Everybody always says that I left Meagan at the altar, but that’s simply not true. I left her on the living room couch.
She was staying at her mother’s house that weekend – she thought it would make the wedding night more special – but she was, incredibly enough, the only one home when I went by the morning after the rehearsal dinner. I wasn’t prepared for how blonde she would look when she opened the door.
“I know it’s weird,” she said, pulling me inside and guiding me over to the sofa. “I don’t really look like myself, do I?” She turned her head this way and that in the mirror that hung over the liquor cabinet. She cocked her head at me. “You don’t mind, do you? My mother really wanted me to highlight it.”
I slumped into the cushions, rubbed my palms on my jeans, trying to figure out how to move from her question to the speech I’d rehearsed in the car. “It looks good,” I said finally.
She straddled my lap, kissed me, then buried her nose in my neck. “You’re a rotten liar,” she whispered, giving my earlobe a little lick. “I always wanted to marry a rotten liar.”
She lay down, started to pull me on top of her, but I resisted. “Come on,” she coaxed, pulling at the front of my t-shirt. “No one’ll be back for a couple of hours.”
That’s when I stood up, started pacing around.
“Hey,” she said. “What’s wrong, Mr. Wrong?”
I winced at the old nickname. Mr. Wrong was what a few of the other teachers at school called me behind my back – a few of the female teachers I used to date. It was a name meant to warn Meagan away when she started teaching English there a few years back, and in the beginning, it had made her wary. But over time, as we outlasted everybody’s predictions, it had just become a big joke between us.
I kept pacing. The movement was helping. Like getting myself moving would get the words moving too. I knew what I had to say was best said as quickly as possible, but I still stalled a couple of times. “Look there’s something …” I started. “I’m having …” I took a breath and began again. “I can’t go through with this,” I blurted out finally. I stared at my hands which were gesturing wildly. “I can’t marry you. I’m sorry. You’re great and I love you and everything, but … I just can’t do it. I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
When I finally looked over at her, she was staring at me blankly, like I was speaking some sort of foreign language. Then she sat up, crossed her arms, put her fingers to her lips, nodded.
The silence between us pricked at me, like a cactus in the pit of my stomach, so at first I started to fill it up. “I tried,” I said. “I really wanted to be able to do it, but … you know. Shit.” I sat down in the armchair across from her, watching her, waiting.
She didn’t say anything for the longest time. Just sat there nodding. Then after a while, she spread her fingers out on her knees. Then she didn’t say anything for a long time again and then she touched her head. “Fuck. I wish I’d known before I let them do this to my hair.”
And that was really it. After a while, I got up and she walked me back to the door and we both mumbled something about how we would tell our parents, figure out how to get the word out to people. We were really practical, really calm. It was nothing like you’d think it would be.
Later that day, she called and told me since it was too late to cancel the band and the food and everything, we should just have a big goddamned party out at the old seaside mansion we’d rented for the reception. “So we won’t have a wedding,” she announced. “We’ll have an unwedding.”
And that’s what we did.
Some of the people really seemed to have a good time. I mean, some of the aunts and uncles and other not-so-close relatives. After all, what the hell did they care if we married or not as long as there was free booze and a good band? Even Meagan seemed to be having a good time in the beginning, wearing that orange mini-skirt of hers, dancing with practically everyone, even the flower girl who did her little walk strewing rose petals up on the bandstand since she hadn’t gotten to do it at the church.
I had a horrible time, of course. I’m not sure what was the worst part about it. Maybe it was how my mother and sister didn’t speak to me the whole night but kept a running conversation going with the neighboring table about ovarian cancer. Or maybe it was the way my father, who’d given up cigarettes seventeen years before, spent the whole night staring at the cleavage of the band’s lead singer and chain-smoking his way through a pack of Virginia Slims somebody had dropped on the floor. Or maybe – probably – it was the fact that Meagan’s mother was seated beside me and being so nice. My friend Pete, who would have been best man and was sitting right there at the head table with all of us, had joked that I was lucky Meagan’s dad had gone AWOL twenty years before because otherwise, I probably would have gotten some kind of beating. But I think I would have preferred a good punch in the face to Meagan’s mother sitting beside me, politely inquiring about the river clean-up project my students had done and the health of my grandmother who’d recently suffered a stroke.
