Playing Chicken

I had done it again. In drunken desperation, I had stretched out under the table and caressed Benji's inner calf with my left foot. He had never responded before, but I thought he liked the attention. This time, he looked at me, then looked at our friend Eric. He announced to us, "So I was at my girlfriend's house, and her son asked me, 'Are you my Daddy?' and I said, 'No.' And then he asked, 'Are you going to be my Daddy?' and I said, 'I don't know.'"

I straightened up and withdrew my foot. Eric, perplexed by this rather unusual piece of information, said, "Um, that must've been strange. Wonder what it means."

"It means that Benji is an asshole," I snarled, pulling out a cigarette, lighting it, placidly walking outside, and bursting into tears on the cement step of the adjacent apartment building. Benji never told me he had a girlfriend.

On my own, trying to conceal my sobs from the ears of half-curious pedestrians, I indulge my self-pity by whispering, "That was so mean, that was so mean."

Benji reels out of the bar, clumsy not because he is drunk, but because that's the way he is. He tries to comfort me by telling me about the girl, an old friend from his hometown who now wants to get married. As if this is comfort. The exhaust from passing taxis and the constant buzz of ambulatory conversation make it seem like we are on a sound stage. New York is like this, so much itself you think it'll fall open clattering if one essential nail is wrenched deftly from position.

I weep to Benji my self-hatred. I pour on him all the alienation that tickled me to reach over to him in the first place. I bewail my unattractiveness. Ever ironic, he suggests first that we have sex, to which I tell him no, because that requires commitment, and then he says this: "Let's get married. Think that'll make you happy? You want to get married to me? Move out to the country?"

I say okay.

On Monday he calls me at work. I think ha ha, I've got him worried, he wants to make sure I know that he was kidding.

How's it going?" he asks, reluctantly, like he's scared to find out.

"Fine," I say. "It's all I can do to hide my elation from my coworkers." In my tone of voice I convey everything but elation.

Glorious," he says, "You want to keep it a secret then?"

"Oh, yes," I reply. "Ours is not a happiness to be explained."

"Touché," Benji mutters.

All the planning people put into marriage, all the frenetic phone calls and errands and anxious tears, all can be avoided if you approach the matter with coolness and a touch of derision. Benji and I set up a timeline. We both take a morning off work to meet with a bank financial officer about our prospects for a sizeable mortgage. When we tell the banker of our plans to wed, he looks back and forth between the two of us, slowly.

"Congratulations," he tells us, though you can hear the doubt lurking behind the word like a doppelganger. We smile icy smiles, Benji takes my hand and I squeeze back, hard.

Aside from the loan officer and the sweet old couple selling us their farm, no one knows about our engagement. The first time it was mentioned was the only time necessary, though I am sure that he will crack at any time. Perhaps he expects the same. A week before our wedding day, we give notice at our respective jobs. I don't know at what point he breaks off with the girl from his hometown whose sudden proposal had indirectly triggered this odd series of events, but I notice him drinking faster and quieter during our evenings at the bar with Eric. True to form, Eric remains oblivious of any strange tension drawn tightly between Benji and I. We all drink so, so much.

The day arrives, stupidly sunny and warm. We meet at the airport. On the plane we say nothing. In fact, we say nothing to each other from the commencement of the journey through check-in at the hotel and the unpacking of our things. We are both seasoned travelers.

After I have hung the last of my garments, I go into the bathroom to freshen myself up for my wedding. Seated on the toilet, staring at the chemically white linen that serves as a bath mat, I start to breathe so rapidly I fear I may faint. I flush the toilet, restore my underwear and assume a crouch on the floor, my arms wrapped tightly around my knees. I must not cry. I must not let him see me cry.

Isn't this what I wanted? I ask my reflection in the mirror, seconds later, having gathered myself and stood.

When I exit the bathroom, Benji takes his turn, passing me in the small hotel room without looking me in the eye. He's in there for a while, maybe going through a similar ritual. He emerges, asks, "Ready?" I nod yes, and we make our way through the unkempt lights of Las Vegas to the White Chapel.

And we go through all of it, all of it. We say the things written in the vows-the word "love," the word "cherish," and I almost crack up in hysterical laughter. The notary public, the reverend, the emcee, whatever he is, is going very bald, with only a few wisps of oily brown hair crossing his dome. His gaze is myopic. He's seen too much of us already. He tells each of us, in turn, to repeat after him "till death do us part" and we have the steely nerve to say the fucking thing, knowing we will probably wish it sooner rather than later. To Benji he then recites,

"You may now kiss the bride." As the guy pronounces us husband and wife, we kiss for the very first time, appalled by the brutality of pride.

About the author:

Shauna McKenna, like folk singer Maria McKee, insists that if love is a red dress, you can hang her in rags.