The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
The Infinity Effect
Water runs slow and narrow in this part of southern central Georgia. I watch one of Muriel’s second cousins, Courtney, and Courtney’s boyfriend play on the tire swing above the river and behind our motel. Courtney waves to me but shrieks when she temporarily loses her balance on the tread. He keeps pushing her, and I imagine how an alligator could spring up to bite off her leg. Courtney doesn’t care. She sways between sunlight and shadows in her cutoff shorts. I admire her. She doesn’t act like a supporting character. We met twenty minutes ago when we discovered we had adjacent rooms and were both going to the same wedding.
The longer I sit with my back pressed to the picnic table, the more I regret coming here. We’re old friends, me and Muriel, and I suppose she only meant to solicit a gift from me, not actually see me on her wedding day, but here I am, after one overly-enthusiastic RSVP (“YES!!”), two plane rides, and one three-hour drive. Since moving to northern Ontario two years ago, I decided that travel would have to wait. That meant missing Christmases, Thanksgivings, spring breaks, summer jaunts, but Muriel’s wedding was different. My parents understand. They have my sisters, at least.
My mother made a comment once over the phone: “Why are you moving there?” She didn’t get the transition, but if it really bothered her, she didn’t let on. That was all I heard of it. Phone service comes and goes with the storms; sometimes we go weeks without talking. When I told her about Muriel’s wedding, she’d asked if I would bring Dave. No, he doesn’t want to go to Georgia, I said. In reality, I didn’t want to bring Dave, because then it would mean something. He has the future ideas. I have the reality-based truth.
The heat lays heavy on my exposed thighs. Everyone complains about humidity, but its omnipotence comforts me like an overbearing grandmother. Even though the ceremony will start in less than two hours, Courtney shows no signs of getting ready, so I take her lead. Besides, I never do my hair and only have to slip on the dress, a pair of heels and some lipstick.
Dave likes me because I am not an elk or a black bear. I speak English, cook some vague stir-fry dish, and give off enough heat to warm the bed of our two-room cabin. Dave and I won’t stay long in each other’s stories. He wants a ton of kids; I want none. Dave thinks I will change my mind after another year or two of working in the Wolfing Provincial Park, that the work will isolate me so much I will beg to have a family to crowd my days, to never be alone again. My pendulum does regularly swing to the extremes.
Why here, I wonder, sitting in this patch of sunshine. Muriel never told me anything about Georgia; it must have a connection to her fiancé, Garrett, whom I hadn’t met until yesterday. It feels like a farce to go to your friend’s wedding and not know their betrothed. How can I wish you eternal happiness when I haven’t personally vetted you as a lifetime companion for my dear old friend? On appearances alone, he’s…scrappy yet handsome, the kind of man who really had to fight to leave his hometown and left with some bruises. At the ‘Sippin’ Social Hour,’ he stood next to Muriel and let her pick off his paper plate. He laughed a lot, which made Muriel laugh. I remember how we used to laugh during the winter months when our apartment’s temperature dipped to the high fifties, but not one of us had the conviction to do something about it. Instead, we’d pop kettle corn and watch movies under a giant comforter with the popcorn bag under the blanket like a heating pad. Days later, my sheets would smell of salt and sugar.
When Muriel and I saw each other at the cocktail hour, I knew the trip was worth it. She erased all my insecurities in one look. I’d forgotten how she could do that to me—flush my mind of all anxiety, even with a cocktail sausage and semi-firm cheese on my plate. She hugged me and thanked me for coming all the way down to Georgia. Her hair smelled of powder and amber. The first hug happened so fast that I gave another, longer hug to show her that I would not have missed her wedding, no matter where I lived. For all of ten seconds, I was the most important person in the room, until she began to squirm in my arms and eventually let go. She wanted to know when we’d last seen each other. Perhaps five years ago when she’d visited New York and I hadn’t left yet. That had to be it. She asked where I’d gotten a room and told me that some of her extended family was in that motel too. “Kind of a dump, but funny, right?” Don’t worry, she assured me. They would make up for it in spades on Saturday. Great food, performers, the whole shebang.