I choked down the dinner okay – the vegetarian lasagna was as good as I remembered from the samples the caterers gave Meagan and me back in May. But I lost my appetite for the cake as soon as they wheeled it out. Somebody – probably Meagan, come to think of it – had turned the bodies of the plastic bride and groom at the top, so it looked like they were running in opposite directions.
Most of the older people went home around 10 or 11. I was planning on slipping out around then, too. But a couple of my buddies and their girlfriends sat down with Pete and me, so I decided to stick it out a while longer. Everybody was trying to keep things light, but neither of the girlfriends would look me in the eye.
Out on the dance floor, Meagan and her friends started a conga line that wandered all the way down to the beach and back. Then two of the women grabbed one of the microphone stands off the bandstand, and, each holding an end, got everybody doing the limbo. After that – it must have been about 12:30 – almost everyone collapsed at a table or out on the lawn, but Meagan kept going, pulling a few of the waitresses onto the floor and starting the Macarena. Then the band’s sound guy, an emaciated Keith Richards look-alike wearing a “Just Say No To Drugs” T-shirt, got into the act. As the band started playing “Living in the USA,” he and Meagan did the Bump and when they got tired of that, they did the Swim. It was around then that the football coach from school pulled up a chair beside me to talk about my fear of intimacy and give me a card with his therapist’s number on it.
By the time I looked back at the dance floor, the musicians were packing up and Meagan was gone. Pete and I decided to go down to the boathouse at the edge of the property then. We had a good buzz on and were hoping we’d find a canoe we could take out on the water. Weaving our way through the tables, I noticed Jeremy, the financial manager Meagan had dated before me, sitting alone, hunched over a drink. Meagan had said he was kind of boring and a little too clingy, but they’d stayed friends over the years, played racquetball once in a while. As I passed him, he gave me kind of a strange look. Kind of a homicidal look.
When Pete and I got the door to the boathouse open, there was Meagan perched on a pile of life preservers sharing a joint with her two teenaged cousins.
“Well, come on in,” she said, her voice tight as she held the inhale. “The more the merrier.”
Pete and I took a couple tokes each, just to be sociable.
Then Meagan sort of wandered outside, and I did too, and none of the rest of them followed us. There was this big old tree just behind the boathouse and Meagan sat down underneath it, looking out at the ocean. I stood a few feet away, but I knew she knew I was there.
“How’re you doing?” I asked, digging my hands into my pockets.
She sighed. “You know what, Ben? I’m getting really sick of people asking me that. You think you could come up with something more original?”
But I couldn’t think of anything, so I just kept quiet for a while. The waves were crashing down below, and you could even hear some seagulls. The wind was cold. I’d made a promise to myself I wasn’t going to apologize anymore, but I hadn’t got the tendency under control yet. It just flew out: “Meagan, I am so so sorry.”
She shrugged, brushed away some hair that had blown into her mouth. “It was a relief actually, you know?” She was slurring her words, but at the same time, it seemed like she was really clear. “Deep down, I always knew you were gonna bail. Even if you’d gone through with the …” – she threw a hand up in the direction of the reception – “… thing … the wedding thing … even then I’d still have been waiting, wondering when it was going to happen, when you were gonna ditch, and just how bad it was going to be.” She pushed herself up. “I don’t even know why I’m still here. I should have left hours ago.”
When she started to walk past me, I stepped in front of her and she stopped. Then I tugged at one of her sleeves, pulled her towards me, and she looked away, like she was pretending not to notice. When I brought my face down to hers, I could smell that smell she had, that sort of vanilla smell, and I could feel her breath on my shoulder.
But then she pushed me away. “Shit,” she whispered, stepping back.
“I could give you a ride home,” I said.
“No, that’s okay.” She cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders like that would sober her up.
“No, really,” I said, reaching out, touching the hem of her blouse. “You shouldn’t- ”
“Look. Just get the hell away from me okay?” She brushed my hand away, started to walk off, then turned around. “I don’t need your help, Ben,” she muttered, her voice breaking. Tears started coming down her face, but she acted like they weren’t there.
And then she walked back to the unwedding.
The next thing I heard she’d gotten a personal leave from the school district and had gone off to Mexico to teach English for a year. I remembered she had a friend in Guadalajara.
