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At the turn of the third millennium, in the year 2000, the college of cardinals in Rome, following the funeral of the pope and Novemdiales, in this case a fifteen-day period of mourning and reflection, convened to elect a new pope. The soft drizzle of rain settling on the cobblestones in front of the magnificent, recently renovated Basilica of St. Peter's reflected the somber mood that had fallen over the city, and indeed much of the world, with the passing of this pope. Despite the weather, eighty thousand people had gathered in front of St. Peter's for the opening of the conclave, literally meaning, "locked in with a key." The crowd had been growing since dawn to wish the princes of the Church Godspeed, to pray with them, and to witness the spectacle of the cardinals, each one in his splendid robes, arriving one by one for the serious business of electing the next successor to St. Peter.
Seated with the diplomatic corps inside the basilica, a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance under the dome of Michelangelo, Edward Kirby, United States ambassador to the Vatican, took in the colorful proceedings, his wife, Catherine, at his side. Except for daughter Maureen, the Kirby children were all back at school or at their jobs in their father's native Chicago, where he had been mayor until the president had offered him this irresistibly prestigious diplomatic post.
When the news of the pope's death had reached the State Department, they had pushed Kirby to give them the inside track on just who the next pope would be. The question was impossible to answer. When pressed, Ed laughinglyreplied, "Look, my father's not mayor here. I can't rig the election and guarantee who the winner will be." It was an obvious reference to the old "ward boss" Chicago days of big-city politics where "vote early and often" was the common greeting of politicians and their constituencies.
Kirby was a zealous jogger whose clear eyes, lean face, trim stature, and universally respected work ethic belied an undeserved reputation in the hostile Chicago press for excessive consumption of wine and beer. He had been devastated at the death of Pope John Paul II, whom he profoundly admired. His relationship with the pope had been close and personal. He was cordial with every one of the cardinals likely to be Supreme Pontiff. With the possible exception of two or three, none of them inspired him to want to stay on in his Vatican assignment. But Kirby recognized himself as the man most qualified to conduct business between the world's most powerful political figure, the president of the United States, and the planet's most important moral voice, the pope.
When he was mayor of Chicago, he was regarded as the champion of working families, and also a fighter for economic justice and human rights in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and, for that matter, many areas of the world. He was an active member of Opus Dei (God's Work), a disciplined, conservative, and often mysterious organization within the Catholic Church, of which the deceased pontiff had been a staunch supporter. Nevertheless, it was an organization the U.S. government considered at the very least secretive, at the worst sinister. Ed had known Pope John Paul II for several years before he ascended to the pontificate. While mayor, Ed was a strong supporter of Solidarity, the outlawed labor movement in Poland, and an ardent opponent of Soviet Communism. Born in a mostly Polish neighborhood of his city, Ed knew Polish culture and traditions well. In this same neighborhood he had first met the thenÐarchbishop of Krakow, later Pope John Paul II, at the Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Ed Kirby had been termed the "Lech Walesa of American politics" by respected newspaper columnist Peter Lucas because of his populist, pro-working-family image. When Kirby's oldest son had become clinically depressed, shortly after his father's appointment to the Vatican, it was the Holy Father who privately offered support, prayers, and comfort. He even offered to help pay the family's astronomical hospital bills. Kathy Kirby told a close friend, "If it weren't for the kind words of support from the Holy Father, Ed probably would have gone into depression himself." At the onset of his son's illness, he had been under great pressure because of unfounded accusations of campaign irregularities, assertions leaked for political reasons to ever-hostile reporters by reckless state prosecutors.
With all these considerations and memories, the present ambassador could not see himself, nor did he want to become, attached to yet another pontiff. To the astonishment of the spectators, as the princes of the Church left St. Peter's Basilica where they had celebrated Mass and were on their way to the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, the rain stopped and the Italian sun came out. The crowd and diplomatic guests smiled and nodded at this sign from above that would ensure God's blessing.
Brian Cardinal Comiskey of Ireland, a relatively young prince of the Church at age fifty-five, tall, athletic, with reddish hair and a youthful face, was one of several members of the college of cardinals publicly mentioned to succeed to the throne of St. Peter. He had been elevated to primate of all Ireland and archbishop of Armagh by the late pope because of his achievements and courage in helping bring a degree of moderation to Ireland's troubles between Catholics and Protestants. He was an early advocate of the Good Friday Peace Accord and spoke out often for the power-sharing government of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Ambassador Kirby, watching the parade of cardinals in their red robes and sashes and tri-cornered red birettas on their heads, resolved that should Brian (against all odds) be chosen, he would consider asking the president to reappoint him to the Vatican post. After the presidential election the White House, realizing that it was weakest with the Catholic vote, had sent Kirby to the Vatican. Ed caught Brian's eye as the cardinal walked by, and the two men smiled and nodded familiarly to each other.
