Three little angels, all dressed in white
Tried to get to heaven on the end of a kite
But the kite string broke and down they all fell
Instead of going to Heaven, they all went to—
Wendy gave her head a shake, trying to rid it of the little tune that kept repeating itself. She was particularly annoyed that her mind had swapped the traditional bridal march with this insidious ditty on what everyone said was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Her day. And here she was, hearing camp songs in her head instead of Ave Maria or Pachelbel’s Canon.
She knew it had to be nerves that were making her brain go into a loop with something so inane. Nerves were making her so cuckoo that she was snappish toward everyone, from her mother right on down to the flower girl. Her mother was driving her especially crazy, fussing with Wendy’s hair, moving around bobby pins on the updo that Wendy had paid a professional half a week’s salary to construct.
“But, Wendy, you don’t look comfortable,” her mother said. “You look like you’re trying to balance a stack of books on your head.” She pulled out another pin and relocated it to a spot that seemed more secure.
“Please, Mom. Stop. This hairstyle is like that game Jenga. You pull out the wrong pin and the whole thing’s going to collapse.”
“I’m not hurting anything. I’m fixing it.” She pulled out another pin. “This is the last one.”
Wendy felt the tip of the bobby pin dig into her scalp almost deep enough to give her a lobotomy.
“That’s better.” Her mother gave the back of Wendy’s head a satisfied pat. “Now shake it to see if it holds.”
Wendy gave her head a little twitch. As much as she hated to admit that her mother had done anything at all right, the mound of hair did feel less vulnerable.
“It’s fine,” she said, which was the closest to a thank you she felt like offering while she was in this mood. “Are you done now? I have to put on my makeup and dress.”
Her mother pursed her lips, holding back the reaming that it seemed Wendy was due, and exited by way of the door that led to the suite’s adjoining room. As part of the Brombury estate’s wedding package, the bridal party was given the suite, which they were using to prepare for the wedding and where Wendy and Matt would spend their first night together as husband and wife. Wendy liked the room because of its view of the estate’s expansive gardens, but the décor with its four-poster mahogany bed and Colonial-style floral wallpaper was so predictable that it irritated her. She had no complaints about the service, though. Fruit baskets had been waiting in both rooms, along with several bottles of chilled champagne which her bridesmaids were working on. Wendy knew that her own well-documented inability to modulate her rate of alcohol consumption could be dangerous, so she abstained. The walk down the aisle could prove difficult enough because of nerves alone; the rectangular pools stocked with goldfish and koi on either side of the pathway into the chapel would pose a serious risk for an accident if Wendy wasn’t in top form.
The thought of the procession sent a shudder of adrenaline through her. She tried to calm herself, putting aside visions of herself lying prone among the fish in the shallow pool. It was time to work on her face.
She sat down in front of the vanity, where the countertop was covered with her newly purchased beauty supplies.
Three little devils, all dressed in red
Tried to get to heaven on the end of a thread
But the thread string broke and down they all fell
Instead of going to Heaven they all went to—
Wendy glared at herself in the vanity’s mirror. Stop it. Calm down! She took a deep breath, forced a toothy smile that looked more frightening than bride-like.
After she forced her face to relax, there was only a remnant of the ghoulish expression left when she started on her skin, layering cosmetics as instructed by the perfume-soaked assistant at the Macy’s makeup counter. First, she applied moisturizer, followed by foundation, blush, and two separate products for cheekbone emphasis. After the top layer had been applied, she didn’t recognize herself; her complexion was so flawless, she looked like she was wearing a kabuki mask.
She applied the rest of her makeup, using powders, liners, and glosses to manipulate each of her features to be more attractive than anyone could imagine they could be. When the illusion of perfection was just about complete, there was a knock at the door. Since her mother and bridesmaids would have simply barged in from the adjoining room, she knew it had to be Matt.
“Can I come in? Are you dressed yet? I’m not supposed to see you in your dress, right?”
Wendy opened the door for her fiance, who was looking very handsome in his tux. Even without the benefit of makeup, his pulchritude was as surreal as Wendy’s, his features seemingly transformed by the romantic location and the charged atmosphere.
“I’m still in my robe,” she said, giving Matt a quick kiss. “But you could see me in my dress, anyhow. You know I’m not superstitious.”
“Oh, it’s more of a tradition than a superstition. I think it’s quaint.”
“Well, you know, some religions think you ought to see the bride before the wedding. Make sure you’re getting the right product. Men have been tricked before, you know, if you believe the stories in the bible.”
