The day of my best friend’s wedding bloomed bright and hot. I took a subway through Berlin to her house, lugging supplies: gum, cigarettes, a scribbled Rilke quote in English and German. I moved as if in a fever. You shimmered at the edges of everything, the air quickening against my skin where your hands had been. When I left a place I fled.
My best friend was buoyant. The outfit we bought last minute hung ironed and waiting. I wrangled her curls, asphyxiating us with hairspray. She started languidly painting her nails red and I bit back a comment about time. A smile was trembling at the corners of her mouth, waiting to fizz over.
I started planning my wedding in kindergarten. “I want high heels,” I would say to the other girls, imagining life-sized Barbie pumps. “And a long veil.” We conjured our visions with our hands: a frothy mess of tulle, the fine webs of lace. All of it white. Blinding.
I hunted for inspiration at thrift stores my mother dragged me to, abandoning jeans and t-shirts for racks of dresses. A wedding dress would, occasionally, materialize among the cast-off dance recital costumes and evening gowns. I handled it tenderly: caressed the fabric, noted any rips or stains. Carried it to the fitting room and tucked myself inside. My child’s body was too fleshy against certain seams, too unripe for others. I faced the mirror and tried to picture the person who had worn it. I was already questioning my own shape, whether or not it was going to fit the same mold as the women I watched on TV or noticed on the street. The ones who looked like they had everything.
“Ma-ree,” my mother said, spearing the second syllable of my name. “No. Put it back.” I followed her through the store, pleading, tripping over the too-long hem. “I said no. It doesn’t even fit.”
“Your heart is adaptable,” you told me, a palm pressed against my bare back. I smiled into the white sheets.
“What do you mean, adaptable?”
“Your pulse slows down when you breathe slower. It’s flexible. It means you’re healthy.”
You, a doctor. This improbable organ, your dominion. You called heart attacks perfect emergencies because they were so straightforward. Easy to handle. It should have been a warning, perhaps, that you could remain calm when faced with such distress. But my pulse jumped when you entered a room, my blood rushing toward you.
I hadn’t known our first date was a date. We met for a beer, which turned into another and another, time a current we had stepped out of. When you told stories you became a circus of expressions. Your hair always falling into your eyes. But until you said, “I’m going to kiss you now,” I pretended I was safe. When you took me home, it was so late the bakers next door had begun their preparations for morning. A cart of fresh, round loaves stood in the entrance to the building and I snatched one for us. Took a bite as we clamored up the stairs. I opened my eyes to a shock of sunlight laid against your naked shoulder, your jawbone. Held my breath against the thrumming of my chest which seemed, in the moment, monstrous.
I used to ask my mom constantly about her wedding. Where it was. “We went to the courthouse.” What she wore. “Just something I had.” There was a picture on the wall of her and my dad grinning side-by-side in bed with bare shoulders, covered up to their chests. She pointed to it as their wedding photo and I was immediately disappointed, something else along with it I would come to know later as shame.
Their relationship was a stretch of pocked land, mostly abandoned. One night my mother kicked my father in the shin, barefoot, splintering the bone in her big toe. We all went to the emergency room, my younger brother sleepy in his car seat next to me. My dad would leave early one morning a week before Thanksgiving. There was a short note for my mom on the kitchen table. I was told it said, “Tell the kids I love them.” No one heard from him until the next spring, no matter how many times I closed my eyes when we turned onto our street, bargaining with some unfamiliar god for his car to be in the driveway. “I should have put shoes on,” my mother said any time she recounted the story. “Broken his shin instead.”
Still, when I found a photo album with images of my estranged uncle’s wedding, I called to my mom. Held it up. “So your wedding wasn’t like this?” The bridesmaids in petal-pink gowns. The bride hung with so many layers she could have topped her own cake. My mother took one look and laughed, long and loud.
Our timing was perilous. I had just ended a relationship so safe I feared I would turn to stone. You were leaving a tumultuous marriage; you insisted you never wanted it to begin with. The separation was caustic. It filled you with furious energy. I looked up the only shooting range in Berlin, a former U.S. military compound used for target practice. I brought you there, for release, or maybe to prove myself unflinching. When you took your first shot the recoil made you cry out. You turned to me with wide eyes, but on the last round you hit every target.
You continued to call her my wife. When I asked you why, you asked if it bothered me. I said yes, and also no. No matter what, she was in my periphery. A persistent hum.
After a month, we rented a small cottage near a lake for the weekend. At night we sat in the garden, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, the dark so complete we couldn’t see each others’ faces. Unknowable animals rustled in the trees around us and you asked me what I was most afraid of.
