Rachel Harrison lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Her fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, Cease Cows, WhiskeyPaper, Wyvern Lit and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the 2016 Driftless Prize. She tweets @rachfacelogic.
The room was quiet as they cut the cake. Alternating tiers of lemon and vanilla buttercream, sponge infused with rosewater. Carolyn was careful not to smear too much frosting on his nose, probably fearing he would retaliate with equal force and God-forbid some got on her dress. It was an immaculate white, lace handmade by someone who I imagined sacrificed too much for other people’s dresses. Pricked fingers and dwindling farsightedness. That was the biggest difference between Carolyn and I. When she looked at a beautiful dress she saw a beautiful dress. I saw its making.
It was the kind of wedding with a string quartet at the ceremony and a DJ at the reception. It was the kind of wedding where you had to watch out for liquored-up uncles stepping on your toes, one where they played the Cha-Cha Slide and everyone was expected to dance. As someone who doesn’t like to be judged for opting out of group choreography, I pretended I had to go to the bathroom, stole a cigar from the smoking station, went out to the dock, submerged my feet in the lake.
Whatever was lurking underneath the dark, glassy surface of the water knew better. It left me well enough alone. There were rumors that an ancient sea creature, survivor of the dinosaur era, U.S. Loch Ness, still swam there. Rumors are rumors are rumors. Snapping turtles and grimy water weeds, sure, maybe a few fish, whatever kind of fish lived in lakes. Catfish. No monsters. The monsters would have been too much. Especially for a Martian wedding.
I went to see X before the ceremony. He was practicing his vows in the mirror, his voice a whisper. His suit was sharp. He asked me if his tie was straight. I helped straighten it. I thought about pulling it too tight, choking him, begging for answers in exchange for his life. But I only fixed it and said, “Better now.”
I knew he had family coming in from out of town but I didn’t know how many. UFO’s hovered above the parking lot, casting shadows over the Audis and BMWs from Carolyn’s side, her grandfather’s Rolls-Royce parked in the handicap spot. They had painted a sign “Just Married” and adhered it to the back of the Rolls, added some tin cans tied up with string. Later, the happy couple would drive the Phantom into the night, smiling and waving like royalty.
The thought of it made me nauseous.
X crash-landed in Carolyn’s backyard in the fourth grade. I was sleeping over. We were watching for shooting stars, the stars best for wishing, when we thought we spotted one. Only it wasn’t a star, it was X. He lost control of his ship orbiting some foreign moon. He was headed home, but ended up on earth. After the crash, Carolyn’s parents called an ambulance. X introduced himself, explained he didn’t need an ambulance, just a place to stay until he fixed his ship.
Carolyn’s little brother had died of leukemia six months prior and her parents were vulnerable. They saw X as a sign and allowed him to sleep in their dead son’s bedroom, dusty but otherwise left the same. Glow-in-the-dark galaxies painted on the ceiling, astronaut sheets. It was perfect.
Carolyn and I snuck in later that night to talk to him, tell him about our planet. We agreed that he was very cute and that we both liked him, and that whichever one of us he chose the other would be happy for them. We pinky-promised.
They talked about that night in their vows, the night they first met. They didn’t mention me.
It took X longer than expected to fix his ship. He had to track down other earth-dwelling Martians for assistance, which was a challenge because it’s not like they’re listed.
By the time he got all of the parts he needed he was popular at school. He was on the baseball team. He was going to Spring formal with Carolyn.
He decided to stay.
I woke up on some blue and orange morning to a phone call. It was Carolyn. She was panting into the receiver.
“I found a ring in his drawer,” she told me. “He’s going to ask me to marry him.”
I rolled onto my back, imagined clouds on the water-stained ceiling. The carousel of my conscience circled. The jealousy and bitterness and spite, love and loyalty and regret.
“Are you so excited?” I asked, attempting to mask the break in my voice with a cough. “Are you ready?”
There was a long pause, and in it I sensed hesitation.
Then she said, “We’ve been together since we were kids. Of course I’m ready.”
I lit my cigar with a match, kept the match, let the flame saunter towards my fingertips. I liked the smell of fire. When Carolyn and I were little we used to pluck out strands of our hair and burn them over candles. Her mother caught us once. She didn’t see, she smelled it. She came into the room after and asked, “Have you been burning hair?”
“How’d you know?” Carolyn asked.
“I was young once, too,” she said.
Something swam against my foot and I quickly pulled out of the water. The bottom of my dress was wet. It was blush-colored, ruffled. I wouldn’t have picked it, but it wasn’t so bad.