I keep thinking about that time we went to the amusement park for her birthday. I told Meagan beforehand I wasn’t much of a daredevil, so in the beginning, we just went on all the easy rides: the one where you sit in a little teacup that twirls around, and the one where you’re attached to the side of a wheel that spins, and then the water ride where at the end you take a steep dip and get wet.
But when we were sitting on some stools at a hot dog stand having lunch, Meagan started in on me about going on the rollercoaster even though she’d promised not to. I told her there was no way.
“What are you scared of? It’s completely safe.”
“I’m not scared. I just don’t find that kind of thing fun.”
“You’re so full of it,” she said, wiping mustard off my chin with her napkin. “You’re totally chicken.”
It went on like that for quite a while – her telling me how I had to face my fears, me telling her an amusement park was for amusement, not for personal growth. We argued all the way through lunch and even as we were walking around afterwards.
“Meagan, there are accidents. People do die on those things sometimes. You hear about it every summer.”
“Okay, okay,” she said. “One time out of about every fifty million times somebody dies. Your chances of dying of cancer are higher.”
“Yeah, well I’d rather die of cancer,” I said. “At least then you have morphine.”
But then she stopped, put her arms around my neck and did her little girl thing. “It’s no fun going alone,” she whined, pressing her pelvis into mine and running her hands up and down my chest. “It’ll only be fun if you’re with me. Come on, please? It’s my birthday.” And I could see she wasn’t going to give up.
So I went.
When it started, it started really slowly. All I could hear was the clickety-clack of the wheels as we went up that first incline, and all I could think about was how there was no getting out at that point. Then, after we lingered there at the top of the incline, just long enough to get a good view of where we were going, a good sense of just how screwed we all were, there was the descent, and all I could do was close my eyes and hang on and let it bang me around however it was supposed to. And the whole time Meagan was laughing and hollering, and I could tell by the way my shoulder kept bumping into her armpit that she’d thrown her hands up in the air like she was on top of a bucking bronco or something. And then the next thing we knew we were coasting into the place where they let you off and when I climbed out, my legs were all rubbery but I really felt like I survived something – like I really accomplished something just by hanging on through all those twists and turns, which is why when Meagan wanted to go again, I said yes. Hell, I said yes to going again three more times, and by the third time, I was whooping and hollering with my hands up in the air just like she was.
I guess that’s what Meagan got from riding on the rollercoaster too – a sense of being able to do anything. Because, later that afternoon, when we were finally on our way out, she slowed down over by the bungee jumping, climbed up on a railing right next to a “Please Don’t Sit on the Railing” sign, took my face in her hands and asked me to marry her.
“W-what?” Was all I could manage back.
“Come on, you Chickenshit,” she whispered, hooking her legs around my waist to pull me closer. “You heard me.”
“Where’d that come from?” I stuttered into her breasts.
“Oh, get off it. I’ve never hid it from you, what I wanted. Ever since we met, I’ve been reading books on how to have a liberated marriage and talking about how I wasn’t going to hyphenate my kids’ names.”
It was true. She had. And every time I saw one of those books on her bedside table, it was like being out on a park on a sunny day, playing catch or Frisbee or tennis, and hearing thunder off in the distance. Because I liked things just the way they were between us: the way she left clothes and a toothbrush at my house and I did the same at hers, and we never seemed to get in each other’s way. How we could see each other two or three times a week and then not even talk for a few days if we didn’t feel like it. I didn’t see any reason to mess with any of that. I thought things were perfect just the way they were. How many people do you know who can say that about their lives?
And sometimes I even tried to give her a heads up about where I was coming from. Just to kind of broaden the discussion. Like I’d mention how I’d read that Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz lived next door to each other when they moved out west, instead of together. Or I might let out a whistle of amazement and read to her the latest divorce statistics I’d found on the Net (50% of all marriages). Or I’d give her the blow-by-blow of the fight my parents were having over last Thanksgiving dinner, the one that ended with my mother upending a bowl of cranberry sauce on my father’s head. It hadn’t seemed to deter her though.
“Well I’m going to need some time to think about this,” I said finally.
“Think about it!” she exclaimed, as if I’d suggested getting a dental check-up first.
“Meagan, marriage is a serious step and -”
She put her hand under my chin and lifted my face to hers. “You’re not going to use that old line on me, are you? Aren’t we good together? Don’t we have a blast?”
