Short Story by Ann Lightcap Bruno
In the ladies’ room, where I have been huddled for the past seven minutes, the thick perfume of the stargazer lilies mingles with the White Rain (spritzed from trial-size bottles) to make me as drunk as I am allowed to be. I want to stay perched here awhile, but I hear the rushing voices, and I gather there is a line. I flush and come out, glance a smile at Carmen’s great-aunt Dolly, who is waiting for my stall.
“You girls look like lemon drops!” She beams through her dentures.
At the mirror, my poor hair is tortured into its updo, the kind with dips and swooshes and a lone spiral hanging alongside my left eye. I flick it with my French-manicured index finger. The spiral is impervious, though my manicure is already chipping. My face is sallow, awash in bottled self-tanner cast against this lemon drop, lemon meringue, lemon sorbet of a dress. (“It’s perfect!” Carmen’s mother had pronounced at the fitting in April. “But so help me, Jesus, you girls better show up with some color.”) I fish through the white basket with organza ribbon, through the tiny bottles of Scope, the miniature sewing kits, the discreetly wrapped mini-pads, and find a fresh Bandaid to reapply to my ankle, which has not yet stopped bleeding from my morning shave.
Carmen bursts in, rosy, breathless, veilless. “Oh my god! I’m drenched!” She grabs tissues and blots her face, then she pulls me in for a hug. I hug back, careful not to mess up her bejeweled hair. Our huge dresses make it hard to find one another, but she holds me close in a way that shames me. This weekend is the first time we’ve touched since college graduation, fifteen years ago.
That weekend was similar to this one in its strange pageantry. She and I clung to each other as our parents took pictures in the unrelenting sun, dying in our black gowns, hung over from the recycling bucket of grain punch we’d shared the night before, she and I and another girl, Alison, who is supposedly too pregnant to fly. They were loud, fun, and loyal, the last real girlfriends I had. And I lost them the way I lose everyone (carelessness, I say, though my therapist suggests it’s more about some kind of purposeful self-isolation). Last fall I started the program. When I got to step nine, I called Carmen for the first time in twelve years to make amends for the time I let my Groton-bred dealer boyfriend steal birthday money her grandmother had given her. And even though I remember her tearing apart the apartment looking for it, Carmen told me she didn’t recall anything like that and it was no big deal anyway, and then she didn’t know what to say, so she asked me to be a bridesmaid as a way of changing the subject, and I said yes, because I couldn’t think of what to say either.
We pull apart at the same time. She looks in the mirror and smears away the overlapping kiss marks of legions of aunts.
“Did I get it all?”
“Almost.” I lick my finger like the mother I am not and rub out the last traces. “You’re good.”
“How’s the singles table?”
“I’m sorry. You know my mother.”
“I met your cousin Rick.”
“Him next to you was her idea.”
“It’s fine,” I say.
“She thought you’d hit it off. Shit.” She winces. “I completely forgot to tell you that Tom would be here.”
“I figured it out last night at the rehearsal.”
“I forgot about your thing.”
“It wasn’t a thing. We talked at the dinner, sort of.”
“I hope it’s not weird.”
“It’s nothing. It’s great he and Kevin stayed close. Everything is amazing, you look amazing. You should be out there being a bride.”
She’s nodding but not listening, staring at a half-drunk Manhattan sweating on the marble countertop.
“Not mine,” I say.
“I wasn’t even thinking that.”
Her mother swings in, all cleavage and crystal embellishment and strawberry chiffon. “Bouquet time, girls!”
Carmen looks up at me, and for an instant, I see her like I remember her, even through the hair and makeup and dress. I can see how she looked at two in the morning the night before an exam, teeth stained from Marlboro Lights and coffee, hair in a scrunchie, glasses, blotchy face. I want her to say something to make me feel connected to then, to now, to her, to anything. All she can do is fake smile. “See you out there?”
