“Borja,” my friend Katarina swore in Czech, grabbing the handbrake as we inched over the precipice.
We were driving up the mountain-like hills of Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Katarina commanded the stuttering, manual Volkswagen up the hill, while I gripped the handle above the car door and held my breath in the passenger’s seat. The road was steep enough to ski down. After a quick plateau, we reached another stop sign at a 17% incline. I gulped.
Luckily for me, Katarina had had a mimosa at lunch, which was now quelling her nerves and fueling her confidence. She flicked one of her gingery, brown braids over her shoulder. She released the handbrake. She thrust the car into first gear. The car sank backwards down the hillside about a meter, before the engine screeched and kicked us forwards. We practically flew over the crossover street, before we were flattened against another steep hillside. Stuck in the typical LA traffic, we were already twenty minutes late for the ceremony, and unfashionably so.
“Park here,” I said as we turned the corner along Searidge Road. We stumbled out of the car with a bottle of wine in a simple blue gift bag. It was a bottle of Katarina’s favorite vintage red from 1996, but apart from that, we were giftless, cardless and ribbonless. Our one shot at redemption as wedding guests was that I had decided to create an adult-themed “cootie-captor”. I had tried to fashion it out of a single piece of printer paper in the car, but the stop-start traffic jolted my hand and I had almost ruined it.
Just ahead of us, a man in a suit and a blonde woman in a long, floral skirt walked up the street. I sighed with relief. We were not the only ones arriving late to the wedding, and they happened to be my good friends, Ernesto and Melanie. We arrived at 306 Searidge Road and followed a small sign to the venue. We entered through a stone-floored conservatory, set with pottery and table clothes from Provence and serving trays for the food to be served later. On the deck, the ocean and the hills of Malibu stretched out before us. The sunlight glistened, the boats carried freights along the coast of California and the sand glowed mesmerizingly. The air pollution of the city clouded the vast, distant horizon in a blurred grey haze.
There were some twenty-odd people sitting out on the porch. White folding chairs were arranged in rows of three on each side, as if we were hopping aboard an outdoor, small, intergalactic plane that would transport us to the happy couple’s distant galaxy. Katarina sat behind me, and I collapsed into a chair next to Ernesto and Melanie near the front.
My throat tensed. I looked at the sweet-smiling officiant, whose simple black and white dress looked like it would be worn to a first dance in middle school. I later learned that the officiant was the best friend of the bride, Hannah. The bride, who I had never met, whose place I had imagined myself in on and off over the last few years. Today was the day of all days, as the sun beat down on the wedding guests.
It was more painful in person for me than I had expected. It was a dangerous situation to be in. I had arrived in Los Angeles only a week earlier, with plans of going to Burning Man and traversing through France with her husband-to-be. I had not had sex in months, since New Year’s Eve, and now it was early April. Crashing at Katarina’s house in Century City, our days and nights were jam-packed with girly adventures. I hadn’t had even five minutes of privacy. I was losing it before it had even begun. That same week, before I had known that he had proposed to Hannah, I had contemplated my need for physical touch. I had thought to myself, as I watched the metal slats slowly chug along the carousel at the airport, waiting for my bag to tumble down from the machine,
“If Kenan showed up, right here, right now, I’d have sex with him in the airport bathroom. No questions asked.”
That was his name, Kenan. A simple, strong name from Eastern Europe, strong like the point of his nose, strong like his dark, deep-set eyes, strong like the definition of his jaw. But not strong like his goofy character or the sweet, fun nights we had spent together getting Boba tea in Korea Town, or the fact that he always responded to my messages so quickly.
“You, me, Burning Man?” I had messaged him only a month earlier.
Thirty seconds later, he had messaged me back.
A couple years older than me, Kenan was a bearded man. I imagined him growing up in America, practicing Islam-lite, like the religious version of the watered-down Coors my American family drank at barbecues. He was a first generation American, born in Armenia and raised in Rhode Island. Our connection was instantaneous. His smile, with his slightly crooked front tooth, was infectious. It made me feel grounded. He had a warm soul, but a fierce heart. From the moment we had met, I felt like a part of me belonged to him. Whenever I caught the glint of the darkness in his grinning eyes, I knew he was still taking good care of it.
Kenan owned a car. A dark green Beetle that he named “Buggy”, and cared for like it was his child. He had driven Buggy from Providence to Los Angeles to start his new life. He had so many interests. He was so kind, so wide-eyed and curious about stem cells and fancy 3D printers that might have created Frankenstein, but instead he was designing to do something practical, in medicine, that would help people in their everyday lives.
The first few years I had known him, he had dated my assistant professor while I was in college. Her name was Hunter. I had observed their relationship as I got to know him. I was in awe of Hunter too. I understood what he saw in her: a woman with a point of view, a reliable perfectionist. Small, but not to be crossed, incredibly well organized, and able to command a classroom of more than 200 students at a time without a microphone. I was envious of her, obviously, but it also kind of made sense. I felt like one of those twelve year olds watching an adult couple falling in and out of love in front of me. I had been the pre-pubescent, undesirable person. They had long since broken up. Now, I was doing my best to be a woman. Now, I was observing Kenan once more. This time, at his wedding to Hannah. I sat on my hands in the audience as my palms began to sweat. I felt sick to my stomach.
