Shortly after hiring Catherine Lovell, I had qualms about seeing such a stunning woman in my office from day to day. My marriage of five years was foundering because of close female encounters, and I really wanted to keep my mind on business. There were several qualified applicants for the assistant position who weren’t shapely brunettes with doelike eyes. And Ellen, my wife, would never accept that looks mattered in crafting insurance contracts.
Some of my anxiety faded when I glanced again at Lovell’s résumé. On her way to a degree from a Catholic women’s college, she had indeed taken courses in math and law. But she had majored in theology. Before long I realized she was deeply religious.
It started to come out when she expressed disapproval of adultery. One of our underwriters’ frequent house calls had become an office joke, and a copy of his client’s straight-life policy did the rounds with a mock insert: “WHEREAS extramarital sex increases the risk of HIV, heart attack, domestic violence, etc., the aforesaid premiums will be hiked 10 percent.”
Catherine Lovell’s comment: “I don’t think adultery is funny.”
“Depends on your point of view,” I replied. “You can make fun of it.”
“You’d have to show me.”
I came up with an old riddle. “What are the ABCs of suburbia?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Adultery, booze, and crabgrass.”
One of the actuaries, listening in, said, “Adolescence is the stage between infancy and adultery.”
Catherine smiled. “Maybe we’d better get back to work.”
It made me uncomfortable that she still addressed me as Mr. Harrison, whether due to our difference in status or age. I was thirty-two at the time, and she nine years younger. She readily complied, though, when I asked her to call me Tom.
As we warmed up to each other, our talks during lulls grew franker. I concluded that she was a virgin and had just missed taking vows. She was steeped in religious dogma and seemed bent on renouncing the joys of life. I undertook to free her from several disputable notions.
For one, she held that right and wrong were absolutes. I argued that they often reflected a changing culture.
“Give me an example,” she said.
“The Civil War, with both sides adamant about slavery. I’m sure Jefferson Davis was a man of principle, but who would defend slavery today?”
“He may have known better. He was a politician.”
“Well, take the story of Jesus and the adulteress they were about to stone. You know, ‘He that is without sin . . .’ She beat the rap; Moses’ law belonged to the past. In fact, I believe mankind is gradually acquiring an official conscience.”
“That would be hard to prove.”
“Not at all. It’s been a while since anyone was burned for heresy. Torture has been outlawed, racism attacked, women liberated. Most law is grounded in morals, and morals evolve.”
“Well, I still believe in the eternal verities,” said Catherine, mustering her old convictions. “Some things never change. We’ll be judged in the hereafter by how well we’ve obeyed our God-given conscience.”
Occasionally I brought up a topic just to tease her. Scanning a magazine one morning, I read that a rock star had been arrested for bigamy. “If he can afford it,” I argued, “why shouldn’t he have two or three wives?”
“Adultery in another form,” said Catherine, shrugging her freckled shoulders.
“It didn’t bother the Biblical Israelites.”
“They weren’t Christians.”
During the year that we worked together, I sometimes thought I was making progress. Once, for instance, she conceded that Asian countries were in need of birth control. It turned out she meant the men should practice restraint. She literally shared Dante’s vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. And I reeled at her concept of a free mind. Mine was shackled, hers was free.
I avoided such topics when others were present. It might compromise Catherine to expose her piety. Despite her scruples, she fitted right in with the office crowd, perhaps because she neither invited advances nor responded to passes.
For me, her chastity was an effective barrier. Besides, the work space offered no privacy, and we usually went to lunch as a group. Our different outlooks came to define our relationship.
Not that I didn’t often gaze at her glowing hair, tempting curves, or graceful hands as they caressed her keyboard. But such contemplation usually left me frustrated—not with desire, oddly enough, but with sadness at her self-deprivation. She was pure to a fault. A waste of nature’s gifts seemed in store.
I took it hard when she announced her resignation. At first I thought my boorish attitude might have offended her, but she sweetly dismissed my concern. “I’m going to Rome,” she said. “I’ve decided to write a biography of my namesakes, the Saint Catherines. There were several, and their story is in the Vatican.”
