My mother has just left the dressing room—breathless after a string of instructions about greetings, pacing and organ cues. But there is no escape for me. It is hot enough without Bea's fingers in my hair and without Maura's hands tugging at my dress as though one, good pull is all that stands between respectability and my five-month-pregnant belly. But I won't say anything to my sisters and I will go on ignoring the sweat I feel beading on my forehead and my upper lip.
If I can stand here and smile, I am that much closer to escaping with Emmet. I just have to remind myself that this show is for my family—for my mother and my father; for Bea and Maura who bustle around me; and for my baby, who will be born before this year is out. The wedding needs to look normal and happy in every picture snapped today so that this baby, years and years from now, won't detect any reluctance or any sorrow in this day.
"Just stand up," Maura says.
I smile harder and try to suck in my fat belly, for this is what Maura means when she says "stand up." Like my mother, Maura speaks in code about my pregnancy. Bea is delightfully blunt.
"You should have shaved your head. Really gotten people talking," Bea says through a mouthful of hairpins.
With all this lace on my head and with this cheap, nylon dress clinging to my body, it is hard to feel like myself. It will be a stranger, an impostor, who walks up the aisle to meet Emmet. Emmet will still be Emmet. He'll manage somehow.
"We've got to go. Can you make it on your own?" Maura asks.
"Thanks, I'm fine," I tell her. But Maura looks doubtful. "Really," I try to reassure her. I put my hand on Maura's shoulder and push her gently towards the chapel vestibule. "I'm so totally, absolutely ready I might just go run down the aisle," I tell her.
"See you up front," Bea calls back as she leaves the room.
"Oh, baby," Maura says, and she looks close to tears.
"I'm fine," I say again.
Maura tugs again at my dress, then she kisses me with a little peck on my cheek.
Maura's marriage is almost over. She's been separated from her husband for almost a year, neither of them certain what they want and neither one feeling enough of anything either to save the marriage or begin the divorce. Or this is the way I see it. Maura doesn't talk much about what's happening now.
Maura blames the unspecified state of her marriage on our father. No one knows how serious she is, but she's told us all, including Dad, that the whole mess is his fault. Just before Maura's wedding was to begin, she was standing in the back of the church with my father. She was ready to join Doug and the priest at the altar, but my father hesitated before he led Maura down the aisle.
"You know, you don't have to go through with this," my father said to Maura.
Maura says she stared at him in shock for a minute.
He said it again, evidently thinking she hadn't heard him.
"Daddy," Maura said. "All these people are sitting here waiting and you tell me this?"
"Just wanted you to know you had that option," my father said.
Maura says this started her marriage on a note of doubt. She says everything after that was uncertain: her love, Doug's love, the whole notion of commitment. And who's to say, really?
My father figured he'd get it right when Bea got married. He figured that what had upset Maura most was the idea that everything was already set and the reception already paid for. What would happen to all that food if the bride decided not to get married? This is the way my father thinks. So, with Bea, when the moment came to begin the walk down the aisle to the front of the church, he modified his fatherly advice.
"You don't have to go through with this, you know," he said. Then he added, "We'll still have the party."
Bea burst out laughing and they walked down the aisle, my father understanding that Bea's laughter was her answer.
It's become a family expression. If my mother thinks it's going to rain, she'll say, "Oh, well, we'll still have the party." If Bea's home visiting and her baby won't stop crying in church, she'll lean over on her way out of the pew and whisper, "Still have the party." Even Maura's been known to use the expression.
Before she leaves the little dressing room, Maura instructs me not to leave—"people will see you"—until my father comes for me, but I leave anyway, to see what is keeping my father. I like the idea that he's dragging his feet. It means that that he's not anxious to give me away and that my wedding is something he doesn't look forward to, just like the others. I want this to be just like the others for him, though I know I've pained and embarrassed him.
"Couldn't you have waited?" he asked me when I told him about the baby. My mother cried for a minute and then grabbed me in a hug and started making plans. She doesn't waste much energy on regret. Emmet and I would have liked to get married on our own, but we would have broken my mother's heart. She loves the theatrics of a wedding—the music selection, the staging, the bride's first dance. She loves it all.
I catch the hint of a breeze and I step outside to catch more of it. When I bought this dress, I must have been in a punishment phase, as though spending the least amount of money possible would atone for my pregnancy. I found this number for twenty-five dollars in a thrift store. I don't like to think about who wore it before and why they didn't want to keep it. It's a little yellow (how fitting since I'm so obviously not qualified to wear virginal white) and it had a few tears that Maura carefully took care of for me. When we're alone, Bea calls it my "shotgun dress."
I can see my father now. He's sitting in the limo with the door open, having an animated conversation with the driver. My guess is he's giving the driver revised directions. He waves one arm outside the limo, pointing excitedly at the sun, but it's the reception hall he must be talking about. Behind me I can hear Maura whispering my name loudly like a hiss, but I lean against the door frame and watch my father.
My father likes directions; he likes to give them and to take them. I think it's why he warmed up to Emmet instantly. The two of them can discuss alternate routes to any given location for hours. They delight in telling one another about newly discovered streets or detours. I gave Emmet a road atlas for his birthday. I knew he would love it because it was the same one that my father refers to as his "Bible."
Maura is insistent now. She's come up beside me so quickly that I jump.
