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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Better Than You: part 24





A year seemed so long a thing on paper, but in practice, it was only a heartbeat or two. A snow, a storm, a hot night and cool morning. New blossoms and the curled, brown edges of failing leaves. It passed so quickly that few took true note of all the small things – the snowflakes and daffodil tufts and spreading branches of trees. Humans are so stuck inside themselves they see the passage of time from one angle, through one lens, never understanding how they can so deeply alter the lives of others.


Delta’s year was punctuated by phone calls and consultations, roses and tiny sample cakes, veils and dress fittings and a thousand emails between her and a woman named Maureen from Billingsly Castle in Ireland. And through all of it, her mother became the most vicious, hideous, hell-bent-on-perfection mother of the bride anyone had ever seen. Louise had one daughter, one wedding to plan, and it was to be an affair that rivaled the royals. By May, Delta felt stretched so thin she had to remind herself that it was her wedding she was slaving over.

She also had to continually remind herself that Jo Walker was soon to be her sister-in-law and that she couldn’t give her the pinch she so desperately needed – not her or her elegant, yet protective big sister Jessica. Mike’s sisters were proving to be two more flies in the ointment. Big biting horseflies.


“Why are we even here?” Delta overheard Jo say as she passed the table where the youngest Walker was slumped with chin propped on the backs of her hands, staring at the bubbles in her soda.


“Because we’re bridesmaids,” her sister whispered back to her, and Jo made a childish face, feet swinging under the tablecloth. As Delta spared the little jeans and sneakers-wearing heathen a glance from the corner of her eye and continued toward the head of the room, she asked herself for the hundredth time why Jo Walker was, in fact, a bridesmaid.


The wedding party was out of control. All of Delta’s friends – most of whom were more acquaintances with wheedling, little girl voices – had begged and wheedled their way into being included. Louise had loved it. “You can’t have too many attendants, dear,” she’d said. “You want to look like an important bride with plenty of people who love you.” Numbers didn’t equal love, but telling that to Louise had been even less productive than the two hours Delta had wasted trying to talk her mother out of Billingsly. The wedding was being held at a castle; she needed plenty of ladies in waiting to flank her up at the altar. Regina had, at one point, offered to stay behind to lessen the party by at least one, but Delta had clutched her sleeve. Her best friend was the one person she actually wanted in attendance.


And then had come the most insufferable meeting-of-the-parents, the Walkers and Brooks looking like the before and after shots of a family suffering through the economic downswing. It had been the most awkward dinner of Delta’s life, and judging by the sheen of sweat on his forehead, Mike’s too. Beth had only heightened the strain when she’d asked, “What about the girls? Your sisters, Mikey – are they going to be in the wedding?”


Louise hadn’t known about the sisters, but her reaction had been immediate. “Of course,” she’d told Beth with a saccharine false smile that sent a shudder running up Delta’s spine. After dinner, Delta had been cornered in the study. “I didn’t know there were sisters!” her mom had hissed. “Now we have to include the stupid little rednecks!” And she hadn’t been swayed: sisters were to be a part of the party, as per Southern tradition and every Lifetime original movie Louise had ever watched. So Jess and Jo Walker were bridesmaids. Reluctantly so. It made a luncheon like this one all the more tortuous.


Moving toward the warm, alluring light that poured in through the front windows and made her want to just keep going to the door and out of the non-chain coffee shop where they were having scones, finger sandwiches and wedding talk, Delta took a deep breath and squared up her shoulders. The din of voices behind her could have belonged to a school lunchroom full of children rather than self-professed “ladies”, and the noise set her teeth on edge. With one last longing look out at the street, she turned and faced her bridesmaids.


“Afternoon, girls,” she greeted in a voice that fell flat. Why was she doing this? How had Mike on one knee in his boxers with I love you turned into such a spectacle? It felt, as the chatter died down and heads swiveled in her direction, like all these babbling sheep-women were getting to witness something intimate and personal they shouldn’t have. What she had with Mike was something shimmering and wonderful she didn’t know how to describe in relation to any other aspect of the life she’d led thus far, and she didn’t want her friends looking at it for some reason. Pulling it out in public and gossiping over it, making a mess of it and dissecting it and asking questions that took all the emotionality out of it.


She couldn’t worry about that now; she could only squirm inside the bright red dress Mike had bought for her on the second day of their meeting. “Girls,” she repeated, and ten pairs of eyes locked onto her eagerly. Two pairs sourly. Jo and Jess hated this.


As she talked the girls through the schedule of the coming week – her mother looking on with laser-intense eyes that bespoke of her vicarious joy – she tried to think of something, some gesture, that would ease the tension between her and Mike’s sisters.


