February 14, 2000
Danny, God damn it all, was late for his own wedding.
Not that this was a sign of things to come. Not that this was a trend or anything. Not that his father was right when he used to say, “Jesus, kid, you’ll be late for your own wedding—hell, you’ll probably be late for your own funeral!”
The nuptials of Dante Dominguez Gausepohl and Ulalia Suzanne Adams were scheduled for two o’clock at the Temple Hesed in Poughkeepsie, and the Groom, with Best Man at the wheel, was still, believe it or not, in Yonkers—Yonkers!—at least, what, an hour and a half away. They were supposed to have picked up their tuxes from Magliulo’s Formals and Fine Mens Wear on Central Ave the day before, prior to their epic two-man bachelor party in the East Village, which had begun at McSorley’s, moved to the Burp Castle, reached its apex at a Susan Tedeschi concert at the Bottom Line, and ended with a one a.m. breakfast at the Union Square Café. But when they were both late getting off work they had decided instead to prioritize the party and pick up the tuxes the following morning, the morning of the wedding that is, this morning, and don them right there in the shop’s dressing room before heading to the Temple. Great plan.
Not realizing the shop didn’t open until twelve.
“What kind of shop doesn’t open until twelve?”
12:02, to be exact, after some considerable banging on the front door.
“A tuxedo shop.”
Plus thirty-ones minutes to find the tuxes, put them on, make the necessary adjustments, find the shoes, put them on, complete all the paperwork, let’s go let’s go let’s MOVE.
Now, Max was driving, which is to say hurtling through space and time, accelerating right up to the bumpers of the left-laners on the Bronx River Parkway until they moved out of his way, which meant Danny, in the passenger seat, was the recipient of many a middle finger, on his wedding day no less. He trained his gaze on the trees, though, innumerable and bare, until the Bronx River morphed into the Sprain Brook, when he snapped out of his reverie to turn down the volume on the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”—only to have Max crank it back up.
“My car, my music.”
When they passed a sign for Tuckahoe, near the school where his sister worked, Danny used a childhood trick and shut out the song (just as he used to shut out his parents’ shouting), imagining how this area, now one of the most heavily populated in America, must have appeared centuries earlier, the forest so thick (according to Danny’s high-school History teacher) a squirrel could travel from the Hudson River to Lake Erie without ever touching the ground. But the song, with its repetitive technical jocularity, kept poking at him.
“Nervous?” Max said, the crazy bassline thumping.
Danny turned it down again while noticing the gloss lining the side of the road and keeping an eye out for larger patches. He had a dull headache—that was the thing. He knew, based on the number of drinks they’d had the night before and the foulness of his friend’s breath, that Max was also hungover. “Why would I be nervous,” Danny said, “with such a safe, responsible driver at the wheel?”
“No, asshole. About marrying Lia.”
Danny sat back, put one foot up on the dashboard (How’m I supposed to dance in these fancy-ass rental shoes?) and peered up at the sky through the frosty rim of the windshield. According to the news, it wouldn’t top twenty degrees all day. A cold front had moved into the tri-state area, one that had created below-freezing conditions across the entire mainland. Even Arizona. Even Florida. Meanwhile, Alaska was melting. It was supposed to clear up by afternoon, but right now the sky, layered with gray lasagna strips, seemed to be taking its sweet time evolving into something more promising.
Danny knew what Lia would say: If something matters to you, then you’re not late. Period.
“You think it’s true, what we used to say?” Danny said. “‘Doesn’t get any better than this,’ ‘It’s all downhill from here,’ yadda yadda?”