"I can't believe this," she says, looking out at my father.
"I can," I say.
"I'll get him," she says and tries to push by me.
"No," I say, too harsh. Maura looks at me with surprise. "Let me," I say, my voice soft this time.
Maura nods and leaves again. This can't be easy for her.
I am halfway to the limo when my father sees me. He leans out and waves, then ducks his head back into the limo for a last word with the driver. I wait for him and I watch him walk to me. He looks stiff and I think I see him limping a little.
"Ready?" he asks when he reaches me. He kisses my cheek.
"Ready," I say.
He takes my arm, gently, as though he might damage the fabric of my dress if he squeezed too hard. We walk slowly towards the chapel. Though it is dark inside the chapel, I can see Maura moving away from her observation post by the door. She wants this to go perfectly, I realize. She wants to ward off misfortune and unhappiness by smoothing away every wrinkle. She wants to protect me from her fate. I want to reassure her but she is already gone when we reach the chapel door.
Our entrance has been signaled to the organist who segues from filler music to the real stuff. Bea and Sam, Emmet's brother, begin their walk down the aisle. Maura steals a furtive look back at me and then moves into place with Emmet's best friend, Robert. We are next.
As my father guides me to the end of the aisle, I feel dizzy looking into the cavern of expectant faces with their frozen smiles. This is the moment when my father will tell me I don't have to go through with the wedding and, right now, I'm not certain how I will respond. Emmet looks so far away; if I didn't know it was him down there, I don't think I would recognize him.
"Let's go," my father says.
I turn abruptly to look at him.
"What?" is all I can manage in response.
"Let's go," he repeats, as though I didn't hear him.
Let's go? That's it? I stare at him. His expression is changing. He's beginning to look confused. Now, he will say it.
"Karen," he says. "Everyone is waiting."
I pull my arm out of his and spin away. I try to run but my dress trips me and I stumble onto the door frame of the chapel. I don't care who's waiting. I don't have to get married.
That is the inflection people use. She had to get married. They have to get married. I had heard it before my engagement; I had probably even said it. I knew two girls in my high school who had to get married. One had a baby my junior year, the other had hers graduation week. We could all feel superior to them, these girls who presumably slept around. The truth, of course, was that the girls who sneered at these situations like my friend Elise were the ones who regularly slept with their boyfriends and didn't get pregnant because they were all on birth control. I'd had my own scare but that didn't prevent me from shaking my head and talking about the girls who hadn't been so lucky.
Emmet and I were relative innocents. That's what got us. I wasn't on the pill and he didn't carry condoms. We didn't expect what happened between us that late winter night. But, far from being the tragedy I'd always imagined something like this had to be, my unexpected pregnancy was a delight to both of us. The baby brought Emmet and me closer and it gave us a vision of the future, something neither one of us had ever had before.
Outside the chapel, I walk slowly towards the limo. I don't know what I'll tell the driver when I get there. Maybe he'll just automatically follow my father's directions and take me the best route to the reception. And as long as I'm there, we might as well just "still have the party."
But I don't get far before my father catches up with me.
"Karen," he says. His voice sounds unfamiliar, angry.
I turn towards him. Now I am certain that he is limping.
"Are you all right?" I ask him.
"Am I all right?" He looks around, as though someone else might be there to answer. "You run out of your wedding and you're asking me if I'm all right?"
I don't answer.
"Karen, we have a church full of people waiting in there."
I can feel my eyes filling but I don't want to cry. I won't cry.
"We have to go in now, Karen."
"No," I hiss at him. "I don't have to go in. And, you know what, I don't have to get married." I am trying to sound vicious. I want to hurt him.
"Don't you want to?" His voice is soft and sad and my viciousness evaporates. But I can't think of anything to say. "What about Emmet?" he asks.
My father takes my arm and tugs on it, pulling me over to a bench on the side of the walkway. He is waving his other arm and when I look over I see that he is fending off a couple of the guests who have come out to see what is going on.
"Karen, talk to me," my father pleads.
"It was what you said," I mumble as I pull at my dress.
"What I said?"
I can't look at him now. I look down at my ballooning stomach and pick at a pull in the netting layer of my dress. If my mother were out here, she'd notice what I was doing and she would fuss at me and then fix the pull. I feel bad, thinking of her. I'm spoiling her show with my tantrum.
My father still has hold of my other arm, but his hold is loose now, more caress than restraint.
"Honey," he says; it sounds almost like a question. "You don't have to go through with this."
There. That's it. I jump to my feet.
"We'll just leave right now, if that's what you want," my father says with a look of determination. He stands.
I throw my arms around him, almost knocking him back onto the bench. My pregnant belly pushes against him.
"I want to get married," I tell him.
My father doesn't ask any questions. He just hugs me back. Over his shoulder I see Maura at the chapel door. I think she's smiling.
Notes from the Author
While the family in this story is definitely not my own, the family expression of the title came from my father's actual words to my oldest sister right before he walked her down the aisle. His words ("You know, you don't have to go through with this.") made her head spin with doubt. His reassurance ("We'll still have the party.") only confused her more. Reflecting on that memory one day, made me think about the things we do by rote and by peer pressure, versus the things we do intentionally and thoughtfully. It also made me think about the assumptions and stereotypes we reflexively apply to personal situations we know very little about.