KR OnlineFiction

Wedding Story

It won’t be a cocktails and canapés type of wedding. I can tell by the stacks of self-serve box wine at the rehearsal dinner. The invitation said casual, and I’m the only one here wearing a dress. It’s my black empire with the long slit up the thigh and a pair of green Mary Jane flats.

I brought only the one dress because Lena and I were fighting again as I packed to leave, and Mom always said it’s better to overdress than underdress, so I just threw the one black number in my bag and got into the cab. Everyone else is wearing hand-knit serapes or flannels and skinny jeans. Portland. Back home in Phoenix, Lena is probably painting in her underwear, the studio dead silent, all the windows open, Gonesh number 9 burning in the corner, because art is about the senses. The American Sign Language signal for sense is two small strokes up from the center of the chest with the middle finger. Lena exaggerates with long, extended strokes like she’s pulling strings of smell, taste, and touch from her heart.

Dad starts off by thanking everyone for coming. He’s the first to toast, and everyone squints—he’s-so-great and they’re-so-lucky—eyes at him and Caryn. And I’d probably feel the same way if I met him today, too. He is great. Nice even. But that doesn’t change him in my eyes. I still see him like I’m six and I’m watching him sleep one off on the front lawn in the clothes he wore the day before with a crushed can of Coors Light under his head. This went on for years before Mom finally let him go, said she couldn’t deal with it anymore. Only then did he drop the bottle. And it’s fine that he’s moved on, good for him, but I don’t get to unknow those things just because he drinks lemonade now.

Lena would sign, out with it. Like she knows what’s best, too. Secrets give you cancer, she’d sign, along with a dull, throaty whisper. Cancer. Lena pounds a big C over her chest like it’s eating at her. And I can only imagine that’s why she told me when she slept with someone else. Because she didn’t want cancer. So she passed it on to me. And I have no idea where to put it or what to do with it. It just sits there in my guts like some sort of rotten potato. Like some sort of botulism numbing my nerves.

Dad raises his glass of lemonade and starts talking about regret. “Can I talk about something personal with you?” he says. The room gets uncomfortable. People shift and agree he should have stopped at “to my love.” But this is my favorite part. The part where he apologizes for the fifteen-thousandth time. I can hear only so many apologies before they become comic. But that’s what alcoholics do. Right? Apologize.

I mean, it’s not even a toast. But everyone stays quiet. Pays attention. They’re bodies turned and listening like it is a toast, when really, it’s an apology. And we’ve all heard them before. I guess that makes it OK. What’s the etiquette for toasts? All I know is, nobody looks at me or my older brother, Ray, to toast because we don’t really know Caryn. Caryn, with a C and a y. Not spelled regular, like mine. Caryn Story. Ray and I met Caryn when we got off the plane at PDX International. And whenever someone at the rehearsal dinner says Cheers to Caryn and David, I get confused.

Dad has his hair combed with product. It’s swiped to the side. He looks dapper. That’s how Caryn puts it. I remember him always wearing wide-brimmed trucker hats everywhere, even church, like he just got off work. Dad and I don’t talk much anymore. Haven’t in four-and-a-half years. Last time I saw him was before he moved to Portland. It was a dinner party I threw to introduce Lena to my parents.

At first, I didn’t know who the wedding invite was from when I got it in the mail. I don’t know a David, I thought. I wasn’t even going to go. Ray talked me into it. Said it would be good for me to get away from Lena. And I believed him at the time. He’s always pushing me to do stuff with that side of the family. Caryn, we said to each other when we read the invite, with a C and a y.

Now all I can think about is what Lena is doing and whether or not she’s alone. And ever since she told me, I want to do mean things. There is a man with dark smudges on the inside ridge of his index finger at the other end of the table sitting next to Aunt Jodi. It reminds me of Lena, and it makes me mad. I think it’s charcoal, but it’s hard to tell from here. He’s Mr. Dark. He’s wearing skinny jeans and a red-and-black flannel. I’m not sure of his relationship with Caryn or Dad. And I don’t care because he’s perfectly forgettable. I’m halfway through my third glass of wine when I decide I’ll kiss him by the end of the night.

