Mom gets that sour look on her face, just as the best man is doing the toast. We raise our glasses, our faces hopeful, expectant. All except Rory, that is, who is already drinking in loud slurpy abandon. Mom glares at Rory. “Can you not wait a second?” she hisses. “Just like your father.”
Rory elbows me in my left side. “Here we go.”
I pretend not to notice any of it – Mom’s narrow-eyed disgust, Rory’s feigned innocence. I will not get in the middle of them.
Instead I listen to the toast without remembering it, nodding along like a good student. When the time is right, I raise my glass of house red a little higher. Here, here. To Samantha and Lyle. I have nobody to clink glasses with. Rory’s glass stands empty. He has left the table in pursuit of more wine. Mom is too mortified to be graceful. I venture an appropriate sip. I feel Mom’s approval as cats feel the sun. Near my left shoulder, the space that Rory occupied turns cold. He will have a hard time breaking back into it.
They are passing out the cake and I cannot help but notice, but I will not have any. Not the slightest taste. I’ve already had six peanuts from the dish at the bar, not to mention the olive in my martini. Not to mention the martini. I draw the line at cake.
It was magnificent, before it was cut. A replica of the apartment house where Samantha met her Lyle. Circular. The chefs somehow made the frosting look like weathered brick, even added the fire escape, a little graffiti. Aunt Viv called it an abomination. “That, a wedding cake?” But everyone else liked it.
I knew it would be chocolate. Samantha would have no other. And the bricks look like regular buttercream. The wait staff brings pieces and sets them next to everyone’s coffee cup. Regular or decaf? Funny, they ask about coffee, but you have no choice about cake. I lift my fork. Noah raises his eyebrow at me.
Two more minutes and I will break away from my shame and this song and what my stupid cock is doing without my permission. I stand hard and dry against Aunt Jillian’s thighs. She pushes her fat middle against me as we dance until I feel excited and sick. I cannot will myself to relax. With every movement she makes, I throb even more. Soon I will come all over myself and will have to stay locked in Aunt Jillian’s embrace forever. Sweat is popping out of my pores like popcorn. Pimples are probably sprouting on my face and back. I am one volcanic 14-year-old freak, exploding by the second. I glance at Gina Rossano swaying all alone in the corner of the room, a sleepy look on her face, her breasts spilling out over the top of her dress. I bite my lip so hard I taste salt. Just then Aunt Jillian raises her head and gives me a snaky smile, all slit eyes and wiggle tongue. A powdery smell wafts up from her armpits and slaps me across the face. I choke and catch a little stream of vomit in my cupped hand. “Excuse me. Oh, God.” I run to the bathroom.
Lydia is the maid of honor, which I am not the least bit surprised about. What surprises me is that she still wants my man. They dance under the star ball as if they are in high school. Alastair’s hand encircles hers. His other hand presses the small of her back. She looks up into his face, smiling, talking, her teeth gleaming like underwater fluorescent fish.
The bridesmaid’s dress is hideous, but you’d never know. Alastair doesn’t even see the bronzy-moss sheen, the fake paper mache flower he is crushing at her waist. He looks down her top while pretending to nod politely to what she says. She knows it and talks all the more. He knows she knows and nods and twinkles and looks.
I cannot look another second. I know, too.
The band is playing fast songs and my cousins and I dance in one big circle. Georgie makes exaggerated cool-faces as he thrashes his arms and pulls first Violet, then me into the circle to dance. Violet looks ridiculous, staring at her feet and moving in the same side-to-side shuffle like a robot. When I take her spot, I thrash my arms, too, and my cousins clap to the music. Georgie and I thrash together and soon the craziness moves from my arms to my waist to my hips to my legs. I am going nuts and bouncing and sweating and my cousins are hooting at me, even when my glasses get knocked off by Georgie somehow, even when I accidentally kick them.
Then Dad is there and within two seconds he has my upper arm in an iron grip and pulls me out of the circle, back to the table. He hands me my bent glasses and I put them on. “You’re in big trouble,” he says with a smile on his face.
The good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away. Why the hell would I say that during a wedding sermon? I was in remote-control, discombobulated. It was all Olivia’s fault. If she wouldn’t have burnt my eggs, forgotten to polish my shoes, decided to wash windows and set up all the cleaning paraphernalia known to man in the front hall for me to trip over.
My pettiness settles like hands around my throat and I shake my neck to get free. Then I drink a little wine.
Olivia is Olivia. She is a housekeeper. She is not perfect, nor am I. It is not Olivia’s fault I went into remote-control, certainly not her fault I could barely remember the groom’s name. It is not Olivia’s fault I said the good Lord taketh away.
