the short story project



Story 12, 1989  The chair has no give. Straight-backed, it cuts into Moira’s spine, so she remains at the edge, at an awkward angle, no place to put her knees. Father Bertwin has settled into the leather chair on the opposite side of the desk, an impeccably uncluttered surface occupied only by a small metal pencil holder, the tape machine he’s brought in to record their conversation, and a drab green blotter that will certainly not be doodled on. The room smells faintly of bleach, as if the custodian wouldn’t dare risk missing what might lurk in the corners.

The office is boxy, the heavy curtains drawn. It has the feel of a confessional. Father Bertwin insisted Moira come here to review Ken’s petition for annulment, gave her an hour. She is done. Now she knows what the priest knows, and she wishes she could find a way to finish this without being obliged to look at him.

The Church has assigned Father Bertwin to be Moira’s advocate. It’s his job to make sure she understands the grounds for nullity and to protect the marriage bond, which the Church considers to be intact. Their divorce a year before and their two sons have no bearing.

She responded in writing to the tribunal as requested, a three-page, single-spaced hemorrhage of first this then that—none of which had ever been set down, not even for the divorce lawyer—making the case that her ex-husband’s request for annulment be denied. But no narrative could convey her longing to hear him say her name or what it felt like to become the anonymous being who walked from one room to another, tending his children, sharing silent meals, a creature who warranted no affection.

“You’ve completed your reading?” Father Bertwin says, sounding imperial, removed.

Moira nods. She’s still shaken, her breathing shallow. She wishes she hadn’t interfered. She could have let Ken’s petition go uncontested. Now she’s trapped in the labyrinth, forced to know the case Ken made against her. She feels lightheaded, barely able to sit up straight. She doesn’t understand why Father Bertwin wanted her to read this. Did he think she’d come upon something she didn’t already suspect? That hasn’t happened. But she’d been holding on to the possibility, now a delusion, that Ken was telling her the truth all these years, that he hadn’t slept with the girl, that he had loved her, at least in the beginning.

Father Bertwin turns on the recorder, leans back in his chair. The button on the old machine makes a sharp sound, like fingers snapping. “You’ll need to speak clearly,” he tells her, without apology. After all, as a petitioner her ex-husband has brought this matter to the attention of the Tribunal of the Roman Catholic Diocese. “To rule on an annulment, conditions must be met,” he says. “And there is only one condition under which the Church will grant your husband’s petition: He must prove a grave lack of judgment in entering the marriage—that he failed to appreciate the obligations of marriage or to assess his ability to meet them. Has this been made clear to you?”


She wonders what kind of a man could be part of a dissection like this. His face offers no clues. No wrinkles or smile lines. His expression is nearly blank, a few degrees short of bored. His hair is thinning, his voice measured. His demeanor is meant to convey balance and neutrality, but the collar does most of the work for him. Its associations for Moira are intractable—remnants of an Irish Catholic childhood in which idolatry trumped logic.

A panicky tingling lingers along the backs of her legs, the kind that wakes her in the night, even now, years after she first suspected what was going on with the girl. She’s having trouble focusing, being present in the room. She’s back there, waiting up for Ken to return from his nightly walk. Was he keeping fit or calling the girl, the person they pretended didn’t matter? Once he returned, he’d undress out of sight in their closet, slipping out of the sweatsuit Moira would toss into the hamper the next day. If it was cold enough, his skin would still be chilled when he came to bed. She’d rub his arm or his back, but he’d pat her hand then turn away, so she stopped touching him, stopped expecting him to acknowledge she was there. In the mornings, when she kissed him good-bye, his lips did not part for her, and even without the children nearby to distract them, he did not embrace her. She would walk to the train station, studying her boots. It had been that way a very long time by then. She no longer cried the whole way. Unbidden, images of Ken with the boys would soften the edges of doubt. Instinctively, he’d know why they were crying or why they sulked, and how to distract them.

“You’re welcome to respond to any part of it,” Moira hears Father Bertwin say. He snaps open his briefcase, removes a notebook, places it on the desk, opened to a clean page. The expensive pen he slips from an inside pocket sits poised in his long fingers, like a scalpel.

“He mentions the affair,” she says.

“Yes,” he prompts. “He says he met her when Sean was six.”

She’s done the math. The girl couldn’t have been more than seventeen then. “That would add up.”

“Sean is your older boy, correct? Three years older than Michael?”

“Yes,” she says, and he makes a note of it, as if it were new information.

“And he was twelve by the time you separated?”


“And that’s when you became aware something was wrong, when Sean was six?”

She sees it was a mistake to mention the affair. He’s going to focus on it. “That’s when I began to suspect. Yes.”

“But you didn’t separate? Not until six years later?”

