Weeks went by, and every night she lay thinking about the photographer's kiss and the blood on her lip in the mirror, and it occurred to her to go to confession. She hadn't been to Mass since Teddy left; it was too much trouble to get Clarissa into Sunday clothes. Now she thought if she could just say what had happened, she might feel better, so she went alone to a church in the city, where neither Teddy nor she would know the priest.
The smell was overwhelming, of candles and flowers and polished wood. It was the smell of every Sunday of her childhood, the old ladies speaking French to her, the priest speaking Latin, the sins she could think of: I talked back to my mother. I fought with my sister. I didn't clean my side of the room when I came home from school.
She said a little prayer outside the confessional, and then she went in, all the trumped-up sins of her childhood following her, and the little window slid open.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," she said. "It has been six months since my last confession." Six months was how long Teddy had been on this tour.
"What have you done, my child?" the voice said.
"I..." She realized she didn't know what she was going to say. It had to be a confession, not an accusation of the photographer. "I tempted a man," she said.
"In what way?"
"My husband is in Korea. A man came to take a photograph of my family, to send to my husband."
"And?" the priest asked, when she didn't go on.
"I had a drink with him in my house, with my children there in the middle of the afternoon, and then he kissed me."
"In front of your children?"
"The children were outside."
"Did he only kiss you?"
"He had his arms around me. I struggled, and he cut my lip with his teeth." It was beginning to sound like an accusation. "But I tempted him, Father," she said. "I flirted with him. I shouldn't have let him come."
"What did you do after he kissed you?"
"I sent him away."
"Right away," she said.
"Have you told your husband?"
"I've tried to write a letter, but it sounds wrong, and I'm afraid my husband will misunderstand."
"Is your husband a jealous man?"
"I've never tested him." She thought of her father pulling her onto his lap, asking about her shopping trips with her mother. She always knew what her mother had bought, and had been in the departments beforeKitchens and Linens and Hatsso she could describe them to him, when she had really spent the whole day reading in the bookstore on the mezzanine.
"You're afraid you might test him now," the priest said.
"He's fighting for our country. And I've allowed a man to kiss me."
"But you struggled," the priest said. "You did what you could."
"Yes," she said, grateful. The weight of the last weeks lifted from her heart. It sounded like he would take her side.
"You were lucky the man didn't do more," he said.
"I know," she said happily, full of relief.
"You must tell your husband," the priest said, and the weight dropped on her heart again. "The sin of omission is as vile between husband and wife as it is between priest and confessor."
"Yes, Father." Her moment of hope had been foolish, selfish.
"Maybe it's not wise to have men in your house," he said.
"Say ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers, and say a prayer for me," he said.
She knelt in a front pew to do her penance. When she heard the priest come out of the confessional, she interrupted the Our Fathers to look at him over her shoulder. He was a tall man with a great girth, in Dominican robes, with black hair turning gray. She saw him look over the pews until his eyes stopped on her, and then he looked away. She finished her penance and said her prayer for him, and went out into the clear blue day, feeling more of a burden than she had felt going in, because now she knew without question that she had to tell Teddy what she had done.
From Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy. Copyright Maile Meloy 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Scribner.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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