This story was originally published in Monday Night.
“We’re so late right now,” she says.
“Wait,” Chris says, “and just chill.” He turns around and runs back to his apartment.
With nothing to do, she puts her hands on the steering wheel and huffs.
“Another one bites the dust,” she sings mindlessly.
Two men are riding bikes down the quiet street. Chris jogs back a minute later. He slides into the passenger seat and slams the door.
“So. Marty’s getting married and wants us to witness it,” he says.
Claire wonders. “Why do old friends always drag you back into their lives for this occasion?”
“To prove that they have accomplished something.”
“How’s your Mom doing?” Claire asks, now looking up at his apartment.
“She’s doing all right for someone who has undergone a lot of chemo. She doesn’t look too good but she’s doing all right.”
“How’re you doing?”
“I think I’m depressed,” Chris says, matter-of-factly. “Having your cancerous mother move into your apartment can do that to you.”
“You kind of feel like your life is on hold?”
“Worse,” he says, “I think I’m regressing. I’ve been spending my savings and losing touch with people in general.”
Claire is trying to think of something heartening to say, but Chris sees this and speaks up first, “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“Wait, pull over at that liquor store real quick,” he says a minute later.
“Damn it, Chris, we’re already running late.”
“C’mon we need to bring some booze just in case. Just a little. It’s a wedding!”
“Don’t get in one of those moods,” she warns. “Don’t feel like you need to uphold some outdated dramatic image of yourself. We’re more mature than that.”
“Shut up, Claire,” he says, now turning to address her. “And please just pull the car over.”
“Whiskey,” she notices, as they speed along the freeway.
Chris takes a discreet gulp from the bottle. He squints and splits his lips. “I never come to Napa. What do people see that I don’t?”
“Well, we’re not in the valley yet. This is just Napa County.”
“Look at how that parking lot is built next to a parking lot. There’s no color here.Every year more of California looks like Fresno.”
“Do you like this dress?” she asks him, trying to change the subject. She met him eight years ago, during their first year of college, and over time she has grown to trust his opinion, to appreciate his honesty.
He looks at her and smiles. “Oh, you look great Claire. That dress is beautiful, and the way it fits you proves that you’re aging better than all of my other girlfriends.”
“Ha!” she laughs, feeling modest, proud, and a bit lucky.
“Jesus, I’m in a weird mood. Do I look okay?” Chris asks.
“You look fine,” Claire says. “Your suit is handsome. You look a bit tired, but you always have and besides it just adds to that slightly mysterious vibe you give off, which I’ve always found attractive.”
“Is Jennifer going to be at this thing?”
Claire pauses for a second and then admits, “Yeah. She flew from Chicago to be here. She’s one of the bridesmaids.”
“Is she currently single?” Chris inquires, failing to sound nonchalant.
Claire smiles while shaking her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” he says and looks out the window.
Upon glimpsing the beginnings of the fertile Napa Valley, Chris admits, “This is beautiful.”
“Have you kept in touch with Jennifer?”
Claire sighs. “Sure. I mean we don’t talk every week or anything. Maybe once a month.”
“That much? That’s almost as often as you and I talk.”
“Well, she’s still a good friend.”
“I am beginning to feel nostalgic, against my better judgment.”
“In college I thought you two were going to get married.”
“Everyone thought we went well together, at least they said so.”Chris unbuttons the top two buttons of his shirt and loosens his tie. He exhales deeply.
Claire glances over and sees the faded blue of his undershirt, recognizes it instantly. She asks, “Are you wearing that old Superman t-shirt you’ve had since forever?”
“Maybe,” Chris says, sheepishly.
She laughs and looks at him while he looks up at the ceiling of the car. “Who do you think you are?” she wonders.
“You can’t handle the truth,” he says calmly, but in a kind of Jack Nicholson voice.
Chris asks, “What if I pulled a Graduate, but you know, with a bridesmaid instead of the bride?”
“Well by that logic you could also try a Wedding Singer or something,” Claire jokes.
“Is it possible for me to do a My Best Friends Wedding? I don’t remember it exactly.”
“No, no. Why don’t you be practical and attempt one of those Wedding Crasher hook-up scenarios?”
