When she looks up from the waiting room’s scarred linoleum and sees the policeman standing in front of her, hat in his hands, Kate fears the worst.
He’s a big square-jawed guy, not much older than she is. He clears his throat, glances at his clipboard and reads her full married name. “Is that you, ma’am?” he asks, and she hesitates. She’s still not used to her name attached to Jeromy’s like that, and now of all times, when he could be off dying somewhere in this same building, her failure to automatically align herself with him in that way makes her ashamed.
He introduces himself as Officer Downing and says he’d like to ask her a few questions. “Come with me?” he says. She stands, and he leads her down a series of corridors, then opens the door on a small room like a vacant office, sparsely furnished with a nondescript desk and two chairs. He sits behind the desk and she remains standing, looking past him out the window at a segment, just a few degrees, of the mountains that ring the city, cupping it. “I just need information for the report,” he says. “You want to have a seat?”
“Why is there a report? What’s happening with my—with Jeromy?”
Officer Downing takes a deep breath and blows it out. “I don’t know anything about his condition, ma’am. I’m sure they’ll inform you as soon as possible. Right now, I just need to ask you some questions. That’s all. We need to get as much information as we can now, against the chance—not that we have any reason to expect it at this point—but in case your husband becomes a fatality.” He explains haltingly that there would have to be an investigation, if Jeromy dies.
“Oh,” she replies, unsure what to say next.
“I’m sorry,” he continues. “I know this is a hard time for you, but it’s easier if you’re willing to help us.” He doesn’t specify easier for whom. “Will you please sit down?”
She takes a seat, but does not relax. He skims his clipboard, then says, “This wasn’t a hunting accident.”
“But it was accidental.”
He frowns, then pulls from his clipboard a sheet of folded typewriter paper. He smoothes the creases and lays it on the desk, face-up. She recognizes the page of screenplay by its centered format, the characters’ names in caps above their blocks of lines. “It’s not often,” he says, drumming his fingers once on the table, “that we have a script for this sort of thing. Who wrote this?”
When she says it was Lee, her brother-in-law, the officer’s eyebrows arch and he scribbles on his clipboard, then underlines something. She stands up quickly; her chair tips, then hits the back of her knees. “Are we done here?”
Jeromy could be out of surgery any minute; it’s imperative that he sees her there when he wakes up.
“Not quite,” he says. “I just need to know who fired the gun.”
She considers that the literal truth will not get her out of this room very quickly at all.
six months earlier
The next morning, she says experimentally, “Married sex. Does that make it different? We’re having married-people sex now.”
“Well,” Jeromy says, “this is our honeymoon, technically.”
Her honeymoon’s one more thing that is happening in a way no one could have predicted. She has a feeling of motion, inertia. It’s frightening and unconventional, but then conventional has never worked for her, even when she’s tried, even when all the obvious factors should’ve lined up.
“How long can we call it a honeymoon?” she asks.
“As long as we want,” he says. “Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. Whatever we decide it is,” she says. They have no agenda. They can do anything, in theory. Their sheer potentiality exhilarates and terrifies her. How do you live up to that kind of freedom?
The topic of marriage had seemed to come up innocuously, just as conversation, while the highway unrolled. They were playing the “What don’t I know about you” game; it was Jeromy’s game, he had started it.
“Childhood pets, then,” he said. “I don’t know about your childhood pets.”
“Oh,” she said. She tied off the bracelet she had just finished braiding and dropped it in the pile, then began feeding out fibers for another. “Childhood pets,” she said speculatively, as if thinking about it. Lately, in the parking lots before and after shows, she had been selling as many of the little woven ornaments as she could make. It’s remarkably sustainable; she needs no one. “Well I don’t know about childhood,” she said finally. “Mary and Fred have that dachshund. I told you about him.” She squinted at her braiding. What was that little dog’s name?
“Mary and Fred,” Jeromy said, nodding. “They your all-time favorites? Or, just the longest? Or the last?”
“What, as foster parents? Hmm. All of the above, I imagine. I’ve never, like, categorized. How does this game work anyway? And how long’s it your turn?” Behind him, pines and red clay scenery sped by fast, and she thought, he could have all the turns he wanted.
“Your wedding, then,” he asked. “How’ve you imagined your wedding day?”
“I really haven’t,” she said. “I don’t know.” A sign for an approaching exit shot past, but she made no effort to read it.
“You’re lying,” he said. “I don’t believe you. Every girl has thought about it.”
She threaded one more pearl-colored bead and stopped, holding the rough threads in place between two fingers. “Well,” she conceded. “Like, on a private island, or something. Or, some huge hall, with hundreds of famous guests. But never anything realistic.” She frowned at the partial bracelet in her hands. “And even then. I don’t think I ever imagined those things for me.”
“I could never swing an island,” Jeromy said immediately.
