The Bride’s Sister

It was a small wedding. Probably could’ve fit every single participant and guest in the Whitt backyard, but the groom’s family wouldn’t have it. Joanie knew her sister, the bride, had to fight for the size. She told Joanie that the groom’s mama didn’t speak to them for a week after they told her no further back than second cousins, and definitely no one that Henri hadn’t met. She’d done an impression of her soon-to-be mother-in-law to make Joanie laugh, right before she asked Joanie to be one of three bridesmaids.

When Joanie refused, Henri said, “I told Daniel you’d say no. Anyway, you got a few weeks to think about it.”

Joanie didn’t need to think about it. She knew Henri only asked because Daniel leaned toward the traditional and thought immediate family should be part of the wedding party. Meanwhile, Joanie was still surprised Henri was getting married. More surprised it was to a man. Joanie had always been the one to do what was expected. Stayed at home with their daddy and took responsibility of the farm, never took a vacation or slept in a day. Damned if she hadn’t thought she was doing all that so Henri wouldn’t have to. So that she could have a life different from the one they knew.

Henri dated men and women throughout college, but Joanie thought if Henri ever got married, it would be to a woman. Maybe to the harsh, blonde woman, Q, who’d kept her hair buzzed on the sides and styled tight at the front. Henri had been with her longer than anyone. Until Daniel anyway.

It would have been just like Henri to settle down with a woman. More like her than this marriage. Than this wedding in a big church with a white dress and their whole family there—the same family who’d called her a sinner and a heathen and uninvited her to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Joanie could just hear Henri at the fantasy wedding to Q, “If I got to do something ordinary, at least I can make Daddy mad.” And it would have made him mad. It’d have made him furious if his oldest daughter, his smart as a whip sweetheart, committed her life to a woman. Joanie couldn’t make their daddy mad the way Henri could. He called Henri spiteful. Said she did it all (dating women, moving away, staying away, voting Democrat—all the things that Joanie couldn’t do) just to spite him. But Joanie knew better.

Joanie got to the wedding late, but just in time to rush into the bridal room before the procession. The bridesmaid, a dark-headed beauty with Daniel’s green eyes, opened the door just a crack—afraid Daniel was trying to sneak a peek at the bride—when Joanie knocked and asked to speak to Henri alone. Her intention was to apologize. To say those hard, untrue words, I’m happy if you’re happy; you’re making the right choice. The bridesmaid took Joanie to the bathroom where Henri sat alone doing her makeup. With the bathroom door locked—and Joanie was sure more than one bridesmaid leaning against the door to eavesdrop—the first thing Joanie said was, “Everything’s beautiful, Henri. You’re beautiful.”

Henri, tall, thin frame leaning over the sink, neck craned toward the mirror, one stockinged foot hiked up on the toilet, sighed. “Horseshit,” she said and flicked the mascara wand over her left lashes. She kept her eyes framed on her own face in the mirror and lowered her voice to a whisper. “What are you doing back here, Joanie?”

“Jeez, I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

Henri’s eyes darted to her sister, but continued applying her mascara. “Honestly, I didn’t even think you were going to come. I had Amanda checking the church every five minutes, looking for you.”

“Amanda? Isn’t she the one with the bottle cap glasses? Would she have even been able to see me?”

“Joanie.”

“I’m sorry. Let me try again.” Joanie took a step toward Henri and placed her hand on Henri’s back, on the soft silk of the white wedding dress falling in gentle pleats from her waist. “I was late. I’m sorry I was late. I changed dresses too many times. And you know how it is trying to get Lee in pants.” Joanie’s three-year-old son was in his streaking period.

“You know how that wouldn’t have been a problem?”

Joanie’s mouth twisted. “If I had to wear the bridesmaid dress?”

Henri closed her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m very stressed.” When she opened her eyes, the mascara had smudged beneath her soft brown irises. “Shit.”

“Here.” Joanie snatched a Kleenex from behind the toilet. With one hand, she nudged Henri’s face closer and dabbed away the smudge. “Listen. Do you think you wouldn’t be as stressed if,” she lowered her voice, “it were…someone else at the end of the aisle?”

