Before the Wedding
On the morning of my wedding I woke up at six, which annoyed me since we’d gone to bed only four hours before. There were people sleeping everywhere, friends and cousins who had come for the wedding and didn’t have the money for a hotel. I made my way between the sleeping bags and poked my head into my sister Hallie’s room. She was sleeping with her face smashed into the pillow, our cousin Carol snoring in the other twin bed. I pinched Hallie’s fingers, our longtime way of waking each other up.
She peered at me with one eye. Her head looked grotesquely large. We had gotten our hair done the day before, both in updos that we hated but that our mother felt were appropriate. Mine was Jane-Austen-ish with a hairpiece perched on the top of my head and side curls. Hallie’s was what was called a French roll, smooth on the sides and pinned into a fat twist behind. Usually we wore it in the universal style of the ‘60s – long and straight with a middle part. Because Hallie’s hair had a tendency to misbehave, my mother had rolled her head with toilet paper. She had suggested that we might want to sleep on our backs.
“Are you up?” I said.
“Let’s go someplace.”
“I’m bored.” This wasn’t true. In fact, I was nervous and jittery. I wanted to get married, but at the same time, it seemed like a silly idea, the kind of idea that had nothing to do with me as a person. I was in love, of course. We had been together for more than a year. We had had sex probably only twenty times, for then it was harder to do that when you weren’t married.
“Just come on,” I said.
Five minutes later, we were running down the path that skirted the backyards on our street. There was the place where you went past the greenhouse, the place that was overgrown with ivy that had escaped its bed, the place with the trees that crossed halfway up, and finally, the place where the ground started to slope and we went down toward the creek.
All this time, we were silent. Like one of our old games, when we were pretend detectives in the MerHall Agency, a mashup of our names, Meredith and Hallie. I had put on jeans and a sweater, but Hallie hadn’t bothered to change. She had a windbreaker over her pajamas, but had removed the toilet paper. When we got to the bottom of the path, we stopped. For the last few minutes, we had heard the noise of the water growing louder, the sound of the waterfall that was still out of sight.
Where we stood, the water was smooth over the bedrock, but quickening. Hallie threw in a leaf, and then a rock. We listened to the plunk.
“I don’t see why this had to be such a big thing.” I meant the wedding. In 1969 the people I knew agreed that if you had to get married, the best way to do it was in a field or on a beach. The bride should make her own dress, and the bouquet (if there was one) should be freshly picked wildflowers. Shoes were optional. My mother had listened to these plans tolerantly and then gone on to produce the wedding she had always had firmly in her mind. I had a white satin dress with a train and shoes with court heels. We were getting married in a church. Our friends’ band was not going to play at the reception. The only concession I’d wrung from her was that my bouquet would be daisies instead of an oversized cascade of white roses.
“I know.” Hallie gestured toward her hair. “Do I look ridiculous?”
“No. Well, yes, with the pajamas.”
We walked along the creek. I figured that we had an hour at least before anyone woke up.
“I suppose if you had to marry someone, James is OK.” Hallie had picked up a stick and was poking moodily at the swirls of debris collected between the rocks.
We’d talked about James a lot. He liked Hallie and she liked him. We’d gone on some double dates together, fixing her up with some of his friends – Gary, whose nickname was Goofus, and the other Gary, whose parents were rich, and a few more. None of them took, but it didn’t matter. Hallie was picky, but adorable, and also a little too young. No one minded when she lost interest.
Years later, it would be different. Hallie would be living with someone and James and I would be divorced. When he and I meet, we’re friendly, but distant. We talk now about our grandchildren, and about books: safe topics. All the meanness and sorrow, the fights when one of us walked out, or lost our temper and threw wedding gifts around the room—we don’t talk about that, or even remember it, most of the time. When I look at James now, I don’t see the dark-eyed boy I loved, the rebel who grew his hair long and wore a sweatshirt with a silk-screened picture of Che Guevara on it. He doesn’t see whatever it was that he saw in me.
Back at the creek, I didn’t want to talk about James right at that moment. I was in love with him, of course, but I’d be seeing him later. In a few hours, we’d be exchanging rings in the church, and then I’d have room for him in my head.
Hallie had taken off her shoes and put her feet in the water. “Do you remember Linda’s wedding?”
