other. The concrete blocks wobble beneath them.
Sometime between the last note of the fraction anthem and the first words of his sermon, he lets go onto her chest, silver threads on flushed skin. ITunes skips to “Naked As We Came” by Iron and Wine. She slips into her clothes, out of his room, out the door; he drives her home.
Back in his room, he cannot sleep. He’s avoided women before, after failed flings unleashed the flood of depression dammed inside him. He doesn’t want to drown. He might not make it back home. He reads Henri Nouwen: “The new country is where you are called to go, and the only way to go there is naked and vulnerable.”
He emails her and thanks her for coming. Thanks for the mass, she writes back.
A month later, March, Lent, rainy. She’s sitting across from him at La Val’s, a pizza place on Holy Hill, and her hands shake, just a little.
Ellie’s blue raincoat, blue lips—Berkeley’s refrigerated air envelops them through the restaurant’s open window. She looks at him like Truth, her slit eyes piercing. “Why don’t you return my calls?”
He defends himself. He’s been shot out of a cannon, so many commitments. He’s trying not to get overwhelmed—the master writing class in San Francisco, the cross-genre workshop in Berkeley, his first full-time job in California, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir (“a life choice,” the director had said), and her, everything with her. He’d confided in another friend, who’d counseled—don’t fight it, all these things happening—that’s like swimming with clothes on. Just float.
Rain patters the sidewalk outside. He’d been to her church recently, and Kit, her charismatic minister in a rainbow stole, had eyed him as he’d left the service—“We need to get together, the Holy Spirit’s calling for it.” He laughed, waved, ran away. Kit was a double whammy—Ellie’s spiritual mentor, the one convening her calling committee, and now, peering at him, sizing him up—for what?
One root of the word ordination is the Anglo-Norman ordinatiun, meaning “ordering.” And there is something about this ordering—this minister Kit, who’d reel him in, pull him back to the order of church. The next thing you knew he’d be stepping away from who he really was, undressed, the self he’d come out here to California to find, and knuckling back to someone subservient. Biting his tongue. He’d be a good person again, regress to the altar boy of his youth, red robe and white surplice framing rosy cheeks. He’d live for others, and then he’d never find that darker self that had led him out to this crag on the San Francisco Bay, burning under Ellie’s eyes, not wanting to displease her, but not wanting to provoke the angry spirit within him. The one that had said, thou must go away from Boston and a family’s fear after a kid cousin’s suicide. Get out before it’s too late.
“I want to see you,” she says, slowly.
He stares at his pizza slice.
“If we want to get to know each other, we need to spend time together.” Her voice lowers. She has that look. Like she’s protesting something.
“I know that. I hear you. I do return your calls, when I can.” She visits him in his office sometimes. It’s awkward. He doesn’t want to mix personal and professional. She knows this.
“But I don’t see you. We can’t get closer in a vacuum!”
“Don’t crowd me. I told you about this. Why can’t you let me figure this out?”
Her face falls. “I’ve been trying to let you figure it out.” She bows her head over her plate.
What else does he say? He puts his hand out and covers one of hers, pale, on the rickety table, salt stains, grease. Ordain: to “admit (a candidate) into the ministry of the church by the laying on of hands,” and whether it is her hand, stilled under his, or Kit’s hands, reaching out to him, they threaten his own hands, his voice—and yet, in this Lenten season of repentance, changing direction, rain wringing out the soil in the flower beds outside, something about her anger, her willingness to let her voice shake, makes him relax. Maybe she’s not just someone waiting for his touch. He can still be his own man, sit alone or write alone. She won’t wilt.
So he calls her back later, says he wants to see her. He’ll bring ice cream, what kind does she want? She says something forbidden, something he’s never tried. So he buys a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, a crazy flavor, goes to her place. She has cooked them lasagna. He scours the pots.