Max’s wedding had taken place ten months earlier, on a beautiful blue-sky day in the Bronx, the weekend after the Columbine Massacre. Back when they had worked wedding receptions together at Risoli’s in Harrison, spooning out chicken marsala and roasted red potatoes to Goombahs and Guidettes, they’d developed a theory: the reason why guests were so over-the-top happy at weddings was that they knew from experience this would be the high point of the newlyweds’ lives. Immediately afterwards would come crippling debt, bone-chilling screeches of infants, the accompanying waning of sexual desire, and the at-first-covert-but-then-overt accusations of “you always” or “you never” or “holding me back” or “bringing me down” (“Which one of these starry-eyed beauties,” Max would say when the bride and groom entered the reception hall, “will be playing the role of Quicksand in this marriage?”), followed by, at best, a fifty-year stretch of sarcasm, repressed rage, and deep-seated resentment (Exhibit A: Danny’s parents); at worst, an affair followed by divorce/abandonment followed by decades of bitterness (Exhibit B: Danny’s tia Rosa)—or maybe worse still (Exhibit C: Danny’s grandparents and Max’s parents), a premature death that gifted the surviving spouse with decades of grief, loneliness, and what-ifs. Neither Danny nor Max could think of a single marriage involving mutual love and support—you know, the way it’s supposed to work: the couple’s love growing richer over the years, their respect for each other deepening, their passion continually reigniting, all that shit. But still, they did agree it was, in theory, possible—Danny would think of his aunt and uncle in Puerto Rico—in theory.
“I got lucky, I married the girl of my dreams,” Max said, roaring up the right lane to send a message to the Lexus lagging in the left. “A woman who hates when people are late, by the way. For anything. I’m in as much trouble as you are, chief.”
“Not lucky,” Danny said. “Bold. Brazen. You went for it.” He remembered when Max had met Anh Dao in law school, considered her way out of his league, but went for it anyway. She would be there at the temple right now, and since the maid of honor, Lia’s sister Deborah, was a high-school Adderall addict who had since graduated to opioids, Dao would be acting as the de facto wedding organizer and bride prep, probably helping Lia into her dress at that very moment, or taming Lia’s traitorous hair, making her laugh through her nerves, teasing her about her fastidiousness. Danny closed his eyes, picturing it: Lia’s off-white, silky dress sliding over her off-white silky skin. Her dark wayward curls cascading over the collar.
“I’m under a lot of pressure,” she had said at the rehearsal dinner a week earlier. “I’m marrying the handsomest waiter in all of Yonkers. I gotta look good.”
“Anyway, we were idiots,” Max said. “Back then.” He was glaring at the passenger-side mirror, the tendons of his forearms twitching, before roaring the Jetta around yet another left-laner. “The trick is not to let up on the gas. Because if you do, like, for example, if you just stare at the fucking trees and turn down great music and daydream your way through life, then . . .” He pointed at the radio:
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
Danny had no idea what the song meant. It always made him think of his father, who according to his old Army buddies and Uncle Frank was “quite the charmer, back in the day,” but was now locked into a state of perpetual exhaustion and bewilderment, slumped half-slumbering in his armchair, bathing in the bluish glare of the boob tube. But the radio signal crackled then, so Max hit the “Scan” button and together they caught the end of an NPR news report of a shooting in Littleton, Colorado, earlier that morning: two Columbine students who had survived the massacre a year earlier, a girl and her boyfriend, had been inexplicably gunned down at a Subway shop in the middle of the night.
“Poor fucking kids,” Max said.
Danny shook his head imagining it. “We can’t call it ‘The Valentine’s Day Massacre’,” he said—”that’s already taken.”
“Soon,” Max said, “we’re not going to call this kind of thing a massacre anyway. We’re just going to call it “Good Morning America.”
And that launched their usual argument about gun control, with Danny the inheritor of his father’s Reaganism, whereas Max was basically Michael Dukakis in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s body. Until they fell silent again and Danny returned to the trees, his chest tightening.
He felt things acutely. “Sad Danny,” his father and sister used to call him. “Sensitive Sid.” He would hear about something, then immediately be in that situation, in the other person’s body and mind, as if for example he were fifteen and meeting his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day Eve at the fast-food place where she worked and kissing her in the back room and hearing someone come into the shop (You mean you didn’t lock the door?) and being gunned down in that moment. He would react physically—an outcry, hands jutting out, a jerk of his body, tears, a sharp laugh—before realizing he was in his car, or restaurant, or some public place. So he had learned to look around, to remind himself of his surroundings, to stop himself from feeling too intensely, because when it happened it was immediate, all-encompassing, and then embarrassing.
