Joe (5:47 PM): Nile and I are settled at the flat. Let me know if you want to swing by.
Nicolò di Genova, priest in the Church of God, has spent a large portion of his life not thinking. He finds his mind is a quieter place when he just doesn’t give certain thoughts the space to make themselves known. On most days he calls this discipline; sometimes he will admit it’s probably more like stubbornness. Either way, he’s had a lot of practice.
So he tries not to think too hard about his reply to Joe’s message, and the address that follows it. I’d love to—he begins, then backspaces. It will be so good to—no. He lets out a short breath through his nose, annoyed with himself. On my way. Twenty minutes, probably. The place they’re renting is near the university, not terribly far from Nicolò’s parish.
He locks his office and walks through the nave, poking his head into the sacristy to let the sexton know he’s leaving. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his coat as he makes his way towards the neighborhood where Joe and his research assistant will be living for the next four months, and steadfastly tries not to think about how the contact file on his phone that used to read Dr. Yusuf Al-Kaysani (Jerusalem) now simply reads Joe. Or how there is now a photo attached to that contact file, which means whenever Joe calls him Nicolò’s phone screen lights up with a selfie of Joe in a backwards baseball cap on a sunny day somewhere in Bloomsbury.
Nicolò swallows as he turns the final corner and tells himself that he isn’t nervous, that it doesn’t matter that the last time he saw Joe in person was the day they left Jerusalem, just over a year ago. An exchange during a post-lecture discussion had turned into a debate that continued over seven days, various holy sites, and uncountable cups of coffee. They had exchanged contact information ostensibly to keep the discussion going, and because who knew, it might be useful for an Italian parish priest and a Tunisian scholar teaching art history in London to know each other for professional reasons.
By the first month in it became clear that those reasons had been a slim pretext at best, as half of Joe’s messages were about the goings-on of his department (his colleague Andy sounded kind of scary, which meant Nicolò kind of wanted to meet her) and half of Nicolò’s messages were about the goings-on of his parish (which is how he mentioned, several months ago, that the lime wash on the walls of San Tommaso was starting to peel away, which was frankly the last thing he needed. His phone immediately lit up with a call from Joe, who said not to touch anything until he could put Nicolò in touch with someone who knew that they were doing when it came to removing lime wash. As soon as it became clear that there was something underneath that wasn’t just more lime wash, Joe moved heaven and earth to take his sabbatical in Genoa and bring one of his doctoral students with him.)
Nicolò rings the bell before he can let himself anticipate anything. He hasn’t waited very long when the door flies open and there’s Joe, wearing jeans and a dark green pullover and the brightest smile Nicolò has ever seen.
“It’s good to see you,” Joe says, and leans in for the requisite cheek kisses before Nicolò can worry about whether or not they’re going to do them.
“It’s good to see you too. You look well.”
The smile lines around Joe’s eyes deepen. “And you look like you came straight from work.”
Nicolò feels for the neckline of his shirt and realizes he’s still wearing his collar. He pulls the tab out of its channel and puts it in his bag. Nothing to be done about the shirt itself—clericals are clericals—but he now looks slightly more off-duty. If only it were possible to actually be off-duty in the priesthood.
“I didn’t mean—” Joe starts.
“No, don’t worry—it’s not the most comfortable. I just forget, most of the time.”
“Well, come in, come upstairs and meet Nile.”
Joe backs up to let Nicolò through the doorway and leads him up a flight of stairs into a modest two-bedroom. Nothing fancy, but not shabby. There’s a young woman standing in the galley kitchen, pouring hot water into a cafetiere. She glances up and smiles at him.
“Nile, this is Nicolò di Genova.”
“Nice to meet you,” says Nile. “Give me one second.”
“Take your time,” says Nicolò. “You’ve been traveling all day, you deserve not to rush now.”
Once she’s stirred the grounds and attached the piston, she extends her hand. “Nile Freeman. I’ve heard so much about you, Father di Genova.”
“Nicolò, please.” Her Italian is good, though there’s something in the accent that marks her as a foreign speaker, but doesn’t immediately give her away as an American. “She’s heard about me, eh?” he says to Joe. “What slander have you been spreading?”
“I spread nothing but the truth,” Joe insists. “You had some incorrect opinions about medieval iconography that have now been corrected by patience and persistence on my part.”
“Don’t worry, Nicolò, one of the reasons I made him bring me along was so I could hear your side of everything that happened in Jerusalem.”
Joe finds some mismatched coffee cups in one of the cupboards and hands three of them to Nile. “I’ll have you know you would have been coming with me no matter who I had to bribe to make it happen.”
“He doesn’t mean money,” Nile clarifies.
“I would have gone to Istanbul and back for Andy’s favorite baklava to get her sign off, had it been necessary.”
If Joe’s told Nile a lot about Nicolò, he’s told Nicolò at least an equal amount about Nile, and how bright she is, and how kind. She’s going to succeed on her own merits, Joe insists, but he’s also going to throw as much of himself as he can into making sure she gets the opportunities and fair considerations to make that success happen. Now, seeing them in a room together, their mutual respect and admiration for each other shines; their banter is almost familial. Nicolò finds himself wishing he’d had a relationship like that in seminary. Maybe he would have, had circumstances not been what they were.
“Have you been to Jerusalem, Nile?"
“Once, in college. It wasn’t for school, it was a church trip.”
“Tell him about the bishop’s ring,” Joe says.
She laughs as she begins to depress the piston on the cafetiere. “Right, so, I’m an Episcopalian, and the bishop in the diocese where I grew up used to be Roman Catholic. He was working on his doctoral dissertation—I forget what it was on—but somehow the Vatican got wind of it and ordered him to desist and write about something else, I guess. He refused, they excommunicated him, he finished the dissertation and was received in the Episcopal Church.” She divides the coffee between the cups and hands them around. “Eventually he’s elected a bishop and ends up taking a bunch of college kids from the Diocese of Chicago to Jerusalem. So there we are, at Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and there are these French Franciscans saying one of the minor hours—I think it was Terce. Well, they’re doing it in Latin, and my bishop remembers all the responses because he used to be a Jesuit, so he slips in behind them and joins in. And one of the brothers turns around and glares at him, so he raises the hand that has his episcopal ring on it, and this brother sees this huge amethyst, clocks that this is a bishop, and all the blood drains from his face and he turns back around. It’s the closest I’ve come to seeing someone give the finger in church.”
