Byron Tatterman pulled open the big church doors and stepped inside. He was early, but Father Holm was already in the lobby, a hand raised in greeting. He wore khakis and the standard black shirt and white collar, and approached Byron with the step of someone comfortable on his home turf.
“Hey there,” the Father said. “Thanks for coming in.”
Byron said, “Sorry to interrupt your day.”
The Father dismissed the apology with a flick of the wrist. “Not at all. How can I help?”
“I’d like to confess.”
“Certainly,” Father Holm said. He laced his fingers in front of his heart. “Is this our first time meeting?”
It was an empty question. Both Byron and the priest already knew the answer. Father Holm was the kind of man who knew his parish, who did not forget faces.
Byron confirmed anyway. “It is, and just a heads up I’m not Catholic. Not anymore. But I know that expired Catholics are still free to confess.”
Father Holm nodded. “Correct, but I’ll be unable to offer you absolution.”
Father Holm tilted his head slightly. “Seems like something’s troubling you.”
Bryon wondered if he actually looked troubled. He removed a hand from his jacket and extended it. “Byron.”
“Father Holm. Welcome to St. Mark’s.” He gestured towards the nave. “Shall we?”
Byron slid into a pew towards the back and Father Holm entered the one behind him. Byron twisted to his left and set one knee on the bench, half-facing the Father. The slope of the room meant Father Holm sat a few inches higher than Byron.
“Before I begin,” Byron said, “I want to ask you something. Let’s say that what I’m here to tell you turns out to be illegal. Would you be required to turn me in?”
“Depends on what you’re here to tell me, but if I can keep it between you and me, I will.”
“Have you ever turned anyone in before? Like to the police? I imagine you hear some pretty weird stuff.”
“That shouldn’t concern us now. You came here wanting to share. Please do.”
“Fine. I have an email address,” Byron began. The words rang in his ears as if he’d shouted them. He looked up at a wooden Jesus hanging at the front. Head bowed, slash across the ribs. “And I’m not talking about my everyday work and personal emails.”
“Go on,” the Father said.
“It’s an old AOL account. I don’t even know if it’s still active.”
Byron clicked his tongue. “That’s why I’m here. I’m thinking about checking it.”
Byron was twenty-one years old and eight credits away from graduating when he withdrew from Swarthmore and flew to Thailand. From Bangkok he took the overnight train south to Ko Lanta, an island he’d read about in the travel guide he’d devoured on the flight over. He booked himself a room a hundred yards from the beach. There was sand on the floor and a mosquito net over his bed. He spent his first several days waking up with the sunrise, devouring noodles, and reading whatever English books he could find on the take-one-leave-one shelves.
“I told my parents I wanted a late gap year,” Byron explained to Father Holm. “But that didn’t fool anybody. In truth I had no idea why I left.”
“Do you know why now?” Father Holm asked.
Byron reflected on the Father’s tone. Was it purely professional? Or were there hints of real curiosity? He propped an elbow on the back of the pew. “It’s hard to put myself in that mindset again, but if I had to guess, I left because it felt like I had no control. Something about my life at the time felt inescapable. I’d finish college. After college I’d get a good job and start a family, and.” He trailed off.
Father Holm made acknowledging noises every few seconds. “Why was that path inescapable?”
“It wasn’t. I mean, I escaped from it when I left for Thailand. It just felt inescapable. Even a good life can seem bad if you don’t choose it.”
At twenty-one, Byron had rarely been bullied or struggled for grades. He was tall enough for basketball and good enough with his feet for soccer. Girls found him easy to talk to, even easier to look at. He recognized his good qualities, but they felt unearned and dreamlike, and therefore unacceptable.
“So you felt unrealized as a person,” Father Holm said.
“Yeah, I guess. I grew up Catholic, as I mentioned, and the church had this stranglehold on my identity and I had no idea who I was without it. I think I chose Thailand because it was the least Catholic place I could think of.”
Father Holm scratched his chin and asked Byron to continue.
There was a bar in Ko Lanta where other expats hung out, and that was where Byron met Elsie. She was a year older, and was, just like Byron, confused and Catholic and a virgin. She had doe eyes and thin lips and a long nose, qualities that didn’t seem to mesh until you saw them together on her face. She had runners’ legs and was warm to the touch. The next morning, they were still confused. They spent an inseparable month together, bussing through Cambodia and Vietnam before returning to Thailand. He saw her off at the airport in Bangkok. There were tears and promises of a reunion.
“The point is,” Byron said, “I never used a condom. Not once.” He paused here to study the priest, but Father Holm remained expressionless. “I never used a condom,” he continued, “and Elsie wasn’t on any kind of birth control. I mean, I thought about it, and she did too, but using a condom felt like too much of a choice. We would’ve had to admit we were planning to have sex, and the only way I could justify all the sex was to convince myself that I’d been taken over by the devil or something. Like it was too much in the moment to resist.”
