“Please be seated,” the priest said.
The congregation obeyed with a discernible, rumble; women fixing dresses, men unbuttoning jackets if they were wearing one. Many weren’t.
A collective, agitated hush filled the church. Watches examined. Looks of blank stupidity assumed. No one was there to listen to him, the priest knew, but to get to the good stuff they had to get through him first.
On the altar, the bride looks up – not at her soon to be husband, though, but at him. A quick glance, no more. A fiercely intelligent glance.
His name was Father Jaime. He was hungover. His friends called him Gus.
Show time, he thought, his eyes smiling at the bride.
“Love is many things,” he began in a deep, powerful voice, “but it is never patient and it is never kind.”
He paused, just long enough to see if anyone had caught the change. Nope. People are so fucking stupid, he thought.
Ok, let’s try this another way:
“Sometimes, love is a complete and utter train wreck,” he said, pausing only for a heartbeat.
“It’s a messy, happy, sloppy, stumbling, walk home from the bar at 3 a.m. after the best night in the world, when you feel like you can do anything, but knowing deep down that there’s gonna be a price to pay.”
Well, that did it, he thought, as heads snapped up, first at him, then at each other.
The groom looked confused, but this was pretty much his normal look, and anyway Father Jaime didn’t really give a shit about the groom. The bride smiled at him. Ever so slightly, but it was there.
Christ, what an amazing woman, Father Jaime thought.
He also thought that he had a killer fucking headache going just now and that it was going to be a long day.
This was not Father Jaime’s normal wedding homily, with the usual stuff of man and woman uniting as one; God swooping in here and there to bless it all, wonderful children running around, some happily ever after stuff and would there be an open bar at the reception, I wonder?
But it also wasn’t all that extraordinary. He was not much of rules guy, him.
And he hadn’t been born a priest. And he was no saint in the city. Not by a long shot.
His life had various stints – bartending, some writing, sweeping floors, wandering, even bouncing at some dive bars down south and out west; aimlessly wonderful meaningless shit like that – but mostly it was his time in the Navy, which included an assignment in the Philippines, where he met the girl that was to forever capture his heart.
He had joined – enlisted as it were – on a dare after too many beers and after listening to more bullshit tales than he could take as a bartender to the SEALS who stopped through his bar while training in Coronado.
Hell, if these guys could do it so could I, he thought, beer muscles brimming to the top. Turned out he was pretty much right, and pretty much stupid at the same time.
Her name was Divine – which was kind of ironic the way his life turned out, he always thought. You know – divine love, divine grace; ever hear of, like, the divinity, Seth? Kind of important stuff for a priest to know.
He would love her, and she him, for the next five years.
The priesthood came later, much later. After the ops, the time apart, the killing and the heartbreak that was inevitable; the intimacy from which he couldn’t escape, no matter where he ran.
So, it was a longer and more complicated journey that brought him to this pulpit on a hot, May afternoon. During the Labor Day weekend. On. Fucking. Staten. Island. Neither of which was helping his hangover. She had asked for him, the girl in the white dress. He could have said no, but he hadn’t.
His real aim that afternoon, he told himself, was not to get in trouble – which was gonna happen – but to reach those who were searching and still believed, to try and impart some honesty to this whole thing; maybe to reach a heart. Maybe prevent a mistake.
You are so full of shit, Gus, he thought. This is about her. The girl in the white dress.
Maybe so, he acknowledged. And anyway, looking over the crowd he didn’t have much hope. The groom’s side looked like a set of extras from a B-grade mafia movie. Lots of neckless, tough-guy wannabees squeezed into ill-fitting, shiny dress-up shirts next to big hair, big cleavage, gum-snapping girls eager to judge and get to the dance floor. Not that their Anthony’s and Mikey’s were gonna actually dance with them, but the pack was together so they’d dance with themselves.
More than half had some kind of dyed-blonde streak in their hair. Must be a new thing, Gus thought, wondering if the combination of booze, boobs and injected hormones would produce a fight in the parking lot later.