The ladies’ room empties of nearly everyone. I feel like I am in the safe pouch of some animal, its pounding heart beating just outside the door. I rip off the old Bandaid fast and apply the new one. There is a spot of blood on the satin strap of my dyed-to-match sandal, so I blot at it with a wet paper towel. The stain spreads and turns orange. But the dress is long, and the pictures have been taken. It won’t matter. I go out into the loud, dim hallway.
“Psst. Lady. You want to buy a watch?”
I look behind me, away from the ballroom, down the corridor near the employees only entrance. And there he is, tie loose like Dean Martin, slouching against the wall. Not cousin Rick.
“I thought you might be hiding in there,” Tom says.
“You seem to be the one who’s hiding.”
I look around to check for fellow bridesmaids or aunts or faces that look vaguely familiar, but no one is around who would care. So I walk down the hall toward him.
When I get close enough to touch, Tom reaches out his hand and brushes the crook of my arm with his fingers, this best man who had been at the opposite end of the procession from me, this best man with the nice blonde wife with tired eyes whose name I choose not to remember, with the little boy named Asher who resembles the boy I sometimes see on Tuesdays at 5:30 as I wait for the meeting in the basement of First Presbyterian around the corner from my apartment. The meeting doesn’t start until 6:30, but I go early, because I know that if I am late, I am inclined not to go at all. And at 5:30, a tiny lady with a puff of white hair and a hunched back sits in a folding metal chair next to the bench bearing this fragile boy whose legs make an upside down V from where they meet at his knees. I imagine that she gives piano lessons to other children, but he is the only one I ever see.
“I was looking for you.”
“Are we having fun?”
I lean back against the wall opposite him and try to conjure the intoxication from the bathroom lilies or believe that the Manhattan had been mine after all. I try to imagine that the edge has been taken off. But it’s there, that edge. He comes around to lean on my wall so our sides touch.
“Kevin told me what’s been going on with you.”
“I’m sure there are all kinds of lovely stories.”
He looks at me sideways, bottom to top, and I think about how I look nothing like me right now and that I don’t mind. I also don’t mind that he is shitfaced.
“Do you know the last time we saw each other?”
“Yesterday?” I say.
“Right before I headed to Ann Arbor, the park on Prospect that looks over the city. Middle of the night, as I recall.”
“You fell off the statue, as I recall,” I say.
“You remember,” he says, which pisses me off.
“I dared you to jump.”
“My knee was fucked up for three months.”
“I was pretty fucked up myself,” and I try to think of what to say next, something perverse or clever or true, and all I can think of is how he was the one who told me that story about how the remains of Roger Williams used to lie in a tomb right under his statue and how the roots of an apple tree crept and wound all over his body. How in time, the roots took on the uncanny appearance of his human form. How the root had been dug up and carted off to a museum nobody went to. That night, none of it remained but the statue and the gleaming city and the presence of nameless future ghosts.
I open my mouth to say something about the roots, but he thinks the parting of my lips means something altogether different. He leans in, his eyes bloodshot even in the red glow of the emergency exit sign. In the darkness of this corner, his breath comes close, scotch and cigar and entree. He pulls me by the taffeta sash to his rented cummerbund, and he kisses me. I kiss back.
Over the years, my memory has cast that night in moon and crickets and lilacs, dialogue even, although it’s all a lie. I don’t remember much, only that I was hammered on something that was bad for me and entwined in a craving for something I didn’t deserve. He left the next day for law school and wrote me one postcard and called me once after that, and later that summer I met another guy who drank and had sex with me into the morning, so I loved him instead.
Now, I am in full command of my faculties. I will remember this one. I will remember the hum of the water fountain and his stale tongue and his hands groping futilely through the layers for my ass. Because my eyes are half open, I will remember the way the outlines of us cast shadows like the ones in film noir alleys.
It lasts for what feels like a while, and then when someone hustles past with jingling keys, I let him push me from him because I cannot make myself do anything. We both step back away from each other. I still taste his scotch. He looks sorry and scared as shit as he wipes his mouth with his drink hand.
In the ballroom, “Love Shack” fades out, and the DJ calls us out, single ladies, to the center of the room.
“I hate this part,” I say.
“Wait here,” he says, not meaning it.