Elsie. He liked saying her name again. It had been so long. “And I don’t think I could’ve pulled out even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t really know that was a thing.”
Father Holm nodded. “So what happened next?”
Byron never saw Elsie again. There was no way to get in touch. He’d only ever shared his first name and he’d lied about his hometown. He told her he attended Sewanee. He felt guilty about lying until, after Facebook, he tried to look her up and discovered she’d lied, too.
Father Holm was finally showing hints of expression. “You guys escaped from home, abandoned your faith and took on false identities.”
Byron frowned. “I actually think we were pretty honest, just not about any of the particulars. We shared real feelings, just not real facts. It was the closest I’d ever felt to someone. Maybe even still.”
“But she went home and you stayed in Asia.”
“For a while. Eventually I went back to college. Graduated. Got a job.”
Father Holm’s forehead went wrinkly and his chin lowered a quarter-inch. “Can I ask you why you’re telling me this now? And why me and not a friend?”
Byron sat up straighter. “I’m sharing because I have a girlfriend who I want to ask to be my wife.”
Byron and Shelley had been dating for two years, the two calmest of his life. Shelley was, like Elsie before her, an ex-Catholic, and was friendly and reliable and stayed in shape even when the relationship got familiar. They loved well and fought well and that was enough. She’d picked out a ring and said she couldn’t wait. The proposal was all that remained.
“And I can’t do it with Thailand still in the back of my mind,” Byron concluded.
“What about Thailand in particular is worrying?” Father Holm asked. “You strayed from the faith. You’re not the first. And it’s certainly not illegal.”
Byron looked at the backs of his hands, then flipped them over and looked at his palms. He and Elsie had made love every day for more than a month. It seemed impossible not to. The conversational closeness, their newfound freedom of self, their ripe young bodies – it all demanded sex, seemingly all the time. When the possibility of a pregnancy finally did register, at a Bangkok hostel on the eve of her departure, it hit with a force equivalent to the ignorance they’d used to keep it at bay. There was a surge of backlogged panic and speculation, even prayer, but it was too soon for a test.
“You were worried about a baby, but you chose not to stay in touch once she left,” Father Holm said. “You both lied about who you were.”
“That’s the thing,” Byron said. “That’s why I’m here. I told you about the email address. That last night in Bangkok we used the computer in the lounge to create a joint AOL account. That way she could send me a message if something happened.”
“And there’s a chance something happened.”
Byron shrugged. “Maybe? Fertility is a fickle thing, I’ve learned. But the point is, before I can propose to Shelley, I’m wondering if I need to check it.”
He could almost hear the Father trying to piece together his thoughts. “You mean?”
“Yes,” Byron confirmed. “Except for when we set it up, I never actually opened it.”
Father Holm released a breath like he’d been holding it in for some time. He’d stopped making the little I’m listening noises.
Byron answered the next question before it could be asked. “I don’t know why I never did. There was just this kind of paralysis. And then the longer I went without looking at it, the easier it got not to.”
“But the address is real?” Father Holm asked. “It works?”
“Unless we set it up wrong, it’s legit.”
Father Holm set his hands on his thighs. “I can see how this would cause you some consternation.”
“Yeah, I’m struggling with it.” Byron didn’t know how far a lawyer could stretch the definition of child abuse and neglect. And that was before Shelley was even considered.
Father Holm looked up at the wooden Jesus. “Do you still have the password?”
“Yes, and the username. I wrote both on the flap of the travel guide, which I still have. I just can’t tell if I’m crazy or not. I mean, this was almost twenty years ago. If Elsie did get pregnant, assuming she did, and assuming she kept the kid, the kid would be almost eighteen by now.”
Father Holm lowered his gaze from the wooden Jesus. He spoke softly. “You wanted my advice?”
“I think I wanted to gauge the depth of my guilt.”
There was warmth in the Father’s eyes, and concern. “Whatever your motives, son, it’s time you check your mail.”
Byron drove swiftly home and took the stairs two at a time up to his office. He found the travel guide squeezed among the many others he’d accumulated over the years. A train ticket stuck out from between the pages, which he removed and studied. He’d used it as a bookmark, probably, all those years ago. The ticket had been flimsy to begin with and had yellowed considerably in the years since it had held some value. He could barely read the destination: Udon Thani. He could remember nothing of the place. In his head, the Thai islands had morphed into a blur of blue sea and white sand. He could still see Elsie’s face, however, and he felt guilty when he recognized that he sometimes preferred hers to Shelley’s. For the millionth time, he considered whether this whole checking his email thing was really just an effort to sabotage his proposal. Memory was a powerful thing, manipulative. Until he’d unenrolled from Swarthmore and flew to Thailand, he’d never left the country. He’d never not gone to mass on a Sunday. He’d hardly even kissed a woman. And then, smelling like sunscreen and drinking something from a coconut shell, there was Elsie. Elsie, with a Psalms tattoo on her ribcage. Elsie, who little-spooned in his arms all through the night, something he hadn’t achieved with another woman since. Hardly anyone lost their virginity in a perfect way, so safely. But they had, in a guilt-free bungalow on an isolated beach under a feast of approving stars.
