Leda calls on a Saturday afternoon to announce she’s getting married the following Thursday night. “Can you come?” she asks, her voice innocent as milk.
Cordless in hand, Nathalie moves over to the garage, where Nick is thrashing away at an old rocking chair with a piece of sandpaper. He says he can't really feel the wood with an electric sander. When he sees her come in he raises his eyebrows and puts up his palm in the standard I’m-not-here gesture he uses whenever he knows his mother’s on the phone.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Nathalie says.
“We are very, very pleased,” Leda says, making the “we” sound royal. Nick, whacking at the chair, keeps almost missing the arm of it, threatening to take off a layer of his own skin instead. “Martin will be thrilled.”
“How is Martin?”
“A prouder bridegroom you never saw.”
Nathalie smiles at this; she likes Martin. He’s a retired medical instrument salesman who wears threadbare cardigans and tells old-fashioned, sexist jokes. The last one she heard involved three women together in a jail cell—a Navajo, an Arapaho and a “regular ho, from Dallas.” It’s the “from Dallas” that makes her like him. Martin will be Leda’s fourth husband, and coincidentally he was also her second. They were married on a whim, by a captain on a cruise ship, and divorced six months later after an argument at a party.
“Can we, you know, do anything?” Nathalie says.
“You’re a dear,” Leda says, “but I’ll go over this with my darling son. Could you put him on?” Nathalie holds the phone out to Nick, who shakes his head. They pantomine this back and forth—her holding, him shaking—until she hears Leda sigh pointedly on the other end. Then she drops the phone into Nick’s dust-covered lap and goes back into the house.
Leda was married to Nick’s father for twenty-seven years. Since he died she’s taken up marrying the way some women take up art classes or volunteer work. First it was Martin, then it was her OB/GYN—Rupert Thorne, whom everybody called by both names, including Leda, even after they were married—and now it’s Martin again. For each of the weddings so far Leda has gone whole hog, without regard for the fact that she is neither a first-time nor a youthful bride. (On the cruise ship she managed to rustle up a long white dress and a headdress made of orchids, which they apparently sold in the on-board boutique to people given to just such marital whims, and she’d browbeaten the ship’s yoga instructor into serving as the maid of honor.) Each time she's said that when she was younger she didn’t appreciate her wedding, and so she might as well enjoy it now. This drives Nick insane. He says she’s gone off the edge. Nathalie wonders, never out loud, if Nick’s the best judge of the edge’s location. He lost his consulting job a year ago and hasn’t been able to find new work; for the past few months, instead of looking, he has been gutting their entire house and its contents. He’s into stripping things down: walls, chairs, floors. He wants everything to be authentic and unadorned. Their house, he says, has a skeletal identity that has been wrongfully and deliberately obscured over the years of its inhabitation. At Home Depot, the clerks call him by name.
When he comes out of the garage his face is dark with annoyance. He sits down on the couch in their living room, which was once wall-papered and carpeted and now is fully exposed, down to a brick wall on one side and the bare pine boards beneath their feet. At least the upholstery’s still on the furniture, though Nathalie doesn’t count on it sticking around for long. She wouldn’t be surprised to come home and find it all reduced to wire and string.
“You won’t believe what she wants,” he says. “A full-on church wedding, just like the last two. I don’t even know where she found a place this fast.”
“It’s the off-season, I guess,” Nathalie says.
“And you know what else? She wants me to give her away. I said Mom, I think you’re old enough by now to give yourself away.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘I know, Nicholas,’”—here he shifts into a disturbingly accurate falsetto imitation of Leda’s sweetest tone of voice—“‘but it would mean a lot to me.’ ”
“So you’re going to do it.”
“Of course I am,” he says. “She’d kill me if I didn’t.”
The next few days are an avalanche of last-minute activity, Leda calling Nathalie every twenty minutes at work, Nick calling every ten to complain about Leda. He and his mother bicker constantly, being so much alike. Each of them obsessed with detail, having an infinite attention span for logistics. Whenever Leda comes over, Nick parades her through the house, talking about joists and finishes, and his mother not only nods but asks questions that make it clear she’s processing the information. This is when Nathalie retreats to the kitchen—as yet untouched, thank God—and listens to Martin tell jokes about ho’s.
