Wedding Night

by Rebecca Makkai


I’m seventeen years old, sitting with Randy Osterman on his picnic bench.  He’s got his dad’s binoculars trained on the bride, but I’m watching the couple in the gazebo stare out across the lake and garden.  You can tell they’re talking about the wedding, how expensive and lovely and delicious, what an unusual location.  She hands him her champagne glass so she can reach her hand under the hem of her bright pink dress and fix her slip.

Millionaires, we presume, and we agree that we hate them.

Randy turns and grins at me with those teeth.  The seniors voted him best smile in last year’s annual, even though he was a junior.  He could probably have any girl in the school if he weren’t a little short.  He parts his thick brown hair far to the side, in what would look like a comb-over if he were twenty years older.  He’s been dating a sophomore all year, a tall, freckled blond girl with slim hips and cashmere sweaters who has gone home to Michigan for the summer while he stays here to caddy at the country club and get into trouble.  He was the voice of the plant in Little Shop of Horrors.  He’s already broken the boys’ diving record.  I am fairly sure I love him.

He’s wearing a brown leather jacket that looks like it was made to fit him, even though I know he filched it from the dorm lost-and-found at the end of the school year, after all the boarding students went home and before the cleaning crew came in and took all that stuff for themselves.  And now the campus is empty, except for these fabulous wedding guests and about ten of us faculty kids, and our exhausted and hibernating parents.  In later years, I’ll remember a sense of abandonment that I don’t quite recognize at the time.  We tell each other it’s fun to have the campus to ourselves.

Randy says, “This is good.  You see the shape of that guy’s glass?”  I do, but I don’t understand its meaning, so I pretend to squint and I shake my head.  “Highball,” he says.  “Hard liquor.”

The school funds its scholarships by renting out the main building and gardens every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night from spring to fall, and filling the dining hall kitchen with a catering staff who push carts of broccoli rabe and poached salmon past the empty, plastic, gum-encrusted chairs and into the marble front hall.  These are the society-page events with the fireworks and the bagpipe players and all the blonde people.

Randy and I have been planning this night all June, meeting out at the picnic bench for what he calls “reconnaissance.”  When we were younger we did things together every day, both of us convincing the younger kids to dig for buried treasure in the middle of the faculty co-op garden, or Randy making me sit on his bike while he stood on the pedals and propelled us down the access road.  We still talk in the summer, sitting out on the lawn with magazines, and he’ll take his t-shirt off to use as a pillow.  But the last time we actually did something together, just the two of us, was the summer we were ten, when we opened every drawer and closet in the deserted dorm, hoping for coins, love letters, or what Randy called “evidence.”  We eventually hit the jackpot down in the laundry room: fifty-five cents and a pair of blue, silky boxer shorts that we buried behind the baseball diamond.  It feels like that now, like we can forget about not really being friends anymore and slip back into ten years old.

“What we’ll do,” Randy says, “is wait about half an hour till they’re completely sloshed and it’s dark out.  We come from the garden so it looks like we’ve been there the whole time.”

“Dark is good.”

Our goal, naturally, is to procure and drink alcohol, sample any food that’s still out, and eavesdrop on the toasts for later reenactment and mocking.  Randy claims he’s done this several times before, but always when some guy he worked Summer Grounds Crew with was bartending.  This will be his first “raw infiltration,” as he calls it.

Randy’s black lab, Gretchen, is barking at the window behind us, so he puts down the binoculars and lets her out through the patio door, and we walk around the dorm and onto the soccer fields.  Gretchen loves running off-leash once the student drivers have left.  We can hear more voices filling the garden now, as the guests finish dinner and filter out to watch the sunset.  Behind all the talking and laughter is string music; they must have put a quartet out on the balcony.  By 9:00, the cover band or DJ will start blasting “Brown Eyed Girl” and we’ll both be kept awake in our rooms until 2 a.m., like every warm weekend night of our lives.  On Sundays, if you were really lucky, you’d get “Hava Nagila.”

