The prologue was written in September of 2010. The setting is Seminary of the Southwest, an Episcopal seminary in Austin, Texas. I was starting seminary.
On the first day of classes, September 2010, I emerged shortly before 8 from my apartment, at the same time as a woman about my age emerged from her door across from me. “Good morning!” I chirped. My neighbor looked me up and down and finally said, “Good morning,” before she turned toward the stairs. I stood looking at her back. I didn’t move until a minute had gone by.
That was Emma Jean. She was in her last year of seminary. Because SSW is small, intimate, I was often in the same room with Emma Jean. In the dining hall (although not at the same table), in chapel (although never seated next to her). I could overhear her talking to her classmates, all of whom listened when she spoke. I remember hearing her tell Paula, “I want to preach about ‘If your eye offends you, pluck it out.'” I watched her from a distance all year. Well, almost all year.
In early March of 2011 I finished lunch and left the dining hall. I walked across the street to the apartment building, stopping at the mailboxes on the first floor. As I drew near to the cluster of mailboxes, I saw that Emma Jean was also getting her mail. I continued to the box, put my key in my slot as she drew out her mail just inches from my hand. I focused on my pieces of mail. Then I shut the box, pulled out the key and continued upstairs to my apartment. Silent.
The next day, after lunch, I went to get my mail before heading to my room. Again–what were the odds?–Emma Jean was there. Again we pulled out our mail, our hands inches from each other’s, silent. But this time I was agitated. It seemed like one of us should say something. I held back words and headed up the stairs, into the apartment.
The next day Emma Jean and I met at the mailbox AGAIN. I couldn’t stand it. “Do you like wine and cheese?” I blurted out. Emma Jean looked me up and down, slowly, before saying, “If I can’t get Scotch.” Then she headed for the stairs. Stunned by what I took for openness, I said to her back, “Would you like to come to my place for wine and cheese sometime?” She didn’t glance back, but I heard, “Yes.”
I thought she was merely being polite, but two weeks later I walked into the seminary library where Emma Jean was seated at a desk near the entrance, and I heard, “Ms. Caruso. You have not invited me for wine and cheese, and I just happen to have…” she stretched to reach into her bag, “my planner here, so we can select a date.” She flopped the planner open to March and pointed at the openings. “I have something this Friday, but I am free the following Friday.” We settled on that Friday when she was free. 4 pm. My place.
That Friday in March of 2011, I sliced up the Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar I always had on hand, put some crackers in a bowl and got out the two Walmart wine glasses along with a bottle of red wine. We sat in the swivel rockers by the window, sipping wine and talking. We talked nonstop for three hours.
Emma Jean graduated in mid-May, and moved back to her home in Las Vegas at the end of May, two days after I had flown to Vermont for a summer course in hospital chaplaincy. We have since taken a road trip together, gone for a week’s retreat at Christ in the Desert Monastery, and watched hundreds of hours of British TV in her living room. I fly to Las Vegas almost every April to help her celebrate her birthday.
And I marvel at the grace of three unlikely meetings, three days in a row. I thank God it wasn’t just two.