Left At The Altar

I heard my mother’s voice, “Owen, wake up!” It was early in June of 1970. It was graduation day. I had slept well the night before, even though I was pretty nervous. I looked at my reflection in the mirror, and saw a scrawny kid with dirty blond hair and a cowlick. My underwear always felt like they were about to slide off and only reminded me of my insecurities. (You know, the last one chosen when playing stickball.) I was also thinking about the next week and my fourteenth birthday, so I had a lot on my mind. Before I tell you about the ceremony, I must tell you about the practice sessions we endured the preceding week. They took place in Saint Francis Xavier Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A neighborhood best described as a melting pot of working-class immigrants.

The church itself is a historic structure built in 1904; its majestic steeple soars high above the surrounding brownstones. Inside, its domed-shaped ceiling features a mural of floating angels, which Michelangelo rose from the dead to paint. There is, of course, row after row of wooden, uncomfortable, unspectacular pews with the required knee busting red leather kneeling pads. They swing on a hinge, to and fro, especially if you’re bored. One can also look at the many stained glass windows featuring dead saints–as opposed to the self-proclaimed living ones that walk amongst us–and a couple of portraits of “high ups” in the Catholic power drive.

Father John Anderson begins to instruct us, “girls on the left, boys on the right.” “You will be coupled, girl-boy. You will slooowwlly march up the center aisle in unison when Pomp and Circumstance begins to play.”

I heard the collective murmur of “What the hell is Pomp and Circumstance?”

“You will put your left foot out, then bring the right foot up to meet it, and then put your right foot out and so forth.”

“You will go to the center of the altar, one couple at a time, and knell down with your partner in the kneeling section”–which was just a small pew that fit two, situated before a wooden desk. Behind the desk was a large backed wooden chair with a red velvet cushion. It had two carved spires running up its sides and a catholic cross carved into its backing. I recognized it as “the priest’s chair.” Every mass there it was in the middle of the altar, awaiting its occupancy. It was perched, primed, and ready to bore. We found out Father Anderson was, in fact, going to occupy it and hand us our diplomas.

The Father continued, “Boy and girl shall kneel together, boy will get diploma first, then WAIT for the girl to get hers, and both will turn and depart down the far side aisles.” He gestured like an airline stewardess.

I said to myself, Owen, please remember to wait.

“Now comes the time we’ll find out who are partners were going to be.” The priest announced my partner’s name shortly, and I did not recognize or remember it. Not that day or any day after that, this includes today. However, there was no mistaking her face because of the distinctive beauty marks scattered about, and I use the word beauty lightly. She was well known by the nickname “connect the dots.” It looked like someone dipped a paintbrush in brown paint, stood four or five feet away from her, and flicked it at her face. If you could get by that distraction, you noticed her short brunette hair and shorter stature—what a couple. If I was by some miracle not to know her nickname, my classmate in line behind me was happy to inform me. He tugged on the back of my shirt, grinned, and gleefully said, “You got connect the dots.”

To be very honest, I think when we both caught sight of each other, we had matching looks of disgust. We were going to have to get over it, but I couldn’t help but think; now a bad day got even worse. I do remember we practiced a lot, and we practiced well. My confidence was high, but every once in a while, I would remind myself to wait for her. The days after that were slow-moving as we waited for the big day. Finally, it arrived.

It was a beautiful day. I have a picture of myself wearing a sport coat, slacks, and tie. I was smiling. It’s the only picture I allowed my parents to take. They promised me there would be no more pictures, especially at the ceremony. Looking back, I’d like to say I was acting like a little celebrity, but I was really a brat. Well, it didn’t matter how spiffy I dressed. I was to get into my royal blue gown with matching cap and gold tassels. Once we were all in the church, we had to sit through the preliminaries. Finally, the “Pomp” song began to play, and like good little soldiers, we got up to march. Slowly I made my way up the aisle with my reluctant partner, step by step. I spotted my father trying to hide behind a slender marble pillar, camera in hand. He took three “action photos” of me. Ah, promises.

We were now just a few feet from the altar; I could see the priest’s features more clearly, the lines in his face, and smokers teeth. I heard his deep baritone voice congratulating another graduate. We were close and getting closer.

Finally, it was our turn to walk up the first marble step and walk a few feet and up another step. We did not fall. Straight ahead, we went to the kneeling pew and knelt in unison. Yeah baby! The priest looked right into my eyes, congratulated me in a fatherly way, and handed me my diploma. It was rolled up and tied with a red string into a bow. I was so happy to get it finally, and relief swept over me. He turned his gaze to my partner. I thought to myself, I’m glad it’s over. Then I did something I was to remember for the rest of my life. I got up and left. Yes, I left her at the altar. I walked away towards the far aisle before I realized I had forgotten somebody.

