Carrie’s wedding invitation arrived in the mail on a Saturday. I considered it the way one might consider a fast-burning wildfire approaching nearby foothills.
I sat down and scanned the contents. Then, for lack of a better idea, stuck it to the front of the refrigerator with a magnet in the shape of Frida Kahlo’s face. Now it has been there for two weeks. Sometimes I forget for a moment, only to catch a glimpse of its pink sheen out of the corner of my eye as I’m making coffee.
“I want to have a wedding someday,” Rachel says to me one evening while we’re cooking dinner. My back is to her, but I know her eyes are on the invitation. “I love weddings.”
“You do? I mean, yeah, I guess I do, too. I hadn’t really thought about it much.”
“Really?” she says. “I think about it.”
I stop stirring even though the onions are transitioning dangerously from opaque to brown. I want to be able to imagine this wedding that Rachel has in her mind. She is marrying me in this scenario, but I get hung up on the logistics. Some sort of officiant would say things. And we’d wear what? Wedding dresses? Would we really kiss in front of my parents? In front of my parents’ friends? When I was in the fifth grade, our teacher asked us to design and draw our dream bedroom. My classmates drew in-floor trampolines, giant gumball machines, and Olympic-sized swimming pools. I drew my room as it was, with one indulgence: a large pink chair in the shape of a hand. I’d seen it on a TV show. You sat in the palm and you could lean back against the thick fingers. I knew, while a stretch, this strange chair was at least within the realm of possibility. There are things that you can have and things you can’t.
I turn off the stove and scrape the onions into the trash.
“So, when you think of it, you think of just like…a regular wedding?” I ask.
She is looking at me now, head cocked to one side. She hands me the beer she’s been drinking. Dinner is a forgotten thing. The beer is warm but I take a sip anyway. To get to the refrigerator, Rachel has to squeeze between me at the stove and the kitchen island. We live in a neighborhood in Los Angeles where all the gay men want to live, so space is expensive. She pulls the invitation off the refrigerator and turns it over to examine both sides.
“Yeah, a regular wedding. But, obviously, like also very gay.” She looks up at me. She likes to tease, but never too much. She is never cruel.
“Very gay,” I nod, smiling back. “Wait, are you proposing to me? Because if you are,” I sniff the air, ripe with over-blanched broccoli and the burnt onions, and raise the half-empty beer, “it’s incredibly romantic.”
She puts the invitation back on the refrigerator under its magnet. “They get to have a wedding,” she says, tapping the front of it with her index finger. “We should get to have one, too.”
Once, after Carrie and I were over, my mother visited me in Boston. We took the T to Cambridge, walked around Harvard Square. As a pink dusk settled over us, she said “Let’s stay in tonight. I want to cook dinner for you. We can rent a movie or something.” She sensed I was still heartbroken, but we didn’t speak about it. She put her arm around me. “You know, when you’re feeling bad, you can still talk to God. You don’t even have to go to mass, you can just talk to Him.” She stopped. “Do you ever do that? Talk to God?” Her face was open, childlike. Her eyes glistened. She moved through the world in a way I could not fathom, expecting so much from people, and finding herself constantly disappointed. I nodded because what we had between us was so thin then, I could feel it bend and flex in the air. It threatened to snap and blow away at any moment. It was a small lie that cost me nothing. She smiled and took my hand.
We found a grocery store and she hunted for ingredients, baffled by east coast name brands. The fluorescence of the frozen food section seemed to amplify our distance from each other. I walked away from her there as she weighed a bag of frozen corn in her hand.
In the checkout line, two women stood behind us. They were a decade older than me at least. One had short black hair, cut into an almost military-style high and tight. They chatted easily, laughed. They were a couple, that was obvious. I noted the way they leaned into each other, touching absentmindedly. I felt something rise in my chest—a near even mix of awe and fear. I wanted to call Carrie and tell her how I’d seen these women and how it had seemed so easy. They were just buying groceries, not trying to hide anything. I could not remember ever witnessing anything like it before. I saw then how it might be possible. At the same time, I wanted desperately for my mother not to notice them. But she had. I knew this by the way she avoided my eyes. She picked up a pack of gum, she put it down. She looked at me a beat too long. Opened her mouth, closed it. Then she looked past me.
“Oh please,” she said, pointing to the front page of a tabloid. “Are they ever going to get tired of talking about Clinton and this Monica woman?”
It’s a Saturday morning and Rachel has taken her coffee and the invitation to the couch. She sips, squints at it, sighs, and sets it on the side table. “Are we going to this wedding? It says they want RSVPs by tomorrow.”
“I don’t know. Do you want to go? It’s a long drive. Or I guess we could fly?” I try to keep my voice light. I pretend I’m preoccupied in the kitchen, pouring the cream into my coffee, opening and closing a cupboard in a way I hope will suggest that none of it really matters to me either way.