It's clearly a story she loves telling, although Nicolò gets the feeling she’s holding herself back despite Joe’s encouragement to tell it in the first place. This is a reaction he’s used to: people often see the priest before the man, and are sometimes overly cautious for fear of giving offense. Nicolò understands. He’s seen priests in his diocese have every possible reaction to comments both innocuous and serious, and it’s impossible to predict how any of those priests will react without actually knowing them personally.
Nicolò, Nile will learn, has a reputation for being generally good natured and having a noticeable lack of delicate sensibilities.
“French Franciscans,” Nicolò says, “are widely known for having no sense of humor. I should have liked to have been there and seen your bishop in action.”
“Are you saying all the fun Franciscans are Italian?” Joe asks.
“Well, we’ve certainly had them longer than anyone else. Stands to reason they’d be nicer, they have less to prove.”
“There’s something about material culture in there,” Nile says. “Amethyst rings in a specific context strike fear into the hearts of men, and also cross denominational lines, something like that.”
“No shop talk tonight,” Joe insists. “It’s about to be almost nothing but shop talk for months.”
He gets to have Joe in his city for months. Nicolò turns his coffee cup around in his hands. “Did you have a good flight?”
“That plane should only be trusted to cross puddles,” Nile says.
“And yet we stand before you,” Joe says to Nicolò.
“Next time we should go by train, Joe.”
“We were going for expediency.”
“Sue me for preferring to stay on the ground. And we don’t have trains in the States—not as good as here, anyway. I want all the trains I can get.”
They fall silent, sipping down to the bottom of their coffee cups.
“What are your plans for the evening?” Nicolò asks.
“Grab some groceries,” Joe says. “Eat something at an offensively early hour and then go to bed.”
“Lots to do tomorrow,” continues Nile. “Reading credentials at the university, checking in with the team to see where we’re at.”
“Well,” says Nicolò, setting his empty cup on the counter and ignoring the twinge of disappointment that this will be a short visit, “I shall leave you to it.”
“Urgent plans?” Joe asks.
“Not at all. I thought you might want the time to yourselves—”
“It’s groceries, Nicolò, and probably bread and cheese for dinner. If that’s an adventure you want in on, you’re more than welcome to be a part of it.”
Something in Nicolò’s chest loosens. It is no secret that loneliness is a particular plague of the priesthood, especially for clergy who do not live in community. Nicolò lives in a one-bedroom next door his parish, and is used to spending his evenings on his own. He is far more excited than he should be at the prospect of joining a long-distance friend and young woman he’s just met on a grocery run.
“I’d love to come.”
Nicolò sleeps poorly and is awake too early the next morning. His heart feels so full, knowing that he and Joe are in the same city, and he hates that he cannot trust that feeling.
He reads Matins, but the words feel hollow. They always do when he prays it by himself, but there’s nowhere he can go to say it in company and be back in time to say eight o’clock Mass. He dresses and eats before going next door to prepare for the service, which generally draws fewer people than he can count on two hands. The people working on the walls usually saunter in around nine, which is good incentive for keeping his homilies short. He wonders if Joe will be with them this morning, or if he’ll be taking care of other things, like the reading credentials Nile mentioned.
He vests in the sacristy, kissing the cross on his stole before he lays it around his neck. This is what grounds him, the ritual of things. Sometimes he thinks he could go full days without speaking, just moving about the church, washing the floor, changing the altar linen, oiling the woodworks. Maybe he should have been a sacristan instead of a priest.
There are five congregants at Mass this morning. It is the feast of St. Agnes, said to have gone to her martyrdom as cheerfully as other girls went to their own weddings. His homily is a brief meditation on the sacrifices the faithful are called to make for the Lord. As he sets the table for the consecration, he wonders if his sacrifices have pleased the Lord at all, or if the Lord has even noticed.
After he gives the dismissal, he stays to talk to his parishioners rather than immediately disappearing into the sacristy as he usually does. He hopes Signora Orsini doesn’t notice how many times he glances over her shoulder as she tells him how she thinks her granddaughter Giovanna has a calling to the sisterhood.
Joe indeed arrives around the same time as the workers do. Nicolò extricates himself from Signora Orsini as politely as possible and strides down the center aisle, the wide sleeves of his alb fluttering around his wrists.
“Good morning,” Joe says, and there’s that smile that haunts Nicolò’s dreams.
“Sleep well?” he hears himself ask.
“Like the dead. Yourself?"
“Passably. How’s it looking?” He gestures vaguely to the closest wall.
“I just got here,” Joe laughs, “I’ve barely had time to ask.”
“I’ll go, ah,” Nicolò starts, plucking at his stole. “Let me unvest.”
Joe nods and turns to the nearest member of the lime wash removal team. Their voices follow Nicolò as he turns into the sacristy. He closes the door behind him and begins to remove his vestments with shaking hands.
He didn’t expect it to be like this, not so soon. He thought seeing Joe in person would dispel any ideas, any stupid fantasies his mind has spun during this year of near-daily communication. Joe has his own life, his own career, his own faith, Nicolò doesn’t even know if he’s interested in men—
And none of it matters, he reminds himself. None of it matters because Nicolò is a priest, and he is a priest in no small part because this is how he gets to stay in the community that raised him, this is how he gets to give back to them. He should be grateful, and he should be putting extra emphasis on Lead us not into temptation.
One thing he does know: Joe deserves the world. He is in Genoa because a dream of a research opportunity fell into his lap by way of Nicolò’s church literally falling apart, and Nicolò is not going to let any of this inner turmoil show, because that’s not fair to Joe.
They are friends. That is a gift, that is one of the greatest blessings of Nicolò’s life. Nothing and no one is going to ruin that, especially not him.
He finishes hanging his vestments, then remembers the silver hasn’t been put away. He retrieves the chalice, paten, and cruets from the credence by the altar and washes them in water hot enough to turn his hands red. By the time he is finished, his mind feels clearer.
“Thought you might have gotten lost in your own church,” Joe says when Nicolò joins him.
“I had to do the dishes. Tell me about this crumbling church whose never-ending leaks and cracks keep me from sleeping at night.”