Our families’ apartments have their own patios and entrances, but both open at the back onto the commons room of the same boys’ dorm, with its decades of accumulated smells from mold and feet and hockey gear and Ramen.  When I was little, I used to run around up and down the hallways in my footy-sleepers when my parents were on duty.  Around the time I turned nine, it started feeling uncomfortable to go out there even for Doritos from the machine, and since I started school here I’ve only used our back door to get in and out, never walked through the commons at all.  Randy still goes in every night, to study with his friends and watch movies.  I’ve been wondering lately what will happen after we graduate this spring, if I’ll come home from college and suddenly feel free to roam the halls again, to bring my father a cup of coffee when it’s 1:00 a.m. on a dance night and he has to stay out on the couch to check in the stragglers.  It doesn’t occur to me yet that by college I’ll have little interest in sharing oxygen, let alone conversation, with high school boys.

I’m getting hungry.  “I hope there’s still caviar out,” I say, although I’ve never actually eaten any.  “I don’t want cake.”  We get the leftovers in the dining hall, every Monday dinner from Prom to College Night.  Droopy asparagus, petit-fours, thin slices of white cake with raspberry filling.

“Last time, they left out all the snacks in the Graft Room while they ate dinner.  Wilson and I chowed like fiends.  Guess how much it costs to rent the place out.”  He throws a stick for Gretchen, and she run-hops after it like a fat black rabbit.

“Guess,” he says again.

He clearly wants me to guess low, so I try to think of a number high enough.  He can’t hold it in any longer, though.

“I kid you not, it’s twenty thousand not even counting the food.”

I nod, like that’s about what I would have thought.  “That’s disgusting,” I say.

“This guy in catering told me.”

Randy is the kind of person who attracts gossip simply because he already has such a store to trade out, all gleaned from his parents and his various friends in the underbelly.  The real reason Mr. DeWeiss got fired, which food service workers have keys to the catering liquor, how the new college counselor spent five years in the Peace Corps just because he was in love with some woman who wouldn’t marry him.  How Joe Granger and Eleanor Anderson were scamming on the table in the newspaper room when Mrs. Craig walked in, and what she said.  He told all the students that the Twinkie his father keeps on a high shelf in the chemistry lab, the one he claims hasn’t gone bad over the fifteen years he’s had it, is actually replaced with a fresh one every fall.

We walk around the track, talking about colleges.  Randy wants a big state school just so he can go to the basketball games.  I think this is the dumbest thing in the world but don’t say so.  I tell him I’m applying early to Smith.

“Don’t do it,” he says.  “You’ll turn lesbian.  You’ll stop shaving your legs and then you’ll come home and be like, ‘Meet my girlfriend Lesley.’  Fucking tragedy.  A tragic loss.”

This is a high compliment from Randy, and I’m glad it’s getting too dark out for him to see my cheeks burn.

We walk back to the dorm, Gretchen wheezing between us, and head into our separate apartments to change.  My parents are out at a play.  “Wear something mature,” Randy says over his shoulder, and I do, zipping on my tight black dress and turning to see myself in the mirror on my closet door.  It’s my dress for choir concerts, but it looks good.  In the bathroom, I carefully line my lips with a coral pencil, because I am seventeen and it will be another seven years before I realize the best way to appear old enough to drink would be to wipe off the makeup and look bedraggled.  I rub my lips together and blot them on a square of toilet paper.  I look at least twenty, I decide, and I turn on the porch light as I head out.

Randy’s already back out there, lying down on the seat of the picnic bench.  He’s wearing khakis and his school blazer, which is probably fine since no one will be able to read the crest in the dark or through a drunken haze.

“You look good enough to eat,” he says, sitting up.  He’s only started saying things like this since he got a girlfriend.  Maybe he thinks it’s safe now because it’s not leading me on, or maybe he’s just gotten bolder since he lost his virginity.  My friends have all gone home for the summer, so I’ve had to puzzle it over without their interpretive skills.  And I know that if I told them, they’d think I was imagining things.  I can imagine what Jessica would say: “Liz, you’re the cutest person, but you have to admit his girlfriend is a goddess.  Plus, he hangs out with lacrosse players.”  And though I hate her for saying things like this, she’s usually right.

