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The Guy at the Wedding is the story of the first night Jake ever met Helen—way back when he was sixteen and Duncan tricked him into crashing her wedding.
Available RIGHT NOW as an audio bonus story (narrated by Katherine, herself) at the end of the What You Wish For audiobook —and in a printed version in the paperback of What You Wish For. If you already own the audiobook of What You Wish For, just re-download, and the newly-added bonus story should appear!!
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READER REVIEWS for The Guy at the Wedding
“One of my absolute favourite books is Happiness for Beginners and since this audiobook (guy at the wedding) is about the same people; it was a given and it did not disappoint! I had all the same feelings listening to it as I did reading Happiness for Beginners – I laughed, I cried …. I cried a lot! And not just some tears, full on tight throat, sobbing crying … and not because it’s sad, because it is such a heartfelt and honest story!”
“Well, this was easily the highlight of my week/month/year. :)”
“I adored this. Wow.”
“SUCH a cute follow up short story to Happiness for Beginners!! Jake & Helen are one of my all-time favorite fictional couples, and I’m so thankful the author decided to give us a little more time with them. ❤️”
“You got to love an author when she gives out little freebees. The Guy at The Wedding is a cute short story narrated by Katherine Center ; a bridge story between What You Wish For and Happiness for Beginners. . It is an ending story for Helen and Jake and the beginning story for Duncan.
Thank you Katherine for this little gift.”
“This sweet little short story made me happy! I love Helen and Jake! I enjoyed this little glimpse into the night they met.”
“Loved this sweet short story!”
“I LOVED this novella. Jake and Helen are one of my all time favorite couples and this sweet story reminded me why. Jake’s POV was excellent and I loved the glimpse into their own wedding day. Give them a movie please!”
“Thank you Katherine Center for the free short story audio book! Loved the line about the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of weddings! Love your books!”
“What a cute story! I read Happiness for Beginners a while ago and still really enjoyed it. Katherine Center is a great narrator!”
“😍😍😍 These characters are some of my favorites. This short story is wonderful.”
“Thank you so much for this short story. I miss this couple a lot & was pretty ecstatic when I read them on Duncan’s book in What You Wish For. This short story is what I needed after reading Happiness For Beginners! Finally got the Prologue & Epilogue that I very much wanted. ❤️❤️❤️”
“This was such a cute story and now it makes me want to read Happiness for Beginners!”
“This was just the perfect little novella for Happiness For Beginner’s fans. It was wonderful to get more details about the start of Jake and Helen’s unique love story. I absolutely love this couple and I had a huge smile on my face listening to this. The novella is broken down into Duncan, Jake, and Helen’s POV’s and it was so fun and interesting to see the same event from all of their eyes. There were plenty of laughs, as well as sweet and tender moments (Jake really is so thoughtful and amazing) and that ending couldn’t have been more perfect. Jake and Helen fans should not miss The Guy at the Wedding. It’s available for free as an audiobook (read by the author) or can be found in the paperback edition of What You Wish For.”
“Such a sweet and fun little addition to Jake and Helen’s story!”
“This was a cute story! Even thought it’s short you get such a good sense of the characters. I read the book that Helen and Jake appeared in and it was such a treat to revisit them.”
READ THE STORY!
The Guy at the Wedding
A bridge story between
What You Wish For — & — Happiness for Beginners
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The first night Jake met Helen, I punched him in the jaw so hard I dislocated my thumb.
By accident. Kind of.
I was in trouble anyway because I’d snuck him into the wedding uninvited, and I’m not saying that Helen was a bridezilla, exactly, but let’s just say she’d planned everything herself, paid for everything herself, and worked out deals with the venue and the caterer to fit a tight budget . . . and her tolerance for me screwing things up on her wedding day was particularly low.
Plus, she’d had to fight our grandma GiGi every step of the way, as GiGi—eccentric as ever—suggested endless ways to make the whole thing more fabulous.
Live peacocks wandering around for example.
GiGi was in a book club with a part-time peacock breeder.
An X-rated book club, actually, but that’s a story for another time.
“We’ll just borrow them,” GiGi kept saying. “Judy’s fine with it.”
“No. Nope. No peacocks,” Helen kept saying.
Helen knew the manager at The Kemp Hotel, and he’d given her a deep discount off the ballroom that opened out to the pool.
“They’ll stay outside,” GiGi said.
“That’s got to be a health code violation.”
“That’s not for us to decide.”
Sometimes, with GiGi, you had to run through a list of objections. Helen tried again. “People are going to step in peacock poop.”
“I don’t think peacocks are big poopers.”
“All birds poop, GiGi.”
“But, I mean . . . comparatively.”
“Why don’t you research peacock poop and get back to me?”
“This feels like a lot of negativity.”
“Yeah. That’s because I’m not having feral birds roaming loose at my wedding.”
“They’re not feral. They even know some tricks.”
“If it’s money you’re worried about, darling, then don’t. She won’t charge us a cent.”
“I just want a normal wedding. Like normal people have.”
That was the crux of it. GiGi wasn’t big fan of normal.
Or maybe I should say that what was normal to GiGi—wearing silk pajamas to the grocery store, drinking champagne at breakfast, carrying an unlit cigarette in a rhinestone-encrusted holder, even though she’d quit decades ago, because she “couldn’t give up the glamor”—wasn’t the same normal as most other people’s.