The most logical choice of successor to St. Peter's throne, however, was the carmelengo, or chairman of the conclave, Eugenio Cardinal Robitelli, Vatican secretary of state under the deceased pope. Scion of a noble Roman family, the tall and ascetic cardinal with flashing black eyes emanated the aura of a medieval city-state prince and reminded some historians of the noble Borgias. Augustine Cardinal Motupu, the most prominent African serving the Church throughout much of the "Dark Continent," represented the liberal wing of the college of cardinals; some even called it the left wing. Motupu was a leader respected throughout Africa and by people of all persuasions. His forceful personality, wide smile, and inclination to question many of the established traditions of Rome with apparent impunity promoted wide speculation by the media, as well as within the Church hierarchy, that many traditional Church leaders had been fearful of him. It seemed certain that the six black cardinals would back his election to the papacy, and many European cardinals spoke highly of him because of his evident sincerity. Ed Kirby's eyes narrowed as the short and rotund Pasquale Cardinal Monassari passed by, smiling and in animated chatter with the others. Known as "Patsy" to his intimates among a following of New York, Chicago, and Roman penumbral financial speculators, Monassari enjoyed powerful support as a result of the control he exercised over the Institute for Religious Works, better known as the Vatican Bank.
Patsy had been close to a previous custodian of the financial institution, suspected by Scotland Yard agents of what appeared to be a friendly association with questionable business characters connected to smuggling cocaine into London via Sicily and North Africa. These two Italian business confederates were later found to be using counterfeit bonds engraved by international Mafia craftsmen to secure a large loan from the bank.
From his Chicago contacts and the persistent street rumors, Ed Kirby believed it was only a matter of time before Cardinal Monassari and his underworld acquaintances would be implicated in another such scam.
Ladbrokes, the London betting consortium, gave the highest chances for election to Robitelli. Emma, the affable owner and waitress at the small restaurant Osteria dell'Aquila, in Trastevere, also predicted that based on what she heard in her popular restaurant, which was frequented by many Vatican officials, Robitelli was a sure winner. Vatican observers often said, "If you want to know what's going on in the Church, talk to Emma. She knows everything."
The unique circumstance of this conclave, made much of by the record number of journalists covering the Vatican, was a single statistic no one had overlooked. There were 120 members of the college of cardinals under eighty years of age and thus eligible to vote, the precise number stipulated by Pope Paul VI in his 1975 Romano Pontifici Eligendo (The Election of the Roman Pontiff). Expert observers sensed a quick decision.
The one voice most popular on the TV shows was that of Father Ron Farrell. An American, he was a sociologist by bent and skilled at getting to the bottom-line feelings of ordinary people. He was a frequent self-appointed Vatican spokesperson and envoy to the four corners of the world. Farrell was good copy; he could discuss people, analyze situations, and describe the religious controversies behind them, and, in the words of a famous baseball announcer, "He comes across as exciting and immediate as the seventh game of the World Series."
"History is being made! A moral battle for the soul of the Catholic Church is going on behind these walls," Farrell announced to the TV audience, pointing to the Vatican, where as he put it, "the world's most exclusive men's clubÑthe college of cardinalsÑis meeting behind locked doors within the Sistine Chapel. Soon the princes of the Church will elect the two hundred and sixty-fifth pontiff in the Catholic Church's two-thousand-year history, after Jesus Christ himself named St. Peter to be his vicar, his rock on earth, and commanded him to build his Church." Farrell knew what the media wanted to hear, and he was always ready to accommodate, particularly since the exposure shamelessly promoted his racy, Church-based novels.
Perhaps it was unfair for a member of the curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, to call him a shameful self-promoter. It was obvious that many envied his friendship with the press. "He's good copy and gives us red meat," said a CNN spokesperson.
Perhaps the only absolute fact to emerge out of the guessing game played by the media and churchmen alike was the conclusion drawn by the highly respected CBS anchorman Don Mather. After seemingly endless interviews and discussions he concluded, "We really have no idea what will happen and what surprises may be sprung at that conclave, once the doors are closed and those men of God take on the awesome responsibility of electing the leader of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. As for front runners, you go in a front runner, you come out a cardinal."