“I didn’t think that movie was believable!” Chris says loudly, then cracks up laughing.
Claire looks at Chris, unsure of what is so funny. “Don’t drink any more of that whiskey, okay?”
“Wow, Marty really is a lawyer. Look at this spread,” Chris notices as they pull into the large, immaculate winery. The sun is shining, illuminating the acres of expensive grapes surrounding the estate.
“I think the bride’s parents paid for all this. She’s a lawyer also. Marty and her will soon be making a lot of money.”
“Maybe we should have rented a car,” Chris tells Claire, beginning to feel insecure as they drive slowly past a row of parked cars, many of them German or hybrids.
“What, my old Camry isn’t good enough for you?”
“Of course it’s good enough for me. I just don’t know if it’s good enough for them.”
“Who? Don’t be ridiculous. When did you get so self-conscious anyway?”
“This last year, right when I turned 27.”
“So you’re my date, right?” Chris asks as they make their way towards the winery’s main building. Claire’s arm is hooked through Chris’.
“We came here together because Ted is out of town on business.”
“It’s still funny to me that your boyfriend goes ‘away on business.’ It sounds so adult.”
“We are adults, in case you haven’t noticed. Lots of people travel for business. The world still has some physical properties. It hasn’t quite become one giant inbox.”
“I’m realizing I haven’t seen you for awhile,” Chris says, now admiring her; the full, defined shapes of her legs as she walks in heels, the way her dress brushes the smooth skin just above her knees.
“You haven’t been in San Francisco much,” Claire explains.
“You haven’t been in Oakland at all.”
“There you have it. That’s how it happens.”
At the entrance, a man is sucking furiously on a cigarette and pacing back and forth. When he catches sight of Chris and Claire he flicks the cigarette into a flowering bush and begins to wave frantically, then points at his watch.
“Who is that?” Chris asks, leaning forward.
“Oh my God it’s Daniel. It has been years.”
“He’s balder than fuck!” Chris yells, before Claire pinches the top of his hand. “Ouch! Damn it, Claire.”
“Shut up,” Claire breathes as they reach Daniel, who is shaking his head in disappointment.
“You guys missed the bride’s procession,” Daniel says mournfully, then hugs Chris and Claire.
“What, you’re still smoking?” Claire asks.
“I’m trying to quit. My girlfriend hates it. If she finds out I’ve been smoking she’ll beat me. I told her I had to take a dump,” Daniel says, a little embarrassed.
“I didn’t know this was a Jewish wedding. Mazeltov,” Chris says, lifting up Daniel’s yarmulke. “Where’d all your hair go?”
“It’s not a Jewish wedding. It’s non-denominational. And gimme that you schmuck.” Daniel takes the tiny hat back, sprays himself with cologne, and then pushes Chris and Claire through the large oak doors of the winery.
Chris and Claire follow Daniel to a large hall where the wedding is already in progress. The attention of the back rows briefly shifts to Chris and Claire as they attempt to find two adjacent seats. Claire looks down at the wedding program to avoid all eye contact but Chris is smiling at everyone with a big grin.
Daniel puts two pieces of gum in his mouth. He then walks, hunched over, to his seat near the front of the hall and hastily hooks his arm around a tall woman. He then looks back at Chris and Claire, to see if they noticed.
There is a casual-looking officiant standing at the front of the room, back-dropped by a million dollar view of the Napa Valley. He is busy telling the bride and groom that this love, this physical testament to love that is standing right in front of him, Holy shit is it beautiful. Spiritual too. At least that’s how Chris is hearing it. He is busy looking at Jennifer, attempting to use telepathic messaging to say, “Look at me enchanting, former lover.”
Claire is thinking about her own relationship. She is somewhat scared of love, how it makes her feel weak and nervous when Ted is away on business. When he is gone she has dreams of his plane crashing, of an unavoidable jack-knife in the fog on Interstate 5, of Ted trying to call her with bloody hands, his legs already mangled by a head on collision.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the officiator says, jarring Chris and Claire back to the ceremony.
Chris hi-fives Marty as he walks by, arm in arm, with his bride. Claire briefly hugs Jennifer as she passes with the exiting procession. Both Jennifer and Claire are crying. When they embrace they both say, “You look gorgeous!”
