The sun is warm on my face. Bachelor parties should be made illegal. Not that I overslept. The wedding is scheduled for three. The guys won’t be here until two. I test the condition of my head as I sit up. I should have killed my brother, instead of that last bottle of Glenfiddich. Some good luck, beginning my life with Elizabeth totally hung over.
I slide off the edge of the bed, feeling for my slippers. I’ll be okay, once I shower and shave. Breakfast might help, but later. It’s been a big change from a vegetarian diet and carrot juice to an orgy of Cordon Bleu with three different kinds of wine. Pot is so much easier. Much better afterglow. The first time, always remembered as the best. That, along with Shelley and the other first time. I start to hum California Girl and stumble into the bathroom. Then the song bursts full in cadence with the pulsating beat of hot water stinging my back. Five minute shower and I dry off, folding the towel back on the rack. Much as I hate it, working out pays off. Still, I might get a little something to sustain me through the day. It’s been a while.
I examine my face in the mirror. Good hair, expensive cut, worthy of a lawyer, MBA or any boy-type wonder along Chicago’s LaSalle Street. Also worthy of one who’s about to marry the boss’s daughter.
I squint and stick out my tongue, expecting it to be coated white. But it’s reassuringly pink. Suddenly I see a phantom Shelley behind me screwing up her face, and I have to laugh out loud, just like I’d done so many times before. At sixteen, everything seemed funny. My body tingles, remembering her touch. I wonder what happened to the back-yard tepee that was our world for one magic year before her family moved from Malibu to Tahoe. Every day after school, racing up the San Fernando hills, lush and green before the chaparral turned tawny. We’d climb high, the Mustang like a stubby red fingernail tracing the sandy-colored road. Shelly straddled the front seat, pressing herself against me. I Can’t Get Close Enough to You. That was her mantra. My God, no woman ever said that to me before or since.
I finish shaving and slap on the aftershave that Elizabeth bought. She says it turns her on. I’ve never noticed any difference, but I aim to please.
I need coffee to face the day. As I walk through the living room, I flip on the TV but Saturday morning programs are crap. A nursery rhyme sing-songs over the sound of running water as I rinse out the coffee pot. Solomon Grundy, born on Monday, christened on Tuesday…
“married on Wednesday…” I holler back, remembering the doggerel my grandma used to sing.
I watch the coffee filter down, then take my cup into the living room, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Still naked, I start flipping channels and finally turn it off and just sit on the couch in silent contemplation. Chicago high-rise, a far cry from California. Yet at least once a month I consider going back to nirvana, to see if I can recapture the rapture. But LA is inappropriate for a honeymoon, and Elizabeth has decided on two weeks in the Orient.
My suit hangs in the closet ready to take me to the altar and await my gorgeous bride. We make a handsome pair. That’s what everyone says. Then the snapshot of Shelley and me at the high school prom comes to mind – she draped in her pink boa, me in a purple double knit, each with long hair touching our respective asses. A beautiful couple. That’s what everyone said back then. All things are relative.
Memory creeps on to graduation and Joanna’s astonishing proposal. Would we like to borrow her van and spend the summer cruising up and down the coast, just Shelley and me? That the offer is from Shelley’s mom is unbelievably cool. That my own folks, Midwest transplants, put the kibosh on our plans is expected and ultimately final. If you intend for us to pay for college… That was their trump card.
Even now, I feel shame churning in my gut. A man isn’t supposed to cry.
For a moment the rumpled bed beckons and I yearn to curl up with the covers over my head in a fetal position. But there’s too much coffee in my system and I’m wired.
Suddenly the doorbell brays and I jump, the adrenaline making my heart pound. I grab my robe and go to the front hall, pressing the buzzer, then stand at the open door, waiting.
“Hey Bro, glad you’re up. It’s time to get this show on the road.” He looks me up and down. “Well at least you’re shaved. How’s your head?”
“I’ll live,” I mutter, standing aside as he sweeps in with a rush of cool air.
“I popped a couple Excedrin PM’s before going to bed. Great to head off a hangover.” He shrugs out of his topcoat, revealing best man’s attire in all its splendor. “Your valet is here to help with the toilette. How far have you gotten?”
“You’re looking at it.”
“Might’ve known. Damned stupid to party the night before.”
“At your house, carousing with your friends, drinking you under the table…”
He grins. “Hail tradition. I hear the girls took your beautiful Liz to a male strip joint.”
“I want to go back to California.”
“Sure, sure. Plenty of time for that later.” He pushes me into the bedroom and leers as I drop my robe. “Get your underwear while I put in the studs and cuff links. The guy will be here with the limo in half an hour.”
“I’ve been thinking about Shelley. She showed up in my mirror while I was shaving.”
“She’s bad news. Forget her.”
“I should have offered to help. Poor kid was all alone.”
He is bending over the shirt spread out on the bed. “She was not alone. There was a parade of guys as far as the eye could see, all as familiar with her bed linen as they were to Joanna’s. That Joanna died is neither Shelley’s fault nor yours. Cancer comes without blame.”
“She called me last week.”
“God damn!” His face is red with anger, although it could be from bending over.
“She calls every few months. We talked for an hour.”
He holds up the ruffled shirt and I put my arms into the sleeves as the starched fabric crackles. “Okay, so you talked.”
“We still have a lot in common.”
He sits on the bed, his face serious. “Shelley was a high school romance. You were out of her league then as you are now, for pretty much the same reason. California is a different world. You didn’t belong there then. You don’t belong there now.” His face forms an uncharacteristic scowl. “Don’t throw everything away for a dream.”
“Jesus – did you hear what you just said? Does that violate the American ideal or what?”
The doorbell interrupts what was beginning to be an interesting philosophical discussion. I grab my pants and hook on the suspenders. By the time the driver gets up to my floor, I’m dressed and ready to go.
The trip to the church is short, and we arrive thirty minutes before zero hour. My brother stays at my elbow as we enter. The scent of flowers and women’s cologne is stifling. I begin to feel claustrophobic and decide to find the bathroom for a little air. I can’t shake my brother who follows just two steps behind.
The john is blessedly empty, cool and smelling of soap. “I’m okay,” I tell him.
“I know. And I’m here to keep it that way.”
“You’re my kid brother. What gives you the right to be bossy?”
“You’re going to marry Liz and live happily ever after. Shelley was a killer broad from the get-go. She may have learned it from her mother, but she was an avid and willing student. You escaped. Be grateful and keep it that way.”
I struggle to conjure the image of Elizabeth and feel my eyes cloud over.
“Here, I brought a little something in case you get cold feet.” He locks the door, pulls out a bag, and proceeds to roll a joint. The nick of the match makes me jump. Then the fragrance fills the room as he takes a deep drag and hands it to me. My eyes sting and I inhale deeply.
By the time I make it to the altar, I am calm and relaxed. Suddenly I remember the last lines of the nursery rhyme. …died on Saturday, buried on Sunday, that’s the end of Solomon Grundy. Then the strains of Lohengrin fill the chancel, and it’s all I can hear.