Friend of the Bride

My collar was already drenched with sweat from the Florida heat, and I hadn’t even gotten into the church yet.  Who has a wedding on a miserable, hot day like today, anyway?

The usher led my date to a seat.  Does anyone know why some schmuck’s cousin from Keokuk has to suit up in a rented tuxedo to do for my date the one thing that I’m there to do, to escort her?  Weddings are dumb.

“Friends of the bride,” my date had told Mr. Keokuk in his black and white.  “Friend.” The word still had a bitter ring to it.

There was a time when I had most certainly not considered myself a friend of the bride.  Yes, we had a history between us, but one of us wanted to end up friends.  You know how it is.

The invitation had arrived weeks ago.  I knew before I saw the pretty, hand-lettered return address who it was from and what it was for.  The other shoe had finally dropped.  Why someone would waste all that effort to pretty up an invitation to a hot Florida wedding is beyond me.  Who likes a sweat-stained envelope any better just because it has little curly squiggles on the letters?

My date had seen the invitation, and said we should go.  I hadn’t planned to ask her.  She was secretly delighted that this would close forever a chapter of my life.

I was talking to my best friend Mark Fisher about not wanting to go, about wanting to get the hell out of the state.  Mark and I had been friends through high school.  He had even gone to college, which meant that he was a lot smarter than me.

“You should totally go,” he told me.

“Are you stupid?” I challenged.

“No, listen.  You should go and wait until that part where they ask if anyone objects, and then you should jump up and put a stop to it.  That would be totally awesome.”

It was a dumb idea.

“You don’t get it! Girls love that romantic shit.  You’ll sweep her off her feet.”

I considered the possibilities.  No, I couldn’t do that.

“Sure you could.  What’s stopping you?”

“Well, I’m her, uh …”  That word was always bitter.  “I’m her friend for one.  That’d ruin that.”

“Oh.  I see.  So your ‘friend’ is going to have you come hang out with her and her husband for tea?  Wake up man!  There ain’t no friendship between you; you know that.  Does she even call you now, when she’s NOT already married to some other guy?  And you don’t want to go hang out with him anyway, even if she did.”

He had a point.

“Look.  It’s over for you two.  She likes some other guy.  This is your last option.  What’s the worst that can happen?  They throw you out and don’t talk to you again?  Man, after you get a thank you card from them after the honeymoon, that’s the last you’ll ever hear from her.  Ever.”

It was a ridiculous idea, but I grinned at the prospects.

Mark saw me thinking it through, and he let me savor it just a bit.  “Man, this is your last shot.”

“I can’t do this.  It’s crazy.  What would I say, anyway?”

“You just stand up and say you object.  They have to stop the wedding if someone objects.”

I wasn’t sure that was true.  “That’s it? Just ‘I object’?”

“No, assface.  You stand up and object, and then you tell her how this is the wrong guy for her and how you’re the right guy and you want to have her babies and romantic stuff like that.  Nobody expects that, and she’ll love it.  Look, women like take-charge men.  Take charge.”

He had me there.  I knew that was true because I’d seen girls fall for the bolder guys a million times.

It was really a dumb idea.  Still, I had to admit he was right; it was all I had.  What could I lose?

I looked around the church, a huge, ornate sanctuary big enough to be an indoor ballpark for a little league team.  I was sitting behind what would be the pitcher’s mound, on the first-base side.  People were filing in, and I recognized several faces from our past.  I was nervous.

The music started.  Keokuk and his buddies awkwardly tripped down the aisle with lady family members, while their men, looking useless, ambled along behind.  There was her mother, radiant and proud, but I couldn’t make eye contact, not with what I planned to do.  I took a deep breath.

The groom and preacher appeared, followed by a set of penguins with acne.  I watched the floor.

The bridesmaids came next, and her sister looked right at me as she passed by.  She had never liked me.  I think she knew what I was planning.  The sweat from my armpits trickled down underneath my starched shirt and soaked into my waistband.

And then the congregation stood and turned around.  My heat stopped.  She was stunning.  Even through the veil, I could read her emotion.  Her smile was all-consuming and it drew me in; her eyes, like stars, sparkled with joy.  She knew she was beautiful.  She looked only at her groom, oblivious to the rest of us.

