|Pastors' Wives: A Novel, available @ Amazon.com $11.59|
On the first day of my life as a pastor's wife, I decided to buy a Star Magazine.
Not people. Not even Us. No: Star, trashy Star, with its cover promised of fabulous people in unfabulous situations, page after page of full color schadenfreude. You know. Porn for housewives. If I gave it any weight at all, which certainly I did not at the time, I would have to call it a $3.99 act of defiance. A purchase to attest things had not changed, I had not changed. That Ruthie Matters still belonged to population that consumed celebrity gossip without guilt or thoughts of spiritual consequence.
Still, I hesitated. I stood there in the airport newsstand, my hand hovering over Jennifer Aniston's chin. Funny thing about become a pastor's wife: You felt watched. Not by God, exactly. Just watched. With a start I realized I was being watched, by the cashier, an Indian woman with chipmunk cheeks packed tight with chewing gum, black eyes steady and suspicious. It took a moment to comprehend why. I almost laughed. So much for my new status as moral pillar of society. If a shopkeeper could suspect me of filching a supermarket tabloid, then clearly I did not yet reek of saint type values.
I withdrew my hand, and the cashier turned back to help the next customer. Hands in my pockets, I wandered toward the back of the store, past the blister packs of Drama-mine and leopard print neck pillows and twelve varieties of trail mix. Finally, I reached the book. Books sold in airports fascinate me for their schizophrenic jumble. Jackie Collins next to Malcolm Gladwell smooshed right up againt Jane Austen. Any place else, the reading public could expect some distance between pie recipes and the vampire apocalypse. And here, in a stand alone display labeled INSPIRATIONAL, were the Greens.
The Greens. Aaron and Candace Green, of Greenleaf Church, coauthors of Serve your Marriage. It was latest in a blockbuster series by Pastor Aaron Green, its premise the application of Bible scripture to serving your country, your worship, yourself. Unless you're in the market, you probably don't pay attention to books like these. I never did, either. Once you do though, you realize they're huge. Just last week I opened up the Sunday New York Times and saw that the book was number one in the self-help category.
Even among the other glossy titles by spiritual sorts, it seemed to me the cover of the Greens' book popped. Against a white background, Aaron stood behind Candace with his hands on her shoulders a full head taller than his wife. He looked as silvery and dashing as ever, but then anyone with a TV set knew what he looked like. The George Clooney of the pulpit, they called him.
The surprise was Candace. I forgot my resolve not to touch anything in the store and picked the book up for a closer look. Candace's face looked etched, her features exact, as if their creator had deliberated over every detail. Her hair curled high and away from her face, tendrils spun like blue-black cotton candy, defiant of any notion of gravity. Her nose had one of those tiny squares at the tip, like its sculptor had completed it with a push. The inky plume of her lashes fanned out from around her beetle-green eyes. Her lips hinted, just hinted, at a smile. She wore a fitted black suit with a leaf-shaped emerald pin in the lapel. In bearing she resembled Jacqueline Onassis, as played by a thin Elizabeth Taylor.
The surprise was not her beauty, exactly. After all, I'd seen her once or twice, when the camera panned to a close-up during her husband's telecasts. The surprise was that the woman transcended a two-dimensional surface. That scant smile was like a sorcerer's wand: One flash and you performed as bidden. It scared me just a little.
"Thinking that could be us someday?"
Jerry had snuck up behind me. I saw that he'd already inhaled half his bag of peanut M&M's, his in-flight comfort food. I glanced over my shoulder at the shopkeeper. But Jerry projected goodness, just radiated it. I was pretty sure no one had ever suspected my husband of shoplifting so much as a loose gumball. Sure enough, all I saw of the shopkeeper was the long braid trailing like an oil slick down her back.
Jerry took the Greens' book from my hands and peered intently at the jacket.
I snorted. He glanced up. "What?" "The thing about us," I said. "Becoming them." We looked at the book cover together. "Yeah," he said finally. "You're probably more of a Tammy Faye." I took the book back and whacked him with it. "Hey!" he said. "It says Serve Your Marriage, not Beat Your Husband."
