Late spring in western Massachussets is about as good as you can get—it really looks like a Whitman poem mixed with just the right tinge of Robert Frost. I was driving out with Brianna in a Ford Escort that we had rented from a decidedly downmarket place in Allston—Robbie’s Rent a Roadster. The guy had made leering faces at us when we’d come in to pick it up; I thought his lips were going to fall off from all of the licking. Brianna had made her best lawyer face at him, to no effect.
We’d taken route 2 out of Boston, past the old battlefields at Lexington and Concord, headed northwest to where the road shrinks to a winding two-lane country thoroughfare, past nameless small towns with a longer history than all of the Western US. We crossed over the intersection with the Appalachian Trail and hung a right on the northbound interstate, cruising for a couple of miles miles before exiting on a small road, changing to a dirt road, and ending up at Mathilda’s B&B, a working farm nestled between two maple-covered hills. Adrian was sitting on the front porch, chewing on a brown strand of straw. He was wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, and a red work shirt.
“Guys!” he shouted. “Kickass!”
“Hey, Ade,” I said through the window, and hopped out of the car. He ran over to me and envelolped me in a bonecrusher of a bearhug. “Easy,” I said. Rather, I kind of choked it, as I was having trouble breathing.
“You guys are the first to make it,” he said. “I’ve been hanging out alone with Mathilda all day. She’s kind of a weird codger, but her heart’s in the right place.
“Where’s Steven?” asked Brianna.
Down the way a couple of miles, at another place,” said Adrian. “We aren’t supposed to see each other before tomorrow, remember?”
“You boys,” she said. “So traditional.”
“Someone’s gotta be,” said Adrian. “Who else is going to keep society from going completely to shit?”
Brianna’s cell phone rang with the tone of Bach’s Brandenburg No. 3. “Hang on,” she said. “I’m surprised this works up here.” She walked off toward a wood-enclosed corral, leaving Adrian and I to walk up the path to the front porch.
“You a happy guy?” I said.
He looked over at me, still chewing on the piece of hay, looking for all the world like the son of someone named Butch or Don.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I am.”
Adrian was lucky. He’d been accepted as a mathematics grad student at the University of Vermont; he’d put together his application over ten days, meeting the January 15 deadline with about ten minutes to spare, lining up references and writing sample papers every waking moment, with only a little bit of chemical help of the quasi-legal variety from Jason. Steven had applied for and received a research fellowship at the UVM hospital, and the two of them were set to move up to Burlington on the first of June, after a Vermont honeymoon. I had gone by Adrian’s place the day before; everything had been packed in boxes, except for the halogen reading lamp he was giving to me. The place was sterile, dead. It reminded me of a college dorm room in the summer; all of what made it interesting was gone.
“Good,” I said. “I’m glad.”
I wasn’t glad. With Adrian gone and the coffee shop history, most of my social life was out the window. It’s true that my nights were rarely something to write home about, but with Ade around at least things could get pretty fun. He met people, hung out with them, called up guys he’d met the night before to go out and rip things up; I’d spent weeks dithering before even picking up the phone. Why couldn’t the two of them have stuck around?
“Thanks,” said Adrian. “It’s time for me to get on with the next stage, anyway. Gotta get this degree before I can go back and be Mayor.” He punched me in the shoulder, a soft punch that was really more of a push.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Jason sends his condolences about missing this weekend. He had some sort of problem at home, and had to run back there yesterday.”
“It’s a good thing that he’s got an easy vacation plan,” said Adrian.
“Not really. He was bitching a bit about how Friday and Saturday were his best nights, and that his mom’s problems were costing him at least five hundred bucks.”
Adrian laughed. “Some things never change. He used to whine about working weekends for the same reasons.”
Brianna was walking towards us, looking like the lead character in one of those soft-focus movies gone halfway bad. She’d cut most of her hair off, spiking it up in a half-butch, half-punk style. I had tried to persuade her to bleach it out, but she wouldn’t, saying she wanted nothing to do with my straight-guy alternative rock fantasies. She looked good; great, even, and I had yet another passing thought about what a bummer it was that she wanted nothing to do with guys in the naked sense.
“Emily,” she said. “She’s not going to make it until later this evening. She says hi.”
Brianna, Emily and I were sharing the triple room at the B&B. I had long since come to terms with this—a lesbian, semi-bisexual girl and straight guy in a rural hotel doth a great pornographic movie make—and was very prepared for a night of sound, probably drunken, sleep in the room’s single bed. The two girls were sharing the queen.
“You psyched to get her into that big bed?” I said.
“Perv.” She punched me in the shoulder.
“A lot of that going around,” said Adrian. “You should wear padding. ”
He got up and started to head back into thebuilding.
“Wait, Adrian…” I said.
He turned around.