We had been to many weddings by that time, for we came from a big family: seventeen aunts and uncles and too many cousins to count. Linda’s wedding though was memorable. For one thing, she was beautiful, the kind of girl who always had people asking if she had thought of being a model, who was never without a boyfriend, whose hair was naturally blonde. She was half a generation older than we were, the oldest child of my mother’s second oldest brother. Her family had lived for a while in the bottom half of my parents’ double house, and so we were closer than to some of our other cousins, in spite of the age difference.
Linda had tried to teach Hallie and me to play baseball and put on makeup, and she let us listen to records on her very stylish Dansette record player, which came in a blue leather case. When she got married. Hallie was nine and I was an awkward twelve, and there was no reason she should have asked us to be in the wedding, but she did, as flower girl and junior bridesmaid, wearing bright yellow dresses identical to the senior bridesmaids but with modestly high necklines. At the wedding, she’d gotten friends of her new husband to dance with us so that we felt like grown-ups. When I was twelve, I thought there was nothing better in the world than to be Linda in her white dress, blonde hair glowing, eyes shining, her cheeks pink with excitement and sips of champagne.
“She gave you cherry pop with booze in it,” Hallie said. “You’re lucky I didn’t tell Mom.”
And then, “I was wondering,” Hallie said.
I expected her to ask me something about getting married, or about James. How we had known we were in love, or how I decided to say yes when he asked me. Or maybe about sex. She was sixteen and a virgin (we told each other everything, which disconcerted and annoyed James when he found out, one of the many things that later made it obvious we weren’t soulmates).
I turned to her, ready with answers (for didn’t I think I had all of them then?). It was barely past dawn, and the birds were rioting in the woods, calling and flitting in little aborted flights, round and back to the trees where their nests were. The water was a deep brown-green, and I reached down to cup some in my hand, surprised as always to find it clear.
“Let’s go down to the slab,” she said. She picked up her shoes, starting off without waiting to see if I’d follow.
Sometimes when we came down here, we’d see hikers, or other teenagers up to mild forms of mischief. But now in the early morning, there was no one else, only the two of us and the birds and whatever wildlife was hiding from us in the brush. We teetered over an uneven pathway of rocks, and made our way to the slab, which was a flattish plane of rock, fallen long ago into the creek from the side of the ravine. The stream narrowed and deepened along its side and rushed toward the waterfall in the shadow of a bridge. If you went right out to the end of it, you could look down and see the water foaming and rushing to the still pool at the bottom. The slab seemed solid but also precarious, for we had the evidence all around us of how the earth changed – the ravine was littered with the evidence of geologic upheaval, great pillars and buttresses that must have seemed once as immovable as the rock we sat on, but which had broken and fallen into the creek.
When we were comfortably situated on the very tip of the slab, our legs dangling over the water, I said, “I wish I’d brought my camera.”
“Photo of your last morning unmarried?”
“Photo of the sister of the bride wearing pajamas with her sprayed-up, curly-curl hair.”
“I pretty much hate it,” Hallie said.
“At least you don’t have a hairpiece that looks like a monkey hat.”
It was so long since she’d said “I wonder” that I thought she’d forgotten whatever it was. I didn’t ask her though. A hundred thoughts were rushing through my head, as chaotic and roiling as the water flowing past us. For instance, my wedding shoes didn’t fit quite right. They were loose in the heel, and I worried on the one hand about a blister and on the other hand that I’d lose one when I walked down the aisle with my father. I was worried that my father would say something humorous (as he often did) when we took our walk, and that I’d laugh. I had some vague jealous feelings about my friend Natalie flirting with the brother of one of my other friends: he was very cute, and it seemed unfair that Natalie could hit on him and I couldn’t. I had a concern about being able to go to the bathroom in my wedding dress (I had resolved not to drink anything all day). I wished that my mother would stop flitting around and rearranging things, and also that she would stop looking as if she was going to cry.
I didn’t worry at all about whether or not I was making a mistake in getting married, or whether James and I would get along for the rest of our lives. This was because, as it turned out, I didn’t really believe in the idea of being married forever. I knew you were supposed to (especially if you were Catholic and from our particular family, where no one had gotten divorced except for our Uncle Roy, who was a drinker and who had had a bad time in the war). When James had asked me to marry him, I had thought something like, oh, cool. We would get married and have sex all the time. I had thought nothing out, not what being in love meant, or where all that sex was supposed to lead. I didn’t know how to cook or stay on a budget. I was determined that I wouldn’t do any housework, although I hadn’t figured out how that would work.
