Malory is shambling down the aisle toward me. Again. We’re at our wedding – the same one we’ve been repeating every day since our actual wedding ceremony two months ago. But, there’s only so many times a guy can dance to “When a Man Loves a Woman” before he wants to brain himself with the punch bowl ladle. Only so many times he can act surprised to find the garter under the wedding dress. Only so many genuine smiles he can give the photographer. Oh yes, the photographer is her – I guess our – hostage, too. And the priest. I’m paying them to keep them here.
But our guests, close friends and family, are here because they love Mal. Not one of them has left the church, because we know why she wants this. Even the priest has canceled all services, all other weddings, baptisms, everything. He said he felt that God was calling him to help Mal. I wish he fucking would.
I’m sure it all started when Mal was a kid, those Disney movies about princesses and Prince Charmings and all that. I’ll tell you, it’s a lot of pressure when women start watching “Say Yes to the Dress” and glancing at us, making little remarks like, “Ooo, honey, wouldn’t this one look nice on me?” with a giggle, then a, “I mean, you know, if we ever got engaged.” And “accidentally” leaving Zales catalogues laying about, open to earmarked pages with huge rocks we can’t afford circled in black marker. Ultimately, isn’t it enough that we watch “The Bachelor” with you women? That we go to the store for tampons and ice cream? That we throw away our most comfortable La-Z-Boys just because you say they doesn’t match the drapes?
But once a woman has the ring, it doesn’t get any better. It’s like a race to the marital finish line. “When’s the big date?” “Have you set a day yet?” “Honey, is it better to have an anniversary in spring or fall? We have to set this date.”And on and on. The wedding itself is actually the least annoying part of the whole ordeal. Well, the reception afterward. I’ve been drinking for two months now, hungover since my bachelor party – I found a stash of alcohol in the church kitchen. I put some rum in one of the small flasks we’d gotten the groomsmen as presents, hid it in my tux pocket. Man, the rental bill for this tux will be crazy.
All of my groomsmen hate me because I won’t let them leave this damn church. I’m pretty sure they’ve all lost their jobs. I mean, they love Mal and me, they really do. But they have their limits, their lives to get back to. They corner me in the restroom and I tell them, “One more day, guys, just one more day. I promise you, I’ll make it up to you.” We repeat this every few days. Their wives and girlfriends, Mal’s friends and family, won’t let them leave, either. Which is probably the only real reason they’re still here. Mal and I just bought our house earlier this year, and I may have to take out a second mortgage to afford this wedding. Haha, weddings, plural. I know, though, that it’s not her fault. Reminding myself of this has become my daily ritual: that the culturally-ingrained women-and-marriage thing isn’t what’s going on. I wish it was going on. I have to stop being a selfish ass. It’s not her fault.
Mal looks even worse than yesterday. Oh god, I feel terrible about these things I’ve been thinking. What the fuck is wrong with me? I know that I’m just tired of this, that I want to take her home, lay her on the bed where she can rest. But, I love this woman, and I’ll have this wedding 257 more times if it makes her happy.
She’s coming toward me, and I want to help her, but I know she won’t let me. It’ll ruin this moment for her. This moment we’ve experienced 58 times, now. It’s okay, though. Really. Her dad, from his seat on the pew, half-lifts himself to hold her elbow as she walks, but she waves him back down. He resumes his head-in-hands pose. We all have headaches. No fresh air this whole time, and the only foods we’ve eaten are Giancarlo’s pizza, Speedy Wok’s sesame chicken and shrimp lo mein, and sometimes Bull Grove’s barbecue. Mal doesn’t like barbecue, but she orders it when her mom complains too much about all the carbs.
Some of the guests are playing cards as Mal limps to me. They look up as she passes, pity distorting their faces. She’s ceased caring what they do. The priest is seated, gazing off like he’s meditating with his eyes open. Creeping me out. He’s officiated 54 of our weddings from a sitting position. After the first few days, he holed himself up under the large cross and stretched-out Jesus, spending most of his time cross-legged, staring up at his savior. It’s weird, but he never says anything besides words for the services, rote and without inflection.
As Mal nears me, I can see dark circles half-mooning under her eyes, how it looks like she’s applied blue lipstick, how she holds with upper arms her wrinkled dress, which threatens to fall off her withering form. She used to be so beautiful. Just lovely. So strong, such supple skin and an easy, graceful manner. Before, she’d been a ballet dancer, had pirouetted her way right into my heart. She’s a few feet from me now, and I remind myself why I’m here, what and who I’m doing this for. All of my grievances go away when she stumbles, and I catch her forearm, hold up her slight body.
