Winner of the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Short Nonfiction
Written By: Lesley Heiser
Big palms with skirts of bleached-out dead foliage around each trunk. Tall, conical, dark green Italian cypresses. Behind us, a willow. And, over the brick platform on which we stood, a nameless, pale-barked one with pendant branches dropping lacy fronds like dark touches of an Eastern painting. My favorite photo to be snapped an hour later, me and my new husband and my two brothers, arms around each other, and the brushstrokes over us, behind us, and the evening light still light, still perceptible.
To the north, the Catalina Mountains, the English poet’s “blue remembered hills” right here in Tucson. Here, in this garden in which I was to marry James, the dark palm fronds, the bushes of dark, the white lights in the hedges. The pink adobe making everyone look lit. But, above all, the insistence of natural green. How it is hushed. How it takes us back to the beginning.
It was September the 25th, my big day, circa the 21st century. The moon had bumped up infinitesimally at 5:02, and it was six sharp when I walked on the brick platform in a $50 dress that I both loved and didn’t like at all. I’d bought it on sale in a hotel gift shop I’d walked past. That is to say, I’d slipped back to the shop after dinner with wine, wrested the dress from the back of the sale rack, effused to the saleswoman from behind the curtain. “Really?” she’d said, invisible to me, while I was invisible to her.
But the dress was dusty pink and peach and off-white. The fabric was cheap, but the colors… It was somewhat ill-fitting around the ribcage, but it had a wild, uneven hemline that perhaps…So wearing it could have been an act that was utterly confused. Or it could have been the single most romantic gesture I’d ever summoned from myself.
In the dress, on the platform, I was determined not to cry.
Determined to keep my shoulders back. Hoping to look beautiful for James and for you, mom, and for my brothers and also for the other guests and also for the camera.
We ascended, and you, mom, threw your head back, and you looked at the sky, and tears spilled down your face, which was not at all old although you were. A few days before, you had not been bothered, it had seemed to me. You’d been writing your book. A hurricane had coursed up the coast toward you. You’d spent one night in your bathroom with your husband, your roof peeling off over your head. Yet you remained insouciant. You had not bought a dress. You had not heard of a dress.
But now you were sleeveless in a black top and a dark flowered slim skirt and a great bold necklace. And when you cried you were thanking God because I had found my person, and the photographer took your picture, and I have that picture, still. And my brother cried a tear, too.
My remote brother, the aloof one, sitting near me, alone in the front row (we were only 25 people). You came, all of you, you and my brother and my other brother, and you watched me get married and you and my older brother cried.
The warm younger brother hugged me tight after the ceremony. The godfather who was really just an uncle was there to witness the embrace. Plus, the college roommate and her husband. Plus, the fellow Himalayan hiker and her husband. Those last two were evoking Tibetan villages and they were evoking rhododendrons at 13,000 feet.
And there were James’s friends who were my friends, too, mostly professors with wives and babies. And James’s best friend from Las Vegas. He kept quiet. He was depressed because I was taking his doppelganger from him. He would have to find a wife now. Finally, my sister-in-law, dark-haired in her blue shawl—her first baby, only six months old, in her arms, the future of our family.
My bouquet—all pastel. Where was my black rose? I didn’t have a black rose. I didn’t have one. The white wooden fold-up chairs, some folded, some unfolded. The globular white paper lanterns hanging from branches like the lanterns that had hung in the paneled room where I’d learned to play the piano. And me, a person. And James, a person. For an hour, we did as expected. I felt so vulnerable like an orphan. I felt so vulnerable, marrying an orphan. I had to give so much love just to stand there. I had to give myself so much love.
At last, something whimsical. You leaning forward, mom, in the front of your chair and laughing and laughing with us, your white orchid wrist corsage that I’d given you pretty in your lap. It was when I had trouble sliding James’s ring over his knuckle. Because people get older, and their knuckles keep on. Their knuckles can grow from one moment to the next.
But despite the laughter, a saudade persisted. By its nature. The saudade, the love that remains for someone or something that is missing.
James still has it. I still have mine. And I am with James even now as he misses his parents. I bear witness. When he cries, I can’t make up for it.
And it is now, ten years later, that my body gives me the gift of each detail. I don’t need a photo to remember fearing James would bolt. Or to remember being afraid of James not bolting as we walked up the grass amidst the folded and unfolded chairs, as we passed the guitarist. Waiting for it all to start. Our minister, Kathryn, saying words not quite audible. James choking up during the ceremony. James not backing out in front of people he didn’t know. The big kiss on stage, just him and me, the warmth no one could touch. Then the miles and miles we traveled as he and I turned our eyes back to meet the eyes of all the others, to meet your eyes, as we turned back to my yearning for everyone, for you, which may have been abated or unabated thanks to the kiss we shared.