The church was quiet except for that damn “Pomp” song. I quickly walked back to the altar and stood there and looked at my partner. I was hoping she somehow had a smile on her face and a look that said you’re so funny! In reality, the look on her face said I knew you didn’t like me. There were tears in her eyes, and they were about to cascade over. I wished I could push them back in. I wished I could go back in time and have a do- over. But no, I was stuck in the vacuum of the present. The horrible, I screwed up, and this is going to ruin my day and beyond present. I wanted to kneel back down, but the priest said, “Its okay, son. Go on.” I hesitated, and he said, “Go ahead, son. It’s okay.” I couldn’t understand why he would not let me knell back down and leave with her. I had to walk away alone. I walked away thinking, I don’t know if I will ever forget the look on her face. Time would prove me right.

I remember going home that day to celebrate my graduation with a room full of relatives. I was now in my spiffy attire. I made rounds of the room, accepting congratulations and gifts. I asked a relative here and there if they noticed that I had messed up. Almost everyone said something like, “No, I didn’t notice anything,” or “Don’t worry, it was nothing.” It helped, and I was able to put it behind me, or so I thought. My mother walked over with a cup of tea and a bag of Pepperidge Farm lemon cookies. I enjoyed them that day. Here it is fifty years later, and those cookies are available in the corner store. I cringe when I see them. Yeah, I was able to put the ordeal behind me that day, but it was to return again and again.

It’s 2020 and I can tell you that she entered my mind here and there throughout all the decades. I could be at a baseball game, a funeral, a wedding, wherever, and the thoughts and images of that day would appear in my consciousness. I might not think of her for years, but she would eventually return. I would wonder what she did after that ceremony, how long she suffered, and if she still remembered it now and again. I also wondered if she was alive and where she lived now.

Then one fateful day, over 40 years after the fact, I spotted her. I still lived in my neighborhood after all these years, though I moved a few times. Park Slope was no longer a melting pot of working-class immigrants but a bastion for young urban professional moms and dads who lived in co-ops and condos, drove Volvos, and had nannies raise children with names like Hunter and Chloe. Gone too were the mom and pop stores, replaced by well-known outlet chains like Radio Shack, Barnes and Noble, and Rite Aid. I was walking on the major thoroughfare, Seventh Avenue. A woman came towards me about my age, and I just happened to get a glance at her face. I almost did a double-take. Although she was, of course, noticeably older, she still had the same facial bone structure, brunette hair, was still short and had those “beauty marks,” though they did not appear to be as pronounced. It almost seemed that she looked so much like her childish image that if this were 1970, she could play her mother in a movie. She went by me fast, but there was no mistaking; it was her.

Over the next year or so, I spotted her again under very similar circumstances. I had to tell people all about this and no longer keep it secret. I first told my then-girlfriend, Hana. She was an attractive Hungarian Jew, older than me and with a whiny voice. That voice. I remember trying to enjoy a lousy hot dog at home while watching a baseball game, and she whined at me, “Watch those nitrates!” Anyway, upon hearing this story, she said, “You got to stop her and talk to her!”

So I replied, “Ah, don’t worry bout it, I’m gonna talk to her.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I’m gonna talk to her.” “You’ll see!”

She walked away with a disbelieving smirk on her face. It made me even more determined. I also told my family, including my daughter, Carolyn. She was touched by the story and hoped I would run into her again. Also, around this time, I decided never, ever to call her “connect the dots” again. It seems my telling the story over and over proved to me that the name was quite hurtful. As I write this, I’ve decided to never, ever write those three words again, either, I promise.

I kept my hopes up that I would see her one more time.

Well I finally did. It was about a year after the last sighting. It was after Hana and I broke up. I guess Hana and I had just run our course. It was either that or too many nitrates.

Now comes the time where I’ll tell you about our meeting. I have to admit I thought of lying and coming up with some cool story. Maybe something like, I told her who I was, the whole story, and she burst into tears saying, “I’ve wondered about you often, and have hoped you were doing well. I forgive you and always have!”

Then she would give me one of those hugs where I let go first, and then she pulls me back, and hugs me tighter. Then, of course, two passersby would have overheard the story. No, make it two nuns. One of the nuns would hold my hand and say, “I heard your whole story and your sincere heartfelt apology after all these years. My Lord, you are a good man.”