Ray nudges me to listen to the toast. I keep staring at Mr. Dark. He hasn’t noticed me yet. Dad finally starts talking about Caryn again. About how she helped him appreciate life again. Like he ever had it so bad. I tune out because he’s not saying anything interesting or new about love. It’s the same old, she made me a better man, the man-I-want-to-be speech. Like he couldn’t have done that on his own. And maybe he couldn’t have.

Caryn’s just sitting there picking at the red mush on her oversized ceramic plate with a piece of naan bread. Every once in a while she looks up at my dad and smiles this entirely whole smile. Everything in her face changes. She stops worrying about the wedding and paying the caterer. All of that falls to the floor, and she goes pink, almost red. Caryn’s face quickly returns to looking uncomfortable. But I don’t know her well enough to say for sure.

Lena wouldn’t like her. She would think Caryn doesn’t know how to get dirty, how to be dirty. She would sign fucking perfect like it’s a flaw. Life isn’t fucking perfect, she signs after admitting that she slept with someone else. Loosen up, she signs. Stop trying to control everything. Her first instinct is to confront. But I’m a flyer. Nothing can touch me. I’m gone before her face can change. Before she stops smiling. Before she throws her fists into the air like a force of nature and signs too fast for me to follow.

When I think about Lena, I wonder if she’ll still be there when I come back. If she’s packing her bags as I’m sitting here sipping box wine and planning my next move on Mr. Dark. If she’s decided to leave. Decided to move on without me. If that’s why she slept with her to begin with. To set things in motion. If I’ll come back, and for the first time in three years have to live alone again. If she’s found a new home. And I almost wish she would because I can’t.

When I moved my pillows out to the futon in the living room and asked to take night shifts at the restaurant so I wouldn’t have to see her, or make dinner for her, or want to kiss her anymore, I didn’t want her to go. We’d work it out. We’re working it out. But I’m not sure how much longer we can do this. How much more time I’ll need. Something’s got to change. Lena spells it out, catharsis, the way she describes all of her sketches. It’s good for us, she signs when we fight about it, get it all out. But I’m not an artist; it’s just painful to me.

Mr. Dark is Jack. I hear this when Ray is asking me to pass the basket of bread. Jack asks for some, too, from down the way. Aside from the obvious, Jack’s short and has a large crook in his nose that makes it shift slightly to the side before rounding out at the tip. He’s sort of unattractive in a very interesting way. In a way that makes you want to look at him. To study his face to find out why you can’t stop staring at him. His right front tooth bucks out and overlaps the other just slightly, at the bottom. Just enough that you can tell he never had braces. He doesn’t look poor, though. He’s in shape. Middle-class. Like he has a job working construction or something.

It’s been so long since I’ve picked someone up that I forget to smile when Jack finally looks at me. Ray nudges me again. Everyone begins to clap, even Jack. I join in until it fades. The room works into a warm hum as people turn to chat with whoever is sitting next to them.

Ray’s trying to take care of me even though I don’t need him to. No matter where I go, I’m his little sister. Especially here. Especially now. He’s reminding me to introduce myself to Caryn’s parents at some point. “Thank them for dinner,” he says, after shoveling more red mush onto his wedge of naan. I lick at my lips to see if they’re numb. I need more wine. Or something harder. Something mind-numbing.

“Has she moved out yet?” Ray asks.

“Why would she move out?”

“Christ, you’re not taking her back?” Ray looks at me and stops chewing. “Are you?” He drops his food and stares at me. “She’s just going to cheat on you again.” He shakes his head and starts digging into his food. “Trust me. I know.”

“This isn’t about you.” I know he’s talking about his ex now because I can hear the shake in his voice. The same shake I had when I told him about Lena. I knew that if I told him, he’d never be capable of liking her again. And the thought of someone hating her forever seemed appealing to me at the time. But now it just seems impossible. “And it’s not like we even broke up. I can’t take back what I never let go of to begin with. . . . She made a mistake. We’re working it out. We’re moving on,” I tell him.

