The older women at the wedding are sun-drenched, hardened, draped in bold metallic fabrics. On the sand in front of the resort they are beached like whales, languishing beneath hot damp blankets of money. Ben’s mom, especially, has gone all out; she’s dyed her hair a striking ashy blonde and today she’s wearing a huge pendant necklace with her violet sarong, a flat disk covered in tiny diamonds that presses against Olivia’s cheek as she is folded sweatily into Marlene’s breasts.
“It’s just the sweetest thing that you came here,” Marlene croons, her 40-year smoker’s drawl rumbling in her lungs beneath Olivia’s face. “It means so much to Benji and it means the world to me.” Olivia pulls away, smiling. She’s always liked Marlene even though she is perfumed and terrifying and jewel-encrusted like a big luxury Troll doll.
Marlene paid for Olivia’s room; she insisted on getting her a suite overlooking a vast, fake-looking bluff, comically breathtaking, farcically exquisite.
Join us, please; bring some common sense to the table; it’ll be a ball, Marlene said to her in an email. Who knows what could happen? L’chaim! Kisses, Marlene
She and her common sense were greeted at the hotel with a basketful of champagne and bath salts. She is well aware of the implications of having a suite to oneself, the expectations of sexual dalliance. Nobody here wants to come up to her room with her, though; no one here is interested. She knows that without question. This is not the meek, willing, “you have a vagina and also enjoy Six Feet Under” circle of dating that exists in her mortal world of grant writers and elementary school teachers. This is a destination. People here have wealth managers and suffixes on their names and their great-great-grandfathers invented things that seem like they didn’t need to be invented, like milk cartons. No one wants to come to her room but she supposes the view is still nice to have.
“I think I might be gay,” Ben revealed to her one morning last spring, after they’d already been dating for five years, already moved in together, after his mom had already obtained her phone number and begun to text her several times a day, after she was already contemplating not-too-cloyingly-sweet ways to propose to him—how progressive! How cute! A romantic reversal of roles—and had decided to do it in the kitchen, over candles, over salmon en croute that she would make because it was his favorite, her fancy boyfriend. After they’d adopted Jenny; after they’d painted each of the rooms of their apartment a different color, even an unassuming pale green in the spare bedroom because who knew who might be living there someday, a tiny hybrid of the two of them (a—Bolivia? Bolivia Marks-Geraghty? Well, they’d have ample time to think up a better baby name); after they made breakfast together and were curled cinematically in bed, trading sections of the newspaper like a goddamned couple of cartoons.
“I think I might be gay,” followed by a lot of weeping, followed by Olivia getting up to make them screwdrivers because what better excuse was there to drink in the morning; followed by her hugging his head for a prolonged period of time; followed by his moving out, with the dog, to a new apartment in Streeterville; followed by a lot of long conversations and some more weeping; followed by his chance encounter with a bland Christian Zumba instructor named Bethany; followed by the engagement party at Charlie Trotter’s; followed by here, now, the blinding expanse of the Riviera Maya, a coast dotted with bronzed old people and her allegedly-homosexual ex-boyfriend, who is now getting married to another woman: all of it in the span of 6 months.
I think I fell in love with you originally because I recognized that you were my sister. He wrote her that, Ben, in a letter, and she had balked, sitting on the floor in the front hallway where she sometimes sat because she couldn’t bring herself to sit alone on their couch.
“You’re not supposed to fall in love with your sister,” she’d yelped to herself, kind of hysterically, and then she crumpled up the letter, neither the first nor the last she’d receive from him, and threw it across the living room. If Ben hadn’t taken Jenny with him to his new apartment the dog would have run after the ball, thinking Olivia’s bout of emotional collapse some kind of game.
Maybe that was the problem. Maybe Ben didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to fall in love with your sisters: you were supposed to playfully cuff their biceps, to shove their faces into the dank caverns of your high school basketball warmup bag and laugh as they gagged, to put your arm around them and grin into the camera when they graduated from college. The point of sisters was not to fall in love with them and move into an apartment with them and paint a possible-future-baby’s-room with them. You were just supposed to love your sisters, a sometimes-grudging default affinity, a deep but playful affection, nothing erotic, never anything erotic.
