Here it is. A first draft of a first chapter of a new novel. And I bet the final chapter will look NOTHING like it!
I Do, Don’t You
Well. Meg imagines telling her mother. She imagines getting her mother on the telephone and talking about the ordinary things they talk about and then her mother saying that’s she’s been awfully quiet and then Meg telling her mother the wedding is off and then she tries to imagine what her mother will do and she thinks perhaps she will yell or faint or have a heart attack or eat a dozen doughnuts or curse in Italian (which she isn’t -- it is the father who is Italian). But none of those sound right and then she knows just what her mother will do. Her mother will say But what about the guests? She will say some have already booked their rooms and those rooms are nonrefundable.
Later when she has had time to think about it, she will maybe throw in that all of Meg’s cousins are married and their weddings had no scandal unless you count a cash bar a scandal. But a cash bar is not even a scandal. That is just how you keep people from drinking too much and dying on the way home because the last thing a bride and groom want, even less than nonrefundable rooms, is dead wedding guests.
Meg spins her engagement ring. She is lying in her bed and she can still smell the smell of burnt toast because Jon never bothered to take out the trash. He just tossed the toast in the trash and forgot about it. He waved the newspaper at the smoke alarm and then they made more toast, which they didn’t burn, and the eggs had been runny and the coffee filter had half-closed in the coffee maker and so the coffee had been weak and they had had to dump that down the drain too and then stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way to Target. And that, as it turns out, had been the good part of the day.
She gets out of bed and ties up the trash and puts it outside the front door. As soon as she opens the door she hears cicadas and she stands for a moment in the peaceful night and looks up and down the street at all of the dark houses and the street lamps with their flying colonies of bugs and she thinks of the people inside these houses, the couples and the bachelors and the families with small children, and she tells herself, because this is what you are supposed to believe, that even if these houses appear happy, and quiet, and still, there are things in their lives that are not. There is the same rolling anger and angst and mashing of lives. At least that is what she has been led to believe.
This isn’t what she had thought this would be like. She had thought getting married would be much more romantic than this, that it would be two people acting as one excited entity, planning their life together. But here she was. And she knows she can’t back out now, not when the dress has been ordered and the cake has been selected and she spent all that time deciding between fondant and icing and going, eventually, with the buttercream, because even though it didn’t look as smooth and beautiful, it tasted so much better.
You just didn’t walk away from a delicious buttercream and an ivory wedding dress with a jeweled waistline like Chelsea Clinton’s that you got at Filene’s Basement’s Running of the Brides for a hundred and fifty when it retailed for one thousand. You didn’t inform one hundred and fourteen guests that they no longer needed to Save the Date, unless you liked being talked about behind your back. Maybe she could send out another round of postcards. Oops! UnSave the Date! We’re NOT getting married!
These are the things she thinks about that she would not admit to anyone. If someone asked her why she was marrying, she surely would not say, because I don’t care to return the gifts, and I don’t want to mess up people’s weekends. She is embarrassed to be thinking this way. And of course, besides embarrassed, she is also afraid, because if that is the only reason to marry, then surely she is in trouble.
There is another reason to get married. She is thirty-two, after all. They’ve been dating for years. They’ve been dating, really, for too long. While dating Jon, Meg has watched other girlfriends meet guys, date guys, get engaged to and marry guys, while there she still was, dating Jon, wondering if that symbol of eternity would ever wrap itself around her finger. And this waiting was something that, after a while, had made her angry, because she didn’t understand why it was that she had to quietly wait and hope and wish and dream but have no actual say in the matter. It all seemed very nineteen-fifties.
But, in the end, she wanted that engagement to come from Jon’s heart, and not be something she would feel she had forced upon him. Eventually, though, after a good friend -- who had met her husband through Jon and Meg, nonetheless -- announced she was pregnant, Meg had finally (and she imagined that nice bottle of Cab Franc had had something to do with it) broken down and asked Jon why he hadn’t proposed. It was one of those things -- as the words came out of her mouth, she knew they were going to change things between them, perhaps irreparably -- but out they came. Irreparable, at the moment, sounded better than continuing in dating purgatory. At least there would be closure.
She remembers his response. She had hoped he would say he had a ring and was just waiting for the right moment (you know, he was planning a hot air balloon ride so had to wait for good weather, he wanted to take her to Paris, something like that) but instead he got this quizzical look on his face and said, “I didn’t know that was something we wanted.”