“We should be grateful that your lime wash started cracking, and also that comparatively little of the walls have been lime washed in the first place—this stuff is a beast to get off, but these guys have been doing a great job. Sorry about the dust.”
“Eh,” Nicolò shrugs, “it isn’t much we aren’t used to.”
Joe folds his arms and tilts his head back to look at the ceiling. Nicolò emphatically does not contemplate the curve of his neck. “This is a beautiful church,” he begins.
“Old,” Nicolò puts in.
“Very old. Romanesque. It’s like—it’s like a gem, a small one, like a simple gem in a simple ring. Nothing fancy, but beautiful in its simplicity.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“Do you not?”
Nicolò sighs. “I look around and I see—I see the hundred things that could go wrong that we can’t afford to deal with. The diocese is responsible for keeping the walls standing; the parish is responsible for the rest. The leaking roof, the draughts, all of that. If we don’t do precautionary work on some of the windows we’ll be in deep trouble with them in three years, at the most. I suppose I have always seen this place as plain. There is beauty in simplicity, as you say, but I…” He trails off. I have always wanted more. I have always wanted too much. I have always wanted.
“Ah,” says Joe. “You go more for the Gothic.”
“You are welcome to ridicule my taste for the ostentatious.” He says it jokingly, because he’s been reading about medieval architecture for the past year (and steadfastly not examining why) and he knows that the Gothic style was far from universally beloved in its own time.
But Joe turns to him, brow furrowed. “Why would I? Beauty, however we find it, draws our minds to the glory of God. There is nothing to ridicule there.”
For a moment, he cannot breathe. “No,” he says. “No, you are right.” He forces his lungs to work again. “But you have to admit there’s something funny about everyone trying to blame Gothic on someone else. Sometimes the Germans. Usually the Franks.”
“Understandable. The Franks are to blame for a lot.”
They stand side by side, looking at a wall with half its lime wash chipped away. The silence between them is one of the most comfortable things Nicolò has experienced. If silence between Nicolò and God felt like this, he would be a lot less nervous.
“I shouldn’t keep you,” Nicolò finally says. “But if you need anything, my office is through that door, then down the hall and on the right.”
“Got it. Join me for lunch, when it’s time?”
The next few weeks pass by in a steady stream of too-early mornings and more lime wash dust and café lunches after Joe returns from praying zuhr at the mosque down the street from San Tommaso. Nicolò finds excuse after excuse to wander through the nave throughout the day. He usually finds Joe in consultation with Nile and the other workers, or making notes in his sketchbook.
One day in February there’s a knock at Nicolò’s office door. It’s a welcome distraction from sermon prep; Ash Wednesday is coming up and, much as he would like to add that to the list of things he doesn’t think about, he is unfortunately obligated by his vocation to think about it quite a bit.
The door swings open and Joe pokes his head in. His hair’s gotten longer, long enough that his curls have absolutely been added to Nicolò’s not-thinking list. “I have something to show you,” he says.
Once they’re standing in the nave, Joe begins to explain. “Ever since you told me about this wash peeling away and there being something underneath it, I’ve been wondering why people decided to cover that something up. You expect lime wash in churches that used to be Catholic and became Protestant—happens in England especially. But this is a Catholic church in Italy, so it’s a bit odd. Not unheard of, but not obvious. Turns out, my friend, you’ve got graffiti.” The smile on Joe’s face indicates that this is wonderful news.
Nicolò can feel a smile breaking over his face to match Joe’s. “Tell me everything.”
“We love graffiti because it’s common—both in the sense of we find it in a lot of places and in the sense that it isn’t highbrow. This has been made by people making it for themselves, for their neighbors, not for patrons. It’s what people draw for fun, to express themselves.”
“Because they’re bored during the sermon.”
Joe gives a small laugh. “Possibly. But also because they want to make something. They want to leave something behind. They want to be remembered.”
“Joe!” Nile calls. “Come look at this snail!”
Joe and Nicolò sidle though the pews to the south wall, where Nile is standing in front of what is, frankly, a most excellent snail.
“It looks very friendly,” Nicolò says.
“Doesn’t it?” says Nile, and gives him a look that says, You get it. You can stay.
“Do you know when it’s from?” Nicolò asks.
Joe nods at Nile, lets her take over. “Not quite yet,” she explains. “Nothing we’ve uncovered so far has been tagged with a date, which might indicate that it’s on the early side. Most of the published research on this sort of thing is from English churches, and over there date tags generally become a trend during the early modern period. But, absence of evidence and all, so it’s really too early to tell without closer study. No writing, so far, so it’s also not entirely clear who made this graffiti—writing usually outs the upper classes. It’s possible these were mostly made by lower class people, but we can’t assume that.”
“This has been a lower class parish for a very long time,” Nicolò says.
“Most parishes are,” Nile replies with a grin.
“The rich don’t interest Nile,” Joe says. “I would say that’s a classic side effect of having me as a professor, but she was like that when she came to us.”
Nile shrugs. “Most people were common. Common people are interesting.”
“So this was washed over because people didn’t want to look at a friendly hand drawn snail?” Nicolò asks.
“It’s speculation, but basically yes,” says Nile.
“Tastes change,” says Joe. “What is and what is not considered appropriate changes.”
“Well,” says Nicolò. “I like San Tommaso better with this snail in it.”
Martedì grasso for Nicolò is filled with sweets, wine, and letting himself think about Joe just a little too much, for a little too long—all things that will be forsaken for forty days, or, in the case of the last, forever.
(He really doesn’t.)
Already Nicolò has spent more time than usual on his knees on the stone floor of San Tommaso in the early hours of the morning, running through his rosary over and over again—Holy Mary mother of God—and meditating not so much on the Sorrowful Mysteries as much as on his own troubles. Pray for us sinners, now and every time we feel ourselves falling more in love. You can always count on Mary for sympathy, he feels. She must have known such grief in her life. He hopes she knew much joy.
Christ also knew grief, he knows, and yet it is difficult for Nicolò to imagine Christ’s sympathy because he feels so deeply that he is failing. I have tried so hard to please you, he prays. I would say there is nothing I desire more, but you know every heart and you can see that is not true. But I want it to be true, I want to be as you want me to be. I know it is not meant to be easy but my God, I am in such pain.