“Who did you invite to this, anyway?”
“Jenny’s not coming, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “I saw her a few weeks ago, and before I mentioned this she started talking about how her and Adam were moving in together on the first of June, and there was so much work to do. I didn’t want to have that guy here, so I didn’t bother.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? There’s no way I’m having the jerk who stole my best friend’s girl at my wedding. Perfection, remember? That’s what this is all about.”
The ceremony was supposed to take place at around sunset, which fell at half past seven, so I spent most of the afternoon reading on the porch, watching the three horses play with each other, and listening to the random farm-sounds of the chickens, sheep, and dairy cows. I hadn’t brought any books, having packed the night before in a spasm of clothes-throwing, but Mathilda kept a small library for her guests. I tried Pickwick Papers, thumbed through Love in the Ruins, and finally settled with delight on The Grey King and Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper. It was good on the porch, a warm and comfortable place to be absorbed in the tale of the Light’s final battle against the Dark.
I was still reading when Emily pulled up, driving a beat-up rust-colored Geo Metro. She got out and stretched, lifting her shirt up to reveal a small stretch of winter-pale belly. She looked over at me, smiled, and my heart beat a little bit faster. Why did it keep doing that?
“Hey, Pete,” she said.
“Emily,” I said, putting down my book, marking the place with the dust cover.
“How’ve you been?” She sat down on the wooden slats next to my chair.
“Decent,” I said. “I guess. It’s still kind of weird having my weekends completely off.”
She grinned. ‘You’ll get used to it. Brianna treating you okay?”
“Yeah. I guess anything’s better than having John around lusting after her all the time.”
Emily shook her head. “I’m almost glad he tried that; it finally gave her a good excuse to fire him. She’s too nice.”
“It worked out for me,” I said. “I mean, it’s not ideal, but…”
“But you can pay the rent while the construction is going on,” she said.
“How close are you?”
“Not too long,” I said. “The permit process was pretty brutal.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes. The wind picked up a touch, ruffling the tops of the trees, sending the smell of freshly opened buds our way.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m fine, I guess. Still doing the contracting thing, still managing this and that for the most useless company in the history of the world.”
“How’s Gerald working out?”
“Surprisingly well. He categorically refuses to stay later than five, though.”
“Is that bad?”
“I don’t know. I’m always gone by five past. He’s not used to working in any sort of creative agency, and I’m not used to not working for myself. We get along pretty well.”
We both laughed at that. Gerald had said pretty much the same thing to me on Thursday over beers at the Cellar. He hadn’t been invited to the wedding because Adrian had left for Vermont right as he was starting to enter my orbit. He was a good guy, eager to see the parts of the city that he had ignored in his investment banking days. He was a friend, and a big help with the financial part of my project.
“Half an hour ‘till the ceremony,” I said. “Guess we should get ready.”
I put on the suit and tie that I used to wear for job interviews when I was in college. It still fit, aside from being a tad tight in the shoulders. Emily, Brianna and I walked down together to the barn. I guess it wasn’t really used as a real barn (although I’ve never been sure what exactly barns are for; in most books they seem to be primarily there to expedite adolescent make-out sessions), and they’d turned it into…well, it had seats, at any rate. About twenty small metal chairs were set up, faciing a small arch woven with white balsa wood and festooned with budding flowers. Adrian was standing there, dressed in a sober black tuxedo with a regular silver tie. He was grinning, and gave us a wave as we walked in.
“Hey guys,” he said. “First to come is good luck, you know.”
“Perv,” said Brianna.
The other seats filled up quickly—Steven’s brother, Adrian’s cousin Sarah, a few of Ade’s friends who I didn’t know, and some of Steven’s doctor crew. Barry and Gina walked in together. They had spent the last week bed-and-breakfasting around New Hampshire and Vermont; they didn’t let go of each others’ hands after sitting down. Barry was wearing a very stylish suit, and I was struck by how well it hung on him He and Gina tended to take walks together; she would make him hoof it if they went out to dinner, which they did often, sometimes inviting me. The walking had been good for him; he’d lost some weight and his skin had lost some of its unhealthy-looking indoor-generated pallor. I waved, they both waved back, and I wondered how long it would be before I’d have to find a new roommate.
The remains of the sunlight were filtering through the window in the back of the barn, giving the arch a bit of a glow. Adrian’s smile stayed wide. A guy walked out from behind one of the haystacks. I recognized him as Adrian’s friend Marcus; he was wearing a long white Gandalf robe and had taken out his earring. He stood under the arch and cleared his throat.
“Greetings,” he said. “We’re here today to celebrate the everlasting union of Adrian and Steven. Some of you may be asking—who the hell is this guy, and why’s he wearing this robe? Well, my name is Marcus, and it’s really because of me that these two crazy kids know each other. And, I’m a fully ordained miinster of the Universal Life Church, so I get to perform the ceremony.”
