Tom Ashley sits next to me, needlessly prolonging the uncomfortable exchange we just had. He asked me out, and I refused. What more needs to happen? I had finished saying no, and he should get up and leave. Instead, he grows even older. The liver spots covering his balding forehead crawl further up his scalp where coarse, gray hair hasn’t made up its mind to fall out yet. An excess of skin folds on his head. His ear lobes turn soft and droopy, and reach the collar of his shirt.
“Why?” Tom asks, without looking at me, his eyes on the dancing couples. “Please be honest with me and tell me why.”
“You are too old for me.”
Tom’s earlobes shrink. He loosens his tie and speaks, still not looking at me. “I am your sister’s age, Lindsey, twenty-nine. That makes me, what? four, five years older than you? What are you talking about?”
The band starts Come Away with Me, and I see my grandfather pushing through the crowd in my direction. I feel relief, but then I realize that he is going to invite Millie, not me. Millie giggles, covering her face with both hands and, standing up so quickly that she almost overturns her chair, she rushes into my grandfather’s arms. He bends over to tie her shoe, his face getting red and his bones screeching. He tightens the other shoelace just in case, and leads Millie to the dancing podium with reverence as if she were his queen. It doesn’t matter that he is the best dancer on the floor and all she can do is tumble her feet in place, lifting them about four inches above the ground and putting them down with a force that makes the adjoining couples pull aside, protecting their new shoes and old corns. Soon, there is a wide circle around Grandfather and Millie. She laughs her mute laughter with wide-open mouth, her lower lip and chin glistening with saliva. He takes small graceful steps around her, making it look almost like a real dance. I am missing the moment, but when I look again, he is already a younger man. Not very young; he doesn’t seem fond of his early youth. When he is happy, he is fifty. He gains about two inches in height, his hair barely has any gray, and his mustache is black and thick.
I can see through people’s time. I am used to it, and it doesn’t bother me much. Of course, no one believes me. No one has ever done as little as to comment on my ability, even when I would do something that makes it obvious. I could say, “Father, why are you so old and tired?” when I see him lying on the couch after work, his reading glasses askew and the paper unread on his chest, and he would only snort a little louder and mumble, “When I was your age, everyone over thirty looked old to me.” But he is fifty-two, and he looks fifty-two most of the time. Only on the evenings when his boss had passed him over for promotion, or he has lost his imaginary gains on the stock market, or my grandmother failed to recognize him again, he would age another twenty years, and lose all his hair, and the skin on his jaws and neck would sag like this. I would sit on the side of the couch and try to smooth the deep wrinkles on his forehead, and he would chase me away, not suspecting or not believing that I truly see him as an old man.
The same with my mother. Sometimes, when she is asleep on the lounge in the backyard, I see her in her early twenties, her face radiating like the face of a sleeping child, short hair sticking to her sweaty forehead, her hand patting her belly and her lips twitching in the direction of a smile. When I looked through her pictures one winter, not those she keeps in the family albums, but the ones she hides in a box in her closet, I saw a picture of her with the same short hair and a huge belly. She dreams herself pregnant with her first child, my brother, who didn’t live through his first year. Poor Mom. No matter what we do, my father and I, we can never make her as happy as she had been back then.
Seeing people’s age according to their moods comes with the freight of involvement, with the aftertaste of unwarranted nostalgia, but it hasn’t always been like that. When I visited my grandparents as a child, I had lots of fun playing with my grandmother. The moment she folded her apron and put it next to the sink, she would turn into a girl my age. I remember the first time it happened. We were in my secret garden—on the side of the house, behind the currants—planting snowdrops and crocuses for the next spring. The earth was soft, and we were digging holes for the bulbs. We were both eight. Grandmother’s wedding ring kept slipping off her finger. Her hands were plump but still they were only eight-years-old and had nothing to do with the arthritic hands with crooked fingers and large knuckles of her old age. I offered to take the ring to Grandfather for safekeeping, but she refused, and I worried the whole time that she would lose it and we would have to spend hours looking for it, digging out the bulbs we had just planted.
The ring is mine now. She gave it to me before she went to live in the nursing home. She was afraid she would lose it, she said. She still can turn young when I visit and when she knows who I am, but when I leave, she crumbles into such an old age that I know she has many more years to live, not recognizing her own face in the mirror.
I look down at the thin, worn-out band, for a short time only, lest it gives Tom an excuse to rekindle the conversation.
Silvia, the maid of honor, comes in my direction, limping and holding up her mauve dress, which she doesn’t need to do for any practical reason. Silvia is blue-eyed and blond. Mauve agrees with her complexion much better then it does with mine, and I suspect she had insisted on the color. I had wanted pale green.
