The Wedding in Charleston
Julia was a senior in high school and, because of her age, she didn’t think she was expected to stand up in front of everyone and talk about her older brother and his fiancée at the rehearsal dinner. Julia was seated next to the pastor, though, and the pastor was on his third glass of wine and dropping silverware on the floor and saying that Julia better volunteer to give a speech or else he’d do it for her. It had started as light teasing and then turned into a threat over the course of the blue crab dinner. He was a friend of her brother’s, a young, progressive pastor who wore slim-fit jeans and a tweed cap. On his wrist was a copper bracelet engraved with the word “Grace.” Julia glanced at the faces around the table and begged for someone to come to her rescue. No one did.
Her mother’s chair was empty. She had been so excited and proud that she started crying early in the evening and it had undone an hour’s worth of primping. The full tears tracked mascara down her face and then, dangling at the edge of her jaw, the tears dropped onto her dress and left Dalmatian spots. “Good Lord,” Julia’s father had said. “That woman.” Then he’d received an emergency phone call from somebody at his contracting firm and had to step onto the deck outdoors. Julia watched him through the windows, his tall, stooped silhouette moving in front of the marina lights. Outside, the boats swayed in their slips. If Julia had ever gone to a school dance, she would have been like that, too, swaying in a corner all by herself, but she had never been able to bear the thought of it and always stayed home.
The pastor nudged Julia. He said, “Speeches are going to start any minute now,” and he began to suck on the lemon garnish left on his plate.
Arms crossed and shoulders hunched, Julia tried to get small enough that she might be left alone. Giving a speech was the last thing she wanted to do. Earlier that year, the guidance counselor had told her that she was in line to be the valedictorian for her graduating class, that she was ranked first out of nearly a thousand students in her high school. There was a moment when Julia felt happy, truly happy, and then she realized that being valedictorian carried the obligation of a speech. There was the podium and the microphone and all the hundreds of students that she would have to address, people who only thought of her as a bookworm and nothing more. She had intentionally answered questions wrong on her next Calculus test, lowering her grade for that class to a A- and taking her out of the running.
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“Maybe you should jot down some notes,” the pastor said. “Me, I’m a spontaneous speaker. I stay up all night preparing a sermon and then when I go to church on Sunday morning, I feel moved to say something else and scrap the whole thing and just wing it.” He sucked his teeth, saying, “I bet you don’t wing anything.”
A team of waiters brought out plates of key lime pie balanced on their arms. They wove in and out of the tables and then slipped away in silence, like fish.
Julia said, “I don’t think I can do it.”
“Be a good sister. Give your brother a speech.”
He seemed more like a bully than a pastor. She couldn’t imagine him giving a sermon. She couldn’t imagine him praying over another person and meaning it.
“He’d do it for you.”
Julia looked at Ryan’s table across the room. His fiancée, Haley, took the napkin out of her lap and wiped a stray dab of whipped cream from his lip.
The truth was that Ryan wouldn’t have given a speech for her even if the situation had called for it. Being eight years apart meant they never really knew each other growing up. By the time Julia was an interesting person, not just a shy, blank little girl, Ryan had moved to Charleston and gotten a job as the manager of the seafood restaurant where the rehearsal dinner was held, a place with exposed brick and modern brass light fixtures and a large, fiberglass marlin hanging from the ceiling. He had started going to a church with a young congregation, met Haley, and gotten engaged. They were strangers to each other, Julia and Ryan, and had never felt compelled, either of them, to reach out and get acquainted.
One of Ryan’s friends rose from his table and tapped a knife against his glass, announcing that it was time for the speeches to begin.
The pastor said, “Is it going to be you or me?”
“I don’t know.”
He said, “I see how it is.” Then he picked up his dessert fork. “This is some baby pie. Look at how small this pie is.”
Julia decided to volunteer herself. It was not what she wanted to do but it was the least painful of the two options: volunteer or be volunteered.