I’m not sure I can explain why exactly I said yes to Meagan that day. I guess I just thought of the two of us on the rollercoaster. How we’d hung on and conquered it. How I’d come through for her just like she’d asked me to. And I thought of all the other women I’d disappointed. Like Susan Menendez, the math teacher, who told me how much she valued honesty, then took all the air out of my tires one night after I told her I just wasn’t that attracted to her. Or Carol Putowski who teaches history and brought me to her family reunion where I’d made some asinine snide comment about the polka contest, forgetting that she’d organized it. Or Heather Williams, the physics teacher, who told me the fact that I kept forgetting the name of her cat Djuna revealed some kind of subconscious hostility. And I thought how I’d never once disappointed Meagan that way. How we seemed to make each other happy without even having to try.
And then there was the way Meagan was looking at me. Not like she was asking me. More like she was daring me. And I just wanted to take the dare, you know?
Meagan got back from Mexico in July, but I didn’t see her again until the first teacher in-service at the beginning of the school year. Even though she was sitting two rows ahead of me, I didn’t recognize her at first. Partly that was because she’d grown her hair out long and gotten a tan. Partly it was because all the female teachers seemed to be trying to make some sort of human shield around her.
But sooner or later we were bound to run into each other. It was late in the afternoon one day. I was heading out to the parking lot, and she was carrying a file box into her classroom. We didn’t say much. She told me how much it weirded her mother out that I kept sending those checks, and I reminded her that her mom had said I could pay her back for the unwedding. Then she mentioned that there were things of mine still over at her house: an old Jazz Fest t-shirt, an architecture book.
I told her I’d come by and pick them up, but she said she didn’t want me to. I thought she’d say she’d bring them to school, but she didn’t, and I realized she didn’t want anyone seeing her put things in my box in the teachers’ lounge. But after I ran into her a few more times – she was always around on Thursday afternoons, I figured out, because of Yearbook – she said she’d meet me for coffee after school one day and give me the things then. I suggested the breakfast place we used to go to on Sunday mornings, and she started to shake her head, but then she just gave up and agreed. Like it wasn’t worth her breath to argue.
We sat at our favorite table, in the corner by the window, and ordered a piece of blueberry pie to share. It was strange to be there on a weekday afternoon, and none of the wait people looked familiar.
When we’d finished the pie, Meagan dabbed at some spilled coffee on her saucer. “You seeing anybody these days?” she asked.
“Of course not, no.”
She raised her eyebrows at me. “You act like it’s a preposterous idea.”
I shrugged. And then it occurred to me. “You?” I asked.
She sat up straighter in her chair, nodded. “Yeah, Jeremy and I have … sort of started up again.”
“Jeremy?” I remembered the way he looked at me at the unwedding, kept my voice light and matter of fact. “Great,” I said. “Great.”
She laughed softly, then sighed. “I know you don’t like him, Ben.”
“Why do you say that? I barely know the guy.”
She just smiled, played with the pie crumbs on the plate.
“We just never have that much to say to each other, that’s all. I don’t dislike him.” I shifted in my seat, took another sip of my coffee. “Hey, I mean, I understand the attraction. After all, he’ll always keep you up on the top-performing IRA’s.”
“Alright, come on. Cut it out. That’s a little condescending, don’t you think?” But I could see she was trying not to smile. “Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with working in finance.”
“I never said there was.”
She shook her head, dropped her crumpled up napkin onto the table and brushed off her hands. “Well, anyway, that’s what’s going on.”
After we paid the check, I suggested we go for a hike up in the mountains that weekend, while the colors were still at peak. She laughed like I was kidding.
“No, really,” I said.
“I don’t think so, Ben,” she said, looking out the window.
“What, you and Jeremy going antiquing or something? Planting bulbs? Mulching?”
She started to smile, then covered her mouth. “I mean it. That’s enough. You have to stop that.”
So I didn’t push it. Though every once in a while when I saw her at school, I’d mention hiking again. And one day at school when our classes ended up being beside each other during a fire drill – just standing around on the basketball court waiting for the signal to go back inside – I started to sense I was getting through to her.
