When the Cold War ended, dating really went downhill. Catherine had always found the sense of thermonuclear urgency conducive to romance; it's too easy to pace your passion if you believe you're going to live damn near forever. Unhappily, a good and scared man only got harder and harder to find. And Catherine doesn't get that at all. It's not like the leftover bombs have been improving with age - not that she appreciates the newer models, either, the nukes we don't even know about and really don't want to know about. We are suicidal, homicidal, genocidal maniacs. Our biological clock is ticking.
Anyway, welcome to her wedding day. Catherine parks in her usual lot, though it's the weekend and she could get closer. She and Donna forgo umbrellas to do it in one trip, running from Chemistry to Economics, past History, by the Union, beyond Psychology. The sidewalks are slick with yellow leaves, and it takes some doormat shuffling to get them off their sneakers.
"Good thing you dropped the park idea." Donna is cheerfully rained upon, but she isn't thinking of herself. "I would hate to make Donny get his suit wet, and his tie. I don't know. I got him a silk tie, but I'm not sure he likes it. Next time you see him will you tell me what you think?"
Yes, Donna loves Donny. If they aren't too cute for words, it's not for Donna's lack of trying.
"You know I'm always happy to criticize Donny, but I might be a little busy next time I see him," says the bride. "If he hates the tie all that much, he won't be wearing it."
Catherine made her cousin the maid of honor only because a bride is expected to have one. (Some brides are exceptions to this rule, and Catherine wonders why she isn't one of them.) Still, that's more reason, it strikes her, than she had to choose a husband - though she loves Button. She does. It's just that living in sin sounds so appealing right now. Life is too short for and already too full of paperwork and fidgety ritual.
Maybe because most of the Palis and all of Catherine's parents live in Minneapolis, Boom Island was the first site to pop into her head. But her favorite thing about the place is the untruthfulness of its name. Boom Island isn't even a convincing peninsula. Catherine abandoned the idea in a hurry. Everyone seemed to expect her to rent the paddleboat which summers at just that spot on the Mississippi. Too, too Noah's Ark. Or is that just Catherine? She does rather have global cataclysm on the brain.
Here they are instead, on Catherine's campus, and she is safe underground in her locker room. She opens a pack of gray-soled anklets and tosses a pair to Donna.
Ignoring the dry socks, Donna hands Catherine a bouquet. Roses aren't her favorite flowers, but she loves these for their blood-red perfection and for Donna's brusque and unexpected gesture.
Donna says, "I know I've got daisies, but what's your bouquet? No, your real one."
"Hell. The aerodynamics will be completely different. Well, maybe that won't matter at close range."
"You seriously want to practice the toss? I don't think so."
"Please? Please please please. I want this so bad!"
Catherine tries to return the roses. "You want them so bad."
"I want to catch the bouquet and marry Donny and live happily ever after."
"That's never going to happen. Why not at least imagine an impossible future with somebody good?"
Her blinking rapid-fire, Donna glowers. "You're about to be married, so I am going to make allowances." She starts shaking out her bridesmaid's dress, but it's pretty basic, no flounces or anything, and doesn't have a lot of pop to it. "And why are you always making fun of our names? You're about to marry Button Gwinnett Pali, for crying out loud."
Catherine liked dating a son of optimistic citizens, people who plucked inspiration and names from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence - Button's brother and best man is Gunning Bedford Pali - but now that she's death-do-us-part serious about him she's wondering why people would saddle their young with names that won't abbreviate politely, why they burdened their children with other people's beginnings and ends.
Catherine, she knows, was the name of three out of six brides of Henry VIII.
"Oh! Your bouquet should be put away somewhere safe." Catherine's mother and her ladies-in-waiting have arrived to take everything in hand, beginning with the roses. "I remember when I caught the bouquet. Orange blossoms," she informs her stepdaughter June. "Catherine, can you find a little fridge where we'll keep this until it's needed?"
"Yeah, that's what I'm here for. I've got daisies, dammit! Those are just... never mind."
"I see." Perhaps she does. She frowns at Donna, who's already guilty of being the niece of her ex-husband. Those orange blossoms had consequences: marriage, divorce, remarriage. (Don't forget Catherine.) "My sister threw the bouquet right to me."
