“The Season of Sacrifice” by Robert Semple

    During my bachelorhood, Lent was sort of like the Tony Awards: I knew it occurred every year but that was about it.
    Unlike Christmas and Easter, which could be represented by the Oscars and Grammys, Lent always seemed more of a rumor than an actual happening, and most of the time, I either discovered it taking place halfway through or missed it completely. For both cases, I’d adopted the Chicago Cubs rallying cry of “Wait ’til next year,” but like them, nothing ever changed, and for some 40-odd years, I’d been repeating myself.
    The schedule makers are partly to blame. It’s bad enough Lent doesn’t have a set date like the 4th of July, but by putting Fat Tuesday on the eve of the observance, they undermined the best of my intentions. Not only did I never make it to church on Ash Wednesday, but I rarely made it to work on that day either, and on the outside chance I even got out of bed, was lucky if I could find my keys, let alone remember to sacrifice something. My first hint in the aftermath was usually evil-eye glares in the pizza parlor as I scoffed down my regular Friday afternoon meatball parmesan hero and by then, it was too late; another year of heathenism had begun anew.
    This all went out the window with Kathy at the helm. In the days leading up to Lent, she questioned me nightly about my sacrifice, and though her apartment was a good five miles away, I could feel her eyes upon me through the phone line. As she routinely explained, it’s important for couples to discuss their choices and come to a mutual agreement, so the other is not adversely affected. This made sense (though not as much as just skipping it), and furthermore, got me thinking strategically. While certainly in love with Kathy, we’d been together nine months, and nobody’s perfect. Lent, I figured, would be the ideal opportunity to correct some of her flaws.
    I originally suggested, half-jokingly, that she give up snoring, so I could give up being awakened on the weekend in the middle of the night by what often sounds like a bear attack, but when that didn’t go over well, I hedged my bets, feigned seriousness, and offered up “American Idol,” chick-flicks, and vacuuming. This isn’t as obvious as it seems since I’d been pretending to like those things, anyway.
    Unfortunately, the Grand Inquisitor wasn’t impressed, and on the ride back to my house from the Mardi Gras party at the community center, she reminded me time was of the essence. “Well?” she asked as she lowered the radio. “You know how important this is to me. Did you decide what you want to give up?”
    An awkward silence ensued and I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my own skin under Kathy’s waiting gaze. I also wished I’d removed the tinfoil tiara and rubber breasts before we started driving, although I did get the most beads, so no matter how bad things went from here, in some circles, I’d still be considered a winner. “Vowels,” I blurted out, hoping to stunt her daily word count. “Let’s at least stop using the letter E.”
    I could tell from the look on Kathy’s face that this wasn’t­  what she had in mind and apparently the big man ­didn’t like it either, because she murmured, “I don’t think God would appreciate that answer.”
    How she always knew what God was thinking never ceased to amaze me and for a split-second, I toyed with the idea of submitting cigarettes as my sacrifice until I remembered Kathy thought I’d already quit smoking except for the occasional drag off the butt of whoever happened to be standing next to me. That she always bought this ridiculous alibi also never ceased to amaze me, and I’d managed to conceal my pack-a-day habit from her simply by sidling up to strangers and blaming them afterward.
    Internet porn popped into my head next, but this was Lent, not confession, and since I’d never been caught red-handed, the jury was still out on that one. That’s when it hit me — Kathy’s ever-increasing reliance on comfort clothes had been bothering me for months. How can a man don his swank velvet tuxedo when his girlfriend is in her pajamas? Wherever we headed, be it the movies or the diner, I used to picture Kathy and me as the “it” couple, and in the beginning, we fit the bill, but more and more, we stepped out of the house looking like point guards in search of a basketball team. “Sweat pants,” I said firmly. “We should give them up and punish ourselves by wearing painful outfits.”
    Kathy cringed. “Why?”
