A SMALL CROWD OF STRANGERS: A Novel by Joanna Rose

How does a librarian from New Jersey end up in a convenience store on Vancouver Island in the middle of the night, playing Bible Scrabble with a Korean physicist and a drunk priest? She gets married to the wrong man for starters (she didn't know he was that kind of Catholic) and starts her crazy journey in St Cloud MN. She gets a job in a New Age bookstore, wanders toward Buddhism without realizing it, and acquires a dog. Things get complicated after that. 

Pattianne Anthony is less a thinker than a dreamer, and she finds out the hard way that she doesn't want a husband at all, much less a baby, and that getting out of trouble is a lot harder than getting into it, especially when the landscape of the west becomes the voice of reason.

Forthcoming Fall 2020 / Forest Avenue Press

 

Chapter One - They Were Called Peeps

 

It was things like reading all of John Updike, and all of Elmore Leonard, and doing the crossword in the middle of the afternoon when she didn’t have to work, with the all-classical station pouring out the windows of her apartment over the dry cleaners. That’s what being thirty was about. That’s what finally being finished with graduate school was about. 

Pattianne kept her part-time job in the library of the education lab, which paid just enough, and technically made use of her shiny new master’s degree in library science. And she kept her sometimes-boyfriend, Steven. Even-Steven she called him, because he was so even-tempered, which was really him not caring very much one way or another about her being his girlfriend, or them being a couple, or really anything besides arguing about almost everything.

“The only good book ever written was Under the Volcano,” he might say, or something like that, after about the third scotch. He loved that book.

“Yeah, if you’re a depressed drunk, looking for a good reason to commit suicide,” she’d say, or something like that, after about the third vodka tonic. Pattianne hated that book.

He also liked having just enough drinks to have really nice sex. 

“Nice?” he would say. “Nice?”

He owned a tavern with a bunch of guys who had dropped out of law school together, a laid-back, un-college type of place called the Truckyard.

On a breezy afternoon in early April, she stopped by the Truckyard on her way to work with a new find, Requiem Mass in D Minor. She was discovering she loved Mozart. Even-Steven had played violin in high school and fancied himself a musician, even though all he played now was the stereo. He poured her a glass of Chardonnay, and then he put her new Mozart in the CD player. He leaned against the back bar and stared through his smudgy glasses at the ceiling. It was the beginning of the part of the Requiem Mass that was called Introitus, coming on so low that she wondered if something was wrong with the CD player. Even-Steven leaned against the bar and ran his fingers through his thick dark hair. It stood up in a sexy mess. She got that dreamy damp feeling and thought about calling in sick. Library jobs are like that, a little too easy to call in sick, but, at 28 hours a week, also easy to catch up on work. About three minutes later though, Even-Steven took the CD out and slipped it back into its case. He set the case gently on the bar in front of her and tapped his finger on it, leaving it smeared with grated cheese. He leaned over the bar and whispered in her ear, "That's a shitty orchestra."

Two guys at the end of the bar watched.

Even-Steven took out another CD and slipped it into the player. Same music. Coming on so achingly slow. 

"This," he said, with a grand gesture toward the stereo, "Is the greatest recording of the Requiem Mass in D Minor you'll ever hear."

The guys at the end of the bar applauded. Pattianne sighed in what she hoped was a melodramatic way, and picked up her CD.

"You got cheese on my Mozart," she said. She slipped off her barstool. "Off to work."

Even-Steven winked at her, cute and annoying at the same time, amazing how he could do that. As she went out the Truckyard door Mozart blared behind her, Even-Steven jacking up the volume, and she walked on toward the library, the spring breeze blowing grit in her eyes, along with the smell of the Passaic River.


“Alas,” she said to Melissa.

Melissa was the intern at the table next to her, and she loved hearing Even-Steven stories. Melissa also loved black roses, had several, in fact, tattooed on her left arm, and she had a big plastic one pinned to her messenger bag. This one she now unpinned and handed over, saying, “Requiem for an afternoon of lust.” 

Pattianne made a shrine in her In Basket with the CD, its case with the blue and yellow painting of Mary and Jesus propped up reverently behind the black rose. 

And then, not an hour later, on a warm, windows-open-for-the-first-time kind of spring day, he came in to the North Jersey Regional Education Lab, wafting in on a scent of soap. She’d seen him around. Him with his pretty face and black hair. She didn’t know his name until she saw it written there, on the pink request form, in perfect cursive. A breeze started to lift the request form off the desk, and they both reached for it. He touched it first, and held it down with two fingers. “Hello?” he said. “They told me at the front desk that you could help me access this database. Are you Patty Anthony?”

“No,” she said. 

He had red lips, shaped like a bow. 

“I mean, yes. Database, yes, Patty, no. It’s Pattianne.”

Access is not a verb, it’s a noun.

She said, “Let me set you up with an access code.”

If she move her hand one inch, their fingers would touch.

Michael Bryn. The neat peaks of his Capital M. The round loops of the B. Michael. Not Mike. They probably knew some of the same people. Montclair was a small town. There were nodding acquaintances, people to say hello to, or perhaps knew to avoid, if they’d been at certain parties where there had been too much to drink maybe. There was that argument about Genesis and penises. There was going home with the wrong guy and then his real girlfriend dropped by with bagels and flowers to make up in the morning. 

Mostly she stayed kind of invisible, sitting at some bar, on the end stool, and chatting up some bartender, eavesdropping on witty people telling witty stories, the way some people could hold all the words together until it was time for everyone to burst into laughter like applause. Michael Bryn was like that. She never even really followed his stories when she’d see him with some group of people from the Ed School who stood around him, waiting to laugh. She’d watch his mouth, the way he flicked the tip of his tongue across his lips. 

Melissa’s message appeared on her screen: Ask him out!

Pattianne copied the access code on the pink request form and slid it toward him.

“Thank you,” he said. “This is all I need?” 

There was Chardonnay in her head, and warm spring air. She pulled the pink slip back and wrote her phone number under the access code. “You need this too.”

“I do?”

A tiny crease appeared between his eyebrows.

“Well, and this.” She wrote Pattianne Anthony. Not quite perfect cursive.

“Oh.” He looked at the form, then looked up at her. He had blue eyes, dark blue. 

Her face got warm, and she just knew it, those two round pink spots were showing up on her cheeks.

"We should get together," she said in a rush. “Sometime.”