“And not the jazz band music you don’t know how to dance to,” she said. “Like, the good stuff.” I nodded as though I’d been listening, but really, I just was staring at her. Some people age in the conventional way. Others age in the hard, life-full-of-experience way. People like Muriel defied every science and aged as though they’d discovered the secret a long time ago. They shed their years like an onion’s layers until they reached the sweet, supple meat of their existence. Muriel, despite her dowdy name, had never looked brighter or happier than in that moment. I couldn’t tell if she knew it or not, but I also couldn’t stop staring at her and recalling exactly how she looked when we were younger: cigarette jeans, knobby knees and hair she’d finally allowed to grow natural.
“I’ve never met Garrett,” I said.
“Shit!” Muriel took my hand and walked me toward a group of elderly people all in pastel golf shirts and khaki pants, at the center of which stood Garrett in his own, hipper version of golf attire. When he faced me, I could see how he hid the tougher street version of himself behind this soft costume. He had a half-inch scar cut into his left eyebrow, most likely from a floppy fight you could barely call a brawl. It takes one to know one, I thought.
“Hey, babe,” she said, so openly, I almost didn’t mind the word. “Meet Stewie, my New York friend. From when I lived in Brooklyn.”
I saw then how neatly I fit on the shelf and what words were etched into my spine. “New York,” “Roommate,” “Early 2000’s.”
“Anna Stewart,” I said, “but please feel free to continue the tradition of ‘Stewie.’”
Garrett graciously took my hand in both of his and I felt the roughness of his palm and knuckles. Another clue. “I’ve heard the stories.” He raised his eyebrows, “You two were WILD.” He must cherish these anecdotes of his future wife because it meant that she’d fully lived her life and had chosen him after all those years of “experience.” Did Muriel know Garrett’s anecdotes—the ones in which he wore frayed t-shirts and played with the raw edge of empty cans? I saw him so clearly.
“You’re welcome,” I said, already laughing at myself. Neither of us knew what to say. Your secret is safe with me, I thought. He gave me the thumbs up and got absorbed into a cluster of pale familial shapes, like a Kandinsky painting.
“Is a lot of Garrett’s family here?” I asked.
“Well, kind of,” Muriel said. “He doesn’t talk with his mother anymore, but a lot of his extended family is here.”
Red flag, I thought. Red flag. If a man doesn’t get along with his mother, it’s the Red Flag of red flags. Muriel gave me one last little squeeze on the shoulder before excusing herself to another congregation of women around the same age as us. They were her new friends, most likely. They had another spot on the shelf, with less dust than mine. I mingled as much as I could until retreating to the motel room.
Courtney sits on the top of the tire with a leg on either side of the rope. She dips her back. Her hair grazes the water. My God. I feel like a babysitter.
“Hey,” I yell with arms up. “When are you getting ready?”
“Ten minutes,” she cries out.
Her boyfriend shrugs his shoulders and continues to push her over the water. I study the surface and consider what I would do if she got pulled in. Her boyfriend would stand dumbfounded along the bank. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to save someone. Saviors don’t wear that much hair gel. In Canada, they trained us for rare polar bear encounters. Beyond a canister of bear spray, we had to stand tall, not act like prey, and never give up. But this has never happened to anyone in Wolfing Provincial Park. Yes, I would try to save Courtney, but she doesn’t care about that right now. Her mouth barely shuts from how much laughter she’s heaping into the universe. At least Courtney is happy, I think. I hope I sit at their table during the reception. Dave wouldn’t have done well down here; I’m glad he didn’t come. He’s too much like me or like part of me that when we’re together, we cancel each other’s charge, which shouldn’t happen. Opposites cancel each other. The two of us could sit for hours in silence together, which we both enjoy, but take us to a wedding to socialize? Forget it. We’d be the couple that everyone regretted initiating conversation with. I’m better alone. Otherwise, the “tendencies” come out, as my mother used to call it.
