How to Marry a W.A.S.P.
Chad’s mother has hired a wedding consultant, because that is what people who christen their sons Chad do. The consultant, Deanna, says it is not her first same-sex wedding. She’s savvy to the protocol, which is important to Chad’s mother, and to all of the Merrys. An anchorwoman from Chicago’s ABC news is among the guests.
There is no protocol for gay marriage in the Guerra clan, although two of Miguel’s Miami cousins are gay. They, though, have never attempted to have a knockdown, drag-out celebration of queer matrimony with two hundred guests at an historic theater that has been closed for years and will be opened for the evening just for them. It amazes Miguel: the way W.A.S.P.s alternately throw Republican fundraisers and gala ceremonies for their faggot sons, whatever whim strikes them. They are entitled to anything. He will benefit from their entitlement now, it seems. If his mother and stepfather weren’t considering boycotting the affair, worried God might hurl a lightening bolt at the theater to damn all guests, they might be proud. He is marrying up.
Deanna speaks for Chad’s mother now—Miguel understands this as the real reason a wedding consultant must be hired, for a gay marriage most of all. Somebody to play the villain. “When it’s over, you should consider shaking hands so none of the guests feel uncomfortable,” Deanna says, staring them straight in the eye where Mrs. Merry would have stammered uncomfortably, looked down at her designer loafers (that Miguel would not know the name of because he is a sorry excuse for a gay man—no fashion sense.) “I worked with a lesbian commitment ceremony in July and that’s what they did. It was wonderfully apropos—marriage is a contract after all. Just because the state of Illinois doesn’t recognize your union doesn’t mean the contract isn’t sealed, and that’s what people do when they seal a contract—shake hands.”
Somehow pandering to homophobes who might vomit paella from witnessing two men kissing has been translated into a subversive act against the anti-gay policies of the state of Illinois. This is how things have been going lately. Miguel should be used to it.
“If you even suggest to me that we go along with this, you can forget the whole thing,” he tells Chad that night. “Your mother can just hire some politician to stand in my place and not offend anybody—we’re not a couple of eunuchs whose purpose in having a ceremony is to prove how unthreatening homosexuality is!”
Chad is on the computer. They are making their own invitations; that battle took two days to win. He doesn’t look up.
“Oh, honey, shaking hands wasn’t my mother’s idea,” he says. “Anyway, I’m sure Deanna was only joking.”
Miguel stares at the back of Chad’s curly blond head. Do they all think he is a child—that he will buy anything ? Or is Chad the child? Chad does not turn to witness the incredulity Miguel holds on his face, and Miguel cannot translate the expression into words, so eventually his eyebrows get tired of rising and he has to swallow and close his mouth. Afterwards he only says, “You promise? You swear to me we’re going to kiss?”
“Of course, baby,” Chad says. “Come kiss me now.” But Miguel doesn’t feel like it and goes to take two Advil before bed.
Almost nobody Miguel knows is invited to the wedding. This is not the fault of the Merry clan, in fact, Mrs. Merry—Elaine, please —has coaxed him over several Mexican dinners (the Merrys eat Mexican now to make Miguel feel at home, even though Mexico is about the only Spanish speaking country from which none of his ancestors hail) to invite people he works with, family members from out of town.
Miguel is an options trader at a company where everyone except the boss’s busty administrative assistant is male, and nobody else is openly gay. He is reasonably certain that sending invitations around the office would result in his being fired—or gangbanged—to teach him a lesson.
His younger sisters, Norma and Angelina, and their husbands will probably tow his mother’s line, so Miriam, three years his senior, may be the only “Miguel contingent.” She has always been his biggest fan and surrogate mother, he, in turn, her mascot. Norma is twenty-eight, and at only twenty, Miguel barely knows Angelina. She is not even his sister exactly; she is Miriam’s child, born when Miriam was thirteen. After Miguel’s father died, his mother took Miguel, Norma and Angelina and moved to Chicago—Miriam remained in Venezuela with an aunt. By the time Miriam, too, moved to Chicago and into the Guerra home, Angelina was five, and nobody ever spoke of Miriam having given birth to her or almost dying in the process, or even hounded her anymore to confess what perro she’d allowed to lie with her and spoil her so young. They spoke instead of sending her to Baptist church meetings to help her find a good man, and also of improving her English so she could get a job if the man was not so good as all that. Angelina called Miguel’s mother Mami; they all did.
Miriam will be Miguel’s Best Woman, not by default but because he carries her inside his rib cage like a world five feet one inch tall, pressing against his organs and bones. Now Miriam has three new daughters and a husband who watches TV so continually that if Miguel telephones and does not hear a cop show in the background he knows there is trouble and to hang up before he can make it worse. His warrior sister has slipped into anonymity, become a middle-American housewife, an ordinary devout Latina, an everyday Chicago spic with too-tight pants and soft apple ass and hair a shade of auburn that does not exist in nature on anyone with skin as dark as hers, her children trailing behind her. But Miguel remembers.
The paella has been vetoed. Deanna thinks it unwise to give guests only “one lump of food,” as she put it. People like to have choices. “But that’s the beauty of paella,” Chad piped up in the sing-song voice he uses on Deanna—the voice usually reserved for his tenants—“you have more choices than with any other meal. I mean, look in here, there’s chicken, sausage, shrimp, pork. Where would you ever go where’d you’d get all these types of protein on one plate? Imagine what that’d cost!”
Deanna was unmoved.
Now they are at Café Central, on Chicago Avenue in Miguel’s old neighborhood, to sample the chicken stew, which involves both potatoes and rice (“Two starches?” exclaimed Elaine Please, as though it must be a mistake.) They are an ensemble: Deanna, Miguel and Chad, Elaine and Charles Merry, and Chad’s sister, Becky. Becky is a tennis pro, which Miguel translates into lesbian, but because it would be unacceptable for the Merrys to have two gay children, she has forfeited her right to come out since Chad got there first. She is married to a former golf pro, a man who squandered his earnings and is now financially dependent upon the Merry clan. In Miguel’s mind, this translates as: Preppie downs martinis to make self fuck lesbian wife. Shiny W.A.S.P. child conceived.