“Oh my god. Joanie.” Henri yanked her chin out of Joanie’s hand. “I don’t think you should be back here.”

“Henri.”

“No. Just because you have some fucked up idea about what kind of person I should be with, Joanie, doesn’t mean that I’m making a mistake. That’s your problem, all right? If it helps you sit through it, pretend Daniel isn’t a goddamn man.”

“Henri.”

“Please go.”

Henri’s eyes were focused again on the mirror, on the application of expensive makeup she’d accrued over the past several years. Tubes of lipstick she’d tested on her wrist, lip liner she’d sharpened to a point and softened with the flame of a Bic. She’d loved makeup as long as Joanie could remember. Had insisted on keeping all their mama’s old Estée Lauder and Merle Norman powders, even though not a one of the fair shades matched Henri’s olive skin. Joanie left her, determined now to enjoy the wedding.

#

Henri didn’t cry during the wedding, thank God, but she smiled so hard during her vows that her cheeks turned red. Joanie couldn’t decide if this was the prettiest Henri had ever looked up there at the altar all in clean white, though she had a hard time denying that it was certainly the happiest. Henri smiled today like she was ten years old and making some dirty joke at the supper table, right in front of Daddy and God and everybody. Henri touched her cheeks a few times, rubbed them with her fingertips. She stopped bringing her hand to her face once Daniel slid that ring on, though, like the hand hadn’t been properly trained for the weight of it. Joanie remembered that hand lifting a BB gun in their old, uneven backyard and Henri shooting her in the shoulder. She thought Joanie’d get a kick out of what a good shot she was. How was I supposed to know your skin was so soft? Henri’d hollered when Joanie burst into tears.

Joanie was meaner than she should have been about Daniel. At first she didn’t even want to meet him. As the wedding drew nearer, she hoped Henri’d back out. Appear at Joanie’s doorstep with that worn-out duffel bag she’d had since college, wearing a pair of tennis shoes, and say she just couldn’t go through with it, she’d sleep in the baby’s room, on the couch, or on the floor, anywhere just so long as she didn’t have to marry that man. Joanie wondered if Henri felt their daddy’s world, the farm, those heavy Appalachian Mountains closing in on her. If she felt like she was giving up or into something she promised she’d fight. That Joanie had promised to fight with her, for her. Seemed like years of their daddy’s silence, his withheld invitations to girlfriends and lovers, had left their mark on Henri.

Joanie wouldn’t have it as easy as all that. Started dropping hints over the telephone. Calls that were long-distance now, what with Henri living two hours north and one hour west in Newport, Kentucky. Closer to Daniel’s family.

“Getting cold feet yet?”

“Joanie.”

“What? That’s a thing.”

“You’ve been watching too many movies.”

“No time for movies. Between Lee and the farm, my hands are full.”

Lee had learned the word hate along with shit, damn, and bastard. The result of raising a baby around men, farmers and mechanics, unaccustomed to a woman and her baby always around. Joanie was up to her ears in toddler tears and tantrums, up to her elbows in men who didn’t trust her even though it’d been Joanie who’d saved the farm. Joanie who’d taken a look at her daddy’s filing cabinet, bursting with unorganized receipts, past-due loan payments, and contracts he didn’t remember signing, and gotten straight to work. Set up weeks of meetings with banks and loan counselors. Wrestled her way into booths at four farmers markets across the state.

Joanie pushed on. “Anyway, just wanted to check on you. I know how stressful this all must be.”

Henri wouldn’t be bullied out of the wedding, no matter how Joanie felt about it. She took Joanie’s comments in stride, tucked them away behind wedding plans and diamond rings.

“Daniel says there’s no such thing as a small Claymont ceremony,” Henri told Joanie during her last visit. Lee was taking his midday nap and the sisters were sharing a rare moment alone. Henri handed Joanie a bottle of red fingernail polish and propped her feet in Joanie’s lap. “He says that his Mama thinks it’s a sin not to invite every soul in the county to a wedding. She’s all the time trying to buy me things and give me advice. Thinks just because we haven’t got a mama, we’re half-dumb and stupid. And she thinks you and me are in some sort of blood feud and that’s why you won’t be in the wedding.”

