Today, Evy is marrying Bennett. I swipe the mascara wand up my lashes and wonder how many people trust their “until death do us part” person. Especially people I call do-overs—like Evy and me—divorcees who decided “or worse” didn’t include cheating, but we are willing to glove up for a second round.
I mean, how do you trust an “I do” after you’ve barely survived a “Not anymore, I don’t”?
I’m perched on a ritzy barstool in a North Carolina beach bungalow, staring into a mirror set out on a kitchen counter. Worry collects on the big green glob of envy rolling around in my belly. I’m dating Bennett’s twin brother, Blake, who’s never once brought up the “m” word.
I hope this relationship doesn’t spontaneously combust like my twenty-year marriage did.
I trust Blake. Really, I do. There’s just this itty-bitty worry that I’m too common for him, that maybe his out-of-town trips hide some fantastic life I can’t compete with.
Plus, there’s the annoying matter of his popularity. People knock me down to get to him. As if I’m invisible. A portrait on the wall that no one notices.
Until it’s crooked.
I pitch my mascara into my makeup bag and gaze around the room for a diversion to my wedding thoughts—correction—my no-wedding thoughts. I spot the chocolate-cream-stuffed donuts encased in cellophane, sitting ten feet from me. Eating one will upset my stomach but, worse, Evy will notice one’s missing and have a conniption.
Everett, Evy, is a good friend. A trusted confidant. But he’s no Anderson Cooper. Just a middle-aged father of two. College professor. Philosopher, sort of. A gay commoner in modern-day society. A person never tempted to keep his opinion to himself. He is…
He’s impossible. He’ll kill me if I eat one.
“Mom, can you help me—” My daughter, Delanie, bursts into the room like a flaming comet, while my thoughts of Evy and fitting into the dress I’m wearing to his beach wedding tango toward the donuts. Her fiery voice jolts me back to the tasks at hand: finishing my makeup, polishing Evy’s rings.
She stops and blinks hard. “What happened to your face?”
Her arms overflow with little bouquets, their white chiffon streamers dangling in disarray. Normally, she ignores me, so her attention alarms me. I glance back to the mirror and see black everywhere. “Oh, great.”
“Don’t move.” She plops the bouquets on the counter, plucks a makeup wipe out of a container, and her thin fingers grip my chin like a vice.
“Ouch,” I whimper.
She scrapes my cheeks like she’s stripping varnish off an antique. When she’s finished, her gaze darts back and forth across my face. “You’ll have to reapply your base.”
She releases her grasp, and I cradle my chin in my hand. “That hurt.”
She pats her hands with a paper towel then points a finger at me. “Do not ruin this for Evy.”
Delanie is my oldest child. She’s twenty-one years old going on sixty and suffers from role reversal. She thinks she’s my mother.
“I won’t,” I swear.
“Promise?” She plants her hands on her hips.
“I do. I promise.” I’m a mother afraid of her own. First-born children, in particular, scare me.
“Do you have the rings?”
My stomach flexes like a fist.
“I do. Right here. See?” I flick the little box open and set it on the counter.
She sighs. I think she’s disappointed I haven’t lost Evy’s treasured bands.
“I’m polishing them.” I grab the silver cleaner and wave it in the air.
“Don’t mess it up,” she says, then screams her sister’s name with the power of Ursula. “Gianna. Can you help me hang the flowers on the chairs? Mom’s not ready.”
Evy’s delegated the part of the wedding planner to me for this momentous occasion, which is monumental since he’s a maniac when it comes to details. His reasoning for my appointment is threefold. First, I’m a dynamite designer with an eye for color schemes. Second, I crave perfection. (I fall a tad short here.) And third, my family gives more attention to gnats in our basement than to me. Evy believes planning his wedding will reveal my hidden beauty and talent to my children—not to mention Blake. In other words, Evy’s a good friend and he’s doing this for me.
I’m not proud. I welcome his pity job.
To perfect every minor detail of the wedding and increase my family’s ability to see my finer qualities, I’ve petitioned all three of my children to help co-plan the event. (Keep your friends close. Your enemies, closer.)
We are staying at an upscale resort on the coast, which I located and Evy paid for. He rented ten suites for family and friends. Blake, the best man, has entrusted me with the rings.
Big mistake. Blake’s faith in me never ceases to amaze me. My ex-husband wouldn’t trust me with a nickel at a dime store.