Café Central is not exactly hip, but has a certain cachet with the straggly artist residue from Wicker Park, trying to recapture post-college, parent-funded trips to Central America. Tonight, though, they are the only white patrons. Miguel recognizes the waitress from when he and his mother and sisters lived down the street seventeen years ago. She did not work at Café Central back then; she was in Norma’s class, and Miguel made out with her once behind the field house at school, and afterwards he pinched his own neck until it bruised and told everybody she had given him a hickey. Apparently she does not recognize him, though when he places the order in Spanish, she says, “Que haces con los blanquillos?” tipping her head quizzically—maybe flirtatiously. Her bangs are wisps of too-long hair sprayed into a lacquered arch across her forehead.
“Me voy a casar. Soy Miguel, te acuerdas de mi?” But she wouldn’t remember; when he kissed her, he was called Mike because at the German bakery where he bussed tables, the owner and customers were always calling him Carlos or Pedro or Jose, and he just got sick of it; it was a long time before he wanted to hear Miguel again. His old flame scans Becky, assumed to be the object of his impending matrimony. Becky whose arms are thicker than Chad’s—Becky who’d probably like to lick this hot little chica’s grape-colored lipstick and grab her thick hips.
The chicken stew arrives. At first Miguel thinks maybe they will get something on the house, and the Merrys will feel important; they like to feel important at restaurants, and although Café Central may not be much of a restaurant in their eyes, it would make a good story to their Winnetka friends. Exotic free fried plantains. But by the time the bill arrives, the waitress hands it off without even looking. Then Miguel remembers: she knows everyone who comes into Café Central—acquaintances do not merit special treatment. Only in Miguel’s new world do strangers exist.
Another interminable evening. Even once they are standing outside, slipping on sunglasses despite the gray tinge of the 7 p.m. sky, Deanna will not stop complaining to Charles Merry about her stock portfolio. “How long do you think is reasonable to ride out this plunge?” she shrills. “I lost sixteen thousand dollars last week—I know that isn’t much in the scheme of things, but I can’t help feeling nervous. My financial advisor says to look at losses as temporary numbers on a page, not real money—but this is the same man who told me to invest in Amazon last year. Is it wrong of me to feel betrayed?”
Charles nods sympathetically. “When Chad started raising bulldogs, Elaine wanted to buy into Pets.com as a lark—it seemed like such a safe bet at the time. I don’t even want to tell you how much money we’ve lost on those puppies! If they were our grandchildren, we could have sent them all to Princeton for four years…”
“Alan Greenspan warned us that the irrational exuberance couldn’t last,” Elaine Please demurs. “We’ve all been living high on the hog, and now it’s time to pay the piper. The timing’s unfortunate, though, with the ceremony coming up—and we just bought the house in Scottsdale.” She turns to Miguel, suddenly hopeful. “Dear, you don’t ever see Alan Greenspan around the board, do you? I so admire that man!”
Miguel does not have sunglasses; they can all see his eyes. He cannot bring himself to grace, even with dismissal, this fantasy of Greenspan jocularly frequenting Chicago Board urinals, so he says, “My mother put her entire inheritance into tech companies—since the index dropped, she’s had to sell her condos in Venezuela and Miami and take out a second mortgage on her Chicago house. They had to get rid of my stepfather’s boat and pull my youngest sister out of college. She works as a cleaning woman now—she’s great…keep her in mind if you can still afford household help.”
The Merrys glance, with one simultaneous bob of blond heads, at Chad. Deanna has scrambled to her car; this does not concern her. Chad steps one sneakered foot onto Miguel’s steel-toed Doc Marten. The smile on Miguel’s face hurts at the hinge of the jaw. Elaine Please’s face crinkles like an English bulldog’s—is she trying to cry? “But Miguel,” she moans, hand over her heart. “We wouldn’t want your sister to clean our house, dear. You’re part of our family, now. Oh…”
Chad has wedged his foot under Miguel’s boulder of a shoe and pried it off concrete with the superhuman strength of a mother lifting a car off her child. “Looks like rain!” he shouts, waving one finger around an impeccably gray sky incapable of the passion required for a storm. He does not break the tension by quipping, Oh, Mom, don’t be so gullible, Miguel’s mother doesn’t know what a stock portfolio is, his stepfather’s never been in a boat, his sister manages a deli counter and doesn’t even clean her own apartment! He doesn’t say this, Miguel suddenly realizes with the sensation of battery acid spilling into his stomach—one drop, but how quickly it eats away at everything—because he isn’t sure that parts of the anecdote aren’t true. (Maybe condos are cheap in Venezuela? What does that youngest sister…Norma? Angelina?… doagain?) “The puppies,” Chad cries. “We’ve gotta run…the puppies need to go out.”
Charles Merry nods sagely. “Be sure to kiss those pups for us, son,” he says. He sounds like he means it.
“I don’t want to upset you, honey, but I think you should be forewarned. I don’t know if my mother really, really liked the stew…”
Miguel turns onto his side facing the end of the bedroom that is not under construction, where the three bulldogs do not snore, where Chad’s boxer-shorted form that has recently gained ten pounds cannot be seen. “Do you know how fucking sick I am of haggling about our menu?” he says. “It amazes me that you still enjoy eating at all. There’s something wrong with you. No normal human being can go through life so immune to the assholedom of others.”
Chad’s hand—Miguel swears he can feel the new padding like the paw of a young cub—circles his shoulder blades softly. “Uh, excuse me, honey, have you met my mother? Which route would you rather I have taken? Hmm, let’s see: immune or dead?”
He does not remember Venezuela, he tells Chad. Mentions nothing about the house: small, with dirt floors. The family’s progression to dirt had been in stages; first, when Papi worked, there were cracked stucco walls, crumbly concrete floors, dirt only on the roads. But by the time Miguel was in school, Papi slept during the day, and floors and roads were indistinguishable. Mountains lay forever on the horizon no matter where they moved: Caracas, San Felipe. “Chicago is flat,” Mami said over and over, but they never went to the mountains, peaks simply loomed like a taunt. People in Chicago were better off since they did not know the beauty they were missing.
