Rabbi Alan Gershon sits in his Talmud-lined office preparing his comments for the ceremony. He has brought up his “Marriage Notes” file on the computer — general remarks that he adjusts for each occasion. He changes the names to Jason and Holly, and decides to leave in, as appropriate, “the delightful and loving young couple who stand under our canopy this evening, ready to profess their mutual love.”
Rabbi Gershon wants to indicate in his remarks the special affection he has both for Jason and for his bride. He has known Jason Goldfarb since the boy began attending Hebrew school at the age of nine, and has helped Holly with her conversion to Judaism. The rabbi’s fondness for Jason is related to an infatuation with the boy’s mother seventeen years ago. The rabbi, then newly appointed to the congregation and recently married, and Elaine Goldfarb, recently divorced, worked together to establish the religious day school. Rabbi Gershon was smitten with the slender, worldly real-estate agent, whose ideas about affairs were marvelously modern.
Elaine made the first move, an offer of a drink at an out-of-the-way establishment, and the rabbi nervously accepted. The indiscretion turned into a torrid but short-lived affair, which lasted until the rabbi’s fear and guilt got the better of him. Elaine understood, and even after she remarried two years later, they continued their friendship.
Rabbi Gershon is fully dressed an hour before the ceremony. His tie is in place, the knot perfectly shaped. He wears the dark gray Murani suit that blends smoothly with his new tallith, made in Israel with the finest imported Egyptian cotton. It, too, is gray, with bold pin stripes and shortened, braided fringes.
Harry Lieberman and his wife Rose are sitting at a corner table. They have arrived too early, and only the caterer and some of the bride’s party are there, scurrying about. Elaine asked them to be early and the Liebermans always seek to please their only child, whom they love more than they love each other. Neither one, however, feels much for their grandson Jason. Harry knows the boy is a two-faced bum; Rose thinks he is irresponsible. She once bailed him out of jail without telling his mother or knowing what he had done.
Harry has his checkbook out. This should have been done earlier, at home, but they couldn’t agree on the amount. “Two fifty?” he says, an opening bid.
“Don’t be a schlemiel.” She turns away.
“What, what?” he says. “How much, then?”
She looks at him darkly.
“Three? Three fifty? Just tell me.”
“Do what you want,” she says, opening her arms wide and throwing him her most disdainful look. It is a look that says, “You putz.” Contempt is her only remaining weapon, the two of them having given up sex fifteen years ago.
“Five hundred,” she says. “Not a penny less.”
“OK,” he says. “OK, I’m writing.” He is delighted to have gotten off so easily.
The entire event is being paid for by Elaine’s husband, Jerome Reedy, a man of enormous wealth and generosity — especially when it comes to his adored wife. They have been married almost fifteen years (the second marriage for both), and he is crazier about her now than when they were newlyweds. At forty-eight Elaine is still a svelte and alluring woman, sexual and inventive, even a bit wild. He takes this as a compliment.
Reedy is the founder and CEO of an athletic-shoe company and is worth upwards of seventeen million, but he lives modestly and never boasts about his considerable clout or his money. The only footwear for Reedy is one or another model from his high-priced line — even with suits. Tonight, with his tuxedo, he is wearing an ultralight model with Velcro straps and a tricolor sole.
He is paying for the wedding because the Lees, Holly’s parents, are schoolteachers with little money and even less idea how much a first-class Jewish wedding costs. They asked, suspecting the price was high, but he laughed and put them off, knowing that seventy thousand dollars would be incomprehensible to them. The Lees offered to pay for the flowers or the bar, but Elaine told them that perhaps the money should be given to the bride and groom as a present (not wanting to tell them that the bar bill was likely to run in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars).
Reedy is happy to do this for his wife and daughter-in-law-to-be. He has already paid for Holly’s abortion and been sworn to secrecy. He has no idea if Jason is the other party; he suspects not. Afterward Holly made overtures of affection and appreciation that bordered on suggestive, but Reedy ignored them. He does not judge her, but he hopes marriage will settle her down.