The only time Randy and I really talk during the year is when he wants help on homework.  He’s smart, but he whips off his work between swim meets and dates and Social Committee, and then he’s surprised to get B’s and C’s.  Last year when we were in the same section of sophomore English, he came through the commons and knocked on our door to ask me to read his paper on Macbeth.  It began, “Death is something that most people encounter at some point in their life.”

Every school year, Randy slowly fades from my consciousness, partly because I don’t talk about him.  I’ll focus on the boys I’m angling for a toga party invite from.  Randy and I politely ignore each other in the halls, the way siblings would.  And then in the summer with no one else around, I find myself checking if his light is on, if his bike is there, if I can hear his voice as he chases Gretchen around the empty dorm.

Four years later, some late night in college, a bunch of us will all start talking about high school crushes, and as I open my mouth to tell the story of Randy Osterman it will become suddenly and glaringly obvious to me what he was doing that summer: He was bored.  He was horny.  His girlfriend was in Michigan, and I wasn’t ugly.  End of story.  But at the time, I believe his motivations must be as deep and confusing as mine.

“All right,” I say, attempting to sound jokey and suave, like someone with sunglasses in a heist movie, “so if things go south, we knock the cake over and run?”

He looks at me like I asked if there would be sharks in the reflecting pool.  “Nothing can go wrong.  If someone starts asking questions, pretend you’re getting sick.”  He thinks a second.  “Just don’t do that thing where you play with your hair.  It makes you look young.”

Right.

My shoe heels sink in the mud as we cross to the back of the garden, behind the gazebo.  Randy runs ahead and grabs two empty champagne flutes from the gazebo steps.  “Take this,” he says, thrusting one at me like a flower.  “Keep it in your hand when you get up to the bar.”

I can see in the yellow gazebo lights that the rim of the glass is smudgy and the base is opaque with dirt.  “That is vile!” I say.  All summer I’ve been saying “vile” instead of “gross.”  “I’m not drinking out of this.”

“No, just put it down on the bar like you’re returning it.  He’ll think you’ve already been served.”  Randy leans and kisses me on the cheek before taking off toward the lit-up doors.  “Wait a minute before you follow, and I’ll find you later.  It’s better if we’re separate.”

I wasn’t figuring on that, and suddenly it’s a lot less fun.  I watch Randy walk through the spots of light on the porch and through the door.  He’s holding his glass in the air like F. Scott Fitzgerald, like he’s the host of the whole stupid party.

I count to two hundred.  It’s time to go in, but now I’d rather curl up on the couch with a movie.  Alone I can’t laugh, so there’s nothing to stop people from laughing at me.  Without Randy I’m suddenly the twelve-year-old at the high school party, hoping no one catches on and makes me the joke of the night.  But I’m pulling my heels out of the mud and going in.

The building is an old convent that the school bought back in the fifties after its first campus burned down.  The nuns had all died off or given up, so the trustees bought this gorgeous building on the cheap and kept all the religious statues even though it’s not a Catholic school.  Most people said they kept the statues because they were valuable.  Randy said it was because they were so heavy it would cost a fortune to truck them all away.  The weddings are in the main hall and in the big open rooms with paintings on the walls.  But right down below in the basement, there’s a life-sized statue of Mary lifting her arms to the heavens.  If you leave your study group to go down for a soda at night, you round the corner and there she stands at the end of the hall waiting for you, the red light of the Coke machine bathing her in a horrible pink glow, the low growl of the refrigeration mechanisms echoing around her like she’s moaning for her lost son and those long-gone nuns.

I squeeze past the broad back of a fat man’s blazer and set my champagne glass on the bar.  I realize as I do this that there’s a dead leaf floating in the half-sip left in the bottom, but the bartender doesn’t seem to care. Jesus,” his nametag reads, and it takes me a second to read it with a Spanish accent.  I’m almost glad Randy isn’t here, or we’d both start laughing, especially with the mural of the Holy Mother of God right behind the bar.  Randy would probably dip his fingers in his drink and anoint me, and then he’d make some joke about how far Jesus had been demoted since the days of the nuns.  

