|Jan/Feb 2019 Salon|
They seemed a natural—or unnatural—pair, depending on whether you subscribed to the opposites-attract theory. Chris (among ourselves we referred to him by his given name but reserved the surname or some abbreviation of it for his colleague, Tim Rafferty) was a short, already balding graduate of Loyola Prep, a Jesuit high school in upstate New York. Now he was himself a Jesuit, or on his way to becoming one, having reached the midpoint of the order's 15-year preparation. He, like Rafferty, was just entering his "regency," a three-year stint of teaching or missionary work usually served in one of the order's prep schools here or abroad. We were Chris's first home-room class. Rafferty taught us math and French.
Chris Wallenska, Mister Wallenska (or, the preferred form, plain Mister) was fresh out of seven years of classics and philosophy. He was all of 24, although he seemed centuries beyond us in his knowledge of the world—the ancient Greek and Roman world, the only one that mattered. He taught us their languages as well as English and religion, a catechism class he deplored as theologically neanderthal. I remember him actually throwing the book, a thicker, more Jesuitical version of my elementary school's, onto the floor in disgust when we reached the question regarding the effects of masturbation, which ranged from acne to sudden death. Any sign of rebellion in those days, a few years before Vatican II convened, seemed scandalously heroic, or just plain scandalous, depending on how much inclined you were toward nailing theses to church doors. I was no Martin Luther, but I thrilled at any display of dissent.
Rafferty was a different type entirely. If emotion rode the surface of Chris Wallenska's blunt features like a breeze across a pond, Rafferty's style was reserve at all costs. Chris was always banging things about and turning different shades of crimson. But we had to read Rafferty's change of mood in the lift of an eyebrow, a frown, or—sure sign of volcanism—a sudden flush of his pale, lightly freckled cheeks. He knew something about every language, alive and dead. He was at ease with advanced mathematics and the latest discoveries of particle physics. He had published fiction in a popular magazine, experienced the rapture of the deep ("quite nice, actually"), been an atheist and, more recently, corresponded with Bertrand Russell. He was cool, cerebral, other-worldly. His pale blue eyes, concentrically distorted by thick rimless glasses, gave him the appearance of a creature from another planet—one of those advanced civilizations that were so patronizing to our own backward world in the books and movies of that time. We could, if we wanted, aspire to be like Chris Wallenska, but wanting to emulate Tim Rafferty would have been like wishing to become a Martian.
I was not a favorite of either of them. Chris thought me talented but lazy. Rafferty seemed at best amused by my eager naïveté. He preferred Terry Reilly, a thin, crew-cut blond like himself who never had any trouble following his arcane exegeses of Racinian esthetics, the latter delivered in a precise Canadian French he had picked up during a brief visit to Montreal. When I submitted my short stories for his opinion (extra-curricularly; Chris was my official English teacher) he returned them with an intricate overlay of straight, squiggly, and double underlinings to indicate each word's precise deficiency.
For the first half of that semester, the two of them seemed to get on well. We would see them—short, tank-like Wallenska and lean, bespectacled Rafferty—crossing the quadrangle or circling the university parade grounds (Webster Prep was the oldest building on the sprawling, even though inner-city, campus of Webster University), their hands joined behind their cassocks, with perhaps an ejaculatory gesture from Chris now and then. We had no idea what they were talking about. Some of us, notably Terry Reilly, came up with amusing suggestions—the sex lives of angels, the mystical powers of the Greek enclitic. But I came to suspect that after being initially drawn together merely out of a common interest—us—their conversation had boiled down to some knotty essential of personal philosophies as antithetical as their physiognomies. This I gathered from the growing intensity I observed on their faces, especially Rafferty's, as the leaves began to fall around them and the temperature, with no perceptible effect on those two, followed suit. By mid-November they were no longer to be seen together. Whatever the source of their disagreement, it had frozen solid, and we could only speculate what it was that could have turned their original fraternity so cold.