Her cheeks felt that special shade of Chardonnay pink, and she was just thinking oops, wrong move, when his wide forehead smoothed out. 

“Well,” he said. “There’s a film festival at the State Street Cinema. Tonight is the last night.”

She loved that place. It was a funky little movie house with an actual curtain that opened and closed. They showed cartoons before the feature film. 

“Great,” she said. “I could meet you there. I get out of here at six.”

“Okay.” He stood there and looked at her. She wondered if she had brushed her hair lately. She tried to remember what earrings she was wearing.

“Well, good. And, well, so, I have to print out some grant applications,” he said. “How easy is this database? I need numbers on state test scores from Bergen and Passaic counties, from the last five years. By grade.”

“Graphs,” she said. “Simple.”

He laughed. “You think graphs are simple? Awesome.”

He had a nice laugh, kind of quiet. And so what if he used the word awesome? 

“Melissa?” Who was of course paying close attention. “Can you put together some numbers? Test scores? By grade?” 

“How soon?” 

“Now?”

Melissa kicked her messenger bag under her workstation and came over. “Now works.”

Michael Bryn looked back and forth at the two of them. 

“Follow me,” Melissa said.

“See you around six,” Pattianne said.

He said, “Okay,” and went with Melissa into the maze of cubicles. Melissa had pierced eyebrows as well as many tattoos. He avoided looking at the tattoos. It was harder to not look at her pierced eyebrows. 

He didn’t often get asked out by girl, mainly because he usually did the asking. When it got to that point in a conversation, or an encounter, where it seemed the logical next thing to do, he just did it. It wasn’t like it was an issue with him. Although now he wasn’t sure about who should buy the tickets. He’d get there a little ahead of time and just buy them. 

Melissa set him up and left him at a desk. He took out the piece of pink paper. Pattianne. Not Patty.

She wasn’t at her desk when he left. A little picture of the Pietà in the In Basket with the Lenten rose was the one by Van Gogh. His mom had sent him an Easter card with the same picture, his first year away from home. His mom loved the Pietà. 


She was walking up to the theater just when he got there. She was wearing red sneakers. She said, “I love Harvey Keitel,” a little out of breath, and handed the six dollars for her ticket through the ticket window. He could handle that, really. She had asked him out, but when they hit the concession stand, he gave a twenty to the girl behind the counter before Pattianne had even gotten the straw out of the straw dispenser. Then they went into the popcorn-smelling dark of the funky theater. He’d wanted popcorn, but popcorn on a first date could turn awkward - how much salt, or butter flavoring, and then there was the actual sharing. Who holds the bucket? And that thing where you both stick your hands in at the same time.

If this really was a date. 

“Halfway okay with you?” she whispered. 

And actually, it wasn’t. He liked sitting in the very back. But she headed down the aisle, and it was a little repertory house, small screen, so really, it would be fine. 

They settled in to the seats, and he unwrapped his Snickers bar. 

The beginning of any movie was one of the great small moments of life. It was all there before you, all you had to do was sit, and it would begin. Especially a movie you’d seen before, that you knew you liked. He settled back, took in a deep breath. 

That’s when he smelled it. Cigarettes. There were no people within four of five seats, or in the row in front of them. He glanced behind. No one there.

Damn. A smoker.

Halfway through, she got up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, she didn’t smell like she’d slipped out for a smoke. In fact, there was a perfume smell. Maybe she had gone out for a smoke and had doused some spray or something. But no. The trace scent of cigarette was still there, like before. Then she got up to go get a drink of water. Finally she whispered, “I’m going to go hang around in the lobby for a little bit.” 

Then he got it. He liked Harvey Keitel too, but Reservoir Dogs was pretty gruesome, even among Harvey Keitel movies. He got up and followed her. She was reading the twin framed obituaries of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hanging on the wall by the bathroom. He stood behind her for a minute, reading it too. She was quite short. And she actually smelled good. Flowers.

“So,” he said when they were outside. “Sorry about the movie.”

She said, “Didn’t you like it?”

“Well. Yeah.”

“Then you don’t have to be sorry," she said, “I’m sorry I saw it, and one of us being sorry is enough.”

He couldn’t think of anything to say except to apologize again, but then she laughed, so he did too. She kind of bumped him with her hip. He bumped her back, and they started along the sidewalk. She was smooth. She was easy. But you don’t say that about girls. Smooth. And that flower smell was lavender. 

They stopped at the corner of the park where there were four lanes of traffic. She looked up the street one way and then the other. She took a step away from him and looked up at him. He felt tall. Then she took out a pack of cigarettes. Either he was going to say something or he probably wouldn’t see her again. She pulled a cigarette from the pack, put the pack back into her jacket pocket, which is when he realized she didn’t have a purse. She said something about My Sexiest Year, which was one of the dumb Harvey Keitel movies. This was it. He took the cigarette out of her hand.

“Here,” he said. “Instead.”

He kissed her, on the mouth. A small kiss.

She tasted like red vines and root beer.

She tilted her head back and kind of peeked up at him through her bangs, which were curly and blowing around.

“Well,” she said. “I guess I wasn’t expecting that.” But she was smiling.

He said, “You taste like root beer.”

She laughed a small laugh, and he said, “And red vines.” The laugh got a little bigger.

Then he said, “Want a ride home?” It just came out.

“No, I just live down that way. But I hope you call me sometime.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Another kiss, this one on her cheek. His sister had told him once how fun it was when guys did that. Then she kind of backed away, said, “Bye, thanks,” kind of quick, and she turned, walking down State Street. 

He headed up State Street the other way. He turned around once, just when she was turning around, and they waved. Then she kept walking, in those red sneakers. 

Two blocks away, reaching into his pocket for his car keys, he realized he still had the cigarette in his fingers.


Pattianne had been telling herself, and her sister, and her parents, and even Melissa, that she was going to quit smoking when she finished grad school. And here was this pretty boy who thought she tasted like red vines and root beer. There was something friendly about a pack of cigarettes though. It was the last part of giving them up, reaching for that familiar square pack in a jacket pocket. How you could go into any convenience store or gas station or grocery store, anywhere, any country, “Pack of cigarettes please,” and there they’d be. 

To quit smoking was to become aware of desire. After the first week or so, reaching for a cigarette every eight minutes, it’s what was left. Desire. At first, her whole body wanted something every minute (actually every eight minutes, she’d looked it up), but still, pretty much always. To say she was filled with desire might not be true, but her hours were punctuated with it.

