Solar Eclipse of the Heart
The letter arrived in my mailbox, of course. It came in an envelope, natch.
But that’s where the mundane ended, the mystery began. The envelope had nothing on it—no name, no address, no stamp with the face of someone famous or dead. No stamp at all. I hesitated, questioned myself. Should I open it? But, of course, I did. Me being me and all.
I slid my finger under an edge of the flap and (not fearful of the dreaded paper cut), ripped it open. Pulled out the thick sheet of paper and saw…
Pulled out the thick sheet of paper and saw a wedding invitation for Caitlyn Calderwood, my high school sweetheart, the person whom I once was madly, recklessly in love with.
Like many hormonal sixteen-year-olds, we thought we’d be together forever. Instead her parents came home early from church on Super Bowl Sunday and caught us in bed. I’ll never forget that day, walking to my car in my underwear after Caitlyn’s mother grabbed my clothes off the floor and ran down the hall, screaming for her husband.
I went home to the rent-controlled apartment that I shared with my alcoholic mother—who for once I was grateful that she’d disappeared for a few days––and sat with my worry as I watched Tennessee lose to St. Louis 23-16. The wide receiver had been tackled inches from the goal line as time ran out. That’s how I felt about Caitlyn. Close, yet such a crushing loss.
When I went to school on Monday, Caitlyn was gone.
“Her parents just said that she’s been sent away,” Caitlyn’s best friend, Sophie, shared the news. “Sorry. That’s all they would tell me. What exactly happened?”
“You don’t want to know,” I said as I left for Trigonometry where I sat for 45 minutes staring at the empty desk in front of me where Caitlyn used to be. What have they done to you? What have we done? This is all my fault. I imagined her being sent to her grandmother’s house in Georgia, to an all-girls private school in upstate New York, or to some reform school where kids work out their anger, anxiety, and sexual frustration by rock climbing and white-water rafting, but the counselors still take your shoes at night so you don’t run away.
As our math teacher droned on, I began to see my future with Caitlyn as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, not just unsolvable, but completely unknowable. Or maybe it was like long division and I was just the lonely remainder.
Now as I stood next to my mailbox, listening to the chirping of mountain bluebirds and lawn sprinklers, I realized that I hadn’t seen her, hadn’t heard from her in twenty years. Though I’d thought about her, without fail, ever damn Super Bowl Sunday. While everyone else ate chicken wings and commented on the halftime show, I’d ride a tidal wave of nostalgia and anxiety, feeling a part of me pulled under by rip-currents of regret and there was no lifeguard on duty.
I sighed as I read the invitation.
I was happy for her, honestly. Until I saw she was marrying someone named Rayne. That was it. No last name, like a K-POP star or a professional wrestler. I also couldn’t tell if Rayne was a man or a woman. That’s when I remembered how her parents had sent her to Bible camp after her freshman year and how she told me half the kids there were queer and there was a lot of fooling around after dark, despite the puritanical intentions of their parents. I hadn’t been surprised. My mom sent me to a similar place, though I think she sent me to the camp run by a local Baptist church because it was the only one we could afford. Graceway Bible Camp was where I did mushrooms for the first time. They grew were everywhere. Easy picking for those of us whose desired to be elsewhere, if only for a few hours. It was greater than our fear of accidentally ingesting the wrong kind of cap and stem and being rushed to the ER. One of the happiest moments of my childhood was spent at Graceway, floating on a raft with two other kids, staring up at the night sky and seeing geometric patterns, connectivity in the stars that I had never noticed before. Then a shooting star flashed across the sky. That was Caitlyn to me.
“Hey, did we win the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes?” My wife, Olivia shouted through the kitchen window. “What are you doing out there?”
“Just reading some fan-mail.”
Olivia understood that meant just the opposite.
As a journalist, I was used to people occasionally—okay, frequently—being unhappy with my work. That’s why I never engaged with anyone on Twitter, even though I had a blue check mark. I didn’t have a Facebook account. More importantly, I never read the comments section beneath any of my online articles, but that didn’t stop nice people from doxing me and mailing little love letters imploring me to perform hideous obscenities on myself.