The three children slept all to one room. In the yard out back, vegetables grew, but not well. Mami was an American city girl; the way her tomatoes bruised and caved in as if under a hex was the cause of many fights. Afterwards Miriam would say of Mami, “Su piel se a puesto como estos tomates—algun dia, el se la comera tambien.” Miguel was afraid of the image of his father wolfing down his mother’s tendered skin in lieu of her faulty tomatoes, but couldn’t concentrate on that fear because there were too many mistakes to work to keep from making, or he would become the target of Papi’s anger. Miriam was not afraid. She provoked—when Papi passed out, she laid Mami’s handkerchiefs over his face to watch them soar with his powerful zzzz ’s.
Miguel does not tell Chad about time he woke to an itching on his back that, when scratched, lurched around inside his T-shirt like a camel’s hump wanting independence. His screaming woke Mami, but she was too afraid of the rat to touch Miguel—she kept approaching, then lunging back—so Miriam straddled him, yanked the garment over his head with one swift motion so forceful that, released, he fell against the mattress with a thud. Looming above him with moonlight haloing her frizzy hair the color of dead leaves, Miriam touched his face only once before rising briskly to calm Norma. Miguel’s back stung like being belted when any of them were bad; they all had to lie on the floor while Papi beat them one by one. The innocent ones would make the guilty pay doubly for their having been punished too, and that would do Papi’s work for him.
“How did your father drive his car off a bridge?” Chad asks him—once, actually, only once. “I don’t understand, was it a suicide?” But Papi had long been dying by degrees; the act seemed a logical extension, intentional or not. Towards the end, he’d often disappeared for weeks at a time, and Mami, with her desperate city-girl mind, thought to make little fake bouquets of flowers out of cloth and paper: an entrepreneur. She filled baskets with them and cajoled Miriam and Miguel to carry them door-to-door to sell them like gypsy children, as if the neighbors were not as poor as themselves. That was the only time Miguel remembers seeing Miriam cry, refusing to go out into the street with the bouquets, humiliated; the only time Mami got Papi’s belt and beat Miriam with it, wailing the whole time: Did she want her baby brother and sister to starve? Miriam had not resisted Mami’s blows but she would not go—she claimed she would throw the flowers away and find some man to buy her flower instead, how would Mami like that? Mami sent Norma with Miguel, and afterwards they had enough for butter, sugar and corn flour: the buttered arepas were their meal, and for desert they sprinkled sugar on top.
“When I was a little boy, I used to eat sticks of butter,” Miguel regales Chad, who probably thinks this is some quaint Venezuelan custom. Chad listens, rapt. The looming mountain of truths he does not know can only be called Miguel’s fault.
On their first date, Chad took Miguel for a tour of historic buildings on the south side. Miguel expected the excursion to be reminiscent of the architect’s in Hannah and Her Sisters and felt excited; he wanted to be assaulted by beauty. He was fresh back from a year in Barcelona, where he’d started losing his hair and generally made a fool of himself for love. He needed to believe Chicago was worth coming home to.
Chad’s buildings—both the sixty he owned and those he just worshipped from afar—were located primarily in Bronzeville and Englewood: African-American neighborhoods where there seemed more vacant lots than homes. Brownish weeds sprang up just tall enough to rape a woman amidst and not be seen; billboards for HIV medication loomed over every block. Miguel counted liquor stores, hair salons, Brown’s chicken chains and churches, while Chad slowed down his car crooning, “Look at the detail!” at every home with a turret. Chad was especially intoxicated by boulevard mansions and English-style row houses. He referred to himself as a preservationist, to which Miguel said, “Uh, don’t you mean developer ?”
“I develop, sure,” Chad explained. “But not like you understand development. Not, like, luxury loft condos with Euro-kitchens. I preserve everything—everything! And I don’t just turn around and sell to make a buck—I’m renting to good people, lots of them from the Section 8 housing program. My buildings are their first decent place to live.”
“So if you aren’t selling your properties, where are you getting money to fix them up and buy more?” Miguel said.
“Well, from a variety of sources—rent, loans, my father…and I do sell some, the ones with the least historical significance.” Chad narrowed his eyes, an Am I getting through to you? look. “It’s all about the buildings,” he tried. “I’ve thrown myself in front of bulldozers to protect them—I mean, literally, that is exactly what I’ve done. Any abandoned building I want to acquire, I’ll break in to start planning how to save it—once I fell through a ceiling and had to cling to this beam while the floor swarmed with rats. If a place I buy turns out to be a crack house, I go in and drag out the mattresses and chase out the dealers and whores. Yesterday I walked in on a gang-bang—well, actually the girl seemed into it so that was no big deal. But my point is, these buildings…look, I’d rather an entire hick town starve to death than that one historic city block be knocked down by Daley’s fast-track demolition program. I’m serious—Daley is Satan, do you understand? This is not about money—this is my entire life.”
Miguel did not have much legroom in the passenger’s seat of Chad’s car. The floor apparently functioned as a trashcan; at his feet were discarded wrappers of apple pie and Styrofoam containers with hardened salad dressing leaking out the sides. The back seat was filled with newspapers, floor to ceiling. In the trunk, which Chad had opened to get money for dinner, were two industrial-sized buckets overflowing with quarters. Miguel pulled his knees in tight against the bucket seat. “Uh, what’s with the car?”
“This is my office,” Chad said. “I’m on the move all the time. I go to court to fight Daley’s people, and then I come down here to pay my workers and collect rent from my tenants. I work seven days a week out of this car. It’s not a date mobile.”
“Where is the date mobile?” Miguel asked. “Did your father loan you money to buy that too, but you drive the dump to blend in when you’re slumming?”
Chad stared back, blank. His cheeks were the pink of models in J. Crew ads, of Harvard, Love Story boys. Miguel wanted to see sweat break out on his forehead when he entered him without lube; he wanted to see the blond dampen to brown.
“None of this is very old compared to European architecture anyway.” Miguel shrugged. “That’s history—this is just poverty. If you like crumbling deterioration so much, forget the South side—these are palaces. You’d be euphoric in the Third World.”
By the time they arrived safely back on the north side and hit Roscoe’s for a midnight drink, Chad’s alcoholic ex (who’d introduced them) was already toasted at the bar. He dragged Miguel to the toilet and pinched his arm too hard to be a come-on. “What the fuck?” he said. “Chad thinks you hate his guts.”
“One can never look the fool by looking skeptical,” Miguel said.