“She looks pretty,” my date whispered, “but that dress is a little too ornate.  I would pick one much simpler.”

I ignored the hint.

I kept looking at the clock, expecting it to tell me how much longer this thing should last.  There was a song, and then another, and then the preacher began to speak.  Why do preachers think that they have to give words of wisdom at a wedding?  No one is listening to them, and does anyone remember what they say long enough to discuss it over dry chicken at the reception?

My heart began to beat in deep, slow, dry beats, pounding against my chest.  I could feel it in my cheeks, hear it in my ears.  I was dizzy.  As the preacher droned on, I went over my plan in my head.

“If there be anyone here …”

“I object!”

Striding down the aisle, one finger pointing high, I shout again.  “I object!”

My date faints.

“I object!”

The groom is livid.  His whirls around to see who is causing the commotion, his face getting red as he locks his gaze onto me, redder, first in the cheeks, then the forehead, and right up into his prematurely receding hair line.

One of the grandmothers, I’m not sure which one, is short and round and struggles to turn and see, her little feet kicking above the floor.

The groomsmen are surprised, but not too smart.  They don’t remember this from the rehearsal, but they hadn’t been paying very good attention to that anyway. They remain still, waiting on their cue to escort the bridesmaids back out.

There are gasps.  “Oh my Lor-r-r-d,” someone drawls out.  Chaos reigns in the pews.

The groom reaches out to grab me, beating the best man to the punch, quite literally.  I duck his reach and drive my right forearm hard into his lower abdomen.  “Oopf,” is the only sound he makes as he goes down to the floor, face first.

The groom’s brother (maybe it is his best friend, I don’t really care) tries to tackle me.  He gets his arms around me, but I spin and break the hold, and as he goes down to the ground as well, I step on his back to get past him.

The pastor appeals for calm.  No one listens.

Her father has reached me, but I raise my hand in a motion for him to stop.  He does.  “Son, what the hell are you doing?!”

I turn to her, my hand still holding back her father, for the moment.   “Listen to me,” I tell her, and for the first time our eyes meet.  She is surprised by the wild man she sees, flitting between anger and fear.

“What are you doin’?! Have you gone crazy?”  She is embarrassed, I can see, something I hadn’t considered until now.

“Jenny, I love you,” I say.  “I guess I am crazy – crazy over you.  This is a mistake.  This is wrong.  You can’t marry him.  You and I are meant to be together.”

The groom finally begins to get back up with the help of his brother, still holding his gut.  “Stay right there sport,” I tell him, and he doesn’t move.  He is seething.

My words carry some weight.  Her head is tilted and her mouth open, with a barely perceptible hint of a smile, as she contemplates what to say.  I can’t let her think too long.

“Look at us, Jenny.”  I motion between the groom and myself.  “Look at who loves you.  Now I might be a fool for ruining your wedding day, but this guy could ruin your life.  He can’t protect you, and I won’t let all of these people here stop me from saving you.  You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.  Don’t make that mistake, honey.”

“Are you serious?”  She casts a furtive glance down toward her groom, but quickly looks back at me.

“Yes, I’m serious.  I can’t live without you.  Can you look me in the eye and say that you don’t really love me, too?”  She glances at her feet, and I know that she can’t.

“I can’t just walk out on my wedding.”

“Come with me,” I plead.  I reach out my hand.  She tentatively, ever so timidly takes it.

I pull her close and we embrace.  I kiss her hard, to more gasps from the pews.

“Now wait just a damn minute,” the groom sputters, but no one pays attention.

I sweep her up in my arms, and begin to carry her out of the church, but not before she can pull off the veil and toss it to her sister.  “I’m sorry, Daddy,” she says.  “I’m sorry everybody.”

“I’m sorry, Jimmy” she calls out to him, almost an afterthought.

We get outside, and the closing doors block out the sound of the now raucous crowd behind us.  I look deep into her eyes and she giggles at me.  “I can’t believe you just did that.  I can’t believe WE just did that.  Now what do we do?”

“The first thing we’ve got to do is get you out of that dress,” I say.  “Let’s go.”

She grabs my arm, kicks off her heels, and we begin to run into the city, just as the doors behind us break open.

“I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU MAN AND WIFE,” the preacher bellowed.  “YOU MAY KISS THE BRIDE.”  The organ blared a celebratory tune, and the congregation stood, bringing me out of my trance.

