Fiction by Benjamin Warner
There was a month of them. Saturdays. Back to back without a break. The first was a Catholic ceremony in a church with a ceiling painted midnight blue with silver and yellow constellations. Cherubs shone like pearls. When the families bent at the kneelers, resting their fists on the backs of pews, Lawrence whispered, “Should we do it, too?”
“Only if you want to,” Sheila told him.
But he didn’t want to. He wanted only to bend his head and contemplate his shoes. They were his nice pair, and he was already taking measures to stretch their functionality through the month. For instance, in getting to the service that morning, he’d done a little hop between flagstones, avoiding a patch of grass that might have been damp from the previous night’s low dew point.
With his head bent, he imagined he looked like he was praying. Really, though, what he was saying inside his head was, “How can any of these fatties find the nerve to ask the man upstairs for anything?”
As he was thinking this, he heard Sheila’s voice—not out in the open, but in the chamber of his mind. This had been happening recently, and between the existing possibilities that a) he was going crazy, or b) she had altogether too much access to his thoughts, he found her voice inside his brain a comfort.
“They have lives, too, you know,” her voice said. “Families. Maybe someone is sick. Maybe they’re praying for world peace, or for people in Africa in need.”
“You’re right,” Lawrence said out loud.
“Right about what?” she whispered.
“Are we supposed to go up there?” he said. A line was forming to take communion. Lawrence felt a hot embarrassment flush his cheeks as he sat up to let an old woman pass him into the aisle.
“Not unless you’re Catholic,” Sheila said.
At the party, they sat and watched people dance on a square of hardwood laid down on the carpet of a reception hall. The dancers made a clapping circle and pushed each other into its vibrating center. There were many elaborate moves. They caught their feet with their hands and pumped back and forth, or they did backbends, thrusting, pointing, flopping their hair around. Sheila knew the bride from an adult ed class they’d taken the summer before—American sign language; Lawrence had only met her once for drinks. He didn’t get the jokes that had been told at all the toasts, and he didn’t feel quite as impelled to get so furiously drunk. One of the dancers could do Irish jig steps, his fists on his hips, his legs bowed outward like Chaplin, clucking along to the music. Lawrence watched him like he might watch a circus clown trained at Julliard, the victim of bad choices.
“They’re all drinking screwdrivers,” Sheila said. “Look.” She waved a finger at the tubes of yellow liquid being held out on the dance floor. “Isn’t it interesting how a drink can catch on like that?”
“It must be about the positioning of the mixers,” Lawrence said. “If there’d been cranberry juice up front, everyone’d be drinking vodka.”
“Shouldn’t we have had screwdrivers at our wedding, though? Why did your father think it’d be such a beer drinking crowd?”
“It was a beer drinking crowd.”
“That’s because it’s what we had.”
Then she said, “Let’s dance a little,” and shimmied her shoulders and waggled her hips. Lawrence kept his feet planted. They were weighted to the ground. He made wave motions with his fingers, out in front of his chest, reminiscent of some sort of break dancing.
“Look me in the eyes,” she said.
The next one was in Jamaica. A destination wedding; they’d paid for it six months in advance. Lawrence got sunburned the first day on the beach, trying to diminish his pallor. In the hotel room, before the ceremony, Shelia rubbed aloe-vera on his back.
“Can you move?” she said.
“It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“Wait until tonight,” she said.
They were put on a boat with other couples and also the parents and aunts and uncles. It was a water voyage to an even more remote beach. The boat was a double-decker, and a man ran the steps with a tray of drinks, somehow not spilling a drop even though the ocean was rough. The man had extremely dark skin, and his blue company polo shirt made him look healthier than Lawrence had ever felt in his life. He drank a cocktail and the sunburn on his back began to heat up. When the nausea came, he excused himself and swayed down the steps, just barely making it without falling. He loosened his tie and puked over the bottom railing.
“Seasick?” he heard someone ask. The railing dug into the space beneath his ribs. Bending there, his face was no more than two feet off the water, and he wondered if he wouldn’t feel better just letting himself topple on in.
Rhythmic foot-stomps came from the upper deck. The crew had turned on music.
They had the ceremony on the beach, where it must have been 95 degrees. Sheila’s dress dipped down low between her breasts, and Lawrence saw a bead of sweat traveling through the channel of her cleavage. Wasn’t he supposed to find that sexy? When he thought about it, he did find it sexy, but it wasn’t easy to think about. There was a mix of pain and post-vomit hollowness in the air.