“I don’t know how you can move on. She’ll always have that on you. She’ll always be one up.” Ray shovels more food into his mouth.

“It’s different with us. You wouldn’t understand. It’s not about being even, Ray.” I down the rest of my wine and stare at Jack from across the table. He sees me and smiles. “Besides, I have a plan.”

“Yes, it is. You can’t be equal when she holds all the power,” he says, with his mouth full of bread and rice.

“You’re an ass.”

“I found a place near Central. It’s a townhome-type complex. A/C, washer-dryer in the unit. My buddy works maintenance there. Says they have studios starting at four-seventy and one bedrooms for six. If you need it.”

“I don’t. . . . Thanks.” Sometimes this big-brother stuff is sweet. Tonight it’s just annoying. I get up when I see Aunt Jodi head toward the table of drinks set up in the back of the room. I meet her at the table, and she winks at me.

“Oh, good, fill me up while I pee,” she says. She sets her glass down next to the box of red and stumbles down the hallway even though she’s wearing flats. She turns the corner before I can say anything. There is a pink haze in the bulb of her glass. I grab the Cab Sav, tilt the box, and pour. I know she wants it full up. The lighting in here sucks. It’s all dim yellow bulbs. My eyes start to tunnel. I pour less for myself and linger by the drink table, looking out over the party, and sip my wine fast.

I catch Jack glance up to look at me again. This time I smile. Jack smiles back and raises his glass to me like cheers. Jodi says thanks when she comes back through the hallway in a flushed, swift breeze. Her face is red, and she’s sweating. Jodi gave up looks for comfort long ago. The denim shirt she decided to wear has specks of red wine on the collar. She leans against the table and takes a big drink. Jack is talking to a bunch of people from the wedding party, waving his hands in big bold gestures that remind me of Lena. I down the rest of my wine and lick my lips again. Jodi says she’s going to talk to Ray and heads toward the table to sit in my seat.

I fill my glass and sit down next to Jack. He’s talking to some guys about the Seahawks game. It takes him a minute to notice me. I grab some of the seeds and pastel pebble candies from the bowl in front of me and toss a handful into my mouth. By the time Jack turns to say hi to me, I am mushing the seeds against my molars. My mouth feels minty, though, which is an unexpected bonus. I smile and point to my mouth while I chew.

“Name’s Jack,” he says, while holding his hand out. The smudgy, dark marks on the inside of his fingers look like chocolate. He sees me staring at it, hesitating, and says, “Don’t worry, it’s a birthmark.” He moves his hand closer.

I put my hand over my mouth after swallowing enough of the candies to say “Hi” and shake his hand.

“Bride or groom?” he asks.

I swallow everything back and say, “Groom’s my dad.”

“Oh, I didn’t know he had a daughter.”

I smile.

“I work with him on the site sometimes. He picked me up at the Home Depot.” Jack is twisting the base of his wine glass on the tablecloth. Jack’s not a drinker. The red wine has dried in spirals around the rim of his glass. “These things are always so weird.” He looks around the room.

“I know what you mean. Everyone is so happy. It’s like . . .”

“It’s like, what the hell are you so happy for?” Jack laughs. “Love is odd.”

“Exactly.” I drink down my fourth or fifth glass. “Need a refill?”

“No.” He smiles. “I’ve got something better.” Jack gets up from his seat and nods his head for me to follow him. “Meet me out back in five.”

My feet are floaty as I move fast to the bar to get another drink. Ray is staring at me the whole time, like what are you doing. I make a face at him and stick my tongue out. He rolls his eyes and continues talking to Aunt Jodi.

Outside, the air is thick and misty. It’s almost raining. The Storys’ deck overlooks Multnomah Falls. Mount Hood towers behind us, collecting clouds like a magnet. Jack lights one up and passes it to me. The cherry glows red and smolders when I draw on the joint. I hold it for as long as I can, then release. The smoke is thick but dissolves instantly in the air. It smells skunky and good. Even the railing drips when I lean against it. I hear the wet fall from the trees in the distance. It all sounds like a can of soda pop.