It came to her; as she discussed their flight arrangements, her eyes collided with Jo’s jaded, blue-green stare and she knew what she could do for her future sister-in-law. If her jaded, broken little heart could find someone new to fixate on, maybe Jo wouldn’t be so miserable, wouldn’t hate her so bad, and maybe Tam would be pissed to boot, which would be a bonus.




The only thing that qualified Tam to be Mike’s best man was his gender. Why in the hell a guy with two blood brothers would ask him of all people to stand up next to him was beyond his reasoning. Mike still called him his best friend, the open door policy was still very much in effect, but Mike had new friends now. Grown-up, college-educated, professional friends who would have filled the role better.


“Come again?” Tam asked, and made a reflexive reach for the bottle of Jack Daniels he’d left on the counter.


They were in Mike’s kitchen, seeking out drinks between poker games while the rest of the friends – those grown-up assholes Tam hated so much – talked in low murmurs over at the felt-topped poker table under the living room window. Mike folded his arms and leaned back against the counter, eyes going to the whiskey Tam splashed over ice in his glass tumbler. “Dude, you’re throwing them back tonight,” he observed, and Tam frowned.


“Not exactly best man material, huh?”


Mike’s sigh was a patient one, if there was such a thing. “I can’t ask Walt or Jordie,” he said. “’Cause I wouldn’t ask Walt anyway and he’d get offended because he’s the oldest and I was his. And Jordie wouldn’t do it.”


So he was the backup choice, then.


“But you were the first one I thought of,” Mike went on, and Tam’s hand shook just a little as he set the bottle down. “Man, c’mon, of course I picked you, It’s called a ‘best man’, right? Well, you’re my best man.”


It was an honor – or was supposed to be, anyway – but Tam felt stirrings of dread and anxiety. “What about them?” he gestured through the half-way with his tumbler.


“What about ‘em?”


“They…” aren’t anything like me, he wanted to say. I’ll be this hideous sore thumb. A black spot on your wedding pictures. “They probably have nicer shoes than I do,” he finished lamely, and took a long swallow of his drink, the burn going down his throat heavenly.


Mike snorted, then sobered; Tam could feel his gaze on his profile and did his best to ignore it. “Hey,” Mike lowered his voice and it became the almost-urgent whisper of their boyhood: I can tell them I started the fight; You can have my sandwich; You wanna come home with me instead? “I can spot you the money if you need it,” he said and for one terrifying moment, Tam was fourteen again, all skinny legs and knobby elbows, hair in his face, and Mike was this big blonde doofus window to salvation. He was hungry and hurting and yearning for things he couldn’t put a name to and he knew that if he went to the Walkers’ for dinner, there would be mop-headed Jordie wanting to play pool, and, more importantly, little tiny Jo with skinned knees and grass-stained socks asking him if he’d brought his skateboard. But then the ice cubes shifted in his glass and he was twenty-six and Mike was offering to rent him a tux for the wedding. “It can just be a loan,” Mike went on, because he knew that outright charity would be refused, “you can pay me back whenever.”


“I don’t need the money,” Tam lied, and downed the rest of his Jack.


Mike took a moment to weigh the truth of that, then shrugged. “So you’ll do it then?”




A big hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Awesome.” His voice came bounding back to its normal volume. “Dude, wait till you see all of Delta’s bridesmaids. If you can’t get lucky with one of them, then you can’t get lucky at all.”


And if any of them were anything like Delta, he wouldn’t touch them with someone else’s. “Where is your blushing bride tonight, by the way?” It seemed like it had been ages – a year, really – since it had been just the guys without that devil-woman hanging off Mike’s arm.


Mike coughed a laugh. “Out with my sisters. Poor Delta – she thinks she can actually fix Jo up with someone.”


And just like that, the two whiskeys he’d already had were as potent as water in his belly and he was reaching for the bottle again.




“Jo,” it took every ounce of Delta’s patience to keep her tone light and conversational, “you might try smiling the next time someone comes over to talk to you.”


Jo – dressed in a simple black sheathe dress that was probably what she wore to funerals, simple black pumps and the lightest touch of makeup – was already far outshined by the rest of the nightclub goers, but to make matters worse, she stared daggers at any man who even dared approach their table.


The four of them – Delta, Regina, Jo and Jessica – sat at a high-top table with a good view of the dance floor, close enough to the bar so that, as Regina had explained, a man could see them and send a drink right over. So far, only Regina was doing any flirting. Jessica kept calling her husband to check on their son. And Jo was the most miserable-looking girl to ever disgrace Aces.


“Gee,” her eyes flashed up through the gloom, nothing short of hateful, “if that’s all it takes, then I should be swimming in men.”


“Jo,” her sister touched her arm, “don’t be so dramatic.”


