Empty tables and chairs greeted us when we entered Gigi’s Place. The neon sign hanging by the glass window wasn’t even on. It was almost four in the afternoon. Happy hour wasn’t until five when day students from a community college a few blocks from the watering hole were off from their classes. The place was dimly lit, with dark curtains draping most of the windows. The afternoon sunlight streamed through curtain slits, ready to shine upon those who would be hiding from the glare of scrutiny and suspicion. The bar tender was getting ready for the expected outpouring of customers, who would be seeking to quench their thirst. A curtain made of sea shells strung together hang from a door jam into the bar’s kitchen. Whenever someone went through the curtain the shells made hollow sound resembling that of falling rain, announcing the arrival or disappearance of whoever passed through its cascading streams.
Tyron quickly grabbed an ash tray from the bar and lit a cigarette. Smoke billowed above his gaunt-looking, moustached face as he blew the first few drags. He settled on a rattan chair and motioned that I do the same. Wordless questions emanated from my face such as why were we at Gigi’s Place, but I was already there, inside a dark, forbidden place.
“We’re not open yet,” a voluptuous waitress, wearing a body hugging top that revealed her healthy breasts approached our table.
“We’re just here for a couple of beers,” Tyron told her. “What’s your name?” he asked.
The waitress told Tyron her name, which escaped me because I was busy nurturing the growing guilt in my conscience.
“I can give you beers, but the kitchen is still closed,” she said and left to get a couple of bottles of San Miguel.
“Hey! Would you quit being a party pooper,” he castigated me. “They would discover we’re here because of your silly scrupulosity.”
It was difficult to relax when one knew he shouldn’t be seen in such a place. There was a certain image that we, would-be priests, must maintain and protect. Going to a bar on a school day, in the middle of an afternoon wasn’t exactly what the public expected of us. We were supposed to be the paramount of holiness and sacred actions and there I was, waiting for my beer in a dive that no self-respecting seminarian must be caught sitting in, worse imbibing an inebriating beverage. I wouldn’t think that way now, but back then it wasn’t edifying according to the ecclesiastical standards the Catholic Church and the society have expected of us. It wasn’t right according to my self-imposed rules on public deportment. And as Tyron continued to light up one after another stick of cigarette, all I could think of was the smoke from the incense rising to the altar as we venerate the Body of Christ during the holy hour that would start at six o’clock.
The waitress came back with the cold bottles of beer. She bantered with Tyron. I just listened and watched Tyron’s hands touched the waitress inappropriately, which she didn’t stop. I didn’t really know how one should conduct himself in a bar. It was my first time and I came with the timidity of a child and not with the temerity of a normal nineteen-year-old man. It wasn’t normal for me to be in such a place, but I was there, witnessing and discovering something that I only heard from tacit conversations here and there until then.
As Tyron continued to flirt with the waitress, my friend Presindo, the Angel of Fear, sat next to me with a familiar smirk on his face. He came too late to rescue me. I was already fully involved albeit reluctantly, in some morally questionable activity. But then he never attempted before to salvage me from making decisions I would later regret. Why did I ever consider Presindo a friend? He was a shadowy character that only existed in my imagination, which meant I should be able to control him, but he was the one who had the power to subdue me. And that time he had me trembling as he reminded me what happened to the five seminarians who were not invested with the cassock and surplice when priests found out they went to a strip joint. Gigi’s Place wasn’t a strip joint, but it was a close cousin. My self-diffusing guilt and fear overflowed to the point that I rushed to the can, although I really didn’t need to relieve myself. I found myself leaning to the sink, staring at my image in the mirror. I had become infected by the common Catholic disease of hypocrisy: magnanimously talking about righteous acts and performing the wrong ones; listen-to-me-but-don’t-follow-my-actions kind of argument. Presindo followed me in the can, but instead of telling me to snap out of it, to get a grip, he fuelled my self-propelled guilt trip. I felt my face were burning so I doused the invisible blaze with water from the tap that looked like had not been cleaned for ages. There was nothing to dry my face, not a sheet of toilet paper. I took off my white shirt and dried my wet face. I put back the shirt on inside-out, hiding the seminary logo that earlier I had hoped would save me from Father Andrew’s suspicion. I didn’t want to be identified as someone from Mount St. Charles. That was the first time I succumbed to the perilous call of hiding my identity in public. I didn’t want to be identified as a would-be priest reclining with public sinners, like that waitress who made extra money by cavorting with customers willing to shell extra bucks. I wouldn’t call her a public sinner now, but back then that was how I thought of people like her. I didn’t know who she was, for all I know she had some kids she was trying to support by making a living and I had no business judging her.
I went back to our table ready to tell Tyron that we should go back to the seminary. He was alone in the table with a second bottle of beer. The waitress was busy helping the bar tender haul off ice. Half an hour more and the place would teem with customers. Tyron was splitting himself laughing when he saw me came out of the can with my shirt inside-out.
“What happened to you?” he asked laughing.
“There was nothing in the toilet I could use to dry my face,” I said.
“What’s going on with you? Why are you behaving like this?”
“I think we should go back,” I said.
“Not with your shirt inside-out,” he replied.
Tyron was having fun at my expense feeling guilty that we escaped in the middle of an afternoon to go to a bar and Presindo joined him. I wanted to rebuke both of them but I was too preoccupied feeling guilty.
“It’s about Brian, isn’t it?” Tyron asked.
“What’s about Brian?” I said. I have not spoken with Tyron about Brian. Why did he know about him? Why did he care?
“’Tol it’s quite obvious that you’re avoiding the guy. He’s a nice guy. If you’re not doing anything bad with him why do you care what the priests have to say?”
It was easy for Tyron to say that because he wasn’t in my position. He wasn’t the one suspected of any potential morally questionable behaviour. He wasn’t the one who would suffer the consequences. He wasn’t the one who could be sent packing. He wasn’t the one whose dream could end. He wasn’t the one who was warned to end a friendship that was exclusive it could threaten my ability to be celibate.
“I care because they told me to end my exclusive friendship with Brian,” I said.
“I didn’t know that,” said Tyron, who was a tad shocked.
“Nobody knew that. Brian didn’t know that. I was the only one who was told to keep my distance from him or anyone who I could potentially be linked romantically.” That didn’t sound right. The word romantically and being a seminarian left an aftertaste in my mouth that the last drops of beer couldn’t wash off.
“Are you in love with Brian?” he asked me point blank.
Was I in love with Brian? Was the feeling I had for him the same I had about Elmina when I was twelve years old, about Julie when I was in high school? Did I lose sleep over the fact that like with Elmina and Julie a potential relationship with Brian wasn’t feasible? Did I become temperamental about the nagging situation? Did it drive me mad to the point of becoming irritable and aloof living in my own sorry bubble?
Yes, in fact, all of those happened, but not because I was rejected by Brian, but because I was told I couldn’t nurture and express whatever romantic feeling I have for him. They told me to suppress what my heart was aching for and replace it with the love for the Lord if I were to become a priest. That was the only love I was allowed to feel because I was a would-be priest and I must sublimate all romantic feelings and desires a human being normally experiences. I must teach my heart to become hard like a rock and only beat for the Lord. I was doing all that and apparently losing in the process because my new friend Tyron who had never heard the name uttered by my lips just asked me if I were in love with Brian. All I could think of at that time was that it didn’t matter whom I was in love with, I had to be celibate. I had to be chaste.