One of these years I'm going to do something different for spring break. Go somewhere new, like maybe North Dakota, or at least Berkeley. Have fun, avoid the immediate family, like everyone else.
Everyone else's cousin Dean didn't get married on March 27, 1993. Everyone else's cousin Rose didn't bring their good shoes down to Los Angeles for an evening with the mishpokhe.
Let me explain a little about my family. Everyone's related, but very few people are exactly sure how. The safest thing is to assume that you're all cousins of some sort. If, like me, you're obsessive about this sort of thing, degrees and removeds can be worked out with pen and paper, far from the Maneshewitz wine.
The particular side of the family to which Cousin Dean belongs comes from Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Where they live now doesn't matter. Once those neighborhoods are in the blood, they're stuck. You know the Cawfee Tawk woman on Saturday Night Live? Yeah. That's Aunt Helen. Or maybe it's Cousin Eileen. Or Cousin Pam. Okay, now picture about 200 of them in one building in Sherman Oaks, California, and let the fun begin.
The wedding was scheduled for 7:30 on Saturday night. At 6:00 I struggled into a dress that I'd had to acquire an hour earlier because no one had thought to check before I came down to see if maybe, just maybe, the dress I was to have worn had accumulated any unexplained stains in the two-and-a-half years it had hung in my mother's closet. I managed to find a dress suitable for a Saturday night Valley wedding that wasn't too hideous and in which I looked pretty good, but, you know, it just wasn't that green number that I could have brought down with me.
My parents, my younger brother Paul, and I arrived early, with the first wave of relatives. Lisa, Dean's sister, greeted us. Lisa is 25 and very tan. I predict she'll look 50 in ten years. (Yes, I'm being spiteful. I sunburn.) Lisa started gushing.
At this point I should explain another couple of things. First of all, much of the family calls me Rosie. And I should also mention that the most recent time I had seen any of these people was in September of 1990. My cousin Greg, who is only three years older than I and with whom I get along quite well as long as neither of us mentions the time I was five and he was eight and he locked me in Lisa's closet, and I had just had our respective wisdom teeth pulled and had to slurp chicken noodle soup while the rest of the family ate submarine sandwiches and Greg's birthday cake. At the time, I had thick glasses, limp hair, and a slouch. A few years of fresh air later, I am now contact lens-wearing, curly-haired, and straight-backed. I don't know if that qualifies as "you got so beautiful!" to an objective person, but Lisa, being a relative, hardly counts as objective. (My mother, for her part, delights in pointing out that it's hard to feel plump around that side of the family. Mom may have a point--though Lisa and I are on the same low-fat student pasta diet--but remind me to talk to my mother about body image.)
Lisa asked after my grandparents, spotted another relative entering, and cleared the way for the we-just-got-in-from-Queens brigade, led by Mom's cousin Eileen. Eileen is short and very closely resembles Linda Richman, except her hair isn't so poufy and she doesn't wear glasses. Or maybe she does in real life. I doubt she parades around Queens in black sequins when her nephew isn't getting married. She hugged everyone effusively. My brother looked puzzled. She whispered to him, "Cousin Eileen from New York. You and Rosie played badminton with my girls on the common lawn in 1989." Everyone asked if my grandparents had arrived yet and moved on in time for the next wave of pearls and sequins.
Shortly before the ceremony, all of Dean's relatives were rounded up for a family picture. Perhaps it's a good thing my grandparents hadn't arrived yet. I don't know where we would have put them. The photographer was famisht and fartumult as it was. He tried various arrangements of people, constantly singing, "I don't know how I'm going to fit everyone into this picture..." There was ample opportunity for quick reunions with people I'm not sure I'd ever previously met. Dean's voice boomed a greeting from somewhere in an upper row. It will never fail to amaze me that, despite being raised in the wilds of Woodland Hills, Dean's voice is streaked with New York. Of course, mine gets that way too. Must be hereditary.
The photographer finished arranging, took some pictures, and headed for the bar. So did the rest of us, since it was the only other available room, and by now quite crowded. My grandparents almost slipped in unnoticed. They were greeted by the relatives who saw them, and we attempted to catch up over the din, which was not a fruitful task. Fortunately, our efforts were interrupted by the call into the ceremony
We filed in and found seats. My mother changed her mind three times about whom she wanted to sit next to and gave away all the good bits of the book she had lent my grandmother. All in all, Mom was behaving herself rather well.
