By: Paula L. Jones
I can see Kristy in my mind’s eye.
I see her walking down the aisle in that white, egg-shaped dress her best friend convinced her to choose.
Her long dark hair is swept up beneath the veil my mother wore on her own wedding day thirty-one years ago, and even though Kristy’s got on such a thick layer of makeup she’s barely recognizable, I see her more clearly than ever, and I love her.
My screensaver of a smile remains in place as I try to wrap my head around the fact that she’s actually walking down the aisle towards me.
And with every step she takes, the more challenging it becomes for me to maintain my fake smile until, finally, my heart trips over a beat, wiggles from its protective chamber between my ribs and in one abrupt motion, hurls itself into my stomach.
I pass out and the crowd gasps.
That moment is going to happen in ten minutes.
Now, as I stare at myself in the lone mirror of the Groom’s dressing room at South Lake Gardens Reception Hall, I see it all unfolding in my mind’s eye, me standing at the alter, pale and trembling while my heart commits suicide because it no longer sees the point of living when its owner ignores it completely.
Because that’s precisely what I’ve done.
The moment I asked Kristy Hargrove to marry me fourteen months ago, I knew I wasn’t in love with her because even though I imagine things for a living -it’s literally what I get paid to do- for the life of me, I could not imagine a forever with Kristy.
I knew this a week later, when we invited my parents over and broke the news of our engagement and knew it still, months later, as Kristy and I sat together, whittling our guest list of 300 down to 180.
I knew it when I accidentally saw a picture of Kristy in her wedding dress in one of her friend’s Instagram stories.
I knew I wasn’t in love with her, but I didn’t say a word because I thought something would change.
I assumed this was the way every groom felt in the months leading up to his wedding, like a trapped wild animal with no choice but to surrender gracefully.
But now it’s become quite clear that only grooms who have no business getting married feel this way.
My little sister, Mable, who has been tasked to act as my best man, snaps her fingers in my face, startling me.
“Mark?” she frowns and tilts her head, looking at me with concern. “Are you okay?”
“No,” I blurt without thinking, “I’m definitely not okay.”
“What do you mean?” she slowly asks.
“I don’t think…” I take a deep breath and admit, “Remember last night at the rehearsal dinner, when you asked me what it felt like to be in love and I got weird and started telling a butt ton of jokes that nobody thought were funny?”
Mable nods, her eyes worried and a crease in her brow. “Yeah. That was epic. And you hadn’t even had a drink yet.”
“The thing is,” I look down at my bare left hand and wonder how much more trapped I’m going to feel tomorrow and every day afterwards, when I look down at this hand and see a wedding band. “I was evading the question, because I didn’t know the answer.”
I look up at her and her mouth is agape.
She shakes her head, as if trying to compose herself before quietly asking, “Are you saying you’re not in love with Kristy?”
Tears fill my eyes.
This is terrible, I’m a terrible person.
“I…” my voice trailing off, I turn to the window at our left and stare at the Reception Hall’s bustling parking lot. The lead actor of the sci fi series I write for is stepping out of his car with his gorgeous wife. My heart sinks as I turn back to Mable and say, “I love Kristy. She’s a great person. I honestly can’t say one bad thing about her. But I’m not in love with her.”
Mable and I stare at each other, both of us shocked.
“What should I do?” I finally ask. I shake my head and wave this question off. “You’re fifteen. Why am I asking you? Sorry. Ignore everything I said. I’m just nervous. I know what I’m going to do.”
I straighten my tux jacket, smooth down my tie and say, “This conversation never happened. Okay?”
My little sister does not say okay, instead she punches me in the shoulder, and it hurts just enough to surprise me.
“I deserve that,” I concede. “I’m sorry, Mable. I shouldn’t have unloaded all of that on-”
“You don’t have to apologize, idiot,” she hisses. “You shouldn’t ever apologize for being honest. So, like, is there someone else? Are you in love with someone else?”
“No, of course not,” I rub my aching shoulder and glance at it.
“Did you propose to Kristy because you felt sorry for her?”
“What?” My head snaps up and I give Mable an “as if” look. “She’s the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. She’s worth a million times more than I am. There’s nothing to feel sorry-”
“She has no family,” Mable says. “And she’s desperate to be part of one. It’s pretty obvious that she’s been lonely since the age of, like, five, or maybe even since birth. That’s probably why she named her company Family. Because it’s what she craves. So, did you see that about her and feel like you had to save her?”
I stare at Mable in shock and find myself nodding.
How is my little sister so freaking perceptive?
“I thought so,” Mable sighs and scratches her head, messing up her curly updo. “Then I told myself you guys didn’t need “sparks” or whatever because you were so comfortable with each other. But I guess that was wishful thinking. Um, so do you think she’s in love with you?”
I think of the autographed movie poster she surprised me with last week, and the way she watched me as I pointed to Steven Speilberg’s signature and nearly passed out.
I’m pretty sure the brightness in her eyes during that moment can be categorized as “love.”
But I love her too, I’m just not in love with her.
Maybe that’s how she feels about me, which is a tad disappointing.
But should it be disappointing? Why would I want her to love me, if I don’t love her?