Matt laughed. “I think I’d know if someone else was substituting for you. I’d recognize that body anywhere.” He stroked Wendy’s arm through the silky fabric of her new robe, given to her by her bridesmaids at the boudoir-themed shower they’d thrown for her. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m a basket case. I’m going a million miles an hour. Have you noticed? Crazy. How about you?”
Matt shifted, wiggling uncomfortably as if his tux were too short in the crotch. “Nervous too. I was hoping you would calm me down.”
“Come here.” She held her arms out and he came to her. They held each other. “How’s that?”
Matt breathed in deep. Wendy could feel him quivering, his accelerated heartbeat shaking his body. She heard him take another breath, then another one, shorter this time, then another and another. His breathing was getting shorter and quicker until he sounded like he was hyperventilating.
Then he abruptly pulled himself out of Wendy’s embrace, gulping at the air.
“Matt! Are you okay?” Wendy said, observing his flushed color and the glimmer of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. “Come here, before you pass out. Sit on the bed.”
He complied, finding a corner of the mattress.
“Put your head between your knees.” She rubbed his back. “Do you feel any better?”
“Just give me a minute.”
Wendy thought that her touch seemed to make his body tense up, so she moved away. Maybe he needed more air. She wandered over to the window and looked out. In the distance, she could see the wedding guests coming toward the house from the parking lot, glints of flowered dresses and gaily wrapped packages, a rainbow of colors trickling toward the building where the man she was about to marry was having a breakdown.
A few guests were in the garden just below her, passing by the house on their way to the chapel where the service would be held. The women were walking clumsily on the grass, their spiked heels plunging into the thick and moist soil.
Behind her, she could hear that Matt’s breathing had slowed.
“That’s normal, right? To be nervous like that?”
Matt’s breathing started to accelerate again, but he was able to speak between breaths. “I guess. I mean—” Big breath. “Is it? That’s—what I—was wondering when I,” another big breath, “came to see you.”
He looked up. “I mean, are we doing the right thing? Do we have enough in common? Is this going to work?”
“I don’t know, Matt. I don’t know what the exact right amount to have in common is. My parents don’t have much in common. They’re compatible in a different way. They just…get along.”
“But what about…sports, for example. How are we going to get along if you don’t like sports?” His voice squeaked.
“It’s not that I hate sports. I just don’t love them like you do. But I’ll go to games or watch them on TV with you and your friends. As long as we try to share these things… That’s what matters.”
“Really? You’re sure that’s good enough?”
“To tell you the truth, Matt, no, I’m not sure. What makes a good marriage? I have no idea. What do we have going for us? Can we make a list? I don’t know if we can. I guess…the sex is good, at least.”
He shook his head. “It’s really just okay, you know. I’ve had better.”
Now Wendy’s voice started to squeak. “Really?”
“I thought you said I was the best you ever had?”
He shrugged, patted his forehead with a handkerchief. “I lied.”
Wendy pushed a lungful of air through her lips, puffing her cheeks and emitting a hissing sound. “Wow,” she said. “Just wow. I didn’t know you felt that way too.”
He looked up at her sharply. “You mean, you—?”
She nodded so hard, she shook part of her hairdo loose. “I’ve been thinking the same thing. About everything.”
He opened his mouth to object but then shrugged. “So why are we doing this? Why have we been acting like this is the right thing when we’ve both had these thoughts…?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess, everyone says we look so good together…”
“We are both reasonably intelligent; we have that in common.” He loosened his tie.
“Plus, you’re the right age, I’m the right age. It’s time to get moving, right? You’re the best thing I’ve found in my thirty-five years. I don’t know if I can do better.”
“So this is good enough, you mean.”
She laughed. “Exactly.”
He looked at her and smiled. “You’re great, you know.”
“Well, you’re great.” She giggled a nervous trill. “You’re great, I’m great…We’ll be great together, right?”
Then the words started coming quickly, tumbling out and falling into a pile of confusion.
“I don’t know,” Matt said. “Sometimes I think we’re together more because of circumstance and timing than because we’re really right for each other.”
Wendy nodded. “I know what you mean. And without any hard evidence as to whether the marriage will work, it just seems like we’ve been moving forward until someone presents the evidence that it won’t. Because, really, there’s no way of knowing, is there? There’s no way of knowing whether there could be something better out there or whether this is a colossal mistake or what, right?”
