"You know, Sarah dear, today's blessed event makes up for that whole Brooklyn calamity...." Penny Halverson bit her bottom lip. "No, I promised I wouldn't bring that up. What I mean to say is that you having a wedding in the Grantham University Chapel is ... is ... like a dream come true. To think that a member of our family is about to be married in a place like that! It's practically like being in England! Or Disney World!"
Penny dabbed the corner of her eye with the all-cotton hanky that she had ironed just before packing her suitcase for the flight from Minneapolis to Grantham, New Jersey. Even within the confines of the church vestry, the mullioned windows and ornate woodwork conveyed the Gothic grandeur of the Ivy League university chapel. But the fact that Penny's face shone with a rosy hue had nothing to do with the light piercing the stained glass windows. It was the glow of a mother's joy--and maybe unexpected heat of this early May day.
Outside, visible through an open door, were beds of Rembrandt tulips edging the green of the courtyard. Their variegated petals flopped in exhaustion. They had managed to survive the ravenous appetite of the local deer population, perhaps a show of respect by the animal kingdom for this hallowed spot, but they were now succumbing to the heat.
"Oh, I know I promised, but I can't help it." Penny pursed her lips and squinted her eyes in a mixture of remorse and pride. "It more than makes up for the embarrassment that your father felt when you...ah...when you...ah."
"When I was living with Earl? Is that what you're trying to say, Mom?" Sarah Halverson rolled her shoulders backwards and worked at adjusting the neckline on her strapless wedding dress. The fitted bodice tapered to hug her long torso, a tad too tightly for comfort. And her boobs seemed to have a mind of their own. "I know you and Dad didn't approve, and I'm sorry. But, you know, it's really not a crime," she said as she yanked at the stays under her arms and hunched her shoulders together to try to get all the pieces to work in harmony. "Practically everybody I know is doing it or has done it at one time."
Actually, that wasn't true. Take her two best friends. Katrina had come back to Grantham to recuperate from a terrible shooting, found the love of her life, and was now happily married to financial wizard Ben Brown. Ben pretended to be cantankerous but was really a pussycat, a pussycat with a teenage son. Besides acquiring a family, Katarina had also started new business of advising retirees on total financial and lifestyle planning.
And her other best friend Julie was a dedicated obstetrician, way too busy to form any lasting relationship-or so she claimed. More likely, she was too tall for most men and too...well... frank. "I'm not brutal, merely blunt," Julie would protest over her third Rolling Rock. Julie poo-pooed high priced beers, describing microbrews as "fancy labels for dilettante, candy-assed drinkers."
Sarah, who cherished Julie more than most, found that proclamation more than blunt. After all, her fiancˇ and very-soon-to-be husband Zach thought of himself as something of an expert on high-end beers. He regularly lectured Sarah on the pros and cons of various Belgium brews. "I'm just trying to expand your horizons," he was fond of saying after a typical fifteen-minute discourse.
Not that Sarah minded. Because while she might chide her mother about her parochial concerns, the truth of the matter was, Earl had been a deadbeat. Back in her callow youth, Sarah had thought Earl was a rebel who had needed to burst the bonds of rural Minnesota to pursue a rock music career. But Earl hadn't been a rebel. Just lazy. He had demonstrated a congenital failure to expend any effort at anything that required work, including his music. And as Sarah quickly found out, "bursting the bonds" for Earl corresponded to an inability to maintain anything close to a monogamous relationship.
Zach, on the other hand, represented everything that was good and decent in Sarah's opinion. He was a yoga instructor, a terrific one given his ardent following. Not content to improve his employer's business, he had bravely struck out on his own six months ago, forming Grantham Yoga and Wellness Center. He knew the uncertainties, especially in the weak economy, but he had a solid business plan and was determined to reach for his dream. As part of his holistic approach, he had also brought in a nutritionist as a partner, and working as a team they had seen their clientele steadily increase. Then, once his finances had started to stabilize, Zach had proposed.
And Sarah had accepted, not because she had felt over the moon-she had given up the whole over-the-moon stuff two months after moving in with Earl. No, she'd accepted because she had found contentment. Contentment was good.