“Death,” I said, after a long moment. “You?”
I hadn’t yet agreed to call you girlfriend. But girlfriend, you explained, is what you called the women you were committed to and not just sleeping with. Those were affairs.
The term still didn’t fit around everything that was ballooning inside me, big and unstoppable. When I looked at you I saw a wide-open door. A blue sky stretching into some unknowable distance.
What was I to call such a feeling? Was it wife? Was it marriage?
Well after midnight, we wander a quiet passage along the river. There’s wine swilling in our bodies, a giddiness when our hands touch. I could watch you walk until I grow as ancient as the city around us. Your angular grace. The bare hint of a swagger in your hips. When you turn to look at me over the collar of your jacket, I am pinned. Flayed open. You reach out one hand, palm the back of my neck. Your thumb is strong at the base of my skull when you pull me into you.
A gleaming car approaches in the narrow street behind us so we move, backs to an old wall, for it to pass. It slows in front of us and stops. The window slides down, soundless, and the man inside asks, “Are you married?” “No,” we answer, bemused. He drives away. “How funny would it have been,” you say later, when we’re home, shaking it off. “If you had said no and I had said yes?”
My best friend met the woman she married at your wedding. They were guests from opposite sides, randomly seated next to each other. They talked voraciously. When a downpour of rain swept through, they were separated, but reconvened later for a cigarette. A kiss. The woman’s furious date confronted my best friend shortly thereafter. You helped her escape.
How ludicrous, the strings that connect us. Stars in an absurd constellation.
I heard the story for years before my best friend introduced us. When I fell for you, the details hardened into small, sharp stones I could shift through at my leisure (my peril). You, laughing, your face wet. You, to have and to hold.
The first time you told me you loved me, you said it in a language I do not speak.
“You don’t have to say anything,” you reassured me, when I realized what it meant. “I just wanted the first time I told you to be in my mother language.”
I stared at the door to your room, the light beyond. When I spoke it was an admission.
“Saying ‘I love you’ feels so static, like it’s this one thing. But what I feel about you is active. Ongoing. I’m actively in love with you.”
There were no words in any language that would have let me tell you how final it felt, somehow, as if it was the last time I would ever fall in love like this. But once you made me come so hard I turned over and blurted out, “I want to have sex with you every day for the rest of my life.”
I was surrendered. It felt like my body didn’t belong to me anymore, nothing I could hold back your certain fingers from teasing out. It left me gasping. A clutch of terror in my chest. As if, inside, I knew.
What are you afraid of?
I should have answered, You.
After a short, tearful ceremony at city hall, the wedding party of my best friend and her new wife gathered in the sun-drenched garden of a restaurant. Everyone was holding a full glass; everyone was laughing. I nervously started the toasts. My German was treacherous, but heartfelt. Others followed, standing to speak in English or German or both.
“Every good wedding needs a scandal,” you said when it was your turn. “Unfortunately my marriage didn’t last, but something even better came out of it.” You raised your glass to the couple. Everyone cheered. To clap, I smacked one hand hard against my thigh.
I left early to decorate the surprise hotel suite I’d reserved for them. You came along. We walked into the cool lobby, laden with bags, my cheeks numb from sun and wine. You murmured something about the hotel looking familiar. I got the room key, and we stepped into the elevator. It was in that confined space you realized.
“I think this is the same hotel where my friends got my wife and me a room the night of our wedding.” I laughed, too shocked to do anything else. Inside of me something contracted.
When we entered the room, you confirmed. “Yes, it’s definitely the same.” We didn’t make eye contact. We sprinkled heart-shaped confetti over the floor, the bed. You laid a lollipop that said Wife on each pillow. I blew up balloons that said Married!
I ceased to be adaptable. The deeper I breathed, the more my heart bucked. We left in a cab and stared silently out of opposite windows. I blinked and blinked at the sky. You did not reach for me, nor I, you.
At that moment the rest of the wedding guests had gathered on the banks of a canal. Some leapt in, their bodies loosed in the murky water.
A lazy weekend afternoon. We walk into my favorite bookstore. We are both avid readers, delight in how it connects us, our inner lives carved by parallel canyons.
At the cash register, you pick up a small book that says Rules for Wives and hand it to me. Teasing. I take it, considering the cover. “Well, technically this is for someone else,” I say as lightly as I can manage. I hand it back. “True,” you say, almost as if you’ve forgotten.
“I never married your father.”
My mother and I were tucked into a table at my favorite Manhattan bakery. A grey and sullen sky pressed against the large windows. She was visiting me for the first time in my post-college life, and a tightness between us had started to unravel. But this made me feel as if the floor had tipped, sending everything sliding.