As he took my hand and led me out of the store, I found myself repeating this exchange in my head, sifting it for underlying intent. Was he joking? It sounds crazy, but I wasn't entirely sure. In our recent life together, I'd lost my grasp of his meaning, my ability to read between his lines. It's like when you're channel surging and you stumble upon a Sandra Bullock movie and you're happily settling in only to realize it's dubbed in Spanish. On the surface, all was familiar. But at times like this I became aware I no longer felt fluent in our language.
As we lined up to board, I inspected Jerry from behind. He was even taller than I was, a discovery that had relieved more than attracted me when we first met. It's not that I minded shorter guys; it's that they minded me. He still let his wavy dark hair grow over his collar, a style he'd never bothered to change even when he worked on Wall Street. His cheeks were leaner, his jaw more often set. His eyes had taken on the cast of a hotel pool before a summer storm. But otherwise he looked like the Jerry I'd met years ago outside Professor Baker's office.
Except he wasn't. He had ceased to be the Jerry I knew that morning in April when we woke to the rain machine-gunning the windowpane and he turned his face to me and said, "I had the most incredible dream."
The dream. Some might say that was the day I first became a pastor's wife. When does a man become a man of God? Is it the day he joins a ministry or the day he's called?
The word incredible caught me---Jerry wasn't given to hyperbole---but I grunted a sleepy "huh" and pursued it no more as I padded out to start the coffee. He didn't mention it again until later that evening, when he returned from work with Thai takeout. A new place called Basil had just opened down the block in a storefront notorious for the brief life span of its inhabitants. We called it the Cursed Corner. I took a mouthful of shrimp pad Thai and promptly spat it out.
Jerry frowned, upset. "I said no cilantro. I said."
"Gah," I said, flailing for water. Cilantro tastes like stinkbugs smell. No need to argue; it's a fact. "Curse the Cursed Corner!"
Once he refilled my glass and sat down, he clicked off the TV and turned to me. "So about that dream I had," he said.
I put down the beef satay (more or less a Slim Jim dipped in Peanut butter), tucked one leg under the other, and smiled at my sweetheart. His dream. What dream?
He hadn't even asked me about my day yet, and that was unlike him. Not that I had much to report. I was between jobs, which is to say I was between careers, which is to say I had no clue what to do with my life. Ever since I'd left my job as an assistant publicist at a book-publishing company, I'd spend the days online, reading up on graduate schools. Journalism at CUNY. Film at NYU. Creative writing at the New School. No sooner would I work up the enthusiasm to download an application than I would alight on another, sparklier option. It's so hard to choose a future.
Still, he always asked, and he always listened. And Jerry was exceptionally good at listening. He'd put down the prospectus in his hand and look in my eyes. He laughed in the right spots. He asked pertinent questions. If I grew vexed, as I admit I often did, Jerry stroked my forearm with his thumb, a sensation I liken to what a cat must feel when it's rubbed under its chin. It occurred to me only recently that as the middle child of five, I was wholly unaccustomed to anything resembling undivided attention. I never even knew until I met that I had craved it all my life.
So I faced my husband that night to hear about this dream of his. For despite the causal wording, something in his tone indicated it mattered.
I had no idea how much. Jerry took a deep breath. "It's not that I remember the dream so much," he said. "There was a kind of lightness. Like warm light. Like someone was hugging me."
I raised my hand. "That would be me. Your wife. I was cold." He smiled. "It was...I don't know," he said. "This feeling of coming home." He was quiet for a moment, his eyes scanning my face like it held some sort of answer. "I think I was called." "By who?" I asked, reaching for a rice chip. Jerry blinked at me. "Whom," I said through a mouthful of chip. "By whom." The silence stretched. "You know," he said. "By God."
If my marriage were a timeline---the kind they run in newspapers to mark the meaningful moments in a course of events---this conversation would get a boldfaced mention. Everything up till then was B.C., Before the Call. You might wonder at how dense I was. How I'd utterly failed to understand. But in my defense, B.C., this was not our language. Despite or maybe because of my Catholic upbringing, despite or maybe because of Jerry's theology degree and his ongoing exploration of faith, religion had heretofore existed in our marriage as an abstract. A topic of intellectual discussion. Words I would soon hear proclaimed at every turn---"I was called," "I was saved," "I accepted Jesus"---back then, B.C., this kind of talk was nothing short alien.
