by Wendy J. Fox
It wasn’t until my second wedding that my first divorce really sank in. I was under the gazebo, waiting for my bride, Raquel. Raquel with the long auburn hair, tips dipped green, pink feathers woven in, and a braid with a purple ribbon wound around the crown of her head. Raquel, white dress, stitched with rhinestones and fake pearls. Raquel, whose borrowed diamonds from some rich friend made my ring to her look like a speck of mica. Raquel, barefoot on the grass that led up to the gazebo.
We wrote our own vows. We had the most perfect, meringue-light cake, spun sugar decorating it with such a halo it seemed a pity to cut—the wisps and the frosting cleaved under the ceremonial knife, the marzipan and fondant crumbled. We smiled. We didn’t jab the cake into one another’s faces, we only touched a bit of buttercream to each nose.
Then, endless bottles of golden champagne. It had only been an hour or so, but we were already remembering our parents in the front row of the padded folding chairs, who looked like silver and burnished pewter instead of their usual plain gray.
Raquel, in the aisle, coming toward me.
Raquel, lit perfectly in the afternoon light.
I had met her at a party thrown at our house by my first wife, Rachel. The similarity in their names was just a coincidence. Rachel had been the administrative assistant at my job, and I was, and still am, the IT guy. One day when I was fixing her laptop, Rachel leaned in close to see what I was doing, and I leaned back. Sometimes it’s that easy.
Rachel and I had gotten married one afternoon at the courthouse a building over from our office. Almost the entire staff had attended our wedding, and it was the kind of thing that people look back on and say they love about a job—when there is care and companionship in the day instead of just spreadsheets. It had been great fun, in that three-martini lunch kind of way.
Not even a year later, the night of the party, I met Raquel and learned she was an artist, a musician, a seeker. Raquel did not work at the company; she was merely a guest, the second cousin of our CFO. Our CFO’s wife was busy, so she brought Raquel instead. Raquel told me about the collection of stones she’d gathered from different seas—the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Cortez.
Only seas. Oceans, she said, were too big. Too awesome for one person to hold any piece of. Seas, she said, you could know. My wife, Rachel, didn’t even have a passport.
I was in love immediately, and it was extremely awkward. Rachel and I had not even celebrated our first wedding anniversary, and I was obviously living in our shared home. Still, something inside of me had turned away from her, toward Raquel. It was like waking from a dream. Or falling into one. For example, I hadn’t known that I longed to travel, and here Raquel had uncovered a desperate pull. I wasn’t sure if she felt the same way, but within a week she had contacted me, and we made plans to meet up in Taos. To get away I’d had to weave a very elaborate story about my cousin in Santa Fe—how his laptop needed to be fixed, that he’d gotten it infected doing something personal and, since the machine belonged to the labs at Los Alamos, where he worked, he could get into career-limiting trouble. This much was at least true; my cousin did work at the Los Alamos labs, and if he did pick up a porn virus on his work machine, the Department of Energy would likely be extremely unhappy. But I hadn’t talked to my cousin in probably two years, even though Santa Fe was not far from Denver.
“I’ll come with you,” Rachel had said. “It would be nice to take a little vacation.”
“He’s too embarrassed,” I said. “And I want to respect that he trusts me to do this. It’s kind of a confidential situation.”
“Well, you just told me about it, so you can’t think it’s too confidential,” Rachel said.
I agreed with her, but was still able to convince her not to come.
Raquel and I had decided to travel separately to make our first private meeting feel more like a rendezvous than a road trip. At a rest stop, I texted my cousin and asked him how things were going, how was work at the labs—establishing my alibi, I guess, in case I needed to.
Got a new job a while back, but things are good! You?
I texted him back, Great! Things are going well! And I said a prayer that my wife would not get curious and look my cousin up on LinkedIn.
As I drove from Denver toward the Colorado-New Mexico border, I did have a moment where I wondered just exactly what I thought I was doing. When I saw Raquel waiting for me at the tiny adobe cabin we had rented, I felt sure that whatever I was doing, it was right.
It certainly felt right, two glorious days in the desert with my phone on silent and coffee under the pergola.
Rachel quit the office when I ended our marriage, and the same day she left, someone changed my picture on the intranet to a very unflattering snapshot from a company picnic instead of my ordinary headshot. And I should have been able to change it back because I had administrative rights to the server, but I could not. So, I knew this came from very high up—perhaps Dave, our COO, though he never struck me as the vindictive type. I sent malware to his computer anyway, and he lost two weeks’ worth of work. Still, the photo remained. Remains.
Though I invited them all, almost no one from the office came to Raquel’s and my wedding. Our CFO and her wife came, but they were family. I wasn’t sure if it was timing or misplaced loyalty, but finally I decided I couldn’t care about either. A bride, some friends, the fairy-land cake—I was surprised how much I loved all the traditional trappings—I didn’t need the other people in the office, like Michael, or Sabine, or Kate, or any of them.
