To the other bridesmaids, Evie Johnson appears happy.
Watch as she applies a thick layer of black mascara with one eye closed (the only way she knows how) in front of a gold-framed mirror that hangs in the gilded vanity room of the hacienda just north of Santa Barbara where her college roommate, Amanda Lee, will get married in less than an hour. Like the rest of the bridesmaids, Evie wears a blush pink, chiffon cocktail dress. Each dress is styled slightly differently. Evie's is strapless, with a thin pink belt wrapped beneath her small breasts and tied loosely at her back. She is barefoot now, but will soon slip on satin grey flats each adorned with a gold and silver broach. The flowers that Evie and the other bridesmaids will carry down the aisle, white baby's breath and matching pink peonies, sit in bunches in a sweating silver tub of cold water on a table laden with platters of fancy cheeses, a bowl of cut fruit, and several half-drunk bottles of champagne.
Evie screws the mascara brush back into its bottle and blinks several times to dry her lashes. At thirty-five, she appears relaxed in her body. She has made it through the insecurities of her twenties, left behind the anxious worries that her stomach was too soft, her hips too wide, her breasts too small. She is a woman comfortable in her own skin. Her skin is pink and freckled, especially along her bare shoulders and naked neckline. The skin gathers where the dress meets her arms, but she doesn't mind. A younger Evie would have fretted that the dress was too tight, that it made her look fat, but this Evie looks at the lines along her skin and accepts them as a part of who she is, a beautiful, strong woman. Evie is strong. She plays tennis three times a week, and has the thick calves and toned arms to show for it. That's why Amanda wanted Evie to wear the strapless dress ("You're the only one who can pull it off," Amanda said). It is also in part why Evie is so comfortable with her body, despite its minor imperfections—her body feels good because it's healthy.
The other bridesmaids sense this confidence emanating from Evie, and envy her for it. If only they knew the whole truth—Evie is not happy. At least, not today. Because, as you might expect, this story takes place at a wedding. It all has to do with love.
There are two men, both of whom Evie might be in love with. She isn't sure. This, she believes, is the source of her unhappiness.
The first is her husband, the accountant Alan Johnson, who will not attend the wedding. Alan is on a business trip in Vancouver, a trip which was mysteriously scheduled before the Johnsons received their save-the-date eight months ago.
You might wonder if Alan retroactively planned the trip after receiving the save-the-date, and you would be correct. It's not that Alan doesn't like Amanda. At one time, he rather liked her a lot. Amanda was the first girl Alan kissed, as well as the first girl he slept with. Even after all these years, he still feels awkward when Amanda visits them at their condo in L.A. Alan has no desire to attend Amanda's wedding and meet her fiancé, who surely knows the details of their adolescent sex life. Evie knows the details too, which is why she didn't pressure Alan into coming with her. Besides, as a bridesmaid, Evie will be busy most of the weekend anyway.
The second man is Evie's former lover, the painter Rolando Gaff. Fourteen years have passed since Evie last kissed Rolando on a warm New Year's Eve in Santa Barbara, but she still remembers the way he pressed her against the side of his car after they left the club on State Street. She was tipsy in the best way, her body warm from the alcohol and the shock of Rolando's fingers as he lightly touched her bare back. When she turned to say goodnight, he pressed his whole body against hers, nudging one knee between her legs and sandwiching her between him and the car. Afterward, when she couldn't breathe, he whispered against her hair (and his voice sounded loud and abrupt, slapping her awake like the cold breakers on the dark beach behind them), "I'll do this to you every night."
Kissing Rolando that night was a mistake. Evie had broken up with him two years earlier, but it was the kind of breakup that left the door open for unplanned run-ins at bars downtown that led to rendezvous on Butterfly Beach. Incidentally, Evie was dating Alan when she last kissed Rolando, but they weren't exclusive so she didn't count it as cheating.
Like Evie, Rolando had been an art student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But that was where their similarities ended. While Evie was a creature of habit, waking at six a.m. every morning for a jog along the beach before several hours of work in the open studio, the kind of student who finished her assignments on time and applied for graduate programs well in advance of their due dates, Rolando was, in a word, lazy. He slept in until noon, painted when he felt like it, and spent most of his undergraduate years "drunk as Vincent Van Gogh," as he so often described himself. It now mystifies (and, at times, shames) Evie that Rolando has become a successful painter living in Brooklyn while she is a mere junior graphic designer for a modest social media marketing firm that can't even afford an office building in L.A. Evie works from home, her primary companion an orange cat whom she and Alan found while on a walk around their neighborhood.