Courtney has finally dismounted the tire swing. They wave to me and stalk through the motel’s screen door, but before the door can clap shut, the boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember, pokes his head out: “Twenty minutes,” he says. Perfect. Enough time to sit here for a couple more minutes and soak up my yearly quotient of sunrays. No matter how much daylight we get during the summer months, it’s never enough for those Canadian winters.
The iridescent skin of the river must slither downstream from a factory or fertilizer plant. I spend so many of my days indoors, studying the movement of water on computer-generated maps, datasets, metadata that it’s a treat to watch a river like this. How it swallows stones whole and strangles any notion of equation. If I worked down here, there would be no shortage of bad findings. Could it even support wildlife? Funny how water keeps flowing, regardless of what’s in it. Rivers know their toxicity but continue nevertheless.
We arrive fourteen minutes before the start of the ceremony. It feels cooler in the botanical garden than it did by the river. Guests follow hand-painted signs that point towards a rose garden. Women’s heels sink into the grass. I silently praise myself for having chosen wedges. Courtney gasps and points to a row of bridesmaids standing at the far edge of the field.
“They look like French pastries,” she says.
I agree and begin to pair maiden with dessert: lemon macarons, raspberry éclairs, green tea tiramisu, lavender-laced religieuse. Each has a unique and wonderful cut of dress that complements her body. Together they make the most beautiful tray of petit fours. Envy crawls across my skin and into the pockets of my jersey dress. I hate the idea of bridesmaids but wonder what color I would have worn if Muriel had asked me. My purse vibrates with a call from David, but I immediately silence it. He’s probably calling to tell me what new piece of bureaucratic regulation has trickled up from Ottawa and to our office inbox. Instead, I text him that the ceremony is about to start and that he should call me tomorrow if he gets reception.
We walk towards a whimsical scene of mismatched chairs and old areas rugs overlapping to make an aisle. Strangers greet us and ask if we are with bride or groom. At the end of the aisle, a large ivy-covered triangle serves as the altar.
“So beautiful,” Courtney whispers, as she focuses her phone for a photo.
“It is,” I say. Suddenly, I wish that Muriel and I had talked about stuff like this when we were younger, during those nights in Brooklyn where we’d overlap drug on top of drug until one of us passed out from the kaleidoscope of side effects. All in the name of a Thursday night, we’d tell ourselves. Muriel never spoke about wanting to get married or even wanting to leave New York. She’d only told me about which guys had nice dicks and which catering gigs hadn’t paid her enough money for rent that month. At the time, I’d never assumed that we would live beyond each other’s scope. She was it for me, the reason I would get excited to come home from my unpaid internship, the reason I learned how to cook red squash curry, the reason I’d lingered in New York despite a couple of job offers out west. Feelings click into place. Of course, I didn’t want David to come with me.
“Oh my God,” I say and sit down prematurely in one of the back rows.
“You okay?” Courtney asks.
I don’t speak but shoo them away, smiling to assure them that everything is fine. The seats fill up. My view is blocked.
“Ceremony sunglasses?” A man stoops down to ask me. He’s holding a straw basket filled with the type of sunglasses they sell on tables in Chinatown.
“No, thank you,” I say.
“I insist,” he says and pulls out the gaudiest pair with bright green rhinestones. “Matches your dress.” He smiles when he says it, and I wonder if it’s an attempt at flirting. Nothing stirs in me where it normally would have. I take them and push them to the top of my head and nod.
“They look great,” he says. He’s a handsome guy who probably thrives on women’s attention. He waits for my pithy comeback.
“Thanks,” I say, standing up.
Amidst paper flowers and streamers, the guestbook has a few pages of notes and names. Charlie Horton only wrote his name and the date with a smiley face below. Others wrote iterations of the same congratulations with an ever-growing army of exclamation points at the end. I pick up the pen. How can I express my feelings? “Muriel, I’m sorry I never kissed you back then”? “Hey, Moo, I loved you once”? “Did you feel it, too?” All I want to write is a combination of our two names and the word “love” next to it, so that somewhere, however inappropriate, our relationship is immortalized. If I could etch a tree trunk right now, I would. Instead, I write a variation of what has already been said: Congratulations to two great people! I’m so glad you have each other. Thank you for having me. I write my name and turn the page to hide my false words. The pen rolls to the center of the book.