He stopped talking, and some cello music started to waft in from the back of the barn. We all stood up, and I craned my neck around to see where the music was coming from. It was live—a medium-sized guy with crazy straight-up black hair had set up his oversized violin and was cranking out a piece I didn’t recognize. I don’t know classical, but it sounded really good.
Steven walked through the door, flanked by an older couple who looked like the kind of old person I’d like to become some day. They both had strong, wrinkled faces and walked upright, seemingly free from the physical ravages that gravity piles on over the years. I assumed they were Steven’s parents; he looked an awful lot like her, and was of a height with him. They walked slowly, each of them smiling as wide as they could. As they passed, I noticed a bright streak on Steven’s mother’s cheek; she was crying. When the group of three reached the front, the parents disengaged from Steven’s arms. Adrian shook one hand, and gave a hug and a kiss to Steven’s mom. The parents sat down.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” intoned Marcus, “we are gathered here today to celebrate the love and partnership of Adrian and Steven, two of the greatest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I’m going to skip the long-winded sermon about love and what this means; you probably already know. And if you don’t know, come hang out with either of these two when they’re forced to be apart from each other. You’ll know what love is, pretty quick. They claim to have their vows memorized, so go to it.”
Adrian spoke first: “I, Adrian Bellows, do solemnly swear to take you, Steven, as my husband and partner in life, through sickness and health, through good times and bad, as long as we both shall live.”
Steven responeded: “I, Steven Gearhart, do solemnly swear to take you, Adrian, as my husband and partner in life, through sickness and health, through good times and bad, as long as we both shall live.”
“Do you have the rings?” said Marcus. Steven and Adrian both nodded, reached into their pockets in sequence, and put rings on each others’ left hands.
“Looks good,” said Marcus. “By the power vested in my by the Universal Life Church in accordance with the laws of this state of Vermont, I pronounce you…married. Be good to each other and the people here; stick to that and you’ll be okay.”
Marcus gave a monster hug to both men, and then the cello starte up again and the couple walked back down the aisle, arm in arm. We all stood as they went. Brianna and Emily were closer to the aisle than I was, and I was able to see that they both had the wet cheeks that Mrs. Bellows had sported during the walk down the aisle. I was surprised, until I realized that my eyes were pretty wet, as well. I blinked like a maniac until the feeling went away. The two men disappeared into the dusk beyond the doors to the barn, and the rest of us filtered out, making the small talk that you make after a wedding. For once, I didn’t have to listen to female voices squealing about how gorgeous the gown was; I think Emily and Mrs. Gearhart were the only straight women around.
The photographer was Jean, a friend of Steven’s who ran a small gallery on Newbury Street; he was a picture of joy as he waited outside the barn. His bleached blonde har was slicked back with a brutal efficiency, and he babbled in a semi-European accent as he made everyone wait so he could get candids of all the guests as they left the site of the nuptuals:
“Oh yes, give me some more happiness….come on, use the smile to light up the night…work it for me, girl, work it…”
“Is he for real?” I whispered to Brianna.
“Yep,” she said. “He makes his living by taking portrait photographs of rich Back Bay women. They’re really not paying for the picture, but the patter; he makes everyone feel like Laeticia Casta.”
We paused at the door like everyone else, and I was pretty sure I blinked right as Jean clicked the shutter. I was going to ask him to re-shoot, but he made impatient gestures with his hands, and Brianna and I made our way over to the reception area. It was a pretty simple affair: a small counter and bar, covered by a pale cream awning. They hadn’t hired bartenders, and the food had all been put together by Mathilda, who had owned a flash-in-the-pan nouveau restaurant in New York before tiring of the mania of that scene and moving to Vermont. All of the appetizers were pretty good; I really liked whatever she’d done with the shrimp, tossing them with a spicy rub, serving them with the tiniest bit of cocktail sauce. They were cold and delicious.
We mingled, ate, talked. I mostly hung out with Brianna, who circulated like a pro, introducing herself to all of the guests, finding out what they were all about. I stayed to the side, sipping on a gin and tonic and enjoying the clean, cool night air. After a while, with Brianna deep in conversation about medical malpractice law with some of Steven’s friends, I wandered away to a chair near the bar, and had a seat by myself. My chair was under one of the speakers, which was piping out jazz—Giant Steps, by John Coltrane. The invitation had mentioned “dancing to follow after dinner,” and I was fervently hoping that everyone would get too drunk and forget that part. Not just because of the horrible taste in music of the average gay man (if they got started, Cher would show up multiple times, a scenario to quail the stoutest heart), but because I really didn’t have anyone to dance with. Guys, Brianna, and Emily, who I hadn’t seen since the coffee shop had closed down.