Later I would think of the Tower of Babel. You know the story. These people gather from all over the world and decide to build a structure that will challenge God's glory. Of course, God doesn't like to be fronted like that, and in his fury he not only blows the tower to smithereens but smites the people with disparate tongues so they can no longer communicate. That was kind of what it was like for us. Like the marriage we'd build was a tower God recognized as temporal. In the moment, I did not see. Facing my husband on the couch, bad Thai food congealing on the coffee table, I did not see the pillars and stanchions crashing down around us, the ruins that promised to swallow our marriage whole if we did not find each other soon and hold fast.
Meantime, I had questions. No sooner did I spit one out than another crowded up. "What does that mean?" I spluttered. "How do you know" What did God say? Are you feeling warm? Could it be stress? Or that homeopathic crap you've been taking for you sinuses, that weed of Saint What's-his-face---"
Jerry took my face in both his hands. I loved those hands; I trusted those hands. Instinctively I nestled my cheek against his palm. "I don't know what it mean," he said. "I don't know how I know it was God---I just do. He didn't say anything. It was more of a feeling. And I'm not sick. I'm not hallucinating. I've never felt better in my life. In any case, I'm not doing anything about it yet. I just wanted you to know." And then he leaned forward and kissed me.
He just wanted me to know. It was one thing to know and another to understand. I pulled back to stare at my husband. And for the first time I wondered: Who are you?
It all happened so quickly. Months after Jerry's dream, on a Saturday morning in July, he called me over to his laptop. "Hold up," I said, looking over his shoulder as I extracted the bagel clamped between my teeth. "They advertise church job online?" Jerry laughed. "How else?" "I don't know. Maybe a holy grapevine. A want ad from above." At least that's how it seemed to work in the Catholic church. We looked at the listing together. It read:
SEEKING: Associate Pastor
Evangelical church (20,000 members and growing) in suburban Atlanta seeks gifted, motivated young pastor with finance and/or business experience to assist in management of sizable endowment. Academic degree in theology accepted in lieu of pastoral experience. Pay commensurate...
In the weeks and months following Jerry's calling---though it still felt weird to call it that, and I avoided the word---we had discussed the implications. That maybe he would leave Wall Street. He had always said he would, sooner rather than later, and now he had somewhere to go. He had been called to serve. A church job made sense, as a start. "The question is where," said Jerry. And I understand he wasn't referring to geographical location.
A Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic. So I marveled at the way Protestants could flit from one denomination to another. Jerry had attended Presbyterian services growing up in a wealthy suburb of New York City, and over the years had sampled from a pupu platter of Protestantism: Episcopalian ( too Catholic), Baptist (too emphatic), Charismatic (flat-out insane). He like the inclusivity of the Unitarians, but not their loosey-goosey services; the work ethic of the Lutherans but not the pole up their backsides; the politics of the Methodists, but no their lousy worship music.
"You should start your own church," I joke, then immediately realized this had already occurred to Jerry. "I need to learn the roped first," he said. What kind of man contemplated starting his own church? Who are you?
"Greenleaf Church, it's called," Jerry was saying, tapping the computer screen. "In a place called Magnolia, outside Atlanta. What do you think?" What did I think? My Wall Street Journal---reading, NPR---listening, Yankees---loving husband was looking at a job opening at a Southern evangelical megachurch, and he wanted to know what I thought? I said the only thing I could say with honesty. "I think they'll love you."
"Flight 4502 to Atlanta," called the gate agent. Passengers surged forward. The family of four ahead of us was dressed in shots and flip-flops which I thought premature; ten-to-one the little girl in the sleeveless shift would throw a fit when the flight got chilly. The snowbirds to my right showed off the kind of bone-deep perma-tan that's a formal invitation for melanoma.
I caught myself. Judge. That's what Candace Green would think I was: uncharitable and judge. Just what she'd expect of a Northeastern liberal, not to mention a papist. No one needed to tell me that for a pastor's wife, there were certain behaviors that simple would not fly. But someone did need to tell me which. Was there a handbook? Some sort of guide?