Terry, of course, had plenty of explanations, ranging from unrequited love (it was Chris who demurred in his version) to an irreconcilable difference about the body count of pure spirits possible on a pinhead. Terry delighted in imagining new theories to explain the schism. He concocted them at the H&H, a soda shop where we drank cherry cokes after classes. His speculations always included a lot of red-faced giggling, which the rest of us found every bit as amusing as his bizarre improvisations. We were all only beginning to discover the opposite sex. It was not until a year later that I heard how Terry had refused to have anything further to do with a certain St. Jean de Baptiste student after she insisted on a goodnight kiss following one of our school dances. But the rest of us were more prosaic in our analyses of the fissure: oil and water don't mix. There was no way Rafferty's cold intellectualism could be reconciled to Chris Wallenska's stubborn physicality.
Not that either of the two young Jesuits differed in any significant way from the standard orthodoxy. Rafferty ("Raff" was a Reillyism I still feel awkward using) caused one of my most embarrassing moments when he reprimanded me for an unauthorized reading of a novel he had lent to (who else?) Terry. I couldn't imagine what I had done to make him turn so red, snatch the paperback from my hand—Catcher in the Rye—and squelch the brief appreciation I was about to offer on its behalf. "You had no business reading this. It was not lent to you. In the future, please do not presume to do so." In retrospect, I can see the kind of hot water he might have gotten into if, say, the principal had found out he was circulating that kind of sedition. At the time, though, I simply felt humiliated. It was yet another instance of his preferring Terry to myself, this time with a vengeance.
Chris, though, seemed remarkably liberal about such matters. That was the year Peyton Place was published. While none of us had actually laid eyes on a copy, the book had become a hot item of discussion at the H&H. We had not yet heard of D.H. Lawrence or James Joyce, and so presumed that Grace Metalious (How could a woman have written such trash? Girls didn't think about sex!) was the author of the first "dirty" book ever published. Imagine our surprise and admiration when Chris produced a copy in class and announced he had just finished it. The book was nothing special, he said, slapping it down on the wooden lectern with lots of body english and a knowing smile. "But I never condemn a book until I've read it myself."
Chris had his own pet students: Patrick Lugano and Gianpaolo Bosso. Looking back, it seems likely that Gianpaolo was an opportunist. Our senior yearbook contains a picture of him and Chris taken in the activities office. Their heads are almost touching, and from the dreamy smiles on their faces, you might think it was a honeymoon portrait. For Chris that was perhaps what it amounted to. Not that he was homosexual. He simply had a bias in favor of anything Mediterranean, especially anything Italian, that amounted to a passion. He had two fixed ideas: one was of the happy, sensual southern European, the epitome of the "four-square" Greek ideal; the other was of a bloodless German academic, endlessly poring over footnotes and other scholarly trivia. It was no wonder he never quite warmed up to me, or why he seemed unable to make up his mind about people like Terry and Vincent O'Shaughnessey. Charlie Sims, one of the school's two black students, he managed to embrace, perhaps by way of Carthage.
Sex was a subject that came up frequently in Chris Wallenska's class, just as it hardly ever surfaced in Rafferty's. Rafferty did shock us once when we were discussing racial prejudice, not a very hot or even intelligible topic at that kind of school in those days. He told us a Southern woman he had been dating had slapped the face of a black man who had presumed to sit down in the unoccupied seat beside her when she and Rafferty were traveling someplace on a New York subway. What shocked us was not the slap but the idea of Rafferty dating. He had seemed to us quite literally sexless. Technically, he was male—there was no such animal as a female Jesuit. But he was not male in the sense we were. He was a member of a sex, any sex, only in the sense that a saint or an insect could be. It was hard enough trying to see Rafferty as human without trying to imagine him as sexual, despite Terry's jokes about his platonic desires for Chris Wallenska. Real homosexuality was for us still as abstract a notion as gnosticism.
But while Chris's discussions never approached anything like the clinical briefing the public schools were soon to adopt, he was not averse to talking about dating and other innocent boy-girl subjects. I remember his asking after class one afternoon early in the first semester precisely what was meant by "going steady." We accepted his ingenuousness without question. A cleric, even one who has not yet been ordained a priest, had no more business knowing about such things than we did being privy to the secrets of the Klu Klux Klan. We vied with one another to enlighten him. But, since most of us were as ignorant about the opposite sex as he was, he got as many different definitions as there were replies.
