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Morse Code for Romantics


We were dressed to match the décor, pink peonies floating in glass bowls of water and gold glitter. So our dresses were gold, too, with tulle skirts that swished the floor, our bodices scaled with sequins. We looked like mermaids, and we walked like they would, suddenly rocked by the hard sensation of land, the heaviness of air. Except for us it wasn't sea legs, it was only champagne. Aquatic auguries of shipwrecks and drowning, or, depending on the folklore you consulted, the souls of suicides dead before their weddings. Either way, they were hazardous girls, ready to wreck you. The coral reef of their teeth, the cold kelp of their hair.

Hannah said, "I'm shedding sequins everywhere." We were lingering by the wedding cake, trying to delay going back to the head table where we sat separated by the groom's younger brother, Julian. Hannah herself, as the maid of honour, stranded on the other side by Adam, the best man, another brother. "I can't go back."

"You have to, Hannah. You're her sister." Livvy was sitting across the hall, lit by strings of gold lights. Her wedding dress chosen from what the woman at the bridal store had called the romance collection. She'd bought the first dress she tried on. When you know, you just know, the woman at the shop had said, beaming. Like when you fall in love.

Do you think that's really true? Livvy had asked, gazing at a display of pearl hair combs and crystal teardrop earrings, and the woman had said, Of course! Smiling still, but only with her lips now.

Ivory lace over her shoulders. A bouquet of peonies and eucalyptus, stems wrapped in gold ribbon. It had taken three of us to tie together the corset back of her dress, incorrectly, according to the photographer, who had sighed, retied it herself. I tried to divine the look on Livvy's face but she only sat there, removing peony petals from her bouquet, one by one, her hands steady as she stripped the stems clean.

"Adam just has these theories on everything. He's like, 'you know the problem women have?'"

"Besides him, I guess." Trevor, the new groom, sitting next to Livvy, leaning over to see something his friend Loreto was showing him on the screen of his phone. Third period of the hockey game.

"Yeah. He says, 'they don't have real feelings, anymore, women. They just feel what they're told to feel.''

"He wishes." The white cake was speckled with more gold, garlanded with fondant peonies, surrounded by pale macarons like seashells on a beach. "I don't want to go back, but we have to, for Livvy. We're the bridesmaids."

"There's another one. Somewhere."

"Mila's outside having another cigarette. Come on, we can't leave her there alone."

"She's not alone," Hannah said. "She has her husband."

At the bridal salon, months earlier, I drifted through the sheaves of pale chiffon. Stacks of magazines arranged on glass tables, brides getting married in rustic barns, in vineyards. The palettes this season were supposed to be soft, the magazines said, sweet, blush and cream, shades that whispered. I don't like the back, Livvy said, the corset. Of course, said the saleswoman, you could always order the dress with buttons, instead, and Trevor's mother said, no, it has to be adjustable, she won't know how much room she needs by then

Oh, said the woman. I see.

Hannah sighed. She said, "I'm going to steal a macaron, you want one?"

"No, thanks," I said. "I don't like meringue," and anyway I wasn't hungry at all.

At the table, I slid into my chair, next to Julian again, trying not to trip over my own skirt. He was moving a knife around his plate morosely.

"What's wrong?"

"I can't eat meat on the bone," he said, draping his linen napkin over the chicken. "It reminds me too much of what it was."

"You just want this anonymous blob."

He cringed. "Don't say it like that, either."

"Maybe you need to be a vegetarian."

"Maybe." The boutonnière pinned to his lapel, a pink peony, was wilting slightly. His dark hair had the raw chopped look of a fresh haircut. "I didn't know you were friends with Livvy."

"I'm not, really. I was pressed into service, sort of."

"Like the British Navy used to do."

"Yes," I said. "But for the sake of symmetry, not the Age of Sail. Your mother really wanted an even number for the wedding party."