When Nick and Nathalie got married, he and Leda took charge of everything: the flower arrangements, the invitations, the seating arrangements, the music. At first none of this bothered Nathalie; work was hectic, she wasn’t a party organizer by nature and she was relieved to have met a man so unconcerned with gender stereotypes that he could throw himself into wedding planning with abandon. The one thing she cared about was her dress, and she and her mother found the one whose simple straight lines and elegant drape suited her perfectly. She thought wearing it into the church—into the ceremony her husband had lovingly designed for her, for them—would feel like crossing a threshold into their life together, a border crossing to a new world. Instead, as she walked down the aisle, she felt separate and alone: the only self-contained element of the entire event.
Leda will have no such problems. She’s arranging all the details and drawing everybody else in with her. She summons Nathalie on her lunch hour to help her choose a dress from the off-the-rack options at a store called Better Bridal Bargains. She sweeps out of the fitting room, all sixty years of her, in organza concoctions with full skirts, in beaded bodices and empire waistlines. She looks like a princess who’s fallen victim to an evil aging spell.
“Honestly, I’ve always wanted to be married in a tiara,” she says. “Haven’t you?”
“I guess,” Nathalie says, stealing a look at her watch. She has to be back at the office by one.
“You probably haven’t,” Leda says pityingly. “You’re so practical, so lawyerly. I was almost expecting you to walk down the aisle in a navy-blue power suit.”
This is what Nathalie is wearing right now. She doesn’t use clothes to draw attention to herself. Her outfit, like a doctor’s coat or a mortician’s black, enables a client to look past her, the individual woman, to the expertise she represents. Leda has never worked, having married Nick’s father when she was still in college, so it would be unreasonable to expect her to understand. Nathalie looks Leda up and down. The bodice of the current dress is tight, clenching her torso into several horizontal rolls of fat.
“I’d have to vote against this one,” she says. “It’s not the most flattering.”
“But it’s the most romantic,” Leda says. “It’s like Martin’s proposal. He said we should just do it, life is too short, we shouldn’t wait. ‘Let’s get married this week,’ he said, and you know what I said, dear?”
“I said ‘Martin Horst, when you’re right, you’re right.’ This dress is like a fairy tale. I’m going to take it.” She spreads the skirt out on either side, folds of fabric frothing like egg whites in her arms, and grins at herself in the mirror. Her short white hair matches the gown. She looks like she feels adored.
At home that night Nathalie finds her husband sanding the chair again. It’s a rocking chair that belonged to her grandparents, and over many years it has been painted successive layers of white, red and green—most of which have been removed and now lie scattered in particles around the garage floor. It’s less like he’s sanding the chair than pulverizing it. In fact it looks noticeably smaller, the runners spindly and weak. She worries that by the time he gets through with it there won’t be any chair left.
“Hey, look,” he says. “I’m finally down to the real color.” He points to a spot, a nondescript light brown, on the arm.
“Okay,” Nathalie says. She used to be more enthusiastic about these things before the house took on the permanent smell of paint stripper. “Have you taken care of the flowers?”
“Called everybody on the list?”
“Ordered the catering?”
“Figured out what you’re going to do for Martin’s bachelor party?”
This makes him look up from the light brown spot. “You’re joking, right?”
“Leda was hinting that he’d enjoy having one. She said maybe you and Michael Thomas could take him out.”
Nick lowers his eyes to the light brown spot, squints at it, then bangs his head against it several times in succession. Michael Thomas is Rupert Thorne’s son. He still insists on referring to himself as Leda’s stepson, even though she divorced his father two years ago. (Rupert Thorne was having an affair with another patient, and apparently was always having affairs with patients.) A thin, jittery, forty-year computer programmer, Michael Thomas lives alone in an enormous house he bought early on in the tech boom. He adores Leda and took her side, one hundred percent, when his father told him about the divorce. Leda generously continues to invite him to family functions, which he always attends bearing tasteful but extravagant gifts: fine wines, tropical flower arrangements, fruit baskets. Like most very-enthusiastic people, he seems a little unbalanced.
Without answering her question, Nick goes back to sanding. He’s been doing this more and more the past few months: checking out of conversations and turning instead to the project at hand. What’s disturbing to Nathalie is that she doesn’t even necessarily mind it. After all, she already knows where the conversation would go. In the first months after the layoff she kept trying to get Nick to talk, trying to boost his spirits, kept trying everything she could think of.
All it accomplished was to make him mad; he said he felt like a child, like her own project to fix. It reinforced his sense that she had her life together and he didn’t. “The best thing you can do,” he said, “is to leave me alone.”