“That’s right,” Moira whispers. Her tolerance must seem pathetic, even to a priest. But the idea of separation—the idea of anything other than a remedy—took years to form.

Father Bertwin taps the barrel of his pen against his palm. “Does that stand out for you? His admission of the affair?”

She wonders at the look on his face, as if he too wants something reconciled. “Yes. I’m surprised he mentions it at all.” Her voice weakens. She doesn’t want to say any more about it.

Father Bertwin does. “I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?” He motions toward the tape recorder. “For the machine.”

Moira looks into his eyes, but there’s nothing to indicate he understands this kind of humiliation. She leans forward. “I’m surprised he acknowledged having the affair.”

“He never acknowledged it to you?”


He underlines something in his notebook. “Why do you think he wants the annulment?”

“That’s an easy one.” Her laugh is not a laugh. “He wants to start over with a squeaky clean conscience, take a hose to his past.”

“So why not let him?”

She wants to slap this man. He thinks his church can replay a marriage and rule it out of bounds. “If this were just between Ken and the Church, I wouldn’t care what you did.” Moira picks up the heavy folder, feels her face go hot. “I’m not doing this because I care what the Church thinks.” Father Bertwin’s wince is barely noticeable. “I’m here for my sons and for me. The marriage was real. Life can’t be nullified.” The folder lands hard on the desk, tipping over the pencil holder.

Father Bertwin rights it. “So you suspected he was having an affair?”

The question makes her eyes sting. She will not be able to answer him, not without crying. She nods.

“Aloud please,” he tells her, pointing to the recorder.

Moira has trouble swallowing. “Yes,” she whispers.

Father Bertwin seems to take longer than needed making his notes. “With whom?”


“With whom did you think he was having the affair?”

Moira has to catch her breath. She remembers having to work up the courage to ask why the meetings at school lasted so long. How complicated could planning a prom be? Why was he always the one to drive the girl home? She was crazy to be asking such things, she thought, twisted. Innocent things began to haunt her—his car radio set to a pop station he’d never listen to, calls he’d end as soon as she entered the house, those hourlong walks, rain or shine. “Did you ask him that?” she says.

“The tribunal would not ask him that question.”

“Then I don’t understand.”

“I’m asking it. I’m asking you.”

“I didn’t know who it was.”

Father Bertwin looks away, as if embarrassed for her, and turns off the recorder. “Tell me, Moira. Why do you think he’s revealing these things now?” It’s the voice of the confessional, the one meant to make you believe in second chances. She wonders how many times he’ll play back her answers, listening for secrets.

“I have no idea why,” she says.

He seems edgy now, almost angry. He removes his glasses, then pulls his collar away from his neck. “Perhaps we need to approach this from another direction.” He turns the recorder back on, leans forward a bit. “To annul, the Church must establish whether there was anything that kept him—either of you, really—from entering into the bond freely at the start. One hundred percent commitment.” He waits a beat. “May I call your attention to a later section of the transcript,” he says, turning the page. “You saw this?”

She sees what he’s pointing to. “I saw it.”

“Permit me to read it aloud,” he says, putting his glasses back on. “Perhaps it will help us think more clearly about this.” 

Moira swallows hard. She’s perspiring.

“Question,” he begins, “ `And what were your feelings on your wedding day?’ Answer: `I wasn’t happy; I didn’t want to go through with it.’” Moira remembers the heat that day, her hair heavy on her neck as they assembled in the park for the photographer. Ken was stiff, ill at ease.

“Question: `You knew you didn’t want to get married?’ Answer: `Yes, I knew that I didn’t.’” The photographer tried to get Ken to relax, stand closer to her, get him to smile. She wanted that too. Ken stood where he was told as the photographer placed his arm around her waist. Ken’s touch was light, obedient, like an actor taking direction. It reminded her of the last time they were in bed together.

“Question: `Why didn’t you want to go through with it?’ Answer: `Because I didn’t love her. I never really loved her, not the way I should have.’” Father Bertwin puts the papers down. “What have you to say to that?”

Moira’s fists are clenched. Again she’s been found wanting. She tries for an even tone, but the bitterness won’t stay down. “I’d say that’s less than 100 percent.”

“Moira,” Father Bertwin says, almost in a whisper, as if he’s going to say something kind. But it’s only more of the same. “Moira, does this match your understanding of the way things were that day? Did you have a sense that something was missing?”

She wants to laugh. Is he really smug enough to believe he and his Church can get to the truth? “He said he loved me and wanted a family. Whether he was lying then or now is anybody’s guess.”

“Do you really believe that? That he didn’t love you?” Father Bertwin sounds stern.

“It’s a lie,” she says.

“You sound certain.”

She isn’t. Never has been. “It’s the reason I’m here. We had something special once.”