Take that Pulitzer and shove it sideways up your…
“I’ll be inside in a minute,” I yelled back as I looked at the date. Caitlyn was getting married a week from now, June 5th, in Santa Fe. I smiled and shook my head in equal measures of disbelief and appreciation. Caitlyn had been a theater kid in high school. A drama queen in the literal since. Plus, she wore black all the time, even before Hot Topic made it possible to buy goth off-the-rack. She was old-school emo, like Holden Caulfield and always joked about getting married on Friday the 13th or on a full moon. She’d done better. She was getting married during next week’s total solar eclipse.
Mary Pauline Lowry
Surely Caitlyn had mailed out invitations to her other guests two months before, and a save the date had gone out two months before that. My invitation she’d kept squirreled away, perhaps hidden in plain sight on her bedside table, under a stack of true crime novels and plays full of characters who were always shouting and tearing at their hair in an attempt to express their toxic love. She’d probably lifted the books every couple of days and fingered the invitation, asking herself: Should I? Shouldn’t I?
But of course in the end she could not resist. But why, oh, why hadn’t she just mailed it like a normal person? If the letter had arrived with my name and address written by a professional calligrapher, with a postmarked stamp, it would not have been half so unsettling. But the envelope in my hand was blank as an amnesiac’s memory. It was a purely Caitlyn prank, the sort of thing that had made me love her in the first place. A prank that by design would ensure I would think of nothing but her in the week leading up to her nuptials.
Oh, the satisfaction it would give her to imagine me standing there in my pajama bottoms and Wilco t-shirt, looking around at my neighbors’ houses to see if any of them might have slid the envelope into my mailbox. Perhaps Caitlyn had looked one of them up on Google Maps and then the reverse phone directory, had paid them God-only-knows how much to receive a plain brown envelope that inside had contained this creamy blank one. She’d asked them to deposit the invitation in my mailbox when I wasn’t looking. Or perhaps she herself was peering out of one of my neighbor’s windows right now! Maybe she would open the door of the Millers ranch-style three-bedroom two-bath across the street and come sashaying down the sidewalk toward me, wearing her characteristic sassy grin.
But no, that’s the kind of madness she wanted me to be thinking about. I shook my head to clear it. Caitlyn, after all this time, was obviously trying to mess with me. But wait! What if it was a test? What if, for all these lost years, Caitlyn had been missing me, loving me, regretting the way we’d been so hastily torn asunder? What if this was a test? What if she was calling to me, a cry for help, veritably asking me to halt her impending nuptials to “Rayne”? (Was Rayne an actor, a wrestler, an aspiring photographer, a pretentious nobody? An uncomfortable curiosity burned inside me—or was it jealousy?)
Caitlyn’s drama was indeed like a riptide, pulling me from the safe shores of my yard’s edge out into a deep dark unknowable ocean. I stuffed the creamy invitation back into the envelope and walked down my sidewalk, determined not to be pulled out to sea.
And yet, in the days that followed, I could think of nothing else. At night, as I lay awake next to Olivia, her soft snoring and occasional snort did not annoy me as they usually did, but rather charmed me. This is my wife, I thought to myself. My eyes, adjusted to the darkness, gazed upon Olivia with a sudden nostalgia. I sensed I was staring at a woman I was about to lose. It was the same feeling that had overcome me on the last day of church camp, when I was suddenly sad to leave a place that had so often bored me. Back then, I had known with a sudden flash of wisdom that I would look back on my first mushroom trip as a wild and magical time that could never be recaptured. That was Caitlyn’s power. A twenty year absence and with one blank envelope she could make me know—even before I really even admitted it to myself—that I would blow my fairly happy, if mundane, marriage apart for her. On Caitlyn’s whim, I would take a powder keg to my life,
I stayed in denial all week. Right up until the moment I told my wife—over a dinner of Digorno’s frozen pizza, arugula salad, and boxed wine—that my boss was sending me on a last minute assignment to Santa Fe to investigate a “prison poet” named Sammy Ortega Laurence. Sammy had grown up on the streets and had been incarcerated as a teen. After teaching himself how to read and write when he was in prison, he began to publish, widely and well, and by the time he was released he was polishing up his memoir and his first book of poetry. Both nabbed rave reviews and sold better than anyone had ever imagined they would. That’s when Sammy started the visiting MFA professor circuit, until he came home at the end of the spring semester from a gig at the University of Texas to his cabin in Santa Fe to find the police waiting for him. Had he been framed for embezzlement and tax evasion and a host of seedier crimes? Or was he an innocent man targeted because his success had engendered jealousy in the literary rivals he loved to cultivate?
