Things wife-to-be now recalls, from the last important time she was in a church:
1. The Ochoas were Roman Catholic. This probably meant that at some point during that service, a Roman Catholic priest had walked up and down the aisle cooing Latin and tilting some holy object filled with incense back and forth.
2. She’d been inside that church – with an alive Alison – many times before. Mr. Ochoa had always been the sort of Dad who’d never let a sleepover thwart the Sundagenda. He used to wake the girls from their sprawled blanket nests in the den with the sweet smell of sausages, eggs and cafe con leche – even though they were too young to drink this during those sleepover years. Halfway into buttery semolina rolls he’d stand and say, “Alright. To CHURCH!” Then he’d punch his fist in the air, and daughter and friend and other daughters would groan in concert and go.
3. Alison’s body had been unrecognizable, so there had been nothing to stare at then but the casket and its calla lilly guard. Also the pools of light spooled out on stone, reflections from the Rose Window. Also, the stations of the cross in alcoves off the pews. Actually, there had been a lot to stare at, now that she was thinking back.
4. The Ochoa sisters had all been wearing pearls in the first row. The backs of their necks had looked connected where the strands fell. The gems had seemed to dance in alternating currents when they went to cry.
5. There’d been a crasher. He’d stood up during the ‘free for all,’ and said, “I didn’t know Alison, but I think she might have liked me to sing a little something.” Then there had been an off-key rendering of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It would have been funny if it hadn’t been the worst case scenario.
6. Parents Edwin and Geneva had held hands throughout that service.
From here and now (here is a well-lit, unadorned Episcopalian church on Hudson Street, now is a million years after the fact of best friend’s interment) her parents Edwin and Geneva are barely touching in the front row. Just the tops of their shoulders. They don’t quite smile.
Last month’s meet-the-makers weekend in Baltimore had ended like so: Edwin shaking then-fiance Gale’s hand with the same military distance with which he’d greeted him two days prior, then silence as soundtrack to the stale smell of hot car driving away, racing plainness along the highway, trying not to talk about it. Instead, Gale had talked about his parents. How his mom would make cobbler and “just fall in love with you” and his father would engage her with “shocking” anecdotes from his “tours” in the Coast Guard reserve. And Mama Cordmann had met all these expectations, answering a bright red door in an apron with buttermilk spilled in a neat line down the front. His parents’ house had smelled like home-made lunches and dryer sheets, his parents’ house was supremely clean and the kind of place where B+ quizzes were taped to the fridge with glee. Which was all fine and dandy. They’d only stayed in Wassaic the one night, anyway. Then, driving home through the Hudson Valley the next morning, quieted and made reverent by valleys and waterfalls and earthly elegance, she’d put her head in then-fiance-Gale-Cordmann’s lap and looked up at a blue sky through a sun roof and thought to herself, “I am happy,” over and over again until it became suspicious. Worth interrogating. That was three weeks ago.
At this church right now, his parents are matching, in a cheeky way: Pops in a light blue linen suit, Mama in blue polka dots over a white cotton shift dress. Mama’s dress is actually a tad too sheer, more-than-implying form-fitting shapewear below. Meanwhile, Edwin and Geneva really might be mourning for all their somber navy blue. Wife-to-be, she keeps choosing not to look at them. Her own role models.
And, to clarify: one has nothing to do with the other, church-memory-wise. Wife-to-be is merely riffing. Her life will get all new from here, no doubt; dead best friend is not a part of present love story, attendant guilt is not to do with presently grim mother and father in pews or the bobbing pearl river she remembers from Alison’s last heyday, oh no no no. This new chapter of the memoir begins with Gale, who is ever so sheepish and endearing in his three piece suit, and gliding towards him now over soft whispery red carpet feels like safety and home and being a grown-up. It does not feel like apologizing or wondering what went wrong or being worried, always, about doing the right thing by someone else. He wants her a little bit more than she wants him…perhaps. That seems a terribly callous thing to think, waltzing towards the altar. But okay now she’s by his side staring into his for-sure eyes so all is serenely right and good. Wife-to-be needs Gale Cordmann, which she figures is really about the same as being in love, all told.
Her mother’s gaze is sphinx-y as she watches her only daughter “jump the broom” (as the colored folks say). For she is saying a bit of a goodbye to the colored folks now, isn’t she? In some way? She doesn’t like feeling ashamed of her family, so she definitely isn’t ashamed of her family. She definitely isn’t ashamed in front of her family. They just don’t understand this new way to live, is the thing, this non-penitent future. Or they refuse to. Understand. They don’t know what certain loss has affected, they didn’t know back in the Catholic church when they were holding hands so they couldn’t possibly know now. There are just so many things it would be nice to forget.
“To have and to hold,” the priest is saying. Now, right now…she’s been preoccupied. This church is full of light from high windows, suggesting friends in high places. It’s so different from the other one. Catholics and Episcopalians are very different, she recalls. Roommate Donia is Catholic. She’s a Catholic dwarf. And where is Donia now? She’s sitting on a stool (who’s ridiculous idea was this?!) which keeps her at about eye-line with some of the shorter bridesmaids. The other bridesmaids are Nicole from improv, Janet from college and half-sister Nikia, who keeps scratching her nose with her mouth in a fairly hideous way.
Is it scary, when he says forever? Not forever – “till death do us part?” And what will it be like to lower Gale into the ground? By now such endings are a little old hat, ba-dum-ching… though maybe his casket would be open, his dancing little hands clasped across his chest, his blinkity blinking blue eyes closed, of course. The way she imagines his face staring up at her from some kind of lidless coffin, nose and next dubious sideburns falling slowly into shadow, then improbable dirt on his cold, bare skin…this is what makes her begin to cry. Really cry, sob.
Alive-and-present-and-accounted for-Gale touches her, here and now. He grips her extending fingers too tight. ‘I love you,’ he mouthes, and then, once he reigns in her wandering eye, he mouths it again so she can see.
And though they explicitly asked her not to, the diabolical organist is now plunking the outro chords to the wedding march, and now everyone in the church is clapping and rising. Donia wobbles on her stool. Certain terrible children stare at her. Her mother Geneva rises from below billows of dark linen and claps magnanimously. Her father Edwin is crying a little and trying not to show it. Wife (!) takes pity. Plus The Cordmann’s, with bastard baby Cassandra raised between them and held aloft with one Grandma arm and one Grandpa arm, ought to be captured on photograph. Sidenote: is it a bastard if the mother left? Will New Wife even be a good mother? Oh, whatever, because this is such a happy day!
There is nothing to do but swallow, and feel. The vaulted ceilings of this church are buttressed, like most churches? In Art History classes they’d spent some time on pictures of cathedrals. Grey and stoic and serious, serviceable, the oddest kind of art. Now the ring is on her finger. It is more binding than a small piece of jewelry should probably feel, too tight on her clammy hand. Now there’s nothing for it but to swoon a little bit, swoon backwards into her husband (husband!)’s jittery arms. She is in terrifying free fall for a second, but he catches her, holds her fast.