We settled in our seats, a window and an aisle. The middle seat remained open, just as the nice ticket lady had promised. People did things like that for Jerry. He smiled and the world turned to goo. Jerry took the aisle seat to stretch out his long legs, and before take-off he'd fallen asleep. This, too, was a gift, one I envied at least as much as his talent for public speaking and facility with names.
It was then I remembered, with disproportionate regret, that I had failed to purchase my Star Magazine. I wanted to cry. I looked out the window. There below was the New Jersey Turnpike, stretching like a concrete scar across the belly of my home state. As I always do during the ascent, I craned my neck to see if I could spot my hometown. It isn't far from the airport, but we were pulling south, not north, and in any case no landmark distinguished Hoogaboom from the air. Growing up, the compass I'd used to orient myself was the Manhattan skyline to the eat, in particular the World Trade Center. So direct and unobstructed was our line of vision that my father saw the first of the twin towers struck while walking home from Mel's Bakery with a bag of doughnuts.
The horizon wasn't all that had changed in Hoogaboom, named in 1772 for a Dutch settler who could not have foreseen that his family name would one day be mocked by a late-night TV comedian as the dorkiest place name in America ( over Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus-both, naturally, also in New Jersey). Two Catholic churches bookend Main Street still: Saint Ann's for the Irish, and Saint Adalbert's for the Polish. Our clapboard split-level home just off the main drag also housed the law office of my father, Frank Connelly. That central location and his social ubiquity meant he served many residents at one point or another, drawing up their wills or transferring their deeds. Old-timers called him Mayor, or ever though he'd handed off that thankless post years ago to Stew Kozlowski of Kozlowski Funeral Home.
When the Koreans began to arrive in the 1990s, the town transformed seemingly overnight, Caffrey's Drugs replaced by a bulgogi barbecue, Anka's Pickles now a Hello Kitty boutique. When longtime residents groused, my father played peacemaker. It was Dad who persuaded one of the first arrivals, Soong-sa Kim, to start the Korean Merchants' Association. I remember Mr. Kim and other min knocking on Dad's office door with Chivas and cigars to look at blueprints and discuss ordinances. Many of them retained him for counsel until one of their own opened up shop.
The signage issue crept up. Up through the late 1990s, the merchants advertised their wares in proud if sometimes odd English (KOREAN BURNED COW, read a sign in the window of a barbecue joint). But some newcomers argued against having to explain their services in English, as they expected to cater primarily to their countrymen. The new lawyer in town, Stanford Lee, got all hepped up over their First Amendment rights. Dad talked him down. He liked to tell his children that had he not gotten Lee to settle, this case had Supreme Court written all over it. It could have been the case of his career, he said. But that wasn't Frank Connelly's style.
"Never let your ego decide what's right," he told me. That was unlikely. My ego had a hard time just showing up. As a child I distinguished myself in little, accomplished not much, and stood for nothing at all. I proved difficult to label, unlike my siblings. Tom the oldest, was the smart one. Vivian, the second was the beauty. After me came the twins, Paul, the comedian and Michael, the athlete. But me---I was just Ruthie. Toothy Ruthie when I grinned, and then Juithy Ruthie during my abominable orthodontia years, when I both sprayed and lisped.
In college, I took the concept of liberal arts literally, giddily loading up on one bullsh** course after another. Appalachian Anthropology. Symbolic Imagery in Anime. History of Hip-hop in the Harlem Renaissance. For one semester I rode the intercampus bus twice a week to the arts school to take classes in Tamenaibuga, an African friendship dance. I know.
Despite my lack of direction---or maybe because I could indulge it---I loved college. I felt for the first time independent and free and unique from my siblings. Even though all of us attended the same school, its teeming student body and scattered campuses meant I rarely ran into them. By the time I matriculated, Tom was in law school on a campus in a different city. Paul and Michael disappeared promptly into a fraternity and became known as the "the Tau Sig twins."