Why is Evie still thinking about Rolando after all these years? She chose Alan, after all. Some might call him the "safer" choice. He was certainly the more mature, more responsible, perhaps even the more good-looking (depending on what you like) man at twenty-two, and he's only grown more attractive with age. Evie did love him (still loves him, she tells herself as she applies a thin coat of lipstick). But ever since Amanda told her that Rolando was a groomsman in the wedding, Evie can't get that final kiss out of her head. When was the last time Alan kissed her like that? Would she ever be kissed like that again?
Panic awakens in her stomach like a dormant creature, and Evie no longer sees herself in the mirror. Instead, she sees the rest of her passionless life with Alan unspooling before her. Surely, she has not made the worst mistake of her life. Surely, she was right about Rolando all along—that he would have driven her crazy if they'd stayed together.
A bit of action to distract Evie. The bride approaches.
"Evie," says Amanda tersely. "I need your help."
Amanda is not yet dressed in her wedding gown. Instead, she wears a white satin slip with delicate lace straps and a matching lace hem that barely covers her bottom. The slip sucks tight against her flat stomach when Amanda breathes. Amanda isn't naturally thin, but she has been on a no-carb, no-sugar, no-alcohol diet ever since her engagement, and the flagellation has paid off. Next to Evie's healthy glow, Amanda looks perhaps a little too gaunt, perhaps too ashen. But Evie has little time to notice her own natural beauty, for the bride is rattling off a litany of requests. The messy bun of black curls pinned and hair-sprayed above Amanda's white neck bobs precariously.
"I can't find my bouquet. I think I left it in the chapel. Can you get it for me? And will you find Mom? The photographer wants her for pictures. And will you make sure Paulo's given the girls the rings?"
Evie rests a hand on Amanda's bare shoulder. Amanda is trembling.
"Relax," says Evie, giving Amanda's shoulder a squeeze. "I've got it covered."
Amanda smiles a pained smile of hesitant relief.
"Thank you," she says. "I don't know what I'd do without you. The rest of these girls are useless."
Amanda waves her hand around the room at the other bridesmaids in various states of readiness. Evie smiles knowingly. Eight months ago, when Amanda called to share the news of her engagement, she told Evie that while she would ask her sister, Mary Lee, to be the real maid of honor, she wanted Evie to be her secret one. "I can't not ask Mary," Amanda explained, "but you're the only one responsible enough to help me pull this thing off." Evie understood. That's who Evie is: the responsible, reasonable, put-together one.
As Evie leaves the vanity room, tiptoeing through the halls of the adobe hacienda toward the chapel, she can't help but wonder, was it her very maturity that brought her to this state of discontent? Perhaps if she had been a bit more impulsive, a bit more irresponsible, a bit more fun, she wouldn't feel like she'd missed out on so much.
At least she didn't have children. She and Alan always had an excuse not to—first, they had to pay off their student debt; then, pay off their mortgage; and then, save enough money so they would be financially prepared for parenthood. But, what was her excuse for the routine life she lived now? She and Alan lived in L.A. Shouldn't they have a list of wild experiences to show for it? A few celebrity encounters, at least, or a colorful story about an unbelievable night at Coachella?
Evie has heard of F.O.M.A. (the Fear of Missing Out)—she works for a social media marketing firm, after all, and that's the kind of catchphrase marketers love—but she's always resisted the idea. She is, in fact, a religious woman, a Christian. She believes in the divine plan for her life set down by God himself. She need not worry about missing out; she is on the path he preordained for her. And yet, if that's the case, why does she feel like a puppet trapped in the most boring room in the dollhouse?
When Evie reaches the narthex, she finds Amanda's fiancé, Paolo Diaz, standing in a grey silk suit surrounded by the rest of his groomsmen. He looks handsome, if a bit nervous, his black hair slicked back, his prematurely greying beard neatly trimmed. Evie notices that the baby's breath pinned to his lapel has flipped upside down, and then she sees the groomsman standing beside him. It is, of course, Rolando, with one of the flower girls laughing in his arms.
"Evie," says Paolo, spotting her first. He looks relieved to see her, a lady in pink sent with a message from his dear fiancée's mouth.
"How is Amanda?" he asks in a thick, rolling accent. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," says Evie. "Your boutonniere..."
"Ah," says Paolo, straightening the flower. It immediately flips upside down again.
"I guess I'm nervous," Paolo laughs.