“Mind if I join you?”
It was Steven, of all people.
“Not at all,” I said.
He pulled up a chair and sat. He leaned forward in his chair, giving his feet enough leeway to lie flat on the ground. The music switched over to Birth of the Cool. I didn’t say anything, and Steven started to talk.
“I never thought I’d do this, you know.”
“No, get married in Massachusetts, Puritans and clam chowder and all. I was pretty sure I’d get married, somehow.”
“It was a cool wedding,” I said.
“It was bearable,” he said. “It’s just nice to do it somewhere where it actually means something, have a ceremony that isn’t completely ceremonial.”
“It’s great that your parents made it,” I said. “I like them.”
He grinned, shaking his head. “I know. They’re the best. It’s too bad Adrian’s folks wouldn’t come.” The grin faltered. “I’m glad we decided to have a small thing, though. I never really liked those big impersonal ceremonies where you never get to talk to anyone.”
“I’m just glad I got to come,” I said. “I mean that.”
“You doing ok?”
“Sure,” I said, surprised. “Why?”
He gestured at the group. Mathilda had set up about thirty of those bamboo torches that you can get at Pier One, and had lit them one by one as the dusk turned gray and then dark. The light from the torches made everyone cast odd, flickering shadows, but not in a horror-movie way.
“Well, you’re sitting here all by yourself,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you’re having a good time.”
“No, I’m all right,” I said. “I just don’t do so hot at weddings.”
“Then you should be fine,” he said. “This is actually a civil union, remember?”
Steven winked at me, got up, and walked over to the group.
He got me thinking—really, what was with me, anyway? Why wasn’t I able to just let go and have fun like all of the other people here? I stared down into my gin and tonic, planning to think about those two weighty questions, but really wondering why it was that bubbles form on the bottom of every carbonated drink. Where do the bubbles come from? I half-convinced myself that every carbonated beverage actually contained a small bubble factory, where miniature dwarves cranked little cranks that forced the bubbles into the liquid, and Emily sat down next to me.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
One of the guys in the crowd separated himself from the rest of the people and walked over to the stereo. He pulled a stage-style handheld microphone out from behind the table, clicked a button, and tapped the mike a few times. A scruffling noise came out of the speakers.
“Hi everyone,” he said. “I just wanted to let everyone know that we’re not going to really have a best man toast, because there wasn’t anyone who could rightly be considered a best man. What we would ilke, however, is that if you’ve got something to say, pick a time and come up and say it. Dinner’s in an hour, and before that happens, I’d like to invite Steven and Adrian to come out here and share their first dance as an official married couple!”
We all clapped.
“I wonder what their song is going to be,” whispered Emily, barely audible above the smattering of applause.
“Something by Erasure,” I said.
“Aren’t all of their songs fast?”
“”That probably won’t bother them.”
I was wrong. Adrian made his way to the front through a chorus of backslaps and met Steven in the center of the ragged ring of torchlight. The two men held hands, encircled each others’ waists, and started to move, slowly stepping back and forth, with no music actually playing. Adrian stared down at Steven, they both smiled, and Frank Sinatra kicked in, serenading us with “My Way.” The two men started swinging like madmen, practically throwing each other along the lengths of their arms in an obviously pre-choreographed routine that looked absolutely great. Adrian led, Steven followed, and Adrian even flipped the smaller man over his back, flapper-style. Someone started to clap to the rhythm, and we all joined in, watching the two men dance until little beads of sweat stood out on Adrian’s forehead. They were joined about halfway through the song by Steven’s parents, who danced with none of the manic energy of their son and son-in-law, sashaying around the lawn in a graceful two-step pattern.
“Okay, let’s have everyone join the happy couple. C’mon, don’t be shy!” The lawn filled with besuited men; Jean was dancing with the microphone guy, Brianna was being swung around by a guy who I recognized as one of the honchos of the neurology department at Mass General.
“I guess we’d better,” said Emily.
“Dance,” she said. “I don’t know how to swing, but we’re the only two people sitting.”
“I don’t know how, either,” I said. “I was kind of hoping to ride this one out.”
“Nope,” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me to my feet. “I’m going to dance with you until you get rid of this I’m-uncomfortable vibe you have around me.”
So we danced. Badly. Emily stepped on my feet with the back of her heeled shoes at least four times in the minute remaining in the song; after the last time she leaned over and chucked off her shoes, accidentally giving me a wonderful cleavage shot down the front of her dress. I looked away quickly, but she caught me.
“Like what you see?” she said, smirking.