The prenuptial music was supplied by a harpist. My brother remarked that the piece sounded familiar. I listened and whispered, "Decomposing Composers." Paul started to sing the Monty Python song. Dad started to laugh. Mom told us all to be quiet.
Greg and another of the men in the party walked to the head of the aisle, reached to the top of the floral arrangements on either side of the aisle, and ignited the candles therein. They proceeded to do this to seven more pairs of arrangements. It took them a while. Paul kept singing. Finally, the music switched to a taped, synthesized rendition of the "traditional" wedding march... and I realized that I'd never actually met Laura, my soon-to-be cousin-in-law. In fact, this was the first time I would see her.
The only part of the wedding party that wasn't black or white was Laura's red hair. The bridesmaids wore black and white dresses. The men's tuxes had black ties. It was the first time I remember seeing Cousin Si, the father of the groom, in anything other than a loud Hawaiian shirt.
The ceremony was presided over by a guy from Rent-a-Rabbi. He sounded like he was reading a TelePrompTer. Maybe he was. And maybe he has a large congregation somewhere in the Valley. He muttered through some Hebrew, told a couple of stories, bumped his head on the chupah more times than I cared to count--but what do you expect from a guy the height of a redwood? Okay, I'm exaggerating. He was probably only sequoia height. But he definitely had the eloquence of a redwood.
Recite vows (Dean and Laura had written their own, which sounded like a combination of the traditional Jewish vows, something reprinted in Dear Abby, and something out of the collected works of Paula Abdul), kiss, break a glass, strike up the harp, everybody out now, into the small room with the bar and no air and lots of noise.
In the ensuing hour and a half, I caught up on the family gossip ("...and then Sophie's doing well--you know about Sophie, don't you? She has--" drop to a whisper-- "female problems"); answered persistent questions about my nonexistent boyfriend; consumed many hors d'oeuvres; and realized my good shoes aren't very comfortable. But mostly I wondered what was so special about the promised meal and entertainment that we had to wait an hour and a half to get them.
Part Two: Post-ceremony food, festivities, and fun!
We had been cabalistically assigned tables, and were finally allowed to sit at them. Paul and I were at Table One. The rest of the table was filled by Greg, Lisa, and eight men in their twenties, four of whom were complaining to Lisa that there weren't enough women at the table.
I sat across from Greg, who surreptitiously stared at me throughout the dinner. On my left were a couple of guys who seemed intent on determining the reality of the centerpiece. On my right was my brother. On his right was a rather nice-looking young man with deep eyes and an interesting tie.
It was quickly discovered that I was a second-cousin on the groom's mother's side, and he was a first-cousin on the groom's father's side. The game was on.
Glenn (that was his name, as I discovered when his table card slipped into view) began to ask me questions. "How old are you?" he queried, right off the bat. Probably a smart question. "Twenty," I replied, since that's what I was at the time. He was 25. My brother piped in that he was 16. (Oh, two things about my brother. He hates to be anything but the center of attention and, well, he's 16.)
"What do you do?" Glenn asked.
"I go to UCSC." ("I go to Marshall High," Paul interjected.) "And I write a lot."
"What's your GPA?"
"Don't have 'em. Don't want 'em."
"OK," said Glenn, who apparently preferred to deal with numbers, "what's your IQ?" I replied truthfully that I wasn't sure, but it had to be at least [number deleted for purposes of modesty] because I had gone to a junior high for the highly gifted. Paul added that he had gone there too, but Glenn was looking at me.
"That makes you a genius," he said in awe. Does it. "You're nothing like my cousin Lisa." Hey, he said it, not me.
The soup was served then. It was a French potato-leek soup which I was under the impression was meant to be served cold. Maybe they do things differently in Sherman Oaks.
"What do you do for fun?" Glenn asked me.
"Oh, stuff," I said airily. "I write a lot. I've got a column in a newsletter out of Madison." Which is true. When I remember to write it.
"I dance. I poke around on the Internet. I go to meetings."
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
I should have mentioned my fleet of admirers, enough to defend a city if I should ask, eager to cater to my chocolate wishes--but my brother was there, and heaven knows to whom it might get back. "No," I answered.
"Don't you like men?"
"I like men just fine. I'm just not going out with anyone."
"So what do you do on Saturday nights?"
"Hang out with friends, usually."
"What do you do?"
"We hang out. We play Trivial Pursuit. We watch TV. We talk."
"What do you talk about?"
