by Jane Lebak
Valentine's Day funerals always seemed wrong, particularly when Father Joe found himself faced with a widow who would rather be giving chocolates than receiving condolences.
As he administered the eucharist to the congregation, one particular woman caught his eye--or his ear, rather, as she said "Amen" to his "The Body of Christ." His pinpoint vision had trouble focusing on her before she moved away, but he thought she'd lingered just a moment.
After the mourners had dispersed, Mrs. D came into the cafeteria to prep for the St. Gus bread line. Joe got to work making salad, and Mrs. D asked how many chocolates he'd received already today. Joe gestured toward a corner of the kitchen with the chef's knife: a huge pile.
"They know I'm going to give it away."
"They want to make sure you know what you mean to them."
Joe grinned. "When I was a kid, I always hoped I'd mean five dollars to someone!"
Fr. Joe's boundless worth put a piece of chocolate on every plate the soup kitchen served that afternoon. A few of the poorer congregants gave Joe smaller bits of chocolate as well: a handful of N&Ns wrapped in a tissue or a few pre-wrapped ChocoDots. Joe's pockets bulged with the take before lunch ended.
Afterward, he sat alone at one of the long cafeteria tables with a coffee while four volunteers cleaned up.
"Is this seat taken?"
The words knifed through him. "I thought I recognized your voice. Join me, if you can elbow away the crowds."
"I wasn't sure if I could speak to you."
"It's a vow of chastity, not a vow of non-contact." He had finally gotten his pinpoint vision to focus on his visitor's face. "How've you been, Satsuki?"
"Better than you, by the look of things."
"I'm told I look good in black."
"You do." Satsuki swallowed. "I never knew what became of you. I don't want to cause any problems, Joe--Father Joe... Should I go away?"
"I think you should get a cup of coffee and quit treating me like a relic." Joe looked around. "I'm hearing clattering in the kitchen still, so I assume Mrs. D is still in there. If you want, I can ask her to chaperon our meeting." He tried to smile, but it emerged wistful.
A minute later, Satsuki returned. "The coffee's pretty good."
"One of our parishioners owns a supermarket. He found out I like coffee." Joe focused on Satsuki's face, feeling like an old man revisiting a childhood neighborhood. There were lines where there shouldn't have been and a missing ponytail. "I suppose it's obvious what I've been up to, so tell me about your life."
"Gee." She studied Joe for a while. "You may be upset, but I've got a five-year-old daughter I'm raising on my own. Her name is Corinne. It's been really tough, but I can't imagine life without her. Her father was stationed at the air base before he moved on."
"As if I'd be disappointed at you for loving and raising your baby? Forget the collar, Satsuki. I'm still me."
She chuckled. "It's a little daunting. After the funeral, I asked around, and they said you used to be with Gatchaman. I guess now I know why you stood me up four times." She was shaking her head. "I'd have kept it secret for you."
"I told you everything I was allowed to tell." Joe had his hands wrapped around the cup. "You're Catholic now?"
"I wanted Corinne to have a religion, and you have the best schools." She and Joe laughed together. "There's more to it than that, of course." She rested her forehead against her hands. "I don't know what else to tell you. I've got a good job finally--more luck than anything else. They told me you nearly died in the last battle against Gallactor. I'm so sorry. You look like they really tore you up."
"That's in the past." Joe's face relaxed a bit. "It's how I came to be here. Maybe you lucked into a great job, but God had to hit me with a two-by-four to get me one."
"He hit you pretty hard, then."
"What parish are you with?"
"Father Murasaki. He's a good man."
For a minute, Satsuki didn't say anything. Then she looked up slowly. "Maybe I shouldn't have come and talk to you again." Her eyes traveled the entire perimeter of the parish hall. "You're happy as a priest?"
"Absolutely. And I assume you're happy as a mother."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but are you ever--do you ever feel sad about the way things turned out?" Satsuki didn't meet his eyes. "I hadn't thought about you at all for nearly a decade until I saw you at the funeral this morning. But now I'm wondering. All those decisions back then, when we were so young--"
Joe let her trail off. Finally she said, "We put so much energy into something that didn't work out. Do you regret it?"
"Not really. I look at it this way." Joe took a breath. "All those things changed me: the war, my parents' deaths, you. I'd be worthless in this job without all that."
She nodded. "Mom tells me that too. She says I'm 'taking the scenic route.'"
Joe laughed. "Your mom had a way with words."
"She didn't hesitate to use them on you, either."
"She was right about me." Joe smiled. "How's she been lately?"
There was a long silence. Finally Satsuki swallowed. "It's awful. For a while you were my whole world, and now I can't even think of what to say to you."
Joe put his hand on hers. "I'm not a fast talker myself. It's okay to just let it be. I'm sorry I've caused you this much pain."
"It's like you said--it was so long ago. We wouldn't be us without that." She shrugged. "I don't know. I've got to go pick up Corinne from school in half an hour anyhow. I should get going."
As she picked up her coat, Joe fished out a handful of the chocolates. "Here. Tell her to take good care of her mom."
She took them, then watched Joe for a moment. "I guess the thing is, I'm glad you're happy. I never wanted you to be unhappy. But I never imagined you'd be happy this way, without anyone."
"I've gotten about seventy pounds of chocolate today."
"But just giri-chocolate, no true-love honmei chocolate. I never pictured that for you."
In a low voice, Joe said, "You mean, you never pictured that for yourself."
Satsuki put her hands in her coat pockets. "You're good at this, aren't you?" A few steps away from him, she paused. "Thanks for the coffee."
Joe got up from the table. "Satsuki, if things had worked out, I wouldn't be who I am now. If they'd worked out, you wouldn't have Corinne. Those are both good things. We can't have it all. Maybe this was the only way we could each have both, time together, and now our separate vocations: me as a priest and you as your little girl's mother."
She buttoned her coat and walked away. Joe went back to his seat, but as she left, he thought he heard her say, "Happy Valentine's Day." She'd left a small gift box on the table. He changed course for the kitchen and let the cleanup crew find whatever kind of chocolate it was and put it in the stack with the others.