The church smelled of wax and roses. Suffocating, although I seemed to be the only one who thought so. I felt too warm, too restricted wrapped up in this expensive monkey suit. There were far too many buttons, too many shiny, uncomfortable poky bits, and this bow tie … what was up with this damn torture device anyway? I reached up and tugged on it, only to have Amanda pull my hand away and look up at me with her squinted, hazel eyes. I parted my lips but kept my teeth clamped together.
“It’s too tight,” I hissed.
“Stop fidgeting or I’ll make you hold my hand like I did when we were little.”
The truth was, Amanda had always been little. The top of her head barely reached my shoulder and she weighed just over a hundred pounds. Still, she was a force to be reckoned with, and normally I would listen and comply when she gave an order. Now she was issuing a threat, one she thought would stop my somewhat childish behavior, but I wanted to move and pull at my bowtie even more after I heard her words in the desperate hope that she’d follow through with her punishment.
I scanned the room and realized that it was full. There were easily two hundred guests if not more. I shook my head. Who in the hell knows this many people? I certainly didn’t.
The pews were separated by a center aisle. On one side sat a collection of individuals that were in some way either related to me by blood, or attached by some other means. I squinted. Okay, that guy, the older one, the one sitting next to Aunt Audrey. What’s his name? He’s the guy who packages up Mom’s pork chops and freshly ground beef over at Simpson’s Market every Saturday. I realized I had never seen him dressed in anything other than the blood-stained, yellowing apron he always wore wrapped around his round, Santa Claus belly. He wasn’t related, but he had supplied the main course of every meal served on my mother’s dinner table since as far back as I could remember. Nothing says family like a neatly trimmed pork roast.
Wait. It’s coming to me. Mr. Gregory. Yes, that’s his name. Memories of Mom greeting him with a smile on her face as I tagged along with her as a child on her weekly shopping trips poked at my over addled brain. They were gone as quickly as they’d appeared.
I reached up and pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck so that I could swallow down the horrid taste that had accumulated on the back of my tongue. I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Gregory looked wildly out of place in his fancy pin-striped suit and silk tie. Almost as out of place as I felt.
“Stop it, Caleb.” Amanda reached up and gave the sleeve of my jacket a hard tug. “I mean it.” Her voice was a whisper, but I heard it loud and clear. She’d been talking to me for years. Now I wish I had been better at listening.
I turned my head and looked at the assortment of people I’d never seen before seated on the other side of the aisle. My eyes scanned the rows of well-dressed guests. The longer I looked, the faster my heart seemed to beat. I was beginning to panic. I needed to find someone, anyone I recognized.
Finally, my gaze landed on two people who looked vaguely familiar. James and Alex, my soon to be brothers-in-law. James sat still, his hands in his lap. It was obvious the kid was bored, but he was politely so, just as he’d been taught. I spied the cords trailing from the buds in Alex’s ears. They were attached to his phone, which had undoubtedly been snuck into the church. A quiet rebel, that one. He was looking at me, his mouth moving, but the words he silently spoke were not meant for me. By the way he bobbed his head, my guess was that he wasn’t listening to a ballad. The tempo to his unheard song was at least as fast as the pounding of my heart.
My stomach clenched. Yes, I’d seen these two before. I’d even spent some time with them. Still, I didn’t know them any better now than I had months ago when we’d first been introduced. Seeing them now made me feel worse instead of better, and I nearly jumped when the first few notes of the wedding march sounded.
I looked away from the boys and took in a huge breath of waxy, floral scented air. Everyone in the pews shifted toward the center aisle, and like a wave on the ocean, all heads turned and looked at the back of the room.
There she was, my bride, all dressed in white. Her head was covered in the filmy netting of an intricate veil and her neck was draped in a single strand of pearls. I watched as she walked toward me, the skirt of her full gown swinging forward and back like a large, silent bell with each step she took.
She held onto her father’s arm as he escorted her down the aisle. Funny, I thought, as I scrutinized the man walking beside her. How come I hadn’t realized until now just how big and formidable he is? Then I realized it wasn’t funny at all.
The notes from the organ seemed to swell in the overheated, over scented room. The space was large, but I felt boxed in, like I was being crowded and deprived of air. My bride continued to make her way toward me, her steps timed perfectly, just like she’d practiced at rehearsal.
In another few seconds, she was standing right in front of me, the organist timing the conclusion of the oft played piece of music with my bride’s last approaching steps.
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
“Her mother and I do.”
Again, just as we’d practiced, I reached to take the edge of the white, tulle veil she wore between my clumsy fingers. The room was hushed, the only sounds filling the silence were the swishing of wedding programs as they were used to fan heated faces.
“You’re crazy,” I thought to myself. “So dramatic.”
I felt a spark of confidence return to urge me on and I took a deep breath. I smiled as I slowly lifted the fabric up and over my bride’s head. That’s when I knew I’d been right to be so ill at ease.
The face I uncovered didn’t belong to the woman I truly wanted to marry.
Mama fussed over me, making sure the long line of tiny buttons climbing up my back were all fastened correctly. She hummed to herself as she fluffed, folded, straightened, adjusted, then readjusted. I imagined I was much like any bride, decorated like a beautiful cake and made to stand still while all the frosting and other sparkly things were placed until they were just so.
I’d waited a long time for this. Today I was the diamond, and I was going to shine, shine, shine.
Daddy had gone through this past week acting tough and manly like always. A man of few words, he’d shake hands or engage in a brief and awkward looking hug when greeting out of town guests. He can’t fool me, though. He tries to hide them, but I have always been able to find his vulnerable spots. I’m his little girl. Those spots are there because I gave them to him.