I warned the Gleason twins I was going to separate them if they didn’t behave, then mentioned to Meagan how we only had about four weeks left of good mild weather, and we shouldn’t waste them. “You afraid Jeremy will be jealous or something?”
“No!” she said, turning her eyes away from the cluster of teachers by the flagpole who were arguing about some detail of the evacuation plan. “God, no. He’s not …worried about …” – she groped for words, then spit them out with a kind of derision – “ … the past.”
“Then it’s the other teachers, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. The Pissed Off Posse in the teachers’ lounge.”
She laughed, shielded her eyes from the sunlight with one hand. “The what?”
“You’re afraid they’ll think you’ve gone back to the enemy side.”
“Come on, Ben. Give me a little more credit than that.”
“Give me a reason to.”
She threw up her hands. “Alright, alright.”
“Around noon on Saturday? I’ll pick you up?”
“That’s fine,” she said and then the bell rang, and I let her class go in ahead of mine.
So we hiked. And went to movies. And went to a couple of art exhibits in town.
It was around the middle of October when I broached the idea to Meagan of resuming our old tradition of going away for a weekend of canoeing. The tradition had started years before, only a couple months after Meagan and I met, when we were still hanging out together just as buddies. We made this big deal about how we could just get one room at the B&B we stayed at since we needed to save money and since the people at the B&B kept a cot in the closet of every room. And the first night we’d actually slept in the separate beds, but the next night, we’d picked up a bottle of wine someplace on our way back from dinner and lay on the big bed to watch a pay-per-view and before long we were in each other’s arms.
There was an early snow that night. We’d left the curtains open, and I still remember the way the moonlight poured in the window, the way it shone on Meagan’s body as she moved above me. I remember too the way the snowflakes falling outside made shadows on her and how quiet we were as we made love, quiet and gentle, so that the only sounds were of the snow hitting the leaves and the bed creaking beneath us. It was strange how serious we were.
In the years we dated after that, Meagan always wanted to go back to the B&B every year to mark what she called our “bone-aversary.” She became the Nostalgia Dictator as soon as we got to the room, insisting we drink wine like we did that night, and watch another pay-per-view, even if it was something god-awful. Meagan’s like that. She’s a marker. She calls it doing things 100%.
When I brought up the idea in October, though, that we resume the old tradition in a platonic way, she told me I was crazy. For three weeks, every time I saw her, I made the case that there was no reason we should give up the occasional trip together just because our relationship had changed. One day when I said that, she just laughed. It was after school, and we were walking out to our cars. We could hear the shouts and whistles of football practice in the distance.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Come on, Ben,” she said, looking at me sideways. “Don’t play dumb.”
“Play dumb about what?” I asked, checking out one of the other teachers’ new VW Bug as we passed it. “We’re friends. We do things together. What’s the big deal?”
“We don’t do overnight things together.” We were at her car now, and she was dumping a bunch of books in the backseat.
“What, would it make you nervous or something? To share a room, even with separate beds? Bring up old feelings?”
“No! Jesus, of course not. God, I’m over that. I just can’t see myself explaining it to Jeremy, that’s all. I mean, it’s a little … you know, I could certainly understand if he wasn’t comfortable with it.”
“Is that what he says when he’s pissed off? That he’s uncomfortable?”
She gave me one of her looks.
I just went on. “I thought you said you two weren’t that serious.”
She leaned up against her car, folded her arms, and looked down at her shoes. “Well we weren’t,” she began slowly. “But we just … we made a decision not to see other people. So you know, it’s kind of getting more serious.”
I bumped my canvas bag full of papers against one of her tires. “Well if he’s really serious about you, if he really cares about you, he would trust you to go canoeing with a friend for the weekend. I thought you said Jeremy was really secure about that kind of thing.”
“He was, he is, I just …” She rubbed her head, climbed into the driver’s seat, rolled down the window. “We’ll see, okay?”
The drive up was great, just like old times. We stopped at the little place in Coles Corner for peanut brittle, at the diner in Leavenworth for sandwiches and coffee. In the car, we played Twenty Questions and took turns picking CD’s.
I don’t think either of us even thought about the Ledbetters until we drove up to the B&B and saw them out on the porch chatting with some of their other guests. I hadn’t talked to either of them when I made the reservation. But when we were just getting out of the car and Bob Ledbetter ran up to us in the parking lot and started shaking my hand and saying, “Congratulations! We heard the news!” I had an inkling maybe we should have thought about them.
