After Toast and Cake
by Lora Rivera
Lora Rivera is currently finishing her MFA in Fiction at the University of Arizona. She works as assistant for Claire Gerus Literary Agency in Tucson and lives with her husband and three cats. Her most recent published short story appeared in October 2009 in A cappella Zoo. She writes adult and young adult literary fiction, as well as juvenile fantasy, a love she owes to a tiny used book store in her hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida.
Mabel was getting married. To be precise, tomorrow afternoon at three. In a whitish dress with pink flowers embroidered along a revealing v-neckline. In shoes that hurt her feet. In a church, up an aisle flanked by lilies, arm in arm with some friend of her mother's (called Kirk or Chuck or Ambrose) standing in as surrogate for the father who couldn't make it and was somewhere in the Middle East harvesting oil.
She had, thankfully, escaped. Had fled the church, left her soon-to-be aunt-in-law, mother-in-law, and own soon-to-be-husband arguing about the banners. Out the kitchen back door, into the street—the wide world. She drove to the nearest coffee shop, downed a cappuccino, extra wet, ordered another. This one she savored for half an hour, staring blankly at the crawling traffic between LBJ and Guadelupe, the war protestors standing shoulder to shoulder with the independent zealots and pro-life flyer distributors on the grassy square across the street.
Mabel realized too late that the woman she was in love with had just dinged the little bell on the glass door and strode into the room, her firm, round shoulders burdened by two guitar straps slung over her back, her strong, skillful fingers gripping a handful of black cables, a base amp thudding her thigh.
She looked down too late; Anna had seen her.
The equipment stranded on the red carpeted stage, Anna was halfway across the room in a few brisk steps, evading table corners Mabel herself had bumped into an hour earlier.
Anna took a seat in the chair across from her, backwards. Taut runner muscles pressed visibly through the gray-blue fabric of her jeans.
"So," she said, pursing her lips, not even glancing at the other coffee bar patrons—Mabel had already scouted, true, as soon as Anna walked in, but still, she had scouted, the way people do who have something to hide, something to lose—"you're running."
"I'm not," said Mabel stiffly. Stiffly because she couldn't stop staring at Anna's eyes, at the soft dimple in her upper lip, at the smooth, tight tendon along the side of her neck that ran down, down . . . She relocated her cappuccino. "I'm not."
Anna squinted out the glass wall toward the street. "Where's Paul?"
"At the church. Having a cow about the banners with your mother and aunt."
"God." Clapton was over the rainbow somewhere, his voice and guitar muted softly by the din of book-reading and keyboard-clicking.
"So, you're not running. What are you doing here?"
"Drinking coffee," murmured Mabel. On second thought, the cappuccino seemed lonely in the corner. Perhaps in the middle of the table.
Anna smoothed a loose blonde lock of hair behind her ear, put a thinking-finger to her lips, tapped twice, and then refocused on Mabel. "I thought we were over this."
Her chest felt stiff, too, and too small; things inside were trying to get out. "Me too."
"Then we are."
"Because you want to be."
"Because you want to be. You're the one getting married."
"Yes, thank you."
"You could've told him no."
"All of them. Him, your mother, mine, your father, all those people watching. And then what? Tell him, hey, yeah, actually, it's not you. It's me. And while everybody's here, turkey nicely settled, pumpkin pie on the way, by the way, I'm gay and so is your daughter—or your sister or your niece, or whatever you want to call her—and we're lovers, too, if you haven't guessed. So, Paul, sweetie, although you're precious, it'd just be too weird, you understand, marrying the man whose sister I'm sleeping with."
"You could've told him no."
They sat silently. The cappuccino travelled farther still to the other corner. Clapton moved along to make way for Jewel—small hands and world peace and all that, things Mabel might have been interested in if she weren't getting married tomorrow. Depending on whose hands, of course, and Anna's were on the table, drumming absently.
"You've got a gig tonight."
"With that guy from yoga?"
"And we picked up a drummer and bass. That's his amp. He's got mine. They got switched somehow last time we were all over at his place for practice."
Anna's fingers stopped drumming. "You're jealous."
"I'm not. I'm just curious, is all; you managed to convince me you were gay."
"I'm not marrying your brother, sweetheart."
Mabel felt stung. But she retorted, "I don't have a brother."
"Not the point."
They stared at one another; the frappe machine whirred and chucked, pulverizing ice.