There she stood, my Jenny and her groom, the wedding over.  She looked happier than I’d ever seen her.  My date beside me dabbed away tears of joy.  Jimmy grinned with pride.  The organ continued to roar as the happy couple paraded up the aisle and out of the church.

I just stared down at the floor as I loosened my tie.

 

(Originally written August, 1989.)

Something in the Way She Moves

The moving van was loaded, her family’s things packed. She stood before me, big tears rolling softly down her cheeks.

I think I loved her from the moment I first met her. I’ve always loved her. We were just 15.

Our love began with a move. I was the new kid, and her parents dragged her and her sister along for a visit, to welcome us to town. Her curly red hair, her sparkling green eyes and her cute freckles screamed out “Notice me!” No one else in the room seemed to be able to hear it, but I did, and I complied. Shyness is a cruel master. I had nothing to say, but I did take notice. I watched her with her sister and the adults, and I could tell that there was something about her.

She didn’t say much to me, either; she mostly sat there on the floor and ignored me, but at least she didn’t say anything about the huge red zit on my nose. That was special. When you love someone, you take what you can get, and so that was our first special moment: she ignored the zit on my nose.

Later we ended up in the same places a lot, and around the same people. It turned out that she had a personality that was as big and as warm as the South Florida sun overhead. I knew she was beautiful on the outside – that was obvious – but I found she was even lovelier inside. She was sincere and sweet, and always happy. She smelled like heaven.

I would make excuses to talk with her. I found I could make a fool of myself to get her to laugh, and so I did, her personal jester. Her laughter became my drug, and I’d sell my dignity for silly antics to get another dose.

She’d had a boyfriend, naturally. It had ended. I got to know him a little. I asked him about her, and he told me that she was good in bed. I hated him for that, the lying bastard. She was too young, and too sweet, and not that kind of girl. I knew right then that I understood her better than he ever could.

I worked on my courage. It took months and several rehearsals, but I asked her on a date and she accepted. My mother drove us. Not only was this our first date, it was also mine. Somehow, things must’ve gone well, because a second one followed. There was no doubting it: I knew I was in love. Maybe I was a late bloomer, or maybe it was that first love thing. Whatever it was, this was no teenage crush; I had a deep, profound sense of awe about this girl.

What guy wouldn’t be proud that she’d go out him? I was bragging to another guy about taking her on a date. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, and wanted to share. There was a problem: he said he was planning to ask her out, too. Was he insane? He was threatening my bliss. This guy, once a friend, was instantly a rival bent on my destruction. I had to act quickly; my whole future was on the line.

I asked her to take a walk with me. It was night, it was raining, and my heart was pounding. I had to know: was she interested in seeing this other guy? Wasn’t it laughable that he’d think she could be interested in him? As if she could be impressed by being driven around by some other guy’s mother!

She responded as any rational 15-year-old girl would: she thought I was insane. Upon reflection, I realized that I was. Love can do that.

No, she had not dated this guy, she said. No, she had no desire to date this guy.

That answer made my heart nearly leap from my chest! She must love me, too!

Yes, she said, it was nice going to the movies, with me …

As a friend.

No more painful words have ever been spoken to any man, anywhere, at any time. Every male knows and dreads that little three-word dagger. I just let it hang there, my tense heart, momentarily elated, now lost in my stomach. The raindrops were soaking into my shorts, a suitable metaphor. We ended our walk.

I had been stupid. I had assumed too much. I had rushed in. I was a fool. I was 15, and didn’t know any better.

We were friends from that point on, because she said we were. We would continue to be friends, as long as she said we would be. Faced with the choice of being her friend or not being around her at all, I happily accepted friendship. She didn’t know that only one of us was friendly, that the other one was In Love. There was no way could I tell her.

We continued to be in the same places, traveling in the same circles, the way that you do when you’re kids. If she volunteered to help somewhere, I volunteered too, to be close to her. If she went somewhere, I happened to go there too, to be nearby. I’d watch her, follow her, sit at home alone and wonder what she was doing then, right at that moment, and who was lucky enough to be with her.