Give them up she did, though, and call her he did. They walked by the river, and in and out of record shops hunting for used Mozart CDs. He walked her home from work, home from a movie about migrating geese, from a walk along the riverfront, and, each time, they kissed―one long kiss out on the front step, a kiss that left her too shaky to say, “Why don’t you come in.” When she got in her bed and reached down for herself she would be wet and ready for her own fingers, and she thought about that mouth. She thought yes.

The kisses were getting longer each time.

Sometimes at work, she sat and stared at a piece of paper, and she would be empty of thought but filled with sex. She felt lightheaded, like she was getting a cold, and she would realize that she’d been away, not thinking of fucking or of his mouth or anything at all, just slipping off into this breathless place of desire. She thought of breaking it off with Even-Steven. She was completely distracted. Her underpants were always damp.

She found herself drinking espressos from little stands on Silver Street with Michael Bryn, instead of vodka tonics at the Truckyard, waiting for Even-Steven to get off work. The grass growing between the sidewalk cracks was adorably green, and she found herself leaving her jacket at home so she could feel the soft air on her bare arms. She quit reading Elmore Leonard because she couldn’t pay attention to the story. 


Michael was driving his orange Volkswagen north on the turnpike, window rolled down, the air a little too cool, and he was whistling. Not just whistling, but whistling a Frank Sinatra song he realized didn’t even know the words to. He immediately stopped whistling and rolled the window back up. He was going to tell his mom and dad about Pattianne.

He was done being messed up about Corinne Mullins. She was gone from his life, and she’d been gone for a year. He’d been on lots of dates, and he didn’t even really like dating. It got a little crazy.

Like the Saturday his father had arrived early to pick him up for a ball game. The screen door was open and he’d knocked on it and opened it partway, didn’t even come all the way in. A girl from the night before was still there, in the living room, barefoot, her hair wet from the shower. His father had said hello to her and then he said, “I’ll wait in the car,” and backed out, shutting the screen door gently. 

He didn’t say anything when Michael got in the car, just shifted into drive and drove. Michael crossed his arms over his chest and tried to lean back in the seat. His head pounded from rum and Cokes. There was a fun run through Edison, and they had to wait at Plainfield Avenue while people in costumes and wigs ran across the intersection. Tutus. Balloon hats. A guy with a what looked like an actual live monkey on his head. 

Michael said, “Was that a real monkey?” 

His father said, “So, who was that young lady?”

A lot of rum and Cokes. 

“Diana,” Michael said.

Sunlight glared on the straight black edge of the dash.

“I mean Donna,” he said.

It wasn’t until they pulled into the parking lot that his father spoke again.

“You’re a better person than this.”

For an insane moment, Michael felt tears sting at his eyes. He stared hard at the chain link fence in front of them. He’d met her late in the evening, at the bar. It hadn’t even been a date. After his father had left to go wait in the car, she sat on the couch, pulling on those cowboy boots, and said, “I’ll be slipping out the back, sweetie.”

“He’s early,” Michael had said. “I’m sorry.”

She just said, “You do have a back door, right?” 

At least his father hadn’t seen the cowboy boots. 

Now there was Pattianne. She was funny and fun. A little anxious. A pickup truck raced past him on the right and honked the horn, Michael doing fifty in the left lane.

“Sorry, Dude,” he said, and put on his blinker, checked behind him, and got over.

His mom was folding towels on the dining room table when he walked in. She did that sometimes, when it was sunny, like this. Michael kissed her cheek. Claire came through the doorway from the kitchen with two drinks in her hands.

“This is for you.” She handed him a bourbon and ginger ale with a twist of lemon. “I heard your car a block away.”

Claire slurped the other drink, and their mother said, “If you can’t drink that like a lady you don’t get it,” and she took the drink out of her hand and slurped it herself. 

Michael Bryn Senior came through the doorway then with two more drinks. He handed one to Claire, said, “Slainte!” and they all clinked and sipped. Chitchat. Sunshine. Basketball. Claire’s new haircut. A little of this, a little of that. Michael still couldn’t get used to seeing Claire with a drink. His mom picked up a stack of kitchen towels and headed into the kitchen. He followed her. 

“So,” he said.

She stacked the towels into a drawer by the sink, except one. 

She said, “Yes?” 

She draped the towel over the small rod on the end of the counter. 

He laughed. It felt fake. She turned to him, and her face eased into its mom smile, the one where her eyebrows did that funny thing. 

“What’s up, oh kiddo of mine?”

“I’ve been seeing someone.”

And then she did that other thing she always did. She turned away from him, gave him a little space. She opened the oven door and peeked in. He smelled stuffed peppers. He didn’t like stuffed peppers. He wondered if he would ever be able to come right out and say that to her, that he really didn’t care for stuffed peppers. She closed the oven door.

“She’s a librarian. Her name is Pattianne.” He took a sip that was more of a gulp. “Anthony.”

What to say? That she quit smoking for him. That she was an amazing kisser. That she wore red sneakers.

“She loves Mozart.” Then he felt like a fool. “And I want you to meet her.”

His dad and sister laughed at something out in the dining room, Claire saying, “I’m sure,” and laughing some more. His mom looked at him. There it was--the mom worry. But just for a second.

“You could invite her to church with us on Easter. The choir will be singing ‘The Coronation Mass’. How does that sound?” She slipped her arm through his. “That’s Mozart,” she said. She steered him back to the dining room.

It sounded great. 


The shops along Silver Street had window boxes full of daffodils and early tulips, the whole street lined with cherry trees, and the pink petals drifting in the air made Pattianne feel like she was in some romance cartoonland.

Michael stopped at one shop window that had dresses on hangers pinned up, as though the dresses were dancing, and he said, “I like that one,” pointing to a dress of light green rayon, or maybe silk, with dark shell buttons down the front. 

“Pretty girly,” she said. “I think you’d look better in the blue – match your eyes.” 

“Silly Bones,” he said, and when she pulled him along, he didn’t move. He said, “I’m thinking of your eyes.” 

“My eyes are hazel,” she said. “No particular color at all.” 

He turned her by her shoulders and looked down into her eyes. 

She said, “Don’t,” and tried to find something else to look at, and she said, “Let’s go get coffees,” wanting to be moving, standing still being suddenly unbearable, and Michael trying to look into her eyes was why, but he held her by the elbows, warm fingers on her bare skin. 

