[I]’ve come to this small dressing room for my instructions. I’m a bridesmaid; I wear a floor-length, peach-colored gown. On my feet, satin high heels dyed peach to match my dress. But something’s gone wrong. In the velvet, cushioned chair next to the vanity, my cousin Arlene, the bride-to-be, is doubled over, sobbing.
Aunt Rena crouches over her, mumbles something into Arlene’s ear. What is she saying? Arlene turns in her chair; now I can see her face, turned slightly upward toward Rena. Arlene wears dark mascara. Her eye shadow is a dusky blue; her lips, a reddish, bruised purple. Her wedding gown is elaborate, with a traditional long, white train, a strapless bodice, a full skirt of layered taffeta—or is it organdy?—dreamy, silky, gauzy stuff, voluminous and queen-like. Just outside this dressing room, there are flowers and soft music and two hundred people sitting in folding chairs, waiting for Arlene to walk down the aisle.
Where are the other bridesmaids? Why were they kept out of here and I let in? Perhaps I slipped in by accident, an oversight; perhaps I am not supposed to see this scandalous scene. Maybe the bouncer missed me. Arlene continues to cry uncontrollably; her breasts, buoyed in the lacy support of her upper bodice, shake with her sobs.
What I know: Arlene had a boyfriend, a dark-haired, dashing guy—an airline pilot. He dumped her. Arlene found Steven, her fiancé, on the rebound (I remember my aunts using that phrase). Steven is a truly nice guy, a steady-Eddy, just graduated from the 1965 class at Stuyvesant School of Pharmacy. No one could call him dashing. Arlene’s crying persists. What’s wrong? Her tears spill down her gorgeous dress! Aunt Rena hovers, murmuring to Arlene as she tries to wipe the messy, runny mascara, trying to catch it before it drips on the gown.
“Stay still, Arlene, stay still!” Aunt Rena abruptly barks, startling me. Arlene obeys, quiets herself for a moment, lets Rena attend to the smudges under her eyes, on her cheeks, lets Rena wipe them away.
There’s a boat sinking in my chest, slowly drowning in the sea. Oh, Arlene! Where are you, Arlene? Where is Arlene, the expert jitter-bugger, who positioned me and our cousin Cindy behind her so we could copy her steps:
Ah, well, I bless my soul
What’s wrong with me?
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree
My friends say I’m actin’ wild as a bug
I’m in love
I’m all shook up!
I often traveled with my parents from our home in Jersey to Brooklyn to visit my mother’s family. As an only child, I had the backseat of the Buick all to myself. I said a special prayer that I could hang out with Arlene and Cindy in Cindy’s parents’ apartment. Arlene was six years older than me; Cindy, just four years older. Of all my fourteen cousins, I loved them best. Arlene—your marvelous beehive hairdo, so bouncy!—and the wide, patent-leather belt round your waist! I worked hard at following Arlene’s perfectly executed lindy steps: One, two, quick-quick! One, two, quick-quick!
Now as I watch Arlene and Aunt Rena, as I stand in the dim light right inside the dressing room, I’m on the verge myself. I won’t cry. I will not cry. I absolutely will not get my peach gown spotted with tears. I have mascara on too. This dress must be preserved—I’m wearing it next week to the senior prom. I’m a junior, but a senior boy asked me to go as his date. I’m not excited. This guy—well, he’s not my dream boy. I think his mom wanted him to ask me because our family belongs to Beth Israel Temple, the synagogue his family attends. Ronald Breslow. I’m sure he’ll bring me a corsage. I’m sure he’ll call ahead and ask what color my dress is, so the florist can pick the right flowers for the corsage. Everything these days has to be matched. It’s tiresome.
Going with Ronald Breslow to a prom is cause enough to turn me hysterical, but it’s more than that. My mother is seated among those two hundred guests, in those folding chairs, in the room adjacent to this one. I picture her there. She’s wearing a terrible, garish dress: a green, shiny material that becomes almost black-green in the deep folds of the fabric. It has a sort of boatneck, but then there’s a mesh material, also green, that covers the skin around Mom’s neck (her neck looks awfully scrawny these days). The dress is bunched and belted at the waist; a big, outrageous, full skirt reaches to mid-calf. Wide and puffed-up with crinolines, it’s a skirt that a formal ballerina might wear. My mother does not dance, not at all. She’s always sitting, as she is doing right now, in one of those folding chairs. The dress is especially ugly when she sits—it makes her look like a nested bird. The dress has long sleeves to cover her unsightly, swollen right arm, a result of the mastectomy. A darkness has entered me because I know there’s something terribly wrong. The dread I feel is not caused by Arlene, or by this wedding, or by Ronald. There are other reasons that cause me, in spite of myself, to be on the verge of tears. Lately, my mother’s lost ground. No one has confirmed this. No one has said, Martha is sicker. But I know. There is no other way to say it: My mother is dying.
Arlene marries Steven, the pharmacist, instead of marrying the airline pilot. I say yes to Ronald Breslow and go to the prom. My mother grows weaker and weaker.
Nothing ever works out… This way of seeing things has a powerful pull, but I holdout.
