Trivial Pursuits {?} - Chapter 13, Part 1

It was a dry wedding, because it had to be. The bride and groom, who combined had a total of 817 days of sobriety, had insisted on it. Shelly and Mark probably didn’t mean to be obnoxious, but they both emitted a mildly irritating 12-step smugness as involuntarily as static electricity conveyed through a handshake.

Dry wedding.

It seemed to Amy like a grossly unromantic description for the start of a marriage. It was as if the marriage were a desiccated wheel of tumbleweed trundling across the desert, or a puckered old lady who could no longer produce skin emollients. Used up. These were two broken, damaged people who couldn’t trust themselves around a bottle of tequila. To Amy, it felt more like the end of things than the beginning.

Yet there she and Greg were, at this dry wedding in the midst of their own dry marriage. They were being forced to feign happiness even as unrelieved sobriety grated against them like friction from uncomfortable shoes.

The event itself seemed almost unbearably optimistic. There was a blade-sharp brightness, a crispness and clarity, to the lack of mind-warping beverages on hand. The day was cool, sunny and sparkling, and made Amy think of clean laundry rippling gently back and forth on a clothesline like a lullaby.

And there was Shelly, who was an old friend of Greg’s: the radiant bride—her pale beauty brought into achingly intricate relief against the too-blue sky. “She looks beautiful,” Amy whispered to no one in particular as Shelly progressed down the aisle at the oddly artificial clip of the choreographed wedding walk. Amy remembered all too well the unnatural pacing of that walk, the methodical lifting of each foot, the measured, slow-motion inch and a half forward, and the almost perilously delayed return of the foot to the earth. It had felt almost cartoonish to her, reminiscent of a hapless animated character running in midair, propelling himself with blind panic until he looks down, sees his own scrambling feet, and freezes, doomed in that moment to fall. She’d been grateful that her own wedding gown had been too long to reveal the mechanics of her ridiculous movements. It was the most self-conscious walk she’d ever taken, the walk toward Greg on their wedding day.

Yet Shelly seemed to be handling it gracefully; this was not the Shelly anyone remembered. Amy was shocked by this new dignity, and even more so by Shelly’s appearance. Her beauty was not merely the generic kind to which all brides are rightfully entitled; no, this was the beauty of an after photo in a makeover. They hadn’t seen Shelly in a while, and whatever she’d done seemed to be exactly what she needed. She’d clearly lost quite a bit of weight—weight that Amy sheepishly found herself looking for, as though Shelly had smuggled it in beneath the flattering lines of her dress. But no; it clearly wasn’t there; even her arms were thinner. Even the faint crescent of her double chin, previously like a parenthetical afterthought to her face, was gone.

How amazing, Amy thought, a new life. Some people actually achieved this. It was almost unseemly to be flaunting this much happiness all at once. This entire wedding, she thought, was a tasteful yet obviously self-satisfied before-and-after.

“You’ve given me the courage to try again,” Shelly’s voice was trembling and slightly breathless as she directed her vows toward Mark’s adoring face. “With you, I’ve rebuilt my life.”

Shelly had met Mark in AA, some fifteen years after she’d met Greg in college. To Amy, it had almost seemed like a changing of the guard: with Mark, Shelly had finally let go of her pointless yearning and nostalgia for her college years. This meant giving up her love for Greg, finally. For a while there, it had been awkward, the watery-eyed, sentimental gazes of adoration Shelly had openly directed at Greg. Not that Amy had ever been threatened, not really. Greg had always viewed Shelly as a friend, and besides, she actually really liked Shelly. Yet she’d been simultaneously embarrassed for her and annoyed with her for not being able to control the bubbling up and oozing of her unrequited love.

“I just wish she weren’t so overt about it,” Amy had told Greg back then. “It’s painful to watch.”

“Hey, I don’t see what’s so wrong about overt adoration of me,” Greg had teased, drawing her close and covering her face with reassuring kisses. “I think you could learn a thing or two from Shelly.”

“What? Like how to use a funnel?”

And they’d laughed together. They’d laughed the irony-free laugh of the moment, of people who can’t possibly know what’s in store for them. And now, here she was at Shelly’s wedding, feeling like she’d auction off her own mother for a drink. Before-and-after, indeed.