“That’s a good color on you,” the photographer said to me earlier while we posed for pictures, a smile plastered on my face, my hands gripping my bouquet for dear life. Jodie, my best friend from college, assured me it wouldn’t be as bad as the anticipation of it. She promised the anticipation was always worse.
She was wrong.
From the morning mimosas in the bridal suite, our hair set in curlers, steamers hissing, grown women giggling, I had to fight against instinct. Suppress the urge to scream and cry, tantrum, run. I thought about raising my glass, making a toast and halfway through it casually slipping in that I’d slept with the groom. Cheers.
I asked myself if it would be satisfying to see the unraveling. To watch the tent taken down, flower crowns disassembled, the photographer and string quartet sent home. I wondered what they’d do with all of the food, with the cake. Would they let the staff eat it? Send it back?
Carolyn wouldn’t cry. She was too Jackie Kennedy for crocodile tears. She’d say, “I wish you’d told me sooner.” Then she’d never speak to me again.
The problem with Carolyn was that she was too spoiled to have any perspective, but too sweet to resent. We met in our first ballet class at the age of three. We were fast friends, bonding over our leotards or sparkle stockings or whatever it is that three-year-olds bond over. Our moms arranged play dates, and soon the dates bled together and our childhoods intertwined and we were inseparable. We would spend afternoons reading different copies of the same book in the same room without speaking until the book was finished, then talk about it for hours. We would make up stories and dream of co-writing a book about two best friends. The friends were always us.
She wrote me funny notes and slipped them in my locker. She knit me hats for Christmas. She French-braided my hair.
I wrote funny notes back. I illustrated them, too. I made her lemon drops, her favorite. I did her make-up for school dances.
X was a complication in our friendship equation. A complication that had metastasized over the years. It had its own gravity now, its own scent. That damp, rancid smell that air gets when the weather’s about to turn.
I liked to tell myself that he didn’t have the power over us that I gave him. He could only break us if I let him. But then I wondered why it all fell on me.
I took the flask out of my bag, applauding the foresight of my former self. I drank until the stars went blurry, until I convinced myself that I could see Mars with my binocular eyes. It wasn’t so far away, his home planet.
He didn’t talk about it often and only mentioned once that he missed it. I remembered because it was the night we slept together.
It was the summer after sophomore year of college. They both went to school in Boston, him at MIT, her at BU, a strategic choice on her part to remain close to him. I went to Vanderbilt, a choice that cemented me as a separate entity. I became an afterthought.
“Should we facetime Becky?”
“Should we invite her up?”
“Should we plan a visit?” they’d ask in unison, a unit, a “we.” A bold line drawn between us, dividing the trio that never really was a trio, just two and one. That summer, though, Carolyn was working a lot at the Cold Stone, saving for her semester abroad. She dedicated herself in eight hour shifts, coming home after midnight with her hair smelling like sugar, hands like bleach. That summer the line shifted. X and I spent our hours together, becoming the “we.”
“We’re coming to visit you.”
“Can we get free ice cream? Pretty please with a cherry on top?”
I had a boyfriend who lived in Dallas. He had an accent, a beard, real leather cowboy boots that he wore un-ironically. He was cute, had straight teeth and oil money. We met as freshman in world history and had been together for almost two years. He broke up with me over the phone on a Wednesday afternoon.
Carolyn was at work when it happened but X was around. He picked me up and took me to the movies, some brainless summer blockbuster with lots of explosions and no plot. After, he took me to a T.G.I. Fridays and ordered us everything greasy and fried. He tricked the bartender into serving us even though I was only nineteen.
“There’s no drinking age on Mars,” he said.
“What’s it like there?” I asked, elbows propped up on the table, wide-eyed.
“Beautiful,” he said. “It’s not red like everyone thinks. That’s the filter we use for outsiders. Outsiders aren’t welcome on Mars. It’s not like earth.”
“No one’s welcome anywhere.”
He shook his head, “It’s different. Much different. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” I said, picking a sprig of mint out of my mojito.
He laughed, “If anyone could, it’d be you, Becks.”
“Do you miss it?”
He sighed, “Yeah. I do.”
“Why don’t you go back? Visit?”
“I’ve been here too long, now. You can’t come and go. There are rules.”
“Sounds complicated,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I chose to stay.”
“Because you fell in love?”
I don’t know what compelled me to ask, but I asked, and the question hung above us, floating in the ether.
He looked at me.
Maybe I saw what I wanted to see.
I kissed him in the front seat of his car while we were parked in my driveway. I initiated but he didn’t pull away. It was a snowball of a kiss and soon I was taking him inside. My parents were used to X being over, they knew he didn’t belong to me, that he was Carolyn’s. They didn’t think twice.
