The Tale Begins HERE!
The following three months were my last of secondary school. I had already finished my studies before summer break and returned to school after Michaelmas to fulfill my mentoring obligation by tutoring the younger boys.
On the night of Gaudete Sunday, secondary schools celebrated the senior students promenade and ball. My cousin Betsy took it upon herself to, as she put it, ‘spare me the indignity of showing up stag.’ I told her I didn’t consider it an indignity, but she rather imperiously dismissed my objection and sent me a link to the exact corsage that would perfectly compliment the gown she had chosen for the ball.
I felt showing up with one’s cousin for a date was worse an indignity than showing up stag, but it was not a sentiment I was not going to share with Betsy. Instead, I purchased the corsage and took her to the ball
As luck would have it, Jacinta was also there. We spotted each other mere minutes after Betsy and I stepped under the dome of Christ the King Civic Center’s main hall. It was quite the coincidence considering the hall was filled with three thousand kids from Georgetown Diocese’ six secondary schools. Jacinta was with a boy I knew somewhat from the diocesan football league. The sight of her with him stung more than I expected and I became vexed with myself for the unguarded reaction.
Picking up on the irritation, Betsy suggested, “Let’s go over Zeph, so you can say a proper goodbye to Jacci.”
“We’ve said our goodbyes,” I protested.
“Jacci said goodbye. You just sat there with your mouth hanging open.”
I stared hard at my cousin. She smiled sweetly and said, “Girls. We talk.”
I loosed a snort and responded, “Yeah, a little too much.”
Betsy shrugged and said, “We’re compensating for you half-mute brutes. Now come on and quit your stalling.”
“I don’t know, Bitsy… I think it best if…” I started to say.
Betsy grabbed my hand and pulled me forward. She led me around the perimeter of the dance floor which was only about a third full of couples swaying to a slow song. Most students were gathered in clusters around a dozen sequin-draped tables on top of which large, crystal punch bowls were centered. Jacinta and her date were on the periphery of one such cluster of students, in conversation with three other couples. I recognized one of those couples and greeted them first by way of approaching the group, “Aloysius, Miriam, how are you two?”
I shook hands with Aloysius and kissed Miriam’s. “You guys remember my cousin, Betsy?”
Aloysius answered, “Sure do,” and offered her his hand, palm up.
Betsy put her hand in Aloysius’. He kissed it in greeting and said, “You grow lovelier with every sighting.”
Miriam and Betsy then exchanged kisses on the cheeks. “How’ve you been Bitsy?”
“Mostly good,” my cousin answered with an impish grin.
“You couldn’t be bad if you tried, Bitsy dear,” Jacinta said.
“The important thing is that one make the effort,” Jacinta’s date said with a wink and then extended his hand to Bitsy. “I’m Lawrence Niven, pleasure to meet you.”
My cousin offered up her hand and Lawrence kissed it.
“I’m Betsy Kalganova and this is my cousin, Zephyrinus Zapatas.”
“Yes, I recognize him,” Lawrence said and offered me his hand in turn. “Saint Mary’s Maulers, out of Downtown Georgetown. You are one of their defensive linemen if I remember correctly.”
I shook his hand and nodded. “That’s right, and you’re a Saint Michael’s Sharks running back. Their best. The Sharks wouldn’t have gotten to the Union Bowl without you.”
“Now… now, we don’t know that is true; but it’s awful good of you to say so,” Lawrence said before gesturing to Jacinta. “This is my date…”
“Jacinta Placidio,” I said, extending her my palm. After what might have been an imagined hesitation, Jacinta placed her hand in mine and I kissed it. “Yes, we know each other. How are you Jacci?”
Jacinta gave me a wide smile which struck me as a little forced. “I’m good Zeph. And you?”
“The same,” I said.
We stared at each other with the same dumb smiles plastered on our faces.
Betsy broke the uncomfortable silence with a soft clearing of her throat and the question, “Is everyone having fun?”
“Not as much fun as we’re going to have when that there punch bowl is refilled,” Aloysius predicted with a nod toward the nearest table.
“Oh?” I said, glad for the excuse to shift my attention elsewhere.
Aloysius gave a deep, conspiratorial nod of his blond and shaggy head and said, “The Trinity Terrible have arranged for the second round of punch to come forth from yonder galley properly spiked. Should be any minute now.”
The Trinity Terrible (pronounced with the cheesiest Cajun accent one could muster) or the Trudeau triplets, as they were more commonly known, hailed from Saint Leo the Great Parish. The threesome had a diocese-wide reputation for truancy and all around trouble-making. I didn’t believe them to be bad kids, not at heart anyway. Individually, they might not have acquired the reputation they enjoyed collectively, but their triplet bond acted as a force multiplier for much of their mischief.
“I hope they limit their pranks to the spiking of punch bowls,” I said. “I would hate to see the night ruined by the burning down of the civic hall or some such.”
I was pleased to see that Jacinta joined in the laughter that my small effort at levity produced.
Betsy asked, hooking a thumb over her shoulder. “How are they going to manage it when they’re all on the dance floor?”
“They got to have plausible deniability,” Aloysius said.
“And an inside man,” Lawrence added. “Benjamin Butters.”
Betsy went “Aha.” and I chuckled in appreciation of the Trudeau boys’ choice of accomplice.