“Anyone can get lucky here,” Regina offered. Her hair was in loose red curls down her back and her strapless dress gave her the look of a sausage stuffed in blue satin, as unkind as it was of Delta to think that. But Regina wouldn’t have cared; she would have shrugged and said, “I like food like I like men. I can’t say ‘no’ to either.” She gave her hair a toss. “Get some alcohol in you and it won’t even matter if you like them.”


It was meant, in Regina’s blunt and shameless way, as helpful, but Jo’s lip curled up and she didn’t take it that way.


Delta glanced at Jessica and met the blonde’s cool gaze. “I’m a little surprised,” Jess said, “that you’d be so generous, Delta. Trying to help Jo find a date.” It wasn’t a compliment or a thank you.


Delta took a sip of her wine and forced a tight smile. “I do what I can.”


“It’s a waste of time,” Jo sulked.


Regina snorted. “It is with that attitude. You know, honey, they only bite if you ask them to. Take one home and you might decide you like them.”


Jo drew herself up to her unimpressive full height, spine stiff, lips compressed in a tight line. Jessica’s eyes flashed a protective warning.


Regina fished the cherry out of her Manhattan and pulled it off the stem with her teeth, grinning. “Gotta get that cherry popped sometime.”


Jo’s reaction wasn’t the taken aback flush of a virgin; Delta had seen photographic evidence to the contrary, but she hadn’t expected her to still be so stuck on Tam. Her eyes narrowed to angry slits and she slid off her chair. “Like hell am I staying here,” she growled under her breath, snatched her purse off the table and slipped into the undulating crowd.


“Shit,” Jess murmured, and took off after her sister.


Beside her, Delta heard Regina sigh. “Dramatic bunch, aren’t they?”


Delta swallowed and didn’t answer. They were a dramatic bunch she was about to marry into.




Despite the slick black tile and modern art pieces bracketing the mirror, the bathroom at Aces was, after all, a bathroom, and it smelled like one. Jo snapped another paper towel from the dispenser and pressed it to her eyes, stiff, furious and shaking in her efforts to stem the unnecessary tears that clouded her vision.


“Jo,” her sister said, “don’t tell me you let those rich bitches actually hurt your feelings.” Even at her most supportive, Jess was too blunt. Jo was long since used to it. “I’m going to be embarrassed for you if you’re upset about the cherry comment.”


“I’m not,” Jo said with a sniffle and patted at her eyes some more, and was being mostly honest. She could endure all the comments in the world: it was a night bombarded by leering, predatory men and being reminded of what she really wanted, under all her layers of indignation and hurt, that had left her eyes swimming.


Jess’s arm dropped across her shoulders. “Is this about…?”


“Yes,” she groaned. “I don’t mean for it to be, okay? It’s not like I want him back or anything. I’m not that stupid. I just…”


She just couldn’t stop comparing the men who sidled up to their table to him. Couldn’t stop envisioning his smile, couldn’t stop hearing his voice right in her ear, all those whispers over the years. The upcoming wedding, the inescapable knowledge that she would have to endure Tam again, was getting to her after all. She could blame it on the beer, but it was her stupid, overly emotional, too-attached little heart that was to blame for the sudden wash of tears.


“It’s okay,” Jess assured, and gave her a squeeze. “Better to get it out of your system now and not in front of him.”




The stink of cigar smoke hit Delta full in the face as she let herself into the townhouse later that night. The boys were having a poker night, and from the sound of clinking glasses, it was coming to an end and someone had been put on dishwashing duty. She stepped out of her heels in the foyer and walked barefoot across the cool hardwood toward the back of the house.


Mike was at the poker table stacking chips and cards with his friend Ryan. “Hey, baby,” he called and she gave him a wave before she slipped into the kitchen. Tam was the one at the sink, up to his elbows in soapy water, washing their whiskey glasses by hand. He snuck a look at her from under the black spikes of his hair, frowned, then dropped his gaze to the sink again.


Delta didn’t hate Tam, but she couldn’t bring herself to like him either. If anything, the year since Mike’s proposal had only hardened his already bleak opinion of her. They avoided one another at all costs, speaking only when strictly necessary, and Delta met every one of his disapproving, silent snarls with one of her own. It felt like they were two dogs fighting over the same bone, the bone being Mike. She’d heard, more than a few times, some hissed, dark comment as she’d left the room, Tam wanting Mike to dump her, to ditch her, to move on, or however he chose to phrase it at the moment. Mike kept pacifying her with vague mentions of Tam’s “rough patch” or “shitty life” and so on, but the only thing shitty Delta had ever seen was Tam himself.


