The sun shone on the water and on the sand, its rays reflecting over and over until Barbara was nearly blinded by the white light. Marriage began like this, she thought. So bright and beautiful that you couldn’t see through all that dazzling light until it was too late.
Steve stood in front of her, eclipsed by the sunlight. He held the car keys out to her, but as she raised one hand up to shield her eyes and the other out toward him, she dropped the keys in the sand. Steve looked down at her as she bent to pick them up.
“I don’t know why they’re having this thing on the beach in July. This heat–”
But he was already walking across the beach. Barbara reached the crowd alone. She made a list of the things she might say if anyone engaged her in conversation: the kitchen renovations, the strip mall under construction just down the street from their house, how things were changing so much in the small town and not usually for the better. She could discuss the heat, maybe make a joke about running into the water to cool off. No, she thought, her jokes were rarely well received. She would take her husband’s advice about not making people uncomfortable.
Across the beach, the groom stood beside an archway planted into the sand for the ceremony. The wooden arch held coils of ivy studded here and there with deep red roses. He was next to a short man who seemed to be talking to him, though the groom was not listening. His eyes followed the bride.
The way he watched reminded Barbara of the day she met her husband. She was in a used bookstore looking for a copy of A Room of One’s Own. She glanced up to check the time and noticed a man staring at her. She was not used to men staring at her. She looked down quickly and tried to focus on the titles on the shelf in front of her. Minutes later, she looked back and he was still there.
On their second date, he told her he was falling for her. “I want to know everything there is to know about you.” It was one of the things men said, she knew, but still she had fallen. When had he stopped watching her in that way, smiling and wanting to know more? When did he decide that he’d learned all her secrets?
As drops of sweat rolled down the back of her neck, Barbara pulled her mind back to the beach. She found her husband standing in a circle of husbands, chuckling with their hands in their pockets the way men who are strangers do. Barbara knew he hadn’t wanted to come today. Still, he ironed his dress slacks, put on a maroon polo shirt, and tied his shoes without mentioning how uncomfortable these events made him. He’d stopped arguing with her at some point, decided that keeping the waters still between them was worth missing a football game or a nap on the couch. Arguments, at least, had been one thread that held them together. But it had long since come apart.
The bride, an old college friend of Barbara’s, waved at her and came over. Barbara congratulated her.
“Thanks, Barb. I’m so glad you could make it. It’s been so long!”
“I know,” Barbara replied, nodding, “You’ll have to come visit so we can really catch up. Hopefully the new kitchen will be done by then. It’s a work in progress for now, but should be done by the fall.”
“Oh wow! What are you doing?”
“Well you know it’s been a mess, so worn and outdated. The floors are stained and the cabinets need replacing, too.”
“Oh Jesus, don’t start going on about that damn kitchen again! It’s her wedding day, for Christ’s sake!” her husband interrupted, laughing loudly. Barbara was instantly silent.
“Oh it’s fine, Steve,” the bride insisted, accepting his hug. “I’m just so glad the two of you could make it!”
“Well you got some nice weather for it anyway,” Steve said, looking out at the gently rolling waves.
Barbara remembered the day of her own wedding. Steve had knocked on her hotel room door early in the morning, waking her from a dream.
“C’mon, babe, let me in,” he had insisted, his hand pressed against the door, which she’d opened just a sliver.
“It’s bad luck!” she pushed back, giggling nervously.
He wedged his foot in the doorway, quickly, as she tried to close the door, his voice changing, “You know, you -” But then he stopped, retreated.
She swallowed the fear that had crept into her throat along with his harsh tone. He was about to be her husband and she his wife.
So there were doubts, of course, but that was true in any relationship. And so much was good in the beginning. They’d honeymooned on Maui, filling themselves with seafood and too-sweet cocktails with skewered pineapple and paper umbrellas. They made love when they woke and in the afternoon, napping tangled together like vines.
Their daughter was born and Steve pressed his forehead against Barbara’s, their sweat mingling, and neither had words for what they had created. In the early months he took the baby at night and she saw in him a hero, like so many fairy tales her mother read her as a child. When had they begun to come apart? Was it so far back, in those moments she was so sure they were finally coming together?
It had been a long time since she’d allowed herself to remember the moments that had led her here. The nights she had asked him why he so rarely spoke to her anymore, when he had rolled his eyes as though she were demanding something he didn’t know how to give.
“Things are just busy now, Barb.”
“I know, I just miss -”
“I know, I know. I miss it too. In a few months things will settle down. You know this time of year is crazy for me.”
She always wanted to say more and she never did.
The sun was setting now; pink and orange tinted the clouds that dappled the blue sky. Laughter expanded like fog from the guests as they ate their grilled salmon and filet mignon. Reaching for her wine, Barbara knocked the tall glass over and the deep red seeped slowly across the white tablecloth.
“Here she goes, look out folks!” Steve laughed loudly now and she felt something slip inside her.
“Oh God! I’m so sorry!” She looked frantically at each face around the table. The other guests averted their eyes, some looking down into their laps, others twisting their necks toward the buffet or dance floor. A waiter hurried over and helped Barbara wipe up the wine and carry the wet napkins to the trash bins.
Returning to the table, Barbara looked down at her shoes, like a child. She felt the sand that had crept inside them and was now irritating her feet. The other guests stared at her, hopeful half-smiles on their faces. Barbara sat down and took a ragged breath and a sip of water.
She felt the seat sink a little further into the sand and slipped off her shoes. She glanced at her husband, who was turned toward to the woman on his other side, her thick dark hair pulled back into a twist from which not a single strand had come loose. Her dress was black, strapless, and a diamond-studded bracelet hung from her wrist. He chuckled at something she had said, glanced over his shoulder at Barbara, and turned back. Barbara reached down and picked up one of her shoes. She looked in and saw a dusting of sand sliding down into the toe. Tilting it, she emptied the sand and replaced the shoe on her foot, and then did the same with the other shoe. But as she stood up to walk out onto the beach, she could still feel the pebbles digging into her soles.
At the edge of the crowd, she paused and watched her husband for a moment. This was familiar, watching him from across some space with the sharp certainty that she no longer mattered.
The woman in black dropped her napkin and Steve bent down to pick it up, his cheek nearly grazing the woman’s calf. Barbara felt herself receding, diminishing, until she was sure she would soon dissolve into dust and float away over the darkening ocean.
How had she gotten here? She made little compromises. She kept the peace. She made it work. She pretended not to hear things he said very clearly. And they added up, accumulating gradually under her skin until one day she walked past a mirror in the hallway and did not recognize the reflection. Giving in had become as much of a habit as breathing or brushing her teeth. She was proud of what she had done. Keeping a family together and raising decent children was no small feat. But in some part of her mind, hidden even from her own consciousness, she was ashamed, too. When had she decided that in the equation of how to hold this world together, her own needs were not a factor?
At the water’s edge, she abandoned her shoes and gasped at the unexpected cold. The sun had set and the sky over the water was nearly black, cloudless. She stepped forward and felt tiny stones and bits of broken shells pricking her bare feet. She turned back once, watched the lights flickering over white tablecloths, listened briefly to the easy laughter. Farther out, the sand was finer and her fingertips touched the foaming waves. Her dress hung soaking in the water. Eventually she felt the shocking chill at her belly, at her breasts, and finally around her neck, kissing her ears as she floated into the gathering dark.
Colleen Giannotta graduated with an English degree from Smith College and taught elementary and middle school for eight years. She now stays at home to care for and teach her two young children. She writes primarily short fiction and poetry.