Kenan emerged up the aisle. His hair was longer than I had seen it in ages, in a style I didn’t much like. But his beard was trimmed to perfection. He had that wicked, half-smile on his face. He was wearing a dark grey suit, the pants a little too long over his light brown shoes, and some kind of white flower as a pocket square. His tie was colorful, like the colors of the silks, I imagined, that his ancestors had bartered with and traded up the mountains in Afghanistan and had risked their lives to bring across boundaries and countries and cities and empires. A vibrant, memorizing orange, a deep rich purple, stenciled with blue satin flowers. His intricacies. His ability to love. His playful spirit. It captivated me. And yet, I reeled, still sitting on my hands in the audience. Was he really going to be happy with her? I couldn’t bear to think of it.
I didn’t turn around to look at his bride. I loved the sight of him. He seemed nervous. He didn’t look at me. I tried to not think why. I just smiled as music started. Ernesto and Melanie and the other guests turned around to watch her walking down the aisle. At the front of the audience, on her arm, Hannah steadied a balding, overweight man whose neck was already bright red above the collar of his blazer.
I saw her face for the first time. Hannah was cute looking. She had a button nose, and short, wavy brown hair. A wreath of flowers circled her head, like the halo of an earthly angel. Her dress had cropped shoulders. Its bodice was covered by a thin sheath of floral, beaded lace. This was his chosen one. She was his chosen one. Her. I felt like geology had sped up a million years, and two mountain peaks that had been touching were quickly and solemnly torn apart. The tectonics of the plates, of the world, had shifted in the other direction. Not towards each other, but far, far away. To this distant, other woman, with her small boobs and slightly rounded belly underneath the beaded sheath. Was she pregnant? She couldn’t be. Not with Kenan. Not now.
I pleaded with no one. I shut off my eyes, my ears. The sun beat down on us hard. The balding man sat down in front of me. I craned my neck to look at Kenan. I let the sun burn down on my legs. My pale skin hadn’t seen the sun in months since I’d been in Paris. The ceremony began. The officiant said some words. Said some vows. Forever and ever and ever. And ever.
“Look at each other’s hands,” the officiant said. Hannah and Kenan fumbled with small boxes. They slipped rings onto each other’s fingers.
I looked at Kenan’s hands, peaking out beneath the cuffs of his grey suit. His hands were a medium tan color, not as hairy as I had expected. I imagined his hands pulling the loose straps of my silk dress down over my shoulders, revealing the bare skin of my back. I imagined him kissing me, breathing me in, clutching me. I imagined us clutching each other. I imagined the sweet pull of his lips, the sharp brush of his mustache, grazing my cheek. Kissing, endlessly. Feeding off each other, endlessly. He wasn’t too tall, perhaps only just as tall as me, but he would take me up as his own anyway. I imagined me on top, crying into his neck, gripping his hair, wanting more of him still, our fingers interlocking. In the back of Buggy. Or in the back of Melanie’s giant Ford truck that we’d planned to camp in at Burning Man. I could see it all in his hands in front of me.
I looked up into Kenan’s face. There was a small dip in the middle of his upper lip. His eyes were still too clever to look at me. Sitting in the audience, I was just a few feet away from him. As his partner exchanged niceties and pleasantries. And yet still, I dreamt that we could be together. I dreamt of us falling in love. I dreamt of us doing it without a condom. I dreamt of us having a family. If he got me pregnant, then he would have to leave her, right? It would be a scandal. A child would steal my freedom. But then, maybe, we could be together. Maybe then I would be truly happy, in the permanent sense. Our kids would be fucking adorable too. They’d be Armenian-English-American. It was a sour secret. He was, perhaps, the only man in the world who I wanted to have children with. Could he not see? I was sitting right there.
Hannah’s grandfather played a piece on the piano, and I was transported again. The fantasies that would never be. Why had I even bothered to show up? Just to torture myself? I bit my lip. This was a sadistic kind of pleasure though. The kind of pleasure that breaks rules, breaks eternal vows, and it was up to me, behind my eyes, walls built of sweet secrecy in my mind. There were words spoken, music played, and then more words spoken by the bright-eyed officiant, welcoming Kenan to Hannah’s family. None of it compared to the idea I was living out in my mind. Of the stubble of his mustache scratching my most sensitive skin, below my belly button. His lips pulling, hungry like I was dripping in nectar. I would run my fingers through his straight brown hair. He would look up at me. His deep brown eyes overwhelmed, flickering in a kind of half-nourished fear, desiring more of me, his body shuddering. Still, not even a glimpse from him.
“I now pronounce you, husband and wife.”
Kenan reached for Hannah reluctantly. She flung her bouquet aside. His fingers smoothed along her cheek. I saw his tongue unleash as she giggled. He gripped her close to him. I watched them kiss with tongues. The sight of it melted me. I sat more firmly on my hands. Acid bubbled up in my throat.
