The banquet room was dark and crowded. The walls stood dim and abyssal, wrapped in waves of glossy fabric cascading across the rippled periphery, ocean blue and glacial, like the walls of ice box covered in cold satin, glazed in indigo.
Maggie, noticing that her reception was enjoyable for all in attendance, and having just arrived from the ceremony, made herself look in the direction of Paul, who since the service had been sitting in the corner of the clubhouse’s dining room at a table draped in power blue tablecloth. He was talking to a girl with blonde hair, her breast welled-up tight and cleaved taut above a push-up bra, like twin canned hams, catching the errant attentions of several young men not bothered enough to look into her eyes. Paul’s posture was lax, shoulder blades pressed against the back rest of the chair in which he slouched, legs crossed beneath the smoke slowly streaming off the end of a cigarette he held away from his face like a dirty diaper. Maggie turned and inhaled as deeply as her tight corset would allow, and then, squinting her eyes, looked around the room at the lively swarm of guests she had invited to celebrate her marriage.
She paused for a moment, then instinctively, she turned to where Paul sat, puffing and chatting with the blonde, watching the guests on the shiny, lacquered dance floor in the middle of the room.
“Why hello,” Maggie said, grabbing Paul’s wrist. “Get up,” she said. “I want you to dance with me.”
“Hello there. And why is that?” he said, bashfully, having been caught off-guard.
“Oh, because – you look so handsome.” And Paul rose, offering no resistance as he followed her from the table to the dance floor across the room, at the same time managing to quickly milk the remaining embers from his smoke before stashing the butt on the tray of empty champagne glasses, all in stride.
It was warm on the dance floor beneath the florescent spotlights of blue and white. Maggie turned and met Paul’s hands. They held one another at arm’s length.
“Paul, honey,” Maggie said, “Thank you so much for being here. It means a lot that you came.”
“Nonsense. I wouldn’t even think of being anywhere else,” said Paul, trying to pick-up the rhythm of Maggie’s sway as she led. “I’m terribly happy for you and – besides – it’s good to see you.”
“I know and I’m glad,” she replied, attempting to focus on his words. “It has been so long.” Their voices were distorted, drowned out by the music ringing off the stage and the relentless chatter of the surrounding guests.
“Jack is so good to me. He’s a friend of Ray Dempsey,” Maggie said.
“I don’t know him that well,” Paul replied modestly. She didn’t respond.
After only a brief minute into their promenade, the music stopped. The band graciously nodded to the crowd before leaving the stage and the heavy dance floor dispersed as the guests left in search of something to drink. Only a few lingered.
“Well, I think I should make the rounds – thank people,” Maggie said.
“Hold on for a second,” said Paul. “Give yourself a moment.”
“So, since when have you become friendly with Mr. Dempsey?” he asked.
“Since awhile. Since Jack and I started dating,” said Maggie. “He’s a great guy, don’t you think?”
“I suppose he’s alright. I don’t know him very well. Never associated with him and that crowd. They were ahead of my time, you could say.”
“Oh, yes. Well, I couldn’t remember,” she said, looking around. “I really ought to thank some people.”
“Yeah, well, I remember him. Slow down. The party’s not even kicked-off,” said Paul. “Talk to me a while before your new hubby whisks you away.”
“Your hubby – your husband. You’ll have the rest of the evening to thank people.”
“Of course,” said Maggie. “But everyone is eating now and with everyone seated – honestly – I ought to say hello.”
“But I’m your old friend who has traveled far to be here and –.”
“I know, but—.”
“Where did you meet this boy anyways?” he chimed in quickly.
Maggie conceded and smirked amorously at Paul who was grinning back in anticipation of her reply. Suddenly, from the corner of the room, the blonde girl shrieked with laughter as two college boys circled like sharks on either side of her, joking with one another, gazing deeply into her chest. Maggie watched her.
“I said where did you meet this boy?”
“Oh, we met last year, through mutual friends,” she said. “He begged me to marry him until I finally agreed. You know the story.”