Anyway, besides being financially stable, Zach was a good citizen-he coached in the local youth soccer league. And he was faithful. Zach never showed any inclination to wander despite all those women in sports bras and various forms of body-hugging knitwear.
So, in Sarah's view, he was free to lecture her for fifteen minutes on whatever he fancied. He could even take twenty.
Speaking of twenty minutes, Sarah glanced at her wrist. She knew it was neurotic to wear a watch on her wedding day-all right, not vaguely-but she couldn't help it. That was the type of person she had become. Besides, it was her grandmother's old Longines dress watch, so it was fulfilling the "something old" and "something borrowed" elements of the wedding ritual.
She finished fussing with her dress and turned to her mother. "You know, Mom, I know you mean well, but why don't we just agree that you're happy to be able to share this day with me?" Sarah patted her mother sweetly on the upper arm of her jacket dress. Penny was wearing a beige mother-of-the bride ensemble that she'd made from a Butterick pattern.
"All right, dear." Penny dabbed her eyes once more. "I'm just so happy, but I think I better warn you."
Sarah inhaled sharply.
"Your father did mention that he was planning on bringing up something along the lines of you finally turning your life around-as part of his toast, that is."
Sarah groaned silently and placed her hand on her diaphragm. She pressed against the knot of indigestion that had taken up residence for the past few weeks. "I don't suppose there's any point in trying to talk to Dad ahead of time?" She looked at her mother's dubious expression. "No, I didn't think so. Well, I'm sure I have survived worse."
She glanced at her watch again. "You know, he won't get to say anything if I don't remind the groom that it's almost time. Zach is one of those people who never wears a watch, which is why he has me around, I guess." Sarah hoisted up the full skirt of her dress and headed for the door.
"Can't your father do that?" Penny said. "He's just outside trying to pick up the baseball game on that little transistor radio I bought him for our tenth wedding anniversary. It's practically a relic, but he insists it's still perfectly good, even if it did confuse the security man at the airport."
Sarah brushed past her mother. "Far be it from me to bother Dad before the seventh inning stretch." She strode down the narrow hallway. Her satin ballet slippers moved soundlessly along the stone floor. In deference to Zach's self-conscious concerns about being shorter, she had given up wearing anything remotely resembling heels. Even barefoot, the top of his head came just to her nose, and Sarah, all five-ten of her, had found herself compensating with a noticeable slump. As a physiotherapist, the poor posture irritated her no end. As a woman prepared to join her hand in holy matrimony, she had decided to compromise. She'd stand up straight at work and slump at home.
She reached the heavy wooden door to the chaplain's office and knocked. Zach had a habit of meditating in anticipation of stressful events, and she didn't want to interrupt any Zen-like trance too abruptly.
She didn't hear anything, so she knocked again.
Penny tiptoed next to her daughter. "Sarah, isn't it bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding?"
"Don't be ridiculous." Sarah put her ear to the polished wood. "There's no such thing as bad luck." She called through the door, "Zach?"
She heard a muffled noise that sounded as if Zach had a cough drop lodged in his throat.
The strange muffled noise grew louder. She frowned. That didn't sound like a cough drop crisis. She placed her hand on the doorknob, pushed the door ajar, and looked in.
"Sarah, Sarah, is something wrong with Zach?" her mother asked.
Sarah turned and shielded her mother. She drew the door shut. "Mom." She wet her lips, and then wet her lips again. "I think it might be better if I spoke to Zach alone." There was a quaver in her voice.
"Nonsense. I'm the mother of the bride. If anyone should talk to the groom, it should be me, by tradition. I know, you don't believe in these things, but I do. So, young lady, I don't know what's gotten into you, but I can see it's time I asserted a mother's prerogative." Penny led with her shoulder past her trembling daughter. She might be all of five foot three and out of her element in an Ivy League setting, but nobody should underestimate Penny Halverson, she of sturdy Norwegian immigrant stock. She not only made lutefisk, she enjoyed it.