Or not. He’d no doubt romanticized their time together. He opened the guide book and glanced at the inside flap, at the username and password they’d come up with so long ago. His handwriting looked foreign, almost unrecognizable.
He tore off the cover and moved to his desk and called Shelley. She didn’t answer, so he left a message instructing her to wear something pretty for dinner. They were going out, he added. Next he called the fanciest restaurant he could think of. It was all booked up, so he tried another. He was scrambling, but that was okay.
Reservation secured, he removed some matches from a drawer in his desk. He swiveled and grabbed the wastebasket and set it between his legs. A match erupted with a hush. He waited until he could feel the heat on his fingers, then set fire to the corner of the guidebook cover.
As the cover blackened and curled, Byron heard his mind rehearsing the username and password. He must’ve learned them unconsciously somehow. Or maybe he’d never forgotten. He’d certainly never forgotten Elsie’s fingers, long and kind of elegant, tucking under the straps of her backpack. Or the way she bobbed through the ocean on her toes. Or the way she understood the meaning of words like guilt and obligation, the way he understood them. He remembered Elsie on her back.
He blinked. He dropped the burnt cover into the wastebasket and wiggled the mouse to light up his computer screen. He clicked the search bar and typed in the appropriate url. He could feel his heart in the thumb that held the mouse. He could feel his heart in his head.
The screen loaded a half-second later. The last time he’d used this account, he’d connected via dial-up, sitting next to the woman he’d just spent the past several weeks declaring his love to in all the ways his underdeveloped romantic vocabulary knew how. The connection then had loaded pixel row by pixel row. He was twice as old now, just as nervous.
There were thousands of emails awaiting him, maybe tens of thousands. By the looks of it, nearly all were spam. A message from a hair salon had been sent that very morning. He deleted a hundred at a time, skimming each before he did. Click and delete. Click and delete. The send dates backtracked. He was having trouble keeping the mouse steady. The urge to pray crept up in his throat.
There was less spam now. The years deleted quicker. If Elsie had sent him a message, these were the weeks and months she would’ve done so. He tried to picture the child in his head, but the images were generic. He had no idea who his child was, if there was one. Even if he found nothing, maybe he’d write Elsie a note, just to say hi, and see if anything came back. Did she ever check the account? He didn’t know, and that was the crux of this whole thing anyway, not knowing. He didn’t know why they’d lied, why they’d sabotaged a future, why he’d waited so long to reach out. Elsie had been really good for him, and he for her. Which, he supposed, was exactly why.
He finished scanning and deleting. The inbox was empty. There were no messages from Elsie. He might’ve felt unburdened and free, but was disappointed and sad and didn’t know why. The whole thing felt kind of silly now, real but unmerited, like fear in a mock haunted house.
He opened his desk drawer and put away the matches and pulled out the ring. Maybe he wouldn’t do it tonight. He didn’t want the gesture to be impulsive. Shelley was really good for him, better than he deserved, probably, as Elsie had been.
He inspected the ring more closely. Wherever she was, and whatever her memories of that island, she would want this for him, too. Or not. He had no idea what Elsie wanted. It was possible he didn’t miss Elsie as much as he missed the rush of self-discovery, of self-abandonment. His life had been nearly four decades of anchored commitment interrupted by a month of violent wonder. But the ring was a kind of wonder in itself. Around Shelley, Byron’s heart didn’t explode with joy and desire. It beat steadily in his chest, warmly and with a slight glow, as it should. It glowed now. He closed his browser and slid back from his desk. In a year, maybe two, Shelley would be his wife, and their marriage would be peaceful and healthy. But amidst the glow he recognized disappointment. Part of him, a bigger part than he wanted to admit, maybe, had been hoping for an email.
Ian Johnson is the author of The Bounce and the Echo – Dying to Love a Game (ATM Publishing, 2019), and the forthcoming novel The Commencement Version (Brandylane Publishers, 2024). His work has appeared in Bright Flash Literary Review, The Penman Review, Hoopshype, Rind Literary Magazine, Across the Margin, and more. He teaches middle school English in Richmond, VA, and can be found at ianjohnsonbooks.com.