In the days that follow Ash Wednesday, he finds himself sleeping even less and spending even more time kneeling on the floor in the darkness at either end of the day. Asceticism does not come naturally to Nicolò—he would not have been one for a hair shirt, hundreds of years ago. Focus, on the other hand, is something he has always been blessed with, a steely concentration that made him the envy of his seminary classmates and now allows him to ignore how his body aches as he kneels before the altar.
Joe has begun to notice. Their lunches are later in the afternoon now, to accommodate Nicolò’s fast, which does not break until three o’clock. This is not what concerns Joe—fasting he understands, actually better than most of Nicolò’s acquaintances—but he does notice that the shadows beneath Nicolò’s eyes have grown darker, and he doesn’t hesitate to say so.
“Are the leaks and cracks of San Tommaso all that keep you awake?” he asks. It is a Saturday evening, and Joe is sitting on Nicolò’s sofa nursing a large mug of tea.
It happened like this: Joe spent all day at the university library, Nicolò spent all day beating his Laetare Sunday sermon into submission, and around six o’clock his phone lit up with that stupidly beautiful photo of Joe that he shouldn’t have let himself save.
“Nile is going dancing tonight,” Joe said, “and not to be an old man or anything, but…”
“Come over to mine. I’ll make dinner. I’m very boring on Saturday nights.”
And now it is late—Joe has prayed isha and Nicolò compline—and they are still awake, still talking, and it is much too late, especially since Nicolò has to preach tomorrow, but he should have seen this coming, because he and Joe have never been able to stop talking to each other. Their first conversation lasted seven days, and they only paused to sleep.
“It is not just the church,” Nicolò admits. “I mean, it is not just the building. I…” He places his own mug on the coffee table and leans forward until he is bent almost double in his armchair, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Where to begin.” What can he say, that won’t give himself away completely? What can he say and keep his burden squarely on his own shoulders, where it belongs, instead of foisting it off on Joe? “Have I told you why I became a priest?”
“I don’t think so. Not directly, at least.”
“I was a sacristy rat,” he explains. “I was just—around, all the time. When I was a toddler my mother would bring me with her when she came to arrange the altar flowers. She would sit me on the counter of the sacristy and let me hand her flowers as she needed them.” He can see his mother’s face, as clearly as if she stood before him now, bathed in colored light from the small stained glass window in the sacristy of Santa Cecilia, can smell the beeswax and the oil soap. “Both of my parents were very involved. I became an altar boy as soon as I was old enough to be trusted with fire. I liked church when I was young, and I didn’t grow out of it, and when you make it to university and you are still very interested in church and not at all interested in girls, people start to ask you if you’ve thought about a vocation to the priesthood.”
Joe nods, takes a sip of tea. The expression on his face is open, neutral, and his attention is so thoroughly dedicated to Nicolò right now that Nicolò feels like he could cry.
“Well,” he sighs, “just because I am not interested in girls does not mean I am not interested in anyone. But giving my life to God seemed like…fair payment?”
“Payment for what?” Joe asks.
“To be able to stay. In my family, in my church. But now I have given God my life and I am—I am miserable.” He shudders and reaches for the cardigan hanging on the back of his armchair. He can feel a chill coming on—he always starts to shiver when he gets upset like this. “I think that’s the first time I’ve said that out loud. I don’t have many friends anymore—they’ve moved or they’ve married or they didn’t know what to do with me once I entered seminary. People don’t generally invite the clergy out dancing. My father died shortly after my ordination, and my mother moved in with one of her sisters, in the mountains where they grew up. I am my parents’ only child, and we don’t have family in Genoa, we moved for my father’s job when I was a baby. I’m beginning to wonder what there is to stay for, but then I worry that I’m failing, that I’m missing the entire point of sacrifice.”
He has been staring at his hands, twisted together in his lap, but now he makes himself look up. There’s a furrow between Joe’s eyebrows; his expression is now one of…concern? Confusion?
“Please,” says Nicolò. His voice feels ragged. “If you have anything to say…”
Joe sets his mug on the table. Folds his arms, tilts his head. This is what he does when he’s looking for just the right words, Nicolò knows, and he loves him all the more for it.
“You know God wants you to be happy, right?”
Whatever Nicolò was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Pardon?”
“You say you are miserable—that is serious, Nicolò. That is not something to be passed over in the name of—explain it to me again? You feel that God desires your pain?”
“No,” he insists, “not exactly. More like…pain is to be expected, from life? And we are not supposed to try and evade it, but to offer it to God. In following God we sacrifice our own comfort.”
“What you just said and what you have described feeling are not the same thing. We sacrifice our comfort for God when we fast during a holy season, or make do with less for ourselves so we can give to those who have greater need. But to spend your life lonely and sad and to think that is the will of God—forgive me for asking, but what the hell do they teach at your seminaries?”
Nicolò gives a bitter laugh. “It isn’t just seminary. I went to school with a girl who desperately wanted to be married one day and have many children, and because of this she was convinced that God would call her to the single life, and require her to sacrifice that desire.”
Joe leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Nicolò. I mean this with love and respect: that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Nicolò laughs again, in earnest this time, because Joe is so lovely, and it is so late, and he is so tired. “I will have to pray on that,” he says, and for the first time in a long time he actually means it. “I am so sorry, if I keep talking any longer I will make even less sense than I already am.”
“No, no, it’s on me, I’ve kept you up too late, and on a Saturday night, too.” It is now actually early Sunday morning.
“I’ll walk you back,” Nicolò says. “You shouldn’t walk alone at this hour.”
“Then you will not be asleep for another hour at least, and you have a long day tomorrow.”
“I will not sleep at all if I’m worrying about you.”
“I’ll text you when I’m home safe.”
“Joe…” It’s as though the exhaustion has crashed over them like a wave. Joe looks like he’s halfway asleep already, and Nicolò feels the same. “You could—I have it on good authority that the sofa is very comfortable. I could make it up for you, if you like.”
“Whose good authority?” Nicolò can hear a hint of good-natured teasing beneath the sleepiness.
“My own, when I fall asleep by accident and don’t wake up until I’m almost late to say Mass. I could lend you something to sleep in, we’re about the same size—or, God, I could call you taxi, I’m so exhausted I forgot about taxis.”
