by Pamela Sawhney
Nothing could have quite prepared her for the way she felt when she saw him standing at the altar, shining like freshly pressed copper and holding, with a fierce grip, the porcelain hands of the woman he loved. It wasn’t sadness, exactly. It wasn’t happiness, exactly. But it was acute and intense, as if someone had found a tender, sore spot in the muscle of her heart, and massaged it with a violent sort of tenderness that wringed and kneaded everything inside her so that all that was left in the jumble of it all was this amorphous morass of unidentifiable feeling, and all she knew, in that moment, was that she was alive. He smiled, the contorted smile of the sort of male who, on his wedding day, processes for the first time what it is he is doing, and smiles, in a fit of desperation, to veil the manic cluster of emotions tumbling through his soul.
“Congratulations, married man,” she said whimsically, outside the church, hugging him with a warmth and formality that the occasion seemed to require. Married man hung in the air like meandering smoke; a joke, a way to say, in a pregnant way: this ship has sailed, isn’t it all so cute and profound and sad and happy? “Thank you for coming,” he replied with identical warmth and formality. There was nothing else to say here.
At the reception, listening to the speeches, white hot sunset warming her back, she slowly found her way to an irresistible combination of self-pity and poetry, and she slid right into it. She smiled widely, chuckling on cue, clinking glasses and politely fawning over this photograph or that story, sipping white wine and drifting in and out of happiness. She was happy, after all, so happy for him, the way you felt when your beloved friends got married.
But she retreated to the bar when the groomsman seated next to her bored of fruitlessly hitting on her and decided, instead, to use her for her womanly wisdom: “So, should I hit on that girl? She’s only 17, though.”
Exhausted, the way that only four-inch heels and four glasses of wine can make you exhausted, she sat down at the bar, which was empty, mostly, save for the one or two other clusters of red and smug faced guests who were breaking from the reception to order a hard liquor drink, or have a private, intimate conversation with inside jokes and toasts to things like, an awesome night!, to all of us together again!, to some things never changing! shouted with exaggerated but genuine ebullience just before the fourth round of vodka shots were downed with abandon. She smiled with them, sipped a glass of champagne, and watched the sun setting over the ocean through the windows behind the bar, feeling peace, perhaps, for the first time all evening.
He found her and he laughed at her. “What are you doing here all alone?” She was so happy to have him in that moment, and the sudden light in her eyes did not disguise this. They began to talk about the roller coaster of wedding emotions. “I saw you trying not to cry,” she said, “but don’t worry, that is so normal.” “You noticed that?” he said, in awe, and she liked the idea that his tone implied that she happened to know more about him than anyone else. I understand you in a way that few people do, she heard her increasingly drunk mind wanting to blurt out, but she didn’t, and instead she grabbed the flesh of his palm, and held it tightly for several moments longer than necessary, if it was necessary at all. “I’m so happy for you. Truly. I am. I’m really, really happy for you.” And she didn’t know why she was saying it. It was pretty fucking obvious, right, to be so happy for your good friends who got married? Why the need to press the point and press his palm and press the intensity of her happiness for him into his skin? He was all smiles and thanking her but he was soon distracted and dropped her hand to shake that of another older gentleman who had walked over and interrupted her few stolen moments of unreality.
The next day, after brunch, he walked her out of the restaurant to say goodbye. It was chilly afternoon but the sun was a bright white and the ocean waves crashed violently behind them, creating a soft breeze that made her orange and blue dress billow dramatically. They were laughing at the remnants of a silly joke and then he hugged her warmly, and then retreated, sobering quickly, and looked into her eyes. “I will never forget,” he said, pausing after “forget,” letting it linger, “that you flew out to be here for this.”
There are perhaps a lot of ways to describe a moment like this. But nothing seems more accurate than the following: there was so much love in this moment. So much plain and simple, good old-fashioned, pure and uncomplicated love in this one Goddamned moment. Because that’s the thing about love — it doesn’t always have to mean something. It can just exist, sometimes, weaving its way in and out of our days and years and lives, sleeping sometimes, awakening others, biting, soothing, massaging, stinging, warming, cooling, being. It didn’t have to be all gussied up as romantic love or platonic love or brotherly love or whatever else you wanted to say to make some sense of it. It just was. And that was all.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she eked out, nearly inaudibly, unexpectedly overcome with emotion, knowing that no words in the English language could be cobbled together to comprise an adequate response, that it was necessarily one of those moments where you say simple, overused things but mean them so much and hope the tenor in your voice or the steadiness in your eyes conveys this. Like when you say I’m really, really happy for you. And you press a palm and press it some more. Because you are happy. Because this is what happiness is. A wringing and kneading of your heart that wakes you up so intensely and floods you with something you can only call being alive. He seemed to love her more for the honor in the sentiment, and he hugged her again with a hint of humility that felt endearingly old- fashioned and respectful. And she muttered niceties then, to lighten the moment, about him coming to visit Philadelphia, about him keeping in touch, and then he grabbed her hand again and squeezed it, and everything was perfect. And then as if to make official the jolt back into reality, he made a crass joke and sauntered back inside playfully, to his bright and beautiful wife and his bright and beautiful wedding brunch, and standing in the parking lot, she looked at the water, eyes squinting in the sun, and she breathed in the waves and thought about loss and smiled and turned to head home.