I mumbled a yes, and then accidentally kneed her in the upper thigh. She crumpled to the ground, laughing like the Joker, and took me down a with well-aimed legsweep. I landed, hitting the side of my head on her hip bone, which hurt like hell. My eyes filled with tears, and I cracked up. The song ended, and we were still lying on the ground, laughing like banshees on Ecstacy, staring up at the endless field of stars overhead. The view was beautiful, until it was broken by a brown-headed face.
“Wow,” said Brianna. “You guys looked like wounded, hallucinating bears. Who taught you to dance?”
“American Bandstand,” I said. “Have you seen Can’t Buy Me Love, where the guy tries to learn from Bandstand, but his little brother leaves it on the Discovery Channel’s bit on African dance instead? That’s kind of how I learned.”
Brianna shook her head. “Haven’t seen the movie, but I’ll bite,” she said. “Drinks?” She held out a hand to each of us, and we climbed her arms to a standing position.
“Yes,” said Emily and I, in unison. She looked at me, and said “Jinx one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten…you owe me a Coke.”
“Haven’t heard that in a whle,” I said. “How can I? Drinks are free here?”
“Then you have to get the drinks,” she said. “Rum and Coke, please.”
“The same,” said Brianna.
I walked over to the bar and mixed up the rum and Cokes. I felt as if the one and a half minutes of dancing with Emily had been the Boston Marathon, followed by a really tough closing shift. Except that I don’t run, and there weren’t any closing shifts for me anymore. Over in the corner, I caught a glimpse of Barry and Gina, sipping out of each others’ glasses. I finished mixing and took the drinks back to the two girls.
“Bottoms up,” said Brianna, and raised her cup for a toast. We clacked our plastic glasses together, and drank. “Hey, I gotta run to the bathroom. Guard my glass against these raving alcoholics, ok?” She walked off, leaving Emily and I alone on the far side of the dance floor. The music had, predictably, switched over to “Larger than Life,” by the Backstreet Boys, and the crowd once again started to get down. I watched as Gina led Barry out on the dance floor and led him in something like a shuffling two-step. I wonder about that; is there something in us average guys that just makes it hard for us to dance, something like a natural hip pointer or genetic heel spur? It’s always disconcerting to see stereotypes become reality, but out there on the lawn, the girls could dance, the gay guys could dance, and the straight men were flailing around like rabid monkeys on mescaline.
“I think I’ll sit this one out,” I said. “There are some things I just won’t do.”
“Like?” said Emily, arching a brow.
“Dance to this,’” I said. “Buy an album by a group made up of a bunch of boy-looking men. Ever find a job that I actually like.”
“That’s it?” she said. She took a big swallow of her rum and Coke. “Good. There’s hope for tonight, then. Can you fill me back up?”
Over to the bar, mix another drink, back to Emily. She was playing with the ends of her hair, sitting on one of the disposable chairs with her legs crossed, barefoot.
“So what do you think of this whole thing?” she asked. “This wedding.”
“It’s as good as most of the weddings I’ve been to,” I said. “Percentage-wise, I guess I know more people here than I usually would.”
“Ah,” she said. She put down a good half of her drink with one swallow. The song changed over to “Faith,” by George Michael, and the dance lawn started to go a little crazy. At least three of the guys out there had gotten rid of their shoes, and I had to dodge a tie that came whirling out of the melee.
“Wow,” I said. “And we haven’t even had dinner yet.”
“Oh,” she said. “I thought someone told you; Adrian told us while you were getting drinks that food was catch-as catch can. When they bring it out, eat it. We’re not bothering with a sit-down, ‘cause when this crowd gets to dancing, it’s tough to stop ‘em.” She finished off her glass. “Another?”
“Sure,” I said.
To the bar, mix drink, refresh mine. I walked by the food table on the way back,and picked up a plateful of satay chicken skewers, sushi, and bruschetta. The chicken skewers were peanutty with a hint of spice; I finished one at the table before filling the rest of the plate, and had to go back to the serving platter to replace it.
“A start on dinner?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “You bring me this, what’s for dessert?”
“Wedding cake, I’d guess,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “I was hoping for something more substantial.”
“Want more food?” I said. I’m going to go over there.”
I walked back to the buffet table, where Mathilda had laid out a bunch of new dishes. Some sort of taco-ish salad with avocadoes, a bowl of clam chowder with little serving cups, roasted turkey and a side colander of gravy, and what looked like Jell-O. I filled two plates and brought them back to Emily, who had somehow managed to grab another drink while I was gone.
“Where’d that come from?” I asked.
“Two of the boys wanted to go make out in the bushes, so I offered to drink their booze for them while they got it on.”
“Don’t you think that’s kind of hot?”
“Making out in the bushes?”
Emily leaned forward when she said this. She rested her chin on one hand, and dangled the other off of her knee, letting it swing back and forth and brush against my pants leg. I took another long drink, rattling the ice cubes against each other. The plastic cup made the noise distinctively un-rattle-ish.
