I didn’t know my first wedding would be my last, anyone’s last, until the dance floor was almost empty and I was matching my mouth up with the lipstick mark on the rim of an abandoned champagne glass. It was late, though I couldn’t tell you much about time by that stage; the bar, you see, was free, and the thing about a free bar is (was) that you don’t expect it, even when you’re told it, and you don’t appreciate it until you’re six or seven drinks down and outside, where your friend Annecy tells you that the man offering a cigarette, Paul, is a real person, meaning that he’s not like every other guest you’ve met, who, when asked what they do, reply corporate law, and, when asked what that entails, either walk away or repeat corporate law, meaning that Paul does mental health research, meaning that he gives cocaine to female rats to see if they prefer it to feeding their children. And do they? You ask. Of course, Paul says, It’s cocaine.
I was only there as an observer, hovering, mostly, between a string quartet and a table of canapés; not too near, Annecy had said, or they will think we’re the ones eating all the oysters. We were. The first globule had almost seen the bowl of a toilet, but salt had taken on a radical importance after two glasses of Melissa. This is another thing you don’t expect, or don’t believe even if you’ve been told: When you arrive at the reception, the bar will only serve drinks named after the happy couple, so, while your friend tells the bartender holding a bottle of pink syrup don’t even think about putting that in my drink, you smile and hope you won’t be handed a Tom, since there is a good chance it is a mixture of tequila, three pound red wine, and strawberry milkshake, the only liquids you remember Tom drinking in the months he lived on your sofa, smoking weed and scrolling through pictures of extant Pop Tart varieties. It is a shame that now you will be unable to discover, as I did, that any “Tom” or”‘Kari”’ or “Marcelo” cocktail at a heteronormative wedding is (was), probably, just whiskey and ginger ale.
Possibly, Tom had actually begun to drink whiskey, I don’t know, because what I can tell you with certainty about a wedding was that it was where you lost all knowledge you thought you had about a person. Say you meet this person while they’re staging an occupation of the campus square by hotboxing a tent, and you’re interested in the bottle of wine you watch them pull from one of the pockets of their coat, and it’s freezing, the wine fills the cracks in their lips as they smoke and say: Wouldn’t you rather be at a university where everyone did everything? What if we all taught and learned from and cleaned up after each other? You’ve met one of their flatmates, who complained of scraping the yellowed skin of dried milk off deserted bowls, and know that they are especially interested in the final part of this thought experiment, but you also discover that night that they might be the most enthralling person you have ever met. For instance, they read tarot. This is everything when you’re eighteen, everything, that is, until their cards say you will be taken on the trip of a lifetime, and, a month later, you accompany your mother on a weekend in a spa hotel where a fleshy man shaving in the sauna asks you to consider why stab victims always have foreign sounding names.
Back when time meant something, Tom was always late. Sometimes, he wouldn’t show up for days, and Annecy would pace the flat with a phone against her ear, staring at the absence on the sofa, saying, If he’s floating face down in a canal somewhere I swear I’ll kill him; but three hours before my first oyster and five before my last he stood in front of Christ on the cross with eyes rolled back and red paint dripping on the forehead, tapping his feet, checking his watch, waiting for a woman whose family owned hotels on every continent.
Not Antarctica, obviously, he had said, explaining Melissa to us in a sushi restaurant as she looped one of his dark curls around her index finger. Neocolonial creeps, Annecy had whispered back. I know I need to describe what a restaurant was, and a bar, and, if I can, a friend, too, but just try to picture this: You’re dragging an edamame bean through your teeth, slowly, because they’re all you can afford, and one of your two friends is with a woman you’ve heard nothing about, because every time you’ve seen this friend in the years following graduation he has taken you to gigs where men threw sandwich toasters against an amplifier while scream-quoting Schopenhauer, or to spoken word nights where a woman with a giant hook through her ass moaned into a microphone. It’s difficult now to imagine anything that resembles events like this but I need you to try, because you have to understand, as I do, that this was the beginning of the loss of knowledge. Tom had not said, or at least, I had not heard, anything about what would be the last wedding until he had his arm around his future wife, she had her fingers in his hair, and the whole dreamy assemblage tangled and beamed across from Annecy and me. Would you rather, Tom began, have a masseuse as a conjoined twin or… and then he trailed off, his mind lost in Melissa’s face, and it was left to us to imagine such a life of profound intimacy, or whatever its alternative was.
