“Sam cheated on me!”
A few weeks before the wedding, Cathy tearfully broke the news to me that she was having second thoughts. I was confused. Cathy and Sam were proud of their open relationship and their occasional swinging, often sharing details of their exploits whether the information was wanted or not. Cathy had taken greater advantage of the arrangement, a fact she often bragged about, keeping score between the women Sam had slept with and the partners she’d had–some of them my old boyfriends, who she continued to pursue.
“Don’t worry,” she once insisted. “I would never sleep with [Mr. Jen].”
This, Mr. Jen assured me, would never be a problem. He strongly disliked Cathy, from her “just kidding” barbs to some truly disgusting personal habits he recoiled from. One of these was the way she smoked cigarettes. Her upper front teeth jutted out at a slight angle–leading one of Sam’s male friends to comment that receiving oral sex from Cathy would be “like rubbing your dick on a cheese grater.” When she smoked, she placed the tip of the filter against her teeth to inhale, then made what could only be described as the noise Anthony Hopkins made at the end of his famous “fava beans and a nice chianti” line from Silence Of The Lambs before exhaling. She had no shame when it came to seemingly any bodily function, picking her nose openly wherever she might be and flicking it to the floor, even at the dinner table or when out at a restaurant. When it came to menstruation, she was similarly inconsiderate; at a large party held at my house she came to me and said, “I couldn’t find the trash can in your bathroom, so I just left my tampon on the counter. You can clean it up later.”
I could clean it up later. I informed her that under no circumstances would I be cleaning up the unwrapped tampon sitting in a pool of blood beside my sink in the only bathroom in our house full of guests.
On another occasion, she was laying on my new couch, legs fully spread in her skirt–another of her habits, which came, she insisted, from her deep understanding of and comfort with her “womanhood”-with a very visible stain spreading across the crotch of her panties.
“Um, you’re bleeding through,” I told her.
She made a disgusted noise. “I know. My period has been really heavy lately. I don’t even care, I’m just going to let it go.”
“Uh, I care. You’re sitting on my couch,” I snapped and received a brief lecture on the internalized misogyny that made me fear my own body and its natural processes before she grudgingly went off to handle the situation.
Cathy’s reason for not wanting to entice my husband to cheat? “He’s just not very hot.” The notion that my husband might not want to sleep with her because he loved and was faithful to me never entered her mind.
But the faithfulness of husbands was of utmost concern when it was her fiance cheating on her. There was an exception to their open relationship rule that he’d broken: they were never to sleep with past romantic partners, and Sam had. This struck me as a fully reasonable stipulation. Sex for fun was one thing. Sex with emotional entanglement was altogether different. And I could understand her hurt; as Sam hadn’t just slept with an ex-girlfriend. He’d slept with the one that got away, and he’d done so more than once.
During the year or so that I hadn’t been speaking to Cathy and Sam, he’d slept with Jackie, the woman he’d been madly in love with long before he’d met Cathy. From my understanding, Jackie had been his high school sweetheart and first love, and Cathy had been incredibly threatened by her friendship with Sam. “I specifically asked him to never sleep with her,” Cathy sobbed. “And he did.” Not long after, Jackie had gotten pregnant. The timeline had been too close for Cathy to trust that the baby wasn’t Sam’s, so she had gathered a few of her pagan friends to do a spell to “break the tie” between Sam and Jackie and their possible love child.
The spell went like this: while evoking the goddess Hera–something that had to be the idea of one of the friends, as Cathy never evoked deities in ritual–, they all visualized Jackie, her unborn baby, and Sam tethered to each other by silver cords. One by one, they “cut” the cords, not just between Jackie and Sam, but between Jackie and the baby, as well.
“Not just a silver one, there was a red one, too,” Cathy said.
“What was the point of that?” I asked, hoping Cathy would give me an honest, repentant answer.
“So Sam wouldn’t love the baby,” she said, not meeting my eyes. But the meaning of the visualization was clear. Cathy had wanted Jackie to miscarry or fail to form a maternal connection to her child. Later, I learned from Jackie that the timeline wasn’t off at all; she’d never slept with Sam prior to the conception of her daughter.