“Two guys? No,” I said. “I don’t have anything against it, but it really doesn’t do it for me.”
“No, silly,” she said. “The whole idea of making out in the bushes.”
“Let me think about it while I get a drink,” I said.
My head was spinning because I’m not used to drinking bourbon, and probably because even I wasn’t so dense as to not see the open invitation right there. I could get some. Right here, right now. A hot, sweaty, romance-novel/porno movie experience right in the grass, or on the soft queen-sized bed in the room the three of us were sharing, or, if we had the courage, right in the living room, able to see the lights from outside, trying to get it over fast so that nobody would come in and catch us, sweating through our nice clothes, and shivering at the touch of the cool night air when we were done. It could happen, to me, tonight, at a wedding. Emily wasn’t Andie McDowell, and she was a bit taller than me, but she was real, there, drunk, and willing. I looked over at her from the bar table. She was twirling her hair around one finger, legs crossed, looking off at something or other.
I looked over at everyone else. Steven and Adrian were sitting over in a corner, feeding each other tiny stuffed peppers and drinking red wine Blues-Brothers-style. Adrian beckoned, and I walked on over.
“What’s going on there?” said Adrian. “Are you guys going to fulfill every married couple’s dream?”
“Not being the only people at the wedding to get it on on the big night.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I doubt it.”
“Why?” Adrian stopped playing with Steven’s ear and looked at me, his face suddenly
dead serious. “Come on, let’s take a walk.”
“You going to jump me?” I said, grinning an enormous, fake grin.
“Not on this night,” he said. “I’m done. Come on.”
We walked out beyond the circle of light, through a glade of trees and into some long grass. I leaned against an evergreen tree; Adrian stood with one hand in his pocket and the other with his glass of merlot.
“So?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Stop it,” he said. “You’ve spent the last six months in a funk, working at Brianna’s office, following a normal schedule like a normal person, watching your friends do what they do. I average three calls to get you to come out and have a drink or two. I can’t even remember the last time you called me to try to see a show at the Middle East. What’s wrong?”
“I dunno,” I said. “I just don’t care, I guess.”
“No, that’s not it,” he said. “I think you care too much.”
“I know you,” he said. He started pacing back and forth, the shadows on his face leaping and swirling around as the branches overhead moved and diffracted the light from all of those stars above. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘Geez, I could do something with Emily, and we would have a good night. But then she’d probably just make it one night, like the last time, and I’d never see her again after spending a few weeks getting up the guts to call and leave an incoherent message asking her if she wanted to go do something, see a band, have dinner, have a drink, all the way down to have coffee, with no response. And then you’ll go off and buy a few records, go into work, not talk to Brianna until she thinks you’re mad at her, because you don’t have anyone else to bounce off of. And at night you’ll go home and see Barry and Gina watching a movie or network gaming or whatever the hell else they do, and you’ll get irritated with yourself and go into your room, throw on some old Johnny Cash, stare at the ceiling, and think about how great it would be if you could find someone who would just understand. Jesus, sometimes I think you should go goth; everyone in that scene tries to act like they beat themselves up like you do.”
He finished up about five inches from my face, his eyes manic, his cheeks red, not quite shouting, but on the agitated side of normal. When he stopped talking, he jerked his head back a little bit, grinned that Christopher Reeve smile, and kissed me on the cheek.
“Cheer up, tiger,” he said. “Whatever you do, it’s not the end of the world.”
He walked off, leaving me to lean backwards against the pine tree, staring up at the stars. I wish I could say that a bright green shooting star flew overhead, its tail shooting off sparks as it whizzed through the night, but I can’t. Nothing happened. The stars sat there, light flicking a bit. I saw something that might have been a satellite, but was likely just wishful thinking. I sighed, picked up a pinecone from the ground, flipped it off into the murk, and wandered back to the wedding.
I cringed. Cher was playing. I suppose it’s an interesting experience to walk into a crowd of overly pumped-up well-dressed guys bellowing along to “Song for the Lonely,” but I thought it was kind of frightening, so I skirted around the edge of the dance floor, refilled my drink (wand sat next to Brianna.
“Emily really wants you, you know,” she said.
“Great,” I said. “Why didn’t she keep wanting to do that six months ago?”
“Who cares?” she said. “I don’t get you. You’re a guy, you’re single, you have a drunk girl who wants to jump your bones, and you’re sitting here talking to your lesbian friend who happens to be your boss. Has anyone told you that your priorities are all screwed up?”
“Maybe not,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“If Emily and I do anything tonight, it’ll probably just be for tonight, and that’ll be that, and that’s not what I really want.”
“What, you want something long-term with her?”
