I was in the kitchen, arranging some chips and salsa on a plate, when Chris and Jennifer Anne pulled up. They came across the lawn, carrying her trademark Tupperware, and they were holding hands. I could only imagine how Jennifer Anne, who’d found my cynicism about this marriage to be completely abhorrent, would react to this latest family news. Chris, I figured, would instantly move into protective mode for my mother’s sake while privately feeling grateful to have his bread back, butts and all.
They came in the front door, chatting and laughing. They sounded positively giddy, in fact. As they got closer to the kitchen. I looked up, noticing they were both flushed, and Jennifer Anne was as relaxed as I’d ever seen her, as if she’d had a double dose of self-esteem affirmations that day. Chris looked pretty happy too, at least until he saw the empty space on the wall over the breakfast table.
“Oh, man,” he said, his face falling. Next to him, Jennifer Anne was still grinning. “What’s going on?”
“Well,” I said. “Actually-”
“We’re engaged!” Jennifer Anne shrieked, thrusting her left hand out in front of her.
“-Don’s got a mistress, and he’s left to be with her,” I finished.
For a minute, there was total silence as Jennifer Anne caught up with what I’d said, and I backtracked, clumsily, finally hearing her news. Then, at the same time, we both blurted out, “What?”
“Oh, my God,” Chris groaned, stumbling back against the fridge with a thud.
“You’re engaged?” I said.
“It’s just-” Jennifer Anne said, putting a hand to her face. Now I could see a ring on her finger: a good-size diamond, so sparkly as it caught the light shining from over the sink.
“Wonderful,” I heard my mother say, and turning around I saw she’d come in behind me, and was now standing there, her eyes a bit watery, but smiling. “Oh, my. It’s just wonderful. ”
It says something about my mother, and her utter and total belief in the love stories she not only wrote but lived, that she was able to say this then, not two hours after her fifth marriage had dissolved in a puddle of deceit, bad clichés, and discarded Ensure cans. As I watched her move across the room, pulling Jennifer Anne into her arms, I felt an appreciation for her I would not have been capable of three months earlier. My mother was strong, in all the ways I was weak. She fell, she hurt, she felt. She lived. And for all the tumble of her experiences, she still had hope. Maybe this next time would do the trick. Or maybe not. But unless you stepped into the game, you would never know.
We ate at the table in the backyard, off paper plates. My mother’s contribution: Brazilian beefsteaks, imported artichoke salad, and fresh Italian bread, baked just that day. Jennifer Anne’s: macaroni and cheese, salad with iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, and a Jell-O mold with whipped cream. Worlds may have been colliding, but as the conversation began to roll around to wedding plans and preparations, it was clear there was a common ground.
“I just have no idea where to start,” Jennifer Anne said. She and Chris held hands all through dinner, which was somewhat disgusting but a bit tolerable, considering the newness of their engaged status. “Reception halls, cakes, invitations… the whole thing. It’s overwhelming.”
“It’s not that bad,” I told her, spearing a bit of lettuce with my fork. “Just get a folder, a notebook, and get second estimates on everything. And don’t use the Inverness Inn because they overcharge and never have toilet paper in the bathrooms.”
“Oh, weddings are always fun!” my mother chirped, sipping on her glass of wine. And for a second I caught her as a wave of sadness crossed over her face. But she shook it off, smiling at Chris instead. “Anything you two need, help, money… let me know. Promise you will.”
“We will,” Chris said.
I gathered up the plates as they kept talking, discussing possible dates, places, all the things that I’d been starting to think about this time last year, when my mother was the bride-to-be. There was something incongruous about one marriage ending the same day another began, as if there was an exchange program in the universe or something, a trade required in order to keep the numbers even.
As I pulled open the screen door, I turned around, looking again at the backyard, where the dark was now coming on. I could hear their voices rising and falling, and for a second I closed my eyes, just listening. Times like this it did seem real I was leaving, and even more that my family, and this life, would go on without me. And again I felt that emptiness rise up, but pushed it away. Still, I lingered there, in the doorway, memorizing the noise. The moment. Tucking it away out of sight, to be remembered when I needed it most.
After dinner and dessert, Jennifer Anne and Chris packed up the Tupperware and went home, armed with all the crap I’d kept from planning my mother’s wedding to Don-brochures, price lists, and phone numbers of everything from limo services to the best makeup guy in town. In my typical cynical fashion, I’d had no doubt we would need it again, and I was right. Just not in the way I’d thought.
My mother kissed me and headed off to bed, a bit teary but okay. I went up to my room and double-checked some of my boxes, reorganizing a few more items and packing up a few last things. Then I sat on my bed, restless, listening to the whir of the air-conditioning until I couldn’t take it anymore.
When I pulled up to the Quik Zip, heeding the call of that Extra Large Zip Diet, I was surprised to see Lissa’s car parked in front of the pay phones. I snuck up behind her in the candy section as she stood debating whether to get Skittles or Spree. She had one in each hand, and when I poked her in the small of her back, she jumped, shrieking, sending both flying.
“Remy!” She swatted at my hand, the color rising in her face. “God, you scared me.”
“Sorry,” I told her. “Couldn’t resist.”
She bent down, collecting the candy. “Not funny,” she grumbled. “What are you doing out, anyway? I thought you were having a big family night.”
“I was,” I said, heading over to the Zip Fountain station. It was weird how even the smallest things were making me nostalgic now, and I had a moment of quiet respect as I picked a cup off the stack, then filled it with ice. “I mean, I did. Bigger family night than you would even believe. You having a Zip?”
“Sure,” she said, and I handed her a cup. We didn’t talk for a second as I filled mine, stopping at the right intervals to allow the fizz to die down. Plus, sometimes you got a new shot of syrup when you pushed in the Diet Coke button, which made them extra wonderful. Then I got a lid and a straw, as Lissa did the same with the 7UP. As I sipped mine, testing it for full flavor, I noticed that she looked very nice; she appeared to be wearing a new skirt, and had painted her toenails. Plus she smelled good, a light floral scent, and I was almost positive she had curled her eyelashes.