One could always hope, he smiled to himself, feeling the trident pinned deep beneath the cassock, before remembering that nobody swung at a guy in a white collar, which sometimes sucked because a little dust up would go along way with his hangover and his mood. Oh well, he was pretty sure the Church was firm in The Thou Shall Not Kill Thing. As in, gonna be a hard no on that one, Gus.
The bride’s side was a smaller and shorter lot. Deferential in the way that new immigrant strains are to older immigrant strains. More reserved in dress and manners; careful of their place and unsure of why their champion, their sweet college educated girl, their hope for the future, had picked this guy.
In terms of raw numbers there was no contest; they just didn’t have the procreation power to match their soon-to-be new family. The net result was an oddly balanced church.
Welcome to America, folks.
He lowered his voice, softening the tone.
“Love is hard,” he said. “It’s magical, and wonderful, and gut-wrenching…but it’s hard.”
“To begin with, it’s not about weddings and beautiful dresses. It’s not about pre-parties, post parties, bachelor parties or the perfect picture. It’s not Pachelbel or Mendelssohn. It’s not about the band, the envelopes, or the venetian-hour. None of that matters – at all – in life. None of that has anything to do with love…
….“because love is pure, unexplained magic,” he continued, his voice now barely above a whisper, his thoughts now far, far away, to a beach in the Pacific, watching Divine emerge from the waves in her blue bikini – Christ she looked good in that – moving with a controlled grace the way she did, perfectly aware of her effect on others as she sought eye contact with her Gus.
And then that smile, that perfectly imperfect smile that he adored.
I love you so much, she had said that day, lying in the sun, her fingers absently twirling his hair.
It was only one sentence, but for him it seemed like a song, like a symphony of prayers, dreams, hopes, pain and passion all in five words. It felt like a choir of angels had come down from above to surround them and he knew what eternity meant and he believed in Heaven once more.
He called her angel from that moment forward. He never told her why.
“But it’s also a fight,” he continued, focusing again on the present, not to mention his job. “It’s holding on and never letting go. It’s seeing the door – right there – and knowing you could take it, just knowing – there it is, I could bail, but choosing not to.”
“It’s not about what your sisters are doing, or your brothers, or your cousins, or your friends or anyone else. It’s about not settling. It’s the opposite: It’s about having the courage to believe in your own heart, and to follow it.”
“It’s about facing a fork in the road and choosing the hardest one. It’s pretending you both don’t hear the baby and then letting the other person sleep. It’s volunteering to walk the dog in the rain. It’s sometimes mundane and dreary, boring days, and realizing that they are actually the best of times.”
“It’s a red-eye home just to see her for an hour. It’s knowing all his fears and insecurities, and loving him more because of them.”
“It’s wanting to choke the other person and at the exact same moment standing up to anyone and anything that may hurt or threaten them.”
“It’s about a look from across a crowded room, the one that says you are so fucking hot I can’t stand it one minute longer. Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s about anguish and pure joy in the same heartbeat, it is an angel, disguised as lust.”
Here he paused. Took a sip of water and shut his eyes as if deep in holy concentration. Truth was his head hurt like hell.
“Listen now, my dears,” he began again, a slight Irish lilt, his full 6’1 inch, still powerful frame commanding the lectern; blue eyes twinkling, and the dimples she loved so much creasing a quiet smile.
“We all search for love. From the moment we are born, we search. It is the greatest gift we have to give, and the only single gift we ever truly want and need.”
“Take it seriously, treat in gently, care for it. Don’t ever waste it, or yourself. Never, ever waste it, and never ever give up on it.”
With that he sat down, paused in some real prayer to prepare for the next phase and got up gracefully.
“Please rise,” he said.
He began: “If anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot be joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace,” he said.
Again the church was quiet.
And in this sea of quiet and reverence, a voice spoke out.
“I do,” said Divine, the girl in the white dress.