“Malory, I can’t do this anymore. Please, just stop and go see Dr. Fitzhugh!” her sister screams, throwing down the bouquet. She does this every few days; no one pays her any attention now, least of all Mal. She just picks up the bouquet, turns to me, and smiles weakly. I know she won’t stop any of this. And she forbade me to call the doctor. As she looks at me, it seems her face is trying to follow her dress to the floor; it’s falling off its own bones. Her hair is piled on her head like ice cream on top of a cone, the lever operated by a three-year-old. I’ve seen her fix and re-pin it. Maybe not in a few weeks, though. She hasn’t had a bath since the “Big Day.” None of us have. I’m itchy, and my skin crawls with unseen bugs. As for Mal, I hate to admit it, but there’s a stench under her perfume. Dirty, but more. Worse. It’s like Sally, my dog, smelled right before she loped into the field behind my childhood home and I never saw her again. But I can’t think about that.
I hate this part. This moment I have to look into her face, which isn’t the face I remember from the last several years of our life. Dead flesh-gray irises, no glimmer like before. Her lips are so cold when we kiss. Since we’ve been in this godforsaken church, her condition has gotten worse. All I want is for her to be well. I want to carry her over the threshold of our home and into our new life together.
My mom and I hold secret meetings below the stained glass Moses. We get everyone together while my wife sleeps fitfully on a pew, sometimes wracked with coughs. I tell everyone that Mal is beyond our help, that we need to sedate her somehow and take her to the hospital. No one wants to do it. Everyone thinks she is dying, and they want her to be happy while she does it. I can’t think that she’s dying, about what’s happening inside her body. There has to be a way to stop it. I know the doctor can help. We can start the chemo again. Something. Anything.
Her cousin Shirley comes up with the plan. We crush a few Lunestas into a plastic cup from the first reception, and stir water in. Then I wake Mal and tell her to drink, tell her she looks very thirsty. As she drains the cup, her bulbous, half-lidded eyes gaze up at me, full of love. She trusts me implicitly. When we’re sure she’s out, I bend down and gently lift her into my arms. I’m startled by how little she weighs, after only two months. I stifle a sob. Everything will be okay, it will be okay.
Outside, all the guests are finally leaving, but Mal’s mom and dad and my mom help me settle her into the passenger seat. Somehow, we get her strapped in – passed out people are all arms and legs. When they’ve gone to their cars with assurances to meet at the hospital, I look over at her. She’s snoring softly, her face turned away from me, her thin neck the same curve of skin I’ve kissed 1000 times before. I remember a conversation we had when we first found out her diagnosis. She’d cried while I held her, but then pulled away from me and stared straight in my eyes.
“Jim, I want you to promise me something.”
“Sure, Mal, anything.”
“Please don’t let me die in a hospital. You remember about my grandma. We were out to dinner, Jim. We just stepped out for an hour.” Tears were shining in her eyes.
“Oh Mal, come here. I promise I won’t. I promise.”
We’re already headed for Bethesda Blvd., which will take us to St. Stephen’s. I make my decision, and on a dime, do a hard u-turn. Mal slumps against my shoulder, and I crawl my arm around her narrow ones.
I head for home.
On the way there, she stops breathing. I hear it, but I sense it more than anything. It’s as if she’s now a TV on pause, eerie and silent, but still crackling inside. Her heart is still beating. But I know there isn’t much time.
I decide I won’t cry until it’s done.
Stopping quick, I undo my seat belt and jump out of the car in one fluid motion. I swing open the passenger door and pick up what’s left of my wife, cradle her in my arms, and carry her over the threshold.
H. L. Nelson (hlnelson.com) is head of the online magazine Cease, Cows and Associate Editor of the university journal Qu. Her publications include Writer’s Digest, Nightmare Magazine, Lunch Ticket, PANK, The Big Click, plus over 50 others in the last year. H. L.’s poem “Absolution” was nominated for Best of the Net 2013. Her fiction chapbook, The Sea is Only Meat, will be out this year (Sundress Publications). She’s busy co-editing Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up to No Good, with stories by Aimee Bender, Rachel Swirsky, Mary Miller, Cat Rambo, and other excellent female writers (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2015).