History would prove him more right than he could ever have imagined.
At twenty-nine I thought I should marry. If I had known then what I know now, I would have rescued an old dog instead of a young man.
The second Saturday of August, after an endless, irritating summer of soaring heat, I stood in front of forty women who expected me to marry the second Saturday of September. I had doubts about what I was going to do, but I kept thinking that because everyone else wanted the marriage to happen then I should, too. Over the last few years I had adapted my father's fish import business to suit myself, and as I began expanding the responsibility in my career, I also began to notice that all my friends were separating into two camps: married and unmarried. Naively I'd assumed that love and marriage would fall into place just as my career had, but just as I was succeeding in the business world there was a silent movement taking place. The word independent fell out of vogue. Independent, it seemed, had become the code for "a difficult woman."
All my life I had been slightly ostracized as the dock brat, and in my own way I wanted and hoped that marriage would make me a softer woman. Men don't marry tomboys; they marry women. If I became engaged, it meant that I had outgrown being the tough little brat from her father's fish stall by Pier 17. It meant I had become mature enough to be called someone's wife.
Steve seemed right for me as we read the papers on a Sunday morning months ago. I had the Daily News, and he was layered under The New York Times. After skimming the headlines I always skip the first few pages and go directly to the gossip column to find out what happened at my clients' restaurants. If it hadn't been for the small typewritten insert I would have missed the ring taped to the top of the column entirely. The ring's unimaginable clarity and platinum band were transparent against the gray-and-black newsprint. He had cleverly written:
Stunning female fishmonger merges with junior partner at Scudder, Scadden, Skipowitz and Dawn. Fans cheered as they walked the plank and leaped into the sunset.
For a moment I pretended not to notice it, and watched Steve's eyes dart methodically back and forth over the top of the business section. I folded my paper in half and held it with my right hand while slipping my engagement finger into the ring. I looked up from the paper and met his eyes with a nonchalant smile, as if nothing unusual had happened. When he slapped the stock report down on the table I could see he was anxious.
"Coffee?" he barked.
"Forever!" I answered, and jumped toward his lap in excitement.
My sudden movement took him by surprise, and he leaned back in his chair. I was moving forward so quickly that my weight toppled him onto the floor. As I extended my arms, to brace myself for the fall, I felt the ring catch on something soft before tearing it. Steve had a deep scratch from the corner of his mouth to his earlobe that pained him for the rest of the day every time he smiled.
The height of the ring and the corners of the setting were something I never grew accustomed to. I often caught it on bras, cuffs of shirts, and the zipper of my pants when tucking anything in. To Steve's credit, he turned the proposal into a great story that always ended with the line: "Imagine? I'm probably the only guy in the world who took a left hook from his fiancŽe the day he proposed!" I suppose if I had paid attention, I could have foreseen that the scenario would repeat itself.
At my bridal shower I noticed that the married women finished their champagne and let their coffee get cold. I kept my arms elbow-deep in soapy water so no one would see my hands shake. My mother watched every move I made because she knew I had doubts. She'd been suspicious since the moment I showed her the oversize diamond and watched how awkwardly I moved when I wore it.
When someone called attention to my nervous managing of the gifts, she interrupted: "Remember, it can be so overwhelming," and the room let out a soft coo.
I listened to the summary of sounds I made as I had opened my gifts. These are traditionally turned into a short paragraph of "things the bride will say on her honeymoon night." The ohs and ahs reminded me of how mundane my sex life had become. The closer Steve and I grew to being married, the more I found myself masturbating when he wasn't around. It was an attempt to assert my independence and reassure myself I could live without someone.
When a motherly voice yelled "Cleanup," I watched a ballet of well-trained suburban dancers sweep through the house. Soon the masses of wrapping paper disappeared, the dishes rattled lightly on the wash cycle, and a group of four-cylinder motors started up in unison. As I lay on the living room floor I counted each guest who tapped lightly on the brake to make sure that the extra cookies, quiche, or cake were secure for the drive home. Some women had too much champagne and not enough coffee; their tires squealed briefly when they finally pulled away from the curb. A bouquet of ribbons sat on top of a new box of imported French saucepans. The ribbons had been woven closely together. I tugged at each loose string, like a kitten.
My dear friend, Monica, took them from my hands and said: "Don't tear those apart. We need them for the rehearsal dinner."