"Zach," her mother called, barging in. "It's Penny, and it's time you got-t..." Her voice trailed off. She turned back to Sarah, her mouth ajar. She held her arm out, pointing vaguely behind her.
Sarah nodded, her own lips drawn tightly together. The next thing she knew, her mother had crumbled to the floor.
"Oh, no." Sarah crouched next to her. "Mom?" She reached for her hand.
From down the hall, she could hear a tapping of heels. "Hey, Sarah, this is your Matron of Honor doing her sacred duty. The natives are starting to get restless out there, you know. I think it's time to get this show on the road." It was Katarina.
Sarah glanced up before quickly going back to holding her mother's limp hand. "There's been a slight delay in the action. My mother just fainted. Could you go get Julie?" She bent down. "Mom? Mom? Can you hear me?"
The muffled noise from the other side of the door suddenly became louder.
"What the...?" Katarina shifted her worried gaze from Penny to the hubbub.
"Don't ask," Sarah said. "Just go get Julie. Mom may have hurt herself when she hit the deck."
Less than a minute later, an Amazon-like woman came running down the hallway, the straight skirt of her teal bridesmaid dress hiked up around her thighs, her dress sandals dangling from her fingertips. As soon as she saw Sarah and her mother on the floor, she skittered to a stop and dropped to her knees. Her bridesmaid's bouquet landed nearby.
Katarina followed closely behind. "How's your mom?"
"She's just starting to come to." She looked over at Julie. "You're stockings are mincemeat, you know."
"There're worse things in life, believe me," Julie said. She immediately redirected her focus to Penny. "Mrs. Halverson, can you hear me?"
Penny blinked her eyes slowly open and attempted to get up. "What... what happened?"
"Stay down, Mrs. Halverson. You fainted. I'm Sarah's friend, Julie. You remember me?"
Penny nodded, closing and opening one eye as her head moved slowly up and down.
"I'm a doctor," Julie went on, her voice calm but authoritative. "I just want to check you out before you try to get up."
Penny swallowed. "I'm...I'm so embarrassed. I've never done anything like this before."
Julie peered into Penny's eyes and felt around her head and neck for bumps. "Do you remember what triggered the fainting?"
Sarah's head shot up. "Ah-h, I wouldn't go there if I were you."
Just then a shriek sounded from the other side of the door. Julie frowned. "What's going on in--?"
Heavy footsteps coming down the hallway interrupted her words. "Is everyone all right?" It was Ben, Katarina's husband. Despite his mountain-man physique, he looked very smart in a custom-made tuxedo. Katarina must have put the screws to him because he'd even gone and gotten a haircut for the occasion.
Katarina put her hand up. "It's okay, sweetie. I think we've got it under control."
He looked at Penny lying slack in her daughter's arms. "Well, it doesn't look that way to me." His baritone was full bodied.
Immediately, there was a large thump from the other side of the door. Then a bump and what sounded like a belt buckle hitting the floor. A hushed, "Oh, my God," hovered in the air, followed by more scurrying noises.
All heads turned, even Penny's.
Ben pushed his way toward the door.
Sarah stood. "No, let me. Julie, could you hold my mom?"
"Okay. But you're sure you don't want to let Ben check it out?"
Sarah sniffed, slipped her grandmother's watch up her wrist, and stepped around her mother. "No, I think it's more like cue the bride." She set her jaw and pushed open the wooden door.
Katarina and Julie craned their necks.
"Oh, my God! I don't believe it!" Katarina exclaimed loudly.
"What a total and utter schmuck!" Julie shouted.
A startled voice escaped from the other side of the door. "Sarah, I can explain."
"No, let me," came a second voice.
Ben took a step forward, but Sarah held out an arm.
"Oh-h-h..." Penny swooned for a second time. Luckily, Julie was still holding her.
Sarah closed the door and faced her friends, bracing her back against the polished surface. There was a tentative knock from the other side of the door, but she purposely ignored it. "You saw what I saw, right?" Sarah looked from one face to another.
Katarina nodded. "If you mean that they were untangling themselves from a Revolving Half Moon Pose, I would have to agree."
