Maid of Honor

My sister's hand seems more animated with the diamond on it. I have to wonder if she's deliberately gesturing more expansively than usual just to show it off, or to see it sparkle. I decide I wouldn't put it past her. The diamond isn't large, but it is cut for brightness, and it catches the light, setting white fire to her finger. Her hand comes to rest in her lap, the stone still glinting. It turns rainbowed white as she slides her hand onto her fiancé's leg, pressed close to hers on our grandparents' couch. He covers it with his own, giving it a squeeze, and her hand, the diamond now out of sight, turns to grasp his.

My mother's voice drones on; she has not realized none of us is listening anymore. I'm not even sure I remember what she was talking about, beyond the plans we've been tossing around for months over the lifeline of e-mail. It was probably another speculation about the catering, I decide, judging from the words that jump out at me now: shrimp, field greens, per plate. She had the company's number on speed dial for a month, while she waited for all Lauren's guests to RSVP with their dietary needs.

"And we've got the florist convinced that white with pastel does not mean accent it with neon orange ribbon," says my mother. "You wouldn't believe what she wanted to hang on the choir loft." Her face tells us that we don't want to know. I couldn't care much less. I am steeped in wedding from hairdressing appointments to the poufy blue bridesmaid's dress in the huge bag on the back of my door, while the bride, through the miracle of grad school, has escaped as yet unscathed.

"So, how was the trip?" my mother asks finally.

"Oh, not bad," says Lauren, smiling as if she hadn't gotten up at six in the morning, four by our clocks. "We didn't even have to wait long for the plane."

"We almost got on the wrong one, though," puts in her fiancé, eliciting a nod from her and not much acknowledgment from anyone else.

"How's Chicago?" asks my grandfather, too cheerfully.

"Good. The roaches finally moved out--"

"Yeah, they went to motels," the fiancé interjects, grinning, getting a unison groan for his efforts.

"Doug!" Lauren laughs. "That's bad. True, but bad."

My grandmother comes out of the kitchen. "Ju--Lauren, did you want to come check on that casserole of yours?" she asks, confusing our names as she has since time immemorial. "I think it's done."

Lauren jumps up, nearly hauling Doug up with her before he can let go. "One second," she says, then to us, "I shall return."

Well, her MacArthur bit hasn't changed, I think as she heads for the kitchen. Neither has her tendency to want to cook despite the situation. She'd probably cook the entire rehearsal dinner if we'd let her.

"What's she making again?" asks my mother. "Smells Italian."

"Lasagna," my grandmother answers, taking Lauren's vacated seat on the couch but settling quite a bit farther from Doug. "She just came in at ten this morning with a bunch of market bags on that little luggage tote and said she had a craving for lasagna, and started making it."

"Did she put bell peppers in it?" I demand.

"Yes," Lauren calls from the kitchen. I can almost see her snickering.

"Jesus, Julie, aren't you over that yet?" snaps my father. "Good God, just make yourself some macaroni and cheese."

It never ends. I'm too tired after last night's marathon of online chat to protest, or to endure the certain shouting match about everything from my internet habits to my food preferences to ruining Lauren's homecoming. I shut up, hoping everyone will follow my lead.

Lauren saves me. "Julie, you want to come do garlic bread?"

I whine. Standing in a hot kitchen doing menial labor is just about the last thing I want to do on a summer almost-afternoon. But the people talking over, at, and around me change my mind. I get up, smirking inwardly at Doug's take-me-with-you look, and go to the kitchen.

"How's school been?" asks Lauren, pointing me toward the bread, butter, and garlic salt. "Surviving?"

"Yeah," I sigh. "I got all A's. But Mother and Father Dearest are so busy living and breathing wedding they didn't notice."

She makes an exasperated noise. "Figures. I'm sorry, for all the good it'll do."

"Oh, don't apologize," I say, making my tone as airy as possible while I attack the bread. "I just wish they'd overlooked grades this way in high school."

"You still writing to Chris?" My ex-boyfriend, on his Mormon mission somewhere in Appalachia. The long-lived relationship had been canceled on account of distance not long ago, and it seemed the entire family had breathed a unison sigh of relief.

"When he writes to me," I answer, not saying that I wait until he's sent me three letters before writing one. "He's not a happy camper really."

"Duh," she says into the oven. "You expected him to be?"

I don't answer. It's obvious that even though I'd broken up with two guys before she'd even had a boyfriend, she knows more about the pain involved. Especially when one party doesn't know it's coming.