Then Alice Ledbetter came running up, pressed Meagan to her before Meagan knew what was coming. “You didn’t even tell us when you got engaged!” she squealed.
“What?” Meagan asked, her face pale over Alice’s shoulder.
“We saw the announcement in the paper last June,” Bob said. “Saw the picture and everything.”
Meagan’s mother had picked out the photography studio where we’d had it done. In the picture, we’re sitting beside each other, just in sweaters and jeans. It’d run in the paper the day of the unwedding.
“We always wondered if you two were planning a future together,” Alice said, releasing Meagan finally and reaching over to squeeze my shoulder. She was beaming. “But our kids tell us it’s rude to ask.”
The Ledbetters were one of those couples who raised their children on whole wheat bread and soy milk, who tucked their babies into strollers before carting them off to nuclear freeze rallies. They were in their mid-fifties or so, had actually run an organic farm in the area for years before their kids left home and they bought the B&B. When we were engaged, Meagan used to say if we did half as well as the Ledbetters, we’d do just fine, and I always had to agree.
“I have to confess,” Roger continued. “We never really thought you two would make it to the altar – not after five years. Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Meagan said, almost in a whisper.
“Yeah, thanks,” I added.
When we got to our room, there was a bottle of champagne and a big gift basket overflowing with fruit. Happy Year and a Half Anniversary!! the card said.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Meagan muttered after I read it to her. She was stretched out on the bed looking through a pile of restaurant brochures. “What are we going to have to do if we want to come back next year – rent a baby?”
But by the time we went canoeing the next day, we’d put the Ledbetters behind us. We stopped for lunch two towns over from Wenatchee, at a place with good Portugese fish stew that Meagan remembered from years before. And out on the lake, we steered perfectly together, like almost no time had passed.
When we finally got back to the B&B around 4:30, all set to take naps before heading out to dinner, we found Bob and one of the desk clerks carrying the cot out of our room. I’d slept on it the night before, but the housekeeper had made it up fresh. That night was supposed to be Meagan’s turn.
“Sorry for the disturbance,” Bob said when he saw us. “Okay if we use this in another room? We have a family of four.”
Meagan and I just nodded, waited for them to pass, then walked into our room, closed the door. I plopped down on the chair in the corner, sighed heavily.
“Look, we don’t need to act like fourth graders about this,” Meagan said, pulling off her boots. “It’s a king-sized bed. We won’t even touch each other.” She went in the bathroom, changed into sweats, then stretched out on the bed with the newspaper before dozing off. I channel surfed for a while, then lay down on the other half of the bed and fell asleep too.
I guess it’s no big surprise what happened next. When I woke up a little while later, she had turned around and was just lying there looking at me with these sleepy eyes. And then I reached out and touched her hair, and that was it. We never even did go out for dinner.
When I woke up in the morning, the sun was coming in the window, and Meagan was in my arms just like she always used to be, and things seemed perfect again. I thought about how it had probably been hard for her, to let go of her attachment to the whole marriage and kids thing, especially with all her girlfriends doing it, but I was glad she was finally understanding that if something isn’t broke, you don’t try to fix it. When she woke up, she smiled and pulled me to her.
It was late morning by the time we finished breakfast, so we decided to take a short hike through the woods before heading back home. As we were on our way out the front door, we ran into Alice Ledbetter who clasped Meagan’s hands and laughed, “You two must be contagious!”
“What do you mean?” Meagan asked.
“The couple two doors down from you just decided to get married! Here. Today! They’ve got the Justice of the Peace coming at 3, and a bunch of friends driving up from the city. They’re going to do it out in the backyard! It’s a beautiful day for it, don’t you think?”
“Gorgeous,” I said.
The path Meagan and I took was uphill, through some woods. Our plan was to take it for about a mile, to a clearing with a nice overlook, then head back. Often when Meagan and I hiked, we moved fast and in single file, but today we ambled along, side by side, bumping into each other on purpose a lot, stopping every once in a while to kiss. Just as we were almost to the overlook, I started thinking about the wedding happening in the backyard of the B&B and how impossible it would be to try and check out right in the middle of it.
I looked at my watch. “What time did Alice say that Justice of the Peace was coming?” I asked Meagan.