Maybe nobody had ever told him that there was a big difference between loving and being in love. Maybe nobody had ever told him that that wasn’t the point of sisters.
The afternoon she arrives in Mexico she and Marlene take a walk together down the beach, Marlene ambling in her sarong, hanging onto Olivia’s arm with such physical dependence that Olivia tilts a little bit, has to stop and take off her sandals to avoid being pulled down.
At home in Chicago she works in an office, writing grant requests to foundations and birthday cards for her unimaginative colleagues, and she rarely gets to leave, five-or-ten minute breaks every couple of hours when she emerges like a mole to smoke cigarettes. She gets in at eight and leaves roughly twelve hours later and thus sees very little of the sun.
“You’re so pale,” Ben said to her once when they were dating, and though as he said it he was affectionately rubbing at the veins visible beneath the thin skin of her clavicles she could tell it wasn’t a compliment.
To the sun, however, her body is actually quite receptive. On the beaches of Playa del Carmen she feels springy, buoyant, alive. The pale milky blue of her arms and calves browns easily into a freckled fawn color and highlights emerge in her hair as red streaks.
“Island life suits you,” Marlene cackles, tugging at the straps of her sundress. They are not on an island but that is a detail that people like Marlene get to gloss over, people who are a specific combination of doddering and affluent and psychotropically medicated. “I barely recognize you, Livvy.”
Is this what it means to be suited? Being rendered unrecognizable to a woman who still sends you big bouquets of flowers on your half-birthday?
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” she says absently, playfully, not-quite-jokingly.
“You’re going to land on your feet,” Marlene says, with some irony because she is the reason at the moment that Olivia might be tugged off her feet, down into the sand. “I know it may not feel like it now but you will. You’ve got a better head on your shoulders than anyone here.” And then, harshly, tinged with regret, her wistful mantra: “My son’s a moron.”
They continue in silence back towards the hotel and when they get there Marlene kisses her on both cheeks again and cups her face, squeezes it in a perfumed cloud.
“You know, it really is good that you came,” Marlene says.
“Thank you for having me,” she replies.
“I’m certainly not telling you to do anything,” Marlene says oddly, and the moment takes a weird turn. “But if you—well, you’re a smart girl. Sometimes morons need to be reminded that they’re morons. That’s all I’m saying.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Olivia says, trying to see Marlene’s eyes through her big sunglasses. Marlene lifts her glasses and looks at her appraisingly, then she smiles and rubs an invisible smudge from Olivia’s cheek with her thumb.
“I mean have fun, dear. Go to town,” she says, and something shifts back to normal. “Enjoy yourself while you’re here. Keep working on that tan.”
“So you’re not gay,” she said to him when he announced his engagement to Bethany. “You’re not gay; you just didn’t want to be with me.”
The look he had given her in return had been so painful to receive that she’d reached out and hugged him. Because it was a look that did not agree with her statement so much as suck it in, absorb it. It was a look that told her that Ben had no fucking idea what he was, who he was; and it made her want to curl him into her body like a fetus and keep him there where at least he would be safe from the tumultuousness of daily living, shrouded by fluid and skin, sounds muffled and blows softened.
“She’s so lovely,” he said, burrowing against her. “She’s really, really so lovely.”
When she deposits Marlene at the hotel she decides to take her advice and venture into town. She sits on a bench in front of a T-shirt store and breathes, trying to enjoy herself.
The year will be up soon, the year during which Ben has insisted on paying her rent.
“It’s the least I can do, Liv,” he said, and she agreed both because it was, kind of, and also because she couldn’t bring herself to look for something else, something cheaper, something that cost half as much but had a similarly breathtaking view of the river. She’d meant to be saving the money she wasn’t spending on rent but instead she has been spending it on other things, expensive toys for the dog that is no longer hers—lifelike chipmunks with squeakers in their tails that she gives whimsical names like Mr. Cheeks and Christopher and Jamal—and decorative throw pillows and gourmet coffee and bottles of wine that have no right to cost as much as they do. Certain things are just nice to have around. She can’t think about it.
