Seraphim stood in line to receive communion, his arms crossed against his chest, right over left. He had prepared himself. The previous night he went to All-night Vigil, he moderated his dinner meal (as tempting as it was to engorge his belly on a Saturday night), he refrained from all internet entertainment, instead reading a book that taught him how to discern the will of God, and he did his pre-communion prayers, which took half an hour. His restriction from worldly concerns was even more rigorous in the morning. He put his phone in airplane mode and prayed the Jesus Prayer during the entirety of the one-hour drive to church. No liquid or food touched his lips since midnight. By the time he got to church (early, to hear the 3rd and 6th Hour prayers before Liturgy), he was supple of heart, ready for the grace that God deemed him worthy and necessary to receive based on his spiritual labors. Not even an old woman dressed inappropriately, wearing a hip-hugging green skirt and bright red lipstick without a head covering, could distract him from receiving in pure faith the Body and Blood of his Savior.

He partook and then drank of the unconsecrated wine and ate a piece of antidiron. He glanced toward the back of the church and there by the door was a familiar face. “No, it can’t be,” he said to himself. He looked again, and she stared meekly at him, not into his eyes but at his chest, as if she did not want to intrude on his worship. “Is it really her?”

Normally, Seraphim would close his eyes and pray while everyone else received communion. Sometimes he would feel a serenity, a clearing of his thoughts, and other times he would shed tears that started without cause but then had gained the cause of realizing his unworthiness before God. He never knew how God would impart grace unto him each Sunday, if it would be palpable or not, but it seemed to Seraphim that the more seriously he took communion, the more he felt.

How many of those in his church really believe that the bread and wine transform into the literal Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? Judging by the number of people who miss communion for the most trivial of reasons, including a man’s excuse that he had to mow his big lawn, not many. Otherwise, every Sunday you’d crawl into church on your hands and knees, you’d withstand a three-hour drive each way, you’d hide whatever illness you had that was described by atheist doctors as deadly contagious, all to unite with God, but in these late times even a few drops of rain is enough of an excuse to stay home and worship the god of the stomach and the god of comfort. “I had a hard week,” the catechumen of apostasy says. Was your week harder than the week the Lord suffered for your sins? Were you scourged this week, betrayed, abandoned, denied by those you loved, and then crucified? Seraphim’s mother, a carnal woman who does not walk in the way of God, refused his invitation to Pascha one year because she “didn’t have anything to wear,” and this was said near a closet that is the size of a child’s bedroom.

After recognizing the woman’s face, Seraphim could not concentrate on prayer. He could not concentrate on the hymns sung after communion, the prayer of the priest from behind the ambon, or the church updates. He only came to himself at the very end, when Father Sergius welcomed visitors and asked for their names, and the woman who broke his heart, who was the biggest reason for him being received into the Church, said “Elena” in a timid, sweet voice.

It was someone’s name day. Many Years was sung, the cross was kissed, and then there was a polite dash to the food hall to begin feasting (you had to be among the first in line to secure a coveted meatball to your plate), though many remained in the temple to chit-chat about the weather, home improvement plans, and the like. Seraphim, not quite prepared to talk to Elena, stood in the front of the church without looking back and was the last one out. He accepted that the only food left for him would be supermarket salads made with soybean oil.

Seraphim met Elena four years ago in Chicago when he was more commonly known as Tyler. Elena, a new arrival from Russia, was working as a waitress at Pequod’s, a famous deep-dish pizzeria whose cult following loves thick, corrosive layers of tomato sauce. To Seraphim, a regular, everything about her titillated his senses… her Slavic accent, the sculpted angular features of her face, her direct style of communication where she told you exactly what she thought, her unnecessarily long hair, her seeming lack of all anxiety, and her waif-like figure, a welcome sight when compared to the local women who had indeed made a god of their bellies.

Luckily for Tyler, Elena was craving the “American experience” as defined by those who produce television and Hollywood movies exported abroad, and she wanted to go on a date with an American man. He asked her out in a roundabout American way, suggesting to “hang out,” and she corrected his lack of masculine courage, saying, “What are you talking about? Tell me what you want.”

Taken aback, Tyler stiffened up. “I want to take you out on a date.”

“Yes I will go on a date with you,” she replied.