The nugatory details of a proper marriage kept me drowning in wedding etiquette books written by women I would have ignored at dinner parties. I wanted to pull Monica aside and ask if I had done all right. I had been at her wedding shower and witnessed her amazing ability to deal with a gaggle of women like a bird trainer. For many of my friends it seemed natural, but for me it was like being surrounded by pigeons, all pecking at me.
The entire summer had swept by in a flurry of weddings. Everyone I knew was suddenly more concerned with china patterns than with careers, and they were all in therapy to help make the transition. The red flag was waved a few laps before thirty, and we ran for the matrimony finish before anyone could call us spinsters. No one used that word, but it lurked in my mind as the heat rose higher in August and my relationship cooled. I imagined myself with silver braided hair, wearing a pair of fish-gut-stained overalls, an embroidered sweater, and some old rubber boots, still wondering if the company made more money selling high-end tuna or cheap fillets.
If marriage wasn't the immediate option, most of my "live-together" friends suddenly bought garden apartments in Brooklyn, Westchester suburbs, or New Jersey town houses. Advice books on finding the right man were strewn across every apartment that had more than one woman living in it, and I was reminded of how badly I had conducted myself in many relationships. The most honest advice I received was from a business acquaintance, the only thirty-six-year-old woman I knew who had opted not to marry. At the time I was too young to appreciate what she was saying, but I never forgot it as the years went by.
We were having dinner in a chic Manhattan restaurant when she said: "I made a mistake."
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm about to be a lot older than Jesus and no one wants to take me to the altar."
"I'm more concerned with import taxes," I said.
"Become a wife and stop trying to run your father's business. You'll wind up spending more time on plastic surgery than shoe shopping."
Marriage was not on my agenda. I was having too much fun being single.
"You're twenty-five, right?" asked Jean.
"Take my advice: Start now. You must practice looking for a partner every time you go on a date. Date several men intensely for one year, and if none of them asks you to marry him, move on to the next."
"Are you serious?"
"Deadly! Didn't your mother tell you any of this?"
"No, she was raised in a Catholic school, and nuns are much more concerned with keeping young women away from men than teaching them how to catch them."
"Are you Catholic?"
"Well, that's it."
"What?" I asked.
"If you were raised in a Protestant home you would know that when women drink a few martinis their favorite subjects are all the men they didn't sleep with-and the men someone else married."
"People who believe in God look for soul mates. The rest of us look for a strong gene pool and someone who has initials we can remember after cocktails."
"Fine, don't believe me. I knew the rules at your age, but I rebelled against them. Now I have suffered."
"What rules?" I asked.
"Twenty-seven is the last stop on the single train. You might get a little bit of leeway until you turn twenty-eight, but don't stay single too long after that, because it's an express ride to thirty. Then, the only route left is the one bound for the classifieds."
"What do you do at twenty-nine if you don't have a ring?" I asked.
"Then you can option the Lemon Law. You take three months to keep a relationship or turn it in. Don't date anyone who isn't ready to start planning a wedding after three months."
"Where are you in all of this?"
"I've got to put up with being single for two more years."
"But then you'll be thirty-eight."
"I'll be in the market for the best of the worst."
"Divorcés who already went to therapy."
I should have waited for the divorcés to roll around, but instead I became the one-date wonder. The list of traits and idiosyncrasies that I wanted in a partner was so long it became a joke among my friends. I was searching for the impossible because I didn't really want a husband. The list was the only way I could pretend I felt the same panic as everyone else and was out there looking for someone instead of just screwing the ones I liked.
"Was his shirt tucked in?"
"Was he wearing a belt?"
"No," I said.
"Did he ask you out again?"
"Are you going?"
"No belt, no second date."
"Didn't he run a marathon?"
"So? Why no second date?"
"No belt, no second date," I said firmly.
"You are high maintenance."
"I don't plan to change."
When I met Steve he fulfilled more requirements on my list than anyone else had thus far. He had lived in a foreign country, spoke a second language, polished his shoes, manicured his nails, sent his laundry out, trimmed his pubic hair, brushed his teeth (and aspired to floss), ate meat, drank alcohol, liked dessert, ran a marathon, wasn't fussy about body fluids, had no male pattern baldness in his family, was over six feet tall, never showered after sex alone, graduated from a good law school, liked the seasons, enjoyed science fiction and detective movies, hoped to someday practice yoga, wanted a dog, didn't like cats, and thought that one child was enough. I couldn't dismiss him on any real grounds. Previously I'd preferred men who tied me to chairs and painted my body, but my arousal from being stroked by an artist's wet paintbrush ended when I couldn't wash off a crimson red landscape from my neck to my toes. I had to tell everyone I had tried a home spa soak in beet juice that was supposed to shrink cellulite.