“Do I want to go watch my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend marry some dude? I mean, it’s not something I’m dying to do. But, on the other hand, it could be entertaining. And I’ll gladly drink all their wine.” She looks up at me, pats the couch, inviting me to join her there. “Do you want to go?”
I sit down with her and pull her feet into my lap.
“I’m not sure. We haven’t talked in so long. Why did she even invite me? It’s awkward. Isn’t it?”
“Remember, Olivia asked me to be her bridesmaid. That’s just what we do, I think? You were a big part of each other’s lives, so she wants you there at this big thing in her life. It kinda makes sense to me. But you don’t have to go. I didn’t go to Olivia’s wedding.”
I pick up the invitation and look at her name.
The last time I’d seen Carrie, I’d driven two hours through the mountain roads of New England to the tiny college town where she was in the middle of a PhD program. I smoked American Spirits with the windows rolled down, thinking that maybe Carrie had asked me to visit because she missed me and she regretted ending things.
Instead, we ate french fries in a diner near her apartment, and she told me about the guy she had just started dating. Another student in her cohort named Brian. When it was time for me to go, we hugged. I held onto her a second too long, and she gently pushed herself out of my arms.
“I don’t know. Part of me never wants to see her again. But part of me wants to go. I really don’t want her to think I didn’t go because I’m still hung up on her.” I paused. “You know I’m not, right?”
Rachel stands up, leans over, kisses me lightly on the lips. She shrugs. “Eh. We’re all hung up on everybody, forever. That’s just life. But I know what you mean.” She walks over to the kitchen and puts the invitation back on the refrigerator.
Don’t forget to pack a bathing suit,” I shout from the kitchen, down the hallway. “Apparently there is a heated pool.” I wait for a response.
“What?” asks Rachel, stepping into the hall, drying her hair in a towel. “What are you even shouting about? You could not pay me enough money to get into a pool with those Ivy League, Silicon Valley fuckers. No.”
A drop of water balances delicately on the end of her freckled nose. She wipes it away and narrows her eyes playfully. She chuckles softly, proud of her own word choice. “Assholes!” she yells as a punctuation and walks back into the bathroom.
“You don’t have to come. Really.” I say, leaning my weight on the counter, but I hear the drone of the hairdryer and know I’m talking to myself.
I look at the invitation again. It has spaghetti sauce dried on one corner, a grease stain over Brian’s name. I study the small rectangle for the 50th time, looking for clues. Carrie is marrying him tomorrow at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, March 14, 2006, at a winery in Napa. Carrie’s parents Mary and Richard request the honor of our presence to celebrate their daughter’s marriage. There will be a ceremony and dinner and dancing. I run my fingers along the words, more slowly along the raised letters of her name. I tuck the invitation into my backpack. It is the only correspondence Carrie and I have had in three years.
The first night Carrie put her hands on me my mind moved fleetingly, in fear, to my mother. I thought of her for a moment and then she was gone. Then this is happening, I thought. This thing that I’ve wanted for so long is happening. She sat down next to me on my bed in my tiny dorm room, and her hands moved tentatively from my hair to my face. She didn’t even kiss me that first night. She just traced her fingers along my palm, spreading her hand out over mine. She laid her head on my chest—ran her fingers up my arm, resting them on my shoulder. She smelled like Pantene and clean, warm laundry, and I never considered pushing her off or running, not that first night. I pulled her closer, I touched her face, traced my fingers along her temple, to her jawline. And I said nothing, worried the sound of my scared, over-eager voice would break whatever spell had fallen over her.
When Rachel and I step out of the house, finally packed, it is raining. It’s a warm, light, dewy sort of rain we hadn’t even noticed from inside. I look up the street—everything is softened, the smell of wet pavement rises, things are on the verge of blooming.
Three hours later we are halfway up Interstate 5, golden brown foothills on either side of us. Rachel is almost asleep in the passenger seat. She has slumped as far down as possible, resting her tiny knees on the dashboard. She is the size of a 12-year-old boy, with a haircut to match, and the body of a middling gymnast—not too muscular, but wiry and strong. I could wrap her up and carry her as far as I would ever need to. “This song,” she says sleepily. “Uh, I still love Dar! Remember when we saw her at that tiny theater in Santa Barbara? I don’t think she played this…Can you believe that was two years ago!”
Rachel is good. She is patient when my mind wanders, when I struggle to pick an ice cream flavor—the simplest decisions grinding me down until she intervenes. “She’ll have mint chip.” “Just the check please.” “Take the job.” “Lie down.” “Kiss me, now.”
When I told my mother about Rachel, she was in her bathrobe, hair tied up in a neat bun. I’d driven an hour up the coast from LA to visit her for the weekend.
“So, you really are gay?” she asked, taking a long sip of her coffee.
I nodded. She looked right into my eyes and then past me, out the window to her vegetable garden.
“Well, OK,” she said, putting her cup down and standing up from the table. “I really like Rachel.” She put her hand on my shoulder. I flinched. She kissed the top of my head and walked upstairs.