Cantor Marc Rabinowitz, who will sing the prayers at the ceremony, sits alone in his tiny, undecorated study across the building from the rabbi’s opulent quarters. Appointed just three months ago, he has yet to become comfortable with the staff and his surroundings. The rabbi has been polite to him, but not much more.
Five years ago, Cantor Marc (as he is known to his bar mitzvah students) changed his surname from the Anglicized Rabe — the name his family had used for two generations — back to the original Rabinowitz, which he finds holier and more authentic.
Cantor Marc strives to be honest, believing that God adores truth above all other virtues, but he cannot be truthful about being gay. To declare himself would cost him the two things he loves most: God and song. The cantor knows he cannot control his nature, but he can control his actions, so at the age of twenty-seven, he remains steadfastly chaste.
Sometimes, looking out from his position near the Torah, he sees other members of the congregation — some married — whom he believes to be gay. He doesn’t know how he can tell and wonders if they can guess as much about him. In such moments of fear and confusion, he sings more sweetly and with greater passion. Complimented after the service, he smiles and says, “God provides.”
Jason is alone in the groom’s room smoking a joint. At twenty-six he is more devoted to pleasure than to anything else. It is a weakness, but in his mind a benign one. He does not consider himself hurtful or deceitful. Though he works for his stepfather in a do-nothing job, he hopes to become more serious after the wedding.
He is shirtless and wearing jeans, his tuxedo hanging in the closet behind him. On the table sits an unopened bottle of Chivas Regal he’s filched from the bar. As he takes a deep hit on the joint, the door opens. It is one of the servers, pointing to a stack of chairs in the corner. She is a Latina, in uniform, chesty with black eyes and gorgeous teeth.
“Want a hit?” Jason asks, offering the joint.
She smiles and tilts her head quizzically.
“Come on,” he says. “Great Colombian.”
She giggles, and it occurs to him that she doesn’t speak English. So he asks, “Quieres una copita?”
“Una, sí,” she says cautiously. He unscrews the cap and hands her the bottle. Uncertain whether to drink directly from the bottle, she waits until he gives her a sign. Then she tosses off a large one. He shakes his wrist, fingers floppy, and makes a hissing sound.
“Bien hecho,” he says. She downs another.
Now they are close, and Jason lays a hand on her hip. He pulls her in and kisses her; she kisses back, and he moves her against the wall for better traction. Then he reaches beneath her skirt with one hand and pulls her blouse off her shoulder with the other. She has both arms around his neck. Their pelvises grind.
Suddenly she pushes away, putting her uniform back together. She bites her lower lip and wags a finger at him, smiling brightly, almost laughing. “Más tarde,” she says, and backs out the door. Jason smiles, shakes his head, and laughs.
Holly’s parents are among the early arrivals. Jim and Hilda Lee teach high school in Phoenix. Their daughter left home at seventeen, days after her high-school graduation. She rarely visits and leaves as quickly as she can. She says the problem is the heat, in summer; in winter, it’s the wind.
Jim Lee is a distant cousin, thrice removed, of the Robert E. Lee family of Virginia and is proud of the connection, in a modest way. But here, he thinks, the older European contingent probably won’t even know who the great general was. As for the younger ones, courtly ancestors aren’t likely to cut any ice with this group. He doubts that he will bring it up.
Hilda is a vaguely pretty blonde beginning to fade. She feels overshadowed by Elaine, who, though only two years her junior, is decades more dashing and youthful.
Jim and Hilda have been faithful to one another since their dating days, neither having ever been seriously tempted to stray. They find the concept of infidelity difficult to grasp.
They are awed by what they see. The sanctuary, with its forest of flowers leading to the canopy, is a shower of color. “Can you imagine,” Hilda says to her husband, “what that must have cost!”
They wander into the reception room and find an entire wall of exotic appetizers, hot and cold. A giant ice sculpture stands in the middle. Its face, Hilda points out, resembles Holly’s. There are several bars, each manned by a brace of liveried bartenders. The fifteen-piece band is setting up. Hilda grips her husband’s arm.