My shoulders sink after I hit the joint again. And my mouth is numb.

“There you go,” Jack says. “How’s that?”

“Perfect.” I pass it to him and take a drink of wine. The wine feels warm compared to the chilled, wet air outside. I swish it around inside my mouth and spit it over the railing.

Jack leans on the railing next to me and hands me the joint. “So what do you do?” He asks.

“Cook,” I say. “Sometimes I write.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?”

“Nothing anymore.”

“Come on. You brought it up. Do you blog?”

“God no.” I draw on the joint and pass it to him.

“Do you write like articles? Or . . .” He looks at me.

I shake my head no while holding my breath.

“OK . . . poetry?”

“Ha!” I let out a big laugh. The smoke pours from my lips like plumes of fog.

“So what do you write about?”

“Everything. You know? Life.”

He smiles and draws from the joint. We’re quiet for a moment while the high sinks in.

“This is good stuff.” It takes me until now to notice how close he is standing. Our arms almost touch at the elbows. Every so often I feel the wool of his shirt, rough and scratchy against my arm. I sense the closeness of his hips near mine. And I feel high. It’s always weird when you touch a stranger for the first time. I’ve known people my whole life that I haven’t touched. Not really. So I lean into Jack. My whole body, well, the side of it at least, touching his. He doesn’t lean away. But I’m numb enough that it still feels like nothing. “So what do you do?” I ask.

“Construction. Well, anything, that is, maintenance wise. I work at a middle school right now. Keeping things clean and whatnot.” Jack draws on the joint and holds it out for me. I shake my head no. He puts the joint on the rail, and we watch the water from the air collect against the dry paper until the cherry ember sizzles and flickers out.

Jack puts his hand on my back and pulls me closer, and I feel his thumb on my hip bones, and we’re kissing because he led my jawbone here, because he wants me—I can tell—because I can do this, because his hands move over my thighs like they’re searching for something, and because my lips are numb.

And I start to breathe heavy when I think of all this. It’s like you’re on an airplane and imagine it just dropping out of the sky, falling through thin air, for no reason at all. And then I think of how nice it would be to sleep in our bed again. And how it wouldn’t be so bad to let Lena warm her hands between my thighs while she sleeps. It’s not that far gone. It’s almost inevitable.

The definition of a kinesthetic sense is similar to orientation. My hand knows where my hand is all the time. I don’t need to touch Jack’s cheek to know I have a hand. I don’t need to touch anything to know that. But I know it more when I do. And I wonder if Lena can feel it, too. Right now. The way she has auditory hallucinations sometimes. The way she hears phantom music. I wonder if she feels an extension of herself in me. The way I did with her. The way I just knew. I wonder if she can feel Jack’s skin under my palm as I run it over his belly button.

He stands up straight and becomes taller than he looks. I’m drifting. He puts his palm on my chest and pushes me back toward the rail. It doesn’t take much even though I feel heavy. Once my weight is against the wall, he’s on me. He’s wearing strong cologne, but I can smell his body odor underneath. It’s musky and mannish. The chilled air on the deck drifts over my calves. I sink into the railing, and he pushes on me. He puts his finger inside me. The wind whips around the corner of the house and over the deck, tossing my hair over my face so that I can barely see him. And my hands are clenching the rail so that I won’t fall. And we’re facing each other. And out of habit I look into his eyes. They’re dark blue. There is a darker ring around the edge, almost black. And my eyes close. And if I fell, it’d be fine. So I let go.

• •

I don’t have much time to get ready in the morning. I’m wearing the same dress as last night. I barely comb my hair. No one will notice me anyway. Lena signs, fuck me baby, in the mornings when my hair gets like this, sort of wavy when I sweat, before I straighten it instead of showering. It’s the way she likes it, unkempt, uncombed, messy, dirty. She brings her clenched fists down past her thrusting hips before curling a tendril behind my ear. I have to look at her when we talk. She wants to see my face. Let me see your eyes, she signs. It’s hard not to love that. Even when I’m mad. Even when she’s too direct, too honest. Her eyes are green. But the left one has a slice of orange in the lower half. It’s hard to stay mad at that.