Four years earlier, when I’d told her about Carrie, she’d cried. She’d sobbed. She was incoherent, shouting things at me like “Is this my fault?” and “I wanted you to have a good life!” She’d yelled about children and weddings and husbands. We sat in a rental car, in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant in rural Massachusetts, where we’d planned to have dinner. I curled up against the passenger-side door, ran my fingers across the bumpy rubber of the dashboard. “Oh God!” she’d bellowed. Later that night, as I fell asleep, my mind rehashing all the wild things she had said—the way she’d articulated her fears about my life, and how they were also my own fears—my stomach turned and growled, and I realized we’d never actually gone inside the restaurant. We’d never eaten anything.
When I pull the car into the truck stop—the sign reads Flying J Travel Plaza—I notice there are no other sedans, just a few semis in the distance and one large SUV filling up across the island.
I step out of the car into the central California heat. It pushes me to the earth, and instantly I feel tiny pinpricks of sweat on my nose, in my armpits. The thick smell of cow shit sits heavy in the air. On the back of the SUV I notice two bumper stickers: one is a stick figure representation of a nuclear family (mom, dad, daughter with one large bow on the top of her head, and son, perched on a skateboard), and the other peeling at the corners a bit, and faded to a light blue: Bush/Cheney 2000.
We aren’t in LA anymore, and we’re a good two hours from San Francisco. The SUV people are not our people. I rub my sweaty palms on the front of my jeans. I hear a soft bell jingle and see Rachel walking back to the car from the convenience store attached to the gas station. She has a Coke in one hand and a bag of CornNuts in the other. Immediately behind Rachel, so close he almost steps on her heels, is a large man in a baseball cap and a white tank top. His eyes are on her back, and then he looks up and meets my gaze.
The first, last, and only real fight I had with Carrie happened along the Charles River in Boston, in the middle of January. We were on the walking path, south of the river, just west of the Mass Ave. bridge. We had been walking for what felt like miles. It was our favorite thing to do that winter. My left hand was tucked into the pocket of her black wool pea coat, holding hers there, just out of sight—a secret. To anyone at a safe distance, we were two college girls out for a walk, close friends. She leaned her head towards mine, and buried her cold, red nose into my neck. At that exact moment, as her nose touched my neck and then her lips, and a shiver of cold mixed with desire sent bumps down both of my arms, I saw out of the corner of my eye two men standing just off the path, near a picnic table. They were ankle deep in snow, smoking cigarettes.
The world slowed down. I jerked my hand out of Carrie’s pocket and sidestepped a foot away from her, my shoulder connecting with her temple as she had been just about to rest her head there. Her hand shot to her face, shocked, betrayed. I kept walking as quickly as I could, glancing back over my shoulder at the men. They were still smoking, deep in conversation. They had not even seen two girls, more than friends, or, if they had, they had not thought twice about us.
Later that night in bed she would say to me: “It must be exhausting to be you. You care so much about what other people think. Always trying to hide. I don’t think you want to do this anymore. Do you?”
I hesitated, and then I reached for her, and she turned her back to me. Pulled the covers up to her chin. I put my hand between her shoulder blades and said nothing.
As Rachel crosses the back of our car, I take a step toward her and grab her by the hand, pulling her gently, but firmly toward me. She seems confused, but burrows into my half embrace and kisses me on the cheek.
The man, dad of the stick figure family, opens the driver side door to his SUV and pauses there, one foot in the car, one foot on the sticky asphalt. He looks at us, clearly working the situation out in his mind. I brace myself and find that where I expect to feel hot, electric fear, I feel something balling itself up inside me that is colder, bigger, and harder.
“You girls drive safe,” he says. He smiles weakly at me, closes his door, and is gone, south.
“What was that about?” asks Rachel, wrinkling her nose and taking a drink of the Coke.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “They had a Bush/Cheney sticker on their bumper.” I pantomime a shudder, but I feel steady, calm.
A half hour later, my phone rings and I see that my mother is calling. I would normally send her straight to voicemail, let her leave a message, and call her back a day or two later. But I see her name there on the phone, and I suddenly want to hear her voice.
“Hi honey! I didn’t expect you to answer! Dad and I are headed to the beach for lunch. We were talking and I thought it would be nice to drive down and see you tomorrow. We could take you out for breakfast?” she says.
“Oh, we're not home this weekend. We’re, well, we’re actually in the car right now, driving up to Napa for Carrie’s wedding. She’s getting married. I’m not sure if I told you that. We’re somewhere north of Kettleman City.”
“Carrie’s getting married. Oh, Lily. Sweetie. Is Rachel with you?” she asks.
“Yeah, of course. She’s right here.”
“Kettleman…” I feel like I can hear her thoughts. “You don’t have to go, you know? You could just turn around and go home,” she says.
I look at Rachel and then back at the road stretching out in front of us. We are surrounded by orchards of green almond trees. In another month they will be full of delicate pink flowers.
“No, it’s OK. We’re going,” I say. “It’s what we do. We’re going to drink all their wine.”