"One down, three to go." Sean's assessment of our oldest friend's wedding, intoned with a forward-looking sense of resolve, throttled what little life was left at our table. Table Four was the Table of Bachelors and Free Agents; the Table of Crusading Knights Errant, Men-About-Town, Gallants, Rogues and Rakes. A Brotherhood in Defiance of the March and Band.
No, wait--that's Table Three. The same four of us--less one--sat at that table five years ago, within earshot of Table Two, the Order of Available Women. You could see beneath the just receding hair-lines eyes darting surreptitiously from there to Tables Five and Six, the Bargain Basement and Saint Jude's, respectively. This was our first year on that edge, between the "nice young people" seated up close to the party and "those poor bastards" in back, for whom it was largely assumed hemlock would do nicely for chablis, and arsenic might pour from the pepper mills.
"You're next," I said to Sean.
He had moved on to his second dessert--I wasn't hungry--when the glasses started clinking. Tim stood up from his seat near the center of the great long table, life-savings sewn into the lapels of his tuxedo and reflecting in the sequins of his wife's white gown. She looked well enough, I suppose. Not so different from when we dated in college. Fuller on top and softer around the cheeks, perhaps. From where we sat details were difficult to make out.
"Doesn't she look radiant?"
This from one half of a pair of leathery scarecrows fused at the elbows, hobbling past us to Table 14, the Home. Musculature was no longer the force holding them up--they sort of leaned into each other, and put their hip-bones at the mercy of physics.
Tim was mumbling something into a cheap microphone.
"What do you think, guys?" I asked the table. "Radiant?"
"I don't see it," said Adam. "Must be the cataracts."
"They're all always radiant. You don't get dull brides. Boring brides and ugly babies everywhere, but you never hear about them." Sean again.
"Precisely." A consensus reached, the same reasoning with which we secured ourselves half a decade ago, when common sense dictated we were far too young even to consider these sorts of things. Sean stared for a moment into the depths of his mousse; the direction of Adam's gaze indicated some deep and unknown regret over the state of his chicken. I pondered my new tie. It started off well enough, going downwards, but just beyond the midpoint turned uphill into an unseemly arc. That was new, too. And unwelcome. Twenty sit-ups tonight, however, should make me sufficiently sore tomorrow to feel I'd made significant progress, and thus enable me to stop. I imagined a skier slaloming around the embroidered bits, heading for the lift. He'd get enough air for two backflips and still reach the fingerbowl. He'd probably drown in that fingerbowl, given his size. He sort of looked like Tim.
The champagne flutes and wine glasses jumbled together, ringing hollow fragility. "Lechaim!" I spoke a little too loudly, competing with Sean's "chin-chin" and Adam's equally affected "nostrovnya." Old toasts and old laughter. I hadn't caught a word of Tim's speech. Sean emptied his glass, and smiled.
"You're next," he said.
At ten o'clock, the ties came off. By eleven, one arm of Sean's jacket lay flat and footprinted on the floor, working on a permanent crease. This was from the winter collection, his more appropriate summer suit knocked out of the rotation by an indelible bloodstain. A fight over a woman, as he tells it, though I happen to know he suffers from regular nosebleeds and a self-proclaimed utilitarian attitude towards sleeves.
"Students at UCL used to play football with Jeremy Bentham's preserved head," he'd say in his own defense. "They needed a ball, and his head was available."
Fair enough, what could you say, that was Sean. He'd left his jacket dangling from his chair as he stood to go in search of a bathroom. Some kind of graphic was visible beneath his dress shirt--a cartoon octopus, I think, and a monkey. It was perfectly visible to the girls of Table Two as he walked by. They turned to whisper to each other.
I had a plain white t-shirt under my starched collar. In some strange way, I felt that made me the leader.
The band moved on to Strangers in the Night. Adam tugged at his Armani suit--his father's Armani suit--and after a moment pulled his eyes away from Tim + out on the dance floor.
"So how's your novel going?"
He had to bring that up. "Oh, it's going. You know. The usual." The usual. I'd written the same fifty thousand words five times over in slightly different orders, debating for six months at a time over whether or not an 'an' should be a 'the.' Sometimes I wondered if he asked just to piss me off. "It's good," I concluded, after a pause. "It's good. How's yours?"
He didn't even blink. "Coming along. Coming along. I met someone who knows someone for me to send it to when it's finished. So."
"Dude, nice. That's awesome."
Six drafts and no prospects, just like the rest of us. And a day job he lacked the courage to leave. Just like me. "What about Sean?"
"Don't think he's writing it anymore. He decided to go kind of a different way."
We nodded at each other for a moment. It could mean only one thing; we said it at the same time.
Something not quite like laughter took us through the next few minutes until Sean returned. He reported that Tim expected to see us on the dance floor right away, partaking of the festivities he and his new in-laws had gone to such great trouble to provide. And if we asked very nicely, he might let one of us have a dance with his wife.