“Wait, how? You separated. You—you got a divorce.” I remembered waiting in the car while she went inside her lawyer’s office. Paperwork. Court orders about child support payments. I remembered saying it out loud, divorce. How it made everyone’s faces shift.
“Colorado and all those Western states have really progressive laws, historically. You know, during the Gold Rush, there were mostly men there. So they made it enticing for women to come. They could own property, and make a case for marriage after the fact. That’s common law marriage.”
“So you never got married. But you did get a divorce. Legally.”
“You got it. Legally divorced, never married.” There was something else there that caught my attention. A scratch on the surface.
“Why didn’t you? Get married.”
“I just didn’t love him that way.”
This settled slowly, sediment hardening in unextractable layers. I began to understand my mother, beyond the authoritarian ready to boom at my brother and I for not walking the dog or cleaning the sink, as a woman who had given up something unfathomable to have children and put them first.
She was always my lighthouse. The glow I looked for in the dark, harbinger of home. Now cliffs had sharpened into view.
Winter, New York
We’re riding the subway back to an Airbnb in Brooklyn. It’s late on a cold weeknight, the lights turning everyone ghoulish. My arm is tired from holding the strap overhead. We just saw a heartwarming show on Broadway, but somehow we’ve gotten on the subject of last names. You’re agitated, thinking about the increasingly ugly separation from your still-not-yet-ex-wife. “I’m never giving my name away again,” you say, a harshness in your voice I have started to hear more often. The train brakes hard. I fall into you, grabbing on to stay upright. You seem annoyed. “Well good. I didn’t want it anyway,” I joke, righting myself. You look down at me, something in your expression I can’t interpret. Your eyes more grey than blue. Storming. The train shudders forward.
My best friend and I amble with no destination along a large street. An early hint of warmth has tangled itself in the air. People meander around us, dazed in the light.
“It’s weird. What everyone else thinks about it. How everyone treats us differently,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like me, saying I’m married.”
This aversion is recent. She is vaguely petulant about it, like a child forced into clothes she hasn’t picked out for herself. It’s been over a year since her wedding day. Their first Christmas as a married couple they hosted a big dinner for friends, both grinning the whole time. I take a long swig from the bottle of beer swinging in my hand.
“I mean, did you think about this beforehand? This as an identity, what people would say?”
“I guess not. I don’t know. I was never a person who thought I would get married. I didn’t want it. But I also didn’t want the person I love to have to leave the country.”
“I’m not saying I don’t want to be together,” she gulps at her own beer. “I don’t know,” she looks at me. “Don’t get married!”
I throw my arm around her shoulders and pull us forward. Watch our feet move over the concrete.
“I do want to get married someday.” It slips out before I can stop myself. “I don’t know why. Maybe I just want someone to ask me. I want to know what it feels like—to have someone think they could spend the rest of their life with me.”
She shakes her head slowly. As if she knows something I don’t.
We stand in the yellow light of my kitchen. Your hair is pulled back from your face, which is whittled to its edges. I press myself into a corner for support. We have been shouting. Your eyes are hard on mine when you say, finally “We are never moving in together, and we are never getting married.” As if I should have known all along.
I tell you to get out of my house. I chase you barefoot down the stairs, through the dark courtyard, and out onto the street. I leave all the doors flung open, like there is anything left to let back in.
As if I ever would have had the courage to ask you.
A veil is lifted. I move unprotected, objects and faces unbearably stark. It’s the hottest summer in 138 years. Each day rises to a boil, sweat a constant sheen on everyone’s skin. My heart starts beating itself into unexpected frenzies and I have to strangle the hope one will be the kind of crisis to bring me back under your care.
My mother, when I tell her it’s over, says through the phone, “I’m so sorry Maree. That’s really too bad. She was my favorite.” She herself will have recently begun seeing someone, her first relationship in a decade. She tells me how easy it is. How two people in their sixties have no expectations. I hang up and sob openly while walking down the street.
I attend a wedding you and I were supposed to go to together. During the candlelit ceremony, I watch as if from a great distance, struck by the duality of loss; hope on one side and fear on the other. Something, somewhere, slams shut.
I drink all night. I do not go home. I climb onto the roof of a friend’s apartment building and we sit at its edge, jutted out over the city. We smoke together in silence as the sky lightens right in front of our faces. From below we might look like just dresses, ravishing in the wind.
Maree Hamilton is Berlin-based writer whose work has been published by The Rumpus, Marie Claire, and Autostraddle.com, among others. She used to host a storytelling event series, and hopes she will get to again someday.