"Let me," says Evie, and she sets to work pinning the baby's breath securely to the lapel. "There." She pats him like a child.
"Thank you," Paolo says.
Now is the moment when Evie should say something to Rolando. She turns to him, feels her tongue swell in her mouth. Rolando smiles, and the smile is like a boat that transports Evie back in time to Rolando smiling at her for the first time from across the studio during Drawing 1, to Rolando on their first date at McConnell's Ice Cream, to Rolando the night they ran into each other at pub trivia on State Street and later that evening, smiling wickedly while telling her what he'd like to do to her in bed. Is it the champagne, or is he even better looking than Evie remembered?
It is, in fact, the champagne, mixed with a shot of idealized memories. To any other woman, Rolando would not appear immediately attractive. Certainly, he is tall, nearly six-four. But he is no longer slender. Years of drinking have caught up with him at last, and he's grown soft around the edges, begun to develop a slight beer belly. His hair, once platinum black and curly around his ears, lies flat and greying and just a tiny bit greasy. Even his suit doesn't fit properly, the lapels flapping open like an envelope, the pant legs hanging loose over his dress shoes.
Still, when Evie looks at that mischievous smile, those glistening eyes—for we can all admit that Rolando has nice eyes, the kind of eyes that mean something, something you'd like to find out but are perhaps afraid to—the slumbering creature in her stomach flicks its spiked tail, sending a shock through her belly.
"You look good," says Rolando, still smiling.
What does that smile mean? Evie knows it isn't an entirely kind smile.
And then, as if to put a pin in Evie's shame and stick it to her, Rolando turns away to talk to another groomsman. It is worse than an insult. Evie is being ignored. And not out of spite, but of mere indifference.
She finishes Amanda's requests, finding the bouquet and Amanda's mother and the rings. Then, Evie returns to the vanity room. There is a green bottle of champagne open on the table, and Evie recklessly pours herself a copious glass. "Hell yeah!" shouts one of the bridesmaids, lifting her own, and Evie downs the bubbly.
What is it about alcohol that sharpens the mind before distorting it? As Evie walks down the aisle to a string quartet playing "Claire de Lune," every thought that is swirling inchoately through her distracted mind becomes comprehensible.
First, that she no longer loves Alan. The reasons are multifold, each a brick that when stacked one atop another builds a wall separating her from him. The way Alan insists on telling the same cheesy jokes repeatedly with full knowledge that she's already heard them and didn't find them funny the first time. The way he drones on and on when anybody asks him about the current economic climate, though clearly nobody cares; they were only asking to be polite. The way he is too introverted, preferring to stay in and watch a movie on Friday nights rather than go out to a party or a bar or literally anywhere. Evie could go on, brick by brick, but her mind is tumbling forward, propelled by a river of champagne.
Second, that this lack of love for Alan has opened in Evie the former attraction—a passionate attraction like no other—toward Rolando.
Third, that Rolando is still the wrong person for her.
Fourth, that she does not care, that she will sleep with him anyway.
And fifth—and here Evie makes the revelation of the weekend—that her religious faith may be the cause of her unhappiness, both in her marriage and in the rest of her life. Wasn't it because of her faith that she chose Alan, the good man, over Rolando, the reckless artist? And wasn't it also because of her faith that she did not insert herself aggressively into the L.A. art world (the way Rolando surely had in Brooklyn)?
Look at Evie, standing before the chapel with a fixed smile, appearing delicate as a flower in her pink dress. Only those of us who know about the three glasses of champagne she consumed in the vanity room notice how she sways a little, like a ballerina balancing precariously on pointe shoes.
Evie watches the bride and groom as they exchange their vows. Amanda looks serious, even severe, as if frowning into the sun without sunglasses. Paolo is crying, and the tears, the way his shoulders hunch forward, make him look particularly vulnerable. That is a picture of real marriage, thinks Evie. Because Amanda and Paolo are marrying later in life, they bring to their wedding day real knowledge of life's setbacks and sorrows. They know what they must face together, which is why the wedding is both a day of celebration and a day of preparation for the hard times to come. The bride and groom step up to the altar to receive communion from their pastor, a middle-aged blonde man who reminds Evie of a surfer.