Henri once told Joanie she only remembered their mama in glimpses. A shot of dark hair on a shoulder, a web of gentle fingers, the smell of dirt and grass. She’d taken care of the home garden before she died. When Joanie asked about their mama, those were the things that Henri said first. Then:

“That could all be a lie. Something I made up from a picture of her. I don’t know.”

Henri was four when she died and Joanie wasn’t yet off the breast. Their daddy claimed that was why Joanie had always been so puny, so short and thin, while Henri grew to an astonishing height for the Whitt family, five foot and seven inches. Her death had been sudden and unexpected. Hit by a semi, driving on the interstate. Their daddy never talked about it, but he kept her pictures up around the house and never remarried.

“We are in a blood feud,” Joanie conceded and began to paint Henri’s toenails. She realized this would be the color of Henri’s toes beneath that big white gown.

“You should hear her questions about you and Lee’s daddy.”

“Oh stop.”

“Daniel’s mom sure as hell couldn’t believe it. You’re so reasonable, Joanie, can’t get anybody to believe you don’t know who the father is.”

Joanie ignored Henri and focused on painting Henri’s pinky toe—the only fat thing on Henri’s body. Henri was trying to get a rise out of her, trying to get back at Joanie for not being in the wedding. Well, that was an old hat and wouldn’t work on Joanie this time.

“Will you let Lee be the ring bearer?”

Joanie nodded. “Yeah. Wouldn’t want to break his heart.”

“What about my heart?”

“You ain’t got one.”

Joanie liked Daniel secretly. He smiled every time he looked at Henri and always wanted to help with the supper dishes. Didn’t mind playing with Lee in the other room, Lee rolling Legos or Hot Wheels on Daniel’s knees. Now Joanie watched him at the altar, her sister’s hands in his, that same smile showing all his teeth. A wedding with that many guests and it still seemed like he only had eyes for Henri.

Lee looked at his empty pillow with what Joanie worried was sadness. She hoped he didn’t think that the rings were his to keep; he’d be in a rotten mood the rest of the night. He yawned, the strength of it scrunching his nose and squinting his eyes until his mouth took over his whole sweet face. Maybe he was just tired. She’d get him a treat after the wedding, sneak back into the kitchen where the caterer hid all the food. Then the couple next to her stood and Henri was coming fast down the aisle, Daniel’s hand in hers. Henri winked at Joanie as shoved her bridal bouquet of wild flowers at Joanie’s chest and leaned forward.

“You’re on the wrong damned side,” Henri whispered as she walked past and Joanie understood why the couple next to her looked so strange.

#

After the bridal party was introduced, several slobbery and drunken toasts given, the obligatory dances done, Henri demanded that Joanie and Lee pull chairs up to the long bridal table. Henri stood with her train gathered up in one hand and dragged two chairs over to the bridal table. Daniel helped her, kissed Henri so hard on the cheek that her skin caved under his lips. Just like Henri to get a little drunk and forget about propriety, even at her own wedding.

Henri picked Lee up and plopped him down in the chair across from Daniel. “Don’t you want to sit at the big table, Lee?”

Lee nodded, eyes bright with excitement, and dug his fingers into his aunt’s cake.

“You can have as much cake as you want, buddy. This is a party.” Henri smiled.

Joanie sat next to Lee and pried his fingers from the cake, wrapping them instead around a spoon that Lee held in a tight fist. Daniel offered her his drink. The ice clinked in his unsteady and, Joanie was sure, drunk hand. But his blue eyes wrinkled with his smile and Joanie pulled her lips tight in return.

“Swear I haven’t even had a sip yet,” he promised.

“What is it?”

Joanie drank before Daniel answered. It was better than the wine. Bourbon on the rocks. Tasted expensive, not too sweet and a little oaky. A deep smoke at the back of her throat. Lee was wearing her out. He’d thrown his shoes across the table during dinner, dumped his soup into his lap, and refused to eat anything except the soft mints on the table and the wedding cake. She hadn’t thought to bring him a snack, even though he was going through a picky eating stage.