The maid of honor wants her roses back. She smiles disarmingly at her aunt by ex-marriage. "I can hold onto that. If you want to check out all the trophies. In Catherine's office. Very impressive. She's been collecting them forever."
"That's a backhanded compliment," says Catherine's half-sister Tina. "Get it?"
June says, "Ha! Good one."
Catherine teaches racket sports to kids who like the back and forth of the games, kids who got tired of the waiting list for Beginning Ballroom Dance, kids who know they'll look good in the white outfits they think they're supposed to wear - much the same kinds of motivations that lead people to the altar.
No one is distracted by the trophies, and Catherine's mother doesn't surrender the roses. She tells June that white orange blossoms would be just lovely with her coloring.
Catherine says, "Tell us about your own bouquet - excuse me, that should be plural. You know, the ones that were yours to have and to hold."
When her mother says, "Baby," Catherine starts to step aside. But neither sister is behind her. The bride is the only Baby here.
Catherine heaves a theatrical sigh. "We still have hours to kill."
Her mother embraces her, being careful not to crush the roses against her back. "But we probably won't."
"Maybe I should be alone for a while."
Her mother gives her shoulder blade another pat and lets go.
Someone has tethered helium balloons to the door handle. They really bring out the gold in the Fallout Shelter sign. The voices of Catherine's grandmothers come through a pipe overhead. Somewhere in the building they're discussing the Palis, and though they consistently mispronounce the family, they do it in the nicest possible way, making each imminent in-law "Pally," their buddy, their compadre, their comrade.
Catherine climbs halfway up the stairs to the ground-level landing window and watches the downpour. She's the only one who minds when class can't be held outside. Her students prefer squash and racquetball and gym conditions. They drag their feet around the tennis courts, complaining the game's too slow without walls to bounce off of; they attribute their faults and lets and flat-out misses to boredom.
While Catherine has an enthusiasm for badminton which her students find amusing, tennis is her favorite. She can't get enough of the view through the chain-link fencing, all that sky dwarfing the civil defense siren atop the distant gym. Some days she can't believe there's anything more beautiful than dandelions and crab grass, so how lucky that her world happens to be full of those very weeds. The pings and chatter of distant softball games, bird calls, traffic in the air and on the streets: all magic to her ears. She even loves the grinding whine of a mower eating her weeds, which have staunch roots and will survive to rise again and again.
"Sissy." Tina clomps down the stairs. "There you are. Penny for your panic attack. What's on your mind?"
"You worry about it, don't you? Sometimes?"
"I guess. But I'm really more of a starving children person. Oh, and baby girls being drowned and stuff."
"That's what I think about. You know, to keep my little problems in perspective. War is good: crimes against humanity, nukes, chemical weapons. Whatever works for you."
"Germ warfare?" Catherine suggests, clasping Tina's left upper arm. "You never got a smallpox shot."
Tina shrugs. "No big. Yours wore off a long time ago."
"Not really; I'm scarred for life."
"Anyway," Tina says, "I need a little help with my toast. What do you want me to say?"
"You don't have to say anything. If Donna and Gunning and a couple of parents speak, that's more than enough. We don't want to be toasted by everybody."
"Don't worry about Mom and Dad. They're doing a little patter."
"It's the cutest routine - I don't want to spoil it, though."
Let the games continue. "The Soviet judge takes points off for cuteness. Russian, I mean. Or, no - Soviet... yes. Right?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You know, the Olympic judges? Forget it, I used that joke way past the expiration date."
"What joke? So, what can I say about you and Button? I could talk about how you guys met! How did you guys meet? I assume it was on campus." She knows that Button works in Admissions. "How exactly did it happen?"
"If you have to ask, this probably isn't your story to tell."
"It was a cafeteria crash."
"And love at first sight."
"It was... cream of mushroom at first sight."
Catherine hadn't seen him coming. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I can't believe I just did that. I should have been more careful."
"It's not the end of the world." The stranger got down on one knee and put their empty soup bowls on his tray. "That was stupid."
"I know, I'm so - "
"No! I meant, it was stupid, what I said. Obviously it isn't the end of the world."
"Don't knock it - a remark suitable for any occasion."
"So far," he agreed.
"Yeah, I don't think I can make magic out of cream of mushroom soup," says Tina.
June bounds up to them. "About the bouquet?"
