Saturday, March 14, 2009

DISENGAGEMENT by Kathryn St. Vincent Vogl

Wedding day, and I am restless as a cat about to birth. I find no comfort in the raw silk chairs or pale pink chinoiserie of this brides’ room. With the large and unshaded picture windows, I feel more exposed than ever, though there’s nothing but woods outside St. Mary’s. I was not prepared for this day to be so hard.

I am, after all, only a bridesmaid.

The bride flutters through questions that beg for hand-holding more than answers. She hasn’t been able to stay on point all day, but I haven’t been much better. Already I’ve forgotten what Kristina wants to know as I help preen her veil.

I am too acutely aware of her mother, Sharon, standing with honeyed poise before the mirror. She’s adjusting her earring, a peace offering I’d given her. But she fumbles and drops it, and when she bends over, her cleavage presses against the edge of her gown. I stare recklessly, not caring that others might see.

I knew Sharon before I knew the bride. It was the summer after my first year of law school. I’d braved a reading down at Sappho’s Books, but lost the cadence of the poetry as I studied the woman across from me. Her chocolate colored hair silked away from her olive face, her jaw so exquisitely defined. Afterwards, Sharon asked if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. I knew what she was asking. She wasn’t my first.

She was older; I thought she was safer. More assured. Too quickly I fell for her, fell hard, as she challenged my memory of nineteenth century women authors. We long debated which BrontĂ« sister got it right depicting the tragedies of marriage and love. I was the one who asked we stay in, away from the leering from other tables. Oh, our long nights in my tiny apartment, that renovated girls’ school. With my odd hours researching for a professor, I hadn’t thought anything of our erratic dates, did not yet realize all we’d snatched from others.

Kristina’s voice pulls me away from dreams I’ve prayed I’ll keep. I barely comprehend that the bride is repeating herself.

“Yes,” I answer, not knowing what I’ve agreed to, desperate for Sharon’s daughter to depend on me still for solace or advice, as she has for years. But the bride turns away to find someone who will truly listen.

How could I fail her now? Fourteen foot high ceilings and it feels too close, too tight. With sudden urgency, I turn to the nearest window to tug it open. But the window doesn’t budge, no matter how I strain or jerk or push. As if no one has touched it. I press my cheek against the cool of the glass, as if to assure myself of my presence here. On the other side of the painted shut window, sugar maples and lesser broadleaved trees clutch tightly to their foliage, leaves of looted gold.

The others joke that I am more nervous than the bride. As if I could be the one giving my precious away. Sharon does not look over, though. She is buttoning a sequined jacket over her bodice, making herself presentable for pictures and the ceremony. I must pull myself together, too.

Someone else adjusts Kristina’s train as she explains to her flower girl what’s in her bouquet. It is the one thing the groom pays for on this day, she says. “Ivy stands for fidelity, for faithfulness,” the bride says, as if the little girl—or any of us, for that matter—could wrap her mind around that. “And these pretty little white flowers? They’re called steph-an-oh-tis. They stand for happiness in marriage.”

The little girl stands up on the tip of her toes, her white patent leathers so stiff and new. “And these?” she asks.

“Gardenias.” Kristina buries her nose in one. “I just love the smell. I’ve no idea what they stand for.”

I close my eyes, struggling whether to remember or forget the significance of gardenias. My head is spinning. Surely not from last night’s drinks still? I cannot stand here alone any longer.

These past seven years have not been in vain, I tell myself as the photographer clumps us together for pictures before the ceremony. He places me next to the mother of the bride. For once I am glad we are near each other in height. Just before he snaps the picture, I loop my pinky around Sharon’s little finger. Our interlocked fingers are lost in the folds of her gown and hidden behind the bride and groom. When Kristina shows me the proofs I will see her mother’s expression and know how far I’ve fallen since Sharon’s declaration of independence this past summer.

It is so hard, sometimes, this dance of silent denials. Perhaps I am the worst, denying it’s over but for fleeting moments of weakness as I lead the procession of silk sheathed women down the aisle. In Sharon’s world, for those at the end of the Metro North Line, I am the one who helped Kristina get on her feet at college. I concentrate on why I am here. “Because you took me under your wing since the day we met. Like you’d known me and my family for forever already,” Kristina had said at her engagement party. These are the only words I wish to remember from that night. Bile rises in my throat as I wait at the altar for the others to join me.