Sheila bent her mouth so close to his ear that he could hear the moisture crackle in her voice. “What do you think of her dress?” she said.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “A sweetheart neckline. You like the neckline?”
“The neckline is the best part,” he said.
“Are you going to be sick again?” Her voice was loud enough for Lawrence to look around and make sure that no one else had heard her.
They were doing the vows. The groom was sweaty and red-faced. There were parrots in the trees, but Lawrence thought there was a good chance someone had placed them there as props.
The next one was Sheila’s cousin’s. She was thirty-five, and this was her second go ‘round. The first had been to an Indian CPA who was in it for the Green Card, at least that’s what the family said, though he’d moved back to India after the divorce. Lawrence had been to that wedding, too, and maybe it was the former’s extravagance that forced the hand of this one’s simplicity. Just a backyard affair. They’d rented a house right outside of Richmond and strung lights across the trees. There were white folding chairs in rows. Lawrence could hear the traffic from 195 as the officiant delivered his spiel.
Sheila’s mother and father were there, too. So were her uncle from Geneva, and Sheila’s cousin, Henri. Henri was thirty-two and spoke no English, though Lawrence suspected he actually did. He’d met him before, four or five years ago, and caught him laughing at an episode of Seinfeld when he’d thought no one else was around.
“Take Thomas’s hands,” he heard the officiant say. “These are the hands of your best friend.”
Lawrence bunched his chin against his chest and looked down at his shoes once more. He’d done his best to polish them, but they looked raw from walking in the sand. He felt a little silly, wearing a dark suit in summer, but Sheila had said dark was okay. Her father and her uncle from Geneva were wearing gray suits, a more mature color, he thought—a mature color for this more reasonable, second wedding. The officiant wasn’t even religious. He was just their friend, Jim, who worked with Thomas at the Geological Survey. Lawrence watched Sheila’s mother. Her handbag was as thin as cardboard, and she fanned herself with it and smiled. Her legs were crossed, and she was reclined. In the front row, she had her arm around the shoulder of her sister, the bride’s mother. Neither of them cried. Starting all over again allowed everyone to shed the unnecessary gravity of the affair, and Lawrence suddenly felt a fondness for them all, his wife’s small, intelligent family whom he hardly even knew.
Most of the family had gone back to their hotel rooms by the time the real drinking started. All that was left was a few friends from work, and a few of Sheila’s cousins. What they’d scrimped on ceremony, they’d put into top shelf booze. Lawrence sipped a Booker’s and watched them all. There was music coming from a boom-box, and a few of them swayed as a preamble to dancing. He had his arm around Sheila, but when Boys of Summer came on, the bride pulled her away, and he stood alone in a corner of the lawn, behind a row of citronella candles. It was a private patch of grass, and Lawrence practiced a dance move by himself.
Sheila’s father appeared beside him with a fruit cup. Had he seen the dance move?
“Hopefully, she’ll have better luck this time,” her father said. “My sister-in-law’s kids… sheesh.”
Lawrence had never really talked to Sheila’s father. They’d moved to Atlanta so soon after their own wedding, and coming back north was a once a year chore, twice a year for Sheila. She was the one who talked to them on the phone. Her father had majored in History in college. Lawrence knew that. All the business stuff came later on, out of necessity.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Lawrence said. “Tom.”
“Tom, yeah. He’s fine. How he’s going to support a family is what I’ll be interested to see.”
“Well they don’t have a family yet,” Lawrence said.
Sheila’s father focused his eyes on him in a way that was harsh but practical. It made Lawrence feel like a spot on the highway being surveyed for future fast-food construction. He’d seen it before, this look—Sheila’s father staring down at him from the window of his new apartment—when they’d flown in to help her parents move. He’d stood outside their two-bedroom unit, thinking himself alone, resting with his hands on his hips, tired from hauling boxes but with plenty more boxes left to haul, and then he’d turned to see this same critical stare, her father observing him through his new kitchen window.
But tonight, it seemed, he’d misread the look. The light from the citronella candles was doing funny things to his vision.
“I don’t know, Lawrence,” Sheila’s father said. He cleared his throat to make way for introspection. “As long as they’re happy.”
Maybe because of his size—Sheila’s dad was 6’2’’ and broad-shouldered, with a presidential head of hair—Lawrence had always spoken to him like a teenager in a bad tuxedo, having just rung his doorbell. But here they were, two men together.