She had a few boyfriends. Or guy friends. I could never really tell for sure which they were, but I suspected that most of them had been as carried away by the odor of her perfume as I had been, only to be rebuffed. Good. It served them right, for trying to get close to my girl. As far as I was concerned, that’s what she was: My Girl.

Try though I might, I couldn’t sustain that illusion for myself. I moved on, out of necessity. I eventually found a steady girlfriend, but I never could quite shake my girl, either. The rumor mill told me that she had come to her senses, and that she might be interested in dating me. I broke it off with my steady immediately, or I tried to. She cried. She blubbered, and I felt guilty. I was a cad. It was all due to hearsay, I knew. My girlfriend had just lost out to an imagined opportunity of mine, rooted loosely in rumor and speculation. I had to admit it was a dumb, hurtful thing for me to do, and so I apologized and asked her to take me back.

We continued to be friends, my girl and I, as best I was able. She was always warm to me, always fun, and we laughed together when I could find an excuse to be near her. I sometimes wondered if she was hiding something more from me, but the very idea was silly. She had made herself clear already. She was popular with the guys the way the pretty girls always are, but I imagined that we had a special bond. When I was near her I would try to get her attention, without being noticeable. I became so skilled at maintaining the balance, I could’ve been a tightrope walker. I could not dare let on that I loved her, lest I be demoted from “friend” and banished forever. That would not do; I would take what I could get.

Everything she did was remarkable. There was the time she wore that red and white-striped swimsuit to the beach, forever may it be emblazoned upon my memory. There was the time that I took her picture, and she looked right through my camera into my goofy squinted eye, and deep into my soul. I still smile back at the photo. She used some funny words and expressions, and I find myself still repeating them, occasionally.

I was biding my time, is what I was doing. I was waiting for her to express an interest in me. Maybe I was waiting for myself to get some more courage, or waiting for the clouds to part and a voice from Heaven to give me a command punctuated by angel’s harps. Maybe I was waiting for my girlfriend to wizen up and dump me. I couldn’t bear to risk the friendship, and forever blow my chances with my girl, so I adopted the strategy of just being patient. There was still time, I thought; I had plenty of time.

There is never enough time.

She was leaving, moving to a new town. I was heartbroken. I arrived as they were loading the last of her family’s things. Those big, silent tears testified to her sadness at leaving. Whether I was there to comfort her or myself I’m still not certain, but something deep inside, tired of pretending, finally sprang to action. Shyness may be a cruel master, but there is something to be said for the power of desperation.

It was remarkably natural, the way I leaned over and kissed her lips. It was also thoroughly unexpected. It was wonderful, is what it was. Without thinking about it I had kissed her, the softest, sweetest kiss I’ve ever known.

Here was the kiss that must have inspired all other kisses to come afterwards, a kiss that shamed all kisses that came before, a kiss that humiliated that senseless big screen lip mashing between Bogart and Bergman, a kiss that would have made Antony tell Cleopatra to go kiss her asp. The angels sang.

My moment had come. Without even meaning to, I had seized it.

She was surprised, but she didn’t pull away. I was even more surprised, and it dawned on me — lip to lip — what I’d done. “I’m really going to miss you,” I mumbled, and stumbled away backwards, into the night.

I left. She was leaving, and we were not to be. A move had brought us together, and a move took away our chances. My time had ended.

I heard she fell in love with someone, and he made her happy. There were kids, and a house, and probably payments for braces, and maybe even a dog. I fell in love, too.

So we went our separate ways, my girl and I.

I never told her. She never heard me tell her how wonderful she was, how much I loved her, how much her laughter made me feel alive. She deserved to know it, but I never told. My time had ended.

But I still love her. Few men ever get the chance to be truly moved by a woman, to find the one that is made just for them, and my luck was better than most. Knowing that will have to be enough for me …

… and my girl.

 

 

(Originally written February, 1988)

“I do,” I said.

“I do,” I said.

I pledged my love to her, and I was sincere.  I loved her.  I loved her smiling face, her happy heart, and our unlimited potential.

I pledged to cherish, to love, to honor.  Through sickness, I said.  Through hardship and frustration and tough times, even if money wasn’t there.  Through pain, and through uncertainty, through life and through death.

And I meant it.

We were young, and what did we know?   Things change.  I soon found I didn’t like being yelled at.  Apparently, I needed to be yelled at often.  Her smile had faded some, I noticed.