X was too drunk to have a rosy glow; he resembled a silver-yellow liver. When he shook his head like Miguel was the saddest thing he’d ever seen, it was unconvincing.
“You are a fool,” X said. “That man’s an urban hero—he’s adorable—every guy in Chicago lusts him and he’s been pining after you all summer, you moody little freak.”
“Leave me alone,” Miguel said. “I hate earnest boys.”
“You hate yourself,” X said. “Welcome to my club.”
Though Chicago was a big city, the gay community much larger than Barcelona’s, somehow all fags still knew one another, and a bad date could never be shaken off. Chad continued to appear, flushed with enthusiasm and tussled in his feckless, rich-boy way, every time Miguel hit the bars with his friends. Miguel took to drinking heavily at the bar with X while the others boogied on the dance floor. Chad could not dance. His hips seemed welded between stomach and thigh; he could not move them without his entire body convulsing unsteadily back and forth, and after a few moments of this exhausting gesture, Chad would settle into a subtle, side-stepping motion that Miguel remembers practicing alone in his bedroom before his first school dance in the States. Once, nursing Glenlivets with X, Miguel thought to prove how uninterested he was in Chad by targeting the hottest man in the vicinity and telling the bartender to send him a drink. But when the bartender delivered the beer and turned to point out Miguel, Miguel suddenly panicked—W.A.S.P.s were not accustomed to working for things; what if Chad simply gave up?—and crouched to hide, stumbling out of the bar area amidst guffaws from X.
X must have clued the rest of the guys in, because somehow, staggering through Lincoln Park in a drunken cluster en route to a party, everyone managed to inexplicably free himself and hop into a cab in the span of three minutes, leaving Miguel and Chad gaping at one another. Miguel’s hands burrowed deeply in his pockets; Woody-Allen-like he shuffled, muttering, “I guess we’d better go home.” They stood directly in front of a straight bar called Déjà Vu’s. When Miguel bumped into a sign proclaiming TANGO CONTEST, Chad grabbed his arm and directed, “Come on. Let’s go in.”
In Barcelona, Miguel once attempted to attend a Gay Pride parade only to find thirty lesbians hanging around haphazardly, smoking cigarettes and ambling down the Ramblas at a pace at which you’d walk to the dentist. Men in Spain were not “out,” he was told; they all lived at home with their mothers, it was a Catholic, machismo country, unemployment was high and young men needed parental help—what could be done? Miguel told his Chicago friends that he’d left for that reason: he could not live among the closeted when he had been out since age eighteen. Of course, in truth he’d left because Tomas, the love of his life, owner of the world’s most perfect profile, and a man whose casual way of draping one ankle over the opposite knee was so perfectly European that simply being European could not adequately account for it, had been found with his mouth around one of Miguel’s English students—a “straight” seventeen-year-old. Oh, and because without Tomas, he was homeless, lived on nothing but corn nuts and canned tuna, lost thirty pounds, used his key to sneak into the language school at night and sleep on the floor, got caught and fired, answered an ad for a male escort service only to be told his ass was too skinny for even desperate old trolls to pay to fondle it, accepted wired money from Miriam (who had to lie to her husband and pay her rent late), and bought a ticket home one week before his thirtieth birthday and the official beginning of his life as a bitter old man. Now here was Chad, beaming beside him, saying, “You must know how to tango,” and Miguel, champion of open homosexuality and fleer of Spanish repression (and who did not, in fact, know how to tango), could think of no reply quick or politically correct enough to prevent being whirled around the floor of a straight, yuppie bar by the W.A.S.P. with the incredibly-convulsing-pelvis.
When the D.J. announced the winner—“Two guys who can’t dance but gotta be awarded for nerve”—Chad kissed him amidst the raucous cheers of breeder bar-goers aflutter with the illusion of having gotten into a kitschy drag show without paying a cover charge. Miguel fled the bar; Chad followed. Six months later, they bought a house.
When they go to visit Mami and Carlos, her American husband, Chad helps Carlos build a garage out back. At restaurants, he holds Miguel’s hands across the table, then manages to schmooze his way into complimentary desert and champagne. His logic (“Why are gay patrons so afraid to show a little affection when the chef is obviously a queen and so are all the waiters—isn’t that silly ?”), seems to cause the world to click into place around them, adapting to common sense according to Chad. Despite having guns pulled on him, his car being vandalized, jumping out the window during a drug bust in one of his “abandoned” buildings, and being punched in the face every month or so, he emerges each day from the city’s roughest neighborhoods flawlessly bright and chatty.
And so in a similar fashion, Miguel has learned to speak in light sentences, as he would to a lover who spoke a different tongue. Theirs is a language devoid of causality: “I was the first in my family to go to college,” Miguel will say, omitting, I’d already slashed my wrists once and hoped a dose of university liberalism could save me. “I went to Barcelona to improve my Spanish,” he says, without, Travel or Prozac—the only two things that could get me out of bed. “I ran out of money, so I came home,” he tells Chad, never, I failed in starving myself to death or catching AIDS, and I’d lost the balls for outright suicide, so I didn’t know what else to do. “Love you,” he coos, adds, “Honey;” but never, Help—teach me how to be like you.
Miriam is crying. Miguel knows the sound: silence. She speaks only English. “I have to talk to you,” she says. “About the ceremony.” Previously, she has said wedding. Miguel waits. He knows what she will say. Though it has not been made official, she will confirm that Mami and Carlos will not attend—cannot—although they love him and think Chad a nice boy. Mami will pray for him; he is welcome for dinner anytime, and Chad too. She will not turn her back.
“I can’t be the Matron of Honor,” Miriam says like she is reading from Mami’s script, poking fun at someone else’s role, “This is the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” she says. “You know I love you,” she says. “But my children…”
“We’re calling it Best Woman.” Miguel is, uncontrollably, smiling.
“I just can’t support something I don’t believe God supports—not in public. I can’t act like the union is binding in the eyes of God. I don’t know what I think you should do, Miguel—I’m not saying the right thing would be to marry a woman if you just can’t love her that way. I know you were born like…I believe God made you the way you are. But He gives people tests, like some people are born without a leg or without sight, to see how you’ll handle adversity. You could still choose not to give in to the limitations you were born with, not to take the easy way out.”