She goes to a little stand and orders herself a cerveza with a French accent, a cerveza with a guttural R sound that makes it sound less like a request and more like a proclamation, a sneeze. It is served to her accompanied by a complimentary shot of tequila and a wink from the bartender. At least someone finds her charming. She drinks them both. She does not speak Spanish, except dios mío—dios mío she knows, because she is multilingual when it comes to expressing abject horror about the world around her.
She studied French in college and though she remembers very little of the language, it’s embarrassingly what she slips back into when speaking to the natives, not the teeny bit of conversational Spanish she looked up online on the flight over. It’s strange, she thinks: that few-second-long window of linguistic fallacy when someone speaks to you in a language you don’t recognize—that feeble stab at making connection anyways where your mouth opens and you make a noise, a few noises that are neither your own language nor the foreign one.
“Te puedo ayudar?” the men ask, and she blinks, scrambles, says things like “Esto—I—the—esta—” and they just keep grinning at her.
“Je cherche…” she says, and then stops, coloring, forgetting her question and scrambling to apologize. “Je regrette; je regrette—I mean…”
The men in the stores get a kick out of her at least; their eyes crinkle kindly and they offer her discounts. She buys knickknacks for her parents, ceramic refrigerator magnets shaped like skeletons and iguanas.
She considers Marlene’s ominous remarks while she is dressing herself for the rehearsal dinner—a sundress, black, not flowered; it is fitted but modest and she imagines that it makes her look enigmatic and demure, like a sniper.
Who knows what could happen? Sometimes morons need reminders.
Is she joking? Is Marlene ever joking? This is the trouble with crazy people: how can you ever tell if they are joking?
Bring some common sense to the table.
Surely that can’t mean what it sounds like it means. Surely that’s not why she was given the gift of a plane ticket and a fruit basket and a suite with a Jacuzzi in the room. Surely that’s not why she’s here.
She boosts herself up to sit on the counter while she puts on her makeup. Ben always liked when she wore red lipstick, would sweetly and fallaciously tell her she looked like Audrey Hepburn when she did. She applies it, blotting and layering and blotting again, even though it kind of makes her feel like a clown.
Ben and Bethany, B&B: they’ve banked on this particular instance of wordplay, poking fun at the quaint and huddled masses who cannot afford seaside suites by embossing the initials on every flat surface in Playa del Carmen. There are B&B napkins, dinner and cocktail; B&B candles; little tiny bottles of B&B tequila that she has been liberally hoarding, shoving in her pockets in case of emergencies.
She plays with a kitschy B&B screwpull, twisting the silver handle and the pulling on the silver arms, opening invisible bottles of wine while also swilling Sauvignon Blanc that has been poured for her by a man in a beige suit.
Every man at the Marks/Peters rehearsal dinner is wearing a tight, jewel-toned shirt and those who aren’t are wearing khaki, a bunch of self-conscious, new money West Eggers: cast-offs, the people that went neither to the parties thrown by Gatsby nor the parties thrown by the Buchanans, the people not cool enough to be invited to either.
She meets, delightfully, a number of people named Peter and Mark, and basks quietly at her table in the linguistic loveliness of it. She basks alone because she cannot actually bring herself to converse with them, the Peters and the Marks nor the Peterses and the Markses. She exists in conversation with the rich on a daily basis at work, but the dialogue is woefully one-sided, obsequious. She knows how to ask rich people to fund inner-city literacy projects. Chatting with them about the weather now would be unseemly, certainly. Also she’s afraid of what she might say.
Oh, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when she was good at it, back when she was an honorary member of the Marks family. She would’ve changed her name if he wanted her to, even though it was boring and she swore as a college freshman that she would never sell out like that. Plus, of course little Bolivia would fare better without a hyphen.
“There’s still time,” Marlene whispers suddenly in her ear, coming up behind her and looping a startling arm around her waist.
“Excuse me?” Olivia stares at her, curious, but Marlene’s face remains blithe and impassive, an innocent orange slice.
“The night is young.” That line in a lascivious singsong, part playful and part murderous.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Olivia says.