“I don’t know,” I quietly reply.
“Mark-” Mable is interrupted by a knock on the door as Larry, one of my groomsmen, peeks in.
“You coming out, bro?” he asks.
Mable and I exchange a look.
I open my mouth to reply, but Mable beats me to it.
She jogs to Larry, says, “He’s a little sick. Give him a few minutes,” and without waiting for his reply, closes, and locks the door.
Despite the sinking feeling in my stomach, I grin, impressed by her spunk.
She points to the window and says, “Go, get out of here.”
“What?” I look at the window, a combination of longing and guilt taking hold of me. “I can’t just leave my own wedding.”
“You can if you need to think things through,” Mable says. “Maybe that doesn’t happen at most weddings. Who cares? There’s no rule book to life. There’s just us, trying to figure things out from moment to moment. This is one of those moments. So, go. I’ll stall and say you’re sick. When you make a decision, text me. Okay?”
I stare at her and shake my head, awe-struck. “When did you grow up so much?”
“While the oldest is busy pretending to be happy,” she says with a teasing grin, “the youngest is watching and taking notes on what not to do.”
“Okay, Dr. Phil,” I roll my eyes and pretend her comment didn’t sting a little.
She crosses the room, gives me a hug and then shoves me towards the window.
Ten minutes later I’m on the side of a dusty highway, sweating profusely and getting honked at by pickup truck drivers who aren’t used to seeing pedestrians.
I pass a field of cows. Some moo, others stare at me in comfortable silence, and a few flat out ignore me. It's basically the same way I’m treated when I go to award shows.
I walk by a pristine blue lake where a flock of geese lounge. I hurry by, hoping they don’t notice me. I’ve laughed at far too many YouTube videos showing innocent pedestrians being attacked by geese and should I linger, I know karma will have her way with me.
As I leave the geese and find myself walking along the sidewalk of a residential area, I realize that even though I’m sweating, have dirt all over my nice tux, and am battling deep feelings of guilt, this is nothing compared to how free I feel.
For the first time in over a year, I don’t feel like a prisoner on death row.
During this realization, my phone buzzes with an incoming text.
I ignore it.
My decision may be made, but I’m not sure how to share it with the people I care about most.
First and foremost, are Kristy’s feelings to consider.
Mable’s right, Kristy is lonely and she’s seen me as her family for the past three years.
Today, I’m going to destroy that.
I sigh as it dawns on me that I’m the villain in this chapter of her life.
A groom who walks out on his wedding is never the good guy.
And that’s fair because I was the one who chased Kristy, proposed, and never said a word about cold feet or daily anxiety attacks or about the one time I accidentally kissed another woman at work.
I cringe at the memory and try to shove it aside.
Yeah, I suck right now.
But sometimes, that’s just the way it is. You suck at most things until you slowly become a better and more capable human being.
Just ahead, are a couple of stores and fast food restaurants.
My stomach rumbles.
I glance at the McDonald’s on the left side of the highway, at the Wendy’s further down on the right, and at the Sonic that’s actually on a little side street off the main highway.
I head for the Sonic.
The thing about Kristy is that we like the same music, the same movies, we even have the same quiet cadence to our voices.
That’s what drew us to each other from the moment we met at her best friend’s dinner party, which I later learned was all just a ruse to get us to meet.
But once you get past our surface similarities, there’s nothing else between us.
There’s no spark.
It’s like you bake a potato for lunch and decide to garnish it with more potatoes.
Why would you do that?
You need some guac or some cheese or some hot sauce, or all three of those things.
But you definitely don’t need more of the same blandness.
And that’s what Kristy and I are, two plain baked potatoes.
But how do I tell her that without hurting her?
Deep in thought, I keep my gaze lowered to the ground as I approach Sonic.
Maybe I can ask her if we can postpone the wedding because I got super sick and then while I’m “recovering” I can set her up with another guy.
I walk in between two car stalls, headed for Sonic’s outside dining area.
No, that would be wrong. I shouldn’t lie to her. She deserves better than that.
I freeze and look up.
The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen is sitting on one of Sonic’s benches, her white wedding dress billowing around her and the gorgeous veil that my mother wore on her own wedding day, tucked in the woman’s lap.
“Kristy?” I whisper, too shocked to speak properly.
She tilts her head and offers me a small, sad smile.
My gaze goes to her hair.
It’s not like I imagined.
It’s cascading down her back and it’s not just brown anymore, there are blonde highlights mixed into her natural curls.
Somehow, the blonde brings out the sparkle in her hazel eyes and my heart does something weird, it sort of skips a beat.
She really is gorgeous.
I take a deep breath, wincing in pain for her.
She’s all dressed up with no one to marry, because I’m an idiot.
Kristy glances down and then looks at me, hurt in her eyes.
Oh God… my mouth goes dry as I wonder if she already knows what I’ve done.
Did Mable tell her I wasn’t really sick and blab everything to her?
“I’m so sorry,” Kristy says, standing. The veil falls from her lap and lands on the ground. She cringes and starts for it. “Great. Now your mom’s going to have even more of a reason to murder me.”
“No, it’s okay, I’ve got it,” I hurry towards her and pick up the veil.