“What,” he says, “are you talking about? Did Mami put you up to this?”
“Mami’s God is meetings and potlucks, she doesn’t know what she even believes.” Miriam pauses, sniffling. “Mami doesn’t know I’m talking to you, right? Her religion is about finding a new man who doesn’t drink liquor, you know? I don’t go to her church anymore. I don’t want my girls growing up like we did—I’ve been taking them to Eastern Orthodox church for a few…I feel it there, what I’ve been looking for.”
Two weeks till the big night. Miguel and Chad and X and the boys have been on their knees scrubbing the mildewy Uptown theater until the mildew gleams. “Being Baptist wasn’t restrictive enough for you?” Miguel asks incredulously. “I mean, they wouldn’t want you to be Best Woman either—they think I’m burning in hell too. You don’t have to change religions to get out of standing up at my wedding.”
“That kind of thinking,” Miriam says, “is exactly what I’m talking about. You know, the world does not revolve around individuals. Mami married a Baptist, so bam, she became one—you feel attracted to men, or whatever, so you think you can marry one like a man and a woman marry. Everyone does whatever they want—Papi did whatever he wanted and he had bastard children running around Caracas and us with bruises starving to death while he partied. The Orthodox Church and its rituals have been around a long, long time—it’s not about what you or me want. It’s about what is.”
“Maybe what is is just you wanting morality prescribed in clear, unchanging terms,” Miguel says. “Maybe traditional ethics is about cowards not having to choose.”
“You can’t change good and evil by changing your opinion, Miguel!” Miriam shouts, agitated. “Christ has taught us the difference, and if you found him in your heart, you’d know what I’m saying is true. I’m not denouncing you or Chad as people. I love you both as children of God and I’ll always stand by you and hope you find your way.”
“You’ll always stand by me unless I ask you to stand next to me on the most important day of my life?” Why is he doing this? He hears himself: rhetoric, like hers.
“This is useless.” Her tears have noise now, the sound of a common cold, Miriam’s voice a nasal congestion commercial. “I should never have agreed to support something I didn’t believe in—I’m still new to the church and I was hoping to have my cake and eat it too. I didn’t want to sacrifice. But I’ve spoken with my priest, and I know now that I can’t make exceptions just because I love you—”
“God forbid anyone make exceptions for love.” He is at it again.
Miriam’s voice is somber. “God does forbid it, Miguel.”
He is stunned. So this is it; his sister has joined the ranks of the earnest; the humor has been sucked from her pores by a vampire more powerful than their father ever was. Nothing left to say. Miguel remembers—he has occasional flashbacks of college, like a returning acid trip—Kohlberg’s morality scale, in which lower moral beings slavishly adhere to the dogma of church or state, while those at the highest level—six—are able to use rational thought to deduce morality based on the complex nuances of individual situations, even if the “right” choice defies societal norms. At the dial tone in his ear, Miguel wonders if a union between two men is more or less morally right when based on the kind of compromises mainstream heterosexual marriage also extols. Would marrying Tomas for hysterical lust, for example, have been more meritorious? Or is marrying Chad, with whom he owns a house they will be paying off for fifty years, with whom he tends a litter of bulldog pups whose butts need wiping in the middle of the night, with whom watching TheSimpsons at 10 pm is a far more regular ritual than sex, exactly the kind of circumstances that will, someday in the future, convince the religious right that gay love is not so different after all? If he’d said to his sister: We don’t even have anal sex—Chad guards his anus like Buckingham Palace, would that have made a dent? If he had said: I thought about killing myself for years, and only this man with his lightness and entitlement and oblivion has pulled me out of the depths of my own narcissistic despair, would Miriam consider the sin of suicide greater or lesser than that of loving a man? If he had confessed, I’m not sure I even amin love with him—I’m not sure he’s anything more than a survival tactic —would she take pity? Would she ask then, as he has asked himself a million times: If you are willing to incur the wrath of God and the world for your homosexuality…uh, shouldn’t it be for something more?
“I’ve seen these beautiful sprigs of tall grass at Neiman’s,” Elaine Please says into the answering machine. “Perfect for the centerpieces of the tables. I’ll pick them up for you, I’ve spoken to Deanna about it and she thinks it’s a wonderful, charming—” Beep.
“Also, I’ve been pondering the port-a-potties—I don’t see how in an entire theater the size of the Uptown there are no actual restrooms that can be made to function for one night—but what about some potpourri, just to dress things up a—” Beep.
X, fast: “O.K., the sign up sheet for sex in the Uptown has officially begun, so it’s up to you—Chad, I’m talking to you, Miguel would love to see us caught, he’s wicked—to make sure the nice Winnetka ladies stay far away from the actual theater section during the reception since I personally have signed up three times, and I’m not even telling you how many times Dan—” Beep.
“Look, your machine keeps cutting me the fuck off—I wanted to say that at the stroke of midnight, you need to make sure the DJ is playing something seventies, cause I have a rendez-vous in the theater balcony and I want it to be so Boogie Nights ! All right you little bourgeois marrieds, wake up already—it is only eleven o—” Beep.
“Miguel? It’s me, Angie, look, I want to talk to you, O.K., you need to meet me in person, I don’t want to talk about this over the phone. So, O.K., don’t call me at home cause…I’m not so much there right now, uh, so, I don’t know, call me on my cell…”
O.K., Miguel thinks, Here is where they all start to fall.
Mami was looking for Miguel’s socks. Why she thought they’d be in Papi’s room, he does not recall. She had to take Miguel to the doctor to have his foot put in a cast; at school, worried about Mami, Miguel had claimed his foot hurt so he could be sent home. When he claimed it again, Mami dragged him to the clinic—none of Miguel’s friends ever went to the doctor, why did he have to be the one with a crazy mother from Chicago? Over his squirming protests, the doctor pried at him with fingers greasy from other people’s sweat, proclaimed the cartilage on the ball of his foot “cracked.” Mami, earnest with doctor-faith that would later become minister-faith, meant to drag Miguel back to have his foot obscured in plaster so the doctor could grow more fat and rich.
The socks were in Papi’s room, and so was Papi, passed out. He didn’t work anymore, was back from wherever he’d been the past month, still in the shirt worn when he left. Mami tiptoed; Miguel heard the clumsy thud of keys, bottles falling on dirt. He waited, full of hatred for the doctor and Mami, who never saw people for what they were.