GiGi’s normal was different from normal normal.
And I don’t want to say that GiGi was judgmental, but she definitely considered anything normal a synonym for ‘boring.’
Boring might be fine for other people. But not the grandchildren she had hand-raised herself.
This wedding was personal.
If we were boring, what did that say about her?
So the idea of a plain vanilla wedding for Helen with no peacocks anywhere was tough for her.
“How about just one,” GiGi attempted, nodding like, yes, this is right, “at the entrance?” She’d come a long way from proposing the peacock as the ring-bearer.
But, back then, Helen was all about normal.
GiGi tried for a speakeasy-themed Scott Joplin style wedding, then a ‘forties USO vibe, then a New Orleans jazz theme with gumbo and jambalaya.
Helen wanted a strapless white dress, and men in shawl-collar tuxes, and white linen tablecloths, and candles. Nothing weird. Nothing nutty. No peacocks. The words she kept using over and over were “simple,” “elegant,” and “classic.”
The word GiGi kept using was “generic.”
And so they agreed to disagree.
And Helen did everything herself. GiGi was being difficult, our dad was remarried in California, and we hadn’t seen our mom in years. And I—Helen’s sixteen-year-old, pain-in-the-ass little brother—certainly wasn’t going to contribute anything useful.
That was a given.
And don’t get me started on the groom.
I get it now. When it’s just you, you can get fixated on the details. Maybe to the point where the details are all you see. Helen knew the cost of each guest down to the penny, and so she wasn’t just tossing out invitations to anybody. She was parsing cousins and old friends from high school. She was ranking friends in tiers.
Cuts were made. People were snubbed. But the budget was not breached.
Which is why me showing up—late, as usual—in her dressing room with my new best friend Jake and declaring he was my ‘plus one’ . . .
It really, really pissed Helen off.
Of course, back then, the “empathy” quadrant of my brain was totally underdeveloped. I couldn’t have stepped into Helen’s emotional shoes if I’d tried.
But of course I didn’t try.
I mean, I was happy to have Jake there, so I couldn’t imagine that Helen wouldn’t also be happy about it. That was the sophistication of my thinking at age sixteen: If something was good for me, it was good for everybody.
I was happy that Jake had come. Because I’d learned at lunch the day before that today—the day of Helen’s wedding—also happened to be the one-year anniversary of Jake’s mother’s death. And even with my underdeveloped empathy skills, I could figure out that much: His dad was out of town on business, he’d just moved to a new school in a new town, and if I didn’t do something, he’d spend a very sad day totally alone.
So right there at lunch, I chugged a root beer, burped like a champion, and invited him to the wedding on the spot.
He didn’t think it was a great idea. He said something like, “Your sister doesn’t want some teenage weirdo crashing her wedding.”
“You’re not a weirdo,” I said. “You’re the poster boy for an upstanding citizen.”
“I’m still not crashing.”
“But here’s the thing, though,” I said, winding up to spin a convincing lie. “The numbers are down.”
“A lot of people said no. Like, she sent out all these invitations, and then, at the last minute . . . an avalanche of regrets. So now there are going to be all these empty seats, and the biggest day of my sister’s life will kind of be the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of weddings. Just crooked and unwanted and sad.”
Jake frowned at me.
“You’d be rescuing her, is what I’m saying.”
As Jake started shaking his head, I countered with nodding mine.
“You’d be doing her a favor,” I went on. “Really. She was just worrying about all the empty chairs last night. Couldn’t sleep, even. You don’t want to leave my sister alone in a ballroom full of empty chairs, do you?”
Jake considered this. “Everybody just—canceled? At the last minute?”
I nodded, like an emphatic yes, even as I said, “In a manner of speaking.”
None of it was true.
Jake was pretty sure he didn’t believe me. But he didn’t have enough evidence to know for sure I was lying, either. Nowadays, he can tell if I’m lying in one glance. But back then, he was still the new guy. We were barely friends yet. All he really had to go on was my word.
“You wouldn’t abandon my sister, would you?” I demanded. Because even back then, I already could tell that much about him.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I definitely knew he was lying. I just couldn’t prove it.
It just didn’t sound feasible that a huge number of wedding guests would RSVP ‘no’ at the last minute and leave a bride with an empty ballroom. I didn’t know much about weddings, but that just didn’t track. Plus, Duncan’s face was so earnest it felt like a tell.
But I guess the damsel in distress narrative worked on me.
Though Helen would turn out not to be in distress. And she was anything but a damsel.
The point is: I went.
I wore the same dark gray suit I’d worn to my mother’s funeral. Same blue tie. Same shoes. Same belt with the broken buckle.
A year had passed, and now the pant legs were like an inch too short, but I told myself nobody would notice.
Needless to say, me following Duncan into Helen’s dressing room—a teenage stranger she’d never laid eyes on—as she was slipping into her fancy shoes just minutes before the ceremony began . . . it might not have been the smartest choice I’ve ever made.
Or maybe it was.
Duncan opened the door without even knocking and strode right in. Five minutes sooner—and I’ve thought about this a lot—we could have walked in on her half-dressed, stepping into her gown in her strapless bra and garters.
Lucky for her we showed up just we did.
Less lucky for me.