The toasts inside afterward. Everyone so gracious. “Great hair,” my remote brother said to me in front of everyone. “And, James, welcome to the family.”
“There is no one I would rather see happy than my beautiful niece,” said my godfather who was really an uncle. He’d flown over from London and spent the last week at a dude ranch. At my party, he would dance like a cowboy. All the guests would give me a gift book with sayings in their own writing, but I didn’t believe any of the sayings. It’s only now. Only ten years later. Some, maybe.
How wounded I was back then, holding the gift book with all the sayings. More real, much more real to me, was the instant after the wedding, that second of dying to pitch myself forward from the back of the crowd and take all the people in my arms.
And, yet, something was there for me at each uncomfortable moment. It was there for all of us. That night was Saturday and—I just found out now—the moon was to be full the following Tuesday. None of the moon spent, none replete, none receding. The moon rising above the trees. The wind picking up. The evening ushering itself in. The moon just a planet in its greatest expression of promise.
The moon as the future.
That was there for us.
And yet, the bouquet and what to do with it after. The wedding cake with raspberry filling and how to eat it or stop eating it. That big hug from my warm brother and not wanting to let go. And that which was missed. Did I bring the picture of James’s parents standing by the lake, the picture that James took before they died, one after the other? It’s in our living room now. I just touched it. I’m touching it right now. I thought I brought it. I know I thought about bringing it.
I thought of leaning that photo framed in wood against the brick step on the way up to us on the platform so they could be part of everything. But had I brought it? Did I lean it? Was that picture there, something real of them? Or did I just tell James’s parents I loved them? All through the ceremony, did I tell them with the fall of my quiet hands, the weight of my fingers?
My dad just couldn’t be present. No one would have thought that was right. Except I did. Except I didn’t.
Meanwhile, the moon rose. The wind blew. Afterward, we danced on our patio overlooking the lawns and all the gardens and the one spectacle of a fountain, and I looked at those things and I knew James felt lonely not having his family there. And, as I danced to the music with James, for the first time in my life, I did not think of my own loneliness.
The college girls, now above thirty. The older friends of James’s even older than that. We were aging so it all went by fast.
And it hardly seemed real. So, mom, you can understand that, only a few months later, I had to go back. And it was as I thought. That is, the most beautiful place on earth.
Not just the garden in which I was married but also the surrounding lawns with the flowerbeds. With the old-fashioned swimming pool trellised with jasmine in which I now had the time and space to dive and swim. That pool was pure old Hollywood. That water was good.
For we must never forget, mom, that outside it is desert. We still need geraniums. We still need other fauna that are hardier than they look. We still need a large pale-barked tree dripping fronds. We need oleanders, and we need to know they’re poisonous. We need a fountain surrounded by clutches of snapdragons that are tough enough to stay standing when someone tells the truth.
I need faces from my childhood. My brothers. My uncle who, if I thought about it long enough. My aunt. I need your face.
I need faces from the old country. Faces that know all the pain. Faces.
I need to dive again and again in a swimming pool and emerge dripping old Hollywood.
Or I need to stand on a brick platform. Tottering on my gold shoes. Smiling. Bursting into laughter. Trying not to cry. Smiling at you. Smiling at all the people who have come for me and my love. Smiling at James. Being as present as I can for him, more present than I have ever managed. And I hope it is.
You loving me, mom. My stepfather loving me. My father loving me. My college roommate and fellow Himalayan hiker and her husband loving me. The sister-in-law loving me even though, at her wedding, two years before, I had looked around with roaming eyes and hugged with awkward arms. You see, she was one of us. And she forgave me all the people and all the events that were falling in on me as I stood forever on the brick platform.
The magical evening. The magical air. The magical night. The magical lighting. The magical moon. The moon ascending as if on a rope. The blue-remembered hills. The air picking up hard and fast into itself. You in the air, mom, or your aura. Your aura and me, your first little one. Your aura forever, thank God. The shivering of the branches and the fronds, and the silver and black and grey and green and brown of that loose, leafy shivering.
Lesley Heiser has work published or forthcoming in Boulevard, the 40th Anniversary Issue of Puerto del Sol, Silk Road Review, Ms. Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Stirring, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She was a top-five finalist for the 2014 Brighthorse Prize in the Novel and won the 2012 Maine Literary Award for Short Fiction and the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Short Nonfiction. She loves Stonecoast, where she attained an MFA in Fiction in Summer 2011.