They walked down the aisle. I stood up as soon as things has disbanded. I headed for the bar. A short of tequila or jungle-juice punch with too many alcohols it in to count. Anything.
Minutes later, as I gripped a bottle of mescal, I heard someone coming up behind me.
It was Kenan, smiling awkwardly.
“What a beautiful view!” I burst, “And a beautiful ceremony.”
I splashed a bit of the orange juice from the pitcher into my full cup.
“Oh yes, of course,” I found myself saying, “Such a lovely wreath of flowers she’s wearing. It’s almost like a crown.”
I scolded myself, unable to compliment her. We were here to celebrate the occasion only. Could he sense that I was swerving around her existence? Around the concept of them?
“The oranges are from her aunt’s garden—”
“How wonderful,” I said, knocking my drink back. It was potent and sweet. I sighed to myself. The sugars could hardly absorb even an ounce of my bitterness. Kenan was quickly greeted by another guest, someone apparently much more willing to congratulate him. I slipped out onto the porch, searching desperately for Katarina.
“Hey gurl,” I said, approaching her.
“Where’s the wine?” she asked, “Let’s give it to him, before it spoils in the sun.”
I headed back to where I had left the wine inside the conservatory. I still had to make the “cootie-captor”. Why had I roped myself into this, so unnecessarily, making a game for him and Hannah to enjoy on their wedding night, or their honeymoon? What the fuck had I been thinking?
“Wait, let me finish this,” I begged Katarina as I scribbled. She retrieved the bottle of wine. My mind was blank all of a sudden. I tried to steady the paper against the back of my phone, as I took the pen again in my hand. I colored in hearts. I scribbled. I refolded the paper.
“She comes first…now.”
“Cunnilingus in the car.”
“He decides what’s next.”
“Look into each other’s eyes for 3 minutes, no touching.”
“She decides what’s next.”
“Kissing on a moonlit walk.”
In a sense, I was writing my own death sentence. A happy sex life for them was a component of my own demise. No, this was a wicked treat from me. It was a power play. I was inviting myself into their bedroom. I had crossed a sacred line, and the mescal had helped to soften the blows of it all. I wondered what Hannah would think of it, if she would ever know or even realize. I wondered if Kenan would think of me while he fucked her. I was sharing him, in a way. Even if it was just a game.
Later in the afternoon, Kenan found me at the bar again.
“Here, these are you for,” I said, thrusting the bottle of wine and the “cootie-captor” into his hands.
“That’s so sweet of you,” Kenan said. He took the bottle of wine smoothly under his arm. “Is this…what I think it is? How did you make this? I haven’t seen one of these in years. Tash, this is a seriously awesome gift.”
“Anytime,” I said, trying to sound generous. Perhaps if I stood confidently, I thought to myself, Kenan wouldn’t realize I had put together their gift about an hour after his wedding had actually started. Luckily, Hannah was nowhere to be seen.
“So, Burning Man?” I asked him.
“Oh right,” he said, “About that. Hannah got a job as a pathologist in St. Louis, so we’re loading up Buggy and driving there in early August.”
“St. Louis, Missouri?” I said, gulping down my umpteenth cocktail. I almost choked on the fieriness of the mescal this time. If I knew anything about Kenan, he was sure to hate it in St. Louis. What about his LA dreams of making it big in consumer tech? Being with Hannah, he was clearly going backwards. Was I hopeful for a quick divorce, or sympathetically wanting him to be happy? I felt guilty because I didn’t know.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure I’ll be able to find a job. Hannah’s really doing amazing community work looking at homicides. She’ll be diagnosing in the hospital at UofM, so I’ll have my way in there somehow.”
“Right,” I said. Dealing with murder all day sounded interesting and dangerous, but also very depressing. “Well, I’ll be heading back to Paris to work on Le Journaux’s English Language paper again. You’re always welcome to come visit.”
“I’ve been dying to go to France, actually,” Kenan said, his eyes brimming with excitement.
“We’ve got some of the best cheese in the world, and salami too.”
“I don’t eat pork, but yeah, that would be awesome! I’ve always wanted to tour Europe with a local.”
“Sorry, of course,” I said, kicking myself, “The guest bed’s yours whenever you want to come stay.”
Kenan winked at me. I smiled, my heart filling with the vastness of future possibilities. I wondered when, if ever, I might see Kenan after the wedding. I wondered what state he would be in then, or what state his marriage to Hannah would be in. I wondered: would Kenan ever make love to me? If he ever came to Paris, we were bound to. For a brief moment, we both seemed to know what that would mean.
“There you are, K!” a soft voice grew louder over my shoulder.
“Hannah, my bumble bee,” Kenan said. He took both her hands and kissed her as if they were dancing along the moonlight proms together. Hannah was quick enough to grab the wreath of flowers as it almost fell off her head.
I drank the last drop of my cocktail, angling my clouded glass to obscure as much of their mess as I could.