For years, I reflected dolefully on that timing, thinking I’d missed my one and only chance to ever see Helen less-than-dressed.
But of course, catching her that way would have been even more incapacitating for me than walking in just when we did.
When all that was left was the shoes.
She was bent over, her hands pulling back the folds of her silk gown so she could land her feet properly in the white pumps. All I saw at first was the top of her head, and of course, just below that, her cleavage, with her hair dangling down in ribbons on either side. Right then, she paused and slid both hands up her thigh to readjust her bridal garter.
Even now, just remembering, I can almost feel the nylon of her stockings—that slick, delicate, geometric texture.
Then she got back to business: one shoe, then the next. Then she stood up to square her shoulders—and that’s when she saw us.
There were some other women—bridesmaids, I think—deeper back in the room by the makeup table, but they seemed a thousand miles away.
Everything seemed a thousand miles away.
For me, it was a love-at-first-sight thing—something I didn’t even believe in until right then. I stood in awe of it all. Helen herself, the sight of her, the way she seemed to glow in that white silk gown, the way every curve and dip and angle of her seemed luscious and inviting and hypnotic.
That one second before she spoke seemed to last for an hour. Everything slowed down and got sharper and I could hear my own breathing and my own heart thumping, and I felt genuinely woozy for a second, the way you might if you were just walking home from school and ran into, say, Athena.
The best way I can ever think of to describe it is this: It felt like all my blood got replaced with warm, sparkling honey.
Though, to be fair, the sight of me did not do the same thing to her.
At first, Helen only seemed to see Duncan. Her expression went from something soft and vulnerable to something hard and irritated. Her posture shifted. Her shoulders tensed. Almost like Duncan showing up there was pulling her out of character.
She pushed out a hard sigh. “Don’t you know how to knock?”
Duncan frowned like the idea of knocking would never have occurred to him. “Fair point.”
“I could have been half dressed. I could have been naked.”
The thudding in my ears got louder.
I tried not to picture that. I really did.
But that’s when she noticed me. Her eyes shifted from Duncan’s face to mine.
Then a flash of irritation as tangible as sandpaper. She spoke to Duncan but kept her eyes on me. “Who’s this?”
“This is my friend Jake. He’s new. He just moved from Texas.”
I wanted to look down so bad, but I held steady.
Helen looked me over. When she got to the too-short cuffs at my ankles, she paused. Then she turned back to Duncan. “Please tell me,” she said, with a voice like she already knew the answer, “he’s not here for the wedding.”
Duncan gave her a big grin. “He’s my plus one.”
Helen glanced near me, but not at me. “Nope. Get him out of here.”
“Yeah. I’m not hosting strangers at my wedding.”
“He’s just here for the reception.”
“The reception is a hundred dollars a plate.”
“So he won’t eat anything.” Duncan gave me a wink.
“You can’t just bring random people to my wedding.”
“He’s not random. He’s my friend.”
She didn’t buy that for a second. “What’s his last name, then?”
She had him. Duncan had no idea what my last name was, and I didn’t know his either. But Duncan was unfazed. “He doesn’t have one. He’s like Madonna. He’s just”—and here, he spread out his hands like we were looking at a marquis—“Jake.”
“Duncan. This is not a birthday party at an arcade. This is my wedding.”
“You get a million friends and I don’t get anybody?”
“I’m paying for all those friends! A—”
But Duncan jumped in. “A hundred dollars a plate.”
“That’s right,” Helen said. “So we’re not bringing in random teenagers off the streets.”
“Come on, Hells Bells. He put on a suit and everything.”
From the look on her face as soon as he called her “Hells Bells,” I knew he was toast. She went from “irritated” to “venomous.”
But, just then, deus ex machina, an old lady in a red dress with peacock feathers in her hair called from across the room. “Helen?”
“Sweetheart, it’s time.”
The old lady held out her hand, and Helen, forgetting us entirely, walked over to take it.
I tried to leave after that, but Duncan wasn’t having it. “It’s fine, man. She’s too busy to notice us. He opened the door to the next room, which was set up for the ceremony with chairs and flowers. It was packed.
I closed it again.
“I thought you said nobody was coming to this,” I said, now self-conscious about my too-short trousers.
“I might have been misinformed on that,” Duncan said.
“You tricked me.”
“Fine. Yes. I tricked you.”
Looking back, knowing Duncan like I know him now, I know why he wanted me there. Because I’d told him at lunch that my plan for the night was to just “walk around on the train tracks”—and I wouldn’t be his friend much longer before learning he was way too big-hearted to let that happen.
I asked him about it straight-out one time, actually: “Did you trick me into showing up just so I wouldn’t be alone?”
And Duncan just gave me a big, goofball shrug. “Of course.”
But now I had a bigger problem.
“Duncan,” I said. “I’m going to need you to punch me in the face.”
He looked at me, like, Interesting. Then he said, “Why?”
“I think I just fell in love with your sister.”
“You do need to get punched, then.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“I’ve never punched anyone before, though.”
“How hard can it be?”
“Fair point.” Duncan squared to face me.
“Make it hurt, okay?”
I was hoping getting punched might break my momentum.
And it did. Kind of.
As soon as I’d recovered enough to focus, I walked out the dressing room door.
But Duncan followed and grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?”
“Home. She told me to get out of here.”