Nathalie is good at leaving things alone; she doesn’t like to intervene. Her work involves labor disputes and in conference rooms she often faces clients staring at her beseechingly, begging to be told what to do next with disgruntled former employees or tough-negotiating union representatives. She always lays out options and consequences rather than recommending any one course of action. She explains their liability, the strong and weak points of the case, and that is as far as she will go. The lighter the touch, she believes, the better. But at home these days she thinks maybe she isn’t just leaving things alone; maybe she’s on the way to leaving.
Martin and Leda are giddy as kids. They show up at the rehearsal dinner, at Nathalie and Nick’s house, holding hands and blushing. They keep turning around and smooching and pinching each other’s sagging cheeks. There is a lot of eye-rolling going on in Nick’s corner of the room. Michael Thomas, who arrived staggering beneath a present the size of an oven, keeps crossing and uncrossing his arms and saying loudly, “Aw.” He says it every time they kiss, which means at least five times so far.
“She and my dad were never like this,” he says to Nathalie in the kitchen. “He was a cold bastard with her like he was with everybody else. Once he got them into bed it was all over. Conquest was the name of his game. Frankly, I never understood what she saw in him.”
Nathalie nods. After that divorce she and Nick had Leda over for dinner, and she got tipsy and confided that she’d married Rupert Thorne “for the sex.”
Nick said, “I’d really rather not know this about you, Mom.”
Leda shrugged, her cheeks a flourish of color. “It’s not enough to base a relationship on,” she said, “not one that will last forever.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Nick told her.
Now he’s in a corner with Martin and Leda, listening to them talk. All week long he worked on wedding arrangements during the day and on his various projects in the garage at night. He looks exhausted, dark shadows beneath his dark eyes. Leda, on the other hand, looks radiant, wearing a pink suit with a corsage—what Nathalie thinks of as a mother-of-the-bride outfit—and a flower in her hair. She’s staring at Martin with a wide-eyed, loving stare. Martin’s elaborating a joke that involves an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Belgian; Nathalie misses the set-up, but the punch line is the single word potatoes.
Leda’s laugh rises and flits across the room, a string of notes like pearls.
At dinner Martin rises and makes a toast. He is sixty-six; his ex-wife moved to Florida, and his children live in Europe. His suit bags and pouches, and it looks like he’s carrying rocks in his pockets. His eyes are watery; his nose hairs need clipping.
He raises a glass in Leda’s direction. “To my darling bride,” he says, “I let you go once before, and I will never be so foolish again.”
Leda blows him a kiss.
Michael Thomas says, “Aw.”
After dinner, while Nathalie and Leda clean up, Nick and Michael Thomas take the groom out for his bachelor party. Since Martin likes to go to bed early, this is at seven-thirty. Nathalie drives Leda home and when she gets back, at nine, the light in the garage is on. Nick is standing over the chair, looking down to where it rests on its side at a weird angle. His eyes are bloodshot and he smells like booze.
“How was it?”
He grimaces. “Michael Thomas bought Martin a lap dance.”
Nathalie pictures a nineteen-year old stripper hovering over Martin’s hairy nose, shaking her pasties in his face. She laughs. “Did he enjoy it?”
“He did until he tried to get up and give her some money, and he pinched his sciatic nerve or something and we had to take him home.”
“Is he okay?”
“He says he will be. Let’s go in, okay?”
Nick never wants to come in from the garage. His tools and handiwork are in here, all his gear and paraphernalia. She looks down at the chair and realizes it’s not just lying at a weird angle. What it really is is broken. He has sanded it so hard that he snapped part of it off. He sees her see this and says, “I can fix it. You’ll never even know.”
“It’s my grandparents’ chair, Nick.”
“It’ll be even better once I fix it. It was structurally weak.”
She sighs, heavily and on purpose. The garage is a blur of dark shadows, of Nick’s head, wood pieces scattered like detritus on the ground. “I don’t know why you had to start messing with it,” she says.
“This is what it’s supposed to look like. Once I fix it, you’ll see how much better it is.”
“If you say so,” she says. In the flick of his head she sees how annoyed he is that she won’t get mad at him, won’t lose her temper and yell. But what would be the point, anyway? She turns on her heel and goes to bed.
The wedding day is cool and blustery. It’s November and all the leaves are golden and half gone from the trees. The small church smells overwhelmingly of potpourri, which Nathalie realizes comes from air-freshener, the same spray Leda uses at home. Nick’s aunts and uncles and cousins—all that could make it at the last minute—filter in, greeted by Martin, who’s loitering by the door in a moth-eaten tuxedo that pre-dates the Vietnam War. He shakes all the relatives’ hands and cracks jokes.
