29 Oct Matthew Bookin
ONE THOUSAND GOLDEN CAKES
FOR CLAIRE BAXTER
Black planes had been circling Claire’s wedding all morning. Everyone was worried that Robert would show up, and when he did everybody adjusted their anxiety accordingly.
However, the ceremony went off without incident.
I’d been drinking champagne and grapefruit juice all day. I wasn’t getting drunk, I was just getting an increasingly intense headache. After each glass I could feel my confidence adjusting ever so slightly, ticking upward. Small talk became manageable.
The ceremony and the reception were held in a white tent near the beach. I didn’t know anyone at my dinner table so I split my attention between a large pile of cakes wrapped in gold foil on a table in a corner and the black planes circling up above.
The cakes & the planes made me equally nervous.
Robert remained completely silent during the actual wedding to everyone’s relief. Now he was spending most of his time outside the tent, not talking to anyone, diligently watching the black planes in the sky, waiting for something to happen that only he understood. He only came inside the tent to get more beer, always two at a time. He was draining them quickly and he kept looking up towards the sky, checking his watch with what looked like a growing sense of defeat.
A young man on the other side of my dinner table, who had what I can only describe as a “violent mustache,” was loudly explaining how he’d never been in a fight, except for this one time when his friend wanted to drive drunk and he’d selflessly kept his friend’s car keys away, even though that meant sustaining several punches to the face. I realized that I often told this same exact story every time “being in a fight” was brought up in conversation and that many other men my age did the same exact thing. I politely listened to the young man and thought, “I can kill the fake parts of my personality if I concentrate hard enough.” When he finished telling the story he put an entire dinner roll, slick with butter, into his mouth, thoroughly pleased with himself.
Earlier that day, as I was waiting for the bus that would take me to the wedding, I’d witnessed two teenagers furiously making out in a handicapped parking space behind the 7-Eleven. There was a mural of Julius Caesar spray painted onto the back of the store and the teenagers were framed perfectly in the center of it. I’d been trying to work the scene into a joke or just small talk with people at my dinner table, but I grew increasingly worried that I was only sounding insane.
The incredibly drunk dentist sitting to my right intently listened to me describe the scene behind the 7-Eleven, then he said what I thought sounded like, “I want to do a line off a gravestone one day.”
I asked him what kind of line and he grunted with frustration, “Off a gravestone, I said!”
Later, while the food was being served, I caught the dentist quietly trying to Google the phrase, “PINK PILL K56,” on his wife’s phone.
Robert didn’t come inside the tent for dinner.
I pushed a hunk of prime rib around on my plate and watched Claire and her new husband whisper to one another. Claire looked so happy, she was almost unrecognizable.
After everyone finished eating, the DJ shouted “Oh, shit!” into a microphone and we all started to dance.
I found my friend Carolyn dancing in the crowd. During a fast part of one of the songs she twirled her arm delicately through the air, like she was running her hand along the surface of a river, and knocked the glasses off my face. I retrieved them and even though one of the lenses was gone I put them back on. I didn’t replace that lens until after the summer had already ended, the day before Halloween actually. I didn’t notice it was missing and we kept dancing.
During a slow song Carolyn went to get drinks and and she returned with two glasses of champagne, angry bubbles rising up the thin flutes. She handed me both glasses and said, “I’ve been asked to go solve a mystery in Bruges. I’m sorry, I have to go.” We hugged and she disappeared into the crowd.
I placed both champagne glasses on an empty table and tried dancing with one of the bridesmaids, but she wasn’t that into it. When I asked her what her name was she said three names, “Marie. Amanda. Erin.”
We kept dancing until it was time for the speeches.
Claire’s father spoke about God and the best man told a story about vomiting in Reno. When Claire’s sister started walking up to the microphone I went outside. My headache was buzzing, I needed a break from all the public speaking.
Past a conga line of caterers I found Robert standing by a picnic bench, arms slack at his sides. He had his eyes closed and his head tilted up towards the clear summer sky. In his right hand he held his gold wristwatch. I observed him silently for a full minute and was about to head back into the tent when I heard him softly say my name. He turned around and looked at me, his eyes were red and sleepless. He gestured towards the wedding and smiled faintly.
“I’d like to thank all my incredibly attractive enemies for travelling so far to attend my public execution,” he said.
Once, during college, I caught Claire bandaging up Robert’s hand in the kitchen at a party. There was blood dripping down onto the yellow linoleum in a steady pulse from his clenched fist and Claire was pleading to him, “Bobby, please, this has to be the last time.” We all heard a lot of things about what happened between Claire and Robert, but I’m not sure what’s true or not. It’s nothing I’d want to repeat without knowing for sure.
Back inside the tent the speeches had concluded and I watched Claire hug her sister. The DJ shouted an indecipherable string of sentences and the music bloomed again. When I turned back toward Robert he was gone. Almost everyone I knew had disappeared.
I know that all of us, everyone at the wedding who knew Robert, had been secretly depending on him. We wanted him to fuck up. We wanted a red wine stained veil. We wanted a swing at Claire’s new man. We wanted some sort of human disaster that would make any one of our dozen minor indiscretions during the ceremony seem quaint. But Robert didn’t give us that and the wedding began to unwind.
Claire and her new husband left the reception in an endless white limousine. White flower petals rained down behind them as they drove away. It was the last time I ever saw Claire.
The catering company started to deconstruct the tent and The Girl with Three Names and I walked down to the beach. I took my dress shoes off.
The Girl with Three Names brought a half full bottle of champagne and we silently passed it back and forth. I felt good. I thought all of my friends had noticed that I’d been there, I was present and trying. I wished I could always feel so confident after going out in public.
I noticed that The Girl with Three Names had picked up a seashell and I stupidly almost asked her if that had been a bridesmaid’s present but stopped myself just in time. She held the shell to her ear and slowly rocked back and forth with her eyes closed, listening to the music of it.
She opened her eyes and smiled a little as something caught her attention. She pointed up towards the blue sky behind me and I saw that the black planes had returned. They were in a tight formation now, white vapor billowing out behind them.
The planes made several passes across the sky until their expertly maneuvered lines of vapor formed the words:
CLAIRE PLEASE SAY NO.
And then they were gone. We didn’t say anything for a long time after that.
Eventually, The Girl with Three Names broke the silence, holding the seashell out to me. She told me to whisper two true things about myself into it.
I whispered, “I’m unsentimental and I’m unphotogenic.”
She brought the seashell up to her own mouth and whispered something I couldn’t hear. It was like singing.
Then she threw the shell as hard as she could out into the water. It cut a magnificent arc and traveled so far that I didn’t even see it go under the waves. I told her she had an impeccable pitching arm and she flexed and laughed.
And then we sat in the sand and drank the rest of the warm champagne as the message in the sky disappeared.
Matthew Bookin [b.1985] lives in Buffalo, NY.