“You can’t go.”
“I can’t stay.”
“She’ll never notice, man. She’s kinda busy right now.”
We were standing now in the room set up for the ceremony. All the guests had taken their seats. The pianist, who had been playing softly up front, suddenly shifted gears into what sounded—alarmingly—like a processional.
Duncan startled and turned to look at the front of the room.
There was a gap in the line of groomsmen, and Duncan took off running down the center aisle to pop himself into place and fill it.
I should have left right then.
That was the perfect time to leave.
But I didn’t.
Duncan was barely gone before the doors behind me opened—and then there was Helen, looking more . . . more everything than she had even minutes before. She held onto the arm of the peacock lady, and as the two of them lifted their heads and started processing, I stepped back to let them pass.
I knew the bride didn’t want me there.
But I just wanted a few more minutes to look at her.
And then “a few more minutes” turned into the whole ceremony. And then the ceremony turned into the reception—outside, by the pool—and while it felt morally imperative not to consume any of the hundred-dollar plates of food, I did drink a couple of the rum and Cokes that Duncan kept bringing over, and let’s just say that the question of how the bride felt about my presence there started seeming less and less important.
Before I knew it, the night was over, and almost all the guests had gone. Just a few lingered near the valet.
Duncan and I were splayed out on the sofas of the lobby—him icing his hand with a bag from the fifth floor ice machine, and me doing the same to my cheek—with Duncan trying to convince me to go eat something, for fuck’s sake, as the hotel staff was breaking down the tables and the caterer was boxing up the leftover food.
“Nope,” I said, again, shaking my head for drama. “I promised I wouldn’t eat.”
Duncan was somehow much drunker than me. “You said you wouldn’t eat the primary food. But this is the leftover food.”
“Everybody’s gone, buddy. Somebody has to eat it.”
“Well, it’s not gonna be me.”
“If you don’t eat it, I’ll eat it for you.”
“Be my guest.”
“That doesn’t solve our problem, though.”
“It’s fine. I’m not even hungry.” I was definitely hungry.
“They’re just going to throw it away. Do you wanna see that happen?”
“It’s not about what I want. It’s about what your sister wants.”
“Helen?” Duncan asked, like he’d forgotten all about her.
“Helen,” I said, nodding. Her name felt good in my mouth. I said it again, noting how the “l” and the “n” were almost the same motion of my tongue.
I leaned my head back against the sofa. Then I asked, “What’s the boyfriend like?”
“Helen’s boyfriend.” Helen. Helen.
Duncan flipped his head my direction to give a pointed look. “Helen’s husband.”
“Right. Is he any good?”
“He’s okay, I guess.”
“Do you like him?”
“Like him?” Duncan said, like the concept was irrelevant. “He’s like thirty.”
An old man. “Is your sister thirty?”
Duncan shook his head. “She’s twenty-six.”
“He’s too old for her. He’s a grandpa.”
“Too late now.”
I was all set to argue with him—to say it’s never too late—when I opened my eyes saw Helen herself standing right in front of me.
She was still in her wedding gown, but everything about her seemed looser now—her veil was gone, her hair was coming unpinned, the fabric of her dress seemed more . . . flowy . . . after a reception’s worth of doing the macarena and sipping champagne.
She looked right at me—right into my eyes in a way that I felt all the way down in my stomach. “You didn’t leave.”
I panicked. Then, after a second: “Correct.”
She nodded. “That’s a good thing.”
I sat up. “It is?”
“What happened to your face?”
Duncan raised his hand like a pupil who knew the answer. “I punched him.”
“Duncan! What the hell!”
“He asked me to.”
Just then, the peacock lady showed up beside her and looked at me. “You’re Duncan’s friend?”
“I’m GiGi,” she said, taking my hand. “Don’t you think this wedding would have been more majestic with a flock of peacocks?”
I glanced at Duncan, moving only my eyes.
He gave a tiny head-shake.
“Um . . .” I said.
But GiGi went on. “Either way, we’re so glad you could make it.”
Helen turned to her. “GiGi! You knew about this?”
“Of course. Duncan tells me everything.”
“You didn’t stop him?”
“Why would I?” GiGi held her arm out toward me. “Look how handsome this kid is!”
“But you didn’t know he was handsome until right now.”
Before I could enjoy being called handsome, Helen pushed on.
“Are you on Duncan’s side?” she demanded.
“I’m on both sides. At all times,” GiGi declared. Then she looked at me. “I hope you ate something.”
I kept my eyes on Helen and shook my head.
“Nothing at all?” GiGi demanded.
“I tried!” Duncan called from his spot on the sofa. “But he told me it was morally wrong.”
“It was morally wrong,” Helen said, giving me a nod of approval that felt weirdly triumphant to receive.
“Starving people is morally wrong,” Duncan countered.
“He’s not starving. Nobody that handsome is starving.”
Handsome again. Noted.
We were all clearly a little tipsy.
Except for GiGi, who was eyeing us all. “Who is the least drunk here?” she asked, setting her hands on her hips.
Duncan and I pointed at each other.
“Stand them up,” GiGi ordered Helen, and then, as Helen pulled me into a stand, GiGi did the same to Duncan.
They both studied us, then pointed at me, in unison, with a nod.
“You take that one,” GiGi said, of me, “and I’ll take this one.”