The wedding and reception were at the Four Seasons, in a dazzling banquet room most notable for its ornate, floor-to-ceiling French doors, which opened to a lush garden terrace. As beautiful as it was, Amy couldn’t help but question a room in which the eye is most powerfully drawn to the exits. She approached the bar, which tastefully mocked itself with its irrelevance, and was about to order a Diet Coke when she decided to go looking for a real bar instead.

There were so many memories, so many legendary and often-repeated anecdotes, of Shelly and her crazy drinking. There were the college memories that Shelly and Greg recounted with ritualistic frequency: the time she’d gotten pulled over at an Arby’s drive-through at 2 a.m. and only evaded arrest by sobbing into the sheriff’s chest; the time she’d spared herself from being date-raped by upchucking in the guy’s face; the night she’d gone through the phone book and crank-called people with amusing last names like Assman and Boring.

Then there were the later memories, which became more embarrassing and less understandable the older Shelly got. Somewhere along the line, she’d gotten stuck; she was the type of person who’d enjoyed college so much that she couldn’t move past it. She’d continued to build her life around getting drunk, and creating drunken memories that she could mythologize in the retelling to her friends. That she’d continued this pattern throughout her 20s was not unusual; but when she’d crossed over into her 30s with no sign of outgrowing it, it became alarming and sad. Most of her friends, including Greg, had moved on and settled down, and weren’t as impressed by Shelly’s antics anymore. She was no longer the cute, chubby coed who charmed her way out of drunken predicaments; she was a grown woman, one who years of hard drinking were reshaping into a starchy-faced, dull-eyed matron. She’d begun to hit on younger guys; she had begun to be the lady at the party who talks way too loudly and knocks things over, setting off a chain-reaction of hushed snickers in her wake. But to her friends, none of it was funny anymore. She’d become a tragedy.

Shelly might have continued on this path indefinitely, if not for the night she’d overdone it at a party at their house, when she’d tried to kiss Greg. She’d made the mistake of choosing red wine, her undoing, and had parlayed a long, enthusiastic laugh between them into a slow, sloppy lunge. He’d pulled back, tears still in his eyes from the raucous laughter, and Shelly immediately withdrew, crestfallen.

Later, she’d cried and apologized to Amy, and told her that she hated herself for what she’d done. And Amy believed it, and forgave her. But now she wondered whether her forgiveness had been genuine, or whether the generosity was rooted in a satisfying feeling of superiority, of Schadenfreude: I’ll never be as bad off as Shelly. Because the next time she saw Shelly, two years later at P.J.’s funeral, she was hit with a sudden, nauseating jolt of impotent fury, like a crash of thunder that comes too late after the lightning to really matter.

“Vodka tonic, please,” she said to the bartender at the little cocktail bar she’d found on the 14th floor. She’d deliberately selected a spot as far away from the wedding as possible; the calculation made her feel adulterous, more than she already was. It was as though now, in addition to cheating on Greg, she was cheating on an entire wedding, on the very concept of happily-ever-after. Hopefully it would be a while before anyone noticed she was gone.

“You can make it a double for two dollars extra,” the bartender, whose name tag said Hernan, dared her with absolutely no enthusiasm. She grinned. Hernan had no idea what a delicious rebellion he was inciting with the apathetic up-sell.

“Sure, why not,” she said and smiled as the gaseous fizz, followed by the scorch of the vodka, tunneled down her throat. Fine. It would be better now.

She was envious of Shelly, actually. All she’d had to do was stop drinking alcohol, and her life had improved in every way. The simplicity of it was impressive. Amy felt that if she could turn her life around simply by avoiding one thing, she certainly would give up that thing and never look back. But she couldn’t imagine any one thing that could singlehandedly change anything. Her life was like a tangle of wires to various different appliances, all knotted up together; she couldn’t tell what connected with what, anymore.

After her fourth double vodka tonic, she suddenly realized something that made her sick: Greg and Shelly should have been together. Shelly’s love for Greg had been unwavering and pure, while her own love had been conditional and moody at best. Shelly saw the best in Greg, while Amy saw mostly what he could give her.

Shelly had loved him all through college and beyond. She’d loved him even when it was inappropriate and humiliating. She’d loved him when he’d temporarily dropped out of school to wallow in some post-breakup depression. She’d loved him in the midst of his two-year affair with a married woman after graduation. She even loved him after he said he thought of her more like a sister.