He finds himself sinking into her tan couch, into her. The lasagna fills his belly. They kiss. Ordination, also from the French ordonner: “to give someone a responsibility.” He carries her on his back, he thinks, as well as the self he’s trying to leave behind, the wounded one that slunk back into church at age sixteen and asked Jesus to tell him what he needed to do to be delivered from depression, the side effects of drugs, from the fear of opening his mouth and being rejected—emotions, frozen like a glacier, melting in the intense heat of the sun, and spinning him away from Holy Hill back to the East Coast, to family, failure, back to the hospital, where orderlies ordained him. Please take off your clothes, they ordered, and so he did. They laid hands on him. We consecrate you, receive the Holy Spirit, no aerosol cans in your bag please, hands, touching his buttocks, sliding around to his thighs in search of sharp things, what would he hide, frisking the hairs on his legs. One of the orderlies was fat and wore a red sweater, perspiring under a mess of black hair. After he scanned the boy’s body, watched him pull his boxers back up, he handed him a Biblical tract the size of an index card, crumpled from his pocket, and whispered in his ear, “Jesus loves you, He died to save you,” and then he left him. If that was Jesus’s touch, the boy did not want him, and he went numb.
Save for a few stragglers, scattered about the pews like islands, he and Ellie are alone on Good Friday. The Episcopal church on Van Ness in San Francisco sports an eggshell blue interior. There’s a stern guy up there with a collar, the head priest, and an attractive younger woman, blond, probably the associate. She wears a black gown and wire rims. Her hair is pulled back tightly in a bun. He imagines her wearing black underwear too; because of Ellie, he’s got sex on the brain.
The choir files in, dressed in black, grim, and sings an a cappella setting by Byrd. Where is everybody, he wonders?
The priest’s name is Bud. He has a broken leg, so he preaches from a wheelchair. Bud compares this broken leg to our brokenness. Jesus broken on the cross, inviting us not to be ashamed of our hidden cracks, since they call us to lay down our arms, to belong—be long—to each other. What are you going to let die on Good Friday? His beard is peppered with grey. Bud speaks in clipped tones.
He is disappointed. He wants Ellie to experience a real barnburner, that kind of Good Friday service that raises hackles on your skin. When you can feel the agony of the crucifixion, and the people around you are into it. When the blackness of the altar and the robes on the priests and the choir music hits you straight in the chest and you’re on the Via Dolorosa with Jesus, straining under the cross, and you wonder how you can ever forget this kind of suffering.
He remembers Christ Church in Columbia, when he was twelve. How his father, high in the choir loft on Good Friday evening, sang the solo, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” Was it that year that his father, who usually did the grocery shopping for their family of six late at night, stopped at Safeway and left a cart of food piled high to check something in another aisle, and when he had returned, someone had emptied it? As kids they snickered at this, imagining their father’s “I don’t understand this” as the young teenage grocery attendant held his hands up in apology. Deep down this was funny not only because their father rarely got angry, but also because it occurred on Good Friday, after the most solemn service of the year. As if things were so bad—Jesus dead, again—that you couldn’t even keep your groceries.
When he sang with the cathedral choir in Boston in his twenties, they would huddle up in the loft, perform “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and then “O Vos Omnes,” while below, people inched up to the wooden cross held by the bishop, and kissed it, or knelt before it. Then, chords swelling in their throats, they killed them with “Ave Verum Corpus.” They had them in the throes of the Passion, they had successfully covered their heads with grief. They’d arrived, he thought, at something authentic and real. Finally—a place where people could let down, stop their fake smiles and rushed platitudes, just feel the emptiness of things. That’s what he liked about Ellie, how the day before, she’d called him in tears on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed the feet of his friends, ate with them for the last time, and then was arrested in the garden while they slept. “I had to step out of the service and just cry,” she’d said. “It always gets me—everyone going away, Jesus alone.”
Now she turns to him, as the congregants leave in silence. She says she can’t believe that she’s considering the ministry. She doesn’t know if she can do it. He thinks back years before, when he still lived in Boston, studied at seminary, met with a monk, co-led a worship service. He’d tried to leave that polite and proper self behind, lost in the church’s brambles of procedure and performance, albs and chasubles, so he could hear his sexual urges for women—desires that felt far from Christ-like, not so much meek as ravenous, monstrous, like distant cousins he never knew how to talk with when they visited. In California, he has become a writer, crossing borders of the sacred and the profane with his words.
