I Do, But Maybe I Don’t
It was my daughter’s idea for us to get married in her backyard. Leah had it all planned before asking us if it was something we might consider. I could tell by the way her eyes shone bright green with purpose. Already a caterer had been lined up and the menu planned. All we had to say was yes, and Leah would handle the rest.
I didn’t want to marry Holt. I didn’t love him. But he was an insurance policy if the pea in my breast was cancer, and I needed to be taken care of. Seeing a doctor, getting the tests, knowing for sure, was out of the question. Every night after finishing that first glass of Merlot I poured a second then third convincing myself why not a fourth? My pity party of one was an excuse to black out the possibilities of life with the big C. To tell anyone this, especially Leah and Holt, would cast me as a crazy person. Maybe I am.
I didn’t want a fuss on my wedding day. I was going to belong to someone, safe at last; that was all that counted. Being a bride was nothing, being a wife—everything.
Either way, forces seemed to push Holt and me together, like a steel trap we couldn’t wiggle out of. Holt was persistent and not bad in the sack for an old guy. I’d been on my own for so long I came to enjoy cooking for a man again, and Holt was a real bona fide eater who praised my kitchen talents ad nauseam. The way he spoke you’d think basic spaghetti and meatballs or a tuna fish casserole I’d been making for forty years were gourmet meals. For years, he’d been on his own eating Stouffer’s lasagna or some salt-laden TV dinner.
On our wedding morning, after a long shower, I dressed in a tracksuit and drank a cup of coffee standing at the kitchen sink watching Cat huddled under the neighbor’s dead tree. On the back porch, I poured milk and dished out smelly cat food into bowls. He bolted toward the door as soon as I went back inside. It’s the one thing the poor bastard could count on—me filling his bowls everyday.
The only kind of love I believed in was the doomed variety, and the cat that I named Cat was about the only thing that loved me back. Until Holt came along. There was a lot of me in that animal: resourceful, stubborn, and resilient—and, of course, secretive.
As I listened to Holt’s phone ring, I unzipped the tracksuit jacket and pressed my fingers to the pea and kneaded under and around it rooting for an explanation. Is it a bruise, a fatty deposit? I couldn’t tell if it was hard or soft since it was strangely orbital in its selected space in my small breast.
Holt finally answered. “Good morning bride.”
“I’m wearing the burgundy dress, not the naked colored one. Whatever you’re wearing, make sure the tie color works with burgundy.”
The burgundy dress hid the walnut-size nodule on my clavicle, the result of not getting the cracked bone set after a drunken tumble down the basement steps.
“Got it. And how are we feeling this fine day? Can’t wait until you’re officially Mrs. Burgess, the second.”
I rolled my eyes picturing Holt untying me from the tracks as a train barreled toward us. The damsel in distress. I liked Holt’s long arms of protection but wasn’t looking forward to sharing my house with him. Yesterday, I cleaned out dresser drawers and the closet to give him space for his things. Still, I was secretly grateful that his house hadn’t sold, and the merging of his life with mine was put off for a while.
“Donna, the first, and Marlene, the second,” Holt said and laughed because, of course, he thought he was so damn clever.
I’m always second, I thought, never first in anything.
If it turns out I don’t have cancer, I can always divorce him. I survived one divorce, I can survive another.
“I get it.”
Inside of Holt, there lurked a deep reservoir of irrelevant information he fished from every time he opened his mouth. Doozies like “Did you know an elk has four stomachs?” It caused listeners eyes to glass over. I learned to appreciate Holt’s ability to take the attention off my third or fourth glass of wine because of his love affair with his own voice. But after a while, I wished he’d shut up.
“Just remember the tie,” I said. “I’m wearing burgundy. Leah will throw a fit if your tie doesn’t match.”
At my first wedding in 1967, I was 20, Larry 22. He wore his Army dress uniform to the Justice of the Peace. The girl working the reception desk and a janitor buffing the hallway floor gave him dirty looks. Not like now when servicemen are given free drinks in bars and have their own private lounges at the airport. Timing is everything, even in the military.