In the half-finished basement, TV on loud, falling into the cracks between the cushions of the old couch. A Martian man is a lot like a human man only better.
We dressed quickly. I asked, “Are we going to pretend like this never happened?”
“No,” he said.
I thought about Carolyn, about her reaction. I thought about the pinky-promise we made, and how young we were when we made it. I thought about hurting her.
“We should keep this between us,” I said.
“You know I’ve been in love with you this whole time.”
My ears went screaming, aching to hear, “me too.” Please, I thought, say “me too.” What I got instead was, “I’m sorry about the Texan. You know what we call guys like that on Mars?”
I sobbed myself to sleep.
The dock stretched, carrying me out to the middle of the lake and away from the party. I was missing signature cocktails, the bouquet toss. I was missing the dessert bar, tiny cupcakes and brownies and caramel apples and chocolate covered strawberries. Adorable. I was missing coffee, the sobering element of the evening. Soon would be the sparkler send-off. I would miss that, too. I wondered if they’d notice.
Where’s Becky? We looked for you. We missed you.
I emptied my flask and found a spare cigarette in my bag. It was a bad idea to smoke it after the cigar. I could feel my lungs blackening, my throat raw. But I needed something, some form of destruction or release. I needed it to survive the evening and I wasn’t leaving the safety of my spot.
The water growled.
“Oh, hush,” I said.
I looked up to see a man standing a few feet from me. He was tall, well-dressed. A Martian. I guessed a cousin.
“Hello,” he said. “Mind if I sit?”
I shook my head, shimmied over as if there wasn’t enough room on the dock for the both of us, though he was far from me. He lit a cigar and leaned over the edge
“Careful,” I said. “There’s a monster in the lake.”
He laughed, “There’s always a monster.”
It was too dark to get a good look at him, but from his voice, from his outline, I could tell that he was very handsome. Maybe even more handsome than X. He looked so like him, for a moment I thought it could have been him.
I wondered sometimes if X was human if it would have been easier to let him go, if he was only special to me because of what he was and where he came from. Here was this other Martian. Maybe they were all the same.
“What are you doing out here by yourself?” he asked.
I tried to find his eyes, “I’m not by myself anymore, am I?”
He laughed, “Guess not.”
“Ah. He told me about you. The friend.”
“The friend,” I echoed on my exhale, striving for indifference but sounding defeated. “How long are you staying?”
“A few days, weeks, months. I don’t know. Have to see how I like it.”
I thought I saw him smile, a flicker of florescent teeth.
“I heard if you stay too long you can’t go back.”
He laughed again, “X tell you that?”
“No,” I said. “Some other Martian I know.”
“You don’t know any other Martians.”
I cast my cigarette butt into the lake and waited for the monster to rise up and swallow it, or spit it back at me, but the monster, if there even was one, didn’t show.
“I know you,” I said.
He puffed smoke in my direction, “Not yet.”
I knew the way women always know. His arrogance was earned.
“It’s funny. We used to think you were small and green.”
“Would you still love him? If he were small and green?”
This should have phased me but it didn’t. If anything I was shocked that no one else seemed to notice. I was either a wonderful actor or everyone else was, because if they did know they did a damn good job of hiding it. Especially Carolyn. With her I assumed denial. A conscious choice. Ignorance was easier.
Earlier, at the ceremony, it must have been written on my face.
I held the flask up to my lips even though I knew it was empty. I prayed for the whiskey ghost.
“You know,” I said, lightheaded and rambling, “even if she does know I can’t be mad at her. She’s done nothing wrong. I’m the one who has something to be sorry for. But he picked her. I’m out here pouting, but, you know. He wanted her. It was always her.”
He inched closer to me.
I shook my head, “I shouldn’t be telling you this. This is bad. It’s their wedding!”
He moved his face up to my face, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”
I fingered the ruffles of my dress, busied my gaze with the patterns of light and shadow on the dock. Avoided his eyes.
“You shouldn’t be sad,” he said.
“Mm.” He leaned back on his arms, angled his chin to the stars, “Martians eat their wives on their wedding nights.”
“You’re terrible,” I said.
This time I saw. He was smiling.
Something in me gave to the flutter of fear. The panic spread quick as poison. Was it a joke? Doubt flooded in. X would never do that, would he? He loved Carolyn. Didn’t he?
If he didn’t, did that mean he loved me? Was this the reason why he didn’t choose me? Where were all the Martian women? Did I need to warn her? Should I?
That’s how I learned who I loved more.
I became aware of the sound of laughter. I went to stand but then he kissed me and my mind went blank.