My youngest brother, Jim, is looking really weird up there at the altar right now. Rocking on his heels nervously but also yawning like he’s about to fall asleep. As if he’d just remembered he’d left the stove on and was too tired to care.
Which might not be too far from the truth.
Definitely not as attentive as we look for in a best man. Get it together, Jim.
I haven’t been to a wedding since my own, four years ago. Not since I gave birth to triplet boys, ten months later. Not since I found out I was pregnant again. And not since my husband Harry decided, last month, that an impending daughter was one addition too many. So he subtracted himself.
I’ve looked forward to this wedding of my brother Travis as a chance to block all that out. Though I don’t know why I thought it would. Just getting to the pew with the boys has included many inquiries as to where Harry was, and several overly meaningful hugs from those who know where he isn’t. I can’t wait for the reception where many concerned aunts, cousins, and family friends will really be able to pin down me and my huge abdomen for questioning.
Knox wriggles on my left, trying really hard not to wave maniacally at his uncles. Hudson nudges him and stage whispers, “we’re supposed to sit STILL” as loudly as he can. Wyatt, on my other side, is quiet, intent. He reminds me of Jim at that age.
Knox, Wyatt, and Hudson. Known in the family as “the Firm,” I’ve been told. I thought those names were cute, but maybe I over-reached.
Wyatt had a nosebleed this morning, almost ruining the tiny tux I was wrestling him into. As I leaned over my enormous midsection to staunch it, I thought of this saying Jim has: All bleeding eventually stops.
The first time I heard it, Jim was telling us another gruesome story from “Tales of Emergency Room Mishaps” – he likes to gross out the boys. I am still a little perplexed by the life choices of this baby brother whom we had tried so hard to shield from the worst of the story of mom and dad’s accident when he was fourteen. From the worst of life. Guess we did a good job, Travis and I—barely grownups ourselves, Travis just out of college and me not having met Harry yet, bouncing around between dead end jobs—bringing up Jim so well that he’s made it to med school, now burrowing through his second year as an emergency room resident specializing in pediatrics. A lot of nosebleeds, I guess. And a lot of worse stuff. Some stuff he doesn’t tell me, with the boys being babies still, and me being pregnant and all.
But that day, he’d been describing the eight-year-old who’d jammed an arrow down his throat. All bleeding eventually stops, Jim said. And then he added, one way or another. Ha ha. Emergency room humor. That time, thankfully, it ended the better way. The arrow-in-the-throat-kid could hardly talk even when they’d stopped the bleeding and sent him up to the floor for observation, but Jim said he was a natural-born comedian, mimicking how he’d had the arrow in his hand when he’d opened the refrigerator, somehow swinging the door into his arm, the arrow aimed right at the back of his throat. He’d been looking for ice cream, he rasped, and now his mom says he can have all he wants. How cool was that! Jim said the mother looked like she’d been through this kind of thing with the kid before.
I’m thinking about blood and hoping Wyatt’s nose behaves as the bride’s best friend sings “My Heart Will Go On.” Jeez, really, for a wedding? My mind goes to lifeboats and drama and drowning, and that idiotic scene where Rose jumps out of the lifeboat, causing Jack to have to give her the door to float on while he freezes to death in the water. I have had a lot of thoughts about that movie. It’s actually Harry’s favorite. You’d think that would show how sensitive he is, but I think it shows how he’s bad at planning, and really bad at big life decisions.
Walking out on me and The Firm was not one of his finest moments. At least Jack stuck by Rose. Even if she was an idiot.
I try to understand the impulse to hold onto, or else to push off, the weight at the edge of the door you float on, knowing it might take you with it. I ask myself if that’s what Harry thought he was doing. How he saw the story. Harry couldn’t wait to have kids. That’s what he always told me. Were they the weight? Am I?
Will he come back before this new one is born? I don’t know how to feel about any of this.
Jim’s girlfriend Jenna, in our pew on Wyatt’s other side, is staring intently at the wedding party. I like her, even though we’ve only met a few times between Jim’s resident hours, her law school classes, and my…. stuff. They’ll make a great power couple if they ever get a chance to actually spend time together. Pretty sure this wedding is their first social event in months. Right now she is looking at Jim like she wants to tiptoe up and straighten his tux. I know the feeling, Jenna. Wyatt is half in love with her already, which might be why he’s behaving so good.
I space out through the vows and such, but all of a sudden, there’s a weird pause in the whole business. Everyone’s staring at Jim. Jenna is sending intent laser eyes at him. Travis and his bride, Kara (also seems nice, my brothers have good taste), look like they’ve frozen in place. The officiant says, like he’s repeating what he said while my mind was elsewhere, “the rings?”