Their first date was successful, and they went on many more. A physical romance developed. The fact that it took three whole dates to get her into bed confirmed to him that Elena was a girl of quality; she didn’t sleep with just anyone. He chose her, and she chose him, and this was meant to be in a way that made Tyler’s life more pleasing. He made sure to show her off to all his friends, because even an average-looking Russian girl (though Elena was clearly above average) would impress men who had an American girlfriend. Is it really the fault of American women, who were trained in the school of gruff “self-esteem” and cold-hearted “assertiveness” that they lost the faculty to perceive the feminine and act like a woman? In Tyler’s mind, the answer was yes: it was their fault, because they’re pretending to be something they’re not, as if a cat, not pleased at its puny meow, attempts a bark worthy of more ridicule than the worst of meows. It’s not only the women who deliberately dress like men who are transgender, but all of them to some degree have internalized the satanic inversion of transgenderism.

One of his friends, after beholding Elena’s beauty (he had never seen a Russian girl up close before), told Tyler, “You’re winning at life, bro, you’re so lucky.” Yes, Tyler was winning at life. He had an unfulfilling but stable job, his weekly dining options were satisfactory, he understood how to use all the apps on his phone that eliminated at least three minutes of inconvenience per day, and the vein in his right bicep would pop out if he did only twenty pushups.

Enamored by Elena, he would stare at her face while she was sleeping. He decided that he could gain pleasure and satisfaction from that face for the rest of his life… along with her body, of course. He soon wanted to take the relationship to the next level, but the “American experience” was valued by Elena more than he knew. She greedily ate at the trough like a pig.

The new wrist tattoo that Elena got should have been like a firetruck siren to Tyler. It was a generic rose, a totally gratuitous defilement of her body, a Holy Temple before God, a truth she was taught as a child by one of her grandmothers in the motherland. It added neither value nor intrigue. She thought it would make her unique, as if she wasn’t created unique already, but it cheapened her instead. She did not know that her accent made her sufficiently endearing. The way she pronounced ‘th’ sounds as ‘z,’ and the way she pronounced ‘w’ sounds as ‘v,’ as in the sentence “Let us vatch ze veedeo” did more to make her an individual, a child of God, than the permanent ink stain on her wrist that was put there by a high school dropout who gave her a 10% discount because he wanted to sleep with her. Stupid Tyler, already seduced by Elena’s external appearance, blind to the internal, as he was blind to his own internal, actually complimented her. “Very cute,” he said, encouraging her rebellion against him and the natural order. With his finger he grabbed her wrist and rubbed on the tattoo, as if subconsciously trying to erase it, his soul knowing that she is sustaining permanent damage as part of her American experience.

What happened next should not have been surprising to Tyler, but it was. He was at her house on a Sunday afternoon, which she shared with six other people. After a few Aperol spritzes, a trendy European drink that Elena introduced to Tyler, they were getting handsy and moved to her room. Elena plopped down on the bed and as Tyler was about to dive in after her, he noticed something sparkling on the floor. He bent down and picked up a half-inch piece of foil and made out two letters: “ex”. Tyler recognized the font immediately. It was a piece of wrapper from a Durex condom. The carnal arousal Tyler had for his girlfriend, fueled in part by the Aperol spritzes, immediately vanished, and out of instinct he investigated her tiny closet, which no man could have possibly fit into. Tyler didn’t know whether to cry or yell. The piece of foil rested on the palm of his hand and he stared at it for a full minute, as if realizing that everything must now change.

“Yes, but it meant nothing.” She fixed her shirt and sat up on the bed. “Don’t be upset. Listen. I always wanted to do one-night stand. It was an experience I wanted when I was in Russia, but never did it because I lived in a little village. Only one time I wanted to see what it was like. And I did not like it. But it’s finished.” She said it all matter-of-factly, as if it was completely logical for her to do what she did, and perhaps even obligatory as a modern female. How could she continue life otherwise without conducting this experiment? She stopped one step short of saying how her infidelity would help their relationship by making her more sure of her love for him, a statement that many of her kind have used on many broken-hearted men.

“But I loved you,” Tyler thought. He dared not to utter this aloud, to give any satisfaction to the one who broke him. As weak as Tyler was, as ignorant as he was, he could not tolerate cheating. The mere thought of her body being used as an amusement park by a man who wanted a thrill made him sick. So he ended it. The cool and calculating demeanor of Elena evaporated, and she responded to him in a fury, stating what an idiot he was to leave her for a trivial reason, and that he would regret it, since she only made a “small” mistake. Her outburst somewhat satisfied Tyler, because it did show she had feelings for him, but it wasn’t enough to stay with her.