“Something quick, practical. That would just make so much more sense. Or like,” she said hypothetically, “I’d be fine with whatever you wanted.” A few seconds, one long heartbeat, passed before the implication here hit her. The air rushing past the car seemed incredibly loud, and she was petrified, just paralyzed with terror. How had Jeromy heard that? She couldn’t take it back.
She didn’t breathe at all until he said, looking straight ahead and guiding the wheel with two fingers of his left hand—a casual pose, except she could see his wrist shaking—“I was hoping you might be good with simple.”
Having no idea what it was supposed to feel like, she wondered if this was it then: get-married kind of love. He could be only joking, for all she knew. She could see only that she had to place a bet one way or the other, and saying nothing was the same as choosing. Was this what it eventually came down to for everyone, and was this just how it’s done? She felt both coached and giddy, like an actor on stage, reciting lines. “OK,” she choked, astonished at the degeneration of her vocabulary, “Let’s.”
Jeromy, apparently not tongue-tied in the least, turned and gushed then, “I’m serious, and I don’t know if you’re serious, but if you want to do it, then we really could, I bet, even today. The legal stuff, it’s quicker than it used to be, like, almost automatic. Really. You want to?”
She half shrugged, half nodded, speechless with a relief she still couldn’t trust because of all the next steps it led to, and he veered right, toward an exit ramp. The old Cadillac shuddered and slowed at the top. He looked both ways, then at her, worried. “We don’t have to,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t joking, but—”
“Me neither.” Anything else would be backing down, now.
He looked quickly for traffic again, then pulled out decisively to the right.
Backing down has mostly been the theme of her life so far—that and running away. Ducking out on Fred and Mary, most recently, who’d put up with her craziest bullshit, returned only patience, and would have likely even gone through the formal adoption thing, if hadn’t been irrelevant with her turning eighteen anyway. There had been talk of paying for her college—at least community, to start with. Kate would have been thrilled with community college. They had all this inexplicable confidence in her. And that was it really, finally: the lack of any justification at all for their trust. Posing for the “family picture” Fred and Mary had arranged her first week, she’d kept half-expecting the photographer to recognize her as an imposter and motion her out of the frame. Even in the framed final product, she looked out of place standing between them. Before then, when everyone had always expected the worst of her, that was at least an easy goal to live up to, with no pressure.
“Am I rushing?” Jeromy was saying, and she tuned back, with difficulty. “Because, I don’t want to rush.”
She ignored him and drew a small breath. She still hasn’t called Mary and Fred, or even dashed off a postcard to let them know she was OK. Her palms were damp, and her mouth empty of spit. She felt too hot and her head had a pinched feel, like from biting tin foil. Jeromy deserved to know what he was getting here, ought to be informed of her serial instability, her apparent failure to fit and thrive in even ideal circumstances. She always manages to wind up hurting those who care about her; at least, that’s what they’ve all said. “If we’re getting married,” she said, “there’s something I have to tell you.” Her nails dug painfully into her palm when she clenched her fist.
“There really isn’t,” he said. “Not that would change anything. I wouldn’t want to hear it if there was.” He turned off the road into a truckstop plaza, an acre of sun-baked concrete, rolled to an easy stop near a phone booth, then turned to her, his expression softened. “I’m sorry. Did you want to—say something? Because, I love you. And whatever, it won’t change that.”
She imagined getting out of her car, leaving it behind, just striding off across the scorching parking lot. And what then, what if he let her go? She had no idea where they were, even what state they were in for sure. “No,” she said. “It was nothing. Nothing at all.” When she opened her hand, four purple half-moons throbbed in the flesh of her palm.
“Great.” He hopped out and went to the phone booth. She watched with a surreal detachment as he riffled the yellow pages, inserted change, and then spoke earnestly into the receiver. When he returned, he said he had talked to a man, not far away, who would marry them for a hundred dollars. He had directions. “We need to decide about your name. Do you want to keep yours? I’m sure that’d be fine.”
“What? My last name? I’m—I don’t care. Yours, yours is fine.”
They went maybe ten miles down a series of narrow and nameless blacktop roads, then Jeromy turned off and got out to unlatch a wire gate leading to a smaller dirt road. He pulled through and closed the gate behind them. A hand-lettered signpost read: JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, Tho. S. Dewey, Ret.
At the end of the long lane, Justice Tho. S. Dewey (she could only assume) stood before a house the shape and color of a giant cakebox, hurriedly buttoning an old black suit coat, liberally coated with cat hair. A striped gray tom wound around his shins, and when he ushered Kate and Jeromy inside, the house smelled overpoweringly of tunafish and litterbox. In the front room, a half-eaten TV dinner sat on a tray, with a fork jammed jauntily in a chunk of minute steak. The house was dirty.
