Carl had always thought that “taking a cold shower” was just a joke, but this time he actually went to take one.
He was disturbed and aroused and shaken up: he couldn’t get the sight of Juliet out of his mind. Or the memory of her lips on his.
Just the taste of her… the scent of her…
He had never seen her out of her school uniform before, or the modest blouse she had worn to his church. Now he couldn’t stop thinking of how the curve of her breasts swelled from the low-cut neckline, or the smooth length of her thighs.
Obviously he’d seen women in revealing clothing before, he hadn’t lived in a monastery since birth. But this was the first time he had been so closely confronted by the body of a girl whom he not only found arousing, but who was completely off-limits. Someone whom he’d been struggling not to think about for weeks.
Carl felt too guilty to even pray, though he tried. “Lord, if this is some kind of a test, please give me the strength to pass it.”
He lay in bed, feeling wired. Trying to superimpose Rebecca’s face onto Juliet’s, but failing.
In the end he got up and looked at his clock. It was 3am. He pulled on some clothes and went for a jog around the block. Maybe if he exhausted himself physically he’d be able to collapse into a dreamless sleep?
Juliet… Juliet… Juliet… His feet were pounding along the sidewalk, drumming her name into his head.
How was he going to concentrate the next time he taught her Latin class? After what had just happened - when he should have stood back, kept his distance, made the three of them leave. He was equally to blame. Juliet had clearly had alcohol on her breath and wasn’t fully in control of herself.
But he had been sober. He was the adult. The one who should have been in control.
The fact was he hadn’t stepped back because he hadn’t really wanted to. He had wanted to be close to her. He had wanted to breathe her in.
He had been tempted, and he had started to fall.
Juliet woke with her head pounding. It took her a few moments to remember where she was: at Fhemie’s house. She never normally drank that much. What had she been thinking?
Opening her eyes, she looked across the room and saw Margot still asleep on the other guest bed.
Slowly the events of the previous evening were trickling back into her head. They flashed through in stages, like a movie trailer.
The party and the heavily spiked punch.
The cold night air on her skin as they walked through the streets.
Approaching his door…
Juliet could remember exactly how he looked, it was like having taken a photo and stored it in her brain. His obvious surprise combined with calm politeness. No shoes and his shirt a little rumpled, as though he had just got up from the couch. The startled expression in his eyes when she had spoken of a treat.
She had kissed him.
Lying there, her head pounding, she could still feel the tingle and the burn on her lips where they had brushed his. She felt a sick excitement combined with a sense of panic that she had gone too far.
This was something she could get expelled for. Turning up at a teacher’s house, drunk, throwing herself at him.
Juliet covered her face with the sheet. What had she done?
Later, they sat around Fhemie’s kitchen table, drinking the strongest black coffee possible and analysing the events of the previous night. Both Margot and Fhemie found the whole thing hilarious.
“You don’t think he looked really angry?” Juliet asked.
“He looked dazed,” Fhemie told her. “In a good way. Not like repulsed or anything.”
“If we hadn’t been there who knows what might have happened?” Margot said.
Juliet shivered, thinking about it.
“Do you think he’ll say anything about it on Monday? Will I get into trouble?”
Margot laughed. “When have you ever cared about getting into trouble, girl? Don’t tell me Mr Hot and Holy is actually turning you into a good Christian girl for real.”
“If it is, you can take my place as a nun,” Fhemie told her.
Seeing that Juliet was looking conflicted, Margot tried to reassure her. “Honestly, I think he’s got it bad. He was frozen to the spot but it was in a good way. Like he just got a surprise present.”
“Or a strippergram,” Fhemie said. She grinned at Juliet’s horrified reaction. “Nah, it’s all good, you’re hooking him in. I’ve bet Margot that you’ll seduce him by Christmas.”
The weekend only got worse for Carl. After a night of fragmented sleep and disturbing dreams, he had another wedding planning session with Rebecca.
It was absolutely the last thing he wanted to do. The whole process seemed interminable. He couldn’t summon up a fraction of enthusiasm though he did his best to look cheerful and feign interest.
