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The Heart's Landscape

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Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me — after all I have some decency —
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.
—Czeslaw Milosz, tr. Robert Pinsky

The kitchen suddenly seemed very noisy. Joel heard his chair scrape over the tiles as he leapt up, but it all seemed far away, like images through the wrong end of a telescope. A fire in his head, from the blood rushing to his face, and that felt distant too. There must have been less than a second between Prawn's words and his response, but Joel had time to notice that some part of his mind was repeatedly and automatically trying to remove himself from the Aphanes -- it was irritating, like hearing someone bang a phone receiver back into the cradle again and again. Slamming himself back into physicality even though he hadn't left. Each time it set his teeth on edge, but it didn't take away the numbness. He could only listen to himself stutter.

"Wait, wait, just -- wait, wait..."

Whatever his brain was trying to convey with that, it gave up; he lost control of his power entirely, collapsing under the pressure of the air like a candle flame going out. He couldn't remember ever feeling so discombobulated, not since his father had died.

It left Paul behind, but Joel couldn't get himself back -- he materialised in the laundry room in the basement. Regressing, really. This used to happen when he was a teenager, waking back to the world in some completely different place from where he'd been when he disappeared. He didn't know what force it was that dragged him back after being out, as much as he'd tried to explain it to Paul, but it wasn't always under his control. Left to itself, it operated with only a rough predictability and sometimes with a bad aim. He didn't know how much time he'd lost, if any. Minutes? Hours? Tiny square tiles, the white metal machine churning and vibrating, the grit of spilled detergent crystals under his cheek. He pushed himself to sit upright.

No, this had definitely been more than a few minutes. He could tell from the feeling in his brain, strange, much like a seizure's aftermath minus the aching muscles and headache. Sounds were too loud, textures were too textured, and the seams and joints between moments, thoughts and events seemed weirdly obvious. He couldn't afford this right now.

He held onto the laundry table for balance as he stood up, and walked unsteadily to the stairs. Where he stopped suddenly and sat down on the bottom step, and began to cry. Hard, hopeless crying, like a child, sucking back all the sounds so that no one could hear, and he didn't know what it was for. He was thinking of his father, grief in his stomach, a heavy weight of it like dough that wouldn't rise, and he couldn't think why it would bother him now, now out of all the times for the last five years that he'd been without his father.

No, you know why. You know why. It's because there's no one to get you out of this now. There's no one to help you.

It was silly. His father might have helped with the Neurocherche issue, but neither of his parents could get him out of the hole he was in with his personal relationships. Joel was an adult. He had to fix this by himself.

This is all I have and I'm losing it.

Hodya was gone, and she'd been right to go. Paul would leave for the same reason, because you could only expect people to have sexless relationships for a limited time. A few years, at best. Then they'd leave. The only sensible solution had been for Joel to take this sexless life of his and elevate it to some good use, to find an Order where he wouldn't be the only one who was like this, where other people had impossible ideas too and cared too much about all the wrong things. But even that wasn't going to work, because in religious life you had to be a functioning fucking human being, and he still wasn't. After years of therapy and work, endless work, working on himself, constantly working and trying to be different, he was still the same.

He wiped his face on his sleeve and sank back into invisibility. It was late afternoon now, he could see as he moved through the house, through the walls with their pink fibreglass innards and metal-ribbed cables. This felt more and more like his natural state lately. Snow and static in the picture. Will and Faiza were gone. Paul had gone somewhere too, of course. Please come back. Please come back.

Joel drifted through the wall and passed over the deep snow in the backyard, through the fence and across the pine-dotted lawn to Saint Sulpice. He didn't bother to walk in the door, just faded back to physicality in the side chapel in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He was still overflowing with tears. Usually this happened after seizures, but occasionally it came over him a few hours before one, so that was something else fun to look forward to. Or maybe he was just this messed up. He knelt there with his arms folded over the edge of the pew, alone in the church, the monstrance a blur of gold and white above him, the sanctuary lamp a red star burning in its glass.

He didn't even know if he was allowed to be here. The church opened in the afternoons for Confession, but if there weren't any takers the priest often locked up again. Idiot, the monstrance is out, that means someone else is around.

And in fact, he heard footsteps approach behind him and pause at the end of the pew. "Need to talk?"

A priest, but no one Joel knew. That happened sometimes; visiting clergy would pop up for seminars, retreats, or special masses.