She had been raised to respect authority figures and because the pastor, although tipsy and young and looking decidedly unlike a pastor, qualified as an authority figure, Julia felt like she had to do it. She couldn’t slip away. She couldn’t refuse him flat-out. She obeyed all orders, which was easy enough if her mom asked for help with the dishes but was harder when her grandmother, say, at the Christmas Eve brunch, asked for Julia’s help going to the bathroom. It was the same with school. Teachers often grouped her with the slowest kids for projects, kids who had never bothered to learn the state capitals, much less memorize the Periodic Table. Her obedience made her a model young woman in many respects but it also crippled her in a way that could not be seen by the naked eye. When she didn’t want to do something, she suffered on the inside. She cried out for help. She begged to be left alone. She did her best to hide those feelings, though, because her parents taught her that it was rude to show them.
Ryan’s friend, the one who tapped the glass, gave the first speech. He worked with Ryan at the restaurant and made jokes about poor services they had weathered together. Julia couldn’t pay attention to his speech and plan her own remarks at the same time. She tried to remember things Ryan had done when they were younger. He played baseball on YMCA teams and wore the same lucky socks to every game. He got a pair of rollerblades for his birthday one year and began to skate the neighborhood. He knocked over the large ant farm that Julia kept in her bedroom. He took a can of spray-paint out of the garage once and painted “Fuck” on the fence in the backyard. She remembered her father grabbing a handful of Ryan’s shirt, right at the back of the neck, and leading him into the master bedroom to be spanked at the foot of the bed. He must have been thirteen then and being spanked as a teenager was the worst thing that Julia could have imagined. Her obedience stemmed from this moment, this moment when she learned that breaking the rules had consequences. It was not the physical pain that bothered her so much. It was the shame and embarrassment. From her bedroom, where she sat hugging her knees to her chest, Julia had been able to hear her brother crying. She had been able to hear the belt on skin.
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Everyone clapped when the first speech ended. Julia found herself going through the motions along with the group, even though she hadn’t been paying attention. Then Haley’s college roommate got up and talked about how she and Haley had met at a Bible Study for freshman girls and how important those Wednesday night meetings had been. Julia couldn’t relate. There was a group of girls she ate lunch with at school, in the far back corner of the cafeteria near the Army recruiter table, where nobody else wanted to sit. Sometimes the recruiters tried to get the girls to do pull-ups on a bar they brought and set up, but the girls, blushing, remained frozen. They never saw each other outside of school, never went to the movies or even to get pizza.
Julia’s mom and dad took the microphone next. Someone must have gotten them from the bathroom and the deck, respectively. Her mother’s makeup was fixed and there were damp spots on her dress where she had tried to dab away the mascara stains. Her father smoothed his hair, which had been disturbed by the breeze coming off the water. He started by saying how glad he was to see Ryan settling down and doing so well. “There was a period,” her father said, “when we worried about Ryan. He went through a rough patch as a young man and we weren’t sure what was going to become of him. He picked himself up, though, and met the beautiful Haley. We are indebted to you, Haley, for taking on this great challenge.”
Her mom reached for the microphone. She said, “Ryan was my little baby. I remember when he was born and the doctors had to put tubes in his ears. I remember seeing him in the little glass thing, the incubator, and I had to put my hand through a hole in the side.” Talking about Ryan having meningitis as a newborn made her cry again. She picked up a cloth napkin from the nearest table and wiped beneath her eyes. She said, “The doctor who told me that he was sick had just finished her residency and it was her first day on the job. She cried when she told me that his spinal fluid was milky. That’s a bad sign, you know.”
Julia had heard the story before. It was no longer moving.
Her mother said, “He obviously pulled through, and for that I’m thankful. I’m so thankful.”
Her father put his arm around her mother. She opened her mouth to speak but could not. After a moment, she gave up trying. She blew a kiss to Ryan and then handed the microphone back to Julia’s father. He said, “We love you, son.”
As everyone clapped, the pastor leaned in and said, with his wine-breath, “Your turn.”
“You want me to volunteer you?”