"Whatever's going on. Gossip, politics, romantic problems, the Underwear King's drug stores. You know. Whatever."
"Do you talk about sex?"
"It comes up every now and then." No pun intended.
"What do you think of sex?"
My, what a lovely thing to ask a stranger at the supper table. With my brother sitting there, I chose my words carefully. "I think," I said, "that sex is a necessary thing. It ensures the continuance of an adaptable species."
Glenn gaped at me. "You need to let yourself go," he advised.
"Hey," Paul broke in. "Do you ever watch Ren and Stimpy?"
The salad arrived then, and Glenn dove into quick conference with Lisa, who was overheard to say that her cousin's name was Rosie and she was soooo smart. Of course, as I've said, Lisa is a relative.
During the chicken, Paul left the table, presumably to perform a bodily function. Glenn had been inquiring after my academic interests, and I'd launched into a consideration of Hannah Arendt's concept of the space of appearences and was wondering if maybe I shouldn't start grilling him, when out of the blue Glenn said, "You'll make a good wife someday."
Had it not been for the social situation and the presence of fragile glassware, I might have done something rash. But I froze, a smile on my face, and asked what, precisely, he meant.
"Well," he explained, "you're a good listener, and you can handle a lot of things going on at the same time, and you seem like you'd be good with kids, and you don't need sleep."
I sweetly replied, "My top priority in life is not that of having children. I clean only when strictly necessary and expect everyone to do their share. I do not cook anything more complicated than pasta. I resent the implication that because I am female it is my duty to perform two jobs." Glenn escaped a rundown of Dana Frank's lecture on housework only by the simultaneous return of my brother and the appearance of a slick-looking tuxedo-clad man at a microphone on stage.
"All right!" the slick guy bellowed. "I want every table to choose one woman!"
I suggested Dorothy Parker--but, no, it had to be someone at the table. Greg volunteered me and wandered off somewhere. I accepted, wondering what Greg had gotten me into. The draftees were then instructed to choose one man from their table. Oh, lovely, me sitting at a table at which I was acquainted with exactly three of the guys. My brother was not a consideration, and I had no idea how I would explain Glenn to my mother. That left one perfect option, and lucky for Greg, he was returning to the table.
As it happened, the couples were instructed to crowd onto the dance floor and groove to a medley of '50's tunes. As someone who performs bizarre-looking dances for fun, this wasn't much of a stretch for me, but Greg was completely out of his element. I gave him a quick course in slippery-shoed popular dance, but he seemed more intent on remaining upright and reminding himself that I was his cousin. We smiled for Cousin Susan's camera and then schlepped to the perimeter as everyone was invited onto the dance floor. Shortly, several older women from Queens, including 85-year-old Aunt Helen, were dancing the "YMCA." I had heard that Maneshewitz had magical properties. I will never doubt again.
After dancing to several super smash hits of the seventies, I returned to Table One for a sip of water. Glenn was still there. "See?" he said. "You just have to let yourself go once in a while."
I didn't tell him that it was not at all out of character for me to dance well into the night. He wouldn't have been able to align it with the image he had constructed of me. He probably thought that I wore a flowered black dress and pumps because I liked to, not because the dress was what was available on short notice. He probably couldn't have accepted that I regularly do strange dances in front of people. He probably didn't suspect that I was taking mental notes.
The evening went downhill from there. Dean decided that I was the only woman in the room capable of leading a conga line. The deejay wasn't quite sure what hora music was, and the only people who felt sure doing it were me, Mom, and Aunt Helen. I twisted my ankle in the course of avoiding the bouquet.
We left at 11:30, into a Southern California rainstorm.
There is a rabbinical legend that goes something like this: Before a soul is sent to earth, it is split into two. If those two parts find each other, then it is right that they should be joined.
It's a lovely notion. I hope that Dean and Laura truly are soul mates. I found mine two years ago. He's a gay man living in San Francisco, so it's doubtful that we'll get married. But I have been prompted to give him a call.
I later found out that one of the strangers at Table One was a young hotshot in CNN's Los Angeles bureau. It would have been nice to have known this at the time; there are few things I like better than discussing politics and broadcasting over dinner. (Or Chocolate Madness, as the case may be.) I can only assume that Lisa talked me up to him.
I still haven't really met Laura. I suspect that that will happen at the next wedding or bar mitzvah, when the mishpokhe gather and consume much food and gossip and Maneshewitz.