I have only seconds to think about it before my phone dings again. This time David has sent a text in all caps: BUDGET CUTS! He’s so prone to anxiety. I almost want to leave and call him, to soothe him. David doesn’t do well with change. But the procession has started with wafer-thin violin music. I plant myself in the back again. People slowly take their seats and look over their shoulders at the train of groomsmen loping down the aisle with no apparent rhythm or sense of timing. Garrett brings up the caboose. He grins at the faces he catches until he’s under the altar. It’s a terrarium of roses, candlesticks and crystals—Muriel’s doing. One by one, the bridesmaids float down the aisle like flower pedals would in water. The viola duo begins a slower song to let us know that it’s time. Someone stands up and we all follow. I stand on my tiptoes to see Muriel but a very tall relative blocks my view. Instead, I watch Garrett’s face for his reaction. He doesn’t deserve her. I’ve only known him for twenty hours, but I can tell this much. My heart’s gone feral inside my chest. It flutters like when I’m getting ready to confront someone. This isn’t right, I think, but am not sure what I mean by the thought. Muriel knows nothing. She’s rightly sweet and excited. All she knows is the happy moment in front of her that’s taken months to orchestrate. Gasps signal her approach. I lean as far in the row as I can to see her. Then I see her in the keyhole of space between two heads. If I doubted my feelings before, they solidify, years spent in the kiln waiting for the door to open and light to recognize it.
Now she passes our row. Her train spreads behind her; she’s rubbed a bit of shimmer across her forearms. Rather than a traditional white wedding dress, she chose pale pink with multiple rainbow ribbons falling from either shoulder. Muriel is the Mayday pole that all the children want to dance around. I remember how gifted she was at dressing herself, how she’d find the ugliest cardigan at a secondhand store and wear it the next day like it was worth thousands of dollars.
Muriel walks next to Garrett and they look into each other’s eyes. They both laugh at the other’s gaze and just before turning toward the officiant, Garrett breaks the rules and plants a kiss on the side of Muriel’s head. The audience swoons for this kind of spontaneous affection. Who wouldn’t kiss her? I wonder if I can make it through the service. A quick scan confirms there’s really no place to sneak away. Rather than watch them douse love on each other like one drowns a pie with whipped cream, I shut my eyes and pretend to let the ceremony move me. “You’re confused,” I say under my breath. It will pass.
The reception starts before I can escape. Courtney leads us to a large tent on the other side of the garden.
“We have to get there before everyone takes the good booze,” she says.
Her beau nods his head while ripping at the veins of a maple leaf.
For such a small town they have quite a large botanical garden. I think of bailing headfirst into the Japanese Zen garden, but Courtney has me tight by the arm.
We are the first ones to walk into the beige cavern. Caterers look up from what they’re doing with alarm. They probably didn’t expect us so quickly. The DJ sets up in the corner, while a three-piece band takes priority of the stage.
The cork barely breathes before Courtney finds a server with wine and plucks three stems of sparkling from the tray.
“Impressive,” the server says, although she looks annoyed at the manhandling of her work.
“Cheers,” Courtney shouts a little too loudly for the nearly empty tent. We clink glasses. Other guests trickle in. They find their name and table number on a square of cardstock with a bit of sea glass super glued to the corner. I am blue. Courtney has a bit of green, probably the remnants of an old Heineken bottle.
“Where did that server go?” She’s holding her empty glass by the stem and gently rocking it back and forth.
As I sip, I see a strip of purple paint has diminished to a smudge of ink on the side of my pointer finger. Glitter catches in the light.
“Look at this. It’s from the grass outs–”
But Courtney has locked in her target and pushes past me toward our original server.
“I saw that too,” the boyfriend says. He takes my finger and rotates it in the light. “By the table. Looks like some kid’s craft glue or something.”
The boyfriend’s touch is nurturing, not sexual. I’m grateful that he’s stayed next to me.
“I have to admit, I’ve forgotten your name. I’m so sorry.”