“Don’t you, darling?” Marlene reaches to rub a smudge of mascara from beneath Olivia’s eye and then she looks away. “Is it just me, or does that bartender look a bit like Tommy Lee Jones? I’m off to investigate.” She turns to pursue her prey, an individual who looks less like Tommy Lee Jones than he does like a seventh-grader, but before she does she glances back at Olivia and winks.
When a rich old lunatic winks at you, it can mean any number of things. She leans against the bar and sips. This family! This big, weird family where everyone gets weirdly along and nobody’s married or dating or parenting, not really, just a big motley crew of quasi-adults, big shiny adolescents with grudges and cocktails and wearable heirlooms. With heirlooms, period. Olivia has no heirlooms, just the lingering leftovers of eight semesters of French and an apartment that Ben is paying for through the end of March and a bed full of dog toys that she bought for herself. These people with their liberal notions of love and their destination weddings and their tall hairstyles, their perfumed hugs and their double-kisses and their butlers: they’re crazy. They must be crazy.
She watches Ben from across the room; he’s removed his jacket and is sitting hunched over at a table, playing with his phone.
“Cripes,” her dad would say if he were here in the Riviera Maya instead of at home with her mom in the suburbs. “Every one of you with your goddamn phones.” And she would have to agree with him—cripes!—because really what in the holy fuck is Ben doing on his phone right now; who is he possibly texting; please god don’t let him be scrolling through his anticlimactic Twitter feed; he only has 45 followers. Please-Louise do not let him be checking his Twitter account during his rehearsal dinner. She recognizes that she is drunk and gets up to obtain another drink.
Ben catches sight of her and his face lightens a little; he sets down his phone and offers her a hopeful wave, beckoning. She goes to him and he pats the empty seat to his left.
“Put ‘er there, Livvy,” he says, and she wrinkles her nose and he laughs. “I’m sorry. Have a seat. Sit with me. You look absolutely beautiful.” She tugs at the hem of her dress and sits down next to him. He said things like that a lot when they were dating, effusive complimentary language that made her feel pretty and coveted and loved. “It means everything to me that you’re here,” he says quietly.
“Yes, your mom already told me,” she snaps, and he recoils and she feels bad. “Sorry. You’re welcome. I mean, me too. Where’s Bethany?”
He gestures vaguely across the room, where the floral lamppost that is Bethany is dancing with a group of friends to a Beyoncé song. It’s always the most devout who are secretly the raunchiest dancers.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, and he looks at her searchingly for just a few seconds before he picks up his phone again, swinging it in his hand, dipping it over and over again against the surface of the table.
“Great,” he says. “Feeling groovy.”
Alcohol always made Ben loopy and weird in a way that she found endearing. She pats his hand and they sit in silence, watching Bethany wave her arms over her head.
The night is winding down. People are standing around like bowling pins listening to Marlene tell the story of Ben’s birth, which Olivia has heard at least a dozen times and which features, among disturbing others, the verb “crowning.” Tonight she uses it as a gross, artful segue into a toast, during which she says simply:
“He’s the most precious thing in the world so you’d better treat him well, Bethany. I’m a woman with many connections.” And everyone laughs in the way that you laugh when someone unhinged says something that is possibly not a joke.
A few more people speak—Ben’s dad goes on incoherently about a sailing trip; one of Bethany’s bridesmaids talks about Jesus as though they used to date; a groomsman in pinstripes starts to tell a story about a trip he took with Ben in college but he ducks away in midsentence and goes to vomit in a trashcan—and then there’s a lull and Olivia feels at once bad and bold; she rises unsteadily to her feet.
“I’d like to propose a toast,” she tries to say, but she is drunk and instead says “I’d like to propose to a toast.” It doesn’t really seem that anyone has noticed but she feels embarrassed anyway. She catches Ben’s eye across the room and tries to smile at him. He’s watching her wistfully, squinting, holding up his drink with a kind of worried fondness. She looks away. “Uh, to Ben. To my friend, Ben. To Ben and Bethany.” She spies Marlene a few tables over, watching her expectantly.
The subtext is now clear: “extract him.” Like a molar. She can’t do it.
“L’chaim,” she says without much enthusiasm, and she lifts her glass.