Jennifer then notices Chris and for some reason she winks at him. Chris, who is unsure what this means, gives her a reflexive thumbs up. He then stands in the pews, crumpling his wedding program, and watches as her artfully stacked hair leaves the church.
Daniel’s broad-shouldered date walks up from behind Chris and taps him on the back.
“I’m Hillary,” she gushes, smiling wide, her eyes a little red.
Daniel is standing beside her. His arm is still hanging protectively around Hillary’s shoulders, but it looks odd and forced because Hillary is taller than Daniel. The body language, of Daniel reaching awkwardly up and Hillary being forced down, doesn’t look comfortable for either of them.
“Hi Hillary,” Chris says and shakes her hand. “Are you with the bride or the groom?”
“I’m with Daniel.”
“Hillary and I have been dating for a year now,” Daniel says.
“Mazeltov,” Chris replies, sounding completely neutral.
“God, enough with the mazeltovs,” Daniel says.
Claire walks up.
“You guys aren’t dating are you?” Daniel asks.
“Maybe.” That’s Chris.
“Oh God.” That’s Claire.
“OK, I get it. “That’s Daniel.
“Well I’m Hillary,” she repeats, dabbing her eyes.
This newly minted group begins to make its way towards the outdoor reception area. A large formation of circular tables has been set up in a bright, grassy clearing. The place settings of the tables are marked by the names of guests, which are printed on graceful labels and propped up on white china. Delicate wine glasses stand evenly spaced around the tables, looking like translucent tulips.
On the way to the reception Chris veers off into a row of grapes and says, “Daniel, come here.”
Daniel turns to Chris and nods. He then tells his girlfriend, “I’ll join you in a second. Baby.” He squeezes her shoulder and Chris notices that the spaghetti strap of Hillary’s dress is slightly embedded in her skin.
What a linebacker, Chris thinks to himself, looking at Hillary. No wonder Daniel is scared of being caught smoking.
“What is it?” Daniel asks, now partly concealed in the rows of grapes with Chris.
“You want a slug?” Chris asks and pulls out the cheap whiskey.
“Oh for God’s sake. No, I’m going to stick to the massive amount of wine that is here. At this vineyard.”
“How’s life?” Chris inquires, squinting his eyes after a gulp.
“Fine,” Daniel says, looking across the valley to the western mountains. “How’s yours?”
“It’s flying by.” He finishes the pocket of whiskey and leans the empty bottle up against a grape vine.
“I know. I can’t believe I’m graduating from my MBA program this year,” Daniel says. “That’s where I met Hillary.”
“She seems like a good, strong woman. Strength is important in a partner.”
Chris is now smiling and staring at Daniel.
“Aw fuck you,” Daniel says and walks back towards the reception.
“Wait, wait up,” Chris calls and runs after him. “I was just kidding!”
“I’d like to make a toast,” the best man says, holding up his drink. He then goes on to tell a story that is mostly about him. He touches on his great job, his sense of humor that he self-describes as being “wicked,” and his “beautiful, wonderful family.” Eventually and toward the end, he mentions Marty and his bride.
Chris can hardly take it. He leans over to Claire and whispers, “Do you think I could beat this guy up, I mean if push came to shove?”
Claire giggles and then turns to Chris. “Even though he’s bigger I’d put my money on you because I know how much these type of guys drive you crazy. Your rage gives you the advantage.”
Chris is nodding. “That’s what I think, too.”
Daniel glares at both of them from across the table, raising an eyebrow up towards his bald head, wondering what is so urgent that they have to talk about it during the best man’s toast.
Aware of this attention, Chris decides to close his eyes and kiss Claire on the cheek. Afterwards, he settles back into his chair, raises his glass to toast, and wonders to himself, “Why’d I do that?”
Claire rubs her now rosy cheek and thinks to herself, “What is Chris trying to prove to Daniel?”
Daniel is trying to figure out, “Are they dating or not?”
Chris and Daniel are sitting next to each other at the table. The women have gone off to fight for the bouquet.
“Did I tell you I’m going on a date?” Chris says.
“No, with who?
“You’re not going to believe it you little motherfucker.” That’s the wine mixed with whiskey talking. Daniel laughs.