Behind Joanie, their daddy launched himself from the table, his chair plowing to the floor in a crash. Joanie swung her body around and watched as he rocked toward the bridal party, legs swimming under him. He’d been drinking liquor faster than water, no matter how many times Joanie refilled his water glass. Clyde clasped onto his oldest daughter’s shoulder, grinning and squeezing Henri, fingers pressing white spots in her skin. His cheeks were ruddy with drink and his eyes had begun to water. He kissed Henri’s cheek, shook Daniel’s hand. Joanie watched Daniel’s hand disappear inside her father’s. Thought his hands were more suited to pianos, to turning book pages, to typing on keyboards.

“Couldn’t be prouder of you, honey. Couldn’t be gladder to have you in the family, Daniel. Done good, honey. You done good. You really straightened her out, Daniel.”

Clyde tottered off after kissing Henri roughly on the cheek twice more, back over to the table where his only brother, Jim, sat with the wife he’d divorced twice, but never kicked out of their trailer.

Henri seemed undisturbed and she extended her left arm to her nephew. “Lee, what do you think about dancing?”

Lee clapped his hands and hopped from the chair, shouting his aunt’s name and toddling toward the dance floor.

Henri walked around the table and took Lee’s chubby hand and pushed his blond curls off his forehead. “Come on, Joanie. Let’s go cut a rug.”

“Henri,” Joanie said. “Wait.”

“What?”

“He doesn’t even have his shoes on.”

“Who needs shoes?” Henri called over her shoulder and swept Lee into her arms. “You want to be tall, Lee?”

“I’m tall, you bastard,” he shouted as he knocked his blond head back, curls bouncing, and stretched his short, fat fingers to the ceiling.

Daniel laughed. “He get that mouth from you?”

“Jesus.” Joanie pressed both hands against her burning cheeks.

“Joanie couldn’t cuss that good if she were possessed. You learned that from Pop-pop, huh?” Henri tickled Lee under his left armpit.

“Don’t look so scared, Joanie. He’s just a kid.” Daniel clapped his hand on her shoulder. “Dance with me.”

“What?” she asked, forcing her eyes away from her giggling son to her new brother-in-law.

“Let’s dance. Come on. If the groom and sister-in-law dance isn’t a tradition yet, it should be.” He offered his right hand.

Joanie followed Daniel and noticed for the first time how tall he was. Well over six feet, a good foot taller than her. She missed her five-foot-nine husband as she strained her right hand toward Daniel’s shoulder. Daniel bent down to accommodate her and she wanted to yell at him to straighten his spine, but he looked so goofy, grinning over Joanie’s shoulder at his new wife.

“Congratulations,” she said instead.

“You mean that?” he asked and turned her in a circle.

“What do you mean?”

“I just heard through the grapevine that you had some reservations about the wedding.”

She chuckled. “That grapevine starts and ends right at my sister’s mouth.”

“You wouldn’t be in the wedding. Don’t you think that was clue enough?”

Joanie tilted her head back to look Daniel in the eye. “I guess it was.”

Daniel smiled, but gentler than he had all night, and Joanie wondered if he felt sorry for her. “We don’t have to like each other, but it’d be nice if we did.”

He was a good dancer when he shut up long enough. Good enough to keep her on the floor when Henri and Lee begged them both to stay. It was five songs in before Joanie’s feet started to hurt, but she was finally laughing. The sixth song was Patsy Cline. Henri took Joanie and Lee’s hands and rocked them into the song. Joanie clutched Henri’s fingers and Henri’s ring dug into her skin.

#

At a far table, a swoop of brown hair striped gray, a strong jaw, a long body rocked backward in a chair and smashed to the ground. Clyde was drunk. Joanie watched as her Uncle Jim roared with laughter before swinging Clyde back up to his feet. Dusted off his back and helped him back into his seat.