“Thieving whore—you think you can trap me by hiding my keys?” Papi’s voice came out English; Miguel did not know what the words meant. Only the tone, one of chasing, Papi’s heavy feet pounding dirt with hollow echoes, Mami’s, fleeing, too light to be heard. He pursued her to the yard, where the neighbors on both sides were out tending their gardens: watering, weeding, gathering—things his mother, the doctor-believer, did not know how to do. The neighbors turned their lazy eyes to Papi—he was just violent enough to be a bit of novelty, even in their violence-splattered lives. He caught Mami’s hair in a fist. Miguel felt his own head jerk. A yo-yo, her face making contact with Papi’s curled fingers, knuckles as torn and purple as a woman’s hidden parts. Mami’s bones made a louder noise than dirt, but her muffled cry was similar, like an echo inside her own chest. Miguel buried his head in his knees, thought, Let him stop now, God, let him stop now, I want to go to the doctor.
Girls screaming. Not Mami, but Miriam and Norma, running from the front yard. Mami on her knees, one knee catching the hem of her dress taut and hunching her over, the fabric too stiff to stretch. He held her hair at the scalp, no movement permitted. Mami had grown skinny from saving flour, butter and sugar for the children: through her skin, sharp bones. The crunching of knuckle on jaw, knuckle on shoulder blade, knuckle on teeth. Blood on Papi’s hand. Was that where the purple came from—dried blood and dirt, never washed from some other beating? In the past month, had Papi been at some other lady’s house, as Miriam sometimes said, collecting blood to stain his jagged fingers? Or was the discoloration merely an old man’s decay, waiting for Miguel someday too? Now, Miriam in the yard, a whirlwind in bare feet, shaking the fence. The neighbors stared: the girl was too proud, she and her American mother both. “Ayudenla! Ayuden a mi mami, ayudenla!” Who did the child think she was, asking they get involved? That man was crazy—they had enough troubles of their own.
“Miriam!” Mami’s voice, weak but rising like a sharp note, stilling the air. “Go in the house!” The neighbors did not comprehend English, Mami’s command an unknown oracle. “Take the niños inside—now!”
Limbs flew. Miriam, soaring through the air with the wild grace of a savage ballerina in grand jete—landing in a jumble of limbs on her father’s back, all gnarled ponytail, bare thighs and dirty cotton underpants. Papi reeled; at just-thirteen, Miriam was a woman already, breasts and substance; he collapsed to his knees, flung her off by bending over so she flipped like TV kung-fu: back against dirt, dress above her hips, collar still in Papi’s grip. Mami scampered to her feet, gathered Miguel and Norma tight—she did not seem to know her face was pulpy. The neighbors glanced at one another, worried—would the snotty American lady go away and leave him to beat the girl for show? They did not want to see him beat the little girl.
From the ground, Miriam shouted, phlegm and authority: “Mami—take them, take them !”
By the sockets of his arms, Mami dragged. Around to the front of the house, down the street, further, further. Where was Miriam? Norma bawled next to him as they traveled en masse, away, off the block, running for their lives. A three-headed beast with one pair of legs: Mami’s. She did not stop pulling until Miguel was uncertain where he was and could no longer turn back. They stood on a corner, Mami’s face a fighter’s, her nose broken. Next week, she and Miguel would go to the doctor and the doctor would say, Sorry, nothing we can do for you, while Miguel’s healthy foot twitched in its cast. The week after that, Papi would be dead; they would hear it through the grapevine because by then, Mami and the two of them would be staying with “Tía,” an elderly widow who needed living assistance. Miriam would join them once Papi was dead, and after she had Angelina she would stay with Tía while Mami and the three youngest went to Mami’s family in Chicago, to throw themselves on the mercy of Abuela, who’d always known Mami should not go to Venezuela or marry Papi or do any of the things she had done. Miriam would arrive later, a grown woman, and at first Miguel would not remember that for two weeks prior to Papi’s death, he had not seen her. When he did, he assumed she’d been home still. Only years later would she mention, casually, in passing…how the police picked her off the street, tried to return her home before they made the connection that her father was el loco from the bridge. How they’d had to look for Mami because Miriam didn’t know where the rest of the family had gone.
Angelina sits at the bar. She has a worn look inappropriate to her twenty years so that, though she is only five feet tall and still has acne littering the sides of her chiseled, Guerra jaw, she is able to gain entrance anywhere she chooses without question or fake ID. Of his sisters, Angelina is the least beautiful, with the wisest eyes. She has Miriam’s features, but on her they are larger, blunted, her skin too thick to appear feminine, though her hair is long and full, her smile wide. She looks to Miguel, with her ravaged little nut of a face, like a member of a girl gang in a 1980’s made-for-TV movie. Tough but sweet. She was eight years old when he left for college; a generation separates them. He has never, that he can recall, had a conversation with her.
She blows smoke from a Marlboro Red into his face. “I just want you to know two things. One, I’m getting divorced. Two, nobody is coming to your wedding cause Miriam’s gone crazy and they all worship her, but I’ll be there. I won’t have a date, so maybe you can tell some of your cute flamer friends to take pity and dance with me.”
Miguel says, “Did he hit you?”
Angelina pushes his arm. “Are you on crack? Javier knows better than to be raising a hand to me. He’s just, you know, set in his ways. He doesn’t want me going to school, which I’m gonna do. He wants to, like, have a gazillion babies hanging off my boobs and shit, but I’m gonna be a nurse. Or a teacher. I don’t know. Something.”
“Oh.” He wants to say, Be something that pays better.
She is drinking a whiskey or scotch on the rocks. A strange drink for a girl her age, he thinks, but she gulps it with a kind of desperation that transcends age. Under the too-long arms of her shirt cuffs, he sees that her nails are bitten down so low the fingertips are scabbed: picked over, re-scabbed again, mutilated and made sport of, just as he did at her age. He guesses that when she wounds herself, she torments the skin, does not allow a quick healing, is perversely fascinated with damage, or just bored and looking for something to do. He wants to put his arms around her, but he has never known how to do that, not with anybody—which is why he has Chad.