“Bombay and tonic,” I say, and make sure I’m not leaning on the bar.  I resist the urge to tuck my hair behind my ear.  For a second I worry that’s not an actual drink, wonder if it’s supposed to be Bangkok and tonic, Burma and tonic.  But Jesus doesn’t say anything, just starts making it.  He’s a tall man with sleepy eyes, and he looks bored as hell.  I think, if the bride could see his face, it would ruin her reception.

He hands me my drink.  It’s too cold in my hand, but I don’t want to look like a kid by wrapping a napkin around it.  I decide to drink it quickly so I can put it down, but the first sip is stronger than I expected.  Randy and I have agreed that getting too drunk at the party would be the worst mistake.  He’s hoping to grab a bottle of something on the way out, but I don’t want to be there when he tries it.  I cross the room, dive between clusters of people, pick up some cashews, and wonder what I’m supposed to do next.

There’s a fountain built into the wall, carved with lilies and swirls.  The bowl is made of two large, feminine hands emerging from droopy sleeves, and the absence of a body makes it seem like a woman is trapped inside the wall.  My English teacher brought us down to look at it when we read “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  The teachers love to make use of the grounds, to remind us how lucky we are.  The fountain doesn’t run anymore, so it’s a perfect place to put my glass.  I put my hands on the back of my neck to warm them up, and I start scanning the room for Randy.  I’ve had about five sips, and already I can feel it in my leg muscles.

Finally I see him, talking to one of the bridesmaids.  She’s wearing a light green dress with thin straps and a silver wrap.  The bridesmaids actually look lovely, like shiny sea-nymphs, which is disappointing.  “There’s always one really fat bridesmaid,” Randy said this afternoon, “every wedding you see.  And then she has to squeeze into the same slinky little dress that looks good on everyone else, like all strapless and hot, but on her there’s this lard hanging out.”  Scanning the room I can see five bridesmaids, which seems about enough, and all of them are thin and beautiful.  The one talking to Randy has red hair and doesn’t look any older than us; she could be the bride’s little sister or younger cousin.  I haven’t seen the groom yet, and we only saw the bride through the binoculars.  Although really it’s hard to tell, with the men.  Any of these men in tuxes could be the groom, even the old guy with silver hair I’ve been presuming is the bride’s father.  It would be great if he’s the groom and this is wife number five.

I take my drink out of the fountain and swallow three huge gulps, then wonder if that was too fast.  I’m trying to hear whether the people around silver-haired tux man are joking about the wedding night or the cost of the reception, when someone touches my elbow.  I assume it’s Randy, so I take my time turning around, but it’s not.

“George,” he says.  Not even holding out his hand, just announcing his name.  “I’m one of Peter’s pledge brothers.”  He’s young, maybe in his twenties, so tux man must be the dad after all.  George has a round face and floppy dark hair, and he looks pretty drunk, the way he keeps blinking his eyes.  “You a friend of Annie’s?”  So there we go.  Peter and Annie.

“I’m here with one of her cousins,” I say.  I swallow the last of my drink, the ice sliding up to hit my teeth.  Randy and the bridesmaid have disappeared.

“Listen.”  He leans in close to me, and I’m trying to decide whether to get away from him or stick in there for what Randy calls “anecdotal value.”  He has sour breath.  “I’m dying here,” he says.  “You got smokes?”

I don’t, and I’m about to say so, but it occurs to me that smoking out in the garden would be a way to leave the party for a while and make Randy wonder where I’ve gone, without breaking the rules of the game.

“No,” I say, “but I could use one myself.”

“I see my friend Jake there,” he says.  “I’ll hit him up while you get me another Beam and Coke, okay?”  He hands me his glass and goes to slap his arm around Jake.

I get myself another drink while I’m at it.  I’m worried it’s too soon to be back for more, but Jesus never even looks at me.  As I take a step back from the bar, one drink in each hand, George reaches around my head and sticks an unlit cigarette in my mouth.  I must look ridiculous standing there like that, but I can’t do anything about it till we’re outside and he takes his drink from me.  He lights me up as we walk.