If she were a man, he thought, she’d be a serial killer. How could she cheat in the name of experience? She was cruel, a destroyer of hearts. All women are evil and selfish. And they are supposed to be the caring ones? To add salt to the wound, no longer could he go to the Pequod’s near his house. Instead he had to settle for an inferior pizza without all the tomato sauce that his digestive system had adapted to.

Tyler began to lose interest in women, and even Chicago. When a job opportunity came up in St. Louis, he took it. There was nothing tying him to Chicago anyway. All the pleasures of a city get boring after a while, yet those very same pleasures in a new location make them seem novel, or at least perceived differently, so less than a year after Tyler broke up with the woman who impressed all his friends, and with the hope that life could be better, he moved to St. Louis.

While Tyler was trying to restart his life, Elena was treated like the Grand Duchess of Chicago. Just by the fact she looked like a woman and acted like a woman attracted hordes of suitors while she waitressed, and quickly the suitors turned into gentleman callers. The offers they made for a single night with her exceeded the monthly incomes of most men. This confirmed to her that men were “stupid.” Since she already accepted casual sex for free, why not get paid for it? So she became a prostitute, a word that she would never use to describe herself, but that’s what she was, and she quit her waitressing job to devote most of her free time to enhancing her appearance, which went on to attract the exact type of guy who would pay money to be with her appearance, which further confirmed to her that all men are dumb beasts, and so the spiral downward propelled itself, yet in her mind the sugar daddies she surrounded herself with made her think of how correct she was about men all along.

In St. Louis, Tyler had no luck finding Elena’s replacement. He would sleep with a woman and then she would ghost on him, or he would ghost on them, but it was one woman who insinuated the night after that he took “advantage” of her that made him realize the danger of the game he was playing. A memory of Elena surfaced in his mind. One night in bed, she told him that as a baby in Russia she was baptized in the Orthodox Church, and when a baby is baptized, the priest holds it up in the front of the church and makes the sign of the cross with its chubby body. That image stuck and his curiosity grew, and since he stopped going out on Saturday nights, preferring to watch movies instead, he decided to visit a Russian Church in St. Louis.

The story of a man being set on fire by God is an old one, and does not need to be repeated here, but when Tyler stepped foot in St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church, he felt that it was more home than his home. He inquired for two months, was a catechumen for nine months, and then was baptized by triple immersion. Spiritually, Tyler became Seraphim. Three years after he was baptized, when he began to pensively wonder what was God’s will for him concerning marriage, and whether he should become a monk, Elena showed up at his parish.

Competition for women in the parish was fierce. There were too many single men who wanted to marry, and not enough single women. There were a few young handmaidens in the age range of 13-17, but when they graduated high school, their parents sent them off to the University of Satan. They would inevitably fall into a pit of some sort. You could see the change manifest itself when they visited in winter and then summer–their clothes became more snug, their hair shorter, piercings would appear in random locations and then came the tattoos, first little crosses and then flowers, infinity symbols, and music notes. And that was in the better scenarios. More often, the women would completely disappear, and then ten years later you’d see them in a big-city parish, worse for wear, with a man they forced to get baptized, but such is the will of God, and a lot of these women, after their extended Polonaise with the devil, came back to the Church and were saved. That is good for them, but not so good for the men who remained in the parish and wanted to get married to an Orthodox woman.

Two men in the parish, Nicodemus and Cyprian, were eager (some say desperate) to find a wife. They had brought all sorts of women to the parish, including nominally Muslim women, but regardless of how strapping and handsome they might’ve been, unless a woman craved God first before a husband, she would run away from them, not knowing that it wasn’t a man they were running away from but Lord Jesus Christ, his Blessed Mother, and all the saints, whose presence in the form of the holy icons reminded their souls of the Day of the Dread Judgment. It has become impossible to find a secular woman who didn’t think she was above being judged, because all her life she was taught that judgment of any kind is evil and wrong, and that essentially everyone goes to heaven. Such a person cannot even tolerate church icons, with the eyes of the saints reminding them of how far they’ve strayed.