“Your eyes are green, Pattianne Anthony,” he said. “That color green, like that dress.” 

To stand very close to someone and let them look at your eyes will cause the sidewalk to drop away. 

“They’re hazel,” she said. “No particular color at all.” And she closed her eyes just long enough to feel ridiculous, and when she opened them everything, the cherry petals, Michael’s face, everything around her, jumped a little brighter. Michael Bryn, his pretty boy face when she opened her eyes, there he was. 

He whispered, “You have no idea how pretty you are,” and he turned her around and pushed her toward the glass door, gold curlicues, Tessa’s Dresses. 

She did not think of herself as pretty. She was plain. Good teeth, good skin. Otherwise ordinary. 

His whispered voice behind her, “Let’s you go try on that dress.”She tried to not go into the door. 

“Michael.” She tried hanging on to the sidewalk with her feet somehow. “This is a Silver Street dress shop. I am a part-time librarian. I can’t buy a dress here. And if I could buy it, I couldn’t wear it, not that little tiny thing.” This is what she said instead of what she was thinking, which was that he thought she was pretty.

He said, “Just try it on.”

She turned to him. “No,” she said. “You do realize I’m a thirty-year-old woman.”

The blue eyes blinked. “Thirty,” he said. “You’re kidding.”

It was her height, of rather the lack of it, being five feet two inches tall. She had never looked her age. She still got carded regularly. She said, “Why? How old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

That felt awkward. Five years. She said, “You’re kidding,” and he laughed a little, and the awkward moment passed. 

“Well,” he said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, thirty is impressive, but what’s that have to do with that dress?”

“I’d look like I was in eighth grade or something. Girls who wear that kind of dress have basically no internal organs.”

“Come on,” he said. “Don’t you need a new Easter dress?” 

He pushed her through the door, his hands on her shoulders, the carpet inside so thick that she thought there was a step-up, and she stepped up, to that surprise landing of a step-up where there is none.

“Can we help?” A girl with big painted-on eyes and no internal organs stepped out from behind a flower arrangement. 

Pattianne said no and turned around face first into Michael’s shirt, blue, pinstripes, laundry soap, starch. Starch. A warning tried to sneak into her brain.

He said, “She wants to try on that green dress.”

A warning about guys who starched their shirts and said Easter dress.

“No,” she said.

“Excuse me,” Michael whispered to the girl, his arms around Pattianne, who was staring at the blue pinstripes and breathing the clean smell of him, and not even thinking of a cigarette. 

He said, “Do you have a dressing room we can duck into for just a sec? I can talk her into anything if I can get her kissing.” 

The girl’s lollipop pink lips went into a round O and she stared at Michael, and Pattianne got loose and went back out the door. He came out right after, lollipop pink laughter trailing out the door of Tessa’s Dresses. 

There was a painted iron bench by the door, and she sat down, and Michael sat down next to her. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. 

“Okay,” he said. “No green Easter dress,” his easy laugh kind of bubbling up around his words. 

A woman walked by pushing a little girl in a stroller, and as they passed close, Michael pointed a finger out to the little girl, who reached her fat baby fingers out to him, and the mom kept pushing, not seeing Michael flirt with her cute little girl. They pushed on down Silver Street. He folded his hands together and did not say a word, just watched them, the little girl’s hand waving in the air. Pattianne watched them too. Silver Street was always full of young matrons, wearing their cute children like diamonds. The hair salons had childcare, the kids all had stuffed penguins. 

“So,” Michael said, and he scooted closer. “Do you want to go to Easter Mass with me,” the pink petals raining down on them gently, “And my family? You could meet them.” 

Tall baskets of white lilies crowded both ends of the iron bench. Pattianne touched the waxy petals to see if they were real. She couldn’t tell. 

“Christ the King, in Edison,” he said, close to her ear, whispering. “Latin high Mass. Easter service, choir. My mom and dad. And my sister, Claire.”

Even if she had her jacket on, there would still be no pack of cigarettes in the side pocket. She touched the orange center of a lily and the orange powder smeared on her finger. She wiped it on her jeans.

“That stuff really stains,” he said.

She turned and faced the top button of his shirt, where it was open, where there was white skin and that soft angle of bones coming together.

She kissed him. Slipped the tip of her tongue across those lips.

If they could go home right now and fuck, she’d wear the green Easter dress, she’d go to Mass with his parents. But she didn’t say that. 

She said, “It sounds a little--”

Michael Bryn put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed ever so softly.

“It sounds a little intense,” she said. Which sounded idiotic even to her. “I mean, we don’t know each other very well really.” 

“It is intense,” he said. “They’ll be singing the Mozart Coronation Mass. It’s amazing, they’re brilliant, they went to Rome and sang for the Pope.”

“Mozart,” she said. The air in the shade had a slight chill, and his arm around her shoulder suddenly felt just right. It didn’t have to be about meeting his family. It didn’t have to be about going to church. It could be about Mozart.

“So,” feeling her way through this. “Your parents are Catholic?”

“Well, yeah,” and he laughed. 

“Mine were,” she said. “I mean, I was raised Catholic. I never went to Catholic school though. I mean, I don’t really go to church. Anymore.” 

That arm, light and easy across her shoulders, his palm warm on her arm. “Why not?”

Maybe he really wanted to know, or maybe there was a judgment there, or maybe this was just conversation, like all their few times together were full of, just wandering conversation, do you like basketball games, no, have you ever been out west, yes, what do you want to do now that you’ve finished grad school, nothing. Did you know that Mozart’s full name was Johannes Chrisostomus Amadeus Wolfgangus Sigismundus Mozart. He’d said Wow.

The squeeze, this time her elbow, which was a little bit ticklish. 

“I don’t know how to put it,” she said.

She had walked down the aisle at First Communion behind Victoria Pidoto, and all she remembered was Victoria’s amazing dress, with tiers of lacy ruffles and a wide sash that tied in a big satin bow. Her parents just quit going to church after her sister Jen did First Communion. She noticed they didn’t go anymore, and she kind of thought they hadn’t been going for a while. 

She wanted a cigarette, wanted a vodka tonic.

“I should get going,” she said. “I’ll think about the church thing. Want to walk me home?”

That time it wasn’t such a long long kiss. 

