“Wedding Vows”

This story was inspired by a writing prompt: “Two people remember the same memory very differently”… Or something along those lines. I think I took the prompt a bit further than intended, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. What memory have my characters confused? Their wedding day.

“Wedding Vows” by Ash Valente

“Layla,” she heard him call from the other side of the host’s desk.

            She approached him with a wistful ‘hey’ and half-hearted hug. He had the audacity to kiss her cheek and say she looked great, to which she replied, “Thanks. You look great too, Rich.”

           They were led to what the waitress called the diner’s most romantic table, and Layla wondered what the starry-eyed girl with ponytailed hair would think if she knew the truth – that this table was seating the end of a romance instead of the beginning.

            Rich ordered the drinks, remembering with his usual efficiency that she liked her coffee with hazelnut creamer and asking that the waitress bring some when she had the chance. Then he looked at Layla with a distant version of his old tenderness, and Layla thought, ‘My God, can this really be happening? Are we really getting divorced?’ They were silent until they ordered dinner, the raindrops pattering on the diner window under the waitress’s cheery questions and Layla’s turbulent thoughts. The girl stepped away; Rich’s voice filled the calm like a crack of thunder. “Well, I guess we both know why we’re here.”

            Layla stirred her coffee. “Did you ever think it would end like this?”

            “Not in the beginning,” he replied. In one prolonged movement he took her hand, his right grasping her left so the pair lay clasped on the tabletop like the hands of teenagers. “Remember our first date?”

            “Of course,” Layla said, feeling pain at the smile that rose unwillingly to her lips. “You were a half hour late.”

            “Forty-five minutes,” he corrected.

            “Forty-five minutes, that’s right. I can’t believe I forgave you.”

            “But you did.”

            They fell into silence until their food arrived. Rich knew at once that her steak was rarer than she’d like and sent it back. The bittersweet talk continued as Rich cut his country fried steak. “I was on time every date after that,” he said.

            “Yes,” she said, “and the wedding came soon after.”

            He nodded and swallowed a forkful of corn. “I can see us now, quaking in front of the altar.”

            “I couldn’t look at you at first. Just stared down at my shoes.”

            “But then you looked up. And that flower crown on your head was crooked.” Rich chuckled. “I straightened it.” Layla giggled back. It was an irresistible exchange that warmed them under the heating lamp of memory.

            It was then that Layla became solemn. “Then the vows,” she muttered, eyes shuttered and moist. “The priest said… ‘Do you, Richard, take Layla to be your lawfully wedded wife?’”

            “And I said yes,” Rich whispered back.

            “Then he said, ‘Do you, Layla, take Richard to be your lawfully wedded husband?’”

            Rich nodded slowly, raised his glass to his lips. “Yes,” he breathed, raising his glass to his lips. “Then you said no.”

            A set of plates clattered loudly as a busboy dropped them carelessly into his plastic basin. Layla jumped. When the diner was all quiet except for the sound of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” her body was still tense, her mouth gaping. “What did you say?” Layla finally croaked.

            Though she barely understood herself, Rich seemed to hear her perfectly. “He said, ‘Do you, Layla, take Richard to be your lawfully wedded husband,’ and you answered, ‘No.’ Remember?”

            Layla could barely think over the furious pounding of her brain. She managed to sputter, “N – No, Rich, I said, ‘Yes.’ I said yes, and you kissed the bride. Then we had three miserable years together. Remember?

            Rich chuckled and dabbed his lips with a napkin. “I know I’m laughing,” he said, body shaking, “but that’s not funny. I know we were together a long time, but that’s not marriage. Not even common law.” He looked totally in earnest.

            Layla threw up her hands in disgust, disregarding her newly arrived steak. She hollered over Rich’s thanks to the waitress, “Are you trying to say we’re not married? That we were never married?”

           Rich shushed her and clasped her hand once again, this time a bit too tightly. “I know our relationship felt a lot like a marriage, but – ”

            “It didn’t feel like a marriage,” Layla snapped, trying in vain to pull away from him. “It was one! What about the reception? The honeymoon?”

            “We couldn’t very well turn away all those guests or get the deposit back on our trip! We let them be celebrations of us.” Eyes wide with apparent concern, he still managed a nostalgic grin. “I think we enjoyed both all the more. We were totally relaxed, free from newlywed jitters. We included everyone in the first dance. And on our third night in Venice I pretended I was a charming gigolo, picking up a pretty stranger in the plaza. Remember that?”

            “Well, yes,” Layla reluctantly replied. She sat stupefied. Rich was so competent in everything, so unquestionable. And his memory was so sound. Layla herself had forgotten the roleplaying in Venice. “No,” she asserted again, but her voice lacked conviction. “You’re playing some prank. I said yes.”

            Rich patted her hand, comforting her as he might a geriatric woman or an invalid dog. “You said no. You weren’t ready for the commitment. You started to cry in front of everyone, you even faced the congregation and apologized for wasting their time.”

            She knew she had cried but had thought the tears were happy. She remembered apologizing to their guests but remembered being sorry for her struggle to speak with joy lodged in her throat. “I could have sworn I said, ‘I do,’” she whispered. But even to herself she sounded crazy.

            “But you didn’t,” Rich replied plainly, bluntly. He relaxed in his side of the booth, gestured smiling toward her plate, “Shouldn’t you start eating?”

            Layla fell mute and began obediently cutting pieces of steak. ‘Maybe I did say no, she thought. ‘Maybe after we exchanged the rings – ’

            “The rings!” Layla shouted, throwing down her for knife and fork in triumph. “That’s proof we were married!” She raised her left hand in the air.

            But her ring finger was bare.

            Rich lifted his arm to show her his left hand. He even wiggled his fingers for emphasis. There was nothing there.

            “I – I…” Her eyes filled with tears, she lifted them to look at Rich with pleading. “I had it on, I did. But now there’s nothing.” Was that the sum of all her memories, of the pain and heartache she endured these three years? Nothing?

            “There wasn’t a ring,” Rich said. “But hey,” he added with a pitying grin, “that makes this easier, right?” He stood up, pulled some cash out of his wallet and left it next to her plate. “That should cover everything. I’m finished here.

           “Take care of yourself.” Those were his last words as he left the diner, walking with the ease of any bachelor. No one but the waitress noticed as he passed his left hand buried in his pocket, fingering something as he gave her a tip and a lingering smile.

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