He tells her she’s already ministering, to him, to her friends, to her church in Berkeley—ordination would just make this official.
“Oh,” she gasps, and tilts her head closer to him, rests it on his shoulder. She takes his hand and kneads his fingers, like she did on a Sunday after church in February when he read Garrison Keillor to her in front of the lemon tree. He’d made her laugh at the story about the Lutheran ministers crowding the float, sinking into Lake Wobegon. It scared him a little then, that touching, that need; he remembers the electric zing of her lips on his skin, the erection against his pants—he wrote about it after they parted: “We sat in the wild grass in the Secret Garden. . . . Me stroking her back, she wore a thin cotton shirt and I wonder if she bought it secondhand, I can feel right past the edge of the cotton shirt to the bare small of her back, and then her pants.”
He never saw Jesus have sex. In the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, Mary Magdalene dances toward him as serpentine music plays. But we never see our Lord doing it, and often, he wishes that this were not so, that he could witness, read it. That this man born of fluids, of his mother’s pain, could tryst himself to another. But no, Jesus walks alone, or walks with his friends, mostly men. He darts from town to town, and says, Jerusalem, what am I going to do with you? How I have longed to gather your children like a mother hen gathers her brood, and you were not willing.
Now the man and woman are lone figures on the ground floor of the church. All around them the city moves, cars and people and buses and subways, blood flowing in and out of its heart, compressing. They took the BART train across the Bay that evening, and a drunken woman with lazy eyes spied them nuzzling each other at the MacArthur stop, just before the train ducked under ground, and said, “You should be married!” He and Ellie laughed, and he felt proud, recognized anew.
If he were ordained, his priest Chris had once told him, he would not lose himself to the church. There was the fear, as in falling in love, that in surrendering he would lose track of who he was, and give up his life to something he could not control: the strip search, the prescriptions dispensed through the window on the adolescent ward, washed down in a tiny plastic cup the size of a thimble.
He could inspire her. When she delivered a sermon, he’d help write it. They’d blow everyone away with their clarity. She’d talk about the already and the not yet. She’d talk about home and journeys. He’d funnel her quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver and Madeleine L’Engle.
His depression doesn’t discount him; priests are wounded healers, as Henri Nouwen writes; Ellie is one too. She’d told him of meds she was taking to calm her down, boost her moods. Moses killed a man and stuttered. Mary was a nobody in Nazareth. If you didn’t think you could do something, you were often the person for the job in God’s book.
But his own wound had pierced, tempered his voice, and he wanted to raise it on the page. Ellie is my vocation, he wrote in his journal. Ellie is the new country. In this moment, he is enough without ordination—through her, he can recycle his confusion over calling, compost it, help her grow. Unlike Ellie’s church-sponsored ministry track, her grad school classes, his writing serves no institution. Ellie sent him an excerpt from Women Who Run With the Wolves, about what to do when your river of creativity runs dry. He flinched because it was addressed to women. He felt slightly unmanned in his need, but not enough that he would not read it. He keeps bumping into this constructed figure of himself, who he’s supposed to be when he’s with her.
See them exiting the church onto Van Ness. They take a right. He wants to show her where he once house-sat up on Russian Hill.
Look, they are lovers in San Francisco on Good Friday, at dusk. They walk by Good Vibrations, the famous sex toys store. He’d heard about it from the Dudes, his band of buddies who bonded over beers, hikes, guitar jams. Odin, their ringleader, had recently emailed them about the “fully-clothed” workshop there. Called “Give Her a Hand,” it covered “the fine points of pleasuring a woman with your hands.” “I’m going to this,” Odin wrote, “and if anyone else wants ‘in’, maybe I’ll see you there …”
“Do you want to go in?” she says. Her eyes sparkle.