The caterer, a small, busy man of North African descent, speaks with Elaine about a minor glitch in the planning. Nearly one hundred guests have indicated a preference for fish rather than Cornish hen or prime rib. But at the time of purchase, the promised swordfish was more expensive than expected. So he decided to go with the much cheaper halibut.
“However,” he says in his garbled style, “we have got Belgian chocolate, the finer of all Belgian chocolate, what we can pour to the ice cream. We have also strawberries —”
“Rahim,” says Elaine, “the usual way to handle a change in an agreement is with a refund check. Am I not right?”
“Yes, miss,” he says sadly.
“We will go with generous amounts of the chocolate and strawberries.”
Forty-five minutes before the ceremony, Holly is having the finishing touches of her makeup applied. She is sipping a Coke between brush strokes when she learns that her first boyfriend, Robby Venter, has been killed in a skiing accident. A friend of Robby’s and member of the wedding, who has just gotten off the phone with someone at the hospital, blurts it out without thinking. Holly shrieks and overturns the Coke, spilling it on her undergarments. Several bridesmaids run to her aid and try desperately to wipe away the damage so that a stain will not show through her sheer, white dress. Holly sobs uncontrollably, ruining an hour’s work.
The cosmetician is practicing damage control. She covers Holly with a sheet of base, no mascara, eyeliner only. That will minimize the problems if, as now seems likely, she begins to cry again before the ceremony is over.
Rabbi Gershon, arms folded, chin lifted slightly, waits under the canopy. Cantor Marc, resplendent in his white robe and regal headpiece, stands behind him. The cantor sings a few notes to signal the beginning of the ceremony.
The groom’s grandparents, Harry and Rose, are first to come down the aisle. They walk without music and seat themselves in the first row. Jim Lee’s older sister, a widow from Tucson, has been given a similar honor. She sits across the aisle from the Liebermans. Harry is short of breath, and not for the first time that evening. It’s annoying but nothing unusual. Rose looks his way, but he waves her off.
The procession continues at a stately pace until finally the bride enters, accompanied by both her parents. Jim Lee has not objected to the Jewish tradition, even though he would have preferred to walk down the aisle alone with his daughter.
The makeup has worked: Holly has a pale, wan expression that most guests interpret as a case of the jitters. She hasn’t cried in ten minutes.
While waiting, Cantor Marc surveys the congregation, knowing that in months to come certain members will suggest to him various eligible girls from good families. He wonders what he will say. A cantor cannot claim that he is not ready to begin a family.
Harry is having trouble breathing and his arm is beginning to ache. He remembers what Errol Flynn said, his chest beginning to tighten as he lay by the swimming pool, seventeen-year-old Beverly Aadland by his side: “Dying’s not so bad.” At least that’s what Flynn’s friend reported to the papers the next morning. Now Harry is beginning to worry that he might create a scene. Death should be private, not done in front of 250 guests. He lays a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue, taking care not to let Rose see. But she sees anyway. They have been through this before. “It’s not so bad,” says Harry. “Look at the bride.”
The rabbi gives the benediction in his commanding baritone. He says that Holly is “the fairest of that holy group that swear of love for all of life,” but the bride, holding Jason’s hand, isn’t listening. She is remembering the best day of her life, the day she and Robby, a ski instructor and Olympic hopeful, sailed down the hill over the perfect snow time after time until she collapsed in joy and exhaustion. Robby carried her to the condo and they made love. She fell asleep and dreamed of taking the bumps, where with a little tuck of her legs she could remain aloft forever.
Cantor Marc sings the last blessing, God’s binding of the beloved couple into one. His voice is sure and sweet.
The rabbi places the glass, wrapped in a napkin, beside the groom’s foot and chooses from the various legends the one he thinks is appropriate: “It is said by our great sages that a symbolic act of destruction can take into itself the evil that otherwise might befall a loving union. By the destruction of this glass, Jason, you deliver into this inert object all the troubles that might hinder your love. And while no marriage is free of strife, we hope that yours will be as full of love and understanding as it is tonight.”
Jason breaks the glass on the first try. The guests applaud and shout mazel tov. Jason lifts the veil and kisses his bride, who has again, at this very moment, begun to cry.