Rebecca was going over the order of service and Carl was only half listening. It didn’t really matter to him how they did it or even what hymns were sung, it was the result that was important to him.
So if Rebecca felt strongly about a certain reading, he was happy to let her have her way.
“I know you wanted your cousin to do the second reading, but I really don’t think it’s appropriate. I mean given the circumstances I don’t think it’s right, having him read,” Rebecca was saying.
Carl had practically grown up with his cousin Billy, they were like brothers.
“Well, you know. I mean it’s not like he supports Christian marriage, with his lifestyle,” Rebecca said.
Carl wasn’t sure if he was hearing correctly. He hadn’t been paying full attention before so he was trying to get his head around what his fiancée was saying.
Rebecca pushed one side of her hair back over her shoulder. “I was actually wondering… I mean the guest list is getting so long, and it’s important to both of us that all our friends from church are able to attend. And immediate family, of course. I was thinking that maybe it would be best if your cousin… I mean maybe he wouldn’t even want to come?”
“You don’t want Billy at our wedding?”
“Oh no, I don’t mean to put it in those terms. It’s not that I don’t like him, of course, I mean he’s your cousin. But he lives some distance away, and maybe if we emphasised how it’s really a very strongly religious event for both of us…” Rebecca smiled, in a kind of questioning way, anticipating his agreement and approval.
She would get neither. Carl was stunned.
“You want me to uninvite my cousin Billy, because he’s gay?”
Rebecca gave a half smile. “I knew you’d understand. It’s not like he could really enjoy himself, is it? I mean there won’t be any… others like him there, will there?” She practically shuddered while saying the word “others”.
Carl wanted space. He wanted to be alone to process this.
“You think I can just call him and tell him he’s not welcome at my own wedding? I mean what would you even expect me to say?”
“I guess it’s awkward, with him being your cousin and all.”
The phone rang, to Carl’s huge relief. He thought had got his point across calmly, with Rebecca having capitulated. As if he could turn his own cousin away! Picking up the phone he heard Dan’s voice at the end of the line.
“Jenny’s gone to visit her family for a couple of days. One of her old high school friends just had a baby that she has to go and see, you know what it’s like with women and babies,” Dan joked. Carl didn’t yet, but he could imagine. “So if you want to come around for a movie and beers later, we can do a guys’ night.”
It was the escape he needed. “That was Dan,” he said, returning to the living room where Rebecca was making marks against the guest list. “I forgot that he asked me over tonight.”
“Oh.” Rebecca looked a little disappointed. She and Carl hadn’t had concrete plans but they would probably have ended up having dinner together.
Carl was still wondering if he had understood their previous conversation properly. He felt deeply disturbed about everything.
Drinks. A couch. A mindless action move.
A doctor couldn’t have provided a better tonic for the way Carl was feeling right now.
Dan, who was perceptive, could tell something was up. Carl saw the question in his eyes but his friend didn’t push it.
Ninety minutes of car chases, people dangling from helicopters and some kind of jewel heist later, he was finally starting to feel normal again. It wasn’t his favourite kind of film but it was what he needed right now.
“So,” Dan began, flicking Carl a sidelong glance, “all good with the wedding progress?”
“There’s more involved than I thought,” Carl said.
Dan laughed and handed him another drink. “Tell me about it. I thought it would never end. But I guess this stuff is important to them, so I just let Jenny do her thing.”
It had been a wise move, Carl thought, as Dan’s and Jenny’s wedding had been good fun. Dignified where it mattered, and relaxed and enjoyable for the rest of it.
He was silent, thinking about his own situation.
Dan wasn’t going to ask him outright what was wrong. “You must be nearly done with the marriage classes. Jenny and I were pretty over them by the end of it all.”
“How do you mean?”
Dan shrugged. “It’s all a bit overdone, isn’t it? They mean well, but constantly being reminded to save it for the day… well it just increases the pressure, doesn’t it?”
Carl frowned. “Did you find that aspect difficult?”
“What do you reckon?! One night we nearly threw it all in and went to Vegas. Jenny was even more up for it than I was.”
Vegas. Carl thought of Rebecca’s very different reaction to his own joking suggestion.
“What made you stay?” he asked Dan.