Henri didn’t bat an eye at the drunk daddy or the broken chair. She swayed with Daniel in the middle of the floor, her head down on his shoulder. Joanie looked down at Lee, still wide awake, still squatting up and down and clapping his hands to the music. Henri tumbled away from her new husband and to her sister, put her hands around Joanie’s waist.

“You find me some food, Joanie? I didn’t get to eat with everybody else.”

Joanie held onto Henri’s neck and scoured the room for something besides cake. “Might have to leave to get that. What do you want?”

“Some chicken’d be good.”

“Feel like eating something kindred?”

Henri smiled and took Joanie’s hand in a swaying slow dance. “Leave Lee with me, okay?”

Joanie nodded and kissed her son. At the table, her purse was covered by empty cake plates and turned over glasses. She tugged it from under the pile of trash and onto her shoulder. In her head, she mapped the closest chicken place, then the furthest. She settled on KFC, the one in the middle, and turned to the door.

Joanie hadn’t meant to turn Henri into something like a mama. Hadn’t meant to turn herself into something like that for Henri either. But growing up, it’d been easier to tiptoe into Henri’s bedroom in the far corner of the house when Joanie couldn’t sleep than to even think of waking their daddy. Joanie had slept in Henri’s bedroom twice a week far longer than she should have, straight into her teens. It helped that Joanie stayed so small, but at a certain point, Joanie couldn’t remember when, they started sleeping head to toe, the room pitch black and Henri’s window always cracked, a chill breeze helping Joanie sleep. Henri slept with the radio on, the volume knob set all the way down to one. Joanie hadn’t seen the point. If Henri wanted to hear music, why not put it loud enough to actually hear? But Henri told Joanie that the music seemed quiet at first, but after a while, it was as loud as a gunshot.

She was right, of course. Joanie fell asleep and woke inevitably at four in the morning, when their daddy left for the barn, the radio so loud Joanie wondered how he didn’t come crashing in the room, telling them to turn that racket off that minute. Joanie knew now that that was the way of most things—the quiet, almost noiseless hums always became the loudest, most unavoidable ones.

Henri had met Daniel her second year in college when Daniel was a freshman, but they’d been friends a good three years before Henri ever brought Daniel to the farm. It was the end of summertime; Henri was out of school by then. Joanie remembered because the tomatoes were just a few weeks into season and Henri had her first real job with the Department of Family Services. When Henri brought Daniel home that summer, there were bowls of tomatoes all over the kitchen, in the double basin sink, on the counter, in the fridge, on the table. Some days Joanie ran out of bowls and the tomatoes were lined up in rows on the windowsills. Red tomatoes, green tomatoes, baby tomatoes. Joanie liked to fry them up for breakfast with some runny-yolk eggs, or else stick them in with some garden greens. That summer the Whitts were living in tomatoes.

Joanie was always the first one up. In the mornings, before Henri got out of bed, Daniel would snag a tomato from a bowl and bite into it, tomato innards and seeds dripping from his mouth. Joanie sat at the kitchen table those mornings with a cup of coffee and watched Daniel eat his morning tomato. He never touched the green ones.

The first thing he ever said to her was, “Damn, you got a girly name.”

It had reminded Joanie of Henri and she’d understood why they were friends. He made Joanie laugh the way Henri did. Joanie could tell him that the undercut he had with his floppy hair was stupid and made his head look lopsided and he’d tell her he’d asked for something “small and ugly.”

He started asking Joanie questions about the farm, how Joanie got the tomatoes so juicy, why she was always up so early. It wasn’t long before Joanie’d showed him how to make sundried tomatoes and creamy tomato soup. She liked him then. She liked him when she thought that he was Henri’s friend.

On his seventeenth day at the farm, Henri kissed him. She said it was because the sun shone on his face and she noticed a freckle on the edge of his top lip, so faint and small she’d have never seen it except in that exact light. It was because he was smart and pretty and she’d wanted to kiss him since the first time she saw him eat a tomato like an apple and watched the seeds slide down his chin. First, Joanie pretended to gag.

Then she said, “I didn’t even think you liked men.”