She moved in closer to me, smiled up into my face like I’d made some kind of joke. “Come on, Ben,” she said. “We don’t even have our license here, and nobody’ll marry us without one. Besides, even though I don’t mind just eloping somewhere, I’d like to wear something a little nicer than jeans and hiking boots.”
It took me a second to figure out what she meant. And when I did, my stomach turned over.
I guess the feeling showed on my face because her smile started to fade and her jaw dropped. I felt her hand slipping out of mine, so I squeezed it tight trying to hang on. “Meagan, I – ”
But she pulled away, started walking off the trail into this field, walking around in circles, holding her head like she thought it might fly off her body. “Oh fuck,” she was saying.
“Now come on,” I said, following her. “Come on, don’t freak out. We can talk about this, it was just a misunderstanding.”
She started laughing, only there were tears coming down her face. “It was a big misunderstanding, Ben.” She held out her arms like she was trying to show me the size of Texas. “I fucking cheated on Jeremy, I …” she trailed off, shook her head some more.
“Well what did he think was going to happen?” I asked, following her around in her circles.
She laughed, nodded. Then she turned, faced me. “You think it really would have been okay with Jeremy for me to come? You think he’s that much of an idiot? I lied to him. I told him I was coming up here with Rose. He trusted me.”
I tried to go to her then, put my arms around her, but she pushed me away so hard I nearly fell. And she walked away from me.
But I couldn’t leave her alone. Because there she was in the middle of this field and heading out to where the trail continued into some more woods, and I knew she didn’t know where the hell she was going. Meagan has maybe the worst sense of direction of anybody I’ve ever met in my life and I was sure she was going to end up lost. So I followed her, keeping a distance, though, so she wouldn’t know I was there.
At first, I thought she was laughing. But then I realized she was crying. Crying hard. We must have walked half a mile before that stopped. Then she was just hiccupping a little, every twenty feet or so, like her system was trying to get back to normal. She was talking to herself, too, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying.
I’d been following her for about forty-five minutes or so when we came to the cemetery. As soon as I saw it, I realized we’d been there before, that we’d taken this trail a few years back and passed the cemetery, but never really taken a good look at it. At first when Meagan turned off into it, though, she wasn’t really looking at it either. It was more like she was just looking for a place to sit down. There was a marble bench there, right at the far edge of the group of tombstones. She sat down on it with her back towards me and looked out over the mountains, still hiccupping and wiping her face on the collar of her shirt. But every once in a while, she’d turn and look at the tombstones behind her, as if they were some child who kept tapping her on the shoulder. After a couple of minutes, it was like she couldn’t stand the distraction anymore. She got up from the bench and started walking around real slowly looking at all the graves, looking at them like she’d never seen graves before. She straightened up a vase that had tipped over on one, then sat down in front of another, leaning forward to dust off the inscription with the sleeve of her jacket. Then she sat back on her heels and breathed a big sigh, the kind of sigh you breathe when all your hyperventilating is over.
Finally, she stood up. I thought maybe she was going to get back on the trail and keep walking. Or that she was going to sit down on the bench and cry a little more because she had that kind of look on her face. But she didn’t do either of those things. Instead, she walked right over to where I was, hiding behind a tree. And like an idiot, for some reason, I kept hiding with her standing three feet in front of me. I pressed my nose against the bark. I even closed my eyes as if that would make me disappear.
She didn’t come any closer. She just told me she was going back to the room to collect her things and that she was going to take a bus back home. And then she started to walk off towards the B&B, and I opened my eyes but stayed still, listening to her footsteps. And I thought that would be it.
But after she’d walked about ten yards, I heard her stop, turn around. And I stood there for what seemed like forever, watching my breath make little clouds that wafted upwards, hearing the birds make their desperate cries. I stood there wanting so many different things at once I couldn’t ask for anything, wanting her to sort it all out for me, wanting her to make it all clear.
But all she said was, “You know, I see you Ben.” As if she couldn’t resist, as if she just had to say it. And then she said it again: “I see you.”
Elizabeth Chase is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arkansas and currently lives in Los Angeles. Two of her stories have appeared in Cicada. “Unwedding,” in addition to being a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project competition, was one of 16 semi-finalists for the Indiana Review’s Fiction Prize in 2005.