Jennifer flew all the way to Albuquerque with the dress in dry cleaner’s plastic draped across her lap. Still, when she got to the hotel, she almost lost her nerve and went to the wedding in the black slacks she had worn on the plane.
She had slipped into the dress and then opened the bathroom door before unzipping her makeup case. “Don’t you think it’s too much?” she asked after a few minutes, leaning toward her own reflection and catching her boyfriend’s eye in the bathroom mirror.
Barry sat on the edge of the bed in a pirate costume. He was eating macadamia nuts out of a glass jar and watching as she daubed rouge onto her cheeks with a big brush. He shook his head.
It was a flapper’s dress from the 1920s: sleeveless, off-white, and pencil-thin, with intricate white beadwork and a thick satiny fringe at the hem. Her grandmother had produced it during Thanksgiving dinner, along with silk stockings and a bell-shaped hat sewn from off-white felt.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Jennifer had protested. Now she dutifully pulled the cloche hat over her long dark hair, which fell past her shoulder blades and ruined the period look, but it couldn’t be helped. Barry had found her a brown bobbed wig, but it was still on her bureau at home. Jennifer hadn’t remembered it until they were in line at the airport terminal.
The hotel where Jennifer and Barry were staying was only a few blocks from her friend’s house, and they decided to walk. Jennifer took small steps and held on to Barry’s arm, feeling sweaty and conspicuous. She was a pediatrician, accustomed to wearing white coats and sensible shoes. The older doctors, the men, could get away with the occasional rumpled shirt, the tie imprinted with cartoon bunnies or kittens. But Jennifer was in her mid-thirties—the youngest physician and the only woman in the practice—and she wanted them to take her seriously.
The youngest and only, that is, until the previous fall. They had hired Dr. Whitaker fresh from her residency, and she had seemed solid enough until the weather warmed up and she started arriving for work wearing flip-flops and low-cut blouses under her white jacket. The other doctors were appalled. “What is the world coming to?” Dr. Drummond had muttered one evening after Dr. Whitaker had gone home. “It’s unbelievable,” Dr. March had said. “Do medical schools need to have classes on appropriate attire for the office, now?”
And Jennifer blushed, imagining Dr. Drummond and Dr. March seeing her on the sidewalk in Albuquerque, wearing this garish red lipstick and fringed flapper dress, with her big, bearded boyfriend dressed as a pirate.
It was a clear, sunny afternoon in late May. Someone had tied clusters of lavender flowers and white ribbon to the fence in front of Darcy’s house. She had been Jennifer’s roommate all through college, until Jennifer had graduated and gone to medical school.
Darcy had been living with Tom for almost six years, and Jennifer wanted to know why they had decided to get married now, all of the sudden. When Jennifer was eighteen, she had clipped her fingernails over the bathroom sink while Darcy shaved her legs in the tub. Now, though, they had grown apart, and Jennifer didn’t feel like she could ask.
Jennifer had never been to a wedding at someone’s home, and almost subconsciously, she had envisioned a movie set: an arbor in the back yard, or a living room wreathed in flowers. Darcy, she had thought, would still be with her bridesmaids in a bedroom upstairs, putting the final touches on her makeup.
Instead, white wooden chairs were lined up under a big tree in the front yard, and two women in matching black bodysuits and cat-ear headbands were handing out programs. Tom and Darcy, arm-in-arm, circulated among the guests, who were standing in small groups on the grass.
“They’re Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler,” someone said. “Isn’t that sweet?” But Jennifer felt certain then that the marriage wouldn’t last. It was just too much bad luck for one couple to absorb.
Steeling herself, Jennifer had decided to approach Dr. Whitaker. The girl was oblivious, it seemed, and someone had to tell her.
Jennifer waited until the end of the day, when the patients had been sent home with their prescription slips and referrals. Dr. Whitaker was standing at the counter in front of the nurse’s station, now deserted, looking through a stack of file folders.
She was standing there as Jennifer turned the corner: Dr. Whitaker, with her fair, freckled skin and beautiful cleavage framed by a clingy teal blouse, the faint trail of bones at the nape of her neck, her bright auburn hair drawn up into a knot. It was spring outside, but she herself looked like a fine, fresh day in the early fall, with the leaves turning colors and thin gold loops threaded through the soft tissue of her earlobes. “Yes?” Dr. Whitaker had said. She straightened, looking serenely at Jennifer.