Maybe I was feeling a bit superior on our long-haul flight as Raquel and I made way to our honeymoon at thirty-thousand feet, but I imagined that my ex-wife would think visiting the UK sounded very expensive and cold. My passport was about to get its first stamp. Raquel and I were headed to the Celtic Sea, first England and then on to Wales. After we landed, we spent our initial night in a noisy hotel room near the Gatwick airport. My joints were swollen from the long plane ride and made worse by a salty meal in the lobby that I’d eaten only because I was too tired to think about how it tasted and too hungry to care. My new bride snored beside me, but I was still buzzing from the travel and disjointed in time. We’d lost hours over the Atlantic. It wasn’t something I was used to, though now I understood why Raquel had forced herself to stay up, even though she was dragging through customs, and she had barely kept her eyes open through our awful dinner.
Jet lag insomnia and the hard hotel bed—I wished Raquel had told me that she was working on a strategy to be able to sleep. All I saw was her on the brink of collapse, sober, but using the one-eye technique as we waited for our chips. Now she was snoozing, and I was wired awake.
It would be late afternoon in America, and I texted Rachel. This was not something I did often, but it was something I had started a few months ago. First, Where are you working now? Just curious. I hope you like it. And then, I am sorry for how all that went down. Do you still talk to anyone from the office? And the first one she replied to, I’m selling the house, and since you paid half the mortgage for that year, my guy is going to contact you, and you’ll get a check for your part of the pro-rated equity.
Okay, Rachel had said.
After that, I’d occasionally send her an update about the house, or check in about something. Her answers were always quick and cheerful. A Hey thanks for the $! when the profit for the house was sent.
I’m in London, I tapped, thinking about the expanse of water between us. I wasn’t sure if she would be impressed, and I wasn’t sure if she would ask why I was there.
Fun, she wrote.
The cursor blinked on the little screen, and I wondered what the charges were for international communication.
It’s wonderful, so far, I wrote.
I wondered if she had heard through the grapevine that I’d married. I figured she must have. And also cold, I tapped. And really, really expensive.
Long before Raquel, things at work had been weird for a while. Frankly, Rachel had seemed like she was the sanest of any of the women in the office. And I was trying to date again. When I’d first gotten the job, I was engaged, but in the first few months of my then-new job, the engagement had ended. That makes it sound like I was always trying to marry myself off. Maybe I was. I liked the idea. I liked the security of it. I liked the idea that I could be with someone and she would take my name and we could get old together, as one. My ex-fiancé, I will say, was not into the name-taking thing, and we fought about this. It was not until Rachel that I understood that I had been stupid to push my first serious ex.
Rachel also refused to take my name, though she was nice about it. When I told her I accepted it, she snorted and said there was nothing for me to accept. So, I learned that. I didn’t even bring it up to Raquel. I could see the point about what a hassle the whole thing would be, especially now that I had a passport. But, love. Love is a hassle too.
In the morning, I woke to Raquel nuzzling me. I’d been dozing for a few hours at most, but she was rested.
“Let’s consummate our marriage,” she said, reaching for me.
“We haven’t in Europe,” she said, and this was hard to argue with.
Afterward, we showered and had coffee. We had breakfast at the hotel, and I actually quite enjoyed it. I called it continental, but Raquel reminded me we were not on the European continent. Then I scrolled my texts. Nothing, including nothing from Rachel.
We gathered up our things and left the hotel. Even though we were both in our early forties, Raquel had been determined to travel younger, so we had only backpacks. She didn’t put it that way, “younger.” She said, “Let’s travel light.”
Our packs were both blue, mine a bit less burnished. Raquel’s hung against her spine like a child might, comfortable and slouchy, whereas mine was more like an adolescent grown too big for his skin and straining.
At our wedding, we had danced and danced and danced, and I’d finally kicked off my shoes to match her bare feet. The raised floor had been assembled just on the other side of our matrimonial gazebo. It was hard and equally as slick and sticky with spilled champagne and globs of cake, threads of sugar and bits of gravy from the buffet. There was also some danger there, we the only two with exposed soles, and our guests strapped into hard insoles and punishing heels—I watched my toes. Eventually some more of the women stepped into their stocking feet, but I was still looking out.
Swirl of dresses and shimmer and could I really believe this woman took vows with me—
Raquel was passing a joint to me, and the minute I hit it, I was so grateful for no shoes and the way the floor felt under my feet, even the stickiness, even the threat of broken glass, even how my arches felt sore and tenuous. I was in a bubble, a beautiful, gauzy bubble. The music was slow, people were slow, my movement was slowing. And then one of Raquel’s friends, well, one of my friends now, landed her spiked heel between my big and second toe.
At the reception, I had just winced and kept dancing though it really, really hurt, and I also didn’t complain about the way the interspace between my first and second metatarsal throbbed on the plane ride. Not that I was going to admit to Raquel that I had had to look up foot anatomy on WebMD to get the language right, if I was going to complain, and if she had asked me about it.
“I wonder if I could take a few things out of this pack,” I said, as we checked out of the hotel and went in search of a bus that would take us to the tube. I was remembering to call it the tube, not the train. Not the subway. “Maybe I could just ship some shirts or that other pair of jeans back.”
“You’re just thinking of this now?” A bus came by, but she waved it on.
It was raining. The hotel bill had been a bit more than I was expecting. “I hadn’t noticed how stuffed it was until now that we are walking around.”