“C’mon, is it someone I know?”
“I don’t know. Do you ever shop at the Safeway in North Oakland?” Chris asks.
“I live in Seattle you idiot.”
Chris apologizes before saying, “I’m not shitting you here. I’ve been sort of lonely. I told you about my mom, right?”
“Well I was thinking recently that I had lost my mojo or whatever you wanna call it. I’ve been so busy with work and helping my mom. My mojo isn’t rising. It hasn’t been rising for a while. But Claire still thinks I’m handsome. Anyway, I was at Safeway picking up a roasted chicken when this pretty girl just calls out to me, like ‘excuse me, sir’.”
“She’s handing out these little salad dressing samples.”
“But she’s not bad looking. She’s cute and kind of embarrassed when I walk towards her.”
“Yeah but how old is she? Sixteen?”
“It turns out she’s 21,” Chris says.
“Still a bit young,” Daniel advises.
“Maybe, but we have a date this week. Besides, all the girls our age are dating older men, from what I can tell. I’ve got nowhere to go but down. I’ve been forced to date the future of America.”
“Hillary and I are the same age.”
A moment later Jennifer walks by, half in shock, with the bride’s bouquet in her hands. A handsome man, a bit older looking, is accompanying her. He picks a flower from the bouquet, places it behind one of Jennifer’s ears, and then puts his arm around her. He kisses her flowery hair.
“Damnit,” Chris says again.
“Anybody want to dance with me?” Claire asks. She has a small smirk on her face. She is looking at everyone at the table with her dark green eyes. One of her hands is planted on her hip, while the other is swirling a glass of expensive Cabernet.
“Oh my God,” Chris says, falling in love with Claire for a second, and then feeling for the first time a little nervous about how much he has been drinking.
Daniel puts his hand on Chris’ shoulder and says, “Hang in there, buddy. I’ll take this one. You relax.”
“Don’t stop ’til you get enough,” Chris says hopelessly, in a meager Michael Jackson voice. He is beginning to feel dizzy.
Claire and Daniel are circling each other on the dance floor to Prince’s “Kiss.” Prince’s guitar sounds like a feather tickling your armpit. Daniel’s loosened tie is thrown over his shoulder and he is pointing his right index finger at Claire while singing, “you don’t have to be rich to rule my world.” Claire then shakes her hair wildly back and forth, mouthing the words, “ain’t no particular kind!”She has a very knowing smile; she is temporarily aware that she both looks and feels great.
After the song Daniel and Claire move to the side of the stage and Claire says, “I love weddings.”
“Me too,” Daniel gasps, a bit out of breath, kind of out of shape.”So you and Chris are still close it looks like.”
“Pretty close. He’s going through a tough time. He actually seems much more interested in Jennifer than me.”
“You know, I always thought they were so great together, back in college at least.”
“Me too!” Claire exclaims, shaking Daniel excitedly. Daniel remembers how much he enjoys being touched by Claire.
Chris is hunched over in a row of grapes, hiding from the wedding party. His jacket and tie are lying in the dirt and he is puking into a small hole that he has dug with one of his black dress shoes.
“For God’s sake,” he mumbles, grabbing a couple of grape leaves to wipe his mouth. He can feel his phone vibrate in his pocket with an incoming text. Chris reaches for his phone with his eyes closed. In his ears there are twin jet turbines. The sun, which earlier in the day had felt like a divine gift, now seems more like a torture device as it beats down on him. Chris is sweating. He opens his eyes and looks at his phone.
“Where R U This is Jen”
He decides to call her back, as texting seems equivalent to brain surgery at this moment.
Jennifer picks up quickly and says, “So Claire told me you’ve been drinking all day.”
Chris puts a hand over his face and slumps down in the dirt. “Yeah,” he admits. “I was feeling nervous about the wedding. I’ve been stressed too, in general.”
“So where are you?”
“Are you looking out across the vineyard?” he asks.”Are you looking west?”
“Yes,” she says.
Chris picks up his jacket and flings it into the air. It lands on a grape vine adjacent to him.
“Did you see that?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says and hangs up.