A woman with tiny feet began to play arpeggios on an even smaller glockenspiel close to the canapé table. It seemed that she was trying and failing to join in with the string quartet, so we both ignored her, until Melissa’s sister wrenched the instrument from her, hammered on it, and shouted at us to take our seats at a table made up of Melissa’s childhood piano teacher, one of Melissa’s second cousins, and the second cousin’s wife. There was no other occasion when you would be seated, against your will, amongst a group of strangers who could be used to measure how loved you were by the person who had placed you there. This will never happen to you now, of course, but what follows is an approximation of the type of conversation you might have had:
And who are you with? The piano teacher asked, frowning.
We used to make sure Tom showered semi-regularly, Annecy replied. We’d be doing it now, but Melissa couldn’t afford us.
A lucky man, said the second cousin. A marriage like that. The world’s his —
Please don’t say it, Annecy interrupted, breaking a breadstick. Honestly, I’ll throw up.
I can’t imagine you’ll see him much now, said the second cousin.
Why’s that? I asked, pouring wine into my glass. I poured some for Annecy, and then the piano teacher too, because I thought that was what you were supposed to do, but stopped when she frowned again.
Hotels on every continent, that’s why, said the second cousin.
Not every, I said.
Anyway. Things change when a man gets married.
His wife hadn’t said a word. I waved the wine bottle at her.
It’s not as though he can spend time with other women now, is it? He said.
I’ve never been called the other woman before, said Annecy. I rather like it.
I’m trying as best I can to explain what a wedding was, what a wedding meant, how something could suddenly change at the bar to allow you drinks with names like gin and tonic and beer, how the oysters could develop some kind of skin, but I know I need to go back and define a university as, for the most part, a sprawl of empty time that needed to be filled. We did this, Annecy and Tom and I, with whichever dealer was stopping by, by playing a game in which we each took turns to say a word. There, Tom would start, once, I would continue, was, the dealer would say, Francis Bacon, Annecy might say, or, an ethno-centric nation-state, and then the story would continue until the dealer left, but it never really ended because no one ever said full stop. No one even said semicolon. There were only infinite connectives, making a single impossible sentence that we would pick up again when trying to find our own reflections in clouds of frozen breath became too much like work.
This is important, because I’d sat in a church aisle, nine or ten hours before the world hurtled into this staticky dead-end, and watched as Tom played some version of the game with a woman I’d only met three times: I do, he said, I do, she said, but I couldn’t join in, they weren’t following the rules. Until death do us part, they said, even though two minutes previously she, it seemed, had been her father’s and, as far as I knew, Tom had been committed to overthrowing the nuclear family. I’d eaten nothing except a single rancid cashew I’d found in my clutch bag from whenever I’d last used it and was wondering when the time would come to stick my tongue out and push the moon of white body against the roof of my mouth, place my lips against the residue of other lips and drink the blood, when they kissed, Tom and this woman who had one of those job titles that pointed to nothing except nepotism — Strategic Advisor? Entrepreneurial Consultant? She did things for her father’s hotel chain, is all I could tell. They kissed, and I thought that this must be the full stop.
I was wrong. I began to get an eerie feeling watching the first or last dance, rolling marzipan into greasy spheres between my fingers. Dancing involved moving your body enough to remember you had one and Tom loved it: he would spin his legs and jump his hips and throw his hands as though enacting an exciting tragedy in shadow on the wall. He did not, as he did then, grip tight to the shoulder bones of another person like he was trying to stay alive. I sat and watched Tom and Melissa, sucked into focus by a sudden spotlight, and the tightness, which had first worked its way into my rib cage that morning as Annecy zipped me up whilst explaining a prenup, returned. I couldn’t believe how lonely they looked. And if they looked lonely, all two of them together holding so tight, I couldn’t imagine how I must have looked. I wanted to curse all my meandering hours of saying and or but or or, but also I didn’t, because they were all I knew.