Sarah bit her lip. "Actually, I think it was the Downward Facing Pigeon."
Ben coughed. "Where I come from, we don't need that many words to describe what they were doing. What I want to know is who's in there with Zach?"
Julie patted Sarah's mother on both cheeks to revive her.
"It's Ken, his partner in his yoga practice," Sarah said.
"Sarah?" The male voice on the other side of the door sounded plaintively.
Sarah looked down. "Mo-om...oh...Mo-om, I'm so sorry."
"Was, Zach with...with...another man?" her mother was almost too frightened to ask. "Here? In Grantham?"
Julie blew air between her pursed lips. "And they would have still been going at it, totally oblivious to the outside world, if we hadn't made so much noise."
"Thank you for pointing that out," Sarah said. Silently, she rehashed her own lovemaking with Zach and came to the stark realization that they had never achieved such a passionate detachment from reality. Should that have been a clue? Who knew at this point? The only thing that was clear in her mind, and in her heart, was that she was broken. Utterly and absolutely broken. Crushed.
She placed her hand on her stomach to control yet another surge of indigestion. She tried to gather her thoughts, but the image of Zach and Ken kept interfering.
Still, she refused to come apart. That would come later. "Well, let's see...we need a plan," she said in a deliberate tone. "First...ah...the guests. They'll need to be told that the wedding is off."
"I'm happy to do that." Katrina stepped forward.
Sarah bit down on her lower lip and nodded. "Thanks, but I think it's only proper that I should do that. But in the meantime, could you could let everyone know there's been a delay?" She looked over to Ben. "And could you do me a big favor? Could you go and tell my father the news? He's outside. I know I'm being a coward, but I don't think I could face him, not yet anyway. And I certainly don't want him back here. Who knows what he'd do?"
Ben straightened his shoulders. "I'll be happy to. But first, with your permission, I'd like to deck Zach. I feel the need to inflict pain. You have to understand. It's a guy thing."
"It's not just a guy thing."
Her own gas pain reared up more violently. She breathed in deeply, if not a little noisily. It was New Jersey, after all, the pollen capital of America. "Thanks, Ben, you don't need to punch out Zach. Just dealing with my father will be more than enough," she said. She slanted her head toward the closed door. "I'll take care of the business here, and then I'll go tell the guests."
She looked down. Her mother had reverted to a semi-conscious state and was drooling out the corner of her mouth.
Sarah reached in the hidden pocket of her wedding dress and pulled out a hand-embroidered handkerchief. It had been Grammy's as well. She handed it to Julie. "Here, you can use this on my mom. I know she has one of her own, but this might be a source of added comfort." Grammy had been a sensible woman. She would have understood.
Next, without missing a beat, Sarah clasped her left hand and began working off the engagement ring that Zach had picked out and she had always found too showy. She passed it to Julie while Katarina busily positioned the bouquet of ferns and lilies-of-the-valley under Penny's head to act as a cushion.
"Could you take this, too?" she asked. "I don't want it to get in the way."
"The way?" Julie asked.
"I intend to slap a certain someone silly, but I have no desire to break any skin."
"Sar-ah-h. Let me explain. Plea-ease." Zach's wailing voice penetrated through the door.
Sarah shook her head. "When I come back out, and after my mother has recovered-poor Mom-I'm not sure she'll ever recover. Earl was one thing, but this.... Anyhow, when all the drama's died down, do you think someone could scrounge me up some Tums?"
"Tums? I was thinking more along the lines of vodka," Katarina said.
Sarah laughed a sad laugh. "Actually, vodka sounds like a great idea, but under the circumstances, I'm afraid it's not such a good idea," she said in a low voice, not wanting to wake her mother. Penny's eyelashes fluttered peacefully.
Katrina raised her eyebrows. "And that's because..."
"You remember when I told you how my father blew a gasket when he found out I was living with Earl in New York City?"
Katarina and Julie nodded.
"Well, he's going to have an apoplectic fit when he learns that this time I'm pregnant."
(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2010)