“I guess you heard it’s a shotgun wedding—but don’t make any comments about Leda showing. She’s kind of sensitive about it.” Nathalie, who is handing out programs, smiles at this, and he winks. To the next aunt he says, “We had to have another wedding because the presents were so disappointing last time. I hope you acquitted yourself well.” In a lull between guests he wanders over to her, his silver cummerbund rising halfway to his neck, and confides that he is nervous.
“You’ll be great, Martin,” she says. “It’s going to be great.”
“Where did your fine husband get off to?”
She shrugs. “Probably refinishing all the pews at the last second.”
Martin looks at her, his rheumy eyes gleaming kindly behind his thick glasses. “Now, sweetheart. Be grateful his hobbies are harmless.”
Harmless, Nathalie thinks later, as the organ plays the wedding march and Nick, his face a study in beleaguered patience, escorts his mother slowly down the aisle. She thinks, it’s not enough. The minister, a solid twenty-five years younger than the two he is about to wed, greets the bride with a smile. She wonders if Leda knew, each time, that her marriage wouldn’t endure—wonders when and how this knowledge dawned on her. And each time it happened, was she surprised? Behind her, one row back, Michael Thomas sighs with audible sentiment. Nathalie shoots him a look over her shoulder, and he leans forward and whispers in her ear, “Grouch.”
Nick kisses his mother on the cheek and takes his seat beside Nathalie without looking at her. Leda’s wearing the floor-length gown she chose in the store, its wide skirt buoyant around her, her exposed chest and shoulders wrinkled, age-spotted, soft as cushions. She’s also wearing elbow-length gloves, a veil and—Nathalie can just make it out, its gems nestled and sparkling against Leda’s white hair—a tiara. She smiles at Martin, her thin lips parted slightly. She looks like a travesty and a fantasy, both.
She and Martin promise to love each other, to honor and obey. Martin lifts up her veil and looks into Leda’s eyes; she looks back, then they share a gentle, dignified kiss. One princess-gloved hand reaches up and squeezes Martin’s arm in its ancient tuxedo. What she’s seeing, Nathalie can tell, is love—stripped down and authentic—and as they walk back up the aisle together she looks down at her hands.
At the reception, which is held back at the house, Martin tells her a joke involving a mailman, a fireman, a policeman and a farmer’s daughter. Leda and Nick are dancing in the living room, swaying more than moving their feet, their shoes scuffling against the bare floor. Leda’s gloves lie where they’ve been flung, in postures of abandonment and repose, over the back of the couch. Nick smiles down at his mother. They’ve made up, as they always do.
He sees her watching them and glances away, a gesture that is half-anger, half-apology, and wholly familiar. Michael Thomas comes over and asks her to dance. He’s been leaning against a wall since the party began, tapping his feet to the music and looking longingly at the people on the floor. Passing by him earlier, handing out hors d’oeuvres, she even heard him humming along loudly to “The Way You Look Tonight.” Now he stands before her, wide-eyed and eager. She shakes her head. Michael Thomas seems like the kind of person who’s had dance lessons and isn’t afraid to use them.
“Please?” he says. “Just one dance? I love to dance at weddings.”
“I’m not really much of a dancer.”
Beside her, Martin gives her a nudge—actually, less nudge than a poke in the ribs, sharper and more forceful than she would’ve expected.
“Go ahead, dear,” he says. “Who knows how long it’ll be until Leda and I get married again?” He pushes her in the direction of Michael Thomas’ skinny arms. She relents. Michael Thomas takes her hand and bows an exaggerated introduction. The two of them step and swirl, paired and clasped. She was right about him: he has technique. People head to the edges of the room, making room for them. He spins and dips her, and by the time the song finishes she’s breathless and grateful not to be injured.
When Michael Thomas bows and retreats, Nick comes over and hands her a drink. “Impressive moves,” he says.
“It was all Michael Thomas,” she tells him.
Together they watch him scouring the room for other partners. Leda and Martin are dancing together now, cheek to cheek, eyes closed in rapture, swaying only the slightest bit. Nathalie sips her champagne and observes the happy couple. Next to her, Nick smells of cologne and sweat and shrimp canapés and wine; the rhythm of his breath as familiar as her own. She knows the two of them won’t dance tonight. They’ll stand side by side, as if on guard, waiting until the others are through.