Joe begins to laugh, a soft, slow thing that burbles out of him like water from a fountain, and he keeps laughing until he’s leaning over the armrest of the sofa for support. “So did I,” he finally says, “which I’m going to take as a sign that we both need to go to sleep immediately. So yes, I will crash on your sofa.”
Nicolò locates a t-shirt and sweatpants as well as a spare toothbrush and begins to make up the sofa while Joe is in the bathroom changing. Sheet, pillow, two blankets—he doesn’t know if Joe runs hot or cold.
When Joe emerges, it becomes clear that they are in fact that exact same clothing size, and Nicolò attempts to banish any thoughts of a future where they one day lose track of whose clothes belong to whom.
He expects to sleep even more poorly than usual, with Joe just in the other room, but the exhaustion combined with the knowledge that Joe is close and Joe is safe lead him to complete unconsciousness as soon as his head hits the pillow
Nicolò is in the nave watching the team work on Monday morning when Nile sits down in the pew in front of him and twists around, folding her arms across the pew’s back.
“Joe’s at the library this morning,” she says.
“I know,” says Nicolò. “I thought I’d just come observe for a bit. Find any more snails?”
She has started to say something already, but clearly can’t resist stopping in her tracks to answer the question. “No more snails, but several excellent hawks, a cat I would have been friends with, and a hedgehog.”
“It might be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Nicolò smiles. “I’m so glad you’re here finding hedgehogs on the walls of my church.”
“So I am.” She gives him a quick smile in return, but it fades as she circles back to what she had been about to say. “Father di Genova.”
“Nicolò, sorry. Childhood habits. You—” She stops, thinks. She reminds him of Joe, in this way. “You know that Joe is not the sort of person you meet every day.”
“And you know that he is very important to me.”
“I do.” He knows where she is going with this, and wonders how close she’ll come to admitting her suspicions aloud.
“Be careful,” is all she says, but her face says the rest. Do not toy with him. Break his heart, and answer to me, I don’t care that you’re a priest.
He feels paralyzed. If she is saying this, it means he is not hiding his feelings as well as he thinks. But does it also mean that Joe—?
He cannot let his mind go there. If he had any reason to believe Joe would love him back, there is no telling what he would do, what he would leave behind. He does not let himself contemplate it idly because it would require him to admit how easily he would be willing to walk away from everything for that man, and damn the consequences.
But consequences cannot be evaded, whether you damn them or not, and he cannot consign anyone else to them, least of all someone he loves.
“I understand,” he says to Nile. “I hear what you are saying.”
“Ever since Joe came back from Jerusalem, he’s been…brighter?” Her inflection suggests she’s searching for a word and hoping it’s the right one. Nicolò nods and she continues. “Like there is a secret he carries with him and even on a dark day he can think of it and give himself a bit of light. We’re a small department, you see, we’re like a little family, we notice. You don’t strike me as a careless man, but I do not know you as well as some. I thought you should know.”
Nicolò swallows, nods. His mouth is dry. “Thank you.”
She nods back and stands. He does not want this to be the end of the conversation, the words that echo in his mind for the rest of the day, so he asks, a little too abruptly, if he she plans to go to Holy Week services. She hasn’t been coming to San Tommaso on Sundays, but that’s all he knows about her churchgoing habits.
She sighs. “I’ve been wondering what to do—I haven’t been going to church in Genoa because I don’t enjoy being denied Communion despite my valid baptism.”
“But I can’t imagine Holy Week without church, so I’ll probably just deal with it.”
Nicolò nods. It is a rule he’s frankly never been able to logically parse. If Nile told him she wanted to become Roman Catholic, he wouldn’t re-baptize her—she is right about her baptism being valid, or at least acknowledged as valid under certain circumstances. And as for making sure everyone who receives the Eucharist holds with Roman Catholic doctrine on the subject—he can’t even ensure that’s true of all his parishioners.
“I wouldn’t worry,” he says, “about Communion. I bet I can talk to the priest.”
The corner of Nile’s mouth kicks up. “I would appreciate that.”
Nicolò stands. “Well. I have a parish council meeting to prepare for.”
“I should get back to my hedgehog.”
He lets himself back into the church that night, after parish council (God give him strength), after compline. The Lady Chapel is roped off while the crew works on removing the lime wash. The statue of Mary has been removed and stored in the sacristy; she was veiled for Lent anyway, so it isn’t much of a loss. Nicolò makes his way toward the high altar instead, and prostrates himself before it for the first time since his ordination.
Nicolò has learned, perhaps not in so many words but through the osmosis of so many years, that his happiness is irrelevant and his will is wrong, especially because his will involves falling in love with men. The only will that matters is the will of God and his submission to it, his own happiness be damned. But he cannot stop hearing Joe say You know God wants you to be happy, right?, cannot drown out Nile’s voice telling him There is a secret he carries with him and even on a dark day he can think of it and give himself a bit of light. And what did Christ say about lighting a lamp only to hide it under a bushel basket?
He has made so many choices in the belief he was following God’s will, and now he is beginning to believe he never knew God’s will at all.
He is terrified. He says so, aloud, because he is lying with his face pressed against the ground of an empty church, and if he cannot say things aloud here, he cannot say them anywhere. He loves Joe, he is in love with Joe; even he, master of not thinking about things, has not been able to hide that from himself since Joe has been in Genoa, and now that he has spoken to Nile, he has some reason to suspect that the love isn’t solely on his side.
Why did you make me this way? Why would you send this love to me when I cannot reach out and grasp it? I hate that I’ve been made to feel I cannot trust my own mind, my own desires. I have always desired you, and your love, and to do your work, but it has never been the only thing. I do not think I can love only you. I realize now I never asked if you wanted me to.
He stays there for a very long while, is dimly aware of the chills rolling over his body and the tears rolling off of his face.
His last thought before he picks himself up off the ground is, I cannot continue like this.
He decides not to say anything to anyone until after Easter. This is partly to be sure about what he wants to do, and partly because he does not trust his bishop not to yank him away from his parish immediately, and he needs this last Easter with them. The separation, when it does come, will likely be swift. This is not retirement or a re-assignment, to be done just after the next great feast. This is going to be scandalous.
He is acutely aware of this as he washes the feet of his parishioners on Holy Thursday. The ritual is meant to remind him that as their priest, he is their servant as well as God’s. He worries that he hasn’t done a particularly good job of serving them, over the past year especially.
