Harper got her life together, somehow. It wasn’t easy, but she eventually found herself as a writer for a news website. She was paid to write 10 stories a day, and was allowed to leave when she completed the quota. Some days it took all day, and others she could be out by noon.
Slowly, her life began to be pieced back together. She was sober, though still smoked. It wasn’t dangerous or sexy anymore. Now it was the only thing, along with coffee, that made her feel human.
She met a boy, left him, met another boy, got left, then met another boy who seemed alright and didn’t leave. They weren’t in love, but they fit together comfortably enough, like a piece of cheap furniture.
One day Harper was searching on Facebook and found her old friend Andre. He looked the same, well, until she looked at the photos he had uploaded from high school. He was thicker now, though not fat, and seemed more serious. She submitted a friend request, which was accepted almost immediately.
Her boy, what was his name again?, looked over her shoulder once after this and saw an old picture of Harper that Andre had uploaded. “Damn,” he said. “You could have been a model.”
They began talking again, mainly on chat programs or Facebook, trying to rekindle any friendly feeling. One day, out of the blue, Andre mentioned he was getting married and would she like to come? At first she was relieved that the invitation meant he didn’t hold any romantic longings for her, but she really didn’t want to go. Who would she know? And it was back in their hometown? She hadn’t been back to California since leaving. She said yes anyways, against her better wishes.
The month came and she packed a bag, went out shopping and found a dress. She and her boy had drifted apart by this point, like cheap furniture. She took a bus to Newark, and got on the plane alone, with one bag on her lap and another in the belly of the plane. As the plane turned its nose skyward she felt suddenly a great push of gravity and anxiety, suddenly wished to be off that plane and back in her shit apartment in the unsexy part of Brooklyn, and she looked out the window and saw New Jersey slowly falling away. She wasn’t moving, the earth was collapsing and soon it would be gone. She squeezed her eyes shut, prayed it would end.
Four hours later she landed down in California. A shuttle took her the nearly two hour drive to her hometown. It still looked the same, well, the major details did. She hadn’t bothered to call her parents, and checked into the cheap hotel about ten minutes from the wedding venue. She flopped back on the bed, stared at the ceiling, then finally worked up enough courage to call Andre and tell him she had arrived.
He of course wanted to go to dinner, to introduce her to his fiancée. Harper wanted to say no, but she was only going to be in town for the night, then leave the next night immediately after the reception. It was now or never as far as their friendship was concerned, and Harper didn’t want to screw it up again. So she pulled on a nice dress, though not the one she had bought for the wedding, fixed her hair and put on some makeup, then waited outside the hotel, nervously smoking one cigarette after another.
Finally a grey SUV pulled up, and Andre got out. He was smiling, he went for a hug, and Harper awkwardly leaned into it, worrying that she now reeked of cigarettes.
His fiancée had gotten out, too, and she was a short, petit, bookish woman. Harper thought she was the kind of girl that she wouldn’t notice, but then felt bad for thinking it. Andre looked at her with such love that Harper felt intense jealousy.
The fiancee’s name was Tina. She was just as boring as her name, but the dinner was polite, if a little awkward She constantly looked to Harper, and then Andre, trying to see if there was some kind of threat to her place. She thought to herself that Harper didn’t look all that great. Tall, sure, but her eyes were tired and a littly baggy, and she wasn’t as thin as those old pictures that Andre still kept. No, Tina wasn’t jealous anymore. Andre didn’t want this jaded, chain smoking, pathetic creature from New York. Tina felt confident in her veganism, her petit and calm nature. She almost felt bad for Harper, this poor, lonely creature that Andre has saved from the woods.
That night Harper fell asleep instantly, not even bothering to wipe off her makeup; dreaming of a time long before when she was still thin and beautiful and full of hope. And when Deion was still alive.
The morning of the wedding she got ready, feeling like shit. She pulled out the dress she had bought for this day only, and felt weird looking at it. It had seemed modern and daring back in New York, but now it seemed out of place. She’d be ‘that one,’ the one everyone remembered for all the wrong reasons. She wouldn’t ever see any of these people gain, so why did she care? But she did. She took a long shower, then a long bath, trying to relax. When she stared in the mirror, the reflection didn’t look so bad. She applied a little makeup, slipped into her dress, and then hailed a taxi to the wedding site.
The wedding was beautiful, but short. Non-religious, quasi-spiritual, utterly forgettable. Harper sat in the back, near the exit, nervously destroying her program and thinking of leaving the second the whole thing was over. But she stayed.
After the service, she stood outside smoking, eyeing the other guests who milled around the reception area. A cool, salty breeze floated over the crowd and Harper thought of the ocean. Soon this would be over and she would be back on her way to New York. To home. She just wanted to enjoy this right now.
Andre walked up. He looked good in his grey suit, looked happy.
“How’d you escape,” she asked.
“Photo time. They’re doing Tina’s family, so I have about a minute.”
“It was a wonderful ceremony. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” He looked to where the photographer and Tina’s family were, but they weren’t motioning for him yet. “It’s too bad Deion wasn’t here.”
Why did he have to bring him up? Harper instantly felt her stomach being squeezed, but she kept her face still.
“Yes.” What else was there to say about that?
“I think during dinner, during the speeches, I’d like to have a toast for him.”
Harper wondered then if Deion’s parents were here, and what would they think of that. Why was Andre asking her? One final test? Or to twist the knife further?
“I’d like you to join me in it,” he continued. “To maybe say something, too.”
What else was there to do but say yes?
Dinner started and the guests all sat down. Harper was assigned to a table full of people that had gone to her high school, but she didn’t recognize or remember any of them. She doubted they remembered her, and beyond a little bit of awkward conversation she was largely ignored.
After dinner the speeches started. First maid of honor and best man, each giving sickeningly sweet and impossibly inside-y stories that they likely had agonized over for weeks. Then the parents gave gooey speeches punctuated by sobbing and hugs. As the toasts went on, Harper could feel the anxiety creeping up ever higher, until finally she stood (her table was near the exit) and slipped out of the room in the middle of Tina’s mother’s speech. She looked back at the last moment to see if Andre had noticed, but his shining eyes were locked on his new mother in law, full of love. He could give the toast alone, it was his burden to bear. Harper had to go. So she did.
Once out of the room, she ran down the hallway, ran through the courtyard, through the parking lot and down the road that led to the sea. She ran, tearing off her heels and felt the hard asphalt against her feet until she saw the sea. She touched her chest, then, felt the tattoo on her collarbone that had stayed with her all these years, felt it hot under her fingers. And she stared at the sea, and wished to suddenly be over it, far away.