I don’t smoke often, but Randy and I both started young.  The faculty kids follow the students around from the time they can walk, and sooner or later someone thinks it’s funny to give you something.  Randy’s little brother Charlie got drunk last year off the Jell-O shots Mike Ferrone and some other juniors were doing in the woods, and he had to have his stomach pumped.  Randy punched Mike Ferrone in the gut the next Monday in the middle of the dining hall.  Not that Randy didn’t do the same kind of thing himself, giving Charlie those stupid magazines, but it looks all dramatic to be violently protective of your ten-year-old brother.  Everyone talked about it for days.

Frat brother George and I lean against the garden wall with our drinks and cigarettes.  I’m a little nervous that we’re out of the light now, but we’re still close enough that if he tries something and I scream, people will hear.  At least until the band starts up.

“You said your name was Rachel?” says George.

“No.”  I haven’t, and it isn’t.  “My name is Gretchen,” I lie.

“Gretchen.  Grrrrrretchennnn.”

“So,” I say, “my date hasn’t told me how Peter and Annie met.”  At least I’ll have stories for Randy this way.  I’m hoping for something ridiculous, like she popped out of his cake or they saw each other from their yachts.

“Oh, you weren’t at the ceremony?”  George is sweaty, and the garden lights are making his forehead glow.

“Just the end.  My date and I were late.  We got stuck in traffic.”  I stop myself with the cigarette.

“That’s okay, they gave a total bullshit version anyway.  No, basically it started when she broke up with me.”  He takes a long drink and lowers his voice.  “Broke my heart, right, junior year of college, and so I’m out at this bar crying my eyes out, drinking my eyes out, whatever, and she comes to my room to apologize.  So I’m not there, but my buddy Pete, in the next room, he hears her knocking and comes rushing out to comfort her, and then he gives her this speech about deserving someone better.  Which means him.  But hey, cheers, it worked out.”  He doesn’t raise his glass so much as pour it down his throat.  Randy’s going to love this.  “So.  You’re here with her cousin.”

And I realize that if they dated, he probably has some knowledge of her family.  She could be a total orphan.  “He’s like her second cousin,” I say.  “Or once removed or something.  I can’t keep it straight.”  I’m a good liar when I need to be.

“Fucked up family, right?”  He lights his second cigarette.  I’m not even halfway through the first.  “You ever had to watch someone you dated get married, Gretchen?”

“Not yet,” I say.  “Nope.”

“It’s terrible.  It’s god-awful.  I mean, first of all, everyone’s watching you when she comes in.  And so you have to put this look on your face like you think it’s just fantastic.  And the truth is, you’re thinking, there’s my life passing me by.  There it goes.”  He puts his drink down on top of the wall.  “Not to bring you down.”

I have absolutely no idea what to say, what an adult would say to another adult right now.  I actually do feel sorry for him.  I smoke and close my eyes, try to look like I’m just too mellow to talk.

“Listen,” says George, “Gretchen.  Gretchen.  Let’s go take a walk out there.”

I have no idea what he means by ‘out there,’ but I do know what he means in general.  “I really can’t leave my date,” I say.

George is suddenly in my face, grinding his lips onto me.  I’ve kissed boys, but not boys with that much stubble on their faces, and it’s tearing up my lips.  But I think, hey, good anecdotal value, right?  After a second I make sure my face is the one angled back toward the building in case Randy looks out.

“Look, you don’t have a very good date, do you?” he says, pulling away for a second.  “To leave you alone like that.  Believe me, you don’t want to get involved in that family.  I bet anything your date’s in there boozing it up, finding someone else to go home with.  Am I right?”  He’s on my face again now, so I can’t really answer anyway.

His hand is climbing up my dress, and I’m thinking two things: first, how creepy that this is exactly where Mr. Cervetti used to bring our Latin class on sunny days last year, and second, that the more time I spend here with George the harder it’s going to be to get away.  Inside, I see people standing still and all facing the same direction, so I manage to un-suction my lips and say, “I think they’re cutting the cake now.  We should go in.”