He drops my fingers in mock distaste. “How could you?” He smiles. “I’m Dave,” he says.
“Dave! As in David?”
“Huh. You’d think I would’ve remembered. That’s my boyfriend’s name.”
Dave’s face spasms, but he catches it, just like you would with the corner of a tablecloth caught in the wind.
“What?” I ask. There’s a Swiss-army-edge to my voice.
“Nothing,” he insists.
“Nothing?” I raise an eyebrow.
“Well, I guess,” he stalls but realizes he’s already too far in, “you didn’t seem like the boyfriend type to me.”
I process each word until the full sentence has meaning. My God, I think. How do people know before you do? I’m a blazing lesbian. I’ve been a lesbian for years and not known it. Fuck. I look around to see if anyone loiters within earshot of our part of the tent. How long have people looked at me like a closeted lesbian? Have I received pity throughout the years? I silently run through every encounter I remember where someone might have guessed that I was a lesbian. “You mean that I look like I don’t like men?”
Dave laughs now. “No,” he says. “I meant it like you look already married and settled. Maybe with a couple children. Recently divorced. I don’t know.”
Somehow, he insults me more than what I feared.
“No,” I say, joining him in shallow laughter. “I’m not married. Old Dave won’t propose. Too in love with groundwater charts to think about that.”
Dave nods his head and lets a large silence scythe through our conversation. He gulps down the rest of his wine. We stand as two acquaintances with empty glasses. I can’t stop. I imagine telling my David of the revelation, how he would most likely go for a hike after we talked to clear his mind, how he would come back to me and say that perhaps it didn’t matter, that he liked my company. Sweet David has no vitriol but for the bureaucrats who dictated our assignments and paychecks.
Courtney walks towards us with only one glass of champagne and begins talking before she’s close.
“…said that I can only have one because they need to save some for ‘the toast.’”
“Oh no,” Dave says, as he gives her a rough hug and causes her to tip most of her wine out.
“Goddammit,” she says. “They treat that like liquid gold around here. You’re gonna have to get me a new one. The grass can’t get drunk like I can.” She points to the ground and nearly tumbles out of his arms. They both laugh like it’s the funniest joke ever uttered, and I realize that they probably started drinking a long time before this first glass of champagne.
“Don’t worry,” Dave says. He slides from between us and jaunts to the bar.
“Let’s find our seats,” Courtney says, grabbing my arm again.
We sit at Table Fifteen like our name cards tells us to do. The band tosses its notes into the air above us. Plates clatter in the space outside of the tent. I look for Muriel in vain. She must be taking photos by the fountain or azaleas.
“I’m starving,” Courtney says. “You’d think they would get the food going soon.” Her grip lingers on my forearm, and although I try not to read into it, every thought, every gesture has become the subject of intense inner scrutiny. Now I view things through a different lens: Who am I, really, and how long have I not known? My old identity, a ship full of preferences, habits and traits, has sunk. A stranger adrift in a sea of strangers, I thank God that at least Courtney has taken a shine to me.
“Drink with me!” Courtney holds two fresh glasses in her hands and raises them both in the air.
“Sure,” I say. Maybe I put off lesbianism for the night?
She brings the glass down to my outstretched fingers. We cheer a little too hard and laugh when her boyfriend Dave shakes his head.
“You let the mother out for one day…”
“You’re a mom?” I ask.
She drinks a full gulp and wipes her mouth before responding. “Yes?” She has that is-it-a-problem look on her face.
I raise my hands up. “No offense meant. I’m actually very envious.” A lie according to the old me, but who knew what the new me wanted from life now.
“Her name is Sarah. She’s four. Muriel wanted me to bring her as the flower girl, but I didn’t think it would be right for her, you know, to see Mama having such a good time.”
Courtney reaches for her phone and pulls up a photo.
“So beautiful,” I say. Her daughter is holding a net and has a pair of binoculars dangling from her neck.