Seraphim prowled the nightclubs for years, but never had to face the level of competition for women he was facing in the parish. In the nightclub, he figured out that most men, while under the influence of alcohol, did more to repel women than to attract them, so it was his deliberate strategy to allow a doofus or two warm up his target for a real man, which he hoped would be himself. Rarely did a man in the club know what he was doing. They all played the casino game of the flesh, hoping for a score that they believed had something to do with their charm or looks but had just about everything to do with a woman’s emotional state at the exact moment he started talking to her (and whether the guy she was already sleeping with was busy that night or not). Seraphim learned that it wasn’t the men in the club who were actively dancing and flirting that he had to worry about. No, he had to worry about the man who was hardly moving, because like a snake he was conserving his energy and plotting his strike, and if the snake had beat him to a target, he would lose the girl, because two snakes cannot feed on the same meal.

Those days were long gone, and Seraphim hated to recollect them, but the reality of parish courtship forced him to remember it. When a new woman enters the church (usually a friend of another parishioner), she is first subjected to smiles and Hellos from the men, and then in the fellowship hall they angle to sit near her. The most popular opening line is “So what did you think of the service?” They ask for her religious background, share their own testimony of coming to Orthodoxy, and all this is done properly and piously, but Seraphim is getting up there in age, and cannot react as fast as the young men who feel they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to discern whether this young lady is the one that they can soon have babies with, because a six-month timeline from meeting to marriage seemed to them perfectly sufficient when in a state of obvious grace.

One time a woman who was slightly older came alone to the church. Seraphim thought that this woman could be for him, since the young men all insisted on a bride who was younger than themselves. He was on his way to talk to her, to ask her what she thought of the service, when Cyprian, who was Greek by birth, popped out of nowhere with a piece of baklava in his hand and gave it to the visitor, explaining how this particular baklava is unfortunately mass-produced and does not taste as good as what his beloved Yia-yia makes, but it’s close enough to give her the general idea of how baklava should taste (Cyprian was always surprised by how few Americans had ever tasted baklava). Harking back to his days in the clubs, Seraphim thought he’d wait it out, but the Greeks know how to talk and talk for hours at a stretch, and Cyprian closed down the parish hall with her, only to update Seraphim the next week that she was “too old” for him and does not want to date her. She never came back to the church again.

Not every man can be as charming as the Greeks. Nicodemus, whose birth name is George, grew up playing too many video games, to the detriment of his social ability. He knows that women like funny guys so he tries to be funny, or at the very least entertaining, but he fails on all fronts and has developed a reputation as the church “autiste.” He’s so awkward that he once set a girl’s hair on fire. It happened like this: a new girl was in the church and Nicodemus wanted to beat Cyprian and the others to the punch by chatting her up immediately after the Liturgy while still in the temple. He introduced himself to the handmaiden by the candle stand and went into a monologue about what candles mean. Then he removed one of the candles from the holder and started waving it around like a sparkler, to show her how “the smoke rises up like our prayers.” Next thing he remembered was the smell of burnt hair and a shriek from the girl. Thankfully the fire was put out before she was badly burned.

Seraphim was disappointed that some “game” could emotionally attract an Orthodox woman. He meditated on the issue and concluded that this was due to two reasons. First, no Orthodox woman in the parish is a nun who is attempting to completely annihilate her flesh. A part of her—sometimes a strong part of her—craves pleasure, and the best way for a woman to gain pleasure is by being desired by an attractive man who makes her laugh and feel the whirlwind emotions of romantic desire. Survey all the Orthodox women in the world and ask them if they would marry an ugly man with no charm but with saintly faith, or an attractive and charming man who had a mustard seed of faith. Most of them would pick the latter in the hopes that she can change him into the saint. She would even justify this effort by saying she needs a “project” or “purpose,” but the reality is that it feeds her ego to think of herself as a potential savior when really she just wants to be with someone who makes her flesh feel good in the moment. Second, and perhaps more severely, women are legally allowed to pick their own husbands. At the risk of entering the realm of misogynistic thought, Seraphim was not too confident about a woman’s logical faculty in weighing the pros and cons of a new suitor. His experience with Elena proved that point. She weighed the pros and cons and decided that infidelity was a good idea because she would “learn” about herself. Many times Seraphim asked himself if women should be permitted to choose their husbands, but when he told that to Cyprian, he was shot down as being anachronistic. Nicodemus, however, whose latest joke about anime girls fell flat with the group, had been intrigued with the idea, because it would be much easier for him to please a father by displaying his commitment to providing for a future family than it was to impress a woman who owned a smartphone and had access to endless entertaining content that the devil curated especially for her. Seraphim could turn on the charm if he wanted and compete with Cyprian, but he didn’t want to, because it reminded him of how he got a girl like Elena in the first place, who on this extraordinary day was glancing at him periodically while talking to the priest’s wife in the fellowship hall.