* * * * *
Leah’s house was a circus of activity. People in white shirts and black aprons zigzagged around the bright white cabinets and stainless steel appliances. Unlike my avocado kitchen that I found cozy and warm, Leah’s looked stark and exposed.
Workmen adjusted a large canopy that took up most of the backyard. Underneath were rows of white wooden chairs with silvery cloth covers tied at the back with big bows. The china, stacked at one end of the long banquet table shared space with silver serving
dishes. On tables moved off to the side until the reception began crystal fluted vases held long, slender white lilies accented with greens.
As usual, my daughter had gone overboard. When I agreed to let Leah host the wedding I specifically asked to keep it simple, suggesting brats on Chinet. The few friends from the neighborhood and some from my Bunco group that I invited would think me ridiculous. Hoopla for a woman who clipped coupons and still had the same wallpaper on the walls that I hung when Leah was in junior high school. All this extravagance for a second marriage. But the yard, I had to admit, did look like a movie set.
The white trellis, where we were to say our vows, was adorned with intertwined vines of flowers and sat out in the open. Holt was underneath it inspecting the trellis construction. He had those stupid dirty white running shoes on with shorts that hit his hairless legs mid-thigh. His pride in grooming and taste ended at the mustache.
I stood in front of the dining room window looking onto the yard cloaked in white. Leah came up behind me and gave my shoulders a squeeze. I felt my clavicle throb. “Mom, why are you hiding in here?”
“I’m not hiding. I’m checking things out.”
“And? What do you think?”
“It’s too much. I never expected all this.”
“Well, you’re getting married. I want it to be a special day for you and Holt.”
“I feel like Elizabeth Taylor in “Father of the Bride.”
“Speaking of movies, Mark and I and the kids bought you and Holt a new flat screen TV and a cable subscription for your wedding gift. I know you can’t live without your movies.”
“Oh, that’s too much, Leah, really. And all of this—this day, too. You’re spoiling your old mom.”
“I love doing this for you.”
Truth be told, I liked my old TV and my alphabetized shelf of over 400 VCR and DVD movies. I belonged to two clubs. Watching movies, sometimes the same ones over and over again, was my religion. Holt could care less. His idea of art was that mustache of his, comic book superheroes, and Laurel & Hardy.
We turned our gaze to my future husband outside the window. He had dragged one of the cushioned chairs from under the tent to the trellis and stepped up on the seat to get a better look at how the crystal orb hanging from the center was lit.
“Oh, boy,” Leah sighed.
I should stick up for Holt’s quirky curiosity. That insatiable need to know how everything worked, but it was too much to explain. I was hungover and dehydrated. My daughter would know what was up if I asked for a Coke.
Leah saw the burgundy dress through the dry cleaning bag draped over my arm. Here it comes. She’s going to have a fit that I’m not wearing the naked colored dress we picked out together a month ago.
“What’s that for?”
“I looked like a blanched almond in the other one.
“Mom, you looked beautiful in it. This,” she gestured toward the dress in the bag, “this is a fall/winter color. It looks like brocade. Is it brocade?”
“How do I know? This one’s more comfortable.” Leah didn’t know about my deformed clavicle.
“Did you bring the other dress?”
“Let it go. I’m wearing this one. Now tell me where my grandchildren are. Their G-ma wants to see them before she ties the knot.”
Leah looked hurt, but it was my wedding, and I’ll wear what I want to.
* * * * *
I stood in the bathroom doorway watching Willa frown as she fought a round brush through thick, dark waves. Good God, my granddaughter, at 18, looked like my son-in-law Mark’s Italian mother, a solid stump of a woman with olive skin and a peasant’s big bones. Willa a dead ringer for Laine Kazan.
“People would give a million bucks for that head of hair,” I said.
“I’d give it to them for free,” Willa said, hugging me hard enough to make my ribs cry. Holt broke one of my ribs a couple of months ago after he picked me up and swung me around the kitchen when a favorite song came on the radio. We had started early that day, a bright June Sunday without a cloud in the sky. Vodka tonics. My former drink that I’m back on now thanks to Holt’s encouragement because of his distaste for wine.
My rib cage aches every time it rains. And now I was marrying the dolt after five months of courtship.