We tried counseling, and things got better for a time.  Soon afterward, children came, and everything was different.  Kids have a way of making you focus on the big things, like where you actually left the children; it turns out you have to keep a close eye on them at all times.  There were new experiences to be had, new lives to share, thousands of toys to be played with, and bedtime songs to be sung.  And we had to keep an eye on those children!  The petty problems seemed petty, and they were soon forgotten.

Kids get older, and as ours grew, they didn’t need as much attention.  They began to make their own way, as they should.  Without the kids to focus on, however, the old problems between us resurfaced.  This time they were more difficult, more persistent, more frequent than before.  They were still petty.  One thing that hadn’t changed: I still didn’t like to be yelled at, and it seemed that she thought I needed to be yelled at more than ever.

We tried counseling again, but it didn’t help this time.  Things seemed to get worse.  We’d traveled this road together for many years, she and I, and we had a lot of time and effort invested.  There were memories.   I didn’t even consider divorce; staying married was the only option.  I noticed though that her happy heart wasn’t so happy anymore.  Neither was mine.  Joy was gone.

In a fit of romantic passion, I asked her to start fresh, to marry me all over again, to renew our vows and re-experience that newly wedded bliss, to begin again.  She declined.  I’m married to a woman for 20 years, and she declines to marry me again.

I was devastated.  The only thing that can possibly be more heartbreaking than the woman you love turning down your marriage proposal is the woman that you are married to rejecting you, saying she didn’t want to do it over.  I hurt like I didn’t know was possible.

Still, I tried to make change happen.  I wasn’t about to give up.  I pleaded.  I argued.  I begged.  I prayed.  I cried.  I sat alone, I slept alone, I hurt alone.   Can we continue to live this life, I asked?  I knew I couldn’t, not for long.

Once again, a last ditch effort, we tried counseling.  This time, the counselor wasn’t encouraging; things might not ever change, he told me.  That unlimited potential we started out with, those happy hearts, those smiles, they were now gone for good.

I needed a change.

It still took months for me to reach the point where I realized that change wasn’t going to come, that I was waiting for something that wouldn’t appear.  I had to become the change I needed, I saw.  It was a hard decision to reach, as it probably should be.

It’s always hardest on the kids, they say, and that’s probably true, but it can’t be any harder on the kids than forcing them to live in turmoil, I figured.  Isn’t it better than teaching them the same pattern of dysfunction to be repeated in their own marriages for their own children to see?

I told her it was time, that I’d finally reached the point where I needed to leave.  “Why?” she wanted to know.  I didn’t want to be yelled at, couldn’t take being interrupted, didn’t want to argue, I explained.  She yelled.  She interrupted.  She argued.  It was the confirmation I needed.

So I became the change I needed.  I left.  Reluctantly, I left.

To take the most productive years of your life and give them to someone else to share, those days when you’re developing a career, making a home, raising children, and finding your place in the world, is an act of genuine love.

To walk away from that investment and those memories, that potential, that is an act of desperation.  You don’t give up so much, unless there’s really nothing left to give.  You don’t allow someone to walk away from those things either, unless there’s nothing to keep.  I left.  She let me go.

Tonight I sit alone, left-over pizza beside me, my watered-down root beer in my hand.  I sit alone and I wonder.  Was there something else I should have done?  Could things have been different?  How are my girls are faring?  Do they miss me?  When will I see them again?  How were their days?  Did they get my last text message?  Was there something else I should have done?  Could things have been different?  How are my girls?  I sit lonely, alone.

There’s nothing more lonely than warm tears and cold pizza.

There are moments when I miss her, when I miss her companionship, miss the years we invested in each other.  Other times, I have to talk to her on the phone for something; invariably, she reminds me why I left, and I’m grateful for that.

And so I am alone, but I’m also at peace.  I can talk to my television, I can talk to the walls, I can talk to myself on and on and on about anything, and never be interrupted.  I’m never  challenged, I never have to argue, and I never have to explain what I meant by that.  I can throw away my own garbage any damn way I please, without having to be corrected over how the cereal box should be flatter.

Am I better off?  Was I right to walk away, to give up, to start life over again?  Do I think the uncertainty and the loneliness are a fair trade for what I left?

I do.

 

 

 

(Written January, 2014)