"Um..." Joel tried to get a clear breath, wiping his face again. "I don't know. Yeah, I guess. Unless you're busy."

"I'm busy doing this." The priest was old, skinny and bald with a few hairs left sticking up vertically at the back of his head, big ears, a mouth too wide for his face and eyes completely hidden by pouches, smile-lines, and other wrinkles. "You're English? Good, I don't know any French. Visiting from Chicago. If you'd been French I'd just have to sit here and cry with you. You want the box?" he asked, hooking a thumb over his shoulder at the confessional. "Face to face? Your dime."

"Here's fine, yeah," Joel said, pulling his sleeve over his hand to wipe his face one more time, trying to steer out of the squall enough to be able to talk. "I don't know if I can make a good confession, I haven't made an examination of conscience so I don't know if I'd remember everything."

"Listen to this, the guy's a pro. Well, we can just talk -- doesn't have to be a sacrament. Even though we're right in front of the Boss," the priest said with a smile, sitting down in the pew in front of Joel, turned to the side so they could see each other. "What's up?"

"Everything. Everything is up. Sorry, we haven't met," Joel said. "I live across the way, my name's Joel."

"I'm Leo. You want to start at the beginning? Or you could start at the end and work backwards, up to you. I like beginnings, myself, but you can't always remember them."

"Yeah." Joel got off the kneeler, sitting down and leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "Um, okay. Look, I have a neurological condition, and sometimes I just cry for nothing."

"Sure. I had a stroke two years ago," said Father Leo, lowering his head slightly to point at a faint scar on his skull. "Shakes things up. Things get to you in a way they didn't before. But I don't know as I'd say people ever cry for nothing." He paused. "An old woman told me once -- she was old when I was a kid -- she said tears come from the Holy Spirit. If humans were in charge of our own design, we'd never cry at all, she said. We wouldn't put that feature in. We always want to look strong. Dignified. But God gave us tears. God pushes us to tears. What do you think about that?"

"I think I'd like Him to stop pushing."

Father Leo laughed. "Good luck. What's He been doing with you? You look like God's been pushing you around a lot lately."

Joel ran a hand over his hair, which was too rumpled for showing up in public. "I don't know where to start this -- I'm a mutant, I own the Catholic Worker house around the corner. And up until December I was doing a theology degree at the Dominican Pastoral Institute here."

"You could stop right there and I wouldn't blame you for crying," said Father Leo. "What happened to put that in the past tense?"

"The vocations director said I wasn't right for it," Joel said. "And it was true, and I was exhausted. I didn't have the energy for school and the house both. And I was getting sicker. Epilepsy."

"Ah."

"So I left -- I don't even know if I'll finish the degree. Maybe sometime." Joel decided the mess with the government and Neurocherche wasn't the most important thing on his mind, spiritually, so he went on with his miserable love life instead. "I was seeing a girl, sort of. Long distance. I hadn't even really told her that I was serious about a vocation."

"Was that because you more serious about the girl, or the vocation, or both?" asked Father Leo. "Or neither?"

"I thought I was serious about everything. I was just...she's not an idiot, she knew. She broke it off a couple of days ago, but it wasn't much of a surprise to anyone." Joel looked down at the floorboards under the kneeler, shadowed in the dimness of the church. "She kinda thinks I'm gay. And I might be."

"You think so?"

"I kissed my best friend today. I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing, Father," Joel said, throat tightening again, and he kicked the kneeler. "I don't know what God wants."

"God wants you to find Him. And you did," said Father Leo. "You came to His house and you plunked yourself right down in front of Him. Good instincts. I know that's not the question you're really asking, but good instincts will take you far."

"I'm too twisted up to love anyone like that," Joel said, barely listening. "I can't be with a girl, and I can't be with a guy unless I leave the Church, and I can't, and I can't even be lonely in a constructive way because I'm not stable enough to be accepted anywhere. So my friend, my partner, he's not going to stay. He'll find someone who he can actually be with."

"You can see the future, huh? How are you with baseball scores?" The old man shifted his weight on the wooden pew. "First of all, may Thomas Aquinas strike me down, but the Dominicans aren't the only order out there, and you are very, very, very young. You've got a long life ahead of you, God willing, and it's a big world. There's room for you."

"I didn't even have the right reasons to join the Dominicans, though," said Joel. "It was all about me. It was trying to run away from all the rest of my problems."

"That's a smart thing to realise. Good you got it out of the way at this age. What are you, nineteen?"

"I'm twenty-three."