The whole place gasped, as if I were cursing the two.
Was I? Who knows. I don’t even know them. Will they be happy?
I watch them dance, sparkly and light. Her head leans toward his, listening to something he’s saying. He speaks to her through a smile, teeth and gums anyway. Maybe they will make it. The good Lord giveth. I should have quit while I was ahead.
This bartender is A-o-kay, a cut-up, a pal. He sure knows how to pour one, anyway. The J&B is nicely iced and I shake the glass to rock the cubes, to punctuate my punch line, to get the dude to refill. I tell jokes to a plump blonde staring into her glass. She cracks a smile every so often so I keep going. I tell them all – the limp dishrag one, the three guys in a boat one, the raincoat one. I start in on the feather duster one and realize it’s a dumb blonde number so switch it to an Irish joke, but it doesn’t quite make it and she gives me a pruney look. Well, fuck that. “Hey,” I say to my bud. “Lemme have it.” I suck the dregs from my cubes, rattle my glass high for him to see.
Gary is behind me all of a sudden with his usual frown. Buzz kill. He is giving me his haven’t-you-had-enough look. “Open bar, right?” I say. “Free country, too.”
The blonde gets up and Gary takes her seat. “Oh, nice,” I tell him. “And I was just getting somewhere with her.”
Josh rushes up to me, out of breath. “Your mom,” he says.
“Oh, God, what?” I search the room for her. There are a lot of people, maybe two hundred. But she’s got that ridiculous turquoise dress.
“No, no,” he says, squeezing my wrist. “She’s okay. It’s just she’s—”
Josh presses the heel of his hand against his forehead. “She’s stealing again.”
“God fucking damn.” I whirl away, storm straight through everyone. Josh is behind me. “Is it coats?” I ask. “Is she going through pockets?”
“No, no, just table stuff.”
And then I see her, gangly in her clingy nylon dress, sliding sugar packets, netted bags of Jordan almonds, aluminum rectangles of butter into her tote. I stomp up to her and yank the bag out of her hands. Her mouth drops. “Susannah. I’m just . . . I’m not. . .”
I open the bag and paw through the contents. She has dumped a container or two of bar nuts into the mix and everything is greasy from the butter and salty from the nuts. At the bottom of the mess, I see them – at least four, no five, sets of keys. My heart weighs me down to the bottom of some ocean.
“Susannah.” Mom wrings her hands like she’s knitting. She flutters her eyelids. “It’s not what you think.”
I watch Samantha and Lyle dance and my imagination puts me in the wedding gown and Freddie in the tux. It’s hard to picture Freddie’s body, so I just make it the same as Lyle’s, which would be fine, all tall and athletic. I’ve seen Freddie’s pictures, of course, but they are only head shots, even though match.com recommends at least some full-body shots (especially for out-of-state-attachments). Even though I’ve asked Freddie for them, he always forgets or is too caught up exclaiming about my pix and what he would, no will, do when he finally gets his hands on me, when we can finally be together.
He was supposed to come tonight, but his jerk-of-a-boss wouldn’t give him the weekend off after all. He asked six weeks ago and the guy pulls it away like a magic tablecloth. Freddie was inconsolable so I didn’t let on how disappointed I was. He will make it up to me, he will make it up to me a thousand times over.
Yesterday he sent me a link to a jewelry store and when I clicked on it, up popped a picture of an engagement ring! I think he is trying to tell me something. It was a gorgeous ring, and was even on sale for $28,000. Freddie must be pretty well-off. I did a little mental calculation – they say you should spend two months’ salary – and came up with $168,000 a year. Not bad for a machine-shop guy. If he will contribute that kind of money to our family income, I should seriously consider using my IRAs for a down payment on a house. For us. No more dawdling, Princess, as Freddie says. It’s time to make a commitment.
He needs everything special – salt-free entrée, extra water for his medication, sauce on the side, dressing on the side. More bread. More butter. Parmesan cheese. I don’t make eye contact with him anymore, pretend not to hear his bellows – “Sir? Sir?” – every time I get close. Finally his wife calls me, a prim little thing with lavender hair. I go to her and she doesn’t say a word, just taps her coffee cup with her manicured nail and gives me a long-chinned look.
“Make mine decaf,” he says, also tapping his cup.
I nod, make my way to the kitchen. The decaf pot is dead and I rummage around for a new pouch, but the box is empty. The coffee boxes are stored way in the back room, through the prep area. I grab the regular and head back to her. She smiles as I fill her cup.