“No, Gretchen, we shouldn’t,” he says.  Almost whines.  “I don’t think I can bear to watch this.  It’s too painful.”

But I’m already walking in the door.  He follows behind, but quite a bit behind because he knows now that we’re not going to happen.  They are cutting the cake.  The bride is standing there with the knife ready, its handle wrapped in a ribbon.  I think, later I’ll tell Randy she looks like a very posh serial killer.  The Ohio Wedding-Knife Stabber, with her ribbons and lace and trail of broken frat-boy hearts.  The groom thanks everyone for coming, and it sounds like he’s getting spit on the microphone.  I tune him out and decide the bride is the kind of person who wouldn’t be pretty if she hadn’t been born rich.  Her eyes are too close together, but she has a great tan and bleached hair and nicely fixed teeth, nice skin.  The groom looks boring, but handsomer and taller than George.  I can see why she made the switch.

Just as they cut into the cake, Randy’s breath is in my ear.  “Follow me now,” he whispers.  I do, because I see he’s got something hidden under his blazer and I don’t want him to stick around waiting for me.  We’re out of the garden and halfway across the soccer field when we both finally slow down and start laughing.

“Here,” says Randy, and hands me a half-empty bottle of wine.  He still has something else under there, too.

“I can’t carry this!” I say.  A pair of headlights is approaching on the access road, plus campus security drive their little golf carts around even in the summer.

“Right.”  He puts it back under his blazer and hands me the other thing he was hiding, which turns out to be a present in white paper with a big pink ribbon.

“You stole a present?”  We’re still walking, I guess towards the football field and track.

“Like they’re gonna miss it.  Like they need help setting up their impoverished love-nest, or whatever.  I left the card.”

“Why do you want it?  It’s probably a set of fish forks or an asparagus cooker.”

“Then I’ll use it to cook asparagus.  I’ll invite you for dinner, and we’ll romantically feed each other asparagus.”

“How sweet.”  I say it sarcastically, the only appropriate response to something I don’t really understand.  “Hey, you get your drink from Jesus the bartender?”

He smiles, but I’m surprised he doesn’t laugh.  “Right, right, yeah,” he says.  “That was funny.”  I have a joke ready about a Virgin Bloody Mary, but I let it drop.

We’ve gotten back to where we were walking Gretchen, to the track that circles the football field.  Randy climbs up on the blue high-jump landing pad between the track and the goalposts, and I take off my shoes and follow him.  We both lie on our backs and catch our breath.  We stay there a long time, lifting up our heads occasionally to drink from the bottle.  Out here, you can see the stars.  Not millions, but a few good constellations.  The DJ back at the party has turned up the volume now that people are dancing, and it’s not bad, really, lots of swing music.

I stretch out my arms and legs on the mat and pretend to make a snow angel.  “So.  That was a bridesmaid you were molesting?”

“Yeah, she was hot.  Groom’s little sister.  I told her my parents were friends of the bride’s parents, and she totally bought it.  She thought I was rich, too, because the bride’s family’s absolutely loaded.  Apparently the groom isn’t.  They met in Italy and she paid for the rest of his trip because he was so broke.  Nice way to meet a girl, right?”

I can’t believe my luck that for once I have more information than Randy.  “Actually,” I say, “that’s not true.  I was talking to this guy named George who was her ex, and the groom stole her from him in college.  George was totally heartbroken.”

“This is the guy who took you out smoking?”

“You saw us?”

“No, I can smell it on you.”

I kick him in the leg.  “That’s rude.”

He grabs a fistful of my hair, smells it, and pretends to cough.  “So wait a minute,” he says.  “This guy tells you the bride broke his poor heart, then takes you out and gives you a cigarette.  And then can I assume he tries to get in your pants?”

“What,” I say, “you think he was making it up?  He wasn’t.”  I think, Don’t people blurt out the truth when they’re drunk?