Thus, the trees. So many of them, on either side of the road. Stark, upright corpses in a living cemetery.
At the very least, Max said quietly, seemingly aware that this was Danny’s wedding day, not the time to argue about anything, they could both agree, there was no justification for any civilian to own one of those new semiautomatic killing machines, and surely some basic regulations should be in place, just as the NRA had recommended in the Eighties, and by the time they crossed into Putnam County, they were congratulating themselves over the ease with which they had once again worked across the aisle to find common ground in the best interest of the country, just like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
As the Sprain devolved into the Taconic, Max gunning the Jetta into and out of the curves, they fell silent again. It was colder up here, with broader swaths of ice on the road. Danny rested his forehead on the cold window, hoping Lia wouldn’t be upset they were late. She was lovely, this woman he was marrying, smart and kind and compassionate toward all living things, and when they kissed, their lips meeting in tender engagement, even now (a dozen years after the very first of those swoony smooches), it sent him into disarray. Ever since their engagement, Danny had been braced for her (or her parents, more likely) to pull the plug, or at least put him off in the hopes she’d find a suitable alternative, but here they were, a month and a half into the new Millennium, and nothing had happened during the dreaded Y2K and nothing had interfered with their wedding plans either. They were doing this, then. Danny had won the love lottery and then had cashed in the ticket without anyone informing him one of the numbers was off. Maybe they could be the couple that defied the odds and lived happily ever after. I mean, why not?
Bullet Hole Road.
As they soared past a dead deer on the side of the parkway, even in the cold, with the windows closed, Danny caught a whiff of the body rot, the familiar musk of decay.
“February,” Max finally said. “Who the fuck gets married in February?”
“I do,” Danny said, looking at the clock. They had made up a lot of time.
“‘Hey, Lia,” Max said, altering his low, booming voice to mimic Danny’s higher, more sensitive pitch. “Great idea: let’s get married on Valentine’s Day! It’ll be sooo romant—’.” And that’s when the car in the right lane sliced in front of them as they were about to pass—Danny saw a reddish-brown flash, fox or fawn—and Max hit the brakes and swerved, the Jetta skidding into a complete three-sixty, thudding up and onto the median and sliding into the southbound shoulder, facing oncoming traffic.
Danny, fully tuxed and ready-or-not, stood under the chuppah, hands folded, following the swells and falls of “Sunrise, Sunset” played by a cello-heavy quartet, wondering why he found himself so drawn in by Jewish whatchamacallit, gravitas, when Lia appeared, a stunning contradiction of off-white and chestnut, near-innocence and world-weariness shall we say, sexuality and solemnity. As her parents escorted her up the aisle, Danny felt Max’s meaty hand on his shoulder. They stood in front of two white chairs, with flowers on either side; and before them rows of guests, half of whom Danny didn’t know, now standing in homage to the Bride. From the front row, his father coughed, a wet hack into the old, snotty handkerchief he always kept in his pocket, as Danny’s mother ignored him, standing with her arms folded and lips pursed, eyes darting like a bird’s. His brother Miggy, in his final semester of college, sat behind them, wearing a tie for only the second time in his life, and next to him Danny’s sister Josi, her posture rigid, her husband Kenny’s arm around the back of her chair.
Danny wondered what they were all thinking. It was almost certainly their first Jewish wedding. Would his mother even consider them legitimately married?
To stop his body from trembling, Danny zeroed in on the planetary hum of the cello, then tested his tender ankle and winced.
After the swerving car had cut them off, the Jetta spinning and rumbling over the grass median (So this how it ends, Danny had thought in that lurching millisecond, grabbing the strap and stomping his foot to the floor, as if from the passenger seat he could save them both; you finally feel hopeful, it’s your fucking wedding day, and so of course . . .) before the car slammed into a “No U Turn” sign and stopped on the shoulder of the southbound left lane. After pulling back onto the median and a quick inspection of body parts, both their own and the car’s—a serious dent in the rear door, Danny’s tender ankle, but nothing else—Max had let out a whoop, started it up again, and blasted back onto the parkway. “We are not going to be late to my best friend’s wedding!” he had yelled, then started singing “Get Me to the Church on Time” with a British accent, substituting “temple” for “church.”
