I like to remember her at her brother’s wedding. Dyed hair. Green dress, black sleeves. Pendant. Cleavage. Her head tilted slightly to the side as we stand outside the church so she can smoke. Neither of us want to go back in. The groom met the bride when she was sixteen and he, well into his twenties, dated her in secret until she came of age. To protect their secret, the couple dated an extra two years before announcing their marriage. I know the story and so does Bellona, but the parents think the couple have been together for half the time they’ve actually been together, a tiny farce which I had hoped would lend comedy to the proceedings but which, as it turns out, seems to have made absolutely no difference at all.
Anyway, when I do think of her, I think about her smoking outside a church at her brother’s creepy wedding.
Bellona – really my common-law fiancée, since we’re about to move in together – looks nothing like her brother. He’s tall and apish. The bride is vaguely pretty but I get the idea she’s dumb and I can’t help feeling sorry for her. They are both entirely without personality. They might as well be a pair of lightswitches because, really, when was the last time you remembered your lightswitch? I think about my first apartment, my first vacation, the first hotel room I ever stayed in, I can remember lots of details. But never the lightswitch. That’s this bride and groom. That’s this whole wedding. It’s a lightswitch affair.
The church has faded yellow walls except in the sanctuary where the stained glass windows are covered with a thin film of dirt. The pews creak and there’s this overpowering stench of disinfectant. The bridesmaids are dull, the groomsmen unstylish in their rented tuxedos. Look at those plain dresses, boring suits, fat stomachs, bad haircuts, heavy breasts, wrinkled arms, oversized glasses, gap-toothed grins. I’m almost embarrassed at how much me and Bellona stick out. Is this arrogance? Is this ego? No. This is truth, as unassailable as science or love or the fact that in this moment, she and I are completely doomed. In a few weeks she’ll move in; in two and a half years she’ll move out.
Neither a bridesmaid or a maid of honour, Bellona is called upon during the ceremony to read that same passage everyone has read since the dawn of weddings. If I speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal…. She’s done a little theatre, which is how we met. I loved her on and off the stage even as she suffered from such belly-aching stage fright that she lost five pounds and ended up in the hospital from malnutrition. Now, when she sits back down, she’s trembling like she just stepped out of winter and I have to hold her hand to keep it from shaking.
It’s the last public performance she’ll ever give. In six months she’ll go back to grad school which will eventually give her the confidence to admit that she can do better than a writer who never does the dishes, annoys her friends, likes lousy music, gives lousy gifts, is getting fat, hogs the covers, comes quickly, arrives late, works too much, reads too much, goes drinking alone, never calls. Once, after a performance of Merchant of Venice, I held her in the wings to quiet her nerves. But she won’t be thinking about that when she walks away.
It’s during that awkward interim between the wedding and the reception that she pulls me outside so she can have a smoke. I point my camera at her. Don’t take my picture, she says and she turns her head to the side. I ignore her and snap not one photo, but two. These two pictures are why, in the absence of other photos, I’ll always picture her in that green dress as if it was the only thing she ever wore.
Other pictures are taken that day but I’ll never see them. Although I’m included in the family photos, the clever photographer puts me at the edge, probably guessing that one day the family will want to crop me away. Unaware that my future involves being Photoshopped into extinction, I go out of my way to charm everyone I meet. I like how adult I feel with my arm around Bellona, standing so tall in my dark suit with the sharp red tie that gives the whole ensemble a little pop. Touched that I have been welcomed into the photographs – and so into the family as well – I promise myself that I’m done with the other girls. I even promise that I will keep this promise. This should have been all the warning I needed. If you need to promise yourself that you’ll keep a promise, you clearly don’t have the strength to keep a promise so you’ll never keep the first promise which means you’ll always break the second.
But I think this time will be different; this time, I think, I will reinvent the wheel.
I dance with Bellona and then with her mother. I like the mother. She’s big but she’s still pretty and I think that if this is what Bellona turns into, well that won’t be the end of the world. I realize that I want to see Bellona in twenty years, I want to see her get blousy and expansive, the way all women do. I make more promises to myself. I’ll quit writing. I’ll go work for my father. Bellona and I will get a house. I’ll have a steady income. I’ll get a pension. I’ll do something real.
Bellona doesn’t believe me. You love writing, she says. You won’t really give it up.
The world won’t miss me, I say. All right, maybe someday, some journalist might wonder where I went. And maybe he or she will go looking for me only to find me in a house, in our house. And I’ll invite him or her into our fully equipped kitchen for a drink. A dog will greet us with pleasant barks and a wagging tail. We have company, I’ll say, and down you’ll come, forty-five years old and spectacular. Perfect hostess that you are, you’ll prepare coffee and we’ll feed this intrepid reporter and then the door will open and our little boy will run inside, arms outstretched, and he’ll make a daring leap into my arms. The reporter will ask questions. You had a little bit of fame, he or she will say, and then you disappeared. What happened? And I will glance around to my home and hearth and wife and dog and I’ll say This. This is what happened. I had a life.
Sounds wonderful, says Bellona and she kisses my chin. You wouldn’t believe the width of her smile. She really loved me in that moment. And I feel good. I feel like I’ve climbed the mountain and planted the flag. I have Done Good Work. I have played the Good Boyfriend and I have done it well. I feel taller and hyper-masculine, like I’m one of those guys who killed Osama Bin Laden. If terrorists broke into this wedding, I feel like I could pick them all off one by one.
But terrorists don’t break into this wedding – it’s far too dull. At the reception, stuck in a corner table with various cousins, Bellona takes advantage of the free vodka. The bride is Russian and her father has put a bottle of Smirnoff on every table and right away he’s at the microphone making a toast. He’ll make a lot of these throughout the night and each time Bellona takes a shot. She becomes sloppy-silly. Together, united in loathing for this entire event, the two of us laugh at the bad food and the bad speeches, especially the one where the bride stands up and blatantly lies about how she and the groom met.
Not a good sign, I say.
Not at all, says Bellona.
A confident prophecy. It’s completely wrong. This couple will outlast us all. They’ll still be together when Bellona leaves. They’ll still be together when I break up with the girl I dated after Bellona walked away. They’ll be celebrating their fifth anniversary when I break up with that kindergarten teacher and they’ll be celebrating their tenth anniversary when I move in with my agent, who I swear kisses me like she’s punishing herself for some unspoken crime. They’re together now. Twenty years. That couple, who met under such grotesque circumstances, have become a marriage that other people adore.
As for me and Bellona, well, we don’t really talk. But I think about that life sometimes, the one I promised her we would have, and I wonder if she went out and got it with someone else and if she ever mentions me and I picture her at a coffee shop, wisps of grey hair, talking to some husband or best friend or tabloid hack and falling into a story I don’t recognize starring a man I don’t want to know and who, if I were to judge him solely on her description, I would probably never want to be.