As I hand it to her, our eyes lock and I wonder what kind of schmuck would compare Kristy Hargrove to a baked potato.
“Thanks,” she smiles sadly, accepting the awkward mass of tool and tiara.
Glancing down at it before returning her attention to my eyes, she says, “Who told you I was here?”
“No one, I…” my voice trailing off, I reassess Kristy.
The “hurt” in her eyes isn’t hurt, it’s guilt.
With this, my gaze goes to the half-eaten carton of fries on her table.
She’s been here for a while. In fact, she got here quite some time before I did.
“Did you run out on our wedding?” I slowly ask.
Her face goes beet red and, unable to meet my eyes, hers fill with tears as she looks off to the left and says, “I’m so sorry.”
Until that moment, I thought I knew what joy was.
But as Kristy admitted to leaving me at the altar, gray rain clouds parted, the sun bathed me in its glorious warmth, and I felt wholly joyful.
I take her veil, and nearly giddy with glee, set it on the table behind her, grasp both of her hands in mine, and quietly ask, “Are you doing this because you love me, but you’re not in love with me?”
She hangs her head and whispers, “I’m so sorry, Mark. T-that’s… yes. That’s how I feel.”
I laugh and give her a hug.
She doesn’t exactly react, but sort of goes mannequin-still the way a trapped animal does when it has no way out (or, the way I’ve felt for the past fourteen months).
I realize she’s shocked by my reaction, which is understandable.
Releasing her, I gesture for her to sit down and press the Sonic order button as I take a seat beside her and explain, “So, full disclosure. You have nothing to feel guilty about, because it looks like we both did the same thing.”
Kristy’s eyes go wide. “What? You ran away too? That’s why you’re here?”
“Welcome to Sonic. Can I take your order?” a staticky voice asks, interrupting me.
I lean towards the speaker and shout, “Can I get a Route 44 Sprite and a large order of onion rings? ”
I turn to Kristy and she’s smiling at me, her pretty eyes sparkling exactly like they were when she gave me the signed ET movie poster.
“I’m going to miss hearing you scream into drive-thru speakers,” she says with a smirk. “And silently laughing at you as I also kind of want to kill you for being so annoying.”
Flattered, I simultaneously frown and laugh as I ask, “That annoys you? I never knew.”
“Because I never told you,” she sighs, briefly glancing down at her lap. “There were a lot of things, too many things, I never said. And not just to you, but to-”
“That’ll be $6.95,” a shrill voice shouts from the speaker, startling us so much that we jump.
“Thanks,” I shout.
Kristy rolls her eyes.
“You were saying,” I gesture towards her and rest my chin on my hand, watching her as she explains how she hates the dress she’s wearing, had no desire to wear my mother’s veil, or even to have a big wedding, and that as much as she loves me, she doesn’t think we click romantically.
By the time she’s done explaining all of the things I’ve been thinking, my onion rings and Sprite are brought to us by a Sonic carhop on a pair of roller blades.
The carhop, a girl about my sister’s age, looks from me to Kristy as I scramble for my wallet and hope I have cash.
“Did y’all just get married?” the girl asks.
“No,” Kristy and I say in unison.
As I hand the carhop a ten, Kristy smiles at her and says, “We just became friends, who used to be engaged and are now blessed with a really funny story to tell.”
I smile at Kristy and don’t feel one bit guilty about how much I hate the fact that she uses the word “blessed.”
Because, you know what?
My kid sister is right.
It’s okay to feel things, to get angry, or sad, or to screw up and accidentally agree to something you know is going to be a terrible idea and then, like a coward, wait until the very last second to back out.
Okay, maybe that’s not completely okay.
But it’s one of those things that comes with being human.
And the point is that it’s alright to be an imperfect human.
The carhop, obviously confused, offers us a hesitant smile and I say, “Yeah, we’re not making much sense right now. You can keep the change. Thanks.”
She nods and skates off with some speed, undoubtedly eager to assist customers who aren’t dressed like they escaped from a wedding but sound suspiciously as though they might have escaped from a mental institution.
I slide the carton of onion rings towards Kristy. “Want some? Since we probably won’t be kissing any time soon.”
Kristy grins and says, “It’s not like bad breath has ever stopped you before.”
I smile. “Touche. I guess I do eat onion rings every day.”
“Yes, you do. Every single day,” she takes one of the fried bits of deliciousness and lifts it towards me, “Here’s to the beginning of a very platonic friendship.”
I grab an onion ring and clink it against hers, “To platonic friendship.”
Wait, that wasn’t the end. I’m back.
Just to give you a sort of… update on everything.
It’s been three years since that incident with the wedding that never happened and, well, it happened.
Two years later Kristy and I got married at a private ceremony on an island near Ireland and we’re about to have twins.
Life’s funny like that.
Also, the jokes on Kristy because I still eat onion rings on the daily.
But I’m not a monster. I’ve upped my gum game and it’s not like Kristy doesn’t still say “I’m so blessed” as much as she breathes, but I’m okay with that.
In fact, I think it’s kind of sweet.
Alrighty, well, that’s the weird story of us.
The End (for real, this time)