Livvy was older than Hannah, just by a year. I lived for the days she'd cross the blacktop to visit us at recess on the junior side. In grade eight she wore high heels to school on picture day, black lace pumps, and dark lipstick. In the gym as we lined up to be photographed, I caught her teacher exchanging a look of disapproval with another teacher, lips pursed in prim reprimand. Still, they always chose her to bring envelopes to the office, to award student of the month. You could always count on her. Perfect attendance. She won the science fair three years in a row. Making plastic out of milk, growing crystals in an eggshell, breeding woolly blooms of mold in petri dishes. I remembered her ribbons, blue for first place.

See you tomorrow at our shotgun wedding, Trevor said as we all left the rehearsal dinner the night before.

Livvy said, No one's got a gun to your head. Adam rolled his eyes. Relax already, it's a joke. Take it easy with the mood swings.

"Did you want some wine?"

"Yes, please." I looked past Julian, but Livvy was gone. Only the petals marked her place at the table, like the ones Persephone left behind in the field.

"Should we say a toast?" The light from the votive candles licked Julian's fingers as he offered me a glass. Like his brothers he wore gold square cufflinks, a black silk tie with a slim gold clip.

I let the lip of my glass ring against his. At the bridal salon, Livvy stood before the mirror, back in her own things. A heather gray men's shirt, square hemline, pointed collar. She opened up the buttons, eyed the snug tugging of her camisole over her stomach. Don't worry, the woman had said. You'll get your body back in no time. Livvy lifted her face, looked up. Where did it go?

"I better go check on Livvy."

There were children everywhere, screaming and wheeling through the adults. I made my way through the sea, through the doors, past the guestbook I still hadn't signed, their names unscrolling in raised gold foil along the spine. Olivia & Trevor, even though she never used her full name. I found her in the hall's washroom, through the screen of green silk ferns that bordered the doorway. There was a fainting couch off to the side, upholstered in deep burgundy, and she was there, her eyes closed, her eyelids shimmering with champagne powder.

It's too bad about Livvy, my mother had said. We were kneeling in the dirt. She was helping me plant switchgrass in the rain garden I was trying to make at the side of the house. Because sometimes I looked around and was overwhelmed by the city's gray asphalt, by parking lot after parking lot, a cold spread of concrete, and I hoped this was the antidote. She had so much potential.

She still has potential now. I dropped a handful of mulch.

No, she said, it's not the same. Mothers didn't have any use for potential, whether they ever had it or not. They became too busy nurturing it in others, she said.


"Hey, Jordan." She wore a thin gold lariat around her neck, gold drop earrings. The makeup girl had overdone her, her cheekbones streaked with highlighter, two bronze slashes. "Are you having a good time?"

"Yes," I said, wondering if I should sit down beside her. Instead I stayed where I stood, twisting the bracelet she'd given us around my wrist, rose quartz and gold. "You look beautiful."

"Thank you. So do you."

"You can't tell," I said, and then blushed, swarmed with regret. "I mean, I shouldn't have said that—"

"No," Livvy said. "That's good. It will make his mom happy."

I thought of Livvy not in this white dress. In the clothes I knew her in. Blue flannel and old jeans. Or getting ready to go out for the night in what she called a black cami dress—it looked like a slip. Double strap Mary Jane heels, and red lipstick gleaming like the last lick of jam in the jar. Standing in the doorway of Hannah's bedroom saying I'm going to lie down, when Trevor comes over just send him to my room, while we slouched on Hannah's bed reading teen magazines with headlines like "How I Got Him to Notice Me" and "What's the Right Way to Kiss? Does He Like Me?" And Livvy said, Don't read that shit, tossing us a copy of The Bell Jar before she left. Or last autumn, driving Hannah and me downtown to the Loop on Halloween. She was dressed for a party she was on her way to, bride of Dracula—thrift store lace, lips blooded, singing along with the song on the radio, her and Karen O, Wait, they don't love you like I love you, wait…

Outside, the music slowed down. "Get ready, get ready," the DJ said, "we're just about the have the bouquet toss."

Livvy got to her feet. "Shit, I lost my flowers."