Then Nile sits down in the chair in front of him, one shoe and one sock held in her right hand. He scoops water from the basin over her bare foot with his hand, and glances up at her as he towels her foot dry. She smiles at him, and he worries a bit less.
He is grateful when Saturday comes and the great fast of Lent ends—Lent itself ends on Holy Thursday evening, but Good Friday is still a major fast—and close to ecstatic on Sunday when he shares Easter dinner with Nile and Joe. He insists on cooking, and they insist on him using their flat because it’s bigger than his. He and Nile split a bottle of wine, only to find that they’ve both lost all their tolerance after forty-odd days without it. The evening passes in a warm, rosy glow, and Nicolò feels satisfied for the first time since—since he cannot remember when.
Nile goes to bed early, citing a combination of wine and the fact that this is her last month in Genoa and the work is about to become even more all-consuming. Nicolò doesn’t miss the look she levels him before she excuses herself. Remember. Dessert and coffee have mostly sobered him; that look clears his head fully.
Joe has produced a sketchbook when Nicolò wasn’t looking and is flipping through it now. “Did I tell you about what we found in the Lady Chapel?” he asks. Nicolò tells him he has not. “These.” He flips the sketchbook around so Nicolò can see, holding it open with one hand.
Joe nods. “That side chapel hasn’t always been for Mary,” he explains.
“I knew the statue wasn’t nearly as old as the rest of the church.”
“That’s right, statue’s nineteenth century. Before it was a Lady Chapel, it was probably dedicated to San Nicolò.”
San Nicolò, patron of nearly everyone, it seems, but most importantly in this case, sailors. It isn’t surprising that there used to be a chapel for him at San Tommaso, Nicolò thinks. To call Genoa a seafaring town is an understatement.
“So people would draw these ships to…ask him for help?”
“Yeah—usually for specific circumstances. A loved one they wanted to come home, a merchant ship they needed to come in.”
“Every ship a prayer.”
“May I see?” Nicolò asks, gesturing at the sketchbook. “I won’t turn pages without asking.”
For a moment he is sure Joe hesitates, but then the sketchbook is in his hands and he thinks he might have imagined it.
“Some of the ships have names or dates by them,” Joe explains as Nicolò examines the drawings. “So we finally have concrete dating for some of them. Fifteen hundreds, mostly.”
Nicolò knows his city’s history. “Some of these had to have been steeped in blood.”
“Yes,” Joe says. “Most of them, maybe. But some of them were probably people trying to make their way home.”
Nicolò hums thoughtfully. “Do you have a sketch of Nile’s snail?”
Joe snorts and gets up to stand behind Nicolò, reaching over his shoulder to thumb through the pages. “There should be one a few pages back—”
The sketchbook is mostly full of graffiti renderings, but there are a couple of drawings from days they’ve spent around the city—there’s the waterfront, the mosque that Joe goes to. There’s a page of someone’s face, over and over, but Nicolò’s brain doesn’t register who it is until Joe’s hand fumbles and can’t get the page turned, and Nicolò realizes he’s looking at himself.
Joe clears his throat. “Your face is fiendishly difficult to get right.”
His tone is almost unreadable, but there’s the slightest catch in his voice that makes Nicolò turn his head. His gaze meets Joe’s, and there is no hiding anymore.
It shouldn’t be possible, he thinks, for two people to keep their love a secret from each other and then give themselves away with a look. But today he celebrates how Christ went quite literally to hell and back, so clearly stranger things have happened.
“Well,” Joe says, a rueful twist at the corner of his mouth. “Now you know.”
Nicolò wants to smooth every worry line away, wants to soothe Joe in ways he’s never been able to soothe himself. He reaches for one of Joe’s hands and twines it with his own, pressing them both against his shoulder.
“I would rather you let me down quickly than gently.” Joe’s voice is hoarse, barely there.
“No.” There’s no point now in being anything but direct. “I love you.” He feels Joe’s grip tighten against his own. “I—give me a moment. I want to get this right.” Joe kneels next to the chair, like he doesn’t trust himself to keep his feet. He doesn’t let go of Nicolò’s hand. “Meeting you in Jerusalem was the best thing that ever happened to me. Becoming your friend has been the greatest joy of my life. Falling in love with you…has forced me to look directly at things I have spent many years ignoring. And Joe—if you did not feel the same, if you do not, you must know that your friendship means more to me than I can say, and I would not give it up for the world.”
Joe leans forward, presses his forehead against Nicolò’s. “I love you so much there are days when it feels like I’m drowning.” A noise escapes Nicolò that might be a sob. “But I cannot ask anything of you. I cannot bear the idea that you might one day resent me.”
“I could never resent you,” Nicolò insists. It is the sort of sweeping statement no one should be able to make with absolute certainty, but absolute certainty is what he feels. “And what I need to do next—I am doing it because it is what I need to do, for me. But I don’t think I would have done it if I hadn’t met you. I don’t think I would have had the strength.”
“I wish it weren’t necessary. Why is it required of you, to forsake a life shared with a lover for a life shared with God? Is God so small that he cannot ask you to do both?”
Nicolò’s mind trips over explanations about undivided attention and celibacy as a higher spiritual state, neither of which have proven particularly true in his experience. “I do not think God is so small,” he says, “but my it seems my Church is. And I think I will share more of my life with God if I also share my life with you. But I feel I cannot ask anything of you either—this choice is mine, I do not want to put the weight of it on you.”
“The choice is yours, but you can share the weight, Nicolò. That’s what love is.”
Nicolò nods, his nose brushing against Joe’s. They are so close, it would be so easy…
He can’t. Not until everything is finalized. Broken vows aren’t fair to either of them.
“The next few weeks will be busy,” he says. “You finishing your work, me with…this. Can we continue as we were, lunches and walks by the harbor and you telling me I’m wrong about art history?”
He can practically feel Joe’s smile. “Yes.”
“And then I can come see you in London, perhaps?”
Nicolò raises their interlaced hands to his lips and presses a kiss against the back of Joe’s hand. “I am going to get my coat, and I am going to get a taxi home, and I will see you tomorrow.”
“Not too early,” Joe says. “You’ve had a long week.”
“I’ve had a long year.”