“We could get something for me and Amy at the V-Spot.” That’s what she called her apartment, for her last name and Amy’s, Vanderjagt and Visnocky. V-spot, like G-spot, except it stood for vagina, maybe. He remembered caressing her stomach on her couch after their second date, kissing it. She asked him if he minded if she drank, and he said no, as long as it wasn’t a lot. She said it was something she did with her friends. He realized he barely knew her. He thought of his alcoholic grandfather, the red tips of his ears, his mother placing her hand on the man’s shoulder in the yard, a surprise intervention. Aren’t you on medications, he asked? She said yeah, so. She kissed her way down to his belly button, her lips cold on his Australia birthmark. He said, let’s stop there.
Inside a display case is an ancient vibrator that looks like a camera. Ellie buys plastic spoons shaped into penises. He tries to picture her putting her mouth around one of them without thinking about the fact that it is shaped like a penis. He tries to picture her being forgetful and just picking up any spoon and oh, one of them happens to be a penis spoon.
“Maybe there is something we could get for us to use together,” she says.
He’s never used sex toys in his life. He has not yet had intercourse with her, hit a home run. “Step up,” his counselor comrades exhorted him at the boys’ summer camp, where they scored with the Camp Onaway girls after Taps and bragged about it later. Step up. Or step away—night, sneaking out of his cabin down to the pines in the camp’s outdoor chapel, alone with his Hustler magazine and the eight-foot birch bark cross. The centerfold and he, feverishly working together under the light of his headlamp, while down at the bathhouse on the lake, male and female counselors drank and flirted to Van Morrison.
College, Clara—a blond waif, pewter tip eyes. A party his senior year, suddenly they were in her room, kissing. He was on fire. Later, he invited her over to his dorm room. They’d go all the way again—thrusting, with little love. See them swaying on the Green Line car headed to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He doesn’t even recall the exhibit, but he thought, how can I make this normal, something beyond transaction? And he never could. He turned inward again, away from complicating humans, back to his Hustler centerfold, his journal.
Ellie used to set boundaries. The first time they kissed, he leaned back in the seat of the Red Rocker, and pulled her across the parking brake. She slanted across the front seat, and then his hands did their dance southward. She stopped him and said, I don’t want to go too fast, I like you. But since then, the levees have lowered, the river is rising. Every time he asks her if she’s free, she is free, and it frightens him. He thinks he sees his own weakness in her. He’s bound to let her down.
They lie on his bed with the concrete blocks. Her pink underwear. Her green eyes, like a cat’s. It is okay that they don’t do it. She does not bring it up. He touches her, and her face relaxes, eyes close. He doesn’t drive her back to her apartment until the cars have stopped roaring by the window late into the night.
The next day, Jesus is dead, in the tomb. He and Ellie have barely slept. It doesn’t matter. In the evening, they take the BART back into San Francisco, get off at Powell, and hike up Nob Hill to Grace Cathedral. Ellie wears tall black boots that clack on the sidewalk.
The cathedral is WASP East Coast to him, its royal blue Gothic windows, spires and buttresses. On California Street, it kisses the old Brahmin money of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, just a few blocks up from the Bohemian Club. He and Ellie pass in the darkness. His uncle’s a member there, along with U.S. presidents, CEO’s. He’d once eaten oysters there with his father’s Princeton classmate while Japanese waiters bowed in and out of their table. He told everyone he was a freelance writer.
“His father was an All-American athlete, All-Everything, a hard act to follow,” the Princeton guy said to the others. He’d brushed former Secretary of State George Shultz’s shoulder and pretended to be interested in meeting the Marine commander who’d led the land invasion of Iraq. Women weren’t allowed. He’d been fascinated by pedigree’s power that had gotten him in the door—so different from Ellie’s world.
He and Ellie enter the pitch-black church, stepping over the limestone labyrinth inside Grace’s transept. At first you walk the labyrinth lamenting your losses, acknowledging all that is evil, allowing the lines to take you to the center, where you stop, consider your blessings. As you walk back out, retracing your steps (you can’t get lost), you gird yourself to return to the world. You allow the walking to shape your joys and sorrows into something harder, a stone inside you, matching the stone cathedral that vaults above you.