“I’m happy to hear that, but you’re squeezing me too hard.”
Willa let go and picked up the brush. “Are you excited? I can’t believe you’re getting married.”
“Me either, doll. I think I went temporarily insane when I said yes.”
“You can always back out, G-ma. We’re not living in medieval France.”
It didn’t matter whether it was the 11th century or 2011, escape by matrimony has been going on for centuries. I said yes to Holt’s proposal the night he told me he gave Donna more morphine than directed by the hospice nurse. Her ovarian cancer had spread, and the end was near. He couldn’t stand her suffering.
After that confession: “Marry me?” he asked. “I need a woman in my life.” I wasn’t too drunk to hear the difference between a woman, and I need you in my life.
We both wanted something from one another. At night, lying next to Holt, I’m still left with the same anxieties, the same dull regret. It was so easy to start off on the wrong side of a beginning. To start off in the wrong direction.
“That’s just it, darling, your ancient Grandma doesn’t want to be alone anymore. With Holt, God help me, I’ll never feel lonely since the man does not shut up.”
Before Holt, I’d only had three lovers in my life, Jon, my high school sweetheart; then Larry, my ex-husband; and a boozy one-night stand with the bald insurance salesman two streets over. I learned a thing or two from Holt, although I didn’t tell him that. He was
attentive and experienced. Maybe it was knowing so much about plumbing that allowed him to understand female genitalia. Whatever it was, Holt didn’t utter a word in bed. It was my favorite place to be when we were together. Otherwise, I fed him to keep his mouth shut. Or drank too much so as not to hear him.
Willa laughed despite trying to brush through a nasty knot. “I hate my stupid fucking hair.”
“It’s beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
“Sorry for the fuck, G-ma.”
“Sometimes that’s the perfect word. Am I right?”
“Fuck yeah!” Willa smiled at me from the mirror.
Willa was the female version of my son-in-law, but every bit my clone personality-wise. The sharp tongue, ironic sense of humor, and a bullshit meter better than most adults would get her far in life. Plus, she had the school smarts to back it all up. At the end of every school year, since she was in third grade, I was attending some academic awards ceremony where she was picking up medals and plaques.
“I think today is romantic,” Willa said. “You’re getting married!”
Romance? What an idiotic notion, I wanted to tell her. It’s just a pairing of genitals when you get right down to it. I had much more in common with Holt in bed than I ever did with Larry. Milquetoast Larry with his vanilla sexual appetite. He was my rebound after losing Jon. And then I got pregnant. We eloped right before Larry’s deployment to Vietnam. Within six months three guys from our town had been killed over there. When Larry left, I honestly didn’t think I’d see him again. Maybe he felt my ambivalence. We were babies ourselves and ill-equipped to parent, but we did, if even for a short while together after he got back. Leah was a sweet baby and from an early age loved hair bows and dress up and dolls with perfect houses and wardrobes. Larry, even after he left us, adored his only child and spoiled her rotten sending Leah gifts and showering her with a love of all things beautiful. Me always feeling like the ugly parent left behind.
* * * * *
We came downstairs dressed in our wedding attire; another contingent of worker bees had taken up more space in the house. I had nowhere to hide from the cacophony of clanking spoons in pots and bowls of sauces and salads, cupboards opened and shut, and the buzz of hurried conversation. It was an hour to showtime, and the smell of adrenaline had permeated the house. So did the smell of garlic and onions. Italian food. Not my favorite, but Mark’s who probably felt he was entitled to make the menu selections for my wedding because it was his backyard and his checkbook.
Trying to stay out of the way, I sat down in a dining room chair feeling burdened by all the activity. Or maybe it was the heavy fabric of the dress I insisted on wearing. Either way, I thought about going back upstairs and changing back into my tracksuit and hightailing it out the door. The thought of leaving Holt at the trellis, alone, like the Katherine Ross character in “The Graduate,” flicked the switch on my internal furnace of anxiety, causing the sweat to park underneath my bra and at the small of my back.
“Willa, find your grandmother a glass of red wine,” I said. “Don’t let your mom see you.”