He has his coat halfway on when Joe leans against the wall in front of him and softly says “Nicolò.” He looks up, coat hanging off one shoulder, and raises his eyebrows by way of question. “Every day for the past year I have thanked God for sending me you.”
Nicolò suddenly has difficulty finding the other sleeve. “I wish I could kiss you right now.” He wants to memorize the look in Joe’s eyes—slightly shocked. Fond. Hungry. “What?” he continues. “Might as well start being honest about things.”
Almost before he realizes it, he’s wrapped in Joe’s arms, face turned against Joe’s beautiful neck. He can feel Joe’s hand against the nape of his neck; he buries his own hand in Joe’s curls and it’s just as perfect as he imagined.
“If I don’t go now,” he whispers after a few moments, “I never will.”
Joe lets him go. “Text me when you get home.”
In the time-honored tradition of Christian priests the world over, he sleeps through most of Easter Monday. On Tuesday, he calls his spiritual director (the poor man’s in for a shock, especially since Nicolò’s been avoiding him for the better part of a year). On Wednesday, he calls his bishop. On Thursday, he calls his mother.
It is not as much of a scandal as he expected. Now that his mind is clearer, he’s realized he can tell his bishop he wishes to be released from his clerical state in order to marry without specifying the gender of the person involved. It’s a common reason to ask to be released—the most common reason, he suspects—and he thinks he hears his spiritual director mutter something under his breath about there being no clerics left if the pope doesn’t change the celibacy requirement. Nicolò sees no reason to inform the man that the pope would still have objections in his particular circumstance.
They let him say a proper goodbye to his parishioners—Nile is in the congregation on his last Sunday, Joe cooks him dinner after a long day of farewells, and he loves them both for it. They let him stay in the flat til the end of April, and he signs a month-to-month contract on a new place right before Joe and Nile leave Genoa.
He goes with them to the train station—they’re spending a few days in Rome before flying back to London, as Nile’s never been and they both deserve the time off. Nile manages to tactfully disappear in search of coffee around the time Nicolò realizes he actually has to say goodbye.
“I’ve grown used to having you in the same city now,” he says.
“You’ll be in London soon.”
“Before the month is out, probably.”
“Still seems too long.”
“I know.” He cannot kiss Joe in the middle of the train station for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his laicization paperwork hasn’t come through yet. “I love you,” he says instead. “Have fun in Rome.”
“I love you too, light of my eyes.”
Nicolò raises an eyebrow. “Does this mean I need to start thinking of things to call you?’
Joe slings an arm around his shoulder. “I expect you to have a list when you turn up at my door.”
“So I can run things by you for approval?”
“I say we throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.”
“Gonna stick you to the wall,” Nicolò mutters, his mouth against Joe’s ear. “Clear your schedule.”
“There is so much to unpack there, and I can’t wait to do it, but this is not the conversation I need to be having right before I get on a train with Nile.”
“You’re right.” He presses his nose against Joe’s temple and extricates himself from Joe’s grasp. “Safe travels. I love you.” He knows he’s just said it, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever tire of saying it.
His paperwork comes through. He is forbidden to exercise his power of orders, dispensed from his obligation to celibacy, released from his obligation to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. He realizes he needs new clothes, having lived mostly in clericals for the last few years. He’s worn uniforms for basically all of his life, and doesn’t see why that needs to change, so he finds plain, comfortable things and buys them in a variety of neutral colors.
He drives to the mountains to see his mother. Laicization is something he could start to explain over the phone; Joe can only be discussed in person. He manages not to cry until he is enveloped in a hug that lasts several minutes, during which his mother tells him that all she’s ever wanted is for him to be happy. He gets the feeling she doesn’t completely understand, but he loves her for making that secondary to her love for him.
True to his word, Nicolò is in London by the end of May. Walking from the Tube station to Joe’s flat feels like an echo from January, except that the streets are unfamiliar and he isn’t steadfastly trying to avoid thinking about kissing Joe within an inch of his life.
“Hello, heart of my heart,” he says when Joe opens the door.
Joe grins and hauls him upstairs and inside.
Nicolò drops his bag and has Joe against the door almost before it’s closed. “I know there’s a lot to talk about,” he says, “but if I don’t kiss you now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Joe grabs the front of his shirt with both hands and pulls him even closer, and that’s answer enough.
The moment right before his mouth meets Joe’s is filled with more desire than Nicolò has felt in his entire life up to this point, but is immediately surpassed by the moment his mouth actually meets Joe’s.
It isn’t frantic. It’s deep, and sure, and Nicolò feels warm and loose like he’s on this third glass of spiced wine at Christmas. He had forgotten his body could be used for this, could know this much. Joe surrounds him in every way: hands in his hair, beard against his skin, taste in his mouth. It makes him want to throw open the windows of his soul, shut up for too long against everyone, including himself, including God.
“I wasn’t kidding,” Nicolò says, some time (a long time?) later. “I hope you cleared your schedule.”
“We’ve got three days and a fully stocked pantry.”
“That’s a good start.”
They stumble toward Joe’s bedroom and start shedding clothes. “I want to map every inch of you with my mouth,” Joe says, and Nicolò nearly gives himself whiplash snatching off his shirt.
They tumble into bed and into each other, headed nowhere fast, exploring each other with a single-mindedness that reminds Nicolò of prayer. He stretches himself over Joe and marvels at how Joe squirms beneath him, pupils wide and lips parted in a way that requires Nicolò to kiss him again and again until they are rocking together, until Nicolò is kissing his way down Joe’s body and settling between his legs, until he feels the blissful sharpness of Joe pulling at his hair as Nicolò dedicates his considerable powers of concentration to making Joe feel incredibly good.
He’s worried he might feel vestiges of shame he doesn’t actually mean, like some phantom limb of guilt, but his mind and his senses are so full of this miracle of a man that there isn’t room for anything else. And then Joe flips Nicolò over and makes good on his promise, sucking bruises into Nicolò’s neck until he moans, touching him and loving him so thoroughly that Nicolò can’t form a single thought that isn’t, “God, that’s—yes—please don’t stop—Yusuf.” His lover has a beautiful name, and he draws out the consonants like a caress.
After some time, their more dedicated explorations cease and they wrap themselves around each other.
“How are you feeling?” Joe asks.
“Me? I feel incredible. And you?”