I didn’t worry about any of that, and probably James was also blithely not-worrying, and so it should have been no surprise when we found out that we didn’t want to live together for very long, and certainly not forever.
I think the best man likes you, I said to Hallie. The best man was James’s friend from grade school, a sweet guy with glasses and a muscular football player’s body.
“He is my type,” she said, for we had agreed that her type was big and buff while mine was dark and pensive and maybe a little tortured. “But I like Carol’s wedding partner better.”
“You should flirt with him to make her jealous.”
“It would make for some drama. We don’t want it to get boring.”
We discussed ways to make the day less boring for a few minutes, getting sillier and sillier. We’d get our cousin Tim to kidnap the priest. We’d steal James’s tux, or wait – the ring! We’d spike the punch with LSD. We’d disassemble all the wedding bouquets and make a flower petal mosaic in the churchyard. We’d bring our Aunt Minnie’s taxidermied dog and put him in the front pew.
We got caught in one of those laughing jags where you can’t stop, where as soon as you try, you look at the other person and start up again. It exhausted us, this laughter, and we ended up lying side by side. The slab was cool under us. I closed my eyes and listened to the water gurgling and chuffing, imagining that we were on an island, the kind of island in fairy tales that appears when it’s needed and then disappears again, visible only to someone who is on a quest, the success of which will decide the fate of the world.
“Will it be different now?” She gave a shrug. “I mean, you’re going to be a wife.”
I started to answer her, but I was stopped and startled by the word “wife.” It sounded a little off, had a kind of weird finality. When James proposed, he hadn’t said, “Will you be my wife?” or even “Will you marry me?” He’d said “I was thinking maybe we should do the thing. You know, the ring and the priest, all of that, to keep the folks happy.” I was sure that Linda’s husband hadn’t asked her this way but the casualness of his proposal was fine with me – if he’d gotten down on his knees, I’d have laughed him out of the backseat of his car, which was where we were lying half naked when this conversation took place.
There was a scrabbling noise, and when I opened my eyes I saw that Hallie was sitting up, arms around her legs, chin on her knees.
“James likes you,” I said. Which was true. In fact, I believe that he found her as attractive as he found me, making it seem chancy and random that it was he and I who were the ones getting married.
A few weeks before, the three of us had played around with the idea of making a movie, using my dad’s Bell & Howell. I can’t remember the plot now, but it was vaguely mythological and would take place in the woods with our friends as actors. There was a mysterious beast, I remember, a hunter, and a woman who gets lost in the forest, also some fairy children who take her to live in a cave. James was going to play the beast and also maybe the hunter. Or maybe they were the same, we weren’t sure yet. We fooled around so long that I was late for my wedding dress fitting, so Hallie drove James home. I waved at them from the driveway as she pulled out, and it seemed strange to me, almost as if they were going on a date. I’d congratulated myself for not being jealous, which was something I despised.
There was a rustling in the trees on the bank, and we stilled, looking to see what had made the noise. We always hoped we’d see a deer, although we never did. Whatever it was seemed to be coming down the hill in a purposeful way. The tops of the slender brushy trees quivered, and we waited, not speaking. But nothing appeared, not so much as a chipmunk.
Now, the world is different – so many deer in the suburbs and even the city itself that sharpshooters are hired to keep the population down. Now, Linda’s husband is dead and her hair, still blonde, is dyed. Hallie is living in another city, which is annoying to both of us at times. Now, as I said, James and I are distant friends, and when we meet there is nothing to show that once we entwined our arms and legs together, our lips against the other’s neck or shoulder, our noises subdued to hide what we were doing from our parents, or later our children. Now, if two sisters went down to the creek on the morning of a wedding, they would both have their phones, which would make it possible for many selfies to be taken.
“Do you hate your bridesmaid dress?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It’s fine.”
It was pale blue and otherwise undistinguished. She looked good in it, but she didn’t really care, I don’t think.
She turned her head toward the bank where something was still rustling. “I believe it may be an escaping criminal,” she said.
The words “I believe” were an old signal that said we were taking a step away from the world. When we were little, they marked the beginning of a game of pretend, when we, or our avatars, the dolls, would search for treasure or detect mysteries, or become fanciful creatures, princesses with talking animals for pets, or explorers.