“Leave room for cream,” he instructs. “She likes lots of cream.”
“I’ll have decaf,” he reminds me.
“You could have brought both pots at once, you know. Saved a little time.”
I nod again and go back to the kitchen. I look left and right. I pour some regular into the decaf pot and head back out. He beams at me from across the room and I smile back. He thinks he is winding me in like a big, fat fish.
He asks for another pitcher of cream.
It’s the mother’s dance and I am shaking. Lyle smiles at me. “Are you crying?”
I blink my eyes, sniff. “A little.”
“Ah, Mom.” He holds me a little tighter and I cannot believe how our roles have flipped, how he is giving me comfort instead of the other way around.
Samantha is a lovely girl. Woman. She is 26 years old. At her age I was already a wife and a mother! And, yet, she seems so young. They both do. Was I young at 26?
Chuck is off to the side, watching. He catches my eye and I give him a sad smile. The divorce was hard on the kids, but Chuck and I managed to remain civil. Seeing him now, all smarted up, makes me wonder if we couldn’t have done more, if we couldn’t have tried harder. Suddenly, the latest 30-year-old is next to him, nuzzling his cheek and he is suddenly the one to give me the sad smile.
“So,” Lyle says, spinning me out of eye-shot of his dad. “Do you like Samantha? I mean really?”
I stare straight into those gorgeous green eyes, the eyes I have known longer than anyone on earth has. “Yes, Sweetie, I do. Samantha is just wonderful.”
He sighs and I am sure he has flicked his eyes back to the spot where Chuck and his fawn used to be standing.
I spy Samantha go into the ladies room. Here’s my chance. I pull myself up on the walker and do my push shuffle across the space that divides the table area from the lounge. Just as I am almost to the door, she bursts out and strides to her right – out of my path, in any case.
I call to her and she instantly turns, the same strong chin as Ellen, the same shiny chestnut hair piled up on her head and festooned with little pearls and whatnots, those innocent gray eyes always opened wide as if caught in mid-surprise. “Gram,” she breathes and she comes and presses her moist cheek against mine. Perfume rises from the rustle of her gown and my eyes mist. This won’t be easy.
“Your mother,” I begin.
“I know,” she says and I’m chagrined because already I’ve caused the tears I swore to avoid.
“You look so beautiful,” I manage, “She would have . . .”
“Oh, Gram.” Samantha’s arms encircle my waist. “I miss her, too,” she says.
After a few minutes, we shuffle to a secluded velvet bench in the lounge area and sit together. I tell her that I want to give her the same motherly advice I got from my mother, the same advice I told Ellen.
She smiles indulgently, reminds me that she and Lyle have been living together for two years.
I am speechless. Does she think I don’t know that? Does she think this is about sex? I want to tell her it is about love. I want to explain how any fool can figure out sex enough for success, but that there are landfills of broken hearts out there. I want to give her the key to marital longevity, the recipe, the template.
Her warm bejeweled fingers clasp mine as she waits for me to speak.
I open, but then close, my foolish old mouth and smile, suddenly not exactly sure what it is I want to say about the recipe, the template, all my ideas floating away like dandelion seed.
The bartender grins at me as he places another chocolate martini on the tray already crammed with them. Ten bucks a pop. I can’t watch. There are strangers at the bar sucking drinks like there’s no tomorrow. Coffee was supposed to be on an asked-for-only basis. Those waitresses are pushing it down everyone’s throats – $2 a cup. Cake was supposed to be served here. I distinctly remember them saying there was a $1.25 per slice boxing charge. Every special dietary request costs an extra $8.50 per person. The band decided not to take a break – they’ll just add an extra 45 minutes to the bill. Why was nobody taking a valet ticket – we thought you were covering it, Sir. Coat check? That I did want to cover and there’s no attendant – people have been rummaging around in there, I just know it.
Samantha is talking with Gwenevere. They sit on a little bench away from the bar, close to the doors. Tonight, especially, Samantha looks so much like her mother. Like her mother did.
I can’t breathe. It’s been twelve years. You’d think I’d be over this.
I raise my finger to the bartender. “Hey,” I say, pointing to those chocolate martinis. “I want to take a few of these. Okay?”
“Whatever you want, Sir. I’ll make more for the tray.”
I nod. I hold the three glasses pushed together like a physics problem. I bring them to Gwenevere and Samantha.
And we drink toasts – me, my mother-in-law and my daughter. To Ellen! To Samantha and Lyle!
“To you, Dad.”
My heart cracks. She’s so beautiful. Just like . . .
My chin quivers and Gwenevere pats my arm.