This (especially the use of the word ‘we’) had all led to an argument that turned from the subject of marriage to children and who the hell wanted children anyhow, Jon wanted to know, when there was so much fun to be had without them? And if she wanted children so badly, why was this all just coming up now, and why hadn’t they ever talked about it before?
They broke up for a little while after that, but it didn’t last. They missed each other. They had been together for so long Meg felt cleaved in two, and she spent a long time wishing she had been happy with what she had. They never officially reconciled, but more slid back against each other like two tired old cats. And, a few months later, he proposed, not in any spectacular fashion, but propose he did. And, as promised, Meg, when not busy planning her wedding, spent her time wondering if she had guilted him into it. And now this thing today, well, it showed that he did have reservations.
She thinks of Jon and knows that if she had met him for the first time tonight, she would have hated him. She would have told her friends about him, what a jerk. And that is not what she wants. What she wants more than anything is to marry a man that everyone loves, the guy no one can say a bad word about. A sweet gentleman.
But, what had really happened today that had made her have such a change? And was she overreacting? And if she just slept on it, would it be better?
What had happened is they had went to Target at the wrong time. Or the right time, depending on how you wanted to look at things. After shopping forever, they had a ton of bags to be lifted into the trunk, and while Jon, whose car was always ridiculously cluttered, tried to make room around his golf clubs and roller blades, Meg, with a hand on her hip, wiped the sweat from her brow and spun around in the parking lot and saw the dog. “Jon, look at that dog,” she said. She held up her arm, pointing at the far end of the parking lot to a dog on his hind legs.
She remembers now how she had laughed, found the dog peculiarly funny, like a dancing circus bear.
Jon followed Meg’s gaze until he too spotted the dog, jumping from one hind leg to the other in the same circle of space, front legs -- or arms, as the case may be when a dog is upright like a human -- swatting at the air.
Jon’s voice was urgent and he moved a few steps forward: “He’s trapped. Do you see that Meg? He’s caught in that car.”
Meg looked closer and then she did see. The chain hanging around the dog’s neck extended into the car. The dog had the pointed ears of a German Shepherd, but a small body, and his toes barely reached the ground.
“My God,” she said. “That poor dog jumped out the window and is hanging himself.”
“Here,” said Jon, handing Meg the final bag and moving across the parking lot to the dog.
“Jon,” Meg yelled out.
He turned, anxious. “What?”
“I don’t think you should.”
“Don’t think I should help him?’
“Well.” Meg shrugged her shoulders.
Jon turned again and took a few more steps toward the dog.
“He’ll bite you,” Meg yelled.
The dog still had not made a sound. His front toenails scratched occasionally against the sides of his owner’s car.
Jon again stopped and turned to Meg. “I’m just going to lift him back in the car.”
“Maybe we should go try to find his owner instead.”
“Are you kidding?” said Jon. He turned and glanced at the dog and then looked back at Meg. “That could
take too long.”
Meg nodded. She had her hand up by her mouth, pulling at her lip.
Jon turned back to the dog, but as he approached, a man came from the other direction, walking briskly towards the car. Thinking it might be the owner, Jon stopped, and then, about fifteen paces in front of Meg, watched as the man walked to the dog, scooped him up, and deposited him back in the window. Then the man checked the license plate, shook his head, and walked towards Jon and Meg.
“You just saved that dog’s life,” said Jon.
“I should turn that guy in,” the man said. “Had the poor bastard leashed to the steering column.”
“Dog didn’t even bark,” Jon said.
And that is what happened. Meg prevented Jon from saving the dog, and then, all day, Jon harped on it, and it continued into the night, when they walked across the street to a barbecue with neighbors. Friends, really. These neighbors had become friends, but not intimate friends, not the kind you air your laundry in front of, figuratively speaking.
The neighborhood was full of couples renting old halves of duplexes. The barbecue was in one of these duplexes with a small patch of brown lawn, half of it overtaken by a giant stainless steel Weber and the other half set with Corn Bags and a large circular fire pit, and at first it had been enjoyable. After a tense day together, it was good for them to split up, drink beer with different groups of friends.