Chris covers the hole he has dug and puts a mint in his mouth. He wipes his eyes and stands up, wanting to look in control of his faculties, just in case Jennifer decides to kiss him. Or on the small chance that she pulls him down carefully into the dirt and quietly, with lower lip softly bit, moves his hand up her dress. Chris shakes his head and thinks about how his mother has cancer.
Jennifer is barefoot when she appears. She is clutching her high-heel shoes with one hand and holding a vodka tonic in the other.
“Chris, I don’t feel exceptionally bad for you,” she begins.
“I wasn’t expecting you to,” he says, thinking the opposite.
“So why are you doing this then? Why are you making a scene at our friend’s wedding?”
“Wait a second. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you. How’s your relationship going?”
Jennifer sighs and then replies, “I think it’s going well. I’m not head over heels for him but he’s very kind and has a good heart.”
“You know who you were head over heels for? Me,” Chris says and then smiles. He doesn’t want her to get upset but then a fact is a fact.
“Well, you had your chance.”
“That’s true. I’d argue that I still had some issues to work out back then but you’re right, I broke up with you. Does this guy you’re dating happen to drive a German automobile?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well does he?”
“He drives an Audi.”
“That’s a good company. You know I finally bought a car, of Korean descent, once my mom moved in with me.”
“How is she recovering? Claire told me about it. Your mom is one of the sweetest women I know.”
“She’s fine. The cancer is in remission.”
Jennifer can tell by the tone of Chris’ voice that he doesn’t want to get into it.
“So what,” she says, “no hot date today?”
“Well I may be secretly in love with Claire,” he says. “Regardless of that, I hope to soon fuck a young woman that works at my local supermarket.”
Chris then tells himself to stop this, don’t push it, this isn’t attractive, just have a normal conversation with your ex-girlfriend.
“Ha ha,” Jennifer laughs, without emotion.
“I feel like I would be more charming if I wasn’t so drunk.”
“Oh Chris,” Jennifer sighs.
Then from the sky, floating steadily downward through the rays of sun, as if on loan from heaven, comes a fat bumblebee, drunk on the abundant cornucopia of the Napa Valley. It wastes no energy in its trajectory. Its aim is true. The bee quietly lands on Jennifer’s naturally brown shoulder, where it quickly and stoically stings her, before flying away.
Chris sobers up. In a clear and resonant voice he thinks to himself: shit.
“Shit, don’t cry,” Chris says as they walk back to the party.”It doesn’t look good to re-enter the party with you crying.”
Jennifer is clutching her shoulder and sniffling.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” she says.
“Okay, okay. Calm down. It’s going to be all right,” he says and tries to put his arm around her.
“Don’t!” she says.
“Okay, okay,” he says, looking up at the sky like do you find this funny you big, bearded, sandal-wearing asshole?
Claire looks at the advancing couple, confirms it’s Chris and Jennifer, and then notes that Jennifer looks upset and that Chris is actually stumbling. Daniel walks up to Claire and asks, “What’s up with those two? They’re not getting back together are they?”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s too bad,” he says. “You know I actually thought they were going to get…”
“We all did Daniel. We were fucking wrong.”
“Hey, how is that guy you’re dating?
“I don’t know right now,” she says, visibly flustered.”He’s away on business.”
Jennifer’s date walks up to Claire and Daniel. Up close Claire can see that his hair is flecked with grey, and although he is not fat, there is a slight heaviness to him; he has the specific look of a man who is experiencing the steady decrease of his metabolism, the end of carefree excess.
He points to Chris. “Is that guy your friend?”
“Yes,” Claire and Daniel both say.
“What’s he doing to my girlfriend?” He asks this question in a voice now tinged with the assertion of territory.
“Whoa,” Claire says.
“Okay,” Daniel says slowly.
Jennifer’s boyfriend leaves and walks quickly towards Chris and Jennifer.
Jennifer sees her boyfriend approaching and tells Chris, “Please do me a favor and keep your mouth shut for just a few minutes.”
Chris looks up to see Jennifer’s boyfriend approaching, a can of Diet Coke clenched tightly in his hand. His open jacket is blowing in the wake of his hurried walk. He is almost running.
“He might as well just run,” Chris says and Jennifer says, “Shush.”