Sharon’s youngest niece scatters crimson rose petals upon the aisle runner, preparing the way for the bride. The whole congregation rises as Kristina trembles at the door. She begins down the narrow path arm in arm with her father, a man whose eyes remained blank whenever Sharon and I returned from too long a time in the kitchen, from too long a visit in the city. Soon Kristina will stand with her betrothed before us all, and the two will promise to love each other until they die.

Such a fucking lie for most.

Father Pio drones through his prayers, through the homily. Fat with years of accumulated dignity, he bears the weight of sins of those brave enough to confess, not mine. He cannot promise me what he’s promised all others: that if God says the word I shall be healed. I know, I know I cannot be cured of what I am, and the Church has no patience for any of my kind.

I remind myself that even Jesus broke bread at the home of a leper for that Last Supper, though no one remembers the leper anymore. I take of the Eucharist anyway, certain I claim a victory of some kind by making the body of Christ a part of me.

“This is exactly what I’ve been talking about,” my Sharon says as we stand at the bar, her voice devoid of our years together.

I’ve slid my foot against her instep as I ordered a Beefeaters. This way I catch the scent of the perfume I gave her, and I know how she stroked that glistening dauber in the hollow behind her ear. I know how it feels there, there when she softly moans.

She is right, I know. I’ve been crossing that fine line of discretion all day. This is what she meant when she left me, that I didn’t know when to stop. But I’ve pushed her ever since I first caught her in a lie. I was volunteering at the new students’ reception, welcoming a family climbing those steps on Hillhouse Avenue for the first time.

Was that Sharon? Was she married?

It was all I could do to smile warmly at Sharon’s long-limbed husband as I guessed at what warped arrangement they’d come to over the years. I dared not stare but could tell how the fine lines around Sharon’s mouth deepened as I offered to show her daughter around campus, to help however I could. Later, the woman I’d thought was my partner stood by the chafing dishes, finally alone. I wandered over casually.

Evening sun warmed the leaded glass windows above us. With the ceiling so high, the chandeliers so old and their light so diffuse, it seemed we stood in shadow. I almost asked how she thought she could get away with this, but she looked at me, her eyes shining in pain tamped down by the years.

“I was too young when I had Kristina,” she said quietly, without prompting. “We had to get married.”

“You never wore a ring,” is all I said.

“I’m allergic to precious metals,” she said, and I believed her even as I stared at the fine gold strands intertwined below the hollow of her neck.

All these years since, I still take her at her word. Except now, when she reminds me we’ve broken up for good. That, I like to think, is a bald-faced lie.

At the bar, at the wedding reception, her trust fund of a husband greets me from behind with a warm if angular embrace, his cheek again to mine. “Liz,” he says, his blue eyes already watery and martini vague. “You’ve made yourself strange these past several months. I swear you’re giving me a complex. Is it something I’ve done?”

It takes everything I have not to look towards Sharon. “This trial for McEwen, it’s taken a lot out of me. So sorry,” I say, but there’s more for which I could apologize. “Congratulations again.”

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” he says, too easily diverted, that blessing of his perpetual inebriation. “Promise we’ll see more of you?”

Sharon blandly smiles in agreement. I nod without saying a word and lift my drink off the bar, fearful I am shaking so much I will drop it as I thread my way back to the head table.

When the dancing begins, I am left alone, another bitter gin drink before me. I do not glance over at Sharon sitting with her husband. I know without looking how she is sliding the wine stem between her fingers, spread wide into a V shape. I know how she lowers her head to look up at you as she talks, how she drops her voice at the end of her sentences so you have to lean in close to catch everything she says.

But when Sharon quits her table and crosses to the ladies room, I follow. Some god—I don’t know which—has granted me the small blessing of time alone with the mother of the bride. I follow Sharon into a stall, shut the door behind us.

She jumps, her hands covering her chest. “God, you scared me half to death,” she says.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said last night.” Not so much what she said, but what she did.

Sharon pushes me away. “I told you,” she says, her hands shaking. From nervousness of getting caught? “Lay off.”

“Lay off?” I repeat, and the words, strangely obscene, echo across the Italianate tile.

“Please, someone could walk in on us now,” she says, as if repeating a classroom rule for a small child.

“But Memorial Day was just fine for you, wasn’t it?” It’d been during her daughter’s engagement party. The two of us, alone in her flame red kitchen—nothing we hadn’t dared before. And I’d made her shudder in a way I am sure Phillip never could. The drink glass she’d clutched in her hand almost gave us away as it shattered onto the floor.

“You okay in there?” someone had yelled from the patio. Sharon’s eyes fluttered open, and she collected herself enough to say, “Fine, just fine.” I grabbed a broom to sweep away the shards remaining of the glass she’d been readying for Philip.