"I've gotta go set up," said Anna after a while. Mabel nodded, awkwardly, saying nothing. Anna bit her lip, and then left for the counter to order espresso and a slice of carrot cake; afterward, she began unpacking cords. Her band meandered in one by one. The yoga lead guitarist was white, tall, skinny, had round glasses, sideburns, and a long braid slithering over his right shoulder. The drummer was short, sweet-faced, huge-lipped, and half Filipino; Mabel liked him because he always laughed and had a wide mouth. And then the bassist. So, he was beautiful, and definitely Anna's type had he the proper equipment. Just taller than Mabel, maybe six feet, jeans and a white t-shirt, trim athlete's body, long legs, thin waist, gorgeous brown hair—it probably smelled like coconuts or pineapple or something else that went perfectly and unfairly with adjectives like wavy and thick—brown eyes, white teeth, and God that mouth. But, Anna was gay; so why was his arm around her waist up by the condiment counter? And why was she staring at his ass when he went to plug in the snake?
If she hadn't been concentrating so hard on trying to figure out what exactly made this man more attractive to Anna than she was—if not the hair, and it just couldn't be the hair; Anna wasn't that shallow—Mabel might have noticed the door dinging, a train of familiar voices and clicking heels bustling through with faces looking confused and hasty. But looking. Searching, in fact. For Mabel.
They found her in the corner, and settled down around her like feathery, fat pigeons. Paul pressed in beside her, wrapping a black Converse around her ankle, a hand around her coffee, tilted back the mug, and finished off the foam. He kissed her cheek, and tugged on her leg with his—dog-like.
"Would you get us some sandwiches, Gloria?" said her mother, waving a hand airily. "We'll have dinner here."
"The band's about to start," said Mabel weakly.
"Darling, you're all right; that's what matters. Gloria!"
"I'm just going to write them down," said her mother-in-law. "Kurt? Turkey, fine, fine. Paul, I know you're not eating meat these days, so how about the avocado and portabella on a Kaiser? Sarah?"
Anna didn't look at them at all, simply greeted the room and started in on a fast ska piece, the new beau playing trumpet. Mabel's armpits felt damp.
"Sweetheart, you look pale. Now, look, Elizabeth's coming over, too, in just a moment, for emotional support. I know—dear Lord—how I know how you feel. Every woman's nightmare, every woman's dream."
Her mother put a hand on Mabel's cheek with a cluck of her tongue, and Paul slid his hand under the table to lace his fingers through Mabel's, latching on like a lizard to a screen.
Aunt-in-law, mother-in-law, husband-to-be, little sister ecstatic to be wearing a burgundy flower-girl dress tomorrow with real pearls, father-stand-in (Kurt smelled like garlic and had a sweaty forehead), and then Elizabeth, running through the swinging door out of breath, a flurry of pink blouse and billowing skirt, interrupting the music—"Sorry! Oh, excuse me!"
Elizabeth plunked herself down beside Mabel's mother, squeezed herself onto the windowsill. "What's the emergency?"
"Mabel's having a breakdown," said Gloria, coming back with Sarah and a few scones. "Munchies," said her mother-in-law. "Sandwiches are on their way."
"I'm not having a breakdown."
"Sweetheart, it's okay," said her mother. "Cold feet's normal, dear, nothing to be ashamed of."
"You'll feel better tomorrow when it's all over," nodded her aunt-in-law sagely.
"I love you," said Paul into her ear.
"Sounds rough," said Elizabeth. "So, what happened?" She fetched a cigarette from her purse and stuck it in her mouth, would have lit up, except that the father-stand-in shook his head reprovingly.
"You can't smoke in here," Kurt said.
"Well, let's go outside then."
"In a little bit," said Gloria.
"Sweetheart, Elizabeth asked you a question."
"I want to go outside."
"She ran out of the church during rehearsal," said the aunt, pursing her lips.
"Oh, good Lord," said Gloria. "Is that what happened?"
"I saw her leave," said Sarah, helping herself to a scone. "She went out the kitchen."
"You told me you were going to the restroom!" Gloria sounding shocked. Unbelievable.
"Now, let's give her some room, ladies, gents," said her mother. Cheek patting again. "Poor thing, it's because the semester's just out and now she has time to think about it."
Between her mother's huge hair and Elizabeth's sleek auburn ponytail, Anna was plucking out a melody Mabel had helped her write last summer. Mabel had a sudden urge to grab the scone plate and slam it into the glass window. She needed some fresh air.
"Liz, you've got another cigarette?"
"Darling, you're not a smoker," said her mother.
"My son isn't marrying a woman who smokes," said Gloria, as she inhaled a scone. One moment it was in her hand, the next in her mouth, the next gone.
"I love you, Mabel," breathed Paul.