The choir sings, Let the rivers clap their hands. Ellie grips his hand. They loved this verse from the psalms, God speaking through water. They crowd up to the altar to receive communion after the lights come on and the organ blares and the bishop, resplendent in his white hat, cries, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.” He and Ellie shout, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia. ” White paper doves cascade down from a balcony, and one of them falls into his hands.
They return to his apartment. They will ring in Easter together. She stands inside his bedroom. He tastes her right there with her boots on, right after they shut the white door. She unzips her dress. He kneels down. She presses into him. He pins her against the wall. She sighs short breaths. He is risen. Alleluia.
They try to sleep in the same bed, that twin bed on blocks, but they cannot. He unrolls a pad, stretches out on the sleeping bag. Or does she end up there on the floor? Their brains whirring like machines, the air charged, their eyes wide. Three months into dating, could this work?
Morning, Easter together at her church in Berkeley: puppets, banners, the worship leader shouting at them through the microphone. After the service, someone takes a picture of Ellie and him; he wears his Brooks Brothers pea coat, the red power tie he only uses for interviews, and she smiles in beige jacket and white dress, her hair pinned back by a single barrette.
They’re the spiritual couple of the future, mini-versions of Ellie’s minister Kit and her intense writer husband Liam who live on a Napa ranch. Liam, the famous New Age writer for men who has taken to trapeze-swinging in his seventies, he’s got his own set erected on their property. Lithe, muscular, he soars expertly above him and Ellie when they visit. Liam’s written a book about flying, falling, facing your fear. That’s me, he thinks. And Ellie is Kit, the social justice minister who got married by civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin.
If he can just freeze this moment like their photograph snapped on this Easter Day, then uncertainty will not matter, nor will the squirrely moods that whisper you will succumb. Something in him that died has risen. He is a man, worthy of these expensive threads, someone with his shit together enough to squire a woman on his arm and not freak out. He’s sleep-deprived, but it is a holy state.
Writing this now, he steps back. He wants to see them as they were then. So let them just be: man, woman, in love.
After lunch, her Soviet-style apartment, concrete walls, neon lights, deodorized. She wants to give him something, the woman says.
They crouch on the tip of her bed. Both sitting stiffly in their clothes—his tie tucked under the top button of his blazer, the sharp crease of his dry-cleaned beige pants rising over his black socks, dress shoes; her white silk dress bunching up around her legs, her hair sweeping over her eyes. She hands him a box wrapped in lime green tissue paper.
The man tears apart tissue; fragments flutter to the floor. He opens a wooden box with a tiny tin hasp. Inside it, fake plastic grass, jelly beans, notes wrapped in green bows. On the outside, magazine pictures pasted—a man lying in a hammock, sipping a drink; the oceans, redwood trees; lyrics from James Taylor’s “Gaia,” printed out in spindly black letters—leave your cold cruel mother earth behind. On the outer lip, words from Henri Nouwen: “We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning. . . . always listening to a voice saying to us: ‘I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it!’ Imagine.”
The man swallows and puts the box down on her bed. He raises his arms to her and she dips her head toward his face. He lifts his chin and pins her right shoulder with it, leaning his body toward the rear wall. Above them, a window the size of a small suitcase. The man, the woman, the bed, the box, the tissue covering their feet.
They look at each other, waiting for the other to speak. No one does. The man’s arms tighten around her. His blazer bunches at the shoulders; he begins to rock her, back and forth, a pendulum, on the edge of her bed on Easter Day. He closes his eyes, and she rubs his back, which shakes steadily under her hand. Minutes pass.
After he leaves her apartment with the box, he knows he’s in trouble, because he’s in love and has been touched, and he still hasn’t gone all the way with her. He stops at Safeway just down the road, and paces the aisles, forgetting what he came for, just circling the aisles until he buys razors and bread because he knows he can always use those things. He drives home. Let the rivers clap their hands. Another translation: Let the floods clap their hands.
He wants to drown.