Amy, on the other hand, fell in love with Greg under ideal circumstances, when the stars were aligned just so; he’d shown up as a handsome man ready to offer her marriage, children, the whole dream. She hadn’t turned herself inside out waiting for him in vain; she hadn’t forsaken other viable opportunities on the slim chance he might see her with new eyes. She hadn’t suffered a bit for Greg; he had been the alternative to suffering. Sometimes, she thought, she’d fallen as much in love with the situation as she had with him.

Why did the situation have to change?

She’d never before thought that suffering was particularly honorable. It was just something that happened. She’d never thought Shelly’s love was more worthy because it was tortured. But now she wondered.

Shelly would have weathered this storm with him, as she had so many others. But of course, if Greg had chosen Shelly, he would have chosen a different life, one that wouldn’t have included P.J. But he’d picked Amy, who’d kept him from a woman who loved him unconditionally—and together, they’d loved a person who was now dead.

Her hands were shaking; the vodka, it seemed, had turned on her. She wasn’t feeling well anymore, not at all. Happy hour was over.

“Shelly.” Amy’s hand looked like it belonged to someone else as it reached out to touch the pale, satin-draped shoulder, the single most important shoulder in the room, as yet unaware of her.

Shelly spun around to face her, and Amy watched as her eyes cycled through several quick emotional modulations: surprise, delight, concern, pity, and then back to faux surprise.

“Amy!” she said, enfolding her in her gauzy white embrace, like a gypsy moth’s cocoon. “You look wonderful. I’m so glad to see you.”

“I don’t look wonderful.” Amy was proud of her calm, clear voice, unwavering in its mission of total honesty. “I look like a person who hasn’t slept in two years. You’re the one who looks wonderful. Absolutely gorgeous.”

“Well, I’d better look good.” Shelly laughed, her raucous, unrestrained laughter now the most familiar thing about her. “If I can’t at least manage to look good today, I may as well give it up.”

“Well, I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” Amy said quietly, looking directly into Shelly’s face, which still wore a fading smile that was quickly becoming incongruous with the rest of her expression.

“Um, wrong social nicety, Ame,” Shelly recovered with humor, flashing a goofy, playful smirk. ‘I’m sorry is pretty much for funerals. You’re supposed to say congratulations at a wedding.”

“No, really, though,” Amy trudged ahead, ignoring Shelly’s attempts at levity. She knew she sounded like a humorless drone, but she wasn’t going to be sidetracked, not now that she’d come this far. “I have a reason to be sorry. I’ve kept you and Greg apart. I knew you were in love with him, and he probably loved you, too.”

Shelly stepped back as if Amy’s words might physically hurt her. “Listen, Amy, I don’t think this is the time or place for this conversation,” she lowered her voice to a un-bridelike rasp, but it concealed nothing; her face was as crimson as the flesh of a blood orange.

“I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable; I just wanted to apologize,” she said simply. “I was wrong to marry him. You would have loved him more.”

“Why are you telling me this now? That’s all done and over with. I’m happy with Mark.”

“Are you really, though? Or is he just your way of accepting the things you can’t change?”

“Amy, if you insist on making this apology, that’s fine”—Shelly’s voice was chilly and detached; the change had been almost instant—“but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make fun of the program. It saved my life.”

“I’m sorry,” Amy sighed. “I can’t seem to turn off the sarcasm these days.”

She saw that Shelly’s eyes were misted over with tears, and she was dabbing them with one of her fancy bridal napkins.

“Listen, I appreciate your honesty, but you don’t owe me an apology,” she said. “I gave up on Greg a long time ago.”

Amy smiled sadly, her own eyes welling up. “I guess that’s one thing we have in common,” she said.

“Would you like the check?” Hernan was all business, interrupting her internal drama, her rehearsed scenario. She blushed, feeling found out, but then realized Hernan didn’t know or care about her hypothetical reckonings and confessions. In fact, he was staring quite fixedly at someone just to her side. Amy turned to see a young woman, definitely familiar, yet in a way she couldn’t quite pinpoint. Her skin was as dark and velvety as a starless night, and her long, lean body was feminine yet coltish in her gauzy black evening gown, which seemed to faintly glow in the backlighting of the lounge area candles.

“Check? This party is just getting started,” the girl said, easily acknowledging Amy as she slid onto the barstool next to her.

It was only when the girl smiled that the name came to her.

Check out previous chapters of Trivial Pursuits {?} right here.

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