At said temple, or rather the more pedestrian temple annex, Lia, approaching the chuppah, was beaming. She wore a scooped gown with pearls sewn into the breast and sleeves, her face flushed, neck patched pink. “Well hello, handsome,” she said, and then blinked twice in slow motion, either to show him she had eschewed the blue contacts for his sake or to playfully display her heavy-duty mascara.
Max moved off to the side, as he’d been instructed at rehearsal, and so did Lia’s glassy-eyed sister, while Lia ceremoniously circled Danny three times before hooking his arm and kissing him resoundingly on the cheek. Not in the script. “Debbie’s high as a kite,” she whispered, and the rabbi scowled.
“Don’t worry,” Danny said as the music swelled and sank again. “This right here, you and me, this is what counts.” But his voice sounded like a middle-schooler’s.
She nodded, seeming suddenly nervous. “What took you guys? I thought I was going to be left at the altar.”
Danny started to explain, but Max leaned across him and swept his arm. “Hate to tell you,” he said, “but there is no altar.”
Lia stuck her tongue out just as the song ended. Then she turned and pointed at the rabbi.
“Aaaand . . . action!”
During the Seven Blessings, Danny searched Lia’s face for signs of buyer’s remorse. Was she secretly disappointed to be marrying the disheveled half-breed son of two high-school dropouts from the Most Racist Street in the U.S.? But no, she was smiling, her mouth partly open in amazement, which set Danny’s heart to thumping so loudly he worried the rabbi’s microphone would pick it up. He inhaled the musty air—the radiators were clanking—and tried focusing on the sonorous voice of the cantor, but his breathing kept quickening until he found himself floating out of his body and up to the ceiling, where he gazed down on himself, a tall, slouchy young man sitting under an indoor canopy with a lovely, curly-haired woman about to swear her fidelity to him, and in the middle of this he felt simultaneously a sense of panic and self-empathy: Look at this guy: he has no idea what he’s doing.
Then again, he thought, is anyone ever ready? We’re all either hiding in the corner or stepping out into the dark, hoping for solid ground underfoot.
From the front row, Danny’s father hacked out a series of coughs, The Smoker’s Special, which brought Danny back to his body. The rabbi was speaking with practiced diplomacy while periodically zeroing in on Lia, or rather her on her cleavage, or perhaps it was her brooch, a gift from her recently deceased grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Whether from lust or his own girth or the thermostat being set too high, the holy man was beginning to sweat, dew drops on the meadow of his forehead, then a colony of beads, then a damp plaster he addressed by removing a white towel from his pocket and dabbing while continuing to intone. Danny closed his eyes (It’s rude to stare, his mother always said, even though she spent most of her life doing so) and allowed himself to fall under the spell of the man’s florid voice. The rabbi probably saw Lia as a member of his flock who had wandered off—the more refined of the two daughters of Miriam Blum Adams, to be sure, but a lost lamb all the same—and this wedding ceremony might be his last chance at bringing her back into the fold. But her refusal at the rehearsal to indulge in most of the rituals, even something as simple as signing the ketubah, had clearly disappointed him, while at the same time solidifying her status as a rebel worthy of his salacious fantasies. What a hayne maidele young Ulalia had turned out to be!
He was now looking expectantly at Danny. Had he asked them a question? Lia, in full blush, was nodding her assent, so Danny did the same.
The ultimate performance piece, she had called the wedding, in an aside during the rehearsal. Just do what you’re told and you win the prize, Danny boy. She had put her hands on her hips, posing like Mae West—the Prize itself, as green as a traffic light—and shimmied for him as her friends whistled and cheered, Danny’s friends slapping his back and shoulders, all of them clinking their glasses again for a kiss, make it a Frenchie this time, then pushing Danny and Lia together for another one, everyone drunk and laughing and whooping it up. Danny was smiling so hard his face hurt.