Awed, I could only say, “You’d be the one to do it. Do you just want to eulogize them or were their lives that interesting?”
“Very interesting. My favorite is Catherine of Alexandria, martyred around the year three hundred.”
“How does she inspire you?”
“She was her own person, a virgin. They tried to torture her on a spiked wheel, but it didn’t work. Her faith was too strong.”
“Fantastic. What finally happened to her?”
“They cut off her head.”
It sounded like a winner, but I didn’t press for details.
She wore a white silk dress to our farewell party. An upsweep hairdo displayed her swanlike nape, and a low neckline revealed her cleft, and I almost wept to think what we were losing. We, the office. We, the race of men. For I could see her cloistered in the Vatican’s dusty stacks, penning a tome that only the obsessed would ever read. And centuries hence, Pope willing, another Saint Catherine.
Three months later, on a bright spring day, she called me. She was back from Rome, her book well started. Would I meet her for lunch?
“That could be arranged. Where would you like to go?”
“You choose. I know you’re busy. But I have something important to tell you.”
I named a cozy place and we agreed on high noon. She was probably going to tell me she had an agent for her book. What could I announce in return. The commission approved my new boilerplate for term insurance. My wife had seen a lawyer; divorce was imminent. I’d be exciting company. At least I could refrain from puerile attempts to undermine her virtue.
I arrived at the café a few minutes early. And I waited. Five after twelve. Ten after twelve. Then I began to reflect.
When a woman is late, something subtle may be going on. Having thought of sex with her date, she’s gone into denial―told herself she’s not susceptible. And arrives late to prove it.
But Catherine? Impossible. I’d see if she had a good excuse.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. No excuse at all. The absence of explanation tended to confirm my surmise. And I was puzzled. What was on her mind?
The café filled and service was slow, but I was glad to linger. My questions faded as she enthused about her research, glowing with devotion to the sainted Catherines. Whatever had impelled her to call me wasn’t sex.
“I met a man while I was in Italy,” she said as we rounded the salad bar. “Ben Hardy. He’s an ensign in the Navy. We’re going to be married.”
I was surprised, disconcerted. My feelings were mixed. I was glad she had decided to join the real world, but envious of the man who had won her. After all, I’d soon be legally free. When I found my voice, I could only grumble, “You’ll be lonely while he’s away on long voyages.”
“No, I’m looking forward to that. I need a lot of time to myself.”
Again seated, I asked when the happy event would take place. The waiter caught my signal to refill our wine glasses.
“June,” she said. “I wanted you to know, Tom. Our conversations may have made me realize . . .”
“That faith is important, but it’s not my whole life. I wanted to thank you for encouraging me to seek love. The earthly kind.”
“Seek? You haven’t found it yet?”
“I’m not sure. I expect it to come after we—honeymoon.”
She gave me no time to ponder that. “What about you?” she said. “How’s it going with Ellen?”
“More off than on. We’re scheduled to talk to her lawyer. I’m about to spend a few days in Martinique while I screw up the courage to face it.”
Imagine my astonishment when she looked into my eyes and said, “Take me with you, Tom. I have some facing to do, too.”
I immediately determined to keep my thoughts from straying. She had never been to Martinique, and I’d try to focus on displaying its exotic charms.
She managed to buy a ticket for the same flight as mine, and we met at the airport. It struck me that any acquaintance who saw us would take us for lovers. Regardless of consequences, I was proud to be seen with such a striking companion.
During a three-hour layover in San Juan, we toured by taxi and lunched in the Old Town. Afterward we visited a fort overlooking the Caribbean. As we stood side by side, entranced by the sea’s emerald splendor, Catherine clasped my arm. It was the first time we’d ever touched and I was thrilled. I had to dispel an irrational hope that she was having romantic ideas.
It was evening by the time we reached the cabin I had reserved in Martinique, on the bay called Anse Mitan. Isolated; shaded by palms extending to the shore. There were two beds, a water heater, an air conditioner. Catherine showed no scruples about sharing the accommodations.
