A Brief Catalog of Venial Sins

Kathryn Kulpa


“You’re never alone with a Catholic boy.”

–Helen Kitson, “Love Among the Guilty”


You’re never alone with a Catholic boy. Brenda warned me. Always some brothers and sisters to spy, a mother popping into the room with a pan of brownies and a measuring eye for the distance between you. Leave some room for the Holy Spirit! I knew this, but it was Jamie I wanted. Jamie all to myself.

He was one of the boys in ties and blazers who walked past our playing fields every day at 2:45. Our school let out at 2:25 and we were already on the field when they came dust-clouding by, rabbit-roaming, kicking rocks or each other’s legs, pulling loose ties, tossing blazers over their shoulders or rolling up the sleeves like Don Johnson, if Don Johnson wore a navy blue blazer. Some passed us by, heads down, lost in Walkmans; others stopped by the fence to watch or be watched, shouting words of encouragement, sometimes shouting other kinds of words, dragging their tongues over Jolly Ranchers Watermelon Stix, but Jamie wasn’t one of those. You could tell he was watching the game and not just our legs.

We started talking through the fence. It was strange we’d never met before: he lived only a few streets over from me, and we would have gone to school together, if he hadn’t been in Catholic school. His older sister was in my school now, one of the cool girls who slipped out during lunch and came back smelling of smoke.

Soon Jamie was waiting until practice was done and walking home with me. I never saw his house, and he never came into mine. We’d part at the corner, where Mt. Vernon met Fairway. I didn’t need to follow him to know that the streets got wider as he walked on, the houses old and quiet. A too-perfect hedge watched our goodbyes.

That was all we had, those walks, but it felt like everything. He didn’t go to the arcade or the mall. He was a record shop pauper, he said. He made me tapes of bands I’d never heard of, and I’d listen at night in my room. Some of them were new, some 20 years old, but I couldn’t tell the difference. They all sounded new to me, a jangling, buzzing city sound. It was like he had given me a map to the place I would someday belong.

You’d think if I was going to run into him somewhere else it would be the record shop, but it was that Indian restaurant in the square. This was the restaurant no one ever ate in, its tables always set but looking lonely and Miss Havisham-ish. Jamie was with his sister Angela. Everyone knew her as the girl who used to go to Catholic school but got kicked out. She never told us why, but we were sure it had something to do with sex.

“Jamie usually picks up the food, but I’m his watchdog,” said Angela. “You know this skinny boy can eat!”

I hadn’t known that. “We send him alone,” she said, “and every time, the naan bread’s missing—and I’ll go, ‘Jamie, where’s the bread?’, and he’s all, ‘Oh, they must have forgot to put it in again’—licking butter off his fingers.”

“Lie,” Jamie said.

“Truth,” said Angela.

Jamie looked at me. A shy smile. “It never tastes as good again when you take it home.”

I’d peeled back those foil packets myself. “Never as good as that first bite.”

Angela looked me over. “Jamie’s got your picture on his corkboard,” she said. Which made no sense, because I’d never given him a picture. My eyes flicked to Jamie.

“It’s not of you,” he said. “It’s the finals. The newspaper.”

Leonard, I thought, and all the spit left my mouth. Leonard was the weirdly enthusiastic photographer for the local paper. He covered all the school sports meets and would crouch down on the ground or even lie in the middle of the field to get his “action shots.” Once Brenda hit him accidentally-not with her stick; he was aiming the camera up her skirt. And I was squirming, thinking it must be that picture where I’m jumping with my mouth open, a total spaz, and everyone went on about amazing photography this and action shot that and my mother even ordered a copy from the newspaper, but when Brenda saw it she was just, Oh. My. God.

“You look like you’re giving a BJ,” she said.

Exactly. The one and only time I’d made the front page, and it was like the cover of some bad porn magazine.

“I hate pictures of me,” I said.

“Jamie doesn’t hate it, though,” Angela said. “He likes it so much he’ll strip his bed, run downstairs and stuff the sheets in the laundry before anyone’s up, so our mom won’t know what he’s up to when the door is shut—”

“You lie,” Jamie said, shoving her arm. His face bright red so I knew it was true, and all I could see was that picture of me on Jamie’s wall with my skirt flipping up and that great, gawping gob. And Angela gave me such a look—a knowing look—but I didn’t know, and didn’t want to, and it felt wrong to me, somehow, that she would know so much about her brother’s sheets, and I felt farther away from him now than I ever had, even before, when I didn’t know his name but only watched him through the fence in his blue blazer and maroon tie, with all the other Catholic school boys who passed by our playing fields on their way home from school, and stopped to watch the girls, and were never alone.


Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her chapbook Girls on Film. She is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine and has stories published or forthcoming in Emrys Journal, Milk Candy Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Wigleaf. Her work was chosen for Best Microfiction 2020.