Ray cocks his head when he sees me. We’re grabbing muffins from the continental breakfast bar in the lobby of the hotel. He asks me if I have something else to wear. Tells me that I can wear that, as long as I don’t mind smelling like last night’s wine all day. I say, no. Ray doesn’t ask what wedding gift I bought for them, but if I bought one at all. He tells me I could have at least run a comb through my hair.

A shuttle picks us up and takes us to the Rose Garden where the wedding is held. The soil in the garden is soft. I crush the blades of grass beneath my feet and sink farther into the lawn as I walk. Ray goes, “Flowers as big as your head,” and snaps a picture of me next to a red one as we head to the courtyard.

Ray and I are in the front row standing next to Dad’s sisters. My eyes go dry when Caryn and Dad face each other. Caryn looks beautiful but not in a conventional way. Her dress isn’t even a dress. It’s an off-white top and skirt. She’s wearing a green cardigan over it. But it’s still a nice fabric. They don’t have a wedding party standing up there in the garden. It’s just the justice of the peace and them saying I promise to love you forever. I blink fast. This makes me tear up. It’s not because I’m happy for them, though. It’s a little bit of life, dead. It’s one less possibility. Ray puts his hand on my back. I swallow all the air building in my throat in one big gulp and keep silent until it’s over.

Jack is in the front row on the opposite side of the aisle. He keeps looking at me. He’s wearing a full suit with a shiny black vest. It looks old. It looks like something he might have worn to a wedding five years ago. One of the buttons on the vest is hanging low like the thread is loose. I want to rip it off. I want to steal it. He’s clapping. He’s leaning to talk to the woman next to him when he turns my way again. She stares vacantly at the grass, then jerks her glance toward me. We meet eyes for a moment. Then it’s my turn to look at the grass. She has blondish gray hair. Her high heels are sinking into the soft earth, making her toes point up in an awkward way. She stays there. Her heels pushing holes in the lawn. She just keeps sinking.

After the ceremony we hop back on the shuttle and head to the reception in the ballroom of the hotel. Jack tries to sit next to me. He’s waving when I get on the bus. But Jodi slides in next to him. Ray and I ride together.

Ray and I are the first ones there. People must have gone to their rooms to change or something. The ballroom is filled with big round tables draped in white cloths. There is a vase of pink and white lilies in the center of each table. They smell sour and rotten. It’s the musky scent of stale water. Caryn’s design, I’m sure. This is where all the money went. If it were up to Dad, we’d have beer nuts in a pile and a sixer of Budweiser on each table. There are champagne glasses lined up in symmetrical rows on the table next to the buffet. I grab a glass of champagne and swallow down half of it in one gulp.

Ray doesn’t want me to embarrass him. He walks over to the stage and checks out the band’s equipment. He starts talking to the guy setting things up about amps and sub-woofers. The guy doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying. The room is dead silent aside from Ray making small talk, the chime of silverware, and a buffet server talking at me. He’s telling me that these glasses are reserved for the toasting and that there’s a bar across the room. I snort into the flute while bringing it to my nose to swallow the rest. I go, to the new couple, and put my glass back.

By mid-evening, after the first dance, after cake, and more toasting, people are loose and dancing. The anthers have fallen from the lilies, leaving clumps of orange pollen and streaks of yellow on the white linen tablecloths. Caryn has taken off her green cardigan. Her outfit is silvery blue in the evening dim. It’s not too big that she can’t move. It’s slim, tight against her body and creases nicely over her figure as she dances with Dad. He’s wearing dark jeans and sandy suede chukkas with a black shirt and a blazer. He spins her and dips her like it’s old hat. Like they’ve been practicing. When they get close, they fit nicely together.

I’ve avoided Jack for as long as possible. People are winding down, and all anyone wants to do is dance. When he comes up to me at the end of the night, there is no escape. I’m at the bar when he asks me if I want to dance. I tell him I don’t dance. He sits next to me. We’re quiet for a beat before he asks when I’m leaving for Phoenix.

“Tomorrow,” I say.