Mark, my first, was a nightmare. Blake, hopefully my second, is a dream. Now every morning when the sun slips through my window and I open my eyes, I remember my old life is gone, and I smile in sheer ecstasy. No more Marks. Only Blakes.
When he doesn’t have a tournament—Blake’s one flaw is golf—and my older kids are away at college and my youngest is at a sleepover, I wake up on weekend mornings beside him, feeling like I’ve hit the relationship lottery. The whole you-marry-once Catholic guilt hits me every Sunday, but not enough for me to hide my tail between my legs and crawl back to Mark. I like Blake too much.
Plus, other people enjoy his company. Much more than they did Mark’s.
Blake is endearing. And he’s a golf pro, which automatically boosts any guy who’s rated a seven out of ten to a nine. Blake’s a nine to start, elevating him to the sought-after ten-plus category.
“When you’re done—” Delanie commands me away from my wandering thoughts. She shouts over one shoulder as she scurries out the door. “Come help Gianna and me.”
I hear five or six loud thumps on the staircase, and Gianna bounds into the room like an antelope. She’s grown as tall as her sister, her long, lean body pretty in pink, a wide smile gracing her blue eyes, pug nose, and perfect cheekbones. Despite the bad first marriage, I wouldn’t change a day. Mark and I produced three great kids.
“What happened to your cheeks?” Her forehead wrinkles.
“Why?” I gaze into the mirror.
“They are, aren’t they?” I apply a base to cover the vandalism Delanie’s hands have strewn about my face, then sit back and inspect myself. “I’ll touch it up before the ceremony,” I say, then gaze at my daughter.
She pinches the sides of her dress. “How do I look?”
My children’s growth spurts, both physical and mental, spark teary-eyedness in me. Gianna, my baby, grew up overnight during the divorce. Today, Delanie has dusted her face with makeup. A hint of sugary perfume wafts toward me as she sways back and forth. But for her wildly happy eyes, someone might mistake her for a sixteen-year-old. At fourteen, that thrashing attitude toward her mother hasn’t yet settled in. She still likes me.
“You look beautiful.” I hug her.
“Let go of me. You’ll wrinkle my dress.”
“It’s skintight. You’d have to iron a wrinkle on.”
Her expression turns. “Can’t you, for once, say something nice? You always have to ruin everything.”
There you go. The little-girl moment dashed. Her shoulders stiffen and her teeth clench.
With daughters, bursts of independence surface in the single-digit years. By ten, they’ve realized their friends stack blocks better than their mother. By twelve, you annoy them. Fourteen, you embarrass them. Sixteen, you appall them, and at eighteen you can’t grab their attention with a foghorn. They deflect your voice, advice, instruction, guidance. Everything you offer them comes sailing back faster than a boomerang whirled by a weightlifter—except money. I’ve sunk half of my 401k into these girls.
Then they advance to their twenties, and suddenly, you’re the child and they’re the mother.
Life was easier when they were two, and I told them to do this, don’t do that, do everything exactly the way Mommy tells you. And they did. Joyfully. Their eyes twinkled and their faces lit up when I walked into a room. Now they run when they see me. Have the audacity to advise me. Point out how I might improve my life as if wisdom is a regressive trait we are born with and lose over time.
I miss the old days when they gazed at me adoringly.
“You’re so negative,” she hollers, and the knot in my stomach tightens. “Just once, can’t you be nice?”
Her inappropriate dress shimmies a half-inch down the front of her, but I say nothing because “your bandage bodycon fits you like skin on a snake,” would send her venom spewing. Silently, I watch her long hourglass shape march away. Inwardly, I scold myself for getting caught up in a dress-buying moment with my girls.
Evy has played an important role in my children’s lives since they were little. We celebrated when he found Bennett. Where normally we don’t agree on much, the girls and I concurred that Bennett was the best thing to happen to Evy. Tittering with happiness and wanting to make him proud of us, his friend family, we slipped into a dress shop, and I became enamored with the moment, conceded to Gianna’s begging, and purchased the dress that now flaunts my fourteen-year-old’s breasts like an eighteen-year-old’s.
“You look wonderful.” I wave the tip of an olive branch toward her.
She slams the screen door on its leaves. “Whatever.”