Sammy Ortega Laurence and his arrest were real—my wife wasn’t an idiot and knew how to Google as well as the next person. But the truth was, I had not been assigned his story. But his timely (for me) arrest would provide the perfect cover for my trip to Santa Fe—to what? Stop Caityln’s wedding? Have one last night of passion with her before she wed the pretentiously named Rayne? Watch her laugh in my face for being, after all this time, still so malleable, so easy to manipulate?
As I laid my carry-on bag on the conveyor built to go through security, I wished it could be so easy to see into my motivations, my own confused heart. Because a week before, I’d considered myself to be a relatively happy man. My work was not a drudgery, but a calling, and one that kept me engaged both with my own intellect and with the world. My wife—snoring aside—was frequently a delight.
The Paolo Soleri Amphitheater overlooked the foothills on a cloudless, windless day in Santa Fe. I popped a mushroom into my mouth and made my way down the purple stairs of the theater as music played. What a perfect day for a solar eclipse wedding—no doubt part of Caitlyn’s plan to impress. After all these years she was still a theater kid at heart.
I settled into one of the upper rows, amongst a few guests wearing Star Trek costumes and two men wearing black leather robes and sunglasses. As I looked around, I noticed all of the guests were in costume and I wondered for a moment if I’d missed something on the invitation. I wanted to be close enough to see Caitlyn and assess this Rayne person. Part of me wanted her to see me as well, to remember our time together and the times fate had robbed us of sharing. I’d managed to find a rental tux similar to the one I’d planned on wearing to the junior prom with Caitlyn all those years ago, before her parents sent her away—a powder blue number with tails that matched her dress. I can still remember the day we rented it. She insisted on the color of course, and on the sequined cumberbun that cost extra. I didn’t really care for the tux, it was a bit theatrical, even for Caitlyn’s taste, but I would have worn a pair of assless chaps if she’d asked me to. That’s the kind of power she had over me back then, perhaps even now. But years had passed. The cumberbun, this time without sequins, felt like a sausage casing around my waste. As the sun beat down, I felt sweat soaking through the armpits of my ruffled shirt making it impossible to take off the polyester jacket.
I waited for the mushrooms to kick in, but so far nothing. I’d purchased them from a kid at the skate park across from my hotel the night before. He looked a bit like me back when Caitlyn and I were planning our future together and seemed just as clueless. I tried to be subtle in my request for drugs, specifically psychedelics, but eventually I had to be more direct when he accused me of being an undercover cop. “For the eclipse tomorrow,” I told him and he reached into his back pocket and pulled out what he said was a mushroom, but what looked more like a piece of lint from the dryer.
I’d purposely chosen a hotel near the prison where Sammy Ortega Lawrence was being held. I knew Olivia would see the credit card statement and I wanted all of my ducks in a row as far as my cover went. The neighborhood wasn’t great, three city blocks surrounded by barbed wire didn’t help. But I figured at the very least I’d find some stupid kid willing to sell me some drugs. Looking around at the other guests at the wedding, the family of Coneheads sitting in front of me, Spock to my right, Voldemort to my left, I wasn’t sure if the drugs had been a good idea, or the worst one ever.
The music stopped abruptly and I noticed that the theater was full. The crowd hushed waiting for the ceremony to begin and then the drugs kicked in. Was it all in my mind or did Caitlyn walk on stage dressed as Princess Leia complete with braided buns over each ear. Rayne joined her wearing a white robe and long white hair I hoped was a wig. I guessed he was trying for Gandalf or perhaps Dumbledore, but I couldn’t be sure it didn’t matter. I only had eyes for Caitlyn, who despite the costume, still looked like the girl I knew from high school, minus the braces.
