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The Nine Month Plan
By Wendy Markham
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2003 Wendy Corsi Staub
All right reserved.
PrologueNina Chickalini is no stranger to the tiny, windowless room just off the rectory of Most Precious Mother church on Ditmars Boulevard in Queens.
It was here that she made her first-and last-confession to Father Hugh. Make that, the late Father Hugh. But that part-the late part -wasn't her fault, no matter what Joey Materi said then ... and continues to say.
Until that May weekday afternoon a decade ago, the parishioners of Most Precious Mother made their confessions in the blessed anonymity of the closet-like confessionals in the main church. But apparently, face-to-face confessions in a casual setting had become all the diocesan rage, and Nina's pre-confirmation class was to be initiated into confessing their sins in the new-fangled way.
Ordinarily, Danny Andonelli would have gone first. But he had caught a nasty throwing-up kind of flu from his little brother -or so he said. Nina suspected he was loathe to confess his failure to Keep Holy the Sabbath Day-he'd been caught throwing water balloons at passing subway trains the previous Sunday afternoon.
Anyway, Danny was absent that day, leaving Nina alphabetically next in line to make her first confession. She sat on the folding wooden chair opposite the kindly old priest, took a deep breath and forced herself to look him in the eye.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," she began, as Sister Mary Agnes had taught them to do in CCD.
He nodded encouragingly.
But Nina noticed that he seemed a bit pale and distracted as she launched into a detailed account of her sins: cheating on a social studies test (but not really, because she had glimpsed Andy O'Hara's paper merely by accident); taking the name of the Lord in vain (which she couldn't really help doing because she had dropped Grandma Valerio's massive hardcover bible on her fragile pinky toe); coveting her friend Minnie Scaturro's brand-new canopy bed -
Suddenly, the priest keeled over, clutching his chest.
He writhed on the floor, gasping.
For a moment, Nina thought he was kidding. After all, he had a pretty decent sense of humor for someone who wore somber black from head to toe every day of his life.
It turned out Father Hugh wasn't kidding.
Nina ran shrieking out into the rectory, where her pre-confirmation classmates were waiting to make their first confessions.
As Sister Agnes rushed to call 911, Joey Materi said, "Holy shit, Nina, you must've confessed one hell of a sin!"
That remark was miraculously overheard by the distracted and nearly-deaf Sister Agnes, resulting in an unpleasant penance for Joey, who had his mouth washed out with soap.
Nina never did receive any penance for her curtailed first confession.
And Most Precious Mother promptly went back to using the confessionals -which is why Nina hasn't set foot in this tiny room since.
Now, on a rainy Saturday June afternoon, the first thing she notices is that it looks exactly the same-pea-green indoor-outdoor carpeting, beige-painted cinderblock walls, a couple of wooden folding chairs, and a giant wooden crucifix as the only decor.
It smells the same, too-of incense and mildew, mothballs and musty hymnals.
The next thing she notices is that unlike the room, Joey Materi -whom she has seen practically every day of her life-looks startlingly different.
It isn't just that his dark hair is slicked back from his handsome face, or that he's wearing a black tuxedo instead of his usual jeans and flannel shirt.
The thing is, he suddenly looks like ... well, like a man. The tux makes his shoulders appear broader than usual, his lean frame taller than usual. His dark eyes bear an uncharacteristically solemn expression as he stares off into space, and his full lower lip is pensively caught beneath a top row of even white teeth. The devilish, jocular Joey Nina has known all her life is gone, replaced by this -this man. This ... Joe.
Nina takes a step closer to him, her periwinkle taffeta skirt rustling around her dyed-to-match satin pumps. She can hear faint organ music coming from the adjacent church, which is packed with expectant friends and family. You'd think someone would have instructed Millicent Milagros to stop playing The Wedding March, but she's just launched into yet another round.
Nina closes the door behind her, shutting out the music and instantly becoming aware that Joey doesn't just look different -he smells different, too.