People begin to tap the tines of their forks on water glasses. Muriel stands in the front of the tent with Garrett on her arm. Some people stand and clap as they walk in. Others, like our table, barely notice the change in the room’s dynamic. Courtney hasn’t stopped talking about her daughter, and I sense she must have been holding back all day. I nod when I think appropriate, but my attention has gone to Muriel. The tapping continues until Muriel and Garrett look at each other and move in for the first of many solicited kisses. Nausea percolates in my stomach.
I excuse myself and find a back exit that looks out over a row of oak trees. Caterers make quick movements in the dark. Steam rises from trays they carry at shoulder-height. Already I know that you can’t see as many stars down here as you can in the north from our cabin doorway. I peck a response to Dave and end it with a heart emoji. Not false, I think. I do love him very much. Ours is a camaraderie most wouldn’t understand. We stay together because our flaws are human and humans are rare in those parts of Northern Ontario, almost as rare as polar bears. How enticing it is to forget this night and return to my old life in the cabin, crawl under the flannel sheets and sleep the troubles away.
My insides roil again, like I’ve drunk too much green tea on an empty stomach. Through a crack in the canvas I see summer dresses and cotton suits swaying on the dance floor.
You can’t tell your friend of ten years that you love them more than a friend, especially if you’re both women, and especially not at her wedding. She would question everything you ever said to her, every way you ever touched her and rewrite those memories as lustful repressions, but had I not just done the same with my own cache of memories?
Just then, Garrett steps out of the tent through the same back entrance I’d used. He strides a few steps from the jostling servers and serving platters and slides a cigarette from a pack hidden in his suit pocket. I wait for him to say hello, but he must not see me. Once he’s lighted it, he tilts his head back and closes his eyes, letting moonlight hit the sharp angles of his cheekbones and jawline. It’s a clichéd moment: groom escapes his own party to enjoy solitude. I don’t want to disrupt him. Rather than move, I stay in my spot of the veranda next to the trunk of an oak. Garrett takes a second and third inhale in such quick succession he looks fiendish. In the comfortable cradle of nicotine, he finally sees me in the distance. Garrett begins to walk in my direction and continues to smoke until he is within feet from me.
“Should have quit. Quit last week,” he says. The cigarette burns close to his fingers and says otherwise.
“That’s okay,” I say. “I know it’s hard.” Garrett holds the pack out to me as an offer, but I shake my head. “Such a beautiful wedding,” I say to continue the flow of conversation.
“Special,” he says.
“Really special. Thank you for inviting me.”
“Hey. Muriel never told me where you grew up.” Garrett takes his last inhale and throws the butt on the ground to smash it with his dress shoe.
“In a suburb of Milwaukee,” I say. He must see the street on me. If he can see that, can he see the other ‘thing?’ Does he know of my change?
“Did you like it?” He asks.
“Ha. ‘Like it?’” I look up at the sky as I search for the word, “I, I endured it, taught me a lot, but I don’t think ‘like’ is the right word.”
My answer seems to impress Garrett.
“Me neither,” he says. “It was rough here.”
“You’re from here?”
“Yeah,” he says more as a sigh than a word.
“Then why have your wedding here?” I ask, perhaps emboldened by the booze or the shadows.
“I, well, you know Muriel,” he says to me in a smile I’m meant to share. “She sees the good in everything and everyone. I brought her to visit a few years ago and she got it in her head that one day we would get married here, that it would fix all of my issues with this place, that we could write our own future.”
“Ha,” I say, “that really does sound like her.” We laugh at our common love.
“She always wants to fix people,” Garrett continues. “Maybe that’s why she chose us as people in her life.”
I have to admit that when Garrett uses ‘us’ in relation to Muriel, I get giddy, as though we are equal in her eyes. Forks chirp from inside the tent.
“Maybe,” I mutter. The feeling spreads all around me and plucks at the muscles of my groin. The three of us lie together in the dark. Garrett’s suit jacket balled in my hands, Muriel’s ribbons tickling the curve of my hip. So confused am I that I begin to lean towards Garrett like we’ll kiss. Luckily, he’s looking up at the sky and notices nothing. An announcement meanders through the crickets and humid air: someone on stage is looking for Garrett.