    For starters, neither of us had set foot in a gym since we met. Regrettably, this argument had a gaping hole in it, in that I certainly didn’t want to start going, so there was no sense in posing it. I briefly considered fabricating a story, peppered with phony scientific data, proving that couples that dress down are twice as likely as their nattily garbed counterparts to forego other types of grooming in the future, such as regular shaving and the clipping of their toenails, but again, I would have been posturing from the side of weakness, so I scrapped the idea. The theme of punishment would have to do. “Because we both ­REALLY like to wear them,” I said, “and by denying ourselves comfort, we’ll atone for our sins and earn back God’s good grace.”
    Kathy glared at me. “That’s not what Lent’s about!”
    Damn. I knew I was in the ballpark, too, but was in no position to debate the Pope about it. Oh how I suddenly wished I’d gone to church every now and then, or even knew where it was. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so with my back against the wall, I tossed up a Hail Mary. “Why don’t we give up Lent for Lent?”
    Kathy’s face scrunched up like a sock puppet whose owner just balled his fist. Still, I had no way of knowing if she was angry or confused, especially since I was used to her telling me. Though this particular look was usually accompanied by a raging tirade, I’d also seen it when she was trying to find places on a map. Being an optimist, I put the odds at 40-60 and decided to move forward. “Yeah,” I continued. “I think we should sacrifice the whole thing. I can tell you from experience that the mental torture is horrible.”
    Kathy’s face decompressed and she looked somewhat human again, though her glassy-eyed stare made me nervous. When she didn’t say anything, I began to think my abstraction worked and wondered if maybe my tiara was just crooked, but these hopes were quickly dashed. “Lent’s not about torture, Babe,” she said softly. “It’s about acknowledging you’ve been sacrificed for and returning the gesture. It’s about revealing what’s in your heart and showing the world that no behavior or material item means more than how you feel. It’s about giving for the sake of another and understanding that true devotion sometimes comes with hardship.” Tears burst from Kathy’s eyes. “Lent’s about love, Babe.”
    Kathy was silent for the rest of the ride. I tried to pretend my suggestion about the letter E had stumped her, but knew, in truth, I’d hurt her. At my house she darted straight into the bathroom, and feeling like a heel, I decided to try and slay her with humor. While waiting for her to emerge, I stripped down to the buff, propped up my rubber breasts and prepared to deliver this line: “I’ll give up acting like a diva, if you stop borrowing my bras,” but it never came to pass.
    Instead, Kathy strutted out of the bathroom in a tongue-tying silk black teddy, ripped off my double-D’s, and pushed me onto the bed. Straddling me, her moist lips cascaded along my cheek before draping themselves over my earlobe. “I really want to make love to you tonight,” she whispered, “but we can’t.”
    “Why?” I balked.
    “Because we’re giving up sex for Lent,” she declared as she fell beside me. “After all,” she sighed, “we’ve been together nine months and nothing’s changed. At this point, all we’re really doing is living in sin.”
    Living in sin? For Pete’s sake, I’m a drug-free, middle-aged, monogamous man whose girlfriend made him cut his drinking down to one day a week. Prisoners have more hedonistic fun than me! And yet, as I caressed Kathy’s rigid back, I knew only the most magnanimous of offerings would turn the tide.
    They say John 3:16 is the Gospel in a nutshell and though I have no idea what they’re talking about, there must be something to it, because for what turned out to be three minutes and sixteen seconds of unadulterated ecstasy in the mode of John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland,” I sold my soul and asked Kathy to move in with me.
    The company line is that we gave up ice-cream for Lent, but in reality, Kathy gave up paying rent and utilities, while I gave up, among other things, my parking spot, 75 percent of my closet space, three of my five dresser drawers, and the right to use the soap dish as an ashtray. Still, for all I’d sacrificed, I received more than any man could’ve asked for. I know this because during the course of the night, acceptance over Kathy’s moving in morphed into excitement, and by morning, I was reborn again.

   Robert Semple’s stories have been previously published in Long Island Pulse magazine and in The Star, where “Hidden Talents,” the fourth of 19 comedic pieces in an unpublished series, “The Relationship,” appeared in August. “The Season of Sacrifice” is the 10th story in the series.