Helen came right at me, cleavage and all, grabbing one of my hands and tugging me along behind her. GiGi grabbed Duncan and hauled him off the other direction.
My lucky day.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“GiGi’s taking Duncan and all the leftover food back to her house.”
At the mention of food, my stomach gave a little squeeze.
Helen went on, “And I’m taking you—the bigger, less drunk one—to go get the groom.”
I pulled up beside her to walk side by side. “The groom?”
She didn’t meet my eyes. “He passed out. Behind the dance floor.”
“He’ll be fine,” she assured me.
Even though I hadn’t asked.
“This happens sometimes,” she said, in tone like, No big deal.
“Sure,” I said. “Of course.”
“I just need you to help me get him up to the bridal suite.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon right now?”
“We fly out tomorrow.”
“Guess that’s a good thing.”
At the dance floor, we evaluated the groom’s motionless body for a minute. “Did he hit his head?” I asked.
Helen shook her head. “He landed on the carpet. He’s okay.”
So I shrugged. Then I leaned down and worked his arm around my shoulders. Helen got under his other arm, and then we stood.
That roused him a little. Enough that he could stumble along between us toward the elevator bank. He didn’t much question what was happening, like maybe this wasn’t the first time he’d done this.
We rode the elevator in silence and then maneuvered him down the hall to the bridal suite, through the doorway, and onto the king-sized bed. Helen went to get a blanket for him from the closet, and while she was gone, I evaluated him.
He looked like a man who had no idea how to count his blessings.
Even the way Helen spread the blanket out over him involved more tenderness than he looked like he deserved.
Of course, from the angle she happened to be at, I could see straight down her strapless dress—again—and so, because I was a gentleman, I shifted my gaze to the side—where I saw a bucket of champagne chilling on the table. When she stood back up, she saw me eyeing it.
“Not much of a wedding night,” I said.
She gave me a look like I was as annoying as Duncan, and then walked toward the door like she was about to kick me out.
I followed, head down. Fine. I’d overstayed everything, anyway.
But at the door, she stopped and looked me over. “Did you really not eat anything all night?”
I shook my head, holding her gaze.
She stifled a smile. “Okay. Hang on.”
She disappeared to the kitchenette, and then came back with a neatly folded and stapled grocery sack in one hand, and the bottle of champagne in the other.
Then she turned to check on the husband one more time before saying, “Come on.”
Next thing I knew, we were sitting out by the pool, side by side on a long chaise, and she was pulling plastic containers out of the bag.
I frowned at her when she handed me one.
“It’s food,” she said.
I looked down at the container and opened it up. Sure enough, it was fried chicken. “This a thing that happens,” she explained. “Caterers always box up food for the bride and groom, since they’re so busy being congratulated all night they never get to eat.”
“Did you get to eat?” I asked.
She shook her head.
I held out the container to her and she took a piece.
Then I said, “I can’t believe you had chicken fingers at you wedding. That doesn’t seem very fancy.”
“These are pecan-encrusted chicken goujons with a sriracha-infused hoisin sauce, thank you very much.”
“Ah,” I said, not sure if I was being reprimanded.
Then she added, “Also known as chicken fingers.” She took a bite. “Just three times more expensive.”
We opened all the boxes and set out the food. Mashed potatoes, green beans, rosemary dinner rolls, roast beef slices, stuffed mushrooms. The caterers had packed it all up like a picnic for two—silverware, napkins, plates, sauces.
I didn’t want to ask, but I felt like I ought to. “Should we save some for your boyfriend?”
“Mike?” she asked.
Mike. I guess I hated that name now. “Yeah.”
But she shook her head. “He’ll be out cold all night. It’s fine.” Then she popped the cork on the champagne and took a swig from the bottle. “None for you,” she said shaking the bottle at me by the neck. “You’re underage.”
I decided not to mention all those rum and Cokes. “Fair enough.”
With that, there was nothing left to do but eat. We ate straight out of the containers like hungry animals, sharing, and licking our fingers, and leaning over each other to grab containers. For a few minutes, we did nothing else. Me, in the suit I wore to my mother’s funeral, and her in a strapless wedding dress that seemed to hold itself up like magic.
The pool had what seemed like hundreds of candles floating in it, and we watched them while we chewed.
It was a while before we got full enough to talk. “I think that was the best food I’ve ever had,” I said.
“Food always tastes best when you’re hungry.”
I reached across her to dunk a chicken finger in the hoisin sauce. “I guess it does.”
“You really should have eaten something,” she said.
“You told me not to.”
“Do you always do what you’re told?”
“It depends on who’s telling me.”
She gave me a little smile with just her eyes. Then she said, “Watch out for Duncan. He’s a troublemaker.”
“He’s lovable, but he’s high-maintenance.”
“Everybody’s high maintenance if you’re paying attention.”
She blinked at that, and then seemed to see me for the first time. The feel of her eyes on me was physical, almost like heat on my skin.
I let it happen as long as I could stand it. Then I said, “Good wedding, by the way.”
She frowned like that was funny. Then she said, “Yeah. I think it was.”
“Are you excited to be married?”
She thought about it. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”
“Is that guy the love of your life?”
“Yes,” she said. But then she looked like she was thinking about it.
“We’re both drunk,” I said. “You can tell the truth.”