“That’s me,” he says, brushing his hands on his pants. He tips an invisible hat and walks back towards the tent. I stay still. Now that I’ve put myself in that context with Muriel, I can’t extricate myself from it. We are naked. We are young. We are back in Brooklyn on an appropriately cold winter’s night. She gives me her nipple. I take it. I give her my neck, and she takes that, too. If I were holding a champagne flute, I would smash it with the intensity of my grip. The thoughts throw me off; I struggle to maintain composure, as if I’m inching across the thinnest ledge of a canyon. Despite a good effort, I lose my balance and fall in.
Grass licks my ankles until I’m back in the tent, bathed in lantern light. It’s amazing how few people see me as I walk between tables. I’m more invisible than the servers who clear plates. Before Courtney realizes I’m back, I’ve left the table again with my purse and the piece of cake by my name card. Guests dance the Macarena. The band has taken a break to eat their slices and down a few whiskeys neat. The DJ eats his cake too but drops some frosting on his equipment in the process.
I glance down as I walk and neon purple glitter catches my eye. It peeks out from the side of the dessert plate. I search the cake for another sign of glitter but see none. Nothing braided in the fluffy sponge layers. No lavender seeds sprinkled on the top as garnish. Other people’s slices have swirls of chocolate but absolutely no purple or glitter, but the sight of Muriel stops me from thinking about the cake. She and Garrett stand back-to-back, taking on their guests as they come, one polite conversation at a time. I feel ashamed that I commandeered the memory of my best friend for my hedonistic purposes, on her wedding day, nevertheless. Standing at the edge of the dance floor, I try to fill my head with our golden moments— the time when I wanted for nothing. Muriel was “New York” for me, which, back then, was the same as saying “the world.” Let her go.
Although the Uber driver says he doesn’t mind if I eat my cake in the car, he keeps watching me through the rearview mirror, so I lay the plate in my lap and look out the window. The cake is vanilla with a lemon frosting. Perfectly acceptable, I think, for wedding cake. Back at the picnic table by the river, the water has crept up the bank and lies within feet of me now. It’s much closer than it was this afternoon. I wonder if the moon has dominion over rivers as much as it does on seas.
When I was younger, I used to make deals with myself, pacts that had the flair of witchcraft. If I licked the frozen pole, I would pass my history test. If I drank all of the juice in the pickle jar, I would be the smartest girl in the entire world. If I rubbed rose petals across my cheeks, I would extract their essence. Now, as I look at the water, another bargain brews in my head. If I get in the water, Muriel will love me like I love her. I can’t help it. Desire forges the thought no matter whose wedding day it is. The river throbs close to my feet. The moon appears from behind a sheath of clouds, agreeing with the decision. Allow me to baptize the new person I’ve become. A scratching from the opposite bank stops me, but only for a moment. It sounds like a squirrel running across bark. Nothing will hurt me, I think, now that I’m true. My phone fits nicely in the straps of my sandal. The water’s colder and swifter than I expect. Current grabs at my thighs and my new ambition. One foot, then the other. My feet disappear; my ankles slip into the mush of decomposed leaves. The riverbed might be a permeable boundary for something deeper, but I’m not interested in that world. I’ve held the hem of my dress until this point but drop it, as I walk in up to my shins. The fabric floats for a bit before it becomes waterlogged and sinks down with the rest of me. Water fills my ears, and I open my mouth to the taste of metal. In order for this to work, I have to submerge myself fully. That way the world above the water can completely change without me knowing it. I hold my breath and count to twenty. I hear things shifting in the mud. On the other side of this, two bodies will share the same love, and it only takes the part in my hair breaking the surface to realize that something has changed.
The Matryoshka Dolls
“What is purpose of this?” Zoya picks up Destiny’s jar and shakes it in my face. Three lonely quarters clink at the bottom and echo in that hollow place deep inside me.
“Luck,” I say. “Hoping to turn bad luck into good.”
“I do not understand.” Zoya is intense, Russian, and unapologetic.
“It’s a fundraiser. That little girl has cancer, and the family is collecting money to pay her medical expenses. They have a Go Fund Me page, too… anything to raise money.”