"What about it?" Tina says.
"I don't want it!"
"Oh, neither do I."
June says, "The mother of the bride, however, has gone totally psycho and put a bounty on your daisies. The grand prize is an afternoon at the spa with her - which I do not want - but there's also a cash reward for effort. I've got to look like I'm trying, so do not throw it anywhere near me."
Catherine says, "Look, I don't believe it's even possible to aim daisies."
"Maybe not to hit a target, but I'm just asking you to avoid one."
There's only so much Catherine can do with her bare hands. A racket would serve them right. Throw the bouquet straight up - and a punishing SMASH past the grasping hands, the arms racing - and SMACK somebody upside the head.
Sensing it's time to move out of range, the bride's sisters start backing up the stairs.
"Well, catch you later," June says.
"You hope not," Tina reminds her. She giggles again. "Nuclear war. You're going to die when I tell you what Catherine said..."
Catherine's sisters, like her students, were born toward the end of the arms race, which leaves them impatient with the impression that they wait at the finish line for her. Not that she'll ever catch up; she's stuck over on this side of the generation gap.
Yesterday her students tried to explain their favorite slasher flicks to her. "Um, they're ironic?"
Catherine said, "I know they're supposed to be, but lots of people still die in them, right? Horrible, grisly, torturous deaths. For a slasher movie to be truly ironic, wouldn't everybody have to stay alive and in one piece?"
"You want everyone to live happily ever after?" Like it was the worst ending they could imagine. "This coming from you? The woman who considers Dr. Strangelove a documentary?"
Listen, pip-squeaks, Catherine wanted to growl, my fears are not quaint. But twenty-four hours ago she couldn't stay mad at anyone. "I'm getting married tomorrow! Have a great weekend. See you all Monday."
It rained yesterday, too. After class a few of her students lingered at the door, waiting for a break in the weather. Catherine was far enough away that she shouldn't have been able to hear them, but sound travels incriminatingly in this old building.
"She'll never get it."
"And what is her obsession with nuclear war?"
"They were brainwashed back in the day. Duck and cover. Build a bomb shelter."
"She's not even close to that old. Her wrinkles are from too much sun."
"She's kind of gray. And she isn't even going on a honeymoon."
"She's excited about her wedding. I think it's sweet."
"Who's Dr. Strangelove, anyway? A porn star?"
Nobody's told the bride she's glowing. The attendants are being deployed, and she gets a grip on her daisies. This is her first look at the ill-fated arrangement. Again she imagines shooting the yellow bullseyes into the crowd.
The wedding isn't in one of the lifeless boxes where Catherine has to teach in bad weather. She's walking the golden-brown length of the mellow old gym. When she stops, Button takes his place beside her. Why should she - how can Catherine - marry this man? They haven't even made eye contact today. He mutters, "They're not playing our song." Not that they have a song. But they do seem to be marrying to music neither one of them can remember choosing. Somehow this isn't aggravating. This march they're at liberty not to listen to gives them a chance to talk, gives them a chance.
Button whispers, "I'm terrified. No offense."
Catherine smiles for the first time today. "No, I'm glad to hear it. Cold feet are -"
"- suitable for any occasion?"
Dearly beloved, forever hold your peace, and when life gives you lemons, pucker up and kiss the groom.
No, it wasn't love at first sight. In tennis and in the beginning, love always equals zero. It will always be a terrifying time, when anything could happen, those cold-blooded seconds while you're mopping up his and hers soup and wondering what to do about the butterflies in your gut. Will you move your hand to brush his? Will you suggest starting this lunch over, together? Or will you tell yourself that what you feel is embarrassment, or adrenaline, or hunger? The scary stuff that's life left Catherine gasping. Then again, it could've been the sight of tomato soup on her sleeve. Her future husband froze in mid-cleanup. "Are you hurt?"
And Catherine smiled at the chance to reply, "Only my pride."
They're all waiting for Cupid to pierce a heart with strange love. Now the last thing Catherine wants to do is hurt anyone, but since the pain's a given, she can hardly begrudge somebody the promise of a kiss to make it better. She turns her back, flings up her arms, lets go. She doesn't have to see how it ends. For the moment, she believes we'll all live happily enough. Somebody will save the daisies, and everyone will be ok with that.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Shannon Anthony. All rights reserved.