The news that Vanessa van der Post and Mike Machowski had agreed to be Vocation Discernment Partners swept through the most self-consciously Catholic part of the student body. There was much discussion in dorms and dining-halls of what a Vocation Discernment Partner really was, and if this was just Mike's excuse to get close to Vanessa, or just Vanessa's excuse to get close to Mike. An extra frisson was added to the news of the day when Sandra Lee, being told of the unlikely alliance, choked on her cereal and fled to parts unknown. By lunchtime it was all over campus that little Sandra liked Mike.
"Oh, I don't think so," said Vanessa. "She barely registers that he's alive."
"Ha," said red-haired Petra, cutting up her chicken cutlet. "You didn't see her face this morning when Robert told us the news."
"I didn't need to see her face," said Vanessa tranquilly. "Anyway, it wasn't registering dismay. It was probably registering guilt."
She crushed a handful of crackers into her soup.
Petra exchanged a glance with Rob, who shrugged.
"Guilt?" repeated Petra.
"Yes," said Vanessa. "Guilt."
She stirred her soup meditatively.
"Quite a lot of people suffer from it."
Rob laughed nervously.
"Don't you?" he asked.
Vanessa tasted her soup.
"Don't ask that question unless you're willing to answer it yourself, Rob," she said. "It's more of a conversation for your Vocation Discernment Partner."
"I don't have a Vocation Discernment Partner," said Rob.
"Oh," said Vanessa, looking at Petra, who dropped her eyes, and looking at Rob again. "I thought you did. Especially since you're thinking about the priesthood."
"Kind of thinking," said Rob, looking nervously at Petra, who kept her eyes resolutely on her cutlet.
"Hmmm," said Vanessa. "That sounds like a lonely process. Just you and....The Infinite. You must have a great prayer life."
"Uh, well," said Rob. "There's room for improvement, I guess."
He looked vastly relieved when Anne sat down beside him.
"Hey, people," said Anne. She looked squarely at Vanessa.
"So Mike found a VDP after all."
Vanessa smiled sweetly.
"Yes, he did. I feel very honoured. It's an enormous responsibility. Mike's a great guy. He could be a priest, he could be a husband, he could be a monk, he could be called to devote his life to a major career, where vows might be a hinderance. It's all his to discover, and I'll be with him every step of the way."
"It could take years," said Anne.
"Hooray for the internet," said Vanessa. "Of course, if I find my vocation first, the deal's off."
"Well, when I find it, I won't have time for Mike anymore, will I? But in the meantime, I haven't, so I can still offer the gift of service."
"Hmm," said Anne. "That's very noble of you."
"Thank you," said Vanessa.
She flashed her teeth in a grin and rapidly sipped her soup.
"It's still tinned, but it's better than usual," she said.
"I don't quite understand," said Petra, still looking at her plate. "How does this VDP thing work? Is there a booklet about it?"
"I don't know about booklets," said Vanessa, "but in half an hour I'm going to meet up with Mike and talk about Casti Connubii."
"So you're starting with marriage," snapped Anne. "Interesting."
"Isn't it?" said Vanessa. "From a couple of things Mike dropped yesterday, I'm guessing that's the right starting point."
The entire table stopped chewing. Petra looked up from her plate.
"Well, I'm done," said Vanessa, picking up her tray. "See you all later."
She sashayed to the kitchen hatch and, depositing her tray, went out. As she did, two senior guys coming in looked back at her. One started off in her direction and, laughing, his buddy pulled him back by the arm.
"Vanessa," thought Anne, "is a total rhymes with itch."
"Mike's a lucky bastard," said Rob.
"What?" asked Petra.
"Nothing," said Rob. He stood up. "Gotta go."
"Fine," said Petra. "See you."
"See you! See you, Anne."
"See you, Rob."
As Rob passed, he grabbed Petra's shoulder. She winced.
"You can do better, you know," said Anne.
"I don't want to talk about it," said Petra.
Vanessa strode along the campus to the library and looked up Casti Connubii on the internet. She skimmed the document until she found what she was looking for, and then she smiled. Hitting 'print', she logged off and retrieved her copy from the printer. Then she went to the library coffee shop, where she found Mike waiting.
"Hey," said Mike, standing.
"Very good," said Vanessa. "You remembered!"
"Yeah," said Mike. "Always stand when a lady comes into the room."
"And pull out her chair."
"Oh yeah," said Mike. He pulled out Vanessa's chair.
"Thank you," said Vanessa.
"You know, I'm really grateful," said Mike. "That Katie must think she's all that and a bag of chips. When I asked her to be my VDP, she looked at me like I was an axe-murderer or something."
"I remember you mentioning that last night," said Vanessa.
"It was like I had asked her something completely unreasonable. I mean, who does she think she is?"
"You have to wonder," said Vanessa.
"It's, like, we're supposed to be discerning our vocations. We pray for vocations all the time. So here I am, stepping up to the plate, offering to discern my vocation properly, being open-minded, and she looks at me like I'm totally psycho."
"Did she?" said Vanessa.
"She did," said Mike.
"This seems to have annoyed you."
"Damn straight it annoyed me. I can't get it out of my head."
"You can't get her out of your head?"
"Yeah, she really made me mad."
One day, Vanessa hoped, she would meet a man she could not read like a book. But in the meantime, she was going to amuse herself.
"Well," she said. "It's probably just as well that she isn't your VDP because--just between you and me--I don't think she's orthodox."
Mike looked stunned.
"Oh," he said, flushing. "I didn't mean... I don't think... I mean, of course she's orthodox. I mean, that's why I asked her in the first place. I mean, she has to be orthodox."
"She might think she's orthodox," said Vanessa brightly. "And if she isn't, it isn't her fault. She's just been badly catechized. But I suspect--and again, this is strictly between you and me--that she has an overly romantic view of marriage."
"Oh. Uh. Really?"
"Yes," said Vanessa, sighing sadly. "I see it all the time. It's one of the things that most drives me crazy about women, incidentally. But I'm pretty sure Katie puts too much of an emphasis on that passing affection of sense of spirit expressly condemned by Casti Connubii."
"Well," said Vanessa. "I'm not sure, exactly, but maybe we can figure it out from the document."
To be continued...