“Dr. Whitaker,” Jennifer said, and was immediately interrupted.
“Call me Sophie,” Dr. Whitaker said, leaning forward and placing her hand on the sleeve of Jennifer’s white coat. “Please. Everyone is so formal here.”
Jennifer winced. “Yes,” she said. “That’s what I need to talk to you about.”
Dr. Whitaker let go of Jennifer’s arm and looked ruefully at the folder in her other hand. “Did one of the nurses say something? I’m staying late to get caught up.”
“It’s not that,” Jennifer said, regretting the impulse to have this conversation. Couldn’t she just have left well enough alone?
But what was the alternative? Watching Dr. Whitaker go on like this, day after day, with everyone talking about her behind her back?
“Your work isn’t the problem. It’s the. . . .” At a loss for words, Jennifer zigzagged a finger across her own chest. “You know, shirts. Shoes.” She looked down and saw that on today of all days, Dr. Whitaker had foregone the flip-flops and worn black pumps instead.
“Oh.” Dr. Whitaker blushed, the hot pink creeping not just into her cheeks but also her neck and ears and pale freckled chest.
Jennifer felt sick. She’d had a small breakfast and worked through lunch. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“That’s okay!” Dr. Whitaker said. “I’m glad you told me.” She clutched the file folder against her upper body and looked away, her smile faltering as she raised her free hand from the sterile white countertop and touched one shiny gold earring.
At home that night, Jennifer had poured herself a glass of white wine and turned on the stereo. Barry had called, wanting to come over, and Jennifer had told him she had a headache. Barry clicked his tongue sympathetically and offered bring her carryout Chinese and Tylenol. He offered to rub her temples.
Jennifer couldn’t think of the right way to say no. It seemed too complicated to explain that she had a headache that couldn’t be cured with good food or medicine or massage, that it wasn’t so much a headache as an all-over ache, that she felt sick all over again every time she thought of Dr. Whitaker’s stricken expression, and that even though it was unseasonably warm for early May, she wanted to light a fire and lie on the couch in the dark, listening to sad music on her mother’s old record player.
After the wedding ceremony, Darcy’s new stepson dug a hole in the grass under the tree and buried a worn white rabbit’s paw on a keychain. He was about ten, Jennifer guessed, and he gave her a sour look when he turned and saw her watching him. He hadn’t worn a costume.
“Was that for luck?” she asked, trying to be friendly, but he turned and walked away.
Barry was getting a glass of punch at a card table in front of the house. He was in line behind Wonder Woman and a balding man in a cape. When Barry returned, he had pushed his pirate’s eye patch up onto the top of his head. There was a pink stain on the ruffled white cuff of one of his sleeves.
“Are you sure you don’t want any?” he asked, holding up the glass. “I’ll share.”
Wordlessly, Jennifer shook her head. Behind him, Scarlett O’Hara emerged from the house, smiling and carrying a wide white sheet cake. A few of her friends gathered on the opposite side of the yard, where they set up instruments and began playing dance music.
Barry finished his drink and joined other guests as they pushed the white wooden chairs back from the center of the yard. When a circle had been cleared, Scarlett and Rhett laughingly stepped into it, followed by several other couples.
Jennifer stood watching, turning the cloche hat over in her hands. “No way,” she said when Barry bowed dramatically in front of her.
He removed his eye patch, took the cloche hat, and laid them on a chair.
“You’re a flapper,” he said. “They dance.” He took her hand and pulled her into the center of the yard.
“Well, no self-respecting pirate would do this,” Jennifer said.
But then she had a moment of doubt, and she didn’t try to resist when Barry put his arms around her and pulled her close.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens (Capstone Press) and two chapbooks: Picking Cherries in the Española Valley (Dancing Girl Press, 2010) and Making Love to the Same Man for Fifteen Years (Big Table Publishing, 2009). Her third chapbook, In the Chair Museum, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in 2013. Browning’s fiction, poetry, essays, and articles have previously appeared in a variety of publications including Queen’s Quarterly, Tipton Poetry Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Corium Magazine, The Literary Bohemian, Wigleaf, and Brink Magazine, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, and in several anthologies. “The Costume Wedding” is the third in a series of three linked stories. The companion stories, “Strange Men in Bars” and “Keeping Up Appearances,” were published in 42opus and Lily, respectively. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. Her personal website is located at http://www.leahbrowning.com.
© 2012, Leah Browning