“I’m sorry,” Jeromy whispered in her ear. “I didn’t expect—”
She was dirty too—in filthy jeans, broken sandals, and a stained top. They were both dirty, hadn’t showered since yesterday morning. She licked one thumb and wiped a smudge from Jeromy’s cheekbone. “Don’t we have to get blood tests? And, and some kind of license signed?” she asked.
“No test required in this state, ma’am,” the J. P. interjected. “And I’ve set out all the papers you’ll need.”
She considered it like this: supposing this cat-hair-covered preacher, this refugee from a lost Faulkner novel, actually could marry them. Wouldn’t it count the same? If she didn’t bring up the circumstances—wouldn’t they be just as married as anybody else? All of a sudden it seemed impossibly easy, asserting an identity like that, becoming a real person in a real marriage just by saying so. It gave her a nervous sense of getting away with something, like shoplifting, an itch to sprint out of the store before security could call her back.
In the room where their paperwork was prepared, she saw another cat watching her, then another. Tails swished in all the shadows, and feline faces peered from under every chair. Her eyes began to water. She took the pen after Jeromy and signed quickly, automatically, wherever the Justice put his finger.
He asked if they were related, if either of them had been married before, or were in any way intoxicated. Then, after examining their driver’s licenses, he looked up and smiled. “All right,” he said. “You kids love each other?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jeromy said, nodding vigorously.
And she was aware of an interesting feeling, a tingling numbness, a loss of delicate sensation, in her extremities. Overall she decided it was a good feeling, a feeling not instead of love as she would have previously defined it, but in addition to it. A cumulative thing. She nodded too.
“You promise to be good to each other?”
Although of course they had no rings, they said the words anyway: Kate spoke, “I do,” while holding back a sneeze.
After the kiss—quickly, because she couldn’t breathe—she asked Jeromy how sure he was that everything was legal.
The J. P. butted in again jovially: “Legal soon’s I file these papers.” He said he would take a check—and hold it if need be—or that they could pay in installments. When Jeromy paid cash, he heartily wished them the happiest of marriages.
Jeromy stands directly under the hot water, letting the stream drum against his eyelids. The photograph he mentally projects on his retinas right now is one he hasn’t actually seen in years. It hung in his parents’ dining room, in the last house they shared; he doesn’t know where it is now. In it, a young, dark-eyed woman in a blindingly white dress was laughing and feeding cake to a gawky boy in an Army uniform. Of course, the guy was his dad minus a few wrinkles and a beergut, and the woman was his mother before a whole lot of vodka tonics and Merit Ultra-Lights, but when he was little, his mother used to tell him the couple came with the picture frame. He remembers this with absolute clarity.
When he bought the rings a week ago, he hadn’t known if Kate would say yes. If she didn’t, he told himself, he’d find a girl who would, the rings were almost two hundred dollars, but he hoped Kate would. Then the ceremony happened so fast, and with its spontaneous momentum he didn’t even have a chance to get them out of the trunk, where he’d wedged the little box behind a lip of the frame. Anyway, he didn’t want to spook Kate and look like he’d planned things more than he had, and now it works: the rings are another surprise he has surprise to offer her.
He should be just relieved, but still he is plagued by these doubts, this sense of foreboding. He stops the water and slashes back the curtain. His hair drips in his eyes, and steam from the shower rolls out around him. He pulls a towel around his waist and goes out.
She stands in front of the mirror in a flannel with one button buttoned, dragging her fingers through her hair and pulling out the tangles. He walks up behind her, watching their reflection in the mirror. They are almost the same height, so it looks right: his face fits neatly above her shoulder when he wraps his arms around her waist.
She smiles and puts her hands over his, on her hips. She smells like lavender and patchouli. He draws a deep breath of her fragrances and looks up, addressing her reflection. “Are you glad we got married?”
At first, she thinks he’s fishing, uncharacteristically, for a compliment, or for affirmation, but his voice wavers earnestly on the last word, and his eyes are round, guileless, in the mirror.
“Sure,” she says. “Aren’t you?”
“I mean,” he says, “do you think it was the right thing to do?” His arms encircle her almost too tightly.
“Yes,” she says, alarmed now. She leans reassuringly into his embrace. “Why?”
“Oh,” he says, and looks away in an atrocious approximation of nonchalance. “Just, because a lot of people screw it up. My parents. For example.”
“Well, we’re not them,” she says. “You’re not them.”
“I know,” he says. “But they were happy too at first.” His breath hitches, then the rest tumbles out. “I’ve been assuming I could do it better than them. But everyone thinks that, right? What if I can’t?”
“Sweetie,” she breathes, surprised, overwhelmed with sudden compassion.
“You don’t understand,” he says. His eyes, locked on hers in the mirror, look glossy, too full, and for a second she wonders if he’s gotten something in them, or if her conditioner is making them water. He continues, “They ruined more lives than their own. I don’t want to do that. Katie,” he says, “I’ll leave you before that happens. I want to do this right, or not at all.”