She heaves a sigh as she takes Millie’s chair next to me. She wouldn’t sit there if she knew whose chair that had been—she winces at my cousin, repulsed by the drool and the incomprehensible babble, not realizing how much in common she has with the retarded girl. They are the only two people I know who always remain at one particular age. Millie—whatever is her actual age; Silvia—always forty. Silvia has looked forty since the time I first met her when she must have been twelve. Her prim dresses and abundance of make-up only support the impression, but she looks middle aged even when she is coming out of the pool, wearing a swimsuit and only very little makeup of the waterproof kind.
“I am Silvia,” she introduces herself to Tom Ashley. “Bride’s best friend. And you are…?”
Tom shakes the offered hand, pronouncing his name as if it were a name he had always hated and was planning to change first thing after the wedding. Silvia forgets she was limping and jumps out of her chair when he asks her to dance. As they reach the dance floor the music stops and they need to wait for the next piece, Silvia keeping her head slightly to the left, which she believes is the prettier side of her face, Tom biting his lower lip. They look good with each other, both made middle-aged, by disappointment in Tom’s case, and pure crabbiness in Silvia’s.
The music doesn’t start. All of us have missed the announcement that the band is taking a break and a pair of comedians will entertain us instead. The comedians are trying to pull a Laurel and Hardy spiel, not very successfully. No one listens to them. The couples on the dance floor chat with their neighbors for a while, then slowly disperse in search of refreshments. I see my sister talking to Tom Ashley. It works to her advantage that her smile is pretty even when it is fake—I doubt anyone notices that she is pissed. Our eyes meet, and she makes a gesture for me to follow her, taking a turn to go inside the house, without waiting for me to catch up.
Upstairs, she pulls me into the bedroom designated for her use. She whispers, but her voice is jagged and her breath smells like copper. “You selfish little brat…It’s always you, isn’t it? You couldn’t spare me your bullshit…at least on my wedding day!”
“What are you talking about? What have I done?”
“I asked you to be nice to Tom Ashley, remember? You said you would.”
“Sorry, I totally forgot about that. Anyway, what could I have done differently? I thought you meant it in a general way, since he is Jim’s partner, not in a—”
“Jim is not his partner yet. Tom was supposed to make it official weeks ago, but he seems to be having second thoughts. Did you forget that, too? We talked about it at the rehearsal dinner.”
“Hey, don’t worry. Tom should be ever so lucky to have Jim as a partner. Jim is the hottest new lawyer in town, isn’t he?”
My sister doesn’t answer. She weeps with desperation I don’t understand. Her mascara is running along with the tears, leaving inky tracks on her face and down her throat. She looks like a child bride in some eastern melodrama who is marrying an older, unloved man.
“What is this really about, Kellie? It can’t be about Tom Ashley. It’s about Mom, isn’t it? She didn’t allow you to reschedule the wedding because of her, and you are worried she may be dying, and it’s just too stressful for you.” I look around for tissue, and not seeing any, step into the adjacent bathroom for some toilet paper. She takes a handful and wipes her face, seemingly calming down, but when she looks in the mirror and sees her red-blotched face, she starts to sob again.
“Kellie, Mom is not dying! She’ll be fine. I know it. Didn’t you see her? This morning when we went to the hospital? She looked at least eighty.”
“Oh, shut up! I don’t want to hear any of this nonsense. Of course she’s not dying, no one dies from appendicitis. And it’s just me in here, OK? You don’t need to flaunt your bogus supernatural powers for me. It won’t get you any points.”
She dabs her eyes one last time and starts to reapply mascara, rotating the little brush as she glides it through the length of her eyelashes. When she is done, she doesn’t turn to face me. She speaks like a doctor making an unpleasant but not life-threatening diagnosis. “You are sick, do you realize that? You are worse than Millie. At least she is friendly and lovable. I would rather have her for a sister.”
I’ve never heard this before. I’ve heard the complete big sister repertoire of what a useless and insufferable piece of sibling I am, but never that. My hands start to shake. I toss the rest of the toilet paper in her direction. The paper doesn’t have enough weight to carry through. It unfolds somewhere between the two of us and spirals to the floor. I pick it up and smash it into a denser ball, but instead of hitting my sister with it, I hit the mirror and leave the room.
Downstairs, somebody opens a door. I back into another bedroom and recognize the room I and the other bridesmaids used to change into our gowns. I find my cut-off jeans and the t-shirt on the chair where I had left them, but my sandals are nowhere in view. They are not under the bed or in the closet. The other bridesmaids’ shoes are lined up next to the dressing table. I can’t remember where I put mine. I wonder if I’ll be able to walk across town in high heels, and imagine the dirty parking lot of the hospital, through which I need to pass. Even if I go barefoot the rest of the way, I’ll need to put the shoes on in the parking lot to avoid stepping on old gum and spilled ice cream.
When I take the gown off, my hair comes undone on one side, and I pull the rest of it free. Still in my underwear, I smash the gown into a giant mauve ball and leave it in the middle of the bed. I put my casual clothes on and, shoes in one hand, tiptoe out of the room, down the stairs, through the front door, and out of the fake colonial house rented for the event.