"Oh, excuse me. Pardon me, ancient one, I didn't realise I was talking to the mummy of Ramesses the Great. I'm seventy-five. C'mon, you've settled a big question -- that's a good thing, not a bad thing. You know yourself well enough to understand that religious life, for you, right now, would be a cop-out."

"I didn't know myself that well, though. I had to be told."

"Well, even better!" said Father Leo. "That means you had the humility to accept someone else's criticism, when it was on target. Good job. Shake my hand, kid. Put 'er there." He reached across the top of the pew for Joel's hand. "So we can look at the real problem instead. You don't want to be alone. You love your friend and you don't want to lose him. And God help you, you even love the Church. You don't want to lose her either. Right?"

"Yeah," Joel said, folding his arms on the top of the pew and resting his chin there. "And look, I know the counselling trick of telling the person they don't know the future and anything could happen, but it's realistic to say that a normal person isn't going to stay around forever in a situation with no hope of a romantic relationship."

"Isn't that what your plan is?" Father Leo said. "Why wouldn't your friend be just as nuts as you are? You're Catholic Workers, you guys are out there biting the heads off chickens compared with the rest of the world."

"He's not, though, he's here because he loves me."

"Loves you so much that you think it's inevitable that he'll leave?"

Joel raised his shoulders slightly, not taking the bait. "When a door's locked, eventually people stop knocking."

"Okay. I'll let you have that one." Father Leo sighed. "I could let you in on a little secret here -- lots of priests sit in the confessional every day and hear people confessing to all these sexual sins and we think...is this really the biggest thing keeping us separated from God right now? How many times a guy masturbated in a week? Do people feel liberated in spirit when they confess to this stuff? You know what sexual sins are, they're easy to count, so they lend themselves well to this sort of traffic-cop pastoring. Twice a day, seven days a week, Father. Where do your people come from, what part of the world?"

"Irish."

"Thought so. Mine too. My mother died when she was pregnant. She was having twins, which would have made nine of us, and she got a blood clot in her brain. She went to bed one afternoon with a headache, sent us kids over to Granny's to play so that she could get some rest, and a few hours later her sister came home and found her stone dead. The Pill would have saved my mother, and a lot of other women in my family too, going way back. Your family's probably the same way...maybe there are secrets no one told you, maybe it's out in the open. There's a lot of sadness in Irish-Catholic families about this. Lot of women who died young. Or they just died exhausted and broken." Father Leo turned to look up at the monstrance on the altar. "So people come and confess, like robots, that they had sex with a condom on or whatever. Or they don't confess it at all. My job is to act like that's a moral problem that deserves my attention. It's not easy. Why are we doing this? Why are we choosing to be hypocrites when we want to be merciful?"

"I know what you're saying," Joel said wearily. "But I don't want to just...do whatever and pretend there's no problem with it. I don't want to half-ass my spiritual life on purpose. I do that enough by accident already. And it doesn't matter if I just privately decide that I know what I'm doing and that God must agree with me, because you're not my regular confessor, and every week I'll still have to hear the hardliners preach about how..." He trailed off, not even wanting to summarise.

"Plenty of priests won't budge on the sexual sins, sure. I said that a lot of priests will quietly agree with you, but you're right, so what? How much is that worth? Can I really tell a guy like you that you should be getting accused with a shout and encouraged with a whisper?" Father Leo looked back at Joel. "This is something you have to ask yourself too. Maybe it's easy to kick yourself around and think God could never forgive you, but how do you feel about saying that to your friends? Could you say that to your friend who you love? That his love is disordered? Or would your conscience stop you?"

"I've never told him that," Joel whispered. "And I never will."

Father Leo nodded. "Aha. Well, left and right, cafeteria Catholics and Opus Dei, everyone agrees on this part: if there's a piece of doctrine that you can't stand behind -- you couldn't shout it from the rooftops, you couldn't whisper it to a friend, you couldn't live for it, you couldn't die for it -- then you need to let God teach you. Open yourself, turn yourself up to heaven like a big satellite dish, and listen."

"I'm trying."

"I know. And the right-wing crowd thinks that if you really try, inevitably you'll start to agree with them. But it's only an honest effort if you accept the possibility that your mind could be changed either way. 'All I want is the truth,' as St. John of Liverpool said. Just let me tell you one thing, okay?" Father Leo put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't make loneliness your first choice. Don't assume it's the best you can do. Maybe, even without sex, you can learn how to build a friendship that's just as rich and rewarding as a marriage. Maybe anything. You've got more options than you think. But don't choose to be alone because you're scared of the alternatives."