“You’re not supposed to be drunk,” she said, pointing at me. “And I don’t think I’m drunk. I don’t feel drunk.”
“I don’t feel drunk, either.”
“You probably don’t even know what it’s like to be drunk.”
“Sure I do.”
“But what are you—like twelve?”
“I’m almost seventeen. And I was drunk a lot after my mother died.”
She turned toward me then and took that in. No automatic, kneejerk, “I’m sorry,” like you usually get. Just a quiet moment of understanding.
Then she said, “But you’re not drinking anymore, right?”
I shook my head. “Not for a few months now.”
“It takes a while to be okay.”
For some reason my throat thickened. I’d been waiting all day to feel something about my mom—for the missing her to hit me—but I hadn’t felt anything all day. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. But now, at last, I felt it.
Though it wasn’t as bad as I’d been fearing.
“When did she die?” Helen asked.
“A year ago,” I said, watching Helen’s eyes, which stayed steady, focused on mine. Then without overthinking it, I added, “A year ago today.”
Helen drew in a slow breath. Then she nodded. Then she reached over, took my hand, and pulled it onto her lap to clasp it between both of hers. She turned her eyes back toward the water then, toward the warm light of the floating candles, and so I turned and did the same.
Before I knew it, my face was wet with tears.
Helen kept my hand in her lap, like it was something precious, stroking the back of it with her palm. “It’s okay,” she said.
I think if she’d been looking at me, it would’ve been too much.
But she wasn’t. She didn’t. She let me have my side of the pool chaise, and she kept to hers, and nobody said anything until the stinging in in my chest had subsided and my breathing had settled back down.
“Don’t worry,” Helen said then, after a while. “You’ll be okay. I promise. All you have to do is just keep going.”
“That’s harder than it sounds.”
Then, when we’d been quiet long enough, she said, by way of lightening the subject, “Tell me about the constellations.”
I looked up, but the stars weren’t there. So I looked over at Helen, and I realized she was watching the candles in the pool.
“The pool constellations,” I said, studying the candles now. “Well, that one,” I said pointing to a clump in the far corner, “is pretty legendary. Irving, the dentist.”
Her mouth pressed into a little closed-lip smile.
Man, it felt good to see that smile.
I went on, pointing at a new clump. “And once you’ve found that one, it’s easy to find Melvin, the accountant. And then Fred, the barber. And then, of course, Bubba the plumber. There’s his crack.”
Now she was laughing.
So I went on. “That,” I pointed, “is the Golden Croissant. And over there are the Big Burrito and the Little Taco.”
“What about there?” she asked, pointing at a clump in the middle.
“There? That’s Pickle the Wonder Dog. But I’m sure you already know that story.”
“Of course I do. I definitely do. It’s the story about the big dog—”
“Tiny dog,” I corrected.
“The tiny dog that managed to find its way—”
“Rescue,” I corrected.
“Managed to rescue a whole group of—”
“A lone woman,” I said.
“A lone woman when she . . .” Helen turned to study my face, like it might tell her the rest.
I nodded, like she was totally getting it. “When she fell into a swimming pool in her bridal gown. Exactly. Great job.”
“Great story,” Helen said. “Who doesn’t love that story?”
“Of course she fell into the pool because she . . .”
“Was rescuing someone else. A boy who’d fallen in before her.”
“That’s right, and without Pickle, who . . .”
“Heroically dog-paddled them both to the steps . . .”
“Exactly. She might never have . . .”
But now I had just started gazing at her.
“She might never have . . .” Helen prompted.
But I was looking at the sheen of her lip gloss, and I’d lost focus.
Finally, she smacked me on the shoulder. “She might never have?”
“Become a goddess,” I answered.
She liked that answer. Her whole face seemed to glow. “That’s right. She’s the goddess of brides. And swimming pools. And rescues.”
“And boys who fall by accident.”
“A small but proud community.”
“All thanks to Pickle the Wonder Dog.”
Helen nodded. “Who has nothing to show for it but his own constellation.”
And then she smiled at me.
And that’s when I knew that smile was going to be a problem. Because I had no idea how to figure out how to lose interest in that smile.
I just knew right then that smile could ruin my life.
But it was already too late.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I blacked out that night, apparently.
I don’t remember a thing.
One minute, I was doing YMCA on the dance floor, and, the next, the sun was prying open my eyelids on a sofa in the bridal suite, and I was fully clothed in my wedding dress, tucked neatly, meticulously, under a hotel throw blanket—with a glass of water and two Tylenol waiting neatly for me on the side table.
Huh. Uncharacteristically thoughtful of Mike.
But I’d take it.
Was I hung over? You bet I was.
But Mike was fine. Up and showering. We had a plane to catch by noon.
Anyway, I didn’t even know you could black out just randomly like that—but I Googled it later and, apparently . . . yes. If you drink on an empty stomach, or drink the wrong type of alcohol, or if you’ve taken anti-anxiety meds recently, it can happen.
And to that, I confess: All of the above.
I spent part of my honeymoon researching this from the hotel, in fact. You don’t even have to be all that drunk. You can be walking around seeming almost normal. But if you get the wrong combination of chemicals hitting you in just the wrong way, it can slam the memory center of your brain and just . . . shut it down.