Later in the evening, though, after they had all had a good bit to drink, and some of the more periphery friends had said good night and headed home, a group of eight gathered around the fire pit, drinking Sam Adams from glass bottles, and someone brought the hot dogs back out and a few guys roasted them on long thin branches taken from a neighbor’s tree, and the girls put on sweaters, and everyone shifted their chairs so that there was a break in their little circle where the fire emitted plumes of smoke.
At this point Jon reached out and grabbed the arm of Pam Hunter, who lived across the street.
“Pammy,” said Jon, rocking forward on the balls of his feet and crossing his arms over his chest. He was drunk. It would have been one thing if he was one of those guys who gets sloppy and humorous when drunk, but Jon was not like that. He got ornery, and belligerent, and unlikable. “Let me ask you a question.” He leaned in but spoke loudly so the whole group could hear. “Here’s my question. Say you’re out walking and you see a dog in distress. Say he’s tied on a leash to the inside of a parked car and he jumps out of the car and his little feet barely touch the ground. What would you do?”
“Well,” said Pam, looking at Meg as if inquiring as to whether there was a correct answer.
“Say this dog is, in actuality, hanging himself,” said John.
“Well, I suppose I would lift him back in the car.”
“Wouldn’t you have to be careful, though?” asked Meg.
“Oh,” laughed Pam, “I’m not afraid of dogs. I grew up with them. I have three, remember?”
“Yes,” said Meg, forcing a smile. “I do remember them.” Pam had three large slobbering dogs that had
jumped and nearly knocked Meg to the floor.
“That’s what I would do too, you see,” said Jon. “Not Meg, though. She thinks I’m wrong.”
“Meg, what would you do?” asked Pam nicely, continuing along with the banter.
“I’d try to find the –”
“Owner! By the time you found the owner, the dog would be dead.” Jon mimed a noose around his neck, sticking his tongue out and lolling his head to the side. Then he snapped back, turned his head to Pam, and said, “She’s always talking about how maternal she is.” He turned his head to Meg and said, “Right, honey?” Meg stared at Jon, thinking that he had to, after years of dating, be able to discern the distress in her face -- in her pursed lips and widened eyes. But he didn’t. He turned back to Pam. “I didn’t exactly see any motherly instinct, you know. And she wants kids, loads of them.”
Meg tried to laugh, but felt the sound fall heavily out of her. She looked at Pam, and Pam, her head tilted to the side, looked her straight in the eyes, smiled, and patted Meg’s shoulder. “Meg would make a great mother,” she said.
She looked around at the faces, some blank and others full of pity, and she noted how all of the faces, lit bright around the campfire, were grouped in twos, these three other couples all leaning into each other -- Ted and Maeve sharing camping chairs, Robert perched on the side of Anne’s Adirondack, tiny Jill perched on Ed’s knee, holding his beer for him. No one knew quite what to say, and Meg realized this was because it was so perfectly obvious that this small story harbored such greater meaning, such subtext, that this story was actually an intimate and accidental glimpse into their personal lives.
“Drink?” asked Jon.
“No,” said Meg. “I don’t think either of us should drink more tonight.”
“Because I might kill you.”
Jon laughed but then stopped abruptly and looked at her. “What’d I do now Meg? I always seem to be doing something to make you upset. Can’t we just have some fun?”
Really, he was such a jack-ass when he was drunk. She didn’t know why she hasn’t seen it before. Maybe it’s because he’s good looking. Maybe it’s because it just happened -- they met, they dated, and there was never any really good reason to end it. And then there came a ring, and a wedding date, and those stupid Save the Date cards, and the mob at Filene’s Basement and the beautiful dress and the buttercream.
Meg didn’t even want to climb into bed. She wanted, like she did sometimes, to sleep alone, like she had before they had moved in together, to have a whole bed to herself, to, for once, not have to share.
“Are you coming to bed?” Jon yelled.
Meg finished her glass of water and climbed the stairs and rolled onto the mattress, hugging the edges, leaving her back and a large empty space towards Jon.
“It’s not a big deal,” said Jon.
“What’s not a big deal?”
“The dog. Forget about it.”
“Forget about the dog,” she repeated, dumbfounded.
“Yes,” he said. “Forget about the stupid dog.”