Sometimes we hung out in the classroom during these impromptu after-hours seminars, other times we chatted on the activities floor while we were working on the school newspaper or magazine. During one of those sessions, someone must have offered an anecdote about his mother's attitude toward girls. Or my memory may be incorrect and the conversation got turned that way in an entirely different fashion. What I do clearly remember is what Chris volunteered in reply and, peripherally, the smell of old desks and chalk dust.
He said he had started seeing a girl in his senior year of high school. The romance amounted to nothing more than occasionally walking her home from school. We were of course shocked by this revelation, not the way we had been when Rafferty recounted his Southern-belle story, but shocked nonetheless. Thanks to all those innocent questions Chris had pumped us with, we had come to think him a perfect virgin, innocent of even the simplest, most rudimentary contacts with the opposite sex. In retrospect, I should have known better, if only because he once complimented me, however obliquely, on a the good looks of a girl I had taken to one of the school dances.
He must have already declared for the priesthood before that afternoon he found himself strolling home in the girl's company. Or, at least his mother must have thought he had, having perhaps herself promised him toward that end, much as some women used to dedicate their newborn infants to Jesus. Chris, though, might still have been having ambivalent thoughts on the prospect. No one ever told a young man that in order to have a religious vocation he had to be entirely free of sexual feeling. On the other hand, a certain lack of interest in girls was considered one of the signs of a calling. I was once advised that my attraction to "intelligent" girls was an indication I might be one of the chosen.
But in light of what happened years later after his teaching stint and ordination, I suspect young Chris was just beginning to awaken to the fact of sex in those adolescent years and was wondering if it might have something to do with him personally. His mother's attitude, however, was unequivocal. When she found her son carrying that young Jezebel's books, she snatched them from him and slapped, not Chris's, but the girl's face.
That slap stayed with me long after I had forgotten the conjugation of the -eo verbs and the five proofs for the existence of God. What impressed me was not the blow itself, brutal as it seemed, but the resignation with which Chris recalled it. To be sure, he looked embarrassed, but I don't recall his giving way to one of his deep blushes. His expression remained remarkably vacant, as if the incident were a hard but necessary fact of life—like carnivorousness. For him, the incident was a story about mothers, not about him in particular or the life he had chosen to lead. Despite the impression the story made on me, "indelible" we would have said back then, like India ink or the sacrament of Holy Orders, I kept it to myself even during our H&H confabs, sensing but not yet understanding its import.
Chris thought us all backsliders after we moved on to senior year, not realizing how much of an inspiration he and Rafferty had been. There actually came to be an enmity between him and his former students—Gianpaolo excepted. I don't know what more he could have expected of us. I, for one, not only went on writing fiction but became editor of the literary magazine. But Chris regarded us as disappointments.
After we had gone on to college, I corresponded with Rafferty in the seminary and even sent him my attempts at poetry, which he returned with the appropriate squiggles and slashes. He invited some of us to his first mass, where we were amazed to discover he had a mother, uncles, and cousins just like any normal human being and originated from an ordinary middle-class suburban neighborhood.
I didn't correspond with Chris but received an invitation to his own first mass anyhow. There was no question of my attending. It was not just a matter of the long trip upstate. The distance between there and the city was nothing compared with my feeling of estrangement and resentment. By then I had begun to realize how he had failed us, by his unreasonable and largely inexplicit expectations.
College was a letdown after the highs we had hit in high school. After four years of boring, useless classes in medieval philosophy/theology, none of us regretted graduation. We even managed to disrupt the guest speaker's address—an emissary from the soon-to-be-disbanded Kennedy administration. I vowed never to set foot on campus again. Terry Reilly went on to law school. Gianpaolo got a fellowship to Yale. I was one of the few who chose not go on for an advanced degree.