While Willa clomped to the kitchen in her purple patent leather clogs, I stood at the dining room window and looked out at the transformation of the backyard. Anything can morph into something it’s not, even though I couldn’t remember what exactly the yard looked like before. Potted trees with pink flowers stood against the canopy’s silver poles. At the back of the property a wooden divider, painted a silver and gold, showcased photos of Holt and me at different stages of our lives. Is this our funeral?
Two men in low-slung butt crack jeans laid black and white square sections for a dance floor. Small lantern lights with ivory candles hung from the two gnarled apple trees at each side of the yard. From the surrounding hedge and remaining trees, amber and pink twinkling lights sparkled under the high-noon sun. Even my grandson Sean’s tree, a white birch, given as a gift from me after his birth, was festooned with white paper doves. Willa’s birth tree, I can’t remember what kind, didn’t make it—dying soon after it was planted. Why hadn’t Leah and Mark replaced it? Or was I supposed to buy a new one?
As much as I told Leah not to fuss over the day, quick I Do’s, and a small potluck reception would have sufficed; I was in awe of all the attention the day required. All of this for me. What a hoot.
Here I am, looking out at these strangers carrying trays of glasses and silver chafing dishes and centerpieces, everyone busying themselves with tasks, and there, sitting, legs askew, bouncing a golf ball on one of the tables is Sean. Shirt untucked. Tie half done
around his neck. His light brown hair shaggy and heavy on top. Would it have killed him to get a haircut for my wedding day? An odd child, that grandson of mine, with his wide toothy smile, the cave of his mouth too big for his face. He had two seconds of attention for anyone or anything. Just like his father in personality but he looked like Leah, and Larry’s side of the family, all long nosed, thin-lipped and angular. Sean long limbed with ants in his pants. Even as a baby, he would wiggle and squirm his way off a lap, scale down from the high chair or over the baby gates Leah had set up around the house. Nothing worked. The kid wasn’t happy until he’d escaped whatever confinement he was in. We all called him Houdini.
Willa handed me a glass of chilled white wine. “No red. Mom told the caterers red wine was too messy. Aunt Audrey said she would have someone pick some up.”
I rolled my eyes and took a long sip and sighed. “Your mother and her perfections.”
“I can get more,” Willa said. “Just let me know.”
“Give me the usual hand signal,” Willa said.
God bless my granddaughter. Leah counted every last glass, every last sip. She even made it a point to show up on recycling morning. Pretending to check my mailbox at the end of the driveway but scanning the bin for empties. So now I throw the bottles in the regular trash. It’s better than listening to her harp on me for twenty minutes about the implications of drinking alone.
And alone was the only way I liked to drink without the stares and judgment of others. Holt didn’t even know where I hid my empties. But that wasn’t surprising. I could fool him on anything. Including this day, this wonderful August day, a bluish-white sky like
fragile bone china. At sixty-four how many more lovely summer afternoons like this one did I have? I wasn’t afraid of dying even with the mystery pea possibly growing inside me. I was afraid of getting sick and being alone. The same way I felt about my pregnancy with Leah—an unexpected mother and wife in the 1960s with teased hair, a toddler on my hip, in an apartment with no furniture, and alone.
My love of movies began in that tiny apartment. The characters more real to me than the people I worked with at the grocery store. Leah loved movies, too, and watched right along side me. I’m convinced she learned more about decorating from those Hollywood sets then all the college courses in interior design she took for her degree.
Sean was tossing the golf ball up against the white fencing at the side of the yard, making a clomping sound each time the ball hit the wood.
“Sean!” Mark yelled from an upstairs window. “Knock it off.”
I couldn’t stand the man, not when Leah married him and not now. That I’m too important to be standing here listening to you squirm. Like he’d rather be anywhere else. Those smelly cigars he smoked. Sticking his nose inside a wine glass like a big shot. He should have continued as a lawyer and not left to work in that rock and roll business filled with drug addicts and crazy people. Plus, he was gone too much. Leah was on edge all the time, being both mom and dad to the kids. It made her brittle, anxious. With the kids and
their activities and all that running around she did for rich, white women and the betterment of their homes, I honestly had to marvel at her. Leah was a force of nervous energy and determination, in equal parts. Today, both were evident in the details. Where did she come from? This desire to be everything I was not?