And Henri had laughed at her. “I like men. Sometimes.”

She’d liked him until she realized that Henri loving Daniel meant Henri staying away, somehow even more than when she’d dated women.

Joanie felt fingers on her arm before she saw her. “I’m going to come with you,” Henri said. Then she bent down to Lee’s level. “Want to go for a ride, buddy?”

Henri’s shoes were in her left hand, her right hand enclosed by Daniel’s long fingers. Lee clasped his aunt’s dress, enchanted by the fabric and his aunt’s happiness. Henri handed Daniel her shoes, brushed her dress up from the floor, and followed Joanie toward the door.

There were almost as many people in the parking lot as there’d been inside. Drunk and smoking cigarettes. Women laughing with heels in hands, men with their arms around the women’s waists. Joanie’s car was at the edge of the lot. She pressed the unlock button too early and had to press it three more times before the headlights flashed in agreement. Joanie leaned in the back and fixed Lee into his booster seat.

They were a few miles away from the reception venue when Lee fell asleep and Henri said, “I probably shouldn’t have left.”

Joanie shrugged. “People will think you’re sick with excitement and drink.”

“Doesn’t mean they won’t be mad about it.”

“Daniel’s family?”

Joanie assumed that Henri nodded because the next thing she said was, “You see Daddy fall out of his chair?”

“Broke the damn thing.” She urged the car forward with a heavy foot.

She glanced in her rearview mirror at Lee’s sleeping face. He needed his sleep and Joanie was careful not to wake him. Steady at the stoplights, slow at the long drags of road. He’d been tired all day. Before the wedding even started. Hated wearing the suit, hated the shoes tight on his toes and heels and he sure didn’t want to carry a pillow around like a damn baby.

When Joanie told him that it would make his Aunt Henri very happy if he did it, he’d cried, “I don’t give a damn!” and launched himself to the floor.

The only certain thing about Daniel and Henri’s relationship had been the beginning. The kiss had been the start, but Joanie didn’t have the gall to ask Henri anymore about it. It was well after the summer, well into the days of late fall, when Daniel was back in school and Joanie was alone on the farm again, before she heard anything else. She was breathtakingly lonely then. Sometimes she’d crawl into Henri’s bed and ruffle the comforter just to get her scent. It wasn’t long, but Joanie didn’t know the number of days for sure, before she went to the first man’s bed. Joanie wasn’t sleeping through the night, couldn’t turn the TV on for fear of waking Clyde, and had never been much of a reader. The men were one-night-onlys, residents on farms one or two counties over, who always expected Joanie to stay the entire night. She’d put her clothes right back on after, run her hands through her tangled brown hair, and as soon as they asked where you going, baby? she let those men know if they needed a woman to make them breakfast in the morning, they had best keep looking. She had a farm to get to.

It had been a distraction. Not a great one, but an easy one. That Lee came out of it was the real win for Joanie. It’d been an inconvenience and she’d dreaded telling their daddy, but by then she’d learned to fashion her face into stone, learned to shut a man up. Even Clyde Whitt.

Joanie pressed her lips together. She could see the sign for Kentucky Fried Chicken. She flicked on her blinker. Henri didn’t speak when she went through the drive-thru, not even when Joanie asked what it was she wanted. She just raised her hand and stared out the window. Used the same hand to accept the plastic bag of fried chicken and pry a piece from the cardboard box. Tore into it with her teeth.

Finally she asked, “Well Joanie, you drag me away from my own wedding just for fried chicken or what?”

“Once, when you left, for good you know, when you moved in with Daniel and I knew you were never coming back home, I went to the grocery store and cried at the checkout because I bought a pint of ice cream I had to eat alone.” She flicked her eyes to the rearview mirror. Lee was still asleep.

“Took you that long to realize I wasn’t coming back home?”

“Guess I always knew it, just never admitted it until then.” Joanie paused. “Maybe I thought you’d come home to be closer to Lee. Be closer to me.”

“You don’t have to stay on the farm.” Joanie heard the clunk of chicken falling back into the box.