Not that she is prone to sniffing Joey Materi. But she senses that if she were, he wouldn't normally smell so ... yummy. She can smell the white carnation that's pinned to his lapel, a scent that reminds her of the Easter Sunday corsages her father used to buy for her. She can also smell a tantalizingly musky, citrus scent.
"Are you wearing aftershave or something?" she asks incredulously.
Joey looks up, startled, as if he's just noticed her. "What the heck are you doing back here, Nina?"
She takes a deep breath, forgetting all about the cologne.
"I have something to tell you," she says, trying not to sound overly ominous.
Okay, so she needs to work on the ominous thing. Then again, why beat around the bush?
"Nobody's dead, Joey ..."
"Worse than dead? What can be worse than dead? And why are you telling me this now? I'm getting married any second." He checks the gold wristwatch he borrowed from his older brother, Phil.
Phil, who is currently shirking his best manly duties, the lousy coward. In Nina's opinion, Phil's the one who should be doing this. Not her. The maid of honor is supposed to tend to the bride, not the groom.
Then again, the bride must be halfway to the Port Authority right about now.
Meanwhile, Phil is suddenly nowhere to be found, the other groomsmen are useless in the wake of last night's rousing bachelor party, and the stricken bridesmaids are dabbing mascara-tinted tears from their cheeks in the ladies' room.
Which leaves only Nina to break the bad news to Minnie's would-be groom.
She puts a hand on his arm.
"Joey ... you'd better sit down."
"Nina, what the he -" He glances at the crucifix - "heck is going on?"
"Sit!" She gives him a little shove toward the folding chair.
"Nina, why are you -" He breaks off, and then an uh-oh expression dawns. "Where's Minnie?"
"She's ... gone."
Joey gasps -a sound not unlike Father Hugh's last tortured breath.
"I'm sorry, Joey," Nina says, swallowing hard over a lump in her throat.
"What do you mean, 'gone'?"
"She's left town."
The look on his face tells her he doesn't get it. She'd better be more specific.
"She's left ... um, you."
"She's left me? But -"
"I'm so sorry."
"This can't be happening. She can't leave me."
"I'm sorry, Joey," she says again, patting his muscular arm.
She can't leave me ...
The same haunting words were spoken by Nina's father just last summer, about her mother Rosemarie.
She can't leave me ...
But Mommy is gone, too. Just like Minnie Scaturro. And Nina is left behind once again to pick up the pieces.
"Where did she go?" Joey asks miserably.
Nina sighs, forcing away the image of her mother lying eerily still in that hospital bed. "Minnie said she wants to find -"
"Wait, let me guess. To find herself? Isn't that why people get jilted? Because the other person wants to find herself?"
"I don't think it's herself that Minnie's going to find, Joey."
"Then who is she going to find?"
"God," Nina says flatly. "She said she's going to find God."
Joey looks at her in disbelief. "God's right here," he says, gesturing at the crucifix. "I mean, this is a church, for Christ's sake. Where does she think -"
"She said she got the calling, Joey," Nina blurts.
"She got the calling now?"
"No. Last night."
"Last night," he repeated. "Last night, while I was out turning down lap dances and watching Danny puke all over the limo because he drank too many Jell-O shots, Minnie was getting the calling? Is that what you're telling me?"
Nina nods sympathetically. "I'm so -"
"Sorry?" he cuts in. "You said that, Neens. A few times."
"I don't know what else to say."
"I don't, either." He shakes his head, tears in his eyes. "I love her, Nina. You know that? I've loved her since eighth grade. Every plan I've ever made was built around marrying her."
"I know, Joey. I know."
She holds him close while his heart shatters into a million pieces, wishing she were anywhere but here. Wishing she were the one on the number seven train heading for a new whole life.
For the first time since the canopy bed, Nina finds herself envying Minnie Scaturro, who, instead of settling for a boring life as boring Joey's boring wife, gets to leave Queens behind at last.
Any day now, I'll be outta here, too, Nina consoles herself as Joey's tears soak her taffeta-covered shoulder. Any day now ...
Excerpted from The Nine Month Plan by Wendy Markham Copyright © 2003 by Wendy Corsi Staub
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.