“I thought you’d get along.” “Why did you think that?” I say. “You do so well with wounded men,” she says.
Srijon Chowdhury, Wedding Bouquet Mirrored, 2014. Oil on panel, 12 × 9 in. Courtesy the artist and Klowden Mann, Los Angeles.
I fly to Seattle, by myself, to go to my friend Indigo’s wedding. She was one of the first work friends I made when I started in advertising and we drank together at Happy Hour events in Midtown practically every Thursday night for several years, and even took a few vacations together, just weekends away, but still. Her mother is Trinidadian and her father is Caucasian and everywhere I went with her men would tell her she was “exotic,” and she would always reply, “I am not a bird or a flower, I am a human being.” She eventually quit to become an acupuncturist, but she is marrying a rich man, so she only works part time. Nevertheless, it is a hippie wedding, or at least maintains the appearance of one. They are both barefoot. There are wildflowers everywhere. Her dress appears to be in tatters. We are in someone’s backyard, although this particular backyard has a view of the Puget Sound.
I sit at the singles table under a nest of twinkling lights and grape leaves. There are four other single women there, two of them lesbians, who are best friends with each other, and they seem invested in gossiping about everyone they went to college with; one of them is a retired nun, her story remaining mysterious throughout the night; and the final woman is Karen, a real career gal. I say this not to make fun of her but because she describes herself as such, which means it is doubly true. There are two gay men at the table who used to date and are using the evening as an opportunity to hash out a few things, and there are two straight men: a newly divorced uncle of the groom named Warren, and a tall, broad, masculine man named Kurt who works at the corporate headquarters for the Seattle Mariners.
I watch Karen get toasted quickly on Chardonnay and Kurt joins her, but he’s drinking Scotch. They flirt heavily, shamelessly, nearly professionally, and it feels like we are no longer at a wedding but instead are at a bar, and there is a basket of popcorn in front of them and a sports show playing noiselessly on a television set and a jukebox that keeps igniting itself every fifteen minutes with a bouncy, auto-tuned pop song. Warren and I sit back and watch them flirt, our own kind of flirtation. It is like we are on a double date with them, only we hate them.
“Get a real eyeful,” I say to Warren. “This is what you have to look forward to now.” Warren laughs at me. He is in his early fifties and has a smooth, calm demeanor, and he has all of his hair, graying at the temples, and he is rich like his nephew who is marrying my friend Indigo. He tells me he just joined a hiking club. “I used to do it with my wife, and then I was doing it by myself, but I think I’d like to do it with other people sometimes,” he says. His arms are tan and lean. He tells me also he got a dog six months ago, and they go to the dog park every morning together. Just having that dog waiting for him when he gets home is helping him get through this trying time. “I’m glad you got a dog,” I say.
We eat oysters, caught and shucked this morning, an inch deep in their shells. We drink champagne, the good stuff, real, from France, and there is a toast and another and another. Kurt has loosened his tie, and put his arm around Karen. He kisses her on the cheek, they whisper in each other’s ears. They are plotting. The sun sets behind the Olympics and we are all dazzled. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” I say. “I see it every day and I never tire of it,” says Warren.
Kurt and Karen announce they have decided to pretend they are a couple for the rest of the night. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? If they pretend they knew each other already, that they’ve been dating for six months, and that they had shown up together, on a big romantic date? “We met when we were bowling,” says Kurt. “No, kayaking,” says Karen. “Kayaking, right,” says Kurt. “He just had dinner with my mother last weekend for the first time and she loved him,” says Karen. “And I loved her. How could I not be charmed by that woman?” says Kurt. Karen is gleeful. “We weren’t even supposed to be at this table,” says Karen. “They ran out of room. It was a mistake.” The retired nun looks at them blankly. “Why weren’t you supposed to be at this table?” “Because we’re not single,” says Karen. “We’re together. We’re a couple.” “I don’t get it,” says the nun. “Don’t bother trying,” I say, and I pat the nun on the hand.
Post-toasts, Karen and Kurt work the room, arms around each other, pretending they’re in love. Kurt introduces Karen as his “S.O.” to someone. “What’s an S.O.,” says Warren. “Significant other,” I say. Warren sighs deeply and squeezes the edge of the table with his hands. “Oh Warren,” I say. “I really did not think going to this would be this hard,” he says. “It’s only hard if you make it hard,” I say. “Come on, let’s dance.” I am being impulsive here. I don’t like dancing. But I can tell Warren would be good on his feet. He’s a steady man. He could lead me.