“Did you see the new girl?” Cyprian asked. “She looks Russian.” He rotated his entire torso to triangulate her exact position.

“Wasn’t your ex-girlfriend Russian?” Nicodemus asked Seraphim.

Seraphim hesitated to tell them the truth, but felt it was best to do so to avoid any potential embarrassment.

“Yes. That is my ex-girlfriend. Her name is Elena. I don’t know what she’s doing here. I haven’t talked to her since we broke up so she didn’t know I was at this parish.”

“Whoa, really?” Cyprian asked, reevaluating his plan of attack. “The one that cheated on you with another guy?”

“That one.”

“But she looks so wholesome,” said Cyprian. “Her head scarf is covering all her hair instead of leaving the longest, most fluffy parts exposed at the bottom. I mean, it’s so modest that it’s possible she has no hair at all.”

“I won’t be able to burn her hair,” added Nicodemus, hoping for a callback snicker, but no one bit.

“How old is she?” Cyprian asked. He needed new information before he could decide to pursue or not.

“She’s 14 years younger than me. We dated when I was 34 and she was 20, and that was a few years ago, so she’s around 23 now.”

Cyprian nodded his head, deciding that she would be a worthy pursuit as long as he proceeded delicately, which by Greek standards was not delicate at all. “So what are you going to do? Do you want to date her again?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

“She does look wholesome,” Nicodemus said, echoing Cyprian’s sentiment.

“Do you mind if I talk to her?” Cyprian asked, completely oblivious to the time Seraphim might need to make a decision on a woman with whom he was seriously involved.

“Can you wait a minute for me to think about this?” Seraphim answered, annoyed.

“Oh sure no problem.” Cyprian put his hands in the air, submitting to Seraphim’s wish, but shortly after, while on his way to get more chips and salsa, he couldn’t help himself and complimented her on the pattern of her head scarf, a dicey opening line. Elena was nice to him, smiling all the while, but didn’t even ask for his name and glanced over his shoulder towards Seraphim. Cyprian got the hint and politely bowed out, deciding not to fetch a dessert for her, but the tenacity of melanized men must never be underestimated, and Cyprian was determined to try again before she left.

Theodora came to sit with Seraphim and Nicodemus. She was only 19 years old, with an attractive face, but no man desired her because she was fifty pounds overweight. Everyone in the parish were sinners, but for the most part, only the priest knew of their sins. Theodora’s was on display to all. She felt ugly in her body and projected that ugliness outwards to relieve her inner unhappiness by endlessly complaining about everything, especially the men in the parish, saying they were “boys who want to LARP as monks,” when really they would prefer the life of a monk to marrying a woman who was already hefty before birthing her first child. A fat person does not need to be told they’re fat, but at times when they describe their life problems, and the “bad luck” they’re facing concerning romance, they seem not to know that it primarily stems from their obesity and addiction to food. Women may have strong fleshly desires, but they are nothing compared to a man’s desire for a beautiful woman who is thin.

“I don’t like her headscarf,” Theodora said, complaining about Elena.

“What’s wrong with it?” asked Nicodemus.

“The colors are too loud. It’s like she wants people to look at her. We need to bring modesty back. Everyone is after attention.” She held her phone up as if she were taking a selfie. “Look at me… I’m pretty… I have a pretty scarf.”

“There’s something wrong with your eye makeup,” Nicodemus said. Theodora took out a pocket mirror and fixed herself. She went on to complain about the food, how it was too cold, and then she complained that the temperature in church was always too hot. Seraphim periodically looked at her to force a weak smile, and remarked to himself that she at least had a pretty face.

Elena was slowly making her way toward him, getting stopped every few feet. Cyprian was on standby mode near the bathroom. He had a belief that he must strike when the iron is hot, that the window for opportunity is short, but based on the 100% failure rate of his romantic endeavors, the iron has not once been hot for him.