“Well, what I mean is, what did he do to – how do you say – win your over?”
“Gosh. I don’t know, Paul. I suppose he made me feel important. I fell in love.”
Again, the blonde chirped hysterically, basking in the boozy attention she was collecting.
“Love, huh. Well, you’ve fallen in then?”
“Love,” he echoed the processed answer she proposed.
“I married him.”
“Of course, why wouldn’t you?”
“Oh. It’s not that,” said Maggie, detecting the condescension in Paul’s tone. “It’s that I felt…that he made me feel like the only girl on the planet – made me feel that no one else could ever make me feel that way.”
“Ah – I see. That sounds a bit odd.”
She paused, dwelling on his remark, unsure of how it was intended.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“I said that sounds odd, if you ask me. But I imagine it’s a difficult thing to explain.”
“It is.” She stated this confidently.
“So – How did he do it?”
Cackles sprang-up once more from the blonde. Maggie focused on her, avoiding eye contact with Paul who, in the middle of his flirtatious interrogation, had grown less aware of the activity fluttering around him.
“What?” she said.
“I asked – how did the man propose?”
“Oh, I don’t remember. He did it the way people do.”
“Well – that strikes me as odd as well.”
“And why is that?”
“That is because I imagine it’s a moment that a bride would remember more intimately. That’s all. Don’t you think?”
“I think that every bride is different,” she said.
“Who are you looking at anyways?” Paul said, glancing over his shoulder. “What’s so fascinating over there?”
“No one,” Maggie said. “Nothing. I believe I need something to drink.”
“Well, well. That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” he replied enthusiastically.
Paul gently touched her arm at the elbow and steered her around in the direction of the wet bar. The motion appealed to him and, with her assent, it felt all the more natural. They walked single-file through the congested dining room. Maggie followed him through the surrounding crowd.
“Make way everyone! Make way. The bride would like something to drink,” he announced.
The line of guests parted and made way for Paul who ordered two drinks.
“I think,” Maggie said into his ear, “I’ll get some air on the terrace. It’s stuffy in here, anyways. Too many bodies.”
“Alright. I’m following you,” he replied.
They walked towards the glass door to the terrace. Maggie led the way, rearranging her bangs in its transparent reflection before the door was opened by the porter who had stood in the same place all evening, acting when called upon Paul followed, carrying a glass of seltzer water in one hand and a scotch in the other.
The terrace was empty. Several citronella candles lined the railing of the deck which overlooked the eighteenth hole of the club’s golf course. It was daylight still and the contrast between the dead Bermuda grass of the fairway and the lush of the putting green was noticeable. Maggie was immediately aware of the cool air on her skin as she stepped out into the autumn air. She listened to the muted volume of the noisy guest pilfering around inside through the building’s brick exterior. It was cold, but she walked across the terrace, leaned casually on the iron banister, and inhaled deeply through her nostrils before turning to look at Paul behind her.
“Here is your drink, Madame,” Paul said, handing her the glass of seltzer. She drank it quickly.
“Goodness…doesn’t it feel so much better out here? Just feel the air.”
“Certainly does,” Paul said, after a sip of his drink. He exhaled with his mouth open, as if to broadcast his refreshment.
They stood quietly for several moments and surveyed the manicured landscape below.
“Can you hear that?” Maggie said. “The band is back on stage.”
“Yes, I can. Maybe they’ll play something good this time.” He walked over to the window and peered in. Maggie watched him. By the soft light of the citronella, she saw him cup his free hand around his eyes to cut down the refraction of his reflection on the glass.
“Nope,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s the same ol’shit.” He laughed.
“Oh please. It’s not that bad. Come here a minute.”
He walked over to where she stood. They listened to the sound of band’s guitar.
“What is it?” he asked.
She paused, beaming, looking relaxed, while gazing out at the amber and gold leaves of the trees lining the fairway.
“Just feel how nice it is out here,” Maggie said.
“Yes, we’ve already gone over this.”