Sean dragged his bare feet across the grass toward the house tossing the golf ball and catching it. He yanked the terrace door open letting in a burst of humid air.
Sean gazed back at me with those beautiful hazel eyes that spoke to me as half boy, half man. What went on in that bobble head of his? He was a sweet kid just a little slow and scattered. I often wondered if he took after my mother’s brother, the one that ended up homeless. Mom pointed him out once as I rode in the car through downtown Hamlin to one of the houses she cleaned after my dad died. “There,” she pointed when we had stopped at the light. “That’s my younger brother, Arthur.” I watched the man stare off into the distance as he pulled an old red wagon filled with dirty cloth bags. I didn’t know how to feel about a relative that looked so filthy and forgotten. Much like I didn’t know how to hang my love on Sean, he was so elusive.
“Let me help you with that tie,” I said, then grabbed his arm to pull him toward me. At sixteen, Sean was at least a head taller, and I had to rise up on my toes to plant on kiss on his pimpled cheek. “You need a haircut, mister.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “It’s sweet this long, G-ma. All the ladies like it.”
Mark barked from upstairs. “Sean. Shoes.”
My grandson looked down at his feet, gave me a quick peck on the cheek, and took the stairs two at a time to the second floor.
In the kitchen, I heard Audrey barking orders at the staff she had assembled from her restaurant. I liked my daughter’s best friend. Audrey was gutsy, loud, and messy. Her unapologetic way of speaking and spunkiness caused those around her to stop and listen. A sharp contrast to Leah who held on to her contingent of life props: decorations, clothes, and things and then retreated to a small corner to observe it all.
Laughter broke out like escaped happiness in the kitchen. I heard Holt’s loud voice entertaining the staff, no doubt with one of his incredibly useless stories. People loved Holt. Thought him harmless as honey with his knowledge about nothing at all. Was I the only one who could see the man behind the mustache? The mamma’s boy. The racist that yelled awful things at the TV while watching Fox News?
Mark came downstairs in a dark suit and tie and stood outside the kitchen terrace door blocking Leah from getting in. My son-in-law had this way of standing with his feet apart not letting Leah pass until he got his point across—more like keeping his wife in place. I watched him drag a finger down to Leah’s cleavage. She grabbed his hand then pushed her lips on his. Is that what he wanted? A kiss? For as long as they were married Mark has always commented on my daughter’s high heels, short dresses, making Leah fight him off as he groped at her. Mark laughing, thinking it was funny. I thought he was a bully. An Italian bully. A goon. The worst kind.
A tray fell in the kitchen.
Where was Willa? I needed more wine.
Out the window, I saw Roseanne and Martha traipsing around the tent for seats. Tina, that tart that set Holt and I up on our first date, followed in stilettos that sank into the grass with each step. What gall, I thought, wanting to open the window and shout, “Always the early birds for the best seats, ladies?” They were annoying in their early arrivals to Bunco sitting in the same spot week after week with Martha always yammering on about her brilliant son, the doctor.
I drained the glass of wine.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Leah said, coming behind me from the living room.
“What does it look like? The bride is imbibing.”
“Okay, but please pace yourself.”
“Relax, Leah. Please. It’s my wedding day. I need some help to get me through the I Do’s.”
“What I mean is . . .”
Willa slid up next to me and put her arm around my waist. My granddaughter, the protector.
“Listen to me, Willa,” I said, ignoring Leah’s eyes. “The real life relationship conundrum is this: there is always someone in the relationship that loves the other more. That’s how people get along so well. One adores the other. The other one, eh, not so much.”
“Is that true?” Willa laughed.
“Mom! Really!” Leah said.
Did I believe what I just said? I knew, from first-hand experience that a marriage that started with a lie was bound to fail on a lie. For as long as I could remember I had been telling lies to myself and others. Lying and pretending, like waking and breathing, part of life’s rich mystery.
“I’m just saying that that has been the case with my friends. When you get to be as old as I am you start to figure out what makes people tick, that’s all.”
