So Carmen was married, just. She sat under a huge butter moon, on a windless night in the summer of 1983, at a table, in front of the remains of some chicken cordon bleu. She looked toward the improvised dance floor where her very new husband was doing the Mexican hat dance with several other large men, three of them his brothers, other Sloans. Matt was a plodding hat-dancer; his kicks threw the others off the beat. In spite of this lack of aptitude, he was waving her over, beckoning her to join in. She waved back as though she thought he was just saying hi. She was hoping to sit out this early phase of her marriage, the mortifying dances segment.
“Don’t be discouraged. Everything will get better from here.”
This was Jean Arbuthnot, who sat next to Carmen, tapping the ash off her cigarette, onto her rice pilaf. Jean and Alice, Carmen’s sister, were among the artists who had taken over this old farm in the middle of Wisconsin. Jean played and recorded traditional folk music in a workshop on the edge of the property. Alice painted in a studio that occupied half the barn.
“Bad dancer doesn’t mean anything else, does it?” Carmen said. Matt was now doing a white-guy boogie to a bad cover of “Let’s Get Physical,” shooting his hands out in an incoherent semaphore. “Like being bad at parallel parking means you’re bad in bed?” She pushed back her chair. “I’ve got to pee. This is apparently a big part of being pregnant. I didn’t know that before.”
“Just use the outhouse.”
“I did that. Once.”
“You looked in. You can’t look in,” Jean said.
“I am going up to the house, where looking in is not a problem.”
Jean took Carmen’s hand for a moment, then let go. They were old friends, which made this brief touch a little slip of regular in the middle of these unfamiliar, celebratory events. Seated on Jean’s other side was Tom Ferris, a minor Chicago folksinger. At the moment he was banging his forehead softly on the table, to indicate he couldn’t abide the terrible cover band. Even though it was now definitely night, he was still wearing his signature accessory—Wayfarer shades. Today he sang while Carmen and Matt exchanged rings. Some Scottish ballad about a pirate and a bonny bride, a ship on stormy seas. Jean backed him up on a dulcimer. The two of them were fiercely committed to preserving traditional music. Superficially, that was their whole connection. Their covert connection was being tragic lovers, the tragedy being that Tom was married, with small kids. Carmen thought Tom was a total waste of Jean’s time, but of course didn’t express this opinion to Jean.
“I wonder where our backup bride has gone off to?” Carmen looked around as she stood up. Her brother, Nick, had shown up for the occasion in a thrift-shop wedding dress. His new girlfriend, Olivia, was wearing a Vegas-y, powder-blue tux. Some nose-thumbing at gender roles, or one of Nick’s elaborate, obscure jokes. Neither of them was in evidence among the crowd.
“Or your bridesmaids for that matter?” Jean observed, meaning Carmen’s sister Alice, Matt’s sister Maude. “Many lost siblings tonight.”
Carmen entered the farmhouse by the back door into the kitchen, which at the moment was vacant of humans, going about a life of its own. An ancient refrigerator emitted a low, steady buzz. The pump spigot dripped into a sink whose original porcelain was, in a circle around the drain, worn down to the iron beneath. A fat fly idled around the open window amid dangling pieces of stained glass. The room sighed out its own smell—a blend of burnt wood and wet clay. Trace elements of blackstrap molasses, tahini, apples, and dirty socks were also in the mix.
She passed through the living room with its brick-and-board bookshelves, walls filled with paintings by Alice and the other painters who lived here. In the corner, a giant wood stove hulked (the house had no central heating). The only undisguised piece of furniture was a ruby red velvet sofa from the 1930s, left by some distant, previous tenants. Everything else had been brought up from city apartments—cheap, rickety furniture draped with feed-sack quilts. A coffee table littered with seeds and rolling papers and a stagnant bong.
She headed up the stairs.
• • •
Alice was going to have to pull herself together, get herself outside, get her feet back on solid ground, she knew that. Instead she was lingering in surprising circumstances, having been dragged out of the ordinary progress of life into a hurtling, and (of course) sexual, detour. Which accounted for her not properly participating in her sister’s wedding reception. Not living up to her duties as maid of honor. Particularly, currently, not doing the Mexican hat dance, whose ridiculously peppy melody drifted up from the dance floor, through the screen of her bedroom window, audible in spite of the giant box fan wobbling on the floor. Rather she found herself naked, face down on her bed, pinned beneath the groom’s sister.