“And the affair?”

“That’s a lie too.” She clings to this, no less than she did then, like the night of that tournament game, when she saw him with the girl in the stairwell near the gym. She was against the wall, and he was close, surely too close. He was resting his forearm against the wall, as if to block her way. Their bodies were touching. They had to be. They didn’t see her. He lowered his head to hear something she was saying. When he answered, the girl giggled. The sound was like a warning. She should not see this. She should leave. Still, she imagined what the girl might smell like, some combination of fruity shampoo and stale gum. Ken looked over his shoulder—to be sure they were alone?—before his hand disappeared inside her denim jacket. Moira made a little sound, an audible shiver, as if the moment had become too ugly to watch. Then the door to the landing opened, and Ken stepped away, greeted the boy who passed. Standing there, her jacket open now, the girl raised her hand to her breast, cupped it for him, and he nodded, as if the gesture were familiar. Young girls were bold, he had said more than once. Still, she promised herself she would ask him about it later. But he made love to her fiercely that night, and she let that be her answer.

“But you wanted to marry Ken?”

“Yes, I wanted to marry him,” Moira insists. “Why do we have to do this?”

Father Bertwin clasps his hands in front of him on the desk. She sees he’s ready. He’ll slice her open, show her the rot he’s found. “I spoke just yesterday to the tribunal, including the Judicial Vicar. I assure you Ken’s case does not seem as weak to them as it does to you. He has stated that he did not love you, that he was not prepared to enter what the Church calls ‘a partnership of the whole life.’ Evidence of his love for you at the time would be very useful.”

“Evidence?” Is he joking? Is there a blood test for commitment? By the time Michael was born, Ken was so distant their sex was like a well-rehearsed flop. It wasn’t like that in the beginning. He wanted her. She made him happy. They laughed. He told her things, things she was sure he’d never told anyone. She mattered to him. She must have. The changes came later, slowly, the wordless dinners, the space between them in the night, the longing to be held, to be loved again.

“Do you have any letters? Letters would be very powerful.” She has no letters, only cards. Birthday cards. Valentine cards. All composed by Hallmark and signed with barely more than his name. She shakes her head no, but Father Bertwin is unconvinced.

“This is important, Moira. There must be something. A letter. A note.”

There is. A card. The only “evidence” she has of his feelings that isn’t canned or formulaic. She keeps it safe in a thick anthology of Irish poetry, a good place for lost causes, a book she never plans to return to. The card came in the mail soon after they told Sean and Michael they were separating. It was one of those cards that asks forgiveness when none can be had, pointless as get-well wishes for the terminally ill. But he wrote a note inside, describing how sorry he was and how much he had loved her. It was her amulet, her protection from the abyss. She will not bring it out to be weighed and judged inadequate. It’s proof enough for her.

“I have nothing like that,” she tells him. “Two sons? Making a life together? That’s not enough?”

“The affair—given the length of it—may in fact lend weight to his assertion that he should not have married.”

“Why isn’t the burden on him? Make him prove he never loved me.”

“I’m afraid he may have done that already.” Clearly Father Bertwin has some stake in this. He stops the recorder. “I think we’re done here,” he says. He stands, takes the folders, pushes them back into his briefcase.

Moira gets to her feet, gathers her things. As she comes around the desk, he steps in front to block her way. “I want you to think about this,” he says. “You may have overlooked something that would shed light.”

She’s done with this. She steps around him and opens the door. He offers to accompany her to the main hall and before she can refuse he’s walking next to her. Her legs feel weak. The floor is so shiny she’s afraid she’ll slip, yet she can’t imagine taking his arm. She’s relieved when they get to the wide stairs and she can grasp the banister.

In the lobby, he makes certain once again that she has his card. He takes her hand to say goodbye. His is surprisingly warm. She turns away, steps outside into the brilliant day. She feels lightheaded at once. Even her skin feels flimsy. Her parking space seems far away; the sunshine, like a weight. She hears footsteps, and Father Bertwin is beside her again.

“Let me walk you to your car.”

“Thank you. I’m fine.”

“I have a few more questions. A few things are still not clear.”

She doesn’t believe that. She’s sure he has his answers. “I really need to get back.”

He points to a concrete bench facing a statue of St. Francis, kept safe behind layers of expertly tended flowers. Peace of heart in this place, she thinks, is all a matter of good order. She sits, and he settles himself at the end of the bench, adjusts his jacket, crosses his legs neatly. “I must ask you a question that may upset you.”

Moira laughs. “Why stop now?”

He lets this go. “It seems as if . . . well . . . I can’t help thinking there’s something about this affair of his that you preferred not to know.”

Moira feels her heart pounding. “I can see why you would. Six years is a long time. I should have left him sooner.”