Suddenly, the sky darkened as the moon moved across the sun. From each aisle ushers dressed as elves passed out glasses. I handed a few pairs to the Matrix duo next to me and kept one last pair for myself. They looked similar to the average eclipse glasses available at the gas station, but these were different. When I put them on, the darkened theater turned into a kaleidoscope of color. The ceremony was about to begin. I could feel it in my bones. A vibration of excitement or perhaps I was finally feeling the effects of the mushrooms.
That’s when I saw her. Out of the corner of my eye. Walking up the aisle past the elf ushers and the other guests, my wife. Olivia.
I am stupid. My wife is not. This is one of the fundamentals of marriage I should have realized at least twelve years ago. My father tried to warned me, as he, too, had hitched his star to a woman a few rungs ahead of him on the intellectual ladder. He said, “Son, when you marry a woman like that, everything you can think of, she done thought already, and come up with something better.”
When I saw Olivia, I smiled remembering my old man, and also that song where the husband and wife go seeking greener pastures and piña coladas and end up with each other. Maybe it was the mushrooms, but I waved at her.
Olivia shook her head sternly. You know the term “buzz kill?” That’s what happened. Literally. My buzz was gone. Remember in Pulp Fiction how they un-overdosed that lady with that magic hypodermic? That is exactly what happened when Olivia turned her eyes on me. I was sober as a judge.
Olivia gestured to me and I made my way over to what, I guess, was the groom’s side. She patted the space beside her and I plunked down on the pew.
“What are you? Twelve?” she hissed. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Santa Fe?”
“I lied,” I said with my hands spread.
“I knew you were lying, but I wasn’t sure why.”
“Well, you lied, too. You didn’t tell me you were coming to Caitlyn’s wedding.”
She shook her head like she was talking to a small child. “No. I didn’t say anything at all.”
The reception was rather staid. Maybe they ran out of weird after the wedding. Or maybe they did that thing where the bride gets to decide the theme of the wedding, but her parents get to plan the reception for which they so handsomely paid. Who knows. But by the time we all moved to the banquet hall, Caitlyn had been transformed into your average suburban bride. Rayne still looked like a freak, but there was no helping that.
I went through the receiving like with Olivia, glad for once that she was there. Caitlyn would introduce me to her husband and I could one up her with Olivia. At least I had married a regular person.
But as regular as Olivia seemed, these were irregular circumstances. As we stood waiting for our chance to greet the newlyweds, I asked my wife. “Now, why are you here again?”
“It’s a long story,” she said.
I looked at all the people standing ahead of us. “Good thing it’s a long line.”
“Sammy sent me,” she said.
“The prison poet, Sammy whatshisname?”
“You know this is why he hates you. Nobody wants to be called ‘the prison poet.’ He phones me all the time and tells me how much he hates the way the paper has been covering him all these years, like he’s a trained bear or something. He’s a person. He prefers to be called Samuel. ‘Sammy’ is what his friends call him.”
I couldn’t help but notice that Olivia felt perfectly comfortable calling him Sammy.
“So, Sammy, I mean Samuel, told you to come to this wedding?”
“He told me that there was something happening here that I should see.”
I couldn’t believe it. Sammy had set me up. So I said it. I said, “I can’t believe that Sammy set me up!”
Olivia said, “You may find it hard to believe, but this song may not necessarily be about you.”
As I was trying to understand what she meant, Olivia’s sentence kicked me into a memory I’d never remembered before. It also kicked me back into my trip.
You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you.
You’re soooooo vain. I bet you think this song is about you.
Don’t you. Don’t you.
I was back at Graceway, looking up at the night sky. The shooting star had just shot. Caitlyn, I’d just thought. The equation of Caitlyn and the star flipped a switch in my brain and there in the raft I had a flash of clarity: the water. Be of the water, I thought. I didn’t want anyone to worry, so instead of standing straight up and diving into the lake, I rolled as slowly and soundlessly as I could off the side of the raft. I barely made a splash and my camp friends didn’t seem ruffled. They must have been deep in their own trips, and soon enough I was breast-stroking my way toward the center of the lake. As I swam, the water took on a life of its own. The texture of it transformed–the sensation of the waves against my skin didn’t register as touch any longer, but as a sort of song.