I’d like to lie and tell you that a crowd had gathered; they were relating the story to each other. I overheard phrases about myself like, “What a kind, caring soul. I wish he were my son. This guys an angel from heaven.”

Truth is it went nothing like that. The day I finally spoke to her was like the other days. I was walking on Seventh Avenue, and I spotted her coming towards me. I remembered my promise to Hana, and I was determined to stop her, yet there was also a part of me that wanted to chicken out. I made a pact with myself that if we made eye contact, I would stop her, as our eyes hadn’t met for decades. She started to come closer to me, and I locked in on her eyes. I ignored everything else about her face, which is maybe what I should have been doing all those years ago. Then just as she was about to pass me our eyes met. I heard a voice saying, “Excuse me.”

It was me.

She stopped and turned around. I walked over close to her. The first thing I noticed was that her beauty marks had faded and muted over time. She was actually kind of cute, and I’m not just saying that because she may be reading this. Anyway, I told her, “I’m sorry to bother you. I normally don’t stop people on the street.”

“Did you go to Saint Francis Xavier?” “Yes”

“Did you graduate in 1970?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

“Do you remember we graduated in the church?” “No, I don’t remember that.”

At this point, it was dawning on me that she may have no recollection of what happened. I remember being a little perturbed, and my voice rose when I said, “Yes. We graduated in the church.”

“Well, the reason I stopped you is–you probably don’t remember–but you and I were a pair at the ceremony.”

“We both went up to the altar to get our diplomas. I got my diploma first. Then, I was supposed to wait for you to get yours, but I walked away. I kind of left you at the altar, and I wanted to apologize for that.”

“You know, I don’t remember that.”

At this point, I tried to jog her memory, and also justify why I stopped her. I said with conviction, “Well, you were very upset; you were crying.”

“Really, I don’t remember that,” she said, smiling.

“Well, I just wanted to apologize anyway.”

“Oh, that’s really nice.”

“Well, I just thought I should tell you all of this.”

Then she seemed to be thinking about something. I wished one of those cartoon clouds would pop up so I could see and read what she was thinking. She snapped out of it, looked at me and her eyes brightened, she showed some of the enthusiasm I was pining for and said, “Hey, do you mind if I tell this to my friends?”

“No. I don’t mind.”

At this point, I got a little depressed that after all the years, I have thought about her and that damned ceremony, and all it is to her is a cool story to tell her friends. Then she said something I found a little peculiar.

“You know; if you see me on the street again, and I walk right by you, please don’t be insulted because my head is sometimes in the clouds.” I thoughtYeah, ah, huh.

I remember thinking; she thinks I’m some kind of over sensitive fool. However, over time, I realized there was a small chance it was a compliment. Maybe she thought of me as the “kind, caring soul” I mentioned earlier, but more likely, thought I was a nut job. Anyway, we said our goodbyes, and I walked away with mixed feelings.

While it was not the ending I wanted, I did feel its weight lift from my body. There was a definite sense of some form of closure. I felt lighter, but a small part of me wanted to talk to her one more time. I felt that while I was not going to get a Hollywood ending, I did think she may have been holding back, at least I hoped so. I thought maybe when she told her friends, one of them cried, which energized her dormant feelings. I told myself maybe she went home and told her father, her sick father, her sick father in a wheelchair with a small oxygen tank; he was so touched that he started crying, retching, and hyperventilating. They had to call an ambulance. Just stop, I told myself and hope for an honest, warm, poignant end that will form an unspoken bond between you.

So I thought to myself if there is a God, I will see her one final time.

My prayers proved useful several months later, but it was no longer the same as the other times, things were different. The karma was different. I did not see her on Seventh Avenue, but rather on Union Street, an adjoining block. The skies were overcast.

I had no problem recognizing her now; I’d grown accustomed to her face. We were approaching each other, and once more, I locked in on her eyes, and waited for her eyes to meet mine. They did. Our eyes met, and I saw the unmistakable glint of recognition. She then darted her eyes to the pavement and kept on walking.

I felt like a door in my life had finally slammed shut. It was over. As of writing, which is three years later, I have never seen her again. It has become apparent even if I do, it will not matter anymore. It also became apparent that sometimes it’s the one who causes the pain that ultimately feels the most pain. I was, at times, a prisoner in my mind. As she walked away, I thought; that’s okay; she can move on with her life because I am surely moving on with mine. Go ahead and go to your yoga class. Go sip four-dollar café lattes with your friends. Go home and watch the Animal Channel and send a big check to PETA. I don’t care.

As we walked further and further apart from each other, I thought; Goodbye. Goodbye. Connect the…

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