Pictures of Jesus with his long hair and sad eyes made her feel the way she felt about Johnny Depp and Abraham Lincoln. She went for years without thinking about God at all, ever, dreaming along as if she were a flower or a dog or a stone in a creek. Freedom from religion was a sort of religion in itself.

Religion meant the Religious Right. 

She went over to the Truckyard. Even-Steven wasn’t working. He was sitting at the bar. He leaned back and looked at her through those dirty glasses.

“What are you up to?” He leaned into her, looped his arm around her and pulled her to him. He kissed the top of her head, and she hopped onto the stool next to him. Lisa was behind the bar doing the crossword. Whenever Lisa made Pattianne’s drinks, she made them big. Like now. Tall glass, heavy pour. Vodka tonic, extra lime. Even-Steven lit a cigarette and offered her one out of his pack. Camel straights. She shook her head.

He said, “You’re a lightweight.” Then he got up and went behind the bar and got a pack of Marlboro Lights from the cabinet. He looked at her as he tore the cellophane and opened the box, the master of the desultory gesture. He shook one cigarette up and she took it. He flicked his lighter and lit it. It tasted awful. He came back around the bar and sat back down. 

Church. There was an old old understanding between her and whatever it was that used to happen those Sundays when she was little, between her and the chanting, between her and the candles, her and the early morning light through the stained glass. It was an understanding that was so old, so private, so much a part of her that it was never even important.

Even-Steven said, “So, Chatterbox, want to come over?”

Pattianne shrugged. 

He said, “Do whatever you want. I won’t charge you for the cigarette.”

The smoke from the cigarette floated between them and he nudged her.

She said, “Sure.”

“Here, then, you can have the whole pack.”

Ha ha. 

Lisa said, “Below the kingdom.”

Pattianne said, “Phylum.”

She drank the vodka tonic, and then another, and he drank his beer, and another. Things just kind of went on around them, drinks, cigarettes, drinks, cigarettes, and it got dark out. There were re-runs ofSaturday Night Liveon the TV set above the bar. 

Even-Steven had the most beautiful long throat, that soft white skin. She put a hickey there once. Really pissed him off.

Finally she got up, and he got up. She headed for the door. He followed. No one would ever accuse Even-Steven of being romantic, although as soon as they were outside he fell in beside her and they walked toward his apartment, leaving her car parked by the Truckyard. 

He said, “I haven’t seen you for a while. What did you do, get a life?” And he pulled her by the elbow until they were touching.

His apartment was a funky messy place, mostly music stuff, and a big TV and books stacked up everywhere. There was only the light from the streetlight, and he took off his jeans and his sweatshirt and stood there tall and naked and easy. He went to the CD player and put on Miles Davis. But he took another CD from the shelf and tossed it to her. Requiem Mass in D Minor, still all wrapped up tight in its shiny plastic—the best recording of the Requiem Mass in D Minor ever recorded.

“For your very own,” he said. He got onto the bed. “Come here, I missed you.”

And then he fucked her so nice, kind of slow and lazy, just like he always did.

With Even-Steven there were orgasms, strange little tickly ones at the very end that she would hold her breath and reach for somehow. The first time it happened she was so surprised, she said, “I came.” 

“Congratulations,” he said. 

She remembered he didn’t even open his eyes. “Well,” she told him. “That doesn’t usually happen.” 

“Oh, what,” he said. “Now you’re going to expect it every time?” That was his idea of compassion, or humor, she was never sure which with Even-Steven, and it didn’t really matter with Even-Steven. 

Then he said, “No, really, I’m glad,” in a flat, embarrassed voice. He hated it when he had to be sincere. 

“Fuck you,” she’d said. “And yes, every time.” And it did, almost, with him, happen every time.

And now, with Miles Davis playing on and on, with Even-Steven lying on his back, quiet, his long body white in the streetlight light, she wanted him again, but she didn’t wake him. She just lay there, wanting. 

Sometimes she slept but dreamed she was awake and lying in bed, wishing for sleep. It was one of those nights. 

The light finally came into the sky outside his window, and she slipped out of the tangled sheets, found her clothes, tiptoed around piles of dirty jeans and T-shirts, picked the new CD up off the table, knocking a paperback book onto the floor. Cormac McCarthy. Of course. It landed on a sweatshirt and didn’t make a sound. She headed for the bathroom where Even-Steven’s old yellow cat Tangent was sleeping in the sink. Tangent always slept in the sink, curled into the round basin. His ears twitched but he didn’t wake up and look at her. Her throat ached but she couldn’t run any water. She didn’t want to face Even-Steven’s kitchen. Her head pounded gently. She got dressed and went down the stairs and out into the day.

The sky was gray, a fine haze of clouds high up, and the air smelled damp, the stink of cigarettes in her hair. She walked back to the Truckyard to get her car, parked under a maple tree and covered in pale green dust, her poor old Volvo, which made a lot of noise starting up. NPR leapt from the radio, and a fair amount of static, and she snapped it off. This was her favorite part of being with Even-Steven, sneaking away early, the city not awake yet. Today, however, her head was intensely hungover, and empty. She just drove. She was a bad driver when she had a hangover. Bad reactions. Too jumpy. She was very careful, and drove the side streets of sleepy Montclair, avoiding the early traffic on the river front drive.

When she got home she put the CD on, loud enough that she could hear it in the shower. It didn’t really sound any different than the other one. She was all clean and shampooed and wrapped in her long chaste fuzzy bathrobe when the phone rang. She turned the music down. It was Michael.

“I didn’t wake you up did I?” It was only 7:15 but he didn’t even sound sleepy. “I just got back from a run. It’s beautiful out. How are you?”

It was not a question she wanted to answer, but she loved it that he was asking. 

He said, “Want to meet for breakfast?”

And she said yes, not that breakfast really sounded like a good idea. Her stomach was a little lurchy. But she got dressed, chose her green sweater, pulled Mozart out of the CD player, and headed back out the door. The sun was lighting up the sidewalk, with its black polka dots of old chewing gum amid the sparkles of whatever it is they made old sidewalks out of. A sheet of newspaper blew along like it was a tumbling tumbleweed right here in Montclair New Jersey. Gold pollen shimmered on the Volvo. She slipped the CD into the CD player and took off up the street, along river front drive where sprinklers were sprinkling and runners were running, and if she hadn’t been marveling at the whole of creation she would have been mindful of the fact that, although she felt a little better, she was still hungover, and when the red light suddenly appeared, complete with a kid on a skateboard in the cross walk, she slammed on the brakes. The kid leaped away from the front bumper, his skateboard flying up, and he started yelling.

