I mull this over as Elaine takes her seat, and the music starts to play.
Patrick takes his place at the altar, casting a wry glance at his brother, his eyes skating over me as though assessing my recovery. He smiles at his parents and huffs out a breath.
We all stand when Mindy arrives in a big pink marshmallow dress. It’s insanely over the top, but she looks so happy as she walks down the aisle, simultaneously grinning and weeping like a lunatic, so I love it too.
She takes her place in front of Patrick, and I get a good look at her. Holy moly. This woman is stunning. Go, Patrick.
Weddings always end up doing something weird to me. I feel myself getting emotional when their friends read special poems, and the minister reflects on their commitment. I get choked up during their vows. I take the Kleenex offered by Elaine and dab at the corners of my eyes. I watch with suspense as the ring is slid onto each finger, and sigh with relief when they fit perfectly and go on with ease.
And when the magic words you may now kiss the bride are uttered I let out a happy sigh like I’ve seen THE END scrolled over the top of this perfect movie freeze-frame.
I look at Elaine and we both let out identical delighted laughs and begin clapping. The men on either side of us sigh indulgently.
They walk out down the aisle wearing their brand-new gold rings, and everyone stands up, talking and exclaiming until the strains of the ancient organ are almost drowned out. For the first time, I notice some speculative glances at Josh. What gives?
“They go for photographs down on the boardwalk. I hope the wind doesn’t blow Mindy clean away,” Elaine tells me, waving politely to someone. “We’ll all go to the hotel now, have some drinks, then an early dinner and speeches. We’ll borrow Josh for some family photos at some point.”
“Sounds good. Right, Josh?” I squeeze his hand. He’s been vacant for the last few minutes. With a jolt, he drops back into his body.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
I throw a look over my shoulder to his parents, which hopefully looks bemused rather than alarmed as I’m hooked into his right arm and swept out of the church.
“Slow down. Josh. Wait. My shoes.” I’m barely able to keep up. He slides down horizontal in the passenger seat and lets out a groaning sigh.
I’m having trouble trying to time my reverse. Everyone is piling out of the parking lot simultaneously.
“Do you want to go straight back? Or do you want me to drive around for a bit?”
“Drive around. All the way back home. Take the highway.”
“I am an independent observer. I assure you, it went pretty well.”
“You’re right, I guess,” he says heavily.
“Pardon? Could you possibly repeat that in a moment, so I can record it? I want it as my text message alert noise. Lucy Hutton, you’re right.”
Teasing him will get him out of his little funk. He looks at me.
“I could do the voice mail message too if you want. You’ve reached the voice mail of Lucy Hutton. She’s too busy crying at a stranger’s wedding to take your call right now, but leave a message.”
“Oh, shut up. I must watch too many movies. It was so romantic.”
“You’re kinda cute.”
“Joshua Templeman thinks I’m kind of cute. Hell has officially frozen over.” We grin at each other.
“You must have cried for a reason. You’re dreaming of your own wedding?”
I look at him defensively. “No. Of course not. How lame. Plus, my fiancé is invisible, remember.”
“But why would a stranger’s wedding make you cry, then?”
“Marriage is one of the last ancient rites of civilization, I guess. Everyone wants someone who loves them so much they’d wear a gold ring. You know, to show everyone else their heart is taken.”
“I’m not sure it’s relevant these days.”
I try to think of how to explain it. “It’s so completely primal. He’s wearing my ring. He’s mine. He’ll never be yours.”
The slow procession of traffic takes us all back to the hotel. I hand the keys to the hotel valet and Josh attempts to steer me to the side of the building.
“Josh. No. Come on.”
“Let’s go to the room.” He’s putting on the brakes. He weighs a ton.
“You’re being ridiculous. Explain what is going on with you.”
“It’s stupid,” he mutters. “It’s nothing.”
“Well, we’re going in.” I take his hand firmly and march him through the doors held open for us.
I take the deepest breath my lungs can manage, and walk through into an entire room half filled with Templemans.
In a pretty room adjoining the ballroom, we spend nearly two hours mingling in various states of awkwardness in an endless champagne reception. When I say mingling, I mean me carrying Joshua through a succession of social encounters with distant relatives while he stands beside me, watching me glug champagne to dull my nerves, which burns my empty stomach like gasoline. Every introduction goes like this.
