MISERY POKER – Lauren Busser

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I draw the diagram of the Schism of 1054 from memory. My red Five Star notebook clashes with the pink tablecloth and a retractable pilot pen doesn’t quite fit the motif set up by the maid of honor and bridal party.
“I don’t remember the inciting incident,” I tell Agnes as I draw my ballpoint over the lines. “But it all started in 1054. That’s when the church separated. You have the Greek Orthodox Church and then you have our Catholicism.”
I draw a giant trunk and label it “Christianity” and then split the trunk into Greek Orthodox and Catholicism. It looks just like it did when my gray-haired religion teacher drew it for us in class.
Agnes doesn’t say anything. I’m not entirely sure she was listening. This must have been how the teacher felt standing in front of the classroom. There were twenty other people in that class with me. I wonder how many of them have this historical record memorized. I wonder how many other Christians I’ve met have an understanding of this. Surely Agnes doesn’t.
There are three other conversations going on around the table as my mother and her cousins start talking about something else: food, groceries, what to wear for the upcoming wedding. Occasionally one of them casts a glance at me, the sixteen-year-old who was invited when their ten-year-old was not.
I keep drawing; leaving the Greek Orthodox trunk alone and separating the Catholic side into Catholicism and Protestantism. I fill in all the branches I can.
“This has something to do with the King of England,” I say. “If I remember correctly, King Henry VIII wanted a divorce. The Pope didn’t like that.”
Agnes is still not listening. I can tell she’s just nodding to indulge me. Still, I keep drawing my map. I split the protestant branch several times including every branch I can think of: Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist. It’s ironic that I’m discussing churches breaking apart and starting anew during a bridal shower, but Agnes asked a question and so I answered. I don’t think she was expecting the diagram.
“But it’s all the same book you see,” I say. “They just read it differently.”
The conversations drift toward gossip about the bridal party.
“I hear her soon-to-be sister-in-law doesn’t like the dress,” someone says.
“She called me in tears over the fact that they decided on a donation to the American Cancer Society to honor the bride’s mother. The woman died of lung cancer for God’s sake,” another one says.
“She should quit smoking, that’s what her mother would really want,” one says in response.
It’s a twisted game of misery poker with each participant putting on a fake smile. The air in the room is stifling, and I remember when Ellie came to the house a few months ago after looking at wedding venues with a cardboard box of horderves. It was just the three of us, in our kitchen, eating mac and cheese bites and pigs in blankets, and talking about the wedding. She was so excited.
I look at her from across the room at the head table, and she seems heavy. I wonder who called her today with another bullshit opinion about the wedding.
Suddenly, surrounded by other people, this all feels meaningless. The wedding is two months away. My black dress is packed away in the closet. I have a new shawl for the occasion. The conversation across the table has drifted towards shoes, and I think about how this is supposed to be about Ellie. That it’s her wedding, and somehow it’s all about us, and what we’ll wear.
I want one of them to say something else. Something that doesn’t have to do with clothes and shoes, and the way one of their daughters uses excessive amounts of shampoo. I think about the headlines on The New York Times that morning, the dystopian novel that’s on my nightstand, and the odd facts I’ve acquired from Snapple caps over the years.
A waiter comes to the table delivering a plate of salad. I look down and see that my notebook is still open with the diagram staring up at me.
I’m about to close the notebook when I remember the cause of the first split. I consider tapping Agnes on the shoulder, but instead, I jot a note down under the two main branches.
Causes of the schism were political and ideological. Primary political cause: the fall of the Roman Empire.
I fold up my notebook and place it in my purse; start eating my salad. I push a tine of my fork into a tomato and it bleeds over the lettuce.

 

 

 

Lauren Busser is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and an Associate Editor at Tell-Tale TV. You can find her talking about TV, knitting, and writing on Twitter @LaurenBusser, Instagram @madamedefarge, and on her website laurenbusser.com.

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