“Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered years of agony all for her, for such a woman.
Beauty, terribly beauty!”
-Homer, The Iliad
Everyone pictures themselves getting married when they go to a wedding. I did, but I shouldn’t have. It was the most perfect wedding I had ever been to, and nothing else should have mattered. But I was seventeen and selfish and had yet to learn that the main character of my story wasn’t even me.
I snapped out of it once the doors opened.
Helen was the most beautiful woman I had ever met, but in a wedding dress, she was a force of heaven. I always had a bit of a schoolboy crush on her—who wouldn’t?—but if there was any of that left, it went away as I watched her walk down the aisle. Everything in me went silent. And it wasn’t just me; there were no gasps, no sighs, no sobs from the rows of eager and awestruck faces crammed in that little chapel. I could have believed that the entire galaxy was holding its breath for her.
I didn’t want to look away from her, but I’m glad I did, because from where I stood beside him, I could see a small, silvery tear on Uncle Josh’s cheek. It was the most precious and perfect little tear, and I wanted to scoop it off his face and bottle it in a glass jar with a cork to keep somewhere, but he raised his hand to his eye, and it was gone.
Helen reached the altar, and Josh took her by the hands and whispered something in her ear. I didn’t hear what it was, and I didn’t try to. It was something solely meant for her, and it would have been theft to take any of it for my own ears. The two of them turned to face the minister, and Helen caught my eye and wagged her fingers in a tiny wave. I grinned and winked back.
“Dearly beloved…” The minister began, but it was all just words. They weren’t important. I waited for Josh and Helen to speak.
I once had a terrible history teacher who told me that art was pointless because it was always a shadow of the real thing and would never be the thing itself.
“Why look at a painting of a sunset,” he said, “when you can go outside and look at a real sunset? Humans need to stop attempting to capture Nature and plaster her onto pieces of paper.”
Well I certainly never agreed with my teacher about art, but after listening to Josh and Helen’s vows, it would indeed be pointless for me to plaster them onto a piece of paper. They were the most beautiful words ever spoken; if they had been poetry, Shakespeare would have turned in his grave with jealousy. But only the people who were in that chapel will ever know them. It wouldn’t do any good to have them written down.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife.” That was it. They were married. “You may kiss the bride.”
Uncle Josh pulled back Helen’s veil—oh God, and when I thought she couldn’t be any more beautiful—and gave her one of those pure, melting kisses that most people could only hope for once in a hundred years. Like he had been waiting a lifetime for that one kiss. And if I hadn’t known if before, I knew then that Helen was loved. She was so, completely loved that it made me believe all the best things about the world, even just for that moment. There had to be such a thing as goodness if there was love like that. We all clapped, and the same joy that burned my cheekbones radiated from every other face in the pews.
It may have been boyish, but I whistled.
During the reception, old people came up to me and said things like “You’re next” or “That’ll be you one day, sonny,” but I didn’t care.
Joshua Adams and Helen Carmichael were married on the first day of spring. It wasn’t even my wedding, but it was the happiest day of my life.
I slept in Uncle Josh’s greenhouse that night, instead of in my bedroom across from his. I don’t know, seemed like he deserved some privacy on his wedding night, or as much privacy as anyone gets in Everett, Illinois. The town is so small and cookie-cutter that it could be fictional. Four traffic lights, a population just under 5,000, ninety minutes from booming Chicago, isolated from what the old folks call “the world,” but no one ever gets any privacy. So I figured I would do Josh a favor and let him and his new bride be completely alone for the night. Plus, Helen had never been in the bedroom (they were old-fashioned like that), and I thought I might die if I heard anything through the walls.
But the greenhouse was fine. Gave me space for thought. I set up my pillow and blanket on a bench and stared up through the glass ceiling at the stars—just a few white freckles in the open, black expanse, because you couldn’t see many stars this close to the city. I thought about Uncle Josh and how happy he was. I thought about Helen and how I would like having her around. I thought about how I liked being seventeen because it was like being eighteen but without the stamp of adulthood. And I thought about my Calculus test on Wednesday and prayed for a plague. But all in all, it was a good night to sleep under Everett’s stars.
I should clarify by saying that I’m technically not even from here. My dad is. Was. He met my mom in Chicago and moved there when he married her, and I appeared at some point. I was seven when they died in a car accident on Madison Avenue: the product of a red light and my father being an untalented drunk driver. But I got sent to live with Josh, my godfather and my dad’s closest living relative. My father had several years on him, but in the alternate universe of their childhood, they had been as thick as thieves. That changed when my mom showed up.
I may go to hell for saying it, but I’m glad my parents died.
There’s a cheery thought.
I shifted my head on my pillow and pictured Helen, how beautiful she had looked at the wedding. If my future wife was half as beautiful as her on our wedding day, I would be the luckiest man in the world.
In the morning, I was awoken by a butterfly tickling my nose. I waved it away and sat up, my shoulders stiff from the wooden bench. The bugs in the greenhouse were always louder in the morning, and my head buzzed from the noise. I left out the glass door and came into the house through the back, where I found Josh making breakfast in the kitchen.
“Micah!” He grinned; he seemed implausibly glad to see me. “How’d you sleep?”
“Fine,” I grunted and slumped into one of the kitchen chairs. It was too early to be articulate.
He poured me a mug and slid it to me across the table, then returned to the stove to stir the eggs.
I took a sip and shook out my hair a little; I was blessed with floppy, brown hair that never did what I wanted it to. “Where’s Helen?”
His back was turned to me, but I could tell he was smiling, like just the sound of her name could lift his heart to heaven. “She’s still asleep.”