“Beautiful Olivia,” Marlene says to her the morning of the wedding, reaching towards her throat in a way that makes Olivia instinctively tense up. She wonders if Marlene has a gun; she wonders if anyone would notice if she got murdered. Marlene reveals from her fist a handful of pearls and she latches them around Olivia’s neck. “These were my mom’s,” Marlene says, fastening them. “I’ve got so few of her things, darling. She was an awful woman. But I want you to have them.”
“Oh, no,” she says, attempting to stop it.
“We just had the one,” Marlene says, and she straightens the strand, her fingernails raking along Olivia’s jaw. “We just had the one and then we got you and I know that these are for you, okay?”
“Now you’ve got Bethany, though,” Olivia says, trying to be kind.
“Bethany,” Marlene huffs, and she meets Olivia’s eyes for a long minute. “Let’s not play games, all right? We’re both too smart for that.” Olivia looks away.
“Okay,” she says, because it’s true: she and Marlene are both too smart for a lot of things.
Of course they get married. Of course she doesn’t stop it.
“Feel free to bring a date,” Ben had said over the summer as though offering her some kind of grand gift. “Please do, honestly.” She’d wanted to hop up onto a big vomitous soapbox about how she didn’t need his permission to date anyone and how she was her own woman and did what she wanted but instead she just cradled the phone to the side of her face, dangled her legs over the side of the balcony and sighed.
“I’m not dating anyone,” she said. “I have no one to bring.”
During the ceremony, dateless, she rebuffs Marlene’s offers to sit in the front row and instead takes a place near the back, next to a man with Julie Andrews hair and a blousy, collarless shirt with no jacket.
“I’m Daniel,” he says, offering her a hand. “The choreographer.”
She isn’t sure what this means—the choreographer of what?—but reaches to shake. He presses a surprising kiss on her knuckles and she feels herself blush.
“Olivia,” she says. “The ex-girlfriend.”
“The ex-girlfriend of whom? Jonathan?”
She blushes more deeply; Jonathan is Ben’s aging father, Marlene’s longtime ex, nearing 70, deeply tanned and impeccably preserved, disgustingly virile judging by his long lineage of young, affectless blonde companions, women who he calls ladyfriends. His ladyfriend of the month is named Kayla and is an art history grad student at DePaul; she is younger than Jonathan’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law Bethany and her tower of yellow hair is visible up in the front row.
“Of the groom,” she corrects him, embarrassed.
“You’re the young woman Marlene’s always talking about?” he asks, raising his eyebrows theatrically. “You don’t say.”
She wonders, too, what this means. The woman who failed to stop the wedding? The woman whose dress was purchased at Target? She wonders what Marlene says about her. She wonders how many other people have heard of her, how many others recognize her from the photos that Ben’s mother still has displayed in her condo, most of them featuring she and Ben together but a couple that are just of her, one silly one from her college graduation where she’s making a taco tongue and another from the vacation she and Ben took to San Francisco, standing on the bridge with rainboots and the wind in her hair. She imagines those photos will be taken down by the time Ben and Bethany return from their honeymoon in Marrakesh, but knowing Marlene it’s hard to say.
“That’s me,” she says lamely, and then someone starts playing a violin so she braces herself and turns away from him, towards the blazing vision of Bethany in her obscene bandage dress, making her way uncomfortably down the aisle.
After several seconds she realizes that the violin is playing not the expected Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” but Dave Matthews’s “Crash Into Me.”
“For Christ’s sake,” she hisses without meaning to. Daniel looks at her and she forces a smile. “Sorry,” she whispers. “It’s just so, so lovely.”
The scene at the altar is all very predictable and she watches it like a car accident.
“May our journey begin here.”
“Your love has given me wings.”
She pictures wings sprouting from Ben’s broad back, pictures him flying away, ditching them all.
“For richer; for poorer; in the presence of God.”
“In sickness and in health.”
At one point she takes in a sharp breath, a breath that is trying hard to be either a laugh or a sob, and Daniel reaches over and takes her hand. She squeezes it gratefully, this surprise, this manicured man-hand, and sits stoically through the rest of their exchange.
“I do, too.”
Followed by laughter. Followed by weepy laughter, suppressed vomit, oppressive sunshine. She hangs on to Daniel’s hand until it becomes awkward to keep holding it.