“No,” she said. “I can do it.”
He said, “Okay,” and held his hands up. Then he winked and brought his hands down on the table. The hairs on his hands were dark red and his skin was covered in faint freckles. He winked and stood up. He said, “Attention, everyone.”
Julia was hot with embarrassment. She couldn’t believe that pastor had jumped in like that. She thought they’d had an understanding.
“The sister of the groom would like to say a few words. And believe me,” he said, whispering, “she’s a girl of few words.”
Julia didn’t stand up.
The pastor took her hand and raised her from the seat. She thought if he had pulled any harder he would have dislocated her shoulder.
“Hop to it,” he said. “We’re all ears.”
When Julia stood, her legs were unstable. She was wearing a brand new pair of tights and felt the waistband cutting into her stomach. She walked over to her father and took the microphone.
He said, “This is a surprise,” and her mother, clutching the napkin tightly in her fist, said, “Oh, honey.”
She still didn’t have anything prepared. Her parents sat down and she was left all alone in front of a crowd of fifty. Some she knew. Most she didn’t. When she thought about Ryan, whenever she thought about him, which wasn’t often, the only thing that really came to mind was the time he almost got them killed. Her father had mentioned Ryan’s “rough patch.” By that, he meant the change in Ryan when he went to college. He had started partying at USC, a normal enough thing, but his grades suffered as a result and he had been flagged as a student on the brink of failure. If he didn’t bring up his grade point average within a semester he was going to be kicked out. During that pivotal semester, he came home for a long weekend. Julia’s father couldn’t take her to school that Friday and asked Ryan if he could drive her instead. Ryan said, “Sure.”
He went out drinking with some of his old friends who still lived in town, friends who went to Greenville Technical College, and he didn’t wake up on Friday morning. Julia went into his bedroom and said, “You’re supposed to take me to school.”
He wouldn’t get up. She kept going in every five minutes or so, politely reminding him that he’d promised to take her to school, and he would only roll over and groan and say, “I’m awake,” even though he never opened his eyes. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. Only a pair of basketball shorts. He smelled like beer and when he wrapped his arms around his pillow and hugged it, she saw the dark hair under his arms.
She touched Ryan’s arm. She didn’t want to miss school. Her attendance record had been perfect up until then and she had looked forward to receiving an attendance certificate signed by the principal at the end of the year. The school was too far to walk and there were too many busy roads to ride a bicycle. “I’m going to be late,” she said, shaking his arm. “Please.”
He finally kicked the blanket and sheets off of him and rolled out of bed. When his feet first touched the ground, he wobbled. He was still a little drunk but Julia didn’t know that. She only knew that he stank and that he was angry. He grabbed his car keys and put on a pair of leather bedroom shoes. He said, “Let’s go, then. If you want to go to school so bad, let’s go.”
Back then, Ryan drove a Dodge Durango. When he turned the ignition, rap blared from the radio at full volume. It was so loud it hurt Julia’s ears. The words “bitch” and “nigger” and “cunt” smothered her and entered her body as vibration. She put a hand to her chest and felt her heart being tested. A visor embroidered with a scarlet gamecock was hanging from the rearview mirror and it swung violently with every turn. Empty Gatorade bottles rolled at her feet. He had a small beer belly that rolled over the band of his shorts. Whenever they hit an uneven spot in the road, it bounced. She knew that he was driving too fast. She held on.
When they reached the big intersection by her school, Ryan took a left on a red light. There was a cemetery nearby and the wind was picking up and bouquets of artificial flowers blew into the road. Julia saw that he was going to run the light and said, “Stop,” but he gunned it. Oncoming traffic honked at them and braked hard. One car swerved so bad Julia could hear the rubber skidding on the asphalt and if she had looked back, she would have been able to see the marks the tires had left on the road, long and black and stinking of burnt rubber. In that moment she thought Ryan wanted to kill her. Of course, later, she realized that he was tired and angry and still drunk from a night out with friends. He wanted to be asleep in his bed. He didn’t want to be taking his little sister to school. Still, it felt like he wanted to kill her.