My friends were delighted to see me dating someone who wore pants without paint on them to the dinner table. They embraced Steve immediately and chose to overlook his career choice as a corporate lawyer. Our first few dates gave me no inclination to what his social world comprised. We had been set up by a man I knew from the New York Runner's Club. Steve and I had similar marathon paces, and he was eager to find someone who he could train with in the early mornings. I had always lost time during the marathon on the last few miles from the north end of Central Park until the finish because of the slight uphill grade. Although every year I knew it was essential for me to train in the park, it was so far from where I lived, and training alone was an invitation for rape. Neither Steve nor I had ever tried running with a partner, and the idea appealed to us both-especially after our first flirtatious conversation. Neither of us seemed to make an effort to comb our hair or look especially appealing at five-thirty in the morning, but we were stripped of anything that could have warned us that we came from different worlds. We had running watches, technically efficient sneakers, a few nice sweatshirts, and worn baseball hats. The first time he asked me out for supper we were to meet at an uptown social club where he was a member. Upon arrival I was informed I could not be served in the restaurant because I was wearing slacks; women were required to wear skirts in the main dinning hall.
I should have known better then, but as our wedding date grew closer the problems between us were growing into chronic character differences instead of minor conflicts. A man who has never known blue-collar labor is not a man who should marry a woman who has spent her summers gutting fish or hauling crates onto trucks. He repeated the best lines from The New York Times at cocktail parties, and I swore that the real stories were to be heard on the docks. Although Steve claimed he cherished my quirks, as time passed he no longer defended me. As I struggled through long tedious barbecues on the tip of Long Island that hot summer, I realized that he had changed his position, and I could see that he hoped I would buy the pastel-colored slippers all the other women wore instead of always opting for comfort in my shoddy deck shoes.
With each wedding I had begun to see flaws in our social structure. Brides got drunk and cried about lovers they didn't marry. The single guys swarmed the bar and avoided dancing with anyone in a taffeta bridesmaid dress. Every woman wanted to catch the bouquet, but no man was eager to raise a hand for the garter. A disturbing rumor was running amuck that the stress of getting married usually led to a night of sexless insomnia or extreme drunkenness. Children seemed to be the only ones who really had a good time at weddings; caterers cleared plates filled with vegetables while the kids ate wedding cake drowned in maraschino cherries they stole from the bar.
I had already been involved in two outdoor weddings. The first one was during July at the start of the summer heat wave. By ten a.m. I had soaked through a cobalt-blue bridesmaid's dress. Large crescent moons of sweat grew under my arms and breasts. The photographer had all of us in the bride's party turn profile and keep our arms at our sides so the stains wouldn't show. During that reception three people fainted. The champagne glasses were so moist that one slipped out of the best man's hands during the toast and smashed on the floor. The band went stale because no one danced. Men and women hung out in the bathrooms inside the hotel to soak up the air-conditioning. No one paid attention to the sequence of scheduled events. Half the guests were inside at the bar when the bride and groom wanted to cut the cake.
The bride, Monica, threw her hands up and stopped trying to make it all work. It was her day, and she wasn't having fun. She called her bridesmaids together for a quick meeting in the bathroom near the bar. We each stripped down to our slips and push-up bras, chugged cold beers, ran through the lobby, the tent, and then headed off to the estate's pool.
We ran through the center of the buffet and in between its decorated tables, giggling, squealing, and cackling like little witches. There must have been a quiet moment of shock before anyone moved. The cacophony of silverware meeting plates died altogether.
The photographer raised his camera and photographed us running down the hill toward the pool. In the photo, six of us trail behind Monica in her veil. We are far enough away to look like deer in a field. In the dusky light our gauze slips and bare legs appear to be stark white tails dancing across the lawn.
The groom's party soon followed and encouraged the entire wedding entourage down the hill to the pool. Ceremoniously, all the newlyweds' parents held hands and marched down the steps into knee-deep water. For the first time in twenty-three years Monica saw her divorced parents hold hands. The wedding cake was served by the pool on plastic plates, and we played volleyball with our flower arrangements until it was time for the bride and groom to head off in the limousine. Those of us already engaged were accustomed to giving our bouquets away to waitrons, while the bride tossed her bouquet to random cousins and women she barely knew, who were filled with hope.