"I've seen her smoke before," said Sarah, smacking her lips. "She even let me—"
Mabel hissed and kicked her little sister's leg.
"Mabel!" Other admonishments from around the table. Even Elizabeth looked affected.
"Well, maybe we shouldn't just now," her maid of honor said whitely. "I mean, it is the night before—"
"Give me a goddamn cigarette."
"Sweetheart," said her mother sternly.
"My son's not marrying a woman who takes God's name in vain," said Gloria, with a glare for Mabel's mother.
"Gloria, don't overdo it," said her mother. "Now, Mabel, dear."
"So," interrupted Sarah, tilting her jaw at her sister as the tight ballerina bun Gloria had spent an hour fixing up on Sarah's head was coming undone, "how come she wasn't at practice." She jerked a thumb toward the stage.
"Sarah, love, Anna had a performance," said her mother.
"Not during practice," piped Sarah.
"She was hauling equipment," said Mabel sourly, "from the bass player's house."
"That's where she was," sighed Gloria, and then brightened. "Oh! The sandwiches."
"Mabel, darling, didn't you order?"
Paul's hand pressed Mabel's, and she edged nearer the glass wall. Anna began plucking a slow, melodic piece that Mabel remembered from the time they met—another date with Paul after number one-too-many had already passed; and still Mabel hadn't had the courage to tell him she wasn't in love with him anymore because, among other reasons, she'd decided she was gay—and Anna was there playing that night, and only later, after she'd feasted her eyes and she'd decided she was in love again—with Anna—did Paul introduce her. "My sister," he'd said. And it was hopelessly too late by that time.
"A cigarette," snorted Elizabeth. "Ha. She meant, didn't you order anything to eat."
They should never have gotten involved. Mabel shouldn't have come here; what was she thinking? Thinking she'd see her, thinking Anna would decide for her, to be honest.
Mabel stopped thinking: she didn't want to be honest.
"I wanted to eat at Red Lobster," said Sarah, picking at the lettuce on the side of her plate. "It's her fault we have to eat here." Finger jabbing at the stage.
"Sarah, dear," said her mother, "eat and be grateful. Of course, it's not Anna's fault."
"So much for booking a rehearsal dinner," said Elizabeth, shrugging. "Here, pass the salt, will you, Tess?"
She looked at her once: Anna's eyes glanced up at the end of the melodic minor piece, found Mabel's, and drifted on. They said that she was sorry. Sorry and that was all.
There were errands to run. At seven: alarm blaring, shower, clothes, toast with cream cheese ("You'll faint at the altar, otherwise, sweetheart; a girl's got to have sustenance on the biggest day of her life."), out the door at eight. Bundle Sarah, still sleeping, into the car. Pick up Elizabeth and Anna, the former fluttery, the latter silent as marble and as cold. Nail salon at nine. Ten o'clock, hair, lots and lots of it. Mother had hers done twice, Elizabeth three times.
Anna's green eyes watched Mabel's in the mirror, across the doubled salon interior; they were both facing walls.
Make-up after lunch—secured by aunt-in-law, which meant barely enough fruit to make Mabel actually hungry, plus a pint of bottled water. Hurry into the limo by two, last minute check for odds and ends—marriage license, flowers for Sarah, tiara, jewelry. Church at two-thirty.
Elizabeth's hair was coming down by the time she'd heaved everything from the limo into the priest's robing room, which was off to the side of a hallway leading to the narthex. She was fretting—maid of honor duties called, but her hair!
"Go fix it then, Lizzy," said her mother. "I can take care of Mabel. Sarah, go make sure Gloria and Tess are all right and that they don't need help with anything. Anna, you wouldn't mind checking—"
"Anna should help me," said Mabel suddenly.
Sarah harrumphed and gave her sister a knowing look, but skittered along at her mother's imperious, "Sarah!"
The door to the robing room stood ajar; Mabel had tossed aside tank top and shorts, bending over the dark, gleaming wood of an old rolltop desk in bra and underwear to grab the garment bag Elizabeth had brought inside.
"But sweetheart," said her mother once Sarah had gone, "this part is special—"
"You stand guard?" said Mabel. "Make sure the photographer doesn't come in until I'm mostly ready."
Her mother opened her mouth. "Of course, dear! That's just what I was about to do. The photographer."
With the door closed, Anna standing on the inside, made-up face blank, green eyes staring steadily at the dark red curtains on the closet opposite the door, the flowered couch filled with shoebags and corsets and safety pins, hair pins, lipsticks, hairsprays, the table strewn with white fabric spilling from the garment bag, Mabel felt the room had grown tiny. She turned toward the full length mirror on the wall beside the desk, took off her bra, and grabbed the dress. She got stuck in the netting trying to pull it over her head.