“The sisters will never suspect li’l ‘Saint’ Benny,” Miriam said.
“Not likely,” I said. “But you have to wonder how the triplets roped him into it.”
Aloysius shrugged and said, “Butters volunteered from what I heard.”
Betsy was incredulous. “He did?”
Aloysius nodded sagely.
Miriam added, “Butters said there was a time for everything under the sun, and the senior prom was the time to cut loose.”
“They don’t call it the Book of Wisdom for nothing,” Aloysius said.
Miriam punched her date playfully in the shoulder. “It’s from Ecclesiastes, you dummy.”
“Wherever it’s from,” Aloysius said, taking on an air of grave piety, “I, for one, shall not gainsay holy writ.”
“Do you know what they’re spiking the punch with?” I asked.
“I do not concern myself with such trifles,” Aloysius answered.
“Knowing the triplets,” Lawrence said, “It’ll be some potent mix of alligator tears and home-stilled everclear.”
“Sounds delicious,” I said.
Betsy added, “And possibly blinding.”
“Holy writ does advise, admonish and verily, I say, it commands us to walk by faith and not by sight,” Aloysius pronounced in a comic feigning of our bishop’s zealous preaching.
Mother Superior Mary Monica Joseph startled us when her raspy voice suddenly pronounced behind us, “You have the makings of quite the theologian, young Aloysius.”
We all turned toward the Benedictine Abbess who was the Chief Administrator of the Diocesan School Board. Our faces betrayed our surprise and perhaps some nascent traces of guilt over the alcohol we were hoping to surreptitiously enjoy. Mother Superior’s aged face floated serenely in the white wimple which topped her black habit. Her large blue eyes regarded us with their usual inscrutable scrutiny.
“I pray you will not develop the penchant for twisting scripture into heretical knots that has afflicted so many theologians through the ages.”
Aloysius recovered his smile and said, “With your continued prayers, Mother, I will surely be kept safe from all heresy.”
The Abbess’ thin lips spread in a smile. “You can rest assured of my continuous prayers on all your behalfs. Just as you can be certain that I will, whenever it is in my power to do so, spare you needless temptations and steer you clear of all near occasions of sin.”
Mother Superior’s smile and what I could only describe as her ‘laughing eyes’ gave us all a most uneasy pause.
“Your charity, dear Abbess,” Aloysius said. “It’s nearly as boundless as our Good Lord’s.”
A soft laugh escaped Mother Superior Joseph’s lips. She then gave Miriam’s hands a squeeze while she said, “Can’t help but love a guy who ‘butters’ one up, no?”
Miriam flashed her an awkward smile. We all groaned inwardly.
“Have yourselves a sober good time, my young ones,” the Abbess said. “After all, this may be the last opportunity that many of you will have to associate sobriety with a good time.”
We stared after the abbess as she seemed to float away towards another cluster of students.
Betsy broke the silent spell. “So much for spiked punch.”
“Oh well,” I said.
Miriam shook her head and asked, “Does anyone else think it’s weird how Mother Joseph just appears out of nowhere all the time?”
“It is unsettling,” Lawrence concurred.
“Maybe she can bilocate,” I offered.
Jacinta nodded. “I’ve often thought so.”
Betsy laughed and said, “Mother is probably in her office right now laughing at us over her cup of Earl Gray.”
“I want to know whether Butters screwed up or whether Abbess broke him?” Aloysius asked.
Miriam hmmed and asked, “Wouldn’t melted be a better metaphor?”
“I suppose,” Aloysius said with a shrug.
“She must have,” Lawrence added. “Got to Butters, that is.”
“One of Mother’s brothers is a Grand Inquisitor on one of the Habsburg worlds,” Jacinta said. “She probably learned a thing or two from him.”
“Or maybe after forty years of chaperoning teenagers, there’s nothing even the Trinity Terrible can pull off on Mother Joseph’s watch,” Betsy offered. “Either way, I’m going to take her advice and have myself a good time, sober though it must be. So forget about the punch and let’s dance, y’all.”
Betsy took my hand and led me to the dance floor. The other two couples followed. The slow song ended and the music took a more sprightly turn as the band began a cycle of contre-danses. We picked up another couple from the crowd and joined the chain of dancers orderly threading themselves a twirling two-at-a time into the churning, slowly growing throng. The chain brought us on and off the dance floor over and over again through the long cycle of songs. The music got progressively faster while the quadrilles grew more complicated and the partner switches ever more tricky. Jacinta and I had opportunity to dance together for a few brief sequences throughout it all. After more than an hour we were hootin’ and whoopin’ it up fiercely, our wild laughter and raucous sing-alongs proof positive of Mother Mary Monica Joseph’s wisdom.
When we returned to the punch bowls, breathless and parched, no one complained about the lack of alcohol.
There was nothing forced about our smiles and laughter while Jacinta and I danced. For those brief moments we recaptured something of what we once had and I, for one, was grateful for it. I like to think she was too. It made our parting a little while later easier, if bittersweet. After kissing her hand one last time, I was finally able to say, “Goodbye Jacinta. God bless and keep you.”
She gave my hand a squeeze and replied, “Thank you, Zephyrinus. God be with you and the very best of luck to you at Golan Heights.”
The bitterness of the breakup vanished in that instant never to return. Though it was not until after the battle of Muvuru that I stopped wondering what kind of life I might have made with Jacinta.