There was no break in the temperature for Beverley's wedding a month later. The heat soaked further into the crevices of concrete and tar, by the last week in August agitating the city's surfaces like a latent volcano. Summers that hot bred discontent.
Beverley had given up a good job in a Vermont mail-order company to stay in New York with Darnel. Marrying Darnel meant she was marrying New York City. Darnel promised her a life with a garden, and within a few months he found a beautiful old brownstone in Brooklyn. The garden plot had knee-deep weeds and a kiddie pool abandoned by the previous tenant. Beverley saw a fertile field enclosed in concrete waiting for that touch of love once she wheeled away the plastic pool in a shopping cart. Love has amazing power when it's on your side.
All Beverley wanted for her nuptials was to be surrounded by nature, even if it was only through a glass-bottom vase and color scheme. The bridesmaids wore green dresses the shade of fresh onion grass, and Beverley wore an iris-tinted gown with a yellow veil. As we collected in the small hall inside a Brooklyn church every breeze blew pollen around the room and caused an opera of sneezes. Only Beverley's hearty Vermont lungs were accustomed to such high pollen counts. Everyone who lived south of Westchester County spent the day sniveling into their cloth dinner napkins and sneezing into the bread baskets.
The bartender acquired a bottle of antihistamines, and if you tipped him well, he slid one to you with your beverage. Taking over-the-counter drugs and drinking champagne created a party of wired drunks. When the caterers begged us to leave, we moved from the wedding hall into the honeymoon suite. We deprived the bride and groom of consummating their wedding by playing drinking games like I Never and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon until the sky was light again.
Before Steve, I did not need to love someone to have sex with him, nor did I care if a man I slept with called me back. I left more men in bed with the sheets still warm than those I cared to spend the whole night with. I would have dated nice boys if they knew how to have naughty sex.
For my friends, my escapades were sources of vicarious infidelity; they called me Crazy Catherine. They listened to my stories of wild times, sexual antics, hard liquor abuse, and even drug experiments, without ever being unfaithful to their own relationships. When my friends believed they had misbehaved they called on me first; it was rare they could outdo me in confession. When I stayed with Steve for more than six months, everyone seemed so happy to see that I'd settled down that I continued to want their approval. I was tired of defending my choices. My dates and lovers had always been the amusement of others at dinner parties. Steve was single and heterosexual. He had no children and no diseases. He had health benefits and a plan for retirement. I was becoming part of a group of friends that was expanding as "couples." Now, like the rest of my friends, I, too, worried about how to arrange the closets if we moved in together. I told secrets about Steve's personal habits, and my friends also told me things that drove them crazy about their new husbands. I was becoming one of the "girls" for the first time in my life.
Emily was the next person to marry that summer in the slow suffocating sauna. She went from being a solid-minded, savvy, and frugal woman to a lavish, extravagant Southern belle. Planning a wedding is like getting really drunk; all the things you would never do or say suddenly come very easily. A wedding is the hidden key to learning about your friends. It is either the reflection of who you thought they were or the idealized dream of what they want to be. In either case, over the past few months I had grown unable to recognize Emily at all.
I concentrated on making conversation that did not involve my wedding arrangements. The long list of petty bits and pieces, table arrangements, and thank-you-note stationery that brides were supposed to enjoy deciding upon was unbearable. It was the last thing I wanted to discuss during my time off from work. I had become so annoyed and vexed by Emily's constant banter about her nuptials that I would sigh and roll my eyes when we spoke on the telephone. Had I been more willing to see the faults in my own situation I might have foreseen I was jealous that she enjoyed the process of planning her wedding, whereas to me it had become just a burden.
There was a strange mix of people at her wedding. Half of them were Emily's age, a frustrated group of late-twenty-somethings who had not quite made their mark, and the other half remembered The Beatles and Kent State. Emily's fiancŽ was a sweet, bright man who had been one of her professors. His friends had impressive educations and low-paying teaching jobs. They were the type of people who trained themselves to be so politically correct that they called the bartender an "independent contractor."
The start of the wedding was delayed. Most of us had become so accustomed to our repetitive pew positions that it took some time until we noticed the harpist had played the wedding march six times, and the "independent contractor" started serving drinks in the cocktail lounge adjoining the reception tent. In my aggressively despondent state of mind regarding matrimony, I was the first to conclude we would never see her in the dress and shoes that matched the catering, floral arrangements, chair ribbons, and Asian-infused kosher menus.