Doug sneaks in and grabs Lauren by the shoulders, nearly getting lasagna tossed into his face. "Paaaah! Don't do that!" she shrieks, putting the pan down and batting him playfully with a potholder.

"I'm sorry," he says, hangdog, and she hugs him to make up for it. I catch myself getting wistful and quickly look elsewhere. My grandmother's crossword is sitting within reach, and I take a look. I know what several of the blanks should be, which surprises me. Then I realize that they're all about things that have happened in the last ten years, and it doesn't surprise me anymore. I concentrate on the bread.

Lauren giggles, and I know that if I look up I'll just see her and Doug being cute. I nearly butter my finger as the oven door squeaks open, and I jump again when the cookie sheet of half-finished garlic bread swishes out from under my nose. I rise halfway in protest, but Lauren has already deposited it in the oven, shutting the door with a flourish. I decide to let her find out the consequences later. She seems oblivious as she sends Doug to the dining room with the lasagna, then fits a profusion of salad-dressing bottles into her fingers and breezes by me on her way to join him. I'm about to tell her how much I hate being ignored when she pokes her head back in, asking what I want to drink.

"Scotch on the rocks," I tell her, waiting for her reaction. There is none, beyond a half-raised eyebrow.

"Iced tea," I amend. She disappears. She never lets me have any fun.

Lunch begins. My mother won't let Lauren serve the lasagna; Lauren, in return, won't let her get the garlic bread. My father asks Doug about his latest computing exploits, and he begins happily between forkfuls. I tune out the Greek of Unix code, one of the two subjects my parents will discuss with him, and concentrate on picking alleged red bell pepper out of the lasagna that has landed on my plate. I give up on that endeavor when I realize most of it is indistinguishable from tomato. Discretion is the better part of complaining. I eat my lunch, my silence the signal of my approval since I was old enough to care.

"So what's on the docket again?" Lauren asks when we're done.

My mother sighs and begins to tick off events on her fingers. "Well, after this, we need to go home and make sure everything you sent us came through. Then you have a dress fitting at three. They're really worried over there--you haven't been in at all and they don't know if the pattern will fit you."

"Is it the sleeves?" Lauren inquires, grinning vulpinely, and I remember her reputation for getting her arms stuck in short-sleeved dresses. "I've been working out just especially for this." Doug smiles in confirmation from the background.

"Well, we'll just have to see," says my mother, sizing up Lauren. "This wouldn't have been a problem if you'd have decided to have the wedding when you could have long sleeves. Or something sleeveless. It's certainly going to be hot enough."

"Please don't start on that," Lauren pleads. "Please."

I excuse myself before I can get drawn into the conversation. No doubt they'll label it a "discussion," one held in tones that would be called an argument were Lauren and I to use them alone. My father is already in the family room watching television, so the only option open to me is the guest bedroom, with its his-and-hers hobby tables and an ancient computer. I sit for a while doing nothing, liking the silence.

My grandmother walks in, and I let her come up behind me. "How're you holding up, kiddo?" she asks.

"Fine," I sigh without thinking about it.

"Has your mother talked to you about being maid of honor?" she continues.

"Yeah. It seems like a servant job. Straighten the train, put up with Doug's dumb friend." I'm also not about to return the favor by nominating Lauren, but nobody needs to know that.

"Well, I suppose you could say that," she tells me after some thought. "But you should be happy she's asking you." Count on her to make me wince.

She leaves the room when she sees I'm not saying anything else. My father comes in to ask whether I want to go back home now, and, being perfectly able to do nothing right where I am, I decline. I fiddle with bits of crafts and listen to the radio until Lauren comes to drag me out. I wait in the front room, bored skull-less, while she says an extended good-bye to Doug. Once he's on his way back to his own home, my father and grandfather remember something wrong with one of the cars and reluctantly opt out of going to the fitting. One less person for the seamstress to trip over, I think as the rest of us leave.

They discuss beaded trains and other nonsense in the car, almost to the point of insanity. Lord knows it passed inanity a while ago. When we pull into the driveway, I have my housekey ready and vault out the door. Inside, I grab a Sprite from the refrigerator and the phone from the hall shelf, and pick a number I know will understand me.

"Well, the prodigal sister has returned," I tell Cynthia when she picks up the phone. "And I think I'm the fatted calf."

"What, are they down on you still?" she asks, a crunching noise coming through the line. Potato chips, likely.