I was bent at her feet, sweeping debris into a dustpan as she smoothed down her skirt and told me flatly we had to end whatever it was we shared. “God, no,” I said, for I’d never imagined this happening so, with me kneeling before her as melodramatically as the nineteenth century books that had brought us together.

“You want too much of me,” she had said, as if it’d been written long ago. She pulled open the drawer for the garbage and left me in shock as I clinked the broken shards into the trash compacter. I’d had to walk out into the unsuspecting crowd, towards a daughter who still wanted me part of her special day.

Now we stand close in this cramped stall of her county club restroom. All this time, I’ve been so devastated—and I should have been indignant. Waiting as she did until that last stolen shudder in her kitchen, until I was on my knees. “You waited, didn’t you?” I say. “Deliberately waited. You waited to break up until she’d already asked me to be in this wedding.”

My voice is low, a punctured hiss. “What sort of twisted test is this? Did you think I’d be so devastated I couldn’t be here for her today?” I do not shrill, but I can’t stop myself. I move on to questions I do not know the answer to—exactly what my law professors had taught me to never, never do. “What would you do, Sharon, really, if I walked right out of here and told Philip, told your daughter, told everyone what you’ve done? Because I will, you know. Make no doubt about it: I will.”

Sharon bows her head, perhaps ashamed after all of the way she manipulated me. But no, she is hitching up her skirt. “I gotta go,” she says tiredly, and she sits and pees.

I walk out. She knows I don’t like her doing that right in front of me. I do not need to see my image cross the wall mirror to know my dress shifts angrily with each stride. God, how could I make a threat I could never see through?

One of the bridesmaids grabs me on my way back to the table. “The bouquet, it’s time to catch the bouquet,” she says. She sounds so cloyingly eager.

I have no choice but to stand among the simpletons who wait for that one sure sign, convinced that whoever catches a bunch of flowers will enter the next binding relationship. Despite my contempt, or maybe because of it, I wish to hide among this pastel clutch of dresses as Sharon steps back into the room, her face somehow freshened.

God, she is still lovely, so lovely, in the gown I picked out for her.

She’d called for my help not long after that patio evening in May, and I didn’t know what to expect. But I knew the dress was hers the moment I saw it. I rushed back to the dressing room, handed it over the door. Once she slipped it on she let me in. Her skin glowed under the dressing room lights. She agreed with me then, agreed she looked perfect, in a voice soft and pliable.

She’d asked me to unzip her, the zipper too awkward for her to reach. The fabric separated as if she were shedding a skin, all the way to the dimples past the small of her back. There was not much room for me to stand behind her, and I was all too aware that my mouth was close behind the exposed and naked nape of her neck. With much effort, I kept my breaths shallow, so as not to feel the heat of my breath upon her skin. “You’ll want earrings,” I said, ones that dangle against the line of her jaw as she moves through the night. I would not take my eyes off some unnamed stain on the nubbed carpet.

But then, then she was leaning back into me and nestling against me and I did not know where to put my arms, and I could not imagine where to put my hands. “I’ll want more than that,” she said as she pressed her bared back against me. But she laughed lightly, not with the deeper nuances she’d shared other times, in darker places. I found myself standing outside the dressing room as she pulled herself back together, and I did not consider that she might have lost her footing on the small train on the back of her gown. Instead, I held onto that moment—oh that moment—when I believed we’d piece back together what had shattered in her kitchen. I would not have otherwise tried to make it through this evening riddled with excuses and feeble rationalizations, I swear. She took my hand saying good-bye last night, for God’s sake.

For God’s sake.

Kristina’s sorority sisters shriek and in their crush I cannot breathe. I cannot. I move apart from the others, reaching out, straining for the nothingness I believe to be there.

I remember what gardenias stand for, I want to cry out. They mean my lovely, my secret love. If only Sharon could hear me. She smoothes down her rose-colored sheath and sits by her cuckolded husband. My fingers pull the air, as if I could grasp the vision Sharon presents before me, and only too late realize I am holding the fistful of gardenias, the ivy trailing down the sinews of my arm, its touch as deceptively light as spider silk.


DISENGAGEMENT earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Kate St. Vincent Vogl teaches a variety of courses in Minneapolis at the Loft, the largest and most comprehensive literary center in the nation. She also offers writing, sociology and religion classes through the University of Phoenix. She was graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and cum laude from Cornell. Topics her readings and seminars have addressed include team-building, spirituality, legal writing, and the mother-daughter connection. She is currently shopping her memoir about her birthmother finding her through her mom’s obituary.