So far, this was the best moment of her life.
Draped over the edge of the bed, she looked down at their abandoned clothes. The parachute pants and slinky silk tops she and Maude bought together a couple of weeks ago—the day they met as bridesmaids—lay in a shimmery clutter on the plank floor. They hadn’t seen each other again until this afternoon when they walked together down the petal path, then stood side by side witnessing the ceremony. When Maude’s bare arm brushed against Alice’s for the third time, Alice decided not to take it as an accident.
And now, with a few intermediate steps, they had arrived exactly here. The evening was nearly as hot as the day it had come out of. The box fan had been running on high and was angled toward the bed, but still both of them were slick with sweat, also a little surprised to find themselves in their current situation. Still neither blamed it on the stunning weed they smoked just before the ceremony. Something had happened, they just weren’t sure what.
“We should probably get back out there.” Maude said this, but in an unconvincing voice, and without making a move to go anywhere.
“I don’t know what to say about this,” Alice said.
Maude was cupping Alice’s buttocks and had worked her fingertips lightly between Alice’s legs, teasing. “It could just be a one-wedding stand.”
While the fingers slid in, then out, Alice asked, “Could you stay over tonight?”
“I have a shoot tomorrow afternoon in the city.” Maude was in nursing school, but was also a model, for Field’s. Carmen had shown Alice a brochure. In it Maude’s hair was puffed and sprayed into a housewife helmet. The problem, according to Carmen, was that Maude was too gorgeous for a department store. They had to suppress her wild looks, tamp her down to pleasant and purchase-inducing. Then they could prop her next to coffee makers and bathroom vanities, in small-print dresses, quilted robes.
In this particular moment, Alice didn’t think she could ever get enough of her. She lay very still, listening for rejection in Maude’s excuse, but all she could hear were the soundless fingers. Then Maude said, “Maybe you could come back to the city with me? Stay overnight?” And Alice flooded with a goofy euphoria.
As they passed a cigarette back and forth while they shimmied back into their wedding gear, Alice was a slightly different person than she had been an hour earlier, more alive. Medical tests, she was sure, would show her pulse elevated, her blood thicker with platelets.
“We could maybe get a ride with my brother and his girlfriend,” Alice said. “I mean I don’t particularly want to spend the next three hours in your parents’ backseat with the Blessed Virgin statue. When they came up the drive, I thought she was some elderly relative.”
“They didn’t like the outdoor wedding concept. They wanted it to seem more like a church. What can I say? They’re religious maniacs.”
• • •
Above Alice and Maude, in the attic of the farmhouse, far enough up and away that the music and crowd noise outside was filtered through several parts rural nighttime, Alice and Carmen’s brother, Nick, stretched luxuriantly, aroused for a moment by the slippery sensation of satin between his legs. He felt sexy in his gown. Sexy and majestic. His arms, in the low light from a single bulb hanging within a Japanese paper shade, looked black. He had been working construction all summer; everything about him was either tanned or bleached white.
“I’m glad you found your way up here, into our small parallel universe,” he said. “To pay respect to the shadow bride.”
“And his groom,” Olivia said, tugging her lavender cummerbund down.
Their audience—temporary acquaintances, teenage cousins from the groom’s side—nodded. They were beached against huge floor cushions patterned with Warhol’s Mao and Marilyn Monroe. Neither kid had done mushrooms before. Nick had brought these back from a trip to Holland last year for an astrophysics conference in The Hague. He gave a paper on dark energy. He loved mushrooms.
One of the cousins had discovered that the shag carpet in the attic was tonal. “Listen,” he tried to make the rest of them understand, “if you press it here. Then here.”
Nick smiled and gave the kid a thumbs-up. Nothing he enjoyed more than turning people on. He’d skipped about half the grades along his academic way and so, although only nineteen, he was now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, studying astronomy. On his off nights he explored—through doors opened by hallucinogens and opiates—an inner universe. On drugs, he experienced no anxiety in the company of other humans, and did great with women. Olivia was new. At the moment, she was curled against him like a cat. They had only been seeing each other a few weeks. He had met her at a party. She was a mail lady. It was a job she said she could do better if she was high. Until Nick met her, he hadn’t thought of mail carriers going around stoned, but now he wondered if they all did. He could imagine them sorting so carefully, this letter here, that bill exactly there. Then walking their routes with deliberation, attuned to everything—the subtly changing colors of the leaves, the light rustle of the wind.