Things happen fast now. At the same time, I’m fixed on this mess going on up at the altar and it seems like slow motion. First Jim looks up, like he’s startled, realizes what’s going on, then I see him fish around in his tux pocket, gingerly, like he’s trying not to detonate a bomb, then he pulls out the rings, with a look of supreme relief on his face, and hands them over.
Travis is eyeing him with the same look he gave Jim when he was sixteen and came home drunk from some high school party, six in the morning and Travis was already up for work, a look of anger and relief, but mostly confusion, like really, you of all people should know better, and Jim looking like he couldn’t himself explain, and me, handing them both glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice cuz I’d just got back from the graveyard shift at the diner I was working at, before I got myself together and got my paralegal license. Not that there is anything wrong with shift work. But I wouldn’t have met Harry if I’d never gone to work at his office. Which would be fine, except I’d never have had the boys, or this new person, kicking me in the ribs while I watch my brothers do their thing again at the altar, the thing where Jim fucks up and then Travis goes from angry to guilty to tenderness in like a second.
So. I think, whatever just happened there is done. I glance at Jenna. She looks at me. We bond over a shrug.
And then we’re all applauding, and happy and thinking how great marriage is, when all of a sudden, Jim looks shocked, freezes for a moment, then runs down the steps and out the side door.
Now it’s hours later, and it’s clear that Travis is still angry at Jim, who’s hiding out with me at a back table in the reception hall. Jim has done a half-assed job making the toast, and he looks a mess.
I mean, at this point, so do I. I’ve gotten back from my tenth, probably, trip to the ladies’ to pee again. And hide from the expected nosy relatives. I made the mistake of looking in the mirror. My hair’s fallen from the fancy twist I gave it this morning, and my eyes, besides looking exhausted, are missing one purple contact, so that what I like to think of as my “piercing” gaze is weirdly askew, one eye its normal hazel, the other deep blue, almost violet. Jim says the effect is disconcerting. I don’t know where I lost it, maybe while crying throughout the speeches and toasts. Everything’s a little blurry.
I refuse to take out the remaining lens.
The Firm is busy playing with the chocolate fountain, and not in need of much supervision. They’re sticking various cookies, fruit, and spoons into the syrupy flow, and frankly I don’t care.
After Harry announced three months ago that he hadn’t signed on for four kids, couldn’t see a way to do it, and was moving out, he set up a mediator and lawyers for everyone (The Firm has a firm), vowing to do everything right, calling me up every night to cry about what an awful guy he was, but unable to face coming home again. At this point, there’s not much that I do care about. My baby brother’s bizarre behavior is a nice diversion.
“So,” I ask him now, “I know Travis is not talking to you, but do you want to tell me why you pulled that disappearing act and then showed up looking like you woke up on a park bench?”
Jim finishes his beer and looks around, pretending he doesn’t hear my question over the music and the DJ’s patter. Kara’s family has gone the whole nine yards, a DJ spinning hits alternating with a band playing Greek music. He looks a question at me.
“It’s her step-father that all comes from, the money to pay for all this,” I tell him. “Travis said the man’s Greek and determined to throw Kara the ‘right kind of wedding’ since he doesn’t have any daughters of his own. But I dunno; it’s all Greek to me.”
“Huh,” Jim says. “Wonder how many people have made the same joke today, Val.”
I kick him under the table.
“Well, anyway, that explains this.” He points to the orange-y red drink, a ragged slice of lime floating on the surface, in front of him. “It’s an ouzotini. The bartender insisted Jenna would love it. It’s got pomegranate and fuck knows what else in it. Not really her style. Not mine either.”
I pick the lime from the glass and drop it into my seltzer. A thin red thread spins off it. “That’s not enough alcohol to hurt the baby, is it, doc?”
He shakes his head. “Not even close.”
By the time I take a sip, the red has disappeared into the seltzer. “And you haven’t answered my other question. I know you heard me.”
The DJ is in charge now; he wears a Hawaiian shirt and works the crowd, distributing leis and glow-rings and demonstrating dance routines.
Jim is looking at Jenna on the floor. She’s following the complicated steps from some line-dance neither of us know; it had probably become popular while I was hip deep in babies and Jim hip deep in medical school.
Jim starts talking. “Have I ever told you about didja tubes?”
I look at him.
“Okay, this is weird. Don’t spread it around, please. I already told Jenna and she’s trying to figure out how not to be totally disgusted with me. She goes ‘Jim, I feel like I don’t even know you anymore’ like getting doused with some poor girl’s spinal fluid had been my actual game plan.” That got my attention.
