By Elle Michael River
Isabella was a single white rose in the midst of half a dozen red ones. Held together by pin and lace, like a delicate, porcelain doll, she paused. Would she melt away if anyone spilled crimson wine on her ivory silhouette?
A light melody from a grand piano signaled the start of the ceremony. Beneath rows of pews adorned with scarlet and gold bows, a basement room erupted. Scents of burnt hair and perfume filled the air, lingering over Isabella as she sat in a manila folding chair and tried not to move. She glanced at her embroidered dress, hand-picked from the stuffed racks of romance inside a glittering bridal shop. They’d served her a glass of sparkling champagne for every corset she’d laced, even though she wasn’t yet 21.
Isabella hadn’t wanted something so delicate and detailed, but her mother-in-law insisted appearances mattered more than breathing. Isabella couldn’t breathe. The corset bit into her ribs and reminded her with every gasp that perfection came with a price. For her own mother, that price was a bank loan and the entire contents of their rainy-day savings jar. Beauty was a bride’s burden.
Eight women adjusted their skirts and fluffed their curls. The flower girls tried not to giggle, their hands caressing the dried petals they would soon toss from ivory baskets. Isabella’s almost sister-in-law had pulled down the top of her scarlet bridesmaid’s dress to show everyone her new tattoo: the name of her behind-the-bars boyfriend embroidered in Comic Sans right above a pierced, pepperoni nipple. Olivia gasped and smoothed her oily hair, compromised into a bun. The tattoo had an unfortunate spelling error, but Olivia turned the gasp into a cough and said it looked nice.
“Bella! The music has started. Can you hear it?” asked Violet. “It’s time!” She cupped Isabella’s face, fixed a stray curl, and wiped clean some runaway lipstick. The women filed out of the room and stomped up the stairs to the sanctuary leaving the bride alone with her maid of honor.
“I guess we should go upstairs,” said Isabella. She stood and saw stars, but Violet’s steady hands found her shoulders and straightened her necklace of diamonds: a gift from the in-laws, but only for today.
“Do you need anything?” asked Violet. “Water? Wine? Do you need to recite the vows with me one more time?”
“No, I’m okay.”
Violet brushed away contrary strands of her thick, curled hair, and wrapped her arms around Isabella. “Well, you let me know if you need anything, and I’ll be right here. I mean, what’s a Maid of Honor for, right?” Violet released the bride and open the door to the sanctuary stairs. The music swelled, and familiar voices cascaded down the wooden steps. Violet held out her hand. It was time.
. . . .
Violet opened the heavy, glass doors to the front of the old church and greeted the delivery woman with a frosty smile. She wore a beige colored slip and bra, her hair pulled up in hot curlers, and her round face covered exfoliating under a creamy tea tree mask.
“Do you have the flowers?” asked Violet.
“Flowers? I thought you people wanted kittens.” The broad-shouldered delivery woman chuckled, her voice like coarse gravel. She moved the boxes off the dolly and onto the polished floor of the church’s front foyer. Violet didn’t offer to help, but the woman, easily in her late fifties or early sixties, didn’t ask. Instead, she wiped sweat from her salt-and-pepper bangs, took out clipboard and listed the contents:
“One bouquet of red roses. Two bouquets of white roses. One bridal bouquet of red and white roses. Three white rose boutonnieres. One red rose boutonniere. One red and white rose boutonniere. Two sets of parent corsages in yellow roses. And one bag of fresh rose petals for whatever the Hell you people want to do with them. Please, sign here.” She thrust the clipboard toward Violet and coughed.
“Um,” said Violet, “the rose petals are for the flower girls to toss from their baskets before the bride walks down the aisle—”
“Listen, lady, I don’t care. Just need someone to sign for the delivery. You ain’t my only stop today, and I hate flowers.” The delivery woman forced the sticky clipboard into Violet’s hands, took out a pack of cigarettes from her khaki shorts, and lit up.
“You don’t like flowers?” asked Violet.
The woman blew gray smoke between her yellowed front teeth and didn’t answer.
Violet looked over the order. “Well, the man from your company who delivered the flowers for the sanctuary last night didn’t seem to mind them.”
“Yeah, yeah, everyone’s got a crush on Tommy. Trust me, you ain’t his type.” The woman took another drag and coughed again.
“You know, there is no smoking in the church.” Violet narrowed her eyes. “And your order is wrong. There should only be only one set of parent corsages plus an extra one for the bride’s mother in yellow. We did not order two sets.” She handed the clipboard back to the delivery woman, a frown cracking her frosted face.
“Well ya got two. So just give the spare one to someone else.” The woman blew another puff a smoke into the air and tore off the receipt for the flowers. “Here. I made a note so the company won’t charge ya.”
“Oh, uh, thank you,” said Violet, taking the receipt. “Can you let me know which box has the parent’s corsages in it? I need to remove the extra one before I let everyone know the flowers are here.”