Olivia grew up in Wisconsin. “I know this stretch of road like the back of my hand,” she told him on the way up. So she drove while he just stared out at the wide fields edging the road, high with corn, low with soybeans. The sun-bleached sky, the tape deck whining out Willie Nelson, a hash pipe passing back and forth between them, angel flying too close to the ground. Could life get any better?
Now Nick looked down at her satin shirt spilling from the front of her tux jacket like Reddi-wip. He dipped a finger into the folds to test whether it was cloth or cream. He suspected Olivia would be new to him for a little while, then gone. Okay by him. He wasn’t looking for anything long term. He enjoyed moving through experiences, traveling without having to go anywhere. Other people and their lives were countries he visited. So far, Olivia’s main attraction, her local color, was the way she was always subtly touching him. The other excellent thing about her, of course, was her easy access to drugs.
• • •
The upstairs was a maze of narrow hallways. The only sounds were the heavy whir of a fan in one of the bedrooms, and a thumping bass coming down through the ceiling. Carmen found the bathroom, and used the toilet, which was painted to make it appear melted in a Daliesque way. She washed her hands in a paint-splattered sink with a large, misshapen bar of soap the color of glue. She inspected her makeup in the mirror, decided against using any of the extremely funky hairbrushes in a basketful on the windowsill, and made do with running wet fingers through her hair. She closed the toilet lid and sat sideways so she could press her forehead to the chilled porcelain of the sink. She suddenly found herself wobbly in the middle of all this tradition rigged up around something she wasn’t all that sure about. Child brides in India came to mind, kidnapped brides in tribal cultures, and mail-order brides for pioneer farmers. The vulnerable nature of bridehood in general. Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. Forward was the only available direction.
• • •
“We cut with the knife upside-down, then we feed a piece to each other.” Matt told Carmen this as if she was a foreign exchange student just off the plane. His mother had given him this information. She was the boss of this wedding, the commandant. The only thing Carmen got was the location—behind the farmhouse in the dreamy flower garden, a relic from some earlier incarnation of the farm. Wood and wire fences submerged beneath waves of climbing roses, Boston ivy, clematis. Stone paths mossed over, the surface of the small pond at the back burnished ochre with algae, paved with water lilies. Throughout the wedding, in the late hours of this afternoon, the scent rolled off the flowers in sheets that nearly rippled the air. A small threat of rain was held to a smudge at the horizon. Just this once, Carmen got perfection. Now though, things seemed to be slipping off that peak.
“Maybe we could just skip the cake-feeding thing?” she said to Matt, trying to gauge how drunk he was. A little, maybe.
“Oh, my aunts really want it,” he said. “I couldn’t say no to them.” Carmen could see these women gathering, clutching their Instamatics, tears already pooling in the corners of their eyes, tourists on an emotional safari, eager to bag a bride.
It suddenly occurred to her that Matt was a stranger. This was not some nervous, paranoid overreaction. The truth was she had known him only a few months, as yet had only his general outlines. He was a volunteer on the suicide hotline she ran. She trained him through nights drinking burnt coffee while talking down or bringing in or referring out kids on bad drug trips, guys who’d gambled away the family savings, women despairing in abusive marriages, gay guys and lesbians running the gauntlet of coming out—all of these callers sitting in motel rooms with some stash of pills they hoped would do the job, or looking out a high window they planned to use as a door.
Like Carmen, Matt believed in the social contract, in reaching out to those in need. He wanted to do his part; he was a good guy. Also she was pregnant, which was an accident, but they were both going with it. She was optimistic about heading into the future with him, but still, he was basically a stranger.
Now his aunts were clamoring—waving stragglers left and right—to gather a lineup of the bride and groom and his parents. Carmen’s parents were hipsters and atheists, way too cool for weddings. They were not present today.