Evie wants to sit down, but she can't. At least, not until the ceremony is over. Not until she's safely back in the vanity room. Oh, why did she have those three glasses of champagne on an empty stomach? But just then she catches Rolando's eye over the tops of Amanda and Paolo's heads, and she remembers.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Diaz host a reception on the outdoor patio of the hacienda, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Waiters in black and white suits float through the crowd of guests carrying trays laden with plastic cups of wine and tiny hors d'oeuvres on paper napkins. There is a particularly scrumptious bacon-wrapped blue cheese that is the topic of much small talk. In one corner of the patio, a mariachi band performs. Occasionally, a guest will request a popular pop song, which the band will play instrumentally before returning to Mexican conjunta. Above the guests, several palm trees sway in the breeze off the ocean. The great Pacific glimmers silver and dark blue. If the guests paused to look, they would see the occasional fin of a dolphin pierce the water. The thermostat nailed to the wall of the hacienda reads seventy-five degrees.
Evie stands slightly apart from the others, a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc in one hand, the other resting on the adobe parapet which separates the patio from the sloping green lawn that ends in a cliff overlooking the water. Her duties as a bridesmaid are nearly over. There are still a few wedding activities to watch, the toasts by Mary and the best man, whose name Evie can't remember, the first dance, the cake cutting. But now, the party is in full swing, and Amanda and Paolo are happily making the rounds. Evie is no longer needed as the secret maid of honor. Besides, she's too tipsy to be helpful anyway.
Evie wonders how she will get Rolando's attention, but she does not have to wonder long. If she could remember more clearly how Rolando is, she would have known he'd find her eventually.
Here he comes now, suit coat removed, white oxford sleeves rolled up, black tie loosened. He holds a plastic glass of amber-colored liquid.
"Hey," he says, stopping beside the parapet.
"Hey yourself," says Evie.
She spills a little of the cold Sauvignon Blanc down her wrist when she turns to face him.
He laughs and those lovely eyes twinkle. "Drink much?"
"Shut up," says Evie. She means it playfully, but it comes out mean.
"All right then," says Rolando, giving her a curious look and downing the amber liquid. "What's new with you? It's been a while."
"Not much," shrugs Evie. She feels off her game, but does what she can to make herself sound casual, confident. "Happy to be back in Santa Barbara."
"Who isn't?" says Rolando, staring in disbelief at the perfect ocean. "Every day I ask myself why the hell I left this place. It's a fucking paradise."
"But you live in Brooklyn, right?" says Evie. "That's different, but still pretty great."
Rolando shrugs. "If you're into phony hipsters and wannabe artists, sure. I'd rather live here. I'm thinking about moving back. There's a teaching job open at UCSB. I'm interviewing for it on Monday."
"No way!" says Evie. She wonders if her over-enthusiasm betrays her jealousy.
"Yeah," says Rolando. "You still in San Diego?"
"L.A.," she says, and tries not to feel disappointed.
"At least you've got the beach. But you couldn't pay me enough to live in L.A. Too much traffic."
Evie feels annoyed by this. "The traffic doesn't bother me. Besides, I work from home."
"Oh yeah?" says Rolando. "Still painting?"
"Yeah," says Evie. "I mean, I work as a graphic designer, but I paint too."
"Good for you," says Rolando, though he sounds uninterested.
Behind them, two of the bridesmaids (the especially irresponsible ones Amanda was worried about) have convinced one of the waiters to bring them each a car bomb. A crowd forms around them as they prepare to drink.
"Here we go," says Rolando, turning toward the bridesmaids.
Evie wants him to return his attention to her, but she can't think of anything to say. Besides, she's feeling something else preventing her. It takes a few moments for her mind, muddied by champagne and wine, to realize what it is: dissatisfaction. All at once, Evie wants to cry.
The two bridesmaids each drop the shots of white cream into the full glasses of black stout, tip their throats backward, and drink. The crowd claps wildly, causing Amanda and Paolo, who are talking to Amanda's grandmother on the other side of the patio, to turn and stare. Rolando sets his empty glass on the parapet, sticks two fingers in his mouth, and whistles loudly. Afterward, when the bridesmaids are wiping beer off their mouths, Rolando turns to finish his conversation with Evie, but our girl is gone.
Evie's goal is to sit in the chapel all by herself until she is sober, or at least until she imagines it's time for Amanda and Paolo to depart under a storm of rice. But when she arrives in the narthex, she sees the chapel is already occupied. The real maid of honor, Mary, in a dress with a halter top and a peony stuck behind one ear, sits in the otherwise empty pews. If Evie didn't know better, she would think Mary was praying. But according to Amanda, this wedding is the first time Mary has set foot in a church since they were children.
Evie considers finding somewhere else to sit in peace and quiet, the empty vanity room, perhaps, or one of the many window seats lining the hall of the hacienda. But Evie wants to sit in the chapel, damn it, so she steps inside.
