Randall was propped against the Formica and vinyl-clad wet bar at the Alverton Volunteer Fire Department Social Hall. At the opposite side of the space, next to a long table of cookies, the polka band had launched into a zesty rendition of the Chicken Dance. Guests wove through a garden of dining tables toward the dance floor. Randall tipped his glass toward a purple-chiffoned bridesmaid who wobbled past his post at the bar: a zaftig girl who, he imagined, had her eye on him over the course of the reception. He was still in the process of gathering his courage, glass by glass.
The bartender, a twenty-two-year-old cousin of the groom, was assisting him. The boy was terse, focused. He spoke in short, clipped tones and moved jerkily, a manner suggesting that perhaps he had never been in charge of anything quite so important before and intended to make his debut as a dependable sort a rousing success.
Randall cocked his glass toward him. The boy nodded gravely and filled it with gin and just enough tonic to be able to call it a drink rather than a really tall shot.
“This is the night, Charlie,” Randall said to him. “Yep. This is the night.”
“My name is Justin,” said the boy.
Randall thought Diana was the most beautiful bride he had ever seen, but he would think that. Her only flaw on this day was her lack of a more perfect mate: him. Her strawberry-blond hair had been gathered and piled into a half-braided, elegant updo. A fairy godmother or two had wrapped her lithe, athletic body in satin, then bedizened it with strips of lace and constellations of beading. She glided through waves of guests as if her feet never touched the ground, so he thought. She stopped, mingled, chatted, hugged, and laughed with practically everyone: aunts, uncles, cousins, new in-laws, the many well-heeled friends who knew her physician husband from another life.
As much as he tried, Randall could not prevent himself from dwelling plaintively on the irony of this particular evening. It was an anniversary, one recognized and commemorated by him alone; two years ago, to this day, he had met and fallen in love with the woman who today became a wife. Just not his wife.
But they had so much in common: baseball and blues recordings and old movies. So many engrossing conversations over lunch and, when she got a new job with a different company, so many evening phone calls that were just as engrossing. He waited and watched and bided his time, thinking things were developing, hoping for the right opportunity, the right moment to tell her how he felt. Then, completely out of the blue (for him), bam! Her “big news.” Her being “madly in love.” Her “Oh, I can’t wait for you to meet him, you’ll really like him, he’s very cool.”
He didn’t even know she’d been dating someone.
What a sap.
Randall watched Diana move onto the dance floor followed by her maid of honor, who carried a pillowcase. They set up next to a small table bearing a couple of liquor bottles and a stack of Dixie Cups. Time for the Money Dance. Line up, ladies, and gentlemen. Pay your toll, throw back a quick shot of Jacquin’s something-or-other, take the new Mrs. Pettibone out for a spin on the dance floor, kiss the bride…
Well, at least he had that. Tonight was the night a brief moment of harmony, if not bliss, might be achieved, made even more poignant to him from the sense—in this sobering space of blood drives, bingos, and Lenten fish fries—that his first forty-two years bore a conspicuous lack of such moments. After two years of waiting for the chance, tonight he would kiss her: tonight, now that his chance with her was gone.
Randall kept a death grip on his tall gin, as he joined the queue of two cousins, a brother-in-law, an uncle, and, weirdly, the caterer, who—smitten. Randall surmised—had seen enough in his brief time with this woman to comprehend what Randall had two years before when he first met her. She was special. This woman who had married someone who wasn’t Randall. His scalp was hot and damp with sweat, which made its way to this forehead. His armpits were practically weeping. Sweat, liquor: he reeked of heartache.
Reaching the front of the line, Randall set his drink on the small table, fished a fistful of damp bills from his pocket, and shoved them in the Laura Ashley pillowcase the maid of honor smilingly held open. He took his Dixie Cup shot of peach schnapps. “Good luck to you both,” is what he tried to say before he threw back the liqueur. What came out was something like “Gzoock shoo boat.” Just as well; why he was saying this to the maid of honor, he realized, made just as little sense.
Randall had slightly mishandled the schnapps and was mopping this goatee with his jacket sleeve when the ensorcelled caterer finally finished his turns around his dance floor with the bride. Randall feared that anxiety and flop sweat had compromised the integrity of his styling gel. He imagined hairs popping up all over his head like snapped violin strings.
“Randall,” said Diana, holding out her arms to him. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Oh, how he had longed for such a gesture. He felt dizzy.
“Di, I would not have missed this for the world.”
That was what he rehearsed. Instead—perhaps from a sense of his deranged appearance, and unexpected lurch in his heart, the apprehension that the hopes of forty-two unremarkable years suddenly hinged on the immediate pursing of his lips—he said, “Goo!”
The real problem, however, as he approached her with what felt like agonizing, cheap movie-effect slowness, was with her lips: suddenly, there were two sets. Dodging to find the real ones, he listed and snatched up a bit of wedding gown hem with this shoe. He shook his foot to extract it, but the complicated layers of frail fabrics only seemed to suck him in deeper, like quicksand, or desire. With puckered lips and eyes wide with mad fear, he pitched forward. Her own eyes, he noticed, got surprisingly wide themselves.
They hit hard. Witnesses would recall that they thought he was going for a celebratory chest bump for which the bride was not prepared. Randall’s hands went freelancing, reaching for anything and finding only the sweetheart neckline of her dress as the couple dipped, twirled, reeled backward, and exploded into the cookie table.
Unfurling lace, swirling satin, off-the-rack summer weight wool, arms, legs, and airborne confections traced their path as he struggled to right the bride and himself. Someone shrieked. Something tore. The wedding band, next in the couple’s path, lost time and began faltering mid-ballad.
They had the attention of the entire social hall by the time they side-swiped the accordionist. His instrument screeched like a tremendous bird of prey brought down on the wing before landing in the drum kit. Randall heard cymbals crash free. Diana was still somehow upright, backpedaling when Randall’s feet finally lost purchase after mashing down on some cream horns, and he belly-flopped forward. Only his hold on the neckline of her dress and the bodice that came away with it spared him from hitting the floor full force with his face. The bride’s collapse further softened his fall.
As the two finally came to rest amidst bestrewn cookies and amplifier cables, Randall saw—from the vantage point of his cheek pressed against her rib cage—her left breast: perfectly small and bare and slightly blushed from her exertions.
Randall closed one eye to get it to stop moving and kissed it.
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