Nina’s Wedding

by

02/12/2010

Neighborhood: Park Slope

Nina’s Wedding
Photo by Fady Habib

If my twenty-year-old sister Janet not been maid of honor, I would not even have been invited to my neighbor Nina Milano’s wedding. Nina was 18, one year younger than I, and her fiancé Larry was just 21 on their wedding day, not that unusual in 1969, when many young men, Larry included, were drafted into the Army. Anticipation and excitement were in the air as Janet and I waited with the bride and her sister and mother in the back of St. John the Evangelist Church in Brooklyn. We were expecting Nina’s father who had promised to walk her down the aisle. But he was unreliable–a womanizer and a gambler–and his failure to contribute much time or money to Nina or her sister for the decade he was gone added to his reputation as a reprobate. The wedding guests, even those on Mr. Milano’s side of the family, feared that he would not show. Despite the bitterness engendered by the break-up and the animosity that erupted into public arguments outside Nina’s house, both Mr. and Mrs. Milano agreed to put their hatred on hold for the marriage celebration. During the first hour of Mr. Milano’s failure to appear, we diverted Nina’s growing anxiety by primping her hair, powdering our faces, and reapplying lipstick.

When ninety-minutes had passed and Mr. Milano had not come, Nina began sobbing: “He couldn’t even make it to my wedding! I knew he wouldn’t come!” As she wailed, we tried to calm her. I cursed him under my breath and prayed silently that good-for-nothing would show. In the pews, the bride’s relatives, most of the crowd, whispered and clucked, craning their necks every few minutes to see if the father arrived. Occasionally a scout was sent to the back of the church for an update. Just as Nina reached the point of hysteria, her father burst in, accompanied by his girlfriend, her black hair teased into a beehive, stiletto heels, excessive make-up, short tight skirt, fur stole, and belligerent look met the definition of “tramp.” Nina’s mother and sister controlled their anger and took their seats. Nina, still hiccupping from crying, grabbed her father’s arm and they walked to the altar.

The ninety minutes of waiting at the church was plenty of time for the troops to build defenses, develop allies, draw up battle plans, and steep their hatred in an ugly brew of hair spray and perfume. One of the warring factions consisted of Nina’s mother’s side whose fierce loyalty to her was matched only by their hatred for her perfidious husband. The other faction, Nina’s father’s relatives, defended the man’s right to do whatever he pleased, especially considering that his former wife was, all agreed, a whore—her two young out-of-wedlock children all the proof needed to justify the pejorative.

When we got to the VFW hall it was the usual set up for a party: collapsible tables covered with paper tablecloths, metal folding chairs, a white crepe paper bell, a “Congratulations” sign strung across the room and red and white plastic poinsettias as centerpieces. One table held the wedding cake and the soda and liquor—several bottles of Smirnoff’s, Seagram’s Seven, White Horse scotch, Four Roses—all the components of the highball, and lots of bottles of beer and soda. The hall smelled like all VFW halls—rye whiskey and cigarette smoke with a whiff of Lestoil. The guests came in and took their seats either on Nina’s father’s side or Nina’s mother’s side. Everybody got drinks, and continued to look across the hall and talk in low voices that I knew were making sniping comments, if not outright plans for attack. The air was electric.

My mother and father were at the party and the three of us filled our paper plates with baked ziti, eggplant parmigiana, Italian bread and salad, got a few drinks, and sat at the table with Larry’s only family members—his little sister and his father. I got up to get another drink and a woman on the food line turned around and said to the woman behind her, “Stop pushing me, you fuckin’ bitch, or I’ll punch your fuckin’ face in!” That was the flashpoint, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the sinking of the Lusitania, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on a smaller, but no less incendiary scale. Plates of food and fists went flying. As if on cue, just about everybody, both men and women, started punching somebody. My father returned from the restroom to a scene that looked like a bar brawl in a Western, except there was no wagon wheel chandelier for somebody to swing on to kick people’s teeth out. My father and I, both woozy from the highballs, watched the twenty or so couples or triples swinging, tearing, and smashing. It was like a series of small fires had broken out, the sparks of one igniting another, threatening to become an inferno.

My parents and I stood dazed at our table hoping not to get hit. That’s when two men, clutching each other and grunting, crashed into my mother, sending her sliding across the floor, with such force that she went under a table and smashed into the wall. She emerged from under the tablecloth holding her arm, her hair wild, shrieking, “Jesus! Oh Jesus, Mary, and sweet Saint Joseph! Let’s get out of here.” She went running into the street waving into traffic on Fourth Avenue trying to get any car to stop and give us a ride out of that bedlam. My father and I pursued her, convinced her no one was going to stop and pick her and us up, and pushed and dragged her back into the hall, almost empty now that the melee had ruptured onto the street. She sat moaning and crying, trying to quell her panic. Once I ascertained that she was safe, I turned to leave. “Don’t go out there,” she said, but I had to find my sister who I last saw on the sidewalk jumping up to defend the bride’s mother. My sister Janet was a loyal friend, a fierce fighter and she was in the fray somewhere.