I watch the bride in shredded silk, her ring bigger than all the stars in the sky.
We slow-dance to a cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Whenever the lead singer crows, “How does it feel?” the whole crowd sings along with him. Across the dance floor Karen and Kurt are screaming it in each other’s face. Indigo and her new husband, Todd, dance over to us. Indigo is stunning, and I tell her so and we hug and dance. “Is this the best party on the planet?” she says. “It’s epic,” I say. “Stratospheric.” “Did you get enough champagne?” she says. “Everything is perfect,” I say. “I’m glad you’re dancing with Warren,” she says. “I thought you’d get along.” “Why did you think that?” I say. “You do so well with wounded men,” she says. She leans in close. “You are kinder than you know,” she says. Todd grabs her and they dance away before I have a chance to insist that she’s wrong. I watch the bride in shredded silk, her ring bigger than all the stars in the sky.
Later Warren and I sit back at the table alone, our feet splayed on chairs. There are hot-fudge sundaes in front of us. I ask him for his cherry and he gives it to me and I greedily eat it. He has been telling me about one of the three companies he owns. Karen and Kurt stumble in front of us. She is holding a bottle of champagne. It is her bottle, and I would like to see anyone try and take it from her.
“How did it go?” I say. “Did everyone buy it?” “We got busted a few times,” admits Kurt. “But it was fun!” says Karen. “Wasn’t it fun?” Kurt nods. Kurt seems like he’s ready to come back down to earth. “And now we’re going back to the hotel,” says Karen. “Me and Carl.” “It’s Kurt,” says Kurt. His face darkens. “What?” she says. “My name is Kurt, not Carl.” “I meant Kurt,” she says. “Oh my god. I’m sorry. You know I know your name, right?” We wait and watch, Warren and me. Kurt and Karen leave together.
I put my hand on his arm and I am certain my smile is electric. I am thinking about the notion of kindness.
“What would you do if you were Kurt?” I say to Warren. “I would take that girl back to her hotel and tuck her in bed and then go back to my own room and jerk off,” he says. “Odds are she passes out before anything gets too serious,” I say. “And anyway what if it does?” “I’m old-fashioned I guess,” says Warren. “Are you?” I say. “You’re not old though. If that’s the way you’re feeling. Because you’re not.” I put my hand on his arm and I am certain my smile is electric. I am thinking about the notion of kindness. I stroke his arm. The night is cool. The band announces it’s the last song. He says, “I had a good time with you.” I say, “I did, too. We could just continue this. It can just be easy and fun. You can come back with me, or I can come with you.” I’m still stroking his arm. “I promise you I’m not drunk.”
He says, “I know I’m probably a fool for not taking you up on this offer, a lovely young woman like you, but it’s just not what I do, not how I am. I’m not saying you’re wrong for being how you are, although I can’t say it’s right either. I can’t say any of what I’ve seen tonight is right.” I pull my hand back.
He says, “I was with her for twenty-nine years. We got married right after college. This was the person I was going to die with. I never worried about dating or casual sex or any of that. I don’t know how you all do it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Aren’t you lonely?” I say, “Warren, please stop being terrible.” He says, “I’m sorry.” He pauses, and then his voice grows louder. “No, I’m not sorry. You wanted to have sex with me. And you just met me. You’ve only known me for three hours.” I say, “Warren, I’m sorry. I was wrong after all. You are, in fact, old.”
I leave. I have tears in my eyes. Indigo sees me on the way out of the party. “It was just such a beautiful night,” I say as I wipe my eyes. “I got caught up in the moment. I’m so happy for you.” We hug and then I hop into a van that is waiting out front to take me to the hotel. Karen and Karl are in the van and when I get in, they stop making out. “You can do better than this,” I tell them, but I’m not sure which of them I am speaking to when I say it.
Jami Attenberg is the author of a story collection, Instant Love, and the novels The Kept Man and The Melting Season. Her last book, The Middlesteins, was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and was published in nine countries. Her next book, Saint Mazie, will be published in June 2015.