"Yeah, my dad did the bell-pepper thing again. He never does that when she's gone." No point, when there's no gold standard to compare me to.

"Yeah, but your mom doesn't make stuff with bell peppers," Cynthia points out. Damn. Another logical point shot down.

"Still, it's like once she gets back, I'm back to being the Bad Child." I put my feet up on my desk, wondering if I should dip into my snack stores. It's the same old rant, really. It's been going on through our carpools to college as it has throughout our school years.

I tell her about the day, about being ignored and driven off. She asks me what I expected, not being the one they haven't seen for ages. I try to say that doesn't matter, but she asks me what I'm doing sitting in my room if I want to be in on things. I'm taking a break, I tell her, and start talking about something else.

Eventually, we hang up. Fortified, I return to the family room to see if I've been missing anything. A few minutes of conversation convince me I haven't.

"Did you get to talk to Tim?" asks Lauren, meaning the minister.

My mother looks suddenly pin-stuck. "Yes."

"You told him what I said to tell him?"

Her face takes on the look it used to get when the answer was "Because I'm the mommy." "I told him you were thinking about changing some things, yes."

Lauren's expression moves toward exasperation. "I've thought about it. A lot. So has Doug. He's in total agreement."

"I understand that's what you've agreed on, but it's not traditional," says my mother. "I think we should talk--"

"I've talked already. I am not going to be announced as an appendage on my husband. 'Mr. and Mrs. Lauren and Douglas Bloom.' That's it." The standard address-label format, but I wonder if she realizes how much it sounds like she's the husband.

"But nobody says it that way," protests my mother. "Not unless they're keeping their own name."

"I am keeping my own name," says Lauren, getting cross. "My first name."

"It's tradition not to say it," my grandmother tells her. "None of us did."

"Pardon my French, but screw tradition," Lauren answers, her hand creeping toward her hip. I'm surprised that this has gotten involved enough to make Lauren violate her standing orders not to curse around my grandparents.

"Look," says my mother, trying to reason, "leaving out your first name in the announcement doesn't make you an appendage, as you so nicely put it. It means you're a married couple now, that's all."

"As if the wedding wasn't there to make that clear?" Lauren retorts, her eyes starting to blaze. "I don't see being a couple as turning in your personality for tradition."

"We're not asking you to!" My mother is barely holding it below a yell. "We just think--"

Lauren has gotten up and is heading for her room. "Never mind," she says, turning around. "It's not my day anymore anyway."

My mother doesn't try to get her back. She sighs, and when Lauren is safely out of earshot, starts in. "She's just like her father. You can't reason with her."

"Oh, Karen," my grandmother admonishes. "It's her day. It can't hurt."

I'm not fond of Lauren's method of parting shots myself, but I keep quiet. This is one conviction I've shared with her from the beginning, meaning back when we were in our teens. It's also one thing on which I was hoping she'd clear the way for me. It dawns on me that I have a vested interest in her being announced to the congregation as she wants, and without needing any other reason, I stand up. Leaving them to discuss who's right, I follow Lauren to her bedroom.

She is sitting on her flowered bedspread, staring at her hands. I wonder what she's thinking about, but I see the Kleenex and hear the sniffle, and don't ask.

"Is this a bad time?" I ask, and she stares at me. Duh, I guess. "Should I come back later?"

"It's not going to matter," she says, her eyes dropping back to her hands. "This thing isn't going to resolve itself. What do they want?"

I'm surprised that she thinks they sent me; usually, she is the messenger. I wonder suddenly how often she has been self-appointed. "What else?"

"I'm not changing it," she says with a snuffle. "Any of it. They can kiss my be-satined ass."

No, I think, that's my job. Or it will be in a month.

She makes a sound that is nearly a chuckle. "And God knows some of it's just a sham anyway."

"What, you mean because you've been living together?" I ask. "That's, like, normal."

"Tell that to Mom and Dad," she says. "You want to know why they're treating Doug like crap?"

"I doubt it," I respond. "They just think you could do better." Frankly, I do too, but I'm not about to tell her that when she's the only one left in my corner.

"Bullshit!" she spits, audibly holding back something whose escape I don't want to witness. "Do they know how frigging lucky I am? How lucky they are too, to like my in-laws? To be able to talk to my fiancé, for God's sake?" She cuts herself off, shaking her head. "And all they can think about is how he must've ravished their virginal babe."