She blinks at him in the mirror. And a current of emotion seems to rise up from the ground and floor beneath her, spreading through her feet and her chest and her whole body. It is a feeling like gratitude, that she should be able to do this for someone, that she’s found another person as uncertain as she is in this world. “Let’s do it right then,” she says. “I promise. We will.”
The silence that follows is not uncomfortable at all: she smiles tentatively, he blinks, and a goofy grin spreads across his face. She’s almost afraid to breathe for fear of shattering this moment that hangs like a blown glass ornament, or a soap bubble floating in the air on a warm day. “Hey,” he says after a moment, “Hey. I have a surprise for you.”
She rolls her eyes. “I know what kind of surprise that is.”
“No! It’s a real thing!” he laughs. “I’ll get it.” He holds the top of his towel, grabs the car keys, and walks on the balls of his feet toward the door.
“Put something on!” she says, but he pulls the door behind him.
It’s cold outside; he hurries. Last night he backed her big ugly car in right outside their room. He unlocks the trunk and finds the rings quickly.
Back inside, she stands with hands on hips. “You couldn’t put on pants?”
“Nope.” He opens the velvet box and holds it out, watching closely for the moment her expression changes.
Her face registers first a breathless giddiness, then she blushes, staring open-mouthed at the simple matching gold bands. The first question she asks is not how, but “When?”
“Thursday,” he says, “in Mobile. I’d just, you know, made that money. And when I saw these in a window, I thought—‘I can afford that.’” It sounds fine to say it like this, substituting spontaneity again for his pragmatic planning and hedging.
“Thursday?” she stammers. “Why didn’t you— I mean, why did you wait?” He had guessed right size-wise, or close anyway, and the ring fits.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Because. I wasn’t sure what you’d say. And, you know you love surprises.”
“OK,” she qualifies, still gushing, “I love this surprise.”
She unbuttons her shirt and lets it fall down her back, and he drops his towel, and this time during sex he tries to pay very careful attention, to notice if anything’s substantially different. It’s hard to tell: he’s not sure what he’s looking for exactly, or how the one important sign it’s right will stand out from the small, almost imperceptible cues and suggestions.
Instead of dissipating, the feeling keeps coming back in waves, an elation, tempered with tender, protective thoughts, that he should so completely need her, and what she can do for him. Unable to leave it alone, addicted and enamored of the rush already, she says later, “I won’t let that happen. It won’t happen, to us. I promise.” She lies on the mattress, watching the ceiling and feeling her heart thump, dully echoed in the springs between her shoulders. “Your family can’t be that bad.”
Lying beside her, breathless, Jeromy says, “Huh. Could prove it.”
“No, no,” she rambles, feeling loquacious. “Everybody thinks their own family’s just…the worst. Don’t they? I’ve never heard anyone say any different. At least, no one who really had a—well.” She looks over at him, the flush still fading from his cheeks and the top of his chest. “I want to meet your family. Can I? Can I meet your family?”
He blinks rapidly, his eyebrows pulled low. She sees his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “You’d—you really want to do that?”
She shrugs and offers an uncertain smile. “They’re my family now too, right? Sort of?”
“Well,” he says slowly, thinking. “I remember how to get to Lee’s place. That’s maybe four hours away from here.” He laced his fingers behind his head, trying to get comfortable neither sitting up nor quite lying down. “My dad’s all the way in Vancouver. We could go out there, see him, if you want.” He shifted, leaned up on one elbow. “Make a road trip of it, I suppose. Maybe Lee can even come along.”
It sounds so reasonable, so plausible when he says it, that she answers reflexively, “Sure, why not?”
He studies her a minute, then abruptly rolls over to the side of the bed. “If that’s what you want for a honeymoon. I’ll make a call.”
“All right,” she says, dazed, unsure what he wants her to say here, and she listens to him leave a message on his brother’s machine, saying they would pass through tomorrow.
“Our honeymoon,” she says absently.
“I’m kidding,” he says, and rolls back and hugs her roughly. “We can have all the honeymoon we want. This trip will take a week. Tops.” His prickly sideburns scratch around her collarbone. “Actually, you know what? We could be at Lee’s by lunch. Surprise him, hey?”
She says, without any real force, “Are you sure that’s the best idea?”
He smiles. “It’ll be cool. Everyone loves a surprise.”
“Sure,” she breathes, turning her new ring on her finger, already wondering if she is insinuating herself too much by appropriating Jeromy’s family—if that’s the unique way she will sabotage this part of her life. She thinks about it, though, and worries less. Surely, nothing can destroy this new thing that’s sprung up between her and Jeromy. Because of it, she tells herself, anything really can work. This connection, this actual marriage between them now, will make all the difference. She tells herself this again, until it hardly takes any effort to believe it.