Now, standing under the chuppah, trying to stay focused on Lia’s naturally-golden-specked brown eyes, Danny’s impulse, even as he performed to the hilt the role of the tall-dark-and-handsome groom, was to call a time-out. He should issue a warning, a public service announcement. He was in fact only tall compared to the shorties in Lia’s family, the wrong kind of dark, as in half-Puerto Rican, and handsome only because it’s hard not to look handsome in a tuxedo. As a matter of fact, in real life, You need to understand this about me, he was a raggedy-poor kid, yes poor as in under the poverty line, from Yonkers—Yonkers!—who would never be rich because he didn’t know how to be; the sparkling engagement ring on the bride’s left hand still wasn’t paid off (in the very best best-friend moment of their lives, Max had loaned him the money for it); and, well, to be perfectly blunt, he and Lia were beginning their lives together not simply broke but in deep-ass debt, hoping like hell her father’s new whisky biz would turn out as lucrative as he bragged it would be.
I mean, let’s face it, people, she could do a hell of a lot better.
“Mazel tov!” everyone shouted as Danny, after he and Lia exchanged whispered vows and he, stepped on the glass with his left foot (his right ankle throbbing) but missed, triggering a gasp from the Jewish side of the room. Then he re-focused and stomped, smashing it to bits.
“Did I fuck that up?” he asked Lia, who laughed and drew him in for a kiss, a big one, their hearts hammering together, after which she lifted Danny’s hand, the victorious prizefighter in the middle of the ring, and as Danny noticed Lia’s former professor, the only Black man on the Jewish side of the room, still seated as everyone around him stood to applaud, and as Lia raised Danny’s hand higher and shouted out “Winner and still champeen!” Danny heard the right shoulder of his tuxedo tear.
During the cocktail hour, Danny knocked down a couple of beers, hoping the buzz would help him to dance on his tender ankle, his eyes on Lia as she laughed her open-mouthed laugh, again and again, all over the room. It took him back, as such things do. It had been ten, no eleven years earlier when he, a brand-spanking-new college freshman, had ambled down the goose-turd-littered path by the pond in the middle of the Putnam College campus in Forest Valley, New York, with U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” playing on his Walkman, lifting his head when he spotted a girl on a horse at the far end of campus. She wore brown boots over jeans, a loose olive-green blouse, maybe mustard-yellow, her untamed hair bouncing on her shoulders as the horse circled the corral in a steady gait, the type of which (trot? canter?) Danny was incapable of identifying. As he approached the split-rail fence, she made a goofy face. “My first time on this big fella!” she called out to him. “But trust me, young man, I know what I’m doing!”
“I couldn’t possibly be of use to you,” Danny said with a grin, knowing that in most situations he sought above all to be of use. He knew nothing about riding horses. He had seen them, of course, at the raceway across the highway from his home, had often heard the shrill panic-stricken jangle of the starting bell and the reverberating echo of the announcer’s voice growing increasingly agitated as traffic on the Deegan quieted, more a thinning series of whooshes than a constant roar. He and Max had even placed a few two-dollar bets there, after hopping the fence in the back, scooting under the turnstiles when nobody was looking, and rummaging for change under the bleachers. But like everyone else in Yonkers, Danny had no idea how to actually ride one, certainly not in a corral like this one, certainly not with the poise and ease with which this girl sat in the saddle, certainly not with such muscular and tight-jeaned thighs.
In Danny’s memory, Lia had her sleeves rolled up; the sun was probably out; it was very likely a warm September day. He never could remember exactly, and in any case it would become Lia’s story, one she would tell again and again. The moment he would remember with the most clarity was when the horse stopped short, refusing to budge when Lia kicked its flanks, and proceeded to unload an obscenely heavy pile of shit onto the dirt. That’s when Lia opened her mouth wide, widened her eyes as well, and laughed, then shrugged theatrically and took off her riding helmet, her mahogany hair billowing out.
“Anyway, howdy, stranger,” she said, then laughed again.
What would it be like to be with someone who laughed with such open-mouthed joy? In Danny’s house, his father was perpetually exhausted, his mother’s “inside voice” was so loud that the Karlssons’ banged on the wall at least once a day, and his siblings stayed in their rooms doing whatever it took to avoid the Living Room of the Dead or the Kitchen of Perpetual Catechism.