"You can have mine," I said, offering her my peonies.

"Thanks, Jordan. You coming? I'll throw it to you."

"I don't want to get married."


She sighed, tried blending in the makeup on her cheeks, like two bronze lacerations, with a crushed-up napkin. Closer, I could smell the eucalyptus from her lost bouquet, the perfume she always wore, J'Adore. I adore, which was supposed to be more muscular than I love.

"Are you alright?"

"Sure," she said, and smiled. "It could be worse."


"I could be marrying Adam,'" she said, adding "can you imagine?" at the very same time I said it, and we laughed as I tried not to see it as a sign.

She left and I pretended I had to use the washroom, sat in a stall while the DJ tried to work up the crowd. "Get ready, here we go," he cried. "The moment of truth, good luck, girls."

When I re-entered the hall, the bouquet toss was over. A pair of flower girls in tea-length dresses, white skirts brindled with gold, were fighting over it. Loose pink petals dropped across the dance floor. A few feet away, I saw her, Livvy, swaying now in Trevor's arms, her cheek on his shoulder, the black fabric of his suit (tailored, narrow lapel, Italian wool) sparkling gold from her makeup. "Can't Help Falling in Love," their song, Elvis pleading slow and southern, for his love to take his hand, his whole life.


When I turned, it was Julian. "Did you want to go for a walk?"

"Yeah, I do."

In the entranceway we passed the gilt-framed portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, an opera composer, the hall's namesake, moving past the oil paintings of Italian landscapes. We kept walking through the tight clots of smokers by the front doors, through the parking lot, to the edge of a dirty field, dry green mixed with the blue of the cornflowers.

Julian said, "We were out, one night, downtown at a bar, like a year ago, and Livvy took me by the hand and pushed me into the wall."


"She said, 'Alright, Julian, show me.'''

I tried to breathe easy. "What did she want you to do?"

"Kiss her," he said. "But I couldn't. Not like that."

He didn't look like his brothers; not like Trevor, who was handsome in the fine clean way of American football players from the 1950s—hard jaw, sturdy shoulders—or Adam, with the oily good looks of a billboard lawyer. Julian had the uneasy beauty of a Romantic poet—pale, consumptive, maybe lovelorn. The peak of his cheekbones, the hollow dip below.

The stars like smashed glass over us. For a moment we sat quiet enough that you could hear the sound of the freighters, down on the Detroit River. Then he shrugged off his suit jacket, unbuttoned his shirt to show me something over his collarbone, just below his shoulder.

"I got a tattoo."

A sequence of black dots and dashes. "Of what?"

"It's her name," he said, fixing his shirt. "In Morse code."

"That doesn't seem like a good idea. What if your brother sees it?"

"He won't."

"What if you wear a V-neck?"

"They don't look good on me."

"Well, what if you go to the beach someday?"

He said, "No one knows Morse code."

"Some people do."


"Girl detectives," I said. "Lighthouse keepers."

Julian laughed. I reached over to push back his shirt a bit, see her name again. It was beautiful, like a secret equation, geometrical and gloomy.

He said, "Maybe I don't know how to show my love."

"Show me," I said, "what you would have shown her."

We lay down in the field, the blue crush of cornflowers. Grit your teeth, they used to say, grin and bear it, back when grief was supposed to be good for you, medicinal and healing. It could be turned into something useful, like how oysters make their pain into pearls. I thought of her name tattooed on his shoulder, of lighthouses beaming out messages into the darkness of the night. Livvy, Livvy, Livvy. Of Morse code transmissions, little electric jumps sent out over a wire. But the beauty of Morse code was you could make a message of anything. Car headlights, a horn, knots on a rope.

"The universe is infinite," Julian said. "There are other worlds like ours out there, somewhere, other versions of us. I just tell myself somewhere in space, I'm with her."

"Does that work?" I asked.

"Sometimes," he said. And maybe it was true, maybe we could find each other one day, too, somewhere in the clouds, in a sky without stars.