When I was pregnant with Gianna, my third child, I begged God for a girl. I wanted Delanie to have someone she could walk hand in hand with through life, too. I didn’t count on them ganging up and sending me to an early grave.
Sometimes God steps in to answer our prayers at the most inopportune times.
I dance in frivolous thought for several minutes until, tiredly, I waddle off the daughter topic and back to the wedding, where a minor detail slaps me.
I run to the door and holler to Gianna and Delanie. “I forgot. The slipcovers are in those boxes on the altar. Can you start covering chairs until I get there?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. You tell us now? I’ve fixed flowers on three rows.” Delanie steps away so I can see her picture-perfect work.
“I’m sorry.” I bite my lip with one front tooth. “Could you redo them? The covers are dressy, perfect for an outdoor wedding.”
“You are so hung up on perfect.”
I am. I admit it. Don’t we yearn for what we lack?
“I want this day to be perfect. For Evy. You know how he is.” I deflect blame with the best of the cowards.
“Nothing is perfect, Mom. Not you, me, this wedding, the stupid chairs. And who cares?” Delanie huffs and puffs and I think she might blow the entire white plastic makeshift altar down as she stomps toward the box of slipcovers.
“I care.” I step outside.
“Of course, you do. You want to impress everyone that you’re this wonderful person. You want to be—” She shakes her head primly. “Noticed.” Then she spews, “But the truth of the matter is Evy couldn’t care less if his wedding is perfect.”
“You’re wrong. Evy does care.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Despite the distance between us, I see the frustration in her eyes. “Evy will love us even if this ceremony is a complete disaster. You’re the person who doesn’t understand life.”
I’m uncertain how to respond. There’s probably some truth buried in her budding philosophical moment, but all I can think right now is she doesn’t know Evy.
“Go in the house and stay out of the way.” She opens the box, grabs two chair covers, and trudges toward the first row.
I tramp inside, determined not to allow her to ruin my mood. I tidy up the kitchen then retrieve the prepared fruit platters and set them out beside the donuts and Danish for the brunch after the ceremony. I fill the crystal punchbowl Evy’s inherited from his grandmother with orange juice and champagne, dump pineapple-shaped ice cubes in the middle, and stir.
I resume my seat at the counter, reach for the rings, and take my frustration with my girls out on the wedding bands, polishing the heirlooms to perfection. As I finish, I see Blake’s reflection as he enters the suite behind me.
“Hello, gorgeous.” He strides toward me, his tailored black suit embellishing his squared shoulders, thin waist, lean legs. He sneaks a kiss on the nape of my neck. “Rumor has it you have this suite to yourself tonight. Your kids are staying with mine in the room by the pool, right?”
“They are. They don’t want me ruining their good time. How’d you convince Delanie to watch your girls tonight?” My kids will do anything for Blake. “She’s always so agreeable for you.”
“I pay her exorbitantly.” He sets his hands on my shoulders and squeezes. I shiver. “Nice job on the rings, by the way.”
“Thanks. I think Delanie secretly hoped I’d rinse them down the drain.”
Blake sneaks a hand onto the counter and drags the paper towel and rings away from the sink. “No sense tempting you.”
“Ye of little faith. They’re drying. I’ll have them out to you in a minute.” I stand and slip my arms around his waist.
“You look beautiful.” His eyes wander over me.
“Thank you.” I move my eyebrows up and down. “You don’t look half bad yourself.”
“Why are you getting ready here?”
“Oh.” I release my grip and gather my makeup into its bag. “The girls were hogging the bathrooms.”
He turns me around, places a hand on the small of my back, and exhales warm breath beneath my ear. “How much time do we have before the service?”
Chills rush down my neck and across my shoulders. “Not that much time.”
He stands back, laughing. “Okay, Nikki Grey, I’ll see you—”
“Stone,” I exclaim. “I’m no longer drab and boring Nikki Grey. Remember? I’m drab and boring Nikki Stone.”
I took my maiden name back after my divorce. Long story short: my ex had a child with another woman while we were married, and I refuse to share a last name with the two of them.
“I’m sorry. I mean Nikki Stone.” Blake draws me toward him again as if he can’t keep his hands off me. His rich, intoxicating cologne makes me dizzy. “Maybe someday we’ll do something about that drab and boring last name.”
He kisses me but I don’t feel a thing. I’m afraid my mind is playing tricks on me. What did he say? Did he mean…my name…might be his someday? Anderson? As in Mrs. Blake Anderson?