At this point, I need to define a friend as a person with whom you had a relationship of affection. Crucially, this bond was platonic, meaning that you were not supposed to gaze at the space between your friend’s navel and the low line of a towel, or, when you replaced them in the shower and smoothed lather over your skin, think of the angle of their arm as they held a mug of wine, the bulge in the vein at their wrist, the way the line of their spine flowed without fault from their neck to where their buttocks met, or drink tequila mixed with strawberry milkshake with them, until they were stroking your back with the fingers of one hand and holding your hair with the other as you vomited pink clots. You were not supposed to push your tongue into their mouth, or their ear, or merge your body with theirs on a flat-pack sofa. Their breath should never have softened your skin. If your friend told you that their definition of a friend was expansive, and expanding, and that there was little chance you would make the transition into a different word, you were supposed to listen. You were not supposed to continue visiting the sofa in the night, falling into the warmth of their tongue, tugging at the waves of their hair as they lapped between your legs, or else, you were not supposed to stare in silence at the cold curve of a butter knife as they toasted Pop Tarts in the kitchen because no one had taught you anything except how many words for man there were in Middle English.
Would you rather, I asked myself, wouldn’t you rather? and with a swallow of whatever I could find, I realized I wanted neither: not this spectacle of flat time swaying in front of me, this slow, mutual bath, nor the closed bundle of bones and nerves, shivering without its twin, that sat in my chair.
I asked the bartender to make me a Tom and he said the time for Toms was over. He gave me a whiskey and I went outside. At night, this was like moving from one dark box to a larger dark box, except the larger box was cooler and sometimes there would be a cat curling around your calves, or the lingering air of a match long since extinguished, or, as there were here, buds of jasmine that bloomed sweet piss. This time, though, I stood in the hotel garden and it seemed that the black, wet leaves behind the jasmine flowers, and the black tarmac, stamped with the white butts of Paul’s cigarettes, and the black sky, strung with white stars, were all closing in upon me, and I returned inside to find Tom slumped in my chair and my hand moving towards his cheek, then stopping, retreating, searching out a new spot to scratch in the corner of my mouth. I sat next to him, allowing an ice cube from the whiskey glass to melt against my gum.
Across from us, Annecy’s lacquered lips stretched and contracted close to Paul’s. I was in awe of the ease with which her mind spilled into her mouth until I remembered the last time she brought an usher home and he took to chopping onions in our kitchen. Each day, Annecy would spend longer in the shower, slipping into my room afterwards to ask if he’d left. On the fifth day she had a date and I had to stand in the doorway of the kitchen as his fast knife made a pile of perfect dice, tears leaking into his moustache, and say that Annecy wouldn’t be eating with us tonight.
I swallowed the second ice cube whole.
I’ve got to ask, I said. Why all this?
Tom stared at me, looking as though all the promises of the day had taken their toll.
The rules about colors and cutlery, and who you’re allowed to speak to, and who gets to keep what and who belongs to who?
Who was on your table?
I think he’d forbidden his wife to talk.
He laughed. The DJ shouted Here’s a golden oldie for you! as a chiming synth shivered through the bodies before us. Annecy threw her head back and screamed.
Do you remember the gingerbread house? Tom asked.
Of course. He’d retrieved it one night from the depths of a supermarket’s bargain bucket but it felt wrong against our teeth, so we took it to the pavement and dropped lit matches through the icing-tiled chimney. I warmed my hands over its slow burn as Tom cracked jokes about the collapse into grey of the only house he’d ever own. I didn’t care about my slumping future then, I just wanted to stand among others in the spiced air, fizzing with the secret knowledge of his hand in the small of my back, in my mouth, in the dead of the night, feeling as though all the years of waiting for summer to be over in the suburbs had been worth something.
My hand, warm from the whiskey, reached for his.
We were so doomy, Tom said, frowning. Always learning to label everything late capitalism… I guess I just want to grow up. It’s exhausting being late. I want to meet my wife from work, or, maybe, my child at a school gate and, I don’t know, take them for a hot fucking chocolate —
A howl absorbed the end of his sentence: Paul, holding his phone away, staring at capital letters thrumming onto the screen. I thought of the mucusy pinkies in his lab, mewling and starving, turning inert like curled knuckles of uncooked meat at the side of a chopping board. He ran, while the remaining guests shook out of stagnation to scramble for their own jingling phones and the DJ fell to the floor, holding his head in his hands. Debbie Harry rapped in French. The outside had followed me in: the air was (is) drenched in smoke and jasmine, pine and rubber, old oil, the burnt-out ocean. Everything was encroaching; it was (is) clear there would be no hot chocolate. Melissa walked towards us, a smudge of red wine on the white lace of her sleeve, and I understood then that while she had been promised everything and I nothing, we were the same now. I took her hand, and she took Tom’s, and together we dragged ourselves up to join Annecy on the dancefloor, where we filled time and space with our bodies, trying to commit to memory what touch felt like, and breath, and each other.