The sun was shining brightly in the hall when Mama and I walked out. She kept telling me not to cry, not to ruin my make up while she dabbed at her own eyes with a smudged tissue. Daddy was there, a close-mouthed smile hiding beneath his neatly trimmed mustache. He was a big man, handsomely dressed in his black tuxedo. Before Mama lowered the veil over my face I thought I saw that his eyes were looking a little red, too. I just smiled up at him without saying a word. He wasn’t on the verge of tears. It was dust, I’m sure, or the pollen swirling around in the summer time air.
I saw Daddy move his elbow away from his body and I slipped my arm inside. His hand was warm when it covered mine and I leaned into him.
“You’re beautiful, baby girl.”
I smiled. Yes. The pollen sure was thick this morning.
My heels clicked along the tiled hall. Mama pressed a kiss to my cheek before she slipped between the big double doors and disappeared inside. In a few moments, she would be sitting in the first pew and it would be time for the wedding to begin.
It had taken awhile for us to get to this point. To say Mama and Daddy had not been excited about me marrying Caleb Graysen would be an understatement.
Mama never denied the fact that Caleb was handsome. His hair, the color of mahogany, and his eyes, a light green framed by dark lashes were an appealing combination. She’d mentioned once or twice that the two of us would have beautiful babies someday—if that was what I wanted, of course, to have babies with someone other than the handful of worthy suitors she and Daddy had been suggesting over the years. Mama never argued Caleb’s well-mannered demeanor, either. Even though he’d never traveled further south than Oklahoma City, he always remembered to say yes or no ma’am. She wasn’t completely won over, but she wasn’t completely opposed to our union. Caleb had charmed her just as he’d charmed me.
Daddy, however, was a different story.
Caleb wasn’t good enough for his little girl. Caleb didn’t have enough money, or a well-known, highly respected family lineage. He thought Caleb was soft. He never used the word spineless, but I know it had crossed his mind a time or two. The fact that Caleb wasn’t incredibly fond of whiskey … well, that didn’t help much, either.
Then there was that whole thing about Caleb asking his best friend, Amanda Martin, to stand up with him at the wedding. Mama couldn’t get past the fact that he had chosen a best woman instead of a man. It was untraditional. Didn’t he have any brothers or a cousin somewhere who would do him the honor? Daddy thought it unnatural that a man would have a female best friend. They had been best friends, though, since childhood. It was something Caleb felt strongly about, having Amanda up at the altar with him, and it was one of the things I knew I would not be able to talk him out of.
My parents didn’t understand what it was that I found so intriguing about Caleb Graysen. I could see where they were coming from. He wasn’t the kind of boy I’d been attracted to in the past. He was not all that interested in sports, although he pretended to be knowledgeable in tennis when we first met. It was obvious that he’d never picked up a racket when I finally got him on the court, although the black eye he sported for more than a week after I accidently hit him with a ball was somewhat endearing. He had no interest in watching football or television, or playing eighteen holes with Daddy at the club.
His clothes were something else. I’d called him slovenly many times in the past. He thought the term harsh and inadequate, and defended his blue jeans and soft button down shirts as acceptably comfortable.
Being well-dressed was not the only thing Caleb shunned. He was also quite helpless with social interaction. He fumbled over small talk, and had only lived outside of the small town in which he was raised since attending university five years ago. Fortunately, his nose was always stuck in a book. He’d filled his head with things he’d never experienced, traveled to places he’d never seen, and lived a multitude of lives he’d never lived. He had a college degree on which to stand, and he held his own, although the tight smiles my friends wore on their faces while we were all out for the evening told me they talked badly about Caleb behind his back.
There was that stain on his favorite sweatshirt that drove me crazy, and his hair always seemed just a little too long. He wore sneakers all the time, and his dog liked to sit with him on the couch. Heath wasn’t the worst dog in the world. He was sweet, but he was big and hairy, and he slobbered. A lot. And why did he have to go everywhere Caleb went?
I cleared my throat as Daddy moved me closer to the doors. The organist had not yet begun to play and I felt the grip I had on my bouquet slip. The palms of my hands felt sweaty, and I was finding it hard to breathe from beneath my veil.
I heard them, the first notes of the wedding march, and I saw Daddy look over at me out of the corner of my eye. He patted my hand again before pressing his palm against the door. When he pushed it open, I felt a rush of warm air pour over me, the scent of wax and roses hovering around my covered head. Everyone in the room turned in one fluid motion. Their eyes were all on me.
Shine, shine, shine.
I wanted to wipe my sweaty palm on the full skirt of my dress, but I didn’t. I wrapped my fingers tightly around the handle of my bouquet and took a step.
Pause. Step. Pause.
As I passed each pew, I saw people smiling at me. There were murmurs as I moved. “Such a beautiful bride!” “What an extraordinary dress!” “Those flowers are stunning!” These whispers carried me to the front of the church, and all the while I ignored the gnawing I felt down deep in my gut.
Cold feet. That’s all it is. Just cold feet.
I heard a male voice. The pastor. Then Daddy was speaking. I looked to the side, saw him smile at me again before he sat down next to Mama. When I turned, I was facing Caleb.
He reached out and took the edges of my veil in his fingers. Was he shaking? The gnawing in my belly grew worse as he lifted the lace and tulle. When he moved the veil over the top of my head, I caught his gaze.
Not cold feet.
I knew in that instant that Caleb did not want to marry me.
What surprised me even more than that, though, was the realization that I didn’t want to marry him, either.
Caleb turned and looked at me, a sheen in his green eyes. I took a deep breath and smiled at him. It’s taken him years to see it, but it looks like Caleb finally figured out that I’m the best woman—at least the best woman for him—after all.