I laughed. The sun was up over the tops of the trees and the slab was warming up from its night coolness. “I believe,” I said, “that it is a highwayman.” I sat up, and declaimed “Bess, the landlord’s daughter, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,” which was from a poem we had both learned by heart one summer, when our mother made up tasks to keep us from driving her crazy.
“Suppose that anyone in the world could come out of the woods right now,” Hallie said, “or around the bend of the creek. Anyone in the world, alive or dead. Who would it be?”
I sat crosslegged, rubbing my palms against the sandy rock. “Anyone,” I said. “Anyone, anyone.” I was more competitive then. I always wanted to have the right answer, even if it was a game, even if it was only for my sister. No movie stars or rock musicians, which I felt would be plebian. None of our dead relatives, although I would have liked to talk to our dead cousin Billy, who had moved to California and died there in a way that was never described, which we felt meant that he had killed himself. “OK,” I said. “Virginia Woolf.”
“That’s your pick?” There was a dip in the rock that filled with water when it rained, and she was dabbling her hands in it.
“What’s wrong with Virginia?” I’d been reading her books and felt that we were kindred spirits.
“Nothing. It just wasn’t what I expected.”
“What did you expect?” I asked. But she wouldn’t tell me.
Sometimes I think it was a test, that she thought if I really loved James, he would be the one I wanted to see coming out of the trees. Should I have wanted it to be him? I was going to be seeing him in a couple of hours, for God’s sake, when we met at the altar in our fancy clothes. But probably this is hindsight. Probably she didn’t have anyone in mind at all.
For a while, we talked about the wedding guests who were staying over. My friends from Chicago, our cousins from Pennsylvania. My college roommate Roseanne was sleeping on the loveseat, her brother in a sleeping bag in the hall. Roseanne would get married the year after me, and I would attend with a baby in tow, for I was destined to get pregnant on my honeymoon. The baby would sleep in a laundry basket at Roseanne’s apartment.
I confessed to Hallie that I found Roseanne’s brother attractive, although I added that he was not as cute as James of course. I think both of us had forgotten that I’d never answered her question. Would it be different?
It suddenly seemed to me then that we had stepped away from each other, although we lay inches apart on the rock. There were things I might not tell her in the future, and while this seemed natural (because of course I was in love), the law of balances demanded that she, too, would have secrets from me. This seemed wrong. We had sometimes fought fiercely when we were little, and even up through our teens. I would hit her sometimes, and she would cry and tell our mother. I gave her a black eye once when we were fighting over who would sit in our father’s chair. We would refuse to speak to each other for half a day. We would ignore or betray each other briefly in favor of school friends. But always there was this humming, vibrating tie, our sisterhood, our likeness, our shared quirks and dislikes. People on the street would ask if we were twins. Our own relatives sometimes mistook us for each other. We found it annoying then, but later on it became a comfort, that what was between us was visible, that even strangers could see it.
We finished each other’s sentences, came up with the same ideas – like the movie. We’d planned to film it in these woods, along this creek, and it was almost as if Hallie and I had unknowingly entered the space of that narrative, that we were visible in the camera’s eye, the irregular edges of the slab a frame with the water rushing around us and flowing away. The words that we had spoken to each other were dialogue, although I didn’t know who had written it. Playing the part of the bride: Meredith. And in the role of the bride’s sister, Hallie, three and a half years younger (the half year had always been important). The camera’s imagined eye above us closed in to catch the lowering of her lids, lashes fanned against her cheeks, and the way the fingers of my left hand twitched, making the small diamond of my engagement ring glint a hard sparkle, our fancy hair splayed on the sandy rock that pillowed our heads.
In five minutes or ten, we would get up and walk back up the creek and through the woods to the house, which soon would not be my house, and suffer the ministrations of our mother as she chivvied us into our gowns, maid of honor blue and bride white, and we would talk to our friends and if we had a private moment, make fun of our cousins.
On the bank, whatever had come down the hill was still moving about, not a highwayman or a prince, but our neighbor’s dog. Her name was Tricks (although she knew no tricks that we had ever seen). She was a big galumphing lab, so pale a gold that her fur looked almost white. She stood on the bank and barked at us.