I rushed outside and saw Janet, in her vivid red velvet dress, engaged in battle. As maid of honor and friend of Mrs. Milano, Janet became a target of the father’s party. They could not wait to get their hands on her. Two of the women had grabbed her and dragged her out into the street. One woman dug her fingers underneath my sister’s Grecian curls and was pulling with all her might in what seemed an attempt to rip Janet’s scalp off, while the other woman delivered punches to my sister’s head. Janet was doubled over, trying to keep her hair attached with one hand and flailing at her attackers with the other. “Hey!” I screamed, “Leave my sister alone!” One of the assailants stopped trying to gouge Janet’s eyes out and fixed her demented gaze on me. Oh my God! It was one thing to tell someone to leave my sister alone, it was another to have to physically defend her. My attacker raised her massively fat arm, enrobed in bangle bracelets and black lace, and prepared to deliver a roundhouse blow to my face. I am not sure if it was inebriation or reflex, but I rolled back on my heels and her fist slammed into the plate glass window. She bellowed in pain and I beat it back inside, fortunate to have avoided a broken jaw, and hoping to lock myself in the ladies’ room, should she or any of the other combatants seek to finish me off.

Inside the hall, the best man’s ten-year-old brother Louie, looking anguished, got behind the cake and liquor table. He groaned, winced, and with both hands heaved the table over. The shattering of the combined whiskey, gin, beer, and scotch bottles produced a little ocean, tiny waves of liquor shimmering over the wooden floor, progressing merrily toward the door. For a moment, the hall was beautiful, an inch deep in liquor that looked like the incoming tide at Coney Island. The shards of multicolored glass jutting up like a kaleidoscope of danger were the perfect symbol of a wedding gone really wrong.

Finally the police arrived, eleven cars, and three ambulances. The sight of the cops convinced everyone to stop fighting. The police began lining up the young men, all with clothes shredded and bloody. Of the eight standing outside the hall, just one had a shirt still in one piece, and three of them were completely bare-chested. Inside the VFW, ambulance workers tended to some of the wounded, including my mother who, we initially feared, was having a stroke. The hall looked like a combination infirmary/holding cell–some wedding guests were being bandaged while others were being questioned by the police.

A few people escaped the pandemonium. The bride and groom had found shelter in the back room, a kitchen, and looked out in bewilderment on the mayhem. Nina’s nine-year-old half-brother and six-year old half-sister were found afterward hiding in a subway station a few doors away. Nina’s sister Linda, seven months pregnant, whose father and husband had been opponents in one of the main events in the slugfest, spent the night in the hospital but was released the next day, physically unharmed.

My father and I got away unscathed, but my mother’s upper arm turned black and sagged, literally a bag of blood, for a month afterward. Janet’s face was deeply scratched, and her scalp had several red and sore bald patches, but she used those injuries to redouble her determination to find the two women and kill them.

Nina and Larry stayed married for sixteen years, a solid run for such a shaky start. I recently met one of their two sons, Stephen, at a luncheon of the crowd from the old neighborhood that included Nina, Linda, and Mrs. Milano. He was a friendly 36 year-old, interested in hearing the stories told at the table. When I mentioned that his mother’s and father’s wedding was something to be remembered, Stephen asked me to tell him the story, saying he never really got the whole picture. Feeling that I did not want to embarrass the former bride, her sister, or her mother, I volunteered only that I saw the fight started when the two women on the line began cursing each other out. “Oh, no!” Linda declared proudly. “My father started that fight. I was seven months pregnant and my father didn’t like the way my husband Eddie was treating me, so he told Eddie that he was gonna teach him a lesson, and punched him in the face. That fight lasted til the cops showed up.” “Oh, please!” piped up another voice, the voice of Mrs. Milano, now tiny and frail at 88. “That’s bullshit! What happened was I seen my husband with that bitch he was goin’ with and I went right up to her and said, ‘Come on upstairs with me and I’ll beat the shit out of you’ and she said ‘Hit me right here!’ So I did! I gave her one good slap across her mouth. Then she slapped me back and then everybody got in on the action. I started the fight, not your father, Linda.”

That Linda and her mother both wanted bragging rights shocked me, but should not have considering all that happened at the wedding.

Marilyn Horan was born in Brooklyn and has spent her whole life there. Recently retired from the job of assistant principal in NYC schools, she now has time to write.
 

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