I remember a Sunday morning, years ago, I was perhaps five years old. It’s summer, the busiest season at my father’s store on the Jersey shore, and Sunday is the busiest day. Both my mother and father are about to drive off to work. I’m standing next to my mother; I don’t want her to leave. I smell tangy, sugary peaches—my mother has placed a bowl of them on the porch steps. Their fragrance drifts to where I stand in our driveway. The summer weeds sway, just a little, in the tiny breeze that manages to sweep our lawn. I’m small, standing in the driveway, next to our big Buick, crunchy gravel underfoot. I bury my face in my mother’s skirt—a long, full, flowing cotton pastel-blue. I clutch the skirt; underneath, her thighs tremble. She wears a summery blouse, her shoulders sculpted by elegant shoulder pads. Her blouse has short cap sleeves. My mother is slender; she seems tall. Her slim arms, graceful, sail out to hug me. A riot of scents!—the laundered lemony-ness in the fabric of my mother’s skirt; the rose aroma of her perfume on her wrists; the faint, slightly sour, damp smell of sweat in the crooks of her arms. My mother is beautiful. Like a movie star or queen! I cling to her skirt. My mother’s clothes, her arms, everything about her body and what she wears is beautiful. Her white leather flats, bare legs—too hot for stockings—and her simple necklace of alternating gray and white pearls.
My father comes out the front door with Evelyn, my babysitter. My parents are about to drive off. They are about to say good-bye to me. I wish I could bury my whole self in the pleats and folds of my mother’s cotton skirt, in the cloth warmed from her skin and from the sun overhead beating down.
“Mommy, can we go to Brooklyn? Can we go to Grandma’s? I want to see Arlene and Cindy! Can we go, please?”
“No, Jenny, we can’t go today,” says my father. “Your mother and I have to work at the store. ”
I look over at my mother; she looks away. “No, no!” I say. “I want to go to Brooklyn!”
My mother points to the bowl of peaches on the porch steps and asks Evelyn to take them inside later when she goes into the house. My mother turns back to me. “We’ve got to get going,” she says. “Give me a good-bye kiss, Jenny, be a good girl.”
“No!” I protest, turning my face away, covering my mouth with my hand. No kiss for her, not until she says we can go. “I want to go to Brooklyn,” I say. “I want to see my cousins! We have to go!”
“No,” my father says sternly.
“That’s right, Jenny, not today,” my mother says softly.
A tight, cottony ball forms in my throat. A fog blurs my sight—the air is wavy. The day ahead stretches, a long tunnel to slog through—humid, thick, gray. I know what will happen if my parents drive away. Evelyn will take my hand, she’ll lead me onto our street, and we’ll walk a block or two, by the curb. There are no sidewalks here; all the houses in this development are new, some are half-built and remain empty; no trees except short, skinny, stuck-in-the-ground ones. Evelyn, with her round glasses and ugly shorts and blouse, has been my babysitter two times before. She doesn’t know what to do with me. My stomach and throat cramp.
My parents stand near the car. “NO!” I yell as I run to the Buick and try to yank its back door open. “I’m going to the store with you!”
The car door is locked.
I pound on the door of the car, my fists hard and tight. Thud, thud, thud. My mother kneels by me, puts her arm gently around my back. “Jenny, take it easy. Calm down, Jenny.” She sighs. “We’ll see what we can do. We could close the store today, maybe at noon—that gives us time to drive to Brooklyn.” I turn, bury my face in the crook of my mother’s neck, feel the soft fabric of her blouse on my face.
Did we go to Brooklyn that day to see Cindy and Arlene? I can’t say for sure. There were so many Sundays.
Now I move one step closer to the bride-to-be. I look at Arlene’s bent-over body, and I wish with all my heart that she would straighten up, stand upright, bolt from the dressing room, from the wedding hall, and run out the back door screaming, Taxi! Taxi! Take me home! Take me anywhere but here! And me? Maybe I’ll call Ronald and tell him I fell down the stairs and broke my leg so I can’t go to that prom. Maybe he really likes me, but I sure hope not, because I don’t feel even a flicker of romantic uumph for him. And my mother—what can she do to escape her body? I want her to fight—to rail against the disease, fight harder and harder. Don’t let this happen to you, Mom. Don’t let it happen.
Arlene’s wedding ceremony goes off without a hitch. The cake at the reception is delicious. I get a glob of sugary, white frosting on my peach dress, but the good part is I don’t worry about it. I figure I’ll be soldiering my way through that prom with Ronald, and it doesn’t really matter about a stain on the dress, it’s all about just getting through the night.
Jane Katims is the author of the poetry collection, Dancing on a Slippery Floor (2007). She has written and produced six radio series for Wisconsin Public Radio, one earning a Peabody Award. In 2004 she was a recipient of a John Woods Scholarship in Fiction Writing. Her short story, “Until Now,” appeared in the Spring 2009 all-fiction issue of Pearl. Jane received her BA at the University of Wisconsin and her M.Ed at Lesley University. She presently teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at Tufts University and The Cambridge Center for Adult Education, as well as leading private workshops. She lives with her family near Boston.