“Then what do you want? You have to figure that out, Pete. Either have fun with everyone, have fun with her, or sit around and mope like you’ve been doing for half a year.” She got up and joined the crowd, which was now arm-in-arm, like a football huddle, jumping up and down in unison.
I know what I wanted. I wanted everything. I wanted someone who was going to be around in the evenings and would slip away at night so I wouldn’t have to deal with morning hair and the alarm clock going off on someone else’s schedule. I wanted to go back to Jon’s place, make myself a strong drink and mouth off to my regular customers. It would be kind of nice if whoever it was who had left my bed in the middle of the night would come in in the mid-morning (after showering and changing, of course) and order something with caffeine, whole milk and no flavor shots, and sit down and read a long novel while shooting admiring glances my way. Instead, all I had was the possibility of a night of fun, six months after the first kiss, which would lead to at least six weeks of should-I-call agony.
I walked over to Emily, who was still sitting in the chair where I’d left her. She was sipping on boubon-colored ice, and she smiled at me, put her hand on my side.
“What’s up?” she said.
“C’mon,” I said. “Let’s go dance.”
“I thought you hated this song,” she said. The music had switched over to “In the Navy,” by the Village People.
“I do,” I said. “And I’m a terrible dancer, but almost everyone is here and it’s kind of lame to be just hanging out here in the corner. This is a big day for these two; it’d be a shame to miss it because I’m a curmudgeon.”
Her face fell a little bit, then brightened. I was pretty proud of that little speech, and I hadn’t even rehearsed it in my brain.
“Okay” she said.
So we danced. I danced with Emily and Brianna and Steven and Adrian and Jean and Steven’s mom and was the second person in line when the conga line started up to “Rock Lobster.” We danced and drank and laughed until my suit was soaked through with sweat and spilled booze, my tie had ended up around the bare chest of Steven’s fitness trainer, and somehow I ended up with a condom on one finger and a sock on my other hand, and I didn’t care. I slow-danced with Gina while Barry was in the bathroom, and she thanked me for helping her meet the greatest guy in the world.
“Which world?” I said.
“Both,” she said. “He’s the Overlord of Thessalia and the monarch of my heart.”
“Ugh,” I said, making puking gestures.
After midnight, Adrian came over to me, sipping out of a bottle of water. He was alive, glowing, looking more like Superman than I’d ever seen him look.
“I’m gonna do it,” he said.
“Carry Steven over the threshold,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed about doing that. I’ve been doing push-ups every night for three months to prepare for this. Watch.”
He struck a soft-drink commercial pose and slammed down the rest of the bottle of water. Steven was standing by the remains of the buffet table with his arms around his parents, grinnning. The grin changed to a look of shock as Adrian sprinted over and scooped him up in his arms.
“Sorry,” said Adrian. “It’s time for us to retire for the night.” He wrapped Steven’s arm around his shoulders and marched over to the front door, stopping for a second to adjust before kicking the (already open) door open. Steven was a little bit too long to fit through, so Adrian walked over the balustrade sideways. I joined in the applause.
“Wow,” said Jason from next to me. “I’m glad I got here in time for that.”
“Where did you come from?” I said.
He shrugged. His hair, normally spiked in seven different directions, was plastered flat on his head, the incredible amounts of gel reflected the torchlight.
“I decided I couldn’t miss it,” he said. “It’s like the last reunion of the Three Musketeers, y’know? I don’t think we’ll be like Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee and keep getting back together. My problem at home can wait.”
“What’s the problem?”
He shrugged. “Just a problem.”
“Hm.” I said.
I stayed up half the night with Brianna and Jean and Jason, who had finally showed up at around midnight, talking about the sexual politics of hair and laughing at Emily, who had fallen asleep next to the bar table, curled up under a blanket I had taken from the living room of the B&B. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the conversation, though. The first glimmerings of an idea were forming in my head.
I woke up the next morning at seven-thirty. It wasn’t my fault; five months of working for Brianna had forced me into a normal schedule, and my body was still having a hard time differentiating between the weekend and the other days. I got out of my twin bed to the noise of Brianna and Emily, who were breathing in unison. They had both slept fully clothed; Brianna slept on her stomach, and her arm was resting on the back of Emily’s head. I had a vague memory of Emily waking up in the middle of the night for an emergency expurgatory trip to the bathroom, but I wouldn’t have bet money on the veracity of the memory.
It was quiet downstairs. I walked past the doorway to the master bedroom, where we had dropped Ade and Steven last night, wedged a chair under the door handle. Someone had taken the chair away, and the door was just ajar.
“Come into the kitchen,” said Mathilda’s voice. “I’ve started breakfast.”
The kitchen was, of course, cozy without being tight, homey without being kitschy. I sat at the smaller of the two tables, which had both already been set. Mathilda was hovering over the stove island, simmering bacon, stirring what looked like pancake batter, and tending to a baking coffee cake.