After an hour Beverley looked over at me and said: "Should we go see what happened?"
My tolerance was low. I had been angry with Emily since she decided to stick her two sisters in the bridesmaids' gowns and didn't ask us to stand by her. I felt if she needed someone now, she had her sisters. Beverley was more generous.
At the back of the small inn, up a narrow dark hallway, we found the bridal suite. We knocked on the door, twice.
One of her sisters answered, half-dressed. "What?"
"We wanted to make sure everything was all right," I said.
"Of course it's all right," she snapped back.
"You're an hour past schedule," said Beverley.
Emily's older sister closed the door and said: "Have another drink, we'll be there."
We were astonished. Back in our seats without collaborating a story, we said in unison, "Have another drink, she'll be here."
An additional fifteen minutes developed into half an hour when one of her sisters finally spoke to an usher. Suddenly, all at once we rose and watched Emily enter under a parasol. There was a small gasp from Beverley, and I grabbed her hand; Emily stood erect with her shoulders thrown back. On top of her simple rose tinted veil was a gaudy rhinestone tiara. She stood next to her aggravated father, as if they were about to go trick-or-treating.
When her gray-haired father delivered her to her gray-haired groom, I held Steve close and loved him for being different from my family.
The first time our parents met we did everything to prevent disaster. We picked a neutral restaurant that was famous for their steaks and stayed far away from country clubs and fresh catch locations. I knew my father would find fault with the parade of material goods Steve's father, Steve Sr., lavishly enjoyed. My mother would find Gail, Steve's mother, irritating every time she decided she absolutely must take her to her favorite salon for a treat. I had undergone several salon treats at Gail's special spa that left my skin raw or windburned. What Steve (Jr.) and I could not foresee was that random events and fate would create a detailed police sketch somewhat haunting and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
My parents were already downtown at the office with me after an exhausting round of Saturday morning deliveries I made when a freighter I expected on Thursday didn't clear customs until after midnight on Friday. Steve Jr. had gone up to his parents with the weekend traffic and spent Saturday golfing with Steve Sr. The dichotomy of a day spent delivering fish or swinging golf clubs already set a bad tone, and I called Steve Jr. in a panic at three o'clock and begged him not to come. He ignored me. Steve Sr. was too eager to drive his newest SL class Mercedes Roadster convertible down the turnpike. If Gail hadn't put her leather handbag with signature chain-link shoulder strap behind her before Steve Sr. lowered the convertible top, maybe the fabric roof wouldn't have ripped open when Gail pulled her purse free from the folds to retrieve a token.
By the time Steve Sr. arrived he had lost his after golf glow, and my father had strong shadowy chin stubble since he had been fighting meter maids since six in the morning. Steve Sr. refused to leave his new but slightly wounded convertible in the garage I use to guard my own vintage Mustang. Instead Steve Sr. invited my father to drive across the Brooklyn Bridge to Peter Luger Steak House in his favorite little toy. I watched my father cringe at the affectionate term for the car and then gently strap himself into the passenger seat. They were far ahead of us by the time Gail began complaining that there were no rear seat belts in the 1964 Mustang. Steve fought me, as always, on who should drive. No other person has driven the car except my parking attendants and the old man who sold it to me. Thwarted, he rode in the passenger seat for the second time that day and pouted. We missed the accident that Steve Sr. caused, but for the rest of my engagement I would be able to picture every moment of it.
Steve Sr. talked to people with a familiarity that included shoulder punching and backslapping. Although my father was a congenial man, this false sense of intimacy reminded him of insurance agents. It appears that Steve Sr. was reenacting a joke about a monkey, his testicles, and a shotgun when he drifted from the far left passing lane into the middle. There he wedged his right headlight into the rear bumper of a 1976 Ford Pinto with seven turbaned men hidden inside.
After having inspected his car Steve Sr. shrieked: "You bastards can't drive with sheets sliding over your eyes!"
My father, immigrant blood close to a boil, yelled: "Not everyone can watch where you drive since you don't pay attention."
My father always made it clear when reenacting the story that he found Steve Sr. to be the kind of man who thought so fondly of himself that he believed people should watch him at all times.