With a rush, Danny realized this might be just the opportunity he’d been looking for, to ask a girl on a date. In his four years of high school, Danny had been on exactly one, and after graduation, when he and Max had begun their summer jobs at Arapahoe Day Camp, Max had told Danny it was high time to “man up,” “walk the talk,” “believe in himself,” and accept what people said about him, that he was “cute,” “a nice guy,” “hard-working,” “sweet-talking,” with “sexy hair,” et cetera. That advice had paid dividends the second week of camp when he asked out a lovely exclamation point of a girl named Iris; and even though things hadn’t worked out due to “racial issues”—her family forbade her from dating a white boy (it didn’t matter to them that he was half-Hispanic, and biologically one-eighth Black) and he knew without asking he could never bring home a Black girl—he did gain confidence from their secretive make-out-and-grope sessions in the Art Shed. So right there at this unexpected horse corral at his new university, in only the second week of his first semester and only three weeks after camp had ended, still determined to “grab the bull by the horns,” “shit or get off the pot” and “shape his own destiny,” Danny took a deep breath and did it: he asked out this upright blotchy-skinned probably-upper-class horsebacked girl, on the heels of her open-mouthed laugh and the unleashing of all that hair and the quickening of his heartbeat, the stench of horse shit contaminating the air. A bit prematurely, he would later admit. And not exactly suave. There was an awkward preamble, during which he offered she seemed “quite the thespian” and when she thanked him, wondering how he knew about that side of her—had he heard about the auditions for the fall production of Tristan and Iseult, which Doctor Justis was directing?—Danny realized he had used the wrong word. Why yes, he said. He had indeed heard about those auditions.
“You don’t say! How?”
Just then, the horse rattled its head and tried to hurry off, so Lia tugged at the reins as the horse twisted, and when it looked as if she might take a tumble, Danny vaulted over the corral fence and rushed to steady her while simultaneously realizing she needed no such steadying.
“Whoa, boy!” she said, whether to him or the horse Danny didn’t know.
As she straightened, tightened her helmet, and gripped the reins, Danny wiped his hands on his jeans, thinking of another resolution he had recently adopted, which was to be more honest and present, not “so eager to please” as Max put it, precisely because of situations like this one, where one lie led to another, all because he couldn’t bear to say, “Wait, that was a lie, I didn’t hear about any auditions” or “Hold on, let me regroup here” or “Did I just say thespian holy moly I meant equestrian, you’d never know I won four straight spelling bees in grade school ha ha!” Or—here was a thought—just be comfortable with who he was.
He chose instead to ask her out.
“So, hey, would you like to do something later?”
He heard his father’s voice: Ugh. “Do something”? Real smooth.
She widened her eyes again, sapphire blue, while swiping a wanton lock of hair from her mouth. “Suuuure,” she said, and Danny couldn’t tell if she was doubting his sincerity or so beset by the need to do whatever it took—play it coy? Seize the moment? Ask around first to make sure this tussle-haired boy wasn’t dangerous?—that she too, also eighteen after all, may have been slightly out of touch with her own not-yet-fully-formed true being. “But wait, gadzooks, that was quick. I mean who are you, mister?”
“Ahhh,” Danny said, nodding pensively. For this had been the first question his Philosophy professor had asked in his very first college class, and he had been endeavoring ever since to come up with an answer. Who was he?
“No like what’s your name, what’s your major, where’re you from and such. ‘Return the ball, Gogo’!”
Danny, wearing unwashed jeans and a maroon-blue-and-white flannel shirt, leaned back on the corral fence and put his hands in his pockets, wondering if he could pass as a Montana cowboy, even though he was in fact the son of a Bronx deli man and a Puerto Rican maid. Did anyone in Montana have black hair?
And who the hell is Go-Go?