“I’m sorry,” she yelled back. “I’m so sorry,” waving her hands.

He stomped out into the intersection. Righted his skateboard with his toe. Skated away. Pattianne didn’t move. The light was red for one thing. She turned Mozart off. Sat there through the green and then another red. Breathing. The skateboard had flipped all the way across the intersection. She wondered if she was going to throw up. Finally she drove the last three blocks to Violet’s Bistro and parked, taking up two parking places. Got out and walked toward the door. Her knees were shaking. 

Michael was at one of the picnic tables under the purple striped awning. He stood when he saw her. His face looked so pink and bright. Not like someone who had been out drinking late and having sex and sneaking away at dawn and almost killing a child.

“I almost hit a kid.”

“What?”

“Just now.”

She stood still.

“I don’t know.” She felt a kind of fizz, a nervous giggle. “I had the music blasting and I guess I just almost hit this skateboarder.”

“Oh, my god, are you alright?”

“It was Mozart,” she said. “Requiem Mass in D Minor,” and he put his hand on her arm. 

“I’m alright, really,” she said, not alright. “It was a red light.”

He put his arm around her, he wore a blue sweater that was scratchy and soft at the same time, and there it was again, that arm, that comfort, and suddenly she was crying. She was horrified, and she said, “I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m alright, the kid was fine, he just skated away on his skateboard, it was one of those really long ones,” and then she was laughing again, and shaking.

“Sit down,” he said, and she sat down. “Here,” and he handed her a paper napkin. 

“Thank you.”

He sat on the bench next to her. “You really love that music huh?”

She tried to blow her nose without honking. 

He said, “You want to eat out here or wait for a table inside?”

“I don’t know. What do you want?”

“I want you to go to mass with me, hear the choir sing.”

His arm around her shoulders, the purple striped awning, a skinny kid all in black skating safely away on a skateboard. A waitress in yellow overalls came up to the table, and Michael said, “Hi - two coffees, with cream and waffles.”

She called her sister Jen that afternoon. Jen still lived a couple towns away from their parents. It was a long messy drive down the New Jersey Turnpike for Pattianne, an easy couple miles, past fields, a girl scout camp, and an office park, for Jen.

“Hi, this is Jen. I’m on a need to know basis, so you should probably just call back later instead of leaving a message.” 

“Just pick it up Jen, it’s me.”

“Hey there, hi.”

“So,” Pattianne said. 

“Hi. What’s up?”

“Nothing. Well. Actually, when was the last time you went to Mass?” Jen took their grandmother to church sometimes, Grandma Farley.

“Is this a conversational gambit, or do you want, like, a specific date, like a year or a Holy Day or something?”

Jen and she were close, and loved each other and all that, pretty sisterly she’d have to say, but she wasn’t in the habit of sharing the intimate details of her life with her. Like boyfriends. Jen liked Even-Steven though. 

“Conversational gambit,” Pattianne said.

“Bullshit.”

A garbage truck inched along the narrow street outside the window. All the colors of the rainbow were smashed up together in its maw, plus a lot of black plastic. 

“I want to go hear this choir,” she said. “On Easter Sunday.”

“Well, there are no Easter bonnets.”

Jen would be staring out her own window, looking down on the busy toy main street of the toy town of Jamesburg, where she lived in a shiny new condo unit across from the colonial post office that was still the post office. 

“They haven’t done that since like 1963 or something,” Pattianne said.

“You can if you want to though.”

“It’s a high Mass.” She wandered back to her bedroom and flopped on the futon. “Latin.”

“Ah,” Jen said. “Wear a dress.”

“Oh, good. That’s just what I needed to know. Thanks so much.”

“Are you really going to Mass? Or is it a concert in a church?”

“Mass. With a friend. And his parents.”

That quieted things down for a second. Then Jen said, “You’re technically still a Catholic I think. Until you commit a mortal sin. Like never going to church anymore and all that, but I think you have to be officially ex-communicated to set the alarms off. They have them installed in the doorways now you know. Retinal detectors. Are you dating a Catholic guy?”

“Well,” she said. “His parents are Catholic. But we’re not really dating.”

“Right. Have fun. Don’t drink the water.”

“It’s wine.” 

“That either.”

Not much help. But she loved talking to Jen, and afterward she always wondered why they didn’t see each other more often, and she told herself they would, especially now that she was finally finished going to school and all. And she knew they wouldn’t. And thought maybe they would. 

But for now, Easter. She looked it up on the Internet, and the first thing she got was all about Alleluia, which was the buzzword of the day apparently, a Hebrew word adopted by the Christian Church, Hallelbeing the greatest all time expression of praise in Hebrew, combined with Jah, the shortened form of the name of God, JHVH, which is Jehovah with the vowels taken out, meaning I AM. It becomes Hallelujah. Alleluia being a Latinized spelling. 

There were suggestions for starting the day with the phrase and the lighting of an Easter candle, and ways to celebrate, but it was too late. She was distracted: the vowels taken out?

She wandered around in Hebrew for a while, this site and that, until she learned that the Torah didn’t have vowels because the vowels were the breath sounds and it was something about the Hebrew religious texts needing to be spoken aloud to be interpreted truly, and so no vowels in the written version. She wasn’t sure she had it right, but then it was time to go to work.

As well as black roses, Melissa wore a lot of religious symbols on her jean jacket, her messenger bag, her arms, so Pattianne asked her what she knew about Catholics.

“That they have rules,” Melissa said. 

“Like what?”

“Like you aren’t allowed to go to Communion unless you join the club. And if you don’t join the club I guess you are consigned to the fires of hell, along with Democraticregimes that finance abortion clinics.”

She should get Jen and Melissa together. “Seriously.”

“Seriously.”

So she called Jen again.

“Hello, this is Jen’s answering machine.”

“Jen? Pick up, it’s me.”

No pick up.

“I have another Catholic question - do you go to Communion?”

She got a message back on her phone later that afternoon.

“Sure. It makes Grammy happy.”

Pattianne did what seemed like the next logical thing. She dropped her good dress off downstairs at the drycleaners. It was longish, a flower print, kind of gray and blue. Some green. No particular color at all.