Behind the boyfriend is the wedding party. The polished wooden dance floor is full. A wide representation of the guests is dancing to the Outkast song, “Hey Ya.”
Chris quickly tells Jennifer: “New Years at Margaret’s. The last night of 2003 I think. Remember when we danced in the front yard and we both had sparklers in our hands and I couldn’t stop smiling and I tried to kiss you but instead fell over and you fell on top of me and then we almost burned each other when we tried to make out? You were illuminated, like one of those old, religious paintings; a halo of light was around your head. This song was playing and all of our friends were singing in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere basically. Does that kind of thing happen to you anymore?”
Jennifer wipes away a couple tears and weakly whispers, “shush.”
“What’s going on?” Jennifer’s boyfriend asks as he reaches the former couple. After saying this he puts one hand on Chris’ chest and pushes him a couple feet away from Jennifer.
Chris looks down at the hand on his chest while Jennifer looks at her boyfriend’s face.
There is a brief moment where Chris thinks about the two primary options he has. He can either take the passive route or choose to return this aggressive intrusion of his personal space. He is aware that he doesn’t strike many people as a threat and that this man with his hand placed almost directly over Chris’ heart probably has 50 pounds on him.
But you never want to tempt someone who is currently feeling desperate, demoralized, and possibly depressed.
Chris puts his hand on Jennifer’s boyfriend’s chest and asks, “Hey does that feel good?”
“Get your hand off of me,” the boyfriend says.
“You first,” Chris says, almost hoping that the boyfriend will hit him.
“Did you hurt her?” the boyfriend then asks, sensing an impasse.
“No!” Jennifer says forcefully. “We were just talking.”
“I never hurt her in any physical way,” Chris answers.
The boyfriend thinks about this response, visibly annoyed. He then looks at Jennifer who is shaking her head, warning him. Her eyes are still moist. Her hair is a little disheveled, with a couple curled strands now pasted to her wet cheek. Her lips are trembling, the pink gloss glistening in the sunshine.
Chris wants to hold her very badly, so badly that his eyes are now beginning to water. This pisses him off.
Shadows are stretching in the late afternoon sun.
The boyfriend looks at Chris’ face and sees that he is beginning to cry. He drops his hand. Chris does the same, embarrassed, then covers his face. Claire, Daniel, and Hillary walk up.
Daniel asks in a nervous voice; “Everything all right here?” His girlfriend is standing protectively behind him, her arms crossed.
Claire approaches Chris and hands him a tissue from her purse. His hands are shaking a bit; he is trying to compose himself. Jennifer’s boyfriend inspects the small sting on Jennifer’s arm, then carefully places an arm around her.
In the distance is the crowd of dancers, their hands in the air, each one joyfully twisting and turning.
“Shake it like a Polaroid picture,” Andre 3000 sings, his recorded voice echoing across the beautiful and expensive valley.
“How do my eyes look?” Chris asks.
“So, so,” Claire says.
They are walking back to their table.
“That really didn’t go as planned.”
“I could tell,” Claire says and squeezes Chris tightly against her.
“Sorry I’ve been acting weird around you today. Sorry I kissed you on the cheek.”
“It’s okay, Chris.”
“I was just,” Chris says but stops when he hears Claire’s phone ring.
Claire reaches frantically into her purse and it is obvious by the way her face seems to soften that it is her boyfriend.
“It’s Ted,” Claire says, sublimely. She raises one of her hands, mouths the words “five minutes,” and walks away from Chris while giggling into her phone.
Chris wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt.
A minute later Chris is sitting at his table and pouring water into his wine glass. He keeps the pitcher close and periodically wipes the condensation from the glass onto his forehead.
Someone who he vaguely remembers from college walks by and says, without stopping, “How you been, man?”
Chris says, “Staying alive.”
He then looks out onto the dance floor. His old friend Marty is dancing goofily with his bride, blissfully ignorant of everything that Chris is feeling. It is fine. Chris waves at him and Marty motions for Chris to join the party but Chris motions back that he’s A-OK where he is. They both smile.
Chris realizes that he doesn’t want to dance.
He doesn’t want to drink.
He doesn’t want to go back to his apartment.
At this moment he doesn’t know what he wants.
By God, he thinks, I am a man!