“There was a time,” I say, while rubbing smears off Hudson’s tux, who’s wandered back in a chocolate haze, “when I thought I knew what Hal would do or not do. Now he’s doing something I swore was not possible. So you can tell me anything; I’m not saying it won’t surprise me, I’m just saying that the surprise won’t surprise me.”
And so Jim launches into a long story about getting all the specimens when a kid needs a lumbar puncture, and how residents always draw one extra, so when the attending asks, “didja get the one for this other test?” they always have the spare ready. They can pull it out of their pocket like they knew it was about to be asked for. That’s what he’d done during his last overnight call. But it had never been asked for.
And he’d just taken it home. And somehow swept it into his pocket this morning, with his keys and wallet. And the rings.
“So that’s why you looked so weird up there on the altar.”
“Yup.” All of a sudden he’d felt the tube, this tiny glass thing full of possibly contaminated spinal fluid. In his pocket. Next to the rings.
“And it would’ve been fine, after all. I got the rings out. Handed them to Travis. They did their speeches and all the stuff, and then everyone’s clapping and that college buddy of Travis’s—Kyle? Elbows me in the side. A perfect hit. I felt the vial crunch and I panicked.”
This obviously is when we all saw him tear out of the church, and then show up later for picture taking with his messed up jacket that he’d wiped down in the men’s room.
“Well, that’s creepy in a fascinating kind of way.” I take a sip from my seltzer and lime, and gaze longingly at the ouzotini.
This is the best thing I’ve heard all day.
And then I think—wait, that’s somebody’s kid.
And then, I feel my water break.
The Greek band has taken over. Travis leads Kara out on the floor. They hold their hands high above their heads while performing a dance that I figure Travis must have been practicing for months. As they circle the dance floor, stepping formally with great concentration (I bet that Kara has also learned it recently), a bunch of older men begin walking up behind them, flinging handfuls of money over their heads, the bills falling down around them. They scatter across the floor like leaves in autumn. Other couples join the dance, mostly those who looked like they’ve performed these steps many times before. Bills of various denominations flutter everywhere.
I’m wondering about the girl whose cerebral fluid still stains Jim’s jacket. He’s called the hospital and found out she was fine, no bad news. This makes me happy.
Jim and Jenna sit with me. I made them promise to say nothing. Travis deserves to have his wedding be his wedding, not get taken over by any more sibling dramas. It should be ending soon.
I’ll be skipping the after-parties.
I’m watching them from where I sit on a pile of banquet napkins, hoping no one notices me. I know I’m supposed to run to the hospital, but I’m not having contractions and they’ll just put me in a bed and hook things up to me. I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve done this before and I’ll take my time. This hurling of money distracts me from my body’s intentions.
I called Harry, told him to come pick up the boys, that I wasn’t feeling well. Because this is the thing about Harry—he’s a good father. He adores them and they adore him. And in an actual good father way—not the guy who just wants to toss footballs and tickle them till they’re crying and gloat about them being boys. He’s been fairly present, considering his work hours. Harry can’t explain why he left, not really. But like I said to Jim, I’m not surprised by anyone anymore. What I’ve realized, after fighting it a long time, is that most people who do stupid, hurtful things do them for no discernible reason. They just aren’t “feeling” their present life. They don’t mean to cause pain. They don’t mean to break things. They just… act. And everything they’ve built, everything we built, leaks away.
So I’m not having him come to the hospital. I’ll tell him when I’m ready to.
When I called, I also wasn’t surprised that he was happy to hear from me. He says he wants to come home. That I didn’t see coming. I told him to fuck off. But come get the kids first. The boys are on the dance floor, having a helluva time. I think they’ve scooped up half the money and stuck it in their grubby, chocolate-coated pockets. They’re the hit of the party.
“So,” Jim says to me. “I really don’t like this. We should get you to the hospital.”
I know he’s right. I had a C-Section with the boys, of course. My doc said I could try for a VBAC for this one, if I went into labor before it got too late. I’ll call her soon. I want to see this through.
“Jim, what was the name of the girl with the spinal fluid?” He looks at me like I’ve totally lost my mind. And maybe I have.
“Lily,” he says. “Her name was Lily. Why?”
“What was she like, was she scared?”
“Weirdly, no. She had this horrendous headache and we were checking for meningitis, or anything else of course. But it came out clear. They’re calling it a migraine, since they can’t find another answer. But Lily just wanted to get home. Today is her birthday, she told me. She said she told everyone it was nothing serious, but no one was listening to her. Cool kid.”