“It is begging!” Zoya says. “You must beg to cure child in America?”
I shrug and get a pack of Marlboros for her from behind the counter.
She pays and then drops a twenty in the jar. “I have healthy son and much luck.”
Zoya lives in a new townhouse across the street from the convenience store where I work. She married an American man named Mr. Clark, who she met online. She invites me to hang out with her after work. I sink into the white leather sectional and stare at the blank widescreen TV mounted on the wall. This place is fabulous. Maybe I should go online and pretend to be from Moscow or Budapest or Prague because being a plain old American girl is a dead end. I admire a china cabinet filled with dozens of elaborately painted nesting dolls. Zoya hands me one and I pull it apart – one inside the other, seven altogether and at the center a baby with the tiniest, sweetest, heart-shaped lips.
“They are matryoshka dolls my mother paints. The Russian people believe they bring good luck to family. You have husband?”
I shake my head.
“You like woman?”
“No! I just have bad luck with guys.”
“Bad luck… I once have bad luck. Alexi’s father was very terrible luck. Only good thing he give to me is Alexi. But now I have good luck with good man. Alexi will be real American boy and not have life of sadness.”
“A good man is hard to find is what my foster mom used to say.”
“What means foster?”
“Foster is, um… taking care of a kid even though it’s not your real kid. I was raised in foster homes since I was ten.”
“You are orphan?”
“I might as well be.”
Zoya is silent for a minute, then she gets a pack of Marlboros out of her purse. “I smoke now. We go outside.”
I follow her to a narrow balcony that overlooks the pool. We sit on bright yellow lawn chairs. “You want cigarette?” she offers.
“Sure. But I’m trying to quit.”
“I tell same thing to Mr. Clark, but I lie. He hates me to smoke.” She inhales deeply then admires the Marlboro in her beautifully manicured hand, turning it from one side to the other. Her nails are painted fire-engine red. “American cigarettes are best in world.”
“How is she doing?” I ask Destiny’s mother’s boyfriend when he comes in a week later to collect the money in the jar. There’s $67.34 in it – I counted it twice this morning. What kind of medical treatment does $67.34 buy?
“She just had another round of chemo. Baby girl ain’t never had nothing but bad luck. It breaks my heart. I love her like she was my own. One day when I was just a bawling, she told me to hush ‘cause inside her there is this perfect girl who don’t have no cancer and that she is all the time thinking of how she is gonna crack herself open like a pecan and that girl is going to jump out.”
That hollow place inside me aches. He leaves a handwritten sign for a barbeque fundraiser on Saturday. I post it in the store window. When Zoya comes in for her Marlboros, I ask her if I can buy one of her matryoshka dolls. I want to give it to Destiny on Saturday to bring her luck.
“No buy,” she says. “I give to you.
“I couldn’t just take it. Your mother painted those and they must mean a lot to you.”
“My mother paints matryoshka dolls all the day because she has life of boredom. I have dolls filling boxes inside closets. She is always sending more to me.”
“No. My mother lives in Florida and is married to fat Ukrainian man who sells bad cars.”
“You mean used cars?”
“They are cars that have traveled much distance, but he fixes so people who buy think they have traveled little.
“That’s against the law.”
“Yes. He is thief!”
“Do you want to come to a barbeque with me on Saturday? It’s to raise money for Destiny.”
“What is barbeque?”
“People roast a big pig and they drink lots of beer and they smoke cigarettes and listen to music. You can bring Alexi.”
Zoya purses her bright red lips. They are shaped like those of the littlest matryoshka doll. “Then maybe I will like.”
On Saturday, when I go to pick up Zoya, there are two huge boxes next to her door.
“I have large idea,” she says. “We sell matryoshka dolls at barbeque and give money to Destiny. They bring much luck to all who have.”
“Maybe luck is another word for hope.”
“You are interesting person.” Zoya lights a cigarette. “I have handsome cousin Sergei. You would like to meet online, perhaps?”
I tilt my head, considering. What do I have to lose? I bum a Marlboro and fill that hollow, achy spot with smoke.