In college the snippy rivalry that had characterized my first eighteen years with my sister mellowed into something resembling friendship. Vivian is eleven months older than I am, and we grew up squabbling over everything. Our shared bedroom, and our shared Guess jeans, our one yellow Sony Discman. We looked somewhat alike and on occasion were mistaken for each other, an occasion that pleased only me. Vivian was beautiful. She had perfectly symmetrical features: a straight nose, puffy lips, and wife, lashy eyes. You could stare at a face like that and marvel at God's work. People did.
If you drew a charcoal sketch of Vivian's face and smudged it, you got me. As a teen, I spent many, many hours at my mother's vanity wondering how such tiny alteration in the features---slightly small eyes, barely rounder cheeks, a lower jaw just a tad askew---could create such a different effect. Boys did not fall speechless at the sigh of me, as they did my sister. No one looked at me and praised creation.
In my senior year of college, I responded to an ad in the student newspaper for a part-time secretarial job at the political science institute, the one that lent the college a national reputation for its highly publicized polls around election time. At least, that's how I knew of Brandywine, a name I found weirdly inappropriate before learning it belonged to its deceased founder. The building was on the main campus, or rather off slightly to the north, set apart by an ancient grove of oak trees. A long, straight path led up tot the brick structure, fronted by white columns and crowned with a white bell tower. The college brochure featured Brandywine on the cover; when dignitaries came to visit, politicians in particular, they spoke on its steps. in the fall, with the oak leaves turning, it looked like New England in the middle of New Jersey.
I got the job. I joined a rotating roster of students who assisted a political science professor named Stephen Baker, who wrote op-eds for the New York Times and had authored five books, all of them on presidential elections. Student groupies trailed him from lecture to lecture. When I reported my new post over Sunday dinner to Dad, he sat back in the dining-room chair and grinned. I felt proud. Though my parents never pressured, I admit: I was anxious to find my thing. I didn't need to be the best. I just wanted to locate my place, to discover that one thing I did fairly well.
That thing, at first, was filing. Mostly I filed Professor Baker's notes, in manila folders in steel cabinets lining a long, cramped hallway on the institute's third floor. Baker's stuff kept spilling out of his offices, but given his value, Brandywine's president allowed it. Also I sorted his mail: speaking requests; readers; media. The professor responded to all, but always to journalists first. The first time I overheard him taking an interview by phone, I was awed by his effortless eloquence, the way he spoke in sentences and paragraphs. Later, when I took charge of his media appointments, I learned he kept in his head a ready arsenal of reusable sound bites.
One day I came in to work to find a young man sitting across from my desk, waiting for the professor's office hours to begin. I said hi and began opening mail. When I looked up, I found he was looking at me.
I smiled back. I wasn't shy around boys, maybe because I assumed a boy's interest in me that way, or maybe because I had three brothers. I looked down at the appointment book and read aloud: "Jeremiah Matters." I looked at him again. "That sounds biblical." He laughed. "I go by Jerry," he said. I studied him. "Poli sci, minor in...econ?"
Vivian had warned me freshman year against asking a person's major the second we met. Completely unoriginal, she said. So my own twist on this lame line was to guess. I swear I was right about eighty percent of the time.
Jerry laughed again. I likes to hear him laugh, to watch his long, still face ease open. More important, it meant he found me funny, and that was extremely attractive.
I sat up a little straighter and adjusted my sweatshirt. "Athletic XXL," the sweatshirt read across the front, though I was neither. Why had I worn it? It made me look like my sport was sumo. "I'm taking Professor Baker's lecture, but I'm not officially at the college," he said. "I'm at the theology center."
I knew of it. It stood among a row of affiliated institutes, not unlike Brandywine, that took residence on a leafy lane hugging campus. I walked past it every Tuesday on my way to Sociology of Scrapbooking. (I know.)
"So," I said, "the biblical name fits. either that or you were named after the bullfrog." He laughed again. Three times now that I'd made this strange boy laugh. Only, now that I evaluated him, he wasn't a boy. I remember then that the theology center's programs were graduate level.
Jerry leaned back, stretched his long legs, and cocked his head all at the same time. Like a cat. I liked that. He was comfortable in his body, not like the other male specimens I saw every day in the dining hall, all shuffling or preening or spastic.
