Annis Cassells is a writer, poet, teacher, and life coach. A writer of memoirs and "poemoirs”, she re-visualizes the past but looks forward to the future and its infinite possibilities. She teaches a memoir writing class, Legacy in Life Stories, for senior adults who are writing their life stories for their families. Annis is a member of Writers of Kern, a branch of the California Writers Club. Read her blog at www.thedaymaker.blogspot.com.
THE BLESSING by Annis Cassells
“See that design painted above the stained glass windows?” I whispered, gesturing with my head. I winced at the carpet fibers pressing into my knees. I buttoned my blouse and straightened my skirt. “It’s from the Aztecs. The early padres knew they needed to incorporate the Indians’ art and symbols. To bind them to the church.”
Benoit, dear boy, turned his youthful, clean-shaven face and squinted upward in the direction I’d nodded. He fastened his silver belt buckle. I continued, “The windows are new, a remodel done a few years ago.” Struggling to regain my composure, I brushed imagined lint off my sleeves with a flick of my wrists. Then I threaded an arm through the braided leather handles of my red straw purse.
It was not my habit to become intimate with clients, especially those half my age. But meeting this young man the day before awakened feelings I thought long dead. After my husband walked out five years ago. The contrast of Benoit’s sensitive deep-blue eyes shining out of that rich butterscotch face stopped my breath the first time I laid eyes on him. It still makes me pause. I have to admit to flirting with him. Just a little.
A 22-year-old French-Canadian, Benoit was enrolled in a photojournalism summer workshop at la Universidad de Emilio Carlos. He chose my name from a list of professional guides and hired me for a two-day excursion. It was my job to take him to a series of area churches for photos and historical background. Our final destination, la Parroquia, a neighborhood parish in the colonial village of San Martín, was the most impressive.
Benoit was curious, asking numerous questions, and showed a genuine interest in the same things I admired about my culture. I loved that. Besides, his soulful gaze stirred me, made me feel understood.
We’d surveyed the front of the church, me reciting its history, both of us inspecting and admiring each artifact and icon. When our bodies brushed against each other, I couldn’t ignore the electricity between us. Benoit leaned into me, his voice low, “Sonia,” he whispered, instead of addressing me with his usual “Senora.” Both of us hesitated, allowed our bodies to linger.
After a sweeping glance around the empty church, I grasped his hand. “Come. Rapido.” Eyes still searching, I guided him up the single gold-carpeted step and past the rail. Soon we were entwined on the plush flooring behind the eight-foot-long cement base of the marble-topped altar. It was a miracle we could remain silent.
Afterward, all was quiet in the church as we prepared ourselves to return to conventional guide-client behavior. Benoit stood first, extending his hand to help me up. “Allow me.” Like one would to an aunt or an older cousin I thought, sucking in my breath but opting to reach up to him. Another chance to feel the current when our skin touches.
I watched, admiring his economy of movement. He scooped up his camera, eased its strap over his head and around his neck, and picked up his black leather equipment bag, graceful as a dancer. He slung the bag over his left shoulder. Holding hands, we turned around to face the pews.
Two boys, maybe ten years old, knelt in the second row. They wore their school uniforms, black pants, white shirts, and black-watch plaid vests. When they noticed us, they both clapped their hands over their mouths, but their giggles still escaped. Grabbing their backpacks, they bolted upward and ran, laughing as they careened through the side door. My face flushed. I imagined what they might have seen or heard and shivered, trying to shake the image.
Benoit stifled a grin as we continued exploring, strolling among the statues that lined the church walls. He took time and care while he framed and shot dozens of photos. Intent, he would ask, “And this is which saint?” or “What is the significance of that?” as he aimed his camera. Then he would listen as I explained and write a word or two on his small unlined notepad. When our heads bent together over an artifact, I would inhale his unmistakable scent and almost lose focus.
The church bells boomed again, with no discernible pattern for the number and frequency of sonorous gongs. We ambled toward the main entrance, me wondering what would happen once we were outside, our contract finished. After our tryst behind the altar, my heart pulsated in a combination of hope and fear. Would it be a business-like handshake and awkward parting on la Parroquia’s worn cement steps? A quick embrace? Or more? I was just beginning to feel again. I wanted more.
Before we reached the high wooden, center door, a commanding voice called out. “Wait! Wait, my children!” We turned around to see an old priest hurrying toward us. As he hustled along, he nodded to the few parishioners who had entered and scattered themselves throughout the pews while Benoit and I were completing our tour.
Standing before us a bit winded, the slender, slightly-stooped man said in a softer voice, “I am Father Eduardo. Blessings upon you for the generous gifts you are about to share with our poor church.”
Benoit and I caught each others’ eyes. I saw a surprised expression on his face and then a frown as he dropped his gaze. Oh, damn! I thought. Did this priest know we were behind the altar? “I - I’m not sure what you mean, Father,” I said.
Father Eduardo turned and pointed, it appeared, at the polished wooden column that stood near the altar. What’s this about? I wondered, following the column’s ascension. When I spotted the surveillance camera mounted about ten feet up, my heart froze. I saw Benoit’s face twist into a pained expression, his blue eyes squeezed shut. “No. No,” he mumbled, shaking his head.
My face and neck flamed. How could I have been such an idiot? How could I have let this happen?
I fished for my wallet in the straw handbag, hoping cash would satisfy the priest and relieve my feelings of embarrassment and guilt. Father Eduardo raised both hands, palms out, as I offered the money. “It’s for the church. Put it in the donation box. Please.” He nodded toward an ornate marble stand that held a locked acrylic box. I deposited the money and turned back to face him. “And may God bless you,” he said. Then eyeing Benoit, “Both of you.”
Benoit emerged from his trance. He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of pesos. Not bothering to count it, he stuffed the wad through the slot in the lid.
In a strained voice, nearly unrecognizable to me, I confronted the priest “Well, I’m shocked that you would run a video camera inside the church, Father.” I stretched my hand out toward the offensive thing. “It’s an intrusion on parishioners’ privacy. The church is supposed to be a sanctuary.”
“Video camera?” He interrupted, then looked backward, over his shoulder. “Oh, that. It doesn’t come on until el diez de la noche, ten o’clock at night. We installed it last month after vandals had struck us several times -- at night.” He faced us again, “Truth is, half the time we forget to start it.”
Benoit’s head jerked. His eyes narrowed, and he stared at the priest. “So you weren’t watching us? Why, then, did you point us to the camera?”
“Oh, I didn’t. I only meant to direct you to the poster about our Feed the Poor program. I was sure if you knew about it you’d want to help,” the old priest said, his eyes unreadable.
Then I focused on the large sign that stood on the table in front of the column. And there it was: “Alimentar a los Pobres de San Martín.” I chastised myself. So stupid! How could I have missed that?
The corners of Father Eduardo’s lips edged upward. His weathered face became serene, almost angelic. “Good day, my children. God’s blessings upon you,” he said, tucking his smooth hands into his cassock sleeves. Then backing away, he made a half bow. “Bless you.”