When he leaves, I stand dazed like a teenage girl after the captain of the football team has winked at her. This is a first.
Suddenly the temperature of the room skyrockets, and I begin perspiring profusely. I wiggle inside my clothes. My underwear and dress cling to my body. The hair falling on my neck frizzes. My makeup slides down my cheeks. I fan my face but can’t stop sweating. I’m a perfect menopausal mess. I grab for a paper towel on the counter and pat myself dry at the exact moment I hear metal clinking.
I stop breathing. My gaze falls to the sink. I’m paralyzed as I watch two rings roll round and round until the big, ugly hole in the middle sucks them into the underworld.
“No, no, no, no,” I cry.
The drain. I jinxed myself.
I reach my hand down under and a mangle of food tangles with sharp metal prongs. I gag, recoil my food-stained fingers, lean over the sink, and gaze into the depths of hell.
Above me, a light fixture dangles from the ceiling. I reach and flip its switch, but instead of casting light onto the hellhole, I hear grinding and whirring and scraping and clunking, a rhythmic melody of doom.
I pirouette into a hyperventilating attack so quickly that the dry grinding sounds nearly send me to the floor. I regain my composure and flick the garbage disposal switch off. I take a deep breath—I don’t know why I’m holding my breath—and force my hand into the muck and grime of the sinkhole.
“Don’t faint,” I tell myself.
I was born with temporal lobe epilepsy, and if I pass out, I will lose my driver’s license for six months or until I haven’t had a seizure for six months. Two years ago, I had my first devastating episode—a grand mal—after foolishly smoking marijuana with friends. Up until that fateful day, I’d only had partial seizures; brief annoying moments where I stared subconsciously.
“Don’t seize!” I command as I slop a mucky mess into the sink, gagging. Two hints of silver glimmer through a stringy glob of greenish-black goop. I grab them with my free hand and use an elbow to turn the water on only to realize the faucet is on the spray setting. Water drenches me just as the processional music begins outside.
With one eye open, I turn the water to stream and wash the gunk off Evy’s rings. I set them on the side and rinse the grime from my arms, but my dress, hair, and makeup are ruined beyond quick repair.
I grab the edge of the counter and breathe. Blackness tries to weasel its way into my vision, but I stand my ground. I’m not going down. Slowly, my head clears. I rinse the putrid muck down the sink and examine the rings. Evy’s is pecked like a dartboard and Bennett’s is pear-shaped, the engraved words that Evy’s so carefully chosen for him laugh up at me: Our love is a circle of perfection.
Not anymore, it’s not.
My stomach has been so upset in the past few weeks that now I have to do everything I can not to throw up on the floor. I slip the rings into the box and hurry outside. I’m soaked, hair dripping, makeup stinging my eyes, but what can I do? The ceremony has begun, and I’m clutching the ring box.
Blake is standing at the altar beside Bennett and when he gazes my way, he does a double-take and goes slack-jawed as if he’s glimpsed Medusa. Then, slowly, his shock melts, and his lips part into that forever smirk I usually love on him but don’t appreciate today. Seven rows of people separate us, and I’m tempted to heave the ring box over their heads and run.
Instead, I make my way down the side closest to him, ignoring the snickers. Bennett glances over his shoulder to see what the tittering is about and, although he and Blake aren’t identical twins, a smirk lifts his lips and his expression mirrors the same easily-amused mien of his brother’s.
On the other side of the altar, Evy gives me a once over as if I’m a zombie rising from the marshlands.
By the time I hand off the rings, Blake and Bennett, shoulders shaking, can’t make eye contact with me. I hear my son laughing and my girls sighing, so when I turn, I steer away from the empty seat in the front row beside them and march down the aisle, searching for my friend Jody. I spot her motioning toward the chair beside her. I step over two people and slouch into the seat, glad that at least my disheveled appearance has kept Blake from spotting the mangled rings.
The giggles simmer then cease. Ten minutes later Blake opens the ring box. Evy looks me straight in the eye and says, “Naggy, darling.” Naggy is the nickname he uses for me when he’s angry or bothered. “I’m going to string you up by your ankles and pull every hair off your head, one by one. Then I’ll shred your closet.”
My stomach gurgles, I belch, and then I projectile vomit on the three people sitting in front of me.