Church music. The chanting sound of the liturgy. The stained glass windows. That people have believed this or that for so long, struggling with some idea of eternity. What it must have been like, to live in the time of miracles. That there are no miracles anymore. There are logical explanations and media hoaxes, but no miracles. Even God hasn’t appeared in person since somewhere late in the old testament. People talked about Jesus being their personal savior, but God himself doesn’t show up like he used to. No burning bushes, no wanderers in the desert. 

She just wanted some Mozart. A little Mozart, a little Michael Bryn. 

He picked her up in an orange VW, and the first thing she noticed was how good he looked in a navy blazer and white shirt and lavender tie. She shut the door of the VW and he said, “Happy Easter, Egg.”

Adorable. She said, “You too. Alleluia.”

The next thing she noticed was the beige plastic Madonna on the dashboard.

“This is the first time in a long time I’ve been to church,” she said. “I mean, is this your car?”

She was kind of hoping he would say no, but he patted the steering wheel and said, “This is my O-bug.”

“O-bug?”

“Orange,” he said, and they were off, down the interstate to Edison. She held a small gray leather clutch with tissues and her wallet and a comb, and as they drove, Michael weaving in and out of traffic, the O-bug rattling like a roller skate, damp fingerprints appeared in the gray leather clutch. It seemed too noisy to talk. It seemed dangerous to distract him too, or maybe it was just the way steering on VWs is, kind of slippery. Her tights itched. 

When they got off the freeway and it was a little quieter, a little calmer, she said, “So, I’m not really a practicing Catholic.”

He reached over and touched her leg, moved his palm on the rayon, or whatever it was the dress was made of, and he asked, “Does that bother you?”

“No. I just want to be sure. I mean, things change, I might not know what to do. During Mass I mean.”

“There they are,” and he pulled into a parking lot. She couldn’t see who he was talking about, there were a lot of people heading up the steps of the white stone church, Christ the King, which was a modern low kind of church, and that made her feel a little relief for some reason. She got out and brushed at the seatbelt wrinkles in her dress. It was sunny. It was a little cool. She wished she had a sweater or something. She wished she had a cigarette. Michael took her elbow and they joined what seemed like a throng, crossing the parking lot, crossing the street, and he pointed to the rest of the Bryns waiting in a small neat group on the stone steps of the church, looking around. They reminded her of nature photos of meerkats, standing on their hind legs, looking around, all hyper-cute. Mrs. Bryn saw them first and said, “Here’s our Michael,” and they all turned. 

Pattianne hung back as Michael kissed his mother’s cheek, his father’s cheek, and then Claire, who was bouncing in little lavender shoes, as pretty as Michael, Claire, not the shoes, although the shoes were very pretty, and they were all saying hello at once, the Bryns, not the shoes. Claire and Mrs. Bryn both wore silver crosses, each set with a purple stone, glittering at their necks. Claire lit up like the sunrise looking at Michael. They all had the same blue eyes.

“This is Pattianne Anthony,” he said, and he put his warm, navy blue arm around her shoulders.

Mrs. Bryn was smiling with her mouth, her shiny lipsticked mouth, but not with her eyes, and for the instant Pattianne dared think about it, she was glad she and Michael hadn’t had sex yet. His mother would know. 

Mrs. Bryn reached out a hand and said, “Hello,” in a voice smooth and low. A quick clasp and then she let go and Mr. Bryn was next. He looked like Michael but there was gray in his hair and wrinkles at his eyes. Smile wrinkles. Warm hands, and he took both her cold hands in his and said, smiling, “Hello Pattianne, how are you? Besides cold?” and he rubbed her hands, which became instantly warm. 

Then he steered them all into the doors, letting go of her hands somewhere along the way, and then there she was - in church, Michael’s mother and sister and then her and then him and back there, shepherding them along, his father. Soft organ music overhead. She sniffed for the smell of incense but all she could really smell was the perfume Michael’s sister wore. The altar far to the front was crowded with white Easter lilies at the feet of a huge statue of Christ, who seemed to be standing in front of a cross instead of hanging up on it. The murmur of voices, hello, hello, happy Easter. No one saying Alleluia as recommended on the website. There was the familiar thump of the kneelers landing on the floor. And pastels - lavender, pink, baby blue, peach, rose, on dresses and ties and shirts - she had forgotten about the pastels of Easter. The throng of pastels shuffled down the center of the main aisle, and to either side people genuflected and slid into the pews. 

Genuflect. One of her favorite words. She tried to think what it would take to play it on a Scrabble board, and then she panicked, being a non-believer, about the genuflecting, did she or didn’t she, and she only had a moment to panic and the decision was upon her as Michael’s mother chose their pew and in they all went, one at a time. Pattianne tried to make it some blend of perfunctory and respectful and mostly unnoticed. Got in. Sat down. She could feel her heart in her fingertips. 

She set her purse on the pew between her and the sister - Claire, Claire - and then Michael’s father dropped the kneeler to the floor and they all knelt forward. She did too. A woman right in front of her wore a dress with apple blossoms on shiny material. She was fairly wide, the apple blossoms printed across her back in symmetrical rows. The woman had finished her pre-Mass praying and was sitting back in her pew, the rows of apple blossoms, eight to a row, inches away. Pattianne shut her eyes and felt like a phony and opened them again and concentrated on trying to remember the words to the Hail Mary. She peeked down the row at the Bryns. Mr. Bryn had wrapped one arm around Claire, his hand cupping her shoulder, and Pattianne looked away.

The music swelled then, and goosebumps rushed over her body, front to back, even her nipples rising up, and they all stood, the entire place, as one. Michael squeezed her elbow and she was afraid to look at him but she did. He was about the prettiest boy she had ever dated. The procession moved down the aisle all in white. Altar boys, one of them holding the tall gold crucifix, and four lesser priests, one of them swinging the smoking gold globe of incense, and the main priest holding a big red book.

Her nose started to drip and she got a tissue out of her purse and wrapped it around her finger and dabbed, her Grandmother Anthony’s words in her head. “A lady never blows her nose in public.” Ladies didn’t eat in public either. Smoking never came up.

Celebrants. They were called celebrants, those other priests.

The choir filled the high space. 