The priest’s wife came over and introduced Elena to the table. Theodora was full of smiles and compliments. Nicodemus, in a rare moment of social calibration, dragged Theodora away so that Elena and Seraphim could talk alone. She sat down opposite him and stared at his empty plate while he unconsciously squeezed his lips shut, signifying that he was not quite ready to talk.

Elena spoke first. “I’m surprised to find you here.”

“Why?” Seraphim replied. Then he thought to himself, “Easy, big boy.”

“You didn’t… or I guess we didn’t… have interest in the Church when we were together.” Her accent was slighter than in the past. Her English had become perfectly fluent.

“When I moved to St. Louis, I decided to visit, and I felt the presence of God, so I converted.”

There was a long pause. Then Elena decided to open up her soul. “I went really wrong after you,” she said. “It took me a while to realize it, but I woke up one day and I wanted to kill myself for what I became, but I remembered a memory from when I was a child. My grandmother would take me to church—my parents were practically atheists—and it was Theophany. She told me that when Jesus Christ was baptized, the heavens opened and God the Father said that this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased, and then the same happens when we get baptized, that God and the angels celebrate, and when I remembered that, I began to cry, because what have I done since my baptism that is worthy of the singing of angels? I came to America and came to believe I was a princess, and it was hard not to act this way because men were treating me in ways that made me believe I was much better than I was, that I didn’t need anything but my body or my accent. I didn’t say no to any temptation, because I thought the point of this life was to enjoy it. I did many wrong things.” Tears welled in her eyes, and she made no attempt to stop them. This was the first time that Seraphim saw her cry—not even when they broke up did she shed a tear. He had decided that she was so heartless and cold that she was not even capable of tears, but many tears were falling from her eyes at that moment, and Seraphim had to look beyond her towards the wall and focus his eyes on an icon of Archangel Gabriel so that he would not cry also.

“It’s a good thing that you came back to the Church,” Seraphim managed to reply.

“And you, are you baptized?”

“Yes, it feels like a long time ago.”

“Is it Seraphim from Sarov?”

“No, of Vyritsa.” He hesitated to give her credit for his conversion, but seeing her in such a repentant state, he thought it would be kind to do so. “One positive that came from our relationship is that you put the idea of the Russian Church into my mind, because I didn’t know about it before. Our relationship wasn’t for nothing… at least from my perspective.”

“I’m glad… I’m glad.” Elena put her hands on the table and looked at Seraphim intently. “I did not know that you would be here, but I’m happy, because I wanted to apologize for what I did to you. I acted horribly, like I didn’t have a heart, and after you, I did things that were worse. It does not seem like you are angry with me right now, but please forgive me.”

Without a second of hesitation, Seraphim replied, “I forgive you. And I apologize for any hurtful things I may have said or done.” Elena bowed her head.

Seraphim’s mind flooded with thoughts. Has it really happened that Elena had become a devout Orthodox woman through the grace of God, a type of woman he had been fantasizing about marrying along with many other men in the parish like his friends Cyprian and Nicodemus? Elena wasn’t wearing a drop of makeup, yet her prodigal living did not affect her outward beauty. If possible, she was more beautiful than before. Her body was concealed, and Seraphim wouldn’t have stared at it even if it wasn’t, but there was no sign of excess damage (there were only two more small tattoos that she got after their relationship ended, one on the top of her foot and the other on her hip). During their conversation, Cyprian looked on, trying to judge the tenor of their interaction and if there would be a reconciliation or not. It would bother most men to marry someone who had been with a friend, but Cyprian was despairing, not because he was getting too old, but because of the passionate nature that many Greek men have. He had fallen backward a couple of times, and saw marriage as the best way to deal with that.

“Do you live in Chicago?” Seraphim asked Elena.

“No, I moved here. Everyone is trying to leave Chicago. The crime is so bad. Most retail shops have closed. Then you try to order online, but your packages are stolen, either at your door or from the truck… or from the train. It’s worse than what my parents told me of Russia when communism ended.”

