I’m studying at the local cafe, and it’s quiet this evening. Around six I heard Robert in the kitchen, rattling the pots and pans as he cleaned the dirty mugs left over from last night. A little while later, his girlfriend Natalie arrived. When I walked into the main room a few minutes later, they were sitting on the couch, she with her Organic Chemistry book open in her lap, he beside her, leaning back from his computer game, “I just got killed again!”
Earlier this evening, I heard their voices walking down the hall, “Oh, It’s just Celia!” Natalie says from around the corner.
“What do you mean, just Celia?!” I exclaim.
Then an old man in military gear rounds the corner, with Natalie behind him.
“This will do,” he says, and waves her off.
I’m seated at a darkwood laminate desk, typing excerpts from a library book onto my laptop. I look up as he walked toward me. “I just want to set this straight,” he tells me, “this is something I’ve been meaning to do … for a long time.” He’s very intent, pushing his voice forward and jerky with his movements. He smells like stale cigarettes with a side of stale sweat.
He goes to pull something out of his pocket and I freeze, is it a gun? He’s wearing some sort of beige jumpsuit, with a muddy blue hat and yellow boots, shuddery in his movements. He rustles around in his pocket — then pulls out a tri-fold cloth wallet, in forest camo colors.
I’m feeling excited, maybe I’ll get money, I think, and then I realize he thinks I work for the church next door. People get confused about this a lot. We’re in a Student Center, but shaggy-haired ladies walk in looking for the AA meeting, aunts looking for the daycare across the parking lot. .
And when he pulls open the velcro and starts messing around in the card section, I realize I won’t be getting any money. He pulls out a few identity cards, and tosses his drivers license on my desk. It lands right by my sunglasses and schoolbooks, my comb and earrings.
“I need to switch over my membership,” he says tensely, “I was at Trinity in Houston but I’m here now and I’m ready to make a commitment.” He’s talking in circles, like it’s life and death, and how he’s going on retired reserve, maybe leaving the country, going to a different city. He wants me to do something but I’m not sure what. He doesn’t know that I’m not church staff.
“Okay,” I say, “I hear you.” Years of female service work fall into place here. “Why don’t we walk over to the main building and see if there’s anyone there.”
I lead him out of the student center and around the corner to the main building. As we’re walking I ask his name but it comes out abruptly and he stares at me. He hands me his military ID card and watches me closely as we walk. I’m a few steps ahead and I can feel it.
“Let me ask you something,” he bursts out. I keep walking and nod. “What do you think about this parish? What’s the atmosphere like?”
“I’m mostly just around the students,” I apologize. I don’t say that I’ve never actually gone to the main service here. I come for the cookies and the coffee, the Episcopal students bantering and banging songs out on the piano, blasting music from their Ipods over the cafe speakers and studying in silence late at night, fixing spaghetti together and cramming for their exams.
He’s still at the edge of my vision, pulling at my attention. “What about the conflict–” he asks, “I’m sure you know about the division…”
He means homosexuality, I realize. That challenging issue that divides churches: go with 4000 years of thoughtful and heartfelt cultural tradition, or with the thoughtful and heartfelt cultural beliefs and human values of today?
I have no idea how this church feels on it. “I know,” I say, “I’ve heard about it.” I’m trying to sound sympathetic.
When I pull the door to the parish offices, it’s locked. After hours. Through the windows of a nearby building, boy scouts stand in front of folding chairs, clustered around their leader for the pledge. Beside me, the old man stands all in beige from the neck down to his yellowish boots.
“Just Boy Scouts,” I offer. “Perhaps you could check back tomorrow?”
He stops and looks at me intently, his eyes the same blue-green as his hat, cloudy and even. “Well, you’ll relay the message for me,” he tells me, “And what was the name of my church in Houston?”
I’m pissed at this. He’s testing me, I can feel it, like all sorts of customers and incidental old men do, sure that they’re the boss in a situation that’s not theirs. He sees me like some negligent secretary — he wants to check that I’m diligent, that I’m attentive to his every need.
“Trinity,” I mutter.
“Bingo!” He’s grinning at me. “Just tell them that I want to get my membership switched over, I’ve just slid away from the Houston church…” He’s rambling again, but implying that something is wrong with that church. Probably gay people.
“I’ll try to let someone know,” I say. He stares at me for a moment, nods and heads for his car… and I go back to the oh-so-clearly marked student center.