I lost track of my old classmates until I ran into Terry Reilly several years later. As we sat eating pasta at a restaurant near his job at a big Manhattan law firm, he seemed much the same Terry I had known in high school—lean, boyish, giggly. Only, now he had a terrible grievance that would have been unthinkable then: his Finnish wife had recently abandoned him, leaving a note on the bathroom mirror and flying back to Helsinki with their three-year-old son. Terry spoke of her bitterly, showing me notebooks he had kept detailing her infidelities and vowing a cruel but inexplicit revenge. As he spoke, he seemed to suddenly age, as if the experience had sucked the youth out of him.
But then, just as suddenly as he had fallen into this dour mood, at the mention of some old classmates he became again the adolescent I used to drink cherry cokes with in the H&H. He rushed through his lasagna because he had a date with an Israeli belly dancer and joked about eating well so as not to leave her unsatisfied later that night. He had come a long way (hadn't he?) from the unanswered kiss of that St. Jean de Baptiste student. In the midst of these revelations, he mentioned a number of former classmates he had kept tabs on. There were few surprises. Most had become teachers, insurance men, civil servants.
"What about Chris and Rafferty?" I asked, declining the house cheesecake. "I suppose Rafferty is studying Sumerian cuneiform and Chris is still proselytizing for the Odyssey?"
Terry looked up in surprise, his mouth full of pineapple-cheese.
"You didn't hear? Chris ran off with some 16-year-old. Upstate somewhere. Rochester, Syracuse. One of those godforsaken places."
He giggled and bit into another piece of cheesecake. I remembered the slap Chris's mother had administered when she found her son walking that girl home from school. The girl must have been just about 16 at the time.
"He came crawling back, though," Terry said, belching discreetly. "They put him in sackcloth and ashes. The last I heard, he was working in a mission. Not a foreign mission. A Bowery-type place. Doing penance."
I pumped him for more information, but he had none. Nor did he seem to find the story as harrowing as I did. I knew Terry well enough to see he wasn't pretending. He had always seen through the surface of reality far better than I and faced it unflinchingly, if not without his characteristic giggles. Those silly jokes of his had always contained elements of canny insight.
"And Rafferty?" I asked. "Don't tell me he married a Sister of Charity?"
"I ran into him a couple years ago. In Wales, of all places. He was perusing some books at an outdoor stall. I couldn't believe my eyes."
"How did he look?"
"Same old Raff. He didn't even seem surprised to see me. Just think what the odds were of our meeting in a Welsh bookshop."
"What was he doing in Wales?"
"God knows. Studying runes or Druids. I was in an awful hurry. On my honeymoon, actually," he added with a bitter blush.
We parted then, Terry to keep his date with the belly dancer, myself to return to a novel I had been worrying for the better part of a decade.
Since that night I often thought of getting in touch with Chris Wallenska. But then I wondered what I would say to him. Congratulate/commiserate with him for his short-lived bolt to liberty? Suggest the obvious connection between his mother's slap and his long-delayed sexuality? Surely some psychiatrist had already done that. Deplorable as it all once seemed—his pathetic spree with a teenager half his age, his shame-faced return to the Jesuits—who was I to pass judgment?
All attempts to track down Rafferty failed. A Google search turned up a paper he published shortly after his stint at Webster Prep, something arcane about the epistles of St. Paul. I like to think he left the priesthood, but I've learned the script for reality is more inventive than anything human imagination can come up with.
But just recently I did find Chris Wallenska on the Internet—or at least a Chris Wallenska. If it is the same man I knew, at some point he left the Jesuits and became an Episcopalian priest. My first reaction was shock. In my days at the prep, we might speak of the possibility of losing our faith but never of becoming a Protestant. But then I remembered that the Church of Rome recognizes the legitimacy of the clergy of the Church of England, something about unbroken apostolic succession. So, what Chris did was a kind of lateral move.
According to the website put up by his parish, a church not far from where my Chris Wallenska grew up, he had married and had children. He also had died, just a year before I discovered the web page. There was no bio and no photo, just a brief commemorative along with pictures of his replacement, a well-fed, grinning man with a large family of his own.
(Names were changed throughout this essay.)