The music was loud and it soared, and so did the rushing of air in her chest, and then the rushing to her eyes. She dabbed and dabbed, but by the time the processional got down the aisle the first tissue was a goner. Everyone sat, pastels rustling, pews creaking. She got another tissue and tried to breathe through her nose to calm herself like they said in yoga class but her nose was clogged now. And a lady never blows her nose in public, and she was pretty sure a church counted as public. 

It was beautiful, the Latin, and the priest was a tenor. She had tried to learn Latin. Took it one year and had to drop or she would have significantly lowered her undergrad GPA, and she’d tried it again, audit, and dropped it that time too, but it was beautiful and she heard the words of it now like native language, its syntax informing her sentences, the music of her wordless thoughts.

The crucifix was a regal cement statue, Christ with a crown, standing before the cross, his hand with its hint of stigmata held up in front of the sacred heart. Not quite as gory as the standard crucifix. 

The choir broke into song again and she jumped, and the word swoon came into her head, she felt like she would swoon, and she dug out another tissue. The main priest seemed to be doing all the stuff up there, all the other celebrants sitting and standing and kneeling on either side of the altar. To the right was a smaller altar, Mary with robes of sky blue and a crown, Queen of Heaven, stars around her feet. Sometimes a snake, or maybe that was the flag of Mexico. And then familiar music, she even knew some of the words, In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti. It felt wrong for her to actually sing them though. Not a member of the club. Besides, she couldn’t carry a tune. Her mother used to tell her to just mouth the words. Besides, she kept tearing up. Besides, Michael had a gorgeous voice and he was singing right next to her, a little weird, his face raised, his eyes closed.

And then came the small bells, and the silence, and then the big bells outside somewhere, and row by row in front people got up and headed down the center aisle to Communion. Entire rows emptied. No one remained. If she didn’t go up to the Communion rail she would be sitting completely alone in the middle of a sea of empty pews. 

Like a neon sign over her head flashing Apostate Apostate.

She sat. Michael moved past her. Then three women. Pink flowers, yellow plaid. Mint green flowers. Perfume. 

Peeps. They were called peeps, those spongy candy chicks. 

The pastel dresses moved slowly up the aisle. Then they all came back. Michael’s father and mother and sister moving past her and kneeling. Michael next to her kneeling. She sat. Wished she were kneeling too. 

Standing, sitting, kneeling again, the music rising and rushing around, it kept pushing her to the edge of tears, the choir so big back there above them all. She wanted to turn and watch them. She didn’t. She stood, knelt, sat, so stiff that by the time the priest said, “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” every part of her body ached. 

Her face got red and blotchy when she got teary, even if there weren’t actual tears involved. By the time they all shuffled out to the impossibly sunny Easter morning, bells ringing, her head pounding louder, she just wanted to get away.

Mrs. Bryn had a small twist of a smile on her face. Maybe it meant, Are you sleeping with my son?Maybe it meant,This is just the way my beautiful face always looks.

It turned out to mean,We’re so glad you could come.

“We’re so glad you could come, Pattianne,” she said, and held out a hand, took Pattianne’s, held it an extra moment. 

“Hallelujah,” Pattianne said, hearing the chirpy sound of her own voice. “It’s a Hebrew word adopted by the Christian Church, Hallelwas an expression of praise in Hebrew, and Jah, the shortened form of the name of God, JHVH, which is Jehovah with the vowels taken out, meaning I AM.”

Michael’s mother said, “Really. The vowels taken out?”

“Breath,” Pattianne said. 

They all nodded, waiting.

And then Michael kissed his mother on the cheek and told her, “I’ll catch up with you at Aunt Alice’s.” Mr. Bryn said something, and Claire did too, and Pattianne was sure she did too, she had nice manners after all, as well as straight teeth and good, if sometimes blotchy, skin.

The ride home was quiet. She took one quick look in the visor mirror that she wished she had not, her eyes wet and red and glassy. She was exhausted. 

Michael kept his eyes on the road, Sunday traffic heavier now.

She never even knew she liked Mozart. She couldn’t really listen to music, always had to have it quiet when she read or studied, and got in the habit of just not turning any music on. She would hear classical music at Miss Mimi Stein’s house though. Miss Mimi Stein lived in her parents’ neighborhood in Cranbury, and Pattianne would be there, in Miss Mimi’s pretty gray house, music playing, and sometimes she would say, “Who is that?” Or, “I like this music,” or something, and Miss Mimi would say, “That’s Mozart.” Finally she pointed out that Pattianne only ever asked about it when it was Mozart. “You love Mozart,” Miss Mimi told her.

They pulled up in front of the dry cleaners and Michael parked without turning off the car, which choked to a stop anyway. He kissed her cheek.

“Thank you,” he said, and when he smiled she could see where he too would have smile wrinkles around his eyes one day.

“Thank you. Call me, okay?” She slid out, snagging her tights on the seat. The O-bug was a breath of ease driving away up the street. Inside she pulled off the tights and the dress, put on her overalls, her flip flops, the stretched-out black turtleneck. The sartorial equivalent of junk food. Then she went to the nearest dark theater. Popcorn with butter-like flavoring. Whatever penguin movie was playing that week. 

It was too cold for flip-flops really. She sat there with her feet tucked under her butt, tucked into herself. The penguins all survived except for one egg.

During what she figured to be dinner time at Grandma Farley’s, she called her parents’ house and said Happy Easter into their answering machine.

“In the classic tradition,” she said. “Alleluia. Which, I learned, means I Am in Hebrew, which is the name Jehovah with all the vowels taken out.” She always tried to fill in a little extra space on their answering machine.

Then she opened a bottle of Barefoot Chardonnay. Somewhere toward the end of the bottle she fell asleep.

Monday was a little rough, but she had her hangover routines. Stay in bed a little long with an ice pack on the forehead. Drink lemon ginger tea with honey. Take a bath with lavender bath salts. She washed her face with lemon and yogurt and patted a touch of rosemary under her eyes, an old trick of beautiful Frenchwomen to get rid of puffy eyes, which she saw on an interview with Catherine Deneuve, and which may work or may not but by ten-thirty she was ready to face the day when the doorbell downstairs rang.

The sun was blinding. It was Michael. He pulled her into his arms and it was not a chaste kiss, and he whispered, “I have chocolate bunnies,” and he led her by the hand upstairs and then kissed her again and said, “I was lying about the bunnies.”

And kissed her again. There were hands then, and tongues, and there went her shirt, and then his. The smell of lavender bath salts everywhere.