I wait until I cannot see a trace of him, and then I rustle down the hallway, past the ladies’ room, to the empty outer reaches of the ballroom floor. I choose the dark, beautiful bartender with the earring and goatee. He is 22, tops.
“Vodka with lime, please, rocks.”
“No, thank you.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be over there?” he asks, nodding to the knot of women and girls reaching for the bouquet of dethorned roses.
I shrug as the bartender slips a cocktail napkin under the glass and hands it to me. “I’m fine here,” I say. In my hand, the highball is heavy and familiar. I meet his gaze, and the edges start to soften, even though I haven’t drunk a drop.
Her back to the lot of them, Carmen tries to aim for the yellow dresses, but she’s off by a mile. Out of nowhere, Tom’s boy, Asher, darts like a pinball in his seersucker suit and grabs the thing from where it has fallen, under a table where none of the single ladies would want to crawl. Holding the bruised prize aloft, he runs beaming to his mother, who gathers him in her arms as she whispers in his ear, gesturing toward Carmen. But before Asher can do the right thing, Tom swoops in and snatches the flowers away. He hands them to the closest bridesmaid with a flourish, and, though she protests a little, she cradles them in the manner of a pageant winner. When I look back at Asher, he is being led stiffly away by his mother. I can just make out, over the babble of it all, the beginnings of his tantrum.
Once I witnessed my basement piano boy, the one who resembles Asher, melting down in the hands of his mother. The white-haired teacher was showing him the opening strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In” across a range of octaves. Outside, the rain was coming down hard. It pelted against the windows in fat, loud drops that might have been locusts or frogs. When the first bolt of lightning struck near, even I jumped a little. I clutched a battered copy of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, wondering if my metal chair was safe. Still, the boy played, halting and without rhythm, but on and on, and it was only when his mother came in that he seemed to finally breathe, and with the breath came all the fear in the world, and how he howled. The piano teacher just let it play out. She didn’t try to console him or make a joke or chastise him into being a bigger boy like she could have. She just sat in her own chair, exactly as I sat in mine, with her hands folded around the boy’s music book. And in the middle of us was this event between the mother and the boy, not ours. Finally they left when the rain began to die. For a moment, it was just she and I and the piano and the copies of Twelve Steps and the empty chairs that would be filled by my like in short time. I imagined that I could hear her body creaking as she bent to gather her bag and rose to stand. She walked straight to me then, and when I looked up at her, she said, “‘And it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open.’ Book of Ezra.” Then she was gone, and she hasn’t spoken to me since or even pretended I was there.
I consider setting the full glass back on the white tablecloth of the bar. I consider writing my cell number on the napkin. I could go home with this bartender if I flirted hard enough, and I would fly back home in the morning clouded in the remembrance of his warm skin, the rank sweat of his bed, the muffled sound of his roommates playing video games in the next room.
But my flight is early. And tonight I want clean sheets and buttery soap that no one has used but me. “Thanks for this,” I say and walk away, vodka in hand. There is a side exit for the parking lot, so I take it, find the rental car, settle the dress around me in the cramped front seat, and drink. It burns at first but then goes down like nothing. And then it’s gone, so I suck the ice cubes until they are gone too. I open the car door and place the highball glass on the white line demarcating my parking spot, and then I close myself back in nice and tight.
Through the windshield, I can still hear the music pumping from the reception hall. I look for gum or mints in my inefficient purse, but I don’t carry them anymore. All I have are keys to what’s temporary and my own face on a license to drive anywhere I want. Outside of the car, the sky is turning various shades of citrus, burning like phosphor. There is only the barest hint of rain. It is a real memory this, eyes wide open, even though the haze is starting to fall.
Ann Lightcap Bruno is an English teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence and lives in nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, with her husband and children.
Her essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Memoir (and), Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review Online, Talking Writing, and Alimentum.
“Perhaps writing is hard because of this fundamental ache, this desire to inscribe our very flesh—our eyelids, for God’s sake—with the story of our lives and the story of what we see around us, the story of the wide world and us in it.” — “The Ache of Writing”