"Rogaine not working?"
She still wore the same perfume. "Surplus testosterone," I replied.
"How long have you been stockpiling?"
Same smile as well, one slightly crooked tooth. We shifted from right to left in approximate time to the music while Tim moved in circles with a sister or cousin or niece. Five years ago he would have kept an eye on me. But five years ago we went through shampoo at about the same rate, and he hadn't yet been to law school.
"So," I began. "Tim always wanted to sleep with a lawyer's wife."
"And I always wanted to be a malcontented socialite. Everyone's a winner."
"Where's the honeymoon?"
"That a frigidity joke?"
"You've made better. But it might come in handy if you ever become a writer. Make a note."
They call it banter. We did it in college, we did it afterwards. But now it tasted a bit like two day old wine. Table Six wine. You can only leave the bottle breathing so long before you commit to the drink. That I made a note of.
"What are the twins up to?" She nodded in the direction of Sean and Adam. The former was pulling out and showing off the waistband of his Transformers boxer shorts.
"Same as always. Same as me, I guess. Pushing papers around. Thinking great thoughts."
"That's what you're good at."
"That would make Tim Sundance?"
"He's not the girl on the bike."
"No. No he's not."
Her eyes drifted away from mine to search over the crowd. Pupils large in the low light, mascara starting to look a little tired--she was beautiful, but that meant nothing anymore. I saw a distance in those eyes I'd never seen before, a calmness, as if the image of me didn't quite register in her mind. You're background now, they seemed to say. Part of the setting, not the scene. I wondered if all the other eyes in the room said as much, but none were on me. No one looked and knew me, knew my name or why I even bothered to have one.
Tim tapped me on the shoulder. I deftly stepped aside as he took her hands and my place without losing a step. Not a bad dancer, Tim. Five inches taller, a bit broader in the shoulders. They did look quite right together.
A tug on my sleeve and a whisper in my ear. "Dude, get off the floor."
One minute or ten, who knew how long I'd watched them. I doubt anyone else had noticed. Fascinating how close you can get to the spotlight without being lit.
Sean pulled me back to our table. Two and Three had emptied their contents either to the dance floor or the outside balcony. God knows what became of Five and Six. It didn't bode well that the waiters were stacking their chairs.
"You looked like junior high out there, guy," Sean said. "Not slick."
"Oh, is this where the cool kids hang out? Or has the treehouse got a spider in it?"
"I think he saw the boxer shorts," Adam added.
Sean smiled. "Is this about my underwear?"
"Not everything is about your underwear."
"It's not about your underwear. It's not about your octopus t-shirt, and it's not about wearing brown socks with black shoes, or even not having your own fucking suit at the age of however old Adam is."
"My birthday is like a week after yours, ass."
"Is it about her?"
I would have made a better case against that by not hesitating just then.
"No," I said. They exchanged glances. "Both of you can fuck off, 'cause it isn't."
They shrugged. Sean squished the last pristine morsel of cake on his plate through the tines of his fork. Adam dragged a finger through some frosting. "Good cake," he mumbled.
"No," I bit. "It's not a good cake. It's a bad cake. You know how I can tell? Because I like cake. Cake makes me happy. And this cake's freaking me out. It took three guys to get it in here. It cost a month's rent. It's got more stories than any house I've ever lived in, and better architecture than the Parthenon. Furthermore, there aren't any candles on it. All my cakes have had candles on them. Automatically. I live one more year, I get another candle, no questions asked. This year my cake showed up in satellite photos, so everyone from my Mom to NASA knows I'm still cutting ten dollar cakes with three dollar knives and handing out chunks on paper plates I stole from the office. I haven't deserved a candleless cake, haven't even come close, and looking around there are going to be a lot more cakes without candles in the very near future. Despite all I can do, boys, nothing I've done merits pillars, and I'm starting to wonder why."
Adam covered his plate with a napkin, and looked to Sean for help. None came.
"And what about you two? Adam, how's your novel? Coming along? Or is the latest printed version still propping up the short leg of your sofa? Or how about your screenplay, Sean? Act Two giving you trouble?"
"You told him about the screenplay?"
"Bet your mom thinks it's great. When you get home tonight you can ask her, I'm sure the lights'll still be on when you get there. Or maybe she's just laying awake in bed waiting to hear the garage door open, so she'll know you're OK without having to embarrass you and your girlfriend--the one you tell her has to sneak out at dawn every morning to get to work, the one who never seems to make a sound and who your mom can't find a trace of when she's putting away your fucking go-bots underoos."
"Dude, you're obsessed."