“We still have time for a swim,” she said. We unpacked and took turns changing in the bathroom. I expected her to emerge in a swimsuit of maximum coverage. It was minimal. I may have gaped. Soon we were enjoying the gentle surf at our private beach.
I reminded myself that Catherine was mired in archaic tradition and plighted to another man. Moreover, she trusted me as a sort of secular mentor, perhaps a surrogate father or brother. I must exercise every restraint. I wouldn’t have thought of taking her hand if she hadn’t reached out to steady herself, and I turned my head as she rose in her wet bikini.
Back in the cabin, she invited me to shower first. I adjusted the water and stepped in before noting the lack of soap.
“Catherine,” I called, “would you bring me that bar of soap in my bag?”
She handed it to me—and slipped into the shower. Nude.
From that point on, our relationship changed drastically. Or rather, our attitude changed, for our relationship was now a muddle. Did she take me for a saint?
“I just read an amusing sign,” she said. “‘In the islands of the sun, we never flush for number one’. Isn’t that telling us to conserve water? May I use your Castile to wash my hair?”
Chatter, I thought—pretending to be at ease.
After soaping her hair, she handed me the bar and stood, soberly, while I lathered her.
She rinsed and said, “My turn.”
When I faced away from her and the shower, she didn’t hesitate to press against me. She applied the soap rather briskly, but with dutiful thoroughness. She did pause for a moment as if startled when she encountered my erection. In the rinsing, we were over our shock and even playful. I thought her pointless banter betrayed arousal. She let me dry her with a large, soft towel.
I threw off the bedspread and lay down. She sat at my feet, using the towel to dry her hair as I gazed at her perfect body. At length she curled up beside me.
“Tom,” she said in a tone barely audible, “Take me.”
I was speechless but otherwise functional. I kissed her and she responded, timidly at first, then measure for measure.
“If I seem inept,” I said, “it could be that I’ve never made love to a virgin.”
“It shouldn’t hurt me. My gynecologist prepared me for my wedding night.”
Sweet Jesus! “I have something to protect you, but I’ll have to get it.”
“Oh dear, we mustn’t use anything.”
“The 1968 Encyclical. But I think it’s safe to go ahead. I just got over my period.”
Incredible as it may be, I didn’t doubt her sincerity. I searched her face and saw only naïve candor. If I proceeded, would she expect abiding love? I didn’t mind. I could honestly offer it, even for eternity.
My approach is fairly straightforward—nothing kinky. My lingering kisses formed a cross on her body, most ardently at the base. I dwelt there as she writhed with passion. When I felt she craved penetration, I advanced upon her torso, bestowing kisses. But she gently pushed me off and said, “That calls for equal time.”
Stunned, I abandoned myself to her adventure. Before long, though, I gently put an end to foreplay, determined not to disappoint her. In due time she arrived at an unbridled climax, and I at mine.
We made love several more times during our three days on the island. Somber clouds shrouded the volcanic peaks, but a tropical moon lent a romantic note to our evening strolls and revels. The morning of our departure, I made a little speech with a view to the future. “As wonderful as this has been, darling, there’s more to love than love-making, as I’m sure you realize. We have a lot to look forward to.”
“No, Tom,” she said. “I hate to disappoint you, but I am getting married, and I mean to be constant.”
It was a while before I responded. “Then what was this all about?”
“Women who marry as virgins,” she said patiently, “can be troubled by curiosity. They wonder what it would be like with another man—whether it would be different, even better. I didn’t want that to mar my life with Ben. Now I won’t have to speculate. I can look back on our beautiful tryst in Martinique.”
In my disappointment, I said wryly, “I think you’ve used me.”
“You could say that,” she replied. “You hear it often these days. It’s usually the other way around: men use women. But isn’t it relative to your point of view?” She faced a mirror and applied sunscreen to her nose.
I hid my wounds and we parted friends. When I saw the wedding notice in a newspaper, it hit me hard. Must I accept its stark finality?—so many marriages end in divorce . . . But I don’t think Catherine’s will. No, not a chance. By her book, divorce has been off limits for two thousand years.