“Uh, are you still working at Dominick’s Deli counter during the day, to, uh, pay for tuition and stuff?” he asks lamely.
Her eyes meet his. Mocking, the eyes of a mother, except his mother never teased, always wore a sheepish expression, embarrassed for her mistakes, for what her children had seen. Angelina lights another cigarette, rubs up and down on his leg like a lover—no, like a sister, except in his family, nobody ever touches anyone, it is too dangerous, love too close to violence. “So,” she says, “can I be your Best Man or what?”
1, 3, 5
Behind the front door, a dilapidated ticket booth swims with cobwebs—they simply did not have time to tackle any area of the theater where guests would not roam. The entryway ceiling is partially collapsed. Miguel feels his stomach tighten; Chad’s grip on his hand simultaneously loosens as he rushes ahead, Miguel reluctantly trailing, eyes on the (admittedly cool) marble floors. “Look,” Chad squeals—is he crazy, is Miguel marrying a crazy person, is this what it has come to? “Look, baby—look !”
Miguel does. Two spiraling staircases frame the great lobby; they are aglow, entwined with gauzy silver ribbons and white lights, giant bronze candelabras at the base of each, flames lit. From the upper balcony, columns strain two stories upward like worshippers towards heaven; below are friezes—some painted, some raw—with alcoves on either side. In a daze, Miguel pauses beneath the chandelier in the mezzanine where the ceremony will be, glimpses a fountain overflowing with roses, more candelabras burning bright. He rushes into the second lobby, a giant vaulted room with dark wood beams, stenciled elaborately. Glances up again—winding along the balconies are wrought iron railings embedded with emblems, shields, coats of arms…such precision. Each detail, spare ribbons and white Christmas lights and voluptuous flowers, is unchanged from the dozens of times he has been here, on his knees scouring filth, eyes down, always down. He has never been here before. Of course this is where Chad wanted to have the ceremony—fought to have the ceremony. This place is all about transformation. Decay is not what Chad loves, but the mythic possibility of regeneration, the promise of something eternal. Beautiful.
“Is it O.K.?” Chad whispers, then, tentative-but-hopeful, “Do you like it?”
Miguel kisses his ready-to-speak mouth. “I do.”
The basement of the Uptown remains dank and chilled. Elaine and Charles Merry pace the bottom of the staircase leading to the mezzanine, where guests slowly sift to their seats. Elaine has dubbed the decor makeshift eclectic : luxurious silver taffeta ribbons on chairs; light-up Teletubbies—all purple—as favors atop each plate. Cocktails are available before the ceremony, for those who need them, and Miguel hasn’t seen an empty hand yet. Fags and Blue Bloods size each other up: who is prettier?—who makes more money? He thinks, a rare moment of Chad-inspired optimism: Everyone here makes enough to buy their good looks—maybe just for tonight, everyone will be friends.
The music begins. For the warm-up, to create a proper mood of both romance and whimsy, Chad’s mousy administrative assistant sings the Indigo Girls’ “Power of Two,” accompanied by X on guitar. His strumming hums unexpectedly gentle. Angelina is a black-locked, pornographic Shirley Temple in a curve-hugging dress the color of blood in a vial, hair coiled tight, vampy-but-comical. She is a fag’s wet hag dream, a vixen who does not take herself seriously, whose charm is in her self-creation. In lieu of a bride, she flits around doing her dangly-wrist scotch routine; she hugs miniature grandmothers—in keeping with his fine, long-living lineage, Chad has two. Miguel keeps his eyes on Angelina like a talisman. How has she managed to hide so long in the shadow of their sister, her mother? His chest feels swollen; he is unable to draw a full breath. Chad’s hand touches his arms at intervals—here—away—here.
Procession music begins.
“Oh, Christ!” Elaine, departing from her usual Tammy Fay Baker, honey-tongued sweetness, stomps a low-heeled foot. “I’ve got to pee—Charles, what’ll I do?”
“Go to the toilet, dear.”
And she’s off. Scampering up the stairs, skirt gathered at the knee. The men shift weight from one leg to another and back again. Somebody has apparently clued in the pianist to stall. Pacabel’s Canon—are they kidding, who O.K.’d this? Charles Merry belches quietly into his fist. He has had more martinis than the rest.
“She might have gotten lost,” Chad suggests after five minutes pass. “She’s never been here before.”
“How could she get lost—the port-a-potties take up an entire hallway!”
“Yeah, but they’re, you know…” Chad gestures vaguely, imitating his mother, appropriately confused. “Off hidden to the side.”
Miguel bolts. This is his job—husbands fetch cars while their wives wait under restaurant canopies in the rain, and so this will be his fate too. He will go to fetch Chad’s socialite mother who, perhaps so offended by the port-a-potties, swooned and is lying on the inclined hallway like a damsel. He’d like to kick her ass.
At the port-a-potties, he stands outside the row of shut doors, clearing his throat. “Elaine? We’re ready to start, uh—are you—Chad wanted me to check and see if we should go ahead without you.”
No reply. Miguel begins to knock on plastic doors, and, when that fails, to fling them open. Empty. Paranoid, he runs towards the main entrance to glance outdoors and make sure she has not taken off—Cinderella amidst the bums and club-goers on Broadway—having decided this was all a huge mistake after all. But once in the main lobby he glimpses, at the very top of the stairs next to the entrance for balcony seating, a door marked “Ladies.” Clearly Elaine—being Elaine—would have imagined that the port-a-potties would be in the Ladies’ Room—that would be the only civilized thing! Taking off, he tackles two stairs at a time. But at the top of the grand stairway, the door to the Ladies’ Room will not budge. Who knows what manner of rubble lies inside—like the crazy heaps of broken rocks and wood that obstruct the historic wood floors of Chad’s buildings—who can guess what bones and flecks of old skin inhabit this place? Downstairs, Pacabel’s Canon comes to an end. The pianist waits, a palpable pause, then begins Chopin’s Etudes—thank God. Miguel sinks to the floor to clear his head.
He sees her shoes first. Under the curtain that closes off the balcony: a red, cigarette-burned velvet curtain that does not reach the floor. Miguel hops to his feet and flings it back—shit, has Elaine signed up on the sex list?—and gapes, eyes traveling the bent bump of ass, beige tweed gathered, garter-tops visible, as Elaine Please Merry lets loose a stream of steaming urine that scatters dust. Drizzles a mist upon his wing tips.