He straightened—shoulders back, chest out. He had been the tallest kid in his first-grade class, embarrassed by his height, and then too as a child he’d been told, by his father and sister mainly, to Keep it down, Clam up, will ya, Who asked ya, Here’s a dime, call someone who cares, and as a consequence of such height combined with such belittlement, he slouched. He constantly reminded himself to straighten up and fly right, but it was as if he’d been locked into this humility during the Carter administration and it was too late now to do anything about it.
Danny told her his name, pronouncing it as his father did: Gospel. “German, not Biblical,” he said, and then spelled it out for her: G-a-u-s-e-p-o-h-l. “And as for my major, I am, as yet, undeclared.”
“Me too,” Lia said. “I mean, me neither.” She huffed. “As am I, not.” And it was as if they had declared something together. “Probably theater, though, cuz I can’t seem to help myself, it’s in my blood you see, even though my dad finds it ‘terribly impractical’.” She collected a breath and spoke as if she had rehearsed what came next. “What I’d really like to do, in some small way I mean, is, um, to give voice to the poor and disenfranchised, you know, to bring about, to promote change, the common good and such.” She shrugged. “And as for my name, good sir, I am yclept Lia. Actually Ulalia, from my Greek aunt, but you know that song that came out when we were in fifth grade, well my friends started singing it as “U-lay, lee, uh” instead of Ah, Lee-ahh and so afterwards I was called Leah only I decided to spell it L-i-a because of my real name.” She laughed while patting the horse’s neck, then glanced toward the bright blue building, Millay Hall, where the Arts and Humanities faculty had their offices.
“Well then, I dub thee ‘Ukulele’,” Danny said, pretending to reach up and knight her, a tap of the sword on each shoulder, as she bent over and closed her eyes to humbly accept her knighting. “As for me,” Danny said, maybe History. Like, to teach, or to write books.” He swallowed this last part, not wanting to come across as vain. He had talked it all over with Max, but this was the first time he had mentioned it out loud. He had read the Federalist Papers in high school, had just finished a book about the Kennedys, and privately, earnestly hoped when he grew up he could somehow help the good ol’ U S of A at long last evolve or congeal into the great country it had always seemed destined to become, despite all its racial/religious/class-based/ethnic missteps/disasters/crimes/redemptions, and the best way he could think to accomplish this, besides going to law school and running for the Senate—a long-term plan he and Max had cooked up when they were kids—was to teach History and Civics in high school, informing and positively impacting thousands of young people over his illustrious forty-year career, and/or by writing best-selling books on American history and made a boatload of cash in the process, singlehandedly lifting his entire family out of poverty. For he believed it was more important to know your country’s actual history than to obsessively watch the news of the present as his father did, and man alive, shouldn’t every young American learn Civics?
Wasn’t that essential to a healthy republic?
“Why not do both?” Lia said from her high horse. “Be an author, that sounds so exciting, and maybe by teaching history you can help those of us who are doomed to repeat it!” She laughed again, a heh instead of haaaah!, a laugh that reminded him again of Iris, the girl from summer camp. And for that matter Lia had almost the same fulsome lips and an equally enthusiastic response to his warily expressed ambitions, and a similarly mellifluous voice, only from a middle-class (he guessed, since she was, after all, at Putnam, not Sarah Lawrence) Jewish girl instead of a wealthy Nigerian exclamation point.