“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “I mean, Sheila and I are happy, and I’m kind of a fuckup when it comes to saving money.”
“What?” Sheila’s father said.
The last wedding of the month was in Shenandoah National Park.
With a dozen other strangers, they pitched their tents in a clearing and hiked up to the rocky summit of Trayfoot Mountain. By the time they reached the view, they’d sweated through their hiking tops and already gone through two liters of water. The couple got married with flowers in their hair like a pair of Druids. The groom was a friend of Sheila’s from yoga, and it was around the time of the huzzahs, around the time the happy bride turned and bent into her husband’s arms with a dizzying smile, that Lawrence saw quite clearly—for the first time—that he didn’t really have friends of his own anymore. It scared him, in the same way his accelerating age scared him, and he decided right there on that mountaintop to make more of an effort to be fun and young in spirit. It struck him as an important decision about how he would behave henceforth in his life, and he found himself with the rest of them shouting congratulatory nonsense onto the unsuspecting backs of two vultures that were circling just beneath the drop of the promontory.
That evening, the whole party (there were sixteen of them) stood around a pool at the base of a small waterfall in the woods. It was getting dark fast. Looking five feet away was like looking through an oil slick. Someone was smoking a joint and then there were joints all around. “Wedding weed!” one of them squealed. Lawrence hadn’t been stoned since college, and maybe his age was also making his brain more susceptible. Two puffs later and the edges of his vision were tantalizingly blue.
“Who’s going skinny-dipping?” the bride asked.
Lawrence didn’t know how long he’d been standing in the same place. After a while he saw his wife’s naked body pass in front of him. Then he felt the fabric of his own pants brushing down his shins, and was relieved to find that it was his own fingers pulling them off.
They stood there naked in the pool of water, talking in small groups. The water only came up to their ankles.
Lawrence positioned himself between two conversations in such a way that each of them might think he was participating in the other.
Eventually, the bride came up to Sheila and clutched her by the elbows. It was rocky beneath them, and they stumbled a little. Lawrence stood next to them and smiled in the broad way he felt was appropriate when dealing with a bride.
“I didn’t see it before,” the bride said, shaking Sheila by the elbows, her chubby breasts shaking, too, “but now I do. You guys are great for each other. I’m so happy that you’re here.”
Lawrence tried to speak, but his mouth was locked in place. He watched the naked bride hug his naked wife. Someone started beating on a drum.
Somehow—though Lawrence couldn’t remember any of it—they moved from the pool beneath the waterfall back into the campground. The next thing he processed was the sound of the zipper on their tent flap. They were tucked in with the flashlight clicked off, sharing a fleece blanket though it was a warm night.
“Can you believe that bitch?” Sheila said.
That was the Summer of Weddings. They will go to others, of course, many more, but never again in a month so close together. It won’t be for another seven years, when Lawrence has just turned forty-four, that he will find himself on the grassy valley of a golf course on the grounds of a country club outside of Philadelphia. He’ll be down there with a twenty-five-year old occupational therapist with elastic looking legs and a velvety Southern accent. It will be dark and drizzling, and the sounds of the party, from the building on the hill up above them, will be as faint and inaccessible as sounds from across a river.
“You’re making me nauseous,” the girl will say, as Lawrence kisses her—far too hard in his excitement—and he’ll think back to that boat ride to the private island, how he’d overcome his own nausea, and after the vows and the drinks and dancing— after the party had really heated up—had snuck off with his wife beneath the deck of some ramshackle visitor’s center and made love, attempting—for both pity’s sake and the sake of the bottoms of their feet—to avoid stepping on the hundreds of hermit crabs beneath them.
“Slow down,” the girl will say to him in her delicious accent. “They don’t even know we’re gone yet.”
And she will say other things that Lawrence won’t remember, only that her voice had taken on a slick and uncaring quality, as if she’d given up on the possibility of her own enjoyment and resigned herself to the speed of how things were going, because the speed of how things were going was what would get her back to the building where the wedding party was, back up into the company of her friends.
There will be no repercussions from this encounter, and he will never see this woman again, but Lawrence will be reminded, as he often was, that he had married well—above what he’d ever expected, really—and that it had been nothing more than a matter of good timing, almost as if he’d had nothing to do with it at all.
But by then such thoughts will no longer trouble him.
It will have been years since he’s last seen Sheila.
Benjamin Warner teaches first year and creative writing at Towson University. He advises the Towson University Urban Farmers, and lives in Baltimore with his family.