“Well…” He looked at her meaningfully.
She held his eye contact and smiled wistfully, her manicured hand stroking the bedspread. “You’re right. Maybe we do know. Or maybe this is just cold feet. Isn’t this what everyone goes through? It’s not like we invented uncertainty.”
“Of course not. You’re right. Everyone goes through this. And everyone goes through with it, even when they wonder if they’re making a mistake.”
“Or even if they know it is a mistake.”
Matt scratched at his chin, thinking.
“What we need are statistics. Like if 70% of all couples have these doubts, what percentage of those marriages succeed and what percentage fail? And are those percentages any different for the couples who had no doubts?”
“Those would be some pretty useful data to have, Matt. But I don’t think it exists.” She was starting to become agitated herself. She couldn’t stop her voice from getting louder and more frantic sounding. “So how does anyone know when the cold feet are legitimate and when they’re just cold feet? How do you know? How do you know?”
Wendy threw her head back as she bleated the unanswerable question. Her robe flew open, exposing her undergarments: a strapless bra, control top hose, and a pale pink thong. She was already wearing her shoes—white, silk, teetering heels.
Matt took her gently by the shoulders.
“We know, Wendy, don’t we?”
She looked up at him like a contrite child. “But what about love? Don’t we love each other?”
He shook his head. “Do we? Don’t we? I don’t know about that either. I think we love the idea of love, but is what we feel for each other love? I can’t say whether or not I feel that for you. I know I don’t feel the all-consuming passion that I can clearly identify as love.”
Wendy smiled slightly. “Is that even what love is? And if so, is that what makes a marriage work?”
A choked noise that sounded a little like a laugh came from the back of his throat. “So many questions. Not too many answers.”
They watched each other’s expressions, trying to see something in the other that would supply the certainty they were seeking. Finally, Matt pulled himself up straight and tall, broke the bloated silence.
“I’ll go out and tell them,” he said softly. “I’ll take care of it.”
Wendy nodded solemnly. “Thank you.”
He walked across the room and out the door, shutting it carefully behind him.
Wendy headed back to the vanity where she had been working on her face. She stared at herself in the mirror, touched her powdered cheek, pulled her robe closed with a shudder.
There was a knock at the door, startling her and waking her from her reverie.
“How’s it going in there?” Matt’s voice called to her cheerily. “Can I see you? Or are you in your dress yet?”
Wendy showed her teeth to her reflection. “Just putting it on now. You’ll have to wait until the ceremony.”
She had made it through the preparations without killing anyone. Now all the guests were seated and waiting for her big entrance. She’d walked across the lawn from the main house to the chapel, her heels sinking in the quicksand just as the guests’ had. The wind had carried her veil off her face, loosening the bangs that had been plastered away from her forehead with a combination of hairspray and one of her mother’s well-place pins. The lock hung stiffly in the middle of her forehead, curled upward, making her look like a cartoon character. She pushed the loose bit of hair back onto the top of her head, stuffed the end under the closest pin.
When she arrived at the chapel, someone cued the bridesmaids and they started to march down the aisle, practicing the stride they’d been taught by the wedding coordinator at the rehearsal the night before. And now Wendy was in the doorway. With the sun behind her, she appeared in silhouette. Then she took a step forward into the light of the room. She heard the whispers of her friends and family, of his second cousins once removed whom she’d never met. Looks beautiful… dress… hair… gorgeous. Old friends from the neighborhood—Sue Golden, Cindy Miller, Jackie Crowne—pulled out for major life events, ooh-ing, ah-ing.
She saw Matt on the dais, waiting, sweaty with nerves, but looking pleased with himself. She smiled in his general direction.
One little devil, all dressed in red
Everyone feels this way.
Tried to get to heaven on the end of a thread
Everyone must think they could be making the worst mistake of their life.
But the thread string broke
And down they all fell, instead of going to heaven, they all went to—
“Do you, Matt, take Wendy…?”
Instead of going to heaven, they all went to—?
“Do you Wendy, take Matt…?”
Instead of going to heaven, they all went to—?
Damn. Damn that damned song. What the hell comes next?
Nothing’s final. I can always get a divorce. I can get a divorce tomorrow, even, if I really want to.
Don’t get excited, don’t get all red
Instead of going to Heaven, they all went to bed!
Right. That’s how it goes.
Editorial note: I wrote this piece before I created the more fully formed Matt character in When She Knew, so if he doesn’t quite match up, that’s why.