The most horrifying part of the post-ceremony reception is the dance. Daniel the Choreographer has choreographed a pretty benign number between the bride and groom, a subtle little waltz around to “Crazy Love.” Olivia rolls her eyes at the cliché of the song choice and one of the Peters sitting at her table catches her and frowns, chastening. They rock and sway and when they’re done some people are crying and everyone applauds them enthusiastically, even Olivia, though she holds her margarita in the crook of her arm as she does so, not wanting to let it out of her sight.
The real dance, though, the dance that Daniel was really hired to stage, is done to “I Can’t Help Myself,” and it features Ben and Marlene engaged in some kind of impish sexual romp—sugar pie; honey bunch—gyrations and exposed throats and hands exploring smalls of backs. Olivia watches, aghast, taking more sips of her drink than she does breaths of oxygen, and at some point one of the ghostly bartenders comes by and fills up the glass in her hand without her noticing.
What is this place, this Oedipal playground where mothers are married to sons and sons are married to Zumba instructors and fathers aren’t married to anyone, just dating tall piles of bleach-blonde hair? Where is she; who is she; how has her life gone so disastrously off-course that she is sitting here among these orange people, drinking Patrón, wearing pearls? Perhaps she shouldn’t have come. She probably, definitely should not have come.
She decided last week that Riviera Maya would be the place that she quit smoking but she brought a pack with her just in case and she slips outside when nobody’s looking. The surf is alive a few yards in front of her, having a reception all its own, waves crashing with playful violence against the shore. She has to admit that Playa del Carmen, if nothing else, if still the potential site of her impending emotional breakdown, is exceptionally pretty. She lifts the back of her dress and settles down into the sand, feeling it brush against the backs of her legs. She kicks off her shoes and inhales deeply. From the party she can hear the ingratiating lilt of that song about late December back in ’63. Ben is a terrible dancer and she pictures him lurching around, grinning, doing that terrible thing with his arms where he bends them like a Lego person and snaps his fingers. She hates it when people snap their fingers.
She jumps, actually yelps, drops her cigarette in the sand. Daniel the Choreographer is looming over her, a few more buttons undone on his wedding blouse, silvery chest hair billowing out from the vee like the insides of a chew toy.
“Christ, you scared me,” she says irritably, outwardly angry in a way that she doesn’t normally get around strangers. She’s drunk and feeling bolstered, indignant.
Daniel lowers himself next to her more gracefully than she would have expected. He tents his legs and reaches to roll up the cuffs of his pants.
“Apologies,” he says, giving her a flowery little head-bow. “Used to drive my wife crazy. She said I was like a cat. Never heard me coming.”
“You should work on that,” she says. “Because it’s terrifying.” She sighs, picks up her cigarette, brushes off the sand. “Or maybe not. Maybe that’s an asset.”
“What’d you think?” he asks, and he reaches out a hand for her cigarette, an act that strikes her as unusually companionable. She hands it to him.
“Of the main attraction! You seemed awfully anxious to get away from it.”
“Oh,” she says, and she wonders if he is offended. “It was great. It was—a surprise. It was surprising.” She avoids his gaze. “It was great and surprising.”
“A little weird, don’t you think?”
She turns to him gratefully, the only person on this not-actually-an-island to acknowledge that anything that has transpired in the past 48 hours is completely bonkers.
“Wasn’t it?” she says. “I mean—no offense. Technically, I don’t know anything about dance but I’m sure that you—”
“That was all Marlene,” he demurs. “She just paid me to watch her and make sure nobody fractured a vertebra.”
“This is a very weird night for me,” she says.
“I’ll bet,” he says. “Me too.” He nudges her leg with his knee. “My wife was Marlene’s best friend.”
“Has she been blacklisted?” Olivia asks jauntily. “Did she commit a faux pas at Thanksgiving? Did Marlene feed her arsenic and dump her body on Goose Island? I’m next on that list, I’m sure. Please tell my parents I love them.”
“Breast cancer, actually,” Daniel says. She freezes.
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”
“Marlene keeps me around for entertainment. Must think I’m going to off myself or something if she doesn’t keep me occupied.”
