I was in the tenth grade when the new priest arrived at St. Vincent’s. Father Pepe, from Padua. When asked what he was doing at St. Vincent’s, he would reply, “Missionary work,” and get a laugh. Everyone loved Father Pepe. He had black curly hair, a ready smile, and deep eyes that I was afraid to look into.
He taught Spanish and art and coached the junior varsity basketball team. I wanted to be one of the boys shepherded around the court. My fantasies weren’t so much about playing (I was terrible) but about the showers, beautiful Father Pepe in the steam. To this day that fantasy has a charge.
One day he noticed me in the bleachers watching. He came over to me and put his arm over my shoulders. He touched everyone, he was Italian, but for me his touch was personal and laden with meaning. He said I should try out for the team. I’m not a good shooter, I said. Shooting is not the only important thing, he said. There’s passing and dribbling. You can learn. It just takes practice.
I might have gone out for the team and proved him wrong if not for art class. He taught that too. And I was good at it.
You are a painter, you have a gift, he said to me. His words were like inscriptions carved on the lintels of temples. He opened up a different life for me.
He was thirty-two, exactly twice my age.
Here’s the typical narrative: the powerful, unscrupulous older man preys upon the youngster but that’s not what happened, certainly not the core of what happened.
One night he gave me a ride home and we were parked in front of my house, the engine off. It was winter, maybe January, very cold outside. A light flickered on the drapes of the living room. My parents were inside, engrossed by television. He was so close. (“The near occasion of sin,” I believe is a catechism phrase.) In the warm interior of the car the pressure grew to a degree it was either do something or explode. I put my cheek against his shoulder. He put a hand on my neck. Each incremental movement became a frontier, the border between before and after. I was sure I knew what was happening and I had no idea whatsoever. He wasn’t encouraging, he wasn’t discouraging. I proceeded.
How old thirty-two was then, how young now. I say this as if that’s some kind of surprise. It isn’t.
We traveled together up and down the East Coast. In each city we visited the museum to look at paintings. For me it was a period of absolute enchantment; for him I don’t know, perhaps a period of anxiety. He understood better than I the possible repercussions. I took his willingness to undergo the risks as proof of his love and I resolved to be worthy of it.
My parents must have known something was afoot when I told them Father Pepe had invited me to go with him to Italy. I portrayed it was an art tour, not a wise strategy since they still thought of me as a would-be lawyer. It was a homecoming for Father Pepe, a chance for him to say goodbye to his beloved Nana. Also we would be in Padua for the famous festival of St. Anthony, the saint of lost things. That year there was some special jubilee.
They gave their permission. It was a different era.
I would have gone without it.
Giuseppe—he asked me to call him that—and I spent time in Como and Siena before arriving in Padua a few days before the big feast. The family house, I was surprised to find, was a hillside villa with six or seven bedrooms and a pool surrounded by a large garden. Giuseppe and I had bedrooms on separate floors. A period of celibacy began. There were no cues given about how and when it would end. Talking to his mother he called me il studente. It confounded me he could be much more open within my family than his. Looking back, of course, it makes sense. Still, he might have helped me understand. I blame him for that.
We joined the throng of pilgrims processing past the golden reliquary encasing the tongue and jawbone of the saint whose oratory persuaded the fishes to poke their heads out of the sea to listen. That so many people believed this goofiness amazed me. I didn’t say that. I got the impression that it meant something to Giuseppe. It was another side of him I had not been seen in Maryland.
I swam every afternoon and lay in the sun. Sometimes, not often, Giiuseppe would join me. Invisible but potent prohibitions defined our behavior. He didn’t touch me, not even casually.
Nana’s condition in a bedroom upstairs controlled the weather in the house. Twice Giuseppe administered last rites. She refused to die. After being in a coma for three days she sat up and demanded a glass of prosecco.
She was going to live to see her 95th birthday and a party was planned.
Relatives descended, including a seldom-mentioned younger brother from Bologna. A professional soccer-playing, dazzling younger brother. Enrico. Riri, with two girlfriends in tow. I trailed around after him, trying to get his attention away from them. It was hopeless but I couldn’t stop myself.
Nana’s party in the jasmine-scented garden with music and laughter should have been a high point of my life but I drank too much wine and got very mawkish. I was convinced that Enrico danced in his swim trunks primarily to torment me.
