The Wedding Guest

Jack’s here.’ Laura’s Spidey senses tingled as her body came to full alert. It had been three years since she’d had the knowing. ‘I smell his cologne.’

Jack always wore Clubman Special Reserve, a cheap barbershop aftershave with a leathery pine smell, a scent often associated with older men, but which, on Jack’s skin, had had an aphrodisiac effect upon her.

‘Don’t turn around,’ she cautioned herself. ‘Look at Jeffrey.’

Currents of adrenaline ran through Laura’s body, bringing irritability.

‘God, the freaking Celebrant is yabbering about marriage like he’s in a Princess Bride movie. Get it over with, man.’

Sensing Laura’s restlessness, Jeffrey leaned into her, his shoulder warm, his presence soothing.  

The taste of ripe peaches filled Laura’s mouth, forbidden fruit stolen from an orchard, then devoured on a grassy hilltop amidst purple lupine, orange poppies, and the sound of buzzing bees. Sweet nectar dripping down her hand, and Jack licking each finger clean, his tongue warm and sensuous. A year of love, beach walks and sand dunes, glasses of ruby red Syrah drunk on weathered decks overlooking the ocean, followed by fervent sex, and morning awakenings clinging to one another like shipwrecked sailors. Nights sneaked away to seedy dance clubs, the erotic thrill of leaving her panties inside one of his teaching manuals just before his lecture and the way he stuttered upon finding them, followed by the abrupt dismissal of class and illicit sex in the locked lecture auditorium.

Laura’s memory summonsed the velvet feeling of being the selected centre of someone’s attention, the chosen lover. She knew the unexplained wonder of knowing Jack had entered a room without having to look.

     ‘Jesus, you’re at your own wedding,’ she again rebuked herself. ‘Get it together.’

‘Do you promise to love and to cherish,’ enquired the Celebrant.               

    ‘I do,’ Laura said. ‘I promise to cherish.’

As Jeffrey was speaking in the background, her mind travelled to a windswept beach and green-blue waves pounding the sand. She and Jack were tucked into the crevice of a nature’s made cave. Beach pebbles sparkled like diamonds. She recalled Jack’s naked diver’s body, long, lean, broad shouldered, narrow hipped, over her own petite frame, his burnished legs entangling hers, the scrape of sand beneath her hips, and later, the warmth of a blanket wrapped around themselves.

‘Yes, these are memories worth cherishing,’ Laura thought.

     Jeffrey squeezed her hand, jolting her into the moment.

Laura’s bridesmaid placed a ring in her palm.  

‘With this ring, I thee wed.’ Laura said, slipping a heavy gold band onto Jeffrey’s left ring finger. She looked into his blue eyes, hoping he couldn’t tell she was lost. All she saw was love. Taking a diamond band from his best man then repeating the same words Laura had just spoken, Jeffrey slipped the token of his commitment onto her finger. As he did, Laura looked at his elegant, clever hands, his tapered fingers.

Jeffrey was smart, loving, and kind. He made her laugh. He was the kind of man who planned, who did the right thing, whatever it required. Jeffrey was a consistent, calm, dependable gentleman who would never be found dancing naked to pagan drumbeats before a blazing fire on the edge of a cliff in Big Sur; he would never be someone who would declare Laura the best fuck in four counties.

    Once the rings were placed, the Celebrant announced, ‘I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss one another.’

     Laura had insisted the Celebrant exchange “you may kiss your bride for you may kiss one another,” asking, ‘Why should it be him kissing her? Why can’t she kiss him?’

Cupping Laura’s face in his hands, Jeffrey gave her a long, gentle kiss, then they turned toward audience applause. As the wedding attendees cheered and clapped, Laura sought only one face. She found him leaning against an oak column at the back of the church. He gave her a sardonic smile. Laura couldn’t tell if Jack was mocking her because she was marrying in a church, a place he’d sworn never to enter, and where she had never wanted to wed; or if he was reflecting the satirical moment of his unexpected appearance at her nuptials. His eyes were ablaze as fire burned between the two of them, and then, one eyebrow raised, Jack saluted her with two fingers.

     Laura and Jeffrey stepped down from the altar, and as they did, Jeffrey’s mother stepped out of her seat to hug them. ‘I’ve looked forward to this day,’ she kissed her new daughter-in-law on the cheek. While she did, Laura looked over the heads of the well-wishers, but there were too many people, and her view to the back of the church was obscured.  

Jeffrey reached out to straighten Laura’s hair ornament. ‘You seem distracted.’

He had noticed.

   ‘It’s a big day,’ Laura reassured him, kissing his cheek. ‘It’s all a little overwhelming.’

Jeffrey was the one who wanted a big wedding, pleading, ‘I have never been married to you before, Laura, and I want to celebrate it. I know you hate having the spotlight on you, but it’s only for one day,’ he’d beseeched. Laura finally conceded to his request, knowing it was important to Jeffrey.  A wedding planner was engaged.  Jeffrey and his mother had done most of the work, and Laura had convinced them to substitute a lavish sit down reception for a less formal one, champagne and wine with varied finger foods and cheeses at the Botanical Gardens.

    As they neared the back of the sanctuary, through the open doorway, Laura spotted Jack leaving.

She wondered if he show up at the reception. He hadn’t been invited to the wedding, something he hadn’t minded breaching; plus, he’d always been more of a beer man. He’d never been loyal to a particular brand. He was the same with women. He liked new varieties, and his tastes were exotic. To Laura’s surprise, Jack had kept her as his flavour for a year. She’d never held expectations of changing him, or of relationship longevity, but that hadn’t stopped her from loving him in a way that frightened her.