“Oh, please don’t do that,” she says quietly, then: “Marlene’s a handful.”
“She pays well,” he says.
“Yes, well, there’s that.”
Daniel laughs and nudges her with his knee again except this time he leaves it there. They are sitting in silence for a long time with their legs overlapping like that. Daniel takes her cigarette again and accidentally blows smoke into her eyes and they start to water; her nose starts to run. Maybe he knows it but probably not. Rich people rarely know where their effluvium lands. Daniel isn’t rich though, allegedly. Daniel has been brought here like she has, on suicide watch, like a prop. She and Daniel are the comedic relief, here to choreograph and charm and possibly talk the groom out of going through with the whole charade. He reaches for her, hand lingering near her face.
“Oh, I got you, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, let me…”
And then they’re kissing, suddenly she feels herself moving, feels herself twisting to kiss him, to press her whole body against him and put her hands inside the disturbing collar of his shirt.
Daniel says nothing the whole time, emits nothing but a little bit of a contented moan when she pushes her knee gently into his groin, but he reciprocates, grasping at her hair near the scalp, rubbing at her hipbones and feeling up to the cups of her bra.
Damn it all to hell that her ex-boyfriend’s mother’s best friend’s widow is a better kisser than her ex-boyfriend ever was. She feels herself have this thought and pulls away from him. This happens to her so often lately; she does something and then thinks that is a thing that I did and then she just keeps going, no matter how disturbing the thing is.
Daniel shakes his head at her, smiling.
“I bet you’ve got a lot in your arsenal, Olivia.”
She straightens her dress and tidies her dignity.
“I didn’t even know that I had an arsenal until very recently,” she says. “But there are things in it, yes.”
Loving and being in love: this is what she is thinking about on the balcony of her suite when Ben comes to visit her on his wedding night.
Does she know the difference? She isn’t sure. Ben was her only boyfriend; she had only dated casually during college and she met him right when she moved back home. Having a possibly-gay rich consultant as your only boyfriend, she thinks, is bound to leave one with some skewed notions of romance.
Loving: a perpetual low-level buzzing of affection; helping your friend move even if he lives on the fourth floor without an elevator; picking up tearful phone calls from your little sister (because you owe her! Because you once forced her to breathe in the noxious fumes of your warm-up basketball socks!); going for walks; talking uncomfortably about sex; doing the laundry; preparing salmon en croute even though the sight of raw fish makes your stomach churn; snuggling the dog and meticulously removing her barbed fur from your pencil skirt with a lint roller before work; taking your husband to have a colonoscopy; bringing your aunt a bundt cake (what even is a bundt cake? Maybe she’ll ask her mom to show her; maybe she will start baking in her new life); vacuuming the stairs; holding hands; squeezing hands; bidding good night even if you’re fighting.
Loving is wading through copious amounts of bullshit and continuing to wade, to waddle, to stomp, to sink.
Loving is making do.
Being in love:
She lights a cigarette and is contemplating it when someone knocks at her door. She has shed her dress and is clad in boxers, little blue boxers with dogs embroidered on them that had delighted Ben so when he first saw them, perhaps for multiple reasons. Oh, self-reflection is distressing. Hindsight is a nauseous creature.
She rises uncertainly, unsteadily, and goes to check through the peephole lest it is Daniel, back for more. She’s holding her lit cigarette indoors in her fancy suite as she lifts herself on tiptoe to see.
Loving is seeing Ben in the hall, drunk and weepy and sheepish in his dumb wedding suit. Loving is letting him in. Loving is wanting nothing to do with his weird short body and hugging him anyway.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpers, and it is so unbecoming but also so very sad, this sweet, weird little person with whom she was planning to have a blended-name Brangelina baby. She strokes at the soft spot on the back of his neck, familiar as anything. She pulls away and gives him a chaste kiss on the cheekbone.
“Yeah, I know,” she says.
“You can’t smoke in here,” he says, and she glares at him and he reaches in deference for her cigarette, dragging on it himself, coughing his exhalation. He hands it back to her. “Can you make me a drink?”
“I think you’ve had enough,” she says.