The teenage boy in me wanted to make a crude joke, but I didn’t dare. Instead, I peered around him at the eggs sizzling in the pan and the fresh fruit in a bowl on the counter. “So is this all for Helen, or do I get some?”
“Who do you think these eggs are for? Scrambled with tomatoes, right?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” I watched as he diced a tomato, fresh from the greenhouse, and sprinkled the pieces in with the egg. “What are you making Helen, then?”
“Muffins and ham are in the oven. You can have some too if you’d like.” He tossed the eggs in the pan like the chefs at the diner did. “We’re feasting this morning!”
It was kind of cute to see him like this. Even though he was thirty-two, sometimes he reminded me of an old man. Like Mr. Morris, who owned the exotic bird shop and talked about his grandkids all day. Maybe it was his soul. That was it, Josh had an old soul.
He flipped the eggs onto a plate and handed it to me with a fork. I took it from him greedily. His eggs were usually the only reason I got up in the morning. But I paused between mouthfuls to watch him hop around the kitchen, from the oven to the stove to the chopping board where he was cutting the fruit.
“You seem happy.”
He just smiled. “I am, kid.”
I finished my eggs in a few more seconds and pushed back my plate. “Will you tell me how you and Helen met?”
“You know how we met.”
“But I like hearing you tell the story.” I leaned forward and rested my chin on my forearms, staring up at him like a dog. “Just tell me while the muffins are baking.”
“Well.” He sank into the chair next to me and scratched the brown scruff on his cheek (what he had missed while shaving for the wedding) like he did whenever he was excited about what he had to say. He looked younger without his thicker beard, but there was still that agedness about those deep, green eyes.
“It was July of last year,” he said, “and I was having an excellent week because my blueberries were ripe, the summer flowers were in bloom, and it seemed like the whole town was coming into the shop. And one day, this hooded figure comes in to buy dahlias. I could tell that she was a woman, and I had seen her in town a few times before, but I had never seen her face. She was always in a hood, even in the summer weather. But this was her first time in the shop.
“ ‘I’d like a bouquet of dahlias,’ she said, and her voice was the sweetest thing I had ever heard, like her words were lyrics to a marvelous song.
“I gave her the flowers, and as I was making change, I saw her lift the bouquet to her nose to smell, and her eyes peeked out from under her hood. She had the most beautiful face I had ever seen, but when she realized her face was visible, she quickly pulled her hood back down over her eyes and nose and ran out of the shop, not even bothering to take her change.
“Well, I asked around everywhere, because I had to know who this young woman was that had bought the dahlias. And I came to find out that her name was Helen Carmichael, and she lived with her mother in one of the ranch houses on the very edge of town. So I took a single dahlia flower and went to the house, where I met her mother, Lucy, but didn’t find her. I asked Lucy why her daughter wore that terrible hood all the time, and wouldn’t she let me see Helen? But Lucy said that she’d had Helen after being raped as a teenager, that Helen was very beautiful, and she made her daughter cover her face because she didn’t want the same thing to happen to her. And she turned me away, and I went home.”
The truth was that Lucy Carmichael was an ice-hearted bitch, but Josh would never say so. Not long after Josh met Helen, it came out that though Lucy had gotten pregnant in high school, she hadn’t been raped; she had fallen in love, which in her eyes was worse. And Helen’s father had moved to California, leaving her to raise Helen by herself. Lucy only made her daughter wear a hood because she was inordinately jealous of Helen’s beauty, and Helen complied because of the deep-seeded fear of men that her mother had instilled in her since childhood. I never understood how women could hate each other for being beautiful.
“What I didn’t know,” Josh went on, “was that Helen had been in the back room listening to my entire conversation with her mother. She came to me that night in secret, told me that she wasn’t afraid of me, had this feeling that she was supposed to be with me, and together we tore up her hood. And by winter, we were engaged.”
It was my favorite love story. Maybe it was girlish to like a romance, but I swear this was the only one I ever liked.
Light footsteps came from the stairs, and Helen came into the kitchen. She was dressed in a bathrobe, barefoot, and her voluminous, golden waves were delightfully disheveled. I couldn’t help beaming, and then, embarrassed, I stared down into my coffee mug.
“No, go back to bed,” Josh said. “I was making you breakfast.”
“Smells good.” Helen peered into the oven to see the poppyseed muffins rising, and when she wasn’t looking, Josh took her by the waist, brought her body to fit perfectly against his, and kissed her sweetly. If they had been my parents, I would have complained and made faces, but I watched my fork as I twirled it through my fingers and let them have their fun.
“Good morning,” Josh said once he had drawn back.
“Morning.” Helen kissed him on the cheek and crossed over to where the fruit bowl sat on the counter. “Morning, Micah. Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah, the greenhouse was nice.”
“And what about you, my love?” Josh smiled at her. “Did you sleep well?”
Helen nodded and closed her lips around a grape.
“I’ll bet you did,” I muttered and got a blackberry hurled at my head. I grimaced and wiped the juice off my cheek. “Aren’t you supposed to still be in bed?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for school?” she retorted.
“Fine.” I stood and piled my dirty dishes in the sink, then started out of the kitchen.
“Go upstairs, and I’ll bring you the food when it’s ready,” Josh told Helen. “You weren’t supposed to see any of this.”
“I’ll act surprised,” she promised and turned to follow me up the stairs.
“And Micah,” Josh called, “when you leave, make sure the sign outside says we’re closed.”
I told him that I would and jogged up the steps. Then Helen went into her bedroom, and I went into my own.
Ten minutes later, I was downstairs again and leaving out the front door of Josh’s shop. The sign on the door was, in fact, flipped to the Closed side. I took a black marker out of my bag and in the margin wrote Just married.