“I know, you jerk.”
“Now why am I a jerk?”
“Some people, ah-hem,” she said, “are too sarcastic for their own good.”
“Oh. I see.”
“I’m sure you do. How would you like it if someone mocked everything you said?”
“Not sure, really. Never happened,” Paul said with a feigned arrogance that made her smile.
“Well, I think it would drive you insane.”
“I don’t think so. I think I could take them on if it came to it. Besides – I’m mad enough as it is.”
He swallowed another weighted mouthful from his glass and watched the hot flames of the candles dance above their Palmolive-colored wicks in the outdoor air.
“So what do you do when you back come home, anyways?” Maggie asked.
“You mean besides attending other people’s weddings?”
“I saw that one coming,” she said, almost lightly. “Yes, beside that.”
“Indeed. I don’t know really – spend time with the family, I suppose. And they spend money on me.”
“Mmm…That must be nice.”
“You know,” Maggie began, “It’s nice to have you back. I’ve missed our talks. Have you ever though about moving back?”
“I do from time to time. But I’ve outgrown the place, the people, you know.”
“Oh come on,” she said. “I know you miss all of us.”
“Of course I do,” he replied, wondering who us was.
They stood in silence.
“You want to know something,” Maggie said suddenly, “you remind me of one of those old western movies, of one of those cowboys who rides into town when there’s trouble happening. You know. Sets things straight, then rides off into one of those hazy purple sunsets, guitar music and everything.”
“Ha – like some outlaw. Good grief! What am I saying?”
“What’s the matter with that? Those men are heroes, aren’t they? ”
“Nothing at all. Only you can’t forget: that sort cowboy never really wins. He never gets rich. He rides off alone, wanders around the desert like some nomad with a horse. And, well, he never looks that happy.”
“Yeah,” said Paul, “Well, let’s not worry about John Wayne – or his horse. Let’s have our drinks and enjoy this air that you’ve been talking so intensely about.”
“I don’t believe I have anything left. I chugged it all down, I think,” she said, holding her glass up to her eye-line examining it.
“No worries, I still have mine.” He smiled and leaned on the banister with his elbows, dug into his pocket for his cigarette case, drew one from under the metal clip, tapped it out, and lit it on the nearest citronella. He took a heavy drag, listening to the paper crackle beneath his nose. He remarked that it was, in fact, a beautiful night, that it was good to be home, and that he would be sad to leave the following day. He finished his cigarette and flicked it over the railing.
Maggie noticed the angle of his brow hanging down as it curled dully above his tired eyes, revealing his inebriation. She recalled how familiar his expression was.
“So,” Maggie began, watching Paul, waiting for him to finish his ritual, “when did you begin to smoke, huh?”
“At about nine – ten o’clock this morning,” he replied. “That’s usually when I begin.”
“Uh-huh. I should have seen that one coming as well. You know, that’s terribly bad for you. And it’s disgusting.”
“Terribly bad? I rather think it’s terribly good,” he said sharply, attempting to deflect attention, as he always has, away from himself.
“So Mrs. Jack Ethridge – how does it feel to be married?”
“Well – it’s a relief, I suppose. He wonderful man, owns his own business, a printing company, simply adores me.”
“He’s quite older than you, Maggie, isn’t he?” he said. His tone, uneven and rhetorical.
“Oh, let’s drop that business, Paul. You know me. I hate looking at people in terms of such things. I’m happy. He makes me happy. What else could matter?”
“Yes. Well, I hate to put my two cents in – especially when I’m not that well acquainted with the parties involved – only it seems to me that – not to say the man is old, but rather, you’re so young. After all, I mean.”
“I’m not young,” said Maggie. “I’m certainly old enough to love and marry whomever I choose.”