Joanie couldn’t bring herself to say that she didn’t have many other options. No college degree, her money tied up in farm equipment, a toddler to care for and think about. It hurt her too much to know that their worlds were that split now, that Henri didn’t see.

“I do. Lee loves the farm.”

“Lee’s three. He loves you and Daddy and, when he remembers, me.”

The venue was in sight now and Joanie slowed down to make the turn. The blinker beat twice in the car.

“This isn’t about Daniel being a man.” Henri struck her head against the headrest and stared out the window. “All those years I brought girlfriends in and out of the farm, just begging your approval.”

“I never cared who you were with.”

“Oh please,” Henri said. “You cut Libby’s hair.”

“It was an accident.”

“You were eighteen.”

“I never wanted you to leave.” Joanie eased into a parking spot and shifted the car into park.

“You just wanted me to do everything the way you wanted.”

“That’s not true.” Joanie surprised herself when her voice came out loud and clutched her hand to her throat.

“Ah hell.” Henri threw open the car door and stepped onto the pavement.

Joanie got out, quietly shutting the driver’s side door. Lee was asleep in the back. “The closer the wedding got, the less you spoke to me.”

“Joanie, I was planning a wedding. To the man that I love and who treats me good and who makes me happy. And you wanted to pretend I was having some identity crisis. That I needed saving.”

“I don’t think you need saving. Jesus, Henri. You’ve always made it plenty clear you were perfectly able to look after yourself.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You left me. You left me on the farm with Daddy. You went to school and left me behind and didn’t care what happened to me.”

“That’s not fair, Joanie. What did you want me to do? Come back home and drag you away by the hair on your head? You never wanted to leave. You were too afraid to leave.”

“No. That’s not true. I just wanted you to care that I was alone. And I told myself the reason it seemed like you didn’t was because of how everyone treated you. How you could never be yourself at home. You could never lead the life you wanted with Daddy and his redneck family. And now you go off and marry some rich man and have the wedding his big, old Catholic family always dreamed about. It was never about leading the life you had to. You’re just selfish.”

“Mama.” Lee tugged on Joanie’s hand. He’d gotten himself out of his car seat again. Another new trial of the toddler years.

She wiped fast at the tears on her face, felt the rawness in her throat, and forced her eyes away from Henri’s face, her eyes stricken and lips drawn apart. Joanie looked down at her son.

She crouched from her knees. “What is it, baby?”

“My belly hurts.” Lee pressed his hand against his stomach.

Joanie leaned toward him and rubbed her thumb against his cheek. “I’m sorry, honey.”

Lee’s bottom lip protruded. He was going to start crying and Joanie wasn’t prepared. Her heart raced. She looked up and Henri’s figure, exaggerated by the bell of her skirt, retreating toward the building.

She took his hand. “Let’s go get a Coke, okay?”

Back inside there was no line at the bar. Everyone who was going to get drunk had done it and, more likely than not, they were out on the dance floor or else outside smoking. Joanie ordered a beer for herself and a Coke for Lee and handed it down to him. Henri was at the edge of the dance floor with Daniel, the train of her gown gathered over one arm, bare feet exposed, her eyes brimming. Joanie handed Lee his Coke without looking at him.

“Aunt Henri!” Lee threw his hands up and ran like he hadn’t just seen his aunt, forgetting his Coke, and sloshed the full can down the side of Henri’s silk dress.

“Lee!” Joanie scolded him, but was grateful to have a mess to look at, to avoid Henri’s eyes.

She stared at Henri’s white dress, at Daniel’s suit, his pants sliding against Henri’s silk. Henri was barefoot and there were rivulets of Coke running alongside the blue veins of her feet.

Henri laughed, the sound strained and wet. She pressed her hand to Lee’s cheek. She wouldn’t look at Joanie. “When am I ever gonna wear this again, anyway?”

Kayla Thomas is a writer, baker, and alphabetizer. She is a recent graduate from the Indiana University MFA program and her work has appeared in journals such as Day One, Juked, and Wigleaf, among other journals, and has been supported by a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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