“Still wrapping my head around what a blessing you are.”
“Careful, my love, you’ll make me think too well of myself.”
Joe props himself up on one elbow and looks down at him. From Nicolò’s vantage point, he might as well be the sun. “I think you could stand to hear about how wonderful you are. I think it would do you good.”
“Is that why you asked how I am?”
“I asked because checking in with your lover is generally considered best practice. But, ah, I also wasn’t sure…You’ve had a lot of change, recently. It’s a lot to take in.”
Nicolò nods. “Come back down to me.” Joe lays back down and Nicolò turns into him, an arm curving around his waist. Joe’s face from this angle, cushioned on a pillow and mirroring Nicolò, may be the best sight Nicolò’s ever seen. “It may be hard to believe, but I’ve never really been bothered by the fact that I love men. I was bothered by the idea that other people might not love me anymore, so I found a way to avoid the question and convinced myself it was what God wanted of me. I was wrong about that. This is what I’m meant for, Yusuf. Loving you. My loving you cannot bring anything other than joy to the heart of God.”
Joe traces his thumb along Nicolò’s cheekbone. “Now how I am supposed to follow that? I’ve had reams of poetry ready to pour out of me about you for months and you beat me to it.”
Nicolò laughs. “Don’t think you can get out of sharing it. I want to hear it all.”
“Mmm.” Joe rolls onto his back and pulls Nicolò across his chest. “We’ll start here. About a month after I got home from Jerusalem I realized we were friends. About two months after that I realized that hearing from you had become the best part of my day.”
“Even when it was just animal vidoes?”
“Listen, you once sent me a video of a platypus that that stopped me from punching a wall after a committee meeting.”
“Always glad to be of service.”
“Six months after we left Jerusalem I realized I was in love with you. I had a bit of a breakdown about it.”
“You hid it well.”
“It’s easier to hide it when you’re eight hundred miles away. I was worried I’d give myself away every time we talked on the phone.”
Nicolò presses a kiss against Joe’s chest. “You either hid it very well or I was very distracted.”
“And then once I was done with the breakdown I realized I wanted you in my life however I could have you. You’re a treasure, my heart. The best man I know. I love your kindness, and your devotion, and that you know how to admit when you’re wrong. I have lived in a lot of difference places, Nicky. Being with you feels like going home.”
Nicolò twists in Joe’s arms and kisses him softly. “This is a good beginning.” He kisses him again, for good measure. “No one’s called me Nicky in a very long time.”
“Is that okay?”
He smiles. “Feels like going home.”
Later that night, after they eat dinner with very few clothes on and shower until the hot water runs out, he snuggles against Joe and says, “You know you’re going to have to teach me Tounsi and Tamazight, right? Because I plan to meet your family one day and I’m not having your aunties talk about me in a language I can’t understand.”
He feels Joe laugh against the back of his neck. “As you wish, my heart. I get off easy in that respect.”
“You wish you did. My mother speaks Zeneize at home.” He brings one of Joe’s hands to his mouth and presses a kiss to his palm.
“You realize that your insistence on being closer to the door means I’m going to have to climb over you for fajr, right?”
“Darling, I am prepared have you climb over me for fajr for the rest of our lives.”
Three years later, they’re in Genoa on holiday. It’s the first time Nicky’s been back since leaving. He needed the space, but he’s missed his city.
Nicky is stretching his legs in the upper lobby of the Teatro Carlo Felice during the intermission of a very enjoyable production of The Marriage of Figaro when he hears a voice say, “Father di Genova?”
He has not been Father di Genova for years, of course, but who else could they be talking to? He looks around for the source of the voice and spots Giovanna Orsini, who was a reserved teenager when he left and now appears to have become a poised young woman.
“Sorry,” she says, when she gets closer. “I know it’s Signor di Genova now. I was surprised.”
Nicky remembers her coming to say the rosary every Saturday. She was the youngest woman in the parish who wore a chapel veil. “How have you been?”
“I’m well.” There’s a curious inflection to her voice he can’t put his finger on. Nerves, perhaps? He’s known her since she was a child, why would she be nervous? “I’m at university now. Listen—I don’t want to bother you, and I don’t want to pry, but I have to ask—is it true you left the priesthood to marry a handsome archaeologist you met in Jerusalem?”
“He’s an art history professor,” Nicky says, before he can stop himself. “I mean—yes, that is true.”
Relief washes over Giovanna’s face, along with a smile that might be the happiest expression Nicky’s ever seen on her face. “Marco and Sophia are going to be thrilled.” Nicky searches his memory and finds Sophia, who always wore suits to church, and Marco, who—oh. Okay. This is making sense now.
“Were you in Malta relatively recently? I only ask because if you were, Marco owes me ten euro. He didn’t believe Guiliana when she told us her cousin saw you on a beach there, um…” She is probably trying to avoid using the phrase “sucking face with your husband,” because that is what they spent most of their time in Malta last year doing.
“Yes, that was us,” Nicky says. “Tell Marco I told him to pay up.”
“I will.” She’s beaming at him. “I am glad you’re happy, Signor di Genova. It is good to see we can be happy.”
Now that his bewilderment has passed, he gives her a soft smile in return. “You are grown now, Giovanna, and I am no longer your priest. You can call me Nicolò. In fact.” He holds out his hand. “Give me your phone.” She hands it over, and he starts typing. “This is my email address. If you or Marco or Sophia ever need to talk, you write to me.” She nods as she puts the phone back in her purse. “I am sorry I did not take better care of you while I was at San Tommaso. There was so much I didn’t know then that I know now. If I may offer some unsolicited advice, don’t join the sisterhood because you think it’s going to solve certain problems.”
Giovanna nods. “There’s no danger of that. Much to my nonna’s dismay.”
“And know that there is no reason to be ashamed. None whatsoever. Love is of God, Giovanna. If you remember nothing else, remember that.”
There are tears welling in her eyes now. He opens his arms, a question, and she steps forward and into a hug. “I’m so glad I ran into you,” she says.
“Me too.” The lights flash, signaling that intermission is coming to a close, and he can't help himself. "Go in peace," he says.
When he is back in his seat, just in time for the house lights to dim, Nicky slips his hand into Joe’s and leans in to kiss his cheek. “I have such a story to tell you when we get home.”