She lay still listening to the sound of him rustling. “You know,” she said, still facing away from him, “Maybe my motherly instinct was to protect you. Maybe I would make a great mother because I wouldn’t let my child stick his hand up in front of a strange dog’s face.” But he said nothing and when she turned to him, his eyes were closed, his breathing slow. She examined him for a minute, trying to discern if he was actually asleep or if he was pretending. Before, this would have bothered her, but she was buoyed by her new revelation and relieved it didn't matter if he heard her or not.
She rose quietly from the bed and set herself up on the living room couch. She had always liked lounging on this couch and she found it a comfortable place to spend the night. The room was still and quiet and the claustrophobia she usually felt disappeared. The little narrow couch seemed spacious compared to her share
of the bed upstairs.
In the morning Jon met her in the kitchen and said, “Why’d did you sleep on the couch?”
“I felt like it,” she said, and he looked at her quizzically before shrugging and chugging his orange juice. He would be off soon to run five miles and then he would be back, sweaty and smelly.
“Look,” she says. “I’ve been thinking. This wedding thing. This children thing. I’m just not sure it’s you.”
“No shit,” he says, laughing, and then, she turns and leaves him, the screen door slapping behind her.
Realizing that she is being serious, he tries to chase her down, but she shakes him off, and he, not wanting to make a scene (and for this she is oh so thankful, because there, across the street, is Ted, clearing the front steps of beer bottles) lets her leave.
She goes back to her apartment so that she can actually think. She spends the whole day thinking until she is so sick of thinking that she sits on the front step and counts cars and drinks wine and stares at the clouds.
She supposes that this is the type of thinking that is best done before that ring is slipped on the finger, but, really, who can think clearly then? What do people expect?
From the front step she hears the telephone, but she can’t be bothered to get it. It will be Jon, whom she doesn’t want to talk to, or her mother, whom she also doesn’t want to talk to, but for different reasons, chief among them that she doesn’t want to break the news that there might not be a wedding, and at the same time doesn’t want to pretend that there will be a wedding. And anyone else she wants to talk to even less. But when she goes in the house and sees the orange light blinking and presses the button, she hears her friend Trudie. And she hasn’t spoken to Trudie in years and hearing her voice makes her eyes well up, because it is not Jon, and it is not her mother, and it is, instead, this dear old college friend whom she never would have guessed would ever again pick up the phone and call her.
She listens to Trudie’s soft and lilting voice, and then she picks up the phone and settles on the sleek little clay colored sofa (from Ikea, like most things in the apartment) and calls her. They talk for an hour, until Meg’s neck aches from cradling the telephone, but Meg doesn’t say anything at all about Jon and the dog and how if she had met him last night she would have thought he was an ass. When Trudie asks about the wedding, she talks about the wedding and not about Jon, as if the event and the groom himself are mutually exclusive things, and she gives those details girlfriends want to hear. The dress. The cake. The colors. And then she asks Trudie how she is doing, and Trudie is likewise vague and chipper -- it’s been so long they don’t seem to know where to start and what ground to cover -- but it is so good to hear her voice, and to talk to someone who doesn’t know the shadowy messes of her everyday life, someone who is delighted to be talking to her.
And at the end when Trudie says, “You should come out. You really should. You should come to Kelley’s Island for a visit this summer,” Meg practically grabs her bag from the closet. It sounds perfect -- some time to get away with an old girlfriend and contemplate whether she is actually ready to make this eternal commitment.
“I hope you were serious,” she tells her friend, “because can you hear that sound in the background? That’s me packing my bag.”
“Excellent,” Trudie says. “And talk Gina into coming, too, would you?”
“I’ll call her right now.”
Gina, Trudie, and Meg. The three had been best friends in college, and for some time after, and nothing had happened to tear them apart except time and distance and life, and now, the thought of the three getting back together for a vacation fills Meg with happiness. And Gina, whom Meg has called with a bit of trepidation, turns out to be excited as well. “It’s about time we got the band back together,” she says.
She does not call Jon. She does not tell him she is going on a trip. He calls again and again. He stops by and bangs on the front door and says, “Come on, let me in.” She sends him an email. She says she needs space.
He doesn’t reply.
A week later, as she backs the car out of the driveway, she thinks about the little animal -- how when they first came upon the dog, she had misunderstood and had laughed at the funny scene, how the only way he had kept himself alive had been to dance and jump about like a happy, frisky little pup when, really, saving him had been so ridiculously simple. There were only two options -- put him back in the car or let him free.