“Sure. It’s in the brown box.”
“But they’re all brown.”
“Yep.” The delivery woman flicked her cigarette onto the floor and left.
. . . .
It was a disaster. Hues of crimson washed over every chair in the room. Women in various states of undress grappled over their tools of beauty. Painting, pasting, and prying each part of their bodies, they pined for perfection. Lipsticks and eyeliners rolled on the floor next to the crumbs of cupcakes and cream-filled donuts. Someone had bought the sweets earlier that morning “for the occasion.” Every voice had vowed to eat not even one–how could they consume such confection and fit into their dress?–but the only donut left untouched was the plain, un-frosted one.
Isabella stood in the corner of the paneled basement. The tiny windows barely let in the setting sun’s orange glow. Her wedding began at dusk. The voices of women she’d known half her life echoed around her, sucking away all the air with their forced laughs. Isabella fanned her face with manicured nails and pushed out a stale puff through red lips. Breathing would break her corset. Crying would break it too.
“Olivia! Why did you straighten your hair last night? I can’t even get a good wave out of it today.” Violet, her Maid of Honor was scowling at Olivia’s light brown locks. They rested, pin straight, just below her shoulders, and refused to conform to curls. Isabella waddled over on too-high heels and sat down on an empty, manila, folding chair.
“Hey Bella,” said Olivia. She winced as Violet tugged at another strand of her hair, wrapping it around the curler again. “I’m sorry. I know I said I wasn’t going to, but then he called last night, after the rehearsal dinner, and said he wanted me to come out.”
“You needed to destroy your hair with a flat iron to hook up?” asked Violet, turning up the heat on the curler.
“Well, yeah, we were going out! You think he wants girl who looks like she just came from church?” Olivia paused. “No offense, Bella. I just, we — we have different styles, you know? Ouch!” Violet had tugged on the iron attached to Olivia’s head.
Isabella tried, again, to breathe through the boning of her dress. “You know what I’m going to say, Liv.”
“And you know what I’m going to say about—”
“Not today,” hissed Violet. She grabbed the bottle of hairspray off the ground and unloaded it onto Olivia’s burning locks.
“Fine,” said Olivia, “but then you can’t say anything either because we’re great. And he makes me feel good.”
“You mean he makes you feel good when he’s paying attention to you,” said Isabella.
“Now look,” Olivia brushed a donut crumb off her dress. “It’s different. He’s busy.” She twirled an emerald ring on her right hand. “Besides, I gotta take his offers when they come. It was a really nice night, and we didn’t fight at all.” She sat back in the chair as Violet rolled her eyes and checked her floppy curl. “He wouldn’t keep calling if he wasn’t really into me. Right?”
“I guess not,” said Isabella.
“Liv!” Violet shook her head. “Bella’s about to get married in, like, three hours. Do you really think she wants to talk about you and the guy who only calls you every other weekend?” She emptied more hairspray into Olivia’s hair. “He’s probably got a wife and four kids you don’t even know about!”
“He does…He does not! He couldn’t!”
“Olivia! It’s not about you today!” Violet slammed the hair spray on the table.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s still important,” said Isabella. “I’m sure he’s just busy with work.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Olivia unlocked her phone and scrolled through her messages. “Are you done with my hair already? You’re gunna make it fall out!”
“I can’t make it do anything,” said Violet. She released the iron and the curl fell against Olivia’s head before snaking out straight as a pin.
. . . .
Isabella jerked her head, not ceasing her furious pace through the parking lot. Golden curls fell loose around her shoulders as she strangled white heels in one hand, her lace train in the other.
“What?” She dropped her gown, and it floated to the asphalt.
“Where are you going?” shouted Violet. The door to the church basement slammed closed behind her.
“Going? I’m going to-to get breakfast! Where did you think I was going?” Isabella dropped her shoes and reached inside the bosom of her dress.
“Breakfast? I thought you were kidding!” Violet rushed between rows of SUVs. “Have you lost your mind? It’s almost six, and your wedding — your wedding — is about to start!” She stopped, breathless, next to Isabella, and put a hand on her ivory arm. “What…what are you looking for?”
Isabella didn’t answer but pulled her slender hand out from the inside her dress a car key between her fingers.
“Did you hear me?” Violet scooped the fallen shoes off the pavement. “I asked where you were going!” She brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “Let’s just sit down. I’ll go get your mom—”
“You said if I needed to run, you’d run with me.” Isabella’s blue eyes blinked away tears.
“I… I did. But—”
“And we could go get breakfast.”
“I know I said that,” said Violet, “but what I meant was—”
A limo three cars down flashed its lights and beeped. Isabella grinned, and an escaped tear leaked from her left eye.
“The limo? You stole the limo driver’s keys?”
Isabella hurried over to the small, black limo. A sparkling “Just Married” sign decorated the rear window.