Even with the thick carpet to quiet Evie's footsteps, Mary hears her enter. Mary turns, sees Evie, and smiles. She reveals a dark bottle of beer, which she lifts to her lips before saying, "Glad to see I'm not the only introvert at the party."
Evie laughs halfheartedly, a laugh she hopes conveys politeness mixed with the sense that she would prefer to be left alone. Unfortunately, Mary is not that easily put off, nor does she seem that much of an introvert.
"Join me," she says, patting the empty seat beside her. "I was just having a little conversation with God."
Reluctantly, Evie slides into the pew beside her. When Mary asks, "Want some?" while holding out the bottle of beer, Evie forgets her resolution to sober up and drinks deeply.
"Talking to God, huh?" asks Evie, handing the bottle back.
"I am," says Mary, taking another sip. "Well, Mother Mary, actually." She adds, "You know, the Mother of God."
"I know," says Evie, somewhat defensively. Then, "I guess she's your namesake."
Mary nods. "I talk to her on occasion. Not that she talks back. You ever notice that the most prominent woman in the Bible, the fucking Mother of God, is practically silent. It's just like men to venerate a woman who barely speaks, and when she does, she's passive as a plant."
"Huh," says Evie. She's never thought about it that way, but come to think of it, Mary might be right.
"Patriarchy," says Mary.
Evie sighs. "I guess."
They pass the bottle back and forth several more times. After her third sip, Evie rests the beer in her lap. The damp bottle darkens her dress. She sighs again and says, "I think I want a divorce." She does not know Mary very well. It could be the wine and the champagne talking.
In front of the two women, above the chapel's smooth marble altar, hangs an icon of Jesus crucified on the cross. It is a lovely icon, painted in a bold Spanish style and surrounded by a border of yellow and blue tiles. Jesus looks like the perfect man, the only sign of distress a drop of red blood painted on his forehead where one of the thorns from the crown pierces his skin. Even his face looks serene, eyes closed as if sleeping, head bowed against his chest in childlike security.
"Oh, sister," says Mary, shaking her head.
Evie tries to give her back the beer.
"Keep it," says Mary. "You want to talk about what's going on?"
"Not really," says Evie.
Mary pats Evie on the leg.
"It will be okay," she says, and the two of them sit side by side in silence under the closed eyes of the perfect Jesus until Evie finishes the beer.
When the sun begins to set in lilac and mauve plumes, shooting rays of golden light through the cottony clouds above the Pacific, the waiters pass out small canvas bags of rice and the wedding party form two lines along the tiled pathway leading away from the patio. The path ends in front of an expensive black car with "Just Married" written in curly white letters across the back window.
Mrs. Diaz clutches the frothy folds of her gown in one hand and holds Mr. Diaz's hand with the other. The two race through the line of guests, laughing as they're showered with grains of rice. One particularly naughty boy pelts the rice directly into Mr. Diaz's face, and he cries out when the rice stings him. Before climbing into the backseat of the car, the two turn to each other for another long kiss (a kiss planned with instructions from the photographer). The guests clap and holler. You can hear Rolando's whistle over the din.
Then, Mr. and Mrs. Diaz are inside, waving through the darkened window as they disappear down the lane. They will spend their first night as a married couple in a Santa Barbara beach house. After that, it's off to Paris for a week of honeymooning.
Evie disperses with the rest of the guests. She hands her half-empty bag of rice to a waiter, picks up a stray plastic glass and puts it in the trash. She heads back inside the hacienda to retrieve her purse from the vanity room.
Before leaving, Evie takes one last look at herself in the mirror. Her hair has come loose from its twist, but in the evening sunlight streaming through the open windows, it looks like she mussed it that way on purpose. She kicks off her satin flats and carries them in one hand, exiting the room feeling beautiful and tender and barefoot.
Outside, she finds Rolando where she knew he would be: drinking beer against the hood of a car, avoiding clean-up.
"Hey, you," he says, lifting his chin in hello.
Evie knows she cannot think about what she's doing. She certainly cannot think about Alan. Alan no longer exists; he is obliterated. She walks right up to Rolando, turns around, and slides herself onto the car's slick hood.
"Are you going to offer me a drink?" she asks, noticing that the hem of her dress has fallen like a petal onto Rolando's slacks.
He smirks and passes her the bottle. She rolls the bottle back and forth between her hands as if there were a genie inside who could give her at last what she truly wanted.
Title image "Strapless" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.