After her hellish evening with the Walker sisters, her patience was a thread at best. If she hadn’t had a chance to vent her frustrations on Jo, maybe she’d vent them on the next best thing – Mr. I-love-Jo.


She put on a neutral, pleasant expression and stepped around him to get to the fridge. “Did you boys have a nice night?” she asked, all innocence, as she opened the door and pretended to search for something.


He murmured something in the affirmative as he took a sponge to his next glass a la Mrs. Doubtfire.


“That’s good,” her voice was overly cheery. “We did too. I went out with Mike’s sisters, you know.” She reached for a bottled water and stole a quick glimpse of Tam’s profile. His hands had stilled on the glass and he was watching her with a frozen sort of alarm, blue eyes wide, chest still as he held his breath. The pathetic idiot – he was schoolgirl stuck on nothing-special little Jo. “Jo’s kind of plain,” she continued as she shut the fridge and turned to face him fully, “but she got some attention tonight. I think I could fix her up with someone.”


He let the tumbler go and it bobbed into the soapy water as his hands grabbed the edge of the sink. His head snapped toward her, jaw clenched tight and, if it was possible, was more aggressive than the night he’d found her with his wallet. Only this time, Mike and the other guys on the other side of the half-way were incentive to keep his cool.


“If you,” he started through his teeth, and Delta cut him off with a wide smile.


“If I what?” she asked, and spun away from him.


The sweet rush of satisfaction never came, though. That was a mean girl’s game – the taunting and game-playing, and even if she was a bitch, she wasn’t a mean girl. As she slid into the living room and stepped into Mike’s offered hug, pressed her cheek to the soft front of his shirt and inhaled the laundry detergent and cologne smell of him, she felt a knot settle in the pit of her stomach. It was part guilt for never telling Mike what she knew about his best friend, part resentment of the hatred Tam and Jo felt for her, and part sadness to think that she would stoop so low as to provoke the hopelessly heartbroken.




“Was your mission a success?” Mike asked Delta as they were getting ready for bed.


She was standing in his bathroom, barefoot on the mat, flossing in front of the mirror in one of those short, satin nightgowns he still couldn’t believe anyone wore outside of catalogues. She might have frowned, but it was hard to tell because her upper lip curled back as she slid the floss between her front teeth.


“No,” she said, and then he knew for sure she was frowning as she dropped her hands. She bared her teeth for one last check, then trashed the floss and opened the medicine cabinet for her toothbrush. “Apparently the night club was a bad idea.”


“I coulda told you that, sweetheart.”


“Yeah, well…” she shrugged and laid a stripe of toothpaste on her brush.


Mike sat down on the edge of the bed and watched her: watched the light limn the silhouette of her legs through the thin satin. “What do you care about hooking Jo up with someone anyway? She’s tried her whole life to be a boy, but I don’t think she actually likes them,” he snorted.


“Your sister’s not gay,” Delta said with conviction, and took the toothbrush to her molars.


Mike wasn’t even sure he’d thought that, but her single status was starting to be suspect. “Even if she’s not,” he said, “it’s not like she’s doing anything to make herself look straight. Just…don’t waste your time.”


But when Delta spit out her toothpaste, she turned and propped a hip against the counter, fixing him with a look that had long since become familiar. She wanted something, and God knew why, but she wanted to play matchmaker with his little sister.


“Oh, come on,” he protested, “I didn’t even think you could stand her.”


“Did you ever think she might be more tolerable if she was happy?” she asked with lifted brows. “If she had someone?”


“She’s my sister,” he said and knew he made a sour face, “I don’t really care if she has someone. I don’t like thinking about that, actually.”


“Well…” she lifted one of her feet and rolled her toes on the rug, took a lock of her hair between two fingers and twirled it like she did when she was nervous. Or thinking. Or distracted. Or trying to look cute. Tonight, in this moment, she was thinking, he decided, and there was a little glint in her eyes that belied how casual she was trying to be. “What if it was one of your friends? Someone you liked and trusted? Would any of them be interested in Jo?”


He made another face: that wasn’t something he’d ever put any thought into. He started to tell her no, but a memory from the poker game before came back to him. “Is your sister seeing anyone?” Ryan had asked him and caught him off guard. Ryan, in his loafers and Dockers and big white baseball player smile, hadn’t looked the type to notice Jo. But Mike had shrugged and told him no, that she was as single as ever.


“Actually,” he said, and thought Delta perked up, “Ryan asked about her.”


“Ryan?” Her face fell, brows and lips pulling down at the corners, the sparkle fizzling away in her eyes. “Really? He did?”


“Yeah. Why? Were you thinking about someone else?”


She turned away from him, but before she did, her lashes lowered over her cheeks and he had the suspicion she was lying to him when she said, “No. No one else.”

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