They pulled into the carpool lane. Julia knew that she would have to run to make it to class on time, but she couldn’t do it. She started to cry because she had never felt so hated by anyone in her entire life.
Ryan said, “Get out.”
Her chest shuddered as she sucked in air.
He said, “Go.”
She swung her backpack over her shoulder, heavy with textbooks and three-ring binders, and went into the school. She locked herself in the handicapped stall in the girls’ restroom and stayed for the entire first period. When the bell rang for second period, she had finally gathered herself and joined the current of students moving down the hall. She never told her parents what had happened, and she and Ryan never discussed it. He ended up going back to school and getting his grades up, even graduating, in the end, with his name on the Dean’s List.
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At the rehearsal dinner, holding the microphone, Julia couldn’t look at Ryan because she was remembering the car ride. First she said, “I’m Ryan’s sister,” and a few people in the crowd, friends of Ryan’s, looked surprised to hear that he had a sister. She began to talk about the few good things she could remember, such as going to one of his baseball games and seeing him catch the game-winning ball in the outfield. She talked about going trick-or-treating with him and him offering to test her caramel apples to make sure there weren’t razorblades hidden inside. She talked about the time he let her try on his rollerblades and go down the driveway. She ended up falling at the bottom, skinning her soft, white chin. He’d let her try, though, because she wanted to. That was when she was little enough to be unafraid. She brought up these few moments that were not particularly special but they were the best she had. Then she congratulated Ryan and Haley. As if she was alone in the room and talking to herself, she said, “It’s funny. He seems like an adult now.” She had missed the transition from immature boy to grown man and found it hard to believe that Ryan had this decent life and this pretty fiancée and all of these friends who seemed like good people.
Back at the table, the pastor was slouched in his chair and yawning. He said, “It wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible.”
“Honey,” her mother said, finally back in her seat, “do you need a tissue?”
Julia was crying, not because she was happy for her brother but because of the memory of that car ride. She was glad nobody knew the difference. Julia’s mother handed over the napkin that was covered in the beige and black of her melted face.
The next morning, on the day of the ceremony, the wedding party had to take photographs on the dock at the marina. Under an overcast sky, the water appeared dark and gray. The bridesmaids stood together first. They moved carefully over the dock, trying not to let their pointed heels catch in between the wooden boards, because one of the bridesmaids said she’d had a dream the night before that she’d stumbled and fallen into the water, where she was cut by oyster beds. The groomsmen posed together next. They had been given fishing lures as gifts and the wedding date was on the side of the lure in silver, meant to flash in the water. They argued the merits of live bait versus artificial lures, finally all agreeing that live bait was the way to go, and managed to be quiet long enough for the photographer to take a dozen satisfactory shots.
After the bride and groom took photos with their parents, Ryan walked over to Julia and said, “Let’s get one together?” He wore a linen suit with a pastel pink bowtie. He put an arm around her shoulder.
He asked, “Are you having fun?”
“Know where you’re going to school yet?”
She said, “I haven’t decided,” even though she had already sent in the acceptance paperwork to Dartmouth. She didn’t know why she lied.
The photographer said, “Okay, relax now,” and it only made her muscles tense even more.
Ryan’s hand was light on her shoulder. He said, “You could have said a lot of other stuff but you didn’t.”
She didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
He said, “Thanks.”
She knew he wasn’t bad, that she had only seen Ryan at his worst and unfortunately that incident had colored their entire relationship. The memory and the pain it carried was not going away but she could learn to live with it. There could be other memories, better ones, made to off-set that pain. It would take time for her to know the person Ryan had become and for him to know the person that she had become. Time was what they needed and, being young, time was what they had.
When the photographer finished taking photographs of them, Julia noticed that the wedding party was pointing at something over her shoulder. Ryan noticed, too. He said, “Wonder what they’re looking at.” They turned and saw, at the very end of the dock, a cat reaching for something in the water that no could see, flexing its claws.