The flower arrangements on both sides of the door wilt in the afternoon sun. Partially deflated white balloons float at knee level. A single rose from someone’s bouquet lies on the ground, crushed under the feet of more than two hundred guests. My father didn’t have that kind of money, so Kellie and her future husband took a loan to pay for the wedding. Four-and-a-half percent for five years.
I turn my back on the house and start down the street. My father’s car is parked a little ahead and I try the doors, remembering that I was trying the shoes when we arrived and had left my sandals in the car, along with my backpack. The car is locked, of course. As I take a few steps away, a police car with flashing lights pulls next to me. I don’t stop, it could have nothing to do with me, but an officer gets out of the car and calls after me. “May I see your ID?”
“Why would you want to see it?” I ask over my shoulder, barely slowing down.
“There has been an increase in crime in this area, and we are making random checks. Your ID, please.”
“I don’t have it with me.” I turn to face him, smiling, expecting him to smile, but he doesn’t. He takes out a clipboard and starts writing something down, gradually turning into the short, chubby, double-chinned bully he had been at ten.
Going back to the wedding party and searching for my father so I can ask for the car keys is unthinkable. I try to think of something else, but my mind is blank. The only thought that passes through is: leave me alone leave me alone leave me alone.
“May I have your name, address, and date of birth?” the ten-year-old officer asks, and I want to slap him, to erase his self-important expression, to see the surprise and unbelief on his stupid face.
I take a deep breath, willing to calm down, aware that the sooner I start cooperating, the sooner I’ll get out of here. Instead, I speak to him with hatred he couldn’t miss even if he wanted to.
“Do I look like a criminal to you? This is a public street, isn’t it? Can’t I just walk the streets of my own town without being bothered?”
“Miss, your name—”
“No, you give me your name first. I want to see your ID. I want to know isn’t there something better for you to do but harass an innocent citizen.” My hands are shaking so hard now that I drop the shoes. Instead of picking them up, I step into them. I realize I am swaying like a drunk but cannot help it. I adjust the straps of the shoes and look the officer in the eye. The three-inch heels make me almost his height, which is back to more than 6 feet again. I point a finger at him. “How do I know you are a real policeman? You could be a homicidal psychopath. Show me your ID!”
“This isn’t enough?” The officer gestures towards the car with its lights still flashing, and then to his badge.
“It’s not! You may have stolen them, you may—”
“Miss!” His eyes are bulging, and he has two dark red spots on his cheeks. He is the most unsightly and unpleasant man I’ve ever met. He takes his radio out and waves it in my face. “Do you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?”
“The hard way, you bastard!”
“Did you just call me a bastard?”
“No, I called you an ugly son of a bitch.”
Two more police cars appear, lights flashing, one of them pulling up next to me, the other climbing the sidewalk.
Suddenly, my sister is here, pushing the officer away. She is screaming and crying at the same time. I want to tell her she will ruin her makeup again, but she turns to look at me and I see her face, swollen and blotchy. On the day of her wedding, my beautiful sister looks like a crime victim. The scene is a crime scene. A crowd gathers. Women with flowery dresses and big round eyes. Men with wrinkled suits, one size smaller than they ought to be. I don’t know any of these people. The only one I recognize is my father. He talks to one of the cops, waving his arms, pointing to the house, to his car, to my sister, who now sobs quietly in the arms of Jim.
I know Jim. I’ve seen him at least fifty times while he was courting my sister. With his freckled skin, cowlick, and boyish manners, he looks younger than Kellie. Even now, comforting her, trying to hide his emotions—worry, annoyance—whatever they might be, he looks more like a baby brother than a husband. Kellie eases out of his arms and comes to me.
I am sure she will slap my face. I flinch but don’t move. Kellie seems to have read my mind. She stops a good distance away from me, and when she speaks, it’s hard to hear. “How old is Jim now?” she asks. I don’t get it. I take a step closer.
“Why are you asking that, Kellie?”
“Don’t play a dummy. This is an easy question. Do you see Jim as an old man?”
“I wish you would explain,” I say, and suddenly I know what she is asking. Have I heard whispers about tests being done? Have I noticed something in the way Jim and Kellie look at each other? Have I…
The policemen are talking to my father in what seems a friendly manner. They will leave any moment now. We will need to go back into the house and pick up with the wedding reception. I don’t know what to tell my sister. She waits and her eyes are impossible to meet.
“Sorry, sis… I’ve been making this up…for the attention, you know… I see what anyone can see. Jim looks great—”
She turns on her heels and leaves me. Her back is humped, her shoulder blades stick out in sharp angles, and under her veil, white hair sprouts in thin wisps. A twenty-nine-year-old Jim rushes after her and takes her hand.