“I don’t mean that. I can understand your not facing it then. You would have been risking everything. It’s something else, something you want to avoid looking at too closely. Even now.”

            “You must see how humiliating this has been,” she says, hoping that will satisfy. Could Ken still be charged with something? The girl is an adult now.

“If an annulment is about correcting something, then we need to get to the truth.” He sounds so priestly she’s embarrassed for him.

“Some things can’t be corrected,” she says, almost tempted to pat his knee. She had wanted to abort, but she couldn’t do it. The swelling—even when it required no more accommodation than unbuttoning her jeans—offered the promise that something might change. The undivided attention that a new baby demanded might finally call him back to her. In her second trimester, Ken began to do the laundry now and then. He encouraged her to take walks, to plan a longer maternity leave this time. Whatever the truth about the baby—the child had been conceived if not out of love, then out of fear of losing it.

“But we can still have the truth.”

“I don’t see how.” Her voice is icy. She braces herself to hear him recite the Church’s balm for betrayal, some reassurance as potent as holy water.

“Stop him.”

“What do you think I’m doing here? Why else would I want to rehash all this?”

“To satisfy yourself you were the injured party,” he says. “We see this all the time.”

“I know exactly who was injured,” Moira says, getting to her feet.

He looks up at her, unimpressed, as if she’s some minor player in this drama. “That’s not what this is about.”

“What is it about then?” She expects to hear more of his twisted logic, more smug abstractions that have nothing to do with anything real.

“It’s about protecting the Church.”

She wants to laugh. “Protecting the Church. That’s a pretty tall order,” she says, mostly to herself.

“Certain behavior can’t be tolerated.”

“Of course not. You just move the offender to some other parish.” She turns to go. 

“We’re not finished here,” Father Bertwin says, raising his voice, then correcting his tone, “Please sit down.”

He’s starting to frighten her. She returns to the bench.

“The Church must not grant this annulment, Moira, even if he has proved that he has legitimate grounds.”

You bastard, she thinks, and looks at him. He’s perspiring. “I don’t get it,” she says. “Since when are you guys allowed to have a personal opinion about something like this?”

“A petitioner may not use an annulment to cover his tracks.” She watches his eyes narrow. He’s taking aim again. “Tell me about this woman Ken intends to marry.”

“I don’t know her,” she insists.

“She attended the high school where he teaches,” he says, uncrossing his legs. “Didn’t one of you mention that?”

“I didn’t.” Moira is sure Ken hasn’t either.

“I’ve spoken to people. I looked her up. Jennifer was her name, assisted him in the History Department, on the prom committee.” He waits for her to tell him what she knows.

She won’t.

He leans closer, his voice dropping to a whisper. “We both know what this means.” She can smell his breath, laced with mint.

“It doesn’t have to mean that,” she snaps.

“He practically said so himself in his petition.”

“He wants you to believe there was an affair so you’ll grant the annulment.”

“We can’t allow him to make a charade of this process.”

She wants to shake him. People have been hurt in this. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “All annulments are charades. People trying to satisfy your rules. Ken’s petition is a lie.”

“He’s not going to marry that girl in the Church.”

Moira almost laughs. “Fine. Don’t grant the annulment.”

“There may be no choice.”

“Then I guess we both lose.”

“I have no intention of losing. I’ll request an investigation.” She sees that he means it. Even if he can’t prove anything, the school would certainly let Ken go. He’d never teach again. “This relationship of his is going to raise questions for a lot of people.”

She thinks of her sons, imagines how they’d feel about their father if they learned about the girl. “You can’t do that. You don’t know for sure . . . I mean that there was anything like that between them back then.”

“I do know, Moira. So do you.”

She can’t look at him. She wants no part of his certainty. Suspicion is the easier torment. Whose fault was this anyway? Whose failure? This priest thinks he knows. He’s ready to punish. She could let him. Maybe that would put an end to it.

“If he’s granted the annulment, I’ll take this wherever it needs to go,” he tells her.

“Why do that now? She’s an adult. He’s going to marry her.”

Moira sees the harm this man is willing to do, his determination to set things right. It draws her in, this conviction. Maybe there would be comfort there. She leans forward, rests her forehead in her hands. Ken fell out of love with her. That’s all she knows for sure. What price should he pay for that? “I have a card,” she tells Father Bertwin.

He waits for the rest.

“You asked before if I have something . . . to show he loved me the day we married.”

He leans back, as if matters have at last been properly aligned. “Very good,” he says.

He puts his hand on hers, as if to console. His satisfaction is like a victory lap, and she hates him for it. This man thinks she has what he needs to protect his Church—regrets scribbled in a moment of pity. But they made no difference. They did no good. Until now.






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