A moment later, she felt Anna's hands underneath the hem, sliding through the thick layers, deftly adjusting the waistline so that it fit over her shoulders. The hands were careful. They barely touched her skin, only just grazed the soft hairs along the line of her ribcage, a flick of nail against the side of her breast. From under the weight of heavy beaded fabric, she could hear Anna's breathing, steady but deep. Finally, the bodice slipped into place, straps snug on her shoulders.
There was a row of white buttons at the back; it was an old-fashioned dress, bought from a small, privately owned bridal and formalwear shop called Rose's. While Mabel leaned against the wall, both hands extended on either side of the mirror, Anna began buttoning, from the bottom up. The back stopped mid-shoulder blades. Anna drew her hands along the top, her fingers light, over the straps to grip Mabel's arms. She turned Mabel around to look at her.
"This," said Anna, her hands sliding along the straps to trace the neckline of the dress. "This I'll miss."
Mabel inhaled, held the air as if it were cigarette smoke, released it. She took in Anna's tall, sun-tanned body wrapped in navy blue satin, the sag of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, the resignation in her eyes. She breathed again, and stepped back, away from Anna's hands. Church bells tolled. Flower bouquets lay slumped over the rolltop, lilies and baby's breath, finely twined with white ribbon.
White t-shirt. God that mouth. Anna's mouth—on someone else's skin.
"Did you sleep with him?"
Anna blinked, shifted her weight. "Why does it matter?"
"I just want to know why."
"It won't make a difference now."
"Just tell me."
Her head tilted, a thin familiar line materialized between her eyebrows. Her lips parted, closed again.
"You did, then," said Mabel. She felt suddenly, stupidly, like crying. It wasn't Anna's fault. How could she help feeling betrayed, feeling just as confused. She stepped forward. "I could say no."
Her eyes were back on the curtain. "You've already said yes."
Mabel shook her head. "Just like that? It's one syllable. Yes. Yes and no. They're one syllable each."
Anna was so graceful and silent; Mabel took the bouquet she handed her.
Someone caught a picture of the bride and groom in an antique Polaroid and stuck it on the overhead at the reception. After the slideshow. After the dinging glasses finished and they'd kissed, relinquishing the spotlight to Elizabeth, whose hair was shining gloriously, opulent with rhinestones.
She stood and was already sniffling. Gloria had sneaked up behind and was ready with tissues. Elizabeth lifted her glass, drew out a tiny, many-times folded piece of paper. The room fell silent.
"I've known Mabel all my life," she said into the microphone in a quaking voice after the apropos electronic squealing had leveled off into a soft hum. "She's been there for me through the years, and now, she's starting a new life, one I have the privilege of being witness to; it begins at this moment, on this day, so full of joy." She turned toward Mabel, took her hand, and squeezed too hard. "You've made us laugh, you've been a gem of a woman, confident and intelligent, sensitive; you've been a great big sister—," the microphone blared as Elizabeth looked out into the room, "—Sarah, sweetie, you've got the best sister in the world, you know. And even though I'll miss you, Mrs. Paul Robins, I know that really, truly, your adventure starts today."
Whatever else she had prepared fell mute to sniffles. A tissue blizzard descended. The photographer hastened them out to cut the cake. They posed, they smiled, Mabel got a face full of strawberry and butter cream icing. She returned the favor amid the sound of delighted laughter. Somebody in the crowd made a choked adoring noise. She looked up to see a woman she'd met a half-dozen times in her mother's office pointing up at the overhead.
"Oh, look how happy she is!"
The Polaroid had caught them ducking to enter the limo. In the picture, Mabel's eyes glisten, her stretched lips seem on the verge of smiling, Paul has an arm looped around her waist, hugging her to him; except for the mysterious Polaroid operator, no one could see her face. No one except her two-hundred-odd wedding guests, now staring up at the picture. And Anna, who wasn't looking at the picture after all. And Mabel, who slid out from behind the cake table as the lines began to form, and waded through the crowd to stand behind Anna's chair. After a while, Mabel placed first one hand and then the other on Anna's bare shoulders. Her new sister-in-law tensed. Dust floated iridescent, lit by the white-blue beam of the overhead projector. People passed through it, oblivious. Anna reached up to touch Mabel's fingers. Just the nails—newly manicured, white half moons—then gently, the first knuckle. The second, the slight weight of her fingers lingering. And finally the ring.
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