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Mother of the Bride

Janie tries to hide that she hates the man who is dancing with her daughter.

The music isn’t so bad, a cover of one of those jazz standards that she knows well enough to hum. The shiny-faced band leader’s Louis Armstrong imitation has gotten better as the night’s gone on, although his voice doesn’t have the same sweet hoarseness as she heard on the records she once listened to with her father.

It’s not just her new son-in-law, who on most other occasions she thinks is a good match for her stubborn daughter. Tonight she also hates her husband, Michael, who has tried on his tuxedo after dinner several times this week. You’d think you were the one getting married, she told him.

Does it looks all right? he asked. Fatherly, yet handsome?

She even hates her daughter.

Janie nearly crushes the slender stem of the glass in her hand. The view through the empty glass leads her eyes to the window.

Outside, the wind has started to scar the surface of the lake.  Women begin to put their shawls on, men who are normally idiots offer up their coats, looking surprised and pleased as they make the gesture as if they’ve stumbled on an unknown treasure, their buried chivalry.

Her father hated weddings, too. He swept her mother off to Las Vegas so he could get married in his favorite Hawaiian shirt, with only two tired blackjack dealers as witnesses. When Janie was little, invitations with their curlicue writing came in the mail, and she would trace the embossed letters with her small fingers. Her father would open his checkbook.

When she was older she slung her arm around his thick neck as he slowly copied out his signature and asked him what he was doing.
This way, everyone gets what they want, he said.  He ripped the check from his checkbook and folded it into the envelope.

But what do you get?

He reached up and squeezed her hand. More of this, he said.

Janie’s friends have whispered to her all night that she looks young enough to be the bride. She’s taken her hair down and had it blown dry and she can feel it around her shoulders. Normally, she’s got it up in a tight knot behind her head, in accordance with the look she’s tried to bring to the principal’s office at the city’s second-worst high school –-severe, she thinks, but fair.

The music swells and she looks up and she sees Michael now twirling their daughter around the dance floor, installed like tiles on the grassy lawn, and she can feel something pressing against her throat, hard.

Her father, her daddy—does she still think of him as Daddy? Janie is three years away from sixty, so that is ridiculous–did not know how to dance. At her own wedding, there had been no dancing, just a justice of the peace, a woman whose bifocals slid down her narrow nose as she read from her script.  Just the two of them, and the woman, who had a slight stammer that Janie imitated later, in their hotel room at the shore, so that she could stop thinking about the reason they weren’t having a real wedding—because she couldn’t bear the moment where she’d have to walk up the aisle and into Michael’s arms alone.

Michael hadn’t seemed to care one way or the other about weddings. When they get invitations from her former students, she declines, always, and sends a nice check. That’s what they need, she says, and Michael agrees. But after Sarah told them she was getting married, Janie watched Michael through their kitchen window the next evening when he got home from work. He climbed out of his car and flipped back the seat to grab his briefcase, which he’d thrown in the back. Then as he was walking across the driveway, something seemed to pause him, as if he’d heard a gunshot.

Janey leaned forward, wondering if she should call the police this time or just call Michael inside. Then Michael started to dance.  His feet shuffled to the side, to the back, they came together and parted again. His feet spun him in circles, his arms opened to hold someone who wasn’t there. He swayed his way around the car, ending up beneath the window from which Janey watched him, but seeing only his daughter in his arms. Then he brushed himself off, picked up his briefcase, and came inside to her.

Janey’s hands start shaking and she sets her glass on a table. One of the servers picks it up, almost a moment after she sets it down. Janey looks in the young woman’s eyes and sees a moment of pity, and she is angry at this girl, too. Earlier she saw her and the bartender, still with a goggle tan around his face even though it is June, flirting and trading jokes as they filled up the large tubs of ice with beer and soda. This is what a young girl should be doing, Janey had thought, not mourning a father who killed himself the day after his daughter’s high school graduation. That was a job for a woman.  

“Kerry, I need you back here, now,” a voice says. The girl smiles again and steps away, her youth kicking her into a near-gallop. She sweeps one long red braid back over her shoulder and pushes herself and the trays she carries through the kitchen door.

Janey is not going to cry. There’d be no way to hide that she was crying, not because her daughter was so beautiful, but because she hated her so much. Janey makes her way across the room, mumbling something about the cake cutting if she feels someone turn to look at her.

She gets so close to the dance floor that her heel slips on the shiny surface, where so many feet had crossed before. So many fathers and daughters, wrapped up in each other’s arms, not seeing anyone else. And she can’t stop looking. It’s like the fights she sees at school–her one weakness, she knows. Three seconds before she wades in with security guards behind her to stop it, she watches the crowd pour out away from the fighters like a whirlpool in reverse, and she sees their arms and legs pushing at each other, at once looking ordinary and more beautiful than anything she’s ever seen.

Now Michael and Sarah spin toward her. She puts her head down and moves away. Soon they will turn and she can be alone and hate them in privacy while she plucks petals from the wedding cake. Anyone would think she’s a nervous mother of the bride, making sure everything is so perfectly perfect.

But her husband and daughter keep moving toward her.  They pull away from each other, stretch out their arms, and draw her in.  The three of them together: Michael, handsome grey Michael, who has danced with her late at night in their silent kitchen, much like the one at the cabin here, one that she thought would be too cold; her daughter, her small child, who will always have something that she won’t. And Janey. But that’s how it is, your children are supposed to have things that you don’t. You are always dancing, she thinks, with the things you can’t hold on to, with the things you always will. Over their heads Janey sees the young waitress again, her red hair coming loose from the braids. She is now folding napkins and resetting them on the table, smoothing down creases and dusting away crumbs.

– Cameron Walker has an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her stories have appeared in The Missouri Review and Aspect Journal. She lives in California with her family.