It turned out that they lived only ten minutes from each other by car. To Elena’s mind, this was all Divine Providence. Before, when she was prostituting herself and swimming in money, she thought that she had completely gotten over Seraphim, but now she reasoned that she really did love him. She knew he was in St. Louis, but did not know where, and did not know that he had joined her Church, so to see him here was a powerful sign that could not be ignored. Her interpretation was that God had destined them to get married. To Seraphim, her demeanor seemed more flighty than what he remembered, but that was because she was in a dream state, imagining their reconciliation, his tender embrace, their little wedding in this very chapel, and even children.

Seraphim wasn’t dreaming like her. He had accepted not long ago that his cross may be loneliness, and was ready to depend on God to help him endure. Elena showed up to his church, in the best possible condition she could be, and a part of him wanted to forget about the past and start anew, but how could he? They fell together in sin, he corrupted her and she corrupted him, and then she betrayed his trust and stomped on his heart. While Elena stared lovingly into his eyes, the memory of the condom wrapper came to his mind. He flashed a grimace that Elena did not notice and shifted in his seat. This beautiful creature before him, beautiful not because of her appearance but her repentance, stabbed him in the back. She didn’t kill him, it’s true, but in one sense he did die that day, necessitating the act of being reborn through baptism, where he could begin his second life while still in the flesh.

“Remember that night we used a cardboard box as a snow sled?” Elena did not wait for Seraphim to respond before continuing the memory. “You ordered a humidifier, and for some reason it came in this massive box. There was that big snowstorm that ended with ice, which made the hill near your apartment really slippery. You put me in front and then we went down. You were yelling at me to shift my body this way and that way, and you tried to steer with your hands. We were going so fast!” She was telling the story as if it didn’t matter whether Seraphim was listening. “We didn’t know it but the kids made a bump and we flew in the air and landed on the ice. I was bruised for days!”

Seraphim gave a meek smile, a much more restrained display than Elena expected. Did he not have fun with her in that naturally spontaneous moment that was perhaps the only truly spontaneous moment of their relationship? He did have fun, but the memory on his mind at that moment was a different one, a painful one.

After Elena finished recounting the story, little Balthazar came up to them holding one of his action figure toys. Balthazar looked at Seraphim with an excited smirk and asked, “Is that your girrrrrlfriend?” Elena intended to let out a prolonged “Awwww” but Seraphim immediately addressed little Balthazar as if he were a grown adult with a curt “No.”

Elena was confused. Her fantasies and recognition of destiny were not matching up with Seraphim’s demeanor. How could he not see what she saw? Is he really still hung up on the fact that she used an app to order a man to her apartment while they were sinfully dating? Is he really not going to forget her mistake when it’s so obvious that God has put him in this church to marry her, and put her here to marry him? Is he really going to be lonely for the rest of his life?

Seraphim waved over an excited Cyprian and introduced him to Elena. “This is my Greek friend Cyprian, he’s a charming fellow.” Elena didn’t want to meet Cyprian, or any other man. She tried to rationalize that maybe Seraphim was just being friendly to set up a full-scale charm offensive where he would court her like an Orthodox Christian man should, but he went completely quiet on her as Cyprian talked and talked. Elena wished at that moment that she could read Seraphim’s mind, but if she could, these are the words she would hear: “Lord, I forgive Elena for what she did to me, and please forgive me for what I did to her, but I do not want to marry her. I will continue to bear this cross of loneliness and seek for my will to be absorbed into Your will to prepare for life eternal.”

Seraphim waved over Nicodemus. “This is my friend Nicodemus, he’s a serious Christian.” Two single men were at the table, staring at Elena, hungry for her love. Just a few minutes ago were the beautiful fantasies, the fairy-tale wedding, their children wearing cute wooden crosses around their necks. Seraphim got up from the table, told Elena that it was nice to see her again, and he’s happy that she returned to the church, and then walked to one of the deacons to have a conversation about mystical Byzantine theology, leaving Elena with two men who would cut off their ear if it meant marrying an Orthodox woman. Cyprian was so self-absorbed in his conversation, and Nicodemus so oblivious to body language, that they did not notice that Elena was occasionally wiping tears from her face.

A little over one year later, Elena was married to Nicodemus. Seraphim was the best man, and seemed cheerful that he successfully played matchmaker. Elena gave Theodora a collection of Russian beauty tips early in their friendship that could be summed up with the phrase “starvation diet.” Theodora lost all her extra weight and became quite ravishing. Her complaining stopped. Cyprian was the lucky man to marry her.

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