I had just vomited on the yew hedge when Giuseppe found me. Out of a need to confess and partly in revenge, I told him I was in love with his brother. He ushered me back to my room and put me to bed and disappeared. The next day in the late morning when I came to life he was nowhere in the house. All day it poured a cold rain and he didn’t return.
The following morning the rain had stopped. I had enough money for a one-way train ticket to Bologna. That was as far as my plan went. One of my qualities I’m most grateful for is I seldom look far ahead to see what might go wrong. Without that quality I would not have had much of a life.
I expected Bologna to be about the size of Siena and presumed it would be easy to find the stadium where the professionals play. I didn’t consider there might not be a game, they might be out of town, etc. My Italian was so patchy that between mangled questions and semi-intelligible answers, it was a small miracle I found the stadium. There was a game. I bought a ticket and joined the crowd siphoning in. By then I was less obsessed with finding Riri than being with a group doing something together. I was lonesome.
My seat was near the rim of the stadium. The players were the size of ants. I thought I recognized Riri in a striped green and white jersey but as play started I understood blue and red were the Bologna colors. The rossoblu were winning; ecstatic cheering flooded the stadium. There were two, maybe three candidates among the rossoblu who might be Riri.
After the game I descended to the field and found him in a halo of fans. When I caught his eye he looked perplexed trying to place me but once he did, he seemed to accept my being there as normal. He invited me to join him and his mates for a victory celebration.
The party in a nearby taverna was boisterous. Having learned my lesson I was a little more careful about how much I drank. Riri and his crew had no such inhibitions, and it was nearer dawn than midnight when the party straggled out. I had told Riri I was booked in a hostel near the train station. Now I regretted the lie, thinking that he might otherwise invite me to his house.
Then, as if a wizard had waved a wand, I was alone on the cobblestone streets. A cat darted from shadow to shadow, hunting rats, perhaps. I came upon a fenced garden. I climbed over the metal gate and lay down under some weeping trees. It was muddy, and the wetness came through my jacket. I was too sober to pass out and too cold.
I begged in the train station for the fare back to Padua. I looked like a muddy bum. People shied away. I finally snuck on board and hid in the bathroom most of the ride back.
Giuseppe greeted me with the ardor of a father welcoming back a prodigal son. He sent my muddy clothes out to be washed. He took me to his bedroom. He held me, and forgave me.
Nana had slipped back into a coma. She was still alive when we flew back to New York.
The one who forgives is a stranger to the forgiven. He went upstate to a monastery for a retreat and I went back to my parents’ house in Baltimore.
By school term Father Pepe was back at St. Vincent’s coaching basketball and teaching art class again. I avoided him. I rationalized it was for his sake and at his wishes, but I didn’t know what his wishes were. I only knew something had changed for which there was no undoing.
I won’t make any judgments about that sixteen year old. The young have illusions about the old; an old man has illusions about the young man he was. I will let him be, let him remain lost, as he appears to be.
I am a painter. I have been a painter since those days. I have not gotten wealthy but I have made a life. My partner supports my work. We have been together for over thirty years.
Every second year we travel to Italy to attend the Biennale. Though Padua is close to Venice, last year I revisited it for the first time. I had learned that Father Pepe was diagnosed with leukemia and that he had retired to an abbey near the university. I have kept track of his life.
The garden of the abbey was overgrown. The fountain in the courtyard sprouting seedy weeds. I was trembling when I entered his room in the infirmary.
I would not have recognized him. His face, round and congenial in memory, was gaunt. He looked like a bird of prey. His eyes had not changed, still dark with a deep gaze. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me.
I asked if he’d like to take a walk. He said he didn’t have the stamina, so I offered to push him in a wheelchair. The chance to get outside the walls of the melancholy abbey pleased him as much as it did me.
We did not get far. I was afraid he was going to pitch out of the chair when we jolted across the cobblestone streets. Soon we were back in his room. We had run out of things to say so he took the pictures off the shelf under the window and bragged about his nieces and nephews. One picture showed a balding guy with a gut, his arms draped over a boy and girl, perhaps grandchildren. Who is he? I asked.
My brother Enrico, Giuseppe said. The one you loved.
My impulse was to protest, no, it was you. But it’s not easy to lie to a dying man, one who is making a joke at your expense.