Rehearsed

Fiction by Katie Young Foster

 
A friend I used to run with once a week invited me to her wedding. The ceremony was to be held on the sprawling lawn behind her house. The vows would be spoken at dusk.

When I received the invitation—a short text message accompanying a screen shot of the date and location—it had been almost a year since our last 5 a.m. run. We’d taken time off so I could have a baby. I was, at first, surprised that Sara had invited me, so far from my mind were the hundreds of miles we’d jogged together, the street lamps casting orange pools of light, the puffs of our breath as we’d chatted. Thinking of you, Sara’s text message had said. I know this particular time in your life is beautiful but also, of course, very sad. Come if you can.

The man she was marrying played in a band. I hadn’t met him but had often heard Sara describe him in counterpoint to the man she’d been with before. “Liam shows emotion,” she’d told me, early in their relationship. We were jogging downhill in a freefall of leaves. It was autumn. I was seven weeks pregnant with my second attempt at a child. All that was left of the first was a vanilla-scented candle, which we burned on the fourteenth of every month. “Genuine emotion,” Sara repeated. We pivoted and began the slow ascent up Forrest Street. I listened to the new boyfriend’s attributes: Liam reads Dostoevsky. Liam brings her coffee in bed. When Liam asks her opinion, he seems to value what she tells him.

“But I don’t know if I’ll ever commit again, officially,” Sara said.

I’d nodded. It was the first time my friend had implied that she and the other man—the one before Liam, whom she circled around but never named—had been married.

On the evening of the wedding, my husband dropped me off in front of Sara’s blue brick bungalow a few minutes late. He was heading to the gym in an attempt to lose the weight he’d gained during my first pregnancy—grief weight, we called it. He’d asked if I could go to the wedding alone. I approached the ceremony. Above, strands of lights hung from the branches of pin oaks. Candles burned on wooden benches, which were arranged in alcoves in the shrubbery. As I walked across the grass, the last disc of sun slipped from the trees. Under an ivy-covered arch, my friend rose up on her toes to kiss her new husband. Sara’s cheeks were flushed, her hair threaded with a crown of eucalyptus. The people gathered around them whooped. Mr. and Mrs., someone shouted.

My son stirred against my chest. He was two months old, and I carried him everywhere, snug to my body, wrapped in a cotton sling. The child before him had also been a boy, but that one had favored my husband—black hair, light eyes. This son was blond. I’d named him Noah Richard, after my father. Noah had the habit of sucking his fingers noisily, even while sleeping. Multiple times a day, while my husband was at work, I’d walk past the double mirrors in our hallway. It was a relief to view my son from two perspectives—on me, and apart from me—and to watch the rise and fall of his back as he breathed. I’d stand there and rub his thatch of blond hair, which seemed to me to grow darker, daily, under my hands.

I poured myself a glass of red wine at the drink station. At the edge of the yard, under a white canopy, three farm tables were strewn with periwinkle. Old-fashioned lamps spilled light onto trays with labels such as “jalapeño pickles” and “concord grape pie.” Guests had begun to wade through the shadowy yard, heading for seats.

Sara and Liam approached me. Together, they hugged me and laid hands on my son, as if we were the ones to be celebrated. They teased Noah as he sucked his fist.

“Congratulations,” I told them. “You two—you’re meant for each other.”

Sara caught my eye. I touched my son’s cheek, and she smiled. I let the moment wash over me, reminded of a morning in November, years ago, when we’d sprinted between two stoplights on Forrest. She’d opened up to me then about her fear of growing old without kids or a dependable partner. “How did this happen?” she’d asked. Her voice had been ragged.

“But you’ll find someone else,” I’d told her. “You will.”

My words had sounded hollow, rehearsed, part of a discussion we’d already had, in so many ways, over so many mornings.

“And you’ll be given someone, too,” she’d responded. I’d stiffened. I was married. No kids, of course, but I was fine. By then, we’d finished our miles and were sitting outside a café, drinking coffee, watching the sun break through the fog on the road. Sara hadn’t been speaking to me, exactly—she’d been speaking to her coffee, to her hands, to the cars that whipped past us carrying men and women and the potential for love, to the ambulances that transported children to hospitals, to the grief of unmet strangers, to no one.

***

 
Sara led me across the lawn to her parents, who were seated in the center of the longest table. Her mother was playing with wax that had dribbled from a candle; she had teeth just like my friend’s. Sara’s father was already eating. He was barrel-chested, reserved, a Methodist preacher. I sat to their left.

Noah was restless. He was ready to sleep. I readjusted the wrap and wondered if it was too soon to call my husband to pick us up.

“He’s sweet,” said Sara’s mother, without looking up. She rubbed the wax off her fingers. I could hear in her voice a hesitation to get too involved, as if her wish to participate fully in the night was tempered by some thought or obstacle she’d hidden from me.

I thanked her and asked where they were from, when they’d arrived. I complimented the ceremony. I could sense the father listening.

“What do you do for a living?” Sara’s mother asked.

“Stay-at-home mom,” I said. “Freelancing, sometimes.”

“Typical,” Sara’s father interrupted. He tugged at his beard and tried to catch my eye.

“Pardon?” I said.

“I just mean that you get cut in half, as a parent. Working. Breastfeeding. Forgetting this, losing that. It all gets to be so much.” He tapped Noah on the ear.  “Is this little man your first?”

I leaned away from him and didn’t answer. A hush fell over the tables. Sara and Liam were standing.

“Dad,” Sara called down the row. “Dad, will you say a prayer?”

Her father stood. The rest of us clasped our hands. The wood grain on the table’s surface was scarred, rough under my elbows. Noah gave a feeble wail. I bowed my head and kissed his hair.

The words my friend’s father spoke were simple, traditional—an invocation of happiness, of life-long blessings, of faithfulness. The prayer became a toast. He lifted his wine glass to his daughter.

“To Sara,” he said. “To Lance.”

The words came back to us, an echo: Sara, Lance.

Darkness entered the lamp-lit yard then. It passed through the white plastic canopy and settled onto the faces of those who had gathered. We became statues or silhouettes. The periwinkles gave off the stench of raw meat. The bride sat frozen. Her father seemed unable to go on.

The mother stood. “Raise your glasses, please,” she instructed.

Once again, we held up our goblets of water and wine. The mother blessed the daughter. She blessed the right man. Down the table, Liam drank deeply, one arm across my friend’s back. He kissed her.

After the meal, couples broke off to play games in the yard—glow-in-the-dark badminton, croquet. Sara remained seated. I waited for her to bolt, to head for the night-darkened road. I smoothed Noah’s back. I readied myself to follow my friend. It would take two hundred years of grieving, I knew. Two thousand 5 a.m. runs. And always he’d haunt her, the person who’d left her, who stood in the shadow of the person she’d chosen. This night, invoked and invited, he’d crept to the table to dine with her. They’d scraped clean the piecrust. They’d licked the juice of the meat from their elbows, emptied the dregs of their wine into the milky glow of the candles. I shielded Noah from the smoke.

Katie Young Foster grew up in the Sandhills of Nebraska. She is the 2016-17 Creative Writing Fellow at The Curb Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Masters Review Anthology, Arcadia, The Boiler Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The New Territory, and elsewhere. She is the winner of The Masters Review Anthology contest judged by Amy Hempel, and has been recognized by Arcadia Magazine’s 2016 Dead Bison Editors’ Prize in Fiction.