Tod looked upset. A friend from high school, he was a skinny guy whose face in sadness always looked comical, like that of Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. He had noticed all night that I seemed down and had worried it was due to bad bachelor party planning. “There are other clubs we could go to,” he said. “Or we could catch a movie. Have you seen The Untouchables?”
I winced with pain. “I just want to go to bed.”
Another friend, the Moose, had a better idea. A tall man with a long mustache, he had been the class clown in high school and was now a cop in Nassau County. He put his muscled arm on my shoulder and pointed to the girl dancing on stage, who wore nothing but a G-string. “You like her, Joe?” he said.
“I don’t have anything against her.”
“She’s yours. I’ll set you up with her as soon as she finishes her number.”
I stared up at him. “Are you suggesting I sleep with her?”
He grinned. “Attaboy.”
“You’re a cop!”
“Yeah, but only on Long Island. I don’t have jurisdiction in the city.”
“I’m getting married in two days.”
He winked. “Now’s your chance.”
I shook my head and started toward the door. Tod and the others followed. The Moose shook his head. “Sucker,” he said.
The wedding rehearsal next night was the first time I’d seen Margaret since my dinner with Wendy. As she entered the almost empty Brooklyn church in a long black dress, I scrutinized her carefully, trying to find anything of Wendy in her. Margaret was neither tall nor blonde; she was short, with short red hair and glasses, a little older than I but much closer in age than Wendy. Margaret was Catholic and literary like me, and we had good times, but I had never felt she was my soulmate.
We took our places at the altar with the groomsmen and bridesmaids and the little Italian priest. As we pretended to say our vows, I kept thinking, Tell her, just tell her. Tell Margaret you can’t marry her because you’re in love with another woman. But that made no sense. The other woman had rejected me. I couldn’t have Wendy. So why give up Margaret too? And everyone was expecting us to marry—the priest, our families, our friends. We’d hired a florist, organist, photographer, swing band. We’d taken ballroom dance classes and pre-Cana religion classes. We’d paid for the reception and the honeymoon. If we didn’t get married, somebody should. Maybe I could talk the Moose into taking my place.
But getting married for its own sake also made no sense. So what if everyone expected us to marry? Better a few minutes of disappointing everyone than a lifetime of misery. And marriage would make us miserable. However I felt about Margaret, it was clear I longed for something more. Wendy could never have gotten to me if I didn’t. Even though Wendy had rejected me, my heart still lay wide open, and Margaret could never close it. The American mind might close, but not me. It was just a matter of time before another woman beckoned me away.
The rehearsal dinner that night was my third restaurant dinner in three nights—first Domenico’s, then the boat, now this Moroccan restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. The room was filled with family and friends. The need to circulate kept me away from Margaret most of the night, but toward the end we sat together at a table alone, apart from the rest, surrounded by scraps of other people’s couscous and tagine.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry about what?”
I stared at her. I hadn’t told her anything about Wendy except that we’d had dinner. “How do you mean?” I asked.
“She must have turned you down,” said Margaret. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
Margaret, I realized, had perceived the whole thing. She had seen my passion for Wendy, seen how it peaked on Wednesday night, seen that the next two days had been spent in gloom and rumination. I looked at her kind round face, her sympathetic eyes. I had never met anyone who could see my heart so clearly and nevertheless acceptme. “That’s just about what happened,” I said.
“We don’t have to get married,” said Margaret.
“Do you still want to?”
She considered for a moment. “If you do.”
I took her hands across the white tablecloth. “I’m ready too,” I said.
We kissed, not deeply and roughly as Wendy and I had kissed,but with a fond familiarity that promised more.
The next morning, Saturday, August 22, 1987, I, Joseph Wraca, took Margaret Plennerto be my wife in Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Margaret didn’t think white was a good color for her, plus it implied a virginity she lacked, so she wore a periwinkle off-the-shoulder gown. I wore a gray suit that fit so well it was the first suit that didn’t make me feel in drag. Saying my vows to her, beginning with “I promise to be true to you,” was the most joyful moment of my life, because it combined intellectual clarity with emotional wholeness. After the dark night of my temptation toward Wendy, I emerged into the daylight of matrimony.
I had invited Wendy and her husband to the wedding, and to show there were no hard feelings, I hadn’t rescinded the invitation. Her husband sent his regrets, but Wendy showed up, as did Ned, who had also accepted my invitation without bringing his spouse. Wendy looked beautiful in a white polka-dot dress with cap sleeves, her blonde hair waving loose again in the late summer sun as she stood in the receiving line outside the church. In tears, she bent down and hugged me and kissed my cheek. Her arms were downy; her perfume filled my nostrils. “God bless you,” she said. “You’re an angel.”
I looked at her with the happy resignation that comes with making the right choice. “So I’ve been told,” I said.
She squeezed Margaret. “Take good care of him.”
“I’ll do what I can,” said Margaret.
At the reception in the Oak Room of the Grand Prospect Hall, Wendy and Ned sat at a table with other friends from ALL, while Margaret and I reigned from our weddingdais. The swing band began playing and Margaret and I applied our fox-trot lessons to the first dance, “I’ve Got You under My Skin.” Soon the dance floor filled with cheerful couples. I was having a fine time with Margaret until I noticed Wendy and Ned.
They danced more closely than any other couple on the dance floor, including the bride and groom. Whether the songs were slow or fast, Wendy and Ned pressed into each other as if trying to merge, arms entwined, cheek-to-cheek, whispering things no one else could hear. They were gorgeous together, Wendy tall and blonde in polka-dots, Ned taller and sharp-eyed in a stone summer suit. They hung over each other in the manner unique to people who are sleeping together and still excited about it.Ned caught me looking and flashed me that same triumphant smile he had displayed when he took Wendy to lunch. Without his having to say a word, the smile said, “Sorry, Joe.” And I realized that since my dinner with Wendy he had taken her to bed.
I released myself from Margaret’s arms, muttering “I need a drink,” and hurried to the bar for a Scotch on the rocks. I bummed a cigarette from the bartender and lit up, breaking amarital vow before my wedding day was even over. Now I understood: Wendy hadn’t rejected me for her husband’s sake, but for Ned’s. She had wanted an affair all along, but with Ned, not me. The reason she took me to dinner was to make Ned jealous. I was very young; she had been right about that. I was so young I thought in adultery the only thing you had to worry about was the spouses. I didn’t realize the real danger was other adulterers.
I returned to Margaret and danced angrily, trying not to watch Wendy and Ned, unable to keep my eyes from them. All the whole, clean, intellectual joy I had experienced during my vows was gone. I was in so much painthat breathing hurt.
Margaret and I left the reception early. A limousine drove us back to her apartment to change into travel clothes for our trip to New Orleans. I searched the bags for our plane tickets, though I was still not sure I was going on my honeymoon. Thinking I had stuffed the tickets in my book, I opened The City of God. The pink carnation from that night at Domenico’s fluttered out. It was beginning to flatten and dry, just as Wendy had predicted.
Walking in, Margaret saw the flutter. “What’s that?” she asked.
I picked up the carnation, swung back my arm to throw it in the garbage. But I couldn’t. I loved Wendy more than I could say. No matter how I tried to close my heart, it remained wide open. I slipped the flower back between the pages. “Bookmark,” I said.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
I couldn’t speak. But I found the tickets and opened the door for her.