"I don't, I don't want to be alone," Joel muttered, rubbing his sleeve across his eyes again, feeling depleted and exhausted. "Took me long enough, but I don't want that anymore. God...sorry, I should get home," he said, pushing back to sit up and get to his feet. "Thanks, Father."

He smiled. "De nada. My next rosary, I'll keep you and your friend in mind. You gonna pray for me too? I'm up to my neck in special intentions."

"Yeah, sure," Joel said, smiling back, and disappeared.

* * *

When he came back to the house, Paul was back in the kitchen, looking blotchy and unhappy -- worried blue and angry indigo, the mealy brown-edged white of a wormy apple, the crashing vermillion of urgent pain. He was reading a book at the table and very obviously waiting, trying to look casual. Joel knew that tactic well himself, how awful it always felt. He materialised in the kitchen and sat down at the table.

"I know it doesn't really help," he said to begin, "but I didn't leave you there alone on purpose. I lost control and only got back about half an hour ago."

"Great," Paul said, snapping the book shut. "Then I guess I didn't get humiliated at all. Stupid me, thinking I did."

"I know it was probably a circus, and I'm really sorry. What can I do for damage control?"

Paul sighed. "Look, it was shitty because I had no idea what to tell them. 'Are you two together', 'why didn't you say so', 'I knew it,' all that. The fact that you weren't there made it look like it was some dirty little secret, and not even my secret. It was yours. That felt degrading. You left me swinging in the breeze, and I know you didn't mean to, but I'm not that convinced it would have been better with you there."

Joel took a few moments to digest that, and then said, "I would have stood up for you. I might not know all the answers to the questions they were asking, but I would have been on your side."

"Maybe. But they all know I'm the one who wants it," Paul said calmly. "It's an undignified position to be in. The one who gets to say yes or no always looks like less of a sucker."

"You're not a sucker."

"I don't plan to be. And I wasn't going to say anything about it while you and Hodya were together, but now I'd just like to stop pretending. Like this is a sitcom."

"Okay. I think that's a good idea too." Joel picked at the edge of the placemat. "You're not the only one with feelings here, Paul."

"Yeah, I know," he snapped. "That's the issue. I know what your feelings are. That's not some mystery to me! I can taste them in the back of my throat. What I've wanted, all this time, was just to hear you say it. Like you're not ashamed of it. I don't need people to tell me their feelings as some kind of, of -- giving me information that I don't already have. I've always known how you feel. That's what kept me on the line, even when maybe I should have given it up and just made an online dating profile. I knew that it wasn't just me, that you weren't ready but that we had something. But I want you to say it so that I know you're invested. Okay? So that I know it's real to you."

"All right, fine. I love you," Joel said, the words feeling strangely shaped and foreign as they came out of his mouth. Something he had never said out loud, in English, to Paul, with this meaning. "I liked kissing you. I always...I kind of liked it when people assumed we were a couple, because it felt like -- like there was an imaginary version of us and they were happier than we are. It would kill me if you left, and I'd be a selfish asshole if you got together with someone else, I'd be jealous. Okay?"

Paul smiled, finally. Just a small one. "Really? I would've put money on you doing a whole martyred so long as he's happy routine."

"No, I'd hate it. I'd be really passive-aggressive about it, too. What's more attractive than that, right? I'm such a catch." Joel got up to get a can of pop out of the box by the fridge; he kind of liked it at room-temperature, which bothered some kids in the house almost as much as Paul's usual diet. "That's kind of...that's one of the things that convinces me, you know? If we really were just friends and I wasn't attracted to you, I might be kind of picky about who you dated but I'd be happy when you found someone good. That's what the mythical straight guys are like, right?"

"So I'm told," said Paul. "Get me one too -- out of the fridge, freak. Listen, I'm not saying we should start anything right now. It's soon after Hodya, it's soon after your thing with the Dominicans. Timing is terrible. I'm sorry that I forced this issue by kissing you without asking, while we're on that."

"I'm not mad about it."

"But you could be and you'd have a right to it. Everything's up in the air, but I just..." He hesitated, taking the can of Coke when it was offered. "I did it because I just wanted to get real for a second."