“Fuck you,” he says, and loving is also resisting the urge to punch him in his tanned perfect face and instead making him a very weak vodka soda from the minibar. Loving is placating a drunken adult baby with more alcohol. She hands him the glass and guides him out onto the balcony. They both sit with legs swinging over through the rails like they used to do at their apartment and he takes her hand and squeezes it.
“Where’s your bride?” she asks, not meanly, or not that meanly. He takes his time answering and while he does she smokes; she steals a sip of his drink which is not actually that weak in hindsight, which is actually quite strong, whoopsy-daisy, damn it all to hell; she breathes in the fragrant air of the beach and realizes that maybe it hasn’t been Marlene’s perfume all this time, maybe this whole place just smells like plant life, like blossoms, like fleurs. Flora; she is pretty sure that flora is the Spanish word for flower but maybe it’s actually not.
“She’s asleep,” he says finally, and as he does he rests his head against her shoulder. “She didn’t want to have sex tonight. She made us wait until tonight but then she didn’t even want to. She said she was too drunk but she only had four drinks, Liv. Four.”
“Four’s a lot of drinks,” she says, though she herself has had seven at least. The beach weaves a little bit before her and she reaches an arm around him and feels the knobs of his spine. She feels them with her palm instead of her fingers because that seems decidedly nonsexual.
Loving is rubbing at someone’s back with the flat of your hand.
Being in love:
Ben vomits onto her pristine Mexican balcony, neon liquid dripping down to the beach below; he has been drinking some kind of radioactive drinks all night and his throw-up is the color of a Slurpee. There is blue raspberry Kool-Aid barf all over her fancy veranda and loving is pretending not to see it; loving is getting him a bottle of seltzer from the mini-fridge; loving is smoothing his hair back from his forehead in the way that she knows he likes because it’s what his mom used to do when he was little. Or maybe she still does it. Probably she still does it. Probably his forehead is the least-visited area on his body as far as his mother is concerned.
Jesus fuck; maybe there is no difference. Ben: her friend; her brother. Maybe he’s right.
“What am I doing, Liv?” he asks.
“You’re just doing,” she says. “You’ll be fine.”
Because of course he will. Of course, probably, maybe Ben will be great. He is a consultant. He is a douchebag. His mom is a trailblazing combination of Ursula the Sea Witch and Joan of Arc and Baby Jane. His dad is an oblivious millionaire. His wife is a Zumba instructor who doesn’t believe in divorce. He has gotten married in the Riviera Maya and he has somehow strategically managed to avoid getting electric blue vomit on his extremely expensive suit, even though it wouldn’t matter if he did. He is very, very good at entertaining himself. He has resources. She strokes his forehead, rubs his back, does both at once in a way that makes her a little bit woozy.
Holy mother of God, maybe this is just how things are.
“I just want to go to sleep, Livvy,” he says. “Can I sleep in here with you?”
“Not a chance,” she says.
Loving is helping him to his feet and leading him discreetly back to his suite down the hall; loving is guiding him into his bed next to the snoring Bethany; loving is making sure he is on his side so that if he pukes again he won’t asphyxiate on his own vomit. Loving is checking to make sure that Bethany is breathing too after her four drinks, holding a hand beneath her perfect Aquiline nose for just a second to be certain. Loving is putting the 8am wake-up-call sign on their door so that someone else will check on them in 3 hours to ensure that they are still both breathing.
“Hey, darlin’,” she whispers into Ben’s ear just before she leaves. He hums a little. “Happy wedding. I’m taking back the dog.”
He snores in reply.
She goes back to her suite and lights another cigarette and plans, for tomorrow, before her afternoon flight, to lie on the beach. She wants to bottle as much sun as is humanly possible, hoard it like a squirrel, take it back with her to Chicago to fuel her transition into a new life that will be populated by normal people, boyfriends who actually want to sleep with her and friends who don’t stack their hair on top of their heads and parents who understand the difference between offspring and playmates. She will return home better off, an aspiring baker of bundt cakes who has finally traveled kind-of outside the country. She will return home with a bathrobe she stole from the hotel.
Oh, if nothing else, she will go home with a tan.
Photo By: Bill Dickinson