At the dance earlier that night, Carly Simon’s voice had rung out across the mess hall and it was echoing into me through the water now. And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner, they’d be your partner. I’d always felt a little implicated by the song. That second-person “you” slamming into the listener for most of the whole four minutes and 18 seconds. Long before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I began to develop a sensitivity to word use and as the song continued to soak into my skin, I realized for the first time that it really wasn’t about me. None of it. The world, existence. I was nothing. A body ambulating through a gathering of water in the middle of a state at the edge of a country that made itself up.
My arms, insignificant as they were, managed to send a signal of fatigue to my tripping adolescent brain and I turned onto my back to rest. The water continued its singing as my gaze returned to the show the stars were putting on. But you gave away the things you loved and one of them was me. I had some dreams. They were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee. The Milky Way was not just visible, it had a pulse. It took up the responsibility of drumming under the melody of the lake. Another star shot across the sky and everything that was to come played in my head at once: losing Caitlyn, marrying Olivia, the envelope, Rayne, Sammy.
Then I knew I had to be out of that room, away from people. I was sweating. People were looking at me. I had to think, to clear my head. Something was shifting darkly inside me, my mind not right. Was the psilocybin from the mushrooms just now lacing into my cells?
Olivia asked what was wrong, and I said I wasn’t feeling well. I said I’d go to the bathroom, splash some water on my face. She looked disappointed. I was always disappointing her. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone or make anything worse, and pushed down the back hallway and past the bathroom and found the exit and left out into the night.
A few people stood smoking in the manicured lawn where the light from the reception hall met the night. They were shadows, flares of fire at their lips. I walked past them and maybe someone said something to me, asking if I needed anything. But what could I tell them? That I needed everything? That I wanted the stars to come inside me as they once had as a teen floating in a lake? That I wanted to be starlight and not at all a man?
The darkness became darker under the canopy of the woods. Now there was no sky. Now there was no judgement. I stumbled, feeling my head swell upon its thin fragile neck. My feet were like hooves as I tripped and staggered down through the black boles. The hillside dropped away, the slope steep. The square blocks of my feet slipped from under me and I was sliding down and down.
When I stood again, my hands and elbows barked from the fall, I stood in water. A pond, small enough I could see the opposite shore washed in starlight. I waded deeper, feeling the cold pass up my legs and then my crotch and I needed to be under, to cool my head. I swam with my eyes shut, only moving my arms and considering each breath, my lung soon heaving, my arms tiring. I could feel the tug of the pond’s bottom, but I kicked and flailed and then there was mud beneath me and I stood again and fell huffing and gasping upon the shore.
It started as a sound, a hum like electrical wires. I knew this must be the sound of my thoughts. That I was electricity. I peered back across the pond and could see the lights from the reception hall atop a hill in the distance. I felt separate from those lights, and knew this was the center of my pain. That I was always separate. Even those who thought they knew me, those who’d said they’d loved me—Caitlyn, Olivia—were hopelessly outside, and I was inside, in the husk of my own private quarantine.
The pond water stirred and I flinched into a crouch. A head emerged from the water, then a body. A man rose from the dark water, dripping and approaching. I told myself this was not real. This was the hallucination of my tripped and weary mind.
It stood before me, just a shadow. “You’ve been looking for me?” it said.
“I’m Samuel Ortega Lawrence. You can call me Sammy.”
Does one speak to their own mind? “Hey, Sammy.”
“Possession,” he said. “That’s what you want. That’s what we all want. People call them demons, but a demon is just grief, just lonesomeness, and the despair of separation is what makes them cling to us and us to them. Accept them, and you’ll never be alone.”
“No, not that.”
His smile was light. “That’s what the serpent wanted for Eve in the garden. To know she’d always be alone. Adam, too, and all of us to follow. But there’s other knowledge the serpent couldn’t touch. Sitting in my prison cell, I ate the fruit of the tree and knew I had a world of love inside my mind that was its own Eden. Claim your Eden, friend.”