“Nothing’s quite ready yet,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting any of you to be up so early this morning.”
“Did you have trouble sleeping?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she said. “I lived in New York once; after that, sleeping anywhere is easy. Although that boy with the blonde hair…he was still awake at five-thirty in the morning when I got up, and he talked my ear off for an hour before falling asleep on the couch the other side of the kitchen.”
I laughed. It came out a croak. Jason had probably sampled some of his goods before driving up to Vermont.
“You’re dehydrated,” she said. “Orange juice?” I nodded. “Coffee?” I nodded a bit harder, then regretted my decision. You never know what you’re going to get with home-brewed coffee; Mathilda seemed okay, but what if she liked instant?
She didn’t. Her orange juice was fresh-squeezed, and she ground coffee beans right there and set a pot to going. The machine was a model I hadn’t seen before, but it made great coffee—rich and hot with just a touch of good bitter flavor.
“Did you have a good time last night?” she said.
I paused before I answered, alternating sips between OJ and coffee. Had I had a good time? By all rights, I shouldn’t have. I don’t like to dance, I didn’t like any of the music they’d played, and I didn’t jump on Emily, who was both available and attractive It should have been a crappy night.
“Yeah,” I said. “I did.”
“Good,” she said. “I think it’s so great when you get a bunch of happy people together. By the way, I never caught your name.”
“Pete,” I said. “Pete Ainslie.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “What do you do?”
“Right now, I’m biding my time working for Brianna, the girl I came in with. She’s a social-justice lawyer. I help her out.”
“Do you like it?”
“What do you like?”
“I used to work in a coffee shop,” I said. “I liked that.”
“How do you like eggs?”
She fumbled around in the drawers and the refrigerator, whipping up my breakfast, humming the whole time.
“Why don’t you just do what you like?” she said. “Because I can’t have what I had before—my friends who worked there are back in school or dealing full-time or moving to Burlington. My old boss has retired. I just don’t know where to go.”
“Well,” she said. “I don’t understand why you don’t just work for yourself. I did, and I had no idea what I was doing. Just get a bank loan and go.”
I grinned at her. “That’s not a bad idea at all. I have some friends who know about that sort of thing.”
“Good boy,” she said. “Another waffle?”
The humidity had finally left, and I couldn’t have been happier for it. The summer of 2002 had been an extraordinarily hot one, with the standard admonitions in the Globe to watch after your elderly neighbors, stay inside during the day, stay out of the sun, and not set things on fire. I had spent most of the time shuttling back and forth between Brianna’s office, the bank, and the offices of the Cambridge City Planner.
I stood on the sidewalk on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, with the sun warming the back of my neck, watching Barry and Adrian climb up two ladders on the side of a green awning. My two friends tore off the white cover and let it fall to the ground.
“Looks good,” said Gerald.
“Thanks,” I said. “For all the help, I mean.”
“Convincing bankers is what I do,” he said. “You had the down payment, I had the moxie. It was no trouble at all.”
“Well, thanks to everyone,” I said. It was neat; everyone was there. Barry had finagled a couple of computers for a wireless Internet corner and jukebox, and had wired the stereo. Brianna had done the law work, Adrian had come down nearly every weekend from Burlington and helped me clean up the little storefront off of Massachusetts Avenue, down on the other side of Central Square, Gerald had dealt with the banks, Jason had helped with the cleaning, and Emily, of all people, had found a used pool table through a liquidator she knew. It was a beautiful thing, with old engraved cues, leather ball pockets, and red felt. As we were putting it together, I had fallen on top of her and landed with my lips a few inches from hers. Nothing happened, and I didn’t even think about it much.
I liked the way the awning looked. White letters on a dark green background, in a font that looked to me like it was gothic but had actually been invented by a Swedish guy in 1882.
“Well, are we going in?” asked Adrian. “You’re open, right?”
“Friday nights are always big,” I said.
Pete’s Place—coffee and conversation. That’s what it said on the awning. I had a bank line of credit to pay off, no customers yet, and a long winter ahead. I’d never get vacation, and I was in a neighborhood with two Starbucks within three blocks, and one more in the former Jon’s Place ready to ramp up in a couple of months. Boston’s economy was still in the dumper with no real prospects of getting out; I’d had about sixty people come by to find out about working, and I only had space for three or four once I’d scheduled Jason’s time. I walked on in, past the chairs I’d bought from a company liquidator in Charlestown, under the funky half-propeller fans that a local artist Adrian knew had donated, and fired up the espresso and coffee machines, which I had picked up from a consignment house for free; they had been Jon’s, and he had told the house to give them to me if I needed them. I ground some espresso and took a metal jug out of the refrigerator.
“Okay,” I said. “Who wants a drink?”