I picture a perky kid with a French braid, for some reason, and an attitude, mugging her way through the experience of a huge needle plunged into her back while her head throbbed with an unidentified pain. I pat my huge belly.
“So. Meet Lily.” Then I add, “but not quite yet, hopefully.”
Everyone is starting to leave, now. Jenna goes to get coats, and Jim is helping me to my feet.
“Are you sure you don’t want anyone with you in the hospital? If not Harry, then me, or Jenna? She really likes you. She told me she’d be glad to stay with you.”
I think about this for a moment. It’s hard being the only woman in the family. There’s Kara now, but she seems so young. I’ll have to get to know her. I shake my head.
“Little brother, I’m the only one here who isn’t drunk. I appreciate y’all Uber-ing over with me, but then I’ll take it from there.”
He’s shaking his head. “This is nuts, Val. Bring Harry.”
I ignore that.
“You know, I miss Mom. So much. After all these years. I’m tired of being the mom in the family. I really am.”
“I get it, Val. I miss Mom too. And Dad. It’s been so long. I’m sorry you had to be the mom. I’m basically really sorry about everything.”
We’re both thinking about Mom and Dad. About the drunk driver that killed them, running a light as they were on their way home from visiting Travis at college. About how much they would have liked to have been here. Seen him get married. Seen me with three, soon four, four, kids that they would have loved.
“Also Val? Probably a terrible time to tell you this, but that lawyer that got the guy off? Jenna goes to law school with his son—he’s a year ahead of her. The guy didn’t know she’s with me. He told her that his Dad specializes in drunk driver cases. That he had made a lot of money defending rich pricks. And he, the son, was going to go into business with him when they finished. Like I said, she didn’t tell him she’s connected to us. He told her that that case made his father’s reputation. It’s sort of his thing, now—defending scum.”
“Well, that’s where the money is.”
“He asked Jenna if she wanted to intern with them. Asshole. I know what he really wants. She told him to fuck off. But not before he mentioned he’d interned at Harry’s firm. Thought it was funny that he was learning from the guy who married into that family. Harry mention that to you?”
No. No he hadn’t. I’m trying to decide if it mattered, if it meant anything. If it was simply another reality Harry had tucked away because it kept things neater.
The first contraction hits me right after Jim and Jenna go to set up our ride, Jenna asking if I need anything. I rub my eye, knocking out the remaining tinted lens. I hold it up to the light like a tiny violet bull’s eye.
“Thanks. I think I’m good. Unless you see this guy’s buddy. Or if one of my boys has gotten his tenth wind and is wrecking the place. Then definitely don’t tell me…. Kidding! Go ahead and bring him back here.”
When they get back, I lumber towards the door of the banquet room. Travis and Kara are standing by the table where the favors are stacked—matching sets of cocktail glasses with their names engraved on them. Travis grips her hand as they embrace family and friends, and hand out gifts.
The various kids—The Firm and a few random cousins—are wading through the treasure scattered across the floor. Glowsticks, cookies, and chocolate puddles, a few stray dollars still fluttering from the hands of dapper uncles. I start to gather my boys together, to explain what’s going on, that I need to leave but Dad’s on his way, I can barely kneel down to kid-level and I know I need to get to the hospital. Wyatt’s nose is bleeding again, just a little. I dab at it with my sleeve, thinking about the girl whose spinal fluid stains my brother’s coat. And the boy and the arrow and the blood. I know it will stop. It always does.
Bodies—trying to hold themselves together against the forces of gravity, desertion, and despair. Staunched by sheer, necessary terror.
Wyatt wriggles away from me and his brothers and scoops up a handful of detritus from the floor. Before he runs off, I see, glinting in his hand, a small violet disk. It reminds me to poke out the remaining lens, and tuck it into my purse. I watch him station himself by Travis and Kara and begin handing out “parting gifts” from his floor trove, and waving goodbye, just like them.
Then I see, moving against the tide of departing guests, a befuddled looking man walk in. Wyatt spies him and smiles broadly. He keeps smiling and distributing favors, in between wiping at his nose. He looks at the man as he gets near to him. “Goodbye guests, goodbye. Goodbye, Daddy.”
I duck out the side door with Jim and Jenna before Harry spots me, but as I do, I look over to see Wyatt place something, which I am almost certain is a bluish-purple contact lens, into his father’s hand.
LESLIE DOYLE’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Fourth River, The Forge, Gigantic Sequins, Electric Literature, Rougerou (flash fiction contest first place), Tupelo Quarterly Review (BAE Notable), The New York Times, Cutleaf, The Sunlight Press, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey, writing full-time after teaching college writing for many years.
Art: “Verbena” by Amanda Hartzell, Digital Art