“Love,” Paul repeated, his eyes fixing themselves on the fairway. “I guess love is an attractive thing to be in. I wouldn’t know. I think I would like the term better if people used it a little more sparingly. I mean – to me anyways – it always sounds a bit artificial when you hear it branded about so – what’s the word – leisurely. I don’t know. I could be wrong. Everyone says it, I suppose. Geez. I can only imagine this predatorily desire people have to use the word on any ol’inanimate thing. You know me. I honestly don’t think I could ever do so in such a way, when I come right down to it. But you know. Some people are made for it. You’re not the only one! I even think hubby is one himself.”
“Who?” said Maggie.
“Who do you think?”
“Jack? Mmm, I guess. I think Jack grew out of that phase a long time ago. Not to say he doesn’t love me. We really don’t say it. Well, not everyday. At the right times and stuff. He always manages to tell me one way or another. Or shows me somehow.”
“I thought he adores you, this man,” Paul said.
“I don’t understand,” she replied.
“Ah – I’ll let it go. I’d rather not talk about it on such an important night of yours. It’s just odd to me. That’s all.”
“Oh,” said Maggie, emphatic and defensive.
“I’m not a jerk or anything. I don’t know. Maybe I am. I just have my own thoughts and – in my silly little way – I try to express them. The best I can, anyways.”
He leaned in towards her, as if to reach out at the smoldered ash of a dead campfire, feeling for heat where it once had been but no longer is: smokeless, dark, and without warmth.
“Look,” said Maggie. “It’s time I finally thanked the –.”
Paul said, “It isn’t that I can’t appreciate how one person feels when they decide to get hitched – or whatever – and plan to spend the rest of their lives together, have children, buy a minivan and all. I mean, I can understand. He makes you feel that. I guess I’m just not built that way. It always has had to be different with me. Before, you know. I mean, love and all.”
Maggie had listened with restraint and, she believed, with politeness, but the persistence with which he handled the subject in the manner that he did wore her patience away.
“Look, I really must get inside. I have to greet my guests who must think I’m incredibly rude by this point. Goodness, I should have been in there before the band began playing again. So I think I’ll go inside and be a good hostess.”
“Of course,” Paul said. He relented. “Go ahead.”
“Are you coming?”
“In a minute, Mrs. Etheridge. Go ahead.”
“Ok. See you in there,” Maggie said.
“Alright, and…” he paused, “congratulations.”
She smiled back. He pretended to return it.
Paul watched her disappear through the glass door then slowly turned to lean on the railing. It saddened him, he thought, that she was no different from any other American girl her age and he felt disappointed in her for behaving the only way she was expected to, for sticking to the script that the world had written for her. Cradling his empty glass in his hand, he gave it a single shake, and listened to the remaining ice cubes rattle together. He took out another cigarette and placed it between his lips.
Inside, the music subsided. Someone at the microphone asked the guests to welcome Mr. and Mrs. Jack Ethridge. Everyone clapped as the couple made their way to the empty dance floor. The cheers roared-up before bottoming out and male singer began a ballad to which the couple danced. All the guests watched in amorous admiration. Several whistles cut though the song and the room filled with the flashing of cameras.
When Paul finished his cigarette, he went inside. He walked quickly through the crowd entranced by the dance floor spectacle, directly to the wet bar where the bartender had taken advantage of an opportune break to tidy up his station and replenish his stock. Paul remained there for almost twenty minutes, listening to the band.
Soon, when it came time for the newly weds to leave, the entire party congregated outside the front entrance of the clubhouse where a horse and buggy was parked, waiting to take the couple away. Paul followed the crowd outside, looking on from the periphery. He sat down on a wooden bench behind the cluster of people. No one had taken it. He watched the couple gather at the mouth of the door. The crowd applauded and gave their final regards. Paul saw what he could from his position in brief glimpses through the gaps of people bunched together, throwing confetti and waving streamers. The couple mounted the carriage and embarked, waving gratefully to their cheerful onlookers. When the buggy pulled away, a few guests waited on the curb to watch the couple as they rode away.
Paul remained seated and listened to the sound of the horse’s shoed-hooves click across the pavement. The sound grew softer as it moved away in the autumn evening, off into a hazy purple sunset. The music was gone.