“I Do”—But Not to You (2000)

Women saw me as their lucky charm. Once they knew me, it wasn’t long before they became engaged—to someone else.

(originally published October 24, 2002 in the Jewish Journal)

TING-TING. A dinner spoon rapped on a glass. “Let’s go around the table,” smiled a woman in red, “and let everyone say a bit about himself.” 

One by one, my seatmates at Singles Table 3 delivered an awkward Who-Am-I. But I barely heard them. My mind’s eye was recalling the image of Mimi whispering to her waiting groom, one hour before, as she neared the canopy. A groom who might have been me.

That was twelve years ago. But the vision returns as I watch Julia Roberts watch the groom watch the approaching Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend’s Wedding. “He has you on a pedestal,” Diaz had scoffed, “but I have him in my arms.”

During my early to mid thirties, I played Julia to a bevy of Camerons. I dated or befriended a parade of wounded birds who had lost their trust in men and looked to me to restore it.

My effect was magnetic: I either attracted them toward some new sap or repelled them into the arms of an old flame.

A pathetic-looking man on bended knee watches as the woman he loves kisses a handsome, tall man.

A pathetic-looking man on bended knee watches as the woman he loves kisses a handsome, tall man.

In turn, each platonic paramour gushed over our easy intimacy. “I never knew I could feel this open and comfortable with a man who isn’t gay!” Just what a stud would want to hear. Did I need a shot of testosterone? A swig of ginseng tea? One siren proposed I join her sometime for a nap. In her eyes and theirs, I was “sweet,” or worse, “safe.” I didn’t want to be safe. Safe guys finish last. I had learned that dating Beth.

Prelude to a b’ris

I was waiting for a ritual circumcision to begin when I first set eyes on Beth Orr. In Hebrew, her name means House of Light; she might have been a synagogue. But her angular features, svelte form, and reserved bearing spelled forbidden fruit—a non-Jewess. Yet a voice whispered, “She may be the one; live dangerously.” 

“Your first b’ris?” I asked. It was. “Would you like me to explain what’s going on?” 

“I’d love that,” came her soft reply. I established that we were both divorced, left-handed vegetarians, communitarian in outlook, and fans of Peck’s The Road Less Traveled and home birth. Not bad for three minutes’ work.

Beyond our common ground lay an uncanny physical coincidence. In my jacket was a snapshot of me in a home furnishing store, posing eyes-shut before an immense poster. In the poster, a woman was leaning over to gently kiss a sleeping man. I looked exactly like the sleeper. And lovely Beth was the spit and image of the kisser.

The author posing in 1987 by the Brandon's poster (Atlanta) where "Beth" was kissing "Paul"

The author posing in 1987 by the Brandon's poster (Atlanta) where "Beth" was kissing "Paul"

Devoutly hoping that life might imitate art, after the ceremony I asked to see her again. 

“But Paul,” she replied, “you’re Orthodox. You can’t marry a shiksa; you said so yourself.” What was I thinking?

Damage control. “Beth, when two people share this much, they don’t just walk away. Look at this photo. See? There’s you, there’s me. Keep it. Decide nothing now. If there’s a chance you’d adopt my way of life, call me.”

Her call never came. In time, I forgot her. Then, one Saturday, I was in my synagogue’s social hall, schmoozing after the Sabbath service. Across the room, I espied a regal beauty standing alone. Better move fast.

“Hi,” I smiled. “Welcome to our synagog. I’m Paul.”

“I know. We’ve met.”

I studied her face. “Beth Orr? What are you doing here?”

“Attending Beginners’ Service,” she explained. “I’m planning to convert.”

There is a G-d.

“That’s great,” I said, nonchalantly. “Why don’t we talk about it over dinner?”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” she explained. “It could jeopardize my conversion.”

Of course. “How long a wait are we talking about?”

“About seven months.”

I replied with the most romantic utterance I’ve ever spoken: “If Jacob could wait seven years for Rachel, I can wait seven months for you.”

My honeyed words worked their devilish charm. Before long, Beth and I had shared two dinners and a movie. We could recite the names of each other’s various exes, in sequence.

At the end of Date Three, Beth took my hand. “Remember Misha? The tempestuous architect I was with for three years? We’re engaged. I guess you deserve the credit.”

I was Ally McBeal being flushed into a dumpster. No, I was Earl, the nerdy date in Rhoda to whom Rhoda explained, “If our relationship is to mean anything, it must be based on total honesty. I never want to see you again.”

“I see,” I said.

“But trust me, Paul: Somewhere there’s a woman who will love you more than you can imagine.”

My best friends’ weddings

In quick succession, Beth begot Gina (who met Mr. Right after our second date), who begot Leah (who accepted her best friend’s proposal after our third date), who begot Eleanor (who became betrothed to her long-distance beau a week after we shared a private midnight swim), who begot Grace (said “Yes” to her two-year boyfriend six weeks into our Harry-and-Sally friendship). I made a career of attending my best friends’ weddings. Serving as their wedding photographer. Writing and performing songs for the happy couple. Helping the bride load leftover braised chicken into my car to deliver, still warm, to a homeless shelter. All in a nuptials’ work.

Now, against all odds, it was Mimi’s turn. Mimi, who had grown plump so smooth-talking cads wouldn’t prey on her. Mimi, with whom I’d shared marathon long-distance colloquies that touched our deepest chords. Mimi, who, upon meeting me, “knew” I was her intended. Mimi, who, six months later, met him

Which is why I now sat among my fellow losers at Singles Table 3 on Chicago’s North Side, staring down at a napkin to read, for the eighth time, “Wedding of Miriam B. and Levy S.”

Ting-ting. The spoon lady was politely reminding me it was my turn to embarrass myself.

“I’m Paul Stregevsky. I’m a technical writer, I live in Atlanta, and for two years I’ve been a friend of the bride’s.”

A redhead quickly unmouthed her cigarette and stared. “Ohmygod—you’re Paul! I’ve heard so much about you.”

Levy was still Mimi’s groom. But there was no doubt who was the guest of honor.

© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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