Another bus came, and she pinched her eyes. She stepped back from the curb. “Not us,” she said.
“I feel silly,” I said.
Once we got to central London, I hated the pack even more. In addition to its being overstuffed, I hadn’t worn a backpack since college, and I handled it badly. Every five minutes or so, after I’d bonked them, some Londoner asked me to please mind your bag. Finally, we were in Trafalgar Square, just after lunch, sitting at a sopping table. I opened the pack and pulled out my rain jacket—which I should have been wearing—and a few changes of shorts, two shirts, and a pair of jeans and dumped them there on the pavement, feeling like a stupid, one-passport-stamp, bloated American.
“Better?” Raquel asked, as we walked to catch a train to our next hotel.
“I thought we were going to the Celtic Sea,” I said.
“We’re here, honey. It’s all around us. Can’t you feel it?”
I stopped my eyeroll just in time, before she turned.
I’m not going to say that I was perfect. I’m not going to say that Raquel was perfect. It’s never like one person does everything right and the other person does everything wrong.
What I will say: on day four of our marriage, day five if there are some generous time change calculations, Raquel and I were in a stuffy bed and breakfast, and I was sleeping on the floor, searching on my phone—data charges be damned—for a return ticket home. Even though the weather was sleet outside, I was not cold. Suffocating, perhaps, but not cold.
“Jesus, Christian, get a grip,” Raquel said, throwing a pillow my way.
“Gripping tightly, love,” I said in my best British accent, which was awful.
“What are we fighting about again?” she asked.
“Just a lovers’ quarrel, no matter!” This time, I thought the vowels were better.
“You sound like an idiot.”
I heard her roll over in the bed. Something had happened on the train after I’d left my clothes in the square, and then something had happened as we’d checked into the small B and B on the coast. I had mentioned the weather. I said something about how I didn’t know it would be so dreary.
“Missing your rain jacket?” Raquel had asked.
I got very angry then, because she was so smug. She could have told me way back in Denver that my pack was overstuffed. Maybe I didn’t have passport stamps, but I had traveled domestically. I traveled with a proper—proper!—carry-on that rolled.
“Is this what you wanted, vagabonding in Europe?” I asked, as the man at the front counter returned our passports.
“Is this what you call ‘vagabonding’?” she asked. “We have places to go. We have an itinerary. Jesus, we have credit cards.”
Just one tip of her multicolored hair had faded, but in a pretty way, a stripe of pearl across her shoulder. Almost the same color as spun sugar.
Our room at the B and B was charming, if I had been in the mood for it. Otherwise, the bed was very small, which is how I ended up on the floor.
“It’s not ‘small,’” Raquel said. “It’s European. Not everyone needs a California king just to sleep. Americans have beds the size of a small apartment. It’s so wasteful.”
“I think you are exaggerating,” I said.
“I think you have no idea,” she said.
In the morning, we got up early and had a short bus ride to Exeter, where we were planning on staying for a few days. Raquel wanted to go to Lizard Point, the southernmost tip of England. It would be another four hours via bus and train, and I was tired of traveling on public transportation. It was destroying my American sensibilities, I said, and Raquel said she would hire a car, but we couldn’t afford it—even though we could afford it if we had wanted to.
“It’s four more hours,” I said. “Half a workday there, and half a workday back.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Raquel asked.
“I’m tired,” I said. “I think I have jet lag.”
She’d washed her hair that morning, and even more of the color had come out. The green tips were more like a watery chartreuse.
Raquel was tired too; I could see it. “Like a fine Scotch moss,” I said, fingering the ends of her locks, trying my accent again.
“Or a damn bad dye job. I’m kind of pissed about it,” she said.
We decided we’d try for Lizard Point in the morning. We’d checked into a new B and B with a new tiny bed and the same old cloying air that everywhere had from keeping the windows jammed shut against the damp.
Then we spent the day darting between little pubs, drinking just enough to keep the edge off, but not enough to start talking. I’d given up on trying out my British accent, and Raquel had given up asking me if I was still mad “for no reason,” as she put it. I tried to believe that it was only rain that we kept wiping from under our eyes.
That night, we were still tense, but I crawled into the small bed with her. I wondered how long we could really stay married if it was already going so badly, and then I wished I hadn’t sold my house. Just as I put my head on the pillow, my phone lit up, and I saw Rachel’s name.
I read the text but didn’t reply. I moved to fit my body around my wife’s in the way people who have a new love do, angling to touch as much of the other’s body as possible.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” she said.
I understood that Raquel had an idea of what I should say, but I didn’t know what it was. “All of it,” I said, and hoped it didn’t come out like a question.
Two puzzle pieces, mated, but just at the beginning. We were clenching tight, with no idea what the bigger picture would be. In the damp room. In the small bed. Our skin had started to gel together, cool and warm at the same time.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” I said.
“I know,” she said, and then she slipped out of the bed, dragging a pillow along with her, and curled up on the floor.
Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel If the Ice Had Held and the forthcoming collection What If We Were Somewhere Else. She has written for The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Self, Electric Literature, and Ms., and her work has appeared in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.
Image: Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0