"And you? No, no"----he held up his hands---"let me guess. Your name is Ruthie. And you're undecided." My eyebrows lifted. He pointed. Next to my head, taped to the wall, was a scheduling calendar of all the students who filed and answered phones for Professor Baker. Under Thursday, from two to six p.m., highlighted in pink, was my name.
"Okay, I guess I asked for that," I admitted. "But I'm a senior, I'll have you know. I had to declare a year ago." I said this last with resignation. Because he was right: I was undecided. In every way. "Communication," I volunteered. "Whatever the hell that means." He tipped his head in apology for his assumption. Then he said, amicably and not ironically, "Without communication, humans would still be monkeys."
I relished the lob. "So the theology center acknowledges evolution, then?" Before Jerry could respond, the door opened and Professor Baker beckoned, still cradling the phone against his ear. I felt the moment and the man slip away. How many times had I begum promising conversations with young men at the college only for class to end or the intercampus bus to arrive, and I'd never seen them again? The college was so big, you could make and lose a friend a day. Besides, surely a guy this good-looking and this self-assured was merely making polite conversation.
I gave Jerry a quick smile and made myself look busy shuffling some envelopes. And when I looked up again, he was closing professor's door behind him.
I realized I was sweating under my sweatshirt, and I took it off. Underneath I wore a tight T-shirt. I shot off to the ladies' down the hall to check my hair and face. Not tragic---not walking-dead tragic. I dabbed gloss on my lips and wished I had something to spritz in my ridiculous hair. There would come a day when I appreciated the rotini pasta that corkscrewed from my scalp. But there and then, I wished hard for sheets of silk I could ripple in his direction like a fishing lure.
By the time I scooted back into my chair, though, the office door was open and Jerry was gone. The professor was on another phone call. Or who knows; maybe he'd never gotten off the first one. Baker was an affable guy, but that was also his problem---he couldn't not take a call or a meeting or a lunch, even if he had other plans, like a call or a meeting or a lunch. Once I began making his press appointments, I'd learn his schedule book was basically a work of fiction.
My heart hurt. Of course, I thought as I walked home later. The oak trees around Brandywine had just begun to turn, the leaves paused between green and red, an intermission of color. Of course. But as I reached my dorm, my cell phone buzzed. I didn't recognize the number.
"Hello," I said. "It's Jeremiah," he said. "Like the bullfrog." It took me a moment. Then it hit me: The scheduling sheet outside the professor's office for his part-time assistants, the one Jerry had used to diving my name, had my phone number on it, too. This time I grinned as I thought it: Of course.
"So what's it like?" Vivian asked. "What's what like?" I said. "What's it like when the guy you married decides to marry God?" Vivian burrowed deep in the sofa, her feet up on Paul's shoulders. Paul sat on the floor in front of her while Michael reclined in Dad's orange Barcalounger, as far back as it could go. Tom stood near the old air conditioner in the window, banging it occasionally with his fist to keep the cool air pumping.
I faced my jury. I sat in a straight-backed kitchen chair I had pulled into my parents' living room. I had picked Tuesday night to gather my siblings, when Dad would head reliably out of earshot to Bob Reinhardt's poker night. Since Mom's illness, we had taken to holding family meetings without him. It was just easier that way.
Vivian's body lied. Her slouch, her loose legs, even her hair---the pose reminded me of a Ralph Lauren ad, the ones with the improbably gorgeous girls splayed artfully on some haystack. Viv looked the picture of relaxation, even, or especially, with the pregnant belly. But unlike the carefree eyes of the models in those magazine ads, hers told another story. And Vivian was furious.
I didn't have an answer. I'd rehearsed obsessively for a week, and I didn't have an answer to that one. I felt my hand groping for Jerry's even though I knew he wasn't there. He'd wanted to come. "It's me," he'd said. "We're going because of me, and I ought to be the one to explain. I owe it to them." I refused, with more vehemence than I'd known I felt. "They're my family. If you come, they'll pull their punches. They won't say what they really fell, and then they'll stew about it, and then come Christmas there'll be some confrontation. With shouting. And a flying ham."
There was another reason I wanted him to stay out of it: I needed to spin the story. I would emphasize the job, not the calling. The financial management, not the pastoral duties. The place to crash in balmy Georgia, not the five states' distance to New Jersey.