“I believe you, G-ma,” Willa said, wrapping her arms tighter around my waist. I turned to hug my granddaughter and over Willa’s shoulder I saw Sean in the foyer rifling through someone’s purse.
* * * * *
My wedge heels pressed into the grass as I inched my way from the stone terrace to the trellis where Holt stood in his dark suit and burgundy tie, the mustache hanging over a wide smile. I know he loved me in his own way, and I was content with that. I just wished I didn’t have to prove it in front of all these people, thirty-five to be exact, some from Bunco and the neighborhood, others employees of Holt’s plumbing supply store. A lawn mower hummed in the distance. A bee buzzed the shaved head of the officiate Leah found through one of her clients.
I’m doing my part, I thought as I gripped the bouquet of pale sherbet lilies that were supposed to go with the naked dress, not the burgundy that hung on me like a queen’s robe I was now sorry I chose.
One of the wedding guests sitting in the chairs that flanked the aisle began coughing a dry hack. For a minute I thought maybe it was my dead father right up there in the front. It sounded just like him at the end, the lung cancer from his three-pack-a-day habit. Would I sound like that at the end, too, that dry hack of death? Poor Holt, who looked at me with those basset-hound eyes, he didn’t know what he was getting into.
Willa scratched through “Here Comes the Bride” on the violin. I was hoping I’d catch a smile from her, but she looked so serious as the bow sawed up and over the strings. I wished someone would laugh to take the focus off of Holt and me standing underneath the trellis looking like dressed up idiots. Holt grinned showing small Chiclet teeth hidden under that bush of lip hair.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered on this beautiful August afternoon to witness the union of Marlene and Holt, a couple, who know firsthand, the importance and meaning of commitment and love after taking care of other family members through sickness and in health.”
What was he talking about? Holt must have given him a martyr’s resume on helping the suffering. The man was practically shouting in my ear. Don’t go there, I wanted to warn him, but instead I rolled my eyes at Holt, not a kind thing since he looked like he was about to cry.
The officiate and Holt were staring down at me.
“What? I’m sorry.” Some of the guests behind me chuckled.
“Yes or no?” Holt asked. “Will you have me?”
Gazing into the centers of the lilies, their pistils like the bones of the ear, I gripped the sweaty taped stems of my bridal bouquet and the crumpled paper with the smeared vows. The wind picked up a little and rustled the lanterns in the trees. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Audrey and a woman from the catering staff lean into one another, whispering behind their hands. Could they tell I didn’t love him?
* * * * *
It was morning. I needed water. My mouth was like a parched miniature landscape. My lips could barely move against my teeth. Light seeped into my closed eyes. Dear God, how much did I drink? Fragments of the reception bubbled up: a congo line with Willa and Sean. Leah sitting at one of the tables, frowning. Mark glancing at his watch. Holt grabbing my arm. But why? Those bitches from Bunco leaving the reception early. I did remember that. “Good riddance,” I called out after their rigid backs. Following them out to their cars, holding up that dress to cross the street and yelling awful things, I remember all that. It was still light outside then. The rest of the reception a black hole of memory I would have to dig myself out of.
Behind closed eyes, I could pretend it was a dream I was just waking from. Not real. The wedding, the reception, the parts I couldn’t remember? All a dream. And Holt? I remember the “I Do’s.” The strange, happy smile he had as he looked down into my eyes.
Something rose in my throat, made my heart pump a little harder through my achy body, the blood to my soaked brain. Did I tell Holt I didn’t love him?
Still, we were husband and wife. There was some safety in that.
A shadow crossed over my face. Cat sneaking into the house wondering when I’d get to filling his morning bowls. Or Holt wondering how someone could sleep so long. I turned my heavy head toward the shadow and opened my eyes. Holt stood over me, a dark glisten to his eyes. His hands balled into fists, which he tried to hide under crossed arms.
“Are you mad at me?” I said in a dry whisper. “Don’t be. I have breast cancer.”
Robin Gaines debut novel, INVINCIBLE SUMMERS, was published last June and has been awarded honorable mention in the Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Beach Read Festivals for 2017.
Robin Gaines is a member of Detroit Working Writers and the Metro Detroit Book & Author Society.