“Shhhh,” I said. “Stop stop stop. Please.”
I put my hands over my ears and shut my eyes. Hummed a song from light years ago I couldn’t remember the name of, about water and a deer and the word “panteth.” I thought then of church. Of being a boy and playing quarters in the moldy basement of the defunct hospital in the part of town that always flooded when it rained too much. It was closed now, the upstairs turned into offices—chiropractors, a medium who wore dresses that looked like they were made out of rosemary needles. And our ragtag bride of Christ, stuck downstairs, eating our fruits of the spirit. Laying on of hands. Speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues. Ah, yes.
“Howwa huzzoo zoozzoo be azzo lock wocka muck do,” I said to Sammy, or the man claiming to be Sammy but was probably a server, popped out the side of the the reception to smoke pot and eff with love-lost losers still pining over a girl they fumbled with in the dark while Peter Gabriel played in the background, not that one but “Shock the Monkey,” for some reason.
I was surprised how easily it came back to me.
Sammy cocked his head. Ah, yes. He had not, I realized, received that fruit. Neither the interpretation. I’d have to try something else. I pored through other languages I knew. Two years of Polish in college because I was crushed on the girl who sat next to me—actually Polish, like exchange-student Polish—Lynn Golata. Who’d say “shh, there is class,” to me when I’d do so much as offer her a stick of gum.
But I couldn’t remember any Polish. English then, the AP style guide. Bylines may be used only if the journalist was in the datelined location to gather the information reported. I said as much to Sammy but he was studying his nails now. Drat. Music then. Carly Simon! I searched through her catalog before I realized I didn’t know anything besides the one song, and now I couldn’t remember that one. Paul Simon!
“And my traveling companions are ghosts and empty sockets,” I said, or sang. “I’m looking at ghosts and empties. But I’ve reason to believe, we all will be received in Wonderland.”
In Wonderland. No, that wasn’t right. New Mexico was the Land of Enchantment. I said as much to Sammy but he’d gone mute, sitting on the water. A bored Jesus.
“And Alabama is the yellowhammer state, and Minnesota’s the north star state, and Wyoming is the equality state, due to their electing the first female to public office,” I said, getting desperate now.
There was the shout of broken glass behind me and I turned, startled. Olivia was sitting, legs knocked out from under her, slipping in the mud. Flute of champagne shattered on a rock by her knee. She tried to stand but her flats—modest things, striped bananas of canvas, “$12!” she had beamed and I appreciated—found no purchase. She sat back, lying flat in the mud. Drunk, I thought. Defeated. Heading towards the Big D and don’t mean Dallas.
“What are you doing?” she said to the darkened sky.
“Talking to Sammy. He showed up and accused me of self-sabotage,” I said. “Of opting for
loneliness over knowledge or eternal life.”
I pointed to him but he was gone now, replaced by a black ball of granite, nipple of water burbling out of his top. Ah, yes. The shapeshifter, Jesus turned fountain.
“Are you drunk? I think you’re drunk,” she said. “Sammy is still in custody.”
I waded to the side of the pond, my shoes sticking in the mud, sucking—sklorp, sklorp—as I sat next to her.
“Tell me about it, stud,” I said.
“We started writing back and forth. I hadn’t ever done that before, writing to a writer. Besides you, but that doesn’t count,” she said. “Does it?”
It had been, she said, his poem about the white and gray horses, coming down out of the hills at night, one getting stuck in the dog kennel outside the shaky farmhouse, boards groaning in the wind. Father running out with his shotgun, thinking it was…what? And watching as the horse kicked the kennel apart and galloped away. But not before father took a single photo, the eyes of the horse like ghosts, like a scared little girl, no thicker than a seesaw.
“Like a boy slipping into the water at church camp, jittery from excitement and possibility,” I thought.
“He wrote back and what I thought was nothing became, well, not nothing. Like us. You and I nothing and then not nothing. I don’t have any regrets. Not nothing is something.”
I felt as if I should be jealous, the boy in me tugging at the sleeve of my rental tux as he watched Elizabeth O’Rourke kissing Tanner “The Tude” Klegal, even though I’d just asked her to the 6th and 7th grader dance and she said “maybe.”
“Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight?” I said.
“Don’t be funny, please. Not everything is about you,” she said, though I hadn’t said it was. “This night was supposed to be something for me. Or not me. I don’t know. It was supposed to be about something greater than ourselves, I guess.”
She started crying so I did too. Reaching out a hand and setting it on her face, where I felt the tears tickle down my palm. She didn’t pull away. I was glad for that, slipping my other hand into my cummerbund, finger gun in its holster.
“There’s still something we need to do,” she said, under my hand.
Mitchell S Jackson
She tugged me, and hand-in-hand we climbed the muddy hill and across the grass, both of us bare feet, and soaked. There were still a few people outside drinking, outside talking, outside gazing at a dark lit sky sprinkled with early stars. Some of them gaped at us as if we were a muddied couple headed back into a reception, as if we looked like who and what we were. When we slogged inside the reception, the love of my life—or so I thought—and her new husband were seated at a long table with their wedding party. Fancy crystal plates and slices of cake sat before them. Cailtyn beamed, her smile just as luminous as it was in high school. Men with the neck ties loosened carried drinks to tables. Women sat with their heels kicked off under the table. Kids in suits and dresses darted between the tables. Olivia and I walked a few paces and stood in the aisle, dripping puddles onto the floor, a spectacle usurping attention, people peering at us over tall flower centerpieces of the round table, around the centerpieces, through them. Their mouths hung open. The talking ceased.
Olivia let go of my hand. “Now I know,” she said to me.
“Know what?” I said to her.
“What Sammy knew. That you’d never be free unless I set you free.”
“Go,” she said. “If that’s what you want go get her.”
In an aisle steps from Caitlyn, I thought of Olivia and my wedding day. Of the quaint church we’d chosen, it’s wooden beams, stained glassed windows, velvet strip of carpet running along its nave. Remembered how nervous I was when the wedding photographer got sick and called us an hour after she was supposed to arrive to tell us she wouldn’t make it, how everyone was so nervous, how I sent my brother darting around the church to ask guests if they knew any photographers, how I begged my father to search and search the internet. Be calm, Son. Be calm, he kept saying. But I couldn’t, because I knew, all the while, Olivia was in the basement with her mother, her sisters, her nieces, all of them worrying that her dream day would be ruined, that our day wouldn’t be able to look back on the day an album. What’s a wedding without pictures? Then my hero of an uncle tracked down a photographer. You should’ve heard the crowd clapping when she entered the church.
Minutes later, there I stood, waiting at the altar, beside my best man and the cubby pastor. Stood with my heart pounding and my pulse thrumming and sweat turning my armpits to waterfalls, stood and watched my bride float down the aisle, Olivia’s beautiful face under a veil, but her body so tall, so slender. It seemed like it took a lifetime for her to reach me, for the pastor to lead us through our vows, for him to pronounce us man and wife. That day and days thereafter, it seemed like the greatest day of my life. The best decision I’d ever made—Lord knows I’d made plenty foolish ones—a decision that I was certain was a final one, that would lead to happiness for all my days on earth.
Now, here was that Oliva, my once forever girl, ushering me down an aisle into the arms of Caitlyn, sending me to break our vows, to challenge fresh vows, to test the links between love and marriage.
One step, then another. They felt unsure, unsteady. Another step and then another, and I felt unmoored, as if I might float up the bright lights up the reception hall, float up to the stars beyond.
Caitlyn’s eyes widened when she saw me approaching—the green jewels I remembered. But Rayne seemed unbothered, as if I was just another costumed character from their ceremony. One step and another, I stuttered, stumbled, spindly legs feeling as if they’d fail me if I asked one more stride. But somehow, I made it to the table. By some miracle, I stood before Caitlyn, the woman I’d always loved, even if I’d never known her as a woman. The one who invited me, even though she hadn’t seen me in years. And didn’t that mean she still loved me? And didn’t that mean she wanted me to rescue her?
I looked once over my shoulder at Olivia who, tears in her eye, nodded at me.
Caitlyn. Dear Caitlyn, I said, and reached out my hand.