“All the money we’d spent. Angry relatives. Mainly the fact that Jenny really wanted to wear the dress, and it was still being fixed up at the bridal shop.” Dan took a swig of his drink. “If we’d had it with us, we might well have eloped. The pressure was pretty full on by then, as you can imagine.” He gave a wicked grin, assuming Carl was experiencing the same.
Once again Carl was silent. He didn’t usually talk about stuff this personal with his friends. Or even his pastor.
“It hasn’t really been an issue,” he said.
“You mean you’re both too well disciplined?”
“I guess. Something like that, maybe.” He couldn’t hide his troubled expression.
Now Dan looked puzzled and concerned. “What’s up?”
So many things. The fact that Carl was constantly aroused by another girl and couldn’t stop thinking about her. The fact that he felt no physical attraction towards the woman he was about to commit his entire life to. The fact that after tonight, he wasn’t even sure whether he knew her properly. Did they even share the same values?
“Doubts are pretty normal,” Dan said, to try to reassure him. “It’s about reinforcing to yourself that you’re doing the right thing.”
“Did you have them?” Carl asked.
“You’ve met Jenny’s mother, right? What do you reckon?” Jenny’s mother was something of a battle-axe. Dan set the can down. “I shouldn’t say that, she’s got a good heart, Barbara. But yeah, I mean everyone has doubts. Or not so much doubts, but ‘what ifs’. At the end of the day you’re opening more doors than you’re closing. Or one much better door, perhaps. Think of it that way.”
Inside the confessional it smelt of wood polish and the dust of ages. The faint smell of incense lingered in the air. It was a very different atmosphere to the modern cheer of Carl’s own church, but he had come here because he couldn’t think what else to do.
He needed to confess. To seek guidance.
But he couldn’t face telling his own pastor.
As he knelt on the hard cushion inside the confessional booth, there was a sliding sound as the shutter drew across. It left only a lattice between Carl and the unseen priest.
Carl waited. He had some idea that he or the priest was supposed to say something, but he wasn’t sure what.
Eventually the priest spoke. “Do you wish to confess, my son?”
The first thing Carl needed to confess was that he wasn’t a Catholic. “This isn’t actually my church, Father. I’m not really sure how to proceed.”
The priest’s voice was warm. “The house of the Lord is open to all. Why don’t you start by telling me what is troubling you?”
Where to begin? “I’m supposed to be getting married, Father…” He trailed off, unsure how to continue. “But I’m having doubts.”
“It is not unusual to feel uncertainty at such a time.”
Carl wondered what the priest looked like. He sounded patient and wise. “It’s more than just uncertainty. I can’t stop thinking about someone else. I don’t know what to do.”
“Have these remained merely thoughts, my son?” the priest asked.
You couldn’t lie in a confessional. Of all the places in the world, this was the last place you could lie. “Not quite. But nothing much, nothing…” Carl spoke quickly, wondering what the relevant transgression was called by Catholics. A kiss that he hadn’t done enough to prevent. “Nothing mortal.”
“Can you put distance between yourself and this other person?”
“No, she’s…” he stopped himself from saying “one of my students” as it sounded so appalling. “She’s at my place of work.”
“Then you must do your best to put what distance you can there.”
Carl already knew this, though it was painful to think of having to avoid Juliet. “Yes, Father.”
“With this person removed from your thoughts, would your doubts be gone?”
This was the crux of it. This was the thing that Carl was trying to establish. Sitting there in the dark and calm, infused with the ancient odour of church, the holy serenity of it all, Carl finally got the clarity he sought.
“No, Father.” He and Rebecca were just too different. Their values were too different. He realised that now.
“Perhaps time and distance from both these women will help you find the correct path,” the priest said.
When Carl walked back outside from the dark stillness of the church, into the bright wintry sunlight, he felt as though a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He had been stressed that his attraction towards Juliet and growing feelings for her were interfering with his affection for Rebecca.
Now he realised that regardless of Juliet, he and Rebecca were simply wrong together. He didn’t have the appropriate emotional or physical feelings towards her. Despite his revulsion at her attitude towards his cousin, he was reluctant to hurt her more than necessary.