I try not to wonder if she's telling more of the truth than I really want to hear. "How do you know? They don't know him."

"Then why the hell are they acting like he's some kind of virus? You'd think they'd be trying to get to know him, I mean, considering they're going to be seeing a lot of him in the future."

We stay there for a moment, and a terrible curiosity starts creeping through me. Suppose she was serious? "Are you having sex?" I blurt out before I can stop myself.

Lauren blinks at me and cracks a smile. "I'm not going to lie to you. Yes."

"Does Mom know?" What a dumb question. Of course she doesn't know. Lauren's still alive, after all.

"No." She starts to say something else, but catches herself. Then she says it anyway. "Do you know how long it took me? To do it?"

"TMI," I say quickly. Too much information.

"Three months," she says, for once looking me squarely in the eye. "From when I really seriously started thinking about it, three months."

I truly don't want to hear this. But at least she's gotten to say it to someone who won't condemn her.

She's still looking at me, making me want to shiver. "Don't take that long," she tells me.

I can't think of anything to say, so I decide to change the subject. "Why am I your maid of honor?"

"Because you're my sister," she says. "It's traditional."

"This is a hell of a time to get traditional," I retort. "You do realize you won't be mine?"

Lauren stands up and grabs me by the shoulders before I can protest. Eep. "You," she repeats, "are my sister. You are my only sister. And no matter how you try to sabotage it, you are my friend. And you are also my maid of honor. Period." She looks at her watch. "Come on. It's almost two-thirty. They're going to want to leave." She shoves me gently out of the room and starts putting stuff into a tote bag.

I'm nearly dazed as I go back to my room. Lauren, a maid no more. Somehow, it isn't hard to accept. If I had been the first to marry, she'd have been going on about how it was a good thing she wasn't appointed maid of honor, since it wouldn't be literally true. Half true isn't good enough for Lauren any more than half baked is. But she won't tell anyone else, I'm sure of it. She values her skin more than her integrity, probably the only thing she can say that about.

The car radio is on Lauren's backwater station all the way to the boutique, but I'm not listening. Somehow, in the last half hour, something has changed, and I can't figure out what. I spend the ride, and a good bit of the introductions at the shop, trying to pin it down.

Lauren puts on so much support underwear that she jokes about being totally decent in just that. When I next look, she's managing to get into the dress, pins and all, and it looks as if it's going to fit. I can see her grin of relief as her arms refuse to get stuck in the lacy sleeves, as the zipper goes up smoothly over all the infrastructure. She stands there for a second, looking at the yet-to-be-beaded neckline, the nipped waist, the fall of the train. Then she looks in the mirror, and I can see from the surprised O of her mouth that she sees the same ten-year-old playing Statue of Liberty in her great-grandmother's wedding gown.

Lauren whirls halfway around, watching the skirt billow, and is stopped by a gasp from the seamstress she nearly bowls over. "Sorry."

"The train isn't properly attached," the woman scolds her. "It'll come off if you do that." She goes on about how perfect this dress is for Lauren's figure, and what a wonderful figure she has, and I find to my surprise that I agree with them. She does look good, better than she has in almost anything since she started caring about dresses.

The conversation has shifted to something about matching shades of white, and Lauren is supplying her own two cents about Navajo white paint. It hadn't really sunk into my mind till now that there could be different shades. I try to imagine her dress in a different shade of white, and I can't do it. But suddenly I can see pieces of lace turn to ivory, and I know I'm the only one who can see it, or will ever be able to see it. And then I blink, and it's back to its old self, no one the wiser.

I sit and watch as things get basted, tucked, and tweaked around a smilingly suffering Lauren for long enough to make some difference to someone. They finally move aside, and she starts modeling. During a vampish runway walk that has everyone grinning, the train gets rumpled into itself, ripe for the trampling in a second. Before my mother can nag me, I go over and start to fan it out right, visualizing the swirls of pearls and crystal beads that I'll have to work around come August.

"Remember how to do it so you can teach Cynthia," Lauren says, her grin softening to a smile. I look up sharply, trying to remember when I told her who I was considering. She is looking down at me, her hair tangled in a comb of her fingers, her smile natural. I find myself thinking that I should tell her to hold still, run out and get a camera, and take the print to the hairdresser saying "This is how she ought to look, radiant like this." I wonder again when I told her who my maid of honor might be, and remember that I never did. And there is nothing in her eyes to suggest that she minds.

Copyright 1999 by Katherine Foreman

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