“Lucy, this is my aunt Yvonne, my mother’s sister. Yvonne, Lucy Hutton.”
When his duty is completed, he begins occupying himself with stroking my inner arm, spreading his hand across my back to find the bare skin under my hair, or linking and unlinking our fingers. Always staring. He barely takes his eyes off me. He’s probably amazed by my small-talk ability.
After a while, he is taken by his mother out into the side garden, and I watch through the window as he poses with various combinations of family. His smile is forced. When he catches me spying, I’m beckoned out, and he and I pose together in front of a charming rosebush. When the shutter clicks shut, the old version of me shakes her head, wondering how we ever got to this point. Me, and Joshua Templeman, captured side by side in the same photograph, smiling? Every new development between us feels like an impossibility.
He turns me and cups my chin in his palms, and I hear the photographer say, Lovely. Another shutter click, and I forget the world in the instant his lips touch mine. I wish I could shake off my old mistrusts, but this all feels too much like a summer afternoon daydream. The sort I might have had once, and then hated myself for it.
I watch Patrick and Mindy across the lawn, now clinched together romantically in front of another camera and I realize that I’m clinched in a fairly romantic pose myself. The man who’s hated me for so long is now showing me off, tugging me close to his side. When we go back inside, he kisses me on the temple. He drops his mouth down to my ear, and tells me I’m beautiful. I’m turned another ninety degrees, presented to another set of relatives. He’s showing me off.
What I haven’t worked out yet is, Why?
In every introduction, after discussions on how lovely Mindy looked and how nice the ceremony was, the inevitable question always comes next.
“So, Lucy, how did you meet Josh?”
“We met at work,” Josh supplied the first time when the silence stretched too thin, so it becomes my default answer.
“Oh, and where do you work?” is the next question. None of his family has even the slightest idea where he works, or what he does. They’re awkward about it; like being a Med School Dropout is something to be deeply ashamed of. At least a publishing house sounds glamorous.
“It’s so lovely seeing you with someone new,” another great-aunt tells him. She gives me a Meaningful Look. Perhaps he’s also rumored to be gay.
I excuse us and pull him aside behind a pillar.
“You have to make more of an effort. I’m exhausted. It’s my turn to stand there and feel you up while you talk.” A waiter passes and offers me another tiny canapé. He knows me by now because I’ve eaten at least twelve. I’m his best customer. I’m obsessed with dinner, which I’ve been promised by the waiter is at five o’clock sharp. I watch the hands on Josh’s watch, knowing I’ll probably die of hunger before then.
“I can’t think of anything to say.” He notices a paintball bruise on my upper arm and begins silently fussing over it.
“Ask people about themselves, it usually works.” I am acutely aware of how many people keep taking little peeks at us. “You need to tell me why everyone’s looking at me like I’m the Bride of Frankenstein. No offense, you big freak.”
“I hate being asked about myself.”
“I noticed. Nobody knows a flippin’ thing about you. And you didn’t answer my question.”
“They’re looking at me. Most of them haven’t seen me since the Big Scandal.”
“Is that why you want me to play girlfriend? So everyone forgets you’re not a doctor? You’d do far better to hand out your business card. Quit touching me. I can’t think straight.” I tug my arm.
“I can’t seem to stop now I’ve started.” He gathers me closer and dips his mouth down to my ear. “Are you this soft all over?”
“What do you think?”
“I want to know.” His lips brush my earlobe and I can’t remember what we’re talking about.
“Why are you acting so kissy and boyfriend-y?” I watch his eyes closely, and when he answers, I know with deep certainty that he is not telling me something.
“I’ve told you. You’re my moral support.”
“For what? What am I missing?” My voice gets a little sharp and some heads close to us turn. “Josh, I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
He strokes his hand down the side of my neck. I shiver so hard he sees it. When he bends to press a kiss against my lips, my eyelids drop shut, and there’s nothing in the world but him. I want to exist only here; in the dark, the feel of his forearm in the small of my back. His lips telling me, Lucy, stop fretting. It’s an unfair move.
I open my eyes and a couple who I think are Mindy’s parents are clearly talking about us. Both have busybody speculative eyes as they inspect me.
“Quit trying to distract me. We need to get through dinner. And you’re going to come up with some topics of conversation and talk to your family. Why are you being so shy?” As soon as I say it, I understand. “Oh. Because you are shy.”