• • •
Fatigue hit Carmen like a medicine ball; she was a bride, but also a woman in the middle months of pregnancy, and even ordinary days tired her out. Everyone had had their fun, and now she just wanted them all to go home. She wanted to be teleported to the squeaky bed in the room at a Bates sort of motel Alice had found for them nearby; it was slim pickings for tourist lodgings this far from a main highway. It was okay that it wasn’t a romantic setting. This was more of a symbolic wedding night. They’d been living together since February, sleeping together since about three weeks after they met. Tomorrow they were going fishing. Matt loved to fish and had brought rods and a metal box of lures. Carmen tried to imagine herself fishing. It was a whole new world she was walking into. Everything important was just beginning. Her earlier fears gave way to little slips of the giddiness that comes with potential.
• • •
Setting everyone off in the right direction, getting cars out of the yard by the barn, washing casserole dishes and ladles, and making sure they went off with their proper owners was a huge project, like getting the Conestogas out of Maryland, setting the wagon train off toward Missouri. Although it was nearly three a.m., the moonlight in the cloudless summer sky set up a weak, alternate version of day. Olivia’s cavernous old Dodge had room for a few stragglers, refugees from already-departed carloads. Tom Ferris stowed his guitar in the trunk—filled, Carmen noticed, with a high tide of what appeared to be undelivered mail—and got into the backseat along with Maude and—a little surprise—Alice, who Carmen wouldn’t have thought needed a ride anywhere, as she was already home. Carmen tried to make eye contact with her sister, but Alice ducked. She and Maude looked softened by sleepiness and lust; they were holding hands as they tumbled into the car one after the other, like bear cubs. Carmen was clearly way out of the loop on this.
She thanked Tom for singing at the ceremony. He stretched himself a little ways out the car window to bless Carmen with a sign of the cross. “I only perform at weddings of people I think were made for each other. My blessing on you both.” Almost everything Tom said came off as pompous.
She walked around to see how her brother was doing—still pie-eyed on something. He had twisted himself so the back of his head rested on the frame of the open passenger window. The sky was alive with stars and he was lost in them, like when he was a kid. Carmen pinched his ear, but he didn’t so much as blink. She couldn’t get a read on Olivia, who was starting up the engine, which faltered a couple of times before kicking in and required a bit of accelerator-tapping to keep it going.
“You okay?” Carmen asked her, peering past her brother so she could get a better look.
“Oh yes,” Olivia said brightly, maybe a little too brightly, but then Carmen didn’t know her well enough to know how she usually was at three in the morning. “Everything’s copacetic.” She flipped Carmen a little salute of confidence, and shifted into drive.
Carmen watched them weave down the long dirt road that led to the highway. They were the last of the guests to go. Billy Joel was on the car’s tape deck, “Uptown Girl” getting smaller and tinnier as the car drifted away, Nick’s head still poking out the open window. Carmen could see only the vague yellow of the car’s fog lamps ahead of it. “Hey!” she shouted. “Your lights!”
When the car disappeared from view, Matt said, “She’ll figure it out eventually.” And then he picked Carmen up.
“To the cave, woman!” he said, carrying her to his car, where he set her gently on the hood. He kissed her and said, “Don’t get me wrong. This whole thing was great. But I am so glad it’s over.”
“Oh, me too,” Carmen said. “All I want is a good-looking husband and a bed and about fifty hours’ sleep.” Some of the time when she talked to Matt, she felt as if she was in a movie scripted by lazy screenwriters. The two of them were still generic characters in each other’s stories. Girlfriend/boyfriend. Bride/groom. Wife/husband. But maybe that’s all marriage was—you fell into a groove already worn for you. You had a place now. The music had stopped and you’d gotten a chair.
• • •
By the time the car reached the end of the dirt road, everyone had grown quiet. Alice looked around at her fellow passengers. Maude was sleepy against her, within the circle of her arm. Nick was zoned out in the front, watching a mosquito flit up and down his forearm. Tom Ferris, on the other side of Maude, was staring out the side window, tapping down, pulling up, tapping down the door lock. Olivia turned left onto the two-lane—Route 14—and let it rip. Alice stuck her head a little ways out the window thinking there was nothing like traveling a country road at night. The sky was so clear, the moon so high and luscious.
A few miles on, the road dipped a little, then cut through a stand of trees. The leaves shimmered in the high moonlight, and now Billy Joel was singing “You’re Always a Woman to Me.” The first Alice saw of the girl was not her standing on the side of the road, or even running across it, but already thudding onto the hood of the car. A jumble of knees and elbows, and then her face, frozen in surprise, eyes wide open, huge on the other side of the windshield.