Until I did the research, I’d always thought you had to be falling-down drunk to have a blackout. Or be a habitual, out of control alcoholic. But it turns out you can just combine bad choices with bad timing.
One of my specialties.
And then, boom: Everything that happened never happened.
I didn’t drink again for years after that. That’s how scary it was to not remember my own wedding night.
But I’ll admit: Even though I knew I forgot part of the night, it never once occurred to me that it was the most interesting part.
I assumed that Mike and I finished dancing, said goodbye to everybody, went up to our suite, and conked out pretty quickly. I did notice the caterers forgot to provide the after-reception picnic bag they’d promised. And the hotel had set out the chiller for the bridal suite champagne but forgotten the champagne itself.
But I just chalked it up to the world being habitually disappointing.
I held that version of events in my head for years.
And nobody corrected me. Not Duncan. Not Jake.
Not even GiGi.
In case you don’t know, my marriage to Mike didn’t work out.
For lots of reasons, in lots of ways.
And then—long story short—six years later, when I was thirty-two and newly divorced and Jake was twenty-two and out of college—I wound up accidentally going on a hiking trip with him and accidentally falling in love.
Man, I could write a whole book about that.
The long and the short of it is, three months after that hiking trip, Jake asked me to elope with him in GiGi’s backyard, and I couldn’t manage to stop myself from saying yes.
A week later, we were hitched.
That’s all it took.
Six years, three months, and one week.
What can I say? He’s persuasive.
I tried to make my impromptu backyard wedding different from my first one in every way—for luck, if nothing else—up to and including allowing GiGi’s yard to be overrun with peacocks. Although GiGi was considerably less ornery about planning my second wedding than she’d been about my first one. Partly because there just wasn’t time. But mostly because, as she later explained, she’d been “rooting for Jake all along.”
One notable exception to the ‘make everything different’ rule was the wedding dress. Jake wanted me to wear the one from last time.
“The same one from last time?” I asked when he suggested it.
“The dress I wore before? When I married someone else?”
“I like that dress.”
“But . . .” There were so many things wrong with re-using that old wedding dress, I hardly knew where to start. “But you’ve seen it already.”
“But . . .”
“Seeing you in that dress is what doomed me to love you.”
I thought about it. “Okay.”
“But back then, you were somebody else’s. And now you’re mine.”
I guess I could see it. Sort of.
“That dress deserves a happy ending,” Jake said then. “It never hurt anybody. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
“It was complicit in some very bad choices.”
“Maybe it deserves a shot at redemption.”
So I didn’t fight him. Maybe he was right.
I wasn’t opposed to redemption.
After the wedding, and the reception, and helping GiGi round the peacocks back up, Jake said he was going to take me “somewhere romantic,” but then wound up driving me to The Kemp Hotel, instead—the site of my first wedding.
“This is ‘somewhere romantic’?” I said.
“Just you wait,” Jake said.
“You really do want to redeem this dress.”
“What I want,” Jake said, as he led me by the hand through the lobby, “is to show you something.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“It just seems like we’re looking backward instead of forward.”
“Don’t worry,” Jake said. “We’re doing both.”
We passed the mirrored lobby for the elevators, and then a candle-lit dining room, and then we stepped outside to the pool area where I’d held the reception for my last wedding. There was dinner service on the patio, and folks at the tables turned at the sight of a bride and groom walking by.
“Why are we here?” I asked, when my eyes fell on the pool itself . . . and it was full of floating candles.
“Oh,” I said.
I nodded. “I had candles just like this at my wedding to Mike.”
He led me to a pool chaise down by the shallow end, and sat us down side by side. “I want to tell you a story,” he said then, as we both watched the floating lights, “about one of the constellations.”
I looked up at the sky, but it was empty.
Jake pointed down at the candles. “Those constellations,” he said.
“Of course,” I said, all wry, “the pool constellations.”
“Exactly,” Jake said. Then, “See that batch in the middle?”
“That constellation is a very famous one called Helen, the Goddess.”
Now I gave him a look that somehow combined “please,” “come on,” and “you’re awesome” all at once.
“There’s a story about that constellation. Want to hear it?”
“On the night she got married, Helen the Goddess met a scraggly teenage kid. A very sad scraggly teenage kid. A kid so sad, just all the time, that he thought—no he just assumed—that he’d never be happy again. And this kid, being a genius . . . he fell in love with her on sight.”
Jake nodded. “Want to know why?”
“Because he peeked at her cleavage?”
Jake pointed at me. “Partial credit.”
“Wasn’t she mean to him, though?”
“She was epically mean! She tried to kick him out of the wedding. But he didn’t go.”
“He wanted to go. He thought he should go. He even asked his new friend Duncan to punch him the face in the hopes that it would hurt enough to make him want to go. But guess what?”
“He stayed? The whole time?”
“He couldn’t make himself not stay. So he stayed. But he didn’t eat anything, because she’d told him not to.”
“Wow. She really was mean.”
Jake nodded in appreciation. “Wasn’t she?”
“Bet he got pretty hungry.”
“He did, but it was worth it.”
I held Jake’s gaze.
“Anyway,” he went on. “She married this horrible guy that same night. And by the end of the evening, the horrible guy had insulted a bridesmaid, knocked over a buffet table, and passed out behind the dance floor.”
“Wow,” I said. “I bet she was really panicking about her life choices.”