“You don’t plan on calling, do you?” he says.

“Do you?” I say.

He sort of laughs. “I don’t know how to do this. It’s not something that typically happens to me.” He’s looking at me, waiting for me to tell him what to do. “Do we just forget about it?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“You are something else, you know.” He smiles, but there is something behind his eyes. Something I recognize. Something like not yet.

I’m watching them dance. The song is “Something Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. “I love this song,” I say.

“Me too,” he says. He stands and holds a hand out for me. “We can still dance, though. I’ll lead.”

I look at the dark ring around his blue eyes. It’s sort of gray and green like the neck of a rock pigeon. It makes me wonder if I have enough influence to take his smile from him. “I don’t think my girlfriend would like that too much.”

Jack gives me a look. It’s not an angry look, though. It’s more like disappointment. Like I have no weight. Like I was someone else for a moment. Someone better.

Mr. Story gets on the mic, and everyone stops and turns to him. He says a little Sinatra is traditional at Story weddings. That he and his wife danced to the same song, and his father and mother danced to early Sinatra, too. “A long tradition of womanizing harmonies,” I whisper to Jack.

“I think it’s romantic,” Jack says, before getting up to join the people gathered near the dance floor. Mr. Story goes on to thank everyone for coming. He invites us to eat and drink until we’ve had our share, but now is the time to see the bride and groom off. The room divides, leaving an aisle for Dad and Caryn to jog down. Jack claps and smiles as Dad and Caryn pass through. The aisle fills in behind them as Jack and the crowd follow the couple through the double doors and out to the parking lot.

I walk to the bar and watch from the windows. It’s not a limo, it’s an airport shuttle. They climb in and slide the door shut. Everyone outside is clapping. Jack is clapping. He’s smiling like I’m not here. He’s smiling like we never met. And I am instantly jealous of him for having that.

The bartender asks if I know them well.

I say no.

• •

When I get home, Lena is sitting on the kitchen counter peeling an orange. She’s been spraying fixative over her charcoal sketches. They’re lined-out-glossy over the kitchen floor. The chemical aerosol drifts in the air and mingles with the black soot from our woodwick candles burning in the corner. The sink has all of our plates. She’s down to only napkins. I move slowly and stand in the center of the living room until she sees me. I wave. She signs, I missed you. I sign, Me too. She hops off the counter and wraps her arms around me. Her hair is glossy and smells like sweat, like grease and dust, like she hasn’t showered since I left. I bury my face in it and inhale. She pulls me in tighter, too.

She grabs my chin to find me, the way she does when she wants to talk.

How was it? she asks.

Fine.

That good?

I fix my stare on the sliver of orange in her left eye. It’s like she’s smiling without moving her mouth. I hold back. Try not to hug her. To smell her dusty hair. It takes everything.

You smell different, she signs, bringing her two index fingers away from each other, like Portland. It’s sexy. She traces the outline of an hourglass in the air with her thumbs.

Her coals and pencils lay scattered across the coffee table. My pillows are bunched in the corner of the futon, the depression of her head on them. Lena asks me if I’ll come to bed tonight. If I’ll sleep next to her. I don’t answer, but I know I will.

• •

From bed, I watch Lena close the lights in the other room. I imagine telling her about Jack. She’d want to know everything. To know about the balcony, about the wet air, and the taste of the misty joint. I listen to her gurgle mouthwash then spit into the basin of the sink. I watch her slip out of her boxers. The blue-tinted moonlight moves over her body as she comes to bed.

“Lena,” I say. But her back is turned. I study the shadows of her shoulder blades, the hollow of her back, all of her bare skin. She rubs her feet together before getting into bed.

Lena crawls under the sheets and leans over me. Her neck touches my lips, and I exhale. She turns to me and asks, “Did you say something?” in a throaty, sexy, sort of way.

I shake my head no. Goodnight.

Jennifer Murphy
Jennifer Murphy is a first-year PhD candidate at Georgia State University. Her fiction and poetry have been published in literary journals such as Caravel and Superstition Review. She is currently working on a collection of short stories titled What You’re Made Of.