“This cannot be happening.”
In the shadows, the back of her tailored mother-of-the-bride blazer convulses. Sobs rise to greet him alongside wet dust and ammonia. Miguel approaches cautiously: she is of a different breed than he; will she attack? But that is what he does when cornered—suddenly her arms burst around him, clutching the back of his tux, nose buried into his shoulder. They are the same height. Miguel wills his hand from investigating what he is fairly certain is a piss stain on his arm—instead that hand, soon to bear a plain gold band, rubs an invisible circle on the back of his mother-in-law. Instead his voice soothes, “It’s O.K. We didn’t start without you—everyone’s waiting downstairs.”
“It was horrible.” She has not yet looked up, speaks drippily into his collar. I had to…urinate so badly and I couldn’t find those port-a-contraptions anywhere. The door to the Ladies’ Room was locked—or barricaded, and I started to…oh, after forty, the body falls apart, you just aren’t the same. It’s so humiliating…I’ve ruined my—”
“I can’t see anything on your skirt,” he offers quickly. “The tweed’s thick. Just get rid of your underpants—look, toss them here. On impulse: “So many people are going to be having sex up here later, nobody will ever know it was you.”
Her eyes meet his: water and desperation staining blue irises. “But,” she says, her grip on his lapels suddenly hopeful, conspiratorial, “Darling, won’t they all be men?”
“Oh, lots of them wear lingerie,” he promises, and with his lie feels the nausea of treason, the instant revocation of his queer-advocacy-card. What do you call a fag who reinforces a stereotype he’s spent his life fighting against, just to make his enemy feel better? Elaine beams, tickled. What do you call a man who chooses enmity over trust?
Backing away enough so the steam off their nervous bodies floats between them, his mother-in-law straightens his tie. “Chad is waiting.” Her voice has grown thick, huskier than her son’s. “We mustn’t disappoint him—chop chop, Miguel, let’s go.”
Hand in hand, Miguel lets himself be led.
Now, the procession begins.
Angelina and Becky march first. Arms linked like a shiny couple on a wedding cake, they saunter up the stairs. Becky wears black pleated pants; from behind, Miguel notes the breadth of her derriere as suitable for her future as a dyke. They should have included a more significant lesbian contingent among the guests—maybe Becky would get lucky. Or perhaps he is only wishing for the demise of a marriage the world is more supportive of than his own—how many guests are out there whispering into each other’s wrinkled ears, Well, I’ve seen everything now ? How many are here out of curiosity—a freak show—secretly laughing down the sleeves of their Carlisle and Armani suits at the Merrys and their absurd circus? As though three quarters of these guests don’t know they voted for George W.! Miguel feels a pang of pity, and though he is not sure who its recipient is, he puts his arm around Elaine’s disarmingly narrow shoulders and gives her an awkward squeeze. She brushes him off, “Don’t get nervous now! You’re next!”
Dignified by cummerbunds and bow ties, Miguel and Chad join arms and begin the arduous stairs. They have to time their steps together: a four-legged beast for life. Chad’s smile is blinding; Miguel glances at him, attempts eye contact, but in age-old bridal tradition, he is not even sure Chad sees him now. Lumps of bile push their way up Miguel’s throat as though he may begin to bawl—the sensation is almost foreign; panic grips him; his armpits prickle, his thighs slicken against his tux. Up front, Angelina is already weeping openly, her skinny face contorted, sage’s eyes squinty and childlike. Miguel recalls her as a baby—how Miriam would not kiss her good-bye, would not hold her: this, he remembers abruptly, so disorienting it reels him and he trips against Chad, is why they left. Heroic Miriam, who had sacrificed herself for them, could not even look at her own child, so Mami thought it best if they took the baby to Chicago. Miriam has grown good at giving people up, at being a martyr—now she will be God’s. Some history he can never access; some secrets lie outside the orderly moral universe of blame. Perhaps good-byes mean little to her anymore; perhaps a higher law, redemption, is all that can keep her from dying, as Chad does for Miguel. He will be her casualty, and her sacrifice will give her no peace, this he knows, but for a moment he truly wishes it would.
And then, Angelina is waving. From alongside the podium set up for the (flaming) Unitarian minister who will perform the ceremony, his Best Woman raises her black-gloved hand and beckons—and against his will, Miguel spins, almost knocking Chad down. He turns, and he expects to see her, his older sister, there in the last hour—she would not let him down. But instead Angelina is beckoning to Carlos —Chad spins too and squeezes Miguel’s elbow, whispers, “What’s he doing here all alone?” But scurrying self-consciously over the stocking-ed legs of Winnetka W.A.S.P.s, Carlos is heading towards a row of dark heads. Mami, Norma with her husband and son—and Abuela, a confused expression set into her wrinkled brow, too short to see above the head in front of her. The space next to Mami is empty; Carlos fills it. Miriam is nowhere to be seen. They are, all six of them, dressed in their very best, the dresses and suits they do not even wear to church except perhaps on Christmas or Easter. Mami is beautiful; in this sea of white she glows like the Black Virgin on a Barcelona mountaintop, dignity radiates from her polished skin, new epidermis covering layers of war wounds that add facets to her shine. Who can tell why she allowed one child to sacrifice herself for the others—weren’t mothers supposed to sacrifice themselves instead? Who can tell what brought her here, she and her tribe who will, once again after tonight, sink back to basement bingo games and prayer meetings and huddling around the Spanish soaps in the tiny house’s constant orange glow, the smell of beans and rice thick in cheaply-constructed walls? Has he ever assured her that he would be proud to have her at his wedding—that she would not shame him? Did she need him to? Who can guess at the secrets of the human heart, ever capable of perilous renewal, ever susceptible to dangerous beauty, however scarred? Has he ever wished, amidst the hideous gleam of his disgust for the Merrys, that they were his parents instead?
I am a bride, I am a groom, I am loved. But the thought will not stick. In the next instant: Winnetka W.A.S.P. urinates in historic building Preservationist Son strives to save. Health hazard declared, Uptown bulldozed to ground. Somewhere, his older sister kneels, praying to a pitiless god of absolutes. Somewhere, somewhere, not here.