Hallie raised her head. “And so another joined the quest,” she intoned. “Together the two of them and their faithful canine companion would join in the journey to the lands of the north—“
“Where they would undergo great hazard and many battles,” I continued.
Tricks jumped into the creek and swam across, stopping midway in a shallow spot to examine something in the mud. She belonged to the family that lived next door to us, who had four teenage sons, as blond as Tricks, and tanned, as if a family of surfers had been magically transplanted to Ohio, complete with a set of Beach Boy records they played night and day. We used to spy on them when we were younger, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, which looked out at their driveway and garage, where they spent a lot of time fooling with the car they shared. (Actually, we had done that the week before.) They had no interest in us whatsoever, but Tricks visited us often. She was a wide-ranging dog, known for begging food from people up and down the street.
“How you doing, Tricks?” Hallie called to her. “You’re really my dog, aren’t you, baby? You’re going to come and live with me when I live in my farmhouse.” This was something Hallie had suddenly started saying, that she would live in a farmhouse with an orchard and a barn and other farm things. She never did though. She doesn’t have so much as a tomato plant in her yard. Tricks looked up with her head cocked in that way dogs do, her ears flopping, which made me laugh. She swam the rest of the way and climbed up on the slab to flop down in the sun.
“Our canine companion is licking my foot,” I said.
“She’s a dog-wizard. It’s her healing power.” Hallie said. “OK.”
“I was thinking about the movie,” she said.
“Hmmm,” I said. My head felt a little thick, the way it does when you know you’re going to fall asleep in a minute, when it seems to be filling up with something, a mist that thickens and swirls and starts to produce the flotsam of dreams. James swam through my head, wearing the Che Guevara sweatshirt. He was smoking Che’s cigar, drinking from a glass of cherry pop. Linda was dancing on a floor covered with water, her gown swirling wet around her feet. That is not right, I thought as the mists swirled, but I didn’t know what it was that was wrong. The sun was warm on my face, and the rock was starting to feel as soft as a pillow.
“The ending is lame,” Hallie said. “It’s the kind of thing Mother would like.”
“Hmmm,” I said again. Our mother didn’t like books or movies that didn’t end well or that had swearing in them. Or snakes. She was so terrified of snakes that she left the room if there was a picture of one on TV. “Can’t they come up with something more cheerful?” she would say.
“Maybe the fairy children could be evil?”
“Maybe.” She must have moved, for her voice was farther away, more mixed with the sounds of the creek and Tricks’s panting. “Maybe she gets rescued too easily.”
“We never said if she was rescued for sure.” I felt impatient suddenly. I shrugged my shoulders irritably, as if I were Tricks shaking something off.
There was a splash, and then another, and when I lifted my head, Tricks was in the creek, with Hallie standing beside her, the water swirling around their legs. It made me nervous, the way it did later when my own children did slightly dangerous things. Only a few more steps, seven maybe, and she would be at the edge of the waterfall.
“Don’t go so close,” I said.
Hallie narrowed her eyes. “Don’t be Mom, just because you’re getting married.” She took another step closer to the edge and I sat up, ready to grab her even though I knew she was only doing it to annoy me.
James had enjoyed the whole discussion of the movie, all the planning, the scouting of locations, but I knew that he never thought we’d actually do it. I knew that we weren’t going to do it, too, but my knowing was different from his. He wasn’t used to pretending. He’d never played a game with a jar of rose petals and some captured Japanese beetles. We were pretending to pretend, but James thought we were just pretending.
Tricks barked, chasing something, a fish or a leaf, and Hallie stood with the water swirling around her legs.
It was almost time to go. I had thought that we might smoke a cigarette in the clearing behind our house where we hid our bad habit from our mother, but there was no time probably for that one last thing. “I’ve got to go and be the bride,” I said.
Hallie shook her head, watching the light on the surface of the creek. She was laughing and Tricks was dancing around her, splashing both of us. The sun had cleared the trees completely now and it made the water look like jade, heavy and opaque.
The sun showed the path that we sometimes took under the bridge, edging along the foundation to pass the waterfall, and the sketchy edges of the leaves on the aspens that shook and glittered on the bank. I felt as if we had the same thought in our heads. It wasn’t distinct, more of a thought cloud, something that had weight and texture and atmosphere, but no words or direction. I knew we had to go but I waited for one more minute to see if it would come clear.
Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) - both by Random House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.