Jake gave a nod. “But there was an upside: She asked the scraggly kid to help her carry her new idiot husband up to the bridal suite.”
“Wait—what?” I said. “Wait! She did?”
Another nod. “Helen and the kid laid the groom out on the bed, and then the kid was about to leave and go back to his lonely life, but Helen stopped him.”
“She stopped him?”
“Yeah, because she felt bad he hadn’t eaten anything. So she grabbed some leftovers from the caterer and guess where they went?”
Jake patted the chaise we were sitting on. “Right here. They ate overpriced chicken fingers, and she drank champagne straight from the bottle like a badass, and the two of them watched the floating candles for so long they started to look like stars. And that’s when the kid confessed something to her that he hadn’t planned to.”
I leaned closer. “What did he confess?”
“He confessed that that day—her wedding day—was the one-year anniversary of the day his mother died.”
I caught my breath. “Was it, Jake? It was?”
“Probably a terrible thing to tell a bride. Probably something he shouldn’t have said. But guess what?”
“She took his hand, and she held it. And it was the first time in that whole, long year that he didn’t feel completely, utterly, endlessly alone. And something about not feeling alone for the first time in so, so long made him start to cry. You know? The kind of crying that’s like a thunderstorm. And guess what she did?”
Jake went on. “She let him. She just let him. And she kept him company. And held onto his hand. And they watched the floating candles. And even after he was all cried-out, even in the midst of all that sorrow, he had the craziest feeling that he loved her. And that no matter what happened from then on out, he always would.”
I watched the candles. “That was a crazy feeling. He’d known her for like an hour.”
“Five hours,” Jake corrected. “And guess what else?”
“He wasn’t wrong. He did love her. And he never stopped.”
“Even though she forgot everything?”
Jake nodded. “Man, she really did. The next time he saw her, it was like they’d never met. And that went on for years. Him just loving her like crazy, and her just not even registering his existence.”
My mind flashed back through all those Thanksgivings and Christmases he’d spent with us at GiGi’s house—and how he always helped me do the dishes and made runs to the store for last-minute supplies. And the way, as GiGi had once told me, he always switched the place cards so we wound up sitting together.
“Until one day,” Jake went on, “he fooled her into kissing him. And that turned out to be the trick to it all.”
“That was all it took?”
“He’s a very good kisser.” Jake buffed his fingernails on his tux jacket. “Some say legendary.”
“That must have been quite a shock for her.”
“For him, too. He waited six years for that kiss.”
“That’s a long wait.”
“He wanted to kiss her that first night, but he didn’t.”
“Hello? Appropriately! Since he was jailbait.”
“And she was . . . married.”
“So, instead, he just walked the newly-married love of his life her back up to her bridal suite, and tucked her in on the sofa, and set out a glass of water and some Tylenol for the morning.”
I took a breath. “That was you?”
“Of course it was me.”
I nodded. “Of course it was you.”
Jake squeezed my hand.
“All those years,” I said. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Jake just shrugged. “I guess I just remembered it well enough for both of us.”
I shook my head, trying to call up even the tiniest memory of any of it.
“I tried to move on,” Jake said. “But, as you can see,” he looked down at his tuxedo, “I failed.”
“You sure did.”
“One of the best nights of my life.”
I nodded. “I’m so mad at myself for forgetting.”
Now he was looking into my eyes. “It was good. But wanna know what would have made it better?”
Very slowly, without breaking eye contact, I nodded.
Jake leaned close enough to rest a hand on my back, and then, he slid it down the silk of my dress to my hip and pulled me closer to him, leaning in all the while until his mouth was almost touching mine.
I looked into his eyes. “Are people watching us?”
He nodded. “Do you care?”
I shook my head.
And then he pressed in closer and kissed me—soft at first, then harder, tightening his arms around me like all he wanted was to touch in every possible way. And when it started to feel like we needed to upgrade locations from the pool chaise, I said, “Did you happen to reserve us a room at this hotel?”
“I did,” he said.
“The bridal suite, in fact.”
“That seems very cheeky.”
“I figured we could redeem it, too.”
“Are we already checked in?”
“So could we go there? Like, now?”
“So what, exactly,” I asked then, “are we waiting for?”
In answer to that, Jake just stood, lifting me up in his arms and carrying me in toward the elevators. And as he did, the outdoor diners broke out in shy applause.
Next: Jake kissed me in the lobby, pressed up against a mirrored wall. And then he kissed me in the elevator, pressed up against the buttons. And then he kissed me halfway down our hallway, pressed up against somebody else’s door.
And, of course, I kissed him back all the while.
And by the time we finally made it to our room, and fumbled with the key fob, and stumbled toward the bed, and fell back onto it, I didn’t care anymore about all the things I’d forgotten, or all the moments I’d squandered, or all the joys that were lost to time.
We were here now.
Whatever we’d miss in the future, and whatever we’d lost in the past, we were here right now.
And I made myself a little secret promise right then, as Jake kissed my collar bones, and fumbled with the zipper on my dress, and thanked me over and over for being crazy enough to marry him.
It’s a promise I break all the time, the way people do. But I keep it a lot, too. And either way, I still think about every single day:
I would be grateful.
I wouldn’t forget to be grateful.
I’d remember. I’d remember. I’d remember.