“I’m thinking pancakes. What do you want? Eggs?” She wrenched open the door of the driver’s seat, and sat down, her dress pooling around her. “No, wait, chocolate chip pancakes. We’ll order those. Two orders. And some bacon.”
“This is ridiculous, Bella,” said Violet. “You don’t need pancakes right now. You need to get married.”
“So, you’re not coming.”
Violet looked around to see if anyone else had noticed their absence, but no one fled from the church in search of a missing bride.
“Listen, let’s go inside. I’ll get you some water, and we’ll talk to your Mom a bit. We can fix your hair, and then we’ll go upstairs, and you’ll get married. Okay?” Violet put a hand on the side of the car as Isabella started the engine. “The guests can wait a bit, but nothing’s ruined, right?”
Isabella checked her lipstick in the rear-view mirror.
“You’re right,” she said. “They’ll wait.”
. . . .
“Oh, you know what I mean,” said Olivia. “Trailers are fine places to live, and I wasn’t talking about you, girl.”
Isabella tried not to blink as Violet used a Q-tip to fix a smudge by her left eye.
“Besides,” continued Olivia, “you won’t be living in a trailer after today!” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “I heard about them buying you guys a house by the beach!”
“I hate the beach,” said Isabella.
“No one hates the beach, Bella. And I, for one, would put up with a lot worse than that woman as my mother-in-law if she was gunna buy me a house!”
Isabella glanced at her almost mother-in-law. She wore a high-collared, black dress and filled in the cracks on her face with orange paste. Violet said she looked like a vulture. Isabella’s soon-to-be sister-in-law perched next to the bird and whined about the lack of Boston Cream donuts. Isabella looked at the heavy solitaire on her ring finger. The ring had looked so beautiful when it was only in the box.
“Well it’s not true. No house. Not for me.” Isabella clenched her fists. “In fact, the only thing true right now is that we’re going to have to put your hair up in a bun.”
“Aw, c’mon, Bella, a bun?”
“Well, I’m not trying to curl it again,” said Violet. “I think your hair wants to be boring.”
“It’s not boring. It’s just straightened. You didn’t have curly hair as a kid. You don’t know the struggle. Either of you.” said Olivia.
“You’re right,” said Isabella, “I didn’t. And I don’t have to. Because I didn’t straighten my hair last night.” She stood up from the folding chair, walked over to the almost-empty box of donuts, selected the plain, un-frosted one, and floated out of the room.
. . . .
Violet’s manicured fingers held shut the basement door. She turned her gaze toward Isabella. “Are you sure?”
“Sure about what?”
“You know, the…” Violet sighed. “I probably should have asked you this sooner. Like, last week, or last night, or at least before we’d finished your makeup… But I still have to ask. Or I wouldn’t be doing my job as your—”
“Maid of Honor,” said Isabella.
“Right. That.” Violet took a deep breath. “So, as your Maid of Honor, are you sure? Are you sure you want to marry him? I mean, I like him, but his family is, well.” She grabbed Isabelle’s hands. “I want you to be happy, and I believe you when you say you are, but if you said you weren’t ready, I’d understand. And I’d run with you.”
Isabella’s heartbeat filled her ears and the room spun. Violet’s mouth moved, but she couldn’t hear it. She couldn’t breathe. She shouldn’t breathe. Not in this dress., not now. It was too late. Isabella should have considered how important air was before she’d laced up the back so tight.
“I didn’t expect this from you Vie. I mean, you would really throw all your hard work away, for me?” Isabella pulled away and walked over to the ribbon-covered sanctuary doors. “You’ve worked so hard to make sure everything was perfect, and you would give that all up? I couldn’t ask you to do that. I couldn’t ask anyone to do that.”
“It is not my day, Bella. It is your day. I planned it for you.” Violet joined Isabella by the sanctuary doors and touched the velvet bows. “And I would do anything for you.”
“You’d really run with me?”
“Anywhere you want.”
“What if I wanted breakfast?”
“You know, pancakes? Eggs? Those little sausage links dipped in hot maple syrup?” Isabella’s eyes wandered to the foyer doors. “I could go for some breakfast right now, actually.”
“You can get pancakes after you’re married,” said Violet.
“Yeah, but, they’re married pancakes. They’re different. You know?”
“Yes, I’d go get breakfast with you.” Violet took Isabella’s hand, her fingers caressing the diamonds on Isabella’s engagement ring.
“Ha, I knew you would! It’s because you love pancakes too. Chocolate chip, right?”
“I love you.”
. . . .
Isabella’s eyes wandered beneath her white veil. Violet was walking down a rose covered aisle, her steps timed with the melody, just like she planned. The last of the day’s sunlight bloomed gold and red shadows across the foyer’s walls, and Isabella hesitated. What about lipsticks and mothers and chocolate chip pancakes covered in sticky, sweet syrup?
The music swelled, and everyone stood, and Isabella…
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
© 2017, Revised 2020 Elle Michael River