No one from the Pinto could produce a New York State driver's license or insurance card. It was obvious by the thick water in their eyes that Steve Sr.'s threats and rage made them think of a place they did not want to return to. When Steve Sr. flipped open his mobile telephone, my father intervened.
"What in God's name are you doing?" he asked.
"Calling the police."
"I need a police report for my insurance."
"No cop is going to come halfway out on the Brooklyn Bridge to look at a broken headlight unless someone's head is attached to it."
"That is a selective choice halogen bulb manufactured solely for the luxury class models of Mercedes."
"So that's it? You want a new headlight for your little toy?"
"Those falafel heads are going to buy me a new set of two-thousand-dollar headlights or go to jail where they belong!"
"I think they belong in Palestine, but they weren't happy there. Did you forget? This is the land where we take the hungry, the battered, and even those who can't afford lightbulbs that blind you from every angle of the road."
"How can you defend those parasites? They're probably raping our system! The system I built for my retirement with my taxes. I could probably buy a new set of titanium golf clubs with the money they hustle off food stamps!"
My father saw seven men with dirty nails and scars lashed across their hands from hot machinery. Their clothing was spotted by thick grease; the knees of their work pants were threadbare. My father loathed beggars but had a large heart for the workingman. It was just about this time I could see Steve Sr.'s car on the bridge. The long line of merging traffic honked, and drivers waved their arms in irritation, and it was then I realized our fathers were holding everyone up.
Since I was driving only six miles per hour I clearly saw my father reach into his pocket and count out twenty one-hundred-dollar bills and hand them to Steve Sr. My father was the type of man who never joined a club, a hotel chain, or owned a credit card because he didn't like limitations set upon him. He kept large stacks of bills at his disposal to guarantee he could make his own rules. I'm sure he planned on paying for dinner, and I was also sure he had another stack of bills nestled in his shoes if Steve Sr. decided to order expensive champagne or aged wine. Gail distracted me from Steve Sr.'s reaction to the money with her alarmed squeaking noises when she, too, realized her husband had been in an accident. By the time we were parallel with their car, my father had returned to the passenger seat and waved for us to continue on.
While Steve Sr. refused to allow the valet to park the car, we questioned my father.
He quietly remarked: "I lost a little bet about how much a set of titanium golf clubs cost."
A coldness permeated the conversation for the rest of the evening, but Gail never noticed because she had a list of things my mother absolutely must do.
On the way home from Emily's wedding I felt guilty for being angry at her. Her desperate attempt to make the wedding such an important turning point in her life saddened me more than I expected. Those hour-long telephone calls about the dress-shoes-caterer were just her way of asking "What am I doing?" I was ashamed that I mocked her over the past few months as I realized that marriage helps to heal wounds from our pasts.
At each of those weddings the obstacles of the events never affected the love between the bride and the groom. The more I learned about Steve's character by organizing our nuptials, the more I doubted he was right for me. I had to find some way of understanding if my own frantic reluctance was a burst of latent feminism, or part of a real problem with Steve, before the final fitting of my dress.
-Reprinted from The Trouble with Catherine by Andes Hruby by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Copyright (c) 2002 by Andes Hruby. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.
Posted February 17, 2005
This was just a quick pick-up book, and I could not stop reading it. Every Catholic should read it, and further, the leaders of the Catholic Church should learn from it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 26, 2001
I received this book as a gift, so I felt compelled to read it----only wish that I had returned it for something worthwhile. The plot had some promise but never developed, and neither did the characters. There was too much detail but very little description used to flesh out the background...I really didn't care what street the restaurants and clubs were on----some pages read like pages from a tour book. Most of the dialogue was on the elementary school level----the 'she said' and 'he said' kind. I can truly say that it was one of the worse books that I have ever read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 23, 2001
This certainly had me captivated! I walked through the house reading, woke up reaching for the book the next morning and finished it in record time. It's fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny, unbelievable, eye-opening, and thought-provoking! How many of us, after reading this book, will look at the conclave in the same way again?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 22, 2000
Incredble book, a friend of mine got it and let me read it when he was done. I was up al night burning the midnight oil. A stirring account that asks the inevitable what-if's. The story of priest to fisherman to Vicar of christ, is one of the best rqags to riches story i have ever seen. Very colorful characters that jump off the page as well. I recommend you give it a shot!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2000
A truly great book. I enjoyed each and every chapter to the fullest. Lots of food for thought is generated in this novel. Raymond Flynn and Robin Moore demonstrated lots of talent. I recommend this book to all that love to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.