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Ash Wednesday


by Gary Percesepe


Last year I accompanied a woman

to the church where she was christened as a baby.

The church was named for Saint Jude,

 

patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes

though she was neither, I decided. I agreed to

take her to church that Ash Wednesday.

 

It was snowing. It was Buffalo. These things now seem

synonymous to me. The next week we'd be caught

in a blizzard. We'd drive my Jeep into the storm,

 

looking for a store that she was sure existed, someplace.

A store with an Italian deli, where we could get ingredients

for meatballs and stand at the stove, cooking. We'd make snow

 

angels in the front yard. Dark eyelashes melted the blinding flakes.

She was a Sicilian furnace. While our clothing spun in the dryer,

I slid into her from behind, naked, surprising her. Oh! she said.

 

She backed into me, moaning. The meatballs sizzled in the pan.

We may have been in love. Who really knows? We were hungry.

She was thirsty. On that there seems to be agreement.

 

But Ash Wednesday, I was saying. To get back to that.

March 5th. One week before the blizzard of two. As we walked

 in from the parking lot, she told me that she had also

 

been married in this church. I thought of my own ex,

who was God knows where, and suddenly imagined us

accompanied by two people we'd once loved, two sets

 

 of vows we'd taken, broken, failed to live into, she & I,

vows to people who once meant everything to us. We had children

with these people, two for her, two for me. Her children

 

would be confirmed in this same church. Saint Jude.

The poor dope. Did he know we were coming? Did he care

about these two shivering souls sliding in from the parking lot?

 

But then she hooked her arm in mine and leaned her head

into my chest as we made the long walk. Fear fled, that

quickly, in the time it takes for a woman to grab hold

 

of you and match your strides, pull you close, let you feel her

heat, her simple honest heart. In church, she held my hand the

entire time. Oh those Catholic girls! How I'd wanted them,

 

poor Protestant boy. She held my hand in church, and then she

leaned over and kissed me. Then kissed me again. In the church

where she had heard the priest give instructions to her new husband,

 

where she stood in her wedding finery, and heard those words,

“you may kiss the bride,” she was now kissing me. And holding my hand.

She would not let go. We walked forward for the imposition of ashes.

 

Later, she'd place her blackened brow to mine and stare into my eyes.

We ordered Chinese, and watched American Horror on Netflix. Lying on

her sofa, I placed my hands inside her shirt, found her soft nipples.

 

Today, I wonder how she is doing. We live in different cities now.

We've moved on to other lovers, found someone else to listen

 to our stories. There is someone else to take her urgent texts now,

 

someone else to go to her on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and

alternate weekends. There are women in my life that I care for, deeply.

It has always been this way. It was like this when we met. Women, always.

 

But I think about her, sure. I won't lie. We may have been in love. Who knows?

We may have been in a relationship. Last year, at this time.

Ash Wednesday. Stranger things have happened than a man

 

thinking about a woman he once knew, wondering what he was

doing with her. Oh, I don't mean literally “what events transpired

on the evening in question?”  No, I mean, what in the

hell were we doing together? How does the beauty of that night in church 

 

fit with the emptiness I feel for her, now? Where did all those feelings go,

where have they fled, is there a box somewhere in the universe for tears shed

for the wrong person, for words of love spoken that were never intended, for

 

abandoned sentences and useless texts? Why were we together?

Why us? How did we find each other? “You were persistent,” she said.

Was I? I don't remember. We were damaged goods on the long shelf.

 

We hurt inside. In the end, we hurt each other. We failed at love, again.

Yet when we had held each other, as we often did, my arms around her waist,

her arms resting lightly on my shoulders, the pain receded. We were often in

 

this position, holding each other. In the kitchen. By the dishwasher.

Near the stove. In her bed. In a restaurant, or parking lot. I never held

anyone the way I held that woman. In my arms, back in my arms again,

 

all I wanted. It soothed something in me. We felt the same things,

two birds on a cold wire one Buffalo winter, huddled for warmth.

Our animal heat. I don't know if I loved her. I'm sorry to say that. Maybe

 

 

nobody knows anything, in love. I held her every day, held on

for life. Life, itself. I only felt OK when I was holding her. She felt

solid to me, and safe. In the end, she was neither. And I wound up holding

 

on to myself. But when she kissed me that first time in December, at her door,

and again in her kitchen, and again one last time—three times!—on the last

night, even though by then she was seeing another man, she landed a trinity

 

of kisses on my lips to match the blessing I'd traced on her forehead, in the name  

of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost—she was blind drunk. I awakened.

To ashes. To the realization that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

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