"Look around. The waiters are starting to eyeball our table. They're sweeping up the borders. I'm getting pressured by a guy wearing a clip-on bow tie to please make my way toward the coat room because I'm clearly not going to get anything done here tonight and the cabs stop coming at midnight. Am I going to walk home from a wedding? How sad is that? This is Table Four, guys. Table Four. Table One's not gods and supermen. But Table One has its own limo. You know they have their own limo. And the busboys leave them alone. So tell me, then--because you're looking at me like you know--what the hell's the difference? Why them and not us? What do I have to do to get up there?"
Adam's cheeks had gone red. He slumped a bit in his chair and stared at his fingernails. Sean's hands disappeared beneath the table; I can only assume and hope he was giving me the finger. His left eyebrow arched high on his forehead. He let me sit there in silence for at least ten good seconds' worth of satisfying indignation before speaking.
"What have you tried?" he asked quietly.
"We're about to head off," Tim called to me from behind.
"There are two people making out down there," I replied. Murmurs and the occasional giggle drifted up from behind a hedgerow below the balcony.
"Is one of them my wife?" He stepped outside to join me.
"I don't think so. She kind of squeaks more than giggles."
"This is probably the last night you can say stuff like that."
"To you, yes."
He smiled a wide but thin smile, revealing the teeth I remembered from long before they were made even by two years of braces. I had mine on for three.
"The guys leave?"
He nodded. "Sean said he had to get home and change his--"
"Yeah. Yeah, I got it."
"Good reception, right?"
"Damn good cake, anyway."
There was no way to tell how much they'd told him. I chose to play it toward neutrality. "Surprised it stood up under its own weight."
"I think they modeled it with a computer, first, in 3-D. In fact, I think the whole thing was programmed in, and then a bunch of lasers cut it out from a solid cake block."
"Whatever's left gets reprocessed into those ten dollar cakes you get at the grocery store."
They'd talked. I shook my head and laughed. We both leaned our forearms on the railing and watched our shadows stretching out long against the trees, pale yellow-orange from the light inside.
"When I turned twenty-five," I began, "my mother came out to the city to cheer me up and celebrate. She got tickets for a show--"
"What did you see?
"Hers. So we're sitting in the balcony, and I open the stagebill to check out the cast. In the middle of the page, there's a headshot of girl I met twenty years ago on a family vacation. I think it was the same girl. Same name, city of origin. Who knows for sure, obviously, and my pocket Freud probably says that the fact I've decided it was her says more about me than anything else. Anyway. This girl and I went swimming in the same pool, the same ocean. We went to tea together. We got along perfectly. Exchanged addresses, went home, never wrote. Not surprising. Twenty years later she's on a Broadway stage, and I'm with my Mom, watching her with a thousand other people whose names she wouldn't remember. My Mom takes one look at my face and says, 'Don't worry. You've got plenty of time. Plenty of time,' she said. 'But none to waste.' I feel better, watch the play, go home, and don't ever write her a second time."
"You've told me this story."
"I know. But, well. Another five years go by, and here I am on another balcony."
Another giggle, loud, came up from the bushes. Tim nodded, but didn't turn to me. Not much of a talker, Tim. The sounds of tables being cleared behind us mingled with wind and the rustling of branches. The limo was waiting for him. He had a lot of places to go.
I turned to face him. His eyes were somewhere on the ground. He had a smile on his face I don't think he was aware of--small and subtle, somehow easy and still. For the first time on the night of his own wedding, I thought about who he was. I knew two decades worth of Tim. I'd been witness to the best part of his history, knew every long step he'd taken, every hard choice he'd made. With not much effort of memory or interpretation, I thought back, and traced his path from the age of ten to where he stood beside me, ring on his finger, career ahead of him, the same strange calmness I'd seen earlier in the eyes of his bride.
"It doesn't happen by accident, does it."
He turned, and I saw it took a moment for his mind to return to where it had left me. "No. No, it doesn't."
A sliver of pink emerged from the shrubbery and froze alongside an awkward figure in an ill-fitting suit. I recognized Tim's dance partner from earlier that evening. "I'm telling Aunt Lisa!" Tim called down to them. She grabbed the boy's arm and dragged him out of sight. I'd seen him before as well.
"He was at Table Three," I said.
"Yeah," Tim replied. "Table Three's where we put all the losers." He finally got a real smile out of me. "It's time to go," he continued. "The reception's over, and I've got a private party to get to."
"For the rest of your life."
"Good to have a plan. Go home. Or don't. Anyway, I'll see you in two weeks."
He stepped back into the light, but turned a last time to address me. "I love all you guys, you know that. It was good to see everyone again. And it's not the last time we will, so put that idea right out of your head. And by the way--and just between us, so don't tell them I said this--you are next."
I had good friends. "I wish."
He made a face, waved, and was gone. I slipped back through the emptying room to my table, where one of the waiters was about to bundle the tablecloth and put up the chairs. Before he could dispose of the remains, I snatched away the placecard at my seat and put it in my pocket, determined as I walked from the hall to one day have great need of a name.