"Well, mission accomplished." Joel sat back down with him. He didn't think he could face the Neurocherche problem without the stability of Paul -- who never thought of himself as stable, but now that he was on the right meds he really was. Still full of the old anxieties, but Paul had a strange bravery when the chips were down, deep reserves of strength, and Joel hated the thought of being disconnected from that. "Can we just...keep things the same? The same room, everything else?"

"Yeah. It won't be that awkward, and honestly, not to make you feel like an invalid..."

Joel did feel safer with Paul close by, whether a seizure happened in the bathroom or in his sleep, but he didn't like to detail those reasons out loud. There was so much he owed that he couldn't repay, and even though he knew it wasn't about owing, he still felt like he could never catch up. One day you'll use it all up, his brain whispered to him sometimes. One day you'll run out of people who still have the energy to deal with you, whether it's because you're sick or because you're just a load to have around. "I'd just kinda miss having you there."

"Me too."

"Listen, why don't we table it, so that you don't just feel like I'm dragging my feet indefinitely?" Joel said. "Easter's early this year, we'll talk about it then."

Paul laughed. "You're so spontaneous. And so romantic, using the liturgical calendar to schedule relationship talk."

"I thought it was a little romantic. It's Easter. Springtime, rebirth, liberation. If we feel spontaneous before that, we can go ahead and...do whatever," Joel said with a vague gesture, awkward. "I'm just saying the end of March is a hard limit and I won't try to weasel out of it. I've actually learned things from being with Hodya, believe it or not."

"You actually have. We can all hope that this government bullshit is resolved by then," said Paul. "So we'll be free to make our own lives complicated by ourselves."

* * *

On the topic of Neurocherche, Joel remembered that Prawn had come in the door saying Eureka, so he went and found Prawn in the living room upstairs, flipping idly through the Netflix menu. "Hey."

"Hey, um...sorry," Prawn said, looking guilty. "I guess you heard I made kind of a big deal out of everything."

"I didn't have to ask, but yeah."

"So are you two...it's none of my business, right?"

None of your business was as good as a confirmation, but Joel didn't care by now. "It's really not. I just wanted to know what had you so excited in the first place that you barrelled in the door like Archimedes. You left with Mars to go find Ox, so what did you come back for?"

"Oh. Em..." Prawn visibly had to try to remember. "We were on our way up to St-Viateur, where Ox usually hangs out, because he wanted to check up on a friend of his. We got to talking about Mile End, I forget why. But it made me remember the tower on top of the safety centre. Mars says it disrupts telepathy. I know that tower uses microwaves, so if Neurocherche is using something similar to keep its patients in line..."

"You can jam it?"

"I can do whatever you want to it. I don't really believe microwaves can stop telepaths, like, but you mentioned some sort of wearable psionic disruptors before -- however they work, they must have some computer circuitry, right? Bloody hell, I could fry every computer circuit in the building that isn't behind a Faraday cage. Electromagnetic pulse."

Joel had never done very well at physics, not even when Professor Xavier taught it. "You could do that? You've done that sort of thing before?"

"Well...scale is a bit of a problem," Prawn hedged. "I'd probably do too much damage rather than too little. But Neurocherche is off in the hills, isn't it? It's not as though I'd miss and knock out a hospital's equipment. Or an airport's."

"It's not in 'the hills', but it's a little bit off in the sticks, yeah." It was plausible, though. Knocking out the surveillance and the guards' means of communicating with each other, the chances of getting swarmed by armed security became very low. It was definitely faster and safer than Joel trying to grab the disruptors off each individual guard. "And like, you actually want in on this?"

"If I'm allowed. I know it'll fuck everything up for you if I get caught again," said Prawn sheepishly. "That's what I told those two from London, too. I want to wait a year before I start getting in trouble again, even if some government types say it's okay. They can always say that and then fuck me over later, aye? But I'd help with this because -- I mean, I could generate a pulse from the parking lot and drive away, no reason for me to stay long enough to get arrested."

"Yeah. Yeah, that might work, actually. If you're sure you'd only be wrecking property."

"Worst case scenario, possibility of electrical fires, if the heated wires cause sparks in the wrong places," Prawn said. "Damage to people, probably not. Something like a pacemaker would be fine because the works are sealed inside metal -- that's a Faraday cage. Same as how lightning can strike your car and you wouldn't get hurt if you were inside, yeah?"

"We'll talk it through with everyone else who wants to go," Joel said, trying not to make decisions for everyone else. "And we still need a safe place to put everybody who gets out. But we're getting somewhere."