The connection continued after Laura had moved three hundred miles away, taking a job as a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She needed to be near the water. Jack would show up in unexpected places, and like magnets to metal they’d find one another.

The feelings that flooded her at his appearance today informed her nothing had changed.

Laura had never been unfaithful to Jeffrey since they had become a couple. She loved Jeffrey, but it was only after they became serious that she told Jack she couldn’t see him anymore. The conversation took place at a Monterey Bay restaurant.

‘I can’t see you any longer. It isn’t fair to Jeffrey.’

Taken aback, Jack declared belligerently, ‘Well, I too, have found someone I think will do it for me.’

‘Jack, I will always be in love with you,’ Laura said, ‘but you know you aren’t able to commit to a monogamous relationship. I can see the future, and what I see is that your propensity for cheating, will, over time destroy you, and it will destroy me. Do you even know what you’re looking for? Love? Lust? Contentment? If you didn’t find that with me, I’m not certain you’ll find it with anyone.’

‘I don’t know what I need.’ Jack admitted. ‘I love you. I love you in ways I’ve never loved another woman, and even though you’ve never asked, I can’t commit to a permanent relationship. You deserve more.’

Today, she had been given the promise of more, a faithful, committed relationship.

     When they arrived at the Botanical Gardens, Laura told Jeffrey, ‘I’m just going to change clothes. I’ll be right down.’ Entering the old homestead which was now used as a venue for weddings and bridal parties, she went upstairs, changing into a casual cocktail dress. She would have preferred jeans and a shirt, but this was her wedding day. Closing the door behind her, she went downstairs to join the festivities. As she reached the bottom of the sweeping staircase, a man in his early twenties approached her. There was a familiarity about him she couldn’t place. She wondered if he might be one of Jeffrey’s cousins.

‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he said. ‘My name is Ben. I wonder if I might talk with you privately. I won’t take long.’

Looking through the French doors, Laura saw Jeffrey laughing with a group of friends.

‘Sure, shall we go in here?’ She indicated a side room. ‘Let’s sit. I’m a bit tired. Weddings take it out of you,’ Laura admitted, pulling two chairs close to one another.

Sitting, Ben stuttered. ‘I..I..’ he was clearly uncomfortable. Taking a deep breath he said, ‘I wasn’t invited to the wedding. I’m here because I was asked to bring you something.’

 He reached into his suit jacket. Pulling out a small gift box, he offered it to Laura.

 ‘What is it?’ she took the box.

‘I don’t know. I was asked to give it to you. I haven’t looked.’

‘Oh, a mystery,’ Laura teased. ‘I do love a good mystery.’

Lifting the lid from the box, Laura gasped as the sitting room disappeared.

Inside was a pendant, a seahorse intrically carved from jade found on the Pacific Coast, near Big Sur, from a place called Jade Cove.

Laura knew this because she had found the jade one morning when she and Jack were there.

Jade findings had become uncommon, the stones picked over by locals and tourists, and some said there was none left, but Laura had tripped on a pile of seaweed, and while untangling her feet, she saw the gemstone partially hidden under a bulbous part of the plant. It was big, unusual because of its size, and a beautiful piece striated with inclusions.

‘Wow!’ Jack exclaimed when she showed it to him. ‘The sea god Odin is smiling on you today.’

Laura took the rock to a jade carver in Carmel, and out of it, she’d had two seahorse pendants made. A larger seahorse for Jack, a smaller one for herself. A reminder of her love for him and the times they’d had together. Exquisite, original pieces.

‘Where did you get this?’ she looked up at Ben.

His brow furrowed. ‘My father had it, and he told me I was to give it to you on your wedding day.’

‘Your father?’ Laura stared at him. Things became clear. The familiarity, his dark eyes, his languid walk, the shape of his mouth.

‘You’re Jack’s son.’

‘Yes. Ben’s eyes held hers. ‘My father somehow knew you were getting married today, and made me promise I’d bring this to you in person.’

‘I saw him in the sanctuary. Why didn’t he just bring it to me himself?’

Ben startled, confused. ‘He…he…he can’t be here. He died yesterday.

‘But…but…’Laura’s head was spinning. ‘I saw him. In the sanctuary.’

Ben looked at her, his eyes sad and troubled.

‘I don’t see how that’s possible. Giving this to you was his last request. He said you’d understand, that you always knew. He put a note in the bottom of the box. I haven’t read it.’

Laura lifted the contents of the box, finding a folded piece of paper.  

Opening it, she recognized Jack’s handwriting.

“Because of their unique eyesight, seahorses symbolize intuition and the ability to see the past, present, and future at the same time. Seahorse-like creatures appear in the folklore of many cultures of people who make their home near the water. I hope you will continue to see and to know me. You were the best part of my life. Xo Jack”

‘He never took that pendant off. He was wearing it when he died.’

Laura reached for Ben’s hand. ‘How did he die?’

‘Pneumonia. Aids related pneumonia.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Laura meant it. ‘It must have been difficult for you to bring this,’ she said, pulling the pendant over her head. She got a whiff of Jack’s scent.

‘It’s what he wanted.’

There was tapping on the sitting room door. Laura looked up to see Jeffrey motioning for her to join him.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, standing. ‘I have to join our guests. I hope you’ll stay and enjoy the reception. Reaching out, she hugged him. His shoulders were broad like his father’s. She walked through the reception area and into the garden where music was playing.

‘Dance with me,’ Jeffrey requested.  

‘I will always love you,’ Whitney Houston played over the loudspeakers.

‘It’s true,’ Laura laid her head on Jeffrey’s shoulder. She touched the pendant. ‘Always have, always will.’

Culled from by Sheila Hight

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