“Let me put it this way.  It’s not the oldest trick in the book, but it’s, like, right there in the book of old tricks.  I’ve done it a million times.  You pick out some girl across the room at a party, and you go, ‘See that girl?  She broke my heart.  She won’t even look at me.’  And next thing, you’ve got someone, like, grooming you, wiping away your fake tears.”  He reaches over and pretends to wipe tears from my eyes, until I push his hand away.  “Listen,” he says before I can think of something redeemingly witty, “tell me this: How did you and Mr. Nicotine start talking about breakups to begin with?”

“I just asked him how they met.  The bride and groom.”  My voice sounds feeble, so I take a drink to thicken it up.

“Right, so you let on that you don’t know, and then he tells you this story.  You were so scammed.”

And I believe him, because it does make a horrible kind of sense and because he knows more about these things.  I want to tell him that I didn’t care, though, that I only went out there with George to have something to tell Randy, or something for Randy to see, but that doesn’t sound any better.

“It’s not like I slept with him,” I say.  “I just took his cigarettes.  I scammed him, if you think about it.”

Randy’s quiet for a while, and then when he laughs and takes a breath I can tell he’s about to say something else, something I probably don’t want to hear right now, so I talk first.

“Let’s unwrap the present,” I say.  We sit up and make a big joke of scratching it open with our fingernails like wild animals.  I take the pink ribbon and tie it in my hair while he lifts the top off the cardboard box.  It’s a stack of four ugly yellow plates, each with a different vegetable painted in the middle.

“Look!” says Randy, holding up the bottom one.  “It’s asparagus!”

“I’m psychic!” I shout.  We both flop down laughing and every time we try to sit up we fall over laughing again until it hurts behind our ears.

He hands me the asparagus plate.  “Fifty points each, through the goalposts.”

I stand up, trying to get my balance on the landing pad, and chuck the plate like a Frisbee.  It goes between the posts and lands on the grass.  Randy stands up and throws the artichoke plate, and when they’re all through we jump down onto the field to Frisbee them back the other way.  We run back and forth maybe five times, until Randy sets one sailing straight into the goalpost and the plate shatters in every direction like a china firework.  Now we aim the other three for destruction, then hurl some of the larger broken shards, and after a few minutes nothing’s left of the present but the little white triangles covering the ground and the landing pad.

It’s midnight, but we aren’t tired.  Of course I’ve stayed up later with girlfriends, but it’s new and panicky and intoxicating to be out alone on the grass with Randy when the dew starts in.  He turns to me and says, “Hey, you’re pretty,” and we grin at each other and start laughing, which is a relief because I don’t know what else to do.  There’s a flatness to Randy’s eyes that might be drunkenness or might be indifference, but I choose not to see it.  Except I must, because years later I’ll be able to remember it, remember the exact look.  Maybe because I’ll have seen its counterpart.  Maybe because we all become experts.

When we finally walk home, his hand resting feather-light on my waist, we just leave the broken plates there.  I almost say we should go back for them, as souvenirs, but I’m scared that if I breathe I’ll make him move his hand.

For some reason, it’s three years before I think to worry that some homesick football-camp freshman sliced his scrawny leg open on those shards.  Those three years later, at college, the thought will jolt me awake one early morning, make me restless to find the bride, write a check for the lost present, rush home and scour the field for those microscopic china fragments that stick in your skin and under the edges of your fingernails and make you itch before you see the gathering dots of blood.  I will wonder what great-aunt never got a thank-you note and died feeling unappreciated.  I will even compose half a draft of an apology letter in my head, something about the follies of youth and not remembering what would make me do such a thing, about feeling now a million years away from that moment.

This summer, of course, we’re too busy being seventeen and drunk to think of the bride or that football-camp freshman—even to notice the small cuts forming on our own fingertips.  Only the next morning will my thumb start to swell at the corner of the nail.  For a short while longer, maybe another year, the world is made only of us, and the people we laugh at, and the people who laugh at us.  No room for anyone else in our small, starlit night.  I’m busy noticing his hand on my waist, hoping he’ll keep it there the rest of the walk at least.  I smile and feel warm and I think, This is what it will be like from now on.  This is how the rest of my life will be.


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