Not that any of this portended eventual nuptials involving this girl, this probably-middle-class girl on the improbable horse in this unlikely corral on this lovely campus in a place called Forest Valley that was no longer a forest and not much of a valley, nor could he have predicted or imagined that after taking her to see Cinema Paradiso at an art-house theater in Cold Spring they would enjoy five more dates as the days shortened and the trees at first colored, then unleaved: an evening walk into town for ice cream, a second movie (Coming to America), a night of dancing at the Coliseum in White Plains, a Saturday walk on the leaf-padded trails of Roosevelt State Park (when he at last, in the bright light of day, saw how blue her eyes really were and confirmed his long-held suspicion she wore colored contacts), then a third movie (Dangerous Liaisons) on Christmas Eve before formalizing matters and officially declaring themselves boyfriend and girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, 1989. Nor that during the succeeding summer, she way up there in Poughkeepsie, he a stone’s throw from the Bronx, and neither in possession of a car, he would, on the heels of a self-sabotaged infatuation with his Puerto Rican cousin’s best friend during a trip to Culebra with his mother, tell Lia he needed “a little time apart” and perhaps that they were “too young to be in a committed relationship.” Nor that a year and a half later she would nervously invite him to be her “First” and he would arrive (with pink tulips from the grocery store) at her apartment, which her roommates had decorated with sex toys and obscene balloons, and they would (in retrospect, rather hurriedly) make love upstairs on her rose-petal-covered bed, Lia crying afterwards and asking Danny if he loved her, really loved her, triggering within him a sudden rush of longing, a melting vulnerability that, yes, he decided, “Yes,” must be love. Nor that years later, after another awkward breakup, he would wait out her long-term relationship with a Korean-American gender-eschewing triathlete and reunite once again. Nor that he would, the following year, drop to bended knee and propose to her in front of the “LOVE” sign on 6th Avenue after seeing a kick-ass performance of Titus Andronicus, to which she responded not “Yes” exactly but “Oh my god, do you think that’s a good idea?” Nor that at the wedding, at which he arrived, thanks to Max, miraculously on time, indeed a few minutes early, he’d be mazel-tov’d to death by Lia’s family (Are these people for real? he kept asking her, as one after another kissed and embraced him) and be hoisted aloft on a throne-like chair by a group of sweaty young men that included Danny’s cousin Javi and an already-drunk-again Max, paraded high above the smiling guests (except for his mother, frowning at the peril in which her darling boy had been placed). Nor that, when he and Lia were directed to cut the wedding cake, she, more than tipsy by this point, would spontaneously burst into “Danny Boy,” the entire first verse (“You know this song is about a dead guy, right?” Danny said), before plunging the enormous knife into the cake with a sinister chortle, a memorable moment witnessed by all their loved ones and friends, including Max, one arm around Dao while flirting with the still-high-as-a-kite Debbie; including Lia’s former high-school teacher, who had once told her she was “destined for stardom”; including let’s-not-forget Debbie, the maid of honor, now being held upright by her “girlfriend-slash-enabler” and in clear-and-present danger of losing control over her dress; including Lia’s former professor and advisor, Terrance Justis (who had directed Lia in Tristan and Iseult the year Danny had met her and in Guys and Dolls the following spring and who in her senior year had given her the lead—opposite himself!—in Educating Rita of all things); all cheering her on.
I mean, really, all he was thinking at the time was that he was asking out a pretty girl on a horse, hoping for the opportunity, eventually, to revel in her lovely laugh, to kiss those luscious lips.
Then another (“Here’s to the bride and groom!”) kiss, with multiple cameras shuttering. Then applause, accompanied by the usual aaahs and awwws. Then dancing, drinking, dessert, coffee, and then more dancing, with everyone telling Lia how beautiful she looked and Now who is this nice young man you’re marrying?
“Danny’s a waiter for now,” Lia told her relatives, “but he’s going to be a teacher. And an author.”
They performed their roles well, did Lia and Danny. They did what was expected of them. And wasn’t that life, Danny mused while in the throes of it all, doing what you were supposed to do? Showing up and performing with all you’ve got? The cake, which they were supposed to feed each other, they fed each other. When the DJ played “This Kiss,” they kissed. When David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” came on, guess what, they danced, with the groom favoring his sore ankle, then separated at the onset of the next song so they could get down, boogie-oogie-oogie with their guests (Lia with her father, then uncle, then professor, then cousin, then a circle of grad-school buddies, Danny with his sister, mother, cousin Becky, Dao, and Debbie), and when Elton John’s “Your Song” came on, they found each other again, Danny singing to her this time, “Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen” (“You know this song was about a live guy, right?” she said); and when they heard the opening trumpet stabs of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Winter Wonderland,” Lia cried out, “Let’s bust some moves, Danny Boy!” and Danny dutifully whirled his bride around the room, smiling as she threw her head back and laughed her big open-mouthed laugh, her hair flouncing treacherously behind her.
It doesn’t get any better than this, Danny thought.
Which was exactly what he’d been afraid of all along.