Still, Sam admitted that he had broken the rule not long after their engagement, and no amount of Cathy’s horribleness justified that. I fully expected her to cancel the wedding, but when I pointed out that she would have to return the gifts, she wavered in her resolve. “If you’re going to call it off, you have to call it off now,” I warned. She said she would think about it.
About a week prior to the wedding, I and the other bridesmaids gathered at Cathy’s apartment to “rehearse” our hairstyles. A friend of Cathy’s would be styling us on the day of, but she’d never met any of us and wanted to practice. We waited for two hours for this friend to arrive. When she did, it was in a hoop skirt and crinolines. She’d been at a Civil War reenactment that had run long, and cell phones weren’t allowed on the battlefield. She didn’t apologize for keeping us waiting. To break the tension of her late arrival and sour mood, I joked, “So, who won?” With a glare, she informed me, “The Union. Unfortunately.”
That I would have my hair styled by a Michigan racist who longed for the glory days of the Confederacy was somehow not the most disturbing revelation of the afternoon. Instead, it was the fact that of all the other bridesmaids, I had known Cathy the longest, at five years. The others had known her only a year or two, with the exception of the girlfriend of a groomsman who had met her only months before. The fact that Cathy had no friends, male or female, from her hometown, high school, or even prior to the current decade was the very first time I’d seen a red flag in full color. Maybe it wasn’t just me who was annoyed by and suspicious of her behavior. Maybe there had been others who’d cut her out of their lives the way I’d tried to previously.
The night of the rehearsal dinner, I was ready to be finished with the entire wedding. I was cranky at the amount of money we’d spent–even the dinner that night, traditionally paid for by the family of the groom, came out of our own pockets–and frantic at the amount of time I’d wasted for planning my own wedding. But when we walked into the dining room, I saw that Sam and Cathy had gotten a huge birthday cake.
“I know you’re not going to have a birthday this year because of my day,” Cathy said. “So I wanted you to at least have something special.”
As we left that night, Sam “jokingly” suggested I chip in for the surprise cake.
The morning of the wedding, we arrived at the church to find it wasn’t air-conditioned. It was the hottest July fifteenth on record at that time. Between constantly fanning Cathy and trying to wrestle her into her too-small dress (she’d bought a two, planning to shrink to that size before the wedding, but had only achieved a six), we barely had time to deal with her frayed nerves. Some of her anxiety was caused by cold feet over the Jackie situation, but some was also directed icily at the bridesmaid who’d been roped into the wedding by virtue of dating the groom’s best man. Cathy had insisted on a child-free wedding–her own son had not been invited–but the bridesmaid’s babysitter had canceled and she’d been forced to bring him along. Cathy seethed and pouted about her ruined day, despite the fact that the child who had ruined it hadn’t even crossed her path. He’d spent the morning quietly reading and drawing in the church foyer and never uttered a peep throughout the rest of the day.
By the time the bridal party walked down the aisle, we were wilted, sweating profusely, and exhausted from the heat. Twice, I thought the bridesmaid next to me would pass out. My feet swelled through my strappy sandals. As we entered, I noticed a woman in full funerary attire sitting in the second row. It was one of Sam’s casual sex partners, who hadn’t been invited but who had shown up anyway, in a black dress, large sunglasses, and a huge hat complete with veil. I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help myself.
I don’t remember much about the ceremony or the reception, the latter of which was held in the banquet room of a bowling alley that was quite literally falling down. Half of the building had burned up the year before and had never been repaired. The banquet room’s dancefloor was a crumbling shuffleboard court with tiles that detached and skidded around if hit just right. There wasn’t air conditioning there, either, but a huge industrial fan blew mildew-and-cigarette scented air in from the bowling alley bar. We waited until they cut the cake before we left. I vomited at a gas station from the combination of stress, heat exhaustion, and possibly the food, which had been catered by the venue.
At least it was over, I reasoned. Now that she would no longer be focused on being the center of attention, Cathy would return to being the friend I remembered before she’d succumbed to her bridal ego.
Next time: “The Last Five Years”